Sunday, 29 January 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifty-Five)

Comics Lesson 23:

Have I talked about gimmicks? When comics became void of new ideas and the fans grew tired of the old gimmicks, a whole bunch of new ones were invented. We’ve talked about the various different versions of the X and Spider-Man books, this was soon followed by metallic ‘fifth’ ink covers, it wasn’t long before hologram covers made an appearance, plus lenticular (don’t ask, I don’t know) covers, wraparound covers, fold-out covers, 3D triptych, glow-in-the-dark, sparkle-in-the-rain covers! When fans got fed up with forking out an extra dollar or two for some enhanced cardboard, the companies moved on to other things… They went back to the future.

Back in the 1970s something unheard of happened – Superman met Spider-Man. The story was very contrived and just enough was included into it for Marvel and DC fans to think the difference between the two companies’ universes wasn’t that far apart. There followed a second meeting, then a meeting between Batman and the Hulk and before you knew it… they’d stopped. They didn’t really work and to be honest DC has never liked working with Marvel because the two companies have differing work ethics and, well, DC has ethics in general, Marvel would have to look the word up in a dictionary and then get someone to explain the definition. But by the mid 1990s the idea of comics companies working together to milk even more money out of the fans was rife. There was at one point about three company crossovers a month and most of them featured moderately successful comics characters teamed up with someone from Marvel or DC that would benefit no one really. The stories were often quite simply shit, the art was often rushed or done by a team of artists and the crossover became like a production line. New and more sophisticated gimmicks were needed.

In recent years these have included recruiting writers from popular TV. Joe Michael Straczynski, the creator of the award-winning SF series Babylon 5, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hollywood scriptwriter Bob Gale, and probably most prominently independent film director Kevin Smith have all been attracted to writing comics and have obviously attracted interest or have drawn people with them, interested in seeing what they are doing next. I have no doubt that even more famous people have written comics in the last 6 years; but I don’t give a shit and neither should you!

Once upon a time comics didn’t need gimmicks to sell them, and in some cases the gimmicks weren’t gimmicks at all – Stan Lee used to make it seem as though special permission had been granted for one Marvel character to appear in another’s comic! But that was Stan Lee and his fantastic use of hyperbole and his understanding of PR.

What happens is quite simple, the wonder disappears. In 1965, saying on the cover that the Angel had special permission from the X-Men to appear in a Human Torch story was cutting edge; in 2005 [or 2011] the reader expects to be dazzled. He expects to believe he's impressed with the latest gimmick. Therefore, existentially there is no such thing as a gimmick comic, it's just evolutionary economic robbery.

With the exception of a few, I firmly believe that most comics writers aren’t. Writers, that is. I think a lot of them are failed writers in another field; some might have a go at a novel or some literature, but basically they were just in the right place at the right time to write comics.

But then real writers with genuine love for comics came along and the audience witnessed quality.

Comicbooks shouldn’t be derided, for all the faults in all the areas of comics, the medium is alive, kicking and in many cases rolling in dosh, in other countries. I don’t want this to sound like a conclusion because we have a little more to go through, but essentially it isn’t the people who read comics that have given the medium such a bad image in the US and UK. The behind-closed- doors stuff I’ve talked about, the rough ride the retailers get, the in-fighting and backbiting are not publicly known and even Rich Johnston avoids a lot of it, because, generally, no one cares. The fans don’t want politics outside of their comics. The commonest event nowadays if people start throwing hissy fits on most Internet forums is to just ignore the person, whether they have a valid point or not. Most comics fans are normal inoffensive people and have had a bad press for far too long. I recently was in London visiting relatives and we were driving near to Hammersmith Odeon and there was a rock band playing, I don’t know who, but the general assortment of weird looking people frankly made the saddest and most grotesque of comics fans look relatively normal. Yet no one ever looks at devoted followers of rock fashions in the same way as comics fans. We looked at punks in the 1970s, but they weren’t really derided and even if they were, it didn’t ingrain itself into the consciences of the public. Comics are derided by the public because of what they perceive the comics reader to be like, and most people when they’ve moved on in life think of comics as something from their childhoods and not something grown men or young adults should be devoting so much time and energy to.

Another major factor, apart from the cost and the soon-to-be-disproved fake stigma attached is the limited choice. This isn’t going to be changed. We no longer can afford to try and change the minds of people. Superhero comics will stay superhero comics, they are the bread and butter of the US industry and the smaller outfits will continue to flog their wares to these existing comics fans, attempting to persuade people that spandex isn’t the only option – even if that’s what most of these people want. When I launched Borderline, the CI forum, which by this time had become the ‘Comics Unintentional’ list – I decided to change the name because I didn't want to be associated with CI – didn’t really appreciate what we were doing. Most of the then 350 members downloaded it and probably read it, but the feeling from most of them was ‘there isn’t enough about the things we’re interested in, in it!” They still had their powers of observation, which was a relief.

But while superheroes are dominant in this little pocket universe we've been talking about, they aren’t everything. In 10 years I’ve seen non-superhero comics and trade paperbacks go from having just 4% of the market to nearly 10%. There is a reason for this and it kind of contradicts a lot of what I’ve said. But that’s for part of my conclusion; we have other fish to fry before we get to that, but it won’t be long – just a few more pages...

However you feel about them, comics have been part of our history since the beginning of the last century and part of our consciousness since Superman and Batman appeared in the States and the Beano and the Dandy appeared in the UK. Despite the perceived low opinion people have of comics they still have contributed a phenomenal amount to modern popular culture.

We have seen the creation of a new breed of comics characters, and we saw that take over the entire landscape of US comics. You can find funny comics, the other staple for many years, but they are as marginalized now in comics collectors’ eyes as anything that doesn’t fit into their own particular mindset. Plus funny comics are still available in Wal-Mart and the local newsagents – Direct Market comics aren’t.

Comics haven’t really changed as a format. We saw giant-sized comics from almost the first one, as many comics were actually 64-pages or more every month and they were all anthology titles, something that no longer has any place in the US industry apart from in the small press (they also cost just 10 cents). The USA had their annuals like the British had their hardcover Christmas stocking fillers. Comics were reduced in size to the point where extra pages were treated like a bonus rather than a right. We’ve seen 80-page giants, and we’ve seen coffee table styled Treasury Editions. We saw the creation of the trade paperback collection and the graphic novel and we’ve been introduced to the phonebook styled monster trades that originated from Japanese manga comics and were made popular in the USA by Dave Sim. But essentially for all the technological advances that have been made comics are still just pages of paper with artwork and words on them, that hasn’t changed. There have been bolt-ons to the concept, but the principal has remained the same.

But now, twelve years into the 21st century there is a school of thought that thinks that the comic as the most common form of the medium might be displaced by the trade paperback or the original graphic novel (35 years since the forecast was originally made, it’s made again!) and may become focused only on the characters that guarantee profit. This means that many, many characters that have become comics institutions and have existed for longer than most of us have been alive may disappear completely, with them only standing a chance of life again if a film producer finds the concept worth expanding on. I don’t think this is a particularly forward thinking solution and while there is no guarantee it will happen, people in this industry have a nose for forecasting the future. I’m not the only person who could and can be precognitive in this business.

I don’t think it will be the end of comics as we know it really, because if Marvel and DC go the trade paperback route exclusively then there’ll still be lots of other companies floating around producing comicbooks and probably grabbing a disproportionate amount of the market, but without Marvel and DC Comics most comics shops that specialise in comicbooks will either have to completely rethink their retail approach or face extinction. Change or die? You might think it’s a good thing, but instead of improving the image of comics and making them accessible to the masses they would ghettoise them even more – even Britain’s largest comic shop, Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, London, has its masses of comics hidden away downstairs and if they had a back issue department it was pretty small and select. It might even be that it’s now retailers and people who run comics that view them the way I’ve been portraying them.

If comics change that way there will be less people emerging as new talents, fewer people trying to break into comics, barely any innovation, lots of traffic managers and the law of diminishing returns would suddenly become a law of downwardly spiralling returns. Marvel and DC might still produce a couple of dozen comics titles between them, but if you don’t like the X-Men, Batman, Superman or Spider-Man you’re buggered. It is possible that Marvel and DC might decide to sell off properties they don’t feel are viable enough for them, but the likelihood of this, although it has often been discussed, is pretty small. Marvel holds onto its characters like Gollum hold his Precious; while DC probably own more characters than you could shake the proverbial stick at, so it might not be such a stupid idea for them, but they still won’t do it. Even publishers display an unhealthy anal retentiveness that we normally associate with comics fans. It might make them money in 40 years time!

