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

sunnuntai 27. syyskuuta 2015


I'm slowly recovering from my Great Conference Summer, which really was great in every sense of the word. During the past three months, I've toured the shores of the Baltic sea and met dozens of interesting people – all in order to advance my doctoral studies. I have, among other things, climbed the roof of Oslo Opera House with other comic researchers, attended a couple of paper sessions dressed as a vampire, and befriended a highland cow while discussing upcoming conferences on cognitive studies. I don't think I could have had more fun if I had actually had a vacation.

Now that I'm back behind my desk again, my first real writing task of the new semester will be a conference report on NNCORE 2015: War and Conflict in Sequential Art, which took place in the University of Oslo on June 11–12. I have actually, actually promised to write a proper one for Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art with Katja Kontturi. But first, let us practice a bit with a less formal blog report!

Thinking back on the experience now, the first things that come to my head are the slick, shimmering, excessively high walls of Georg Sverdups Hus, PowerPoint slides filled with rather distressing comic panels and dinners in cramped, little restaurants in the Berlinesque Grünerlokka neighborhood. We traveled between venues by very new, very neat trains and very old, very graffiti-ridden trams, and the weather was just right the whole time – warm and breezy.

Grünerlokka boasted some very impressive street art.
NNCORE, or the Nordic Network for Comics Research, hadn't had a conference in two years due to a break in funding, so there was a bit of buzz around this one well beforehand. Having the whole thing coincide with Oslo Comics Expo was also tempting. So, even though the theme – war and conflict – is quite far removed from my research interests, I was determined to come up with a suitable abstract.

...because Oslo is a charming city, obviously.
I've often been accused of floating in very theoretical spheres, so I considered this an apt opportunity to exercise some good old-fashioned comic analysis. I might have read little theoretical works on war, conflict, trauma or violence, but I'm no stranger to comics that include them – or even revel in them. Mike Carey and Peter Gross' Vertigo series The Unwritten has been very central to my research for a couple of years now, and while its main theme is metafictionality, violence isn't far behind. I decided to survey how the two are connected and titled my presentation "Tommy Taylor and the War of Words and Images: Violent Metatextuality of The Unwritten".

Metatextual and metafictional breaks (or metalepses) are often discussed in rather violent terms in literary research: limits of the storyworld "rupture", reality "invades" the fictional space or ontological boundaries are "torn down". My main claim was that The Unwritten makes this discourse concrete through its visual fantasy: the series depicts "tortured texts", monstrous texts, violent fictions that become reality and characters whose lives have been ruined by too much fiction. Some of the characters also travel between different storyworlds as the plot progresses and these transgressions more often than not lead to chaos and blood-shedding.

Almost done! Photo by Katja.
Since the protagonist of the series, Tom Taylor, knows that he is a fictional character – that is, he's both artificial and sentient – he quite automatically sees other artificial creations as sentient beings as well. Through his perspective, an act of editing becomes and act of murder.

We wouldn't normally consider an author killing off her character unethical, because what we see is a sentient human being, with all the human rights and copyrights, handling an artificial, inhuman thing of her own creation. The Unwritten, however, flips the point-of-view so that we see the creations, the characters – who might be artificial but still appear rather human – struggling against such authorial control.

On one hand, the series gets away with rather explicit violence because the violence isn't "real", it's only directed towards explicitly fictional beings. On the other hand, The Unwritten raises interesting questions about the all-too-obvious differences and peculiar similarities between real and fictional people. Notably, as the boundaries between real fictional people blur, so do the boundaries between real and fictional violence.

(Yes, there is a Frankenstein thread hidden in there somewhere. There always is.)

I was unlucky enough to be the first presenter, so I was ridiculously nervous. It felt as if I'd forgotten how to speak English for that one critical half an hour. On the bright side, the content was sound and plentiful; I was able to unearth loads of interesting  new points about The Unwritten, because I was "forced" to look at it from a foreign angle. I also got some comic and book recommendations from the audience, which is always great.

A handful of other people talked about violence, too. Joseph Trotta from Gothenburg University used semiotics to explain why some depictions of violence appear real and traumatic while others can be viewed as entertainment. I have little notes about the conclusions but found the research question intriguing in itself. Also, Leena Romu, a colleague from Tampere, discussed sexual violence in Ulli Lust's comic Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life (2013) through James Phelan's ethics of telling and ethics of the told. Trauma was a more common keyword, though, and I do feel that comics' ability to depict and process traumatic events has been a pretty hip research subject for a long time now, especially with the rise of autobiographical comics.

More than half of the panels focused on war. How have comics been used as war or anti-war propaganda? And how is war depicted in sequential art? Some emphasized parodic elements, others realism. Still others saw war comics as historical source material or alternative histories. The target texts ranged beautifully from Ally Sloper to manga.

Captain America liberating a concentration camp on a Marvel Comics' Captain America cover. Slide from Markus Streb's presentation "Early Representations of Concentration Camps in Golden Age Comics".

The academic keynote lecture by Uppsala University's Michael Scholz also examined how comics were employed for propaganda during WWII, when they were exceedingly popular reading at the front. He suggested that the attitudes conveyed by the war comics of the time could even help to explain the differing conducts of soldiers of different nationalities. For example, the Americans proudly executed concentration camp guards after the war - as the heroes of American war comics would - but the Brits did not - since the heroes of British war comics would not.

