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

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