Subproject 3: "Risk Technologies and Global Catastrophe in Contemporary American Graphic Narrative"
Researcher: Laura Oehme
Since the 1980s, the comics medium has undergone a noteworthy development towards extensive formal and thematic experimentation, providing new forms of narrativizing the social and cultural conflicts, anxieties and paradoxes of turn-of-the-millennium cultures. The project focuses on the negotiation of risk technologies and global catastrophe in graphic narratives that are characterized by a critical, and formally and stylistically innovative engagement with existing risk discourses. Since the category of risk has not yet been employed in the field of comics studies, a basic but central objective is to put together a relevant corpus of texts to demonstrate that graphic narratives participate significantly in the contemporary fictional risk discourse. The second, major objective is to analyze the collected narratives as to the specific narrative means with which they articulate and critically explore risk. While close readings form the primary basis for the initial analysis of the corpus, transmedial narratology provides the theoretical framework for the in-depth, topical analyses of the interplay of words and images that is central for conveying meaning in comics. The corpus will include primary texts from the 1980s to the 2010s, covering almost four decades of what Beck refers to as the “age of man-made uncertainties” (World at Risk, viii). What these politically and aesthetically diverse texts have in common is that they narratively explore the potential impact of several key risk technologies, such as nuclear technology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and robotics, and the risk scenario(s) engendered by these technologies. Moreover, all of them engage the ambivalence of these technologies in envisioning how they might shape the future. The paradigmatic analyses of the primary texts will focus on the medium-specific characteristics of comics that contribute particularly to the negotiation of risk, and on the specific aesthetic characteristics and ethical dimensions involved in producing a sense of global technological risk in graphic narratives. In conjunction with analyzing individual texts already identified in the first part of this subproject, the ongoing further development of the text corpus remains crucial to this subproject throughout and will require extensive additional research. Preliminary research points to the existence of a wide range of both mainstream and independent comics that engage with risk technologies and global risk. Of particular relevance for this research project as a whole is corpus work on comics that engage with environmental risks, providing a productive point of convergence with subproject 2 (on environmental risk in American climate change narratives). This diverse body of texts, however, is for the most part not accessible in Germany. Thus the work program for this subproject includes a research stay at the Eaton Collection at the University of California, Riverside, which holds the most comprehensive collection of science fiction literature worldwide, including an extensive collection of comics. A research stay in the archive is essential for the corpera of all subprojects, dealing with both technological and environmental risk. This continued corpus work enables the formulation of a more refined, precise definition of risk fiction as a genre. The findings of this project will result in a monograph on the subject, contributing to the goals of the general project, i.e. the comparative analysis of risk fiction across media; some of the results will also serve as the basis for a scholarly article to be published as a follow-up project in one of the key journals for comics studies (e.g. ImageText, The European Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics).