Page 45 Interviewed by LeftLion 2006
A heavily condensed version was originally published in #10, their Arts Issue, but this is the first time that the exchange in its entirety has been made available to the public. Visit LeftLion online at www.leftlion.co.uk
The first time I remember buying comics from you was in the basement of the Virgin Megastore in the late Eighties or early Nineties. How did you end up there, and what’s taken you from Virgin to where you are now, fifteen-odd years later?
I have no idea what you’re talking about – I’m far too young to have been around back then.
But back in the late eighties and early nineties, Virgin used to lease out space in their stores to other companies which offered what they considered complementary stock or services. The idea was that the arrangement would be mutually lucrative – that there’d be a certain amount of cross-pollination – and you can certainly see that being in the heart of a Virgin Megastore would be good exposure for small comicbook retailers. There were, however, drawbacks – and I’m not just talking about being subjected to hours of MC Hammer over Virgin’s sound system. We had no shop window of our own, so we were restricted to the crowds coming into Virgin, when most cool kids – those already burning with an aesthetic curiousity – have always bought their music from the long-lamented Arcade Records, or Selectadisc.
Worst of all, it wasn’t our company, and when that company was forced out of Virgin and into a pokey little grotto well out of reach of any decent foot traffic (at the top of Friar Lane)… well, it was just embarrassing, the state of that shop. When we arrived, the place was a shambles, there was a compacted carpet of dust, half a foot thick, and the store’s owner wouldn’t fork out more than a hundred quid for redecorating. Mark and I were determined that the comics we loved – the comics produced by individuals with something to say and the skill with which to say it – would, if presented in the right environment, sell to the Real Mainstream (the average Joe on the street) in far greater quantities than the puerile superhero rubbish being churned out by the mighty corporations back then. Clearly, that shop wasn’t the right environment.
At that point, two things happened. We organised the Cerebus UK Tour ’93, which took the Canadian creators of Cerebus, the finest comic ever to have been created (and it being the finest, like any artistic endeavour – whether musical, visual or literary – it was largely overlooked), on a fourteen-day, ten-stop signing tour right round Britain. The queue outside our shop alone (in spite of its drawbacks) was five hours long. So Dave Sim and Gerhard, those two creators, they said, “Why don’t you do this for yourselves? You’ve proved your methods work – why not take complete control and make the money for yourself, rather than someone else?” It honestly hadn’t occurred to us until then. We just considered ourselves till monkeys, and it’s quite a scary prospect, risking all that money. But then the second thing happened: we realised that the chain we were working for was about to go bust – that the other outlets were soaking up all our profit. So it became a question of “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.
How did you go about creating that environment and catering to the mainstream? What are the differences between your shop and any other comic store? (I can think of several obvious examples – I think I’ve hardly ever seen a poster of an American wrestler in Page 45, for instance – but I’m in interested in what you think are the most important distinctions)
[Laughs.] Well, no, you’re unlikely to see a poster of an American wrestler in Page 45!
See, we’re a comic shop. Most of the other 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. For all I know, that is all that 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 always seemed absurd to me to restrict your stock to a single tiny genre in this gloriously diverse medium. All you’re doing there is restricting your potential customer base and therefore your potential profit. And yeah, we’re in this because we love this medium, but I’m also a professional businessman with a serious drinking habit to sustain, so I need the money. If Virgin (I hate to name-check corporations, but I’ve mentioned them already, so what the hell) were to restrict themselves, say, to nu metal, they’d make considerably less money. They’d lose out on all those sales from rock, indie, classical, jazz, rap, hip-hop, and – oh, what’s that strange little category the Real Mainstream buys a lot of? Oh yeah – pop. And yet that’s what all these so-called comic shops have done for the last thirty years, which is why the industry remains in such a cul de sac: most people out there don’t even know there’s so much comicbook fiction, autobiography, humour, socio-politics, crime or mythology available, so they don’t read comics. We’re bursting with that stuff, and we love introducing it to new people, which is why we try to look approachable, and make sure we’re always at hand to provide recommendations.
