MLA 2014—Collaboration in Comics (with full abstracts)

The third of our three academic panels at MLA 2014, to be held in Chicago next week, Jan. 9-12!

Trubble Club presents The Infinite Corpse

Session 768. Collaboration in Comics

Sunday, 12 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m.

Colorado, Sheraton Chicago

Presiding: Charles Hatfield, California State Univ., Northridge

Although 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 work on comics favors the concept of cartooning as a singular personal handwriting, i.e. an autographic trace, ignoring the historical importance and artistic potential of multi-authored comics. This panel seeks to illuminate this blind spot in comics studies by bringing together diverse critical perspectives—rhetorical, literary, aesthetic, and ideological—on the processes and consequences of collaboration.

1. “Multimodal Composition and the Rhetoric of Comics: A Study of Comics Teams in Collaboration”

Molly Scanlon, Virginia Polytechnic Inst. and State Univ.

Though scholars of writing have long touted the rhetorical potentials of multimodal composition, few outlets have analyzed the collaborative processes behind such texts. Comics, as multimodal texts often composed in collaborative settings, are rich sites for the study of writing processes. This paper, drawn from qualitative case studies, discusses the work of three comics teams, with focus on the collaborative strategies that facilitated each text’s successful production. These case studies entailed interviewing each writer and artist, examining documentation of their collaboration, and considering the final texts. The results reveal the collaborative nature of comics composition and highlight the authors’ identities, motivations, artistic tools, and knowledge of generic norms. In addition, they offer findings relevant to writing pedagogy, technical communication, and alternative comix. While case study methodologically does not allow for generalization, together these studies stand as a reminder of how widely varied and richly rhetorical comics collaborations can be. Studies of comics authors and their composing processes suggest new avenues of research for scholars of collaborative writing, writing processes, identity theory, multimodal composition, cultural studies, and critical race theory.

2. “‘A Story Lived, Photographed[,] Told[,] Written and Drawn’: The Dance of Pen and Camera in Guibert and Lefèvre’s The Photographer

Birte Wege, Freie Univ.

Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer (2003-2006, English trans. 2009), which tells the true story of French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre’s 1986 trip to Afghanistan, demonstrates a successful yet complicated collaboration between not just two artists, but two forms of images: comics and photographs. The book brings together Lefèvre’s recounted memories and the pictures he took; a first-hand account and the artist Guibert’s imagining of it; journalism and an adventure story; hand-drawn images, photographs, and text. The extensive use of photographs, not just as occasional emphasis for certain themes or sub-sections, but as a separate narrative element in their own right, makes this graphic narrative a key case study for examining both the collaboration between artists and the expanded possibilities for comics to combine different kinds of images. This paper examines how the book’s juxtaposition of photographs and graphic images complicates notional boundaries between image(s) and text, fiction and nonfiction, as well as the concept of authenticity in artists’ collaborative translations of physical environments into aesthetic spaces.

3. “The Problem of Collaborative Authorship in the Comics Jam”

Isaac Cates, Univ. of Vermont

For several decades, cartoonists have conducted and occasionally published “jam” comics, as social entertainment and as experiments in collaborative authorship. The usual practice of a jam is that multiple cartoonists pass an accumulating narrative from one person to the next without discussion of its trajectory, so that each new contributor can reframe, rebuke, tweak, or continue the ongoing story. Other constraints have been placed on some jams, such as the Spiegelman and Sikoryak-edited Narrative Corpse (1995) and its current online sequel-in-spirit, Infinite Corpse, curated by Aaron Renier and the Chicago artist collective Trubble Club, but the principle remains the same: a text without a single author, and indeed without unified authorial intention. As such, jam comics present a compelling proving ground for Barthesian claims about the separation of the author from the text, or Foucauldian ideas about the social construction of an author-function in the absence of an actual author. Readers’ frequent frustration with jam comics must come partly from thwarted reading expectations, as they seek unified authorial design and find instead practices of self-mockery, self-misunderstanding, and self-negation. Arguably, though, the reader’s problem is not merely a desire for an absent author, since we come to a jam knowing that it is the product of disparate hands; rather, jam comics often fail because the reader desires or can imagine a better turn, a more interesting authorial intervention, than the one the (current) author has taken. This active readerly process of authorial construction (and author-projection) should shed an unsettling light on our way of thinking about authorship more generally, especially collaborative authorship: if the “author” of a comic is negotiated in the process of reading, then mustn’t From Hell, for example, really have a different author from Watchmen or Lost Girls?

