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Interview: Page 45

1 April 06 words: Jared Wilson

We had a chat with Stephen L. Holland, the manager of Britain's best comic shop Page 45...

I remember buying comics from you in the basement of Virgin in the late eighties. How did you get from there to where you are now
Virgin leased out space to other companies who offered what they considered complementary stock or services. The idea was there'd be a certain amount of cross-pollination, being in the heart of a Virgin Megastore would be good exposure for small comic book retailers. There were drawbacks and I'm not just talking about being subjected to hours of MC Hammer over Virgin's sound system. We were restricted to the crowds coming into Virgin, when most cool kids, those burning with an aesthetic curiosity, have always bought their music from the long lamented Arcade Records or Selectadisc.

When that company was forced out of Virgin and into a pojey little grotto well out of reach of any decent foot traffic... well, it was just embarrrassing, the state of that shop. Wjem we arrived, the place was a shambles. Mark and I were determined that the comics we loved would, if presented in the right environment, sell to the average Joe in far greater quantities that the puerile superhero rubbish being churned out by the corporations.

At that point, two things happened. We organised a tour which took the Canadian creators of Cerebus (the finest comic ever to have been created), right round Britain. The queue outside our shop alone was five hours long. They said, ‘You’ve proved your methods work, why not take complete control and make the money for yourself, rather than someone else?’ Until then we just considered ourselves till monkeys, and it’s quite a scary prospect, risking all that money. But then we realised that the chain we were working for was about to go bust. It became put up or shut up and I’m rubbish at shutting up. So we took our campaign to the next level and set up Page 45. Somewhat closer to Selectadisc.

What are the differences between your shop and any other comic store?
We're a comic shop. Most retailers calling themselves comic shops are cult sci-fi shops with little more than superhero comics, because that's all they think cult sci-fi fans want to read, but we're not here exclusively for cult sci-fi fans, we're here for everyone.

It's absurd to restrict your stock to a single tiny genre in this gloriously diverse medium. We're bursting with comicbook fiction, autobiography, humour, socio-politics, crime and mythology, and we love introducing it to new people, which is why we try to look approachable. As to the rest of the environment, we nicked the whole thing from Waterstones, a professional retail chain that did successfully cater for the real mainstream. We wanted to fool people into thinking it was a book store; all the collections are at the front, complete with spines (they look and feel just like novels until you open them up), most of the individual issues are at the back as well. Superheroes are going to put women off almost as much as American wrestlers, and we're rather proud of the fact that although a mere 1% of the UK comics readership are women, if you stroll into Page 45 on a Saturday, it's 50/50.

How did the rest of the industry manage to ghettoize itself so effectively?
For a start, you have to remember that in Japan and Europe it never happened. Public perception there about comics was never killed by the superhero. They barely exist over there. Unfortunately, in the US and the UK superheroes have reigned supreme and we the retailers have let them get away with it. They even call themselves “mainstream” when they’re nothing of the sort. They’re a cult interest.

In 1954 an American weasel called Frederick Wertham declared, with no empirical evidence whatsoever, that comics were corrupting kids. The issue would have fizzled out as speculative at best but DC and Marvel (publishers of Batman and later Spider-Man) used it as an opportunity to squash their more diverse rivals by encouraging the creation of The Comics Code Authority, to censor comics to the point where any intelligent content was obliterated.

That was back then of course. Now there’s so much award-winning material it’s a shame that the Simpsons caricature of the average comic shop owner, with their own private obsessions with superheroes, is so woefully accurate. That’s all they read, all they know, all they care about, so it’s all they stock

All of us at Page 45, Tom, Caroline and myself, would rather read about people like our friends doing stuff that we do, like pubbing and clubbing and listening to music and getting drunk and laughing our heads off and shagging or even failing to shag, because that’s what we know, that’s what we care about, so that’s what we stock. (laughs) For example, anyway
 
How come no-one’s yet been able to make a half-decent film of an Alan Moore book? And are you looking forward to V for Vendetta?
Have you seen the way their promoting that movie? Sexy chick, hugging a masked man. The book was a direct reaction to Thatcherism: the idea that “it can happen here” - the “it” being fascism. Sexy chick hugging a masked man...? Not so much. I’ll re-read the graphic novel instead, cheers.

Hollywood is a vast machine, so its product is very expensive to produce. They have to appeal to the widest audience possible in order to recoup that outlay. The original League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example, is a collage of Victorian fiction. Nothing on those pages ever actually existed: none of the characters, not even the landscapes, the architecture. Instead Moore stole whatever he wanted from the pages of 19th Century novels and moulded it into a satire of that fiction, and of the patriarchal, imperialist attitudes that spawned it. The film is just a superhero action movie. 

What is it about the combination of words and drawings that made you want to devote a career to it?
The closest comparison to “words and pictures” is film. The thing about film, though, is that you seldom get to see the same frame twice. Each frame replaces the other, once the new one appears, the previous one is lost.

With comics, the frames (or panels) remain there in front of you, for as long as you want to linger. You control your own attention, so with the master craftsmen, they might decide to show you two panels, juxtaposed, from which you can draw a huge amount of inferred meaning, depending on how much effort you want to put in. Chris Ware we haven’t talked about until now, but his graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, trounced all the prose novels out there to win The Guardian’s First Book Award. So, you know, we’re coming on. 
 
What made me want to devote a career to it was that no one else apart from Mark seemed to actually give a damn. I’m the sort of guy who will naturally champion the underdog. I’m the same way about music, the same about film, and the same with comics, but for more logical reasons. The best material was - and is - being created by the most individual creators, none of whom were/are being stocked and promoted by the vast majority of retailers. That sucks for them because they then have to maintain day jobs rather than devote themselves to their craft.

It’s just not right that the hacks make the most money, whilst the inspired remain neglected. So if we can help raise their profiles and put money in their pockets, that’s what we’re going to do. Nabiel Kanan from Derby produced the exceptional graphic novel, BirthdayRiots about a mayoral election in London. Fantastic stuff, about how when you’re young, you’re radical, but the older you get, the more realistic/compromised you become. We sold 100 copies in the space of a few months. That book’s international sales have amounted to 300 paltry units. We shifted an entire third of his opus - one store, in Nottingham. ‘Lamentable’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. He’s the finest comicbook craftsman in England, and if we can sell 100 copies here, one more single shop opening along our lines could do the same, thereby raising his sales by an additional third. 

Apart from Nabiel Kanan, are there any other comic creators from round here who are worth checking out?
Lord, yes. We’re constantly discovering new people who throw us their wares across the counter, and there’s nothing like the thrill of discovering new talent like Leon Sadler or Paul Walker. Also, Tim Bradford seriously needs to move back to Nottingham, or at least send us some more of his comics. Andi Watson is more Staffs than Notts, but he’s right up there with Nabiel Kanan in the King of British Fiction stakes.

Anything else you’d like to say to the LeftLion readers?
Thank you for reading, I think. It really was enormously kind of you.

Page 45 website

 

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