Edinburgh International Book Festival, or How Comic Books are Becoming Literary

I spent my August Bank Holiday this year up in Scotland, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival which, for the first time, included graphic novels and comic books in a special festival they called Stripped.

In all honesty, if the lure of seeing Neil Gaiman live hadn’t been enough to drag me all the way up there, the only thing that would have persuaded me otherwise was the presence of Stripped. I find it fascinating how comic books, although having been around for nearly 80 years, are only just making their way into the gaze of literary critics and popular culture. In the last few years the amount of superhero films, while brilliant, has been sickening (I mean, a Green Hornet film? Really?), and all of a sudden there has been an explosion of art and colour in these things.

How has it taken so long? I mean, comics haven’t always been high brow, I admit. But Gaiman’s Sandman should have made people sit up and take note. Works like V for Vendetta and Watchmen have made the New York Times 100 Bestsellers list. And yet, this is the first time comic books have been represented at the EIBF.

And the names – Grant Morrison, Bryan Talbot, Neil Gaiman. They got the big guns in. The amount of people in the auditoriums for these events were overwhelming. It seems to me they’ve been missing a trick for years.

Comic books just keep getting better. Like a fine wine. The writing is artful, the drawings sometimes so close to art it’s unreal. The topics covered can be gritty, disturbing and close to the bone. They’re different. They can achieve so much books can’t. Like Alan Moore said, he’d never put his name to a film of one of his novels, because he was trying to do something only achieveable in one format – comic books. ‘Watchmen’ wasn’t a film flop, but fans struggled sometimes to see where the layering and depth they loved so much had gone. ‘V for Vendetta’ was changed so much for a Hollywood audience, it was almost unrecognisable. And let’s just not talk about ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’.

They reach a big readership, too. You have weeklies, who buy every week religiously. Novel readers, who wait until they’re collected into a volume. You can buy a comic book you’ve never seen before half way through and read it, and still get the gist in a way you can’t with a TV series or a film.

And let’s take a look at the leaps in comic books recently. Gay characters, a black Spider-man. They’re moving into the times in great strides because, all of a sudden, they mean something. Are comic books literature?

Well… yes. I think so. But just a different kind. And if you hear creators, writers and artists talk about them, like I did, you understand that better. There’s a different kind of consciousness required to create something like that, a sort of hive-mind of what came before you, what you want, what the artist wants, how it’ll look on the page, and how the hell you tell the story in 36 words a panel. It isn’t straight forward.

So are comics art?

Also, yes. Very much so. It’s a fine line that comic books tread, and they tread it beautifully.

The other thing? The support. The amount of people networking, sharing, creating there was extraordinary. The amount of people willing to help each other was amazing. I got about 15 business cards from people, just asking them for advice about ‘Son of Songs’. And the quality of the work at the mini comics fair was astounding.

We’re living in an exciting age for comic books, I think. Which is probably the best thing comic books have had for years.

  1. Michael Fletcher said:

    Really interesting about the way the comic and graphic novel seems to be going. Having just had my anthology “Kings of Under-Castle” published as a paperback by IFWG Publishing one of the things I’m working on is the potential of a graphic novel, initially using one of the stories as a template. It will be an interesting and possibly arduous ride, but as you say it seems to be the way of the the future.
    Might try to get to the Edinburgh Festival next year to see how that area is treated.
    Thanks for reporting on it, Esme.

    • esmelc said:

      It just seems to have taken such a long time. There is the possibility of more Stripped events next year depending on the feedback they get – I’m hoping to get a stall there perhaps…

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