Monday, 20 February 2012
Wednesday, 15 February 2012
I'm pretty sure that there will be some inaccuracies in the previous 160,000 words; but it's my take, my impression, my life and my experiences; if something is slightly chronologically wrong or I get an actual fact wrong - tough. It proves that I'm human; I get things mixed up or wrong and I don't actually care. It's my take. My life.
Since joining up on Facebook, I have reconnected with a number of real friends from my years in comics and it was one of them who suggested that I serialise this book. His argument being that even if 90% of it is boring, at least it will be a fair and even handed appraisal and that is what I hope it is. I have not embellished the history; neither have I rewritten it; every personal experience in this is 99% as accurate as I can remember. I have omitted some things from the last 30 years, not because I’m ashamed of them, but because they were just really boring and/or irrelevant to the main narrative.
There is no specific order to the following; without the following people this book wouldn't have been serialised: Dave Brzeski (for his editing to make it better for later editions), Martin Shipp, Jay Eales, Andy Winter, Mark (Dan Black) Emerson, Mike Kidson, Peter Ashton, Selina Lock, Rad Kerrigan, Loriann Luckings, Kerry Hurley, Colin Campbell, Alan McKenzie; Les Chester, Kelvin Green, Roger Trenwith, Derrick & Phil Osborne, Brian Curtis, Rol Hirst, Jim Campbell, Colin Theobald, Luan Jones, Dez Sinclair, Sarah Bolesworth, Derek G. Skinn, Paul Eke, Lou Bank, Patty Jerez, Bob Wayne, Richard Johnston, John Parkinson, Simon Coleby, Bruce Paley, Justin Ebbs, Mark (& Linda) Ellis, Graeme Bassett, Andrew Cheverton, Will Vigar, Sarah Littlehales, Kevin Hill, Stan Lee, Mike Conroy, Billy Tucci, Chris Claremont, Scott Goodman, Denis Wojda, Irwin Perreira, Paul Cranfield, Mike Sivier, Shawna Gore, Michael Martens, Fabian Nicieza, Steve Thomas, Christina Jensen, Matthew DeMonti, John Brown, Warren Ellis, Ande Morgensen, Jamie Delano, Doug Gifford, Nigel Ballock, Richard Burton, Ron Hall Jnr, Toby Stanbra, Neil McOnie, Glynn, Megan and Gifford.
Finally, just a few things I’d like to get straight, just to dispel some urban legends that seem to have been created about me.
If I was as bad as Dez Skinn claimed I was at my job, why did he employ me for over 10 years; why did he pay me upwards of £25,000 a year during many of these years and why was he so scared of Borderline, my continued presence in the industry and me possibly being employed by whoever bought Comics International to the point he made it a stipulation of the sale of the magazine that I couldn't be employed on it. Sounds to me like someone who regards me as a complete waste of time and not worthy of his attention; does it to you?
I am not homophobic, racist, sexist, misogynistic, ageist or any other ic or ist you can think of. I've worked in social care for 10 years and if I was any of the things I have been accused of then I probably wouldn’t have (and so successfully).
I am sorry if, over the years, I have offended some people - for what it's worth you probably deserved a lot of it. Some people I’ll never be sorry about and you know who you are – both of you.
Time to finally move on.
For Patricia and Ronald Hall
and Paula Hall – who suffered, for much of it silently, for many years.
Sunday, 12 February 2012
Over the duration of serialising this, a number of things became clear to me; bits and pieces that had slipped my mind and disappeared down the memory tubes of life and then resurfaced just when I thought I'd finished rinsing that section out. It got to the stage where I realised I needed to prologue the epilogue with some updated things (it was, for the most part, written, originally, in 2005 and shit happens), extra anecdotal bollocks and just anything that I wanted to add now that its long journey is about to end and I'll have another void to fill.
In 2005, on announcing I was writing a book about comics and my experiences in the industry, I was swamped with emails from people, it was like the old days when I actually worked in comics, downloading 50 emails a day! Many of these people ended up making their way into this book; some made the first draft, but ended up on the cutting room floor. Others just wished me good luck with it, while some reminded me that I should tell the truth and to remember that I’m just as responsible for a lot of the mess as everyone else. There were a few emails from people who just didn’t like the idea of me possibly spilling the beans, or telling a story about them, and there were a couple of emails full of abuse.
Many moons ago, a couple of months after Borderline was launched I answered a question someone raised on one of the comics groups I was a member of and used my answer to give a plug for something that was in Borderline that month. The question asker's response wasn’t very nice, accusing me of using the forum to promote my FREE magazine. I actually sloped off from this one because I wanted more friends than I wanted foes. A couple of months later, shortly after the Mark Waid incident on the WEF, I got an email from this guy telling me to cool it and to back off from being nasty and to just do as everyone says – the problem was I’d already posted a response which flew in the face of all his suggestions. Now his advice at the time was quite forward – it was like he was ordering me to do it rather than making a suggestion. Our friend with the advice, one David Alexander McDonald (formerly Stephen MacDonald) claimed he was a well-known musician and ex-Pat living in Arizona. Still, none of this is important, the next email from him was just unbelievable. I swear to you, there were insults, threats, language that would make a sailor blush and really no rationale for it at all. My response to him was to ignore this guy – he was freaky. Fast forward a couple of months and Dan Black is promoting Borderline on the forums and this guy enters an email exchange with him that is just an outright hail of abuse directed in my direction. Dan forwarded it all on to the editorial team and we all looked at it with disbelief – you would have thought I’d raped this guy’s wife and children, killed his mother, eaten her limbs, worn her fallopian tubes as ear rings and shot his dog – when, all I could work out was, all I’d done to the guy was posted onto an Internet forum, answered his question and plugged my free magazine.
Like I would have taken any notice of someone I’ve never heard of, popping up and giving me advice, anyhow – especially when I’ve ignored the advice of experts!
This guy was one of the two people who sent emails of abuse when I announced I was going to write this; the upshot of his message was “make sure you tell everyone what a cunt you are!” and he, if he is indeed a real person and not the figment of someone’s imagination, made me realise that I am not spotless throughout all of this, I was a willing participant for many years, despite the hardship I had and the arsehole I worked for.
