sail-header-edge

We talk to Stephen Holland: Comics Laureate

Thu 8 Apr, 2021

On March 31st 2021, Stephen Holland became the UK's comic Laureate, a post he will hold for 2 years. We had a chat with him about his inspirations and aspirations...

First, congratulations on the Laureateship.

Thanks very much, Matt!

How does it feel to have been selected?

I’m enormously honoured, thrilled by the challenge, and determined to make a big difference.

For me, this is the opportunity of a lifetime to raise the profile of comics and graphic novels throughout this country, first by explaining what they actually are, then by showing the British public this medium’s true quality and diversity, and so demonstrate that it’s every bit as sophisticated, literate, stylistically varied and broad in appeal as film and prose.

For decades I’ve been teeth-grindingly frustrated by an overwhelmingly ignorant press disseminating facile disinformation about comics, reducing our beloved medium to four-colour fist-fights. It puts most people off comics for life.

In reality comics encompasses everything from Pulitzer-prize-winning history and autobiography to comedy, crime and horror while taking in travel, science-fiction, fantasy and a limitless ocean of astutely observed contemporary fiction as it goes. From fully painted to bold black and white; warm, loose and evocative to crisp and clear, there really is so much to suit every aesthetic taste.

At Page 45, by artfully arranging this dazzlingly vast range on our book plinths and shelves, then hand-selling it professionally and eloquently, we have for 26 years successfully converted hundreds of thousands of adults from all walks of life to reading comics and graphic novels as a matter of course. Now I want to take this proven message and method nationwide, and do so in precisely the same way: by putting this range in front of the public and showing them the sort of treasures that they can then go on to discover for themselves.

Thanks to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, Arts Council England and Lancaster University, my two-year tenure as Comics Laureate began on March 31st 2021. There’s a great deal to do; I began planning these two years as far back as April.

I should probably start by reassuring those completely new to all this that ‘graphic novel’ is simply a fancy name for long comics. It matters not one jot what you call them; it matters much more that you’re talking about them and enjoying them.

Also, I promised to explain what comics really are:

Comics: a visually driven medium of juxtaposed images in which time is represented by space. Ta-da!

Arrival-4.jpg

Are there, like the Poet Laureateship, any butts of Sherry involved?

If there are, no one’s told me about them.

You are clear in your acceptance speech that the key to comics thriving in the future is through encouraging greater diversity - with a particular focus on BAME- in those who create and the audiences who consume. How critical is this, and how do you plan to go about this?

It is absolutely vital.

To anyone caring to look – and I do so at our own shelves every day – the biggest, most blindingly obvious and shameful problem still prohibiting our progress in comics today is the comparative lack of material created by Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic writers and artists being published then stocked in shops, and so starting to reach its vast, untapped potential public.

Our industry, among too many others, is overwhelmingly, disproportionately white and that’s wrong. It’s both unhealthy and it’s un-wealthy.

If you don’t recognise yourself – or your interests – in books on the shelves, how are you to invest emotionally and feel a part of that culture? We desperately need to be more inclusive: all of us, and in every aspect of our lives.

Arrival-2.jpg

Only with greater diversity in the arts can we all enjoy new voices, attract a wider range of readers who recognise themselves, and so generate greater revenues for everyone involved in our industries. It’s pure economics; it’s basic common sense; and it’s far more fun for everyone. We are all allowed to have fun.

The exceptionally good news is that outside of the tiny, testosterone-fuelled sub-genre of superheroes – which remains ever so inbred, inward-looking and patriarchal – women are now very well represented in comics, both as creators and so readers. Same goes, increasingly, for the queer community: Page 45 has two thriving LGBTQ sections on our website, one under fiction, the other under non-fiction. Plus, for example, we’ve a burgeoning section on Mental Health. We can always, always do better, but it’s a tremendous start.

Where we are still falling lamentably, excruciatingly short, however, is with comics created by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic creators and so – surprising no one – I’m not seeing a proportion of customers properly representative of the BAME population in Nottingham walking towards Page 45’s rapacious till. And we’re a renowned liberal-leftie, all-inclusive shop.

