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...


  1. Having read the kindle version, I'm surprised that you omitted so many people. I expected to see more dirt dished out and anecdotes about idiots.

  2. In a couple of weeks there's a sort of prologue to the epilogue that recounts or further editorialises on either stuff that didn't make the finished version or bits I've remembered over the last 6 years.
    The book was originally written in the spring of 2005, which makes it almost 7 years old now - at the time, I had a number of stories, admissions, anecdotes and frankly gruesome stories about people in the industry; but when I came to edit it, I saw a lot of futility and perniciousness in some of the work, so, in the aid of impartiality a lot of it went. I actually admitted to another friend who's read the book that I toned down so much of the Dez Years that it's almost unfathomable that I would want to.
    It could have read like a diary of what a complete bastard my former employer was, but I pretty much think the ones I've placed in these pages do more than enough to convey the time I had with him. He, himself, used to say, 'No point in gilding the lily' and sometimes less is more.
    I also left a lot out because I didn't want to unintentionally upset people; plus I've learned enough in my years in comics to know that essentially YOU don't really want to know who was involved in a homosexual orgy in Glasgow; or who had a knee trembler outside of the Fleetway offices; which comics artist is on the sex offenders register, or tales of a retailer, who we all liked and respected, who had the dodgiest of secret lives (and that doesn't include Rob Barrow, which happened many years after this was first written). I have relayed stories where I was either just a witness or heard them second hand, but all of the tantalising things above were not mentioned, not for any legal aspect, but because their lives didn't adversely affect mine. I was not present when whatever happened happened and third hand news or stories wouldn't cut it in this.
    Plus, if you search out any of the existing Phil Hall columns floating around on the net, then there's a good chance you'll read things that weren't in this book.