Tagungsbericht „Summer School: Transnational Graphic Narratives“

Universität Siegen, 31. Juli – 5. August 2017

Ein Gastbeitrag von Amadeo Gandolfo, Pablo Turnes, Laura Nallely Hernández Nieto und Lia Roxana Donadon

Illustration von Suraya Binti Md Nasir (artistic web profile: https://www.behance.net/jonsuraya); excellent visual work was created by several other participants as well (e.g., Subir Dey’s: https://www.instagram.com/p/BYFjQGWhVDC/?taken-by=subirdraws).


The first Transnational Graphic Narratives Summer School (abbreviated TGN) was held at the University of Siegen, Campus Unteres Schloß, from July 31st to August 5th of 2017. The participants included the following scholars (in alphabetical order): José Alaniz (University of Washington, USA), Benoît Crucifix (Université de Liège, Belgium), Veronica Dean (University of Los Angeles, USA), Subir Dey (Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, India), Harriet Earle (Sheffield Hallam University, England), Franca Feil (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany), Moritz Fink (Academy for Civic Education Tutzing, Germany), Amadeo Gandolfo and Pablo Turnes (National University of Buenos Aires / CONICET, Argentina), Isabelle Guillaume (University of Bordeaux Montaigne, France), Olivia Hicks (University of Dundee, Scotland), Ganiyu A. Jimoh (University of Lagos, Nigeria), Kenan Koçak (Bilecik Şeyh Edebali University, Turkey), Sarah Lightman (University of Glasgow, Scotland), Suraya Md Nasir (Kyoto Seika University, Japan), Laura Nallely Hernández Nieto (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Barbara Postema (Concordia University, Canada), Johannes Schmid (University of Hamburg, Germany), Pfunzo Sidogi (Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa), Simon Turner (Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture, England), Jocelyn Wright (University of Texas, USA), Tobias Yu-Kiener (University of the Arts London, Great Britain), Giorgio Buzzi Rizzi (University of Bologna, Italy), Lia Roxana Donadon (University of Siegen, Germany).

Group Shot by Jimoh Ganiyu

Group Shot by Jimoh Ganiyu


Prof. Dr. Daniel Stein and Dr. des. Lukas Etter (University of Siegen) were in charge of the organization of the TGN Summer School, with logistical support of student assistants Katja Dosztal and Yvonne Knop (University of Siegen). The Summer School was generously funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.


The Summer School/Conference included in the following formats: Keynotes, Seminars, Project Presentations, Cartoonist’s Workshop, Skype Interview, and Plenary Discussions. These formats were spread across the week and complemented with a Day Trip to Frankfurt am Main, where we visited the Institut für Jugendbuchforschung (Department for Children’s and Young Adult Literature Research).

Every day at the Summer School started with a Keynote Address and Seminar Discussion, where distinguished scholars from the field of Comics Studies spoke about their current research and points of view on graphic narratives. The Keynotes, listed here in the order they were presented, covered a broad range of phenomena: Casey Brienza (City University London) spoke about “Domesticating Manga? Japanese Comics and Transnational Publishing,” Stephan Packard (University of Cologne) about “Imagining Other Audiences: Popular Ideologies of Fiction in Transnationally Published Comics,” Michael A. Chaney (Dartmouth College) about “Para-caption and March Covers, or (Mis)Reading with the President,” and Astrid Böger (University of Hamburg) about “Transnational Graphics Narratives from Down Under: An Overview.”

The Cartoonist’s Workshop was conducted by the French-Congolese artist and author Fifi Mukuna. The organizers said that such a thing was “highly experimental” and, truthfully, we had not encountered such an experience in other conferences, but we believe it worked really well. We were divided into groups and asked to produce our own six-panel comic. Through a process of free association, collective thinking, and random selection of ideas the entire Summer School came up with a character, a place, and an object to be used in the story. Then each group was left to its own devices to develop the rhythm, frames, and level of detail they deemed necessary for the story to work. The workshop functioned as a socializing space in which people got to know each other a little better. Moreover, it worked as a relaxation space where we could unwind from the discussions and thinking. Many of the participants were skilled artists, and the final product was a fun and diverse encapsulation of our many, diverse personalities.

The Cartoonists Workshop with Fifi Mukuna

The Cartoonists Workshop with Fifi Mukuna

The Summer School also included two Plenary Discussions: one on comics studies in Germany, featuring Astrid Böger, Christina Meyer (University of Hannover, Germany), Joachim Trinkwitz (University of Bonn, Germany) and Stephan Packard; the other one on transnational comics studies, with José Alaniz, Casey Brienza, Michael Chaney, Sarah Lightman, Suraya Md Nasir, and Pfunzo Sidogi.

The first plenary discussion outlined the current situation of comics studies in Germany, noting a growing network of comics scholars developing but encountering similar problems as the rest of the world: lack of funding, difficulties getting a teaching position related to comics studies, lack of definition inside universities’ departments, etc. It also brought up the question of translation and the need to communicate findings and research results across languages, as well as the possibilities and limitations of English as a lingua franca for the field. The panel further raised the important issue of the value of comics studies. Even though there is still so much to do and discover in the field, institutionally we still have a hard time demonstrating the value of what we do. This sparked questions on how to better communicate our activities to a mass audience, in what other professional areas we might put our expertise to work, and how our specialization might link to our teaching posts, which are usually related to other fields of knowledge. We received additional input on these questions from Jared Gardner (Ohio State University), who was unable to participate in the Summer School but outlined his perspective via email. The second plenary discussion brought the discussion of these topics to a global stage, highlighting the differences between research in different universities across the world and introducing the necessity and possibility of an international network for comic scholars to communicate about their work and figure out ways to collaborate across national and disciplinary borders.

The Project Presentations were delivered by each participant of TGN and formed the larger portion of the Summer School activities. We were given 45 minutes in total, with 15-20 minutes allotted to the presentation itself and the rest reserved for questions. The objective of this approach was to meld a conference-based approach with a seminar-like approach in order to spark an open and thoughtful discussion/feedback on each topic by the scientific community present at TGN. Each presentation generated a significant amount of debate and questioning. As Daniel Stein said at the end of the week, “I believe we ran out of discussion time for each single presentation,” with the sponsored dinners offering additional opportunities to continue these discussions into the evening.

Sarah Lightman (Glasgow University) discusses Jewish women’s comics

Sarah Lightman (Glasgow University) discusses Jewish women’s comics

The breadth and depth of topics addressed by the project presentations were truly encompassing and engaging. From South African superheroes seen through a postcolonial and pan-African lens, to the difficulties of importing and publishing yaoi manga in the UK due to its ambiguous legal status as pornography, to the use of sound effects in Indian comics written in Indian dialects and the need to develop a tool that enhances them, to the representation of the banlieue and the experiences of immigrants’ children in French comics: each project attested to the transnational scope and expressive potential of graphic narrative. Further subjects included the difficulties with comics censorship in Malaysia and the learning of the “proper way” to draw manga in Japan; political cartooning in Nigeria and South Africa; the way British script-writers changed the American comics landscape in the early 1990s, and unknown and bizarre British superheroines framed in an intelligent critique of the way academia has dealt with issues of gender in superhero comics. Another round of presentations examined the representation of the British in early-20th-century Turkish comics; the ways in which Armenian comics depict the Armenian genocide; the ways in which cartoonists imagined the City of Mexico during the post-Mexican Revolution modernizing process; how modern independent cartoonists employ the history of the medium as a legitimizing tool and as a means of commenting on their own careers and their links to the past.

All of this research suggests the value of graphic narratives and their individual interpretations, and it points to the need to study comics as representatives of particular periods and contexts. This brief summary only covers a small part of the topics addressed, all of which were fascinating and offered a mixture of theoretical and methodological approaches that illustrated the richness and diversity of our field of study.

Skype-Interview with John A. Lent: On Thursday, the TGN did a Skype interview with John A. Lent, one of the founding fathers of comics studies in the United States. The interview started with a discussion about the future of the International Journal of Comic Art, the pioneering journal founded and still published by Lent and, as we discovered to our surprise, a publication that had run many of the participants’ articles. The interview then moved to a wide range of topics concerning the current and future status of comics in academia. Lent explained what he viewed as some lacunas in the field: research on political cartooning, on the political economy of the comics’ industries around the world, on comic strips of the early 20th century, on the comics production of overlooked countries. He also stressed that we should try not to focus too much on researching superheroes. He further maintained that the field of comic studies should remain interdisciplinary and avoid trying to define its boundaries too much. While this probably hampers our ability to “sell” our research as something unique and to carve out academic territory, it gives us much more freedom to use tools from different disciplines and intellectual traditions.

