Monday, 28 November 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty)

We refined the layouts, edited all the copy and edited it again, we treated Borderline #1 as though it was really going to be a printed magazine and read by 100,000 people. The level of professionalism I made as standard for Borderline was far greater than anything ever seen in a comics magazine. Not only did I want the best content I wanted to show Dez that CI was a badly produced anachronism and he and it had lost touch with its readers. I also wanted to show him what I was capable of doing without him.

People who were against Borderline were few and far between. There were the people who just didn’t like me, there were those opposed to the PDF format, but there were also those who didn’t like what I was doing. Many of them believed that I was only doing Borderline to get one over on Dez and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t, but it wasn’t the overriding reason, the real reason I wanted to do it was because I knew I could create something better than Dez and something far more important, something that people wanted to read because it was the best. I knew I was capable of doing that, it was the one thing I had left in me and I wanted to prove it myself as much as any one person. Dez was in my past and that’s where I wanted him to stay. The problem was if you’re going to launch a comics magazine you have to be aware that he runs the only other one in the UK and by default he runs British comics.

At this time something very covert was taking place. Mike Conroy, had heard from his US publishing friend that he wasn’t interested after all in our own version of CI, so had aligned himself with Borderline. He couldn’t deny that the buzz around the industry was strong and even though I’d assembled a team of virtually unknown editorial staff, he and most of the people who had worked for Dez in the past had been unknown themselves once. The team I had consisted of former comics writers, comics historians, mainstream press journalists and editors and dedicated fans with the same energy I had when I started with Dez. I saw it as the perfect mix. Conroy saw it as one of potential, but also a threat and that bothered him, he needed to keep his feet in both camps so to ensure he had options at a later date. One of the reasons it bothered him was because Borderline was bothering Dez. I’d stolen his thunder, not that editing a comics magazine makes you the forefront of comics news that often, but I was now the most visible comics magazine editor in the business and I was going around making lots of big promises and, more importantly, keeping them.

Mike saw Borderline as something he could influence me with, he believed he could steer me into his directions and I believe that right up until our friendship finished he thought he was ‘almost there’ with it and me. What happened was that Borderline was more than just a success it was huge. So huge in fact, at the launch party – three days after the launch – we had been downloaded by more people than we expected would download it in the entire month! John Parkinson informed us of something none of us expected – we had been downloaded by a total of 51 different countries in three days – we were truly international, not just in name, like some. We had also been downloaded 65,000 times – the demand was so great it crashed our servers constantly throughout the first three days!

Now it’s important to understand a few things. Comics International had a circulation, at its highest, of about 24,000. That is pretty damned impressive given the audience they had in the UK. That was roughly one in four of every comics reader who picked up CI. In the USA, Wizard was the best selling thing to do with comics and at its peak it was shifting over 300,000+ per month. What Borderline achieved has to be quantified – we were free, but it still cost people to download us, either through charges from their ISP or Internet CafĂ© costs. But these were hidden costs and people never really notice hidden costs. At the Borderline launch party, in my back garden in Northampton, we announced to those attending we’d been downloaded by 65,000 unique Internet addresses in three days – that was 40,000 more than we expected to download in the entire month.

Between Dan Black and me, we bulk mailed as many places as we could, told as many people as we knew to pass the info on and we got the comics companies talking about us to their professionals and we were getting inundated with interview and features pieces from all quarters. We were new, we were fresh and we were attracting the attention of the masses and not just the masses in the USA and UK, but all over the world. By the time we launched we were everywhere and we began to offer deals to other magazines and websites, affiliate with Borderline and we’ll help each other. Many signed up, others refused because they were frightened of losing their own support or simply just didn’t like the way we’d bludgeoned our way into the consciousness of the world.

We had no real time to rest on our laurels, we had another issue to get out and then another, we had a target and that target was by March 2002 we should have attracted enough sponsorship and advertising to be relatively self-sufficient and be able to pay the contributors something. By the time I was putting #2 to bed we knew that over 100,000 readers all over the world had downloaded #1. Our flurry of press releases telling the world of our success was greeted either by more people arriving to see what all the fuss was about or people claiming that we were reading our results wrongly and we probably hadn’t been downloaded by 1000 people – we offered these people access to our log files, but they either refused or never got back to us. Some people just can’t accept success, especially if it’s someone else’s success.

One of the unbelievers was of course the eponymous Dez Skinn. It got back to me through the people we shared as friends that he believed I was massaging our circulation figures and that we were basically lying through our teeth – how ironic is that? He was busy on the phone telling his advertisers that they shouldn’t believe anything I told them because we had split acrimoniously and I was doing everything in my power to ruin CI. I took this badly at first, but then it was pointed out to me that he was obviously very frightened of Borderline. It wasn’t a magazine thrown together by some ambitious fanboy, it was a magazine put together by someone he’d taught everything he knew and that meant he really needed to up his own game, especially in the light that people were commenting on the drops in standard in CI since my departure.

