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LONGREAD - Two men. Two hearts with a deep-seated love for comics. Two stories spanning 30+ years and including almost a decade of studying at the University of Copenhagen. Meet the driving forces behind Denmark’s largest comic book store: Henry and Bo.
On the corner of Skindergade and Klosterstræde stands Denmark’s largest comic book shop. It stocks hundreds of thousands of comics: series collected in hardcover and softcover editions, Danish and English titles (both used and new), plus sections dedicated to manga (Japanese comics), novels and merchandise. This is Faraos Cigarer (The Cigars of Pharaoh). Enter it and you will have a choice to make—to the left (beneath ground level) is the English department, to the right (on the first floor) is the Danish one.
I choose to head to the left, down the stairs, where I meet Bo Jæger. Bo is usually found behind the counter, talking with customers, typing away on the keyboard and making sure people’s comics-subscriptions are all right. In need of justification for telling Bo’s story in the University Post, I enquire about his education: as it turns out, he is a graduate of the University of Copenhagen. Grabbing a hold of this thread, I dive deep into his recollections to learn how the man with a masters in egyptology became one of the faces of Faraos Cigarer.
Foto: Soma Biró
It all started in the 80s—when Bo’s mom got a job at the publishing house called Winthers Forlag (they were the ones who released some of the first superhero-comics in Danish).
Eight year-old Bo and his brother would often tag along and wander into the showroom (filled with the new, fresh-from-the-printer single-issues—20 page, magazine-format comics) and take whatever they liked- »I picked up the awesome covers,« Bo tells me. »Fantastic Four was my first love; I wanted to be Reed Richards so bad,« he says and laughs, »which is why I was sad the movies were so horrible. I even liked some of the bad guys, like Doom and Galactus. The Galactus and Captain Marvel comics started my fascination with space, travelling and the cosmic—anything goes once it’s cosmic, and I like that.«
A couple of years later, inspired by the works of Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean, Bo became an artist himself, painting photorealistic watercolour images.
»I was good, but not at whole [comic book] pages with panels, so I kept to doing standalone images,« he tells me, explaining why he never became a creator of comics. He did keep reading them though. When asked about his favourite titles, Bo lists books by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), Richard Corben and Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) as well as works of Alan Moore.
»If I could only take one thing from the shop before leaving for the moon? It would have to be Moore’s Watchmen. I read it every few years and I find a new angle on the story every time.«
Foto: Soma Biró
After high school, being an artist and an art-enthusiast, Bo wanted to study art-history, but his average wasn’t high enough to get him accepted. Back then, however, once you got into UCPH, it was possible to switch studies without having to apply all over again (given that you were performing well enough during your first year). So this is what Bo had in mind when he applied not only to art-history but to comparative religion, egyptology and classical archeology as well.
Thus it came to be that in 1996 he ended up in egyptology, but never got to the switch-over part.
»On the first lesson I fell in love. I was sold.« So much so, that he stayed for seven more years, finishing his masters in egyptology in 2003. Besides consuming Egyptian history, Bo learned how to read hieroglyphs in the many different languages they come in. »It was hard work. 42 hours a week independent studying and no classes really.« Indeed, during his first semester, Bo had a maximum of 4 classes a week. »But I liked it,« he says. »Most of my friends today are from Uni. I met a lot of people who had the same weird interests I had.«
When I ask where his degree led him later in life, Bo simply responds »nowhere. It’s extremely difficult to get a job with this degree.« Back when he started at the University of Copenhagen, there were about three possible jobs one could pursue with a diploma in egyptology: be a lecturer at Uni, work at the National Museum, or at the Calsberg Glyptotek (an art museum in Copenhagen). So, with the self-discipline developed during seven years of UCPH-life under his belt, Bo landed a job at a web-shop where he worked as managing director for about eight years. However, this was not the ideal place for him: 70-hour-weeks and work-filled holidays were efficient incentives that led to his resignation. It was then, that Bo found Faraos and Faraos found Bo—he applied for the position of department leader of English comics. The rest is, as some say, history.
Foto: Soma Biró
»Working here is like dancing in a ballet—we [department leaders] have to dance smoothly and in harmony with each other to make it work. Also, there’s a lot of heavy lifting,« Bo explains, »we carry mountains of books.« In fact, Faraos Cigarer receives somewhere between 300 and 800 kilograms of comics every week.
