Lost in Translation panel discussion transcription
This is the transcription of the panel discussion which followed Paul Gravett’s talk at the Lost In Translation event held on Friday 3rd November by the Goethe Institute and Alliance Française, Park Circus, Glasgow. Taking part were Paul Gravett, Sandra and John from Metaphrog and Arne Bellstorf, with Marc Baines chairing the discussion. I’ve tried to make this as close as possible to what was said, but being a multi-person discussion (with audience questions too) there are, inevitably, moments where more than one person talks at the same time and I can’t make out quite what’s being said, which I apologies for in advance. And as it was a discussion rather than a written work sometimes the flow of the text may seem odd, but that’s due to its conversational origins rather than this being a written work; that said I think most of the discussion is clear and since it ranges across a number of fields, from comics creation to translation and different cultural takes on comics in different countries I think it will be of interest. The library at the Goethe Institut in Glasgow now has a range of German and French comics available to browse, so if you are in the area and interested please do get in touch with them. Metaphrog’s Louis: Lying to Clive is currently being posted on Serializer.net
Marc: Arne Bellstorf to my left here; this is his recent graphic novel which won the best independent comic of 2006 at Erlangen, his first long work, wasn’t it? Previously he had worked on shorter piece for Orang magazine, Strapazin and others, mostly German magazine. He is also doing a monthly comic strip in Tagesspiegel. These are single, self contained comic strips that are the third Sunday of every month in Tagesspiegel, a colour supplement in the newspaper in Germany.
We have John and Sandra from Metaphrog here who started doing comics about ten years ago, with Strange Weather Lately, published several issues of this as a kind American style pamphlet comic book, which was later collected into a couple of graphic novels. More recently they’ve been doing the Louis series – is that three or four now?
Sandra: Its four now.
Marc: Four books in the Louis series, which maybe has more of the look of like children’s books, buy they deal a lot with adult themes… They’ve had their books translated into Italian, Spanish and you’ve done some comics strips yourselves which have been translated into French. [indicates projected image] This is a page from the latest Louis book, which also appeared with either a CD or a vinyl record, which meant it could be distributed to record shops and book shops and get it out of the comics shop ghetto, which is often hard for cartoonists based in Britain to get their work into bookshops…
Myself, I’m an occasional cartoonist, I mostly do illustration work recently [indicates projected image again] this is a record sleeve for a compilation record for Save the Children, bands like Franz Ferdinand and Ivor Cutler have done these songs for children which recently came out. I also publish cartoonists [with Kingly Books], many of them were first published by Paul in Escape magazine and haven’t really had a home since then, there hasn’t been a British publisher publishing that kind of non-genre type of comic book, so I’ve been pointing out quite a few of these things recently, it was quite a well-received book and got some good reviews…
So comics are often spoken of as a visual medium but if you speak to some cartoonists, like Lynda Barry for example, who was a painter to start with, she started at art school doing painting and found bits of text working their way into her work and she eventually realised she could tell her stories through her images the way she wanted to more by doing four panel comic strips in that way. And I think it’s that balance between text and image often, that tension between the two, the way you can use both of those, looking and reading, looking and reading, going between those two kinds of modes, it’s one of the unique things about comics. So I think it would be interesting first to start off talking about maybe how you got into making comics. Arne if you’d like to start?
Arne: I don’t know when it started… It was only a hobby to draw, from Mickey Mouse Magazine and spend my whole time drawing. But at that time I had no idea how to do that as a job, that it could be a real life job I earn money with.
Marc: When did that realisation come?
Arne: When I started to study graphic design and illustration with Anke Feuchtenberger, my professor at university, she showed me all these comics that, to me, was a new world. Comics from the likes of Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes… So it was not so long ago that I realised that there were comics for adults, for people who want to read comics other than Mickey Mouse.
Marc: John and Sandra?
Sandra: At first we both met twelve years ago and we’d both always been reading comics, funny enough we’d really never decided to work in comics. Its just when we met John was writing or wanting to write and I was drawing and painting and we just thought we’d try and work together and make the two, to create something we’d both enjoy doing. We didn’t really know anything about comics, even though we’d been reading some, we didn’t really know about the industry, or what you could do, we just though we’d create something.
John: For me it was a catalyst, I didn’t know exactly what would come of it. Both of us were aware of comics – you [Sandra] were aware of French comics and I’d grown up reading Tintin and Asterix and knew of some European comics and some comics from round the world and British ones, but I think like most kids I doodled, made cartoons, maybe satirised things, but you don’t really know you’re doing it, it wasn’t like a career decision at four years old. I’d wanted to write but I really didn’t have the courage to do it, I didn’t know where I would start. I didn’t necessarily lack the imagination to see how to make a living writing, I wasn’t really concerned about making a living, more about making a life.
When we met we realised we enjoyed working together, doing stuff together and out of that we decided to publish our own comics, to bring them out into the world. To say we didn’t know anything about the market is an understatement, I don’t think we gave it a second thought. We did know about Superman comics for example and we didn’t think about competing against these things because they had special powers. We didn’t really see it as a commercial enterprise, certainly not at first. I think it’s quite difficult to produce comics and make a commercial success of it, it’s not much different from producing a film or something like that.
Audience member: Do you think that’s changed then? You’re saying there been an exponential increase in the market.
John: That’s in the French [see the transcript of Paul Gravett’s speech for this]. I think there’s a profusion of stuff nowadays, I think when we started there had been a glut of comics and that put people off buying them. We’d produced a comic that was the wrong size, the concept of having something the wrong size…
Sandra: For the American market.
John: To be told it’s the wrong size is absurd I think, isn’t it? It just doesn’t seem like a sensible decision to make, you make it the sizes you want to make it, because that’s where we were coming from. I don’t know if it is more difficult now. What we were very conscious of is that as we did our work certain channels opened up and at the same time, perhaps inevitably, other things skated away, other things became impossible. We couldn’t have survived if we hadn’t been able to get social security in this country, because when you’re writing a comic you’re not bringing in any income, it takes a lot of time, so I think now you’re forced into a job which will make it much, much more difficult in order to create a comic, to spend the days planning what you’re going to put on each page, to spend the time necessary to let ideas come to you and then for you [Sandra] to spend the days drawing it and working at your drawing, I think in a sense it is almost a luxury.
