Let’s get sequential | Comic strip illustrator Karrie Fransman

Last month, the acclaimed British graphic novelist and comic strip illustrator Karrie Fransman was invited by the Valletta 2018 Foundation to head workshops on how comics can help teachers in the classroom, while also talking to producers of various media about how to fortify their work with a stronger visual storytelling. Teodor Reljic sat down for a chat with the prolific and wide-ranging artist ahead of her residency in Gozo between September 14 and 21

Karrie Fransman during a workshop for teachers in Gozo last month
Karrie Fransman during a workshop for teachers in Gozo last month

It’s hardly surprising that the talented and friendly Karrie Fransman was hand-picked by the Valletta 2018 Foundation to head workshops in audio visual storytelling in Gozo last month. With an eclectic portfolio and an easygoing manner (the former is made evident through a quick Google search, the latter thanks to our brief chat on Skype), it’s not hard to imagine her bringing her knowledge across to educators and producers with no trouble.

Which is good, because communication is arguably what’s at the forefront of what we can somewhat stuffily call ‘sequential art’ – that category encompassing comic strips, comic books and ‘graphic novels’. It’s more elaborate than road signs but more in-yer-face than prose, and such a hybrid format is probably well suited to meet the demands of ever-shifting audio-visual trends.

“I can totally imagine a comic book story being told through Instagram, or even Snapchat,” Fransman quips. “In fact, these platforms even have features that refer to ‘stories’…” 

With experience in editorial illustration for some of Britain’s most respected publications – among them The Guardian and The New Statesman and her own standalone graphic novels such as The House That Groaned and Death of the Artist – to say nothing of her forays into digital comics, “sculpture comics” and “comics in dollhouses” – Fransman gives the impression that she’s pretty much done it all, and I ask about how her varied experience helps her to communicate the potential of the medium to others. 

“Well, in one way comics is a very ancient medium – in that you see it on cave walls and hieroglyphics – and also, all children grow up drawing stories before they write them, so it’s ‘ancient’ in that way too. But at the same time, it’s also a young medium in that it hasn’t been studied formally for all that long, and its boundaries are still being defined.”

For this reason – and when compared to film – Fransman believes that comics encourage a kind of flexibility that you won’t find in more established visual mediums, such as film. 

“Film is relatively passive – you can sit back and watch it – but comics invite you to interact with them a lot more, as the reader has to do their own ‘filling in’. Also, film has a lot more barriers to entry – it’s a lot more expensive to make a film than it is to produce a comic book.” 

And according to Fransman, this is a good reason for educators to opt for the comics medium to get their messages across, while the benefits for other creative professionals should be obvious, in that such a well-established but still ‘loose’ medium can help them shake up their approach to any project they happen to be working on. 

“Also… another thing is that, if you look at Hollywood – most of those stories are told by white men. Because of their lower barriers to entry, but also due to other factors, comics tend to be more inclusive. They really transcend geographical and linguistic boundaries… I’ve read comics from Korea, Malaysia and Bangladesh without knowing any of those languages, because I could understand the pictures. That’s the beauty of the medium – it travels well, and allows different cultures to connect.”

Fransman’s various international engagements have proven the reality behind this claim, and she confesses to being fortunate in this regard. When I caught up with her after the workshops in Gozo were through, I got the impression that she’d be happy to slot our islands in the category of places she’s glad to have made a real connection with. 

“It was great to meet the teachers, most who were from Gozo, and it was also good to hear about the challenges they face in bringing creativity to the classroom and to have the chance to share some solutions. 

“Then we had a day-long workshop with the producers which was so enjoyable. They were a bunch of incredibly creative minds and it was a pleasure to see how inventive they were with their games and storytelling. It was also great for me to hear about the workshops they were running for Valetta 2018- mysterious boxes and creating civilisations. I wish I could attend them all!    

“The residency was also fantastic. I had 3-floors of space for myself when we were not teaching. A lot of space compared to London flats!”

About Karrie Fransman

Karrie Fransman’s comic strips and graphic stories have been published in The Guardian, The Times, Time Out, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Young Vic, Psychologies Magazine, The Arts Council Create Magazine and for The British Red Cross. Her graphic novel, The House That Groaned, was published by Penguin Random House’s Square Peg. It received praise from film director Nicolas Roeg and was chosen as Graphic Novel of the Month in The Observer. She developed an award winning comic, ‘Over, Under, Sideways, Down’ about an Iranian teenage refugee, for The British Red Cross, created an installation for the British Council and Southbank Centre and was commissioned to make a ‘Selves Portrait’ for an exhibition with Manchester Art Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. Her new graphic novel ‘Death of the Artist’ was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015 and was awarded a grant from the Arts Council England.