I’m a huge admirer of the work of Jacques Tardi – I consider him to be one of the finest creators in the comics medium in Europe, with a diverse body of work and styles, from the fantastical adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec to his hard-edged adaptations of Manchette’s crime stories, or the Jules Verne homage of Arctic Marauder. His award-winning It Was the War of the Trenches is a remarkable entry in his oeuvre, even by his high standards, a blisteringly angry look at World War One. I was so impressed with it I struggled through it with my rather poor French skills until our friends at Fantagraphics announced their English language translation as part of their very welcome series of works by Tardi. Now, years after C’était la guerre des tranchées (as it was called in the original French language edition) Tardi has returned to The War to End All Wars. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this for quite some time – Trenches was on my Best of the Year list when it came out, an immensely emotional, powerful piece of work; Goddam This War had much to live up to.
Structurally Tardi takes a different approach this time – where Trenches was a collection of short slices of life at the Front with different characters, Goddam This War is chronological, a chapter dedicated to each year of the Great War from 1914 through to the 1918 Armistice and the aftermath in 1919, plus a text section by historian Verney giving a potted chronology of the war as the appendix. This time we mostly follow the war from the perspective of one French soldier, with some digressions to show other areas of battle – in the air (a brand new development) and at sea, as well as taking in others, away from our French soldier’s unit, the British Tommies, the Australians, Canadians, the colonial troops from French North Africa or Indian soldiers from the British Empire, and, late on, the arrival of the American doughboys, and he takes in life, and death, in the German trenches. There’s no jingoistic nationalism being waved here, Tardi has nothing but sympathy for the soldiers caught in this industrial carnage, his ire – actually his virulent rage – is saved to direct against the generals and the politicians. You know, those well-dressed, usually older gentlemen who direct the war efforts of entire nations and empires, who send millions repeatedly into the meat-grinder, order the shooting for ‘cowardice’ of those who refuse or who eventually break under the relentless strain, talk of ‘doing their duty’ for their country, but of course their duty doesn’t involve living in mud with rats with a view of what had been your friend rotting away on the barbed wire of No Man’s Land and wondering when it will be your turn, if it will be quick, or if you will linger in mutilated agony.
Yes, you can probably surmise from my tone that I am with Tardi on that score. In one scene our little French soldier wonder which is worse, the French generals, the British generals or the German generals, but surmises there is probably little difference between them.
We start, as you would imagine, with 1914: it’s the very early days of what will become a four year slaughter on a scale never before imagined. Unlike Trenches we begin not only in colour, but in bright, primary colours – vibrant blue, glowing red, the verdant greens and golds of summer fields through which our French troops march off to a war they are convinced will be finished so soon they are, as the narrator puts it, already imagining drinking a well-earned beer on the Alexanderplatz after they beat the Germans and march into Berlin. Despite this being 1914 the scene, at first, resembles the old-fashioned, large formation battles of previous centuries, and you can understand why the generals brought up in that mindset struggled to deal with the muddy, bloody deadlock of mechanised trench warfare that things would soon degenerate into (although the fact they could not or would not try to think on another strategy over the next four years as battle after battle revealed the futility of their approach is rather less excusable). Even the French troops look like something from the 18th or 19th century, in blue coats and caps with bright red trousers, uniforms more suited for drilling on a parade ground than fighting a modern battle. There are still the aristocratic cavalry units galloping around in their lordly manner as the brightly-garbed troops march towards the enemy through villages (where they are cheered) and fields.
“Little August soldier in your madder-red trousers, you tried to hide but there wasn’t much cover behind the poppies. You entered the history books dressed up like a trooper in a comic opera, little August casualty.”
Our narrator, however is not convinced even at this early stage where most are optimistic – he already has the horrible feeling many are being cheered on by the civilians they pass to their certain doom. In one frame French troops are packed aboard freight wagons on the railways, all seemingly cheerful, sure they are off to deliver a quick knock-out blow and return as heroes while elderly grandparents look on admiringly and the mothers and wives carrying young children smile bravely for the soldiers, but there is fear behind their smiles: “Only the mothers really knew. They knew the babies in their arms were tomorrow’s war orphans, and the cattle cars (8 horse, 40 men) were noting but rail-mounted coffins joined end to end and headed for military cemeteries.” The page with this scene is mirrored opposite, with three large, broad frames showing the French preparing for a ‘quick’ battle and marching off to war, the opposite page in the exact same format but from the German point of view; military madness and rampant jingoism running rampant over common-sense on both sides, as Tardi shows, most caught up in it, not questioning, the few, like our narrator, who do realise they are powerless to change things, that no-one would even listen to them.
It’s not long before their illusions about the ‘glory’ of battling for one’s country – “the old lie, dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country – are rudely, brutally shattered for all the armies on all sides of this massive, continent-crossing alliance of nations determined to march on one another. The peace of summer fields erupts into shocking violence and suddenly there are dead men lying on the ground, others screaming in agony from their wounds; the corn still sways, it is the men who have been reaped. The cavalry on both sides charge in a scene that could have come from the high age of heroic chivalry… Until misplaced artillery rains down blowing men and horses from both sides into butcher’s meat. It’s shocking and brutal to the reader, one panel graceful horses and riders, lances and swords drawn like knights, galloping across the frame, the next panel is a pure horror of explosions and pieces of animals and humans. The notions of grace and noble heroism vanish, and in a darkly humorous moment Tardi finishes off that misguided notion of honourable death in battle by having one poor German going behind a tree to relieve himself during a lull, suddenly finding himself face to face with a French soldier and is killed while his trousers are still around his ankles. So much for noble martyrdom for one’s country…
As we move on through that first year and into 1915 the palette slowly starts to fade, the world shrinking down for our narrator and his comrades (and those around them on both sides, for Tardi takes pains to show the universal suffering of all the troops regardless of nation), bleached of colour until it becomes almost monochromatic, the style here also making use of watercolours which, despite the subject matter, often give a softer feel than the art in Trenches, although it also helps convey the murky, muddy world of churned up earth and water-logged shell-holes and gas-misted trenches very effectively. The early mobility of those bright scenes of 1914 give way to digging in, then to serious entrenching, and the start of what we’ve all seen from the history books and early newsreels, the hell of trench warfare, where literally thousands of men could be slain in an afternoon for the gain of a few yards of mud. And it isn’t just the horrible ways the men can die, Tardi carefully articulates the mental anguish and suffering; the lice, the rats, the constant fear of a gas attack, the sight, day after day, of what had once been your comrade and friend, dead, caught on the wire in No-Man’s Land, rotting away, none of you able to pull him down without being killed yourselves, the body hanging there constantly to remind you of what happened to him and what you in turn may be by the day’s end too, a rotting cadaver flapping like a broken puppet in the wind between the lines, where even your mangled body will never know the peace of a simple burial. No wonder then that some break, succumb to shell shock, desert, try to get themselves wounded so they can be sent home, or simply kill themselves because they can endure this hell no longer.
Moving into the final years of the war, then the aftermath Tardi switches mostly from following his French soldier narrator to individual scenes, three frames per page (much like his earliest pages of the book, a circular return to the layout of the beginning) in broad landscape form, each a window into a different part of the war, from the German observer leaping from a flaming balloon to the disaster of Gallipoli, sailors clinging to wreckage in the cold sea after their ship has vanished below the icy waters taking most of their comrades with it, the poor horses forced to drag equipment through the shattered landscapes humans have made of the world, the nurse struggling to be professional, to stay strong and care for the hideously wounded while she worries about her own husband on the front line, looking at the wounded, thinking on her own son, wondering if some day he will go through this sort of hell too, if it ever ends.
