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...

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to think there are people who'd be embarrassed if they could re-read the things they said on the Warren Ellis forum c.2001. But maybe there aren't, and comics really is a medium of arrested development.