Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Borderline Press Blog #34: The Future is Coming - But My End is Nigh

Before I even reached double digits I'd been exposed to the wonderful world of comics. I was about 5 when I first noticed some of my brother's lurid four colour pamphlets. My first real personal interest started in 1969 when I discovered British comic 'annuals' and then in June 1970, aged 8, I discovered Cor, ironically the comic where my one-time employer, mentor and (in his head) nemesis Dez Skinn started his own comics career - some tenuous synchronicity there if ever I saw some.

It seems odd, especially given how slow time tends to move when you haven't got much experience of life, that it was over two years before I was to rediscover the illuminating world of American comics. It was late November 1972 and our local newsagent, Forbuoys, run by a dour Scottish chap called Gordon Dow (who employed my mum in the shop and later became her insurance man - and that isn't a euphemism) took a gamble and decided to stock some different types of comics, as opposed to your usual Beano, Dandy, Beezer, Topper and Bunty. He stocked the new Mighty World of Marvel comic and also some American comics by a company called DC.

The first 'US' comic I ever bought was actually British, the aforementioned Mighty World of Marvel #6 (finding #1-5 proved to be considerably more difficult than I would ever have believed) and the following week when I returned to buy #7 I spotted something staring back at me from the spinner rack. It was an American comic called Swamp Thing #1, drawn by Berni Wrightson and written by Len Wein. I had no idea who these guys were, all I knew is their comic was the most outrageously unbelievable thing I'd ever laid my eyes on; and in that moment my life was changed inexorably.

Me in comics has been well chronicled. Yes, there's a rambling, poorly-edited mess, on this blog and in a Kindle, which tries to be educational, emotional and honest and probably only really works if you know me and can put the way I talk to the way it was written (and serialised). I liked some of it, but probably from a cathartic perspective rather than anything else. By the time I sat down to write that comics autobiography, initially in 2005, I never thought for a second that I'd end up back in comics, again, within 10 years, despite pretty much forecasting it by having an entire chapter on why I keep getting drawn back to comics despite it never having been particularly kind to me, even when I probably, on balance, believe I deserved it to be.

What A Life in Comics doesn't much do is admit to my having become an incredibly egocentric individual; someone who for long periods of time believed I was actually the centre of some comics world where my name, my opinion and my words were important. There wasn't really ever a point in my comics career where I was overtly important; covertly most definitely, but by virtue of the term 'covertly' people had to take my word for it. I did little ego promotional stuff until I worked for Skinn and then any ego I might have harboured was beaten frequently to the point where it hid and only the lure of money helped it reappear.

My 'day' in the sun was between 2001 and 2003 when, briefly, Borderline Magazine proved that as an organiser, producer and 'print' manager I was okay - punching above my weight. The problem was Borderline came along without any financial support which meant for it to be a success, in a far more naive time, I needed to work harder, be even more innovative and not rest on my laurels. The 'success' of my internet comics magazine woke up my ego and it was ignited by the chutzpah I'd absorbed via osmosis from Skinn. However the reality was simple, it might have been great, it might have been read by hundreds of thousands of people, but it was too far ahead of the game to make any money. Try to run a PDF internet delivered comics magazine like a print magazine highlighted the limits of my innovation - I developed a great idea but had no real idea how to market it; to make it work. In a world where internet start ups were now selling for millions, I was being shafted by desperate men who saw the potential in my project and saw we weren't exploiting it. Sadly for everyone involved, the desperate men had run out of money and goodwill by that time; no one inside the Borderline Magazine team saw it as something that was almost brilliant; we saw it as yet another kick in the teeth.

Working for Dez Skinn gave me a kind of siege mentality that has always been difficult to lose. Skinn made every day feel like us against the rest of them, especially given the bizarre way comics have always worked, the strange relationships that wouldn't or don't exist in other forms of retail, such as the comics companies' lack of promotional budgets or the expectancy that fans and fan websites/fanzines etc do the bulk of the promotional work, because, after all, comics has only ever sold to comics fans - it's all about preaching to the converted, etc. So when things didn't go even remotely close to the plan, it was like the world was against us - against me.

