Monday, 31 October 2011

My Monthly Curse (The What If Halloween Special)

Apologies to people who bought the book, because this is something that doesn't appear in it. I came up with this in the weeks that followed the Kindle version and figured it would be unfair to the people who had already bought it to suddenly upload a revised version.

If ifs and ands were grains of sand...

If that pan idiom was applied to comics this would called... The What If Scenario.

We've been using a rickety old time machine to swan backwards and forwards from the late 1980s to the early part of the 21st century. It maybe hasn't been the most linear story, but that perfectly illustrates the complexities of the comic book 'industry'.

Comics deal with fantasy (by and large), so what if we applied a fantasy scenario to my history. What if I could get into that time machine and go back to a pivotal point in my past, but blessed with the gift of hindsight?

Would I have gone back to 1972 and just ignored the comics rack and gone straight for Engineers Weekly or Pig Farmer's Digest? Would I have gone back to 1977 and beaten Justin Ebbs at his own peripherals game? Or would I have gone back to 1989 and attempted to run a comic shop in a different way? Or would I have just got a job as a shelf stacker when Squonk!! went out of business?

I think, to give myself a fair crack at success, I would go back to May 1989 and this is what I would do with 22 years of future experience in my head...

I think the first thing I would have done was get a job. One of the major contributing factors of Squonk's troubles was I'd run out of cash by the time it opened. I was already living on the business's overdraft facility before I'd taken a single penny. The £5000 start up I had was frittered away on living. You could argue that this was the single most important thing that led to my ultimate bankruptcy; but the fact I was operating in profit by the middle of 1991 probably negates that. Had I just had a part time job, I wouldn't have spent 'shop' money on living and I would have had enough money to make the shop's appearance look less... bohemian.

The first thing I should have done was scrap the idea of opening the shop in a town the size of Wellingborough. Comics were not the new video shops; there wasn't a willing and able mass of people queuing up to buy comics, like they were video players and that month's new blockbuster releases. Comic shops were and still are marginal; the kind of thing you'd expect to find on a back street rather than in a major shopping centre. it is a niche market, so therefore you really need to be in the most populated places. Had I been patient (and having a job meant I would have been), I could have bought or rented a far more suitable premises in Northampton - a town with over 150,000 people and a large catchment area, which included Wellingborough (which had a population of 50,000 and arguably as big a catchment area, but not central).

Yes, it would have meant that a few of my excellent regular customers may never have made the 12 mile journey to discover Squonk in a new town; but arguably there would have been potentially more reckless spenders in the county town. For every J 1, 2 or 3, there would probably have been J's 4, 5 and 6; maybe even a 7 and an 8. I could also have cut a deal with Northampton Borough Council for a council owned store front and in the late 1980s, the local council were offering deals on new business rates; to encourage growth in an ailing town centre - Wellingborough was and always has been a penny pinching bunch of short-termists. Anyone driving through Wellingborough in 2011 will see every third shop either closed or in the process of closing. There is no quarter given by the council and if you fall behind on your rates, they pursue you relentlessly, even underhandedly, to get their money.

A year after I shut Squonk and was considering making myself bankrupt, Wellingborough Council got wind of this and contacted me. The first thing they told me was that if I made myself bankrupt, I couldn't include the council's debt in the final figure. I was told by a clerk that council's are exempt from being included in bankruptcy settlements. The Official Receiver informed me that Wellingborough Council repeatedly told people in financial problems that they couldn't include the debt to them in bankruptcy hearings. this, it proved, was a load of bollocks. If the Inland Revenue isn't exempt, then a local council has a much chance of reclaiming money owed as Manchester United have of winning Baseball's World Series.

So, with this knowledge, I'd avoid WBC and the entire town like the plague.

With a shop opening in Northampton, I would have started to go to auctions - there is, ironically, an auctioneer in Wellingborough that specialises in selling off the contents of bankrupt businesses. A couple of trips there and I would have procured some good display racks and proper shop fittings, probably for a fraction of the price. This would have saved me money in the long run, because with less than two weeks before I opened Squonk in Wellingborough, I still had an empty shop.

As these two photos perfectly illustrate, my final display units at the shop were adequate, but very homely (everything was made of wood). They were all hand made and needed constant tinkering with across the years I was open. The picture on the left, with me on the phone, has a rack on the right hand side of the picture; that was added after about a year. I ended up having to fill a lot of the wall with new racks, because, quite simply, the amount of product coming out warranted display or you'd be pissing it away. Comics is a visual entertainment and people need to judge the book by its cover.

So, not only would I have found gainful employment prior to opening, I would have bought proper shop fittings and relocated it to a bustling town. I would have kept the name, because even if it conjures up images of post-Peter Gabriel Genesis songs, it was and still is the kind of word that makes people do a double take. A friend suggested I call it the Comics Hall, which quite quaint was about as exciting as having a conversation with a fig; it was also something that people would probably forget, very quickly. I would also keep it despite the fact that a squonk is a mythical North American creature, which when confronted with adversity dissolves into a pool of tears - which is essentially what the shop did. But, I like the name, so there.

I think I did a good job at getting free PR and I did enough advertising to attract people; but I maybe would have waited a few months before really going for it. I'm pretty sure that I would have some serious collectors visit the shop in the opening months; but, in reality, it had been almost a year before I was really happy with the levels of stock; the quality of my back issues and the diversity on the shelves. I championed independent comics, even if there maybe wasn't much of a market for them. but the job of a retailer is also about persuading your customers that a change is as good as a rest. The upshot is, don't attract the aficionados until you have something worth showing off - it makes better fiscal sense.

We went into mail order as a last resort; we should have started with it; offering customers the chance to receive their orders through the post without having to come into the shop. I would also have set up a Standing Order system that would have worked better than the one I used. For starters, I would have offered people taking SOs out a discount - 5%, 10% and a max of 15% if they ordered more than £50 a month. The discount would only apply if they kept their SOs clear; anything not bought or returned would negate the discount. I would also have preached, in a nice way, to these regular customers, about the importance of communication. Comic shops are not major supermarkets; discounts, offers and deals are actually damaging to a shop's turnover and cash flow; so they need to be earned. A comic shop can go out of business because of its customers taking the piss; but equally it works both ways and I would have communicated with my customers the same way I wanted them to communicate with me.

I always said that I made a great manager, I was just a crap owner and trust me, the two things are different and I think the stress of the two jobs was detrimental to my health - mental and physical. I would have looked into either my wife handling the things that I used to hide under the mat, or paid Roger, my accountant, to be a kind of business manager for me; to make sure that I concentrated on the owner's duties with a little more pragmatism. After all, I actually had a bunch of really trustworthy staff; I was happy to let them run my business while I sat in then cellar smoking myself into oblivion. I would have made an effort to be a better owner.

I also wouldn't have tried to spread myself so thin. It's true that the computer game companies looked after me far better than the comics publishers; but I needed tens of thousands of pounds to stock a proper games shop and I didn't have that kind of money, ever. So, I ended up with a small display of shit games which did nothing for my reputation. I wouldn't have even tried to sell T-shirts and posters; because while some shops might sell loads; back in 1989, I shifted bugger all. By the time I shut the shop, I still had 70% of the T-shirts I began with (in fact, I still own an Akira T-shirt, which is over 20 years old now and still being worn) and I ended up using a lot of the posters to decorate the shop. They ended doubling up as POS and trust me they've never been cheap!

The thing was, as I said all through the retail section of this book; a lot of retailers are just fans with a redundancy pay out or have re-mortgaged their house to do something they've always fancied. I actually had retail experience; I worked in a number of shops after I left school, even making it to assistant manager a few times. I was good at retail sales; but I never ever had the pressure on me that I had when a sale suddenly became considerably more important than just a bit of profit. I can probably, accurately, say that anything I learnt from retailing was barely applied to my own business; so how would someone with no experience of retail manage to survive?

