Chris Ware And Joe Sacco, Stripped In Edinburgh


Bleeding Cool's Senior Scottish Correspondent Gary Gray writes from Edinburgh;

For the last few years the Edinburgh Book Festival has been dipping its toe in comics. Normally the Book Festival focuses on purely the written medium with a few comics related events thrown in, mainly focusing on creators who cross borders of the medium such as Neil Gaiman and local creators (admittedly massive names) such as Grant Morrison and Mark Millar.


But this year the organisers have decided to go big and have launched an entirely graphic strand at the festival called Stripped that is jam packed with great names and interesting voices, a very successful launch with creators coming from all over the world and not just focusing on superheroes or biography. Instead the line up is from all areas of the medium, proving once and for all to any naysayers that the graphic medium can be and is just as worthy, interesting, unique and worthwhile as any other medium and utterly deserves its own strand. But the organisers were not just content to have individual events they are holding a two day min festival that will be the first time the Book festival has expanded past the boundaries of Charlotte Square.


Not to say there is anything wrong with Charlotte Square as its an utterly wonderful venue being a small square park in the centre of Edinburgh where you can almost see the castle if you lean in the right direction out of the corner of the beer tent. The set up is to have large seated auditoriums for each talk holding up to 300 people, with deckchairs, yes deckchairs in the gardens. Now how many comic conventions have that? All making it a laid back chilled out affair.


And to kick off this strand with the organisers managed to secure two of the most interesting and important voices in the graphic medium Chris Ware and Joe Sacco. Inspired programming as Ware and Sacco are approaching the medium from entirely different ends of the media, with Ware's being highly personal and fictional stories to Sacco's direct unfettered journalism. And even more inspired was the fact that they programmed Chris Ware and Joe Sacco to talk separately and then a joint talk by the creators on the third night. It's fair to say it was a bit of a love in between Joe Sacco and Chris Ware who both individually attended the others individual talk privately on the other nights. In fact I think they barely left each others sides the entire week what with going out to dinner and a signing at the local Forbidden Planet. But just how much these two creators shared in common is the main theme that came out through the series of talks.


And this is all the more surprising with as I say them coming from entirely opposite sides of the media. The first surprise of the talks that just how much of a fan of Sacco that Ware is. During Ware's first talk he heaped praise on Sacco, and this continued during their joint talk with Ware even persuading Sacco to reinstate his habit of always dating his pages. Ware felt that this totally humanised and made Sacco's work really profound. Ware's talk was very much self deprecating, I'd already been told before the show that Ware was extremely shy, but when he started the talk by wondering why we were all there continuing in that vein throughout. There were awkward quiet spells as well, which isn't something I've really seen at events before where the 'star' is so confident and self assured. I think some of that could be chalked up to jet lag as Ware had literally just arrived from the US.


Thankfully Ware warmed up with discussions moving on to his panel construction, and how Ware makes up his stories. This was an interesting counterpoint to Sacco's approach of direct journalism, with Ware's being made up and organic. In fact Ware was much more comfortable discussing other creators he admired such as Art Speigelman and again Ware was downing himself on this having read Metamaus which made him feel lazy in comparison. Ware describing how organic his work was another surprise as his work looks so utterly formal, but he went into great detail describing how his aim was to make his work poetic and flooded with memory with no starting point and no end where you can jump in at any point, a central theme of his current masterpiece, Building Stories. And the main thing that came across was how hard he is working to make the work as human as possible. Even with the occasional awkwardness the packed audience of 300 really appreciated the talk and the opportunity to ask questions of comics poet laureate. Well that's how he was described by the host Stuart Kelly at the opening of the talk. And Kelly should probably know what he's talking about seeing as how he is a judge on this years Booker Panel. Another sign of how comics has been accepted as a legitimate medium with such a heavyweight host.

