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  • Writer's pictureKay Sohini

The (Comics) Industry and the Academe

I think the first intersection between the comics industry and the academe that I encountered was a collaboration between Art Spiegelman and Hillary Chute, MetaMaus(2011). As the title suggests, it is a metanarrative on Maus-- the long-form non-fiction comic about the Holocaust that is the first (and only, thus far) graphic narrative to win the Pulitzer. MetaMaus reveals the process and the ethos behind Spiegelman’s work, showing why the comic medium was necessary, and contains substantial behind-the-scenes supplementary material, such as transcripts of interviews with Vladek (Spiegelman’s father and Holocaust survivor) and Spiegelman's early sketches and research. The book is structured primarily in the form of conversations with Chute.

Later, Chute collaborated with eleven cartoonists, including Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Joe Sacco, in a book of in-depth interviews called Outside the Box (2014). She also co-taught a class ("Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography") with Alison Bechdel at University of Chicago. In the summer 2019 issue of PMLA, Alison Bechdel writes: " ...this Hillary Chute, despite the fact that she's a fangirl, an academic, and knows her history...she's written quite a good book. As an egghead, Chute is eager for the relatively new modality of comics to have a coherent critical language. A tricky feat, considering that comics has practically been defined by its existence outside the critical establishment. But Chute pulls it off. She knows what she's talking about, she avoids jargon. But more importantly, she seems to genuinely love comics." All this is to say that I have always felt that it is perhaps not unlikely that Chute’s visually centered (and refreshingly jargon-free) style of writing about comics is at least partly mediated by how extensively she collaborates with cartoonists in her scholarship. But, fangirling about Chute aside, I have been seeing (in 2020 alone!) a lot more in the way of collaboration between the industry and the academe. Some of my favorites are below: 1. Random House Graphic, a Penguin imprint with a focus on kids and YA comics, just started a series called “Comics Education in Conversation”. Read the first one, a conversation with educator Susan Kirtley here.

2. This year San Diego Comic Con featured panels that brought together educators and cartoonists: i. “Teaching and Learning with Comics” featuring Susan Kirtley, Nick Sousanis, Ebony Flowers, et al. ii. “Comics about Motherhood and Reproductive Choice” featuring Lisa Wool-rim Sjoblom (Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption), Leslie Stein (I Know You Rider), and Teresa Wong (Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression) moderated by Hillary Chute. 3. Eisner Awards, aka the most well-known comic book industry awards, has a category known as “Best Academic/Scholarly Work”. This year it was won by the brilliant Qiana Whitted for EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest (2019). 4. Recently, ICAF (International Comic Arts Forum) collaborated with SPX (Small Press Expo) that resulted in a conversation called “How Drawings Resonate,” featuring cartoonists Erin Williams (Commute) and GB Tran (Vietnamerica), as well as academics Jeanette Roan and Qiana Whitted. I also happened to be on this panel! 5. Women Write About Comics, an Eisner winning (2020) journal dedicated to comics and intersectional feminism, has a whole section dedicated to Comics Academe! Yours truly has an article in it! This is the last bit of self-promo, I promise!

6. hosts “The Graphic Medicine Confab”, which is a roundtable conversation that brings together artists, librarians, scholars, and healthcare professionals, to talk about comics, illness, bodies, and health. 7. Michigan State University's Department of English hosts a podcast called “The Graphic Possibilities Research Workshop” where academics interview cartoonists! 8. MSU Comics Forum hosts an academic conference that comprises keynotes by cartoonists (this year’s guests were Nick Sousanis and Emil Ferris), as well as artist alleys, a practice usually common in industry conventions. 9. SOL-CON: The Brown, Black, & Indigenous Comics Expo, led by graduate students at The Ohio State University, brings together scholars, cartoonists, and industry insiders in a two-day expo. That's it for now, but I will keep adding to this list as and when I come across intersections between the industry and the comics academe that contributes to innovation in the field.

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