As to the rest of the right environment, well, we nicked the whole thing from Waterstones eleven years ago. I know they’ve had an overhaul since then, but we thought it was worth looking at a professional retail chain that did successfully cater for the Real Mainstream, and reproduce a look that obviously made people comfortable. Hence the black ash wooden shelving, the burgundy carpet, the soft lighting and the book plinth, right in the middle of the shop floor with books stacked neatly on top. We wanted to fool people into thinking it was a book store, which is why all the collections are at the front, complete with spines (they look and feel just like novels until you open them up), and most of the individual issues are at the back. Plus, you’ll notice, the superheroes are all 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 national readership of comics in the UK are women, if you stroll into Page 45 on a Saturday, it’s 50/50 men and women.
I can get you an American wrestler poster if you want, though, Nathan. We’ll do anything for a customer.
…er. I’m probably all right for American wrestler posters at the moment thanks!
Though digressing, I believe you know Ossian Hawkes? He was always far more into that sort of thing than I was.
Ossian was the first guy we took on as Work Experience at Page 45 – you, know, that week they get out of school to find out what the working environment’s like. (And yeah, when he later did a brief stint at a comic shop in Liverpool later, they got a WWF trading card customised in his name.) He later became a good mate and even lived with me for a year. Evidently that experience was somewhat traumatic, because he’s since emigrated to Japan with his girlfriend.
You say “the industry remains in such a cul de sac.” The kind of comics that are bought by the kind of people you refer to as the Real Mainstream are generally considered to be in the ‘Independent’ sector - the people producing these comics are more likely to be stapling them together in their bedrooms and struggling to make rent than signing exclusive deals with Time Warner-owned companies. Yet as I understand it, the non-Superhero stuff accounts for a much larger proportion of your sales than the comics from the big two publishers.
Yes it does, and as a result we’re soaring up the motorway, cheers. Our sales have gone up by some five to ten percent every year we’ve been open bar one, because, as you say, we’re introducing all these comics with fresh ideas to new people who want to read stuff that (to paraphrase Morrisey) “says something to them about their lives”. But most of the other retailers, I’m afraid, still haven’t cottoned on to the fact that to make more money, you need more customers, and pretty much everyone who’ll ever want to read a superhero comic is already reading them. Hence the cul de sac. Now, it doesn’t take a genius with a driving licence to understand that if you’re in a cul de sac, the best manoeuvre is a quick u-turn.
How did the rest of the industry manage to ghettoize itself so effectively?
Well, for a start, you have to remember that in Japan and Europe, for example, it never happened. Respect for the comicbook medium as diverse adult entertainment has grown sufficiently on the continent for Bilal to get his Beast Trilogy vol 2 rated as France’s number one book for the summer of 2003 – and that’s by no means unusual. Why? Public perception there about comics was never killed by the superhero. They barely exist over there.
Unfortunately, in the U.S. and the U.K., with their multimillion-dollar corporations’ advertising machine behind them, 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.
It all goes back to 1954, when an American weazel called Frederick Wertham went on a self-righteous moral crusade to declare, with no emperical evidence whatsoever, that comics were corrupting kids. And believe it or not (and why not, given the console games argument raging right now?), people took the fucker seriously, to the extent that it provoked a U.S. Senate hearing. Yet at that point I swear to God nothing need have happened. The issue and evidence 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.
As Sin City creator Frank Miller said in 1994, “The Comics Code never helped anybody who was worth a damn. It was nothing but a vicious, cowardly attempt to put the best publishers in comics history out of business. We’ve been stuck with that wretched, dumb-as-a-brick Code for decades… all because a pack of lousy publishers couldn’t compete with William M. Gaines 40 years ago. You bet it has stopped good comics from being published, and not to protect children.”
That was back then, of course. Now there’s so much award-winning material available to sell – in all its splendid variety – that there’s no excuse to be slavering over Spider-Man still. Shame then, 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 three of us at Page 45 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.
