CLA hosts ‘Graphic Thinking’ conference on comics, illustration

The one-day conference is focused on the intersection between comics and academia.

After poring through boxes of archived comics from Paley Library’s Special Collections Research Center, JT Waldman found some “hidden gems” to showcase in an exhibit.

On Tuesday, the College of Liberal Arts is hosting “Graphic Thinking,” a one-day conference about using comics and graphic illustrations to investigate significant social and political questions on the second floor of the Student Center. In addition to panel discussions on topics like free speech, identity and styles of comic illustration, the conference presents two main exhibits: “The Graphic Underground: Comix, Censorship & Identity,” which is curated by Waldman, and “Black Graphic Thinking.” Both exhibits will be on display in Room 223 of the Student Center.

The conference reflects CLA’s semester theme, “Graphic Thinking,” and explores how graphic and visual communication changes people’s perception of the world. The theme is a collaboration with Intellectual Heritage, and relates to co-curricular events, speakers and exhibits held throughout the semester.

“It’s an intersection of ‘comix,’ society and academia,” said Waldman, a Philadelphia-based digital designer.

The spelling of comics as comix dates back to the 1960s and refers to the subgenre of “underground” comic books. Compared to mainstream, family-oriented comics, comix writers incorporated more mature themes — like sex, drugs and violence — into their work.

“It became a way of showing it was adult and not funny like newspaper comics,” said Waldman, who got involved with the exhibit through connections in the Honors Program.

Diane Turner, curator at the Blockson Collection, did the same when she chose items for her “Black Graphic Thinking” exhibit.

The items in this exhibit date back to the 1940s, Turner said. They include political illustrations from Oliver Harrington, a 20th-century Black satirist and cartoonist, and work by Jackie Ormes, the first African-American woman cartoonist.

The exhibit also features a series of graphic novels, like the “March” trilogy written by Georgia congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis. The series is inspired by the comic “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” which was written in 1957 about the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama and the nonviolent battle against segregation.

“They were trying to make history accessible to young people,” Turner said. She added that the graphic medium makes complex topics easier to understand.

In addition to historical graphic texts, the exhibit also displays issues of the Marvel comic book series “Black Panther.” Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015 MacArthur fellow and national correspondent for The Atlantic, the series follows superhero T’Challa, the leader of the fictional African nation Wakanda, which is one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries.

Although the Black Panther character was created in 1966, the character began to regain mainstream popularity when Marvel recruited Coates to revive the character for comic books in 2016. The Black Panther is only now the star of a Marvel Studios film, “Black Panther,” which will be released in February 2018.

“You get to see the Marvel superheroes that were always around, but somehow by the time we get to Hollywood these superheroes were excluded for a long period of time,” Turner said.

Increasing Black representation in popular culture helps counter racist stereotypes applied to African-Americans, Turner said.

”It gives us the opportunity to revisit and reintroduce African-American superheroes, as opposed to African-American criminal stereotypical images that are applied to the whole group,” she said.

Dustin Kidd, a sociology professor and director of IH, also sees graphic novels as an important teaching tool. He said he’s excited about the conference because of its connection to IH class themes.

“It helps us engage in the parts of literature that we often forget to engage [in],” Kidd said. “This show explores new ways to solve problems, be creative and think about the world.”

For Waldman, his interest in comix formed not in a college classroom, but as a young child. He said he was an avid comic book reader growing up and was always “doodling.”

“Comix opened me up to philosophy and psychology,” Waldman said. “I’m constantly learning. Every project forces me to research and view something a different way.”

Turner said the impact of graphic art goes even further. She said there’s an extensive history of African-Americans being assaulted in popular culture, whether through harmful images or exclusion in narratives overall.

“In terms of teaching, it is critical to be able to explain, and then eradicate, Black stereotypes in popular culture related to both race and gender,” she added.

Turner hopes the conference will influence attendees as well.

“It’s important to include unrepresented artists in comics and illustrations in order to move beyond the stereotypes of traditional comic art,” Turner said. “It is imperative to highlight the rich expressions of Black artists both past and present. This gives us the opportunity to do that.”

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