Graphic storytelling

At this year’s Alcuin Awards ceremony, Robin McConnell, host of the Inkstuds podcast, moderated a captivating panel on graphic storytelling featuring:

  • Sarah Leavitt, author and illustrator of Tangles, her memoir about her mother, who died of Alzheimer’s disease;
  • Nick Bantock, perhaps best known for his Griffin and Sabine books, the first of which came out in 1991 and the most recent of which—the seventh in the series—was released this year; and
  • Johnnie Christmas, author and illustrator of Firebug, who recently collaborated with Margaret Atwood on the graphic novel Angel Catbird.

McConnell asked the panel how they began using art as a storytelling technique.

Bantock said he was originally a painter and didn’t write his first book until he was forty. He likens the words and images in the work to “a really good marriage: each informs the other; each supports the other.” Bantock doesn’t use the term illustration, “which would suggest that the images are subservient to the word.” In his books, the words and images can be telling different but complementary parts of the story.

Leavitt said she intended on writing her memoir as a prose book but, as she was going through her diaries, she discovered they were full of her sketches. She started cutting them out and photocopying them as she developed her book and realized that she wanted to make comics.

When she teaches creative writing at UBC, she asks her students to make comics, and many of them resist at first but then discover joy in the process of creating them. “There’s something so intimate about making art… making something with your hands—a small thing you’re giving to the reader.”

Christmas told us that he read comics a lot as a kid, and once he realized that actually people had to make them, he know that’s what he wanted to do. “Comics was the form I found was best for expressing myself.”

Bantock has found that graphic storytelling “allows you to communicate the way fine arts doesn’t.” Whereas there’s a certain elitism to fine art, graphic novels “have a populist element,” said Christmas. “A subtlety to it.” A character raising an eyebrow can quickly and powerfully convey a tone or emotion. “Because of the iconography of the art form, you can simplify greatly or render intensely, but ultimately you can find a home for your message,” said Christmas.

Bantock uses imagery to create atmosphere and to “fill in the background without saying it directly with prose.” Graphic storytelling “allows your intellect and intuition to come into the same space.”

Christmas agreed that it lets both creator and reader use both sides of their brain. “You can go at your own pace. You can go forward, backward, skip ahead, pause, think about it, go have a sandwich, let things sort of settle.”

“There’s something more revealing about images,” said Leavitt. “Like sharing a deeper part of myself.” Bantock concurred. “You’ve got to commit. If you’re just skating across the surface, you’re probably wasting your time. You might as well not even bother.” Bantock said that when he looks at the pictures in his books, he can remember what was on the radio when he created them. They are a product of himself, at that moment.

McConnell noted that mainstream publishers don’t really know how to handle graphic novels or comics yet. Did the panellists feel they had to justify what they were doing?

Christmas didn’t, because he’s a native to the medium, he said, although in interviews he’s done for Angel Catbird, he’s found that interviewers have been asking Margaret Atwood to justify their collaboration. “But graphic novels are one of the fastest-growing genres and publishers are learning to embrace them,” he said.

“The fine arts community seems me as a writer, and the literary community seems me as an artist,” said Bantock. “I’m a mongrel. Only the audience sees me for what I am.” He said he doesn’t think the Griffin and Sabine series really meet the definition of graphic novels. “They defy description.”

Bantock said that the only place the series didn’t take off was the UK, where the publisher shrink-wrapped the books, making it impossible for people browsing at bookstores to see the interior and understand what the books were about. “Publishing houses are very, very strange,” said Bantock. “A lot of them still have their feet in Victorian times.”

Leavitt said that a few publishers were interested in Tangles but that she chose Freehand Books, a small press in Alberta, because they were “so passionate about the project.”

When asked about how they work, Christmas said that he used to write full scripts but found that you only see what the work needs once you start drawing. “Now I pull back in and use a more skeletal approach.” Bantock described his creative process as nonlinear, spiralling out from a central idea or theme. Leavitt admitted that forcing herself to sit down and work is challenging, although she loves it when she gets into it. To keep herself motivated, she shares a private blog with two other cartoonists, and they have a deadline to post something every week.

Bantock meditated on how much his audience had changed since Griffin and Sabine began twenty-five years ago. For the latest book in the series, Bantock had to consider that many younger members of his audience “may never have posted a letter in their life. To them, the idea of waiting for a letter to get to someone and waiting to get something back is anathema.”

The Alcuin Society used the evening to announce the launch of its new awards category: beginning next year, graphic novels will be eligible for the society’s prestigious book design awards.

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