Paul Gravett: on comics from east and west, I

Mitä tehdään kun on kiireistä ja hidas uutisviikko, enkä viitsisi täyttää tyhjiötä uusimmilla Miku Hatsune -videoilla, Cloverfield-mangalla, trappimeidokahvilalla, Gyakuten Saiban 4:n Flash-demolla ja marinalla Newsweekin tuoreimmasta journalistisesta munauksesta? Kierrätetään! Monet uudet lukijat eivät varmaankaan ole nähneet tätä Paul Gravettin (ja hänen ystävänsä Peter Stanburyn) haastattelua, joka oli tällaisenaan esillä Otakun vanhoilla nettisivuilla ja joka julkaistiin lyhennettynä numerossa 2/2006. Tein sen Kempin kanssa 20.8.2006 Animecon IV:ssä, jossa Gravett oli kunniavieraana; Kemppi kirjoitti haastattelun pohjalta henkilökuvantapaisen Anime-lehden numeroon 15.

Let’s start from the basics… Who is Paul Gravett?

Paul Gravett: I think I’ve always been enthusiastic and passionate about comics. And somehow, while my friends at school kind of grew out of them or gave them up or whatever, I seemed to be able to find new things that ? come along that interested me throughout my life. And manga came along with me in the late 70’s, when Barefoot Gen was translated. That was when I started to read, or at least buy, original japanese magazines for the first time. And at the same period I was also discovering European comics and the bigger history of comics from the past, and so my interest has been continuedly sustained, and I see no reason why anybody should grow out of comics. If you simply look around enough you’ll see that if you’ll get bored with Superman, or get bored with children’s comics, you’ll find more stuff to keep you interested.

But that’s a pretty big background… All that there’s really to say that I have a degree in law and I lived for a year and a half in New Mexico, America after graduating. But for me comics weren’t just a passion to consume: I wanted to meet the people who produced them, and eventually I wanted to explain them to people. Because I feel that a lot of people are missing out on the pleasures of the comics.

Thinking about that... Comics don’t have a very good reputation in the UK, and so it seems interesting that you chose japanese comics to write a book about. What is there that Battler Britton didn’t offer you? (Battler Britton oli 70-lukulainen poikien korkkarisankari – toim. huom.)

PG: I was involved with an exhibition of manga. Manga of course does that here in Finland; it’s catching on very fast, it’s a phenomenon fueled by the interest in anime and the interest in japanese culture in general. And at the time I was looking for a chance to do a book – not necessarily about japanese comics; I would’ve had another book in mind with Peter. But the publisher came to us – it’s unusual, usually you have to try and find the publisher. But the publisher came to me because I was involved with this exhibition – it was called Zamanga - in which we turned the gallery into a manga shop that was with about 10 000 manga books. It wasn’t exhibiting the art, it was just the books. They were all donated by the publishers in Japan who just wanted to have a big display. And after that this publisher came along and said “We really wanted to find someone to do a book on manga. We know it’s going to be big.” That was in 2003, and the book came out in 2004.

You have been reading manga a fairly long time, and you have also extensive understading about the comics in UK and also in Europe and America. Can you say that there’s something in manga that’s particularly good or bad? Combined to bandes dessinées, for example, or graphic novels in general?

PG: Personally for me the thing that’s most exciting about manga is propably the fact that I’m constantly surprised by manga. And not just surprised by the story and the themes, but the storytelling techinques and the openness of the pages, and also the unexpectedness of how the stories turned out. Because after a while western comics –especially American comics, I suppose, more than anything – have gotten very clear-cut, good and bad… The good guys essentially win all the time. They may have the gray area between good and bad: they may have villains that are a little bit okay, they may have superheroes that have dark sides, but in the end it’s pretty clear-cut, there’s moral clarity. But there isn’t that kind of moral clarity, it seems, in a lot of manga. There isn’t the kind of predictable rote the story takes. There are of course clichés but may manga to me are surprising in that they can take any kind of direction, they are not following any kind of story paths that I’m familiar anyway.

Peter Stanbury: That’s because they don’t have any kind of Christian basis. They don’t have the same moral bodies.

