Wednesday, 28 September 2011

My Monthly Curse (Autumn Special)

I spent many years doing what some comics fans could only dream of - I made a living from my hobby. I also, despite what the text you have been reading might suggest, had some good times or times when I met important people or celebrities. I could name drop with the best of them during the 1990s!

Some people I met lived up to my expectations, while others surprised me in many different ways.

In 1999, I finally met Alan Davis, despite knowing where he lived (he lived next door to my mate's brother). Having been a fan of his since coming back to comics, plus working with people who knew him, he'd been pointed out to me on a number of occasions. Davis is one of the superstar artists in the comics world with an almost universally liked style and I finally met him at the Royal & National hotel near Euston Station. He's a bit curmudgeonly to be honest; I'd heard this about him and it just didn't seem to sit with the image I had of this knight in Shining Steel Armour.

Davis worked for Corus or British Steel and I tell this story in far more detail in a later instalment, but he did a very altruistic thing when he broke into comics, he asked British Steel to give his job to one of his redundant colleagues. His managers warned him that there was probably no future in comics illustrating, but Davis felt guilty that he had two incomes when his friends and neighbours had none. I've heard this story from several people, so I've no reason to doubt its validity, but when you meet the man he's not an Affable Al.

Someone else who surprised me was current hot British actor Simon Pegg, who Dez Skinn had roped into presenting the Eagle Awards, the year they came back. Pegg, famous for films and series like Big Train and Spaced, was a huge comics fan and jumped at the chance and apparently was got on the cheap, saving more pennies for Dez's coffers.

I got the job of chaperoning Pegg around the comics convention site in Bristol; making sure he had what he wanted, buying him drinks and we got on reasonably well; the problem was he was far more of a nerd than I. I found I spent a long time during the afternoon just standing around while Simon and various fans talked 2000AD and Judge Dredd. About an hour before the awards dinner, I needed a spliff and figuring Pegg had just come from the stoner comedy Spaced, he'd probably be up for a toke or three. Not on your life; the man was as straight as a die. He admitted that there was never pot on the set; no one, well all apart from one of them, didn't smoke it and he'd tried it when he was at college but it didn't agree with him. I left Simon with someone I could trust - a guy called David Wohl, who works for Top Cow (part of Image) and went and had a spliff away from the masses.

Later, at the awards, my friends Jay and Selina were sitting just behind me and Simon. I knew that Jay was a big Spaced fan and was also hugely into 2000AD. I also knew that Jay could be a real nerd if he wanted to, so I introduced them. Bugger me if Pegg didn't get the most animated he'd been all day! The two of them hit it off like cottagers in Windsor Great Park toilets.

Pegg's final little contribution to the awards was to present them and I'd been roped in to hand over one of the awards for the best comic - single issue. Simon was standing on the stage and he looked at me and grinned. I smiled back, but there was something in his eyes that worried me. It got to the prize I was giving and Simon goes to the mike. "Now is the award for Best Comic - Single Issue and to read the nominations and tell us a bit more about this award here's Phill Hall from Comics International. I was stoned. I had also been told all I had to do was stand there, read the list of nominees, announce the winner and leave the rest to Simon. I gawped at him as he moved to one side of the microphone with a big smile on his face. Then he burst out laughing and I felt a little better. I spluttered through the obligatory list, announced the winner and got off the stage, with Pegg's guffawing echoing in my ears.

In all the years I've been lucky enough to meet famous people, or celebrities as we call them now, the one I was the most nervous about was Stan Lee. He was at one of the last London conventions of the 1990s and I was standing around having a beer with the wife, who had been at museums all day, and a few artist friends. I saw Lee walk into the bar and decided that I was going to shake his hand. So that's what I did. I was as nervous as fuck; but I was going to say hello. "So who are you then fella?" He asked as I was shaking his scrawny hand but very firm handshake. "My name is Phill Hall, I work for your former pro..." I was going to say protege, but he stopped me. "You work for Dez on his magazine; yeah, I've seen your name." Made up? You can bet I was. We talked for about another five minutes, before I decided not to overstay my welcome and I disappeared back into the throng. My wife looked at me; I had a beaming smile on my face. Yes, Stan Lee has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, mainly for how the artists who worked for him were treated, but he was still a demigod in my eyes.

I met Walter Koenig the same week as I met Jonathan Frakes; but they had no bearing on each other. Koenig had been writing some comics for an obscure company in the 1990s and I was looking for my friend Lou Bank, who by this time had left Marvel and had gone to Dark Horse. Anyhow, Koenig was sitting on the floor by the Dark Horse stand at the San Diego Comic Convention and was looking completely wasted. It was hot and I'd brought a bottle of water not five minutes earlier. I crouched down next to him and offered him my unopened water. He looked up at me with a slight unease in his eyes. "You okay, mate?" I asked. I knew who he was, but at that moment he looked a little distressed.
"Yes, thank you. Just a bit overwhelmed by the heat." His accent was weird , I'd expected Chekov and got US of A. "Have a drop of this." He thanked me and took some of my water. "Can I help you anywhere?" He said no, he was waiting for someone, but thanked me for the offer. I saw him a couple of times during the week and we nodded each time.

I met his fellow Star Trekker Frakes at a party a few nights later. We discussed the transporting of a Morris Minor from England to California. I had only seen one episode of Next Generation when I met him, and he didn't have a beard then, so I was just talking to this guy, at a party. we chatted for nearly an hour. I reckon he'd remember me if I met him again; I'm not a fanboy.

British 'comedian' Jonathan Ross was a regular to comic marts throughout my years in comics. He was a gangly kid in the late 70s - a year older than me, but he didn't look it - and his larger than life self in the 90s. He collects old DCs and I had some Lois Lane comics, in excellent condition he was interested in. They were already fairly priced, but he offered me less than half the asking price on half a dozen he pulled out. I shook my head, "I'll thwo in an autograph as well," he said. "Whose autograph?" I asked and he took 10% discount and didn't seem happy. Jesus, he earned more money than just about everybody in the building.