4. “Collaboration as Consciousness Raising: The Bodies of Feminism in Wimmen’s Comix”

Margaret Galvan, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

In fixating on a single hand that holds the pen, comics studies directs its focus inward towards the page, privileging formalist aesthetics. However, by considering multiple creators alongside each other, we can not only open up the page to multiple bodies, but also move past the page. Through an examination of the Wimmen’s Comix underground comics collective, this paper explores how a methodology of collaboration invites a more socially engaged analysis that connects comics to other discourses.

Although comics studies has thrived in recent years, none of the women primarily engaged in the Wimmen’s Comix collective have yet been deemed worthy of extensive individual study. After all, many of these women produced mainly in never-collected short formats. Thus, when underground comics are mentioned, the varied and vibrant feminisms of nearly 100 artists over Wimmen’s Comix‘s two-decade run are often undercut by alluding only to the group╒s most prolific creator and advocate, Trina Robbins. Moreover, in its collective structure, rotating editorship, political bent, and publishing duration (1972-1992), Wimmen’s Comix much more closely approximates various feminist journals than the predominantly male underground comics that overshadow it. How is collaboration a feminist act, and how does such politics shape what we see on the comics page?

Wimmen'x Comix No. 3 (1973), cover by Lee Marrs

For an overview of all MLA 2014 sessions organized by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, see here. For a full listing of other comics-related sessions at MLA 2014, see here.

MLA 2014—Comics and Fine Arts (with full abstracts)

The second of our three academic panels at MLA 2014, to be held in Chicago next week, Jan. 9-12!

Cartoon commentary on the Armory Show, c. 1913

Session 595. Comics and Fine Arts

Saturday, 11 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m.

Lincolnshire, Chicago Marriott

Presiding: Hillary L. Chute, Univ. of Chicago

Comics and the “fine arts” have a long history of both connection and divergence. In our current moment, comics are entering the space of the museum. For example, these past two years have brought significant shows by Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Daniel Clowes. At the same time, the often-tense relationship between comics and canonical art has drawn increased critical attention—as seen for instance in Bart Beaty’s monograph Comics versus Art (2012). This panel will address questions such as, How have comics communities and fine arts communities been separated, and are these separations productive? Are they now becoming less distinct? Where is the overlap? Where can we trace the mutual influence of comics and fine arts? What works might not fit comfortably into either of these categories?

1. “Art Worlds, War Worlds, Girl Worlds: Henry Darger, Henry James”

Michael D. Moon, Emory Univ.

This paper explores the passionate and productive engagement with popular graphic-narrative art that Anglo-American novelist Henry James (1843-1916) and Chicago artist Henry Darger (1892-1973) had in common. Besides the fiction for which he is remembered, James wrote some of the finest early criticism we have of what was at the time the emergent art of cartoon humor and literary illustration in the first mass-circulation magazines. Besides newspaper comic strips and reproductions of “fine art” paintings, Darger frequently drew on the cartoons and illustrations in the glossy magazines of his time for the drawings and paintings he produced so abundantly in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to their engagement with graphic texts, James and Darger also shared a fascination with the impact of war, specifically the Civil War and World War I, on their respective worlds, and both responded to the crises of war and militarism (unprecedented mass violence, survivor grief and guilt, displacement of children) with complex fictional narratives in which girls and young women are recurrently figured as primary objects of identification and projection as well as of intermittent abjection. Do these shared involvements in graphic narrative, the effects of war, and the practice of male identification with girls intersect with each other in more than accidental or arbitrary ways? The example of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), who exhibited similar commitments—an intense engagement with graphic and visual production in her writing, an enduring concern with the long-term effects of war and with the practice of identification across gender and generation—suggests how the common features of James’s and Darger’s work and careers follow a certain political, historical, and aesthetic logic.

2. “Cartoonists Greet the Future: The Antiart of Comics, Modernism, and the Armory Show”

Peter Sattler, Lakeland Coll.

Exactly 100 years ago, the Chicago Tribune sent its stable of cartoonists, including John McCutcheon, Clare Briggs, Sidney Smith, and Frank King, to have a meeting with Modernism. They were invited to preview and offer their visual reaction to the International Exposition of Modern Art, Chicago’s hosting of the already infamous “Armory Show.” While the Tribune may have expected an offering of cartooning ridicule and incomprehension, what they received, this paper will argue, were mainly expressions of recognition and common purpose. Even as most culture critics were attacking the depravity of the “futurists,” Frank King and company found a showing of shared practices and principles—including an avowed hostility to accepted artistic practices at all and to principles themselves.

