A Conference Report by J. Rehse, P. Zwirner, M. Pollich, Y. Neuhaus, S. Böhm, and L. Respondek (students of the University of Cologne), Photography by Philin Zwirner
From September 17th to 19th 2018 the 13th Annual Conference of the German Society for Comics Studies (ComFor) took place at the University of Cologne. Under the main theme “Spaces Between – Gender, Diversity and Identity in Comics” the conference schedule – planned and organized by Véronique Sina and Nina Heindl – offered a wide range of interesting insights into state-of-the-art research on the nexus between the medium of comics and categories of difference and identity such as gender, dis/ability, age, and ethnicity. Participants who already arrived on Sunday (the day before the official start of the conference) had the opportunity to become familiar with the city of Cologne. In the afternoon, the cultural program started with a guided tour through the exhibition “Avengers Assemble” held at the Cöln Comic Haus. With highly entertaining host(s) and a lot of interesting details, the visit of the exhibition was a perfect start for the conference. Afterwards, the group took a stroll along the Rhine in warm and shiny weather. With a boat-trip along the picturesque panorama of the most beautiful part of Cologne, the pre-program ended and gave the participants the opportunity to enjoy the rest of the evening in the historic center of Cologne.
At the official beginning of the conference on Monday, the conveners Véronique Sina and Nina Heindl, as well as Manuela Günter (Vice-Rector for Gender Equality and Diversity of the University of Cologne), and Stephan Packard (President of the German Society for Comics Studies) welcomed all speakers and guests. They stressed that it is their great pleasure to open a conference that not only focuses entirely on gender, diversity, and identity in comics, but also presents a majority of female speakers as well as an all-female organizational team – a premiere for the German Society for Comics Studies.
The conference started off with an Artistic Lecture titled “The Noose Around That Pretty’s Neck” by Philip Crawford (Berlin, GER) who introduced his audience to the work and life of the artist Matt Baker and drew a connection to the contemporary racist perception of black men as sexual aggressors. He also talked about the historical origin of today’s pictures of hanging black putative criminals referring to “lynchings” from the nineteenth century that included barbeque-like gatherings of big crowds witnessing the racialization and sexualization of black male victims. Connected to this, Crawford presented parts of his own work showing, among others, hanged girls that were staged like lynched black men and thereby revealed conflicted racial, sexual, and gender representations.
A first panel that granted the conference guests interesting insights into the “Representations of Dis/Ability” followed the Artistic Lecture. The first talk of the panel by Olga Tarapata (Cologne, GER) looked “Between Crooked Lines” and studied aspects of disability in E.T. Russian’s Queer Comics. As Tarapata pointed out, the comics of Russian give an insight into daily problems of living with disability. They explicitly express the physical reality as well as the pain, and blur the boundaries between “healthy” and “broken” bodies. E.T. Russian does not use the classic gutters but tries to represent irregularities of bodies by using irregular panel patterns and speech bubbles.
In her talk “Othering Voices and the Voice of the Other,” Natalie Veith (Frankfurt a.M., GER) introduced Joseph Merrick, who was marketed as an “elephant man” in the nineteenth century because of his deformed head and upper body. In her analysis of Moore’s and Campbell’s comic From Hell, Veith focused on the visualization of Merrick’s speech. She stressed that although there is no evidence of how the “elephant man” actually spoke, he is assigned indistinct sounds in the comic.
Jonas Neldner (Cologne, GER) lectured about Noir Surrealism and hybrid bodies in Charles Burns’ comics. In Black Hole, Dog Days and Last Look, which often represent the transformation from ‘abled’ to ‘dis/abled’ bodies, he found elements that are familiar from the film noir, German genre film and surrealism, showing that the latter often questions the reality in which one lives.
The second panel dealt with “Graphic Medicine: Intersections of Comics, Health and Corporeality.” By declaring that “we are now in the zone of non-fiction” Susan Merrill Squier (Pennsylvania, USA) described how concepts of gender, health, and disease can be found in comics that have been developed in transdisciplinary collaborations of diverse networks. Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff’s (Berlin, GER) presentation gave a new perspective on central comic figures suffering from dementia and how these works “offer surrogate stories for those who cannot tell these themselves.” Alexandra Alberda (Poole, UK) introduced her audience to the exhibition of graphic medicine at museum galleries and how a shift to education comes with actively engaged spectators.
The first day of the ComFor’s annual meeting 2018 closed with an amazing keynote given by Tahneer Oksman (New York City, USA) on “An Art of Loss.” She analyzed loss of something, of someone, or of oneself and how it can be understood as part of a bigger picture. She presented examples such as Ulli Lust’s book Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life in order to explain autobiographical trauma processing in connection with strong storytelling techniques like cumulation and combination that shape narratives of loss. In the process, she asked “what comics can teach us about loss and what loss – or what we know of loss – can teach us about comics.” She concluded that such works reveal not only “what’s no longer there but also what can no longer be.”
