Gravett Discovers Forgotten Comic History for "Comics Unmasked"

Paul Gravett doesn't make comics, but he's been one of the most important and influential writers, curators and thinkers about the medium for more than thirty years. Given the nickname "Man at the Crossroads" in Eddie Campbell's "Alec" books, Gravett co-edited and published "Escape" Magazine in the 1980s, helping to launch the careers of people like Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Eddie Campbell and James Robinson. He's the author "Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics," co-author of "Great British Comics," editor of "1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die" and has curated exhibitions in many countries.

This year, Gravett is involved in two of his highest profile projects to date, both of which speak to the growing importance of comics in the greater cultural and artistic landscape. His book, "Comics Art," which was released in the UK last year by the publishing arm of the Tate Museum, is out now in the United States from Yale University Press. The book is a survey of the medium that covers a lot of ground and approaches comics in a number of very interesting ways.

Gravett is also curating the largest exhibition of British comics to date -- "Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK." The exhibit, which opened in early May at the British Library, features around 200 items, including a number of pieces forgotten for over a century, some of which even pre-date "The Yellow Kid," long held as the first example of modern comics.

CBR News: Paul, I'm really glad we could talk, because this is a big year for you. "Comics Art," which in some ways is your most important book, is out in the U.S. and you've opened this pretty amazing exhibition in London.

Paul Gravett: I hadn't thought of it as my most important, but it's an important step, certainly. It's a foot in the door at the Tate and the art world. My interest for the longest time has been to push comics out of their slightly incestuous, inward-looking world, where people assume it's something you have to be mad to be interested in, and just make people realize that there's all sorts of ways to get interested in this medium. It's enriched with its connections with other art forms whether art, literature or whatever. That, I think, is the way forward for the art form. Eric Stephenson was describing things like "Star Wars" comics as " not real." People sorted that, I'm sure, but we all know that for the artform to move forward, it has got to be more than peripherals or advertising for other brands. We're in a world dominated by brands, but there's room for new brands, which comics ought to be coming up with -- and which they are, of course. The medium is incredibly rich and has been for a long time, but even more so now.

Where the the idea for this book originate?

The practical reality is that I was brought in as a consultant for an exhibition called "Rude Britannia" back in 2010. It was going to be more of a comics art exhibition than it turned out to be, but I was still involved with it. It was great because it did include some great comics art. I got to meet a guy -- Cedar Lewisohn -- who was a curator there, and he was the co-curator of this exhibition. He and I were hatching a plan to do an exhibition, which I'd still love to do. It would have tried to cut down what separates so-called fine art from comics art and show them together, that there's a lot they've learned from each other. There are a lot of interesting art being done where narrative and sequence and things we think are vital to what make comics comics are being used. A show like this was done called "Cult Fiction," a really interesting example of a gallery show that toured around the UK and mixed fine artists inspired by comics with comics art.

[Art] Spiegelman famously said, if you put a piece of comics art on the wall, it struggles to compete with the piece of fine art, so the comics art loses in the gallery but wins in the catalogue, because it's intended to be for print. This exhibition didn't conform to that idea, because what we found from the visitors book and people's reactions to it, [they] were really astounded by the comics art. We showed a few pages from Sacco's "Palestine," but we also showed the book where the pages came from, with a bookmark so people could open it and go, this is just eight pages from two hundred pages! This made people see this is a serious piece of work. A lot of the fine art started to look a bit flaky by comparison -- which, of course, was the point, really. [Laughs] With exceptions, of course, but it had a very interesting effect.

That project with Cedar progressed slowly through the Tate channels. An exhibition proposal was put together, and when the feedback came back, they said, "Actually, what we'd really like to do is have a book about comics themselves." I put a proposal together for that and it took them a while to say yes, and then we did it. It sat alongside a whole bunch of other books that had the word "Art" at the end. Quite often, there's a big collection of books about different things, and as the ideas start to run a bit dry, they realize we've done all these other art forms and subjects, but we haven't done comics. They won't start with that. They'll start with "proper" things, but with comics art, you get everything chucked into one book, and that's enough. It is an important step, because Roger Thorp, who's the publisher at Tate, is such an intelligent guy, such an enthusiastic guy. He's developing some graphic novels, and Tate getting onboard as a publisher will be another great step forward for the medium.

Tate is publishing graphic novels?

