Paul Gravett: on comics from east and west, III

Osa 1, osa 2

Maus ei ole hauska. Se on kuitenkin hiton hyvä.
So… how much do you think the language has to do with this? I mean, the French have the term “bandes dessinées”, but in english there are only the terms “comics” and “funnies”, that are essentially the reason why the term “graphic novel” had to be invented. So that the people would understand that there’s more than just simple comedy in there.

PG: Yes, in Finnish you don’t have this kind of problem because “sarjakuvat” only means “serial pictures”, and it doesn’t really have any deeper meaning than that. The word itself doesn’t say that it’s funny. So you don’t really need the term graphic novels, but for us it’s a good thing that this came in, because how else could we ever elevate comics?

PS: It does have the prejudice thing against it. As in how we talked about how British comics are kind of laughed at, like they’re only meant to make jokes. The word graphic novel now in Britain has created its own separate area, because it’s now graphic literature. The British people can now understand it.

PG: You should realize that modesty’s quite a good thing. This term is now being adopted by for example film critics, who have assumed that the graphic novel is going to be science fiction, spectacular, and a bit empty and stressed on explosions and such, and they all describe a bad film being “like a graphic novel”. So still this new term has been twisted and distorted into an another term of derision against comics. And some people also don’t understand that the word “graphic” inclies drawing and think that it inclied explicit, so in a graphic novel nasty material must be shown... these kinds of things.

PS: So in Graphic Novels we took time to talk about this. At the beginning we listed ten things to hate in comics.

PG: Things like “comics are just funnybooks” and “they take no time to read” for example, or speech bubbles. People hate speech bubbles. A lot of people are used to seeing text in a nice kind of type and so on, and we who have been reading comics so much tend to forget that some people haven’t been reading comcis for a long time, maybe ever. And when they look at a spread of comics they think “Where do I begin? All these people shouting at me at once, all these pictures… in which order do I read them?” People say they’re very literate and very sophisticated, but they’re actually not comic literate and don’t know how to read them. So part of the book is about explaining how to read comics. That’s actually what I’m going to speak about today.

PS: The one thing you mentioned is the phrase “Comics are a great way to get kids reading real books.”

PG: That’s what you’d hear from a librarian… “Oh we have got graphic novels, but we want to kind of steer people towards reading real books.”

PS: Which in a way is a very patronizing way of putting things.

This brings me to the case of your book being taken off the shelf in certain libraries in America…

PG: Yes, I forgot to mention that… it was only in San Bernardino county, and that was because a fundamentalist christian mother had a 16-year-old son who got the book from the library. And any other 16-year-old finding some naughty pictures from a book would have actually kept quiet.

I thought so too. What kind of 16-year old goes to tell his mother…?

PG: …Goes to tell his mother “Mommy what is that, this is disgusting!”? (Laughs)

PS: Well, we’ve put up an interpretation of what we’ve read, and this is just a personal opionion, but… I think that he was reading the book in his bedclothes or something in his room, searching his own identity, having the book from the library. He had it at home and he didn’t tell his mother he had it, but his mother found him reading it and immediately asked “what are you reading?”, and of course…

PG: Well we don’t know that, but… I think the whole point is that this reflects America’s discomfort with sexual subjects. They haven’t complained about the violent images, which I thought that they would. It’s also a matter of how this book is not aimed at kids. It’s the thing that “it’s manga, it’s comics, so it must be a book for kids” all again. In fact the book was reviewed by the library association to be a book for young adults: it wasn’t actually in the 18-class basically, but the 16-class – whatever. The point is that it should not be issued to children, so the library made a mistake there. We didn’t want to do a book about manga that wouldn’t talk about all of manga.

In fact… in 1991 I was going to be involved in a big exhibition of manga, the first one in Britain, in the Museum of Modern Arts in Oxford. We had Toyota sponsoring it. The museum wanted to present a complete survey of manga, including the erotic and sexual material, showing in an art gallery where you can show out. But Toyota of course weren’t very happy of their name with X-rated or explicit material, so the sponsorship collapsed and the exhibition didn’t happen. And in the end what happened was that a small private gallery in London worked with me and Helen McCarthy and we put together a much smaller show showing original art from books of manga, including some pretty wild stuff and some classic Tezuka, original artwork.

As far as I’ve understood it the Americans have a nipple complex. They can bear punching, but if there are nipples then it’s X-rated, absolutely. I hear it's a Bible Belt thing.

