From graphic criminality to leather nuns, we chat with Paul Gravett

Published On August 13, 2008 | By Joe Gordon | Books, Comics, Conventions and events, Interviews

FPI: It’s been a while since we last sat and had a chat with Paul Gravett here on the blog and with a brand-new anthology just out, another book about comics on the way very soon, an appearance at the world’s largest literary festival coming up and more Comica events than you could shake an illustrated stick at it seemed like a good time to catch up with Paul.

Hi, Paul and thanks for taking some time to talk to us again. You’ve been pretty darned busy since we last talked here on the blog, back when Great British Comics was coming up for release. You and Peter have just brought out The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Stories and The Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics is coming up in the autumn, on top of your ongoing Comica events. Perhaps we should take them in order and talk about the Mammoth Crime collection first. How did that come about – were you looking to do a graphical crime collection or were Robinson already thinking along those lines and got in touch with you?

Paul Gravett: Thanks Joe. Well, I’d been talking with Mammoth for some time, and when they first approached me after my Manga book came out in 2004, they wanted to start adding comics to their all-prose line by trying an anthology of manga. It’s a great idea but the rights would be too complex and pricey. Instead, as you know they launched the Mammoth Book of Best New Manga in 2006 and it’s gone from strength to strength under the formidable helm of Ilya, graduating to full colour with its third annual volume this October.

Mammoth Book Best Crime Comics.jpg

Meantime, they also wanted to try some reprint compilations. Perhaps partly inspired by the surprise success of Carlton’s Commando reprint tomes, they lined up War, and then followed up with Horror. By this time we were talking again and settled on Crime. At that point, they were still thinking of using the same standard paperback size for this reprint line as they were using for Best New Manga. But Peter and I insisted that the pages had to be bigger, people wouldn’t read American comic books shrunk down so tiny. Fortunately, they agreed and came up with a bigger, better format for this new series. And even better, when it came to Crime, they added a further 10 centimeters width – sounds like nothing but it makes a real difference to showing the pages larger. The next in this line will be Zombie Comics, out for Halloween and compiled by David Kendall who did their War volume.

FPI: I’m not a huge reader of manga, but I have to say Ilya was so damned enthusiastic about it when I talked to him about the first volume that I had to read them and I’ll happily admit that even as someone not that up on manga I really enjoyed them and am looking forward to the next one.

An obvious question and I’ll apologise if you have been getting asked it by everyone, but why crime? It’s always been a very popular genre in bookstores – you only have to look at the impressive sales of Elmore Leonard or Ian Rankin to see that – and with works like David Lloyd’s Kickback or Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal there seems to be a bit more interest in it from the comics perspective too recently (in the English language world anyway, its been more common on the Continent as a genre, I think). Did that sort of thinking influence choosing crime over other genres, say fantasy or science fiction? Or did you think those areas have a fair bit of coverage already and it was time crime got some more in comics too?

PG: Both reasons really. There is a clear renaissance of crime comics in the US, building up since Ms Tree and of course Sin City. It’s a genre that was once so huge in American comic books, prior to the Comics Code, and has had some of the greatest talents contributing to it worldwide. I also wanted to tap into that new general readership that’s discovered Frank Miller’s graphic novels through the movie but has read them all and is hungry for more.

FPI: I’m always curious as to how an anthology actually comes together. For instance, as the editor do you start with a wish-list of creators you would most like to feature then have to whittle down the list if those creators aren’t available due to work commitment or copyright reasons? Or do you put out the word among some creators and see who might be interested, or is it a mixture of these?

PG: I drew up a lengthy wish-list and had some absolute definites that just had to go in. One selling angle was to include some “big name” crime writers to attract the non-comics-reading aficionados of noir fiction. And my preference was for original stories rather than adaptations from them. So the fact that both Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane wrote new, unique scripts for comics, for Secret Agent X-9 and Mike Hammer respectively, put them top of the list. I also wanted a balance between countries and periods, so while American content would predominate, there had to be room for British and European examples too.

Secret Agent X-9 Dashiell Hammett Alex Raymond.jpg

(Secret Agent X-9 written by crime legend Dashiell Hammett and the equally famous Alex Raymond, taken from the Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, edited by Paul Gravett and published by Constable Robinson)

Another decision was not to put them into chronological order or attempt some sort of genre history. Peter Normanton handled this structure very well in his Horror collection, but with Crime we wanted to mix and match, create contrasts and connections between the stories and aim it at a broad audience after some good reads. I also had loads of helpful tips from friends, collectors, retailers and creators making suggestions.