I tried to change it. It is documented in Comics International, Borderline and the letters pages of various other magazines across the world. Despite my pit bull reputation, I’m actually a bit of a sensitive guy; I don’t really like upsetting people, despite the fact I’ve done it periodically and had little or no remorse. I've written for years about the Internet; it is something that I find bedazzling at times - just the fact that it didn't exist when I was an adult and now it literally runs the world, while simultaneously being a completely different world itself. I suppose it's evolution in a way. The Internet has also allowed me to be just as bad as the people I slag off. I've used it for nefarious purposes; I've hidden behind other people, but I've never hidden behind pseudonyms - if I have something to say I don't care how much of an arse it makes me look; so it has always hurt me when I've been accused of being other people; fake names are something other people I've known do. There's enough shit emanated from my keyboard, under my name, in the past to back this claim up, 100%.
But that doesn't excuse the fact that I have entered into confrontations, like an angry pit-bull and used language that I wouldn't use in real life. One of my closest friends in comics once said to me that he hated seeing my name on the boards and forums. It filled him with dread, because he reckoned that every time I knee jerked I became as bad as the person I least wanted to be like, but in a different, slightly mad way and that was in many ways worse.
I am a fool that suffers fools lightly.
I have done some pretty crappy things during my time in comics. I uncovered a news story about the former organiser of the Comics Festivals which showed that he was both corrupt and a thief; but comics fans decided that I was in the wrong for exposing this fact. As I mentioned in passing, I fell out with Warren Ellis; the thing I said to him that was so heinous was a direct attack at him in the days after his father had died; it was a low, cowardly and shitty thing to do; but it was a retaliation, a kneejerk, that was prompted by some hurtful things said about me.
However, you could argue that my argument is a load of bollocks and that I'm just saying that to try and excuse myself for some of the incredibly hurtful and disgusting things I have said on certain forums. The truth of the matter is if I go off the deep end I say shit that I should (and probably was, at the time) ashamed and embarrassed about.
Recently, while going through the blog's stats, I followed a link to someone I had a run in while working on my Eat Shit and Die column for the Comics Village. When you read some of my comments out of context (or even in context) they are appalling. I attacked a couple of women with some harsh and pretty vile language. I sat here and thought, 'Jesus Christ, with evidence like that existing on the Internet, a lot of people are going to take what I say with a pinch of salt and probably justifiably reckon I got what I ultimately deserved.'
Then I followed the link back further, to the entire conversation that took place in the comments section after an article by Rick Sharer. Now, there isn't really justification for some of the unfounded accusations and attacks I made on two particular women readers, but if you analyse the entire thread you can at least see why someone would jump off the deep end.
Comics columns are written on the Internet with probably the main reason being to get feedback and stimulate debate - after all, the Internet allows instantaneous reaction and what's the point of having columns with comments if you don't want to hear the opinions of others? Rick's column, if I recall correctly, was one of his Dave Sim appreciation pieces and as briefly mentioned elsewhere, Dave Sim has become a controversial figure in comics through his eccentric views, strange life choices and outspoken opinions - he polarises people. He is Marmite man. Rick is an acolyte, his two detractors in the comments section would have gladly worn Sim's testicles as necklaces.
Both women's comments were direct verbal assaults on Rick, his opinions and the person he was writing about. They were forthright, mildly offensive and frankly slightly over the top. Both women guilty of making personal attacks on Rick rather than being analytical and because Rick has always been very supportive of my work, I felt these people needed to know what it was like to be side-swiped, to be attacked for no other reason than because they can. It maybe never came across like that and subsequently as I have said, standalone comments show me to be a misogynistic pig and a few of the other things I have been accused of, but in many ways what these people did to Rick was just as bad.
Things were made worse, of course, because I offered to slap one of the women because her opinions weren't based on fact, they were based on her dislike of Rick's opinions, but again all I was trying to point out was that it didn't matter who you are if you are offensive to people then you deserve to get slapped - literally or metaphorically.
The sad fact is that while that and a couple of other Internet meltdowns do not make pleasant reading, I don't really care now because my life is so much more enjoyable without having to stop myself from going apoplectic at some moron with their ridiculous opinions every time i open a comics forum or page whenever I go on line. If people want to remember me, they can remember me however they please.
My life at Quality Communications Limited – Dez Skinn’s company – was filled with great times; I did indeed get paid for working in my hobby and I was the envy of many people in the industry. With hindsight, I would loved for the people who were jealous of me; who tried to get my job (remember doing that, Fabio?) when I was there and said some pretty horrible things about me, so they could possibly replace me. They should have suffered the shit I had to; but ultimately it was me who did and I chose to. Working there made me quite bitter about things because I did so much for Skinn, his magazine and the comics industry, but got royally butt-fucked by it all on numerous occasions.
I mentioned briefly during the previous instalments that Comics International was eventually sold. The main details I do not have, but I do know that Dez Skinn sold it to a company called Cosmic Publishing and that Mike Conroy took over as the head honcho and then successful destroyed the magazine because he had zero idea, after all those years of working with an expert, how to run one. CI managed less than a half a dozen issues once Dez exited, stage left. Most of them were poorly produced, very late and pissed off what few advertisers there were left. Conroy then tried to make amends by releasing something called Multiverse, which was, (from what I've heard, I haven't seen nor do I want to see a copy) a big pile of stale tripe.
I am also aware that several former employees of Dez Skinn no longer are on speaking terms with him. Now, back in my day, Dez used to talk about the previous employees who shafted him, these include Win Wiacek, David Akinsenya and Gary Lawford - all of which are no longer friends or even on speaking terms with the man; yet he's never at fault. Win stole from him. David wasn't a good journalist. Gary betrayed him. I fucked him over on countless occasions. Kerry betrayed him. Either he wasn't a good judge of character, or he did something to cause this grief. I know what I think. Recently, Loriann and I reconnected; she doesn't have anything to do with Dez either; I'm not interested in the reasons, it just seems to prove a point. People grow to dislike him; it has nothing to do with jealousy, but more to do with the fact that you're working for a child; one who is as predictable as a fox in a chicken coop.
In the years that have passed since writing the majority of this tome, I have found it tough to keep away from comics. I wrote a column for 18 months for The Comics Village called Eat Shit and Die. I'd like to think that some of the stuff I did on there was better than anything I've ever contributed to comics; despite the fact that it was essentially me calling comics fans a bunch of sad pathetic wankers. The thing was, it started off like that, but eventually swung into damning with faint praise and then defending it because of the illogical way comics have been portrayed in the 'real world'. It was the forerunner to this book in real time, but I think I ended up expressing a lot of what's said in this book in that column.
