The 2013 conference took place in Glasgow and Dundee from the 24th- 28th of June. Keynotes included Grant Morrison, Roger Sabin and Sir Kenneth Calman. We also welcomed French artists Nikola Witko, Tanitoc and Jean-Yves Ferri (author of the forthcoming Astérix chez les Pictes). Below are in-depth conference recaps from several participants, social media interaction info, a selection of photos from the week, and sketches of many speakers by French bande dessinée artist Tanitoc.
Download the conference programme here
What follows is a brief report on the Joint International Graphic Novel and IBDS Conference, which took place in Glasgow and Dundee on 24th-28th June 2013. The overall theme was ‘Scotland and the Birth of Comics’. Introductory welcome talk from the Head of College of Arts, University of Glasgow, Murray Pittock set the tone for the conference, really, pointing out that there is very little difference between fiction and history, as even the latter becomes fictionalised through representation of events and characters. Enter the world of fantasy.
Grant Morrison – Highlighting the importance of Scotland and Scots in the history of comics, and the influence of the US on Glasgow (and the current feedback into US publications). Pointed out the fascination with death during the fall of empires, linking the current crisis to the horror genre, and the rise of cynicism for American characters (e.g. superheroes) – which Scottish authors always believed in as symbols. As such, they cannot really be changed, just adapted to new audiences, with key themes underlying the stories.
Sir Kenneth Calman – Humour is the universally recognised aspect of medical cartoons, and is identifiable across the world. The scenes are not fictional, but based on real experiences of malpractice or events and can highlight the issues in current medical practice – useful for students, too.
Roger Sabin – Critics have always been, up to 1905, middle class, self-credentialising anonymous men. Language used in favour of comics and against them does not really change much from then on, echoes in Wertham and current attacks against videogames, for example. One of the first positive critical reactions to early comics was Elizabeth Pennell, in The Contemporary Review.
Laurence Grove – Claiming to identify yet another ‘first modern comic’ in The Glasgow Looking Glass (1825), around which the conference is built and at the centre of 2016 Glasgow-Geneva exhibition.
The panels included below are the ones I attended personally.
Tassos A. Kaplanis – Favouring open access digital means, set up a course for students to create comics, focusing on the process rather than the product. Comic adaptation as more effective indirect learning.
Kat Sicard – Digital publishers more concerned with piracy than content delivery, limiting creative engagement (e.g. Chris Ware’s Building Stories). But digital is not always the best alternative for more interactivity.
Alexandra Ntouvli – Is the popularity of webcomics such as make-your-own ‘rage comics’ due to the simple cartoon style? Does it make them more relatable (cf. McCloud)?
Dan Goodbrey – In most game comics, game play and comic form remain separated systems. In his work, Dan tries creating more synthesis.
How Comics Function
Joe Sutcliffe Sanders – There are several obvious parallels between picture book and comics scholarship: Moebius, Nodelman, Groesteen, Hatfield. Main difference: Comics are hated in congregations; picture books one by one. In a Barthesian approach, words in picture books have power over images, speaking reader over words – but are we forgetting about the child reader’s participation?
Julia Round – Gothic genre and comics share some formal elements: recycling, absorption, problematised narrative, identity and diegetic borders.
Artists and National Histories
Jonathan Walker – Jonathan’s own book Five Wounds is a collaboration with an artist, trying to resolve the problematic aspects of the word ‘illustration’, perceived as failed attempt, bastardisation of full text/image synthesis. Multisensorial approach in the narration shifted to image perception leads to ‘synaesthetic’ illustration: colour becomes irrational element.
Tasos Anastasiades – Creative process behind The Fascista graphic novel involved lenghty historical and aesthetic research. Visual style should be defined by need to tell story, not showing off drawing skills.
Ian Gordon – Indentifying some genre humour can be relocated to any place that shares the same features – within the Anglophone world. Ian suggests looking at genres as a means of escaping national constraints on comics. But still focuses on English products.
Japanese Comics and Manga
Paul Gravett – Outline of the Lingua Comica project, Europe-Asia collaboration to create ‘shared’ comics as a means to cross-influence different styles, techniques, traditions and conventions. Provocation: Is comics even a language? And if so, what type of language? There are many ‘linguae comicae’ outside US, BD and manga.
Shari Sabeti – Manga Shakespeare as an adaptation of canonical work to ‘new’ medium, crossing borders to educate teenagers – bridging ‘The Gap': digital, generation, literacy types, relevance. But it all seems based on assumptions made by adults about young readers.
Casey Brienza – There are three narratives circulating about the success of manga in US: odorless adaptation (Japan), conquest/invasion (media), Gross National Cool/export (cultural policy). Casey argues that it is none of the three but a collaborative competition – Japanese publishers initially held most power, whereas it is now shifting abroad, towards who takes more risks with the publications.
Ulrich Heinze – Does the fictionalisation of social issues downplay their importance, or does it highlight and realistically document the phenomenon? With reference to hikikomori (social withdrawal) condition in Japan.
