Comics are Everywhere: a Conversation with Paul Gravett
Over the last few weeks and months, the Forbidden Planet International blog, Down the Tubes and Fictions have been cross-posting Q&As by Matt Badham with the organisers of various British comic conventions. Our aim is to give the conventions themselves some well-deserved publicity and also to, hopefully, spark a wider debate about what’s good and bad about the convention circuit in this country. (NB: Answers have been edited only in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, and not for style or content.) For this eighth instalment of the series, Matt chatted to Paul Gravett of the Comica festival.
Matt Badham: Please tell us about a little about the history of your event and how it’s evolved over the years.
Paul Gravett: Comica started in 2003 and grew out of a couple of events I’d done with the ICA (that’s the Institute of Contemporary Arts) before, including interviews with Grant Morrison and Tetsuya Chiba and a panel with Dave Gibbons, Dave McKean and Matt Smith. The ICA is a cool venue, on the Mall, just off Trafalgar Square and up the road from Buckingham Palace. It has galleries, two cinemas, a theatre, education space, cafe, bar and bookshop. A key person there getting Comica to happen was John Dunning, their film PR man at the time and a keen comics enthusiast – and now a published graphic novelist himself with the brilliant Salem Brownstone from Walker Books which launched on 24th October at a Comica Spooktacular evening at the ICA.
Together John and I cajoled and persuaded Philip Dodd, director of the ICA, finally to let us run a pilot 10-day festival during their summer refurbishment of the galleries. They gave us the Concourse Gallery to fill, a long corridor-type space that leads from the foyer to the bar, and the use of rooms and the cinema for talks. Luckily, I knew a curator at a Spanish festival who was inviting Charles Burns, Joe Sacco and Chris Ware over and she very kindly let me bring the three of them from Madrid to London, saving on their pricey transatlantic flights. So we had three top-class guests to kick the show off. One central idea of Comica is to mix comics with all the other media, and not keep it sealed off in some specialist cocoon, so we got novelist Alex Garland, who had drawn his hit book The Beach initially as a comic (he showed it to me years ago on the train to Caption in Oxford), to talk with Chris Ware. They were both pretty shy frankly but it was a great encounter. Jonathan Ross surprised many people by being respectful and knowledgeable interviewing Charles Burns.
The pilot was an astonishing success. Instead of the ICA being a deserted building site for 10 days, it was packed with the public, the talks sold out and the bookshop shifted loads and loads of graphic novels. We got some great press coverage and even had Joe Sacco on Channel 4 News. Philip Dodd rang me right after and said “Let’s do it again next year”, and Comica was underway.
Over the years, Comica has had some amazing guests – Craig Thompson, Alan Moore (no less than 3 times), Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, the Bitterkomix boys from South Africa, Alison Bechdel, Ben Katchor, Guy Delisle, Scott McCloud, David B. and many more. We’ve also branched out to work with other venues like The French Institute, National Maritime Museum, V&A, BookArt Bookshop and this year no less than The British Museum, but the ICA has remained the hub, the base, and the simple idea is to try to get each ICA department – film, performance, exhibition and of course talks – to programme something comics-related during the festival.
MB: How is your event funded, by ticket sales, the exhibitors, a grant, some other means or a combination of these?
PG: The ICA continue to support Comica amazingly, through their arts funding and providing the venues, technology and staff. Of course most ICA events are ticketed, so that’s the main revenue stream. From the start, Philip Dodd recognised that something was happening in comics, something they had to engage with and embrace, to be there first, ahead of their big artsy rivals like the Tate. We’ve also had huge help from publishers, other European festivals and various cultural institutes bringing artists over. We’ve never gone for the big comic-mart mixed with trade-fair approach, but we started a small press fair in 2007, Comica Comiket, and that’s growing well, with London Underground Comics teaming up last year, and this year on Sunday November 8th we expand to the ICA Theatre and have several groups supporting it, from Jimi Gherkin’s Alternative Press crew to Matthew Sheret from Words+Pictures and the Nobrow guys.
None of this Comica festival would happen without everyone involved at the ICA itself, from house management, tickets, reception, installation, bookshop and technical to director Ekow Eshun, Jennifer Thatcher in Talks, Tejinder Jouhal in Films, Emma-Jayne Taylor and Vicky Carmichael in Education, Jennifer Byrne in press, and everyone else who pulls together to make it go smoothly. And I must sing the praises of the team of volunteers who help make Comica possible, including Sarah Lightman, Vasileios Sakkos, Tom Smith, Ben Le Foe and others. In fact, if anyone reading this would like to volunteer for Comica this November, do please get in touch via the website www.comicafestival.com
MB: I understand that you run satellite events under the Comica banner throughout the year. Can you tell us a little about these and why you decided to augment the main Comica with other panels and exhibitions?
PG: Because too much is happening, comics are too vibrant to limit them to one festival a year, even one that’s grown from ten days to three weeks. With the year-round flexibility of Comica events, we can welcome major guests whenever they can make it to London, from Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi to Alan Moore and Joe Sacco, only a few weeks ago, to a packed house, and Daniel Clowes lined up for next spring.
MB: What are Comica’s overall aims?
PG: To treat comics as a totally valid contemporary artform, to show where the medium is heading right now locally and internationally, and how comics can interconnect with every other artform. In many ways, the aims, the mission, of Comica are in sync with what Peter Stanbury and I envisaged when we used to co-publish Escape Magazine back in the 1980s – to escape, to break out from narrow definitions and formulas, to liberate comics to be anything they want and everything they can be. That’s why we’ve put Spiegelman together with Philip Pullman, Posy Simmonds with Ian McEwan, Moore and Gebbie with Stewart Lee – or this year Logicomix author Apostolos Doxiadis with Marcus de Sautoy and Ben Templesmith with Philip Ridley. And Comica hosts the best, from whatever field of comics, from Japanese comics, with Junko Mizuno, to American superheroes, like Alex Maleev last year and Cameron Stewart this year – quality is there in every sector of this medium.
(all the girls go crazy for a sharp dressed cartoonist man! Seth at Comica, pic courtesy of Paul Gravett)
MB: Who is Comica aimed at? What sort of punters do you hope to attract? Are you family-friendly?
PG: To reach out to as broad a public as possible, to the fans and enthusiasts of course but also to all sorts of other people who are culturally alert and curious and may just be discovering the wonders of manga or graphic novels. Among them are plenty of people who want to make comics themselves, easily half of them these days being women. Comica this year is adding a kids’ workshop, Little Pencil with Sarah McIntyre. Its identity is mostly focussed on the adult audience for comics, though plans are afoot to expand the family side next year.
MB: How effective have you been in getting those kind of people to attend?
PG: Definitely effective. One of my greatest pleasures is to chat with people queuing for an event or signing and find out how they’ve got interested in Comica. They come from all sort of backgrounds and interests and for a lot of them it’s opening up a whole world of comics culture that they are really getting into.
MB: Can you give a projected (or actual) attendance figure for Comica?
PG: We estimate over 5,000 people now attend Comica over the festival period and the numbers are still increasing as we link up with other major venues. The added plus is that the ICA no longer has to charge admission to the venue so a lot more people are visiting the free exhibitions and events.
MB: What lessons have you learned during your time running Comica, in terms of its marketing and advertising?
PG: Key to Comica’s success has been the ICA’s high profile and strong links with the cutting-edge media. People notice and pay attention to what the ICA does, so it’s been amazing working with them and getting coverage far and wide. Comica doesn’t advertise, because our newsworthy events and guests can get us valuable editorial coverage. We know word of mouth works wonders.
MB: Do you use emerging technologies to spread the word about Comica? Do you have a website or blog, or use email mailing lists?
PG: Yep, vital – first through my own website www.paulgravett.com and since this year through www.comicafestival.com , its own site, both doing extremely well with thousands of visitors. And we’re using Facebook now. I’ve got some great help with these from Tim Webber, who runs Read Yourself Raw, and Ben Le Foe. And the ICA’s own site always highlights our events.
MB: What about print? Do you use print advertising, have a newsletter, anything like that?
