Hi there. Thanks for joining us.
This here is the start of a new feature we’re going to be running on the London Graphic Novel Network. The basic idea is that we interview the good people who run the Comic Forums / Clubs / Groups around London so that you can get to know them a little and then (hopefully) be inspired to venture out and take part. Libraries depend upon your participation and the more we use them the stronger they can grow. Plus: it’s really good fun meeting cool new people and sitting around talking about comics and stuff. So you know: get involved. It’s free and it’s fun.
So. First up is Loz – the coordinator of the Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group (7 to 8pm / Second Tuesday of the month / Peckham Library).
Hi Loz! Thanks for joining us and agreeing to take part in this.
Well, it was hard to miss, the laserbeams coming from a clear sky, burning your message into the concrete outside the library… You’re going to have to pay for the resurfacing work by the way.
They can bill me.
So erm. Yeah. For those of you reading at home – it’s a bright sunny day. Me and Loz are both drinking cups of tea sitting in the top floor of the London Graphic Novel Network offices. The table is carved out of a redwood tree (idea stolen from Lex Luthor in JLA: Earth Two – I mean yeah sure the guy is an evil genius: but he sure knows a thing about interior design).
Ok. Enough faff. Let’s begin with the basics. How did you get started with reading comics?
I’ve always read, being the offspring of parents that encouraged that kind of behaviour. But this was the dark days of the late seventies/early eighties, so comics in the library would be restricted to a few dog-eared Asterix or Tintin books if you were lucky. The comics I read as a child were largely British reprints of American stuff, the first being the Star Wars UK comics somewhere around 1980. I don’t know how I got these as it’s so long ago I can’t remember, but I dare say a relative picked me up a copy in the newsagents, this would have been about the time that the first Star Wars film was ITV’s big Christmas Day film for several years running.
But after a year or so of that I switched to Transformers UK and stayed with that for most of the eighties. I loved that comic, with it’s masterful combination of advertising new Transformers for kids to pester their parents to buy and storytelling. People always talk about their Alan Moores and Grant Morrisons, but they always forget Transformers scribe Simon Furman.
Wait. Seriously? Simon Furman? I’ve never heard of him. Is he any good? Should I try and check out his stuff?
Well, I’ve not read his work since the last eighties, and from what I recall it was constant reworkings of the animated movie, so Unicron turning up and trying to eat Cybertron, with Megatron and Galvatron travelling up and down the sliding scale of sanity but it was pretty good. All Gods of chaos and Gods of order. It’s basically reworking Moorcock’s ‘Eternal Champion’ through stories based on lumps of plastic. Strange he never seems to have done anything else.
I started going to school in the local town which meant regular access to the new comic shop and American comics. A part time job gave me enough cash to waste on comics and I gradually built up a ridiculous collection, largely X-Men centric from Marvel but a few other things as well, like Peter David’s amazing run on Hulk, but also DC around Superman and Batman. University in the mid-nineties drastically cut down on my ability to buy stuff but new friends introduced me to Vertigo so that was my thing for a few years, Enigma, Sandman, Invisibles, black and white Swamp Thing reprints, Preacher and Transmet. I stuck with a lot of those things and their creators once I was in work and gradually had the money to indulge myself again. Known as ‘the comics guy’ at work in libraries meant I was sometimes given a metaphorical wodge of cash and thrown in the direction of somewhere like ‘Gosh’ to buy new stock, which meant sometimes buying stuff I wasn’t too sure of myself so I could read it for free and decide whether I would buy my own copies later. That’s how I got to read the first four or five Cerebus phone books.
These days I’m currently split between Marvel and Image, Hickman’s Avenger’s run, Rat Queens, Saga, Manhattan Projects. And I also order and read a lot of stuff I wouldn’t first buy for myself to see if it’s worth doing in the graphic novel book group I run. It’s a tough life and all that…
What’s your favourite thing about comics?
It’s changed over time. Back when I was a youngling it was because comics were replicating the simple thrills of the TV shows I liked. Later on it was probably also they were pretending at the complexity of the books I read. Loz circa 1995 was probably concentrating too much on The Sandman, Preacher, Babylon 5, X-Files and Lord of the Rings. These days I don’t know, for all that people go on about how comics can tell stories that no other medium can so few people seem to be trying to reach that, at worst you get comics get turned into films when they should miniseries, but with ‘Preacher’ now a series we might not have that problem any more.
I suppose I feel jaundiced only because, doing the group I read a lot of graphic novels by kids that have gone to art school to learn the craft and then do books without having anything interesting to say. I’ve read a lot of stuff that was done exactly so some boring Grauniad journo will pick it for next month’s ‘comics aren’t just for kids!’ feature.