Theories of Origin
Hannah Miodrag – Defining the origin point of the medium is motivated by political and formal issues. But do we need to pinpoint the start, or fully define comics (cf Meskin)? Hannah introduces the idea of a ‘comicsy’ spectrum: standard but not essential features of comics.
Chris O’Neill – A retrospective on Töpffer’s work and his influences. Töpffer creates new faces, not real ones – each physical characteristic representing different personalities. Risk of creating negative stereotypes?
Jesse Prevoo – Elements of comics, such as speech-bubbles, found in religious (mostly) illustrations all the way back to 650 BCE. Essentially debunking claims for Yellow Kid and Töppfer as ‘first comics’.
Silvia Magistrali – Artistic movements highly influential on development of Italian comics, aiming publications at younger audience increased the readership, and academic work by Umberto Eco and others crucial to the acceptance of the medium as subject worthy of study.
Barbara Uhlig – Development of Italian styles due to a combination of international influences, collaborations and publications. Lines, panels, borders, contrast seem to be prevalent, but Mattotti focuses on colours.
Connecting with the Past
Zanne Lyttle – Justify interest in superhero comics fandom – similar to religious movement and organisation: there is a weekly ritual, and bigger congregations, creation of a community of near-disciples. This supported by Real Life Superheroes, who claim their choice is influenced by Batman, not religion. People are not becoming less religious, just less institutionally so. New moral codes come from fictions, such as comics – and comics can also be manipulated.
Pedro Germano Leal – Three modes of image/text interaction: Register, Ekphrasis, Synergraphy (third latent meaning from ‘combination’ of two). History of writing and grammatology can be useful tools to understand development of comics medium.
Stephen O’Donnell, University of Dundee, http://dundee.academia.edu/StephenODonnell
Glasgow University was host to the five-day joint International Comics and Graphic Novel and International Bande Dessinée Society conference from 24th June 2013. Titled “Scotland and the Birth of Comics”, the event attracted scholars, artists and writers from around the world, addressing the broader questions of history, nationality and culture which spring from this theme.
The conference made the most of this year’s location, with Glasgow’s West End the main setting, but spreading beyond the Kelvin and the Clyde to other venues of historical importance in the field of comics. The grandness of Glasgow University’s Main Building opened the first day (“It’s like Hogwarts!” exclaimed one international comics superstar), and an exhibition in the university’s Special Collections Department, followed by a reception in the impressive Hunterian Art Gallery ended a successful day of keynote addresses. Day Two saw the conference move further along University Avenue to the modern Wolfson Building and then on to the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) for the “Laydeez Do Comics” event and the City Chambers for reception number two, and a welcome address to the comics community from the city.
With the opening days of the conference centring on the discovery of “The Glasgow Looking Glass” as the first modern comic, it was fitting that Day Three saw the conference travel eastwards to Dundee, the spiritual home of the modern British comic. The University of Dundee provided further sessions on comics history, the future of comics studies, an exhibition of DC Thomson comics artwork, and a brief pilgrimage to the Desperate Dan and Minnie The Minx statues in the town centre, before returning to the West End of Glasgow for a more international feel for the final two days.
Day Four commenced the IBDS section of the conference, and was the busiest so far in terms of speakers, but the layout of the Wolfson Building ensured easy access between the three parallel panels and adequate space to congregate and converse inbetween sessions. The conference came to a close on Day Five, with one final move to Alliance Francaise de Glasgow in Park Circus for keynote lectures from leading figures in bande dessinée, emphasising the host city’s connection not just with the Anglophone comics of its past and successful present, but with the wider world of international comics and comics academia.
Lectures and Panels
The conference opened with Grant Morrison, providing a keynote lecture on the topic of Scottish comics. Asking himself why Scotland has such a strong tradition in comics creation, he suggested it links to historical “dark and sinister trends in Scottish Fiction”; the nation’s conscious fascination and unconscious obsession with all things Gothic are transposed onto comics, which he believes to be the best and most accessible source for imaginative literature.
His talk was friendly and informal, and though he opened with a disclaimer that he was not an academic, his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the medium of comics provided much insight into the creative process, learning the trade, and marrying the personal and the political into texts that appeal to a wide audience. Morrison’s anecdotes of his early years at DC Thomson and his influences in comics were interspersed with discussion on the influx of American culture on the UK, and how the “British invasion” of comics writers has attempted to impact on this cultural exchange.
The Q&A session for Morrison was longer than his actual talk, showing the desire of the audience to connect with the writer, and Morrison’s openness to discuss his work and expand on the themes from his presentation. With initial questions led by Marc Singer (presenting his own paper on Morrison’s work the following day), the main focus was on the influence of Scotland within Morrison’s comics, contrasted with the apparent lack of a directly Scottish narrative. Suggesting a love/hate relationship with the country, Morrison claimed he encountered hostility towards creativity, and so used his fantastical creations to escape the unfriendly reality. Though he did not address this more directly, the concept of the Caledonian Antisyzygy was apparent, in the Gothic duality of his work and his influences, his discussion of the Scottish psyche (“Scots are weird” he offered, as an explanation of the dark Scottish imagination countering the national pragmatism), and the willingness to adopt aspects of one specific culture (the USA) over another (England/ “Britishness”).
