No more heroes - graphic novels

This article is from 2008


The Book Festival is once again acknowledging the rapid expansion in graphic novels. Henry Northmore chats to a number of comic book guys (and girl) to ask what the future may hold for the superhero

While graphic novels may be still be a minority genre in the literary landscape, they are no longer solely associated with anti-social geeks. Over recent years, the public has latched onto the fact that some amazing stories are being produced in a form they have previously known next to nothing about. This summer nearly every big budget blockbuster is comic-related: Iron Man, Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk and Wanted. Many other films which received huge amounts of critical acclaim in the last few years have been based on comics, opening peoples eyes to the possibilities they offer: Road to Perdition, American Splendor, A History of Violence, 300, Sin City and Persepolis.

Novelists such as Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Jonathan Lethem and even Jodi Picoult have all dabbled in comic writing. A plethora of TV and film writers like Joss Whedon, Jeph Loeb, Kevin Smith, Guy Ritchie, Nicolas Cage and even porn star Jenna Jameson have all tried their hand. But you only have to dig a bit deeper to find astounding works like Maus or The Tale of One Bad Rat which cover the Holocaust and child abuse respectively, which are far from what most people imagine comics capable of dealing with.

‘The brain has two hemispheres, the right hemisphere which takes care of pattern recognition, and the left hemisphere which takes care of what we might call rational thought,’ explains writer Alan Grant who was a key figure at 2000AD, wrote Batman for many years and has just launched underground title Wasted. ‘When you read a book it’s your rational mind which is involved, the left hemisphere. When you watch a movie, it’s the right side of your brain which watches most of it. Comics, because they’re pictures and words, is the only medium which utilises both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously.’

It’s a process that can be confusing. ‘The fact is that not everybody finds it easy to decode these things,’ adds comics publisher, author and historian Paul Gravett (his latest project is The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics). ‘Navigating so many different kinds of reading — visual and symbolic and textual — all at once is hard.’ Over the last few years comics have crawled out from the shadows and are no longer quarantined to specialist shops. ‘Ten years ago there weren’t graphic novels sections in libraries or bookstores,’ explains artist and writer Bryan Talbot who has worked on everything from Judge Dredd to The Sandman as well as The Tale of One Bad Rat, and what is acknowledged as the first ever British graphic novel The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. ‘Now graphic novels are reviewed in newspapers.’

The British comics industry may be built around the likes of DC Thomson and their child friendly output like The Beano and The Dandy, but that doesn’t make them any less rebellious. ‘It’s us kids against the adult world,’ elaborates Barrie Appleby who has been drawing the likes of Dennis the Menace and Roger the Dodger since the 1970s. ‘They know that we are in charge and anyway you can get one over on adults is great. And that is what The Beano is all about.’

Posy Simmonds, whose renowned comic strips examine middle class British life, also comes from another angle. ‘Gemma Bovery, was in fact a newspaper serial and it was only when it turned into a book that somebody said that I’d written a graphic novel, and I thought, “cor blimey yes I have”,’ Simmonds explains of her introduction to the shadowy world of comics. ‘I’ve always been interested in the combination of words and pictures and I like the way that a drawing can either interpret or contradict the writing that goes with it. You’ve got so many choices. The public image is probably changing, principally because most things are getting more visual. You just think of the web; we’re now more used to words and images.’

While comics have broadened their scope and now cover everything from discussions on 9/11 to straight ahead travelogues, in the UK and USA they will forever be associated with capes and spandex. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some truly outstanding work within the superhero genre: just look at classics like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Characters like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Superman and the X-Men have become cultural icons.

‘The superhero is such an American phenomenon,’ says Gravett. ‘It’s overwhelmed the world because America has been very good at exporting cultural ideas. They’re probably the most complex and enormous collective mythology that’s probably ever existed.’ It’s hard to think of a fictional world that so many creators have come together to collaborate on. Taking just Batman alone, literally thousands of artists, writers and editors have had input into the character since his inception in 1939. Add to the fact that Batman is just one of hundreds of characters all living in the same fictional universe, and it’s a mind-boggling body of work.

‘I really can’t stand superhero comics,’ explains Dave McKean who has worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum and Black Orchid, but is perhaps best known by his cover work for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series alongside his own artwork, album covers for Alice Cooper and Tori Amos and smaller, more complex comics like Signal to Noise, Cages and Mr Punch. ‘Some of them are quite entertaining but they have dragged the medium into this ghetto for so long. Comics fans become writers, artists, publishers, distributors and shop owners, so it’s a self-perpetuating bubble. But I think there are more great graphic novels being published now than ever before. Personally, I wouldn’t shed a tear if the whole superhero crap went out of business because the medium would still find stories to tell. It’s so frustrating because it’s such a powerful medium - words and pictures - and I’d love to see it flourish, but it needs a generation to wipe the slate clean and start again.’

New trends like Manga, the Japanese take on the medium, have become increasingly popular, drawing more readers away from the more traditional superhero fare, even producing characters such as a Manga Macbeth. ‘Young people wanted a comic culture of their own,’ according to Gravett, ‘that wasn’t what their parents were reading. They wanted something that was different and special.’ But the thirst for heroes will never truly be quenched as Appleby so rightly points out: ‘Last year, we had a major motion picture based on Beowulf which was written 1500 years ago and it took millions of dollars.’ So we can expect the legends of Batman, Spider-Man and their ilk to last a few more years yet.

Paul Gravett, 14 Aug, 8.30pm, £9 (£7); Dave McKean, 19 Aug, 8pm, £9 (£7); Bryan Talbot, 22 Aug, 11am, £12 (£10); Alan Grant & Bryan Talbot, 22 Aug, 8.30pm, £9 (£7); Posy Simmonds, 24 Aug, 4.30pm, £9 (£7); Barrie Appelby, 25 Aug, 6.30pm, £3.50. All events take place at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888.