An Interview with #WelcomeToSlumberland Twitter Project Principal Investigator Zachary J.A. Rondinelli

We were recently able to interview our very own GSC Secretary-Treasurer, Zachary J.A. Rondinelli, about his ongoing project #WelcomeToSlumberland. Check out this interview with Zachary and then head over to twitter to engage with this important and innovative research.

GSC: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Zachary J.A. Rondinelli: Sure! I’ve just started my second year as a Ph.D. student in Educational Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON Canada and hold an M.A. in Studies in Comparative Literatures & Arts, also from Brock. My main interests are comics theory, multimodality, and reading/literacy studies. Currently, my dissertation is shaping up to combine all of those interests by engaging in participatory action research and comics-specific visual methods to examine the nature of reading comics in the classroom, as well as extending current research on how the medium sponsors multimodal literacy development for students. I’ve been a High School English teacher in Ontario, Canada since 2014 and, as such, I’m particularly interested in how we can integrate comics into K-12 classrooms more effectively. Outside of (or maybe tangential to) the academy, I’ve been a contributor for Sequential: Canadian Independent Comic Book Magazine since its inaugural issue last year, have published comics related work at The Vault of Culture and recently had my first peer-reviewed article, “‘C’Mon. Sell Me Another One’: Simulation, Sacrifice, and Symbolic Revolution in King and Gerads’ Mister Miracle” (2019) published in tba: Journal of Art, Media, and Visual Culture. I’m also proud to be serving as the Secretary/Treasurer for the Comics Studies Society’s 2020 Graduate Student Caucus.

GSC: Tell us how the #WelcomeToSlumberland project came to be?

Rondinelli: Honestly, it took on a life of its own very quickly! Initially, the impetus was simply that I had received the two-volume XXL Taschen collections of Little Nemo strips by Alexander Braun as a gift and thought that it would be a really cool idea to have a dedicated page on Twitter, similar to other “Let’s Talk” accounts that exist out there, with which to explore his work. I’m pretty active on Twitter (@zjarondinelli) and like to engage in critical conversation about comics, comics analysis, comics as communication, (etc.) with other scholars and fans; I know how powerful a digital community tool like Twitter can be in that respect. So, while it started out as a “fun” personal interest idea, when I really stopped to think about what it was that I was setting out to do I realized that the project provided a unique opportunity to both document and explore different personal and collaborative transactions that reader’s might have with McCay’s comic strip. After some consultation with my amazing supervisor, Dr. Diane Collier, we agreed, and I went to Brock’s research ethics review board to inquire about whether my project would need to be evaluated. They confirmed that it met the threshold for ethics review, so I immediately applied. The review process took a couple of weeks, but, when it came back, I’d received clearance with no revisions and had permission to get started right away. I couldn’t have been more excited.

Little Nemo - Wikipedia

GSC: Little Nemo in Slumberland is a really interesting choice for the pursuit of this work. Before receiving the Taschen collections, were you familiar with McCay at all, or was he relatively new to you?

Rondinelli: No, I’ve been familiar with Winsor McCay, both the man and the work, for a very long time. He’s just such a fascinating character.

GSC: What is it in particular about McCay that draws your interest?

Rondinelli: Well, he was a really enigmatic person and a performer who knew how to put on a show! McCay was intimately familiar with, and even actively engaged in, the Vaudeville scene of the early 1900s. The time that he spent as a performer in his early life never really left him or his work and this view of him as not just a creator, but an entertainer, really resonates with me.

One reason for that is that I too have been a performer for most of my life. I actually studied Operatic Vocal Performance in my undergrad at Western University in London, ON. As a singer, I was lucky to have the opportunity to perform on many stages in Opera and Musical Theatre productions and, as a result, I feel an interesting connection to him in that way. McCay was able to leverage his personality as a performer to benefit nearly everything he did in life, especially his work in comics and animation. Like McCay, I too frequently utilize the skills that I developed as a performer to enhance or improve my everyday work. They’re particularly helpful skills to have as a high school English teacher, let me tell you!

