UW News

October 26, 2017

Serious study of comic art: International conference comes to UW Nov. 2-4

UW News

Poster for the 2017 International Comic Arts Forum, Nov. 2-4 at the UW and elsewhere in Seattle.

Poster for the 2017 International Comic Arts Forum, Nov. 2-4 at the UW and elsewhere in Seattle.Jim Woodring

Comics and graphic can be serious business. Scholars, critics, historians, teachers, curators of comic art and graphic publications will gather at the University of Washington and locations in Seattle Nov. 2-4 for the 2017 International Comic Arts Forum.

The forum is an annual academic conference whose stated mission is to promote “the scholarly study and appreciation of comic art, including comic strips, comic books, comics albums and graphic novels, magazine and newspaper cartooning, caricature, and comics in electronic media.” All conference events are open to the public.

Started in 1995 at Georgetown University, the forum has become one of the leading conferences for those who study comic and graphic art. Chairing the conference executive committee is José Alaniz, UW associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, who has an adjunct appointment in the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media.

Alaniz answered a few questions about the conference, and the world of comic and graphic art, for UW Today.

How can comic art reflect, or be on the edge of, social trends?

J.A.: The work of keynote speaker Ramzi Fawaz of the University of Wisconsin speaks directly to that question. His 2016 book, “The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics,” deals at length with post-war superheroes and their dynamic, utopian reimagining of political reality during the Cold War.

More than that, it gets at what for many of us who discovered superhero comics in childhood or adolescence represents a central aspect of their power: They show you new and unthought-of ways to behave, new personality types to try on, new powers to unlock, at a time when your own identity is still very much in flux or coming into being.

Learn more about the 2017 International Comic Arts Forum:

Where, when: HUB and other Seattle locations, Nov. 2-4
See conference schedule.

Conference sponsors:
Simpson Center for the Humanities, Japan Studies Program and many others.

Where to begin with comic and graphic art?

Suggestions from José Alaniz:

The Comics Journal

Comics UK, an online forum

The International Journal of Comic Art

Inks, the journal of the Comics Studies Society

My Favorite Thing is Monsters,”  by conference participant Emil Ferris, which Alaniz calls “the comics event of the year.”

Ferris will discuss her work and career in the context of disability culture at 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6, in Room 220 of Odegaard Library.

Also on campus:

Library exhibit: “Comic Arts, Local and Global,” in the Allen Library North Lobby, through Nov. 30.

And all in the realm of fantasy. Although, as Fawaz and others have pointed out, fantasy has very real power to shape the “real world”: Women’s suffrage, civil rights movements, gay liberation — all were fueled by aspirations and dreams for a better world, which many (perhaps the majority) of people in those eras would have dismissed as impossible, “mere” fantasy.

Posthumanism, the public/private sides of managing identity, problems associated with masculinity and whiteness, the fight against fascism — all form a big part of our national discourse now, but superheroes have been grappling with these questions since the genre emerged in the 1930s, and certainly since the 1960s, which Fawaz examines in depth.

In his ICAF keynote, Fawaz will talk about the Legion of Superheroes, a futuristic DC series which amounts to a sort of super-Starfleet made up of diverse super-powered humans and aliens living (mostly) in peace. I can think of no better example of what Fawaz calls a “comic book cosmopolitics.”

The conference will feature sessions on topics from comics in history to their use as political tools. What can a gathering like this achieve?

J.A.: Events like ICAF demonstrate the viability and academic rigor of Comics Studies, as well as the long-standing, central place comic art has in various cultures. We bring together a diverse, international group of scholars, at many career stages, to present and discuss their work in a supportive, intensely interdisciplinary, highly specialized but accessible setting. We also recognize up-and-coming scholars through the prestigious John A. Lent Scholarship and lecture, which highlights student research.

Speaking more specifically about our event: The stringent blind review process we use insures a very high quality of academic papers and panels, while our industry/artist guests’ presence and interactions make ICAF much more than a solely academic event. We think all parties benefit from this format: Our attendees get access to world-class comics scholarship and artists, while those artists get to respond to questions they will not hear at a regular festival or comic con, questions by leading specialists in the history and sociocultural significance of comic art — as well as fans.

We are also excited to have on our stage two stellar international figures. Jesús Cossio, a renowned comics journalist from Peru, will present a solo talk as well as take part in a roundtable on comics journalism with Joe Sacco and Sarah Glidden, which sounds like such a dream team! Then we have Moto Hagio, a living legend of Japanese manga, coming from Japan to give a talk. Either of those events would be more than worth the price of admission – if we charged it!

Finally, this year we are thrilled to be collaborating on programming with Seattle’s Short Run Comix & Arts Festival (taking place November 4) and, for the second conference in a row, with the Comics Studies Society, the first dues-paying professional organization for comics scholars.

