Thursday, 5 January 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifty)

v) the parallax view.

In this final section I had to make a lot of hard decisions. As I’ve made it clear, I wrote this between 5 and 7 years ago and apart from having to change the tenses of many of the previous paragraphs, the majority of it has been historical. This part was a mixture of miscellany and what I and many others saw as the future of comics. Arguably, with a bit of work, I could have said something like: This is what everyone thought would happen in the next 5 years and here’s what did happen! But even that wouldn’t have worked; a lot of water has passed under the bridge and emphasises have changed and a lot of the things people were sure about didn’t happen. But there is one major element missing from making that idea work. I haven’t been involved in comics for a long time and I was the ‘comics economist’ in the industry and no one has really replaced me. Yes, there are people out there who are statisticians or are industry commentators, but the things that I focused on aren’t focused on by these people. This is not a criticism; I’m pretty much happy to admit that aspects of the comics industry interested me considerably more than just about everyone else. I worked on the Comics Economics section of Comics International for many years and changed it from just a list of sales figures into a full blown economic breakdown, one that examined trends and delved into the pure maths of comics economics. It was boring, but Dez Skinn liked it because it gave CI some gravitas and did something no one else attempted.
So, I was left with a decision to make when I approached the editing of this tome. Do I risk embarrassment and run the entire section of this ‘book’ as it was in May 2005, or do I hack and slash this last section and rewrite parts of it?
I did a bit of both.
But first, let’s take a break and talk about people with a serious lack of humour.
About six months after Borderline started something new appeared on the Internet, it had actually begun life twelve months earlier when I was sitting, bored, looking at a Warren Ellis daily editorial, which he, without being asked to do, circulated round the US comics world like he was speaking the word of God or at least had borrowed Moses’ tablets and was doing his own updated version of them. To me, he was using the Internet news services as a tool to force his opinions on other people – not that there’s anything wrong with that, he’s just one of thousands of people who do it every day, it's called Blogging.

To counter his daily editorials, I created a character called Warren Ellis-Bextor – I created a bogus e-mail account, also a bogus Internet forum (like Ellis’s) and started to post on the web as regularly as Ellis himself was. All the columns were trying to do was put a humorous spin on this comicbook spin-doctor. After the first few spoofs appeared the response was great, people liked the irreverence but probably enjoyed the fact that someone was taking the piss out of the master of the putdown. I admit, this was done with a soupçon of spite.

This immediate impact gave me an idea, coupled with another idea that was given to me. I liked the idea of doing something regularly that lampooned the comics industry – I wouldn’t be the first, but I wanted to be the most cutting edge and it to have the most vicious satire I could muster. A couple of friends knew what I was doing and they proved invaluable over the coming months. At the same time I received, at the bogus email account, an invitation from one of the wannabe comics websites called Silver Bullets Comicbooks asking me if I/we would like to write a column for the website. No monies were offered, nor could I receive any without giving away my identity and anonymity was vitally important because like any good coward I needed to hide behind something to be able to get away with what I was doing. I toyed with the idea, was given an editor who basically couldn’t edit, told Silver Bullets that I did it without an editor or not at all and they agreed. How very Alan Moore of me!

Spoof Central was born. The first column appeared late in 2002, around the time of the rather confusing decision by the USA to punish the Iraqis for not having anything to do with 9/11. It didn’t pull any punches:

