A COMICA REVIEW BY:
Jinty attended the one day V&A Symposium on Archetypes vs Stereotypes on 14 November 2008. The following review appeared on her livejournal.
A Comica event - but at the V&A?!
No complaints from my part: the Sackler Centre at the museum is a handsome, well-set-up location for a set of talks with interesting speakers. And although lunch in a museum cafe is always going to cost more than a hurried sandwich outside, the stunning sight of the V&A’s lavish dining space - enamel, gilding, colour and style - more than makes up for that.
The occasion was a symposium on archetypes and stereotypes in comics, but I’m not sure you could have told that from many of the talks.
You could certainly see that theme in the first item, which I caught much but not all of. This was Ian Rakoff on stereotypes in various comics from the first half of the twentieth century - mostly racial stereotypes I think, with examples drawn from Palooka Joe, the Spirit, and so forth. An interesting review, with good points made, such as the seemingly-irredeemable depiction of the Spirit’s sidekick Ebony White, who is in fact a much more complex and interesting character than you’d assume at horrified first glance.
The next item also addressed racial, and indeed racist, stereotypes head-on, covering Franco-Belgian comics / images generally, and Tintin In The Congo more specifically. The speaker was a distinguished- but unusual-looking* Francophone who sounded slightly uncomfortable at expressing his thoughts in English, a fact that slowed down his presentation and made it more awkward than it deserved to be, considering that everytime I thought I could anticipate a rather banal and mundane thought to come, he succeeded in surprising me with its unpredictability and un-banality. Anyway, after having done another, rather different, review of stereotypes both racial and racist, his points about Tintin were sane and refreshing: he stressed the level of unreality within which that story is working (there’s a doctor’s office that has a picture of a lung patched like an old sack, for instance), he analysed the story-workings to make it clear that the hoo-hah came from people who couldn’t even have done more than look at the pictures, whereas as we all know, comics work with both words and pictures.
The third item before a lateish lunch break was Dougie Braithwaite being interviewed by Richard Reynolds. At the time, despite enjoying it as a view into a creator’s mind, I felt it to be somewhat out of place in a symposium about stereotypes and archetypes, as neither Dougie nor Reynolds seemed all that inclined to talk to that theme, sticking instead to the development of the former’s career, what books had he worked on and which had he liked best, etc. I now think maybe that was a little harsh, partly because it was clear that a segment of the audience (Tim Pilcher) were much keener on this than the other sort of talk, and partly because so many of the other items did something similar and so it did in fact fit into the overall feel by the end of the day.
The lunch couldn’t have come quickly enough for me by then, and I had no intentions of foraging further afield, especially with the possibility of catching up with a few people over lunch. And so it proved - we squashed seven people (including [info]jabberworks, hello!) round a table rated for about four, and chatted about comics, the talks, Tim’s book on erotic comics, the scary fact that he actually has a daughter old enough to read The DFC (an eleven-year-old!), and more. Very pleasant, or it would have been if I hadn’t had a headache encroaching further and further into my consciousness. As it was I fled the table slightly early, and forewent any chance of taking piccies of the lovely dining area - but there’ll be other chances for that, eh.
The afternoon was the bit that I’d always hoped to be able to make - it was only luck with the scheduling of my course that meant that I could be there early enough to enjoy the morning. An additional surprise piece of luck happened for that afternoon, in that Sina Shamsavari was also giving a talk, unannounced in the earlier publicity for the very good reason that he’d only been asked to do it the day before (the advertised person had had to drop out at the last minute).
The first after-lunch speaker, however, was someone I’d not heard of before - one Eric Fernie from the Courtauld Institute. A smashing talk he did too - on “Women’s Roles in Post-War Comics from Jane to Dylan Dog”, it was unashamedly focussed on the comics he bought from his youth to now, and and as a result not necessarily representative of anything but his own taste. Taking the two named comic strips as a guide you could guess that in fact it would be pretty much looking at good girl art, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. Admittedly he also brought in Professor Peabody from Dan Dare, a much less overtly sexy lady than those drawn by Alex Raymond in Rip Kirby, but yes, his main focus was pretty ladies - or their obverse, the non-sexy lady that is the only other main role allowed in most comics of that time (often accompanied by rolling-pin).
With, er, painstaking thoroughness he pointed out the frequency with which Raymond drew elegant ladies, pin-ups or passers-by, at least one per three-panel strip. In the questions section afterwards, an indignant-sounding woman did try to question this close attention. I don’t have a quarrel with it in principle, in a discussion about archetypes and stereotypes, as these were indeed the constraints within which Raymond worked or perhaps more likely chose to work. I do however think that it would have been better to show it in the context of a range of other newspaper strip creators of the time - a point that I think Ian Rakoff was trying to make in mentioning stories such as Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr.
Next was one of the items I’d been particularly interested in, along with the unexpected surprise mentioned above - Pat Mills and Sina Shamsavari talking to Paul Gravett about minority characters in modern British and American comics. It would have been nice to have the two guests talking in conversation rather than, as they did, singly each about their individual interests. Partly this was a demand of the technical set-up - it had taken quite a while to set up the images for both speakers, and they were on two different computers to boot, so it was not possible to mix-and-match images. I suspect also that it was an entrenched part of the overall set-up that perhaps might have been better questioned earlier, resulting as it did in “the Pat Mills show” followed by “the Sina show”, with the latter squeezed by a time-overrun on the former’s part. (No blame assigned to Pat here - Paul Gravett could have been tighter on the pacing, but fairly understandably he is usually on the side of more speaking rather than a tighter presentation.)
Pat Mills talked about many of the usual items, and as entertainingly as usual - Charley’s War for the subversion of a pacifist story published within a war comic, exploiting and undermining stereotypes; Crisis with a story about the racist but Africa-enthralled police chief drawn by John Hinklenton, and Marshal Law, a character who undermines the superhero archetypes by pointing out not so much their essential absurdity but their essential involvement in the military-industrial complex.
Sina talked us through a whistle-stop tour of the queer indie comics he’s been researching - turns out that he’s been off in the US for a few months interviewing a bunch of queer comics people, which is great! I knew he’d been staying at Larry-Bob’s for a bit but didn’t realize it was part of a bigger plan. There were many of the classic names checked - Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse, Gay Comix and Rob Kirby’s Curb Side; but also some newer names (I didn’t take notes, unfortunately), proving that this is an area still moving on, fighting against the gay culture’s own stereotypes from within.
A brief coffee break and then back for the piece de resistance - Posy Simmonds (see here for some photos). I’d seen her talk before and remembered she was entertaining, but had forgotten quite how side-splitting, in an understated way, she actually is. If you get the chance to see her talk, let alone draw in front of you, make sure to go - she’s fantastic. Her talk was structured around the middle classes that she’s drawn in stereotype to puncture their smugness - from within of course, as she herself has what she admits to being a ‘pound-note’ accent. She was particularly looking at the Guardian-reader stereotypes, feminists and greens and right-on people, as she had a half-page spread in that paper for a number of years and had brought along various of the original and reproduced versions to show.
Finally, a three-cornered panel with Lise Myhre (creator of Nemi), Corinne Pearlman, and Asia Alfasi. As with the Pat/Paul/Sina session, the trammelling of the conversation into one duologue followed by another duologue didn’t in principle do the participants all that many favours. Corinne’s own work was squeezed in the middle, and while Lise spoke interestingly about her own career, it was clearly Asia who stole the show, taking her pitch and running with it. She spoke about her background in a visible minority in a rough part of Glasgow, and how she survived it through Manga, and her strong feelings that only via honest storytelling of the sort that leaves you vulnerable will East and West come to understand each other better. She showed some of her work both past and in progress, and it’s definitely made her a creator I’ll look out for.
I had to dash off before everything had quite finished, partly because my bag had to be picked up from the cloakroom before it closed and partly in order to get back to Oxford in time for a gig by one of my favourite bands (Misty’s Big Adventure). Sorry not to say goodbye to anyone, apart from lovely Sina that is who I was sitting next to!
* He had distinguished silver hair in a neat shoulder-length bob, combining the hippy with the elder statesman.