Familiar Dystopias New Graphic Nonfiction

Sam Wallman and Eloise Grills are both well known and much loved in the Australian nonfiction comics scene. Their respective new books, Our Members Be Unlimited. And big beautiful female theory (Affirm Press) mark the first time with a mainstream publisher for each of them. Traditional publishing offers these authors the potential to reach new audiences and gain wider critical attention.

Affirm and Scribe have established themselves as notable small publishers in Australia. Holding their own on the Australian literary award circuit.

Wallman’s journalistic examination of unionism through comics is Scribe’s second extended graphic narrative. (The first was Two Week Wait: An IVF Story, written by Luke and Kelly Jackson and illustrated by Mara Wild.) Grills’ deeply personal exploration of self is Affirm’s first nonfiction foray into the world of adult graphic narrative.

Nonfiction Graphic Growth

Graphic narratives are a growth area in mainstream book publishing. Australian readers purchased more than a million graphic novels across 25,000 unique titles during 2020, generating A$23.1 million in sales.

They are receiving critical attention too. In 2022, Stone Fruit by Lee Lai was the first graphic novel shortlisted for the Stella Prize. After Mandy Ord’s When One Person Dies the Whole World is Over made the longlist in 2020.

Safdar Ahmed won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year. And the Multicultural NSW Award for his graphic narrative non-fiction, Still Alive. Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System; Ahmed has also been shortlisted. For the Eve Pownall Award, the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s award for non-fiction.

These mainstream short listings and prizes show that books using the visual-verbal. Strategies of graphic narrative are being recognize alongside traditional prose novels and narrative non-fiction. And the once ubiquitous headlines about comics being no longer just for kids are nowhere in sight. This phrase has been a regular mainstay of comics criticism, managing to insult comics and children at the same time by suggesting anything colorful or using a visual, illustrative mode was for children and therefore not worthy of critical attention.

Nonfiction Crossover Appeal

Indeed, Ahmed’s short listings in both adult and children’s categories demonstrates the crossover appeal of comics. Literary judges, publishers, librarians, teachers, academics and the reading public are all becoming more aware of the form.

We’re becoming a more sophisticated readership, accustomed to what the Victorian Curriculum Authority calls multimodal literacy which also includes film and animation, even dance where more than one mode in the text conveys meaning (such as text and image in comics).

We’re employing back-and-forth reading strategies; closely attending to details. Navigating gaps by making inferences and connections. We’re developing the skill to read nuance in the disjunctive form of comics, and to reward sophistication and accomplishment.

In Australia, most comics creators are self-taught, apprenticing themselves through creative experimentation, reading and research, and engaging with informal networks and communities of practice. These can form around communities and events such as zine fairs, Melbourne’s Sticky Institute and the Comics Art Workshop, a residential retreat run by a collective for local and international graphic storytellers.

Creative Writing

Comics creators may have studied creative writing and even come across a unit in graphic narratives. They may have degrees in visual arts or graphic design. Some have no tertiary qualifications at all. For the most part, learning happens through the process of making.

There is no formal training in Australia for publishers of comics and graphic narratives. I’m not sure whether any informal communities of practice exist. As graphic narratives have boomed in children’s, young adult and adult markets overseas, in Australia we seem to have a gap when it comes to publishing longform graphic works.

Safdar Ahmed is publish by Twelve Panels Press, a passion project set up by children’s publisher Erica Wagner, formerly of Allen & Unwin, academic Elizabeth MacFarlane and comics author and editor Bernard Caleo, to address the absence of a specialist graphic novel publisher in Australia. Many of our talent creators end up being sign and publish overseas. Rachel Ang, Tommi Parrish, Campbell Whyte, Simon Hanselmann and Lee Lai to name a few.

It’s heartening that small publishers are willing to take a chance on comics acquisitions despite the long lead time and the cost of producing illustrated texts.


Graphic Novels Are Overlooked By Book Prizes

In the midst of a global pandemic, almost nothing is proceeding as normal book. And yet, on a dim October morning, the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist announcement went brightly. Briefly and virtually streaming into homes and revealing the five books that had moved one step further towards winning Canada’s largest and arguably most prestigious literary award.

In some ways, however, this business as usual was a disappointment. After all, the Giller recently changed its submission guidelines to allow graphic novels to be submitted to the prize. And even more recently announced that a graphic novel was, indeed, included on the longlist Clyde Fans. By highly acclaimed Canadian author and cartoonist Seth.

But after raking in praise and aplomb for featuring a graphic novel on its longlist for the first time. The Giller like so many other book prizes just couldn’t bring itself to put Clyde Fans on the shortlist. Business as usual, indeed. And are we really surprise?

