Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Secret Life of Comic Scholars

So, there are people who study comic books for a living. I’m not just talking about Chris “Batmanologist” Sims and other bloggers, though we all read and enjoy such work. Rather, I am talking about professors at colleges and universities around the world who write books, teach classes, and do research on comics, including superhero comics.

There are a few times in the year when these people get together for a sort of high-brow version of SanDiego ComiCon. The International Comic Arts Forum is one — this year ICAF is going to be held at James Sturm’s Center for Cartoon Studies, which grants an MA in the making of comics. The Comic Arts Conference has been held at San Diego ComiCon for almost twenty years now, and has even branched out into a Bay Area cousin for WonderCon. But I’m not going to talk about any of those, because what happened this last week was the annual meeting of the International Popular Culture Association, held in San Antonio, Texas. This is a massive gathering of some three thousand scholars to talk about everything from Twilight and Harry Potter to myth and folklore, the Grateful Dead, or House. The PCA is divided into many smaller “Areas”, and one of the largest — I think we’re beat out by the Science Fiction area and one or two others — is Comic Art and Comics. This year, there were over a hundred graduate students, professors, and “Independent Scholars” (which is a short way of saying ‘really smart people who haven’t been hired by a University’) who came to San Antonio to present some of their research on comics.

When you’re coming to PCA, you arrive Tuesday night or Wednesday morning and the shindig lasts through Saturday. It travels around through various cities, some popular (New Orleans, Boston), some not (St. Louis). It’s almost always over Easter, because that is when travel and hotel prices are lowest, and professors and grad students are cheap. Most people try to get money from their universities, which after all insist we do stuff like this, but money is hard to come by and this year a lot of people who usually come for the whole conference instead had to budget for only a day or two. More than a few people say they are coming, and then either cancel at the last minute because they didn’t get funding from their school or simply don’t show up at all. This year, about 1 out of every 7 people didn’t show up, which was unusually high.

The PCA conference takes almost everyone who wants to come. I guess if you submitted a paper called, “Watchmen ROX and I wanna talk about it!” we might not take you, but just about anyone who wants to brave the trip is welcome. This makes it a great way for new scholars, young students, and others who might be nervous about presenting their work to get some experience. It’s also a great way for old friends to keep in touch. I have many friends at PCA that I see only once a year, for three or four days, while we all get egghead. Each individual person presents for 15-20 minutes; three or four of these papers are grouped together into a panel. We had about 20 panels this year, which is close to the record. Panels start around 8am and go all day long. They used to give us scheduled breaks for lunch and dinner, but in the desire to squeeze as many people as possible into four days, those breaks have gotten tossed and now, if you want to fulfill basic bodily needs like eating you have to miss someone’s panel to do it. Which stinks.

So what are these panels and papers about, right? Many are on the topics you would imagine — if you put five comic geeks in a room you can pretty much predict they’re eventually going to talk about Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, or Civil War and Blackest Night. But there’s also a strong contingent which wants nothing to do with superhero comics and will instead speak about the undergrounds, or Jeff Smith’s Bone, or MAD magazine, or EC comics, the Comics Code, Peanuts, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, or anything else which is art with boxes drawn around it. There’s a pretty strong international contingent that does work on French, Italian, or other European comics like Herge, and a pretty healthy Manga contingent which actually has its own area.

What PCA really shows off is the rich diversity of comics studies. There really is something for everyone here. Since I am teaching a class on superheroes this quarter, my mind was on “long underwear stories,” so I took away copies of papers that argued:
  • In Blackhawk, Howard Chaykin uses fascism to tell liberal, left-wing stories.
  • The Tony Stark of the films uses technology to become human, while in the comics the same technology makes him less human.
  • Wonder Woman is stuck in a “husband quest”, the female version of the traditional heroic quest, and she can’t fulfill it even if we would want her to.
  • Warren Ellis uses Planetary to not only critique other comics, but to set his own story up as a comic that cannot be critiqued.
  • Morrison made the Joker into a magic spell which Heath Ledger successfully performed.
  • The essential quality of the 20th century hero is speed, and the faster he is, the more heroic he is perceived.
  • Stan Lee wrote J Jonah Jameson to be a representation of Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent.
Oh, and there was a paper on Doctor Manhattan’s penis. No, really. But I didn’t bring that one home. After all, my bag might have been searched.

We’re not all business at these conferences. We spend a lot of time hanging out at the hotel bar, going out to eat, or occasionally looking for sweet deals. At Toronto a few years back I found a great comic store and got to stock up on some trades I had missed. About four years ago we started to poke a little fun at ourselves and we created the Institute for Korvac Studies, a “mock panel” where we make up papers about the man-god that is Korvac and we read these ridiculous papers while trying to keep a straight face. We even hand out an award, the Korvie, which began as a Ken doll, but we cut him off at the waist, taped him to a box, and spray painted the whole thing gold. You should see the looks people get when they take that on the plane.

A lot of the papers presented at PCA and similar conferences eventually get published. John Lent, who edits and publishes the International Journal of Comic Art, headhunts for articles there every year. Others go to Mechademia, a book collection on anime and manga put out by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. More still end up in Image/Text, a wonderful online journal for comics research published by the University of Florida. You should check some of these out. Editors and publishers also go to PCA and use the time to meet with potential authors or to renew old acquaintances. My first book contract came out of a PCA meeting, and this year I talked with some editors about my next project. There’s a lot of networking to do, and you also find out what everyone else is working on. Working in a vacuum is sort of the exact opposite of what we do; as critics and scholars, our job is to know what everyone else is doing and build on that. This means ourbusiness is a lot more about social skills than outsiders might realize.

By Saturday night, most of us are pretty wasted. We’re missing our pets, our kids, and our own beds. Sunday sees us roll out of the hotels and to the airports for the long trip home. And then there’s the flurry of emails, the “Hey, can I get a copy of your paper?” queries, and the “See you next year!” notes, the Facebook status updates and the frenzied effort to catch up on all that grading we put off for a week. A lot of people work very hard to make these conferences successful, and without them, where would we all be?

Well, I guess we’d be blogging about it, instead of talking in front of a room full of eggheads. But it just wouldn’t be the same.

1 comment:

  1. Nicole just mentioned this to me, and I'm quite jealous. This sounds like a great event. I especially love your one line blurb on Tony Stark. It would make for quite the character study.

    Although having something entitled "WATCHMEN ROX and I wanna talk about it" getting accepted sounds like a challenge.

    You should know Marvel recently published a kid's friendly version of the Korvac saga, CAPTAIN AMERICA & THE KORVAC SAGA. It was one of their classic stories retold through a finite perspective. Not sure how it holds up to the actual SAGA, but it might be something to look into -- even ironically.