Comics & SF at the Edinburgh Book Festival – a quick round-up

Published On September 2, 2014 | By Joe Gordon | Books, Comics

First off, apologies for being tardy with this – normally I post short, individual reports on the comics and science fiction related events I attend at the annual Edinburgh International Book Festival as I go through the Festival, but trying to go to festival events and combine it with some much needed time off doesn’t work so well in terms of writing up several events rapidly. So again, apologies for being a bit slow with a write-up on the festival this year and for rolling the various events I was lucky enough to catch (and in some cases be involved in) into this one report. But better late than never, as they say, and to help make up for it I’ve included plenty of pictures (they’re all taken from my own Flickr stream, click to see the larger versions on Flickr)! I did post reports on the first couple of events, the fascinating talk by Katie Green and Matilda Tristram is here and you can read a quick report on the Bryan Lee O’Malley event, which I had the pleasure of chairing, here. But there was plenty more on offer, so here’s a quick round-up of some of the other events I managed to catch during the festival.


On the science fiction front I had the pleasure of finally meeting two authors I’ve known via email for many a year but never actually met in person until now – always one of the delights of festivals and conventions, getting to actually meet writers and artists you normally only get to swap emails or Tweets with. I’ve loved Mike Carey’s work in both comics and his prose work for years, from his Hellblazer and Lucifer work to his current, utterly superb The Unwritten series in comics, and his addictive Felix Castor novels and his latest prose novel, the compelling The Girl With All the Gifts. And as he was teamed up with fellow Orbit SF author, the brilliant Ken MacLeod, this was a pleasure of an event for those of us who appreciate intelligent science fiction. Following a short reading by both authors, Ken discussed the way his most recent novels seem to have taken a spin on different popular genres – the great Edinburgh Detective Novel, ‘Chick-Lit’ and now ‘Bloke-Lit’, although those terms are, like most blanket terms applied to a range of books, rather imprecise and besides, as anyone who has read his work would imagine Ken reworks common tropes from those genres into a clever science fiction work with a nice line in social observation. Mike discussed morality in his work and also how in his new prose novel he took a sub-genre of horror-SF that, much as we love it, has been rather overdone recently, the post-apocalyptic zombie story, giving him a greater challenge in doing something new with it, a challenge, I must add, which he rose to brilliantly (seriously, it’s a real page-turner, my long-running SF Book Group in Edinburgh just read it for August and loved it too – see Malachy’s incisive review here on the blog).

American writer Jeff VanderMeer was one of the first SF&F authors I reviewed way back in the early days of the FP blog and again like Mike I’ve swapped the odd email over the year but this, his first Edinburgh Book Festival visit, gave me a chance to meet him in person, as well as his wife Ann, who as many of my fellow SF&F readers will know, is a formidable editor behind a lot of quality SF&F writing. Jeff was on stage with fellow fantasy writer Charlie Fletcher, ably chaired by literary critic (and also major comics reader) Stuart Kelly. Both gave short readings (if Charlie ever decides to stop his novel and screen-writing he could work very well as voice-over artist) and then Stuart steered them into discussing aspects of their very different approaches to the fantastical, talking about how they deal with the world-building and the way their characters fit into those artificial worlds. I’ve not read Charlie’s work yet but was intrigued by his description on his new series, mixing magical elements with Victorian history (and, intriguingly, early Victorian period for a change, not the much later 19th century which has been used more frequently in alt-history, fantasy-history or Steampunk). Jeff’s new Southern Reach Trilogy moves away from his earlier work which often circled around his remarkable fantasy city of Ambergris, and allows him to mix in his own enjoyment of a good hike through the wild nature of his Floridian home with his uniquely twisted take on fantasy and SF (I mean twisted in the good sense here, of course, Jeff is a master at constructing not just his world and narratives but carefully crafting sentences and chapters to deliver some wonderful effects). You can read a Director’s Commentary guest post by Jeff about his new series here on the blog.

I’ve been eager for the Edinburgh Book Festival to host Mike Carey for several years and oh look, this year not only was he on stage with Ken MacLeod discussing his science fiction work, the Book Fest also had him on stage a second time specifically to discuss his comics work (good things are indeed worth waiting for, eh?). This time Mike was paired up with fellow comicker Isabel Greenberg, whose recent Encyclopedia of Early Earth made a big impression on us last year. Both are quite different comics creators and credit must go once more to Stuart Kelly for skillfully chairing the conversation so successfully to produce a fascinating insight into the work of both very different creators. When talking about their early comics influences Isabel admitted to coming to comics fairly late – she had read the likes of the Beano as a youngster, then nothing for many years through adolescence and early adulthood until works like Persepolis and others drew her back to the medium and made her realise how it could be use to tell tales for adults.

I was struck by the fact that I’ve heard this from several of our new wave of successful creators and found it interesting that where some of us have been pretty much constantly steeped in comics from childhood to adulthood, there is a generation who have been brought back to the medium, first as readers then as creators, directly because of some of the superb quality of different works coming out and the way graphic novels are more widely visible and available these days. I’ve reported many times on the new confidence in comics work and noted how it is drawing in more readers, from lapsed comic fans who hadn’t touched the medium for years but were intrigued by hearing about these new works coming out to those who knew nothing of the medium but had been interested after trying a recommended work like Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes or Maus. But I hadn’t considered that some of our new, young wave of successful comickers had also been inspired back into the medium in this manner too and found it pretty interesting – I’d also imagine given the range of titles coming out now that’s something that is likely to continue as more new readers devour those books and in turn are inspired to do their own graphic novels.