Prizes Reflect Book Readership

Book prizes have long overlooked and excluded graphic novels from their submissions. If not officially barred from entry (as with the Giller, which excluded graphic novels in its submission. Guidelines for a quarter of a century), then unofficially (as with Canada Reads.

Which does not specifically bar graphic novels from consideration but hasn’t shortlisted one since 2011). As a result, graphic novels are a kind of literary elephant in the room. A format of literary fiction which many, including book prizes, refuse to recognize as literary fiction.

This is, however, beginning to change. Increasingly, book prizes are beginning to reflect a reality many readers, professors. Librarians and publishers have known for years. That graphic novels do, in fact, have serious literary value. Graphic novels span a wide variety of content, and they’re visual narratives. With the same complexity and depth as purely textual novels. It’s taken decades, but public perception has change. And now, too, so are prizes.

After all, good literature is not and never has been a static category, but rather an ever-shifting, nebulous definition built collaboratively by anyone who’s ever picked up a book. After decades of marginalization, graphic novels are now inarguably coming to be include in this mainstream definition of what is literary.

Furthermore, this process of acceptance is help in no small part by book prizes’ increasing support of graphic novels. The connections between canonization and prizes are well studied. When literary institutions hold up a graphic novel as one of the most powerful pieces of fiction published this year, as the Giller did when it announced its longlist in September, the reading public begins to rethink their own biases against what they think is or isn’t literary whether they know they hold those biases or not.

A Troubling Book Trend

When we start to look at the history of graphic novels and book prizes, however, a more troubling trend seems to spring up: that despite their increasing presence on book prize long- and shortlists, graphic novels don’t ever seem to win book prizes.

For instance, Sabrina, a graphic novel by Nick Drnaso about the story of what happens when an intimate, everyday tragedy collides with the appetites of the 24-hour news cycle, was longlist by The Booker Prize in 2018 the first time a graphic novel had ever longlist by the Booker.

Like Clyde Fans, it too, failed to make the prize shortlist. Earlier this year, Canada Reads similarly longlisted but didn’t shortlist graphic memoir Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong, which deals with post-partum depression.

Graphic Novels

Ironically, graphic novels seem to have had better chances in the book prize world the further back we look: Essex County, a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire about a rural community in Southwestern Ontario, made the Canada Reads shortlist in 2011 making it further in the process than Clyde Fans, Sabrina and Dear Scarlet only to get knock out on the first day of competition.

Going back even further, the highly-acclaimed Maus by American author and artist Art Speigelman won a Pulitzer in 1992. The book (full title: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale) shows Spiegelman interviewing his father, a Polish Jew, about his memories of surviving the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Even so, Maus didn’t win a Pulitzer for literature, but rather a Pulitzer Special Citation which basically equates to a Pulitzer given by a jury when they’re not quite sure what category to put it in. Is it literature? It art? Is it memoir? History? The answer: it’s a special citation.

Literary Evolution Remains Slow Book

If these kinds of approaches to recognizing graphic novels seems like gatekeeping what we consider serious literature, that’s because it is.

These prizes have slow to shift away from a European high-culture approach, demonstrating how infuriatingly slowly the western literary canon evolves, especially in any direction away from the exclusionary principles it was and is found on.

It is, frustratingly, a sluggish and non-linear progression both in the public perception of what is and is not literary, and the ways in which literary institutions such as prizes reflect those perceptions.

This is only underscore by the fact that a graphic novel won’t win the Giller this year. And a graphic novel probably won’t win it next year, either. But eventually, one day, it’ll happen and if this new trend of graphic novels hitting prize longlists is any indication. It’s a future we’re moving closer to all the time.


Books That Help Make The Graphic Novel Respectable

Raymond Briggs, who died on August 9 aged 88, transformed the way. We see and value the strip cartoon and graphic novel in this country. Briggs great achievement was to make the form intellectually respectable through telling stories about seemingly ordinary characters. Which were rendered skillfully in the egalitarian medium of colored pencil.

Born in suburban London in 1934, Briggs had an early ambition to become a cartoonist. But this was met with disappointment from his parents, who didn’t see it as a respectable or financially secure choice. After experiencing more snobbery from his teachers at both Wimbledon and Slade art schools. Briggs began his career as a professional illustrator working on conventional children’s books.

The default at the time was to treat words and pictures as separate entities. It wasn’t until the 1960s that he explored his talent and skill to combine both words and pictures. Utilizing the form of the strip cartoon that defined his future work.

