On Graphic Novels, Comics, and Picture Books – A talk by Janet Evans

When I received the NIE invite about a 60-minute talk that was to be given by Janet Evans, I knew I just had to go. After all it was on campus and ELL (English Language and Literature) was simply a block away from my academic group, ECSE (Early Childhood and Special Needs Education).

The title of Janet’s talk was “Exploring Comics, Graphic Novels and Picturebooks as Multimodal Texts with Particular Reference to Raymond Briggs and His Partnership with Controversy.”

Since I was unable to take a really clear picture of Janet, I got this from her website:

Truth be told, I have little inkling about who Raymond Briggs was, but I love graphic novels and I adore picture books. I thought that it was another blogworthy post for Gathering Books. True enough, it was the highlight of my day.

About Janet Evans

In the invite that we received from NIE, Janet is described as a Senior Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University and a part time Literacy and Educational Consultant. If I were to use one word to describe her talk awhile back, it would be: captivating. She has an effervescent personality that shines through and is even more evident because she is talking about something that she is truly passionate about. And how can one not be passionate if your life’s work is picture books! Soulful, highly meaningful, and intelligent picture books at that. Gracious me. If you wish to know more about Janet, click here to be taken to her website.

Janet’s 60-minute talk this afternoon (and I really feel it was waayyyy too short, I could have spent an entire day just listening and talking to Janet who is a fantastic and animated speaker) – basically centered on the subtle differences between comics, graphic novels, picture books and illustrated books. She also discussed the themes in Briggs’ work as a graphic novelist and how comics and graphic novels can be effective conduits to philosophical discourses, existential issues, and profound ruminations about life, death, war, tragedy, you name it – his picture books has them.

On Raymond Briggs

Now I feel like a total lark not knowing about Raymond Briggs. His works are now considered classics, extremely rare (thus expensive), and yes, he has a cult following. Briggs has also won the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 at the Cartoon Art Trust Awards in London.

Essentially, Briggs is a renegade. He was publishing picture books cum cartoons in the 70s when strip cartoon was not perceived to have any kind of literary merit at all. 70s is the decade when I was born. I can then attribute my absolute ignorance of his works given the fact that he was already publishing most of his major works when I was still literally an infant. However, that still does not excuse me, now that I know that a large majority of his works has been turned into short movies, films, animation, etc.

Janet’s description of Briggs (along with a smattering of interview excerpts here and there)

Janet noted that Raymond Briggs was often perceived by many as a grumpy old man. However, looking at his picture here makes me think otherwise.

He seems like a harmless enough man who’s actually quite charming with that twinkle in his eye. Apparently, he is not very much into attending conferences or having a large crowd as his audience, but newspaper one-on-one interviews are deemed acceptable.

When Briggs was just beginning to publish his works which may be seen as a cross between comic strip, picture books and graphic novels all rolled into one – this kind of writing was regarded with a raised eyebrow at the very least in British society. Briggs even recalled an interviewer at Wimbledon College of Art who nearly exploded when he expressed as a teenager that he wants to do “cartoons.” Janet cites from Briggs (2004):

“He went purple in the face and said ‘Good God is that all you want!’ It really was the lowest of the low and so I started to paint because when you’re only 15 and the big man with a beard tells you what to do, you generally do it.”

In 2001 he was quoted to still be frustrated about the fact that hardly anything had changed when it comes to giving comic strips and picture books the dignity they so rightly deserve. In one of Janet’s slides, this quotation from Briggs (2001) was highlighted:

“In this country there is a hierarchy of snobbery in the arts. Opera, of course, is at the top, then theatre (count the knighthoods), next literature, with poetry hovering uncertainly in the background. Below that comes film, followed by painting, which few people understand. Below that comes illustration and respectable political cartooning… and then right at the bottom, in the gutter, is the strip cartoon, a medium for children and the simple minded.”

Horrendous, isn’t it. However, other cartoonists, such as Will Eisner, felt that in the past two decades there has been a radical change with the way comics has been perceived – as noted by Janet in one of her slides. In fact, a great deal of scholarly discussion is now being generated by graphic novels that speak about philosophical issues, social ills, moral quandaries that plague humanity. Janet cited from Briggs, who claimed in 2002:

“Strip cartoons do not have to be comic cuts or muscle-bound men in tights, socking bad guys on the jaw.”

In fact, Raymond Briggs has been credited to be instrumental in elevating the profile of comics and graphic novels to an intellectual level, Janet claims that “there is now a burgeoning renaissance in their creation, production, and acceptance.”

