Paul Gravett: on comics from east and west, II

Osa 1

Not also talking about future publications, but also your own… Manga – 60 years of Japanese comics was sold very well in Finland, and is now in second print. It means of course money in the bank…

PG: Eventually. (Nauraa) Everyone is feeling that we’re doing a lot of money on this, but I’ll tell you it takes a long time… We’re promoting the culture, of course.

Your next publication would be about graphic novels in general.

PG: Yes, I’ve brought a copy with me. This is out in English alreasy, came out last year… It’s the same format as the Manga book, actually with more pages, and it’s a guide to graphic novels. We’re recommending 30 really outstanding ones, and they’re all connected systematically, so there’s one chapter on horror, one chapter on noir and crime, and one on science fiction and fantasy…

It’s a complex book because the idea is that you can also explore the entire book by the links of the bottom of the pages, and the target of publishing is next september in Finnish. (Venähti lopulta lokakuuhan 2007 - toim. huom.) In a way it does the same as the Manga book in the sense that it helps people who don’t know where to turn and what is out there. So it’s a guide to tell where to start, and in this book especially we try to explain to people who don’t know comics very well.

So what’s your next project?

PG: It’s a book about British comics. Actually I have the cover with me here – it’s going to be in the same size and format as the previous books. We’re going to explaining to British people as well, we have to explain our own culture of comics. And they can be pretty strange and pretty eccentric, in fact just as alien and weird as manga. And they’re also just as interesting, something like we’ve already mentioned, like Modesty Blaise or Judge Dredd.

PS: I must add that we try to write all ours books to people who know nothing about it. And the thing is that you can’t even take for granted that the British people would know anything about British comics.

PG: The British comics have been in a kind of a downward stage for some ten years, and now it’s resurrected – you’ve got Wallace & Gromit for example as a comic on the newsstands, and we’ve got new characters coming from the Internet, and the small press, so the story isn’t just a historical one, it brings us right up to date, and looks at what’s going on now, and by now I mean 2006. And the new thing here is that we also show some fantastic photographs, photographs of how comics connect to our culture. And we also had to explain to our publisher that British comics are actually better known abroad than they are in Britain.

We all know the saying “comics aren’t just for kids anymore”, that’s a cliché. They have said that for years, but somehow I don’t think that the public has really gotten that. So how do you think that the attitude of the general public could be changed, so that they could understand that comics can be entertainment for all people?

PG: Well, this is really one of the ideas behind the Manga book too. Because I think a lot of people came to the book expectuing to find just the bit they liked, for instance “I like CLAMP, I like Dragon Ball”, and the whole point of the book was to go “well there’s this, and then there’s also material that’s more sophisticated or more adult”, and to show that it covers the entire age range from cradle to the grave, literally.

And we also deliberately named the book “Graphic Novels – stories to change your life” a bit ironically, as we don’t pretend that these stories will transform you overnight, but we do think that these stories are worth reading. And this is the main problem: to get most of the non-reading general adult public to be convinced that comics are worth reading. They’re going to have to make the effort, to find time to say “I’m not going to watch anymore TV, I’m not going to listen to a CD, I’m going to make an effort and read a comic.”

And a graphic novel, where the story is complete and is worth reading, will get through to people. We already know that things like Maus or more recently books like Persepolis are great stories regard of the fact that they are comics. In fact they’d be great stories if they’d be made on film or written as a text novel. So the fact that they are comics is actually a proof that comics can be just as entertaining and have subtlety, and are not just meant to be escapistic and forgotten as soon as you’ve read them.

PS: When we researched for the British comics book we found that the prejudices about comics are for kids start after the first World War. Because what happened in Britain after that is that you’d have all the people trying to reestablish their home lives and their families, and up until the war you’d have lots of childrens’ comics but lots of adult humor as well. But it stopped selling after the first World War, and a lot of publishers decided there are lots of young families, people coming back from the war and having children – there was a population to be built after the devastation after all – and the market for British comics for children suddenly booms. It was around 1920’s, and that’s where the public starts to think that comics are for kids.