I was in a lift once with three of the founding creators of Image Comics. Todd McFarlane (famous for buying a baseball for lots of money and the creator of Spawn), Erik Larsen (not really famous for much) and Jim Valentino - the brains behind the outfit. Valentino is a great guy, I've spoken to him several times over the years. He always makes time for you.

There have been more, but they're not worth recounting or you'll just accuse me of name dropping.

This bonus section isn't in the book, because it's been written over the last month or so. The problem with writing a book is that at some point you have to say The End otherwise you'll tinker and change things, add and subtract and eventually will be frightened to call it finished in case you remember something minuscule that doesn't really affect the story, but you feel it isn't complete without it.


This book was, for the first 22 parts, serialised on Rich Johnston's Bleeding Cool website (he chickened out of running it because he started to feel it was libellous, which begged the question, why did he run it in the first place?) and while I venture over there on bored late nights to read many of the comments left, I've refrained from getting involved with any of the discussion - I have matured enough to grit my teeth and walk away from inflammatory comments by wannabe imbeciles.

I expect most autobiographies and biographies don't ever have any information in them taken from a first person POV. I must have invented a new genre? This person didn't seem to understand that Bleeding Cool was serialising a book (albeit aborted a third of the way through) about my life and perception of the comics industry from the point I became active in it. It's my recollections, my opinion.

Opinions are indeed like arseholes in that everyone has one; it seems that because of my willingness to share my story I have obtained considerably more arseholes than the average person. Therefore if I'm full of shit, there's the reason!

Next time: more of my one-sided opinions...

Friday, 23 September 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Thirty)

We need to jump back into our shaky time machine, this time to 1997; I created the first (and only not-officially-sanctioned-by-Dez) Comics International Internet chat forum, it was on a now defunct part of the ‘net called Egroups.

Egroups eventually merged with Onelist and then become what we still have – Yahoogroups. It was, for a while before Facebook and MySpace, a huge domain with hundreds upon thousands of different forums and discussion groups, but it was still pretty much a growing monster back then. Bored one evening and trying to come up with ways of improving CI’s circulation, I started the CI list. It started quite slowly, but suddenly took off as more of CI’s readers gained ‘net access and subsequently more coverage of it was given over the magazine. Called [Comics_International], it boasted over 600 members at its peak and had well over 3000 messages flying through cyberspace, in all directions, every month. Dez didn’t like the fact I created it, but soon saw the potential as a cheap form of revenue, especially if we reprinted the best bits of the forum in the magazine. He only had to pay for collation.

Initially Dez was excited about the forum as I was, but it soon became apparent to him that I was the lord and master of that particular domain and even if Dez appeared on the list he said he felt like he was walking into my thing. It wasn’t his, he had no control over it and that was his only real problem, so he tried a number of times to exert his control, and it always backfired. He didn’t want to understand the whys and wherefores of the ‘net, he wanted to steamroller it in the same way he did everything else and leave his imprint behind. The list never allowed him to do that, mainly because there were enough equally forthright and opinionated old timers on the list, eagerly waiting to have a pop at Dez whenever he showed his head. So he just slipped into obscurity as a lurker (someone who watches but doesn’t post) and the only time he reappeared was if someone asked him a direct question or if I fucked up. When I say ‘fucked up’ I actually mean when he didn’t like something I said. It was one of the few things he had to suffer from me, but sometimes I just liked to speak my mind. After all, it was my opinion and my right to speak my mind on subjects, but Dez wouldn’t have it, as far as he was concerned I was a CI employee and I had to toe the corporate line*. I wasn’t allowed my own opinion unless I allowed it to be censored first. And yes, I would usually allow this infringement on my personal liberty to take place.

Gah, some of you must be thinking what a complete wanker I am to put up with this kind of behaviour. Trust me, I hate myself at times, but it I got so involved in it by this time that getting away from it meant going back to the drudgery of shelf-stacking or road-sweeping. I hated working with Dez, but, if you’ll excuse the analogy, he was my period - My Monthly Curse! For a few days every four weeks, I had to put up with being treated like a cunt and then it was gone; the stress and strain, the insults, the innuendo, the abuse all stopped, or at least dropped by 90%.

[* In December 2000 I inadvertently released information, at two points, that I shouldn’t have. The first was a discussion Dez and I had had about the circulation of the magazine – not in actual figures but in percentages – I doubt a mathematician could have worked out what CI’s 'official' circulation was by the year 2000 (it was about 8,000 by this point) but the fact I’d been talking to the plebs about sales figures had suddenly become a huge no-no for him. He really tore into me on this and wouldn’t let me forget it despite apologising. The second incident that prompted Dez to ask me if I was trying to commit subterfuge – we’d been talking about producing another CI special (he’d produced one to keep the copyright on Warrior), this time about Miracleman, the character that Dez had lost the rights to when he was editor of Warrior. The character and its rightful owner became the subject of much discussion throughout comics. I truly believed that Dez was serious about this special, so did Loriann and I stupidly told some of the fans on the list about it and before you knew what happened it was all over the internet that Dez was about to resurrect Miracleman. He was even less happy about this than the sales nonsense.]

After a year or two and with no success in trying to turn it more into what he expected a comics discussion forum to be like, Dez virtually turned his back on the CI Forum. He equally didn’t like a lot of the people we had on there and when, in 2000, many of us met at the Bristol Festival, they did not accept Dez in the grand manner he expected. He especially didn’t like the way I commanded their respect and he was largely ignored. I wasn’t deliberately doing it, but it was by then both Mike and I had become known as the real people at CI – the actual people who made the difference, Dez was just this drunken figurehead we wheeled out at conventions. People believed we were the people who actually saw that things got into print. We were the people you talked to, Dez had become a cross-between a benign benefactor and a falling impresario. He hated this and it was clear. He hated it because in his mind it simply wasn’t true. The sad truth was he had become this stereotype of his own persona.

