iv) adventures in comics journalism, part one.
Pain is an odd thing. It apparently makes us stronger.
If one can re-arrive somewhere, I had re-arrived! There were few people who I’d worked with over the previous four years (my short life as a retailer) that begrudged me the chance to work with Dez Skinn. Some people might still believe they were better-equipped or better people to do the job, but quite simply they weren’t – for a number of reasons, but mainly Dez himself. If you’ve ever seen the film Swimming With Sharks, you’ll appreciate what I was working with. Dez, at times, made Kevin Spacey’s character, the boorishly evil film producer Buddy Ackerman, look like an ickle baby kitten.
Work life with Dez had started nearly two years previous with the creation of Movers & Shakers, but now with my bank balance in the red and my job prospects bleak, up stood my knight in shining armour. I had a fan, and she was Dez’s long-standing and suffering girlfriend at the time, Sarah Bolesworth. Sarah was a Guardian sub-editor and believed that I had a vast depth of untapped talent and a certain vibrancy in my work that she believed was what the magazine needed. Dez might have been over 40 by this time but he believed he was by no means over the hill; he came from a different generation. Sarah kept on at Dez about giving me a shot, the guy he was currently working with was as interesting as dry toast and Dez really couldn’t stand him. As Sarah said, “the two of you like each other, that’ll keep you from killing each other for a few weeks.” Those few weeks turned into 11 years. However, I didn't start working for him as soon as the shop closed; I spent three months continuing to write my Movers & Shakers column, but I almost went back into retail before I ended up in magazine publishing.
A guy we all knew called Mike Lake, who had been head of Titan Distributors, the UK equivalent of Diamond until he sold out to the Yanks, and had been one of those guys on the periphery of the comics scene in the 1970s, was someone I'd always got on well with; I even think he kept the Titan wolves from my door the first time I got into trouble. Lake knew a guy who wanted to expand his retail base and was looking originally at buying Squonk, but ended up buying a unit in Northampton town centre. He wanted me to manage the shop and I still wasn't aware that Sarah was trying to get me into CI, so I had to look into the opportunity.
Working for the gentleman we shall call Wayne was an experience that went wrong almost from the outset. After a good introduction by Mike, I went to work for Wayne and within an hour found out that he was like Dez would become to me. He was a bully and he scared people - overtly. He imposed his will on me within an hour, correcting me, reminding me that I'd failed and he hadn't. I had bad vibes that first day, but I needed the work.
He gave me his Granada as a run around and with a week to go before the opening of the shop, I was at his house waiting for him when his wife noticed a huge dent in the rear offside wing and because she was as vicious and nasty as her husband, proceeded to chew me a new one on her doorstep. I pleaded innocence, pointed out to her that the mud which had been on the car when I was given it was still there and there was no evidence that the dent had happened recently. We almost had an argument, but I think Wayne knew about the dent but wasn't letting on because he breezed over the problem and ended up lending me his wife's Metro to get everything moving.
The first day I had the Metro everything went well; I travelled back and forth from Bedford to Northampton with boxes of merchandise and finished about 9 at night. The next day I had to go to Bedford, drop some things off for Wayne, get back to Northampton, unload, return to Bedford to drop something off that Wayne had left at the shop and then get back to Wellingborough for something else unrelated to work - some kind of social occasion, I can't remember. I was on a tight schedule and by the time I left Bedford for the second time I was running late. I took the back road from Bedford to Wellingborough, which involved going near where Santa Pod is and the road was open and I put my foot down. The problem was, although I knew the road, I didn't know it.
I failed to make a bend and instead of rolling the car opted to go down a farm track. It was about 150 yards long, enough time to stand on the breaks and do as little damage as possible. Except, someone had dumped a load of hardened tarmac in the middle of the lane, about halfway. I hit it doing about 50, it basically fucked the bottom of the car, the steering, the gearbox. The car was totalled and it didn't have a scratch on it. I was shaken up; whiplash, a couple of cuts - a massive one in my mouth where I literally bit through my bottom lip. I actually got the car off the mound, reversed it up and was going to drive it home. I got 50 yards onto the main road when I realised that it was seriously in trouble; there was smoke coming from the wheels and the bonnet and I just let it drift into the ditch; switched on the hazards and, in these days of no mobile phones, walked until I found a phone box.
