Stripped at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – Joe’s report
Well, it’s been one hell of a weekend here in Edinburgh for the comic creators, publishers and readers. I’ve been along to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for many years, and in the last few years I’ve been covering some very fine graphic novel events. This year, however, was on a totally different scale with the Stripped strand of comics related events, from workshops for younger readers (whipping Gary Northfield into the venue full of excited young readers then locking him in with paper and pencils) to events with up and coming younger talent (from Gareth Brookes to Will Morris to Gillen and McKelvie), top-level home-grown talent (Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Bryan Talbot) to some of the most acclaimed comics creators from round the world (Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Rutu Modan and more). The events went from workshops to talks to quick interviews, live Twitter sessions and great events in the Spiegeltent such as a live draw and a ‘literary death match’ which included many of the writers and artists in Charlotte Square, including Neil Gaiman, Paul Cornell and Emma Vieceli. And not forgetting a two day mini comic fair that gave a brilliant stage (in a handsome historic setting, no less) to our vibrant small press creators. Then we also had the very first 9th Art Award (scooped by one of our former Commentary guests Stephen Collins for The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil). What a weekend…
While we had some Stripped events earlier in the Book Festival (which you must remember is a huge event in the world literary calender – over two weeks of events and over eight hundred authors, there really is nothing else quite on this scale), most notably the events with Joe Sacco and Chris Ware, who had individual events and then a cracking double-header event which was a pleasure to see (my report is here on the blog and the entire event, plus some short interviews, is now available to watch in video form – see here), the main concentration of Stripped events was planned around a long weekend, from Friday through to this Monday. I’ve been there for that whole busy but wonderful weekend and my head is still whirling a little bit from it and the intensity. As regular readers know I usually write up individual posts on each of the graphic novel events at the Book Fest, but frankly this year’s scale and sheer busy nature makes that impractical (besides which a team of comickers such as our own Nicola Love, DTT’s Jeremy Briggs, Edward Ross and Metaphrog have been filing reports and interviews which you can check out here) and if I tried to do so I would still be writing by the time my few days off to recover had passed! So this year instead I’m just going to post a report on my whole Book Festival/Stripped experience over that weekend and what I think it says about our medium and how it being perceived right now. Apologies if that means it sometimes becomes a little rambling, but I will bung in plenty of photos too!
The first gig of the busy weekend for me was with Blank Slate Books alumni Will Morris, discussing his beautiful The Silver Darlings on stage with local creator Edward Ross (creator of, among others, the fine Filmish series I’ve reported on here before) and Dundee-based academic Doctor Chris Murray (in his trademark radioactive glow shirt). Will talked of his early comics reading and influences (unsurprisingly Chris Ware’s name came up several times from both the boys during this part of the conversation), while Edward noted that, like quite a few of us he read comics when younger then drifted away in late teens and early 20s, before being introduced to creators who hooked the adult reader in him back to the medium, eventually leading him to start dabbling with his own comics, using his love of films to inspire what would become Filmish. I’ve hugely enjoyed the very different work of both creators and it was a pleasure to see such up and coming talent on stage at such a major event.
My weekend then went into overdrive, after sitting in the audience and enjoying listening to Ed and Will discuss their work, then meeting a bunch of comickers in the author’s tent. And yes, being allowed access to the sacred enclosure of the author’s yurt is exactly as exciting as you are imagining it is. I count myself very fortunate that over my years in the book trade I’ve got to meet a whole range of authors and artists, and it’s one of the nicest perks of the job, especially as most I’ve met are very lovely people, very friendly to chat away to (I’m sure many of you have experienced the same when getting to chat to creators when getting your books signed) and we’ve been lucky that those contacts have often lead to us getting some of those creators on to guest here on the blog so everyone gets a taster. So I’m not unused to meeting authors, but holy drokk, this was on a ridiculous scale in such a small space! Every visit to the author’s yurt you would bump into several more comickers, then some more. Quite a few I knew already, there were more I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time (such as Robbie Morrison and Jim Murray, there with their excellent Drowntown). And then on a warm late summer evening Grant Morrison strolls into the scene. Yes, it was one of those weekends where things like that just happened (go on, those of you who were there, how often between events as you relaxed in the gardens of Charlotte Square did you spot favourite creators wandering about? It’s a great festival pastime!).
