Meet the Board Members: Zachary Rondinelli

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

I came to the CSS in 2017 when I was working on my M.A. in Comparative Literatures and Arts. I had been having a hard time finding people that really wanted to talk comics with me in the way that I did. My friends and the folx from my local comicbook store weren’t all that interested in talking with me about the composition of a particular page out of one of that week’s new comics, you know? Compounding this was the fact that, though the people I worked with at Brock were (largely) accepting of my interest in the field of comics studies, I didn’t know any scholar actively doing comics based research. There are some incredible people at Brock University in that world (shout out to Ebru Unstundag from “Geography & Tourism Studies,” who has become such a wonderfully supportive friend and has taught me a ton about Graphic Medicine), but at the time I just didn’t know anyone. 

It was for that reason that I sought out others who were doing the same sort of work that I wanted to do. I joined Facebook groups and followed folx on Twitter, until that eventually led me to CSS. It was pretty clear from the get-go that this was a community of like-minded scholars and I was so eager to be a part of it!

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

When I did my original “Meet the Board” interview back in 2019 when I was elected as “Secretary/Treasurer,” I talked about Batman: Hush and Essex County; two comics that were super important in my journey to where I am today. But recently, I’ve been working on a really personal portfolio for my doctoral candidacy (we don’t take exams in my program, but rather create a portfolio of experiences) and that process somehow jogged my memory and caused me to remember the first *ever* comicbook that I held in my hands. 

So, it’s Halloween 2002 and I’m walking up to a neighbour’s house. My brother, sister, and I run up the driveway, one of us rings the bell, we mutter the old “trick or treat” greeting, and watch as he picks up this huge stack of what I think are magazines and drops one into each of our candy bags. So, we headed down the driveway sort of bummed out that we didn’t get candy (can you believe that?!) and keep going door-to-door. When we got home, looking at this book that we’d each been given was a top priority because it was just so different and unexpected. I don’t remember what my siblings got, but turns out that my “magazine” was actually an issue from a Spawn spin-off series: Spawn: The Dark Ages #16. Even today I can vividly remember the cover, which was a really awesome Ashley Wood reminiscent of his work on Hellspawn. I remember flipping through the comic and thinking that it was super cool; it was so different and nothing like anything that I’d read before. So, I carried it around with me for a while, read it over and over again, brought it to school, kept it in my desk, and eventually… I lost it and didn’t think about comics for another 6 or 7 years.

It’s a fun little story that I’m glad I remember now. It’s also definitely taught me some important lessons… for starters, I intend to be the guy who hands out comics for Halloween now.

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

Michael DeForge is a really brilliant Canadian cartoonist whose work doesn’t get talked about enough. I have the pleasure of interviewing him for the special issue of Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review on Canadian comics that I’m co-editing with CSS Past President, Candida Rifkind, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time with his work again recently and it is just so brilliant. 

DeForge’s work is dynamic, smart, and critical in a way that feels really important today; he doesn’t back down from difficult or complicated issues and wears his principles on his sleeve. It gives his work an authenticity that is just really special. Not to mention that his art, which often resides on the abstract end of the spectrum, is vibrant, colourful, and challenging in just the right measure. If you’ve never read any DeForge, I’d recommend Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero (2017), Familiar Face (2020), and Heaven No Hell (2021) as good places to start! He also has a daily Instagram comics strip called Birds of Maine (2022) that is really fun!

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

I spoke a lot about the incredible scholars who have impacted my research in my last “Meet the Board” interview, but what I didn’t do enough of was talk about public scholarship, how important that has been for me, and the people who have made an impact on me there. 

I found my way into comics largely after writing for a young, upstart comics website, POP! Culture & Comics, where I did some review writing and weekly features (I especially loved my fun, formal analysis feature called “Pages that POP!”). When I began my M.A. and joined CSS, I really missed this side of my comics work. I loved and was excited by the new rigorous academic angle I was exploring, but (at that time) I was writing largely for myself and a handful of professors in that realm; I missed writing about comics for a public audience. So, when I saw a call for new contributors to Shawn Gilmore’s Vault of Culture, I knew I was going to answer it. 

Since starting to write for VoC, I’ve gotten to know Shawn much more and he has become an incredibly supportive friend and colleague. When I reached out to Shawn the first time, he didn’t know me from Adam, but he was kind and supportive, encouraging me to send him some work to consider for the site. Since then, he’s been a huge supporter of my work (especially my #WelcomeToSlumberland project, which he was not only a participant in but also allowed me to curate a “Walking Bed Week” roundtable on the site) and has gone above and beyond helping me establish myself in the field. He’s a strong advocate for public scholarship and you should check out and consider submitting to Vault of Culture! You won’t regret it. 

Once I recognized that there were semi-academic spaces for comics scholarship online, I started reading and consuming a lot of it. One thing that I recognize about my own writing, is that I’ve often struggled tackling the personal. I’ve tended towards keeping my writing at a safe distance and so the academic approach to writing is often quite alluring to me. That said, I recognize that my journey with comics has been largely shaped by the personal relationships that I have with friends. The things I’ve read, the way we’ve talked about comics, the excitement that I’ve shared with people about the comics we’re reading, that’s what got me where I am today. So the personal is intrinsically tied to comics for me. 

