Saturday, 25 June 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Sixteen)

It's difficult enough to tell a linear story about Squonk!! mainly because of its own little metaphoric place in how comics, as a whole, work. We'd got to Jack 3, digressed, then to Mammary Lass and I digressed again; and now we're digressing again before we get back to everything else...

First up of my business partners would be Iain, a double-glazing and stone-cladding salesman from Peterborough and something of a self-made man. He was not rolling in money, but he did have everything he ever wanted, except a comic shop. He slid into my shop one Saturday afternoon shortly after the Head Shop opened upstairs, he wasn’t into that kind of thing, but a mutual acquaintance of ours was. She went off upstairs, while Iain just lurked at the back of the shop looking at my old comics.

Iain told me many months later that he felt unsure about approaching me. He hadn’t seen me as your typical comic shop owner and I positively oozed confidence, which is something shop owners can sometimes struggle with. Although he was a brilliant salesman and normally unafraid of approaching people, he recognised that I was not the easiest person to talk to about business propositions – basically I'm very much a 'you can’t sell me something unless I want it, so don’t try' person. So he targeted Monty instead. Iain knew that if he could win Monty over, then he could get at me from two directions. He was clever and I fell for it. Eventually a few weeks later, and enough time for me to have started to notice this little guy in his early 40s, Monty finally broached the subject at the pub the following Friday.

“He wants to buy into the shop.”

“Then why isn’t he talking to me?”

“Because he hasn’t quite figured you out yet.”

“He wants to buy the shop or buy into it?”

“Buy into it; he thinks you’re one of the most sincere and genuine comics sellers he’s ever met.” That was true, I never willingly undersold, but I never sold anything to anyone that I wouldn’t buy, so therefore I persuaded them to buy something else; sometimes more expensive with a longer run so that person has to buy back issues or ongoing new comics, thus boosting my profits - but they always thanked me! It wasn’t that simple, but it was what I normally aimed for – the art of selling comics is to make your customer trust you – this is a marathon relationship, not a short sprint. You, as the retailer, needs repeat custom like MacDonald’s needs fat, msg-addicted, half-wit children with no taste buds.

I agreed to talk with him the next weekend. It just happens that at the same time Jack 3 turned up with one of his mates who had a huge comics collection for sale. Iain became my first partner by default really. The seller wanted to sell, I wanted to buy, but had no real cash at my disposal. Iain probably thought he’d struck lucky by his timing. Silly man.

Everything was done within weeks. The legalities were sorted, money changed hands, contracts were drawn up (but never, as I recall, signed) and Iain became the co-owner just over a year after I opened. It should have been a clever move with both of us benefiting.

It was a nightmare.

What had already become something of a chore on a Saturday, now got worse because not only did I have to deal with the nerds and the drongos, I also had to wet nurse Iain and this meant having to do some pretty decisive things. The most prominent being taking Iain to one side and saying quite bluntly, “You’ve got to stop trying to sell people comics. You’re intimidating them and because of this they won’t come back.” The reason I knew this was because some of the best customers, many not very good at expressing opinions to strangers, now trusted me enough to talk to me. Iain’s style of muscling into someone’s home and not leaving until they’d signed the dotted line just didn’t work with comics, especially when you’re dealing with people who struggle to have conversations on a day-to-day basis.

Iain’s other big problem was he liked to rip the piss out of customers after they left, but didn’t realise what sensitive souls comics fans are, and quite amazingly how loyal they become to each other. We’ll touch on this later, but when my customers were inside my shop there were no boundaries – people who wouldn’t acknowledge each other in the street would stand and talk for hours about their comics; they became friends inside the microcosm that was the ‘Midland Road Community Centre’. When Ian badmouthed a customer another would hear and invariably it would get back to the source and butt of the joke. The nerds and geeks trusted and liked me because for whatever I thought about them I kept it to myself. Iain didn’t. I’ve forever been accused of liking the sound of my own voice; Iain loved the sound of his and, problematically, didn't know how to listen.

Iain had given the business much needed financial stability, but he was actively responsible for a 15% downturn in takings. Some of that I got back, but many good customers never darkened my door again. He wasn’t doing it maliciously, he obviously wanted the shop to be as successful as possible, but in his overzealous attitude he neglected to think about who he was trying to sell to. I watched him once and because he was such a driven and decisive man he just could not get his head around the rather obtuse ways of the average comics fan. He just became more and more frustrated as his suggestions fell on deaf ears. I stepped in at the last minute on a number of occasions and saved the customer and prevented Iain from making an arse of himself.

Then things get fuzzy. By the summer of the following year I’d grown to hate Iain with a passion. Not only did he seem to have no idea about anything other than obscure 1950s and 1960s girl’s Marvel comics, but also he was beginning to grate on everyone with his stream of racist and sexist jokes. Not only did we have many black and Asian customers, but we’d also managed to attract quite a few women and girls into the shop. Barely any came in on a Saturday and those that did stopped pretty soon after Iain arrived.

Iain got on famously with one of my better customers, the one you’ll hear about soon enough called John. They could have been father and son, but while John was quite likeable even for his horrendous points, Iain wasn’t. And that was about it. Even Scott who rarely commented about anything other than ‘twattish Star Trek’ fans was heard to say of Iain, “The man is definitely not right.” If you knew Scott you'd realise the gravitas of that statement.

Even with all these new characters being introduced and foisted upon you, I’m going to muddy the waters even more now. The guy who ran the Head Shop is one of my oldest and dearest friends – he was also my drug dealer for a while. For the benefit of this little tale we’ll refer to him as The Hippie (but only because he shares the same name as someone else in this story and you’ll only get confused).

The Hippie had been selling me my weekly supply of hashish (or grass when it was available) for the previous few years or so. We got on really well, and still do, so much so he is still one of my closest friends. He was a dodgy geezer in those days and he knew far too many dodgier geezers. My first experience of his dodgy mates came when he first approached me to open a Head Shop upstairs from the comics. I was worried because of the kids coming in, but equally the deal he was offering me was too good to turn down. There was one catch; he wanted to bring his mate Tiny in on it. Tiny made Scott seem like a dwarf. He was just shy of 7’ tall and looked like a cross between a werewolf and Frankenstein’s monster. He was also involved in more things than I really wanted to know about. He organised raves and illegal parties, and was probably the guy who was not only supplying the Hippie with his legal shop gear but probably his illegal drugs.

I reluctantly agreed, but within a month or so I was becoming increasingly worried about what was going on in my building – not the possible sale of drugs, which I can assure you didn’t happen, but the fact that the upstairs of the shop seemed to have become an office for every low life and potential felon this side of the Fens. I did not like these lowlifes walking through my shop to get to the stairs to go to the head shop. Nor did I like the way my regular customers looked at them or the way some of my nerds were looked at. Eventually I lost it and in an amazing confrontation in the middle of the Marvel comics section, I told this big fuck-off-of-a-guy to 'fuck off out of my shop' and take his wares with him. I stood up to a man who was almost a foot taller than me and he backed down and went. God I was scared, but I was also really relieved.

The Hippie came back to me a few months later with the same idea. This time he had a new friend with him. A guy with a wooden leg called Brian (I never did find out the name of his good leg). The missing leg had been worth about £150,000 to Brian – he probably could have got more, but he got bored with the waiting and took a settlement. Brian was a scream – he was typical of someone who had been in a near-death situation, life takes on a different meaning for them and for Brian his life was going to be fuelled by Thai prostitutes and enormous amounts of grass and cocaine. I liked Brian; for all his faults, he was a bit of a cool dude (but in a slightly disconcerting way, he was also a bit nerdy, too).

