Paul Gravett is one of the most influential people in comics. His Fast Fiction stall at London comic marts sold many self published works and his publishing efforts, including Escape magazine, saw the publication of early works from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell, Dave McKean, James Robinson, Rian Hughes, Shaky Kane, Woodrow Phoenix, Savage Pencil and more. He’s become the first call for any British journalist wanting a considered view on comic books, and he arranges the Comica festival every year.
And in October, his latest epic tome, 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, is published. And Bleeding Cool is the first to talk to him about it.
Top lists generally go up to 10, ambitious ones to 100. 1001? Why did you decide you needed to do ten times as much work as anyone would have reasonably expected?
Firstly, because 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die is part of the best-selling international 1001 series you see everywhere, that covers movies, books, even golf courses. Secondly, because it sounds snappy like the Arabian Nights. But mostly because 100, even the 150 I chose for my 2005 book
Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your life, just isn’t enough to do justice to the amount of amazing comics created around the world. In fact, even 1001 isn’t enough, it turns out!This is the first 1001 Comics that I am aware of that really tries to be international and exploratory. Last year, Tony Isabella on his own produced 1000 Comic Books You Must Read, which I’ve seen and looked very good, if rather US-centric and light on info or commentary. But I’ve got the blow the trumpet here, sorry, because this furshlugginer 1001 Comics volume is the same price, but clocks in at over three times the page count and over 300,000 words.
How do you even go about creating such a list in the first place, let alone finding the publisher?
The publisher came to me via my pal Matt Madden, author of 99 Exercises in Style, who was offered the project but was too busy and thought I’d be perfect and kindly suggested me. The whole shebang was proposed back in 2009 but was delayed by the banking crisis and recession panicking international co-publishers. It was only last July 2010 that they got back in touch and we finally got the green light in September so it’s been a slightly insane, intense production.
Before creating the 1001 list, as editor I began to recruit my ‘Team 1001’ by contacting knowledgeable connoisseurs all over the world, not just to write entries but for their advice and feedback as we all built up the list. In the end, I involved 67 different co-writers from 27 different countries including the USA, Canada, Japan, Korea, Norway, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, India and the Philippines. And I was determined not to have it overwhelmingly written by men, so I’m pleased that fourteen of the writers are women. As for the list itself, I can almost guarantee you that you will not find all of your all-time favourites here, but I can equally guarantee that you will discover some fantastic brand-new favourites. I know I have!
Initially, the American publishers tried to insist that every one of 1001 Comics must be available in English. But I had to insist that this would exclude loads of absolute masterpieces, and it wouldn’t make the book work in the other languages it is going to appear in, such as French or German. So somewhere around 12 per cent or so of the 1001 are not available in English, at least not yet. I seriously hope that exposure in 1001 will alert publishers and motivate them to translate them. And for anyone kvetching about all these untranslated entries, I’ll be keeping a constant update on what titles do get translated (I heard of two more only this week coming up soon) and I’ll be adding sample extracts with translations on www.paulgravett.com so you can get a flavour of them.
As the list grew, one of my wonderful French Team 1001 members supplied a list of over 700 French-language comics for the book and we had to explain that this was going to rather imbalance the whole thing! The list formed organically from my initial few hundred and I can assure it was being tweaked right to the very, very last moment. We must have considered several thousand suggestions. There were plenty of agonising decisions and omissions, even with as many as 1001. But then that just goes to show what an abundance of top-class, diverse, exciting comics are out there.
We did have to arrive at some sort of balance between countries, of course, with the USA, Japan and France/Belgium inevitably the most represented, but forty countries included in total, so it’s been quite a balancing act. Fortunately, we also provide some additional sidebars of ‘Similar Reads’ or ‘Also By’ to direct readers to more great stuff, and there will be more of these ‘extras’ on my website.
