Move Over, Archie Andrews: Dr. Teal Triggs Speaks to Katy Keene Fandom, Zines and the Politics of Participation

Professor of Graphic Design in the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art, London, Dr. Teal Triggs presents the comic book world of Katy Keene at Emily Carr University’s Reliance Theatre

On November 14th, 2019, self-described graphic design historian Dr. Teal Triggs delivered a presentation on the comic book world of Katy Keene (1945-1961), a unique American character created by Bill Woggon. While Triggs’ research is usually on the graphic language of British punk and riot grrrl fanzines, for this presentation Triggs takes us further back into the history of fandom, gleaning insight from the documentation that comics fan magazines provide. Of particular interest for Triggs is the relationship between Woggon and Katy’s fanbase, and the ways in which Woggon actively engaged fans to contribute to the graphic design and storylines, breaking down barriers between comic artists and fans to create an “extended family” and participatory culture for Katy Keene that would span the decades all the way up to the present day.

This event was presented by Publishing @ SFU in partnership with the Vancouver Art Book Fair, Graphic Research Group, READ Books and Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Teal Triggs is Professor of Graphic Design in the School of Communication, Royal College of Art, London. As a graphic design historian, critic and educator her writings have appeared in numerous edited books and international design publications. Her research focuses primarily on design pedagogy, criticism, self-publishing. She is Associate Editor of Design Issues (MIT Press) and was founding Editor-in-Chief of Communication Design (Taylor & Francis/ico-D). Her recent books include: co-editor of The Graphic Design Reader (Bloomsbury), author of Fanzines (Thames & Hudson), and the children’s book The School of Art (Wide Eyed). She is a Fellow of the International Society of Typographic Designers, Royal College of Art and Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

Dr. Triggs was in Vancouver to examine North America’s very first Publishing PhD candidate, Amanda Lastoria.

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Comic book glamour girl Katy Keene was first published by Archie Comics in 1945, created to appeal to a growing female comic readership. Her girl-next-door appeal lent her a certain accessibility, while her blend of ambition and fashion-consciousness represented an image of femininity that women were encouraged to strive for in post-war America. 

While independent career woman like Katy Keene are recurring figures of imagination in the history of comic strips, Triggs sets out to show us that what sets Katy apart from the pack is the intimate relationship between her world and her fans, who were regularly invited to submit their own designs for everything from Katy’s clothes to her house and car. This intimacy was cultivated in large part by her creator Bill Woggon, who sought authenticity by inviting and publishing not only these design submissions, but also fan mail and photographs and biographies of fans, cultivating a unique and loyal fan club for Katy Keene. 

Triggs paints a picture of the historical context and field of influence that led Woggon to create Katy Keene in the way that he did, to demonstrate not only how, but also why “Katy was different.” Woggon models Katy’s family on his own, and as Triggs tells us, “this notion of family ran deep in the storylines”, with Katy’s family and various boyfriends all featuring prominently in the comic, but also Woggon himself who talks from out of the panel directly to his fanbase, encouraging them to send in designs for Katy and her friends, comprising an extended family. By providing opportunities for fans to become part of the family and participate in ways that affected her actual character development, Woggon was not only breaking down barriers between the real world and Katy’s fantasy world, but between himself and fans of his work (many of whom would go on to become successful designers, illustrators and writers themselves). 

Using the specific example of the banter between Woggon and his own comic book characters that regularly features on the opening page of each comic, Triggs explains, “the dialogue which features in the panels between the photographed Woggon and the drawn and inked comic characters collapses the imaginary and the reality of the reader’s worlds.” This fierce devotion and real-life interaction between Katy’s image and her fans would later culminate in the creation of the Katy Keene Fan Magazine by Craig Leavitt, which ran for 18 issues through the 1980s, and this led to a resurgence of interest in the character for a whole new generation of would-be artists, designers and writers. Being a fanzine, Leavitt’s publication continues Woggon’s project true to form, featuring design, artwork, and storylines contributed by the ever-growing fanbase.

Triggs points to ways in which both “everydayness”, and a sense of luxury at the same time, was of particular importance to engendering this participatory fan culture, through which readers could respond to calls for designs for every last aspect of Katy’s life, even Katy’s design firm itself. Quoting Leavitt himself, to describe the allure, who said in 1978: “I learned diversity through Katy. Every single thing needed to be designed—cars, houses, gowns, lampshades, even the poetry and jokes…Katy represented everything I didn’t have—everything wonderful.”

The Katy Keene comic regularly featured tremendously popular paper dolls of Katy and her many fashionable ensembles, and colouring options, furthering the malleability of the original Katy Keene comic into fanzine form, infinitely reproducible and re-imaginable by her aspiring artist and designer fans. While Katy Keene never moved beyond contemporary female roles, Triggs encourages us to see Katy as a feminist role model who, as a designer herself, is in control and gives her readers and fans “permission to imagine alternative futures”.

If you’re interested in getting the kind of education in publishing that allows for cultural analysis, historical reflection, and diving deep into imaginary worlds, consider applying for the Master of Publishing Program at Simon Fraser University before February 1st. 

Bonus: Did you know Katy Keene is being revived for a new audience in 2020? Here’s the trailer below:

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