Within a few weeks, Brian was making serious noises about investing into the business, but he had one major problem and hurdle, Iain. By this time our relationship had disintegrated into acrimony, neither Iain nor I were talking to each other. I had grown tired of his less than adult behaviour and the fact that he had the desires of a ten-year-old – if he didn’t get what he wanted he’d have a temper tantrum. A perfect example of the man’s obstinacy – we were booked to start doing comic marts again, Iain felt that the extra money made with the overstocks would be good for cash flow and I was happy with that; it was a good idea. We did a couple and were booked into the Sheffield comic mart (not even a particularly great money spinner, but Iain liked the mart because some of his mates were there). We hired a van in the relative mild climate of Northants and with the Hippie (driving), and Iain and I in transit (so to speak), we set off for Yorkshire. By the time we reached south Leicester the snow had started, six miles later we ground to a halt - the motorway had been classed as impassable from that point on. We were taken to a break in the barriers, turned around and told to head back to where we came from. Iain couldn’t accept we were going to miss the mart, even though it was now gone 10am and we were still a good hour away from Sheffield even with clear roads. We reached the barrier and Iain rolled his window down and spoke to the coppers directing traffic. “How bad is it?” He asked.

“Bad enough for us to turn you round, sir,” was the reply.

“Are there any other routes open?”

“If the M1 is closed, sir, I doubt very much anywhere else is going to be passable.”

“But…” The policeman cut Iain off.

“Sir, North Leicester constabulary are saying that ordinary streets are blocked by snow, traffic on most roads is chaotic. It is entirely up to you if you want to try and go north, but you’re not doing it on this road. Now you’re holding the traffic up even more, please move on.” My best guess is that the policeman probably did have a father and had seen straight through Iain immediately – a jumped up little man who had to have his own way. Within a mile of the journey back the snow was all but gone and Iain had the Hippie pull in Leicester Forest North services. There we sat and argued for at least another hour about the futility of attempting to drive there not using the motorway and having to go through the Peak District to get into Sheffield the back way, probably an hour after the comic mart was supposed to have started. Ian was still determined to go; finally the Hippie solved the problem.

“You’re paying me to drive and I’m not going to drive up there and I don’t want to be paid. I’m going home and as the van is in my name you can join me or walk to fucking Sheffield.” We were heading back to the shop within 5 minutes. Iain was visibly pissed off. He really wanted to have a go at God – you could see it in his face. Ironically, on our return to the shop in a totally snowless Wellingborough, Monty informed us that the Sheffield mart had been snowed off - this was pre-mobile phone days. Amazingly, this didn’t change Iain’s mood in the slightest and he stomped about the shop complaining about the weather.

Brian worked out exactly how much money he could invest and we looked seriously at buying Iain out, then someone, Monty I think, spotted that takings had dropped pretty seriously since Iain arrived and standing orders were being left unclaimed. In fact, there were customers we hadn’t seen for months who were getting their monthly comics stacking up and not claiming them. I went to my accountant and he worked out that since Iain’s arrival the business had lost its value and was in a far unhealthier state then than it had been before Iain's arrival. We also found a legal back door that we didn’t realise was there. Ian disappeared over the horizon £10K lighter in the pocket and without anything to show apart from a few sneers and a slightly improved comics collection. I was still pinching myself when Brian came in and invested all that extra cash into saving the business. Brian also introduced something to the proceedings I’d never considered before – we all had to pay for our own comics. This would save some money. Fortunately this happened around the same time as Monty went off to university – he had a huge standing order and hardly ever took any money in actual cash pay.

Instead of being joined by someone I imagined would be stoned every day and would leave me to run it, Brian took a very hands on role in the shop and many of the customers liked him. He didn’t try to sell them anything; he chatted, listened and made lots of mental notes – he was the amateur and he wanted to learn all about the shop from the experts – the customers. He had ideas, many of them naïve, but at least he was thinking forwards and sales started to pick up, but it was too little too late.

However, for all Brian’s money and input, it was already on the cards that this would be a tough year for the shop, one that it might not recover from. We had a good year though, before it all came crashing around our ears.

This brings me back to Mammary Lass as she was christened in the shop. Luan Jones had been a short-lived girlfriend of The Hippie. When she was 17 she decided she wanted to move away from home and as we were in a bad financial situation it seemed like a good idea for her to move in with us. In reality, it couldn’t have been that much different from living at home, but we weren’t her parents and she could smoke, drink, shag and not get hassled by us for it.

A week after she moved in she realised that money didn’t grow on trees, so we came to an agreement, she could work in the shop and get paid a basic wage minus her board and lodgings and she’d get bonuses depending on how well we did – she didn’t do too badly from that set up. She didn’t mind the arrangement and despite having no interest in comics at all she was a natural at selling and engaging the customers. They loved her – or maybe they loved her chest because despite her elfin size, Luan had an enormous pair of tits and was never afraid to have a bit of cleavage on show. The fans who spent most of their evenings locked in passionate throws with toilet tissue were transfixed by her – a girl, with tits, talking to THEM! Luan could sell oil to the Arabs as long as they could get a glimpse down the dark and inviting crevasse that was her cleavage. Luan took over the shop, literally, within weeks of starting. I trained her far more in-depth than I ever bothered with Monty, she knew everything from the banking to the books and beyond and I trusted her implicitly. I needed someone to be able to run the shop while I sat down in the cellar, smoking myself stupid on Thai sticks and considering suicide as a viable alternative to running a shop.

Brian was forever out of the country screwing his girlfriend, a Thai prostitute for nine months of the year and Brian’s own personal sex slave for the other three, so I had vast quantities of time where I felt alone, isolated and incredibly stoned. Some of the adventures I had would have been great for this book, but I can’t remember them. This time was my own personal dead zone – lots happened, just don’t expect me to remember any specific details.

I had grown more and more dependent on Dez Skinn for support from a business and personal point of view, and an old friend from the same era, who I had become friendly with again called Mike Conroy was equally important for me to cast an objective view of my failing business. All three of us sat on the inaugural CoBRA committee and Mike was the only retailer left with any future and that would disappear before long. Conroy gave me the emotional support I wasn’t getting from home and he was backing me up, giving me hints, tips and plans to try and beat the Official Receiver.

With Christmas looming, my house heavily behind with mortgage payments, creditors’ at my door demanding money and the threat of my weekly supply of new comics at risk, I had to do something drastic. I booked some tables at one of the most popular comic mart venues in London, produced a huge banner that read ‘Everything Half Price or better!’ and put virtually everything we had in the shop up for sale! I then witnessed huge swathes of my finest back issue stock bought up by opportunistic dealers who, ironically, would be in the same boat as me within two years. At the end of the day I had taken well over £2000, of which I handed over £1500 straight away to my distributor and my deliveries were restored by the following week. I probably sold something like 5000 comics that day and could have gone home with everything left in the boot of a small saloon car, but we’d hired a van to come down and that rattled all the way home, but we were happy and solvent again, at least temporarily.

Another of the great things to come out of that day was when the guy who organised these events, Rob Barrow, decided to charge me half price for my tables, which, trust me, was a grand gesture. But it also illustrated how much people liked me; this was before I'd started working for Comics International, I was just this young guy running a shop, who got on well with any one he met. Jesus, how I miss my youth...

