Friday, 27 April 2012

MMC - Extra Portions 6

Believe it or not, writing my comics memoirs hasn't been as cathartic as I believed it would be. I suppose it has a lot to do with leaving me feeling like I've advertised to the entire world more about my faults, and those of others, than my positives. Yes, that sounds stupid, considering I've been criticised for blowing my own trumpet; for suggesting that I was the sole reason for some things being a success and others being failures. For being morally on higher ground than others and even for painting a Dorian Gray picture of the man who many revered. But, I was lucky. I will never forget that, especially over the last few years.

When Borderline finished, well, actually, about four months before it finished its monthly run, I'd given up. Which was why, a year later, I sat down and wrote over 200,000 words, which would eventually get edited and edited down to the 160,000 or so words that got published on Kindle last year. Pete Ashton was right; much of the first draft was like a long drunken blog post. I wanted to write it out of my system, but despite all the 'adventures' I had, I don't think I managed to convey just how bad it was and just how stupid I was for sticking with it. A better man would have decked Dez, taken what was rightfully his and made damn sure that he could never repeat the actions he did to me to another person. But I didn't.

When my mother died, my brother described it as surreal. When a good friend's mother died on the same day Princess Diana was killed, she described it as both surreal and distasteful; surreal because the world just carries on, despite the size of your own personal loss and distasteful because of the outpouring of grief aimed at someone who wasn't my friend's mother. Death is a surreal and highly personal thing. After my comics career died, I became a mischievous poltergeist; rattling the windows of the people who might quite easily forget me. I had gone from a man who could not work for other people, because I didn't like to be told anything to a humble, to a self-effacing masochist who let himself be metaphorically butt-fucked on a weekly basis because it allowed me to be a lazy bastard.

The 10+ years I've been away from earning a living from comics, I've earned considerably less and have worked exponentially harder; I'm relatively fulfilled, but there's part of me that hates myself for not trying harder, for not having more of a backbone, for not being my own man sooner and for being nothing more than below average.

The irony and I've probably said this before, but it deserves repeating; Dez left himself in an odd situation when it came to me; he knew that I was a lazy, grammatically inept, potentially above average writer and editor; he was also far more concerned about what others thought of him and the decisions he made - why else would he be forever trying to mould all of us into the public image he wanted the people to see - all of us mini-Dezes, repeating the party manifesto. Dez had to be very careful who he said I was shit to as he discovered on The Comics Journal forum when he tried to start a fight with me at just about the height of my popularity.

It wasn't really like he needed to do a lot; I've had loads of stuff published that looks like it was written by a Statement of Educational Needs child; I'd lost the gig at Comics World partly because it was dying, but long before it died. I think Steve Holland, the editor, had little patience and less understanding of my writing foibles; the ones Dez cottoned on to like any reasonable editor would. The Marvel UK gig ended acrimoniously. The DC one was a combination of bad timing, laziness and some could argue tactlessness. I'm not the easiest of people in the world to have working for you, obviously. I think I'm a far more competent writer and editor now than I was then, but still have loads of blindspots and elementary errors that I should have got out of years ago. Dez couldn't understand why I repeated errors and I've since explained it away with some psychoanalysis and jargon, but in the dark moments when I don't love myself, I just figure he couldn't understand it because he didn't quite understand my already odd brain once it was full of dope.

In the years since leaving comics, I have suffered from three bouts of debilitating depression. At least two of these experiences were brought on by self doubt. Ironically, I never suffered from depression when I worked with Dez and yet all the jobs I've had since 2001, I've never felt as lonely and isolated as I did when I worked for him. The years since the split haven't been kind to my id. It has left me with times of extreme self loathing.

The reason I believe I am better now than ever before, despite now being 50, is because when I parted company with Dez, my safety net went with me. For everything I had to put up from him, I was a lazy, drug-addled lackey, who allowed himself to be treated that way because I was too damned lazy and unmotivated to improve myself. He might have had the touch of a rhino, but deep down, for a few years at least, I think Dez had hopes for me; I'm not exactly sure what those hopes were, but I'm convinced he had them.

Did I emphasise enough just how fucked and bombed I was most of the time? That has a lot to do with it and the fact that I am not a lightweight meant that I could get utterly shitfaced and still function at jobs that needed to be done that required no real thought. One of his assistants told me that I used to disappear after about 11:00pm; not literally, just inside my head and even Dez wouldn't bother me if I was in the 'zone' because I produced huge quantities of work that admittedly needed copy editing, but was done so quickly that the pros outweighed the cons by miles. This was probably why he used me. I am prolific and I am unflappable at deadline.

As I said, I'm now 50; it seems remarkable that a journey that started for real in 1971 and has taken up 41 years of my life, is so alien to me now. The fact that I am wringing the life out of analysing stuff I've already gone over suggests to me that I can't let go, I can't say no to the other drug that has controlled huge quantities of my life.

