iv) adventures in comics journalism, part two.
Once upon a time comics started with #1 and continued on from there. With the collectors boom under way in the 1990s some bright spark had the idea not only of creating #0s, but also #½s. This was yet another gimmick that sometimes paid dividends to the comics industry. Even Comics International did an #0 to celebrate its 100th issue it went back to its old style of newsprint covers and brought a supplement out that didn’t do much but show how little the magazine had advanced.
I still smile when I think of the argument that was one of the main reasons for Dez and me almost parting company in 1998, the fact he believed that I was going to do my own magazine and try to go up against him. The fact that he believed I was starting this magazine with a guy called Martin Shipp, who will play a major part in the rest of this story, is doubly ironic for reasons that will become very clear. The reality was that it wasn’t the case – the dummy for Comics Correspondent had never been the prototype for a competitor that had almost happened a couple of years earlier…
At the same time as I was working on my proposed Comics International supplement, I was also working with a young Northampton designer called Mark Loughlin. Mark had no interests in comics but liked the medium and the designs one could come up with. The two of us spent hours talking about a really clean and professional comics magazine that looked at the industry through the same lens as a camera magazine, so to speak. Slick graphics and cutting edge stories in a computer-magazine styled presentation. Heroes was conceived and we had a publisher interested in it almost immediately. Comics were very much still big business and the outside world was not ignorant to the fact and the Bath-based publisher Future Publishing approached me after I’d dropped a few hints in the direction of a friend who freelanced for them. Mark and I took the proposal down and three days later I received a call from the publisher inviting me back down on my own.
The publisher liked the idea, he liked my approach, but he didn’t like Mark’s designs and besides, the in-house team would handle that. All that we needed to do was get approval from the board of directors and a new comics magazine was about to be born. Even the costings looked favourable and I was busy composing my farewell speech to Dez; then it just didn’t happen. The board felt it was far too marginal an idea to work and they wanted to wait 12 months to see what happened to the market. I was so close to being the editor of a newsstand magazine that would rival anything Dez had ever done and I was foiled again. The publisher who was interested in using the idea for Future soon left and I never heard another word. The irony isn’t lost on me, especially with events that would happen in 2003.
So that failed attempt at getting Heroes published was really my #0. I’d had a hand in no end of fanzines, many of which I’ve talked about, and I was the creator of one of the most singular successful fanzine issues of all time, selling over 1000 copies of the first issue of my Mutant Media fanzine in 1991, but that was the closest I had gotten to emulating my peers and becoming something independently.
I need to have a brief aside. Mutant Media needs to be mentioned mainly because it has been referenced previously and because it was groundbreaking and achieved something no other fanzine had ever managed. While I was still working as a freelancer for Dez and my comic shop was falling apart around my ears, I had this idea of cashing in on the popularity of The X-Men and its numerous franchise titles. It was also something that was Dez’s idea and not mine! It was pretty clear that the mutant comics were massive – Marvel’s X line would have been the 3rdlargest US comics publisher had they been independently published – so starting a fanzine devoted exclusively to the X books seemed like a no-brainer. Dez suggested that I could produce my own magazine and use CI as the place to boost sales – or in other words, if it was successful, I could advertise.
We discussed a number of approaches, but in the end I decided that I had to come up with the design of the magazine; I had to prove that I was able to produce something of a high quality. I approached a friend of mine called Rob Ryan, who ran The Real Artwork Company, a commercial art and design studio providing artwork for advertisers, magazines and anyone who needed it. Rob was using Macs, which at the time pissed all over the abilities of PCs and he was more than happy to allow me access to his computers – after hours – provided he could help me produce the thing, which would help him understand more about DTPing and open new avenues of revenue potential.
Mutant Media looked the dog’s bollocks. It was an A5 black and white zine with probably a far more professional feel than CI could manage – it was produced in Quark Express for starters and even though it came out 20 years ago, I can still remember just how easy it was, even by today’s standards. I assembled a team of X-fans to contribute and we set about producing content to complement the design. The fanzine got a lot of exposure in CI and I took out two quarter page adverts in the magazine that really blew people away – they were the most futuristic adverts the magazine had ever seen, with eye-catching graphics that we constantly failed to emulate even 10 years later using PCs. The intention was to DTP it and I felt that 200 copies would be an achievable level and one that the Real Artwork Company would do for me if I gave them the money. Then the orders came in at the rate of 50 to 75 a day! We hadn’t even got a finished issue and we had initial orders of 700, by the time I realised that I needed to go to a printer rather than DTP it, I had 940 orders. I went to a local printer and we knocked out 1000 issues, which ate substantially into the profit I was expecting to make. Within a week of it coming out, we were DTPing a second printing, with a slightly different cover – to differentiate it from the first printing – and a problem. The problem was we had been overwhelmed by our own success, and I say we because no one – Rob, Dez, my contributors, no one had seen the potential. I had expected to produce 6 of these fanzines a year, make £50 to £100 from each of them and give myself a financial boost at a time when I was haemorrhaging cash like water through a sieve.
