Today we are speaking with the delightful Laura Newsome, the organiser and founder of the Shoe Lane Comic Forum, which meets on the 5:30pm – 7pm on the first Tuesday of every month at Shoe Lane Library. Their next meeting is December 5th and we hope to see you there 🙂
Hi Laura. Thanks for joining us today. So – first things first: how did you get started with reading comics?
My interest in comics began as an amalgamation of various interests all coming together in a happy marriage the moment I found an old copy of Watchmen waiting to be removed from library stock. I was working (blatantly very hard..) in the basement of Shrewsbury Library where I was a library assistant, and my love of bright, colourful art made me pick the comic up (kind of like a Lichtenstein-loving magpie) and flick through the tatty pages. Needless to say I didn’t realise I was holding a copy of one of the best-loved comics of all time. I read it cover to cover and was hooked. From there I wanted to know more about the history of the format, who the main players were, what comics I should be reading and where I could get my hands on more.
What’s your favourite thing about comics?
The things I love about comics are the things that make comics, comics! Pictures! Words! Combined! As I’ve already mentioned, I love bold, dynamic art and in my humble opinion graphic novels have some of the best art I’ve ever seen. I’m thinking J. H. Williams III’s luxurious and mind-bending illustrations in Promethea and Batwoman all the way to Brooke A. Allen’s more simplistic, colourful work in Lumberjanes. However, the really great graphic novels that stick with me have to have the narrative and characterisation to support the visuals. I’ve always enjoyed how the graphic novel format has attracted and developed writers who are willing to push boundaries, represent minorities and be innovative and unpredictable. When I first saw LGBT comic characters being represented in a non-sensationalist manner, it had a profound personal impact on me, showing that we can be treated as humans rather than a spectacle and that representation in what is becoming an increasingly mainstream media can help to create a huge cultural sea change.
What are your favourite comics (and why)?
I am currently in the big, hairy grip of Alan Moore so I am working my way through Miracleman and have just finished (and LOVED) the Promethea series. I enjoy how he subverts the comics format and plays with the perceived expectations many of us have after decades of the Marvel and DC-based monopoly. The Weeping Gorilla is a personal hero of mine.
Promethea in particular began in the same way that many stories do, a naïve young lady being bestowed super powers and having to come to terms with her new responsibilities. But going further into the narrative, you are taken on a magical, complex study of the layers of reality, the meaning of religion, life the universe and everything. So, you know, nothing too heavy…
What comics do you hate with all your being (and why)?
I try not to hate anything too much, and this is my perspective for most things not just comics. When a graphic novel has actually been published, the finished article has taken hours of work and dedication to get to that point. If I don’t like something I tend to think about why. Am I missing the point? Is it that I just don’t relate to any of the characters? For so much time and energy to be put into something, the creators must have believed in the product and I always give myself some space to think about what that might be. Granted, with some comics it is harder to figure out than others…!
I must admit that I am not a huge fan of the classic superhero franchises. I, like most people, did go through a phase early on of reading some – I collected a few volumes of the Ultimate X Men – but I struggled with the sheer amount of alternative storylines and unimaginative characterisation. I totally understand why many people still invest in them as going back to familiar characters can feel like popping on a pair of comfy slippers, but as my interest in graphic novels has developed I have found myself craving more challenging and diverse work.
Which authors or artists do you have a soft spot for?
I have already mentioned a couple of artists I have a particular penchant for, but there are others that I really admire too:
Cliff Chiang for his work on Papergirls
Jon Davis-Hunt for his work on Clean Room
Davie Gibbons for Watchmen and a billion other things
I say I have a soft spot for these illustrators but I also kind of hate them for being so talented and not leaving some talent lying around for me to pick up. Greedy bastards.
Are there any comics that you feel are over or under-rated?
