Inspiration From an Unlikely Source: My Journey Into the World of Graphic Novels

‘WHAT COMES TO MIND WHEN YOU HEAR THE PHRASE ‘GRAPHIC NOVEL?’

Spiderman? Batman?

Those Garfield strips at the back of the paper?

A stick figure with a speech bubble?

All of the above?

Fair enough.

You aren’t alone. Until about three years ago, I’d have thought the same – even though I spent my childhood drawing and thinking up stories. Never thought to combine the two though. Funny that. Later, in Uni, I took an interest in acting and screenwriting, unknowingly sharpening my graphic-novel-writing skills in the process. But I never saw myself attempting to write a graphic novel. Despite having a knack for creating characters and dialogue, I lacked the confidence and attention span to write novels. It took my old friend Jonny to create some concept art based around one of my short stories for us to finally put two and two together. The effect of seeing my characters come to life before my eyes gave me a new lease of life with my writing – just as my Uni degree threatened to hoover up any enthusiasm I still had left.

I may be getting ahead of myself here, but graphic novels have honestly really inspired me, encouraged me to try new things, and given me a new form of creative media to enjoy. And I don’t see why they can’t do the same for others. I see friends go mental with excitement when the new Marvel film comes out… or tell me about the screenplay they’re writing… or laugh at a cartoon strip going viral on social media – but when it comes to graphic novels, they look at me all confused.

QUICK-FIRE TRIVIA ROUND

It’s weird thinking back to how little I knew about graphic novels when I started writing my own – and I really hope that doesn’t show in my writing! But to be honest, if you stopped 22-year old Mark in the street (Jesus, I’m 25 now) and asked me to name a few graphic novels, I’d probably struggle to come up with any beyond the Supermans and Batmans (or is that Supermen and Batmen?) of the  world. But the truth is, the scope for unique themes and characters is huge – far beyond the realms of Marvel and DC. We’ve had everything from Maus (a postmodernist take on The Holocaust with anthropomorphic mice) to Fables (which throws classic fairytale characters into modern-day Manhattan).

And the funny thing is, some of these alternative titles are household names already – just in other forms of media. Genre-defining screamfest ‘The Walking Dead’ was adapted into the TV show from its graphic novel namesake. Gerard Butler’s famous blockbuster ‘300’ was also a graphic novel. Then there’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which follows on from its Season 7 finale in graphic novel form, with new adventures, characters and developments. 

Yup… it’s Season 8 now and Buffy and Faith still can’t get along

But what about when there’s no zombie-killing, spartan-fighting, vampire-slaying action to hold the reader’s attention? Well, that’s when the writing really has to start holding its own. You can tell incredible tear-jerking, through-provoking, hair-raising or laugh-inducing stories without bloody action scenes, and the imagery only enhances those emotions. Take ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson for example. It’s a ‘coming of age’ story and deals with relatable themes such as family, religion, love and loss – and it won a stack of awards in the process, too.

I think that’s one of my favourite aspects of the medium – there are so many themes and emotions that can be portrayed so effectively through expressive artwork, narrative voice and dialogue. That includes adult themes too – mental illness, sexuality and politics are very prevalent in graphic novels – because you can showcase so many intimate or personal thoughts through imagery and text.

INTERESTED? COME DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE…

Okay, so I maybe got a little bit rambly there (I can fit Buffy into any topic) but it was a good way to lay out some of the reasons why graphic novels can appeal to so many people. You just need to find something that suits you. And luckily, there are so many ways to do that. I’ve recently caved in to the allure of Twitter and Instagram (I know, I must have been living under a rock or something for the past ten years) and I was astounded at how booming and supportive the online community is for bloggers, writers, artists, graphic novel fans, cartographers and so much more (these are just a few I’ve stumbled on). There’s always someone ready to advise you on a new title – whether it’s your first graphic novel or your 100th.

And if you want to step away from social media and brave the great outdoors, you’ll find a thriving network of comic book shops – nope, they don’t just exist over in America or on The Big Bang Theory (*shudders). Take Manchester for a start. In the city centre alone, you have the nationwide stores like Forbidden Planet (the London one is ginormous) and indie shops like Travelling Man (right next to my favourite cafe) and Fanboy 3.

Travelling Man! (Jonny nearly got hit by a bus twice while taking this)

But it doesn’t stop there. Even general book retailers like Waterstones and WHSmith are starting to get on the bandwagon and dedicate aisles to comics and graphic novels – as more titles hit our shelves than ever before. It can be a social activity too – as one of the biggest cities in the UK, Manchester has several passionate graphic novel societies (normally run on specific nights around the city’s sprawling Northern Quarter cafe scene) where fans can organise book clubs, discussions, cosplays and more. It’s a great way to pick up new titles and meet fellow enthusiasts.

P.S. I can’t really mention local events without talking about Thought Bubble – Yorkshire’s very own comic art festival. It’s full of networking opportunities, indie comic stalls, and quirky competitions. So many indie comics have gotten their big break at this annual event, and you can check out the link to their Facebook page below to see what they’re all about – I’m hoping to attend this year’s!

https://www.facebook.com/thoughtbubblefestival/?epa=SEARCH_BOX

“TODAY, CLASS… WE’RE GOING TO BE LEARNING ABOUT BATMAN”

So they aren’t just diverse… accessible… and sociable… they’re educational too! (I’m not about to preach, I swear – this is just something I wish I’d known when I was in school) but I attended a talk in Salford a few years ago where indie comic writer Neil Gibson addressed the benefits of teaching important facts and rules – whether that’s with safety, maths, science, even sociology – through the power of comics! They simplify storytelling, offer graphics to assist with memory, and organise content through storyboards – it’s no wonder Art Spiegelman (creator of Maus) described comics as a ‘gateway drug to literacy’. So, if there are any teachers out there reading this, here’s an excuse to rip up the rulebook and treat your students to a comic book day!

FROM READER TO CREATOR

So if you’re anything like me and you can’t enjoy a good story without wanting to create something yourself – good news! With social media being the powerhouse that it is, all you need to get started is pencils, paper, imagination and your phone camera, then get sharing your ideas and creations online. And for those looking to get a little more serious, there are a few handy tools to help you get up and running. My trusty partner in crime, Jonny Mustapha recommends Comic Life 3 – giving you customisable fonts, templates, panels, balloons, captions, letterings and so much more for your very own comic drawings.

And it isn’t just a great way to hone your dialogue, drawings or colouring. Photographers and directors can benefit too – as comics require an eye for image compositions, choice of shots, and even how to visually reveal character developments or reactions. It’s essentially the storyboards you see in movie studios, but on a whole new level of detail and visual impact.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I won’t bore you with the details, but as an uninspired 21-year old (at the time) who graduated from Uni without a clue of how to continue with creative writing… graphic novels really saved my ass. There’s the instant gratification of visuals to accompany your story and characters, and there’s the power of social media to really propel your creations onto a global platform. I’ve enjoyed so much positive feedback from fellow creatives and long-term friends (some of whom even forgot graphic novels were a thing.) I’m not saying they’ll change your life in the same way they’ve impacted mine, but when you finish watching the new Avengers movie, you’ve exhausted your reading list and you’re hungry for something new, give Garfield a break, and get stuck into a proper graphic novel!