In some countries it is almost a matter of life and death and you’ll see the satire is more savage in certain countries. Because the market has grown so much it doesn’t make it any easier, I think if anything it saturates the market and the diversification is greater so the budgets are spread across far wider areas and far more books, or films or records or whatever…
Marc: And for people to navigate that and find the books that are interesting is maybe difficult because of that.
John: I think nowadays there are sites which review things and if you have friends who can tell you what to look for or if you know your own taste… I think you have to dig a bit deeper, like you’re saying, I think that’s very true.
Marc: A good starting place might be Paul’s site, Paulgravett.com?
Paul: Yeah, that’s it. You’re quite right the internet is very important for alerting people and I think word of mouth is very important too. In the end this is what we all know, we’re all being told that this week’s Hollywood film is wonderful but often it isn’t of course, not always anyway, and often the most interesting cultural stuff doesn’t get much coverage… And so word of mouth and that kind of thing is really important to discover these things. And also I think libraries… I think the fact that you can go into more libraries now, certainly in Britain, and actually borrow graphic novels for free and try them out yourself, that’s a very important step, because otherwise people aren’t going to spend out on a graphic novel and then be disappointed, they want to try them for nothing, so that’s good.
John: Do you not think that people will get tired, that certain types of people will react badly to being told what to read or what to watch and I think then it creates a dynamic which pushes in the other direction. If something is mass marketed… There wasn’t mass marketing when we started. In the last five years things are thrown at you, they’re bombarding you at bus shelters, on buses, newspapers, if you watch the television its on the television, if you go to the pictures it’s at the pictures sometimes in another form. But it’s the same five products from the same five companies.
Audience member: General entertainment products, you mean?
John: Yeah and like diet products or anti-indigestion products…
Marc: There isn’t quite that machine behind comics. But how are you finding distribution now for yourself? Do you find you’ve got to the place where you’re able to get your books to where you want to and reach the kind of readership you hoped to find?
John: Basically if you can move a very, very large number of units of something, if little bits fall off it doesn’t really matter. And if you’re only moving small amounts of something they get lost. So you have to look for people who really care about what they’re doing and that means spending time building networks of distribution with people. Now if they’re caring about the thing they tend to be heads, they tend to be much, much more interested in what it is they’re moving, they’ll even have read it, they might even talk to others about it and the stuff then is networked, its then transmitted, so distribution has two meanings. We have big distributors who lose what we fell are big quantities of our books and we’ve got big distributors who steal big quantities of our books.
That might sound appalling but that’s just the way it works, they even steal from bigger publishers, millions of pounds worth of books, so distribution is an awful thing in one sense, but in another sense we have small distributors who know our stuff and we maybe know them and when it all adds up you’ve got enough maybe to produce a book, as you [Marc] know yourself. As a publisher it is a different job from a comic creator. For us to deal with distributors it takes nine phone calls to get one person to find a box of books, and it’s impossible if you consider that across nine thousand bookshops or nine thousand comics shops you’d quickly go crazy I think trying to deal with that. So distribution doesn’t take care of itself…
Marc: And taking that on while trying to create the work itself… Is the situation any easier in Germany?
Arne: No. [laughter] When I came here I thought Germany was the smallest market for comics, but when I heard you [Paul] talking about Germany it sounded like a beautiful place [laughter] starting with Goethe.
Paul: There are struggles I know in Germany as well, it’s not all rosy.
Arne: At the moment I don’t make any money with the comics I do.
Paul: But you do make money with your strip in Tagesspiegel, that’s quite a break.
Arne, Ja, since June this year, I can make a living out of comics maybe.
Marc: Does that one page a month make a living for you?
Arne: Very meagre, the rent money.
Marc: I think we’ll talk a little about how you create comics, step back a little from the distribution, that process, the commercial side of it. Talk a little about maybe at first about character design and then the actual process of writing and creating a story in comics. John and Sandra, your earlier work in Strange Weather Lately seem to have quite a dark and ominous tone to a lot of the stories and similarly to the drawings. With the Louis stories they are set in this kind of dystopian world, this Hamlet, this kind of place which is almost like the Prisoner television series if people know that. This very kind of oppressive feel.
Its very brightly coloured, it has a character who almost has antecedents in something like Rupert the Bear, a very friendly character, but you are dealing with a lot of these dark things through that. Was that a conscious decision to make, to develop it in that way? And has it meant that you’re able to explore other things in more interesting ways, for yourselves?
Sandra: It was a conscious decision to break away from our previous work, which was quite dark as you said. We wanted to make a story that would be more universally appealing to people and have a character that people could identify more.
Marc: Without compromising the kind of things you were talking about?
Sandra: Keeping on talking about issues or things we wanted to keep on talking about. So we wanted to kind of disguise adult themes under a kind of happy or colourful veneer. That’s why we decided to use a small character with very rounded features, living in a really colourful environment, even though it’s very oppressive because everyone is in little boxes, like little houses with fences, its very bright colours we decided to use.
John: I think we probably reacted to what we’d done before. I don’t necessarily mean that we learned, but I hope we did learn something. When you make a story you don’t always realise somebody’s going to have to read it and if it is too complex or too long, drawn-out, you can lose a lot of your momentum and maybe not do your work as well as you’d like to be able to do it. So we set out to tell a simple story as well as we could.
And yes, things like the Prisoner were obvious comparisons the critics made and I think they are very valid. When you’re looking at any story, you have basic stories you’re either using or manipulating and also basic human truths or metaphors that encompass – I hate to say the human condition – but Louis’s kind of alone but he is also like a child, easily empathised with, you can look at him and think that’s me, that’s you. At least that’s what we hoped. Whereas with Martin … in Strange Weather, he’s a mirror, but the idea of mirrors is already one step removed; its complex and you’re dealing with ideas that are not more than one dimensional necessarily but just difficult to carry forward in a story. And I think the strength of storytelling is that someone can pick up a book and hold on to it and get through it. Whereas with the comic we did before we played with the idea of a disposable comic, ones would get lost, then the story was about loss, the plot gets lost – everything in the story gets lost and it moves around, but it moves about too much.
