Mark Simpson (1968-2005)

There can be no talk about Page 45 without talk of Mark.

Mark Simpson was the co-creator of Page 45, much loved by customers and creators alike. Customers loved the way he inspired them to try something new, whilst creators given comparatively little attention elsewhere were in awe of his ability to make their books that “something new”.

There was an avalanche of emails and tributes to Mark on his death from the likes of John Pham, Bryan Talbot, Eddie Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Donna Barr, Roberta Gregory, Jeremy Dennis, Marc Bell, Terry Moore, Andi Watson, Chris Staros at Top Shelf, Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics, Chris Oliveros at Drawn & Quartely, Stephen Robson at Fanfare/Ponent Mon, and John Hitchen and Pat Sullivan at Diamond UK.

Jeffrey Brown wrote and drew a beautiful piece about Mark, dedicated to Mark, in GHOST COMICS; John Porcellino dedicated an issue of KING-CAT to Mark without knowing that his work meant so much to my friend that he was actually buried with a copy of his comic.

But just as I kept those emails between ourselves and Mark’s family back then for fear of making a self-serving spectacle of our grief, I’m going to do the same now. Mark would have hated such a public parade.

Instead I’d just like to republish here the online tribute which itself was based on the eulogy I delivered during Mark’s funeral at the behest of his mother and father, along with a typically astute piece by Dave Sim which his co-conspirator on CEREBUS, Gerhard, was kind enough to forward to me after they phoned from Canada to make sure we were okay.

It is, above all, a celebration, and once more I would like to thank the dozens and dozens of customers who attended the funeral in such vast numbers that it was standing room only. Sorry if I faltered on the final sentence. My bad.

“The John Peel Of Comics”

Mark was a discerning man who considered things at length, in depth, and with great care. But the very first day I met the guy, Mark did something indescribably stupid. He said to me:

“Yes, all right, the job’s yours and you start on Monday.”

That was fifteen years ago, down in Nottingham’s Virgin Megastore basement where he worked for a comicbook concession. And quite simply, it changed my life. I had no plans for a career in comics. I was working in a pub and I’d only come in for my weekly fix.

Yet from that very next Monday until this terrible Sunday, Mark and I worked together for five or six days a week, almost every week, for fifteen glorious years. I’ve never spent that amount of time consistently with anyone else in my life. We played it like a relay race, each spending an hour upstairs, then an hour downstairs… And as we passed the baton, we kept each other abreast of who’d been in the shop, what they’d bought, what they’d been up to in their lives, and how many strangers had strayed in from the street to ask if we sold 7″ singles, dog collars or – on one notable occasion – egg whisks.

Upstairs, I’d concentrate on the accounts, Mark would seek out new comics through websites, I’d write ridiculously self-serving articles and letters, Mark’d order in self-published comics from here and abroad, I’d be dealing with legal stuff, and Mark… Mark would create out of paint, cardboard and sheer inspiration some of the most strange and beautiful objects for our window displays that the comics world has ever seen.

We even built this shop together, which I don’t think either of us would have had the courage to consider without the strength we lent each other. Nor, it must be said, without the confidence of Dave Sim and Gerhard, the creators of CEREBUS. We’d organised the Cerebus UK Tour ’93 for them, it had proved successful beyond our expectations and they told us, quite bluntly, that we were wasting our time working for someone else. We should do it ourselves, and do it our way.

So, being good boys back then, we did what we were told. And it grew.

Unlike myself, Mark was a modest man, and would have been monumentally embarrassed several times this past month. For a start, it was standing room only at the funeral, where so many friends and customers appeared that Don and Pearl, his mother and father, were completely blown away. Then there’s the sheer volume of cards, emails and flowers that have flooded into the shop, and all the love and respect for Mark’s craft that’s come with them. Finally, he’d have squirmed at the eulogy and therefore hated this tribute. Mark never blew his own trumpet, and I only tricked him into making a speech at our 10th Anniversary party by throwing Mark in at the deep end at the very last minute.

But it’s right that his work in this field be celebrated, just as we did on that night, and I know that the evening in question, surrounded by so many customers who cared enough to come, meant a great deal to him, as it did to me. It’s my most savoured consolation, really, that although Page 45 would have continued to evolve in new and wondrous directions under Mark’s artistic guidance, at least he was here to see it all come to fruition – to a pinnacle. To reach our 10th Anniversary, to win the award for best retailer in the country that year and to see that all his hard work and enthusiasm for this medium was appreciated.

What was it about Mark that made such a difference?

On a personal level, so many things. On the one hand he was a rock, solid and loyal, kind but unassuming whilst bursting with a passion which manifested itself in music as well as art, and especially in friendship. He was also very trusting – perhaps almost too trusting, because I managed two particularly satisfying April Fools pranks which left us punching each other playfully in the ribs for ages. Some of my favourite times with Mark were those we spent in tears of laughter in the early days, round at each others’ pokey flats, drunk on wine and doing the order forms whilst working for someone else, playing surprisingly successful guessing games with their money.

Well, it was good practice.

