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Attempting to draw the graphic novel

I’ve always enjoyed that magic combination of words and pictures to create stories and express ideas – from baby books to picture books and graphic novels for adults. Graphic novels and comics can explain complicated political, cultural and existential ideas with ease, making them accessible and a pleasure to read. Some of the best graphic novels tell apparently untellable stories through this medium like Maus and Palestine (read our read and tell blog posts about these).

As a child I read whatever I could get my hands on – including the weekly Dandy and Beano and the frankly weird Rupert the Bear annuals. I was never really into superheroes or fantasy, preferring explorations of domestic worlds or periods of history.

As an adult, favourites include Persepolis Marjane Satrapi, Fluffy by Simone Lia and Kikki de Montparnasse by José-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller. I’ve been following the Cape/Observer/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize (bit of a mouthful!) which has been discovering and publishing the graphic writers and artists of the future for the past five years. One of my favourites is Paint by Viviane McDermid and you can see a selection of Brian Talbot’s favourites here.

For the past ten years whilst working with children’s books, I’ve watched with interest the UK’s attempt to adopt comics and graphic novels for itself. There is a strong culture of comics in countries like the USA, Japan, France and Italy but they have never taken off to same degree here. Projects like David Fickling’s DFC may not have been a commercial success but have highlighted rising stars in children’s graphic illustration like Sarah McIntyre, Dave Shelton and Kate Brown. Take a peek at this new comic creation, The Phoenix.

In the UK we have a strange snobbish attitude to comics, indeed to using pictures with text in general. It’s often viewed as childish and children are encouraged to leave illustrated books behind as quickly as possible in favour of text heavy chapter books. Images are seen as less important to our children’s education to words, something Anthony Browne, the former Children’s Laureate highlighted, urging the need for visual literacy in our education system. It’s well documented that people spend longer reading the information panels next to art works in galleries than the artwork itself.

So, I’d been enjoying reading all these comics, when one day as I was cycling to work mulling over little stories from my childhood, it suddenly struck me – I should do a graphic novel class! That would be the perfect way to tell my stories. With the help of Paul Gravett’s fantastic website, full of useful links about graphic novels and comics, I came across this jewel of a class – Drawing the Graphic Novel with Emily Haworth-Booth at the Prince’s Drawing School. This was the only class I found that was open to people of all drawing abilities which was encouraging, and the Princes Drawing School promised to be an ‘experience of art college for all’. Very appealing since I hadn’t done any drawing for over 15 years so I was beyond ‘rusty’ at drawing.

And what a great course it’s been – I couldn’t recommend it more. Taught by Cape/Observer/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize runner–up Emily Haworth-Booth (check out her brilliant comic here) and full of enthusiastic students (including Timothy Bird who does a great weekly comic strip for his website) with a range of technical abilities, styles and ideas.

Emily has taken us step by step through the process of putting a comic together through drawing and writing exercises, access to a life model, looking at other graphic novel artists as well as lots of great advice and feedback on our work. I’ve learned so many great tips – using thumb nails that you can cut out and move about to create your story, using different types of transitions and the inking process. I’ve got so much out of the course – at the very least two hours every week to myself to draw … a rare thing with a full time job and kids. I had forgotten how rewarding (and frustrating) it is to create something.

Thumbnails for final project

We’ve all been working towards a final project that we’ll discuss this evening – here’s my first attempt at drawing the graphic novel. As you can see I still have so much to learn and am sorely tempted to do the follow-up class in the summer term where you can further develop your projects and skills. I might just do it!