Thursday, 23 June 2011

Comics & Academia: Where we are now, where we are going, and some great conferences to look out for....

It seems that something has defiantly been brewing in the world of comics and graphic novels which certainly seems to be reaching a new level of intensity in the last year or so. With more and more glowing reviews of comics in the mainstream press (although papers like The Guardian and The Times are still slightly more switched on than the rest) as well as interviews with UK creators such as Darryl Cunningham appearing everywhere from the much respected Comics Journal in America to BBC Radio 4's mental health and brain focused programme All In The Mind, it seems like the only way is up. Not to mention the fact that Dundee University have just announced that from next year they will be doing an MA in comics studies, focusing on the medium academically as well as creatively and helping to push potential comic academics, creators, and publishers into their chosen careers through work experience, guest speakers, expert knowledge, and the building up of contacts. Comics have been called by one particular online literary journal 'the only true new art form of the twentieth century' and while it isn't really as new as they may think (there are people that argue the roots of comics all the way back to cave paintings and the Bayeux tapestry) what the medium is beginning to do is certainly new. For me there hasn't really been much in the way of truly great, groundbreaking modern literature or modern art recently. Modern art especially (I find) is derivative, pretentious, and doesn't really tell us much about us or the world we live in (even if it claims to do so, the message is so detached and distorted as to be rendered useless) . Whereas comics for the most part are all about us and the world we live in and not just us specifically but a multiplicity of us from all around the world, we now have access to a wide range of experiences we know nothing about and may never come into contact with. For me comics are literature, but they also are art, these two things work together and feed off each other in comics. But it's because comics are so versatile that I like them so much. I believe it was Scott McCloud the great sage wisdom of comics theory that was very fond of pushing this particular line: comics is a medium, NOT a genre. Within comics you get a wide range of different approaches. From history to philosophy, journalism, autobiography, political commentary, satire, allegorical or just plain off the wall sci-fi, fantasy, horror, thriller, literary adaptations, I could probably mention more if I wanted to. It seems people are constantly reinventing what we can do with comics, not just artistically and formally but it terms of narrative as well.

So it gives me a great thrill to see some really interesting academic conferences popping up across the UK.

The first of which is the Joint International Conference of Graphic Novels, Bandes Dessinees and Comics 2011 to be held at Manchester Metropolitan University between the 5th and the 8th of July. This four day conference will be split into two parts, the first two days focusing on Anglophone comics and Manga, the last two days focusing on European comics. It will feature some fantastic keynote speakers such as women's underground comix legend and co-conspirator behind Alan Moore's Lost Girls, Melinda Gebbie, as well as British underground staple Hunt Emerson and French artist Edmond Baudoin. But for me it would be equally exciting to hear talks from critics such as Ann Miller and Bart Beaty who have written some fantastically indepth books about European comics, and American academic and editor Charles Hatfield (who I had the pleasure of speaking alongside at Laydeez Do Comics last Monday). Flying the flag for the UK will be academics such as Chris Murray (who will be running the MA in Dundee) giving what looks to be a fascinating talk on pyschogeography in comics, Melanie Gibson a consultant who gives training to libraries and schools on how to stock graphic novels and comics (amongst other things), Studies In Comics editor Julia Round, and Graphic Medicine guru and comic artist Ian Williams. This event is probably really only for real die-hard enthusiasts as (a it's quite expensive and (b four days of academic talks might get a bit much, but for me I approach it with as much anticipation as someone might await something like Glastonbury Festival. Check out the full programme here. Expect a report and a selection of interviews with some of the speakers on this blog.

Next up is the Comics and Conflict Conference taking place at The Imperial War Museum in London between the 19-20th of August as part of their Children's Literature Festival (although I'd hardly call the way some of the authors/artists speaking choose to tackle war child-friendly) Again featuring some fantastic guests in the form of 2000AD writer Pat Mills who created his own World War I series Charley's War, Mikkel Sommer writer/artist of Obsolete (which I reviewed here), Francesca Cassavetti who has turned her mothers wartime diary into a comic, and academics Roger Sabin and Martin Barker who will be discussing the long-running Doonsbury series.
Sadly French comic artist Jaques Tati who was going to be one of the keynote speakers is no longer on the bill, for reasons I do not know. Tati created a fantastically bleak and human tale of trench warfare in It Was The War Of The Trenches (which you can now buy as a hardcover book published by Fantagraphics as part of their Tati reprint series). Comics/graphic novels about war and conflict appeal to me as a pacifist because they look at the very human toll of war, not just that of civilians but the people fighting as well(*1), of course if you seek it out a lot of classic fiction does this as well, but comics of course have the bonus of interesting and expressive artwork.

Next up is the second Transitions Comica Symposium chaired by Dr.Roger Sabin, on the 5th of November at the School of Arts, Birbeck, London University. This conference will be look specifically at new emerging research in comics studies spanning across multiple disciplines and featuring work from postgrad students and early career lecturers alike. An event without the restrictions of theme, this promises to be a melting pot for new ideas, and they are calling for papers, so budding comics theorists apply!. (Deadline 31st July)

Finally, following on from a highly successful conference in London last year (and an even more successful one in Chicago this year, but I'll post about that later) Leeds Thoughts Bubble will be playing host to a one day conference on Graphic Medicine subtitled Visualising The Stigma Of Illness, on the 17th of Novemember. Again there is a call for papers, so you know what to do! (Deadline 18th of July) There are two other conferences, one on scultpure and comics, the other on the way in which the material form of comics affects our reading experience, but fo my money the Graphic Medicine one looks the most interesting.

(*1) An early example of human tales of war in comic book form would be the classic EC series Frontline Combat which managed to be historically accurate while carrying a strong anti-war message and featured the artwork of such luminaries as Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, and Jack Davis.

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