People have read it and liked it – Boy Scouts even wanted to put it on as a play, which was kind of unexpected [laughter]. We didn’t really think people were getting anything from it after they’d done it, which is terrible, but with the Louis story we really wanted people to get something from it, because we saw the potential to use, like you said, the brightly coloured, childlike world as a backdrop for allegory. So yes, it does give us room to fill the character with idea and make the reader fill the character with ideas, because when you read the book you are ultimately the author whether you like it or not. What you bring to life is a lot do with your own imagination as well as the manipulation of the creators of the comics that you’re reading. Certainly personal stories… there is a smaller degree of interaction because you’re being given a look into a private world. But some stories carry the readers in that way. I think we tried to create the tensions between the light and dark rather than just the dark. There are dark ideas in Louis, but it’s mitigated by the brightness, in fact sometimes it is made worse by the brightness.
Paul: Chris Ware described comics as being like sheet music, where it’s not a performance, you have to perform it. It’s quite a good analogy I think because there’s all these kind of symbols and elements and it only really works when you as a reader animate it, direct it and make it come alive in your head.
John: I’ve never understood Rupert the Bear. I’ve read it and thought it was surreal, quirky and strange but never really quite read enough of it to get it, whereas Winnie the Pooh I think anyone can understand the appeal of.
Marc: I was thinking in terms of the kind of image of the character – I’ve always found it very stodgy to read, Rupert the Bear. I think something maybe a bit closer to what you’re doing it Tove Janson’s Moomins, because there are these very kind of cute, cuddly characters and yet there is something very dark going on in a lot of those stories.
John: You get a similar thing in animation, like Bod… There’s a character, Bod, who is small and orange and has Zen-like epiphanies. I think the creators put that character and the stories together as a labour of love and the music and everything was put together to make the whole bigger. Because that’s what surprises me with the Louis books, I kind of feel embarrassed reading them because I wrote them, but I can read them because you [Sandra] drew them.
So we’re lucky in so much as working together doesn’t create problems, because I think some comics, when four people work on it, it doesn’t produce something that’s four times the work of one person always, sometimes it produces a turgid, unreadable thing that puzzles me. I tried to read a kid’s comics and I’m not really sure what was happening at all. I don’t want to put other comics down, but I just think sometimes people working together, it doesn’t work.
Marc: So you’re talking about Louis being almost a blank canvas for people to project themselves onto, some kind of identification?
John: I think that simplifies it maybe too much. The necessary factors in the Louis character are his relative innocence, his near blindness and certainly other attributes most people don’t have, fortunately. He doesn’t seem to have any kind of faculty for reaction or disagreement with a lot of the things he is forced to do. Which is obviously an allegory, an extension for the way we’re forced to do things in our lives. Whatever he’s forced to eat or forced to watch, he does react slightly against it, but he’s not just a blank canvas, because he has to represent, in a sense innocence.
Marc: He’s more maybe like a reflector character that the reader can identify with but isn’t maybe going out and making the action so much?
John: Well, I think his companion carries a metaphor for Louis: the caged bird. He’s somebody who’s got a nice little house, say a nice little mortgage, and a nice little job, but his job’s relatively meaningful to no-one. It’s like the division of labour; suddenly he’s doing tasks but is very hard to discern the precise function of. He doesn’t have a role, so therefore he endemically not satisfied. If you have a role in society you’re satisfied, whether you’re a teacher or nurse or street sweeper, you have satisfaction – he has to try and find that satisfaction elsewhere. So it’s about the triumph of the human condition I hope, that people can rise above whatever they are forced to do. And I’d like to think people can see themselves in that, in that sense very much, but for the storytelling you have to see his neighbours. They cast shadows, they’re nasty; makes you see how much nicer Louis is.
There’s a dynamic between all the characters and your central character as well as with the milieu. Your [Sandra’s] painted world is frightening because it’s so beautiful in the colours and I think you have to ask yourself what is this beauty, what’s it for? There’s hopefully a lot of questions asked just by the character, where he’s set and who’s around him. I think you’re probably right, people can project a mirror of what they like on to him, but you have be careful in writing it to set up tensions.
Sandra: I think in terms of the design of a character, from a graphics point of view, if you’re going to do a character or a story that’s going to be very elaborate in terms of the drawing, with, let’s say, something that would look more photographic, it may be less easy for the reader to identify with the central character than if it was just a circle with two dots, because then you can project any face onto that, literally, so that’s what we had in mind when we started.
Marc: You don’t necessarily work with the same character on all your stories, do you [Arne]?
Arne: No, because I get bored with one character very easily.
Marc: But several stories have, for example in your novel, the characters all have a similar kind of feel to them, they have this slightly alien… you pitch them all as kind of outside of the normal world as it were. Had you intended to make a slight distancing of the characters from the readers? I was thinking it was the kind of thing, when reading your stories, you warm to the characters as you go in. You don’t maybe immediately identify with them, but you get to feel sympathy for them the more you read them, I think.
Arne: I think its also you make an offer to the reader, you can identify with this character but you can also dislike the character, hate him for not being, for not going out, not acting like you would normally act when you meet someone. I don’t care about how the reader might identify with him.
Audience member: Can I ask a question? Your comic is in the category of everyday life – do you feel that it is in some way autobiographical what you write? I was thing of Acht, Neun, Zehn – is that part of yourself, or friends or people around you?
Arne: It’s a question always asked. Of course it is somehow autobiographical because I grew up in a very similar environment, small buildings and gardens, but I was not raised by a single mother living alone with her son, so it’s not totally my life, but Kristof Bachman is part of myself of course.
Audience member: I was just wondering because with Louis you wouldn’t ask that question immediately because he looks different, like a fantasy figure. When you see Kristof you think… a young man, a teenager, I’m more drawn to the conclusion.
Arne: His main character is that he doesn’t have a character at that point of the story. He’s growing up, he’s sixteen maybe, and he doesn’t know how he should act, he’s very insecure, which is what I try to say about him. He’s searching for his character maybe.
Marc: Although it might not be directly autobiographical are there maybe things from your life in the character of Louis? Looking at the world around you and how it operates, systems of social control?
John: Even friend’s body language, friend’s children, everything. I think things you see influence what you are.
Sandra: And you put yourself in your stories, its inevitable. Unless you’re going to just write material or draw material that’s given to you then its going to be personal to some extent.
John: Because then you’re writing and drawing about what you know; you understand what you are trying to achieve. Like Paul said earlier about the eyebrow or body language or composition of a single panel shifting the equilibrium of a story. It’s the same for anything – you set it out as best as you can to achieve the effect. It’s the same with literature I think, writers will make a single sentence and then edit it till they get the effect they hope to achieve.
Marc: Can you talk a little about how you work as a team, writing the stories? Is there a certain amount of back and forth between the image and the text? I don’t know if people know there are many, many ways of writing a comic strip story. So if you had someone like Alan Moore who might write a very detailed description of everything that happens in a certain panel and the dialogue in there , and the first drawing will have to just kind of try to fit everything in. He’ll describe the mood, certain objects… very detailed descriptions. There’s the Marvel comics method which was developed in the 60s with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, where the cartoonist would take a very basic plot and then visually they’d tell the story panel by panel, advancing the story panel by panel and then the person who was credited as the writer would come in and put the dialogue in and any captions that were needed to tell that story. And there’s many, many different ways of working and I was just wondering how the three of you kind of work, you as a team, you individually.
John: We work together; I write and letter and Sandra does the art, normally, but the ideas come from both of us, I think. Sometimes ideas incubate for a longer period of time and some ideas are initially rejected, perhaps wrongly, then they grow on you and you can see a way to work them. I can any amount of time – ten years, two years, six months, a week – sometimes writing is like not knowing what you’re going to do, sp when you get to the point where you have pen and paper and something flows out of it based on that idea, loosely, it maybe goes in a certain direction. Once I’ve discussed an idea with Sandra I tend to incubate it and try to plan an aesthetic structure I feel will be novel and interesting. And once I’ve got that planned I’ll script it then in a structural format for panels with an idea for Louis, but I don’t have to think about how many panels are going to be on each page. But these are the kinds of considerations, the parameters you have to deal with.
But its not like Alan Moore, I don’t sit and write a two page essay for each panel. You [Sandra] get a lot of slack and with the Louis books you know what the characters look like already unless they’re new ones and sometimes I’ll doodle characters and you’ll doodle characters and the doodles can be completely obviously apposite, you’ll say right, that’s definitely that. And other times I’ve described characters and the machinery they’ve to use and you ignore them and that’s fine. [laughter] Suddenly you’re looking at Hitler dressed as the Ku Klux Klan and, well I didn’t really visualise that, but that’s fine [laughs]. So I think if you’re working with someone there’s two ways you can go about it, you can be a complete control freak about it or you can give them enough artistic freedom… And I think it’s better the latter, if you’re going to work with somebody and keep working with them, its better to try and grow and encourage the growth, say “that’s a good idea, but…”.
Sometimes you need things in each panel or need things on the page and sometimes it has to turn a page. Comics are an unusual language – they’re different from books in that you see the future. You only see the future slightly in a book; if you’re going to read the end of read a word at the bottom of a page its not going to effect much, but with comics that’s everything – you turn the page and you’ve got the future right there, whether you like it or not, so you have to consider that.
Marc: As you’re reading it out you’re kind of clued to what’s going on in the rest of the page.
Paul: You’re kind of focussed on looking ahead a little bit; the only way you can surprise someone reading a comic is by turning a page, like Ah! Suddenly something unexpected can happen.
John: For our books, for the Louis books, which are colour, it gives you a larger palette to play with. If you’ve got the whole script, which isn’t always the case, sometimes its stressful not knowing what’s coming next, worse for you [Sandra] probably, because I’ve got it going on in my head, over a year maybe, making a book, I’ll know what’s going on and you won’t.
Marc: Do you work in chunks?
John: We did work in chunks before, but now we get as much of the whole thing as possible. That gives you the chance then to co-ordinate the tones and colours.
Sandra: well, once you’ve written enough of the script, or the whole script, I’ll go over it and decide the layouts. Visually divide the story into visual parts and you’ll read it and give your [John’s] input and then once we’re happy with it… And that can change over time and we can go back.
Marc: So text and dialogue might change it at that point, once the initial drawings are introduced.
John: What you were saying earlier about text and image, then image and text and image and text is very true. But you have also a third thing going on with comics, which is the positioning of text with image, where one thing reads contrary to the other, or one thing, like a tautology over emphasises the other and some of these things are necessary and they create like a third space, they create something else completely. And that can work really well; I think How To Be An Artist by Eddie Campbell works well there.
Marc: There’s a panel in the latest strip where these flower creatures or people dressed in little flower outfits are taking Louis down under ground and there’s just a bit of dialogue which says “we glide, you slide” or something like that and it just seems really perfect for that drawing. And I was wondering with things like that if sometimes the drawings suggest the dialogue?
John: The other way around – sometimes the dialogue suggests the drawings style and sometimes the doodle suggest the writing.
Marc: That’s what I was kind of thinking, from the doodle stage.
John: It’s hard to really say, it’s quite organic almost.
Sandra: You have to reach a balance, trying to get everything balanced … and the image is sometimes playing around … if you cut a story into different paragraphs representing different panels sometimes you have to completely mess that up and try and re-order it in a different order and sometimes it works better. It’s really, like, different elements and trying to organise them in the best way possible to convey the story in as good a way as possible.
John: The last book was different because it wasn’t done in chunks. What happened with that new process was a distillation, so a lot of the things that were in the script didn’t finally end up in the finished book because you [Sandra] found a way to economise. in a sense, what was there.
Marc: So you were editing almost like a film-maker?
John: We both had to, because certain things had to stay there. And what was compromised was maybe mood. Some people, if they don’t read books carefully, some people read a comic fairly cursorily, they’ll skim through it and might not see everything that’s going on. And I think that’s probably a good thing because you don’t see what’s going on even when you’re reading a book. You get a sense of the book and two weeks later all that’s left is the sense of the book quite often. So when people re-read a book they get more from it. And people are less inclined maybe to re-read in a fast culture an accelerated culture but they will re-read a comic because you can dip into it. You can spend time looking at panels, looking at pages. Its one beauty of comics and graphic novels is you don’t only get a read, you can get a re-read and look at different things and how they work. Sometimes its fortuitous. Economy’s a good thing to go for with text.