The parades of the victors after the Treaty of Versailles is signed, the blind veteran who lost his eyes to a gas attack standing unseeing as they march past with flags and finery, the funeral parade of a French officer in a defeated, occupied Germany, the French soldiers beating any German civilian who refused to take his hat off as the funeral carriage went past, but as the dialogue points out, how hard it is for that German father to remove his hat out of respect when the French had killed his son in the trenches, and so the hatred is further sown in both sides (as with several scenes in the book Tardi has lifted this from an actual event, the picture matches remarkably closely a short piece of early film footage of this very scene which still survives to this day), or, in an ominous foreshadowing another of these scenes shows the chaos in post-war Germany as nationalistic right-wingers and far left socialist groups clash in the streets, a problem that would be there throughout the Weimar Republic and help sow the seeds for the rise of the Nazis to power and the war which would follow the War To End All Wars… A few pages towards the end are effectively a horror-show gallery of the maimed and wounded, the men with no limbs, other with large parts of their faces gone, masks to cover what remains of their visage. It’s horribly reminiscent of scenes we’ve all seen on the news of injured troops brought back from Afghanistan; the years advance, the number of casualties may be far smaller, but still in it’s fashion history repeats itself and men mangle other men with machinery, again and again, nothing learned…
There are the odd touches of humour here and there – the French looking at the Scottish regiments and wondering if they have pants on under the kilts or if they go into battle with everything bouncing around like something from Carry on up the Khyber – and a few other places, but mostly it is of the barrack-room mentality or else of the gallows-variety, two strands of black humour that have served soldiers to help them get through probably every war in human history. But mostly this, like the earlier Trenches, burns with anger for the futility, the sheer, vast waste of human life, the treatment of the rank and file, who the powers that be never cared about in peace time but come a war their political manoeuvres and treaties had created, expect to come forth and ‘do their duty’ by a country that previously didn’t care if those same men lived in slums. His fury pours off the page, mixed with huge empathy and sympathy for the suffering of those forced into those awful events, and there in lies the key which makes this such an affecting, powerful, emotional read: Tardi takes the vast scale of the war, the unbelievable casualty rate and he humanises it, puts it on a personal level the reader can comprehend, understand, sympathise with. When the fallen run into millions we are horrified, but at the same time the numbers go beyond our individual comprehension – add in the distance of years and with the best will in the world it is hard to see more than awful statistics. But when presented at the human scale we too can bear witness, and Tardi presents this in a wars-and-all human level. It’s not an easy read, nor should it be, and you too are likely to find yourself with mounting anger at what was perpetrated on so many, so needlessly, and you should feel that anger. That’s the anger that makes us question each time a new generation of leaders try to promote war as the ‘honourable’ thing for a nation to do, it reminds us of the individual cost behind the grand rhetoric of political leaders and why we should never take them at their word, why we should consider the consequences behind such plans. The last of the old veterans of that slaughter have finally left us, next year marks a century since the start of the Great War, but the hard-learned lessons from that conflict are still relevant, even now as the various powers posture and rattle sabres once more, each claiming to be with the forces of right. Tardi reinforces the old lesson, “never forget”.
Last month as well as reporting on the Edinburgh International Book Festival as I do most years I was on stage for some events, the first of which was chairing a talk with superstar Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison. We discussed his earliest work in Near Myths, an anthology which grew out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop (which would become the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet years later) which was well ahead of its time in trying to create a comics form for adult readers and also featured the first appearances of Luther Arkwright by the great Bryan Talbot – in a lovely moment Grant took the opportunity to pay tribute to Bryan’s place in the medium (Bryan was in the audience at the time and was, I think, rather delighted) – it was nice to see this peer to peer respect from one top creator to another. We discussed his Batman and Superman works, his plans for reworking Wonder Woman and the return to Seaguy, before throwing open the second half to questions from the audience, who were eager to ask Grant their own questions (and he was looking forward to the chance to interact with his readers, so we tried to give a good chunk of our hour to the audience Q&A).
I’m not mad at being in front of the camera, I prefer being behind the lens, but it was a fun event and from folks I bumped into over the rest of the Book Festival it seemed to have gone fairly well as they told me they enjoyed it, which was a relief as that was my very first time chairing an event at the Book Fest. I have done plenty of events with authors in my bookselling career of course, but it’s been years since I had to do an on-stage event and doing it with a major name, at the world’s biggest literary festival, well, that’s a hell of a way to get back into the saddle! But it was fun to do it as part of the huge Stripped segment of comics themed events at the Book Festival:
Yes, I know, I’m recommending a Volume 2 to you – but worry not, although if you already know your Fables history there are little references hidden away for you to enjoy, but to the new reader this Fables spin-off series focused on the female characters is a terrific way into this long-running world of tales (and if it is new to you you will want to explore not only Fairest 1 but the whole of Willingham’s magnificent Fables series afterwards). For this story arc Willingham sought out South African writer Lauren Beukes (rhymes with Lucas, if you are wondering), who I’m sure some of you will alreadyknow from her Zoo City novel, which won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award, the UK’s top prize for literary science fiction (I’d also commend her recent, disturbing, fascinating and compelling The Shining Girls novel, reviewed recently by James on our blog and now nominated for the prestigious Golden Dagger award), while Brit comics readers may have seen Inaki’s work in Judge Dredd.
Lauren was given Rapunzel (of flowing locks fame) as a character to play with and teamed up with Spanish artist Inaki Miranda, and although she felt tempted to do something with folkloric characters from her own African homeland she couldn’t resist the lure of Japan. And while I would love to see the duo revisit Fairest later for an African myth-themed tale I, am glad they did go Japanese for this first outing. Despite working in different countries the two were soon swapping ideas, references and influences, from ancient Japanese folklore to modern anime and J-Pop, and the hugely influential J-Horror (as Lauren put it, there had to be a crazy hair horror moment in the Japanese setting!) which fuse in the tale to give a fantastic setting that takes in the hypermodernity of big-city Japan mixed with its much, much older rich seam of folklore.
Rapunzel has had a mysterious message, that a dark chapter of her long personal history is calling her to Japan, where she had been centuries before. A potion helps slow her astonishing hair growth so she can travel in the human world without drawing too much attention (when your hair grows several inches every few hours it’s hard to hide it on a long flight from the US to Japan!) and with some other Fables she begins her search in Japan, where we get to meet a whole array of Japanese Fables, many of whom soon prove memorable characters in their own right, some quirky, funny, some disturbing and monstrous, some rather sexy.
This is no simple tale of personal rediscovery in a (too us anyway) exotic setting and culture though , as Beukes and Miranda layer in a whole lot of other elements into both the story and the characters. This isn’t a story that shies away from exploring dubious moralities and the consequences to many from the actions of one, and it is also a story in which sexuality (in a very sensual fashion though, not an exploitative way) plays a major role. Also mixed in with this is violence, including a particularly harrowing sequence which writer and artist crafted to be brutal, not wanting the stylised, almost, as Lauren put it discussing this scene recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival, consequence free violent fights of some superhero tales (lots of violence but rarely seems to matter much). This shows the awful nature of someone being hurt, repeatedly and brutally, deliberately shocking the reader, as indeed it should. Miranda conjures up some wonderful visuals, from a splash of neon Tokyo that looks like a J-Pop album cover to a brooding, dark old forest in which the overgrowth of Rapunzel’s hair (and the things that come from it) are spun into a nest, like something from one of Del Toro’s early films, menacing and disturbing, while the aforementioned violent scene flashes from different protagonist’s perspectives until the physical punishment leads to the frames breaking up, shattering, cleverly echoing the victim’s point of view as the punishing concussion of the blows drives her into unconsciousness, or a psychedelic, disturbing birth scene – the pair of them reallydo craft some memorable scenes.
