Sequentials, a comics scholarship project. Talking with Ashley Manchester.
Following the critical recognition of Unflattening, by Nick Sousanis (recently published in France by the Editions de l’An 2/Actes Sud as Le Déploiement), the burgeoning field of comics as scholarship has been the object of much attention, both in the United States and in Europe.
In June, I will be presenting a paper at the « Poetics of the Algorithm » conference about the reception and the readers of such scholarship. As part of the preparation for this talk, I wanted to interview individuals and institutions which publish or have published or plan to publish comics scholarship, and one such project is Sequentials, a new publication which focus exclusively on works in that format and is supported by the University of Florida.
I had the great pleasure to discuss the project with Ashley Manchester, the editor of Sequentials, and we discussed the journal, its intended readership and its position on the frontier of academia and comics studies.
(The following exchange was conducted by e-mail, from May 17 to May 23)
First of all, could you describe what Sequentials is ?
Sequentials is one of the many projects under the TRACE Innovation Initiative at the University of Florida. Housed in the English Department, TRACE centralizes different modes of writing, researching, and publishing, from augmented reality to visual work to data mining. Sequentials is a hub for scholarship drawn in the comics form; we solicit comics versions of interpretations of particular topics or themes and we publish selected graphic works on an online platform connected to the TRACE website. At Sequentials, we recognize that words are only one, often limited, mode of making and transmitting meaning and our hope is to prioritize space for other visual or hybrid modes to flourish.
Our first Call for Comics focuses on Postmodernism in all its various iterations. The first few Calls will follow suit, each highlighting a particular topic, but we look forward to circulating open Calls as well as more formally-specific topics in the future. There have recently been some comics publications in journals and books, but as far as I know, this will be the first publication dedicated to such scholarship.
How did you get involved and what is your role in the journal?
I serve as the Editor of Sequentials. The TRACE director and Chair of the English Department at UF, Sid Dobrin, and I developed the project as a way of challenging makers and scholars to think about academic work in a different way than is typically supported in academia. As a doctoral student, I study comics and visual rhetoric, and I have been lucky enough to be a part of a department that supports scholarship on various graphic mediums. However, I find myself continually frustrated by the fact that comics is still marginalized within the larger academy and there tend to be very standard ways of proving one’s knowledge within the institution. In light of this, my hope is to showcase the immense potential of comics as a mode of relaying and creating meaning.
What was the institutional response to the project? I understand the TRACE framewok must have made things easier, but were there any hurdles?
So far, Sequentials has largely been supported by the department and the university. Being a part of TRACE certainly helps in that respect, as the TRACE project is a well-respected endeavor in the humanities at UF.
What was the timeline for the project? With Unflattening (April 2015) and the recent issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (december 2015), the comics scholarship movement seems to be gaining traction within comics studies and beyond. Was that perceptible when you started thinking about Sequentials?
While we were thinking about this project a little bit before Sousanis’ publication, Unflattening’s success was definitely encouraging for Sequentials. It’s incredibly motivating to see other journals, authors, and artists contributing to the burgeoning field of comics-as-scholarship and I think our project will help continue that trend.
The TRACE team and I started gathering ideas for this project early last year. At first we were toying with the idea of making some strict parameters, like providing contributors with a set panel structure that they had to work with for each Call. After thinking about it more critically, though, we decided to keep things more vague to encourage contributors to experiment with both form and content in their submissions. After all, the formal rhetoric is what is most compelling about comics and comics scholarship to me.
As of right now, we are hoping to circulate CFCs about every 3-5 months, making this a biannual publication. As we move forward, however, things might speed up a bit. Given that Sequentials asks for original creative pieces, we want to give contributors enough time to fully develop their work.
Your call for comics is aimed at scholars and students in general, but who is your intended readership for this issue? Specifically, the CFP calls for comics which « illustrate » post-modern concepts, which seems to point to explanatory/pedagogical productions, rather than original scholarship. Is it a meaningful distinction to make in this project?
Sequentials is certainly couched within the discourse of academia, but it is open to individuals outside of the institution, as well. In fact, we hope to receive submissions from people with varying artistic experience and from all different disciplines and fields of work. We’ve been pretty careful so far not to call Sequentials an « academic journal » in order to open the project up to contributors and readers who might otherwise not participate in traditional scholarly work. The readership, then, is open to scholars, artists, and readers of popular or visual culture or really anyone else interested in what comics can do.
With the first CFC, our goal is to receive submissions that critically engage with postmodernism. We are certainly open to explanatory productions (especially those that illustrate how postmodernism functions within the contributor’s field of work), but we would also really like to see challenges to the concept and/or original scholarship. We purposely left the Call a bit vague in an effort to bypass some of the scholarly restrictions on publication and encourage contributors to be as creative as possible with their work. We are very much looking forward to seeing the first round of comics!
That’s fascinating. I had read the call for comics from an academic perspective, but of course, it is open more broadly.
That’s a great question! At Sequentials, and TRACE more generally, we are constantly trying to find ways to bridge the supposed divides between disciplines and fields of study. So, to start off, we disseminated the call to comics communities, of course, but also to groups within digital humanities, composition, history, art history, and many more. Essentially, we want as wide of a circulation as possible in academia and other creative arenas. I find one of the difficulties with having such a broad intended audience is trying to establish the vocabulary to meet people with differing disciplinary understandings of publication and creative work. This is something we are still trying to master!
As for readership, we are hoping for the same broad circulation. We want this project to gather the interest of lots of different types of people, not just literary scholars or comics studies scholars particularly. Of course, circulation is something we will continue to work on as we move forward. I think that with more journals, books, and articles published in comics-as-scholarship, more people (even those who might not already be interested in comics) will begin to see the form as a useful mode of circulating knowledge.
The Call for Comics mentions « We invite submissions from individuals in all academic disciplines, regardless of their level of experience with comics or illustration ‘skills’ « . « Drawing skills » can certainly mean many things in comics, from Xkcd‘s stick figure to Moebius’s characters, but isn’t it the case that successful comics scholarship must rely on certain graphic/design skills, just a successful traditional scholarship requires certain writing skills? On that note, I was also wondering if you had considered explicitly including writer/artist pairings in the call for comics, as a way to circumvent that obstacle?
You are absolutely right that comics scholarship, or comics design in general, requires certain artistic vision. However, I believe that that vision doesn’t always have to take the form of traditional drawing skills. When we approach people about the project, we sometimes get the response, « But I don’t know how to draw! » So we added that clause to the CFC because we wanted to be clear about our position on what « skills » in comics scholarship might look like. One may not have training in art or « know how to draw », but might have complex and interesting ideas about the relationship between the architecture of the form and the topic at hand. Xkcd is a great example of an incredibly smart and involved comic that, on the surface, looks simplistic. I would be happy to receive something like Xkcd‘s stick figures for Sequentials, as I think they have the potential to provide compelling insight into both the comics form and the topic of the CFC!
We’ve certainly talked about circulating some special CFCs that call for formal or thematic restrictions, but I’m not sure if we will pursue a writer/artist pairing Call. While we would love to receive submissions from experienced comics artists, we’d also like to challenge writers to see if they can create rhetoric in a more visual way!