But probably the most important thing I would have done differently, if I could do it all again, would be to be more of a business than a community centre. Over the course of working on this entire comics history, I realised that I allowed the shop to be something it should never have been. It should have been a shop; a friendly place with amiable staff; but it should have been run as a business rather than an excuse to have a load of like minded people hanging around with me. Ultimately, had it been in Northampton, it probably would have been like that; but there are intense periods of boredom when you run a niche shop and the company breaks up the day - the sense would have been to balance it right; encourage them at known quiet times and discouraged them from coming in at busy periods by being unable to chat and keen to keep them away from such places as the till or the new comics racks.

I really wouldn't have had people hanging around the till or the area where business in conducted. Too often, because some comics fans are bereft of social skills, you'd end up scaring a potential customer away because the existing customer who is hanging over your counter is sending out all the wrong signals. It has often crossed my mind that a coffee shop would be well placed in a comics shop; even if it's just a percolator and an honesty box. Designate an area for fans to sit and chew the fat; emphasise that the shop isn't a library and make sure this area is as far away from the front of the shop as possible. Fans pay your wages, but they can also be detrimental to whether or not people will be attracted to your shop. The number of times over the last 20 years I've heard ex-retailers complain about hangers-on has been amazing; you'd think that we should all have seen it without the use of hindsight.

Northampton has had a comics shop now for 23 of the last 25 years. That's quite amazing, I think. It started with Blitz and the one there now is a new venture born out of the two previous incarnations. Apparently the owner is a good guy and has plans to expand without over-stretching himself. Best of luck to him; he'll need it. Had I opened in Northampton, I'm big headed enough to think that I might be there still. Maybe I would have opened a different branch in Rugby, but hopefully for all the right reasons. I think I could have made it a success if I'd had the knowledge that I have now. This is why I've always believed that conscientious ex-retailers should have a position in comics, even if it's just consulting; because no one knows the business better than someone who has failed and has spent the subsequent years analysing what went wrong and where they could have done different.

Personally, I've had more sleepless nights beating myself up about the failure of Squonk than just about anything else in my life. I was reckless, immature and stupid to think that a business that needed working at could have succeeded with so little acumen being displayed. However, I can't lay awake in bed at night playing alternative scenarios out because the only person that failed was me. I have laid in bed at night and plotted revenge against certain ex-employers - but when you have no one else to blame but yourself (I know I blame X-Men #1, but that was just one of many straws that helped break the camel's back) all you do is analyse the mistakes and berate yourself for not seeing the bleedin' obvious. Also, it's pointless planning revenge on a distributor; there's nothing personal, it's their job and you agreed to their terms!

There are things about the years running the shop that I am actually acutely embarrassed about, despite it being one of the happiest periods of my life.


Next time: back to me slagging someone off, probably...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Thirty-Five)

Dez Skinn managed to stay at Marvel UK until he decided to go it alone. He’d transformed Marvel UK into a viable company and had been the first editor in charge to originate new home-grown material other than covers. He revamped titles, cut the costs, made much of the Marvel UK stuff collectible in its own right. But he wasn’t doing enough. He had some of the best creators in the industry emerging in front of him and the best-case scenario was they would all end up working in the USA.

So in 1982 Warrior was launched. It was the first big British action and adventure comic/magazine launched since 2000AD in 1977 and after securing WH Smiths distribution deals the first issue came out to a stunned audience. It was an instant hit with comics fans, but not a favourite with distributors – most felt unsure of supplying it and many newsagents that took it placed it on the top shelf rather than with the other comics – where porn mags went. The problem was the size and format, which resembled adult magazines, plus the fact the comics covers were quite graphic and unlike most comics – this was thanks to Mick Austin who designed the cover style (Dez would later take the credit for it. He and Austin didn’t speak for years).

Dez was hoisted by his own success, Warrior was hot and he had some of the best new names in comics working for him. The star amongst them all was undoubtedly Alan Moore, a new guy on the block who was already making waves in the comics community. This was an intelligent man with seriously strong views on things other than comics and wasn’t frightened to bring true realism into his comics – realism and a bit of metaphysical nonsense. Dez had a great team of talented people producing top quality products that were already receiving attention from the new breed of US independent publishers. Then the problems began…

The first one was cover images. Dez had to change the image a number of times on different covers because WH. Smiths refused to carry the magazine. Smiths then refused to stock the magazine altogether because they were concerned about the nature of the content. Dez fought and won that argument, putting Warrior back into the shops; but this was really just a preamble and Dez knew it. Dez had been expecting something big to happen from the moment he published the first issue.

When he left Marvel UK it wasn’t an acrimonious departure, the company and Dez parted on the best of terms. They, of course, weren’t aware that he was about the launch his own line of comics under the Quality banner. When Warrior launched its lead character was quite possibly one of the most controversial decisions ever taken by an editor – it was in fact a reckless decision taken with no consideration for the future. Dez was still strictly short-term in those days.

Warrior’s lead was a character called Mike Moran, who, when he wasn’t just an ordinary guy with a dodgy memory, became the godlike superhero Marvelman. Marvel Comics do not have a character called Marvel Man or Marvelman, but Marvel Comics saw this Marvelman as a direct infringement on their property. Just to make matters even more confusing, the Marvelman Dez was using was created in the 1950s as a British version of Captain Marvel, a character originally created by Fawcett Comics, but had since become the property of DC Comics. However, DC could call the character Captain Marvel, but not his comic. This was because Marvel had discovered that the copyright on the name Captain Marvel had lapsed, so they introduced their own version of Captain Marvel (called Captain Marv-Ell inside their comics). DC then released its own Captain Marvel comicbook but called it Shazam. Are you following this? If not, don’t worry too much.

Marvelman circa 1953 was originally just re-lettered versions of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel stories, but eventually Len Miller, the UK publisher, changed the name and started bringing out his own Marvelman stories in 1954, written by Mick Anglo. These stopped in 1963.

What Dez did, or rather Alan Moore, was take the character and lift it from its twee 1950s stories and place him firmly back in the 1980s. Michael Moran is a man with no real memories of his past, who finds himself in a life-threatening situation and remembers the word that will change his life. In the States their Captain Marvel had to say ‘SHAZAM,’ the British Marvelman had to say ‘Kimota’, basically ‘atomic’ backwards (sort of). As soon as Moran became Marvelman the lawyers’ radar went off.

It took a while for Marvel to get their ball rolling, by this time Dez had already agreed deals with DC on two of the other Warrior properties and he told me many years later that he thought that the DC editorial was actually behind him and most thought it was a great wheeze, despite the fact he was essentially revamping a character that Miller stole from Fawcett, which DC now owned. Dez was using international copyright law loopholes and stalling for time like an old pro, because deep down he knew that however right he was and whatever principles he was upholding by fighting Marvel over this ludicrous action they were threatening, he would ultimately go bankrupt. He was hardly making enough money to pay for the next scheduled issue, let alone fight a major international publishing company with bigger, flashier lawyers than he could afford.

This was something that Alan Moore did not like. He had managed to fall out with Marvel by this time already – something he was to make an occupation of throughout his career – and he saw Dez fighting the corporate whore as a great thing. He like many others threw his support behind Dez in every possible way, apart from money. Alan and all the other Warrior team all still expected to get paid every month, yet hardly any of them considered what it was costing Skinn. But that’s Dez all over, regardless of everything I’ve said, there’s an element of altruist in him – and I believe to this day that he doesn’t like to bother people with business that doesn’t involve them. One of the man’s few points of integrity, but it might also be a need to keep things hidden from others, so that if opportunity raises its head, he can strike without the others being aware. Two-Face of Batman fame would have been a good role model.

As it began to look more and more likely that Dez was going to pull out of his battle with Marvel, Alan, already pissed off by a few of Dez’s other decisions, began to pull away from Warrior and cast his line further afield and DC was biting. The first thing that drove a wedge between the two of them was Moore’s dislike for the taxman. Alan hated having to pay the taxman anything and as a self-employed writer he looked for as many loopholes as he could to avoid paying. Do you know the expression, ‘a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing’? Well that was to be the problem and the catalyst for the breakdown in a great professional marriage.

I have the utmost respect for Alan Moore as a writer, but despite having known him for a long time – not well, I hasten to add – and learnt a lot about him from a lot of people who do know him very well, I can’t help but think he’s one of the worst people to promote comics or put in front of the camera. Yes, he’s a very intelligent man, but for some reason he seems incapable of understanding common sense – and trust me he’s not the only educated person I’ve met that fits that bill.

