Conference Report: Transitions 5

by Jenna Johnston

In its 5th year, the Transitions symposium is a unique element of The London International Comics Festival—Comica. As Paul Gravett, one of the Directors of Comica, noted in his introduction, there is no other conference of this kind that is free to attend, and the scale, breadth and distinction of content all highlight what a special event this is. The only problem was that this very diversity and abundance of panels to choose from presented the agonizing task of deciding between the events. As I learned in the closing comments and from the #transitions5 Twitter feed, I missed the quote of the day: 'Everyone likes a bit of tentacled porn'. Any of my conjecture on the context only reinforces my disappointment for all the panels I missed and so unfortunately I cannot do credit to the abundance and depth of content of the day.

Fortunately, for the keynote speakers there was no difficult timetabling decision to be made and Dr Jason Dittmer and Dr Antonio Lázaro Reboll were as fascinating as they were diverse in their subject matter. This became a theme of the day in the extraordinary range of disciplines, backgrounds and focus of each event and speaker. They both drew attention to the fact that comics are not their primary field, confirming the way that comics have infiltrated so many disciplines and become an increasingly important branch of enquiry across the academic and cultural spectrum. This evolution could be seen not only in the topics and speakers but also in the audience and the range of media discussed at the conference. These included presentations of web comics, hypercomics installations and commercial utilisation in infocomics. Those attending the conference had backgrounds in illustration, production, technology and marketing as well as, of course, comics fandom.

As well as the heterogeneity, there were also fortuitous connections and patterns that emerged throughout the day. Beginning with Jason Dittmer’s opening keynote, he raised the discussion of comics as assemblages, citing Joseph Cornell’s sculptural boxes in the early twentieth century. Particularly vivid was the detail that some of these works were created as gifts for people whose friendship Cornell hoped to attain. This reinforced the fundamental temporal dimension in the anticipation of a relationship still to come, as well as the human relationships that emerge from the material and visual. Dittmer surmised from this that ‘You’re transformed by the things and objects you’re in assemblage with’. These projected meanings and fluid notions of time were a key thread across the series of discussions. This thread was revisited in the Comics and Mental Health panel in the assemblage of the personal, social and psychological. Ian Williams opened discussions, pointing to the importance of cultural context not only in comics but in the subjects it is engaging with. For example, he cited Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (Justin Green, 1972) as an example of a graphic narrative representing OCD. Despite this portrayal of symptoms associated with what we now recognise as OCD, the condition has only been identified more recently. The author did not know what he was suffering with when he wrote this comic.

The lens of the cultural, but also geographical, context continued in the Creators panel where Fred Francis presented the 19th century background to Frank Miller’s Batman. One key aspect of this was the literary influence of Edgar Allan Poe. As an established presence on contemporary American syllabi, Poe was an important point of connection for Miller’s audience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was not Batman’s only appearance, and Martin Flanagan proffered a European vision of the character through Paul Cornell’s work in the UK analogue, Knight and Squire. Here, Cornell plays with notions of weak, British, cover versions, notably in the Joker’s counterpart: Jarvis Poker. Although parody is a crucial aspect, Martin Flanagan also called attention to the way that Cornell’s skills and far-reaching portfolio have provided a way for cultural motifs from outside the US to be exercised on the terrain of some of the most famous superheroes. 

One way that Cornell has also inverted certain traditions is through his exploration of Wolverine’s mortality, signaling another important, overarching motif of the day in his employment of a famous, pre-established character within his own artistic agenda: the question of ownership, authorship and collaboration. This was articulated early on in Dittmer’s introductory keynote, in his compelling discussion of the Cambodian comics culture and industry via the stifling impact of national copyright laws. This was picked up again in Antonio Lázaro Reboll’s second keynote within the context of comics culture and art scholarship in Spain, 1965-1975. Reboll specifically discussed the cult publication Vampirella with the coalition of American writers with Spanish illustrators, combining two distinctive, national, cultural zeitgeists.

The implications of such alliances were recognised in a number of panels with varying, often practice-driven, perspectives including those attached to funding, production, genre and transnational significance. Ahmed Jameel expanded on the influence of this in his paper ‘Rethinking Collaboration’, questioning conceptions of authorship. The immediately recognisable styles of certain creators will greatly affect how they are read. Jameel also cited the example of Eternals, where despite the concept and characters not being created by Neil Gaiman and the artwork belonging to John Romita Jr, the cover greatly overplays that this is Gaiman’s work. The centrality of this discussion was clear in the closing comments and discussion with the symposium’s respondents. Although authors’ rights must be protected, there is a concern for reputation management and the threat of a skewed history of creators’ influence due to copyright laws. The current implications of publishing restrictions could be an impediment to comics’ cultural capital if academia is inhibited in its access.

Although the dissemination of comics through multiple disciplines was hailed as an achievement, the limitations were also considered. Ann D’Orazio contended that comics studies should become even more expansive than just the public memories that are currently being favoured by academia. The cautionary tone was implicit throughout and Antonio Lázaro Reboll forewarned against comics becoming an intellectualised genre. He promoted the movement away from the discussion of comics as an importer of ideas to focus upon their role as an exporter. However, these critical concerns were part of the rich singularity of material throughout the day, and an important advancement was clear in the discussions and subjects. Comics have moved away from having to justify what they are and where they come from and the discourse can now be more profitably focused on content and representation. As respondent Professor Roger Sabin concluded: it was an adventurous event, comprising papers on unique areas that do not often receive space for discussion. Many were works in progress, reflective of contemporary culture in their varying modes of work and delivering perspectives from across the academic panorama and the world. Transitions 5 was a remarkable event: dizzying, compelling and entertaining in its demonstration of the indomitable journey comics have made from newsstands.



Banner image by urbanbohemian under a CC BY-NC-ND license.


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