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Comics Art:

The 21st Century Medium

I am a bit chuffed, because my brand-new book Comics Art (cover above by Joost Swarte, a detail from his cover to Raw Vol 1, No. 2, coloured by Françoise Mouly) is being launched on November 9th from 6.30-8.30pm at Foyles (the American edition of Comics Art is being published in February 2014 by Yale University Press). I chaired a Comica Conversation called Comics Art: The 21st Century Medium with five cutting-edge British innovators who are all illustrated and discussed in the book (L to R in snap courtesy of Mike Medaglia below): Woodrow Phoenix, Gareth Brookes, Katie Green, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and John Miers.

Comics Art joins a prestigious list of accessible introductory studies from Tate Publishing, the ‘Contemporary Art’ series, all with the word ‘Art’ in their title (eg. Land Art, Street Art, Design Art, Installation Art etc). It was originally going to be titled Comic Art, but this term had been already used by Tate Britain in the subtitle of their 2010 exhibition Rude Britannia, looking at humour in British visual arts, including comics from H.M. Bateman and Leo Baxendale to Viz. I was brought in as a consultant for this show and wrote this essay for the catalogue, which in turn led to this Tate commision for Comics Art. It’s one of the perennial problems in the English language that ‘comics’ strongly implies comedy. To perhaps sidestep this, Peter Stanbury, who once more designed this book, and I came up with the alternative term ‘comics art’ which derives from the idea that comics, in the singular, IS a medium and not limited to being humorous. Of course, we call comedians and comediennes ‘comics’ as well, so it’s still open for misinterpretation.

Yale University Press have posted a sneak preview of a text passage from the first chapter. And Heidi MacDonald over on Comics Beat gave this very kind heads-up: “Well, speaking of wandering around the comics landscape, if there’s one tour guide who seems to know what he’s talking about, Paul Gravett is among the most intelligent and accessible comics critics and historians out there. His 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die [is] actually about 1001 comics you may want to read, his website is full of erudite observations and he [is] generally one of the smart guys. All of which is to explain why I’m so happy he has a new book coming out next year called Comics Art. No one is more qualified to write on this topic.”

To give you a further sampler of this new book, I’ve included some spreads here and will give you an outline of what Comics Art attempts to cover and consider. Its overall aim is to inform and incite a reader who may be curious yet cautious about whether comics, even when re-branded and elevated as graphic novels, are really worth their serious attention. I’ve consciously included a lot of very recent, and some totally current, examples, several of them illustrated, but I also attempt to put these current trends into a wider and deeper historical context. The 21st century has ushered in an extraordinary expansion of the ‘9th Art’ around the world, perhaps a ‘Golden Age’, but it would be foolish to suggest that little or nothing that came before has ever came close to today’s leading practitioners. So many of today’s justly celebrated greats acknowledge that they are building on the innovations and inspirations of their forebears. There are lineages, traditions, echoes through comics history that are still vital and relevant now, as I hope to demonstrate.

My first chapter, ‘Encompassing Comics: The Other History’, tries to set out how we have arrived at the current landscape of comics though their different production histories, the contrasts between sole individual auteurs and partnerships, studios, teams or whole assembly lines, and cycles of exploitation, rejection, repression, respect for creators and wider respectability. One theme is the utopia imagined by Dylan Horrocks in Hicksville, a New Zealand coastal town whose every inhabitant loves comics and whose lighthouse doubles as a library of unique, unknown masterpieces, printed only by Mrs Hicks for local dissemination. Horrocks’ Borghesian vision has struck a meaningful chord with me, a library whose shelves I dream of exploring. Illustrations include: a previously unseen hand-coloured and personally framed Krazy Kat Sunday page, rescued from a skip in Camden, North London, and Jack Kirby’s original annotated pencils for a Captain America page.

‘Frames of Reference: Properties of Comics’, the second chapter, considers among other things if it is possible, or necessary, to determine a ‘date of birth’ for this medum. Was there a point when comics were ‘invented’? For some, the speech balloon is a defining element of comics - though it is perfectly possible to create comics without them. I also ruminate on the connections and contrasts between comics and films, the different categories of page layouts as proposed by Renaud Chavanne, as well as Scott McCloud’s ‘closure’ compared to Thierry Groensteen’s ‘braiding’. Illustrations include a vintage Terry and The Pirates original Sunday page by Milton Caniff.