To this day, comics have been presented as Modernism’s antagonist (see Beaty’s Comics versus Art). This paper will explore the prehistory of that antagonism, looking at some of the earliest intersections between modern art (cubism, futurism, and that all that the papers called “postimpressionism”) and American newspaper comics. It will document these intersections through early cartoonists’ reactions to Modernism (as in the Armory story, but many others as well); moments when modernist works themselves (Dove, Kandinsky, Marinetti) were reimagined for the comics page; and examples of how modern art and comic art were victims of the same styles of cultural critique.

More broadly, this presentation will show how the modernists of 1913 and the cartoonists who preceded them possessed a strikingly shared vision—one of abstraction and fragmentation—as well as common commitments (at least from the cartoonists’ perspective) to a specifically urban democratic anarchy. At the start of the 20th century, cartoonists looked at modernists not as frauds or freaks, but as fellow travelers, albeit of a somewhat belated variety. They greeted the future before its ascendency and said, “Been there. Done that. So what?”

3. “Not Made to Be Looked at with ‘Aesthetic’ Eyes”: Boxed Works by Chris Ware and Marcel Duchamp”

Jonathan R. Bass, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Reviews and promotional images of Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012), his multi-piece graphic novel in a box, relate Ware’s work to Marcel Duchamp’s retrospective of his oeuvre in miniature, Box in a Valise (1935–41). Ware’s work also invites comparison with another important Duchamp work, the Green Box of 1934, purportedly an exact reproduction of working notes for his masterpiece, the Large Glass (1912–23), and drafts for the experimental text that he planned to accompany it. Like Building Stories, but unlike the Box in a Valise, the Green Box consists of assorted printed material, presenting a narrative in words and pictures, but with gaps and in no fixed order. The reader is left to construct, or at least to organize, what happens from the pieces.

Ware’s work in general and Building Stories in particular imports into the comics world an art-world problem that preoccupied Duchamp and to which the Green Box represents perhaps his best response. For Duchamp, visual art since the mid-nineteenth century has moved towards achieving an increasingly “retinal” experience of the work as pure “aesthetico-plastic” form. In this tendency, he sees a virtual disappearance of the work’s complexity in favor of a limited aesthetic effect. The challenge for his own art is to make formally ambitious work that would resist both its own tendency toward pure visuality and the beholder’s tendency to see no more than that.

Ware often claims that comics, despite their visual interest, are a kind of literature for reading (a “writing with pictures”) and not for looking at as one looks at visual art. Yet Ware’s work is distinguished by its visual fascination and formal beauty, often in a way that invites beholders to ignore its fluency as graphic literature. Drawing on Duchamp, my paper will consider this tension between graphic legibility and “aesthetico-plastic” beauty in Ware’s comics work.

Box in a Valise (Boîte-en-Valise) from or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy, c. 1943 (from  Chris Ware's Building Stories, 2012, unpacked (photo from amazon)

For an overview of all MLA 2014 sessions organized by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, see here. For a full listing of other comics-related sessions at MLA 2014, see here.

MLA 2014—Transnational Comics (with full abstracts)

The first of our three academic panels at MLA 2014, to be held in Chicago next week, Jan. 9-12!

Regards from Serbia, by Aleksandar Zograf (2007)

Session 388. Transnational Comics

Friday, 10 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m.

Chicago X, Sheraton Chicago

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives and the Division on Literature and Other Arts

Presiding: Anke K. Finger, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs; Nhora Lucia Serrano, California State Univ., Long Beach

Spurred by the growth of the Internet and wordless communication, transnationalism has come to mean a new way of thinking about the relationships and interconnectivity among cultures, languages, arts, and peoples on the international stage. Comics and graphic narratives have long been a visual and textual testament to this global interaction. Indeed, in these complex and vulnerable times, as globalization refigures what we mean by “worldwide” and cultural forms cross-pollinate across national boundary lines, the prospect of a truly transnational comics studies is more urgent than ever.

1. “Traveling Comics; or, What Happened When Winsor McCay’s Innocents Went Abroad?”

Mark McKinney, Miami Univ., Oxford

The rediscovery of Winsor McCay’s comics in France was part of a critical reevaluation and elevation of the art form that began in the 1960s: in Paris, Pierre Horay published first a collection of “Little Nemo” pages (1969), then Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend as Cauchemars de l’amateur de fondue au chester (1976), and also various drawings and strips, including “Little Sammy Sneeze,” as Rêves éveillés (1978). McCay’s art was read in France by cartoonists and by comics scholars, including Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle and Benoît Peeters. Today McCay remains a key figure in French comics and comics scholarship, as indicated by the publication of a fictional series partly based on McCay’s life and scripted by Thierry Smolderen, and by the title of his scholarly study, Naissances de la bande dessinée: De William Hogarth à Winsor McCay (2009).

