Monday, 21 November 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Thirty-Nine)

I talked to many people while I was at Bristol in 2001 and more and more of them were convincing me that comics in the UK was at its strongest for years and there was enough burgeoning talent out there for something big to happen.

All people could talk about was how we were on the verge of something big and there was no one there to promote it, to cover it or to show the rest of the world (not just the USA) that it was emerging from its slumbers and the old dinosaurs no longer ruled the planet. I remember talking to Mike Conroy about it that evening and receiving the same looks from him, as I would have from Dez. But I stopped him in his tracks – “What if we produced our own Comics International? What if we, the two people who actually matter, went to a US publisher and said, ‘we can give you this, we’re two of the most respected journalists in the industry with both the fans and the pros on our sides and we can give you something more than what is there at the moment’. Have you ever thought about that, Mike? We would actually get the money we work for and the credit.” He looked at me like he’d been having the same idea. Incredibly he thought it was a good idea and he knew someone who might just like the idea – an American publisher. I left Mike to sort out the publishing side of the venture and I spent the next day talking to some of the people I thought would be valuable assets. These people included old friends and colleagues like Martin Shipp and Peter Ashton, as well as artists like Marc Laming and Paul Rainey. Before long word was going round that something was happening, something that could be big for the future of comics in this country. No one knew what it was, because I hadn’t told them yet. I had learned that the best way to get people’s interests was not to tell them everything, just tease them with a possible concept and that always worked well with comics fans, because of their desire to know things before they happen. By the time Bristol ended I had a list of people who I felt would be invaluable to the creation of the perfect comics magazine.

The problem was Conroy didn’t like any of the people I suggested, although he didn’t really have a problem with Peter Ashton, he couldn’t understand what the guy brought to the table. I explained to Mike that Peter’s knowledge of small press and independent comics and his growing knowledge of the European market made him a valuable consultant. Mike couldn’t understand why I wanted to entertain anything other than superhero comics. I decided that my idea and Mike’s idea weren’t the same. Mike wanted to do Comics International but without Dez, I wanted to do the most all-encompassing thorough exploration of the comics medium in magazine form there had ever been done. There were other comics magazines out there as well as CI, these included the multi-hundred thousand selling Wizard and the supposed doyen of alternative comics coverage The Comics Journal, which over the years had grown a reputation for being impenetrable reading and focusing on only areas of US comics that no one had ever heard of. I wanted to take the ground between the two and offer enough coverage to keep everyone happy.

As Mike continued to press his connections, we were fast approaching D-Day for me at CI.

The day after I was fired (or left) I sat in front of the computer and realised for the first time in nearly 10 years I had nothing to do. I was unemployed. So instead of looking for a job or doing something completely different I opened up my desktop publishing package and started to create the ultimate comics magazine.

The period between June 11th and August 1st 2001 was quite an extraordinary period. The wife, having worked for the tax office for a number of years, sat down with my accountant and the two of them came back to me and said that there was a good case to believe that I was technically employed by Dez and I could sue for constructive dismissal. I scoffed at the idea, but after a series of phone calls to ACAS and the TUC’s help-line, I decided that perhaps I had a case after all. I had spent years being paid by Dez and over the last few years I had been giving him invoices with breakdowns for how much I earned. Dez, as I said previously, was not responsible for anything – we didn’t work for him, we worked for ourselves (if that was the case, why did I have a company car in Quality Communications name? I still have the documents as proof). Yet he had a certain degree of control over anyone who freelanced for him. The certain degree was about 99.5% of control and you only had the .5%, if it suited him. I consulted my lawyer and he nodded to me that I had a case. So it set proceedings against Dez for wrongful dismissal at the end of June. He laughed it off, but soon realised that perhaps he had laughed too soon. Suddenly he was taking it very seriously and had put his own solicitor in place. The world became a very legal place and I was only fuelled by the belief of others.

Fortunately I had good advisors, one of which worked in an Industrial Tribunal office. More and more information was coming to light, as I detailed the areas in my statements that I believed Dez could not oppose, he instead fought back with emails, testimonies and a signed statement from Mike, which he had coerced from him by threatening him with his job. I remember Mike phoning me up in tears apologising because he had to do it.

