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Paul Gravett:

The Man at the Crossroads

Muchas gracias to the Spanish poet and comics connoisseur Ana Merino who has written this very kind, blush-making profile entitled ‘Paul Gravett’s Love of Comics’ for the Spanish literary magazine Leer in their October 2013 issue, No. 246. Here’s my translation:

The British world of comics over the last three decades has found a key intellectual figure in Paul Gravett. The whole of sequential art needs to nurture not only the graphic voices of its authors, but also the reflexive efforts of its scholars and supporters. Paul Gravett is a model to copy for his transnational commitment, his energy and his activism, in dialogue with many of the territories which have now been consolidated by comics.

The canonisation of comics in the literary and cultural context has been a slow and complicated process. The Paul Gravett of the Eighties was a passionate young man who promoted the self-published work by new artists at alternative fairs. Eddie Campbell, for example, pays tribute to him in his Alec story How to be an artist, converting him at the decisive moment into “The Man at the Crossroads” (below), who provides the young artist the possibility to show his comics on the [Fast Fiction] stand at [the Central Hall Marts in] Westminster to reach a wider audience. Their friendship is confirmed, and we discover that Gravett’s alter ego has a very refined taste in comics, and he educates new generations artists by offering them key comics to read.

The intellectual Paul Gravett was a visionary; he was very aware of the importance that alternative comics would have and the rise of the the graphic novel. Since childhood he has been passionate about comics. Interestingly his introduction to the comics world would be the science fiction television series Thunderbirds, which was made with puppets and scale models. One day as a young boy, Gravett realised that the weekly comics [drawn by Frank Bellamy in TV21 ] which adapted Thunderbirds allowed him to read this series whenever he felt like it, and what’s more it was in living colour and not in black and white as on television.

This passion for comics since childhood is responsible for making him over the years a meticulous activist, promoter, scholar, journalist, curator and essayist dedicated body and soul to the medium. In late spring this year, we met up in Scotland at the International Comics and Graphic Novels Conference held in conjunction with the International Bande Dessinée Society in the Universities of Glasgow and Dundee. His interventions were excellent, and made me think how important it is to recognise the talent of these committed intellectuals.

Let me sail through his biography without missing any thrilling details. He told me that his passion began in his childhood filled with reading comics, and he sent me a delicious photo of him as a boy in his grandparents’ garden reading Fantastic, a reprint weekly in the UK of Marvel comics (above). And he confessed to me that thanks to comics he has never stopped, ever since his childhood, and he can still feel the same excitement discovering or rereading comics.

He still vividly remembers the moment when he said to himself that comics would be his life: it was on a train journey after an interview to work on co-ordinating an advertising tour [on a double-decker bus] in 1982 for the British comics magazine pssst!. His passionate affair continues with the birth of the magazine Escape which he founded with Peter Stanbury. Its 19 issue (1983-1989) helped to promote Eddie Campbell, Phil Elliott, Glenn Dakin, Paul Grist and Hunt Emerson, pushing a cutting-edge vision inspired by the Franco-Belgian spirit of ‘The Clear Line’. Escape was also the name of the publisher who brought out Violent Cases in 1987, the first collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.

From 1992 to 2001 Paul Gravett directed the Cartoon Art Trust, an organisation concerned with the preservation comics [and cartoons] and promoting them in the fields of museums, galleries, archives and libraries. He has curated countless exhibitions both in their country of origin as well as in the rest of Europe, and in 2003 became director of Comica, the London International Comics Festival. His articles and columns have appeared regularly in major publications like Comics International and Art Review, and among his books, which have become vital references for lovers of the medium, are Manga [Sixty Years of Japanese Comics], Graphic Novels and the stupendous editing of 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die. His next work is entitled Comics Art [from Tate Publishing & Yale University Press]. In Gravett, comics in the UK have found and are still finding the best ally you could dream of.

And many thanks to Richard Graham, blogger at Comics Bubble, who interviewed me recently, about Comics Art and more. Here’s his intro and our conversation:

Paul Gravett is petit in height and was nicknamed the ‘small prawn’ in his schoolboy days being that his second name is ‘Gravett’, similar to the French translation of prawn ‘crevette’. Yet despite this etymological twist, the comics industry hails Paul Gravett with gravitas, regarding him as a scholar in the subject of Comics – recently quoted in the Times as ‘the greatest historian of comics and graphic novel form in the country’. This week he has released a commentary on the modern history of comics titled Comics Art published by Tate Publishing. Here Comics Bubble asks some questions:

Richard Graham:
In your recent publication Comics Art you say that “Mixing and contrasting techniques is opening up fresh avenues of expression for graphic novelists” such as the recently published Black Project by Gareth Brookes who uses linocut prints with embroidery in his comic. Could you talk a little bit about the new wave of heightened realism in comics, how unexpected mediums such as this outsider art allows “the continuous flow of reality” and “opens up new possibilities”? Why is it important that artists experiment with new mediums in the comic book format?

Paul Gravett:
I suppose traditionally comics have been made for print and made to be easy to print. This is obviously what Roy Lichtenstein exaggerated with his painted hard black outlines and clunky bold colours and this is how people have assumed comics look, and still do today. Now there is no end to drawing styles and printing techniques that can be applied, you know, even knitted comics – why not! Photographic comics, for example are hugely under-explored. If I’d had another hundred pages for this book, there would be a chapter on photographic comics, because it’s absurd that you have photographers who surely want to tell stories, surely some of them realise that they could do more than one photograph, yet they don’t. There is a very small number of photographers doing this, it seems photography needs to wake up to the idea that it could be doing more narratively. There is also the notion that comics don’t need to look the same, that a multitude of styles can be used in the same book such as Glynn Dillon’s Nao of Brown where he has two stories being told simultaneously.

