Graphic and Novel

Though I’ve yet to visit it, I find out that the new King’s Cross concourse does have at least one unique shop: the first European branch of Watermark Books, an Australian chain. They are exploiting the fact they’re right next to the Harry Potter platform, and rightly so. What stops stations losing their individuality and becoming ‘non-places’  is hanging on to unique associations like this. Paddington has its little bear statue, St Pancras its Betjeman statue. It’s a shame these are often tucked away within the stations, but I like that they give people something unique to look for.


It’s only March, but I’ve finished attending lectures for the first year of my course at Birkbeck. Next up is four weeks of the Easter break, then there’s a final two seminars in late April. After that the only remaining sessions are workshops in which to prepare for the first exam, and a few introductory lectures about the modules in the second year. I still have to deliver two essays by early May and revise for the exam taken shortly after that, but the regular lectures are over.

It’s been an experience without a single regret. I still don’t feel like an academic, and I still view MA and PHD students as lofty creatures living on a higher intellectual plane (never mind the professors), but the degree now feels do-able, as opposed to something that other people can do, not me. That’s the big difference. It involves work, of course, and putting in the hours, but this is work that I feel happy about doing, which I even look forward to.

We’ve just been given our optional module choices for the second year. Each of the four years is made up of three modules (modules being different subjects, effectively). The first year has comprised three compulsory modules: London in literature, how to study poetry, and an introduction to literary theory. Next year we have do two compulsory modules: one on ‘The Novel’, and one on medieval and Renaissance texts. The third we get to choose ourselves, from an attractively diverse list.

I’ve already handed in my form for this. My first choice is a creative writing module, specially designed for Eng Lit students, but I’ve since been told I probably won’t get to do it in the  Second Year. Third Year students take priority over Second, there’s only fifteen places, and it’s such a notoriously popular subject. Everyone seems to want to do creative writing.

My alternative module choices are, in order, ‘Fin De Siecle’ (Wilde’s Dorian Gray, HG Wells, Dracula), ‘Queer Fiction’ (recent novels by Sarah Waters, Alan Hollinghurst etc), and ‘Narratives Of The Body’ (Angela Carter, Woolf’s Orlando, some films, even some modern dance pieces).

A few of the set texts are particularly interesting choices for literary study:

– The Dark Knight (2008), as in the second Batman film by Christopher Nolan, for a module on US culture since 1900. To be studied alongside F Scott Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath.
– Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009), for the same.
– the films Blade Runner and Aliens, both for the module on The Body.
Persepolis (2000) by Marjane Satrapi; the Iranian graphic novel. For the compulsory ‘The Novel’ module.
Fun Home (2006) by Alison Bechdel. Another graphic novel, for the Queer Fiction module.
Tangles (2011) by Sarah Leavitt. A graphic novel I’ve not heard of, for the same module. So new that the Guardian only reviewed it a few weeks ago.

It’s interesting that all three graphic novels are autobiographical. In terms of proper graphic fiction, we’ve just been studying It’s Dark In London (1996) as the final text in the compulsory 1st year module about London In Literature. It’s an anthology of graphic short stories inspired by the city, edited by Oscar Zarate and including such names as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair, Dave McKean, Stella Duffy, and Alexei Sayle. It’s just been republished with extra material and a rather beautiful new cover.

Being closer in format to the genre of underground comics, as opposed to the Marvel or DC-style comics, the book is in black and white throughout. The Alan Moore contribution, I Keep Coming Back, is a companion story to From Hell, which we’ve also looked at – particularly the mythical London tour of Chapter 4. The Moore story in the anthology includes a large close-up panel of an East End pub stripper’s pubic hair, comparing it, rather unforgettably, to an exclamation mark.

I overhear two older ladies in the lecture room, fellow mature students, talking about the collection. It is the first graphic novel they’ve ever read.

Lady 1: “This ‘graphic novel’… (she sighs) I wish it wasn’t quite so graphic.”

Lady 2: “Well… I just kept wanting to colour it in.”

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