Another public scholar who I have always looked up to for her beautiful writing is newly minted CSS Member-at-Large, Anna Peppard. It wasn’t until I came across Anna’s work that I began to understand the ways that a scholar might be able to interrogate the works they study through their own personal experience with them. Her tone, style, and willingness to explore herself through her writing is unmatched, in my opinion, and I’ve always admired how she does it through the lens of her love of superhero comics. Whether it’s her “‘Til Death Do Us Part, At Least for a While” from VoC or “(Behold?) The Vision’s Penis” from the Middle Spaces, reading her work has always been so meaningful and that really encouraged me to let myself go personal with my own writing. I don’t want to emulate her (no one can), but I wanted to give myself permission to be more open and honest with my work and the ways that comics have been a part of shaping the way I see the world. That inspiration has led me to write some of my absolute favourite pieces of public scholarship and I’m really appreciative of her for that. 

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

I don’t necessarily think its a *new* shift in the field, but the recent emphasis on comics pedagogy is super exciting to me. Prior to returning to grad school, I had been an active Intermediate/Senior (High School) English Teacher for nearly five years (and have continued to do a lot of K-12 work throughout grad school, though in a far more “occasional” capacity). I think that this has led me to pay particular attention in my work to comics pedagogy and the ways we talk about teaching with comics.

When I’m teaching comics to my English Studies Teacher Candidates in the Faculty of Ed, I rarely get to lecture or discuss the things about a particular work or a particular text that I love because we’re instead talking a lot about how to use comics in the classroom. Working with comics in the K-12 classroom is much different than working with a prose novel, so I get asked a lot of different “how” questions: How do we use them? How do we talk about them? How do we analyze them? How do they read them out loud? How can I assess or evaluate them? (etc.) 

Searching for ways to engage in these conversations with my students has revealed that there has, historically, been less of a focus here than on other areas of comics scholarship. For a long time, Stephen A. Tabachnick’s Teaching the Graphic Novel (2009) seemed to be my go-to because I couldn’t find much else. Fast forward to today and I’m noticing so many more people focusing on this particular question; that is, how we teach comics in our classrooms. Susan Kirtley, Antero Garcia, and Peter Carlson’s incredible With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy: Teaching, Learning, and Comics (2020), Shveta Miller’s Hacking Graphic Novels: 8 Ways to Teach Higher-Level Thinking with Comics and Visual Storytelling (2021), and Meghan Parker’s Teaching Artfully (2021) are three recent works that have blown me away, but there is so much more out there and it’s really exciting!

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

Nick Sousanis. The way that he sees and talks about comics has really influenced not only the way that I teach them to my students, but also how I think about them in my own scholarship. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and hear Nick speak at Michigan State Comics Forum in 2019 and I’ve been a part of some of his workshops (virtually). Each time, I come away with something new to think about. I’m also lucky that Nick is such a great guy and always seems to have time to talk about comics, teaching, and pretty much anything else on social media, so interacting with him and his content there has taught me a lot, as well, because he is always sharing student work and talking about his approaches.

Unflattening (2015) was and continues to be a revelation each time I read it, and his website, “Spin, Wave, and Cut”, is an absolute treasure trove. I’ve used his “Grids & Gestures” activities with almost every class I’ve ever taught to Teacher Candidates because it really starts showing them the ways that comics can communicate beyond words and pictures and his visual analysis assignments have always been a great way to help students understand how we analyze a comics page. More than this though, I think his  “Comics as Thinking” principle has become deeply ingrained in the way I view the teaching of comics. It’s become a pretty huge tenant of my own pedagogical philosophy and students are usually so blown away when they start thinking about the ways that they can bring comics into their own classrooms by thinking beyond traditional approaches. 

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

Last time I said, Chris Ware (which is still true; I haven’t yet met him), but since you’re asking me today, I think I’d have to say Tom Hart. He’s done a lot of great work (and I often mine his Sequential Artist’s Workshop resources for stuff to use in my own classes; it’s brilliant stuff), but the one that stands out to me isn’t his Hutch Owen work, it’s his Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir (2016). In case you’ve never heard of it, Rosalie Lightning is a graphic memoir about two people learning how to keep living after the loss of their child. Coincidentally, I first read it right around the time that I learned my first-born son, Dante, was on the way. I don’t remember how Rosalie Lightning found its way into my hands, but being a soon-to-be Dad, it hit me like a bag of bricks and remains one of the most deeply affective comics that I’ve ever read. 

I think about the book, and the little girl that inspired it, often and, whenever I do, I’m reminded that every moment I spend with my (now two) children is precious and that there are no tomorrows promised to us. I come back to it a lot and I would love to tell Tom just how much sharing his story with the world has meant to me, personally.

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

Well, next month I’ll be participating in the first ever academic symposium at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival, which is hugely exciting! Previously, the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics would hold its annual conference during TCAF, but they haven’t done that in a couple years now, so this will be the first effort undertaken by TCAF to establish an academic conference in conjunction with their other outreach programs at the Festival. I think it’s really amazing. 

Another project that is coming together really well is the special issue of Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism & Review about Canadian comics with CSS Past-President, Dr. Candida Rifkind, which has been an amazing experience. The issue was born out of last November’s “Beyond 80 Years: A Virtual Symposium on Canadian Comics,” which I was involved in as a member of the organizing committee, and will feature some really great scholarship on Canadian comics, interviews with comics creators (like Stanely Whaney & Michael DeForge), as well as transcriptions of the keynotes. We even have some original comics being included in the issue! It’s going to be really, really exciting!

Beyond that, I’m just excited to be serving as GSC President and looking forward to continuing our work! We have done a ton of work this year and this summer is going to be a really exciting time for the GSC! We have such a great team and each and every person is committed to doing all that they can for our membership. I hope it shows in the work we do!

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

I’m pretty easy to reach on Twitter at @zjarondinelli and am always eager to talk comics and comics studies! You can also reach out by email at zrondinelli@brocku.ca!

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