PG: It is, really. And I was surprised by the fact that San Bernardino county is in California, and California’s actually a lot more liberal than the Bible Belt or the Midwest. But it seems to be that in that particular area there’s quite a strong fundamentalist christian community, and of course the reaction of the local mayor was really heavy-handed, as the book had to be withdrewn completely and not being made available even to adults. I would’ve been happy if they’s admit is as a mistake, as even the website of the library rates the book as a book for young adults, not to be issued for a child.

But really, how can any adult be worried about of an image of a fairy having sex with a hamster?

Keijun ja jyrsijän välisen seksin lisäksi kuuluisa aukeama sisältää naisopettajan ja poikaoppilaan välistä kanssakäymistä, viiden kimpan, scifikyberseksiä ja ensimmäisiä kuukautisia symboloivan neitsyydenmenetyksen lohikäärmeelle.

PS: Actually, if you look at the picture it isn’t even explicit.

PG: No, no it isn’t. And very importantly, both the fairy and the hamster are over 21. We checked this before we got to use the image.

PS: What is very strange here is that if you look at the spread we talked about, and you look at the image that was objected to… on the same spread there are things which I think are far more worse than that.

PG: Yes. So really here the thing isn’t the nipples that upset them, it’s sex with animals. Now this is where the local paper had to go “Images of sex with animals too shocking for us to show you in this newspaper”, which of course is great… if they can’t show it to you, then it must be really bad. And of course what this really is is an absurd fantasy – I don’t know who could read Bondage Fairies and find it arousing. Well, you can’t say that for sure, but in the end it’s not very arousing but absurd.

A lot of Japanese erotica is like that. You're supposed to enjoy it as an entertainment; erotic entertainment, yes, but in the end not just pornography.

PG: Yes, they don’t have the same kind of attitude towards portraying sexuality than we do.

PS: And their religions don’t talk so much about sex as Christianity does. Except maybe shintoism, but even that’s all positive stuff and nothing like regulations.

Nowadays there are lot of people in the west who draw comics using style that’s influenced by manga, and they’re getting their work published, especially in America… and Finland too, bit by bit. But the problem I see is that a lot of people are just artists, not comic makers. They have problems with making actual comics.

PS: So they draw pin-ups, basically? That’s the whole problem of this “How to draw manga” thing. There are so many books out there that don’t actually tell you how to draw manga. They tell you how to draw pin-ups, how to draw set character style, which is again not very representative in manga, but if you think about Finnish comics or American comics there is nobody who’d say “there’s one way to draw comics from that country”. I think it’s a very damaging thing if you boil the multitude of graphic styles into a bunch of clichés. That’s what these books have been doing.

So we are here still at a stage where people are still young and just want to enjoy the ability of creating nice-looking characters and art. But the rise of this western manga, “global manga” is it’s nowadays known, shows that there are however people who want to make an affort of making full-scale comics like the one they’ve learned to love. Like what I mentioned at the back of the Manga book.

Though 95 % of it isn’t actually very good.

PG: But that’s how you have to deal with any other cultural application, isn’t it? It’s always that you have to look to find the good stuff.

Hyvää kamaa.

But I think the greatest problem there still is that a lot of these young people drawing comics with manga style haven’t read much comics besides manga. So in the end they often end up just copying the styles and images, and the result is actually copying another comics rather than real life.

PS: In Britain during the 60’s there was a huge superhero thing going on, but gradually some fanzines started to publish things that were completely opposite in style to them. It was like a reaction against it, and it was really unusual stuff… based on poems and such.

PS: Maybe in few years there will be people who formerly liked manga but now say “we hate manga” and start drawing stuff that’s influenced it but still original. And that’s the point when the Finnish comics will start evolving.

I actually have here a copy of a publication showcasing British manga that was bundled with an issue of the NEO magazine last year.

PG: Yes, this is actually what Tokyopop’s been doing in the Britain since then; we now have the “Rising stars of manga UK” competition now. Yes, obviously some of this stuff looks more or less like manga… and some if doesn’t. It’s all in a very early stage, basically.

You can tell that the cover artist’s been reading Junko Mizuno.

PS: Though she might end up being really good and having an original style in a few years.

PG: Exactly! As said, the great thing about publications like this is to give young artists chance to eventually find something that they want to do with comics. And the problem is that we still have to wait for a lot of them to actually have something to express, something interesting to tell stories about.

