Tuesday, 26 July 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty-One)

Let's wrap this up...

Retailers, especially the independent ones, tend to be mavericks, but not in the James Garner mould. Not only do comic shops have to deal with the social outcasts and nerds, many of them have to deal with the thing we've touched on, fans with money to burn. You show me a comic fan who doesn't want his own comic shop and I'll show you a blue moon.

Retailing comics might work if you take the Forbidden Planet route, but if you want to stay loyal to the cause, you're destined to fail. If you're a newly-redundant welder who loves Marvel Comics, then investing your money into a new comic shop venture is not the best idea; even if you have common sense; if you were the kid at school always getting wedgies and having the piss ripped out of you because of your spots/fat/uselessness then it probably is even less of a good idea, despite the fact that you're likely to work harder because it would be your life.

But back in the 1980s and 90s, the majority of people who opened comic shops were the ones that was stereotyped in The Simpsons.

Here’s a slightly surreal take on the world’s perception of comic shop owners originally published in 2002 (used with permission):

Comics fans have loved the Internet like no others and over the last 15 years there hasn't been one area of the net that hasn't succumbed to its cloying embrace. Almost impenetrable areas of the net have been infiltrated, indoctrinated and metaphorically raped and pillaged by comics fans. It is believed that the idea of the computer virus was first thought up by a bored scientist watching convention attendees at the San Diego Comics Convention and Star Trek writers admit the Borg were created from what Majel Barrett claimed were Gene Roddenberry's two least favourite things: Goths and comics fans.

However, in the last few years there have been some distressing tales emanating from the information super highway. Comics fans have been increasingly 'hanging out' on Internet chat-rooms and, worse still, have been posing as normal human beings; even coercing young children into their seedy dens of iniquity. Chat room topics seen on an average week day night included: Who's got the biggest member - JLA or the Avengers? Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Girl - the world's greatest game of hide the sausage? And Mary-Jane Parker: you would, wouldn't you? It isn't just Internet chat rooms that have these suggestive possibilities; there are over 170,000 different groups or forums, such as Google, Yahoo, Topica and MSN, and of those 170,000 groups over 90% of them are comics related (the other lists mainly being Sci Fi, country and western dancing and how to sell unwanted children into slave labour groups – Porn represents the other 9%).

The 150,000 or so comics related websites cater to the 100,000 or so comics fans believed to exist in the USA and UK. Each of these 'comics geeks' as they are known, possess their own homepage, chat forum, and Yahoogroup and they just invite all the other owners of other groups into each others’ groups. Comics fans feel this gives their world both a feeling of a shared universe and some genuine 'real-time' continuity.

The growing comics fan problem came to a head recently in a small town near Augusta, Georgia. 13-year-old Craig-Beth Goodolboy not only struck up a friendship with 38-year-old comics geek Dwayne Aubergine, but he also agreed to meet the lonely bachelor at their local comics store – unaware of the potential danger he was placing himself in. Aubergine is not only a comic fan but also a collector of German war memorabilia, and a former schoolteacher of his said, “had he been born 30 years earlier he would probably have been a communist. He's a freak! A freak I tells you.”

Craig-Beth’s parents Craig and Beth Goodolboy suspected their child had become involved in something sinister as he began spending more and more time either locked in his bedroom on the computer or locked in the outside lavatory with a stack of his father’s Penthouse magazines. The distraught parents contacted local law enforcement agencies and ‘Operation Dirty Fucker’ was initiated. When Craig-Beth entered the comics shop – The Magic Tunnel – he was unaware that two SWAT and a crack hostage negotiation team were ready in case something went wrong. Fortunately for everyone Aubergine gave himself up as soon as he saw the police walk through the door. The bespectacled man with died black hair and downy facial hair and ginger eyebrows sank to the floor sobbing, “But he could become one of us, don't do this, there's nothing wrong with what I'm doing. It’s not illegal!”

However with Craig-Beth safely back with its parents, the situation at the store turned ugly. This following extract was lifted from Patrolman Steve Dull’s report: “I saw him reach for his weapon, he quickly jerked his hand towards the front of his trousers and I'm sure I saw his weapon. I just pulled the trigger. I really didn't expect his head to explode the way it did.”

Mr Aubergine had a urinary infection that meant his infected penis occasionally stuck to the inside of his underwear, which meant he continually had to adjust himself. It’s believed Officer Dull fired after seeing a Green Lantern key fob.

Regardless of this pointless, yet almost amusing, death it doesn’t excuse the fact that most comics fans are predatory individuals who act alone, yet love getting together and exchanging anecdotes rather than bodily fluids.

In a country that can prosecute mothers for attempted infanticide if they smoke while pregnant this stops being funny because you can actually imagine it happening - but that might just be my lack of faith in middle America having any common sense. Independent comics shop owners have always been outcasts, probably by choice, and they still have no real desire to be part of the norm and why should they?

The thing is comics shops attract kids and, oh dear, you start to see where this is going? But it needs to be said, even if just fleetingly. A comic shop, like a computer game shop, will attract young people and wherever young people gather becomes a target for paedophiles, heck, why would a grown man want to open a comic shop? A single friend of mine, a musician who also happens to like girls' comics, decided that he was a target during the newspapers' attempts at outing sex offenders a few years back. We live in a society now where the quiet unassuming guy who lives on his own and rarely speaks could be a serial killer; if he reads comics then we need to implement pre-crime right now!

Of course this isn’t the case with the now huge chain stores that exist, like Forbidden Planet. They look so much like the audio-visual section of a large Tesco that you’d be happy to let your infant wander around it for yonks. The staff are just as creepy, but it’s bigger, you have more places to run and hide.

My experience at retailing was, I think, a largely happy one. It helped create a classless society inside a shop front in the middle of Hicksville, Northants. I suppose, I could actually have written a book about the sociological benefits of the place; because for all the negatives I've painted about comic shops, the owners, the fans, the companies that are all inter-connected, a good comic shop is a rare thing in a world with so much prejudice. I'd be surprised if many still exist in this corporate retailing world.

Comics Lesson 13:

The Ages of Comics: some people will tell you that there are four ages of comics – The Platinum Age (anything pre-1939), The Golden Age (normally regarded as between 1939-1953), The Silver Age (from 1954 to roughly 1971), the Bronze Age (from 1972 to 1985), and the current Modern Age. This is a contentious point and as many people who agree with me will disagree, giving different dates and specifics why these dates or others should be observed. This is how I see it. It works for me it should work for you.

There are key books in most eras: The Golden Age has the two most famous – Action Comics #1, the first ever appearance of Superman, and Detective Comics #27, the first appearance of Batman. Both published by the company that would become DC Comics and both comics are worth far more than your house.

The Silver Age is regarded by many as the halcyon days of comics and the number of essential issues are too numerous to list, but among these are DC Showcase #4, which featured the first appearance of the contemporary Flash; Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four #48, the first appearance of the Silver Surfer, one of Marvel’s most enigmatically popular characters.

The Platinum and Bronze Ages don’t have that many milestones. Comics before 1929 were different beasts and probably The Yellow Kid stands out because it was one of the first. The Bronze Age encompasses 13 years of relatively dull comics history and the Modern Age, where there are masses of memorable comics, including the oft-mentioned Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.

Most Golden Age comics are very expensive; you’d struggle to get change from a $100 for any comicbook from that era, unless the condition was abysmal and the comic is largely unknown or uninteresting. The problem for Brits is that these comics only sporadically arrived on these shores and usually as ship ballast. It was, for many years, a purely American marketplace. Over the last few years the same can be said for Silver Age comics, these have just shot up in price and you’d need a serious amount of disposable income if you fancied a run of Fantastic Four #1 to #100, especially if you refused to accept anything in less than Fine. The first issue of this old master is now estimated to be valued as high as £250,000 in mint condition - possibly more now that Amazing Fantasy #15 has sold for over a million dollars!

Market forces govern Bronze Age comics’ prices almost totally, there are exceptions to the rule; you can say the same about Gold and Silver, but generally Bronze Age comics are the most volatile and difficult to ascertain a true value. For example; in 1991 – 20 years ago - New Mutants #87 was worth upwards of £25. It was a key issue (although if you examined it now you’d seriously question why), but over the years it has dwindled in value. This kind of contradicts what I was saying about comics dealers never lowering the price of a comic, but with the advent of eBay and auction houses selling comics, some comics have dropped in value. The one in question can now be purchased for as little as £1.25. It also suggests that just occasionally comics retailers realise just how stupid they've been and rewrite history. However, this display of retailing common sense is anything but common.

Platinum Age comics are very rare, but probably not as rare as the number of people who are interested in them. This is a specialised area and there are probably less than 100 people in the world who know much about them without consulting one of the others books or articles about them.

This entire lesson highlights the sometimes pointless trivia that has been ingrained into comics and collecting. If you drifted off during that, I can't say I blame you.

Next week: probably the reason a lot of you have stuck with this so far. Things get interesting and I embark on a new career in comics journalism!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty)

Moving on...

When my shop closed I was just one of about 15% of all retailers in existence that shut down between January 1992 and the summer of 1994. That was a particularly bad time for retail and yet orders and sales continued to rise. Well, orders did, sales had already started to slump because of the over-saturation of product. Of course, there were a high percentage of retail ignoramuses already up and running, who were the people who kept their business going, but probably didn’t really know how they did it. You think I’m joking? Take a wander into House on the Borderland in Peterborough. It’s still there and what a fantastically antiquated old comic and record shop it is. It has been there since time began, but neither of the guys who run it put their success down to acumen. “As long as I pay the bills we’re OK,” said Pete, the owner, once. It is a bit like a jumble sale gone wrong mixed with rubbish tip; it is, however, a pretty wonderful experience, especially if you’re into music, giant elephant carvings and dust. It is not a place for asthmatics or people with cleanliness OCDs. [And it is still going in 2011, having visited it for the first time in years and faced even more clutter!]

The UK had over 300 comics shops in 1990, in 2005 there are fewer than 150 and a huge percentage of these specialise in everything else but comics. In the US almost 20% of the independent comics shop went out of business in the early to mid-1990s. Marvel and DC put this down to natural wastage, but during this period it was not only the biggest spike in failed comics businesses ever seen, but one of the biggest drop offs in sales in specific regions. Some people claimed that this was good for the industry, a sort of wheat from the chaff scenario. The strong will become stronger and the rest will wither and die. But what about the less savvy comics fan in Shitsville, Iowa whose closest shop is either in Canada or Chicago! He’s gone. He doesn’t do comics any more, too much hassle – he’ll go and get drunk and join the KKK.

This was probably very good for the almost completely Direct Market-led comics industry. While the major publishers still had a newsstand presence and could bolster their income that way, it was still dwindling and made them little profit, if they could guarantee almost 100% payment from the DM distributor now – because the DM distributor had managed to kill off all the marginal and less profitable shops – then there might be a drop, but the ensured payments would counterbalance it. It was all about the ‘now’ rather than building for a future. The comics industry had again forgotten to think about tomorrow, they were only interested in how much money they could guarantee now.

You could argue that this wastage was probably good for the industry, especially if there were so many people opening comics shops who didn’t know their arses from their elbows, but this wasn’t about business acumen – many of these inexperienced owners were actually great managers, who were struggling to make a business work and just about holding it together. The difference between an owner and a manager is owners have to deal with everything about keeping a business going, a manager is responsible for managing the store and many crap owners had become great managers. Marvel, then DC and later Image Comics all exploited the basest of human emotions from these less-than-businessmen – greed. I know I must sound naive; God, I felt it during the early 1990s; but in comics retailing 75% of new owners have zero experience, but many of them are either lucky or learn very quickly and therefore they deserved support and help because you nurture your future, you don’t just exploit it for a quick buck. The major publishers, especially Marvel, exploited these naive people and it ended up being to their detriment. Yes, Marvel might now [be owned by Disney and] produce some of the biggest box office blockbusters in cinemas, but at the time it was just crass stupidity to believe that getting rid of the stragglers would end up making the comics industry a stronger place.

Put yourself in the place of Mr Fat Bastard and his moderately successful comics store ‘Fat’s Comics’. He’s been going for ten years and makes enough money to keep himself in Twinkies, pay the rent, and buy as many questionable DVD as he can afford. He supplies a service to his region, even if some of the customers’ parents aren’t keen on little Johnny going to the store on his own (or without a semi-automatic weapon). Fat Bastard is a bit half-sharp; he’s a redneck American who is probably inter-related (he is his uncle’s cousin’s brother). His ambition is of fulfilling a dream to be rich on selling comics and suddenly, through some very questionable advertising, Marvel Comics tells him he can be. There’s actually no physical evidence to prove that Marvel’s forecasting that 1991 would be the year that the profit floodgates would open. They were throwing hyperbole at retailers like they were free Point of Sale posters... The comics company constructed almost the entire scenario and, with the unwitting help of the comics press, made a killing – literally. Fat Bastard thinks that if he normally sells 100 copies of X-Men, then the new launch should be considerably bigger - if every one of his customers buys all of the copies that increases his order by 5 times. There are going to be the people who never felt they could penetrate the X-Men’s thick hide who will be interested in checking it out. There will be the speculators who want to invest in copies for the future. By this time he’s already over-ordered in his head, but he refuses to accept that it won’t be a success because Marvel ‘seems’ to be throwing money at the launch and are talking it up like the second coming of Jesus. He has faith in his publishers (He thinks Marvel is throwing money at the launch because he sees a lot of press coverage, unable to realise that’s what Marvel are good at, getting free press), he has to believe in them; they are his life blood.

