The first chapter of The Greatest Comic Book of All Time lays out the foundation of our argument as it applies to the development of comics studies. While we are grateful for the ways that comics studies has been allowed the space to invent itself within the confines of literature departments (particularly in the United States), we also highlight some of institutional, ideological, and disciplinary blinders that this development has entailed. What was striking, therefore, about this past weekend annual convention of the Modern Language Association in Austin, Texas was how sharply it diverged from the tradition as we describe it in chapter one. Credit where credit is due!
I first attended the MLA in 1997 when it was held in Toronto, as a non-registered freeloader. I dropped in to have lunch with Charles Hatfield, who was there as a job-seeker. At the time we were both graduate students facing an uncertain job market. The MLA, to the best of my knowledge, had no papers on comics that year. Indeed, throughout the 1990s (and before) papers on comics were welcomed only occasionally and somewhat precariously. It seemed to Charles and me at the time that you could count all of the graduate students working on comics on two hands, and all the tenured faculty doing the same on one. I remember that it was at this convention that I purchased Amy Nyberg’s book Seal of Approval from the University Press of Mississippi booth. It was likely the only comics studies volume for sale on the floor.
Fast forward to today, where the MLA now has a Forum on Comics and Graphic Narratives with an executive charged with filling a quota of panels. This year, that group presented three panels, but other comics studies paper popped up on other panels as well. The MLA is hardly a major comics conference like ICAF (on track to be its biggest ever iteration in South Carolina later this spring) but interest is clearly growing.
On Thursday evening the first comics-related panel kicked off, Session 125: The Counterpublics of Underground Comix. Arranged by Margaret Galvan and Leah Misemer, the panel consisted of more than half a dozen short presentation shoehorned into the 75 minute MLA slot. Normally this would be a recipe for disaster, but all of the presenters were on time and on point, and we even had time for a decent discussion. Presentations included Aaron Kashtan on the representation of Minneapolis in Omaha the Cat Dancer, Jonathan Gray on the short-lived All Negro Comics, Josh Kopin on the work of Texas’s Jack Jackson, Misemer on underground commix by women, and Galvan’s own work on World War 3 Illustrated. The panel had a methodological breadth – from Galvan’s data visualizations to Gray’s call for speculative histories (a “What If?” reading of history) – that was genuinely refreshing.
Stupidly, I opened my email on Friday morning and got sucked into the vortex of administrative work that forced me to miss the first-thing-in-the-morning special session, 222. Developments in Comics Pedagogy. This panel also included a half-dozen short presentations (Nick Sousanis claims to have shown fifty slides in three minutes!). I heard nothing but praise for this panel, which played to an overflow crowd of people forced to sit on the floor at the convention center. Certainly, departments are quickly waking up to the fact that teaching comics is something that attracts students to English departments as enrollment numbers generally fall. I spoke with a large number of faculty who reported that their comics class was the largest in their department (as it is in mine), so a discussion of best practices for instructors in this area was timely and welcome.
I was able to clear my in-box fast enough to take in session 318. Fables, Folktales, Games, and Comics: Folklore and Visual Media (arranged by the American Folklore Society). This panel had two papers on comics, by Christopher Pizzino and Jonathan Gray. In this instance, I found myself in the semi-awkward situation of hearing analyses of comics that I haven’t read: Bayou in the case of Gray, and Duncan the Wonder Dog in the case of Pizzino (to make matters worse, the third presenter talked about a film I haven’t seen!). Both scholars presented excellent close readings of their chosen works, with Gray focussing on Jeremy Love’s use of southern gothic elements and Pizzino looking at Adam Hines’s challenges to anthropomorphism. I did use the conference wifi to order both books during the session!
Later that afternoon, the first official comics panel took place, 421. Satire and Editorial Cartoon. This was a fascinating set of papers, mostly historical, about the origins of the editorial cartoon and their circulation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both Joe Sample and Tanya Agathocleous examined colonial cartoons from Punch, while Martha Cutter looked at the uses of satire in the American abolitionist debate. Frank Palmeri opened the panel with a more general overview of the development of the form. This was an interesting panel for the MLA, veering as it did at times into areas that might be more commonly addressed at a gathering of art historians.
Saturday morning saw the second official comics studies panel, 494. Latino/a Comics. José Alaniz presented on a work that may have been unknown to everyone in attendance, the short-lived Relámpago, a 1970s black-and-white superhero comic produced by a judge in Texas in an effort to deter young people from a life of crime. A fascinating local phenomenon. Christopher Ray Alexander then gave a paper on Jis and Trino’s satirical strip El Santos in relation to his own larger study of lucha libre. Finally, Melissa Coss Aquino gave a reading of the use of flashback in the work of Jaime Hernandez, with a particular emphasis on its devastating storytelling power in The Love Bunglers. A wide-ranging panel united by compelling close readings.
The final panel arranged by the forum of comics and graphic narrative took place on Sunday morning, 741. Charlie Hebdo and Its Publics. This was my own panel, so I will refrain from commenting on it beyond mentioning the general thrust of our arguments. Frederik Køhlert spoke about the intersection of Charlie Hebdo with the Danish cartoons published by Jyllands Posten in 2005 as a way of framing the magazine. Mark Burde provided a close reading of the 2006 Charlie Hebdo issue, which he carried with him, to illustrate how the magazine positioned itself concretely in relation to the original cartoons while adding their own. Finally, I presented on the American reception of Charlie Hebdo in the wake of the January 7, 2015 attack on their offices, including the debate around PEN’s decision to award them a prize for courage.
With that, my MLA was brought to a close. Of course, there was additional elements of comics studies taking place all around us. At the book expo, several publishers were notably interested in soliciting manuscripts in the area and I heard from a number of prospective authors who were pondering various options for publishing their work. Volumes of comics studies seemed to appear at almost every publisher’s booth with a large number of presses notably selling out the stock that they carried with them to Texas. And, obviously, many of the comics scholars in attendance were interviewing for tenure-track positions, a constant subtext at every MLA. That is the subject, however, of a different, longer post.