Con(ference) Diary: CSS19 Comics/Politics

The Comics Studies Society held its second annual conference at Toronto’s Ryerson University over the last weekend of July. Drawing on the theme, Comics/Politics, CSS19 attendees from around the world participated in a conference that foregrounded Canadian comics scholarship and practice in plenaries featuring Tara Audibert, Cole Pauls, Camille Callison, Jillian Tamaki, and Fiona Smyth.

Before I get any further: I currently serve as the Vice President of the Society’s Graduate Student Caucus (GSC). I was not directly involved in the planning of this year’s conference, but I am a member of the conference planning committee for next year’s conference, CSS20, at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. This year, I presented a paper, “‘Part of Something… Bigger’: Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Kamala Khan,” and co-lead a workshop with Osvaldo Oyola of The Middle Spaces on Cultivating Public Scholarship. I was also one of the first recipients of a Carol L. Tilley Travel Grant.

Named for immediate Past President of CSS, Carol Tilley, the “Tilleys” were awarded to graduate students and contingent faculty. They recognized Professor Tilley’s service in CSS and leadership in the field at large. Professor Tilley has made a number of incredible contributions to our field, one of the more recent being the attribution of comics to Golden Age cartoonist Jane Krom Grammer, and was instrumental in making CSS18 (CSS’s first ever conference) happen.

Conferences are hard. They’re hard for me, personally, for the same reason that seminars have been difficult: more information is being (verbally) communicated to me than I can process. I can’t imagine that conferences are easy to make happen (ask me in a year). This year’s conference planning committee, led by co-chairs Andrew O’Malley and CSS President Candida Rifkind, should be commended for getting so many comics studies scholars in one place, not to mention doing it three days in a row, three or four panels or roundtables at a time. My biggest regret, now and after having attended CSS18, is that I couldn’t do it all. There were times when I had to walk away from the conference because it was too much, which I learned wasn’t all that uncommon. Self-care is feminist praxis.

When I was able, I attended presentations that used critical race studies, gender and sexuality studies, queer theory, and feminist theory to ask and (attempt to) answer questions about the relationship between comics and politics. I chose to privilege the kind of scholarship that I hope to produce, which more often than not came from scholars of marginalized identities and/or occupying marginalized positions within the academy, the latter meaning graduate students (like myself) and contingent faculty. Comics studies, as a field, could always use more of these kinds of scholars and more of the kinds of scholarship that they produce. If the panels and roundtables that I attended are any indication, then I’m hopeful for the future of our field.

Day One

Speaking of praxis, the panel on which I presented, “Marginalized Representation and the American Superhero,” was entirely composed of graduate students and women of color. I am indebted to Erika Chung and panel organizer Safiyya Hosein for their generosity, both as scholars and as friends. I am also grateful to Kate Tanski of Comics Academe for connecting us. Erika and Safiyya’s papers, “Crazy Strong Asians – Asian Representation in Superhero Comics” and “The American Dream: Representation of Muslim Masculinity in the Green Lantern,” respectively, were some of my favorites. I got to announce that my first peer-reviewed article, based on my CSS18 presentation “The Blue Age of Comic Books,” is getting published in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society. Together, Erika, Safiyya, and I took #WomenOnPanels from Twitter to Toronto.

Erika (left), Safiyya (right), and I (middle) before our panel.

CSS leadership not only recognized #WomenOnPanels at the conference’s reception Thursday night, but they also awarded the first #WomenOnPanels travel awards. These awards were presented alongside the newly named “Tilleys.” You can still get t-shirts (or mugs or pins) and support the travel award for future conferences. Stay tuned for more with #WomenOnPanels over on Twitter, where Leah Misemer and I will be inviting more scholars to participate in advance of conference application deadlines this coming academic year.

The Comics Studies Society Executive Board announced the theme for next year’s conference on that first night, and it’s something I’m particularly excited about: Comics and Technology. The Call for Papers is up on CSS’s website. Deadline for submissions is January 2020, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the work that you’d like to present (and the people with whom you’d like to present). I want to see more graduate students and independent scholars at CSS20. I’d love to see more scholars of color and more scholars of marginalized gender identities. I want to learn about work being done from and about the margins (although not necessarily at the same time). Technology is broadly defined in the CFP, so I hope that scholars in and outside of the academy will use that to their advantage in submitting papers. CSS20 is being co-chaired by Randy Duncan and CSS Vice President Matthew Smith. I’m excited to be representing graduate students on the planning committee. I might already be working on what I’m going to do at next year’s conference.

Day Two

On Friday, I went to panels like “Dressing the Part: The Superhero Costume and Behavioral Codes” (another panel entirely made up of graduate students) and “Theorizing Superhero Bodies.” The Graduate Student Caucus met over lunch, and it was a privilege to spend time with some of the scholars with whom I’ll be working for the rest of my career.

On privilege: in a field like comics studies, we have to acknowledge that we are always already at a disadvantage when it comes to accessibility. Most of our objects of study are not accessible to everyone. I want to see more work on audio adaptations of comics, Braille editions of comics, and technology and transmedia storytelling that make stories adapted from comics more accessible to more people. I think Comics and Technology is going to be a great place to start (or continue) this kind of work. 

On accessibility: I want us to remember that the things we do to make things accessible benefit everyone. Whether that’s using a microphone when giving a presentation or providing alt-text for images we post online in conjunction with the presentations we attend or being mindful of the fact that there are folks with visible and invisible disabilities who benefit from the availability of elevators. Comics studies and accessibility aren’t mutually exclusive.

On Friday night, we had a social at The Beguiling Books & Little Island Comics, a comic book shop in Toronto. It was like watching kids in a candy store. I very happily walked away with every ShortBox title I could get my hands on.

Day Three

Saturday, our third and final day, had me co-leading my workshop with Osvaldo. There, we talked about Osvaldo’s website, The Middle Spaces, for which I wrote back in May, and I got to talk about my experience with WWAC, which has been fantastic. The workshop was live-tweeted with the hashtags #CSS19 and #CSSCPS. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I said the word “Twitter.” Scholarship is changing, and social media is changing scholarship. We finished the day, and the conference, with our annual business meeting. Afterwards, I was privileged to meet WWAC’s own Wendy Browne. We talked comics and ate croissants and cakes at Butter Baker, a French bakery in Toronto recommended by Erika.

Conferences are hard. Conferences aren’t definitive of scholarship, nor are they representative of all of the kinds of scholarship being done or all of the people doing scholarship: some of us receive funding while others do not, which means that some of us are able to travel while others are not, and some of us are able to participate while others are not. For CSS20, I want to think about the ways in which the conference’s theme might be applied in making it accessible to more than just those privileged enough to attend in person (and even more accessible to those who are in attendance). Representation and accessibility and privilege are all political. Comics, too.

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