Saturday, 26 March 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Two)

By 1981, I no longer had any link with comics whatsoever. In 1983 I met the woman who would become my wife. At the same time I met her family. Several years later, thanks to one of her brothers I rediscovered comicbooks. In retrospect, that would end up being a very emotionally divided day…

Visiting my Mother-in-law has never been quite as bad as I make it out to be. Yes, in all fairness she cannot cook to save her life and has far too many extreme opinions with little or no sound evidence backing her up, but she’s always been a reasonably good woman to me, apart from when I don't agree with her. However, back in the late 1980s her opinions and willingness to share them with all and sunder occasionally drove me upstairs to the rooms of the wife’s pre-pubescent twin brothers. The conversation was often far more stimulating and one day while surreptitiously stealing up the stairs I noticed one of the twins sitting in the lounge reading a Spider-Man comic. It didn’t take much in those days to catch my attention, so I walked in sat down beside him and noticed a stack of other Marvel comics next to him. We got chatting and he told me he’d swapped them for a load of football annuals. I picked up one of the comics – it had been published that year. It was an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man and on the cover Spidey appeared to be fighting a version of a character not dissimilar to his old villain the Sandman*. It was however a chap called Hydroman - a watery chap who was not going to go down in the annals of history as one of Spidey’s most original or memorable comic villains. I was not overly impressed.

(*not to be confused with The Sandman, DC characters we discuss at length much later.)

I did however notice something interesting about this comic. It was split in two. Spider-Man’s battle with his watery nemesis lasted only 10 pages. The other 12 pages were taken up with a story called The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man.

It sort of changed my life.

The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man was one of those little vignettes that grab you by the balls and refuse to let go until you say uncle. It almost all takes place in a young man’s bedroom – he is a Spider-Man fanatic, Spidey’s #1 fan! He would do anything to be able to meet his hero in the flesh and guess what? He does. Who should pop through his bedroom window? The ol’ Webslinger himself. They talk and Spider-Man tells some of his deepest secrets, he talks about his origins, the people he cares about and what it has been like to be a hero. They get on like the proverbial house on fire and then something happens, something you don’t expect. The boy asks Spidey about his secret identity, about who he really is and without pause Peter Parker emerges from beneath the mask and tells the boy all the story, even who he is. They finish up, shake hands and say goodbye and Spidey swings out of the bedroom window. Then you discover the boy has terminal cancer and has very little time to live. My eyes filled up the same way as Peter Parker’s did in the final panel. I realised, once more, that comics were a most valuable medium. There was still magic in them.

The next couple of years were reminiscent to another period of my life. I bought comics like I have at times bought drugs. It was something I couldn’t afford but couldn’t stop buying. The brother-in-law and I used to trundle into town every Saturday and visit the comic shop. It was a crappy little place called Blitz Comics, above a video shop and the guy who ran it had about as much idea of running a comic shop as a Republican president has of running the USA. But it had a lot of comics and you could always do a good deal with the guy. I sometimes used to spend as much as £50 a week in that shop and that was probably about £49.50 more than I could realistically afford (I seem to recall I was unemployed at the time).

During this time, I taught my naïve young brother-in-law how to lie; not that he ever needed to thankfully, because my wife never seemed to ask any questions. I think she was pleased that I was bonding with her brother, especially as, by this time, we’d decided that kids weren’t on the horizon for us. Fortunately, I always had some kind of cover story in case she grew suspicious or inquisitive, but more importantly I kept all the comics round at my mother-in-law’s house, in plain sight – always be deceitful in full view of everybody, the finger of suspicion never gets pointed at you! The brother-in-law got to be custodian of the comics under the one condition – none got leant out and none were damaged – I had slipped, effortlessly, back into collector mode.

By 1988, I was proving to be the world’s worst sales rep and despite being in my mid-20s I was seriously worrying if I had any future at all. You have to realise that this was the late 1980s, Thatcher was still in charge of the country; we weren’t exactly seeing a huge surge in job vacancies and I seemed to have the inability to flourish at any job. Between meeting my wife in January 1983 and working at Initial – the towel and mat hygiene company, I had found and lost a number of jobs – I worked for the local council twice, a publishing company for four days, a logistics company for four hours; Levi Strauss for four months, and much of the rest of the time was spent unemployed, either attempting to be the next Morecombe and Wise with the man who would be my best man at my wedding, or dancing between getting stoned and being drunk. Hey, this was the 1980s, it didn’t matter how old you were, thanks to Maggie Thatcher you pretty much felt like you were on the scrap heap.

