Page 45. It’s Time to Support Your Local Comic Store.
Page 45 in Nottingham is my local comic book store. I could go on the Internet and get heavily discounted books, but comic books or graphic novels are very special things (as Stephen Holland of Page 45 makes clear in the interview).
For me, walking into the shop is the equivalent of going to a gentleman’s outfitters for a bespoke, beautifully tailored suit. This is a place where there are so many comics and graphic novels on display, sensory overload takes place the minute you walk through the door. But have no fear, a well informed human being, not an automated display, will guide you through the maze of goodies on offer. On the other hand just being able to hold and pour through the pages of these well made books (far more substantial than normal fiction books), should be enough to convince you there’s no leaving the place without one. I should know.
Plus the fact that Page 45 has a beautifully crafted website that shows their dedication to their passion (click here so you can see just what I mean).
Ok. So I’m already a convert, but not everyone is. Hence I start by playing devil’s advocate, to let Stephen make a convincing argument on behalf of comics and graphic stories.
I suppose the reaction of someone not familiar with comics or graphic stories is that they are not real pieces of writing and they’re nothing more than pictures people who can’t read can look at for entertainment. What would you say to this?
I’d say that was entirely understandable.
This medium is unique and vibrant and a lot less bleached by editorial interference than so much prose and film. But if all you’ve seen of comics and graphic novels is the headline-grabbing nonsense regurgitated by lazy, ill-informed journalists in the tabloids, then I completely understand. It is hardly the public’s fault, it is the media’s!
Walk into a shop like Page 45, however, and we will show you why almost every year in Europe the biggest-selling book isn’t a prose novel but a graphic novel, beautifully bound, which sells in its hundreds of thousands to educated adults. We won’t tell you why, we will show you why. If you’ll be kind enough to give us that chance.
On the other hand – if I may take slight issue with the premise of that question – I’ve spent my entire life in awe of Monet, Turner, Caravaggio, Rodin, Picasso, Bernini, Da Vinci, Hogarth, Michelangelo, Vaughan Oliver and Arthur Rackham. Their works could also be construed as ‘nothing more than pictures people who can’t read can look at for entertainment’. They’re still pretty good, as some pundits agree.
You devil’s advocate, you!
So these graphic novels are like works of art?
For a start, graphic novels aren’t ‘like works of art’, they are works of art.
There was a fascinating exhibition at the Castle Museum curated by Paul Gravett which displayed finished pieces – created to be seen as finished artefacts – and original pages from top-notch comicbook creators like Posy Simmonds (TAMARA DREWE, GEMMA BOVERY and the brand–new collection, the MRS WEBER’S OMNIBUS), Joe Sacco (FOOTNOTES IN GAZA etc.) and Dan Clowes (WILSON, MISTER WONDERFUL etc.).
Now what you have to bear in mind is that those pieces aren’t designed to be seen; they aren’t the finished product. The finished product, the work of art, is the printed graphic novel you hold in your hands, preferably mere seconds before taking it to our till! The creators know this and so have the freedom to do anything they want to the original piece: tweak the title by sticking on one drawn on a separate piece of card if they didn’t like their first attempt, or using white-out on black to add spaces between streaks of rain… none of which we be seen by the public. That one is a very commonly used shortcut, but amazingly Joe Sacco employed no white–out at all! Every line you see in PALESTINE, every break in the rain, is simply a break in the meticulous pen line.
Viewing an original page, therefore, is a fascinating insight to the creative process, like x-raying a Leonardo Da Vinci to reveal the layers of paint beneath its surface.
But not all of these graphic novels are beautifully drawn. They look as if anyone can do them. How come these sell so well?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Elaine, as well you know! You just need to behold a little differently. In fact… you’ve got that book upside down!
If you mean why did Jeffrey Brown choose to draw his characters in CLUMSY so fragile, well, they are young and fragile, in new relationships, often not knowing quite how to behave with each other. If he’d gone all neo-classical on us it wouldn’t have worked at all. His style is completely in service to the story, allowing you to empathise with the characters and their awkward fumblings.