Bryan Talbot, of course, goes way back with Grant, the pair of them being an integral part of one of the early attempts to create something new in comics for a mature readership (in some ways well ahead of its time), with Near Myths, which came out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop, which became the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet (our very own Kenny was often to be found in that old specialist emporium as the ‘Saturday boy’), and he was kind enough to introduce us properly. Less than an hour later and I’m walking onto a stage in a packed theatre with Grant… Yes, first time I’ve been asked to chair an event at the Book Festival and the first one was with one of the biggest names in the medium. So, no pressure there at all, eh?
You might imagine being asked to chair an event like that creates a mixture of pleasure, delight, stress and worry, and you’d be bang on. It’s a fairly daunting thing to do, especially with such a noted author; I’m no stranger to doing on-stage events with authors, but it’s been a while and what a spot to get back into the saddle. But while it is a little overwhelming to talk to such an acclaimed writer in front of a crowd I am also aware that despite the pressure that brings in some ways it makes it easier, because Grant is a professional, very experienced at such events and he genuinely loves getting a chance to relax and talk with his readers. So once we’d had a short chat we went straight to the Q&A with the audience, something I know he was keen to get to and certainly the crowd was desperate to get their questions in before the hour ran out. Before the audience Q&A though we briefly talked about his earliest work – since we were sitting in an Edinburgh venue it seemed appropriate to talk a little about Near Myths being put together in the same city several decades before. Grant, very nicely, made a point of also talking about how this was also where Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright first appeared and then paid tribute to Bryan as one of the great pillars of the British comics scene (to a great round of applause for a delighted Bryan who was in the audience); a lovely wee moment of respect from one top creator to another.
We also touched on his upcoming work such as Multiversity (several issues, each with different artists working with him), returning to Seaguy and of course since he had raised the subject himself in previous Book Festival visits, I had to ask him about his plans for Wonder Woman, and how he wants to take some of what her creator put in there (including that highly sexual element) to do her justice in a new form. But I think it was the audience Q&A which was the highlight of the evening for most in the audience, and I suspect we could have been there for several hours and still not got through everyone who wanted to ask a question. As in previous years at the Fest Grant was signing away for hours afterwards, taking time to chat to each person in turn. Sitting at one of the table nearby, just outside the signing tent, every few minutes I would see two or three fans walk out, clutching their just-signed books. Almost without fail I’d see them walk out, pause, excitedly open their books and show the signed pages to their friend, all of them with huge smiles as they exited; it was rather nice to see this repeat itself every few minutes, watching very, very happy, content readers happily holding their freshly signed books. That’s one of the simple pleasures of doing book events and signing sessions, seeing how it delights readers, and you know what, it’s a simple pleasure I never get tired of seeing.
From then on the weekend got busier and busier for me. I did manage to fit in a walk around the Mini Comics Fair though and chat to several of the small press comickers there, including the aforementioned Edward Ross, the Metaphrog crew, Neil Slorance (whose work is fast becoming a favourite with some of our crew), Stephen Goodall, Coll Hamilton and and Carolyn Alexander, Lynsey Hutchinson, Kathryn Briggs and more, and picked myself up a wee selection of comics for later reading. I know the organisers would have liked to have the mini comic bash in the main part of the gardens alongside the rest of the Book Fest, but there simply wasn’t any more room. So they had them directly across the road, just a few paces away, in the most splendid surroundings I have ever seen for a small press fair, being in a historic heritage property directly above the Book Festival’s own offices, a magnificent Georgian town house, all 18th century wood panelling and plasterwork ceilings. I could easily have spent much more time and more money there but there was always something else happening, not to mention the matter of preparing for the next day’s schedule.
