Lizzy Stewart’s debut graphic novel revisits the heady days of London’s 70s art scene
Softly illustrated and beautifully written, Alison traces the journey of a young woman from the quiet coastline of Devon to the bustling streets of London.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 25 July 2022
Following years of creating short comics, artist Lizzy Stewart had been looking for an excuse to make something considerably longer. For a while, her work had involved prose writing as well as illustration, and she felt that a graphic novel was a natural next step – the only problem was, she didn’t know what it should be about. Not long after and fortuitously timed, her mother gave her an envelope filled with Lizzy’s grandmother’s poetry and writing. The pages dated back to her youth in the 60s and they contained musings on a range of issues that Lizzy was surprised to find were completely relatable, such as feelings of angst about who her grandmother had wanted to be, and concerns that she had had about the expectations placed on her by other people (and by herself). These provided Lizzy with much-needed inspiration for her graphic novel, and though the resulting publication “isn’t really about her at all”, the reflections did offer a solid foundation from which to build a compelling story, as well as an idea for a title – Lizzy’s grandmother’s name: Alison.
“In giving my character her name I suddenly found I understood something fundamental about who she was and I could place her in different situations and know what she’d do,” explains Lizzy. The book’s opening situation sees her protagonist Alison, who’s just turned 20 and is newly-married, attempting to navigate small town life in rural England. She is unhappy and struggles to find a purpose until one day, a chance to escape to London presents itself and she takes it, joining the hustle and bustle of the city’s late 70s art scene. From here, we follow Alison as she explores the power of female friendship and art, and confronts social issues such as the patriarchy and class division.
Reflecting on the narrative she crafted for Alison, Lizzy says: “The book touches on a range of subjects and I care about them all but there isn’t one theme that runs throughout and I guess that’s because we’re following a single life, and life doesn’t really have ‘an arc’ in a straightforward sense.” The storyline, with all of its twists and turns, is captured clearly, cleverly and in beautiful detail in Lizzy’s drawings. Moving between single, full-page illustrations that correspond with sections of prose text and scrapbook-style pages that are composed of several illustrations, the book follows Alison’s journey through the ups and downs that life brings.
“‘The visual approach changes to, I hope, better serve the story,” Lizzy tells us. “[For instance], the scrapbook pages are a particularly useful device because I can suggest a whole relationship, or a full and busy year, without having to describe it in detail using hundreds of words.” Not only that, but our minds naturally fill in the blanks between images more easily than they fill in the blanks between words: “If I show you a hand on a kettle and an empty teacup in one panel and a person sat on the sofa with a full cup of tea then we can safely assume that in the strip of blank page between the two panels the character has made their tea and changed locations. Of course you can do this with writing too but I find it so fascinating how automatically our brains fill in the blanks when we look at pictures.”
Alison was made almost entirely during the pandemic, while Lizzy was stuck inside her bedroom working from a makeshift desk (her studio was off-limits at the time due to the lockdown). This meant that the process of creating the book was more steady, resulting from the lack of other things to do, and also at times quite infuriating, resulting from the lack of space. After it was completed and Lizzy’s partner and friends had read it, she pitched the book to her eventual publisher, Serpent’s Tail, who helped her to refine the work and bring it to the finished state we see it in now. “There was some editing and tidying to do, which I really enjoyed, [because] it was very different to working on picture books, which tends to happen in one single chunk of time,” says Lizzy. “There were breaks where I got to let the book go completely, which was helpful. I have become evangelical about breaks, you need to walk away as often as possible!”
Lizzy Stewart: Alison (Copyright © Lizzy Stewart, 2022)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.