Day Trip to Frankfurt: This outing allowed the TGN participants to get to know the activities and research linked to the Comics Archive affiliated with the Institut für Jugendbuchforschung at Goethe University Frankfurt. Bernd Dolle-Weinkauff, who is a noted expert on comics and in charge of the archive, gave an introductory presentation about the manga market and its readership in Germany (“Manga in Germany”). Then he took groups of ten to the portion of the archives that are preserved at the University building (the larger portion of the archive is stored elsewhere). We were able to discuss potential avenues of research related to the contents of the Comics Archive, its history, and the prospects for its digital preservation in the future. In the archive, he showed us different copies of German comic books of different epochs, and the participants could appreciate the general collection integrated by titles from different countries.

During the Trip to the University of Frankfurt

During the Trip to the University of Frankfurt

In addition, we had the opportunity to visit two museum exhibitions: one by Marc-Antoine Mathieu (Mapping Dreams: The Art of Marc-Antoine Mathieu) at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst and another concerning French lithographs from the 19th Century (Gericault to Toulouse-Lautrec, French Lithographs of the 19th Century) at the Städel Museum.

Transfer / Profit

The Summer School represented the opening of a multitude of perspectives and the encounter with a wider world of comics studies. This meant not only a fruitful intellectual and academic exchange, but also a vital social exchange. We learned so much about different comics traditions and industries from all over the world that we had not previously heard about, but we also got to know the people behind the research and their cultures. We also found the diversity of perspectives and approaches to comics studies refreshing and enriching. This has to do with the high quality of the projects presented, which of course has a lot to do with the sterling selection process. Whether from a sociological, artistic, historical, semiological, political, or literary studies perspective, each person brought something unique to the table and helped us envision what comics studies are right now and what they could be. This was also very noticeable in the selection of keynotes, each of which had different corpuses, objects, methodologies, and theoretical frameworks, while at the same time being engaged enough to incite discussion from all sides of the aisle.

Moreover, the discussions after each project presentation were smart, informed, and constructive. We think everyone took something useful that will help improve their projects. This experience has allowed us to optimize our personal academic research, stimulate intercultural and transnational collaborations, and create new horizons in the research field of comics studies. In addition, the Summer School provided us with tools to approach from a new perspective the comics of our respective countries; it further allowed us the exchange of methodological texts that we do not find in Latin America.

Finally, and this might seem like a small thing but for us it’s vital: this experience helped us feel a little bit less alone, as comics scholars, in the current scientific research landscape of Latin America in general – and Argentina and Mexico in particular – and to put in perspective the difficulties and trials our discipline has to endure all over the world. The establishment of a worldwide network of like-minded individuals all striving for the recognition and growth of comics studies should be a primary objective.

Future / Projection

The Summer School left our heads brimming with ideas for the future. As we mentioned before, the formation of a worldwide network of comics scholars that stems from this type of experiences and conferences would be wonderful. Even the strengthening and enlargement of the networks we found out about in the Summer School (ComFor, ICAF, Comics Forum, Comics Studies Society) would be very welcome. We also have been thinking about how to implement a similar approach to the organization of conferences in our countries of origin. We came back from the experience believing that it is an optimal way of developing discussions and ideas. The Summer School also made us believe in the importance of transnational perspectives and the inclusion of more diverse points of view, which also help to improve the quality of the research.

The authors of this review: (left to right) Laura Nallely Hernández Nieto, Pablo Turnes, Lia Roxana Donadon and Amadeo Gandolfo

The authors of this review: (left to right) Laura Nallely Hernández Nieto, Pablo Turnes, Lia Roxana Donadon and Amadeo Gandolfo

Concerning the circulation of our own work, we are very excited about the possibility of publishing and presenting our major findings for an international audience in some of the journals and conferences that were mentioned during our days in Siegen. We believe the Latin American tradition of comics has not been integrated into the vast tapestry of world comics for too long, and we would like to help, in what little ways we can, to change this. Likewise, we will start working to foster the same kind of exchange in the other direction, translating and bringing some of the voices we encountered in Siegen to Latin America.

Finally, we believe that it would be very desirable if the Summer School could be given continuity. Perhaps with a biannual frequency, so that it transforms into an established institution that drives cultural exchange and an international network of collaboration on the subject of comics studies. Periodicity will show how research projects have advanced after TGN and how participants are applying their newly gained knowledge.

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