Stephen L Holland has been announced as the new UK Comics Laureate, at LICAF Live, following on from Dave Gibbins, Charlie Adlard and Hannah Berry.
Stephen L. Holland is the co-owner and curator of Nottinghgam's Page 45, the finest English-language comic book shop in the world. The announcement was made as part of the opening event of this year's online event, LICAF Live, running from the 15th to the 17th of October, an online version of the annual Lakes International Comics Art Festival in Kendal replacing the usual physical Festival in Kendal due to the Coronavirus Pandemic and resulting restrictions on mass gatherings.
The Comics Laureate, a role initiated by LICAF and supported by Lancaster University, is an ambassadorial and educational role for the comic genre and aims to raise awareness of the impact comics can have in terms of increasing literacy and creativity. The appointment is made biennially to a distinguished comics creator, writer or artist in recognition of their outstanding achievement in the genre. This is the first time it has gone to a comic book store owner instead. Working closely with the Lakes International Comics Art Festival and Lancaster University, the Comics Laureate champions the role of comics in improving literacy through a programme of educational visits, workshop events, guest appearances and conferences. A key focus will be working to increase the acceptance of comics as a creative art form in schools, libraries and throughout the education system. The current holder of the position, Hannah Berry, also instituted a comic book teaching programme into prisons.
Holland stated "As soon as I take up my tenure as Comics Laureate, I want to start making a direct, quantifiable difference to this country's knowledge about comics by showcasing the true quality and diversity of graphic novels available from all over the world, as well as exploring how they work. My fervent hope is that this will galvanise more people to begin investigating, reading and relishing graphic novels, and inspire yet more individuals – from the broadest possible backgrounds and with an even wider range of perspectives – to start creating them. We can never have enough new voices in comics! Never! I want to get straight into schools and start spreading the word in order to generate a renewed love of reading for pleasure, and empower young minds with the knowledge that they can create for themselves. Wherever I roam – in schools and elsewhere – I want to surprise, as we explore together what the comics medium actually is, where it has appeared, what it can do and how it can do it, while emphasising the limitless breadth of subject matter that comics can cover. This is the most massive honour of my lifetime – one entirely unexpected – and I'm so very, very charged up about it. If I didn't care, I wouldn't be worried, but I've been given this golden opportunity to replicate everything I've done for 30 years at Page 45 in Nottingham nationwide! To show everyone in this country who'll look and listen the true diversity of this medium we all love, and promote its most individualistic voices! Because here's the thing: comics is a visual medium. You can't tell the public that they must start reading comics! You have to show them this medium's full, diverse and fascinating glories – which they won't be expecting – and so tantalise them into exploring graphic novels for themselves!"
Stephen has taught comics as an inspirational medium in full-day five-lesson sessions at the likes of Queen Elizabeth School in Cumbria and Arnold Hill Academy in Nottingham. Stephen's first appearance, thanks to its Learning Resource Centre manager Rowena Singleton and LICAF's Hester Harrington has already been arranged for Monday 26th April 2021, at the Abraham Moss Community School in North Manchester.
Julie Tait, Director, The Lakes International Comic Art Festival said: "We're delighted Stephen accepted the role of Comics Laureate and we're confident he will build on the work of previous incumbents in the role – Charlie Adlard, Hannah Berry and Dave Gibbons. The Comics Laureate has been and continues to be a vital role for the comics art form. It isn't just a title; it's part and parcel of our wider objectives as a Festival, to reach out to new audiences and raise the profile and the understanding of the importance of comics for education, inspiration and literacy. We're delighted that the Lakes International Comics Art Festival can play a role in co-ordinating the Comics Laureate programme, and Stephen's appointment as the new Laureate."
There is, of course, as this is LICAF, some controversy. Although Holland has edited comics collections before, this is also the first time a retailer, rather than someone whose principle work is making comic books, has taken the role. Some comparing it to giving the Poet Laureate position to a bookseller rather than a poet. Their own website states "The Comics Laureate appointment is made biennially to a distinguished comics creator, writer or artist in recognition of their outstanding achievement in the genre" and, for all his achievements and qualifications, that is not Holland. Comics artist Dan McDaid summed up the feelings of many, tweeting "I'd only honestly have been less f-cked off if they'd made Rich Johnston the comics laureate. At least that bastard has ACTUALLY MADE A COMIC."
And Holland is also known for being rather outspoken on all manner of issues, overtly snarky and critical, often on a personal level, being unapologetic when confronted with this. A few readers may recall #PrettyGate from 2016 with Holland's review of a comics stating, twice, that "You can't go round publishing books just because the author is pretty." He repeatedly defended Cerebus creator Dave Sim over accusations of misogyny, stating that he has "nothing but contempt for those ignorant and illiterate few who have caused such a disproportionate stir/tsunami amounting to character assassination over the last fifteen years." And Holland is already a patron of LICAF, the body that makes the Laureate Award – while five years ago he suggested that the British Comics Awards was biased for a shortlist that included the then-girlfriend of the Awards' director.
On Twitter, Holland writes "For years I've been frustrated by the misrepresentation of our shared, beloved medium in the media. The Comics Laureate is the opportunity of a lifetime to take what Page 45 has done, and roll the message out NATIONWIDE. "I want to show the world what comics REALLY are."
Aside from online criticism, often from people just discovering that the Comics Laureate exists, there has been support from the likes of comcis creator Sarah MacIntyre saying "I'm so pleased with the choice! I've listened in at LICAF while Stephen has led comic book 'tours' and he knows SO MUCH about the comics and talks about them in such an engaging way. He's going to be brilliant at introducing comics to a wider audience… A lot of decisions I make in books are kind of intuitive or subconscious, and it's incredibly helpful when Stephen Holland spots things and articulates them. It means I might be able to do those things more consciously in future projects. His feedback is so, so valuable."
The outgoing Comics Laureate Hannah Berry put together this invaluable survey, a reesource of comic book creators working in the UK. funded by the Award. The challenge for Stephen is to match it…