Words and images are the most powerful storytelling tools known to mankind. Together, they offer endless possibilities for conveying the most complex narratives in an engaging and universally accessible way, but, some would argue, their marriage produces more than the sum of two.
Despite the relative novelty of the genre, graphic novels gained a global community of devoted followers, capturing readers’ imagination across generations and continents. We spoke to illustrator and cartoonist Stephen Collins about the ins and outs of telling a story through words and pictures:
Why do people love graphic novels? What is so unique and appealing about this storytelling form?
It has everything in it – the words, the pictures… In fact, it’s so versatile that, for a creator, it’s very much like having your cake and eating it and, I think, readers are as excited and challenged by that as the artists are.
What stories are best (and worst) suited to become graphic novels?
With enough creativity, pretty much anything can work! You have verbal and visual vocabularies at your disposal, so graphic novels are extremely versatile. I sometimes come across stories that instantly make me think: “Oh, God, I wish I had that idea!” because it would make such a great comic, like the visual rhymes and repetitions in Groundhog Day, but it’s equally exciting to work on something less obvious and more challenging.
What are the key differences between graphic novel and literature for both the writer and the reader?
For the author, the process of working on a graphic novel is a lot slower than with prose, but the challenge is to hide all the hard labour and make writing as fluid as traditional literature. It’s also not as immersive as writing prose, since there’s too much design work and drawing toil for that.
How do you approach creating a graphic novel?
I choose to approach it as a writer, but to always bear in mind that it’s a visual medium, which means the design needs to be interesting and integral to the story. Some people might prioritise the artwork – there is no right or wrong here.
I always start with a story and narrative, then think about the way to present it visually. Having decided on the basic elements, I work on a script, and only after that do I proceed to properly designing the pages in Photoshop, before printing these designs and tracing them in ink on a lightbox.
Depending on how I want the reader to experience the story, I will choose which narrative elements will be visual and which ones verbal. The general rule is ‘show, not tell’, especially when it comes to action and characters, which means you are unlikely to have a narrator telling the reader that a cat is brown, since there is probably a drawing of a brown cat directly beneath his words. As the result of this bias towards visual representation, we lose a lot of verbal similes and metaphors that prose writers get to play with. Then again, we get to compare and juxtapose things visually, so it’s not so bad after all!
Are there any visual techniques applied mainly to graphic novels? How and why are they used?
Page design is a very unique aspect of a graphic novel too. I think, it’s the only art form where time is explicitly arranged in a spatial manner, which makes it so much fun to experiment with!
What is your advice on how to tell a story through images?
1. Don’t show or say too much, leave something to the reader’s imagination. It’s easier said than done!
2. I personally don’t like it when characters’ faces emote too much. I find it looks a bit unrealistic.
3. Always plan your pages in advance. It’s easy to spot when someone just started drawing without knowing where the story will go.
Do you have some favourite graphic novels you could recommend?
Anything by Chris Ware, particularly Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth or Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
There’s loads of great new British stuff: Gareth Brookes‘ The Black Project, Isabel Greenberg‘s Encyclopedia of Early Earth, Luke Pearson‘s Everything We Miss, Tom Gauld‘s Goliath are all brilliant. The Vicar Woman by Emma Rendel is also a bit of an undiscovered gem, part Wicker Man, part comedy, very dark and beautiful!