Now you'd think it would be almost impossible to follow such class acts as Chris Ware, Joe Sacco and Grant Morrison. Well that's exactly the task that Stephen Collins and Tom Gauld had to do at the first talk at the Stripped strand at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday lunchtime.
Compared to the previous evenings events it was a much smaller crowd for this event with about forty people in the Peppers tent with the event chaired by Doug Wallace of Nobrow books. But that's not a problem; popularity has never begat defining something as being good. I mean Miley Cyrus is popular, case closed.
But quality is what we are here to see today, what with Collins' book riding a wave of critical acclaim with his tale of a Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. If ever a title of a book told the story within that's it! And how cool is it to be able to have said you were in the audience for the talk by the writer of the book that went onto win the inaugural 9th Art Awards. The first ever award at a literary Book Festival for a comic book. Yes there are heavyweight comic awards but this was the first at an International Book Festival. Heady potent times for comics, and personally I feel privileged to have been there.
And all this talk of Collins, isn't to slight Gauld's work, with his latest book You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack having just been released. What is it with these comics' writers and their fantastic witty titles? Cool comic's readers were attracted to his work by the sublime Goliath that continues to grow exposure by word of mouth nearly eighteen months after its release.
One of the great things about the Stripped strand at the book festival is how they've been introducing people to comics and not treating the comics as silly frivolous things (not that that's an invalid comics subject), and the talk did a lot of work of introducing both cartoonists to the audience, of how they got into comics with Collins starting off as a research journalist realising he was utterly rubbish at it and persuading his editor to start publishing his cartoons in The Times. Not exactly the place you'd expect to see comics. And then taking a taking a 10 year journey via winning the Jonathan Cape short story competition to the eventual release this year of TGBTWE ( I just can't type that title without laughing!). Collins revealing that he created TGBTWE after being stuck in a creative black hole on a different graphic novel, when his wife suggested in jest "why not write a book about a man with a gigantic beard", well Collins took the suggestion literally.
Gauld, taking a different route entirely via Art school in Edinburgh via the Royal College of Art in London, and showing his portfolio to his Editor at the Guardian Roger Browning who started to take his strips, where he had to write them based on any letters published in the guardian that day. Tip from Tom if you ever want to be published in the Guardian send it in on a Bank Holiday as NO ONE writes into the Guardian on a Bank holiday! Having to work to an extremely short deadline of a single day to have a strip ready for publication, for comic's readers used to writers and artists having a month to produce a comic this is utterly insane! Gauld described the patience that his publisher Drawn & Quarterly had in waiting for his first book Goliath, with absolutely no pressure being put on him to hand it in, a rather unusual counterpart to his strip work in the guardian.
And the introducing people to comics theme continued with Collins and Gauld breaking down their process with Collins revealing that he uses his journalistic background and writes the entire book in a word table with lots of notes, whereas Gauld uses his sketchbook and doodles hundreds of little ideas all over the place. Two entirely different methods, proving again comics can be made and about anything anyone wants.
Both creators touched on the humour that was important to getting into their work and trying to distil it down to as simple and pure a reductive form as possible and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks "space for feeling". Collins citing Billy Wilder as an influence "let the audience add up 2=2 and they'll get 4". Collins revealing a disdain for the Tintin movie specifically Tintin's face where "he had pores and everything".
This led onto other influences that affected them such as Chris Ware (a common theme of the weekend), Gary Larson, Asterix via Alan Partridge and Alan Bennett. All influences that both have subsumed splendidly into their touching, hilarious books. Both creators then discussed how much they liked having original art at the end of the process, with both working between paper, photoshop, lightboxing to the eventual finished strips.
Collins also showed us some sample pages of his next book Walk in the Woods, which looks to be a big departure from TGBTWE in its colour palette of blues and reds. I'd have loved to get some pictures of them for you, but unfortunately taking of pictures during Book Festival events are banned for some bizarre arcane reason that I can't quite fathom the answer to. In the age of tweeting and instagram and instant communication it's something that caused problems many times over the weekend with many people in the audience being told off for taking a simple snap (myself included!).
It may feel like I've concentrated on Collin's book in this article, and I think this may be due to being a massive fan of the book myself rating it alongside The Silver Darlings as the book of the year, and also TGBTWE winning the 9th Art Awards the following night. But that doesn't mean that Gauld's books are any less beautiful. Gauld has a particular talent of stripping the storytelling down to the simplest funniest elements.
And that sums up writers work, simple, funny and touching. I imagine at further events the audience will be much larger, they fully deserve it.