Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Inflatable Woman - a graphic novel by Rachael Ball

This story first appeared on Tumblr and it is interesting to go back to it, now that I have the book, to see how it evolved and for the early sketches of the main character, Iris.

"Inflatable woman" refers to a pre-reconstruction procedure that Iris has after a mastectomy but the story is mainly a surreal take on her emotional journey as she comes to terms with the possibility of dying from (or surviving) breast cancer.

It's tremendously funny and charming, Iris is a zoo-keeper who has "raised very polite monkeys" and a rabble of penguins. There are wonderful characters such as Maud, Suggs and a variety of doctors and nurses including the tiny but scary Nurse Bobby. The story addresses Iris's darker moments through her dreams and her attempt to have a relationship with a man met online.

I can't recommend this book enough - for the characters, the drawings and the way it is constructed but also for it's message to embrace life and live your dreams. Go to Rachael Ball's Tumblr to find out more

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Comics for children - Vern and Lettuce by Sara McIntyre

Vern and Lettuce comic strips have been collected into a book and printed by DFC.
The first stories are standalone but the second half is a series about "Lettuce and Vern's Pop at Fame".
Last week I started up a lunchtime comics club for children in a south London primary school.

Each half term I'm going to be taking a different group of kids through the processes of creating characters, settings, story lines and comic strips. But perhaps most important for their comics education I will be showing them a range of comics and graphic novels suitable for their age group.

I'm looking forward to my current group's reaction to Vern and Lettuce by Sarah McIntyre next week. It is a collection of stories about a sheep and a rabbit, best friends who live in Pickle Rye. The settings have a real south London flavour and the characters are totally believeable as locals. I've already shown the kids a photocopy of one of the pages (I had too much to carry the first week to include a whole book) and they went completely quiet, this, I am learning, is how they demonstrate their greatest enjoyment – total concentration.

Sarah McIntyre has a wonderful website for kids, it's full of free activity sheets and information about her stories:

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Skim - a graphic novel by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

The book I borrowed from the library.
Because of a mix up about the start time of a screenwriting workshop I found myself in an empty library with 10 minutes to spare. With permission from a staff member I scurried around the graphic novel section grabbing books off the shelves and borrowing them without thinking about it very much.

I'm telling you this because Skim is one of the graphic novels I took home. I'd seen it in the library for a long time but never picked it up before - the reason for this is the cover design. It's gorgeous and I love it but it didn't make me want to take the book off the shelf.

It turns out that Skim is one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. The drawings are wonderful, it is well plotted, the characters are totally believable and the story managed to touch me and make me laugh at the same time.

Skim is the nickname of sixteen year old Canadian school girl Kimberly Keiko Cameron. There is a strong Japanese influence in the drawings at times and there is a hint that perhaps Skim may have some Japanese heritage but, quite rightly, this is never fully explained - it is part of Skim but not a driving force in this story. Skim's school is thrown into turmoil when the boyfriend of one of the students commits suicide. Though Skim didn't know him she is buffeted by the emotions and reactions that ripple out from this event*. At times she is seen as a suicide risk herself. Perhaps because of all this or maybe in spite of it Skim becomes infatuated with a female teacher who at first appears to encourage romantic feelings. Skim also begins to view her friendships and her life in a new way.

A couple of years ago my life was touched, and continues to be touched, by the violent suicide of a cousin I didn't know well. I can recognise the misinformation, the speculation, the rumours and the range of effects on people connected (quite often indirectly) with the person that died. Mariko and Jillian capture this, the dynamics of teenage friendships, the inner workings of power/popularity in high schools and the stirrings of first love extremely well.

Maybe this makes the story sound a bit too serious but it's not. Skim is also funny and charming, her thoughts about her life and those around her are witty and compelling. I hope that Mariko and Jillian will make a sequel one day. I only ever write about books that I love and this is top of my list at the moment.

It's always great to discover authors - happily Mariko and Jillian Tamaki have published other work that I hope to dip into soon. But I wish I had seen past the cover design before! For me it doesn't fully represent Skim or her story in any meaningful way. This experience has made me think about the importance of cover design and how often my choice of book is based on it. Out of interest I looked online to see what other cover designs had been used for Skim, they are all wonderful but I think that the most truly representative is the French cover. I came close to buying the French version of the book until I remembered I wouldn't be able to read it!

But perhaps I am blaming others for my own shortcomings. I have resolved, in future, to try to see beyond the covers of books, maybe just to grab stuff off the library shelf again without thinking about it too much. Perhaps I'll find another gem like Skim.

Another cover version. For me, it is not completely representative
of the character but it's intriguing. I might have picked this book up had I
seen it. There is a strong Japanese feel to it that is attractive but do
you get the sense that this is a sixteen year old school girl?
The cover of the French version of Skim. It's a bit odd because
out of the original page context I'm not sure that it is clear
that she has just released a balloon. However I think it
is the best of the three covers I've seen.
Update: I just discovered on my Facebook timeline, thanks to Paul Gravett, that Jillian Tamaki is this year's artist in residence at ELCAF on 20th-21st June in East London (UK).

