Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Page 45 Interview - Selling comics to the real mainstream

Page 45 is a comic book store located in the heart of urban Nottingham in England’s East Midlands. They sell comics, but you wouldn’t know it looking at their tastefully decorated store front. With little more than framed art and collages hung in the window, you’d be hard pressed to make any value judgements on what they sell before stepping through the front door.

Upon entering the store you’re confronted by a large display of weighty, artfully designed books. The shop has a laid back atmosphere that puts you in mind of a smaller, more welcoming Waterstones or Borders, but it’s not until you pick up a book and begin to peruse its pages that you realise you’ve just set foot in a comics store. But you’re not interested in comics… or are you?

During their 15 year stint in the business, Page 45 have developed a unique approach to selling comics. Setting out with the express purpose of bringing quality comics to ‘the real mainstream’, they’ve steered well clear of the traditional bread and butter of comics stores, making a conscious effort to diversify their trade away from superhero comics, plastic paraphernalia and the niche market stigma that comes with it. Some said they were mad. Some predicted they’d last little more than a year, but by championing genuinely intelligent and thought provoking comics, Page 45 have succeeded in breaking down people's pre-conceptions of what comics can be, and have in turn succeeded in bringing the medium to a far wider audience.

More to the point, they’ve developed a business model that most comic book retailers should be following if they want to outlast the current economic downturn and the ever changing state of the direct market. If local comic books stores are to survive the rise of online giants like Amazon, as well as the emerging move towards digital publishing, they could do far worse than to look to Page 45 for inspiration. With their 15th Anniversary just around the corner and the store achieving record sales, I spoke to Stephen Holland, Tom Rosin and Jonathan Rigby about comics, communities and ‘the real mainstream’.

Exquisite Things: Page 45 was founded in 1994 and has gone from strength to strength since you first opened your doors. What inspired you to open Page 45 in the first place?

Stephen: Panic.

It was an act of sheer desperation. Mark and I were working for a comic book chain that we knew full well was broken and about to go under at any second. So we asked each other, what else could we do?

Mark, of course, was the most magnificent artist whose three-dimensional creations in Page 45's windows went on to become one of Nottingham's chief tourist attractions, so he could have deserted the comic book scene completely and made a very profitable career for himself as an installation artist, in theatre, or as a set designer for many of the bands he admired; but he cared about comics so deeply that there was no question for him that he'd continue to harness his skills to the benefit of his favourite creators like Jim Woodring and Larry Marder. Whereas my only skills involve sticky-back plastic, and the ability to execute trick-shots in croquet with a glass of white wine in the one hand and three smoking fags in the other. So what am I going to do except sell comics?

Exquisite Things: But there must have been a defining moment that made you think ‘this is what I want to do’?

Stephen: Yeah, okay - it wasn't quite as haphazard as all that.

In 1993 Mark and I organised the Aardvarks Over UK Tour. Dave Sim and Gerhard traveled the British Isles from Aberdeen to London on a 14-day, 9-stop tour to promote their 6,000 page magnum opus CEREBUS. The sheer scale of this endeavour and its subsequent success for a quality comic book not widely embraced by other retailers gave us the slightest inkling that we were more than capable in terms of professional acumen. It also turned us onto the fact that there was a massive untapped market out there for quality comic book fiction.

But in a way, of far more importance to Mark and myself, was our early success with EXIT by Nabiel Kanan. EXIT was straight fiction about teenagers growing up in England. Just the sort of thing you watch on BBC1, BBC2 or Channel 4.That sort of subject matter is a goldmine in Europe where comics never suffered the UK/US dependence on superheroics, and where graphic novels are therefore invariably amongst the countries' best-selling books each year. We sold over 200 copies of Nabiel's EXIT #1, beating the shit out of Jim Lee's mega-launch of X-MEN #1 with its five or six greedy variant covers.

So what actually happened is this: after our Nottingham CEREBUS gig, which had both Nabiel Kanan and Paul Grist co-signing, Dave Sim and Gerhard got us both stoned and drunk, and told us that we could do a much better job if Mark and I opened up our own shop. On our own terms, with our own budget, our own aesthetics, and our own bias towards what I've since coined as "real mainstream" material: pure comicbook fiction, politics and autobiography by the likes of Posy Simmonds, Eddie Campbell, Bryan Talbot, Kyle Baker, Los Bros Hernandez, David Mazzucchelli, Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Jeffrey Brown and John Porcellino & co.