Then the fates transpired against me. I had appealed for the case to be heard in Bedford, which was local to me and not too far from Dez. But it was refused. I appealed again and subsequently the hearing date was adjourned. I then received a phone call from Dez’s solicitor, I didn’t and still don’t know if this was a proper procedure, but she started demanding information from me, which I grew very defensive about. But she also informed me of the fact that my second appeal had been rejected, something I wasn’t aware of, and it would be held in London inside the week. I then phoned the Industrial Tribunals offices in London that were dealing with the case and discovered that two important pieces of information that I should have received had not been sent to me. This information basically had me stumped and I realised that I needed a lawyer because I didn’t understand what was being asked of me.

I got no joy from the woman I spoke to, so I asked to speak to her superior. I explained that not only did I still require an additional adjournment – the new hearing was going to be in five days – I could not afford to pay for my travelling expenses, I also now needed time to be able to find out exactly what was being asked of me and the time to get myself some legal counsel. I was refused and told my only recourse now was to write to the Chairman of the Tribunals, with the reasons for the adjournment and he would decide. I faxed furiously through the night, sending him the reasons why I wanted an adjournment, the reason why I simply could not afford to travel (regardless of the fact they reimbursed your costs eventually, I had no one I could ask to lend me a couple of hundred pounds to cover my expenses). I could drive to Bedford, I couldn’t drive to London, pay for parking or park up and travel in by tube, and it was impractical and unfair, especially as the hearing was to start at 9.00am. I was the poor sap with the grievance and they were going all out to cater for the bastard in this scenario.

The Chairman refused it again. I received another abrupt and threatening call from Dez’s solicitor and the walls came crumbling down. He knew he stood a very good chance of losing and if he lost it would have resulted in the end of CI; he would have made sure that the livelihoods of all his ‘employees’ would be blamed squarely at me. I was woefully unprepared despite all of his worries, it was already costing me more money than I anticipated and with the fact that I had missed out on a number of important communications – copies of which arrived the day before the hearing, I realised that I stood a very good chance of being torn apart on the witness stand and that I didn’t have the confidence to stand up and make my arguments clear. I really do believe that if I had gotten the one little thing I asked for (Dez was allowed an adjournment it should be noted), an extra couple of weeks to get a solicitor involved – I had stupidly believed I could defend myself and make it cheaper – I could have screwed him to the floor and got what I deserved. But I didn’t, so at 4.30 on the Thursday, the day before the hearing I phoned up the supervisor at the Tribunal and told her I was going to pull out. I had no option, the Tribunals were pushing me into doing something that I was unprepared for and, to be fair, the woman on the other end of the phone, probably hearing the distress in my voice, assured me that her staff would help me as much as they could to understand and deal with the things I had no knowledge of. It was no good; I just didn’t have any fight left in me. I said, “I had this man ritually humiliate me for 11 years, I’m not going to give him the chance to do it again publicly because you people are at fault.” The Jammy Bastard had won again, this time by default, but I suppose I got the last laugh, it cost him well over £6,000 in legal fees, in the end.

However, that £6,000 wasn’t the last of it. I suddenly heard from the Tribunals stating that Dez had appealed for me to pay all of his costs and if the Tribunal ruled in his favour, there was nothing to stop Dez from suing my arse off in court. Suddenly I was fighting for my life. After writing to the Member of Parliament who dealt with things such as Industrial Tribunals, I detailed all of my case out to them, why I didn’t think I should be made responsible for Dez’s costs, I also said that if they did rule against me I would sue them for their negligence in the case. The Tribunals rejected Dez’s bid for compensation.

The following day Dez’s solicitor phoned me again and told me that Dez was considering a proper legal move against me for damages, so would I be prepared to meet him halfway? I laughed at her and said, “He can take me to court and he can win, but at the end of it he will get nothing, and you can tell him that from me! You can also tell him that if he does I will make this whole sorry mess public knowledge.” There was never a case against me.