Following Grant Morrison was Sir Kenneth Calman, Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, discussing the use of medical cartoons and caricatures in a learning context. “With Head and Hand and Heart” explored the history of the image of the doctor, from etchings of Seventeenth Century apothecaries and physicians to modern newspaper cartoons. Sir Kenneth argued for the importance of the humour of these cartoons, stating that the various roles of a doctor are emphasised through comedy, and the aspects of his titular head (knowledge and evidence-based diagnosis), heart (vocational passion and patient-care) and hand (clinical skills, hospital management) are therefore strengthened and improved upon.
Sir Kenneth claimed to use these cartoons in his own teaching of medical students, to highlight positive and negative traits, and also to introduce ways of handling sensitive situations. However, he admitted his choice of examples was doctor-focused, with little in the way of the viewpoint of patients. This was put to him during his Q&A, when he admitted to being aware of the Graphic Medicine faction, but not familiar with their work. Disappointingly, this meant that he was only able to provide the viewpoint of the caregiver, and not the patient, suggesting that the comics medium is best used to introduce humour to serious subjects, rather than addressing all the emotions of one suffering an illness.
The afternoon session on the Monday saw Roger Sabin discuss his research in UK comics criticism from the 1880s to early 1900s. With the main focus of his study on the period of 1884-1905, Sabin briefly introduced notable comics from before this period, specifically the Glasgow Looking Glass from 1825, but admitted to not having researched into Scottish comics, despite the theme and location of the conference. However, to even his own surprise, Scottish comics had a large presence in his lecture, with kilted drunks slumped next to Ally Sloper, and Scottish delinquents turning away from proper literature and onto comics.
Sabin presented the introduction of comics criticism as a positive step for the medium, which had been previously condemned as “a fungus” and “as bad as the [penny] dreadful”. An established form of critical writing brought a new legitimacy to comics, with Sabin claiming Elizabeth Pennell to be the first comics scholar, when she wrote of comics as “ a new vernacular” and a “stimulus to reading”.
Sabin’s lecture showed the cyclical fears surrounding comics, emanating from those who did not understand the medium. The working class audience of early comics was routinely disparaged from more established quarters, with drunkenness and illiteracy associated with this audience, but the comics themselves challenged these ideas, using humour to address social issues. This fear of the four colour paper, was, as Sabin noted, repeated in the 1950s, with Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent railing against the delinquency of the comics reader. And Sabin sees it as a repeating exercise, though the growth of comics academia is reducing the negative accusations.
The first day concluded with Dr Laurence Grove giving a belated welcome to Glasgow University, and introducing the exhibition of The Glasgow Looking Glass – the first “modern” comic, created in Glasgow. After a brief discussion of the comic’s creation, Dr Grove informed the audience that there would be an international exhibition, in Glasgow and Geneva in 2016 for the Glasgow Looking Glass and other comics artefacts. His draft of the exhibition layout – in which the gallery itself would become a living comic – prompted much debate, and was the most involved and impassioned Q&A of the day. The merits of particular comics, writers and artists will provide much discussion up to and beyond the opening of the 2016 exhibition, and as the Glasgow Looking Glass’s “first modern comic” status continues the debate as to what makes a comic, who should represent comics will offer equally controversial considerations.
Day Two saw the introduction of parallel panels, and therefore it became impossible to listen to all of the speakers. Moving between rooms during sessions was permitted, but with the Q&A involving all speakers together at the end of each panel rather than immediately following each paper, it was more rewarding to view a panel as a whole. The “Scotland And Comics” panel was the first of the day, and John McShane built upon the previous day’s The Glasgow Looking Glass exhibit. Detailing the short lifetime of the publication, and the perplexing choices made in its archiving, leading to it being overlooked by many, McShane argued for it to be recognised as a significant entry in comics history. He also highlighted the importance of the work of William Heath, who greatly improved The Glasgow Looking Glass’s content upon joining several issues in. McShane discussed the differences between pre-and post-Heath issues, but noted Heath’s keenness to accept credit as sole creator resulted in the publication’s fading from prominence and historical misrepresentation.
Damon Herd’s paper on Scottish identity within Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical comics provided some insight on Campbell as an ex-pat Scot, living in Australia, writing on being a teenager in London. His discussion of Campbell’s use of dark humour, and occasional lapses into phonetic Scottish were just two examples of how the Scottish identity is maintained by author and character when outwith the homeland.
Marc Singer paper on Grant Morrison’s fiction brought back the previous day’s discussion of the (absence of) Scottish identity. Singer proposed that Morrison avoids Glasgow and Scotland as settings as much as possible, to aid the escape of fantastical fiction, and to allow greater identification with an everytown rather than a particular location. Where he does use Glasgow is when fact and reality intrudes upon his fictional worlds, such as in Bible John, based on the unsolved Glasgow serial killings, and Animal Man, in which Morrison himself appears as the Glasgow-based writer of the series.
