David Robinson: Costa judges bring graphic novels in from the cold

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MOST literary prizes tend not to change things. Their recipients turn up, receive their cheques, and the public gets yet another book to add to its must-read list.

This year’s Costa awards, however, are different. And by giving an award to a graphic work, the judges may indeed have changed the literary landscape, or at least given it a powerful nudge.

In many other countries – France, the US and Japan, for example – news that Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of her Father’s Eyes had won an award as prestigious as the Costa Biography Award would not cause any eyebrows to raise.

But ours is a culture in which image-based books have never been treated as seriously as ones using words alone.

The disapproving parental sneer about children reading comics rather than improving their minds with “real” literature is only just beginning to disappear.

That is why the Costa judges’ decision matters. True enough, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth won the Guardian First Book Award as far back as 2001, but the Costa awards – or the Whitbread prizes as they were known before 2006 – are far more influential.

When the Talbots’ book not only triumphs in such an esteemed award but does so ahead of Artemis Cooper’s acclaimed biography of Patrick Leigh-Fermor – ubiquitous in last month’s “Books of the Year” lists – it is a sure sign that the British comic book has finally come in from the cold.

All of this is a vindication for Jonathan Cape’s publishing director Dan Franklin, a stalwart supporter of comic books ever since 1998, when he published Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs’s bathetic graphic memoir about his parents, which went on to sell 200,000 copies.

Yet the Talbots’ success should not be overstated. Look back on the few comic books that have made the breakthrough to mass sales – Art Spiegelman’s Maus (winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (filmed in 2007), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (Time magazine’s book of the year in 2006), and even Ethel and Ernest itself – and it is impossible to ignore the fact that they all have a strongly autobiographical content.

In Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, this takes the form of neatly juxtaposing the story of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia and that of Mary Talbot, whose father was the eminent Joycean scholar James Atherton.

Talbot is able to escape her father’s restrictive ways; Lucia Joyce is not, and perhaps as a result ends her life in an asylum.

A full decade ago, American novelist Dave Eggers pointed out that: “The graphic novel isn’t literary fiction’s halfwit cousin but, more accurately, the mutant sister who can often do everything fiction can, and just as often, more.”

The Costa judges have not only underlined that assessment but shown that it applies to non-fiction too.

But will the Talbots also prevail when their book is ranged against Hilary Mantel’s superlative novel Bring Up the Bodies or the sustained excellence of Kathleen Jamie’s latest poetry collection, The Overhaul, for the overall £50,000 Costa Book of the Year Award on 29 January?

Can an ability to draw emotion ever match a first-rate writer’s ability to show it in prose and poetry?

Is it fair to even compare them? For all that I welcome the Costa judges’ decision, I have my doubts.