PG: Yes! They don’t think of characters being all-good or all-bad, they don’t essentially look for a moral message. And that’s one of the facts that excites me. And also, as said the techinques are very interesting to me. We think we know how comics work: if you’ve read comics as long as I have, you kind of go “well, I know, this is how you get this across, this is how this scene can be conveyed”, but as you know, with manga there are several more pages and several panels to express things. And suddenly you realise: why would we be cramming stories in 20 or 50 pages when you could just let them decompress, and actually express a lot more? You realize what an amazing language comics is - an actually more amazing than I knew when growing up.

But this rises an interesting question: can then someone from Judeo-Christian background, raised with Judeo-Christian set of values, understand manga like the Japanese? We have a different cultural background… And what about the ages they have been directed to, the targeting group? I mean, we’re all old men rather than giggling young schoolgirls. Naturally there are a lot of giggling schoolgirls there who like it, but can you really understand it?

PG: We happen to be, yes… Umm, there are things we’ere going to miss, definitely. I mean, the phrase “lost in translation” of course is absolutely right. There are parts, mostly cultural things, that we’re going to miss. Fortunately some of the best manga do actually have, as you know, footnotes and explanations that help you appreciate some of the things that you’d just otherwise be oblivious to. But I think that it’s difficult in the same way that I think a Japanese person would have a hard time to understand our comics if they read Moomintroll or Superman or whatever.

But there are also things that are found in translation. There are actually things that I think… in a way a work doesn’t just belong in one culture, it moves between cultures. And it actually starts to take on a different meaning, a different… importance maybe, it’s receiving different ways from culture to culture. So I don’t see this is necessarily a fault; we understand it in our own way. In fact basically we can’t generalize about the reading of comics in general, because we each individually bring so much of our own baggage: our emotions and our responses. You might identify with one character, I might indentify with another, I might see one character in one way or another – the whole point about comics after all is that they are very interpretive, very active way of getting a story. They’re not like a movie, where it’s given to you and you just sit there and you are just basically getting very clear messages, they usually broadcast with big emotions on the screen, scores, soaring violin and special effects, and you are basically bludgeoned – you haven’t gotten any work, you just sit there and go “wow, I got all that.” But with comics you have to do a bit work. In a way comics are like sheet music, they are like pieces of music where you actually have to perform it, you have to bring it to life. So in that sense comics are a highly personal thing in the way we react to them.

Testi: mainitse joku muu mangakäsikirjoittajana uransa luonut kuin Kazuo Koike.
Knowing rather much about manga it’s rather obvious that you have noticed the good things in them, but there also has to be something bad. What might that be?

PG: I think what people think is possibly weak in manga – and they might have a point here – is that there isn’t enough of work put in and not enough use made of text. There is obviously to an extent a lot of dialogue, which is great, but one of the things that we’re going to see in the book is this kind of a hybridized version of the best of manga and the best of western comics.

I mean you don’t tend to get someone like Neil Gaiman writing Sandman, or like Alan Moore writing eloborate caption boxes, for example, to describe a mood or an atmosphere. Now manga can do some of that without captions, but there is a slight devaluing of text in manga. I’m talking in particular more about narrative text than spoken. And you could argue if it really is so bad that they’ve chosen to not make it a prominent path in most manga – I mean there are some who use it – and I think that’s where perhaps manga could learn from the west, actually. To develope the written side.

It may come from the simple fact that a lot of the people producing manga are writer-artists who do everything. You don’t get a lot of writers. I mean, if you look at American comics you got Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis… All these people who are word-orientated. And these things start as a script, with the word in the beginning, whereas in manga they get the beginning with the image, with the visual impact, and getting things across visually. So that will be one thing.

Maybe the other thing… obviously I still have to figure out – we still have to figure out, for the future book – some things, but we’re going to be looking at the other values in the Japanese society, which are not necessarily 100 % positive by any means. I mean, the role, the image and the perception of women in Japanese society and in manga, for example, and the way they are reflected in manga as sexual objects, are certainly questionable from our western point of view. That’s one example, I would say, that I would question.