And that next day was even busier for me, several events to take in, interviews to take part in and the small matter of chairing another event. The day started with Mary and Bryant Talbot talking with Teddy Jamieson, and naturally as well as discussing their previous and upcoming work (Mary’s Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, which looks like it will see print next spring, a fourth and fifth Grandville from Bryan) the subject of their unprecedented win at the Costa literary award, a first for a graphic work, was raised. This was a topic which came up quite a bit when I was chatting to other comickers in between events, it’s really been a boost to a lot of us involved in the medium. After this I had the pleasure of hanging with Arthur C Clarke winning novelist and comics scribe Lauren Beukes and artist Inaki Miranda. The weather gods, for once, had favoured us (which is not always the case at the Edinburgh festivals! Indeed Lauren had come prepared with a new raincoat just in case) and we got to sit outside while planning how the guys wanted to do their talk, which I was chairing. Interestingly this was the first time writer and artist had met in person, their collaboration on the excellent Fairest: Hidden Kingdom story arc was conducted online and through telepathy using crystals found only in a remote series of caves in Lauren’s homeland of South Africa.
You’d never know this from their rapport though and it was clear the two of them were having a terrific time. Lauren had been there for a couple of days, also taking part in an event discussing her prose work, for which she has garnered (deservedly so) a formidable reputation (her most recent genre-crossing novel, The Shining Girls, partakes of science fiction, crime and horror; it’s disturbing and compelling in equal measures, see James’ recent review of it here), poor Inaki had arrived just that morning and already we were prodding him to get ready, but he was game for it, driven along by endless good natured teasing from Lauren. Regular readers will know Lauren and Inaki from their Director’s Commentary guest post they were kind enough to do for us, and having talked with them before for that and then again more recently ahead of their arrival in Edinburgh we all had that nice feeling that although this was a first meeting for the three of us we also sort of knew each other already, and it made it an absolute delight to work with them, especially as they had a good idea of how they wanted to present their talk (a sort of process talk, a little similar to how they approached their guest Commentary).
The talk went very well and took in the mechanics of collaborating between writer and artist when both live in different continents, the approach to characters and story, setting and the role of sexuality and violence in the tale. Lauren was at great pains to use these latter aspects carefully, mindful of the reputation comics get for the way they portray sex, representation of women and violent acts (sadly sometimes criticisms of how comics show these can be quite justified), and the sexuality here was more of the naturally sensual nature of Rapunzel. Some violence in comics can be too ‘consequence free’, Lauren argued, huge superhuman fist-fights that look spectacular but give a cartoony, showy view of physical violence. In one harrowing scene in Fairest Rapunzel is in a fight and she is beaten, extremely badly. Both she and Inaki wanted this to be realistic, to show the horrid brutality of repeatedly striking another person, and they talked us through this scene, with Inaki’s art fragmenting as Rapunzel is repeatedly struck and begins to fade out. They didn’t want to glamorise the violence and I think their depiction was an interesting and mature way to show the scene. During the Q&A with the audience one young woman asked for advice in developing her own work, and both writer and artist offered some very helpful and encouraging suggestions. At the signing afterwords in the on-site bookstore sales must have been very good, because they actually sold out of their volume of Fairest!
The rest of this part of the weekend saw me interviewing for the short video pieces the Book Festival has been posting up on their YouTube Channel (you may already have seen some of them as we’ve been embedding them), including one with Lauren and Inaki and another with some bloke called Neil Gaiman. Worry not, you don’t have to put up with me in the frame as I stood behind the camera crew asking the questions! But it was nice to get to take part in a couple of these events, a whole bunch of Book Festival and comicker folk have contributed to them and more will be appearing online shortly. On a related note I have to say a thank you to Neil, as a snafu over interview schedules meant our spot for the video got bumped, but he overheard and despite his packed schedule made sure to fit us in a little later so we still got it in the can. I managed to get in some questions about the upcoming new Sandman, working with JH Williams III and his Doctor Who work and other recent Neil-themed BBC collaborations, I’m sure the video will be up in the near future and we’ll point you to it, of course.