There’s been a real push to bring in novelists – especially from SF&F – into comics to help stir things up in recent years, bringing in new perspectives, and this is one of the fruits of that push. Much recommended. You can read a special guest Commentary post by Lauren and Inaki discussing their approach to Fairest here on our blog. Inaki’s art will be seen again this autumn in Coffin Hill as part of the big, new DC/Vertigo series of titles and I reckon he’s one to be watching. Lauren is already working on a new book and let’s hope it won’t be long before she also returns to comics.
this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
During my very busy period at the Stripped comics strand of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in addition to chairing a couple of the author events this year I was also delighted to pose the questions for a couple of their series of short video interviews with authors, including this one I did with Lauren Beukes and Inaki Miranda shortly before chairing their event (which was great fun) – don’t worry, you don’t see me in either as I am safely behind the camera (which I prefer) and indeed as they edited it to mostly the author’s responses you barely hear me, but was nice to be asked to do a couple and fun to do. I talked to Lauren and Inaki about their collaboration (this was the first time they met in person) as well as their next projects:
And I also got to ask Neil Gaiman some questions, which was great – hard to believe it’s been around twenty years since I first did an author event with Neil in my old bookstore. Our slot got bumped by another interview team but Neil noticed this and very kindly arranged to fit us in after the next item on his very busy schedule, and so we got to stand in late summer sunshine in Charlotte Square and I got to ask Neil about his returning to the Sandman, working with JH Williams III and how it felt, having grown up like most of us our age watching Doctor Who, to walk onto the TARDIS set knowing they were filming a story you wrote, and how much more receptive the people now at the BBC are towards his work:
Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 3″ describes itself as a murder mystery, told in only three seconds. How can three seconds be simultaneously enough for a murder mystery to play out sufficiently or for it to be long enough to fill a whole book? One, two, three, blink and it’s over, surely? Well yes and no are the contradictory answers to that. Yes, three seconds is a short time, normally, at least to human perception, but in those three seconds, as Mathieu points out, light will have travelled around 900, 000 kilometres. And time and space, what can happen within those qualities of existence, our perceptions of those events and the unique way in which the comics medium can manipulate temporal and spatial references are all at the heart of this rather bold experiment in comics storytelling by Mathieu.
We open on a slow zoom in, a nine-panel grid (which Mathieu adheres to religiously throughout the entire book), each panel taking us a little closer, like frozen images from the frames of an old celluloid movie film. And right away Mathieu establishes his main gimmick, his MacGuffin, if you will, the device he uses both as the means of telling this story from pretty much a three hundred and sixty degree wraparound perspective and also at the same time his main stylish conceit: reflections. As we zoom in and out of each series of nine frames we realise we are following those same three seconds’ worth of light particles (and indeed waves, since light, tricky bugger that it is, manages to be both) as they move between reflective surfaces, the opening zoom into a man’s wide-open eye eventually pulls in close enough to reveal the lens of his eye reflecting the mobile phone he is holding, which the next sequence zooms towards, until it is close enough to reveal the tiny lens of the phone’s camera, which in turn reveals the reflection of the man holding that phone. The sequence zooms out and as we see more detail around the man with each panel we see right behind him is another man, grim-faced, with a gun raised in his hand, pointing towards the back of the head of the man with the phone…
It’s incredibly complex stuff at one level, as Mathieu must have spent so much time having to work out angles of reflection as he bounces each scene off another reflective surface – a camera lens, an eye, a shiny earring, each time expanding the scene out – and it is the same scene, the same three, short seconds of life or death drama we are witnessing. Each sequence reveals more from different perspectives as Mathieu expands the area around the main event, reflected light taking us spinning around that event to see partial glimpses of it from different perspectives, from around that room in the opening scene to a glimpse from another building, which leads us to the street which leads us again elsewhere, even as far as an airliner passing high overhead and even the cold, unblinking techno-cyclops of a satellite camera in orbit staring back down. All of this our light bounces around within its three second window. At the same time it is in some ways remarkably simple – one short scene, after all. But the multiple variations on perspectives create complexity from this simple-seeming scenario.
I’ll confess I was intrigued by this notion even before I received a copy of the book, but I was also wary – I’m all for people experimenting with the medium, it’s ripe for it after all, comics are such a wonderful place for creators to tell stories in remarkably different ways. But part of me worried that this might seem like a clever gimmick, but just that – a gimmick. A nice trick, interesting, clever, rewarding to the reader even, but only for a short time, perhaps too much of a reliance on such a gimmick to stretch it out to a whole book? No, that fear was unfounded. I’ll admit it took me several pages to really get into 3″ – oh for sure I liked the technique of the reflections and travelled light from frame to frame, but it was perhaps only when I was starting to get around a third of the way through that I really started to get it.
This isn’t just about a clever technique. This is Mathieu rewiring the visual part of your brain.
Let me explain a little, and bear with me, because this is a very subjective experience and not easily put into words (even more subjective than most reading, I mean). As that repetition of nine frames, each leading to another sequence of reflections and different angles on the same event builds up in your head you reach a sort of critical mass as a reader: the book is no longer a flat, two dimensional object, Mathieu has had the visual part of your brain, the same part that, often without your conscious thought, maps the world around you to let you navigate it with seeming ease, taking in his two dimensional world and recreating it within your mind’s eye in three dimensions. In fact, four dimensions, really since we must include here the element of time to the X, Y and Z axes of a three dimensional representation. As you read each new series of nine panels is giving your brain more information and it starts to reconstruct this three seconds of reality from all sides, as if you were constructing a hologram of it, a fully realised, fully dimensioned scene you could spin around to examine from any and all angles.
It’s ‘bullet time’ from the Matrix recreated in comics form. Except not just in comics form – as I indicated, Mathieu is trusting the reader, indeed relying on his reader, to do much of the work here. When you reach this threshold – and I imagine it will differ for each reader at what point in the story you do – you realise the artist has put the scene, the story, the entire book inside your head. It’s magnificent, head-spinning stuff when you grasp what he’s done and it feels so rewarding too, that no matter how cleverly he worked out his panels, his moves, his reflections, his slow reveals, it can only work with one last reflection – through the eye and into the human brain where it is reprocessed and becomes a fully realised scene within our own heads. Chris Ware at his recent Edinburgh Book Festival talk discussed ‘three dimensional comics’, that is works like his and others which used the two dimensional surface of a printed page to give the reader a real feel of a fully dimensioned world they can believe in and sense. Grant Morrison too has discussed how the flat ink and surface paper can create a form of virtual reality, a multi-dimensional space we believe in and which requires the reader’s active participation to fully realise (and that’s it, we’re not just reading, passively scanning text and images, our brains are constantly interpreting and rebuilding what we read inside our heads – all the more so with a work like this which is actively seeking to engage with those mental faculties so directly). Well, this is a grand experiment in pushing that faculty of the medium to a new level.
This is a remarkable interaction between the printed page and the reader’s own imagination and mental faculties, a true collaboration between storyteller and reader, and the more perspectives we gain as those nine panel pages progress the more we realise our interpretation of what we thought that first scene was are changing (as with anything context and perspective can always alter meaning, a good thing to remember). In any good murder mystery the reader is always a bit of a participant, trying to guess what happened before the conclusion, drawing on the evidence the author provides, but here it is taken to a whole new level. In fact Mathieu’s work demands the reader’s active participation, and there is even a complimentary website which expands this reader-author interaction. As I said I approached this intrigued but unsure it was more than a clever little conceit of a device more suited to a short tale as an experiment, not for carrying an entire book. I came away with my head rewired and the space Mathieu created now living in full dimensional life inside my brain. It’s a head-trip, up there with those visual eye and mind opening moments such as the Stargate sequence from 2001 or scenes from Apocalypse Now which similarly crack open your imagination and create a very personal-level interaction with the art. It is very hard to really articulate to someone how those experiences feel, but we all know them when they happen – a certain film scene, a piece of music, a painting we fall into – and it changes us a bit. This, for me, is one of those moments. Truly remarkable and a wonderful demonstration of the power and flexibility of the comics medium and its ability to engage with the mind of the reader in astonishing ways. You can even read it backwards, should you wish, like a comics palindrome.
