Comics Academe: 2020 in Review

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To close out 2020, Comics Academe asked contributors to write about the conferences, articles, and books that had the biggest impact on them. They attended virtual conferences and comic cons and read, wrote, and were recognized for groundbreaking work in and around comics studies.

Alenka: This year I attended my very first Zine Librarians Unconference, and it was such an incredible experience! I saw lots of familiar faces but also met tons of new people, and it was a truly international conference, with attendees from Australia, Hong Kong, Austria, Berlin and I’m sure more locations all over the world. It was a really inspiring, energizing experience. I worry that I get sort of one note with zines, because I do try to incorporate them into my library programming as much as possible, but hearing about all the different zine libraries and the myriad kinds of work people do was a great reminder that zines are flexible and empowering for all kinds of people. Maria Cunningham, the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Reed College, said during a panel that “zines are freedom,” and I think we all had this collective “aaaah” moment. That was a big takeaway from the conference, for me! That, and I was inspired to make a little zine grab ‘n go kit that I think kids are liking. I tweeted about it if you’re curious. There are notes and resources from the conference available on if you want more details about the panels. That includes lists of zinesters who tabled during the two tabling sessions, so you can also check it out if you just wanna buy zines.

Andrea: Honest to goodness it was hard for me to choose. There’s been an absolute abundance of great material, though there always is. My money has to go on the work of Rebecca Wanzo with The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging published by NYU Press. In particular chapter five, where Wanzo breaks down the difference between Robert Crumb’s depiction of racial difference and depictions from Larry Fuller and Richard “Grass” Green. It’s a discussion of how to situate offensive comics. Hint: Not all the same! Wanzo’s take on Crumb’s reliance on the “equal opportunity offender” as a way to dismiss criticism is absolutely worth checking out. More than that, it’s an astute look at how stereotypes were used by Fuller and Green to dismantle and challenge representations of race and racism. Definitely worth your time and money.

Kate: There’s been a lot of great events. Virtual conferencing led people to rethink what a successful panel is and what it could be. I was particularly impressed with a couple of SDCC panels which had underwhelming titles and panel descriptions but ended up being wonderful resources featuring new faces that I am glad have been preserved for other people to watch and refer to even months later. Likewise, in the publishing realm, what makes me excited about comics studies are all the pieces (articles, edited collections, and whole books) from new voices that were either published or announced this year. I’ve been in comics studies or teaching comics for a long time (over 15 years, yikes!) and every now and then there’s someone who brings something entirely new to the field and changes the game. The last time I remember this happening was Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening, which is still an incredibly important text. One way that it has been so influential is it gave validation for scholar/practitioners in academia, and here we are, five years after Unflattening was published, seeing more scholar/practitioners than ever (one of whom we published this year) — and seeing them win Eisners. This year, I think we saw the publication of another piece, which will change the field in ways that we won’t fully be able to see for another five years, and that’s “The Blue Age of Comic Books” by Adrienne Resha.

And yes — Adrienne is the co-editor of Comics Academe — so you can take my recommendation with a grain of salt, if you like, but even not knowing Adrienne personally and working with her, I would be writing about this article in this list. Like Unflattening, the hype about “Blue Age” was happening before it was even published. And due to the long laborious process of getting pieces published in journals (which Adrienne wrote about here), more recently published texts that were written before Adrienne’s piece was published are now obsolete. It’s unfortunate, and I almost feel bad for some of these texts that dropped this year that were supposed to be landmark texts –like the Oxford Handbook of Comics Studies — because what teacher is going to ask their students to buy a $200 textbook in five years — in two years — that does not include Blue Age theory?

Paulina: Essentially this is going to be the TL;DR version of my review of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel: Militarism and Feminism in Comics and Film by Carolyn Cocca, but oh my did I love that book. I read the first 20 pages and that was enough to get me chatting with a friend for hours about the amazing thoughts the work inspired. It’s a wonderful, short, and approachable piece of comics academic writing that I will recommend to folks whenever I get a chance to. It’s got a couple of easy to follow sections with clear arguments that, since finishing it, have made me think about how more superheroes could do for us. And more than that how Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel as starting points may lead to new stories that can do and teach so much more. Also now I really want someone to write a series on Marvel’s Bus People.

Kay: At the beginning of the year, I really did not think I could get more invested in comics studies than I already was (considering I was pretty into it and had already started drawing a dissertation on/in the form of comics). But then I got to participate in and organize comics roundtables at two conferences (MLA and NeMLA) in January and March respectively, just before the lockdown happened. The rest of the year, although thoroughly virtual, was surprisingly more engaging than I could have hoped for. In September at the International Comics Art Forum (ICAF), we kicked off our virtual programming with a roundtable co-sponsored by SPX! I had the opportunity to chat with the cartoonists GB Tran and Erin Williams, as well as with scholars Qiana Whitted and Jeanette Roan. It was such a fun conversation, and it deepened my belief that the study of comics is made better by involving practitioners/artists in the field. In October, we started round two of our virtual programming in the form of blogs and roundtables that featured Adrienne Resha, Maite Urcaregui, Susan Kirtley, Carolyn Cocca, Sam Langsdale, and a host of other comics scholars (whose work you can read here).

While this does not quite fall in the realm of Comics Academe, another project that saw me through the pandemic-spurred isolation was The Believer Magazine’s “Friday Night Comics” workshops organized by Kristen Radtke and led by a range of cartoonists starting from Ebony Flowers to Malaka Gharib to GB Tran. This was also the year where graphic narratives (such as Displacement, Good Talk, Making Comics, The River at Night, and Billy, Me and You, amongst others) became my quarantine companions, the year I found amazing publications like WWAC and Solrad (and wrote for them), and the year I found a sense of community in the Graphic Medicine scene. Graphic Medicine has really embraced cartooning/drawing comics as praxis. I end this year much more invested in comics scholarship than I began. Works like Menopause (published by Penn State University Press), Vanni (also published by Penn State), or even theoretical texts with a couple of graphic chapters like Documenting Trauma in Comics, make me firmly believe that scholarship in the form of comics is gradually but steadily gaining ground. For somebody who wants to keep drawing comics both in and outside the academy, I find the change both long due and quite heartening. I am grateful to educators, scholar-practitioners such as Ebony Flowers, Nick Sousanis, MK Czerwiec, as well as to publishers like Graphic Mundi, for paving the way.

Adrienne: In addition to some of the work linked above, Comics Academe celebrated the one-year anniversary of #WomenOnPanels and published Jessica Ginting’s work on indie comics and Kelly Richards’s work on death in popular culture. Editor Kate Tanski was elected to serve on the executive board of the Comics Studies Society, and Zoë Smith’s “4 Colorism, or, the Ashiness of it All” and “4 Colorism, or, White Paper/Brown Pixels” won CSS’s Gilbert Seldes Award for Public Scholarship. We’re looking forward to publishing more public facing scholarship by scholars of marginalized genders in 2021 (and happy to get pitches)!

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