Comics Lesson 10:

Comics people really do like each other. They might be in competition, but they all have common enemies therefore they all tend to stick together. Retailers, the ones with their backs furthest against the wall, really do try and help each other out to a point. You’d be hard pressed to see the camaraderie that is exhibited between people in comics anywhere else. It is touching, but considering the prejudices many have faced, it’s understandable. They wouldn't piss on each other if they were on fire during the good periods, but imminent closure is probably the only thing that will rally retailers together – it’s simple really, other retailers will always benefit from another’s misfortune whether they survive or not.

But that doesn’t stop them from trying it on with the poor struggling retailer. The day in London when I took £2000, near the end of the day another dealer who had been avoiding me for most of the day came over and started to pull comics out of the 25p box by the handfuls. He then looked at me and said, “What’s the best price you’ll do these books for?” I looked at him, then at the books, which were all basically £1.00 off retail price already and said, “I think making 5 times the cost on a book is enough profit, don’t you?” He looked at me, looked at the comics he’d pulled out, shrugged and put them back, no, he just crammed them back into the box – no respect for the comics or the man selling them. I laughed like a drain when my brother told me the guy had gone out of business a few years later – there was never a more deserving cunt.

Next time: picked up cliffhangers; the extremes of collecting. Don't worry, the bits you want to read about will be here soon enough!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

My Monthly Curse (Summer Special)

June 2011
It dawned on me several days ago, while re-editing recently published sections of this, that while I spend a good quarter of its entirety talking about retail and giving character studies of the people who were important during the 3 years Squonk!! was open and examining all the pitfalls of retailing comics, I haven't really talked about what it was like to run a shop, especially one like mine. There's snippets, but it isn't anything like as detailed, considering it was, by and large, a happier time.

It's been over 20 years since I opened it; a lifetime for some of people and my memories of it are fitful at best. In the intervening years, people I've met have never been surprised that I was once a comicbook retailer. For some people it's what they remember me for; a reader of this serialisation was a customer at Squonk!! and never really knew that I had a career in comics long after the place became a kebab shop. Squonk!! was a time that never can be replaced...

I'll celebrate 25 years of marriage in September, yet I'd only been married three years when I told my wife that I was going to borrow £20,000 on the mortgage to open a comic shop. She was remarkably cool with the idea; but she'd been with me six years by then and had a good idea of the kind of man I was. She never doubted it would be a success and for that I'll always be in her debt. She accepted the months we couldn't pay the mortgage with good grace and while she was quietly cracking up under my strain during the final months of Squonk's life, she held her belief in me. A fantastic achievement considering my patchy - at best - employment history since I'd met her.

It was even more remarkable considering the fact I spent a lot of time hiding from the world and getting an assortment of characters to cover for me.

Life at Squonk (we'll drop the astericks for now) initially started with a 9.30 opening and a 5.30 closing, six days a week. Within three months, I'd realised that Thursdays were dead; I took less than a tenner some Thursdays and it was just pointless opening. It cost me less to keep it closed. So I announced to the world that we would have a half day on a Thursday. I opened at 9.30 and shut at 12.30 and took £3.50, so opted for a 1.30 opening and a 5.30 close. The shop took marginally more, but still not enough to warrant the electricity; so we shut on Thursdays and every week I wondered if someone was going to turn up to spend £100 and find us closed and would never come back.

I soon realised that it was pointless opening before 10.00am, apart from Saturdays and by the time I'd been open a year, I only went in before 12 to do the paperwork, tidy the shop and generally get things done that I couldn't when we were busy - it was open but I rarely saw anyone. Except, we were never really busy, at least not on weekdays. Saturdays were crazy and we'd take more money in a day than we would have for the entire week, sometimes as much as five times as much, which prompted one of my friends to suggest I got a part time job and open on Fridays and Saturdays only.

That idea scared me shitless. I was my own boss because I didn't want a job; not a real one.

During the first year, Matt DeMonti spent so much time in the shop, for free, that I could quite easily have taken more time off; but I hated being away from the shop. I'd even go down there on Thursdays, for a few hours, to make plans and think. I liked being in the shop, even when it was closed.

I spent hours reading back issues; reading new issues; becoming encyclopaedic about the things my customers wanted. As soon as I had any spare cash, or had any cashflow I could play with, I was upgrading the displays. The interior of the shop was horrendous as modern shops (in general) go; it was wooden battening, plywood shelving, and massive cupboards with rows and rows of comic boxes on them. I wish I had more photographic evidence of the interior; but if you imagine an oblong box then the shop was similar to the dimensions of that, but obviously larger. It had back issues as you walked in and new stock, displayed on shelves towards the back of the shop; the right hand side as you walk in was the till and the majority of the other things I sold - computer games, books, models, T-shirts and peripherals. Anything to improve the shop was a priority.

However, the place was always a tip. It was a tidy tip, but it looked like it had been thrown together by a drunken builder and his colour blind friend. The walls were bright blue; the shelving painted red, the ceiling yellow and the carpet was also blue. I'm surprised we didn't have any green, but it might have made people sick. There was always plenty of things to do, which is why I let Monty come in and do it. I did all the fun things, he did all the donkey work and he reminded me of this about 6 times a week for nearly two years.

Year two saw us bring the overdraft down to zero. We started to make money; not a lot, but enough to make the bank manager relieved and the wife happy. Takings were exceeding £1000 a week and I needed to take £900 to break even. We ventured into mail order, the arrival of Comics International meant we had somewhere to advertise and despite writing a column for nothing, I had to pay for my ads. By the spring of 1991, we were taking £1500 a week and attracting a good percentage of the Northampton comic shop's business, as well as people from Milton Keynes and Peterborough. Being in Wellingborough, on a mainline train station - just up the road - was beginning to look like a risk that paid off.

There were some drawbacks, of which you will read about over the next few weeks, some massive highs and some unbelievable lows; but it was the 2nd year that will stay in the memory as the best, if only because it was working. I had to suffer Iain, but that was price worth paying.

1991 was a hot summer and the weather hit the business for a month; people just weren't coming into town as temperatures hit the 90s for days on the trot and then, on one of the hottest days, one of my customers brought me a newspaper with the announcement that Midland Road, my road, was going to be shut for traffic for 6 weeks for vital gas, electricity and road repairs - it was decided that all three would be done at the same time to minimise disruption and I discovered, quite remarkably, that a lot of my business was passing trade. Not in the literal sense, but in the way that if they can't get to me, they weren't going to park up on the other side of town and walk to me. I told you about loyalty, didn't I? Well laziness plays a part as well.

I took £500 less during that first week and when I complained to the Chamber of Commerce, I was told that it was just one week and it could have been a fluke. Week two saw a drop in takings of £450 and I went to my local MP. I estimated that inside two weeks - a month in total - the £2000 I'd lose in takings would take me back into the red and I had X-Men #1 coming, followed quickly by the bill.

Peter Fry, my then local Tory MP, did a wonderful job for me; he got Midland Road reopened inside 4 weeks, but the damage had been done. We lost 10% of our standing orders. I still look back and wonder how the road closing could have such a detrimental effect. I believed my customers would walk barefoot over broken glass to get their comics; but I'd misjudged it completely. By the beginning of September, I was so far in debt I couldn't pay my distributor. When this happens, a comic shop's life is usually measured in days rather than years. It was one of the few things that would happen in the 1990s where I would be grateful to Dez Skinn. He was the person who explained the logic of selling what I had for whatever I could get for it and how I had to go to the big London comic mart and sell everything I have at cut down prices. The story is told in the main book, but it got us out of whack and back on an even keel for another six months; to the point where Diamond paid us a visit because they were impressed with how I'd turned things around - they looked like they were about to give me better terms.

