Interview: Simon Grennan

Conducted by Pedro Moura

Simon Grennan is both an artist and a scholar working within the medium of comics, although he has worked with many other media. He has a creative partnership with artist Christopher Sperandio, with whom he has created numerous comic books projects, perhaps the most known being Invisible City (Fantagraphics 1999), which collected short stories on the real life of nocturnal workers from New York City. More recently, he published Dispossession (Jonathan Cape 2015), which could be called, but only to a certain extent, an “adaptation” of Anthony Trollope’s 1879 novel John buy generic levitra vardenafil Caldigate. Many of the context of the book’s production is stated in the book itself, and the academic companion, co-edited by Grennan and Laurence Grove, Transforming Trollope (Leuven University Press 2015) has much more information, as well as a very dense, almost complete and engaging interview with John Miers.

Simon Grennan. Credit: © Neil Binns 2016

Simon Grennan. Photo Credit:   © Neil Binns 2016

The following interview was conducted via email on three separate occasions throughout November-December 2015. It’s goal was to point out a few dimensions that will be used in an accompanying review of both Disposession and Transforming Trollope.

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Pedro Moura: Let’s start with the obvious. This book was done by commission, am I right? Can you contextualize its framework and how the conditions were for its completion?

Simon Grennan: Dispossession is the result of a commission from Paul Druwe Fund at KU Leuven. You can read the story of the Fund in the back of the book. The occasion of the commission is very important – the book appeared as part of the celebrations for the bicentenary of the birth of English novelist Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882), alongside an academic volume of new essays about its creation and an international conference of Trollope scholars. Dispossession is the first graphic adaptation of a Trollope novel (John Caldigate, 1879). The composition of the commissioning team was also very important. Ortwin de Graef, Jan Baetens and Frederik Van Dam from KU Leuven and David Skilton from Cardiff University provided a unique mix of expertise in comics, Trollope’s work and life and nineteenth-century literature. I was invited to make the book because I am both a comics’ scholar and creator, I think, and have also undertaken practical experiments with drawing style. So the creation of the book had a scholarly frame, and my research field, as it were, was remediation, text/image relationships and the relationships between nineteenth-century and twenty-first-century cultures.

Dispossession, by S. Grennan. Jonathan Cape Books, 2015.

Dispossession, by Simon Grennan. Jonathan Cape Books, 2015.

The book has been launched more or less at the same time in its French and British edition, along with the theoretical volume, Transforming Anthony Trollope. How was this last volume put up? Are these proceedings of a meeting, or were the authors individually invited to contribute with chapters? Was there an open call (I don’t remember seeing one, however)? How deeply did you and your co-editor, Laurence Grove, commissioned these papers as well, or how deeply revised, edited and discussed each one of them? The book presents a somewhat mix-bag of thematic approaches, some dealing directly with your book, other with the issue of comics adaptations of literary works, and others still with Trollope, 19th century image-text relationships, etc. Was this though of as creating a kind of cultural framework from which Dispossession emerges or with which it dialogues?

Although Dispossession carries with it many implicit, and some explicit commentaries on text/image, remediation and nineteenth-century historiography, the commissioning team and I realised that there were contributions to knowledge that required a more conventional academic form. Transforming… was conceived as an ‘also read alone’ pendant to Dispossession. As such, we reasoned that it had to highlight relationships between the areas of study across which Dispossession cuts: the graphic novel, remediation, Victorianism and the history of nineteenth-century illustration. When Laurence and I commissioned the new chapters of Transforming… we had to ensure that possibly tenuous links between areas were brought forward and strengthened by the contributors’ specific topics and areas of expertise. So the structure and selection of authors and topics in the book was carefully curated from the start.

PM: Can I ask you also the reason for the fact that the French edition came out first? What was the relationship of the “original” with the translation, and so on?