Briggs is best known for his wordless masterpiece The Snowman, published in 1978, essentially a sweet children’s tale. But the loss of his parents Ethel Bowyer and Ernest Briggs in 1971. And his wife Jean Taprell Clark in 1973, imbued an unsentimental directness in his work.

As we mark his passing, it seems fitting that we look at back at three books that each say something quite sweet and poignant about the human condition and elevated the form of graphic novels.

Fungus the Bogeyman Graphic (1977)

The success of the curmudgeonly Father Christmas and its sequel Father Christmas Goes on Holiday in 1975 established a loyal readership that enabled Briggs time and space to explore more experimental territory, like the wonderfully melancholic nihilism of the children’s book Fungus the Bogeyman published in 1977.

It follows a day (night) in the life of Fungus, a working class bogeyman whose job is to scare humans, as he begins to question the point of his work.

In Fungus, we see Briggs capture the mood of 1970s England through a slimy fairytale. The lights are out. The familiar domestic settings Briggs employs in many of his books is there from the start. Fungus’s wife Mildew rousing her husband in the marital bed. Time to get up, Fungus my dreary. It’s nearly dark.

The world-weary introspective musings of Fungus play to young and old readers alike. I recommend reading in slow voice to really get a sense of the wonderful sluggish and downtrodden nature of Fungus: Oh well, here we go Off to work again Onwards always onwards, In Silence and in Gloom.

Wave Of Graphic Strikes

It pre-empts both the wave of strikes that would result in Britain’s winter of discontent of 1978-79 and the upside-down world of the Netflix science fiction series Stranger Things. Briggs flips us, far underground, to the slow, damp, slime of Bogeydom. The world is drawn is exquisite detail employing a cold color palette of grey greens, muted blues and browns that create its alluring bleakness.

Briggs playfully subverts the graphic convention of the comic strip, drawing in blacked out panels that have apparently been censored by the publisher in the interests of decorum. One such panel declares: The Publishers wish to state that this picture has been deleted in the interests of good taste and public decency.

Diagrams, footnotes and an array of asides are pin throughout the story, adding detail and depth to the culture of Bogeydom. One aside, for example, reads: Bogey umbrellas are upside down. They are design to catch water and shower it onto the user. The story is carefully structure, richly detail and beautifully drawn, unsurprisingly taking Briggs two years to complete.

When the Wind Blows (1982)

Briggs resurfaced in 1982 with the politically charged, cold war graphic novel When the Wind Blows, further developing the characters of Jim and Hilda Bloggs from his 1980 book Gentleman Jim.

Briggs was inspire by the absurd and outdate Protect and Survive public information pamphlet, which had been publish by the British government in 1980 to advise the public what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. He used the advice within the ook to show how shockingly inadequate it was.

The story sets the horror of a nuclear apocalypse against the domestic. Backdrop of Jim and Hilda’s retired life in rural England. The warmth and geniality of the old couple’s interactions are punctuate by ominous double page spreads of the impending attacks.

Scale is use to brilliant effect, contrasting the tightly order panels framing the couple’s organize. Home life against spreads of military hardware that break the boundary of the page. The inevitable nuclear explosion obliterates the structure of successive pages, and their lives.

It is graphically stunning, with the following frames bent all out of shape. Until they return to a stable rectangle punctuated with a Briggsian Blimey!. The remainder of the book is bleak and achingly sad, a testament to Briggs’ skill with his pencils. Empathetic dialogue and willingness to face finitude head on.

Ethel and Ernest Graphic (1998)

In the 1990s Briggs turned his attention to his own parents in his graphic memoir Ethel and Ernest. It unflinchingly tells the story of how his working-class parents met, and then raised their only child, Raymond.

Their lives are play out against the social and political upheavals taking place through the middle of the 20th century. Including the depression, second world war, the birth of the welfare state. Television and the Moon landings.

It is both deeply personal yet typically universal, a loving and unsentimental social history document. The British class system is play out through Ethel’s respectable conservatism and Ernest’s ideological socialism.

Though politically polarized, they are kind and stoic, wanting the best for their son. They died in 1971 within months of each other, their son rendering their end with characteristic directness. How proud and amazed they would undoubtedly have been to see what he achieved. Blimey!

The contemporary American cartoonist Chris Ware, much admired by Briggs, said of comics. There is a magic when you read an image that you know doesn’t move. But you have a sense that something is moving, if not on the page, then in your mind.

While there are many much loved film and television adaptations of Briggs work. It is sitting quietly and patiently with his books where that humane magic can found