Grad Students and the Comics Conference: Zack Kruse on MSU’s Comics Forum
As the CSS Grad Caucus moves into its next phase, we’re hoping that the CSSGC blog can become a place for grad students working in comics studies to write about any and all aspects of training to be a scholar in our growing field. MSU’s Zack Kruse is first up; who’s next? -Ed.
In 2015, I was invited to take on the role of panel coordinator for the Michigan State University Comics Forum, and I was honored to accept the position. The Comics Forum has been an annual event at MSU since 2008, and prior to taking on the role of panel coordinator, it’s an event that I had benefitted from both as a comics scholar and as someone who makes comics. Moreover, Michigan State is the birthplace of the academic comics library, and our collection began in 1970 with a donation from Russell Nye. Randy Scott has curated the collection since the mid 1970s, and it is now the largest comics library in the world. Without trying to sound like an advertisement, Michigan State is a great place to be for comics scholarship, and hopefully we’ll see that role continue to grow over time.
For this year’s Comics Forum, we received a record number of panel applicants, and from that pool, we were able to produce high quality, well-attended, panels on witnesses, trauma, reflexivity, and the role of the comics library/archive, along with a host of other topics that demonstrated comics’ ability to work as a self-contained area of critical study as well as one that demands the application of broader theoretical approaches. Before stepping in as panel coordinator, I organized a comic book convention for six years,[*] and I have been the comics area chair for the Northeast Popular Culture Association since 2013. In addition, I also had other significant stints in comics and comics retail, and while there is a lot of overlap between these roles, no one of them necessarily prepares you for the others. As a grad student, there are multiple levels of value in taking on these kinds of organizational responsibilities. They’re not just lines on a CV; they’re opportunities to interact with our discipline on an intimate scale, providing insight into new ideas and names to watch in our field. Of course, not the least of such benefits is the opportunity to be in a leadership position that, by forcing us to connect with other members of our field, holds us accountable to them.
However, it’s not just being in a leadership position that has proved beneficial. Attending and presenting at a comics-focused academic conference, like the Forum, has proven absolutely critical in my success as a comics scholar. Before taking on the role of the panel coordinator, I had attended the MSU Comics Forum as both a comics creator and a panelist for three consecutive years, and in those years, I found exactly what I was looking for in comics scholarship. In my years as an attendee, I presented work on Steve Ditko as well as on Warren Publishing’s Blazing Combat. I found the Forum to be a place where my ideas were thoughtfully challenged and encouraged, and a large part of the credit for the publication of my article on Ditko[†] is owed to the feedback I specifically received at the Comics Forum.
Because the Comics Forum offers a full slate of academic panels along with a traditional artists’ alley, it’s also a place where I had an opportunity to re-connect with industry friends and talk shop with the likes of Stan Sakai, Nick Bertozzi, Sergio Aragonés and others in an intimate setting. A key result of this blending of the traditional comic con with an academic conference is that the Forum (and other events like it) asks us to take very seriously the works of the creators in attendance and to interrogate both the works and the process so we can gain a greater sense of appreciation and understanding that can be applied to our work and shared with our students.
Comics don’t need validation, but they do need informed, thoughtful voices to communicate with the public about their work. As grad students, we need a place to really develop our voice and the Comics Forum is a wonderful place to develop such a voice. I hope to see you there in 2017!
[†] “Steve Ditko: Violence and Romanticism in the Silver Age.” Studies in Comics. 5.2. 2014.