This week my wife Mich and I are bound for the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Seattle, an outsize academic gathering that's been going on yearly in various cities since, oh, 1883. It's a professional whirlwind and a bit of a madhouse: the kind of event that requires making plans well in advance (even social plans take effort: you can hardly have lunch or coffee with a colleague without making arrangements way ahead of time). After all, the MLA is one of the largest, oldest, and best-known organizations in the profession, and now boasts some 25,000 members in a hundred countries.
Why are we going? Well, I have two presentations to give. Both concern comics. Information below!
Professionally, I'm most interested in the MLA's Forum for Comics and Graphic Narratives, a group founded by Hillary Chute in 2009 that has sponsored panels and other events annually since 2011 (I served on the forum's inaugural executive committee between 2010 and 2014). This is one of the more than 150 forums (organized by discipline, subject matter, period, and theory) that make up the MLA. I'm also invested in the MLA's Forum for Children's and Young Adult Literature, a long-lived community that I first experienced back in 1997 that has played a vital role in children's literature and childhood studies (and that has included many colleagues and friends of mine).
This year the Forum for Comics and Graphic Narratives (whose current executive committee includes my colleagues Lan Dong, Margaret Galvan, Aaron Kashtan, Susan Kirtley, and Leah Misemer) is sponsoring two panels, one of which I am lucky enough to take part in:
325. Webcomics and/as Digital Culture
1:45-3:00pm, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, Sheraton Grand Seattle, Willow A
1: Webcomics in India: Dissenting Voices at the Time of Hypernationalism
Debanjana Nayek, Presidency U
2: Player versus Player? Redefining Gamer Identity through Thirty Years of Webcomics
Anastasia Salter, U of Central Florida
3: Stonetossingjuice: Iterability, the Alt-Right, and the Webcomics of Online Culture War
Bren Ram, Rice U
4: Connecting Queerly: Queer Webcomics and the Alternate Archive
Misha Grifka-Wander, Ohio State U, Columbus
Presider: Leah Misemer, U of Wisconsin, Madison
587. A Decade in Comics
3:30–4:45pm, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, Sheraton Grand Seattle, Willow A
Description: On the tenth anniversary of panels sponsored by the MLA Forum for Comics and Graphic Narratives, established and emerging scholars reflect on the history, the present, and the future of the field of comics studies.
In addition, on Saturday evening, Jan. 11, starting at 7pm, the Comics and Graphic Narratives forum will be sponsoring an outside social event at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, a hub of Seattle's independent comics culture, located in the Georgetown neighborhood (1201 S Vale St., Seattle, WA 98108). The event will include a signing by cartoonist Natalie Dupille, and refreshments will be served. Not to be missed if you're a comics lover anywhere near Seattle that Saturday night!
Besides all this, I have the good fortune to be presenting in a special session outside of the Comics and Graphic Narratives forum:
500. Humanities in Five
12:00–1:15pm, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, Washington State Convention Center, 4C-4
Description: Scholars from different fields present their research in five minutes, aiming to do justice to the complexity of the research and at the same time to make its significance clear to a nonspecialist audience.
(I'll be calling my talk "Making Reading Strange Again, or, Thinking about Comics Literacy.")
KinderComics readers may wish to know about all the work on this year's MLA program that relates to comics, children's literature, and/or childhood studies, not just within specific forums but across the convention as a whole. To that end, I recommend both the helpful list of comics-related presentations at the Comics and Graphic Narrative forum's website and the annual list of all children's literature, childhood studies, and comics-related activity at my colleague Philip Nel's website (compiled by Ramona Caponegro, Phil's colleague in the Children's and YA Literature forum). Since the MLA is a vast organization that does not usually publicize its proceedings outside of academia, it takes some sleuthing to find out what's going on within, but it's worth the effort!
