Of Thought and Bubbles: the Leeds Comics Forum and the Practice of Comics Scholarship
I just came back from Leeds, where I attended the Comics Forum, an academic conference on comics attached to the Thought Bubble Balloon comics festival. It was an absolutely inspiring experience. I came back to London full of new ideas and looking forward to what comes next for comics scholarship in the UK and abroad.
The Comics Forum was comprised of two parts, day 1 was the second edition of the Women in Comics conference, chaired by Sarah Lightman (Glasgow University). Day 2 was chaired by Ian Hague (University of Chichester), and was titled "Theory and Practice". Both days were integral parts of a whole, some presenters participating the two days with different approaches and topics, and delegates attending both days too.
I was delighted to see so many familiar faces, to reencounter old friends and to make new ones; basically a big section of the 'Who's Who' of UK comics scholarship was there (check the programme!). Members of the editorial boards of the two main British academic comics journals, The Journal of Comics and Graphic Novels (Routledge) and Studies in Comics (Intellect) were also at the conference, either presenting, chairing or attending as delegates. Graduate students, practitioners, editors and professors presented, discussed, and networked in a friendly, respectful and engaging way.
The venue was the Leeds Art Gallery, and it was really lucky to have such environment for a comics event. The Forum had two rooms for the sessions and one room for coffee/lunch, and though there were the necessary parallel sessions (forcing everyone to miss half the conference in a way) there was none of that sense of dissipation that one has in big conferences where there are big distances between the rooms. This contributed to the sense of unity and conceptual integration between different panels and subject matters.
I made it a point to live tweet the panels I attended, often using the hashtag for the Thought Bubble festival, #TB10. I knew that most of the tweets tagged with it were devoted to what one could describe as "fandom", and my intention was to use the hashtag as a way of intervening the 'fan', 'creator' and 'publisher' online discourse with my tweets from the academic side of the event.
I know for a fact there are still many inside and outside academia who think tweeting does not really 'do' anything, at least anything positive, but the several kind replies and retweets to what I posted from people all over the world confirmed that my humble microblogging did have a a positive effect, resounding in others that were not able to attend the conference or those that perhaps had not been (until now) interested in comics. I did not want to disrupt the sessions with my keyboard tapping, and sometimes it was tricky to type as fast as possible whilst trying not to make too much noise and lose the thread of the presentations.
My favourite presentations of day one discussed Marjane Satrapi and the questioning of Western feminist discourse in Persepolis (Esther Claudio, Universidad Complutense), Alison Bechdel and the representation of family photographs in Fun Home (Sam McBean, Birkbeck College), Halo Jones and Alan Moore's 1980s critique of the 'tits and ass consciousness' (Maggie Gray, University College London), the influence of William Blake on Alan Moore's Promethea (Matt Green, University of Nottingham), the pioneering female character Tootsie Sloper (Roger Sabin, Central St Martin's) and the readership and fan culture around the Katy Keene comics series in the 1945-1961 period (Teal Triggs, University of the Arts).
I also enjoyed very much listening to comic book artists and publishers Suzy Varty and Maureen Burdock talk about their own work, defined by their commendable use of comic art to educate, create awareness about various social issues and empower individuals.
My own presentation was about my relationship to Jessica Abel's La Perdida, discussing how comics scholarship can blur the borders between 'objective' analysis and autobiography, and addressing the role that translation in and of the book plays in the problematics of national identity and international relations between Mexico and the US. (You can see my slides here.).
Of Day 2, my favourite presentations were by Chris Murray (University of Glasgow) on Grant Morrison and the postmodern authorial function and theory, Tony Venezia (Birkbeck College) on Jonathan Lethem and the comic book multirefentiality in his prose fiction work, Matt Green again on the postmodern techniques employed by Moore and O'Neill in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Ralf Kauranen (Abo Akademi University, Finland) on the discourse, challenges and paradoxes of the World Comics Network, Mel Gibson (Northumbria University), on years of interviews she conducted with librarians in the UK about comics and their prejudices against comic book reading, Roberto Bartual (Universidad Autnoma de Madrid) on the origins of comics and sequential representation of time, and finally Zara Dinnen (Birkbeck College) on the physical and digital materialities of McSweeney's.
The two-day conference finalised with a plenary session that discussed the past, present and future paths of comics scholarship and comics conferences, guided by the terms "theory" and "practice." The urgent need for the participation of comics scholars in the development and critique of comics archives was also agreed, and the distinction between theory and practice was debated, as well as the role of academic discourse and the relationship between comics scholarship and comics practice, which often intersect in fact.
In my opinion communication between comics scholars, publishers and practitioners should be maintained and encouraged, but it is also important that the [multi]discipline of comics scholarship is kept as specialised and scholarly serious as possible. This commitment to intellectual rigour is not opposed to the need to reach new audiences and communicate with non-academic audiences; I believe the discourse of comics scholarship can be both rigorous and accessible. Scholarly thought does not necessarily have to be trapped in a bubble of privilege and exclusion, but it certainly needs to remain true to its intellectual heritage and responsibility with the future by advancing the study of comics within the humanities beyond the limited realms of 'fandom' or mere 'geekery'.
Every aspect of the organisation of this conference was perfect, and it is obvious that a lot of work went into it. The conference received the generous sponsorship of different individuals, universities and organisations, and it is to the credit of Hague, Lightman and everyone in the committee the real success of the event. Future conferences and publications were planned and agreed, and in these times of uncertainty for the humanities the Leeds Comics Forum was a bright example that working together almost all obstacles can be overcome.