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Interview Paul Gravett

What is the difference between comics and graphic novels?

Comics in the singular means the medium itself, so in that sense graphic novels are just one form and format of the medium.

Comics in the plural mean the objects in all their diversity, all kinds of graphic stories, printed or digital and again graphic novels are a subset within them.

Comics meaning comic books are a more specific format, named in America to describe magazines, commonly monthlies, originally ten cents for 64 pages, sometimes one or more complete story, other times part of series or serial. In that sense, graphic novels are distinct because they tend to be longer and in theory are squarebound with spines and not periodicals but books intended to sell over a longer period and ideally be kept in print.

Comics have been called an American art form, but many point to the European (and other) roots of comics. When does the history of comics really start?

It’s almost a hopeless, endless, pointless quest to find the big bang moment when comics began. But the journey along the way is nevertheless interesting, even fruitful, as it helps us reappraise arts and writings from the past to see their relationship to what is generally regarded today as comics. The start also depends on how we define comics, what are its essential characteristics and do they all need to be present? What is becoming clear is that comics as a medium has had multiple origins and births and reinventions all around the world. It has no nationality except human.

What is your opinion on the concept of 'visual literacy' Can understanding of visual culture be learned?

We all learn to look before we learn to read. We all draw before we can write. I recently interviewed two English teachers who were able to introduce graphic novels into their classrooms, in the hope of engagng reluctant readers, youngsters with no book, newspaper or magazine in their homes, who had trouble not only reading but inferring things from what they saw, reading or looking between the lines. Wonderfully, these teachers started out with the wordless, ’silent’ graphic novel The Arrival by Shaun Tan and the kids became fascinated and totally engaged with it. They had to be guided at first in how to navigate the page, panels and elements within but they caught on. It’s an example that visual literacy or ‘graphicacy’ can be learned and ideally should be on the school curriculum as an essential life tool.

What is your opinion on the retro 'picture novellas' by Seth?

You may have noticed that I presented some pages from Seth’s George Sprott, one of his finest, at a recent conference in Sao Paulo (photo above!). I’ve also written a bit about his work for example in Comics Art and interviewed him a couple of time, always a pleasure and a revelation. He’s one of those rare comics authors sensitive to the medium’s true subtleties of perception. I can’t wait (though of course I will!) for the completed Clyde Fans.

Which graphic novel of the last five years will probably be considered a classic in the future?

Chris Ware’s box of tricks Building Stories and Richard McGuire’s expanded, expansive Here must be candidates. Sonny Liews’ The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye stunned me. I suspect Attack on Titan is already a classic. My current favourite manga is Chiisakobé by Minetaro Mochizuki, subtle, stylishly modern and simmering with emotions. Only translated into French so far. I just hope it gets discovered by enough people. Is that the only way for anything to become a classic?

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