If I hadn't been such a little fucker at school and come away with a better education and done some uni time, I think I still would have been a comics fan and maybe I would have tried to have been more successful; which considering how honoured I feel at times to have worked around the centre of the industry, would have been some achievement. Who knows, in some alternate reality; one where I did good; I might be a millionaire. Heh.

I attribute Dez Skinn for one other thing; destroying my ambition, which in turn left me with gnawing confidence issues. Whether or not it was justified, I was once very confident in my skin. People commented, some doubted, but all couldn't deny that I was the least insecure person they knew. I was totally secure, completely confident and probably pretty dislikeable. A good friend of mine, a chap called Ian Bates, would accentuate on the positives; he would tell me that however much it felt like hell, working for Dez ultimately made me a better person; I just needed to rid myself of him to discover that. But the two of us (Ian and I) never go there; it is a subject that is too raw, for me, even now. If nothing else, Dez has left me scarred and incredibly insecure about my ability to the point where I shy away from praise; I worry about personal development meetings and reviews; I'm really conscious of any written reports I hand in, despite never having received anything but glowing feedback.

You could argue that drugs played a big part. I would agree they played their part. I am, at times, a mixed bag of metaphors, constantly contradicting myself.

So, what now? I feel I've truly exhausted my repertoire; there is very little but fumes left in the tank - I had considered talking about DC's Watchmen prequels, but couldn't think of anything other than greed and politics to focus on, or my lack of literary respect for the writer of the original. My brother-in-law brought up a bag of new releases last week, they all just confounded me. I might as well have been looking at a physics book, for the amount of interest and curiosity they produced. What would be the point of prolonging my pain - especially after my diatribe on applications which proved, as one friend said that I really am out of the loop - and yours? Am I not just doing this to bask, just a little longer, in the eyes of the handful of people who have realised this blog is still going?

I'm not going to say never; there are still loads of links to comics in my life - movies, friends and the very occasional dip into some comics via the PC; what I've been doing largely since 2005. I am an anachronism.

See you in the funny pages.

If you want good, unequivocal comics opinion, reviews and stuff, go to and read the wondrous words of my good friend, colleague and sometime writing partner Martin Shipp.

Monday, 9 April 2012

MMC - Extra Portions 5

Let's look at the stats. The period where I talked about Comics International were the highest viewed pages during the entire year long run of the book; yet, surprisingly garnered very few comments - I might have comment approval turned on, but I only received one comment that I didn't run and that was right at the beginning, long before I talked about Dez, CI and that strange semi-celebrity period during the 1990s.

During the late 1990s, Dez Skinn discovered strategy games and through the medium of Age of Empires you got to see just what made the man tick. He is/was a relentless competitor, probably born out of his disinterest and self-confessed uselessness at sports. If there was another way to win, he would pursue it with vigour. As a businessman, he might not have been in Sir Alan Sugar or Steve Jobs's league, but he knew how to survive comfortably and he knew how to be ruthless to protect his life. This isn't a bad thing. Sometimes you have to be hard to be fair - as our incumbent government keep harping on about - but Dez wasn't just ruthless in business, he was also ruthless in play and just about everywhere else he could be.

I learned very quickly that beating him at pool during our lunchtime pub sessions was something I only did if I wanted to spend the afternoon doing the magazine equivalent of cleaning toilets. Don't get me wrong, he knew his way around a pool table; he just wasn't a patch on me. I remember the one time we ever played snooker; I started to deliberately miss shots because he was so woefully inept at it and was growing more and more angry at his inability to beat me. Obviously, this lesson was not one I'd learned well enough by the time we went to San Diego and thrashing him on American pool tables was just enough to turn him into psycho-boss. Watch Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks if you want a watered down version of what it's like to work for a complete and utter bastard.

But Dez's new found 90s love of Age of Empires was something that caused quite a few ructions; especially at the time just before I got 'fired'. I was pretty much rubbish at the game and this was perfect for Dez. It was something he could relentlessly grind me into the floor with and the fact that I had to play it kind of made his almost orgasmic joy greater. When I stopped going down so often, I knew that deadline weekends would have to include at least three hours at the end of being crushed by his hordes of armies - whether I liked it or not. But once I'd been sacked, Dez needed some new whipping boy and Mike Conroy had absolutely zero interest in any computer game and had the strategical nous of a dead vole. So, part of me actually believes there was the Age of Empires reason why Dez began reintroducing me to the magazine's hierarchy. He knew that I was stupid enough to play him.