Levi’s and then the sales rep position were jobs that helped me continue to buy comics at an alarming pace, but by this time around I was specific about what I bought. I began to hone the ability that would eventually see me working in comics - the ability to spot a winner.

I was at a crossroads in my life. I didn’t think I had an obvious future in the jobs market – at least that was how I felt and like many others I figured the best way to succeed was to either try something different or bullshit my way into a job I figured I could do. We were running out of money and my options were limited. I figured that as I had some experience at selling, then I could perhaps con my way into a job as a sales rep. As it was, I didn’t have to do any conning – I went for an interview, told them the truth and they gave me the chance to expand my sales ability from salesman on a shop floor to roving sales representative.

I spent the next six months trying damned hard to succeed in the real world, but all the time the comics world was dragging me under again – I lived for the weekend; I spent days on the road and made sure that I was working in areas that took me into comics country. If I needed to go near Milton Keynes, I would make sure that I went to the shop in the town centre. If I was anywhere near Peterborough, I’d make sure that I’d get into House on the Borderland. When I wasn’t doing this, I was taking long naps in my company car or failing miserably to do the thing I was employed to do – selling. Then I got fired. My boss at the time, a thoroughly offensive guy called Bill Port, was also one of the most honest and decent blokes I’d ever met. He was a straight talker and frankly I hadn’t had enough people talk straight at me in my life. So when he caught up with me in the car park of our offices one Monday morning I wasn’t expecting the first real good talking to I’d ever had. It was also the first time in months of toiling away trying to sell dust mats that he seemed to treat me with any real respect.

“It’s time you faced facts. You can’t sell. You don’t want to sell. You have no commitment to the job and there are people in those offices who have a tenth of your ability and make you look like a wanker. You’ve got to make some big decisions in your life and I’m giving you about ten seconds to make them.” He hadn’t finished. “Look, you’re a nice guy, all of the team think you mean well and they all like you, but unless you start selling, you are no good to me. What do you want to do? Really, I mean, what do you want to do with your life?”

“To run my own business.” I wasn’t sure it was a true answer, but it seemed like the most honest.

“Then go and run your own business and be successful and come back and see me and say, ‘Bill, I’m a success. Have a beer.’ And if you do that I’ll be happy for you.” We parted company and I felt better than I had in years. I was going to be my own boss. This was April 1988 I had just turned 26. All I needed to do was find something I could be my own boss at!

Comics Lesson 2:

It is widely perceived that comicbook fans are like train spotters. This perception basically exists in the United Kingdom and the United States. It isn’t the given perception anywhere else in the world. Therefore you find there are two kinds of comics fan – the ones who don’t give a shit and wear their hobby for all to see, and the other quieter strain that treats reading and collecting comics like homosexuals practiced in the 1950s.

In reality, there are all kinds of comics readers and fans and there are a number of notable celebrity endorsers of comics. The problem is that the ones who care the most passionately for the medium are often the ones who have a look that only a blind mother could love.

Over the years comics has had well known people throwing their weight behind the medium, these include the late Bob Monkhouse (a one-time comics artist turned comedian), Jonathon Ross, Paul Gambaccini, Kevin Smith (the film director), Nicholas Cage, Lenny Henry, and Quentin Tarrantino. However, for all the celebrity fans out there it hasn’t done the general image of comics much good at all. When the general public aren’t looking with disgust at the freaks often wheeled out by the press, they are, in fact, sneering at their own ignorance when they take the piss out of superhero comics. The superhero film is incredibly de rigueur, the source material is rarely credited; even recent film hits like Kick Ass, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, Red and The Losers might all come from the comics medium, but the feature film has been the thing that has given them credibility. Once upon a time, back in the late 1980s, when Batman was first released, it had a profound effect on comics and comics buyers. But that was largely down to Adam West and Burt Ward and the older generations with long memories. Sales of Batman rose, as did; ironically, some of the top quality comics of the era, but this was down to nostalgia rather than a serious shift in attitudes towards comics.

Next time: I develop the idea of running a comic shop and discover that the world is against you from the off.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part One)

i) A brief history of comics and me.

