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Britain’s Great Comics:

Is It Time For A Renaissance?

On 2 August, 2008, Comica hosts the first ever in-depth discussion between two quintessentially British pioneers of graphic novels: Raymond Briggs and Bryan Talbot.  Briggs (The Snowman, When The Wind BlowsEthel & Ernest) and Talbot (Luther Arkwright, Alice In Sunderland) will discuss their work and mark new editions of Briggs’ Gentleman Jim and Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat.

It’s in the dictionaries, bookshops and cultural parlance, yet some people still claim not to have heard of the term ‘graphic novel’, let alone to have read one. Usually because of their prejudice or pretense rather than informed choice, they have managed to ignore the persistent ascendance of these upmarket comics in book form, despite the fact that they have been embraced by major publishers, festivals, galleries, prizes and such pundits as Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby.

Declaring yourself ‘comics illiterate’, however, is no longer a badge of pride. If you are prepared to apply the sort of effort required for a literary prose novel, you can be rewarded with such rich verbal and visual pleasures from a graphic one, perhaps written by wordsmiths Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Alex Garland, Jacqueline Wilson and Jonathan Lethem who are taking up writing them. It’s also not valid anymore to poo-poo them as a mostly puerile superheroic genre, because graphic novels range, like the movies based upon them, from the dark fantasies of X-Men and Hellboy or the gritty noir of Road To Perdition and Sin City to the moody dramas of Ghost World and Death Note or the barbed autobiographies of American Splendor and Persepolis. Read the original and you’ll find in almost every case it outclasses its big-screen abridgement.

by Nick Abadzis

If any further proof were needed of the graphic novel’s coming of age in this country, it is the announcement of the first full-time three-year BA (Hons) Programme in Graphic Novel Illustration, starting this September at the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education (NEWI) in Wrexham. Bryan Talbot, a pioneer of the form in the 1970s and self-taught creator of the remarkable Alice In Sunderland, could never have imagined being able to study comics at art school. "When I was applying to college, comics were considered the bottom of the creative barrel, only having marginally more artistic merit than patterned toilet-roll paper." So, hiding his strip samples, Talbot filled his portfolio with the abstract art expected of him and promptly failed to get in, winding up in Graphic Design.

Until recently, the consensus in most British art colleges seems to have been that prospective students passionate about creating comics will be difficult to teach, or even reach. They also might expose their teachers’ paltry understanding of the medium. Fortunately, Dan Berry, a Visual Communication lecturer at NEWI, is a knowledgeable practitioner himself and was aware of strong demand for courses looking specifically at this medium. "A similar course in Angoulême, France’s capital of bande dessinée, has between 400-500 applicants for roughly 25 places each year, a good indication of how much demand there can be for a high-quality specialist course."

Trains Are… Mint
by Oliver East

The BA’s title ‘Graphic Novel Illustration’, however, does not mean that NEWI is omitting the vital creative writing behind comics. Berry explains, "With written prose, the writer paints pictures with words, whereas with the comic form, while the writer-artist also paints pictures with words, they can also paint words with pictures. Text and image can act as themselves, or they can act as each other." Part of their complexity is that comics are neither writing or drawing but both.

Another option to hone your sequential narrative skills is an intensive week with The Arvon Foundation. Bryan Talbot is lead tutor on their second course in graphic novels this November, with a third course planned for 2009. From their 2006 pilot, Kerry Watson, Creative Director of The Hurst, The John Osborne Arvon Centre in Shropshire, found that teachers and pupils "live and eat around their work, strewn across the dining table, from breakfast to midnight. One self-catering student sculpted her rabbit character in mashed potato to top a shepherd’s pie." Watson was also impressed that "the gender mix was 50/50, with three women under 20." Inspired by Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel and our own Posy Simmonds, more and more women here are expressing themselves through graphic novels, for example Simone Lia‘s Fluffy and Hannah Berry‘s Britten & Brülightly.

Britten & Brulightly
by Hannah Berry

Ability to draw is not a requirement at Arvon, and, as graphic novelist Ben Katchor has found teaching at Parsons in New York, it may even be a hindrance. Katchor finds that his "writing students have the hand of a child coupled with the mind of an adult. With no facile conventions to fall back on, everything they draw must be invented. Many art students are trapped by their drawing habits and have to overcome an entire psychopathology of commercial art techniques and style to find their autographic voice."

If there still were any doubts that comics can be a career, the demand from publishers and punters is also there. Nielsen BookScan reports sales of graphic novels and manga, or Japanese comics, climbing in the UK from £5.3 million in 2005 and £7.6 million in 2006 to £11.3 million in 2007. The opportunites are there, although several publishers have so far opted for the shrewd but cautious route of adapting either classics or proven hits and franchises, and this has helped newcomers SelfMadeHero and Classical Comics find success by putting Shakespeare and others into comics. For the graphic novel to live and flourish, however, as it has done so spectacularly in France and Japan, all those eager students from NEWI, Arvon and elsewhere will need more publishers to back their wholly original works.

Rumble Strip
by Woodrow Phoenix

Posted: July 20, 2008

An edited version of this article appeared in The Times newspaper on 10 May 2008.


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