Tuesday, 6 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-One)

Rewind for a second, on the eve of the first Borderline issue’s launch every single editorial person involved whose e-mail address was public knowledge received a barrage of emails in the hours before we went live. Every single email had virus attachments. It could have been a coincidence, if it wasn’t for the fact that Mike Kidson also received it. Mike’s Borderline email address didn’t work for him, so he used his private email address, which wasn’t publicly known, but was known by some other people in the industry, but Mike was our backroom boy he didn’t deal with the rest of the comics industry. Mike also used a Mac therefore the virus that was sent him was moot. The thing was this was definitely some form of sabotage, it was repeated with the release of #2. Let’s just say we had our suspicions and left it at that.

It seemed that everybody loved us, even the most hardened of critics were at least acknowledging that everyone else thought we were good, even if they weren’t actually looking at us. Except we knew differently – the computer software we were using to track IP addresses could tell us the addresses of everyone who downloaded an issue, we knew if you downloaded it. We knew, for example, what Dez’s IP address was and what his email address was and we could then track it back and actually tell you not only if he downloaded but also when he did and how long it took!

We had some software glitches with the first issue and some people had problems looking at the magazine or printing it out, we’d solved this problem by issue #2 but Dez had picked up on this quickly and claimed that after trying to open the first issue a number of times he’d given up and hadn’t actually seen an issue since to comment on. He actually downloaded the first issue at 12.07am on the 1st of August (6 minutes after it went live!) and he downloaded the second issue at 2.17am on the 1st of September. He was a little later with the third issue, but there was probably a reason for that, so he didn’t get it until 7.40am on the 1st October. But for the first 7 issues he had downloaded it within 12 hours of it going live. He obviously liked to have a full set even if he wasn’t reading it!

The Manhattan Projects, without cynicism, cemented our relationship with the USA, which didn’t please everyone on the editorial team. Mike Kidson, for instance, was primarily involved in this project because of the help I needed; but he did want to use the magazine for awareness to European and small press comics; Peter Ashton’s involvement hung on the fact we didn’t pander to the Americans every month. Mike accepted that we needed money and our most obvious way of making it was from the US. Pete left us after the third issue; I’m not sure it was because we’d started to lose sight of our original aims already or if he really felt he’d given everything he could. With Pete’s departure Mike Conroy saw this as an opportunity to make his move. He moved into overdrive on me – I think he’d realised he couldn’t be part of my party, and the fact it would take longer than he planned to make money, meant he had to get into bed with Dez. It was shortly after the third issue of Borderline came out he started to tell me more things that purportedly Dez was saying. And of course, Mike was my buddy and he wanted to know if the things Dez was suggesting were true. He claimed he couldn’t believe that Dez would sink so low to suggest such things, especially about me. I just sat back and told Mike that Dez could do or say what he wanted, I had nothing to hide. I didn’t.

Here I was, five months gone from him and he was still attempting to control my life. I was beginning to get wound up by it big time and some of the team realised, at last, that I wasn’t just obsessed and paranoid about Dez, he really was out to get me and he wouldn’t be happy until I was gone for good. A number of them even suggested that I would be in the right to try and protect myself, or even go to a lawyer and try to get the man into a court on my terms and conditions.

The weird thing was I’d grown so desperately poor and had just immersed myself in Borderline, I hardly did anything – I just left it to the rest of the team to deal with things while I got on with physically putting the magazine together. I might have been the most well known comics magazine editor at the time, but I was pretty quiet for the best part of it.

I did do one thing however; I ended my long-term friendship with Mike Conroy. During the first five months of Borderline’s life Mike was a constant and he was driving me further and further down the road to depression. His personal woes added to my mounting ones were just too much. I felt he was like some psychic vampire who was draining any positive energy I might still have and all the time he was telling me about how Dez was planning this, or how Dez had said that. Mike was losing his centre-stage, his chance to be the centre of attention – Borderline was slipping away from him. He was being nothing but destructive. Finally, I just sat down and wrote Dez an email. It wasn’t nice, but it was very honest. I told him how I felt that Mike was probably the reason for all the breakdown between us, how he seemed to manipulate everyone to be in the right position, and how he has continually since my departure been trying to undermine things, helping me with Borderline while claiming to have nothing to do with it, reporting to me things Dez had said. It was a napalming of bridges kind of letter. It hurt me to write it and even more to send it but Mike was now costing me mental health points as well as financial ones and frankly I had started to truly believe he was a bitter old man who just liked to stir the shit as much as he could until he could move onto someone else.

I needed to end it and at the time the only way I felt that would be good for him was for him to think that Dez was his supporter and for me to be harsh enough for Dez to come out on Mike’s side. Half the plan worked, Dez came out on Mike’s side, but it didn’t really stop him from continuing to be a bully. I attempted to contact Mike a couple of times in the two years that followed, but unlike Dez who has communicated with me, Mike hasn’t, to him, I don’t exist. Now with hindsight I’m pleased, I don’t like falling out with people, life is too short, but perhaps it’s best – I think he knows I sussed him out.

Then one of my Borderline colleagues got involved in a email exchange with Dez and eventually the conversation turn round to me. Dez was asked what happened between the two of us and this was the reply he received:

He took me to an industrial tribunal, with a mammoth statement, saying I'd bullied him for 9 years, he worked 35 hours a week for me, he never even got paid for his trip to San Diego with me, ad nauseum. He was after proving his employee status so he could hit me with 9 years of back tax (his wife working for the tax people). I got my lawyer on the case. He bottled it at 5:30 on the night before the hearing (making a last minute call to the tribunal saying he couldn't afford the £30 -- refundable -- train fare to London).

