Monday, April 18, 2016

On ICAF

When I started grad school six years ago, I was resistant. I did not like reading bad writing. I didn’t like the tolerance for bad writing, nor people who valued the spoken word, which is to say their own goddamn voice, over the written word. I had come in with Fulbright research, most of which amounted to hours of taped interviews with filmmakers, some of whom had by then passed. I met people who had read their theory on the death of the author a little too literally, and didn’t understand why those hours of taped material would be at all significant. I knew people who willingly cut themselves off from any emotional connection to the objects of their study, and I hated the excuse for that lack of emotional connection: “It’s a product of CAPITALISM!”  

But there was a lot to discover during my first year. I learned that there were great writers in my field, like Tom Gunning, James Naremore, and Rick Altman, and that there were grad students who were much better writers than me. I learned there was an enormous tradition considering the theoretical and practical conceptions of authorship. Still, most of my initial concerns from six years ago linger. 

The International Comic Arts Forum is now 20 years old, but Comics Studies still feels new. Most of the field’s best-known scholars are in their 40s or 50s. We still argue sometimes as to whether or not our field has any legitimacy, or at least enough legitimacy for a Ph.D. armed with a dissertation steeped in comics studies to get a job. It seems to be a settled question that the study of comics is a worthwhile endeavor, that an English professor is welcome to slap Watchmen on his syllabus. It’s not clear to the wider world why Comics Studies is so important. It’s not obvious that even though comics scholars can apply the tools of literary theory, art history, and film and media studies to the study of comics, they also need to develop a separate tradition.

I just got back from the most recent ICAF, which was held in Columbia, South Carolina, and I wonder if, thanks to its new-ness, the field is avoiding the problems of older humanities disciplines. (I should note that my focus is on Animation Studies, but that the study of Yugoslav comics does form part of my dissertation.)   

I heard extraordinary papers. Of them all, my favorite came from the recipient of an award for grad student research.  He is working on a dissertation on Japanese comics from the 1920s and 30s. His archival research was explosive, as much as any research in our field can be. He’s rewriting our ingrained, exotic notions of Japanese comics, which his presentations showed, initially adopted the stylizations and content of Western comics. His research is reworking our ideas of how comics can be read on a page, of the varieties of comic-book-making, and of the concept of the ur-text.

The conference invited major comics artists to participate, among them Howard Cruse, the author of my favorite gay comics story of all time, “Billy Goes Out” (1980), and Keith Knight, a comics laureate of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cruse gave a cathartic talk about his career and his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby. He said the comic is created in the reader’s mind, a truth that so many in the room loved and agreed with. He also said something which struck me as the kind of thing academics so caught up in arguments over minutiae that have few real-world consequences need to hear. I can only paraphrase, but I think it went, “Everyone in the gay world was fighting over who was an essentialist and who wasn’t. I think that was all so silly. I was just gay.”  


The scholars treated their objects of study with critical rigor, but through their criticism, you could hear the note of their affective responses. We may still want to set ourselves apart from fanboy/fangirl cultures – which we respect – but we have not yet erased our inner fanboys/fangirls.   

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