By Lukas R. A. Wilde
Whereas Natalie Veith remarked that nothing much had happened or changed during the months before her last ComFor update in early October, unfortunately that statement does certainly no longer hold. The German COVID-19 stats were still exceptionally good around that time, but it has become painfully clear now that we have squandered the relative advantage we had. An early “light lockdown” turned into a stricter one in December and the infection numbers were rising dramatically around New Year’s; they are now only gradually falling after all public life has been shut down. A general (legal) work-from-home order remains a mere recommendation from all our discordant state governments, however. Universities, of course, have long settled for online activities entirely, just like in most other countries around the world. The screens and interfaces of our online platforms and tools feel all too familiar by now, for better or worse. As one of the organizers of October’s (8th–10th) annual Comfor Conference on “Comics & Agency” (together with Vanessa Ossa and Jan-Noël Thon), conducted entirely via Zoom with around 140 registered participants and 45 presenters, I was certainly not only excited about the high quality of papers and discussions despite all circumstances, but also surprised by the lack of technical problems, even in comparison with earlier live events where there’s always a missing Mac adapter, an unreadable USB device, or a PowerPoint presentation that just won’t open right. The same is probably true for classes, at least it has been for mine. There’s again a great amount of teaching on comic books going on in German Universities (as well as in Austria and Switzerland). As usual, ComFor has published a list of comic-related classes on offer during our winter term on its website.
One good thing that has come out of all these Zoom meetings is that workshops have become more inclusive and easier to attend, especially for younger scholars and PhD students without a budget for travel and accommodation. The German Society for Media Studies’ Committee for Comics Studies (AG Comicforschung), especially, has done some wonderful experiments with online roundtables and workshops these last months. On October 23 a first “Comics Exchange” virtual roundtable was organized in collaboration with the Austrian Society for Comic Studies (OeGeC) and the Comic Colloquium Berlin (organized by Marina Rauchenbacher and Véronique Sina) under the title “Diversity in and with Comics”, with a total of 6 presenters. A second installment with the same number of speakers soon followed, no later than on December 4. While I am writing this I am preparing for a short presentation about Nadja Hermann’s fascinating Twitter/Facebook/Instagram strip Erzählmirnix (occasionally translated into English as Emoticomix) for another follow-up on January 22, focused on the exciting topic of “Small Formats,”again with five other participants (organized by Björn Hochschild and Katharina Serles). During the same months a second cooperative online format on comic scholarship was the Comic Colloquium North, set up by the University of Hamburg, the Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel, and the Europa-University Flensburg. Its first online workshop took place on November 19 when Leonhard Flemisch discussed his research on “Drawing Testimony – Strategies of Documentary Representation in Joe Sacco’s Paying the Land,” with a second installment on January 14 where Dorothee Marx presented “Drawing Mis/Information. Disabled Futures in Lauren Weinstein’s Webcomic‚ Carriers.”A third one is soon to follow on February 2, when artist Jens Natter will talk about his own graphic novel Hammaburg. I’d also like to mention a lecture series of FU Berlin and the PathoGraphics Research Group featuring 14 extensive lectures by well-known and emerging voices of German-speaking comics scholarship on ideals, stereotypes, and caricatures of body representations (“Comic – Kunst – Körper | Konstruktion und Subversion von Körperbildern im Comic” [Comic – Art – Bodies | Construction and Subversion of Body Images in Comics]), organized by Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff and Nina Schmidt.
While all of these events had to accommodate the new, and virtual, conditions we are now all working under, publications were relatively unaffected by the new COVID-19 world. In early December the new issue of Closure (issue 7), Germany’s celebrated open access e-journal on comics scholarship, was released. Aside from reviews of current secondary and primary sources, as well as open-themed articles, the issue also featured a themed section on what the editors coined “Eco-Comics,” a possible variant of comics concerned with the relationship between nature and culture. The four contributions (most of them in English, by the way) investigated works as varied as DC’s Animal Man; Luke Pearson’s Hilda; Frauke Berger’s Grün; and Grant Morrison’s and Frank Quitely’s WE3. Roughly around the same time, the renowned Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies also published a special themed section in issue 17.2 on the notoriously under-researched relationship between comic studies and fan studies (concisely titled “Fandom and Comics”). It is based on a joint workshop set up by the Committee for Comics Studies (AG Comicforschung) and the Committee for Participation and Fan Studies that was held on March 28-29, 2019, at the University of Cologne. The eight contributions on transmedia fandom, transcultural manga reception, and platform capitalism are also all in English and open access, so make sure to head over there and have a look at truly amazing research perspectives. One more publication, this one also in print, emerged from another conference co-organised by the Committee for Comics Studies and the Committee of Game Studies, held on November 2018 in Hanover on “Comics|Games: Aesthetic, Ludic, and Narrative Strategies”. The resulting book-length study, titled Comics and Video Games: From Hybrid Medialities to Transmedia Expansions, was edited by Andreas Rauscher, Daniel Stein, and Jan-Noël Thon and published by De Gruyter. Again, all of the contributions are open access and in English, tracing the many, often surprising aesthetical, historical, and social connections between comic books and video games under the two conceptual lenses of media hybridity and transmediality. Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to Lukas Etter’s recently published research monograph Distinctive Styles and Authorship in Alternative Comics, released as volume 70 of De Gruyter’s esteemed Anglia Book Series. ComFor member Etter traces the highly contradictory discourses surrounding authorship in North American Comics, especially with regard to alternative comics published between 1980 and 2018 (Spiegelman, Bechdel, Lutes). This book, too, was released in English, exemplifying once again a growing internationalization of German comic book research.
