Corinne, welcome to my blog. The graphic novel industry seems to be growing. I’m a relatively new convert to the form, and I’d love to find out more from someone who’s working inside this exciting creative industry.
Firstly, could you define the term ‘graphic novel’? I suppose I’m asking, what’s the difference between a comic and graphic fiction?
This is the question of every comics studies debate (and yes, there are such academic departments, and they’re growing). The adoption of either term is the artistic choice of the creator or the marketing choice of the publisher. Creators might individually describe themselves as cartoonists, comic artists, graphic novelists, visual journalists, sequential artists – what they have got in common is that they are all using words and pictures to tell a story. The terms are interchangeable, though not their history.
What do you know about the history of the form?
Leaving aside the Bayeux tapestry and other examples of narrative picture stories, the word ‘comic’, with its origin in the funny newspapers of the 19th century, has traditionally been applied to books of words and pictures working in sequence, with or without humour, in both the UK and USA. Because of the proliferation of post-WW2 picture story magazines aimed at younger people in the UK, comic was associated with that age group. In the US, comic is particularly associated with fantasy and science fiction picture stories published by DC and Marvel. Partly to reconnect with the origins of those stories in the works of his Jewish immigrant artist forebears, Will Eisner coined the term ‘graphic novel’ to describe his own narratives of everyday life in New York.
Tell us a little about your route into the world of graphic novels.
A fellow graphics publisher has referred – rather disparagingly – to ‘the Hampsteadisation of British comics’ but I love that! That’s me! I spent my early years living near Hampstead, re-reading comics in bed (I was quite a sickly child). I graduated from Robin, Swift, Girl, Beano and Topper onto Bunty, Judy, and Schoolfriend Picture Library, followed by photo-story comics like Romeo, and finally the American Underground of Weirdo, Wimmin’s Comix, Robert Crumb. So it seemed natural I should pick up on cartoon-y art after studying English at university. I drew editorial cartoons for small charities, lefty publications, and educational publishing, before setting up a partnership in Comic Company, working with artists to produce comics-illustrated health information. Over the years I produced comic strips for small anthologies, drew a regular strip for the Jewish Quarterly and was involved in cartoonists’ groups. In the mid 90s I began working for Myriad as an illustrator and designer for The State of the World atlas series, and was delighted when we launched our fiction and graphic novel publishing with The Brighton Book in 2005.
What does a typical week look like for you?
It often looks like the inside of a train, travelling between London and Brighton. I spend two or three days in the Myriad office in Brighton, working both as Creative Director overseeing production and design, and editorially with our graphic authors. I spend a day or two in London on Comic Company and drawing work, though not much of the latter these days.
You must receive lots of submissions from aspiring graphic novelists. What do you look for in a new piece of work?
I look for something that I can’t wait to get back to when I put it down. It needs to function on more than one level (i.e. give the reader a bit of work to do). It doesn’t have to be perfect but it does have to show promise. We work with authors to help them make their books the best they can be.
I have to look out for my own prejudices! Nye Wright was showing some of his artwork at a cartoonists’ meeting, and I thought ‘Wow, what an amazing artist, but looks far too superhero for me’. So it wasn’t until cartoonist Andy Pearson said to me: ‘You know Nye’s book is about looking after his father, don’t you?’ that I asked to read it – which I did, overnight, and in the morning I emailed him to say I thought it was a masterpiece, and we should publish it!
This month we will announce the 2014 First Graphic Novel Competition, inviting 15-30 pages of a graphic novel in progress from a previously unpublished artist. We’ve published the 2012 competition winner and three of the shortlisted entries so it’s a great opportunity for aspiring authors.
Graphic novels are a growing worldwide industry – who do you think are the inspiring new influences out there right now?
Graphic novels are an established industry in many countries (France, Korea, Japan, for instance) and rapidly gaining popularity in others, especially here in the UK. Publishers Blank Slate, Nobrow, Self-Made Hero, Jonathan Cape and Soaring Penguin are all publishing some excellent books in translation as well as, like Myriad, encouraging debut graphic novelists from the UK. Last year I most enjoyed Bastien Vives’ Polina, Antonio Altarriba and Kim’s The Art of Flying, and Marcellino Truong’s memoir of growing up in Vietnam Such a Nice Little War.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse in terms of themes and trends? Tell us about the creative conferences and trade shows you attend?
The world of comics encompasses so many different kinds of fairs and shows, and I go to as many as I can. I’m a co-founder of Cartoon County, that meets once a month in Brighton, and I attend Laydeez Do Comics, also monthly, in London. Both are creator-led forums that interview comics artists who are looking for opportunities to share their stories and invite feedback. There are two major publishing book fairs, in London and in Frankfurt, and the amazing Angouleme comics festival in France, which is both trade fair and festival. I’ve just been to the inaugural Lakes International Comics Art Festival in Kendal, with the twittersphere buzzing ever since about how brilliant it was – that will be our Angouleme. And of course there’s twitter – that does really help me keep up too with what’s going on.
Is it usual for the artist and writer to be one and the same – or are collaborations common?
I tend to prefer authors who are sole creators but collaborations can be just as effective and are common in the larger comics industry. The Art of Flying, forthcoming from Jonathan Cape, is a perfect example of an artist and writer working together: a collaboration between a well-established Spanish cartoonist and a Professor of French working in the Basque country, who is accounting his father’s biography during the Spanish Civil War and beyond. This year, I really enjoyed an adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel by David Hine and Mark Stafford, The Man Who Laughs, published by Self Made Hero.
What have we got to look forward to in terms of future titles at Myriad Editions?
I’m particularly excited by two graphic novels we’ve just published: Naming Monsters by Hannah Eaton and The Black Project by Gareth Brookes. Both have an astonishing ear for language, extraordinary imaginations and the ability to create character. Hannah’s densely penciled drawings literally draw us into the emotional world of her teenage heroine, while Gareth’s extraordinary use of embroidery and lino-cut takes us to new places in his account of an adolescent’s search for a girlfriend. He won the 2012 First Graphic Novel Competition, and is certainly pushing the boundaries of the form. I’m really looking forward to Ian Wlliams’ The Bad Doctor – tales of the life of a country doctor, in need of a little care himself. We’re calling it a Dr Finlay’s Casebook for the 21st century. And we’re excited to be publishing Kate Evans again: Bump, How to Make, Grown and Birth a Baby, is a follow-up to her popular book on breasteeding. Our third book for 2014 is Darryl Cunningham‘s Supercrash, a graphic analysis of the global economy meltdown.
What gems of advice would you give to anyone contemplating a future as a graphic novelist?
Do it. The roots of this industry are in self-publishing, and that’s the way to get noticed. It’s a positive showcase and the small press self-publishers in comics are respected just as much as the established and celebrated names. Enter comic competitions, go to comics fairs, share a table with friends and get a twitter account. And then just chain yourself to your desk.