Settle Down for Gravett – Part 2


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The Man at the Crossroads is back with more insight into the medium of the future. Dave Hine and Paul Gravett talk comics.

Part One





Graphic Novels and Manga – Two of the successful tomes
from the Gravett/Stanbury team.

Dave: You’ve recently published three major books with Peter Stanbury: Manga: 60 years of Japanese Comics, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life and Great British Comics: Celebrating a Century of Ripping Yarns and Wizard Wheezes.   Maybe you could give us a quick summary of your aims with each of these books. I don’t have the British Comics volume but I can vouch for the other two. They are well-written and beautifully designed by Peter. ‘Graphic Novels’ in particular, is interesting in the way you created almost an interactive effect, dividing the book into categories, with a case-study of a major graphic novel and then further examples of other graphic novels related by style and subject matter. How successful have these books been, and do you intend to follow up with more?

An example of the innovative layout of
Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life.

Paul: OK, one main aim common to all of them is to reach a broad readership, the culturally inquisitive and alert, not just the dedicated fans. All three books seek to make their subjects accessible and motivate the reader into appreciating the strengths of this medium and maybe explore it a little more. Peter devised the incredible interlinked approach of the Graphic Novels book - it did our heads in devising all those links across the bottom of the pages. It was also a huge challenge selecting the 150 books and then deciding on the pages that best conveyed them. The books have all been successful, the Manga one by far the most, not surprisingly. And yes, Peter and I are percolating about a dozen more books as part of this series.  

Dave: This month you presented another of your Comica events at Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. How many years have those been running now? For those who have never attended one, what actually happens at a Comica event? 

Paul: Comica began in 2003 as a ten-day concentrated festival with an emphasis on adult graphic novels. Nothing against the family and kids audience for comics, or conventions for superhero comic or manga fans, but Comica, like Escape, wants to speak to the big, big audience out there that is now discovering comics can speak to them, through books like Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, Alice in Sunderland.

Comica events vary from one-to-one conversations between comics creators and major figures who appreciate comics, like Philip Pullman talking with Art Spiegelman, Alex Garland talking with Chris Ware, Stewart Lee talking with Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, to exhibitions (including Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's, whose online version of 2003's collective Potential Comic exhibition is linked to below), workshops, lectures, panel discussions, performances (Daniel Johnston's music or Steven Appleby's zany play), live drawing contests (we had a crazy one with Trondheim, Sfar and David B, in 2004), movie screenings and more. It's changed a bit as of last year so that we don’t have to cram everything into a small time period.

COMICA – Comics at the ICA.

Dave: Ever thought about writing comics? Or indeed, have you ever written one? 

Paul: I wrote and drew my own weekly comic, Torpedoes, when I was nine, based on my version of Thunderbirds. With friends at school we built some of the 12 Torpedoes (why stop at 5 like Thunderbirds ?) making the ships out of boxes, tubes, Fairy liquid bottles, etc. I wrote a script called Jet Sabotage and my Dad, my brother and I filmed it in our garage, setting fire to a cardboard airport.

Dave: I knew there had to be a link somewhere between your Dad’s interest in home movies and comics.

Paul: I also created my own superhero comics shortly after - I can only remember one villain called 'Vapor' who could dissolve - I was rather proud of that name and his costume. I think there are sooo many great writers and artist of comics, but there aren’t enough people explaining them and promoting them here, and that's what I think I do best.

Dave: So, what does the future hold? Any big projects, (or even small ones) coming up?

Paul: Well, I'm busy with two rather special innovations for Comica this year. One is the first Observer/Jonathan Cape/Comica Graphic Short Story Competition, which offers a £1,000 prize, £250 runner-up prize, for a complete comic which will be printed on a full single page of The Observer on Sunday October 14th. It's open to all UK residents and judges include Posy Simmonds and Nick Hornby. The other is Lingua Comica, an exciting cultural exchange project with the Asia-Europe Foundation which will select 6 young European creators, and 6 young Asian creators, and put them together to work online and then in person in London to collaborate on comics projects and meet major Asian and European writers, artists, editors over 5 days at Comica. Details of how to apply for both of these will be on the revamped Comica site  or linked from there.

I'm also working on three books with Peter, two now sold and signed up. And a big exhibition project for 2008, still a bit hush-hush. Coming up is The British Museum's Manga-To-Anime season, their first devoted to Japanese animation, and Comics Britannia, a 3-part documentary series for BBC4 which I was a consultant on. And lots more too - I have to check my own site, www.paulgravett.com to keep up with it all!

Dave: And lastly a chance for you to waffle to your heart’s content. How do you see the future of comics, worldwide and specifically in the USA and Great Britain. Indeed, is there a future for comics publishing in Great Britain?

Paul: Most definitely, though the future for comics is already taking all kinds of forms and formats and coming from all kinds of directions, not
necessarily from the more conventional routes. And what is coming won't be "exactly comics" as they've been already. As Bones might put it, "It's comics, Jim, but not as we know it." One example might be Posy Simmonds' Gemma Bovery, that interweaves typeset text passages, handwritten diaries, all manner of graphic elements, with 'traditional' ‘proper' comics - panels, balloons, captions - to  enrich the medium.