Comics Lesson 1:

The Comics Industry can be divided into different sections and subsections, all of which are important in their own way. From the bottom up – the reader, the fan (there is a subtle difference between these two which will hopefully become clear as we work our way through this), the collector, the speculator, the aficionado, the dealer, the shop keeper, the wholesaler or distributor, the creators (whether that be writer, artist, inker, letterer, colourist, editor, or owner), not the printer you’ll be pleased to know (we don’t really need to bring him in), and finally the publisher (which more than makes up for the lack of a printer). Many in that list overlap and it isn’t easy to even narrow it down to a list as short as that, but, in time, you’ll begin to understand why soap operas have nothing on comicbooks and the people behind them.

I wish I could just whiz through my youth, but some important things happened in the Seventies that considerably fucked up my later life, um… I mean, set me on the path I would end up on.

Saturday mornings were comics mornings. The daily paper would arrive with my three weekly comics. I’d sit in bed reading them from cover to cover before throwing them in the cupboard and forgetting about them for another week. Then one dreary January day in 1973, I wandered into my local newsagents and my attention was drawn to new rack displaying magazines and comics in it. At the very bottom was something I’d never seen before. Something different from the British humour comics I’d recently been introduced to.

For starters this ‘comic’ didn’t have a childish and brightly coloured cover; it was dark and used purple and green hues. Across the top of its irregular shape the words Swamp Thing were emblazoned. Swamp Thing? I was about as intrigued as a ten-year-old could be. On the cover was a terrifying monster’s face and torso lurching forward out of the page. Inside there was more dark and sombre, yet sensuous, artwork (by an artist I quickly learned was called Berni(e) Wrightson) depicting an almost unimaginable story – a man’s wife is killed and he is saturated in some kind of regenerative chemical (which he has been secretly working on), he is set fire to and ends up falling, in agony, into a swamp before returning as some kind of a super enhanced vegetable! All in a complete story! Except, it wasn’t. It was a complete story; it was the first issue of a series of complete stories. According to the last page, there was going to be a second issue?

When? How? What? I was puzzled, but I also had a frisson of delight running through my veins. This wasn’t Dennis the Menace or Lord Snooty; this wasn’t the same old joke told in a different way every week. This was something altogether unique; something unknown, which had grabbed hold of my imagination and shaken it awake.

This comic had a November cover date. November? November the what? It was also published by a company called DC Comics – according to the cover, but a company called National Periodicals in the box at the bottom of page 3. More mysteries about not just the comic, but the nature of it and as I liked a good puzzle I paid the 5 new pence for it (and I still own it), and rushed home hoping for answers. I got some. This was not the only comic like this. It was an American comic and these came out on a monthly basis. I also become aware there were many other comics available, some totally unlike this one. Comics starring Superman and Batman, who I was very familiar with as icons, even back then, but also other comics with titles that meant nothing to me – Green Lantern, House of Mystery, Flash, Our Army at War. Except, I intended them to mean a lot.

I returned to the newsagents the next day, armed with 15p, hoping to buy at least two more of these new fangled American comicbooks. Except where Swamp Thing had been was empty and further inspection of the rack yielded nothing at all. Except… There was something else in the spinner, something obscured by a copy of the girls’ comic Bunty. I had glimpsed something quite ‘Marvel’lous.

I had no real idea of who The Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and the Amazing Spider-Man were. All of them were vaguely familiar, but I had spent a few years as a small child living in Canada, so this probably was the reason for their familiarity – all three had animated TV series in the late 1960s. The comic I was looking at was obviously an English comic; it had a weekly date, it had paper newsprint covers, and there were at least three stories in it, more like the standard UK anthology titles. Needing little convincing to part with the 5p, I looked in vain for something else like this. The newsagent informed me that this comic was called The Mighty World of Marvel and was a new weekly. I immediately placed an order for it, dropping The Beano so my mum wouldn’t be annoyed at me ordering more than I was entitled to – it also helped that she worked at the newsagents and Mr Dow, the manager, knew that I was a pretty reliable and trustworthy kid.

Months passed and while I got The Mighty World of Marvel every week I never saw another one of those American comics. My young mind dismissed them and I concentrated on the adventures of the new Marvel Comics heroes. Then, while holidaying in North Wales that summer, being dragged, reluctantly, around a Rhyl market place I found a box of comics. Not just ordinary comics, not even comics like Swamp Thing, although they were the same size dimensions. I found a box of old Marvel comics. There were about 30 of them and they were all priced at 5p each. I pleaded with my mum to buy me all of them it was only £1.50! Of course £1.50 in 1973 was like £25 today. It was a lot of money. A compromise was offered. I could buy 10 comics and if we came back to the market later in the week I could buy some more. It wasn’t what I wanted but it was better than none at all. Of the ten comics I bought the one that had the most affect on me was an issue of The X-Men, or The Uncanny X-Men as it was called back then. It reminded me of the Swamp Thing comic I owned. It was drawn in a completely different style to all the other superhero comics I’d seen (not that I’d seen that many at the time). The oldest comic of the ten was from 1963, the newest from May 1968 and all of them looked as though they had just come off the printing press. Unfortunately, despite pressing my folks for the rest of the holiday about going back to visit Rhyl again, we never made it back – someone else bought the Silver Age gems that remained in the box.