Mike by comparison had grown up like myself and others of a certain age with the masses of weekly British comics as well as US imports. He made special mention of the particular sort of anarchy and thumbing of nose at authority which was common to many Brit kid’s comics back then and he name-checked the great Leo Baxendale several times as one of the most important influences on that generation of readers who would grow up to be writers, also linking that sense of anarchy and questioning of authority and smashing of fourth panels from Baxendale and Reid strips with the success of that first wave of Brit creators in the US in the 80s and 90s which reshaped a lot of the comics world (and on a personal note I was delighted to see a major author paying tribute to the importance of Leo’s work at such a major literary festival).

Mary and Bryan Talbot have made several appearances at the Edinburgh International Book Festival now (it’s starting to feel like it wouldn’t be quite right without them there!) and this time to discuss the brilliant Sally Heathcote, Suffragette they were joined by artist Kate Charlesworth. I was especially pleased to note that the huge crowd for the packed event had a very heavy female bias, and a great many were (tries to put it politely) more mature ladies – the sort of audience you might, perhaps, expect to see more at a Radio 4 show recording than a talk about comics. And thinking about that made me smile that, like their previous Costa prize-winning Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Sally had reached out well beyond the regular comics-readers to a much wider book-reading audience, and it made me happy to see that such works were being treated on an equal par with any other form of book, judged on their quality, not their medium. The discussion was fascinating, dealing as it does with history which is, shockingly, less than a century old in some parts and which still has much relevance to gender (and other types) of inequality in today’s society. Early on the talk was interrupted by a woman standing up, brandishing her brolly and yelling “votes for women!”. Much laughter.

A few moments later another did the same, then a commotion outside the marquee, a drum being banged loudly, women singing… In barges a ‘protest’ crowd of women carrying their “Votes For Women” banners, singing a Suffragette anthem and bearing the Suffragette movement colours (as seen in the book), marching up and down in front of the speakers who pretended to be shocked by these disruptive women forcing their way in. Of course it was all set up and utterly delighted the audience – the women, part of an LGBT women’e choir Kate is involved with, got a great cheer and round of applause, and as well as being a nice, unexpected moment in the event it was also a salient reminder that once upon a time, not so long ago (some reader’s grannies will doubtless be able to recall those times) when such protests were in deadly earnest and were often reacted to with police force, not the applause of book-lovers. Also a nice reminder of the power of ideas and of books, although I imagine everyone at the Festival is already a fervent believer in both.

The final event was another one I was actually asked to chair and involved me talking with two excellent young creators from the UK and German comics scenes, Nick Hayes and Reinhard Kleist. I’d really enjoyed Guardian cartoonist Nick’s debut graphic novel Rime of the Modern Mariner (a huge work taking Coleridge and turning it into a contemporary eco-fable), which he had been kind enough to do a guest Commentary for a couple of years back, and I have absolutely loved his new book, Woody Guthrie: the Dustbowl Ballads, a beautifully stylised story of one of the great folk musicians and how his world-view and music was shaped by the experiences such as the environmental collapse during the great Dustbowl and the crippling poverty of the Great Depression, aspects of the story which clearly had much relevance (sadly) to our modern world. Reinhard I have been a fan of for several years now – we blogged quite a few years ago about an article my German colleague had spotted in the German media about the new growth in comics creators there doing their own work and garnering praise for it, instead of being so much in the shadow of the great Franco-Belgian comics market (something I thought both had in common, both UK and German comics scenes having grown hugely in confidence in the last few years and both of them being fine exemplars of this new wave of creation).

That German media article was the first time I saw Reinhard’s work and his Johnny Cash graphic biography and I knew even reading a few pages in German that I had to read this book. A year or so later SelfMadeHero, expanding their new range, made it the first of a series of brilliant European comics works they translated into English. His latest work, The Boxer, was equally fascinating (see my review here and a review by Colm here) and both he and Nick treated us to an engrossing discussion with plenty of images on the screen, talking us through their new work and the influences and research which informed them while I interjected some questions. In fact their presentations were so absorbing that we ran right up to the wire on our allotted time and there was no space left to get in some audience Q&A time, although when I said that losing that question period at the end was worth it to listen to Nick and Reinhard’s presentations the audience agreed, and they did get a chance to ask a question to them at the signing afterwards.

There was a lot of other works under the Stripped banner at the Book Festival this year which I didn’t manage to get to (hey, I’m only one guy, only so many events you can attend!), including a double event celebrating the launch of IDP: 2043, a collaborative graphic novel which came out of last year’s massive comics special at the festival, Charlie Adlard and Robbie Morrison talking, some Phoenix comics workshops (which I am told were hugely busy and much fun), Pat Mills directing a reading workshop on First World War comics and Paul Gravett’s talk among other events. But that’s always the way with any festival or convention, you can only attend do many events, see so many people, but once again it was an absolute pleasure to see these events and creators being part of the biggest literary festival in the world (I’m also pleased they kept the Stripped banner for comics events), not just because the medium deserves to be treated equally with other book forms, but also because it is an excellent way to bring comics readers into the wider delights on offer at such a huge lit festival and find new works beyond the medium and, just as important, readers not familiar with comics being intrigued by exposure to them at lit festivals like this and picking up more new works. As the mania of festival season in Edinburgh fades away for another year well done to the Book Fest crew and here’s looking forward to next August.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

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