As you all know, comics community is very important to us here at Broken Frontier so we are always keen to put a spotlight on projects and initiatives that bring the medium to new audiences. Gabi Putnoki has been running the Graphic Novel Reading Room for nearly a year now, a pop-up comic event that allows readers to discover the draw of the form in a relaxed, informal atmosphere. I chat with Gabi today at BF about GNRR’s aims, being a comics cheerleader, and what the future holds for the Graphic Novel Reading Room…
ANDY OLIVER: Before we talk about the Graphic Novel Reading Room itself can you tell us a little bit about Gabi Putnoki and your entry point into comics?
GABI PUTNOKI: My name is Gabi Putnoki, I’ve been living in Sheffield for the last two years and before that I was in London for a very long time, but I’m originally from Budapest. I’ve not had a linear career path as such, I’m more of a generalist and so I’ve done many different things to follow my interests: I’ve worked as a nursery teacher, a martial arts instructor, I’ve had my own business, I’ve worked as a project manager and an event producer amongst other things.
Turns out I was always into comics, my mum kept all the books I used to read as a kid so I did find the beginnings of it all in Asterix comics, collections of funnies for kids that and several science fiction comics too. I even had a book about the facts of life and how babies are made in comics format!
Event images from Treehouse, Sheffield
In my London days I ended up at East London Comic Art Festival in 2015 where I picked up my first haul of what was to become the Graphic Novel Reading Room’s core collection: The Bad Doctor by Ian Williams, The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dyllon, For the Love of God, Marie! by Jade Sarson and it just went from there. I kept buying more and more.
I started lending out my comics to friends because I loved them so much and I thought more people should know about these kinds of books and found that they just didn’t. But that wasn’t very sustainable, I did lose some books in the process unfortunately.
Then the idea came as a culmination of experiences I loved: reading in the deck chairs at Hay Festival in the company of others, reading whole graphic novels in the Foyles bookshop’s upstairs café on Charing Cross Road and my eternal love for libraries (I wanted to be a librarian as a kid). I combined all these experiences with all my skills and GNRR was born.
AO: So, the obvious questions first – what is the Graphic Novel Reading Room in terms of a physical event? And what kind of spaces do you meet in?
PUTNOKI: The event is actually very simple on the surface of things. I find a suitable venue: usually a café with a private room, a community space or an actual reading room in a library, ideally with comfortable seating and some drinks and snacks. I take my collection of books and display them in a visually pleasing way (using my hand-crafted book stands made out of coat hangers!), people arrive as they please, browse the books, pick what they fancy, find a place to sit and they spend their time reading, having a cup of tea or a glass of something stronger.
I’ve designed the experience so that all the senses are subtly stimulated: quiet music is playing in the background, I light a smelly candle, then there’s obviously the books as objects to touch and to look at and the venues generally provide for the tastebuds. I’m aiming to provide a space where people can just be, on their own if they like, where they can properly unwind. But they don’t necessarily have to do this on their own, they are in the company of others and there’s always the option of gently socialising. I basically designed the ideal space for myself that I thrive to be in, sociable, soothing but without overstimulation.
AO: How would you describe the aims of the GNRR in terms of promoting the medium and those who work in it? Are you also looking to bring comics to audiences unfamiliar with them?
PUTNOKI: So I have three general aims with the events:
- To introduce new people to graphic novels and give access to a wider range of comics for those who are already familiar with them
- To create a peaceful space where people can properly unwind
- To create connections with artists, publishers, festivals, indie bookshops, etc., so everybody benefits
This last aim is especially important to me. After going to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in 2021 equipped mainly just with the idea of GNRR I meet some of the artists and experienced the supportive nature of the UK comics community, all thanks to meeting my ‘comics mum’ Lucy Sullivan, who took me under her wings and championed my idea.
I don’t really have any comics-specific professional skills like being able to draw or edit, so I’m using my organisational skills to support the community. I see myself as a cheerleader for the medium and everyone in it, keen to support up-and-coming artists and publishers and to connect them with readers.
I’m building lots of local connections in Sheffield too so that we can work in collaboration. I’ve got good relationships with local indie bookshops, venues and the Central Library. I feel passionate about being able to give something positive to people and this seems to be my way of doing just that, I seem to have found my purpose in this project.
AO: Are there any other community-based objectives behind the project? For example, are you looking to potentially bring people together in a shared love of the form? Or conversely are you trying to create a quieter space for people to discover the medium on a more personal level?
PUTNOKI: So far it’s been more of the latter, creating a quieter space for people to discover the medium on their own terms. But the community-creation is also happening organically, the events already have a small but very loyal fan base in Sheffield and a bunch of people are interested and following the project online. I like people, I’m really interested in different people’s internal experiences – and this is one of the great things I get from reading graphic novels – and I love connecting people and being connected so I guess the community-building comes out of this vibe naturally.
GNRR will have its first birthday in November 2022, I’ll be running an event as part of the Thought Bubble ComicCon’s Festival Week at this lovely board game venue in Sheffield called the Treehouse. This will be the first event where I’ll be adding more layers to the experience of reading – but only as an optional extra. I’m planning a talk of some sort (about comics in general, maybe with an artist too) and would also like to run a session something along the lines of ‘Anyone Can Draw’. But it will all be about participation, conversation and doing, rather than a passive listening experience.
