Meet the Board: Zachary J.A. Rondinelli (Secretary-Treasurer)

Today we wrap up the introductions of our new board members with Secretary-Treasurer Zachary J.A. Rondinelli’s “Meet the Board” interview.

How long have you been involved with CSS? What brought you to CSS?

I first joined the CSS in 2017 when I began my Master of Arts in Studies in Comparative Literatures & Arts at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON Canada. At that time, I was ravenously consuming as much comics-related scholarship as I possibly could and was desperate to find some like-minded folks who shared my interests in comics (particularly the communicative/meaning making abilities of the comics form). I wanted to have meaningful and critical conversations that could challenge my own thinking.

As my desire to represent graduate students on the Grad Student Caucus may attest to, I certainly found what I was searching for with the CSS! As a result of my joining, I began to “meet” (both online and in-person) many amazing people who have helped to constructively challenge my views and help me grow as a scholar and theorist. I’ve attended conferences and submitted for opportunities promoted through the CSS Facebook page and listserv that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. It’s been wonderful to be a member of this community!

What was the first comic that you remember reading, or the first that really had an impact on you as a reader?

Ha! I have two very different answers for those questions!

The first comic that I remember reading was Batman: Hush as a TPB in or around 2007. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a late comer to comics; I never read them as a kid, opting instead for the Animated television Batman, Justice League, Spider-Man, and X-Men series’ and films. To this day, I’m not actually sure why I decided to pick up that first comic book… but I can tell you that I haven’t put them down since.

The first comic that really resonated with/impacted me was Jeff Lemire’s Essex County. I remember meeting Lemire in 2011 at “HEROES: Cards and Comics” in London, ON so that I could get my New 52 Animal Man #1 signed (which, I might add, is still framed and hanging in my office). While I was waiting in line to meet him, I saw Essex County (2009) on the shelf and decided to pick it up on my way through because I had heard great things about it (it had just recently been nominated for the prestigious Canada Reads award) and was interested to see what comics beyond the mainstream were all about. Lemire’s unique signature art style, intensely character driven narrative, meaningful thematic mediations, and True North setting affected me intensely.

What are you reading now that you think others should look into?

I need to get in an obligatory plug for Canadian comics here! Michael De Forge is a Canadian comics powerhouse and has recently published some really incredible work. For example, Leaving Richard’s Valley (2019) which is a comics allegory about friendship, belonging, meaningfulness, and the unforgiving nature of life in our “big city” (a.k.a. Toronto). His most recent work, Familiar Face (2020) is an artistic masterclass in comics surrealism that juxtaposes itself against a powerfully grounded narrative about humanity. These are must reads.

Something that certainly isn’t new, but always worth checking out anyway, is Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo comic strips. I recently received the two-volume XXL Alexander Braun collections as a gift and it has prompted me to return to Slumberland like never before! I’ve read the strips randomly throughout the years, but never chronologically. It seems to me that any comics scholar interested in formalism should certainly know at least a little bit about McCay’s work. My interest in McKay actually led me to start a Twitter project, #WelcomeToSlumberland, where I’ve been tweeting one strip per day and documenting my own reading experience, encouraging others to share theirs, and opening up discussion for collaborative transactions. If interested, I’d encourage people to follow @LittleNemo1905 and join in on the fun! It’s been a blast!

What comics scholar has most impacted your current research, and why?

There are a number of scholars that I can easily identify as influential to my own thinking about comics. As a formalist/educator, I’ve tended to rely heavily on scholars that do a lot of theorizing about the comics form; scholars such as Barbara Postema, Thierry Groensteen, Hannah Miodrag, Nick Sounsanis, and Aaron Kashtan stand out for me. While each of these people have impacted my work in numerous ways, Dale Jacobs’s writing about comics and multimodality have truly helped to define it.

When I began my M.A., I was headed down a totally different comics-related road. My thesis proposal surrounded one of the first female superheroes and prominent WWII Canadian comics star, Nelvana of the Northern Lights (introduced about four months before Wonder Woman; eat your heart out, Diana!) and the elusive concept of Canadian Identity. As I began my research and started working on it, I just didn’t feel like it was going where I wanted it to go; my heart wasn’t in it. Then, I stumbled across Dale Jacobs’ article in the English Journal, “More Than Words: Comics as a Means of Teaching Multiple Literacies” (2007) and my world was flipped upside down.

Without exaggeration, I can easily say that “More Than Words” forever altered the trajectory of my post-secondary studies. It irrevocably changed the way that I see and read comics, introduced me to the concept of multimodality (which has since become a primary focus for my work in education), and gave me a new, exciting direction that reinvigorated my M.A. work!

Is there any recent shift in the field of comics studies that you are particularly excited about?

There are two that I’m particularly excited about!

The first, which has, admittedly, been ongoing for almost a decade now, is the “multimodal turn” in comics. By this, I don’t just mean the recognition that comics are a multimodal medium constructed with modes like the linguistic, pictorial, spatial, temporal, colour, gestural, (etc.) communicating in relationship with each other and the reader, but also that this recognition has started to inform theoretical work. The application of multimodal analysis to comics is becoming more noticeable each year in texts like Paul Fisher Davies’s recent Comics as Communication: A Functional Approach (2020), which embraces elements of multimodal discourse analysis in its framework. Personally speaking, I believe that the application of multimodal analysis to the comics form opens up many new avenues for investigation into how modal relationships impact the experience of reading comics. This is something that my own research hopes to explore more fully.