*I've taken this concept from Darryl Cunningham's description of the effects of suicide in his graphic novel Psychiatric Tales.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Phoenix Children's Comic Festival 2015 - Story Museum, Oxford (UK)

In an effort to gently instill a love of comics in my daughter I took her to The Phoenix Children's Comic Festival yesterday. (I think it's working, thanks for your help Phoenix Comic people!)

Author Gary Northfield reading his book (the yellow blur) onstage at
the Phoenix Children's Comic Festival
It was held in the Story Museum, a rambling set of buildings in Oxford that contain some wonderful permanent installations for kids such as the Talking Throne and Story Games.

The little boy is sitting on one of the permanent installations at the Story Museum:
a throne that speaks the words you choose to put on a board.
The festival itself featured events led by many contributors to the Phoenix Comic. We went to an hour long high energy Etherington Brothers session "the greatest comics making show on earth" which was amazingly detailed on the subject of story making. They tackled genre, characterization, plot and more through acting out little scenarios (mostly involving a zombie called Bob) to illustrate their points. 

A free booklet from the Etherington Brothers.
The emphasis of a lot of the events in the festival was on encouraging kids to make their own comics. My daughter had the opportunity to use a drawing tablet to create a character. 

We also saw one of my daughter's comics heroes, Gary Northfield, give an "extreme reading" of his illustrated novel Julius Zebra, Rumble with the Romans.

Julius Zebra by Gary Northfield.
(We already had this signed copy.)

There was an opportunity to buy books published by The DFC Library and we came home with a collection of Vern and Lettuce strips by Sarah McIntyre (who is also one of my daughter's favourites). I read the book on the coach back and enjoyed its wonderful characters and quirky south London flavour.

The fabulous Vern and Lettuce by Sarah McIntyre.
I think this was the third Comics Festival that the Phoenix have run. As it was sold out I assume that they'll be doing it again next year. If you have kids who like comics, or kids who are interested in the process of making comics or stories, I recommend that you get some tickets for the 2016 festival.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Pablo - a graphic novel biography by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie

Pablo by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie 

Last night I went to the Institut Français in London to hear Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie talk to Paul Gravett about Pablo – their graphic novel biography of Pablo Picasso. An English translation has recently been published by SelfMadeHero.

Paul Gravett speaks to Clément and Julie about a page in Pablo.

Clément Oubrerie created the wonderful illustrations in the Aya series, written by Marguerite Abouet. Pablo is the first graphic novel Julie Birmant has written, she had shown a prose version of it to Clément and they decided to adapt it together.

Julie said she was inspired to write about Pablo Picasso after reading an autobiography of Fernande, his lover and first muse. Pablo, the graphic novel, is told from Fernande's point of view and focusses on the early part of Picasso's painting career in Montmartre - the time of his relationship with Fernande.

Julie and Clément spoke to Paul Gravett about how they worked together. Julie had hoped that Clément would do the script but he didn't have time, so she had to learn scripting as she worked on the project. She said that she had to rebuild her original prose story and that she had to cut down the dialogue as it would have been too much for the graphic novel format. It seems that working to the beat of Clément's 6 panel page grid presented some challenges, she said that at first she felt "panic". However, it appears that this has been a successful partnership, Julie and Clément are working on a new graphic novel project together. I'm sorry to say that I did not make many notes about this except that it is about dance.

Clément gave some insight into his working process for Pablo. Very few photos exist of the people in Pablo Picasso's early life so Clément based his characterizations on Pablo Picasso's sketches of his friends. He used mixed media for the panels, such as charcoal and watercolour, each panel done on a separate A4 page and then combined together in a page layout later. The panels were coloured by Sandra Desmaziéres and then Clément "adjusted the lighting".

Clément sketching an illustration of Pablo Picasso in my book.
The finished illustration.
As you can see in my photo Clément not only signed my book but also did a watercolour sketch of Pablo. I have yet to read Pablo but flicking through it the illustrations have all the charm, humour and wonderful characterization that I enjoyed so much in the Aya books.

Some exciting news! Clément has been working on a graphic novel version of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman and, from what I understand, an English translation will be published soon.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Graphic Brighton, Drawing in the Margins - a UK event in May

Poster by Aneurin Wright
The University of Brighton and publishing house, Myriad Editions, are running a fantastic event on 1st and 2nd May in Brighton UK featuring "graphic novelists and comic creators who all ‘draw in the margins’, their work giving voice to otherwise marginalised or under-represented groups".

The Friday evening event is free but ticketed. Saturday is daytime and tickets are £10 (£6 concessions). 