Who knew that the more experimental works of Tanya Milkkitten, Paul Pope, Tom Gauld, Simone Lia and Jeremy Dennis would match those sales so quickly? We certainly didn't. In fact they sell so well we no longer regard them as experimental. I mean, who would have guessed that Bryan Lee O'Malley's SCOTT PILGRIM volume 5 would be our fastest-ever seller?

But even back then we'd been galvanised, plus I had already started mouthing off in public about ethical retailing unshackling itself from the dead-end of corporate comics, so we put our money where our mouths were.

Tom: It was amazing how Mark and Stephen had an effect on the comics scene, even back in Fantastic Store when they were starting out. I remember the first time I went down into the basement of what was then a Virgin Megastore and tried to buy an issue of Sam Keith's THE MAXX, only this feisty young man with amazing hair suggested that perhaps it wasn't really suitable for someone of my tender age. I was eleven but may have looked much younger as I was beyond weedy. Instead I ended up with an absolutely dire issue of Spider-Man and Marvel Holiday Special '93 as my mum rushed me out the store. It put me off spandex for the entirety of my teens. If only I knew who that young man with the amazing hair was, as the decisions made on that day pushed me into manga as an alternative to hokey spandex. Later I found Andi Watson's GEISHA, due largely to Mark's massive display. That and Nabiel's LOST GIRL reaffirmed my faith in western comics.

By that point I was working next door for Another World, a very frustrated fish in a toxic bucket. In contrast to that first-hand experience at how not to sell comics, what Page 45 were doing was like comics-retailing nirvana. It still is compared to those sci-fi/game stores. What amazed me was the control they had. They were informed because they had control over what they were stocking, unlike me at the time. That was my "this is what I want to do" epiphany. My goal was to work for a comic shop like that.

I'm pretty sure I got their attention.

Stephen: Do you think...?

Even when Tom was working for Another World, he was constantly overheard in Page 45 during his own lunch breaks, bringing in customers to promote our books. Books he was never allowed to stock himself, but which he loved with a passion. He's got a gentle eloquence about him - and it's a key still in this industry, being able to whip off half a dozen recommendations personally tailored to an individual's tastes - so we spotted him a mile off.

So yeah, Tom arrived with a passion and a fully fledged eye of his own, but then absorbed everything from Mark that made Mark the undisputed John Peel of Comics. God knows what that makes Tom, apart from indispensible. John Peel Jr.? It was actually Tom who spotted Bryan Lee O'Malley here before Mark or myself, and before he was even published. Also Theo Ellsworth, Lucy Knisley, Mariko and Jillan Tamaki. Thanks to Tom, Lizz Lunney sales are beginning to go through the roof, just as Tanya Milkkitten's have always been under Mark's support, and we have as high hopes here for Adam Cadwell as we've always had for Marc Ellerby. On top of that Tom is, to my mind, the foremost authority on quality manga, introducing our customers to the likes of Inio Asano, Naoki Urusawa, and Ai Yazawa.

Tom: CoughMoominsCough.

Stephen: Yep, sorry, Moomins too. Tom has well and truly made the Moomin books monumental sellers here. Oh and that Minty lady. Minty...?

Tom: Lewis.

Stephen: Yeah, she's good! I'm really buzzing off her stuff at the moment. Porcellino's also a fan.

Exquisite Things: Page 45 is striking for its differences. The shop bears very little resemblance to the average comic book store. From the outward facing image of the store, right through to the way you rack your books, Page 45 is unique in how it presents itself. As you say, your window displays are always a talking point, with their intricate cardboard constructions and scattered autumn leaves...

Stephen: Leaves are a big thing at Page 45. You might have noticed from our logo. Lift us with leaves and we'll love you forever. LOCAL has a load of leaves on the cover, and as a direct consequence was our biggest selling graphic novel last year. You wait until you see Rob Ryan's THIS IS FOR YOU!

Exquisite Things: So, nothing about your exterior screams ‘we sell comics’ unless you happen to be familiar with the art or characters on display. Instead of alienating half your potential customer base before they’ve even set foot in the shop, you’re inviting them in with strong, thought provoking imagery.

Stephen: Exactly! It's a risky strategy when it comes to alerting current comic book readers that you sell comics, some of whom only find us later, but we cannot expect this medium to thrive in the US and UK, as it does in Europe and Japan, by relying on the current customer base which is less than 0.5% of the population, 0.5% of which are women.

Our window displays are designed to lure new people in by mistake, and it works. That was always Mark's conscious goal: to lure new people in with his his magnificent window displays, a tradition we've continued with a little help from our more creative friends.