The problem was that even though he over-ordered on Spider-Man and X-Force, instead of even barely getting his fingers burned, he was dining out on double cream Twinkies and wanking to new Razz mags. Hey, lightning had struck twice, who was to say that it couldn’t go for the hat trick? Never mind the fact that some of his die-hard aficionados were complaining that X-Force was a bit of a rip-off, most of the fans hadn’t woken up and realised they were having the piss extracted. So he commits himself to an order that’s something like 10 times his normal order – he’s going to get 1000 X-Men instead of 100. Add this to his already increased orders for the previous year’s Spider-Man and the huge orders for X-Force and UXM, he really needs to be able to shift a huge quantity of books in as short a time as possible just to make sure he can meet that bill – the one that he’s underestimated on the amount it is going to be. Then a month after he’s committed himself to ten times the expense in the following months, he gets a letter from Marvel saying that interest in X-Men is so phenomenal that even they are considering increasing the print runs to meet the huge demand they are expecting – something almost unheard of; Marvel taking a gamble on one of its own comics?! You need to realise that for a publisher to over print is rarely heard of in this day and age; they print to order; the concept of over printing is essentially the bold statement that they feel the comic is so good they know the retailer is going to want more and more of them. If a comic has a print run of 80,000 and the publisher is that impressed with the art/story/overall package, they might over print another 20,000 copies; but Marvel, in this instance, were suggesting they needed to overprint up to a million copies.

Now remember, we’ve already established that there were, at best, 200,000 die-hard comics fans in the USA and UK and the thing has already been ordered upwards of 5 million copies. It doesn’t matter how stupid the retailer is; he’s going to be blinded by the faith he has in the people who are keeping him in business. Trust me when I say that very few retailers, even the best ones, were not tempted to over order. Hey, it was money in the bank at a time when it really wouldn’t hurt!

So, the retailer is invited to beat the rush and order extra copies NOW before it’s too late. Fat Bastard panics and orders an extra 200 copies. He’s convinced himself that it will be a good investment. He now has to get rid of 1200 copies to his 100 regular X-Men readers. If no one else buys an issue that’s 12 per customer; he should have realised by now that this was not going to be of speculator interest. How could it be? There were too many copies!

The comic ships in August – a traditional hot month for the USA comics retail industry and the quietest month in the UK for retailers because everyone is on holiday. By the end of August Fat Bastard is looking at a huge amount of unsold issues and a bill larger than he has ever seen in his life. His bank balance doesn’t reflect what he has to pay. The distributors are as approachable as a rabid wolverine. There is only really one company to blame, but he will refuse to accept it. He will argue that his own industry fucked him royally up the chocolate starfish, but at the distributor level, the publisher is blameless. He is allowed, in my opinion, to believe he had no support from comics, but in this scenario, he probably doesn't blame them at all. By October he is being threatened with closure. He hasn’t had a new delivery in weeks and his constant letters and calls to Marvel for help have fallen on deaf ears or stonewalling receptionists. A sting has been performed and it was totally legal.

And here’s the rub. Does Fat Bastard hate them for ruining his life and business? Not at all, if he could sell his mother to finance just a few more months of running his shop he would. There’s very little he wouldn’t consider to allow him to continue. But he closes and part of the town it was in has lost a service that catered for enough and now because there isn't another comics shop for miles and miles, that money is lost forever.

The repercussions however don't stop with him. Despite the size of Diamond Distributors, they also have to pay the bill to Marvel and if 50% of their customers are struggling to meet their debts, it puts huge pressure on the supplier. Eventually, the people who remain in business will pay for those that fell; so if Fat bastard had stayed open, he would have continued to be butt-fucked by the industry because of the failure of others caused by wild ungrounded optimism.

The thing is, from a socio-economic perspective, the comic shop owner is the person that most people associate with comics fans. Yeah, you might see freaks and weirdoes in the street, but they might be into something altogether different, but when you see one sitting behind the counter of a comics shop, the immediate thoughts are that everyone that comes onto his floor space is going to be equally as odd. Plus you always remember the weird ones, never the normals.

So, as you might have gathered, by the way we keep coming back to X-Men #1 and the Marvel sting that I’m a little obsessed by it. The truth is that I am, because ethically what Marvel did was wrong. It killed businesses and destroyed lives. It prevented people from having access to comic shops like they have access to chemists or record store and all of the fans I’ve talked about ended up being the ones who suffered – the largest demographic. In the end, Marvel didn’t give a fuck about their fans, they were only interested in end of year returns; making fast cash and breaking records. I wonder, all these years later, how many people who worked for Marvel during that summer still work there or even work in the upper echelons of comics? I really hope that it’s zero and a large percentage of these people have suffered at some point or another since.

And that largely concludes my retail story; we have one other fan excursion to take before we get down to the nitty-gritty.

Next time: Humour, or the lack of it.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Nineteen)

While we're on the subject of interesting former customers who do little for the image of comics, let's delve a little deeper.

Of course, for every ten completely normal people that can walk through a comics shop door and become part of this culture, there are going to be people like the ones I mentioned earlier – varying degrees of people with serious social interaction problems. Some overcome it, while some never escape Narnia. If I had to throw a generalisation in I’d say that only a small percentage of comics fans are weird (some others might be fucked up, but they aren’t weird). However the greater the involvement, the more likely they are to slide down the scale of normality. Rattling round the bottom somewhere was Rick – Scary Rick to some and Rick (with the silent P) to others – he was (and probably still is) one of the strangest people you could ever wish to meet. He was, without equal, the best advert for not allowing your children to be influenced by fairy stories.

He was friendly enough, in fact too friendly at times, he also wasn’t strictly into comics – he was into everything that you could label fantasy or ‘sad’ depending on which side of the fence you are. The first time I met him he wandered into my shop and after over an hour of just ogling at stuff he wandered over and started to tell me, without introduction, that he’d just seen a pirate video copy of Batman 2. This was pretty amazing as it was maybe a year after Batman had been released, and while we all knew there would be a sequel, it hadn’t even been given its Batman Returns name yet. You don’t tend to disagree with strange strangers in comics shops, so I just nodded and made polite conversation. He disappeared and I hoped that would be the last we ever saw of him. Two hours later he returned with two carrier bags full of old, tatty comics. I thought he was trying to sell them to me, but he was in fact just showing me his comics collection because he thought I might like to see it. He did spend money in the shop, but not that much. Sometimes he bought Star Trek comics, but never new ones because he felt they were too expensive, sometimes he bought Star Wars, Transformers, even the occasional X-Men and Spider-Man - despite having already seen his entire comicbook collection, he still told whoever would listen that he had a complete X-Men collection. But his favourite comics were anything to do with the martial arts and that meant we had someone to target a load of 1970s Master of Kung Fu comics – at ridiculously low prices, I might add. But more disturbing than anything else, he used the shop as a place to come and try out new fantasies on people. It was obvious that he rarely spoke a word of truth and most of what came out of his mouth was hypotheses and fantasy that he was hoping would garner a positive reaction. He was so dysfunctional the only way he could function socially was to make up stories to impress people and they were rarely impressive.

Then after 18 months of having to deal with a man who made Billy Liar look like a man of honesty and integrity (and quite well grounded as well), Rick disappeared. We didn’t see him for months, but we didn’t lose track of him. On the other side of Wellingborough’s small town centre opened a shop that specialised in martial arts equipment and the organiser also was a Kung Fu instructor. Rick made a beeline for him. I got to know the owner – he bought all the Master of Kung Fu comics that Rick never seemed that interested in. Andy, the owner of the Kung Fu shop, took evening lessons at the scout hut down the road from where I lived and Rick had paid up his fees and joined.

Andy told me that for the first few weeks Rick was very quiet, but had obviously had some form of training in some martial art because he looked right – he knew a lot of what Andy was talking about and understood it. However, he was always late and as the class was over 20 people Andy didn’t have the time or the inclination to spend a lot of time with Rick. So Andy was surprised when Rick came to him near the end of the lesson and asked if he could give the class a demonstration on the correct use of a samurai sword. Andy, not really knowing what to expect, reluctantly agreed. The end of the session arrived and Andy told the rest of the group that Rick was going to give them a demonstration. Rick, who had been in the toilet for twenty minutes, then emerged wearing full samurai body armour, a face mask and wide brimmed wicker hat. He looked like the real McCoy. Strapped to his waist was a sword sheath and after bowing to the assembled audience he drew the sword and proceeded to do a number of exercises, which Andy questioned as being nothing other than things from out of Rick’s slightly warped imagination – they certainly had nothing to do with samurai swordsmen. Sensing the boredom (incredulity?) in the group and the fact that Rick was doing nothing but poncing about with what looked like a genuine samurai sabre, he stepped forward to call the ‘demonstration’ to a close. Rick who was at the other end of the hall (a small selection of integrated port-a-cabins with a very low ceiling) saw Andy step forward. Sensing he was about to be stopped and without any warning at all Rick lifted the sword high in both hands, and letting out a blood-curdling scream charged down the centre of the hall, straight at Andy – without realising that the sword was smashing all the line of fluorescent tubes lighting the hall, all along the path he ran. Just before he reached Andy, he stopped dead, threw the sword in the air, and then grabbed it, almost gracefully, by the handle, spun it round, missing Andy’s face by inches, and with one hand holding the samurai’s holder, and the other with the blade poised at the opening, he started to sheath the blade.

But he stopped and hesitated for a moment. Andy looked down at Rick’s hands and saw that the tip of the blade had struck against the webby piece of skin between the thumb and the forefinger. Andy glanced at Rick and Rick gave him a steely grin and pushed the blade back into the sheath, ignoring the fact he’d just sliced open his hand. He bowed, let both hands drop to his side, including one dripping blood on the floor, looked Andy in the face and as straight-faced as you could possibly believe, said, “A true warrior must always draw blood when he draws his weapon.”

Andy stood there, covered in the dust from inside the fluorescent tubes, in the half light of the remaining, unbroken, tubes, looking at Rick, who turned on his heels and walked straight for the exit, straight through the doors, in full combat gear and away – he never returned to the Kung Fu club again. Instead he came back to haunt my staff and me.

Not only was Rick a peculiar fellow, he also looked a bit mad as well and it soon became obvious from information given to us by a voluntary organisation up the road that he had some form of learning disability, he also probably had some insecurities, mainly because he seemed to want to impress everyone he spoke to, like he desperately wanted to be accepted, and the ironic thing for Rick was all he needed to do was stand around and not try to impress people – my customers accepted anyone; impressing them wasn’t on the agenda.

Then we sold shop space upstairs to a couple that wanted to open a film memorabilia shop and within a couple of weeks Rick was a permanent fixture in their little shop, to the point where the young owner came to me after a rather difficult Saturday for him. He asked if there was anything we could do about Rick, as he didn’t seem to take much notice of being ignored and if you asked him to not interfere he wouldn’t for a couple of minutes and then bother you again. Someone suggested banning him from the memorabilia shop and the following week when Rick made the first of his regular visits the guy upstairs told him straight that he didn’t want him in the shop unless he was going to spend any money. Rick bought a Forbidden Planet key ring that he’d had his eye on for a couple of weeks and left the shop and never came in again – any of them.

I saw Rick again a few years later, he was on the front cover of the local newspaper, was dressed as a Klingon and he was the mascot for the Northamptonshire Star Trek Society’s first convention – held at a seedy hotel in a small backwater town in Northants called Rushden (spiritual home of Mammary Lass!). Rick had been made the conventions official mascot because … get this… he could speak fluent Klingon…

We also had this guy at the shop called Andrew, he suffered from a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome – not the raging sweary kind, but it was enough to make him very self conscious of his ticks and twitches. Andrew was devoted to Star Trek, in fact he often used to get involved in heated debates with Scott, the Saturday lad, about how much better Star Trek was to Doctor Who – it was as sad as it sounds, but if you could imagine a short, twitchy guy and an enormous hulk of a man standing ridiculing each other for their specific SF tastes, then you can imagine how silly it looked at times. Andrew could speak Klingon, well not speak it, but he understood it and he told me that what Rick spoke was basically the equivalent of someone with really bad phlegm trying to do a Mr Punch impersonation and that it was probably just made up on the spot with a few actual Klingon words thrown in. Rick’s favourite Klingon word was ‘Gakk’ which I believe is a sort of living worm soup.

Honestly, comics fans are not all like Rick (with the silent P) but he’s the kind of guy that the press would (and did, in the event of the Star Trek convention) go looking for.

Because of the nature of Squonk!! we often had to suffer lurkers; people who came into the shop, didn't spend any money and worried the assembled customers and staff. We had a few of them, some I enjoyed talking to, and others confirmed that people are strange. One such person was a man who I discovered was called Aseef, but we called him the Bag Man.

The Bag Man first entered my world about six months after we opened. I was attending the till, Monty was bagging and pricing old stock and in he walked; a slight Asian man carrying a bright carrier bag, the contents of which we never discovered. My policy of approaching new customers was one of give then a few minutes; if they want something they'll ask and if they don't, then you approach them - if they're hanging around they must want something. so that's the approach we made with Bag Man. He made no acknowledgement of either of us and was standing in front of the back issues looking at our wall display of mid-range expensive comics and hot books. I motioned to Monty with my eyebrows that I felt now was a good time to ask if he wanted anything in particular, so Monty duly obliged.

"Can I help you at all, mate?" he asked.

"Mmmmmmmm," came the reply. Monty waited, but got nothing else. He looked at me and shrugged and I urged him to try again.

"I've not seen you before, what kind of comics are you into?"

"Mmmmmmmm," Monty looked at me slightly wigged out and walked back to the desk.

"You can deal with him," he said quietly, but I didn't. Monty wasn't the only wigged out person.

Bag Man spent another ten minutes wandering around, almost drinking the contents of the walls, he seemed to spend so much time just staring that Monty and I got even more disturbed and then he walked out. We figured we wouldn't see him again, but the following Friday afternoon he came in again, and then the next week and the week after. Bag Man came into the shop, stood staring at the walls, occasionally uttered the odd "Mmmmmmm" from time to time and left.

Phil Christian, whose folks were shrinks, started to become a permanent fixture in the shop around that time and eventually one of his Friday truancy days led him to the shop when Bag Man was there. With it came a partial explanation as to who he was. Bag Man was a schizophrenic, who had served time in a high security mental hospital, possibly Rampton, for all manner of nasty crimes against his former wife and children. He hadn't spoken for five years and was heavily medicated, but lived in the community at local sheltered housing (the company who I worked for in 2005). He wasn't considered a threat to the general public, but Phil wasn't convinced - but then again he was addicted to The Punisher.