If my aunt had balls she'd be my uncle...

But for original graphic novels and the proliferation of these in the future, comics fan and former co-owner of the website The Comics Village, Craig Johnson summed it up quite nicely when he said to me, “The loss-leading function performed by comicbooks (singles to LPs if you like) is the most important part of comics companies trade programs. It allows them to amortize the cost of the trade over a period of months, whilst earning income (even if it doesn't cover the immediate costs) over a slightly deferred time period – then the trade can come out, and after printing and distribution costs, is almost all profit. If the trade is a relative flop, then it doesn’t actually have to make much money to cover manufacturing cost, so the chances of making a loss on a trade collection are slim.

“However, should the monthly not be there, then they would be faced with paying a writer and artist for six months without having any product to sell – then it’d enter the printing/distribution process, and you’d end up with books not actually seeing a return on investment for a much longer period. In this instance, a trade would have to sell far more to break even, and increase the number of flops and decrease the overall profit for the companies. It’s worth bearing in mind that most Manga trades saw print in instalments in magazines first – there are very few manga books that are specifically produced as books first and foremost.” And I think he’s right, comics companies can’t take the risk of not producing new comics and the ones who won’t produce new material are the ones who are picking up and repackaging old and archived stuff. What I think will happen over the next few years will be a gradual retraction of Marvel and DC’s comic series output. There will be even more 4 and 6 issue stories and mini-series. Failing characters will see even less exposure (unless a hot shot comes along with a great idea or an even better artist) and they might get replaced with the opportunity to make money again in another market in the form of short stories. The days of the single story comic are almost over now, only the independents seem to practice the art with any heart and over the coming years the idea of any story that isn’t of epic proportions will be greeted with rejection by the big two.

Marvel’s problem is simple – there is a genuine fear that selling a character or concept that is a complete and utter pile of wank might just make someone else some money, so they won’t sell anything. Remember The X-Men; they are the yardsticks by which every Marvel character is measured. It was a failure and yet it rose from the ashes and became the greatest thing since eggy bread, so how could they possible think of getting rid of any of their copyrighted characters? The future is never clear, but it’s always better to think positive!

DC went around buying up just about every failed comics character from Charlton to Fawcett and reinventing them (or not). DC has destroyed an entire history’s worth of its own history, but even though we will never revisit the past, they won’t part with it… Just in case. [And this might be born out with the news as I was editing this tome that the entire DC Universe is being revamped, or kick-started as some commentators like to call it. DC is trying to appeal to a new audience by making icons such as Batman and Superman more appealing. The cynic in me says that this will do what it says on the tin until it's failed or succeeded, when, either way, the icons will revert back to their recognisable selves.]

So for characters with half a century or more of history and the people who have followed them, the future could hold nothing. Marvel and DC will believe that if they cancel someone’s favourite title he or she’ll move onto one of their other comics, because they are comics fans – this isn’t like The Sandman, the real fans will not bail out. But why do you think the industry has seen a drop in sales of over 80% in the last 30 years? Because people are leaving and are not coming back – for these key reasons: they were driven away from them by cancellations, poor quality or high prices. And yet people in comics were telling me that all the major companies are doing what they can to attract new readers. Where? What is the evidence, especially when I can’t get a straight answer from either of the two majors about the amount of future investment they are placing on comics finding a larger audience, or even a new one?

Who do you think is the best person to convince others to read comics? Someone who reads them rather than works in them, for starters – the Internet doesn’t attract new readers for comics, really, it doesn’t. It just attracts the same people to them. It might just snare a curious ex-fan who’s having a look for old time’s sake, but for every one of him there are thousands who don’t even think of looking at a website or a sales catalogue or a comics magazine and to be honest the only way comics have of surviving the next ten years is by trying to attract back as many old, and not so old, readers and get them to stay and spread the word – maybe introduce comics to their kids. But how do they attract those who have left back? Nostalgia, basically. Touch the child in them. Hey, do you remember this? As far as new readers are concerned, well, we’ll get to that because every cloud has a silver lining, amazingly.

People in the comics industry will tell you that every way conceivable had been tried to increase the fan base, and they will cite other’s failures as reasons why they won’t try a similar thing themselves. It’s copout logistics, because publishers are scared of spending what little profit they make. The law of diminishing returns is the only law they understand or are prepared to adhere to.

We are missing a massive point and that is a company called DC Comics, the longest lasting publisher of comicbooks in the USA and, of course, the owners of Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman, if you want some feminine interest). DC Comics is owned by the massive entertainments conglomerate called TimeWarner, which has money falling out of its corporate arse. Why hasn’t Warner Brothers Entertainment (under the TimeWarner umbrella) invested in comics the way it has in other forms of entertainment? Or have they invested the amount they see fit for an industry that the chief executives of the higher power might not see a future in? These are valid questions, but the sad answer is that DC has been so good at promoting shit for the last 30 years that the comics company regularly loses money anyhow. It is a sort of loss leader for TimeWarner; for every comic that makes them money, they throw more shit at the wall to see if anything else will stick. DC was pretty much rust proof in my humble opinion. The problem with them was they couldn’t see something good if it bit them on the collected arses.

Next up: the penultimate section; hyperbole and stuff

Monday, 23 January 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifty-Four)

[This chapter includes a deliberate typo.]

The Internet is arguably another reason why comics have lost popularity. Being flippant for a moment, if you saw the amount of traffic that takes place on some of the live comics forums in the USA you’d wonder how these people ever have the time to actually read comics, eat, sleep, shit and go out to work to pay for their habit.

There are some very professional and long-standing comics websites; ironically, when I first wrote this tome nearly 6 years ago, the majority of those I listed were the most prominent; now all but one of them no longer exists. Jonah Weiland’s Comic Book Resources or CBR, is the only one of the list that survives. There are others and areas of the ‘net which I’m sure many of you are aware of, things such as forums, newsgroups, blogs and homepages, which are dedicated to all manner of things and not just comics, many of them are popular and regularly frequented – these sites survive by the number of hits they get – the number of times a different Internet users goes to that page and this can equate to money if you are successful enough. Either that or they buy their space and write off the expense as fun. Of course, since this was originally written something called Facebook arrived and there are literally hundreds of dedicated Facebook pages aligned with comics; it should also be noted that nearly a million people ‘like’ comics; so perhaps the figures I bandied about in the first quarter of this book aren’t as accurate as I’d like to think; but saying that, I could click ‘like’ to having my balls shaved by a big hairy gay biker with a penchant for shit eating; it doesn’t mean I actually do like it.

However, the Internet created cults of personality, as more and more people went on-line. The entire Internet has changed since this was written in 2005 and yet back in the late 1990s it was so new that its content was covered in print magazines, to allow those without Internet access to see what they were missing! It rankled Dez that Richard Johnston and I came up with the revolutionary idea of creating a column that focussed specifically on the comings and goings on the, still relatively immature, World Wide Web. He still ran ‘Networks’ in CI right up until it ended and it was one of the most popular columns, with the brief of cherry-picking the best bits from the entire web.

What comics fandom was really about back in the 1970s, was the community and fun side, getting one’s name in print, whether it was a fanzine or a real comicbook, it was an accolade that many wanted. It still is, even though you can buy your own website and have potentially an entire planet viewing you and your thoughts. In comics there seems to be a rule of thumb and that is ‘you ain’t anybody until people talk about you’. There have been a few people who have really been able to capitalise on this ethos. The Internet reinvented comics fandom into something bigger, more international and far more confrontational than it had ever been – more even than the days of full-scale abusive letters hurled back and forth in the now anachronistic letter columns of fanzines.

Comics and the Internet had their first real marriage with the creation of the Usenet message board system and as that became more widely used, comics took advantage of it. Email meant that for a lot of people they suddenly had contact with others they could only write letters or possibly phone and then the added extra of being able to send files meant that writers could work from home more – it was faster and mostly more reliable than FedEx or UPS and it was considerably cheaper.