A friend of Alan’s had told him that if he didn’t put invoices in for his work, he wouldn’t have to declare his earnings. Dez told him that this was correct, but how would he, as the employer, account for the missing money? Alan’s answer was the same as his friend’s, write it off as casual labour for something else. Dez explained that the amount of money he was paying Alan every month would be almost impossible to write off as casual labour. He was careful to explain it all to Alan, but the writer was pissed off because he wasn’t going to save himself any money and was really only seeing as far as the end of his nose. Dez was the reason – full stop – there could be no other reason, Dez was doing this to spite Alan – nout to do with the taxman or British tax laws, Skinn was obviously just doing this to piss Moore off!

For once I felt a bit sorry for Dez because this was essentially the entire cause of a rift between the two that continues today. Although when you talk to Alan about Dez nowadays, you can see some of the things that went wrong with them, mirror the way they did with me.

The tragic thing about the Dez and Alan divorce was that they really were great friends and while Alan is probably a great believer in your best friend is your brother philosophy, Dez’s is more like, your best friend is okay unless there’s money or more fame involved. I think Alan felt betrayed by Dez on a personal level as well as a professional. It was just a shame that Alan couldn’t see the sense Dez was talking about taxation, because, while I’m sure the divorce would still have happened, it might not have been so public and less messy.

So Alan left Warrior and took a lot of the top quality with him. Dez was left with his reputation in tatters (but only in the eyes of the pro community, the fans still loved him) and a monthly magazine to bring out. The frequency began to get erratic and there were more and more European reprints appearing and the best thing in British comics started to become the same as all the others – actually it started to become the best thing in Spanish comics, because this was Dez’s only real port of call for European reprints. Dez even resorted to holding back the numbers on certain issues to make people believe they were scarce, thus allowing him to sell his own copies at a vastly inflated price. However, this time it did turn round and bite him on the arse because other issues he hadn’t stockpiled became the real scarce items. I remember helping him sort out his loft many years ago and he had enormous quantities of certain issues, but not the three issues that were genuinely scarce. You could tell it pissed him off that he’d missed the boat on his own product.

Dez had been publishing House of Hammer (and then Halls of Horror) independently before he joined Marvel, continued to publish this independently while at Marvel and after he left he continued to publish it until it eventually joined Warrior to boost that comic’s flagging sales. Warrior ended as mainly a reprint vehicle for repackaged Spanish strips, it wasn’t cutting edge anymore and it slipped quietly off the shelves, off the radar and into retirement.

The reason I say ‘retirement’ is because in 1996 Dez realised that the copyright on the name Warrior had lapsed and DC were in the process of re-branding one of their comics under the name Warrior. Dez went through his inventory of unused stuff and pulled out the remaining strips and we hurriedly put together an issue of Comics International which tied in with the Euro 1996 football championships and the release of a new football comic (in the tradition of Roy of the Rovers). So Warrior reappeared with a load of flimflam from Dez about testing the waters and about finding long-lost material. Ironically, that particular issue of CI was the lowest selling for years and subsequently there aren’t that many copies of it in existence and it might have some worth in the future. DC knew exactly what Dez was doing and re-branded their book anyway, knowing full well that Dez couldn’t afford to take on Marvel years before when the shoe was on the other foot and he probably couldn’t afford to do it now against an organisation considerably more financially stable.

Dez had once nearly landed a very plum job at DC. The publisher had pinpointed him as the top man to look after the growing number of UK creators and to develop new projects. This was shortly after Alan Moore had landed a job there. Moore had been given Swamp Thing, which was dead on its feet, and was told he could do with it as he wished and if he turned sales round the book would get a reprieve. Moore did and subsequently became the star at DC. By this time Moore’s hatred of Skinn was so passionate that he went to DC editor Karen Berger and said if Dez worked for DC he’d leave. DC’s top dogs weighed up the pros and cons and Alan Moore stayed. This is according to Dez; no one at DC has ever been prepared to answer my questions about it.

However, by 1985 Dez had very little money, had few friends, and no reason to stay in London at all, so he packed up his things, left comics and went to Manchester to make his fortune. As a fairly well-educated man with a well-spoken voice, Dez soon found himself in interesting circles and before long he had landed on his feet as the manager of one of the very first telephone chat lines. He claims it was down to him and his team that helped get telephone chat lines as big as they were. Whether this was the case or not it helped him make enough money to return to London with Sarah Bolesworth, four years later and another attempt at making money from comics.

Next: we end this chapter...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Thirty-Four)

Aside from a half dozen really big deals I did on individual comics, people rarely spent more than £5 on a book in my shop. You see by this time any serious collector owned a price guide and he would be looking for people who were selling under guide price rather than on it or over – some people were displaying common sense. The average collector wasn’t interested in anything that was out of his expense and comics were increasingly getting more and more expensive and this is why the back issue sections of comics shops started to become redundant and just take up space; because the price guide put a minimum value on every comicbook ever published!

The reason Jack 1 bought so many comics from me when he did was because I looked at shit comicbooks that were guided at £1.00 and thought I’d be lucky if I got 10p for them. But I did get 10p for them; because someone will buy a piece of crap for 10p than spend a £1 on it – again, common sense. But, the downside was, they are also more likely to buy shit for 10p than something good for £1.00. And that applies even today, more so in many ways. But you can walk into any independent comics shop that still has back issue sections and find over priced and unsold comics. Surely the best thing to do with any comic that is basically past its sell-by date is to sell it for the price you can get for it? Why do you never see signs saying ‘make an offer’? Because it doesn’t make sense to a comic shop owner. If he buys 100 X-Men at 50p each and he sells 75 at £1.00 each in one month, he’s made £25 profit already. In month two, he sells another five (now he has made £30 profit) but no one is interested in the rest. Does he put these 20 X-Mens in the back issue bins at retail price or less? No, he puts them in the back issue bins at 25p more than he was selling them earlier in the day; or if you are really lucky the same price. Does this make any sense to you, because it doesn’t to me? Not anymore, at least.

It wasn’t until someone spelled it out to me in black and white that once I’d sold enough to pay for whatever I’d bought, the rest is just profit – clear profit – and it doesn’t matter if you sell each comic for 1p or £100, whatever you ring in the till is profit. Mammon would be grinning with pride at the way comics dealers and store owners refuse to accept that a comic that no one wants isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

There was a time when the comics shop with the most comics was considered the biggest and the best, but nowadays most places that sell comics have them hidden away at the back of the shop and only order what they know they can sell. In fact, in the 21st Century comics and the industry has become such a cottage industry again that only the real speciality comic shops can really call themselves authentic comic shops now. Toys, T-shirts, Trading Cards, sculptures, models, clothes, jewellery, piercing and tattoo parlours and bookstore staples are now at the forefront of most comics shops. They now attract people who don’t know or like comics, so the comics have to be put far away so the regular, normal, people don’t get frightened or traumatised by the ‘fucking weirdoes with their spandex fixations’. But there are still people out there who will continue to try and start a new comics shop, in a new town, with the ideals that they will overcome and be better than all those other dreamers who tried before and failed. It is the existence of things like price guides, and even dealers’ mail order lists, that embed this stoic attitude to change into most probable failures and bankrupts.

When Duncan McAlpine re-launched Alan Austin’s UK Price Guide in the early 1990s, he took the very bold decision to ask the comics public, ‘do we really need a price guide?’ At the time there was a good debate for and against in the pages of Comics International. It could have raged for years because for everyone that felt we needed a guide, there were others who made the very good point that it would standardise the dealing industry and make it increasingly more difficult for people to get bargains and, probably most importantly, it would make the general public aware of the value of comics and dealers could no longer fleece little old ladies out of their attic stash.