So I had to pay my own legal fees. We appealed but the appeal for costs was thrown out. CI is now £6500 out of pocket, but I had to do it. If he'd pulled it off instead of bottling, it would have cost us a lot more. Sure, I sued him. Wotta shit!

Amazing how the same story can be turned around so the onus is pointing somewhere else. But it was nice to see he’d acknowledged he had a chance of losing.

Borderline continued to dominate the comics press and CI was suffering as a result. And then the ballots for the 2002 National Comics Awards were released, and we wanted to win it. But we didn’t do anything underhanded. We asked our readers to vote for us. We asked the people who were on the mailing list to vote for us; we didn’t canvas strangers, nor did we attempt to rig the ballot. The winner of the best comics magazine or website at the 2002 Bristol Comics Festival would be fair and even-handed.

The Bristol Comics Festival* deserves a part of its own in this, but because it really would be a little like shooting fish in a barrel we’ll breeze over it and throw in a sidebar. But suffice it to say it had by this time become something of an institution, as the only really big event that attracted all the top UK creators in one place for one boozy weekend. The standard of the events staged were pretty incomparable to things I saw in San Diego, but Britain isn’t a cheap country to do this kind of event and money was tight (and let’s leave it at that).

[*British comics conventions are remarkable things and have something of a history. The first convention was held in Birmingham in 1969 and was organised by Phil Clarke, the would-be owner of Birmingham’s first comics shop. The next conventions were staged in London during the mid to late 1970s before going back to Birmingham for what some believe should have been their final resting place. My first convention was in 1977 at the Bloomsbury Centre Hotel in London, I think it was at the end of August or the beginning of September. It was an eye-opener for me, mainly because it was so different from a standard comic mart. This was full of all kinds of stuff going on, but like any excitable teenager I was too wrapped up in everything to actually soak up any of the atmosphere. I do remember being in a hotel room at 4am, Bill Bates's if I recall correctly, in the morning when someone threw a chair out of the window and almost got everyone kicked out.

My next convention was the last one I went to for ten years and had the star guest of Jim Steranko. It was at this convention I got drunk. Very drunk. So drunk that instead of going and staying in my pre-booked room at the convention hotel, near the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, I decided I should go home. I staggered to the NEC train station, ended up climbing a fence because I was on the wrong side of the platform. Discovered I was on the northbound platform. I wandered across tracks and onto the correct platform just as the train came in. Armed with a bag of comics, 20 Major cigarettes and an urge to sleep for England, I stumbled onto the train and fell asleep. I woke as the train jolted into the station, grabbed my things and lurched up over the stairs, through the ticket gate and out of the front of the station, still without noticing that I wasn’t in Northampton. Staggering to a taxi, I got in the front and told him where I wanted to go. “Where’s that, then?” He asked. Outskirts of town, I said. “Which town?” He asked and I, still believing I was at my station, said Northampton. The driver smiled at me and pointed at the station. Bletchley was staring me in the face. I was about 30 miles from home having fallen asleep through three stations past my destination. The taxi driver took advantage of me and I ended up being completely wiped out of cash in what was a £25 taxi fare – even in 1978 that was a bit steep.

I didn’t attend another convention again until 1989 and by then I was just a humble retailer. I spent a day looking around, picking up goody bags and thinking that it wasn’t a patch on the conventions I remembered, albeit through a drunken haze, in my youth. The organisers of what was now called UKCAC – United Kingdom Comic Art Convention – were a couple of guys called Plowright and Hussan – they managed to get a lot of support from both Marvel and DC, as well as support from the UK. The events were very informal and held in much smaller venues than I was used to. The guys who organised UKCACs carried on well into the 1990s, but eventually gave it up as the events started to cost the organisers money.

The quality of UK conventions dropped, but the fans still came every year, in their fancy dress, for their yearly chance to hang out with like-minded people and meet a few superstars.

The man to take over the comics convention scene in the UK was a moderately successful comedian called Kev F. Sutherland, who had worked in comics from time to time doing some pencilling and inking. The convention was turned into a Festival and was moved from London to Bristol, in the South West and sounded like it was going to be something considerably different than anything ever seen before.

Never trust a convention by its hyperbole!

Bristol was actually a reasonably good home for the comics festival, despite the organiser constantly failing to secure any financial support to turn it from a sweatfest into an actual recognised festival. Sutherland held it in Bristol primarily because he lives near it, but also because he believed that the setting needed changing to somewhere not as expensive as London. The problem with Bristol was it has suffered from the same malaise that has affected comics in general – there seemed to be little effort going into making it special and more and more onus was placed on the fans to make it something themselves. Marvel and DC attended, but one got the impression they treated it more like a holiday than a business trip.

As a shining beacon of Britain’s contribution to world comics festivals, Bristol was a piss poor example because it looked so badly organised. There are now many ‘comics festivals’ and conventions – far more than I would ever have guessed; but the word ‘colloquial’ is an apt description of most of them.]

I still had to get to this convention. I no longer had any regular income; needed a hotel room, to eat and to schmooze. It didn't matter where we came in the NCAs; I needed to be there and not look or sound like I was eating bread and water.

Next: awards - nuff said.

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