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James Bacon attended the opening event at the BD & Comics Passion weekend held at the Institut Français on Friday, 7 October 2011. His review of the conversation between China Mielville and Paul Gravett appeared on the Forbidden Planet International Blog.

I will never know London as well as I might like to, and despite having come to South Ken on many occasions, I never realised that so much was a piece of France here in the one-time enemy’s city.

The Institut Français du Royaume - Uni - French Institute -  is part of a massive French presence that includes the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle for some 3,500 school children, and suddenly I find the shops and cafés have a French feel, as do the chic girls speaking French outside a language college, and there is Librairie La Page selling bande dessinée. When did this happen, I wonder?

The Institut itself is a beautiful building, opening up inside to offer a stylishly classical interior space, a lovely wide staircase leading one to a significant cultural level above, where the Cine Lumiere and Librairie is situated. The Librairie is gorgeous and far too beautiful to sully with the people milling around so I patiently wait to photograph what must be the most salubrious of comics sales space I have ever been in.

This is the venue this weekend for a celebration of comics. I love to admit that the French do have a style of their own, and as Cinebooks have been showing to Anglophone readers, this is very true of comics. I have grown up with Asterix and Obelix, as well as their Belgian compatriot Tintin and come to love the adventures of Blake and Mortimer or those on the planet Aldebaran.

I am here for the inaugural event, a conversation between China Mieville and Paul Gravett. The weekend is billed as a series of ‘happenings’ by Gravett and a key difference is the nature of the staged encounters between French and British creators, who share a adoration of the medium of sequential art in all its forms. Gravett has rightly amassed a reputation for being a man who adores the subject and works so damnably hard at making events happen. Whether it be South London small press guys or academics or someone like me, just a fan, we all love his efforts and open, inclusive, intelligent style.

China starts off by talking about how pleased he is to be able to sit around and talk about the comics and illustrations by the creators he loves. He begins by saying that he really wants to highlight unusual and unexpected influences and avoid talking about the predictable. He admits that he loved 2000AD, but interestingly he highlights Massimo Belardinelli’s Ace Trucking.

Then on the large screen Mieville shows us images from William Pene du Bois’s 1950s fairy tale book Castles and Dragons followed by a collection of monster illustrations by Don Bolognese. The author is delighted to explain that he is not looking to show us just the people we love, but the unusual illustrators who influenced him.

Next up, he speaks of the time he found girls’ annuals in his mom’s toys, and how there was a transgressive gender thrill of finding comics not for him, a whole world of comics that abutted his own, plucky schoolgirls saving ships and plucky ballerinas who fixed crime. He says with some sadness that “I can’t find my girl annuals” and was greeted with much laughter.

Surprisingly, next up on the screen is the cover of a very early Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, and as China explains, it’s a shout-out to my D and D homies. Yet it is also recognition for many in the early eighties that illustration was finding different routes of expression. Raw, Drawn & Quarterly, and Fly in my Eye are discussed, as Mieville admits that he didn’t know about heavy metal and how Raw was very important to introduce European artists and how he came to appreciate Chris Ware and Jacques Tardi.

Then again images on screen as China explains what he likes, washes for shading and the urban melancholy of Ben Katchor, then Don Lawrence’s Trigun Empire, described as ‘SF and togas’ although Mievlle is quick to point out the racism of having black people blue.

Next it’s the ‘post-apocalyptic salvage punk’ of Frederick Rowland Emett , who was so keen to design and build images that were buildings made of rubbish, in that post-war traumatic time, but may be better known for his amazing trains, from the festival of Britain, or his incredible working sculptures.

There was mention of Max Ernst as well as Zak Smith who also writes as Zak Sabbath when drawing pornographic work, and who is something of a polymath. He has being doing a shared online comic strip, with each frame being done by himself and another artist in turn, though he is perhaps better known for the illustrations in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

It was rather pleasing to hear about China’s own adoration of an artist’s work, which set him to writing a fan letter to Sarah Simblit, an academic in Ruskin Oxford, who teaches drawing courses and is well known for the Dorling Kindersley Drawing Book, but also does beautiful illustration work, and he hoped word might get back to her that he wasn’t being a scary stalker but rather a tongue-tied geek.

There was then some discussion about China’s own work. As an illustrator as he has illustrated a children’s book. He reckoned he was “slow, not fast enough to sustain a graphic novel” and that “neurotically fine pen and ink my thing”, with “octopuses or buildings” being his favourite subjects.

He spoke of Kate Beaton, Michel Faure and John Coulthard, but then wanted to focus on four illustrators that he felt deserved a more in-depth discussion.

First up was Burne Hogarth, artist on Tarzan, and China reckoned that “in some sense everyone knows about him but he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves in UK and Britain” and perhaps is taken for granted. Gravett was certain that this is not so in France, where he is appreciated greatly, and where there have been exhibitions.

Secondly was Beatrix Potter, who he felt was also “also got taken for granted” and much “more amazing artist than many people think” with a “rigorously unsentimental” approach to her art, and he showed us squirrels offering a blood sacrifice of a vole to an owl, and an image of a mouse dressed as a maid, in a “New Romantic” style. He queried whether she used real creatures to draw from, and Bryan Talbot politely spoke up from the audience about how she drew everything from life, which was a superb interjection, and gently done.

