Rob Walker, Victorian Cut-out Theatre: Robot butlers and the art of detection

This is the second in a series of occasional posts by writer and filmmaker, Rob Walker, whose YouTube series, ‘Victorian Cut-out Theatre’, celebrates the esoteric, strange and downright weird Victorians by animating contemporary illustrations in the tradition of Monty Python.

Close-up from 'A Touch of Murder'

My first foray into the world of the mystery story began in the fourth grade when I read ‘The Adventure of The Speckled Band’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes from that day forward, and the hawkish detective led me by the hand to Agatha Christie and my countryman, inventor of the mystery story, Mr E. A. Poe. It wasn’t long before I began reading the entirety of the Holmes canon, and was thrilled to finally run across a collection which featured the original illustrations by Sidney Paget. Paget would create the definitive Sherlock Holmes in his work for The Strand Magazine, and this would be the look by which all future portrayals would be judged. Paget’s illustrations led me to seek out other Victorian illustrators, and I soon found my way to Tenniel, Rackham and Caldecott. If I am to trace the roots of Victorian Cut-out Theatre, or at the very least episode #11, ‘A Touch of Murder’, I would discover the partnership of Doyle and Paget. These artists both led me to explore their own inspirations and contemporaries, allowing me to draw my own connections. It would be decades later, almost out of necessity, when I would put these twin inspirations together in the first episode of VCoT.

In 2010, I found myself in-between projects and the stable of performers with which I was used to working had all moved on to other things. So for the first time since graduating university, I was left to my own creative devices and animation seemed the best way to be a one man show. I ended up tinkering with a crude short called The Arrangement which would set the tone and aesthetic for future VCoT episodes. In the creation of that proto-episode, I scoured the internet for public domain images from the 1800s, looking for full characters or at the very least parts (arms, faces and backgrounds) that might be ‘Frankensteined’ together to create what are essentially digital rod puppets*. These puppets were then animated frame by frame in Final Cut** to tell a story about an English Lord who had impregnated his Irish housemaid, and then a bear shows up.

This short proved to me what could be done with my tools and experience, and in 2011, I was asked to make more of them for Cinevore Studios. I adore doing the series, because despite the different settings and vague time-period, I can tell whatever kind of story I want. There is a cultural cachet that comes with illustration, and choosing 1800s drawings as my tools gave me a historical shorthand to pass on to an audience. I don’t have to tell them it’s the late 1800s, they can just look at the first frame of yellowed scrawling and feel where the story takes place. Once the setting is established, I can then add fun things like robot manservants.

Victorian Cut-Out Theatre, 11: Still from 'A Touch of Murder'

‘A Touch of Murder’ is my silly love-letter to the genre that informed a large part of my artistic upbringing. The episode is essentially the final act of a mystery, in which the key players have been gathered in the drawing room, before revealing the murderer. We’ve seen this many times in parody, but I think the original idea came from Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’, which was turned into a stage play a few years after its publication and performed under a more unfortunate name. This episode is filled with references to mysteries in literature and popular culture. I’ve included nods to CLUEDO, Prof. Moriarty, Hitchcock’s Psycho and Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, but perhaps the clearest homage (or is it outright theft?) is to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a film which I love, and is itself a story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

So here we are: a manor house, torrential downpour, an incompetent detective and a trio of suspects, one of whom has wrenches for hands. The game is afoot!

*I discovered many clip art sites, but the best for finding high resolution images from the Victorian era was the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration. It is fortuitous, then, that I have been asked to contribute to this blog.

**An old-fashioned and arduous way to animate these days. Starting with season three, I’ll be using new methods.

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker, probably best known for the comedic, animated web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre produced by Cinevore Studios. He studied Theatre Performance and Education at the University of Northern Colorado where he began writing plays and short stories. His work has been featured on Kotaku and Nerdist. He lives in Colorado with his wife and their two socially inept cats. You can follow him on Twitter or on his website

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Rob Walker, Victorian Cut-out Theatre: Parties, corpses and comical hedonism

This is the first in a series of occasional posts by writer and filmmaker, Rob Walker, whose YouTube series, ‘Victorian Cut-out Theatre’, celebrates the esoteric, strange and downright weird Victorians by animating contemporary illustrations in the tradition of Monty Python.

Victorian Cut-Out Theatre, 19: Still from 'A Peculiar Soiree'

We used to unwrap mummies at parties. No, really.

This happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as archaeologists were unearthing treasures in Egypt, and a mummy mania swept across England. For some private collectors and academics willing to pay, mummies were shipped back to the hub of the empire to satisfy the curiosity of those who may never brave the hot sands of Africa. These public and private exhibitions gave exotic thrills under the title of scientific discovery and historical importance. This isn’t to say that these discoveries were neither scientific nor historical. There were in fact physicians who wished to discover the secret of mummification and held public autopsies of mummies for the sake of real knowledge. However, along with those who sought scientific or historical edification, there were those who … well, just wanted to see dead bodies. For good or ill, the damage done to Egyptian burial sites during this time period can still be felt in the field of Egyptology today. Like many early discoveries, what was considered science then might be considered a sideshow by our modern sensibilities.

But imagine that you’re invited to a party by the crème of high society. Everyone is dressed to the hilt, beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics all mingling together. And somewhere between Oscar Wilde quipping about the three-layer dip, and a tipsy Sarah Bernhardt dancing with a lampshade on her head, you’re taken aside to look at the withered face of an Egyptian peasant. That sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Yet this kind of thing actually took place during the Victorian era. Grotesque as it seems though, I can’t imagine a single person who might turn down a party like that. These are the kinds of things that stick in my brain and never jar loose. Knowledge of Victorian oddities, Roman torture devices and 1920s bar bets swirl in my brain constantly, while math calculations I learned in Junior High are lost to the ages. This information, though seemingly useless in the real world, has been invaluable to me in the creation of my web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre and in particular Episode 19, ‘A Peculiar Soiree’, which is all about mummy unwrapping parties. Well, kind of.

VCoT Mummy

‘A Peculiar Soiree’ began as an homage to the Universal Monster movies I was raised on as a child. However, as I began working on it, I became more fascinated with the idea of the Victorian unwrapping party as a setting for comedy. This might be a byproduct of growing up working-class, but I adore the idea of someone so wealthy that normal human appetites will no longer do, which is where our story takes off. Drowsy from a night of eating Dodo bird and swilling absinthe, our protagonists are invited to gaze upon the withered husk of a human being. While Lady Sophie and Lord Snigglebottom are greedy to take in the macabre site for the sake of ‘science’, it is clear that Lord Brenden is less than pleased with the evening’s entertainments. As with most Victorian Cut-out Theatre episodes, the oddity or grandeur of setting is diluted by the pettiness of humanity.

So it goes, our three characters bicker about science, discovery and elitism before unveiling future … ahem, nocturnal activities. You could say that ‘A Peculiar Soiree’ is ripe with allegory for the Victorian class system, or an examination of willful ignorance versus science. These are easy lines to draw, but the episode also revolves around a petty disagreement between a young man who finds certain activities appalling, and a young woman who wishes to see a mummified sex organ. Finding that concept as funny as I do might be the key to why I’m not invited to nice places more often. Oh well, I probably don’t have the palate for Dodo bird* and absinthe anyway.

*The last millionaire or seaman to eat Dodo bird was in the late 1600s/early 1700s, so it was definitely extinct by the Victorian era. However, it is entirely possible that Lord Snigglebottom and his cabal of millionaires had a genetic cache of Dodo DNA. Not dissimilar to Jurassic Park. But if you believe that, you may be overthinking the joke.

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker, probably best known for the comedic, animated web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre produced by Cinevore Studios. He studied Theatre Performance and Education at the University of Northern Colorado where he began writing plays and short stories. His work has been featured on Kotaku and Nerdist. He lives in Colorado with his wife and their two socially inept cats. You can follow him on Twitter or on his website

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BARS 2015: Romantic Imprints – 1st Call for Papers

Tintern Abbey

Proposals are invited for the 2015 British Association for Romantic Studies international conference which will be held at Cardiff University, Wales (UK) on 16–19 July 2015. The theme of the interdisciplinary conference is Romantic Imprints, broadly understood to include the various literary, cultural, historical and political manifestations of Romantic print culture across Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world. Our focus will fall on the ways in which the culture of the period was conscious of itself as functioning within and through, or as opposed to, the medium of print. The conference location in the Welsh capital provides a special opportunity to foreground the Welsh inflections of Romanticism within the remit of the conference’s wider theme. The two-hundredth anniversary of Waterloo also brings with it the chance of thinking about how Waterloo was represented within and beyond print.