The second, a shift related to (particularly K-12) education and pedagogical practice with comics, is the idea of teaching comics not as a tool to be used for the goals of studying other ideas and concepts, but rather studying comics as comics. Using comics to teach other ends has been common practice in K-12 education for years and has predominantly resulted in a conceptualization of the medium as leverage for the instruction of other (loftier?) pedagogical focuses. That comics can be explored as a “fully interdisciplinary endeavor” (Jacobs, 2020) has been previously promoted through work like that of James Bucky Carter’s “PIM Pedagogy: Towards a Loosely Unified Model for Teaching Comics and Graphic Novels” (2015). Other similar research can continue to support this shift in comics pedagogy from a view that sees comics as a means to an end in the K-12 classroom to one that recognizes them as valuable contributors to interdisciplinary knowledge-creation.

Who is the comics writer/artist/scholar that has most influenced the way you think about the field?

I don’t know if I would say that he has impacted my view of the field, in general, but Tom King is a writer whose work I tend to gravitate towards.

I recognize that King tends to be a bit controversial, and I totally understand that. His work isn’t without its problems, and I’m all for recognizing and challenging those elements. I also think that a lot of King’s work leans into the formal brilliance of comics. Admittedly, King has been blessed to work with some of the best artists in the mainstream comics business today, including Gabriel Walta, Clay Mann, Joelle Jones, Lee Weeks, and Mitch Gerads. Though not perfect (as nothing ever is), these collaborations tend to really reflect the sorts of powerful formal communication that is possible within the medium. I’ve written about this before, but I appreciate the way that the form is just as much a storytelling agent in his work as are the more commonly recognized “words and pictures”. When I began reading King’s work, it wasn’t something that I felt I’d seen a lot of in mainstream superhero comics, so I think I became that much more attuned to it when reading his work. That isn’t to neglect the other creators out there embracing experimental design and communication in mainstream comics (J.H. Williams III and Brian Michael Bendis immediately jump to mind here), or even ignore the potential publisher impact around allowance/flexibility for experimentation. For me, both The Vision (2018) and Mister Miracle (2019), which I’ve published about in tba: Journal of Art, Media, and Visual Culture, were groundbreaking superhero stories and very impactful for me as a reader.

If you could choose one comic writer or artist to meet who would it be and why?

Oh, this is a really easy answer: Chris Ware.

Many scholars that I deeply admire, our own Martha Kuhlman, Shawn Gilmore, and Gene Kannenberg, Jr. chief among them, have spilled gallons of ink (metaphorically, of course) writing about his comics and I’ve read many of them in complete and utter awe at what he’s able to accomplish with the comics form. Truly, I think you can sum up Ware’s contributions in two simple words: next level.

My personal journey with Chris Ware has been interesting. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (1995) was one of the first non-genre comics I bought after I caught the comics bug. Oh, how naïve and innocent I was. I remember reading the first, maybe 50 pages, before putting it down and letting it collect dust for a couple of years. I just wasn’t ready for it at that point. I barely had a vocabulary to describe how comics communicated, but I knew that what Ware was doing was very atypical and I just needed to develop my own understanding of the form before trying to tackle it again. I think that I finally read Jimmy Corrigan in its entirety about two or three years later and loved it!

Fast-forward to quarantine during COVID-19 and I finally bit the bullet and ordered a copy of Building Stories (2012) to occupy some of my time. I’d been tentative to buy the book simply because I was afraid I had nowhere to put it (Aaron Kashtan had made it’s intimidating size very evident during an anecdote in Between Pen and Pixel). The massive box that it comes in certainly doesn’t fit on a bookshelf, and I have limited physical space at my place, but I decided that now was the time to experience it for myself. I’ve had a lot of fun constructing the book’s overarching narrative out of the disparate parts. It is probably the work that demonstrates most for me just how brilliant Ware actually is! That the experience of reading Building Stories can be different for each person, yet still completely unified in narrative, is a major accomplishment

Rusty Brown (2019) is on my shelf, but I haven’t started it yet.

Honestly, Ware’s work is like no one else in the industry and getting to hear him talk about his process and philosophy would, I can only assume, be just as unique an experience.

What are you currently working on and do you have plans for future projects?

Well, the most current project I’m working on right now is my #WelcomeToSlumberland Twitter Project. The main purpose of the project is to investigate transactional occurrences between myself and the text, others and the text, as well as collaborative meaning-making. I’m hoping that the account will become an archive of diverse readings that I can come back to at its conclusion and interrogate more deeply. I think that there could be something meaningful in there about critical discussion and inspired transactions framed within a digital community.

I chose “Little Nemo” for many reasons. First, they are public domain so I can legally tweet the strips which, I hope, will encourage others to join into conversation because the strip is right there for them to read. Second, I felt as though there was a bit of a void on Twitter for McCay. With all the “Let’s Talk” or fan-related accounts celebrating the work of great artists, there wasn’t really anyone doing anything for McCay, which I felt was a travesty. Finally, discovering McCay’s Northern heritage (he may have been born in Canada) was exciting and got me interested in learning more about his life and other works. John Canemaker’s Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (2018, 3rd ed.) is a really fantastic overview of his life and one of the only biographies on him. He’s just an interesting guy and his work is so incredible; it all came together really well.

As I mentioned previously, anyone can follow the account and join in!

In terms of future projects, I’m really proud to have been given the opportunity to be a part of an exciting National-scale project to celebrate the 80th Anniversary of Canadian Comics! 2021 will see Better Comics #1 (1941) turn 80-years old and we’re hoping to commemorate that by collaborating on multiple projects in order to promote Canadian comics culture across Canada! More on that in the future…

How can folks get in contact with you to talk more about comics or your research?

I’m pretty active on Twitter as @zjarondinelli and am always looking for opportunities to chat about comics and comics research! If social media isn’t your thing, zrondinelli@brocku.ca!

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