Snapshots: Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books, 7 Jan. 2012

The MLA Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives sponsored three successful panels for the MLA 2012 conference in Seattle, 5-8 Jan. 2012. Make that very successful panels: all three were well attended, lively, stimulating, and innovative. Sadly, we were able to get photos of just one, the last, “Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books,” which took place on Saturday evening, 7 January. See the images below!

This panel was packed, with a SRO crowd, and prompted an excellent discussion, thanks to the provocative work of panelists Perry Nodelman, Phil Nel, Michael Joseph, and Joseph Thomas. The panel was co-sponsored by the Comics Group and the MLA Division on Children’s Literature, and organized and moderated by Craig Svonkin and Charles Hatfield.

Thanks to our wonderful panelists and enthusiastic audience for an important, groundbreaking session. The following snapshots, despite being low-light and high-grain, document the experience.

Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books-02

First up, Perry Nodelman presents on the work of Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, in both picture book and comic form. Joseph Thomas and Phil Nel look on at left.

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Perry Nodelman at the podium.

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Rapt listeners: from left, Michael Joseph and Joseph Thomas.

Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books-04

Phil Nel looks on.

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Phil Nel reflects on the distinctions between comics and picture books and between genres and modes—and in the process he reframes the very idea of genre!

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Phil Nel at the podium.

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Perry Nodelman and Michael Joseph look on.

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Michael Joseph explains how comics challenge the norms of book culture, and thus the very category of children's literature.

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Michael Joseph at the podium.

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Joseph Thomas contemplates.

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Joseph Thomas examines two different versions of Silverstein's "Uncle Shelby ABZ Book" to show how expectations of genre shape and limit our interpretations.

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Joseph Thomas rounds out the panel. Is this when he showed the pages from "Savage Sword of Conan"?

Our fondest thanks to our panelists, who made this a memorable and intellectually enriching experience. Proud to stand in your company!

If any of our readers have other pictures of this panel, or from other comics studies sessions at MLA 2012, please let us know. We’d love to be able to document the experience more fully.

KUOW in Seattle pays attention!

KUOW 94.9 FM in Seattle

This morning Seattle’s NPR affiliate station, KUOW (Puget Sound Public Radio), ran a segment on its weekly morning show, Weekday, inspired by our panel, How Seattle Changed Comics.

Listen to Weekday to hear scholars Susan Kirtley and Christopher Pizzino discuss comics in and of Seattle with host Steve Scher:

Congratulations, Susan and Chris, for this terrific interview!

(The comics segment begins at about 33:40 in the podcast.)

We’re all at the MLA now, and getting ready for our panels. Onward!

Other Comics Studies Events @ MLA 2012

In addition to the three sessions sponsored by our Discussion Group (i.e. the Comics and Graphic Narratives Group), MLA 2012 will be hosting many other events relevant to comics studies. In fact, the program shows that the MLA’s interest in comics and graphic narratives is at an all-time high. The amount of work being done on comics within the MLA now is startling to those who remember leaner, hungrier times—it’s a veritable groundswell!

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to search for the subjects comics or graphic narratives in the MLA’s searchable online program. So, to spread the word about this groundswell, we of the Comics and Graphic Narratives Group offer the following list of comics studies events at MLA 2012 other than our own.

The following panels are either clearly dedicated to or show a substantial interest (i.e., more than one paper’s worth) in graphic narrative. Some of them are “special,” i.e. independent, ad hoc, sessions, while others are sponsored by standing MLA Divisions or Discussion Groups. Of course there are some schedule conflicts among them (sigh):

95. The Graphic Novel in Latin America

Thursday, 5 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., University Room, Sheraton Seattle

Program arranged by the Division on Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature

Presiding: Hilda Chacón, Nazareth College of Rochester

  1. “Criminal Melodrama and Hypertrophic Gesture in ¡Alarma! and ¡Casos de Alarma!,” Sergio Delgado, Harvard U.
  2. La grabadora: En busca de una historia alternativa,” Javier Gonzalez, U. of Colorado, Boulder
  3. Rupay, the Photojournalistic Archive, and the Sendero War,” Kent L. Dickson, California State Polytechnic U., Pomona

