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Stripped at Edinburgh Book Festival:

A New Programme & Award

This August’s 30th Edinburgh International Book Festival is really pushing the boat out for comics and graphic novels with Stripped, its most ambitious line-up of guests and events. Major creators like Posy Simmonds, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Rutu Modan, Mary and Bryan Talbot, Warren Pleece, Tom Gauld, Jon McNaught, Hannah Berry and so many more pack the schedule. The Festival has also published a separate Stripped programme (above), appropriately on newsprint and in a comic-book format. I was asked to write a piece for this, which you can read below. You can also download a pdf of the programme. See you there! 

How successful has the re-branding of comics as graphic novels been? It has undoubtedly helped their acceptance into bookshops, libraries, schools, universities (Britain has three peer-reviewed academic journals about them and Dundee offers an M. Litt in Comics Studies) and of course into literary circles, including the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF). The truth is, open their pages and, when all is said and done, graphic novels are still comics, telling their stories through pictures with or without a text accompaniment.

Pioneers and prototypes date back much earlier, but the term ‘graphic novel’ in English has been around for nearly 50 years, first coined by American critic and dealer Richard Kyle in 1964. He wanted to galvanise English-language comics creators to envision their work not in throwaway newspapers or monthly periodicals, but in substantial books, to be kept in print and kept to re-read, like the bande dessinée albums and manga paperbacks Kyle was importing from France and Japan.

Real change in cultural attitudes takes time. The novelty of the novel itself was derided and dismissed by many at first. A Pulitzer prize, a Guardian First Novel Award, two nominees and one winner in the 2012 Costa Awards, are some of the tipping points that are irreversibly putting graphic novels on the literary map. So too is this year’s 30th Edinburgh International Book Festival’s ambitious, wide-ranging programme of guests and events for all ages and interests, Stripped, and the introduction of the 9th Art Award for Graphic Literature for the best English-language graphic novel from around the world. The award is given to the best full-length graphic novel published between May 2012 and July 2013. Anyone who has published a graphic novel in English can enter, including small press and larger publishers. Entries will be judged by Paul Gravett, Hannah McGill, Adrian Searle and Mary Talbot with a casting vote to John McShane, chair of Graphic Scotland.  The awards ceremony will take place on Sunday August 25th.

Far from underestimating the reader’s imagination, graphic novelists rely on it to fill in those gaps they leave between the panels and to read the images they put inside the panels as attentively and allusively as their words. As hard-wired as flickering cave paintings, as cutting-edge as the next digital platform, 21st century global comics can take you anywhere. A fantastical otherworld of epic proportions or a fleeting moment of everyday magic. An erotic reverie in an Austrian luxury hotel before the outbreak of the First World War or a harrowing first-hand documentary on unreported traumas from today’s warzones. A reassuring return to familiar favourites and formulas or a challenging leap outside your comfort zone. A voyage around the lives and minds of famous figures, myths and icons or of someone as ordinary and extraordinary as you.

Humanity has already done so much in words, and so much in pictures. The best graphic novels and comics give us a glimpse of what more we can still do, when we put them together. In 1969, John Updike, an enthusiastic connoisseur of comics and a cartoonist manqué himself, addressed the Bristol Literary Society on ‘The Death of the Novel’. Instead of predicting its imminent demise, he speculated, “I see no intrinsic why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic-strip novel masterpiece.” Updike lived to see those masterpieces arise. If you have yet to explore them, I envy you as they reward and enrich your reading. If you are already enjoying them, I encourage you never to stop exploring and surprising yourself. There is abundance now. Wonders await you.


Posted: July 1, 2013

This Article was published in the programme of Stripped.

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Stripped Festival
Edinburgh International Book Festival
9th Art Award for Graphic Literature

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