Saturday, 17 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-Three)

Borderline as a business was one disappointment after the other with nothing to show and the feeling that we were put here just for someone else’s entertainment should have been playing on our minds, but it wasn’t. Borderline was still a great magazine and despite lurching from one disaster to another, this seemed to endear us to the public – those guys just keep on plugging away! But that wasn’t what I wanted us to be famous for.

The problem was, I was more interested in how someone in particular really felt about us winning the comics award. He claimed that the ballot was rigged and accused me of continually rewriting my own history. The feedback I received was heart warming – he was pissed off. I realised that my victory was complete in all but financial ways, Dez was still making the money, but I was just a damned sight more popular than him. And he hated me even more for it.

Someone sent me this, a paragraph written by Dez shortly after that Bristol defeat:

Why is this industry made up of such small-minded people? It's not big enough for all the bitching and camps that exist. It's more like a playground than a bloody industry. Some of these people should try surviving in the outside world, then they'd see how tough it can be.

I still think it has poetry about it, I also think it shows that this man is a pre-meditated bastard.

We were back on our own and we barely had enough money from the advert commitments to secure a new web host for a month, let alone the foreseeable future, but the amount we were having downloaded (only about 60,000 at the time) was still far too much for any new server without us having to pay extortionate amounts of money. Everywhere I looked I saw more expense and no obvious way for us to make money. Then we got a break, my web hosting partner put off his plans to emigrate for a year and after much negotiation we kept the server open and for nothing – all we were expected to pay was all the add on costs and our advertising revenue covered that.

Then we miscalculated something and it bit us on the arse.

It was with #10 that we lost the United States and the respect of a lot of the creators who we’d fought hard to win over. We did something unthinkable (in the eyes of many); we took cap in hand and went begging. It was that or nearly 12 months hard work would have been wasted, and a lot of people who had grown to depend on us would be disappointed and let down.

We had already come in for a shocking amount of criticism for running a review that, while it wouldn’t have been out of place on a topical current affairs satire, caused no end of offence in the comics world. We dared to break one of those unwritten rules of fandom – we talked about someone as a person rather than as a comic writing demigod. Borderline was six months old and had gone through the opening months free of any controversy (which was probably a good thing considering my reputation for having a short fuse), and then we decided to run this review:

Aria: The Soul Market #5

Image Comics; written by Brian Holguin, with art from David Yardin and Lan Medina

More of an impulse buy than anything and I really should have been put off by the cover. Pretty girl... flashing her boobs... slinky costume... seductive look on the girl’s face... it stunk of low quality and pandering to the fan with one hand down his urine-stained underpants.

Should I leave now, before I upset anyone else? I bought this because of that old chestnut - word of mouth, the thing that can work better than a multi-million pound advertising campaign - and to be fair I didn’t really pay the cover a lot of attention when I quickly stuck it in my pile of buys. Of course, when I got home I was mortified and thought I’d just handed Image $2.95 and a handkerchief full of my seed.

I barely understood a word of it (coming in 5/6ths of the way through a story does that), but I sort of picked up the gist on my second read. Yeah, second read! This was fairly impressive... In fact, by Image’s falling standards this is a masterpiece, and not only does Image have a potentially future X-Men artist in the form of David Yardin, but I can’t understand why Brian Holguin hasn’t been given more writing assignments for the big boys. At least he understands the workings of the English language, compared with someone like Devin Grayson, who probably has a better grasp of Mark Waid’s bollocks than she does of English. Holguin’s dialogue, pacing and overall story idea is worthy of applause.

This is a distinctly European comicbook. One thing is for sure, it’s far too sophisticated for the average Image fan. It won lots of plaudits for Jay Anacleto’s pencilled artwork. Anacleto is here, with spot illos and snippets of future projects, but he’s not in the same league as Yardin - who I believe is slightly let down by his inker, one Lan Medina (any relation to Angel?).

Now for the sad part - I’m hooked. Holguin and Yardin have sold Aria to me. So, I checked on eBay for the missing issues. #3 and #4 won’t cost me the Earth... #1 and #2 would put me off of buying comics again if I was new to this crazy hobby. I suppose I could wait for the Image trade paperback, but with Aria’s schedule apparently being an issue when they can be bothered, I may well forget about this before that happens.

It beggars belief that Image can produce a title of this quality in the same month as something as woeful as the current Tomb Raider. What the company needs is more editors commissioning stuff like this and less manga-esque tripe that tells a single story in half a dozen issues.

The Verdict: Unexpected and entertaining. Ignore the hype and just treat yourself to a better quality of comic. (DRB)

If you didn’t understand all of it, don’t worry, it isn’t that important. The controversial thing about the review was not the suggestion that comics fan fill tissues up with semen every chance they can, or the very sarcastic way the entire review was handled, but this line: “At least he understands the workings of the English language, compared with someone like Devin Grayson, who probably has a better grasp of Mark Waid’s bollocks than she does of English.”... You wouldn’t believe the shit this one line caused.