I tend to be a bit wary of championing or belittling anything, as taste is such a subjective thing. I would hate to think I had put someone off reading a comic just because I didn’t personally enjoy it. However, as you are asking, I was surprised by the downturn in favourable opinion of Rat Queens as it went on. I loved every volume, and it has been one of the few series that has made me laugh out loud. Also, I know it is not under-rated as such, but I would literally make everyone read Saga if I could. The story has taken me on a rollercoaster of emotions, and the end of volume 7 left me feeling bereft. It is the first time in a while I have had such an emotional response to a comic. Read it.
If someone had just started reading comics – what would you recommend to them (and why)?
Well, firstly don’t start with Watchmen as I did! Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading it at the time, looking back I think I would have taken so much more from it had I known a bit more about the genre and the history of the superhero format. When I am asked to recommend something at work which happens quite frequently, I do tend to stick to series that aren’t too “out there” in terms of violence or gore. I would recommend having a look at the stock in a library or comic shop and seeing what speaks to you. Have a browse, take your time and enjoy the journey you’re about to begin.
Why do you love libraries?
How long have you got?! I’m going to bullet point so that I don’t write fifteen pages on the subject:
- A safe, neutral, relaxed space for people to hang out
- Awesome activities for kids and adults with the majority for free
- Really attractive staff
- Meeting people from all walks of life and some right characters
What’s your library like?
My library is near St. Paul’s so we are surrounded by big corporate businesses (and a Hawaiian themed cocktail bar next door which keeps things interesting). It is housed in the basement of one of the Deloitte buildings, so what we lack in natural sunlight and sources of Vitamin D, we make up for in amazing collections of books, CDs and DVDs. We even have a coffee machine and I can personally vouch for the deliciousness of the hot chocolate. Generally customers see us as a “sanctuary” away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city outside, and we are more than happy to be that little escape everyone needs now and again.
How did you get started working in Libraries?
The answer to that is – accidentally. With a degree in Media Communications studies under my belt I was all set for a career in advertising. Whilst I got myself sorted and thought about the next stage in life, I took a part-time library assistant job in Shrewsbury Library (that’s in Shropshire which is in the midlands- NOT “the North”). Library work was not what I had imagined. Much more than just shushing people and stamping books, I found myself being challenged and developed in a role which changed from nanny to social worker to confidante to debt collector to book worm to manager all in the space of an hour! It lead to a complete shift in my outlook and vision of the future. I wanted to continue working in a service that visibly affected people’s lives for the better, rather than going into a soulless organisation designed to promote materialistic ideas to those who are already bombarded with enough information as it is. So a decade later I may have climbed the career ladder and changed location, but the main drive and motivation behind my work remains the same.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is the variety it offers on a daily basis. No two customers are the same, and I have so many different responsibilities that I am very rarely doing the same thing for more than half an hour. Now, having worked in libraries for so long, I could never see myself sat in front of a computer all day. As I have taken on more responsibility, I have been given a lot more autonomy too. Thought of a great idea for an event? Let’s do it. Dreamt up a brilliant social media campaign? Make it happen. Want to start up a totally awesome amazing comic forum? Well funny you should mention that…
Tell us a little bit about the Shoe Lane Comic Forum. How long has it been going for? What does a typical session involve? That kinda thing…
So in comparison to the granddaddy of City comic forums – Barbican Comic Forum – the Shoe Lane Forum is in its infancy. It all kicked off in June of this year following the library’s refurbishment, and it takes place on the first Tuesday of every month, 5:30pm-7pm. The premise is that anyone who has even the slightest interest in comics can come along, sit in our new comfy chairs, eat biscuits and chat about what they have read recently. I also prepare a question of the month, so for example in the past we have talked about which comics we feel should (or should not) be made into films, whether a comic can truly be “scary” and the most hard hitting of topics – which superhero would you like to go on a date with. It’s always good fun, and the people who attend are fascinating with lots to say. The hour and a bit zooms by scarily quickly and before you know it, it’s time to pop to the pub to carry on the chat.
If you are interested in finding out more about the forum, be sure to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.