The success of the fanzine was also the main reason I got introduced to Bob Harras, the then editor-in-chief of Marvel and the man responsible for the X-Men comics. He not only liked my fanzine, he used it and eventually me as a stick to beat his writers with. Bob liked me so much, he used to ring me up and we’d chew the fat about all things X. The fact that Mutant Media had been a success was partly the reason, but as I became more entrenched at CI, Bob saw me as a legitimate way of cajoling his staff and getting the best out of them. But we’ll come back to that. Mutant Media #2 sold over 500 copies, which normally would have been something remarkable, but was a huge anti-climax and made me feel as though I was doing something wrong, despite the 2nd issue being considerably better than the first. The third issue was the last, because by this time I was working at CI full time and Dez used the conflict of interests excuse, but I would find out later that for all of his complaints and concerns about my writing and editing ability; he’d realised what I was actually really good for – design and layout. Mutant Media looked much better than CI, so therefore he could use this ability I had to a far greater degree than my slipshod writing acumen.
When I started at CI, I used to do a lot of reviews. The reason was simple; I wrote reviews to fill the pages out. If we had x number of reviews and they didn’t fit the x number of pages, Dez and I were drafted in by Sarah to pad them out. I would write X-book reviews and while Dez hated my reviewing style – it didn’t fit into his house style – Sarah loved them; claiming that I was one of the few reviewers on the magazine who could inject real humour into the encapsulated reviews policy the magazine ran. When the massive changes on the X-Men took place – the ones we dealt with much earlier in this book – the new writers, employed by Bob Harras, had a lot to live up to, especially in the eyes of the Brit guy who wrote a fanzine about X-books and was now working for a respected trade paper. Bob started to use my reviews at monthly editorial meetings; reading them out to the two new writers – Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell. His reasons were simple; this English guy knew almost as much about the X-Men as former writer Chris Claremont and if the new guys could impress me then they would have cracked it.
Of course, I wasn’t impressed in the slightest by these young whipper snappers.
Nicieza was an old hand at Marvel by this time; a former editor who had opted to go the gamekeeper turned poacher route and write rather than edit. He couldn’t give a shit about what Phil Hall thought. Scott Lobdell, on the other hand, had little comics experience behind him; he was a failed comedian who arguably got his position at Marvel through nepotism rather than any obvious talent. Scott was massively intimidated by me; so bothered he even considered quitting Uncanny X-Men because he could not win me over. Every month Bob Harras would gleefully read my scathing reviews and Scott would slink off back to his apartment and stress about how this fucking unknown Brit could have so much influence over his boss.
One day, while visiting his father, Scott said he was quitting. His dad asked why. “Because that bastard in England hates me and Bob uses him as a stick to beat me with every month!” His father, a wise old fellow, turned to his son and told him to stop being a girl.
“What you have to do is win this guy over; you need to write your book for him and eventually he’ll see just how good you are.” So Scott went off and started to write good X-Men comics and eventually my reviews, which had scored 2s and 3 started to score 5s and 6s and eventually 8s and 9s. It was at this point that Scott contacted me and we’ve been friends ever since.
Mutant Media gave me the opportunity to do the conceptual stuff, but it would be another 10 years, at least, before I could look at a magazine that was mine to do it again. I never did find a benign benefactor of my own to give me the funds to produce a comics magazine that would be revered all over the world, or even enough money to produce one that impressed the US comics arena.
So I did one for nothing…
I don’t think it was unrealistic of me to want to be the editor of a successful comics magazine, I’d been the understudy for so long, I think I deserved my chance. I didn’t think it would happen so fast. The Comics Correspondent idea had resurfaced the weekend I threatened to put Dez into the River Avon and had he not been such an arse he might have managed to steal my thunder from me on this as well. Despite me walking around Bristol like I didn’t want to be there, I had noticed that a lot of the people there were young, up and coming writers and artists and there was a vibe going round not dissimilar to the feelings that were circulating prior to the British explosion in the 1970s with magazines like 2000AD. It was strong and people believed that there was again a future for British comicbooks. So before we venture into the land where I become one of the most prominent figures in World Comics, let’s look at the rest of the paths that led there.
Next up: more comics theory.