181. Graphic Narratives Retelling History: Germany

Friday, 6 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., University Room, Sheraton Seattle

Program arranged by the Division on Slavic and East European Literatures and the Division on European Literary Relations

Presiding: Ema Vyroubalova, Trinity Coll., Dublin

  1. “Sequential Berlin: Jason Lutes’s City of Stones Series,” Ksenia Sidorenko, Yale U.
  2. “Retelling History in the Borderlands: Jaroslav Rudiš’s Alois Nebel and Bomber by Jaromír 99,” Martha B. Kuhlman, Bryant U.
  3. “Retelling German History with the Graphic Novel,” Elizabeth Nijdam, U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor

For abstracts, visit

183. Deep Drawings: Sociopolitical Themes in Anime and Manga

Friday, 6 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Virginia Room, Sheraton Seattle

A special session

Presiding: Joshua Paul Dale, Tokyo Gakugei U.

  1. “Alternative Manga Magazines in Postwar Japanese Comics: Garo and COM,” CJ Suzuki, Baruch Coll., CUNY
  2. “Subversive Cute: The Other Serious Anime and Manga,” Kerin Ogg, Wayne State U.
  3. “Current-Affairs Comics in a Global Context: The Comic Heart of Darkness,” Marie Thorsten, Doshisha U.

Respondent: Joshua Paul Dale

316. Asian Americans and Graphic Narrative

Friday, 6 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., Room 303, Washington State Convention Center

Program arranged by the Division on Asian American Literature

Presiding: Timothy Yu, U. of Wisconsin, Madison

Speakers: Rachelle Cruz, UC Riverside; Lan Dong, U. of Illinois, Springfield; Tomo Hattori, CSU Northridge; Caroline Kyungah Hong, Queens Coll., CUNY; Hye Su Park, Ohio State U., Columbus; Gene Luen Yang, San Jose, CA

Session Description:

Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese, will be the featured speaker in this discussion of Asian American graphic narrative. Graphic novels and memoirs form an increasingly important part of the Asian American literary canon, offering new insights into issues of stereotyping, autobiography, and historical memory. GB Tran’s Vietnamerica, Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, and Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons will be among the works discussed.

409. Visual and Graphic Representations by Hispanic/Luso/Latina Female Writers and Artists

Saturday, 7 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Redwood Room, Sheraton Seattle

Program arranged by Feministas Unidas

Presiding: Magdalena M. Maiz-Peña, Davidson Coll.

  1. “Representación visual y corporal de la memoria y postmemoria en Bordado en la piel de la memoria de Mirta Kupferminc,” Daniela Goldfine, U. of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  2. “La transfiguración femenina: Del animal cínico al terrorismo gótico de la abyección. El comic serial de Cecila Pego y Caro Chinaski,” Carina González, U. of Florida
  3. “Bodies at the Crossroads: Latinas’ Latina Graphic Narratives,” Margaret Galvan, Graduate Center, CUNY
  4. “Mutation and Visibility: The Representation of a Female Body in Dominican Visual Art,” Elena Valdez, Rutgers U., New Brunswick

For abstracts, visit

486. Visual Culture

Saturday, 7 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Redwood Room, Sheraton Seattle

Program arranged by the Women’s Caucus for the Modern Languages

Presiding: Inmaculada Pertusa, Western Kentucky Univ.

  1. “From Writing to Painting: Caterina Albert and Mercè Rodoreda,” Kathleen McNerney, West Virginia U., Morgantown
  2. “Alissa Torres’s Graphic Tale of Grief: American Widow; or, My Husband Bleeds History,” Janis Breckenridge, Whitman Coll.
  3. “The Anxiety of Density in Graphic Novels: Solutions Based on Genderic Conventions and Creative Collaborations,” Maria Elsy Cardona, Saint Louis U.
  4. “Helen Zouk’s ‘Desapariciones’: Shooting Death,” David William Foster, Arizona State U.