SG: There’s a simple practical reason from that! Courier deux lièvres, the French edition of Dispossession, was launched at Angoulême Festival 2015 and Dispossession launched on 5th September 2015. Both books had to appear in 2015, being the bicentenary year, and there is really only one place to launch a BD. Angoulême takes place in January, so our timetable was fixed for us. The English dialogue is about 85% Trollope, which I extrapolated from the source novel John Caldigate, although not Trollope’s dialogue. The French edition is a translation from the English text by Mireille Ribière. I made both Dispossession’s script, storyboard and dialogue. Mireille and I worked closely on embedding the French into the drawings through a number of rounds of revision. We worked initially at storyboard stage and finally she revised the dialogue after all of the final drawings were complete.

PM: More often than not, in the comics’ world we come across a sort of anti-intellectualism or at least anti-academicism from the part of practitioners. But not always. You yourself are an artist who delves deeply about the theoretical implications of studio practices, and how practical work also results into insights on a theoretical level. How important is it to think things through in that respect, or how does theory and practice feed on each other?

SG: I suppose that distinctions between practice and theory are largely the result of the different histories, traditions, training and audiences for both. Great practices don’t make great theories, nor vice versa! Rather, both are bundles of distinct actions, competencies, knowledge and expectations. The comics theorist/practitioner is still unusual – after all, this means becoming truly expert in two fields rather than one – but synergies and examples are continually emerging in the studio and in academia. The work of practitioners such as Josso Hamel and Robert Sikoryak overlaps the interests of practitioner/academics such as Nicola Streeten and John Myers, and the fields of study of academics such as Peter Wilkins, Benoît Crucifix and, indeed, Pedro Moura. A model, if one is needed, can be found in movie. Post-War movie produced a host of maker/theorists who couldn’t have molded the medium or the field in the ways that they did without both making and theorising. Comics are starting to do that.

PM: Following that line of thought, in reading Dispossession, it seems important, if not central, to be aware of a number of formal and practical aspects in order to “read correctly” the work. Would you agree with this? I do not believe in “wild readings”, of course, as we always bring to the table things we have learned from previous readings, learning and cultural background, but how important is it to be informed in this case to read your book?

SG: The formal structures in Dispossession are consciously designed as affects – the reader is both meant to be manipulated by them and also feel in some way that s/he is being manipulated. This feeling of being manipulated is unusual and hence uncomfortable, compared with the sensations of reading, say, a movie-type comics mise-en-scène, with which comics readers are utterly habituated. As a result, the structure of the book motivates a number of devices to distance the reader from the action in an unusual way. This isn’t random. Rather, it is ruthlessly systematic, with its overarching rhythm, rotation and invariable points of view. This is the projection upon the reader of my vision of Trollope’s style and of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. I don’t think the reader needs to know any of this, although they might intuit aspects of its detail. The reader doesn’t need to know, because they are made to feel in a particular way: the book physically positions them to feel like that.

PM: For instance, as of course, when we deal with adaptations, there is a slight degree of importance in being aware of the original “source text”. However, I hope you agree with me that Trollope is probably not the first choice of writer to be familiar with then dealing with British literature, especially if you come from a non-English culture, such as myself. So, I am sure that you would be very happy to be read by Trollope connoisseurs, but do you think that people who have not read John Caldigate (as me, once again) are able to understand as well the importance of your effort, or are they going to “miss out”? The same can be said for all the visual tropes and quotations that you’ve used throughout the volume. How about that level of “previous information”?

SG: The relationship of Dispossession to a knowledge of John Caldigate is unnecessary, I think, although for readers who know both, the aim is reciprocal enrichment and enlivenment. In a sense, knowledge of John Caldigate can be considered special knowledge, in the way that, say, knowledge of the 1870s appearance of The Bell public house in Cambridgeshire, Kings Street in Sydney or the 1870s meaning of a woman’s battered straw hat are special knowledge. If a reader knows these things, they will find that Dispossession contributes something more to their understanding of them. If they don’t, then Dispossession offers other things. Perhaps a reader knows television Victorian costume dramas: Dispossession will enrich that knowledge also! The types of knowledge we share with other people constitute in part our ideas of what is true. There are so many degrees of this consensus, that knowledge or lack of knowledge of John Caldigate takes its place with all the other types of knowledge.