this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
Well, it’s been one hell of a weekend here in Edinburgh for the comic creators, publishers and readers. I’ve been along to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for many years, and in the last few years I’ve been covering some very fine graphic novel events. This year, however, was on a totally different scale with the Stripped strand of comics related events, from workshops for younger readers (whipping Gary Northfield into the venue full of excited young readers then locking him in with paper and pencils) to events with up and coming younger talent (from Gareth Brookes to Will Morris to Gillen and McKelvie), top-level home-grown talent (Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Bryan Talbot) to some of the most acclaimed comics creators from round the world (Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Rutu Modan and more). The events went from workshops to talks to quick interviews, live Twitter sessions and great events in the Spiegeltent such as a live draw and a ‘literary death match’ which included many of the writers and artists in Charlotte Square, including Neil Gaiman, Paul Cornell and Emma Vieceli. And not forgetting a two day mini comic fair that gave a brilliant stage (in a handsome historic setting, no less) to our vibrant small press creators. Then we also had the very first 9th Art Award (scooped by one of our former Commentary guests Stephen Collins for The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil). What a weekend…
While we had some Stripped events earlier in the Book Festival (which you must remember is a huge event in the world literary calender – over two weeks of events and over eight hundred authors, there really is nothing else quite on this scale), most notably the events with Joe Sacco and Chris Ware, who had individual events and then a cracking double-header event which was a pleasure to see (my report is here on the blog and the entire event, plus some short interviews, is now available to watch in video form – see here), the main concentration of Stripped events was planned around a long weekend, from Friday through to this Monday. I’ve been there for that whole busy but wonderful weekend and my head is still whirling a little bit from it and the intensity. As regular readers know I usually write up individual posts on each of the graphic novel events at the Book Fest, but frankly this year’s scale and sheer busy nature makes that impractical (besides which a team of comickers such as our own Nicola Love, DTT’s Jeremy Briggs, Edward Ross and Metaphrog have been filing reports and interviews which you can check out here) and if I tried to do so I would still be writing by the time my few days off to recover had passed! So this year instead I’m just going to post a report on my whole Book Festival/Stripped experience over that weekend and what I think it says about our medium and how it being perceived right now. Apologies if that means it sometimes becomes a little rambling, but I will bung in plenty of photos too!
The first gig of the busy weekend for me was with Blank Slate Books alumni Will Morris, discussing his beautiful The Silver Darlings on stage with local creator Edward Ross (creator of, among others, the fine Filmish series I’ve reported on here before) and Dundee-based academic Doctor Chris Murray (in his trademark radioactive glow shirt). Will talked of his early comics reading and influences (unsurprisingly Chris Ware’s name came up several times from both the boys during this part of the conversation), while Edward noted that, like quite a few of us he read comics when younger then drifted away in late teens and early 20s, before being introduced to creators who hooked the adult reader in him back to the medium, eventually leading him to start dabbling with his own comics, using his love of films to inspire what would become Filmish. I’ve hugely enjoyed the very different work of both creators and it was a pleasure to see such up and coming talent on stage at such a major event.
My weekend then went into overdrive, after sitting in the audience and enjoying listening to Ed and Will discuss their work, then meeting a bunch of comickers in the author’s tent. And yes, being allowed access to the sacred enclosure of the author’s yurt is exactly as exciting as you are imagining it is. I count myself very fortunate that over my years in the book trade I’ve got to meet a whole range of authors and artists, and it’s one of the nicest perks of the job, especially as most I’ve met are very lovely people, very friendly to chat away to (I’m sure many of you have experienced the same when getting to chat to creators when getting your books signed) and we’ve been lucky that those contacts have often lead to us getting some of those creators on to guest here on the blog so everyone gets a taster. So I’m not unused to meeting authors, but holy drokk, this was on a ridiculous scale in such a small space! Every visit to the author’s yurt you would bump into several more comickers, then some more. Quite a few I knew already, there were more I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time (such as Robbie Morrison and Jim Murray, there with their excellent Drowntown). And then on a warm late summer evening Grant Morrison strolls into the scene. Yes, it was one of those weekends where things like that just happened (go on, those of you who were there, how often between events as you relaxed in the gardens of Charlotte Square did you spot favourite creators wandering about? It’s a great festival pastime!).
Bryan Talbot, of course, goes way back with Grant, the pair of them being an integral part of one of the early attempts to create something new in comics for a mature readership (in some ways well ahead of its time), with Near Myths, which came out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop, which became the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet (our very own Kenny was often to be found in that old specialist emporium as the ‘Saturday boy’), and he was kind enough to introduce us properly. Less than an hour later and I’m walking onto a stage in a packed theatre with Grant… Yes, first time I’ve been asked to chair an event at the Book Festival and the first one was with one of the biggest names in the medium. So, no pressure there at all, eh?
You might imagine being asked to chair an event like that creates a mixture of pleasure, delight, stress and worry, and you’d be bang on. It’s a fairly daunting thing to do, especially with such a noted author; I’m no stranger to doing on-stage events with authors, but it’s been a while and what a spot to get back into the saddle. But while it is a little overwhelming to talk to such an acclaimed writer in front of a crowd I am also aware that despite the pressure that brings in some ways it makes it easier, because Grant is a professional, very experienced at such events and he genuinely loves getting a chance to relax and talk with his readers. So once we’d had a short chat we went straight to the Q&A with the audience, something I know he was keen to get to and certainly the crowd was desperate to get their questions in before the hour ran out. Before the audience Q&A though we briefly talked about his earliest work – since we were sitting in an Edinburgh venue it seemed appropriate to talk a little about Near Myths being put together in the same city several decades before. Grant, very nicely, made a point of also talking about how this was also where Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright first appeared and then paid tribute to Bryan as one of the great pillars of the British comics scene (to a great round of applause for a delighted Bryan who was in the audience); a lovely wee moment of respect from one top creator to another.
We also touched on his upcoming work such as Multiversity (several issues, each with different artists working with him), returning to Seaguy and of course since he had raised the subject himself in previous Book Festival visits, I had to ask him about his plans for Wonder Woman, and how he wants to take some of what her creator put in there (including that highly sexual element) to do her justice in a new form. But I think it was the audience Q&A which was the highlight of the evening for most in the audience, and I suspect we could have been there for several hours and still not got through everyone who wanted to ask a question. As in previous years at the Fest Grant was signing away for hours afterwards, taking time to chat to each person in turn. Sitting at one of the table nearby, just outside the signing tent, every few minutes I would see two or three fans walk out, clutching their just-signed books. Almost without fail I’d see them walk out, pause, excitedly open their books and show the signed pages to their friend, all of them with huge smiles as they exited; it was rather nice to see this repeat itself every few minutes, watching very, very happy, content readers happily holding their freshly signed books. That’s one of the simple pleasures of doing book events and signing sessions, seeing how it delights readers, and you know what, it’s a simple pleasure I never get tired of seeing.
From then on the weekend got busier and busier for me. I did manage to fit in a walk around the Mini Comics Fair though and chat to several of the small press comickers there, including the aforementioned Edward Ross, the Metaphrog crew, Neil Slorance (whose work is fast becoming a favourite with some of our crew), Stephen Goodall, Coll Hamilton and and Carolyn Alexander, Lynsey Hutchinson, Kathryn Briggs and more, and picked myself up a wee selection of comics for later reading. I know the organisers would have liked to have the mini comic bash in the main part of the gardens alongside the rest of the Book Fest, but there simply wasn’t any more room. So they had them directly across the road, just a few paces away, in the most splendid surroundings I have ever seen for a small press fair, being in a historic heritage property directly above the Book Festival’s own offices, a magnificent Georgian town house, all 18th century wood panelling and plasterwork ceilings. I could easily have spent much more time and more money there but there was always something else happening, not to mention the matter of preparing for the next day’s schedule.
