Comic books, cartoons, whatever you want to call them, have often had a complex relationship with the mainstream. They’ve been labelled everything from juvenile and adolescent to hip and trendy. Okay, that was in the 60s. However, once we call sequential art a ‘graphic novel’ then, arguably, things change. Quite suitably, ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, a 2016 exhibition organised by Exeter University’s own Senior Lecturer Dr Paul Williams, is taking place in London’s Cartoon Museum, a street down from the British Museum. “So we’re getting there” Paul says with a wry smile, “One street away. One step at a time.” Although sequential art featuring in a museum or being celebrated by the literary elite is nothing new, this exhibition is designed to show that specifically British graphic novels are part of a much wider and older tradition, a tradition that you’re probably familiar with already.
‘The Great British Graphic Novel’ is an exhibition that aims to represent the history of the genre, paying particular attention to the artwork that has, and will, come out of the UK. There, “is primarily going to be original art,” says Paul, “and by ‘original art’ I mean what the artist’s hand has touched as they were drawing.” The distinctive element is the emphasis on the processes artists use to create their work; the exhibition will show the stages of construction that graphic novels go through. “The art is going to show stuff before it’s published, and in various states of preparation. Lots will be in black and white. There will be a mixture of art in original pencils and after pencilled pages have been inked.”
“graphic novels are more than just something that started in the eighties”
The exhibit is aimed both at graphic novel veterans and those looking to try them for the first time. For comics fans especially, Paul hopes that “people will see stuff that they’re hoping to see, but, also, a lot of stuff they didn’t realise was out there too.” But, equally, he wants, “people who know nothing about the form to come too.” For the latter, Paul looks to stress the broadness of the term and show that many will have already immersed themselves in graphic novels without realising. “These things called graphic novels are in all sorts of places. In the 70s, Asterix and Tintin were called graphic novels. I want to take away the newness of the British graphic novel and show that the form has been around longer than you might think.”
For many, comics properly started (or ‘grew up’) in the 1980s, symbolised by the release of Watchmen in 1986. This seminal graphic novel deconstructs the archetypal superhero comic. Set in an alternate history in which Nixon stays on for a third term after winning the Vietnam War, it is a text that Paul hopes attendees will be able to look past so that the true range of British graphic novels can be properly appreciated. “If your vision of the graphic novel is Watchmen, then I hope you’ll see in the 90s what independent publishers were doing. Graphic novels are more than just something that started in the 80s, it has an earlier life too.”
In part, ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’ is designed to show how the graphic novel long predates the 80s. Paul, in fact, traces the form back to the 18th century: “William Hogarth is an obvious example. He wrote things like A Harlot’s Progress, narrating stories with a sequence of images. He was very popular in his day.” The exhibit will aim to represent the dialogue between artists like Hogarth and those creating graphic novels today. “We might show how contemporary artists deliberately parody things like a Hogarth painting, proving how graphic novelists from the past 30 years are well aware of this visual tradition and have alluded to it in their own work.”
If the exhibit’s raison d’être is to show the range of British graphic novels and appeal to everyone, then I’m interested in how it’s organised; how do indie comic efforts jostle for room in the shadow of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece? “We’ve selected things to show the range,” answers Paul, “but also to represent big names. There will be two ways of going through it; it’ll be a sort of chronological line that weaves its way through the decades up to the present. However, the exhibit will also be organised thematically. For example, autobiographical graphic novels could be a section and dystopia another.”
Despite Paul’s claims that the exhibition is aimed at everyone, I notice that the exhibition title contains the term ‘graphic novel’, a controversial term in the comics community that might impact how his audience treat it. Many associate this more recent term with comics becoming relevant to adults, a viable category in bookshops that allows sequential art creators to compete for literary prizes. However, many academics and artists take up a different position: some argue that it is simply a marketing term for an expensive comic book. Others might say that likening a comic to a literary novel belies the form’s possibilities; sequential art can deliver meaning through images and manipulate time and space in the layout of its many panels in a way that the prose novel cannot.
So, why does Paul adopt the term for his exhibition? “Put simply, I think the term ‘graphic novel’ is so widely used that, if you want to have a conversation about comics, the term ‘graphic novel’ maximises the amount of people you can have that conversation with.” In fact, the term has as much to do with the form of the text. “Length is important,” argues Paul, “a graphic novel should be long. People might disagree about how long, but it needs to be more than a page or couple of pages.” The debate, from Paul’s perspective, is hardly resolved, and it will even play an interactive role within the exhibition: “We are directly asking people to reflect on the term. We might even ask people to vote for what they think once they’ve gone round.”
“if you want to have a conversation about comics, the term ‘graphic novel’ maximises the amount of people you can have that conversation with”
So, perhaps you’ve never properly thrown yourself into the graphic novel form and you’re unsure where to start. In which case, what recent graphic novels that have garnered critical and literary acclaim does Paul recommend? “Books that have done well are Days of Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes from Bryan Talbot. There’s also a comic about the Moors Murders that got very good reviews called Becoming Unbecoming by Una.” (Many further books lining the shelves of Paul’s office were being thrust in my direction after this question, far too many to document here in full.)
Unlike the 60s, 70s or 80s, comics are highly integrated into today’s popular culture, but not as a printed graphic novel; naturally, I’m keen to hear Paul’s verdict on the comic book film adaptation. “I think some of them are really good. Guardians of the Galaxy is a very good film, really well put together. And, it’s not a good film just because comics are in vogue either.” For Paul, films inspired by comic books have become so dominant that we even forget their inspiration. “When trends almost start to stop being commented on, you really realise they’ve become dominant. Here’s an example: Kingsman, I had no idea that was based on a comic. Now we’re seeing film adaptations that no longer promote themselves as adaptations from comics, they’re just their own thing.” But, does Paul actually like them? “They’ve made it work in terms of narrative and popularity, but I just don’t know how good they are,” he concludes rather diplomatically.
As you visit the British Museum another time, consider travelling back a street down to the exhibit that proves there’s more to novel-length sequential art than capes and crime fighting. The building itself housing ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’ is, actually, a fairly decent metaphor for the graphic novel itself. It has, according to Paul, “a very small front, you could easily walk past it and not realise it’s there. But, once you go through the door, there’s actually a lot more behind it.”
‘The Great British Graphic Novel’ will run between 20th April-24th July at London’s Cartoon Museum. The exhibition is part of a two-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. For more information, read Dr Paul Williams’ blog.