Paul Grist: serious funny books

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(This interview with Paul Grist was originally destined for another venue and presented here as-is, house style and chronology intact. See also the companion post directly below this one.)

The first port of call for a lesson in why readers respond to simplified art and non-realistic drawings in comic strips is still Understanding Comics, in which Scott McCloud digs into the matter and ends up on his knees worshipping the power of cartoons.

Alternatively you can read Paul Grist comics.

Since 1986 Grist has produced a steady, if sometimes erratically scheduled, sequence of inventive and deceptively low-key British comics, developing his combination of expressive cartoon figure work, energetic layouts and dense plotting into a striking personal style.

“I wear my ‘I am a cartoonist’ badge with pride,” Grist says. “I’ve never really understood why cartoony is used as a derogatory term by some comic readers. Are there people out there who think that the only thing that stopped Bill Watterson being successful was that he didn’t draw a realistic tiger? I just try to generate a readability, an immediacy, something that can be recognized and identified with.”

After a childhood following artists such as Mike Noble, Frank Bellamy and Gerry Haylock, Grist broke into comics via the UK’s small-press scene. His first effort, Short Stories, came to the attention of DC Thomson’s girls’ comics group, and the publisher offered him work within a week – a contrast to his failure to catch the eye of Marvel and 2000AD, which were proving to be tougher nuts.

“Perhaps the lesson is that it’s a lot easier to get into those comics that not many other people are aiming for. DC Thomson were great and kept me busy for a couple of years, working primarily on Nikki. I did short humour strips, quiz illustrations, and drew the cover strip for a year or so.”

A higher profile arrived in 1989 when Grist illustrated Grant Morrison’s St. Swithin’s Day, originally for Trident and later reprinted by Oni Press. Morrison’s deliberately provocative mix of youthful unrest and anti-Thatcherite bile grabbed some headlines, but at least as much impact comes from the ink-heavy art and its unnerving high contrast. Grist’s cartooning does exactly what McCloud describes, turning the troubled protagonist into an ambiguous, queasy mirror.

LIVING IN EDEN
Kane, the self-published story of New Eden’s 39th Precinct and its officers, is where everything clicked. A long-form police procedural, with constant flashbacks to trip up the unwary and sub-plots that looked all set to tumble on forever, the shadowy past of Detective Kane was a sprawling canvas for Grist’s imagination to work with.

When it appeared in 1993, the comparisons were with David Lapham’s Stray Bullets and Frank Miller’s Sin City – Grist affectionately ribbed Miller’s stories several times as he went along – but Kane was a chillier, more humane, and more effective strip. And for readers who found that New Eden’s moustachioed SWAT team leader and his taste for excessive violence rang a bell, the strongest influence was clearly from another medium altogether.

“Hill Street Blues is very much the template for Kane: multiple storylines with a wide-ranging cast, and a mix of drama and comedy,” agrees Grist. “I loved doing Kane. I think in general if you’re not working on your favourite comic then you’re probably doing it wrong, and it certainly helped get me noticed within the industry.”

Grist’s storytelling efforts in Kane were certainly noticeable, since he worked the page hard. One issue is told from a fixed vantage point on the rear seat of a patrol car; another makes do without speech or captions. A gangster speaks in a style on loan from Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, via phonetic speech balloons to be unpicked at leisure; Kane himself often says hardly anything. Officer Kate Felix, ever the voice of reason, gets one of the great stand-alone issues of any comic, a childhood incident and present-day crisis running in parallel.

“I just try to make the page visually interesting,” comments Grist. “Comics are a visual medium, so when people just put one square panel after another, I think they’re really not using the medium to its full potential. To me that seems like dancing but not moving your feet.”

Kane was the definition of a cult hit, with vocal champions but not a huge readership. The book’s narrative became extended by publication delays and threatened to grind to a halt, and some felt that the flashback structure was too hard to follow. “Kane was very popular with the people who liked it, but sadly there weren’t that many of them,” says Grist looking back. “Ultimately it just wasn’t selling enough for me to be able to continue.”

THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD
As Kane showed signs of fatigue, Grist responded with Jack Staff, originally aiming to attract readers and then draw them over to Kane. Hence a change of tack: from an American cop to a British superhero. But the tone was recognisably from the same pen.

“I tend to see my comics as being a mix of the sombre and the humorous,” explains Grist. “Serious funny books. Or funny serious books. Jack Staff is all about cause and effect, rather than nostalgia, but it’s also about ageing and death. Jack Staff is someone who is alive forever; Becky Burdock, vampire girl reporter, is dead forever. And together they’re facing the End of Everything. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You can still have a bit of fun along the road.”

If Kane was Americana, then Jack Staff is British to the core, loosely formatted in the style of past British action weeklies and seasoned with business from the UK’s collective memory. A flashback to 1940 allows for a walk-on by the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, while the ambiguously spectral Helen Morgan addresses the reader from limbo and views the world through the Play School windows.

“I just throw in things that amuse me, really,” comments her creator. “None of the in-jokes or references to old British comic characters are important in terms of the story, it’s just an extra layer for British readers of a certain age. I hope the story holds up in and of itself, and the fact that readers elsewhere can get it gives me some confidence that it does.”

The Americans at Image Comics got it, and picked up the book as a continuing series, leading not only to greater visibility for the strip, but also to a transition into colour.

As it turns out, colour transforms the effect of Grist’s art. The black-and-white Jack Staff is a contemplative, moody strip, sometimes given to introspection. The Image version is a full-colour Hellzapoppin’, in which anything goes, the layouts fizz, and the next figure around the corner may be demon, ghoul or giant talking goldfish.

“Eric Stephenson contacted me out of the blue and asked if I had ever thought about publishing Jack Staff at Image, to which the only honest answer was no. It  was only when they said that they wanted to publish it as a full-colour comic that it made sense to do it, since that gave me an opportunity to do something that I couldn’t do with my own resources. Image also allows me to have everything in print at the same time, which as a self-publisher was something that was proving a bit of a juggling act.”

Grist had always wanted to include colour in Jack Staff: “After all, it’s a superhero comic, and superhero comics are always in colour. I like to think of the original series as being a colour comic with a lot of black-and-white pages. But I do still find myself in the mindset of drawing black-and-white pages which are then coloured in. I don’t think a black-and-white page is simply a colour page without colour. That’s a common mistake in comics, I think.”

A PAPER MEDIUM
“In 1993 when I started doing Kane there were two big distributors plus several smaller ones, and there were less people actively making comics, so it was a bit easier to get noticed,” says Grist. “Now there is a single distributor which has tightened up a lot on what it will distribute, and which expects bar codes and all sorts of other professional malarkey that wasn’t asked for in my day. I’m not saying it is a bad thing that Diamond expects to approve the comics that they solicit for, but it makes it just a bit more difficult to get a new comic out there.”

On the other hand, the rise of the internet means it has become easier to get work seen by potential readers – whether or not the work is any good, or profitable. But fittingly for an artist with a taste for wrangling the fixed dimensions of a paper page, Grist feels no great urge to decamp onto the internet or create a web comic.

“As far as I’m concerned, comics are a paper medium,” he says. “This may well be an age thing. I don’t find reading comics on screen to be that interesting, so web comics are not something that I’m really planning on exploring in the near future. I did serialise a comic I published, The Eternal Conflicts of the Cosmic Warrior, in a blog, but that was more a case of putting a paper comic on-screen than actually doing a comic for the web.

“After years as an active self-publisher, I’ve now been published by Image for longer than I spent putting out my own books, so I’m really out of the loop as far as self-publishing goes nowadays. But one of the encouraging things about going to comic shows around the UK is that there are new, young people putting out their own comics. Twenty years ago you’d go to the London Convention and the small-press section would be in a corridor leading through to the main hall. Now they’ve become a main event in their own right. There’s a lot of creativity out there, which is very encouraging to see.”

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(art by Paul Grist, scanned for review purposes. Copyright the respective publishers.)

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