Modern comic genius: the graphic art that's not just for geeks

Comica, London's annual festival of comic books and graphic novels, shows how the genre is not just for geeky boys, says Emma Love
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The Independent Culture

Walk into the ICA this weekend and you won't find the usual contemporary art installations. For the next three weeks it's all about art with a cool comic-book twist. At the sixth Comica festival, the annual London gathering of some of the biggest international comic and graphic novel writers and artists around, hip twentysomethings will be watching their heroes drawing a collaborative comic strip live on to the wall and being projected into the bar next door. There will be the latest comic anthologies for sale, DJs, film screenings and talks by some of the biggest names in the comic-book business, including the co-founder of the Forbidden Planet shops, Mike Lake, and Bryan Talbot, author of the first British graphic novel, giving an illustrated lecture on his new steampunk detective thriller Grandville.

On Tuesday night, Lightspeed Champion, aka Dev Hynes, who has also contributed to a new exciting book and exhibition Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption at the Lazarides Gallery, will play a live set amid heated comic-strip discussions. For the book, a collaborative project between charitable youth initiative Ctrl.Alt.Shift (which is known for highlighting social issues through culture) and heavy-hitting comic world names who have provided comic strips on corruption, Hynes has written the story of an exploited intern at a television station who has his brilliant script dumbed down into a trashy tale. "It's the first time that I've just written the words and let someone else do the drawings," he says, grinning away from behind thick black glasses at the exhibition's opening on Thursday night. "I have a short attention span and I do what I like, whether it's disco or orchestral music, photography or comics."

Another interesting pairing for the book is that of music artist VV Brown with music video producer David Allain and fellow comic collaborator Emma Price. The three of them started writing a graphic novel together, The City of Abacus, about an imaginary land ruled by a corrupt queen, a while ago (they tested the audience with an excerpt at Glastonbury) and a comic strip from their first chapter is in the book. "I don't usually do comics but it's a passion project for me," explains Allain. "Last year I did VV Brown's music video and the idea of a comic started from there. The reaction at Glastonbury was great and we're planning to do a whole saga."

As well as excerpts from the book on display, which are simply clipped on to bare walls, there are older comics in glass cabinets, including some from the personal collection of Paul Gravett, the founder of the festival. There's Dave McKean's adaptation of a story on the corrupt pharmaceuticals industry in China, written by an anonymous Chinese comic artist; a strip on the recent elections in Iran from "the godfather of comics", Pat Mills, who's known for his stories on often controversial subjects and Dylan Horrocks's strip on an ideal, uncorrupt world.

"We're trying to use contemporary culture to galvanise 18 to 25-year-olds because they're going to inherit these issues going forward," says Katrin Owusu of Ctrl.Alt.Shift. "Comics have a long history of acting as catalysts and documenting issues that challenge society so it seemed like a good fit with what we do."

For Gravett, this weekend is exactly the kind of cross-over that the festival is about: promoting the best comics out there, through exhibitions, talks, competitions and one-off events. He believes people's mindset about comics is changing. "Comics tend to be ghettoised by the fan community but we're trying to build connections between comics and other art forms. It has taken time for people to realise that comics can be about anything. Comic artists haven't got to draw Batman and there aren't many rules. It's about the maturing of the readership and publishers, recognising that this is an exciting form of storytelling."

And there is a huge variety of stories and genres out there that go way beyond any stereotypes people may have about comics and graphic novels. Cartoonist Polyp is the author of Speechless, an eco-fable published by Friends of the Earth; Willy Linthout's Years of the Elephant is a poignant account of grief after his son's suicide; Reinhard Kleist has written an award-winning graphic biography of Johnny Cash, and Posy Simmonds, one of a growing number of female comic writers, has written her latest graphic novel Tamara Drewe, inspired by Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. There are graphic novels turned films, such as Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, comic strips at this year's Frieze Art Fair (by pioneer Robert Crumb and Sarnath Banerjee who introduced the graphic novel to India) and, for the first time, next year the Arts Foundation is awarding a graphic novel fellowship.

As comics continue to cross over more and more with other art forms, a wider audience is being given the chance to have fun with this vibrant, compelling form of storytelling. As Gravett said, looking around the Ctrl.Alt.Shift exhibition on Thursday night: "Comics are a contemporary art; they're bursting with ideas and creativity right now, and they really do belong."

Comica runs until 26 November. For details, visit For info on Ctrl.Alt.Shift, visit www.