If you don't currently read comics, and you hold the stigmatic preconception towards them that the 'real mainstream' understandably does, then until they encounter what we stock instead, they're just going to think, "Comics: I don't read them, so I don't need to go inside". That's why we never pop physical comic books in the window, instead we have hand-crafted artifacts inspired by them. Just like we don't have the word "comics" in our name.

We're still asked by newcomers on a daily basis, "Why are you called Page 45?" It's very gratifying since the precise reason we called ourselves Page 45 was to provoke Joe Public into asking why. If you ask us, then you've already asked yourself, if you've asked yourself, you've already remembered our name. Scott McCloud called it "style positive, content neutral". And given that we'd actually named Page 45 after the 45th page of Scott McCloud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS, well, we'll take that accolade and run.

You have to go out and grab The 'real mainstream', and in particular women. With 99.5% of the population to go, there's plenty to play for. Just three days ago I was idling outside with a ciggie and this 60-year-old gentleman stopped to read the only window display I've ever created. It's a Posy Simmonds TAMARA DREWE affair (pun intended) using pages enlarged from the book to provide a slightly misleading summary of the story.

I followed him in after ditching my smoke, pointed him in the direction of Posy, and the gentleman had a really good browse before asking me if we have any "classic" Japanese comics as he was heavily into the country's prose output. So I showed him Tezuka, specifically the eight BUDDHA books which our Jonathan adores, and Hayao Miyazaki's only comic series NAUSICAA, plus AKIRA and BAREFOOT GEN. Turns out the guy was a practising Buddhist and a lot of the Japanese authors he'd read had referred to BAREFOOT GEN without him understanding exactly what it was. A BUDDHA and a BAREFOOT later, I'm completely convinced we have a new comics convert.

Exquisite Things: That's just great, and I suppose it's where the real difference lies in your approach to selling comics. So, following on from that could you tell me more about the way you’ve chosen to present the shop and the underlying principles behind those decisions?

Stephen: Sure. Superheroes are at the back so they don't put off the women; everything with a spine is at the front so it looks like a book shop, except for the superhero books. We do love some of the more modern superhero writers like Bendis, Ellis and Millar, but that genre sells itself and has had quite enough publicity in the US/UK comic book industry, so that's probably the last you'll hear about them in this interview.

We stole the whole thing from Waterstone's fifteen years ago, right down to having the big book plinth front-centre, so that books are stacked up on top of it just like you'd see in a book shop. The principal is very simple indeed: lure people in by deceit, keep them comfortable by giving them surroundings they're familiar with, then make yourself available to answer questions.

Exquisite Things: Much like yourselves, I firmly believe that comics have the potential to appeal to anyone, and with the sheer breadth of material available these days, I think it’s simply a case of exposing people to something that will speak to their interests. How do you approach someone who’s completely new to comics? In your experience, are there any particular titles that emerge as clear winners when introducing people to the medium?

Jonathan: Well, we certainly all have books in our mind that we will always recommend to people completely new to comics. We do our best to established what genres they might be interested in based on their prose, television, film and even music tastes, and we have a few of those graphic novels up on shelving behind the counter with an 'Always Recommended' sign just to prompt people if they're a bit shy about asking us.

Similarly, it's an approach we'll be duplicating on our website. We'll have an 'Always Recommended' section where we'll duplicate those titles, and for those just browsing by category, those books will be indicated by little icons. Also on the website front page we'll be asking people 'Would You Like A Recommendation?' which will be informed either by what comics they've previously enjoyed or, as mentioned, their tastes in other media.

Stephen: It can be a little daunting for newcomers but the key is to understand that, then cater for it. So we make ourselves as approachable as possible without being too pushy. A gentle "Hello!" as each new person wanders in and, if we get the chance to make eye contact easily as they pass by the counter, "If you have any questions, just shout". It's a sort of "I'm here if you need me" whilst backing off to allow people to browse at their leisure and not feel harassed. 50% of the time there's an immediate response with an immediate question, so thank God we make the effort.

As Jonathan says, the Page 45 website will redress the information deficit. We've planned it so that visiting the website should feel as much as is humanly possibly as visiting the shop in person, with different entry levels depending on your existing knowledge. There'll even be a complete list and accompanying reviews of everything we've chosen as our Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month so far, but if you already know your stuff or you just want to explore on your own, you'll be able to search by title or creator through the 5,000 different titles we have in stock, or browse through the different genres at leisure. I'm busy editing all the reviews written by ourselves and even a few mad customers over the last fifteen years so that readers can absorb reliable, first-hand and hopefully entertaining testimony rather than having more corporate hype shoved up their ass.

