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

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