By Adam Critchley
XALAPA, MEXICO: Amid a resurgence in popularity of the graphic novel and a flush of new titles by young Spanish authors, four writers and illustrators discussed the state of the genre in Spain and the form’s future as the advent of the ebook adds a new dimension to pictorial storytelling.
The graphic novel has undergone a renaissance in Spain over the last decade, and some would say a rebirth. For many years, comics were readily available on newsstands, before disappearing in the 1980s and migrating to comics stores, a more specialized, and, to an extent, underground market, where the genre remained a cult phenomenon before reemerging, rebranded.
“The comic suddenly acquired a new name, the graphic novel, perhaps to differentiate it from the comic, and to shake off a stigma, despite the genre being semantically the same,” moderator Xavi Ayén, a Barcelona-based journalist, explained at the Hay Festival Xalapa last month.
“We knew that there were still many readers of comics, but they were not as visible. The question was not whether they existed, but where were they? The comic is folk art, and wide reaching. Many people read The Beano, for example, and other comics imported and translated from abroad, and while those titles have now disappeared, it doesn’t mean that the readers have.”
According to 2010 figures from Spain’s Federation of Publishers, 14.5% of readers over the age of 14 read comics, compared to the 60% who read fiction. And, perhaps more significantly, among the total number of readers, 47.8% read using a digital device, a sign that the ebook is gaining ground. Comics represent 2.9% of total book sales in Spain.
Evidence of the popularity of the comic and manga genres in Spain are Barcelona’s annual Salon Internacional del Cómic and the Salón del Manga, although foreigners have always greatly outweighed local talent in terms of the number of invited authors.
New Kids on the Block
But local talent is emerging, buoyed by new publishing houses focusing on the form, such as Entrecomics Comics, that launched in 2006 and has half a dozen authors in its catalog; ¡Caramba!, founded by two thirty-something Spanish graphic designers and focusing on humor; Fulgencio Pimentel, publishing graphic novels in translation, and Apa Apa, a publisher of comics and fanzines founded in 2008 and which, since 2012, has turned its attention to publishing local talent.
And two recent anthologies aim to reappraise the genre. Supercomic: Mutaciones de la novela gráfica (Errata Naturae), is a collection of essays exploring the genre, from superheroes and manga to memoir and noir, while Panorama (Atisberri) contains work by 30 Spanish graphic novelists, a showcase of the genre at the hands of local authors over the past 10 years.
Santiago García, editor of both anthologies, has described the books as “aiming to situate the comic within contemporary culture, and not creating something for specialists or collectors,” while “discussing the comic without excuses.”
“Comics have the potential to be a means of contemporary artistic expression like any other medium,” he added.
Juanjo Sáez, author of the graphic novel Viviendo del cuento (Mondadori, 2004), attributes the renewed interest in the graphic novel in Spain that began around 2003 to the popularity of foreign works in translation, such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
“There have been some great works and that sparks readers’ interest and inspires writers and illustrators. It’s a natural result, like a river flowing to the sea,” he told Publishing Perspectives.
He also pointed to the need for illustrators and cartoonists to diversify, in the same way that a jobbing writer produces column inches to supplement their income.
Sáez’s professional trajectory is the classic example of illustrator-for-hire, having contributed to advertising campaigns for sports and beer brands, while writing comic strips for Spanish newspapers such as El Periódico de Catalunya, and music magazine Rockdelux. He has also illustrated an album cover for rock band Los Planetas. His 2010 TV series Arròs covat, adapted from his own graphic novel, received a Premio Ondas award from Radio Barcelona.
Having worked in diverse media, he is also aware of the potential of the ebook as an ideal platform for the graphic novel.
“It’s easier to reach readers with the ebook, due to the high production costs of the graphic novel. And the mobile device is the ideal medium with which to read the graphic novel, as the visual aspect lends itself perfectly to being read on a screen, much more so than plain text. And I don’t care if I’m pirated, either. It’s more important to be read,” he said.
Nobody is a Prophet in Their Own Land
His sentiments were echoed by Luci Gutiérrez, author of English is Not Easy (Blackie Books, 2013), a light-hearted illustrated guide for learners of English as a foreign language, and who only began to be published once outside Spain, during a stint living in New York as a student.
A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, she lamented the lack of opportunities for illustrators in Spain compared to the United States.
“I think comics and the graphic novel are more culturally accepted in the US, and illustration is more valued as a profession. There are more spaces for illustrators and illustrations are used more widely, whereas in Spain they are considered to be of less importance and even infantile,” she said.
“Even the newspapers in Spain don’t give much space or importance to cartoons, and which are limited to social or political comment. It’s very difficult for illustrators to gain a space,” she said. And such lack of opportunities fuels her enthusiasm for digital media and the ebook, as means of opening new spaces.
“I’m really attracted by the possibilities offered by the ebook, even if it means that the production ceases to be the work of one person. The obvious advantage is greater distribution, without being limited to paper. But the digital format also gives the graphic novel new characteristics, and it becomes a different medium. Another big advantage would be greater possibilities for self-publishing, and the ability to reach a global audience, although the downside is that, as an electronic reader, there is such a quantity of production that one doesn’t know how to search for it, and there is a lack of criteria.”
Álvaro Ortiz, author of the graphic novel Cenizas (Astiberri, 2013), and which he describes as “an American-style road movie,” extolled the genre as the perfect showcase for the writer-illustrator in complete control of form and expression, as opposed to the collaboration that creating ebooks and apps from graphic novels might imply.
“The beauty of the comic, for the writer and illustrator, is that you produce all the work yourself, without involving others. Storytelling in a pictorial form is a post-modern language, but, despite its visual aspect, its roots are in paper, more than in audiovisual, and its language is that of literature and not of cinema,” he said.
“While the graphic novel may adapt well to the ebook form, the graphic novel as app inevitably requires the involvement of more contributors, whether they be musicians, animators, voice overs; and the final product is a collaboration and not the work of one author, which is the essence of the graphic novel, as a story told by a single author,” he said.
And while formative readers of comics were brought up on superheroes, The Beano and Hergés Tintin, Spain’s Santiago Valenzuela, who received the National Comic Award in 2011 for the seventh book in his series of adventures featuring the character Torrezno, a dissolute suburbanite, highlighted the importance of the graphic novel as a vehicle for social criticism and which, like science fiction, “can act as a metaphor for the societies we live in.”