Here’s the great Lantana, picture-book publishers of Chitra Soundar & Poonam Mistry’s opulent YOU’RE SAFE WITH ME and YOU’RE SNUG WITH ME, and Brigita Orel & Jennie Poh’s THE PIRATE TREE etc:

“In the United Kingdom, a third of school children identify as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic yet fewer than 5% of children’s books feature main characters of colour and fewer than 2% of children's book creators are British authors of colour. The picture is even more bleak for those who identify with marginalised groups relating to class, gender, sexuality, health and ability. At Lantana, we’re changing the game by publishing inclusive books that celebrate our differences. We actively seek out stories by authors who make a diverse range of lived experiences accessible to young children.”

You’ll be far from astonished to learn that I love Lantana publishing.

Youre-Safe-With-Me-1.jpg

So what can I do to effect change as Comics Laureate?

Immediately, I can make a practical difference by getting straight back into secondary schools and start teaching comics again. It’s part of my mandate anyway to kick-start a renewed love of reading for pleasure. But my particular priority is to get into urban state schools purely because they tend to have to highest population of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students, and it’s their voices that this industry most sorely lacks.

I’ll be bringing in graphic novels from all over the world to show students from all walks of life not only the limitless breadth of subject matter that comics can and do cover. Pandemic providing, of course; I’ll still be bringing in graphic novels because I believe their physical presence as proof is essential, but temporarily there may have to a Powerpoint component to that part, instead of students leafing through the pages themselves.

Then we’ll be exploring together what the comics medium actually is, where it has appeared throughout history (you’d be surprised!), what it can do, and how it can do it. The mechanics of comics fascinates me. The devices some creators deploy are diabolically clever even if you’re unaware of those techniques as you’re reading, and I’ve found that, once revealed, they truly intrigue!

In addition, comics is a thoroughly accessible medium, affordable to create and disseminate by anyone and everyone (especially since the advent of the internet), and I want to empower young minds with the knowledge that they can create for themselves.

If we can generate a new generation of literary and visual eloquence akin to Charlot Kristensen’s in her debut graphic novel WHAT WE DON’T TALK ABOUT then I shall be so very, very happy.

What-We-Dont-Talk-About-5-768x576.jpg

My first full-day session has already been arranged for Monday April 26th 2021 at the proudly multicultural Abraham Moss Community School in North Manchester, where they want to film the lessons for their own use, and if that’s not unbridled enthusiasm, I don’t know what is. It’s footage which we can then use too at Comics Laureate HQ to generate even more interest from other schools, publishers, politicians and the local and national media. Can you smell strategy...? Everything in the right order: as our campaign expands, so too will its scope.

There’s more. There’s a lot more – parallel initiatives all being prepped to begin launching from March 31st 2021 – but I’m not Comics Laureate just yet, so I must remain predominantly in shy, retiring planning mode.

I promise you this: you won’t find me backwards in shooting forwards the very second that they open my cage.

Nottingham suffers from some of the worst child literacy rates in the UK, but you believe comics can play a part in addressing this and acting - in the words of your Comics Laureate predecessor Hannah Berry - as ‘a stepping stone for literacy’. Does your own experience reflect that?

Yup, I’m proof of that proverbial pudding.

When I was young I was a painfully reluctant reader. So my Mum took what was then an unusual but thoroughly inspired approach: she introduced me to comics. I now have a degree in English Literature and History of Art which, as a combo, is really quite useful when writing or talking about comics.

So yes, as well as being a unique, highly literate and phenomenally powerful entertainment medium in its own right, comics is indeed an invaluable stepping stone to reading all sorts of material for pleasure. We’ve over 25 years experience successfully supplying schools with age-appropriate graphic novels to restore a renewed love of reading. We know from first-hand, front-line experience what young readers and young adults spend their own money on, which is a fair indication of what they’ll pick up and read for free. And sure enough one morning a head teacher rang to tell us that his boys had broken out fighting... over their school library’s new batch of comics.

It works.

Do you think, at least among the British public, minds are more open than they used to be in embracing comics? If not, what can be done to make this more apparent?

I’d say “at last” rather than “at least”.

In Europe so many people read comics that often their highest selling book each year is a graphic novel. In Japan almost everyone reads comics, partly because in Japan there are comics about everything including table tennis. I kid you not: we’ve a couple in stock right now.