Andrew Winter came in for a lot of flack about running the review and all fairness to him he took it on the chin and acted with a composure that I envied. It wasn’t fair though because Andy had already submitted the finished reviews and we were light to fill the allotted space, I used a late arriving review to fill the space. I ran it past Mike Kidson and neither of us considered for a moment that it would cause as much offense as it did.

Within days of the issue coming out we were receiving all kinds of abusive mail from the US. One of these included an email from Mark Waid (regarded at the time as one of the best comics writers, but with a reputation for being a bit psycho!). His email to me read:

Just read the new issue. Until now, I have enjoyed BORDERLINE.

However, the personal comment about Devin Grayson and myself in the reviews section was not only out of line--and, by the way, also out of DATE--it was extraordinarily unprofessional in that it had NOTHING to do with the book being reviewed. Until now, I had expected a higher level of professionalism from your publication; apparently, I was fooling myself.

I look forward to not only a personal apology directed to myself and Devin but also to a similar apology routed through your e-mail list and published in the next issue.

When I said no, he didn’t take it too well. His reply was a four-letter expletive and an instruction. Actually it was a little more than that and the underlying tone was one of exasperation – that suited me fine, I was not going to toe the line to a bunch of prima donnas who believed in their own self-importance and Waid was one of these. I had explained to him in my reasoning for not running an apology that we were making no money from the magazine and yet another fucking control freak comes along trying to exert his will over a magazine which didn’t have a heavy-handed editorial policy.

I was growing tired of the wankers in the industry and perhaps this would have been a good time for Martin Shipp and Mike Kidson (by then co-assistant editors) to take me to one side and calm me down – but that was wishful thinking in hindsight.

You could argue that I should have just succumbed to Waid’s demands and got on with running Borderline but I had learned a valuable thing from Dez in my years at CI. If there isn’t any money directly involved then don’t give the bastards a thing. Waid had a reputation for reducing comics magazine’s editorial staff to quivering masses of jelly, if he thought he was going to do the same with me he was very wrong. Waid disappeared after his abusive response (I chose to ignore it – see some bullies go away when you ignore them) and I thought the whole business had died down.

I don’t know who decided to resurrect it but as we were gearing up for the impending Cool Beans World re-launch it became a rather prominent topic of conversation on a comics discussion forum operated by comics writer and self-promoter Warren Ellis (not the one who played with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). I tried to defend my position but the Internet is full of arseholes with nothing better to do than argue the toss all day and have their opinions (and we all know about arseholes and opinions don’t we?). Essentially because we’d upset someone, we were really bad people – which seemed quite strange, as the forum Ellis ran was a litany of insults and nastiness. We walked away from this with barely our reputation intact and I should have let my team handle the situation because I could have quite easily lost it big time. But for some of the team this was just a wrinkle on the skin – we were now more popular in the rest of the world than we were in the US, our downloads showed that the USA accounted for less than 50% of our audience – yeah, it was still the biggest section of our audience, but for people like Mike Kidson, losing face with a bunch of sad sycophants on Warren Ellis’s forum was the least of our concerns.

This all happened before our eventful Bristol Festival, the one we left brimming with optimism. Reality struck hard in the coming weeks. We were broke. We had nothing else left to do but go cap in hand to the people we never wanted to ask, the fans.

So we begged. Dan Black posted every single comics group he could think of and detailed how we were on the verge of closing down, how we were continually being fucked over by the industry and how unless people dug deep there would be no more Borderline. We explained that we needed money to meet our rising costs – the amount of people who downloaded us – our popularity – was our downfall and if everyone liked what we were doing, would they please give us something. Despite all of this we made barely enough money to cover bills. We knew we had the readership still, after Cool Beans World the downloads increased exponentially, but at the end of the day we ended up getting the majority of our donations from the people we covered – the creators we gave the spotlight to, who had seen an increase in orders from our coverage, gave us back the extra money they made! It broke my heart to think the people we wanted to help were financing us. But that wasn’t just the worst thing; it was the sudden backlash we received from certain corners of the professional world…

Next: the backlash begins


  1. Phil,

    I've really need enjoying your posts over the past few months (moreso the earlier analysis of the comic industry than the more recent diatribes against what sounds like a monstrous former boss), but surely you can see that defending that review showed a monumental lack of judgement? It may well be that Mark Waid is 'a bit of a phsycho' but no magazine aspiring to be a proffessionally produced proposition should be making personal jibes against people in reviews, particularly people who have nothing to do with the issue up for review.

    I have no connection with Waid, Ellis or any of the people involved, or indeed any connection with the comic industry other than as a consumer. And this is by no means an attack - from what I have read you are a thouroughly decent guy. I also have no idea how the Borderline story pans out - looking forward to finding out over the next few weeks though! I am interested in how you now feel, in the cold light of day. Do you think that you could have exrecised better judgement on this issue, and throughout your comics-related carreer?


