Dissenting comics

For several decades, a movement, or rather a loose body of different movements has existed on the periphery of the comics industry. They have become the hallmark of a glorious era of the ninth art that had previously become mired in esthetic clichés and standardized ways of doing things. These movements beg a number of questions: Do they oppose or influence  the standardized practices of the field? Can we talk of an avant-garde inspired by creative geniuses aware of their historicity, or are we simply dealing with the steady onset of new standards? Are publishers mere merchants, or are they working to affirm a new esthetics? How can we group together these movements which emerged in different historical and artistic contexts? Are they independent, alternative, underground or counter-cultural? In order to tackle these questions, the ACME group has explored the ways in which the more generic idea of dissent can be applied to the comics worlds.

COVER BD dissidenceOn emerging from its underground status, an “independent” version of  comics gave legitimacy to the ninth art at the end of the 20th century. Authors and editors began to embrace a new esthetics, autobiography, a political and social conscience, new non-standardized formats, a statement of the history of their art, critical essays or the translation of foreign contemporaries. This alternative comics scene has been written about extensively, perhaps even to an overwhelming degree. Between judgments about values and objectivity, external observations and marketing strategies of legitimation, opinions have gradually become locked into a “monstrous whole”, largely misunderstood, which has become the polar opposite of a more traditional system of mass entertainment. And yet, before being grouped under the same banner, independent movements are marked by esthetics, trajectories, descriptions, vague desires and convictions which can be mutually conflicting. A closer look at this vibrant microcosm reveals its arduous journeys, its successes and failures, its leading figures and followers, the commercial strategies that are more or less aware of market constraints etc. Much more than a monolithic structure, ‘independent’ comics seem to be formed from a non-uniform and fluid mass of strong individuals torn between their desire not to be pigeon-holed, and the reality of group survival.

In the essay collection entitled Comics in Dissent, ten articles do justice to this mixed web of different comics that can all too conveniently be grouped under the “independent” banner. This concept of independence is, however, a jaded idea,  one that seems to be adopted by everyone but which is shown to be untenable as you turn the pages of the above work and the realities of the situation are revealed. The volume was  inspired by the international conference “Independent Comics Worldwide” which was organized in November 2011 by the then newly-formed ACME group from the University of Liege. “After our volume ‘L’Association. Une Utopie éditoriale et esthétique’ (2010), this conference was the first scientific manifestation of the ACME group”, recalls Tanguy Habrand, lecturer at the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences of ULg and co-editor of the work. “It involved three days in the presence of researchers and players from the sector. The fact that the ‘comics’ subject was broached at the University of Liege was not revolutionary in itself and reflected a more general tendency, yet this conference was important for the image of the ACME group both within the University of Liege and overseas: it is now accepted that in Liege, there is a group that is not made up of ‘lovers’ or ‘fanatics’ of comics, but rather of researchers drawn from several different departments who wish to promote the development of research into this area”.

“We wanted to open ACME up to a broader more external mode of thinking in order to enrich it”, continues Christophe Dony, who is a lecturer at the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at ULg and co-editor of the work. “We assembled people from different horizons and countries; particularly from the English-speaking world who are familiar not only with the wider culture of  comics but also with the critical debates surrounding the industry. We wanted to become part of this debate. One of the ambitions of the conference was to see how scholars engaged with ‘alternative’ comics in other cultures, to see whether a kind of common denominator existed between different ‘marginal’ productions and practices from different geographical landscapes”. Before the actual publishing of the book, a considerable amount of editing and mature reflection followed the conference. The title of the latter was very much connected to the idea of ‘independence’, which the editors of the volume retrospectively perceived as too loose. “We needed to find a more neutral and universal term which would refer to a more generic idea of rupture”, explains Tanguy Habrand, which is why the editors retained the concept of dissent for the volume.

A plural and bilingual work

On leafing through the pages the reader is treated to a clinical dismantling of the idea of independence. Although the authors are united in the quest to understand the meaning of contemporary comics, each one adopts a different approach. The result is a rupture with the idea of independence which is both surprising and yet coherent given the volume’s broad scope of investigation . While the work is notable for its multi-disciplinary approach, it is particularly through its socio-economic focus relating to the positions taken by both authors and publishing houses that it produces a new vision. “It is quite rare to study editorial structures and this was not our final objective, but it opened up another dynamics in the approach to comics studies. We did not wish to exhaust the debate about the notion of independence but rather to explore it from a new angle so that others would take up the discussion in yet other directions”, the researchers acknowledge.

(1) Christophe Dony, Tanguy Habrand, Gert Meesters (éditeurs), et al., Comics in Dissent, Alternative, Independence, Self-Publishing, Presses Universitaires de Liège, Collection ACME, 2014

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