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...

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