In a similar way Eddie Campbell's Fate of the Artist expands the multi-track narrative properties of comics, again not being afraid of text, of writing, but also playing with photo-strips or 'fumetti'.  I'd also point to Anders Nilsen's deeply affecting Don't Go Where I Can't Follow , in which he uses note-pad diaries, mail art, holiday snaps, and comics to create a tender eulogy/memorial to his girlfriend who died of cancer.

“It’s comics, Jim.” Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds.

Not to get too new-agey or techno-babblish, but I do see comics going through an evolutionary shift that parallels humanity's own cognitive and perceptual shift, brought about in part by the internet. Comics really flourished towards the end of the 19th century and while comics pre-date photography and film by centuries, those two technological and perceptual advances seem to me to have informed and helped the way comics caught on and their language grew more sophisticated. A similar thing may be happening now. Something as complex as Jimmy Corrigan, From Hell, Alice in Sunderland , probably could not have existed, or at least have found such a wide, receptive audience, until the last decade or so, as our processing capacities of words and images - as readers and as comics writers/artists - altered.

Comics, but not as we know them.
Alice in Sunderland – an entertainment by Bryan Talbot.

I just saw another amazing graphic novel called Tate to Tate, on its way from Cape over the coming year, which is a silent continous panel following the route from Tate Britain to Tate Modern in London and showing different characters' stories, unfolding in repeated appearances across the book, and related in both directions. Layers of stories, multiple directions of reading, the greater skills in decoding purely visual narratives, which have also proliferated in recent years, all point to comics changing in intriguing ways as creators are liberated from the confines and conventions.

I'd also point you to the Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's 'hypercomic', created for Comica in 2003. The goal I had with this idea, still to be developed, is to continue this one 'wall comic' shown at the ICA's concourse gallery around all four walls of a gallery, stories branching off and intersecting. Then to connect stories across the ceiling and floor of the white cube gallery space and THEN connect stories across the void of space, diagonally, in curves, creating a literal woven web of stories.

Another factor on how comics are and will be has been the explosion of gaming, not just shoot-'em-ups but the puzzle-solving ones and creative story-driven games like The Sims. These are other narrative and interactive forms that change the public's interests and connect to comics. I've long thought that part of the appeal of 'unflopped' right to-left manga is that it makes reading comics into a kind of puzzle or game, a secret skill to be acquired to unlock the story, something to bewilder grown-ups too!

I feel enormously lucky to be seeing comics change and stretch right now - with webcomix, with the massive influx of techniques, pacing, wide-open possibilities of subjects, that manga are introducing worldwide, as big a cultural shockwave as the original exporting of America's vintage newspaper strips in the early 20th century. Similarly, some of the experimental, 'art comics' from Kramer's Ergot, PictureBox or Le Gun, Frémok, and certain contemporary artwork in galleries - as in the Cult Fiction touring show - people like Raymond Pettibon , Chad McCail - fascinate me, baffle me, provoke me, and suggest whole other areas for comics to infiltrate.

Cover to the sixth volume of the Kramer’s Ergot anthology.

Sometimes, reading comics, can't you almost feel the synapses forming, feel your brain coping with how to process these new forms and shapes of narratives, of world-building?

As for comics in the dear old UK, there's genuine enthusiasm and interest in graphic novels coming from all kinds of mainstream general publishers, adult and children's, looking for 'the next big thing'. Cape for example are launching a Graphic Short Story Prize with The Observer and the Comica Festival, while another publisher is developing an ambitious weekly comic for kids with, among others, Philip Pullman writing a stunning new serial in it. I've also seen graphic novels in progress by Shirley Hughes and David Hughes (no relation), both brilliant illustrators gripped by the possibilities of long form adult comics.

Another unrealised wonder decades ahead of its time was a visual novel started in the 1970s by William Burroughs and Malcolm McNeil, which though unfinished and unpublished, might finally see the light of day.

So while there will be publishing mistakes and miscalculations made as before, and remember it's a real learning curve for these non specialist publishers and editors to understand what makes an effective and saleable graphic novel, I feel sure we will see some amazing new works appear.

It's like we might finally get reading tickets to that magical Lighthouse Library in Hicksville - full of the great comics that would otherwise never have existed, the thwarted plans, the unrealised dreams. Comics themselves are already being transformed, connecting with and influencing so many other media and expressions, that I like to think that comics not only have a future, but in fact the future belongs to comics.

Dave: I definitely couldn’t have said it better myself. Paul, it’s been a pleasure having you here at Waiting For Trade.

For more information and links, visit Paul’s own web site: http://www.paulgravett.com/

Paul is also interviewed at length on the just-released Shadowsnake Film The Mindscape of Alan Moore written and directed by DeZ Vylenz. 


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