Paul: When you mentioned about balance of text and image, I’m just going to throw this open because I’m actually very keen on that balance being changed or subverted, that we don’t have this idea that there are only so many words allowed per balloon or so many balloons per page.
If we look at someone like Posey Simmonds with Gemma Bovery, if you’ve read Gemma Bovery, is a wonderful example of all kinds of all kinds of balances of typeset, novel-esque text inserted in the middle of comic strip pages. She actually showed that if we accept the fact that we can read and read text it leaves room for different forms of text to be incorporated into graphic novels and I think that really does take us away from the convention. And we know there’s a convention that there’s only so many words meant to be in each panel, which does hold comics back in a sense – not all comics – but it does allow for another way for comics to develop.
John: I think you enter into a contract with the reader to a certain extent.
Paul: Yes, you do, absolutely.
John: You’re showing them what to expect. You create a rhythm; you can play with that rhythm and as soon as you put in a long list you can jar them out of that.
Paul: I think certain comics readers are somewhat reluctant to take on text if its somehow not working and I think we need stop and think well, actually, pictures can work beautifully, visual sequences can work with no text in them whatsoever. Similarly you can have substantial text; someone like Dave Sim who, for better or worse, has opened up completely the balance of the page and a bit of imbalance isn’t a bad thing now and again, I think.
Marc: Look at someone like Lynda Barry again, sometimes the text is just forcing the drawing way down…
Paul: There’s an enormous amount of text…
Sandra: There are creators like that in France too…
Marc: She’s got this sort of four panel format to work with and sometimes what she has to say within those four panels can’t be done with having that lovely balance between the art and the text in that way and maybe it’s a little uglier to look at but it kinds of works, her writing is important.
John: If you don’t play with these things you’re potentially limiting the medium, but if you play with them just for the sake of it, at the expense of the story or the readability of the story… There’s a film… which has an enormous bang punctuating it every now and then and it is suits the film, its part of the inherent structure. There’s no sound in comics per se. Okay you can put onomatopoeia in, but you have to try and break the flow with other devices, but you do it at the risk of the story sometimes. Certainly for our Louis books we’ve got a world that needs to retain a certain integrity.
Paul: Absolutely, yeah, I can see that.
John: Which can be frustrating.
Marc: For you as well there’s a very definite sense of place in the graphic novel; it seems like the sequences within a house you can physically feel, you know they are going from the small room into a stairwell into a larger room… Even though you’re not showing all of that there a real sense that you know what that space is that you’re working with. Some cartoonists have even made models of houses they’re using or even streets, so they can get in amongst them and think oh yes, we can have this happening here.
John: Who did that?
Marc: Seth. Canadian cartoonist Seth built the whole kind of cardboard street. One of his story, Clyde Fans, a large part of it was set in the basement and ground floor of one building so he made little plans and models… If you want to talk a little more about the scripting and development of stories. Do you have to divide your brain into the script writer and the guy who draws?
Arne: It sounds like I am two persons… I try to combine this in one moment, because I am thinking in pictures and at the same time there are the words, but I don’t know exactly the words, of what they are saying, but I know…
Marc: That’s the kind of thing you can come back to later.
Arne: So I have these pictures and I do a storyboard of the scenes. Then I draw all the pages and the final step for me is to put in the words. This is also a chance to look at how it works – is everything there that I want to say in the pictures? For me the most important thing is to say as much as possible with the pictures and then try to put some words on to make some things clear or to support the atmosphere of the piece. But I think the atmosphere should be there from the pictures. In the beginning I was also not so sure about the writing – I don’t see myself as a writer and I was very insecure about words and the language. It was easier because there’s not much talking.
Paul: I was going to say there isn’t really a single page that has dialogue in every panel. There’s always going to be at least one sound panel on your pages… As we were talking about text and lack of text, I think you use silence really very well and I think silence is one of the things we take for granted comics can do, but they do them with a real power, I mean, you can really say a lot. And there’s a tendency for people not used to reading comics when they get to a silent page, like for example this scene here where you have a transition through the town, just go, well I’ll take that in a few seconds, not to slow down and read the pictures, actually get inside the pictures.
I also think silence is wonderful for creating tensions, you get a sense of people not knowing how to communicate, you get a sense of thinking. Its something comics can convey especially well – how do you convey silence in a written novel? You went quite, inserted a blank space? Its something I don’t think writers of novels can get across, how do they get across silence? “It was quite” or something? “You could hear a pin drop”? Whereas within comics it’s one of the things that’s very important to get across. Because unlike this evening we’re not always listening to a lot of people talking. In our daily lives we don’t spend every moment talking – well, I do of course [laughter] – but we don’t and we are sometimes in quite, contemplative mode and comics can really reflect this well, I think, somehow to me better than film or writing can.
Audience member: Just picking up on that theme do you think there is a way in which these things can be translated into film quite effectively? There’s two examples recently, I think, both Ghost World and V started off as graphic novels, although surprisingly translated using actors rather than artists, if you see what I mean. Do you think those were a success?
Paul: Personally I think the links between comics and films are clear but they’re over-exaggerated. As I said we’ve discussed the importance of what comics are like compared to film, which is that you can look, you can spend time with a fast forward or rewind button, but you don’t look through a film the way you can look through a comic; you can actually return to it, you can dip into it again and go back to a scene that you like.
Marc: You’re not lead by the nose, really.
Audience member: A number of film directors use story boards, which is something a bit like comics.
Paul: Hitchcock used them for everything, all of his great scenes were planned like a comics strip, but that’s only one aspect of what comics are like, because there’s so many other elements of… text for one thing, which have to be brought in and not just a visual flow. There’s so many things going on in terms of the size… which we take for granted, the very fact that in some pages, for example, you have that sequence with a widescreen image. That, Scott McCloud, one of the great guru of understanding comics, says this implies that more time is going on, that it isn’t just a cinematic event of going ‘widescreen’ it also implies a slowing down is taking place here. And one of the things you use very well are shots of things which don’t seem to make a lot of sense… I don’t know what the phrase is exactly – aspect? … It’s a shot basically where you show a glass on a table for example, then something else… There is a very good place where Kristian is basically just in a kind of turmoil essentially here, and these kind of incidental shots of a room, a computer, him standing in the bathroom, have a cumulative effect, which, in a sense film can do perfectly well, but actually comics do in a very effective way because its all on the page there at once, we can take it all in, in a kind of composite way. So in a nutshell hopefully films help sell graphic novels, because then we’re looking for people to go and read Sin City or read Ghost World and discover in the end the comics are better than any adaptation – better than any actor or a big budget can be.