Comic fans included in Bush’s list of ‘Alliance of Evil’.
It’s funny, but not so long ago a famous person said, “a well-placed strategic missile would rid us of these hopeless wank stains once and for all”. Of course that specific famous person was talking about comics fans.
It now appears that the above statement might not be as shocking or as stupid as you might think, now the US has included comics fans in the list of potential aggressors to the free world. In fact, US intelligence has released information suggesting an attack at the height of convention season would be the optimum time to launch a pre-emptive strike or counter-offensive. The Free World Alliance led by US President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is currently looking at a way of maximising its attacks. However, one source close to the President revealed to this reporter, “We believe if we indiscriminately bombed US comics conventions, someone would probably notice a pattern and by the third one the effectiveness at ridding the world a large portion of the comics community would be lost and these stinky buggers would probably drive everything underground, making open attacks either by missiles or ground forces difficult.”
However, one prominent US general said, “If we were to bomb the San Diego Comics Convention and Wizardworld in Chicago, two major conventions with a huge turn out of people, we believe we can wipe out a big percentage of both fans and creators. The beauty is whatever havoc is wreaked at one, more will turn out at the other to praise, eulogise and generally fawn over their fallen heroes, thus making the second strike as devastating, if not more so, than the first.” Allegedly Mustard Gas hasn't been ruled out as an alternative if comics people relocate to their original homes, believed by the CIA to be the sewers.
The British government is deciding whether or not to bomb the Bristol comics convention in May. Geoff Hoon, the UK defence secretary said, “We’ll target smart bombs to hit the local pubs to make sure we kill all the UK creators and their hangers on, and we could send in the SAS to take out the UK fans.”
As the situation escalated closer to the brink of war, The US government explained why comics fans and creators are such a threat to national security and rough plans on how they will rid the world of this unpopular scourge. The Surgeon General issued this statement: “Comics fans pose a threat on a number of fronts – not only do they have knowledge of weapons of mass destruction, they also pose a serious chemical, bacterial and biological weapon threat. They operate out of covert operational cells, exchanging information and tactics with other fans all over the world. These comics fans pose a serious threat and have to be stopped. Remember it is your duty as an American citizen to wipe out these threats to American life and independent obesity.”
The US is currently on DefCon 1 and one lesser General said, “We got a call from one comics creator who said we’d have an even bigger impact if we had a Defcon ½ or even a Defcon 0 with an embossed variant cover. Whatever happens, in the event of an attack, it doesn’t matter about the civilian casualties this is a strategic defence scenario. A kill or be bored to death scenario of the likes never seen before on this planet.”
One fan, taken into custody by the CIA, professed to have knowledge of a powerful and cosmically destructive weapon called The Ultimate Nullifier. It is said that President Bush wants this weapon and has asked for Stargate SG-1 to be deployed with the Starship Enterprise to find this weapon. The fan, a resident of southern California and believed to be in his 50s, has been sent to the US military’s secret base in Cuba.
Both US and UK governments are emphasising that the threat to civilian safety is very much a reality. “Even if the nucleus of these comics fans is destroyed, there are likely to be cells all over both countries,” said Bush in a forthright speech to the Chimpanzee Guild of America.
It is believed there are cells of fundamentalists all over the globe, but only US and UK comics fans pose any real international threat. These cells can consist of up to 3 people, but rarely any more as these obsessive creatures tend to disagree over even the most fundamental elements of their religion.
All of these cells are also capable of sustained chemical and bacterial warfare. The Surgeon General also said this, “If seen in the street, members of the general public are urged not to approach them. We do not know as of yet whether they possess any members fanatical enough to become suicide bombers, but evidence from tests conducted by the FBI, on comics fans already in custody, suggests that exploding one of them could result in fall-out stretching a 60 mile radius – all of which could be fatal or seriously harmful to any living creature that comes in contact with the debris.
These fans are believed to be working for either Hydra or AIM – secret organisations the CIA are currently investigating thoroughly. The White House issued this statement: “If you have a neighbour or a tenant in your building that hasn’t been out for many weeks, has his food shipped in and/or spends hours typing or watching old episodes of Star Trek. Do not approach him even if he hasn’t paid the rent. Inform your local law enforcement agency and they will deal with the potential miscreant.” However, it is believed that 78% of all Americans have no idea what a ‘miscreant’ is.
Representatives of the French and Japanese governments were last night demanding the United Nations take action against the US and UK because of this unjust and bullying tactic aimed at a group of individuals with only mitigating evidence to suggest their involvement with weapons of mass destruction. French President Jacques Chirac said this, “Je pense les Anglais et les Américains sont un groupe de chattes effrayant.” And quite frankly this reporter agrees with him up to the point where he involves the British.
It now looks like a conflict will not be averted. The President is adamant(ium) about his decision and his chiefs of staff are all spineless jellyfish. The comics industry is aware of the devastating effects this will have on the industry, that profit margins will drop through the floor and comics would no longer be a viable proposition. Nor would they have an audience devoted to Swimsuit Specials any more.
During a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld was heard to say, “Have you managed to get through an entire day without a gas mask around them? If we rid the world of this menace now, we can build for a better comics industry, with less smelly and socially unacceptable misanthropes involved. We’re planning on bringing a series of laws that will restrict comics creators to a maximum weight of 170lbs and all comics fans have to register a sexual partner. Preferably of the opposite sex, but we will consider very sexy lesbians, who are inclined to swing both ways, especially in illustrious company.”
However, the US government is offering a regeneration package worth billions of dollars in aid to the stricken industry, just so long as it can bomb the shite out of the fans right now.

