3 Jan 2013

Does Costa win signal British comics comeback?

As Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes becomes the first graphic novel to win a Costa award, Hayley Campbell asks if comics are still a tough pill to swallow for the literary world.

British comics are noticeably everywhere now because a few years ago they very noticeably weren’t.

After a flurry of activity in the mid-80s – which saw London become a teeming hotbed of comics creation, while stuff like Alan Moore’s Watchmen made Americans unroll their maps to find out where these ideas were coming from – things sort of went off the boil.

Comics anthologies had been thought up and churned out with a kind of “scene” mentality that brought together all sorts of people – people who might have otherwise gone off to do films or write books, but didn’t because there are some things that only work in comics.

There is a natural juxtaposition of ideas and sensibilities in comics that fuse or clash like no other art form. In the mid-’90s lots of these people disappeared, along with the still-young publishing ventures, but others stayed and self-published or shipped off to work in America.

Perhaps comics are an easier pill to swallow for the haughty literary society if you coat them in Ulysses and call it a memoir.

Neil Gaiman is one of the most famous anthology faces that emerged at that time, and one of his old collaborators was Bryan Talbot who had been doing his own underground comics since the late 1960s.

In 2007, when the British comics industry was starting to creak and groan back into existence (in the form of new publishing houses SelfMadeHero, Nobrow, Blank Slate, et al), Talbot was picked up by Jonathan Cape, the graphic novel imprint of “proper books” publisher Random House.

His Alice in Sunderland came out that same year, linking Lewis Carroll to that bit of England where everyone talks like Our Friends in the North.

His Costa Prize nomination for his latest book Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes came as a surprise given the dozens of British comics worthy of the nod this year, but it makes sense if you pick it apart: Talbot has linked himself (or his wife, co-author Mary Talbot) not to Lewis Carroll this time but to another literary big cheese: James Joyce.

Perhaps comics are an easier pill to swallow for literary society if you coat them in Ulysses and call it a memoir.

Hayley Campbell writes on comics for The Comics Journal