The latest batch of graphic novels

A recent batch of graphic novels shows artists and illustrators using ever more ingenious ways of conveying visual narrative. Yolanda Zappaterra
describes their work, which includes visual puns, delicate painting and facsimile text

If you’re a skilled painter, does it mean you’ll be a good animator, or musician, or designer? It’s an age-old question, but one that remains pertinent as people increasingly experiment with different types of creative expression. The trend has resulted in some fascinating shifts, particularly in the area of graphic novels, which has seen a welcome expansion of what once confined creative parameters. Now it seems that pretty much anything – and anyone – goes, as a tantalising range of artists move into this field from other areas.

American musician, illustrator, animator, cartoonist and graphic novelist Dame Darcy puts her impressive range of skills down to an upbringing that was ‘pure Renaissance apprenticeship’. Raised in a rural idyll populated by ‘crazy old ladies and surrounded by illustrated books dating back to the 19th century’, she was taught everything from needlecraft and guitar to drawing and painting. Encouraged by a father who was a signpainter and musician, ‘I never thought you couldn’t make a living from being an artist,’ she explains, and it’s a belief that has stood her in good stead through a range of careers.

Her new graphic novel, Gasoline – a timely gothic story about eco-warriors living in a post-apocalyptic society – draws on her childhood and many of those careers in a comic-book/illustrated novel hybrid that skilfully integrates text and visuals without the need for speech bubbles, but with an instinctive eye for balance and composition. It shows the prodigious drawing skill that underpins all her creative work, says Darcy. ‘When you’re born with an innate ability to draw, you can funnel that into anything, because you’re constantly looking at different ways to express yourself,’ she explains.

If proof were needed of such a belief, Andrzej Klimowski might be it. For years this illustrator, Royal College of Art professor and designer has crafted assured visual compositions – film and theatre posters, book jackets and magazine illustrations – for a wide range of clients. His latest work, written and drawn with his partner and artist Danusia Schejbal, is a graphic adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. It is an impressive addition to Self Made Hero’s Eye Classics series, which transforms classic books into graphic novels.

Klimowski has been creating his own visual stories for years, often as personal projects that developed into paid ones, and likes the fact that they’re such a different form of visual expression from his other work, where a subject or idea has to be conveyed quickly and powerfully, rather than expanded thoughtfully. ‘Where book jackets and posters signal narrative, books create narrative,’ he says, ‘so the tempo and scale is very different. On top of that, it’s very stimulating to create images for an existing narrative.’ For The Master and Margarita, a complex early example of magic realism whose ‘confusion lent itself to a new artform,’ says Klimowski, the illustrations skilfully evoke the dreamlike quality of the novel, assisted by a bespoke linocut font he created to be an integral part of the narrative. ‘I wanted something that was handmade, but modern and geometric to reflect the novel’s setting [Russia of the 1930s],’ he explains.

This use of type as part of the narrative is taken even further in Brit artist Jake Chapman’s first novel, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, designed by Fuel and published last month. As Fuel co-founder Damon Murray explains, ‘The book’s narrative informed the design, so when the main character reads the manuscript of the diminutive author Helmut Mandragorass, the reader is also able to follow the story in its manuscript form (typewritten on pink paper). This is the same for the advice he receives from a writing coach (screwed-up pages), and the actual rejection letters from publishers and agents (reproduced exactly as they were received). This trompe-l’œil gives the reader another level of detail, a different type of engagement with what they are reading.’ Additionally, says Murray, ‘Two sections of colour plates relate exactly to the two occasions where the main character, Chlamydia Love, is inspired – and distressed – enough to portray her feelings in watercolour.’

Fuel’s finished book is a striking example of how graphic and illustrated novels are diversifying into ever more adventurous forms of narrative, but two other graphic novels should also be on every designer’s Christmas list. These are Art Speigelman’s Breakdowns, published by Viking next month, which reminds us that some graphic artists have been breaking down the formal structure of graphic novels for longer than we might think, and The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, in which Eddie Campbell glories in the diversification of the genre, moving light years away from the studied mannerisms of his earlier work in From Hell to a wild and witty circus tale strewn with visual puns, delicate painting, columns of text, montage and even a couple of sly references to Marvel superheroes. It is a nice nod of recognition to a comic book past that’s making the future of graphic novels more exciting than ever.

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