The comic book artist sets up his stall at St George's Market. Click Play Video for an online exhibition
Rummaging through the stalls at St George’s Market on a Friday morning you can find anything if you look hard enough. Mock Clarice Cliff crockery, rusty old sailor’s knives, fisheye mirrors, acoustic guitars - the variety market is more concerned with the old than the new.
Which makes PJ Holden’s stall all the more intriguing. A comic book artist of some repute, Holden’s stall is littered with colourful prints and black and white comic strips, many produced exclusively for the English comic book giant 2000AD, others before your very eyes.
Sandwiched between his father’s bric-a-brac stall and a ‘designer’ clothes outlet, Holden sells made-to-order caricatures to anyone brave enough to buy one, and prints of his paintings and comic book treatments for between £10 and £30 a pop - a bargain if ever there was one.
People come and go, punters more interested in observing than consuming - but that doesn’t much bother the artist. With two children at home, and a relatively small studio to work in, the cavernous confines of St George‘s Market have become something for a haven for Holden.
‘I couldn’t ask for a better studio,’ he admits. ‘St George’s is full of light, and I don’t mind all the noise and the people. Being a comic book artist can be a very solitary pursuit, so I quite like coming down here every Friday morning.’
No doubt you’ll come across Holden hunched over an A4 sheet of paper, working on a new strip with pencil, pen or Chinese ink. Today he sketches a picture of 2000AD’s Judge Dredd for our video podcast (if I only could stop him talking!) - he knows the creases and contours of the futuristic cop‘s every feature.
Holden’s first big commission for 2000AD was a Dredd strip - the stuff of dreams. ‘But you can never take anything for granted,’ Holden comments. ‘I love drawing Dredd, but just because I got one commission doesn't necessarily mean I'll get another one.
'As a comic book artist you become accustomed to rejection. So you realise that the most important thing is to draw what editors want you to draw, to be able to change your style, to meet deadlines and to make contacts with the right people. In this industry - as the saying goes - it's not what you know, it's who you know’
Since his big break with 2000AD, Holden has gone on to draw strips for the acclaimed Rogue Trooper series, DeadSignal, The 86ers and more. A friend of Gareth Ennis (the Northern Irish writer of Preacher, soon to be made into a HBO television series) Holden is one of only a handful of Northern Irish comic book artists to have made a name for himself internationally. And in 2008 he made headlines with his controversial comic book application for the iPhone.
A former IT specialist, Holden worked with a programmer to produce the interactive strip Murderdrome. Due to its violent content, however, Apple rejected the strip. Citing the fact that users can download films like the gruesome 300 and Eminem songs onto their iPhones, Holden put out a press release in protest, which was picked by American media outlets and captured the attention of industry big wigs.
Ever the optimist, Holden then produced a interactive strip for children, Eye Candy, which allows users to remove colour and filler illustrations to get down to the bare pencil strokes at the touch of a button - or the swipe of a screen. It might make Holden a mint. ‘But the iPhone was never the end game for me,’ he explains. ‘It was just another way of getting artwork out there.’
And so here he sits, still wearing his coat as it can be a little chilly in St George's Market. One or two people browse through his artworks, smiling at caricatures of Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, turning up their noses at the strange, alien-looking figure from Holden's Fearless strip ('my proper American debut'), enquiring if he accepts pictures via email for caricatures. But no transactions.
'I'll keep coming here,' Holden declares. 'I do love it. But the clientelle, the demographic, perhaps aren't exactly what I'm looking for. Maybe word will spread, people will start to take notice.'
'There he goes,' chips in Holden's father, smiling with his hands in his pockets, Del Boy-esque, 'blowing his own trumpet.' And so he should, although I don't believe he is. His artwork might be of international quality, but you won't see Holden settling in the Hollywood hills anytime soon.
'I'm a Belfast boy, through and through,' he jests. 'Just because you’re from Northern Ireland, doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. Very few people who work for 2000AD work in their office in Oxford - they have artists, writers and colourists working on the same strip from countries all over the world. Nothing wrong with spending time working in St George's Market.’
Read PJ Holden's blog and check out his work here.