If you were following this blog in 2013, you might remember me stepping in to cover Stripped‘s inaugural year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. My name is Rosa Lee Marnie – I’m an indie comic artist, blogger, and obsessive, usually to be found at the online comic studio Countershot Press. It would take a mighty force to keep me away from a comic festival in my own city, and so in 2014 I am back to take you through the Stripped 2014 programme from an audience member’s perspective.
So, for those who came in late: last year, Stripped spanned roughly a single weekend towards the end of the festival, and hosted evening entertainments and small press exhibition halls alongside the formal programme of comic and graphic novel events, and the much-anticipated launch of the brand new 9th Art Award (won by Stephen Collins, left). It was an energetic first year, characterised by intense variety and contrast, and my main criticism of the whole affair was the difficulty of deciding what to see when events overlapped and crowded up against each other.
This year it seems that problem has been addressed, but I’m not yet sure how I feel about the solution. The Stripped programme is far more dispersed, with at least half an hour between scheduled events on even the busiest days, but it is also considerably sparser than last year’s offering. Counting out EIBF’s own pet project IDP:2043, the two days which offer multiple adult events are a full week apart. And there is no sign of a supplementary programme – not a breath of an indie or small press presence, despite the extremely positive feedback I heard from last year’s exhibitors. I have misgivings. Nonetheless, it may be that this move is an effort to bring the graphic side of the festival more seamlessly into the main literary programme. We’ll see what effect it has as the weeks play out.
Saturday kicked off the Stripped programme with a thoughtful look at the graphic memoirs Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green and Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram. Green’s work, as she put it, was an attempt to be “honest but hopeful” in a recounting of her struggle with eating disorders and subsequent sexual abuse by her therapist, in defiance of the unsatisfactory recovery narratives she had found available to her. Tristram’s book made an interesting counterpoint, as a collection of journal comics written on the fly as she underwent treatment for cancer while pregnant with her first child. The optimistic title of the event was Graphic Novels That Help to Heal.
As it turned out, neither speaker particularly felt that the making of her work had been a healing process. Tristram’s journal comics did not make her feel better or make any of her experiences easier to endure, she said, but at least provided a distraction. For Green, revisiting her illness and abuse was painful – almost re-traumatising, she said at one point. Neither of them achieved closure in the making of their memoirs, and this in itself was addressed by Katie Green: “I was going to tell a story about everything being in the past. But the story I ended up telling was that it’s not really in the past.”
The inevitable questions were raised about the graphic format: why did they choose it over prose, what could graphics do that text couldn’t? (I look forward to the day that a novelist is asked to justify writing a book over a graphic novel.) The answers were not unexpected – that images may be evocative without being literal, and direct without being explicit, and of course that both Tristram and Green had prior backgrounds in illustration and animation which made the format a natural choice. Later in discussion, however, these questions were touched upon again in a way that I found more interesting.
When asked why (as the host perceived it) the graphic industry has seen a move towards female authors writing about real life experiences, Tristram pointed out that this is one format in which there is no expectation for women to write a certain way. As a rapidly growing and changing medium, and one which offers complete creative control to a single author, comics give writers like Tristram and Green direct control over what they say and how they choose to say it.
As Tristram went on to observe, in publishing a comic “there’s no need to navigate a group of men with chips on their shoulders about having a woman tell them what to do”. That said, both acknowledged that much of their freedom in developing their respective works may have come from the perception that pregnancy (in Tristram’s case) and eating disorders (in Green’s) are “women’s issues”. When Katie Green cited Maus as her first awakening to comics as a serious literary format, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Art Spiegelman ever had that astounding biography discussed as a “comic that helped to heal” the traumas in his family tree.
Despite all of this, the event culminated with a real sense of positivity – not just from Green and Tristram, as they discussed the ways in which the honesty of their books can open conversation on these difficult subjects, but from their packed out audience. A great proportion of them were patients themselves, or relatives of people affected by cancer or by eating disorders. Not only that, but doctors and medical educators were in attendance.
These comics which did not help to heal their authors were, as it turned out, effective and popular among those hoping to provide support to others. Every intimate and subjective moment captured in Lighter Than My Shadow and in Probably Nothing is an insight into the experience of these conditions. When asked about the process of deciding what was suitable (or bearable) for an audience to read, Green answered that if she could draw it then an audience could look at it.
Tristram, too, joked that she felt a little better for inflicting the things that she had been through on her readers. These are the internal aspects of illness which are not covered in medical textbooks,are rarely articulated to friends or family, and are difficult to revisit. Publishing the book, Tristam said, was also a way to stop talking about it over and over again. She could be glad now to know that “the book is helping people without me personally having to do it”.
In the final Q&A, a medical lecturer in the audience brought up the suitability of the books for teaching – stating (mostly) seriously, and to the general approval of the crowd, that she would like to see all of Oxford’s medical syllabus written by “their lot”. Whether she indeed meant by patients or by graphic novelists, I’m not entirely sure, but I hope that the latter point will get another airing later in the month when Kate Charlesworth, Mary Talbot, and Bryan Talbot appear to discuss Sally Heathcote, Suffragette. In last year’s appearance, Mary Talbot came out powerfully in favour of the development of academic graphic works, and it will be interesting to see how this new, fastidiously-researched historical work plays into that. If comics have been subsumed into the rest of the literary programme this year, I hope it will only encourage further discussion on subjects like these.