Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Short Interview with Paul Gravett: Origins of Escape

An unsung hero in the international comics and graphic novel scene is Paul Gravett, whose most recent book Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life (2005, Collins Design) is currently in US bookshops and comic stores -- and is highly recommended. Designed by Paul's long-time partner and Escape co-founder Peter Stanbury, Graphic Novels is the latest extension and incarnation of the now-venerable Escape legacy, and bar none the best current introduction and overview of the graphic novel form. As usual, Paul's writing is informed, insightful and incredibly eye-opening, his net expansive and all-encompassing; the book is essential reading.

Paul agreed to answer a few questions about what brought him into the medium and what led to the creation of Escape, which after 20 years remains among my favorite comics zines of all time.

Our exchange was short but sweet:

Stephen R Bissette: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, Paul. Where are you from? What are a few highlights from your life before and alongside your life in comics?

PAUL GRAVETT: I'm an Essex boy, born in Shenfield, schooled in Brentwood, graduated in Law from Cambridge. After that spent nearly 18 months in the USA, mostly with a university friend in Albuquerque, discovering Hispanic culture and landscapes and helping me think again about what I wanted out of life.

SRB: What first hooked you on this marvelous medium -- what comics really turned your head as a youth, and as a young man?

PAUL: I grew up on TV21 and Look & Learn, two glossy photogravure weeklies with stunning painted science fiction comics. Via the Batman TV show and British reprints I got into the real thing, genuine American comics, but not only superheroes, all kinds from Harveys and Charltons to Warrens, Skywalds and undergrounds. And it's been a constant learning curve ever since!

SRB: When did you first engage creatively with the medium (this would include editorial/publishing endeavors, too)?

PAUL: You could count my first home-made comics when i was around 9, a weekly inspired by Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. There was 5 of those. Mine were called Torpedoes and there were 12 of those! I even made cardboard models of them and with my Dad and brother filmed a movie, setting fire to a miniature airport in our garage. You might also count my first fanzine, Monolith, mostly a US comics magazine, typed by my long-suffering younger brother Tony and handed out to friends and fellow collectors at school. A teeny tiny print run. Then come reviews and articles for fanzines and through that setting up Fast Fiction in 1981 as a stall and mail order service selling small press comics or 'stripzines'. Which led to my first paying gig working for pssst! magazine in 1982, initally on a promotional bus tour, then in their offices as a Traffic and Submissions Manager, getting to see the work of lots of new talents.

SRB: When or how did you make the decision to engage with the medium via projects like Escape -- where you aren’t creating your own comics per se, but building bridges/venues for others? (Having done this myself with Taboo, I understand what a very different path this is.)

PAUL: I think I've always loved the editorial creativity of magazines and books, putting things together, working with creators, helping them shape up and improve their stories, encouraging and motivating them. Escape was very much driven by meeting my partner Peter Stanbury in 1982, who brought an enormous amount of ideas and inspiration to starting our own magazine, to focus on the best of the small press scene promoted via Fast Fiction. We looked very much to Raw and to European magazines, including PLGPPUR, a superb "fanzine" that mixed interviews with major creators and reviews with new strips by upcoming talents. That blend of comics and context is what we liked.

SRB: Eddie Campbell refers to you affectionately in his comics as “The Man at the Crossroads.” I’ll ask Eddie about this someday, too, but -- from your side of the “crossroads,” what does he mean by that?

PAUL: I always laugh a bit at this nickname because you don't "crossroads" on an eight-lane freeway! I was flattered, because in that pre-internet era, I made the effort to bring people together and find and make allies towards comics in all kinds of places. To me, Eddie sees me as someone who can build links between comics and their creators and other parts of culture and life. That was one of the meanings and "missions" behind the name Escape itself - to break out of the inward-looking, secretive cultish aspects of comics and put comics alongside all the other media and arts. Our first 'tag line" was "Escape - from it or to it!".

SRB: As a “colonial,” my first conscious encounter with your work was via Escape. What preceded that project -- and what led to, and culminated in, the extraordinary anthology zine Escape?

PAUL: Multiple paths led to Escape:

- setting up Fast Fiction and discovering a wealth of young British talent deserving of far greater exposure

- exploring new post-Heavy Metal French-language and European comics, inspired by Raw, Arcade, PLGPPUR, A Suivre, Metal Hurlant, El Vibora, etc

- working at pssst! magazine and seeing great artists misused or ignored and as i had no editorial say, dreaming of making a magazine of my own

- sneaking into the pssst! offices on Saturdays with Eddie Campbell, Phil Elliott and Ian Wieczorek and making the PMT photo-mechanical transfer reductions for the first issues of Fast Fiction

- meeting Peter, who hit on the title and designed the logo, and hatching all kinds of formats and features

- meeting Mike von Joel and getting typesetting at an affordable price (we had planned to do all the text on a typewriter)

- by pure luck meeting Serge Clerc at a comic mart and interviewing him over tea for the first issue

- getting support from so many small press creators, notably Phil Elliott who found us our first printer

- promoting the magazine via the ICA's Graphic Rap exhibition (where i met and interviewed Mark Beyer)


The End -- for now! Thanks to Paul for taking the time to chat. More, perhaps, in some future post...