570. Ethnographic Encounters: Jewish American and Italian American Graphic Narratives

Saturday, 7 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., Room 307, Washington State Convention Center

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Italian American Literature and the Discussion Group on Jewish American Literature

Presiding: JoAnne Ruvoli, UCLA

  1. “From Caricature to Complexity: Drawing the Relationship between Italians and Jews in America,” Jennifer Glaser, U. of Cincinnati
  2. “America Makes Strange Jews: Jewish Identity and Pulp Masculinity in Howard Chaykin’s Dominic Fortune,” Brannon Costello, Louisiana State U., Baton Rouge
  3. “Shades of Old World and New: Ethnic Engagements in Nonsuperhero Italian American Comics,” Derek Parker Royal, U. of Nebraska, Kearney

For abstracts, visit after 24 Dec. 2011.

630. Comics, Bande Dessinée, Manga: For a Comparative Approach to the Study of Comics

Sunday, 8 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Room 310, Washington State Convention Center

A special session

Presiding: Catherine Labio, U. of Colorado, Boulder

  1. “‘Aint I de Maine Guy in Dis Parade?’: Sympathetic Immigrant Narratives and the Transnational Worker in Early American Comic Strips,” Michael T. R. Demson, Sam Houston State U.
  2. “Academic Fandom and the Other-ed Side in American Comic Book Studies,” Shawna Kidman, USC
  3. “Masochistic Contracts, Bishōnen, and the Rejection of Futurity: How to Read Manga like a Victorian Woman,” Anna Maria Jones, U. of Central Florida

699. Graphic Narratives Retelling History: Serbia and Bosnia

Sunday, 8 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Virginia Room, Sheraton Seattle

Program arranged by the Division on Slavic and East European Literatures

Presiding: Rossen Djagalov, Yale U.

  1. “The Nova Dobo Festival of Nonaligned Comics in Belgrade,” Lisa Mangum, Independent Publishing Resource Center
  2. “How We Survived War, Sanctions, and NATO Bombing, and Then Laughed: Regards from Serbia by Alexandar Zograf,” Damjana Mraovic-O’Hare, Penn State U., University Park
  3. “Back into Bosnian: Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde Returns Home from War,” Jessie M. Labov, Ohio State U., Columbus

Respondent: Martha B. Kuhlman, Bryant Univ.

For abstracts, visit

734. Self-Narrating Lives: Genre-Bending Autobiographical Works

Sunday, 8 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Room 611, Washington State Convention Center

A special session

Presiding: Johanna Drucker, UCLA

Speakers: Maria Faini, UC Berkeley; Anna Gibbs, U. of Western Sydney; William Kuskin, U. of Colorado, Boulder; Vanessa Place, Les Figues Press; Christine Wertheim, California Institute of the Arts

Session Description:

This session explores the complexities of self-narration across media and formats with particular emphasis on those that blur genre lines. Autobiographical artists’ books, graphic novels are often highly self-reflexive, and their metacharacter as books about books, or subversions of norms, makes them sites of citation and parody in which formal mimicry and content play with readers’ expectations.

Wait, there’s more: Besides the above panels, search of the MLA program turns up other individual papers that may focus on comics, graphic narrative, or cartooning. These can be found within sessions on various topics not limited to comics. We list these papers here, by session and paper title, without listing all the other enticing paper topics involved in those sessions:

50. Writing Lives, Living Lives in French: Camille Delaville, Nathalie Sarraute, and Marjane Satrapi

Thursday, 5 January, 1:45-3:00 p.m., Columbia Room, Sheraton Seattle

3. “Exile and Ethics: (En)Gendering Cosmopolitan Conversation in Marjane Satrapi’s Broderies,” S. Olivia Donaldson, U. of Wisconsin, Madison

139. Peripheral Conversations: South-South Dialogues

Thursday, 5 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., Room 307, Washington State Convention Center

1. “The Revolution Will Be Cartooned! African Political Cartoonists and the North African Uprising,” Tejumola Olaniyan, U. of Wisconsin, Madison

342. Asynchronous Empire

Friday, 6 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., Room 306, Washington State Convention Center

3. “The Time of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Empire, Masculinity, and the Afterlife of Late-Victorian Adventure Fiction,” Ryan Fong, UC Davis

