Engaging conflict at the 2017 International Comics Arts Forum conference

via The Daily of the University of Washington

The conflicts that generated rousing, unexpected, and occasionally contentious discussions at The International Comic Arts Forum’s (ICAF) 2017 conference this past weekend left attendees with hard but hopeful questions for future studies.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect Thursday afternoon when I sat down in the audience for “(Re)covering Mouly’s Materiality,” a talk given by ICAF John A. Lent 2017 award winner Colin Beineke. I (not surprisingly, it turned out) had never heard of Françoise Mouly, production designer for the formative 1980s comic and cartoon outlet Raw Magazine, despite her direct influence on more famous male artists like R. Crumb and Chris Ware.

The conflict in Mouly’s story, Beineke explained, stemmed from systematic devaluing of her gender, her marriage to commercially successful “Maus” author Art Spiegelman, and the lack of consideration given to the physical production of comics.

“Even Mouly doubted her own contributions,” Beineke said, highlighting how deep the social challenges ran during her tenure.

As a veteran of larger comic and gaming fan gatherings like Emerald City Comic Con, the 50 or so academics nodding along beside me in HUB room 332 bore little resemblance to the convention center crowds I was used to.

Familiar cosplays and fandom t-shirts were replaced by more professorial collared shirt/sweater combos and other typical business-casual attire. Side conversations exploded with excitement over new ways to teach with comic books, as opposed to the newest superhero movie trailer.

After Thursday evening’s exploration into making cartoons for education presented by cartoonist and scholar Nick Sousanis, one educator exclaimed that his brain was now “on fire” with new ideas.

Not surprisingly, the gender and racial breakdown of the weekday crowd was noticeably skewed toward white men. What was surprising was how much of the weekend’s conversation centered the experiences of marginalized people around the globe, in spite of the demographics.

Those conversations were driven by ICAF’s mission to elevate those voices traditionally omitted by English-language studies. To ground the discussions, the organization features international guest artists like this year’s cornerstones Japanese shoujo-manga creator Moto Hagio and Peruvian comics documentarian Jesús Cossio.

Hagio, a slight and soft-spoken woman with an easy smile, spoke before a full Henry Arts Gallery auditorium Thursday night.

Through an interpreter, she described the joy she takes in challenging readers with non-traditional panel layouts and dialogue flow.

“I like making the readers’ eyeballs go around,” Hagio said.

Japanese-speaking fans leapt into the air at the invitation for questions, their voices overflowing with emotion as they shared curiosity and immense gratitude for her work.

ICAF’s incorporation of popular artists within a traditional academic conference setting is the reason why presenter Maite Urcaregui, enjoys attending the conference so much.

“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” Urcaregui said.

Of the 50 or so presentations made throughout the conference, only a handful of papers did not directly engage with conflicts surrounding cultural representation or erasure of vulnerable populations.

Yet even the more formalist, procedural talks, like Friday afternoon’s panel “What Are We Reading, and How” on the problems facing comic book data collection methods, were not immune from cultural concerns.

In what was likely the most contentious and fascinating exchange of the weekend, keynote speaker Ramzi Fawaz, an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison focused on queer and American cultural studies, confronted his colleagues about limitations of their methods.

“The reason I don’t turn to a lot of comics theory,” Fawaz said in the post-talk Q&A session, is because “… comic studies doesn’t help me explain why the layout of a page actually articulates sexuality in a particular way.

Fawaz then engaged presenter Alisia Chase in an intense debate over the usefulness of framing gender discussions around biological binaries for several minutes, before the moderator moved the conversation along.

In the most meta event of the weekend, Saturday morning boasted four different talks about the works of Portland writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, specifically “Bitch Planet” and “Pretty Deadly”, all of which were attended by the writer.

UW doctoral student Meshell Sturgis, who presented one of the papers on DeConnick’s work, about the implications of Penny Rolle’s ambiguous dialogue and racial identity in “Bitch Planet,” was very surprised to see one of her subject in the audience.

Sturgis admitted that she was “very nervous” to be presenting directly to the writer, but also honored by the opportunity.

I caught up with DeConnick afterwards to ask her what it feels like to have her work dissected in front of her.

“It is a tremendous honor to have academics engage with the work,” DeConnick said. “It elevates our thinking and it elevates the discourse and I’m intensely grateful for that.”

The writer explained that she has to be very careful not to offer too much feedback, or to take too much to heart, in an effort to maintain the integrity of both scientific and creative processes.

The next ICAF conference will be held in the spring of 2019, at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa.