Tuesday, 30 August 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty-Six)

Dez Skinn became inextricably linked to my life. He’d phone up at all hours, expecting me to drop everything to talk to him, and I invariably did. I was at his beck and call almost 24/7, it was the way he liked it and it gave him pleasure to see me at odds with my wife. He also seemed to get a perverse kick out of putting me in danger or uncompromising positions. The San Diego trip was memorable for the Tijuana trip, but the day before we were due to fly back to the UK (well, I was, he was extending his stay in New York for a few more days) we spent the day in Los Angeles. We had gone there a day early to attend a party at Marv Wolfman’s Tarzana home. It was an interesting gathering of a previous generation of writers and artists. Many of those there were heroes of mine from my youth. Dez thought that if we hung around long enough, perhaps Marv would offer us his spare room or the couch, but when this seemed highly unlikely, we headed into central LA to look for a hotel. We found one just off Ventura Freeway; it was a flea pit of a place and the guy at the desk seemed very surprised that we wanted the room for the night and not just a couple of hours. “That guy thought we were gay,” I said to Dez later, but he looked at me like I spoken in Latvian.

The aircon worked but sounded like someone grinding a troll’s bones in a blender; the bathroom was reasonably clean, but the carpet next to my bed seemed to have some strange growth in it and I was convinced my bed clothes were dirty. Dez slept naked and unashamed, I had a T shirt and boxer shorts on and would have worn a hat if I’d taken one with me. He slept soundly apart from an incident at around 4am when we heard shouting, screaming and a fight. Dez turned over and grunted, I pulled the covers up to my hairline and prayed. I was in the shower a little after 6 and ready to go by 8. Dez didn’t surface until gone 9 and he’s a slow starter by choice. I packed the bags into the car; he smoked a fag.

Then as we were about to go and I could feel a sense of relief come over me, he started talking to two prostitutes who worked the hotel. I sat in the car and just hoped he would think of something better to do, when he calls me out of the car. “The girls have never met anyone from England before.”

“That’s nice,” I mumbled.

“They’ve offered us a freebee if we want it.” He was grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh Jesus...” I said, turned on my heels and got back into the car, but not before one of the girl’s offered me a quick blow job.

We got to LAX and his flight was an hour before mine. That hour I spent in LA on my own was glorious.

It was either work for Dez or stack shelves and my wife would have had me stacking shelves every day! But for me it was a love of the job that rode over everything else and that meant I could put up with the ritual humiliation of being the target for most of Dez’s funny stories of incompetence. He, for years, had a sentence I wrote, blown up and stuck on the office wall – the line was ‘Not unsurprisingly’, which is indeed a double negative and makes no sense at all. It would have saved energy and humiliation had I just written ‘Surprisingly’, but I often fell into these kinds of situation, much of it brought on either by too much drug consumption, being so damned tired or fear of him. Getting six hours sleep in 72 hours was the norm. But that’s a cop out; excuses which might have an element of truth in them – I had a lot of raw talent but I was also pretty much nowhere near the standard that was expected of someone writing for a professional magazine. I can see that now, hindsight is a marvellous thing; but at the time, when I should have been educated, I was being crucified and the more he intimidated me, bullied, pilloried and abused me the more anxious and nervous I became. He could never understand why I made such elemental mistakes – neither could I at the time – but now I realise that my head was swimming with a mixture of fear and confusion. Perhaps a psychologist would suggest I liked the attention, or perhaps they would say that I was so scared of making mistakes I made more.

I also had myself to blame, mainly because I could have stemmed the flow of abuse considerably had I bothered to actually read a lot of what I was doing; but you see humans have this infallibility that makes them look at an edited piece of work and believe that it was what they submitted in the first instance. I’d read some of my columns and, by golly, that was what I’d written originally and it was good! Oddly enough, it wasn't until I started my own magazine that I really embraced being an editor; the buck stopped with me so therefore I had to be much better.

So why did Dez keep me on for so long? A lot of it had to do with Sarah Bolesworth. She recognised raw talent and Dez did as well; he, on good days, used to refer to us with diamond analogies. I mined them, he polished them. No one could write the way I did and I mean that in a positive way; he made it make sense; as simple as that. Sometimes he edited things just for the heck of it; almost like he couldn’t possibly let things pass because I didn’t deserve an easy ride. Sometimes I’d sit there and wonder just what the fuck was wrong with a sentence and even after he’d ‘improved’ it, I still couldn’t see it. Sometimes you could tell it was just him being an arse; we would be doing the last job of the night, I would be ready to go home and he'd start deconstructing a perfectly adequate sentence because he didn't want me to go, yet...

Yet he was teaching me to be a very adequate editor. I had and still have terrible blind spots, but I could do a good job if left to my own devices and I was learning all the time and more often than not starting to think like an editor.

Over the years I was there I took over the troubleshooting role that Dez had once revelled in but lost interest in as technological advances started to escape him. I was the problem solver. I was the theoretical man stuck halfway up a mountainside with no equipment and a shoe missing – a typical Dez fantasy scenario to liven up otherwise mundane problem solving. No point in panicking in that situation, you’ll kill yourself. How do you make the best out of bad situation? Sometimes he couldn’t see the wood for the trees, so I would step in and come up with a solution; sometimes I wouldn’t even have to come up with it, all I’d need to do was move him in the right direction. My forte was squeezing a quart into a pint pot. I showed that problem solving was one of my strong points and as I became more and more valuable to Dez, he started using me even more – even though I didn’t always know about it and not always for what you might imagine.

Within a couple of years, I was one of two figureheads at CI. I was the person whose name was attached to letters to people that were far from nice. I became the person who dealt with the idiots, the arseholes and the time wasters. It was my name on the emails and the letters that were sent to people who needed to be put straight by Dez’s wisdom. If he wanted to be nasty or horrid it would be my name on the letter. I started to wonder about this when mail addressed for me had started to be opened. He came clean, explaining to me how much a jolly jape and a wheeze it was using me as his pit-bull.

Dez slowly and surreptitiously controlled my working life beyond my knowledge.

This was a contributing factor over and above the obvious reasons why Dez and I stopped communicating in 1997. Month after month of slow erosion – I was nothing more than a tool for him – begins to grind you down. When we had our big air-clearing (as he later would refer to it) our relationship changed almost immediately. I was no longer embedded in the CI Finchley base, but I’d suddenly become important to Dez again. He had regained his closest ally (I wasn’t a traitor after all, the same as I hadn’t been a thief) while managing to move me out of the main duties of the magazine, allowing him to do his own moving.

I was still completely mystified about who was going to produce all the news for the magazine; it represented most of the editorial content. I would find out in the worst of ways a couple of months later. With the recent traumas starting to slip behind me, I had begun getting other freelance work that required my knowledge of DTPing rather than as an editor. By the middle of the year, I was back up to earning what I had and the situation at CI had continued to progress back to a point where I had almost blotted out the horrors of February 1998. I was still vexed with him, but my outlook had changed towards the job, it probably was exacerbated by what happened next…

I was attending the last ever UKCAC, the comics convention that would be replaced by the UK Comics Festival in Bristol. I was in London for the first time in a year and I felt a little isolated. I’d seen Dez a couple of times, but he’d been deliberately distant – part of me would like to think he felt a little ashamed at the way he’d treated me, but equally it could have been that he was scared that I would bite his head off. I saw Mike Conroy, who had just suffered the same fate as the other founder members of the retail organisation CoBRA [Comic Book Retailers Association] and gone out of business owing enormous amounts of money. We sat, had a drink, talked about old times and things that were happening and suddenly he stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Oh God. He hasn’t told you, has he?”

“Told me what?”

“Fuck! The fucking liar. I said to him I didn’t want you to find out this way. Bastard.”

“What are you talking about, Mike?”

“I’m writing all the news for CI now.” I was stunned. I just sat there and… sat. Mike asked me if I was all right. I nodded. Mike Conroy had been one of Dez’s oldest friends and the two had known each other for years – so it really shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. A year earlier when Mike closed his store he went to work for the centre that handled CI’s distribution. Dez said to the manager of that business, Colin Campbell (who incidentally was another old acquaintance of mine from the 1970s) one evening that in an ideal world Mike would be at CI and I would be working for Colin. It was not an ideal world and I did one day work with Colin, but in an advisory and consultancy level for one day. It seemed that fate had allowed Dez to replace me with Mike and get me back all sweetness and light at the same time. He really was a Jammy Bastard. I didn’t speak to Dez all day and went home early, feeling somewhat deflated. The bastard had fucked me over again. Except, he wasn’t the only one, but it would be a few more years before I realised what part Conroy played in it.

This changed me, and subsequently my attitudes towards Dez. Then my small moment of triumph happened. The issues after I was relieved of most of my duties showed a great lack of direction. There were copious mistakes and the news suffered once again from the regurgitated press release syndrome I’d succeeded in ridding. It wasn’t really Mike’s fault, he needed to build up his list of contacts, he needed to win the approval of the professionals, he needed to be in constant dialogue with them and above all else he needed to learn how to write it. He hadn’t got close to that when he started, so he was working with what Dez was sending him. I was quietly gloating as more and more letters appeared dissing the news and they weren’t from my friends or me writing under assumed names; they were arriving from all corners of the country and from people who were known to the magazine, all asking the same question – Where was Phil? Mike’s baptism was difficult enough without him knowing the golden rule of being a news editor for Dez. You are only news editor in name only. What Dez says goes, and you’d be best advised to always treat anything Dez sent you with a top priority. Mike didn’t because, deep down, he believed Dez had lost track with what was really happening and felt he would be able to re-educate him - the new wife was trying to change hubby. This built up a wall between the two of them that would become one of the centres of many conversations I’d have with Dez over the next few years. Conroy treated his new found position as a way of changing Dez’s attitude; getting him to incorporate more of Mike’s ideas; this wasn’t ever the way it worked. I knew this, but Mike, as he was with his news coverage, was as naive as he was inexperienced.

Then two months before their San Diego trip, I got a phone call from Dez. Mike was having trouble getting in on deadline – even though he lived much closer than me, he had to go around London and it took him longer to get to Finchley than it took me. This was the reason given, but reading between the lines (and having my suspicions confirmed by Kerry on my triumphant return), Dez missed me, and he especially missed my problem solving abilities more than anything else. I was also a very useful final sub editor, whereas Mike couldn’t spot a typo on the end of his nose. I might not have been the best writer he could have wanted, but I’d been there so long I knew how the magazine worked almost better than Dez himself.

I returned to the office for the first time in nearly two years and it was like slipping on an old glove, except there was one difference – an indifference towards Dez. No, that's the wrong word, more like confidence about myself. I was now there on my terms and that meant we were there on equal terms and that meant that on occasions we’d end up arguing. Not like him and Sarah, but bad enough for me to know I always held the trump card. He needed me at that time – I didn’t know how long for, but I was going to milk it while it lasted.

The problem was I think at this point he actually started to genuinely like me. Our relationship had become, for the first time ever, one of two mates working on a hobby together, it was far more relaxed than it had ever been when I was his ‘apprentice’ and I was just as likely to tell Dez to ‘fuck off’ as he would say ‘how can you do this to me?’ The thing was Mike was not me and Dez couldn’t have the sadistic fun with him as he had with me. I don’t mean the humiliation and bullying, I mean the good times. The marathon film and TV binges, the many weed sessions, the fine restaurants, the travel, the computer game battles and the openness. Now, however, if I wasn’t happy I’d make sure he knew. I also stopped talking to him like he was my superior and began to talk as an equal. I don’t think he ever really liked it, but it made for simpler and more direct conversations.

Mike had slipped quickly into the role of dog and Kerry was growing more and more exasperated at how she saw the magazine going downhill fast. Mike was hardly capable of producing his own designs at the time, so either Dez or Kerry had to supply him templates wherein he had to supply the words. They were spoon-feeding him and yet he still struggled. It was quite remarkable and also unbelievably gratifying – Dez had manoeuvred things to such an extent so he could get rid of me and give his older friend my job and his older friend turned out to be considerably worse than me. Mike’s grasp of English might have been marginally better, but he couldn’t do any of the things that Dez relied on me to do. Mike wanted to do his own layouts, but he didn’t seem capable of following the house rules. Not only did Kerry think Mike was useless, she also didn’t really like him as a person. She found him weak and passive and his conversation was rooted firmly in the 1960s, an era before Kerry’s memory began. Plus Dez’s relationship with Sarah grew increasingly more acrimonious – mainly because Kerry was going back to her and complaining about Mike and wondering why the hell I wasn’t doing his – my old – job. Dez stuck with Mike because Mike was his old mate, he couldn’t be seen admitting defeat or making a mistake (or because he could bully him) and this was to cause the San Diego meltdown.

Next time: more childish politics...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty-Five)

We were talking San Diego.

Let me tell you a bit more about Sarah Bolesworth, Dez’s former partner and business associate in Quality Communications Ltd. Sarah was an ambitious woman, from a very ‘proper’ background, who had rebelled in her late teens and rallied against her ultra-Conservative upbringing, she was a champagne socialist and she was also a right royal bitch. You didn’t cross this woman, she could strip paint with a look and had a way of completely deconstructing someone she was talking to. It wasn’t so much the content of her tirades as the relentlessness of them, this usually crushed even the most obstinate targets of abuse. She was a complete snob, yet she was also a really exceptionally loyal person – if she liked you. Sarah liked me. The problem was being aligned to Sarah at CI was not a position of strength. Despite their personal relationship having run its course, Sarah was still a minority shareholder with QCL, but Dez and his team of accountants were slowly edging her out of the scene. Sarah actually cared quite deeply about the future of the magazine we all worked on. She also saw the importance of having people like me working there because not only did we offer energy and youth that Dez couldn’t offer, we also kept his ego at bay, to a certain extent. Dez related to the old school of comics fans, and while I hardly represented the new breed, I was closer to them and I could understand the industry. Sarah sort of understood it as well, more so than Dez it seemed.

Sarah’s biggest fault was never knowing when to let go of something. If she was right – she was right! I have had the misfortune to be present during some of the most horrendous arguments between these two people. It was uncomfortable, but after about three years I started to get bold and occasionally told them both that this really wasn’t the best of times to be having this argument. I did this very rarely, but it had results. Once, I just saved my work, tidied up my work station in a deliberate way; switched the computer off and collected some stuff to do at home. We were on deadline and suddenly Dez saw what I was doing. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I'm going home. I can't work with you two arguing in French so I don't know what the hell you're arguing about. I can do more work at home and I'll be back down in the morning," and I walked out. Dez followed me into the avenue, trying to dissuade me; even Sarah was standing in the doorway apologising. We stood outside for almost an hour before I left; it was one of the first times we had sat together without any pretence; the two of us sitting on bonnets of cars and him not trying to impress me or regale me with another bon mot or anecdote.

Sarah was a schemer, but no more than Dez. It seems to me now that both of them suffered from huge amounts of paranoia – the tempestuous relationship was racked with shifting allegiances and forever moving ground. The sad thing was that anyone associated with them socially were effectively the subjects of bizarre custody battles, with Dez getting pissed off if Sarah had anything to do with ‘his’ friends and vice versa. I was the only person exempt from this because I’d stopped being a friend and had become an ownership issue.

But Sarah had been invaluable in the creation of Comics International and she wasn’t about to let something that probably had made heaps of money in the previous 8 years go easily. She felt she deserved more from the magazine than she got; unfortunately she was going up against a man who won everything he set his mind to.

I remember the day she read an article I wrote called San Diego or Bust. It was a (very poorly written) report of my visit to the convention, without the shit included. The only comment she had to make about it was the opening paragraph, where I said that I still had ambition and wanted, one day, to be in charge of the magazine. She looked at me and said coldly but without malice, “You’ll never be the editor of Comics International. He would never let you.” I think I’d started to work that out for myself, but it wouldn’t be for a few more years before I accepted it.

Sarah had by this time become so friendly with Dez’s assistant, Kerry-Ann, that the two of them had rented a house together and were always going out and having a good time – quite remarkable considering Sarah had hated Kerry when she started; but I was just beginning to see the depths of how politics began to play such an important part in my latter years at CI. As far as Sarah was concerned Kerry was there because she had tits and Dez would eventually try to fuck her. I can’t say for sure if the latter ever happened, but I suspect it didn’t. Sarah saw befriending Kerry as a perfect way to get at Dez. He couldn’t say anything about Sarah to Kerry without it getting back to her and generally Dez was beginning to feel as though the two women working on CI were manipulating him and this freaked him out – I soon became very important again to him. He was probably right about Sarah and it was fun to watch. But Dez broods on minutiae, as do most comics fans – we’re all anally retentive you see. By the time Sarah demanded that she be taken to San Diego, Dez had already agreed to take Mike Conroy with him. He knew that the way the industry had dipped that a visit to San Diego again in the foreseeable future was unlikely. So he agreed to take Sarah and took Kerry along not because he wanted to; but to keep the peace. It started a war.

Mike Conroy got his thorough deconstruction – far harsher than I received by reports – on the plane on the way home in front of a lot of other passengers. Apparently, according to Mike, he was in a flood of tears and Dez just kept on going. The woman in the seat behind tapped Dez on the shoulder and told him to leave Mike alone. He insulted the woman passenger and was told by the steward if he upset another passenger security at Heathrow would be informed. Later, because he’s such a goddamned Christian, Mike hugged Dez in thanks and would claim that Dez was only taking it out on him because of the horrible events during the San Diego convention. That was the day I lost all respect for Conroy.

What had happened?

Well, I shouldn’t really know but I do for a number of reasons. I’d agreed to take control of the telephone lines for the week, so I had the CI phone lines transferred to Wellingborough. This meant that any of the four in the USA could get hold of me should they want, just by ringing the office phone. They all did at different times. The first call I received was from Dez, he was checking up and seeing if there was anything to report. There wasn’t. I asked him how things were going and rarely for Dez there was a pause and he said, “Things are fine.” I said I knew him better than that, what had happened? He assured me he was just tired and he’d speak to me later in the week.

The following night, or to be precise about 2am in the morning my office phone started ringing. I’d been warned that some publishers overseas have no comprehension of time zones and this was probably some twat in Japan who’d forgotten. Instead it was Dez. He was distraught and I couldn’t really make out what he was saying. It sounded like Kerry had gone missing, he’d had a huge row with Sarah in the presence of Mike, Kerry and the guy who ran the Comics Warehouse distribution company that Dez used for CI and now he didn’t know what to do. Everything was going wrong. It was obvious he was very drunk and very emotional. I eventually got back to bed about 3.30, my wife absolutely seething about what she regarded as yet another infringement by my boss into our private time. She was right, but I was stupid and despite everything that had happened to me, he was still sort of my friend. There was also the element of how I could position myself back into Dez’s good books.

Now there’s a reason I was the telephone exchange that week. Had it been six months earlier I wouldn’t have been working for Dez. During 1997 a huge rift appeared between the two of us. To cut a boring story short, I had had this idea of a complimentary magazine to CI that would come out bi-monthly. He’d been up to my house in the sticks and had seen the working cover on the wall and began to believe that I was planning to bring my own comics magazine out. In fact, he drove me to almost do just that.

I had lost the car by this time and getting down to London was causing a problem. Trains were too expensive and Dez wasn’t about to stump up for anything to fix the company car – he’d just bought a brand new Jaguar. So we communicated by phone and email. Phone calls were always fine, but things started to creep into his emails and even though I kept asking Kerry what was wrong with him, she said she didn’t know and I believed her. Then Christmas 1997 was a horrible time for us, the reasons were unimportant, but it was bad. I almost missed the deadline, but as I’d suffered extremely in the past, I made sure this didn’t happen again. Two weeks later, the first week of 1998, during the lull between issues, my father collapsed with a heart attack. His timing was indeed fortunate, and you’ll understand that last statement better soon.

Dez had no living family, or none that he knew of or cared about. He played on his ‘orphan’ status many times, especially whenever Kerry or I were having problems with our own families. Families seemed to be a constant thorn in his side – they got in the way of what he saw as his progress. He had managed without one, why couldn’t others? He actually asked us this one night, much to both of our amazement.

Two weeks later my dad came out of hospital and things settled down again. We were gearing up for another issue when tragedy really struck my family. My mother died. It was unexpected, wasn’t quite as short and painless as anyone would wish and it was a very traumatic period for everyone involved, not least my dad. Obviously I was in a mess, but the first person I called was Dez. Despite us hardly talking over the last few months, I needed him to talk to. I needed him to eventually say, ‘it’s OK, we’ll scrape by this issue without you’. I was a mess on the phone and I really needed support. My family were all brutally shocked; I had no one I could really turn to for help or advice. Instead what I got was quite extraordinary. Dez told me while he understood the grief I was going through (this was 3 hours after she died) there was no way he could feasibly ask anyone else to do my work for that month, otherwise he’d have to offer them my job. It wouldn’t be fair to them to give them just one month’s work and then take it away again. I argued the point and he said, and I quote, “What do you expect me to do run a banner where your columns are saying ‘Sorry reader but there’s nothing for you this month because the news editor had to go to a funeral’?”

He told me that if I didn’t provide the things I was expected to supply I wouldn’t have a job anymore. Yes, you read that correctly. I struggled to get things finished. I hardly slept, I was consumed with grief, but I still managed to turn in all my columns and features. They weren’t brilliant, but what do you expect? My wife wanted to kill Dez; colleagues of mine were amazed that I was even entertaining the notion; but I was committed to CI.

Then the funeral date was arranged. It fell on the black and white section deadline – the big one. I was still travelling to London for this and I had to tell Dez that I couldn’t come down. He actually asked me if there was any way I could go to the funeral and then drive down straight after it. I said that I didn’t think that was possible. He ended the phone call.

The day before the funeral I received an email from Dez telling me that the majority of my services would no longer be required; this was down to my being unable to attend the deadline – thereby letting him down and because the standard of my work, which he felt was poor, had reached new lows that month. All I was asked to supply from that point on would be Movers & Shakers, for which I’d get a flat £100 per month and my Hotshots column, for which I’d get £50. He cast some doubt as to whether Hotshots would last very long, claiming that it was not a popular column. He thanked me for all the work I’d put in and that was that – no mention of my bereavement; just a formal notice – via email – telling me that he was letting me go.

I exploded. It was the ultimate kick in the balls. He’d cut everything from me, including all my news coverage, which accounted for 70% of my salary. I was known in the industry as one of the best news journalist and I’d done heaps to rid CI of its ‘regurgitating press release’ image, which was indeed true when it first started. I had sacrificed so much for Skinn and his magazine and because my mother had the audacity to die at the wrong time of the month, he hung me out to dry. To say I thought he was a bastard would be a slight understatement. I was told that my work would be spread out through the team until a suitable replacement was found. He said the reason he was taking news from me was that even though I was good at it and had a huge address book of contacts, I needed to be producing better quality on my two remaining columns – one of which was still the most popular in the magazine and amazingly got dropped after I departed in 2001 because no one else could write it. Fuck knows what sense that was supposed to make.

I called him and Kerry, bless her, didn’t allow him to screen my call. She was disgusted at him and even had an argument with him over his decision; but the truth was, she also knew what his other motives were. But first, we argued. There were tears from both of us. I said things I never dreamt I’d ever say to him and in the end I was put back in charge of two other columns and my money was up to £500 a month; but I was no longer required to come in to the office and eventually this ‘new deal’ would be reduced, either over the next six months or as soon as I got another job.

It was the first and only time I think someone actually got some concession from him and that was achieved by laying the most massive guilt trip on him. One of the things that came out of this first real big argument between us was a few of his paranoid feelings. He accused me of trying to start a rival magazine up, I laughed at him, said I suspected he believed that and explained my idea of a complimentary highbrow comics magazine to CI – which he would publish; how I’d often dropped the suggestion into conversations with him – which he remembered – and how I was going to present the idea to him. I hadn’t bothered taking the idea to him because he had taught me enough about publishing for me to do my own maths and realise that the idea was a non-starter.

This threw him off guard, but he was not finished. He then accused me of setting the tax office on his company. A year earlier, he had been put through an audit and had struggled to show the legitimacy of his business – all of his employees were freelancers, but they were essentially contracted to him as personal slaves. We paid our own tax because it suited him that way. We got no benefits such as sick pay and holidays and would get no sympathy from Dez at all, because we had an issue to get out and we couldn’t say, ‘sorry readers there’s no issue this month because the news editor’s ill.’ We (eventually Loriann and Mike Conroy) were employees of his – there was no two ways about it. Supplying us with company cars; making sure he had control over our hours, our free time; his – up to the point where he fired me – reluctance to allow us to take on other jobs in case they clashed with his precious magazine. Skinn could argue that we were all freelance and self-employed, but if the Inland Revenue wanted to investigate him deeply they would have found so many inconsistencies. Fortunately for Dez, he paid a top quality accountant to make sure shit like this went away. The truth was that I hadn’t set the tax man on him and I told him so. What I neglected to mention was my wife had and she kept it from me for years, because she knew that it would have really angered me.

She did this because of the way he described her and talked about her and she wanted him to suffer, even if it meant that all of us lost our jobs. Sadly, his jammy bastard factor prevented the IRS from doing much more than making some cursory inquiries.

But it wasn’t my proposed magazine, nor was it the taxman, it was the plain fact that Dez liked to bully people and I’d been the target of this bullying from the very beginning, but as I said, it had started to get nastier after we returned from San Diego; by the time my mother died it reached its nadir. Fortunately for me some things happened in the intervening years that improved things.

Why do you think I was relieved he got Kerry? He had obviously grown bored of my company and was looking for something else to fill the void and become his mate. He fancied having a woman this time (although he probably would have been happy with a man with nice tits)... With this change at CI it seemed it was time for him to find a newer friend...

Next time: would you be disappointed if I said - more of the same?


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Sunday, 21 August 2011

My Monthly Curse (Late Summer Interlude)

We interrupt your scheduled broadcast...

In the years between originally writing the serialised book you've been reading and now (2011), I have written a fair bit on comics for blogs and websites, etc. I wrote, what I believed to be a very pertinent article when I sold all but a small box of my comics a few years back - to pay for a new boiler, which I am at home at the moment waiting for a man to come and service it as it has been 5 years since we've had it installed; how about that for synchronicity? Anyhow, I had one of those epiphanies you read about and my life was changed forever.

It's now the 6th May 2011. The sun is shining on one of the warmest springs I can remember and my wife is doing DIY stuff in the conservatory and I've been helping her by moving stuff into my office (or dump room as it seems to have become since I stopped smoking and spend less time in here). It was while discussing what we were going to do with my late father's expensive (in 1987) stereo system and its very 1980s glass cabinet that I had a similar epiphany to the one I had when equating boilers to comics. Dez Skinn had a similar one when I worked for him, which was - I have no one to leave this shit to, so I might as well sell it and enjoy the spoils! He sold his comics and embarked on a mid-life crisis travelogue, which I didn't begrudge him then and don't now. My selling of the remains of my collection was done so I'd have heat and hot water, more essential needs than 2 weeks in Malaysia, but each to their own and all that.

Anyhow, I'm wrestling with the dilemma of whether or not I'm going to get rid of dad's stereo and dealing with the existential crisis of owning a record collection - which is almost unreachable by its location in the depths of a cupboard - and having nothing to play it on; which turned into a full scale - what's the point of having my record collection, especially as I can download digital versions of it now and never have to look at the grooves on vinyl ever again? Suddenly, my 500+ selection of everything from Gustav Holst to Frank Zappa with a soup├žon of Frank Sinatra and a collectors mentality section devoted to Talk Talk, was in danger of being as anachronistic as my comic collecting - potentially more, because while I no longer dig out old classic comics and have a nostalgic moment with Jack or Stan; I will, given the chance, spin a disc from the late 60s, the 70s, some of the 80s and 90s that will set me off on a nostalgia trip that my joy of comics could never compete with.

When did I turn into Ephemeral Man?

I have gone full circle in my collector mentality, yet I'm still where I was. I suppose there's also a thin line between love and hate?

'I don't collect anything now', says a man who has over 1000 CDs behind him, filled up with music (some of which I've yet to play) or 2000 photographs stored neatly either in albums or on disc, or books by authors, filed in separate areas of designated bookshelves. But I do collect. The slightly autistic element of collectors is dominant in people like me; so even if I can now see the utter futility of collecting something (more so with me than with people with kids) it won't stop me from having 'moments' between now and my death when I feel the 'need' to want something that is, to intents and purposes, not going to do anything but take up space.

So, I suppose what I have now is the disregard of worth and the selfishness of profit. Because if I have no one I want to leave my shit too, then it all suddenly becomes important in a selfish way - I can do things with the money I make from selling this and get a second rush of happiness. Its money well spent - twice! Win - win. Surely?

I thought hoarding would make me happy, then I realised that not hoarding makes me equally as happy, and I have more room! It is purely a mindset.

You really can't take it with you. It was this one sentence that killed the collector in me. In 2000, I had a collection of 5 DVDs; in 2011 I have a DVD collection of about 35. 25% of these I have yet to watch. 50% of them are films I went to the cinema to see and the last quarter are classics, which might get shown again on TCM or whatever but might not hit terrestrial rotation until we're long dead (when was the last time you saw a Marx Brothers film on terrestrial TV?). The 35 I have act as a sort of lending library as I've not actually watched one of them in over two years.

The point is, unless you intend to leave your things to your kids, what is the point of keeping them?

A pension?

Hardly. If childless comics collectors can't see how fucking crazy collecting is, then they don't deserve to have sex with anything! Okay, I'm not 50 yet and I might have a retirement spent bored shitless with nothing to read or listen to, but that's the chance I'll take. I might get run over by a bus tomorrow, I'm pretty sure the wife would sell the stuff she didn't want. I'd actively encourage her to do it! I've worked in environments where council workers clear out the homes of single, white males after their deaths. Virtually everything gets burned. Picture this: some ignorant council worker incinerates your entire collection of comics after you've died and lights a spliff off the burning embers. Does that make you feel like you've done something worthwhile. If God exists, what makes you think he's going to be handing out gold stars to the people with complete collections of Spider-Man?

The point I'm dancing around is I don't see anything as having collectability any longer - at least nothing outside of things like fine art, antiques and businesses. This is my feeling and I know that many of you will be thinking differently. We've talked about the worth or value of comics incessantly in earlier chapters, but the reality is and always will be that a comic is only worth what someone will pay for it and only for a retailer; the collector walks around with a notion his collection is worth X, when in reality it's only worth that on paper, to the people who could get their worth, they are a fraction of their 'real' value. Comics collecting, more than most things, is a thankless, profitless thing. It reminds me of fruit machine addicts who will pump £50 into a machine, walk away with a £30 jackpot and feel he has made a profit because he's been on the machine all night.

I still have collections - photographs and music - but I could keep all of these on countless CDs or even this machine that I'm writing this on and still have space for thousands more! It takes up no room at all. No dust. No mess. For me the upsides are plenty.

The thing is I'm probably just 'normal' now. I'm so far out of certain loops, this might be the world over - the comics fans I've been talking about and will talk about might have evolved. I remember when I was 18, I moved to the outskirts of London, there is a brief mention of this in the book, but the point was I was there for nearly two years and during that time I became embroiled in a world of sex, drugs and rock and roll that made my stuttering social life in Northampton look colloquial at best. I was geographically in a much busier place and things were happening all the time and I took it all on board, like the information sponge I was at that age. The thing was, when I came back to Northampton, a little older, wiser and far more street smart, I thought all my friends here had just sat around and waited for me. They'd all moved on and my tales of debauchery were not getting the reactions I expected. Their world was not like the one I'd left two years earlier; they'd all had their lives and things happened in them that I couldn't understand. It was a humbling experience and one I learned from. The comics world might have done the same and I've been gone five years not two. My interpretation of the comics nerd is one that is 6 years old and possibly slightly out of touch even when I was producing Borderline.

But I digress; most of the things I might have collected I treat like ephemera should be treated; dispose of it when done. I can't think of many things I can't replace, possibly some music, old un-scanned photos, but generally I'd be more concerned about what I was going to wear and where I was going to live if the house burned down than fishing out the small box of 'sentimental' comics I kept. I'm not suggesting that obsessed collectors wouldn't feel the same way, but sometimes I have had to wonder.


Next time: a return to our scheduled broadcast.

Buy this book in its entirety.
Go to https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005FR2GNW for the UK Kindle edition!
Coming soon in other formats!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty-Four)

We're talking about Dez and the first San Diego fiasco.

On the Sunday night, a load of us went back to The Hyatt after the convention closed. It was the biggest and most plush hotel in San Diego (in 1994), the professionals from the industry took over the penthouse bar most nights and the drink normally flowed until the early hours, although usually the only people left standing were the Brits, the ex-pats and the journalists (although the US journos were all on soda by that time). Most of the Americans had cried off after a couple of Miller Lites. Most evenings something happened that was the talk of the press the next day. The last night, one of Norwich’s finest exports Steve Thomas (the former editor of a trade paper in the States) and I were sitting on the top floor enjoying a drink with Dez and a couple of Americans including Neil Hansen, a journalist, when Dez turned to me and announced that the tall leggy blond at the bar was looking at him. I looked over and hoped she was looking at Dez because this was a very tall woman in what looked like a genuine king-size, possibly inflatable, fright wig.

Dez, who lacks inhibitions even when he’s sober, sidles over to the woman and within a few minutes the two of them were walking out of the bar, Dez, very surreptitiously giving us the nod – he was in! Steve Thomas looked at me and I think I returned the same expression. “Did that woman look like a man in drag?” he asked and I was inclined to agree. She looked well worn with a hardened skin and was at least 6 feet tall. She was quite striking, but was obviously on the mutton side of lamb. We sat there in awe and disbelief, one of the Dark Horse management, one of the real genuine guys, despite being American, in the business, wandered over – he actually had a quite striking resemblance to the woman Dez had just walked out with, except his nose was a bit smaller. He had a beaming smile on his face and called me to one side. “The person Dez just walked out with tried it on Walter last night. [Walter = Walter Koenig, the actor who famously played Chekov in the original Star Trek TV series and was in San Diego promoting his new comics series] She’s a guy! We don’t know if he’s a transsexual or a transvestite but your boss has just walked out of here with a man on his arm!” This particular Dark Horse employee had known both of us for 5 years and he had a particularly set opinion of Dez. At best it was called toleration, but once at Bristol, a few years later, he just told me he thought my boss was ‘an arrogant drunken asshole’. Oddly enough, I’m still friends with this guy, but we mainly talk about dogs and my lack of understanding of American football rather than comics.

We didn’t see Dez again that evening and the following day he was cracking jokes about smoking California joints in the girl’s convertible, but when I pushed the subject to whether or not ‘she’ had stayed the night, he said that she had gone home shortly after they left the Hyatt. So why hadn’t he come back for more of a session? He was tired; he thought that perhaps the travelling had finally caught up with him. That was the brightest he was all day. His mood grew increasingly darker as the day wore on, but that might have had a lot to do with some of the looks he was getting from other hotel guests who were leaving as we were.

Whatever had happened the night before with the lady-man, who looked like a reject from Def Leppard, it obviously had been something of a pain in the arse for Dez. He proceeded to be a prick for the rest of our stay there.

Now for a light-hearted aside: One of the highlights of the week in California was meeting and becoming friends with Billy Tucci, a great guy who I count him as one of my best friends in comics, even though we’ve barely spoken for the last 10 years. Billy Tucci makes George W. Bush seem like a really reasonable almost pacifistic guy. Billy is a redneck New Yorker who believes that we all have a right to carry a weapon and we should all fight for our countries. Billy’s ambition was that he’d wanted to join the Marines, mainly so that he could kill someone in armed combat protecting his country or the free world – I’m not sure whether it was just the act of killing someone or he wanted to do it with an excuse, but it was quite frightening all the same, that a rational, free-thinking East Coast man should have such wish. A former fashion designer turned comics artist, Billy was/is one of the most genuine people in comics and I remember giving him some advice at dinner once that he said changed his life.

We were talking about fans – the slimy, greasy, overweight, under-nourished geeks and the ones who follow creators round like sheep at conventions, asking the most banal of questions and generally conveying a feeling of unpleasantness. Billy hated them. They were an anathema to someone with his background. Then in the middle of it all he stopped and looked at me, “But I gets this letter from a kid a couple of weeks ago and he’s like, this is so cool, you’ve made me interested in the Martial Arts, you’ve inspired me to do this, that and the other. And I’m looking at this letter and I don’t really know what to do or say.”

I said, “Pin it to your drawing board. Every so often, when you’re feeling low or down, look at it and remind yourself that this is the reason you’re doing it. If it matters to someone then you’ve made a difference to that person’s life in whatever small way. That kid pays your wages, you should remember him and all of his friends, and the ones we’ve all been taking the piss out of. Without them, none of us would be eating this food in this good restaurant at your expense!”

Four years later at a big signing in Birmingham, Billy had the longest queue of autograph and sketch hunters. Everyone else was doing what they were there for and getting on to the next person. Billy was talking, laughing and joking with his fans, as he always does, and refused to stop at the end because not all of them had been seen. He doesn’t do many comics any more, I believe - the industry’s loss, I’m afraid. The highlight for me was when he saw me. He excused himself from his drawing duties, jumped over the table, shouted out, “Oy, you old wanker!” at the top of his voice, to which I replied by calling him a Yankee tosser (I’d taught him how to swear in English) and we gave each other a massive hug. We’re still friends.

***

The rest of the San Diego trip involved a few hours at a beach in Malibu that confirmed my fears that the Pacific ocean is as cold as the Atlantic and a day in LA, which involved losing my sunglasses, going to a party and having an unwelcome encounter with the motel and residents from hell.

Jumping ahead of chronology; at a later San Diego, Dez’s evil attentions were turned to Mike Conroy, a one-time colleague of mine at CI. He found out in 1998, when Dez took him on the same journey. Apparently Dez’s rant at him was so bad Mike almost had a breakdown when he returned. But like me, Mike viewed going to San Diego as something of a Mecca and the opportunity to actually get there was greater than all the acceptable risks. Dez tried his bully tactics on Mike when the entire CI trip looked destined to become as newsworthy as the entire convention weekend. Dez had taken the entire team minus one – me – to San Diego. He was using the last of the build up of cash from the boom years, but by then he also had to use a number of credit cards to ensure they could ‘afford’ the trip.

This was the year of the big meltdown. I’d already been the victim of Dez’s increasing megalomania, the rest of the team were about to see it for what it really was...

Comics Lesson 14:

Comics Conventions are the Mecca for the true fan. For Americans it was either the long-standing San Diego or the newer, jazzier, Chicago Wizard World Con. In the UK we had this quaint thing called The UK Comics Festival that resembled a car boot sale in a 3-star hotel and had all the ambience of a tragic funeral. France has Angouleme a massive event over a week with 250,000+ people attending. Germany has Frankfurt, Poland has Lodz, and Brazil has Rio De Janeiro – the UK now has a number of events masquerading as something important.

The point is they take place, big or small, wherever comics are read by a good number of people. Most conventions have to boast a list of comics personalities to guarantee attendance. People like Jim Lee, Brian Bendis, Mark Millar and whoever else is the current artist du jour are the stars who are revered in the same ways people will fawn over the Brad Pitts and Tom Cruises of the film world! Arguably it is one of the pinnacles of a creator’s working life if he is one of the major invited guests at a convention; it’s sort of like official recognition or an unofficial award for services given. But conventions are also the places where most professionals get together, talk work – casually make deals, and let their hair down and enjoy themselves. In the UK it is similar except more time is spent - and more work done - in the bars. Conventions also have the biggest concentration of people working in comics or related to the comics industry, so these are the places that fans like to go for maximum autograph book attention and the wannabes use as their way to impress the people that need to be impressed.

Conventions also offer (supposedly) the largest selection of comicbooks on sale anywhere at that specific time (not true, ever) and a third of the auditoriums they are held at are normally covered with people having paid enormous amounts of money for a table or a booth, hoping to be able to make anywhere near the same amount of profit they would make from standard comics marts or markets.

Conventions are real geekfests as well, which of course doesn’t help matters when a film crew is there trying to make a film about how comics aren’t just for kids and geeks.

Next time: Being in charge of the magazine while civil war raged in San Diego.

Buy this book in its entirety.

Go to https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005FR2GNW for the Kindle edition!

Monday, 15 August 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part ½) - The Book That Was Too Controversial for Rich Johnston

My Monthly Curse is essentially an autobiography crossed with an opinion piece (with a chunk of biographical history thrown in); it was written partly as an act of catharsis and partly because, at the time (2005), I felt I had enough clout left in me to make a statement that would be appreciated by, at least, the professionals community. It also seemed like the logical thing for me to do, especially as I'd had some colourful adventures and experiences - in the eyes of many of my confidants I had a story to tell, it was controversial enough to open a few eyes and even if no one wanted to read it, it probably needed chronicling.

When Rich Johnston (someone you will encounter in detail towards the end of the book) approached me and asked if his website Bleeding Cool could simulcast my serialisation, I was happy to oblige. I sort of half promised Rich the chance for the scoop many years ago, when the book was in its planning stage. When he decided to stop running it, my initial reaction was nonplussed, but as the weekend wore on, I let it get under my skin. Fortunately I'm nearly 50, not in my twenties, when I would have knee jerked with considerable force - I don't quite know how, but I'm sure I would have got the literary equivalent of napalm out and obliterated bridges.

By Monday morning, I was full of a mixture of anger - the comic book industry has one last insult to throw me - and righteous justification - the words I have written are true and I'd happily stand up in a court of law and argue them out with whoever disbelieves them. If someone thinks I'm lying, they have as much responsibility to prove that what I say didn't happen as I have to prove it did and in as many cases as I could, I made sure that I named people present who can, if necessary corroborate my tales or lie to spite me depending on how much personal contempt they feel for any me or any target I choose.

Then my mate Mark said something that lightened my mood a little, '‎"The book that was too controversial for Rich Johnston." Sounds like good publicity to me!' The thing is, I was quite happy to just serialise it, put it in the public domain, on a blog, without much or any fanfare - I've said this publicly a few times - so good publicity isn't really the objective. My Monthly Curse will continue to be serialised on this blog as if Bleeding Cool never existed; if it gets 1000 hits a month, which it appears to be averaging, then I'm happy.

During a drink at a local pub, my former accountant and best friend Roger suggested that I 'publish' the book electronically, for Kindle on Amazon. The details of this were detailed in the italicised opening to the last instalment. This was purely a 'why not?' moment; after all, you don't write 170,000 words, edit it loads and serialise it if that is all you intend to do with it. We live in a world where electronic media is the norm, not the exception - like it was when I launched Borderline, which, ironically, could be ten times the size it used to be and no one would batter an eyelid at downloading it. If it's there, use it; you have nothing to lose. I intend to look into i-books and e-books and whatever other way of publishing I can use; not because I think I can make a fortune from it, but because it's there.

Someone has already suggested that this is a plan to persuade people to buy the book by stopping it at its most viewed source, especially at a time when the story has changed from the life of a struggling retailer to that of an aspiring comics industry worker. Already someone on the Bleeding Cool forums has bandied the word 'libel' around and this is really the only reason why Rich has dropped it. He's scared he'll be sued because he is co-publishing it. "The book that was too controversial for Rich Johnston," really does sound like the best kind of publicity when you think about it. Coincidence and nothing else, but I am the first the think that the timing couldn't have been better.

This isn't an excuse to plug the book (but the link is at the top right of the page), just a little bit of extra background for anyone who is coming here instead of Rich's site. It is also my way of reiterating the opening paragraph of this; it is an autobiography - my take on my 35 years involved in comics. If some of it is controversial, then it's a story worth telling. As I said to Rich in correspondence leading to this, 'What did he expect me to write - "When I left retailing, I worked in comics journalism for 11 years then started my own magazine up. The end"?

The next couple of months are a rollercoaster of a journey; lots of lows and a few very good highs. If you're new to the blog, then please feel free to leave your responses; but be aware that as a lot of my friends and family are present, I will not run your comments. Yes, it's censorship, but it's my domain and I'm all too aware that some (uninformed or ignorant) people just love to have a pop. I hope you stay with it.

Phill Hall - August 15, 2011

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty-Three)

[In the spirit of honesty and full disclosure, I feel I have to admit to something rather embarrassing. back when I started to serialise this, my good, dear friend Mr Kelvin Green started acting as an unpaid copy-editor. He pointed out mistakes that I'd allowed through in the 2nd editing and this prompted me to edit it again, just prior to publishing an instalment. When I was made redundant at the end of May 2011, I decided to fill my time by editing the entire thing again. However, I wasn't thinking laterally and I edited all the copy in Blogger, which meant if I wanted a final copy as a Word file, I had to cut and paste all the scheduled entries back into a new Word document, which I duly did. Then I remembered something I'd completely forgotten about and inserted it into the copy of the Word document. I then realised while I was lying in bed that night that the serialised version didn't have this important little bridging sequence.

So, giving myself more work to do, I cut and pasted the entire book back into blogger replacing each part meticulously. Job done... Except, last week I received an email from Kelvin, the first for months, with a list of corrections I needed to do. I looked at them and the first thing I thought was, 'I've already done them!'. But, I went in and checked and it seemed that I had imagined it. So I decided to check the next instalment, this one and guess what? yes, there were errors, grammatical errors designed to embarrass me. I then had an awful revelation: I'd cut and pasted the original manuscript back into Blogger. I'd cut each part and replaced them with exactly the same text! God knows how many errors I'd allowed to slip through, giving you-know-who lots of ammunition should he want it. So, for the last 4 hours I've been cutting and pasting the version of this book which will be available on Kindle in a week or so. the version without the silly grammatical errors; with the missing bits and the format cleaning.

Time to stick my neck out: I'm sure there are a few more errors that have strayed into this text. I have a habit of typing 'out' when I mean 'our' and I've cringed at blog entries where I've made this simple error many times in the past. But, on the whole, I'd say this is the cleanest version in existence. If you've been amused or disgusted by errors that have appeared so far, they're probably gone now!

Now, back to your scheduled entertainment...]

The next time I ‘missed’ a deadline happened 6 months later, during the lead up to one of the two major things he’s ever given me in all the time I worked for him. It was May 1994 and my wife had done something the previous October (when I had been ill) that Dez would spit teeth at and make all kinds of outlandish offers. She booked a holiday in May, smack bang in the middle of deadline week. My excuse was that I didn’t realise it would be that week because of Christmas and then played a masterful ‘d’oh’ kind of move when I realised what I’d done! In the January when he found out he didn’t seem concerned, but at the end of April he was getting very pissed about it all. I’d decided the best thing to do would be work the week before my holiday like deadline week and get virtually everything finished so that all Dez would need to do would be get the last dozen or so pages finished. He didn’t like the idea but agreed it made sense. By the time I left, four hours later than I planned, on the Friday, he had 16 pages to do and three of those were advertisements he was designing for customers. It was a theoretical piece of piss for a man who had put the magazine together on his own for two years before my arrival.

You can guess what’s coming, can’t you? I got back from my holiday and arrived in Finchley exactly 11 days after I left there. There were now 22 pages to be completed and these included another 8 pages of news, 4 replacement pages for the 4 pages Dez dropped because they were now too out of date. The other two pages were a comment he’d received that needed copy typing. Dez just smiled at me and said, ‘I didn’t feel like doing it and I knew you really wanted to be here to do it’, he looked like an embarrassed schoolboy who had just been caught wanking by his mum. I shook my head in disbelief. He had done it on purpose – he did it to punish me, there was no way he was going to allow me to usurp his authority in any way, even if it was genuine. I fucked up his plans therefore I was the one who ultimately suffered.

Another idea of what I had to deal with at times happened shortly after the story I’m about to tell. Dez had decided that after we had sorted out all his comics, when he moved across Finchley, he would sell them – and there was a fair few thousand pounds worth of comics. This was during the time when a company called Valiant Comics were producing speculator hit after hit with their 1990s versions of old Gold Key 1960s comics, such as Magnus, Robot Fighter, Turok, Dinosaur Hunter and Dr Solar, Man of the Atom. The Valiants were, for a time, worth a lot of money, but the original Gold Key issues had taken on a sort of mythical value – Gold Key comics were not the most collectible, pretty much down the list for even the most discerning Silver Age collectors, but the success of the revamps made top condition versions of the Gold Key originals (which were almost impossible to find in this country) extremely expensive. Dez had a stack of them; all in great condition and, at the time, in the price bracket of ‘name your price’. They went missing. He could not find them anywhere and at 2.30 in the morning, a couple of days after a deadline, he phoned me. Calls at 2.30 in the morning were not what anyone wanted – my God, it could have been anything and, of course, when the phone rings at that time then you expect bad news. I rushed to the phone and was greeted with almost an apology from Dez. Still half asleep and not quite reeling from a thousand bad thoughts in my head he asks me if I’ve seen his Gold Key comics. I shook my head wondering if I’d heard right. “What?” I must have said because he asked me again and this time there was more emphasis on ‘have you seen…’ I said no I hadn’t and why he was asking? He said that as I was the only other person who has been near his comics in 5 years then it must be me who’s either taken them, to read he was quick to add, or I’d put them somewhere else. I told him I didn’t even remember seeing old Gold Key comics (and believe me they all had striking painted covers, so are hard to avoid). Eventually he let me go back to bed and face the unhappiness of my wife, who was now wondering how much a hit man would cost.

Except this wasn’t out of the ordinary – being called a thief was, but him phoning me whenever he wanted to, at whatever hour of the night, was par for the course. He paid me well, so I didn’t dare complain. Two days later Sarah phoned me and asked me ‘for fuck’s sake have you fucking seen his fucking comics?’ I said I hadn’t and that I was very upset that I’d been basically accused of stealing from him. I almost heard her shrug on the phone.

18 months later, I got a phone call at a little after 1.00am in the morning. It was Dez, he wanted to apologise to me, because he’d found his missing Gold Keys down the back of some old Dexion racking he had. The apology, you might think, was a big thing for him, except he breezed over it like he’d wished me a good morning. At least I got an apology, you might say. That wasn’t enough, I worked for that guy for 11 years and I never stole anything from him, not so much as an envelope. Yeah, I used to skin up with a lot of his marijuana, but that was largely due to the fact he couldn’t roll anything; other than that I was the most honest employee you could wish for and this incident hurt big time.

I had seen a particularly malevolent side to Dez Skinn over the previous years, but that started to materialise into something even nastier during our stay in the USA. He took me to the San Diego Comic Convention; the largest of its kind in the USA and for Comics International this was a major event. It was selling relatively big numbers and the magazine needed to have a presence there; so Dez decided that he’d pay for me to go there with him. It was a dream come true; it was also a living nightmare.

San Diego had an effect on him that was quite destructive, he was lucky it didn’t go horribly wrong – but Dez has something he calls his ‘Jammy Bastard Factor’ – he is literally the man who can continually walk into shit and come out smelling like a Chanel factory. Most everyone in the world suffers setbacks and hardships from time to time, I’ve grown accustomed to having life kick me in the knackers, but this man seemed incapable of fucking up – or at least suffering the consequences of fucking up. Karma will catch up with him eventually; that I’m sure of.

In San Diego the ‘Jammy Bastard’ turned into the ‘Nasty Bastard’.

On the plus side, I doubt anyone would suggest that being taken to California on an all-expenses paid trip of a lifetime is a bad thing. Despite the horrendous time I had there, even now I feel slightly bad about sounding ungrateful, especially as Dez liked to remind me at every conceivable opportunity about what he did for me and how he paid for me to basically be the object of his bitterness and hate for an entire week, in a place where I had no escape from.

There was even a preamble; a taste of what was to come, when in the May he dropped some heavy handed hints that I needed to get my hair cut and buy some decent clothes, “You don’t think I’m going to take you to San Diego looking like Harold Steptoe do you?” Which realistically, was a stupid thing to say, as Harold never, to my knowledge, had shoulder length hair or wore an Adidas tracksuit. He also explained to me how the deal was going to work; he would pay my flights, hotel and food bills, he would not pay me my usual weekly wage and any sundry expenses I accrued would either have to be settled there and then or he’d dock them out of subsequent weekly wages.

We arrived in Los Angeles after a long, stressful and drunken flight. We caused lots of problems on the plane due to Dez’s insistence that we were conned into getting onto a smokeless flight – he's a 40 a day man – after being assured it was a smoking flight. Twice, in drunken moments, he attempted to light up; once in our seats and another time setting the alarm off in the bathroom by smoking there. Hung over and after problems at customs (and this was pre 9/11), we headed for San Diego and for a while things went by without a hitch, he even let me phone my wife from the hotel – a Holiday Inn – to let her know we’d arrived safely. However things began to go downhill pretty fast once the trade convention started and he realised that regardless of his reputation and history, he wasn’t getting the respect he felt he deserved. The nadir of which happened on day two of the trade expo when the editor of Penthouse Comix almost blew a love gasket because Dez Skinn, the man responsible for Warrior was talking to him. Dez, figuring this was the perfect opportunity to get invited to the Penthouse party – the hottest ticket in town – got a short sharp rebuke. As much as this guy loved Dez, there was no way he was getting into that party. We had gone to San Diego to schmooze with the industry, but the industry wasn’t up for schmoozing with us and subsequently all of Dez’s frustration and anger was directed at me.

By the third day, I was feeling so low that even some of our entourage (a Danish publicist, a British editor of a US speculator magazine, and a US journalist) had noticed it. I was being talked to like I was solely responsible for the heinous murder of Dez’s entire family and increasingly it was happening in public. At the end of the 3rd day, the first day of the proper convention, I was so tired and upset I spent 40 minutes on the phone to my wife at 3:00am San Diego time, because I wanted to come home. Dez’s failure to get anything he wanted from the US publishers, despite their deep respect for what he’d achieved in the past, began to manifest itself in his drinking and on the fourth day, the Friday, Dez got drunk and started laying into me to such a degree that the Danish girl took me out on the town and away from him. When we got back after a pleasant evening, he started in on me again; accusing me of scaring off publishers; of being too naive to talk to the right people and, totally wrongly, being star struck in the presence of some of the industry’s big names. The truth was that when I wasn’t being forced to accompany him everywhere, I was off doing what I was paid to do and be a good news editor; my San Diego was actually proving to be quite productive - people were beginning to realise that away from Skinn I was quite an accommodating guy. I'd have to work out the logistics of some of the things I was offering at a later date, for now I was cementing a reputation while Dez was pissing his one up the wall. However, after the night out with Christina – the Danish publicist – things turned nasty and I believe that she ended up 'distracting' Dez to protect me from possibly being physically abused.

The penultimate day of the convention was the hottest day in San Diego we'd experienced and I’d managed to get us into the Yacht Club for the Marvel party, which was going to take place on a big boat around San Diego harbour. I was excited. Dez wasn’t. It was clear that he was pissed off because I’d arranged it – in truth, it was the press jolly that Marvel apparently organised every year, but as we’d been overlooked throughout the week so far, my announcement sort of rubbed salt into his already weeping wounds. So, he decided that we were going to go to Tijuana with the Dark Horse comics crew instead. “The Marvel thing will be boring; let’s go with the Mask team and have a Mexican party!” Half of the Dark Horse group were responsible for The Mask comic, which at that specific San Diego, was also launching as The Mask film with Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz. Dez seemed to think that the stars of the film would be there, when in reality it was Lou Bank – now with Dark Horse and his team of marketing men.

We missed the train, because Dez was farting about in his room. So, because he was already extremely annoyed, he decided to follow the train, in a rented car, across the border, in the fruitless attempt to meet up with Lou and his compadres. So, Dez took a rental across the border – an illegal act – and we got lost. I often joke about my visit to the border town, saying it was the scariest moment of my entire life; the truth was, it was the scariest moment of my entire life, because it seems that Dez, who had not had a good week, was intent on sailing very close to the danger zone as we ventured off the tourist route and into deepest darkest backstreet TJ.

I’m not joking when I say that I think our lives were at risk, but Dez, fed up with my moaning and fear, decided that he was going to go to the seediest bar and mix with drug dealers, pimps and men who kill for fun. Tijuana is the murder capital of the world, after all.

The experience didn’t last that long; I don’t know if he realised that we were seriously in danger or if my fear actually got to him, but within an hour we were heading back to the border crossing and the safety of San Diego. However, this night I didn’t have the Danish publicist to protect me, Dez’s evening had been ruined and I was going to suffer, even if I couldn’t be blamed for it. We got back to San Diego after an hour of hell getting through US customs – neither of us had taken our passports with us, but fortunately we look anything but Mexican and had enough other ID on us to get through. I was not happy. I was hungry and I was annoyed at Dez for being such a prick in Tijuana. However unhappy I was, it was nowhere near as bad as the border guards. They chewed Dez a new arsehole – they told him he was stupid going over in a rental and they ought to report him, but as he was English that probably excused him. They kept looking at me, but I figured I looked like a frightened idiot, so they probably discounted me as anything other than a frightened idiot. I just sat quietly and contemplated the few days it would be before I could get back to my own comfy home. We went to a few of the regular haunts to see if we could find any of the usual suspects we usually hung around with, but the other event that evening was some party being thrown by the rapidly-heading-towards-bankruptcy Defiant Comics. We’d missed the Marvel shin dig and now this. So we were reduced to heading for a pool hall close by to our hotel. There was a tension in the air and I perhaps learnt a valuable lesson that evening – always let your boss win when he’s pissed off, otherwise when you’re playing with a man with a childlike temper you’re just asking for trouble.

He was fed up with pool and we went and sat at a quiet booth. I didn’t really expect the tirade I was about to receive. There was no warning, he just launched into it. I’ll remember it to my dying day because I can’t believe I didn’t glass him and walk out. But I was terrified of San Diego and the USA. It scared me, and it scared me more because it was full of Americans on a border city - I was like a headless chicken in a slaughter house on my own. I was terrified of having to try and find my way back to the Holiday Inn. He had my tickets, I had no spending money – he didn’t pay me to go, he actually claimed that I didn’t need paying for two-weeks to pay for the trip. That was how he started it, he said, “You’re not getting paid for this week or next.” I frowned, he pre-empted my question. “I’ve got to justify the expense of bringing you over here and frankly I’ve been very disappointed with you.” I sat there and he really began.

The day we arrived in San Diego, Christina [Jenson] met us. She’d known Dez for a couple of years and we’d communicated over the phone and via email. She was not a stranger despite this being our first ‘in-person’ meeting. We had been sitting in a bar or ‘brew pub’ as it was called, having a drink of the local ale and a laugh in the early evening, waiting for our meals to arrive. The conversation was swaying backwards and forwards, anecdotes and funny stories being exchanged. I had been the brunt of a couple of jokes about rural life and yokels (Dez seemed to think that where I lived was a one horse town with people still bartering rather than using money). Finally Christina asked me what my long day had been like, we were all drunk and I said, “I woke up at 6.30 yesterday morning and the first thing I saw was his hairy arse and the day just descended from there.” All three of us laughed, Christina the hardest. The night in the pool hall I was told that if I ever humiliated him in front of anyone again then I could kiss goodbye to having any future in the comics industry. He would ruin me. “Who do you think you are humiliating me in such a way?” I tried to protest, but he’d started and he wasn’t about to finish.

Everything went under the microscope. My appearance – how stupid of me to forget to bring a razor, he had asked me to lose my earring (he had done nothing of the kind) why did I still have it in? I have to watch what I say in front of some people. How could I possibly spend so much time talking to the Defiant guy earlier in the week – surely I knew how important his meeting with so-and-so was? How could I let him down so especially in restaurants? He claimed I ate like a pig and it put others off. I started to bristle with anger, but he’d just started, I wasn’t going to stop him, despite being bigger than him – he’s something of a force of nature when he gets going. You see Dez also fancied himself as a brawler and by now he was really in my face; it was like he was hoping I’d take a pop at him, because he seriously would have loved, especially at the point, to beat me up. He moved from that to my complete ignorance of the comics industry – how often had he been told by people what I knew about the industry? Yet I just come across as a hopeless fanboy, fawning to all my heroes (when? One thing I was proud of was the fact that I never got overawed by meeting people who produced comics that I loved – I was as cool as a cucumber with them. In fact, the only time I ever fawned remotely to a comics legend was when I went out of my way to meet Stan Lee and shake his hand – I should have shot him, he was ultimately responsible for this mess…). Then we focused on Tijuana and he started to get even more personal. Not content with running me down he started on my wife and my family and my lifestyle. How could I expect to ever achieve anything in life if I have the outlook of a moron? I let my wife rule me and I was under her thumb. How I’d never achieve anything in life unless I rid myself of all the baggage I have and move to London? I needed to metaphorically let my hair down – I was too uptight. Not intent with just being a complete cunt, he started on my wife saying that she was hardly the kind of woman I’d want to take to events. How I should make sure she keeps her mouth shut at comics events because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and she gives the magazine a bad name by association. And then it all started to be around the magazine. I had to do all these things if I was going to further my career – leave my wife, sort my wardrobe, let Dez mould me into a ‘mini-me’ version of himself. I would also have to improve my vocabulary! All of this bollocks spouting from an ignorant Yorkshireman with a secondary school education! Then, not content with all of that, he started on my writing and how I really wasn’t anything better than an ignoramus and I could never expect to be anything because the only reason he employed me was he took pity on me.

I was on the verge of tears. This fucking nightmare had really turned sour. Dez went to the bar to get another drink – I had no cash remember, he didn’t let me have any. When he came back he found a note on the table. “I’ve gone back to the hotel. I need to get some sleep.” I don’t know what he did after I left, and I still don’t.

All I remember about the walk home was that I bumped into one of the guys from the Dark Horse marketing department who was in the same hotel. I felt like unloading on him, but he was one of 'Dez's buddies' and I figured it would be sensible if I limited the discussion of the evening to, 'You guys don't realise the trouble you inadvertently caused us tonight. Just because we missed the tram." The discussion turned to the Mask and soon I was back in my room on the phone to my wife in floods of tears - this was worse than a nightmare. You wake up from them.

The next morning he acted like nothing had happened. It was eerie. He sometimes acted like a schizophrenic, but later a mental health worker friend of mine said Dez’s behaviour was typical of husbands who bully their wives. The next day the world is fine and nothing happened the day before. I swear to you on my mother’s grave, he acted like the previous night had been a hoot. I was at a comics convention, perhaps I’d wandered into Earth X by mistake?

That was not the only night that Dez had a go at me. It happened many times over the next few years, but something changed that night in our relationship, I never let him get too bad. I could put up with bursts of unprovoked hostility, but he would never do that again, in public.

Next time: even more of the same!


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