Every one missed the biggest point, except me – but I missed the boat with the debate because by the time I realised what the biggest problem was the debate had moved onto something else entirely. If the price guide had been intended for dealers only it would have worked better than it did, but because it was now a bookshop feature available in all good Waterstones it meant that everyone could get a copy and see how much those old comics in the attic were worth. However, as I’ve pointed out, grading comics is a science in itself and trying to explain to a comics ignorant local that his stack of Metal Men was indeed an impressive run, but their condition is only fine and that means they’re only worth half of the maximum guide price, and that would be the dealers’ re-sell price, so the dealer could only offer the seller a much smaller percentage per comic, it would sound like the retailer was taking the piss – trying to rip the seller off. At best, the dealer would be treated with a certain amount of incredulity. With the more universal availability of the price guide that actually started to happen. The UK price guide was a great tool for the retailer, but it was an unexpected weapon for the customer and potential seller. If someone walked into your comics shop with a price guide, you might as well forget about making the sale, unless you had someone on your staff that could charm the underpants off a nun. We were lucky, that was Iain's one good point and we managed to procure many good collections because of Iain’s gift of the gab; but it always left a slightly acrid taste in the mouth, because the price guide made you feel as though you were cheating these people.

It is also very difficult to tell someone that 90% of all comics are actually worthless. People see these Cash in the Attic and Antiques Roadshow programmes and get it in their heads that if a book – an official book - says something is worth £200 why isn’t he getting £200 for it? I know people who took to using old price guides as a buying reference. The truth about comics prices is that 90% of all comics are not worth the paper they’re printed on – they are essentially worth less than the cover price. The problem, the thing that sticks in the retailer’s mind, is there is a physical product there, and history dictates that this product could be worth something some day, so like any good hoarder the retailer makes sure that all it will ever do is take up space. The man with a £200 comic thinks he should get £200 for it; the price guide says so; the man in the street struggles to comprehend the argument that it isn’t really, actually, worth £200. It is worth maybe a fifth of that because the dealer hasn’t necessarily got a buyer for it. Then we get into the ethics of buying comics; if a dealer did have a buyer for it, would he still only give a fifth of its value, therefore making more profit, or would he give the seller a better deal, make less profit, but have a quicker turnaround and a happy seller, who just might be inclined to bring other good comics in for purchase or trade?

However, if 90% of all comics are worthless, what about the other 10%? These 10% are the popular comics, old or new, they are the ones that have the most readers and are the best comics to read (usually) – what is a new potential reader going to think when he realises that X-Men back issue comics are out of his price range? There is no easy entry point for potentials here either. Little Johnny waltzes into a new comic shop; likes what he sees and it stars Wolverine; he buys a few comics every month, comes into some disposable income, looks at the back issues and discovers that unsold stock, starring Wolverine is more money than the new comics. Old, out-of-date comics are, for some strange reason, more expensive. Does it make him want to splash his cash or does it scare the shit out of him when he realises that there are 300 plus issues, all getting exponentially more expensive, as they get older?

People also believed that comics fandom somehow officially sanctioned the price guides – this was a common misconception because the people who advised or helped produce guides were either dealers or people with a vested interest in the guides. Something I forgot to mention, Duncan McAlpine, the man who resurrected the UK price guide, was a director in a large comics retailer in London, specialising in the rare and difficult to get comics (comics that incidentally began to see a dramatic rise in their values).

Commercialism had finally started to catch up to comicbooks and it seemed no one was into it without some financial reason. The publishers were now employing people with the brief to promote comics as broadly as they could – none managed to get much further than the Internet and because of the millions of hits the Internet was providing, what was the point of investing (read: spending) money elsewhere to promote comics? Actually they did have advertising budgets, but only for Wizard and a couple of the other US magazines, it was the Internet that suddenly became the focus for all the marketing and PR work – it was like comics decided that the ‘net was the only way forward and, to be fair, when you get all your fans to do your PR for you and you don’t have to pay them, how can you blame them for taking advantage of the willing fans.

The price guide also took on the responsibility of the scorecard – there were now so many ongoing, mini, maxi and prestige format series coming out, plus one-shots, annuals, specials and graphic novels, you needed to concentrate to keep track of what was happening and who was appearing where. There was a massive expansion of companies and all of them were forming on the basis of the general stupidity of the retailers.

The UK price guide only had longevity as long as the general public and the comics fan were interested in their investments, by the time the last one came out the furore had died down so much the guide effectively became redundant. In fact, the furore died so fast by the end of the ’90s most people in comics thought the speculator had disappeared and most of the dealers had downsized. If only this was the case; without a recent price guide and no one to effectively police the prices, we saw some comicbooks take massive hikes in price. What happened was the price guide was a huge contributing factor to the end of back issue sales from comics shops, but it also became an essential reference work that prevented exploitation and massive inflation – a wonderful catch-22 situation. Fortunately by the turn of the last century, because of the downsizing of the industry, everything was affected and there were twice as many dealers selling books below the guide price (by as much as 80%) – but all these guys were doing was making money from dead stock (and who were they selling a lot of this dead stock to? Other dealers who’d take it back to their shops, inflate the price, stick it in a Mylar bag and wouldn’t sell it to anyone, either!)

Madness. But how often have I insinuated that so far?

But the real madness was the simple fact that no one in comics appreciates that like any collectible not everything is worth money. I have promo material in a box in my loft that has more value to collectors than probably 50% of my personal collection. This includes promo posters, pins and standees that are, in effect, so rare they command obscene prices. But they aren’t comics.

When a retailer looks at his back issue stock he sees money. It is an illusion manufactured by years of history and conditioning and then illuminated by price guides. If you walk into a department store you see all kinds of end of range goods at ridiculously reduced prices – my wife lives for these kinds of sales because she gets stuff she’d never pay full price for, even if it is now ‘out of season’. The same principle should apply to comics shops – and some might do this, I’m not in a position to travel to every comic shop in the UK and US to find out – if a comics series is cancelled or there is no interest in a specific era then these comics should either be binned or sold at whatever price they can be sold at. If nothing else it frees up space and makes some money; at best it will stimulate readers to try something else and that could mean money in the long run and it really needs to be long term, because the comics industry has suffered for too long at the hands of short-termism.

Comics Lesson 17:

Comics people are pedants, but their pedantry like everything else is rooted in complicity and weird science. No more so than comics is the collectors’ mentality so focused. I spent many years devoted to a band called Talk Talk. I thought they were the most progressive band of the 1980s, they broke many moulds and therefore I found myself incapable of walking past anything they released without buying it. 12” and 7” singles, club remixes, dub mixes, rare and deleted singles, demo versions, you name it, if I could get it I would. I even stretched as far as live Dutch imports – I was a completest; a full-set merchant and I’d move mountains to get what I wanted. It reminded me of when I first started to read comics and when I returned to comics my experiences with Talk Talk were brought back.

Comics fans are cataloguers and compilers. They treat their comics like newborn babes and talk about them like they were almost alive. They’ll list things not just in alphabetical order, but numerical as well. There will be better quality protection for favourite comics and specific issues. They might have classic Silver Age comics slabbed – which is the newest form of impenetrable protection, which now no longer gives you the option of ever reading the damned thing again (slabbed is the comics equivalent of being frozen in amber). Alongside these mega-expensive classic comics are the cheaper reprints, also bagged and given pride of place. Some comics fans don’t even like reading their comics, some will even buy two copies of their favourites – one to read and one to keep in pristine, or as near as damn it, condition, just in case they can sell them in a few years and buy that island in the Bahamas.

For every unbelievably devoted aficionado there are others that treat their prized possession in a completely different way. Jack 3 used to remove all the advertising pages out of his comics – the way US comics are printed all the adverts are done on the same plate so you never get a plate with artwork and advertising, so the pages can be taken out without damaging the story.

However, if people do this they are devaluing their collection to worthless. An incomplete comicbook doesn’t just mean the comics story, if anything is missing it isn’t the real thing. This might sound almost the thin end of the wedge as far as the stupidity within comics and the people involved could get, but it isn’t and you know that as well as me by now. If you have a valuable antique, it is worth more if it hasn’t been restored in any way or if all the parts, even the ornamental ones are there?

Next: After the interlude... Warrior!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Thirty-Three)

Dez started the Derinn Comic Collector – his first fanzine/sales catalogue 1968 (Derinn being a short-hand version of DERek SkINN), having already decided that he didn’t want to be a research chemist, the occupation the school’s careers advisor directed him towards. He left his hometown of Goole, in Humberside, for London to make his fortune. He started at IPC and was editing his first comic by the early 1970s – that was Cor!! One of the first comics I religiously bought. One of my favourite strips was the cover of the very first issue; many years later I would discover that Dez actually wrote that particular Gus the Gorilla strip. Oh, the irony...

