Stokey LitFest, Ilya and Oscar Zarate

Another in an occasional series on Stoke Newington Book Festival that took place last month. After a lovely walk from Finsbury Park through the stunning Clissold Park on Saturday 7th June I arrived early for the first event in the library gallery and caught a half-hour or so of The Science of Star Wars, one of those many attempts to hook a fictional subject on to real science, trying to make it more interesting for children.

The multimedia backdrop was provided by author Mark Brake (who really doesn’t like the newer films, a fact that was thinly disguised) who also engaged the audience with quizzes and questions, but the main presentation was given by Jon Chase, whose animated delivery went down very well, even managing to make midichlorians (loathed by fans) interesting by hitching it to an enlightening discussion of mitochondria. Some of the concepts were probably a bit high-end for the young audience, but I’m sure it sparked a lot of interest in physics. I had no idea, for example, how far holography has come in recent years.

The next event was one I’d particularly been looking forward to, featuring two big names in comics that are, unjustly, barely known outside the field. Oscar Zarate is an author who came to prominence in the late 1980s with two works, published in the first flush of mainstream excitement over graphics novels, A Small Killing and Geoffrey the Tube Train and the Fat Comedian.

The latter is a cross between Thomas the Tank Engine and a class war revenge fantasy, by Alexei Sayle, and is well worth seeking out.

The former, written by Alan Moore, is regarded by many as one of Moore’s best works that somehow never caught on. It’s an examination of lost innocence set in a world of 80s advertising Yuppies that seems even more relevant today.

He’s also done a lot of work for the Introducing… series from Icon Books, exploring science and philosophy.

Zarate’s new work, The Park, is a solo expedition, telling the story of a day in Hampstead Heath where a chain of small events snowballs out of hand. The host of the event was podcaster and writer Alex Fitch.

Also present was Ed “Ilya” Hillyer, who became well known for his work on Deadline and other small-press projects, notably his The End of the Century Club, published by the innovative yet sadly defunct Slab-O-Concrete. It was a dystopian vision of a near future (now the past, but still familiar) leavened with slapstick, humour and optimism, and it won the Best Graphic Novel award at the 1997 UK Comic Art Convention. The story was completed in a short four-issue series The End. His most recent work is Room for Love, which is a kind of prequel to the End stories, featuring one of the characters in a May-to-September romance. Kind of. Last year he wrote a whole series of posts for Self Made Hero on the process of writing the book, which are  definitely worth a look.

He also turned his hand to writing a novel, The Clay Dreaming. Although I haven’t read it, if the characters and plotting are anywhere near as good as his comics, it should be pretty good.

Fitch opened the discussion by asking if Zarate had consciously decided to do something with The Park that was more “laid-back and bucolic” having previously done a work about CCTV and terrorism. It was a little difficult to follow the thread of the answer, which was quite complex, and he is very softly spoken, but it can probably be summed up by the line “I need to have a setting that is beautiful to me, and then people can kill each other in it, even if it is a beautiful place.

He continued: “It takes time to create people, to build up characters so that they are no longer characters, so I can have conversations aloud with them. They say something to me, a conversation… so that they become human.”

“You contrast misunderstandings with slapstick violence.” Fitch noted, adding that “a lot of the interactions in the book comes from misunderstandings”.

Zarate : “The relationships are between father and son and father and daughter. I do believe that the father loves the daughter and the daughter loves the father; the son loves the father and the father loves the son. The problem is the expression of their love, they can’t articulate the affection they have.”

It seems that the interaction between people and their environment is an essential driving force in the book, with nature being a kind of religion, with parks being a mirror on humanity, changing daily. in Ilya’s Room for Love there is also a sense of people constrained by their environment, and the city itself is a character.

“There’s quite a few central London locations because that’s where one of the characters lands when he comes over from Ireland. He’s a runaway surviving on the street, I wanted it to be any diaspora that comes to a city, any city. It’s an urban story but it’s not necessarily London story unlike other books of mine. I’m more interested in the universal side of what I’m saying rather than getting too specific.

“The cover image is referencing Edward Hopper because he understands the psychological power of spaces, be it a cafe or a room. What I’ve done is transposed the genders from a well known Hopper painting.

“There’s a diamond of  stronger yellow light on the carpet, and her toe is poking into it which suggests that she’s dipping her toe in waters that she doesn’t really know, isn’t very certain of. I was using it knowingly.”

The story was inspired by a radio interview he had heard in around 1993-4 with Germaine Greer where the subject of homelessness came up: “She’d made a spur-of the moment offer that she had empty rooms in her house. It seemed like an incredible, open, generous gesture. I noted that down as a story idea.

“What actually happened is that three people took up the offer and they all turned out to be journalists none of them were real homeless people. But she did live out in the Home Counties, so it’s not like a homeless person in Leicester Square could have got out there and just pitch up on her doorstep, so there were unrealistic expectations in the first place.

“I think that allowed me to seek a way of getting two people who would have never shared the same space and put them together. It would be something to tell from the side of the homeless person, what’s it like to be an intruder, effectively, in somebody else’s house, but also from the other viewpoint: what’s it like to have somebody homeless in your house?

“I wanted to do something about romance from an unexpected area. It’s an anti-romance, one that could never, did never happen, but it’s a collision of people. People are quite remote and live in different worlds culturally. For me a lot of meetings are like collisions.”

He originally worked up the idea for the story back in 1993 for the Japanese market, which fell through. Around 2000, Hollywood move companies had been looking for comics to adapt (Ghost World and From Hell making it into production, for example) and it almost became a film at one point, he said. Eventually publishers wanted something that was “street level” so he dusted off the idea, but it needed to stay set in a “notional 1996”.