Guest list taken from the website:

Friday 1 May 
Emma Vieceli - artist: Breaks webcomic / Vampire Academy graphic novels 
Inko and Chie Kutsuwada - artists / writers: Go♥Go Metro! Webcomic 

Saturday 2 May 
Ian Rakoff - writer: The Prisoner: Living in Harmony / comics lecturer at the Victoria and Albert Museum 
Tim Pilcher – co-writer / editor: Brighton the Graphic Novel
Karrie Fransman - artist / writer: The House that Groaned graphic novel 
Dr. Muna al Jawad - Consultant in Elderly Medicine, Brighton and Sussex University and cartoonist 
Corinne Pearlman - Graphic novels editor Myriad Editions and cartoonist for Jewish Quarterly 
Warren Pleece - artist: Incognegro / Montague Terrace 
Patrice Aggs - artist: The Boss (in The Phoenix comic) 
Nye Wright - writer / artist: Things to do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park 
Ilya - writer / artist: Room for Love 
Laura Malacart and Daniel Locke - writer / artist: Yes! Based on a True Story of 'Non-Verbal' Autism 
Henny Beaumont - writer / artist: A Hole in the Heart 
Francesca Cassavetti - writer / artist: The Most Natural Thing in the World
Kate Evans - writer / artist: Bump! How to Make, Grow and Birth a Baby 

Full details about the event are here and you can book tickets here.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Phoenix Fest 2015 - a UK comics festival for kids

The Phoenix Fest is being held in the Story Museum in Oxford UK on Saturday May 2nd and Sunday May 3rd.

The Phoenix is a comics magazine for kids, many of the contributing comics creators are running shows and workshops during the weekend including Neill Cameron, Adam Murphy, Jess Bradley, Gary Northfield and more. If you haven't seen the magazine before you can look at a free digi-comic on  their website.

Go to The Phoenix Comic website for details about the Phoenix Fest and to the Story Museum website to book tickets. Be quick, I missed out last year and I'm only telling you now because I've already bought tickets for myself and my daughter.

The Phoenix magazine for kids.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Scott McCloud in conversation with Paul Gravett - Comica Festival at the British Library

Paul Gravett (orange shirt) and Scott McCloud with pages from The Sculptor.

Before last night the only pictures I'd seen of Scott McCloud were his representations of himself in cartoon form. I was aware of the high regard comics makers throughout the world have of his books on the subject. I was also aware, via his website, of his experimentation with the form - especially his mind bending webcomic work. It felt a little odd that I was about to see the person behind it all. I had, I think, assumed that he would be coolly pragmatic in his approach to his work and perhaps quite reserved with others. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Scott came across as a wonderfully warm person, passionate and humorous about his work, keen to promote a love of reading and making comics. The main focus was on his new graphic novel, The Sculptor, but the conversation with Paul Gravett ranged far and wide - helped along by occasional exchanges with Scott's wife in the audience.

One of the most interesting things Scott said was that he wrote about comics so as to teach himself how to make them and that he had relied on his own books when creating his graphic novel. He complained that he found he hadn't written enough on story structure - only 5 panels.

Paul and Scott discussed "being remembered" after death, which is a major theme of Scott's graphic novel. Scott said that very few are remembered for long periods of time "and who will be remembered in 1,000 years?". He spoke of the "second death of being forgotten".

Scott talked about his drawing style, saying that a friend had told him he was "tone death when drawing people" - in other words his drawn characters don't have life. He said that when he applied for an illustration course at college, he was told he was rejected because he couldn't draw well enough. He instead majored in painting but dropped out after one semester. I was interested in this because Emily Carroll spoke of similar experiences at college when she was interviewed in a Comica conversation last year.

Scott said that, when working on his graphic novel, he used photographs and films of actors he hired. He described searching through footage to find the moment that "makes a hug look like a hug". This process, he said, breathed life into his drawings. Scott spoke passionately about the background characters in the panels of his graphic novel, pointing out little sketched vignettes that were based on photos he'd secretly taken of real people in real situations.

While answering questions at the end of the event Scott was, I think (it's not in my notes), asked for advice about making comics. "Finishing comics is the most important thing" he replied and he advised working on small projects at first to ensure that they will be completed. He quoted Dan Berry "make it then tell everybody" describing Dan as a wonderful podcaster.

As much as I would have liked to I didn't buy The Sculptor last night. I could only afford one of Scott's books and I decided to get "Making Comics". When I read it I will remember Scott's warmth towards all comics makers and that he used the book to help him create his own graphic novel. We're all learning, all the time, including those perceived as experts. It's generous of someone in Scott McCloud's position to reveal this.

Paul and Scott discuss the meaning of the top panel.

If you haven't seen it before I recommend viewing Scott McCloud's 2005 TED talk in which he speaks about the early days of webcomics and the infinite canvas. Thanks to Candy Gourlay for letting me know about it.