Dez worked in professional comics publishing and made quite a name for himself. As well as having his own successful fanzine – Fantasy Advertiser – which he inherited from comics dealer Frank Dobson. Skinn also bought Dobson’s comic shop, the second of its kind in the country. It was on the King’s Road, in Chelsea, and was called Weird Fantasy. When Frank semi-retired and moved to East Anglia, Dez bought him out and changed the name to Quality Comics. He believed the name Weird Fantasy only attracted those into weird fantasy and sex books. He was already a Victorian in his mindset, the antithesis of the very promiscuous 1970s he was operating in.

By the late 1970s people were talking about this young, forward thinking dynamic editor who was self-publishing a couple of popular newsstand fantasy titles – Starburst and House of Hammer. Stan Lee had for years wanted to turn the UK into a smaller version of the USA, and have his Marvel Comics as synonymous as The Beano and The Dandy. Lee targeted Dez as his man for the job and Dez became editor-in-chief of Marvel UK in late 1976. Both men had ideas how they wanted Dez to run the company, Stan Lee’s were mainly ego-massaging exercises, so Dez was more than happy to listen to a man he dreamed of being more famous than.

Dez viewed the potential of British comics as huge, but he also had his own ideas how to make it work as well for him in the UK as it seemed to be for Stan’s Marvel in the US. This was before the Direct market was invented, so the only ways to get US Marvel (or DC) comics in this country was either from the people who brought the comics themselves and had them bought into the country independently – fortunately because of the bulk these people brought a lot of the freight charges were absorbed in the final cost. The other way was either as ship ballast, or stuff that was sent over for our newsstands whenever it had anyone to send some over. It was a very hit or miss affair. About a year before Dez took over at Marvel UK, a more uniformed distribution system was set up, by the same company that brought Marvel and DCs into the country in the 1960s, and you could for most of the year get a reasonably good supply of US comics, most of these had 5p or 6p price tags, proving that Marvel at least realised that the UK represented a growing market and were running the end of the print runs off with UK prices and header banners. However, it was forever dogged by a number of reasons, from strikes at docks to an intern in the Marvel sales office forgetting to put the order in for three whole months – creating a mini wave of hot Marvel titles in the summer of 1975.

By 1977 Marvels were now regularly coming into the country and Dez wondered if, like so many other people, new fans seeing these colourful US titles on the shelves would be more attracted to them and wouldn’t buy Marvel UK reprints, which he’d already turned the sales around on. As he also had a vested interest in retail at the time, an idea struck him that would be both beneficial to him as a publisher and his interests in both the retail side and his consultancy work. You see, there were hot comics even in the 1970s, but normally only for two reasons – an artist or the comic’s availability – if a comic was officially classed as Non-Distributed or ND then it warranted about a 100% increase in price in the UK. If it was a ‘hot’ comic, one that sold well every month then the price was often higher. It was a simpler time and ND comics were a boon for the dealer – a little bonus. Dez worked with a Leicester-based newsstand distributor and basically for the best part of 20 years told them what they should and shouldn’t bring into the country and try to sell through newsagents.

Dez looked at what he was reprinting. At what was popular in the US and what was proving to be popular in the UK. He then set about re-arranging the existing Marvel UK titles and tried to keep the most popular characters, the icons, as the lead stories in the portfolio. Suddenly comics’ sellers – the newsagents mainly, were missing some staples from their monthly orders. Amazing and Spectacular Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Avengers and Uncanny X-Men were now no longer available in the UK and at different times other comics suddenly were missing from the packs, just the odd issue or two, but comics that ended up being worth more for the dealer and the slowly growing band of retailers. Occasionally you’d even get the first part of a story and the next time you saw that comic it was halfway through another story. The idea that Dez had was to make specific issues difficult to find, and also stem the supply of the popular titles to increase sales on the UK reprints. It didn’t really work because by this time the dedicated US collector was scouring everywhere for his fix and if Dez was going to stop him, he would just pay more or import it directly from the USA. The feeling was that it was a shitty thing to do to a lot of the people who effectively put the guy where he was. The NDs stopped, but not completely. Every so often, Dez would put a stop on something for no apparent reason. All of these Skinn’ed NDs went on to be worth far more money than they should have been and guess who always managed to have copies of these ‘rare’ books?

Comics Lesson 16:

A bit more about ND comics and their little sisters, nd comics; ND means Non-Distributed, while nd means non-distributed. See, it’s easy. ND in reality means a comic – pre-Direct Market that did not get officially distributed in this country. The only copies available were privately imported. While the lower case nd stands for a comic that has had very limited distribution – how that actually worked pre-Direct Market I don’t really know, except to say that after the DM and the attempt to reunify the UK grading and listings systems with the USA ones, nd became ld or LD (Limited Distribution). These were smaller quantities arriving into the country by a recognised independent distributor or wholesaler.

In the old days an ND comic in the UK (you don’t get ND comics in the USA unless they’re British, of course) was a mark of scarcity. The terms ND or LD don’t really apply any more - any comic is available.

However, because of the proliferation of Price Guides at the height of the comics boom in the 1990s the true values of comics have long been forgotten. The USA embraced the concept of price guides earlier than in the UK, but we weren’t far behind.

An aside...

Way back in the early 1970s, when comics fandom was young and the idea of trading comics for profit was practiced by only the few canny people, a young London ideas man called Alan Austin came up with a British version of the US’s Overstreet Comics Price Guide, which had come out in 1970 and suddenly legitimised collecting as a business. Austin listed every Marvel, DC and Charlton comicbook that had been freely available in this country up to the then present day. He used the few mail order dealers’ lists available, his own limited experience of selling comics (in a bookshop on the Holloway Road) and the US price guide as a reference and came up with the first UK price guide in 1975.

The UK guide has always been the most valuable of reference works for the would-be comics dealer or collector/investor. Every year the guides’ got bigger and better and offer more information and attempt to turn comics dealing into an art form in its own right. I once heard someone comment that they needed a degree in rocket science just to be able to understand the grading system. You’ve read about grading, you have to agree with them, don’t you?

The big problem with a price guide is that it sets in stone the prices you should charge for a comic. The guides became the minimum price list and weren’t used at all in the way they were advised. There hasn’t been a UK price guide since 1998 and the prices in that, by and large, were still rising on those of previous years. As I’ve said many times before, comics dealers are reluctant to change anything; they don’t like pricing things down; they don’t like discounting unless they are doing it on a grand scale type of scheme and most of all, if a comic was worth £20 twenty years ago, by God it’s still worth £20, maybe more, now, and they don’t give a shit that no one is the slightest bit interested in it, it looks good on the wall!


This is how a great number of comics shop owners and managers view stock. An independent comics shop without a display wall of overpriced unwanted old hot comics isn’t a comics shop! Having comics displayed on your walls is more of an advert to the competitors – it’s the plumage of the comic shop owner. ‘Measure me by the quality of unsellable expensive shit I have in my store!’ is what they’re saying and the more stuff that has higher prices and is unlikely to sell, the better the appearance and the more credibility. I know… you don’t need to say it... but this is the way of the independent comics seller.

I know this, I was one myself. We even took to colour photocopying covers of classic and expensive comics, sticking them to a worthless piece of crap, bagging it in very expensive Mylar (hard plastic) bags and locking them away in a glass cabinet. It made the shop look as though we had £25,000 worth of quality Silver Age comics for sale (and could have attracted would be thieves to try and burgle the shop – we realised what a stupid thing we were doing and put a label on the cabinet saying ‘actual comics in safety deposit box at bank!’

Every day was a learning day!

Next: comics economics

Friday, 7 October 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Thirty-Two)

Of course it wasn’t always shit working for Dez, even some of the horror stories of working for him were counterbalanced by some rare good times, some funny experiences and what Dez would sometimes refer to as ‘jolly japes and wheezes’ - a lot of the following anecdotes are neither jolly japes or wheezes...

