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The Comics Arts Conference and Public Humanities by Kathleen McClancy

22 Feb

Comics studies has come a long way in the past few years. Scholarship centered on sequential art is no longer considered beyond the pale of the academy; academic conferences and journals focusing on comics studies are multiplying; more and more books are being published that take a scholarly approach to the medium. The Comics Arts Conference, one of the first academic conferences dedicated to the study of sequential art, has been instrumental in encouraging this recognition within the academy. By providing a home for comics scholarship, the CAC not only created a forum where individuals scholars could connect to become a larger field, it also helped to grow the profile of comics studies on the academic stage. Today, being a self-described Batman scholar is no longer cause for derision. Or at least, not from fellow academics.

Unfortunately, the legitimacy comics studies has gained inside academia does not seem to be replicated outside it. An obvious recent case-in-point would be Alan Moore’s treatment of Will Brooker in what may or may not be his last interview. Not only does Moore not name the mysterious “Batman scholar” who has questioned the representations of race and gender in his comics, he dismisses those concerns as essentially the whining of an emotionally stunted idiot who can’t understand anything without a caption box. He goes on to imply that comics scholarship as a whole displays a lack of rigor at best and is a waste of time at worst. Of course, Moore’s public persona is famously a curmudgeonly old fart, and Moore could certainly be exaggerating for emphasis here, but I don’t want to dismiss his reaction as extraordinary; instead, it seems to me that Moore’s belittlement of the highly regarded Brooker is emblematic of a larger trend in the public at large to consider scholarship on sequential art dubious and even ridiculous.

These days, when I tell academics that my primary scholarship is on popular culture, and on action films and mainstream comics in particular, I am greeted by envy more than anything else. It is certainly easier to sell a class on superheroes to undergraduate non-majors than a class on hagiography. But when I mention my fields of study to non-academics, the reaction is almost always mystification: something along the lines of “You can do that?” Sometimes the following conversations are inspirational—with people who are excited by the idea that the texts they love are being given analytical attention—but all too often they become a window into the culture wars. The idea that a university professor might do their research on comic books seems to be almost insulting, as though we are wasting our time on trivia when we should be tackling Shakespeare.

Strangely, the analysis of comics is not itself the problem. A quick voyage through the world wide web will find any number of personal blogs devoted to the critical reading of these cultural artifacts. Instead, the problem seems to be locating this analysis specifically within the academy: moving the conversation from the comic book shop to the classroom. Of course, this disdain for comics studies is part of a larger tendency, in the United States at least, to see all scholarly work as inherently a waste of time—unless, of course, that work is in a STEM field. But because comics have such strong roots in mass culture as well as such a history of infantalization and controversy, they function as an obvious flash point for this debate. At this point, the increase in comics studies’ legitimization seems to be rooted in scholarship that defers to the academy’s taste in topics and vocabulary, and which correspondingly tends to take discussions of comics out of the larger world and to locate them in the ivory tower. However, a much more useful direction would be to bring the fans into the academy along with the comics; or rather, to use comics as a tool to break down the distinction between the ivory tower and the public. This kind of conversation is the goal of the Comics Arts Conference.

The CAC was founded in 1992 by Randy Duncan and Peter Coogan, two comics scholars who recognized the need for an annual academic conference focused specifically on the study of sequential art. However, rather than locate their conference within the more traditional setting of a scholarly organization with university support, Coogan and Duncan held the CAC at a major comic book convention. The idea was to facilitate the involvement of comic book professionals and fans, as well as scholars: to create the kind of public humanities setting that refuses the ivory tower metaphor. Con attendees were already having critical discussions about comics in the hallways; the CAC invited those attendees to bring their conversations into the scholarly world of the academic conference.