This paper focuses on the transmission of a key element of McCay’s work into French comics: the principle of reversibility between dream and reality. Paradoxically this borrowing facilitated what Bruno Lecigne and Jean-Pierre Tamine (1983) describe as a move to a new realism in French comics in the 1970s, which included a focus on racism, social injustice and post-colonial immigrant minorities. Some French cartoonists have incorporated this principle as a narrative pivot for imagining sudden reversals, not just between dream and wakefulness, but also of social and personal destiny, and between life and death. The French comics analyzed in this paper suggest a degree of self-reflexivity regarding comics transmission and adaptation as a loss of innocence, when comics leave behind a world of childhood fantasy to enter an adult world where hopes, dreams and bodies paradoxically become far more vulnerable.

2. “Graphic Memories of Revolution: Women on the Verge in Iran and Lebanon”

Julia Watson, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

In the decade since its appearance, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis has stood as the transnational narrative of encounters between Middle Eastern women and nations and the West. While it is a remarkable account of the Iranian 1979 revolution and its aftermath, its preeminence obscures the fact that not all narratives by women from Middle Eastern countries that underwent revolutions in the Seventies to early Eighties engaged in a similar template of self-representation or found as welcoming a home in Western Europe after political upheaval. This paper will examine two lesser-known graphic memoirs in which women from Middle Eastern countries tell stories of coming of age and migration to European nations.

Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road, first published in German by a small press in Zürich in 2004 and translated into English in 2007, has received little scholarly attention. Yet it engagingly represents the efforts of a young woman who experienced the Iranian revolution and opted to stay in Tehran with her family beyond it, to negotiate her status as an adult immigrant to Zürich who is no longer Iranian but also not Schweizer-German. The narrative’s use of encounters with her past avatars at different ages makes the dialogical process of memory visible, and suggests how discussion of the narrating-narrated I relationship in visual-verbal media such as autographics might be reframed in a transnational context. Bashi’s remembering of the Revolution calls attention to different nuances than Satrapi’s and confesses to breaks in memory that may trouble readers of the autobiographical, even as they note the textured complexity of her story.

Bye-Bye Babylon, a graphic memoir by Paris-based painter Lamia Ziadé of growing up in 1970s Beirut, uses separate text and drawings to depict how childhood was interrupted by civil war and the challenge of transmitting memories of it from a Western elsewhere. In her experience as a child of the revolution of 1975-79 she registers the shock of the unanticipated and tracks the objects that adhere to memory.

These books not only mark similar moments of revolution but also narrate across the distance of other languages and representational practices, articulating different parameters of and issues in transnational graphic memoir of the Middle East.

3. “Transnational Regards from Serbia

Ioana Luca, National Taiwan Normal Univ.

Bringing together graphic narrative, Eastern European and American Studies, this paper discusses the multilayered processes of producing, circulating, and reading Aleksandar Zograf’s Regards from Serbia: A Cartoonist’s Diary of a Crisis in Serbia (2007). The book compiles comics originally published in English in the US and the UK, as well as emails and a graphic war diary. Drawing on Zograf’s war comics and serial email correspondence to fellow cartoonists around the world, this paper will address the following questions:

  • What transnational circuits of images and narratives does the graphic war memoir participate in?
  • How does this eclectic form engender the historical moments it attempts to describe (and translate) to an international audience?
  • How does this transnational graphic narrative contribute to or depart from the well-known media depictions of the region as the “powder keg” of Europe? How is it imbricated in the international political context of the moment?

To answer these questions, the paper will analyze Regards from Serbia against the background of the now canonical Safe Area Goražde (2002) and The Fixer (2003) by Joe Sacco as well as several less familiar comics about the Yugoslav wars: Bosnian Flat Dog (2006) by the Swedish cartoonists Max Andersson and Lars Sjunnesson, Fax from Sarajevo (1998) by Joe Kubert, and Notes for a War Story (2007) by the Italian artist Gipi. In this context, Zograf’s eclectic graphic narrative appears as, on the one hand, an agent in the transnational circuit of images and narratives about the Yugoslav wars, and, on the other, a mirror of the complex encounters between the former Yugoslav space, Europe, and the US during and in the aftermath of the conflict.

4. “Conceiving the Cosmopolitan Muslim Superhero in The 99

Stefan Meier, Chemnitz Univ. of Tech.