However, when I returned, properly, to the fold, it was under my conditions, despite what he believed, and we never played AoE again. It was around this time that he started to invite people round to the house in Finchley. There had always been a steady stream of visitors at the office; we got about 5 a week, which might seem little, but was actually a great sense of relief, because Dez loved playing the host, even on deadline and it took a little of the heat off a day. Some of these visitors were AoE friends; others just long standing comics friends and it was after one of these comics friends came over that possibly the most controversial thing during my time at CI happened. One I've never talked about publicly, because for many years I hated myself about not doing something about it. Now, with hindsight and events in recent months I am unbelievably glad that I didn't say anything, because I might have implicated an innocent man in something truly horrific.

Not the mention the fact that of everything I've written about, I can get corroborating statements to confirm that it happened; with this thing I didn't and ended up being complicit in a crime. So, legally, this is the dodgiest ground we've ventured near...

I got in one Monday morning; Dez had thrown the key down and told me to get on with things; he'd had a late night and wouldn't be down for a while. So I let myself in, made a coffee, rolled a spliff and sat down at my computer station, which was still on...

My PC was often used by networked AoE players, so finding it on was not an unusual thing. What I would normally do was just open an application and start getting on with stuff. There was always copy typing to do; classified ads to input and just stuff. This being the 90s, there wasn't ever the huge need to be on line all the time - we had a ISDN connection, because we embraced attachments like no other - but when my monitor cleared, whoever had been on the computer had left themselves in Internet Explorer and for some strange reason, I looked at the browsing history. I don't know why; it's not something I normally did; but this was back in the days of Windows 3.1 and 95 and both Dez and I were pretty much DOS masters, so we often did things you would never contemplate doing with modern PCs.

The URLs displayed all looked pretty sordid, but some of them looked very sordid. Clicking on one I was taken to a page that made me cough up my smoke and inhale my coffee. Abhorred by what I'd seen, I came out of it and sat there with a massive dilemma. I looked at the Temp folder in Windows and there were at least another 40 obscene images all cached there. I did something really stupid. I deleted all the pictures. Deleted the browsing history. Deleted any evidence (or so I believed) that could incriminate Dez in any way. Then my conscious started to work at me. Was my boss a paedophile?

When Dez came down to the office a few hours later, he said the two things that years later would make me relieved I never said or did anything. He told me that he hadn't gone to bed until 4am; he had been working with Rob Barrow on a Camden Mart advert; had crashed and left Rob to let himself out. This meant, at the time, that either both of them were looking or one might have looked after the other had gone - too many variables.

The incident very much disappeared from my mind for a couple of years, but one day when things were getting really tough for Mike Conroy and I, I told my replacement news editor about the web pages. his reaction was as shocked and incredulous as mine had been, but suddenly we now both had a minuscule doubt in our minds about the Stan Lee of British comics...

I've told a number of people about this over the years; most of them dislike Dez with a passion and have berated me for not saying anything. Then last year, Rob Barrow was found guilty of possessing more than 1million indecent images of child pornography. The same Rob Barrow who had sat up working on an ad with Dez until the wee hours of the morning and then had stayed to finish up some things after Dez went to bed. This must have been manna from heaven for a paedophile; given carte blanche on a PC with little or no comeback.

There had been rumblings about Rob's sexuality/preference/interests for years, but none of his closest friends believed any of them. As one said to me about Rob's penchant for young boys helping him at marts was that no one batters an eyelid at youth workers and none of the kids who worked for Rob during the 80s and 90s ever looked like they didn't want to be there - but I suppose that's part of the MO for perverts and paedos. I had even pooh-poohed a suggestion from a friend that Rob was a kiddie-fiddler; it just didn't seem logical or possible. But the facts are there now and deep down I wish I'd said something to Dez at the time. But, what would I have done if he had said or done anything that would have implicated himself or made me doubt the veracity of his comments? I was too much of a coward to say anything, but equally I was also selfish - something like this could have destroyed the magazine and possibly implicated me in the whole sordid business...

I'd like to think this was just 'one of those things', but for the last 12 years I have worked with children and adolescents; I've never been acutely aware of the shit that kids have to suffer at the hands of freaks and perverts. I dislike myself for not saying anything at the time; I hate myself that 15 years down the line the person probably responsible for the filth finally was caught and punished, because it should have happened a damned sight sooner. But, I'm also quite pleased that for once, in a period of my life where knee-jerk reactions were common that I had the patience to try and find out if Dez was really even more evil than I had believed. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't check browser history again after that, but apart from the occasional bit of conventional porn, I never found anything I maybe wouldn't have looked at myself.

As for Age of Empires... well, about 2005, when I first discovered the joys of torrents and illegal downloads, I got a version of the game and played it for about two hours. I hated it as much then as I had the first time around and the first time I have thought of it again was when I sat down to write this. Hopefully it will be the last.

Next time: After spending hours writing MMC: Extra Portions 4, I discovered that I really am so far out of the loop that I'm making a mockery of myself, so next time might be the last time...