Thin red line between comics, graphic novels, picture books, illustrated texts

For an academic who relishes definitions spoken resoundingly with a “definitive” air, it might be important to clarify where the boundaries between comics, graphic novels, picture books lie. When I was telling a good friend earlier thru YM Chat that I attended Janet’s talk and it elucidated the subtle differences among these varied literary texts, he commented (IT-expert that he is) that academics do have a great amount of time in their hands to even regard this as a treatise worthy of intellectual debate (and yes, energies).

If I may cite from one of Janet’s slides:

This is how comics was defined by Janet: "sometimes called sequential art (Eisner, 1985), comics are an art form that feature a series of static images in sequence, usually to tell a story... they are sequential boxes of drawing using text bubbles to represent speech and squiggly lines (called motion lines) to indicate movement."

The examples that she gave were The Peanuts Gang and the Simpsons

and two comic strips that may be too British it’s very unfamiliar to me:

Beano, and Rupert Bear – both perceived to be classics in their genre as well.

Now graphic novels or comic strip books according to Janet Evans is: "often defined as 'a book length comic' is a truly multimodal form of communication. Certain cultures celebrate this form of illustrated text more than others, for example, France with its celebrated Adventures of Tin Tin and Japan with its widely read Manga texts."

Examples of graphic novels that she gave would be Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman.

This apparently won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 since it talks about the writer’s father’s survival during the Holocaust.

The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot, on the other hand, talks about an issue that is often considered taboo by most: child abuse.

There are also what Janet refers to as fusion textswhich are graphic novels “which combine elements of picture books, comics, and graphic novels to create a genre which is a synthesis of aspects from all of them.” (from Janet’s slide).

I am happy to share that the examples that she has provided for these fusion texts are books which I’ve already read! Yipee.

One example of a book that effectively integrates graphic novels, film and picture books all in one package would be Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret which won the Caldecott award in 2008.

I borrowed this book from the NIE library several months back and was positively hooked. Mary just told me that Martin Scorcese has actually made a film out of this surreal (is the only way I can describe it) book - I have yet to see it though.

Another example she gave was Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.

What is particularly curious about this book is that I was in the NIE library an hour before Janet’s talk and I chanced upon this book. It caught my eye and I wanted to borrow it right then and there. In fact, the first thing that hit my mind was we should create a “Wordless Picturebook” theme in Gathering Books in one of the coming months.

So I thought, I’d just leave the book for the meantime and borrow it when our feature begins. Apparently, this book is a labor of love, since it took four long years to complete. It deals with how it is like to be disenfranchised in a foreign land through the moving and powerful images that he has created for the “reader.”

Last example that she gave was a personal favorite of mine, David Almond’s The Savage.

I can not recall how many times my voice broke as I was reading this aloud to my eight year old. I shall not get ahead of myself since I am planning on reviewing this for Gatheringbooks sometime soon.

Now, picture bookson the other hand, is defined by Janet in this fashion: "A picture book is an art form that combines visual and verbal narratives in a book format. A true picturebook tells the story both with words and illustrations, sometimes they work together or sometimes separately."

One example that she gave was The Elephant and the Bad Baby a collaboration between Briggs and Elfrida Vipont.

Janet went on to talk about contemporary illustrated story booksand went on to define it in this fashion, citing from Salisbury (2004, p. 94):

"The illustrated story book differs from the picturebook and therefore requires a change of approach by the illustrator. Illustrated stories are aimed at an older reading age, and this means the function of the image in relation to the text takes on a completely different significance (Salisbury, 2004, p. 94)."

An example she gave was Jeff Brown's Flat Stanley.

Other examples that I can give would be Beverly Cleary books such as Ramona the Pest or Junie B Jones by Barbara Park – books which my eight year old daughter adores.

Now, Janet went on to note that the common thread that binds all of these forms together is “visual literacy.” She also stated in one of her slides that “many contemporary visual texts are a multimodal ‘fusion’ of different forms of communication – there is a blurring of forms and formats. Visual images combined with words in different ways communicate in all of these different genres to form multimodal texts.”

Janet’s Discussion of Raymond Briggs’ Picture Books

Briggs was noted to begin writing and illustrating his own picture books as far back in the 60s.

His first wordless picture book/graphic novel Father Christmas was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1973.

Another book that is said to be quite controversial during that time was Fungus the Bogeyman (said to have a cult following because of its philosophical, existential, and thought-provoking themes).

Several ELL colleagues noted that they purchased the book when they were in their early 20s, bringing home the striking point that picture books are not really just for children, but for young adults who may be having existential queries – reflected by Fungus who was described by Janet in one of her slides as a “somewhat self deprecating character who frequently reflected on his existence and wondered what life is all about.”