In other pleasant news, autumn is always award season, both for comic book scholarship and actual artists working in the medium. The most prestigious award for scholars in the field continues to be the Roland Faelske Award, issued biannually to the most inspiring undergraduate and graduate theses concerned with comic books and/or animation. This year I had the great honor to be part of the selection committee, put together by Hamburg University’s Arbeitsstelle für Graphische Literatur (ArGL) [Graphic Literature Research Center]. The ceremony was held online on November 6, which was when I first had the great pleasure to give a laudatio for Helene Bonger’s ambitious MA thesis on visual narrative strategies in Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). The award for the most striking dissertation was split for the first time between two equally astonishing works: Johannes C. P. Schmid’s Frames and Framing in Documentary Comics (to be published this February by Palgrave Macmillan) and Bettina Julia Egger’s Comic und Erinnerung: Oral History im Werk von Emmanuel Guibert ([Comics and Memory: Oral History in Emmanuel Guibert’s Works], published by Bachmann). While the former develops a large-scale theoretical outline of the documentary comic form that offers an impressive overview of corresponding works of the past decades while simultaneously elaborating their social relevance in relation to “faster” media, the latter reflects on Guibert’s working methods at the intersection of literary studies, production studies, and aesthetic practice: Egger’s impressive achievement includes an artistic section of 89 pages in which her own interviews with Guibert are reflected in comic form itself. Around the same time we also held the ceremony for our own Martin Schüwer Publication Prize for Excellence in Comics Studies, awarded for the second time in cooperation between ComFor and the Committee for Comics Studies (AG Comicforschung). The award promotes articles or book chapters of “emerging scholars,” i.e. researchers who, regardless of their actual age, do not yet hold a permanent academic position as tenured faculty. This year at ComFor’s annual conference it was given to Gesine Wegner for her groundbreaking article “Reflections on the Boom of Graphic Pathography: The Effects and Affects of Narrating Disability and Illness in Comics”, published in issue 14:1 of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2020) (and available online).
I’d also like to draw your attention to some awards and distinctions for comic book artists, always an indicator of the esteem and cultural prestige of comics in Germany in general. In mid-December, the Berlin Senate announced the winners of the next comic scholarships offered by the state. The 12-month working scholarship endowed with €24,000 went to Berlin-based artist Mikkel Sommer. The Danish-born illustrator published the biography Strannik last year with Rotopol Press, based on his own research, together with his Russian-born partner Anna Rakhmanko. The award ceremony of the Berthold Leibinger Stiftung Comic Book Prize (which was actually planned for March 2020), also took place on November 8, 2020, at the Hospitalhof in Stuttgart. The award (endowed with €20,000) was given to Max Baitinger for his developing comic strip Sibylla that recounts the story of the 17th-century Greifswald poet Sibylla Schwarz and is to be published by Reprodukt later this year. Other German awards of the fall season include the Rudolph Dirks Award from the German Comic-Con Dortmund, presented to many popular German and international works on December 4, the ICOM (independent comic) Award 2020 celebrated around the same time online, as well as the second GINCO (German Independent/Inclusive Comic and Manga) Award presented during the virtual CIB20 (Comicinvasion Berlin, November 28-29). As I am one of the organizers of the latter, which focuses especially on artists from marginalized groups, smaller publishers, and self-publishing artists, I am particularly excited about the astonishing picks of our wonderful independent selection committee who went through 140 contributions – webcomics alongside self-published and professional ones. Not all news from the German-speaking regions of world was bad then. I sincerely hope that, with our next update in a few months, everything will look brighter. If you are in need of some distraction – or/and research material – here’s the traditional New Year’s list of comic book recommendations from our members (part 1, part 2, part 3) to help you get to the other side of this long winter. Stay safe, stay at home whenever possible, all the best to you out there!
Dr. Lukas R. A. Wilde is a Research Associate at Tuebingen University’s Department for Media Studies where he teaches comic book analysis, transmedia character studies, and transmedia storytelling. He is Vice President of ComFor and co-organizer of the digital artist’s initiative Comic Solidarity e.V., as well as of GINCO – the German Independent/Inclusive Comic and Manga Award. His main areas of interest are visual communication, narrative theory, picture and media theory, webcomics and digital comics. For a list of publications please visit http://lukasrawilde.de/en/publikationen.
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