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Lost In Translation:

Do Comics Need Language?

The article below is the transcript of a talk I gave at the Goethe Institut, Glasgow on the evening of November 3, 2006. My talk was followed by a panel discussion (which you can read here) chaired by Marc Baines of Kingly Books, featuring myself, Sandra and John from Metaphrog, and Arne Bellstorf  from Germany, which tackled the subject of comics art, culture and language.

Now before I start rabbiting on I’d just like to get a bit of a sense of the audience, because I need to know who I’m talking to - I know I’ve got some friends in the audience. Could you put up your hands, people in the audience who have actually read a graphic novel… Interesting - there are people here who haven’t but the majority have. I’d also like to know how many of you here are French and how many German. Pretty much an even split, wonderful, thank you. You might like to know the particular aptness, appropriateness, of us holding this in the Goethe Institut. Because in around 1827 when Goethe was near the end of his life in his 80s he was one of the first to really spot the potential of comics; at the time he’d been sent one of the first longform prototype graphic novels, it was called Les Aventures de Monsieur Vieux-Bois which was translated into English eventually as the Adventures of Mister Oldbuck.

At the time Goethe was really excited about this new kind of storytelling; the artist, the creator of this early graphic novel was a chap called Rodolphe Töpffer who lived in Geneva and he was a teacher - quite a respected teacher of teenage pupils - and he was realising he couldn’t particularly draw that brilliantly and he couldn’t write that brilliantly, but if he put the two together he could do something special, something that was perhaps different and better from either of the two seperate parts, but at the time, 1827, he got a very positive response: Goethe actually said with a better storyline, a stronger storyline there’s no limit to what could come out of this new artform. Goethe was very, very positive and encouraged him to publish this book which was in only sketch form and not in print.


Les Aventures de Monsieur Vieux-Bois
by Rodolphe Töpffer

Interestingly at the time Töpffer was awaiting promotion within the educational establishment in Geneva and felt it would not exactly help his advancement if he was seen to be the author of a rather flippant and satirical comics strip story; the story itself is actually a long kind of romp with a hopeless romantic seeking his beloved and eventually actually getting his beloved, but along the way having all kinds of incidents; it’s a very clever extended narrative in pictures and words. So he didn’t in fact he didn’t publish it for several years, not until 1833, six years later. Once he got his advancement and felt a bit more secure he did it in a very small edition, kind of privately published, but from there that book went on to be published and pirated in France, in England and even in America there was a version of it published in a kind comic book format.

It really is seen as one of the key turning points in the advancement of the comics language because Töpffer didn’t just produce comics he also wrote about them. He wrote several essays, particularly about physiognomy; that the way we look tells you about your character, so if someone looks particularly like a fox they might be sly, someone who looks like a monkey might be mischievous, or a pig might be greedy and a glutton. These ideas, which, to us, sound rather kind of simplistic and a bit insulting, were almost a science at the time, the idea that in time caricaturing people by their animal types was a way of revealing personality, but he also, in writing about cartooning and comics, did actually say he could see the potential of this to become a really interesting developing medium. In the hands of the right person this strange mixture of not perfect writing and not perfect drawing created something very, very special.

It took many years for comics to develop, even though Töpffer was a pioneer and his work was pirated it took a while for people to learn how to do it and took a while also for the audience to grow up for it, but here we are today in 2006 in a Goethe Institut and I’m sure somewhere Goethe is going yes, see, I told you comics were going to be an amazing artform. But there is still a great deal of scepticism which we still face; people who like myself who are very enthusiastic about comics - not I should add to the exclusion of loving art and real books and supposedly proper textbooks or music or anything else, I’m not a complete obsessive about comics - but I am passionate about them because I do think they tend to get rather a poor press and also people tend to make up their minds about comics perhaps from an very early bad experience; perhaps they didn’t like them when they were young, perhaps their parents didn’t encourage them to read them.

I do know that people, even quite young people, find them quite hard to read; part of our discussion today is going to be about the language of comics, how words are used in comics, the whole problem of translation of comics from one culture and language to another. And the fact is that for many people it is a tough artform to get into if you are completely new to it; there are all kinds of codes and language and techniques that go on in a comics page, it is more complex than you might think. The irony is that for many people they will describe a comic as very simple: it’s for people who can’t read very well, it’s for children, it’s simple. But if you give them a comic, especially one of the more sophisticated graphic novels we’re talking about today, they will find it very hard to understand what is going on, to get all of the nuances and the interplay of words and pictures which go on from panel to panel.

