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Paul Gravett:

The Everett True Interview

“The world of comics may, in its generosity, lend scripts, characters, and stories to the movies, but not its inexpressible secret power of suggestions that resides in that fixity, that immobility of a butterfly on a pin.”
Federico Fellini

Paul Gravett… Man… Where to start?

On the 351 bus from Brentwood to Chelmsford, pulling out a superhero comic to read, and all of sudden this older kid from my school - Ian Wieczorek - starts speaking to me, asking me my favourite comic book artists. We started chatting, discovered a common love for the spooky, scratchy lines of Swamp Thing artist Berni Wrightson and the cinematic visions of Nick Fury illustrator Jim Steranko.

Later, Ian introduced me to his comic book-loving friends - the sardonic, sensitive Phil Elliott (a man who once climbed out of a bathroom window at a comic book convention rather than face up to his fans), Mod fan Paul Chester, and this even older guy, Paul Gravett. We were like, 14-18. Paul G had also gone to my school, but he was sophisticated: he liked continental non-superhero comics and Metal Hurlant, was excited by old newspaper strips, all at a time when I was still trying to figure out who was foxier, the Scarlet Witch or the Black Widow.

Fast Fiction

Phil and Ian were both artists, created their own comic strips. They decided to start their own small print run magazine Fast Fiction and sell it at the regular comic book conventions held in London circa 1980. We were like, 19-23. Paul G got to hear of this, offered to come in and help them set up a stall, and a distribution service, to encourage talent. Future From Hell creator, the bespectacled, sarcastic Eddie Campbell, was one of the first to come in, with his awesome tales of everyday Southend life, Alec. There was Myra, with her salacious Camden Town hipster creation, Ed Pinsent‘s weird dream-like imagery and Glenn Dakin‘s scratchy illumination, geniuses all. These weren’t superheroes, far from it. This was sci-fi or horror or naïve dream fantasy, and, more often that not, real life - years before Fantagraphics popularised the form.

1980s Small Press   

And above it all hovered Paul Gravett, like a benevolent uncle figure, enthusing and pushing and attempting the absolute impossible. Even from that early age, Paul wanted to make a living from his enthusiasm, a living from comics.

“I can never remember a time when I wasn’t interested in comics,” explains Paul, the man behind the excellent new compendium Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life. “My first involvement was setting up the Fast Fiction table in 1981 as a way to get people together, because people were publishing their own zines in isolation - it was very hard to get hold of material, usually you’d end up being cornered by people at comic book conventions, trying to get you to buy some rubbish."

The Fast Fiction table at the Westminster Comic Mart

“After that, I worked at pssst! magazine. My most bizarre job there was being the Cliff Richard of comics, travelling round the country on a double-decker bus in the depths of winter, promoting a very glossy, overproduced European-style comic. It was there that I came up with an idea for my own magazine, Escape, partly as a reaction to what was wrong with pssst!, also from looking in the small press, American New Wave and of course Europe - Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Escape ran between 1983 and 1989, 19 issues. The first nine were self-published, the last 10 done through Titan Books.”

Escape

Escape was basically Fast Fiction, only given a (miniscule) budget and casting its net further. It mixed in quirky, affecting comic strips with considered articles and stuck to the A5 format. Under the Escape Publishing imprint, Paul and his partner Peter Stanbury published future Sandman author Neil Gaiman‘s first graphic novel, the disturbing Violent Cases (1987), and collections of Eddie Campbell’s work. Between 1992 and 2001, Paul was the director of The Cartoon Art Trust, a UK charity dedicated to preserving the best of British cartoon art and caricature. He has also curated numerous exhibitions, including the first art gallery exhibition of works by Alan Moore, and writes about comics for several publications.

Escape‘s run coincided with a fresh surge of interest in comic books in the press, mostly brought about by the work of two writers, Alan Moore (Watchmen, Swamp Thing, V For Vendetta) and Frank Miller (Dark Knight,Daredevil). For the first time since the advent of Marvel Comics in the early Sixties, it seemed that mainstream comic book creators were looking to move the genre along. And in return, the publishing companies started printing collections of their work, in book form - called graphic novels.

“There had been flurries of interest in the Sixties,” Paul reminds me. “The whole wave of pop art, there was ICA exhibition in 1969 called Aaarghh that was incredibly influential in bringing cultural attention to comics. Also [2000AD  character] Judge Dredd was getting very favourable music press coverage early on [in the Seventies]. What changed was that people in the Eighties who’d grown up on comics, like yourself, became journalists and were able to say ‘Yes, I like comics’, and at the same time comics themselves were trying to take a few steps out of their prolonged adolescence and do something else. They became more serious, while still leaving room for the crazy irresponsible material."

“There should always be that room,” Paul says, momentarily distracted. “The vulgar and the rude are an integral part of comics. Comics having to be serious would be a huge mistake - they should never be totally respectable. They need to keep an edge."

“So,” he continues, back on track, “there were three really big graphic novels that caught the attention, two superhero - Watchmen and Dark Knight - and Maus. Many people tended towards Maus, which didn’t have any superhero baggage. Maus was so different. It was drawn in a crude way. Its subject matter, the Holocaust, used funny animals for a very serious subject. All these factors made it an alien artefact for people to look at. The reason it was successful is because there is a curiosity to understand what happened during the Holocaust, and its after-effect of the survivors and on the children of survivors, which had never really been looked at this way before, not even in novels."

