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

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