CFP: Collaboration in Comics (MLA 2014)

Saga of the Swamp Thing 34 (1985), by Moore, Bissette, Totleben, Wood, & Costanza

Call for Papers for a panel at the Modern Language Association (MLA) Annual Convention, 9-12 Jan. 2014, in Chicago. Sponsored by the MLA Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives.

Though comics is a dialogic form, current academic work on comics has remarkably little to say about the possibility of genuinely dialogical creation, that is, collaboration. The bulk of recent scholarly and curatorial work on comics favors the concept of cartooning as a singular personal handwriting, that is, an autographic trace, ignoring the historical importance and artistic potential of multi-authored comics. The proposed panel seeks to illuminate this blind spot in comics study by inviting critical perspectives on collaboration. We seek proposals on all topics relevant to this issue, including but not necessarily limited to:

  • The legal, ethical, economic, and artistic implications of creative teaming
  • Instances of tense, difficult, or complicated collaboration
  • Studio projects, e.g., Eisner et al., The Spirit; Hergé et al., Tintin
  • Notable collaborative teams in comics, e.g., Goscinny and Uderzo, Jodorowsky and Moebius, Koike and Kojima, Kurtzman et al., Moore et al., Pekar et al., Gaiman and McKean, Simon and Kirby, Stanley and Tripp, many more
  • Collaborations that go beyond the usual division of scenarist and artist, e.g., Dupuy-Berberian, Karasik and Mazzucchelli (City of Glass), Trondheim/Sfar et al.
  • Artists’ collectives, e.g., Actus Tragicus, CLAMP, Fast Fiction, Stripcore, Wimmen’s Comix
  • Collaborative autobiography in comics, e.g., Pekar et al., American Splendor; Brabner, Pekar, and Stack, Our Cancer Year; Kominsky-Crumb and Crumb; Sowa and Savoia, Marzi; Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, Seven Miles a Second
  • Specific collaborative processes and their artistic ramifications, e.g., constraint-based experiments, exquisite corpse games, and jams; scripting by thumbnail v. full script; the Marvel method
  • Metacritical consideration of how criticism and theory value, or devalue, collaborative work
  • Creators who shift roles (scenarist, artist, etc.) between projects, e.g., David B., Frank Miller, Sfar, Shanower, Trondheim
  • Editors as collaborators, e.g., Goscinny, Menu, Spiegelman/Mouly, many examples in manga
  • Collaborations with family or partners, e.g., the Crumb family, Los Bros Hernandez, Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot in Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes

Send 200 to 300-word abstracts in .doc or .pdf to Charles Hatfield (charles [dot] hatfield [at] gmail [dot] com) by 8 March 2013. Submitters will receive notification of results by April 1.

PLEASE NOTE: All prospective presenters must be current members of the MLA by no later than 7 April 2013.

To see further discussion and a fuller rationale for this panel, click here:

Why study collaboration? And why haven’t we been doing it?

It could be argued that comics studies’ current neglect of collaboration serves as a strategy of legitimization. For example, collaboration figures little in (here are examples we can cite with impunity!) Hatfield’s Alternative Comics (2005), Chute’s Graphic Women (2010), or most of the monographs that comprise the University Press of Mississippi’s “Great Comics Artists” series. Such studies emphasize single authorship in the context of advancing literary claims for the art form. The new literary study of comics takes as its departure point the underground and alternative tradition’s preference for lone authorship, as though scholarship is now recapitulating alternative comics’ rejection of the assembly-line methods used by comics’ so-called commercial mainstream. In short, if collaboration in comics has been academically neglected, if there is a blind spot in comics studies, there may be important methodological and ideological reasons for it.

Auteurism perhaps appeals to comics scholars for good reason. Collaboration in commercial comics is very often a matter of editorial fiat rather than willed teamwork, and, arguably, assembly-line work-for-hire production does not tend to encourage the creation of strong, enduring comics. Favoring auteurism may be a necessary first move toward a mature comics criticism. Certainly auteurism shapes the recent art-historical appreciation of comics (e.g. Masters of American Comics, 2005; In the Studio, 2006; Art in Time, 2010) as well as the highly developed comics criticism of the Francophone tradition, where even instances of collaboration in a studio setting are framed in auteurist terms (e.g. the cult of Hergé, creator of Tintin, subject of much study).

Nonetheless, a body of comics theory that cannot account for collaboration seems doomed to misunderstand or ignore a huge swath of historically and artistically important comics, from serial entertainments such as Rene Goscinny and Alberto Uderzo’s Asterix, to high-minded, auteur-driven graphic novels such as Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell. Indeed the acclaim given to Moore’s work—which is almost always identified as precisely that, Moore’s work—belies Moore’s essential reliance on a legion of artistic collaborators, from David Lloyd, Gary Leach, and Dave Gibbons to Bill Sienkiewicz, Kevin O’Neill, Campbell, and Melinda Gebbie (or, as in our splendid example above, Steve Bissette and John Totleben, et al.).

Moreover, there are comics collaborations in which the chemistry, mystery, and special constraints posed by the very process of collaboration seem to be integral to the work: i.e., collaborations that absolutely ignore industrial divisions of labor, such as those of Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot, or Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berbérian, or Tin Can Forest (Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek).

If comics scholarship and many sectors of comics culture now valorize the work of individual artists, at the same time comics’ verbal/visual form presents unique opportunities for collaboration—and such collaboration has been historically critical to comics production. How can we reconcile these contrary facts?

The proposed panel hopes to illuminate this blind spot by doing some or all of the following:

  • positing models of collaboration in comics
  • examining how those models are borne out, or not, by specific examples of collaborative work,
  • exploring how collaboration constrains, enables, or transforms comics
  • probing the historical, ideological, and artistic reasons for comics studies’ resistance to recognizing collaboration.

In conclusion, this session will ask what is gained, and what lost, by deemphasizing collaboration in favor of single authorship. The aim of the panel will not be simply to recuperate the optimistic notion of the “creative team,” as upheld by adherents of work-for-hire, periodical comics, nor to reject the vital critical work that has been done under the auteurist model, but rather to insist on the variousness and complexity of comics production and to investigate what true collaboration in comics might mean. The present moment in comics studies—as we reaffirm the singular authorial achievements of cartoonists like Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel, and, at the same time, note the renewed legal and ethical scrutiny given to the issue of collaboration in comics due to legal cases such as Kirby v. Marvel—is an opportune one to reconsider the dynamics of collaboration.

Please feel free to leave comments on this site, or to email Charles Hatfield, charles [dot] hatfield [at] gmail [dot] com, if you have questions!

One Response to CFP: Collaboration in Comics (MLA 2014)

  1. Pingback: How do we approach collaboration in comics? |

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