Comics Lesson 12:

Confused about comics yet? Let me confuse you even further… You have a stack of comics, you know nothing about them and you presume that because they’re all in reasonably good condition that they’re ‘very good’?

A comic in ‘very good’ condition isn’t. It is not in very good condition, which is why it is classed as ‘very good’ or ‘vg’ condition. Make any sense? No, I didn’t think so. A perfect comic is an almost unheard of thing; most comics suffer from some form of minute damage either in printing or transit, but essentially if something is in ‘Pristine Mint’ condition it cannot be in better condition – it is perfect. Therefore you’d think that ‘very good’ should feature pretty high up, after all aren’t most things ‘very good’ if they’re not perfect?

Pfah. After ‘Pristine Mint’ comes ‘Mint’ (someone please tell me why comics dealers have murdered the English language?). ‘Mint’ isn’t mint condition, because by definition if it’s in ‘mint’ condition it can’t be any better, but we already have ‘Pristine Mint’ so ‘Mint’ is only second on the list. Then it’s very good, surely? No, next comes ‘Near Mint’, which is almost ‘mint’ but not quite. There might be some tiny defect that only a watchmaker with special glasses can see, but it’s enough to downgrade it. Next, very good? No, next comes ‘Very Fine’ or ‘VF’ this is not quite ‘Near Mint’ and a long way from both ‘Pristine Mint’ and ‘Very Good’. Then you have ‘Fine’ which is not very. It is a better grade than ‘Very Good’ but considerably worse than ‘Very Fine’. ‘Very Good’ means average (?!) and ‘Good’ means poor. ‘Fair’ means worse than ‘Good’ and ‘poor’ means condemned. The mess is further muddied by the fact you have + and – grades in between! So a comic that is ‘VF+’ is almost a ‘NM’, but not quite, but a ‘VF-’ is more like a ‘F+’ than a … you get the picture? Do the words pathetic and anally retentive feature high in your mind at the moment?

The genius that came up with this grading system probably went on to write local government by-laws. And bites the heads off of live chickens for his personal amusement. You’ll be pleased to know that this grading system has been replaced by another, supposedly less complicated system that dispenses with Pristine and allows you to grade books from 0 to 10 with .1, .2, .3 etc gradients, effectively giving you 100 grades from 0, which I presume is very poor to 9.9 which is almost perfect but someone breathed on it with halitosis.

So, let’s get back to Fascist John, who wanted nothing lower than VF condition at worst and if that meant spending twice as much, then so be it - it was only money and he had nothing else to spend it on. He was as concerned about the condition of his ‘investment’ as he was about his favourite characters. The problem with back issues and conditions is simple, the lower the condition, the substantially lower percentage it is worth against its ‘Mint’ condition price – all comics are graded, in price guides, from ‘Mint’ through to ‘Fine’ and then ‘Poor’. Poor normally equates to about 10% or less of the mint price. Most new comics are either near mint or mint, the older the comics get the more difficult it is to obtain them in ‘as new’ condition and subsequently these comics became ‘hot items’ due to the condition. But this is one of the few wrinkles in the skin that can be overlooked. It applies to such a small percentage of the industry and mainly to specific comics, we’re talking details even anoraks will think are anoracky.

John eventually went to college in London as a mature student, but lasted barely 6 months. He didn’t get on with the people in his local comics shop and he found it difficult to make friends in the culturally different big city. He returned and got his old job back and took his standing order over to the new shop in Northampton when it opened, about a year after I shut.

[I went for a drink with John and Monty in 2008 and while Monty was the same old Monty but with slightly more restraint, John had changed beyond recognition. He still had his boyish looks and dressed like someone from Happy Days, but his politics and opinions had changed almost diametrically. He was still a conservative, but very much with a small c. He even said he would vote for any party that opted to turn the UK into the new Norway and not want to be the world's Deputy Dawg. It was great to see that even the most hardened people can mellow and change. He still reads comics.]

Next time: concluding a scenario bordering on obsession...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Eighteen)

Comics Lesson 11:

How many kinds of comics are there? Generally you have in the USA and UK – children’s comics (what we call ‘nursery titles’, ostensibly these are comics aimed at the under 5s - TV show tie-ins, toys and cute cuddly bears), adolescent comics (which we have to put Superheroes, 2000AD and most of Marvel and DC into), funny comics (these are your Archie titles, Mad, Beano and Viz), Mature readers comics (ones with adults stickers, or content regarded as unsuitable for minors), independent comics and Underground Comix – which I believe is a sub-genre in itself, because underground comix technically include things like small press and independent comics companies that produce comics that are not intended for just anyone. Undergrounds differ from mature readers comics in a number of ways, from the way they are produced – a form of Direct Market, but more like a continual print for demand policy. Undergrounds are regarded as subversive, but I think we place too much importance on labelling comics, when the actual medium has so many existing genres working within it already.

Someone once said, “A comic is a comic is a comic” and essentially that is true.

It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a Teletubbies comic, perusing the latest Freak Brothers or religiously buying Batman, you are being part of the industry. To try and divide something that arrives on 24-pages of paper into categories is typical of comics fans, (it is the need to catalogue that drives them) but it doesn’t matter if you have a comic produced by the 21st Century equivalent of Michelangelo and Charles Dickens, or something done by a moron and his dog – as long as it is saying something, it is a comic and therefore shouldn’t be labelled any other way.

Labelling is something that is very difficult to do with ‘independent comics’ – a huge area of the industry that has continued to grow since the boom years. Strictly speaking an independent comic is one not produced by the two major US publishers – Marvel or DC. These can include any style of comics from slice-of-life to superheroes and through all points in between. Independent comics publishers have their place in this book, but essentially we’re talking about the top two and the few pretenders – the market that dominates comics sales - superheroes.

There are other kinds of fans, and one of them was John (see, I hadn’t just introduced him and then forgot about him). He was a convert. He came into the shop looking for some Dungeons and Dragons comics he’d heard mention of and within a month was spending 75% of his wages on everything.

The bastard son of an American serviceman and an ever-so-slightly eccentric mother, John lived in the most distinctive house in Wellingborough. It was the only house that looked like it had been built in Elizabethan times and had never been altered, cleaned or painted since! It should probably be worth a small fortune, but it is no longer there. In a recent drive through Wellingborough, it had gone and a block of flats was there instead. However, at the time it summed John up; he was something of an anachronism, despite his relatively tender years.

He didn’t really look like a nerd – you see there isn’t that many nerds that actually look like nerds. The nerds that look like nerds either don’t think of themselves as nerds or actually think they look cool. Comics fans need thick skins and most of them could teach rhinos how to toughen up. John did, however, look like he’d just walked out of 1964. From his haircut to his dress sense you got the impression that perhaps his ever-so-slightly eccentric mother might have waltzed in from the Norman Bates School of Mothering. In fact he sounded like – in annunciation rather than accent – an American redneck; which, considering he had nothing to do with his father was odd.

