An Interview with Comics History Work Group coordinator Evan R. Ash

The Comics Studies Society prides itself on taking a forward-thinking, interdisciplinary approach to researching, teaching, and understanding the realm of near-infinite possibilities that comics and the graphic medium present to scholars of equally broad fields and interests. One new CSS GSC member took this mission to heart and got to work creating a space for historians of comics to collaborate, share resources, and build working relationships. We “sat down” (as best you can over the Internet) with the coordinator of the Comics Studies Society Comics History Work Group (CHWG), Evan Ash.

GSC: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Evan Ash: I’m currently a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Maryland, College Park. I hold a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay and a master’s degree in History from Miami University. I’m mostly interested in the history of the midcentury American anti-comics movement, which is what my master’s thesis dealt with, and what I imagine my eventual dissertation will as well. I presented a boiled-down version of that master’s thesis at CSS 2019 in Toronto and received one of the inaugural Carol Tilley Travel Grants for that proposal. Outside of the CHWG (pronounced chwug), I also serve on the 2019-2020 CSS Accessibility Committee as a Graduate Student Caucus rep.

GSC: Where did the idea come from to start the CHWG?

Ash: I started formulating the idea while I was still in Toronto. CSS19 was my first conference that wasn’t strictly a history conference, so I kind of had to readjust how I was approaching the whole weekend. Across all the panels I attended, I noticed the awesome diversity of interests, occupations, and fields that the presenters represented, but it was a little harder to glean who had similar interests as me. Near the end of the conference, I talked to a few people and floated the idea of putting together some kind of group that would let people who broadly considered themselves comic historians work together and connect with other interested folks. They all seemed very interested, so I put together a survey of interest as soon as I got home from the conference.

GSC: Can you elaborate a bit on what exactly a work group is?

Ash: So, believe it or not, it actually comes from Wikipedia where I’m pretty active. It’s sort of extrapolated from the concept of a WikiProject, which the site defines as “the organization of a group of participants… established in order to achieve specific… goals, or to achieve goals relating to a specific field of knowledge.” I do a lot of work in the WikiProject Comics, which works to “increase, expand, improve, and better organize articles related to comics.” In a WikiProject, you work together with other people who share your interests and general knowledge of the subject matter with the eventual goal of all-around improvement. I really love that structure, so I wanted to apply it to CSS, which has been really important to me in my professional development.

GSC: What are the professional demographics of the CHWG? What are some of the things that people have wanted to see from it?

Ash: We have a really great sprinkling of people in the CHWG. About half of our members are tenure-track faculty in various fields, and about 20-25% are graduate students. Librarians, independent scholars, and contingent faculty make up the remainder of the ranks. We had a lot of people mention calls for papers and research collaboration, but some of the more specific responses called for banding together and finding resources outside of comics studies, presenting “focused comics history panels” at non-comics conferences, and building a list of books to see what is being used to teach comics history and how they’re being used.

GSC: Any big goals for the future? Or likewise, any big plans?

Ash: I’d love to have a panel or a roundtable at CSS 2020 sponsored by the CHWG. My advisor has been on my case about doing a comics history panel at either the Organization of American Historians or the American Historical Association. Much farther down the road, I’d love to do an edited collection of new approaches to writing about the anti-comics movement.

Those interested in joining the CSS CHWG can join the Slack channel here.

Please also send an email to the coordinator at erash@umd.edu so you can be added to the email list.

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#CSS19 Sneak Peek: Francesca Lyn’s “Feels Bad Man: Anxiety and the Archives of Meme Culture” & “Against Universality: Embodiment in Women’s Autobiographical Comics”

The Comics Studies Society 2019 conference, “Comics/Politics” begins tomorrow! As folks are travelling to Toronto for the annual meeting, we wanted to offer one more Sneak Peek into events at #CSS19. This time we get a look at two presentations by former GSC board member and recent winner of the John A. Lent Scholarship in Comics Studies, Francesca Lyn. We can’t wait to see everyone in Toronto!

I am thrilled to be presenting the two research projects. The first “Feels Bad Man: Anxiety and the Archives of Meme Culture” will be presented as part of a roundtable titled Archival Anxieties: The Politics of Comics Preservation. This roundtable broadly centers on the archive and the ephemeral nature of comics. My brief presentation explores the challenges of preserving Internet memes. Examining memes and meme culture presents itself with several practical and conceptual obstacles. Memes are viral and often characterized by there wide dissemination. Additionally they are frequently altered and very rarely attributed. Here I focus on the controversial Pepe memes which appropriate Pepe the Frog, a character originally created by cartoonist Matt Furie. Pepe became a frequent fixture on the image board website 4chan and then became associated with alt-right politics. In October 2017, Furie addressed his own horror at Pepe’s evolution in The Nib. In the comic “Pepe the Frog: To Sleep Perchance to Meme” Furie depicts a somber Pepe first transforming into a soft-serve coiffed Trump surrogate. I also look at the social media campaign #SavePepe launched by Furie and The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), examining why it was a failure, eventually leading Furie to finally symbolically lay Pepe to rest in a 2017 comic strip.

My second project “Against Universality: Embodiment in Women’s Autobiographical Comics” builds on research from my dissertation Graphic Intimacies: Identity, Humor, and Trauma in Autobiographical Comics by Women of Color which examines works of comics art about the lived experience of the comics’ creator. My dissertation considered how the comics form represents the intersectionality of identity and feminism, exploring how the fragmentary nature of comics can embody trauma and identity in autobiographical comics written by women of color. These comics compress reality, representation, and subjectivity. Many of these comics employ the use of simplified forms and draw from an established vocabulary of conventions in comics such as panels, motion lines, and speech balloons.These graphic narratives address racialized difference and the construction of identity while also using humor to negotiate their narrations of traumatic events. Comics can allow for the representation of trauma as being intimately linked to corporeality. The comics medium allows creators to make visible and present fractured versions of the self, a product of traumatic fragmentation. I am most interested in how autobiographical cartoonists depict their embodied selves. Comics represent a collapsing of representation, a flattening of subject and meaning, the autobiographical comic compresses the self and bodily representation in a way that allows the cartoonist to portray complicated states of emotion and how these states can be expressed through the body.

In Understanding Comics (1994), Scott McCloud argues that comics derive meaning from their iconicity, stating that the more simplistic a rendering is the more easily we can identify with it. While comics, including autobiographical comics, do use symbolic language in order to derive meaning, many comics also resist or challenge their indexical nature. I argue that many of the most salient examples of women’s autobiographical comics resist iconicity as a strategic manipulation of the medium. These comics are often perceived as being messy and disjointed. or viewed critically due to their perceived reliance on the primacy of text in the narrative. In these comics the text complicates rather than explain the comic’s imagery, enabling autobiographical comics to perform the difficult task of portraying lived experiences. These comics challenge the dominant discourse on the gendered and raced body, presenting narratives that reject notions of a universal subject position.

Francesca’s roundtable will be Thursday, July 25 at 11:30am and her panel will be on Friday, July 26th at 8:30am.

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