In this final instalment of our exploration of the Flemish comics scene, we will have a look at the final sphere out of the three spheres which we have introduced in the course of this series. After the USA-oriented sphere and the Franco-Belgian sphere, this post will look at some cultural praxes typical of the graphic novel sphere. In an earlier post we concluded that fans of both the USA-oriented sphere and the Franco-Belgian sphere lacked agency after the understanding of the term in the context of Henry Jenkins’s conception of participatory culture. This post will once again call on Jenkins’s ideas about fans and their culture, but in addition to the acts of cultural participation which they are involved in, it will also look at the notions which he posits as underlying the discursive construction of fan culture
As was the case with the previous spheres, the basis of our investigation in this post is rather empirical, examining an event that unites object, audience and creator. In the case of the graphic novel, we will look at the book fair.
As we have mentioned, the Flemish graphic novel is absent at events in Flanders where one might expect it to pop up. It’s not at the Fantasy, Animation, Comics, Toys and Space convention in Ghent. It is not particularly present at the largest comics festival in Flanders either. It does have a place at the largest book fair in Flanders, however. In fact, one of the youngest (and most recently debuted) graphic novel authors was featured quite heavily in the promotion of this years’ Antwerp Book Fair. She was given a prominent spot at the booth of the distributor, appeared in interviews and in a promotional video made by the Flemish Public Broadcaster to “show Flanders to the world and the world to Flanders” (Fans of Flanders). Her debut Verdwaald (2013) [Lost] displays many characteristics typical of the contemporary Flemish graphic novel: it is a product of higher art education and is therefore very graphic and tabular in nature, it is subsidised by the Flemish Literature Fund and comes in a slightly irregular book format. The narrative is associative and, taking a cue from visual arts/illustration, often relies on the reader’s taking in of tableau-like double spreads. Like the protagonist’s meandering thoughts, our eye may lose itself in these lush pages. The need for this work to be considered in a more international graphic novel context is signalled by the fact that the book was not published by one of two designated graphic novel publishers in Flanders, but by a Dutch publisher of graphic novels: Oog & Blik. More important, however, is the connection which Verdwaald establishes with the genre of autobiography, a genre to which many (but certainly not all) graphic novels belong and which has arguably shaped the face of the graphic novel, especially in mainstream cultural discourse. Verdwaald is a semi-autobiographical story about the sense of abandonment which the author felt in her childhood and as such fits perfectly in the context of the book fair which, in the case of the Antwerp Book Fair, is a celebration not so much of books, but of their authors.
If the object and the social fan experience were central to the F.A.C.T.S. convention and the Strip Turnhout Festival, the Antwerp Book Fair is the grounds for the culmination of the author subject into a full-on personality culture (that is not to say that all authors enjoy being at the fair or are affirmed at it, indeed, one could argue that the fair also embodies the exploitation of the author subject by the cultural industries puts them in a rather precarious position). This is evident in many of the seemingly more participatory activities that are organised during the fair. Amongst the reading sessions, knitting and cookery workshops in which the author is always on a different level than his receptive audience, which precludes true participation, one activity stands out that, although parodic in intent, is reflective of the sort of interaction that occurs most often between authors and their readers at the fair. In collaboration with Flanders’ largest culture website Cobra.be, readers can visit so-called book doctors, authors whose vast area of expertise in literature and culture is at the service of readers’ small and large problems. At once appropriating and mocking the power and authority which the town doctor held in (rural) Flanders in past decades, the book doctors prescribe reading recommendations to their reader-patients: Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday against an overload of impulses, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet against a lack of time to read, Pippi Longstocking for a girl that is afraid of making mistakes. The authoritative interpretation of the author figure at the fair is also present in the way in which graphic novel authors interact with their readers, particularly in a small, but significant difference between the practice of signing books when compared with the sort of signing that can be seen at F.A.C.T.S. and Strip Turnhout. In contrast with artists at these latter events, authors at the book fair do not habitually take requests from their readers. They will of course dedicate a book to the person who asks for a signature, but the graphic component of their signature is most often up to them. Creators at F.A.C.T.S. were far more likely to draw at the request of the reader and would often inquire as to what it was they wanted to see. Clearly, the collective production system and the serial nature of comics when compared to graphic novels plays an important role in this constellation. Comic book readers are devoted to characters and franchises and know them intimately. As Jenkins has shown in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, these fans may have a have a sense of agency and ownership over the materials with which they interact (we have shown that this agency is limited in the Flemish realm). Readers of graphic novels (in Flanders and arguably abroad) are always at a remove of the author’s creativity and imagination. None of Jenkins participatory characteristics  really applies to them and the interaction between author and signature-seeker somewhat echoes the distribution of power as we have seen it in the case of the fan who spends enormous amounts of money and time on the signature of a personality in his subculture. Our final question will then be what this lack of participation and deference to the author mean in terms of agency.
In our third post we suggested that in Flanders the combination of the absence of participatory characteristics and fannish mania is what disempowers fans. Looking back, connecting these two elements was perhaps a step too far in that the degree of enthusiasm and devotion is in itself not an indicator of agency or non-agency in the fan paradigm, participation is. In Textual Poachers, Jenkins speaks at length about the mania in question and seems to consider it more of a construct than a reality, emphasising that it is merely “other”. His assertion that fan culture is vilified because it “muddies those boundaries treating popular texts as if they merited the same degree of attention and appreciation of canonical texts” (Jenkins 17) also seems somewhat paradigm-stretching, however. I would suggest, based on the preceding paragraphs, that it is the mode of attention and appreciation that is at stake here rather than the degree (Jenkins’ acknowledgement of the existence of different art worlds after the concept of Howard S. Becker suggests this as well). This change in mode characterises the graphic novel sphere in Flanders. It is a mode, shared by the modern novel, which is dispassionate and non-participatory (in the sense of Jenkins) and therefore very much not a fan mode (or, for that matter, an experimental mode). It is not particularly social, nor does it involve much sharing. It does not, in contrast with the fans, share an aversion of institutions or authority, instead embracing the possibility for pre-selection which the latter offer. It is perhaps summed up best in the word didactic and it seems to me that whether or not a form of agency is present in it would require a move away from the material (content, text, characters, narratives, style, play, humour etc.) and towards the superstructure of a culture. A next step in understanding the Flemish graphic novel sphere would then have to involve the apparently infrequently asked question as to what it means not simply to absorb, but to practice mainstream culture in Flanders. The choice of name for the government-sponsored “Fans of Flanders” website certainly fascinates in this regard.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Jenkins, Henry et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2009.
“Fans of Flanders.” Fans of Flanders. Flemish Public Broadcaster, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
Charlotte Pylyser is a PhD student at the Catholic University of Leuven. She operates from a literary studies and cultural studies background and her research concerns the Flemish graphic novel in particular and issues of culture and context with regard to comics in general.
She sits on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.
To read other instalments of the Image [&] Narrative column on Comics Forum, click here.
Play — the capacity to experiment with your surroundings as a form of problem-solving;
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery;
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real world processes;
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content;
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities;
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal;
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
(Jenkins et al. 4)