And I actually sympathise with this completely, because if you open a graphic novel or a comic the first thing you see if you are not used to them is a lot of people talking at the same time, perhaps the same people drawn several times. It’s very noisy, unless of course it is a silent comic, but if its got dialogue and action it’s a very busy, overwhelming thing for some people to take in. Also you have to, of course, be able to take in a lot but also focus very specifically from one panel to the next as you read through the page and for some people this requires a lot of concentration compared to the simplicity of a nice uniform column of text neatly typeset in a work of fiction or non-fiction, a typeset book, or compared to a film, where we all know the language of film and we can just sit down and it just slips over us and we’re manipulated and moved and it works very easily. Comics are surprisingly demanding and difficult to read and don’t feel worried if there are people in the audience here who have tried them and gone I’m not terribly sure they’re quite for me because I much prefer knowing where I am with a nice column of text. Comics are worth making the effort, some are.

The point is that we are now, I think, going through a new golden age of comics, a golden age when a lot of amazing work is being produced internationally and also not being hidden away in different cultures, it’s being translated, it’s available on the internet, there’s a great deal more movement and interaction and cross-pollination of styles and stories at the moment. We’re also benefiting from a new interest in the serious academic and literary and art world; quite why this is, is interesting to speculate. I think part of it is that it has taken a long time for comics, even though they have been around well before cinema, I mean they go right back as I say to at least the early 1800s, if not even earlier - you can go right back if you want to - which I won’t - right back to hieroglyphics and cave paintings etc, but they have been around a long time, they are a very clever way, a very sophisticated way of communicating narrative and stories and ideas in a flow of pictures, sometimes with text.

But it’s only been in recent years we’ve been able to allow comics artists and creators to step off the one thing which has really held the medium back, above all, which is the need to produce on a kind of factory, production level, literally an assembly line. Most comics are still produced in this way but the fact is it is very tough for a creative artist or writer working in comics to produce really outstanding work on a treadmill. As you may be aware most comics have been published as monthlies or weeklies or they appear in a newspaper strip in your daily paper or a Sunday paper and there is always that demand of a deadline. There’s never a chance actually, as you would have if you were writing a work of fiction, a book, a novel for example, where you can actually step back and go no, I need to rework this, rethink it, I need more time.

Another restriction of the assembly line process of course is the format of a comic; it’s expected a newspaper strip will always be the same size or an episode of a story will be the same number of pages. Now if you can imagine a modern novelist being expected only ever to write a thousand words for each chapter, each chapter must only be ten pages long for example. Stories simply don’t evolve this way, they are going to be organic and real and develop in the way they should develop, with a freedom of creativity; you have to step off that kind of production process. And there were fortunately several artists in recent years who have been able to do this.

Perhaps the most important innovation of this sort happened in the 60s with the underground comics, so-called alternative, underground artists, lead in America on the West Coast by people like Robert Crumb who you might have heard of I hope, and others who said we’re going to take control of comics, its not going to be run by the big corporations, the big powerful publishers like Marvel and DC and Archie Comics. It’s not going to be run also by a Comics Code which controls the content of comics and decides you can’t show sex, you can’t show divorce, you can’t show adultery, you can’t possibly disrespect authority. By taking control of the art form, by literally saying we’re going to publish them ourselves or find sympathetic hippy types basically to produce comics through a different channel it allowed comics suddenly to take on more serious and more adult subject matter and also to be free of that kind of deadline driven pressure. And as a result some remarkable comics emerged; Crumb is probably the most famous artist of this, he was actually exhibited last year in the Whitechapel Gallery which is an example of his prestige as an artist now in the 21st century. He’s been called the Breughel of the 20th century by Robert Hughes.


Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary
by Justin Green

But one of the most important examples within the underground and a key work for what ties in to what we are talking about today was Justin Green in 1972 and his full length 40-something page essentially graphic novel called Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary; it’s a great title. It was a very shocking for its time story of his own childhood, being raised by very strict Catholic nuns in a school and they various traumas and bizarre beliefs which were engendered in him by having this strict Catholic upbringing, which means his whole attitude to faith and also towards sexuality became very distorted and strange. And in many ways the autobiographical comic was essentially born in ‘72 under the pen of Justin Green, using comics as kind of therapy or catharsis to explore his experiences and feelings in a very direct and unmediated form.

That connects it entirely to what has happened since ‘72; Justin Green in particular was a big influence on both Crumb and on Art Spiegelman - hands up here people who have read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, anyone here aware of that? Very few who aren’t, that’s very encouraging to hear. For many people that has been the turning point in their discovery of comics and Spiegelman has described Justin Green as being the equivalent to JRR Tolkien in terms of being the inventor essentially of the autobiographical confessional comics form. And from this underground comics spread around the world; there was a whole movement of this kind of thing going on in the 60s and 70s where artists were taking control of comics, they were actually saying I want to produce something much more personal, that means more to me, it doesn’t just fit into the conventional stereotypes of popular funny characters, forgettable, ephemeral, fantasy adventures, something that has a little bit more of the author – literally the auteur comic is being born at this time. And it’s taken until now, until the 21st century for us to see the results of this, whether in Germany, France, Britain or America it is only now, I think, we’re seeing this movement coming to fruition.

