Although still interchangeably called “comic books”, the exploding genre of graphic novels has far outgrown its origins in cartoon strips and the funny pages of daily newspapers.
Ever since Art Spiegelman’s excoriating Maus (a Holocaust memoir where Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans are cats, and Poles are pigs) won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, succeeding artists and writers have steadily expanded their ambit into previously unassailable precincts of “serious literature”.
In 2018, another significant coming-of-age milestone when Nick Drnaso’s understated, chilling Sabrina (it’s about conspiracy theories in our post-truth world) was the first graphic novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. At the time, in an important endorsement of the entire genre, Zadie Smith said it was “the best book – in any medium – I have read about our current moment. It is a masterpiece…possessing all the political power of polemic and yet simultaneously all the delicacy of truly great art. It scared me. I loved it.”
Earlier this year, another landmark achievement unexpectedly u-turned humour back into “the comics” when Matthew Dooley’s wry, delightful Flake became the first graphic novel nominated for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, which celebrates books “that really made people laugh”. On July 1, it was awarded the prize. Publisher and judge David Campbell said, “We had none of us, I think, expected a graphic novel to win, but we were all captivated.”
There is, of course, inherent comedy in the juxtaposition of Bollinger (the pricey “official champagne of James Bond”) and Everyman (the 116-year-old classics imprint initially launched “to appeal to every kind of reader”), which would no doubt have tickled PG Wodehouse immensely. The prolific author, whose uncountable legions of fans in India are second to none in their collective zealotry, epitomised identical contradictions in his oeuvre of wildly popular recurring riffs about the antics of the uppermost classes of England and the USA.
Wodehouse reliably makes you laugh, which is the point of the prize named after him. Previous winners have included Gary Shteyngart (in 2015, for the absurdist Super Sad True Love Story) and Marina Lewicka (in 2005, for the under-rated A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian). In 2009, Geoff Dyer won for the part-hilarious, part-deeply-depressing Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi.
In 2018, in a suitably amusing twist, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse jury refrained from awarding any prize at all. David Campbell announced, “Despite the submitted books producing many a wry smile amongst the panel during the judging process, we did not feel than any of the books we read this year incited the level of unanimous laughter we have come to expect. We look forward to awarding a larger rollover prize next year to a hilariously funny book.”
That omnibus 2019 prize (it includes a large pig, in tribute to the famous “Empress of Blandings”) went to Nina Stibbe’s Reasons to be Cheerful, the final book in an acclaimed semi-autobiographical coming-of-age trilogy.
I have not read Stibbe’s book, but a copy of Matthew Dooley’s prize-winner recently found its way into my covetous hands in lockdown Goa.
And so, even as Covid-19 spread perilously in India’s smallest state, my 12-year-old son and I devoured Flake with tremendous enjoyment, accompanied by uncontrollable peals of genuine mirth. I can’t remember when a book last had me literally laugh out loud. But this delightfully deadpan rendering of the lowest-possible-intensity ice-cream turf wars in “the grumpiest enclave in Christian Europe” made it happen, again and again, which earns both my lasting gratitude and highest recommendation. Read it!
Flake is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the limitations of “sequential art” (another useful term proposed for graphic novels, by all-time-great Will Eisner). Dooley has stacked his book with characters that make you truly care about them, starting with antihero Howard Grayling, crosswords-aficionado and lifelong ice-cream-van man, trundling around the route bequeathed by his father. His best pal – another crosswords lifer – Jasper once spent six months in a French prison “for trying to convert continental road signs from metric to imperial” and bears a monumental grudge because “the only local point of any elevation” has been downgraded from mountain to hill.
To give away more about Dooley’s plot, and cast of wonderfully eccentric provincials, would deprive readers of serendipitous kicks and giggles. But let it be known that Flake is replete with wordplay, and gentle puns (many of the variant that Indians call PJs), with expertly weighted satirical skewering that induces pleasure without drawing blood. In addition, for the masochistic, there’s a cryptic crossword – sample clue: gun brandished in a charming way (3) – which might also be funny, (but I will never find out).
To congratulate Dooley for winning the Wodehouse Prize, I emailed him in London, where the 36-year-old works for the House of Commons. He wrote back, “It would be great one day if a graphic work won an award, and nobody mentioned the fact it was a comic. We are a long way from that but I think it will eventually happen. Part of the problem is that when you go into a bookshop, in the UK anyway, you will find graphic novels, graphic memoirs, superhero collections, and all the other many things comics can do, all on the same shelves. A lot of these works have little to do with one another aside from being drawn.”
Dooley was pleased that Flake allowed me and my son precious moments of escapist levity in the doldrums of quarantine. “For many people, if they are lucky, the world of their childhood is a simpler place, uncomplicated by politics and the worries that come with adulthood,” he said. “More than that though is that I want to find that space that exists between funny and sad, between drab and peculiar. [In fact] there is humour to be found in any situation, even one as bleak as a pandemic. Being able to laugh at the darkest of times is important, it’s a way to cope, to make the horror a little more bearable.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.