Now and again it is good to dip a toe in the deep still waters of the academic world to see what they’re up to, particularly when the topic under consideration is graphic satire, a subject I get the impression is still quite new to the ivory tower’s canon of research. And this conference promised and delivered some fascinating brain fodder. If it’s still up, the full programme can be read here, and I was certainly absorbed by papers presented on the Scottish caricaturist, William Charles, on Harry Furniss, the powerhouse behind many of the stunning images in the 1880s Punch, and on the story behind the German satirical magazine, Simplicissimus, of the First World War (sorry, 19th Century!?). It is wonderful that intellectuals are doing this work but, dear me, there are problems with this whole field of study, if these presentations are anything to go by.
Don’t get me wrong, the rarely-seen images were fabulous to study (though poorly and briefly displayed, as if we weren’t actually meant to study them at all) and when it came to contextualising the cartoons, the brains trust were on the nose with their history. But the collective knowledge and understanding of the means of production, style and form, the commissioning process, the position (even life, in some cases) of the artists in that society, and their terminology fell so badly short. Nobody seemed too clear what a caricature was, such that cartoons were called caricatures, whether or not they contained a caricature. ‘Comic image’ was used for single panel cartoons and plates that had nothing to do with comics, and when I raised the point it was thought I was talking about comedians. Nobody seemed aware of comics from the period, let alone medieval comics, and there appeared a total lack of understanding that editorial cartoonists (“What’s an editorial cartoonist?”) working during times of war agree not rock the boat or take swipes at national politics for the duration. Suddenly Gillray’s social satires were being talked about as propaganda!
Accepting that the last thing these honourable and cosy (lots of back-slapping and quoting of each other) academics needed in the audience was a know-all cartoonist asking embarrassing questions, it is fair to say that some were actually delighted to have somebody from the trade challenging assumptions and sloppiness, and quietly told me so. Probably I was too loud, but this was a conference opened by ‘The V.C.’ (varsity speak in hallowed tones for Vice Chancellor) that attracted academics from Berlin, Krakow, Dublin, Belfast, Australia and distant cities in Britain. For an audience of around twenty, half of whom were presenting papers or organising the event, the money spent was outrageous.
What Nottingham Does Comics could have done with a tenth of their budget!