This was more a university gig NDC were invited to jump on board with, featuring an hour and a half’s presentation by Simon Grennan, the writer and artist behind the Guardian acclaimed adaptation of Antony Trollope’s 1879 novel John Caldigate, retitled by Simon, DISPOSSESSION.
Beginning with a rapid gallop through the comics industry’s standard approaches to the adaptation of ‘classics’, typified by ‘Classics Illustrated’, Simon highlighted the slavish reliance on simply regurgitating plot and how this impoverished the interpretation and ghettoised the genre as strictly for the kids. More recent adaptations by the likes of our own INJ Culbard, Jacques Tardi in France and Kenyan/Swedish artist, Catherine Anyango, took an identifiably personal approach, Simon felt, somewhat unreflective of the source materials’ literary style – if you like, ignoring the ‘voice’ of the prose author in favour of the comics author’s. Simon therefore set himself the task of deconstructing not only the Trollope plot, his characters, settings and their journey, but also Trollope’s writing style, searching for a visual language that would echo the prose language.
Trollope churned out what are now called ‘Arga Sagas’ that focus on the constrained, seemingly catholic and pretty boring machinations of the 19th Century’s bourgeoisie, and his is frankly not the source material any comics creative would choose to take on. But this was a commission, an academic exercise Simon grasped with both hands. After a lot of research and consultation, he nailed to his mast four rules he considered would best convey and be truthful to Trollope’s narrative and text. He set himself a fixed six panels per page format, thus undermining any concession to graphic pace or emotional engagement. Secondly he decided to keep a distance from his/Trollope’s characters, never taking his readers closer than a full-figure medium shot of either the action or interactions. Realising that Trollope largely ignores the world through which his characters travel, Simon decided to expand on the text, researching, adapting and instilling interesting and maybe important cultural details about, for example, the Australian emigrant ships or the lives of Wiradjuri aborigines. This embued his comic with a verisimilitude he considered strengthened the original text. Lastly, he decided to rotate his POV during the course of any one sequential situation (see sample page), providing the reader with a full understanding of their location if not the cut of their apparel. (If that’s difficult to picture, watch the extraordinary films of Ozu or Miklos Jansco, two cinematic masters who employ their camera as a roving eye.)
Whether you are into adaptations or not, Simon’s was a fascinating presentation, and it is a pity time didn’t allow for deeper questioning. He acknowledges DISPOSSESSION is an uncomfortable read, largely because it ignores conventions and embeds its own picture language, but these experiments have happened before in our medium, with varying degrees of success. Whether Simon’s battle plan for Trollope’s matrimonial yarn actually nails what he set out to achieve would have been good to discuss more fully.
Our thanks to Kevin Brett, co-organiser of our local comicon, for giving NDC exposure for free in the event’s catalogue. The one-day comic and zine binge is clearly expanding exponentially, not least in the number of bizarre coz-play participants, and it was a delight to bump into a few NDC stalwarts feverishly searching for obscure back issues, sitting on panels or selling their wares. No doubt at some point in the near future we will be in a position to take a table and promote both ourselves and the work of local creatives.
The overarching theme for this, our third session, unexpectedly turned out to be DIY, and as such this was possibly our most grounded session to date, soliciting a torrent of questions from and discussion among our audience. The tone was nicely set by Kevin Brett, organiser of the Nottingham Comicon, the fourth edition of which will be staged at the end of the month, on Saturday 29th October at Nottingham Trent University’s Newton Building. Kev’s a comics creator, mainly of self-made publications for young readers. In 2013 he tried to book a table at the prestigious Thought Bubble comicon in Leeds but was knocked back. So our Kev and his wife thought ‘Bogger that…’ and went to work setting up their own convention. Fully exploiting the relationships Kev had built up through social media, they staged NerdFest at a local hotel and were surprised and delighted by its success. Since then the rebranded event has grown exponentially, as has the revenue they’ve generated for their chosen charities. And that’s what most impacted on our audience – not only Kev’s can-do attitude, but also the Brett’s total commitment to the fun of all that hard work and their desire that charities (mostly local) should benefit. What’s a comicon? Truck on down to Newton Building and find out!
Next up, the ever-so self-deprecating Steve Larder. Something of a living legend in the zine world, Steve is now in his tenth year of producing Rum Lad, a vehicle for his wonderfully skewed retelling of everyday stories of overheard snatches and snippets gleaned in pubs, record stores (and y’bet we’re talking vinyl), on the hoof, amongst friends, in his head, and at gigs (he’s in a punk band that’s not averse to jetting into America and touring sitting rooms). Steve opened our eyes to the underground network that exists and is growing around zines, which are the ultimate in DIY copy/print self-production and somewhere between a street mag and indie comic. His own are glorious smorgasbords of fabulous line illustrations, anarchic ‘toons and chunks of handwritten observations, and are much sought after by the international ‘swopsies’ brigade that make zines such a vital vehicle for ‘to-Hell-with-the-rules’ self expression.
