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.