Usenet grew exponentially and as its numbers went into the global thousands they started to attract all the wrong kinds of people. From advertisers to arseholes who just want to wind people up – as the web developed so did the number of other forums and websites devoted exclusively to comics. Of course we all know about the dotcom phenomena; well comics weren’t exempt from this. People saw the amount of traffic these kind of sites were getting and started to offer money for advertising rights on the pages, suddenly the smallest fanboy with the lowest IQ could earn money from having a site dedicated to superheroines who get their tits out for the lads! (And trust me there were hundreds of these kind of things – there probably still is!)

Of course when everything came crashing down around the ears of the dotcom millionaires, comics, because it has resilience, just kept plodding along and taking advantage of the technology left behind. Marvel, DC and all the other major publishers invested heavily in websites (only to lay many people off as it became obvious that most webpages can be maintained by a minimum of staff). But what is a corporate website if it isn’t just a big advert? Well, nothing really, but Marvel and DC tried to offer something more than just press releases and previews of future cover art. Stuff like web comics and membership to clubs that allowed them to get free or discounted goodies. It has had a limited success, but arguably it makes some money because it still exists today, in 2012.

I discovered the hard way that there are very few people who like to pay for anything like this on the Internet, especially when there’s so much stuff available for nothing. Marvel and DC both disliked the fact there were a multitude of comics sites dedicated to their characters, generating interest from the fans and potentially stealing future revenue, so both went on the legal rampage and tried to have websites shut down. DC succeeded and lost a lot of respect from the comics community, Marvel decided to do a U turn and offered partnerships with websites they regarded as non-harmful to the company’s reputation. Obviously, this has all changed over the last 6 years and websites are far more interactive and progressive – technology has advanced to a level that makes the internet a valuable resource for all parties. I’d like to think that Borderline had something to do with the way peoples’ ideas changed.

So, who were the real stars of this early Internet revolution?

The most obvious was Warren Ellis. After manipulating the press to get him in a prominent position, Ellis, who I can’t deny is something of an innovator, decided he was going to use the Internet as his own personal totem. So he set up his own forum using the Delphi notice boards and the WEF as it became known grew and grew. People were attracted by Ellis’ forthright opinions and ideas and the fact that he and other pros often discussed the insides of the industry, but they were lured back more often than not by Ellis’ uncensored attacks on anyone who dared to have an opinion he didn’t share. WEF became a huge haven for sycophants and abusers – as long as you had an eloquent enough tongue and half a brain about you (and knew whose arse to lick) you could become someone on the WEF. The new breed of professionals either came up through the WEF or followed colleagues along to see what was going on and stayed, adding more credibility to it. The list grew into vast subsections that covered the whole of the comics industry, in reality it became a form of interactive online magazine of its own. Ellis, at one point, had over 25,000 people dancing to his tune – it was a revelation for comics and if you weren’t on the WEF you weren’t into comics. I obviously wasn’t into comics then? I found the place mainly offensive and incredibly snobbish – but you couldn’t ignore it, nor could you fault the way it was run – a dictatorship, policed by piranhas. It did read at times like a bunch of freaks taking the piss out of another bunch of freaks that didn’t read the same things as they did, but it was as innovative as Borderline in its own way and pre-dated Facebook by a few years.

The comics taste war was smouldering, rearing its head in different places, not just the WEF, and with different amounts of vitriol. Do the fans of SF films have pitched battles with the fans of Horror fans? Oh, yeah they probably do, they belong to the same area of fan as comics and most of them probably have dipped their toes into comics murky waters at some time in their lives. How about ‘film noir’ and surrealist film fans then? Do they hate each other and go out of their way to denigrate everything the other says or does? No, I don’t think they do. Are there heated battles between John Grisham and Stephen King fans? Probably not. Do Catherine Cookson aficionados hurl cream buns at Mauve Binchy’s fans? I’m being silly, but that is how petty comics can be if you just happen to be slightly out of step with everybody else.

The thing is Warren Ellis and his forum never lost a shred of credibility. He could be as offensive as he wanted, be as obtuse as he cared to be and unhelpful, and yet the only people who disliked him were the ones who felt the wrath of his acerbic wit (and some of them came back for more and more – comics fans are also masochists. Haven’t I personally proved this?). The Internet built up his reputation and it helped him secure good paid work, and it gave him a career. Ellis left the major spotlight before it began to wane and others have filled his place on the Delphi forums. There are going to be new false idols replacing every previous one – it’s the nature of the beast. If you are in a position of importance, and being a writer or artist on a regular good selling monthly title immediately gives you an audience of sycophants, it really shouldn’t be difficult to achieve a massive following, using the net – Hell, Borderline attracted 150,000 people; so it’s not unusual to see comics creators with 100,000 fans on Facebook. And what about that new load of bollocks, Twitter. I'm betting top creators have more followers than a man has sperms in an ejaculation.

The real success stories for comics on the net are either the ones where people have made it via use of the web to promote their work, or the person who manages to turn being the most hated man in comics into an art form. I’ve mentioned him before, but audience, please bow to the unrivalled and completely undivided hatred that was once shown towards Richard Johnston – my protégé.

Back at Comics International, but this time in the years when the speculator market was booming and comics were having a ‘halcyon days’ moment, the most popular column in comics was Movers & Shakers. I’ve said it before and I think it’s worth saying again – it was the first of its kind, it had stuff you just wouldn’t normally dream of seeing in print, it was irreverent and had a pretty high success rate at getting it right. Every magazine wanted its own equivalent of Movers. Every comics magazine had their own version of it, but it just wasn’t the same. I think the Brits do that kind of column so much better because they understand irony and subtle sarcasm and that was one of reasons it was so popular - the Brits also had Nigel Dempster.

Movers also covered scurrilous gossip and highlighted the absurdities of the industry – typical of most British tabloids it was quick to build up and quicker to knock down. It was, on the whole, one of the most fun assignments I ever had to do and rarely did I ever approach its construction with anything but excitement. It got tougher to write, but that was mainly Rich Johnston’s fault and I needed to be both creative and sneaky to be able to keep one step ahead of him at times.

You see about two years after Movers first appeared, Usenet saw the debut of Rich’s first gossip and rumour column. The majority of it was made up from stuff he’d seen in CI and either copied verbatim or did his own investigating and came up with either more or less. The snobs on Usenet weren’t happy with Rich, but he’d been a regular contributor there for a few years already and was well liked by a lot of the people on that group – so the snobs tolerated him. I’d like to think they didn’t like what Rich was doing because they saw it as a gradual erosion of the tight knit bastion they had created, but they couldn’t deny that it was attracting new people and generating a lot of reply posts. Rich knew he was onto something and used his ingenuity to string out an issue’s worth of Movers stories throughout a month on Usenet, obviously with some stories of his own – because creative people know a good thing when they see it and some had already started to talk to him about ‘maybe dropping a hint or a plug somewhere’ for whatever they were working on at the time. But it was the gossip that made Rich his name. It didn’t take him long before he was getting juicier stuff than I was and that was the reason was he was quickly becoming known throughout the comics community. The problem was that Rich was also getting a bad name for himself and I can put the record straight on that right here.

There’s an expression, ‘You don’t shoot the messenger’ and it’s one that has to be thrown at the baying masses every so often, because they blame the person who tells them and not the people it went through before it got to the person who tells you. For Richard Johnston, the comics community began to really despise him and it actually wasn’t his fault. It was mine. When you’ve been in the comics industry long enough and studied it the way I have, you become sort of precognitive. I remember having a discussion with Dez once about the nature of news and speculative news – no story is a lie unless it’s a blatant lie. You can’t say, “Stan Lee is dead” because apart from the libel implications it isn’t true (or at least you don’t know it for sure), but you can say, “Stan Lee is going to die”, and you can because it is true. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t dead; you are just stating a fact – one day he will die. It’s all to do with real world libel laws, so the true beauty of a great gossip column is to be able to make stuff up that you either know for certain is going to happen, or be as ambiguous as possible as to not set off alarms and then say, we foresaw it. CI sometimes ran stuff we heard third-hand and really shouldn’t have run, or we just made it up!

The first instant of this happening basically tarred CI with a brush it found difficult to shake, many years after it happened. I’d only been working there full time for about a year and we didn’t have a cover story, we had half a cover story, but part of that was informed speculation from an industry professional. Essentially the new Image Comics company was a year old and there was going to be some shake ups on the books it published, not least the market leader Spawn. Todd McFarlane, it was reported, had been happy with a three-month experiment where he employed some of the top writers in the industry to write his book. It was ingenious because it gave McFarlane more time to do his artwork and it got huge coverage from the press because he’d attracted not only Frank Miller, but Alan Moore and Dave Sim (a creator responsible for a multi-award winning independent comics called Cerebus the Aardvark), this brought readers of these creators along and gave Spawn some much needed credibility amongst generic comics fans.