He ended up being my best customer by a country mile. He wanted everything he needed and he wasn’t prepared to wait so he bought everything he wanted! He couldn’t understand even the basics of running a retail outlet such as a comic shop and made demands that were unrealistic; from saving complete runs of books (we’re talking 50 or 100 comics) but waiting months before actually buying them, to unrealistic expectations – he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t buy something that had been earmarked – saved – for someone else and often offered over the top money for things he wanted! He was thrown out of Gosh once, a massive London comic shop opposite the British Museum, for offending the staff.

John was a racist, a bigot and something of an intellectual ignoramus. There were many who felt he was a thoroughly dislikeable young man. He was actually much older than he looked, because of his boyish features and his almost white blonde hair he could be easily mistaken for a school leaver, yet the day he ventured into the Midland Road Community Centre (two years after it opened) he was only four years younger than me, 25. Don’t get me wrong; he actually seemed quite a nice guy until you started to get to know him. He was one of the bitterest people I knew and often made cheap shots at those less fortunate than himself. Yet amazingly he was really just a small weedy guy – he looked like he would blow away in a gale, yet he could also handle himself. No one fancied starting an argument with the guy because there was that element of doubt in your mind. ‘Madness in his eyes’ Phil Christian said once, and his parents were quacks, so I believed him.

John didn’t really change, but he mellowed. I had a couple of black guys who regularly shopped in the store and liked the same books as John. One day, feeling in an especially mischievous mood, I introduced John to Dwayne (John was so racist he had dropped a comic from his standing order because he discovered the artist, who he really liked, was black – I shit you not). Dwayne treated the ‘community centre’ the same as anyone else – no class, no race, and no boundaries. He plunged into a conversation with John who quickly was on the verge of apoplexy, so I decided to make a hasty exit down into the cellar - which had become my den of smoking iniquity – and waited for whoever I’d left in charge to come running downstairs to tell me Dwayne has ripped John’s head off and was shitting down his neck. Daring to return ten minutes later, when I still hadn’t heard raised voices I found John and Dwayne deeply into a conversation about the actual racial undertones that have been prevalent in the X-Men since it started. John, despite his extreme views, was a huge X-Men fan and, if you think about it, this didn’t really sit well with a man who would, to hear him talk, gladly joined in the fun during the holocaust, if you’d given him half the chance to go back in time. I wouldn’t say they became friends, but they shared common ground in the shop, which had an anthropological success and that helped make me money. I don’t think they could ever have been friends mainly because I don’t think John had anything but contempt for Dwayne - as a person; but he did have a grudging respect for the man’s comics tastes.

John also differed from a lot of my other customers in that he was a perfectionist. He only bought the comics that were in the best condition, even if that meant spending more on them.

Let me tell you about some of my other customers: Mark and Darren were carpenters, who after leaving school and serving their apprenticeships, decided to go into business. I was looking for a cheap and easy replacement for the cardboard boxes I displayed most of my back issues in and a customer suggested I call this old school mate of his. Mark and Darren turned up one Saturday afternoon, with their highly decorative girlfriends in toe. While Darren and I talked about what I wanted and how much they’d cost me, Mark was going ape-shit over a box of Thor comics. My conversation with Darren was punctuated with statements from Mark such as, “Wow, I used to have that!” and “Shit, is it really worth that much?” I expected them to make a hasty exit when we finished discussing the work needed, as the girls were looking rather worried, especially as some of the less desirable customers had fixed their eyes on the girls' tits and weren’t stopping, despite uneasy looks thrown at them. But instead of leaving, Mark was busy pulling out a stack of Thor comics from the cheaper section of the boxes. I was thinking I might have a result here when Darren turned to me and said, “Have you got any Fantastic Four comics?” Is the pope catholic?

These two guys weren’t huge collectors; Mark increased his buying habit to about 10 comics a month, while Darren stayed with just the few he enjoyed. The thing was, these were both lads about town, Loaded and FHM readers, with trophy girlfriends, flash cars and modern lifestyles, yet they had no negative thoughts about walking into a comics shop and spending £20 a week. They even made friends of some of the other customers, especially the xenophobic John. These guys had disposable income and didn’t see comics as a nerdy way of spending it.

Then there was Paul and Barry. Paul was a forensics expert with the police force and Barry was a former bricklayer turned prison officer (they didn’t know each other). Barry walked into my shop the day I opened and bought a lot of Batman comics – he was a Batman fan and had started reading the comics again after the release of the film. He was a practical man, he didn’t get caught up in hype, he just bought the main Bat books and maybe, if you told him it was important, he would buy the spin-off or guest appearance. He didn’t buy the expensive variant cover editions, nor did he buy any more than 1 copy of anything. He was a collector, but he was essentially a reader and a fan. When he knew I was closing he was honest enough to tell me he’d moved his standing order of Batman comics to the comic shop in Northampton. He probably still buys Batman today and nothing else.

Paul was a Spider-Man fan, who had got hooked on the character with the cartoons in the late 1960s. When he saw a comics shop opening in his hometown he made a beeline for the Spidey boxes. Paul’s story is the same as Barry’s; two family men, who spent, on average, the same as a couple of pints on a bit of escapism. Any stigma attached to the industry wasn’t apparent to him.

Then there was someone like Martin. Martin was high up in the local council; he was an important accountant who had to balance huge budgets, drove a big car and I often saw him around town with his long-standing partner, a very elegant woman. Martin collected comics when he was a kid, but he came from a relatively poor background and always limited his funds. He could easily have bought my entire shop’s stock in a few visits, especially after the look on his face after he first walked in, but he was ostensibly an accountant and therefore he always restricted his weekly budget to £200 (and went over that every other week). Martin is the sort of godsend that arrives at independent comics shops with an open invitation to the owner to think about eating properly again. When I shut up shop, Martin stopped collecting comics. He couldn’t be arsed to drive the 10 miles to the nearest other shop; my shop was in his hometown and he could walk there. If you’re a retailer and he moves to your town – thank me.

I’m a good salesman when I’m selling something I believe in. I can convince people that they can challenge their perceptions and preconceptions. No better example of this happened with Kev, the trendy vicar. Kev was the new man of God in the church where I married my wife, he was the reason I ordered quite a few obscure independent comics and he loathed Marvel Comics. Despite being a devotee of the X-Men, the Hulk and Superman, my favourite comic while I ran the shop was Daredevil, which was being written by the unbelievably talented Ann Nocenti and was drawn by one of Marvel's then up-and-coming talents, John Romita jr. It took themes from some of Frank Miller's run on the book and elements from a story we'll go into in some detail towards the end of this involving the hero called Captain Britain. There was a fifteen issue run of comics that plunged the hero to the depths of despair; having him have existential crises and exploring the 'devil' in his name. It was quite superb and I targeted Kev with this comics run, acting like a pusher and slipping one of the issues into his bag and telling him it was on me. I didn't convert him, but he did buy all the issues of Daredevil that mattered and at a slight premium!

