If it is indeed true that you can judge people by the company they keep, then Paul Gravett is something akin to comics’ patron saint. In the few days in which the author passed through New York City, en route to the Toronto Comic Art Festival, he found himself constantly entertained by some of the Big Apple’s brightest cartooning luminaries.
After Gravett, one of the UK’s most prominent comics authorities, address a packed house at MoCCA on Monday, we asked if he might be able to set aside half an hour for a quick interview. He readily agreed to do one the following evening, as long as we didn’t his bringing a friend along.
Gravett showed up with Cross Hatch pal, Nick Bertozzi in tow. Bertozzi and I proceeded to pick the former Escape Magazine editor’s brain for 30 minutes at a Greenwich Village watering hole, but mostly, we just sat back and listened.
A lot of people have asked me this question, so I’m sure you get it fairly often, yourself: have you ever had any ambition to create your own comics?
No, I haven’t. the world of comics isn’t just writing and drawing—there’s another side to it. Bringing people together is important, and also just being able to read people’s stuff in its gestating stages, and tell them what could be improved—I’m not actually a hands-on editor, as I was with Peter Stanbury on Escape. The fact is, I’m still in touch with a lot of people who show me things and ask for feedback. I like to help in that way. It’s also things like running a festival, and putting people together who haven’t met before, internationally. People don’t realize how much they have in common with someone, over from France, with, say, someone like Nick from America. That sort of thing can spark off so much.
Bertozzi: You were born to host.
I wasn’t. I wasn’t that confindent with this sort of thing, but I had experience with several key experiences, early on. My first job in comics, actually, was taking a double-decker bus around the UK, to promote a new magazine, called Pssst!, which was important mostly because it serialized the first big chunk of Luther Arkwright, by Bryan Talbot, which is clearly one of the key graphic novels of the period. I was sent out with a punk assistant and a big, burly bus driver. This bus was a big double-decker that this publisher bought, to drive around and invite the public on board. On the ground floor, you could buy comics. Upstairs, the seats were still there, in the back two-thirds, and the rest was a back projection slideshow, with music. This was before the video ones—it was a very basic way of showing some of the comic stories, with a soundtrack to go with it.
This was my first experience of having to go out and talk to the media and bookshops and news agencies, and also doing something of a talent search, going to art schools, to see if there was any kind of weirdo or misfit characters doing comics. We found people like Glenn Dakin, who, of course is a genius, and John Watkiss, who now does Deadman for DC. I went out there to talk about comics, and I found that I could do it quite well. That’s important. You need to find people who can articulate why comics are worthwhile.
As far as the more academic writing that you do, did that initially stem out of the magazine?
Yeah—I suppose it did, because I was doing reviews and interviews, and that was some of my first journalism. I had done some reviews in fanzines, before that. Right now, I just did a massive interview with Posy Simmonds for the Comics Journal, which is going to be great. I also do obituaries—I’m like a vulture, waiting for people to drop. In fact, famously, one of the most famous British historians, who I have a lot of respect for, was Denis Gifford, who wrote many, many books on comics. He was an inspiration to me, except, he used to talk to elderly comic artists, and say, “by the way, I’m researching your obituary.” You don’t go up to somebody and ask, “how old are you? Are you okay? How’s your health?”
I had a job once, which required my writing media obituaries. I wrote one for Rupert Murdoch, a few others who are getting up there.
Yeah, I don’t have my obits prepared. Another thing I do that’s really fun, is writing 1,500 words on a graphic novel, for a big national newspaper. I do that for The Independent and The Telegraph that come out at various times. In fact, when I reviewed Buddha, by Tezuka, it was chosen as a novel of the week, which, of course was an outrage.
Which speaks to something that you addressed last night, with Chris Ware winning the Guardian Book Award. That was a big hubbub.
That was a big hubbub. That happened before, too, when Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Gaiman, Charles Vess Sandman story won a Hugo, or some big award, and they had to change the category, after that, to stop it from happening again.
Bertozzi: What happened with Chris Ware? I hadn’t heard about that.
The Guardian does a First Novel prize, which usually goes to standard novels, and Chris Ware was nominated. The panel was closely divided—in fact, it only won by one vote. They came up with Floyd Farland, which was an early book that Chris Ware did before. It was put out by Eclipse—I had never seen it before. He had had a book out, prior to Jimmy Corigan. And fortunately, the only reason they got around that, was that it didn’t have ISBN, so it wasn’t properly a book.
Bertozzi: That happened to me too, today. The Society of Illustrators called about The Salon. They wanted to put me in for the Newbie Award, and asked if I had any works published prior to it. I asked if comics counted, and if so, then probably 20. They said, “well, then, you’re not a Newbie. Goodbye.” Click.
How would you gauge the acceptance of the art form in the UK, versus the states?
In a way, it’s on a parallel, because the term “graphic novel,” has been an enormous help. That term doesn’t exist, for example, in France. Last year, I went to Angouleme, which is the biggest comics festival in the world, outside of Japan. Still bigger than San Diego—however big San Diego gets, however many movies there are, Angouleme gets a quarter of a million people, and gets everybody, from kids to grandparents. It’s a whole town dedicated to comics, not just a convention center sealed of from the rest of the world.
So there’s no need to legitimize the form in France.
Exactly—well, you say that, but this summit they had, last year, in Angouleme, was studying the academic status of comics in France. You would think with all that, and with the government sponsorship of the form, but in fact, there’s very little good coverage of graphic novels, in the French press. They’re actually really envious of things like The New York Times doing coverage of something like Persepolis, or some of the stuff in the UK that I’ve been involved with.
There still is a tendency in France not to cover comics that much in the media. What struck me as interesting is it’s actually better in Belgium. People forget that French comics are as much Belgium as French—Herge, for example. In Belgium, there’s a much better culture, because they have a regular weekly TV slot that covers it and massive regular coverage in the press. In France, there’s a crisis, because in the last 11 years, there’s been such an explosion of new comics coming out, year after year, exponentially, and a lot amazing stuff isn’t even getting noticed. There’s a problem getting this stuff across.
There are, obviously superstars. There’s Marjane Satrapi, Lewis Trondheim, and a few other people like that, but when the new Asterix comes along, even if it’s crap, it’ll sell in phenomenal numbers. Whereas, over here, the graphical novel stuff has enabled people to say, “well, that’s the superhero stuff, that’s the movie stuff, and this is the graphic novel,” like The Salon, and Fun Home, obviously, which had the incredible coup of being Book of the Year. That is a major step forward for comics.
[Continued in Part Two.]