Maus by Art Spiegelman

“The other factor is that it wasn’t just the story of history, but of today, Art Spiegelman reflecting on his own feelings and his relationship with father. All these things were done with extraordinary care. Spiegelman would rewrite his speech balloons up to 40 times, something almost unimaginable in the high-pressure world of superhero comics."

“Comics can, when they’re done with extreme care, be very powerful,” Paul explains. “The problem was there was a lot of hype around the three graphic novels - Maus deserved it, but both Watchmen and Dark Knight had limited audience appeal, because they were centred around superheroes. This terrible phrase came about, ‘Comics have grown up’. Comics are grown up and infantile as well. The idea that comics are ‘adult’ is simply not true. This hype meant that all kinds of material were put in fancy covers and called graphic novels - and a lot was really bad. More often than not, it was part of the never-ending soap opera of superhero comics. There were good books out, but they got swamped. There was Love And Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez, Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse - a fantastic graphic novel [dealing with sexual identity conflict, and America’s civil rights movement of the Sixties] easily up there with Maus."

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse

“It’s a generational process. We can only go so far each decade - now we’re another generation along, more sophisticated. We don’t have to start at square one, but square two.” He sighs. “It is a slow process, but the public reception of graphic novel is now much more informed.”

Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life is a brilliant anthology - brilliant in both its simplicity and clarity of vision. Basically, Paul understands that to most people, certainly in this country, graphic novels and comic books themselves are still tainted, linked inalienably to superhero comics and male adolescent jack-off fantasies. “OK,” he seems to be saying. “Maybe you’ve read in The Guardian about how great Maus or Jimmy Corrigan is. Maybe you’ve seen Joe Sacco’s moving depiction of strife-torn regions in Palestine or been tempted to dip into Alan Moore or Frank Miller’s work by the movie adaptations of comics like From Hell and Sin City. Fine. You like them, but don’t know where to turn next. Let me help you.”

And so he does, over the course of 192 beautifully presented, full-colour pages. He takes 30 key works (Charles Burns’ Black Hole, Cerebus, the moving account of Iranian Marjane Satrapi’s childhood and adolescence Persepolis, Raymond Briggs’ unbearably moving portrayal of The Bomb When The Wind Blows, Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds, Dan Clowes’ laconic Ghost World) and dedicates two pages to each. Each spread has text spread around it where he discusses various devices used, like a schoolmaster with his pointing stick. From there, Paul talks about another 120 graphic novels, four to each key work - and on top of that, another 120 works are listed. Further to this, the book is split up into chapters - The Superhero Condition, The Undiscovered Country, Of Futures And Fables - introduced by absorbing and historical overviews.

Designer Peter Stanbury has done a knock-out job in making sure everything is presented cleanly and with minimum of fuss. The book itself is a work of art, right from the striking Dan Clowes cover illustration, through the hilarious Chester Brown comic strip introduction and the fonts used. Without a doubt, this book should be a mandatory purchase for libraries across the country.

“The cover line has a slight element of irony,” explains Paul. “Stories are really what people come for, same as in the movies. It’s saying it’s worth the effort and energy to read a comic. A lot of people doubt that. We’re all constantly making choices about what we read, what we go to see, there’s a surfeit of choice - this book is aimed at people who aren’t necessarily immersed in comics already, a new comic reader, someone who may have already dipped a toe in. Even now when graphic novels are in libraries and big book chains, a lot of them are still shelved according to how big they are, or in alphabetical order. Persepolis could easily be placed next to Buffy or yet another Batman book."

“This book gives people the maps to start exploring for themselves. It opens with a chapter called Things To Hate About Comics, because over the years I’ve come to realise many people have got a problem starting on a comic. People have a reflex that pushes them away - this book is saying try to lose this, because these comics will interest you."

“It’s intended to serve as a primer, pointing out some of the techniques used. Understanding comics is rather like opera or poetry, where you need a training wheel or water wings. Art Spiegelman pointed out to me recently that he’s constantly amazed that it isn’t automatically imprinted on us that a balloon coming out of someone’s mouth means speech. But it’s not."

“I’m less and less interested in what film does with comics,” Paul finishes. “The medium of comics works in so much more of a sophisticated way, the way a writer like Alan Moore can control and cast a spell over the reader. The reader is interacting with the medium much more actively than a passive cinemagoer. Maybe we are going to be stunned in years to come by fresh advances in art, film, literature, and music, but I think we’ll be stunned even more by comics, because they’ve lagged behind other media. Comics have finally got an avant-garde, ambition and courage, and they’re moving in directions that other media have given up on. We kind of know what to expect from a literary novel or a band, but we still don’t fully know what comics can do - and that’s what makes them so exciting.”

The Man At The Crossroads by Eddie Campbell

Posted: October 22, 2006

This article was written by Everett True, based on an interview with Paul Gravett, and appeared in Plan B Magazine #11, April/May 2006.

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