As I alluded to, Dez Skinn is known in comics fandom (a concept explained later) as ‘The British Stan Lee’. [For the benefit of those of you who haven’t heard of Stan Lee, he’s the guy who was partly responsible for the creation of such icons as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Thor, Daredevil and Iron Man and was head of Marvel Comics for many years]
Skinn was responsible for a lot of changes in comics publishing in the UK. He was a man shrouded in controversy and was trusted by very few people in comics. Dez Skinn was the UK comics equivalent of Dallas’ JR Ewing. But like him or loathe him, he wasn’t just part of the entire circus – he was the circus, with fingers in just about every part of the pie*. I worked for him longer than any other human being alive and that alone is something that frightens the living daylights out of me sometimes. I should have lasted thirty seconds working for him; instead I made it to 11 years before the relationship suffered total meltdown. It should be noted that I was his longest serving employee and that has importance.
[*Dez once ran a poll in his own magazine about who the most important people in British comics were – the poll showed that his readers obviously thought he was, by quite a large margin; I came in at #5, but he explained to me after the issue in which the results came out that a) he couldn’t really include me for obvious reasons, and b) the obvious reasons were I had no power in the industry at all, he did, people just thought I was autonomous from him, but that wasn’t the case. There is little paraphrasing in that previous sentence.]
Tales From the Heart of England was the gossip column I invented and it first appeared in Dez’s Comics International with issue #6. Within three issues it had had a significant name change and had been placed near the back of the magazine, where it would stay until it fizzled out a year or two after my departure – this wasn’t a bad thing; it was placed there as the last major section; the column to break up all the boring advertising and listings.
It was quite simply the most consistently successful thing in Comics International. It was known by the right people and it was completely ‘anonymous’ - in that the only people who didn't know who did it were blind, deaf or both. I had people falling over themselves to give me information, gossip, dirt and much more on everyone’s favourite writers, artists, publishers, heck, even letterers, inkers and colourists had secrets. It became known as Movers & Shakers (I heard the term in a Rush song and realised that it applied quite nicely to the column) and it put me in a very enviable position within the comics industry – I knew stuff about everyone - information to make or break careers.
The column had to be anonymous; it was part of its charm, but equally there was no one to answer to or come back to. Dez at first promoted the column as if it was just sent in by 'some bloke' and he had no control over what was in it and subsequently put a disclaimer on it disassociating it from the magazine’s editorial policy – this would become a bone of contention in later years when it was obvious the column became more important than him.
Movers was a huge success and married unconfirmed news and gossip with news from the burgeoning comics speculator market. Comics, probably as a direct result of retailers asking for vastly inflated back issue prices of Batman comics, had suddenly become the new antiques. There was gold in them there hills – or in this case the attic or the cellar or the old suitcases or your mum’s loft. Comics suddenly became a source for instant wealth and I was the guy telling everyone what was hot and what was not – and I ran my own comics retail business! You now understand why the column was ‘anonymous’? It could not be seen as being written by a retailer, because accusations of market manipulation could be levelled at us (or specifically me, as Dez had already disassociated himself from the column). If people knew that Movers & Shakers was written by a retailer, its credibility would have been shot. Plus the unique thing about the column was that it was read just as much for the speculator news as it was for the gossip and if people suspected there was someone out there essentially making it up on the strength of what his shop was doing... Do I need to spell it out?
My life is never without some irony, I hardly ever benefited from my predictions - I reported on the hits, I didn't rake it in. I was a safe retailer; I ordered what I needed and very rarely any extra, despite having all kinds of premonitions urging me to the contrary. I normally predicted the hot ones after I sold out of them. Despite having an excellent record in spotting the hits, I rarely ever put my money where my mouth was. A repeat of the comic bags episode from years earlier; I was too scared to speculate.
It was the advent of the speculator that basically shot the goose that laid the golden egg. Comicbooks have always had a collectibles. The very first comic mart I went to had comics for as high as £25! What I didn’t know was that comics were worth considerably more than £25*. Comics were growing so big by the end of 1990 that there were even price guides being released, to help aspiring collectors and dealers. In the USA there was even a monthly magazine version of the annual price guide; it had to exist because the prices of comics were fluctuating faster than a black day at the stock market!
