No contest?

A column article by: Regie Rigby
There are many things I love about comics – and I promised last time that I’d tell you about some of them – specifically some of the books I picked up at Bristol from my old friends at Markosia. They’ll have to wait though, because there have been developments in another area and as a result I have my grumpy hat on again. This is disappointing on several levels – I’m trying to be more cheerful, apart from anything else – but also the thing I’m grumpy about is something that I ought to be pleased by. You see, hot on the heels of the announcement of The Eagles Initiative, the UK Sunday Newspaper The Observer*, in collaboration with publishers Jonathan Cape** and Comica*** have launched this year’s Graphic Short Story Prize. On so many levels, this is a wonderful thing, and I certainly wish the competition, and all who take part in it, every success. The competition is now in its forth year, and two of the three previous winners are either already published, or about to be. I suspect the £1,000 first prize was pretty handy too. More than that, the award’s association with both The Observer and Jonathan Cape puts comics in a highbrow cultural arena which so often overlooks graphic narrative and potentially opens up new readers and new attitudes to the medium. All of this is utterly brilliant and quite likely to make me dance my happy dance.**** But – and you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? – as is so often the case when highbrow cultural types get involved with comics, there are one or two things about the way the contest has been presented that frankly make me seethe. Take for instance this article by Rachel Cooke. Cooke is one of the judges of the contest this year, and when a friend sent me the link to this I was looking forward to a pleasant read involving lots of head nodding and murmurs of agreement from yours truly. It didn’t quite work out that way. Oh, there was lots in it I heartily approved of, and so some self satisfied nodding did indeed occur. For example, Cooke confesses at the start of her article that she isn’t proud of it but “for years and years, I thought that graphic novels were only read by geeky guys with long hair, fetid bedrooms and a serious fondness for thrash” To which I say “RESULT!” For me this is the stuff that dreams are made of – an intelligent, articulate, “highbrow” lover of culture overcoming a widely held cultural prejudice and embracing the medium, and then telling other people about it. Apparently she has been attacked in the blogosphere for being a “Johnny-come-lately”, something which mystifies me utterly – since her discovery of the riches of our medium Cooke has done rather a lot to raise the profile of comics and so done us some good. Are we to exclude anyone who came to post childhood from expressing views on the medium? I bloody well home not – otherwise this very column is in a bit of trouble, given that I came to comics in my late teens… Hell, I even agreed with her list of “greats” she recommends people go out and read. Granted – as many of the comments on the article suggest – it’s a little short, but she could hardly be expected to list every good comics creator in history, now could she? It’s just that she does seem to be sticking to the “usual suspects” people always name check when they want to suggest that comics might have some worth outside of kindergarten. If you’ve avoided comics because you already know the Spandex Brigade don’t float your boat, then were tempted back by articles about the likes of Daniel Clowes but found that you didn't like that either, you'd be forgiven for thinking that's all there was. I know that isn't true, and so do you. But non-comics readers, sort of by definition, don't. There are other little gripes too – such as the fact that she references the excellent Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, but the article is illustrated with a still from the film version, rather than the original comics work.***** There’s a lack of respect for the medium in that which I probably find more annoying than I should. I do think it matters though, and as such, it has added somewhat to my intrinsic grumpiness. There’s also my usual uneasiness about the unwillingness of higher brow cultural types to use the term “comics”. Again this is a personal thing and it probably annoys me more than it should, but it is annoying. Comics are not novels, anymore than films are. There are, it is true, some superficial similarities between comics and novels, but in truth comics are to prose what cows are to horses – a bit similar to look at and capable of doing many of the same things, but when you get right down to it, fundamentally different. The term “graphic novel” served a useful purpose when it was coined, since it differentiated comics like “A Contract with God” or “A Life Force” from the more conventional monthly American “floppy” which dominated the anglophone comics market at the time, but as a term I think it’s usefulness is perhaps over now. The “floppy” might well be my preferred comics format, but increasingly the trade paperback or the single volume long form story seem to be the default forms. They’re more bookshop friendly, have a longer shelf life and so make more commercial sense. These days it seems to me the term “graphic novel” serves only to allow the slightly “in the comics closet” cultural snob to enjoy comics without actually admitting to it. As you can possibly discern, this winds me right up. Then of course, there is also the matter of the panel of judges. I should be clear right up front – every single member of the panel brings something useful to the party, I’m not suggesting that any of them are unqualified for the job. Cooke herself is a part of it, and her experience as a journalist and reviewer, alongside her obvious appreciation of the medium clearly make her an asset. Then there’s novelist Audrey Niffenegger, who penned the incomparably brilliant The Time Traveller’s Wife, a book of exquisite beauty and narrative complexity. If anyone can judge a good story, in any medium then she can, I have no doubt. David Hughes, of Walking the Dog fame is an illustrator and artist. I’m guessing he can make a reasonable judgement about the quality of the art submitted, while Dan Franklin (Publisher, Jonathan Cape) and Suzanne Dean (Random House Creative Director) undoubtedly have a firm grasp of what sells – a judgement which is all too often overlooked in this dear medium of ours. But of the whole six person panel, only Paul Gravett, currently director of the Comica Festival, and long time promoter of all things sequential art could be claimed to be a part of the comics “scene” as anything other than a consumer******, and on that basis surely we’re all qualified to sit on the panel. To be truly valid I’d argue that the panel really needs a proper comics artist, and I have to say that between the contacts in Cooke’s and Gravett’s little black books, they surely must have been able to find one if they’d wanted. It baffles me that they didn’t. As I said, I don’t want to be too negative, and I’m truly looking forward to the Graphic Short Story Prize – there was some wonderful work amongst last year’s entrants and I expect a similar quality this year. It’s just that if I were going to enter my comics work into a competition, I’d be looking at this one, and then moving on to The Eagles Initiative instead. The prizes are similar, and although I grant you that the international nature of The Eagles Initiative will make it harder to win, but the exposure would be so much greater and your work would end up in front of people who routinely hire people to make comics. Seems to me that in this contest of contests, there really is no contest at all. See you next time, when I really will be looking at some stuff from my friends at Markosia, and from some other old friends too. See you there! *Part of the Guardian Newspaper Group. **Part of the Random House publishing Empire, which amongst other things brought us the wonderful, if short lived DFC comic here in the UK. ***The London Comic Festival, which so far as I can tell isn’t part of anybody’s Empire – hurrah for independence! ****And yes, I do have one. It is seldom seen. *****I’m not blaming Cooke for this necessarily, it could be laziness on the part of the art editor and not the journalist. It is, however, rather slipshod work on somebody’s part. ******Walking the Dog is almost a comic, but I wouldn’t peg Hughes as a comics artist. Some may disagree, but they’d be wrong, and the whole “what’s the difference between a comics artist and an illustrator” is a discussion for another time.

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