But in Britain the reputation of comics has suffered from the triple whammy of the shops being blindly in thrall to the American superhero corporations to the exclusion of all other genres, the media compounding that problem by perpetuating the perception – entirely false – that this tiny little subgenre is all that exists, plus a blinkered academia looking down disdainfully upon us from their self-satisfied and elitist Oxfordian tombs, dismissing the whole medium of comics which they’ve never even read as sub-literate.

We’re not the first form of entertainment to be pissed upon by the establishment. Remember the Puritans’ propagandist attitude towards theatre in the 1600s, shutting them all down by dismissing the entire art form as vacuous, lascivious and, oh I don’t know, fun? In the 18th century one of this country’s most esteemed painters, William Hogarth, used to be censured for incorporating satire into his art. How very dare he, eh? Parenthetically Hogarth’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ and ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ are both comics: they tell a scathing story using a sequence of silent images in which time is represented by space. Hogarth even went a giant step further towards the more familiar paper-page comic book by producing engravings of the canvasses, then publishing the stories as printed portfolios.

Progress has been steady in Britain over the last two or three decades, but it would move infinitely faster if only the public could find the graphic novels which they would really want to read on more comic shop shelves. That’s when the real revolution will occur: when the wealth of diversity that already exists is finally embraced by more retailers. I have no idea what’s taking them so long. Don’t they want some of our money? It’s no use if the Observer writes a glowing piece about a new graphic novel of mass Real Mainstream appeal but then punters can’t find that book on a comic shop’s shelves. They’ll either give up on their search or circumnavigate the shops completely and order it online from – I’m sorry, I simply cannot say that word.

Two long decades ago Antony Johnston invited me to write a guest editorial for Ninth Art. In it I warned that unless comic shops got their act together then book shops would steal the whole fucking play. I was wrong about the book shops who continue to be mostly clueless about comics, but I was right nonetheless because the stage has indeed been stolen: instead by the tax-avoiding, retail-obliterating, online -- Nope, I’m still not going to name-check them.

Arrival-5.jpg

You’re well known as a dedicated comics reviewer, and have made several videosespousing the creative excellence of comics. What have you come to regard are the essential qualities of a good comic?

I’ve honestly never thought about it in such sweeping terms.

Rather than be didactic or proscriptive, I’d rather relish each comic as it comes, see if it stirs me, then figure out how that happened. In some ways we’re still enjoying the ‘Tristram Shandy’ age of comics, with creators experimenting like crazy with what they can do. The essential qualities of a very good comic are still being imagined.

Personally I prefer creators who have something to say, and the skill with which to say it. However, it’s always worth bearing in mind that comics is a visual medium, and that one doesn’t necessarily need to deploy words in order to say something: images are a universal language.

Just as silent films were still films, a silent comic is still a comic, and there are few more profound or eloquent than Shaun Tan’s THE ARRIVAL. You’ll find no words there, and for very good reasons. It’s all about interpretation, walking five thousand miles in someone else’s shoes, and experiencing empathy for your fellow human being.

If a comic has words, then the pictures shouldn’t merely illustrate them (otherwise that’s essentially illustrated prose regardless of whether there are panel borders), and some of my favourites are where the two elements contradict each other to telling effect. It sure throws a whole new light on the tradition of the unreliable narrator.

I’d just like to lob in that comic artists go largely unsung as the most terrific character actors and directors that they truly are (you know, whenever they are), for which I often single out Sean Phillips, but then sometimes there aren’t any characters. Strikingly and satirically Woodrow Phoenix draws no actual human beings at all during the mesmerising CRASH COURSE: IF YOU WANT TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, BUY A CAR, for it’s a graphic novel deploring our reduction of pedestrians to second-hand citizens. Its impact is such that it’s certainly changed the way I drive forever.

Crash-Course-6.jpg

But if I were to give you one example of a graphic novel which I relish for its grin-inducing depth of craft, it would be David Mazzucchelli’s ASTERIOS POLYP wherein every single element – its split structure, contours, colours, typography, everything – is in service to its story.

Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature helped bring Dawn of the Unread and Eastwood Comics into comic form: if you could see a comic version of any Nottingham text, what would it be? What would Arthur Seaton look like on the page?

I’ve no interest in adaptations, cheers. Any creator worth their salt thinks very, very carefully which medium to create their art in – which would best express what they want to say in the ways they wish to say it – and then utilises that medium’s unique properties to its maximum potential and their own creative benefit.

