What makes the Comics Area at PCA different?
I'm delighted to admit that there are many academic conferences which focus on or include comics research. So, what makes the Comics and Comic Art area of PCA different? If conferences and communities have a specific character, what's ours? I'm obliged to note that these observations are personal and unofficial. They are offered in a spirit of welcome and cooperation with visitors to our area and those interested in submitting a paper.
#1: First Contact
PCA is often the first point of contact for an aspiring or young scholar, his or her first introduction to the larger community of comics scholars. The biggest reason for this is the fact that paper proposals are not, as a general rule, rejected by Area Chairs. You could count the number of rejected papers in our area on one hand, and I think you'd still have fingers left over. It is a perfectly fair observation to say that PCA is not selective. While that has all sorts of negative consequences in academia, it also has one strength: everyone feels welcome. We routinely have grad students, undergrads, and even the rare high school student presenting work at PCA. When those new scholars arrive at the conference, it is usually their first conference. When those scholars meet other comics critics, it is often for the first time. Many in our current community first found us when they were at PCA presenting in another area. When we are lucky, we steal these presenters for ourselves.
As a result of all this, I think you'll find an open mind at PCA, a supportive community, and a willingness to answer questions and make connections.
#2: Time Served
Tom Inge, an active member of our area, was present at the first meeting of the Popular Culture Association back in 1971. John Lent, editor of the International Journal of Comic Art and another of the founders of our area, joined a few years later. Amy Nyberg served ten years as Area Chair. Nicole Freim served another ten. Many students and professors come to the field of comics with the presumption that it is a "new" or "emerging" field with a dearth of scholarship, canon, or critical tools, but the facts suggest otherwise; you would be hard pressed to find a community of comics critics and scholars with a longer history.
Because of the area's long lifespan, you can find a lot of institutional memory. At the same time, if your approach to comics is based on the idea that "not a lot of people are doing this," or "comics haven't yet reached credibility as a field," you are going to get some resistance and push-back. For many of these men and women, comics is not a secondary or tertiary field, the equivalent of an after-dinner mint. It is a primary field and has been for decades.
The area has always had a special relationship to the International Journal of Comic Art. John Lent, editor of that journal, attends every year and uses the conference as a way to screen potential articles and submissions. There was a time when IJOCA was the only academic journal in English that was devoted to comics; we are all glad that this is no longer the case, but PCA played a role in helping to establish IJOCA, getting it subscriptions and a truly intimidating page count. In this day of Powerpoint presentations and increasingly crowded panels, it is always tempting to forgo actually writing an essay which, in all fairness, you wouldn't have time to read anyway. But consider prepping a complete version for potential submission, because even if IJOCA does not use it, there are other things you can do with it.
We give two awards every year. The first, and by far the oldest, is the Inge Award for outstanding comics scholarship. It is given to the best of the submitted papers from that year's conference. Three judges are recruited at the Area Meeting. Amy Nyberg provides a plaque and modest honorarium out of her own pocket. Our second, and more recent, award, is the John Lent Award, which is given to the best paper submitted by a student. Again, not everyone submits papers to these competitions. Indeed, most presenters do not. Consider prepping at least a draft version of an actual paper; Amy allows a couple of weeks after the conference for authors to revise and complete essays which may still be in draft form at the time of the conference.
Many of these essays have gone on to see publication in various journals over the years.
#5: University of Mississippi Press
For many years the area had a close relationship with UMP, which was an early leader in the publication of comics-related research. This relationship began with Seetha Srinivasan, who was Director of the press and served there for 29 years. After her retirement in 2008, the comics line she pioneered was picked up by editor Walter Biggins, who has also just announced a move. This leaves the comics line at UMP in some amount of doubt.
#6: Area Dinner
I'm sure every conference has regular social events; let me tell you about ours. The area dinner is usually planned for a Thursday or Friday evening, depending on the schedule. It is usually quite large, with about thirty attendees. There's no official budget for this; we all pay our own share of the check. And because the area is so large, the dinner can frustrate some attendees, who end up speaking only to the few people seated near them. But this is a great opportunity to make some new and interesting friends, and you never know what will come out of it.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Institute for Korvac Studies, our sister organization and the source for the legendary Korvie Award. The Institute is a mock-academy panel we have held almost every year for about the last decade. On that panel, we make fun of ourselves and what we do. The traditional Korvac paper picks a minor, obscure, or absurd character (such as the Man-God Korvac) and explains how this character is actually the most important topic in our field, in academia at large, or indeed in all the time-space continuum. Another common tactic is to do an absolutely batshit crazy reading of any number of batshit crazy story arcs produced by the superhero comics industry over the last 75 years. Any topic is welcome, as long as it is not serious. Be aware that the Institute for Korvac Studies appears in the PCA program and the titles of our papers are often so over-saturated with self-mocking jargon that they sometimes get taken for legitimate papers by those not in on the joke. Make of that what you will.
I've been attending PCA for about fifteen years. It's a wonderful community of supportive, brilliant, and energizing people who are both scholars and, I am lucky to say, my friends. I hope you find a home here, as I have.
Dr. Jason Tondro
Assistant Professor of English
College of Coastal Georgia