We are obviously going to consider the difference between comics in France and Germany in particular and put them into an international context and it is puzzling that when you have someone like Goethe being such a huge admirer of comics and when you have Wilhelm Busch who was literally one of the most important developers of comics in the 19th century with Max & Moritz  and his many other illustrated strips you would think that Germany would surely be one of the main countries producing some of the best comics in the world… but somewhere along the line, even although Germany has had important artists through the 20th century, a lot of conservatism and scepticism about comics and quite negative views and even suppression has held comics back in a way that hasn’t happened, quite obviously, in France.


The Little Honey Thieves
by Wilhelm Busch

In France - and we must remember of course that France really should be lumped in a sense with French-speaking Belgium as well because the two cultures are extremely close in terms of their bande dessinée culture, (bande dessinée meaning ‘designed strip’). There the market over the last ten years has grown exponentially year on year and everyone is expecting it to calm down a bit, please, because there are only so many books anyone can possibly buy. But literally every year for the past year more titles have been published until the point where, over the previous year, 2005, there were over 3,000 new books published, which of course vary from a little manga, a Japanese comic put into French to a huge, beautiful hardback French album. France still has some of the largest sales figures for comics, certainly in Europe, and for many artist it is the Mecca, it’s the place you try to sell your work to because that is where you will get big sales.

At the same time in Germany we’ve seen over the last five or ten year some important developments of the more alternative, independent and literary approach to comics take off, with magazines like Strapazin in particular run by David Basler out of Zürich has been a really important outlet for artists who work on long, substantial stories in a magazine format; it also keeps going by having a very clever technique of running little illustrated carton adverts in the back of the magazine which finances the whole enterprise. And Strapazin has a kind of literary and satirical streak to its work… it continues that beautifully crisp and dramatically stark black and white art which German comics creators are so good at.

I think this has come with important new publishers, perhaps the most important of them all being Reprodukt who are publishing our guest tonight, Arne Bellstorf‘s work. Reprodukt have been producing some really important homegrown material in Germany as well as translating some of the best international authors, especially those from America, of this new, alternative, 90s avant-garde. And as a result of this I think we’re seeing in Germany much more interest because suddenly there are comics that are dealing with subtle, everyday human emotions, the problems of alienation, adolescence, of relationships - themes we’re not used to seeing perhaps if you expect comics just to be a light, entertaining, forgettable read.


Acht, Neun, Zehn
by Arne Bellstorf

And reflecting that example has been the growth at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where over the last five or six years there has been a focus on comics, which began as an experiment and proved so successful that now the Frankfurt Book Fair, the biggest book fair certainly I’m aware of, has a major focus on comics every year as the whole artform and medium has taken off. Other festivals like the Leipzig Book Fair as well are now promoting comics in a literary context. We also have in Germany a number of exhibitions which have shown comic art alongside so-called fine art, showing the dialogue and appropriation going on between the two. This is also I think important because people need to realise that the art world will occasionally borrow and blow-up and distort and play with the icons and characters and stylistic approaches of comic characters and artist, but in many ways the dialogue is more interesting in the opposite direction, where you see what comics take from fine art, what they can use to actually develop their artistic styles, their sequences, their illustrative approaches. It means that there’s an enormous wealth of material that can be brought from fine art into comics.

Now, I think I have talked enough for now, but we should just clarify the position of the markets at the moment. In terms of the English language market, in many ways French and German comics are still pretty much a mystery. There are very few authors who have made a big impact in translation, unfortunately. Certainly in the American market, which of course is another important one on the world scale, it’s been tough for European comics to really cross over and have a big impact. Even someone as important as Jean Giraud or Moebius, or Enki Bilal for example, have not really managed to achieve the high profile they should deserve, and currently we’re seeing a new wave of French artists - literally its called the nouvelle vague of bande dessinée from France - it’s people like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, whose work is on the wall down there… who are seeing their work published in English and what’s interesting when they are appearing in English, they are not appearing in this format: the West has a real problem with this classic French format.