They've done one. And they've done some children's books. The one [they published] is in the book called "Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability" from India. It's an extraordinary book. It comes from this folk art background, and it's just an incredible book. It was a great example of a surprising approach to comics that moves the medium in a new direction. I didn't particularly want to end with the future is all digital and pixels. Of course, it is that, but there's also the chance for comics to take another direction and go back to traditions that perhaps have never even been applied to comics. It's interesting that you can dig deeper into a culture's graphic narrative history and tap into that to make a new form of comics.

I loved how you opened the book by talking about "Hicksville." You touched on this in the book, but there is that struggle to define the beginning of comics.

You have to realize that the book is not all encompassing -- thank God. It is essentially a set of essays, reflections on different themes. I think if I were to do it again -- and other people are doing this better right now -- I'd go back much further and see where it all comes from. What things have been missed out from the so-called pre-history, but it actually is the history of comics. There's a fantastic book from Thierry Smolderen coming out from the University of Mississippi Press, "The Origins of Comics." The French version was fantastic, so I'm sure the English language one will be great. This is from William Hogarth to Windsor McCay, and it's just great, a fantastically important book. David Kunzle did two fantastic volumes about the early history of comics. I'd like to have had more room to do more of that, but it was intended to give people a grounding.

To get back to your question about "Hicksville," I think that vision of a place where comics are loved by everybody is a lovely fantasy. It's a very modest utopia. It's the place I want to be. The world is coming there in a way, as I say in the book. It is coming true.

"Hicksville" also presents an alternative world and theory of comics.

That's true. "Hicksville" is important because it takes on the whole issue of corporations and people selling out and [asks], what is the true art of comics? I described the whole idea of the lighthouse library full of these incredible comics that didn't exist or might have existed. That's one of the frustrating things -- there's probably a chance to do more of that. There could be a whole "what if" history of comics not just written but potentially created. Imagine if you could get someone who could make the comics that Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso worked on together, and what were they like? Let's go back and make them and fill in the gaps, but make it now.

The other thing that's sad in a way is Gustave Dore. He did do comics early on. One of them was translated and put into one of the paperback editions of "RAW." They didn't sell particularly brilliantly, and he went off and did his far better known engravings and paintings. Just think, if only the market had been right, he wouldn't have wasted all his time with other stuff. He would have produced more comics! The most amazing one that he did was "History of Holy Russia," I think it was called. It was published in English in America in the early '70s. In part, because it could be read as a critique of Russia and so was a nice bit of anti-communist propaganda, which adds a whole other layer of meaning to it. [Laughs] But it is formally very inventive. One whole page is completely covered in black, describing a particularly nasty period of Russian history which we won't talk about, so we'll leave it to your imagination. This was done in 1870-something. You think we're doing brand new stuff now, but so much of it has been done a century or more ago.

In the book, you also touch on this largely forgotten period in the '60s and '70s, when you had a lot of avant garde figures like Cortazar and Buzzati experimenting with comics.

I'm glad you mentioned that. That's a chapter I could have done a whole lot more with. I've just gotten ahold of that Cortazar graphic novel, because it's his centenary this year. I can't read Spanish that well, but I read it a little bit. I think it was reprinted a few years ago and there might be a new edition coming out, possibly in French, which will be easier for me to read.

That period is when these things are coming out, off to the side of things that we think of as comics. It was a time when there was a lot of avant garde interest in the form -- sometimes slightly shallow pop arty, like, "Let's use speech balloons," or, "Let's copy Superman" -- but sometimes going in surprising directions. There's more out there than we think. We show some stuff from Martin Vaughn-James' "The Cage," which is being reprinted. There's a new edition of it out from Coach House Press. It still is really strange and really original work. For it to pop out in 1970-something, I think -- it's exciting to see it back in circulation now. That was a special time. I think there's room for more of this stuff to be recovered and re-evaluated now, because clearly, the worlds of comics and the arts, the boundaries are blurring nicely. There might be a way of seeing those as templates, or signs, anyway, of how things could still be developed in the future.

Another one of those figures is Tove Jansson. This year is her centennial, and you've written about her in the past and curated a major exhibition of her work.

Yes. There's a wonderful BBC documentary that's really well done, very sensitively done. Of course, there's much more to her than just the Moomins. Wonderful writing and painting, and a fascinating life. A very special person to know more about. The ninth of August is the centenary of her birth. There's already been lots of celebrations, and there's a big exhibition being planned for Angouleme next year.