Tom: I think we worked out the other day that between us we had 30 years of comic retailing experience. Now ten of those are mine, one of them belongs to Jonathan... So that means... Go Stephen! But that doesn't count all the previous years of just plain retail, which makes our collective experience two hundred and forty-six... Go Stephen!

Stephen: You can go off someone, can't you?

Exquisite Things: It would seem good old fashioned ‘bricks and mortar’ stores have had an awful lot to contend with in recent years. With online retailers like Amazon offering low prices and door to door delivery, it’s certainly changed the way people shop. As a direct result we’ve seen numerous independents disappear from our high streets, which are now beginning to look eerily homogenous. It’s a lamentable state of affairs...

Stephen: Use it or lose it. Seriously. If there's something you love, then use it. Otherwise expect a natural cause/effect interface resulting in one giant Starbucks and an otherwise empty city.

Exquisite Things: Exactly... and I'm eternally thankful that one thing Amazon can’t offer its customers is a sense of community, let alone years of accumulated knowledge and experience. You’ve clearly worked hard to create a unique identity for Page 45, as well as a friendly and welcoming space where people can congregate and share their enthusiasm for comics. Do you see Page 45 as a community unto itself, and how integral has this been to your success?

Stephen: Unlike Thatcher, I'm heavily into building and nurturing communities. If I haven't memorised your name and tastes within three visits, I'm definitely slacking and I will apologise. If you care enough to shop with us, we care enough to know who you are and what's happening in your life. I've had customers stay with me, customers live with me... You even went out for a pint with Tom the other night, right...?

Exquisite Things: Yeah, I gained an unhealthy addiction to Brew Dog beer and a long list of Japanese underground music.

Stephen: That's it... I mean, how many times have you been out for a pint with someone who served you earlier? There are no walls - or at least there shouldn't be. When you do comics right, it's where everyone meets: the customers, the creators and their works. We're merely the facilitators, but both the customers and the creators have always appreciated that at Page 45 at least this finally happens. We want to bring diversity to the masses, and to do so we stock the widest possible range of quality graphic novels and comics in every conceivable genre. Page 45 and its friends/customers are all on the same side: we want comics to succeed.

We wouldn't be here without the vocal support of creators like Talbot, Ellis and Sim. Nor would we be here without the equally ardent support of our customers who actually cared enough to get up off their arses and vote us the best retailer in the UK 2004, and turn up to Mark's family funeral in such stunning numbers that it was standing room only at the back, or to our 10th Anniversary Booze Bash whilst Mark was alive.

Page 45 is about humanity and individuality, whether it's creators having something fascinating to say about the world around them, or customers with their own take on what they love and why. It's all about caring, about giving a shit about your fellow human beings. It's about interacting. It is, as you say, all about fostering a love of community.

Jonathan: Going forward from the perspective of the website, we're hoping that customers will use the forums to discuss topics of interest with other customers. In my mind, I can almost picture conversations between certain customers who've never met each other but love the same creator or comic.

Stephen: You're thinking of Dan Barnes and his love of Joss Whedon aren't you? Or are you thinking about me and my thing for Brian Michael Bendis? Mark never approved of that.

Tom: Yes, well the things you would do to Brian in your love dungeon are illegal in 49 states.

Stephen: He is the only reason we ever appeared in a Marvel comic. Him and customer Chris Craven who wanted a girlfriend. If Marvel even noticed, I imagine they were furious. No, I think I'll just sit there waiting for other Jeremy Dennis fans to come along. Me, Jeremy and one more will make 3 IN A BED. We sold 100 copies of that graphic novel, so there has to be a deep well of other fans out there.

Tom: I think you have more of a chance with Bendis. Jeremy was married a few months back. And besides, didn't you want Tanya Milkkitten's hand in marrige? I still intend to duel you for that right, but do we really have to get up at dawn?

: Could you really get up at dawn...?

Tom: For those interested, submitting mini-comics may result in duels. You have been warned!

Exquisite Things: You also run a Comic Book of the Month Club, whereby subscribers get a book of your choosing every month. It's another thing that’s no doubt helped to build a sense of shared experience amongst readers. How hard is it picking a book every single month that will appeal to such a broad range of people?

Tom: Honestly, it's easy. We don't try to pick things on their potential mass appeal to customers, we only pick the comics that appeal to us. Any other way would be dishonest, and honesty is the best weapon against Amazon we have. We read hundreds of comics a month and then discuss amongst ourselves which we believe is the best and then order a terrifying amount in and hope our judgement is sound. I've loved everyone of the books I've chosen and the club's still going strong so, fingers crossed, I'm not alone there!

