Friday, September 28, 2018

SWF 2018 - interview with Paul Gravett Part 2

Here's Part 2 of my interview with Paul Gravett who is coming for SWF in Nov. Check out his two events here:

As I typed this now, Paul is on his way to Taiwan, his first trip there after writing about Taiwanese comics for years. The work of a comics evangelist never ends.

The first part of the interview is here:

9. I visited Comics Unmasked, the big exhibition on British comics, at The British Library in 2014. How does Mangasia compare to Comics Unmasked in terms of scale and scope, etc?

Comics Unmasked was another turning point for me, and I owe so much to co-curator John Harris Dunning for knocking the door of The British Library at just the right moment to get us inside! We made a Dynamic Duo! Mangasia is bigger as we show nearly 300 originals as well as rare printed matter, paintings, fashion, videos, paintings, more complex as it spans many countries and histories, longer-lasting as it is touring worldwide for 5 years max, and we have some stunning impact pieces too, not least the inflatable sculpture by Aya Takano at over 6 metres tall and an interactive mecha robot on a giant screen! Both shows, however, show and tell things about comics that have not been done before.

10. Mangasia, your biggest show to date and travelling around the world for 5 years – pitch it to us in 10 words.

A mind-expanding voyage into Asian Comics’ diversity and dynamism.

11. Okay, I’m sold. How did that come about?

First came the opportunity, after the Comics Unmasked exhibition and book for The British Library in 2014, for me to develop a new book for Thames & Hudson. They were interested in manga, as was I. But I wanted to expand the exploration to contextualise Japanese comics in the much bigger landscape of Asian comics and they gave this the green light. Shortly after, Barbican International Enterprises approached me, again thanks to the BL show, to develop a comics exhibition as part of their range of touring exhibitions. I told them about my new book and they immediately saw its potential as their next exhibition. It’s taken since then to bring everything together in October 2017, when the book was published in English, French, Korean and Italian and the exhibition began its proposed five-year world tour in Rome at the stunning Palazzo delle Esposizioni.

12. Sounds like the Comics Unmasked exhibition at The British Library was indeed a turning point.
There were so many Asian creators to be featured in Mangasia - how did you choose? What was the criteria and curatorial framework?

Some key criteria were that the comics had to be created by Asian artists in Asia and for Asian readers - so not for the American, French or other markets, and not by Asian artists based outside of Asia. Another was that we were less interested in direct imitations of Western characters or themes - such as manga Batman. Another rule was the work must have originated as a comic, so we were less interested in comics versions of other media, for example adapting TV shows. We are also showing Asian comics in their original language, and only in English if they were originally published in English (or English was one of a number of languages the work came out in).

We were not totally strict and inflexible in applying these criteria, but they gave us some guidelines. By organising and filtering the exhibition into six quite broad themes - An Introductory ‘Mapping’, Fables & Folklore, History, The Artist’s Processes and Lives, Censorship, and Multimedia crossovers - we could seek out strong, distinctive, diverse, original, representative, high-quality examples that also fitted well thematically. Connections, comparisons, contrasts, counterpoints, contradictions, all were helpful in searching and selecting.

©Nicolas Joubard for le lieu unique

13. Obviously there was a lot of international collaboration (Hikmat Darmawan from Indonesia, Nicolas Versatppen from Thailand and Gerry Alanguilan from the Philippines, to name a few). In 2011, you wrote 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, which featured contributors from Asia. And you have been featuring the annual best of world comics list on your website for years. When and how did this awareness of Asian comics come about? At which point did you move beyond North America and Europe? (John Lent is the other one I know who has been plugging this away..)

You too were a vital part of Team Mangasia, Ct! From the start, for the book and exhibition, I relied hugely on my networks of friends, some I have yet to meet in person, who share my passion for understanding the wealth of fascinating comics around the world. They bring an essential foundation of expertise, taste and insight. One key early influence on my desire to learn about comics from Asia and indeed all over the world was reading, entry by entry, a library copy of Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia of Comics. That was truly mind-expanding. So too have been my annual pilgrimages since 1984 to the Angoul√™me International Comics Festival, the hub of world comics. I’m lucky to read French, a comics culture like no other, with more translations of international comics than any other, as well as some German, Spanish and Italian. And I can always look at the pictures! And John Lent remains a vital inspiration to me - I was so pleased that he could be there at the exhibition’s opening in Rome - and I could introduce him for the first time to comics creators from Mongolia.

