The British Consortium of Comics Scholars emerged from an initially nameless reading group founded in 2012, in which a group of scholars in the South-East, mostly engaged in part-time PhD studies, gathered to discuss graphic narrative theory every few weeks, circulating venues between Brighton University, Sussex University and Central St Martins. What we shared was an interest in the practical nature of comics creation, its station in the world of discourse; and most of us were pursuing practice-based PhDs, or we ourselves created comics as well as being scholars of the medium.
Nicola Streeten was a key driver in moving forward this first BCCS symposium, which sought to celebrate those two strands of our interests — scholarship and creation of comics — by structuring a day, Saturday 30 May 2015, which would progress from research-led in the morning, through to creator-led in the later afternoon, and which would bring together comics scholars and creators, as well as being open to interested members of the public. All attendees were encouraged to draw (and write, and photograph) their notes and reactions to the day, and pages were left blank in the programmes for this very purpose.
The morning was given over to a research sharing session with Professor Roger Sabin acting as respondent. Louisa Buck shared progress on her investigation into the use of the myth of Sisyphus in political cartoons, which in the practice part of her PhD would take shape as a ‘journal of Sisyphus’. The iconography has been used in political cartooning since the 19th century and has seen a resurgence with recent political challenges. Paddy Johnston, who helped co-organise the conference, presented on the negotiation of crediting of the work behind Jeff Smith’s Bone — in particular pointing to the crucial labour of Smith’s wife, subordinated somewhat in Smith’s thanks as enabling him to produce his ‘singular creative vision’. Co-operation, the work of teams and, as Roger Sabin pointed out, the groundwork of prior creators, all contribute to the production of graphic narrative, despite the push to view these works through an ‘auteur’ lens.
The concrete grounds which enable creation also concerned Louisa Parker, whose research explores the oral histories of women and raises the question Virginia Woolf asked of literature — of the need for the space and means for a woman to create. Parker’s PhD is also grounded in practice — the creation of a graphic narrative version of the women’s oral histories she uncovers. John Miers’ work similarly enacts his theory: his interest is in the groundedness of comics language in the use of embodied metaphor, the theory amongst cognitive linguists, prominently Lakoff and Johnson, that language is deeply seated in metaphor deriving from the human experience of embodiment in a physical world. (For example, the metaphor used there: ‘deeply seated’!) His practical work explores visual metaphor in comics, under the working title ‘Starts Out Vague’. The work I presented similarly makes use of theory from linguistics to explore visual communication, adopting categories from MAK Halliday to map out the variety of ways in which comics creators can attempt to render the ‘verb’ in comics — to draw what happens in a narrative, rather than simply what is, and to render a range of process types including the mental and the relational — using images to describe and identify as well as to show material action. Ending this morning session, Pen Mendonça shared her graphic narrative work, derived like Louisa Parker’s from oral reports of women’s experience, though in this case the specific experience of single motherhood, as discovered through direct interview. This cast comics as a form of ‘graphic facilitation’, where the drawings, and their use as a medium for communicating experience, formed the focal point around which the nature of that experience could be opened up for discussion.
The day proper started in the dark and cool environment of a Moroccan Tent set up in the grounds of Sussex University, offering welcome cool on the bright May afternoon. Professor Sabin again led discussion, this time of a trip members had taken earlier in the year to the French comics festival at Angoulème, to share with the newly arrived crowd of creators, scholars and the interested public on the nature of that famous festival as against comic-cons in the anglophone tradition, or symposia as conducted in comics studies in the UK. The dominance of publishers there was striking, rather than commentators and even creators; and the heavy gendering of the products on display drew comment, in particular the (male) creators rendering for fans naked (female) figures — with very few female creators. The question was raised how to redress this imbalance — reflected also in the UK and US in the predominance of male nominees for Eisner awards, for instance. Most of the crowd supported a women-only prize, reflecting some literary awards; but there were dissenting voices: only one person can win a prize, and calls were heard from the creators in the audience for more funding on which many could draw. On the whole, though, the richness and quality of what was available in the European market was seen as something to emulate and even exceed; there was some call for more translation of Bande Dessinée into English to help expand the scope of what can be done and read in graphic narrative.