Within a year I’d tracked down every single shop in my Northampton that stocked American comics, I had befriended the local market trader and always got first dibs on his stacks of second-hand comics. By the time I became a teenager I was the owner of nearly 1000 comic books, all neatly displayed on shelves in my bedroom. I was becoming a nerd!

By the beginning of the long hot summer of 1976, I discovered I wasn’t the only person with a new found love for these comic things; not only did I know a guy called Graham who liked Thor, I met a couple of others who read the same things as I did – we had a little superhero club! Another friend of mine called Steve Gibbons had answered a small ad from a ‘comics dealer’ in an edition of The Mighty World of Marvel claiming to have ‘many thousands of comics for sale’. He showed me the hugely impressive list and at the back was a small mention of a ‘comic mart’ to be held at Central Hall, Westminster in London on June 6th. That was just over a week away. I raided my savings account, beg and borrowed from my parents and scraped together about £20 – a near king’s ransom – to take with me to London. Back in the mid Seventies train travel was reasonably inexpensive, especially for minors, and my complete expenses outlay came to less than £3, including tube fairs and some food. I had £17 to spend on comics and that meant a lot of comics. Graham and I went to London – me with a jacket my mother insisted I took, despite the temperature being in the 80s and we arrived at the comic mart just as it was opening to the general public. The hall was full of people, it was a disorganised rabble, but it was vibrant and full of life. There was no malice in sight, just a huge group of people trying to buy the things they were after with much good-natured jostling. I had no real idea what to expect, nor did I go there with a specific list of requirements. I was just going to buy some comics. I’ve heard use of the word ‘cornucopia’ many times, but for me this trip into the bowels of Central Hall, offered me everything.

It was like a dream. Comics were everywhere and some of them were as expensive as £25. £25 for a comic? You are having a laugh? The other thing that struck me was that while I paid no more than 5p for any comic I’d ever bought, there were very few comics for sale that cheaply here. The average price was between 15p and 35p and was something I hadn’t bargained for. This meant that instead of going home with a suitcase full of comics, I’d have to settle for a couple of carrier bags full. I opted for quantity over quality and bought as many recognisable comics as I could for 15p each. By the end of the blissfully hot day I sat on the train with Graham with two bags full of the most incredible comics I’d ever seen. I was more hooked than a junkie.

During the next few years a lot of events took place which are important to this story, unfortunately it gets a bit nerdy. I’ll try and make it as painless as possible.

The most important thing that happened in the following years was when I ‘grew out’ of comics, or so I thought. I had had a dazzling entrance into comics and by 1977 I was a regular at all the London comic marts. I had built up a commendable collection of comics and was becoming more discerning with what I was reading. I was also beginning to think I could make some money from comics – if others were, why not me? With the help of my middle brother Steve (acting as a driver and roadie) I took the plunge and bought a dealers table. I had just over two months to assemble a selection of comics for sale. With a week to go I sat on my bedroom floor looking at my tatty boxes and comics in rapidly deteriorating condition and was dreading the entire experience. Over dinner I was complaining how my comics were getting dirty, tatty and the corners were all turning up, when my dad suggested I put them in polythene bags. He worked as a manager for a company specialising in plastic products and the following day he returned home from work with a selection of different sized bags. One kind in particular was almost perfect – just a fraction too wide – but otherwise they enhanced the comic. I winced and said to my dad that I’d probably need about 1000. He just nodded and said he would see what he could do. The next day he returned from work with boxes of plastic bags. He brought at least 10,000 bags with him, enough for me to bag my entire collection, all the comics I had for sale and more importantly for another reason he told me about over dinner.

“Why don’t you sell bags as well? We’ve got millions of the things lying around the warehouse and even if you end up having to buy them you’ll still make money, we won’t want much for them, and they’re redundant stock.” It seemed like a stroke of genius. No one at comic marts had plastic bags for their comics – although some had improvised with things as diverse as cling film and freezer bags, but mainly to stop said item from disintegrating in the air. I took packages containing 100 and 50 bags and was selling them for 50p for 50 or 75p for 100. I took £7 in total from selling comics and nearly £100 from comic bags. I had inadvertently become the first person in the UK to sell peripheral comics supplies.

