Stella Klein interviews her childhood friend, graphic novelist Nicola Streeten, about her work and inspiration.
One of the funniest and most joyful cards I ever received was a self-authored one from my dear old primary school friend, Nicola Streeten, self-trained comics artist and graphic novelist. Some years later, I was moved again by her hand-made condolence card to me following my mother’s death which captured her so brilliantly and unforgettably. But it was her heart-rending Billy, Me & You: A Memoir of Grief and Recovery (Myriad Press, 2011) that first introduced me to the affective power of the graphic novel form. I talked to Nicola recently about her work and what she considers to be most significant about the medium.
Tell us about your background, how you got into the graphic novel writing?
My BA degree was in Social Anthropology in the 1980s, and although after finishing I studied art in adult education, as an artist, I am essentially an autodidact. After the death of my 2-year-old-child in 1995, I abandoned a short-lived teaching career and for relief from the pain of grief found myself drawing. A friend saw my work and began to publish it on greeting cards. These sold well and provided me with an illustration portfolio. By 1996 I was able to make a basic income as a freelance illustrator. My style has always been cartoon-ish and in the mid-2000s I was aware of a number of “graphic novels” or long form comics that challenged my idea of what a comic was. Rather than superhero stories or forms of children’s entertainment, works such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home were autobiographical. Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrig, The Smartest Kid on Earth” which won the Guardian First book award in 2001 introduced a whole new audience of Guardian readers to the graphic novel medium and made me think how I could translate the illustration style I had developed into this language.
In 2008 I signed up to do a Masters degree in Art and Design with the intention of working on a long-term project – a graphic novel based on returning to my personal experience of grief and bereavement of 13 years earlier. I got side-tracked, finding the questions around my subject matter and my intention to use the comics form so interesting that I switched to a written Masters of Research Degree focusing on gender and the graphic novel. However, I continued my practical graphic novel alongside this, self-publishing chapters in a zine called Liquorice that I produced quarterly on a subscription basis with my then 12-year-old daughter Sally Plowman. Myriad Editions became aware of my project and approached me to publish it as a book. Published in 2011, It was the third title in their newly introduced graphic fiction line which today includes over 20 titles. Following publication, I began a PhD on a cultural history of feminist cartoons and comics in Britain from 1970. This informed my contribution to “The Inking Woman”, which I co-edited for publication in 2018, the first visual documentation of this history aimed at a general reader.
What do you consider to be the particular powers of the medium and what distinguishes it from other narrative forms?
Combining text with image is what essentially differentiates it from any other kind of prose. The main power of the comics form is that it can convey more than one message at the same time, making it a very compact and direct medium.
Some might argue that poetry and prose can share these powers. Can you expand on this?
The text can communicate one thing and the image can show an opposite meaning, for example, through facial expression or contradictory thought bubbles. This is what distinguishes comics from illustration where the visuals reinforce the text. Comics may appear similar to film or animation and they do share characteristics. But in printed form, they allow the reader to, and to also dip into the book and digest the form in a non-linear way.
The other distinctive quality of the comic’s form is its democracy and accessibility. Historically, it emerged in Britain as a ‘low’ art form for adults who were illiterate and came to be later associated with children’s literature. Many of us, therefore, may not only have a nostalgic connection with the form but also feel we “know how to do a comic”, unlike other art forms such as theatre and poetry that have traditionally demanded a certain level of cultural capital to enable enjoyment.
You have a very natural voice-in-head writing style. Which comes first for you in the process? The words or the image?
The idea very much begins as a visual one in my head. Translating that onto paper begins very roughly with both text and image simultaneously, dividing the activity into a sequence. As the drawing is refined, so too is the written language to become as reduced as possible
I met artist Sarah Lightman in 2009 at a number of talks and conferences on “the graphic novel” and we became friends. We were both working on our own autobiographical graphic novels and studying at postgraduate level with a focus on gender. We also both felt something of the isolation of working on labour-intensive artwork. We started Laydeez do Comics as a way to provide a social and welcoming place to talk about the more autobiographical comic works that we enjoyed. We set up monthly meetings in London inviting guests to present their works, making it clear from the start that we would be women-led but not women-only and offer our events free of charge to a public audience. We wanted to create a friendly atmosphere that also provided a platform for constructive critical feedback to take place on people’s works – like art school crits without the tears!
Audiences grew quickly and LDC soon became a central hub in the very small comics community in the UK and provided a valuable networking facility. We have also become known globally with regular and pop up branches emerging around the world. We expanded our core team to 6 committee members, becoming an unincorporated voluntary organisation. In March 2019 Sarah Lightman will step down as co-director.
What projects are Laydeez do Comics currently working on?
In 2018 we launched the first UK award for graphic novels in progress by female-identifying authors with a first prize cash award of £2000.We received seed funding from Arts Council England to support a programme of piloted professional development activity in a one-day festival including a prize giving ceremony. The prize money was raised through crowdfunding.
In late 2018 we were awarded a second, more substantial Arts Council England grant to support weekend festivals in 2019 and 2020. As well as hosting the prize for 2019 and 2020 we will be expanding our professional development offer. This includes increasing the number of Laydeez Review Sessions conducted at the festival -one-to-one critical reviews offered by 12 leading practitioners in the field. In addition, we are introducing online mentoring schemes. This year we have six to offer, where artists can work over a period of 9 months with a selected practitioner. Another new activity will be the piloting of a Laydeez do Comics residency that will take place in June and be hosted at my home, a converted chapel in Lincolnshire. All this activity is heavily subsidised by the public funding we have received and we have some bursaries to offer for those on low incomes. Entrants also have first refusal on the professional development opportunities we are offering.
And finally, we are collecting works from all participants from the past to publish an LDC anthology publication that celebrates a decade of work.
What advice would you give to the graphic novelist just starting out?
Draw every day, all you need is pen and paper, sign up to one of the many workshops being run across the country, including the ever expanding offers from Laydeez do Comics – most of our core committee members are active in running workshops. Sign up to Laydeez do Comics website to receive our newsletter in which we include opportunities and relevant events and news. Come to one of our meetings if you are able to. Most importantly come along to the public day at the festival on Sunday 31 March at the Free Word Centre, London, One of the innovations of the prize is that all entrants must submit printed zine versions of their 12-page submission. These are displayed for the public to see during the festival and this year will tour to libraries in Derbyshire during the summer. This invites people to get a good idea of the variety of works being produced by women in the UK. Finally, read as many graphic novels as you can. Many libraries stock a good selection and you can often order them. This will enable you to gain an overview of the types of works you like or don’t like and where you position your own work.
Laydeez do Comics hold events and meet-ups regularly throughout the UK.
Since graduating from Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing programme in 2016, Stella has been extending her short story collection and experimenting with memoir, flash fiction and prose poetry, drawing inspiration from early childhood recollections and American 20th-century fiction. Some of her most recent publications are available as podcasts at 100voicesfor100years.com and Otherstories.org. and her winning story, Baristas, appeared in Spread the Word’s City of Stories anthology last Autumn.
Nicola Streeten talks about, writes about, organises, teaches and draws comics and cartoons. For more information on Nicola Streeten visit her website streetenillustration.com or find her on Instagram @nicolast.reeten and twitter @NicolaStreeten