I think one of the thrills of reading "Comics Art" is seeing you mention people and saying, "I like that person, too." To come across people like John Allison or Zeina Abirached or Magdy El Shaffee or Nick Bertozzi or Carol Tyler -- who don't get nearly enough credit -- it's nice to see them have a place here.

That's very nice. Thank you. I don't know how anyone can get bored of comics. It's sad that people lose interest. It mostly tends to be people who don't keep an open mind and don't stay curious about it. And perhaps stay in a certain comfort zone for whom comics are a nice bit of light refreshment or recreation, but they're not something they want to work at or think about. I like what I learn about all kinds of things -- life and lives -- through comics. That's the reason I'm passionate about them. Combined with the fact that it's a chance to meet these great, creative people, because they're often very special. Obviously, there are huge egos in every art form and medium in entertainment, but the people I tend to meet tend to be very grounded, very imaginative, creative, open and friendly. They're just great people to get to hang around with.

These are people that are often struggling to make a lot of money. Not a lot of them can earn a living from comics. That's something I don't address in the book, but they are committed to it because it's the best possible medium. [Laughs] You and I know that. You can use words and pictures. What can be better than that? You have control. You don't have to work with a whole team of idiots who are going to ruin them and why would you ever want to do anything any other way. Why would you want to just use words or just use pictures if you love them both? Why not use them both?

Tell us a little about this exhibition "Comics Unmasked," which many people reading this will never get to see. The size and scale of this seem huge.

It's pretty big. It's about 200 items. You need to realize that it's not an exhibition of comic art; it's an exhibition of comics, and the majority of them are print. The reason the British Library is doing the exhibition is because they want to show off their collection. There is original artwork, there are original scripts, sketches, some rare artifacts as well. It is going to make quite a statement. It's not trying to be some sort of nostalgic trip down memory lane. It's not aimed at a family audience in that sense. It is aimed at an adult audience. We are deliberately getting hold of material and discovering things that hopefully make people rethink their conceptions about comics. Certainly, we're hoping some people will come out of curiosity, with a certain amount of prejudice or misconceptions about comics and we'll have them a little adjusted. That said, we are dangerously going over the ground where comics have got in trouble.

We've looked directly at the '50s horror comics stuff. Some '60s and '70s underground material. "Action," in the '70s, where people like Pat Mills and others did some very extreme material for kids. It was a brilliant comic that came out every week. One issue had on the cover, "Not Suitable for Adults." I thought that was brilliant. The main star was a character named Hook Jaw. It came out the same time as Spielberg's "Jaws," but you saw more blood and dismemberment than you'd see in all five "Jaws" sequels in one page [of "Hook Jaw"]. I don't know how these things got printed. It was hugely questionable. At the same time, it was fantastically popular and we know it was what kids really wanted. Those have been addressed in the exhibition, and we're dealing with sexuality and erotica, comics that have often been deemed as beneath contempt or trash. We're making quite a few discoveries -- artists whose names are not in many history books at all, work that's been largely overlooked -- and we're picking them out of the multiple basements of the British Library. The building itself is gigantic, and it has four sub-basements. In another world, we'd have had a few more years to rummage around in there, but I think one of the highlights that we're showing slightly rewrites the history books.

There's been an idea that comics in the Nineteenth Century, which was very rich here in Britain -- well before the "Yellow Kid," we had "Punch Magazine," which was famous -- but what has been sort of assumed was that most of the comics that were popular in the Victorian era were read by a mostly lower class, working class readership. In other words, they were cheap and cheerful and common as muck. Partly because "Punch," being a classier magazine -- upper class -- didn't have comics very much. They had decorous single-panel cartoons. What's come to light, partly through some very important research by a French researcher named Thierry Smolderen, who discovered that in two important magazines -- one was called "Illustrated London News," the other was "The Graphic" -- these were published in the Victorian era from 1850 or so and they would run comics. These are magazines that were not trashy, down-market, cheapo things. You think, how have we missed them for all these years? They were doing amazing things. Some of them were in full color. Some were spectacularly colorful in the 1880s, before "The Yellow Kid." They were sequential. They didn't use a lot of speech balloons. Not only that, but perhaps the most unusual stuff from this whole seam of stuff that's being gradually researched now, are comics that are reportage or even autobiography. "The Graphic" invited their readers, if an interesting thing happened to them, to send in sketches of what they'd experienced, and then their house artists would adapt them and illustrate them into comics. They weren't necessarily angst-ridden autobiography. Amusing or strange incidents from around the empire. If there was a lady off in India who had an experience with an elephant, she would send it in and it would be illustrated as a comic. That's one of the things I'm most pleased that we're showing for the first time.