But also, the images of violence and eroticism are usually why manga are criticised. I personally have no problem with all that being shown – I seems to me that comics need to be as free to express things as possible, as not everyone has to read the most shocking or explicit manga, but there should be room for those things to be done. Because I think that the Japanese have a more healthy attitude in one sense, they have no problem to understand that it’s just imagination, just lines on paper, and it doesn’t necessarily connect to the real world.

So it’s a case of that everything must be put on context. Both where it is shown and how it is represented.

PG: Yes. But I am trying to understand some of the more outrageous erotic material, because it isn’t actually arousing, it actually isn’t intended to turn you on. It may be intended to horrify you, disgust you – and in a way, this material is actually a challenge, it’s like a kind of contest, it’s almost like the TV programs where people have to sit in a bucket of worms or eat somethin horrible, or whatever – it’s kind of like “I’m going to write and draw something really nasty - can you take this? -sort of challenge, a one that’s not supposed to turn on. And that entreats me; the fact that comics can be used in such a way.

I would now like to turn the discussion towards the comics in United Kingdom. Lots of Finns are interested in about how manga is doing in the Europe in general and how popular manga is in United Kingdom and how it is doing, considering that you have a long tradition of a british comics as well.

PG: Well, in many ways it is a similar scenario of what’s happened here in Finland. We have a long tradition as you have, but the problem is that the publishers have fallen asleep. They haven’t innovated, and they have lost the audience – two audiences, both boys and especially girls. For a long time Britain had a fantastic tradition of girls’ comics, the equal of anything that’s been done in manga: very good, dark, exciting stories, often on quite serious subjects, just like shoujo manga.

I seem to remember that you’d have the so called Boy's Own Paper, but there was also the Girl's Own that had topics ranging anything from actors like Richard Burton to comics. On 1950’s and 60’s.

PG: That’s right, 50’s and 60’s and into to the 70’s. These magazines held on to about to the 80’s and even to 90’s. The last of the titles like Bunty and Girl and Pink lost their way - they were taken over - partly because girls wanted to grow up much quicker, they wanted to have pop stars and stories of sex and boyfriends and such, and the publishers were very slow and conservative and didn’t move with the times. And this is really why manga has been able to succeed all over the world and in America too, and in America after all girls only had Archie and Sabrina and not much else to read. And when manga came along with all these great emotional stories about friendship and school and boyfriends etc., it’s no wonder that it took off. It’s filling a need that people want, stories that relate to their lives.

Ernie Colonin A Girl Named Joey ilmestyi 70-luvulla amerikkalaisessa teini-idolilehti 16 SPECissä.
And as for manga in Britain… We are very much at the same point as you are. We’ve got publishers waking up – often actually not comics publishers but book publishers, who are putting manga in to the high street, and that’s a major crossover because up until now manga’s been kind of a secret thing that’s only available in comic shops, and many people around a country don’t have a comic shop around them, but now they can buy a manga series in the bookshop, and the events are getting bigger and bigger, just like here. The following is enormous.

I heard that the limit of 10 000 visitors in one day was broken at this con yesterday. So how big are the British cons then? Which conventions are the ones that Finnish fans should consider going to?

PG: Ten thousand? Right, right… There are annual conventions, things like AyaCon last year or AmeCon that was last weekend, which are out in the region, and their quite small because they tend to cost guite a lot: there may be 1000-1500 guests. There may be a fee of 20-30 pounds to get in, but why they do cost and why people go is that they have amazing screenings of anime. And the main program, all the cosplay and activities, is that they get to show fantastic, brand new anime, stuff that people are dying to see. And the one point little bit of missing here at Animecon is that there isn’t very much anime shown.

PS: The truth is that they are very expensive, I mean one episode can cost…

PG: Well they can be, yes… I think that some of these things are propably a little bit of dodgy, they show stuff that’s perhaps pirated or fansubbed, or this kind of thing. But that’s one level of a convention. The other ones are the one you reported at the latest Anime magazine, the London Expo, which of course is not just anime, its got film and TV and comics too. They’re very popular.

