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Saturday, July 9 • 08:30 - 10:00
Session 3A: Comics as Activism

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Benjamin Bates: The Truth about Captain America: Partial challenges to the celebration of medical/military experimentation

In 2003, Physicians for Human Rights reported that US medical personnel were involved in researching more effective “enhanced interrogation” techniques; more commonly known as torture. In their report, and surrounding media discourse, these experiments were compared to other abuse allegations involving the US military and medical systems, in particular the Army “Medical Research Volunteer Program” and the Central Intelligence Agency’s “MKULTRA” mind control experiments. Later that year, Marvel comics released its Truth: Red, White & Black limited series. This series re-narrated the origins of superhero Captain America, an origin that usually celebrates medical/military experimentation. In the original story, the “Super Soldier Serum” transformed 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers into a “peak human” soldier. Truth may be, in part, a response to concerns about military/medical experimentation and explores the untold story of the development of the Serum. Making the “original” Captain America African-American also emphasizes the differential impact that US medical/military experimentation has had on communities of color. Truth re-narrates medical/military experimentation through two primary moves. First, the original narrative emphasizes Rogers’ active consent, Truth shows the 300 Black men experimented on to develop the Super Soldier Serum were denied both informed consent and autonomous choice. Second, agents who conducted the experiment are transformed. For example, the code-name “Doctor Reinstein” is moved from the original narrative’s Abraham Erskine, a kindly patriotic American, to Wilfred Nagel, a eugenicist Nazi affiliate. These moves echo contemporary standards of ethical research that respond to a shared history of medical/military experimentation. The Truth series also inadvertently reinforces narratives that justified US medical/military experimentation, particularly arguments that the subjects of experiments were less valuable members of society and that the results – in this case, the creation of Captain America – justify unethical means. Ethical/social implications of this retelling of the narrative are discussed for how we perform research.

Crystal Lie: Crip Time as Space: Putting Critical Disability Studies and Graphic Life Narrative in Conversation

This paper turns the lens of feminist disability studies (DS) onto graphic life writing narratives. These narratives have been mobilized in the service of healthcare-centered fields such as Narrative Medicine – a field that I contend has failed to interrogate unequal doctor-patient power relations and engage with disability as both a complexly material and socially constructed identity inseparable from political practices. While there is merit to training medical professionals in narrative competence to make them more empathetic and attentive to patient experience, this approach by-and-large has left the hegemonic medical model of disability unchallenged. Concomitantly, this approach reinforces the privileged status of diagnosis as “truth” and narrative expectations of what Sidonie Smith calls the “certitudes” of traditional (masculine) autobiography – i.e. chronological time and the fixedness of identity that can be definitively known by its reader (or doctor). I posit “cripping” the study of graphic life writing can help us explode these norms and illuminate new meanings, centering the marginalized perspectives of disabled people. I also argue the formal qualities of sequential art in particular contribute to conversations in DS surrounding chronic illness and crip time. Because comics stage time as space, examining graphic temporalities help expand our knowledge of how disability affects one’s orientation to time. Following Alison Kafer’s call to examine “disability in time,” I read chronic illness memoirs such as Julia Wertz’s The Infinite Wait (2012) – which centers on her diagnosis with Lupus – as opportunities to theorize how disability in comics forcefully articulates non-normative temporalities; plotlines beyond the curative; and defies expectations and conventions of (dis)closure. Such comics powerfully perform what it means to both be a patient and be patient with the ever-shifting experiences of illness and its social consequences. Comics orchestrate productive spaces of indeterminacy and open-ended histories of embodiment that need be witnessed, not merely diagnosed.

Esther Bendit Saltzman: Performing Disability: Parts of a Hole Mainstream comics and disability

“Hello, villain. I have a performance for you,” threatens Echo as she smiles before attacking Daredevil. The “performance” exhibits her exceptional ability to mimic the movements of others, allowing her to learn new skills upon observing them. Thus, by studying Daredevil’s moves, she can anticipate them in combat. Since Daredevil is blind and Echo is deaf, they take advantage of each other’s disabilities in subsequent battles. Comics have been including disabled characters for some time. The field of disability studies examines the role of social construction in the way that society views the disabled. Since comic books can reflect societal attitudes and attempt to change them, we can look to the representation of the disabled in comic books as a tool to understand these attitudes. Echo’s declaration addresses the necessity of the individual to perform in certain ways to be accepted as “normal” in today’s society. In fact, the idea of performance is used as a trope throughout the Daredevil comic, Parts of a Hole. Daredevil’s performance is his music, which becomes a metaphor for aspects of the world that he cannot see. Similarly, Echo performs dance and martial arts, but in front of an actual audience. This paper examines the use of this performance trope to communicate issues in disability studies, and argues that the treatment of disability in comics is in need of further research.

Maria Stoian: Character Design for Real-Life Stories

Take it as a Compliment is a collective graphic memoir dealing with sexual violence, composed of 20 real-life stories submitted anonymously. I collected stories via e-mail, Tumblr, and carried out some interviews. I hoped it would challenge the expectations of who survivors and perpetrators are – that no one asks to be violated, and that rapists aren’t strangers hiding in bushes. They are all everyday people. Part of the thinking behind Take it as a Compliment involved considering how character design is interpreted. I composed an activity book to help me understand how character design, and particularly my illustrations, were understood. Among other activities, I asked participants to match personality traits to a series of (what I thought were) neutral faces, and to label them as heroes and villains. Some said the activity was difficult because the faces were “too neutral” to fit any description. Participants expressed, either verbally to me or in notes on the activity book, anxieties over the inability to “correctly” identify the traits. This need for the characters’ appearances to reflect their personalities is in my opinion the most important piece of information from this study. It is a product of years of exposure to generalizations about character in children’s and adult media. The idea that a character labelled with negative qualities must visually suit those qualities is something that I believe contributes to rape culture, and how we interact with the individuals perpetuating or experiencing abuse.



Benjamin R Bates

Ohio University
avatar for Crystal Yin Lie

Crystal Yin Lie

Crystal Yin Lie is a PhD Candidiate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, where she is also pursing a graduate certificate in Science, Technology, and Society. Her research focuses on the intersections between disability studies, life writing... Read More →

Esther Bendit Saltzman

Adjunct Faculty, PhD Candidate, Memphis College of Art, University of Memphis
Esther Saltzman is adjunct faculty at the Memphis College of Art and a PhD candidate in Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Memphis. A former RN, she recently co-edited, with Stephen Tabachnick, Drawn from the Classics: Graphic Adaptations of Literary Works and has... Read More →
avatar for Maria Stoian

Maria Stoian

Maria is a graphic designer and illustrator based in Edinburgh. Her first graphic novel, Take It As A Compliment, was published by Singing Dragon in 2015. Take it as a Compliment is a collective graphic memoir comprised of anonymous real-life stories of sexual violence. twitter... Read More →

Saturday July 9, 2016 08:30 - 10:00 BST
Lecture Theater 1