Monday, 12 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-Two)

By the time Bristol came around, Borderline was up to half dozen issues and among them was the ultra phenomenal #3; the issue that came out after the 9/11 special. We had over 170,000 downloads that month and the figure was boosted by the fact we did a feature on one of the largest comics consumers in the world – Brazil, we followed that up with another feature on the South American country in #6 which also saw downloads of over 150,000. Issues #4 and #5 also topped the 100,000 mark and we now saw this as the optimum time to hit the potential advertisers. We hit just about every person we could think of, from CI and Wizard advertisers to every single publisher in existence in the USA and the UK. I put forward a great presentation with all the facts, all the proof they wanted and sat back and waited. And I waited some more and then a week after the e-mail shot when I hadn’t had one single reply; I followed it up with a more direct approach. You could hear tumbleweeds sweeping majestically across my Internet connection it was so devoid of activity. What had we done wrong? Why were these people not falling over themselves to advertise with us, our ad rates were ridiculously small for the amount of people seeing our product yet no one was interested?

I was frightened to do something but I did it all the same. This was 2002 and the boom years were over so far that Marvel had been bankrupt for the previous two years and were only just showing signs of recovering sufficiently to stay in business! They didn’t advertise anywhere and besides they still had the lion’s share of the market, they didn’t need to. I had also been told straight by Bill Rosemann, Marvel’s then PR honcho, that he’d do anything he could to help just don’t ask for money. DC Comics was the obvious alternative first choice to ask straight out why they weren’t biting at the ad deal of the century? I had a great relationship with them, knew all the marketing team personally and could hope to get a straight answer from Bob Wayne, as we went back years. So I wrote to him and asked him straight. I waited for three days before I got a reply. I’d like to think I got the reply I did because everyone there was too embarrassed to tell me themselves, but I received an e-mail from someone I’d never heard of, who turned out to be a junior in the marketing department explaining to me why DC didn’t advertise with websites or on-line concerns. I received another email from someone who I can’t name, a couple of days after, saying that they had hated what had happened, but someone higher than Bob had pulled the plug. It did seem strange that DC would advertise in a semi-professional magazine in the UK – Tripwire – with its 1000 maximum print run, but wouldn’t invest in something that would be seen by 100 times the people?

Meanwhile back in the real world we were facing a moment of crisis. We were virtually bankrupt and facing another problem. One of my business concerns involved running my own web hosting business with a computer programmer friend of mine, this allowed Borderline to have unlimited access and bandwidth on the internet. Because I owned the server, we didn’t ever have to worry about the cost of all the bandwidth we were using and my partner took care of all the other business matters. We were coming to the end of our business relationship as well, this time through his imminent emigration rather than erosion and, to be honest our hosting business was not particularly successful, mainly because both of us had other things to do - and we were its best customer!

It was looking increasingly likely that we were going to lose our one thing that allowed us to be so successful, our unlimited bandwidth access at the knock down price of £0.00. We needed money and there was no hope in sight. We had about five months of free hosting at maximum, so we really needed another home and pretty damned quick. Except there was hope and it appeared at just the right time.

Cool Beans World offered us a great deal, not as great as Mike Kidson would have liked, but I bottled it and accepted what we could afford to get rather than what we wanted to get. It all ended up being moot because we got massively shafted. Cool Beans World, a Sheffield-based multi-media company had launched their pay-per-view Internet site a year earlier and unbeknown to me were on the verge of total collapse – they needed something that would attract people to their web portal and Borderline fitted the bill perfectly. I was invited up to Sheffield and talks began about a way for the two to work symbiotically, a deal was hammered out and we were going to be producing Borderline exclusively for CBW, it would remain free and we’d get paid £4000 per month to produce it – more than enough to keep us afloat and we’d be using the CBW servers so we no longer needed our own. I asked for the contracts and was promised them within a couple of weeks, so I concentrated on getting the first CBW hosted issue out – this was #8 and up to that point we were averaging just over 100,000 downloads per month, and, more importantly, we were now an award-winning comics magazine.