The third chapter cuts away all dialogue and texts to examine how perhaps the most fundamental form of comics work, those without words. ‘More That Words Can Say: Silent Comics’, charts examples of the 19th and early 20th century pioneers of this form, such as Caran d’Ache, H.M. Bateman, Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, before launching into some of the contemporary boom in this approach, such as Peter Kuper’s The System, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (illustrated below), Jon McNaught’s Pebble Island or John Miers’ Tower of Babel.

The sheer variety of panel sizes, shapes and configurations, and their temporal and narrative effects, are spotlighted in the fourth chapter, ‘Between The Panels: The Power of Panels’. It’s a chance to look back at inventive artists like Italy’s Guido Crepax and Gianni de Luca and bring together intriguing examples of less orderly, more experimental layouts that create a kaleidoscopic or cumulative synchronicity, a sense of multiple presents, the power of ‘nows’, as in these examples by Luke Pearson and Riviére & Andreas below. Another highpoint of this remains Richard McGuire’s ‘Here’ from 1989.

The power of comics to upset, to threaten authority, to convey messages, whether conservative or subversive, and the question of who is permitted, or not, to express themselves through the medium are the focus of Chapter 5, ‘Unheard Voices: Who Is Afraid of Comics?’ Here I also get the chance to look at stereotypes, especially racist ones, and at the Tintin in the Congo controversy and lawsuit, as well as highlighting key examples of comics by and about under-represented peoples, from Aristophane’s Zabime Sisters on Guadaloupe to Igort’s graphic testimonies of Ukrainians who suffered through Stalin’s starvation programme (shown below and translated next year).

Autobiography is the subject of the sixth chapter ‘First Persons Singular’, including early examples, shown below, such as Charlotte Salomon’s Leben? Oder Theater? and a remarkably raw British comic by a survivor of a Japanese prison of war, ‘I Was A Jap Slave’. Huge thanks to Bryan Talbot who first alerted me to this gripping oddity, which traumatised him in his youth when he found it in an anodyne children’s annual, of all places! I range widely from here, covering the rewards and difficulties of portraying yourself and your real life in comics, such as Fabrice Neaud, as well as issues of honesty and trust, as in the fascinating case of Judith Forest, an utterly convincing Belgian autobiographer who never existed.

The common misperception that most comics still look like the supposedly mechanical, interchangeable, standardised panels parodied by Roy Lichtenstein in the Sixties opens my 7th chapter, ‘The Human Touch: Style and Individuality’. Whereas traditionally in mass-produced comics, seamless uniformity of artwork was demanded and prized, several modern graphic novels, famously David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, apply an arsenal of artistic approaches - and balloon shapes and fonts - to give each main character a distinct presence and voice. This is also the place to celebrate the diversity of media in recent comics, from ‘direct colour’ in watercolours or pastels to such multi-media combinations as lino-cut mixed with embroidery. Illustrations include redent examples by Moebius and Armella Leung.

And to close, ‘Infinite Canvases: Comics in the Digital Age’, follows my explorations into the recent development and burgeoning actuality of comics online, on iPad and other platforms, and on the gallery wall. Webcomics have birthed and nurtured numerous important works that might never have existed otherwise. I question what happens when multiple-choices of storyline, or animation, sound and voiceovers, are added to comics - when is a comic no longer a comic? Is reader control essential? And as the medium breaks free from the printed page and bound magazine or book, what prospects for installation comics do the white cubes and blank walls of the art gallery offer creators and readers? As an example, Dave McKean’s remarkable Hypercomic, ‘The Rut’, is illustrated below.

I hope this overview whets your appetite for my new book. Comics Art brings together my reflections and ruminations on where this 21st Century Medium is now, how it has got here, and where it might be heading next. I hope it raises issues and ideas, stimulates debate and creative juices, and encourages more people to investigate comics, past, present and future.