I also had a brief flirtation with my old life when I discovered that I owned the conceptual rights to the columns I wrote for Comics International; this resulted in me writing a Movers & Shakers column for a while. It was here that I uncovered two massive stories which didn't have the impact that you would have expected. Uncovering fraud and embezzlement perpetrated by one of comics' best known names had me being attacked for exposing the fact that a well known organiser had stolen money; while the man responsible for the theft must have been watching and thinking that he'd woken up on Earth X. When he admitted his culpability, the hordes witnessing this amazing story develop, threw their weight behind the criminal and shot the messenger.
The other information was that the venerable Eagle Awards; the much respected UK comics awards, were actually fixed and regardless of how many votes were cast, a huge percentage of winners were already decided; this fell the other side of the stool and barely anyone was the remotest bit interested. It made me realise that comics had returned to being what they had once been - a cottage industry. If trade news and internal affairs are not deemed worthy of coverage by the comics press then there is no point reporting on it!
Someone asked me last week if I'd included X in my story and I hadn't. My reaction was that certain things and anecdotes would get lost, the bloody thing is already complicated, jumbled up and to add further wrinkles to the story would only make it impenetrable.
Take Movers & Shakers, probably the thing I'm the proudest of in all my time in comics - yes, even prouder than Borderline. Mainly because Movers got me to a point that wouldn't have happened had there not been a Movers.
The column had very rocky foundations; it was essentially a marketing column that needed a bit of gossip to make it more interesting than watching paint dry [a few years after creating Movers, I re-created a column for CI called Comics Economics - the name had existed prior to my handling it, but the content was considerably different. It studied, in facts, the state of the industry from an economic point of view; where Movers was quirky, this column was as dry as a dinosaur bone]. At the time I was about to submit my first column, a friend of mine in the industry told me about a friend of his who was fast becoming a big name in comics. My friend's friend had a new girlfriend, one that meant a lot to him, as long as he got her home for 9pm every week night so she could get up for school the next day. Being somewhat journalistically mischievous, I included this 'snippet' in and Dez loved it so much he promoted its position within the copy. Of course it raised the bar; I needed to come up with something every 28 days that fulfilled the 'gossip column' criteria.
There were times when some of my mischief almost landed me or the magazine in trouble. like the time I suggested that long time Marvel writer Peter David - a friend of the magazine - regarded the artist he was working with on The Hulk as looking like a horse (Dale Keown did indeed look like an equine, but David never said it) or various DC news stories throughout the mid 1990s which led DC's Patty Jeres to comment to me at one convention, "We look forward to your column every month to see what we're doing and then we don't do it!"
If ever Dez got a bee in his bonnet about some of the spurious bullshit we used to run, I'd blame someone else for the story and then um and arr about revealing sources and how the person who told me was usually reliable, so my guess would be that there is more to this story - you know 'thou doth protest too much' kind of thing. My little 'fart bombs' were sometimes really harmful, but in general they were the little light relief I got from the relentless shit I had to take at times.
If I revealed to the world that a (fictitious) Californian computer company had developed software that allows anyone to draw like Jack Kirby, thus making comics creating accessible to everybody who owns a PC; I'd get a laugh. Ironically, as I might have alluded to in the main body of this, a load of the made up bullshit stories ended up coming true. One of the most notable was digitised comics; before you could download comicbooks, I put a space filler about software which would allow you to digitise your entire comics collection and read them off of a set of floppy discs!
I might have suggested throughout the book that at times people associated to British comics journalism were often maligned, especially by bullish Yanks. One high profile writer/artist in the late 1990s replied to my introductory email to him with, "Give me one good reason why I'd want to talk to a shitmongerer like you?" One of my contacts needed to assure this one time Superman writer/artist that I could be spoken to and was actually quite ethical.
Superman/Paul Sasseinie; Alan Moore/Swamp Thing: stories that change as the years pass...
I wrote the above as a note to myself, but it perfectly illustrates what I'm about to tell you. Who knows what is right.
Apocryphal story 1: Sasseinie is an ex-retailer and comics historian who was friends with DC's Mike Carlin, the then-editor of the Superman family of titles. The two of them were having dinner at a restaurant and Carlin was bemoaning the fact they needed to do something BIG with Superman. For a joke, Sasseinie suggested they do an old Silver Age trick and kill off the hero. The two chewed over the idea and nothing was said of it again.
Six months later, DC announced the Death of Superman.
A couple of months after this news came the story that it was an idea of Dan Jurgens - the then-chief Superman creator.
Several years later, when DC had their 75 years documentary made, the story seemed to suggest that it was a decision by committee.
Perhaps in ten years or so, it'll have been Dez Skinn's idea?
Apocryphal story 2: Before I got back into comics, I was hanging around the Northampton music scene, which had seen Bauhaus become huge a few years earlier and fancied itself as a hotbed of musical ability, like it's viewed now as a hive of potential comics creators.
My old and good friend Mitch Jenkins - a photographer and currently co-conspirator with Alan Moore on a number of projects - was having his first exhibition. I was helping him move frames and equipment from his village cottage at the time, when I saw a stack of Alan's Swamp Thing comics. Obviously, I was intrigued, especially as Swamp Thing played such a key role in my life and we got talking about it. He told me Alan would be at the opening of the exhibition and that proved to be the first time I met Moore.
The meeting didn't go particularly well. Not enamoured by what I'd read, after introductions, I said that I'd been reading his Swamp Thing comic. "What do you think?" He asked, and my reply was short and succinct. "Well, it's not really Swamp Thing is it?"
But that's an aside. I was more intrigued as to how the guy who once produced a newspaper strip called Maxwell the Magic Cat under the pseudonym of Jill DeVray had ended up writing the comic I'd been smitten by; so I asked him. He told me that he'd heard from various people that Swamp Thing was on the verge of cancellation, so he decided to contact DC and offered to turn the comic into a hit or they needn't pay him. I'm paraphrasing badly, but he said that he showed DC that they had nothing to lose, so they took the gamble and it paid off, with the title winning awards and sales going higher than they had ever been before.