Scott McDonald continued the Morrison theme, examining the role of the superhero as a God-like figure. Exploring Morrison’s own All Star Superman and The Invisibles, and the 1999 film The Matrix, McDonald linked the meta-fictional aspects of these texts with the idealised visions we project onto messianic figures in our own reality and our religious ideologies.
The second panel was titled “Illness/Trauma”, and expanded upon Sir Kenneth Calman’s lecture from the previous day. Anna Girling opened this panel, discussing David B’s Epileptic, and its theme of blindness and misrepresentation. Girling showed the stark black and white artwork to mislead the reader as the narrative becomes more and more complex, and reality is substituted for depictions of the characters’ imagination in trying to understand the illness.
In the parallel panel “How Comics Function”, Julia Round presented on Gothic and Comics, addressing the way in which classic horror comics provide a variety of scares. By showing how the comics medium tackles Gothic sensibilities – by clashing what is imaginary with what is real, and dealing with stylistic, structural and thematic aspects of Gothic – Round put forward a theory-heavy account of Gothic simulation in comics, but one which was focussed, and worked well in conjunction with the accompanying images.
Back in the “Illness/Trauma” panel, Andrew Godfrey presented on the growing status on graphic medicine, emphasising the use of gallows humour as a means of dealing with trauma. Looking at a variety of international texts, Godfrey explored different cultural attitudes to illness and death. In focussing largely on French, Japanese and Jewish texts, he noted the similarities that conquer geography and religion, and which hold true within both fiction and autobiography.
The final panel of the day saw two artists discussing their recent works, and a comics historian communicating his most recent research. Jonathan Walker presented the argument for the illustrated novel, standing between a work of prose and a comic book. His own work, Five Wounds, simultaneously plays with the conventions of the comic and the novel to create a hybrid medium in which the images complement the narrative, rather than propel it.
Tasos Anastasiades presented the concept artwork for his new graphic novel Fascista. He explained his influences in beginning the work, and the research he undertook, as well as his process for choosing particular designs and styles. Fascista appears to be influenced by many examples of totalitarian fiction, but Anastasiades’ artwork is compelling and original. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions (with the book due to be published soon) meant that only the concept art was available – some finished pages would have been appreciated.
Ian Gordon ended the panel with a look at different national traditions in comics. Whilst the paper was mainly concerned with English-language comics of USA, UK and Australia, Gordon took time to discuss the more influential European comics, particularly Töpffer, and the general influence on the whole medium by the satirical works of William Hogarth. Gordon also dispelled a few myths surrounding certain comics, over claims of pioneering particular tropes, such as commercialism, the use of speech bubbles and sequential panels. With much of the conference discussing The Glasgow Looking Glass, it was a worthwhile reminder that a medium as vast as comics can never have a definitive first text unless the parameters and definitions of the medium are radically narrowed.
The day concluded with the conference moving down to the city centre for Laydeez Do Comics hosted by Nicola Streeten and Sarah Lightman. Beginning so soon after the final panel, it was perhaps unwise to follow the regular Laydeez Do Comics format of having the audience introduce themselves and tell a short story – the majority of the audience had come directly from the conference, and this was a larger crowd than previous LDC events. As a result, the introduction lasted for almost an hour and a half, with the initial enthusiasm sagging by the end. However, in the second half of the event, each guest speaker brought a new vitality to the proceedings.
First up was Kate Charlesworth, who gave a brief but thoroughly enjoyable account of her career as a cartoonist and illustrator, and then discussed her artwork for the forthcoming Sally Heathcote: Suffragette with Mary and Bryan Talbot.
Gill Hatcher was next, talking about Team Girl Comics, what inspired her to make comics, and how she manages the TGC anthology, its numerous contributors, and increasing web presence. Gill also emphasised that TGC contributors were from a variety of backgrounds, not just academics and artists, and with a broad spectrum of interest in making comics, from hobby to profession.
Hattie Kennedy presented some of her PhD research on Québécois bande desinée, and her recent research trip to Canada. She also discussed aspects of identity and nationalism in the works of Miriam Katin and Julie Doucet.
The event’s two hosts brought things to a close. Sarah Lightman introduced her forthcoming project The Book of Sarah, and was the only speaker to use film and audio to accompany her presentation. The concept of life within objects was portrayed with close-up shots of her sketches, complemented with psalms sung in Hebrew.
Nicola Streeten discussed her memoir Billy, Me & You, and how her creating a graphic narrative helped in coping with the death of her son. The serious subject matter was more readily handled through comics than another medium. She also discussed her current work, online strips of a personal but playful nature.
The third day of the conference involved a day trip to Dundee, to see the home city of DC Thomson, The Dandy and The Beano, and Oor Wullie and The Broons. The University of Dundee also runs a successful MLitt programme in Comics Studies, and offers comics modules as part of its English and Art degrees.