You could gauge the impact by the amount of silence that greeted it. Then the bombshell hit. A guy you’ll be meeting later did something no one else thought about doing, he tracked back the email address to the server and narrowed it down that Spoof Central was either me or someone very closely associated to me. I had a problem, but I had a solution and a way to cover my arse before the comics industry’s now best-known gossip columnist exposed me. The help I needed came from Dan Black, Borderline’s PR man and famous (to me, at least) for perfecting the bogus on-line identity. He offered to post all the Spoof Central stuff from his laptop so the IP address differed. It allowed me to come up with a slightly unlikely, but also plausible explanation to the ingenious detective. If he checked the IP addresses of every post he would see that no two on the trot were the same and all I was doing was helping out some mates, who I knew were Spoof Central, maintain their anonymity and now I was in danger of getting the blame for something I was only helping out with. The detective bought it, whether he believed it or not, I don’t know, but he never mentioned it again and a few months later when he got involved in a conversation with Spoof Central he acted like he didn’t know who he was dealing with and that suited me fine.
Spoof Central grew, not just in Internet presence but also in numbers. By the time the column had settled into a regular weekly slot at Silver Bullets there were actually five of us ‘contributing’. I was doing most of the writing, but Martin Shipp and Chris Spicer produced some sharp stuff for it under their own pseudonyms, Dan Black kept our identities safe, while our fifth member manned the email accounts and tended to our on-line persona, when I wasn’t able to. The problem with our fifth member was he was an ex-comics fan who felt more negative emotions towards comics than he could control, he was also quite possibly the most naturally surreally funny person on the team. But he hated comics fans, the ultimate nerdiness of them was something he could never get his head around and he disliked people who used the Internet to be all holier than thou – and in comics there are lots of them.

It all started innocently. Martin was in Spain, I was in Scotland, Chris was shagging his then girlfriend and pootling about on his motorbike and Dan (Mark) was off in Greece with his missus watching Radiohead play. We left the person only known as Frances Ploot in charge. Within a few days he’d managed to annoy most of his fellow Silver Bullets colleagues to the point where none of them wanted us there anymore. Frances then descended on Usenet and a host of other forums and basically told the comics reading public what a sad bunch of wankers they all were, by the time I got back from a truly dreadful holiday Spoof Central’s already fragile existence has been destroyed. We’d been going for about 4 months and not only didn’t have a home but didn’t have that many supporters any more. I sat at home with my head in my hands wondering how Frances could have let it slip. I attempted to do some damage limitation and managed to stem the tide of abuse being hurled our way but Spoof Central as a concept was finished, we had ideas to bring it back in a different incarnation but it was a pointless idea, comics fans really don’t like people taking the piss out of their subject unless it’s good, clean, relatively harmless fun. Something as vicious and nasty as Spoof Central was always destined to be a loser. In all fairness to Frances he didn’t go out of his way to deliberately ruin us, he was goaded into it. Frances had been having, what he believed was a bit of harmless fun with one of our Silver Bullet colleagues when another colleague launched into a full scale personal assault on the Spoof team. Frances wasn’t about to let some no mark insult us, so he fired back with both barrels. I’m sure it was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t last.

