Comics & the Multimodal World Conference was Grand

The first ever Comics & the Multimodal World conference happened last week in New Westminster, BC. The conference was hosted at Douglas College (outside of Vancouver) by Graphixia  and The Comics Grid, both online comics journals. Graphixia has offered an excellent overview of events  here, so there are some things I’m not going to cover again. I do want to talk about points in the conference that were highlights for me.

It was a relatively small group of presenters and attendees, with only two morning sessions held concurrently. The rest of the four-day conference took place in one of two meeting spaces within Douglas College, including the Aboriginal Gathering Space:

the Space awaits

This matters because that small group and consistent schedule fostered a productivec sense of community, and ensured that by day three, for example, we were all still on the same page regarding Lynda Barry. (She’s everywhere.)

The most relevant discussion  to my own interest in students in higher ed as comics makers,  was from Roger Whitson  of Washington State University. (He posted his presentation here.) There were a few of us presenting on comics in education, a field, I’m realizing, that is as broad and varied as we can make it.

I presented later in the second day (you can look through my slideshow here). I (being one of the very few non-PhDs there) spoke more of how I use comics as a tool in the classroom to help students expand their thinking – even if it doesn’t seem related to the topic at hand. I had everyone in the room draw for a while, and if you haven’t seen it, try and get a room full of academic grown-ups hunched over their papers, so very quietly focused on their drawings – it’s a wonderful thing.

One of my favorite presentations overall was Ian Horton’s seminar/teach-in based on instructional comic books, and the relationship between the visual language of comics in communicating information. (Read more about his discussion here.) Ian (from the London College of Communication) also got the whole group drawing, this time a history of Vancouver.

It’s worth going in to detail about the exercise: After presenting some examples of visual language in comics, Ian pulled up an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Vancouver. He gave us a few minutes to read the entry, and then distributed to each of  us a large sheet of paper, black ball point pen, and black marker, to ensure an even playing field when it came to materials, at least. We then had 25 minutes to create our own pictorial “History of Vancouver.” And while 20 or so different people produced 20 different visual histories, the point is that in the attempt to communicate the information pictorially, we engaged with the information more powerfully than reading the entry alone. As Ian said, “When’s the last time you got students to spend 30 minutes thinking about the history of anything?”

My History of Vancouver:

from Ian's workshop

On the more scholarly, less practicum-based side,  presenters discussed “Representations of Indigeneity in The Incredible Hulk,” “Québécois Bande Dessinée: A Quiet Revolution,” “The Digital Materialities of Building Stories,” and a whole bunch more. You can look at an overview of some of the presentations here. These students, teachers, thinkers, makers, are working to secure the place of comics in the pool of material to be considered for “legitimate” scholarship.

One of my favorites from this group was Marni Stanley’s “Where Do You Draw the (Front) Line: Women Surviving War.” (Read more here.)

MarniShe discussed some powerful comics made by women in countries affected by war and trauma…which leads me to Sarah Leavitt‘s keynote speech (which brought tears to my eyes and made me need to call my mom immediately) about her autobiographical graphic novel Tangles…which leads me to Damon Herd‘s presentation on autobiographical comics, where he shared with us (and had us critique) some of his own work…


There was so much, and it was all so well done. If you’re interested in looking at comics academically, or in using them as teaching and learning tools, and if you’re not doing this already, pay attention to Graphixia and The Comics Grid, look back at #graphixia13, and think about the next Graphixia conference, maybe? in London? in 2014? I’ll be there.

(While they weren’t at the conference, both Lynda Barry and Nick Sousanis were present in the frequent references made to their work, and if you want to know about comics as scholarship, as modes of inquiry, as the most they can be, know about these two people.)

(About the drawings: many of us drew throughout the conference, and shared our drawings on Twitter at #graphixia13. I either drew mine or used the Paper app on my iPad.)

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