RTE’s Rick O’Shea has been a prolific figure in bringing Literature to the public via the media, whether it be poetry, novels, or, as I found out when I spoke to him, Graphic Novels/Comic Books. I spoke to him as part of my ‘Layman’s Introduction to comic book’ series. You can listen to the audio and read the interview below.
Rick, you’ve been incredibly busy on the arts and literary scene here with your book club and your poetry show for example – what made you want to get so involved?
I never really wanted to ‘get involved’, it was more an element of reading is always something I’ve been passionate about since I was a kid, I spent an inordinate amount of time reading, possibly more so than any normal kid. I mean I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid as well, and I hung around at my mates’, but when I was younger, particularly on family journeys up and down the country and when I was going on holidays sitting in the back reading a book.
“there’s never been a lapse period of my life where I wasn’t reading books.”
Obviously it was pre-digital age technology. That was the only thing you could do to occupy yourself shy of staring out the window. So, when I was a kid, I read everything from Famous Five books to Secret Seven books to The Hardy Boys to The Three Investigators, and then you get older and you start reading comic books, you get older than that and you start reading science fiction when I was probably about 10 or 11 when I started reading Arthur C. Clarke.
It just went from there to the point of that there’s never been a lapse period of my life where I wasn’t reading books. There are brief periods of time where you’re busy for a few weeks and you’ve got stuff going on, like recently I was moving house so I didn’t really read anything properly for about four weeks but other than that, it’s always been something I’ve done.
“it’s strange; the more stuff you do, in that world, the more stuff you get asked to do.”
Eventually I got around to the idea of writing brief reviews of stuff, I’m not a professional reviewer, and then people started paying attention and stuff started happening and I started reviewing stuff on arena over on radio 1 and people started reading the reviews on the blog; it kind of snowballed from there.
I started getting involved in literary events, I started being asked to do stuff connected to that, and then radio one came to me and said “we’re starting a new culture programme, we haven’t had one for years, would you be interested in presenting it?” and then I jumped in at the deep end of that so it’s strange; the more stuff you do, in that world, the more stuff you get asked to do.
Do you find that reviewing stuff makes reading a more rewarding experience?
I don’t think it makes reading more rewarding for me, no. However I am one of those people who, if I really like a book in particular, I’ll want to press it into the hands of as many people as possible, I will want to recommend it to everybody I know.
“I review everything I read, but in order to press the good stuff into the hands of people that I think might like it I have to review everything”
Obviously you can do that in a far broader sense when you do it online, now whether it’s through the blog or whether it’s through, you know the book club I run on Facebook these days. It’s got 1600 members in it, so it’s become one of those things. And there’s nothing more brilliant than having somebody come back to you a month or three months six months later and either they drop you a message on Facebook or they tweet you and go, “I read that book you recommended and you’re right, it’s the best thing I’ve come across, thanks so much,” and I get a huge buzz out of recommending books to people, and them enjoying them.
I suppose that’s why I review books, I don’t only review books that I like, I review everything I read, but in order to press the good stuff into the hands of people that I think might like it I have to review everything, so I don’t think it makes reading more rewarding for me but it’s something that’s enjoyable in itself.
Do you think Literature has suffered since the rise of other media?
Personally, I don’t have an answer to that; you’d have to talk to someone who’s done some proper quantitative research on it. However, I don’t necessarily think it has – I think that you will have an awful lot of people spending a lot more of their scrap time looking at stuff online, whether it’s reading short articles or whether it’s just Facebook updates.
“people read differently these days, because a lot of people read on kindles or they read on their tablets, but the overall level of people reading hasn’t suffered at all”
I mean if you look at something like travelling in and out of work on the dart, if you were doing that 15-20 years ago you would have a huge amount of people who would’ve been just listening to music or reading books. These days you a have a lot of people who are just simply scrolling through their phones on social media or doing whatever it is they’re doing.
There’s still a load of people reading books – If you talk to people who sell books, book sales haven’t suffered incredibly since the rise of instant digital media all around you all the time, people still want to read long form stories. So in terms of sales it hasn’t, people read differently these days, because a lot of people read on kindles or they read on their tablets, but the overall level of people reading hasn’t suffered at all.
You mentioned earlier you liked comic books, I just remember you gave a talk at DCU a couple of years ago, and I, missing the point of the thing entirely, zoomed in on you talking about your interest in comic books when you were young, what got you into them?
It was a combination of two things, it was every Saturday I used to go in with my grandparents into Easons on O’Connell street in Dublin, that was the standard Saturday thing, particularly up at my parents house, I went to town, I’d go into Easons, and occasionally I’d buy books, but a lot of the time I’d buy comics.
“we used to go down to Wexford all the time, so I’d end up stopping off in different towns and loads of them would have really old editions of The Human Fly comics from 1978. They’d probably been sitting there since 1978, but I grabbed everything and I read it”
So it started off with stuff like The Beano or The Dandy when I was a small kid, and you’d graduate into American comics, the Marvels and DCs, whatever small amount of them they had there. They used to be really readily available strangely in small corner shops when I was on holiday down the country and we used to go down to Wexford all the time, so I’d end up stopping off in different towns and loads of them would have really old editions of The Human Fly comics from 1978. They’d probably been sitting there since 1978, but I grabbed everything and I read it.