And that next day was even busier for me, several events to take in, interviews to take part in and the small matter of chairing another event. The day started with Mary and Bryant Talbot talking with Teddy Jamieson, and naturally as well as discussing their previous and upcoming work (Mary’s Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, which looks like it will see print next spring, a fourth and fifth Grandville from Bryan) the subject of their unprecedented win at the Costa literary award, a first for a graphic work, was raised. This was a topic which came up quite a bit when I was chatting to other comickers in between events, it’s really been a boost to a lot of us involved in the medium. After this I had the pleasure of hanging with Arthur C Clarke winning novelist and comics scribe Lauren Beukes and artist Inaki Miranda. The weather gods, for once, had favoured us (which is not always the case at the Edinburgh festivals! Indeed Lauren had come prepared with a new raincoat just in case) and we got to sit outside while planning how the guys wanted to do their talk, which I was chairing. Interestingly this was the first time writer and artist had met in person, their collaboration on the excellent Fairest: Hidden Kingdom story arc was conducted online and through telepathy using crystals found only in a remote series of caves in Lauren’s homeland of South Africa.
You’d never know this from their rapport though and it was clear the two of them were having a terrific time. Lauren had been there for a couple of days, also taking part in an event discussing her prose work, for which she has garnered (deservedly so) a formidable reputation (her most recent genre-crossing novel, The Shining Girls, partakes of science fiction, crime and horror; it’s disturbing and compelling in equal measures, see James’ recent review of it here), poor Inaki had arrived just that morning and already we were prodding him to get ready, but he was game for it, driven along by endless good natured teasing from Lauren. Regular readers will know Lauren and Inaki from their Director’s Commentary guest post they were kind enough to do for us, and having talked with them before for that and then again more recently ahead of their arrival in Edinburgh we all had that nice feeling that although this was a first meeting for the three of us we also sort of knew each other already, and it made it an absolute delight to work with them, especially as they had a good idea of how they wanted to present their talk (a sort of process talk, a little similar to how they approached their guest Commentary).
The talk went very well and took in the mechanics of collaborating between writer and artist when both live in different continents, the approach to characters and story, setting and the role of sexuality and violence in the tale. Lauren was at great pains to use these latter aspects carefully, mindful of the reputation comics get for the way they portray sex, representation of women and violent acts (sadly sometimes criticisms of how comics show these can be quite justified), and the sexuality here was more of the naturally sensual nature of Rapunzel. Some violence in comics can be too ‘consequence free’, Lauren argued, huge superhuman fist-fights that look spectacular but give a cartoony, showy view of physical violence. In one harrowing scene in Fairest Rapunzel is in a fight and she is beaten, extremely badly. Both she and Inaki wanted this to be realistic, to show the horrid brutality of repeatedly striking another person, and they talked us through this scene, with Inaki’s art fragmenting as Rapunzel is repeatedly struck and begins to fade out. They didn’t want to glamorise the violence and I think their depiction was an interesting and mature way to show the scene. During the Q&A with the audience one young woman asked for advice in developing her own work, and both writer and artist offered some very helpful and encouraging suggestions. At the signing afterwords in the on-site bookstore sales must have been very good, because they actually sold out of their volume of Fairest!
The rest of this part of the weekend saw me interviewing for the short video pieces the Book Festival has been posting up on their YouTube Channel (you may already have seen some of them as we’ve been embedding them), including one with Lauren and Inaki and another with some bloke called Neil Gaiman. Worry not, you don’t have to put up with me in the frame as I stood behind the camera crew asking the questions! But it was nice to get to take part in a couple of these events, a whole bunch of Book Festival and comicker folk have contributed to them and more will be appearing online shortly. On a related note I have to say a thank you to Neil, as a snafu over interview schedules meant our spot for the video got bumped, but he overheard and despite his packed schedule made sure to fit us in a little later so we still got it in the can. I managed to get in some questions about the upcoming new Sandman, working with JH Williams III and his Doctor Who work and other recent Neil-themed BBC collaborations, I’m sure the video will be up in the near future and we’ll point you to it, of course.
After that for the rest of that evening and the next day I could go back to simply being in the audience and enjoying the events. Hannah Berry had the daunting task of chairing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman talk for Stripped (Neil, as is now almost customary for him each August, was at the Book Festival doing numerous events, including Stripped). It is always a pleasure to hear Neil talking about his work, and for me it was an especial delight to hear him spending an hour discussing the Sandman, my all-time favourite comics series. Poor Hannah was teased mercilessly if playfully by Neil throughout their talk, but it was all very good natured and he was clearly relishing the chance to go back and talk about the Sandman, how he got into comics writing, how the story developed, him learning more as it progressed, and now this return to the Dreaming. The hour passed far too quickly and before the end Neil asked the audience not to applaud for him but to instead give that round of applause to Hannah for being such a good sport through their talk (personally I think she did a great job and so did everyone else I talked to).
The evening for me was finished off with an event I personally wanted to be at very much, the late night Iain Banks tribute. This would have been where the mighty Banksie would have been talking about his new (and sadly final) novel had he been fit enough, but after his shockingly sudden decline and departure to join the Sublimed of his Culture this spring some of his friends and fellow Scots authors – Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and Ken MacLeod – took to the stage in his honour, and Neil Gaiman, busy with a massive signing queue in the tent next door after his Sandman talk, took a few minutes from his signing duties to nip into the theatre to share an anecdote about his younger days at a science fiction convention and a drunken Iain Banks scaling the outside of the Metropole hotel in Brighton. It was a peculiar event, readings from Iain’s older and new work, his friends and fellow writers sharing memories of the man himself and the audience too being included, asked to share their thoughts and memories of Iain. Jura, one of the festival’s sponsors, had kindly arranged for everyone in the audience to be serve a dram of their fine single malt after the event, and his long-time friend Ken MacLeod lead us all in a toast. Sad, sad, sad to think of the Book Festival without Iain’s smiling presence, and yet heartening to see him so warmly remembered, there in spirit.
A final event for me and another bright and sunny day from the weather gods, I was meeting Inaki to go to the event with Martin Rowson and Rob Davis talking with Stuart Kelly, and in a good bit of timing we found them both already chatting by the author’s yurt, along with Emma Vieceli. This constantly bumping into comics creators was a theme for this entire weekend, every time I was coming or going from events I’d bump into folks – oh look, there’s John Higgins getting ready for a panel, there’s Dan Abnett, I’d cross paths with Garen Ewing or Gary Northfield while there would be a sudden flurry of activity and everyone’s heads would turn to take in Sarah McIntyre passing by in one of her wonderful costumes (I think literary critic and comics fan Stuart Kelly was the only one who came near her with his Riddler costume for one of his talks!). Rob and Martin were discussing adapting literary classic to the comics medium, Martin mostly on his very fine Tristram Shandy and Rob, of course, on his magnificent two volume take on the Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote.
It was a fascinating talk, taking in not just how you approach adapting major works of literature but, equally important, why you do it. Both had their own ideas but both agreed very much on the fact that you had to be bringing something different to the work or it was pointless doing it, that you had to be able to retell the story to a new audience, staying true to the original’s theme while still bringing something fresh, a very difficult trick to pull off. Some may think that adapting an existing work is easier than having to script an original from scratch and then illustrate it, but it isn’t, and to be honest I suspect in some ways it may be even more difficult than writing new stories from scratch. Rob had planned some of his approach ahead, scripting it beginning with dialogue, while Martin said that he often didn’t know how he would handle each segment until he started it, he found himself unable to work from a script of storyboard (he said he did try it once but it simply would not work for him and he had to give that project up). It was a great talk, not least because their chair, Stuart Kelly (now out of his Riddler costume after his Batman talk), has a hugely impressive knowledge and appreciation of all sorts of literature which he could use to refer to Rob and Martin’s adaptation.