I also just love the mystery that surrounds his birth; neither his birthdate nor his birthplace have ever been concretely identified. This uncertainty has led to some serious contention, particularly when his most prominent biographer, John Canemaker, first presented the claim that McCay might not have been born in the United States at all, but Canada instead! Both McCay’s parents were Canadian, and Canemaker suggests that Michigan census data from 1870 had recorded a Zenas W. McKay (the artist’s birth name) living in Michigan who had been born in Canada in 1867. As a Canadian, that connection was really interesting to me, but it was definitely his work that hooked me. 

It’s true that this project will mark the first time that I’ve read the Little Nemo strips in chronological order, but I’ve been familiar with them, and McCay’s other ground-breaking comics like Little Sammy Sneeze and Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, for many years. Like many formalist comics scholars, I was drawn to his prodigious handling of the comics medium, particularly in Little Nemo in Slumberland. In his biography, Canemaker (2018, 3rd ed.) actually compares McCay to Mozart, an undisputed musical genius and one of the most progressive composers of his time. As someone who spent years studying Mozart in my undergrad, I feel as though I can attest to the aptness of the comparison. Like Mozart to music, McCay was an innovator of the comics form. His art nouveau style, experimental panel composition, use of colour, timing, pace, perspective, hatching style, architectural detail, (etc.) all combine to create some of the most brilliant surrealist art you’ll ever find in comics. There’s a reason that his work has made such a lasting impact on comics and cartoonists to this day, nearly 100 years after Little Nemo ceased publication. 

Little Nemo in Slumberland" on the iPad - Sunday Press Books Brings Winsor  McCay's Comic Strip Classic to the Digital Screen

GSC: Earlier you mentioned that the goal of the project was to investigate “collaborative transactions” with this research. Can you explain what exactly a “transaction” is in your conceptualization?

Rondinelli: I’m borrowing this theoretical framework from Louise Rosenblatt (1978), but the word transaction simply describes the type of relationship that occurs between a reader and a text during a communicative event (in this case: reading). I really want to use this project as a way to focus on those types of relationships where both the text and the reader are changed by their coming together. This, I would argue, is contrasted by a more basic interactional approach where the relationship in reading is viewed as a collision, or momentary contact between reader and text, that leaves both essentially unchanged by the experience. For me, the strength of this project is that we get to both individually reflect on our readings, as well as collaborate together on renegotiating our own personal transactions through collaboration with the other participants.

GSC: You mentioned earlier that the project was being hosted on Twitter. Is that where participants engage with each other?

Rondinelli: That’s right. I’m actually quite proud of the project’s position as Qualitative Social Media Research.

Though it certainly didn’t inspire the work, I think that it’s fair to say that the COVID-19 pandemic gave me the final push to dive in. Since in-person research was forced to come to a screeching halt as a result of the widespread school closures, the question of how we could continue doing participant research became immediately relevant. The notion of using social media as a potential mediator for the impossibility of in-person research became very appealing to me. Social media research isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it is generally a less popular research model than the in-person alternatives. 

That said, I can’t imagine that #WelcomeToSlumberland is the only project that has taken advantage of social media for the purposes of research during COVID-19; If it is, I doubt it will be for long! I can only assume that social media research will continue to rise in popularity as a result of the uncertainty regarding when we can all be back together.

GSC: How does all this translate into the social media space? What does it look like in practice?

Rondinelli: It’s really simple actually.

Each day (or there about), I tweet, in chronological order, one of the 549 “Little Nemo” comic strips and create a thread sharing my own personal transaction with that day’s comic. I then invite others to reply, retweet, direct message, or otherwise communicate with the account in order to share their own personal transactions with that day’s strip. At this point, participants often begin critical conversations with me and each other to probe, challenge, extend, and interrogate our transactions with the strip, which ultimately leaves behind a digital archive of these experiences for me to return to later for content analysis and open coding.

Data analysis won’t occur until after the whole project is complete and I have a large data set from which to explore. This means that, for the majority of the project, the goal is just to have a great time critically reflecting on an amazing piece of comics history with a bunch of participants from around the globe! I’m lucky to have participants from Canada, the USA, India, Norway, and many other places. I love it because if this project weren’t a social media project, I’d never be able to share these peoples experiences the way we are now. It’s fantastic.

GSC: So, you kicked off the project at the end of May 2020, right? How has it been going so far?

Rondinelli: Honestly, I think it’s been going remarkably well so far!