I was really happy to learn that the other keynote was an artist keynote. (There's really no point in isolating the research of comics from the creation of comics to the extend that we do; invite more artist keynotes to conferences and seminars, please!) Ed Piskor had traveled all the way from the United States to promote the new collected volume of his Hip Hop Family Tree and gave us an exclusive talk on the connections between American comic and hip hop cultures.

While it was cool to hear and see how much graffiti artists have been influenced by Jack Kirby, I was even more interested in Piskor's own work. He doesn't simply tell stories though pictures but has a complete vision for how his comic books should appear as objects. He handed out some free samples that –  even though new and printed on good quality paper – had that nostalgic, crumbling, second-hand feel. Margins and covers were littered with little notes that looked as if they had been written by hand (with a marker that had "soaked through" some of the pages). Half of the advertisements were spoofs and everything was printed to look yellowed. If you want a first-hand taste of Piskor's inventiveness, he does weekly strips for Boing Boing.

Overall, the conference had a very coherent program and intimate, collegial atmosphere. There were only 21 presentations, with no parallel sessions. Add to that the two keynotes, a handful of permanent fixtures and a troupe of Danish first-timers, and the total number of participants must have been just over 30.

It was especially great to meet Joanna Elantkowska-Bialek from the University of Warsaw, as she will be joining the ranks of our comic research cluster in Jyväskylä for the next year. (Now that we are attracting visiting scholars, world domination is only a couple of steps away, Pinky!) Joanna talked about the trauma narrative of Hanneriina Moisseinen's Father that employs some exceptional techniques, such as traditional Finnish embroidery in its composition.

Book store Tronsmo on Universitetsgata.
Oslo's comic fan scene didn't disappoint either. Although the program and the products at Oslo Comic Expo were mostly in Norwegian (and thus, mostly incomprehensible to me) we enjoyed the venue immensely. Deichmanske Biblioteket is an adorable little library standing by one of the many little squares in Grünerlokka. It's decorated with engraved owls and silly glass paintings. And as if that isn't enough, the upstairs hosts a little bar and a 'serieteket' – a library hall dedicated solely to comics!

It was so cozy and beautiful: little side rooms filled with manga and Disney, horror and Vertigo series by the open windows, even a little collection of comic research in the hallway. Simply put, it's a place where you'd happily live for the rest of your days. Just as add a tea kettle and a nightlight and close the doors.

Unfortunately, the only volume I was able to take home with me was Warren Ellis' Frankenstein's Womb (2005), which I bought from one of the stands outside. We were also very interested in a fairly new, fairly massive graphic novel about Edvard Munch. The lady working for the publisher told us that Steffen Kverneland's Munch (2013) should be translated into English soon, so look out for it. It seemed all kinds of exciting!

Found the first volume of my favorite manga, Hiroaki Samura's Blade of the Immortal at Salvation Army store. Photo by Katja.
Of course, we managed to find more books and comics to buy in the local nerd heaven Outland (Kirkegata 23) as well as the various second-hand stores and antiquaries scattered around the university's main campus. Special shout-outs to Norlis Antikvariat (Universitetsgata 18), an adorable, traditional antiquary filled with (even more) owl figures and such magnificent finds as Norwegian retro Nancy Drews...

...and Tronsmo (Universitetsgata 12), a comics-oriented bookshop that has allowed it's famous guests, such as Neil Gaiman(!!), Don Rosa, Jeff Smith, Lise Myhre and Jason, to doodle on their walls!

And by "we" I mean me, Katja and Leena. Since we all presented at the NNCORE conference, we decided to make an excursion of it and spent a couple of extra days exploring Oslo's sights. Our first day off was all about ships. We saw the three best preserved viking ships in the world at Vikingskipshuset...

...and the one and only Kon-Tiki! The museum told the story of Thor Heyerdahl's expedition extremely well: you were really prompted to imagine what it would have been like to sail the Southern seas in a hand-crafted balsa raft. It was inspiring, exhilarating and a little frightening. (If I'm ever doing another degree somewhere, I'm definitely minoring in experimental maritime archeology – or anything as crazy and as wonderful. So, if your university's not providing courses like that yet, I'm not attending. Shape up, would you.)

The second touristing day was all about art. We witnessed Van Gogh vs. Munch art battle at Munch Museet (feat. enormous Norwegian custard bun from the museum café). Sad to say that the visitor won the match. As much as I admire the originality and the vitality of The Scream, most Munch's works are too naivistic to my taste.

Our final stop together was Astrup Fearnley Museet and its awesomely multi-faceted collection. It  was quite probably the best exhibition of contemporary art I've ever seen: conceptual stuff, kitsch statues, evocative paintings, morbid works by Damien Hirst... Surprises in every hall. Loved it.

Detail of Damien Hirst's "Eulogy"
Because I'm nothing if not thorough, I actually stayed in Oslo two nights longer than my travel companions. And what did I do? Well, I saw even more contemporary art (at the Museum of Contemporary Art) – and even more ships! No other ship has sailed as far North and as far South as Fram, which I find oddly moving – and others oddly boring.

If that sounds like a long week, this isn't even half of it. I also acquainted myself with the Vigeland brothers and their somewhat creepy fascination with human form; had a lonesome, windy evening walk at Akerhus fortress; admired magnificent street art; took a look around the National Gallery and the Historical Museum; saw the world's biggest collection of miniature bottles...

To sum, Oslo seemed like a flurry of sea, books and colorful art to me. Which, if you really couldn't tell, is a good thing. Could we have the next NNCORE conference in Reykjavik, maybe?

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