That's amazing. That throws off the whole chronology of comics that we have right now.

I think if I had the chance to rewrite this, we've got earlier comics than "The Yellow Kid" which definitely have to be thought of as full comics. We have a comic called "The Glasgow Looking Glass," which came out in 1825 and was essentially fortnightly. It ran all kinds of cartoon material, but had serialized stories. It was basically a topical news satire comic. It was the format of a British comic, where it had different bits and pieces throughout, all put together in one anthology, and it was a success. It went from "The Glasglow Looking Glass" to "The Northern Looking Glass" because it reached beyond Glasgow and Scotland, and I think was later re-started as "The Looking Glass" in London. That's an important precursor to people like Rodolphe Topffer in the '30s.

The Hogarth we're showing is an interesting one. Most people have heard of "A Harlot's Progress" as being six big, hyper-detailed, separate prints -- and that's certainly how they were marketed -- but I found an example where three of the six panels had been put together on one print, which turns it into a sort of comic. Though there are still big gaps in time between one panel and the next, the thought of putting them together on one page makes it a closer relationship to comics. That's also in the exhibition.

I'm curious -- what do you think is the distinctly British sensibility of comics?

I have said in the past that there must a certain kind of anti-authoritarian, maverick streak to it. We have a strong tradition of satire in cartoons, and writing as well. I think that's true of other countries as well -- perhaps not as pronounced, but it exists in other cultures, too. Certainly, the British take on American icons -- which this exhibition is covering -- when Brits get their hands on Batman or Superman, they basically do horrible things to them. [Laughs] That says something. There's a nasty streak. We do have a love affair with American culture and American comics, but then we have an outsiders perspective. It's rather like when Peter Weir directed the movie "Witness" about the Amish, which was so brilliant about seeing things and saying things that perhaps an American director wouldn't have seen or couldn't have seen quite so perceptively. Having that slight distance from being outside the culture helps. That's one answer.

We're doing this exhibition and have to think about the status of comics in different cultures. France and Japan, for example, have got comics on a level that we're nowhere near in Britain or America. In Britain, we're very blase about comics. There's certainly a lot of disdain and snootiness about the art form and the medium being taken seriously, but at the same time, we've probably got some of the most adventurous stuff going on, here. Last year, we had two graphic novels nominated for a big literary prize. One of them -- "Dotter of Her Fathers Eyes" by Mary and Bryan Talbot -- won. That, I think, is something that perhaps hasn't happened as much in America. It has happened with Alison Bechdel. I guess I would sum it up by saying, we don't think we're that good at it, we don't think that the medium's that important, we don't think that we even read them or like them very much. We just don't confess to it or admit it that they mean a lot to us. We have a lot of great characters of our own that will appear in the show.

What's a book that hasn't been translated into English, something about to come out or something that came out recently -- something exciting for people to seek out. In the book, you mentioned Igort's "Ukrainian Diaries."

Yes, that's coming out, and it's very topical. It's a fabulous book. There's another one he's done about Russia, as well as a followup. I think Igort's new documentary stuff is going to blow people away. It's some of the best stuff he's done in his career. I think he really wanted to grapple with substance and real experience through other people's experience -- basically being more invisible in his work and getting other people's voices to come though. He's a major figure.

I do get sent rather a lot of stuff in French, which I don't think needs to be translated at all. [Laughs] There are over 5000 books coming out a year in France, but a lot of them, I say, "I've seen this before." There was a book I liked, "En Silence" by Audrey Spirry. It was just a great, really unusual, moving story about a woman getting away from a flawed relationship and getting her freedom again and starting afresh, all in the course of a summer adventure vacation. It's really well done, I thought. "Mauvais Genre" by a woman named Chloe Cruchaudet. It's a beautiful graphic novel. It might come out in English. I suspect someone is looking at it, as it's been one of the big books of the year.

There's plenty of manga. I don't know if we're ever going to see Naoki Urasawa's "Billy Bat" series in English. It's come out in French. That's complicated, because I think it's a Kodansha title, and he's normally with Viz. They announced that he's doing "Master Keaton," which is fine, but I think "Billy Bat" is a really strange, interesting, original book.

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