Graphic novels: the new picture books

French cartoonist Clement Baloup, Satoshi Kitamura and the first Islamic superhero comic book artist, Naif Al-Mutawa, explain why pictures are just as powerful as words

When, a few years ago, Joff Winterhart’s illustrated story of a mother-son relationship battled with none other than Hilary Mantel for a major literary prize, it felt like the graphic novel had truly arrived. After all, films as varied as Persepolis and Road To Perdition had already found inspiration in the illustrated rather than the written word.

Recognising the genre’s increasing influence, this year’s Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature features a graphic novel strand for the very first time. Vision caught up with three of the participants - the French cartoonist and illustrator Clement Baloup, Japanese picture book proponent Satoshi Kitamura and the first Islamic superhero comic book artist, Naif Al-Mutawa.

What, for you, are the unique characteristics of graphic novels?

Dr Naif Al-Mutawa
For me, it’s the way a compelling storyline, well-written narrative and good dialogue can all integrate effortlessly with the illustrations that makes graphic novels so different.Image: Naif Al-Mutawa

Satoshi Kitamura (SK): Because I specialise in picture books, I’m pretty new to the graphic novel, actually - although I have tried it a couple of times. But it’s a lively medium that can tell a story with visuals in the same way cinema does - even though the pictures themselves are static in print. I'd love to experiment more in graphic novels in future.

Clement Baloup (CB): When I read early graphic novels by artists such as Mœbius, Art Spiegelman and Katsuhiro Otomo, there were several master concepts I learned: graphic and narrative experimentation, the power of strong stories with complex adult themes, and the possibility of looking at the world and its reality.

Why do pictures sometimes speak more powerfully than words?

Naif Al-Mutawa (NM): In today’s fast-paced world, people have less time to read and mull over books - they’d rather look at a picture in a newspaper to get the gist of an article. Pictures capture one’s attention faster and for a longer period of time, are easier to recall and associate with facts, and can communicate a message more effectively than words. Plus, pictures are in our DNA. Cavemen used them!

CB: For sure, pictures can be immediately understood, passing also deep emotions to the watcher, but in comics it can also becomes a game of powerful narrative code. For instance, in my graphic novel Quitter Saigon the colour is a narrative code. The reading process makes one constantly switch back and forth between the past - in warm colors - and the present, in a blue-grey.

Satoshi Kimura
Words, pictures or sounds all speak powerfully when they are executed well. I use pictures more because I’ve always loved drawing, ever since I was very small. It’s second nature to meImage: Satoshi Kimura

Does it feel to you that the popularity of graphic novels is growing?

SK: Graphic novels (or comics or manga) have always been very popular in Japan but I have noticed that there are more and more interesting works from other parts of the world. I guess the reason is because it’s such a diverse and expressive medium that speaks for all kinds of people.

CB: Because we live in a society that focuses on images, maybe that creates a need for this new kind of literature. But from my prospective I see more and more professional cartoonists searching for a relevant way to express their ideas. The wish to try out new things, the opportunity to be considered as serious and simultaneously as an artist, means many graphic novels released nowadays are truly great. 

NM: Because of their visual appeal and complex plots, graphic novels are becoming increasingly popular with children and teenagers. What’s interesting is that educators everywhere are also embracing graphic novels and introducing them as a part of the curriculum, using them to reach reluctant readers and develop their reading skills. That’s contributing to their widespread popularity, too.

Check out the six events which make up the graphic novel strand at the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature here