Graphic novels and comics – the most dynamic medium? Explore a Devon bookshop and see for yourself!

Gnash Graphic Novels and Comics, West Street, Ashburton. Photo by the author

I’ve been meaning to write a piece on Gnash Comics, the fantastic specialist purveyor of the medium based in Ashburton, Devon and a Guardian article on Keanu Reeves’ massive Kickstarter success with his new comic series, BRZRKR, gave me just the kick up the backside I needed.

Almost every French and Belgian town has a comic shop. It’s an artform they love, but one that we Brits have been slow to embrace (except, perhaps, for our liking for Tintin and Asterix!). It’s not surprising, then, that Jenny Donaldson’s shop has become a destination for the growing numbers of afficionados from all over the UK who want to be able to explore the medium and talk to an expert and kindred spirit.

Jenny fell into retailing by accident. She started off in theatre as a musician and actor until the pressure of single parenthood drove her to train as a plumber (there’s got to be a whole new article there!) and then as a building surveyor in Scotland. “Super sexist”, she recalls, smiling to herself.

She decribes herself as impulsive and her move into the comic book arena as ‘random’. When she started Gnash, she did not even know what an ISBN was (international Standard Book Number) but she learned the trade quickly, calling publishers directly and talking to people.

“Comic people are really wonderful” she says. “The medium has its roots in underground movements and collaborative working. It’s a tough business but people are incredibly supportive and helpful. I’ve really benefited from not going through distributors and wholesalers. I’ve been allowed to pick through things, establish relationships, secure signings etc.”

“And, as it turns out, this area is filled with artists working in the medium, including world-renowned illustrators like Jock in Totnes, Dom Reardon in Buckfastleigh,Newton Abbot’s Lee Garbett of Captain Marvel fame, Henry Flint in Teignmouth, who has worked on Judge Dredd amongst other titles and Shaky Cane in Exeter. Then there’s Leo Connor who works in the shop. South Devon really is very, very arty and I’ve been able to learn a lot from working with these local but global megastars of the comic world.”

It appears to be a medium dominated by men, but Jenny is quick to point out that women actually have a long and prestigious pedigree in the artform. She urges me to take a look at ‘The Inking Woman: 250 Years of British Women Cartoon and Comic Artists’ and the work of Ladies do Comics in promoting and supporting women in the industry.

Jenny is fascinated by the medium’s subversive history and its willingness to tackle controversial political and social issues head on. She has also been intrigued to see the growth in a new genre – graphic medicine, being used to talk about and explore everything from mental illness to Covid-19 to motherhood.

I ask Jenny for her top picks for someone like me who is new to the medium. She kicks off with a title that many of you may have already encountered: Maus by Art Spiegelman. A powerful, personal account of his father Vladek’s survival of the Nazi terror with the holocaust shown through the eyes of a mouse. It’s an iconic work and the only graphic novel to date to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Next up is The Tempest, by English author Alan Moore, hailed by his peers and critics as one of the best comic writers in the business. You may have seen some film versions of his titles – V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to name two. Be aware – he hates every film that has ever been made of his work! Jenny has singled this title out, but advises looking at anything and everything he has done. He’s a seminal force.

Posy Simmonds started her career as a strip carton artist for The Guardian and is now well known for her satirical graphic ‘retellings’ of classics, including Gemma Bovery (Flaubert’s Emma Bovary) , Tamara Drewe (Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Her most recent oeuvre is Cassandra Darke, inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. She earns her place in the canon through cracking story telling and witty images.

Her final specific recommendation is Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, a trilogy about his own life. A prolific author and illustrator, he also works on X-Men and the Joker. He has a huge range, offering masses of scope for exploration.

I had always thought that comics were pretty much all about the images, but Jenny puts me right. The best of them are really about humanity – characters developing over several iterations. Often conflicted, wrestling with big social and moral issues, many of them have returned to their original roles as champions of truth and justice. Captain America was, after all, ‘recruited’ in WWII to promote the fight against fascism. It is a mark of our dark times that his latest incarnation is as ‘Captain of Nothing‘.

Do visit this brilliant shop in person or online. Gnash is part of the new network, set up to support independent booksellers. (I have assigned her shop as my chosen recipient of profit share for books I order online through their website.) You can browse unhassled or pick Jenny or Leo’s brains and their vast bank of knowledge. I am off there right now. I don’t think I’m about to join the Cosplay/Comicon fanatics, but I am intrigued and beguiled by the wealth of material, exquisitely produced and often strikingly different, that I want to spend more time and add to my embryonic collection. For what it’s worth, my absolute favourite is a wordless graphic ‘novel’ – Shaun Tan’s masterpiece, The Arrival (which you can also enjoy as an animation). It’s a profoundly moving and absolutely beautifully illustrated exploration of human migration, xenophobia and compassion.

Oh…and if you do venture into the emporium, remember –