Dr Chris Murray, programme convenor of the university’s English department, and Comics Studies course, welcomed the conference to the city, and gave a talk on the history of comics in Dundee. DC Thomson were unsurprisingly the main focus of this presentation, but Dr Murray provided some new insights in his chronicle: the reporting of the Tay Rail Bridge disaster demanded new technologies to provide detailed illustrations amid the newspaper text, and Dundee’s journalism industry, positioned in an area of relative wealth, was able to benefit greatly from such technologies. The advances in printing allowed for DC Thomson to be at the forefront when comic strips and early comic books were becoming established. Dr Murray also provided some anecdotes, suggesting the insular and parochial thinking of the Scottish industry, despite its international success – the editors at DCT rejected Superman, unwilling to pay for unproven Americans Siegel and Shuster, when the cheaper alternative was to “just get a local boy to do it”.
Following this lecture, there was a discussion on establishing a professional body for Comics Studies. With Dundee offering modules and degrees in this field, other universities providing similar courses, and indeed this entire conference showing the passion for comics studies, Dr Murray and Dr Ian Hague presented the collated results from a recent study of academics interested in comics. The general consensus from Dr Murray, Dr Hague, and the attending audience was that a professional body is the next logical step, but there are many obstacles: national or international (UK & Ireland or European or Global); what to include as “comics”; what to exclude as “not comics”; what to be called – “Comics Studies”, “Comics and Graphic Novels Studies”, “Comics and Bande Dessinée” or some other variation.
Some of these obstacles appear trivial, but could prevent certain areas of research from attaining funding, whilst exclusion may also deny academic legitimacy. It was suggested that the best way to take things forward is to use established academic systems, such as libraries, archives and research lists to cement a comics studies network.
This scholarly discussion was followed by a more lighthearted event. DeeCAP – Dundee Comic and Performance – provided a stage for some independent comics creators to perform their works. Damon Herd hosted, opening with the introductory section of his Ticking Boy autobiographic comic, and he provided musical interludes between the other performers with his electric guitar and poetic panels.
David Robertson narrated two of his comedic strips, the first about forgetting the name of the actor Joe Pesci, and the second a parody of the Jedi Council for Star Wars Episode 1.
Andrew Godfrey presented some of his work on graphic medicine, and engaged the audience to sing along during his account of performance artist Bob Flanagan and his struggle with cystic fibrosis.
Naomi Bridges rounded off DeeCAP by incorporating a Gaelic poem into the performance of her own comic.
The day in Dundee was ended with a brief introduction to an exhibition of Dudley D Watkins artwork by DCT editor Morris Heggie. Most famous for The Broons and Oor Wullie (both present here), Watkins full range was on display, from the black and white cartoon stylings of Desperate Dan to full-colour paintings of biblical tales.
Day Four saw the conference back in Glasgow. It was the final day of parallel panels, but there was a lot to pack in over the course of the day.
“Japanese Comics and Manga” began at 9am, with Paul Gravett as the first speaker. Gravett presented on a new approach to creating comics, via inspiration and collaboration with other nationalities. His “Lingua Comica” consisted of exchanges between Asia and Europe, with comics artists from different continents collaborating to create cross-border and cross-cultural work.
Shari Sabeti presented the first stage results of her research in using Manga Shakespeare as a learning tool in classrooms. She had been interviewing the creators of these Manga adaptations to find assess the approaches and benefits of such adaptation. Sabeti also discussed the concept of “trust” as opposed to “truth” as a necessity in adaptation.
Casey Brienza discussed the problems and idiosyncrasies involved in producing Japanese Manga for an American audience. She highlighted the differences in publishing etiquette across the continents, and the power exercised by some creators over the publication of their work. Some artists, claimed Brienza, insist they know the right way to market their own texts in other territories, even though they are ignorant or unaware of cultural differences.
Ulrich Heinze ended this panel with his research into the disaffected and socially withdrawn youth (and not-so youthful) of Japan – the hikikomori. Involving social research, and socio-historical investigation into the origins of this phenomenon, Heinze linked this to economic recession, but within a culture that allows such withdrawal to perpetuate. He showed the rise of hikikomori literarture and manga to be a means of tackling this social problem.
The “Theories of Origin” panel tackled some of the questions that had been posed throughout the previous days.
Hannah Miodrag provided an argument for a non-essentialist approach to defining comics, an approach which would aid in establishing the professional body of comics studies as dicussed the previous day. Miodrag recognised both the problems and advantages of defining comics, and succinctly explained her concept of a flexible boundary for analysing comics texts. However, her term of “comicsy” (which she admitted was intended to be a playful, temporary idea, and not a decisive, academic concept) met some resistance from the audience, some of whom felt it was a definition in itself.