FPI: Do you look for new material specially made for the collection, some classic material you think deserves to be seen more or again is it a mix depending on availability, time and budget restraints as well as aesthetic choice? Were there any creators or stories you’d really like to have featured but just couldn’t get in there?

PG: There’s no new material, though I had hoped to include an excellent silent four-pager by two of the finalists in last year’s Observer/Jonathan Cape/Comica Graphic Short Story competition but the space wasn’t there, this time anyway. The budget on these books is pretty lean so it’s hard to commission brand new work. I took the word “Best” in the title very much to heart, and have frankly overspent to make this book as top-notch as possible. Kind of crazy of me, I know, but I do believe in the quality throughout this compendium and hope it can reach a bigger public this way. And yes, there are several creators and stories who didn’t make the final cut. In fact, there’s more than enough top-class material to do a sequel volume if the demand is there – for starters I want Raymond Chandler in there, and ideally one or more manga too.

FPI: Well there is such a long and rich history of crime fiction from both prose and graphical mediums going way back to draw on and I know from my own time in bookselling that it’s a genre that never seems to go out of fashion.

Leaving aside who you couldn’t feature for one reason or another, let’s look at some of the folks you do have – it’s a pretty impressive list too. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Charles Burns, Will Eisner, Jacques Tardi from the comics world and some classic crime writers like Dashiel Hammett, Mickey Spillane and Ed McBain from the prose world. It’s probably too cruel to ask you to pick out a single favourite from that mix, but were there any which you especially enjoyed reading or any that surprised you?

PG: Obviously, I rate every tale here highly, but it was a special thrill to be able to “top and tail” the book with two Alan Moore stories which work so brilliantly. “Old Gangsters Never Die” finally gets a chance to be seen at a proper size. Previously the pages had appeared bubble-gum-card sized on the foldout sleeve of the single by The Sinister Ducks. It was also reprinted but small in George Khoury’s excellent TwoMorrows book, The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore.

Old Gangsters Never Die Alan Moore and Lloyd Thatcher.jpg

(Old Gangsters Never by Die Alan Moore and Lloyd Thatcher, taken from the Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics edited by Paul Gravett and published by Constable Robinson)

The added buzz was reaching artist Lloyd Thatcher, one of the truly great, little-known British geniuses who drew briefly at pssst! magazine back in the early 1980s and then left the field. He went out of his way to revise and revamp the artwork, so it’s never been seen looking so good like this before. The song, and story, are set in a sinister 1930s cabaret where the compere performs to an audience of dead gangsters and relates the myths about their glorious careers and tragic demises. It gives the perfect atmosphere to open the book.  Moore’s other story, “I Keep Coming Back”, closes the book superbly, in the present day, the spirit of Jack the Ripper still haunting our society, ending with a lone woman walking off into the night.

I have to stop myself enthusing about every story in the book, sorry! But it I had to single out one, it would be the Commisario Spada case. It’s a crime (sorry!) that the artist Gianni de Luca has never been translated into English before, because he is one of the absolute maestros of fumetti or Italian comics. Although the Spada series ran in a pretty conservative Catholic children’s weekly, it tackled some strong subjects and brimmed with creativity. I was lucky to meet the people from Black Velvet at the Komikazen festival in Ravenna last year, who had just compiled the whole series into books and knew de Luca’s widow. They were also behind a major retrospective at the Bilbolbul festival this spring in Bologna, which blew me away even more. Giovanni Spinella did a great translation, Ben Dickson designed the type in the balloons and it all came together really well. I’m also pleased that Bernie Krigstein’s final comic book, 87th Precinct from 1962, based on Ed McBain’s characters, could finally be reprinted – Krigstein called it the most absurd script he’d ever been asked to visualise and quit comics after drawing it – so it is a unique reading experience!

FPI: That is good to hear about the de Luca work – I know you get as exasperated as we do at the ocean of brilliant material from Europe (and elsewhere) which sadly never gets translated for the English language market. And I’d never heard of Krigstein working on Ed McBain material before – strange to think over the years I’ve sold a lot of graphic novels and a lot of crime books but was totally unaware of that link between the two.

Robinson have long been known for their large fiction collections of Mammoth Best SF, Horror, Crime and the like in previous years and now they’ve had success with Ilya’s Mammoth Best New Manga, as you said (two out already and a third on the way this winter, I’m pleased to see), was that a spur to them to publish more graphic novel collections? Are you finding that more mainstream book publishers as opposed to comics publishers are becoming more attracted to the idea of graphic novels now and does that make life for you as an author a little easier since you can cite obvious sales potential for such works? Do you think advances in printing technology have also perhaps helped, making art printing a lot more affordable?

