Last time I outlined a brief history of comic shops in Glasgow which is really a small part of a larger story about the rise of the direct market in the UK as more and more specialist comic and SF/fantasy shops grew across the country. Now there’s better people than me who have outlined the death of the newsstand market in the US and the history of the direct market as a whole in the US.
The UK direct market was slightly different in that American comics were still available in newsagents til the late 90′s thanks to Comag and Moore Harness, who finally kicked the bucket four years ago. The direct market was different in that you finally got the non distributed comics that were so hard to get in the UK, and you got them relatively cheaply so this is where there was a gap in the market and with Titan Distributors you had the first organised distribution system across the UK as opposed to the patchy methods of getting comics in directly to the UK in previous decades that was at the whim of the major companies like Marvel or DC.
There was also the problem that there was a lot of crooks in the distribution game so it was a front to launder money for gangsters or to distribute porn, which was the case in the US as well as here in the UK, but the point we pick things up here is the early 80′s when Titan Distributors are the main supplier to comic shops across the UK. That wasn’t to say we’re talking the million pound industry we have today. There was probably only two or three dozen shops across the UK by the middle of the 80′s, not counting the Virgin Megastore comic shops which sold comics and magazines like Fangoria to the record buying public.
Titan had a nice monopoly in that in those days in that you had to buy from them even though there were more than a few dealers voicing concerns that there could well be a conflict of interest as Mike Lake and Nick Landau who owned Titan, also owned Forbidden Planet in London and should they want, they could easily open FP’s across the country selling comics at less than any other shop.
But they didn’t. Lake and Landau both made it clear often that they wouldn’t open a shop where they had an existing Titan customer, so that ruled out Glasgow, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham and basically every major British city.
The only problem as I mentioned in passing in the first part that Titan deliveries would turn up a week or so after being released in the US, which wasn’t a huge problem in those pre-internet days but deliveries would often turn up with comics that the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh would get but AKA in Glasgow wouldn’t and vice-versa. Then there was the fact Titan could charge what they wanted within reason seeing as they had a monopoly and this meant American distributors looked at the UK with envious eyes, and slowly and surely they made their plans against Titan.
Mile High Comics made some attempts to distribute directly to shops in the UK, but the problem was they didn’t have a warehouse in the UK, so you ordered directly from their warehouse in the US and they packaged and shipped to the UK. This was basically what some dealers had been doing with them prior to Titan anyhow, but they opened the door before Bud Plant Comics made some attempts to piece the UK market and based on the West Coast of the US, they had a little bit more success but again, without a UK warehouse they were fighting a lost cause. Titan just made sure they didn’t fuck up, or put their prices up too high in case it alienated customers.
This changed when Neptune Distribution came on the scene in 1986. Neptune was set up by three students at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) who lived at 67 Barclay Street (more on this address another time) by the name of Geoff Fry, Sarah Hunter and Martin, who’s last name completely and utterly escapes me. It was Geoff though who was the comics geek, while Sarah and Martin were not readers. Sarah and Geoff were also seeing each other which is not important at the minute.
Geoff was the mastermind behind the operation and considering it was run out of their small living room in Barclay Street, they had a base of operations not to mention Geoff was smart enough to make contact with Bud Plant in the same way that Lake and Landau had made a connection with Phil Seuling’s Seagate Distributing at the start of Titan’s operation in the UK. This meant that Neptune could shift comics quickly and store some stock in what became the stock room, or normally, one of the bedrooms upstairs as Sarah and Geoff now shared a room.
The main problem for Neptune wasn’t to capitalise on Titan’s flaws, but to convince shops they weren’t a a risk or unreliable like the few other distributors who tried to break Titan’s monopoly. The break was John Byrne’s Man of Steel, which was DC’s big Superman relaunch in 1986.
Neptune managed to get this title to the few shops it had as customers three days before Titan. It sounds like no big deal at all, but it helped from stopping people go to the competition in either Glasgow or Edinburgh in AKA’s case. It was a nice way of getting one up that one of the biggest comics of the year was on sale before anyone else had it.
Neptune used that success to grow the business and they gained shops in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leicester, Sheffield, and across the UK fairly quickly over a period of 8-12 months as the direct market erupted after a huge amount of mainstream publicity over creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller, and work like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus. Shops were springing up everywhere and there was a battle starting to brew between Neptune (the bright young challenger) and Titan (the undisputed champion) mainly to gain business but Geoff had it in his head to take on Mike Lake due to the fact he’d went away after a meeting with him utterly hating him. Plus this was the 80′s and the height of Thatcherism so Geoff wanted to crush Mike Lake because he was more successful than him.
By the end of 1987 Neptune had grown and was continuing to grow as they moved from the house on Barclay Street to a warehouse in Enderby, just on the outskirts of Leicester and near the M1. This was Neptune’s big advantage over Titan in that they could reach the shops in the Midlands and North of England quicker than Titan who only did van deliveries to London shops while Neptune did van deliveries not only to London shops, but across the Midlands.
When I moved to Leicester and started work for Neptune the intention was not for me to stay there, but go to run a Manchester warehouse which would supply the North of England and Scotland, while Leicester would supply the Midlands, and the London warehouse in Staines would supply London and the South East. There was also a vague plan to expand Neptune’s US operation which was at that time, sharing a Bud Plant warehouse in Brooklyn in New York.
The situation at the start of 1988 is Neptune eating away at Titan’s market, with Titan trying to get as much of it back as possible while Mike Lake and Nick Landau still saying that FP will not expand outside of London to any city or town where there’s an existing Titan customer.
So we’re up to the point in 1988 where Geoff comes into the office shouting at me saying ‘what the fuck do you know about Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow?’…..
Next time, the Glasgow Comic Shop Wars….