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

21 Jun

DAY 2/2

by Eva Van de Wiele and Dona Pursall

Gert Meesters chaired Panel 4: A Space for Girls. Early research into the relationship between comics and their readers was central to Sylvain Lesage’s presentation. Through a study of reader correspondences he analysed the reception of and discourse provoked by the comics strip “Corinne et Jeannot” in the communist comics magazine for children Pif Gadget (1969- 1993/2004-2009). The serial performance of Jeannot, a boy in love being pranked by Corinne, the girl he adores, sparked a feedback loop between publishers, creators and readers and was also referred to within the comic. The curiosity of the readers’ letters is their desire to negotiate the morality of a fictional character, to communicate ideologies such as the extent of acceptable meanness for girls and suitable levels of temperance and kindness. It speaks to readers’ genuine investment in these comics, showing that fictional characters in humour strips are subject to such socially normative constraints. Aswathy Senan’s research on the childhood of Malayalis considered the extent to which the context of publication shapes the comics themselves. This notion was explored through a comparison of the comics strip “Bobanum Moliyum” as published in the women’s magazine Malayala Manorama and in Kalakaumudi, a literary magazine. Whilst the characters and the concept of their strip remained constant, the humour, the interests and the agency of the characters adapted to the flavour of the different magazines.


Ivan Pintor Iranzo chaired Panel 5: Feminists in Training. Through a theoretical prism of abjection, Nicoletta Mandolini analysed how both narrative and comics medium specific qualities destabilised the feminist Bildungsroman. Mandolini argued that abjection, today a controversial category in the field of Feminist Cultural Studies, can be re-evaluated as a useful critical mode to look at monstrously represented girls in coming of age comics. Her analysis concentrated on Ana Caspão’s Fundo do nada (2017) as a feminist and macabre coming of age in which grotesque, fantastic monstrosity and unnerving horror construct a troubled female experience. Amanda Potter argued that the rewriting of female superhero origin stories can serve to redraw identities and authority. Potter interrogated a troubling pattern in superheroine childhoods of isolation, self-sacrifice and absence of female influence. Her comparative analysis of Wonder Woman, Valeria, Belit and A Man Among Ye considered the impact that these formative restraints had on the heroes that these women become later.

Julia Round began her keynote address by exploring possession through the prism of complex identities young teenage girls negotiate. Round argued that possession moves beyond indoctrination and is rather a negotiation of trauma. Through a study of Misty and Spellbound, Round related possession to emotive, gothic motifs particularly with regard to social interactions, friendships, power and isolation. The research presented focused on the symbolic ways in which the comics represent possession, the kinds of effects associated with it and the extent to which possession forms a relationship between possessor and possessed. Not always evil, but often dark, themes were tackled by these comics, engaging with complex conversations about individuality, choice, restrictions and culpability, despite the young intended readership.

Figure 3 Dragana Radanović’s rendering of Julia Round’s keynote.

Eszter Szép chaired Panel 6: Beyond Bodies. Martha Newbigging continued exploring the theme of creative practice redrawing identity through an account of her work as a practitioner using art to reimagine autobiographical experiences. Newbigging’s focus on drawing as a process for understanding ourselves (what she calls ‘research illustration’) puts narrative as identity exploration to work. Inspired by Lynda Barry’s notion of “paper as a place rather than a thing”, Newbigging’s practice of autographics takes paper as a place of possibility, a space to redraw memories, experiences, childhood encounters and to come to terms with them, to revalidate them in light of a more nuanced heteronormative-queer dynamic. The intimate diary style narrative of Skim, and the overwhelming and tumultuous emotional experience of forbidden attraction was the focus of Barbara Postema’s talk. Feelings as unspeakable and yet embodied were particularly emphasised through Postema’s analysis of the ways in which the graphic illustrations drew attention to bodily gestures.

Maaheen Ahmed chaired Panel 7: Beyond Reading. Jackie Ormes’s 1940s comics strip about Paddy Jo offered a positive and assertive representation of a black child despite a context of prejudice and segregation. Mel Loucks considered the impact of these strips created by the first black female cartoonist Jackie Ormes, particularly through the prism of Paddy Jo as a symbol of hope for the future. The strips engaged with the ongoing political civil rights conversations and sensitive current affairs, however couched in the unthreatening guise of a humorous child. These strips entered the conversation without being confrontational; they posed questions; and left space for new answers and potential alternative endings. Inspired by the work of the young adult artist Charlotte Solomon, a victim of displacement during World War II, Sébastien Conard created a responding graphic essay. Solomon was not a comics artist but described her own work as “songplays”, a reference to the multiple ways in which images narrate. In his talk, Conard explained how his piece had developed and how he sought to use the work to speak about sensory experience; influence and association; affinity; and disconnection.

Concluding thoughts

The great spread of themes in these fascinating two days the symposium perhaps most significantly points out the potential room for work still to be done. The goal for the whole symposium was to broaden and enrich the spectrum of girls represented, recognised and read. Moreover, the papers drew attention to the importance of unique, complex and unstable models for girls in comics. Throughout the event delegates were invited to collate suggestions for great girlhood comics on Padlet, which produced a rich and celebratory reading list. Girls continue to experience pressures and expectations related to gender. Noticing and questioning these enables us to set examples for different, contradictory, messy kinds of girls whose unfixed, undefined, polyvocal identities become the norm.

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]).

Eva Van de Wiele has published in CuCo and Tebeosfera and reviews comics for She is working at Ghent University as a PhD student on the ERC project Children in Comics. Her doctoral thesis focuses on seriality and the spread of (inter)national comics in early Italian Corriere dei Piccoli and Spanish TBO. She has presented papers at the international comics conference of Zaragoza (May 2019), TORCH Comics (July 2019), Alicante (March 2021), Cambridge (June 2021) and the childhood conference in Tampere (May 2021). She also hosted a comics workshop on Holocaust comics at the Antwerp Summer School on Children’s Literature (July 2019). Eva is a member of the Management Committee of the COST action ICOn-MICS and of the following research groups: 20cc at Ghent University, ACME, and SnIF, an early-career researchers group on Italian comics. With some SnIF members, she is organizing a summer school on Italian comics, “Ricerca a fumetti”, at Ghent University (12-15 July 2021).

Dona Pursall’s PhD research is embedded within the wider project of drawing a cultural history of children in comics based at Ghent University. Through a focus primarily on the history of British humour comics, Dona’s investigation considers childhood, imagination and embodied play within the context of social unrest and political change. She has most recently published on representations of childhood experience in comics, particularly focusing on behaviours such as naughtiness, friendship and compassionate eco-citizenship. As a teacher with over fifteen years of classroom experience Dona is especially interested in children’s reading experience. Her Master’s degree explored young adult readers and notions of identity and consumerism within vampire fiction.


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