After that for the rest of that evening and the next day I could go back to simply being in the audience and enjoying the events. Hannah Berry had the daunting task of chairing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman talk for Stripped (Neil, as is now almost customary for him each August, was at the Book Festival doing numerous events, including Stripped). It is always a pleasure to hear Neil talking about his work, and for me it was an especial delight to hear him spending an hour discussing the Sandman, my all-time favourite comics series. Poor Hannah was teased mercilessly if playfully by Neil throughout their talk, but it was all very good natured and he was clearly relishing the chance to go back and talk about the Sandman, how he got into comics writing, how the story developed, him learning more as it progressed, and now this return to the Dreaming. The hour passed far too quickly and before the end Neil asked the audience not to applaud for him but to instead give that round of applause to Hannah for being such a good sport through their talk (personally I think she did a great job and so did everyone else I talked to).
The evening for me was finished off with an event I personally wanted to be at very much, the late night Iain Banks tribute. This would have been where the mighty Banksie would have been talking about his new (and sadly final) novel had he been fit enough, but after his shockingly sudden decline and departure to join the Sublimed of his Culture this spring some of his friends and fellow Scots authors – Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and Ken MacLeod – took to the stage in his honour, and Neil Gaiman, busy with a massive signing queue in the tent next door after his Sandman talk, took a few minutes from his signing duties to nip into the theatre to share an anecdote about his younger days at a science fiction convention and a drunken Iain Banks scaling the outside of the Metropole hotel in Brighton. It was a peculiar event, readings from Iain’s older and new work, his friends and fellow writers sharing memories of the man himself and the audience too being included, asked to share their thoughts and memories of Iain. Jura, one of the festival’s sponsors, had kindly arranged for everyone in the audience to be serve a dram of their fine single malt after the event, and his long-time friend Ken MacLeod lead us all in a toast. Sad, sad, sad to think of the Book Festival without Iain’s smiling presence, and yet heartening to see him so warmly remembered, there in spirit.
A final event for me and another bright and sunny day from the weather gods, I was meeting Inaki to go to the event with Martin Rowson and Rob Davis talking with Stuart Kelly, and in a good bit of timing we found them both already chatting by the author’s yurt, along with Emma Vieceli. This constantly bumping into comics creators was a theme for this entire weekend, every time I was coming or going from events I’d bump into folks – oh look, there’s John Higgins getting ready for a panel, there’s Dan Abnett, I’d cross paths with Garen Ewing or Gary Northfield while there would be a sudden flurry of activity and everyone’s heads would turn to take in Sarah McIntyre passing by in one of her wonderful costumes (I think literary critic and comics fan Stuart Kelly was the only one who came near her with his Riddler costume for one of his talks!). Rob and Martin were discussing adapting literary classic to the comics medium, Martin mostly on his very fine Tristram Shandy and Rob, of course, on his magnificent two volume take on the Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote.
It was a fascinating talk, taking in not just how you approach adapting major works of literature but, equally important, why you do it. Both had their own ideas but both agreed very much on the fact that you had to be bringing something different to the work or it was pointless doing it, that you had to be able to retell the story to a new audience, staying true to the original’s theme while still bringing something fresh, a very difficult trick to pull off. Some may think that adapting an existing work is easier than having to script an original from scratch and then illustrate it, but it isn’t, and to be honest I suspect in some ways it may be even more difficult than writing new stories from scratch. Rob had planned some of his approach ahead, scripting it beginning with dialogue, while Martin said that he often didn’t know how he would handle each segment until he started it, he found himself unable to work from a script of storyboard (he said he did try it once but it simply would not work for him and he had to give that project up). It was a great talk, not least because their chair, Stuart Kelly (now out of his Riddler costume after his Batman talk), has a hugely impressive knowledge and appreciation of all sorts of literature which he could use to refer to Rob and Martin’s adaptation.
As you are probably getting from this report (which has, as usual, ended up being far longer than I planned – sorry! So much going on and I know I am still missing huge chunks out…) it was a tremendously busy four days. Some writers and artists I got to chat with for a few moments in passing, some I got to talk to for a bit longer, and there are others I missed getting to speak to altogether. This was a theme I heard from most of those present – there were so many events packed into Stripped that we were all coming and going so frequently, stopping to get a quick break and a drink and snack in the author’s yurt then back out for more, so that pretty much all of us missed some folks entirely and had to make that usual festival or convention dilemma decision of which clashing events we could go to and which we would have to miss out on. But while we all lamented this, I didn’t meet anyone who thought it a particularly bad thing, because, quite frankly, it was caused by a real embarrassment of riches. The Book Festival team – Roland, Janet, Kirsten and the rest, please take a very well deserved bow – had delivered us a huge and varied programme that really was, in effect, a mini comics festival within the main Book Fest.