The big man under the hat was wordsmith Adrian Reynolds. What he kept under there was a fascinating take on the people politics of trying to stay afloat as a writer, not only of comics (which he is relatively new to. Check out his Dadtown.), but also indie films, animation and plays, and mainstream work for Aunty Beeb. Bravely he made no bones about the latter having a catastrophic impact on his mental health (yup, Aunty can do that, no sweat!), but it was clear that his more recent excursions into on-line and indie comics writing better suited his relaxed approach to scripting-sans-bullshit. He went into detail, showing us email exchanges with his editor at DarbyPop (a blog definitely worth a read) regarding the appearance of a character for an LGBT story he had crafted. This raised some important questions from our audience about the value and role of editors, and it was here, in the Q&A and discussion, that our session really came alive.
More than a handful of people expressed how the evening had instilled confidence in them, in their own DIY work, in carrying on regardless and just keeping going, and if Nottingham Does Comics is about anything, it is precisely that – helping local comics creators and the city’s culture of comics to grow. So a big thanks goes to our contributors for the example they set, their inspiration and encouragement.
Lowdham Book Festival recently hosted an extraordinary panel session of Nottingham Does Comics, extraordinary for featuring three guests plainly steeped in comics culture and a facilitator hungry to learn more about ‘The Literary Art of Cracking Comics’, the subject for discussion. James Walker of Dawn of the Unread was armed with all the right simple questions a public warming to the medium might ask of a creator (Sally Anne Thompson), a retailer (Jonathan Rigby from Page 45) and an academic (Dr. Matt Green from the University of Nottingham).
Too often comics buffs gloss over basic questions like, ‘Which should I read first, the words or pictures?’ and yet therein lie the keys to a full appreciation of a literary form that, despite producing works of manifest sophistication tackling adult themes, is invariably and wrongly dismissed as strictly for the kids. Steeped in prose literature, James readily admitted he is immediately drawn to the linear form of the text before retreating back up the page to give the images due consideration. And why not, the panel suggested, if it works for you. There are no hard and fast rules. The medium has the power to control the eye and prioritise, and if any one page or panel doesn’t, that also is intentional in the best of works.
Prompted by James, the panel went further back to basics and clarified the terms – ‘comics’ is the art form, ‘comic’ or ‘comic book’ is the frequently serialized floppy magazine format, while ‘graphic novel’ is the uncomfortable term applied by the media to the spine-backed book format, encompassing autobiography, investigative journalism, historical works and everything factual, from academic treatises to comics cook books. Finally, ‘comix’ is the underground’s way of saying ‘Children Keep Out’. It’s good to know, but I would add ‘comics strip’ (a single line sequence) and ‘comics block’ (several tiers of the same, most frequently seen as a half page in an otherwise prose magazine or newspaper).
Peppered with references to modern masterpieces like From Hell (scripted by Alan Moore, illustrated by Eddie Campbell), the discussion explored how writers and illustrators co-operate together. Sally made the point that writers tend to be protective of their words while illustrators are ever looking to bin as many as possible, aware that images can often speak the same louder or more sensitively. In the case of skilled writer-illustrators like Jens Harder (Alpha), it is evident the creative process leans towards the visual, paring down the prose to poetry, making every word count. For an auteur like the maestro Shaun Tan, words just get in the way of his mastery of visual poetry, exemplified in his wonderful The Arrival, about the great American immigration bubble.
While everybody acknowledged similarities between comics and film (or maybe storyboarding is a closer comparison), the panel believed cross-fertilisation rarely worked in either’s favour. If Hollywood is presently filling off-shore accounts on the back of Marvel and DC, their industry is not doing our industry a great service. Jonathan considered Ghost World (based on Daniel Clowes’ sensitive account of adolescent angst) the best of the bunch, though Matt mentioned the excellent American Splendour, acknowledging the movie is more about its curmudgeon author, Harvey Pekar, than an adaption of Pekar’s actual memoire.
For more recommendations, go talk to Page 45 on Market Street.
Away from the silver screen, Sally enthused about A Bride’s Story, a sumptuous historical romance by Japanese manga artist, Kaoru Mori. (Manga just means comics, only from Japan, just as bande dessinee are Franco-Belgian comics and manhua are Chinese comics. Manga and manhua are properly read right to left from back of the book, but many have now been flipped for the English-reading public, not always successfully.) Of Mori’s work, Sally said, “It is masterfully drawn and an absolute pleasure to read, but also beautifully composed, with an eye for smooth reading and clarity, despite her lavish attention to everyday details. She is willing to take time out of a larger story to dwell on a moment, so we experience it fully rather than hurrying from plot point to plot point. It’s soothing and uplifting, and an absolute comics masterclass.’ Plus, of course, Mori’s work gives the lie to suggestions that comics are a man-and-boy-thing.