“There are crowd scenes where not everybody is glued to mobile phones; the internet is not nearly so prevalent. It’s come out very different according to the amount I’ve lived through since 1993. I probably identify as much, if not more with the novelist than I do with the teenage tearaway.”

Discussing how the original story had to be cut back to fit in the book’s format, he mentioned that he worked in thumbnails to show the publisher, which seemed to catch Zarate by surprise. Asked by Fitch how much of his own book he had mapped out and ready to present, he said that he had a synopsis and about 20 pages of colour artwork (the book is 160 pages) drawn to “find the tone” for himself. He had been working for a publisher in France who asked what he’d been working on and on the strength of the synopsis decided to publish it.

This led on to a discussion of how different the UK and French comics market is that something could be so easily picked up there, but it’s also apparently a more brutal, industrial market because it’s so much bigger. A bande desinée will have, he said, a shelf-life of about a month if it’s not a hit, and must do very well in the first two weeks or be relegated to less prominent shelves.

Although new books last a bit longer in the UK (three months used to be a good rule of thumb), it’s a similarly crowded market and  Ilya’s The Clay Dreaming didn’t do well enough, despite being core stock at Waterstones, to encourage him to write a second. “Comics is in my blood, it’s something I’ve always done, so it’s more true to me.”

I asked whether The End of the Century Club will ever be reissued. “I have many books that are out of print, and it’ll be a lot easier if I can convince somebody by putting out something that sells. That was at least 300 pages across two books. I’d like to do a compendium edition because I can’t revisit it, though there’s a lot more written. I’m trying to get it back in print. Maybe 2,000 people have seen it but I sold more copies of that than many books now will sell through big publishers.”

Does he think it’ll still have relevance now, being called “End of the Century”? He said it does (and having reread it in the past week, I agree) as it’s set “the day after tomorrow”, but wished he hadn’t called it that, even going to the lengths of taking out the millennial references in foreign translations. “I’ll just have to catch up now that the world has caught up with me.”

A question from the audience raised how publishers view comics, whether they like to keep graphic novels and comics distinct.

“What we do, the kinds of stories Oscar and I tell, most of the time, what we’re known for would be regarded as the fringe in the existing comic world of the American market, DC and Marvel. But the joke is that they exist, despite all the movies in Hollywood, on the fringe of culture. So what we do is tell much more mainstream stories, so it’s ironic. ”

The kind of graphic novels we need more of, because there is a set of “approved” subject matters, are more pulp, genre works — crime, horror, romance, sport, cooking — the sort of things people do and might want to read about. It’s a broad medium and not to be limited to war reporting or “what’s wrong with my innards” and memoirs.

Zarate chimed in: “Comics is a language, like any other language it’s up to you . What happens in comics is there’s a conventional market. there’s a history that 70 per cent of the readers are young people.”

There is, he said a history that people want adventures and superheroes and if you work in straight fiction, people don’t want to know, citing his experiences with A Small Killing. At the time Alan Moore was a big name, having revamped Swamp Thing, written Watchmen and A Killing Joke, and was usually a huge pull at signings (I recall spending two hours in a queue at Rainbow’s End in Oxford for the latter).

“When we went to conventions and book signings the people who came were about half of this [indicating the size of the audience of about 30 in the hall], but Alan at the time was huge. When he moved to another way of doing comics, he didn’t bring the audience with him.”

Something is changing, though, he thinks, as newspapers are beginning to review comics and some works, particularly autobiographies, are gaining acceptance.

Ilya: “What we’re short of among publishers, here and in America, is that there s not a lot of editorial awareness of the skill of making comics. It will usually come down to what one particular person in the company likes and that does hold things back.

“There’s more comics being made now than at any point and, given there’s no commercial reward, it seems astonishing that it’s a language people want to get involved in. Which is absolutely fabulous, but there’s nothing to back that up in publishing and sales.”

They then discussed the fact that newspapers are slowly realising that comics sell well and the other uses of comics in France and the UK, and the prices that original artwork can sell at. Zarate said a page in France can sell for about £1500, but in the UK it’s not worth even trying: “France has a friendly relationship with comics, they don’t have any problems with comics, it’s part of the culture. They celebrate them, as at Angoulême. Here there problems of acceptance. They don’t like the idea of pictures and words together. It’s strange because they have no problem with song, which is music and words together.

“There is now, though a new generation more in touch with new technology, so we’ll see. But in the end what matters is whether what you do is good. Whether it’s a separate art or not, I don’t care. What matters is that I do something that makes some kind of sense.”

Ilya: “I’ve done comics my whole life, so the level at which I could create with them I don’t because the readers are not there at that level. We had a presentation with the Korean comic book institute about a month ago and there was a Korean artist [Yoon Tae-ho] and his reading figures are beyond anything we can imagine. I think he gets something like 700,000 hits a week. What he was showing in comics language and comics form was so advanced in terms of the psychological connections it was making, the repeat frames, the time it takes to get subtle things across.

“I would never dare to do that. I’d love to do it. We’ve both worked all our lives in comics but the level at which we can communicate and inform… we could communicate with each other but we couldn’t communicate with the wider market. You have to bring readers to you so I have to simplify, not by dumbing down, but so I can bring you with me and carry you through.

“It’s a very young language, there are a lot of ways of exploring it, but I’ve had to tone down the use of that language because comics are not as widely read.”

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