Super-Powered: Comics and Graphic Novels at Jura Unbound

The debate about the legitimacy of comics as an art form is over. As Literary Death Match and Illicit Ink prepare comics-themed events for Jura Unbound, we celebrate the rise and rise of sequential art

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 02 Jul 2013

Artist and comics historian Scott McCloud saw comics as “one of the very few forms of mass communication in which individual voices still have a chance to be heard.” The ideas, characters and situations depicted in comics are often more transgressive, inventive and counter-cultural than those found in literature, art or mainstream cinema. Even superhero comics, the form's most commercial incarnation, referred to by the acclaimed writer Warren Ellis as “underwear pervert” comics, often take on big, sometimes controversial themes, from allegories for racism and multiculturalism (X-Men), to post-human futurism (Iron Man), to vigilantism and social control (Batman).

“Comics deal with two fundamental communicating devices: words and images,” writes Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, and widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of modern comics. In his fantastic treatise on the form, Comics and Sequential Art. “Admittedly this is an arbitrary separation. But, since in the modern world of communication they are treated as independent disciplines, it seems valid. Actually, they are derivatives of a single origin and in the skillful employment of words and images lies the expressive potential of the medium.”

Slowly, over the past three decades, this separation has become less important, and both comics and graphic novels (another spurious distinction) have gained traction as serious art and literature. The rise of the 'original graphic novel' – self-contained stories, often with a literary bent, and aimed (some might say cynically so) at an older, more mature reader, as opposed to the collections of serialised monthly comics, has now almost completely done away with the perception of sequential art as a debased form.

Nonetheless, the debate about whether or not comics are a 'real' art form is nearly always the hook for a news piece about sequential art, or graphic novels, or whatever term the voguish literary establishment currently prefer. Journalists will usually wheel out some well-worn, classic examples – Alan Moore's Watchmen, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis – as evidence of a growing trend of maturity in the form. The literary merit of these graphic novels is a moot point – the oldest of these works is 27 years old, and has been adapted into a big budget Hollywood film. Thankfully, this year's Jura Unbound programme at Edinburgh International Book Festival doesn't waste time debating the merits or otherwise of graphic literature – rather it dives straight in to the culture, with two events marrying the word and the image in new and inventive ways.

“Mainstream culture is not what it once was when science fiction and comics fans huddled in cellars like Gnostic Christians dodging the Romans” – Grant Morrison

On 23 August, a very special edition of Adrian Todd Zuniga's internationally popular Literary Death Match series will pit four writers against each other in a battle for supremacy, with the results judged by three expert critics. Always fun, since 2006 the Literary Death Match events have gained a reputation for unpredictability and anarchy that is a perfect fit for a form where anything is possible, because as critic and comics editor Dwayne McDuffie has said, there is an “infinite effects budget,” with the only constraints on realism and depiction of characters and worlds the creators' imaginations. With the evening's performers still to be confirmed, what is absolutely guaranteed is that the audience will enjoy a spectacular voyage into the minds of four skilled comics enthusiasts, pitting their wits against each other in a high-pressure, knockout competition.

On 24 August, Edinburgh-based literary collective Illicit Ink, headed up for the evening by writers Barbara Melville and Ariadne Cass-Maran, present an innovative live literature event called Tales From The Strip, which will see writers reading their fiction, and having it interpreted live on stage by leading comics artists Stephen Collins and Emma Viecelli. The event is presented in association with Graphic Scotland, an independent online community set up to support the comics community in Scotland and beyond.

Illustrator Collins produces regular work for the Guardian, and is a past recipient of the prestigious Cape / Observer Graphic Short Story Prize. He recently published his full-length graphic novel, the strange and whimsical The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. Viecelli meanwhile is a prolific comics artist and writer, acclaimed for her work on titles such as Manga Shakespeare, which saw her adapting Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing into graphic form, and the long-running fantasy epic Dragon Heir, not to mention work for Tori Amos's Comic Book Tattoo project, and the comics adaptation of Vampire Academy. On the night, both artists will undertake live drawing sessions inspired by the fictional work read by Melville, Cass-Maran and their guests, resulting in a unique and inspiring live collaboration quite unlike anything else on the Book Festival programme. It's a rare chance to see two gifted artists drawing in public, inspired by leading lights from Scotland's live literature community. Viecelli returns to the festival on 25 August to discuss her adaptations, while Collins joins Tom Gauld on 24 Aug to discuss Beard... and his other delightfully eccentric creations.

Both Jura Unbound events are part of the Stripped strand at this year's festival, entirely dedicated to comics creators and the graphic novel form. The Book Festival has a strong tradition of welcoming comics legends – oth Sandman creator Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison have given enormously popular talks in previous years, and both return this August – but the Stripped strand represents the first dedicated programme of events entirely focused on the art form. With appearances from creators as diverse as Chris Ware, creator of the acclaimed Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (12 Aug), and Joe Sacco (13 Aug), creator of the politically-charged graphic novels Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, Stripped casts its net as wide as possible, addressing everything from newspaper strip cartoons to superhero comics; from underground classics to Sacco's tough, gritty, journalistic depictions of life in conflict zones. Sacco and Ware will be in conversation on 14 August at an event sponsored by The Skinny, titled Reinventing Comics.

The above is literally the tip of the iceberg – with the Literary Death Match and Illicit Ink's live collaborations at Jura Unbound presenting the comics form in unique and original ways, and a cross-section of international and UK comics talent in attendance, this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival has finally put paid to the debate over the legitimacy of comics as an art form. The 2013 programme is a thrilling celebration of one of the most vibrant, diverse and inventive sites on the literary landscape.

In 2000, Grant Morrison identified the coming sea change which would see comics finally emerge resplendent into popular awareness: “Mainstream culture is not what it once was when science fiction and comics fans huddled in cellars like Gnostic Christians dodging the Romans,” he said. “We should come up into the light soon before we suffocate.” On the evidence of this year's Unbound programme, that emergence is now complete.

Literary Cartoon Death Match, 23 Aug, 9-11pm, free
Illicit Ink: Tales From The Strip, 24 Aug, 9-11pm, free
Guardian Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square Gardens