471. Asian/Jewish/American

Saturday, 7 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Room 304, Washington State Convention Center

3. “Graphic Transformations: Ethno-racial Identity and Discovery in Two Comics of Childhood,” Tahneer Oksman, Graduate Center, CUNY

473. Performing Identity in Late Life

Saturday, 7 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Virginia Room, Sheraton Seattle

2. “Melancholic Morphing: Aging Male Protagonists in Recent American Graphic Novels,” Adrielle Anna Mitchell, Nazareth Coll. of Rochester

(We note that our esteemed colleague, Leni Marshall of the U. of Wisconsin, Menomonie, is presiding over this session on behalf of the Discussion Group on Age Studies, with whom we collaborated last year!)

692. Human Rights Modes: Testimony

Sunday, 8 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Room 306, Washington State Convention Center

1. “Witness/Testimony: Graphic Narrative as Témoignage in the Humanitarian Work of Médecins sans Frontières,” Alexandra W. Schultheis, U. of North Carolina, Greensboro

NOTE: If you are presenting a comics-related paper or event at MLA 2012 and we have failed to list you here, please leave a comment on this blog so that we can correct the oversight. Likewise, everyone listed here, please help us keep this list accurate and up-to-date!

2012 Sessions in Brief

We, the MLA Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, are proud to announce our sessions for the 127th Annual MLA Convention, to be held 5-8 January 2012 in Seattle, Washington. See below for the lineup in brief—or click here to read the full abstracts for all sessions!

Besides the sessions we’re sponsoring, there will be several others in Seattle dedicated to comics. Comics studies activity within the MLA, to our continuing delight, keeps growing! We’ll identify these in a future post. Please bookmark this blog and check in the weeks to come, as the Seattle meeting draws nearer!

Note: Only a limited number of MLA sessions are open to the general public (see the MLA website here). That does not include the sessions below, which are open only to registered participants in the convention. For more information about the convention, including registration costs, see the homepage for MLA 2012.

Amazing Fantasy 15 (Aug. 1962), cover drawn by Jack KirbyAmazing Spider-Man 655 (April 2011), cover drawn by Marcos Martin

The Material History of Spider-Man: A 50th Anniversary Observance

Friday, 6 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., Room 606, Washington State Convention Center

Presiding: Jonathan W. Gray, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

  1. “Written in the Body: Spider-Man, Venom, and the Specter of Biopower,” Ben Bolling, U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  2. “Out of Character: Traces of the Real Spider-Man,” Samantha Close, UC Irvine
  3. “Tangled Web: Spider-Man’s Discontinuous Continuity,” Charles Hatfield, CSU Northridge

Respondent: Danny Fingeroth, New York, NY

Dog Head (Seattle Sun ad) by Lynda Barry (1979)Roberta Gregory's Naughty Bits 14 (Oct. 1994)Charles Burns' Black Hole (2005)

How Seattle Changed Comics

Saturday, 7 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Room 303, Washington State Convention Center

Presiding: TBA

  1. Ernie Pook and the Emerald City: Lynda Barry’s Seattle,” Susan E. Kirtley, UMass Lowell
  2. “Underground Aesthetics Turned Alternative Critique: Reconsidering Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits,” JoAnne Ruvoli, UCLA
  3. “Serial Trauma: Awaiting Charles Burns’s X’ed Out,” Christopher Pizzino, U of Georgia

Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen (1970)Posy Simmonds' Lulu and the Flying Babies (1988)

Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books

Session jointly arranged by the MLA Division on Children’s Literature and the MLA Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives

Saturday, 7 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., Room 303, Washington State Convention Center

Presiding: Charles Hatfield, CSU Northridge; Craig Svonkin, Metropolitan State College of Denver

  1. “Picture Book Guy Looks at Comics: Structural Differences in Two Kinds of Visual Narrative,” Perry Nodelman, U of Winnipeg
  2. “Not Genres but Modes of Graphic Narrative: Comics and Picture Books,” Philip Nel, Kansas StateU
  3. “Graphic Novels’ Assault upon the Republic of Reading,” Michael Joseph, Rutgers, New Brunswick
  4. “The Panel as Page and the Page as Panel: Uncle Shelby and the Case of the Twin ABZ Books,” Joseph Terry Thomas, Jr., San Diego State U

MLA 2012—The Material History of Spider-Man

Spider-Man in various guises

Session 371. The Material History of Spider-Man (A 50th Anniversary Observance)

Friday, 6 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m.