PM: Is it possible to describe a little the actual process of transforming Trollope’s text into the pages of Dispossession? I have been through the information available in the Leuven volume, and elsewhere, of course, but perhaps you can help me in summarizing the rationale of its process, as I’m sure there is one, quite planned.

SG: A summary of the process is relatively easy to make: I had complete editorial control of the work, meaning I could make any decision if I was able to rationalise it with the commissioning team. If I had argued well for the inclusion of battling robots in the graphic adaptation, I would have included them! The creation of the plot of the new adaptation was the easiest aspect of the adaptation. I reasoned that I was a contemporary reader of comics, reading Trollope. Anything I felt was problematic, as such a reader, I changed. This method had the advantage of making Trollope’s plot an unthinking default whilst at the same time allowing me to critique and revise with the experience of reading as my guide. Hence, the long last third of Trollope’s novel, which deals with the legal process of obtaining a Queen’s pardon, is excised almost entirely in Dispossession, because I found it both dull and structurally unbalanced. For readers in 1879, it seems it was both compelling and apposite. Similarly, Trollope’s treatment of the eponymous hero’s time in Australia is an utterly implausible read in the twenty-first century: no soldiers, no ex-convicts, no Chinese or Aboriginal people. So I researched and added a new Wiradjuri sub-plot, including the Wiradjuri language. My next task was more challenging. I decided that, to understand and explicate aspects of text/image relationships, I would rationalise a set of rules for making drawings intended to replace Trollope literary voice. The first thing I needed to do was decide what Trollope’s ‘voice’ consists of. I have described this in detail elsewhere. Needless to say, these rules also encompass a systematic colour palette, a set of marks, a new typeface, and a protocol for speech and sound: taken together with the rules, a new drawing style.

PM: Dispossession is a book that does not strive, it seems, to create an illusion of reality. That is to say, it does not present many of the habitual tools of comics in order to make us forget that we are looking at immobile drawings organised in a certain type of structure. Quite the opposite, it brings much to the fore its own artifice. Not only its relenteless rhythm, but also its figuration, its stark coloring choices, the nervous linework, the dilated transitions between panels, the scene-locked pages, and so on. Is this one of the attempts in maintaining the ambiguity of Trollope’s own approach, which seems to be a often-quoted trait of his writing? Or is it a response to a certain state of commercial comics, if we can say this, that aims at a certain level of “erasing” its own textuality/materiality?

SG: Trollope’s ambiguity presents a clear challenge for remediation in a medium in which either something is shown or it is not shown! So, yes, the drawing style, meaning the whole visual production, was designed to try and replace his textual tropes with visual ones. As to the ‘certain state’ of commercial comics – in a sense, the idea of transmission, in which the meaning of a work of art is understood to be quite independent of the base clay of its production and the tawdry business of social relationships, is both a structuralists’ and a capitalists’ illusion – that is, an illusion created by structuralists and capitalists! It’s an illusion that has its attractions for audiences and practitioners, obviously – that cultural products can be completely consumed in a situation where everyone agrees what everything means. Paradoxically, closed systems such as this require constant novelty, thus showing themselves to be illusory! So I don’t think that Dispossession is a response to this illusion. Rather, particularly formally, it is a response to my particular understanding of habitual reading of repeated forms in comics, being a demonstration of another, less habitual, system.

PM: Going away a little bit from these contextualizing questions, and onwards to the heart of the matter, much of your work deals with what one could call “common people”, in the sense of paying attention to people whose voices are not often heard in their own terms in any form of fiction of non-fiction venues, comics included (if not especially). Was the choice of John Caldigate, or Trollope for that matter, informed by that social dimension? True, it seems Caldigate is rather middle-to-upper class than the working classes of Invisible City, or Truce tableaux. But it still portraits a certain level of a quotidian that is not the subject matter of most of Victorian literature usually chosen for comics adaptations (Gothic, Neo-Romanticism and so forth), I believe.

