Cross-hatching a plot

Paul Gravett

Filed under: Fiction

Paul Gravett traces the rise of the graphic novel to respectability.

Raymond Briggs and Posy Simmonds, who collaborated on the cover of the 2006 issue, were the first graphic novelists to be elected Fellows of the RSL.

At the beginning of Alice in Wonderland, the irritated Alice questions the use of a book without pictures.  It is a view in keeping with the Victorian age: Charles Dickens, for one, knew the importance and impact of the vivid engravings by George Cruikshank and Hablot ‘Phiz’ Browne that accompanied his novels.  William Thackeray shared his conviction, and even applied to illustrate The Pickwick Papers; although rejected, he went on to take lessons from Cruikshank, and to draw cartoons for his own books and articles.

Attitudes changed in the twentieth century, and illustrations came to be seen as inappropriate to adult fiction.  But we at last appear to be witnessing another shift, towards a fresh appreciation of what remain popularly known as comics, but are being re-branded as ‘graphic novels’.  Philip Pullman, Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby and Dave Eggers are among those who have welcomed a new school of visual and verbal narrative, seeing it – in Eggers’s words – not as ‘literary fiction’s half-wit cousin, but, more accurately, the mutant sister who can often do everything fiction can, and, just as often, more’. The New York Times Magazine now devotes a weekly section to original material of this kind, while the Arvon Foundation has offered its first intensive course on the subject.

The recent election of Raymond Briggs and Posy Simmonds as Fellows of the RSL sets the seal on this rise to respectability, which began with Art Spiegelman winning a special Pulitzer prize in 1992 for his Holocaust family memoir Maus, and was confirmed by theGuardian giving its First Novel prize to Chris Ware for his semi-autobiographical saga Jimmy Corrigan in 2001.  Briggs won his first awards as an illustrator of children’s books, before proving in Father ChristmasThe Snowman and Fungus the Bogeyman that he could write better stories himself. In 1982 he made a surprising switch to political protest, expressing his fury about the Government’s ineffectual guidelines on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack inWhen The Wind Blows (which became the subject of a debate in the House of Commons). Having based the book’s doomed elderly couple on his father and mother, Briggs went on to tell their life story inEthel and Ernest, a portrait of English social change as well as a touching memoir.

Posy Simmonds has also done her share of engaging children’s stories in colour cartoon-strip form, but her main outlet has been the ephemeral newsprint of The Guardian, where her compact, three-tiered episodes of life in the Weber family grew into an acutely observed satire of the newspaper’s own readers. In 1999, she embarked on her first full-length work, Gemma Bovery (sic), a subtly skewed reimagining of Flaubert, seamlessly interweaving passages of comics and prose, in which the fate of her adulterous English heroine in present-day Normandy appears to be mirroring that of Madame Bovary.

Among the more surprising early admirers of the strip cartoon was Goethe, who, a year or two before his death in 1832, was shown some unpublished books by a boys’ boarding school teacher from Geneva, Rodolphe Töpffer. The farcical Adventures of Dr Festus so stirred the octogenarian Goethe that he commented: ‘[Töpffer] really sparkles with talent and wit; much of it is quite perfect; it shows just how much the artist could yet achieve, if he dealt with modern [or less frivolous] material and went to work with less haste, and more reflection. If Töpffer did not have such an insignificant text before him, he would invent things which could surpass all our expectations.’ Despite Goethe’s endorsement, Töpffer held back from publishing his books, because he was afraid they would tarnish his standing as a newly appointed professor. Comics, unfortunately, have never been a lofty profession.

In time, however, Töpffer made his comical albums available and they gave rise to many foreign translations and copies, authorised and pirated.  The medium spread from expensive books into more affordable magazines, newspapers, and weekly and monthly comics. The soaring dreamscapes of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland from 1905 can still dazzle a century later with what the newspaper marketing men of the day called their ‘polychromatic effulgence’.  But while a few visionaries like McCay could become wealthy, circulation-boosting celebrities, comics (especially in America and Britain) were all too often run by exploitative publishers who grew rich from the ideas of their expendable employees.

One young American keen to join the ranks of the newspaper-strip élite was John Updike, who wrote effusive letters to Harold Gray, father of  the red-headed waif Little Orphan Annie.  Updike’s passion for ‘the funnies’ never left him, and when in 1969 he came to England to address the Bristol Literary Society about the ‘death of the novel’, he declared: ‘I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic-strip novel masterpiece.’

There might be no intrinsic reason, but there were many other factors holding the medium back, including the very word ‘comic’, with its implications of the trivial and childish. An alternative term had been coined in 1964 by critic and publisher Richard Kyle, one of the first Americans to import foreign comics – in particular the hardback, full-colour albums of French-language ‘bandes dessinées’, and the thick Japanese paperbacks of ‘manga’. Inspired by their example, he devised the term ‘graphic story’ and its book-length equivalent the ‘graphic novel’, in an attempt to foster greater amition and sophistication in American cartoonists. His neologism caught on slowly at first, but has gained wider acceptance since the Eighties. Although not everyone likes it, it seems to be here to stay.

Another problem was how to deal with adult subjects in a form geared to mass-market family entertainment. The breakthrough came with the flowering in America’s Sixties counterculture of ‘underground’ comics (sometimes labelled ‘comix’ to suggest their X-rated content), devised by mavericks such as Robert Crumb to speak to their own generation about their personal and political concerns.  Circulated internationally, comix ignited similar revolutions in Britain, Europe, Japan and beyond.

The American Justin Green invented a new genre in 1972, when he explored his psychological troubles in the pages of Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, an astonishing record of Catholic guilt and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Within months, it had stirred Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman into their first attempts at autobiography. As Spiegelman put it, ‘What the Brontë sisters did for Gothic romance, what Tolkien did for sword-and-sorcery, Justin Green did for confessional, autobiographical comix.’ Without Binky Brown,  Mauswould not have existed, and both books have led to a wave of first-person graphic novels, such as Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her Iranian childhood and adolescence under the ayatollahs, andEpileptic, the pseudonymous David B.’s unflinching account of growing up with an epileptic older brother.

Another major turning point came in 1978.  Will Eisner was a Jewish New Yorker who had been in the comic-book and newspaper-strip businesses since the early Thirties, and had always understood their literary scope. By the Seventies, he was rich enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement, but instead he took a gamble, sold up, and set to work on a private project with no limitations on length or content.

The result was a quartet of intense recollections of his youth in the Depression, entitled A Contract with God, which was finally published in his 60th year by a modest literary publisher. On its cover, Eisner suggested putting ‘a graphic novel’, a name he had arrived at independently of Richard Kyle and others. It was the start of a remarkable and prolific last career, which lasted until his death in January 2005.

Late in life, Eisner summed up his hopes for what was to come. ‘I put up a tollbooth out in a field,’ he said, ‘and I’ve been waiting for a highway to come through. And now I can hear the trucks.’

RSL Review 2006

Related RSL Fellows

Posy Simmonds 2004
Raymond Briggs 1993