As you are probably getting from this report (which has, as usual, ended up being far longer than I planned – sorry! So much going on and I know I am still missing huge chunks out…) it was a tremendously busy four days. Some writers and artists I got to chat with for a few moments in passing, some I got to talk to for a bit longer, and there are others I missed getting to speak to altogether. This was a theme I heard from most of those present – there were so many events packed into Stripped that we were all coming and going so frequently, stopping to get a quick break and a drink and snack in the author’s yurt then back out for more, so that pretty much all of us missed some folks entirely and had to make that usual festival or convention dilemma decision of which clashing events we could go to and which we would have to miss out on. But while we all lamented this, I didn’t meet anyone who thought it a particularly bad thing, because, quite frankly, it was caused by a real embarrassment of riches. The Book Festival team – Roland, Janet, Kirsten and the rest, please take a very well deserved bow – had delivered us a huge and varied programme that really was, in effect, a mini comics festival within the main Book Fest.
Another aspect I picked up on talking to authors and artists and publishers between events was how happy most of them were to be there and at the sheer scale of the comics programming the Book Festival gang had put together. Pretty much every comicker I talked to saw this as hugely positive – the world’s biggest literary festival not just including comics (as they had for several years) but shouting about them from the rooftops. This and the Talbots’ Costa win and the media coverage of the Festival that concentrated on the comics strand all combined to give everyone a hugely positive, very optimistic feeling – there was a really great vibe coming out of this, and how many of the comickers thought it showed our beloved medium is being perceived, not just by other comics readers but by publishers, literary organisations, the media and non comics readers who have been tempted in by events like these to start trying some graphic works (just the other day I suggested some graphic novels to a reader on Twitter who had been intrigued after the Stripped events).
I’m very much inclined to share this optimistic view, and yes some of that comes from the happy energy of the event, but it was more than that – as I said Bryan and Mary Talbot’s Costa literary award came up often talking to other comickers, and the upcoming Angouleme-style Lakes festival, along with the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s events were all combining to make many comickers feel that there was a real momentum to how the wider reading and publishing world is viewing comics now, and that’s something I think we can all take and build on. Given the pre-eminent position of the Edinburgh Book Fest as the largest lit-fest of its type in the world and the influence that has, I’d be surprised if this didn’t help to open more doors for graphic works at more literary festivals, and hopefully a wider audience. One of the things I loved about Stripped, apart from the diverse nature of the creators (which mirrors the diverse nature of the authors in the main programme each year) is that although Stripped was highlighted to all and even had its own wee programme to draw attention to it, it was still very much a part of the main Book Festival. As with the Talbots’ win at the Costas, there was no ghettoisation going on here, the comics works were treated the same as all the other adult and children’s works at the festival, simply as good books and good reading by interesting creators, and I see that as a good thing.
(above: another fabulous outfit and headgear from the one and only Sarah McIntyre, here with Gary Northfield, who was fresh from several hours of comics workshops for young readers, below, another shot – how could I resist? – of Sarah’s costume along with Gary and in the hooped top in centre her collaborator, author Philip Reeve)
It doesn’t mean we stop having our own conventions, but it does, I hope, mean comics works will play an increasing role in all sorts of literary gatherings and festivals and the wider reading audience that lets creators and publishers have access to. And that has to be a good thing, surely? For the literary festivals too I see this as a good move, widening their audience base – I know many at Stripped had been at previous Book Festival events, but I strongly suspect for quite a few this would have been the thing that got them to venture into Charlotte Square for the first time, and I hope that they will be back (and going to other events there as well). We know that sometimes large cultural events and spaces like lit fests or large galleries can be a little intimidating, leading to that “oh, not for the likes of me” feeling for some folks, and anything that breaks down those barriers and encourages more folks to come is a good thing in my book.
The Book Festival has seen another increase in both ticket and book sales this year – I don’t know what part Stripped played in that, but it’s hard not to think it must have helped, especially given the enthusiasm of the comics readers at the Festival and the piles of media attention the Festival crew helped generate that focused on the comics strand. I have no idea if Stripped will return or if it would be quite as huge as this year (so many variables – other parts of publishing demand attention too, after all, plus issues most of us never seen such as availability and costs issues, sponsorship etc) if it does, but I’d be very surprised if future Book Festivals didn’t feature a much larger graphic novel segment than in previous years. All in all, as well as being a hugely enjoyable series of events I think we can see such a large comics presence at the Edinburgh Book Fest as a confirmation of what a lot of us have been saying: it’s a damned good time to be creating and reading comics in the UK right now, and further afield. Here’s to more good comics and more good events…
This report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
A few hours after we had the pleasure of having Joe Sacco and Chris Ware doing a quick signing in our Edinburgh store (see here) I was off to see the pair of them talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Both had given individual talks the preceding evenings at the Book Fest as part of the huge Stripped series of comics events at this year’s Book Festival, and I am told they did so to packed crowds. So on their third night at the world’s biggest literary celebration did that mean they had exhausted the audiences? Nope, it was again packed to the rafters, a huge audience (among them plenty of comickers like Metaphrog, William Goldsmith, Will Morris, Edward Ross, Neil Slorance and our own Nicola among others). The bulk of the Stripped events take place in a huge, solid block of comics goodness over the upcoming bank holiday weekend, so this was my first Stripped gig of the Book Festival, and what a way to kick off this huge celebration of our beloved medium, with a massive, enthusiastic crowd packed into the theatre in the elegant Georgian environs of Charlotte Square and the Herald’s Teddy Jamieson (himself a major comics reader) talking to two of the most internationally acclaimed creators working in comics today. In a further bonus it was even a warm and dry evening (rain being no stranger to Festival crowds in Edinburgh!).
(Joe Sacco (left) and Chris Ware (centre) in conversation with Teddy Jamieson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the Stripped series, photos from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)
Teddy started off the evening by asking Joe and Chris about their early influences and how they progressed into creating comics for a living. Chris replied that as a youngster he was pretty much addicted to television until he went to college and made a decision to cut most of that out of his life in favour of other things. Joe spent a part of his childhood in Australia, where he told us he was exposed to a lot of British comics in addition to the normal compliment of four colour titles from America, and some of the old British war comics had remained in his mind since then. Chris re-iterated his surprise not only at finding out when younger that you could actually draw for a living, but that he has actually made a living and a successful one from working in comics. He has, like most comics artists I know, also taken illustration commissions for companies to help pay the bills, but he said he regarded that kind of work as a bit like prostitution for the artist, work done purely for pay, with no real deep feel or love for the work you are doing, and he is happy he doesn’t really have to take on anything like that unless it is something he wants to do.
Joe, for his part, told us of drawing as a kid, influenced by his British and American comics reading, his sister also drawing with him in that competitive way siblings sometimes do (causing Chris to comment there are two main types of comics artists, the sibling rivalry driven ones and the ones who grew up alone and the comics were their outlet). Joe commented that he thought at that stage his sister was the better artist, but then she hit that certain age, discovered boys and stopped drawing. Luckily for us Joe kept doodling! On his path to the acclaimed comics as journalism genre that he has largely pioneered to such huge effect, he explained he was working on comics but it wasn’t like one day he suddenly thought right, today I shall combine comics and journalism! He was studying journalism though, and on visiting other countries he naturally did what artists do and drew some of what he saw, more like comics travelogues at that point, as he put it. But as he started to record more of what he learned from people he talked to in these places he started to think on applying lessons learned from studying journalism, and gradually the journalistic approach and the comics medium came together. He also paid tribute to some of the great photojournalists as an influence, but noted while they had to strive to try and sum up a whole story in one dramatic, iconic image, the artist is much more fortunate in that they can simply draw the scene as they wish. And then another and another…
Teddy asked Chris about his approach to the medium, and the sense of space he creates in his work, almost like architecture as comics, as he put it (most notably in his recent and rather magnificent Building Stories), and Chris discussed how he likes to make his scenes something a reader can inhabit (in fact both he and Joe talked about the need for both the creator and then the readers to be able to inhabit the settings and the characters, otherwise they felt they hadn’t done their work correctly). This three dimensional approach to the medium was something he clearly relished being able to craft and share, and he also lavished praise on Joe’s work for also creating that three dimensional feeling of a real space and real people (some of the audience concurred, indeed one man at the Q&A session afterwards had been in Bosnia before and after the war and congratulated Joe on the accuracy of his depictions). This mutual admiration was a hallmark of the evening’s proceedings, with both artists frequently citing each other’s works and what they loved about it. This was not done in some gushing, luvvie-style fest, I hasten to add, but was quite clearly the deep-seated admiration of one accomplished artist for another’s work.