Then it just seemed to die. Post Christmas 1992 everything just dried up. I was sitting looking through the standing order folders and counted up over £1000 worth of merchandise that wasn't sold. Luan, my then assistant, spent weeks writing letters, phoning people, passing messages to all the people who had unclaimed mounds of comics; but we just didn't hear from that many of them. It was a bad economic time; interest rates had been at their highest ever for a while and the country was in a recession. I wasn't the only victim; many of those shops that had just about survived X-Men #1 were also falling by the way. Between January and the May we closed, I locked myself away in the basement, sitting on a heater, smoking my self senseless on Thai Sticks and chewing my nails to the wick.

I was only paying Diamond by March. My landlord had not been given his rent since Christmas; my rates weren't paid; I was being hassled by incidental costs; a courier company was trying to sue me for not taking delivery of a shipment of duff comic bags I'd ordered from a plastics factory who basically got the order wrong and the bags were all the wrong size. My own mortgage had not been paid for six months; I'd run my credit card to the max and I was smoking £50 a week worth of cannabis, I couldn't afford. I was also going slowly mad.

One Saturday, I decided to paint the toilet. I only had red or white paint, so I mixed the two together and created a magnificent dayglo pink - I painted everything apart from the basin and the bowl of the loo. It was like a camp toilet gone mad. People started to ask to use our loo more; I think they didn't believe the story.

For a while, the only person I'd socialise with was Tim Abbott. Tim had wandered into my shop on the lunchtime of my first Monday; he wasn't interested in comics in the slightest, but was attracted by the music playing on the shop stereo. We got talking; he was 16 and at a training centre for unemployed kids. I liked him and we're still friends today. He was my weekday gopher; he went and got my lunch, made the tea and in return he got to hang about the shop for his lunch hour, drink tea and listen to my eclectic taste in music. He especially liked REM. So much so, he has made a life out of the band.

With Luan working for her bed and board and some pocket money - I really could not afford her, but I couldn't really run the place without her by this time - I spent more time in the shop but unavailable. My mind wasn't in it; my heart was, but my head was away with the faeries. By this time, Tim was working at a wood yard, quite a way from the town, so he didn't get in as much and was no longer my lunch gopher - I stopped eating lunch. He didn't smoke, still wasn't interested in comics, but used to come and see me; it was like he knew that I actually relished his visits; they helped me forget the mess I was plunging into. Talking for half an hour about music, beer or the latest misadventure with his psycho best mate was a relief.

The fateful decision to close is detailed in the main story, but the week before I finally took the plunge, I was in the empty shell of the old head shop, long gone, with all the other small shops that sprung up, burned brightly and died quickly inside my little emporium, looking at the turnover and beating myself up about owing so much money. I should have made myself bankrupt there and then, but I held on until 1995 and don't believe people when they tell you it goes away after 3 years; it's at least 5 and then you'll struggle to get anything for years more. 16 years after my bankruptcy and 13 after I was discharged, the Official Receiver is still trying to get half of an old insurance policy. Whatever plan I came up with to rescue the business involved needing about £5000 to pay the bills and keep the wolves from the door. I discovered a few years later that someone had been interested in buying the shop, but I went out of business before he got to me. That's touched on briefly in August.

On the penultimate Saturday, we held a raffle. We'd been giving away tickets when people collected their standing orders - as an incentive - and the three prizes were £25 worth of stock, £50 and £100, plus my then partner's Platinum Spider-Man #1. The big prize was won by the youngest of three brothers who had been coming to the store for the last six months. They were only ever allowed one comic each a week and the boy who won was a Spider-Man fan. You should have seen his face; even after he burst out crying when he realised he had won the platinum Spidey. £100 worth of stock was like the entire world to this 8 year old; he shared it out with his brother and they took home stacks of comics; so many, their bewildered mother gave me a look which was a mixture of love and hate.

I rented out the cupboard under the back issues for three months to a homeless teenager. He was a good lad who I had got to know through the shop and he lived in it for a while. He never abused the privilege; he never had friends in; never made a mess or stole anything - there was always a £20 float in the till and the drawer was always open at night - less likely for a thief to break in, believe it or not. I charged him £7 a week and £3 for any tea, coffee, milk or hot water he used. He was also useful as someone to look after the place, as it proved when we had our only attempted burglary.

Homeless boy rang me at home at 2:00am one morning to say that he'd been woken by someone breaking the window at the back of the shop; he had woken up and shouted at them, scaring them away, but he thought that the guy who broke the window had grabbed a handful of books from a shelf before making off. It turned out the books were a pile of Stray Toasters by Bill Sienkiewicz that I hadn't sold. Quite possibly one of the the strangest things to ever appear in print and not a superhero or bit of spandex in sight. The books turned up in the second hand shop the other side of town; the owner came and saw me and we identified the kid who sold them to him as the same kid who had swapped a £10 Thor comic into a bag marked 50p shortly after we opened.

I recovered my sanity enough after the closure of Squonk!! to travel the country, with Luan, doing comic marts for almost a year. Selling the stock and trying to eke out a living from weekend warrioring. I've been to comic marts in England that have been so dead, we've left the tables unattended, gone to the pub and come back to find we've taken 50p. One such time, in Stoke, in 1993, we left my mate's wife in charge of just about every table in the hall, apart from my brother Ron's. They watched over the mart as eight comics dealers and their mates went for a couple of pints in the pub down the road. We weren't all selling rubbish and no one wanted it; this was a comic mart that had less than 20 people attend, yet we were still charged for our tables, the organiser was not responsible for the number of people who turn up.

I don't know how we would have survived if I wasn't whoring myself to London five days a week to dog's body for famous comics entrepreneurs.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

There are some funny stories on their way; about fans, comics readers, nerds and geeks; but kicking it all off are my business partners...

Sunday, 19 June 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifteen)

It would be easy for me to list a bunch of my old customers, with their quirks, peculiarities, and above all else their ability to be outcasts without really trying. Or in other words I could quite easily sit here and take the piss out of these guys (and I might do that), but they also represent the diversity of the comics fan and that's really the reason for the next couple of entries, to show you the kind of dedicated fan you can get. [Names have been changed to protect the innocent.]

Jack 1 (or J1): it was quite weird to discover that three of my best customers all had the same Christian name. All three of them played valuable parts in the life of my comics shop by doing what a retailer wants his customers to do the most – spending money. Jack 1 was actually one of the first paying customers I had. I had opened quietly and unobtrusively on Saturday 18th October and took about £200. J1 walked in at about 5pm on the Monday night. I was getting ready to pack up and go home, I’d had a pretty shitty day and had seen four customers in 8 hours. My wife turned up at 5.25 expecting to see me finished and it was clear from her mood she wasn’t enamoured by the fact I still had someone in the shop. I tried to make conversation with Jack 1 but he was a little shy and not very forthcoming, so I hung back and left him to it.

By the time he left, at a little after 5.45pm (fifteen minutes after I was supposed to shut), he’d spent over £100 on stacks of what essentially was shit. For the next 5 days he came in every day and spent between £30 and £100. I took over £400 from him in one week and that represented almost half of my overall first full week’s take.

Jack 1’s buying slowed down but he was still spending about £400 a month on comics – his standing order increased to be worth almost £100 a week. What did he do for a living? Well, he arrived every night shortly after 5pm, which eventually prompted me to keep the shop open till 6pm and open half an hour later in the morning [There's more to that but you can read about that next time]. He always wore the same blue overalls and eventually after six months I started to converse with him – he worked at a commercial launderette. He lived at home with his parents, had a very pleasant (and far more talkative) girlfriend, who he hoped to marry one day and he lived for comics and she didn’t seem to care. A match made in heaven?

