[Forms of Self-Reflexivity in Comics]
by Laura Schlichting and Markus Streb
The workshop “Formen der Selbstreflexivität im Medium Comic” [Forms of Self-Reflexivity in Comics] organized by the German Society for Media Studies’ committee on Comics Studies, brought scholars from various disciplines together to discuss the relationship between comics and self-reflexivity as well as self-referentiality. The organisers, Nina Heindl (University of Cologne, Faculty of Art History) and Véronique Sina (Ruhr-University Bochum, Faculty of Media Science) carefully selected papers, each 15 minutes long, with regard to a five-part workshop structure comprised of aesthetic self-reflexivity; self-critical (fan) discourses; mechanisms of self-referentiality; factual and fictional (self) representations in comics; and meta-reflections on comics.
All contributions nicely combined theory with primary works, which turned the one-and-a-half-day workshop on 2-3 March 2017 in Cologne into a vivid and fruitful time of discussing, thinking, getting together and learning about some of the latest trends, theories and methods in comics studies. The format of the workshop proved an emphatically good choice, allowing especially the presentation of works-in-progress. Although not all papers could receive the same attention in the discussions, there was a lot of room to think about the overarching topics that the papers shared. So the workshop productively carried forward some major topics from last fall’s conference “Zur Ästhetik des Gemachten in Animation und Comic” [On the Aesthetics of the Artificial in Animation and Comics], which took place in November 2016 in Hannover (see here for Vanessa Ossa’s conference report here).
Astrid Acker (Cologne) started the first panel session by showing how narration and composition are interdependent and how frames and panels function as means of self-reflexivity in comics. In the following talk, Bernhard Frena (Wien) challenged Acker’s claims by introducing the concept of diffraction. Relating to Karen Barad, who describes diffractivity as an entangled phenomenon, Frena considered the panel as a place where recipients construe comics as a medium with every single view. Challenging the assumption that there are conventionalized features of comics, Frena’s talk became a point of reference throughout the workshop.
Whereas Sebastian Bartosch (Hamburg) presented examples showing to what extent colour, a characteristic generally underrepresented in comics analysis, can be considered a means of self-reflexivity in comics, Stephan Packard (Freiburg) selected works of semiotic, aesthetic and topical forms of self-reflexivity in Tom King’s superhero comics. Packard introduced the question of distinguishing self-reflexivity and self-referentiality, which unfortunately was not given sufficient prominence throughout the workshop. During the discussion Packard differentiated between self-referentiality that makes comics work in the first place, and one that productively irritates readers. Referring to Frena’s talk, Packard suggested that the concept of diffractivity might be useful to be applied in further discussions.
All talks of the second panel discussed the interaction between artists/art and recipients, but unfortunately, the self-critical potential of these discourses, anticipated in the panel’s title, received only a little attention. Vanessa Ossa (Tuebingen) opened the second session with a talk about self-critical (fan) discourses. She offered an analysis of the use of footnotes in DC’s and Marvel’s Amalgam series and claimed that the series can be read as an immediate reaction to fans’ desires. Throughout the discussion, one of Ossa’s main points was that Amalgam uses (fabricated) cross-references in footnotes as well as fan letters because they are an integral part of fan culture. Diego Alegría (Bochum) gave an insight into Peruvian comic history and pointed out that beginning in the 1980s, Peruvian fanzine artists tended to cite US comics or manga instead of citing each other or establishing a style of their own. Problematizing the role of the US implicitly, the comics oftentimes reflect their post-colonial circumstances. The discussion to Emelyn Yabar’s (Bochum) “Cosplay and the Media Loop” showed that there are various types and traditions of cosplay. She convincingly argued that boundaries between producers and consumers are redrawn within cosplay. Finally, Lisa Kottas and Martin Schwarzenbacher (Vienna) offered an analysis of The Hole: Consumer Culture #1, which they saw as reflecting blackness in post-modern societies. They illustrated how the comic interacts with its recipients, becoming an object of fetishism even while reflecting its own commodification as well as depicted stereotypes.
At the end of the first day, a discussion about how to improve labour conditions at German universities as well as a meeting of the committee with its past and future activities framed the sessions. The evening closed with a keynote lecture by Ole Frahm (Frankfurt) in which he claimed that self-reflexivity is constitutive of comics. He gave examples in which either snow-covered or shapeless characters can be read as spectres, whose parodist aesthetics render a signature of a certain historic moment. Referring to Marx, Derrida, Althusser and Krauss, Frahm offered a reading that tackled structuralist assumptions, provoking a lively discussion about his claims of “performative laughter” and the essence of comics in general.