I actually found this aspect of the evening’s talk fascinating – obviously all of us who were present are enthusiastic readers of their work, or we wouldn’t have been there, and we’ve all got out own unique interpretations of their works and what they mean to us, how we view them, how they make us feel, all filtered, as any art form is, through our own experiences, previous readings and knowledge. We all see things a little differently, and artists usually even more so when approaching an appreciation of other art. So there was something quite compelling in finding out a little about how artists of this calibre viewed the work of another creator, of equal stature and acclaim to them but with a very different style and approach to the form. While I am sure I would have loved their individual events in the preceding evenings I think having the pair of them discussing parts of each others works that they each admired so much was a bonus to having both of them on stage at the same time, and was for me the highlight of the discussion.
I came away from the talk into a crowd of fellow comickers, standing in the gardens of Charlotte Square on a balmy summer evening, crowds of book lovers coming and going past us to and from the hundreds of other events taking place this month, like a literary tide washing around us as we all stood around with huge smiles, everyone delighted and happy after such a lovely event. So my first Stripped event of this August, and come the weekend after next I will have a pile to attend (and yes, I will do my best to report on them as usual), and this year I’m actually chairing a couple of events too (one with Grant Morrison and another with Inaki Miranda and Lauren Beukes), so there’s a dubious pleasure for the audiences! And let’s not forget on the 24th and 25th we’ve also got the Small Press comic fair, with a whole bunch of Indy creators on hand with their works at the Book Festival. Those of you in Edinburgh or in easy reach of the city, please do come along and support these events, the better it all goes the more likely we are to see plenty of large-scale comics events in future Book Festivals, but as with any of these sorts of projects it requires organisation, planning, and most of all, support from the readers to truly work. And trust me, Stripped is something all of us who love our medium should be supporting. Watch this space for more Book Festival updates in the very near future. On a related note, if you missed Joe and Chris at the Book Fest or when they were signing in out store yesterday, the Edinburgh FP still has limited supplies of signed book by both of them that you can get your hands on.
This report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited again to the launch party for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and this year the world’s biggest literary festival celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. This year there is a huge and very diverse comics strand, Stripped. There have been comics and graphic novel for a good few years and I’ve been along to cover them and report on them, but this is on a vastly larger scale, practically a mini festival within the main festival. There are author talks, workshops, school outreach programmes, events for adults, event for kids, the new Ninth Art Awards and even a free mini-comics event for the small press, Indy self-published comickers to show their wares at this huge event.
(above: the band entertaining us at the Book Festival’s swish launch party last night in Charlotte Square;below, locally based comics creators Will Morris (left) and Edward Ross (right) at the launch party last night, both of them will be taking part in the author events as part of Stripped)
I’ve helped out a little with contacts and suggestions over the months leading up to the festival, as well as helping them with content celebrating some of the writers and artists who will be attending, with the Forbidden Planet blog sharing some of our guest posts by creators with the Stripped blog, and I am really delighted at the diversity and range of events the organisers like Roland, Janet, Kirsten and others have put together (a huge, huge effort). I’m off to my first event later this week, although the bulk of the comics events I’m going to take place over the weekend at the end of August. As well as covering several of the events I will be chairing a couple of author talks this year and looks like I may be doing an interview or two as well. Been a while since I did an on-stage author event, so hoping my old events mojo is still in there somewhere! Sure it will be fine.
And of course the rest of the Book Festival carries on around it, with some 800 authors present over a couple of weeks, the place for book lovers. Sadly one of our regular fixtures at the Book Fest, the great Iain Banks, will not be there this year. He hoped to still be strong enough to read from his new – and sadly now final – novel this summer, but even that was denied to him when his condition took him even faster than any of us thought it could, but several of his friends and fellow writers such as Ian Rankin and Ken MacLeod will be standing up for him at that event. There’s also some nice little touches so Iain is still present in spirit at the Book Festival, such as these terrific literary deckchairs their partners at the Guardian have had made up, featuring quotes from Iain’s work.
You can read a short interview I did with one of the Book Festival’s organisers, Janet Smyth, about the comics strand Stripped over on the (recently relaunched and rather shiny new-look) Forbidden Planet Blog here.
The Bone Season (Scion 1) hardback
The Bone Season (Scion 1) Kindle
It’s 2059, and the United Kingdom – and the rest of the world – of this future is not just different, it has evolved rather differently from the history we know. In this world Queen Victoria was the last ‘good’ monarch, but her son is reviled as the Blood Prince, who dabbled in ‘unnatural’ practices using those with psychic gifts (known as voyants) which drove him into murderous acts (playing on the long-running legend that Jack the Ripper was actually a mad member of the royal family). Britain changes, becoming the Scion, a sort of Puritan totalitarian government (with echoes of Moore and Lloyd’s Norsefire regime in V for Vendetta), virulently anti-voyant in almost religious tones, with decades of propaganda from Scion largely persuading much of the population that all voyants are evil and must be arrested and dealt with. Secret police and uniformed patrols are all over the place, especially in the Scion heartland citadel of London, where the fortunate voyants have been recruited into criminal gangs which use voyants of different psychic abilities (from seeking information from the minds of normals – aumorotics – through to those who can channel ghosts, including even the spirit of a famous dead painter to create new works to sell). The unfortunate ones ‘busk’ in the streets, and like anyone living on the streets they are vulnerable, especially to the vigilant eyes of Scion.
Paige Mahoney, a nineteen year old Irish girl, is secretly a voyant – the daughter of a highly-regarded scientist for the regime she must keep her growing abilities hidden not only from the government and general population but even her own father. He despairs his darling daughter left school and won’t go on to college despite his entreaties, not realising she knows at college she would be too visible and it would only be a matter of time until her abilities were spotted for what they were. So instead he thinks she holds a low level job in an Oxygen bar (the good old fashioned British pub has gone under Scion, who seem to share Cromwell’s attitude to people having fun) that she travels across the city too, but actually she’s in the employ of Jaxon Hall, a mime-lord, one of those who run the voyant gangs around the city. Jaxon isn’t just some underworld figure though, he’s voyant himself and he’s spent a lot of time researching the subject and categorising the abilities and classes of psychic abilities. Paige has abilities, including being able to project herself right out of her body and into the aether (although this leaves her physical body vulnerable and in need of life support). But Jaxon is sure she has much more to her abilities, more than she knows herself yet…
It’s a far from ideal life, but given the circumstances of Scion society (a credo which is spreading to other nations) Paige is relatively content with her alternative ‘family’, despite having to always look over her shoulder for the secret police of Scion seeking out Voyants to send to the Tower and despite missing her native Ireland (now crushed under the Scion heel too, in another echo of Cromwellian times). But Paige’s settled if precarious existence comes crashing down when she is caught by a random police check on public transport and uses an ability she didn’t know she had to fend them off, an ability that puts her onto the radar of the authorities… And others…
When Paige is finally hunted down and taken she finds herself not under arrest by the voyant-hating Scion, however, but by something quite possibly worse – the Rephaites. Large, strong humanoid creatures with a strong connection to the aether and an interest in collecting voyants with skills they can use, they have been in partnership secretly with Scion since the time of Lord Palmerston, a dirty secret at the heart of the state. Supposedly in return for a supply of voyant prisoners and equipment – and the use of the sealed off, lost city of Oxford – they are protecting humanity from incursions by a vicious breed of creatures which only they, with voyant help, can combat and prevent from over-running Scion then the rest of the world through breaches in the Aether made by so many voyants interacting with it. The Rephaites despise humans and treat their prisoners brutally as they train them, discarding those who fail, ruthlessly using the ones who pass their nasty tests. Paige, with her suspected hidden talents, is taken on by Warden, a Rephaite of some standing who has never taken on a human before. Life and training in Oxford at Reph hands is vicious and brutal, most of the humans treated dreadfully, save for a few who seem to take to the life and basically become collaborators. But all is not as it seems – the Reph may have a deal with Scion but they also appear to have their own agenda, while some of the Reph may be a bit different from others, but how can Paige discern friend from foe in this secretive, brutal, closed society, and even if she can, will it be enough to help her survive?