For some in the audience, the creative potential of specialist colourists and letterers to enhance a work maybe came as some surprise. Letters might just be code, but the look of the words can go way beyond standard fonts to imbue the text with significance and meaning. Jonathan referenced Brecht Evens’ hand lettering in his blindingly colourful The Making Of, and I would single out the mastery of the anarchic font employed in Wilfrid Lupano and Jeremie Moreau’s stinging anti-racist take on The Hartlepool Monkey. As to colourists and what they can achieve, our man from Page 45 positively oozed over the work of Elizabeth Breitweiser, specifically in the L.A. movie satire The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Sumptuous, flowing and precise for a 1940’s homage, there are pages where Elizabeth suddenly throws us a curve ball and renders a sequence in the block colours of a demented Mondrian.
Right now comics are such a rapidly evolving medium that an hour’s slot was never going to do justice to all the questions the audience needed answering. Though the turnout was small, it was evident the audience was excited and stimulated by what they heard. One couple cornered me with notebooks in hand and asked for the above recommendations again. Another member’s departing words were, “If I wasn’t already into comics, I’d be hammering down the door of Page 45 with an open cheque book!,” an appreciation that belied their age and escalating passion.
It was fitting that NDC’s first ever speaker was from out of town and had just taken the plunge into becoming a full-time comics writer. Cardiff denizen Jonathan Clode is no rookie, however, having already racked up several excellent features for the on-line comic, Outré, ventured into prehistoric monsters with the on-going Fire-Beast series and received two Eisner nominations in 2014 for co-editing the WW1 anthology, To End All Wars.
Acknowledging that keeping a toe in his previous profession as a care worker helps pay the bills, Jonathan talked about the joy of feeling released from some monstrous machine, liberated to indulge his craving to create challenging work such as his deeply moving script, Shut Away. Through the sorrowful life of a patient called Sandra, who he’s know for several years, Jonathan tells the story of all those with challenging behaviour or deemed ‘feeble minded’ who had spent decades lost and forgotten in the soul-destroying environment of Cardiff’s Ely Hospital. He already has Croatian illustrator Stjepan Mihaljevic on board, an artist who did wonders for Ian Douglas’s submariners script in TEAW, and from what we saw of Stjepan’s early sketches for Shut Away, this will definitely be one to look out for.
Our second speaker was from the opposite extreme, an old hand at particularly agiprop comics, and suitably jaundiced about both his profession and own abilities. Brick presented us with just four pages of a challenge he took up to interpret the opening scene of Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ for Elsinore Castle in Denmark. This is the weird sisters’ opening gambit, clustered round the cauldron while Scotland descends into tribal warfare off-stage, which Brick totally deconstructed and rebuilt almost unrecognizably. His witches were NATO or UN paramedics and the place they’d gathered was inside a bombed-out armoured personnel carrier, ostensibly trying to save the occupants. In his background the fires of burning oil wells blackened the sky. See it all here.
With screen shots of Photoshop workspaces, Brick illustrated the multiple layers – up to 25 – needed to create any one page of his nightmare vision. This from an old school ‘toonist who still uses quills! Asked if he was pleased with the result, some in the audience were maybe surprised by how self-deprecating and scathing he was about his inability to infuse his panels with tangible atmosphere. Self-taught and sparingly efficient, he explained how his style better suited the tight deadlines magazines and newspapers demanded for agitprop or educational work. Seems it is a continual frustration to an excellent draughtsman that he isn’t Bill Sienkiewicz!
Lynn Fotheringham, a classicist from the University of Nottingham, shone an even tighter beam, focusing on just a single spread from Frank Miller’s retelling of Sparta’s Battle of Thermopylae, 300. While accepting that Miller’s interpretation of prehistory leaves much to be desired and that, by the time the film of the same was released, he’d lost it, Lynn exuded tangible pleasure that the world of comics had finally caught onto the potential offered by the classical world, that is, beyond the very literary efforts of the Classics Illustrated series.
Abstracting greatly from her contribution to fellow NDC-er and university classicist Stephen Hodgkinson’s book, Sparta in Modern Thought, Lynn focused mainly on the dynamics of Miller’s layout (see image). Turning the page to it, the reader’s eye is immediately drawn to the arrangement of the characters in the large image, maybe even the penis at the centre of the oval proscribed by the speech balloons, something that alludes to the gay relationships apparently encouraged within the Spartan forces for greater internal bonding. But then the eye is drawn to the rack of small images to the left to pick up the text from the previous page, bouncing across the footer of the main image to the strong, isolated image page right.
Oddly enough, what most perplexed our audience was Miller’s poor depiction of the five warriors doing single-arm push-ups – nobody (even those who had read 300) realized that they weren’t simply crawling along the ground in formation! But though small, our first audience was extremely discerning and liberally fired insightful questions at each of our speakers, bringing some of their own knowledge to discussions. Comprising creators, readers, academics and a couple who were just getting into comics, there seemed general agreement that NDC had hit the ground running providing a suitably eclectic range of speakers and stimulation. To them, our speakers and Matt Green who introduced our first session must go our wholehearted thanks.