Stephen: Tom's right - the reason readers join is for us to choose the books for them. At a discount, obviously. But, to tell you the truth, sometimes I'm terrified that we might not suss out the right book. The trust that customers have placed in us brings with it a huge onus of responsibility. It's bad enough that writing every twice-monthly Page 45 Mailshot can feel like an end-of-term exam (Did I properly evaluate each graphic novel's strengths and/or weaknesses? Did we successfully search for the best new entries? Was I even remotely entertaining?), but this is on a completely new level.

On the other hand, it's a great way to spread interest in the diversity of this medium and often promote lesser known voices. The most reassuring accolade is that the project's catalyst, Simon Ghent, has loved all three years of it so far.

Exquisite Things: Speaking of picking good comics, lets imagine for a moment you were to be marooned on a desert island. What five comics would you take with you?

Tom: If I were on a desert Island I would most likely go mad with boredom, whatever I brought along.

Could I fashion Finder: Sin-Eater into a pulpy spear? Would I want to?And how long before I'm using THB 6d as toilet paper? Would I shed a tear when forced to stoke a puny fire of Tekkon Kinkreet in order to keep warm? Using emergency origami skills, might Kramers Ergot 4 serve as shelter until rescue arrives?Perhaps Love & Rockets vol II would make a nice hat though... Keep the sun off my face...

Jonathan: These aren't necessarily my five favourite comics of all time, but I think they are the ones that would help me survive on a desert island.

The Midnight Surfer by Wagner, Grant & Cam Kennedy - My absolute favourite ever 2000AD story featuring undoubtedly my favourite Mega-City character Marlon "Chopper" Shakespeare in his bid to win Supersurf 7 on his home turf in the Big Meg. There's just something about Chopper's absolute refusal to let anyone or anything, including the prospect of 20 years in the cubes, break his will to rise above the grind of Mega-City life and achieve what he believes to be his destiny that really moves me. I have probably read this story at least a hundred times, and I will never tire of reading it. Put simply it's a story about if you believing in yourself and your dreams, with the added bonus of two fingers to authority at the same time.

That Poor Bastard by Joe Matt - Simply to remind myself that no matter how bad my life might seem stuck on a desert island, there's someone out there who feels worse than I do and it's entirely self-inflicted. Still as funny as the first time I read it, pure comedy gold.

Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller & Mazzucchelli - This one really has it all. Probably about the point I realised what a complete genius Miller is, and also when I realised that with great writing even Marvel and DC characters could be immensely entertaining. Still the best ever DD for me, including anything by Bendis and Brubaker, that's how highly I rate Born Again. Basically it's all about how much can one man take. A single act of desperate betrayal allows the Kingpin to learn DD's secret identity, and after that the death of a thousand psychological cuts begins. Can Matt Murdoch survive? Yes, but not without totally and utterly losing the plot first.

From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell - For many reasons, but the sheer density and multi-layered attention to detail ensures this is a must have. There are so many little sequences that stand out and stick in the mind often requiring considerable analysis to work out exactly why, the passage through the tunnel on the barge being an example for me personally. A genuine masterpiece and a work of genius.

The Incal by Jodorowsky & Mœbius. Yes, yes, technically it's a three volume triology I know, but they're all fairly thin so you'll let me have this surely?!

Exquisite Things: Oh go on then...

It's the ultimate in sprawling meta-physical tarot inspired nonsense sci-fi, with the perfect non-ending. The perfect escapism with hidden depths for an enforced island sojourn.

Stephen: Eddie Campbell's ALEC OMNIBUS is a book whose entertainment value on a Dessert Island would far outlast my own resourcefulness there! It'll keep me laughing while I'm spitting out sand. Eddie Campbell is the medium's finest raconteur, and everything he does manages to bring life to the foreground and give it a little spin to make you think about your own. Strangely enough the copy I've packed away for the trip also has Eddie's FATE OF THE ARTIST selotaped to the back, and I can't seem to get it off.

Bryan Talbot's ALICE IN SUNDERLAND is an equal necessity. I love my history and I love my Alice In Wonderland, and I love the sheer craft, knowledge and wisdom that this guy brings to the medium. And, like Eddie, the humanity.

The complete works of CEREBUS at 6,000 pages long would certainly keep me going and give me much pause for thought. So many pages from JAKA'S STORY onwards are innovations worthy of Will Eisner, and glorious pieces of craftsmanship worthy of his landscape artist Gerhard, whom I'd rate right up there with Gustav Doré. I don't agree with everything that Dave has written, but few would agree with everything I've ever written - particularly when it comes to Duran Duran! They'd be wrong, mind.