I’m not going to potentially spoil it for you by revealing any more of the plot. However on the quite wonderful style and craft of words Samantha displays I really cannot heap enough praise – it is remarkably self-assured writing, most especially for a debut. This was one of those remarkable reads where within a few pages I felt totally drawn into the world the author drew around me. It’s an intoxicating mixture of elements – personal growth, struggle for freedom (in quite a few ways – from the puritan, authoritarian Scion regime, the vile Rephs, even her ‘family’ of criminal voyants is a form of forced control), they way society view the ‘other’, with good use of fantasy and science fiction elements in a tight, gripping narrative that pulls us right along the journey with Paige. The settings too, from this authoritarian future London ‘citadel’ to Oxford, sealed off for centuries, it’s ancient buildings and streets still lit by gas lamps like the ghost of the Britain that was before the Blood Prince scandal and the rise of the Scion, while that setting also reminds the reader, in the good way, of Pullman’s excellent Dark Materials novels, a fully and well-realised world. It’s not difficult after reading this to see why such a new and very young author has Bloomsbury very excited, and why it has already been sold on into quite a few other countries, while Andy Serkis has taken out a film option on it. I get through a lot of books and comics, but I can say this is the most engrossing read I have had so far this year and frankly the most absorbing and compelling debut I’ve read since the superb Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Hugely recommended.
I was fortunate enough to be invited again to the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s programme for this year, once more in the handsome and historic Signet Library in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square in the heart of the Old Town. Over right hundred events, a vast array of authors and artists on all subjects from biography, science and history to fiction, children’s books, music and this year there is a massive strand, Stripped, focusing on the increasingly vibrant international comics scene, with days of events including up and coming new comics talent, major names (Bryan Talbot, Neil Gaiman, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware to name but a few), works for adults and kids as well as workshops and even space for the excellent native small press, self published comickers and the first of the new comics awards. I don’t know any other major literary fiction which has given such a huge emphasis on the graphic arts like this, let alone the world’s biggest public literary festival. There are more details of Stripped over on the Forbidden Planet blog here.
(above:John and Sandra of Glasgow’s Metaphrog, creators of the gorgeous Louis books among others with the Book Fest’s Kirsten Cowie who is overseeing the Stripped segment, below: local comickers Edward Ross and Jeremy Briggs chatting in the Signet Library)
It’s Sunday evening, and I’ve just come home and learned that one of the UK’s most innovative and hugely bestselling novelists, Iain Banks, had succumbed to the cancer he only announced he was diagnosed with recently. The news of Iain’s illness at only 59 was a real shock to many of us in the literary world; friends and readers (and readers are often friends in our book world) were shellshocked at his announcement. To find this evening that we’ve lost him so soon, when we still held some distant hope that a treatment may help prolong his stay on this planet is devastating. I’ve had the honour and pleasure of doing many a book event with Iain over my years in the book trade, and I’m sitting here right now, like many others I expect, thinking this can’t be bloody right, trying to square my mental image of a hugely genial, friendly, good natured bloke with a love of life with this news that he simply isn’t here anymore, and it makes me feel sick to think of it. And he was genial and friendly – the first time I met Iain I found it hard to think this smiling, open chap I was chatting to was the man who devised the disturbing Wasp Factory (one of the most astonishing Scottish novels of the 20th Century).
Iain straddled literary genres with ease, creating his science fiction (including the remarkable Culture novels) and also his ‘straight’ literary fiction (if you could call anything Iain wrote ‘straight’!) and also deviating into some non fiction for his whisky tour of Scotland (he once told me one of the few books where the research required was a genuine pleasure to undertake). Few writers get to be successful in both a genre and be equally accepted in ‘literary’ fiction (a cumbersome, imprecise term), but Iain did, and both his fiction and science fiction both were covered by the literary critics. His science fiction, in particular his Culture novels, displayed a displeasure at the inequalities of the world as it is but, like Clarke and Rodenberry, a hope and belief that humanity could be better, more evolved, more equal, more caring, more enlightened.
Iain often stuck by those principles in his own life – when Blair and his acolytes fudged ‘intelligence’ to prove why we should invade Iraq Iain refused invites to Blair’s Downing Street gatherings of various artistic worthies and instead cut up his British passport in disgust at this action and said he would do without foreign travel and getting a new passport until the wars were ended or Blair out of office. I am glad that in his last few months he got to go abroad again, having a honeymoon with his long term partner Adele (many Edinburgh geeks will know her for her sterling work in the city’s Dead by Dawn film fest). I received an email from Iain when he was away with Adele a few weeks ago in Venice. I replied saying I hoped he wouldn’t feel compelled to emulate Byron and challenge the locals to a swimming race down the canals. No chance, came the quick reply, I’ve seen what goes into those canals… That was Iain, humour always there, even at times like that, facing what he was facing.
The very evening before I was due to start here at Forbidden Planet several years ago I was treated to a huge, slap-up feed with Iain, Adele and fellow Scottish SF author Ken MacLeod. I had a bad experience with my former bookstore and Iain and Ken had been among the writers I had worked with who stood up and defended me, which was a huge morale boost for me at a very difficult time in my life. It was to be a cheer up, could be worse night out, but by then I had met with our own Kenny who had asked me to start at FP, so it turned into a celebration night. Huge amounts of curry and wine ensued. Despite his huge bestselling status for so many years Iain remained the same friendly, open and very approachable man, the sort of bloke you could just stand in the local pub and chat to over a pint. We lose him just before his publisher, the very fine Orbit Books, one of the homes to the best in British science fiction, could get his new book out. I know they have been rushing to try and get the book out much sooner than possible, everyone thought we would have a bit more time, but again that bastard devil Cancer has had its way instead (and in the words of the current advert series “up yours, Cancer”) and now the book will come out just that bit too late. And ironically one of the main characters is a man facing terminal cancer. Sometimes when art imitates life it is interesting; in this case it may well prove interesting but also rather bitter to the many of us who loved Iain’s writing. I’ve been so looking forward to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August, but the thought of that annual major literary bash without Iain’s usual presence seems so damned wrong.
We’ve lost one of Britian’s finest writers (held by many to be among the top 50 most influential and important writers in the UK since 1945) and a major influence in our beloved science fiction genre, and worse we’ve lost a damned good man, and far, far, far to bloody young. If you enjoy a good drink then when you have a decent ale or even better a good dram of single malt, raise a wee toast for Iain, he’d doubtless appreciate that. And maybe as well as picking up The Quarry later this month from Orbit readers may, if they are able, want to consider a wee donation in his memory to Cancer Research, still fighting fighting against this damned disease which takes too many of us (are there any of us who haven’t lost a family member or friend to it?). In a small mercy his wife Adele said that his passing was without pain.
Goodbye, Iain, your inventiveness brought so many of us onboard and you took us with you on some extraordinary expeditions into the imagination, and on a personal note you and Ken and many other writers were there for me when I needed it and stood up for me, which I will always be so grateful for. Rather than dwell on losing Iain so damnably young I prefer to remember him smilingly signing books for fans, chatting away to them and other writer friends and booksellers after the author event was over, usually in the bar over a pint, beer in his hand and big, open grin on his face. My thoughts go out to Adele, his family and closest friends who have had to endure the thought of his dreadful illness and now his sudden passing. Somewhere, in the vastly distant future, when mankind has perhaps evolved to be more like the Utopian Culture he imagined I hope one day there will be a Mind piloting a starship and it will choose to call itself after Iain.