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Writers' Room: Hannah Berry on Comics

  • By Free Word
  • 12th July 2012
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Graphic novellist Hannah Berry is blogger-in-residence at Booktrust, and a tutor on the Arvon Foundation's graphic novel writing course. We met up amongst the bustle of the Free Word cafe to chat about reading, writing and drawing comics.

Thanks for joining us, Hannah. So how did you end up being a graphic novelist, and why?

Well I’d always been interested in writing and in drawing, but as two separate things. I was really into Calvin and Hobbes when I was younger.

Who wasn’t?

You can’t go wrong with Calvin and Hobbes, and I’m still sad they don’t do them anymore. But I suppose Bill Watterson has to live his life. But I always read comics when I was younger: Asterix, Raymond Briggs, and those kind of things: small things, mostly, which when you get a bit older don’t seem to be that engrossing any more. For a while it seemed like all comics were aimed at boys: testosterone, big guns, big muscles, big boobies, and that didn’t really appeal to me that much. But then my mum brought back loads of French graphic novels from a holiday to give to me, and they were amazing! I didn’t really realise before then that you could make novel-length books that really put an emphasis on the artwork.

Calvin and Hobbes
Calvin and Hobbes

So when did liking comics turn into making them?

I didn’t know you could make them for grown-ups, but I’d always enjoyed doing quite involved artwork that seemed to suit comics perfectly. So once I realised the things existed, I was drawn to them like a moth to a flame.

So you came to it from a drawing background, rather than a writing background?

There’s always a point in your studies where you have to decide which route you want to go down. I wrote for fun, but I was much more comfortable with art so that’s what I did. I went to art school, but I was a bit crap at being an art student. It’s different now, but at the time comics were really seen as being a bit facile and childish. I studied illustration, and the point of illustration is that everything you do has to have a meaning. And so when I worked in the comic form they’d say that whatever I was doing must be facile and childish and didn’t have any meaning. And obviously that’s not what I was doing at all, I was just telling a story, and being sequential.

Do you think there’s any particular kind of story that lends itself to being told in a comic form? Obviously the first thing you think of with comics are heroes and villains, but is there a type of story the medium’s well-suited to?

I suppose they lend themselves quite well to silences: pauses, and moments of reflection. You have to mark out the pauses in panels; you have to regulate time quite well. And because of that you get a lot of books about awkward people. A writer called Chris Ware writes a lot of awkward characters with really terrible pauses in the conversation, with the characters really twisting inside trying to figure out what to say.

Why do you think comics aren’t more highly regarded?

There was a sort of boom around when Watchmen came out in the mid-80s, when people realised that comics could be weighty and for adults, and people started to take more interest. But unfortunately around the same time, publishers like Marvel and DC saw that as being a market for ‘long comics’ and spliced together six issues of Batman or whatever and sold that as a graphic novel. So people would come from Watchmen hungry for something weighty, and end up with something that really wasn’t for them. So the public interest waned a little then. It’s always an uphill struggle to overturn the idea that they’re just naff and cheap and disposable.

How do you overturn that idea?

By being good! By not being naff and cheap and disposable. Slowly people become aware that these things are worth reading. But it is taking off a bit, there are a few newspapers that review graphic novels now. I’m published by Jonathan Cape, and now there are big publishers behind graphic novels because people can see the money that’s going into making them.

How do you go about making them? Do you use pen and ink, or is it all done on a computer or an iPad?

Everyone works differently, but I draw it in pencil and ink up as I go along. It’s all on the same page as it is on the book, and it’s normally the same size as well. Apparently most people work bigger and then shrink it down, but I’m just pernickety. It’s all drawn, inked and painted on the same page and then scanned in. If there are any mistakes then I touch them up on Photoshop.

Some people work straight onto the computer, but personally I prefer painting by hand because you get more happy accidents. I think the page ends up looking more tactile: more personal. But people do use the computer for inking, and some use it for drawing.

How long does it take?

The last one, Adamtine, took about 2 and a half years, and the book before that, which was Britten & Brulightly, was around 3 years.


And was that pretty standard?

No, I’m just quite slow! I can’t work any faster, I don’t think. I’ve got a friend who also writes comics, and he’s lapped me about 6 times since I’ve been writing my last book.

How long does it take to do a page?

For my last one I was trying to do a page every five days, and the one before was a page every week, because I was working another job back then, and also the pages were bigger, and, well, all sorts of other excuses like that.

You’re a tutor on the graphic novel course at the Arvon Foundation – what’s that course like? And what kind of students do you get?

It’s everything in one. They have a course called ‘text and image’ but this graphic novel course is for the writers. So some people turning up will be able to draw, whereas others will come along knowing they’ll have to look for an artist. I will say that for those who can draw it’s slightly easier, because when they’re writing they’re doing it for themselves. But we try and show people the skills you’ll need to write for someone else: how to explain what you’re trying to get across for someone else to work on.

You’ve written in your blog for Booktrust about the worries you had about teaching for the first time. How did you approach that? What kind of skills did you decide were the key ones to impart?

The other tutor, Bryan Talbot and I, do 2 lessons each. Brian does more general classes about possibilities within the medium, and mine are more specific bits and pieces that’ll be useful when you’re writing. So for example, how to write with images. People tend to over-write when they start, and with graphic novels you need to be quite succinct. It’s really important to learn how to take out as much as you can from the text and rely on the image: you should never say things twice.

It’s a really easy trap to fall into, having a character say ‘Look over there, there’s a bird!’ and then there’s somebody pointing and there’s a bird. It’s just not necessary. There’s an example from a Tarzan comic where the picture has Tarzan falling into a trap, the caption is ‘Tarzan falls into a trap’ and the speech bubble says ‘Help! I’m falling into a trap!’

So how easy is it to teach those skills? A lot of people are quite sniffy about the idea that you can actually teach creative writing.

Well we’re not really teaching writing – everyone approaches these things differently, so we don’t sit down and say ‘this is how you start, this is how you develop’ and so on. It’s more the techniques that are involved, and developing different aspects, especially characters – because you’re actually going to see your characters as well as hear them, so it’s doubly important to know what they look like.

How do you know what their face looks like?

I start to write and I get an idea of them. And then I draw them, and they might be slightly different to how I imagined them, but sometimes the character will actually change with that. So it’s a symbiotic relationship – those happy accidents again. Quite a lot of times I’ve been drawing a peripheral character who’s doing a movement I hadn’t thought about or reacting in a particular way and it’ll change my sense of their personality. So I think perhaps I’ll change their dialogue to go along with it.

Britten & Brulightly

Last question. I’m a complete newbie to graphic novels.

There’s no shame in that.

I’m glad to hear it. Everyone has different interests, but to many people this is a whole other world of literature they’ve yet to discover: where can I go to find graphic novels that might appeal to me?

There are a lot of blogs to check out – Paul Gravett writes a good one reviewing everything that comes out. But a good place to start is with the publishers – Nobrow, SelfMadeHero, Jonathan Cape and Blank Slate. If you’re not keen on the sort of stuff that’s aimed at teenage boys then you should steer clear of DC and Marvel, but you could do a lot worse than walking into your local bookshop and just rifling through their comics section and finding something that appeals to you.

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