It was a fantastic couple of weeks for me. But, I’m a natural born pessimist and I knew that it would all come crashing down around my ears.

I received plaudits from all over the comics world and I made damn sure that everyone knew that it wasn’t me, it was the team of quality editorial staff I’d assembled that had made it so good. Mike Conroy called me several times during the month, mainly to report on comments made by Dez. I had a smug grin on my face, Skinn was worried, because if he wasn’t he would have ignored us. Mike didn’t seem convinced of our numbers despite showing him the evidence, which he couldn’t argue with (unless of course there was some way of manipulating the figures and I wasn’t aware of how to do that and frankly John Parkinson isn’t the kind of man who would have manipulated figures for my sake), but Mike soon seemed to come around, especially as Dez was growing more and more unstable towards him. There we were thinking that if one of us wasn’t at CI any more it would have eased the problems for the other, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Just by being on the planet, I was annoying Dez and he was taking it out on Mike. The fact that I was producing a comics magazine that was receiving major praise from everywhere in the industry was like someone sticking a red hot spindle up his butt. No one ever talked about Comics International in the same way they talked about Borderline.

By the time issue #2 came out we were synonymous with quality comics coverage. The reaction was phenomenal again and we were well on our way to achieving at least 70% of the first issue’s download figures. The magazine had changed again slightly, I had tinkered with the design and layout slightly and it looked very slick indeed. We were thinking that if we could keep this up we would be cashing in before long, we needed something that embedded us into the subconscious of the comics reading people – or as we liked to call them ‘the Americans’, because they had the money to throw around and because we were lazy, we didn’t know how to approach the European publishers and no one seemed prepared to find out – there is, after all, only certain things a person will do for free before it becomes a chore.

I was sitting in my office working out different approaches I could use to coax money from potential advertisers when the phone rang. I went downstairs and picked it up, ignoring the scenes on the TV that looked like a poor special effect from a cheap TV movie. It was my late brother-in-law on the phone, “Are you watching this?” He asked, but by then the full horror of what I spotted on the television was unfolding in front of me. I’ve lived in a world where my escapism had always been world-shattering events and planets inhabited by so many super freaks where devastation was a daily thing. I’ve read comics where entire planets have been wiped out, where cities have been devastated, but the cities that were destroyed were only fictional ones. My other world was one where Superman would have raced and not only stopped the plane from crashing into the building but would have saved all of the lives and wrapped the terrorists up in a street lamp and dumped them on the door of the local FBI. On September 11th, 2001 there was no Superman.

My life in comics had always been centred on New York City, because as a fan of US comicbooks New York was the place where it all happens. I have friends who work there; colleagues and personal friends made from comics and all, if it wasn’t for New York City, I probably wouldn’t even have had a career in comics (even if it was in tatters like the plaza around the Twin Towers).

The news broke here around 3pm UK time, it felt like reality and the unreality of comics had suddenly merged. I stood and stared at the TV until my wife came home and I was still shocked beyond belief by the time I went to bed that night. The next few days badly hit the magazine’s hit rate, but that didn’t concern me. Then on the Monday after the event I got a call from Mike Conroy asking me if I wanted to be involved in some form of tribute book? I asked him to explain his idea to me in more detail and he said that the comics industry had had a massive outpouring of grief since 9/11 and there were a number of tribute books scheduled where all the funds raised would go to the widows of those that died trying to save lives. At the time the only comics magazine that could do something at short notice was Comics International (because of its frequency and short lead time) and allegedly Dez’s reaction to Mike’s suggestion of acting like a conduit for the people who wanted to know what was happening was: What the bloody hell for? The Americans probably had it coming to them! So the only alternative was to try and get Borderline to do it and of course Borderline was capable of reaching so many more people than CI. We were about to gold seal our reputation.

While the rest of the team were busy on Borderline #3, me, Mikes Conroy, Kidson and Sivier put together a special edition of Borderline called The Manhattan Projects. It gave room to comments as well as news and showcased artwork that would feature in the tribute books coming out from various companies. It was small so it could be e-mailed to people’s in-boxes and conservative estimates reckon we were seen by nearly half a million people. I was asked why Mike Conroy was involved in this Borderline special, but instead of telling them the truth I said it was because there was animosity between Dez and me, I was doing it because Borderline could get to more people quicker. Dez took a real umbrage to this remark and the next four months became a time of dirty tricks...