PS: We noticed that you have an art exhibition upstairs at the con, and I think it’d be rather nice if you also had a competition like you have the cosplay contest… best manga strip.

Well we do have the Finnmanga, naturally… when the first issue came out two years ago it wasn’t very well-known, so a lot of the stuff isn’t very good, but the second one that came out just recently is geberally a lot better. Maybe the third one will be excellent?

PG: Yes, that’s the whole idea of publications like this. People improve all the time, and things like this encourage them to improve even more. When you see it on paper you suddenly start to see all the mistakes you did, and so on… and you get a lot of feedback that way.

PS: And in a way it’s sort of a peer thing.

PG: In Britain we have these people called Sweatdrop Studios. They started by doing little magazines on their own, and they grew and supported each other, sold each other’s publications at cons and so on. And nowadays they publish all that, and also anthologies in the size of real manga books. They’re a growing small press.

PS: That’s the good thing with digital printing.

PG: And I think that people are fond of the manga book format. The square-bound tankoubon that’ll sell for about 5 or 6 pounds.

Isn’t that what Marvel’s been doing recently? Spider-Man and such…

PG: Yes, nowadays a lot of comic publishers in America are printing and packaging their material with that size. That really is a a strong format, or so they think. People will easily recognize a comic with that size if they’ve been reading manga before.

One of the recent things starting up in Britain is a small publisher called Self Made Hero, and their first project is going to be recreating Shakespeare as manga. I’ve seen some of the stuff these people are doing – it’s got 160 pages and there’s Hamlet and there's Romeo & Juliet, and it’s great!

I met with the publisher, and she had gone to Tokyo and showed the people there what they were doing, and the people were really impressed. They said that it didn’t look like an imitaition at all, it was really good quality – there was almost interest, I think, from the Japanese publishers. So you might eventually see manga being produced over here in Europe to be sold in Japan.

PS: They’ve always been open to publishing foreign-made stuff in Japan… I remember back in the 80’s they used to publish European works recreated with Japanese style.

The Finnish Donald Duck magazine actually published some of those some years ago. I wouldn’t say they were very good, as the format just didn’t work for the kind of stories they were… There was lots of meaningless empty space just for the sake of manganess, and all the actual story was crammed into one montage page.

PG: Interesting… So they would have to be told in a different way for different audience.

Down at the artists’ alley there actually are two self-published comics on sale right now. One original story and one doujinshi. Maybe next year there will be dozens of them?

PG: Really? We have to go check that out. But the really great thing about this is that when people see them being done they are really encouraged to join in and make their own. There could be this great sense of community like with Sweatdrop Studios, I think – community that supports people and gives advice when they are starting out. An Internet-based one would be just the same.

Ok, let’s take one last question… How would you see the future of comics with this global manga and all? I mean, in 10 or 15 years?

PG: I could say that the future, of course, is the Finnish comics… that they’ll take over the world. (Laughs)

Hmm, really… there are a lot of Korean comics coming out in english again, an we’re waiting China to show what it’s capable of. There are already some of that that’s come out in French, and it’s amazing stuff. And I think what I hope to see in the future is a more globalized environment for comics that are being pressed, so that we don’t think that it has to come from one country or another to be good.

And clearly the online comic world is where there’s unlimited potential, because there you don’t have to worry about costs or distribution, and can just publish whatever you wish. Wonderful things have come out from there – and even business can be run directly through the website.

PS: If you want to buy original art or a T-shirt or something, you can buy it straight from the artist.

PG: And in the future even more so, because I think that this and the coming generations are going to be less fixated on having printed matter. Though I don’t think that the printed medium will disappear, because there is the special feel of owning the product physically – to be able to hold it in your hand and flick through it are something that digital medium can’t duplicate.

What I really think is that rather than taking over the comic world the Internet will revolutionize the animation world, and we will see more and more amateur anime being produced in the future, now when the technology to produce it is widely available and easy to use.

But I think that the medium of comics will survive, absolutely. They’ve survived the coming of film, the coming of TV. And now when manga has come along to revive the whole art form, especially in America, they’ll be around for even longer.

PS: What I think will happen that when these people will grow up and have families, then their kids will hate manga and reject it and find something else. (Nauraa)

PG: Maybe in 10 or 15 years we will talk about the next big thing that’s come along… maybe Finnish comics.

Thank you!