And as for the children, parents are on our side now. They’re desperate for anything to help persuade their little Jimmy to read rather than blow things up on the PS2, and our all-ages comics, like Owly and Bone, encourage them to do that. In fact, if you’re a parent, after May 6th we’ll have 500 copies of a free Owly introduction comicbook to give you for free. Just ask at the counter, we’ll be delighted to see you.
I’ll try and get that in the listings for you.
It seems that rather than publishing a wider range of books, one way Marvel and DC are trying to escape the cul-de-sac is by turning their superhero characters into big-budget movies franchises. At the same time, non-superhero comics like A History of Violence, Ghost World, and American Splendour are also being adapted left, right and centre. What do you make of this trend?
A lot of money! [Laughs]
Actually, that’s only true of the last three you mentioned, plus, of course, Sin City. Those seven volumes of Sin City have sold enormously well. But you see, those sort of films, with those sorts of subject matter – crime, college students, everyday autobiography – they appeal to the Real Mainstream. So the Real Mainstream go to see those films, find out they’re based on comics, and the more inquisitive and open-minded of them then seek out the source material, the original graphic novels which in every one of those instances are absolutely cracking.
The result for us is a hoard of voracious new customers who are enormously excited, not only to discover there are hundreds of similar comics available – which they can pick up whenever they want, thanks to them being kept in print and in stock as books – but also to discover a completely fresh way of storytelling, in a print medium with devices unique to itself, that you can’t replicate either in prose or in film.
Conversely, none of the Batman, Spider-Man or X-Men films have brought in more than a trickle of their audiences, because those comics are already known to exist, so if you wanted to read them, you’d already be doing so. In some ways that means you’re spot-on: perhaps in their hearts of hearts DC and Marvel know that they already have the biggest audiences for their comics they could already get – after all, they’ve spent forty years bludgeoning the public with them! So their way of escaping financial stagnation is to make money from films as well as comics. Can’t say I blame them.
But sorry, I interrupted…
Is it just, as Alan Moore said, that “Hollywood needs material to make into films as part of an economic process, [which turns comics] into a sort of pumpkin patch for movie studios to come picking”?
Far be it for me to disagree with the great Alan Moore, but although a handful of comicbook creators undoubtedly have decided to divert their energies into inventing comics purely in the hope that Hollywood picks up the licence, those creators were never going to write or draw anything worth reading anyway! Fuck ‘em, I say. Let’s all read Scott Pilgrim instead!
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 they’re promoting V for Vendetta? The movie, I mean? Sexy chick, hugging a masked man. Not quite what Alan Moore had in mind, and about as far from David Lloyd’s sober and sombre drawings as you can imagine! V For Vendetta 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 think I’ll re-read the graphic novel instead, cheers.
What you have to bear in mind is that Hollywood is a vast machine, so its product is very expensive to produce. That’s the key thing – the costs. You have to pay for all the writers, the actors, the special effects, the costume designers, the sound guys, and even the rent boys paid to service the directors.
And because it’s so expensive, they’re going to have to appeal to the widest audience possible in order to recoup that outlay, and that means appealing to the lowest common denominator. And I don’t mean to sound like an elitist here – though I don’t think I can possibly escape it – the lowest common denominator is not going to stay awake for the finer nuances of a socio-political debate which is what the likes of Alan Moore are interested in.
The original League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example – another of Moore’s comicbook creations – is actually a collage of Victorian fiction. Deliberately, nothing on those pages ever actually existed: none of the characters – not even the landscapes, the architecture. Instead Alan 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. As to From Hell, it’s as much about the architecture of time as anything else. It’s not just a gruelling exhumation of the Jack The Ripper murders, their hampered investigation, and a ruthless, royal cover-up licensed by Queen Victoria, as perpetrated by a man at the top of the Masonic Lodge for his own mysogynistic motive of carving a male sigil over the city of London… it’s also an examination of the continued effect such a devastating series of events can have in our own time, and a study of those who study Jack The Ripper.
