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The Nordic Network for Comics Research

By Øyvind Vågnes on 31.10.2011 (00:00).

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I spent most of last week in Odense where the Nordic Network for Comics Research gathered for the very first time in a meeting expertly organized by research director Anne Magnussen and steering group member Rikke Platz Cortsen. Our first conversations were tremendously inspiring, whether addressing lofty topics like the status of comics scholarship or more specific questions concerning the nature of our future plans to collaborate in a variety of ways. The roundtable discussion that set things into motion was perfect in the way in which it carefully veered between optimism and pessimism with regard to the future of the field. Bart Beaty described how lonely he had been as a comics scholar when he started out, and how today students line up outside his office to enlist for courses. Several of you will know Bart’s piece for the Cinema Journal this spring, where he addressed ”the evolution of comics studies” (Vol. 50, no. 3, 2011, pp. 106-110); in Odense he reminded all of us of how much has happened in the field over the last few years. Roger Sabin then brought the more dismal perspectives of the current situation of the humanities more generally on the table; whole departments are being closed in England, he said, and the humanities have to defend themselves in arguing for the necessity of their existence. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not enough, Roger pointed out, as he described what he saw as ”an attack on the humanities” in the wake of recent economic downfall. What impact will this have for an emerging field’s capacity to argue for its own existence?

These last few weeks have brought many great opportunities for thinking about comics and comics scholarship, not least our conference in late September, ”Hollow Land,” which gathered prominent international guests such as Joe Sacco, W.J.T. Mitchell and Eyal Weizman for a heady day of discussions (we were delighted to be reported by Mitchell on the new Critical Inquiry blog). 

I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Sacco’s company in September, and went with him to Stavanger were we attended the literary festival Kapittel together. In addition to interviewing Joe in front of an attentive audience I was asked to chair a session which concerned comics and cultural politics in Norway. 

The background for the panel was as follows: Every year the Norwegian Ministry of Culture award specific books in various genres – fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature, and the like – with a Book of the Year prize. There is a prize for the best comic book as well. The jury for this book is administered by The Norwegian Institute of Children’s Books (established in 1979), an institute which ”works to develop knowledge of children and young people’s literature” (to quote from their website). In 2010, they did not award a prize for the Best Comic Book. This was in part a political statement from the Institute reflecting the oddness of having to select among titles that were obviously directed at an adult audience.

Three well known and respected Norwegian comics artists – Steffen Kverneland, Lene Ask, and Inga Sætre – took part in the discussion with an editor, Steffen Sørum, from Cappelen Damm, a publisher that puts out a number of comic books every year, and Kristin Ørjasæter, who is head of The Norwegian Institute of Children’s Books. 

There is a prize that is awarded yearly for comic books: SPROING-prisen, which has been given in three categories every years since 1987 by Norsk Tegneserieforum, Norwegian Comics Forum, to create interest in comics and in comics books. But the only official prize is administered by an institute for children’s literature.
    
Steffen Kverneland, who has made comics since the early eighties, and who in recent years has made some amazing books, put it this way at the debate: “The problem is not that we fall between chairs, it is rather that there is no chair for us.” There are grants and various forms of economic support for writers, illustrators, photographers, and filmmakers, but none specifically aimed at comics artists.
    
The Arts Council, which is fully financed by the Ministry of Culture, is the main governmental operator for the implementation of Norwegian cultural policy, and functions as an advisory body in giving grants and support. They also decide which books will be bought by the public library system in Norway, under the so-called Innkjøpsordningen. 
    
As Kverneland pointed out at the debate, there is nobody with a particular competence on comics in the Council. There is specific expertise on poetry, film, etc., but not on comics. When confronted with this, the Council answers that ”in total” their members have the competence needed anyway.

After chairing the debate, it struck me that even if it is not the mandate of comics scholars to advocate a specific cultural policy, it seems urgent that comics scholarship in Norway – such as it is – engages itself with creating a greater awareness of comics as a cultural form. I would also think, more specifically, that getting someone with more knowledge about comics into the Arts Council would be a benefit. Anyone that would be in a position to influence these processes should get in touch with the Nordic Network for Comics Research; I’m sure we could suggest a number of candidates for membership in the council.

On the plane to Denmark last week I read about Steven Spielberg’s effort to bring Tintin to the big screen in a cover story in Time Magazine. ”The Tintin stories, as satisfying as they are, weren’t quite camera-ready,” Lev Grossman wrote; so Spielberg and Peter Jackson (producer) took The Secret of the Unicorn and ”cleaned it up, punched it up and built it up using elements from the other books.” It’s not difficult to tell that the plot ”has been run through the well-tooled mills of an American movie studio,” as Grossman wrote. Back in Bergen I went to the movies with my six year old son yesterday to see the film. There are thirty-three years between the two of us, but we both pretty much agreed on the fact that making Sakharin, a minor figure in The Secret of the Unicorn, into Captain Haddock’s antagonist in the film, and to even make him related to Rackham the Red, was a spectacularly bad choice. I hope someone I met in Odense takes up the challenge to describe why at more length.

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