Readers of The Lost Art

2004 Book Club of the Year – Our Entry

February 1st, 2007

As far as we are aware our group is the first and only of its kind in the country, although we would be delighted to have ourselves proven wrong by discovering similar groups established elsewhere. We are different from other reading groups in that the books we discuss have an added graphic element, hence the term ‘graphic novel’, also known as the comic book.

Some of our members have enjoyed comics for a long time, remembering the Dan Dare serials of the 1950’s Eagle. Others have been introduced to the medium only recently, their interest sparked by the formation of our group a few months ago. It came into being after an enthusiastic member of the public followed up on rumours that Newcastle Central Library was stocking comic books. Delighted with what he found, and complementing the library on their fine selection, he was asked to help start a reading group.

Weeks later our first meeting convened with an outstanding and diverse turnout of people all brought together by a common love of graphic novels. Amongst the first members were a young couple running an independent publishing house for small runs of local comics. Two of our members are librarians, one of whom was instrumental in getting our group going. We also have among our number an artist, a film maker, writers, actors, students, musicians, and even an ex-shipyard worker from Newcastle’s famous shipbuilding days. We feel it is a real achievement that a few of our members are female, given the reputation of comic readers as male ‘geek’ clique types.

The city library has been fantastic in the support it has given this fledgling group. It has supplied not only posters with which to advertise in our universities and workplaces, but also providing us with a room in which to have our meetings. Dubbed ‘The Digital Theatre’, our meeting place is deep within the basement of the library and is packed with cutting edge, state of the art technology. It resembles the kind of bad guy’s lair a villain such as Lex Luthor might inhabit! The technology in this bunker consists of computers, scanners, sound and video equipment etc.

This environment provides a valuable platform from which to launch our own multimedia projects, taking advantage of the creative talent in our group, fuelled by the great ideas to be found in our favourite comics. Through the reading group we have already attracted new readers to the library – and hope to introduce many more to the pleasures of reading of all kinds.

 At our last meeting, we each brought along our favourite graphic novel and explained what it was we liked about them, and why we would recommend them to others. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about just a few of the books that we brought along for that session.

Perhaps the most universally enjoyed and immediately accessible graphic novel available at the minute is Promethea, by comic guru, Alan Moore. This is a stunning piece of work, Moore’s highly literate story complemented by the beautiful art of J.H. Williams. The Story involves a young college student, who finds that she has the ability, through her adolescent poetry, to turn herself into the goddess of imagination, Promethea. She can travel into the Immateria, the ‘thoughtspace’ in which all ideas exist.

The adventures of Promethea serve as a vehicle for Moore’s ideas on the workings of magic, culminating in an extraordinary journey up the cabalistic Tree of Life, introducing the reader to the underlying principles of language and life. This book’s host of characters are predominantly female, a rarity in  mainstream comic books – which makes it perfect for introducing sceptical female readers to the medium. There is however, nothing ‘girly’ about the comic and it appeals just as much to male readers. My own girlfriend was particularly impressed by the first issue, introducing a character not only female, but fat – and she still comes out on top and looking good! One hopes the days of the gravity-defying super heroine bosom are waning.

Another great book we have discussed is Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, a sprawling work which, on first examination seems somewhat impenetrable. The Invisibles are a secret order of anarchists, and the story follows a cell of five members. The book continually puts the question to us, ‘Which side are you on?’ Are you with ‘us’ or ‘them’? Mobilising the sacred traditions of an entire planet, this story concludes by proposing that there is no ‘them’, that there is only ‘us’.

Warren Ellis’s The Authority is another outstanding comic book, and is amongst a select few superhero comics which redeem the genre. The Authority is loosely based upon a team which brings together DC’s crowd pulling characters – Superman, Batman, etc. Taking this as its template, The Authority plays some wonderful games that would never be allowed with the official comics. The main thing which makes them different to the old guard superheroes is their attitude toward their function. Ditching the conservative postures epitomised by the likes of Clark Kent, the Authority refuse to be the guardians of earth unless it is a planet worth saving!

The final book we have discussed is Alan Moore’s master work From Hell. This is perhaps not the best book for those new to comics, as it is a truly harrowing read. This story concerns the case of Jack the Ripper, and is a case study of the mind of a serial killer. It plausibly presents the case that Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s private surgeon, was behind the Whitechapel murders. The author makes careful disclaimers that this work is fiction, but he also takes pains to ensure that nothing in his story contradicts the actual historical records of the case.

The scope of the novel however goes far beyond the sordid murders, as Gull descends ever deeper into homicidal insanity he incorporates his crimes into a Masonic ritual in the name of God and Empire. In Gull’s mind a mythological drama is played out. In its scope, complexity, and depth of research the book resembles the works of Umberto Ecco, packed with information from many sources, yet tied together into an astonishing, seamless whole.

It is worth noting that graphic novel readers also tend to be enthusiasts of standard literature to a well above average extent. We see this as a medium that is still in its infancy and look forward its evolution in the same way literature and film fans can trace the changes in these art forms.

Offical website: 2004 Penguin / Orange Prize.

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