Another aspect I picked up on talking to authors and artists and publishers between events was how happy most of them were to be there and at the sheer scale of the comics programming the Book Festival gang had put together. Pretty much every comicker I talked to saw this as hugely positive – the world’s biggest literary festival not just including comics (as they had for several years) but shouting about them from the rooftops. This and the Talbots’ Costa win and the media coverage of the Festival that concentrated on the comics strand all combined to give everyone a hugely positive, very optimistic feeling – there was a really great vibe coming out of this, and how many of the comickers thought it showed our beloved medium is being perceived, not just by other comics readers but by publishers, literary organisations, the media and non comics readers who have been tempted in by events like these to start trying some graphic works (just the other day I suggested some graphic novels to a reader on Twitter who had been intrigued after the Stripped events).
I’m very much inclined to share this optimistic view, and yes some of that comes from the happy energy of the event, but it was more than that – as I said Bryan and Mary Talbot’s Costa literary award came up often talking to other comickers, and the upcoming Angouleme-style Lakes festival, along with the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s events were all combining to make many comickers feel that there was a real momentum to how the wider reading and publishing world is viewing comics now, and that’s something I think we can all take and build on. Given the pre-eminent position of the Edinburgh Book Fest as the largest lit-fest of its type in the world and the influence that has, I’d be surprised if this didn’t help to open more doors for graphic works at more literary festivals, and hopefully a wider audience. One of the things I loved about Stripped, apart from the diverse nature of the creators (which mirrors the diverse nature of the authors in the main programme each year) is that although Stripped was highlighted to all and even had its own wee programme to draw attention to it, it was still very much a part of the main Book Festival. As with the Talbots’ win at the Costas, there was no ghettoisation going on here, the comics works were treated the same as all the other adult and children’s works at the festival, simply as good books and good reading by interesting creators, and I see that as a good thing.
(above: another fabulous outfit and headgear from the one and only Sarah McIntyre, here with Gary Northfield, who was fresh from several hours of comics workshops for young readers, below, another shot – how could I resist? – of Sarah’s costume along with Gary and in the hooped top in centre her collaborator, author Philip Reeve)
It doesn’t mean we stop having our own conventions, but it does, I hope, mean comics works will play an increasing role in all sorts of literary gatherings and festivals and the wider reading audience that lets creators and publishers have access to. And that has to be a good thing, surely? For the literary festivals too I see this as a good move, widening their audience base – I know many at Stripped had been at previous Book Festival events, but I strongly suspect for quite a few this would have been the thing that got them to venture into Charlotte Square for the first time, and I hope that they will be back (and going to other events there as well). We know that sometimes large cultural events and spaces like lit fests or large galleries can be a little intimidating, leading to that “oh, not for the likes of me” feeling for some folks, and anything that breaks down those barriers and encourages more folks to come is a good thing in my book.
The Book Festival has seen another increase in both ticket and book sales this year – I don’t know what part Stripped played in that, but it’s hard not to think it must have helped, especially given the enthusiasm of the comics readers at the Festival and the piles of media attention the Festival crew helped generate that focused on the comics strand. I have no idea if Stripped will return or if it would be quite as huge as this year (so many variables – other parts of publishing demand attention too, after all, plus issues most of us never seen such as availability and costs issues, sponsorship etc) if it does, but I’d be very surprised if future Book Festivals didn’t feature a much larger graphic novel segment than in previous years. All in all, as well as being a hugely enjoyable series of events I think we can see such a large comics presence at the Edinburgh Book Fest as a confirmation of what a lot of us have been saying: it’s a damned good time to be creating and reading comics in the UK right now, and further afield. Here’s to more good comics and more good events…