I remember standing outside the Royal National Hotel, home of the UKCAC events and regular comic marts with a bunch of people regarded as the Rat Pack of British comics. There was Dez, Mike Conroy, me and a few others such as Mike Lake (former head of Titan Distributors), Peter Hogan (writer for DC), Rob Barrow (one of those guys that has been on the scene since it was started, and in 2011 was convicted of having over a million images of child porn on his computer), a couple of other people making the numbers up and Justin Ebbs (the long time comics and peripherals dealer and friend of the stars). We were smoking and having a beer out the front of one of the bars when one of Justin’s biggest competitors walked past. The guy wasn’t particularly well liked and Dez had christened this particular dealer ‘The King of the Trim’ a year earlier when evidence surfaced that this particular dealer was trimming damaged edges off of old comics to improve the condition to the naked eye. Everyone said ‘hi’ and this guy moved on, but Dez, by this time already considerably more than one over the eight, decides to make it public that ‘The King of the Trim’ is this guy’s new name and he ought to be exposed as a fraud. He said this loud enough for the guy to hear. The following day this King of the Trim took a series of adverts out in the magazine and I learned that Dez had approached him with an apology and an offer of a year’s worth of advertising at a reduced rate. This was totally against Dez’s supposed ethos of never selling advertising or making deals with people. But it did mean that sometimes he could remember his drunken mistakes, very well.

Considering he claimed for years that he never did deals, deals were just about all he ever did at times. If he wasn’t selling the inside back cover of the magazine for 4 ounces of skunk weed every month, he was taking hot speculator stock from bad debtors, or doing some strategic advert placement that would possibly hinder sales of one dealer against another dealer. He always lied about the magazine’s circulation – remember how I told you that retailers never price comics down – the same applies to comics publishers, once CI reached 25,000 sales it just about stayed there. Officially it dropped to 24K a couple of years after the boom died and then when I left he was telling people that there were at least 21,000 regular buyers – this was actually closer to 7,000 actual buyers and he was hoping that each copy would be read by at least 3 people – and this was the ludicrous sales pitch he offered – 21,000 people read CI! I am truly amazed that advertisers believed this nonsense, especially as more and more shops were sending back mastheads for unsold copies – one retailer asked for his order to be reduced from 100 to 20 and Dez refused, offering him a sale or return deal. When the dealer refused, Dez stopped all copies and the shop keeper had to order CI from a third party. But even if he was trebling his actual sales figures, the reality was that CI was a hugely popular fanzine and nothing else. To be fair, many of the catalogue advertisers cleaned up at times, but this was aided by a deal in which Dez would charge the advertisers an extra few hundred quid for extra stand-alone catalogues, with them unaware that the cost of the run-ons worked out at about 2p each (unless there was colour involved) and that meant an extra 1000 copies would cost him £20. He would often make up testimonials and run them in the magazine, and often he’d make up letters praising the diversity of advertisers and how the adverts were never obtrusive to the excellent articles. It was all a bit obvious and embarrassing at times.

Excellent articles? Rubbish – to the untrained observer CI looked like a… modern comics magazine, but in reality it was anachronistic, it belonged more in the 1970s than it did in the 21stCentury. It had columns, news and a few features dotted around, but one thing it never really had was excellent articles – they had no place in this magazine, CI was lowest common denominator stuff. There were no aesthetics about CI’s design or its layouts, it was a perfunctory magazine that looked like a throwback to a bygone age and failed to deliver anything more than news about an industry that knew it already. I was responsible for it starting to look like a magazine, even if it was just a fanzine with a big heart! Over the years, it was all down to me to make the magazine look slicker and more professional. It was me that persuaded Dez to change from producing CI in the MS-DOS Word Perfect 5.1 to using Adobe PageMaker (Word Perfect was a very versatile DOS program that was designed for anything but magazine publishing!). This changeover from DOS to Windows took over a year to achieve and eventually highlighted one of those common attributes of Dez’s – taking the credit for someone else’s ideas.

I’d been using PageMaker for a couple of months, having picked up a pirate copy from one of my computer geek friends. Back in the days when I used a MAC to produce Mutant Media, I discovered the joys of Quark Express, as there was no PC version, I used PageMaker because it worked in a similar, less powerful, way. I was forever bringing in redesigned layouts and ideas and eventually Dez relented and began to produce the cover and news pages with PageMaker – all using my redesigns but with hardly noticeable ‘tweaks’ done by Dez to effectively wrestle design copyright from my hands if I wanted to make an issue of it – not that I ever did. As more and more of the magazine began to be produced with a DTP package rather than anything else the whole feel of the magazine seemed to be dragged into the 20th Century. But did I get the credit? Whenever anyone ever mentioned the improvements in the magazine, Dez was always quick to take the credit – he was, after all, the master adapter, he could learn and turn his hand to anything, even computers! The truth was the first 5 issues of CI were virtually produced using typewriters, glue, photocopiers and Letraset, a truly archaic way of magazine production – the kind he was used to. So my arrival at CI at least helped it develop, even if I never got the credit that I deserved.

Being the second-class citizen in the office never really bothered me. What did actually always get up my nose was the fact that despite my editorial status inside the pages of the magazine, it was never regarded inside the office. This was mostly reflected in mail that was addressed to me. I never saw it, or if I did it was always after it was opened and rifled through. Now, it isn’t like I got a lot of mail, but as ‘News Editor’ I received a lot of stuff from publishers, including freebies. These were not my freebies, they were the magazine’s; therefore they were Dez’s. Apparently I received a parcel every month from Fantagraphics Books – a publisher Dez wasn’t that fond of – and every month he sold these comics and books via his mail order off-shoot and I didn’t know about it until Kerry told me during her final days at the magazine.

But that wasn’t all. I occasionally received letters from comics mates, who didn’t know my home address, so wrote to my c/o the CI offices. Some of these turned up nearly two years after they arrived when I was searching through boxes of comics he wanted to sell. I actually confronted him about him hiding or reading my mail – this when unaware that every single comic and freebie that came my way had either found its way into his collection or his sales list – and his reaction was to shrug and pout and say that if it comes to his house it’s his post. I didn’t know at the time that what he was doing was highly illegal. But then again, since when has being legal stopped Dez from what he wants? Of course, I can’t prove this, so it isn’t an allegation, just an observation...

His only other offer of a reason was that he still sometimes used my name for official communications – without my knowledge.

I got a rather unwanted public reputation from working with Dez, I got christened the ‘CI Pit Bull’ – a reputation I probably gained because of Dez’s propensity for using my name on offensive communications he had with people. He could basically be as nasty and offensive as he wanted to be because he used me as a shield. The irony was I am actually as bad as my reputation paints me, except I got the reputation through no fault of my own. I can be and have been a truly obnoxious and dislikeable person, mainly on the Internet, but especially behind the screen of email. I lack respect towards people in the comics industry, and have made most of my comics acquaintances and friends by rebuilding bridges I burned before they were built. But, in person, I tend to be a pussycat and that’s how I end up becoming friends with a lot of the people who probably thought I was a pompous, aloof arsehole. In contrast Dez has the ability to be both charming and menacing at the same time and I’ve had to get between him and a number of people to prevent an actual fight. The worst time was at the aforementioned Royal National – there was a big comics mart on and one of the dealers there was an American who had taken out two months of consecutive full page adverts a few months before and was now saying he wasn’t paying for them because he got no response from them (why do the Americans think rules are there to be changed for them?) The discussion about the £300 began to get heated, with the American claiming, wrongly, that Dez had made him a deal and was now reneging on it. This was untrue; I had been present when the adverts were bought. Eventually the American took on the look of a man on the verge of doing something stupid. I’ve seen the look a lot in my life; it’s like the eyes smile and the rage takes over. He said to Dez if he wanted the money he would have to take it, so Dez flew at him. I mean was going over the table to have the Yank, I instinctively grabbed Dez by the shoulders and the first words out of my mouth were, “Not here, not now!” quietly but very firmly and Dez’s overriding sense of ego preservation kicked in and he pulled away. I got Dez out of the room and returned to the American a little later, he was grateful that I’d stepped in, he was visible shaken – both men were. Fortunately for me this dealer was situated next to a good friend and advertiser with CI, who had known Dez for long enough to ignore this rash outburst. I explained, with the help of the other advertiser, that he owed Dez money and asked that if he had been in the US and the same thing had happened would he use the same argument? The guy had calmed down and gave me £200 of the £300 there and then and told me to tell Dez that was all he was getting. Dez was happy with the outcome.

