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The Scottish Manga:

Festive Moods From EIBF 2008

This year’s brochure listing events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival included the following significant sidebar announcement:

"An intricate blend of image and text, the best graphic novels rival poetry and film in their lyrical composition and depth. All of human experience is brought to life with insight, imagination and page-turning narrative. After the success of our events last year our programme again features some of the best artists working in the field of graphic novels who offer further inspiration and insight. Come and find out why graphic novels have become one of today’s most exciting artforms, taking on the world we live in and reflecting it back to us in a thousand different ways - as engaging and powerful as the best fiction."

With Hannah Berry, Gary Erskine, Dave McKean, Posy Simmonds and Bryan Talbot all on the guest list, graphic novels have substantially invaded this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF), after last year’s hesitant inclusion of a single chat between Ian Rankin and Alan Grant tucked away at 4.30pm and aimed at a supposed "teen" audience. Last year under the "One Book - One Edinburgh" banner, Grant and Orkney-based Judge Dredd artist Cam Kennedy adapted Edinburgh literary hero Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped into a full-colour graphic novel, as part of the city’s celebration of its literary heritage. To emphasise the Scottish connections, there was even a BroadScots edition issued, Kidnappit. This year they took on Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde. In fact, another interpretation is in the works for next year in the Eye Classics line from SelfMadeHero by Andrzej Klimowski and his wife Danusja Schejbal. I’m sure there’s room for more, not forgetting Lorenzo Mattotti‘s lustrous pastel colours on his version from NBM.

Jekyll & Hyde
by Cam Kennedy

Thinking back, the last time I’d been invited to the EIBF was back in 1990 when I chaired a discussion with Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, creating a buzz because of the first all-original hardback Bat-blockbuster in 1989, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth, although McKean was eager to move firmly away from all the superheroics by that point. Since then, I don’t think the Festival has paid all that much attention to the graphic novel’s ascendence and evolution, much less to the massive rise of manga here. These two trends finally caught the programmers’ attention through the British Council in Scotland. Every two years they link with EIBF to invite delegates in publishing from all over the world to learn from and liaise with authors, publishers and others in the book world. For the first of their programme of events, I was invited to host and speak in a panel on Manga Shakespeare, the series of adaptations from SelfMadeHero, joining publisher Emma Hayley and artist Robert Deas. It proved to be the perfect different and surprising subject to kick off their Bookcase programme. What could be more British than the Bard, or more cutting-edge and global than manga? It was weird to be back in the very same tent and helping to bring manga, actually British-made, for the first time to the festival.

Arriving early with Emma Hayley, I registered and enjoyed the comforts of the authors’ yurt or Mongolian-style retreat, the "Green Room" away from press and public, before exploring the bookshops and signing areas. The majority of graphic novels were shelved at the back in their own section of the main bookshop, a reasonable selection based mainly on the authors attending. It’s clear that this literary fest is still on a learning curve about how and what to stock as their manager admitted to not being all that familiar with the genre and relying on advice from the local Forbidden Planet. Considering how rich the range is of current graphic novels for children, the smattering in the kids’ bookshop was rather thin, a single bookshelf bay with the not entirely appropriate Tale Of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot on the top shelf.

Graphic novels on sale at the EIBF

Over drinks I met up with Doug Wallace, promotions dynamo for SMH, and Lincoln-based artist Robert Deas (rhymes with ‘please’), illustrator of their version of "The Scottish Play". Traditionally, superstition warns against any mention of that play by name in case disaster strikes and we did consider banning the "M" word during the panel but ultimately there was no avoiding it. Doug was pleased to see some good coverage of the panel in The List‘s Festival edition, the city’s bi-weekly equivalent of Time Out, with a full-page Deas image highlighting the beginning of the Book Festival’s section and a two-page article titled "No more heroes?" with a big picture of The Hulk, odd considering that superheroes play virtually no role in the festival’s related events.  There was also a mini-interview with me in the current regular edition of The List.

A Manga Macbeth image introduces
the book festival section in The List‘s big guide.

Emma had some exciting news from Italy, where Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master & Marguerita is such a cult novel that the Italian publisher of their adaptation by the husband-and-wife partnership of Klimowski and Schejbal is being initially serialised in six-or-so page scenes in La Stampa, the first time this prestige paper has run such a graphic novel.