Day 2 started with a session on mechanisms of self-referentiality. Besides these mechanisms, the talks were linked by the notion of qualities and materialities that memories can have. Anna Beckmann (Berlin), for example, applied (un)reliable narration as a concept of classical structuralist narratology to comics studies. By referring to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; Paul Auster’s Stadt aus Glas; and Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman’s Violent Cases, she pointed out that self-reflexive references can occur with regard to the medium, to the specific materiality, or to the production as well as to the memory process of the depiction. The comic, then, is able to challenge its own narrative construction and can thus also doubt its own reliability. “Glaubt mir nicht, ich bin ein Comic!” [Don’t believe me, I’m a comic!] may be a fitting slogan for this session.
Whereas While Sebastian R. Richter (Kassel) asked “Where did the time go?” and presented his rather philosophical ideas on time, temporality and subjective notions on senses of time, drawing on Bergson and Heidegger when reading Richard McGuire’s Here, Björn Hochschild (Berlin) asked how comics can cope with processes of subjectification with regard to their materiality but also with questions about the ‘self’ in comics. He pointed to the problem of trying to convey self-experiences in word-image-relations tangibly to other readers.
The question of authenticity and of making use of factual representations or of other media allegedly more factual than drawings (e.g. photography) ran through several talks. For instance, Nina Schmidt (Berlin) related the creative use of photographs to narrations of death and illness of authors or authors’ loved ones (e.g. Anders Nilsen’s Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow!). Schmidt showed how photographs may frame narratives of loss and remembrance as well as highly touching issues of emotions, intimacy, and an author’s personal strategy of coping with bereavement. An interesting discussion followed on how reliable photographs are in comparison to comics—a question that was tackled by Axel Rüth’s (Cologne) talk as well, who focused on The Photographer by Didier Lefèvre, Frédéric Lemercier and Emmanuel Guibert. His argument that only photographs can create authenticity caused a huge discussion and divided the audience. This contribution, then, was contrasted by papers by Johannes P. Schmid (Hamburg) and Sandór Trippó (Debrecen), who dealt with forms of documentary journalism about historical events (e.g. Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts (2016) shows the effects of the Iraq War on the Middle East). Questions arose concerning a polarity of power and truth. Eventually, Packard suggested approaching this debate by using the term of the “imaginary”. All in all, this session was the most vivid and controversial one of the workshop. It turned out that a lot of things remained unclear and blurry and that a lot of research still needs to be done in this field.
The fifth session focused on the concept of “meta” in regards to comics. Katharina Serles (Dresden), Dietrich Grünewald (Koblenz) and Tim Glaser (Braunschweig) illustrated what meta-reflection can mean in contemporary comics. Whereas Grünewald analysed self-reflexive aspects of comics with regard to the relationship between the author, the comic product, and the reader by focussing on the comic-album Das partizipative Geflecht (2011), Glaser looked at webcomics and showed how comics use new forms of (social) communication and reception (e.g. Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook) to create self-referential stories. ‘Connecting communication’ (Anschlusskommunikation) and meta-commentary are the key concepts, because as he exemplified with Homestuck, well-known panels, phrases and puns are taken out of context, developed further and (re)integrated into other webcomics. Serles looked at “Kunst-Comics”, comics that draw on visual arts. Speaking about Nicolas Mahler’s Alte Meister, she raised questions regarding both comics studies and art studies, such as when to speak of pictures in pictures, or when pictures in museums, if they are curated, may count as sequential art; if ever. What may the comics teach the fine arts?
All in all, many talks at the workshop showed how comics’ self-reflexive references can deliberately break immersion, e.g. by referring to self-reflexivity in paratexts, by the comics authors re-emerging within the storyworld, or by topicalizations of production processes as part of the narration. For further reading on the papers and their arguments, we refer you to the planned publication in the journal CLOSURE #4.5 due to be released in May 2018.
The workshop programme is available here.
More impressions of the workshop are available here.
Laura Schlichting (firstname.lastname@example.org) holds a Master’s Degree in English Literary and Cultural Studies from Justus Liebig University Giessen. Since October 2015, she has been working on her PhD: ‘Comics Journalism – Fictionalization and Narrativization Between Literature and Journalism’ (working title). Schlichting is a member of the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC) as well as the International PhD Program (IPP). Her research is funded by Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung. In addition to graphic narratives and transmediality, her research interests include intermediality studies and genre development.
Markus Streb (Markus.Streb@journalistik.geschichte.uni-giessen.de) is a PhD student at Justus-Liebig-University Gießen. He earned a teaching degree (state examination) in 2014 and started a PhD project on gender representations in comics about the Shoah in the same year. The working title is: Comic. Holocaust. Gender. Gender Constructions in Sequential Representations of the Holocaust. Streb gives courses and lectures on the representation of the Second World War and National Socialism in comics.
 This report is based on the speakers’ abstracts and presentations.