Comics Lesson 15:

Comics chat groups and Internet clubs: there were thousands of them before Facebook all ranging from 2 to 20,000 members. They were the resurrection of old style comics fandom with nerdiness to the Nth degree. I could fill an entire book just listing them, but as with most other things there’s a forum for every type of comic and many characters and creators.

Many of the forums are policed, they have owners and moderators - moderators are people assigned by the owners to… moderate. To make sure that the language stays clean, no one starts what are called flame wars and generally make sure the subjects stay vaguely on topic. The list I ran for Comics_International was a very liberal group. We didn’t allow swearing because of kids, but generally it was anything goes. I figured people had other mutual interests, so why clutter up the net with new groups when they could talk about anything as long as they labelled it as such.

Shortly after I created the list, I asked an old friend and CI contributor Mike Kidson to help me run the place. He was good because he was on line a lot, he was one of the most knowledgeable comics authorities in the land and he could easily stimulate conversation, something that was needed if we wanted the new list to be a success. By the time we became part of the conglomeration known as Yahoo I’d recruited two more people to be moderators; Dan (from South East London) and Sara (from Birmingham). We had a busy forum, so I needed the help and besides I was now working harder at CI and I had my other jobs.

2000 was a slightly traumatic year for me because we moved house twice and that is a problem, especially, when you’re freelancing. Dez viewed this as just another hindrance to his ordered control freak life. I really believe he thought I was doing it on purpose and Mike Conroy confirmed this suspicion. I often had long calls from Mike claiming that Dez was doing nothing but running me down and complaining about me never being available. Other allegations included that I was deliberately not letting him have my other telephone number. This was a fair allegation; the wife had decided that as we had two phone lines we’d have a phone line that was Dez Skinn free. He hated this with a real passion. But at the same time I had him on the phone complaining about Mike’s numerous failings and his frequency to sail very close to the deadline with his work – which was a real bugbear for Mr Perfection. For the first time since Dez replaced me with him I heard him say, “I think I might have made a mistake.” He always quantified this with something like “even with your faults I never had to worry like I do with Mike.” I was still going down to the office at this time, mainly because Mike couldn’t – he had got to the point where he was making stories up to stop himself from having to go into Finchley. Both Dez and I thought he was heading for a breakdown, but where I was worried for the poor sod, Dez was worried about how he could get each issue out and what he’d do if Mike ended up cracking up completely. It was pathetic, there was I saying, “Dez, the guy is your oldest friend, he might stop on the way home one night and just throw himself off the Dartford Bridge.” And there’s Dez saying, “Well, I suppose between the two of us we can muddle through on the news, do you think we could attract someone like Steve Holland to do the British stuff.” And he wasn’t joking; he didn’t give a shit about anyone. (Steve Holland, I mentioned earlier, was the former-editor of Comics World.)

But by the time the year drew to a close there were three deeply disturbed old farts each trying to dig the knife into each other’s backs. I don’t believe I was doing it maliciously and I’d love to believe Mike wasn’t either, but history isn’t a good witness for him. I think Dez wanted to rid himself of one of us, because of the financial implications and he would be happy with either of us going...

Next: the end... of my time at Comics International

Saturday, 17 September 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty-Nine)

Within two months Hallmarks was a thing of the past. I wasn’t happy about the loss because I’d just lost one of my other freelance jobs and even though it was only £75 a month, it was enough for my wife to start bank balance watching. I accepted, with little argument, it wasn’t the most popular column, so it went. I just expected Dez to give me something else to develop or create, but he didn’t.

It wouldn’t have been so bad losing that £75 if I hadn’t already given up another of my earners six months previous to this. I’d taken up the editing and laying out of the comics advance listings, part of the magazine that was used as a retail aid and doubled as a cheaper and easy way to skim over what Diamond Previews (Diamond Comics Distributors own monthly sales list) was listing. It was something of an achievement for me too, it was the first time I had been able to oversee to finished. Yes, they would be checked, everything was, but I was responsible for the entire production of them, all Dez did was scan for mistakes. I was running the show and I did something that Bruce probably still hates me for, but I really didn’t think it was a nasty idea and still don’t – it just sort of backfired on Bruce.

After my third or fourth month of editing Bruce’s listings and laying them out, I realised that I was probably putting more work in than he was, yet he was getting £200 for the listings and I was getting £50 for the rest of it. I asked Dez to ask Bruce how long the listings took him, compared to the 8 to 9 hours it took me to finish. It took Bruce about 3 hours. Dez asked me if I wanted to do the lot for £200 (which was of course what he paid Bruce just to write them up – he’s a Yorkshireman, he watches the pennies). I declined. The work I had from Dez and my other freelance work meant that, at that time, I could afford the luxury of turning down a job. I shouldn’t have. At least as it turned out, I shouldn’t have if I wanted to stay at CI.

I’d made some stupid mistakes while I’d been there, but none so bad as suggesting to Dez that I knew someone, who was proficient in the software we used, who could write and layout the Advance Listings in less time and possibly better produced. I introduced Dez to Jim Hannah, one of my brother-in-law’s best friends and the beginning of the end began. My suggestion was that Jim should do the Advance Listings section; the logic being that he had no interest in comics, so he would approach it in a dry and factual way. I figured that Bruce would make up his money from another area of the magazine; I had no idea that Dez would effectively sack him and put the onus on me for it happening. Bruce, apparently, blames me for losing his freelance work at CI and he probably has every right to, despite it never being my intention. I thought he was far more valuable to the magazine than Dez did, obviously.

