Conference Report: Fluid Images — Fluid Text: Comics’ Mobility Across Time, Space and Artistic Media (Cardiff University, Wales)

11 May

by Andrea De Falco


‘Fluid Images – Fluid Text’ was the title of an interdisciplinary conference that took place at Cardiff University (Wales) on 23-24 January 2020. The conference, organised by Dr Tilmann Altenberg (School of Modern Languages) and Dr Lisa El Refaie (School of English, Communication and Philosophy), hosted eighteen speakers from twelve institutions spread across seven different countries, featuring a wide range of backgrounds and approaches. The conference received financial support from Institute of Modern Languages Research (London), University Council of Modern Languages, Cardiff Comics Storytelling Network, Cardiff School of Modern Languages and Cardiff School of English, Communication and Philosophy.

The aim was to investigate from a transdisciplinary perspective three different and interlinked dimensions underpinning comics’ mobility: time, space and artistic media. The chronological dimension covers a broad field including the relationships between comics and history and the transformations investing their editorial and reading practices. Translation is the key word to understand how comics have been able to transcend national borders, by means of transmission in different languages and cultures. The last dimension leads us to comics’ adaptation in other media, investigating their relationships with different forms of artistic expression.

Reading Comics in Time (Prof Jan Baetens, KU Leuven)

The first day opened with the keynote address by Professor Jan Baetens. As part of the session entitled “transformation”, he spoke about reading comics in time, focusing on aspects of lack and excess. Particular aspects of lack consist in immersive reading (reading for the plot) or visual reading (related to the tabularity) but they also involve the fractures of serialisation and the immobility in time of characters and stories that never grow old. Regarding the institutional dimension, the most important aspect of lack is that there is no historical awareness about comics as cultural objects. On the other hand, aspects of excess can be found in voracious reading or in the conception of serialised reading as an endless reading, when readers are moved by the need for something that does not end or when the story itself sets the scene for an upcoming sequel. Among the many examples, Baetens spoke about the link between comics and the juvenile audience that enforced the bias of reading comics as a nostalgic practice. In order to question this stereotype, he highlighted comics’ need for transmission to become a cultural object. According to Lotman’s definition of culture as a non-hereditary memory, Baetens considered three levels (cultural, technical/mediological and aesthetic) that concur to make the transmission possible. On the first level, he focused on the idea of gatekeeping, warning about the risks of comics becoming more and more expensive. Regarding the second level, Baetens distinguished different aspects such as overproduction, multiplication (continuation, adaptation, transmedialisation) and duration (quotability, availability). The third level refers to aesthetic categories and how they changed from the traditional and modern ideas of beauty and novelty to their post-modernist deconstruction. Baetens’ keynote address suggested an interesting approach for investigating time in comics and comics in time.

Two Distant Soils: Colleen Doran’s Editorial Journey Across Time (Isabelle Licari-Guillaume, Université Côte d’Azur, Nice)

The second speaker was Isabelle Licari-Guillame, who gave a paper about A Distant Soil by Colleen Doran. She discussed the editorial history of the comic book series that was published in two versions by four publishing houses: WaRP Graphic (#1-#9, 1983-1986), Donnin (two graphic novels, 1987 and 1989), Aria Press (#1-#14, 1991-1996) and Image (#15-#41, 1996-present). The first version of A Distant Soil gives insights into the genesis of Doran’s project. This project will be carried on in the second version, where the author was able not only to regain control of the text, by eliminating speech balloons added by Richard Pini, but also to experiment with drawing styles through the influence of Japanese manga.

Transmediality And Graphic Narratives: The Case Of The Graphic Memoir (Natalie Dupré and Inge Lanslots, KU Leuven)

Natalie Dupré and Inge Lanslots exposed two cases of graphic memoirs in which visual representation is strongly related to reality. The first one was Mendel’s Daughter, in which Martin Lemelman tells the story of his mother, a Nazi camp survivor, interspersing the drawings with diegetically motivated photographs. The second case was Palacinche. Storia di un’esule fiumana by Caterina Sansone and Alessandro Tota. This graphic memoir reproduces photographs and archival documents in the narrative in different ways, from drawing to direct insertion in the page.

Comics in the Classroom: Historical Validity in the Comics Form (Chad Harada, San Francisco)

Chad Harada, history teacher and comic book artist, showed the potential of using comics in the classroom. Drawing from his own experience, he gave examples of historic but also fictional comic books used in the classroom, discussing the positive impact comics had on students’ ability to memorise facts. He also presented collaborative strips made by his students to demonstrate how comics can be useful in active learning.