Similarly Rosalind Penfold, a highly acclaimed portrait painter under another name, kept it even more simple in DRAGONSLIPPERS: THIS IS WHAT AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP LOOKS LIKE. Through her own awful experiences, Rosalind was determined to educate women and men alike on how the dynamics of abusive relationships work, and how it could happen to anyone. In some instances I’ve even known it to work like a mirror, with women on the shop floor realising for the very first time that they were in an abusive relationship – ‘Oh, my god, that’s me!’. Had Rosalind made herself and her abusive ex any more specific, that wouldn’t have worked. They had to look like virtually anyone.
Additionally there’s this theory – which I completely subscribe to – which is, the simpler you make something look, the easier it is to relate to it and one’s reaction is more immediate and instinctive. If either of those creators had used – heaven, forbid – photographs instead of simply drawn figures, your reaction to them would have been cold and clinical, very much an outside observer rather than involved with what’s going on.
So this looks as if it might be possible for anyone to have a go at creating a graphic story even if they can’t draw. Just as long as it’s a good story and the pictures and words (if they are necessary) work to put over the creator’s message. Do you know of people who produce their own graphic stories who have no professional background in writing or art?
Loads. But make no mistake. This is not an amateur’s market. Being self-taught is very different from being an amateur, and being self-published is very different from being inconsequential. I would encourage everyone on this planet to create, but I’d also encourage them to practise. Telling a story in a carefully composed sequence of images – with or without words – is a ridiculously difficult discipline.
There are some fantastic books out there to help you hone your craft, like Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS, Scott McCloud’s MAKING COMICS, Will Eisner’s COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART , Madden and Abel’s DRAWING WORDS AND WRITING PICTURES and – for sheer inspiration – Lynda Barry’s WHAT IT IS. But hone your craft you must. Everyone has thousands of awful words and pictures in them. Get those out of the way, and you will shine!
Please just do me this one single favour: if you have nothing to say, then shut up. Like prose, this is a crowded market. I love graffiti when there is a message; it bores me when it’s simply a signature pissed into the wind. Give me substance or beauty, not a lame dog marking its territory.
When, on the other hand, you have something to say and the skill with which to say it, we love to look at everything. That you took your pages down to a photocopier and stapled them together yourself with a smartly designed card cover makes you no less worthy to us than someone working for a publishing giant. You’re on the same level playing field at Page 45.
And that’s another great thing about comics; it can be that cheap and accessible. You don’t need thousands of pounds or a publishing contract to print comics. It’s part of the punk ethic; anyone can do it.
What sort of audience are you selling to?
The aesthetically inquisitive? To those alive to new possibilities in storytelling rather than stuck in the rut of their own self–imposed limitations and expectations…?
It’s certainly an increasingly broad one. As the graphic novels themselves swell in their numbers and diversity, we entice new readers in with our window displays, and the broadsheets finally start catching up with those of who’ve actually known what we’ve been talking about for the last two decades.
I adore Chris Ware’s monumental BUILDING STORIES boxed set of books with its 14 component parts, but just the other day some witless tosser tried to decontaminate themselves by calling its craftsmanship far too fine to be considered ‘comics’. Oh, how we snarled about that one on Twitter! His lead–in read:
Sci-fi?! It’s straight fiction, you moron! ‘The crowded street’? What does that even mean? Utter. Ill-informed. I’d probably shove a little ‘hipster’ that way after ‘crowded street’.
Just one more ill-informed journalist without the experience to understand what they were reviewing and put into perspective. And don’t get me started on former radical turned reactionary-late-night luvvie, Tom Paulin, who went one further step further and sneered at Ware’s former work JIMMY CORRIGAN live on BBC2… just as it won the Guardian First Book Award.
When Page 45 kicked off 18 years ago there were a mere 200 graphic novels we could keep permanently in stock, but now have 7,000. I really do passionately believe there are dozens of graphic novels to suit all tastes now. Except burglars, apparently. A few years ago we were broken into, and I know the intruders saw our graphic novels because a few were shuffled about… but not a single one was stolen. That broke my heart. They didn’t even nick CRIMINAL.
I also understand schools have been buying Manga for their libraries. Why have they been doing this?
Schools have been buying in whole swathes of different graphic novels from all sorts of geographical locations for years. (Manga is merely the word we in the West ascribe to a comic that comes for Japan; the Japanese call them comics!) Well, they have from us. Just like adults, kids love comics. But in order to entice their young male readers in particular – for whom literacy and the desire to read can prove low – the sugar-buzz manga has an added draw. There’s usually an animated version of the same series they’ve seen on TV. And that intrigues them. The recognition factor should never be overlooked. So they venture in for the very first time to a series of graphic novels whose storylines diverge from the animation… and the wisest school libraries have additional graphic novels from all over the shop to keep their pupils’ newly formed appetites growing and their reading ever-expanding.
