I'm in front of a measurable percentage of the population of Reykjavik, who have greeted me with rapturous applause following what I presume was an effusive introduction. And I can't think of one damn thing to say. This always happens to me when I do a talk and there's applause. That's it. I'm doomed.
Within moments, the laughter is nervous and uncertain. Out there on the stage, I'm attempting to start a religion. This is possibly a mistake. Personally, I think I'd run a bloody good religion. But the Icelandic, particularly the young Icelandic, have an odd relationship with religion. I've met several people who've had a teenage confrontation with religion, like many people across the world. But only in Iceland do they resolve this teenage clash with old belief systems by joining the priesthood, or the Moonies. (Otto, who was a journalist last time I met him, is now in the equivalent of divinity college. Doesn't seem to have impacted his ingestion of tobacco, beer and probably women and horses.)
With luck, I remember the title of the talk I'm supposed to be giving: Comics In The 20th Century. I believe this was the inspiration of the intrepid Petur. A minute later, I've sketched out a way to save the comics industry. Turn the reading of comics into a religious act. Turn the medium into a religion. Think of the tax breaks. Wouldn't your local comics store be more interesting if it were turned into a church? You could get put on charitable status just for self-publishing.
This has a certain appeal. I would be God of my own sect within the religion of comics. I'd never be rewritten again. Imagine the argument with the editor: "Okay. You intend to fuck with the work. I've got thirty thousand people outside who a) think I'm God and b) know where you live. Keep fucking around. I'm looking forward to it. Go on. Fuck with God."
I always let these things collapse into question-and-answer sessions within ten minutes or so. As a rule, people know what they want to hear from me better than I know what they want to hear. Q&A always goes well in countries existing outside the America-England mainstream. And you don't get much further outside the mainstream than Iceland.
Until very recently, there was only one comics store in the whole damn country. It's owned by Gisli, who is one of the nicest people anywhere on Earth., but things didn't start happening, everyone in Reykjavik agrees, until Petur Yngvi Yamagata became manager of the Nexus-VI store. Petur is something of an evangelist -- that strange religious bent again -- for the comics medium. Which, in a country that didn't get much more in the way of comics than Donald Duck (and people in Europe who've met or heard me know exactly how I feel about Donald Duck), is an appropriately Biblical task. My visit last year was a useful lever for Petur to use on the Icelandic culture. It went incredibly well, after all. In the single signing session, he sold a hundred copies of the first TRANSMET trade paperback. At least half of them sold to people who'd never been in the store before, and who'd never bought a comic before. And they came back. They'd never seen a comic aimed at an adult readership before, and they came back for me.
I know it's all relative, but, when they announced to me today that TRANSMET is the best selling comic in Iceland, I couldn't help but smile. Yeah, I know there's only two hundred and fifty thousand of them and sad old Seventies and Eighties pop bands have historically kept their egos up by saying they're "big in Iceland" (before going off to do a 358-date tour of the Geysir region with an A-Ha tribute band)... but I don't care.
Iceland fascinates me because it's a microcosm of how we'd like the medium to be. Only the good stuff sells, in general. When I go there -- and it wouldn't be different for any other comics creator -- I get big coverage in the major newspapers (Iceland supports five, I think) and magazines, do the television and the radio (where I am heard rambling about porn stars spotted on trips to California). This time, I did a big talk in a large auditorium, and then a smaller, more intimate session in a downtown bar, the Kaffi Thomsen. Where a waitress brings me whiskey as I talk. Glorious. The talks I do there are attended by writers, musicians and artists as well as fans and people interested in the medium. Hell, the first time I went, the posters advertising my imminent manifestation were covered in quotes about me by Icelandic pop stars. Creepily, I sometimes get recognised in the street there. In the year between my visits, Icelandic bookstores are now handling graphic novels. A second comics store has opened up, in the north of the country. There was talk of some "book club" application to comics that was being started up, the gist of which I forget. The people I met there were... normal. The women-to-men ratio is much different from the Western comics norm, and they're all educated and culturally aware and engaged in life outside the medium.
Iceland is growing a mature comics culture, from scratch.
This goes out with thanks to, Petur and Gudbjorg, Gisli, Ingbjorg, Bette, "Daybreak" and the international hobo. I know I've missed people. I was probably drunk. Sorry. And no, I can't make my keyboard do Icelandic characters. I'll buy you some of the awful bloody Viking Beer next time and we'll call it even.
And here I am in real time. Next week: something completely different.
INSTRUCTIONS: Read The Soft Machine by William Burroughs (1961), listen to Back To Basics by Billy Bragg (Cooking Vinyl, 1993), and hit Bill Hicks' unauthorised-due-to-being-dead archive website at http://www.billhicks.com. Today's recommended graphic novel is THE ADVENTURES OF LUTHER ARKWRIGHT by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse 1997). Now begone.