Comics: Joe Sacco and Chris Ware at the Edinburgh Book Festival
A few hours after we had the pleasure of having Joe Sacco and Chris Ware doing a quick signing in our Edinburgh store (see here) I was off to see the pair of them talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Both had given individual talks the preceding evenings at the Book Fest as part of the huge Stripped series of comics events at this year’s Book Festival, and I am told they did so to packed crowds. So on their third night at the world’s biggest literary celebration did that mean they had exhausted the audiences? Nope, it was again packed to the rafters, a huge audience (among them plenty of comickers like Metaphrog, William Goldsmith, Will Morris, Edward Ross, Neil Slorance and our own Nicola among others). The bulk of the Stripped events take place in a huge, solid block of comics goodness over the upcoming bank holiday weekend, so this was my first Stripped gig of the Book Festival, and what a way to kick off this huge celebration of our beloved medium, with a massive, enthusiastic crowd packed into the theatre in the elegant Georgian environs of Charlotte Square and the Herald’s Teddy Jamieson (himself a major comics reader) talking to two of the most internationally acclaimed creators working in comics today. In a further bonus it was even a warm and dry evening (rain being no stranger to Festival crowds in Edinburgh!).
(Joe Sacco (left) and Chris Ware (centre) in conversation with Teddy Jamieson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the Stripped series, photos from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)
Teddy started off the evening by asking Joe and Chris about their early influences and how they progressed into creating comics for a living. Chris replied that as a youngster he was pretty much addicted to television until he went to college and made a decision to cut most of that out of his life in favour of other things. Joe spent a part of his childhood in Australia, where he told us he was exposed to a lot of British comics in addition to the normal compliment of four colour titles from America, and some of the old British war comics had remained in his mind since then. Chris re-iterated his surprise not only at finding out when younger that you could actually draw for a living, but that he has actually made a living and a successful one from working in comics. He has, like most comics artists I know, also taken illustration commissions for companies to help pay the bills, but he said he regarded that kind of work as a bit like prostitution for the artist, work done purely for pay, with no real deep feel or love for the work you are doing, and he is happy he doesn’t really have to take on anything like that unless it is something he wants to do.
Joe, for his part, told us of drawing as a kid, influenced by his British and American comics reading, his sister also drawing with him in that competitive way siblings sometimes do (causing Chris to comment there are two main types of comics artists, the sibling rivalry driven ones and the ones who grew up alone and the comics were their outlet). Joe commented that he thought at that stage his sister was the better artist, but then she hit that certain age, discovered boys and stopped drawing. Luckily for us Joe kept doodling! On his path to the acclaimed comics as journalism genre that he has largely pioneered to such huge effect, he explained he was working on comics but it wasn’t like one day he suddenly thought right, today I shall combine comics and journalism! He was studying journalism though, and on visiting other countries he naturally did what artists do and drew some of what he saw, more like comics travelogues at that point, as he put it. But as he started to record more of what he learned from people he talked to in these places he started to think on applying lessons learned from studying journalism, and gradually the journalistic approach and the comics medium came together. He also paid tribute to some of the great photojournalists as an influence, but noted while they had to strive to try and sum up a whole story in one dramatic, iconic image, the artist is much more fortunate in that they can simply draw the scene as they wish. And then another and another…
Teddy asked Chris about his approach to the medium, and the sense of space he creates in his work, almost like architecture as comics, as he put it (most notably in his recent and rather magnificent Building Stories), and Chris discussed how he likes to make his scenes something a reader can inhabit (in fact both he and Joe talked about the need for both the creator and then the readers to be able to inhabit the settings and the characters, otherwise they felt they hadn’t done their work correctly). This three dimensional approach to the medium was something he clearly relished being able to craft and share, and he also lavished praise on Joe’s work for also creating that three dimensional feeling of a real space and real people (some of the audience concurred, indeed one man at the Q&A session afterwards had been in Bosnia before and after the war and congratulated Joe on the accuracy of his depictions). This mutual admiration was a hallmark of the evening’s proceedings, with both artists frequently citing each other’s works and what they loved about it. This was not done in some gushing, luvvie-style fest, I hasten to add, but was quite clearly the deep-seated admiration of one accomplished artist for another’s work.
I actually found this aspect of the evening’s talk fascinating – obviously all of us who were present are enthusiastic readers of their work, or we wouldn’t have been there, and we’ve all got out own unique interpretations of their works and what they mean to us, how we view them, how they make us feel, all filtered, as any art form is, through our own experiences, previous readings and knowledge. We all see things a little differently, and artists usually even more so when approaching an appreciation of other art. So there was something quite compelling in finding out a little about how artists of this calibre viewed the work of another creator, of equal stature and acclaim to them but with a very different style and approach to the form. While I am sure I would have loved their individual events in the preceding evenings I think having the pair of them discussing parts of each others works that they each admired so much was a bonus to having both of them on stage at the same time, and was for me the highlight of the discussion.
I came away from the talk into a crowd of fellow comickers, standing in the gardens of Charlotte Square on a balmy summer evening, crowds of book lovers coming and going past us to and from the hundreds of other events taking place this month, like a literary tide washing around us as we all stood around with huge smiles, everyone delighted and happy after such a lovely event. So my first Stripped event of this August, and come the weekend after next I will have a pile to attend (and yes, I will do my best to report on them as usual), and this year I’m actually chairing a couple of events too (one with Grant Morrison and another with Inaki Miranda and Lauren Beukes), so there’s a dubious pleasure for the audiences! And let’s not forget on the 24th and 25th we’ve also got the Small Press comic fair, with a whole bunch of Indy creators on hand with their works at the Book Festival. Those of you in Edinburgh or in easy reach of the city, please do come along and support these events, the better it all goes the more likely we are to see plenty of large-scale comics events in future Book Festivals, but as with any of these sorts of projects it requires organisation, planning, and most of all, support from the readers to truly work. And trust me, Stripped is something all of us who love our medium should be supporting. Watch this space for more Book Festival updates in the very near future. On a related note, if you missed Joe and Chris at the Book Fest or when they were signing in out store yesterday, the Edinburgh FP still has limited supplies of signed book by both of them that you can get your hands on