Comics at the Alliance of Literary Societies AGM

In an unusual departure for the Alliance of Literary Societies, the keynote presentation following the formal business of the AGM was about “A novel of few words” – as Dispossession, the graphic novel adaptation by Simon Grennan and David Skilton of Trollope’s novel John Caldigate describes itself.

Dr Grennan described the context in which they had produced the new version. Graphic novels based on classic literature are not new but, as can be seen in the illustration above, have tended to be simplified versions of the original with the focus on plot rather than character. They were seen as an easy way to introduce children, with their shorter span of attention, to great literature. In producing these versions, much of the depth, which makes the works great, is lost. Characterisation becomes perfunctory and all becomes subservient to the plot. This, Grennan argued, does a disservice to the original, to the possibilities of the graphic medium, and to the intelligence of the reader.

He explained that graphic novels have tended to be cinematic in their approach. Inter-cutting long shots with close ups, panoramas with interiors and action with speech so as to give the novel pace. Had he and Professor Skilton followed this approach then they would have lost an essential part of Trollope’s novel – the author’s unique voice. They were therefore looking for an approach which subverted the conventional graphic novel approach to give their adaptation a unique Trollopian voice and tone.

They concluded that they should avoid the usual techniques which heighten the sensational aspects of a story and instead adopt a measured, slightly distanced approach in their drawings.  Keeping their distance from the characters and the action enabled them to maintain an air of ambiguity about the piece. The faces lack detail so it is impossible for the reader to be able to interpret expressions  which might give clues as to the underlying thoughts of the characters. This, they felt, would help in conveying uncertainty about their motives and whther or not they were telling the whole truth – an essential part of the story since it is never absolutely clear whether or not John Caldigate did, in fact, marry Mrs Smith in Australia and, therefore, whether or not his marriage to Hester on his return to the UK is bigamous.

They also consciously adopted a technique of viewing each scene from different angles so as to increase the sense that there is more than one perspective on any event.

This circling around crucial scenes gave them space to include a sub-plot involving aborigines in Australia, who are wholly absent from Trollope’s 19th century novel but whose exclusion would be odd in a 21st century graphic representation. Thus at times they are in the foreground, with a plot of abduction of a wife of a member of one tribe by another tribe, which provides a commentary on the events of the main plot; while at other times they are in the background and , from the perspective of the white protagonists, for all practical purposes invisible, reflecting their status in Victorian society.

The talk demonstrated the complexities and layers of meaning that can be offered through a graphic novel, which can enrich the understanding of the original Trollope novel for the careful reader of both texts.

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