So we knew that there were some big anniversary plans scheduled, some new books and something happening with Spawn. It was really nothing more than a bit of idle speculation for the Movers column, but we didn’t have anything for the cover story that really reached out and grabbed the reader by the balls. So we made a story up; we put our collective heads together and came up with a couple of scenarios and then we needed some people to pad out the scenarios. If Image was recruiting who would they be looking at? If McFarlane was going to take a break from writing Spawn who was the logical replacement?

The first part was easy; we just looked at the top artists in the industry and played pick a name. We got three of the four we guessed and the artist who didn’t join Image admitted to being wooed by Image. The second part was more difficult. Dez speculated that whomever McFarlane would get to write Spawn for a few months would have to either be on the same level as the previous guest writers or someone who was really wowing the comicbook world at that time. He drew a blank. I drew a blank. Then I looked at the last 2 years’ big releases and saw the likely candidate. Not only had he written Batman recently, he had been responsible for a couple of the most off-the-wall comics series of recent years and he was currently being coaxed and coerced by both of the big companies. Dez, who claims he discovered this person, jumped at it, and so we ran the sub-header that ‘Grant Morrison was going to be the new writer on Spawn’. There was no truth in it at all.

Two weeks later, we’re sitting in the back garden of Dez’s place in Finchley, smoking and drinking tea and catching some rays when the phone rang. A couple of seconds into the call, “Say that again? [pause] You are joking? Tell me this is a wind-up? [longer pause] Hang on. [turning to me] Grant Morrison has been announced as the new writer on Spawn!” We were ecstatic – not because we’d guessed the news right but because we hadn’t made fools of ourselves. An even more amazing bit of irony was to follow, but first we had to deal with the unexpected.

Over on Usenet, where most of the stuff that Rich had posted was very well received or taken with mild disbelief, there was all of a sudden a huge backlash and Rich had to invoke the don’t shoot the messenger rule when he received yards of abuse from people claiming this was preposterous, that McFarlane wouldn’t employ such a loose cannon like Morrison and besides he wasn’t exactly the best writer in comics was he? Of course they were all proved wrong, yet for some unfathomable reason they seemed to blame us even more, even though they didn’t know the true story. It was almost like they hated the fact that a British comics magazine had got the scoop over the Americans (most of Usenet was populated by Americans) and when we explained that we are, like British and, like, Grant Morrison is like, British… it just seemed to incense them even more. A Scotsman should not be writing Spawn!

Rich then became linked with CI whether he liked it or not, and knowing Rich, he liked it. It was clear from the offset that Johnston was an attention seeker and didn’t care what kind of attention it was as long as it’s focused on him.

Shortly after Morrison’s short run on Spawn came out, to great commercial and critical acclaim, he admitted in a magazine interview that he had wandered into his local comic shop in Glasgow and seen the headline of CI and decided that if we had said so it must be true, so he rang Todd McFarlane up and said ‘what’s this about me writing Spawn?’ and McFarlane said, ‘You writing Spawn? Hey, what a great idea’ and he got the gig. He thanked Dez for helping him make $50,000 he wasn’t expecting.

Of course, when this news came out, the whole of Usenet seemed to declare war on the rumourmongers of CI. We could literally post something on there that was a repeat of month old news and people who be speculating that we had made it up. Seriously, they can be that childish and often still are, because for all the advances on the Internet, Usenet still exists and still has numerous 'people' using it.

The other irony was that, on average, there was at least one made up story in Movers every month and had been since the very first time I wrote it. I never told Dez, in fact I’ve never admitted it to anyone, but every month I used to make up a story and incredibly a huge percentage of them were either completely right or so close it could be excused. And of course Rich used Movers as one of his main sources, so he started to get a reputation for either making stuff up, perpetuating lies or just being part of the whole sham. The thing was by about 1994 he was generating most of the stuff he was writing himself, or getting his own ‘stringers’ to do a lot of the donkeywork.

The first company to start getting seriously pissed off by Rich was DC Comics. The publisher had put a tight lid on all news releases and had an almost Nazi attitude towards giving the press anything before they were ready and yet Rich was constantly coming up with details of stuff the company was working on. I was impressed, for about two years Movers was almost devoid of DC stories and even the odd made up one about them, despite being inconsequential at best, was always followed by a letter from Bob Wayne or Patty Jerez in the marketing department either asking for clarification, some form of retraction, or something in the next issue to say the news was not true. Because DC had never given CI a penny in advertising, Dez told them where to put their demands on most occasions. DC could technically have tied CI up in litigation forever if it wanted, it certainly had the money, but it would have been counterproductive because we were doing their job for them so on most occasions they just let things pass. They should have felt the same way about Rich Johnston, but I’d guess that Bob Wayne, a very dry, acerbic Texan, probably had great difficulty in even understanding Rich, or keeping track of his scattershot approach to conversation.

I remember Bob leading the standing ovation I received at the National Comics Awards for firing Rich from the Borderline team, and I think it would be safe to say that Bob’s life would have been a lot easier if it wasn’t for Rich. The two were always at loggerheads, Bob with that expression of exasperation and Rich with his devilish grin and revolving eyes. The bottom line was, for as much harm as DC felt Johnston was doing, he was also an invaluable aid; the battle lines were drawn up and while Rich skirted them frequently he hasn’t gone over, yet. When I asked Rich to sum up his relationship with Wayne he said, “Eeyore incarnate to my Rabbit. The immovable object. Frankenstein’s Teddy.” I have to say that this is a typical Johnston response, in that it is amusing and nonsensical. I asked Bob for a comment about Rich, but surprisingly as more and more information leaked to the comics reading public that I was writing a book about comics, the less enthusiastic responses I got from major league industry backroom staff. I do know that while Bob found Rich exasperating, he didn't dislike him.

As more and more people arrived onto the ‘net, more found their way to Rich’s various columns, which by now were housed by various websites. Rich took his column through a number of homes and names, increasing the profile before moving on for a better deal with the next biggest. The more people who visited meant the more professionals saw Rich as the person to go to when they had something controversial to talk about, or had heard some juicy titbit that the world needed to know. He was also the person to go to if you wanted to plug your comic, especially if you didn’t think the marketing department of the company you worked for was pulling their weight (which often happened). Love him or loathe him Rich Johnston had established himself as one of the most important people in comics and if you suggested that to anybody who is anybody in comics they would laugh in your face (while secretly agreeing with you, begrudgingly). Rich is also probably the only recognisable person who isn’t a comics employee or freelance creator, and not only is he recognisable, he is better known than half of the people he talks about. But isn’t that one of the trials you have to face when you become the equivalent of the Nigel Dempster of the comics industry?

One of the criticisms levelled at Rich is that he lacks in ethics and has no conscious, but this isn’t the case. I know from personal experience that he plays the game fairly and if you went to him and said ‘please don’t run this’ he won’t, however excellent or controversial it is. And that might be why so many still go to him, associate with him, and use him, because they know that he is at least an honourable gossipmonger (I taught him well). I asked him if he thought he was ethical, “I seem to be bound by my own ethics. If I err, I try to rectify it. I don’t repeat what I’ve been told in confidence unless there are legal aspects. And I do try to avoid causing people problems, and do try to clean up my mess as I go along. I recognise, however, as part of what I do, I am going to make messes...”

Rich has run interviews with everyone from disgruntled ex-employees to the industry’s top people; he’s run accusations of homosexual favouritism, stories of bribery and corruption; he’s crossed the line a number of times in many people’s opinions, but he stands by his record and when I asked him if there was anything he wouldn’t stoop to, he replied, “Plenty. If someone asks me not to write a story and can give me reason why, I generally don't. Also, I tend to steer away from personal lives – unless there's a relevant reason. If someone's been totally open with other people about a personal story I'd be more inclined to use it, but generally I don't.” And I think that’s a fair reflection and far better than the ‘tabloid journalist’ he’s been labelled with. Rich treats the industry in a way it should be treated and that is why the establishment hate him so, yet he’s a massive supporter of the medium and would never do anything to damage the reputation of comics further, even if he publicly isn’t its best advert.

