Ah, the 80s comics boom. Money and madness, Deadline and Speakeasy, shoulderpads, sharp suits and the unstoppable ascendance of Alan Moore. But for those of us who were born too late (or spent the 80s half in Dorset and half drunk), Grant has words of comfort; "I''ve been around long enough to see that these things come in waves, and we're about due another one," though I'm wondering if it isn't just ripples spreading out from that first big explosion, Hunter S Thompson's idea of the world as a dying fall from the 60s. Grant's already moved forward onto how the world in general and technological advances in particular seem to be getting faster and faster. Waves, ripples, time and motion. Are we talking about the eschaton? Yeah, of course we are. So, is time going to end in 2012? Well, there are a lot of things Grant can't talk about. He's just written a computer game ("sorry, I signed an NDA"), he's sold a movie script ("sorry, I can't tell you what it's all about") Zenith is still embroiled in legal problems ("so much so, that I really can't say anything about it") and as far as the eschaton goes, he gives us a little background and some associated theories, but won't speculate further. An NDA with Barbelith? We'll get onto Barbelith later.
First, let's talk cats! Paul loves cats, Grant loves cats. Grant loves cats so much that he has four in house and six buried in the back garden. "Are you a dog person?" asks Paul. Grant stares at his shiny boots and looks slightly guilty. "I really like dogs," he says, "But I like cats more. And dogs need so much looking after, so much attention. I think I'd just get really frustrated with a dog." The guy three rows behind me who came in to listen to Grant talk about acid trips and alien abductions nearly explodes with frustration.
In fact, let's talk audience for a bit, as they're quite a mix. Deepcore comics fans who want to talk Marvel continuity (Morrison's currently working on the (New) X-Men), nervous, suit-wearing anti-conformists with quiet questions and Morrisey voices, fetish-goth couples and mad-dressed raverkids with Brendan McCarthy hair (or the nearest physically-acheivable equivalent), other comics artists, writers, the odd celebrity (Simon Pegg) and plenty of people doing their damnedest to look like comic book characters. I suppose I'm one of them. Out in the bar afterwards I get talking to someone about how great the crowd look. He grins and snerks, and says, "this isn't like a regular comics gathering," he said, "There are women here, for starters." I stick my chest out and do my best incoherent mutter. How many years have I been coming to comics events, exactly?
Back to the talk. What about those shamanic experiences? and it's like Paul gave the little push that starts the perfect story-teller automaton. The Invisibles years make for excellent anecdotage; launching the book with a bungee jump, learning voodoo from seven-foot tall scorpions, monster bugs crawling out of the walls during an instructive time spent nearly dying of blood poisoning, and, the still centre of it all, his ultimatum from the gnostic christ: die now or stay and communicate the light. The mad, the bad and the dangerous; everything gets a straight-faced, smiling, matter-of-fact treatment, though the occasional evasion or elaboration hints at a more complicated story, where fictional and physical narratives became collided to produce revelations too complex to communicate in a single answer. "I was really just doing a lot of that stuff," he says, "and a lot of acid, and a lot of magic," and smiles, apologetically. Yes, but what did it all mean? "I don't know. He probably knows, but I certainly don't." He. Are we talking the Christ figure now, or Barbelith? Ah, now that's a question.
Barbelith, the intelligent satellite/catch-all sign/agent of revelation from The Invisibles is (again) crucial but unexplainable. When asked what it is, he describes it, physically ("a red circle, with a black border and two black lines across it") and says hows important it is ("a theme which runs through everything I do") but steps no closer to the mystery. He's given Paul enough to build a good question, though; when did you first put him into your work? I'm thinking of the Black sun episode of Zenith, wondering if there was anything in Animal Man, but Grant hesitates. When did you first become aware of Barbelith? presses Paul. "I was six," he says, "On the number 11 bus. I saw a red traffic light and in front of my eyes it changed..."
But of all of it (and I haven't even scratched the surface here) what really struck me was something he said when he was talking about working with artists, and specifically Frank Quitely. Among the reminiscences and explainations of technique ("I write the background script, and when I get the pencils back, write the dialogue to match the art. It's like working with actors."), he explains why he thinks comics are so powerful as a medium. "I think comics gain something from being drawn," he says, "all that meticulous attention focussed on each line, on the pencils, and then the inks, it give them a special power," and I pretty much miss what he says next while I think about that, and how it ties in with William Burroughs' idea of energy ground down into and how maybe I've been misunderstanding what I'm doing when I draw out my strips (which, yes, I find difficult, frustrating, boring) and how maybe it isn't about communicating well at all (sorry, Scott McCloud) but about the action of drawing over the story and thereby deepening and reiterating its its existence, making it bigger and more affecting simply by that action of paying minute attention, with your eyes, your hands, your pencil, your pen. Deepening the groove until it resembles a canyon. I tune back in; he's talking about sigils and how comics are sigils, or sigil-clusters. A sigil; the image or word which affects reality.
Because, as far as Grant is concerned, comics are the best medium for magic. Film and theatre don't involve their passive viewers ("I think in the future we're going to look back and be amazed that we used to pay people to pretend to be other people") computer games are interesting but not there yet ("computer games right now are like the cinema a hundred years ago"), and the internet is too personal and diffuse to communicate effectively ("I go on it -- but mostly just to look at reviews and stuff about me"). When Paul asks him what he wants to do next, he doesn't hesitate. "A truly interactive comic," he says, stroking the knee of his excellently cut grey suit, like a supervillain in character construction, "one that will change the world." Paul gives a patiently obtuse smile, and picks him up on that, "interactive, like on the internet?" and Grant frowns. "Comics are interactive already," he says, because for the magician, interactivity isn't about technology. Comics are cheap and low-tech, easily made from simple materials, but nevertheless intensely interactive, precisely because they are such a sparse storytelling medium, not so much narrative as a series of clues from which the reader has to construct a narrative; by the time a reader has worked through a narrative, he's put so much work, so much self into it that the story has become a personal journey, an individualised revelation, a tailored internal experience precisely right for that person. Which isn't, of course to say that they couldn't be improved. "Obviously I'd like them to be better, but the technology isn't quite there yet," grins Grant, and my mind gets spinning. Sratch'n'sniff, stereograms, pop-ups, 3-D glasses, strobing colours, psychoactive ink?
Maybe next year.
Afterwards, the ICA bar is already almost at capacity with pseuds who presumably always hang out there so beast masks are not much in evidence. I put my owl mask on when jinty asks and keep it on (shoved up my head) as a) I'm drunk, b)I'm used to having people wrinkle their nose when they look at me and c) I specifically bought one I wouldn't feel embarassed about wearing. I chat to lovely people who all seem to know each other (including one who looks like he might have walked off my drawing pad! woo!) while Grant eats and forget to stop when he starts DJ-ing though when the odd song filters through it's good stuff. Eventually I get drunk enough (and the crowd dies down enough) for me to go see the man. There's still one last shiny red-haired lady chatting to him, so I nod pleasantly to his sister and girlfriend (thankyou Anna) and sit on a speaker and draw her shoes until she goes away (I'm going through a bit of a shoes phase right now). Hm, what do you say? I don't know. Conversation isn't my best medium. So I shook his hand and asked him to draw me a picture. "What," he said, "do you want a character, or..." I shook my head, said something like, just what you want to draw, and when he hesitated, said what I often say to people to get them started; start with a line, from here to here.
And that's exactly what he did.
Photos from the night may be seen also:
Note: this is a personal account, and I do not guarantee its accuracy. If you have something to add, please leave a comment below.