Robert Deas (right) demonstrates his drawing tablet
while Emma Hayley and Paul Gravett answer
audience questions. Photo by Doug Wallace.

Emma voiced some worries at the reception their science fiction-samurai makeover of Macbeth would get from the critics. It transposes the setting and characters to a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, reminiscent of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, which Deas confided is a massive favourite of his (though we’re both pretty wary of Hollywood’s planned live-action remake apparently to star Leonardo DaCaprio - do we need this?). The coverage has been positive, with The Scotsman joking, "Is this a samurai sword I see before me?" Shakespeare expert Dr Andrew Murphy is positive, saying "It’s an interesting project and certainly won’t stop people from reading the original text. In fact, it might actually turn people on to it."  Joined by his wife and 8-week-old baby, driving down Princes Street, Robert Deas celebrated his first month as a full-time comic artist and credited doing the Shakespeare as a great crash course in meeting deadlines and being productive. He showed me some stunning colour visuals of a planet-devouring black hole and big robot bears for Spectrum Black, his new serial for The DFC running to fifteen four-page episodes and hopefully starting later this year. Look out for this one.

art by Robert Deas

One perk of the festival was getting to meet or chat with other invited authors, like Ian Rankin, a familiar face here. He has his first original graphic novel coming out next summer through a new Vertigo Crime imprint, called Dark Entries, a Hellblazer story illustrated by Werther Dell’edera. "I have delivered Hellblazer and the artist is now hard at work… he has about 1,005 frames to go… so don’t hold your breath!" Rankin has been drafted into a commission to help promote and improve literacy among the young in Scotland, in the wake of figures showing that one in five 11-year olds leave primary school unable to read to the minimum standard for their age group. As a vocal reader of comics and now an author of them too, Rankin told me "If I have my way comics will play their part in the literacy debate.  My son has no interest in English at school, but has devoured three Manga Shakespeare graphic novels, plus the graphic novel of Kafka’s The Trial." The scoop is that Rankin is a definite guest of this year’s Comica Festival on November 17th, 2008.

At 8.30pm Susie Nicklin from The British Council in Scotland  got the event underway, welcoming her multi-national guests in the audience. I was curious to ask how many were aware of and had read a manga, and a good number raised their hands. Once I’d introduced myself and my books, and given people a general introduction to the scale and range of Japanese comics and their impact abroad especially on the young, I began my illustrated overview about "Discovering Shakespeare Through Comics: From Classics Illustrated to Manga Shakespeare". While Osamu Tezuka, the great founding father of post-war story manga, never tackled the Bard’s plays, he did adapt Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment into manga in November 1953. In 1990, The Japan Times published an English edition of this, translated by the great American manga authority Frederick Schodt. Though an early work in Tezuka’s more cartoonish, Disneyesque style, this manga demonstrates a lot of his formal innovations and experimental layouts through which manga convey psychological states. I contrasted this with the relatively limited and static approach in Classics Illustrated, confined to only 48 pages. I was curious to look at the different ways that some famous Shakespeare speeches and scenes had been adapted into comics previously and contrast them with the greater flexibility and number of pages and specific techniques found in the Manga Shakespeare series.

Famous Authors Illustrated No. 8
art by Henry Kiefer

Far as I can tell, it was in Famous Authors Illustrated No. 8, October 1950, that Hamlet was first adapted into American comic books. Its cover shows a hardback book with an eye-catching melodramatic graveyard brawl, a scene nowhere to be found in Will’s original. Classics Illustrated didn’t tackle Hamlet until issue 99 in 1952. I singled out the famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy to show the stiff poses, unwieldy dialogue and limited dramatic impact of these two Fifties efforts.

Famous Authors Illustrated No. 8
art by Alex Blum

Dana Dutch adapted this speech for FAI #8 into two highly theatrical panels with art by Henry Kiefer, while Alex Blum devoted a whole page, the top right quarter jammed with one massive Zeppelin-class balloon for the whole speech, albeit with some handy translation footnotes. These did raise some laughs, and it is easy to mock these as "Classics Desecrated" and ignore their extraordinary worldwide success introducing millions to the riches of literature through comics.