This format, which on the one hand looks like an art book - which it is, a beautifully produced hardback - but to many in the English language world it also looks like a wipe-clean children’s book; it has associations with children’s literature and however lovely the hardback is it is a very impractical and certainly unpopular format when it comes to looking at comics in Britain and America. So when for example we look at this marvellous Isaac The Pirate historical series by Christophe Blain translated into English, they are putting two albums together so you get more pages and then reducing them down to a more compact, more conventional format. And actually the work doesn’t suffer too badly; it is obviously nicer in the larger, more luxuriant scale, but this does mean you get a longer, more substantial read. You get two albums in one for less than the price of one of these [hardback] albums. And that seems to be the way these kinds of comics will cross over in English now, in graphic novel format, in a smaller size and often with more albums compiled, and that’s an encouraging step I think.


Issac The Pirate
by Christophe Blain

Another example is this remarkable graphic novel from L’Association - I should perhaps mention that as well as the independent publishers and artists taking control themselves, the other important development since 1990, lead really by this group, is the idea of artist’s collectives; artists forming groups and establishing their own publishing houses. This has happened across Europe; there are parallels to L’Association sprung up across the world, but particularly across Europe, inspired by the model of this group in France, who basically said we’re not going to try and sell our books to the conventional, standard publishers. We don’t have to work in this colour, Asterix or Tintin sort of format all the time, limited to 48 pages, limited to being adventure stories and recurring characters, we can do our own one-off projects which are special to us and personal to us.

In the case of David B over the course of six albums I think it was, produced a remarkable account of his childhood with his older brother who is epileptic. The story mixes a lot of realism - a lot of it is documentary and true to life - with remarkable flights of dreams and nightmares and evocations of the effects of his brother’s epilepsy on his whole family. This is very private, personal material, material which in many ways you might say is sensitive, perhaps too sensitive to reveal in comics; we’re not used to artists being as revealing about themselves as they are now being in comics. But the power of the graphic novel compared perhaps to a written text version is you are seeing an artist working his or her ideas or problems out in a kind of hand-written, hand-drawn form. And especially for David B the whole process is also a way of explaining how he came to create his own fantasy world; for him, dealing with his brother’s illness resulted in him becoming an artist; it’s as much a story about him becoming an artist as it is his brother seeking and sadly never finding a cure.


Epileptic
by David B.

Now when this book was published in France it came out in six separate albums, but brilliantly for the English language edition it was shrunk down again a little bit, but then all six were put into one 300-page doorstop. And this is actually the way comics marketing has got to go - we’re all being told we must watch this, we must go and see this film, have you got time to watch that TV programme? We are inundated with media choice and media diversity and we can’t wait around for perhaps six albums to come out over six years, we can’t waste time going out trying to find episodes of things scattered around places, we want to get the whole story. And certainly something as substantial as this story, which came out in English as Epileptic, they really work, they have to work as a complete work of substance.

And we now have emerging, not just in English but in French and German as these books are translated, there is a whole circulation of these remarkable works, we have in each country a library, a really substantial library where if anyone says I don’t think very much of comics you can say well what about all these. Not just one or two but possibly 20, 50, 100 remarkable comics, some perhaps from abroad, but many also from artists working in each country’s culture. I believe we are actually in a remarkable golden age; perhaps we don’t realise it because it is still a struggle. We have to remember for many of the artists who produce this work they aren’t necessarily going to be paid a lot up front; it is a very strange thing to dedicate yourself to, as we might hear later on when we talk with Sandra and John of Metaphrog and Arne, our guest from Hamburg. The choice of doing comics is a tough one, they require a lot of work, much more than you might realise - you might read a page of a comic in a only few minutes but you don’t perhaps realise how much effort and thought has had to be poured into that, because the slightest wrong position of a character, the slightest change in a facial expression, an extra line on someone’s brow, will mislead you as to what they are feeling or what the artist wants to convey.


Detail from Wingnutz in Uninked
by Chris Ware

It’s a torturous process producing comics and one wonders sometimes why people do it - perhaps we’ll find out this evening - but I believe one of the main reasons must be because unlike almost any other medium, certainly unlike any other visual narrative medium, comics allow an artist or writer working together or separately, an extraordinary amount of control, an extraordinary amount of creative freedom. And also because we’re still at the relatively early stages, even now after two centuries since Goethe recommended comics as a promising art form, we’re still discovering how they work. If you’ve seen the work of people like Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, David B, Marjane Satrapi, they’re all still at the front line. I can think on few other artforms - much as I love film and love novels and non fiction etc - generally my excitement about comics is at its highest because we are still discovering what they can do. Because it seems to me self-evident that if you have so much richness in text and we know already also enormous variety, diversity and quality in the visual world if we out them together we can produce marvels.

Posted: February 17, 2008

Paul Gravett’s talk was recorded and kindly transcribed by Joe Gordon and first appeared on the Forbidden Planet International Blog in November 2006.

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