PG: And adults, of course, look elsewhere – they look to the cinema, to the radio, for entertainment. And I think that now that we’re in the new millennium, on a new century, the comics are being reappraised as being exciting medium to expression. There are many people in the world of literature, for example, people like Jeff VanderMeer and Justina Robson who are here as guests of Finncon are both really interested in comics. Not because they think that they’re cool or fun or they’d recommend them for their kids, but because they actually seem to see as writers that maybe mixing pictures with words actually opens up new ways of doing stories. Which it obviously does.

Franquin oli parempi kuin kaikki muut yhteensä. Ei vastaväitteitä.

Could you compare this to for example France, where comics have long been one of the art forms? Whereas the BBC laughs when they mention that the French are so stupid that they have made a comic version of a famous French novel. As seen on TV a few years ago.

PG: “The ninth art”, yes. The French attitude obviously has been helped by the fact that they have the album format that goes all the way back to Hergé, or even before Hergé. And the whole idea that a comic story is not worth of keeping in print, which is still common in Britain, is missing. The whole publishing attitude in Britain has been magazines and periodicals that bring out a new issue every week, which are then forgotten and have just disappeared in a newsprint limbo, and nobody reads them again.

The British also have attitude of an annual publication that is sold maybe just four months up until christmas, and after that you can’t buy them anymore. But any Tintin book, as you know, is kept in print and is reprinted endlessly because it’s a classic, an all-ages classic, and this is why the French have been able to establish their culture. That plus of course having the whole May ’68 culture revolution, where things that were respectable suddenly became dull and things like rock’n’roll and science fiction and comics suddenly became intellectualized and trendy.

PS: It’s actually very complicated to answer the question because France is a republic, and Britain never was, and there’s the whole class system. Not as much are there used to be, but there used to be a class system in Britain which has gradually eroded away since the year ’68. But it could also be the different attitude towards culture in France, the art in general. Even in the 19th century the attitude towards the intellectual.

PG: Class definitely has to be mentioned, because in fact a whole chapter in Great British Comics is dedicated to class. Britain is incredibly rigid in the class, and for example in Finland you don’t quite as much of a class hierarchy. Whereas in Britain people are put into certain categories, certain levels of class, and so it’s often difficult to rise in between them.

PS: And in fact comics in that aspect are very fond of ridiculing anything…

PG: Yes, the comics definitely seem to be lower-class, unintelligent, and therefore undesirable.

There’s a difference between manga enthusiasts in Japan and in the west. In Japan the enthusiasts have the culture all around them. Whereas in the west the culture has to be brought here, it has to be searched… The enthusiasts in the west feel they have things in common, and that’s why they have concentions and dress up and talk in the Internet. And that’s why it has become such a phenomenon that it is.

PS: I think it’s very much about identity. And it’s also that the mass cultures don’t take any notice with people who are enthusiasts. I mean if you look, just to mention very briefly, the American underground in the 60’s nobody supported them at all. They actually made their own culture, they decided they’d do their own comics, and it was based around the hippie thing and drugs for the most bit, but there are similarities in that there are a lot of people among the manga enthusiasts. Nobody’s going to give them their culture so they’ll make their own.

And also the thing that you’ve got thousands of people coming to Animecon and dressing up, and it isn’t just dressing up but also identifying with the character. It is also like an oppositional identity, opposing to the mass media that says that you have to wear Gap jeans, you have to have a haircut like this, you’ve got to conform, this is the film you’ll be watching this week… And many young people, especially because of the Internet, are looking for something else, something that’s just a bit more different.

PG: And wildness, that’s very important. “I don’t want mum and dad to know what I’m reading! I don’t want them to understand why we read the books backwards!”

Manga’s the new punk, they say.

PG: It is, isn’t it? The Dragon Ball hair is not that different from a mohican, after all. (Nauraa)

PS: It’s very interesting, because we were talking last night about how in London during the 90’s, or maybe even the late 80’s, you used to get these Japanese people who came to buy all of the punk clothes. And they’d go up and down the streets with their pink hair and black everything and big boots, even though punk had already been dead in Britain for years.

And if you now look at the Gothic Lolita magazines from Japan and the clothes in them you see that many of them are very much punk. So they just adopted some of our rebellious youth culture to their own: in Japan it’s still exotic and underground and rebellious. So you get this thing going around all the time in cycles…

You can’t be satisfied with what you got. You’ve got to get your underground from the other side of the world.