A COMICA REVIEW BY:
THE COMICS JOURNAL
The following review by Gavin MacDonald of the 2003 Comica Festival appeared in The Comics Journal #256.
Comics At The ICA:
London Event Connects The Arts
London’s Institute Of Contemporary Art has had a long-standing, albeit sporadic, commitment to comics as an art form, and this year’s Comics Festival, which ran from June 27 to July 6, marks the forth time that serious, prolonged attention has been paid to the form. An ambitious program of events was curated by Paul Gravett, co-founder of the seminal ‘80s anthology title and publisher Escape, regular TCJ scribe and something of an elder statesman for comics in the UK.
Gravett’s association with comics at the ICA is a long one. As a youth he attended 1972s Aargh, an exhibition of artwork that managed to span the polar opposites of the US and emerging UK underground and the nostalgic side of traditional English childrens comics. This was the first time he remembered seeing comic artwork under glass, and it had a profound effect on him. “They had artwork from Jack Kirby’s New Gods and Forever People. I didn’t know what this stuff was. I just remember being traumatised to see this incredible material.”
The next time comics came onto the ICA’s cultural radar was a decade later with the 1982 exhibition Graphic Rap. It was in the catalog that accompanied and documented this event that Escape posted an advert, the first mention in print of the embryonic company.
It is now 16 years since the third occasion, 1987’s Comics Iconoclasm exhibition, which Gravett remembers as an unsatisfactory fine-art dominated affair that treated comics as not much more than a source of striking pop imagery, and largely ignored narrative aspects of the form.
So why, after such a long interlude, has the ICA returned to comics? Certainly they are enjoying a newfound respectability in the UK, with mainstream publisher Jonathan Cape reprinting highlights from Fantagraphics’ back catalog, but some of the motives for the ICA’s renewed interest may be more practical. This June and July its elegant premises on the Mall underwent extensive refurbishment, with many areas subject to restricted access, and during the day the building resounded to the din of construction work. Consequently the two permanent exhibits that were on view throughout the season were displayed in the only exhibition space available, namely the foyer.
It’s a pity, perhaps, that the ICA’s directors could only commit to this program of events during such a transitional (and noisy) period, but. despite the limitations, Gravett threw himself into the task of organising the season with great purpose and vision. “it was opportunistic in the sense that the ICA was going through a program of refurbishment, and had a gap where they were caught with their trousers down, in the sense that there was nothing going on,” Gravett told the Journal.
He was also very fortunate to be able to rely on the assistance and infectious enthusiasm of ICA publicist John Dunning, himself a creator whose work has been anthologized in the eclectic and stylish London-based anthology title Sturgeon White Moss. In addition, the festival managed to involve each of the ICA’s departments in at least some small way, making for a comprehensive, varied and exciting season that demonstrated the reach and diversity of the art form. Gravett said, “We received a commitment from each of the ICA’s departments that they would each organise something toward the program: a performance from Daniel Johnston, a series of film viewings, a club night, a program of talks, two exhibitions and a multimedia event.” This interdisciplinarity is essential, as Gravett sees it, for comics to achieve greater recognition: “It’s a good way of presenting comics and making links between comics and other art forms. This has got to be done if comics are to avoid being marginalised.”
There’s no doubt that Gravett has worked under considerable constraints, financially and in terms of space and time. However, his efforts may not go unrewarded. “You have no idea how tiny the budget is, ” he said. “We’re not even talking about a shoestring; it’s more like a piece of a shoestring, but the great thing is that when Phillip Dodd [the ICA’s director] gave us permission to go ahead with the event, and we literally only got the word to do it in April, it was with the rider that, subject to it going well, the ICA would look to doing it again and on an annual basis. This stuff deserves to be looked at seriously, not as a minor sideshow to fine art, and certainly not with any acknowledgement of the superhero side of things. That was a decision from the very beginning, from our conversations with Phillip. We felt that there was no reason to cover the mainstream material, as it is perfectly well catered for in the media and in its own celebratory events.”
Indeed, practically the only tip of the hat to the mainstream publishers was the presence, on Sunday, of the exuberant Warren Ellis and the scholarly Mike Carey in a panel discussion on writing for comics, part of a day of UK-dominated panels.
The rest of the events program was dominated be a series of high profile in-conversation-with talks, involving Charles Burns, Chris Ware and Joe Sacco. These were well-attended, with tickets selling out in advance, something that bodes well for the possibility of a Comica 2004. Part of the credit for this goes to Ana Merino, coordinator of the Semana Negra Festival in Gijon, Spain, who had already booked these artists to appear at that event and who had arranged, with Gravett, for them to stop over in the UK. An attempt was made to throw links out to culture beyond the comics, with the moderator being drawn from outside of the field; author Alex Garland did well to tease the notoriously shy Ware out of his shell in a crowded auditorium, and UK television chat-show host and inveterate fanboy Jonathan Ross enjoyed a well-informed and relaxed conversation with Burns. The only slight disappointment was that political commentator Tariq Ali, originally intended as the foil for Joe Sacco, had to drop out due to another commitment. His replacement, the newspaper political cartoonist, Martin Rowson, made the best of short notice, but inevitably the conversation focussed a little more on the nuts and bolts of drawing and journalism rather than political realities. However, the talks were still illuminating and entertaining, and overall, this aspect of Comica was an undeniable success. That such high profile, and appropriate, figures were called upon to contribute as questioners and foils speak volumes for Paul Gravett’s vision for the festival.