The day ended with a visit to a traditional Cologne brewery, where the participants had the opportunity to review the day with casual conversations, Koelsch beer, and local traditional food.
The second day of the conference started successfully with three exciting presentations in the third panel, titled “Making Comics and Exhibiting Their Physicality.” First, Erin La Cour (Amsterdam/Utrecht, NL) talked about ‘social abstraction’ in comic exhibitions and looked in particular at the comic book exhibition “Comic Unmasked.” As she pointed out, the comics placed in glass cases within the exhibition give the impression of being understood only by experts. In addition, La Cour ventured on a classification of the comics medium in relation to literature and pictures that was of great interest in the following discussion.
The second speaker was Ann Miller (Leicester, UK) with her contribution “The Nude and the Naked,” which dealt with the representation of the naked female body in comics and other media. Following an introduction to the depiction of unclothed women’s bodies in paintings and fine art, Miller emphasized the distinction between art and pornography. She concluded her talk with pithy examples from the comic Moderne Olympia by Catherine Meurisse, which Miller related to body images like the one of Venus figurine.
Katharina Brandl (Basel, CHE) presented the results of a survey that Anne Elizabeth Moore designed in cooperation with The Ladydrawers of Chicago, Illinois (USA) and Femicomix Finland at Villa Salin (FI). The survey focused on social, economic, and political conditions in the comics industry. The study, which was designed to generate a large data set due to a lack of data on comic book occupations, comprised 260 comics artists, producers, and distributors who answered questions about their living and working conditions, their engagement as readers, and their careers.
The second panel of the day and fourth of the conference offered an amazing insight into “(Trans-)Cultural Identities.” To analyze the representation of Mexican identity and revolution, Anne Magnussen (Odense, DNK) examined how contemporary comics reflect social and political protests. She focused on three motives: criticism, education, and documentation. Many of Mexican activist comics include a focus on historical memory to strengthen their statement, but the representation of cultural identities goes beyond simple reflections which creates a dominant narrative of Mexican revolution.
Secondly, Anna Nordenstam (Gothenburg, SWE) and Margareta Wallin Wictorin (Karlstad, SWE) talked about the phenomenon of the #metoo movement, connected to sexual harassment of women, and how this phenomenon is (ironically) addressed in Swedish feminist comics. Concluding the panel, Nina Mickwitz (London, UK) concentrated on (gendered) migrant experiences that were presented as conspicuously absent in the comic Heartless from 2012, showing how this absence lead to an avoidance of the diaspora paradigm.
After lunch, speakers and guests attended the fifth panel “(De-)Constructing Race and Ethnicity” in which German philologist Priscilla Layne (Chapel Hill, USA) (“long-time fan, first-time speaker”) introduced her audience to the German comic Madgermanes by Birgit Weyhe. The comic is about Mozambican guest workers and is based on the lives and experiences of real Mozambican people. As Layne showed, the approach to the visualization of Basilio’s partly spongy memories, which become recognizable by the indistinct representation of already deceased relatives in this documentary graphic novel, is particularly interesting.
The panel continued with Jonathan W. Gray‘s (New York City, USA) contribution about “Black Panther and Entangled African Cosmopolitanism,” in which he examined the most famous African superhero Black Panther and his origin in the “Fantastic Four” comics. Here, Gray referred to the humanizing of a faceless figure and aspects of racism in comics.
At the end of the panel, Jaqueline Berndt (Stockholm, SWE) introduced the conference guests to the genre of shōjo manga. Not only did she examine the ways in which manga portrays gender and race, she also explored socio-cultural dispositions and the differences between manga and graphic novel in her talk.
The last panel for the day offered its audience an exciting insight into “Superheroes Re-Visited: Intersections of Gender and Genre.” Ranthild Salzer (Vienna, AUT) gave an interesting presentation on the male body as an object of desire and source of pleasure in early superhero comics. She showed how all kinds of stereotypes were used to portray heroic white men that were supposed to save women while posing for an audience. With a great sense of humor, Olivia Hicks (Dundee, UK) gave a thrilling perspective on space in British comics featuring superheroines that – even though diverging from American stereotypes of superheroes – have to fit into an idealized form of femininity and are only allowed to make a move when their actions are approved by a male character.
To everyone’s excitement, the German queer comedian Hella von Sinnen surprisingly visited the conference to listen to Carolyn Cocca’s keynote on “Reproducing Inequality and Representing Diversity: The Politics of Gender in Superhero Comics” and spontaneously agreed to help choosing the winner of the tombola prize consisting of a Batman mug, a Deadpool comic and a beautifully printed tote bag sponsored by the German fan shop Elbenwald.
