IGNCC18, Bournemouth: Thoughts on re-reading and ephemera

I attended a number of other talks and events at the IGNCC in Bournemouth. It was very full of great content – over the three days, there were three streams of talks generally happening at any one time, so you had to pick and choose quite carefully as to what stream or track of talks you wanted to go to. Generally there were a number of 90 minute sessions consisting of three 20 minute talks grouped together by theme and arranged into three streams; there were also a number of 1 hour sessions with two 20 minute talks grouped together, again arranged into three streams; and then there were hour-long ‘keynote’ talks without anything scheduled against them, so that the expectation was that all attendees could / would attend those longer talks. (The Anne Digby interview and David Roach’s paper were both keynote sessions.)

Many of the sessions were not specifically relevant to girls comics and the other subjects covered in this blog, so I won’t go into them here. They did however trigger some thoughts that I am still musing on, which are more relevant to this audience, I think and hope.

One of the first talks I went to was called “How Do We Know What Time It Is In Comics?”, by Paul Fisher Davies.  He talked about the idea that as comics readers, we assume that the action happening in front of us is necessarily happening ‘now’, unless it is specifically indicated otherwise. One of the examples he showed us of different times being depicted on a page was in “Watchmen”, where Dr Manhattan is on Mars, musing about times past and time in the future (as he is a time-traveler that makes sense for him to do). It’s a complicated page, which may require a reader to re-read it quite a bit to understand it; and on a second or subsequent re-read, you may draw different conclusions from on your first reading. Likewise in a couple of other sessions (keynotes by Ian Gordon and by Woodrow Phoenix) there was mention made of re-reading of comics and the way you may understand them better, or as saying something different, on re-read.

That led me off on a separate train of thought – I wonder if comics are a kind of item that historically has been re-read more than other kinds of things? I mean, obviously people do re-watch TV and film multiple times (though for TV that had to wait until video recording was invented for it to become a mass-market phenomenon). Many people re-read books multiple times (though in my experience there is a type of person that voraciously re-reads, and another type of person who may be a great reader but never re-reads). But perhaps comics are a slightly peculiar case where it was always very normal, or expected, to re-read them? In a talk that Joan Ormrod gave in Oxford earlier this year, she looked at weekly comics aimed at a teenage audience in the 50s (Roxy / Mirabelle and the like) and she highlighted the fact that when these came out, there was little in the reader’s life that was a permanent, accessible object that told them about the music of the time. The other ways they had of learning about what’s what in music was to listen to a program that was only broadcast once or twice a week – all the other ways they had of being a music fan, or a pop culture fan, were so ephemeral that most of the time you had nothing but your memories to go on. The comics, in contrast, were right there with you, ready to be re-read (and lent out to friends, and re-circulated). And as so many of the stories were serialised, did the readers make a normal practice (as I did) of going back and re-reading earlier episodes once the story came to an end, or of going back to the beginning of your whole pile and starting again with the satisfaction that you know what’s ahead of you?

I’m not trying to say that comics are either necessarily something that people re-read by definition, or that all comics are re-read (either would be wide of the mark). But I can think of a few reasons why comics might go hand-in-hand with regular re-reading of them. For one thing, comics have often been published as serials, in weekly episodes, which means that each weekly issue would have a fairly limited number of pages and stories included. As I say above I can see that in this situation the reader might read their new weekly issue and then either go back and re-read earlier issues, or perhaps say ‘aaargh! Too long to wait until next week!’ and turn to page 1 of the new issue and start re-reading there and then.

A comic is also ‘the right sort of thing’ to be re-read easily. It’s delivered in a tangible format, not hard to store, and you don’t need any extra steps or equipment to be able to come back to it another time (unlike needing to have some sort of recording equipment to capture a broadcast). Of course you could give away your week’s issue, or chuck it away, but if you didn’t do that then they would be ready to hand as an obvious easy thing to pick up again later (and with an inviting cover to boot).

Did readers typically throw comics away? Of course some people will have done, but even the horror stories you hear about ‘my mum threw away my comics!’ are talking about comics collections kept for some time, and not instantly disposed of. We also heard quite a few stories at the conference of how hard it often was to get hold of one’s comics: Mel Gibson spoke about the lengthy bike rides she took as a kid, to make sure she covered all the various newsagents that stocked different titles. If they were often hard to get hold of, that’s going to make them feel more valuable right away. It’s not a necessary conclusion that they would be re-read frequently as a result, but it certainly all adds up to lots of plausible reasons why readers could or would often re-read.