But before we close that small chapter a few more interesting things happened while we were doing Spoof Central. One of the things we specialised in was a regular fake interview with big comics stars – it was my particular speciality. I decided very early on that I wanted to do something a little bit odd, so I chose an obscure 1970s comics writer called Tony Isabella, who had basically been in semi-retirement for the last 20 years, but had maintained his profile by being ever-present on the Internet. I recreated Tony Isabella, gave him a completely made up origin and started talking about him as the long-lost comics genius, who walked out on Marvel and DC in the late 1970s because he was simply too good for them. Spoof Central kicked off its interviews by heaping more onto the myth we were creating by interviewing Isabella. The comics community thought it was quite touching, Isabella became an overnight fan of the spoofers and his profile increased more in a couple of months than it had in the previous 20 years. All of this despite portraying the writer as a egotistical buffoon with a penchant for schoolgirls in PE kits… We followed him with a number of actual comics greats, all of which were completely made up, all of them paying homage to Tony Isabella.

It got to the point where I started to get emails from pros who wanted Spoof Central to do some expose on them – it seemed that like with other innovations in comics that the pros were the ones who were embracing it the most. Incredibly, one such email was received from Dez Skinn, who felt he was prime material for the spoofing treatment. I replied that ‘people who ask don’t get’ and I never heard from him again, although he did get spoofed a little in one column.
But Spoof Central’s main target was the comics fan, the one we’ve talked about throughout this book so far. I suppose Spoof Central was the nucleus for this book, because I (and my humble assistants) attempted to show comics fans just what the rest of the world thought of them, or saw them as and instead of taking it as a joke (and maybe a heads up) it was greeted with extreme hostility – the fans ended up being the ones who wielded the power in this scenario – Spoof Central had crossed the line with them far too many times. I suppose one of the straws that broke the proverbial camel’s back was a series of articles, like the one printed earlier, which targeted the worst kind of comics fans. The article for which we received the most scorn from fans was this:

We’re in that wonderful period during the year where Comics Conventions are half a world away. The convention season, especially in the USA and UK, has been referred to recently as ‘The Sweat Bowl’ with San Diego being the ‘Super Sweat Bowl’ – a convention as much about body odour than comics.
Steve Horowitz, a security guard at the San Diego Convention Centre since 1992, said, “Jeez, man. Why do they hold that damned comics thing in the middle of summer in one of the hottest cities in the States? I think someone somewhere is having one God almighty laugh at us.”
It isn’t just the convention centre employees that are finding the annual BO fest tough going. Dick, of Dick’s Last Resort – one of the cities more popular hang outs, said, “We’d never turn away the business, but we feel really sorry for our regular customers, especially during the last week in July. The bar gets invaded by a horde of comics geeks, either sweaty fanboys or lard-assed creators, with huge appetites for Buffalo Wings and fizzy sodas.”
Dave Pantanzian, a resident of San Diego and a self-confessed comics geek, was a little more philosophical about the annual gathering. “There are comics conventions all over the USA, ones that attract all number of fans and creators, but this and the Wizardworld event in Chicago are the two biggest comics conventions the world has ever seen and all of this negative energy is going to have a downer affect on everybody’s feelings. Comics are the lifeblood of our future genre writers and therefore these gatherings are the ideal place for the adoring public to give thanks to these unheralded stars of modern literature and art.”
It is believed that the comics convention was born shortly after the creation of the world’s first comic book – believed by many to be The Yellow Kid #1 (but more logically it was probably done by someone else in a foreign country). Just behind a dark and dank alley in Brooklyn, or maybe New Jersey, three guys who all bought copies of The Yellow Kid #1 started to have a discussion about the merits of the medium, how finely rendered it was and if Doc Doom would be a future villain of the Kid’s? Within weeks the world saw a number of these comics speakeasies starting up and by the start of the 20th Century they were being organised in as diverse places as Montevideo, Brighton, Corfu and Melbourne, Australia. According to comics historian E. Warner Spoon, it is possible that Arch Duke Ferdinand might have had a comic book in his possession prior to the outbreak of World War One.
By the 1960s comics conventions had become so big that they had to be held in scout huts. Elias P. Shuggoth, the organiser of the first Dragon*Con – a mixture of comics, Sci Fi and Frog Wrestling – said, “we had to send out for extra chairs and by 1967 we needed a PA so that the tape of Jack Kirby talking could be heard above the chatter of the 17 attendees. These were heady days indeed.”
However, it was after the assassination of Martin Luther King, now believed to be because he was a fan of the Silver Surfer rather than for his racial and political beliefs, that really put the convention on the map. Shuggoth continued, “With King’s death and the rumour circulating underground that it might have been because of comics rather than his political beliefs, comics all of a sudden became as hip and trendy as Afros. We had brothers and sisters queuing up with geeks and white boys and the world was a peaceful place.” But then things started to go slightly Pete Tong. With comics taking over the cultural world and sales of a myriad of comics exceeding 1million per month, proper organised conventions became the norm and the summer of 1967 (or maybe 69) also became known as ‘The Summer of Comics’ as well as the Summer of Love. However, during Neil Armstrong’s now famous moonwalk (many years before Michael Jackson ever tried it) NASA picked up the following message spoken privately to Buzz Aldrin, “Hey Buzz, you like comics, don’t you?” “Yeah,” replied Armstrong’s co-pilot. “You are such a sad bastard,” was the Captain’s reply and with that off-hand, and some say humorous, quip comics were banished to the back row as being something slightly dirty and sordid. Forget Seduction of the Innocent, Neil Armstrong effectively destroyed comics’ street cred with one comment.
It didn’t matter how low the industry sank in the 1970s, it couldn’t ruin its image any more than Armstrong had on the Sea of Tranquillity. And while comics struggled to be accepted by anyone, the conventions went back underground and with that followed the transformation of the comics fan from respected man about town to misanthropic stink magnet. By the time Frank Miller and Alan Moore had attempted, almost single-handedly, to rescue the comics industry from ignominy, most comics fans were locked into their bedrooms with porn movies and heavy metal soundtracks. In fact, by 1985, just prior to the advent of the Internet, comics fans were in danger of becoming as ridiculed and derided as child molesters, train spotters and New Romantics. However, while the Batman movie saved the comics industry, it also gave the newfound keepers of comics the opportunity to further annex the devoted fans and their much-loved conventions.
The Wall Street Journal ran this famous headline in August 1988: All Comics Fans Are Twats. There was an outcry, uproar and something else that had pinko-liberals all in a huff. The United Nations were approached, but refused to be drawn into the debate. Former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros Galli said this, “How could we acknowledge comics fans as a minority and oppressed race, when the majority of comics fans throughout the world, civilised and uncivilised can be fans and live normally, have wives, children, mortgages and most importantly have lives!” This apparently seems to be a problem faced by only US and UK comics fans. In fact, during a scientific experiment conducted at Huntingdon Life Sciences Research Centre most non US and UK comics fans were diagnosed as being alive, while the fans from USA and its unofficial 51st State were found to have traces of life on them but very little else.
In the last decade conventions have become a haven for the unshaven; a Lourdes for the hordes; a massive bash for the great unwashed (OK, so that wasn’t as clever as the first two, this isn’t alliteration 101!). Comics conventions now attract many thousands of excluded people from both these blighted countries. Byron Stott, one-time co-organiser of Nerd Con summed the situation up nicely, “Conventions are now the place to be. Nerds and geeks are high profile and big business. We’re wanted now as possible consumer tools and this is why these twice-yearly mega-cons are organised. Regardless of the health risk there is a great sense of camaraderie. We know of one young man that actually managed to speak to a female security guard this year. We see these conventions as a way forward rather than as a place where normal people can gloat and point fingers.” Even if people do and have a great time doing it.
This brings us nicely back to the smell factor. This year’s major US conventions are to be sponsored by Right Guard, with a special can of deodorant issued to any attendee that sets the ‘smellometer’ off. Also staff and non-comics convention attendees will be issued with special facemasks and miniature canisters of oxygen in case of any bad smells or offensive body odours.
To sum up this story quickly, The San Diego Tourist Board said this about comics conventions in its yearly brochure: San Diego is a wonderful place. One of the cleanest cities in the United States of America we strongly urge anyone thinking of visiting our fair city to do so during the months of August thru to June. July is very hot and stinky and there are comics geeks in the bars, so it’s best if you go somewhere else that month.
In conclusion, unless these conventions centres provide showers or baths then there will always be some kind of bacterial risk to the health of normal San Diegans. However, Antonia Consuella, the mayor of Old San Diego had an innovative idea of her own. “Let’s not risk the lives of our boys in Iraq, let’s just drop comics fans on them Iraqi bastards.”