John: Ghost World is a successful film. Very different from the graphic novel and it was written partly by Daniel Clowes, the writer of the original graphic novel. The key difference is as you’re saying is probably in the pacing. In the cinema if you actually go the film theatre… the projection, the pacing is dictated by the cinema experience; you’re not pausing it or rewinding it and you don’t have the chance to turn the pages at your own leisure as you would with a book.
Marc: There’s also a certain cinematic convention in the structure. Ghost World I’m thinking it had to be written in such a way that it would fit into this three act structure which is common to most Hollywood films.
Paul: Even indy ones.
Marc: Even independent ones.
John: The characters are likeable enough to carry the film.
Marc: yeah. I think there are a lot of good things about the film, but it’s a very different thing from the graphic novel, and so it should be. One of the big differences is that you don’t get sound – unless there’s a free record included in the book [laughter from the Metaphrog corner]. You don’t have that soundtrack, so its maybe harder, if someone is listening to a piece of music unless someone knows what that piece of music is when its being referenced in the story, someone has to go and kind of download it from Limewire or something when reading the book. But its maybe a little harder and there are other ways for the cartoonist has to go about suggesting the kind of mood which is very easily created in the film.
Paul: I feel film is an easy thing to do in a sense, you just have to put on a nice, big orchestra playing some sort of terrifying music and a nice, big close-up of a woman looking frightened and you’re frightened. It doesn’t take very much skill – sorry, it does really! – but its been done for a century or so and we know how it works, it goes round again and again, another horror film comes out. Where to create real mood and atmosphere and chills in a comic is actually quite difficult and in some way becomes more effective because it gets into you, gets under your skin a bit more… A work, for example, like Black Hole, by Charles Burns – I’m sure it will make a perfectly wonderful film, David Cronenberg wants to make it apparently – but the fact is that in comic strip form it has to have such a power on the page, because those drawing are so black and crisp and precise.
Marc: And also the reader has to do a little more to fill in…
Sandra: That’s the important thing, I think, when you’re reading a graphic novel you get your own voice – its you that makes the story as you’re reading it. When you watch a film you can’t really do that because the characters have their own faces, their own bodies, their own voices, the music is projected onto everything, you’re more of a…
John: You’re more of a receptor.
Sandra: That’s right.
John: Its dictated to you. Films may be storyboarded but its really just sketches and the whole point of a sketch… I don’t want to talk about McLuhan, or something like that, but you have hot and cold media, where one encourages you to empathise, it is loose, like jazz music or something like that, whereas the other is hot, its high definition, like the phone is low definition whereas the cinema is high definition. So you don’t get the same kind of interaction. One causes hallucinations, one causes hypnosis; so you have a complete difference. With comics you’re hallucinating slightly, with cinema its more of a hypnotic experience – both are pleasant but you have to know what you’re interacting with. As Sandra says, the actors and the sounds dictate to you, you’re receiving, but when you read you are interacting – it’s a completely different process at work. It doesn’t require cerebration particularly, its just an interaction…
Audience member: I’d like to ask a question about France as well – does anybody have an explanation about why comics are so popular in France. Just to make a small point, if you pick up French novels, paperbacks, then you will find that the outside is almost universally white with just the titles on, compared to British bookstores where you’ll find lots and lots of pictures on the outside of paperbacks. So it can’t be that there’s inherently some desire for illustration in France because there are some cases where they are much more puritan than the British, so why?
Paul: Then again I think the French, generally, we would consider to be much more a visually celebratory culture, certainly compared to Britain where we’re thought of as the culture of the book and the word.
Marc: The slapstick comedies do a lot better in France than over here, that visual kind of thing.
Paul: France and Belgium had Hergé and Goscinny and Uderzo, then the cultural revolution of May ’68 which enables what was previously seen to be kind of despised lower culture taken more seriously, whether it was rock music, or jazz or band dessinee. So there’s been a whole cycle of important cultural shifts that other countries, including Germany for that matter, didn’t have important pioneers like Hergé, and above all we have this album format, which we have in a way in Britain. The children’s album has been around certainly since the 19th century, but its an annual, in other words its something that sells for a few months until Xmas and then as you know in January you can buy them for next to nothing in WH Smith and so all that material disappears. Its absurd that our heritage of British comics, things like Oor Wullie, the Broons, Desperate Dan and the Bash Street Kids aren’t in print as the perennial classics they so obviously are. Whereas in France or Belgium, Tintin is still there and the same books have been selling for seventy years nearly.
John: Britain has tradition of political satire and cartooning, quite a rich heritage which could be set beside the French liking for band dessinee… I don’t think one culture is better than another, you have to remember not to make a value judgement. Cheese is popular in France, it’s a rural country where there are lots of cows and fields… You can’t explain the graphic novels of band dessinee being popular there in the same way. I don’t think you can say one culture has a more visual aspect particularly or a greater tradition of painting, but France certainly does have a rich tradition in painting and tradition art.
Audience member: Well why do you think the manga style has cut across cultures? Its not just popular in Britain where I gather it’s the largest increase in books sales in any genre. When I was in Geneva I had to pass through all the manga head to get to the French graphic novels and I was the only person in the French bit. Why that style?
Paul: You’re right, it is odd. Its helped by the fact that its been seen on TV, and cheap animation has been consumed by young kids. I think its also because publishers of conventional bande dessinee, where BD is still very popular in France many kids don’t want to read the same comics as their parents. Kids want a culture of their own, especially one their parents and teachers find a bit puzzling or even a bit disturbing or upsetting. And manga of course are often read back to front, read in the opposite direction as is the Japanese language and they are a special culture that’s appealed especially to teenage kids as a being a kind of rebellious culture of their own, I think, that’s one explanation.
And the fact is I think the manga are really important injection we need right now in world comics. Far from being seen as some kind of tsunami or cultural invasion that’s going to wipe out the local, homegrown product, it is already stimulating a lot of talent in every country to produce manga of their own, for better or worse. Sometimes they are very imitative and mediocre but sometimes they actually understand that manga isn’t just about big eyes and explosions and speed lines, its actually about expanding the storytelling potential of comics.