I think the rift reopened when I realised after turning down work that I actually needed to increase it and there was no longer anything obvious to be earned at CI. Dez liked the new boy I’d introduced to him and Jim, who lived in Northampton at the time, could flit down there at almost a moment’s notice. Jim had no interest in comics, but was keen with websites and had a Masters Degree in English Lit and Samuel Beckett, so he fitted a lot of Dez’s criteria for a good apprentice. He was given the listings and took to them like a duck to water. I was happy for Jim and for a few months everyone was happy. Loriann was still moaning about Mike, prompting me to wonder if her attacks would turn on me if she succeeded in ridding Dez of Mike. What was it about the women who worked with this man that turned them into such nasty bitches? And Loriann thought Jim was really cute, if not a little weird. But then there were signs that things weren’t going well.

I freely admit I started to suffer from sour grapes a little regarding Jim, and suddenly to make matters worse Dez went on a massive cost cutting exercise. This was under the pretext that he was now spending too much in lieu of all the bad debts that QCL had to hold on to – if he’d only been straight with us from the start! The first things both Mike Conroy and I noticed was that between Christmas 2000 and April 2001 our monthly cheques had dropped by 33%, yet we were actually putting in more time and starting to both get more grief from Dez. I also became aware that while we were being cut back, Loriann had recently had her fifth wage rise and was now on something close to £25,000 a year at barely 18 – not to mention the company car and paid holidays. I held no malice towards the girl at all, and we were still pretty close, but because her relationship with Mike started to mirror his and Kerry's a couple of years earlier I was still concerned. Loriann spent more and more time running Mike down and complaining about his work, the rate he turned pages round, what a fat bastard he was, how he made her feel creepy when he was around and generally she had decided that she wanted me there full time again and Mike could fuck off. This was one of the few times she failed in her wishes, but it got pretty close for a while.

The cost cutting exercise wasn’t the first either. I mentioned that Dez had had problems with the Inland Revenue back in 1995-1996. He ran QCL like an employer, but didn’t want all the crap that employer’s have to deal with like taxation, PAYE and holidays and sickness. So, as I said we were all self-employed. But we all got flat rates. Not for the work we did but for the days we worked. This created a real headache for Dez. Read the email he sent me in the August of ’96:

Date: Sat, 31 Aug 1996 12:24:35

Subject: Costing issues

From: Dez Skinn


There's a few problems we need to talk about. I'll try to give you a ring before I fly off to Prague (early next week). No, it isn't just pleasure. I'm trying to set something up over there with #### ##### because I'm seriously worried about the state of publishing /retail in the UK, and can see a dwindling market for specialist stuff. If it wasn't for the catalogues in CI, it wouldn't work, what with us losing so many full page retail advertisers and there being no publisher advertising support (thank god for marts and mail order).

Basically, to elaborate, I'm going to have to look at costing everything out the way we cost Movers, Networks, Frame to Frame. That is, having a copy typing rate per 1,000 words and a writing (news, columns, etc) rate per 1,000 words. Alan's already told me I can't pay "day rates" any more (irrespective of this Inland Rev fiasco). It has to be by work done, not time spent.

I'm currently trying to get the time to grid up a rates scale for the entire mag.

Sorry to land this on you. But my main problm is simple: the mag can't really afford me any more.

I'll keep you posted, but at this stage, I really can't even ask you to start the next Advance Listings. Anything not copy typing (which removes Letters, Comment, Networks) has to be costed out over the next few days, so one knows the rate for the job.

I guess this is the culmination of four key factors (in no particular order):

(i) Accuracy

(ii) Shrinking market meaning tightening of belt

(iii) My no longer being able to devote 100% of my time to the mag

(iv) The Inland Revenue situation

I'll try to call you Monday.

Dez Skinn

Editor: Comics International

(Now, I’ve left it as is, just to prove that even a man who believes he’s the greatest editor on the planet can be prone to countless errors and don’t you just like the way he’s off to Prague – not just for pleasure, while telling me that the magazine needs a new finance structure? He bought another Jaguar, a few weeks after telling Mike and I that we wouldn’t be getting a rate rise that year.)

What happened was that after costing everything I ended up with virtually the same amount of money as I was on before, but every penny was now accounted for by actual physical product of some way or another. But Dez’s main problem was, like he said, he couldn’t afford to pay himself for doing virtually bugger all every month. Yet after the costings were done, my money should have dropped from about £1250 a month to £900, but Movers & Shakers, which had always been paid on a freelance rate was added after so that boosted it back up to just over a grand and then I got another £200 for going into the office and filling invoices out for ‘general administration duties’. The money fluctuated from time to time, as did Dez’s contribution, but in reality all of the above email ended up being hot air. Dez was addicted to his lifestyle and if he had to do more work to maintain it, he wouldn’t have maintained it. If all he had to do were spend less than a week in every four working, then he would make the books balance. So, despite all the posturing and pleading that the good times stopped, they didn’t, he just changed his payment methods so that the Inland Revenue couldn’t screw him for potentially fraudulent employment practices. And this continued until he sold the magazine, as far as I know...

Next: we travel back to 1997...

Monday, 12 September 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty-Eight)

A year before I started full-time with Dez, a BBC journalist called David Akinsenya spent three weeks working on CI. He left citing that Dez was a repulsive racist. I’ve got to say it’s a fair description, except he left out sexist, misogynist and any other ‘ist’ you can think of that is viable.

Kerry’s replacement eventually appeared over the counter at the local print and photocopy shop. Loriann was just 16 when she got the job in ProntoPrint. The manager, Dave, had often told Dez that he only gave her the job because of her fabulous arse and to be fair I was among the many that had commented on it and the rest of her body for that matter (and as I was still a relatively young man I felt no shame or embarrassment). One day we were sitting in the local café having lunch and talking about the pretty little thing in Finchley Central and the next day she’s there, having an interview with us and starting the following Monday.