I had to tell him what happened; I did. I faced the consequences, which was far too quiet and I went down to A&E and got stitched up. The next morning with a sprained shoulder, a neck brace and cuts and grazes, my wife told me I wasn't going to work. I don't know how I would have, but I realised the shop was opening in less than two days. There were arguments on the phone; Wayne and his wife came to my house and tried to bully me into going into the shop and finally, my wife came home and told them to get out of her house. We gave them what comics I had of theirs and my mother-in-law dropped the keys through the letterbox of the shop the next day.
Several months later, I was smashed out of my head on E having a great time at a pub in town, when this guy came up to me and asked if my name was Phil Hall. I said it was and he said he was the new manager of Wayne's new shop. I put my hand out to shake his and wish him the best and he said, "I won't shake your hand. I should kick the shit out of you for how you fucked Wayne over." To say it brought a bit of a downer to the evening would be an understatement. It was the aftermath of that which led Dez to offer me the chance to work with him.
The arrangement with Dez started with me being his general dog’s body – he was moving from his rented house in Finchley Central, to a bought house in East Finchley. His new Comics International venture had been going three years and was making real money and riding the crest of the comics craze. With comics selling very well and comics fans loving anything that indulged their whims, a magazine like CI was always going to be popular if it was done right. There had been other, notable, comics magazines* but none had stayed the distance and while some were treasured and missed, because of the hobby’s ephemeral nature you soon forget about one thing and moved onto another.
[* By the early 1990s there were a number of magazines strictly about comicbooks, there had been for quite a few years in the USA – some of those that started as fanzine things grew into professional magazines, while others just appeared as the boom took over. I’m not even going to go through a list of products – this isn’t a catalogue after all – but there are a few that need to be mentioned.
The Comic Buyers’ Guide first appeared in 1971, created by Don Thompson it was an old-styled broadsheet newspaper. It basically featured a few columns, a lot of letters, listings of comics coming out and pages and pages of adverts. After Don’s death in the 1990s, his wife continued the paper – it was bought by Krause Publications and is still coming out weekly, but now mainly for a subscription service – it is deadly dull!
Wizard – The Guide to Comics first appeared in 1991, and within a few months was joined by a rival glossy comics magazine called Heroes Illustrated. Wizard had the far snappier title and was a bit more ‘hip’ to the youth element. Wizard survived and went on to sell more copies per month than most comicbooks! Created, published and edited for a while by Gareb Shamus, an Irish-American New Yorker with a love for comics that is almost sickly. This magazine is probably one of the main reasons why the speculator industry exploded the way it did – Wizard pandered to the money.
Comics World – produced in the UK by Aceville Publications in Colchester, it was a brave attempt at trying to get comics magazines onto the UK newsstands, and it succeeded for nearly two years. Always derided by Comics International as a poor relation, in truth Comics World probably appealed to more genuine comics fans than CI. The editor Steve Holland tried for something different with the magazine – he had interviews, retrospectives, columnists with opinions and because it was aimed specifically at comics fans it didn’t treat them like idiots (a problem I always felt CI had – it was too new reader friendly and ended up being sort of condescending to its core audience). I had a column with Comics World, a sort of hybrid between the work I did at CI and the work I did at
The Overstreet Monthly Price Guide – which came out as a sort of cheaper monthly version of Wizard. It was printed on cheap paper and was probably more indicative of the way comics prices were going in the world. It featured market reports from all the major retailers in the US and UK, updates on prices and features on comics of special interest. It failed, but the mammoth Overstreet Price Guide book still comes out.
There were other magazines, but many never lasted more than a couple of issues – trying to break into an already flooded market was almost impossible, regardless of the quality you had and few of the pretenders had any of that.]
Comics International started as a freebie. The first six issues were sent to comics shops and they were given away free. Dez Skinn had a print run of initially about 3,000, but by the time he started to charge for it – a nominal 30p was charged for approximately 64 pages of newsprint every month and with a 60-40 adverts to editorial ratio – the print run was up to 8,000. By the time the price increased to 50p, still half the price of a monthly comic, circulation had risen to well over 25,000 people. CI’s parent company, Quality Communications Ltd – the publisher behind the critically acclaimed Warrior comic – operated, via an associated company based in Essex, a sort of Direct Market principal on the magazine’s distribution. Store managers ordered the quantity they believed they could sell and CI’s associate supplied them direct. By the time comics had become super-hot, retailers were ordering huge quantities of Comics Internationals – many of them gave the magazine away to anyone who had a standing order with them, others used it to tempt people into buying other things, but a lot of copies just remained unsold. When the bubble began to burst, because they were so cheap, retailers just carried on ordering the same amount. If they passed their sell-by date, they sat in the back of the shop and created a fire hazard. Dez played on an aspect of retailer mentality. Retailers, as I said, don’t like pricing things down. Equally they’re not big on reducing orders unless there’s a dramatic drop in buyers. Because CI was so cheap to order, it was almost throwaway and it was a damned sight cheaper than comics companies Point of Sale material, which it ended up complementing. Retailers simply didn’t bother trimming orders, probably for a good three years, so CI lived in a false economy and Dez wasn’t going to complain about it.
