An Autumn Art Lecture on a cold Tuesday night in the Wills Memorial building is perhaps not every human’s idea of Fun. However, those uncool enough to turn up on Tuesday 30th October were definitely the winners, rewarded by being in the company of the erudite, humorous and well coiffured Denise Mina.
Currently in charge of transforming Stieg Larsson’s ubiquitous Scandi-Noir tale The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into a six part graphic novel, illustrated by Leonardo Manco, Mina sees the adaptation as a chance to get rid of ‘a lot of toffee’ in Larsson’s original. Equally, it is also a chance to subtly reconceive aspects of the story, specifically the presentation of heroine Lisbeth Salander.
Unlike in the films, which edited this aspect out, Mina was keen to include flashbacks to Salander’s childhood in which she witnessed her mother being repeatedly beaten. In addition to this feature, which could serve as explanation for Salander’s violent behavior, Mina also chose to not only omit an explicit depiction of Salander being raped, but also to ‘Reverse the pornographic imagery’ that is overly familiar to many audiences, throughout the new book. This meant never showing the character without clothes on and not allowing her face to contort into ‘Is it Pain or Pleasure?’ expressions. With people being so familiar with pornographic images, actively deciding to not include them was, according to Mina, ‘A good way of usurping that.’
The thing with graphic novels – or comics, depending on the label you prefer – is that they force an author to streamline a text. Dialogue needs to be minimalized; the plot cannot develop through characters’ inner monologues and no one can move within a comic panel.
They also, apparently, are only read by nervous troglodyte geeks who become obsessed with certain publishers, stories or characters. Has Mina, I wonder, encountered any resistance from comic book hardliners? If she has, it has flown by her ears. ‘I never pick up on those subtleties. Unless it’s a death threat I think everyone’s having a nice time. I need a notarized affidavit before I clock that someone’s flirting with me. I’m not terribly tuned in.’
Equally, the nervous troglodytes may also be a myth. In other countries, such as Japan, France and Spain, the slightly skeptical and suspicious way in which the British public approach comic books is not shared. One would not need to add an apologetic disclaimer to any mention of them. An ‘I have an embarrassing habit’ footnote when expressing a like for anything with pictures alongside words which is not the Kelmscott Chaucer.
For those who do like graphic novels, it would be tempting to imagine that the transferal of a book credited with getting non-readers to read to comic, might signal a similar change in attitudes towards this type of publication. Indeed, this may already be happening, helped in part by big screen adaptations of comic books within recent years. Perhaps over time more people will become, in Mina’s words, ‘aware of the wonderful and unique form of story telling that comics make possible’, especially as the experience of reading a comic is ‘certainly different. It’s more intense, somehow. I find comics very hard to opt out of as a reader, unless the pictures and the dialogue aren’t working together.’
Mina herself, before becoming a writer was a PhD candidate in the throes of producing a thesis destined to be read by ‘about six people’ and then confined to the back shelves of a library. Producing crime fiction appealed as a more accessible mode of communicating, often feminist, theories and frameworks. What advice, then, would Mina give to a feminist academic-journalist hybrid looking to embark on her own PhD which might reach a similarly minute audience: should I forget the doctorate?
‘Please don’t. Who am I going to steal ideas from? My best friends are feminist academics and I’ve stolen all their ideas and put them in books.
I forgot to mention that I was a terrible academic. Once a class walked me to the train station because they felt so bad for me. I’d arrived to teach a three hour lecture on legislation which they pointed out had just been superseded by a statutory instrument. Also, while trying to lead a tutorial about crimes of sexual violence I was pointing out that an erection doesn’t equate with consent and told them that cocaine can be used to prolong an erection, sometimes for hours (this was before Viagra). They were quite traumatized, although I still don’t really understand why that was so very, very wrong. But apparently it was.
I ended up in a Derridan cul-de-sac. If language isn’t fixed why the hell am I writing a thesis?’
Frankly, I am quite happy she is writing anything at all – in words or in pictures.