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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  1. Phil,

    Mike Conroy made me aware of your blog and I'm very glad he did. I don't know whether to congratulate you or commiserate with you - probably both.

    Dez Skinn is a janus-like being. Charming and amusing to those who meet him briefly, an egotistical tyrant to those who come under his control. I knew him during my fan publishing days and enjoyed his company at cons, marts, etc. Then I went to work for him at Marvel Comics International. It was the start of my career in comics and so nearly the end of it as well.

    I, fortunately, never encountered the psychotic, violent Dez you met in San Diego but I saw many of the other qualities you mentioned during my brief spell at Marvel. Even as a green, inexperienced professional I quickly realised his massive ego masked an inability to run an operation like Marvel UK. In the end he forced me out; probably the best thing he ever did for me because I went straight to IPC Magazines and, eventually, 2000 AD.

    So well done for standing up and revealing the man behind the image. I look forward to reading more.

    Richard Burton

  2. Hey Rich, long long time, no speak mate; how you doing? I should have told the story in the book about the advice I got from you about fanzines back in 1977 and remembering to inform people that I was actually interviewing them! I've had an eventful day, first a call from Mike Lake and now you; it's like history is crashing down around my ears! I'm glad that Mike Conroy has been steering people my way; I don't know how he'll be much soon enough when he enters the story a little more. I'm getting the impression that at the moment I'm on relatively safe ground. Good to hear from you again; keep in touch!