A Brief Ode to Foyles

Like most other vaguely literate twenty-something book nerds living in the provinces, I really like Foyles. There's something about going there - although I am at perfect liberty to do so whenever I please - which feels like a bit of a treat. The Jazz Café. The enormous poetry section, which was willing to sell me the collected works of Anne Sexton when a) neither of the Plymouth branches of Waterstones would and b) it was probably a bad idea to do so. And, of course, the really excellent selection of comics - far better, especially in terms of indies, than many dedicated comics shops outside of the capital.

And now they've turned the hoardings in front of their main shop on Charing Cross Road into a giant comic detailing the history of the Foyle family and the store. John Miers kicks things off in 1903, when the Foyle brothers failed their Civil Service exams and made rather a lot of money selling their textbooks, Donya Todd brings us up to the present day with a charming, witty literary salon, and Rian Hughes illustrates the future of the Foyles site. In between, there are panels from Karrie Fransman, Steven Appleby, ConSequential sweetheart Hannah Berry, Bryan Talbot and a whole host of other artists.

It's fantastic. And if you don't want the hassle of going to London, the entire thing can be read here from the comfort of your own home. The building works behind the hoardings are now partially blocking the pavement, which meant that a lot of angry people gave us very pointed looks when we stopped to read the comic properly, but it was totally worth it. I'm a huge fan of anything which uses public space to display artistic or informational content, either entirely visually or using text, instead of selling it for advertising. Sure, this is technically Foyles advertising themselves, but they do so in such an engaging and interesting fashion that this comic straddles the frontier between public advertising and public art. I'd rather there was more of this sort of thing than more pictures of David Beckham in his underwear, but I don't have a lot of influence in those spheres.

There's an entirely different blog post to be written on what this says about the rising status of comics in British culture, and how the explicit endorsement of retailers like Foyles (as well as the tacit endorsement of everyone who walks past it and doesn't recoil at the fact that their visual space has been infiltrated by cartoons) is contributing to the validity of the medium within society, but I promised that this ode would be brief, so I'll leave you with that as a thought and say no more.

Get thee to London, dear reader, to see this lovely thing and to do a spot of learning while you're at it. Bonus points if you can convince some of the rushing masses to slow down and read along with you.

Sad Comics Reviewed: Dotter of Her Father's Eyes

Good news, everyone! Comics aren't just for kids any more! I know we've been saying this for a while - about Watchmen, about Fun Home, about Maus - but we really mean it this time. Adults of impeccable taste who enjoy really good books, as long as they're reliably proven to be literature by the judges of major literary prizes sponsored by famous coffee chains, are finally allowed to read stuff that comes with pictures as well as text. Huzzah! Now, I don't begrudge Dotter of her Father's Eyes its success. I don't begrudge it anything, in fact, because it's splendid. It combines two of my favourite ographies, biography and autobiography, and does so with aplomb. If you're not familiar with Mary Talbot's work on critical discourse analysis, or Bryan Talbot's stint at 2000AD in the eighties and/or taste in bad puns, there's no need to worry. Even if you weren't lucky enough (as at least two thirds of the ConSequential team were) to see Bryan bumming a smoke off someone outside the main hall at Thought Bubble this year, you've got nothing to worry about with Dotter. It's both charming and accessible. Maybe that's why fancy people love it so much.

I should confess at this point that I, too, am fancy people.

Fans of Asterios Polyp will enjoy the fact that the Talbots use no fewer than three different art styles to delineate the boundaries between their present (or near past), their past and the life of Lucia Joyce - bold colours and strong linework for the present, pencil and sparse/muted colour for Mary's youth and a gorgeous palette of dark blues, greys and blacks for Lucia's story. The panels depicting the end of Lucia's life are particularly powerful.

The sections dealing with Lucia Joyce are excellent both in terms of their emotional impact and in the storytelling, dialogue and sheer vivacity of character that they portray, but no good scholar of critical discourse would let us get away with a simple biography. The details and events of Lucia Joyce's life are used to draw parallels between and associations with Mary Talbot's childhood and youth, and it's very much Mary's story, rather than Lucia's, which really steals the show. It's even Mary who crops up on the cover, which almost certainly means something about something.

The two histories in question complement one another well: they're tales which share common themes and threads, but by no means the same outcome. The last years of Lucia Joyce were not happy ones, whereas Bryan and Mary, in spite of their circumstances and setbacks, seem to be doing more or less all right (they've just won a Costa prize, for one thing). And perhaps it's this which makes me feel that their story is more central to Dotter than Lucia's. The life of Lucia Joyce, if treated as a straight biography, would be as sad as the saddest of sad comics. But when similar themes and experiences from Mary's youth are highlighted, and comparisons invited, there's a sense of triumph and a very real glimmer of hope. Lucia could not right the wrongs of the past, but the Talbots may well have managed to achieve that.

In terms of sad comics specifically, there's a lot here for fans of the genre: class issues, daddy issues (both Mary's and Lucia's), thwarted hopes and dreams, parental pressure, incarceration, people doing bad stuff to ladies (at least in part simply because they happen to be ladies at a time when that wasn't necessarily a good thing), living in Wigan, getting knocked up and subsequently married really young because that's the thing to do, and plenty more. Some solid sad comics fare for those of you who enjoy a really sad comic.

I hope that people will read Dotter because it's a fantastic comic, and not just because it's fantastic and also happens to be a comic. I haven't said a lot about panel structure, but the three distinct art styles do interesting things within the medium, and it would be nice to hear some more about that and a bit less about how it's safe to come out of the comics closet now that the middle classes have been reassured (which brings us gently back to class issues. Boom.).

If this hasn't been enough to make you want to go and read Dotter, I'd like to close by quoting James Joyce himself (as Mary Talbot quotes him in the book): "It's enough if a woman can write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully."

If nothing else, Dotter proves Joyce to be as much of a jerk as that quotation suggests. Enjoy!