With a new address, plush new offices (downstairs from his house) and now a new apprentice, Comics International was about to have a golden moment in British comics. I didn’t do much when I started apart from a lot of copy typing, but gradually Dez taught me the errors in my own work and in others. I eagerly took on projects that I needed to learn about before I could even start. I had a PC and made sure that everything that CI used to produce an issue was installed on my machine. I drank, ate and slept CI. I spent four to five days a week in Finchley, travelling the 130 mile round trip every day for the equivalent of £25 a day. I was driving a gas-guzzling Saab at the time, so I was probably working for about £5 a day. Those days started for me at 7.30am when I dropped my wife at work and finished normally around 10pm at night when I’d crawl in after two hours on the motorway. Have something to eat and crawl into bed. I loved it. I was learning more about something I thought I knew a lot about already. Some mornings Dez didn’t bother to get out of bed before 11am, so I’d end up sitting in the car from when I arrived until he finally, blearily eyed, poked his face around the bedroom curtain. He rarely apologised because he desperately needed to tell me about the fabulous adventure he had that led him to not waking up until that time. This went on for the first four years; the only change being Dez bought me a company car – a small, 15-year-old, Vauxhall Nova with a 1 litre engine. It kept me going for three years and cost bugger all to run, but it normally added an extra hour to my journey – half hour there and back.
If CI started as a freebie, then I was also a freebie to begin with. Always the businessman, Dez discovered that I was making myself bankrupt, so instead of becoming one of my creditors, he opted for wiping £50 a week off my bill to him by docking it out of my weekly wage; effectively for 6 weeks I worked for nothing.
I finally cut my visits down to about three days a week and then two by the time Dez was joined by Kerry-Ann (a distant relative of Elizabeth Hurley allegedly), his first female assistant on CI. I’d spend a lot of time down in Finchley around deadline, but then effectively hibernate for two weeks until the next issue started to crank up. Kerry became Dez’s company during the day, somewhat prettier than me and capable of doing all the admin that Dez had grown so tired of. Kerry-Ann was followed by Loriann (a different beast entirely) and after that I’d gone so I couldn’t tell you. By my final years there I rarely went into London, but the Internet had progressed to the point where I could easily send virtually everything I was working on in via the telephone lines. I thought of my years at CI as particularly poignant for a number of personal reasons, no more than the fact I worked for possibly the most abominable employer in the world full time for almost 11 years.
It’s difficult to describe the first few years with Dez, at times they were great and at other times I just had to bite my tongue. I was, after all, working with the ‘Stan Lee of British comics’. The reason it’s difficult to describe is that it wasn’t really like a real job – it was like being paid to be someone’s mate. We did work and for 10 days a month we worked bloody hard, but the rest of it was a bit like a dream come true for this habitually lazy bastard. An average month would start after an issue was completed: I’d get a couple of days off and then, when the magazine was due back from the printer’s (the same place that printed Private Eye!) I’d head back down to Finchley to start the process again. This began with a complete look through the finished issue; we’d go over each page with a fine toothcomb, looking for mistakes that might have crept through. Unless the mistake was horrendous Dez would normally just work out who did it and either shrug or frown. If, though, the mistake was horrendous he normally just blamed me, emphasising that ‘we really have to ensure things like this don’t happen again because it makes the magazine look amateurish’ at first I used to think it was his way of admonishing himself, especially the use of ‘we’, like he was saying ‘don’t make this mistake’, but after a few years I realised what it was – he was just using any reason to belittle me. He liked to lecture me and I think he thought it did me good. It might have, to be honest it gave me the patience to suffer arseholes with unbelievable tolerance. The first few days after issue release were usually a doddle, we sat around chewed the fat, rang people up, sat in the garden in the summer, smoked some spliff or played pool at the pub in the winter. Very little work was done during that week, by Dez at least, because I knew I wasn’t anywhere near as fast as he was so I spent most mornings, while he was getting his face on, typing up as much as I could from the manuscripts that had already started to come in. This kept me from struggling around deadline any more than I already was. I had conjunctivitis more times in the first four years with Dez than my doctor thought humanly possible. But I’m getting ahead of myself; week two was a bit like week 1 except that Dez started to get his shit together and maybe by the end of that week he’d start to do some costings. Week three was get your head down and get as much copy typing done as possible, very few pages would be finished during this time, but the outer 8 or 16 pages (depending on how much colour we had) would start to take shape. These would be finished by the start of week 4 and they would go straight to the film makers who would then bike back the plates to Dez so he could check them – every time – before going to whatever colour printer we used (we changed around during the first few years from our usual printer because they couldn’t produce the quality of colour we needed). If this colour section was printed by a third party, it would then subsequently be delivered to the main printer who would handle the bulk printing and collation during the final week.