PG: Yes to all three of these questions! I think some words of warning are in order here, because there’s a danger of swamping the bookshelves with massive, modest-priced bricks of old comics. I’m pleased that Carlton, for example, this year are branching out from their war series and adding Westerns and retro-SF in Rick Random, one of my all-time favourites. Let’s see if there’s a big enough public for these and maybe more.  And yes, more mainstream publishers are taking graphic novels more or less seriously now, though there’s generally a wise caution about rushing in too quickly. For now, most are still dipping their toes, or one big toe, but if something does click for them, it could motivate them to try others and maybe be a bit more daring.

It was the big success of Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest that fired up Jonathan Cape to try some graphic novels. Similarly, while it was Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass that sold well enough that Faber are now in the game too. Myriad, a political publisher, have entered the field too with Woodrow Phoenix’s devastating Rumble Strip. The more, the merrier. The UK graphic novel market is still modest when you compare it to the four thousand plus bande dessinée books, from hardback colour albums to black-and-white manga, published last year in France. So there’s plenty of potential for the market here to grow and diversify much further.

FPI: Well I imagine many in the trade have memories of the previous graphic novel boom on the back of Dark Knight Returns et al which did see too many often mediocre titles rushed out to cash in on the boom, only to flood the market with material most readers didn’t want and end the boom rather than nurture it. Caution is probably not a bad thing this time around, although I have to say it feels a bit different this time – perhaps publishers have learned lessons.

Turning to your upcoming collection, The Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics, again working with Peter, is coming from a mainstream publisher, not a comics publisher, albeit one you’ve worked with before for the likes of Great British Comics. Now while a crime fiction collection is likely to have broad appeal to both comics and prose readers, this might be a bit more specialised in its appeal, perhaps? I’m thinking that with titles like “Amputee Love” and “Leather Nun” it might appeal less to a mainstream readership and perhaps more to the degenerate individuals who grew up watching the Video Nasties boom (yes, that would be me). Care to talk us through what we can expect and how this particular theme was picked out?

PG: OK, to clarify again here, this is a very different format and concept to Crime. The Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics is not an anthology of the whole comics themselves. For one thing, it has only 128 pages, not 1,800 plus! It’s a cool, compact hardback, like an adult Ladybird book, designed as a weird, wacky, cultish giftbook to sit by the till and fly off the counter. It’s going to be this year’s must-have stocking filler! We show 61 different comics, each on a two-page spread, with the cover full-page bleed on the right, and a wild panel, a quote, some info on its story and history, credits and link words on the left. All wrapped up in a fab Charles Burns cover.

Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics.jpg

(The Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics coming from Aurum Press this autumn)

FPI: Well as someone who has dealt with more than a few stocking-filler, impulse buy counter-pack gift books that sounds a lot more interesting to me than the usual sub-standard humour mini-books that aim for that market. The publisher’s description comments that there are sixty-one “of the most weird and wonderful comics ever published” – could you tell us a bit more about which creators you have featured in the Leather Nun? Knowing you I am guessing it will be a fairly interesting and international mix – any artists from other countries in there that most of us probably haven’t come across yet that you’d especially like to bring to our notice? All the stories are billed as ‘weird and wonderful’ but are there any that were in on a weirdness level all of their own?

PG: Well, as we write in the intro, “Like beauty, strangeness is in the eye of the beholder” but something in this parade of oddities in this book should astonish, if not outrage, just about anyone. But it’s not all adults-only X-rated sex and horror. It’s more fun to mix them up alongside bonkers concepts like Jon Juan, Super Lover (by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, would you believe?) or Cosmo the Merry Martian, and deadly earnest religious and promotional tracts, info-comics about the threat of smoking, Communism or the Atom Bomb, and real period-pieces from the Beatnik, Mod and Disco eras. The book reverberates with the changing lifestyles, crazes and paranoias that swept through the 20th century.

I think a fair few titles will be familiar to more knowledgeable comics connoisseurs but I’m pretty sure nobody will know them all. We’ve built a cabinet of comics curiosities here, from Aboriginal myths crafted by two white sisters in the outback in the 1940s to a topless, nymphomaniac female spider-man! We’ve also deliberately avoided the more familiar American oddball classics, like Mort Weisinger’s 1960s Superman or gory pre-Code horror. Instead, we’ve found Italy’s version of Superman, Nembo Kid, saving the 1966 World Cup, and an astonishing Malaysian religious comic for kids showing them all the tortures of Hell so they behave themselves!

I’m also looking for more Incredibly Strange Comics, as we’re hoping this can develop into a series, so do contact me via the website if you have something that might qualify for a sequel volume. I should also clarify that the US edition of Leather Nun is being launched next February from St Martin’s Press under the wild and crazy title, “Holy Sh*t! The World’s Weirdest Comic Books” and I hope to be at the New York Comicon to promote it.