I pretty much knew after a year of relentlessly producing Borderline Magazine that it was destined to fail, but we persevered at a time when most, if not all, of the people who worked on it deserved to be paid for their efforts and contributions and we could barely scrape together £100 to pay for all the web hosting costs. There might have been ways to make it work, to make it pay, I simply wasn't clued up enough nor did I know the right people to steer us in the right direction. Remarkably (or perhaps not) despite the amount of people who saw it, no one else came along and said, "You should be doing this..."

By the end of it, I simply had had enough of comics. If I never saw another comic again it would be too soon. Yet within a couple of years, there I was, writing a column for a new website and only because they let me tell it straight. I think I wrote some of my best columns for The Comics Village, but it didn't take me long to realise that my few years away from comics was longer in technological advancement time than I could have anticipated, plus I hadn't actually read more than a handful of comics since 1999, so I was increasingly out-of-touch and lacking in product knowledge.

I had also grown tired of the proliferation of tossers on the internet - of which I counted myself as one. There really wasn't any need to be involved in comics any longer. I'd sold all my comics to buy a new boiler and I really couldn't care less who played Batman, the Joker or Spider-Man, that was all something from my dim and distant past.

And then shit happened...

I like to kid myself that I meant something, so when I took the (personally) ridiculous decision to start a comics publishing company up, I really believed, despite having been gone from comics for 10 years, that everyone would remember me and remember that I was pretty good at spotting a hit and I knew a good thing when I saw it - Movers & Shakers was popular in many ways for this simple fact. I believed I surrounded myself with the right people; made the right choices, did the right research and had the right person to back me. I had actually spent a couple of months trying to dissuade my business partner away from this venture, but in the end the lure of money, especially in a 'job' I knew well and the opportunity arriving just as I was being shafted by another employer embracing the Herr George Osborne school of slash and burn economic politics like their existence depended on it, proved too much and here I was, back in the world of comics - never say never say never again.

I could quite easily spend 50,000 words talking about events from early May 2013 to the meeting with my business partner in August 2015 - some of which are considerably more exciting and humorous than anything I wrote in the book - and maybe one day I will, but at the moment we're heading, as quickly as we  can, to the here and now and the exit sign.

The now is October 31, 2015. Borderline Press hasn't had a book out for a year and the official, and true, line is we're on hiatus. The hiatus was a mixture of enforcement and planned consequences. My partner, who has invested a sizeable quantity of money to both produce our back catalogue and help me keep my head just above the surface of despair, quite rightly said we need to sell some of the books before he would commit to any more investment - he didn't want to throw good money after bad if that was how this idea was going to pan out. We had a distribution deal in place; we were no longer thought of as new boys or a here-today-gone-tomorrow publisher and slowly, but nowhere near enough, sales increased. The problem was that the money coming in wasn't being used for anything other than running the business and as the spring turned to summer it started to look really poor on my part that all those scheduled books were still unscheduled.

I had a bad year. One of the worst I can remember in my 53 years. I thought 2014 was poor and it couldn't possibly get worse but I'd swap 2014 for 2015 in the blink of an eye. I've spent best part of the last 9 months trying to find a decent job, something to help me rediscover my self-esteem and get a bit of positivity back into my life; but so far I've fallen short (and the prospects during a Tory government are always bleak). I've spent time in hospital, been diagnosed with depression, lost a loved one and watched the country vote for more misery and now it's the autumn and my least favourite time of the year...

So in August I opted to do something I've done throughout my life. I cut off my nose to spite my face, as my mum would have said. Faced with no life-raft from Texas and with no real way forward for the publishing company in its current situation, I told my partner I was resigning from the business and giving up my directorship at the end of October. There is no money to keep me afloat either way. He felt I was being rash, possibly throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that there was still a way forward and I agreed. There was still a way forward, it just doesn't involve me.

A few things need to be understood, if you so please. I have pretty much hated comics and most everything about them since 1999. Like Pavlov's dog, comics seemed to be a constant reminder and a painful one that this was where I'd put all my eggs and it was how I fed myself. What was intended to be my last foray into comics - at The Comics Village - ended up feeling like being in a mutually abusive relationship.

Also a relatively large proportion of my friends became so through comics and it wasn't easy staying friends with people when one of the main subjects of discussion was now taboo. It was difficult but not impossible and eventually I realised I could talk about comics, but through knowledge, wisdom and a slightly detached (and morally superior) air.

