by Joe Sutliff Sanders and Laurence Grove
Although the 2021 joint conference of the International Graphic Novels and Comics and the International Bande Dessinée societies, to be held in Cambridge, was advertised as an in-person-only event that would be cancelled if the pandemic interfered, such was the response to the call for proposals that we moved the conference online. The result was five full days (21-25 June) of papers, keynotes, and online socialisation.
The four keynotes targeted the conference theme of “Comics and Their Audiences / Audiences and Their Comics.” Sara W. Duke (Library of Congress) gave an overview of European comics and caricatures in the Library onwards from the purchase of material from Windsor Castle a century ago. Kate Charlesworth (Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide and many more) took us through her personal journey to becoming an artist, coming out as a lesbian, and creating the much-lauded autobiographical account that is Sensible Footwear. Lara Saguisag (City University of New York-College of Staten Island) provided a compelling history of the petrocultural, the ways in which global society is an oil society, in physical and material ways, shaping values, practices, habits, and even feelings, infusing comics and communities with a narrative that naturalises high energy consumption. Kazumi Nagaike (Oita University) explored depictions of sexuality in Japanese ‘essay manga’, essentially slice-of-life narratives in comic form.
One of the key themes to emerge from the conference was the positionality of comics producers and consumers, specifically a kind of situated witnessing. Multiple papers observed how comics witness ‘real life’ and have a special place in establishing a human-centred history as opposed to a history that is primarily dedicated to an empirical accuracy.
Significantly, delegates continued to extend and redefine the methodologies most appropriate to comics studies. In many sessions, scholars advanced arguments about how to recognise the place that the observing, participating scholar occupies in the process of reading and indeed analysing. Speakers demonstrated a conviction that students of comics must be more open, honest, and explicit about our own place in the scholarship we produce and reading we perform. As for named methodologies, autoethnography (perhaps most famously championed in comics studies by Mel Gibson) and Personal Journey Criticism (as championed by Grove) emerged as the most obvious mode with which the current generation of scholarship experiments. Still, these were only the most formalised of the methodologies under exploration; other methodologies, not fully named or theorised, came to similar conclusions: scholarship can be better and more subjective without being self-indulgent.
The joint conference always provides an important moment to take stock of the field, but this conference also offered insights as a potential test case for future virtual or hybrid events. It was by no means the first online comics conference—indeed the 2020 IGNNC was our initial foray—but because its transition to a virtual mode was entered into only reluctantly by hosts suspicious of the format, it might be especially eloquent as the post-pandemic world reimagines conference hosting.
The fee structure, for example, always a matter of extended thought and revision from conference to conference, became an issue in a new way. As there were no physical venues to rent, the conference dispensed with fees entirely. However, hosting pre-recorded videos (38 papers were delivered in pre-recorded videos followed during the conference proper by 30-minute synchronous Q&A sessions) proved costly. Only through the generosity of the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, which donated the funds to cover the cost of temporary video hosting, and the Faculty’s IT and AV departments, who kept the virtual cogs running, was the venue possible.
With 300 registered delegates and 94 scheduled papers, the 2021 conference had one of the most robust programmes in the history of the conference and probably the highest total subscription for attendees. Clearly the online nature of the conference and the lack of a registration fee played a part in this success. Attendance at sessions was uneven, though, because everyone attending the conference did so amid other duties: whereas an in-person conference would have meant leaving behind committee meetings and caring duties, the online conference gave none of the attendees—not even the hosts—license to attend every session.
A further issue native to the online venue is the question of how long and indeed whether recorded papers should remain available. In the interest of fostering dialogue and the growth of knowledge, obviously the papers should remain indefinitely, but pragmatic concerns quickly threaten to eclipse such idealism. Cost, of course, is an issue, but we must also consider the fact that at this conference, as at most conferences, students and junior faculty presented more papers than did senior faculty. What damage (or benefit) is being awarded to delegates who publish their ideas here rather than in a traditional peer-reviewed venue? And if they do publish through the conference as well as in a journal, do they open themselves up to accusations of double publication? The organisers of this conference chose to store the videos where only registered delegates could view them. That decision, though, was perhaps more the result of the hosts’ scepticism about the venue rather than of a carefully deliberated debate.
Obviously, the task now is to take the best elements and carry them forward into whatever new format emerges for post-pandemic conferences. This conference was able to make use of the online format for some happy innovations. Grove led a group of scholars from across multiple time zones in a live pub quiz about comics, and Sanders was joined by Mark Wells, long-time Cambridge resident and novelist, in a pre-recorded, streamed punt down the river Cam, complete with questionable historical anecdotes and petty digs at Oxford. The conference also offered a trial mentoring programme, which paired about 60 mentors and mentees at varying professional stages, a great many of whom would not have been able to attend had the conference met in person. A survey of participants in the mentoring programme shows a real appetite for continuing and expanding mentoring through the conference.
Participants were exceedingly generous with their time and attention, gracious during Zoom failures and in the face of the constant repetition of the conference motto: “Um, I think you’re still on mute”. Engagement was enthusiastic and deep. After a year and a half of continual frustration to comics-related socialising and intellectual exchange, even sitting in the same chair and looking at the same screen was a joy, as long as the other names on the screen were comics friends, old and new.
Current plans—though we have recently seen just how reliable the best-laid plans can be—are for the next joint conference to take place in Cambridge in 2023, this time with the chance to fall ignominiously into the river offered to each person, not just the conference hosts.
Laurence Grove is Professor of French and Text/Image Studies and Director of the Stirling Maxwell Centre for the Study of Text/Image Cultures at the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on historical aspects of text/image forms, and in particular bande dessinée.
Joe Sutliff Sanders lectures in children’s media in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. His two most recent books are Batman: The Animated Series (Wayne State UP, 2021) and A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child (Minnesota, 2018).