by Erika Chung
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics/La Société canadienne pour l’étude de la bande dessinée 2020 conference was cancelled. In its place, a series of online symposiums were organised to bring comic scholars together throughout the 2020/2021 academic year. Participants accepted to the conference and CSSC/SCEBD members in good standing were welcomed to participate in the online symposiums. In an effort to maximise the flexibility of the online Zoom space, the symposiums did not replicate in-person panel presentations. Instead, panellists’ research was shared with spectators in advance of the scheduled symposium session and, on the day of the symposium, researchers participated in a roundtable discussion. The goal was for panelists to engage in greater dialogue with their research and each other. Panelists and spectators met on Zoom and a moderator helped guide the roundtable discussion. Moderators introduced each speaker and prepared discussion questions. Panelists were also welcome to ask one another questions. In total, the online symposium series consisted of four sessions and featured researchers from the UK, India and across Canada.
The first symposium was in October 2020 with the theme of Challenging Narratives. Panelists in this session were Kaarina Mikalson, Brandi Estey-Burtt and Dallas Hunt and the roundtable discussion was moderated by CSSC/SCEBD President Keith Friedlander. This session was briefly covered on the CSSC/SCEBD’s Twitter. Mikalson’s research studied Eric Kostiuk William’s Condo Heartbreak Disco, specifically analysing the themes of capitalism and urban development. Estey-Burtt’s research was on a study that addressed the connection between comics and anti-oppressive education and shared how students engaged with comics as a learning tool. Lastly, Hunt examined Captain Marvel, specifically how the film adaptation reinforced settler colonial violence. The roundtable’s discussion focused on how comics challenge the internalised dominant perspectives and frameworks of readers. The discussion also took questions and reading suggestions from spectators.
The second symposium took place in November 2020 with the theme of Nation, Identity and Belonging. Comic scholar Candida Rifkind served as moderator and the panelists were Somanand Saraswati, Natalie Garceau and Erika Chung. Saraswati’s research focused on Indian comics, specifically comics by Amar Chitra Katha and the role comics played in India’s nation building. Garceau examined the relationship between the popular outsider archetype of the android in science fiction graphic novels and concepts of identity. Chung’s research focused on Asian representation in superhero comics, specifically on how racism and stereotypes have been used in comics. This roundtable discussion had a lively round of conversation with spectators and panelists exchanging questions with one another as well.
The third symposium took place in February 2021 and focused on Sexuality and Gender as its theme. This session was moderated by Anna Peppard and researchers on this panel were J. Andrew Deman, Elisabeth Pfeiffer, Jean Sébastien and Keith Friedlander. Deman’s research was titled “X-Women to Watch out for: Bechdel-Testing X-Men Comics within a Mixed Methods Research Design” and his research materials can be viewed on YouTube. Pfeiffer’s work examined the Bitch Planet comics and her analysis focused on decentring the white gaze through an intersectional framework. Sébastien’s work was on women’s comics and drew upon film studies to examine the role of sound in relation to women’s bodies. More specifically, his research examined the question of how sound is represented in comics. Lastly, Friedlander’s research focused on the most recent Martian Manhunter (2019-2020) comic book series and drew on Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives as a framework. The roundtable discussion was guided by Peppard and focused on why sexuality and pleasure are understudied in comic studies and why comics is a vibrant place to have these conversations. Despite some internet connection troubles, panelists discussed how comics as a medium offer an intimate reading experience and reflected on theoretical frameworks that can be used to study how sexuality and gazes are represented in comics. Panelists also asked one another questions and expanded the conversation, such as Pfeiffer’s question on intersectionality in relation to Martian Manhunter. This symposium session was well documented through the CSSC/SCEBD’s Twitter account, which helped to expand attendance to the session.
The final symposium took place in April 2021 and featured research by Dany Prince, Troy Bordun, Paul Malone and Julian Lawrence under the theme of Representing Ideas. This session was moderated once more by Friedlander. Similar to the third roundtable discussion, it was also well documented on the CSSC/SCEBD’s Twitter account. Unfortunately, Lawrence was unable to attend the roundtable discussion, but he kindly shared his research materials with the CSSC/SCEBD. His work focused on a collaborative comics-based research project between a charity for the homeless and a cohort of Year Two university students in the UK. Nonetheless, the remaining three panelists shared an engaging discussion. Prince’s research focused on the Monstress comic series by Sana Takeda and Marjorie Liu and examined themes of disability, theories of the abject, monsters and femininity. Bordun’s research focused on the superhero character Domino and examined the connections between Domino’s powers; identity; and friendship and community. Lastly, Malone’s research focused on Austrian political cartoons in the post-World War I period. Friedlander started the roundtable discussion by asking panelists how their respective comic case study explores the theme of representing ideas. Attendees posed questions to panelists on shared commonalities between research topics and the place of Austrian comics in the larger landscape of German language comics. Overall, this last symposium was a lively conversation that engaged comic scholars from a range of research topics and perspectives.
This series of virtual symposiums has brought comic scholars and CSSC/SCEBD members together during a time when travel is not feasible or safe. And while everyone has experienced and wrestled with their share of unstable internet connections, it has not stopped panelists from returning and continuing discussions. The symposiums have been a heartening and encouraging experience through a challenging year. The Canadian Society for the Study of Comics will be holding its independent 2021 conference online on 3-4 June 2021.
Erika Chung is a PhD candidate in the joint Communication and Culture program at Ryerson University and York University in Toronto, Canada. Her research is focused on how women of colour experience comic books and comic book fan culture. She is the current VP Communications (English) for the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics/La Société canadienne pour l’étude de la bande dessinée.