The confirmed keynote speakers for Romantic Imprints will be John Barrell (Queen Mary, London), James Chandler (Chicago), Claire Connolly (Cork), Peter Garside (Edinburgh) and Devoney Looser (Arizona State).

The conference is open to various forms of format:  we encourage proposals for special open-call sessions and for themed panels of invited speakers as well as individual proposals for the traditional 20-minute paper. Subjects covered might include:

  • Nation and print: the British archipelago; cities of print; transatlantic and transnational exchanges; Romantic cosmopolitanism and print; translation; landscape and/in print; Wales and its Romantic contexts; national (especially Welsh) patterns of influence and exchange in the international context.
  • Producing and consuming print: Romantic readerships; publishers; circu­lating print; legislation, copyright and print; technologies of print; plagiarism, forgery and piracy; popular and subaltern cultures of print; periodicals and journalism; gender and genre; print as new and old, ephemeral and collectable objects; print beyond reading (paper money, cards, etc.); the fate of print as ‘rubbish’.
  • Intertextual exchanges: politics and print (e.g. revolution and radicalism, war, Napoleon, Waterloo); satire and parody; science and print culture; performance and print; Romantic visual cultures (including art and illustration); representations of print and printing; fashion; adaptation and remediation; the Romantic essay; print and its others – epitaphs, manuscripts, marginalia, etc.; print and imprint as Romantic metaphor or ideology; popular pastimes.
  • Textual scholarship: editing texts; bibliography and book history; manuscripts, correspondence and diaries; analysis and quantification; digital humanities.
  • Romantic legacies: physical traces and imprints; architecture; Romantic anti­quarianism; Victorian Romanticism; Romanticism and modernity; Romanticism and new media; Romantic biography; lives in print; Romantic afterlives; celebrity and print; adapting the Romantics (film, art, literature).

Format of conference proposals

  • Traditional 20-minute paper proposals (250-word abstracts), submitted individually.
  • Poster presentations showcasing innovative projects or digital outputs (250-word abstracts), submitted individually.
  • Proposals for open-call sessions (350-word descriptions of potential session, outlining its importance and relevance to the conference theme). Accepted open-call sessions will be advertised on the BARS 2015 conference website.
  • Proposals for themed panels of three 20-minute or four 15-minute papers (250-word abstracts for each paper with speakers’ details and an outline of the panel’s rationale from the proposer).

Deadline for open-call and themed panels: 13 October 2014. You will be notified of acceptance by 10 November 2014. Accepted open-call sessions will be advertised from 1 December 2014.

Deadline for all other submissions: 31 January 2015. Submissions can comprise proposals for individual papers, poster presentations and submissions to open-call panels (which will be published online from 1 December 2014). If you are applying to an open-call session, you should include the name of the session on your proposal.

All proposals should include your name, academic affiliation (if any), preferred email address and a biography of 100 words. Please send proposals and direct enquiries to the BARS 2015 conference organisers, Anthony Mandal and Jane Moore (Cardiff University) at

For the latest updates about the conference, follow us on Twitter @2015BARS. (The conference website will be going live later this summer.)

Download a PDF copy of the Call for Papers here.

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Visiting speaker, 6 May 2014: Justin Tonra on Ossian Online

Justin Tonra (NUI Galway) will be presenting his paper, ‘Ossian Online: Building an Interdisciplinary Research Environment’, at 5.30pm on Tuesday, 6 May 2014. The talk will take place in the Cardiff University’s John Percival Building, Room 2.48.

2013.08.tonraThis presentation will introduce the early stages of Ossian Online, a new research initiative to archive and edit James Macpherson’s profoundly influential work of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European culture. The project will deploy digital technologies to pilot a new crowdsourcing model of scholarly collaboration. Ossian Online will build a multinational online interpretive community through the establishment of a virtual research environment.

The talk will introduce the works of the Ossian canon and describe the desired outcomes of the new project. The work is much discussed but rarely read, so the paper will outline the rationale for returning the focus of Ossianic discourse to the original texts and print culture in which it first appeared. Progress on digitising and encoding major editions from Macpherson’s lifetime (between 1760 and 1773) is ongoing, and plans for completing a new critical edition which will visualise the development of the work’s texts across this period will be discussed.