In all fairness, for all her alleged scheming and bitchy ways, she was great at her job and did a lot more than Kerry did because of her youthful exuberance. Dez treated her like a daughter (he actually has two, but one of them didn’t ever want to see him), and Loriann, naïve and young, took everything this new sugar daddy was offering. Well, almost everything.

April rolled round and it was time for the first annual Bristol Comics festival. We were all looking forward to it and all four of us were going. Both Mike and I had noticed that Dez was becoming more and more infatuated with his young helper. He was becoming obsessed with her love life and I was forever reminding him that Loriann came from a completely different generation from us and was over 30 years younger than him. He seemed to accept this logic every time; it just didn’t stop him from obsessing about everything in the girl’s life. We all arrived in Bristol and hit the bar at midday on the Friday; it was a very, very, bad thing. Mike, a cola drinker, remained sober all day and night, but by the time a horde of us had decided to go to the local Italian restaurant for food, Dez, Loriann and I were three sheets to the wind. We’d all been on double gin and tonics all day and I was having trouble keeping it together.

The restaurant was a disaster. There were 16 of us and the bill was being paid by Nick Barruchi, an entrepreneur comics dealer from New York, who owned Dynamic Forces, a company that sprouted from the speculator market and was now the biggest supplier of deluxe editions to the comics industry. Dez sat at one end of a long table with me to his left and Loriann to his right. Next to us were a couple of relatively famous comics creators, including Dave Gibbons and Glenn Fabry and further down the table were more people from comics, either working or freelancing. Dez gets loud when he’s drunk, he also wants to be the centre of attention – all the time. He wanted to show off his sexy young assistant Loriann to the world. Wasn’t she just the most gorgeous thing? Loriann loved this, but she loved it in the way a small child is the focus of attention at her birthday party. I don’t think she realised just how obsessed he was with her, and when she did finally realise, once she’d got her repulsion under control, she started to milk it even more.

I needed to pee. So I went off to the downstairs toilets. Moments later I heard the commotion. It sounded like a table falling over. There were some loud voices and I was sure I heard Dez shout Loriann’s name very loudly. I finished my piss as fast as I could and walked out onto wreckage – human wreckage. Dez was slumped by the door of the ladies begging for Loriann to come out. “Please Loriann, please just let me explain. I need to explain”. I walked over to Dez but he wasn’t making any sense at all. I pulled him to his feet and said for him to go back to his seat and I’d talk to Loriann. I didn’t have a clue what about, but I said I would. He was happy with this, but emphasised that I needed to tell her he was sorry, and then he staggered up the stairs. I dreaded to think what the hell had gone on upstairs – although I was beginning to get some ideas.

I knocked on the door of the ladies and told Loriann it was me, and the door unbolted and she literally pulled me into the cubicle with her. She was in a mess. Crying and she had been sick as well. She looked like a lost kid; even her nose was snotty. What had happened? This seemed to be a question I was forever asking of Dez Skinn.

“He told me he loved me and I said that I loved him too.” She had all the innocence of a week-old rabbit in her eyes. “And then… and then…” she just broke down into a shudder of sobs. I eventually coaxed it out of her, “He told me that he wanted to make love to me, that he would give me anything I ever wanted if I… if I would go to bed with him.” She shuddered into tears again and I shut my eyes and wondered if he’d sunk this low before. I was sober by now, with a stinking headache. I went back upstairs and told the guests who cared that I was taking Loriann back to the hotel. I told Mike I’d meet him there in an hour, but to get Dez out of the restaurant and in his bed. This proved difficult for him, but not impossible. I saw to Loriann, she had called her boyfriend and cried her eyes out. He was going to come and get her, her family were phoning and I calmed everyone down and did a shitty thing to the poor girl, I told everyone that Dez was very drunk and hadn’t meant it the way it sounded and that he was estranged from his own daughter and he just felt over protective towards her. I wasn’t convinced, but it seemed to take the intensity off the situation. About an hour later I made my way to the hotel lobby to look for Mike and to find out what had actually happened while I was urinating.

It wasn’t as bad as I first feared, and very few people had heard anything. Most thought that Loriann’s bolt from the table had been brought on by a need to vomit and Dez basically got away with it. A couple of people saw and heard it all though… One of them was Dave Gibbons, co-creator of Watchmen and one of Dez’s oldest ‘friends’ in comics. They had spent many years not talking to each other, but time is a great healer and they were (not quite) mates again. Dave was disgusted by it and was always quick to talk to me about it for years to come. For him it was just another unfortunate incident in the rather tragic life of Dez Skinn.

Dez, the next morning, didn’t seem to know what the fuss was all about (where have we heard that before?). But he either couldn’t remember what had happened or he refused to. I eventually had to refresh his memory and yet he was still denying it a year later. The problem I had that morning was a massive hangover that was impeding with me from doing anything but look for a chemist. Dez was rewriting history by the hour and was arguing with me that Loriann had made all the moves, he didn’t seem to grasp the concept of ‘she ran away in terror when he suggested them having sex, that doesn’t sound like she’s interested’ Fortunately for him we were joined in our hunt for a chemist by a couple of my friends.

I finally met up with Loriann after finding a Superdrug and leaving Dez over at one of the convention’s exhibitions. She was fine and didn’t feel too bad. She also had a lot to consider during the night. In the short time she had been with QCL she’d had a wage raise that took her to earning more money than either Mike or I. Plus because it was terribly difficult for her to get in from Southgate to Finchley (5 miles maximum) Dez bought her an almost new sporty Peugeot. She had to decide what she wanted to do. She wasn’t prepared to sleep with the boss, but she could use it to her benefit. She was still very wet behind the ears, but the decisions she made were very adult, albeit very mercenary. (And to think that was the accusation thrown at me when my employment there terminated!) But it all boiled down to whether or not she could put up with the lascivious beast for the money – it seemed she could.