Karen was just 14 when she walked into my shop. Her older brother was a comics fan and a regular visitor to the store and he introduced his younger sister to the delights of the X-Men. Karen spent just about every spare penny of her pocket money for two years on X-Men comics. Occasionally she would have extra money and buy one of the more expensive comics and she’d always ask someone what one was the best. She was a shy girl and wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but gradually she came out of herself and would get involved in comics conversations with other customers and was treated as an equal – there were no age restrictions either in the Midland Road Community Centre. After the shop shut down I lost contact with Karen, until one day in 1998 when I received an email out of the blue. She was at university in her final year, and was a fit, healthy, 21 year old female comics fan, who still loved the X-Men. Her boyfriend thought it was funny, but didn’t look down on her. No one at her university thought that reading comics was such a bad thing. The amazing thing is she’d be 34 now; I just hope that if she has kids she’s introduced them to comics.

And Karen, being a girl, brings us nicely back around to Mammary Lass, to prove to all the people who thought I'd also forgotten about her that I haven't. I talk about Luan Jones in several parts of this, but I never really tell you about her. She was the kind of girl who would show extra cleavage if it brought in money; it was all about the profit, not how you got it with her. As I've stated elsewhere; she developed the mail order side of Squonk; she schmoozed with the customers, bent over in front of important people and yet you just wouldn't argue with her; she'd fuck you over (and not in a good way).

The name Mammary Lass was a sort of homage to a DC series called Legion of Superheroes, which even today tends to be associated with gay comics fans. Members of LoSH tended to be synonymous with their names - Triplicate Boy, Invisible Kid, Colossal Boy, Lightning Lad, etc. Which is how Mammary Lass was born! She had big tits, wasn't afraid to thrust them in some discerning fanboy's face and was Christened so...

If there's anything else important about Mammary Lass, I'm sure we'll cover it.

Now, I think we've stopped digressing and wandering off into different directions. I think...

Next time: it's all about Rick. It's comic comic relief week!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Seventeen)

There were others who helped me out over the three and a bit years Squonk!! was open, but these mainly played walk-on roles in this soap opera. That was apart from Phil Christian, someone else who wandered in off the street and never went away. Phil was another monstrous human, but unlike Scott who was now in his 20s, Phil was only just 16 and still at school. He was from Sri Lanka, yet had the look and the build of an Aborigine sumo wrestler. Phil had this thing for The Punisher, a vigilante with a big gun and a bigger attitude – a sort of Clint Eastwood on Angel Dust with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish thrown in for good measure. He modelled himself on The Punisher and to be honest I wasn’t about to find out if he could do a good impersonation. His parents were both psychiatrists and he attended the local private school despite admitting he was as thick as shit.

Phil wasn’t so much a helper as a bouncer. We held a number of private parties on the upper floors over the years and we often employed Phil to stand at the door and only allow invited people in. He even turned up regularly wearing a suit and dickey bow, just to add to the illusion. Like Scott, Phil was just a big softy at heart – both of them were terrified of me and that just didn’t seem right, nor made a lot of sense.

Phil had disappeared off the shop radar by the time I finally called it a day and phoned all my creditors up and said, ‘come and get me’, comics retail had lost its shine and its appeal, and I’d lost somewhere in the region of £40,000. I took the decision on the second Saturday I hadn’t received my new comics delivery. I owed my distributor over £5000 and they had stopped my spiralling credit. It was something of a no win scenario for them, if they had continued to supply me, I could have started to pay them and kept the business afloat, but even now, years later I’m kidding myself. I owed far too many other people money to be able to honestly commit myself to some form of repayment plan.

Brian took it well, he hadn’t lost that much money and he thought it had been a great hoot and he realised that while I might have seemingly shafted my first partner, I hadn’t with him. In the shop the day it finally closed down were Luan, The Hippie, J3 and some of his mates, John (who I promise we’ll get to) and some other faeces in the crowd. It was a sombre affair. I was gutted. But I would have preferred to have stayed gutted, because at about 1pm the most unexpected visitor turned up – Dez Skinn had driven up from Finchley for my last day, or, what actually happened was on my last day in my shop, he came up and took over my day, he monopolised me and my customers and prevented me from giving the shop the last rites – don’t get me wrong, it was great of him (at the time) to come up, but he loves his ego being massaged so much he couldn’t even leave me to my final day without stealing my thunder. But by 6pm it was all over – Dez went home and I locked the door of Squonk!! for the last time as a going concern.

In a way, I was relieved.

The dream had become a nightmare and now I could wake up.


And we're back in the room! I was talking about Jack 3.

There’s a sort of generic nerd/fan and J3 could be classed as one of those guys - although nowhere near as bad as some. J3, as well as living a relatively normal life, also was a collector with ambition, some writing talent and an insatiable appetite for buying comics. J3 was the customer who immersed himself in all aspects of comics, from reading them to trying to write his own; he embraced the modern fandom culture and the kind of fan straddles lots of different types of mediums – film, books, TV, fantasy, and the paraphernalia surrounding everything. In many ways, J3's type of fan is the one that attracts the most attention outside of the freak show normally associated with hardcore comic fans. Some fans, not just of comics but also anything else that attracts collectors, aren’t just part of the scene, they need to be in it completely. This was and to some extent still is Jack [And still is in 2011].

J3's story is simple; as a customer he was great; he became a friend who I'm still good friends with now; he is still the same person, but economics have tempered his enthusiasm. However, the type of fan category he falls into is worth touching on, because the total experience fan isn't the same throughout the medium. I suppose I could have said all that 30 pages ago, but the kind of fan Jack was, could be identified as the archetypal comics aficionado and no study of comics can be complete without really looking at the geek - uncovered.

They're the full set merchants, dedicated followers of specific writers and artists, the person who will buy all the comics, then will buy the collected edition and then the hardback, autographed edition and end up with the same story three or four times but still treasures and reads them all (when there's time). This is the fan who will travel anywhere to look through a new (to him) shop’s stock.

There are those fans who WILL NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES SELL THEIR COMICS! (There are a lot of those about).

They're hypothesisers – fans who constantly try to second-guess where writers are going. These are the kind of fan who, if they can’t second-guess, will analyse everything in the story, trying to see hidden clues and messages (that in most cases aren’t there). Exposing their anally-retentive plumage for the world to see.

This type of fan is also a little bit precious and this leads to problems, especially when someone (artist or writer) they like or respect is criticised. These fans tend to be unbelievably knowledgeable, specifically about stories, artists, specific issues and when things of importance (or no importance) happened, and their specialities are normally the areas they collect with the most enthusiasm. However for every issue of Sandman a fan can recite to you almost verbatim, they are also unbelievably ignorant about the industry.

J3 once epitomised everything that is contrary about comics fans – his ignorant belief that comics was not the seething hot bed of shit I always claimed it was. His blissful ignorance that ‘normal’ people viewed comics and their fans as normal was almost sweet. He loved comics so therefore comics could really do him no harm. God, I wish I had that optimism about it, then and now.

The point is that the total experience fans ultimately hold no ill-feeling or malice towards the publishers, the distributor, the shop owner or the fellow fan – they are altruists. they don’t want to believe the corporate bullshit they read in comics magazines or on the Internet or, in J3's case, what he once heard from my cynical gob. J3 and many like him don’t like seeing anyone behaving negatively towards comics or the fans, in their opinions, it is counter-productive; it is negativity for the sake of it and, apparently, there's enough negativity already. These fans place creators like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and a host of others on pedestals and like Gods, they will not have anything negative said about them (unless it's being said by someone else they hold even higher in regard). Praise them, don't criticise or make mortal.

