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Nicola Streeten. How Comics and Graphic Novels Can Talk About Life.

July 5, 2013

Billy Me and You

Once again I have to thank Pam McIllroy of the Broadway book club for recommending Nicola Streeten’s Billy, Me and You. I had heard of the book, but really did not want to read it, because reading about grief is difficult. Eventually Page 45 (Nottingham’s independent comic store) and curiosity got the better of me, so I bought the book. Yes, grief is difficult to read about, but Nicola’s eloquent narrative using words and pictures makes for compelling reading. It is no wonder Billy Me and You was highly commended in the British Medical Association Book awards in the Popular Medicine category.

Tell me about your background, because it’s very relevant to your writing.

I studied Social Anthropology in the 1980s, at The University of Sussex. I had a wonderful time and made some good friends, but I was a rubbish student academically. I just couldn’t learn to think in my twenties. I think it’s like children learning to walk or speak. You can hothouse them as much as you want but they can’t walk or speak until their bodies are ready to do it. It’s a kind of developmental thing.

I wanted to make art when I left, so started doing that and met my husband John, who was a conceptual artist. Since then contemporary art has provided inspiration for me. I find an illustration or decorative arts exhibition less interesting because my interest is in ideas. Also there are a number of artists who currently draw on anthropological working methods in their practice, which I find engaging. It was a desire to revisit theoretical ideas I had been introduced to at undergraduate level that attracted me to doing an academic Masters degree alongside the practical work on my graphic novel Billy, Me and You. The academic reading enabled me to contextualise what I was doing and why.

Tell me about the research that you’re going to be doing?

My aim at this stage is to research and create a taxonomy of contemporary British women’s comics and document the recent historical context that has created what I view as a uniquely British identity within the comics world. I came relatively recently to comics and graphic novels and noticed a lot of the influence comes from abroad from countries such as America, France or Belgium, where there is quite a clear tradition of what comics should be. I am interested in the idea that the activity developing in the UK is challenging these established conventions.

An influence on my work has been from women cartoonists working in the 70s and 80s, when I was a teenager, such as Annie Lawson and Jacky Fleming who were drawing cartoons for The Guardian newspaper. Through Laydeez do Comics I’m now meeting some of these women which is very exciting for me.

The research methodology I’ve used to date is based on anecdotal theory and autoethnography. I like that way of interviewing so it’s not the answer from the questions that is necessarily of interest, but the discussions you have in between. It’s the same at academic conferences. The most interesting things you hear are often in the coffee breaks.

I applied to The University of Sussex because I’m interested in creating something that’s embedded in feminist theory and Sussex has some leading feminist academics. When I began my masters degree, the problem I had was that I thought academic writing had to be boring. If I was struggling to understand a book on French poststructuralist concepts, I thought I was at fault. When I started reading theorists such as Luce Irigaray it was like reading poetry. A lot of women or memoir writers are comfortable to read and their theories make sense to me.

There’s an obvious reason for you wanting to write Billy, Me and You, tell me more about the title.

The ‘You’ is John my husband and you the reader. Whilst I was working my own graphic novel I attended a fascinating conversation at the ICA between comics writer Paul Gravett, Children’s book writer Michael Rosen and Dutch comics artist Willy Linthout. Michael Rosen wrote Sad Book following the death of his 18-year old son from meningitis, and Willy Linthout’s graphic novel Years of the Elephant about his experience of bereavement following his son’s suicide. What struck me was how their stories were specifically about them with only a passing reference to the mother’s, which may have been at the request of the mothers. In my case, my experience of bereavement was shared with John, the story is not mine alone. The ‘You’ of the reader refers to the narrative also being about your response to our experience of bereavement.

There is a lot people can take from that book, even if they haven’t lost a child. It’s applicable to any form of bereavement or loss.

I don’t know if that was a conscious thought when I first started the book. My first draft was literally about what happened, which was quite boring because it was about me, this is my story. I put that to one side and started again, focusing on making it relevant and interesting for the reader. This can only happen when we recognise ourselves or something that we’re interested in. It is rare for people not to have known someone who’s been bereaved, or to have had someone close who’s died. People see the cover and the blurb and think it’s specifically about the death of a child, when it’s actually about death and bereavement more generally.

The reactions of the people in the book to the death of Billy are very interesting, because I’ve seen this myself.

That particular page is most often singled out. We recognise ourselves and also it’s quite funny because of the absurdity of the social mores surrounding death in this country. It is often the small comments that we remember. You can’t articulate why, but you can’t shrug them off. It’s those comments that are important and become the starting point for my research.

With the subject like this, what do you think are the differences between using text and a comic version to talk about bereavement?

The reason I was attracted to the comic form is because it’s a great vehicle for telling a personal story

Prose and comics work in different ways and are both valid. There isn’t a hierarchy. What I personally like about the comic form is its immediacy. In one panel you can convey a meaning very quickly. I think that if people who are in a state of shock in a hospital, recovering from some trauma, can sit down with a book that takes an hour to get through and has pictorial prompts is much easier than reading text.

Trauma is very tiring. I have friends who don’t see reading as an enjoyable activity. If you’re going through trauma and prose is not your natural form of communicating then pictures are ideal. Trying to understand science if you’re not a scientist is the same. The comics medium has massive potential, which is why it’s being used in what has become known “graphic medicine”. There’s a burgeoning area of people creating graphic novels about ideas around health that are being used by health professionals and patients alike. As you know my book got an award from the British Medical Association for that reason.

Comics have been used to talk about personal stories for long time. But because my book was written about in The Guardian, rather than just the specific comics press, it reached a wider readership. These readers became interested in it as an alternative literary form. Quite young people can read it as well because it is easy to assimilate.

You initially created this as a strip cartoon in Liquorice Magazine which you made with your daughter. Before you put it in there did you write the whole thing out?

