Monday, May 26, 2014

Stanford Superhero Symposium: Print & Cosplay

"San Francisco needs a real comics conference." That’s what I was thinking as I struggled upstream through end of day traffic to the lovely and sprawling Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, CA for a symposium hosted by the Graphic Narrative Project called Secret Identity Politics: Superhero Studies and Comics Scholarship (5/22). Losing WonderCon to Anaheim (probably permanently) has left a void for people in the Bay Area that need to assemble and talk about their work. APE was starting to build better content in terms of panels, but we might lose APE too, as they will soon be losing their long time venue at the SF Concourse. Smaller cons, like last weekend’s Big Wow! in San Jose have begun to fill the gap, but it will be a long time before one of them produces something on the level of the Comic Art Conference. The Bay Area is teeming with writers, artists and scholars that work and write, where can we go share our stuff?

Anyway, back to the symposium. Unfortunately, I missed the opening presentation by Scott Bukatman (Stanford Film & Media Studies, Dept. of Art & Art History), but his upcoming book on Hellboy sounds fascinating. Following him was an intro to Golden Age comics by Ben Saunders (University of Oregon), and a short presentation of visual representations of speed used in depictions of The Flash by Mark Vega (Stanford, English), concluding with Charles Hatfield explaining how the dynamics of showing the superhero body has contributed to breaking the grid layout of the comics page. After the break, a discussion followed with the 30 or so students in attendance at that point in the evening.

I didn’t hear enough from Bukatman and Vega to know much about the themes of their scholarship, but I’ve seen lots of excellent work on these topics from Saunders and Hatfield, and their mastery of the material really showed through. I thoroughly enjoyed Saunders’ often humorous presentation on the early comics industry, the motivations of the people involved in it, and the appeal of the material, both for its kitsch appeal and for the occasional creative gem. I liked how Hatfield began his presentation with the layout of a regular printed page of text, compared it to the more designed layout of a page of poetry, and then moved on to the comics grid, explaining why some conventions held over from printed text still communicate clearly to readers of sequential narratives . He showed early examples of superhero characters beginning to break the grid to show more dynamic action, and some really gorgeous contemporary examples, such as this 2011 Batwoman splash page by J.H. Williams.

2011 Batwoman splash page by J.H. Williams III
Looking around the room, the students in attendance seemed engaged with the material, but I couldn’t help wondering how many of them had ever read an actual printed comic book, particularly a monthly floppy. The average student in the room probably learned about superheroes in a completely different way than the four presenters and myself. They weren’t old enough to have discovered the adventures of Wonder Woman and Batman while standing at a spinning rack at the local drugstore. For the students, there have always been superhero movies, merchandise, video games, and friends that were interested in these things. Even reading comics digitally gives the reader a choice of different options on how they want to view the material. I suppose this is why the presentations seemed like introductions to print, even though the students were probably somewhat familiar with many of the characters involved before they arrived.

When the discussion period began, I wasn’t surprised that the main topic of audience interest was cosplay. I’m no expert on the topic, but based on my friends and their stories, it seems that most young fans interested in superheroes expect more active participation in their fandom than fans that discovered superheroes in printed comics decades ago. There are blockbuster movies, fan fiction, video games that enable you to inhabit a favorite character, and massive amounts of media attention on fan events like San Diego Comic Con. Cosplay is celebrated in SyFy series like Heroes of Cosplay (back for a second season), the make-up contest Face-Off, and mainstream hits like The Big Bang Theory. Friends that enjoy cosplay do it both as a creative challenge and as a way to honor and connect with a character they like.

Listening to the discussion, I was reminded of Michael Chabon’s excellent essay Secret Skin, included the catalog for the 2008 Metropolitan Museum of Art show Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (slideshow here). In it, he has much of interest to say about the importance of fantasy and the hidden yet obvious narrative incorporated into the design of superhero costumes:

We say “secret identity” and adopt a series of cloaking strategies to preserve it; but what we are actually trying to conceal is a narrative; not who we are, but the story of how we got that way – and, by implication, of all that we lacked, and all that we were not, before the spider bit us. And yet at the same time, as I have suggested, our costume conceals nothing, reveals everything; it is our secret skin, exposed and exposing us for all the world to see. Superheroism is a kind of transvestism; our superdrag serves at once to obscure the exterior self that no longer defines us while betraying, with half-unconscious panache, the truth of the story we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation, or our story’s recommencement, of our rebirth into the world of adventure, of the story itself. (22)

SF Bay Area comics fan and entrepreneur
Natalie Jumper's unique take on DC's
character Nightwing at SDCC 2013.
In some ways, cosplay can be a “coming out” to the participant’s family, friends, and the larger community. It can be a complex technical and creative achievement, or as simple as wearing a mask along with a special t-shirt. Still, the idea of transformation is the key. For a day, a person can be anyone they want and are welcomed as such into a supportive community. In the introduction to Wonder Women of America, a 2008 collection of photos featuring female cosplayers at SDCC by Ruth Wiggins, Russell Waterman comments on the accepting fan community in San Diego, and how this empowerment gave women more confidence to challenge the traditional superhero body type and let out their inner Jean Grey or Huntress. Many couples, families, and friends coordinate group costumes and themes, Waterman points out, and further observes that many women greatly enjoy sharing this experience with loved ones, and often find lasting friendships with like-minded individuals. I have witnessed this camaraderie more than once myself, and it is clear to me why it must be so upsetting to experience the type of shaming and harassment that has become a problem at other conventions. I hope the Cons in question can find a way to vanquish this problem, so cosplay can continue to grow as a joyful outlet of creative expression.