Reviews are coming in from Bleeding Cool, Comic Heroes, Aesthetica, The Observer, New Statesman, The Sunday Herald, ArtReview amd Good Reads - take a look at what they think:

Comics Art: An Understanding Comics For The 21st Century?
The very first pre-publication review by Rich Johnston on Bleeding Cool

Comics Art is a new book by British comics expert, curator and historian, Paul Gravett, published on 7th November by Tate [Publishing, who describe it partly as:] “Richly illustrated with many images taken from original artwork and rare artifacts, Comics Art gives a fascinating, accessible guide to some of the special properties of sequential art, such as panels, page layouts, speech balloons and wordless or ‘silent’ narration. It addresses concerns about how comics perpetuate stereotypes and support the status quo, while assessing their growing significance, notably through autobiography and reportage, as vehicles for provocative voices often silenced in other media. Comics Art also explores the diversity of styles, media and approaches now possible in the medium and exciting developments in digital comics and in comics conceived for galleries and installations.”

It begins with Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville (which gets a fair bit of attention), as the fictional idealised repository for all that comics could be as a medium. It speeds over the history that we all know, while choosing to spend longer over history we may not be as familiar with, such as Dalí’s obsession with the form, or the decision to make the birth of comics as 1896. This is not Comics 101, but it tells a narrative that should engage many.

So aspects such as the word balloon are given their historical origins, we learn how their adaptation by some countries and resistance by others changed how their respective comics developed, even how they prepared an audience for the death of silent cinema, and then how Citizen Kane would teach cartoonists how to frame their storytelling sequences. Paul then follows up his chapter on speech balloons with a chapter on silent comics. He embraces these juxtapositions throughout. The book is jam packed with these kind of mentions, name dropping at speed, but also building up the rich history and influence of comics, as well as looking at how these have developed. Because it’s not just the past that Paul obsesses with here in glorious details, but the future, and he showcases plenty of work, both digital and physical, with its eye on what comics could be.

This is a big, heavy book, with glorious illustration and swatches of tight columned text. It is going to be one of the most talked about books about comics, it will be profiled in fashionable magazines and newspapers, given its own plinth in bookstores and will inspire many online arguments about Paul’s take on comics, the claims he makes and the examples he uses. Oh, and given it’s publication date, expect it to be the gift to give and receive between comics folk at Christmas. But for now, it’s a book that I’ve just read. And now I want to read it again. Because there will be lots to discuss and I want a head’s start.

Comics Art: Five-Star Review by Alasdair Stuart in Comic Heroes Magazine 21:

Paul Gravett, as well as being no stanger to Comic Heroes, is widely regarded as one of the leading comic historians on the planet. It’s no surprise then, that the Tate approached him to write a book detailing the history of comics art and exploring all its various facets. It’s also no surprise to find that he’s produced a book as accessible and interesting as it is detailed.

A disclaimer first off: anyone looking for a history of the modern superhero comic is going to be extremely disappointed. Paul acknowledges them and talks at length about them in places, but never directly. This is a book that’s far more concerned with the overall history and structure of comics as an art form than exploring a single genre. It’s not elitist in the slightest, but it’s also not trapped in a single genre or time period and ultimately far stronger for that.

Gravett starts by defining exactly what a comic is, walking the reader through their evolution as an art form and touching on some of the most important books along the way. The details of ‘Master Race’, Feldstein and Krigstein’s 1955 thriller about a concentration camp survivor recognising a guard on the New York subway are especially interesting. Firstly because of the highly charged nature of the story and the time it was created and secondly because of the art. It could just as easily be a page from 2013, with Dave Gibbons-style colouring and panel design. Comics as an art form are relatively young (there’s actually an ‘official’ start date - it’s in the book too) but time and again Gravett shows us the clear evolution of the form, from 1896 (that ‘birthday year’) all the way through to the present day. Along the way he examines the way we read comics (left to right and down, repeat) ad the books that have played with that convention. He also looks at how panel size, and amount, has been used to play with the passage of time on the page.

One of my favourite sections talks about Roy Lichtenstein’s infamous parodies of comic art and, instead of simply criticising them, provides a context for Lichtenstein’s work that I’d never previously considered. This is what Paul excels at, educating not telling, providing you with context for everything. This continues all the way through the final chapter, exploring digital comics. Some familiar names reappear here, including the high acclaimed Shooting War and of course XKCD. Again, he impresses, embracing the digital age of comics with just as much enthusiasm as everything else. That enthusiasm is infectious too, and you’ll finish the book with a long reading list of new titles. Which, we suspect, was Paul’s plan all along.