The same DC 75th anniversary film has Karen Berger - a long-standing DC editor and the woman behind Vertigo - claiming it was all her idea and to back this up they had archive footage of a rather hyper Moore corroborating the story...
Retailing: during the few good months before things went tits up at Squonk!! Brian and I decided to try and do something pretty much fatal when you haven't got steady foundations - we looked into opening a 2nd shop.
The place we were considering was Rugby - Station Terrace - in a shop that was better than the one in Wellingborough, but was also far too open plan, with a massive window that was actually part of the shop floor. We figured with the amount of stock we had, we could rotate everything around and one of us could run each shop. Brian thought if I launched the Rugby shop, he could take it over after a few months and I could return to shop #1. I sometimes think he only wanted to get a shop in Rugby because it was amenable to a pub that sold really good Thai food in a village called Walcote.
The thing is it really is one of the worst things you can do - double your overheads. You can almost convince yourself that it's a practical and good idea; you can paint it so you can convince a bank manager that it will float despite all the unseen holes in it. We got to within a hair's breadth of signing the papers and getting shop fitters in and getting ourselves into another £10k of debt. With hindsight, we perhaps should have done it, but I'm glad we didn't. I think Rugby could have handled a comic shop. The place we looked at became Hope's a big, independent ... newsagent!
I'd just like to point out that Lou Bank has never ever worn Armani.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dez_Skinn is a great work of fiction and borderline libel. There was (and possibly has been reinstated) a section of Skinn's Wikipedia entry that pertains to Comics International. This section featured about a dozen lines suggesting that I have perpetrated a hate campaign against him since 2001 and that information I've given has been factually inaccurate. He claims that my mother died in 1996 and he didn't fire me because I couldn't be fired because I was a freelancer. I would love to test this theory in a court of law...
You have to admire the audacity of the man, at times and his ego for writing his own Wikipedia entry (at least someone else wrote mine and that is an interesting story in itself: in 2005, around the time I was writing this, a Phil Hall wiki entry appeared and it was really quite nasty. I wish I still had what it said, but it basically accused me of lots of things and had one of those editorial warning signs on it when it was pointed out to me. A friend rewrote it completely and even though I was really tempted to go and clean it up, I left it alone).
Skinn has walked around rewriting history for the last 30 years about anyone who has fallen out or foul with him. I don't know if its delusion (probably) or some other mental health problem, but I do know that certain pros in comics have grown to understand that Skinn's recollection of events is often diametrically opposite of their own. It begs just the one question - is he that perfect that everybody who has ever said anything even remotely detrimental about him must be lying?
At some point in the mid 1990s, Skinn had decided that he needed to sell off all the thousands of comics he'd accumulated. These included most of the freebies I received; lots of stock that failed retailers dumped on him when they went out of business and the stuff he kept without much value - runs of Ms Marvel, Rom, and stacks of Archie books.
He asked me if I wanted to go to Birmingham with him and bring Mammary Lass to help sell them, but I was busy, which incidentally angered him. I mentioned to Luan about it and she said she'd do it for the money. She called Dez and they agreed that Luan and the Hippie (from the upstairs shop in Squonk!!) would be Dez's salesmen for the weekend. This included hotel rooms and some food as well as a flat fee for the weekend. The intention was to sell everything and have a party on the proceeds, however by the end of the first day things were not going according to plan for Skinn.
He was confident that he could easily take over £1000, but by the end of the first day, they'd taken less than £100 and Luan and Hippie were bored. Dez had fallen foul of one of his homespun bits of retailing advice; it didn't matter how cheap his comics were, if they were a load of shit then no one will want to buy them. Dez was also gradually getting into a really bad mood; none of his plans were working out. He had hoped to tempt Luan into coming to this two-day fantasy thing because he wanted to get into her knickers - he had made no secret of it and refused to believe that I'd never 'been there'. Dez liked easy women and he perceived Mammary Lass as easy because she had no problem showing some cleavage. The truth was that Luan was very choosy about whom she had sex with and Dez wouldn't have even made it onto her radar.
Luan had told him straight after the first day of trading; she was not interested in him and she and the Hippie then got Dez to pay for food and drink all evening, which was supposed to have come out of the takings but was coming out of his pocket instead. He also pulled the same stunt with them as he did with me at Bristol. He only booked two rooms; a single and a double and he intended to be sleeping in the double room. He did. Luan and the Hippie, who were doing heaps of drugs by this time of the night, shared the single room, leaving Dez to contemplate his navel in a big bed, all on his own. He had been that presumptuous, he believed that just by asking Luan, or rather offering her his double bed that she was going to give my boss sex. Even in his 40s, Mr Chauvinist needed to learn a lot about the human race.
As usual, the next day it was like nothing had happened. Dez erased the previous 24 hours out of his head, rewrote it with a far more PC version and got on with his life. The second day was as bad as the first and they end up taking about £180 all weekend. Dez sold what was left to another dealer for £30 - 3000 comics worth at least 10p each and in the end, he was so desperate to get rid of them he got 1p for every four comics sold. The hotel bills alone cost him more than he took. Before they parted company, he tried to explain that he'd made no money so he couldn't pay them, but the hippie pointed out that they were employed for a flat fee; that is what Dez had said: £50 each for the weekend, plus bonuses if all the comics got sold. Dez tried to protest, but the hippie pointed out that not only did Dez owe them £50 each, he owed both of them an extra £20 each because he had agreed a 10% of total takings if he didn't have to drive back to London with any comics.
Dez protested, but the Hippie and Luan just held out for their rightful money and Dez had to pay it because they were friends of mine and that meant if he didn't pay it would look even worse. So Dez got more money from the hole in the wall, paid my friends and went back to Finchley with his tail between his legs. He never mentioned the entire weekend to me once when I went down to work the following week and even when I mentioned it, Dez seemed to be more critical of the organiser than anything else. I, of course, knew what had happened (I knew by 7pm on the Sunday night!), but I didn't let on. I had, by this time, worked out that it was best not to do or say anything that might attract his attention. He usually didn't care who he took his anger out on, just so long as he could.
I'm feeling benevolent; it must be old age. Not all nerds are creepy - most of them are weird, but harmless. Some of them I don't even feel should be ridiculed for their fanatical obsessions; their desire to dress up in costumes or learn a fictional language. There are people out there for whom comics are their life. Be it through illness, disability or mental health problems, comics give them an outlet to express themselves and feel happy.
