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Comics For Children:

Sneaky Reading

Ciao! This weekend I am away for the second edition of the BilBOlbul Festival in Bologna (I’ll be reporting on this next week). In a few weeks, this beautiful Italian city is also the host for the world-famous children’s book fair from March 31st to April 3rd, 2008. So I thought it’s appropriate to take a look at current trends in graphic novels for younger readers, an exciting growth area now in the UK.

Whatever happened to comics for children? In Britain, popular titles used to sell in their millions every week. For many viewers, the recent BBC4 TV series Comics Britannia revived happy memories of curling up with your Beano, Bunty, Eagle or 2000AD bought off the newsstand or dropped through the letterbox. Others remember how squeaky spinner racks in local newsagents once groaned with American comic books, imported here as ships ballast, and grabbed the eye with their metal sign on top, shouting ‘Hey Kids - Comics!’.

But in the 21st century, reading comics no longer seems to be as significant a part of childhood. It’s true that The Beano Annual, that staple Christmas gift, clocks up stable six-figure sales, though it was beaten to the top of the charts last year, probably for the first time since it began, by the Doctor Who Annual. An indication of decline, though, was the surprise cut this summer in the frequency of The Dandy from weekly to fortnightly, a drastic measure not taken by D.C. Thomson since paper rationing in the Second World War.

It’s easy to blame the plethora of today’s entertainment and technology choices competing for that precious pocket money for this problem, but Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist raised on Superman and Spider-Man, sees such excuses as ‘a cop out’. In his keynote speech for the Will Eisner Awards ceremony, the profession’s Oscars, held at the 2004 San Diego Comic-Con, he warned, "Children did not abandon comics; comics, in their drive to attain respect and artistic accomplishment, abandoned children."

Chabon has a point. The last twenty years in particular have seen authors and publishers strive so hard to make comics, formerly misunderstood as being solely juvenile, ‘grow up’ into graphic novels aimed mainly at adults, there is a risk that the medium will leave behind the children and youngsters and lose that essential next generation of readers.

This may already be happening. Manchester-based cartoonist Jim Medway teaches creative comics classes for children and worries that many have little if any contact with reading comics, let alone books. "I’ve worked with a broad range of young people, and a lot seem to be starting from scratch. A few in each class read The Beano, Simpsons, or a bit of manga. Tintin and Asterix are only recognised by one or two, which does shock me. Spider-Man gets mentioned, but more because of the films than the comics."

What Medway finds heartening, however, is how responsive most kids become when exposed to decoding and creating this unfamiliar storytelling vehicle, as he has found when showing 10 and 11 year olds carefully selected excerpts from graphic novels about extraordinary real childhoods. "The section of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran, left them literally pleading for more. Extracts from Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa’s account of his survival of the atomic bombing of Japan, knocked them for six, partly by the reality of what actually happened in Hiroshima, but also that you can tell that sort of story using comics."

This is the sort of receptive audience that specialist and major publishers are hoping to reach with graphic novels for younger readers, now a boom area from adaptations of classics and properties to projects wholly original to comics. Ben Norland at Walker Books is convinced that the worlds of picture books and graphic novels for children have much in common. "In current visual culture, ‘proper’ narrative picture-making has taken a back-seat to conceptualism and abstraction in the fine arts and to photography and pure design most everywhere else. Graphic novels and illustrated children’s books are two very particular places where the skills of narrative picture-making are still supremely important." Next Spring brings three of Norland’s enticing entries: for the very young, a new canine cartoon superstar in the wordless Bow-Wow Bugs A Bug by New Yorkers Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, and Australian Bob Graham’s tender How to Heal a Broken Wing, while from Britain The Savage for older kids blends David Almond’s writing with illustrations and comic strip passages by Dave McKean.

Harper Collins have already taken this ‘hybrid’ approach on Abadazad, a darker urban twist on Alice In Wonderland themes told in interweaving prose and graphic novel sequences. Other all-comics imports from the States include Bone, Jeff Smith’s captivating cartoon mix of Tolkien and Tove Jansson, the very pink and adorable Babymouse by Matthew and Jennifer Holm, and Mark Crilley’s ‘love letter to Japan’, Miki Falls, unfolding over the four seasons starting with Spring.

Over at Bloomsbury, Lizzie Spratt is shaping up her list with homegrown productions next autumn like Gary Northfield’s Derek The Sheep from the pages of The Beano and Ewa, Asia Alfasi’s powerful two-volume autobiographical story of a Muslim girl, born in Libya and moving to Scotland. Shannon Hale is one of several bestselling children’s writers branching out into new graphic novels, and her first is Rapunzel’s Revenge, a wacky Wild West re-mix of the hairy fairytale.

