Intrusive comic book research, literary misbehavior & pop-cultural observations.
May include nuts, personal opinions and non-academic language.

sunnuntai 5. heinäkuuta 2015

Academic's Archipelacon

June was intense.
No, let me try that again: June was INTENSE. And exhaustingly exhilarating. 
First, I spent a week in Oslo (for an NNCORE comics conference) - but more about that later!

Then, I found out that our seminar idea, "Reconfiguring Human and Non-Human: Texts, Images and Beyond" got funding and is actually going to happen at the end of October! (Please check the Call for Papers here and send your abstracts by August 9!)

Finally, of course, there was Archipelacon: a veritable smörgåsbord of fun, games and materials for a professional geek. If you hang around even the fringes of the Nordic speculative fiction community, you've definitely heard about it. From June 25 to 29, a couple of dozen SF/F researchers and some 800 fans gathered in Mariehamn to discuss their favorite fiction genres across media, to meet writer guests George R.R. Martin, Johanna Sinisalo and Karin Tidbeck and to enjoy the summery Åland islands.

Maypoles were still up.

My travel arrangements might have looked deceptively like a roadtrip: me, my office-buddy Katja Kontturi and two of our friends packed ourselves in a tiny Mitsubishi - on loan from another friend - and shared a little cabin just outside Mariehamn. Yes, our trunk might also have contained magic wands, fairy wings and vampire fangs for the masquerade day. But believe you me: I was there for work.

Our lodging was near a scattering of small ship yards.

FINFAR, The Finnish Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy Research was in charge of the academic program track, and the first session took place already on the cruise ship from Turku to Mariehamn. It was a small workshop session, open to MA students as well as to PhD students. The organizers couldn't fit my paper in since I already had a paper in the main program but I was allowed to sit in anyway. The discussion was lively, congenial and meandered from the use of the timeloop trope to the definitive differences between zombies and vampires.

Rush hour on Baltic Sea.

All scholarly circles need more small workshops like that! And I need to find out if any studies on zombie fiction would benefit my Frankenstein interests. Oddly, I've never considered that before...

The opening ceremonies in the main auditorium. Quinsonitus also delivered a great concert later in the evening.

The first of my own presentations was on Friday, the first full day of the con. I had originally prepared "Sarjakuva + Fani + Sankari = Vastarinnan välineistö?" ('Comics + Fans + Heroes = Means of Resistance?') for the annual seminar of Finnish Literary Research Society (University of Tampere, May 12 - 13), but the premiere was a dead duck. I had way too much material for a 20-minute presentation and there were only five people in the audience. (Three of them had to present in the same session.) Literary researchers have progressed in that they actually tolerate comics scholars in their events, but they still aren't particularly interested in us. 

So, I was happy to be given another chance. And it paid off: this time, I had about 20 listeners, with Johanna Sinisalo and Petri Hiltunen in the front row!! I appreciate them both quite a bit and got so nervous I felt out of breath for the first 10 minutes. Still, I think I managed to get my message through, and the audience seemed very alert and interested.

The presentation was basically a commentary on the first Finnish doctoral dissertation on comics, Pekka A. Manninen's Vastarinnan välineistö: Sarjakuvaharrastuksen merkityksiä. It was published exactly 20 years ago (1995) and claims that comics as a medium lends itself to children's own countercultures: comics are cheap and portable, they aren't taught at school and the stories often approach the adult world from parodic or subversive angles. 

Comics culture has changed a lot over the past 20 years, though, so I wanted to explore if it still counts as a counterculture of some sort. The "culture wars" have made it clear that certain groups of people (young, white, heterosexual males) feel certain ownership over the Western comics culture and want to keep controlling the ways the other groups of people (especially women) are portrayed in comics. These controversies have been epitomized, for example, by the Hawkeye Initiative meme and by the variant covers that have been pulled from sale because some readers have found them offensive (Batgirl #41 & Spiderwoman #1). Thus, I would argue that comics culture is still used to enforce, resist and discuss different identities and world-views, but the battle fronts have become much more political, vague and intermedial than they probably were in Manninen's time. Comics are no longer considered a part of children's culture but a part of the emergent and ever more popular "geek culture".

This scrap metal sculpture was auctioned for charity during the con.