What comics do you think actually have interesting things to say?
Well, Cerebus certainly, at least for the first 200 issues. It’s basically two guys learning how to tell a longform story in a variety of different ways and despite the fact that Sim’s ridiculous views on women (I hesitate to call it misogyny only because it doesn’t seem coherently thought through enough to qualify as a system of beliefs that can be called ‘misogynistic’) play a role in one of the volumes here they can be easily ignored to appreciate the rest of the story. Issues 200 to 300 it’s a much bigger problem.
Graphic novels, especially the sequential ones, don’t seem to be powered by theories but more ideas, and ideas can be great but they tend to be set pieces rather than philosophies. But then I’m happiest in that setpiece part of the continuum so I suppose it’s all my own fault.
What are your favourite comics (and why)?
I’m one of those annoying types who’s tastes change on a daily or hourly basis. Some of my current favourites are probably Hickman’s run on both Fantastic Four and Avengers/New Avengers, both take a long while to get going but then having an unassailable momentum. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s ‘The Wicked and the Divine’ is one of those perfect encapsulations of a particular moment in popular consciousness and while I didn’t particularly like ‘Pretty Deadly’ I’m also enjoying ‘Bitch Planet’ by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro, though that seems to have vanished recently. I read ‘Nimona’ last week and it gave me some of those feels that everyone talks about so I’m going to try Noelle Stevenson’s other stuff as well
What comics do you hate with all your being (and why)?
Well, I’ve already mentioned the Guardian-bait above. I don’t care for any of the little I’ve read of the Millarworld stuff, it’s tended to be aimed at a thirteen year old boy who thinks the funniest thing in the world is someone shouting the c-word loudly. Reviews I’ve seen of the majority of the rest of the stuff which I’ve not read suggest it’s much the same, so I avoid it. The only other thing is Brian Michael Bendis’s ‘Powers’, which I read until just after the monkey issue, mainly on YOUR urging I think it was.
I do love monkeys it’s true.
I have problems with a lot of Bendis’s work because he has a tendency to mistake ‘talking’ for ‘character development’ and then substitute ‘character development’ for ‘action’. This is a man who wrote a summer crossover for Marvel which consisted of six issues of Iron Man puking in a jungle and then the Green Goblin shooting an alien and becoming the head of SHIELD for a year. I found to my surprise that I liked his ‘Daredevil’ run, probably because I could read it all over a couple of days rather than the three or four years it took to publish, but his ‘Alias: Jessica Jones’ stuff bounces all over the place because it is just issue after issue of people talking and sometimes that’s very annoying. He writes comics as though he were writing a TV show that has no budget so has to be two people talking for forty-five minutes.
Which authors or artists do you have a soft spot for?
Shall I send you a photo of my shelves, because everyone that’s on there probably qualifies. Because I tend to concentrate on writers I have a lot of Grant Morrison’s mainstream stuff, random pockets of Alan Moore, some Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis stuff. I read the Ennis ‘Punisher’ stuff because everyone said how wonderful it was but it left me cold. JH Williams 3 is the only artist who, if I see he’s done something, may check it out because I’ve loved his work since ‘Promethea’. Increasingly these days, partly because of the book group thing, I’m reading stuff by people I don’t know.
Are there any comics that you feel are over or under-rated?
I don’t pay enough attention to what other people think to have a concrete answer to that. I have my likes and dislikes and will suggest stuff to people who ask, but in some great cosmic top ten of the best work, I have no idea.
If someone had just started reading comics – what would you recommend them (and why)?
I don’t, without some idea of what type of story they want to read. People who can follow a simple set of graphics that tell them how to assemble that bookcase can still find themselves with a mental block if they try to consider it’s telling them a story (beyond yay! You’ve got a functional bookcase!) so it’s got to be based on what they want to read and then going from there.
Why do you love libraries?
What’s not to love? They’re one of the few communal centres we’ve got left and they are there just to help people. There is a myth going round that we don’t need libraries because ‘we’ve got the Internet’. Come to our library and meet the people who don’t have computers. Or do have computers and don’t know how to use them, which immediately means they can’t access an ever growing list of basic council services. Come to our library and see the people who want to read but can’t order books over the internet they don’t know how to use in a town without bookshops, or see DVDs in a town without a Blockbuster.
What’s Peckham Library like? How would you describe it? Like: I’ve been there a few times and it’s a very cool building and I love your big fat space age pod things…
It’s an upside down L shape although I have no idea what the brown thing on top is supposed to be. I wish the windows up the top were bigger because that’s the part of the building that is the actual library, that’s where the magic happens. That top section in the photo is the library, underneath is offices, temporary space for Theatre Peckham while their own place gets rebuilt and a place for people to access council services. It’s always busy inside and always something of a microcosm of the community it supports, in that corner are some schoolkids who have promised their parents they are coming to the library to study, on the computer we have people accessing essential council services, on the tables we have people doing their own studying. We have people coming in to the building for a surgery with the local councillors or for an NHS Drop-in clinic. Always something happening, and thanks to an air-conditioning system that seems to be constructed out of sound-reflecting pipes, most of what happens outside the library can be heard inside, so if an evangelical choir pitches up outside, we all get to hear their singing nice and clearly too.
We’re lucky in that Southwark council has invested in and continues to invest in it’s library service while lots of other London boroughs don’t.
How did you get started working in Libraries?
Did a librarianship degree at university, back in the days when you could do them and had a theoretical possibility of doing so without loading yourself with crippling debt. During my course I followed the pathway for courses to do with public libraries just because it seemed right, despite the tutors desperately trying to suggest I should go and work in business libraries because that was where the money was. After I graduated I went on the dole and the one job on the database was for a school librarian post. Went for it, not expecting to get it but did. Stuck it out in a low paying post for a couple of years before escaping to a proper public library. Been in that sector, in different posts, ever since.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The satisfaction when, after someone approaches me with the opening salvo of “I don’t suppose you can help me but…” I solve their problem for them. Very, very occasionally, you’re changing their lives for them. Power… like unto… a God! (Maniacal laugh)
Tell us a little bit about the Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group. How long has it been going for? What does a typical session involve? That kinda thing…
The book group has been going for about five years, the second book we read was ‘V For Vendetta’ by Moore and Lloyd and we had to call the meeting off because the London riots were happening literally outside the library! It started because I’d tried to start a regular book group at another branch that I worked at and that didn’t work. At that time Southwark were experimenting with some book groups for specific areas of stock rather than general ones, so there were Biography, Poetry and Science-Fiction groups elsewhere, and so my manager suggested I try a Graphic Novel group at Peckham.
We do the group like a traditional group, each month discussing the book that I gave out the previous month or people have picked up during the intervening time. We meet at the library on the second Tuesday of each month from 7:00 to 8:00. The group is informal so you can often discern how much people have or haven’t enjoyed the book by how off-topic the discussion goes. As time goes on we increasingly read titles that the library doesn’t have already so each Spring I work out the list of what we’re reading for the next year and I get the stock ordered accordingly. This is mainly done from looking at websites and the general low level attention I pay to comics media and blogs, but also from suggestions people have made. I do try to keep things mixed between fiction and biographies and also creators, though it is tricky as, for reasons, we can’t get literally anything that’s available in the world. Therefore we’ve done very few manga or European graphic novels, though in the latter’s case it’s because a lot of what gets printed over here is in digests too large for people to be expected to read in a month. So I guess we end up being mostly British/American by default.
So, over the next few months we’re doing titles such as ‘The Man Who Laughs’ by David Hine and Mark Stafford, adapting the book by Victor Hugo, ‘Marble Season’ by Gilbert Hernandez, ‘Through the Woods’ by Emily Carroll and then before the end of the year we’ve got ‘The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil’ by Stephen Collins. We’re also putting the finishing touches to a special event in September that ties in with the Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival. But I’ve already said too much…
There is no typical book group member, being a cis male I’m sometimes in a minority at the table and the age range of group members is from early thirties to late fifties. Currently we have ten members of which a semi random 5 to 6 will come to the meeting. You don’t have to be a member of Southwark Libraries to take part, although you will need to be if you want to take the book out. Luckily, it’s really easy to join, you don’t need to live, work or study in Southwark, we’ll take anyone. Just see here (http://www.southwark.gov.uk/info/200062/libraries/1271/join_the_library) for more details.
Ask yourself these three questions. Do you like comics? Do you like chatting? Do you like cake? If you’ve answered yes to at least two of those questions then this is a group that you will enjoy.
How did you get involved with the London Graphic Novel Network?
Some guy contacted me and asked me to be involved, I humoured him and said ‘sure, why not?’
What’s your favourite thing about the London Graphic Novel Network?
That I don’t run it! Also, by talking to other people I’ve had ideas for titles and things to do ourselves.
Ok. Cool. And I think we’ll leave it at that. Loz – thank you very much for agreeing to take part with this. I had a great time talking with you. Hope you had a cool time too.
And yeah – see you at the next Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group!