Its summer in Scotland but last night you could almost mistake it for autumn – sunny, but cool and even evidence of chestnuts appearing on the trees. Still, a pleasant evening to walk towards Edinburgh’s elegant Georgian New Town (like the Old Town designated a UN World Heritage Site), bells pealing from the distinctive three-spired Saint Mary’s as I head towards the fetching environs of Charlotte Square, home to the Edinburgh International Book Festival each summer, a grassy square surrounded by imposing and beautiful old buildings. This is summer in Scotland, though, so the Book Festival folks also add in walkways and covered areas so when the inevitable rains come you don’t get soaked or sink into suddenly muddy grass.
The cool breeze certainly hadn’t put off the huge crowd though; the line waiting to get into the main RBS theatre to see Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman on Thursday evening stretched right around the site (bear in mind this is during the Edinburgh Festival, so each book event is competing for attention with literally hundreds of other shows going on). Inside a completely packed, sold-out audience (on which note a huge thank you to Claudia and her colleagues at the EIBF for sneaking me in) had assembled expectantly. I can’t say I was surprised to see such a huge turnout; I’ve been lucky enough myself to do several events with both authors over the years and both individually have always drawn huge (and appreciative) crowds, so you can imagine what happens when you place the two of them together for the evening. Ian’s fellow Scottish crime novelist turned comics scribe Denise Mina was the chair for the evening; earlier in the day Denise had been in our Edinburgh FPI store with the BBC’s Culture Show, recording a segment on graphic novels, which I understand will also include some scenes with her discussing the medium with both Ian and Neil, so for those who couldn’t be there, there’s something to keep an eye out for (from their site it looks like their next Edinburgh Festival special is on the 26th).
Ian’s very first foray into comics writing (or at least professional comics writing – as he said, like most kids he drew his own simple little cartoons as a youngster) was released in the UK on the same day as the event: Dark Entries, published by DC’s Vertigo imprint, is a stand-alone Hellblazer tale which sees John Constantine involved with a reality television show, which turns out to have a more demonic dimension to it (although some of us may feel that shows like Big Brother may well have similar hidden sulphurous backing too, of course). I had bumped into Ian a few days prior to this, during the Book Festival’s launch party last weekend, and he mentioned that he found it quite hard going to write Dark Entries, something which came up again during last night’s discussion (interestingly he once tried to use that title for one of his crime novels but the editor thought it was too dark and would put off readers; DC seemed more than happy, however!). Both authors and the evening’s chair person Denise all have successful backgrounds as prose novelists as well as working with comics, so naturally the discussion included the comparison of how the writer approaches the differing mediums, how they find them to write for, the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Ian had remarked how hard it had been to go from twenty years of prose writing, where the author is essentially god and can do what he wants, to having to think about how to make a story work in a comic format, how to give the character dialogue, explain the plot, the settings, without recourse to several paragraphs per page of text. Ian’s no stranger to working in shorter fiction formats as well as novel-length, but it was still a difficult task to master – as he commented with a laugh, it reminded him that the folks who create Oor Wullie and the Broons each week (two of Scotland’s longest-loved comics strips, published by DC Thomson) really do earn their pay; it’s hard work. He did note, however, that he was thankful that he was writing Constantine; the ‘inner monologue’ is a common device in prose and one he was wondering how to replace in comics before thinking hold on, John Constantine often has an inner monologue, almost Noir fiction style. Neil concurred, mentioning that was one of the things he liked about Constantine and that his favourite inner monologue of thoughts he ever created for the character was where he had John having an imaginary conversation with London (“Morning, London, how are you?” “Not bad, John, raining, full of people” – early Sandman as he reclaims his artefacts of office, if I recall correctly).
Neil did say (as I’ve heard him say before) that he was fortunate in that when he was first thinking to write comics he got good, solid, practical advice from Alan Moore on how to approach layouts, panels, how many words per panel and per page and so on. Ian didn’t have that advantage, although he did say he had great editorial support from DC and, at Denise’s suggestion, he had checked out Scott McCloud’s indispensable guide to how to create comics, which had proven very valuable. Ian also went on to say that one of the things he liked about Neil was that even before he became a comics writer he was passionate about the medium, citing reading letters by a young Mr Neil Gaiman of England which were published in various American comics letter pages, often commenting how the writer could have done something differently. This sparked an amusing side-discussion on old comics (Ian had unearthed his first issue of Black Orchid just that morning) and how they influenced their imaginations as kids, not to mention colouring their young minds’ idea of what America was like (and oh those old comics adverts for ‘real X-Ray Specs’!).
