In this third and final part of our joint interview with visiting comics critic, Paul Gravett, and The Salon artist, Nick Bertozzi, we discuss the problems of translating the medium into intellectual prose studies and museum exhibits.
Gravett, and author of multiple works on the subject, including Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know, Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics, and Great British Comics; and curator of the annual Comica festival at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, is certainly well-versed in both.
When you started doing more academic pieces—
I don’t think of myself as an academic, by the way. I don’t have the qualifications, in terms of art history, or any of that.
When you started producing books on the subject, where there a lot of well-established writers writing about comics in an intellectual way?
Yeah, though not so much in the UK. A friend of mine, named Roger Sabin writes for the Observer and did a book that you might have seen, called Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels, a big art book. And there are actually academic conferences. There’s one going on, at the end of August, actually, in Manchester. And there is a bi-annual conference on French comics in the UK, which has quite a lot of academics who come over, from the States. They’re in French departments or linguistic departments often, but they have a particular interest in comics—French comics, particularly. So there is a lot going on, and there are more opportunities now then there used to be.
You mentioned Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels, which is something of a large picture books. Your books also are also heavily illustrated—
Very discretely—they’re basically big scrapbooks. What I used to do, when I was about 10—I used to take all of the covers off of my American comics, cut them off, and make my own front covers on scrapbook paper, and it was called “A.T.O.M.I.C. Comics,” and A.T.O.M.I.C. stood for Astounding Tome of Masterpieces In Color. I had my own editorial—it’s kind of sad, really.
I really wanted to make my own packages of these things. Fortunately I stopped doing that when I got a hold of Silver Surfer, and decided that maybe I didn’t want to destroy that comic. Maybe I should keep the covers on. And that has continued really to what I’m doing now, through Escape Magazine. It was putting things together—I love the anthology, creating these kinds of echoes and resonances between different features and artists. I’ll tell you, the book Graphic Novels that I wrote is really sort of a wonderful scrapbook, in one sense. But also it is a way to explore and explain the culture.
The reason I bring it up is that, you take a book like that, or one of Scott McCloud’s books, and it seems as if you can’t write an intellectual book about the graphic novel, without feature a lot of large spreads of art.
Well you can. There are some excellent books that do that. There are two really amazing ones that have come out this year. One is Bart Beatty’s Unpopular Culture, which is all about the transformation of European comics in the 90s. It’s a really fascinating book from The University of Mississippi Press, which has released some of the best books on the subject.
The other book is by Thierry Groensteen, and he is certainly one of the most important thinkers about comics, certainly in the West. It’s finally been translated. It’s called The System of Comics. And it has got some illustrations in it, but he’s really the first person to really go into detail, even more so than McCloud or me, to analyze how the page and comics work. He’s got all kinds of new terms for them, which I’m still trying to get a handle on.
Unfortunately for my taste, there aren’t quite enough pictures. Of course it is a very academic book, but you need them, because he’s explaining things, and it would help to actually see it illustrated. At the moment the book hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage, because it’s quite a tough going. To be honest with you, some of the translation is a little bit awkward, because you’re going from French academic into English.
Bertozzi: McCloud was talking about that. He was saying that he was having a tough time.
Yeah. I’ve tried to read the French, though my French only goes so far. But I’ve actually done some comparison and I’ve pointed out bits where the translated word is just slightly wrong, and I didn’t get it. I went back to the French several times, and just about got it. But I think the ideas in it are very important, and I’m hoping that once it gets out a bit more, generally, it will really become an important book, with terminology that we’ll use, because we really need it, I think.
Bertozzi: I was just saying to Paul earlier that Comica, the festival that he organized, is a great word to bring into comics—
As the phenomena.
Bertozzi: And the other reason it’s good, besides being its own entymological thing, is that the “A” key is very close to the “S” key on a keyboard, so you’ve got that pinky finger that’s so used to going to the “S,” that it’s not that much of stretch to go to the “A.”
It’s nice that you say that, but it’s not going to catch on, sorry. Chris Oliveros from Drawn and Quarterly was trying to establish the word “Graphica” at some point. “Graphic novel” is, as we know, kind of a clunky term. The other term that’s kind of been catching on is “graphic literature.” But again that’s kind of limiting, but at least it’s not saying that it has to be a novel, which, as we know, is completely the wrong term.
When Maus was first on the New York Times best-seller list, it was in the fiction section, because it was a graphic novel, which was like saying that the holocaust didn’t happen, because it wasn’t in non-fiction. But we’re stuck with the term. It also backfires, because it has the word “graphic,” which for many people implies in-your-face and over-the-top.
Bertozzi: The word “cartoon” has been completely co-opted by—
Animatation, yes, exactly.
Related to this idea of not being able to accurately translate images into intellectual text, do you feel like something is lost when you take these images out of the context of a book and put them on museum walls?
Well, I think that in a way there’s a risk of that. You can, if you’re careful, chose a sequence where you’ve got a scene, which actually can be read. But people aren’t quite prepared to read comics on the wall, unless they’re short.
The strip is much more suited for that format.
In essence it’s better, yeah. One of Kevin Eastman’s policies, when he was at the Words and Pictures Museum, was that he wanted to buy the complete comic, so you exhibit the whole thing, like Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, and read, in theory, the whole thing, but who’s actually taken time to read the whole thing?
Bertozzi: That’s my favorite comic. I think it’s the best comic ever made.
And did you ever see it at the Words and Pictures Museum? Did you ever go there?
Bertozzi: I did, but I didn’t see the whole book.
There is some logic to saying that you should see the whole story—within reason, of course, unless it’s a 150-page graphic novel.
Chris Ware, not ideal for that setting.
No, no. There’s always going to be a certain awkwardness to putting graphic novels on the wall, but I think it’s important to appreciate all of the work that goes into them, as long as it’s been done in this format. The more of this work that’s being done on computers, the more difficult it’s going to be to go see work that’s been done in ink on paper. If people decide to record the stages, then maybe you can show that, in transition, the stages that lead up to the artwork.