The Third International Conference on Comics Conference: Comics Rock took place over Thursday 28 June and Friday 29 June 2012 at Bournemouth University, United Kingdom. Julia Round (Bournemouth) was the main organiser. Previous versions were held at Manchester Metropolitan University. Each day of the conference covered a different theme: Comics and Education for 28 June and Comics and Multimodal Adaptation for 29 June. Text and photos by Peter Wilkins, with notes by Damon Herd. A report of the second day of the conference, “Comics and Multimodal Adaptation”, is here.
What follows is a synopsis of the panels and events that I attended on the first day plus some added notes by Damon Herd (Dundee) who kindly offered notes on panels that he attended but I did not. My intent is to present content rather than critique, in order to give people who were unable to attend a sense of what the papers were about. If you attended the conference and/or presented one of the papers I discuss but have a different view than I present here, feel free to leave a comment.
Comics in College
This was my session. I presented alongside Paul Davies (Sussex) and Charles Stephens (Texas A&M). In “Comics Creation as Enrichment in an FE/Sixth Form College,” Paul talked about the usefulness of having students produce comics as part of their activity days, days for pursuing activities that are not conventionally academic.
Paul used Scott McCloud’s ”24 Hour Comics Challenge” to engage the students. While some students had trouble getting started and getting finished, the project was highly successful and produced several anthologies. Alas the project has finished.
In “Social (and Metaphysical) Justice: Hellblazer in the College Composition Classroom” Charles talked about the efficacy of using comics to allow students to talk about social justice issues as concrete representations and not just ideological positions. Furthermore, Hellblazer provided a useful bridge for ideological positions between Charles and some of his “conservative” students.
In addition to reading and discussing Hellblazer, students had to produce a script for a six-panel comic that presented their position on a social justice issue. The constraint of the comic format produced more interesting work than conventional essays because it engaged the students as creative, reflective producers, quite the contrast to the uninvested work of the typical first-year composition class.
Charles did a great job, considering his own constraint: he had lost his flash drive during a bag inspection at the Dallas airport.
I won’t say much about my own paper, as I will discuss that elsewhere, but the topic was the relationship between comics and document use literacy: how we might use comics to teach people to negotiate the complex network of signs, tables, charts, and instructions that define our perceptual world. To put it briefly, such teaching would involve resisting discussing comics as if they were prose and engaging with their visual array instead.
Comics as Inspirational Teaching Tools (Notes from Damon Herd)
Nicola Streeten and Lisa El Refaie began their presentation, “Comics as a Tool for Transformative Meaning Making,” with a mime performance, each wearing a mask. The point was to show how the audience projected their own meaning onto the performance and create their own story.
Nicola and Lisa quoted White and Epston’s Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends (WW Norton, 1990): “All stories have the potential to be transformative because they are full of gaps” and claimed that comics make the gaps more explicit and concrete. They compared Streeten’s Billy, Me & You with Willy Linthout’s Years of the Elephant to discuss dealing with bereavement without god or religion. Traumatic events, they asserted, invoke a search for a meta-narrative.
In “The Iconography of Illness: Comics and Medical Education,” Ian Williams discussed visualising disease as the ‘other’ and how medical practitioners have been using comics to present and discuss illness with patients. I was disappointed that my session conflicted with Ian Williams’ talk. I’ve read quite a bit about his project and was keen to hear him in person.
Kym Tabulo, in “Developing Aesthetic Skills and Self-esteem: Using Conventional and Abstract Comics in Art,” discussed the use of abstract comics in classroom and the difference between them and abstract polyptychs in fine art. She talked about how her students created their own abstract comics, influenced by Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics: The Anthology (2009). Damon continued the discussion with Kym over lunch as she presented a quiz she does with students in which they have to guess which slides are comics and which are fine art. Interestingly she said there was a right answer.
Comics as Resources for Research and Life
Ian Hague (Chichester) detailed his ambitious plans for expanding Comics Forum, his organization that runs an academic conference alongside Thought Bubble, an annual comics festival in Leeds. Ian outlined the resources that the Forum already had, such as the website, the scholar’s directory, and the blog, and plans for future, the most exciting of which was perhaps the creation of a professional scholarly body for comics scholars.
Heather Wilson (Glyndwr) presented a conference highlight in “Why Girls Need Comics and Comics Need Girls.” Heather was not used to speaking before a large audience and had to pause at moments, but her material made everyone sit up and take notice. She demonstrated the typical array of magazines available for girls in the UK and the banality of the narratives they provide as models. Heather and her colleagues have been able to produce a tonic to such magazines with Clockwork Express, which presents more intellectual stories that don’t conform to the gender-code straight jacket.