If Ware is being described as the poet laureate of the medium then surely Sacco should be described as the Pulitzer prize winning author of works such as Journalism his latest book. Why Sacco hasn't won a Pulitzer unfortunately shows that although the medium is much more widely accepted shows there is still some distance to be achieved. Sacco is a much more assured talker. But unfortunately Sacco was landed with host Adrian Searle who insisted on talking for the first 15 minutes of the talk and continually interrupted Sacco cutting his talking time down to a rather paltry 20 or so minutes out of the scheduled hour. Luckily Sacco was skilled enough to get round this and really got into discussing his form and the differences between objectivity and subjectivity in reporting many harrowing war torn situations and also having himself as a central character in his books. Covering his early days as a rock journalist where cameras were just not allowed to his time in Gaza where it was just not safe to get a camera out and a sketch was much more safer when waiting at an Israeli checkpoint for hours on end. And also telling stories of his editor at the New York Times wondering why he was putting so many crucifixes into his strips. Naturally this was the crosshatching that Sacco was doing for shade in the strip.


This lead onto what Sacco felt was his main aim in his work, which was where the resonance with Ware really kicked in. Making the story as human as possible, He wasn't interested as portraying his characters as victims and was trying to find the complexity in the situation and the moral ambiguity. Discussions then moved onto Sacco's upcoming work The Great War which should be released just in time for Sacco's next visit to the UK for The Lakes International Comics Festival. The Great War is ONE massive panorama piece where Sacco is showing the build up and the massive human effort that went into the build up for the Battle Of The Somme. Sacco also revealed a fondness for Pat Mills tour de force Charlie's War, revealing that he couldn't look at Joe Colquhoun's amazing art for fear of making his own efforts look weak. We were shown some of the sections and looks utterly amazing. Sacco tackling a project like this he revealed is an aim to expand how his career and that he needs a new direction and wants to move away from wars and is currently working on two new works. One about the Srebrenica massacre. Not sure how this is a departure! But the other piece is will focus on ancient Mesoptamia inspired by a piece in the Louvre in Paris.


Finally both creators got together on the Wednesday for a joint discussion, and this was a discussion by both creators on the graphic medium. Ware looked to have got over his jetlag and this talk can only be described as the Joe Sacco lovein so enamoured of Sacco was Ware. Much love poured his way! Both creators discussed how they got started with Ware talking about how he used to watch kids TV, and he is in effect still kissing the TV now. This went down well with the audience with much more laughs at this talk. Neither creator expected to be making a living with both it happening organically and accidentally. Both creators really examined how the act of creation creates a density of time that allows for deep thought in the creation of their works and how they have to inhabit their characters. And thats where the shared elements of both creators really cristalised and why programming these two together really worked. It showed that the medium at it's heart is about telling human stories of truth which both of these creators have excelled at for many years. But again Ware burst that bubble saying what he did was indefensible! A man without ego is an easy way to describe Ware. Which could also be said of Sacco, who on several occasions reinforced his legitimacy as a journalist by mentioning his journalism degree. Not something he needs to do after so many years of writing such powerful works.


It was great to have had these three talks to kick off the Stripped strand at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Nearly one thousand people attended these capacity talks. But this is only kicking off the strand as we've got dozens of talks coming up over the next week that will have some amazing creators tackling all aspects of such an amazing medium where anything came be written and drawn about. Grant Morrison no doubt talking about his upcoming work on Wonder Woman. Neil Gaiman discussing any one of his many projects. Paul Gravett talking comics as always. Top names in superhero comics such as Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. Robbie Morrison and Jim Murray launching their superb Drowntown book. Stephen Collins and Tom Gauld discussing their fantastic works The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil and You're Just Jealous of my Jetpack. Great British talents such as Glynn Dillon and Rob Davis discussing their latest and upcoming works. I could go on and on and I'm keenly aware that I've thirteen events to attend myself somehow, and even then I'm only scraping the surface of such a wonderful comics event. Not to be missed, as there's something for comics fans of all shapes and sizes.


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About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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