In the real world Rich is a moderately successful advertising copywriter and has been for years; I’m not sure if he still does it now or if he actually makes a living from comics – he’s done some stuff for The Guardian newspaper, in 2011. A former winner of the National Union of Students Cartoonist of the Year competition, in 1994, and holder of a degree in politics, he has always dreamed of being in comics. He’s married to a pretty young South African and he didn’t pay for her and she didn’t need a British passport. I remember him saying to me once, it was late and he was a little drunk and I’d just asked him if it was true he married his wife for a lot of money, “I love my wife and I know she loves me. We got married because we loved each other. It hurts to think people think I’m that sad.” If that’s true then I’m happy for him.

Rich’s main problem was his appearance. I remember him appearing in that comics TV programme I mentioned so long ago in this story and thinking ‘you could be talking the most sense that a mortal has ever spoken and people will look at you and think ‘get your hair cut, get your teeth fixed and get a life!’

He was also something of an innovator in his day and actually had a go at the shameless self-promotion lark before it was fashionable. Rich produced his own comic called Dirt Bag, it wasn’t particularly good, but he managed to sell more than the average small press effort because he convinced people it was worth buying. He also managed to get laid in San Diego in 1995 by telling all the female fans he was going to be the next writer for Excalibur, the comic based in England and mainly written by Brits (or it was once, before it got cancelled). He denies this, but many of us know differently…

I have never particularly been that fond of the guy, we used to talk and we socialised but I find him too effervescent and he has the attention span of a goldfish. But he’s also very clever, he has managed to exploit a human condition – he knew that deep down most creative people like to talk and they love to gossip and if they didn’t, he knew people close by them who did. Rich also realised that the bigger he got the more people wanted to talk to him, because if they got a name check it was better than a plug in a monthly magazine. Fame, even if it’s generated by Rich’s columns, is something they all want, eventually.

Johnston is a rare thing in comics he’s a one-man cult of personality, the single most famous non-comics person in comics. I asked him about it, “Some people really don’t like me, have a real distaste for what I do, they way I do it (or more importantly the received wisdom they have over what I do) some seem like John the Baptist teaching my ways to others, it’s peculiar.” Yet people should not dislike him; he’s honest and he campaigns for the medium extremely diligently. He works hard in the background and would probably make sacrifices for the sake of comics. His approach may be seen by many to be destructive to the industry, but the industry is quite capable of destroying itself and I think, they think, Richard Johnston is a good person to focus the attention away from the wrongs inside the US and UK comics industry. Oddly enough the only death threat Rich ever received was from one Mark Waid!

So, I was indirectly responsible for Johnston’s career as a gossip columnist, I was probably responsible for his reputation getting tarnished from the very beginning, and I think he deserves me saying that he has probably helped comics far more than he has hindered them. His columns, while dripping in bad grammar and lazy writing, have always conveyed the kind of irreverence this industry needs to display. It’s comics not nuclear physics. The people who work in comics are not gods, they take a shit as regularly as you and I and while I doubt Rich has that in mind when he writes his columns, I do when I read them. He is the ultimate sycophant and his devotion to specific things and people is actually more creepy than admirable, but you can’t dispute he’s a true fan and he’s made a lasting impression. Right, that’s quite enough ego massaging, this had nothing to do with the little shit running this on his website and then stopping it because he chickened out...

Next: we enter into the final parts of this long journey...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifty-Three)

My little excursion back into comics for that Polish weekend, prompted a return to proper comics journalism for me and it came from an unexpected source – but like always we need to do a few of things first, it has to be said that for all the altruism I've extolled about Borderline and the wronged man schtick I'm pretty easy at falling into, at times as editor/creator of Borderline, I was as much of a prick as a previous employer of mine was capable of displaying. It was my magazine and where some people have been known to vociferously defend their property, I was very, very defensive of my magazine and subsequently this, on occasion, turned me into an obstinate bastard, especially with people we were promoting. I was fed up with the comics press fawning over the publishers, so I opted to be a belligerent snob and like with Mark Waid or Warren Ellis or even other more pointless confrontations, it was a little more like marking my territory rather than having a piss.

Then I need to mention/explain about something that didn’t so much happen as evolved, in an odd way: about a year after I started my real life job, the one that allowed us to continue to produce Borderline, I had a breakdown. It was a pretty covert breakdown because when my wife finally found out about it four months had passed and she was unaware there had even been a problem.

I had been working with homeless people for a year, had gotten into it as an economic necessity. Working with the homeless is a really stressful thing and before long I was struggling to cope with life. I was taking more drugs and getting incredibly emotional about the injustices of the world, for the two to kind of collide and manifest into an 'I can't take this shit any more' kind of way. My boss decided that I needed to take an unpaid break, but I couldn't afford to, so I was offered the chance to be seconded to another organisation, where I would help develop a national project – which would eventually be called Connexions (which replaced the careers service and has now itself started to fall apart). I accepted this and things got a little better; there was a lot of reflection, a lot of reconciling my old self with this new caring version. I just chilled for a while.

However, after the death of my father and near collapse of the project I was on, because of dilly-dallying from the government, I found myself staring into an even wider abyss. I was sitting in my office one night going through years of accumulated junk, throwing away bags and sacks of old press releases, catalogues, general rubbish that I thought might have some future – like a man who hordes nails and screws because you never know when that specific screw might come in handy. I found stacks of Comics Internationals, destined for the loft, and I sat and looked through a handful. It was a nostalgic trip and made me realise that it was now all over. This made reconciliation with my old self and the new improved and nicer to be around one a bit more convoluted; but above that, I'd come to a really 'final' decision: I was going to say goodbye to comics for the final time. I would get back from Poland and disappear into the obscurity that had enveloped me for most of my comics career. So I did something sentimental and rather stupid, if those of you reading have been paying any attention. I wrote to Dez Skinn.

I know. I know what you’re thinking and you don’t have to say it, but the bottom line is I’m not a bad person and I’m also a very forgiving person. I didn’t want my life to be littered with ruined friendships. Thomas Wolfe said ‘you can never go home again’ – how many times has that been proved to be a load of bollocks?

I really didn’t expect to hear back from Dez and was even more surprised when he offered me a job. Not a permanent one, just a short gig to talk about the rise and fall of Borderline. I knew why he was offering me this – I’m not stupid. CI’s sales had continued to drop after I left, I don’t know this for certain, but I do know that sales had been on a steady 15% decline per year and without me I couldn’t see Dez stemming the flow that much. His acrimonious feud with me had probably taken its toll on the magazine and if he were seen working with me again, acting as though there was nothing different, then he would score some brownie points. I declined payment, which must have thrown him slightly and I produced about 1500 words on the decline of Borderline and sent it to Dez. It appeared the following month; the way I was mentioned in the contents page was like the return of the prodigal son. He approached me again 6 weeks later and asked if I wanted to do a report on Lodz. I did, I really can’t tell you if it saw print or not.

Comics Lesson 22:

The term ‘comics journalist’ is a bit of an oxymoron. I mean, it isn’t, but if you’ve been in it long enough you realise that it isn’t a term that actually means much. When I started out as a comics journalist there was probably only really one in the country and that was Dez Skinn and he isn’t really a journalist, he is an editor and publisher – he didn’t really have any journalistic training and picked up most of his knowledge from Sarah Bolesworth. So I became the second of two comics journalists in the UK. And I was one of two for a long time until Steve Holland came along, then I was one of four when Mike Conroy took the leap from amateur to professional. But essentially that’s it and none of us have had any journalistic training and I’ll bet none of us could get an NUJ card.

But in the States it’s a title that is used very often and you don’t actually have to get paid to coin the term. I suppose it is the Land of Freedom so if you want to call yourself a journalist or a pig fucker you can – no one is going to argue. Unlike the UK, there are a number of trained journalists who have made the transition into comics magazines (one must ask if they were ever successful in mainstream journalism because there isn’t really any money to be made from comics journalism?) and have become well-respected historians and elder statesmen. The Internet spawned more comics journalists than we’ve all had hot dinners, you only had to be interviewing Fred Bloggs for your mate’s e-zine and you were a comics journo! Most people think it makes them look cool and earn more respect from creators. Most comics journalists I know have never called themselves comics journalists – we don’t really have titles, we just work in comics, but we’re not involved in the creation process of a comic.