Of course going from years of writing highly successful novels (I don’t read a huge amount of crime fiction, but Ian’s Rebus novels have always appealed to me), largely a solitary occupation, to comics writing also involves collaboration, with an artist and also, as Ian said, with a fairly hands-on editor who was good at helping him come to terms with the medium. Both authors had different experiences of this collaborative method of storytelling though; Neil was fortunate in that he usually is able to pick an artist he wants to work with and write to their strengths (he gave examples like Charles Vess for his ethereal fantasy or Jill Thompson for “sweet and cute that tugs at your heart”). Ian, by comparison, said that he had pretty much no direct interaction with the artist at all, it all went via DC’s New York offices when he needed to communicate something. He realised this could cause small problems when he saw rough pages and realised Italian artist Werther Dell’Edera had drawn a service trolley in a kitchen instead of the dumb waiter Ian had stipulated and after several moderated-via-New York suggestions he decided actually a trolley would just do fine.
(the hair, the black jacket, pen in hand – this is the natural habit of the Gaiman species; larger version on Flickr)
The way comics have become more respectable and mainstream in the English language world in recent years was also discussed. Not just the fact that the New York Times Review of Books will feature a Batman tale by Neil (a strange world where the NYT reviews a short Batman comic story, isn’t it? Remarked Neil) and graphic fiction is acceptable at literary festivals, but also the way in which it is being increasingly embraced by librarians and educators as a terrific way of encouraging reading. One audience member, a teacher, said her girls read a lot, her boys read well but not as much or as heartily as the girls – until they started using graphic novels. Ian agreed; his own son has become more interested in prose reading directly because of his comics reading.
I knew that his son had been lead to Robert Louis Stevenson through reading his dad’s copy of the Alan Grant/Cam Kennedy Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde, but he added that since then he’s devoured comics versions of a number of other classics then wanted to read the originals, citing recent comics versions of Kafka and the popular Manga Shakespeare. As Ian’s also part of a Scottish Parliament advisory board on encouraging reading it’s a subject close to his heart and it was nice to see both author and a teacher extolling the virtues of the comics medium for reluctant readers in such a setting. Ian recalled an uncle he had as a boy who, when his parents wondered about the amount of comics their son was reading (this being the era when there was a large number of weekly comics for boys and girls in the UK), told them it doesn’t matter what he’s reading, as long as he is reading, a comment which struck a personal note with me as my own parents took a pretty similar stance, quite happy to leave me to read my way through any and all comics and books which took my eye (something I’m still most appreciative for to this day).
Doctor Mel Gibson (no stranger to our readers), who had been speaking earlier at the Book Fest, was also cited as someone who did great work in promoting the medium as a tool to encouraging reading and offering help and suggestions to educators and librarians, and in fact Mel was there in the audience, so Ian offered (well deserved) kudos to her for her work, which was a nice touch, I thought.
(Ian signing for fans; the line for both authors was enormous. Click for the larger version)
Throughout the event the talk was interpreted into British Sign Language for the hearing-impaired. Sadly I’m not conversant in BSL, although when I see someone signing at an event like this I’m always struck by how wonderfully expressive it is, not just the hand gestures, but whole body movements and facial expressions, it’s a remarkable form of communication. Obviously I wasn’t the only person who thought so as at one point one of Ian’s sentences ended with “balls.” He paused and looks at the BSL signer then comments, I really just said that because I wanted to see how she did that, which had everyone including the BSL woman in stitches. This lead to several teasing comments throughout the rest of the evening where Neil and Ian would both say something then turn expectantly to the BSL lady to see what she was going to do with their statements, leading to a lot of laughter; she received her own round of applause for coping so sportingly with our unruly schoolboys at the end of the proceedings.
Overall it was a terrific evening – as with the comics-themed events the EIBF has held in the last couple of years I noted that again it was a pretty diverse (not to mention very large) audience, from refined, elderly ladies to youngsters, as well as fellow comics geeks. Neil had said that sometimes he missed the days when comics were more of a secret pleasure, when they weren’t discussed in broadsheet papers and when you had to hunt in the dark corners of bookstores for the SF section, then behind that maybe some graphic novels, a secret pleasure for a few (hidden down next to the Crime Fiction section, quipped Ian), but now Graphic Novels, SF and Crime are the large, mainstream sections in most high street bookstores. I do get where he is coming from on that subject, but on the other hand after years of extolling the virtues of the comics medium (and the SF&F genre) I have to admit I find it rather rewarding to see two hugely best-selling and respected authors talking to a sold-out audience at the world’s biggest literary festival, itself part of the world’s biggest arts festival, about comics and for that audience to enjoy it so much.