VCU Libraries announces 2023 Jurgen Comic Arts Contest winners 

April 3, 2023
2023 Jurgen Comics Contest winner Rena Bridge in front of their comic exhibited on the first floor of James Branch Cabell Library.

Censorship was the topic for the 2023 Jurgen Comic Arts contest and the winning VCU students tackled that theme in inventive and creative ways.  

"This year's contest explores the idea of artistic freedom,” said Digital Outreach and Special Projects Librarian and contest manager Alice Campbell. “Artistic freedom and artists' agency gets complicated as soon as you need someone else to invest money in your project, or to publish or distribute your work. That's the reality of making art in society." 

  • Rena Bridge (pictured) won the 2023 Grand Prize of $1,000 with "A Quick History of Gay Batman," a humorous look at ongoing discussions about the nature of Batman and Robin's relationship, beginning with Frederic Wertham's influential book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Bridge is majoring in communication arts, and will graduate this year. 

  • Runner-up awards of $250 went to Alexander Tyree for "Driven Underground" and Emil Georges for "Female Nudity." "Driven Underground" explores the language of the 1954 Comics Code and its effect on the subsequent underground comix scene. Emil Georges created a nearly wordless comic conveying the emotional experience of an artist encountering gallery content restrictions. Both Tyree and Georges are communication arts majors. 

  • Honorable mentions of $100 were awarded to history and communication arts major H. M. Smith for "The Devil's Fire," which captures the drama of a 1979 vinyl record burning and counter-protest. John Novak, communication arts major and creative writing minor, received an honorable mention for "Aftertaste" a metaphorical consideration of the outsized impact a single censor can have on a larger community.

  • First-Time Comic Creator winners were Sophia Shokraei for "Malicious Compliance" and Daniel Lee for "Behind the Scene." Shokraei and Lee will each receive $100 and publication in VCU Scholars Compass. New this year, the First-Time Creator category opened the contest to every VCU student who wanted to create a comic. Judging for this prize did not consider drawing ability, but instead focused on whether submissions engaged with the contest theme and encouraged readers to do the same.

Winning entries and honorable mentions are published in VCU Scholars Compass and may be seen in an exhibit on the first floor of James Branch Cabell Library. Images from the entries will be displayed in an exhibit on the Cabell Screen–the 25-feet screen on the exterior north facade of Cabell Library– from April 17 to May 12. A Jurgen Comics Contest newspaper celebrates the contest’s connection to the Golden Age of newspaper comics. Free copies of the edition will be available in the Cabell Library lobby April 24.

The 2023 prompt for the contest was “Codes, Censorship and Conflict.” Comics could be fictional or non-fictional but were required to explore the impact of codes and the intersection of art, commerce and freedom. Codes appear throughout the history of censorship in the form of industry self-regulation, legal codes that define obscenity and libel, "coded" language and imagery that seek to evade restrictions, and codes of ethics that guide and support librarians facing censorship challenges. Some well-known codes, such as the Hays Code and the Comics Code, are no longer in use, but written and unwritten codes still shape much of the creative work produced–from books to podcasts, from visual arts to films. 

 “Coding and censorship are two topics I already had an interest in … so I decided to combine these ideas with a topic that I have even more interest in -- Batman,” said winner Bridge. “Those who know me can tell you that this comic was really a thinly veiled excuse for me to draw Batman and Robin over and over, so I can be honest when I say this: I enjoyed every part of the process of working on it, from the initial pages of research to putting the very finishing touches onto the lettering.”

The Jurgen Banned Art Comics Contest is envisioned as an annual student competition dedicated to telling the story of banned art – books, music, film and more – and encouraging discussion of the complex relationship between art and society. The contest is sponsored by VCU Libraries with generous support from the James Branch Cabell Library Associates.

Included in the contest design is mentorship of a student editor. The 2022-2023 student editor is Jess Soffian, an artist and writer pursuing a degree in communication arts. In addition to managing contest logistics and presenting online information sessions, Soffian designed posters and a special edition Jurgen Comics Contest newspaper that celebrates the winners.

"It's been exciting to see the creativity of VCU students displayed in all the contest entries,” said Karen Bjork, head of Digital Libraries and Publishing, the department that manages the contest. “It's great to be part of VCU Libraries' commitment to supporting student research and innovation."  

The Jurgen Comics Contest is named after James Branch Cabell’s ribald and satirical fantasy Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice. In 1920, Jurgen was declared a “certain offensive, lewd, lascivious and indecent book” by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Two courts exonerated the work, and Jurgen was again available and reached a wide audience due in part to the interest that the trial had generated.  

The format for the competition was a single-page multi-panel comic strip similar to the Sunday funnies that author James Branch Cabell might have read in 1920s newspapers. Cabell is the namesake of VCU's Monroe Park Campus library.  

Prizes were selected by a diverse panel of judges: Erin Crawford, 2022 Grand Prize Winner; Arts Research Librarian Carla-Mae Crookendale; Thom Didato of the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences; Chris Irving, of communication arts, VCU School of the Arts; Bizhan Khodabandeh, illustrator and faculty in Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences; and John Zuegner, member of the James Branch Cabell Library Associates. 

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