Comics Scholarship At TCAF, Plus An Interview With Barbara Postema Of The CSSC

by Koom Kankesan

The Canadian Society for the Study of Comics (CSSC) is an academic society that runs their conference for two days before the main TCAF (Toronto Comics Arts Festival) event in Toronto. This year, it ran during May 10th and 11th, 2018. I was never a comics academic, but I wish I’d been. While I was writing papers about English Lit. and Film Studies, some brave individuals were writing papers on comics: its history, form, cultural relevance, and authorial intentions. It seemed, as I was leaving grad school, that a small but growing number of people were straying out onto tenuous academic limbs in various institutions, often within Communications or English departments, to write upon comics. And then books were being published, not just collections of essays by different writers but whole books on comics subjects.

I’ve been attending CSSC panels when I can over the last few years and though it’s a cosy adjunct to the TCAF proper, I like stretching my academic grey cells and trying to follow presenters (some are students while others are professors) view comics through academic lenses and then deconstruct them. Sometimes I find the theory foreign – I was never a great fan of theory when I was in school – but often I find that the presenters are genuinely interested in their comics source material. Because comics study is still attempting to gain the same recognition other disciplines enjoy, the academics who research and expand the study of comics academia tend to be fans themselves. There is a level of analysis in these papers that goes beyond an average work of cultural history, yet I find the attempts to analyze comics and make connections enriching.

The first talk I attended was given by Olivia Dziwak who looked at the vocabulary used in reviews of graphic novels by applying quantitative analysis to contemporary reviews of This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

I then hopped conference rooms to attend the Female Empowerment panel featuring Erika Chung (talking about Ms. Marvel), Brian Johnson (talking about The New Teen Titans) and Lisa Macklem (talking about Lucy Knisley‘s travelogues). Of the papers I heard, Brian Johnson’s was the most interesting to me personally. He looked at the influence of soap operas and melodramas of the 80’s upon Marv Wolfman and George Perez‘s run on The New Teen Titans. He focused on a particular issue that dealt with the origin of Wonder Girl (Donna Troy) – issue 38 if I’m not mistaken. He argued that titles like The New Teen Titans or Chris Claremont‘s run on The X-Men focused on melodrama and a kind of emotionality that though perhaps not quite as gritty as the work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller during that period, still drew inspiration from the newer, more adult, dramas of the 80’s such as Dallas, Dynasty, and St. Elsewhere.

Brian focused on the shift towards melodrama, away from the action of the previous era in mainstream comics, and it made me realize that though the works of Moore and Miller are what everybody talks about when we discuss the 80’s, the dramatic work in those other longer arcs, though not existing in as intense a register as the Miller/Moore work, have left a lasting impact on mainstream comics today. Writers such as Brian K. Vaughan are more in the vein of the longer dramatic arcs that are heavily dependent on character drama and conversation. I argued that you could also throw Miller’s Daredevil run and Moore’s Swamp Thing run (early works for them with the mainstream companies) into that category, before they both began to favour finite arcs that could be collected into single books.

During the middle of the day, I attended the CSSC Annual General Members Meeting and listened to the members of the society discuss various things such as whether to join the large conference of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences (the Learneds) (which involves many disciplines in the Humanities and moves location every year) in the future instead of continuing to operate under the umbrella of TCAF.

The last full panel I saw consisted of Paul Krasik and Mark Newgarden talking about their book How to Read Nancy which covers their explorations into the comics form. The talk was fun, informative, and interactive. They presented slides from their book which takes a singular Nancy strip by Ernie Bushmiller and deconstructs it in all sorts of interesting ways that makes you think of comics’ formal properties.

The last paper I listened to was Sam Boer talking about ‘explicit sex and implicit prejudice’ in Zap! and Wimmin’s Comix.

I caught Barbara Postema, outgoing president of the CSSC, and asked her some questions:

Koom Kankesan: How long has the CSSC been running and what is its mandate?

Barbara Postema: The Canadian Society for the Study of Comics (CSSC/SCEBD) was founded in October 2010 by Sylvain Rheault of the University of Regina. The society’s first conference was held in May of the following year as part of New Narrative, an initiative of Andrew Lesk, who organized a series of New Narrative Conferences. In 2014 the CSSC Executive Board took over organizing the annual conference and we started our partnership with TCAF, so this year’s conference was the fifth one for which I was involved with organizing, and the second where I was the main organizer as the society’s President.

The society uses both official languages of Canada—the SCEBD part of the name stands for La Sociéte canadienne pour l’étude de la bande dessinée. The society’s purpose is to support the study of comics from all periods and in any language, so not just Canadian comics, and we encourage this study in a range of disciplines and cultural contexts. The conference is our main activity, but we also work to create a community of scholars through social media activity, including promoting members’ publications and events.

KK: How well do you think you have fit into the aegis of TCAF and the spirit of TCAF? Do you get much crossover or traffic from TCAF’s attendees?

BP: Like TCAF and its attendees, the CSSC takes comics very seriously, while also enjoying them as readers and fans. Our presenters often stay for TCAF and participate in and even moderate for TCAF’s various programming, so there is cross-pollination that way. This year I participated in a roundtable about comics in academia for Librarian and Educator Day, for example. The festival is an opportunity for our conference attendees to meet and engage with cartoonists whose work we research, or to discover new works in our areas of interest. My current research is on wordless comics, and I find new, interesting examples of the genre at every TCAF I attend. TCAF itself provides programming for librarians and educators interested in comics, for comics creators, and of course for readers and fans. By having the CSSC conference adjacent to the festival, we bring the academic side of things, and the many ways our members’ disciplines approach the study of comics. We get quite a bit of crossover traffic from the festival: our schedule is on TCAF’s website, and every year we get people dropping by for particular panels where our members are presenting on comics they happen to really like. We welcome such drop-ins and hope they stay to attend further panels.

KK: What differences do you see between cssc and other academic societies? What challenges if any are unique to studying comics as an academic discipline?

BP: Given that Comics Studies is not (yet) solidly established as an academic discipline (in the sense of there being Comics Studies Departments, for example), one way in which the CSSC differs from other academic societies is that our members have backgrounds in many different disciplines, and work in different departments. My background is in English and Literary studies, but we also have members in Communication Studies, French, History, Gender Studies Art History, and other fields. This makes our society more interdisciplinary than those of more traditional fields, and means that our members’ presentations span a great range of topics and approaches.

Another difference comes from having a popular form as our main area of study, since it is a topic that often attracts interest from people outside of academia: When a general audience attends panels, they are sometimes surprised they can’t always follow the theory and the terminology used to discuss the comics they love. We sometimes get criticized for using too much jargon, but we find this is necessary to be able to make the very specific and careful points or analyses that we want to make. People not in the fields of medicine or physics wouldn’t expect to be able to easily follow a presentation for an audience of researchers in medicine or physics, but somehow for comics, presentations are expected to be understandable to anyone. We try to achieve a balance between these things at the conference, since we know we do get a general audience coming to our talks, or students who have only just entered the field. We’re keen to get people interested in what we do, but we also want to make sure we are progressing Comics Studies.

KK: What are some of the things you’ve tried to achieve as president of CSSC? What things would you like the organization to achieve moving forward?

BP: Over the last five years the conference has been steadily growing, so we’ve added extra panels to make room for more presenters. I was keen to add a keynote address to the conference, to be able to hear in more depth from a senior scholar in Comics Studies. We had our first keynote lecture last year by American scholar Rebecca Wanzo, and this year the keynote was by Canadian comics scholar Bart Beaty. My thought was that we can alternate international and Canadian academics year by year, to be able to bring in guests our members would otherwise not have a chance to hear in person, while also showcasing the important work being done in Comics Studies by Canadian scholars.

We have also been discussing joining the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, an overarching body of Canadian learned societies, which holds a Congress annually, each year on the campus of a different Canadian university. During my term as president the Executive Board has been gathering information about this move, and during our AGM this year we presented our official proposal for this move, since the board and I feel that it is important for Comics Studies to be present (and be seen to be present) amongst the other academic disciplines that have their yearly meeting at Congress. It will facilitate professional development for our members, including outreach to academic publishers and the job market, and so will be an important step in establishing Comics Studies more strongly as an academic discipline.

KK: Can you talk about the state/growth of comics scholarship in Canada today? Do you notice any interesting trends or tendencies in the field?

BP: Based on our membership and the proposals I receive for the conference, it’s clear to me that there are growing numbers of graduate and undergraduate students interested in studying comics. This can also be seen by the many departments, at least English Departments, that have added courses on comics to their curriculum. It is great to see the field expanding like this, but it can be frustrating as well, since there are very few Comics Scholars being hired into tenure track (ongoing, full-time) positions by university Departments. So while students are flocking to the discipline, there aren’t enough senior academics with a strong background in Comics Studies to supervise them.

In order for the field to continue to grow and thrive, we don’t just need more venues for presenting and publishing on comics, both fields that have seen robust growth over the last decade, but we also need a stronger foothold within the university, in the form of academic positions. This is another reason why the move to Congress is important for the CSSC. A trend that I see in the subject matter of the talks presented at our conference is that after in previous years seeing many presentations on alternative comics, the kinds of comics represented at TCAF, I now notice an increase of attention to mainstream comics, things like superheroes or Archie, but engaged with a clear theoretical framework. I also see a strong representation of work related to graphic medicine, and I am happy to see continuing presence of talks about Canadian comics, to ensure that aspect of the CSSC as Canadian continues as well: we’re in Canada, we represent mostly, though not exclusively, Canadian scholars, and we include robust work on Canadian comics and cartoonists.