Week 4 was overdrive time and when I wasn’t producing completed pages for the magazine on the areas I was responsible for ‘editing’, I was trying to write my columns (I had as many as three in CI at any one stage). By Day 3 of the final week there was normally a panic, either a failed to materialise advert or a mistake by Dez in the planning, but we were now a hurtling behemoth, nothing could stop us – deadline meant everything; it was our God.
The last three days were always crazy – crazier for me because I chose to drive home late at night and be back early in the morning (more than likely one of the contributing factors to the conjunctivitis), all Dez had to do was wander upstairs and then wait for his morning alarm call. The only times in the first four years with Dez that an issue didn’t come out on time was when I was either going on holiday or something prevented me from going down on deadline and that was the only real problem, in many ways respects, especially before Kerry joined the team. Deadlines had become something of a chore, they were horrible, exhausting and worst of all I had Dez picking on me continually, making me feel inadequate, making me want to go home, but frightened about how I was going to make a living if I told him to stick his job; because frankly I wasn’t being paid anywhere near enough to work under those conditions, no siree!
But I did – I spent a lot of the 1980s unemployed; being a casualty of Thatcher’s Britain. I had to make sure that after failing to be a businessman I could at least guarantee my wife something in return for all the years she looked after me. So even when things started to get unbearable after a couple of years and she hounded me to leave, I wasn’t going to. I had too much to learn first and if it hurt then the pain was a gain in the long run. I had found humility and I’d lost my ego in the process – so I suppose I was fair game for a rattlesnake like Skinn.
I started to get very bugged about going down at deadline – it was just too much sometimes; the mental and physical strain were getting to me. My first attempt to wrench free happened in late 1993 and it was a genuine one. I was ill, I was running a temperature, hacking up all kinds of runny yellow gunk and I wasn’t well even in the wife’s eyes. I arrived there on the Monday morning and I looked like shit. He didn’t say anything, didn’t even comment on how fucking awful I looked. By lunchtime I was hacking, spluttering, sneezing and running a temperature that was leaving trails of sweat running down from my hair and shivers running up my back. Dez wanted to go for some lunch and I said that I really needed to go home because I could barely concentrate. He was irritated and complained about the issue being late. My argument was if I went home and got some good sleep and took some medicine rather than the vodka being offered me that I would at least be reasonably well the next day. He didn’t like it and even offered me his own bed for some rest. I just wanted to go home and finally he saw that was what I wanted, so at 4pm rather than 1pm when I wanted to go I got into my car and struggled up the motorway and home. By 7.30am the next morning I was burning up and was going to the doctor’s under strict orders from the wife, who also for the first and only time rang Dez to tell him how ill I was. For two years the two of them had got on reasonably well, she didn’t really like him but he was my boss and I was happy with my work, but this conversation changed her towards him completely – there was no way back for Dez in my wife’s eyes – he could have saved drowning puppies everyday of his life from that day onwards and she wouldn’t have cared. Dez’s conversation with her consisted of him questioning her as to how the ‘bloody magazine is going to be finished’ or ‘how could he do this to me?’ All my wife really wanted was for him to say, ‘I hope he feels better, I’ll see him when he’s well.’ But that was never going to happen in six months of Sundays.
I had very bad bronchitis, almost pneumonic, I ended up in hospital for two days because of it and I needed a lot more rest than I got. I returned to work the following Friday, I expected to see a finished copy of the magazine, but was instead greeted by Dez who told me we had work to do. Because I was ill he did anything but the magazine, so we had the weekend to get it finished and it had to be at the printer’s by Monday. He just expected me to be free that weekend and when I explained that I had plans on the Saturday, he just said that I’d have to come down earlier on the Sunday and work through with him. I hadn’t escaped it at all. This was not a subject for discussion; instead of him doing the job he’d done long before I joined him, he had sat and catalogued his comics while I was off sick. This was going to be my punishment for letting him down.
Next time: more of the same...
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