Shortly after the Bristol incident, Dez received a couple of bogus phone calls, both involved answer machine messages and the word ‘cunt’. Dez swears it was Loriann’s boyfriend, despite her always steadfastly denying his involvement. I wish I could take the blame, but I can’t. I think it was her boyfriend and I think it was the main reason why she eventually dumped him.

Life went back to normal. I found myself in a new position, my fourth and last at CI. I was declared the new Features Editor, which was a bit of a misnomer, as CI didn’t really do features. But it was my brief to introduce new things into CI. We added another new member to the team, in the form of Bruce Paley, an American writer living and formerly running a comics shop, in London, that once had the distinction of being owned by Dez. Bruce joined us as one of the listings editors, but was also invited to editorial meetings, which had now become big things as Dez at least gave the impression that we were all working together as a team.

The only real thing of note that happened in the following year was that Loriann grew in stature. By the time CI moved into the 21st Century she had virtually taken over huge sections of the magazine. Sarah, who was still hanging on by the skin of her teeth to her position couldn’t stand the girl, but the feeling was mutual. Loriann had grown in ability and self-importance and the only thing really stopping her from making the grade in Dez’s eyes was her new boyfriend. A college student who was nearly a year younger than her, who to all intents and purposes, seemed destined to be a waste of space. I met him the once, one night when I took her home. He seemed about as ignorant as you could possibly wish to meet without some form of mental illness involved. But then again he wasn’t even 17 then. He could be a diplomat now.

By the time December 2000 rolled around there were more rumblings in the CI jungle. For some reason my relationship had become strained with Dez again, it seemed to deteriorate throughout the year and Loriann became the go-between for us, despite the fact I was still going down three days a month. There were more arguments between us than there had been since I returned to work for him and more and more times we weren’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye. Things started to go wrong and I couldn’t understand why, but I soon began to realise. I’d been doing a column for the magazine since my return called Hallmarks, which was essentially a round up of all the related film, TV and fantasy news. It established itself and eventually complemented the new Toy News column that had been introduced after a unanimous decision to broaden our horizons. The two columns gave CI that extra broader appeal, in case anyone wanted it. It was also taking CI away from pure comics. He felt it was bad enough that Mike could get a monthly fee for a speculative comics to film column, but toys, fantasy news, we'd be running ads for rare records soon. However, because the columns had honeymoon periods where they were appreciated by the as yet net savvy readers and because they were other people’s ideas, Dez got the arse. He couldn't criticise for content, so he came up with new, inventive ways, of having a go.

I suppose I’d better describe an average issue of CI from when I was there: on average towards the middle of my time there it was about 72-pages and consisted of about 32 pages of editorial that was split across pages. Of the 40 remaining 4 were the cover, back cover, and inners (3 were adverts at a much higher ad rate), the rest of the pages were made up of full page, half page and quarter page advertisements. There were on average 12 pages of news, 6 pages of listings, 4 pages of reviews and 8 pages of columns and features. The columns and features included Mike Conroy’s Frame to Frame – a roundup of all the film news relating to comics; my four columns, Hotshots – a look at the forthcoming titles worth looking out for (or not), Networks – which was a comics and the Internet mish-mash of anything comics related found on the net – Hallmarks and Movers & Shakers. There was also Dez’s editorial, Sarah’s (by then rare) column about how the press treats comics, (Toy News fell into news and not features) and eventually David Bishop’s column, which was supposed to be the insights of a former 2000AD editor and turned into a load of old bollocks and further ruined the New Zealander’s reputation. There was also a letters column, a Question and Answer section, a comic strip and a comments section for any letters that exceeded letters page lengths. The editorial page count also fluctuated – the more adverts the more editorial and vice versa...

I got wind that Dez was not happy about Hallmarks because there were an increasing number of complaints about my layouts from him, including specifics that just contradicted stuff he’d said at other times. We actually did operate like a real publishing house at times, we had House Rules or a House Style, but this was really a flexible arrangement suiting Dez to change it whenever he wanted to have a moan about something. Just to prove that his rulebook was really an Etch-a-Sketch, I received an email from Dez saying the style was completely wrong and that I’d put the entire column into a style we would never use for that specific column. He added that it was the only thing ‘wrong’ with the column (but it wasn’t really wrong, it was just another excuse for Dez to bully, or in this case to start trying to bully me again). The weird thing was he was reverting to his cowardly persona – he never said a word to me when we were together, but via email and he became really shitty. All of the problems were conveyed by email, I was quick with my reply and my email read:

Re: Un-Hallmarks styled four-column grid.

Personally I think it looks boring now you’ve ‘jazzed’ it up, but perhaps if you actually sat down and wrote a detailed list of our ever-changing house rules then we wouldn't make such STUPID errors that you never do. I found seven examples in the last 30 issues where we've had two, two column grids on one page. In fact in the old days they were quite rife...

Well, that's me that can't get it right, Jim can't get it right and Mike can't get it right and you laughed at my suggestion of having an in-house designer! What were your words? "That's the beauty of getting you all to do your own layouts" - what is, so you get to have a go even though you can't find anything particularly wrong with something? I wouldn't mind if your principals actually stayed consistent or you actually chose to remember important things.

Remarkably nothing came out from this. I expected some form of abuse hurled my way, maybe even a sacking, but Dez remained quiet. Obviously I was beginning to understand him even better, better than he wanted. But the truth was he’d had a wake up call from his accountant – the good times were over and CI was in trouble. It was barely making any money at all by the end of December 2000 and he was keeping it all to himself and expressing his frustration in the only way he could – by attacking those who he depended on the most.

