I recently had an opportunity to present on a comics panel at the 2018 Popular Culture Association National Conference, along with a colleague, Dr. Samantha Langsdale, from the UNT Department of Philosophy and Religion, and two fellow comics scholars from other institutions. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the PCA is a scholarly organization devoted to popular culture studies across multiple disciplines and dozens of subject areas , including the Comics & Comic Art Section, that organize panels throughout the four-day conference.
The conference took place in Indianapolis, IN from March 28-31, 2018–notably, at the same time as the Indiana Comic Con (sadly, I didn’t get to attend that, although one of our panelists did). One of the advantages of a conference like this is the opportunity to meet scholars from a variety of disciplines and institutions who share an interest in the genres, media, and topics that we all love–from films and television to books and comics to fashion and performance. All are serious scholars, but also fans and often creators of popular media. It provides us with a chance to have serious intellectual discussions about topics and cultural forms that don’t always receive such attention from the academy as a whole or from particular disciplines. For some, it provides an opportunity to build networks, discover publication opportunities, or find collaborators for future projects. And for all of us, it’s a chance to learn about and share some of the interesting work being done in our areas of study.
Our panel, “Comics and the Epistolary Tradition“, featured four papers looking at various aspects of comics and “epistles” (letters), including letter columns, comics within letters, and letters as community-building or world-building features of the comics themselves. Dr. Langsdale, who organized the panel, talked about letters as world-building backmatter in Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper Girls and Kelley Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet. She showed how both letters and fake advertisements in both comics serve to extend the universe of the comics to their readers while also conveying discernibly feminist politics. As a feminist philosopher and organizer of the Monstrous Women in Comics Conference, Dr. Langsdale has helped pave the way for thinking about how comics might address important cultural, philosophical, and political questions, particularly as they relate to women as the subjecst, audience, or creators of comics.
My own paper, “Haints and Haunts: Spiritual Correspondences in Harrow County“, argues that Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s “agrarian folk horror” comic series, Harrow County, uses multiple supplemental features, including single-page comic vignettes, essays from outside contributors, and letters from readers, to create a community of shared stories related to trauma, childhood, and spiritual encounters which reflect and revise the main narrative of the comic itself. What interested me most was how the trope of “haints” (spirits or supernatural creatures from folk tradition) and “haunts” (the scenes or spaces inhabited by such spirits) are used in this comic to dramatize the kinds of childhood fears, anxieties, and traumas that many of the comic’s contributors and readers echo in their own “ghost stories”. Letters become one way of sharing, examining, and transforming their own stories in conversation with the world of Harrow County.
The other two presentations featured Dr. Christina M. Knopf, a Communication Studies professor from SUNY Cortland, writing on original comics and cartoons created by soldiers (or their loved ones) and included in letters that reflect on their experiences of the war, and Art Bamford, a Media Studies doctoral student from the University of Colorado at Boulder, talking about the therapeutic impact of the recent Jeff Lemire Moon Knight series as seen through the comic’s letter column. Both papers reiterated theme of letters and comics as a means of communicating, crafting, examining, or even transforming people’s lived experiences through a medium that allows us to both identify and distance ourselves from those experiences. While approaching the topic from different disciplinary perspectives, we were able to have a mutually informative and engaging discussion about how comics can be used to do important cultural or psychological work (at least we hope it was engaging!).
Our panel was only one of about two dozen panels sponsored by the Comics and Comic Art section during the four days of the conference, each offering a different topic, a wide range of comics, graphic novels, and comic art, and a variety of disciplinary approaches to comics. There were also round-table discussions on topics like publishing in comics studies, an area meeting to plan for next year’s conference, and social events to allow people to mingle and network with fellow comics scholars. Of course, there’s also the opportunity to attend panels in other sections (if you can find the time!). For those of us who love everything from horror movies to fantasy novels to pop music, this conference can make for some tough choices. But I can definitely recommend the experience for scholars and students looking to find a community and a sense of shared purpose among your fellow academics.