And then, once I reached a certain age, and I figured out that there were comic book stores in Dublin. In fact what happened was I was in town one Saturday in Easons, and I saw a guy wandering around with a bag with comic books in it that I’d never seen before from a place called The Twilight Zone which I didn’t know existed, so I said “listen, where’s that, what’s the story?” and he said “it’s down in the abbey mall on abbey street” which is now the epicurean food hall. This is probably around ’86, ’87.
“I used to order stuff on mail order from Forbidden Planet in the UK, again, pre-internet. Everything just snowballed from there.”
I eventually went down to the shop to go nosing around, and it was a proper fully dedicated comic book store and it’s where I bought my original editions of Watchmen, when it came out. It’s where I bought Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Eventually when I arrived, the guy that I’d met on the street was working behind the counter and said “yeah listen, we do that all the time, we wander around with comic books in bags so people ask us where it’s from, it’s like a form of advertising”.
And so I got started there and then Forbidden Planet came to Dublin and then weirdly before they did that I used to order stuff on mail order from Forbidden Planet in the UK, again, pre-internet. Everything just snowballed from there.
“We’re all the same slightly nerdy left field, interested in our own thing people that we always were”
To be honest with you I don’t really read them pretty much at all these days, just the occasional graphic novel, I still have a ton of stuff that’s hung around from the time that I was in my late teens early twenties, but that’s how it all started for me.
So what’s it like then now, interacting with today’s comic book audience, are they into a range of different stuff or can you relate to them?
Ah yeah totally, they’re the same people, we’re all the same guys and girls who were into slightly niche, slightly weird, left field stuff. I think there’s a whole other group of people who are into specifically superheroes these days because superheroes dominate pop culture now whether its in movies or whether it’s TV shows.
But the type of people who are going into places like the big bang or forbidden planet and are still buying comic books, they’re still the same type of people that were going there ten years, fifteen years, twenty years ago. We’re all the same slightly nerdy left field, interested in our own thing people that we always were, no I think they’re pretty much the same group of people.
But have comic book fans now obsessed themselves with finding the ‘most alternative’ comic books to combat this whole ‘geek chic’ thing that came along or were they trying to make themselves ‘holier than thou’ versus the new blow-ins?
Ah yeah, I think every form of fandom has people like that where you have, you know, like hipsters with music, “well I was listening to this band before you ever heard of them”. Every single type of fandom has those sorts of people in them; I don’t think they make up the vast majority of the people who are in that kind of fandom.
“people are always striving to find the most left field obscure stuff, and it’s great so long as they don’t decide to hold it over your head and smack you with it.”
I think most people who were any kind of pop culture fan were pretty open about that kind of thing, but you know, every one of them has these people that are always striving to find the most left field obscure stuff, and it’s great so long as they don’t decide to hold it over your head and smack you with it. I’m always for digging up the most obscure, weird, strange left field stuff you can find.
Do you think this prevents people from getting interested?
No I don’t because it never stopped me. When I did it as a kid it was pretty much a solitary experience. I mean I had a couple of mates who read comics, but none of them who went into town and went to places like Forbidden Planet or The Twilight Zone, so when I was a kid, and again pre-internet days, so there weren’t websites, there weren’t message boards, there wasn’t any ability to meet other people that way; it was pretty much a solitary experience for me, just, I read comic books for the sake of enjoying the story, liking the comic books, liking the art and liking what people did.
Do you think people should consider comic books an art form? Are they legitimate enough to be revered in art galleries or schoolbooks alongside say the Da Vinci’s or the Picassos or do you think they’re just for entertainment?
No, well maybe I’m wrong. There are pieces of art from comic books that deserve to be in art galleries. Now they probably are, and all you’ve got to do is look at somebody like Roy Lichtenstein and you know, he was one of the most famous pop culture artists of the 20th century and he made a fortune out of parodying comic book art and of taking these giant panels. I love Lichtenstein’s stuff, I went to an exhibition of his in Chicago a couple of years ago and his stuff is fantastic.
“I absolutely think that some of them belong in the canon of great literature.”
And there are elements of comic book that are beautiful in themselves and they genuinely are. I absolutely think that some of them belong in the canon of great literature. I don’t think you will find a lot of people who will disagree with you if you look at the Watchmen, at the V For Vendettas, at the Gaiman Sandman, there are tons of either graphic novels that stand alone by themselves or of comic book things that belong within that genre. Look at arts people, there’s Mouse, if you want to take it out of comic books and specifically into graphic novels, or Persepolis. I think without question there are some that belong in great literature.
I’m not sure that you know, giant comic book panels deserve to hang in the Tate modern. Maybe there are though, again I go back to the Lichtenstein thing. I don’t know. Jury’s out on that one.
Do you think that they play an important social commentary role or cultural role?
Always, and I think these days particularly much more so then when I was growing up. They were superhero comic books, those were the only ones that existed, so the only ones that you could read were marvel’s, DC’s Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Avengers, whatever.
I think these days the nature of the comic book has grown exponentially and now covers absolutely everything so you can very easily find huge amounts of graphic novels or comic books that cover areas of social commentary that deal with areas of historical problems, and even as I mentioned, Mouse, who deals with the holocaust, or Persepolis which is all about living in Iran. I think without question that comic books deal with every possible aspect of modern social commentary; it just depends on where you find them and what you’re looking for.
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