‘Someone Will Remember Us’: The Forgotten Female Cartoonists of Spain’s Transition to Democracy (Rhiannon McGlade, University of Cambridge)

Considering the historical background of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, Rhiannon McGlade talked about the female cartoonists who promoted, with their work, sexual and political dissidence against the regime. Artists such as Marika, Núria Pompeia, Purita Campos and Laura Pérez Vernetti contributed to test the boundaries of Spanish humour and to shape Spain’s visual identity for years to come. Their visual and cultural heritage is evident in works by new Spanish comic book female artists like Núria Tamarit, Bea Enriquez and Ana Penyas.


Of Fathers and National Narratives: A Borrowed Life’s Journey across Time and Media (Adina Zemanek, University of Central Lancashire)

Adina Zemanek analysed the transposition of the Taiwanese movie A Borrowed Life into a graphic novel. She noted that, despite the prefaces aimed at positioning the adaptation as a movie tribute, the comic book has its own elements of originality. Following the process of adaptation, in fact, the focus on the father/son relationship shifts from the father to the son, while the colonial history is left in the background in favour of describing the family life. As a result, one of the most relevant changes concerns the theme of Taiwanese ethnic specificity, which is replaced by an exposition of gender differences in order to show the marginalisation of women in Taiwan’s nationalist project.

Political Nocturne in Pinturas de guerra by Ángel de la Calle (Agustín Corti, Universität Salzburg)

Pinturas de guerra by Ángel de la Calle presents the adventures of a fictional character called Ángel who meets, in Paris, three “autorrealistas” painters who have survived the tortures of Latin American dictatorships. Agustín Corti investigated the intertextual and intermedial references, starting from the paratext that recalls Julio Cortazár’s Rayuela. He also showed similarities with The Man On The High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Nocturno de Chile by Roberto Bolaño. From his recognition clearly emerges de la Calle’s metatextual aim to reflect on the role of art in human history.

The Expansion Of A Symbolic Universe: An Analysis of Operación Bolívar Through Time And Symbols (Carolina González Alvarado, Tecnológico de Monterrey)

Carolina González Alvarado turned her attention to the graphic novel Operación Bolívar by the Mexican author Edgar Clement. The story, free from copyrights to allow the transmission of the artist’s work, is based on a conspiracy in which two agents are involved. The plot is enriched by a varied use of religious and symbolic elements. González Alvarado showed how the two most relevant symbols, an angel and the magical animal nahual, interact in the graphic novel and in history. In particular, she highlighted the historical intertextuality in the drawing of the angel with a tortured man, which recalls Mexico’s flag.

Global Comic Heroes: Diachronic And Intersemiotic Aspects of Interlingual Translation (Prof Federico Zanettin, Università degli Studi di Perugia)

Professor Federico Zanettin, author of the seminal book Comics in Translation, was the keynote speaker of the second day. His presentation moved from Jakobson’s taxonomy of translations, divided in intralingual (rewording), interlingual (translation proper) and intersemiotic (transmutation) translations. Then, he added more classifications proposed by Umberto Eco. A crucial point of Zanettin’s analysis consisted in the interlingual rewriting. Translating comics, in fact, means to deal not only with republications and re-editions but also with different social contexts. To demonstrate how comics can change between different languages and editions, he discussed some examples of translations and adaptations. The first one was a strip from Tintin that, in the original Belgian version, presents Tintin teaching some Congolese children about their “fatherland”. Zanettin showed how the colonial reference was removed in the Dutch version and then in the Spanish and Italian ones. Moreover, he considered the different translations of characters from Astérix across different languages. In addition, he also showed how Paperinik, a character created in Italy for the Disney universe, was translated in other countries. In particular, Zanettin demonstrated that Paperinik was a parody of another parody, referring to the Italian songwriter Johnny Dorelli’s parody (Dorellik) of the Italian comic book character Diabolik.


Aristophanic Comic Books For Children (And Not Only): Cultural Transfer And Translation (Dimitris Asimakoulas, University of Surrey)

The next speaker was Dimitris Asimakoulas, author of Rewriting Humour In Comic Books. Cultural Transfer And Translation of Aristophanic Adaptation. His research focused on the rewriting chains of Aristophanes’ plays in the modern era. In particular, he discussed the comic adaptations, released by various publishers, and spread across the last 35 years, from books to ebooks. Asimakoulas showed how these comics managed to speak to a target audience of adolescents and collectors. Their success led to their being translated to many languages, with relevant changes in the final product. As an example, Asimakoulas showed how the clash between Euripides and Aeschylus was translated with more excess and in a more explicit manner in English, coming closer to Aristophane’s original version.

