I’ve always loved graphic novels and comic books—the whole art/literary form that in my native language, French, we call BD, short for Bandes Dessinées, or ‘drawn strips/illustrated panels’. In France, BD is an eminently mainstream genre that has been popular with readers since early in the 20th century, and which today represents about 7 percent of the book market. As well as popular appeal across the board, it also has great literary respectability—known as ‘the ninth art-form’, BD books are regularly reviewed in major newspapers and magazines, have exhibitions and festivals devoted to them, and are written about by literary scholars. BD in France covers a wide range of types, styles, genres, markets and ages, and are stocked by every bookshop and library. For children, there’s a vast range of fiction and non-fiction BD, from adventure and fantasy stories to humorous historical sagas to biographies of famous scientific, artistic or historical figures. Having grown up with BD, I never understood the attitude to it in English-speaking countries where in the mainstream at least this was a genre regarded as inferior, suitable only for people who didn’t know how to read properly, and frowned upon as reading material for children. My school library in Sydney, Australia, might have stocked Tintin and Asterix books, and they were popular with us kids, but it wasn’t encouraged reading in the way a non-illustrated novel might have been: and besides, they were French classic BDs, and as such perhaps had a glamour in an anglophone setting that, say, a Superman or Phantom or Donald Duck comic book would not have had. There were certainly none of these in our school library, you had to buy them from the newsagent’s.
The influence of BD on me as a writer was felt early on; the first real sustained series of stories I wrote, as a child in primary school, was about the adventures of a princess called Alicia who had magic powers—and long blond hair, both things I dreamed of having. It was in BD format, with illustrated panels, speech bubbles and narrative, and I loved creating it. Sadly, no copies of it remain—my mother being a great clearer-out of stuff, including her children’s literary efforts, and with seven children in the family, that wasn’t surprising. Imagine the mountain of paper that might otherwise have taken over the house, especially in my case. Anyway, as I grew up and wrote more and more, I continued to love reading BD but stopped trying to create it—mostly because I realized that my own skills in visual art had stayed stuck in primary school 😊 but also because I soon realized that it wasn’t an area that Australian publishers were interested in.
But despite shelving the idea of creating BD myself, it stayed as a kind of longing inside me, although it wasn’t until I’d been a professional published author for several years that I finally found a publisher willing to listen to a concept I had for a ‘graphic novel’ as I’d learnt to call what I still thought of as BD. It would be an adventure story with fantasy/science fiction elements, set in 1936 at the time of the Berlin Olympic Games, and around the battle between two ‘secret armies’ of young psychics. Unlike in my childhood, of course I wouldn’t create the visual world as well as the text—an illustrator would do that. Everything would start from the text, from the story, but my concept was that a lot of what I wrote would not appear in the book but function more as ‘stage directions’ as in a script.
Well, The Secret Army: Operation Loki, written by me and illustrated by Anthony Davis, came out in 2006, and seemed to go down very well with young readers, especially but not only boys. The look of it wasn’t quite what I had envisaged—in my head I’d seen the ‘ligne claire’ style of classic French BD like the Tintin books and Blake and Mortimer series, and what Tony created was a visual world closer to manga, but in black and white, rather than color. And because of the format—the book came out in the size of a ‘regular’ novel, rather than the larger-format BD size–there was no room to allow for lots of panels where illustrations might carry most of the action, so a lot of what I had thought of as disposable ‘stage directions’ actually became narrative which stayed in the text. So it turned out quite differently from what I’d originally thought, and even though it looked fabulous, Tony’s illustrations were strong and vivid, my publisher was wonderful, and young readers responded very positively, I felt as though I hadn’t quite got to where I wanted to be, in the creation of a BD.
Fast-forward to this year, and a sudden bolt of inspiration about an idea I’d had a while back for a middle-grade novel called The Snow Queen’s Treasure, a mix of adventure, fantasy and humor. It had great characters and an intriguing concept and setting, but somehow it hadn’t quite jelled in my mind. And then suddenly, it came to me that in fact this was a very visual story and that its natural home was in BD form, not as a ‘regular’ novel at all. And when I started planning it as that, everything seemed to fall into place. I wasn’t the only one to think that. My agent was enthusiastic, the publisher I spoke to was enthusiastic, as was my preferred illustrator (who the publisher had also, serendipitously, suggested!) This time, because the illustrator, the publisher and I all live in the same area, we can easily get together and work together in a hands-on way that wasn’t possible last time. We’re still at the beginning—I’m just about to finish creating the text, and the illustrator is creating samples from the WIP I’ve been sending him—but it feels full of possibility and fun, as well as hard work!
Here’s a few things I’ve learned over time, about creating stories for BD/graphic novels for children:
Plan your story concept carefully; don’t just rely on a synopsis. Characters and settings as well as plot-line need to be described at some length. Whilst leaving actual visual interpretation open when it comes to physical appearance etc, it’s good to suggest one or two things.
Think carefully about page extent and how your story will work out over the number of pages you are thinking of—if you are going for the large format picture book style, that can be anything between 32 to 48 pages, longer in the smaller ‘novel-size’ formats.
Discuss the visual concept early on with illustrator and publisher; don’t be prescriptive of course, as this is very much a collaboration-but do indicate the general atmosphere you are hoping to convey. Work closely with them if you can and be ready to compromise where necessary but also stand firm where necessary as well.
Keep the story simple but full of incident.
Dialogue is the most important part of characterization in BD;
Variety in point of view makes it seem less like ‘And then this happened…and then this…’ But obviously too many points of view leads to chaos. I have three POVs at various points in The Snow Queen’s Treasure, including the villain’s, and that is working well so far.
Over to you—would love to hear your thoughts on BD/graphic novels/comic books, both as readers and writers.