Interview with Paul Gravette ‘Comics Art’
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 “Comic arts” published by Tate Publishing. Here Comics Bubble asks some questions.
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 that allows ‘the continuous flow of reality’ to ‘opens up new possibilities’. Why is it important that artists experiment with new mediums in the comic book format?
I suppose traditionally comics have been made for print and made to be easy to print and 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! Photograph comics, for example are hugely under-explored, if I had another hundred pages for this book there would be a chapter on photographic comics because its 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 comic 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, and 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 theTate gallery whom 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 industrialization 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 throw away comic into high brow status. Could you tell us in your own words why this publication of ‘Comics Art’ published by such a large cultural institute such as Tate is such 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 Lewiston 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 Crumbs 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 saying ‘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 magnetizes 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 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 which is were I could write about comics in a comic book, 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 Dunning are currently organising a project at the British Library 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, Ministry of Culture. Finally, next summer, in Britain we get the chance to do a big exhibition about British comics at the British library. 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.
Published by Tate Publishing
“Listen closely. It never stops. You can almost make out the scratching of pens and pencils onto paper, the tapping of typewrtiers, the clicking of computers, the buzz of printing presses and binders, all the assorted sound effects of writers, artists and printers creating more comics every minute all over the world’