Comics Symposium to Explore Breadth of Student Research in the Popular Medium

A Krazy Kat comic by cartoonist George Herriman. The strip ran from 1913 to 1944.

A Krazy Kat comic by cartoonist George Herriman. The strip ran from 1913 to 1944.

California State University, Northridge is taking the burgeoning field of comics studies to the next level by throwing the spotlight on student research that examines the interaction of comics and visual culture from diverse perspectives.

“Comics and Visual Culture” takes place from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27, in CSUN’s University Student Union on the east side of the campus, located at 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge. The symposium, which is free and open to the public, comes on the heels of the university’s record-breaking exhibition, “Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic Worlds of Jack Kirby,” held last semester, and is part of an ongoing series of events organized by Comics@CSUN. The collaborative effort aims to advance comics studies and teaching across campus.

“Comics and Visual Culture” highlights students’ research that examines the explosion of academic interest in sequential art – including comics, graphic novels and manga, which are Japanese comics. This interest follows similar exponential growth in the availability of these formats, not only in comic book shops, but in mainstream bookstores and online, said English professor Charles Hatfield, one of the organizers of the event and founding president of the Comic Studies Society, the first academic professional association for scholars of comics.

Co-organizer Frances Gateward, professor of cinema and television arts, noted the impact of comics on other media and popular culture in general.

“The genre of ‘the comic book movie’ – especially via the Walt Disney Company and its ownership of Marvel Comics and Time Warner and its ownership of DC Comics, has dramatically changed the feature film industry,” she said. “The synergy among film, television, the Internet, novels, graphic novels and comic books is virtually complete.”

The symposium will feature about 20 student presenters representing a range of institutions, from CSUN, CSU Dominguez Hills, and San Diego State, to USC, Portland State University and SUNY-Empire State. The presenters will examine diverse examples of comics, from acclaimed graphic books such as Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen,” to popular series starring Batman, Superman, Ms. Marvel and other superheroes. They also will explore independent works by artists such as Linda Barry, Becky Cloonan and Gilbert Hernandez. Topics will include theories of identity, feminist interventions in comics, Latina/o superheroes, trauma studies and many more.

In addition, the symposium will feature two guest speakers: José Alaniz, director of the Disabilities Studies program at the University of Washington, Seattle and author of “Death, Disability, the the Superhero”; and Tony Puryear, a screenwriter, designer, illustrator and co-creator of the graphic novel series “Concrete Park.” Both men will explore how comics tackle issues like social justice and the experience of being outside society.

“José Alaniz brings a unique perspective to the conversation and the role comics play in advancing social justice,” Hatfield said. “He has done terrific work showing that superhero comics, which are so often seen as stories about ideal, perfect beings, actually give us ways of thinking through disability and difference.”

Tony Puryear’s first comic project is “Concrete Park,” a science fiction series co-written with his wife, Erika Alexander, an actress, producer and activist. It takes place on a prison planet in the future. Gateward noted: “Its heroes are people of color — African Americans, Latinos, Asians — and it creators are African American. It’s such an interesting comic, in terms of being science fiction as well as addressing issues of social justice and social division.”

The next Comics@CSUN event will be “Women Cartoonists of Color” on March 30, co-sponsored by CSUN’s Departments of Asian American Studies and Africana Studies.

For more about the symposium and Comics@CSUN, visit the website