With sales about to hit 100,000 copies in the UK and US, Titan Books have a thoroughly British success story in their Wallace & Gromit books, which compile brand new exploits first serialised in their monthly magazine. In contrast, teenage girls who read manga or Japanese comics are Titan’s target for two new series bought in from North America. Minx is a line of sassy, stand-alone graphic novels, launching with popular authors Cecil Castelluci and Mike Carey, joined on Confessions Of A Blabbermouth by his daughter Louise. In her two Make 5 Wishes books, Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne offers a new spin on the classic tale of The Monkey’s Paw that is reaching far beyond her regular fans.

Like manga from Japan, bandes dessinée from France and Belgium, birthplaces of perennials Asterix and Tintin, have never lost their buoyant kids market. That is why visionary French entrepreneur Olivier Cadic set up Cinebook, to translate the best albums, classic and contemporary, his bestseller being Lucky Luke, ’ the cowboy who can shoot faster than his own shadow’. "By the end of this year, we’ll have sold 40,000 copies and with five new Lucky Luke titles for 2008, we aim to reach 100,000 copies by next year." Releasing three books every month, Cinebook’s range is expanding, from junior favourites like eco-friendly Native American Yakari, spacegirl Yoko Tsuno and cool witch Melusine, to fantasy Viking Thorgal and our own air ace Biggles and a new 15+ line for older kids, including financial thriller Largo Winch, soon to be a movie.

It was David Petersen’s rich, rewarding rodent saga Mouse Guard published by Archaia Studio Press however, that was picked by librarian Eileen Armstrong from Cramlington High School, Northumberland as a key read in the ‘Boys Into Books’ campaign run by the Department for Education and the School Library Association. In her view, graphic novels’ subversive nature is all part of their appeal. "Kids somehow suspect that teachers won’t approve of their choice and so enjoy it more." Of course, for years good school librarians have been playing on this and using graphic novels and manga as a way in, as ‘sneaky reading’. They start readers with text-light books and move them on, when they’re ready, to something more challenging, as well as using comics to develop the sophisticated visual literacy skills young people need now.

There are many reasons why children should never be lost to the wonder of comics. Michael Chabon exhorted creators and publishers three years ago "to sweep [children] up and carry them off on the vast flying carpets of story and pictures on which we ourselves, in entire generations, were borne aloft." The signs are that Chabon’s rallying call is being answered.

There is a buzz at Puffin, as Charlie Higson starts adapting his own hit novel Silverfin starring Young Bond into their first ever original UK graphic novel. It’s a shrewd move to start with a known brand like Ian Fleming’s junior James Bond with a built-in following, because, as Francesca Dow at Puffin sees it, "The American market is more mature, while we’re at earlier stages here. So we are originating only two graphic novels for now, working with the brilliant Young Bond books and 2000AD illustrator Kev Walker."

After last year’s succesful movie tie-in adaptation, Anthony Horowitz’s action-packed Stormbreaker continues to spin off into full-colour manga at Walker, drawn by Kanako and Yuzuru, gifted Japanese sisters. Horowitz’s other series Power Of Five launches next year with Raven’s Gate illustrated by Dom Reardon, another 2000AD stalwart, to be followed by his Diamond Brothers titles.

Rod Serling’s cult American TV series The Twilight Zone is getting the graphic treatment too from Bloomsbury, while Harper Collins are lining up an artist to translate Garth Nix’s Sabriel from prose into panels. With sales of Titan‘s Simpsons collections reaching 1.03 million, more publishers are realising the pulling power of a star property, especially one from their own catalogue.

Cutting down daunting giants of literature into comics goes back at least to 1941 when Classics Illustrated was invented by American publisher Albert Kantor. Teachers might have poo-pooed them as ‘Classics Desecrated’ but it’s clear they helped introduce thousands of kids to famous stories and authors. That appetite is still there, as SelfMadeHero found when they premiered their Manga Shakespeare this year, reprinting their first two graphic plays within six months.

Series editor Richard Appignanesi enjoys "playing scrabble with the Bard, tailoring text to suit the medium and leaving space for the illustrations to do their dramatic work, just as Verdi did for opera. Ever since Shakespeare’s day, staged versions have always adapted the texts. He would have been the first to acknowledge that pragmatism."