Chris O’Neill presented on the work of Rodolphe Töpffer, a comics pioneer, who had been mentioned by many over the conference. O’Neill looked at Töpffer’s Essai de physiognomonie, and discussed the history of physiognomy as an “artistic science”, and Töpffer’s position as the “father of the comic strip”. He also highlighted the differences between Töpffer’s (and other artists’) study of physiognomy as a technique, and its use in stereotyping and racial profiling.
Jesse Prevoo closed this panel with the most intriguing of titles so far – “Where does it all start?” Once more, his paper linked to themes from earlier in the week, this time he debunked Outcault’s Yellow Kid as the first comic, showing that it could be link in the chain leading to modern comics, but many of its tropes are predated in Punch, Civil War images, and even as far back as artwork from 650BC. Prevoo was aware that these early works are not comics as we know them today, but provided various examples, including the sequential art of the Stations of the Cross, to show the numerous influences and inspirations on the modern comic.
The first afternoon panel, simply titled “Italy”, provided some insight into a successful comics nation that does not always receive the recognition awarded to French, Japanese and English comics. Silvia Magistralli discussed the early years of Italian comics, showing the Corriere dei Piccoli and its mix of original strips and translated American classics. She also showed the new political awareness adopted by the Italian translation of Peanuts in the 1960s.
Barbara Ulhig discussed the development of the Italian comic through the work of Dino Battaglia, Guido Crepax and Lorenzo Mattotti. Each artist was shown to imitate the successful comics of the past, but then develop individual styles which have since defined their work, and displayed the capabilities of the medium.
Alex Valente, showed the difficulties found in translating texts, particularly when translating humour, and additional difficulties in comics translation. Using Italian comics as source texts, Valente broke down jokes into their basic concepts, to explain which humour components must travel across the language barrier. He also showed that onomatopoeia is also affected by translation, and so “action-sounds”, part of the comics’ visual aesthetic, rather than specifically textual, must also be translated appropriately.
The final panel was titled “Connecting With The Past”. Zanne Lyttle opened discussions with her paper on comics as religion. Comparing superheroes with messiah figures, Lyttle showed a variety of comics characters to be analogous to biblical and mythical figures. As religions and established moralities reflect the society of the time, so to do superheroes, whose narratives are constructed to form social guidelines. Lyttle also commented on the emergence of the “Real Life Super Hero”, the costumed figures who fight crime and rescue cats from trees in their local neighbourhoods. These are disciples/fans taking the message to an extreme.
Pedro Germano Leal took comics back to the earliest incarnation, although he was clear that he does not see hieroglyphs as comics, but a language that is a precursor to the medium. He showed how the linear (of the text) interacts with the non-linear (of the image) within hieroglyphs, and the ways in which this is applied in contemporary comics. His presentation also showed some early examples of metatextuality, with the Egyptian god of writing depicted as a glyph, representing both himself and the act of writing.
Louisa Buck provided an interlinked history of the newspaper cartoon, showing the cartoon as a hypertext, constantly rewritten upon an older text. Her example of Steve Bell’s political cartoons, both parody and homage the work of Gilray, a similar political artist of the 18th Century, who himself takes inspiration from earlier texts. Buck’s presentation insisted that knowledge of the artwork and artists was important, but an awareness of the contemporary politics surrounding each piece was just as essential. The cyclical retelling within the hypertext spills out onto the real world as things change but stay the same.
The last speaker of Day 4 was Paul Campbell, presenting his own investigation into the influence of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories on Edgar Jacobs’ Blake & Mortimer series. Styling his paper as a mystery to be solved he provided several instances of apparent inspiration, which together made a convincing case for his argument. Campbell’s discussion plotted the narrative inspiration for the Jacobs characters, but also provided examples of the comics medium being influence by real-life, art, fashion, and cinema.
I was unable to attend the last day of the conference, in the leafy Park Circus, but the final keynote lectures were given by significant figures in bande dessinée: Tanitoc, an artist who had been present during the previous four days, sketching each of the speakers as they presented to their audience; Nicola Witko, comics writer and artist, with a forthcoming book set in Scotland; and Jean-Yves Ferri, author of the new, Scotland-set, Asterix book.
The recurrent Joint International Graphic Novel and IBDS Conference, an event marked in the calendars of many comics scholars, took place in Glasgow and Dundee this year between the 24th and 28th June. The theme for the event was framed around Scotland and the birth of comics (the Glasgow Looking Glass predating the work of Rodolphe Töpffer by almost 10 years), however to broaden the scope, the call for papers also looked for papers that considered international comics traditions, comics and identity, and cross-border influences. Like prior years, the conference maintained its international appeal, with scholars travelling from a range of continents, and appeared to run unhitched largely thanks to the organisation of Laurence Grove (Glasgow), and Chris Murray (Dundee), alongside the crack team which included Lise Tannahill…(add as you feel appropriate). With the event boasting up to three panels running parallel to each other, and five full days of talks, I was unable to see everything. Therefore, what follows will be a gappy narrative of my experiences of the event.
Monday (24th June) kicked off with a bang—the media attention surrounding the event (from me reading a news story about the event in the Metro newspaper on my journey up to Glasgow that day, to the news report that covered the days event on STV – my claim to fame is that a shot of me biting my nails made the cut in the report) highlighted that Scottish heritage and the country’s comic book lineage were being taken very seriously. Grant Morrison started proceedings with an anecdotal talk of his life in the industry, with a slant towards the relationship of comic books and Scotland. As a person who has read few of Morrison’s work, his talk was satisfyingly accessible to those less versed in his writing. I missed the following keynote speaker, Sir Kenneth Calman, but returned for Roger Sabin’s talk. Apologetically less Scottish focused, Sabin offered an interesting insight into early British comic strips (like Punch, and Ally Sloper), the writers, the audience, and the critics. Sabin developed upon some interesting finds, including drawing connections between early strip criticism with the comic book fears of the 1950s, alongside developing upon the possibility of the first comics scholar appearing in 1886. Laurence Grove concluded this portion of the day, with a presentation of his forthcoming exhibition which will unite the Glasgow Looking Glass with some of Rodolphe Töpffer’s work, alongside a host of other more contemporary artists who use word and image in their artwork. “Will there be women artists present in this exhibition?” was the lead contention in the following discussion. The day ended with a chance to get up close with some of the University’s special collection’s holdings, which included a bound copy of the Glasgow Looking Glass. Then it was onto the first of many wine receptions of the five days, this one at the Hunterian Gallery which will host Grove’s forthcoming exhibition in 2016.
The following day (25th June) saw a more orthodox conference set up, with three panels of talks running parallel through each session. I attended the opening “Scotland and Comics” panel, with John McShane’s interesting study into the Glasgow Looking Glass, followed by creator focused talks on Eddie Campbell (by Damon Herd), and Grant Morrison (by Marc Singer and Scott McDonald). In the following session, Julia Round gave us a glimpse into her forthcoming monograph on gothic comics, looking at how the comic’s form can translate elements of the gothic. I then zigzagged to another room to catch the end of Ian Hague’s talk on the use of smell in comic books, which I heard a lot of praise for alongside the talk I missed – Frank Bramlett’s study of the Quotidian in comic books (a sequel to his engaging talk at Comics Forum last November). To close the day of talks, I attended “Pop Culture and Consumerism” which showcased Joan Ormrod’s study into British romance comics, which attempted to locate the origins of the breath-like speech balloons in these comics (surmising these were potentially of European origin). Nina Mickwitz’s “Mister Dentist – I’m so Alone” looked at comic strip toothpaste adverts, and how advertisers used romance narratives to implore the readership to buy their brand. I unfortunately missed the following Laydeez do Comics talk (which Damon Herd has summarised on the Laydeez website), but was able to attend the closing event of the day – a wine reception, this time at the opulent (marble stair case and all) City Chambers.
With a picturesque coach journey through the Trossachs (Lochs, castles, and cows galore), Wednesday the 26th saw our excursion to the University of Dundee. Chris Murray opened the day with a talk which explored the place of DC Thompson in the history of comics, offering a informative overview of the publisher. He reflected on the early formative years, and the latter American influences (such as the superhero genre influx), and also humorously contemplated upon the possibility that a character dressed in green and carrying a lamp, alongside a hero sporting a Batman-like cape (from Scottish comics dated 1937) could be Scottish firsts – much earlier than the popular DC Comics characters the Green Lantern and Batman. The jury is still out on that one.
This was followed by the first group discussion into setting up a professional body for Comics Studies. Ian Hague and Murray presented their findings from the survey sent out at the beginning of the year, which questioned what people would want from such a professional body. The results suggested that there was a strong demand for availability and accessibility. The majority wanted better accessibility for hard to get journals like the International Journal of Comic Art; there was also demand for better mapping of comics archives, locations for comics related dissertations, and a database for comics related courses; this was alongside a need to target relationships between universities and relevant departments. The other element that this discussion contended with was whether this body should act as an umbrella for all the other networks to fall under (i.e. ComFor, NNCORE, etc.), or whether it should remain a British institution. The answer was that this body should remain British, as a larger international scope may be too problematic, particularly in the formative stages. Feedback seemed largely positive on the day, and no one present raised too large of a concern about the development process. Concluding, Hague and Murray highlighted that the next step in the process will be to decide upon a name for the group, and to produce a draft constitution (to be published on the Comics Forum site in the near future), which will be discussed at the next meeting tentatively set for Comics Forum (Leeds) this November.
The day of talks concluded with the light hearted Dee Cap, which saw the University’s students Damon Herd, Andrew Godfrey, Naomi Bridges, alongside David Robertson perform their comic works that were projected on the screen. What followed was another wine reception, this time surrounded by original artwork from the DC Thompson archives.
