From ICAF w/ Love

I don’t know what I was expecting when I went to ICAF.

A friend came back from the big American Studies conference, ASA, a few days before I left. She liked it ok, but she thought it was cliquey, and deeply weird, a sort of surreal parade of academia into and out of various hotel ballrooms. 

I think I expected ICAF to be the same, more or less. What I got instead was a series of talks organized by a group of people who care deeply about comics, both about what they mean and what it means to make them. I sat up late on Wednesday night, finishing my presentation with the help of a pint of espresso ice cream from Jeni’s Splendid Creams, already fortified by a sampling of sausage from a Bavarian restaurant in the Columbus neighborhood known as German Village, sausage consumed to the tune of an oom pa pa band. I did not know then how the paper would go over, I did not know that the community would be deeply welcoming, that they would be interested in me and what I was working on. I chugged on anyway, working out of a notebook I had been scribbling in in the German restaurant, eyes watering from the dust in the carpet of the apartment I was staying in. 

The next morning, after little sleep, I wandered in to the Ohio Union just as the conference was starting.  I heard talks about the historic and formal relationships between comics and fine art, about comics exhibitions in the French context, about the anti-comics tendency of the critical boosters of Persepolis, about the history of comics in England, and the embodiment of Hellboy. Academic talks in the morning were followed by artist talks later in the day, and as the focus shifted on the first evening it became clear to me that ICAF was the thing I was always disappointed that comic con was not—a chance to talk about comics with people who care about comics, in a real and serious way, at a place where consumption is secondary to appreciation.

I’m in an American Studies graduate program that, thankfully, takes my work seriously, but that also doesn’t have any comics studies scholars who can advise me. Often, I feel that I’m in the weeds. When I got up to give my talk, though, I saw a group that was genuinely interested in who I was and what I was doing—who also wanted to know why it was that Gilbert Hernandez slotted a representation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night into a short “Heartbreak Soup” story. Afterwards, we talked about it, or about other things, and both other graduate students and full time tenured faculty seemed interested in the project, and in what else I was working on. They shared their work with me, too; a masters thesis on Calvin and Hobbes, another on neoliberalism and comics, a dissertation on post-unification German comics. I knew that other comics studies folks existed; what I didn’t know was how friendly and generous they were going to be to a newbie like me. 

I shouldn't have been too surprised. It turns out that many us of feel a little in the weeds; Bart Beaty's keynote ("Here There Be Dragons") was about the terra incognita of comics studies, and the last event of the first day was about how to build institutions that will support the discipline. On the second day, we laid the foundation for the first of those new institutions, voting into existence the Comics Studies Society. As the CSS grows, it will come to serve as the institutional support for the community I joined last week. Perhaps most excitingly of all was the founding of the CSS’s graduate caucus, a group of graduate students and recently minted PhDs that exists to support each other as we attempt to navigate our entrances into academia. What I learned last week was that I don’t need anyone to advise me on the particulars at my institution, because there is a community, now more formal than it was even a week ago, that I can turn to when I need it. 

To focus on the academic alone, though, would to give ICAF short shrift. What makes it really wonderful is that the people who come to it come to appreciate the work of practitioners as much as they come to share their own work, and so we gathered not only to listen to each other, but also to listen Justin Green (“I think the surveillance state is crazier than Binky Brown’s penis rays), Carol Tyler, Phoebe Gloeckner, Finnish cartoonist Hanneriina Moisseinen, Dash Shaw and, finally, Jeff Smith, in talks moderated by figures with diverse interests and a wide reach, figures like Bill Kartalopolous, Tom Spurgeon, Jared Gardner and Corey Creekmur. Each of the artists was stunning in their own way; Green and Tyler’s love for each other was as evident as how hard they work, and very rarely for a big reward; Gloeckner gave the strangest, rawest, most emotionally affecting presentation of work I think I’ve ever seen; and Moisseinen shared with us a documentary she’s featured in, about learning from the last of the great Finnish rune singers, and then she sang for us. She closed her eyes and sang, hauntingly, hypnotically. Afterwards, grad students, professors, journalists, editors, and artists, as many as wanted, really, gathered for drinks. The last of us didn’t head home until 2 AM. 

1 comment:

  1. This precisely captures the ICAF I experienced. Thank you. :)