I might be the first person to make derogatory comments about the uber-nerds at conventions, but if you look at photos of them - they never, ever look like they are there under duress. They are being themselves in an environment that makes them ecstatic and good luck to them.
I've repeated myself a lot throughout this book, hopefully to emphasise points that I felt needed embellishment; but I will say that without a lot of the people I've directly or indirectly ridiculed during this book, without them I wouldn't have had such an ultimately interesting life in comics.
Thursday, 9 February 2012
Comics Lesson 25:
With the waters already muddying up, let’s throw the final bucket of shit into the mire. Fandom: we’re entering true nerd territory here. Fandom is rather neatly summed up by this quote from US retailer Steve Fischler of Metropolis Comics, “If you go to a convention, you’ll see a lot of strange people. I’ve always wondered: Are these normal people turned strange by comic books? Or were they strange already and comic books just attracted them?” Coming from a man who runs a comics store this seems a bit rich, but that’s just my opinion. What he says is both funny and very accurate. Even though the weirdoes only represent a small percentage of comics fandom, they are by far and away the most recognisable and therefore the entire comics industry has this stigma attached to it as a haven for miscreants, undesirables and perverts. Comics the place to be if you’re a social outcast!
Fandom isn’t unique to comics, but if ever there was a concept that applied to this industry ‘fandom’ was it. I’ll stick my neck out and say Stan Lee probably created organised comics fandom during the early years of Marvel’s superhero renaissance. Not only did he turn his comics into ongoing soap operas, he welcomed the fans, their comments and their ideas with open arms – the fans were the people who put the money in his pocket, they had to be shown some respect. He even started a fan club that made fans feel as though they were part of the entire process. That is what fandom is and by default, I have been slagging off the people who make fandom; the nerds and geeks who have the time to devote to making fandom a real place.
Fandom is an odd word and Wikipedia has this as the definition: Fandom (from the noun fan and the affix -dom, as in kingdom, freedom, etc.) is a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest. Fans typically are interested in even minor details of the object(s) of their fandom and spend a significant portion of their time and energy involved with their interest, often as a part of a social network with particular practices (a fandom); this is what differentiates "fannish" (fandom-affiliated) fans from those with only a casual interest.
Reading that, I'm wondering why I bothered writing this.
Fandom, or at least this definition, does not include comics fans in a list of notable fandoms; yet even the word fandom sounds like a word only a comics fan could create. But the point is comics and fandom work well together and it is a good thing, even if you think of it as a place for all the freaks to go and not bother the rest of us.
Every genre and medium has its own fandom, abounding with fanzines and fan movements. Punk’s fandom was huge and it was during that time that the black and white appreciation pamphlets produced in the cheapest way possible became really popular (and will probably never see the light again because of the Internet).
Comics fandom generally applies to the collective noun attributed to all comics fans; they read comics therefore they belong to comics fandom. That's not true; for starters probably about 70% of all comics readers either are unaware of its existence or couldn't care less. Fandom isn't about Mr Average Batman reader, it's about people who want to live their hobby; the people who have a desire to discuss, dissect and immerse themselves fully in every aspect of comics they find floats their collective boats. Subsequently, this is why a large percentage of fans will attend conventions dressed as Spider-Man or Tank Girl, Wolverine or Vampirella. In a way, I call these people nerds, but they display not only a passion for their subject, but also a hell of a lot of balls, especially fat spotty girls who insist they look just like She Hulk with all that green dye spread over their sweaty carcasses.
However, while Fandoms exist, then there is hope for the future. The state of fandom tends to reflect the state of the industry, or has done for the last 50 years or so. A healthy fandom normally relates to a vibrant industry; it is derided, but it also a good yardstick; it breeds new generations of creators and it can be a way to encourage people to read, especially if a normal person befriends a comics geek and gets addicted by a mixture of osmosis and brow-beating.
In the UK, the staple comicbooks are still there, they might not be going as strong as they once were but 2000AD has grown in readership over the last couple of years, and The Beano, Dandy and Viz, the three biggest selling comics in the UK do not look like their futures are in any doubt at the moment. However there’s bugger all else, unless I’m mistaken. Yes, there are some small press stuff, some independents, but even a lot of that has migrated to the internet. The sad truth is that outside of nursery titles, nothing much makes the shelves much nowadays.
When I wrote the majority of this, I had just spent the day in London with Martin Shipp and the publisher of Egmont Poland, Tomek Kolodziecjzak – repaying him for some of his hospitality when we were guests in Lodz. We spent an enjoyable day visiting some of central London’s comics emporiums, drinking in pubs and basically trying to work out why the UK comics industry is quite probably smaller than the Polish one. I continued to bang on about the perception of comicbooks in the eyes of the general public – the underlying theme of this book. He told me, in his almost faultless English that he lives on the outskirts of Warsaw and has to travel into work every day on Warsaw’s only underground train. As publisher and editor of many of Egmont Poland’s comics lines he normally has a new comic to look at every day, even if it one produced by the competition. Even there, some people give him that look, the look that says ‘what’s a man of your age  doing reading a children’s thing?’ But he made a very important distinction, one that I myself had started to notice since I began to work on this book – the people giving him that look were the people in the same age range as Tomek. People in their 30s and 40s, the same ages as I am [was] and many of the other people I know in the comics industry. Comics fans are actually derided by their peers – older generations look at comics with fondness and nostalgia - they remember before the derision; and the young… well, let me tell you about young people.
When I started working with homeless teenagers, one of the jobs I had to do was try and implement a literacy scheme to get some of the young people we worked with up to scratch and able to handle things such as forms, applications and basic reading. If you work with a bunch of hyperactive teens with histories you’d rather not know about, trying to get an ex-car thief or a drug taker, who maybe can’t read very well, to sit down with a book is like trying to convince the Pope that outlawing paedophile priests is essential. But you give them a comic with Superman, Spider-Man, Spawn, Batman, The X-Men, Transformers or anything else, the colours, the design, the entire package is more appealing than 300+ pages of text. Heck, it's more appealing than 1 page of text, for them.
