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Panels, pixels and paperbacks

Graphics works have started appearing on mainstream novel prize shortlists. Matthew Sheret, deeply embedded in both the digital and the comic scenes, considers their appeal – and their ongoing resistance to digital.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be on a plane heading out to Sydney, a journey made bearable largely due to the vast number of films tucked into a screen on the chair in front of me. Cycling through the selection, I found a cache of films culled from Oscar nominations over the past 40 years, a blend of heavy-hitting drama and high-fantasy, some of which I dipped in and out of during my 46-hour journey there and back.

The list was eclectic, but not at all odd. If you’d been encountering Hollywood cinema for the very first time then this mix of winners and nominees from all kinds of genre formed a fabulous microcosm of mainstream cinema. Prospective film undergrads could get a far worse head start than browsing such a list. This is, essentially, what the best award lists are good at: giving history a frame of reference for what a medium, or an industry, or even a region churned out at any given time.

My day-job involves writing. Lots of writing. But that’s just a secret identity that covers my activities most nights and many weekends in the British comic book and independent press scene. That work might involve anything from publishing an anthology to running workshops and talks, and every so often it involves writing a few comics too.

So I was pleased as punch to see two stand-out books make their way into the shortlist for the Costa book prize last week, Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot. It’s a big signpost that says to readers of the future ‘these books matter’, and that’s a lovely thing.

But the writer part of me – the guy who earns money doing interface copy with people who make the internet such a wonderful place – keeps ringing alarm bells. While it’s lovely to see comic books get wider acceptance, I can’t help but think: what place do webcomics and digital publications have?

The transience of the web is a terrific thing, but as ground-breaking works like My Cardboard Life or Bad Machinery slip off lists like this it feels like they slip out of history.

At the Thought Bubble festival in Leeds earlier this month I was on the committee for the inaugural British Comic Awards, a celebration of the best things the comics community in the UK have produced in the last twelve months. We made a point of making sure that digital works could be included, and in two of the winners (John Allison and Josceline Fenton) we saw creators whose audiences really do coalesce online.

But there’s still a Best Book category… and even though works published online could appear on that list, it’s hard to think of many that would successfully hold their own against hardcover heavy-hitters like Nelson or Goliath. If digital works stand so little chance within comics circles, then a nod from Costa (or Starbucks or whomever) feels like an even slimmer shot in the dark.

Part of the problem is about having a frame of understanding for these works. Serialised comics – particularly diary or humour strips like The Everyday or Ellerbisms – operate within the funny pages/editorial cartoon format that’s been in place for well over a hundred years now. But what equivalent does a work like Daniel Merlin Goodbrey’s The Archivist, have?

Access is another issue. Reading comics online is beset with problems, particularly with work from independent creators, who publish huge .pdf files or use non-responsive publishing platforms that an iPad mini won’t have any fun with.

And, Kindle-fans, take a look at that Costa shortlist again. Of the eight titles listed in the Biography and Novel categories, guess which two you can’t download? Turns out e-ink and comics don’t make especially good bedfellows.

Those things won’t stay true forever though, and we’re about to have a lot of fun seeing what kind of comics emerge for the Kindle Fire and even for Little Printer. But how can we get those comics onto mainstream shortlists? Who but the author will act as a story’s champion if there’s no ‘shop-owner’s recommendation’ to go by?

The questions bug me because these aren’t just the kind of comics I want to see or enjoy reading, I’m actively working on a few. I don’t want stories that myself and illustrators like Tom Humberstone slave over to be throw-away things. I want them to have the kind of impact that Alec had on me, or Hildafolk, or Rob Davies’ Don Quixote adaptation. I want people to return to stories and write and see them as part of the jumbled continuum of British comics.

I suppose it comes back, in a way, to that in-flight entertainment system again. Cinema has changed so little in terms of ‘deliverable units’ that it feels like a safe bet to put a film from 1964 on the same playlist as one from last summer. But, at the moment, I couldn’t say with confidence that I’ll be able to reach for this year’s webcomics when I think of them in a few years’ time. Platform, resolution and URLs are still like so much dust in the wind, and that’s something the structure of an annual accolade isn’t really geared up to deal with.

So I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Joff Winterhart and for Bryan and Mary Talbot, and I’ll also keep space clear on my shelf for dusty devices alongside my moldering hardbacks.

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