Comica isn’t your average comics festival. Despite being the most prominent such event to take place in the UK’s capital, it has far more in common with European festivals and small press expos than colossal commercial ventures like Comic-Con. Having run annually since 2003 at the influential London Institute of Contemporary Art, Comica provides a platform for comics creators to discuss their work and their art form in an environment that privileges artistic vision and creative innovation over Hollywood-courting and corporate-owned properties.
I sat down with the man behind the festival, comics impresario Paul Gravett, to find out what makes Comica so special.
Simon Hacking: What do you think it is that makes Comica different from other comics festivals across the country and across the world?
Paul Gravett: Well, there are some fairly big differences. Most of the bigger festivals around the country tend to focus on the mainstream and the mass market, and particularly on the mainstream fan audience. Essentially they are based around, above all, having a lot of dealers’ tables, publishers’ tables, having a big hall where lots of people can come and buy stuff, and we don’t do that. [That’s] probably because we haven’t got the space here at the ICA, but also the rationale from the beginning of Comica was to have more events, talks and interesting encounters taking comics out of their somewhat self-contained world. So, for example, in the past we’ve had people like Art Spiegelman talking with Philip Pullman, we’ve had Posy Simmonds talking to Ian McEwan, or we’ve had Charles Burns talking to Jonathan Ross. Those kinds of bridges that we can build across to other celebrities, other media, enable us to bring in an audience that is curious and maybe goes “well I don’t know much about so-and-so, but maybe this’ll be a way in to it”. That has always been my point of view, because [comics] shouldn’t be locked away, double-bagged in Mylar snugs.
Why is it important that Comica exists now? What is it about current comics culture that demands a festival like Comica?
I think there’s a need for something that tries to look outside, to look ahead and to be alert to what’s happening internationally. This is not an unusual festival if you look at comics festivals around the world. There are small but very creative, director-driven festivals. There has been this idea in the past, perhaps, that Comica was a rather elitist or “arty-farty” festival, and that it ignored the mainstream. We don’t ignore the mainstream, but I think probably we do somewhat downplay it, because otherwise it does tend to swamp everything. So we’ve had Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons [in previous years], and at [this year’s] festival we’ve got people like James Jean and Ben Templesmith and Cameron Stewart who are brilliant mainstream comic artists, but we invite these people because we think they are the most interesting, the most innovative [creators working in comics at the moment].
How do you think the comics scene in the UK compares to that of the US?
Of course the two major [US] publishers Marvel and DC are employing quite a few British creators, and quite rightly they’ve gone off to work for the almighty dollar. There isn’t enough of an industry here in the UK. We’ve been let down by our two biggest publishers, [who] historically were Thomson up in Dundee, [who publish] the Beano and the Dandy, and Fleetway/IPC/Egmont in London. Neither of them have really been terribly innovative or moved with the times a great deal, and they’ve lost ground inevitably to the success of videogames and other attractions for kids, and really haven’t been able to keep pace. If you look at other countries though, whether it’s Japan or France, the fact is, the medium there has blossomed incredibly, and that does come from a combination of people. The readers have to be alert to it, but the publishers also have to be alert and say “we need to do this”. There are a lot of smaller, independent outfits doing brilliant stuff though, and of course there’s a big, healthy scene for small press where a lot of great things in Britain are emerging. You wouldn’t have something like ‘Viz’, for example, or [Jamie Hewlett’s] Tank Girl without them coming out of the small press and underground circles. The other important thing, obviously, is that the advent of the graphic novel has enabled the major publishers like Jonathan Cape and Bloomsbury and Faber & Faber and many others to move in and give comics a whole new profile.
It strikes me that within the UK, and in London in particular, there doesn’t seem to be much of a focus on comics in creative circles.
We used to have very good comics conventions. There was one called UKCAC, which was an amazing comics festival, and the guys that ran that, while they had a lot of popular fan names, did get people like Moebius over from France and Art Spiegelman from the US. They did an amazing job, and sadly we haven’t got anything quite on that scale any more. That’s certainly one of the things that inspired me to do Comica. It was born here [at the ICA] in 2003, and what I like about the ICA is that it’s a multi-purpose venue. This means we can work with the film department, we can work with the exhibition department, the talks, obviously, are a major element of the festival, and we can work with their education department, so it’s a multi-faceted venue. I think the ICA director at the time, Philip Dodd, was very far-sighted. He allowed us to test it in 2003, and we got amazing guests in that first year. We had Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Joe Sacco, so we knew we had a hit festival straight away. The building at the time was being totally refurbished. The place was a building site, it was shut essentially, and they said “well, here, you can have it. You can use the concourse gallery for a couple of weeks, and put an exhibition on”, which got great reviews, and the bookshop stocked graphic novels, we had sold-out talks, we had masses of books selling, and Joe Sacco on Channel 4 news, so Philip Dodd said “I think we’ll do this again, it was a good pilot year” and from there it’s continued, and so it’s absolutely crucial that the ICA’s spirit is behind it.
Comica continues at the ICA and other venues across London until the 26th November.