Scholars from around the world gathered at the University of Washington November 2-4 for ICAF 2017, the International Comic Arts Forum, an annual academic conference showcasing the growth and importance of the field of scholarly study of the comics medium and the graphic novel.

ICAF’s three-day program featured keynote presentations from a wide range of international guests including Japanese shojo manga pioneer Moto Hagio (The Heart of Thomas), Peruvian graphic journalist Jesus Cossio (A Shining Path of Blood), popular mainstream comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (Bitch Planet) and best-selling graphic novelist Emil Ferris (My Favorite Thing is Monsters).

“As the oldest continuously running conference exclusively devoted to the study of comic art, ICAF sees its role as critical for the sustained development of the field,” said Dr. José Alaniz, chair of ICAF and professor at the University of Washington.

While the academic study of the comics and graphic novels has grown around the world, Alaniz said the ICAF, “remains the gold standard.” He said, “the landscape has changed radically since 1995, when the conference was founded, with several new journals, proliferating conferences, university comics minor programs and the new Comic Studies Society, which was founded in 2014 as the first dues-paying professional organization for comics scholars.”

The rising popularity of comics studies in higher education is also good news for publishing on several fronts. Academic attention to comic works adds to the institutional legitimacy of the medium as art, literature and culture, providing validation – if any more were needed – for librarians and educators looking to include graphic literature in their collections and syllabi. The swelling ranks of PhDs and post-doctoral fellows are publishing increasing numbers of relatively accessible scholarly works on comics. At the same time, academics are rediscovering older, often obscure classic materials that publishers are bringing back into print in handsome reprint editions.

This year’s ICAF program offered a diversity of perspectives and disciplinary interests: a track on contemporary Latin American comics; studies of comics’ formal properties; scholarship aimed at reclaiming the role of women in the history of the medium; and papers focused on the interconnections between art and business in comics history, among other topics.

Among the speakers was Nick Sousanis, a professor at San Francisco State University, whose doctoral dissertation Unflattening (Harvard University Press, 2015) is entirely done as a work of comics. Sousanis's work has opened new possibilities for both comics and scholarship, and he gave a keynote on best practices for teaching comics storytelling. (Sousanis has also been interviewed about Unflattening on the More to Come podcast.)

“ICAF has been crucial to the growth of Comics Studies —modeling the transnational and interdisciplinary perspectives that the field sorely needs,” said Dr. Charles Hatfield, Professor of English at California State University, Northridge, author of The Hand of Fire: The Comics of Jack Kirby (University of Mississippi Press, 2012), and curator of several museum shows featuring comic art.

ICAF also teamed with Seattle-based independent comics publisher Fantagraphics to host several offsite events at the Short Run Comix and Art Festival, a popular small press show that attracted more than 3000 attendees to see comics, zines, books and original artwork from hundreds of creators in the Northwest and beyond.

On Friday at the show, Fantagraphics hosted a panel featuring publisher Gary Groth, artists Jim Woodring and Emil Ferris, interviewed by Hatfield. On Saturday, Short Run featured panel discussions on comics journalism with Joe Saccon (Palestine), Jesus Cossio and Sarah Glidden (Rolling Blackouts); a conversation with Emil Ferris and graphic novelist Leela Corman (Unterzakhn), and a spotlight on Kelly Sue DeConnick.

“We need to keep working at expanding and professionalizing the field,” Alaniz said. “With our role as a showcase for the best current scholarship on comic art, especially with its international focus, ICAF will go on serving a vital function for the field.”