As for my academic presentation, it wasn't until Sunday morning - the last day of the con - and by then, I was severely sleep-deprived. (Unfortunately, not everyone in our cottage were there for work...) So, imagine my surprise when it actually turned out to be one of the best, most calm and collected presentations I've ever given! Maybe it was because I was simply too sleepy to be nervous, or maybe it was because I got to talk about my favorite topic: The Monster Analogy: Defining Fictional Characters across Media. 

Summary of my main points. Photo by Katja.

In other words, I suggested a new reading for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or Modern Prometheus (1818). Sure, Victor Frankenstein and his monster can be considered God and Lucifer, Ego and Id, Scientist and AI - but why not also Reader/Writer and Fictional Character? (I actually quoted Barthes' "Death of the Author" in the presentation, so I think we can all be friends here.)

Frankenstein's monster illustrates beautifully how fictional characters work and, therefore, what character theorists should take into account: how characters are something thoroughly artificial and inhuman even though we treat them as human; how they are stitched together of mismatched semiotic elements; how they gain cultural power that is beyond their creator's control...

Several colleagues said they enjoyed the analogy, so I will probably write it into an article soon. (Every now and then it hits me that I am supposed to be working on this little thing called doctoral article dissertation...)

The Little Creature travels and presents with me. Photo by Katja.

Finally, straight after my academic presentation, I sat in a panel with Katja and the first Finnish Hugo nominee, comic artist Ninni Aalto. We discussed "Sequential speculation", or how comics handle sci-fi and fantasy elements. The panel was chaired by writer-critic Peter Sutton, who inquired, among other things, which comics had influenced us, how comics marry with speculative fiction and what comics cannot or should not do.

There's no looking smart and sounding smart at the same time. Photo by Taina.
My views in short:  
  • Tintin and Calvin & Hobbes made me a reader of comics, but The Sandman and Watchmen made me a researcher of comics. 
  • Comics and speculative fiction are a match made in heaven: when the only thing limiting your expressive potential is your ability to produce lines, it's easier to strive for originality than for realism. 
  • And that's exactly why you could do almost anything with comics. The only thing you shouldn't do is bad - uninspired or offensive - comics, because that gives the whole medium a bad rap.
Check out Ninni's amazing two-part con report in her blog Sähköjänis! (Look, mommy! I'm a comic book character! That means I must have done well in life.)

The program brochure included Merja Polvinen's hilarious "Field Guide to the Academics".  And yes, the chairs were actually armed with a laser pistol.

It's not like I didn't have any time for fun, though. Actually, this whole year has been a great experiment on what would happen if I just had fun with my work. And it has worked out brilliantly.

Mingling with the FINFAR folks was, in fact, fun in itself but I dedicated about half of my time to the non-academic side of the program. As a result, I became quite intrigued by Karin Tidbeck, the Swedish writer guest and learned that there are such things as nerdesque (nerd+burlesque) and Nordic weird (which, according to Johanna Sinisalo, is the new new weird). I also got good recommendations on recent and up-coming comics-based TV-series. (I definitely have to check out iZombie and the second season of Agent Carter, possibly Constantine, Flash, Gotham and Preacher as well.)

I am a bit bummed that I completely missed Gary K. Wolfe, the academic quest of honor. But the successful signature hunt...

I got the Finnish edition because of Petri Hiltunen's illustrations. Photo by Taina.

... the second-hand book bargains...

1 - 2,5 € a piece! Also, little finds I made on the cruise ship.

...and the late evening walk at Bomarsund fortress ruins probably made up for that.

None of us had any particular business to attend to on Saturday, so we also dressed up for a bit. The RPG hobbyist in me enjoys an occasional day as a vampire, but I should come up with a new costume soon. I think I've been a vampire for three fancy-dress events in a row now... By the way, our Oogie Boogie friend (Jani) was also interviewed for Åland's local news.

I stole Tinkerbell's magic wand. Photo by Kaisa Kortekallio.

If all this sounds amazing and once-in-a-lifetime, that's because it was. Archipelacon was only a replacement for this year's Finncon, and they are not planning another edition. However, we might be in for something even better in 2017 if we are able to get Worldcon in Helsinki. If that happens, FINFAR will likely be putting together the most epic academic track in con history.

But that's still a long shot. Our Jyväskylä seminar is not. It's coming. Like the winter. But quicker. So, for all you speculative fiction researchers and posthumanists out there, that is the next place to be! Keep the abstracts coming!

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