So that’s what I did. I was producing Borderline and we’d recently run an interview with yet another Northamptonshire comics writer, Jamie Delano, and the two of us talked about the boxes and boxes of complimentary copies of DC comics he received month in and month out and what he could do with them. I said he could give them to the organisation I worked for and he thought it was a splendid idea. So armed with ten boxes containing about 500 comics and books, I gradually introduced the people I worked with to comics. To my amazement many of them already knew comics, some had even collected them or had siblings who had. Now we’re talking about young people from very disadvantaged backgrounds, who have had horrible lives but are still driven by the modern consumerist visions – they have to have mobile phones, CDs by Eminem, tongue or eyebrow piercing is almost a pre-requisite, and if they don’t have the right kind of training shoes or the right label on their underwear they are derided by their peers. Yet many of these ‘little shits’ who would steal your car, sell your DVD player or possibly even sexually molest your children are all walking around with comics and there isn’t a dissenting voice in the room. Remember when I mentioned Mark and Darren from my shop and the fact they were two 20-something guys with modern lifestyles and girlfriends who dripped attractiveness and success? Well they should have alerted me to the change that was beginning by their actions alone and the fact they brought others into the shop who bought stuff – many only bought Freak Brothers comics or something like Dark Knight Returns, but they did so because of recommendations from their mates and they didn’t feel as though they were walking into a sex shop and purchasing the latest issue of Teen Sluts in Bondage.
Young people don’t think comics are stupid; they’re just something else in the magical tapestry of life. I’ll even go as far to say that the price isn’t even really an issue – we’re talking about new generations who think spending £10 on a pair of boxer shorts is ‘normal’. A couple of quid for a comic isn’t going to kill them, is it?
Marvel Comics appears to be exploiting the new generation a little better than DC. But the two giants hold their place in the industry. One has again found the need to be innovative; the other is relying on its good name and history.
Marvel does seem to be changing its publishing priorities, DC is staying very similar to what it’s always been like, but there is no real evidence that either company has actually done any research or thrown any money into researching how to get more people reading comics.
Marvel now has a policy that involves doing away with the old concept of the ongoing comic and is replacing it with the 6-issue story arcs we talked about earlier. These package well as trade paperbacks and work equally well in the European formats. They appear to have forsaken the idea of continuity – which isn’t as bad as it sounds – and are attempting to produce as many comics series that will turn the comics fan on as they can. But of course this is costing them an awful lot of money and the break-even point gets higher and higher. Expectations become higher and before you know it there’s an awful lot of pressure on a book to succeed, especially if there’s been outlay on the comic and it hasn’t sold enough to cover costs.
And what of the poor comics retailer in all of this? He has to now stock as many trade paperbacks and graphic novels as he can to appease demand (or lack of it) and these beasts cost considerably more than a standard comicbook and just how many do you order? Do you re-order if you sell out? Is so, how many? Once upon a time it was a pre-requisite for a comics shop to have a huge array of back issues – now it’s more important for the shop to have a huge selection of trade collections and that is an enormous amount of outlay for a new shop opening in today’s climate – especially as Diamond Distribution now look to the store owner to pay up front for his orders for at least the first 9 months! See, there is nothing to encourage people to open a comic shop; it’s almost like a fucking endless computer game – if you can get past all the levels, you’ve succeeded in being allowed to continue... to dodge more rocket-fuelled retail shit in the future!
Marvel is spreading itself out thinner than it has ever done before and it isn’t a bad thing – comics publishers should be elastic, but they only tend to flex at the wrong times. Marvel’s arrogance overlooked, the company is showing signs of experimenting in areas that have always been alien to them before, and ironically areas that DC could have exploited had it the chutzpah that Marvel showed at times. You see the hyperbole does have some positive effect, Marvel believes everything it does will succeed and amazingly when it doesn’t the company shows a resilience that would make Richard Johnston proud. Failures are water off a duck’s back for Marvel, a company that has often adhered to the ‘throw enough shit and some of it is bound to stick’ ethos.
DC, because of its rather staid nature has actually tried more things than people care to remember, the problem is they don’t have the impact that Marvel has, don’t have the self-belief, which is why so many things the company releases look really half-hearted, almost apologetic.
DC is a real enigma and it obviously says a lot about TimeWarner’s view of comics. DC is still in that short-term mentality they finally adapted in the mid 1990s and years after everyone else has moved on they’re finally getting with the 21st century programme. They have a streamlined look about their new monthly titles, but the icons stand out – Superman and Batman are still graced with some of the finest artists DC can afford, led by Jim Lee, now more than just an illustrator. But essentially they still pander to the collector who wants periodic adventures and only collect, what appear to be randomly, selected titles in trade paperback format, and many of these collections from its mature readers imprint Vertigo.
Why DC doesn’t invest something into the future of comics is probably down to the fact that that comics sales have dropped so rapidly over the last 30 years that there are probably very few people in the executive offices who believe there is nothing left other than the death rattles. The money is in the characters and not the comics – with even more Batman and Superman films in the offing, plus a raft of other characters waiting in the wings, DC’s future isn’t in comics, but if the comics can co-exist with the films, TV series, video games, and any other merchandising opportunity, then fine, TimeWarner are happy – just don’t ask for anything!
Marvel’s new execs probably see that investment into the future is needed, but this was a company that existed on an almost hand to mouth basis and for every guy in the Marvel offices that thinks so-and-so should be done, there’ll be a team of accountants screaming ‘bottom lines’ at them and reminding them what a pay cheque looks like. The success of their film line hasn’t been transferred to the comics – Disney’s acquisition of Marvel hasn’t seen the company benefit from films like Iron Man, Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four; far from it. It’s like a songwriter who writes great songs, but is a talentless arse in person; use the songs, not the songwriter!
Just because Marvel seems to be heading towards the right direction – new lines of comics, prose imprints and recruiting of familiar ‘real life’ people to make comics far more accessible to ‘real people’, doesn’t mean it is doing it right, and comics, which were created as a cheap disposable form of entertainment to be read over and over, look as though they are about to become the property of only those with disposable incomes, only in countries like ours and the USA. Collectible comics was an oxymoron in the 1940s and early 1950s; it has now become the raison d’être of the industry and it no longer really applies.