You could bump into this guy anywhere in the world and just believe he was a mild-mannered, quietly spoken young man. He had no visible signs of nerdiness. He didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time discussing the finer points of Spider-Man’s costume, nor was he particularly interested in how Iron Man’s armour worked, or why the Green Lantern from the 1940s is not to be confused with the Green Lanterns who appeared in later decades. Jack 1 was interested in reading as much as he could for as little as he had to spend, and while that sounds weird considering the amount of money he spent, I realised a couple of years after I shut up shop that he probably would have spent more money had I actually had all the missing pieces from the countless number of mini-collections he was nurturing. But essentially J1 reminds me of me when I was younger. He was interested in quantity over quality because quality really is in the eye of the beholder and what most people regarded as throwaway crap, J1 saw them as bonuses. If every comic in the shop had been £1 or under, he would have bought everything and anything he didn't have.

I was invited to J1’s wedding and was slightly sad to see that outside of family and neighbours he had very few people he called friends. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable do, either. As vegetarians we know that we’re awkward, but after several phone calls to check that we were definitely vegetarian and didn’t eat fish, chicken or maybe even pork (!?) we ended up with ham salads. We fortunately had another wedding reception to go to that evening so we hurriedly made our excuses and went somewhere that was equally as drab and dull as this wedding.

J1 probably still reads comics when he can buy them. But he’s not the sort of collector who will go out of his way to find them. He’s a valuable asset to any comics shop owner because he doesn’t discriminate where he spends his money or what on as long as he gets enjoyment.

Jack 2 was something of a different kettle of fish. Where J1 looked like your average workingman, J2 was the son of a local MP, spoke with an accent that would have put the Queen to shame and struggled with an inner turmoil that was apparent to many people.

Impeccably dressed, J2 was exponentially wealthier than any other person who walked through my doors, but he was also a man of much pride and humility. Despite his silver spoon upbringing, he was intent on making his own business succeed – he was (and I still find this hard to believe) a self-employed Driving Instructor – and he restricted himself to excess. He was, frankly, not a party animal. He also wasn’t like your stereotypical Hooray Henry that you hear about or see on the TV. In fact, J2 liked nothing better than sitting down with a stack of good comics and a cup of tea and escaping.

I think my shop did J2 enormous favours in terms of introducing him to the human race. I also think it improved his communication skills and allowed him to meet people he probably thought were either made up by the left-wing press or the chavvy people depicted in the Daily Mail. When he first ventured into my shop he reminded me of J1 in that it was very difficult to talk to him. Then I discovered why, he stammered when he was nervous and we, the staff, and me especially, made him nervous. By the time I went out of business J2 had got himself his first ever girlfriend (and was having sex regularly), had all but lost the stammer and had virtually given up comics. Comics helped him discover who he was and when he didn’t need them anymore he moved on. So there's an example of the good they do, right there.

J2 spent about the same as J1. But their tastes were different. Where J1 was happy to buy anything that took his fancy, J2 had a definite list of what he wanted and he really was a pleasure to buy stuff for and I even got embroiled in discussions about comics stories with him. J2 also didn’t take comics home, so to speak. His place for talking about comics was the comic shop – the new J2 as was emerging, was going to the pub and out with friends – he wasn’t going to tell a pretty young thing that his favourite moment in the last week was reading that Ant-Man and the Wasp are getting remarried! Or the excellently drawn fight between Spider-Man and Doc Octopus! J2 had a real enthusiasm for the comics universe that was both naïve, but exciting to imagine, but he also knew where to park it when the real world intruded.

He was very much into trading, despite having a lot of hidden wealth. J2 was the kind of customer who would buy a huge run of comics on a recommendation and would, six months later, bring them back, to trade them against other back issues – we never traded back issues for new stock – it was suicide. When, several years after the shop closed, he decided he didn’t want to collect any more, he put about 300 in a box and stuck them in his loft – interestingly these weren’t a box of his most valuable comics, but the ones that had most sentimental value. The rest he tried to sell to me. All I could recommend he do was either wait to see if he changed his mind or take the plunge and try to sell them himself, because trying to sell them to a comic dealer wouldn’t get a third of their true value.

It’s difficult to tell you exactly what he brought with him to the comics shop or to comics in general but I often think back and hope that he’s as happy now as he was in 1993. I think he might return to comics one day, he might be back now, and he’ll be a devoted fan, but he’ll understand that he has a life as well.

Comics Lesson 9:

I forgot to mention that a lot of comics dealers and shop owners who buy old collections will normally offer between 10% and 35% of the comics resale value. This might sound like a pretty good deal for the dealer and a piss poor one for the collector, but in reality a collection of 1000 comics will have guaranteed sales of about 6% and how much that 6% amounts to should cover the cost you paid for the collection. So being offered between 10 and 35% is actually a bloody good deal.

Later we’ll talk about Price Guides and you will, I’ll guarantee, get even more confused.

Jack 3 has been a close personal friend for the last 22 years, he knows I’m going to write about him and he shrugged when I told him. J3 sums up a lot of what’s wrong about some comics fans. J3 is a nerd, and he’s probably the first person to admit it! However, he will quantify it and I'd have to say he's not your average nerd. Once I've talked about J3, we'll investigate his type of fan. J3 was lucky, he got a girlfriend who liked his hobby and would have sex with him, therefore he became part of the average human race.

I suppose I can say more about Jack 3 because unlike the others he’s remained a constant in my life since 1989.

He walked into my shop with his mates about three weeks after I opened. I think he expected something different from the owner, especially as I was talking to his mates about anything but comics and had left J3 in the capable hands of my then assistant manager, the deliriously eccentric Matthew DeMonti. ‘Monty’ was in charge of running the standing orders and controlling the till, as well as most other things – he was my dog’s body and I paid him pathetic money, but he liked it and liked being Assistant Manager, especially at the tender age of 18. J3 and Monty got on like a house on fire, they both had similar tastes and that suited me, I really didn’t like talking about comics unless I had to. Besides some of J3’s mates were very interesting - all a bit geeky in their own way, but worth spending time talking to.

I can see this is going to get confusing on its own, so before we go back to Jack 3 and then, finally, John, let’s flip backwards slightly and look at what life was really like at ‘The Midland Road Community Centre’ or my comics shop…

I was never going to be a millionaire and the shop probably wasn’t ever going to be anything other than this dodgy looking brightly-coloured hovel with a Head Shop above and a Dungeons and Dragons shop out back; plus, for a while, a film memorabilia shop on the split level at the back of the first floor of the monstrous old building I’d stupidly rented because it was the only one I could afford.

Looking back, I really didn’t have much of a clue. My area was comics not shop fitting or tills or decoration. So subsequently as the opening day grew closer none of the really important things had been organised. This general disorganised air about me was to continue through my entire period as a shop owner. I was a great salesman (now that I had somewhere I felt comfortable selling from and a product I believed in) but I couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery and should never have been given £20,000 of anyone’s money, let alone my own.

[It should be pointed out that while I refer to the shop as the ‘community centre’ and a social club quite frequently; I never actually thought of it as that way until many years after I shut.] So the ‘Midland Road Community Centre’ was born. It became the place to ‘hang’.

It was the cool place for the uncool guy!!

