A salute to graphic art at the Book Festival
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

The ‘Ninth Art’ is now an integral element of the Book Festival. Stuart Kelly salutes a grown-up genre for stories that could not be told in any other way

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
An illustration by Isabel Greenberg from The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

IN 1983, when the Edinburgh International Book Festival began, it would have been tantamount to heresy to have a writer of “comic books” in the programme. But after last year’s Stripped strand, it seemed as if the “Ninth Art” had gone mainstream. Writers who use both words and visuals were not sidelined and marginalised, but an integral part of what the Book Festival promotes and upholds: the tantalising, transporting and transformative thing that squiggles on paper can do.

This year, three writers – Mike Carey, ­Isabel Greenberg and Katie Green – are appearing at the festival. The most uplifting thing about having such a strong presence for graphic storytelling is that these stories could not be told in any other way. I’m not going to use the cliché that graphic has come of age – it’s well past puberty, and nearly into mid-life crisis – but I will use another one because it’s true: Graphic is for grown-ups. A form which can boast Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, Nicola Streeten and Joe Sacco does not need to apologise for being included in the world’s biggest celebration of writing. In future years, it would be ideal if the Edinburgh International Book Festival collaborated with the Art Festival to highlight the images as much as the words.

I prefer the term “graphic storytelling” because the boundary between “fiction” and “non-fiction” is more frayed and porous in this form. Marjane Satrapi doesn’t look, in a photograph, like the figure she drew in Persepolis, nor does Derf Backderf, author of the astonishing My Friend Dahmer, actually resemble a Robert Crumb illustration. But both use particular forms of drawing to complicate the points they are making: ­Satrapi’s flowing lines and innocent simplicity belies the work’s political fervour and turmoil; Backderf’s echoing of Crumb’s rambunctious, childish fascination with sex clearly plays into his story of a childhood friendship with someone who became a ­serial killer.

The three writers I’d urge you to see represent three different strands of the graphic form. Greenberg’s An Encyclopaedia Of Early Earth is a fiction wholly illustrated and written by the author. Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow is a memoir about her anorexia and bulimia, again created without collaboration. Carey’s The Unwritten was originally published in monthly issues by DC’s Vertigo imprint, and I’ll be in Forbidden Planet during August to pick up the latest instalment of Unwritten: Apocalypse. Part of the joy of The Unwritten is Peter Gross’s glorious and various artwork, referencing everything from Beatrix Potter to Odilon Redon.

Lighter Than My Shadow is a profoundly harrowing and beautifully moving memoir. The clarity of the illustration exemplifies her themes. Anorexia is represented as a scribble outside of her self and bulimia as a gawping churn within. There is an honesty here coupled to imagination, which at points can draw tears. The love of drawing, its solitude and precision, is both one cause and a possible cure for her problems. There are exposing moments in this – abuse by a trusted friend, for example – but the stark images are in direct contrast with the queasy “misery memoir”.

Instead, there is an alchemical transmutation of pain into art, absence into ink, loss into longing. There is a quietness and a caution to the artwork, compared to the horrors of the story.

At the end of the book is a heartbreaking sequence, with the recovering character in bed with her partner, asleep, with the words, “Things are not perfect”. The bottom left-hand panel shows her suddenly awake, with the right-hand panel showing her asleep again, with the words, “but I’m OK with that”. The next page shows the assiduous author/illustrator, knock-kneed at a desk, wearing fluffy bunny slippers, not smiling, but not as traumatised as we have seen her throughout the book. Is it serenity?

Anxiety? Writer’s block? Inspiration? Pondering? Feeling frustrated? Then floats the ghostly word alone on the next page – “mostly”. The rest proceeds in silence. Green’s heartbreaking book shows us as she sees herself, as she wants to see herself and as she is: the graphic form is the only one capable of such ­nuance and subtlety when dealing with issues of desperate import. Its vacillation between words and silence is astonishing.

