Critical Takes: Comics Art, by Paul Gravett

by Shea Hennum

Comics Art, by Paul Gravett (Yale University Press)

Known as comics’ greatest historian, Paul Gravett has recently published Comics Art, a scattershot look at the world of comics, from a mostly historical perspective. With clear and concise prose, Gravett fills the book with complex and detailed descriptions of comics and art, but he makes it very succinct and readable. Unfortunately, that readability comes at the expense of any Paul-Gravett-Comics-Artsubstantive view, criticism, or discussion about art. Gravett chooses instead to make mention of, and then conveniently gloss over, a number of topics that, as he himself establishes, are of grave import.

He appears to address the idea of minority representation in comics, even devoting a whole chapter to it. The fifth chapter of the book focuses solely on minority creators and representation, but it doesn’t do anything more than take a cursory look at the history of minority creators. It mentions two or three, from a very cold, ethos-over-pathos perspective. It’s as if Gravett is saying, “This was the first black cartoonist behind a nationally syndicated strip. Years later a black woman would also produce a nationally syndicated strip.” The author does little to editorialize or, more accurately, simply discuss the problem as…well…a problem, and it’s one of the few places where Gravett just simply doesn’t go very deep. That’s not to say that Gravett comes off as someone who thinks minority representation in comics is or has historically been representative of American national make-up; but it does read as “Racism exists. It is bad. Okay, moving on.” It was the segment of the book that I felt let down by the most. It wasn’t as if I had high expectations from Gravett that he’s someone who frequently discusses minority representation or anything like that, but the chapter is titled “Unheard Voices,” and it just feels as if he doesn’t deliver on his promise.

But I do like that Gravett has a chapter dedicated solely to the idea of uniqueness and individual artistic style, though, I like it more in theory than in practice. He does little more than provide examples of different styles, say that Osamu Tezuka and Herge were influential, and let us in on the secret that artists struggle with trying to define a signature or unique look. Again, it feels as if he’s making these promises on things that get me excited — style and influence in comics are concepts I’m deeply interested in — but then he fails to deliver anything more than shean, with little depth or exploration.

The flip-side of his inability — or “unwillingness”? — to dig deeply is the attention that Gravett gives to digital and art-gallery comics. It’s the weightiest, meatiest chapter in the book (which is scary considering there are chapters on minority representation, unique style, and the history of the medium), but Gravett does very little to discuss or entertain any ideas about how webcomics are functioning as separate artifacts rather than print objects, their strengths or weaknesses, or their artistic value. He doesn’t go into detail about the way in which the changing of the medium is changing the message; the way in which, like with film, the democratization of the medium is affecting the cultural landscape that we’re seeing pop-up. Instead, he spends much of this chapter, “Infinite Canvases” — and one of the largest sections in the book — discussing which galleries are putting on “gallery comics” shows, calling attention specifically to one that he curated, or which creators are creating interesting webcomics and where they were originally produced. It’s as if he’s saying nothing more than, “Webcomics are a thing that sprung out of the Internet. So-and-so produced one that is just one long canvas or ‘infinite canvas.’”

It may be a useful book for the layman, but Comic Art will do very little for the journeyman with any experience with comics outside the Big Two. It has many great pages of art from Tezuka, Herge, Guido Crepax, and Hugo Pratt (and a nice Joost Swarte cover), but it just feels as if it’s little more than a series of promises on which Gravett doesn’t deliver. Not that it’s bad. The book certainly provides valuable examples of the medium and its history, but Comic Art doesn’t have the depth or substance that characterize many of Gravett’s other works.

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Get your copy of Comics Art as well as other books by Paul Gravett:

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