In her impressive keynote, Carolyn Cocca (New York City, USA) examined the development of the mostly stereotypical portrayal of underrepresented women as superheroines in well-known comic book series such as Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Oracle. As an example, Cocca talked about the “broken back” pose showing a female figure’s breasts and bottom at the same time, which is anatomically impossible. She pointed out that women in superhero comics are rather eye candy than heroines and rarely engage in combat even though they might stand on the battlefield. As Cocca claimed, little has changed since the 1940s and as representation matters, the embodied inequalities of gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and ability need to be discussed. Following the ComFor’s 2018 annual meeting’s general topic, she called for action: “let’s get into these spaces in between and get to work.”
The first panel of the conference’s final day focused on “Structures of Power and Difference in Superhero Comics.” Markus Engelns (Duisburg-Essen, GER) opened the panel with a fascinating analysis of typical genre elements in terms of representation of gender applied to Superman comics. He highlighted a striking use of reproduction of male hegemony that presents the hero of the series as “The Man Of Tomorrow.” Thomas P. Scholz (St. Louis, USA) gave an exciting insight into the deconstruction of the superhero genre shown by the comic Marshal Law, which centralizes hypersexual superheroes and thereby criticizes the dominance of white male heteronormativity. The panel closed with Juliane Blank’s (Saarbrücken, GER) critical examination of the female superhero Jessica Jones by comparing the potentially subversive comics series to the Netflix adaption. The latter refuses to put Jones into the position of a stereotypical female character who appears to be weak and needs to be saved by a male hero and therefore presents an updated or corrected version of the heroine with a keen eye on recent debates on gender. This is why the show has been widely praised for rethinking female superheroes.
The last English-language panel of the conference focused on “Queering Comics.” Frederik Byrn Køhlert (Norwich, UK) introduced his audience to Ariel Schrag’s “HighSchool Comic Chronicles” in which the artist stylistically delineates her (bi)sexual realities by expressing the distinction and excess associated with queerness. Subsequently, Romain Becker (Lyon, F) examined to what extent the self-proclaimed comic messiah Vaughn Bodé mirrors his own transgender identity in his fanciful works by applying a characteristic “pictography” style. Lastly, José Alaniz (Seattle, USA) talked about the remarkable queer comic TransSiberia featuring its protagonist’s female-to-male-transition despite alarming levels of violence against gay and trans people in Russia.
The first German-speaking panel of the conference was dedicated to the issue of “Fluid Bodies” (Fluide Körper). First, Marina Rauchenbacher (Vienna, AUT) and Katharina Serles (Dresden, GER) talked about the symbolism and perception of bodies in comics (“Gerahmt und zerstückelt – Zeichenhaftigkeit und Wahrnehmung von Körpern in Comics“). They described how the gutter in comics may not only frame, but also split bodies.
The panel continued with Daniela Kaufmann (Graz, AUT) and her talk on “Color Change & Gender Fluidity.” Kaufmann referred to the comics series Krazy Kat and focused especially on aspects concerning the use of color by pointing out how the comic plays with racial identity and how it crosses gender boundaries.
Anna Beckmann (Berlin, GER) concluded the panel with her contribution on ambiguous gender identities in comics and presented narrative strategies that deviate from normative gender concepts (“Strategien der Ambivalenzen – Uneindeutige Geschlechteridentitäten im Comic“). In addition to discussing gender and race of a figure like the classic stickman, she looked at approaches to various comics such as Demon Knight, in which a character is forced to decide for a gender, or Die hure h, which features a character who is neither clearly represented as a man nor as a woman.
The final panel of the conference focused on “Alternative Comics and Feminism” (Alternative Comics und Feminismus). First, Sylvia Kesper-Biermann (Hamburg, GER) talked about alternative comics of the 1970s and alluded to the reflexive discourse on restructuring traditional and institutional gender relations according to contemporary ideals. Then, Kalina Kupczynska (Łódź, PL) gave an insight into gender and nationality in alternative Polish comics by means of the anthology “Blut” that contrasts to a mainly male-dominated industry. The last speaker of the conference, Sophie Bürgi (Basel, CHE), introduced Lynda Barry’s comic One! Hundred! Demons! and examined intersectional power relations on the basis of scents and spaces in-between. For this she drew on affect theory, in order to show the spaces in-between from a different point of view.
The conference program was complemented by three exhibitions: the artist Philip Crawford exhibited a selection of his works under the title “My Noose Around That Pretty’s Neck.” Also, long before and still during the conference, the exhibition “SuperQueeroes – Our LGBTI* Comic Heroes” was shown at the University of Cologne. Moreover, in the adjoining rooms of the conference venue, research posters on the subject of “Comics & Disability Studies” were exhibited; posters that were created by students of the Department of Media Culture and Theater who attended a seminar on the very same topic, taught by Véronique Sina.
After three days, an incredibly interesting and diverse conference with lively discussions as well as active participation within the conference room and also on the ComFor’s social media channels came to a close, but will hopefully continue to inspire future research of all participants.