As much as I hated comics, in 2001 I was still a gregarious and socially adept human being. The groundwork for Borderline Magazine was done, remarkably, mainly through a burst of enthusiasm I hadn't felt since that day when I found the Swamp Thing comic. In 2001 I was not as I am now. I'd argue that in 2015 I'm a considerably nicer and compassionate human being than I've ever been, the problem is the last couple of years the last thing I've wanted to do is talk about something I don't really enjoy in a fake way.

I discovered very quickly upon my return to comics that 10 years is a very long time when you're not part of something. Had I never left comics I might have been better prepared; had I shown more than just a passing interest in technology since 2003, I might have been better prepared. Had I not forgotten how to pretend to be a nice, approachable human being, I might have made a better impression. I've had more than enough time to sit and dissect all the things I probably did wrong or could have done differently.

Promotional events should have been the pinnacle of our push for an identity, but the first was so badly organised - by both the organisers and us - that our big splash barely caused a ripple and this probably would have set a tone had I not gone there with such a miserable, pessimistic and blindly optimistic head on... I know, that contradicts itself, but the thing was I took 500 copies each of 566 Frames and Zombre expecting to shift most of them; but I went with fear, trepidation and the feeling that it also would all go wrong - it did. This made me miserable before it happened and despite the venue and my never having been at the table for more than half an hour, I still felt like it was a massive blow and with hindsight probably down to me.

I went there thinking we were a professional new publishing house and there were unemployed geeks with comics I wouldn't touch with a bargepole in displays that made ours look very 1980s. Our gimmicks weren't even gimmicks and while I still believe had we been in a prominent place it might have been different, it was Thought Bubble 2013 that imprinted on me so much it was like a dial had been switched back to 1999. From that point on, subconsciously, I think I felt we were on a hiding to nothing and the shows in 2014 were so poor that by the end of the year I realised that we needed to do something else.

Leamington Spa's amazing entrance into the comics convention world was in many ways the antithesis of Thought Bubble 2013 - we had nearly a thousand people walk past our table on the day and we took about £30, which was about £470 less than the next worse take on the day. Either I was producing the wrong books or I was scaring away the punters by looking like a bored and angry old man with a look of resignation on his face.

I could probably come up with excuses for why we struggled at every convention, but the truth was with just one exception, when I wasn't there we took more money and generated more interest. It wasn't that I was just miserable and under enormous pressure at these events, I didn't actually like being there and that probably showed in my body language and inability to smile. There were very few people I could have a conversation with about something I was interested in and if people tried to engage me about comics I had to admit to being out of touch or I would have just come across as ignorant.

Why would someone who doesn't think of himself as a masochist keep coming back to something that physically and mentally makes him ill? It's like the man who repeats the same thing over and over in the hope that just once the outcome might be different - it's insanity and I've probably joined that exclusive club this very year.

So, you need to know that even if I'm moving towards the exit sign, the publishing company - actually a good thing with some superb books - is going to continue and it will probably be more successful without me. My (now former) partner and the distributor Fanfare have discussed a way forward; I've agreed to do some freelance stuff and identify possible future projects until someone else can do the jobs no one else here can at the moment. I've identified two possible projects on verbal commitments which I hope will come out in early 2016 and without me being a drain on resources then it will all probably start to make money for the people involved.

Don't expect a massive output. Many publishers of Borderline's ilk release things as and when and that is the new model for this publisher - the same quality, but even less frequent.

A couple of things will happen between now and next week. This comics blog will effectively close down and I'll hand control of the @BorderlineEU Twitter account and Facebook page over. What Borderline Press does from that point is up to a man called Adrian, but expect a much slicker and professional approach now that real businessmen are handling things.

I'm going to tentatively say that that's me done. Obviously I have form where this is concerned...

I'm sure if someone came out of the woodwork and offered me money to do something in comics again I probably would, but it depends on what else is available - as a committed vegetarian I could still have a career in abattoirs.

I'm going to make some sweeping changes to the way I interact with comics in the future and at the moment those changes involve me running away, trying not to scream, and hoping something doesn't come back and haunt me. Fortunately my true comics friends can talk about other stuff.

Thanks to every one that helped me through these tumultuous two years, special thanks to Will and Glenn and honorary mentions to Shipp, Mark, Dennis and Knut.

Stay safe and be nice to people.

Phil Hall 31-10-15