Kicking off with Henry V and Macbeth, pragmatic Clive Bryant at Classical Comics is wooing the educational market by offering three different text versions: the unedited full play; one in simpler ‘plain’ language; and another streamlined ‘quick’ read. The graphic novel artwork is unchanged, letting each verson offer a different entry level of literacy. Jane Eyre and Great Expectations await in the wings.

Nevermore is the first in SelfMadeHero‘s next collection called Eye Classics presenting Edgar Allan Poe’s terror tales as comics. Next year will bring Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Kafka’s Trial, while Gareth Hinds has completed Beowulf and is tackling The Merchant of Venice for Walker. It seems dead authors make perfect graphic novel collaborators.


The Savage
by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean
Walker Books, £7.99
“It was as if the story had been waiting for me, and once I began, it seemed to write itself.” That urgency which writer David Almond felt is also what drives his protagonist, a young boy named Blue, to write and draw his own secret story in a notebook as an instinctual outlet for his turbulent emotions after losing his father and being bullied at school. Almond’s second novel for younger readers grew out of a television commission for ITV and Seven Stories: The Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle. Intense but relatively brief, it might have seemed minor and slight in prose only and risked being marginalised or overlooked. But Almond’s enthusiasm for the graphic novel form led to Dave McKean being given free rein to interpret and enhance it visually and the resulting fusion, billed as “an extraordinary graphic novel within a novel”, proves doubly affecting.

As Blue decribes it, “It was my kind of story, just for myself.” It’s Blue’s story-within-a-story, his poorly spelled but passionate wish-fulfilment fantasy, which McKean illuminates, contrasting the tidy, conventional font of the main novel with a scratchy typeface for Blue’s scrawl. To convey the grunting, feral “savage” boy which Blue imagines, like his primeval id set free from the wild woods to be his avenging inner demon, McKean wounds the pages with thick, almost brutal brushwork, swathes of luscious black ink mixed with finer calligraphic marks and details. He also combines expression with control in his choice and use of colour, overlaying a precise range of transparent light and dark greens or blues, saving the dark red of blood for one panel. Hardly anything of the everyday world of Blue, his mother and younger sister, is shown in the other mainly-text chapters of Blue’s first-person narration, only the barest loose lines to represent lines on paper, a fence, or tears. When any “real” characters do become involved in the Blue’s imaginary tale, they too finally fade away in a pale blue-on-white version of previous images.

It’s interesting that McKean chooses to leave the climactic chapter, where Blue and The Savage properly meet, unillustrated. This follows the pattern he has set for himself and is perhaps shrewd, as Almond’s words here are particularly powerful in their own right. Then again, it seems like a missed opportunity, especially when we read about the wild boy showing his own paintings to Blue. “The pictures on the cave wall were works of wonder”, Almond writes. I suppose it would have required McKean finding a whole other register and approach to imagery to represent them on the page. So we see none of them, and perhaps wisely McKean leaves them to our imaginations.

I find these new hybrids, part-text story, part-comics, exciting and challenging. Some might argue that it’s using comics to sugarcoat an all-prose children’s book, and the end product is neither one thing nor the other, half-hearted because it doesn’t attempt to adapt the whole work into a graphic novel. I expect comics purists will grumble at having to read all these words without pictures but are we really so logophobic?  Conventionally, comics are not supposed to duplicate in words what is plainly evident in pictures. So to have one panel with Blue’s text saying “He climed [sic] the stairs in silens [sic]” might seem redundant when we have McKean’s illustration showing exactly that. Except of course that the words reinforce Blue’s presence as a narrator and his imagination driving the narrative. Another question is whether Almond would have considered rewriting this piece to become a full graphic novel. For wordsmiths like him, sacrificing honed phrases so that they can become pictures might be painful. Finally, in The Savage we have all of Almond’s concise, convincing writing as well as McKean’s enhancing artwork. The best of both worlds.

Posted: March 10, 2008


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Featured Books

Bow-Wow Bugs A Bug
by Mark Newgarden
& Megan Montague Cash

How to Heal
A Broken Wing

by Bob Graham

by Matthew Holm
& Jennifer Holm

Miki Falls
by Mark Crilley

Confessions Of
A Blabbermouth

by Mike Carey, Louise Carey
& Aaron Alexovich

Make 5 Wishes
by Camilla D’Errico
& Joshua Dysart

Lucky Luke
by Morris & Goscinny

Mouse Guard
by David Petersen

Manga Shakespeare:
Romeo & Juliet

by Sonia Leong

Henry V
by John McDonald,
Neill Cameron & Bambos

by various

The Savage
by David Almond
& Dave McKean