SG: Historiography tends towards the quotidian, I think, even when its subjects are powerful and privileged people: views of the quotidian are a historiographical method. So I agree, Dispossession is about our twenty-first everyday (reading comics, indeed), grappling with the everyday of the nineteenth century. If we consider the genres within which comics remediations often take place (Gothic, Horror, Neo-Romantic…), then the genres are themselves quotidian, being meaningful only and entirely in the contemporary everyday. As such, they hardly need to be self-aware, even if they are parodic (because genre parody is itself generic). But the practice of historiography is essentially self-aware and hence able to produce and locate unusual visions of the past, in which the quotidian ruptures generic conventions and the corollary of strangeness is vivacity.

PM: You mention that your “ruthless systematicity” keeps the reader at a certain distance. Point in fact, your depiction of the characters is more often than not with a full shot, so we can see the whole bodies of the characters. There are no medium or close shots. Also, the “floor” of the action always stretches toward our point of view, so we feel as if sharing the same diegetic space. Many late 19th century comic strips and early 20th century ones (Little Nemo being the most famous, arguibly) also followed this “proscenium” rule, but in your case we are not stuck to one position: we change positions rhythmically . Actually, this reminds me of one particular strip studied by Lance Rickman (“L’Arroseur” by Hermann Vogel) where you have this back-and-forth movement between two points of view, which is rather disconcerting. I wonder if we could take this theatrical metaphor a little further, and speak of this and other strategies as an attempt of creating strangeness/distance/ostranye.

SG: The system in Dispossession is ‘theatrical’ in the sense that it borrows from ideas of theatre performance practices of the period before the rise of psychological drama in the 1890s. The relentless positioning of the reader in order to see the whole body of the character, the reliance on body gestures to create meaningful interactions, the grouping of characters in a scene into tableaux and presenting characters’ bodies with centres of gravity at the pelvis rather than at the shoulder are four ways in which the new graphic novel adapts ways of performing that were common in theatres in the mid-nineteenth century. Post-1890, these practices were transformed by new theorisations of drama – some of these older practices were abandoned entirely and some were modified and developed. To generalise historically, this new way of performing leads to movie mise-en-scène, in which intimacy is indicated by close-up, moments of high tension are indicated by close repeated cuts-away and the like. We, the readers of Dispossession, as so habituated to this type of structure, that being faced with another system is a challenge, particularly when it is obvious that it is a system, and not a series of random contradictions. Hence, it was suitable to attach an idea of the strangeness of the nineteenth century, for twenty-first-century readers, to this series of systematic affects.

PM: Related to this, I find that Dispossession is also quite paradoxical where plot is concerned. On the one hand, we have a plot-centered story: after all, we follow from page the page the chronological progress of this young man, from origins to climax to dénouement, but on the other hand, each page’s diegetic episode does not flow smoothly unto the other, nor do the panels themselves. This seems to perform the same kind of appeal to the reader to not read habitually, but quite the contrary to take his or her time in taking the small incremental steps of the story- and world-building, or better still, weaving, of Dispossession.

SG: I think that this is one of the major production effects of these rules: we feel that the episodic showing of the plot if fragmentary, relative to the types of movie-system mise-en-scène with which we are familiar. One of the great definitions of mid-nineteenth century performance practice was the ‘point’ – a moment of great procedural or emotional importance in the plot, which was represented by freezing the action on stage into a tableau. The ‘point’ was a moment in which the audience caught its breath, not necessarily in suspense, but in realisation. It was a moment when something significant was ‘consumed’. This is so antithetical to our contemporary habits of viewing movie, comics and stage productions as to be now itself almost parodic of nineteenth century visual drama in all media.

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Be sure to check out our Critical Take on Dispossession and Transforming Trollope, and to get your copy of Grennan’s book, as well as some of the other works mentioned in this interview:

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