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SIGNs of the Present

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Although there were countless exciting developments in scholarship in 2007, signaling an explosion of scholarly interest in comics and graphic novels, by far the most satisfying of them was the launching of a new journal called SIGNs: Studies in Graphical Narratives. International and multidisciplinary in scope, SIGNs is dedicated to the early history of comics, roughly 1830-1930. As the editor’s introduction to the inaugural issue says, SIGNs aims to become "a regular forum for establishing a common historical knowledge on comics."

SIGNs is as beautiful as it is interesting. The illustrations are marvelous, and the page formatting respects the rarity of the reprints, the text gently retreating from the images to highlight and frame them. This journal is one that ideally will be held in your hands. You’ll read it, too, cover to cover. I wouldn’t typically refer to a scholarly journal as a page-turner, but I couldn’t stop reading once I’d started.

The articles are interesting and well-written, and you can’t help but be a little awed by the knowledge and skill that allows Roger Sabin, Antoine Sausverd, Jaqueline Berndt, and Alberto Milano to bring to life economies, cultures, and sensibilities that no one living has ever directly tasted. Sabin gave me a glimpse into the varied senses of humor of the readers of Ally Sloper. Sausverd, in reporting the results of some ground-breaking research into French children’s literature of the late nineteenth century, dispelled some myths about kidlit that had guided my thinking for many years.

I had such a wonderful evening reading the first issue of SIGNs, that I felt it would be too hard to wait for the second. To fill the time, I requested an interview with Fabio Gadducci, SIGNs editor. He very kindly took time out from his preparations for Angouleme to speak to Broken Frontier about the journal.

Broken Frontier: What has been the reception to the first issue of SIGNs?

Fabio Gadducci: Quite good. So far, the reviews have been positive: it seems that we indeed struck a chord, and we are quite pleased. The board considers SIGNs to be just a part of the largest movement trying to persuade academia of the relevance of "comics" as a field of interest, and from this point of view we consider ourselves on the right track. Also economically, thanks to the support of public institutions and festivals (mostly Italian so far, among them Centro Fumetto "Andrea Pazienza" and Napoli Comicon), we are breaking even.

BF: Do you find the job of editing SIGNs pleasurable?  What is the most satisfying part?

FG: Well, editing is always stressful... I mean, the whole interaction with the contributors, the members of the board, and the reviewers is satisfying, sometimes exhilarating, yet quite demanding. It was just with the help of the board, and in particular of the managing editors (Matteo Stefanelli and Michel Kempeneers), that it was possible to put the whole endeavor through. However, the most intense experience is always the hunting for reproductions, like for the Marfisa plates (a late 1800 Florentine series, echoing Hogarth's Marriage a la Mode) in the first issue: their search, since no complete collection existed, and their graphic restoration.

BF: The illustrations are really breathtaking.  Is illustration the greatest part of the expense of producing the journal?

FG: As for the reprint of the Marfisa, yes, the color reproductions are the largest cost, money-wise. Not so the acquisition in itself, since there were no reproduction rights to pay, thanks to the collaboration of the Raccolta Bertarelli in Milan (the largest museum in the world, as far as popular prints are concerned), and the help of Alberto Milano, a member of the board who is a renowned expert in the field and also the writer of the introductory article to the Marfisa in our first issue. As for the illustrations inside the journal, their quality is due to the efforts of our contributors (as e.g. the great choice offered by Roger Sabin in his article on Alley Sloper) and to the care of our designer, the Pisan graphic designer Andrea Rosellini, who is painstakingly preparing them for publication.

BF: While I can't imagine a better experience than holding SIGNs in my own hands and annotating it with a pencil, I am intrigued by the recent move by some publications to offer electronic-only subscriptions.  This could perhaps make it somewhat more affordable to your non-European readers.  Has the board considered the possibility?

FG: Indeed, the board has been toying for a while with the possibility. On the one-side, we understand the need of producing an affordable journal, in order to help the diffusions of its contents: we actually already published some excerpts in our site. At the same time, we do believe in offering the best quality for reproductions, and as a consequence, in exploiting the proper venue for printing. As we wrote in the introduction of the first issue, even if we aim at producing a scholarly journal, "text readability and attractive, profusely illustrated layouts are of great importance as well". Images are indeed of utmost importance for our endeavor: besides a common critical discourse, so far missing for early comics, also a shared set of examples has to be built. In order to reduce costs, we are however looking for distributors, especially for the States, sponsors and advertising. It is a gamble we do hope to win.

BF: What can we look forward to in future issues?

FG: Well, let me just tell you what is going to happen in 2008. The search for worthwhile articles, in connection with the reviewing procedure we adopt, is time-consuming, so for the time being we work on a per-number basis. (Hint to the readers: submissions are welcome!). In any case, for the forthcoming Angouleme we are preparing a small booklet listing all the artists working for the publishing house Quantin, one of the main producers of children’s prints with sequential narratives in the late 1800 France. It is a follow-up of an article by Antoine Sausverd appearing in the first issue, which detailed the publisher’s story. It contains a few additional reproductions of their plates, which were selected for either having a Nemo-like dreaming theme, or for raising some race issues.

Additionally, we are readying for our second issue, (and talking about racism and colonialism), an article by Pascal Lefèvre is pointing out the occurrence of these themes in the Belgian prints. Let me also mention that Jaqueline Berndt is finishing the second part of her essay on the origins of manga: a remarkable effort that is introducing a whole new array of authors and critical works to the Western public. Indeed, as a general approach, we strive for a mix of research themes, also beyond the printed text (ranging from broadsheet publishing to paratextual artifacts), while trying to include all regional areas. To this end, let me add that, so far, we are unfortunately lacking contributions from the States.

Finally, as for the reprints... well, let me keep it secret for now: we are preparing a special, 32 pages section, and I would like to keep the fingers crossed, until it finally materializes.

Editor’s Note: If we know our history, then we’ll know where we’re coming from, as Bob Marley sang. In the case of lovers of comics, our history is not painful, it is amazing. Check out SIGNs and order your first issue here.

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