I had the overall narrative sketched out and I was working on chapters for inclusion in Liquorice Magazine. Each chapter was 12 pages on A5 size paper. After six chapters I was approached by publishers Myriad Editions, who were interested in publishing it as a book. I continued doing 12 pages chapters and when they were complete I began the six month editing process with editor, Corinne Pearlman. We decided to enlarge the artwork to let it breathe. I think, subconsciously, I was unconfident about inviting people to share such a personal story.

She did a great job editing it and managing the translation from individual sections to one extended narrative. It was a joy to work with her and that’s what I’m doing for the next one.

Choices, that I’m working on now, is quite different. I’ve written out the proposal, and the rough skeleton of what will happen and then blocks of what will happen along the way. I’m more or less drawing as I go, so I’m working chronologically through it.

What was amazed me about Billy, Me and You is that, although the style does look simplistic at first glance, it’s a very sophisticated piece of storytelling. You’ve used quite with mixed media as well as straightforward drawing. Did this happen as part of the editing process?

No, most of the material and artwork was done and the editing process involved amendments. I was quite conscious that the artwork did not conform to the conventional comics book tradition. Myriad is a great publisher, because they’re interested in experimental forms. The other thing that I realised since publication, is that people look at the book and think, ‘Oh, that looks easy. Oh, I could do that!’ And it gives them confidence to begin drawing their own stories. At first I was worried, as it’s harder than it looks to make something look simple. But I came to the conclusion that to inspire people to try and have a go is important. If someone’s loving doing it, they’ll continue to draw it until it is right.

Billy, Me and You may be easy to read, because you can go through the story fairly quickly. But subliminally, because you’ve drawn things in a certain way or used particular media, it actually has an emotional effect on the reader. So presumably you were aware of this when you were creating the book?

When I started researching comics and graphic novels I was reading the more  famous ones like Maus by Art Speigelman and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. I was explaining to some of my mum friends what a comic book was. One said, ‘Oh there’s one at the Women’s Aid Centre.’ She’d been through a horrific experience of domestic violence with her husband and was receiving support from the Women’s Aid Centre. She borrowed the graphic novel, Dragonslippers by Rosalind B. Penfold to lend me. I’d been involved in the comics world since 2008 and Nottingham comic shop Page 45 is the only place where I’ve ever heard mention of this graphic novel. It’s never mentioned within comics’ scholarship. It is a very simplistic line rendition, but what amazed me was the power of it. Reading it is like being kicked in the stomach. It’s absolutely shocking. Also it made me feel conscious that I have stereotypes of what an abused woman should be like. Here was this educated, dynamic, popular, executive woman reduced to a shell of her former self by an abusive husband.

My friend said that of all the literature she read, that one really captured what she was going through. She’s not a big reader, but had picked up a comic book and that had gripped her, nailing the experience in a very immediate way.

As well as writing graphic novels you also do maps, but they’re not just ordinary maps. Is this something you’re commissioned to do?

Yes this is commercial illustration, and I’m commissioned to do them. What’s been most successful with illustration is starting from drawing what I have an interest in. We moved from London in 1999 to Lincolnshire and I’d done a series of maps of London suburbs as cards, for example Crouch end where we’d lived. I’d drawn all the independent businesses, such as bakeries and cafes. I wanted to capture that. From that I got commissions from individual businesses and this led to other map based illustration work. I did a series of Nottingham River Trent walks last year.

I think the thing about your illustrations, even with the maps, is they have life in them. You feel as if something’s happening in them. This liveliness is certainly evident in the cartoons in your blog. They’re so funny because you have conversations going on, and people are saying things but thinking something else. How’d you come up with these ideas?

Oh I do enjoy drawing the cartoons for my blog. When I was doing my Billy book, the pressure release was doing Liquorice Magazine with Sally my daughter, because we were having a laugh doing it. So that was the fun bit, to offset this heavy and intensive book.

My project now Choices is a fiction based on the ethical dilemmas surrounding abortion, so it’s cerebral. I’m trying to work out what I want to say and how I’m going to say it. The light relief at the end of each week is this celebration of being an older woman by drawing a 4 panel #ayearat50 cartoon. I keep meeting friends, who are all over fifty and we feel better than before. It’s liberating. We have time to get on and do our own stuff, while at the same you’ve got that menopause thing that’s not really over yet.

So I wanted to do it as a bit of a discipline from me and also to try and do something autobiographical and in a loose style, because the graphic novel I’m doing is quite tight. I’m drawing from photos because I want it to look different to Billy Me and You.

When you draw these quick cartoons are they all done with pen and ink and watercolour or do you do them entirely on a drawing tablet?

All my drawings start with hand drawing and often a watercolour wash which I scan in. Sometimes I use Photoshop and do a bit of drawing on the tablet. I do think the quality of hand drawn pictures has something lovely about it. It changes the quality. If you see Persepolis as a film, all the animations are hand drawn and there’s something added by doing that but it’s impossible to pin down exactly what it is.

Tell me about the book that you’re currently working on.

There’s been quite a lot about abortion in the news and it made me realise how much I took free and available contraception for granted as a teenager. Abortion is part of that, as being readily available, safe and legal. My daughter is a teenager and I’m thinking, ‘Now imagine if that’s taken away from her.’ There’s so much coming from America and the first pro-lifers started demonstrating in 2011 in London. It’s frightening to me.

My aim is to discuss the ethical dilemmas around abortion within a fictional narrative. That was the initial starting point. I received an Arts Council England award to fund my research and they don’t really fund memoir. So the work will be a fiction although the starting point is autobiographical.

The story is about two middle-aged sisters, and it’s as much about myself as an older woman, at the end of my fertile life, looking back reflecting on previous times.


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