The above are fairly circumstantial and rooted in historical happenstance, and those are happenstances that will be subject to change. (For instance nowadays lots of people get their reading as digital comics or web comics, which are definitely not tangible or delivered in limited weekly doses, and not particularly hard to find and buy either.) There is one more aspect which is something potentially more directly linked to the nature of the medium: the fact that the words and the pictures can be read at different speeds and in different ways. You can read the words quickly, to find out ‘what happens next’ or to get the gag, but on re-read you have lots of extra enjoyment to dig out of the art. That’s two levels or two ways that you can read a comic on, right away: you don’t have to be an expert in textual analysis or Lacanian subtext to do that, it’s easily accessible, so to speak. So, built into what it is to be a comic, there is at least one reason that might drive people to re-read them as a matter of course.

It may seem like an inconsequential question, but it does seem worth it to me to ask whether re-reading was a normal thing, an expected thing, as well as being a frequent thing. Did editors, writers, artists expect the readers of the comics to routinely re-read things? If so, wouldn’t that mean that you could expect a certain sophistication to quickly develop across a community of comics readers? For instance a development in comics reading ability, to work out plot twists or potentially-confusing elements on the page. Wouldn’t it perhaps influence the creators and publishers if you knew or had a reasonable expectation of comics reading ‘competency’ so that you could challenge the readers with something new (fancier layouts, more stylized art)? Or perhaps it is a driver behind how extreme some of the plots of the comics became, with the Cinderella story ending up having shackled slaves, perhaps because the readership was very used to the mundaneities of less extreme stories…

It also challenges the idea that I think a lot of non-comics readers would have, of comics as ephemeral. Clearly for the readers of this blog, they haven’t been ephemeral – but I think that nor were they ephemeral for the usual reader of the time, whether or not they went on to be life-long devotees. Comics were certainly re-read a lot – most of us reading this can bear witness to that – but I can also think of a few different reasons, as above, why they might generally have been re-read *more* than other things you wouldn’t think of as ephemeral.

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5 thoughts on “IGNCC18, Bournemouth: Thoughts on re-reading and ephemera

  1. There have been plenty of cases where readers gave their comics to jumble sales and such, only to regret it later on. Space would have been another factor in getting rid of comics. These were the days before scanners or buying digital versions on disc. Or they felt they’d outgrown the comics or were moving and had to reduce stuff.

    We discussed earlier as to why readers would request reprints of favourite serials if they still had their old comics and could reread the prints.

    1. Yes, indeed there are reasons why readers might give away their comics – as you say, space is definitely a factor! and the feeling of having outgrown them. But I think that people didn’t, for instance, buy and read an issue of a weekly comic and then throw it away as soon as they’d read it. I think people generally hung on to them for quite a while (months / years) and then eventually got rid, having in the meantime generally re-read them to a greater or lesser extent.

      You’re right, the request by readers to have stories reprinted does indicate a desire to re-read a particular story without the ability to just go back to accessible copies.

  2. I wonder what stories readers asked to be reprinted when Jinty had Pam’s Poll besides Land of No Tears and Stefa’s Heart of Stone? It sounds like The Human Zoo was one as the merger said there had been many requests to reprint it. The Forbidden Garden, Combing Her Golden Hair, Creepy Crawley and Battle of the Wills could have been others.

  3. Certainly an interesting thinking point. I know when I was growing up, at the end of the Summer my parents would clear out our weekly comics, and even then, we’d keep onto the last month’s comics. So yes they certainly weren’t thrown out once read. All the annuals and picture library books were kept, probably because they were more durable and not as many of them, and re-read many times!
    I had annuals from my older sister and other relatives and I remember friends of mine that had weekly comics from older siblings passed down as well, so certainly not every household thought of weekly comics as disposable.

  4. Comic stories in Annuals were the things I tended to keep longest and re-read most often. This was particularly true of the 1950s Rupert Annuals I inherited from my brother. I must have read them hundreds of times over the years – first as picture stories before I could follow the words, then in conjuction with the short rhymes printed below each panel, and finally with the alternative, longer text printed below them (which was also read out loud by my parents on occasion). It was in this way that I learned to ‘read’ comics before I ever encountered Janet & John books at school.

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