  2. I probably should have exercised better judgement the moment I saw Swamp Thing #1 and got hooked on US comics - probably would have saved me a lot of grief! :)
    Right, this business with Mark Waid and DR Booth's review... Looking at the review, I still think it's a great review, in places, and I still think the turn of phrase used in regard to Devin Grayson is rather clever, even if Grayson had nothing to do with the comic in question. I have seen programmes like Have I Got News For You; Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week pick characters that have nothing to do with the context they are in get pilloried, satirised and picked on by top comedians even if they aren't guests - NMTB basically got its reputation for doing exactly what Booth did in his review. I believed at the time and still do now that comics journalism has to be as cutting, satirical and grounding as it can be; there is nothing more boring than reading reams of facts in a cold, dry and lifeless way.
    Would I have handled it differently with hindsight? Probably, because it did have a really negative effect on the magazine's impact in the US over the next couple of months, which, of course, were pretty crucial. However, I would have been more inclined to do something had Ms Grayson written to me, not her ex-boyfriend with a reputation for believing his own hype, who for years before and after this, ran roughshod over the comics press because of no other reason than who he was.
    But it's not as easy as that. Borderline made its editorial policy clear from the start and the contributor's opinions were only edited for grammar and accuracy; so therefore as we had no way of knowing whether Ms Grayson still had Mr Waid's balls firmly in her grasp, we should have found out that this was not the case and altered the tense of the statement that caused so much fuss.
    Borderline's editorial policy was praised from all corners until we did something people didn't like and then we should have been more 'editorial' - it proves nothing more than comics fans are contrary buggers. We didn't really set out to be controversial - even our most controversial issue (#18) wasn't really controversial because we gave enough warnings about it. The fact that certain factions in comics must have been waiting for our crown to slip to have jumped on what essentially should have been a storm in a D cup, so that they could voice all manner of particularly hateful things about the publication and my contribution is bordering on paranoia, but by this time the WEF had it in for Borderline (even before the big rown with Ellis) and I suppose I handed them an opportunity to annihilate us on line.
    The weird thing was we'd built up a relationship with Jay Faerber, who was one of Waid's proteges, and while he thought we were out of order, he could understand why it was done and felt that the reviewer had been overlooked so that detractors could focus on me and the magazine.

  3. CI ran a piece years ago that claimed that while Peter David loved Dale Keown's artwork, he thought the man looked and thought like a gorilla (or something like that). We'd heard this from a supposedly good source, who had no reason for sharing this with us. David called Dez and chewed him a new arsehole, demanding all manner of apologies, etc and ended up writing (or at least syndicating his But I Digress column) in CI. The point is that Dez taught me to never back down and never apologise in print. He claimed it was a sign of editorial weakness and once you did it the floodgates would open and every creator would be demanding apologies for even the most benign comments. Waid had contacted CI twice in previous years asking for either an apology or detraction for information we'd given about him; he had been ignored. I was not about to go down a route I'd been trained to ignore and therefore I was still influenced by what I learned from being Dez's apprentice; not that I'm blaming him for this.
    As much as I like the review, I probably would have taken out the entire line now; but blown it up and stuck it to my editorial cork board to amuse me on long deadlines.
    An aside, that's related - I talk about the online attacks Borderline had in its first few months and who I believe was responsible for them. If my gut feeling is right, the person who did this was a would be contributor who had submitted a pretty stunning article for the first issue, which ended on a really sour note and one that was essentially uncalled for. We praised the article, knowing the writer was a little temperamental, but explained that it worked much better without the potentially defamation of character that took place at the end. The writer, no Alan Moore, walked off in a massive strop, making all manner of threats, because we'd cut one stinking line from his article. So, we were sensitive to the fact that some of our contributors could become potential enemies of the magazine - because comics fandom can be *that* petty - I'm not suggesting Kidson or I left the offending line in for this reason, but it does illustrate the fine line when you work with non-entities who believe they are more important than the whole thing.
    Oh and I'd like to think I'm a 'thoroughly decent guy' too; I've tried hard over the last few years to propagate that image :)

  4. Thanks for the response! Interesting to get an idea of the context, but whether intentional or not the Waid/Greyson line is more than poking fun in the HIGNFY of NMTB style. Or at least it's a pretty hamfisted and juvenile attempt. I would suggest that it's quite possible to be irreverent and cutting without being unnecessarily spiteful. The implication of the line (again, whether intentional or not) is that Devin Greyson's career is down to a sexual relationship with Mark Waid. Now this may or may not be true, but as a throwaway remark it comes across as sexist, not to mention slandering two proffessional reputations.

    So I can understand why Waid was pissed off, and think in the circumstances an apology would probably have been in order.

    All of that aside, i'll keep enjoying the posts! Although as someone who spent most of my teenage years enjoying CI I do feel like i've been told Santa doesn't exist over the past few months!

  5. Sorry to have shattered your illusions, Mark ;)
    I've never read anything by Greyson so I can't comment about how she got into comics, but I will say that during her early years, the general feeling amongst pros was that she got her work because of who she knew rather than her talent - now this might be unfair because it is hearsay, but if you've gleamed anything from this it'll be that rarely is there smoke without fire in cases like this.
    Actually, I can't understand why Waid was pissed off. I would have totally understood if I'd got a reply from Greyson, or even Brian Holguin, but Waid...? But that's Mark's problem.
    There aren't that many posts left; we're in the homestretch and the controversy level gives way to a tad more humility as we approach the finishing line (at least I think it does) :)