We went back to Bristol expecting an exciting weekend and while no one on the team really believed we would win the Best Magazine Award again, (we hadn’t done anything different from the previous year in terms of promoting ourselves, and we were no longer guaranteed support by a lot of potential voters) there was more an air of resignation than disappointment from the team when we didn’t. That accolade was returned to Dez and Comics International and if there were 2004 awards they probably won that as well. In reality we didn’t try in 2003, I think all of the remaining team knew that we’d fought a good hard fight but it was beginning to slip away from us.
By early spring of 2003 we’d ground to a halt. We released #19 as if there was no change, but when issue #20 finally came out (it was 6 weeks late) there was an air of finality about it. The team that had once consisted of some of the top names in comics journalism in this country (and now regarded the same throughout the world) was barely four active people and we were holding on because we didn’t really know what else to do. We’d had such unbelievable highs that even the horrendous lows, which just seemed to take the piss out of us in gallons, didn’t matter. We held on because we thought there would be an 11th hour reprieve and someone would come along and say, ‘this is too good to let go’ but it didn’t happen.
The demise of Borderline would have gladdened Skinn’s heart. He had seen off yet another pretender; yet the truth was for two years our magazine was considerably better than his – it was consistently better edited, better laid out and had interesting articles that didn’t patronise or belittle the reader. The fact he sold CI a few years later proves to me that I managed to kill his enthusiasm for it; he was never going to get it to the level it was when I was there and it was never, ever, going to be as good as Borderline.
Then a couple of interesting things happened. The first was I was invited to go to the Lodz Comics Festival in Poland, as a guest of the organisers and sponsored by the British Council in Poland. Organiser Adam Radon had mooted this a year earlier, but they lost the funding they needed to get me over, with the British Council’s help I could go. Borderline was hugely popular in Poland and it was the first comics magazine in the world to do a feature on Polish comics outside of Poland. This endeared us to them and they made us honorary Poles.
By this time, Borderline consisted Martin Shipp, Jay Eales and a few people helping us out part time and me. Mike Kidson who had finally quit with #18 was helping with some sub editing when he could and we had a half a dozen contributors still toiling away with columns, interviews and reviews and there was very little you could spot that said we were struggling to get issues out. We rallied the troops and decided to do a Summer Special, using up unused material and seeing if we still had the energy to get it working. The idea was if we had a successful Summer Special we’d do an Autumn Special that would tie in with the visit to Poland. We lined up a new server and host in Silver Bullet Comic Books, an Internet comics site run by an entrepreneurial New Zealander called Jason Brice.
Jason offered us a deal and we eventually delivered a Summer Special that took his server down within 12 hours of going live. There hadn’t been an issue of Borderline in four months and the fans were crazy for it. Brice didn’t realise, despite what we had told him - about just how popular a quality product is appreciated by the thousands of ‘net surfers looking for bargains. The thing was it was smaller than usual, it was a standard A4 shape and it had nothing in it that really reached out and grabbed the fan by the balls, yet over 30,000 people still downloaded it before the server crashed. It is the only issue I haven’t got an accurate figure for downloads for, but it doesn’t really matter. The Summer Special was to be the last nail in the coffin – although the corpse still had a wee bit of life left in it.
The Summer Special was my first attempt at doing a standard shaped magazine again for nearly three years. I didn’t like the finished product – others did, but that was because it finally met with their approval.
Comics Lesson 19:
The ego is a monstrous thing and in comics if you become regarded as a star it isn’t long before your ego outweighs your ability. There are many egos in comics and most people would probably think that the worst offenders are the highly paid artists and writers who have made small fortunes from the industry. But that just isn’t the case, the worst prima donnas are the ones who haven’t quite made it to the A list, the ones with more than enough reasons to be self-conscious and be riddled with doubt.
I suppose it makes perfect sense, once you made it to the comics’ A list of creators you have achieved what all young creators want and therefore there is no pressure and if you fall from your mantle in the years to come, you will survive because of your reputation. But that doesn’t work for all the time – for every Todd McFarlane there’s an Aaron Weisenfeld who might get a few years work from comics if he’s really lucky; and he’s the guy who’s going to hold onto to it for as long as he can and defend it rigorously. He could represent the person who seems to think he has a God given right to be treated like Brad Pitt at conventions and will make demands (often ignored by organisers) akin to those of rock stars on tour, but only because he threw away his first chance by believing his own hype.
Once getting a comic printed or having your artwork on display in a Marvel or DC book was the pinnacle of ‘making it’ even if it was just the one issue, you could probably lunch free on it for about six weeks, but because of the way comicbooks changed its focus from characters to creators, you only have to have enough money to print something professionally and all of a sudden you’re a star (in someone’s eyes, probably your mother’s) because you’re in ‘proper’ print.
