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Paul Gravett Talks Comics

The undisputed publishing king of all things illustrated provides some essential advice for all of you budding comic artists out there...

Paul Gravett has always acted as a vital facilitator for independent comic artists in the UK, initially selling independent comic zines through Fast Fiction then co-founding Escape Magazine, the independent title that provided some of the first features for now famous artists such as Jamie Hewlett and Dave Mckean. In recent years, niche comics have been pushing their way into the mainstream – Marjane Satrapi's Persopolis detailed the brutality of the Shah dictatorship in Iran in graphically articulate visual detail; Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls presented the intelligent, elegant use of pornography in comic form; and Robert Crumb, once revered and loathed for his honest portrayal of the absurdity of society and his own fetishism has turned his hand to illustrating the The Book of Genesis.

Paul has been in the midst of this push, connecting both older, more established artists and new, independent comic artists to major media outlets through the regular publishing of books and articles. His role as orchestrator could prove portentous for many a comic artist now and in the coming years. In 2010, Paul and his long-standing partner in comics, Peter Stanbury, relaunch Escape Magazine as part of Escape Books, their new comics publishing venture. This, in addition to Comica (the Comics Festival that has run at the ICA since 2003), means there is a massive opportunity for the revival and celebration of good quality, idea rich independent comics. Dazed met up with Paul to ask him how things are shaping up in the illustrated world.

Dazed Digital: You are relaunching Escape Magazine again this year. What has inspired you to do this?
Paul Gravett: The time seems right. There's such a wealth of comics creativity here in the UK that needs showcasing nationally and internationally. Escape helped launch major names like Eddie Campbell, Dave McKean, Neil Gaiman and Jamie Hewlett in the 80s, and there is a similar abundance of talent now.

DD: What are your plans for Escape Books and the magazine?
Paul Gravett: Peter Stanbury and I are reviving Escape as an independent publishing house early next year with our new partner Tim Webber, of Read Yourself Raw. We're envisaging presenting both some of the former Escape artists from the original incarnation, and new artists who have emerged since or are emerging now. A number of projects are hatching including the first in a line of Comica reference books about comics and a range of graphic novels and graphic short story compendiums, and related events and exhibitions. Further ahead, the magazine itself will be relaunched. It's a very different landscape for publishing now thanks to the internet and Escape will change and adapt to this exciting climate while remaining true to its original focus on comics of style and vision.

DD: Robert Crumb's exhibition at Scream is a part of your festival. Why do you think Crumb managed to achieve such success?
Paul Gravett: Thanks to Fritz the CatZap Comix and Keep On Truckin' and his iconic outpourings, the young gawky misfit was skyrocketed to celebrity, something he loathed. He's constantly rejected fame and selling-out and has stayed true to doing what he believes in and is passionate about, whether crafting comics or making and celebrating music. Crumb never really fitted into the counterculture hippy movement. He may have recorded it and defined it in so many unforgettable ways in his comics, but he was always apart from it, an observer, an outsider... a doubter. Crumb is a master satirist, above all of himself and his unsettlling sexual obsessions. He wants to make us uncomfortable and we need that because we know such dark urges also lurk inside all of us.

DD: What makes a comic book unique as a medium?
Paul Gravett: I like the control I have when reading a comic. I've grown impatient and disenchanted with the tropes of a lot of movies and TV, their conventional angles and cuts, their manipulation through music, lighting, special effects and above all, the efforts of acting to make me emote. Comics struggle to make us feel anything at all. It's just icons, symbols, cartoons, squiggles, lettering, in boxes and balloons, panel after panel, page after page. They often don't work that brilliantly, but when they do, the impact of fixed, unephemeral, often hand-drawn images can really surprise me. It's a primal, even primitive medium, as old as our first cave paintings, and it is still being invented and discovered.

DD: Do you have any advice on how to become a successful independent comic artist?
Paul Gravett: The key word here is independent. I'd suggest connecting to or instigating a local group or scene, maybe contributing to anthologies or self-publishing, attending conventions and festivals. Certainly set up a site where you post new work regularly, enter competitions like the Observer/Cape/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize and seek out opportunities in unlikely venues, magazines, websites, anywhere your work can get noticed. Persist, put in your "10,000 hours" and who knows where it will lead? Not everyone's going to be a Charles Schulz or a Jamie Hewlett, but it's worth having a bash.

DD: And finally, the Comica festival is on now. Is there an artist or exhibition you'd especially recommend that the public check out?
Paul Gravett: This year's season is rich with major comics geniuses. As well as more familiar British names, like Eddie Campbell, Bryan Talbot, Kevin O'Neill and David Lloyd, I'd really urge people to check out some of the international guests such as Americans James Jean, Tara McPherson, Ben Templesmith and Cameron Stewart and our European invitees Reinhard Kleist, a German graphic biographer of Johnny Cash, Apostolos Doxiadis, Greek novelist whose first graphic novel Logicomix dramatises the quest for the foundations of mathematics, and Flemish cartoonist Willy Linthout, whose fragile, pencil-drawn Years Of The Elephant captures his surreal, terrifying process of grieving over the suicide of his son. On the exhibition front, as well as Scream Gallery, Mayfair's mind-expanding Crumb Uncovered jamboree, I'd recommend John Miers' inspired version of the Babel myth at The Flea Pit, E2, and of course the amazing political comics show all November at Lazarides in Greek Street, Soho, based around the first-rate anthology Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption.

Robert Crumb Uncovered exhibits until December 12 at 34 Bruton Street, London W1