AO: Mental health and wellbeing are aspects of the GNRR that you mention on your site. How important a factor is that in the Graphic Novel Reading Room?
PUTNOKI: It’s probably the most fundamental part, underlying it all. It’s not only about the environment that I create, that is hopefully nurturing and relaxed, but also about the experience these books have given me. They soothe my sense of otherness in ways that no other medium seems to be able to touch. I’ve had my own mental health battles and have recently found out that I belong to a what’s called ‘highly sensitive people’, which – amongst other things – makes it essential for me to be in a nurturing environment but also enables me to appreciate art (and everything else) in a deep way.
I think as adults most of us have lost all opportunity to play and to just be. As a nursery teacher I worked in an environment where children free-flowed in a space, inside and outside, exploring for themselves according to their interests and their moods, alone or with others. I guess I’m trying to recreate this experience for adults so they can have the space and time to follow their own rhythms, to allow to settle their nerves, to de-stress and to self-soothe. Life can be very stressful for most people and GNRR is my contribution to helping people relax.
I will say though, I have no professional qualifications in anything specific around mental health, only my own experiences of therapy and learning to create an environment for myself in which I thrive in.
AO: What kind of books can attendees find at the GNRR? Are there any areas you especially focus on genre-wise?
PUTNOKI: When I started the events my collection – which is all books I paid for with my own hard-earnt money, so the choices were very considered – mainly consisted of long-form graphic novels and non-fiction. I like bang for my buck so I have quite a lot of big books, I love autobiographies and I’m very drawn to graphic medicine – probably because of the mental health themes.
But then I contacted some publishers (Myriad and SelfMadeHero at first, Cast Iron Books later) and they kindly donated some books, which have vastly expanded my comics horizons. I’ve also been getting comics sent from artists, publishers and individuals that they want to see read by more people. So my collection of zines, shorter form comics and other forms and genres are definitely growing!
(The full GNRR library can be browsed through TheStorygraph here.)
AO: When are your next upcoming events? Will you be hosting any pop-up events this year? For example taking the GNRR to festivals or fairs?
PUTNOKI: GNRR will be at MACC-POW Comic Art Festival in Macclesfield on the 3rd July at the Button Warehouse, this will be my first time taking GNRR outside Sheffield and my first time at a festival so very excited about all of that.
I have a number of events lined up in Sheffield: the 18th July at the Treehouse – they are the best-fitting venue for GNRR and so the 7th November anniversary event will also be held there. It’s hot off the press but I’ve actually been invited by Ruth and Andy at the Treehouse to hold regular events in their café from this autumn, which is an amazing next step for the evolution of GNRR– more on this later.
One of the most exciting invites came from LDComics, Dr Nicola Streeten and her new Grange Projects: we’re piloting a whole-weekend Graphic Novel Reading Room in July at their beautiful Norfolk residency. If all goes well, this event will hopefully become a regular feature so people from anywhere will be able to attend, read and relax together for a whole weekend.
I also have an all-day pop-up lined up on the 17th September at the Sheffield Hallam University Pop Up Shop in the centre, where anyone will be able to come and hang out for as long as they like during the day and read books – I’m hoping to get lots of passers-by interested.
I’m still waiting for confirmation about this year’s LICAF and I’ll definitely be part of Thought Bubble’s Festival Week in November.
My plan is to ‘infiltrate’ mainstream literary festivals with my event and with comics, I have already approached Hay Festival about next year’s event, there’s a literary festival in Sheffield called Off the Shelf that I’m hoping to collaborate with and actually, I could see GNRR being part of any kind of cultural festival – everybody needs a space to wind down and comics at GNRR are a wonderful tool to help with that.
AO: What are your plans and dreams for the future of GNRR?
PUTNOKI: My main aim is to run these events in a way that everyone can access them, regardless of their means. I might go down the Arts Council/National Lottery funding route or I might create a branch of GNRR events that are paid for by venues or organisations (so free for participants), which can then subsidise other events, so they can also be offered out for free. Or I might do both, the important thing is that they are inclusive and that I can run GNRRs in the exact way I want to.
On my dreams/wish list are: inviting guests into my home to host a comics-based holiday stay; setting up a pop-up at a busy shopping mall to counteract mad consumerism; a GNRR at the Welcome Trust’s own Reading Room; having a permanent space in Sheffield, maybe in collaboration with other cultural organisations; creating a travelling library for young adults and tour schools; taking GNRR to different cities including Leeds, York, Manchester, Liverpool, London and Brighton; creating a tool-kit for people who want to organise GNRR events all across the globe. So basically world domination. 😂
AO: And, finally, can publishers/shops/creators, etc. get in touch with you to donate titles for the project?
PUTNOKI: Yes please! I’m not terribly fast at posting on Instagram but I do get around to it eventually to thank and credit the artists, publishers and those who donate. I’m very short on comics from certain publishers so donations are always welcome! What I can guarantee is that they will always be displayed at the events so more people can read them.
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