"My Favorite Thing is Monsters," by conference participant Emil Ferris, published by Seattle's Fantagraphics Books.

“My Favorite Thing is Monsters,” by conference participant Emil Ferris, published by Seattle’s Fantagraphics Books. Ferris will make a campus appearance Nov. 6.

What is “comics theory,” and how might it be defined for the non-academic?

J.A.: Comics Theory simply refers to the study of how comics communicate in unique ways, chiefly through juxtaposed sequential images – i.e. pictures in sequence – which map time onto space. In other words, when you read comics you are traversing time (each panel represents a loosely-defined moment in the story) as well as space (your eye goes from panel to panel down the page).

The comics medium also often combines different symbolic registers such as text and images – though comics don’t need words, as seen in much of the work of Seattle cartoonist Jim Woodring. But really, that’s just scratching the surface. Notice too I said nothing about superheroes or funny animals. Comics have no limits on their content, no more than any other art form. And some version of comics exists in every culture across the globe.

A review of Fawaz’s book said it “will go a long way toward making comics an acceptable medium of study in academia.” How has academia reacted to the study of comics?

J.A.: The days when studying comics in college made for controversy seem pretty far behind us now. Important graphic memoirs such as “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi and “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel have demonstrated that comics represent not only a very rich part of our cultural patrimony and contemporary culture, they can address even the most difficult personal/historical topics (the Holocaust, the Iranian revolution, coming out as gay) in nuanced and unique ways.

"The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics," by Ramzi Fawaz, keynote speaker for the 2017 ICAF.

“The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics,” by Ramzi Fawaz, keynote speaker for the 2017 ICAF.NYU Press

The adoption of comics in college courses dealing with history, gender, mass communications, war, disability and Islam attest to comic art’s worthiness as a subject of study. (I myself am teaching courses on Wonder Woman and animals in graphic narrative this quarter.)

It’s taken decades, but we have reached Comics Studies critical mass, with an array of dedicated conferences (including Comics and Medicine, whose 2017 iteration I also helped organize in Seattle) and topic areas of conferences (such as the Modern Language Association, the Popular Culture Association and the American Library Association); and several new journals. We at ICAF are proud of the role we’ve played in making possible the acceptance and unrepentant advancement of comics as a legitimate art form and comics studies as a field characterized by its interdisciplinarity.

What brings this conference to the UW?

J.A.: The ICAF represents the most important annual gathering of comics scholars in North America. Since my own association with it starting in the late ’90s, though, it always seemed to me a very East Coast phenomenon. (You can read more about our history here.)

We had started moving away from that region by the late-2000s, but when the ICAF Executive Committee elected me chair in 2011, I knew I wanted to do all I could to take the conference to parts of the country it had never gone. So, in 2013, we brought ICAF to the University of Oregon. And it was wonderful. Since then, every conference under my tenure as chair has taken place in a new location for us.

You have written books on Russian comic art and on analyzing through the lens of disability. What’s next for you in this field?

J.A.: I have lots of projects cooking, including a follow-up to my first book, tentatively titled “Resurrection: Comics in Post-Soviet Russia,” which deals with the enormous changes in the Russian comics scene since the collapse of communism, and especially in the Putin era. Also in progress: “Beautiful Monsters: Disability in Alternative Comics” and a monograph on the representation of history in Czech graphic narrative.


For more information, contact Alaniz at 206-543-7580 or jos23@uw.edu.

UW presenters at the 2017 ICAF:

Friday, Nov. 3

  • History doctoral student Emily Marie Anderson Hall will discuss “Resistance by Design: Kim Songwhan’s ‘Mr. Kobau’ and the Rise of the Editorial Cartoonists in South Korea” in a session on New Perspectives on Asian Comics.

Saturday, Nov. 4

  • Communication doctoral student Meshell Sturgis will discuss “The AmBIGuous Penny Rolle from ‘Bitch Planet in a session on The Comics of Kelly Sue DeConnick.
  • Rachel Kunert-Graf, an English Ph.D. now with Shoreline Community College, will discuss “History Returns: Comics Designed for the Classroom” in a session titled History, Ephemerality and Memory moderated by Alaniz.
  • Nancy White Iff, a lecturer in the Comparative History of Ideas Program, will discuss “A Place for Every Woman and Every Woman in Her Place: ‘Bitch Planet’ as a Forum for Geek Feminism” in a session titled Genre Comics and Social Justice.
  • Paul Morton, a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media, will discuss “Inventing the Lonely Machine: Jules Feiffer and Hugh Hefner’s Collaboration in the Pages of Playboy” in a session titled Comics and the Culture Wars moderated by Alaniz.