While all of this was going on, the first dummy of the ‘project’ as it became known circulated between a close-knit group of 10 individuals.

The ‘project’ was coming along nicely and thanks to a good friend of mine, called Rad Kerrigan, we had a name for it – Borderline.

The dummy we produced started to find its way over the Atlantic and we started to hear good noises from pros and publishers. In fact, the feedback we were getting was excellent. But as far as anyone knew at this point, apart from a few select people, we weren’t actually looking at a magazine – a physical paper and print booklet. What we were distributing to people was a 500K Adobe Acrobat PDF (portable data format) file, with a print ready magazine inside. The idea had been touched on before, by a group who produced a zine called Savant, but all they did was repackage the contents of their website into PDF format. We were going to produce a comics magazine that originated all of its material, had something for everyone, covered everything from the current hot US comics to the obscurest comics of Outer Mongolia. We were going to be the world’s first educationally entertaining magazine dedicated to the medium of world comics.

We were ambitious.

We were electronic!

What made Borderline different was that it was going to be FREE. It would eventually survive from advertising alone. It would be the first of its kind, a magazine that promoted the industry that the industry had to pay for, allowing the fan to read it and use it for nothing. It would be able to do this because it would look, read and be so different from any other comics magazine. It would be able to give more coverage than a conventional magazine and it would automatically link (if read on screen) to websites that would expand on the story further. Borderline was a multi-purpose, multi-levelled, fully interactive magazine: you could print it out, read it downloaded on screen or on-line like a website – the potential reader base was immense; little did I know how immense.

By the time we were getting ready to launch, the magazine had gone through a number of changes, the most significant being it changed its shape from a conventional A4 magazine to a widescreen, the shape of your monitor, which meant we could fit more on screen but the design ethic would remain intact; this was the idea of Mike Kidson. We had lost a couple of the founders, but gained a few new people who added new dimensions to our approach. At the time of launch the team consisted of me, Mike Kidson and Peter Ashton as assistant editors, Jay Eales and Mike Sivier as news editors, Andrew Winter was reviews editor, Martin Shipp was features editor and John Parkinson was our webmaster and controller of all things Internet. We also had a guy called Dan Black doing our PR. Dan Black, or Dan the moderator from the Comics International forum was really a guy called Mark Emerson, ironically a regular at the comic shop that Dez once owned. He had joined the CI Forum initially to start an argument with Dez Skinn because he never received a competition prize he had won – weird that – but ended up liking the group so much he stayed, but never told anyone that he was really someone else entirely. So Dan Black was created and Dan Black became a real person – a growing influence on the comics scene via the Internet. So real in fact was Dan Black that when Mark revealed this to everyone on the Borderline team we still ended up calling him Dan for months after.

We were the people who will probably go down in history as folk heroes and mugs in equal proportions. Borderline was free, we knew that we had to do it that way for at least six months solidly before we could start to expect any of the publishers to advertise, but we were confident of our product and I was confident that because of my history and respect in the industry I would get more than enough advertising. If Plan A by some fluke didn’t work, then Plan B would be to charge a nominal fee for the magazine. Plan B was never really considered viable by any of us. There was no Plan C.

We announced to the world what we were doing – releasing a top quality comics magazine, in PDF format to the rest of the world. A magazine you could print it or read it on-line, it would feature interviews with some of the top people in comics and features about comics from all over the world. It would teach people about the origins of their hobby, have sections that would appeal to all genres and sub-genres, it would have cutting edge reviews, and space to show the fans as much or as little of something as they want to see. But above all, it would be free!

We didn’t get laughed out of the place like we expected, and we didn’t receive as much negativity as we expected and nothing seemed to be stopping us from launching. Something had to go wrong, but it didn’t; at least not straight away...

Next: The Borderline experience!

1 comment:

  1. He had joined the CI Forum initially to start an argument with Dez Skinn because he never received a competition prize he had won – weird that

    That sounds familiar. I believe I'm still owed a competition prize. I'd forgotten about that until now. Good old Dan -- he's still Dan to me -- pitched in to try and get that prize to me.