Paul Gravett unmasks comics: no room for nostalgia

Paul Gravett (please, visit his site here) is not only one of the most authoritative comics expert but, with John Harris Dunning, is the curator of Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, a British Library exhibition on British comics (find the catalogue here).
The exhibition, that closes on 19 August, is a real success marked by a huge attendance. It exploits the British Library archives to offer a view on the evolution of comics world both as a medium and language and as an actor of British culture and society.

comics_unmasked_coverWell, the Exhibition turns to be a sort of attractor for several comics related initiatives, such as meetings and debates, in the fascinating context of the British Library.
Yes, for instance we have Comica Festival weekend, over the last weekend, August 15 to 17 with Bryan Lee O’Malley, Emmanuel Guibert and Jan Cleijne as our international guests, and a free Comica Comiket Independent Comics Market on Saturday 16th with over 70 exhibitors and publishers, and five fascinating Comica Conversations on the Sunday 17th.

Guests are renowed and themes quite challenging, going from The Great War in Comics to New Voices, New Directions. I like to think these events are the dynamic side of the Exhibition itself . But, starting from the beginning of it all: what is the vision behind Comics Unmasked? was it shared, was it established from the start or has in been shaping and evolving?
From the start John Harris Dunning and I wanted to avoid curating a complete history of British comics. We wanted to discover hidden gems and unknown masterpieces and we wanted to focus on the more subversive side of comics. Our interest was not to give the public a cosy, nostalgic trip down memory lane with lots of childhood favourites, but to confront and surprise people with the edgy and often controversial content and ideas in this medium. As a result it is the first British Library exhibition with a PG 16 age rating. Partly because it includes one section on erotic and pornographic comics.
The goal is also to raise awareness of the amazing collection of British comics owned by the BL which is accessible to everyone. We also wanted to show how many different issues and sectors of society have been given a voice through comics. The show looks set to be the most popular ever staged by the BL, a record-breaking attendance.

to-end-all-wars239x150And who did you think would be the “ideal” visitor/user of the exhibition (if any)? that is: who is the exhibit for?
The exhibition aimed to reach out to anyone with a curiosity and open mind, not just comics geeks like us! Even experts and serious fans have told me they have found things they never knew before. Most important to us was to pull in visitors who are relatively new to comics or just discovering them, say through the movies or breakout graphic novels.

In the short video trailer for the exhibit, we can see you wandering through the BL archives, just like an explorer through dungeons. Did you find any lost treasure?
It was two years of amazing explorations, like Indiana Jones!
I think it was important to highlight the amazing Victorian comics in the Illustrated London News and The Graphic, two best selling weekly magazines. Comics experts have only recently reappraised these beautiful early comics from the 1860s to 1890s as brilliant and innovative. Best of all some were based on the readers’ own stories or experiences. We also had fun exploring the pornography collection of the BL and found a pioneering woman artist Reina Bull from the 1950s, never before celebrated, who created fetish bondage comics equal to masters like John Willie or Eric Stanton. In fact some 13 per cent of the exhibition is by women, which is not enough but is a start.

sex-censorship-sensibility239x150Pornography and comics: Dr. Wertham would say: “See? I was right!”.
No he was wrong!
One schoolboy in Britain had his comics confiscated and burnt. He was horrified and vowed: “If you are against comics, then I am for them“. He made comics his career and years later was invited back to his school to speak about co-creating Watchmen. Banning or burning comics made Dave Gibbons decide to become a comics artist
And Wertham was wrong: evidence is now clear that he doctored his findings and interviews to suit his anti-comics agenda. It was not scientifically sound at all.

It was the opposite indeed: some institutions were aleady using comics to support research into children’s emotional world ((See Lawrence C. Rubin (ed.): “Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy”, Springer Publishing Company, 2007.)).
Another aim of the exhibition is to make people question why comics worry and upset people so much? And make people perhaps reflect that this sort of moral panic driven by rival media is often the result of other agendas, to reinforce the class system and keep people in their place and not question authority.

comica-festival-weekendIn this sense Comics Unmasked is of interest for “cultural studies”, which consider comics as documents for sociological analysis.
Yes absolutely, they are an incredible resource but the BL has found that they have not been that widely used for this sort of research, yet! I hope this will change.

Harold Bloom, in his work The Western Canon ((Harold Bloom: The Western Canon – The Books and Schools of the Ages, Harcourt Brace, 1994.)) claims that focusing on sociological traits could divert attention from artistic values (he was actually a bit keener…).
Yes: there is a need for a balance here. No doubt some comics are more significant for their role in society than their artistic merit.

comica-firecat-comiketWhat do you think could be a balanced approach?
Clearly there are remarkable aesthetic comics that have only a little sociological import. But they deserve appreciation for what they bring to the art form. When I was editing 1001 Comics ((Paul Gravett (ed.): 1001 Comics you must read before you die, Universe, 2011.)) with nearly 70 collaborators worldwide, these were among our criteria. It’s probably no different to books or films, as a way of proposing a canon.
Robert Crumb asked why his work was chosen to exhibit at the Musée de l’Art Moderne in Paris recently. The museum director did not know anything about the history of cartooning and comics or Crumb’s great favourites like James Gillray or William Hogarth. Crumb was chosen mainly because so many contemporary fine artists have been inspired by his work.

I am afraid Crumb might have said “I made them just for the money”.
Crumb is an man of principles and has always refused to ‘sell out’, but he has been adopted by the art world and his originals do sell for plenty of money

In 21st century, comics “have gone academic”, that is universities devote courses, conferences, publications on comics. Do you think there could be any interaction, influence or impact from the academy to the comics world?
Well, some of the main theorists about comics have been comics creators themselves going back to Rodolphe Töpffer through to Will Eisner, Benoît Peeters and Scott McCloud. Many creators I suspect prefer to work intuitively and not to overanalyse their process. But there are others who welcome this deeper thinking and questioning of the medium because it can help enrich their own production. The recent graphic novel conference at the BL involved both academics and practitioners, which is a good thing. These two worlds can be a bit wary or misinformed about each other, so hopefully exchanges like this can help produce more useful dialogues.

Interview collected by chat on July 23 2014

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