China spoke of his favourite story, ‘The Tale of Ginger and Pickles’, who are a cat and dog who cannot eat their customers as they run a shop and that would be bad. They have a busy shop, as they run a line of credit, which is explained, but the till is empty. It appears to be an incredibly harsh lesson in economics.

Next there was the work of Angela Banner, who wrote and drew the Ant and Bee stories, and we saw images from Ant and Bee and the Secret. These books appeared educational and yet in some instances terribly surreal.

Finally there was Ken Reid who has drawn for children’s comics, such characters as Jonah, Frankenstein and Faceache amongst many others. China was especially taken with the idea that regular kids could send in an idea for an image, and then Reid would redraw them as ‘World Wide Weirdies’. China showed his favourite one, which was a pylon. He reckoned that if Fudge in Bubble Land by Reid was published by as select a company as Savoy Books, then his art and skill is in no doubt.

Then there were some questions and some chat with Paul Gravett. Interestingly, China spoke of how he was approached by DC comics, and he had an idea for Swamp Thing, which was an “end of the world apocalypse thing”, with Swamp Thing toting a machine gun.

This is one of those things that may well haunt comic fans, in a way that Warren Ellis’s Hellblazer Shoot did. Mieville said himself at the time that “Five issues have been entirely written”, “It was (unsurprisingly, I suppose) pretty political”, “It wasn’t, however, entirely straightforwardly traditional ‘green’ politics, IMO”, “It was conceived of, at least in part, as a respectful argument with some of Alan Moore’s formulations.” (edited quotes from Swamp Thing Roots)

He also spoke of how he approached Marvel with ideas for Iron Man and Dr. Strange. The Iron Man idea along with an image of an Industrial Iron Man was aired on his blog.

“An extraordinary figure in bizarre makeshift power armour the colours of rust and hazard-warning yellow has appeared, fighting burglars, thieves, drug-dealers, graffiti-taggers. Flashback: he’s Dan, an ex-worker in one of the high-tech heavy defence plants, horrified at the social breakdown, going through the many scrapheaps of the town and cobbling together his suit from industrial junk, trying to save his home.” (quote from blog)

To be honest, I secretly wanted Paul to draw China out on more of this subject. It’s something that really irks me, as I think his writing is astoundingly brilliant, and for the medium I love to lose such opportunities is a shame.

When asked about what comics he is reading, he explained that he had dipped in and out of the Civil War Run, and always keeps an eye on Vertigo. He ‘likes’ Unwritten by Mike Carey and found it “really interesting, even if it put forward a position I don’t agree with and warmly debate” and likewise he “loved Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain, which had real debates with it.”

He likes American Vampire, for what it is, and spoke about his comic work with Liam Sharp - On the Way to the Front, in the Looking for Jake collection, and on Hellblazer 250 where he had a short piece drawn by Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini which many fans found stunning.

China is an incredible speaker, and admitted that he felt the evening was “incredibly indulgent - showing my book collection” yet everyone in the cinema was enwrapped by his enthusiasm, knowledge and love.

Asked about French comics, he admitted he liked Asterix, but was obsessed about Tintin. He felt he “was not a very sophisticated child” and that his favourite Tintin was Flight 743 as there were aliens in it, but in retrospect reckons he likes the Red Sea Sharks the most.

He had seen the trailer for the movie and seemed to have a bad feeling about it, referring to it as an abomination, as he doesn’t like CGI and as Gravett concluded, China “appears deeply sceptical.”

There was then talk of the case of the Belgian Congolese who took issue with a Tintin story, and China felt he had been horrendously misrepresented. China’s gentle approach here was fascinating, and his very firm no mess attitude mixed with a gentle encouragement of reason, good manners and civility was incredibly appealing, although I do not know enough about the case to truly comment.

And too soon this inaugural event was over. It was terrific, I was well impressed with Gravett’s guidance and ease at progressing the conversation or helping with information, but to see the author who in one year won a Clarke, Hugo and World Fantasy award talk so lovingly about comics, and of their influence, was fantastic.

Further fusions of creators were planned, with Dave Gibbons and J.C. Mézières talking about science fiction and also drawing live on stage, while a variety of talks including ones by Audrey Niffenegger,  Andre Juillard and Yves Sente, and Anthea Bell, the woman who translates Asterix, are all forthcoming.

But as a starting point, this was awesome.

Someone get him writing comics for Christ’s sake.


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"...Sacco had some interesting things to say about the comics form in general."
Simon Hacking

"...the viewer's efforts were amply rewarded by the superb quality of nearly every comic in the exhibit."
Alison Frank

"The epitome of geekchic, it's most definitely worth checking out."
The Rough Guide To Graphic Novels

"With Comica, the ICA is doing what it does best: reaching out to culture's fringe."
Kulture Flash

"Thank you, Paul Gravett, for another wonderful season of Comica!"
Sarah McIntyre

"Every time I go to these events I come back inspired to do more work."
Sylvia Libedinsky

"Comica normally comes up with some great talks and panels, but this was particularly memorable..."
Comix Influx

" of the cultural highlights in London's graphic novel calendar."
Joel Meadows

"Comica... continues to heap cultural credibility onto this once maligned art form."
BBC Online

"...hearing literary translators talk about their work reminded me of the immense difficulty, creativity and importance of the task."
The Financial Times