When Rebecca Jones sent off her entry for this year’s Observer/Faber graphic short story prize, it was more in hope than in expectation: this was her seventh attempt at a win. But context is often all, and in a year when many of the almost 200 entries were distinctly downbeat and anxious – a delayed effect, perhaps, of the pandemic lockdown – her story worked like a charm on the judges. Midnight Feast has a sweetness that appealed to all of us. If this tale of three girls who camp out for the night in a suburban garden is at moments melancholic, it’s also quietly funny. We liked her characters’ expressive faces, and her sure way with bathos; it also chimed with experiences we all remembered having ourselves.
“I’m so thrilled to win,” she says, still sounding a bit amazed. “It’s honestly a dream come true. To have such a platform, to be published in a national newspaper. It’s the biggest break I could have. I was in a state of shock when I got the call. When I first started getting into comics at university, Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine [one of the judges for this year’s prize] was about the third book I read, so to know that he liked my story really means something.” It was, she tells me, agony keeping her victory a secret when she attended the Thought Bubble festival in Yorkshire last week. But how sweet to know that the news would soon be out. Her hope now is that her win will help her eventually to find a home for Boomerang, the semi-autobiographical graphic novel she has been publishing in instalments for several years.
By day, Jones, who lives in London, works in university administration. But she has two art degrees, including an MA in illustration, and comics take up a lot, if not most, of her free time. “I self-publish, and sell them at fairs and online,” she says. How did she get the idea for Midnight Feast? Among her influences are Tove Jansson’s Moomins cartoons, Posy Simmonds, Marjane Satrapi, and two former winners of the Observer/Faber prize, Matthew Dooley and Emily Haworth-Booth. Some of the credit for this story, however, must go to the Gosh Comics and Broken Frontier Drink and Draw, a monthly online social for aspiring cartoonists (before the pandemic, it used to take place in a pub): “Three guest artists choose a theme and then everyone has 30 minutes to respond to it. When I was thinking about the prize, I looked back through some of the drawings I’d done for it, and found one I’d made of two girls in a tent when the theme was ‘midnight feast’. I thought I might be able expand on that a bit.”
The age of the girls in her story is, she says, crucial: not quite teenagers, they are on the verge of change. “It’s a bit autobiographical. I did have a sleepover in someone’s garden when I was young, but while we had a perfectly normal evening compared with the characters in my story, I also remember that at 12 or 13 we had very lively imaginations: we would be convinced that coins were haunted, or that there were strange shadows in the park. The girls in Midnight Feast are like that, but they’re also developing at different rates, and experimenting with things they don’t quite understand.” Was it hard to tell such a story in just four pages? “Yes. The precision is a challenge. I thought about structure – especially how to end it – very carefully.” What will she spend her prize money on? “Pens, I think,” she says, with a laugh.
Joining me as judges of this year’s prize were Angus Cargill, publishing director at Faber, our new 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; Michael Sheen, the actor and major comics fan; and the aforementioned Adrian Tomine, the cartoonist best known for his New Yorker covers and for such masterpieces as Killing and Dying and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist. And though we were all agreed that Jones’s story should be our winner, we were split when it came to our runner-up, for which reason we decided to have two this year.
The first of these is Autumn 2014 by Michael Lightfoot, a story of urban loneliness and missed opportunity drawn in a monochromatic style that reminded me powerfully of the strips I used to read in Bunty as a girl (I mean this as a compliment). Lightfoot is a support worker who moonlights as an illustrator, and yes, old British comics are indeed among his influences. “The stars aligned with this story,” he says. “I discovered all my models for it swiftly and rather magically within a few days of each other at the Sussex County Arts Club in Brighton where I do a lot of life drawing.”
The second runner-up – and it could not be more different to the first – is The Lift by Ed Firth. Set in the countryside, it plays cleverly on the “stranger danger” campaigns many of us remember from our school days (it begins with an unidentified man in a blue car attempting to pick up its schoolboy narrator). Firth, who works full-time as an artist and illustrator, counts among his influences not only cartoonists such as Alison Bechdel, but the Austrian film director Michael Haneke – and I think it’s possible to detect top notes of both in The Lift, which has psychological depth but also a certain chilliness. “If I’m going to dedicate time to making a comic, I want people to feel something,” says Firth. “I want them to find themselves sorting through images and emotions afterward. But this comic also wrote itself. It’s based on an incident I’ve been thinking about for 30 years.”
Congratulations to both our runners-up, and of course to Rebecca Jones, whose Midnight Feast I hope people will find suitably delicious, whatever time they choose to devour it.
Meet the judges…
Adrian Tomine, cartoonist
Did judging this competition take you back to your own beginnings as a cartoonist?
Yes, it did. I think the real appeal of my earliest work was not its inherent quality but rather the sense that I was flailing around on the page, trying to learn the craft as I went along. That early phase of struggle is something I’ll never forget, and it’s always exciting to see the work of someone who’s in the thick of it.
What did you make of the standard overall? What pitfalls did people fall into?
I saw a lot of work that had good writing or good drawing, but not necessarily good cartooning. It’s a difficult, mysterious challenge to create something that fully integrates all the different elements of cartooning, rather than, say, illustrating a story or adding words to pictures. I noticed that there were a lot of “twist endings” among the submissions, which is a pretty tough thing to pull off successfully.
Why did you like our winner?
I liked Midnight Feast because it felt like the work of a natural cartoonist. The writing and drawing were nicely integrated, without one outshining the other, and it didn’t read like a prose story that had been forced into comics form. It felt personal and real, emotional but not sentimental.
What comics are on your to-be-read list?
Crickets #8 by Sammy Harkham, My Perfect Life by Lynda Barry, Artist by Yeong-shin Ma, The Joy of Quitting by Keiler Roberts, Ducks by Kate Beaton, Acting Class by Nick Drnaso.
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?
Peanuts by Charles Schulz or Ghost World by Daniel Clowes.
Michael Sheen, actor
How and when did you get into comics/ graphic novels?
When I was at drama school in the late 80s, I had a friend in my year who gave me The Sandman [by Neil Gaiman], Watchmen, Hellblazer and V for Vendetta [by Alan Moore], and The Invisibles [by Grant Morrison], and said see how you get on with these. I never looked back.
Is there a particular graphic novel or long-form comic you would press on readers unfamiliar with the medium?
I always tend to either push David Boring by Daniel Clowes, I Killed Adolf Hitler by Jason or Essex County by Jeff Lemire as starting points depending on who it is.
What’s on your comic reading list right now?
In my bag right now is Patience by Daniel Clowes which I’ve wanted to reread for a while; Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, who has his new story Acting Class out now; and Intruders by Adrian Tomine.
What did you think of the comics you read for the prize?
I really enjoyed the diversity of styles and was interested to see how much I was swayed by the sophistication, or lack of it, in the artwork. Often the stories with a less sophisticated art style ended up affecting me the most, which surprised me. Interviews by Rachel Cooke