When the Wind Blows is a very powerful graphic novel that Janet describes to be more suited for adult and mature teen readers since it speaks about the possible atrocities of nuclear war. At the time that it was published (1982) copies of the book were sent to every member of the House of Commons. Janet also showed us a short video clip of the When the Wind Blows earlier, and as soon as I came home, I searched for it in youtube, and voila:

Briggs’ masterpiece Ethel and Ernest is believed to be one of the most poignantly written, primarily because it is the biography of his parents. It talks about how life was like post-war – how people lived their lives through the social and political turmoil of the time. Janet even made mention of an equally powerful novel that has been written recently, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief – a novel that our very own GatheringBooks author, Fats Suela has written about here.

Briggs’ themes which traverse heartrending issues such as war, conflict, tragedy, and death made Janet question who the books are for and what are their messages within?

Endnotes

When Janet was talking about all these heartrending graphic novels of war, hatred, and death that Briggs has written, she wonderingly asked “haven’t we learned anything from literature yet?” I find that striking.

Yes, indeed, have we learned anything at all from literature?

I have winged hopes and a poet’s soul that believe (blindingly if you may) that perhaps, yes, there are things learned and there are mistakes committed atrociously again and again. But above all, there is the Word. And the Image. And yes, the glory that is Books. And hopefully they continue to move us into being the reflective individuals that we are and give us that tiny space to take stock of the pathways that we have taken in life. And yes, I am so happy to know Raymond Briggs. Thank you, Janet.

References and Image Sources


Janet Evans website:http://www.janetevans.co.uk/index.shtml
Fansite for Raymond briggs http://www.toonhound.com/briggs.htm
More info about Raymond Briggs http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=authC2D9C28A1da9f1EA3FRqW3424C56
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/jmiles/imagetag/father_christmas/
Bologna Book Fair of PaperTigers website featured Janet Evans (and her photo) http://www.papertigers.org/wordpress/tag/mitsumasa-anno/
Raymond Briggs workstation http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/dec/14/writers.rooms.raymond.briggs
When the Wind Blows nuclear war page http://forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/2008/rods-musings-cartooning-in-the-21st-century-and-beyond/
http://hqinfo.blogspot.com/2008/11/archive-raymond-briggs-where-wind-blows.html – a write up by John May
Ethel and Ernest cover image http://blog.sunnysidecomics.com/episode-17b-the-geeks-invented-it-yknow
Handsome photo of Briggs http://www.newstatesman.com/arts-and-culture/2007/12/raymond-briggs-children-book
Fungus the Bogeyman http://www.byretheatre.com/whatson/detail.php?autoProd=346
Peanut Gang Comic Strip http://www.fanpop.com/spots/peanuts/images/256356/title/peanut-gang-comic-strip-fanart
Simpsons Comic Strip http://carlsbadcrawl.com/?p=49
Beano comic Strip http://lewstringer.blogspot.com/2008/12/christmas-comic-covers-part-1.html
Rupert Bear comic strip: http://qwertyrob.blogspot.com/2007/10/rupert-principle.html
Maus I An Art Spiegelman’s Graphic Novel http://blog.lib.umn.edu/lib-web/events/2008/05/modern_marvels_jewish_adventur.html
Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot http://www.cnv.co.il/sales/previews/2009/dec/dh.htm
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick http://www.nassaulibrary.org/YABookLog/for_the_guys/
Cover picture for Shaun Tan’s The Arrival http://www.smh.com.au/news/book-reviews/the-arrival/2006/11/09/1162661790459.html
Artwork from The Arrival http://www.mirroroftheworld.com.au/imagination/pop_culture/graphic_novels/the_arrival.php
Cover page of and an excerpt from David Almond’s The Savage http://www.bartsbookshelf.co.uk/2009/05/24/the-savage-by-david-almond-ilustrated-by-dave-mckean/
Coverpage for The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggshttp://childrensbookshop.netstep.co.nz/books/The_Elephant_and_the_Bad_Baby/0140500480.html
Coverpage for Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown http://www.llworldtour.com/2010/04/07/flat-stanley-forever/
Coverpage for Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary http://www.pixiepalace.com/2007/11/10/i-want-to-play-her-monster-hunter/
Coverpage for Junie B Jones by Barbara Park http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/p/barbara-park/junie-b-jones-is-beauty-shop-guy.htm
When the Wind Blows Youtube videohttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1PFEVayxxA&feature=related

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