It isn’t just B and C list writers and artists who begin to feel precious, some of the worst prima donnas are editorial staff and backroom boys – I suppose it must be all the frustration of living in the shadows of greatness? Essentially people choose their level of snootiness from what they perceive as their standing in the industry. The more perceived success, the more arrogant many become. This isn’t true of them all, but if they have delicate or precious egos then they have a good chance of becoming an arsehole.
Comics has attracted a lot of failed writers of other mediums over the years, I don’t know if they view comics as a place to make a fast buck, but they have arrived here and earned their dollars. Now we get real writers writing comics, because it’s viewed as a place to earn some bucks away from books, TV or film.
I think that maybe I should have realised a lot sooner that regardless of what I do for comics, comics doesn’t want to reciprocate. I haven’t done badly from comics, but in reality I could have probably done a lot better, but I was a pothead for so long ambition and motivation were replaced by the desire to do nothing constructive.
I’ve said that I really never had any desire to be a comicbook writer, but that isn’t true. I’ve had my moments and those moments weren’t special. In researching some background for this story I saw a few of the proposals I put together when I first had a computer, they weren’t my first proposals, but they’re the only ones I still have intact.
My first flirtation with comics happened way back in the mid-1970s when me and one of my oldest friends Colin Theobald sat down and over the space of a week wrote and drew a 7 page strip called The Human Crustacean. This told of a scientist who was bitten by a radioactive crab and was transformed into a half man half lobster, working on the side of law and order. This super-powered monstrosity first battled an alien called Inferno, who could basically do everything the Human Torch could do and in the process of the battle they released a big bad dinosaur type creature called Tyrannus (I think, I sold the strip in 1980 to a pillock who thought it was worth something). It had a cliff-hanger ending and I thought it was pretty good for a 13 year-old wannabe and a 17 year-old art student.
Neil Tennant (yes, that one), the then editor of what was essentially Marvel UK, also liked it and wrote to us personally to say that he thought it was a great strip and he was really interested to see how it finished. There was obviously no offer of printing it, nor was there any hint of anything that would make a young man dream of his name in lights, but it was enough for both of us to be proud. The problem was Colin discovered girls at art college, his brother Graham, while a good artist wasn’t in the same league with comics art and we just never got the first page of the second part off the ground, and then summer came along and… well there was long hot summers and pretty girls to chase and…
Fast forward to the late 1980s. I was reading one of my favourite comics, The Fantastic Four, the one with the Human Torch, Mr Fantastic – he can stretch, The Invisible Girl and the strong orange rock monster called the Thing. The comic was truly abysmal, both the art and the story stank and this was a comic that had helped turn me into the comic fan I was then. So I sat down at my mate’s computer over three nights and wrote my Fantastic Four proposal. It rocked. At least I thought so.
In a nutshell I intended to turn Mr Fantastic, the brains of the outfit into a bucket of rubber, I was going to have the Invisible Girl suffer from amnesia while she was invisible, I’d make the Human Torch an arsonist and just for laughs certain parts of his anatomy were no longer fire resistant and lastly I was going to make The Thing relatively normal, give him what he always wanted, the ability to be the Thing, but also be his alter ego Ben Grimm – but there was a price to pay for this new found ability.
The proposal was ignored.
I really wasn’t bothered.
Two years later a number of the ideas I’d proposed had started to appear in the magazine. Coincidence or theft? Well, the person I sent the proposal to was a guy called Tom DeFalco; he was the editor of the book and the logical person to approach. Two years later the writer/editor of the Fantastic Four was… Tom DeFalco. Coincidence? Probably, because let’s face it, there’s nothing new under the sun!
At the same time I put in my proposal for the FF, I sent in a proposal for a graphic novel called The Last Spider-Man Story, this was set in the future. Spider-Man had two kids, a son who idolised his father but had his mother’s genes, therefore no powers and a daughter who hated her father, his powers and therefore… had powers. It was a tragic tale of the Green Goblin’s (remember him? He’s in the first film) final act of vengeance. He kidnaps Peter Parker and subjects him to untold horrors and torture and in a fight Parker loses his leg. The Goblin displays Spider-Man’s tattered body (he’s not dead, yet) to the world and Mary Jane and the children watch. The son is enraged and dons his father’s spare costume and races to the scene. Amazingly he gets to the Goblin, who kills Peter’s son in front of him. Peter’s daughter has rushed out of the house, she hates her father, and she hates her life, why was she born that way? Just as the Goblin as about to kill her father, Spider-Girl appears and saves the day, killing the arch nemesis and saving her father’s life. She decides to continue the fight in honour of her brother and with respect to her father.
DeFalco launched a Spider-Girl comic using similar themes to this. Coincidence? Yeah, probably.
I decided I wasn’t going to do proposals for Marvel anymore.
Next time: more...