For all the talk about how digital has changed the game, there is one area that the online revolution hasn’t sucked the air out of yet, we’re still buying books. Sales of e-books have plateaued, and even young people still like the old-fashioned feeling of turning the physical page over. It’s quaint. If there’s a difference now, it’s that your local bookstore has expanded it’s offerings, and now it’s not unusual to see graphic novels among the stacks filled with novels, biographies, cook books and the like. Indeed, the graphic novel is enjoying a rare and long-awaited sense of mainstream appreciation.
Proof of that is this weekend in Toronto at the International Festival of Authors where five of the best in the business will take part in a panel discussion called “Five Artists, Five Ways: The Modern Graphic Novel.” Michael DeForge, Nick Drnaso, Jon McNaught, and Chris Oliveros will be joined by Seth to talk about their art and their books, and perhaps why graphic novels have caught on with a bigger audience.
“I think the biggest thing in recent years, in Canada at least, was Chester Brown’s Louis Riel. I think a new generation of readers have been introduced to graphic novels as a result,” said Chris Oliveros. Oliveros founded Drawn and Quarterly, a Montreal-based publisher that specializes in graphic novels, but he recently started creating his own graphic novels, beginning with The Envelope Manufacturer.
“There’s also been other important Canadian cartoonists who have emerged in more recent years,” he added. “Kate Beaton is the one who comes immediately to mind because she has a huge international following. Add people like Michael DeForge, and Jillian Tamaki, and you’ve got a lot of incredible Canadian cartoonists that have emerged at this time.”
But this is not merely a Canadian phenomenon, the growth in popularity of graphic novels. “We’ve had a couple of new festivals in the UK, which is interesting,” said Jon McNaught, a British cartoonist behind the book Dockwood. He added that the community of graphic novelists in the U.K. is still developing, and he’s looking forward to being in the presence of a lot of inspiration at IFOA. “It’s hard for me having such admiration for the others on the panel to say that I’ll be bringing much extra,” he said. “As a huge fan, I’m kind of excited to hear the discussion going on around me in the panel.”
What Oliveros and McNaught have in common though is that they both started out being appreciators of comic books. “When I was growing up, it always felt like comics and graphic novels were my passion really as a reader,” said McNaught.
“I was always interested in comics since I was a kid. I read the usual stuff, I think I read more DC than Marvel, and as I got older, I got more interested in what was then called ‘alternative comics’, which is what they called work being done by people like the Hernandez Bros. and Daniel Clowes,” explained Oliveros. “I thought there was a lot of material coming out at the time and it wasn’t getting recognized, so I did the anthology and that led to other things.”
While Oliveros became a publisher, McNaught went to art school and studied illustration. When he started producing his own novels, he remembered the books that appealed to him and tried to focus on finding an unknowable quality to the books he loved that came from just the right combination of pictures and words. “The work I do has not been very plot driven, it’s been more about the feeling and the atmosphere,” McNaught said. “I think reading people like Seth as a 16-year-old showed me how so much emotion could be held in a single line, and I guess there’s a kind of magic to it when you don’t quite understand. You’re discovering something for yourself, you’ve not being told something, you’re just kind of shown it.”
Oliveros spent 25 years pouring himself into Drawn and Quarterly, and when he got the bug to make his own graphic novel he had to carve out a couple of hours in the day to specifically dedicate himself to the task. He’s recently stepped away from the day-to-day job as publisher to allow himself more time to create, but the process has given him new appreciation for what his writers and artists went through for all those years.
“In some ways, if anything I feel more sympathetic to the cartoonists,” he said with a laugh. “It’s hard work, it’s kind of thankless, and you put so many hours into it. It’s also the kind of thing were there’s a lot of self doubt involved. You can be working nine or ten hours a day on a book, and at the end you could say ‘Well this page isn’t any good, I’m going to start over,’ and everything you’ve done on that day is gone. So it’s kind of crazy that anyone would want to do this because it defies logic and reason, but it’s not a rational thing.”
McNaught knows that too, he’s compared his work to poetry, which is a funny way to consider a graphic work. “Poetry’s a funny word,” he said.”It sounds like one is being a bit pompous, but I don’t have the natural inclination to make up stories the way some people do, and they can create amazing plots, where as I have always felt kind of funny making anything up. Starting from poetry you realize that people aren’t making things up, they’re just trying to express things and they’re trying to capture the essence of a feeling or environment.”
“A poem is often just about the pleasure of reading the words as it is about the idea they’re expressing and comics is such a rhythmic format,” McNaught added. “Lots of people take it in all sorts of directions, but in a four panel page, rhythm becomes just as a important as every line in a poem or a sonnet.”
Cartoonists like McNaught are trying to expand what the medium can do, and what people can expect when they pick up a graphic novel. Trying to get the literary world to recognize that flexibility in the format is a struggle that Oliveros knows first hand.
“About a dozen years ago, I was involved in lobbying this book industry group called BISG [Book Industry Study Group], basically it’s a group that sets categories for bookstores, and at that time, I was kind of dismayed because there was no category for comics or graphic novels,” Oliveros explained. “If you did went to a bookstore you could only find comics in the humour section or the science fiction section, which was also kind of limiting as well. I’ve noticed in recent years that it has gotten better in bookstores and they’ve sort of split them up a bit more even if it’s not ideal, but I think that’s the best we can hope for.”
While bookstores sometimes don’t know what to do with the graphic novels they’re selling, the graphic novelists themselves sometimes don’t know what to do next with their medium. The possibilities, as the saying goes, are endless.
“I don’t really think there are any limitations in regards of the types of stories you can tell with comics, I think you can really do anything and certainly the last 10 or 20 years have proved that,” Oliveros said. “I’ve been working in comics long enough that I would explain to people about comics and they would think of either Garfield or the Hulk, and those were the only types of comics you could do. People looked at me like I was crazy, this was a kids’ medium. If anything, the last 10 or 20 years have proved that anything is possible, any subject matter can be tackled.”
McNaught, meanwhile, disagrees. Yes there are limits, and they’re the ones that the artists put on themselves, the choices they make on what not to do. “When you’re doing eight panels there’s only so much you can get across, which I think is the beauty of it really,” he said. “I’m working on something at the moment, and I write out my plan for each page, and when I come to try and draw it, I whittle it down to the bare essentials because I think everything I edit is unnecessary. That’s a big part of what makes it work.”
“Five Artists, Five Ways: The Modern Graphic Novel” takes place Saturday, October 22, 2016 at 8:00 pm at Lakeside Terrace, 235 Queens Quay West in Toronto. For more information about IFAO, visit the website.