The other one that’s taking off is IMAF, the International Manga and Anime Festival that’s held in London. And like Animecon it’s free, which is fantastic, and unlike Animecon is that it’s got this amazing building that’s actually a county hall, right in the middle of London, next to Thames. It’s a huge building and they can take in as many people as they want, they have loads of free screenings of anime, they have workshops and signings, they’re doing cosplay the first time this year… and most important of all is that they have an international competition for original works. It’s for manga, original character design and anime – three categories – and the total price fund is 75 000 dollars, which is not to be sniffed at. And when this thing started three years ago, in 2004, the fan community was like “What is this? Is this for real? They’re going to steal our characters!” They couldn’t believe that this kind of money was being offered, and there was no trick.

The simple answer is that this building is now owned by a very wealthy Japanese businessman, who also of course loves manga. And within the building he set up an animation studio because he wanted to develop new characters, obviously finding talent from all over the world to develope new things. But it’s a great opportunity to people who are looking to start up. You should tell your readers to check it out, its, and it really is international and open to everyone.

I actually believe this, because there is a Japanese guy who wants to cosplay Char Aznable in space, and he has money to pay for it. With the pointy helmet and all. (Daisuke Enomoto reputti lopulta fyysisessä testissä – toim. huom.)

PG: In space? Wow, I hadn’t heard about that. Fantastic! (Nauraa)

Kati Kovács on tyypillinen suomalainen sarjakuvantekijä.
Now this your third time in Finland, and you’ve had a chance to get to know some of the Finnish comics. So how does the Finnish comic scene look like to you?

PG: I liked a lot of the small press and experimental makers like Glömp and the Napa people, and the other one, what’s it called… not Like, that’s a publisher, but in the same format as Glömp… um, anyway, anyway, there are a lot of very good new Finnish artists, not new to you, but to me since I’ve first come to Finland only three years ago. There’s Matti Hagelberg and Katja Tukiainen... Anyway, what they bring out is more like underground, alternative kind of comics which I think that Finland has really well – some of the best in Europe right now, fantastic artists – and fortunately some of these are published in english or have subtitles, so I can read them. And I think they’re very good.

And also I must say that I’m pleased to see that you have a newsstand presence for comics, and not just kids’ stuff but things like Modesty Blaise. At first I couldn’t believe it that you can go to a Finnish newsstand and find Modesty Blaise every month. Jet-Ace Logan reprints, Rick Random reprints (Korkejännityksiä - toim. huom.) – these are things that you just can’t buy in Britain on the newsstands.

PS: We haven’t had Jet-Ace Logan comics in Britain since about the 60’s, I think.

PG: And for you to have all these reprints sitting on the newsstands, it’s really “what’s that doing there?!” for me… and also you’ve still got Buster, which I think hasn’t ran in Britain for at least 10 years, if not 15 years. But the character’s still going here in Finland – it may not be a major comic, coming out maybe just monthly or bimonthly – but it’s kind of strange that this British character has survived.

I’ve also very keen to see that there are many people trying manga over here as well. But we’ve got to understand that it’s a learning curve, and people initially are going to be imitating manga on a simple, should we say obvious way, they’ll just pick the surface and the look of the characters, but as people get to read manga a bit more they’ll realize that it’s more than just characters that have big eyes and pointy chins and lots of hair. They have a bit much too manga in that. Then they’ll start to develop their own styles and stories and will get a truly natural form, a Finnish form of manga developing.

Of course the main question remains: you have to find more home-grown, original characters and artists that can build up your own industry. You need to have more albums and more graphic novels coming out, and liket that. But ideally one of the publishers, Egmont or something, will make more space for local talent so that you can have your own stars. Not necessarily manga.

As an example I could show this. Hokuto Manga is a competition held by Otava, one of the Finnish publishers, who is looking for this local talent.

PS: That’s very exciting, because it’s a very important thing. Because when Paul and I used to publish the Escape magazine in the 80’s, we found that when we put the young artists in the magazine for the first time they improved hugely. The first time we published their stuff they were very good, the second time they were excellent, and on the third time they were brilliant. And all because they were getting their work published and seen. And this is what Otava’s doing now I think: it’s encouraging people to go on on their own. It’s beyond getting the price, it’s also about getting your work seen and printed.