PG: Instead of a convention booklet only for paying attendees, we print a Comica programme that gets widely distributed across London so people can pick it up and get an overview of the whole season. On top of this, the ICA always highlight Comica in their monthly agenda which gets to lots of outlets. And yes, people can sign up to the email newsletter via the Comica site to get first alerts on upcoming events to be sure to book those tickets early.
MB: What’s the mix in terms of exhibitors at Comica? Do you even have exhibitors?
PG: As I said, that’s one aspect of traditional conventions that we’ve not gone for. Instead, the ICA’s own Bookshop stocks all the relevant books by the guest creators and since 2007 we invite small presses, self-publishers and independents to sell their wares at the Comica Comiket.
(a triple header from Roeg and Gebbie, not sure who the bloke in the middle could be...)
MB: What are your thoughts on the small press comics scene in this country? How do you use Comica to support it (do you try and support it)?
PG: Again, as above, the Comiket is an important part of the festival. We also spotlight small press creators on panels and in exhibitions such as the Potential Comic or PoCom wall that ran in 2003 and again last year. In 2007, Comica hooked up with The Observer and Jonathan Cape to launch the Graphic Short Story Prize, to give newcomers the chance to win £1,000, get published in a national Sunday paper and be talent-spotted by a mainstream graphic novel publisher. Last year’s winner, Julian Hanshaw, has his debut graphic novel, The Art of Pho, out from Cape next Spring. It’s a real opportunity for small pressers to get noticed. This year we’re getting four full pages in the glossy Observer magazine for the winner’s strip – that’s great exposure and will come out the Sunday before the Comica Festival begins, so great pre-publicity. And plenty of emerging UK talents have been nominated for the Arts Foundation’s first £10,000 fellowship for a graphic novelist – we’re announcing the finalists at Comica. The first of many, we hope.
MB: How much are the tickets for Comica? How did you arrive at that price? Please tell us about any concessions.
PG: The ICA sets the prices for all its Comica events, and there are always discounts for concessions, and even bigger discounts if you become an ICA member. We also offer reduced rates for an afternoon of three Comica Conversations in a row. I’m well aware that Comica can be pricey for many people so I’m pleased this year that thanks to sponsors Ctrl.Alt.Shift and The Arts Foundation we’ve got some totally free panels, you just need to book. And the exhibitions and Comiket comics fair are always free admission.
MB: How much are exhibitor tables for Comica (if you have any)? Again, how did you arrive at that figure?
PG: We try to keep Comiket prices deliberately low just to cover costs, as low as a tenner, to give people a chance to attend and reach out to the public.
MB: Do you run workshops/events/panels at Comica? Please tell us about those and how they are organised.
PG: Yep, the ICA now has a Reading Room and Student Forum where we’re holding an afternoon workshop with Bryan Talbot, Pat Mills and other major creators dropping in to give advice and guidance. There’s another workshop at the new Book Club in Shoreditch to design cartoon posters. Organising panels, or Comica Conversations, is one of the most complex parts of programming the festival, co-ordinating guests’ schedules to bring amazing people together, like last year’s underground comix reunion of Spiegelman, Shelton and Spain, their first three-way conversation in many, many years. Vital to making these work are my years of working in comics, getting to know creators, publishers and festival organisers worldwide. Getting Sacco over, for example, was possible only because he was in Europe between two weekend festivals in St. Petersburg and Italy.
MB: As you’ve been kind enough to answer these questions, please fell free to big Comica up a bit. Tell us what you do well, what Comica’s main attractions are and why our readers should attend the next one.
PG: I really think there should be something for everyone who loves comics at this year’s Comica. We’ve teamed up again with the brilliant, unmissable Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds to bring Ben Templesmith over. As Thought Bubble run their big Saturday during the Comica season again this year, I deliberately don’t programme major events to clash on that day. For one thing, I want to get to Thought Bubble myself. I can see the advantages of holding a one-day event like this, or the weekend approach of Bristol or Birmingham. But you never have time to see everything and everyone you want to, especially as there’s often parallel programming going on. Comica is different because it can stretch across two, even three weeks. It does kind of favour people already living in or near London who can get here easily, but out-of-towners can choose the weekends which are often the busiest parts of the festival.