Comics Art is a remarkable achievement. Intensely detailed but never intimidating, it approaches this bizarre, wonderful medium with complete enthusiasm and a keen, articulate critical eye. If you’re looking for a primer on comics history, you won’t find one better.

Aesthetica Magazine #55 ran this review by Regina Papachlimitzou:

Paul Gravett’s painstakingly researched volume offers an eloquently elaborated polemic on the art of comics, populated with a staggeringly wide and diverse selection of the art it examines. The text maps the history of the art within comics, charting the trajectory from its somewhat contested 19th century beginnings through to the place it occupies in the digital age. Gravett analyses the evolution of illustration through time (from “silent” to “talkies”) and across media, illuminating the shared influences between cinema storyboarding and the comic book format. The extraordinary sample of art showcased (Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 3 seconds, for instance) exemplifies the nuanced ideas that can and have been communicated through this art form. This is a gem of a book, offering a thorough argument for the validity of comic illustration as a sui generis art form. Supported by a tantalising, eclectic mix of artworks that make you want to rush out to buy the publications, the volume achieves what it set out to do by proving that comics are not just for a minority audience.

In The Observer, Rachel Cooke has picked Comics Art as one of her Graphic Books of The Year:

Those interested in putting 21st-century graphic novels in historical context will love the richly illustrated and hugely informative Comics Art (Tate) by Paul Gravett, the co-director of Comica and a regular judge of the Observer‘s annual graphic short story prize.

And in the New Statesman, Toby Litt has chosen Comics Art as his book of the year:

I’m into comics now - and there’s no better guide to the undiscovered wonders out there, between hard and soft covers, than Paul Gravett. His Comics Art, published as a gorgeous hardback by Tate, is the culmination of a lifetime’s reading, collecting and thinking. There are mind-blowing images on every page turn.

Teddy Jamieson included Comics Art in his round-up in The Sunday Herald on November 3rd 2013:

It is said that one of Pablo Picasso’s few regrets in life is that he never got around to doing a comic book. This is the first thing I learn from Paul Gravett’s Comics Art (Tate Publishing, £18.99). Picasso liked comics, Rudolph Dirks’s Sunday newspaper strip The Katzenjammer Kids in particular, and would discuss them with Gertrude Stein as she sat for a portrait. He understood that comics were an art, even if they weren’t his kind of art.

As the title suggests, it is the art of comics that is at the heart of Gravett’s book. Sumptuously illustrated, internationalist in outlook and very much up to the minute, it is interested in the space between the panel, the origins of the speech balloon and the comic strip’s potential to be radical - he quotes Maus creator Art Spiegelman suggesting that Mad Magazine was “more important than pot and LSD in shaping the generation that protested the Vietnam War” - or reactionary (think of the offensive stereotyping of Africans in Tintin In The Congo).

For all that, Gravett has written the start of a conversation here rather than put down the last word. There is much more to be said about the strengths and weaknesses of the form (the cartoonist Seth summarises it neatly and winningly as a “mixture of poetry and graphic design”; others may disagree), strengths and weaknesses you can find on display in this autumn’s batch of graphic novels.

And J.J. Charlesworth reviews Comics Art in ArtReview Vol. 66, January-February 2014:

For readers who enjoy ArtReview‘s monthly foray into the world of current comic art, the Strip, we have Paul Gravett to thank, since he commissions it. Gravett’s encyclopaedic knowledge of graphic novels, bandes dessinées and plain old strip-cartoons has made him an all-round historian and critic of, and impresario and advocate for, the genre, but while his previous books have tended to focus on one or other aspect of comics culture, for Comics Art he pulls together the breadth of his knowledge and enthusiasm into a wide-ranging survey of a century of telling stories in pictures and words. It’s a popularising book written to introduce a broad readership to the genre, but despite that, Comics Art isn’t an account of the mainstream of comics - no Batmans or Tintins here.