If you're interested in how comics studies have been received within this particular corner of academia, consider that, since its founding, the MLA Forum for Comics and Graphic Narratives has sponsored some twenty-five panels (not including this year's) and collaborated with various other MLA forums: Children's Literature; Age Studies; Autobiography, Biography, and Life Writing; Literature and Other Arts; European Literary Relations; 20th- and 21st-Century Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies; Speculative Fiction; Global Arab and Arab American Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies; and Medical Humanities and Health Studies. During that same period, the amount of comics studies activity at the MLA convention has varied, with somewhere between two and ten comics-focused panels occurring outside of the forum (in some cases sponsored by other forums, and in some cases organized as independent special panels outside of any forum). By my count, this year there will be five comics studies panels outside the Comics and Graphic Narratives forum. (Peak years of comics-themed activity outside the forum have included Seattle in 2012, with ten outside panels, Philadelphia in 2017, with seven, NYC in 2018, with six, and Chicago in 2019, with eight.)
To put all this in perspective, this year's total MLA program includes almost 800 official events. It's huge. During this century, the convention has drawn, on average, some 7000 attendees or more, although the numbers have dipped in the past handful of years (peak attendance, circa 1992 to 2002, sometimes hit 10,000 to 12,000; last year's reportedly dipped below 5,000). This year, more than 3000 people are listed as officially participating in the convention program (and there will probably be many attendees not on the program). Within that context, comics studies may seem like a small thing, but in truth the MLA's Comics and Graphic Narratives forum has been an important beachhead for comics scholarship, as well as the first venue or launch point for a great deal of subsequently published research.
Forgive me for interrupting KinderComics' coverage of children's and young adult comics to report on something else (albeit something related) that is near and dear to my heart:
The 2018 officer elections for the Comics Studies Society ended last week, and I want to congratulate new CSS Board officers Colin Beineke, Leah Misemer, and Matt Smith, the newly reelected Nhora Serrano, the newly appointed Samantha Langsdale, and a new slate of Graduate Student Caucus officers including Bryan Bove, Biz Nijdam, Adrienne Resha, and Hanah Stiverson! Here is the full roster of the CSS Board at present:
Thanks to outgoing Member at Large Christy Blanch and outgoing Social Strategist and original Web Editor A. David Lewis! Thanks also to new VP Matt Smith for his two years of service as a Member at Large. (And thanks to emeritus founding officers Corey Creekmur, Brian Cremins, Rebecca Wanzo, and Qiana Whitted, who were part of the very first Board elected in late 2014.)
You may notice that I'm the "Immediate Past President," which means that, yes, after several years on the job, I have stepped down from the Presidency and been succeeded by the very capable, tireless, and inspiring Carol Tilley! Carol is now spearheading plans for our first CSS conference, Mind the Gaps, to be held this August 9-11 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This innovative, forward-looking conference will include nearly fifty sessions, more than 140 program participants, and an array of special events—check it out!
Per the CSS bylaws, I'll be serving on the Board for one more year, though no longer in a leading role. It has been my pleasure, and a source of great pride, to preside over the founding and early development of the CSS, and to work with such talented colleagues to envision and help ensure the future of Comics Studies. And it is my very great pleasure to pass the torch to Carol and all those who will come after.
FYI, the CSS is a professional association and learned society for comics scholars, dedicated to (as our official mission statement says) "promoting the critical study of comics, improving comics teaching, and engaging in open and ongoing conversations about the comics world." The Society "celebrates and seeks to foster diversity in comics studies, including diversity in scholarly discipline, career position, job niche, and cultural and personal identity." Readers, if you're passionate about comics studies but don't know the CSS, I urge you to check us out—and feel free to contact me via this blog if you have questions!
PS. As of yesterday, May 21, the CSS has just announced the winners of its inaugural prizes for scholarly writing:
The first-ever CSS Book Prize goes to Brannon Costello of Louisiana State University for Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin (Louisiana State UP).
The first-ever CSS Article Prize goes to Benoît Crucifix of the University of Liège and UC Louvain for "Cut-Up and Redrawn: Charles Burns's Swipe Files" (Inks 1.3, Fall 2017).
The Chute Award for Best Graduate Student Conference Presentation goes to Alex Smith of the University of Cincinnati for "Breaking Panels: Gay Cartoonists’ Radical Revolt." (Chute Award judges also recognized three honorable mentions: Michael Grifka of the Ohio State University, Maite Urcaregui of UC Santa Barbara, and Andrea Horbinski of UC Berkeley.)
With these awards, the CSS inaugurates a new tradition of prizes awarded by comics scholars to comics scholars. I hope you can join us at our conference in August to witness the official conferral of these prizes!