I’m especially excited by Comica ’09 because we’ve hooked up with a fantastic sponsor, the youth charity Ctrl.Alt.Shift, and I’ve helped them co-edit the first anthology comic published for Comica, Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption. It really is a first-class international anthology of reportage/exposé comics with Bryan Talbot, Dave McKean, Woodrow Phoenix, Peter Kuper, Pat Mills, Dylan Horrocks, Dan Goldman and more. Through Ctrl.Alt.Shift we’re hosting NY musician Lightspeed Champion, who’s created one story and scripted a second in the book, for a live-gig to launch the comic. And it’s great to have a month-long exhibition to promote it through the ultra-cool Shop at Lazarides gallery in Greek Street, Soho. This show is going to stun people, situating comics alongside agit-prop graphics and the whole plethora of activist and political comics and cartoons from May ’68 and Black Panthers to today and Sean Duffield’s forthcoming Paper Tiger War anthology and Alan Moore’s new venture Dodgem Logic.
The other startling thing is the number of related exhibitions linking up with Comica this time, from the British Museum’s manga show spotlighting the genius Hoshino Yukinobu and Swiss Cottage Library’s Black Powers display, to solo shows by Robert Crumb at Scream Gallery, Mayfair, Philip Marsden at Riverside, Richmond, and John Miers at The Flea Pit in the East End. Our catch-line this year is totally accurate – “London is bubbling over with comics!” On top of this are the exceptional theatrical/live performance events this year: David Lloyd himself kicking off the festival appropriately on November 5th with live drawing and music with a V for Vendetta theme – it’s a free party at the ICA bar – so remember, remember, the 5th of November! Then there’s the darkly funny, adults-only Uncle Hans-Peter Party by comic artist and animator Richard Squires where everyone in the audience has to wear an identical creepy mask, and the equally edgy play Busted Jesus Comix, based on the conviction of Florida teen Mike Diana, forbidden to draw his crazed Boiled Angel comix.
(Chris Ware bestows his comics benediction at Comica; pic courtesy of Paul Gravett)
In the end, what makes Comica worth doing is having remarkable guests, like Gerry Finley-Day who had never appeared at a comics event before, and this year reuniting Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons with retail pioneers Phil Clarke of Nostalgia & Comics and Derek “Bram” Stokes, founder of Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed, a thrill for me as DTWAGE was the first comic shop I ever visited for my 12th birthday, a life-changing experience! It’s also so special to have Eddie Campbell over, launching his massive omnibus Alec: The Years Have Pants, some of which we serialised in Escape and collected in three graphic novels. Eddie and I go back ages and I’ll never forget being at Ian Wieczorek’s home with Phil Elliott in Chelmsford, Essex when we were first discovering his autobio self-published stripzines.
Comica 09’s line-up also includes wunderkinds James Jean and Tara McPherson, thanks to the great support of Offset, the design conference in Dublin, and Reinhard Kleist talking with music critic Charles Shaar Murray about his Johnny Cash bio, and Willy Linthout with his stunning graphic novel about losing his son to suicide, talking with former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. These are the sort of unique encounters that make all the hours of organising and teamwork worthwhile.
You know, these are incredible times, comics are everywhere and Comica invites you to celebrate them together, with panache and passion.
FPI would like to thank Paul and Matt for sharing their time and thoughts with us. In addition to his not inconsiderable Comica duties Paul is highly respected as a promoter and writer on comics culture and you can follow him via his site. Comica ’09 is just about to hit London with a slew of great events, guests and exhibition, as well as various other events sprinkled throughout the year, so check out the Comica site. The winner of this year’s Comica/Jonathan Cape/Observer short graphic fiction prize should be announced this Sunday (November 1st) in the Observer magazine.
You can read the previous Q&As with other British comics con organisers in this series here on the blog: Patrick Findlay of the UK Web’n’Mini Comix Thing, Jimi Gherkin of the Alternative Fair Press chats with Matt, Matt talks with Bristol’s Mike Allwood, Hi-Ex’s Vicky Stonebridge, BICS’ Shane Chebsey, Caption’s Jay Eales and LUC’s Oli Smith.