On Friday night and all of Saturday, I was at Graphic Brighton, a conference about graphic novels and comics creation.
The overarching theme of the conference was “Drawing in the Margins”, and it brought together practitioners who represent some form of minority or marginalised group.
Brighton living up to its name
“I’m going out to a discussion on gay manga” may be the kind of archetypical Brighton sentence that makes most of the country mock us mercilessly, but it was very interesting, and I say that as someone with very little knowledge of the form.
There was quite a bit of talk about Yaoi, comics about gay men, usually drawn by women and aimed at a female readership.
One apparent contradiction I found very interesting: it was said that these comics grew from the longstanding cultural repression of women in Japan, and represent women taking control of their own fantasies.
I asked whether women who drew these comics would be frowned upon, but I was assured that that’s not the case; on the contrary, they are celebrated. The comics are available everywhere, even in corner shops.
And yet, I was told, although ‘everyone reads them, no-one talks about it’. I think there’s something cultural there that I haven’t entirely understood.
Difficult lives make good comics
After the panel, there were five-minute talks by 14 different cartoonists. These also acted as a series of enticing previews of comics I’d like to read (I’ve pinned many of the comics mentioned throughout the event on Pinterest, if you’re interested in doing the same).
Subjects here included working with people with learning difficulties (Brighton’s own Joe Decie); having a child with Down Syndrome (Henny Beaumont, of whom more later); being brought up by a single mum (Wallis Eates); working with the elderly as a doctor (Ian Williams), and motherhood and birthing (kudos to Kate Evans for pointing out that this is not really a minority pursuit, although one can certainly see the case for calling aspects of motherhood marginalised).
There was only one downside to listening to people talk about all these fascinating, human-interest topics for their work, and that was being left feeling that my own life isn’t troubled enough to base a graphic novel on!
The next morning, I met up with my friend (and super-talented illustrator herself) Zara for the luxury of another full day of comics chat.
This began with Karrie Fransman in conversation with Tim Pilcher. Most relevant to the topic was Karrie’s cartoon about a refugee, Over Under Sideways Down, but I also really want to read her The House That Groaned and Death of the Artist now.
I did find Fransman’s approach to getting work interesting: it could basically be summed up the single word, “hustle”. She describes sending her cartoons (which she says, in retrospect, were just scrawls in biro) to every national newspaper in the country, then following up with an email a week later. This bagged her a strip in the Guardian.
She also tried pitching for comic versions of newspaper standbys such as book reviews and articles, but found that papers didn’t want to pay any more than they would a written-word journalist, so that was a non-goer in the end. Pilcher also pointed out that these days, we’re used to a much quicker turnaround on a news story than an artist can provide.
Cartoons by the elderly, about the elderly, and for everyone
Next up was a sessions about the representation of old age in comics, with Corinne Pearlman (a cartoonist herself, and also Creative Director at Myriad Editions), Julian Hanshaw (The Art of Pho, mentioned in a previous blog entry) and Muna Al Jawad, who works as a Consultant in Elderly Medicine (the new word for Geriatrics?) and uses comics to educate both colleagues and the wider world about associated issues.
Books I’d like to check out following Corinne’s talk include Paco Roca’s Wrinkles and Roz Chast’s best-seller Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
“Ageing is the new black”, said Corinne, and made the point that a generation of comics artists is entering old age, having become used to chronicling every other stage of life. Meanwhile, Hanshaw pointed out that the subject need not have a limited audience: we middle-aged readers are happy to read comics from younger makers, and there’s no reason that that shouldn’t go both ways.
The Yes! project
After lunch, Laura Malacart and Dan Locke talked about a project they’d collaborated on. As you can see from the image above, I found Malacart’s look (and especially her hair) really beguiling to draw, but I just could not quite get it down on paper!
Malacart was commissioned to make a film about a real-life case of a non-verbal person with autism who was found to be able to vocalise through singing.
After filming the footage, she decided that actually, film wasn’t the right format. That’s when she found Locke and they worked together, instead, on a graphic novel, which can be read online at the Yes! project website.
Challenging the motherhood narrative
In the final presentation of the day, three women came together to talk about representing motherhood in comics.
Henny Beaumont will shortly have a book out which tells her story of having a child with Down Syndrome. From the excerpts she read and showed in this session and on Friday night, it looks very funny as well as beautifully-rendered.
Beaumont used the Brushes app on her iPad to draw much of the book. Previously, she has worked as a portrait artist, and this showed. There were times when she was standing in front of one of her pictures of herself on the screen, and the posture, face and expression were identical.
This book, like the one about autism, has an interesting side-purpose in that it will inform medical practitioners about how better to approach such scenarios.
Evans (who, I ought to mention, I know from way back when, when we both lived in a Brighton housing co-operative) and Cassavetti both had a similar point to make, really, and that is that motherhood/parenthood can be a massive shock, a time of extreme worry, and an opportunity for everyone to prescribe the One True Way of birthing a baby, keeping them safe, and getting them to sleep through the night.
Given the harsh realities of everything from morning sickness to poopy nappies, it does seem extraordinary, they pointed out, that mainstream publishers still insist on selling us the image of motherhood as a constant source of delight. I have to say, if I’d read Bump instead of Gina Ford, Jools Oliver et al, I might have side-stepped a lot of misery and self-flagellation about the fact that my daughter barely went to sleep for about three years after she was born.
The day ended with a wrapping-up session (plus the question of what topic people might like next year – ‘war’ being mooted), and then I made Kate and Zara come home with me to eat cake and meet the kitten. These being modern times, I knew that the pair of them had hit it off when they followed one another on Twitter.
I could easily have sat through another full day of talks, but it’s probably a good thing that the event ended where it did, as this blog post is already probably longer than anyone will read all the way through.