On the other hand EXIT by Nabiel Kanan is the work I'm fondest of, partly because of what I mentioned above, but also because he nailed teenage uncertainty and Nabiel's lines on the page are just so fucking sexy.

Lastly it would have to be ASTERIOS POLYP by David Mazzucchelli. Largely because there'd be such an uproar if I told the truth and said it was Mark Millar's two seasons of THE ULTIMATES.

Exquisite Things: You’ve played host to a number of high profile signings over the years, including Bryan Talbot, Posy Simmonds and Eddie Campbell. Do you think it’s important to allow fans the opportunity to meet creators face to face?

Stephen: Yes, and preferably over a pint. That's what we've done for the last three or four years - try to introduce a more relaxed, interactive element by removing the counter between them. Removing that daunting pressure which is "You have 5 minutes to say everything you ever wanted to say to your favourite creator". It was Andi Watson who started the trend when we made LITTLE STAR the inaugural Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month and he offered to meet with our members over a drink. No signing, just his personal attention for several hours taking people through the creative process of his next few projects, and with readers swapping stories of what it was like being a Dad. When Eddie Campbell came over, he even kicked off with a 15-minute performance piece down the pub, in which he extemporised beautifully using a customer's son for perfect comedic timing.

It's also important for certain creators. Bryan Talbot is the most sociable and approachable guy imaginable. He spends so much time alone working hard in his study that he loves the opportunity to come over and chat directly to his readers. It was Bryan who suggested he co-sign with Posy Simmonds for the launch of TAMARA DREWE - and I don't think she's ever signed at a comic shop before. Gorgeous woman.

He liked what we'd done with cross-pollination whereby we get two or more creators together who have similar appeal but a different readership. In Bryan's case it's only since ALICE IN SUNDERLAND that he's become known outside of the comicbook field but Posy's been a household name for years, hence her MBE. Bryan and Posy know each other well so Bryan took care of that and it worked out beautifully.

The signing was announced in the Guardian newspaper which is where TAMARA DREWE and GEMMA BOVERY were originally serialised, and her liberal leftie, gratifyingly affluent readers turned up, whilst we promoted it in the world of comics so Talbot's regular readers who'd not even heard of Posy also appeared. And each bought the other's books for the unique opportunity of having them not only signed but sketched in for free.

We did the same for Hope Larson and her husband Bryan Lee O'Malley. Hope said it had been her most successful signing ever. Bryan said he'd never been asked to draw a gerbil before. That's the only time I've ever seen a pop-star queue full of squealing young ladies desperate to meet a comic book creator, or preferably Scott Pilgrim himself.

Exquisite Things: There have been numerous changes to the way Diamond does business, frequently to the detriment of smaller publishers and creators. As a store that seems to do its best to support lesser known creators, how do you feel about the current state of play?

Stephen: I used to be vociferously and quite vocally antipathetic towards Diamond when it was run by amateurs, and I probably still would be if I worked in America, but Diamond has a crew in the UK now who do actually care, and have raised the distributional standards dramatically to the extent that restocks of material outside of the confines of the superhero sandpit have become much more accessible. People like Mike Hollman and Chris Rice (who has always been a friend to comics), but also Liam at the warehouse and John Hitchen right at the top.

It's very easy for retailers to whine about things like price increases, but when the pound dropped below $1.50 it was almost inevitable that Diamond UK would have to raise their conversion rates. Yet they didn't. For months they persevered as the pound lingered around the $1.40 mark until finally hitting a nadir of $1.37 so then of course they announced a further increase... Only to rescind that increase before it even had chance to come into effect as the pound rallied.

I tell you, the screams and tantrums before that reprieve... And yet what choice did John have at $1.37? I sent an email in support of his decision to raise the rates, thanking him for having held off as long as he could, and I'm glad I did so because I later heard that some numptees were accusing Hitchen of trying to destroy the UK comics industry. Firstly, it's John's career so I really don't think so, plus I'd like to see those idiots who don't use other sources make a living from comics without an economically viable Diamond UK. It seems to me that a lot of comicbook retailers spend so much time in the la-la land of superheroes that they don't comprehend reality.