In Comics Art there is a particularly interesting discussion you make over the dualist nature of marrying images and words in graphic novels, the idea that words are a higher form of communication and don’t need the excess of pictures to explain thoughts. What would you say to the idea that it is the nature of subversion that is the essence of the comics art medium?

In one sense they are very subversive because they don’t behave and keep words and pictures separate, and certainly in historical terms, the mad German Gotthold Lessing, a critic, was very concerned that there should be an absolute divide – that the two should never blend and this sentiment is still around, even William Wordsworth published a poem in about 1850 that was against the illustrated page and was horrified that pictures were invading the wonderful world of words. We still have this going on, this nervousness from the literary world that somehow pictures debase and simplify. We can’t pretend that the whole medium is subversive in terms of its content, but I do think in terms of its form, its actual structure, it is counter to a lot of people’s thinking.

Tate Publishing is obviously part of the Tate Gallery who occupy the old power station building. It has been noted that hosting art within this building is an intended narrative about the history of art and how industrialisation and the subsequent commodification of culture has had an influence on artistic output. Roy Lichtenstein’s recent retrospective is an example of this, how his paintings contain a playful irony by inverting the throwaway comic into highbrow status. Could you tell us in your own words why this publication of Comics Art by such a large cultural institute such as Tate is an important step for ‘comics as art’ as stated in the title of your book?

Comics Art is joining a list called the contemporary art series, which are sort of surveys, accessible introductions to all kinds of subjects from installation art, land art, and also interestingly street art. A guy called Cedar Lewisohn who is a very knowledgeable curator, put together an impressive Tate book about street art which is one of these things that has come off the street and into the gallery, perhaps a little like comics art. At one point, Cedar and I were hatching together an exhibition for art and comics and partly out of that dialogue and proposing that project and possibly a book to go with it, came the idea from Tate that they wanted to do a book about comics. Tate is of course an important entree, because ideally the book is possibly a toe, maybe not a big toe, certainly not a foot, in the door at Tate for them to consider doing an exhibition about comics and art. But generally I am feeling that it is too big a leap for Tate to actually consider, possibly even in the next decade, doing an exhibition about comics and art, it would upset the art world too much.

But didn’t they do an exhibition on Robert Crumb’s cartoons?

No, that was the Whitechapel Gallery and that’s because the director there, Iwona Blazwick, is alert to the fact that comics are art, and plenty of other prestigious galleries around the world have done it. It could happen, maybe I’ll be surprised. When Crumb had his major show last year at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, at the press conference he was talking to the director asking ‘Why have you chosen my work to put here, it’s not made for the gallery wall, it’s made for reproduction’. And of course, Crumb is one of the few who have been adopted by the art world. The director admitted he did not know a lot about Crumb’s work or even his heritage of satirical art, and the director said that it was simply because a lot of contemporary artists cite him as a major influence on their work.

Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be involved with comics yourself, you mentioned you have a law degree from Cambridge – why did you choose a less financially rewarding occupation? What magnetises you to comics, why are you so drawn to its counter-culture?

A crucial thing was that when I was studying at Cambridge and I was getting completely bored with Law, but I did it because my father was a lawyer, I discovered a lot about art. I had not had much exposure to art but going to Paris, reacting naively, but having this Hispanic-American friend of mine Augustine Martinez, who never really accepted my enthusiasm for comics, nonetheless he really opened up my ideas about art and stuff I hadn’t even thought about. And that’s important, because up until then my taste in art was defined by comics to a large extent, and defined by thinking that the best evolution of comics was toward a greater and greater realism, artists like Neal Adams, who brought in this kind of slick photographic Madison Avenue advertisement art style, which influences artists today such as Alex Ross, who is this incredible painter of hyper- realistically drawn superheroes with bulges and wrinkles. I remember being in the Pompidou Centre for the first time and looking at a Paul Klee painting and thinking “It’s comics!” And it is! It’s beautiful abstract comic panels! And crucially that has meant that my prejudices were put aside and my horizons blown wide open.

After all these years of reviewing and writing about comics, often in a very poetic way, do you think we will ever see a graphic novel by Paul Gravett?

Well I’m not going to say never, actually one thing that might happen which a publisher mentioned is where I could write about comics in a comic book form, rather like MCloud, I wouldn’t draw it but it would be explaining comics, so well shall see!

Finally do you have any interesting projects coming up that we should know about for our Comics Bubble readers?

Yes, myself and John Harris Dunning, author of Salem Brownstone, are currently organising a project at the British Library in London that is going to be the biggest exhibition on British comics this country has ever had. Previously, I curated an exhibition in France, back in 1990 for the Angoulême comics festival which was the first major survey of British comics art, with lots of original pages. It was called God Save the Comics and it was there at the opening of the amazing comics centre in Angoulême in the South of France, opened by the Jack Lang, Minister of Culture. Finally, next summer, in Britain we get the chance to do a big exhibition about British comics at the British Library entitled Comics Unmasked: Art & Anarchy in the UK. They are getting known now for doing really top-class exhibitions and of course it is a high-profile literary venue which will reach a really wide public and generate lots of media coverage. It may help lift comics to a level where they have not really been seen quite before, because absurdly there hasn’t been a show on this scale and themes that focuses on just British comics before in the UK.

Posted: January 13, 2014

This profile originally appeared in Spanish in Leer Magazine 246, October 2013, and the interview ran on Comics Bubble in November 2013.


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