Issue #8 was beset by problems and CBW didn’t make it live until the 5th of the month and downloads were piss poor – people thought we were charging for it. An extensive Internet ad campaign told people it was still free, it was just at a different home and downloads picked up, but not much above 30,000. We started on #9 without having received payment for #8, but if we were going to do it we had to stick with it, we couldn’t be seen to be slouching. Then CBW requested that one of our columnists be removed because of animosity towards him by areas of the publishing world, we started to have serious worries. The second issue arrived in their inbox and took another six days to go live – the reason given was CBW needed to a) check all the coding (what coding? It was a PDF) and b) have their libel lawyers make sure we weren’t upsetting anyone. We’d invoiced them for our second issue and we were still waiting for the first cheque. It arrived midway between #9 and #10, the day before it was announced the company had gone bankrupt and all its creditors would probably not receive a penny. The cheque, of course, bounced. We were back to square one and actually considerably worse off. This alone was horrendous bad luck and you would have thought that some people would have had some sympathy...

We had some tough decisions to make, but the convention had arrived and while we were going down there with little optimism –we deserved to win the best comics magazine award. The amount of bad luck that was now haunting the magazine couldn’t continue surely? If nothing else we had to be seen and we had to schmooze with the right people, regardless of who won the best comics magazine award – we had to give it one more concerted effort – we deserved it.

Bristol 2002 had to be the make or break, we were back at our old server with 3 months of free hosting time left, half the team were exhausted from doing days jobs and coming home to three hours of Borderline work every night, some times more. Bristol was supposed to be big for CBW, and us, except CBW’s people were no longer there, nor were their tables. Despite having gone bankrupt, they had pre-paid for their display area, one of the organisers of the Festival decided to sell the tables again, despite one of them having been earmarked for us. We arrived with nothing to put our limited wares on display. I went ballistic and chewed the guy out saying it was completely unprofessional of him, was this event being run by a bunch of fucking amateurs or what? And various other constructively nasty but not that personal insults.

Good God, you’re becoming him! Resounded through my head and I stared at the guy organising the display arena and said, “Look, I’m sorry mate. If you were in my shoes at the moment you’d think that the whole world was out to get you.” He nodded, very few people in comics weren’t aware of the strange marriage that Borderline had – critical acclaim and 10 broken mirrors worth of bad luck! “I’d really appreciate if you could sort this out.” Ten minutes later he found us the space we needed – not that we ended up using it, we were too busy schmoozing!

The night of the National Comics Awards was strange – the organiser had told Martin Shipp that it would be advisable for us to attend the ceremony, but it was something like £15 per head for the meal and we were literally there on a shoestring. However, we needed to be there, so a crowd of us reluctantly found our way to the venue and we hovered around the main hall until most of the team decided it would be better for them if they headed off to the pub and left Martin, Jay and I to see what happened. I had to suffer a moment of extreme embarrassment first when I received enough votes to be #6 on the list of most important people in comics history. I was flattered, but really red-faced, I had no idea. Kev F. Sutherland the organiser of the festivals told me later he believed that we received so many votes for Borderline from the continent that many people couldn’t think of anyone else to nominate for that specific prestigious award, so they ticked the one they knew - mine. It got a laugh from the audience and suitably humbled me for a while. Dez of course made a big deal of it, but that might have been because he didn’t make the top 10.

Martin, Jay and I were sitting with Bob Wayne and Patty Jerez of DC – see, I had no hard feelings towards them, these guys were my friends and company rhetoric notwithstanding I wouldn’t wish to spend a UK convention without seeing either of them at some point – and we waited for our category. The countdown began, my pulse increased – I felt like the top of my head was going to explode, and then it got to the final three:

At #3 – Comics International, at #2 – 2000AD On-line, and at #1 – BORDERLINE!!!!