By the time I did my last comic mart in 1979 I was better known for selling comic bags than I was for selling comics – yet I wasn’t even the market leader in comics peripherals, all I was doing was selling the stock littering up my dad’s factory. Where I was content with just making money and spending it on more comics, a guy called Justin Ebbs had seen the future and for him that meant plastic bags. He took over as the leading seller of comics peripherals in the UK; having plastic bags made specifically for comic books – to fit them rather than to just cover them. I could have done it, but I was too engrossed by comics to sit down with my dad and work out how to produce the things that Justin made a fortune from. Perhaps I was just showing my shortcomings as a business man; it isn’t really something I look back on and regret because by the time I realised that I could have been rich from it, it was a long time gone.

I was better known in 1979 for running things called ‘Fanzines’. When I was at junior school everyone thought I’d end up drawing or painting for a living. I also always had my nose in colouring books and sketchpads. However, by the time I reached 13 I realised I couldn’t actually draw to save my life, I did however have a love for the English language and a fertile imagination. When the opportunity came along to produce my own comics magazine it seemed like the logical step. I considered taking over the production of a fanzine called Thing Comics Advertiser but because of exams that never materialised; but I was still eager to cut my teeth on something like this, I got friendly with a guy bringing out a new zine called Media and agreed to write some stuff for him. After half a dozen issues, the owner decided he needed to move on; spend more time with his lovely wife and less time with his nose in his own magazine. I offered to take it over and with no real experience at all Media and I got hitched. I had a moderately successful run on it, despite my failings in every editorial department. Media was full of life and as one reviewer said of it, “if you excuse the bad grammar, horrendous spelling, this is actually a fresh and exciting appreciation of comics presented in a very professional way.” I suppose my years of drawing had given me the eye for making things look aesthetically pleasing, however, as an editor my command of written English was in dire need of work. My run on Media lasted a just under a year (6 issues) and I then passed it along to the next unwitting replacement.

I didn’t stop it because I was fed up with it; I stopped it because I was getting fed up with comicbooks – it was a kind of early warning for things to come in the future; if you work too closely with something you love, you stop loving it because it becomes a chore.

My interests by 1978 had moved onto mainly girls and music; but in reality anything that didn’t end up with me having the piss taken out of me. I had stopped talking about comics at school for over a year, and doing my fanzine and reading comics were also about to stop. There was a guy who I really liked called Alan Mackenzie; he had aspirations of working in comics as a career and a job, but he never talked about his love for them because, he candidly said, it buggered up his chances with the girls. If people asked him what he did, he would say he worked in publishing and steer them away from delving any deeper. Yet Alan still had a lot of influence in comics, even if he wasn’t in the spotlight; he even managed to get me involved in things I would never have hoped of.

The guy that I’d taken the fanzine over from, Mark Ellis had become a comics dealer, and when I told him I was packing everything up he offered to buy my entire collection from me. So, after cherry-picking half a dozen comics with sentimental value, I sold over 10,000 comics to this guy for less than £1000. The irony being that even in 1979 they were easily worth 5 times the amount he paid for them – at the height of the speculator period, in the 1990s, my old collection probably would have been worth the same as a medium-sized yacht! And I’m not joking; there were at least 100 comics in that 10,000 that would be worth more than £500 each now!

That was it. Comicbooks were now a thing of my past. I was moving on.

It wasn’t without its own bit of controversy either. The guy who took over producing Media from me also had aspirations to be big in comics and I while had been on the periphery of the land of opportunity, he wanted to be right in the middle of it. The year I produced Media was also the year that some people would later go on to become major players in the world of comicbooks as Britain began to have a say in general comics events. There were already a number of Brits working in comics in the USA and thanks to a still moderately healthy comics UK industry in the 1970s there were a lot of people earning a living from drawing or writing British comics, whether they were humour, action and adventure or girls’ weeklies. But more importantly Britain was undergoing a change. It was the time of the Punk and New Wave revolutions and the music and film industries were on the verge of changing; plus technology was advancing faster than it had ever been before – the future was bright. In Britain there was a new wave of British comics people waiting for the opportunity to make it big in a market that had never really been fully exploited.