Next up: the beginning of the end...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twenty-Seven)

I’d been back in the office at CI for about two months when Dez asked me to take the phones during San Diego. He knew I’d be happy to do it and he confided in me that he hoped that this would see the beginning of the end of his business relationship with Sarah. The reason Dez wanted to take Kerry as well and leave me in charge was because, he said, I was the only one he could really trust. I’d gone from pariah to confident (again) in three months.

Meanwhile, back in the San Diego/Wellingborough triangle of July 1998; I’d already spent nearly two hours on the phone to a very drunk Dez, gotten back to sleep only for the phone to wake me again in the morning. Bleary eyed I answered the phone and it was Sarah. Sarah had this habit of alliterating every other word with ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’, which with her posh accent sounded quite remarkable. Sarah wasn’t swearing, she was close to tears. Apparently Dez had gone mad because Kerry had spent the evening with ‘a someone’ we’ve mentioned earlier. She had not come back to the Travel Inn and was, apparently, contemplating an offer of employment from New York. Dez had made all kinds of crazy accusations and ranted about how he’d given her everything and he deserved more than to have her leave him during his treat to her. He acted like a child and embarrassed everyone around him. Kerry stormed off. Sarah tried to be businesslike and the whole thing descended into a farce. The thing was she didn’t really seem to be blaming ‘Derek’ (she never, ever called him Dez) Sarah was blaming Mike. She claimed that he had been filling Dez's mind with ridiculous ideas and accusations. She sounded like she wanted to kill him.

I told her to calm down and give me a ring in the morning, but not too late because of the time difference. While I was on the line to her, I could hear the constant beep of the call interrupt noise. Someone else was trying to get in touch with me. This time it was Kerry. She was quitting. She’d had enough of ‘that arsehole’ and complained bitterly about how he seemed to think she owed him everything she had. She said he behaved like a pimp whose top whore was going solo. She said how awful the entire ordeal had been. I told her not to do anything rash. Kerry was a tough girl and she sounded totally whacked out, I knew that her respect for Dez had turned into utter contempt over the last few months, now it was showing audibly. Just before she hung up she asked me a question, I’ve never been able to give her the answer. “How have you stood it for so long?”

Mike called later, he just wanted to make sure I’d be around on the Tuesday, when they got back, he had lots to talk to me about. He sounded cheerful. Dez was the next on the line and he to seemed to think that Mike had played a big part in it – although like Sarah seeming to think that Mike was involved, Dez seemed to be suggesting that Mike wasn’t at fault but all he was really trying to do was sort out the mess. Yet I still couldn’t work out how, why or what he might have said or done. On the Monday, the four flew back from LAX. They were in different parts of the plane, a cock-up at check in that neither Kerry nor Sarah minded. Had they been there might have been a killing. Because Dez was verbally attacking Mike, while both Sarah and Kerry were also placing the blame firmly on Mike’s shoulders. I doubt he would have survived an onslaught from all three of them. and that is what would have happened.

It turns out that on the first night they were there Kerry had spent the night with a moderately famous comics artist. There had always been an attraction between the two and Kerry was single. Dez had reacted like an over-protective father and had gone to Mike’s room, quite drunk and poured his heart out about his, paternal, feelings for Kerry. Mike, who can shit stir with the best of them, saw this as an opportunity to turn his own screw. He had wanted Kerry gone more than she wanted him gone – he always believed that she held too much power at CI and coupled with the fact that she didn’t like him, Mike felt having Kerry gone would improve his own standing. He also wanted rid of Sarah as well, who he claimed was destructive and a bad influence on Dez – who he was, of course, looking out for. I don’t know what actually was said between the two of them, but when Dez went ballistic in the shellfish restaurant the following evening, things were said that only Mike could have told Dez. The boundaries were drawn and the rest of the week it was Thelma and Louise meets Misery.

When they got back things calmed down for a few weeks, but Kerry was obviously very upset (actually she looked most of the time like she was about to explode in a volley of abuse and spit). There were other things going on that I wasn’t aware of. I was back being Mr Popular and was pushed into playing Judas in the final battle.

Dez knew that while I was a very loyal person, I could be clandestine if I wanted to be. He convinced me that I should start to play the double agent. Sarah trusted me, so did Kerry, he wanted me to find out what was going on. I agreed and I didn’t even get 10 pieces of silver.

The end came just before deadline on the October issue. It was late September and they had been back for about 6 weeks. I got a call about 8pm from Dez, could I come in the following day, we had a problem and he could really do with me helping out – he sounded utterly gutted. I asked what the problem was, but he said it could wait until the morning. It was very unusual for him not to want to talk on the phone – his phone bills were extortionate every quarter.

The next day I arrived in the office and was rather taken aback by what I saw. He’d left it exactly as it had been at 7pm the previous evening. Dez’s story, I’ve never had the opportunity to hear Kerry’s side, was that after starting to talk about San Diego, Kerry asked him not to mention it, but Dez said he needed to ask her a question about it – he claimed it was just to ask her something geographical, but I’ll bet it wasn’t – the trip had been gnawing away at him for the last 6 weeks. Kerry flew off the handle, she threw a scalpel at him, tore up finished pages, threw all of her work on the floor, threw the desk over, grabbed her coat and left. She wasn’t coming back. She also, much to Dez’s horror had called him ‘a cunt’. It wouldn’t be the first time. I don’t know if it was the fact a woman had said it – he has incredibly Victorian principals about women – or if he’d never been called it before, but of course, he had. I think, for the second time in a year, he’d seen what happens when you push someone too far and yet he seemed oblivious to the repercussions; he was, after all, bulletproof and therefore he’d sail as close to the edge as was possible. For Dez, the further he could push the personal envelope was an anthropological study. He was Jammy Bastard.