But Comics International – 11 years of hard graft, abuse, bullying and forever believing I had a future as a journalist – was over and done with. One friend lost and another a few months away from being lost as well. I was gutted, but I was also relieved. The nagging pain in my neck that had grown and grown over the years disappeared overnight. I’m not joking, it really did! It was like a huge weight had been lifted from me, but I was still hugely annoyed – that bastard wasn’t going to get away with it this time. I was going to do something that would make me a folk hero among the professional community. I was going to be the man who ruined Dez Skinn.

Dez had little or no friends in the professional community, mainly because he got a terrible reputation for not paying his employees during the last year of Warrior. He actually made preferred payments – he not only told me this, I saw many of the invoices – he would only pay those he wanted to and the others he’d plead poverty and blame the lawsuit from Marvel he had been fighting. By the time Dez returned to comics, most pros had heard Alan Moore (and a few others from the Warrior camp) tell of the horror stories about Dez – apparently he was just as much of an arsehole with these soon-to-be famous creators as he was with me! I can understand why Alan Moore doesn’t like editors – editors are normally failed writers and want to use the writer to express their stories rather than the writers – this is a generalisation because there are really good editors who don’t interfere, but on the whole I’d say I’m pretty accurate. As CI became more important to the UK comics scene more creators talked to Dez, but many of them were Americans, who were in awe of the man who gave them Warrior. Many of the Brits were reluctant to approach Dez, which left me in an excellent position to further my contacts.

To the fans however he was a saviour – if it wasn’t for him there wouldn’t have been a huge and dramatic change in the status quo between the US and UK creators. If nothing else he was probably solely responsible for the absorption of the British scene, as it suddenly became the new US scene. But the fans only think of him well – he’s received fan letters from people calling him ‘a man of the people’ and ‘responsible for comics being huge in this country’ (something of a misnomer as these kind of comics have never been that huge in this country) and ‘a thoroughly decent and approachable man who has time for the fan’ – I think he wrote the last one himself because Dez loathed comics fans. He talked to them because he had to, but he really wouldn’t have pissed on them if they were on fire...

Next: a biography

Saturday, 1 October 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Thirty-One)

Just what did Mike do in San Diego that caused all the shit with Sarah and Kerry? What had Dez blamed him for and now, years later, was in danger of repeating? Mike was good at theorising and somehow managed to make you believe that the most malicious scenario is the most likely.

I wouldn’t call him an evil man, but he isn’t the good Catholic he likes people to believe he is. There was a very devious man lurking underneath the false surface of a tender and emotional man. Dez never told me directly what he said about the girls, but I think he decided it was a good time to try and rid Dez of the 'unhelpful element in our boy's club' and he read the situation very badly and almost ended up in deep shit, being cast as a scheming old fishwife and shit stirrer. If Dez hadn’t been so desperate in his need to bully a subordinate, I think Mike’s relationship with the magazine could have ended after that San Diego debacle.

When you work in such an isolated location and have very little to do with the outside world everything becomes insular and you become like your job. CI was facing terrible financial crises at the turn of the millennium and both Mike and I were facing poverty, yet still working as many hours as Dez could physically wring out of us. He was forever telling us we should get extra work, but we never found the time – we didn’t actually have any free time apart from ten days after an issue was finished and even then we were ‘expected’ to be ‘on call’. Besides, after all those years, I cared about the magazine. I might not have cared about Dez very much by then, but the monthly grind was different. People depended on us. It was a service.

Over the space of about five months more money was spent on phone calls than anywhere else on the planet. We never talked between us, just to each other. Dez and I were still increasingly worried about Mike’s mental health, Mike and I were worried about Dez’s unknown plan, and Dez and Mike were trying to work out what was going on with me and a vicious circle was forming. I personally believe that Dez made some bad decisions in that year, but his Jammy Bastard factor was still working and he didn’t suffer too badly as a result. Dez started trying to turn Mike against me and vice versa, not really aware that Mike and I were constantly on the phone to each other with updates (not that I was telling Mike that both Dez and I thought he’d gone barking mad). It was mired in shit, but every solution I offered about Mike, Dez was reluctant to take up. He agreed the ideas were good, but understand it from his narrow mind; he didn’t want to rock the boat anymore than it already was – he was scared of making the wrong decision, especially if it meant he actually had to do some work. I kept emphasising to him that as the man who pays the wages he had to make the difficult decisions and we were talking about getting some help for Mike because the man sounded like he was losing it, big time. He’d agree and we’d have the same conversation, almost verbatim a week later and then a week after that. Dez can be the epitome of Groundhog Day.

The thing was so many of the conversations blurred into one and the real problems were never addressed. Wounds appeared that weren’t even noticeable that would fester over the next few months and come to a head at Bristol 2001.

With hindsight Dez had to do something. If I’d have been him I think I would have brought everyone together and tried to work out what was going wrong, what people’s problems were and how we could solve it. But Dez knew, deep down, that he was, ultimately, at the root of all the problems; so an exercise like that would be nothing but counter-productive.

As May approached and the Comics Festival was dawning, Dez informed me that all the rooms were booked and he would see me in the Waterfront bar at about 3pm. I spent a horrid time driving to Bristol, on the first day of a very hot weekend, I arrived at the usual hotel and walked up to the counter.

There was no room for me? There must be a mistake, check again? Skinn, Conroy and Cassaday. Not one for me. I boiled over. (John Cassaday, one of today’s big stars, was still just making it in the industry at the time and we’d all got friendly with him a couple of years earlier – his room wasn’t an issue as far as I was concerned, he was going to pay for it.)

Leaving my stuff in the boot, I stormed over to the Waterfront. I was seething. What the fuck had he done this time? I spoke to him that morning and he said the rooms were booked, etc? I walked into the bar and Mike saw the look on my face, he ducked. Dez was sitting with a number of representatives from Rebellion, the company that had just bought the rights to publish 2000AD and Judge Dredd. I was oblivious to them. He could have had the pope and the queen there and I would not have given a flying fuck. The rest of the bar was full of numerous comics people, fanboys and regular faces at these events.

“Can I have a word?” Very quietly.

“Pull up a seat, get yourself a beer.”

“I’d like a word.” A little louder.

“What’s the problem?” No real concern.

“I don’t think you’ll want me to talk about this in front of other people.” A little louder still.

“You can say whatever you want, we’re all friends here.”

“Er…” Mike was about to butt in, I threw him what must have been an awful look because he just clamped his mouth shut.

“Where’s my fucking room?”

“At the hotel.” Still not sounding bothered.

“Which hotel?”

“That one.” He said pointing at the Jurys across the river Avon.

“No, it isn’t. Perhaps you’d like to come with me and sort it out.”

“Oh, it’s probably just a clerical error, have a drink, we’ll sort it out later.”

“The girl who I chewed out on reception didn’t seem to think it was a clerical error. She read me out the three reservations you made and my name wasn’t one of them.”

“Oh, we’ll sort it out.”

“I’m hot. I’m tired. I’ve had a shit journey here, I just want to get changed and have a shower.”

“Look, stop being an arse. Sit down and relax.” I lost it and so did the volume control.

“I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we go over to the hotel and sort out the room, right now, otherwise I’m going to pick you up and throw you OUT OF THE FUCKING WINDOW!” I was ready to have a go, right there and then. I was going to knock that smug fucking look off his face, but before it could escalate Mike stepped in and grabbed my shoulder.

“You’re sharing with me?”

“What? No disrespect Mike but that’s just not on. You don’t just tell someone the day they arrive that he’s sharing with someone.” Turning back to Dez, “I might know the guy, Dez, but I don’t know him!” I looked at Mike with half an apology in my eyes; he knew where I was coming from. Mike made a move towards the door and Dez, who had grown quiet and was aware of a large number of people turned our way, looked at me and said, “Don’t ever talk to me like that again.”