People such as Richard Burton, the aforementioned Alan McKenzie, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Steve Parkhouse, Steve Moore, Alan Davis, Dave Gibbons, Dez Skinn, Neil Tennant (yes, the one from the Pet Shop Boys), Steve Dillon, Bryan Talbot, Ian Gibson, Paul Neary and Garry Leach, joined Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Grant, John Ridgway, and Brian Bolland as the shining stars in British comicbooks. Some of these people were responsible for comics changing from humour or British gung-ho styled stiff-upper-lip adventures to cutting-edge, let’s-show-the-Yanks-how-to-do-it-properly comics such as Warrior, 2000 AD, Action, House of Hammer, and some would later be responsible for Toxic and Deadline. Some of them were writers, other artists, but a fair percentage were editors and backroom staff. I was in the ideal position to possibly, just possibly, be in the right place at the right time and find myself rubbing shoulders and earning money from comics. There was but one thing holding me back. I lived in Northampton and I wasn’t a comics writer or artist, so I would have had to move to London, struggle in an unsure business (that I was rapidly falling out of love with) and I just didn’t feel up for it. It didn’t scare me, I just didn’t want the hassle – ironically the year after I gave up comics I moved down to London for two years.

I didn’t realise it until now but that was probably the first bit of bad timing I had. I bumped into one of my ‘mentors’ in 1980 and when he learned I was living in London he reckoned I should try and get back into comics. I laughed at the idea and dismissed it from my mind; I was too busy trying to get into the pants of whatever young lady I was in London with.

So as the list of comics luminaries listed above made relative fortunes I put the remnants of my comics collection in a box, stuck it up in the loft and waved goodbye to my childhood.

The wilderness years were great years - full of sex and drugs and rock and roll…

Next time: more stuff

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

My Monthly Curse (Prologue)

My Monthly Curse

A Personal Comicbook History

By Phill Hall


I have imagined attempting to convince a literary agent or publisher that my idea is a good one. “It’s all about the comicbook industry. You wouldn’t believe some of the things that go on in it!?” I then imagine the feeling of walking out of the umpteenth office feeling dejected. Not because no one wants to buy my story, because no one believes that comics and its industry is interesting.

I’ve always known that if I’m going to sell this idea it has to be something that will grab the attention of whoever reads it and frankly trying to tell the world that something associated with nerds and geeks is going to be an edge-of-the-seat experience is a bit like telling your ageing grandmother that Jessie J is the new Max Bygraves. I’m not even sure that any one will find it even remotely interesting; they might conclude that comics is no more interesting than, say, train spotting or dwile flunking.

Hurdles such as this have never stopped me before.

I’ve previously attempted to write this and every time I’ve failed. The main reason is because we’re not talking about something simple here. Comicbooks is actually a very complicated and at times convoluted industry (and, trust me, it is an industry, albeit small and not so perfectly formed). Most people writing about comic books write about comics and the history, or their social importance. Very few people actually spend any time at all looking at the people, the practices, the underbelly of comicbooks – and trust me, the industry is more like an iceberg – the bits you see are just the surface, there is so much more going on behind the scenes.

Apparently, while we were living in Canada in the late 1960s, my eldest brother became interested in comics – he had never seen anything quite like them; but I was more interested in the things that kids aged 6 and under were. Don’t ask me to swear on a stack of bibles what they were, but I’m sure they included collecting frogs and toads – so collecting was already in my blood even before I picked up 32 pages of crazy arsed adventures. Ironically, many years after this, my brother would later follow me into comics – as a retailer - and he would prove to be far more successful than me at making money from them.

While he spent his late teens and early twenties shagging and avoiding heroes in spandex or boys with mischievous grins in shorts, I was just beginning to discover them. On my return to the UK, in 1969, I discovered British comics such as The Topper, Beezer, Dandy and Whizzer and Chips – my brother discovered his first wife.

These colourful new British comics all caught my eye and my fertile young imagination. Like many children born in the Sixties, I spent a large portion of my youth with my head buried between two paper (or in some cases glossy) covers. Then and in the Seventies you could trade comics in the playground and not be looked at like you were some abomination of society by even the youngest of your peers – but that probably had something to do with my age and the age. And ironically, the man who is to play a large part in this story edited the first comic I bought with my own pocket money. It was his first job as full-blown editor. That comic was called Cor!