And that’s the conclusion I’m afraid – comics, as long as the young keep them alive, are actually in reasonably safe hands – there are new readers coming in, there could be more, but the companies really need to look at this new breed of comics readers (as well as try to think of fair ways of helping the poor retailers who sell their wares), who are going to be a damned sight more ephemeral than previous incarnations, and the major companies need to wonder what they have to do to make sure this kid and his mates all want to read comics, like their fathers and their grandfathers did and for more generations to come. Comics are most likely going to become even more of a cottage industry than they have ever been. I expect Marvel and DC will remain huge in a contracting market, but I also expect the Internet to change the way people read and for future generations having something tangible in their hands will be as alien to them as reading a comicbook on a computer screen is to people of my age. Comics will always be produced and they will adapt to their surroundings accordingly. Some will get rich, most will not. Some things change, some things stay the same.
I talk about comics to the disadvantaged kids I’ve worked with over the last 10 years and I’m not derided. Many of them might not be interested in comics, but they don’t view them as sad. The youth of today are eclectic generally; they might like shit rap music, but they also like rock and pop and soul and classical – whatever their mothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, uncles and brothers listen to. In 2009, I was working with a right little Herbert; he had been done for all manner of heinous things. He was in my car, ignoring me, with his iPod headphones on, listening to something. It sounded vaguely familiar from what I could make out. He was listening to the original soundtrack from Grease and he was a big fan. I was slightly gobsmacked, yet not really surprised. His generation got a remix of a Yes song into the top 10 the same year. His generation have made talent shows big again, while also becoming huge fans of ballroom dancing. The youth of today are the future and they’re being influenced by the past – no change there, except this young generation don’t have the same prejudices we once did.
That makes me happy.
Next: Yard sweepings
Friday, 3 February 2012
Have I talked about hype much? Hyperbole was reinvented for comics – with a genre such as superheroes you get hyperbole to match the fantastic premises. Someone, somewhere must have twigged that fans cum in their pants a lot at the prospect of anything that tickles their fancies, so all press releases have been written by someone who sounds like he’s cum in his pants just writing about it. The hype would be a joke if Americans didn’t write it, so therefore it takes on a sort of Walter Kronkite meets David Letterman meets the man with the growly voice who premieres blockbuster movies with lines like, “Just when you thought it was safe to open the fridge,” or “From the people who brought you rabid typhoid rats comes a new blockbuster that will make your hair spontaneously combust and your girlfriend’s nipples fall off...”
I have talked about the hype, of course I have... Without the hype there might still be a blooming retail industry, with comics shops adorning high streets in small towns and everyone skipping along, holding hands and cats and dogs harmoniously living in trees each reading Batman comics.
Unlike other places where the rats will desert the sinking ship – in comics everyone clings to whatever flotsam and jetsam they can grab hold of. Working in comics is like being paid for your hobby and what person in their right mind wouldn’t cling on to that? And that might be the root of why comics professionals choose to work in this industry. At that party I attended in Tarzana, hosted by comics writer Marv Wolfman and containing so many comics writers from my youth, the one thing that really struck me more than anything else was here were a bunch of middle aged men all talking with great love and affection for comicbooks – they all had the youthful exuberance of fans, despite many of them having seen their best days long gone. Working in comics is easy, even when it isn’t, it is.
For some becoming a star is more important than anything else. When Image Comics started, purely because the 7 artists felt they could make more money on their own than being work-for-hire at Marvel or DC, the industry was going through such a revelation in sales that if Image had failed then some serious questions would have been asked. Marvel built up these people and suffered the consequences when they left. The fact that most of the people involved in the Image split have ended up working back at the companies they left, for more money, effectively caused by their leaving in the first place, which in turn has made comics personalities hold the future of the industry in their hands, is quite ironic.
But let’s get back to the point; comics publishers aren’t just frightened about change that could dramatically alter the shape of comics publishing in the future, they’re scared for their very existences, because the choices are vague and are not guaranteed to succeed they are having to build for a future with one foot still rooted firmly in a medium they aren’t sure they need to remain in. Or, in other words, if Marvel and DC go the route of mainly trade paperbacks and originated graphic novel material, they will continue to produce comics, but only the ones that they are guaranteed to make money from. Prices will continue to rise as the customer base continues to dwindle. The most obvious thing, to me, about the decline of comics in the last 30 years has been price. Fabian Nicieza can talk about relativity; Craig Johnson can talk about amortising sales; but if there is no interest from the youth to buy something that isn't classed as value on their X-Box scale of cost over entertainment, then what future has it got?
Despite being told by everybody in the known comics world that I’m barking up the wrong tree, the most basic ‘entry point’ for new readers should be the price, but that isn’t likely to be changed unless many other things change and we’ve got to think that the industry isn’t going to change because I suggest it does. Publishers can argue and prove that comics need to be as expensive as they are, yet go to ‘poorer’ countries and look at their comics industry and tell me if having cheap comics has ruined their industries? The price issue is about greed; it’s about bumping up the profile of their creators to the point where they earn far too much money. The US industry has got itself in this mess by idiots with no forward thinking and a short term profit mindset. The 1990s have a lot to answer for. That era for comics heralded a time when creators were paid too much money. Had they not been given the earth by publishers, then the punter wouldn't have been expected to pay for it - comics are not gas and electric, you can live without them.
To use a well-worn cliché, at the end of the day (apart from getting dark) comics, or rather comics publishers, distributors, retailers and fans are not going to change comics. They aren’t going to make anything more appealing to the person who just might consider looking at a comic. Nothing any of them say or do will expand the horizons of the industry in any other way other than possibly artistically. The only real way a viable entry point is going to come from persuading people that comics are actually worth the human investment - the time, the effort and the expense.
Believe it or not, that is happening, but it isn’t happening because of the publishers, the retailers or the creators.
Comics Lesson 24:
Let’s lay our cards on the table. I like comics; I like the medium and regardless of what many people inside the industry are now feeling about it the format of the comicbook is never going to disappear. It might become ghettoised, and it might end up being a very specialised market, it might get taken over by many of the very small publishers, or it might encourage someone else, a self-made millionaire comics fan maybe, who decides he doesn’t like the industry as it is, so he creates his own company or buys up the majors.
The only life left in superhero and fantasy comics appears to be the ones that are still with us after 50 years. Image is the only real success story and it seems that even they are now always on the verge of closure – even Spawn which boasted sales of 100,000+ is a marginal indie at best now. If you take out the innovative independent comics producers, a group we’ve not really touched on because of its vastness, and leave the rest, we’re still left with most of the industry’s turnover and money. I don’t know how much reading tastes has changed in the last 12 years, but in 1999 superhero comics (or comics produced by companies that specialise in spandex) accounted for 90% of total sales – that really shouldn’t be ignored, nor should it be believed the market split has changed much since then – comics sales are roughly the same now (2011) as they were in 2006; there has been a shift in product loyalty, but it appears that the massive tail off in readership hasn’t materialised, yet.