A central part of Ossian Online will involve building an online research environment to facilitate crowdsourced annotation and interpretation of Ossian, harnessing the interdisciplinary reach and appeal of the work. The project’s ultimate objectives are to use digital technologies to challenge national and disciplinary models of previous literary criticism which have impeded full appreciation of the cultural importance and significance of Ossian.

About the speaker
Dr Justin Tonra is University Fellow in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has research interests in literature of the Romantic period, digital humanities, and book history. He has spent periods of postdoctoral work at UCL (where he worked on Transcribe Bentham) and the University of Virginia. His work has been published by Literary and Linguistic Computing and an article on Thomas Moore’s early poetry is forthcoming (late 2014) in European Romantic Review.

Download a flyer for the talk (PDF).

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Esther McConnell, The Graphic Novel: Interview with Dr Lisa El Refaie, Part 2

 This blog post is the fourth in a series by Esther McConnell, exploring graphic fiction and publishing. These posts are being written as part of Esther’s second project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University. 

Interview with Dr Lisa El Refaie, Part 2: WhizzKids United

Dr Lisa El Refaie is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University. Her main research interests are in visual and multimodal communication, with a particular focus on newspaper cartoons, autobiographical comics (or “graphic memoirs”), and the use of visual storytelling in health campaigns. Much of her work has explored the differences between verbal and visual/multimodal forms of metaphor, irony, and humour. She is currently giving a third year module on the Graphic Memoir at Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. 

cover1Can you tell us a little about the charity WhizzKids United?

 WhizzKids United is a charity with which I worked to deliver a programme of workshops for children based around comics.

It is based in South Africa and was founded by Marcus McGilvray. They use football training as a tool to teach children life skills and how to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS. They are working in KwaZulu-Natal, which is an area with the highest incidence of HIV in any province of South Africa. A large proportion of the adult population are infected with HIV, and so of course a lot of the children are born with it. Many others get infected later, when they are teenagers. It is a very serious problem.

Although the football training is successful, they also want the children to go to the WhizzKids United health clinic where they can get tested for HIV and where they can find support, medication and counselling if they are positive. They were finding that quite a lot of the kids taking part in the football training weren’t going to the clinic (maybe because it takes effort and is quite far from where they live).

How did the comic book workshops fit into the charity’s work?

There are two workshops, one basic introduction to comics drawing and one more advanced workshop teaching the children how to construct simple stories in the comics medium, During the advanced workshops, which took a whole weekend, the children split into groups, talked about and then created little comic strips about HIV and AIDS.

The programme was in part to attract more and different children. Not all children will like football and so this helped access them. Secondly the aim was to actually produce a usable pamphlet to be distributed to the children and community at the end of the workshop. The third aim was, during particularly the weekend-long workshop, to afford the councillors an opportunity to talk to some of the children in detail about what’s going on for them. Half of the children there were HIV positive. Many of them had never talked about the fact they had HIV. Despite taking medication everyday, the taboo had meant that for many of them it had not even been discussed in their families. The workshops provided them an opportunity for them to actually talk about. Some of the children became quite emotional, they hadn’t realised that other children were in the same situation. I feel it came out as they were talking and producing their stories. You can see it in the comics.

Did any other emotions come out in the comic strips?

 Some of the children felt embarrassed about people knowing they are HIV positive and for that reason they were not always taking their medication; in some of the comic strips that really is apparent.

On the other hand the groups that were made up of children who weren’t HIV positive tended to talk about safe sex and getting tested. The children who are positive dealt more with how to tell your friends, family. The different natures of the groups affected the story told.

How did the children react to the idea of comic strip creation? 


 The children really enjoyed it and in fact many more came than the centre was expecting. Normally, with this sort of activity, they might not turn up or come late. In fact they all turned up, right on the dot of 8 o’clock. The original idea was that they would come up with the stories together and then one or two would do the drawing, but in the end they all wanted to do the drawings. So we ended up with multiple versions of the same comics.

The fact that there was a product at the end… There are tons of charities in South Africa giving out the same lessons over and over again. I think the presence of a concrete product that they could be proud of and would be used really seemed to appeal to them. They really liked that.

 page3_full.png.pagespeed.ce.ehSk3QN7R-How did the comics turn out?

 There isn’t much art at school there at all. This probably shows in the drawings, they look like much younger children’s drawing. Yet for that they look really very beautiful and very affecting. They are so untutored and so individual. They really have their own style. By one’s teenage years here, with all the art education, a student will understand the models and expectations. But they had none of that, and what we have as a result is fantastic.