But who would have known, eh? Hollywood ate up the graphic novels, chewed them to death, then vomitted the whole mess up in our laps, nutrient-free. So, no, you’re never going to see a lot of Alan Moore, the creator, in something that’s been through the Hollywood meat-grinder. All you’re going to get is an awful lot of offal.
(Brief aside: did you know that James Bond: Licensed to Kill was originally called James Bond: License Revoked? And what happened in that film? James Bond’s licence to kill was revoked, hence the original title. But the producers took the film to an American focus group, and none of them knew what the word “revoked” meant! And so it goes, I’m very much afraid…)
What is it about the combination of words and drawings that made you want to devote a career to it? I was interested in what you were getting at here: “…a completely fresh way of storytelling, in a print medium with devices unique to itself, that you can’t replicate either in prose or in film.”
Oh, that last bit is a lecture in itself, and I’ve just hit the vino, mate.
In an effort to keep it short, then, the closest combination 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, though, 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. But, as I said, that’s from the master craftsmen like Dave Sim or Chris Ware – I don’t want everyone to go from thinking that “comics are for kids” to dreading that they’re going to require a superior degree in Egyptpian hieroglypics. You only need that to decipher my handwriting.
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 newspaper’s First Book Award the other year. So, you know, we’re coming on. There is, finally, an accelerating degree of academic attention being given to comics, in spite of twats like Irish poet Tom Paulin, a formerly radical lecturer at Nottingham University (one of mine, as it happens), now an artistically conservative, conformist and contemptible BBC2 luvvy.
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, even if it’s switching on to a soccer match (and I know nothing about soccer, and care a little less), and I see a team 2-1 down. I’ll always go for the guys who are down – even if they’re wearing orange. 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. And 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 the profiles of the over-talented yet under-valued, and put money in their pockets, that’s what we’re going to do. Let me put it to you this way: Nabiel Kanan from Derby, most famous for his local comic Exit (sadly no longer available at the moment), produced the exceptional graphic novel, Birthday Riots (this, you can buy). It was 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 (delete as applicable). We sold 100 copies in the space of a few months. Do you know what 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. To my mind, 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.
And whereas I’m not prepared to go the corporate route of opening a chain – I like the idea of a personable shop where you can get to know who you’re being served by… we can get to know you and your individual tastes and so recommend new comics to suit them – we’ve spent over eleven years now trying to encourage other potential retailers to open up and help these creators out. I’ve tutored dozens of individuals for the price of a couple of pints, but so far no one else has made that final leap of faith into opening up their own shop. It’s a shame, because that’s where the money lies, both for the creators and for the retailers.
All you need to do is open a shop where you’re welcoming, attentive, on the artistic ball, and stock all the comicbook fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, romance, crime, autobiography, and out-and-out dippiness that no other retailer in the country seems to care about… and you’ve got a pretty good national market with no competition except ourselves.
And hell, we’ll help you there. For the price of a couple of pints, obviously.
Apart from Nabiel Kanan, are there any other comic creators from Notts or the East Midlands who are worth checking out?
Lord, yes. We’re constantly discovering new people who throw us their wares across the counter, and although the worst part of this job by far is turning someone’s efforts down – I can’t tell you how much I cringe when I do so, but after eleven years we do know what will and will not sell – there’s nothing like the thrill of discovering new talent like Leon Sadler (the only person we’ve ever let use part of our window display – the rest was always carefully guarded by Mark) or Paul Walker (about time you brought something new out, Paul!). Also, Tim Bradford seriously needs to move back to Nottingham – or at least send us some more of his comics. And although Andi Watson is more Staffordshire than Notts, he’s right up there with Nabiel Kanan in the King of British Fiction stakes.
Do you have anything else you’d like to say to the LeftLion readers?
Thank you for reading, I think. It really was enormously kind of you.
And it was very kind of you, Nathan, as well. Thank you.
© Copyright Nathan Miller, posted with kind permission of Nathan Miller and Jared Wilson @ LeftLion. Aren’t they lovely?