Why the Graphic Novel? Panel coverage from The London Book Fair 2015

CA - Why the Graphic Novel Why the Graphic Novel? What Comics can do that Other Forms Can’t. 
The panel are very much from the literary side of the graphic novel spectrum – and understandably so. Of course the possibilities of the format have been explored by pioneers in the mainstream but the indie / literary scene is where experimentation and new methods of storytelling is encouraged. We have mainstay of the comic’s scene and Escape Books publisher Paul Gravett chairing, and on the panel: Julie Birmant and Clement Oubrerie, creators of Pablo (a biography of Picasso, Self Made Hero), Karrie Fransman (Jonathan Cape – The House that Groaned and Death of the Artist) and Paul (B) Rainey (There’s No Time Like the Present, Escape Books).

Before we’re onto the subject of what Birmant and Oubrerie’s Pablo demonstrates in terms of the medium’s potential we’re told of what it brings to the understanding of Picasso. Picasso had tried to hide his younger years from the public and this period in his life was a key topic for Birmant to research and narrate informatively within her script. Of particular interest is his relationship with a young woman which had been all but expunged from history…

The creators are both French and something I took from this and subsequent panels was just how different the comic scene is in other countries. I hadn’t realised just how much a part of French culture – and continental Europe generally – sequential art was. In France particularly it’s a massive scene with a staggering output. The genre bias to the fantastical and science fictional is a curiously Anglo-American phenomena, along with the associated retarded notion that ‘comics are just for kids’. CA - LBF - Pablo interior art 1

Yet the long tradition in France has perhaps led also to a confined tradition of storytelling. Both Birmant and Oubrerie talk more of a sense of the confines of the medium, yet how those confines inform and guide their work. Oubrerie expresses a decided preference for constraints and rules. Their tradition informs of the necessity – or at least a preference – for brevity, of using the form to communicate as much in as short a space and / or time as possible (Oubrerie also talks of rhythm, for him a key difference between the novel and the graphic novel).

Paul Gravett raises Japanese Manga by way of comparison: how it is unfettered, and how there is a different sense of pace and whole series of pages can be given over to nothing more dynamic than the path of a struck golf ball. Indeed pace is raised, usually by criticism of ‘decompressed’ sequences, on the Anglo-American scene when it seems there’s a good deal of filler in what is expected to be an action-driven comic. Gravett notes also that France has a crisis of overproduction with some 5k comics coming out a month. Perhaps the longer and better standing tradition in France has led to a greater unconscious sense of the traditional – that, while there are absolutely highly creative use of the medium, there’s less experimenting or breaking of perceived rules.

CA - LBF - Pablo interior art 2 He moves on to the heart of the subject of the panel, noting how Pablo moves between registers, moving from the more to the less real, from the literal to the metaphorical, and back again. He illustrates the point with the particular example of a dream sequence in Picasso. It’s the dream of Fernande, Pablo’s young lover, and manifests itself in the nightmare-scape of an unknown mountain. As the chair notes strangeness is something comics do especially well.

On reflection, the Anglo-American comic-reading audience is likely to be more open to such devices for one thing. On the other hand the experimentation of, for example, Vertigo Comics (before and after they chose the name) had ‘literal representations’ of dream (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) and the hallucinogenic worlds of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison who – with their co-creating artists – explored the potential of the medium for such portrayals and more. Representation of the unreal has been close to, if not at, the heart of comics for some time, the audience benefiting from the immediacy of the visual aspect where the written form is more liable to bloated text or self-categorisation (magic realism), as well as their own receptivity.

Returning to the subject of pace, Paul notes that comics can convey and even articulate silence in a way that prose is simply incapable of. It’s an astute observation though, while we’re mulling that over, we’re on to Paul Rainey, whose There’s No Time Like the Present Gravett’s Escape Books has just published. CGP - Apr - There's No Time Like the Present
As the publisher commends it, TNTLTP holds the honour of being the first graphic novel set in Milton Keynes. It’s based on the SF conceit of the existence of time travel, with general access to the ultranet from which information from the future may be downloaded.

Rainey is direct about the fact that he couldn’t write a novel: comics are his medium of choice and relates them to his preferred music, again with reference to their rhythm as Clement Oubrerie did earlier. Earlier the comparison to film was made and the chair does so again noting that there are far fewer influences to sully the original vision. In other words a comic partakes of the same visual sequencing as a film but with only a few – even one – creators, the cost factors and executive control of the latter won’t compromise the result.

We move now to Karrie Fransman whose second graphic novel ‘Death of the Artist’ came out in March. Being entirely unfamiliar with her work beyond this and her also highly regarded first graphic novel The House that Groaned, the examples Paul brings onto the screen are jaw-dropping. The words ‘sequential art’ tend to arise more in discussions of literary comics and critique of the medium generally – but these demand a rapid redefinition of what sequential art can be. The examples are sequential sculptures. The first is a story of a woman who turns her dead husband into a hatstand; the second – using her childhood doll’s house – I learn later, is a tale of the urban legend of Bloody Mary (mirrors, saying names three times, horrible results). But each example follows traditional narrative sequencing, left-right top to bottom, with the frame or rooms as the case may be. CA - KF - Dolls House
‘Bloody Mary’ by Karrie Fransman – see our Profile of Karrie for more of this and other work…

Earlier we heard of Oubrerie’s preference for rules and confines in which to work. Karrie Fransman instead expresses that she’s a creative control freak. For this reason it’s as well, given the earlier film-comics comparison, that comics are her chosen form, and perhaps no surprise that it is, or that she is both writer and artist of her work. Karrie tells us of how she used comics to communicate with international artists when no common spoken language was shared at a meeting. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who’d have liked a fly-on-the-wall view of that exchange!

Certainly Karrie’s work makes use of the strange that was discussed earlier, unless a woman who literally blends into her furniture is normal to you. Comics have levels, she comments: you can go back and re-read and discover more.

By way of some conclusion Paul Gravett says how we know what we can do with words. We know what we can do with pictures. We’re still exploring what we can do with the two together.


So why the Graphic Novel?

Well it’s perhaps a little too far to say that comics can do things that other forms can’t entirely. But there are some things it does exceptionally well which, at least from what was covered in this panel, could be summarised as: Nuanced control of pace. Suitability for – and audience leniency toward – the portrayal of the abstract. Maintaining coherence of vision to the final product.

The medium has its own constraints but many of these are constructions taken in by the creator. Some may find these traditional parameters useful in exploring its potential to express a given story or theme. Others may choose to challenge and deconstruct them in pursuit of the same. Artistic skill or an artist’s involvement is of course required; but with that in place the comic is a swift and agile beast.

From this and the other comic panels I attended at the London Book Fair, I came away with a whole new feeling of the dizzying and exhilarating potential of the form.


More articles from the London Book Fair 2015:

A Coffee with… KARRIE FRANSMAN! At the London Book Fair 2015

A Panel and Chat with Comic Publisher TPub’s Neil Gibson

The London Book Fair: An Author’s Perspective by Chele Cooke