by Gianni de Luca

I also showed two subsequent attempts. I’ve written elsewhere about Hamlet by Gianni de Luca from 1975 and his brilliant multiple image and staging techniques, in the De Luca Retrospective exhibition catalogue and European Comic Art No. 1, a new academic journal from Liverpool University Press. The major drawback de Luca was labouring under was the censorship by his Catholic paymasters on the children’s weekly Corriere dei Piccoli who were so concerned about their impressionable readers being upset by any suggestion of suicide that they completely removed those immortal words. I also showed the March 1990 version in First’s Classics Illustrated revival, adapted by Steven Grant and drawn by Tom Mandrake, who wrap up the whole speech in one multi-balloon panel of our tragic hero wandering through a collonade (it’s possible that they had come across de Luca’s version, as he used an astonishing colonnade across two pages, repeating Hamlet from arch to arch).

art by Emma Vieceli

Introducing next the Manga Shakespeare version, I showed Emma Vieceli‘s imaginative use of a doppleganger to entwine Hamlet, a visual metaphor of his divided self, ensnaring him in his doubts and despair. Afterwards over beers with friends from Glasgow, John and Sandra of Metaphrog, Jim Stewart of Ganjaman  and John McShane reminded me of Will Eisner‘s demonstration of how to break down the Hamlet monologue across ten pages and 27 panels, first published in Will Eisner’s The Spirit #29 magazine in June 1981 and reprinted in 1985 with annotations in Comics & Sequential Art. This book is being reissued this autumn with updated text and improved images by W.W. Norton, along with a previously unpublished manual, Expressive Anatomy For Comics & Narrative, Eisner’s very last opus.

Hamlet On A Rooftop
by Will Eisner

A similar contrast comes across if you look at Classics Illustrated‘s Julius Caesar in No. 68, 1947, drawn by Kiefer and their first Shakespeare (CI did only 4 out of their 169 issue run). The famous lines I compared here are Mark Antony’s "Friends, Romans, countrymen" which fill two huge balloons to bursting across most of the top halves of a double-page spread. This carried some scale and impact as such two-page tableaux were pretty unusual in American comic books of the time. It’s quite a contrast, though, to the seven pages and nineteen panels which Mustashrik, a Bangladesh-born, British based artist, uses for the same words for Manga Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Here he can bring out the manipulative drama and cunning timing of Antony’s oration as he stokes the crowd’s fury at the assassination.

Julius Caesar
art by Mustashrik

That classic line from "The Scottish play" - "Is this a dagger I see before me?" - inspired the painted cover to the Classics Illustrated version, No. 128, September 1955, adapted by Lorenz Graham and drawn by Alex Blum. I contrasted this with Manga Shakespeare’s latest edition and other prior attempts. None of these, from Von’s clunky 1982 (reissued by Can of Worms Press  who are branching off into original adaptations of their own) and not even the current Classical Comics version , really unlock the graphic potential and heightened emotions of this nightmarish vision as effectively. Instead, they confine it to one panel or page.

The 1982 version of Hamlet,
the first to incorporate the Bard’s entire text,
art by Von

Robert Deas breaks it down into eight panels across a spread, the opening two without words as the spectral claws of the three witches seize his mind. Even without colour, Deas’ skill with grey tones and transparency effects adds the sort of gripping atmosphere this scene cries out for.

art by Robert Deas

I wrapped up by showing a few more examples of distinct manga devices employed by others in the series, from Sonia Leong’s sweet or demonic "chibi" or cute miniature caricatures in Romeo & Juliet to show them as immature, scheming or angry, to Paul Duffield’s and Kate Brown’s limpid clear lines, tonework and sophisticated use of varied panel forms, bleed pages, patterns and decorative elements.

Romeo & Juliet
art by Sonia Leong

Emma Hayley then spoke about how her publishing house got underway, inspired by the doubling of manga sales in 2004 and bringing in experienced adaptor Richard Appignenesi, famed for the Introducing Series now being repackaged in compact versions from Icon Books, and expert textual adviser Nicholas de Somogyi. As for the artists, she pointed out that commissioning homegrown talents to create manga would have been impossible ten years ago as the influence of Japanese comics and animation was then at a very early stage, but today a whole generation has developed, greatly encouraged by such initiatives as the competitions run by IMAF, the International Manga and Anime Festival, TokyoPop‘s Rising Stars, the Japanese Governent’s International Manga Award and since last year the Embassy of Japan in London’s contest, Manga Jiman or "Manga Pride". On top of these, the annual volumes of Best New Manga and the Sweat Drop group have stimulated young creators to hone their craft for publication.