The first formal panel in the afternoon moved to the more traditionally academic environs of the lecture theatre, though the work discussed by the scholarly guests took a decidedly practical slant. Professor Will Brooker took the opportunity to launch the Kickstarter campaign for his comics project My So-Called Secret Identity — having noticed the lack of role models for teenage girl consumers of comics, he decided to create rather than criticise. Dr Matt Green has been working on practical projects, notably HOAX in collaboration with Ravi Thornton, and proposed that comics might ‘beat the buttockheads’ who limit them (borrowing an image from Steven Appleby) by exploiting intertextuality, dialogue and outreach, and the inspiration comics can give.
Janette Paris said she felt a little out of place amongst the scholars, but she too is using her comics for practical effect, bringing art and life together through, for example, her comic Arch, based on the residents of a care home for the elderly in Archway. The humour of her work went down very well with the audience, and it embodied the sort of outreach called for by Dr Green. Finally, and also in the spirit of reaching out beyond the gated walls of comics academia, Dr Ernesto Priego stressed the virtues of open access journals and the wider dissemination of research conducted in universities and paid for by the public — yet inaccessible to them, due to the current model of publication by private companies and made available at a price directly, or via institutional subscriptions. There are problems with the move to open access — notably, the requirement for scholars to pay-to-publish — but with changes in the way universities distribute their money, the books can be balanced and the work more widely distributed. Priego’s own open access journal, The Comics Grid, started as a blog and is now a peer-reviewed journal.
The closing session turned to focus on artists and creators, though the concerns reflected those of the scholars: life experience, particularly those of women involved in politics and in motherhood, and questions of expressing identity and distributing ideas. Sofia Niazi’s focus is on internet culture and the crossover between internet video and comics communication; Sussex alum Kate Evans spoke of her progress through the personal and the political, with comics on motherhood, political protest, political biography and climate change. Rachael House opened proceedings by ‘queering the space’ with cutouts of Joan Jett — an act of humorous creativity which reflected her efforts to make comics that would communicate her ‘bi experience’ without falling into ‘self-loathing’; Kate Evans had also asked the question ‘how do you make [political activism] funny?’
Greenham Common, the site of the women’s resistance movement protesting against nuclear armaments from the 1980s, was a memory and an experience that had emerged in many of the pieces discussed, created and researched, and Annie Lawson spoke of her experiences there distributing phone trees and zines. The audience responded to the challenges she spoke of in carving out a paying career in comics creation; there was an audible gasp when she spoke of her role as an ‘in-house cartoonist’. Internet-age distribution and dissemination channels again came up: Lawson’s current work Mad, Bad and You May Not Want to Know is the sort of high-quality production that can be self-published via print-on-demand now. Steven Appleby rounded off the presentations with a discussion of how comics enabled him to express his own experiences — in particular, to enact his own wide range of obsessions, including assembling things, mapping places (and concepts), transvestism, and rubber gloves.
But at the end of the day, this was a symposium not just about comics but about cake. Sarah Lightman, famed for her cakes at Laydeez Do Comics meetings in London, was kind enough to bake a pair of wonderful BCCS-themed cakes for our consumption, in one’s choice of sweet and sticky fruity varieties. Like the symposium, however, though these delicacies were pleasurable and fulfilling, they hid at their bottom a message: Sarah had fiendishly baked the cakes on a base of rice paper inscribed with feminist texts. Without knowing it, we all had eaten feminism. And a nourishing and delicious experience it was.
Tweets from the conference can be found at the Storify page compiled by Ernesto Priego here: https://storify.com/ernestopriego/bccs
These include a number of images from the conference, but BCCS are looking for more: please send to firstname.lastname@example.org — deadline for submissions is 31 July 2015.
If you’re a comics scholar and you’d like to join the mailing list and take part in one of the theory discussion meetings, drop a message to that address or visit the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/britishcomicsscholars
Paul F. Davies is undertaking Ph.D. research in graphic narrative theory in the school of English at University of Sussex. He teaches English Language and Literature at Sussex Downs College in Eastbourne. As well as studying comics form, he has written a collection of graphic short stories which can be previewed at www.crosbies.co.uk