Graphic Novels: The Last Ten Years (and the Next) – Panel coverage at the London Book Fair 2017

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Cross Media Theatre is so packed – this is only one of two panels ton comics / graphic novels this year. But SelfMadeHero MD Emma Hayley, writer David Hine, Nibbies Bookseller of the Year nominee Gosh!’s Steve Walsh, and host Panel Borders broadcaster Alex Fitch recline rather more comfortably and are ready to go.

There are pretty much two guaranteed points that are made at every such panel. The first glaring two-pronged beast comes later in this discussion and incidentally: Comics Are a Medium Not A Genre and, despite the Anglophone superheroic genre-dominance from the US, Comics Aren’t Just for Kids.

[*** These are, in fact, so common I’m coining (you read them here first!) CAMNAG and CAJ4K 😉 ***]

The second point necessarily comes first for this panel: that what is usually classified as a graphic novel is actually a comic collection rather than – generally distinguished by the term original graphic novel – a work published in its entirety in its first visit to print.

This is a panel about the latter and what’s interesting to me is that our host locates its earliest starting point with sequential non-fiction in the form of Richard Appiganesi’s ‘for Beginners’ range (now ‘Introducing’ from Icon). It’s interesting because, aside from being non-fictional, it started decades before I was aware of it, in 1974 – and I spent three years in retail continually promoting the series! Anyway…

 

 

Alex takes us on a swift tour of the up and down swings of the market through the establishment of treasured indie Knockabout (75), the legendary 2000 AD (77) and distributor-publisher Titan (81), through problem periods in the 90s and the 00s, arriving in the late 00’s with RH’s Jonathan Cape producing OGNs, then the coming of SelfMadeHero (all one word people!) and arty indie NoBrow.

So still then a decade prior to today Alex Fitch asks what the biggest changes have been over the last 10 years?

David Hine (now with reference to Comics-are-a-medium) begins with it being the diversity of genre. Yes he’s an established pro with backlist collections and OGNs with Marvel and DC as well as SelfMadeHero and others, but he’s right to say that if there’s something you want to put out there is now a place for it. Emma Hayley’s SelfMadeHero has been a major influencer in that regard and there’s general agreement on this amongst the panel.

 

 

 

Talking on Gosh! Comics which is 31 years old this year, I’m amongst the hand-raisers who remember that the London indie mainstay was once at a different location to its current premises on a Soho corner. I’m under the impression that, like many changes on and around the old-school Charing Cross Road print retail scene, the move was due to uplifts in rents. Yet more positively Steve Walsh tells us that it actually improved sales, now being within a more ‘shoppy’ area with a built in market and post-production industry customers besides the visitors. (Everyone grins either way at Alex’s wry comment that they’re surrounded by art bookshops that purvey art books downstairs and porn upstairs – where they have arty, indie and children’s comic books on the ground floor and superhero titles in their basement.)

From a publisher’s perspective Emma Hayley has a positive outlook and we’re told how the graphic novel market has been growing 10% year on year basically every year. As a creator David H has a more cautionary outlook that applies similarly across music, illustration, film: that there’s more material being produced in comics but less money being made. With greater output than market growth is fragmentation of profits. Creators have to ‘scrabble about’ for work to keep an income coming in.

But on SelfMadeHero Steve Walsh commends them for the way they’ve reinvested their profits from their inaugural and bestselling Manga Shakespeare, into European titles in translation and entirely original material when they could have just done more of the same.

 

As Emma tells us some of their selections were never going to be huge sellers, but you balance the real earners with bringing excellent and important works into print. Aside from direct commercial advantage this has clearly been a powerful message for their brand. Nice also that they get regular coverage in the TLS: take that Marvel and DC!

They’re also especially mindful of production values, something that is definitely important to their existing creators and an attractive message to potential ‘publishees’ in future.

We’re into questions from the audience and move onto the subject of manga. And, not that Graphic Novels haven’t been booming, but it’s manga that was exploding over the same period – and there’s an interesting relationship between. Because the western GN boom has –in no small part – come from the aforementioned diversity of output, finally expanding beyond the superhero genre. But manga brought with it a whole diversity in its own right which, as expressed in the Q&A, turned potential female readers into actually readers and buyers. Marvel’s Ms Marvel is of course rightly brought up and they’ve certainly led the way next to arch-rivals DC in bringing through material for female and non-white audiences.

On this note of course the Angouleme controversy is raised – the subject of a panel convened and hosted by Emma H at last year’s LBF. David Hine notes that there’s a very male dominated press in France which, despite a diverse output in the Graphic Novel media that always was and continues to be, there was almost zero recognition of the contribution or even existence of female creators.

 

The questions and conversation turns to e-books, something that certainly caused greater concern for the wider print industry though now the panic seems to have subsided as digital and print have found their respective places. But if there are any remaining fears of the print form of books being on its way out the comic / graphic novel trade have put such worries well and truly to bed. The mechanics of reading the form don’t translate anywhere near so well to digital as Steven Walsh attests: the composition (or construction – David Hine) of the narrative, especially the splash pages, are clunky and lack the impact of print. There are digital native comics that, as I’ve gathered at a prior year at LBF, work well in their own right. But in the world of the Graphic Novel print is king.

Here’s to another ten years!

Tim Bayley

@TimBayley1

 

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Check out more great LBF articles from 2016:

A Coffee with Abaddon & Solaris at the London Book Fair…

Women in Comics: Is the Graphic Novel Industry Failing to Recognise Female Creators? Panel at LBF 2016

A Coffee with… Deborah Install at the London Book Fair!

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 1

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 2

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 3

A Coffee with Hodder Editor Anne Perry at The London Book Fair!