Thursday, September 13, 2018

SWF 2018 - Interview with Paul Gravett Part 1

Interview with Paul Gravett, the Man at the Crossroads Part 1

Just who is Paul Gravett? And why is he one of the highlights of this year’s Singapore Writers Festival and why should comics people here care?

Here’s the skinny:

Paul Gravett is a writer, historian, critic and curator specialising in international comics. He has authored books on manga, graphic novels, British comics and comics art. He is the editor of The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics and 1001: Comics You Must Read Before You Die. His exhibitions include retrospectives of Tove Jansson, Posy Simmonds and Jack Kirby.

To say Paul is a mover and shaker in the international comics world is an understatement. Other than John Lent and a few others, Paul is at the forefront of world comics, and not just about works from North America, Europe or Japan.

He co-curated this great show on British comics called Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK at the British Library in 2014 and last year, he worked with the Barbican Centre to launch a world tour of his latest exhibition, Mangasia, the biggest show on Asian comics with original pages and rare comics.

I always wanted to bring Paul in for SWF. While we have lots of workshops on drawing (and lesser on writing and editing), comics criticism is sorely lacking in our current comics eco-system. Good and robust comics criticism can get us to think deeper about this visual medium that engages us and then to write about them.

Paul will be featured in two SWF events – a talk on Comics as Mirrors for Change (a ticketed event) and he will also be on the panel about Comics Events as Connectors, about organizing and curating comics festivals, conferences and exhibitions (a festival pass event).


Comics As Mirror for Change
Date: 4 Nov, Sun
Time: 2:00 PM - 3:00 PM
Venue: Asian Civilisations Museum, Ngee Ann Auditorium

Comics Events As Connectors
Date: 4 Nov, Sun
Time: 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM
Venue: Asian Civilisations Museum, Ngee Ann Auditorium

Here’s Paul talking about the passion.

1. What are your first memories of comics? (could be a comic strip) What was your first purchase?

Watching Thunderbirds, Tintin and then Batman on TV introduced me to their comics versions. Thunderbirds came inside TV21, a weekly British comics published 100 years in the future which we had delivered to our house. Tintin I first found in the library. The first American comic book I bought was a World’s Finest 80-page giant from Romford market. I also grew up reading ‘The Trigan Empire’ in the weekly Look & Learn. And Peanuts in the Daily Mail newspaper, from which I made scrapbooks of the clipped strips.

2. Yes, Look and Learn is very well remembered in these parts of the world. Lat had fond memories of them too.
What was comics fandom like in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s?

My entrée was discovering the comics shop Dark They Were And Golden Eyed in London’s Soho, through an advert or plug in Fantastic, I think, a British weekly which reprinted Thor, X-Men and Iron Man. My Mum took me and my brother there specially on my birthday. I bought my first fanzine, Alan Austin’s Comics Unlimited and made discoveries and friends by correspondence. I also had a few pals at school who collected US comic books, so we went to a London Comic Mart for the first time in the early 1970s which became a ritual and pilgrimage!

3. Why are you so passionate about comics?

Bonkers, isn’t it? I love their illimitable variety and reiterations. I like what my brain and imagination have to do to make them work, it’s active, puzzle-like, map-like. And I like the fact that they don’t move, don’t have sound and music, they shouldn’t work at all, but they do. I have wearied of moving image, ie TV and film, because they direct, manipulate and insist on you. Comics are a unique performance, different for every reader, and every reading.

4. How did you get into comics reviewing, writing, curating and organizing? Basically being the man at the crossroads…

Through befriending fellow enthusiasts and makers, and sharing our enthusiasms. Reviewing came first for fanzines, then some articles for them too. Then organising with school friends Phil Elliott and Ian Wieczorek the Fast Fiction mail order distribution service and sales table for self-published comics and zines at the Westminster Central Hall Comic Marts as a place to meet. Out of this and meeting my partner Peter Stanbury came co-publishing and co-editing Escape (19 issues, 1983-89). And out of this came my first curatorial role in 1990 when Britain was guest country at the Angoulême Festival (which Peter and I visited starting in 1984). It’s kept developing organically from there. There was never any strategic plan or career path. I have to keep pinching myself, I know I’ve been hugely lucky.

5. Tell us that story of why Eddie Campbell called you that.

I first came across that nickname when I first read the serialisation of Alec-How To Be An Artist. As you know, he gave several people nicknames instead of naming people directly. So Bill Sienkiewicz became ‘Billy the Sink’, David Lloyd was ‘Mr Status Quo’ I think? So it was a surprise and compliment to discover my ‘secret identity’. Thanks to Eddie, I may also be one of the few people to be ‘outed’ by a comic, not that it was ever much of a secret!

6. Did you ever have a ‘real’ job? (ie a salaried job and not related to comics)

Oh yes, I worked for an insurance brokers in the City in London for a year or more, and during this time started up Fast Fiction - to meet and connect people, and bring the burgeoning UK small press scene together, if only once every month or two for a Saturday mart and drinks after.

7. What was the turning point for you? – that most significant comics event, exhibition you organised, comics review or book you wrote that changed things for you? That makes you say this is it. I am getting somewhere…

In 1981, shortly after my grandfather died, I got called in to help out with a new comics magazine, ‘psssst!’. I owe it all to Mal Burns, who produced the UK comics magazine Graphixus and wrote vital columns in UK fanzines giving addresses to order self-published comics, UK and international. We’d met several time at marts and he’d seen how the Fast Fiction table was becoming a focus and dynamo for aspiring creators. I went for an interview and got the job of heading a team to promote ‘psssst!’ on a double-decker bus which was to tour the UK, with a young assistant Nick and a driver Mick. It was a crazy job, a gamble, but I’ll never forget coming home on the train and thinking that my grandfather was looking out for me and giving me this chance. My parents knew how much comics meant to me, they never discouraged it, and I handed in my notice to the brokers. This was the first of many turning points, but I knew there was no turning back. I know that all I have done in comics, all I am still to do, is why I am here.

8. You wrote Manga: 60 years of Japanese comics which was published in 2004. I believe you have yet to visit Japan then? Was it difficult to write that book having only to depend on English sources and translated manga works? When did you first visit Japan and did it change your idea and expectations of manga?

I was interviewed in 2004 by the BBC and they asked, ‘How often do you go to Japan?’ and I replied, ‘Not often enough’! I did have Japanese friends, in London and Japan, to confer and correspond with. The book was a way for me to try to understand manga in a broader, fuller way. I also read and researched a lot about Japan and exposed myself as much as possible. Of course Angoulême and other comics festivals were vital for meeting people involved in manga. Japan was the guest country in 1991, the year after Britain for example. Through friends I also got to co-curate a crazy exhibition for the Magma Gallery in London in 2003, consisting mainly of 1,000s of manga books. The owner, Marc Valli, introduced me to publisher Laurence King and it took off from there. I finally visited Japan last March in 2017 for two intensive, astounding weeks, meeting so many people and arranging material for the Mangasia exhibition. I felt so happy there, above all in a country where comics are (almost) everywhere and (almost) everyone likes them. It’s like Hicksville come true, and not as a remote New Zealand town but a whole nation!

to be continued...

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