Heather also talked about “She Inspired” a project that involved classroom visits to schools in which both girls and boys created comics about notable women in history. The boys were just as into the project as girls and showed no hesitation at getting involved with the subject matter. At the conclusion of her talk, there was a rush to purchase copies of Clockwork Express. I was in that rush because I have a 9 year old daughter who fits into the category Heather described as “the middle-aged kid”: girls between 8 and 13.
Roundtable: The Place of Comics on English Degrees
Paul Williams (Exeter), Chris Murray (Dundee), Matt Green (Nottingham) and Dean Chan (Wollongong) talked generally about what comics were being taught in degree programs and how they related to other literature. For example, in one introduction to the novel course at Exeter, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is taught as “the future of the novel.” This struck me as odd because Fun Home is a memoir rather than a novel but still….
Chris Murray talked about setting up his degree program at Dundee as well as an available module in the undergraduate English program on “Contemporary British Writers of Comics and Graphic Novels.” The most striking thing for me about this panel was that Dean Chan referred to the popularity of teaching Ann Marie Fleming‘s The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (2007) in Asian-American literature courses in Australia. Ann Marie and I were in the English program at British Columbia together, and it was uncanny to have travelled to Bournemouth from Canada to hear someone from Australia talk about the work of someone I used to know!
Di Laycock’s (Sydney) paper, “Teacher Tales from the Graphic Novel Classroom” stood out the most for me among this group because her phenomenological case study of how Australian teachers were using and responding to graphic novels struck me as timely. We usually rely on anecdotal evidence for what works in the classroom without ever putting the information together in a comprehensive fashion. When Laycock reported that teachers had a highly positive experience with graphic novels in terms of their own pedagogy and student outcomes, it meant something because it was based on a wide-ranging study.
Shari Sabeti (Stirling) and Mel Gibson‘s (Northumbria) papers (“Comic Book Adaptations of Hamlet for the Education Environment” and “Macbeth: Adaptation, Teaching, and Fidelity” respectively) on adapting Shakespeare bridged the two themes of this year’s conference, and could easily have fit into the next day’s “Multimodal Adaptation” sessions, particularly Sabeti’s, as she talked about how a contemporary student’s relationship to Shakespeare was transmedial and multimodal: students read the play, watch the film adaptations, and look at images of the Globe Theatre. Sabeti had some interesting things to say about how comics artists used visual means to represent Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech.
Gibson’s talk focused on adaptations of Macbeth and how they tended to replicate a “historical” image of the play and did not attempt science fiction versions and the like. She argued that the banal imagery of comic book adaptations tended to counter the horrors of the play. These discussions of the adaptations of Shakespeare led me to think that such adaptations tend to be a millstone for the serious consideration of comics because they promote the idea that the comics are subordinate to “literature” in terms of content and complexity. As Gibson noted, reading the adaptation is often equated with “cheating.” More mashups and remixes are required I think.
Teaching Socialization and Values (Notes from Damon Herd)
Kenan Kocak (Glasgow) in “Comics in Education: Cin Ali from Turkey” discussed this series of 10 picture books, whose reading level increases with each book, used to teach reading to children in Turkey. Cin Ali translates as cunning Ali, although he appears to be well-behaved with no real evidence of cunning. Kocak noted there was nostalgic affection for these books although on close examination they could be seen as tools of the conservative State to encourage children to conform. Interestingly, the drawings are all stickmen/women–even the animals have stick bodies and limbs– but the heads, feet and hands are all quite detailed. This odd combination makes one re-consider McCloud’s idea of how icons function to produce identification in comics.
Michael Freund (Webster, Vienna) was unique in presenting on a newspaper strip in “Deconstructing Berzerkistan and Other War Zones: Satire in Doonesbury as an Educational Tool.” Freund discussed the press reception of the BD character’s experiences in the war zones of Vietnam, Afganistan, Kuwait, and Iraq.
The plenary session was comics author David Lloyd (V for Vendetta, Kickback), and Steve Marchant of Cartoon Classroom talking about their work. Lloyd offered a polemic on the necessity of separating “sequential art” from “comics” because there are too many preconceptions and too much media baggage surrounding the term “comics,” preventing practitioners such as himself from attaining “artist” status. Lloyd’s talk and the responses to it suggested that comics’ place in the world of art and literature is still vexed even among those who study and produce them.
Marchant talked about his work with troubled youth and kids with special needs, showing how making comics helped them with their problems. Marchant’s talk captured perhaps the prominent theme of the day: making comics can be an empowering experience for school kids, college and university students, and people on the margins of society, making them invested creators whose artistic production gives them self-esteem and a sense of place in the world.
My favourite example from Marchant’s talk was some of his work with senior citizens who turned their memories into comics. I don’t believe that the results were anthologized and published, but if they were to be, they would make a fabulous work of comic book history.
A report of the second day of the conference, “Comics and Multimodal Adaptation”, is here.
This report is an edited version of a post that appeared previously in Graphixia.