GSC Vice-President, Sydney Heifler, Talks Winning the 2020 CSS Article Prize

In this feature interview, GSC President, Zachary J.A. Rondinelli, talks with GSC Vice-President, Sydney Heifler, about her 2020 CSS Article Prize winning publication, “Romance Comics, Dangerous Girls, and the Importance of Fathers.”

ZR: As a graduate student, can you tell us how it feels to win CSS’ prestigious Article Prize?

SH: Well, it means a lot that my article was considered such a strong contribution to our field. It was, obviously, something I cared a lot about. I had the idea for this article while writing my undergraduate honors thesis and carried it around with me for quite a long time. I worked on it after I finished my master’s program and before starting my Ph.D. program, so it was something that I devoted myself to. I cared about it, and it matters to me that others also cared about it. Also, it’s nice to feel like you’re contributing to your community and this prize made me feel I had offered something worthwhile to my peers. 

ZR: Tell us about your experience publishing with the Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics (JGNC). What did you learn from it?

SH: I worked mainly with Nancy Pedri and Irene Velentzas as they were the editors for this special collection, Sexuality and Mental Illness in Comics. They were fantastic editors. At first, we tackled the main issue of how exactly I was intervening in the field of comics studies. They really helped me make that as specific as possible, which I think is quite essential. You have got to be able to explain why your research is important to the field to even begin to make your argument. And then, we honed in on language and made every sentence and word as specific as possible, which, in turn, made my research and interpretations as honest as possible. They challenged me in the best way. The journal itself is obviously great, many of the comics studies scholars I admire are on the editorial board, and I am happy to have my work there.

ZR: As your article discusses, romance comics (in general) seem to be an oft-neglected area of focus in contemporary comics scholarship. Do you see that trend beginning to reverse itself? Why or why not, and how has your research been a part of that?

SH: They have been neglected, especially when you compare the work that has been done on them to the amount of work that has been produced on superhero comics. Scholars have been interested in them, though, but they’re usually thrown in as a subtopic in a broader study of comics. But the general reception to my work has been proof that the field cares about romance comics. I’ve been very intentional in situating my work within comics studies and within the broader comics fandom, and everyone knows I talk about it quite a lot, for about eight years now, and I think that has helped. I’ve had students reach out to me, telling me that my work has made it possible for them to research romance comics, which is one of my favorite things.

ZR: In my view, one of the most important things that your article offers to comics scholarship today is the way that it positions romance comics as a force within the larger societal structure of the post-second-world-war era. Your paper articulates this by revealing the role romance comics had in reinforcing traditional gender hierarchies. Can you speak to other ways in which romance comics influenced society at that time?

SH: Thank you for saying that. One of my main objectives in my work is to place comic books 

in broader historical narratives. I want people to understand that comics were important to history and that history goes beyond what happened in the comic book industry. Aside from reinforcing traditional gender hierarchies, they also reinforced post-war notions of class, race, and fulfillment, sexual and otherwise. They are also a great way to comprehend how men were trying to understand women and how they felt about what they perceived about these women. For instance, during the 1970s, in women’s lib romance comics, writers challenged dominant ideas within the Women’s Liberation Movement, which reveals much about their potential anxieties concerning masculinity and security within their own lives. 

ZR: Extending this line of thinking, your paper also comments on the ways in which romance comics contributed to the social construct of “fatherhood” and a father’s role in safeguarding his daughter. Without giving too much from your paper away, can you tell us a bit about how the echoes of this influence still exist today?

SH: Oh, I don’t think the father-as-safeguarder for daughter is going away any time soon, but the more sexual and romantic elements of this father-daughter relationship have faded. Unlike in romance comics, when such relationships are depicted today, they are problematized though there are always exceptions to the rule. There are still echoes in both popular media and real life. In popular media, I see echoes the most when there is an older man acting fatherly toward a younger woman and then using the consequent power imbalance they create to date her or instigate sexual relations with her. In real life, we have purity balls, in which fathers take their daughters to formalized dances in order to signify her commitment to remain a virgin until marriage and, by implication, her father. 

ZR: Finally, what advice would you give other graduate students who are looking to publish in peer-reviewed journals?

SH: If you’re currently enrolled in grad school, use one of your seminars as an opportunity to craft the article, or at least the beginning stages of an article–don’t create extra work for yourself if you don’t need to! Really narrow down your topic. In an article, you don’t have as much space as you think you do, and you need to be able to address your topic from every angle, or at least have the room to justify the angles you aren’t examining. There is so much I could have written about teenage romance comics, but I picked one thing that I thought was very important, and I stuck to that one thing, which was rather hard at times (my editors kept me on point!). That is another crucial thing, pick something you care about because the article process is quite long, and I think if I hadn’t cared about what I was contributing to my field, I would have felt beat up by the whole process. 

I would also have a senior person in your field look over your work and offer insights, or at least have someone you trust that you feel comfortable running things by. My person was Michael Goodrum, who I asked many questions regarding historiographical anxieties and framing issues. I also had someone who knew nothing about comics, or post-war history read my article to make sure it was accessible to a broader audience. Not everyone cares how accessible their scholarship is, and they only want to speak to the experts in their field, but accessibility is something I care about, and I think it is something our field generally strives for.

Last thing is, pick your journal carefully. You want to make sure that the journal is a good fit for your work. I responded to a call for papers, so I already knew my work fit nicely within the general project. It’s important to be strategic about where you’re publishing so that you are marketing yourself for the future job you want. I wanted to mark myself as a comics studies scholar, which also has the benefit of signaling that I’m interdisciplinary in my approach to history, so a comics studies journal made sense.. However, as someone who hopes to end up in a history department, I also have to publish in a history journal, which will likely change how I approach my next article. 

ZR: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us all, Sydney!

SH: My pleasure!

Sydney Heifler’s article, “Romance Comics, Dangerous Girls, and the Importance of Fathers,” can be found in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics volume 11, issue 4. Follow this link for more information.

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