On a professional level, what made Mark indispensable is that he had a unique aesthetic and an intuitive grasp that would have eluded almost anyone else of what the Real Mainstream would be eager to embrace, if only they were given the opportunity. I remember thinking that the public weren’t ready for GOOD-BYE, CHUNKY RICE or PERFECT EXAMPLE – I certainly didn’t think they’d sell 300 copies here just like that. But Mark knew. He knew they were ready for John Porcellino, Jeffrey Brown, John Pham, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Allison Cole, James Kochalka, Tim Bradford, Leon Sadler, Marc Bell, John Scarratt, Jessica Abel, Paul Hornschemeier, David B, Andi Watson, Simone Lia… I could fill a good two dozen lines with a list of creators so woefully underexposed in the wider industry, but for whom Mark’s support made such a quantifiable difference.

Here’s one email I feel I have to relay in full, because I think it shows not just the effect Mark had on a professional level, but on a personal one too, and it’s from the organiser of a gloriously quirky anthology called MILKKITTEN:

Dear Stephen,

hello.

I’m really sorry to hear your sad sad news….

I am ill-equipped to write something deserving and fitting for your friend as I only met him once, although these tiny memories I have of Mark are all really positive and warm….

At All Tomorrows Parties, I had just made my ‘comic’ and was only just beginning to try and sell it. My lack of confidence meant I had printed up about 20 copies in total. When Mark introduced himself and said he worked for a comic shop and would like to sell some there, I was so surprised and happy! It was brilliant. It felt great to be believed in… He really gave me the confidence to feel that, yes, I could do what I was doing, and it was ok! It would sit alongside real comics…

I loved telling people I had stuff for sale in a comic shop in Nottingham.

Made me feel proper.

I don’t know….

Hope you’re all doing ok, I can imagine how hard it must be….

take care,

lots of love from tanya milkkitten

Here’s another from one of my favourite UK creators of all time, Nabiel Kanan, whose first series, EXIT, used to outsell anything we’ve ever put on the shelves outside of CEREBUS ZERO and SCOTT PILGRIM:

Dear Stephen,

I’m in shock. I just cannot believe it. I literally do not know what to say as I type this other than Mark is the guy who put me onto 90% of anything that’s been worth reading in the industry over the last fifteen years and is the one who encouraged me not to give up comics when I was low following EXIT’s end. I’ll be eternally in his debt for that. I’ll never forget him for that. Above all, Mark was a gentleman. He was one of the good guys.

So you see, it wasn’t just my life that Mark changed. I know he never suspected, but he had a bit of a habit of doing that.

One of my uncles died a few years ago…

… wrote a customer called Devin Sykes.

He played an important part in my childhood, doing all the things parents are too protective to do – introducing me to music I would not otherwise have heard. I felt the same way on hearing of his death, as I did reading your email about Mark. I almost stopped reading comics about 7 or 8 years ago – without Mark and Page 45, I probably would have. It seems such a stupidly small thing, but there are things I have seen, other points of view that change how you think about the world, that I would not have encountered if Mark hadn’t suggested them. And I almost certainly wouldn’t be watching Miyazaki films without his admiration of their beauty. I’ll miss his voice on the phone; he had a great voice – very laid-back and incredibly enthusiastic at the same time.

Another, called Matthew Dick, said:

If it wasn’t for Mark I’d have never read any Carla Speed McNeil, Jeff Nicholson or Asaf & Tomer Hanuka. Works that changed the way I look at comics. I’m a bit lost for words really…

All I can really do is offer you guys my condolences and support. Just let me say that Page 45 is and will continue to be the best comic books store I’ve ever had the pleasure of shopping at. Even though I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Mark personally, I do know I’ll miss his presence at the store.

Also – and excuse me for being a bit random – but the man had the coolest beard I’ve ever seen.

We are in the realms of consolation here, but I do believe that the physical presence of Page 45 will continue to remind people of Mark, and draw them to his favourite comics for years to come. I believe that’s one of the ways he’d want to be remembered.

Mark and I created Page 45 to be a place of fun, laughter and enthusiasm, where people could discover works they’d never have stumbled across otherwise and enjoy this medium in all its splendid variety. A place, really, where everyone could relax, browse, chat and leave smiling. A place where we would enjoy working.

I just never realised until these last three weeks how important all that is, because we have received back from customers, creators, publishers, distributors, and those who would in any other industry be described as competitors, so much more warmth than we have ever given out ourselves.

With their support buoying us up – and Dominique’s timely return to our keyboard – Tom and I have managed to forge on, and now start making progress. No one can replace Mark. There is no one on the planet who understands that more keenly than myself.

But we’d be doing him a disservice if we faltered for one second and didn’t ensure that what we set out to do continues: to bring the widest possible variety of comics into contact with the broadest possible number of people.

I talk a lot. It’s my job.