»We carry them in the shop after arrival, count them, price them, put them on the shelves and into the bags for the customers. The only time we don’t carry the comics is when the customer takes the bag and leaves for the door,« Bo laughs and adds »if you’re not fit by the time you start here, you’ll either get fit or die.« His favourite part of the job is being around the customers: talking comics and being the go-to guy. »Whether a person comes in with 30 DKK or 3,000 to spend, they should feel they received the best service.«
I ask Bo if he has any plans on leaving Faraos: »I think it would be strange to sell comics to 15-year-old girls as a 60-year-old man,« but for now he reaffirms his love for the store, saying »it’s the best comic book shop, period. I’m happy to work here and I have good colleagues. We are not the normal, everyday people; we are a bit special. Different. Just like our customers.«
Let’s travel back to the 80s once more: in the summer of 1982, Winthers Forlag (where Bo’s mom used to work) released issue 37 of its Edderkroppen series (the Danish edition of Spiderman). That August, a boy, age 10, bought one of these issues, setting in motion his reading and collecting endeavours for good. This boy was Henry Sørensen.
Foto: Soma Biró
From then on, Henry immersed himself in American and Danish comics alike, newspaper strips and works like Tintin and Alan Moore’s From Hell series. Later, the gravity of more “artsy, European comics” pulled him towards the graphic novels of Anke Feuchtenberger and Dominique Goblet. (He recommends their works warmheartedly to you, reader of this article.)
Henry’s passion for graphic stories has resulted in an impressive collection of around 5,000 comics. »I have almost all the Uncanny X-Men single-issues—most of the stories are crap though,« he says and adds »my wife says I should sell them. They take up too much space.«
When we talk about the nature of comic books, Henry mentions a feature unique to the art form: the way in which the entire page and a specific image (in a panel) are in the reader’s eyesight at the same time; our eyes can hop back to the past by looking at the previous panel or into the future by taking a quick peek at the drawing in the next.
He tells me about Richard McGuire’s graphic novel, Here, which makes use of this aspect of comics to “play with time and perception”: the story spans more than 10,000 years, focusing on a room (seen from the same angle in each double-page image) and mixing past, present and future by inserting panels that portray parts of the room (and what happens in them) in different times on the same page. Henry gave this book a 5/5.
Foto: Soma Biró
But Henry was not only a lover of consuming graphic storytelling, he was also in the business of creating it—he drew and he wrote, which, he tells me, is quite common for comic book creators in Denmark. Some of his works were published, but, somewhat mysteriously, his drawing endeavours came to a definite end when he started at the University of Copenhagen.
»I just didn’t have time for it,« Henry explains. About 20 years ago, the Danish comics-landscape was much harder than it is today. »Nobody in their right mind would work a year on a graphic novel for a market that seemed to be on the verge of collapse. There was nothing going on—you could work your ass off, but there were very few venues where you could get published.«
But things have changed, and Henry says he is pleased with the diversity of the present Danish scene: »Now there are more smaller publishers who are willing to take chances. The kids today are way better off.« Even so, Henry has never returned to making comics and when I ask if I could see some of his works, he responds with a smile and a shake of the head: »nope.«
In 1998, Henry started at UCPH and studied Theology for a year. Then, he changed studies and enrolled in Comparative Literature. »Though I was always interested in religion, literature is a great passion of mine and I wanted to expand my knowledge on it.«
I ask him how it was to study at the University of Copenhagen, to which he replies »it was okay—you develop a more critical approach to reading. But I was much older than my classmates: I was in my late 20s and most of them were 10 years younger.« So Henry didn’t socialise much. »I wasn’t an outcast or anything, but I kept to myself.«
On the side, he had a job at an after-school centre (where he worked with the kids), was moving in to a new apartment, and, yes, he met a girl and fell in love. Eventually, with all this going on, he dropped out of Uni. »It seemed like the thing to do.«
I ask if he ever regrets this decision: »sometimes I do—it’s nice to have a paper to show to people. Otherwise there is much you can’t do.«
Besides studying and working, Henry did quite a lot of writing for magazines as well. One of them, called Rackham, was a comic book journal created by two of the most influential figures of the Copenhagen comics-scene—Matthias Wivel and Thomas Thorhauge (both ex-UCPH students themselves). Though he says »I’m very slow at finishing my critical work,« Henry has also written (both reviews and interviews) for another comics-journal, STRIP!, as well as for Denmark’s leading comic book magazine nummer 9 (nummer9.dk)—of which he is one of the founding members. Steffen Rayburn-Maarup (head of the publishing house Aben Maler) has suggested Henry be paid and given »let’s just say, all the comics released« to review, »he writes Denmark’s best comic book reviews, bar none.«
Foto: Soma Biró
Sometime after his dropout from UCPH, a friend in publishing informed Henry about Faraos. They were hiring and he applied. He has worked here as the manager of the Danish department for six years now. »It’s nice to work with your interest,« he says. »Here, customers will find a passion they can’t find on the internet. Everyone is an expert in their fields.«
I ask what’s worst about the job: »it’s that I’m not with my daughter as much,« he says. Henry married the girl he fell in love with during his UCPH-years and they now have a three year-old daughter called Lea. »She likes Spiderman,« Henry tells me, with a kind laugh. Later, I learn why: »they held fastelavn at my daughter’s kindergarten at one time and I went dressed as the web-crawler. So she thinks I’m Spiderman.«