And its something that ought to cross over into the other worlds of comics. It already is happening, be it bande dessinee or American comics or German comics, because there is a lot of things to learn from manga. Your comic in a sense is manga like, in the sense that you actually take the time to develop characters and emotions and the situation, its not sort of crammed into a small amount of space. So you have moments of pauses, you have awkward sequences of silence and this kind of thing and actually develop the character over many pages, which is very much a manga thing.
One thing I think is interesting is… graphic novelists, the two things they haven’t used much textually are sound effects, which the Japanese have got an amazing lexicon of. They have several words for silence, which will be there on the page. They have words for things that aren’t even sounds, like embarrassment; actions themselves can be described in a sound effect term. And also the other factor, which perhaps the Japanese don’t use very much because most of their text in the balloons is lettering. You were telling me, Arne, that your lettering, as many people use these days, is actually your handwriting set into a font. Well I can always tell that because of course there is no variation, all the Es look the same, all the Ss look the same. And to my mind, I know it is an easier way of doing lettering, but one of the charms of comics actually is their hand-lettered quality, because the thing that makes the whole fit together as a seamless whole is basically text and pictures are all hand-drawn and hand-written.
And not just that, but lettering isn’t used very creatively. I’m thinking on someone like Walt Kelly with Pogo which was an amazing newspaper strip, funny animal strip, which did brilliant satire of 50s politics, had a character called Senator Malarkey for example, who was of course based on Senator McCarthy, the whole McCarthyism thing of the 50s. His various characters had different type styles in the balloons to convey their personality, so one kind of huckster characters spoke in letters that looked like circus billboards, that kind of typography was used. Now that hasn’t, for some reason, there’s a kind of oh we don’t want to too much that stands out, we don’t want to use sound effects, we don’t want to use different typographical approaches to text.
But actually, whether its using the diary format or the novelist format in Gemma Bovery, Will Eisner’s use of graphic textual elements on the page, its actually wide open for us to bring these things into these kinds of comics, the graphic novel and enrich it even further. You’ve seen Chris Ware’s use of typography where you have these enormous ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ appearing on the page which are deliberately meant to be jarring and are literally strong type elements that stand out and interrupt the flow. He’s already opening up that avenue I think.
Marc: Even using the arrows to navigate you around the comic strip, which is sometimes used by amateur cartoonists…
Paul: Who got them in the wrong order…
Marc: Make one cartoon big and have to shift things round a bit, but is used in a very intelligent way to lead your eye around the page.
Paul: This is why I think in a way comics are coming into their own now, because we’re in a culture where, especially with people being used to reading and looking and navigating the internet for example, or for that matter navigating or walking around Glasgow, where you have advertising, billboards, stop and go signs on the crossing, you have to navigate words and pictures all the time in our daily lives and comics are just like that, it’s a navigation process through pictures and words.
Audience member: Can I just pick up on what you’re saying about daily lives and go back to the question about why there’s this culture in France. I think one of the reasons is that in post-war France comics were made part of daily lives by the two main pressure groups, the communists and the Catholics and they got their messages across by sponsoring journals… Because these were going into kid’s homes and they grew up and passed them on to their kids, although, as you said, they now want something different, it was instilled for reasons of, let’s say propaganda, which has made them part of post-war culture in France. I don’t think that’s happened so much in other countries.
Paul: You could argue, maybe, that the equivalent would be something like Eagle in this country, which was of course a very Christian values publication…
Audience member: There wasn’t quite this sort of thing though.
Marc: I don’t know if in Germany maybe, the flood of American culture into Germany in the post-war period maybe held back the development of comics in Germany and its only in the last few years…
Arne: I was reading about the history of the German comics and they said that in the 40s Hitler forbade all sorts of comics and that was the point, after that there was no development of comics… except for kind of Mickey Mouse comics… But there was no other development of comics after that. Always the Nazis can be blamed for everything! [laughter].
Audience member: Does anyone remember Spiro, the magazine Spiro. Years ago, maybe decades ago there were very different kinds of series and types, different styles. Do you think today there would be still such a market for such a magazine?
Marc: In France?
Audience member: And you could have like a serial and everything every week…
Marc: In France or…? … It seems to be moving towards this kind of format almost being the format that kind of more experimental or interesting work is being produced in now. And there is quite a lot of anthologies coming out just now, there seems to be a real growth of these kinds of anthologies, where you’d see very different work sitting next to each other. So you’d see stuff that was very kind of fine art, kind of very drawing-based stuff next to things that might be the … traditional funny animals comics and that kind of thing. So you do still see that kind of thing you might have seen in Spiro, but in these big, chunky hardback books. Things like Kramer’s Ergot, McSweeney’s…
Paul: More book format. The other thing is about the newsstand is that the newsstand market is really struggling in Britain. We have a lot of comics selling, but they tend to be product, they’re tie-ins to like Doctor Who for example, Simpsons, which of course is American material reprinted – that’s selling very well, 150, 000 copies. The problem with something like Spiro is it has to put out weekly and it costs a lot of money to produce a magazine like this, which is why in fact, over time, in France, most of these magazines, whether they are for children or adults, the whole era of things like Metal Hurlant… Has disappeared because its expensive and they’ve found that most people, in the end, wanted to buy the hardback books and knew that in a matter of months a serial they were following was going to come out in book form and that’s what they wanted to put their money into. So they gradually lost their way as being the vital form. There are still weeklies being published in France and Belgium but the fact is they are not anything like – and monthlies too – anything like the sales they once had…
Audience member: … it continues, do you think there is still a…
Paul: Yes, it does, it continues in Japan. In Japan… they get four, five hundred page weekly comics selling for about a pound fifty, where you get almost literally the equivalent of a week’s television practically in the terms of about twenty different serials. And you’re hooked and its so cheap you buy it and throw it away like a newspaper and then eventually of course you buy the book. That hasn’t happened in the West – when manga have been exported they’ve been exported in the complete… paperbacks of about two hundred pages. And they’re coming out every two months or so, so its quite a good read for about five or six pounds. Young people are getting addicted to stories that are being serialised in these volumes of perhaps ten, twelve, twenty, thirty episodes. Its serialisation but on a different scale, its actually in two hundred page chunks every two months rather than a weekly, short two or three page episode. And of course this is why at the moment we’re seeing this huge invasion of bookshops in France, Germany and in Britain and America of manga because there’s an enormous backlog of material that’s been serialised over many years and is ready to come out on a very frequent basis.