The ‘Community Centre’ had been largely anonymous; I watched people walk past it without even noticing it was there; it was amazing the number of people you’d meet who never knew it existed, but knew the Golden Dragon Chinese takeaway (on my right) and Perfect Pizza (on my left). I liked to think of the place as slowly slipping out of average reality and existing in a place where everyone is happy. It certainly felt that way at times, but I'm beginning to sound like a Disney cartoon, so...

I had my regular customers, many of whom I could set my watch by, and I had staff. It should have been my brother-in-law, Neil, but he lived too far from the shop and was too young still to be of any serious help. Instead, a couple of days after I opened, a guy walked in, the aforementioned Matt DeMonti, he was a boy genius and post-modern teenage geek rolled into one!

Monty as he became known as, much to his chagrin (and believe me that’s the kind of word he’d use), was a bit of a star. He did so much for so little and I don't know if he realises just how grateful I was. He was a comics nerd who had all the enthusiasm about all-things-comics that I lacked. But he was also someone I could identify with. He ran his own fanzine called Pandemonium and, like me, he’d taken that over from someone else (Monty also incidentally published my only scripted comic strip!) He was so unbelievably professional about everything, he made Jack 2 look sloppy, but he was also a really funny lad and very few people disliked him, even if he disliked them! He was stroppy, in a Kevin the teenager kind of way, and was prone to sulks; he was also far too molly coddled by his folks, he was almost unhealthily anally-retentive, but generally he was the one thing you want more than anything else when you run your own business – someone you could really trust.

Monty was joined, about four weeks after I opened, by the Incredible Bulk – Scott Goodman. He was a friend of Jack 3’s and wasn’t really into comics, he was into Doctor Who – which, I’m sure you’ll understand is a subject for its very own book. Scott is a monster of a man, standing well over 6 feet 6 inches and built like a shit-house rat; yet you couldn’t wish to meet a more mild-mannered and affable bloke, if you could get over the initial fear of being towered over by a ginger headed murderous looking Teddy boy.

I was out the back in the stock room one Saturday when Monty wandered in with one of those sly smiles on his face, the sort sported so well by David Hyde Pierce’s character Niles in Frasier – it was also the kind of look that said “I’m not fucking dealing with this, you don’t pay me enough!” So I wandered out onto the shop floor and was confronted by two very ancient looking small people. Neither was over 5 foot tall and both had to be at least 2000 years old. “Are you the manager?” asked the woman in a voice straight out of an old Carry On film. I smiled and said I was. “Good. Would you like my grandson’s Dalek in your shop window?” How do you answer something like that, especially when you get the impression if you breathed too hard on these old folk they’d crumble into dust?

“I’d really need to see it.” I said, hoping they’d go away.

“We’ll get him to bring it in next week.” And they were gone. I forgot all about their grandson’s Dalek and went about my life.

The following Saturday arrived. Already after just 4 weeks I was beginning to dread Saturdays, because not only were we becoming the in-place to hang for comics dudes, they brought all their Dungeons & Dragons and LARP (Live Action Role Playing) friends, who in turn brought their weird friends who had no allegiance to anything nerdy, and were just weird for weird’s sake.

At around 10.30, I had disappeared into the stock room (again) and was busy making me a cup of tea when Monty appeared again – he had the look of horror on his face that I grew to appreciate. I went out front and saw this great hulk of a man standing by the counter with a Dalek tucked under his arm in a glass case. The Dalek was a quarter of the original size and this man held it like the Jolly Green Giant held cobs of corn. “Hi, I’m Scott,” he said crushing my right hand in an all-encompassing handshake.

“What you got there then?” I asked and immediately switched off as Scotty went into telling not just what it was, but the history of the specific Dalek from the Doctor Who films rather than the BBC series. What I can remember about that conversation was he preferred the Daleks in the Peter Cushing films than he did the cheap ones the BBC used. There was a difference?!? I never knew...

I explained to Scott that while I certainly wouldn’t mind putting it in my window, the direct sunlight would bleach it within weeks. I thought I’d just about convinced him that a far better thing to do would be to take it home and put it in a presentation case in his room when Monty piped up and suggested we used one of the little plinth type shelves we had near the till. I smiled at Monty and he smiled back one of those “don’t fuck with me” smiles and mentally I noted that he was going to pay for that with his life.

So the Dalek stayed and shortly after that Scott and his grandparents left; every one breathed a collective sigh of relief.

I really didn’t expect Scott to reappear at 9.30am the next Saturday. However, when he was still there at gone 4pm and had offered to do everything from make the tea and go and fetch everyone’s lunches, I started to wonder what the fuck was going on. But by the third week of Scott turning up, Monty and I decided he wanted to be the self-appointed guardian of the Dalek at weekends. He was quite useful even if he scared the younger children, and frankly because that amused me no end, I viewed it as a bonus.

By week four I took him to one side and said that I couldn’t really afford to pay him for coming in – I was trying to find out in a roundabout fashion why he was haunting me – he said he didn’t want payment, he just liked coming in and helping out. It felt, to me, a bit like the troll who used to demand money with menaces from people crossing his bridge having a change of heart and instead helps everyone over the bridge, while carrying their bags and offering them bus fare. The thing was Monty liked him and with the exception of the Star Trek fans, most of the customers thought he was great – especially now the kids who quickly changed their minds about the Big Man.

Scott stayed with me from that point until I went out of business. He even offered to take a second mortgage out on his house to finance the shop staying open, but by that time I’d seemingly ‘robbed’ too many people, I wasn’t about to start on good friends.

Monty stayed with me until the autumn of my second year when he went off to college, a year later than planned because he flunked his ‘A’ levels first time around – something I felt was my fault, but he didn’t. He left something of a void and it was difficult to fill. By this time, I’d expanded my horizons and had the extra shops in the building in place, which were bringing me in some form of revenue, helping me pay my rent and meet my bills. This meant I ‘needed’ another assistant manager, or at very least a good assistant who would do all the work and wouldn’t expect to be paid much. Little did I realise that the perfect answer was already lodging with the wife and I.

But before we talk about the one who would become forever known as ‘Mammary Lass’ and return to J3, we need to digress a little further, but don’t worry I think I know where I’m going…

Next time: A summertime Squonk!! special and then after that: my business partners!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Fourteen)

Just why did comics get such a bad press in this country and the USA?

When did the comic fan go from being a normal kid or college student reading comics the same way girls read fashion magazines to something subversive, dark and smelly?

What was responsible for it?

I’m going to try to answer that as we go along, but I’ll give you a rough measure of what I’m steering us towards. In October 2003, I was in Poland attending a convention. The reasons will be clear much later in this book, it is the biggest event of its kind in Poland and was attended by over 3000 people – more people than the average British comics convention, but well below even a provincial one in the USA. Admittedly all the people there looked like Poles, but the point was I couldn’t tell the difference between a guy walking down the street from 99% of the people who attended the convention and some of its eclectic talks and exhibitions. Yeah, Poland has a Goth or four and a few weird looking people who you really wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

These people read comics too, but you don’t get the feeling that they’re being subversive in a rather disgusting and seedy kind of way. Comics do that - radiate a grubby, seedier image - with people in the UK and USA, but nowhere else. In Poland, there were even people dressed in costumes and I didn’t feel uneasy in their presence – if that happened at the UK equivalent, I’d be making excuses to get the fuck away from them! I am actually being unfair; the Poles in fancy dress are probably as anally-retentive and nerdy as their equivalent in the UK, but you didn't get the sense that the inside of their costumes were coated in crusted jizzum.

