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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