Room 606, Washington State Convention Center

Presiding: Jonathan W. Gray, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

1. Written in the Body: Spider-Man, Venom, and the Specter of Biopower

Ben Bolling, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Psychoanalytic readings of the Spider-Man mythos may be augmented by considering the nervous preoccupation with biopower that undergirds the Wall-crawler’s fifty-year transmedia history. Considered within the frame of Foucault’s biopolitics, Peter Parker’s famous encounter with the irradiated spider leads not to his individual empowerment, but rather to the co-opting of his body (as he dons the red, white, and blue costume) for the purpose of policing the laws of the state. But if Spider-Man is a somewhat oblique rumination on the animating properties of biopower, then the creation of his villainous counterpart Venom in 1984’s The Amazing Spider-Man #252 (May 1984) manifests the terror of biopolitical subjugation in stark black and white. Although the creation of Venom seeks to alleviate the biopolitical anxieties fundamental to the Spider-Man narrative by displacing the specter of societal control onto a villain—a symbiotic creature that becomes first Spider-Man’s costume, then his antagonist—ultimately the character serves to underscore the force of biopower in shaping the actions of Spider-Man as well as his sinister reflection.

2. Out of Character: Traces of the Real Spider-Man

Samantha Close, University of California, Irvine

How do we know Spider-Man (of Marvel Team-Up) is Spider-Man (produced by the Toei Corporation for Japanese live action television) is Spider-Man (written by adogg5117 in In my paper, I explore why creators and audiences keep coming back to Spider-Man. Through interdisciplinary textual and archival research, I analyze three very different re-appearances by the masked web-slinger and interpret them as embodiments of the trace, in Nancy’s sense—creations not of the author but of an author. I argue that these re-appearances work both to reference and contribute to a virtual cross-fictional level of cultural memory where the real, true Spider-Man “exists.” The death of the author, in other words, is the birth of the character. While some might view this idea with Baudrillardian concern, I argue that this complex phenomena is not historically novel. Looking back to textual-visual practices in medieval Europe reveals both similarities and differences that help explain the trans-fictional, cross-media Spider-Man of today.

3. Tangled Web: Spider-Man’s Discontinuous Continuity

Charles Hatfield, California State University, Northridge

The contemporary superhero comic book’s insistence on intertextual continuity—both within the adventures of a particular character and across a publisher’s entire line—engenders both narrative and ideological contradictions. This paper unpacks such contradictions as they manifest in The Amazing Spider-Man (multiple series, 1962-present), and more broadly in the whole fictive “history” of the Spider-Man character as published by Marvel Comics. Taking as a symptomatic example The Amazing Spider-Man #655 (April 2011), a dreamlike homage to the character’s past, I examine the revision of Spider-Man’s mythos starting in 2007-08, when the character’s twenty years of married life were declared never to have happened—albeit with an explanation that rationalized this change under the terms of continuity! Drawing on Eco’s analyses of serial structure (1962, 1990) as well as current work on superheroes, I argue that the life of the famously adolescent Spider-Man continually reverts to a basic blueprint meant to insure the character’s long-term commercial exploitability. Monthly iterations of the blueprint at once invoke the richness of Spider-Man’s material history and deny the opportunity for genuine novelistic growth in character. Commercial imperatives (from not only comics but also other media, e.g. film) reinforce the comics’ obsession with trauma, guilt, and penance even as the comics seek to offer an ever-renewable semblance of novelty. Ironically, then, Spider-Man’s history simultaneously cancels and reaffirms itself: the character’s traumatic losses and rites of passage are both emptied of force and overinvested with meaning.

Respondent: Danny Fingeroth, New York, NY