The comic artist made some changes to make the story clearer (especially with several versions of one story). The artist, Steve Marchant, is based in the UK. He has worked himself with disadvantaged young people, getting them to draw comics themselves and then selecting and colouring the drawings to make them more attractive and coherent.

Do you think these comics have more power in their use of images than in a normal written pamphlet?

Of course partly children are attracted to the colours and drawings and so on, but also the messages have to be put into mini stories. This makes use of narrative, which is always better in trying to convey messages about behaviour. Just telling people what they should and shouldn’t do is not necessarily very effective. Having said this, the stories were a little more didactic than I had expected. The children had a particular genre in mind.

I would like to extend my thanks to Dr Lisa El Refaie for this fantastic interview. For more information about the charity and to download the full pamphlet, go to the Whizzkids United website. 

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Rosie Johns, Publishing in the Modern Era: Interview with Kathryn King, Marketing Manager

This blog post is the fourth post of an ongoing series by Rosie Johns, exploring the challenges and opportunities involved in book publishing in the current 21st Century environment. These posts are being written as part of Rosie’s second project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University.

Interview with Kathryn King, Marketing Manager at Policy Press, Bristol

Kathryn King, Marketing Manager at Policy Press

Kathryn King, Marketing Manager at Policy Press

Kathryn King has been the Marketing Manager at Policy Press for six years.  As the head of a four-person Marketing team, she has a diverse range of skills and responsibilities.  The following are extracts from the transcript of my interview with Kathryn on 19th March 2014.

Can you outline your role and responsibilities?

We are a Marketing team of four people and I oversee everything that happens, but between the three main Marketers– there’s an Executive, an Assistant and myself – we each look after different subject areas.  We publish in a variety of areas – social work, social policy, public policy, criminology, social research, public health… So we divide the subject areas between the three of us and more-or-less shadow one, or two in my case, of the Commissioning Editors. We work quite closely with them so there’s a nice handover between the books being commissioned, all the editorial work, and the Marketing team becoming involved.

What is your subject area?

I look after criminology, social research, gender education, social justice; I work quite closely with Victoria and Alison, who are the two Commissioning Editors who look after these subject areas, and I also look after the Policy and Politics journal, Journal of Poverty and Social Justice and our new journal, Journal of Playwork Practice.

'We’re starting to produce digital only products'

‘We’re starting to produce digital only products’

What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?

A year ago today we were holding a launch event in the House of Commons for a book we had published called Hidden Stories of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, by Richard Stone who was on the MacPherson Inquiry panel. He was there, and Doreen Lawrence (Stephen Lawrence’s mother) and various Lords were there. It was a really big event but we did it, so I think that was the biggest achievement.

How has the publishing industry changed since you took the position as Marketing Manager?

I’ve been in publishing for twenty two years and obviously things have changed a lot during that time, but I actually think the speed of change is increasing now. We are constantly dealing with different issues. Obviously digitization is a big aspect of it, but in terms of the marketing, the focus is all on data and figures. Marketing used to be about words but it’s so much more now. It’s great – marketing used to be sort of synonymous with advertising, because you did your marketing and then you had no idea of how that actually played out in terms of sales, but these days it’s so much more measurable. You can be so much more targeted and specific and you can track so much better the effects of what you’ve actually done, so if it works you can do it again, if it doesn’t you can tweak it and try again.

How have these changes impacted on the cost of marketing?

It’s very expensive to produce a direct mail piece and mail it, even more so these days, and we haven’t given up doing that but you can do a very quick email campaign as a test then tweak it a bit and run it again – you can do all sorts of variations to see what gives you the best effect.

So would you say the changes have been mainly positive?

I think so. I mean it’s challenging, because you’re constantly learning – as fast as you get to grips with one way of measuring your effectiveness another one pops up, and so we have been learning a lot! But we have decided on the tools we can use and regularly record the effectiveness of what we’ve done so we can report back on it.

How do you feel about globalization and working with large corporations like Amazon?

It’s a fact of life now. I think you’d get a different perspective from the Sales team because there’s been a huge move away from bookshops. We all love bookshops and love to browse bookshops. Amazon is both a good thing and a bad thing, I suppose. I am an Amazon user and from a Marketing perspective it’s a positive thing because you can gain direct knowledge of how many books are selling.

So you would say you gain a lot of important information by putting your books on Amazon?