FPI: Hahah, now there’s a subtle and understated title for the American market! It seems cheeky to ask you when you’ve been busy with two major collections this year, but any plans for your next book? If you had absolute freedom of choice for subject and format what would be your dream comics project?

PG: Too early to announce anything but we’re percolating several books for the coming years. All I can say for now is that Escape, the British comics magazine Peter and I created, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and won’t be forgotten.

FPI: Now that’s intriguing and I hope that’s something you’ll get back to us on when you can. Now, I think its only right we bring in your ongoing work with Comica. Although there’s a core of events, many gigs are spread throughout the year under the Comica umbrella. You’ve just had an event with two incredibly famous and influential British artists, Bryan Talbot and Raymond Briggs, how did that go? And what other Comica highlights have we got to look forward to over the next few months?

PG: Comica started in 2003 and it’s been great working with the ICA in London, and other venues too. It was kind of strange that Briggs and Talbot had never met before, especially now that they’re both being published by Cape. Then again Briggs is somehow not thought of as a comics artist even though he patently is. So when a chance mistaken phone call by Raymond found him speaking with Bryan, they hit it off really well. These two are crucial to the growth of graphic novels, as Cape’s new Graphic Classics editions of Gentleman Jim and One Bad Rat prove.

Comica is more than just a once-a-year shebang. I can propose all kinds of events all year round. Next up at the ICA on September 8th is a preview screening of Fear(s) of the Dark, a remarkable black-and-white animated horror movie featuring six new tales of terror by Charles Burns, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire, Blutch and more. Who needs special effects, splatter, gore and colour photography when you can see Burns’ world move? It’s the ultimate creep-out!

Comica logo.jpg

And the annual Comica festival is coming back this November, 13th to 26th, with some innovations such as an exhibition at the ICA and a conference at the V&A Museum with Alan Moore, Melinda Gebbie, Posy Simmonds and others on the guest list. We’ll also be collaborating and cross-promoting with the Thought Bubble festival in Leeds, November 13th to 16th and the Dublin Comicon November 21st to 23rd – yes, you wait ages for a comic festival and three come along together! Bit early to announce guests, but it will be the usual eclectic, high-class, international, unmissable mix!

FPI: I’m sure it will be and it’s really good to see the link-up with other comics events happening around the British Isle too. And having seen Peur(s) du Noir at the Edinburgh Film Festival a few weeks ago I’m sure a lot of folks will find it pretty interesting, although personally I was more enthralled by the Mattotti sequence than the Burns segment.

You’re also talking at the world’s biggest literary festival this month, the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I know you are far from a stranger to literary events but I’d imagine it’s still quite exciting to be invited to one as prestigious as the Edinburgh Book Fest?

PG: Definitely, it’s another sign of the changing times and growing curiosity and enthusiasm for comics, especially now they can be swan around with all those literary types as “graphic novels”!

FPI: Indeed, we can swan around making weighty statements about the intertextuality of the sequential graphic art medium while stroking our beards in a thoughtful manner.

This is only the second year that the EIBF has included graphic novel events and I’ve found them all to be very enthusiastic about the medium and recognising it as another way of reaching out to readers and encouraging them to pick up books. I think a lot of us in the comics sphere have been talking about how the medium seems to be gaining more credence and acceptance in the mainstream of literary life, but do you think that’s true and the publishing of comics work by mainstream publishers and appearances by writers and artists at such literary events is proof that it isn’t just wishful thinking on our part? I think I’ve asked you this before, but it’s worth asking again – what do you think is contributing to this increasing acceptance of the medium outside the traditional comics readership?

PG: OK, well 2008 is not going to be 1988 all over again. That boom and bust period by the early 1990s looks unlikely to repeat itself. There is something very different going on now and the medium seems to be connecting to so many fields, ideas and other media, feeding into and feeding off them, as never before. Briefly, gaming, the internet and mobile phones are changing how people read and see, how ideas are communicated, making more of our brains work. And while technology escalates, it’s somehow the language of comics, as the original, primeval communication system, that is making comics truly thrive in their time. I always knew that reading comics makes you smarter and now that more people are smarter, more people can appreciate comics and comics themselves can become smarter!

FPI: Hear, hear – in fact Alan Grant told audiences at last summer’s Book Festival and then later at the Edinburgh Lectures series something similar and obviously I’ve got to agree (biased though I undeniably am!).