“Most superhero comics are formulaic rubbish”, I heard this statement uttered at Caption 2002. Caption is the small press convention held in the plush surroundings of Oxford’s colleges. This is an expression you expect to hear from people entrenched in the small press. The truth is that statement is 100% accurate. Most superhero comics are formulaic rubbish, even today with the rising expectations of the reader for sophistication and forward movement in stories, comics companies have perfected the art of ‘illusion of change’. The need for something major to happen in the general status quo of a hero’s life or those lives around him has become a common plot used in most superhero comics, it adds some realism to the unrealism. But even these changes are formulaic, it doesn’t matter that a writer might be able to introduce a groovy new idea, most are planned months in advance and rarely now does anything exciting happen in a comic because the rest of the world, thanks to the Internet, knows every little detail about to happen.
I was a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was a latecomer and had to play catch up using a mate’s video collection, by the time I’d caught up with the series around the middle of Season 3 I was hooked, as were lots of my comics reading mates. Buffy was like comics on screen and we loved it. One of the things that completely hooked me on Buffy was the fact that I deliberately avoided websites that offered plot spoilers, I deliberately avoided any conversations with mates who had seen all the episodes and knew what was happening in the USA, because they were 10 episodes ahead of Sky TV (when I was watching it). Therefore when major events or plot twists happened in that series I was blown away. They were, for me, genuine revelations and increased the drama ten-fold.
It is possible to do the same with comics, but the Internet and the cult of personality has made it very difficult for the comics enthusiast and net nerd to be able to avoid finding out the future. Take the death of Superman for instance – that even made national and international news programs (yet in real terms it was about the 15th time DC had killed the Man of Steel off, except this time he was dying in the technologically advanced late 20th century and it was a slow news week…) - everyone knew he was going to die before it happened and it lessened the effect dramatically. They handled the return of Superman much better, but to be honest by the time they milked all the spin-off concepts, no one really cared how he came back only that he had and DC could return to producing standard comics on a monthly basis. By the way, DC Thomson did a similar stunt first with Dennis the Menace and his hairstyle going punk, which turned out to be a very practical April Fool’s joke that had every major newspaper in the UK giving massive exposure to one of Britain’s oldest and cheekiest comics characters and it of course boosted sales of The Beano.
The problem with a lot of comics fans is they need to know what is happening next episode and this is something that comics publishers have always been able to exploit. Even back in the Seventies, a lot of editors and employees at Marvel and DC would spend hours on the phones talking to fanzine editors or amateur journalists who were trying to get hints and tips of what was going to happen in the future and when these conversations were turned into news in the front of newszines, these were the first places the fans looked at. Actually this wasn’t true, the first place many comics fans looked at was the ‘Next Issue’ caption on the last page of the comic or said comic's letters page – where the little teaser for next month often appeared. It was because fans loved to know hints that the newszines prospered and why Internet news sites have become the new comics magazines (with one almighty difference, CBR, Newsarama, Comicon, Silver Bullets all gave their promotional tools free of charge. It’s like a fan of Robbie Williams starting up a website to do nothing but promote Robbie Williams’ record company and music publishers!).
Marvel and DC have always given the potential buyer a synopsis of the upcoming issue. Once in next issue boxes and eventually through retailers catalogues and eventually the Internet, rarely do they give you more, but they might warn you that some revelation is going to happen – this immediately sparks interest in websites and news magazines and people are soon trying to find out what is going to happen. Someone always knows someone else who knows someone in that particular editorial office and before you know it you have a story, you can reveal to the fans what the revelation is going to be. It’s like the tabloids and Eastenders isn’t it? Yep, it sure is! Speculative news journalism has always been the secret link for success in this industry and the people who run the industry know that there are enough people out there who will do all their donkeywork for them, without payment – what better PR department than the fans themselves? They cover far more bases than a paid-for PR executive, cost nothing and you can shout at them if they get it wrong and don’t have to worry about employment legislature.
There are a number of people who believe this might be the problem, who feel that the Internet has too much power over comics and that the companies pander too much to the Internet and not enough anywhere else. It could be said that the major web sites are now powerful creatures indeed and have been allowed to become powerful because Marvel and DC let them.
I have to be honest, with hindsight neither Marvel nor DC ever appeared to really have fingers on the pulse of comics, they have relied too heavily on others for their success and the failures they have had. Essentially for two massive publishing houses they’ve freeloaded and exploited just about everyone they could and not even a twang of guilt has ever shown itself. Here’s some irony for you, comics publishers’ representatives despise comics fans – they wish for the day when the only comics fan left are sweet smelling yuppies with huge disposable incomes and the retailers are just huge conglomerations that order in the gazillion and never hassle them. That’s possibly one of the reasons why comics are up shit creek at times.
The Internet has become even more massive than it was when I launched Borderline and in many ways it has uncovered many more comics fans – either those returning or those swept up by some film’s hype – probably more than I suggested earlier in this tome. It gives the impression that comics and the Internet are synonymous and can now only co-exist together or not at all.
But let’s forget about the ‘net, it actually is a bit too self-important. In 2005, as soon as people in the comics industry found out I was writing a book about it I had all number of people email me, telling me that I need to include this, that and the other in my book or I couldn’t call it a ‘complete’ look at comics. I never said it was going to be that, but people, especially dedicated fans, believe that unless I cover the small part of the industry they are either experts in or have interests in, then I won’t be doing comicbooks justice. Guess what? I don’t think I set out to do comicbooks justice, it is a medium I have absolutely loved – it is one I’ve grown up with and I will probably end up leaving my wife… to decide what happens to the rest of my comics when I die! Just a small box with some personal favourites...
But I no longer feel that this book has to end up being a defence of a criminally inadequate industry that only survives on the blind faith of its dedicated and dwindling fan base. Comics need defending, but not to the people who are already reading them and comics is the biggest entertainment group that only preaches to the converted...
Next: who is the future of comics and the ever-lovin' end... Blummin' eck!