Wisely, the Eastwood Comics project chose not to adapt D.H. Lawrence, but encouraged students to produce comics inspired by readings of his life and works.

Nothing’s impossible, of course: I am in awe, for example, with what P. Craig Russell did in adapting Wagner’s THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG to comics; equally, I’m relieved to answer you so succinctly for once.

Page 45 has enjoyed 26 years in Nottingham, a proud independent that can lay claim to being very much part of the fabric of the city, scooping awards and working with the community; and also having an international profile (Neil Gaiman said of Page 45 '“I’ve long thought (it's) the best graphic novel shop I’ve ever been to".How do you maintain this, and how will the Laureateship contribute?

Thank you. We continue to thrive because we continue to care.

Mark and I opened up Page 45 26 years ago because we were appalled that in Britain the very finest and most individualistic voices in comics weren’t reaching their potential audiences. We wanted to bring the widest variety of quality comics and graphic novels to the attention of as many new readers as possible. So that’s Nottingham covered.

Now, thanks to the role of Comics Laureate, I can do that nationwide.

This emphatically isn’t about shining the Comics Laureate light inwards on Page 45. No Poet Laureate or Children’s Laureate, to my knowledge, has spent their two years cooing “Ooooh, look what I wrote!” That would be enormously cringe-worthy and a terribly self-centred waste. They spent it promoting their art form instead. I hope! Now, I’m all too aware that I’ve spent much of this interview linking back to our website, but that’s because at the moment it’s my only recourse. Once I’m let fly in March 2021 I’ll be linking instead to the resources will be building on the Comics Laureate page of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival website.

To anyone still needing to be convinced, or in awe of the sheer number of comics and suffering a paralysis of choice, what would you prescribe?

Excellent question, and thank you for asking it!

I’d advise asking someone who’s prepared to listen to you before they start speaking.

Whenever someone new to comics walks into the shop and asks for recommendations – as they do every week – I first ask them a bit about themselves and their interests in other art forms. Then, from a thousand or so graphic novels which I adore, I present them with three of four tailored to their specific tastes, and extemporise brief show-and-tells designed to intrigue. I’ll gauge their reactions as I perform and adapt accordingly, picking a few different books instead. We always get there in the end!

If you don’t live in Nottingham, try Gosh! in London, OK Comics in Leeds or Dave’s Comics in Brighton. Or, if you don’t live anywhere near there, please try our Want A Recommendation service. Although please do be patient if you’re filling the form close to Christmas!

There’ll be a brand-new Recommended Reading List broken up into various age ranges on the Comics Laureate section of the Lakes Festival website as soon as I go live on March 31st 2021.

In the meantime, in addition to the films embedded and the graphic novels I’ve already mentioned which you’ll find linked to reviews (like Shaun Tan’s THE ARRIVAL whose excellence, accessibility and importance I cannot overemphasise), here’s a baker’s dozen aimed at adults which I’ve found to have a very broad appeal:

THE PARK BENCH by Chabouté

Park-Bench-5.png

THE BEST WE COULD DO by Thi Bui

THE NAO OF BROWN by Glyn Dillon

Nao of Brown 2.jpg

KINGDOM by Jon McNaught

Kingdom-8.jpg

CASSANDRA DARKE by Posy Simmonds

A DISTANT NEIGHBOURHOOD by Jiro Taniguchi

LAURA DEAN KEEPS BREAKING UP WITH ME by Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

MARCH by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell

March-covers.jpg

March-LICAF-3.jpg

DAYTRIPPER by Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá

I LOVE THIS PART by Tillie Walden

THE MOTHERLESS OVEN by Rob Davis

Motherless Oven knife storm.jpg

PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi

LIVESTOCK by Hannah Berry.

Livestock-10.jpg

Hannah Berry is the current Comics Laureate (2019-2021). As you can see, Hannah will be a tough act to follow. Not least because of her powers of prophecy: if you click on the final page of art to the right of the review, you’ll find me beaming up from it, bottom-left!


This post is tagged in

comics Page45 Stephen Holland Comics Laureate

Follow us

We’re bringing words to your world in ways that suit you. You can keep up to date with everything literary in Nottingham on social media.

Search