This is a bit of a special post, with my first ever interview on the blog. To mark the new comics exhibition at the British Library “Comics Unmasked”, one of the co-curators Paul Gravett was a super-dude and agreed to answer some questions.
Paul is a comics dynamo - as well as curating this exhibition, he writes about and promotes comics and comic events, publishes, does the UK comic festival Comica and also helped set up and direct the Cartoon Museum in London. I’ve probably left loads out. He’s Mr Comics, that’s in a nut-shell.
The “Comics Unmasked” Exhibition is the biggest ever comic exhibition in the UK, and it looks at the history of comics in the UK and their subversive place in culture.
It’s got an advisory notice as there’s enough sex, swearing and violence in it that you need me to be over 16 to attend without an accompanying adult. So it should be excellent. Even though it may be a bit awkward when I go with my dad.
Comics Unmasked is on until August 19.
What was the first comic/superhero that you were really into as a kid?
'Na-na na-na na-na na-na Batman!' I was hooked on the original TV show with Adam West and Burt Ward - 'Holy Broken Bones, Batman' - and then discovered the American comics he was starring in. I was soon spending all my pocket money on comics.
Comics are their own art form with their own strengths but do you think they can tell stories better than other art forms?
Comics can do certain kinds of storytelling better than any other. Wordless, speechless comics, without balloons or captions, can really convey silence powerfully, definitely better than any text-only story. Comics can also tell multiple overlapping stories at the same time - what you read and what you look at can be two totally different things. Look at Watchmen, that blows open these possibilities and is really unfilmable and unreproducable in any other medium. Comics seem really inefficient - they have no sound, music or motion - but somehow they pull you in because YOU have to make them come alive in your imagination, you ‘perform’ a comic and that makes the mix of words and pictures really powerful.
What do you think about film adaptations of comics? Are they exciting or disappointing? Is there something that you think is missing from them from the original comics? Which is your favourite?
Personally I’ve mostly lost interest in seeing my favourite 2D comics characters turned into 3D photographed movies. But even the worst ones can direct the public to the original comics and graphic novels so they do serve as advertising at least. I have enjoyed quite a few, like the first Superman and Batman movies, I saw them when they first opened in the States and I was blown away. Among my other favourites are probably Ghost World, Akira, The Rocketeer, Persepolis, American Splendor and I am longing to see Aya (Aya de Yopougon) and Snowpiercer. But truth is the best movie of any comic is the one you direct, animate and star in yourself when you read it!
Given the choice which do you prefer, online comics or print?
Why choose?! Both have their pros and cons. I like being surprised by the innovations in storytelling for digital platforms, like on Operation Ajax with its ambient soundtrack and links to actual historical documents, or wilder experiments like xkcd. And Sequential's expanded versions of great graphic novels give you loads of extras and features. We're lucky right now to be able to enjoy both printed paper and pixels - embrace the high-tech and the high-touch.
What’s your favourite current comic?
This keeps on changing, but I am loving Taiyo Matsumoto's Sunny, a manga about a 70s foster home, and Ellen Lindner's Black Feather Falls period mystery. Every week for nearly nine years now I’ve put a new article up on my website paulgravett.com so that’s one way to keep up with my insatiable appetite for comics. There’s an abundance of wonders out there!
Do you have a favourite artist?
Not really, it’s so hard to pick one from Hergé to Tezuka to today, but of them all, Jack Kirby has a special place in my heart. It was a thrill to co-curate a major retrospective of his work in Lucerne, Switzerland a few years back.
Do you have a favourite writer?
Again, as above, there are many geniuses, but Alan Moore has done so much to expand the medium and reinvent genres. There is definitely two different eras of comics, before and after Moore.
Do you like comic style illustrations outside comics or do they have to be IN a comic?
I like all kinds of illustrations, both in comics and outside comics - and I love the flow of styles and techniques back and forth between comics and ALL the other media.
Comics used to be regarded as a bad influence especially on young people - and now they aren’t really. Computer games have that reputation. Is comics unmasked reminding people that comics can be an edgy art form?
Exactly, that’s a key message John Harris Dunning and I wanted to get across. We want to encourage more creative disobedience in comics, to push boundaries and use this amazing medium to its full capacity. We should never forget that comics creators of the past have fought and struggled to be allowed to express themselves freely, fully and forthrightly in comics and to own the copyrights and reap the rewards of their creativity. We want many more people of all ages and backgrounds to make comics their way, say what they want to say, because comics is a medium whose time has come.
How did the exhibition happen? Did the British Library think of it and contact you, or the other way round?
John Harris Dunning knocked on the BL’s door two years ago and invited me to join him. We knew that the BL have the biggest collection of British comics in the country - they have five Batcaves full of books and magazines in the basement floors beneath their King’s Cross and a Fortress of Solitude in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, with even more. And they had never exhibited and promoted this fantastic resource because they had no one on their staff who knew enough about comics. As Geeks for Hire, John and I were brought in to develop their first comics exhibition and Comics Unmasked is the result.
Did you discuss a theme for the exhibition, or was it exactly what you wanted to do?
We had lots of discussions to define what we wanted to present and the messages we wanted to convey. We decided early on not to be completist, encyclopedic and exhaustive, not to focus on children’s comics or cosy nostalgia, not to try to ‘elevate’ comics as literature or art but to emphasise the power of comics AS comics. And the big themes of subversion, rebellion and innovation soon emerged as our guiding focuses and filters.
What part of the exhibition are most excited about showing?
There’s so much, Joe! I guess the discoveries we made, like the oldest comic, a medieval Bible comic from 1470 - or the woman artist Reina Bull who created erotic comics in the 1950s. I’m also really excited about the videos that were made of visits to the studios of Dave McKean, Posy Simmonds, Isabel Greenberg and Kieron Gillen, they are so revealing and inspiring to watch them at work.
Is there a comic exhibition that you would love to do in the future?
Lots of other ideas and projects, yes! I hope Comics Unmasked acts as a springboard to make more great shows happen. I do believe comics belong in every museum and gallery and in lots of other surprising places too!
Do you think comics are becoming more mainstream or more marginal?
Definitely more and more mainstream - and more and more people realise that there are the big American brand iconcs AND a huge range of other kinds of comics, graphic novels and manga. There is something for everyone know, a way in to this rich, diverse, dynamic storytelling engine!
Have you created any comics yourself? If not, have you ever been tempted to?
My other boyhood passion was Thunderbirds, Gerry Anderson’s puppet TV series, and I invented my own, called Torpedoes, with 12 different craft, and drew my own weekly comics in ballpoint pen and crayons. This is what comics do at their best, they make you want to make your own, and that’s what we hope Comics Unmasked at the British Library will also do to lots and lots of visitors. Go and be amazed and inspired!