The Web Comica exhibition, co-curated by Web comics evangelist Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, used an attractively designed interface to link the ICA’s multimedia suite to twelve Web comics sites. These include three subscription-access anthology titles (Girlamatic, Modern Tales and Serializer), but focussed mainly on the single-creator sites, with obvious inclusions like Scott McCloud and Justine Shaw’s Eisner-nominated Nowheregirl rubbing shoulders with newer talents like Paul Fryer and Derek Kirk.
Among the themes emerging from the workshop-style session held in the suite of Saturday, and the panel of small-press creators on Sunday, was the respective merits of Web and print media for new creators, particularly in terms of start up costs, recouping revenues, support networks and finding an audience. There were some vocal Luddite dissentions, and many expressed the feeling that Web comics cannot satisfy either the desire for ownership or the object fetish that so often comes with the territory of being a comic fan (it’s hard to file a Web comic away in a Mylar snug). However, there was enthusiasm for the possibilities offered by the Web, and a general recognition that Web and print offer two different kinds of reading experience. Goodbrey’s distinction between Web and Hyper comics is a helpful one here, with the former being essentially a comic hosted online that could work equally well in print, and the latter a work that exploits the unique possibilities of the Internet, with multiple narrative pathways and an interactive, nonlinear structure.
In the foyer, the past was put under glass in Foo Zap Yow and Now, an exhibition of US underground material, five vitrines and a series of signed prints which featured material from the ‘50s onwards. I’m sure many comic devotees, in common with myself, find this kind of static exhibit understandable yet undeniably frustrating. It highlighted some of the problems with exhibiting comics in a traditional space; comics are object that are meant to be handled and more importantly read from cover to cover, and to exhibit them in this way is a little like screening films by framing stills. However, the selection, taken from the private collections of Les Coleman and Gravett was a very rich and comprehensive one and made for some close inspection.
Opposite the vitrines was a wall filled with something that looked at first glance like a blueprint for one of Goodbrey’s hyper-comics, or perhaps one of Chris Ware’s more dense riffs on structure. The first ever project of the UK chapter of the OuBaPo was an intricate, multi-pathed collaboration, involving artists from the Test-Tube Comics group and Les Cartoonistes Dangereux, as well as conference attendees like Ware and Jonston. OuBaPo is an abbreviation of the Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée Potentielle, which translates roughly as the Workshop for Potential Comics. Originating in France with l’Association, the OuBaPo is dedicated to experimenting with structure, limitation and collaboration in comics.
Gravett explained that this is perhaps not as formal and dry as it may sound; importantly, the real meaning of the word Ouvroir here is closer to knitting circle than workshop. “It’s meant to be fun,” Gravett said. “It’s not deadly serious or earnest intellectual pursuit, but underneath it all there are potentials for opening up new ways in which comics can work, both on and off line.”
The project was directed by Tom Gauld, who took responsibility for the over all structure and the central narrative spine, a sedately surreal strip involving a man walking through bizarre, shifting landscapes on a quest to buy a bottle of milk. Gauld, whose early collaborative projects with Simone Lia are due to be collected and published by mainstream publisher Bloomsbury later in the year, described the process: “Paul got us together and told us that he wanted to do something on the opposite wall from the vitrines, something modern by British creators. There was a minuscule budget, and the space was already determined, and I had some strong ideas about how it should be presented, and from there I got myself into a position where I was designing and co-curating the exhibit.”
Each panel was a square piece of yellow paper, which although of outsize dimensions was extremely reminiscent of a certain proprietary brand of gummed notepaper. This was an inventive decision, connoting ephemerality and playfulness, and it did well to counterpoint the busy but static vitrines across the foyer. [The completed project can be viewed on-line here.]
Comica’s genesis also partly lies in Gravett’s plans to commemorate Escape’s birth, but by the time the ICA’s involvement had been secured, this aspect had been reduced to a panel discussion on Sunday that reunited Escape creators to discuss their recent projects in print and other media. Plans are afoot to organise another event next year to commemorate Escape’s 21st birthday and coming of age, which may or may not be tied into a potential Comica 2004 program and will hopefully include contributions from such esteemed Escape alumni as Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Whether or not this pans out, there is no doubt that Comica 2003 was a successful festival, and Gravett is optimistic about the possibilities of expanding to venues beyond the ICA in the future - already this year they have linked up with the French Institute to present work by L’Association creator Frédéric Boilet. It may well be that we have just seen the inception of a major new international festival devoted to sequential narratives.