I just got on with the job. The post mortem lasted for months as Dez tried to get his head round something that the other half of his brain refused take any of the responsibility for – that Kerry had ultimately blamed him for everything. I ended up having to come up with crazy conspiracy theory ideas just to calm him down sometimes. He felt happier thinking there was a plot against him by Kerry and Sarah rather than actually look at his own shortcomings as a human being. And the stupid, stupid man that I am I never tried to make him see the error of his ways. I should have, I felt guilty enough about what I’d done.

The beginning of the end of his business relationship with Sarah also crumbled. Sarah played what she believed would be trump card in her battle – a battle I could never fully understand – she played me. It almost broke my heart when I said to her, “why do you think I’ve been so supportive and have said things to make the two of you open up? He asked me to.” For the first time since I’ve ever known Sarah she was silent. Dez came on the phone and said, “I’ll speak to you tomorrow, mate” – he rarely called me ‘mate’, this was being done to rub salt into her wounds. I hated doing that, but it wasn’t the first time I’d allowed myself to be Dez’s tool, or vessel for his hate and control. I’ve tried to contact Sarah in the intervening years - to say sorry, but she’s fallen so far off the radar she could be dead for all I know.


There was an American kid who fancied himself as a future hotshot in the news field. He had a popular website and a lot of the pros were beginning to trust him. Michael Doran had a dream he eventually fulfilled, his dream was to work for Marvel – they fired him a couple of years later, but his CV had what he always wanted – a spot that included Marvel as an employer. Doran had been something of a thorn in our side from almost the moment he started. We weren’t exactly renowned for scoops, because we were in the UK and most of what happens in comics takes place in New York, we always struggled for non-British scoops.

The first time Doran contacted us was to claim that something we had run in the Internet column Networks had not been credited to him. Dez explained to me that I should write to him and explain that because of the nature of the column we don’t owe him any credit at all. It was reportage and we were reporting on other people’s comments on this particular news story. Doran didn’t like the answer. A couple of months later we did the unthinkable; I remember it well, we were on deadline, an advertiser had failed to deliver a half page, we’d been working almost constantly for 36 hours and I threw together a half page of just released news. CI came out on the newsstands two weeks after Doran released the news, it was hardly an infringement on his story. But Doran claimed that quotes from a specific creator were given to him and no one else and therefore we’d stolen his story and given him no credit. In all fairness to the guy he wasn’t asking for much, but Dez considered comics news to be fair game and once it was out there it was in the public domain – and besides a lot of creators used quotes from their own interviews in their press releases, there was always going to be a problem somewhere down the line with someone as precious as Doran. Comics companies wouldn’t hassle him because they were getting what they wanted and didn’t have to pay for it – good cheap coverage. We were doing the same thing, so the publishers couldn’t give a shit about our petty squabbles, just so long as their product gets promoted – for free.

Dez treated Doran like a child, but used me to do it. I’d tried very hard to get on the right side of Doran, he was a humourless bastard at the best of times, but I managed to convince him that I was the good guy and we could work something out.

Then, back in the days when CompuServe was a force on the Internet, on one of the growing number of comics discussion forums, a debate started by Doran and intended to incite Dez backfired on me without my knowledge. It did incense Dez, who then used my CompuServe account to reply to Doran. It was quite rude and very deconstructive. He’d ruined that relationship because I was going to be hard pressed to convince Doran that I hadn’t actually written what was said. It descended even further into name-calling and because it was a Comics International supported forum Doran got frightened off, he was, after all, still small beans. Then things continued to happen, we were receiving press releases from creators that were using their interviews with Doran for their own PR. He continued to call us on it and even threatened to attempt to sue us if we continued to do it. Dez, unknown to me, saw a way of getting Doran away from our door – invite him in. Dez believed Doran ideal as a news editor and he’d have the drop on almost every one. But if Michael Doran was nothing else, he’s got integrity. He emailed me and told me that Dez had been sounding him out about being paid to supply news for CI, this added to the confrontation Dez and I had after my mother died. It gave me just a little bit more ammunition.

By the time I departed CI, I tried to mend the bridges with Doran, but I could understand why he was reluctant to even give me any respect. To him it must have seemed like he was dealing with a fucking crazy schizophrenic Englishman who one moment was Mr Nice Guy and the next was publicly debunking him elsewhere. By the time Doran took over in Marvel’s press department I could at least communicate with him, but boy were there undertones in all of our communications. I don’t know if he loved it or hated it. I loved it when they fired him, a completely unchristian thing to do, but the twerp deserved it; he had a reputation (and still does) for being arrogant and abrasive.

The next few months, as CI healed from Kerry departure, I soon realised that Dez needed someone to train to do all the admin and I convinced him that he should get a kid in, either on work experience or as an apprentice, like I had laughingly been described as. He liked this idea and began to look at people who answered the advert he put in CI. We had a poor lot of applicants and Dez had decided, quite against equal opportunities, that he was going to employ a girl. His first attempt, while unbelievably worthy of him, was a total failure. Not only was the girl in question completely useless, she also looked like an extra from a George Romero film about overweight zombies. She was brought down from Scotland, offered a piddling salary and was fired after 4 days. Dez offered her £100 compensation, so she could get a train back to Glasgow. At the time we had an Italian-Canadian journalist working with us, on a freelance basis. I got on reasonably well with her, but you could see there was a problem with Dez. For starters she knew so much more about neologisms and the modern use of language than he did and a number of house rules were changed because she basically forced him to change them. She told Dez to shove his work shortly after the fat girl was packed onto a train back north of the border. She said to me the day she quit that Dez was a monster and an unbelievably sexist, racist pig with no realisation of the people he tramples over in the pursuit of his own beliefs – which were all driven by his monstrous persona. I didn’t disagree with her...

Next week: at the third stroke it will be... more of the same.