Will We See a New 'Golden Age' for Graphic Storytelling?

18/09/2013 17:53 BST | Updated 17/11/2013 10:12 GMT

When I was growing up, one of my favourite books was the Picture Book which the artist Edmund Dulac created to raise money for the French Red Cross during the First World War.

Dulac had the most marvellous method of depicting starry skies in watercolour using wash, candle wax, blotting paper and a hot iron. The beautiful results had the quality that I always look for in illustrations. They are pictures in which you can 'lose one's self', allowing the imagination the great privilege of wandering freely in a fantasy world.

I may not have been able to explain this at the time, but what I liked most about Dulac was that he had a real faith in pictorial storytelling. This book had words, to be sure. But it was the mesmerising images that did the real heavy lifting of conveying character, atmosphere and meaning.

Dulac was a French illustrator who moved to London during what is now known as the 'Golden Age' of British illustration. In my view, that description is entirely justified. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw developments in printing technology that made the mass reproduction of high-quality colour illustrations possible for the first time.

Combined with a growing public appreciation for graphic art and collectible books, the result was tremendous success for Dulac and contemporaries like Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley. Beautifully produced gift books for children became very popular - but the visual culture was not just aimed at younger readers.

Beardsley was Art Editor of the 'Yellow Book' - a quarterly journal of writing and illustration denounced by The Times as "repulsive" for its controversial avant-garde content. But despite being published for only three years (1894-1897), the periodical has exerted considerable influence - with Beardsley's own strange, compelling work setting a standard for what the medium of illustration can do.

In subsequent years the value we attach to illustrative art has declined to the extent that illustrations in books have a tendency to be thought of as mere decoration, or (even worse) distractions. However, the pendulum has begun to swing back. Graphic novels like Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi's account of growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution) have deservedly gained recognition for the sophisticated ways in which they combine pictures and words to tell a story.

How encouraging it was that the judges of the Costa Prize to recognise this with the inclusion of two graphic novels on its 2012 shortlist - and how silly it was for some people to deride this decision, on the grounds that illustrations in books were only suitable for children!

But there is now a new factor to add to our renewed appetite for pictorial storytelling - the rise of digital publishing. In the tablet, we have a medium that makes it easy, and increasingly cheap, to share and admire visual art. What's more, we now have the possibility of adding sound and animation, or of moving through the story in new ways (which differ completely from simply turning the pages over in order).

Innovative publishers are beginning to take advantage of these new opportunities. For example, Me Books is an innovative children's book app which allows readers to add their own recorded narration to classic books. And graphic story apps such as CIA: Operation Ajax and Bottom of the Ninth have given us a glimpse of what is possible. To view creative works like these as childish is not only silly - it also misses the point completely. Because there is a child within each one of us - and it is surely this child which enjoys being transported into the imaginative worlds these apps open up to us.

I am excited to be working in publishing at a time when so many talented writers, designers, programmers and illustrators are working together on exciting new creations. In coming years, we may find that 'book' and 'reading' are not adequate concepts to use in relation to these kinds of work. But whether we end up calling them apps, enhanced ebooks, or something else entirely, what's clear is that we are currently only scratching the surface. We may well be entering a new 'golden age' - one centred not just on a revival of interest in graphic art, but on a new art form entirely.

That's not to say, however, that we can't still be inspired by the previous one. I make no claims to being a graphic artist, but I did once try out Edmund Dulac's method for starry skies, after being told about the mechanics behind it. The results, I am happy to report, were very satisfactory indeed.