Very few people were aware of who Spoof Central were, so I decided to try and persuade certain people that we were actually a bunch of other people – semi-famous writers and artists based in Brighton. But if people posing as Nigerian millionaires can find a sucker every day then comics fans will believe anything you tell them, within reason… The other irony about getting people to believe that the offensive Spoof Central team were based in Brighton was that Dez Skinn had just recently moved Comics International down there… I expect any of the suckers who fell for it will read this and think, 'yeah, it figures...'

Next: moving on


  1. craigjohnsonesq@aol.com5 January 2012 at 10:33

    What really pissed me off about Spoof Central at the time (as one of SBCB's team) was one particularly homophobic article or series of posts - whether by 'Frances Ploot' or someone else I dunno, whether an article or posts on the boards or whatever, I don't recall - but it was on the level of (for modern folks) Frankie Boyle taking the piss out of a woman with a Down's kid.

    Some might say that comedy should have no bounds, no limits, and indeed I love the Stewart Lee brand of comedy and his attacks on, say, religion (vomiting into the open anus of Jesus, anyone?) and christ knows I wrote enough shit on All The Rage with Alan Donald, but that one felt beyond the pale, Spoof column or no. IIRC we spoke about this at the time and I ended up going to bat for SC in internal discussions under freedom of speech or some such nonsense!

    Fun times...

  2. To be honest, I don't remember a lot about the SC stuff, but saying that, it might have been our man who went toe-to-toe with Alan over an issue on the contributor boards, because that was what ended it all. I remember getting back from holiday to a mountain of mail - as 'Alfonso Crept' I was the person who did the surreal stuff - so it might have been the person known as Frances Ploot who did it. If memory recalls, didn't Alan take umbrage to something said in one of the columns and 'Frances' got all bolshy on his arse and it descended into puerility? Pah, it wasn't working any way, so I suppose it was better to burn out than fade away ;)
    There are a couple of imitation styled sites out there even now, but they were either so under-subscribed or rubbish I didn't deem them worthy of a mention. That's the problem with humour in comics - you either stay the wrong side of corn or you try for something a little 'Tramadol Nights' and fall foul of the Comics PC Police!

  3. I know for a fact comics fans have no sense of humour. My fanzine took the piss out of everything I could think of in comics during 1993-96. I don't think it sold 100 copies total in its 6 issue run.

    Or could it be my marketing and social skills were no good? Surely not.

  4. Actually, I feel bad about not mentioning you Matt, mainly because it was your humour that drew me to wanting to meet you in the first place. You were one of just a handful of people around that time (early to mid 90s) who wrote with style.
    I spent a lot of time talking about different sub-genres in comics and never realised that I belonged to one of the rarest - people who know how to appreciate comics and surrealism!