Yes, but this is an area that the Sales Team are more involved in than Marketing.

Do they ever approach you to ask for copies of certain books?

All our books are automatically listed on Amazon because they are fed by Nielsen BookData [a global database] so they don’t need to ask us for any particular books.

Is it essential as a publisher for your books to be on Amazon?

In my opinion, you can’t not be on there.

Do you often sell books straight from your website instead?

Virtually all publishers allow people to buy books through their own website – we do, and we currently have a permanent 20% discount on there. From a Marketing point of view it’s much better, because we can capture the customer data and add them to our mailing list with their permission.  But we are realistic and know that many people are going to go to Amazon.

Is it often cheaper for customers to buy books straight from you?

There are times when we’ve done a special promotion and our books have been cheaper than Amazon, so we promote that as a key selling point. Amazon don’t check what individual publishers sell them for – they will only change the price as determined by demand.

Is Policy Press engaging with new digital products such as eBooks?

We already make eBook versions of a lot of our books available – PDFs for libraries and EPUBs for individuals, which includes Kindle. We’re starting to produce digital only products. We’re just beginning to launch a new series of ‘shorts’ – quick turn-around, shorter products, sometimes with a print option.

Is the marketing process for digital products different in comparison to traditional marketing methods?

There are overlaps because a lot of the marketing we do for print books is online these days. But there really isn’t much point in producing a direct mail piece for a short-form eBook and mailing it, so there are some differences. We sometimes publish ‘Bytes’ in advance of the publication of books, containing sample chapters, for a small cost.

What changes are you expecting for the future?

Well, the way that we sell eBooks at the moment is that we link out to various suppliers from our own website,  but we hope to be able to have eBook ordering on our own site in the future. That will enable us to capture customer data.

And finally, what are your specific aspirations for the future?

Well, we’re expanding. We’re in year two of a five-year business plan and part of that is expansion – we are increasing the number of titles we’re publishing, both books and journals, and we’re increasing the number of people we employ. We’ve just been through a re-organisation of the Marketing team and are moving into subject-based marketing. We’ve got a variety of projects we’re working on at the moment. I want to make all those things happen then move on to the next phase of the business plan. The whole management team will then be looking on to where the next five years will take us.

I would like to thank Kathryn King and Policy Press for allowing me to conduct this interview, and for consenting to the publication of this material online.  My next post will feature extracts from the transcript of my interview with Policy Press’ Sales & Distribution Manager, Ann Moore.

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Esther McConnell, The Graphic Novel: Interview with Dr Lisa El Refaie, Part 1

 This blog post is the third of a series by Esther McConnell, exploring graphic fiction and publishing. These posts are being written as part of Esther’s second project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University. 

Interview with Dr Lisa El Refaie, Part 1: The History and Culture of Graphic Literature

Dr Lisa El Refaie is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University. Her main research interests are in visual and multimodal communication, with a particular focus on newspaper cartoons, autobiographical comics (or “graphic memoirs”), and the use of visual storytelling in health campaigns. Much of her work has explored the differences between verbal and visual/multimodal forms of metaphor, irony, and humour. She is currently giving a third year module on the Graphic Memoir at Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. 

How did you first become interested in the graphic novel and multimodal communication?

It started with my PhD, which was on metaphors in Austrian newspaper discourses about asylum seekers. I was only looking at the language but then I noticed that some of the photographs and cartoons also reflected these metaphors. So I started to get interested in multimodal communication and how to analyse it. I then did a little bit of work on political cartoons, more generally, and, in particular, how young people understand and interpret cartoons. I had a project working with a human geographer; we used the cartoons as triggers for interviews about geopolitics with young people. So that was how I became interested in multimodal communication.

As I child I read a lot of comics and loved them. I just didn’t realise that comics for adults existed. Then, at a conference on cartoons, a fellow academic suggested looking at the literature of graphic novels… well I didn’t know there was any such thing. So it’s odd, I feel like I came to this by the back door. I started with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Through that I realised how many different comics and genres there are. So I started reading them and got quite obsessed and built up a huge library. Eventually I decided to do some research on it. At the time there really wasn’t anything being done on autobiographical comics and so I focused my attention on these. In the meantime others started to write about it.

Is there a large group of academics devoting time to it now?

Yes, in the last few years it has grown hugely. There are a lot of conferences and academic journals now specifically devoted to comics and graphic novels. Also books are being published all the time.