Emma also spoke about the warm reception the line has received from Shakespeare scholars in Japan, who invited her and Sonia and Emma over to talk about their work. You couldn’t ask for a better endorsement than having the books being used in Japanese university in their Shakespeare courses.

The panel concluded with Robert Deas showing some of his first proposals for Macbeth, from a mecha-style warrior to a urban gangster, before hitting on the science fiction portrayal that was picked and the assorted character designs from floating serpentine witches to a four-armed Macduff and a cyber-ninja deathsquad. It was a revelation to see step-by-step how Deas builds up a page, from rough thumbnails based on Appignanesi’s edited text, then developing detailed exteriors and interiors of his devastated cityscape, its crumbling, leaning skyscrapers circling a huge bomb crater and at its epicentre Macbeth’s traditional-looking Japanese fortress. Then the addition of the characters, tones and effects and finally the balloons. Robert demonstrated his figure drawing live on a tablet as we took questions from the audience. The whole hour was recorded so it should hopefully surface online at some point. The public we met after at the signing session ranged from serious fans to youngsters keen on drawing manga with their Mums and more mature readers intrigued to discover this medium.

The night rolled on in the Spiegeltent, a recreation of a 1920s Belgian ballroom, where later Yishan Li joined me for drinks and live Irish music. She was just back from doing two workshops and was relieved at having completed both second volumes for her French series, Cutie B from Dargaud, and Les Contes du Boudoir Hanté for Delcourt. She kindly gave me the latter trilogy’s first volume, stunning artistry adapting some of the classic tales of the fantastic written by Pu Songling between the 17th and 18th centuries. With the second parts due out in September and October, Yishan will have four albums out in France in one year!

The Golden Record

I spent a leisurely Friday visiting some exhibitions, starting with The Golden Record: Sounds of Earth, a zany group show by comedians and artists at The Collective Gallery. Among the proposed new LP sleeve designs on display were ones by Paul McDevitt and Jim Medway. I also bumped into curator Mel Brimfield, who helmed last year’s The Comic Book Show at the same gallery, which came to Comica. Just up the street I found Tom Hardy, ex of Gosh! London, who with three others created and performed a free comedy sketch show called If You Like, "coming soon to BBC7".

Their Gordon Ramsay satire The Shouty Kitchen and a wild west showdown by Sherriff Punnington using awful fish puns were genuinely inventive and tickled my ribs and others’ in the pub basement audience, with a neat use of Tom’s cartooned titles and settings on a flipchart. I met Nat from Gosh there too.

From there I checked out some shows including "The House Made of Books Has No Windows" by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at The Fruitmarket Gallery, sticking my head inside to breathe in its musty bouquet. And Chad McCail‘s precise, satirical prints (he was in Cult Fiction) such as "Compulsory Education", showing till September 6th at Edinburgh Printmakers.

Compulsory Education
by Chad McCail

I had a great Edinburgh overnighter and wish I could have stayed longer. Here’s to EIBF continuing to spotlight comics, graphic novels and manga in its programme, to appeal both to its existing publics and to others who may not think the festival is for them. It’s yet another turning point in the arrival of this medium on the cultural landscape, and there’s no going back now.

Posted: August 18, 2008


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

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

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

Featured Books

adapted by
Richard Appignanesi
& Robert Deas

adapted by
Richard Appignanesi
& Emma Vieceli

Julius Caesar
adapted by
Richard Appignanesi
& Mustashrik

Romeo & Juliet
adapted by
Richard Appignanesi
& Sonia Leong

Crime & Punishment
adapted by
Osamu Tezuka

The Master & Marguerita
adapted by
Andrzej Klimowski
& Danusja Schejbal

The Trial
adapted by
David Zane Mairowitz
& Chantal Montellier

adapted by
Alan Grant
& Cam Kennedy

Jekyll & Hyde
adapted by
Alan Grant
& Cam Kennedy

Dark Entries
by Ian Rankin
& Werther Dell’edera

Best New Manga Vol 3
edited by Ilya

Cutie B Vol 2
Yishan Li

Les Contes
du Boudoir Hanté Vol 2

by Yishan Li

European Comic Art #1
edited by Laurence Grove,
Mark McKinney & Ann Miller