Comics is a huge cliché, an enigma in many ways riddled with even more mini clichés. You know the saying ‘you’re opening a can of worms’? Well that doesn’t even scratch the surface. What makes this even more difficult is that because of the way the world is now, most of you reading this wouldn’t understand what the hell I’m jabbering on about most of the time, so this is going to have to become something of a crash course in understanding comics at times (and trust me when I tell you that real comics fans would make several jokes about that last sentence without pausing for breath – there was a book called Understanding Comics and we’re talking about nerds who love word play, in all forms). Just so not to bore you too much, I’ll make these explanations as painless as possible and only when really necessary – they will be the sections in bold. You’ll also notice that I started this sentence ‘Comics is’ and you’d think that it should be ‘Comics are’ but comics is a singular. It is a medium of its own and therefore… is.

The ‘comics industry’ is actually a massive worldwide phenomenon. Unlike Britain and the United States that view comicbooks as largely infantile and derisory, the rest of the world treats comics as an art form as important as any other. Where, in Europe, comicbook publishers are as revered as the major book publishing houses, most British comics publishers work out of ancient buildings or basement conversions. In Europe, comics can sell in 7 figure numbers – in the millions. In the USA, in the last 20 years, only a handful of comics, to my knowledge, have sold in excess of a million copies; in fact, most US comics struggle to sell 6 figures – the average number of sales normally being around 60,000 per issue. Another key point is that we wouldn’t be having this discussion and there wouldn’t be a need for this book if I was French or Japanese or Brazilian or Polish or Korean or... Do you get the point? The bizarre nature of the comics industry is only that way in the USA and by default, the UK. They are the only two countries that simultaneously love and loathe comics. The only two countries that believe they are the pinnacle of the medium; yet are actually, to use a football/soccer analogy, pretty much fourth division.

There are numerous levels and sub-levels to the industry, specifically in the UK and USA, all of which I have wandered through at different times and for differing lengths of time. And this is the important thing; this book is about the comics industry pertaining to the United States and the United Kingdom. The rest of the world is exempt from this story except peripherally whenever it decides to show its (incredibly successful and non-judgemental) head. When it does, it will sneer, utter an insult and return to its hugely successful career away from the pretenders.

I'd also like to quote you something. This comes from an obscure article I wrote about twenty years ago. "Comics is full of nerds and geeks, but I like nerds and geeks. They're honest people and they've allowed me to earn a living, for longer than I probably deserve."

This is also about how I survived over 30 years in an industry that effectively doesn’t really like me and has treated me with contempt for a large part of it. I might have deserved some of it, but equally, you will wonder how someone can invest so much time and effort into a belief and not get their just deserts.

Or maybe you won’t.

End prologue

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Have They Gone Mad?

So, the first appearance of Spider-Man becomes the 3rd comic to break the million dollar barrier? Jesus fucking Christ!!! The poxy thing is younger than me. I was mildly surprised when Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27 both made the historical 7 figure number, but this is quite remarkable, especially given that comics as collectible items is over 10 years past its prime and the world is fast descending into another financial doom and gloom period.

With both Lee and Ditko still alive, they must be somewhat proud and stunned that this has happened. Shame back issues of comics only make money for the seller (and the auction house, when necessary).


Later today, maybe early tomorrow, the first instalment of my autobiographical book about the comics industry will go live on this blog. I've spent a lot of time over the last two weeks editing this massive tome. When I started it was 170,000 words, I'm now over half way through it and the word count has dropped to 164,000. I also no longer agree with Pete Ashton; I don't think it reads like a long blog entry any longer; but this is probably down to the editing. I went through various stages of embarrassment while re-reading it (for the first time in 6 years), but now it reads fluently, there is a 99% reduction of mistakes (I'm sure one or two will have slipped through) and I've hacked out some of the unbelievably bad parts - including something I wrote in 1995 that read like it had been written by an illiterate retard. That was 5,000 words alone and I managed to replace it with 1,000 words that did the same job.

I am also in two minds about the title; at the moment it's called "Living with Idiots - A Comicbook History"; back in 2005 that seemed to be a good title; now it doesn't. Also, 60% of the way through editing there has been a few themes and ideas; like, for instance, the fact that comics are cyclical; they come out on a monthly basis AND my many years at CI were all driven by a 28 day cycle. Another aspect of it that shines through is the highly illogical way the industry works, especially the connection between publishers and retailers. There isn't another industry in existence where the producers treat the sellers with such patronising contempt - it is almost the complete opposite of how business works in the real world. The fantasy world of comics seems to rely heavily on the fantasy filled relationship between all the factions - publisher, creator, fan and retailer. So, it might end up with a new name. Actually, it will (but I'm hedging my bets).

