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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rachel Cooke

‘It would be amazing if this led to something’: Anna Readman, winner of our graphic short story prize 2023

Anna Readman in her home studio, Leeds
Anna Readman in her home studio, Leeds. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Last November, Anna Readman, 26, gave up her job in a Leeds comics shop, hoping to make a living full time from cartooning. But the year since hasn’t been easy. The two big gigs she had lined up fell through soon afterwards. “It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,” she says. “I’ve been jumping from little job to little job, trying to make ends meet.” All of which makes the news that she is the winner of the 2023 Observer/Faber graphic short story prize so much sweeter. (Even better, this was the first time she had entered, having long been nagged to do so by her mum, an Observer subscriber.) It’s a few days since she heard the news, but she still sounds slightly in shock.

Readman’s story, Dancing Queen, has a dark, Charles Burns-style mood. Its characters’ eyes cannot always be seen; an old VW camper van morphs into a hearse; a fairytale castle looms improbably over a small town. But its narrative, a story of loss and the passing of time, was inspired by a very real event. “Eight years ago, my friend Annie died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition,” she tells me. “It was the month before she turned 18. Dancing Queen had been in my head for a while because people around me are beginning to settle down now, and this has made me reflect on where she’d be, and what she’d be doing, and on how the fact she isn’t around contrasts with my own life, and what I’m doing.” It is, she says, the most personal comic she has ever drawn, even if this may not initially seem to be the case to a reader: “One great thing about comics is that they allow for unbridled visual experimentation: you can deploy surrealism as a device to get across nuanced feelings, even as it helps you maintain a kind of distance from them, too.”

Readman grew up in Lewes, in Sussex – hence the castle in the story – where she used to spend all of her pocket money on comics at the corner shop. “As a child, I loved superheroes, Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes,” she says. She was “obsessed”, but it wasn’t until she began an illustration degree at Leeds Arts University (she graduated in 2020) that she got into the artists who influence her now: Charles Burns (yes, she is a fan), Daniel Clowes, Seth; what she describes as “real, old school stuff”. In the past few years, she has worked on various comic book projects, including 2000AD, but drawing other people’s scripts isn’t quite enough for her, she thinks. “It would be amazing if winning this led to something; I mean, if someone wanted to pay me to draw my own stuff.” Has she got a long-form graphic novel ready to go? Down the line from Leeds, I hear a familiar noncommittal laugh: the sound of a cartoonist who, whatever they might say now, I fully expect to sign a publishing deal one day quite soon. Watch this space.

Joining me as judges of this year’s prize were Angus Cargill, publishing director at Faber, our partner; Paul Gravett, all-round expert on all things cartoon and the director of Comica; Tom Oldham of Gosh, London’s best and most beloved comic book shop; Lizzy Stewart, the illustrator and author whose magnificent debut graphic novel, Alison, came out last year; and Max Porter, the bestselling author of, among other books, the award-winning Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. We all agreed that Readman’s story deserved to be our winner, even if we were slightly surprised by our decision (its edgy gloom stood in stark contrast to the sweetness of a lot of this year’s entries, so many of which were about beloved pets, and even beloved cuddly toys).

But it came up against strong competition in the form of our runner-up, Safe Passage, by Candy Gourlay – a story set in the Philippines in 1941 during the Japanese invasion, when many city people were forced to flee to the country. Gourlay, who grew up in the Philippines, is a well-known children’s author – one of her books, Bone Talk, was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal – but it turns out that she has longed nurtured dreams of being a cartoonist. “When I finished my latest passion project last year [Wild Song, a tale of twins, set in 1904], I suddenly felt aware of a clock ticking. I’m 61. Time is running out. I decided that this year would be all about comics, and so I drew Safe Passage, which is based on a story about ant hills and magic and superstition that my father told us – he was eight when the war broke out, and his mother fled the Japanese with all of her children – but which is really about fear of the unknown.”

Gourlay is completely ecstatic to be runner-up. “I’m so thrilled,” she says, sounding almost breathless with happiness. “I feel very lucky to be… a usurper. When I am writing novels, I start the day with dread. Will I find the right words? It’s so much responsibility. But when I’m drawing comics… Every morning now, I feel this joy!” Congratulations to her, and to Anna Readman, and I hope you enjoy both their stories which, by being so very different, stand as a reminder, once again, of all the amazing things comics can do – even in the course of only four pages.


Meet the judges…

Illustrator Lizzy Stewart

Lizzy Stewart, illustrator and author

Did judging this competition take you back to your own beginnings as a cartoonist?
Not exactly, in that it took me a really long time to come to making comics. I was impressed by how many young people were giving it a go – it’s a deceptively tricky challenge.

What did you make of the standard overall? What pitfalls did people fall into?
As the task is simply to write and illustrate a story across four pages the outcomes are incredibly varied. You can really take your work in any direction. I think the balance is one of the hardest things to pull off, that your text and images need to work as a team, both adding to the narrative. There is a tendency to focus on the thing you’re most comfortable with but if you do that you’re missing half the storytelling potential.

What do you make of our winner? What is it about her work that appealed to you?
Anna’s work stood out for being stylistically bold and really distinct against the other entries. You really get a sense of her voice as an artist and she appears to have an innate understanding of the medium. I’m excited to see where she goes with it.

What comics and graphic novels are currently on your to-be-read list?
I’m desperate to read Juliette by Camille Jourdy and Young Hag by Isabel Greenberg which, I think, comes out next year.

What’s the one comic or graphic novel you’d press on someone unfamiliar with the medium, or who is just starting out as an artist?
One? One? I’d need a whole bundle I’m afraid. Today that bundle might include Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs, SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki, Ducks by Kate Beaton, Heimat by Nora Krug and The Photographer by Lefèvre, Guibert, and Lemercier. I’d also chuck in Making Comics by Lynda Barry.

Max Porter

Max Porter, author

How and when did you get into comics/ graphic novels?
Asterix! My cousins had them all and left them at my gran’s house so holidays meant Gaul. But my first revelation about the genius of the form would have been Calvin and Hobbes. I’d give Bill Watterson the Nobel prize.

Is there a particular graphic novel or long-form comic you would press on readers unfamiliar with the medium?
NonNonBa by Shigeru Mizuki.

What’s on your comic reading list?
I’m subscribed to Anders Nilsen’s mind-blowing Tongues. He’s my favourite. He’s at volume five, and it’s amounting to one of the most ambitious and surprising books I’ve ever read.

What did you make of the comics you read for the prize? Any advice for next year’s entrants?
Varied and fresh. Lots to admire. I’d say the challenge is the length, achieving a sort of wholeness despite the shortness, a sureness in the style and story combined that is helped rather than hampered by the length.

What drew you to the winning entry?
It’s just so accomplished. For me, it has the classic uncanny kick in the unexpectedness of the relationship between image and text. It goes further, goes stranger.

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