Mangasia Curator Paul Gravett Talks Us Through Asia’s Comic Book History

By Bryan Grogan, April 9, 2019

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UPDATE (April 24 at 11.32 CST): Mangasia has been delayed indefinitely as Design Society attempt to secure permits for the show. 

Paul Gravett is one of the foremost experts on Asian comic book history in the world. Mangasia, which was organized in collaboration with The Barbican Center in London, and based on his book of the same name, comes to Design Society in Shenzhen this week for a run of five months, lasting from April 12 all the way until August 31.  

Taking a broad look at Asian illustration and comic book history, which items from countries as diverse as Japan, China, Bhutan, East Timor and South Korea, among many others, Gravett’s exhibition seeks to give context to the development of comic art on the continent. 

We spoke to Paul about his work, and how his exhibition, Mangasia, came to fruition. 

Where did the original idea to curate a show of this type come from?
My first book was Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, published in 2004 (and later translated in China). Ten years later, when I was offered the chance to conceive a new book about manga, I wanted to take a much broader perspective and look at the variety of comics from across the whole of Asia. Rather than organize this country by country, I wanted to develop it thematically, and reposition manga within a much broader context. 

To narrow the focus, I concentrated on comics created and published within Asia and dealing with specific Asian settings, characters and subjects, including legends, folklore, fantasy, history, politics or contemporary life. From this idea developed Mangasia, first as a 320-page, highly illustrated book, and then The Barbican Centre in London invited me to work with them and develop it into an ambitious exhibition, the first of its kind, to tour the world for five years. 

What were some of the difficulties that you encountered when you were searching for old Asian comics?
For more than forty years, I have been passionate about researching and collecting comics from all over the world. I am lucky to have made contact with many international creators, publishers, collectors and experts and I never stop learning from them. For Mangasia, I worked with a team of over twenty Asian advisors, who helped me locate rare comics and original artworks. The multiple languages and lack of translations can present problems, of course, but it is possible to find out about the stories and you can always learn a lot by studying the images closely. The sheer volume of production means there are so many treasures still waiting to be fully appreciated worldwide. 

Detective Conan (1994) by Aoyama Gosho, Japan

Speaking to Asian comics and illustration, independent arts festival Singularity Festival is set to take place in Design Society around the same time as Mangasia. Do you feel that Singularity Festival represents a continuing tradition of comic drawing in China and Asia?
Definitely, I am looking forward to discovering many more talented upcoming Chinese artists at Singularity, and I expect some of them are creating narrative comics. There is an exciting new wave of comics artists in China, and several will be represented in our extra section called ‘Focus on China.’ Their influences range from Chinese and Asian, modern and classical, to a huge variety of other styles, techniques and approaches from other cultures.  

In 2008 in London, I curated the first exhibition of contemporary Chinese comics and included some new, alternative individuals and groups who were making comics far removed from manga or from recent Chinese traditions. Many look back to much earlier Chinese cartooning, and many share an interest in the latest, experimental, non-mainstream approaches to the medium, from North America, Europe and elsewhere.

Du Gu: The Breath of the Wind (2015) Zao Dao, China. Image via Design Society

What did you discover about the influences and themes that these different comics shared, or didn’t share?
Many Asian countries have been hugely influenced by manga and, in recent years, through the popularity of Japan’s comics, animation and games. Some people may worry that imported manga will wipe out locally created comics, but in fact they can often generate more readers of comics and stimulate local creators to develop their own culturally specific stories. Other important influences, especially in the past, have been American comics, for example in the Philippines, as well as British comics, for example in India. And some French-language bandes dessinées (French-Belgian comics) have become more widely known and admired in the region.

Traditional kaavad (2017) Satyanarayan Suthar & Mangilal Mistri, India. Image via Design Society

We’re curious to hear about precursors to modern comic traditions on the continent. Could you speak to some of the more illuminating discoveries that you made, i.e early Indian illustrations and Japanese wood blocks?
Yes, we are keen to include some of the ‘ancestors’ or ‘precursors’ of modern comics in the exhibition, such as the ukiyo-e prints of 19th century Japan. Their use of bold design, strong outlines and dynamic composition are clearly related to and echoed in modern manga. The exhibition also includes two special commissions from India known as kaavads. Still in use today, these portable shrines in painted wood have doors which can be opened and unfolded to reveal the images of a story, like a comic book. A performer narrates the tale live for an audience and touches each panel, often with a peacock feather, as the tale is told. 

There is no one Asia, but many Asias”

Do you feel like some of the works represented have taken significant influence from other traditions of illustrative storytelling, for example American superhero comic books or, more recently, more artistically inclined graphic novels from the West?
The influence of superhero comics and graphic novels is unmistakable, and even more so in recent years. Hong Kong’s martial arts comics have been affected by the hyper-dramatic action of superhero comics, for example, while also evolving their own innovative variations. The medium of comics has always been international and transnational, but today with the growth of the internet and more travel, this ebb and flow of images and ideas can be stronger and faster than ever. Of course Asian comics, and not only manga, are having a massive effect on Western comics too.   

And on that line of questioning, how does the juxtaposition of these various geographical influences look when brought together?
This juxtaposition demonstrates how comics both reflect and shape their times. The extraordinary diversity and dynamism of Asian comics cultures will hopefully open visitors’ eyes and minds to how fascinating and enriching this medium can be. It also helps us appreciate and enjoy not only the mutually shared styles and themes, the commonalities and internal flows of influence across Asia, but also the distinctive approaches that can be specific to the history and circumstances of each country. There is no one Asia, but many Asias.

The Leiji Family (1977) by Matsumoto Leiji, Japan. Image via Design Society

Of the countries surveyed in the exhibition, which did you personally feel most surprised to find had a history of illustrative storytelling?
There are countries in Asia who have not been on the map in regards to comics, so for example it was exciting to locate not one but two gifted contemporary creators working in the medium in Bhutan, both retelling national legends in vivid ways. Mangasia also presents for the first time on the world stage examples of recent compelling dramas from Mongolia - a boy’s life among the natural world on the steppes - and Cambodia - a husband’s nightmare as a slave trapped on a Thai fishing boat. These graphic novels bring to light individual human experiences, which we might never learn about, and can engender in us genuine empathy for their protagonists.  

[Cover image via Etienne Gilfillan]

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