One criterion we considered is whether a comic was in print or not but this was never decisive. The main criteria were significance, innovation, originality, influence, impact and quality. For our start date, we decided to go back into the 19th century and present at least a few of the fascinating pioneering works of printed comics, kicking off with Rodolphe Töpffer from Switzerland. As for an end date, we come right up to date with hot new titles from 2011, some not even published yet! I should explain here that the book is organised not by country or genre but chronologically by the year of first publication in the original language. This is because if we’d tried it alphabetically, it wouldn’t also work in other languages, because titles and character names are different. The result is a really intriguing year-by-year chronology – as well as one of first truly global attempts at proposing a ‘World Canon of Comics.’
Have you addressed the issue of digital-only comics, or have you remained wedding to print?
Webcomics do feature in the latter years of the book, yes, because that is where plenty of first-rate innovative comics now originate. Of course, the whole digital comics field is only going to expand, but I’m glad we’ve acknowledged some of the good stuff already out there.
Are they entries that you think will surprise people? I mean even his detractors wouldn’t be surprised to see Dave Sim’s Cerebus in there… but they may be by Rob Liefeld’s X-Force. Is there anything given a serious criticical reinterpretation for this volume?
I had to be persuaded by a couple of Team 1001 members on certain choices, like Bendis & Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man: Clone Saga. I’d heard such bad reports about the original version that I’d never read it, but in the end B&B’s take made it in there, and rightly so. I’m also glad a couple of British girls’ comics got included like Patty’s World and Belle at the Bar, because they tend to be forgotten, but re-reading them they stand up as compelling soap operas and social chronicles. There are quite a few works that I had never heard of before in this book (and I have read way too many comics in my lifetime, believe me), so it’s a buzz to spotlight them and bring them some attention. Liefeld fans, though, may be disappointed.
You describe 1001 comics to read before you die. But what about after that? Are there any comics you’d specifically recommend for the afterlife?
Don’t worry, the book is not cursed and when you do read all 1001, you won’t keel over and die! I guess you could always adjust to the afterlife by catching up with Deadman, or Barnaby with his invisible Irish fairy godfather, or the eternal time-traveller El Eternauta, or NonNonBa by Shigeru Mizuki, a fantastic manga about ‘yokai’ or ghosts and goblins, or Rob Hunter’s magical The New Ghost from Nobrow. Actually, in the afterlife you’d be able to enjoy all those Fantasy Comics collaborations of Dead Comics Creators, like Herriman and Tove Jansson, Tezuka and Kirby, or George McManus and Hergé!
Also what are the odds that the weight of this thing will actually kill someone before they’ve had a chance to try to read one of the comics described inside?
Ignatz the Mouse would definitely use 1001 Comics as a perfect brick to bean Krazy Kat, that’s for sure. It’s a massive tome of 960 pages and before you ask, yes it’s 960 pages, not 1001 pages, because not every entry gets an illustration. Which, I can assure you, has been pretty frustrating! In an ideal world, every single one would have an image. Once again, my fab website will come to the rescue and loads of unillustrated entries will get pictures online. That said, you’re going to have to buy the printed book because only there can you read all the brilliant insightful, fact-packed entries, and get a lethal murder weapon as well.
You’ve been described as The Man At The Crossroads by Eddie Campbell. Are there any titles included that you’d consider yourself in some way responsible for their existence?
Not ‘responsible for’, no. Like most of us, I wrote and drew my own comics as a kid, but I’ve had no ambition to create them since. But it feels good to see how some creators whom Peter Stanbury and I helped to promote in Escape Magazine in the Eighties have gone on to produce real masterpieces by the likes of Eddie, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Chester Brown, Chris Reynolds, Carol Swain, Ed Pinsent and others. These are astonishing times for comics worldwide right now and 1001 Comics reflects that, because nearly half of the book covers comics from 1990 to today. Manga, the internet, the rise of women creators, the graphic novel, autobiography and ‘comics journalism’, these and other factors have heralded a true Golden Age, which I can see only shining brighter and brighter in the years ahead. As for what is in the 1001 list, the plan I think is to gradually announce what’s made it in over the coming months before the book is released in October from Cassell in the UK and Universe in the States. The French edition, which the much less urgent, less death-themed title of ‘1001 Comics To Read in Your Life’, is coming out next Spring from Flammarion. The UK launch will be a Comica Festival event in London with some big guests and fun surprises – see www.comicafestival.com for first news!
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