Having said all that, the international company's broader policy towards newcomer creators recently has been woefully short-sighted, and it seems their commitment to investing in the medium and therefore the industry has all but evaporated. They're raised the plateau of money they want to make from any individual product before they consider distributing it. That's understandable to a certain extent - their monthly catalogue is full of feckless, middle-of-the-road drivel that I'd swerve to run over in a second. Then I'd change gears and reverse over its bloodied corpse just to make sure it was dead. But there should be some mitigating judgement in that equation which evaluates artistic quality and potential. There should be someone on board like Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros who's good at discerning out finesse. Someone who says, "Okay, that comic doesn't meet our base sales requirement yet, but we see the potential or even our obligation to distribute it". There should be some fucking old-school patronage - a fostering love of the medium rather than their wholesale capitulation to corporate power.

And I don't see that happening. If I was high up in Diamond USA, I would want to be proud of what I could do for the medium and therefore the industry, instead of being a shameless and therefore shameful corporate collaborator who merely maintains the status quo, when any status quo is doomed to atrophy.

If Jeff Smith's BONE had been originally solicited under Diamond's current terms it would have been rejected, and as a direct result the whole series would almost certainly have been stillborn in its creative womb. Jeff Smith's BONE is now an international best seller. Millions of dollars are changing hands which Diamond could have a larger share of. But incidentally we have to use a different distributor to keep the colour versions of BONE in stock here.

Retailers are bombarded by Diamond on a daily basis with the most transparent, puerile claptrap which serves only to reinforce the current conformity which has historically strangled this medium and therefore industry in the US and UK for six decades. Why? Because Diamond USA are amateurs. Professionals would want to make more money, not less. I am a professional businessman, I do want to make more money, so to that end Page 45 has supported the medium in all its diversity for fifteen fucking years, and -- oh look, it's already paid off, with record sales in the middle of a recession, and the dividends can only grow bigger.

Exquisite Things: I know you had Tom Neely’s The Blot as comic book of the month last year, which isn’t a book you’d find in many UK comic shops. There’s a great deal of incredible work out there that simply bypasses Diamond’s distribution channels altogether. How do you keep up with self published material that crops up on the fringes of the comic book scene?

Stephen: Mark used to go out roving for new material like MILKKITTEN which he'd find at music festivals and which was an absolute sensation at Page 45, and Tom's about to do the same thing. In the meantime we both surf the web and search out the sites, and we're sent pages of new stuff all the time which is how we first discovered Gary Spencer Millidge's STRANGEHAVEN.

We'll look at everything so that, unlike most other retailers, being self-published doesn't diminish your chances of being stocked on our shelves, but we're no soft touch. Being self published gives you just as much chance as if you were part of the Vertigo brand. On the other hand, it doesn't give you an inherent right. We sell more copies of MILKKITTEN than we do of almost every DC comic for the simple reason that MILKKITTEN is genius, and we're proud to promote it.

Exquisite Things: Do you see the rise of digital distribution as a threat or an opportunity?

Jonathan: That's an interesting one because there's no doubt that digital distribution will probably be the only, never mind predominant format in the music medium before too long. Probably the same will be true also for computer and console games. And in the medium term (ten years or so) I don't doubt that better quality ebook readers will certainly capture a small but growing segment of the prose book market.

However, with respect to our industry it is very different and I think the area that highlights it best at the moment in some ways is manga. We get a lot of people who watch a particular anime but still want to purchase the manga as well and tell us they greatly prefer the books. It's one thing to replicate prose in a handy portable digital format, but artwork is another thing entirely. I think also that the publishers, with a mindful eye on the amount of file sharing that goes on in the music industry, are extremely reluctant to go down any sort of digital distribution route unless consumer preferences absolutely drive them to it, and I just can't see that happening for a very long time.

What will happen is more use of limited free digital distribution as a marketing tool. For example you can view an Adobe pdf file of the first issue of pretty much every Vertigo title at the DC site. DC know that more people are picking trades up rather than the single issues, that this is a trend that is only going to increase over time, and that they need to find other ways of ensuring people are aware of titles of interest to them in the future. It does generally appear that most publishers are exposing more interior content online for marketing purposes than they have previously.

Undoubtedly some people do read torrent files of material that are 'illegally' shared, but those people anecdotally still appear to be picking the trades up. Also I get the impression from chatting to people that often they are reading torrent files of titles they wouldn't have even bought in the first place, just out of mild 'continuity addiction', but it probably does serve to help stimulate their interest in the medium generally.

So I don't even see torrent files and the like being too much of a concern at the moment. Again, much like the music industry there is an argument to be made that they help generate interest in different material.

: Oh, it's great advertising for us, and I applaud it.

People love to have and to hold. They just do. It's a human thing: touch is a wonderful, warm sensation. The day I prefer to be curled up on my sofa with my plastic and metal computer than leaf through pages of exquisitely printed, textured paper book is the day I'll feel threatened.

