Michele Hutchison takes us on a far-ranging tour of the European comics scene, with a focus on the beautiful, moving and innovative graphic novels coming out of Belgium

Graphic novels are hot. One of the most talked about books of 2012 was Chris Ware’s Building Stories, an interactive graphic novel in a box – possibly better described as a game – published by Jonathan Cape. It looks stunning but makes for challenging reading. A lot is required of the reader or ‘story-builder’. And then there was the shortlisting of two graphic novels for the Costa Awards, one of which, Mary Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, illustrated by her husband, Bryan, won the Biography category. This was actually seen as controversial by some in the UK. In fact I’d almost completely forgotten about that narrow-minded view that graphic novels aren’t real literature, or art for that matter. It seems so dated to me, and it’s probably for that  reason that we ended up with two terms in the first place – ‘comics’ for character-driven series and the more serious-sounding ‘graphic novels’ for single volume stories-in-pictures.

Outside of the UK things look rather different. In America there is less critical resistance, super-hero comics are an integral part of popular culture, while arty graphic novels have long been accepted as part of high culture. The US comics industry prizes, the Eisner Awards were established as far back as 1988.  In last week’s Publishing Perspectives  Duncan Jepson pointed out that graphic novels also have a long tradition in Asia, which interestingly he believes might be related to having a more visual written language made up of pictorial symbols.

Franco-Belgian comics also have deep roots. Think of Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke and Suske en Wiske (translated in the US as Willy and Wanda). Yet alongside these series created by teams of writers and illustrators and often aimed at a children’s audience, there is now a thriving graphic novel scene in Belgium – more specifically in Flanders where the Sint Lucas Art Academy in Ghent is churning out a wide array of talent from its Illustration course. One of their most famous alumni is the young graphic novelist Brecht Evens, whose stunningly-illustrated books The Wrong Place and The Making Of have been published in English by Cape in the UK and across the pond by Drawn & Quarterly to great critical acclaim. (As an aside, I confess to being one of his translators, along with Laura Watkinson, and for the first book, Rhian Heppleston.)

Brecht Even’s lush and complex watercolour panoramas have made him most hip artist on the scene right now. He was the obvious choice to curate a show of Flemish graphic talent at Angouleme Comics Festival last month – which sees 200,000 visitors descending on a small town in France. In ‘La Boite à Gand’, Brecht chose to showcase four other illustrators with whom he’d trained at the Sint Lucas: Brecht Vandenbroucke, Hannelore Van Dijck, Lotte Vandewalle and Sarah Yu Zeebroek. Not all of them make books yet and the exhibition made the overlap between contemporary art and graphic art very clear. Brecht Vandenbroucke has just published an entirely textless first book, White Cube, which was the subject of much foreign interest at the festival. The explosions of colour are indeed reminiscent of ‘the other Brecht’s’ work.

General agreement that graphic novels are in vogue hasn’t yet translated into an increase in sales figures, I hear from editors and graphic novelists alike. On the High Impact tour, I talked at length to another fantastic Flemish talent, author of the beautiful and moving When David Lost His Voice, Judith Vanistendael, who told me that rights to her books have been sold in countries like Korea and Egypt but she feels that most of the hype is still confined to conversations and awareness of graphic storytelling rather than it being a money-earner. Her works still mainly reach a niche audience and are not yet mainstream. In the Dutch-language market, this translates to sales figures of up to ten thousand copies, which represents major success in the field.

Producing books in colour is expensive, debutants generally have to make do with black-and-white line drawings which scan more easily. Yet small specialist publishing houses like Self-Made Hero and Drawn & Quarterly do manage to maintain high production values for their books. Young entrepreneur and director of Self-Made Hero, Emma Hayley, told me she was actually planning on doing more graphic novels in translation and it seems that others are listening to the jungle drums too. With subsidies available to cover translation costs from Dutch, we might be seeing a lot more of that Ghentish talent.

Incidentally, the Grand Prix Angouleme this year went to a Dutchman, Willem, who lives in France and produces a cartoon for Charlie Hebdo. It coincided with the Dutch Literary Foundation producing their first comics offensive: Ten Graphic Novelists from Holland.

A name to watch out for there is Tim Enthoven whom I came across when he was still finishing his graduation project. The project, his as yet untranslated book, Binnenskamers, was published in 2011, and like his Flemish contemporaries, his work also crosses over into the field of contemporary art.

About the Author

Michele Hutchison (Solihull, 1972) worked in publishing in the UK before moving to the Netherlands in 2004. She now works as an editor at a Dutch literary publishing house and as a freelance translator. Writers she has translated include Joris Luyendijk, Rob Riemen, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Simone van der Vlugt.

 Additional Information

Article in Publishing Perspectives about the British attitude to graphic storytelling

Film on ‘La Boite à Gand’ featuring Brecht Evens (in French)

The Flemish Literature Funds (for subsidy information and the free publication Bangarang, Comics from Flanders)

My blog for the Dutch Literary Foundation, Judith Vanistendael on the High Impact Tour

London Super Comics Con: 24-25th February

Angouleme Comic Festival 2013