Instead, Gravett manages to balance historical insights with critical investigation by looking at the history of comics through the defining characteristics of its visual means, while reflecting on the shifting political and cultural terrain that makes up the century-long history of comics, illustrating this with a wealth of obscure, seminal examples that still stand the text of contemporary reading. Gravett provides an engaging history of the genre, recounting one birth of comics - the first appearance of speech bubble combined with sequential images - in the shape of the flap-eared urchin ‘the Yellow Kid’ in 1896. It’s this close attention to the form of the genre that makes Comics Art compelling, as Gravett looks next to ‘silent’ comics and to the crucial, galvanising influence of cinema on the medium during the 1930s, before moving on to a half century of eye-popping innovations in narrative and temporal structure that comics can claim as uniquely their own.

Gravett’s account might be smitten by the visual genius of the medium, but this is bound up with a deeply committed understanding of the antiorthodox and popular cultural politics that has always driven it. From the anarchic, commercial American ‘funnies’ that addressed the unruly, immigrant, semiliterate masses of the 1900s, to the countercultural undergrounds of the 60s and 70s, into the more introspective, biographical forms of the 90s, it’s the democratic, ‘subaltern’ social character of comics art, mixed with the idiosyncratic passions of its often obsessive creators, that, Gravett reminds us, continues to underpin its remarkable, often overlooked artistic growth.

Meanwhile, over on Good Reads, Brad Brooks gives the book five sparkling stars!:

Bloody marvellous. Paul Gravett has cemented his position as the main man in UK comics scholarship with this wonderful book. It’s probably best described as a primer for those who know very little about comics, but I’ve been involved in comics one way or another from the vast majority of my life, and I still learnt a thing or two. As befitting the “Man at the Crossroads” of comics (as Eddie Campbell memorably called him), Gravett hasn’t just focused on Anglo-American comics, but instead has widened his approach to the entire world of comics, including wordless comics and new technologies like digital & e-comics. This gives the reader a far more rounded introduction than the book’s size would initially suggest—and here we have to thank Peter Stanbury, the book’s designer, for fitting in so much information but without compromising the book’s utility, cohesiveness and attractiveness. It’s a whistlestop tour to be sure, but but if there’s a better introduction to the world of comics and how they work, I’ve yet to see it. Highly recommended.

Also Broken Frontier columnist and critic Andy Oliver included the book in his Best of 2013 on the Forbidden Planet Blog:
Paul Gravett’s Comics Art proved why he’s undeniably one of the top commentators on the medium out there and our own comics-based national treasure.

The announcement was made on December 30th 2013 that Comics Art was voted the Best Book on Comics of the Year in the 10th Annual Broken Frontier Awards. Thank you to everyone who voted! Here’s Andy Oliver’s commentary on it:

Just prior to the release of Comics Art from Tate Publishing I bumped into its author Paul Gravett at an unrelated launch at London’s Gosh! Comics. In the course of a quick chat about the book I asked Paul how long he had been working on this latest study of the form. With scarcely a pause for breath he replied with the rapier-like retort “All of my life…”

I recount that story not just for the obvious reason that it gives me a witty anecdotal opening to this final write-up for this year’s Broken Frontier Awards but also because it encapsulates Gravett’s lifelong undertaking to champion the medium we all love. As a comics writer, broadcaster and journalist his abundant passion for his subject matter is boundless. Whether it’s experiencing him hosting a Comica event in his role as festival director, via one of the exhibitions he has curated, or through one of the numerous books he has written, his energy and enthusiasm for sequential art are both infectious and inspiring.

No surprise then that when Tate Publishing came to include a volume on Comics Art to join previous volumes on Design Art, Street Art and Installation Art in their prestigious Contemporary Arts series that they turned to “The Man at the Crossroads” to expound on the intricacies of the form. It’s a reflection of, and a testament to, how far the evangelisation of comics by commentators like Gravett has propelled comics into the greater public consciousness as legitimate art in recent years that a book like this even exists.

Designed first and foremost to enlighten the cautious who may still be wary of the validity of comics when compared to other artistic mediums, Gravett has a secondary mission to also provoke an appreciation of the unique narrative properties inherent within them. Comics Art doesn’t necessarily wallow in the minutiae of the history of comics but at the same time still acknowledges it through its commentary on the evolution of the form.

