A decade ago, the International Festival of Authors decided to include graphic novels alongside the other literary offerings of their event. After surveying the industry locally and internationally, IFOA brought in hundreds of titles from around the world. Yet publishers turned up their noses because graphic novel creators were not considered to be real writers and artists. “When we first started presenting—a lot of people perceived that these were not equal, not worthy,” explains IFOA Director Geoffrey Taylor. “I think we were one of the first international festivals that was not specifically a comic book festival to present them in this way.”
Now those very same companies are publishing graphic novels themselves and more and more festivals around the world regularly include them in their programming. Taylor once had to explain to people why they were including graphic novels. “People wouldn’t ask that now,” he explains. As an avid collector of literature of all kinds from all around the world, he finds the conversations he’s had with graphic novelists over the years to be very interesting. As opinions on the medium have changed, creators have gone from having to sleep on the floor of comic book stores while on tour, to finally being embraced as contributing members of the literary world. “More creators are being better remunerated for their work thanks to this,” says Taylor. There is also a huge shift in how graphic novels are being promoted on bookshelves and even in within the education system, says Taylor. While some pushback remains, more and more people are accepting the significant role graphic novels play in the literary world.
This year, along with Irish and non-fiction writers exploring new ideas that challenge our world view, graphic novels are in the IFOA spotlight during the event being held at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, from October 20th to 30th. While graphic novels are being spotlighted this year, the festival, Taylor notes, maintains its commitment to the comic industry, and regularly features at least two creators and their works every year. In 2011, Canadian cartoonist and writer Seth received the Harbourfront Festival Prize in honour of his contributions to the Canadian publishing industry. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Best American Comics, and McSweeneys Quarterly, and remains on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Seth is the designer of the 2016 festival poster, as well as curator of the fall visual arts exhibit, “Five Ways,” which features art from Nina Bunjevac, Michael DeForge, Nick Drnaso, Jon McNaught and Chris Oliveros’ works.
“The modern graphic novel has come a long way in the last 30 years. In fact, in the short time since the form has gained a cultural toe-hold it has also managed to attract a rather diverse range of artists who have recognized the medium’s barely-tapped potential. In this exhibition, a spotlight is directed at five such diverse contemporary cartoonists. Each with a unique approach to the comics medium. Each using comics for their own artistic expression. Each quite different from the others. From fiction to memoir, from slice-of-life to the absurd, from tightly realistic to the expressionistic – five artists, five ways.” – Seth
These artists came together on October 22nd for “Five Artists, Five Ways: The Modern Graphic Novel,” a roundtable led by Seth, discussing the art of the graphic novel, from inspiration to story panel.
— IFOA (@ifoa) October 23, 2016
This is the first time Chris Oliveros is participating in the festival, though he has worked with Seth for more than 25 years and has worked with him through Drawn and Quarterly. Oliveros recently stepped down as publisher of Drawn and Quarterly, the publishing company he founded, but he continues to consult regularly. Now he has more time to work on his own comic projects, including The Envelope Manufacturer, which is part of the “Five Ways” exhibit, where he describes the project so:
“The Envelope Manufacturer documents the hardships and gradual disintegration of the career of an independent small business owner. The book begins as the head of a manufacturing company is already deep in financial straights: he struggles to deal with a series of late payments and dwindling orders and he finds ways to keep his company running by perilously deferring certain invoices.
“Ultimately, the pressures of his role begin to have an effect on him psychologically; he begins to talk to himself and he occasionally cannot distinguish the difference between reality and his imaginings. Even his personal life suffers, as his wife becomes disillusioned with the detached, dispassionate man he has become.
“Set in the mid-twentieth century, just before the end of the period when most goods were still produced domestically, The Envelope Manufacturer chronicles the gradual demise of a small company as it struggles to adapt to a changing economic landscape.”
As a child growing up in 1970s Montreal, Oliveros had the typical interest in comics. The selection was fairly limited at the time, with DC and Marvel superhero comics being the most readily available. But, he explains, “as I got older, my taste evolved to non-superhero comics,” and as a teenager, he discovered the work of Art Spiegelman. Oliveros credits Spiegelman’s Raw Comics as a major inspiration. “The approach was completely different than anything that I had come across before. It was really influential. Based on that experience, I wanted to emulate that content with Drawn and Quarterly.”
Oliveros’ own work and his personal preference focuses mainly on real life subject matter. He cites Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by Sarah Glidden as another example of “the modern graphic novel.” In Rolling Blackouts, the cartoonist follows journalists through the Middle East, learning about the journalistic process.
The term “graphic novel” has come to encompass any book that tells its story through sequential art, including single issue comics like X-Men collected in what were originally referred to as “trade paperbacks.” To comic readers and creators, “graphic novels” and “comic books” are synonymous, but as comics spread further into the mainstream media, “graphic novels” is the term more widely recognized and accepted.
“I don’t really like the term ‘graphic novel,'” says Oliveros. “It’s a pompous term designed to make comics more respectable. But it’s the best term that we have and I don’t think anyone will come up with something different. I prefer calling them ‘comics,’ but for better or for worse, the term ‘comics’ has had a lot of baggage. Up until 20 years ago, if you said you were reading or writing comics as an adult, people would look at you like you were crazy. So we’re stuck with ‘graphic novels.’ It serves its purpose. The media covers it. It has its own section in bookstores and libraries. Twenty to 25 years ago, kids weren’t really reading superhero comics anymore. Now there are a lot of kids reading more.”
Oliveros goes on to cite titles like Bone and the success of Raina Telgemeier as proof of the change in the medium’s mainstream acceptance. “Now every kid under 12 has read books like these.”
No matter the story being told through the combination of sequential art and prose, Oliveros likes that there is so much potential within the medium and the opportunity to express your vision exactly as you want to is a powerful thing for a creator. While his preference is non-fiction works, he recognizes the almost limitless scope that the medium allows.
“You could write about fantasy elements or science fiction or about reality-based works. It’s does seem unlimited, but what’s also appealing is that in many cases, it’s really the vision of that one particular cartoonist. If you’re working in films for example, if you’re really talented or have great ideas, you have to find a way to navigate through the whole system and work with 200 people to get your vision across. it’s more difficult to express yourself in other mediums. In comics, you’re just dealing with a few people or even just yourself, making it something that’s approachable. A possibility that you can make happen.”
Oliveros has participated in other literary and comics festivals, but he truly appreciates this spotlight on graphic novels that is happening in Toronto because he feels that Canada in general, and Toronto in particular, is an important place for cartooning. There are so many major, talented cartoonists who work in and/or are from Toronto, such as Chester Brown, Michael DeForge, and Kate Beaton.
“There is so much activity in Toronto. It’s good that the festival is recognizing that.”