You’ve worked with a goodly number of the Great and the Good of the comics world, but I know you are also still a keen supporter of the small press creators. It certainly seems that right now in the UK the small press scene is buzzing with some fascinating work being produced and events from the established (like Caption) to the new (London Underground Comics stall in Camden Market) raising awareness of what’s on offer out there beyond the colourful mainstream comics; we’ve even seen the recent launch of a new small publisher, Blank Slate, by our own Kenny Penman, picking up new Brit talent and European creators. What’s your impression of the current small press scene in the UK and do you think that some of the vibrancy around it can be translated eventually into wider distribution and readership? Or are we always going to struggle here because we don’t really have UK equivalents of Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly for those small press creators to graduate to? Is there anyone you’ve been picking up from the small press scene recently who you’d like to flag up for readers to have a look at?

PG: The small press is really being re-energised thanks to local groups and scenes like Oli Smith’s LUC and all these other young whipper-snappers! It’s a cyclical process as another new generation gets into self-publishing assisted by the Internet and an appetite out there for more personal, intimate, non-corporate media, cutting out all of the middlemen. I’m really glad to see Blank Slate start up, because previously we’ve had Knockabout and Escape Publishing in the 1980s, Peter Pavement’s wonderful Slab-o-Concrete in the 1990s, and others of course. There’s also Scar Comics, Accent UK and others now, of course, and plenty of creators self-publishing on a totally professional basis, but you’re right, we need more independent, innovative publishers originating UK material. The quality is there already. I’ve particularly liked Sean Azzopardi’s Twelve Hour Shift, and could see eventual collections of James Nash’s diary comics, Paul Rainey’s There’s No Time Like The Present, Jim Medway’s stuff, or Leckford’s  infrequent Percy Street crossing over. I’m also pleased to see Malcy Duff linking into the artist’s book arena, another pathway for comics to explore.

Sean Azzopardis Twelve Hour Shift collected edition.jpg

(cover to the collected Twelve Hour Shift, created by and (c) Sean Azzopardi)

FPI: I think you’ve just named several of my personal favourites from the small press scene there and they are all indeed creators who deserve some wider readership.

Paul, a question now which we always ask our guests: which comics and/or books are you enjoying reading at the moment? And have you had any free time this summer to take in the bumper crop of comics-related movies in the cinema?

PG: One big rave from me is Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, the North American debut of the year in my view. It’s out from Greenwood but is also coming out here next year from Walker Books. Eddie Campbell is on top form in his latest, Monsieur Leotard, a delightful, delirious balancing act, in which he cunningly relates the traditions of the circus ring with the birth of the superhero. And in manga I was mightily impressed by Del Rey’s Me and the Devil Blues, a strangely re-imagined, remixed life-story of bluesman Robert Johnson by Akira Hiramoto. Mio Matsumoto’s My Diary is a gem of a memoir. And I’m hooked on my weekly fix of Sarah McIntyre’s Vern and Lettuce and James Turner’s Super Animal Adventure Squad in The DFC!

I’m also knocked out and inspired by Lynda Barry’s What It Is, an empowering, stimulating, How-To, Why-To creativity book. And the most imaginative, eco-science fiction world since Nausicäa, Leo’s Aldebaran, a bande dessinée epic coming out in five double-volumes over the next 2 years or so from Cinebook – highly recommended.

I’ve not caught up on the big screen with everything, but I did enjoy The Dark Knight a lot, despite some misgivings, but my favourite comics-related movies this summer have been live-action manga – the two Death Note films worked well and I liked Sakuran too, that’s Moyoco Anno’s latest manga, about a rebellious geisha, not translated yet. It’s on now at the ICA. As well as Fear(s) of the Dark, I’d also point out Waltz with Bashir, animation from Israel – and if you’re wondering why it looks so good, two of the designers are the twin Hanuka brothers, Tomer and Asaf, of Bipolar fame.

FPI: Ah, I didn’t know Tomer and Asaf were involved in that, although I do recall reading about Waltz featuring in some European film festival competitions. Sadly it never made this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival list so I will have to wait my chance to see it later on (although to be fair we did get Fear(s) of the Dark and the UK premiere of Angels and Idiots from Bill Plympton, so I can’t complain). I suppose animated films outside the big studios like Disney etc are a bit like Indy comics – making them is one thing, getting them into cinemas in the face of large, mainstream movies is another. All the more reason to flag them up when we come across them, of course.

Paul, thanks very much for talking to us. The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics is available right now, published by Constable Robinson and The Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics is out September 25th from Aurum Press. Paul will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, talking with Robert Deas and Emma Hayley about the Manga Shakespeare on Thursday August 14th at 8.30pm. For full details of the events Paul is involved with and for his columns and reviews check his website.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

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