But as I said, Mark was a private person, and here’s what is possibly his only written pronouncement on all this, from Page 45’s Mailshot upon our 10th Anniversary in 2004:

Somehow ten years has gone by since we opened the shop. Ten years. Feels like five. Quite a few people told us that we were doing it all wrong and they were right. We did do it all wrong but it was the right way to do it for us. I forget how wrong we’re still doing it until I see how the others do it right.

Best things about having Page 45 (in no particular order)

  • No boss. Wahey!
  • Nice people. We’ve got a lot of really nice customers. Some have been around for the whole ten years.
  • Comics. Big trucks come to the shop and deliver all these cool things.
  • Having a book I like take off and seeing other folks enjoy something that I do.
  • Going out of our way to find something new, something that few people stock and have it sell well.
  • Colleagues you can rely on. And get on with.
  • Still being here ten years later.

Yeah… I know.

As a customer called Julian wrote:

“The divine powers must have needed advice on comics, and chose the best.”

Dave Sim, addressing his online audience:

Before we get started here I wanted to publicly pay my belated respects to the late Mark Simpson here in “The House that Mark Built”. I didn’t know him terribly well but there is definitely something about getting to know someone in the midst of a weeks-long event that you have no idea how it is going to “come off” – the ’93 Aardvarks Over U.K. Tour (there’s a good shot of him taken by Gerhard’s camera on the back cover of issue 177) – that gives you a clearer sense of the “cut of a man’s jib” which is perhaps a more important and central element to the human character than those more conventional attributes we think of in regards to our associates and our friends.

Page 45 was a reasonably new experiment back then and it gave me great confidence in the possibilities presented by that experiment (now confirmed and affirmed – exponentially – many times over) to see Stephen and Mark interacting. Stephen – who could make choosing a restaurant into an ardent and critical life experience pregnant with meaning and life-altering potentialities – ably balanced by Mark: he of the dry-as-dust mordant Rule Britannia demeanour who could – with a well selected phrase or two – return any discussion to those more grounded and sensible proportions from which it had recently taken flight. I would speculate that that balance, so crucial in the early years of their collaboration, became less necessary as Stephen learned to fulfill for himself the role that Mark had so ably provided in the beginning (I suspect going back to their Fantastic Store “Rebels in the Basement” days) and that Mark had chosen to open up Page 45′s “Internet Front” as a means of widening their on-going war on comic-book retail mediocrity.

It was characteristic of him that he saw a need – no one was discussing Cerebus as a creative work, they were just vilifying Dave Sim – and chose to fill it. He didn’t write or phone and say, “Dave. What do you think of this idea?” The straight line he had drawn mentally between the problem he saw and the solution he had arrived at didn’t pass through me so, for Mark, there was no need to bother me with it. He built the environment, nurtured it through its early days as an active participant until he was sure that it was up and running and when he was sure that the structure was sound and the concept fully entrenched, he moved on to his other areas of greater need: the unsolved problems. Not only didn’t he bother me with issues of midwifery, he also didn’t contact me to say “Look at what I’ve done for you, Dave.” The pat on the head was anathema to Mark. The business of improving the comic-book field was something that was to be “gotten on with”. A solved problem wasn’t something that you admired and waved under the nose of others, a solved problem meant only that there was now more time to devote to unsolved problems. It had been, literally, years since he had even checked in to see how his offspring was doing.

And, of course, the kicker is that – had he contacted me with his solution to the problem – I would’ve deemed it “just some Internet crap” and told him to do whatever he wanted but that I didn’t want to be bothered about it. I’m sure he knew that, too. Just as I’m sure that he had the foresight to understand that this would one day become the primary Cerebus environment after the book was done and that I would come – very, very late – to the realization of just exactly how large a favour he had done for me and Ger and for the book in creating this environment very early on so it would have time to take root before March, 2004.

It would’ve meant very little to him to have me acknowledge – as I am here – that he had been more farsighted than I had been. There were echoes of Mark in Stephen’s voice – the part of Mark that is now as much a part of Stephen as his own personality – when I called to offer my condolences a couple of weeks back when Ger had told me the news.

[I said,] “If it hadn’t been for Mark, there wouldn’t have been a Cerebus Newsgroup.”

[Stephen replied,] “Well, if it hadn’t been for Dave Sim there wouldn’t have been a Page 45.”

We talked about Mark very briefly and then switched to the Situation Board, how things are and what can be done about it. It was really the most effective way to honour Mark’s memory. It’s all that would have interested him if Stephen and I were jabbering away at each other as we were wont to do. His facial expression was always eloquent: Get to the point, it said, and then get back to work.

Even though he would’ve made a wry face, arched an eyebrow and said, “That…really…isn’t necessary.” I’d like to propose that the headline for this mailing list permanently include a very small line beneath it reading “The House That Mark Built” with an icon that will take the reader to a short biography and a photo.

There you go, Mark, I got to the point and now I’m getting back to work.

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/cerebus/

It’s Never The End

Regular Page 45 patrons will already know how this one goes.

We always remember, we never forget, yet nor are we maudlin about it. We always celebrate, and usually with a tip of the glass.

To our very own Mark, then: bearded, beautiful and utterly brilliant.

- Stephen x

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