Symposium Report: Sugar and Spice, and the Not So Nice: Comics Picturing Girlhood

14 Jun

DAY 1/2

by Eva Van de Wiele and Dona Pursall

The digital symposium Sugar and Spice, and the Not So Nice: Comics Picturing Girlhood was launched on 22 April 2021 with a profound and personal keynote by Mel Gibson. Using herself as a case study she reflected on being a reader, a librarian, a scholar and an individual who, in a variety of fields, has represented non-standard notions of ‘girl’. In workshops for librarians, teachers and scholars, Gibson uses comics for object elicitation, allowing her to encourage others to reconsider themselves as child comics readers and the complex ideologies knotted up in this experience. Gibson’s work provokes the notion of the individual as a role model, a unique and precise representation with particular qualities, interests and passions. Using restorative nostalgia entails not just reflecting back on but, also, resisting shame and embarrassment, forgiving and accepting ourselves as the child readers we were. Gibson shows a respect for the powerful and evocative materiality of comics and offers a compassionate model for identity. Whilst speaking personally about comics reading, Gibson engaged with discourses of hierarchy, child development and affect, interrogating the simple truth that what we read is part of making us who we are.


Figure 1 Dragana Radanović has visualised the two keynotes of the conference. Radanović is working on a PhD in the Arts at LUCA, School of Arts and KULeuven.

John Miers chaired Panel 1: Disability in Girl Comics. Charlotte J. Fabricius’s exploration of Marvel’s The Unstoppable Wasp series considered the representations of disability in the comics through a prism of contemporary identity theory. The presentation analysed the community of capable, technologically advanced, complex females depicted in the comic. Fabricius engaged with dis/ability and neurodiversity, mobility and access in complex and disparate communities. JoAnn Purcell recounted her experiences of drawing biographical comics about family life. Purcell particularly talked about the impact of her autoethnography, of taking time every day to notice and then draw her daughter’s experience of life, the experiences of a child whose unique perspective on the world is created by her particular needs. Using drawing as a “platform for a voice rarely heard” allowed Purcell to illustrate the fissions between normative and non-normative habits, routines and expectations (such as the non-normative experience of time that Purcell termed “crip time”). Purcell powerfully spoke about how her comics shine a light on her daughter’s agency, encouraging readers to look again and to appreciate really seeing as a form of caring.

Figure 2 John Miers’ graphic doodle of the panel he chaired. Miers is lecturer in illustration, Kingston University, London.

Michel De Dobbeleer chaired panel 2: Beyond Fact and Fiction. The complexity of the relationship between fact and fiction was significantly illustrated through María Porras Sánchez’s presentation “A harrowing, transient girlhood” about comics representing refugee experiences. The entwined experiences of coming of age and becoming a new cultural identity, particularly in journeys from Syria to Europe, were compared through case studies on Zenobia (Dürr & Horneman 2018), Escape from Syria (Samya Kullab 2017) and Khalat (Giulia Pex 2020). Porras Sánchez engaged with the emotional complexity of telling personal stories of trauma, particularly those related to recent social and political events that are impacted and biased by news narratives and unresolved tensions. Özlem Alioğlu Türker’s study of the Turkish humour comic character Sıdıka considered home as a feminist battleground, asserting that the confined, domestic context was specifically associated with the politicisation of family through the prism of girlhood. This presentation strip particularly engaged with how humour enabled Sıdıka’s character to ‘unthreateningly’ engage with controversial questions of gender, oppression, status and authority, making pointed social commentary and managing to resist confrontation and censorship. A study of the history and evolution of the 1960s Italian comic Valentina Mela Verde enabled Giorgio Busi Rizzi to trace wider socio-political changes. The marked transition in the focus, style and tone of the comic and the representation of its main girl character, from aesthetic and personal concerns to social, economic and international interests, echoed a broader trend in teenage culture as earlier ideals of girls having the status of disempowered ‘daughter’, and therefore possessed and belonging, began to be replaced by notions of independent, liberated, working young women.

The roundtable invited scholars Monalesia Earle and Joe Sutliff Sanders to discuss three comics with girl protagonists. Their readings of Hilda and the Black Hound by Luke Pearson; Jeg rømmer by Mari Kanstad Johnsen; and Sardine by Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar pointed first at the space within and without the panels. Both in Hilda and the Black Hound and Sardine, children (and the Tontu in Hilda’s case) occupy spaces (whether inside houses or in space) that allow them some kind of unruly behaviour. Earle compared these spaces to the changeable unoccupied space of the comics’ page, i.e. the interstices between the panels. These unstable gutters carve out room for certain childhood curiosity. Second, both researchers focused on the difficult notion of disobedience. Child characters such as Hilda can be termed “disobedient” whether out of curiosity, or out of empathy and an ethical sense that overrides parental or societal rules. Likewise, girls traditionally are kept hidden, quiet or assigned to the nest, while craving private space and the ability to keep secrets (e.g. in a diary) that adults invade, suffering what Earle has termed “operationalised invisibility”. Society probably responds to possible threats towards the girl as the embodiment of insecurity and vulnerability. Yet these comics show how girls explore the unknown (space, islands) and the unfamiliar and possess ‘it’ or even colonise it (e.g. the girl takes the rabbit home in Jeg rømmer). In sum, Sutliff Sanders and Earle appreciated the comics’ drawing attention to tensions, showing that children’s comics thematise “messy disobedience” and celebrate exploration, adventure and resistance.

Jessica Burton chaired Panel 3: Beyond Judgement. Alison Halsall explored the self-conscious queering of summer camp narratives for children in comics such as Lumberjanes. Halsall’s analysis “Friendship to the max!” highlighted how playing with the moral and ideological values of holistic outdoor character building experiences, such as summer camps, offers models for collectivist feminism of friendship because of otherness and a space for independent action beyond adult protection The mirroring of social feminist trends through women’s magazines formed the focus of Joan Ormrod’s analysis of Mirabelle from the 1950s and 60s. She particularly highlighted the clearly evident shift towards women as active and moving bodies and beings. Realised through trouser suits, holidays and changing consumer tastes, these women’s magazines echoed the moving bodies and minds of women towards the second wave feminism of the 1970s. The power and agency afforded to storytellers formed the focus for Marine Berthiot’s presentation. Noticing the intermedial intertwining of traditional storytelling, song and dance as embraced by Marsh’s Mophead led to an analysis of the comic as an empowering narrative of cultural trauma. Marsh’s illustration of the Pacifica youth experience of silence, objectification and isolation both realises and resists the position of subjugation.

Dona Pursall and Eva Van de Wiele organised the conference (22-23 April 2021) Girlhood in Comics of which this was a report. This event is an outcome of the COMICS project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. [758502]).


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