Pictorial cultures – a day at IBBY

I went, partially, out of curiosity to the IBBY conference at Roehampton at yesterday which was themed around Graphic Novels and comics. I find it slightly odd going to these events as I’m not a professional scholar/researcher nor do I work as  a librarian – I do it for fun since my day job is currently a PHP developer – and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Due to not waking up in time (despite real alarm clock and furry alarm clock on my pillow) and just missing the bus, I was slightly late for Paul Gravett‘s excellent talk on European graphic novels (bandes dessinées (Wikipedia on the franco-belgian tradition) where he highlighted to thriving continental culture. This set up one of the emerging themes of the conference: that Britain does not have a comics culture to sustain work – it is often very short term in view.

His rallying cry at the end was that we need comics for children which linked to David Fickling who published the David Fickling Comic ( as well as being a fine publisher). Athough the comic has ceased, it will be coming out in the David Fickling Library of graphic novels next year (Sarah McIntyre‘s Vern and Lettuce, Dave Shelton‘s Good Dog, Bad Dog, Kate Brown‘s Spider Moon, David Morris‘s Mirabilis amongst many others). He mentioned something which appears to be a perenniel issue in education, that of literacy and its apparent death (reading is dead, long live reading? – I wonder if we are going through a transition as other media come online). I do wonder if this feeds into the issue of the comic culture but this becomes an issue of reading culture.

In the panel talk after the break (which had no tea/coffee) Emma Vieceli, an indie writer who is doing some stuff for David Fickling amongst others, mentioned that there is a comic sub-culture but it sometimes sets itself apart (like genre fiction?). The problem is larger I suspect and that thiswas only one part of the ongoing conversation between “high” and “low” art. (This is where I admire the approach of China Miéville,  Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers – i.e. get on and do it and worry later, if at all.)

The perenniel issue of gendered readings of comics came up as well and Emma commented that she was wary of the lines specifically aimed at women. Sarah McIntyre rejoined that she didn’t like Superhero comics but perhaps this comes down to issue of different tastes. John Harris Dunning, who has published Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers with Walker Books, spoke about only being a writer (whereas Emma and Sarah are writer/artists) and creating a black and white comic which looks interesting  and is one added to my list of “to buy” books. The book started off as a series but when the publisher folded, he and the artist, Nikhil Singh, decided to carry on with it and completed the book.

After lunch, I went to the panel about superhero comics and men’s experiences of 1930s to 1950s comics in Glasgow. I’ll slide over the superhero comics talk as it really didn’t do anything for me but Hilary Young’s oral interviews with Glaswegian men who read comics and  their experiences. Though short, it offered an insite into the appeal of the Eagle (and its cunning development of the secondary market through clubs) and Alf Tupper, who was felt to be analogous to their own experiences as he was working class like them. In part they composed their identities against the strips that they read and invested themselves into the characters, making them theirs.

After tea, Janet Evans spoke about Raymond Briggs, one of Britain’s best and iconoclastic graphic creators. She reminded me about some of his works like the TinPot General and the Iron Woman which I’d forgotten about. She came back to the issue of comic culture in Britain against France or Japan and Briggs certainly feels that the form is underrated in the UK. What Briggs does is to create really and reflect understated characters. In some ways he creates some Walter Mitty type characters who almost know that they won’t change their lives but only ruminate on them. Marcia Williams completed the afternoon with a talk on her work retelling Shakespeare and Canterbury Tales as well as  story about the First World War.

All in all, a good day though at times I wanted a little more reflective substance on the issues and I’m not sure that anything really came out of the ideas of cultures. Its a slow one but one that may be changing with generations of new readers/thinkers who accept different ideas of literature.

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