This week, blogger Garry McLaughlin gives a quick overview of his research journey so far, including re-scoping practical work and allowing for methodologies to change as you encounter new scholarship.
At the tender age of 39 and with roughly 10 years of illustrating, making comics and facilitating community arts under my belt, I entered academia. I undertook an MLitt in Comics Studies at the University of Dundee, choosing modules that suited my tastes (like Sci-Fi Comics) and mixing in genres I had less engagement with, like Autobiographix. In so doing, I ended up crafting an essay on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2007).
This led me to the concept of queer temporality, a departure that soon became an obsession. I completed my dissertation on the same by broadening that research and, realising the potentiality that remained in this research, I successfully bid for SGSAH funding to continue in the form of a practice-based PhD, where I would attempt to articulate the unique temporal dynamics of the medium via queer theory, creating a comic in which I would test my theories.
One aspect of the system of comics that is less well researched is temporality; particularly, the ways in which comics allow for what I call trans-temporal narratives. These narratives can be cyclical, rhizomatic, folded and reflective. Scholars offer some insight into the ways in which these temporal structures (with some similarities found in other media) are nevertheless particular to comics.
Groensteen develops a theory that is built upon spatio-topia, the relationships between formal objects like panels, bubbles, borders, figures, and other iconographic elements and how they interact across the metaframe (or metapanel) of the page via braiding, citation, rhyming and resonance (2007). Neil Cohn (2013) takes a linguistic approach, seeing the comics system as a visual language of sequential images mixed with textual elements.
Scott McCloud also talks of time in comics but subordinates its mechanics with the formula “space=time,” suggesting an equivalence that elides some of the more unusual, non-local, connections that might form between panels (1994). None of these explores the specificities of comics’ temporal dynamics, although Groensteen’s assemblage-thinking gets closest for me, providing plentiful off-ramps, which is why his is the methodology I rely upon most.
In queer theory, scholars suggest that queer people experience time differently from those considered to belong to “normative” categories. Halberstam constructs a figure of the linear path of “straight time,” with its temporal markers of birth, education, career, marriage, childbirth, retirement, and death (2005). He suggests that queer people are often othered by this timeline, one which is both reified by and upholds allocisheteronormativity and capitalism.
Muñoz’ Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) is a key text in my research, suggesting a mode of utopianism that gestures towards a future queerness which can never be fully actualised, but whose future-echoes can be found in cultural production.
Cultural production. Queer times. Temporal dynamics. These elements come together in Fun Home and led me to conjecture that queer comics creators might actually have an intuitive, innate understanding of the temporal technologies of comics systems. And I found aspects of this in works like Cruse’ Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), O Human Star (Delliquanti, 2015), and many others. Satisfied that there was indeed something queer about time in comics, I embarked on PRAXIS, a 3-part comic book that tests out my thesis.
PRAXIS is a dialogue with Marvel’s X-Men, using Morrison’s New X-Men (2001) as a critical tool to pry open and explore the original books’ socio-political structural issues (as I see it). It follows a group of young ‘expes’ – Extraordinary People, humanplus, posthuman – mutants, in all but the word, as they question the structures of power around them. Each issue foregrounds certain temporal dynamics that drive the plot forward and attempt to demonstrate the suppositions of my thesis.
I’m currently working on the final lines for the last 10 pages of issue 1, and then I’ll colour and letter those. On completion of that work, I’ll move onto my impact and engagement stage, facilitating workshops and readers groups where we’ll explore the fuzzy edges of queer temporalities and take PRAXIS for a test drive.
I’d originally pitched to do all three issues as my practical component. However, issue 1 is already 40+ pages and, following 3 successive house moves and two years of lockdown, in January this year I had to stop, re-assess and re-scope that work, so now I’ll have issue 1 completed, the script and breakdowns of issue 2 done, and at least an outline for issue 3, all of which will be used as evidence of my practice, testing the thesis and its various components.
I’ve also managed several other outputs along the way: comic essays, teaching, workshops, a conference paper, and a journal article. It’s been a whirlwind where multiple times and tempos appear to overlap – PhD time with pandemic time being the most prevalent. The experience of PhD research, as much as the reading or practical work, has also affected the eventual contents and I’ve found myself drawn to a posthuman, affective, autoethnographic approach which incorporates that experience into it.
This follows in the footsteps of Haraway, whose cyborg feminism, companion species and cthuluscene are all hugely inspiring (2016), and Cixous, whose écriture feminine has helped me to navigate introducing the personal experience into the academic thesis (1976).
I feel like this is too long already and I still have a lot to say on my journey, but it’s time to pull these threads to a close. There are several aspects here I want to come back to cover in more detail during my internship (if you’ll permit the indulgence!) because I feel their exploration will resonate with many of you – approaching academia as a mature student, reckoning with re-scoping your work mid-research, and allowing new concepts and works to shape your practice as much as your research, being some of them.
Hopefully, you’ll have found here a few points of departure for your own interests, whether research-based or otherwise, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on any aspect of my research. And, as ever, I’d be delighted to hear about your research and the journey you’ve taken, so please get in touch!
Bechdel, A. (2007). Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Cixous, H., Cohen, K., & Cohen, P. (1976). The Laugh of the Medusa on JSTOR. Signs, 1(4), 875–893. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3173239?seq=1
Cohn, N. (2013). The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. Bloomsbury.
Cruse, H. (1995). Stuck Rubber Baby. Paradox Press.
Delliquanti, B. (2015). O Human Star: Volume 1. Blue Delliquanti.
Groensteen, T. (2007). The System of Comics. University Press of Mississippi.
Halberstam, J. (2005). In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press.
Haraway, D. J. (2016). Manifestly Haraway. University of Minnesota Press.
McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. In Understanding Comics. HarperCollins.
Muñoz, J. E. (2009). Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NYU Press.