Next time: Richard Johnston...

Thursday, 12 January 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifty-Two)

You might have thought I concluded the Borderline story a bit abruptly; sitting there like a sore thumb in the last chapter, finished but not concluded. That was because the magazine had one final part to play in comics history.

When I received an official invitation to attend the Lodz Comics Festival, in October 2003, as the guest of the British Council in Poland, the deal they were offering made me blink in disbelief. In all my years working in comics nothing like this had ever happened before. Yeah, I’d spent a few days working for a software developer in 1994 as a storyboard consultant on an X-Men computer game and earned £200 a day plus expenses (I could have quite happily continued doing that for the rest of my life) and that made me feel pretty important, but this was different. Here I was one of the special guests!

The offer of going to Poland came with a proviso. I had to do at least an hour’s worth of presentation on Borderline and spend time doing a signing and chatting to Polish comics fans. The prospect of this terrified me, I’d lost the knack of public speaking – something I had once been quite good at. When I say I'd lost it, what I meant was that I had smoked myself into a position where I lost my confidence. My sudden inadequacies came crashing home the same month as the invitation arrived. The Bristol Comics Festival in 2003, as I said wasn’t much of an event for me, and possibly one of the low lights of it was sitting in on one of the most popular panels at UK comics conventions.

Called ‘Hypotheticals’ it was the brainchild of Lee “Budgie” Barnett and Dave Gibbons (yes, the same one!) and was set on a fictitious world where the comics industry is an even playing field. The panel, a team of invited guests crossing all areas of the industry, have to discuss how certain hypothetical scenarios would pan out in that world. Essentially a scenario is given and the panel of guests builds a story around it. I was awful. I tried to be funny and it backfired. I was full of nerves that I couldn’t shake, and I had the overtures of a hangover from the previous night’s excesses.

After it finished I’d made my mind up that I was not doing it again. I was not going to get involved in this kind of fannish nonsense anymore. I felt out of touch and slightly queasy in the presence of so much concentrated sweat and my ego was deflated a little more when Jim Lee, one of the stars of comics, thought I was a retailer and had never heard of Borderline. I said to myself and some of my associates who had gathered to see my lacklustre performance that I was never going to go on a stage again, let alone attend a comics convention.

Now I was faced with not only having to do a presentation on my own, but in a foreign country and with no one I actually knew around me for support. I took a big gamble and emailed the British Council and asked them if it would be possible to bring my assistant editor and publisher of Borderline with me. I was told this would be fine, but they would no longer be able to pay me for the weekend, because what I was going to be paid would now pay for my assistant’s expenses. I was gobsmacked – of course I didn’t mind an unpaid weekend, just being invited all expenses paid was a dream come true! So much being offered and all from such an inconsequential country on the comics map – I figured Poland was going to be a blast. It was.

Martin Shipp has been a good friend, one of my best, for over 20 years. I recently said to the wife that I couldn’t really ever remember when we made the bridge between knowing each other and becoming good mates. We just became good mates. It happens like that in the world, you meet someone and you get on well with them and every time you see them again is a real pleasure. The first time I met Martin was in the spring of 1990 when he was the assistant manager of a new comics shop opening on the outskirts of London. The company he worked for, Stateside Comics, had bludgeoned its way into the comics buying public with its awesome display of comics that you just never saw. Stateside were outrageously expensive (one of the partners was the writer and compiler of the Price Guide), but they had the image that really suited the new breed of yuppie comics buyers. All the old stuff and comics fans dreams were out the back in a special ‘vault’ – a room with high tech security features with over £1million worth of stock there at any time. The front of the shop, while specialising in comics, had all the other ephemeral stuff that attracts people off the street – movie posters, videos, games, badges, trading cards – they stocked everything they had to and it was done with a verve that was lacking in just about every other comics shop in the land. They had a professional attitude to comics and it showed in their shop, I just couldn’t understand why they opened it in Barnet?

I was there with my new business partner Iain, he was a valued customer of Stateside and he hoped that we could forge some kind of business arrangement with them (which would of course benefit him in the long run), but that evening we were primarily there for the grand opening. There were some stars of TV and radio there and a number of artists and writers and the champagne flowed. It was a night of sophistication for comics retailing. Iain and I were talking to two of the three partners, Martin Gold and Paul Sassienie, when Mike suddenly asked me what I thought of their ‘fantastic advertising campaign’ and the ‘great new discovery they had found in Shaky Kane’, the artist. I wrinkled my nose and Paul asked me to be honest.

“Well… His artwork is a poor derivative of Jack Kirby at his worst. It looks colourful but it’s a bit vacuous and frankly I think while it will achieve the desired results, it’s a bit pooh.” There were some smiles and a man standing next to us with his girlfriend looked at me quite defensively. I smiled at him and said, “Well, it is, isn’t it? The guy needs to learn to draw first.”

This was the Shaky Kane...

Also present at that time was Martin Shipp who wheeled away howling with laughter at my comments. I shrugged my shoulders and continued to sample the buffet. Shaky Kane and his girlfriend drifted into the background. Well, someone should have warned me first.

I didn’t see Martin again until the following year’s UKCAC convention. He found me in a crowd, reintroduced himself, I remembered who he was. He’d left Stateside and was now working for a new British-based distribution company that he was hoping would challenge the supremacy of Diamond, who effectively held the monopoly on comics distribution in the UK. We had a chat and a laugh; I wasn’t interested in signing up for his new distribution company, so we went and had a beer instead.

Six months is a long time in comics and the next time I saw him was in, of all places, Gloucester. The shop was struggling badly and we needed to stretch ourselves pretty thinly. I had my brother-in-law and my late father go to a comic mart in Leeds; I left Scott and Phil Christian in charge of the shop, while Mammary Lass and I drove down south west to attend a West Country comics convention, that was taking place in a number of marquees in a park in Gloucester.

We had sent my dad away with some of the shop’s best stock, while Luan and I took as much junk as I could fit into my old Vauxhall Astra. The idea was we’d just sell as much cheap stuff as possible and turn some money over. We only needed to make £70 to cover all our expenses as I’d got the tables cheap and the petrol would amount to almost half that overall outlay. The event started at 11am and by 1.30 we’d taken about £5. I was bored rigid. We were promised that we would be invaded by an influx of people later when some of the other events finished and that was true. At 2pm we were overrun by the South West Nerds Society, and I had an inspired idea, one that Luan was game for. I suggested to her that she unzip her top a bit more so that she was showing a lot of cleavage and the brazen hussy was more than happy to oblige. We had swarms of people round the table, kids, adolescents, and a lot of Dads. Luan spent the next three hours thrusting her tits into people’s faces until they gave her money. I loved it. Martin loved it. I didn’t know, but he’d parted company from the distribution company and was between jobs and decided to meet up with some old friends in Gloucester. I had been looking for a pub and when I returned I found Martin doing his lounge lizard impersonation and trying to chat my assistant manager up. We spent the next hour chatting, he went back off to London and I went back to the shop with £400 on me.

Over the next couple of years Martin and I just kept in touch, we’d write each other letters, then when he went on-line it became emails. We just kept in touch. He flirted with comics writing for a while and won a UK Comics Award as the best newcomer, but while his buddy Marc Laming had limited success as a comics artist, Martin just didn’t seem to get the same breaks. But to be honest if you have a one in a hundred chance of becoming a professional comics artist, you have a one in 10,000 chance of being a comics writers. The reason is simple – we’ve already discussed it.

The two of us toyed for ages about ways of making money from comics and when, in 2001, I put together the Borderline team, Martin was one of the three people at the top of the list to become involved. We’ve often sat and wondered why two such good looking and talented men haven’t made more of our lives and we came to the conclusion we’re not creepy enough for this industry. Martin is still a bit of a US comics junkie and that is useful for someone like me who needs being told stuff I'm out of touch with.

The decision to make Martin, the publisher of Borderline, was taken because he was the only contributing member of the team to actually bankroll us during the worst of the financial crises. He had effectively taken on the role of publisher when the amount of time I could spend on dealing with people became completely limited by my day job. If the invite had come three months earlier I probably would have taken Mike Kidson with me to Poland. He had a huge knowledge of European comics and had attended more conventions on mainland Europe than most comics people in Britain. But Mike had parted company with Borderline because he simply couldn’t afford to work on it anymore. And Martin gave me something that Mike probably couldn’t have given me – a brilliant presentation that literally blew the convention organisers away.