Thursday (the 27th) was unfortunately my final day, and the real world beckoned. However, I was fortunate enough to catch the first two sessions, opening with the panel on manga. Paul Gravett opened with a talk on his fascinating Lingua Comica project, which seen East Asian comic creators collaborate with European creators, showcasing the finished products which unfixed typical national comics traditions. Shari Sabeti followed on with her continuing study into the cross border nature of manga adaptations of the work of Shakespeare. Casey Brienza came next with personally one of my favourite talks of the event, offering an industry perspective of the publication of Japanese manga in the West, and the power that the Japanese industry has over American publishers looking to reproduce manga for a Western audience. Having interviewed over 75 people from the manga industry, Brienza highlighted she knew her stuff, and offered an interesting anecdotal look into this publishing industry. Ulrich Heinze concluded the panel with a talk on the depiction of Otaku and Hikikomori (Japanese geek/anti-social culture in laymans terms) in manga.
This panel was followed by the “Theories and Origins” panel, which was opened with a talk by Hannah Miodrag. In her talk, she made a call to move away from the focus/preoccupation some scholars have with definitions of the comics form, and instead appreciate qualities of the form, or what she terms as “comicsy,” quite similar to how some phrase things as “cinematic.” This was followed by Chris O’Neill’s look at the origins of physiognomy in bande dessinée, and then Jesse Prevoo’s broad overview of the history of word and image (journeying us back some two thousand years), aptly titled “Where does it all start?”
In concluding this portion of my report, I’m happy to say that my overall experience in Scotland was great. I saw some fantastic papers, and the bar has been set very high for next year in Manchester. However, using the remainder of my self-imposed word count, I’d like to reflect upon an unwritten and recurrent topic/theme that ran throughout this conference which explored national and cross/border traditions. As a PhD student (studying in Dundee) focusing upon the Western in comic books, it was to my surprise how often the American West, or rather the Western, and its strong links to Scottish heritage (and comics), cropped up. However, it makes complete sense to me now appearing in a conference framed around (amongst other things) cross-border/national influences in comics.
Grant Morrison started me on this trail with his opening talk which touched upon the importation of Americana into ports on the West of Scotland, thus starting the American cultural invasion, including of course the Wild West. He noted that Scotland and America both engage in similar “self-deception,” and suggested that the Scottish find appealing that image of a moral and progressive society in the Western – “pure fantasy” he says. Morrison furthers this idea of the Western image stamped on the Scottish imagination pointing to Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry club, where Scotsmen dress in cowboy attire. But this trait has seeped into the Scottish comics tradition also.
Desperate Dan made a recurrent appearance throughout the week (in talks such as Damon Herd’s and Chris Murray’s); he is a figure that highlights this connection between the Western and Scottishness as a comic series which conflates the Wild West with modern day Dundee. So key is this figure, he is commemorated on the Dundee high street – a giant bronze statue (some conference delegates would make a pilgrimage to the site during the visit to Dundee). Likewise, in commemorating Scottish comics heritage in Glasgow, a bronze statue of Bud Neill’s Lobey Dosser astride the two-legged horse Elfie can be found riding beside Woodlands Road.
I find it interesting that classic characters like Oor Wullie, or even household names like Dennis the Menace, were overlooked in the proud commemoration of Scottish comics heritage. However, are the Scots also self reflexively perpetuating those links between Scottish character and the cowboy image by choosing to commemorate these cowboy heroes? Of course these are not your typical cowboys of the American comic books (square jawed, and immaculately dressed); Desperate Dan, the round bellied giant, has a sensational appetite for pies, whereas Lobey Dosser’s audacious long beard is used to attach his sheriff’s star to. As Chris Murray noted in his talk, there is an “earthy Scotch humour” which combines warmth, and cynicism, in Scottish comics. It is this humorous nature that may have subverted the cowboy image, and made these Western archetypes into something truly Scottish. But do all Scots aspire to the cowboy way of life? In Damon Herd’s talk on his study of the autobiographical works of Eddie Campbell, he points that Campbell’s earliest ambition as a child was, like many other people, to be a cowboy. Herd evidences this through one of Campbell’s comic panels, which envisages a very young Campbell, astride a tricycle in cowboy attire: “I’d never met a cowboy either but I never saw that as an impediment to becoming one.”
There is a strong comic book/Scottish/Western tradition here, and certainly more to be explored than my brief foray into this world that this fantastic event has shown to me. In concluding, I’d like to leave a quote from Morrison. As the Western image appears clearly linked to Scottish character in some way, it is therefore no surprise that in his talk which criticised the recent characterisation of characters like Superman and Batman, Morrison calls for a return to form—“bring back a bit of John Wayne to these characters.”
 Of course the history of the American West was shaped by a number of notable Scotsmen; for example, figures like J. C. Johnston and John Clay were instrumental in developing the cattle trade and ranching.
The 2013 conference was the first to have significant social media interaction through Twitter, via the IBDS Twitter account and the conference’s dedicated hashtag (#scotlandcomics13). Data available here (including an archive of tweets made) show that there were over 900 tweets about the conference from a large number of users, a significant number of whom were not present, but were able to engage with the conference online.