J3, to his credit, is one of those guys who’s happy to organise ‘fan meets’ or if he can’t organise them, he’ll be there, showing solidarity and being with kindred spirits. He’s also the sort of guy you need popping into your shop twice a month because he will boost your day’s takings. He isn’t a political animal and therefore he really represents the majority of all comics fans – whether they’re nerds or accountants who keep their lights under bushels. J3 was just slightly more extreme in his obsession. But he didn't dress up as superheroes at conventions... Had he done that we wouldn't be sharing a curry now.

Some fans, especially all of the Jacks I've mentioned, are a bit weird – they need to know what is going on and how it will affect their hobby (and then they log it away for future uses). They are information vampires and want to know what is going to happen rather than read about it as a new experience. The Internet was the most amazing thing ever invented because it not only fed them all the information about their favourite things before the magazines could – but it also allowed like-minded people to exchange info, swap gossip, speculate, chat and generally be very ‘sad’ about their hobby, but it also allowed them to build a better community - the first truly interactive comics fandom.

The Internet began to produce the comics super-nerd. Hell, even in the good old days of the 1970s there were geeks at comics marts, and in those days they had to venture out of the house to get what they wanted. By the 1990s when mail order had really organised itself and the Internet came along, many comics fans could be totally active in comics yet never leave the chair in front of the computer. Anyone who spent time on message boards in the 1990s, not just comics, but music, TV or politics, will recognise the kind of person I'm alluding to. The person with an answer for everything and who seems to post 22 hours a day, sometimes more.

There is a kind of fan who should have a life and every so often might find one, but then reverts back to type. If he’s lucky he’ll find someone who can put up with being an Internet widow as well as a comics wife. I've known people who all fit into the above categories – the categories that probably sum up most kinds of collectors in whatever collecting field you’re in – and the only real feeling I get, and I know this because I’ve been there, is selfishness. Comics fans or collectors probably the world over are selfish people and ultimately only care about themselves. They aren’t particularly bitter and twisted people, they just want what they want and will get it.

In the 90s, when Jack 3 wasn’t reading his comics, surfing the net, or watching his TV programs, he was writing his own stories, planning his own series and generally working constantly to come up with the idea that will give him his big break. You would be surprised at the number of people who aspire to the same thing as him, throughout comics. They might not brag about it, but if they believe in themselves, they’ll try somewhere. If Jack 3 isn’t writing comics, he’s writing stories, he’s writing articles for fan’s magazines, or as has been the case in recent years, he’s been busy starting his own small independent publishing company and getting involved in the fan scene.

For many fans, it’s about acceptance and it’s about becoming important through whatever means possible – if you can’t do it through sheer talent, then do it through hard work and tenacity or if that fails then suck up, be sycophantic, schmooze or creep – flattery (and buying their targets lots of alcohol) normally helps.

Some fans will continually advise you that you should be reading what they are reading. Comics fans think if they get a real kick out of a comic then others should too. It doesn’t occur to them that other fans are not necessarily into the same things as them. It’s easy to use ‘a matter of taste’ as an argument when someone doesn’t like something you recommend, but with some people it isn’t taken at all well. Comic fans shouldn't be allowed to review comics, unless it's something they have never read. Comics are just too damned personal for them to be objective. J3 wasn’t a reviewer; he’ll admit it’s something he really couldn’t do well. But many end up reviewing comics for magazines, website or their own blogs and invariably they review the books they buy, because you're not going to buy a comic you don't read just to review it, are you?

[An aside: I didn't mention this earlier, but no one who writes reviews are ever likely to receive free copies of Marvel or DC comics to review. Aside from the time element - by the time a comic is reviewed it's past its sell by date - publishers are happy to supply creators on their payroll with everything they publish, but if you're a reviewer for a reputable magazine or website - go and buy it sucker, you're not getting anything for nothing from the majors. Fantagraphics and publishers of their ilk, i.e.; specialist independent publishers do send review copies, but that is because their product is designed for a long shelf life and is not hindered by the laws of spandex.]

Devoted fans can also suffer from Spoilerism – a condition that would involve them telling you everything you don’t want to hear about a comic (or TV program), despite telling him quite loudly and into their face that you do not want your own enjoyment spoiled by them. Some fans get a real charge from knowing what is going to happen next in their favourite comics and TV series, it doesn’t spoil it for them like it might for many others, it enhances enjoyment. One of my non-comics friends suggested that it has something to do with control and power. Information is power and if you know something that someone else doesn't, you have the upper hand on them. I have met far too many fans who have deliberately spoiled endings or important parts of a TV series or a film because while they claim what they are going to tell you won't spoil it; it always does!

Collecting is related in a small way to autism. Most collectors are men; that might sound like a sexist statement, but it is true. like rock music, the predominant majority have penises. It is also a form of tribalism; as Squonk showed, comics are actually great levellers, the problem is it has to happen between comics fans. We touch on this with John, but the point is comics is a brotherhood, that unlike the Masons, welcomes women into the fold because it gives them something to look at. I'm sure there are as many women in comics who view it as just a job rather than tingle with excitement because they're working in comics!

This universal respect that fans have for each other – it’s like the nerds know they’re nerds but don’t give a fuck - is actually very positive. Comics have always performed a form of social unification, probably because class has never been an issue in comics. They all share a common bond, a love for the medium, and therefore many of us will put up with each other’s eccentricities.

The archetypal nerd isn’t the kind of person you’d want sitting opposite Jeremy Paxman because he would lose sight of the big picture and get rooted in minutiae. It is difficult to discuss comics without getting someone confused, as many of you will probably attest to by now (See? There is a pattern to this, it's not just slapdash for the sake of it, and it has to be told in a way that perfectly encapsulates comics). Minutiae is an important thing for nerds, because it gives them depth to their meaning. It might not work for anyone else, but hey, you might get pleasure from picking your toenails in the bath and making models of the Titanic with the clippings! Chacun à son goût.

A radio interview I did recently could easily have been five times longer and still I wouldn’t have been close to even scratching the surface of this labyrinthine industry. It is probably because it is all inextricably linked – you can’t talk about one area of the industry without having to discuss another part that helps make sense of the first part. But, that is what a lot of what this is about - the fact that it is actually difficult to discuss one aspect of this industry without another part barging in and to best understand why it works the way it works you need to enter the labyrinth. This is probably another good reason why the press don’t treat comics in the same way as other arts. The entire set up of comics’ industries all over the world is simple compared to the existing one in the UK and USA. No one changed anything in comics, they just bolted on bits here and there and now it is a lumbering beast, a bloated near-corpse that has become mired in an almost impenetrably confusing shell.

Comics are fucked up. There is nothing about comics that is simple to understand or explain. It is not just a can of worms, it’s an entire dustbin full of not just earthworms, but every other species of worm you can imagine. Even I’m confused and I’m writing this...

Next time: John - the good, the bad and the awful.