Graphic Aging at the MLA

, Allie Winegar Duzett, Leave a comment

With a title like “Graphic Aging,” one might think that such a panel at the 2011 Annual Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention was meant to discuss porn for the elderly.  However—thankfully—the Graphic Aging panel at this year’s MLA Convention had nothing to do with inappropriate images of nude grandparents, and everything to do with comic books.

There’s a question parents and students alike may be wondering: why study comic books? Speaker Christopher Pizzino of University of Georgia addressed this question in his lecture entitled “Comics and the Problem of Bildungsroman: Charles Burns’s Black Hole” when he read aloud from the preamble of the 1954 Comics Code.  The first line of the preamble reads, “The comic-book medium, having come of age on the American cultural scene, must measure up to its responsibilities.”  In other words, comic books are a hallmark of American culture.  Studying comics is, according to the professors who teach comics studies, a study of culture—because of the cultural significance of comics to our nation.

“Comics studies have come of age… and we know this because MLA gave them their own discussion group,” Pizzino said during his lecture.

His presentation on the comic book “Black Hole” by Charles Burns focused on the idea of aging in comic books.  “Black Hole” is about a mysterious STD that disfigures teens and adolescents.  According to Pizzino, the writer of the comic later said that the disease was essentially a metaphor for puberty, or the act of growing up, and how some people recover from it and some people are permanently damaged from their teenage years.  In the comic, the disease made the teens afflicted look old—their flesh would hang off their bodies and they would lose their hair.  This is an example of graphic aging, or aging in graphics.

Panelist John D. Schwetman of University of Minnesota-Duluth presented on Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. He talked about how the passage of time—aging—is portrayed graphically through use of the “gutter,” which is the space between panels in comics.

Michelle Ann Abate of CSU-Northridge in her presentation entitled “Old Father, Old Artificer: Time, Memory, and Aging in Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home” talked about the link between age and comics.  She pointed out that the comic book readers of yesterday are old: old comics used to be written for children, but those comic-reading children are older now.  She discussed the related changes in reading habits and what comics are available due to changing comic-reading demographics.

In her discussion of the book “Fun Home,” Abate did point out that the writer, Alison Bechdel, is a lesbian, and Abate discussed how this aspect of Bechdel came into play in the actual design of the graphic novel.  “Queer history abandons linearity and causality in favor of non-identity, plurality,” Abate stated while attempting to explain why Bechdel’s graphic novel portrays time and aging in a non-linear fashion.  In a literal way, Abate said, “queer storytelling” as shown in Bechdel’s comic book is “not straight,” because it’s non-linear storytelling.

Is the study of the depiction of aging in comic books worthy of academic study? The answer is highly debatable.  But the Modern Language Association certainly seems to think it is.

Allie Duzett is the Director of Strategic Operations for Accuracy in Media.

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