I sat in the pub with my mate last Thursday and discussed just how the thing is going to be divided up. If it's a 165,000 word book, then it seems quite simple - 33 instalments of 5,000 words; but that's not always going to be possible; mainly because it doesn't really have a chapter structure. There are some chapters; but they might end up disappearing. There are some things that look like natural breaks, but, trust me, they're not. It is, in that respect, like a huge long blog entry, especially when I flit about from one topic to another; but what I'm trying to show is that comics are labyrinthine and inextricably linked, even if this is shown as a personal voyage.

And, of course, there's the section in the middle, the one I'm sure most people will want to read it for. The part when the book goes from being autobiographical to biographical. The long section that uncovers some of the truths about an 11 year period of my life working for someone else and tells someone else's story from the unique perspective I had. The section I've been spending the most time on, making sure that there's nothing litigious or things I can't back up with proof. There is good news where this is concerned...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

We Interrupt Your Scheduled Broadcast...

I'm a little angry.

No. Actually, I'm bordering on apoplectic.

This was brought to my attention and it was abhorrent. The blurb on it ran as follows: A new era in digital publishing has begun!!

A new era in digital publishing began nearly 10 years ago with Borderline magazine and there will be a lot of people who worked on Borderline that will find this offensive. Every single issue of the award-winning magazine we produced is currently available to download from and the first one is dated August 2001.

I don't know if we have any legal recourse, or if we have any grounds to register an official complaint with Gareb Shamus and Wizard, but you can bet your life we're going to look into it and if we do we're going to make sure that credit is given where credit is due - and that will be the barest minimum requirement.

Borderline won awards, was downloaded by over 150,000 people and helped the careers of many people to be discarded out of hand or ignored.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Editorial Differences

Where does this belong?

So, large amounts of my time have been taken up with editing. And what a laborious and eye-opening thing it's proving to be. Ever since I announced I was considering serialising the book wot I writted about comic books, I've been knee deep in words. It has been 6 years since I even opened the file up and a lot has changed in those six years; for instance, I was still almost involved in comics when I wrote all those words, now I'm very much out of touch and the entire tone of the book has had to change from knowledgeable to nostalgic - that's a lot of changing 'it is' to 'it was' and making sure the tenses are correct (apparently, one of my blind spots has always been tenses).

The derogatorily titled Living with Idiots is a sprawling great lump of a work. When I opened the document up it sat at 170,866 words. It's now down to a little over 167,000 and I expect that will drop considerably more, especially when I reach the parts that are going to be litigious. However, despite the net drop of 3,000 words, I've actually written about 5,000 extra words. I've been tightening things up; explaining things and making it make more sense. Considering it was originally meant to be a manual of education for people who don't understand comic books but fancy a good Swimming with Sharks styled story; I left an awful lot unexplained and hazy; so returning to it after this long has allowed me to be more... clear. I just hope that I'm not editing the life out of it.

I'm also approaching this editing in the wrong way. I should sit down and read the entire tome and make notes and ignore any mistakes; but I'm doing what my old boss used to do and I'm editing as I go along. This means that at times I talk about things that I discuss later on in the book. I'm finding that in most cases this is actually proving to be a better way of attacking it. I've noticed a propensity for trying to be clever for the sake of it and I'm pretty sure that anyone reading it will get pissed off pretty quickly at my Sonic the hedgehog style of writing certain sections. For instance, smack bang in the middle of a chapter about retailing, I veer off into a long winded discussion about fanzines. I think the logic at the time was to break up the potential boredom people might suffer about reading about what an atrocious retail model comics has had since the arrival of the Direct Market. What it read like though was as if I'd just copied and pasted a huge chunk from somewhere else in the story, just for the heck of it.

The thing is, considering the experience and knowledge I have of the old fanzine scene, the aside reads like a drunken wibble and therefore it just got obliterated. The delete key was hit pretty fast and I decided that at some point I'd rewrite a section on fanzines that fits in better with the general flow of the book. I also feel that the 40,000 words I've edited so far are far more interesting than they were originally. I know that's easy for me to say, but it is like editing something by someone else at times, because I can't actually remember a lot of what I wrote or how I approached some subjects. I also find it quite ironic that in my attempts to write something fit for a book, I managed to be both verbose and boring - as if I could be either of those things..?

I've now arrived at two words which those who know me will be all too familiar with and therefore I now have to put my legal hat on as well as my editorial one. At least I can print what I've edited so far without fear of any reprisals; so expect the first part of this tome to appear in the next blog entry.