Though I begin each day with my own personal readings, it’s been amazing to see many of my participants share alternative readings or challenge the readings that I’ve presented. We often discuss one concept that builds upon something we’ve previously seen, or we’ve worked together to shape a reading that none of us saw on our own. It’s really demonstrated the negotiating and renegotiating of meaning that can only happen across a digital space acting to connect readers, fans, scholars, and anyone else interested in the strips across the large geographical divide that separate us.

Beyond what I expected to find, I’ve also begun to notice some recurring themes that I think will make for really interesting discussions after data analysis. As I mentioned, I’m not going to dig into the data until after the project is done, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed a thing or two that I think will play into my conclusions. Obviously, as an educational researcher, I’m focusing on how this project can inform educational pedagogy in the future, so nearly all of the findings that I anticipate are directed towards comics in education. Examples of these early themes and implications include supporting the continued development of “comics as comics” pedagogy in K-12 education, promoting anti-discrimination education through 20th century socio-historic artefacts, and promoting historical memory through public domain intellectual property. These, alongside the other early themes and implications that I’m noticing, seem to have a lot of potential to support the continued development of meaningful comics practices in the K-12 education.

GSC: Obviously, your project relies heavily on collaborating with others. Can you clarify exactly how you are defining participation in the project and what are you considering data?

Rondinelli: For the purposes of the project, I’m defining a participant as any individual who follows, tweets @, replies to, retweets, direct messages, or otherwise engages with @LittleNemo1905 or the project website. Data will be defined as tweets, retweets, replies, direct messages, and other interactions with @LittleNemo1905 and the project website. No personal identifiers will be collected beyond those made publicly accessible on the participant’s twitter account.

I really want to stress that participation in this project is, at all times, completely voluntary. There are absolutely no expectations that you will follow my lead and document transactions daily (though all would be welcome to do so if they wanted to). In this way, participation can be as frequent or infrequent as the participant wishes it to be. 

Also, following the @LittleNemo1905 account doesn’t in any way constitute a commitment to ongoing participation. Participants can stop following, delete their past comments, or remove themselves entirely from the project at any time if they change their minds. Honestly, if someone wanted to just follow the account for no reason beyond a daily dose of McCay’s little dreamer, that would be totally fine by me.

Winsor McCay's Little Nemo » MadInkBeard | Derik Badman

GSC: Can anyone participate? If so, how can they get involved?

Rondinelli: Absolutely anyone can participate at any time throughout the life of the project! Even though we’re almost 100 strips in you don’t have to go back to the first strip and catch up; you can join us right where we are now! For those interested in reviewing what we’re done so far, or sharing their insight on the earlier strips (if desired), you can check out the Digital Table of Contents available on the #WelcomeToSlumberland website. This page features quick links to every Twitter thread we’ve done so far throughout the project!

Also, no previous experience with McCay, or his work, is required. In true transactional fashion, every single perspective, experience, and point of view is valid and meaningful. If you want to get involved, all you need to do is follow @LittleNemo1905 or subscribe to the email updates on the project website!

GSC: Any final thoughts or upcoming presentations you’d like to plug?

Rondinelli: Actually, two quick things!

Once we cross the 100th day of the project, I’ll be transitioning into Phase Two of the research. Now that I’ve done the primary thread writing for 100 strips and we’re all more-or-less familiar with the process, I’m going to be encouraging participants to take over those duties as a Guest Curator for a short time. This might mean a participant takes over writing for one day or multiple days (if they’re interested in tackling a whole thematic series). Any of the #WelcomeToSlumberland participants can be a Guest Curator! Just reach out to me on Twitter about your interest and we’ll chat!

Finally, I’ll be presenting on #WelcomeToSlumberland at the Flyover Comics Symposium in September! It’s called “FWIW I think you’re over thinking this”: Cutting the Gordian Knot of Authorial Intention in Transactional Approaches to Reading Comics and will explore some of my first impressions and very early potential implications as they relate to comics pedagogy! I’m really looking forward to it!

GSC: How can potential participants get in touch with you if they have any further questions?

Rondinelli: I’d encourage anyone with questions to reach out to me by direct messaging @LittleNemo1905 or @zjarondinelli on Twitter. Alternatively, they can email me either from the contact form on the project website or at zrondinelli@brocku.ca.

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