You also do workshops for school librarians. How does this go down and how useful do you think these workshops are?
Oh, enormously useful, and I love it.
We love doing show-and-tells on the shop floor for anyone, tailoring our recommendations to their personal tastes. It’s the same with each visiting school library. There’s so little information out there, and they tell me that this sort of hands-on service and experience is invaluable. Plus, we’ve had 18 years of feedback on which books excel in different libraries.
I took the whole concept on the road this year after being asked to present Page 45’s graphic novels to the school library conference in Windsor. It was the last presentation of the weekend and each librarian, somewhat weary, thanked me for making it an engaging, interactive, hands-on affair, rather than another sterile PowerPoint talk-at-you presentation.
That was a relief. I couldn’t put together a PowerPoint if my life depended on it. On the other hand, pop me in a room with quality graphic novels and thirty librarians thirsty for a show, and I am on fire!
I am a Health & Safety Hazard, yes.
What does your work as a judge involve?
Oooh, you’ve got wind of this year’s inaugural British Comics Awards, haven’t you? A tremendous initiative with faultlessly fine nominations to choose from.
I’m ridiculously flattered to be asked onto its panel of judges – just look at the company I’m keeping – but in all honesty ‘judging’ art doesn’t sit well with me. At least, not in a competitive way.
Every Wednesday Page 45 publishes its weekly reviews (bang on time for two years so far) and from those we choose Page 45’s Comicbook Of The Month. The former is an enthusiastic (and, I hope, well informed) exploration of any given comic’s or graphic novel’s qualities – what makes it special or where some occasionally fall short. The latter is our selection of which book particularly shone that month or which creator, often neglected elsewhere, really deserves more exposure, more recognition. They’re both enormously popular services we enjoy providing. But to be presented with a distilled selection of a whole year’s output and have to ‘judge’ this piece of heartfelt genius against another’s mind-blowing accomplishment… I’m finding that very difficult.
Of course, I’d find it even more difficult if I was on a panel assessing culpable mediocrity. I’m not. The British Comics Awards is the very best of such endeavours in the US and UK. Long may it continue! It’ll be very interesting to see which comics and graphic novels win.
Finally why bother going to a shop like Page 45, when you can just trawl the Internet and have a look to see what’s out there?
Smiles? Warmth? Human contact? Conversation, interaction and – I’m so sorry but – probably a bit of mischief…? I can’t remember the last time Amazon laughed at one of my jokes. Actually, I can’t remember the last time a human being laughed at one of my jokes.
Comics is a visual medium, and I fervently believe the very best way to discover them is by visiting a physical treasure trove of graphic novels and have a good old thumb-through yourself!
Plus Jonathan, Dominique, Tom and I are on hand all the time to answer your questions and perhaps make some suggestions based on what it is you may be looking for – to give you some personal, shop-floor show-and-tells based on your demand for the day. We totally live for that! I’m constantly being asked questions like, ‘I need something for a friend – it must include bunnies!’ (first answer: FLUFFY by Simone Lia – actually, everyone needs FLUFFY) or ‘I’m after something surreal!’ (first answer: FRANK by Jim Woodring – it’s mind–altering yet legal; second answer: BIG QUESTIONS by Anders Nilsen) or even, ‘Do you sell colanders?’ Page 45 is world famous for its unparalleled selection of vegetable-draining implements.
Also, there may be a specific comic or graphic novel you’re after but you can only remember one element of it. ‘It was a sort of relay race of learned behaviour’. Well, that’s Luke Pearson’s SOME PEOPLE. We can identify stuff like that in a single sentence. Online purveyors? Not so much.
I don’t like to gripe, but infamously a student did once ask me which graphic novels best displayed a Hogarthian attitude to society and politics and I spent an hour basically writing her dissertation for her with an elaborate presentation on which books best represented what she was after and why. She was kind enough to write an email thanking me afterwards, saying that she had gone away and bought everyone of those books which I’d recommended!
Just to highlight the service a local comic store can do for you Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim) and Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time and Mercury) will both be signing at the store on Sunday 9th December from 1pm to 4pm.