Information is one thing - and it's a brilliant thing, as is accessibility - but craftsmanship is another. Wired Magazine interviewed me the other day, and I'm all for Longbox because it'll mean that exceptional comics like Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's PHONOGRAM will be accessible to all rather than just those lucky enough to have a local comic shop. But most people will want to own a real physical copy of the book as well. PHONOGRAM: THE SINGLES CLUB is so bloody good that you'll want to lend it to your mates too, to impress upon them how cool you were in discovering it first!

So if you're a comic shop that stocks comics like PHONOGRAM, you can only benefit from Longbox and all other online appearances. If you stock nothing other than superheroes then you've just been circumvented, and it serves you fucking right.

Exquisite Things: You recently made the transition to an ePOS system. How’s the new technology working out for you and what have been the immediate gains?

Jonathan: Fantastically well, and the quick answer is three man-days a week time saving now we don't have to do the weekly stock check and assemble our orders manually. Also having an internet connection on the shop floor and being to check release dates of forthcoming comics, and checking whether books we don't currently stock are in print or available for interested customers is proving extremely useful.

: Tell me about it!

I love the new system, and Jonathan's being typically modest in failing to mention that if it wasn't for him, none of it would have happened. None of it. You can forget the ePOS system and you can most certainly forget the forthcoming website. I remember visiting Comix Experience in San Francisco and Brian Hibbs extoling the virtues of what an ePOS system had just done for him. This was late 2007 when Page 45 was basically being run by Tom and myself single- handedly. I knew there was no way we were capable of investing the time and thought to source and then populate any sort of electronic till. Plus we would never have had the expertise nor, I concede, would Mark have.

And then along comes Jonathan towards the end of 2008 as my new business partner, and suddenly our future is as bright as it was under Mark. Jonathan may have only had a year's retail experience so far, but what he brings to the team is a complete revelation and revolution. He used to market bio-hazard suits. Big bucks, but he chucked it all in because of his hatred of corporate back-biting and his love of Page 45. He's like the technological version of Alan Moore or Chris Ware: he works everything out in advance, calculating what goes where, when and why, how this affects that and what must come next. He keeps chuckling about the next big thing after the website and hasn't even told me what it is!

I'm serious. He hasn't told me, and I'm his fucking business partner!

Exquisite Things: Where do you see Page 45 five years from now and what challenges do you expect to face on the journey?

Tom: Shit, that'll make the shop twenty! It's bad enough as a 15-year-old with its silly haircut, spending all its time on the internet and tweeting its mates. And if I smell weed wafting through its doors again, we're having words! Still, at least he's got decent comics.

Stephen: The challenges will be those that any independent retailer faces against the corporate giants and rapacious landlords in their collaborative quest for a High Street utterly devoid of individuality. Don't look to short-sighted local councils for help, either. But as Tom rightly identified, and our customers are so kind to testify, trustworthiness is going to be the key. A service you can't get elsewhere.

But at the risk of sounding conceited, the big challenge came fifteen years ago: launching a comic shop that flew in the face of almost every other store in the US/UK and getting the ground work in then when it counted the most, just like Josh did at Gosh! right opposite the British Museum in London. As Mark wrote five years ago, everyone thought we were doing it wrong, which is one of the reasons that we felt we were doing it right. COMICS INTERNATIONAL editor Dez Skinn said we were doomed to failure; and then later on he hired me. Dez Skinn told retailers to diversify into plastic toys; Mark and I told them to diversify into other genres of comics instead.

We're breaking records. How's that plastic doing for you, fellas?

Interview by Matthew Dick. Many thanks to Stephen, Tom and Jonathan at Page 45 for taking the time. For more information on Page 45 visit their website here or email page45@page45.com.

This Week's Comics

A quick selection of stand out titles arriving in comic stores this Thursday: (Wednesday if you’re in the USA):

PLUTO Vol. 5 by Naoki Urasawa

As reviewed below, this is damn fine stuff. I’m beginning to suspect some kind of paper based MSG subterfuge, developed by Japan’s top scientific minds to boost the sales of Pluto in the West. Compulsive reading, will leave you thirsty and wanting more.

TOM STRONG DELUXE EDITION BOOK 1 by Alan Moore & various artists.

Need an Alan Moore fix? How about this lavish hardcover edition of the first 12 issues of Tom Strong? Contributions by notable guest artists such as Al Gordon, Art Adams, Jerry Ordway, Dave Gibbons and Paul Chadwick.

WALKING DEAD #65 by Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard

Those zombies just keep on walking...