I work well with most of people and believe that the creation process needs input from different angles. Martin works in a similar way; we think it gets the best out of people because they feel part of the process. I knew that Martin would be great company for me, I felt I needed someone with me I was comfortable with, because if I didn’t, I would probably have had some kind of breakdown. As it happened I almost did, but for different reasons.

So, there was I with a massive invite to a huge convention in Eastern Europe, I had managed to wangle it so my mate could come and I was the editor of nothing at all! By the time everything was firmed up, the flights booked and hotels reserved we had effectively stopped doing Borderline. I spent a month panicking and doing nothing at all, while Martin sat down and wrote a presentation that was funny, articulate and told people exactly what they needed to know about us. This inspired me and I opened up Microsoft PowerPoint and set about putting together a really visual presentation to act alongside Martin’s scripted double act.

The actual presentation comes later, because a lot more happened before we took to the stage at the Lodzki Dom Kultury on the 25th October, 2003.

I arrived at Euston Station at the ridiculously early time of 6.30am and found Martin, with case, waiting for me by the Northampton departure ramp. We actually had 3½ hours to make it for check in at Heathrow, but Martin assured me that it would take a long time to even get to Heathrow – there had been a series of strikes and things were only just getting back together on the Underground system. We checked in at Heathrow at 9am and waited for our flight to board. In the wake of 9/11 travelling anywhere in the world had become a far more complicated thing – searches on the way out as well as the way in, so everything seemed to take considerably longer than I remembered when I went to San Diego in 1994.

We arrived in Poland at around 3pm and the first thing that struck us as we walked out of Warsaw airport was the temperature. It was easily below freezing compared to the relatively mild 10 degrees in the UK. The pretty Anna Palonka, our liaison with the British Council, met us. It was like something out of an old Sixties film, she was standing there with a large sign that said British Council. Martin and I found her first, we weren’t aware that the other two British guests Pat Mills (the creator of 2000AD) and his current art partner Clint Langley were on the same plane and sitting just behind us. We all introduced ourselves to each other and were hustled into the back of a transit van mini bus. Anna’s English was almost perfect, as were most of the people who worked for the BC. We arrived in Warsaw City about an hour later and after spending an hour at the BC sorting out our spending money (Yes, they gave us spending money for beer!) we ventured into the Jewish Old Town for a spot of sightseeing and some Polish cuisine.

The food was one of my worries, being a vegetarian I’d heard that Poland wasn’t big on people who didn’t eat meat, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared and being something of an amateur mycologist (mushroom fancier) I was amazed by the number of mushroom dishes on offer. I sampled most and enjoyed all (apart from pierogi, a dumpling, which I found most unpalatable and a great source of indigestion).

After our tour, in the fading light, of the old town, we piled back into the minivan and headed off to Lodz, which is about 100 kilometres south of Warsaw and is famous for being the birth place of film director Andrzej Wajda, although a number of other famous Poles have been honoured on the Piotrkowska – the longest and straightest road in Poland. We arrived a little before 10pm and Renata Senktas and Agnieszka Wrycza, two more BC employees and effectively our personal assistants for the weekend, joined us. The plan was to freshen up and then go out for a drink before heading to a rave that had been organised by the BC. The night life in Poland is different than that of the UK, for starters people don’t actually start going out until later in the evening and the pubs and Polish bars begin to get really busy about 10pm and you can drink through until when you finish (unless you have an unsocial bar owner). Beer was very cheap, less than £1 per pint and is both very strong and free from all the shit chemicals that are pumped into our beers. Subsequently you drink it easier and you get pissed faster! By the time we arrived at the rave Martin could only stand so much and decided he needed to go back to his bed and sleep to prepare for our big day. I wasn’t quite as sensible and we stayed at the rave until I thought my ears were going to bleed and I asked the girls if they fancied going somewhere a bit quieter. It appears that they were hoping for us to say this for the last hour, so a relieved troop of Brits and Poles left the rave and headed for the bar next door to the hotel. I was amazed that we were even let in at 2am in the morning, but we were and along with a couple of friends of the BC girls, we sat and talked and joked and got to know each other for two more hours before I realised that if I didn’t find my bed I would probably die. I managed to crawl into bed about 5am.

My phone started ringing about 8.30 but I was oblivious to it. At 9.45 I finally answered it. It was Agnieszka, where was I? In my room I said. “You must hurry we are expected there in ten minutes.” Okay, I said, put the phone down and fell promptly back to sleep. The phone jolted me awake again ten minutes later. It was Martin, I told him I needed to shower, so I’d catch them up, but I would be there, so not to worry. What followed was a perfect example of why drink should be completely banned from everywhere.

I had taken some stinky marijuana with me in my underpants, not a sensible thing to do but under the circumstances and my rather fragile state of mind (my father had died less than a month earlier); I decided it was a risk I was going to take. My only concern about having it was in case one of the maids smelled it and reported me to the desk staff. This was many years after the downfall of communism, but you just didn’t fancy arguing with some of these strapping women or the possibility of having to explain myself to non-English speaking Polish policemen with guns and big sticks. Anyhow, I got up and staggered to the bathroom wondering why it was that every convention I ever went to ended up with me sitting in my bathroom the next morning wishing I were dead? I finally hauled my arse into the shower and at 10.15 I was almost human and getting my shit together. I decided that what I really needed was a big reefer to get me going, so I rolled one, smoked half of it and decided I’d have the other half at a good opportunity during the morning, maybe outside the convention centre, even if it was sub-zero again and threatening snow.

I walked out of the front of the hotel and onto Piotrkowska; you remember the straightest and longest road in the whole of Poland. Piotrkowska became my personal nightmare.

Now this is simple, the hotel was actually about 1000 metres from the convention centre. You had to walk out of the front of the hotel, turn right and then immediate right and follow your nose. I had this vague recollection of where the convention centre was and through my alcohol pickled memory and drug addled mind, I distinctly remembered we approached the hotel in the van from the right, my left as I stood there. So, I turned left. It was 10.30am. I walked, expecting to see the Lodzki Dom Kultury on my left within a few minutes, so why on earth when I’d walked for half an hour down Piotrkowska didn’t I realise there was something wrong?

It was cold and I basically found that I’d warmed myself up no end with my relentless forward marching. At 11.00 I stopped and had a look around. I was also quite exhausted and felt really dehydrated, but couldn’t speak Polish and didn’t really have much hope of finding someone who could speak English. To make matters worse I could not remember the name of the building I was supposed to be going to and I’d forgotten the name of the bloody hotel I was staying in. I suddenly felt very isolated, very small and very, very lost. So I did the obvious thing, I continued walking further away from the Grand Hotel and the Lodz Centre of Culture. At 11.20 I realised that something had gone very wrong and began to have some flashbacks to the night before. I suddenly thought I was going to have a heart attack, I felt hot and dizzy. I sat down on a bench and figured the only thing I could do was go back the way I’d come. But first to calm my nerves I finished the half a spliff from earlier. That could have been disastrous because I suddenly had a moment of inspiration, I knew where the convention centre was, it was actually behind the hotel and that meant that if I just took a right at the next road and then took another left at the one after that I would soon run into it.

Did I say that comics fans were imbeciles? Include me in that. I started left at the first opportunity and soon realised the road I was on was not like the other grid system roads, it was winding away and in the wrong direction. So I cut across a small park and found myself on another road, one I’d passed about 10 minutes earlier. I then got a text message and suddenly I realised my troubles were over, I could phone Martin and all would be sorted. Except my mobile didn’t work, I couldn’t ring him. The text was asking me where I was and I replied I was lost and hopefully now I’d worked out where I was I should be about 45 minutes away. Martin’s reply was ???? and I could understand why, it had taken him 3 minutes to get to the centre. I realised that I had to go back to Piotrkowska and just walk back to the Grand Hotel and that’s what I did. I worked it out that by the time I got back to the Hotel, at 12.45; I’d walked 7 kilometres (possibly more as I’m a fast walker and have a long gait) on a hangover and severely dehydrated. I had missed the opening ceremony – one of the star guests had failed to show and poor old Martin was left apologising for his associate’s bad manners – but we weren’t due on stage until 4pm that afternoon, so I figured I could properly sort myself out before going to the culture centre, which, after looking at the details I’d failed to take with me, I realised was so close I was going to be a tad embarrassed. I took another shower, drank a lot of water and rolled myself another spliff, which I smoked on the way to the centre. I got there at just after 1.15pm still feeling pretty crappy and was rather taken aback by the place – not only did it have mine and Martin’s name in 6 foot high letters out the front, people seemed to know who I was and were letting me wander past them into the centre. The guy who would act as our translator, a local lad called Zbeshyk who had spent three years at Dublin University and had a distinctly Irish brogue to his Polish accent, greeted me. Everyone was panicking, the schedules had been changed and we were going on at 2.30pm instead of 4. I looked at him and laughed. “I need liquid and some place quiet where I can collect my thoughts.” They of course wanted to know where the bloody hell I’d been and I figured the best policy was honesty, so I told them, much to everyone’s hilarity.