In a near 140-page journey Gravett ponders on the origins of comics, their relationships to other media, the workings of silent strips, structural use of panels, the diversity of individual approaches and the potency of comics to not just communicate ideas but to provoke debate and, in some cases, to threaten the establishment. The eight chapters work as individual essays that combine to form a greater whole analysing such pivotal (and topical) events as the rise of autobiographical graphic novels and the breakaway from a print-only environment.

Always thought-provoking and informative, Comics Art represents a collection of reflections where Caran d’Ache and H.M. Bateman can be casually juxtaposed with Shaun Tan and Jon McNaught, where Gareth Brookes’s linocut and embroidered work gets equal consideration with the pioneers of digital comics, and where the sheer diversity of this art is stunningly conveyed with an incisive selection of illustrations displaying the unbridled potential of the particular language of comics.

An obligatory read, this examination of an ever evolving form will not just entice the novice reader into this world but also give the knowledgeable connoisseur plenty of food for thought about the expansive possibilities that comics embody. Comics Art doesn’t just dwell on what comics have been – it also asks us to consider what they can be and what they will be. This was the first year that we added a ‘Best Book on Comics’ section to the Broken Frontier Awards and in Paul Gravett’s Comics Art we have a winner that is insightful, celebratory and a powerful advocate for its subject.

David Luhrssen reviews the book in Express Milwaukee:

Major museum retrospectives for Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman are markers of the general acceptance of comics as art. As Paul Gravett reminds us in his profusely illustrated analysis of the medium, the comic strip as we know it today was a product of late-19th-century popular culture and was long accorded little respect by the guardians of high culture. And yet, self-conscious artfulness was sometimes present early on amidst what was often a deadline-driven pulp industry. Comics Art is valuable for its insights into the medium, including its relation to film (as panels are to frames) and the ability of the most inventive strips to tell stories in motion without the burden of words.

At Publishers Weekly, Heidi MacDonald included Comics aArt in her picks of ‘Eight Great Books About Comic Books’:

With more and more graphic novels on shelves and tablets of comics readers worldwide, there’s also been a boom in books about comics—from examining their history to showing how to make them. So far, 2014 has been an outstanding year for nonfiction books about comics. Here are some new and upcoming books that should have a place on the shelf of every serious comics enthusiast. Gravett is perhaps the most knowledgeable and congenial of comics scholars, and in this overview of comics he covers the last 50 years of international comics history and artistic development with the sure-footed understanding of a graphic Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Gravett covers both form—the panel experiments of Chris Ware and web comics experiments of Jason Shiga—and content—the autobiographical comics of Lynda Barry and storytelling of David Mazzuchelli. While it’s but an introduction to the many contemporary facets of graphic storytelling, it’s a very welcoming one.

Critic, poet and Harvard English professor Stephen Burt acknowledges and cites Comics Art in the Summer 2014 issue of Artforum magazine, as part of a special on ‘Art and Animation’ in his substantial article ‘Wonder Worlds’ on histories of comics:

The British curator, anthologist, and journalist Paul Gravett never forgets that comics are a visual art. Comics Art, his fast-moving, responsible overview, covers wordless comics (including Lynd Ward’s God’s Man [1929] and comics from the developing world, such as Les Soeurs Zabime (The Zabime Sisters, 1993-96) by the Guadaloupian artist Aristophane. Gravett’s story ends up notably international. Gravett begins his story of all comics everywhere with Dylan Horrocks’s winningly informal Hicksville (1998), set in an imaginary New Zealand town where everybody loves art comics. The whole of the plot pushes back against the domination of comics by superheroes, yets its denouement draws on the true story of Kirby and Lee.

John Lent, editor-publisher of The International Journal of Comic Art reviews this book in the Fall/Winter 2014 edition, Vol. 16, No. 2:

Comics Art presents, in very readable prose, aspects of comics arts such as panels, speech balloons, layout, and silent narration, as well as topics such as autobiographical comics, digitalization, style, and individuality. Includes historical and biographical information not commonly known, such as Dalí and comics, the connection between Milton Caniff andOrson Welles, or the role of Caran d’Ache. Scholarly sans pretension.

Posted: November 4, 2013


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Featured Books

Comics Art
(Tate Publishing /
Yale University Press)