The depth of criticism reflects the increasing popularity of the graphic novel. It is moving into the main stream. Do you have any insights as to why this may be?

Most of the early graphic novels, book length comics, started out from the underground comics movement in America towards the end of the 60s and into the early 70s. That was very much influenced by the hippy movement, minority rights movements and so on. A lot of the books were very deliberately taboo breaking and shocking. Relating to the themes of the underground: drug taking, explicit sex and so on. It was targeting a very specific audience. Many comics were also a part of the punk movement, mainly for young people I imagine. The change came with Spiegelman’s Maus. It won a Pulitzer prize and was being discussed in serious newspapers. Lots and lots of academics were considering it, publishing books and journal articles. It gave people the idea that it was a medium which could be used for literary content.

The other thing is that the way these books are marketed has changed. Although the term ‘Graphic Novel’ was coined much earlier, it became popularised in the mid-80s. It was an attempt to create a new market for the kind of ‘serious’ comics for adults being produced. It helped people to feel they could read it without being ashamed. Comics are now also distributed in a different way. They used to be sold through specialist shops. The kind of clientele tended to be people who collected superhero comics and might also pick up a book. They tended to be men mostly and had this geeky image. A lot of people were just put off by that and would never have gone into a shop like that. Whereas now, you can buy them in bookstores and on the internet and so forth. In fact quite a lot of the books I’m interested in started out being published on the internet and they found their own audience in a way. Even some of the very big literary publishers are pursuing graphic novelists.

Is there some confusion and discontent over the term ‘Graphic Novel’?

For some artists there is a bit of a conflict now because, on the one hand, they actually quite enjoy the counter culture feel that comes from working in comics. On the other hand, at least some of them enjoy the prestige and recognition they are now getting. So there is a bit of a tension there. The term itself is definitely contentious. Even many comic scholars insist on being called just that and not graphic novel scholars for example. The other confusing thing is that it has the term ‘novel’ in it. Many of the books I’m looking at are not in fact novels at all. Sometimes I refer to them as graphic memoirs. The problem with ‘comics’ is it still has these connotations of humour, and being comical, and many of them are really not that. ‘Graphic’ too has its problems. People think of graphic violence or graphic sex. When I started telling people what I was working on they thought I meant literature that was particularly graphic in some sense…

Do you think we approach graphic literature differently from written texts?

Yes, firstly the visual mode and the verbal mode do have different affordance. That is to say there are some things that each can express that the other can’t and they each express things differently. There are certain ways in which the visual mode can express things that the verbal mode can’t do, colours being a good example. But then there are things the verbal mode can do more efficiently or more clearly. That’s one way in which we approach the text differently. I think many people have this prejudice that comics are easy to read and therefore for people who are semi-literate. But actually, it’s not at all an easy thing to do. To learn to read them well and get all the subtle meanings of a book is a lot more complicated than people realise. I’ve given some of my favourite graphic novels to friends who have never read any of the form before and they’ve really struggled to read them. They don’t quite know whether to read the words first, or look at the pictures. They’ve never really practiced combining the two modes together. There are different skills involved.

There are also different cultural meanings that we associate with the written mode and the verbal mode. It means that we approach texts with different expectations. There is a long history of suspicion of images, including the idea that images are for children or people who are not very intelligent. Comics in particular have a history of being disregarded and treated with suspicion and censored or even banned. Part of that is their use of images. Culturally, in the west at least, the visual mode has not been afforded the same prestige. Part of it also, in America, is in the cultural origins of the comics. They started as Sunday supplements for an immigrant/urban population that often couldn’t read English very well. They were published on the Sunday (the Sunday Funnies) and many immigrants were not Christian. Accordingly there was class and religious prejudice… they were considered a very low art form, very trashy. I suppose since then, it has remained a part of popular culture, associated with the lower classes and children.

Actually, originally comics weren’t for children; in the UK, the forerunners of comics were the satirical monthly magazines which were clearly targeted at adults, and some of them towards a very educated middle class audience (Punch etc), and only later they became a bit more targeted at a working class audience, with cheaper publications. In France and Belgium, comics have never had this reputation of being trashy. There is a much more established auteur system where certain artists are treated with great reverence.

I would like to extend my thanks to Dr Lisa El Refaie for this insightful interview. Part 2 of the interview will continue into her work with the charity WhizzKids United and their comic book production workshops.  


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