[*My first comics hard luck story goes back to about 1973. My family had lived in Canada and my eldest brother, who I said would later return to comics, had been interested in them and had a couple of hundred in the garage. Most of these were Marvels and DCs ranging from about 1963 to 1968, although there were some from much earlier that he’d swapped with a friend. Instead of throwing them out when we moved back from Canada, my dad had the brilliant idea of using them in the bottoms of crates and in-between pictures and stuff in the huge packing case that was being sent over by sea. The irony here was that before American comics became easily available in the UK, the only way many of them got here was as ballast in container ships; my dad was doing exactly what shipping firms did during the late 1940s and most of the 1950s.
About half of the comics he packed didn’t survive one way or the other and finally after two years back in the UK my dad asked me if I wanted any of the comics he found in the bottom of the crate. I looked through them and was amazed that we actually had American comics in the house and I’d never known. A few of them were quite exceptional and contributed to the considerable value that my first collection would have been worth. Some of these comics were in incredibly good condition considering the journeys they had been through. I salvaged about 30 comics from the box, those that were left had been either saturated and dried out or been badly torn up; I seemed to discard these comics, despite having some US comics in my growing collection that didn’t even have covers.
We lived in the middle of a terrace of houses and at the end a new family called the Andrews moved in and their eldest boy, a horrid little shit who’d thieve anything if it wasn’t nailed down, called Paul was foisted upon me. He liked everything I owned, so much so he even stole my pet tortoise and then got his folks to argue that they had always had one, despite the fact it had the same painted name on the shell as mine had. They were real scumbags of a family, but my folks were largely socialists and believed that we should share our things with those who weren’t as well off as us. Paul took a real liking to my comics, but I didn’t like him touching them – heck, I didn’t even like him looking at them. My mum thought it might be a good idea if I gave Paul some of my comics; perhaps the British ones that I no longer collected. It seemed like a fair idea, even if I didn’t really want to share anything with this kid – I didn’t like him. But my mum went on at me, telling me to find a dozen or so of my old comics so that this kid could start his own collection.
I’ve always been a procrastinator and this was one of those occasions where it really backfired on me. I was trying to work out the origins of some of the comics I’d salvaged, a couple of them were unlike anything I’d ever seen before; they even made my few American comics look odd. These dozen or so comics were sitting on my desk in my bedroom. My mother, fed up with me not giving her the comics she’d asked for, saw this small stack of comics and jumped to the conclusion these were the ones I was happy to give away. So she did just that – gave them to this kid, Paul Andrews, originally from Bradford, Yorkshire. The shit.
My memory for things like covers was pretty much photographic and I now believe that these comics were all printed prior to 1960, and one of them in particular was very special. The comic that confused me the most was actually a comic called Red Raven #1. Originally published in 1940, it was the only issue, it was very rare and in top condition it would sell for about £10,000 today, even in 1973 it was worth at least $4,000. Red Raven #1 is what would be called a Golden Age comic; this is a category of comic deemed so by virtue of when it was published. Comics prior to 1956 were often called Golden Age; ones published after this were called Silver Age (and are, by and large, worth considerably more, on average, than any other comics, with some noticeable exceptions). Red Raven came out in 1940, during the Second World War, in the two years preceding this both Action Comics #1 (the first ever appearance of Superman) and Detective Comics #27 (first Batman) were released – these are the two most expensive comics of all time, both selling upwards of 6 figure sums and have been sold for a million just recently.
The others given away were all 1950s horror and science fiction comics and could have been worth varying amounts today. My mother gave away about £10,000 worth of comics to a boy who would chew the corners; stick bits up his nose, try to torment his dog with and attempt to feed them to my tortoise. I expected these comics lasted about ten minutes before his skanky mother put them in the bin. Like I said, shit...
But that wasn’t the only disaster that befell me at that age – I found a commemorative brick – no, I’m not shitting you – which had been laid by King George V. I thought it was worth money, my dad didn’t, so when we moved he made sure we forgot to bring this quite impressive brick. Thirty years on, one of these antique programs and about having money in your attic had a similar type brick – it was worth over £200! I think I simultaneously had a nose for a good deal and an ability to let it slip through my fingers, before I could take advantage of it!]
Next: A short history of the origins of comics retail in the UK.