14. And as a result of that, John visited Mongolia recently to interview artists for his new book on political cartooning in Asia. Networks and connections.
What is the most surprising find from doing this show? (could be a creator, a comic series or artwork)

Too many to list, too hard to choose just one. I’d say that it was a delight to be able to find comics artists in countries where the medium is nowhere near as developed and vast as Japan. I mentioned Mongolia, but we also found present-day creators making comics for example in Cambodia, North Korea, two in Bhutan (one retired), and one from Tibet. And it was a thrill that The Barbican could commission two new, hand-painted, wooden ‘kaavads’ from folk artists in Rajasthan, India. These are compact, portable shrines that work as visual accompaniments to live spoken storytelling and literally unfold their stories by opening door after door of comics-like panels.

15. Finally, back to the UK. What is the future of British comics?

Continuing surprises, growing diversity. Who would have thought that a graphic novel would be long-listed this year for the Man Booker Prize? Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina is American, but it marks the first graphic novel published by Granta Books and bodes well. Other non-specialist and literary publishing houses are also releasing their first graphic novel, such as Virago and Profile. Away from the graphic novel, the so-called small or independent presses, and their online equivalents, are more prolific and productive than ever. Some of the greatest work is in short-form and often self-published comics, essential spaces for innovation, self-expression, experimentation. The remarkable contributions of women continue to expand the medium, as will increasing diversity and inclusivity, hopefully from more of the UK’s Asian population and other under-represented voices too. And this will all be helped by crowd-funding, Patreon support, awards, competitions, and grants from the Arts Council of England, Creative Scotland and other bodies. Britain is not France, let alone Japan, and it’s not easy making a living by making comics your own way, but the talent and drive are here and are unstoppable.

16. What’s next for you in the promotion of comics appreciation and reading?

I’m immersed in webcomics right now, curating an exhibition for next month’s 2nd Busan Webtoon Festival in Korea about innovative Korean and international digital comics, from Scott McCloud to Augmented Reality! And I’ve completed a monograph on the brilliant Posy Simmonds, to be published next Spring to launch a new Thames & Hudson series on illustrators, in association with House of Illustration. And to coincide, I am curating two exhibitions of Posy Simmonds work, for HoI in London and PULP Festival in Paris. Also on the horizon, co-curating next year an exhibition on where comics go next…

17. What’s next for comics scholarship in general? (The Comics Studies Society just had their first conference at Champaign, Illinois)

The flourishing of conferences, journals, research, books, festivals etc. is incredibly encouraging and stimulating. I’d like to see even more connectivity and collaboration internationally (and that is one of the motivations behind Mangasia - and really behind everything I do - and you too, I think, Ct?). We can all learn so much from each other and today that’s more important than ever.

18. Can comics really be mirrors for change? (this is the talk Paul is giving on 4 Nov 2018 and it will moderated by Ian Gordon)

Totally, and Sonny Liew’s acclaim in Singapore is evidence of that. I think it’s because cartoon art in its many forms can be very persuasive and influence how we see ourselves and others, for better or for worse as well. At their best, comics can build empathy and understanding, but they can also distort, divide and demonise. The medium is powerful, in part because (in print at least) it doesn’t go away, you can’t swipe or click it away, you can return over and over to its fixed images and text. In our ephemeral Floating World of spin, that staying power is strong. Great cartoonists can make difficult, unsettling stories and experiences accessible and relatable through their comics. The world is a little bit wiser thanks to Spiegelman’s Maus, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Mattotti’s Fires and with every other work of humane, enriching comics.

19. I believe this will be your first trip to Singapore? What do you want to see (that you have heard about) or eat?

Most of all I want to get to know the assorted local comics communities, visit studios, publishers, archives and collections, discover the huge Kinokuniya and lots of surprises too!

20. What is your favourite comics of all time?

On my reading table at this moment are: Slum Wolf by Tadao Tsuge, Vol 2 of Ken Reid’s Complete Power Pack Comics, Follow Me In by Katriona Chapman, Herbert Crowley: The Temple of Silence, Panorama de la BD Chinoise exhibition catalogue, The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson, Tetra by Malcolm McNeill, and Austin English’s new zine ‘But is it… Comic Aht?’. My apologies, but my curiosity is too insatiable to narrow down to one favourite. Even ‘1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die’ was not enough! Plurality in comics, in people, in life, is my favourite thing.

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