“Don’t fuck with me Skinn, not again.” And Mike and I walked back over to the hotel.

I had nothing against sharing with Mike, but having heard horror stories about his snoring, and the fact he looks like a beached whale made me feel very insecure and frankly a little uncomfortable. I had expected to be able to do what I usually do and just slob around my room and not have to worry. I wasn’t being paid for this weekend and a single room was better than nothing. This year I got nothing. The first night Mike snored so loudly people thought the building was falling down. By 4 in the morning I’d given up trying to sleep and took a walk around Bristol and waited for somewhere to open. I rolled back about 7.30 with Mike still snoring. I took a shower and made a lot of noise. He got up and I went to bed for a few hours. But I’m getting ahead of myself with trivia. That evening when Mike and I returned for the evening’s events Dez approached me and was immediately in an apologetic stance. We sat down by the quayside and had what would probably be the last real conversation we’ll ever have. We talked about how his life had changed dramatically in the previous few months and he had finally decided that he was moving to Brighton to set up home with his new pregnant girlfriend. I congratulated him and as we sat in the cool evening air, with our legs swinging over the quayside and smoked a big spliff, it seemed to be a civilised way to sort of end our long friendship. It didn’t end then, but it would never be the same. In fact, it would go horribly wrong within the month.

My main job at Bristol ended up being something altogether different, but as that is all another part of the story I’ll conclude the Dez saga first.

We also met with another bunch of the CI forum people again over that weekend which, for a change, was relatively uneventful for CI and the team, apart from the fact that Mike snored for England on the Saturday night and I gave up the idea of sleeping and got stoned instead.

The only thing of note that happened on the Saturday night was after Dez had been involved in a long and heated debate with some creators, a couple of which included ex-Warrior contributors. He was very drunk and a bit pissed off, he wanted to carry on drinking but we weren’t in our own hotel and we weren’t being served. On the way back he accused me of doing my nut over not having my own room because I was planning on meeting with ‘that girl’ off the CI list. I should have decked him. This would later become the focus of his thinly veiled threats after I left.

The festival ended, but the next issue’s deadline was very close to the end of Bristol so it was all hands to the pumps. We all got back on the Sunday night and on Monday morning I was down in Finchley with barely 6 hours sleep under my belt. Loriann*, who had skipped the convention, had stayed back at HQ and made sure the office was traffic managed, but it was still three 18 hour days and a lot of graft.

[* On the Monday, Loriann was uninterested in events at Bristol, I told her about the argument over the room and she said, ‘you know what a lying scheming bastard he is’. But on the Tuesday she was full of the fact that Sara from the CI forum was there and wanted to know if the real reason I’d wanted my own room was so that I could ‘get it on’ with her? Now, cast your minds back to my recollection of the final days of when Kerry was there. The two of us started to have a conversation and before we could continue she stopped me and was acting like we were in a bugged room. She looked at me and what she said made me shiver, “he’s done it before, he’ll do it again” and she checked to make sure that the special phone Dez had next to his desk hadn’t been switched over to the taping mode. I thought she was being unbelievably paranoid and told her this. She said, “He eavesdrops into conversations. He’s taped conversations we’ve had before – to see if you’re loyal to him!” I was gobsmacked and didn’t believe her, she shrugged and went back to complaining about everything and Dez again. When Loriann started to be more than just a bit interested in my extra marital possibilities, my mind swung back to what Kerry had said a few years earlier and I made a conscious effort to check the phones. This was weird and I didn’t like it. The paranoia in that office was never far from off the scale.]

Then the insult was added to the injury. The issue went to print and neither Mike nor I had received our cheques. Dez said we’d have to wait a couple of days because of Bristol cash flow problems, and we were happy with this, if not a little worried. When the cheques finally arrived they were light. Three half-pages of mine had been cut (£225) and three full pages of Mike’s news had been cut (£250). Dropping my wages down to below £500 and Mike’s to just over. Dez blamed the sudden cutback, he axed 8 pages to reduce the print cost, on emergencies and the fact Bristol had cost more money than he expected. This I couldn’t understand, he only paid for two rooms, he didn’t pay Mike or me for the weekend and we paid for our own food. But what was worse was he made the cuts and didn’t tell us – didn’t forewarn us that we’d be short. Yeah, maybe he didn’t have to, but he had two grown men working for him, almost full time and our money was just having the piss taken out of it! Then when the two of us did our usual monthly job of sitting down to go through the issue I noticed that Jim, who as an equal rights freelancer should ordinarily have had a cut in his work as well, actually had his page counts increased.

Let’s get this straight; Jim didn’t lose any money that month, but I’m going to be really anal to prove it. Jim produced Advance Listings, which reproduces information from the monthly comics catalogues. There’s 12 catalogues a year, 12 lots of listings required. CI was published every 4 weeks; therefore it comes out 13 times a year. One month every year whoever does Advance Listings (it was usually me, or Bruce) had a short month. It was a given for over 10 years – no one argued the point because Dez didn’t allow arguments over money. Dez had been immovable on this and neither Bruce nor I ever got offered extra pages elsewhere to boost our £250 shortfall that month (and, get this, it usually happened around Christmas!) I actually came up with the idea, a year earlier, to help Bruce out that we split the listings in half between the 12thand 13th issues; it meant that instead of one month with £250 less in your wages, you’d get one month with £125 less and one with £125 more. Bruce was happy and Jim seemed more than okay with the set up. After all, Dez always made a point of saying that’s how it would be in real publishing. Mind you he could have told us that all female staff in publishing had to go to work naked once a month, none of us had ever had any proper experience to disprove him.

So, Jim should and did have only half the listings that month, but his Toy News column had been increased from one half a page to one and half pages, plus he’d been given a news story to write up, without Mike’s knowledge as (faux) news editor, so he ended up not actually losing a penny but making about £25 more than he should have. I was stunned. I liked Jim but this was just plain unfair.

“But he would have hardly earned anything this month, at least this way it’s fair to all of you,” was Dez’s argument, but it fell down badly. Jim had another job working for a web designer; he probably earned more than Mike and I already. “I don’t know why you’re being like this?” Dez asked and he sounded genuinely pissed off with me.

“Dez, my money is £475. Mike’s isn’t much more; we have mortgages, families and bills to pay. Both of us have lost some of our other freelance work. Jim has another job. You have disproportionately given him extra while taking it away from your two longest serving employees. That simply isn’t fair. You have to understand this!” Dez then accused me of being a mercenary, he wasn’t budging and neither was I. It was a point of principle and one Dez obviously couldn’t see. I repeated my argument in another way, still he refused to budge from his position of me being mercenary and that Jim was ‘my mate’; didn’t I care about his welfare? Not when he was already earning money, no. The argument escalated and threats were issued. We were basically at a Mexican standoff and finally one of us cracked. “I can’t employ you any longer if you have an attitude like that.”

“You won’t get rid of me that easily, matey,” was my reply. “If you try to get rid of me I’m taking you down as well.” And that was it – the end of my career at CI, over someone I’d introduced to the magazine, who Dez felt he was being fair to.

Amazingly, for a man who loves to accuse me of rewriting the past, he soon changed my ‘threat’ into a more generic one; apparently I’d said I was ‘going to take the magazine down’. Utter bollocks and I mean complete and utter bollocks. The magazine was the only thing that kept me going. I loved the magazine, it was far more important than working for some second-rate, pathetic comicbook villain. He has used this apparent threat by me as the stick to continually beat me with and it just isn’t true. There is enough documented evidence to suggest that I was arguably more loyal to the magazine than the owner!

Mike tried to sort the problem out and so did Loriann, but Dez wasn’t moving an inch. I’d given him the opportunity of trimming his costs – the decision was made and he wasn’t going back on it. I didn’t get any money for the stuff I supplied for the upcoming issue; he claimed, quite laughably, that I now owed him for what I would have earned, because of what I didn’t produce and leaving him in the lurch. Go figure? I suppose in a way his Jammy Bastard factor kicked in because he really didn’t want to have to sack one of us - imagine how his image would suffer if people heard he'd made a bad decision?

But if one of us jumped ship then it was problem solved.

Next up: with hindsight