Sunday, March 29, 2009

Comic Arts Conference 2009

One month ago on Friday February 27 and Saturday February 28 I attended the Comic Arts Conference in San Francisco, CA (attached to Wondercon). This year marked my second annual attendance at this gathering of comics scholars; I presented there last year on the Chester Brown short story “Showing Helder.” This year I merely observed, although I do intend to present again next year.

I attended almost all the sessions of the conference on both Friday and Saturday (with one exception which I will note later). Sadly I was unable to attend the Sunday panels for the conference (which included a panel on copyright law, which I was very sad to miss) because I had to fly home, but the panels I attended on Friday and Saturday were all incredibly valuable and interesting. So I thought I would share here the content of some of those panels with you, the faithful GraphiContent reader.

First on the list was "Between Two Flashes" which gave an overview of the superheroes that were published between the Golden Age and the Silver Age. Very few heroes were successful during that time (apart from the major heroes like Superman and Batman), and the lecturers hypothesized that the reason for their waning popularity was due to the advent of television. Western and detective sows were popular on TV, so publishers of comics followed suit. It was only after Wertham and the comic censorship of the mid to late '50s that superheroes resurfaced because their cartoonish violence was less realistic and thus deemed "safe." (They also talked at one point about how Zorro and the Lone Ranger were proto-superheroes: crimefighters, secret identities, costumes.)

The second panel was on teaching comics, which I initially was very excited about. But this panel was the one that I decided to skip, because upon looking over the material for it and reading the description in the program, I realized it was aimed at using comics as a teaching tool in K-8 classes. That topic having little appeal to a college English instructor, I skipped it.

But I came back for the third and final panel for Friday, subtitled Barack Obama and the Superhero Metaphor. This panel was by a friend of mine Pete Coogan (who is in the STL area and actually interviewed me for a job once) but he didn't actually attend. He had prerecorded his presentation because he had had a family emergency at the last minute, but it was still an incredibly interesting lecture. It contrasted the media imagery associated with both Bush (who had a "cowboy" persona) and Obama (who is thought of as a superhuman savior). He discussed how Bush wanted to frame the war on terror as "us vs. them" like cowboys and indians, whereas he should have focused more on the "supervillain" of Osama Bin Laden. It was quite intriguing, even if it wasn't technically about comics per se.

Saturday's panels were even more interesting, although they varied widely in content. In the first panel of the day, Diana Green presented on homoerotic subtext in EC comics, which was quite enlightening. She discussed a few specific stories which involved crossdressing fraternal twins or asexual reproduction, and it really makes me want to seek out a lot of those old EC reprints. Also during that first panel Kate McClancy did a comparison between the graphic novel and film adaptation of V for Vendetta. She argued that the changes made in the film mean that the people of the film merely replace one leader for another, that the triumph of anarchy and the individual are replaced when the people simply begin to follow V. In the film V is no longer an idea, but he is a hero instead. Since I'll be teaching V in a few weeks, I found this presentation really valuable.

The second panel was by Randy Duncan whose new book The Power of Comics comes out soon (May 15 according to Amazon... and only $16.50 on sale). It's a textbook for comics classes, and his presentation gave an overview of the content of the book. He talked about how he (and his coauthor) tried to hit all the possible ways to approach a class on comics by devoting chapters to the history of comics, their form, and their place in the culture. It was absolutely riveting and I very much look forward to reading it. If it's half as good as it sounds, I might start requiring it for my class. He also mentioned the possibility of doing a companion reader in the future, which I have been wanting to do for AGES and am very excited about the possibility of helping him with.

Finally the last panel featured two presenters. One was talking about Legion of Superheroes and how Jim Shooter "Marvelized" the characters when he took over writing the series. It turned out to be an excerpt of an article in Tim Callahan's book Teenagers from the Future (about $24 on sale on Amazon), which is a book I've been meaning to pick up but haven't yet so that was quite nice.

Finally there was a presentation on female superheroes of the '70s by Jennifer Stuller. (Her book, Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors, won't be out in the US until 2010.) It mostly focused on Lois Lane and Wonder Woman, contrasting how Lois served as a feminist icon in the '70s while Diana Prince was a bit of a stepback in the comics of the time period. A friend and I have been tossing ideas around about doing a book on the portraits of women in comics, so I found this lecture greatly helpful.

All in all, it was a fantastic conference and I look forward to attending next year.