John: Some of the French publishers produced weekly or monthly magazines to feature or interview their creators and to run stories. And they stopped doing that because it was almost like a marketing device – some people liked to buy them but sales dropped so much… We went for twelve years and watched the number of magazines disappear.
Audience member: Yes, I’ve seen this.
John: Occasionally new ones would come forward but they would be very periodical.
Paul: But the balance now is of course that you create an album complete and publish it without any serialisation. And the trouble is with three thousand plus titles in this past year there’s a lot of things coming up no-one’s heard of, often artists are not being given the chance to learn their craft, as it were, in a magazine format on short stories or perhaps develop over time, they’re thrust into doing an album straight away and sometimes the quality is not that great. And a lot of things are pigeon holed into specific genres, its not a very flexible approach to comics publishing.
John: Some publishers watched what had happened on the underground, and seen the rise of L’Association and other countries similar things were happening. And they attempted to co-opt the underground and produce a range of books that were alternative, nominally, but the quality control was not great and the editorial drive behind these lines was not as powerful as behind the mainstream. Whether that was because of reactionary elements in a culture or whatever drives these dynamics its hard to tell.
But ultimately nowadays its money really. So if something doesn’t sell, like a new author, if they don’t succeed with their first book they’re lost, they’re buried and its very difficult for them to do anything else. With comics its no different except perhaps the amount of time spent and the momentum lost, if you see what I mean. So if books are then put in lines, as they’re called, or put in a certain format, it can lose a lot of the creative elements that the book should have or originally had, because it constrains them. I think it limits everything, it limits the publishers, it limits the creators, it limits the market – its saturated the market. The exponential growth is crazy because nobody can actually read, there’s too many books to read.
Audience member: Of course, especially in my country [speaker sounds French]
Other audience member: We’re talking about two different things here I think. One was you started off by asking if we had ever read a graphic novel. And this word ‘novel’ is novel because it is for the modern ones obviously that you have an illustrated book which just happens to be a longer story, not serialised… And would also therefore the interest would perhaps be more in the story itself and not in the picture. While the artist here, which we’re having here, equally, if not more, interested in the graphics, in the expression as it is the story actually expressed in the picture… When you said have you read a novel I would have said yes, I have read David Copperfield in comics strip, which was obviously a translation from an ordinary novel into pictures. But this was a different format or different thing altogether, because it started with the text. This one starts the same time…
Paul: … In harmony with the pictures and words…
Marc: Some cartoonist or comics creators are a little uncomfortable with the term graphic novel and see it as maybe like a marketing thing, they may prefer something like ‘longform comic’ But its become the norm that these books are referred to as graphic novels and I was speaking with Arne about this earlier, there’s a section in the bookshops now that is Graphic Novels, whether we like it or we don’t, that’s the term.
Paul: Its interesting you mentioned Charles Dickens and David Copperfield because Dickens, as you know, had cartoonists, he had Fizz and George Cruickshank, illustrate his novels, he knew how important… They were also of course serialised, they were an addictive form of reading… But he also knew how important the illustrations were but at some point in our culture anyway, the idea of illustrations being integral to a novel for reading for adults suddenly became an anathema and suddenly it was not allowed and that’s all a part of this … that the picture is somehow telling you too much, you should use your imagination.
This is a recurring complaint I always hear of course when I’m extolling graphic novels, that they can’t surely be as good as a proper novel with just the text on the page because you have to imagine so much, there’s so much more there. But there’s still a lot of imagination required to read a graphic novel properly. Even if you being shown how the characters look you have to bring a lot of interpretation and a lot of understanding to what’s on the page. They do have words in them – not all of them – but they do have very well, carefully-chosen words in a graphic novel. Someone like Art Spiegelman would actually rework the text in one of his dialogue balloons up to forty times before he would be happy with it. Its one of the challenges of comics is that generally you have very few words and they must be used carefully and precisely.
Audience member: Texts are often very difficult actually to read when you talk about translation – I have used comics strips for language teachings, but I found it often uses very, very difficult words which children or young people have to try and understand. I was hoping that by looking a the picture and the text they could make out the sense… But its not that easy because it seems to be that the text is more complex than one thinks.
Paul: In theory, as I said with Toepffer, he couldn’t draw very well, he couldn’t write terribly well, but if you put the two bits together it would work. But often if you do separate them, if you take the text out of a comic and something is lost when you try to put it back in again or try and translate it. And translation is one of the themes we’ve been coming round to in a way…
Marc: Yes, I don’t know how much time there will be [laughter] we need to wrap up.
Audience member: Can I just say that’s how I learned to speak French, through reading novels. The good thing is you do a certain amount of scholarly work to learn vocabulary and things, but when you get tired of that you fall back on a pleasurable experience which you can also pick up maybe ten words a book, something like that, you tend to keep going with it.
John: You don’t necessarily as a read expect the dialogue in the speech bubble to tell you what’s happening in the panel.
Marc; That use of words as well, that’s very important to the cartoonist. You’ll use a word like… [sorry, can’t make this out odd word!] … which is an English word, but not in common use, its derived from a French word. You couldn’t get the exact word you wanted in common English which was like that. And you also make up some words sometimes, don’t you?
John: No [laughs].
Audience member: Books which are heavily translated are the Asterix books, they are beautifully translated.
Marc: But you see the translation of those, there are a lot of puns in Asterix, so you’ll get the names of the characters in English being very different from the French…
Marc: Getafix is a good one…
Paul: … Famously said … he thought the English translations were better, were improvement on his own, original French versions.
John: If somebody cares about the story they’ll translate it well. I love it when you get a transliteration… you can’t use not just visual puns, or words or connotations, you’ll never get a good translation, or you can get a good translation but you’ll never get something as good as what the original language was.
Marc: Its like trying to literally translate a piece of poetry, its not going to say the same thing at all.
John: Doesn’t have the rhythm.
Marc: So we’re going to have to wrap it up here, but everyone will be around for the next twenty minutes if you want a quick chat.