Neither Martin nor I had done any preparation; in fact, we’d only recently both looked over the script. It all seemed to be unravelling before our eyes. To make matters worse after being given enormous amounts of assurances that Poland was equipped with all the latest technology, they didn’t think the centre had either a laptop or a projector. Fortunately they did and we began to set up in the main hall. I felt like shit and was drinking too much water. Martin told me to just sit and follow my script if I felt bad (which I did). We went away and spent twenty minutes doing some rehearsing and then we were called. By the time we arrived at the main hall it was completely packed out, there were people waiting in the wings, up the stairs, hanging over balcony, there was nearly 1000 people all counted and my sweats were turning cold. Our translator ran through a few things, we would have to pause every other paragraph so he could tell it in Polish, this broke up our rhythm slightly, but it actually added to the fun in the end.

We took to the stage, me sitting in the shadow of the big screen and Martin dancing around the stage like he was born to it – he reminded me of a sort of manic Tommy Steele. He did a little ad-libbing and asked the audience a few questions, which the English speakers answered. We then got underway, I had given Renata the important job of operating the slide show and the audience fell quiet. A Polish creator, one who we’d given exposure to came on stage and introduced us to rapturous applause. We began, and I was a bag of nerves and felt awful. Martin kicked off, but I stopped him, he looked at me with utter horror in his face – he’d already thought I’d bottled the opening ceremony, what did he think I was going to do now? I turned to Zbeshyk and asked him to translate for me. “Before Martin starts I’d just like to say I think Poland is a great country, it has many beautiful women [shouts of agreement from the English speakers] and wonderfully strong and cheap beer! Does anyone have a cure for really bad hangover?” This got a laugh and the ice was broken, Martin introduced me and I introduced him, the slide show got underway and after about five minutes I realised that if I stood up and walked around the stage I’d probably feel a bit better. So armed with our scripts we roamed the stage and entertained the Poles.

We should have been on 45 minutes, but we ended up on stage for over an hour. We were asked many questions, we told some funny stories, and we talked about the slides and what we’d achieved and how grateful and humbled we were to be invited over. After the presentation we were mobbed by creators and fans from all over Poland and the surrounding countries, it was overwhelming and Martin was feeling the same way as I did – humbled. We were nothing in comics, really. A couple of failed editors with a couple of good things on our CVs being treated like Stan Lee or Bob Kane. But they explained to us why; we had done something for them, for the Czech Republic and for other countries that no other English speaking magazine did – we acknowledged their existence and told the world – look, these guys are good! This was the ultimate accolade for them and because we were responsible for such a well-received and professional magazine they couldn’t understand our humility – but it meant for an even playing field when we talked to them.

It was a fabulous weekend and not because of this adulation, we were treated like friends and made to feel very welcome. The Poles know how to party, and I think you need a healthy dose of occupation in your past to be able to really appreciate life, and they go about enjoying themselves with such gusto that even crap 1980s pop music takes on its own charm when you are in the presence of a far greater ratio of beautiful women than males.

I had always gone to British conventions knowing that it was the social side that was what I really went there for. The Poles made British partying seem so… British. And of course the weirdest thing was when gorgeous young nymphs walked up and asked you dance, as soon as they realised you were English you could probably have asked for the Earth and been served it on their naked bellies! And what did these wonderful young women think when they found out we were there for a comics convention? They thought it was ‘cool’. That was about the most derisory comment made about comics all weekend. It might be a different culture and a different way of life, but they haven’t got preconceptions of anyone – a person is assessed on the person and the not the things he or she is into.

The Polish comics industry is also a healthy business and comics are cheap, therefore people have no qualms about buying them, even in a country that is desperately poor. The publishers are approachable and friendly and talk to you like businessmen rather than promoted fanboys. The creative people, while obsessed with working in the US (we now know why this is such a dream for them), are eager to impress people with their talent. They’ll go out of their way to accommodate you and one such artist had to use a translator to tell me that the article I had put together on him earlier in the year had led to him getting more offers of work not just in Poland and he was now regarded as the hottest artist in Poland! He said it was all down to me and my magazine and that made me feel a hundred feet tall.

Did I say we felt humbled? We both felt we had to do something and that night at the restaurant we told Pat, Clint and the BC girls that we were going to put together a special Polish edition of Borderline as a thank you to the people. The idea went down extremely well and we began to feel that Poland had so much more to offer us than the UK. I think if Martin and I could have walked away from our responsibilities and moved there we might have. It would have been easier for Martin, as I doubt my wife and menagerie would have been pleased having to locate to Eastern Europe – however cheap.

The British Council had organised a day of sightseeing on the Sunday but Martin and I declined to go, asking instead if anyone minded if we went back to the convention and talk to the people we didn’t get the chance to talk to the previous day and forge some more links. I think the girls at the BC were quite touched by this and Renata decided she would accompany us as our translator and guide. The three of us did the convention, said ‘do widzenia’ to lots of new friends and then did some shopping on Piotrkowska, which now didn’t seem quite so hellish, but just as long. We had been blessed with a snowstorm the night before, so we got to see Poland under an inch of the white stuff for a couple of hours, which seemed to brighten the dingy Soviet-styled architecture. We had both fallen in love with Poland and we felt we owed them for their hospitality. So we returned to the UK with big plans and we had a new team of contributors on board, a bunch of willing and talented Poles.

[A quick aside: Polish pizzas are vile things – never be tempted if you go there!]

Unfortunately the response from most of the old contributors was not good. We had decided to reinvent Borderline as a magazine that spotlighted particular countries. We would do two editions, one in English and one in the most widely spoken language in the country we were focussing on. It would be entertaining while teaching the rest of the world about the comics of other countries, and it would act as a great advertisement for the creative talents of whatever country we looked at. We also had a definite way of approaching European publishers for either sponsorship or advertising (and the idea came up that we might talk some publishers into producing a printed version of Borderline for that country’s newsstands and speciality shops). Martin and I were so full of enthusiasm that we didn’t really consider that we were the two who had just had the free trip and all the praise, now we wanted the rest of the team to just get back on the horse and help us repay something they didn’t see any of. It was an understandable feeling and I wasn’t surprised when we had less than an enthusiastic response. It was down to Martin and me, with some help from Jay, Mike Kidson if he could and Dennis Wojda, our new Polish assistant editor. The Poles did what they said they would, from the articles to the translation they delivered and this lifted us because everything else was falling apart.

For starters I couldn’t import any of the Polish documents into the DTP system I used to produce Borderline and when we finally cracked it, it imported it as plain text and stripped out all of the Polish Cyrillic language and replaced it with unusable symbols. I then decided to try and produce the English version first and the changes I’d made to my operating system meant that I now had a similar problem with English texts, they wouldn’t import and the only way I could get them into a document was to strip away all the house styles that had already been put in place. We also had a deal with a Polish website, which was going to host the Polish version, but our contact with them disappeared and for three months we didn’t know if they were still interested. By the time Christmas came and went and we entered into 2004 it was just becoming too much of a chore, only part of the issue was finished, our host for the UK edition had already put a limit on the amount of downloads we could have and I just sat at my desk one evening in February and decided enough was enough. We sent a press release out stating we were no longer going to try and produce Borderline anymore and even though it had been nearly a year since the last regular issue we had hoped to keep going and re-launch, but that wasn’t going to happen. We finally heard from the Polish website and they offered to take the issue from us and put it online in English and Polish and give us all the credit – we accepted, we felt that the work the people had done deserved to be seen by more than just a handful of us.

Borderline was officially over.

Next up: what Phil did next