From Magazine To Hardcover: Autonomy And Mobility In Zerocalcare’s Kobane Calling (Andrea De Falco, University of Reading)

As part of the translation and adaptation panel, I gave a paper on Kobane Calling by the Italian comic book artist Zerocalcare. The story was first published in the magazine Internazionale and, as it immediately sold out, it was reprinted in a separate booklet. This choice, along with the publication of Zerocalcare’s new stories from Kurdistan, showed the growing autonomy of Kobane Calling, which led to the publication of a hardback edition. As a result, the volume has conquered an increasingly wider audience, with many significantly different translations and a theatrical adaptation. The case of Kobane Calling demonstrates that its material autonomy promoted an enhanced mobility across different languages and artistic expressions.

Transmedial Storyworlds And The Representation Of The Non-Experience of Italian Terrorism In Luigi Ricca’s Graphic Adaptation of Il tempo materiale (Rachelle Gloudemans, KU Leuven)

Rachelle Gloudemans engaged with the historical context of the seventies in Italy in relation to Luigi Ricca’s comic book adaptation of Il tempo materiale by Giorgio Vasta. Gloudemans applied Jenkins’ definition of the transmedial macro-narrative as a narrative so large it cannot be covered in a single medium to the Italian ‘anni di piombo’ (years of lead), the years between the late 60s and the 70s characterised by terrorism and social conflict. She analysed the cultural memory of these years as a transmedial story including books, movies and graphic novels. Considering the act of remembering an individual or collective past entirely mediated through these stories, Gloudemans adopted Antonio Scurati’s definition of “inexperience”.

Comics As Adaptation: Aka B’s Storia di una madre (Camilla Storskog, Università degli Studi di Milano)

An interesting case of adaptation was brought to our attention by Camilla Storskog. The latter discussed the comic book transposition of Andersen’s tale The Story of a Mother by the Italian artist Aka B. The choice of transposing the tale to a wordless comic had two meanings. The first, and implicit one, was to allow the book to cross borders pointing towards the visual communication. Secondly, silence is related to Aka B’s main themes, such as loneliness, fear and loss, a good example of which can be found in the absence of God.

Transmediality Against Transphobia: The Politics Of Transsexual Self-Portrait In Fumettibrutti’s Work Between Comics And Photography (Nicoletta Mandolini, KU Leuven)

Fumettibrutti is an Italian comic book artist known for her autobiographical stories on being a transsexual. In her paper, Mandolini spoke about Fumettibrutti’s works and style, focusing on online stories and on the two graphic novels. In particular, P. La mia adolescenza trans, advertised as a biography, presents a hyperstylised technique that contributes to the iconisation of P. Another interesting solution adopted by Fumettibrutti consists in the juxtaposition of strips and photos. The use of different media and patterns was pivotal in Mandolini’s discussion of the denunciation of transsexual abuse as can be seen in Fumettibrutti’s strips on Instagram.

From Panel to Stage And Screen: Transmedial Mobility Of Female Autographic Subjectivities (Elisabeth Krieber, Universität Salzburg)

Elisabeth Krieber spoke about two graphic novels and their adaptations. In Fun Home by Alison Bechdel the autographic subjectivity is represented not only on two temporal layers but also on two modal tracks, a verbal and a visual one. In the theatrical adaptation Alison is portrayed by three actors for three different stages of her life, including the real Alison who is drawing the scene. The second case study concerns the movie adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which features medial implementations such as drawn animations. This multimodality is strictly linked to the multiple embodiment of her subjectivity.

A Comic Exploration: Gendered Spaces In 19th Century London (Gina Matteo, San Francisco State University)

It is hard to describe with words Gina Matteo’s presentation, since it was an immersive experiment that involved the whole audience. Her visual approach pushed the boundaries of the conventional ways of reading and drawing comics. In particular, she experimented with the use of space to analyse how it linked with the concept of gender in the framework of 19th century London.

Je est un autre: Are Digital Comics Still Comics? (Giorgio Busi Rizzi, Universiteit Gent)

Moving away from definitions of comics, Giorgio Busi Rizzi led the audience through a thought-provoking reflection on digital comics. In his presentation, he discussed the nature of digital comics and whether they should be considered comics. Considering the insertion of video and/or audio elements, Busi Rizzi discussed digital comics in their relationship with both traditional and new features. He demonstrated how features such as frames, speech balloons and lettering combine with new media. This leads to an enforced interactivity. Considering the crucial role of interactivity, he concluded that digital comics are still comics.


Addressing the theme of the conference, scholars from all over the world accepted the challenges of a multidisciplinary and transmedial approach to comics to unpack the opportunities of fluidity between text and images. A selection of papers will be published in a themed journal issue.

The full program is available here.


Andrea De Falco is a PhD student in Italian Studies at the University of Reading. He graduated in Humanities (MA) from the University of Naples. His current research focuses on the cultural transfers related to the paperback revolution between the UK and Italy. His main interests include contemporary literature, publishing history and transnational cultural exchanges.


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