In publishing The 99, the Teshkeel Media Group and their founder Naif Al-Mutawa have broken new ground on which the superhero genre, firmly attached to the values and norms of a Western cultural realm, had never before gained a foothold. This paper will follow the traces of an evolving new cosmopolitan type of superhero as conceived in The 99. At first sight, the series and its main protagonists almost perfectly exemplify the superhero genre: a group of (teenage) heroes, provided with abilities that distinguish them from the rest of humanity, fight in a collective effort against evil of various kinds. Remarkably, though, this new breed of superheroes derives its extraordinary powers from Islamic mythological roots. Although their nationalities, social and ethnic backgrounds, and personal motivations are as diverse as possible, they are joined together by the salutary powers of a moderate and cosmopolitan Islam. This paper examines The 99 as an evolving media franchise that exemplifies how a genre originating in American popular culture is in fact embedded in “a world system … in which the exchange of commodities, the flow of capital, and the iterations of cultures know no borders” (Paul Lauter, qtd. in Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies,” American Quarterly 57.1 [2005]: 21). Furthermore the paper will argue that, by promoting the idea of a post-national society rather than openly propagating a battle for “the Islamic way,” the series emblematizes an essentially humanist and universalistic Islam, emphasizing ethnic and gender diversity in view of a globalized world of shifting boundaries and identities.

The 99, as featured on an "Iconic Rickshaw" during the 2012 Olympics

For an overview of all MLA 2014 sessions organized by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, see here. For a full listing of other comics-related sessions at MLA 2014, see here.

MLA 2014—The Graphic Nineteenth Century

The MLA Annual Convention for 2014 takes place in Chicago next week, from Jan. 9th to 12th! We of the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives are pleased to help promote, in addition to our own programming, the following session organized and put on by our colleagues in the Division on Nineteenth-Century American Literature:

773. The Graphic Nineteenth Century

Sunday, 12 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m.

Michigan–Michigan State, Chicago Marriott

Presiding: Augusta Rohrbach, Washington State Univ., Pullman

“The Graphic 19th Century” reframes the print explosion of the era as a revolution in graphic narratives, treating the relationship between word and image as a distinct innovation of the period marked by The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck (1842), the first graphic novel published in the United States, and graphic work popularized in periodicals from Harper’s Weekly to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. This panel revises critical commonplaces that link the explosion of print media with the impact of the photographic image; rather, panelists will interrogate the dialogic relationship between word and image, finding a myriad of results beyond what Isabelle Lehuu (2000) aptly called “the carnival on the page.” Papers in this session seek to redefine the field through a coordinated focus on the interaction of form and formats. Each paper focuses on a different generic form out of which both word and image emerge. Together the papers demonstrate combinations of word and image beyond the range of possibilities typically taken up in earlier studies of the period; in addition,they offer new considerations of 19th-century print culture as extending across race, gender and age, and ability.

1. “A Slave Is Being Beaten: Word, Image, and the Subject of The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb

Laura Ruth Saltz, Colby Coll.

This paper focuses on the prefabricated woodcuts featured in the nonfiction narrative The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (1849), exploring the tension between the text’s first-person narrative—known within the tradition of the slave narrative for its radical expression of agency—and Bibb’s use of printers’ woodcuts instead of original illustrations. Here unoriginal images are used for a very original purpose, conveying complex and multivalent modes of agency.

2. “Geography and Tactile Graphics for the Blind”

David Weimer, Harvard Univ.

This paper further explores multivalent modes of word and image by considering atlases of the 1830s and ’40s developed for the blind. It compares two atlases from the early nineteenth-century US—one for the blind, Samuel Gridley Howe’s Atlas of the Principal Islands of the Globe (1838), and one for the sighted, Howe’s Atlas of the United States (1837)—as against Jedidiah Morse’s widely used Atlas to Morse’s New School Geography (1822). Using these graphics for the blind, the paper seeks to defamiliarize the relationship between word and image, and thus better analyze how words and graphics combine (or may not) in maps and other printed media. These graphics for the blind provide a peripheral but illuminating example of how nineteenth-century writers thought about the power of images and their wordy supplements.

3. “‘The Girl Who Inked Herself’: The Graphic Design of Female Literacy in Picture-Book Form”

Elizabeth Pope, American Antiquarian Society

This last paper turns to children’s literature, arguing that a picture book’s graphic narrative may not complement a written text but rather compete with its message. In the picture book The Girl Who Inked Herself and Her Books, and How It Ended (c. 1859), the illustrations dominate the first page, swallowing up the text. Having the whole story laid out visually on the first page means that “How it Ended” is prefigured from the start. The reader is forced to catch up with the text of the story on the next page in order to learn an ending that the viewer already knows. This paper shows how the format of picture books signals that visual lessons are just as important as the text, if not more so.

For an overview of all MLA 2014 sessions organized by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, see here. For a full listing of other comics-related sessions at MLA 2014, see here.