Next: The halcyon days of Borderline.


  1. I think the problem with Borderline was that is was too far ahead of it's time. I still don't think that comic fans have embraced the digital age as there's always the collector mentality in the comic fan that means they need something tangible to touch and feel and put away in the hope that it will increase in value. I'm no different.
    I've downloaded some comics on to the iphone but to be honest I prefer hard copy all the way.
    I have a feeling that if Borderline were released now it would have a far better chance of success.
    Having said that I got the first couple of issue of Multiverse which seems to be the latest iteration of Comics International and I can't see it lasting very long. Probably due to the fact that it's still a rehash of news that can be found on the web and there appears to be no incoming revenue from advertising. I think I only counted 3-4 ads in the last issue

  2. It's a shame we have history Matt because specific people are going to presume this is a 'set-up' letter/comment (the kind of thing we did in CI to get a point across we wanted to be subjective about).
    I've said it before, but never in such a frequented place, that the only person who could have made CI work after Dez sold it (and therefore by default, the only person who would have made a fist of Multiverse) was me - maybe not so much now, but a few years ago...
    The print comics magazine in the UK is all but dead in the water; if there's going to be magazines about comics, they're likely to be nothing more than professionally made fanzines and the chances of seeing one on the newsstand or even prominently displayed in a comics shop is gone (for now). With hindsight, the only way for comics 'magazines' to continue is either as web pages or by people who are as passionate about print as I was when I did Mutant Media. 1000 print runs are going to be excellent, more than that and you're talking a small profit, if you can DTP it well enough. I'd hazard a guess and say the people who would flourish would probably have a small chance of making the dwindling backroom staff of a comics publisher, but equally must be content with it being a patronised labour of love - like wannabe musicians having one last attempt at recognition for their average, but sometimes appreciated, abilities.
    Multiverse's biggest handicap was Mike Conroy; he is an anachronism in a world that has moved on; but he doesn't know what else to do, so he keeps flogging the dead horse's bones, hoping for some spark of life or reignition. Even the people involved in it with him have suddenly become the old guard's old guard and I can see him getting the same blind devotion from them as his inspiration got from him and me. Perhaps if he'd done Multiverse as a fanzine, he might have been able to pay his mortgage.

  3. The other problem is with Mutiverse is that it simply isn't very good. The glossier (and far more expensive) Comic Heroes has been better whenever I've picked it up from WH Smith. I know you have history with Conroy from reading your serialisation but he's seriously flogging a dead horse with Multiverse. It's so similar in layout to Comics International that I'm surprised Dez Skinn isn't involved in it somewhere!
    I do think something like Borderline would have a fighting chance of survival now but as a website and not a PDF download. One of the things that let sites such as CBR and Bleeding Cool down is their lack of any real content or regular columns.

  4. Oddly enough, a lot of the flak we received when launching Borderline was from people who believed it had to be a web site rather than a downloadable magazine. There were many heated discussions with, mainly, Americans about why it would be better served as a website rather than anything else. There was a general opposition to pdf then and I suspect there would be a similar one now. It's a shame, because the concept of pdf is still valid, even more so today, I believe.
    From what I can see the problem with websites is still cost and attracting advertising, sponsors etc is just plain impossible unless you can guarantee hits that in turn become a minuscule percentage who click on advertising links.
    However, there are far more people out there now who know what they're doing with html and all that web bollocks and if someone came to me and said, "I could do Borderline as a web page and do it justice" I'd be more than thrilled to see it happen. I'm pretty sure there are people out there who would want to write articles and many more who would be happy to read them, especially if they are well written and presented in a professional manner.
    My biggest criticism of comics web pages - something I don't think I touch on much in the book, is the quality threshold - there isn't much of one. Take Rich Johnston for example; I actually quite like the guy, but as an editor I look at his columns and work and get really angry sometimes by the silly mistakes that make it to published copy. He, like me, is prone to write exceptionally fast and subsequently his self-editing, if he does any, is equally slapdash. He knows what he means, but sometimes no one else does. I actually think that if Rich had had a strict editor working with him, he might be quite well off from comics now - much better than he probably is.
    There needs to be discipline with fanzines and websites, because it's almost disrespectful to the reader if it isn't. (Says a man who lets a multitude of pathetic editing errors creep into his work on a daily basis...)

  5. Matthew de Monti2 December 2011 at 03:31

    The other thing with Multiverse is that I certainly wouldn't be paying upfront for a 12 month subscription for a magazine that clearly will struggle to survive that long.
    Eventually found their website the other night and whilst there were details of what was in the fifth issue, there was no shipping date and it must be at least eight weeks since issue four. Writing on the wall already??