The first CAC was made possible by the San Diego Comic-Con International; CCI Director Fay Desmond was kind enough to allow the CAC use of one of the Marriott’s conference rooms. The CAC then alternated between CCI and the Chicago Comicon (now Wizard World Chicago) until finally becoming a permanent part of CCI in 1998. CCI was particularly happy to provide a home for the CAC because of its basic educational mission; CCI is non-profit, intended to provide a place for fans and creators to interact rather than solely to function as a venue for marketing and promotion. The CAC is likewise not motivated by profit—in fact, the CAC does not have an operating budget, and unlike the vast majority of academic conferences, does not charge fees of presenters. To do so would be to counteract its mission of bringing together scholars from both within and without the academy; it’s much harder to afford conference fees without a generous university research stipend. Furthermore, CAC presenters receive a badge for the convention as a whole, encouraging presenters to interact with fan culture outside of the CAC. It is very common to hear a presenter mention how something he heard in Hall H the day before made him consider his project in a new light.

Over the years the CAC has helped bring comics studies into the fold of academia by encouraging the creation of scholarly networks in the field, but it has also refused to limit its conversation to those with university positions. Audiences at the CAC—and panels, for that matter—consist not only of other academics but of fans, creators, press, and even gawkers. This heterogeneity allows for a kind of cross-pollination: it keeps scholars from only preaching to the choir. Whereas a typical presentation at an academic conference, even a large one, may find audiences with fewer members than the panel itself, CAC audiences tend to be fairly large, giving our presenters the opportunity to share their ideas on a larger scale. While academic audiences tend to be specialists already in the topic of the panels they attend, CAC audiences tend to be driven by a broader curiosity. As a result, not only do presenters benefit from critical commentary from outside the approaches standardized by the academy, the academy as a whole benefits by demonstrating its relevance to the public. A Con attendee may wander into a CAC panel simply looking for a place to sit, but she may stay when she realizes that the panel is on Batgirl. When she goes on to realize that the particular scholarly approach this panel takes to Batgirl has put into words something she’s been struggling to express, she may discover something not just about comics but about the role of critical analysis in the world at large.

In 2007, the CAC expanded from an annual conference to a biannual one, holding meetings both at Comic-Con and at CCI’s WonderCon. It has also expanded to include myself and Travis Langley as organizers along with Coogan and Duncan, and our composition echoes the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, with backgrounds in American Studies, Communication, English, and Psychology. Our paneling comes from a large variety of disciplinary approaches, including presentations on the neuroscience of the Iron Man suit, the psychopathology of the Joker, the semiotics of graphic narratives, the history of African-American influence on manga, and the postmodernism of Grant Morrison’s work. For the past several years, CCI has brought in a comics professional as a special guest for the CAC; this year’s guest for our WonderCon meeting is Gail Simone, and previous guests have included Seth, David Lloyd, Bill Willingham, and Matt Kindt. These special guests allow the kind of engagement Barbara Postema discusses in her Comics Forum article “The Death of the Cartoonist? Working on Living Creators” as well as giving creators the chance to perform critical analyses of their own.

Just as “nerd culture” has become more and more mainstream in the US, and as Comic-Con itself has seen its profile increase, so comics studies has become a much more common sight within the academy. The CAC exists at the intersection of these two narratives. Our goal is to continue to emphasize the links between the public and the scholarly engagement with sequential art. Happily, we are not the only ones furthering this goal; scholarly programming is appearing on more convention schedules every year, in New York, Chicago, Denver, and Austin, and conventions like GeekGirlCon are centered around critical analysis from both inside and outside the academy. But as we increase the prestige of comics scholarship, let’s remember comic books’ origins in funny books and newspaper strips. This has always been a public medium, and the best analytical work on sequential art will always bring scholars and the public together.

Works Cited:

Ó Méalóid, Pádriag. “Last Alan Moore Interview?” Pádriag Ó Méalóid AKA Slovobooks. 9 Jan. 2014. Web; http://slovobooks.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/last-alan-moore-interview/. 3 Feb 2014.

Postema, Barbara. “The Death of the Cartoonist? Working on Living Creators.” Comics Forum. 24 Jan. 2014. Web; https://comicsforum.org/2014/01/24/the-death-of-the-cartoonist-working-on-living-creators-by-barbara-postema/. 5 Feb 2014.

Kathleen McClancy is the Primary Organizer and Co-Chair of the Comics Arts Conference, and an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Texas State University. The CAC can be reached at comicsartsconference@gmail.com.

 
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Posted by on 2014/02/22 in Guest Writers

 

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