There was a cheer, a massive cheer and I was on my feet before I knew it. I was so pumped up it was unreal. I knew we were going to win, deep inside I knew it was a formality, we were simply far better than anything else out there. And the reaction from the professional community was great – many creators gave us a standing ovation, many of them people who had once worked with Dez. Jay Eales, although completely swept away in the euphoria, managed to keep his eye on the Comics International table and told me that while Dez’s face never moved a muscle, Mike Conroy looked shocked and reacted to Dez. But Dez just put his hand up and Mike quietened down. Jay said the look on Mike’s face was one of ‘3rd - how did that happen?’

I reached the mic and engaged in some banter with the guy who presented me my award, we’ll talk about him later, but the icebreaker for me was that I had just fired this guy from the Borderline contributors team (at the instruction of CBW no less) and I’d done something many people in comics had wanted to do for a long time, got rid of a thorn in the side of comics, but like I said, more about this guy later. I’d gone over in my head what I’d do if I won, but never really thought what I’d say if I won. My actual acceptance speech was short and direct. I made a mistake and said the wrong word, although to some the word I used probably meant more.

This was reported as my acceptance speech – “Twelve months ago I set out to create the best comics magazine money can't buy. I guess this goes some way towards validating that decision. Thank you.” I actually used the word vindicating, which was grammatically wrong, but I was torn between just thanking people and saying how hard we tried to achieve it, and rubbing Dez’s face in it. Had I not been so pumped up I might have just launched into a tirade at him and his pathetic attempts to stop me, his years of mental cruelty, his ability to trample over all and sunder and the fact that NOW he wasn’t even number 2 in his own field, but I didn’t. I was nervous as hell and frankly I felt like crying.

The award always meant so much to him. He claimed he hated awards but he always displayed them prominently in the office. Now it was mine for a year!

The award brought some benefits and we attracted a couple of regular advertisers. One, Top Shelf Books, stayed with us until the end, their owners Brett Warnock and Chris Staros were great supporters of Borderline and they reaped the benefits of a mutually beneficial advertiser/publisher relationship – not something I ethically lean towards, but when they were one of very few throwing money in our direction, I was prepared to stretch my ethics a little. Others expressed interest in advertising and for a while things looked like they were picking up. We also had our hopes raised beyond belief, it was already our convention, and we were on the verge yet again of making it something even better. Rebellion, and the guys who witnessed my outburst at Dez in Bristol a year earlier, were now interested in talking to me about a potential business deal. The owner and publishers of 2000AD wanted to publish Borderline as a monthly newsstand comics magazine!

Martin Shipp and I (accompanied by the former DC artist Marc Laming) met Jason Kingsley, the owner, for lunch and we hammered out the beginnings of a deal. By the time we had finished we had it ironed out, all Jason had to do was make sure his distributor would handle it in the same quantity as 2000AD.

His distributor point blankly refused to carry a comics magazine and warned Kingsley it would be suicide to invest in one – this was the curse of Comics World, the last newsstand comics magazine, despite it having lasted three years, it was never a huge success. Distributors have long memories, especially for something as marginalized as a comics magazine. It obviously put Kingsley off, but he promised us that if there was a way forward he would find it. Others have since tried and failed with newsstand magazines, so there obviously isn't a way forward.

We didn’t hear Jason's decision until a couple of weeks after Bristol, so the weekend was quite an extraordinary one not just for me, but also for the Borderline crew. We were all recognised for our work and we partied in the street (literally) until it was very late...

Next: dogged by controversy, again...


  1. Great story, Phill. I wish I could have been there.

  2. Comic Book Heroes seems to be making a reasonable fist of being a newstand mag concentrating on comics. I wonder whether given time Borderline would have found it's own niche level on the newsstand alongside magazines such as SFX and Fortean Times whose wide spread appeal is limited at best.

  3. That was a great con wasn't it :) The DC table were all so pleased that Dez hadn't won.

    Please don't give RJ too much coverage , he would just bloody love that ;)

  4. @ Monkey Marc - Lamo is that you? If t is get in touch old son, would be good to catch up, maybe even meet up with Shippy and av a larf! :)

  5. It is me indeed - and yes, we should all get together and take the piss out of each other again, after all it's been a while hasn't it! :)