Looking back through the coverage comics has received in the mainstream press since the Superman movie was released in 1978, it hasn’t always been good. Perhaps it had something to do with the public’s perception of superheroes, as most that transferred to the small screen ended up being badly done, quite camp and hardly something to be taken at all seriously. But Superman the Movie added a degree of weight that comics should be taken seriously, after all, Marlon bloody Brando was playing Superman’s dad!

You’ll believe a man can fly?


Shame the movie was such a pile of wank. In terms of superhero movies it did stick pretty closely to a lot of the ideas developed in the comic. But it was just all wrong. Lex Luthor, a sterling comicbook villain, if ever there was one, was reduced to being the humour element and what made it worse was that Gene Hackman played him and Hackman could quite easily have been Lex Luthor down to a tee, instead he seemed insistent on doing a bad Jerry Lewis impersonation. Brando got paid more money for five minutes work than a small African nation has GDP and was so camp he made Hackman look good. Margot Kidder might have been an inspired choice for Lois Lane, but Christopher Reeve just didn’t cut it as the Man of Steel. The critics were not terribly impressed, the special effects were given a thumbs up despite them looking unbelievably fake 30 years on; overall it didn’t really endear itself to anyone. Superman II met with overall approval both from critics and fans of comics, but what positive momentum was regained from that was lost with Supergirl and Superman III. By the time Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released the Superman films had given as much street cred to comics as Adam West’s Batman.

The problem was, especially in the USA, comics fans loved the first Superman film, mainly for sticking rigidly with the comic’s origins - this inadvertently created even more tension between fans of the character and the people who were being 'less than respectful'. There are even apocryphal stories about devoted Superman fans sending threatening mail to critics, and doing the disgruntled fan version of 1970s stalking, because they were concerned that the character's roots would be compromised. Stephen King’s Misery could easily have been the true story of a comics fan and his favourite artist. The weird thing is it probably would have been more feasible…

I’m going to be really crap and offer this: I don’t really know when the mainstream press in the UK (and to some degree the US) turned on comics fans, and to be fair ‘turned on’ is almost too strong a term for it, it’s been more like derision and a general feeling of facetiousness. Arguably comics stopped being normal in 1954 when Seduction of the Innocent (a book written by Fredric Wertham that suggested comicbooks were the sole reason for juvenile delinquencies!) hurtled comics into the gaze of the serious media and press. Except in the late 1950s and early 1960s the readers of comics were actually thought of as subversive - well, the ones who read pre Comics Code of Authority books.

Wertham's book homogenised comics and yet they were to see a renaissance - not in sales, but in re-inventing icons. just as the US government was censoring comics, the Cold War and the things radiating from it were fashioning the next generation of comics fans and the icons they would follow. But this doesn't explain why, at some point in our recent history, the comic fan stopped being associated with subversion and began to be regarded as a bit silly or childish.

I’d like to quote you from Brian Preston’s Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture; it so perfectly sums up the press and comicbooks. The author is wandering around an Australian cannabis Mardi Grass with one of the locals who comments, “The Australian media will come here, they won’t show up for any of the seminars, they’ll find the weirdest-pierced hippie, take his picture, and that’ll be Mardi Gras.”

Welcome to the world of comics and the mainstream press. The tabloid press is most probably responsible for the derision that affected comics fans at the hands of the media, again I can’t be sure, but I remember The Sun reporting on Superman: The Movie and thinking ‘Why are they looking down their noses at this?’ As comics became more and more popular, there was more chance if a story was big enough you’d read about it in the 'real' papers.

Before 'alternative culture' became key words in trendy, liberal-leaning newspapers, very few of the broadsheets would have given column inches over to comics. And the only time the tabloids would consider a comics story worth running was if it involved a film or TV series that was either popular or in production; or if it had a twat dressed in some pathetic imitation costume, with a beer belly hanging over his tights and a rescued baby kitten under his arm; that or for some political reason like the Fathers For Justice activists.

Of course, there were the obligatory publicity stunts by the comics publishers - we've seen everything from the Death of Superman to Dennis the Menace's new punk look - and of course, by the nature of publicity stunts, credibility is greatly reduced, because news editors can see a publicity stunt a mile away.

This was the start of it; I’m sure – the reduction of comics to the brunt of a joke or two. The adults would have a laugh and the kids, who wouldn’t understand the innuendo, would just be pleased to see a picture of Spider-Man in Dad’s paper.

Everyone’s a winner, baby!

I'm convinced that over the last 20 years [25 if you count my editing] newspaper editors purposefully perpetuate the nerdy image of comics because it serves their purposes, especially during slow news periods. Our editors and journalists really are that cynical.

The example in Brian Preston’s pot book comes in whenever the debate steers its way into serious discussion. I watched a documentary on TV several years ago about comics; I thought it would be fun to watch, to see if I saw anyone I knew. I did. Unfortunately. I attended the event where most of the program was filmed, yet you would have been hard pressed to see me, or any of my associates and friends, on camera – we look too normal. Just about every person interviewed on the program looked like a freak. There was a distressed Goth girl gone mad on pink and dayglo who should have prioritised a visit to the dentist before attending any public function or TV interview - her lack of dental hygiene made her look dirty and eccentric, even if she chose to utter any words of wisdom. There was a well-known comics journalist/celebrity and gossip columnist who looked like an advert for Norse Gods selling tampons, and there was an assortment of oddballs who all looked capable of inflicting extreme pain on chickens. Even some of the professionals on display made me want to go and collect train numbers. Why do the cameras always find the people the rest of comics least want them to find?

Because, they look like freaks and therefore make good televisuals!

You could be the most eloquent person in the world, with the most educated and perfectly informed view about comics, you could be stunningly handsome, have a fabulous line in wit and repartee, you could charm the knickers off of Fiona Bruce and you wouldn’t get a look in if there’s some fucking hobgoblin with a stack of Japanese porno books under his arm, constantly tugging at the front of his crimplene trousers, who can only grunt and sniff whenever asked a question.

He’s far better on camera – a 21st century freak show is what the public wants - not someone telling us some bollocks about how comics is actually a medium of its own and we should take it seriously because it isn’t just about superheroes!

To use the marijuana analogy again, shortly after Labour came to power in 1997 there was a debate on TV as to whether or not cannabis should be legalised. It was the first serious public debate about the substance I had ever seen. On the anti side there were hosts of well-spoken, well dressed, conservative spokespeople with convincing arguments. On the pro side was the same evenly balanced panel of spokespeople. The studio audience was also split into categories, those in favour, those against and most importantly those who wanted to be convinced, the ‘don’t knows.’ The audience was a good cross section of society with one main difference, there weren’t any dreadlocked-strewn-nose-pierced-dressed-like-they’ve-just-finished-working-on-a-radioactive-pig-farm representatives on the anti side. This wasn’t so bad until a couple of them wanted to speak and have their opinions heard. What we got were three people eventually putting their points across. The first person, a young guy who looked off his face basically burbled on, made a few antisocial comments and put together an argument that was as constructive as jelly - You just don't understand, man. Pot is good and if you can't see that you're stupid. When the second person spoke - a woman decked in dreads and covered in homemade tattoos (not that I have any problem with this at all) - she did nothing to enhance her colleague’s 2-minute burble - Yeah man, it's fucking excellent and you lot don't know what you're talking about. It's all a conspiracy to stop people from thinking. Finally, the dodgiest looking of the lot stood forward and he delivered an impassioned, thought-provoking, carefully rehearsed speech which really did get the point over about everything from the medical and economic strengths of the plant to the amount of money being spent policing a substance that wasn’t really causing anyone, but the smoker, any harm. He added that he actually wasn’t looking for a legalisation, but just a far more relaxed attitude with more resources focused on real drug crime. But guess what? He’d lost the audience for two reasons; not least because of his friends’ half-baked attempts at being radical, but also because by the time yer man stood up to talk, people had already formed an opinion of him before he opened his mouth. He could have agreed with the anti people and they still wouldn’t have heard him; their minds were made up, they were waiting for someone else, in a suit, to speak.