The Encyclopaedia Of Early Earth is not at all autobiographical. It is a mythic puzzle-box, beginning with a man from the North and a woman from the South falling in love but finding themselves perpetually kept apart by some kind of magnetic force-field. As they swap sides of the bed, to feel some residual heat from each other, he tells her the story of their story. It begins with a lost boy who was split into three so that each of the sisters who found him could have a child. The reader gets variations of Noah and Cain, the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen as the boy who was split into three tries to find the missing part of his soul that the shaman neglected to capture when he was still in the Eskimo-esque polar regions.

There is more than a dash of Angela Carter in this: traditional stories retold with the ethics altered and the moral manipulated. There is also more than a hint of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books in terms of the images, a kind of wide-eyed and faux-naif style, as if they were hieroglyphics on an unmade northern pyramid.

The story is the story of why we tell stories, set in a fictional past when humanity developed before the dinosaurs, and our only relics of that time are the tales they told. There are Babel towers and Cyclops, giants and Leviathans, all telling us about the earliest of myths and the legends with most traction. It is also extremely funny and incredibly moving: the genius monkeys of the cartographer will stay with me always, as will the final pages as the lovers are driven further apart by the gods’ malign prohibition over time.

The nested narratives also allow Greenberg to introduce characters that will reappear later in different stories – as we are warned early on: “(Yes, you have noticed a remarkable similarity between this Medicine Man and the Shaman you have ­already met! Well spotted. This is a plot device that will never be explained, so deal with it!)”

Mike Carey’s The Unwritten has been my joy for years now. It is the story of Tom Taylor, whose father outsold JK Rowling with the Tommy Taylor books about a boy ­wizard.

But Wilson Taylor disappeared ­before the last book came out, and left Tom listlessly and shambolically frequenting fan conferences. He is troubled when a returning guest persists with awkward questions – why are there no photographs of him before the age of seven, why is his National Insurance number also that of a dead immigrant? Is Tom actually Tommy, conjured into ­existence like a Buddhist tulpa, a creature imagined into reality by belief alone? Or is he a poor, sad boy tormented by his father plagiarising his life?

As he learns his true powers, he can jump into any story, from Moby-Dick to Jud Süss, and uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the whole of reality. Who controls our stories? As Fletcher of Saltoun said: “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws.” The Unwritten is more akin to Italo Calvino than Fantastic Four. It even managed that rarest of things, a crossover – with Bill Willingham’s excellent series, Fables – that managed not to be embarrassing or expedient. It is an eloquent investigation into what narrative is, how we are shaped by stories and why humanity is a story-telling species. Like the work of Greenberg and Green, it is also quintessentially its own thing. The Unwritten couldn’t be translated into a novel. It plays with and references the history of graphic storytelling, from the earliest scratching on rock to an homage to 1940s comic serials.

When I was part of the judging panel for the Man Booker Prize last year, our chairman, Robert Macfarlane, made it clear that he considered an entry in graphic form just as eligible as a form in continuous, non-illustrated prose. I have to say that, firstly, I was disappointed we had as few entries in this form as we did last year – and secondly, that as part of the “Ninth Art” award, I am delighted we have a prize for which writing without images is not accepted.

The graphic form can encompass everything from the furious phantasmagoria of China Miéville’s Dial H to the tenderness of Craig Thompson’s Blankets to the scientific investigations of Matteo Farinella’s Neurocomic, this is not just about spandex and capes any more – though when it is, it is increasingly smart and devious, as in Scott Snyder’s Batman storylines, Death Of The Family and Zero Year.

The graphic form isn’t watered down cinema, or the novel with added pictures. It is its own form, and it can express things that no other form can. For that reason alone, it is wholly appropriate that it is part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival – until it has its own.

Mike Carey and Isabel Greenberg appear together at the Book Festival on 14 August, 7pm
Carey also appears with Ken MacLeod on 13 August at 8:30pm
Katie Green appears with Matilda Tristram on 9 August at 2pm

Originally published in The Scotsman

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