This is the comics industry. Rarely does someone who isn’t a carnival sideshow freak get the opportunity to get good airtime on either radio or TV. I’ve done a heap of radio interviews in my time; the problem is no one sees you. You could be the freak from the loony bin round the corner for all the listener knows, anyone can sound nice and informative and harmless on the radio. I’ve never got the chance to appear on TV relating to comics. I think it’s because I’m everything I described earlier about who should be interviewed.

I remember while working for Dez Skinn, he appeared on Sky News talking about the forthcoming Death of Superman and Dez is a pretty presentable guy – he doesn’t look like a nerd. But, despite trying desperately to keep the subject focused, the presenters (and producers, presumably) were more interested in turning it into the light-hearted news piece before the weather.

A TV favourite is Alan Moore; but he does nothing for comics' image. He's a practising magician and that sentence alone is enough for most people to be turning over channels or worse, switching on the Freak Radar so they can ridicule the writer for looking like a twat. He may well be held in the highest regard by discerning comics fans, but he looks like the freaks we don't want being paraded out in public. Even relatively normal looking Neil Gaiman - now a successful novelist - is capable of drawing ridicule because his love of black and his trademark dark glasses.

Even when one of the more radical broadsheets, The Guardian, ran a review of a number of those critically acclaimed comics I mentioned earlier – Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (when they came out in collected editions) – it didn’t do enough to assuage most peoples’ preconceptions. After all, if all you get wheeled out in front of you whenever comics made national news is someone who is identified as being not as normal as the watching population, then the words ‘crack’ and ‘pot’ surely must apply somewhere along the line? [In the 90s and early 21st century, the two things - quality and nerdism couldn't be separated. Now, as an edit in 2011, I can say that at least three broadsheets refer to comics in the same way as any other entertainment medium; most graphic novels will get reviewed alongside 'proper' books and people like Chris Ware and his Acme Novelty Library has won serious literature awards. So things are a bit better now.]

It’s difficult to describe comics fans because the vast majority look like you. You can’t normally tell if they’re into comics even if you spend an evening chatting in a pub. Most people don’t really talk about it - not to the uninitiated, anyhow. It's the stigma attached, you see? But, there are always the others – the pungent minority; if we were going to be honest about this, the kind of people you would be scared of if you were female and alone in the same country with. But even that is unfair because a large percentage of the freaks don’t actually look like freaks. The visual freaks and weirdoes are the ones the press focus on because all they need is the picture and those tell a thousand words - some of the freaks are more eloquent and educated than fucking Stephen Hawking! But even that isn’t fair because most of the freaks actually do have something to say, you just aren’t listening to them, you’re too busy looking at them.

No, the real problem is the train spotter-model comic collector. The ones who hang on every pause of a conversation to slip in and take them over with … shite! These are the people who start conversations with sentences like, “Are you aware that Spider-Man’s black costume isn’t black at all, but dark blue?” Or. “If I’m thinking the same way as Chris Claremont, and I’ll bet you I am, I’d say Cyclops and Wolverine are heading for another big fight.” Or, “Personally I’m concerned we’re not getting our money’s worth anymore. I only counted 3842 words this issue, which is the first time it has ever dropped below 4,000 words.” And one of my favourites, “Who do you think would win if blah and blah had a fight?” When I had the shop, I couldn’t ever say what I really wanted to, which was normally either, “I don’t care” or, “For fuck’s sake will you go and get a life and have some sex even if it means buying a prostitute and telling your mum she's your girlfriend.”

Don’t get me wrong, I have indeed sat and speculated on the outcomes of plotlines, made forecasts about stuff I’m ripping the piss out of this moment and gotten excited over things that my mind has, for some reason, completely overwritten… But that was when I was a retailer and needed to make a living. The chameleon in me - the part which would still make me a good comic store manager, even today.

This uber-nerd type of fan is very useful to store owners, but also very much a potential source of ridicule and as I said you need to treat the special ones well and if that means protecting them from cruel, but staggeringly funny jests about themselves, then so be it. You can laugh later when you have their money and they’ve left town again for another week. But, I made my living from geeks, so I have some respect for them.

Comics Lesson 8:

In the real world, things like the prices of shares can go up as well as down, or the other way around, in the comics world it takes a brave man to start dropping his prices and there aren’t that many of them.

Comics, as stated, can increase in price because of a number of factors – scarcity, demand, a hot link – either a character or a creator, or maybe just because it is very old.

In the case of scarce, rare or very old comics – the chances of obtaining a copy in a condition you need (we’ll talk about conditions later) becomes increasingly difficult, and therefore the number of comics dealers with these books is diminished. With demand it is something purely driven by greed – why bother selling 10 comics for £2.00 each when you can sell two for £10 and hope to make as much money if another mug comes along to do it again next month? I have seen comics increase in price so fast that single comics changed hands as many as six times in a single day and had increased in price by 1000%!

Take the Platinum Spider-Man #1 retailer incentive comic. Until it arrived in the UK it was selling modestly in the US, but because it was uniquely scarce in the UK the price increased from £50 to £500 by the end of one day’s trading at a Leeds comic mart. The highest price achieved for this special issue was £850. Probably today if you can find a copy for sale you’ll see it at about £250, it’s the price it levelled off to in 2005 [looking on eBay today, copies are a high of £100].

But I’m slipping away from the main point – when a comics dealer prices a comic, especially an ‘in demand’ item, the odds are it will always remain ‘in demand’ even after there is no demand left. Comics dealers rarely price books down. They might, if feeling a cash flow pinch have a sale and knock up to 90% off back issue prices, but these tend to last a week and rarely do much extra business (unless you can attract people from outside of your catchment area who haven’t seen your selection of back issues before – but again, more ifs and buts; this isn't Tesco’s, you know).

During the 1960s and early 1970s the work of artists such as Steranko, Neal Adams and Berni(e) Wrightson all became ‘in demand’, and the prices of their books were as much as 500% higher than others in that run of issues not drawn by these people. By the time I’d entered retail in the late 1980s most of the young readers and collectors wouldn’t know a Steranko, Adams or Wrightson if they wandered in off the street and took a large bite out of their arses. Yet, dealers refused to bring their prices down and the reason for this was simple – there might either be some old collector out there who still wants it and they’ll find you eventually, or the retailer is frightened of selling it cheaper in case another dealer or retailer buys it and then sells it to that one customer you’ve been waiting for.

Sounds pathetic and paranoid, doesn’t it? Sadly, it's true though... This bizarreness is actually driven by the nerdy comics fans. If comics fans weren’t so fucking weird and obsessive this would never happen.

So it's uncommon for comics to drop in price and those that do rarely drop back down to the prices of the others because of fear. Comics retailers’ back issue departments make so little money the genuine feeling is even though they are already cutting off their noses to spite their faces they don’t realise it, to change it and make it drastically cheaper and different would make them realise it and realisation is something comics shop owners are lacking in. Plus, even if no one ever buys a single back issue, it looks so fucking cool to have that many...

Next time: things get personal... Life in Squonk!! and its peculiar customers!