Bitter Sweet Symphony Part One/ The History of Glasgow’s Comic Shops in the 80’s…..

This is actually going to end up being part of a loosely connected series of blogs which tell not only the history of how comic shops in Glasgow grew out of the chaos of the 70’s and started becoming far more organised. First though a little bit of background as to how the comic shop came to be…..

Comics were traditionally sold in newsagents in the UK, or newsstands like this one in this wonderfully evocative picture of an American newsstand from the 70’s.

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In the UK you didn’t see many of these sort of newsstands but they did exist mainly at train and bus stations as I’ve previously pointed out, but the whole point of all this is to say there were no real ‘comic shops’ in the UK til 1970 when Dark They Were and Golden Eyed opened in London, and even then they included comics as part of the greater umbrella of ‘science fiction’ as you can see from this poster from the late 70’s.

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The same went for the shops that sprung up in the UK after this, so Forever People in Bristol, Nostalgia in Birmingham, Odyssey in Manchester, Timeslip in Newcastle and the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh were all at their core, science fiction and fantasy bookshops which also did a bit of comics, but the main focus was on the books, merchandise and magazines with the comics being an important but not the main part of their business.

All that changed with Forbidden Planet (FP) who followed the same trick as the other shops, but moved comics into a more central part of their business. You might also note if you click that link it takes you to a Wikipedia page about the shop which says that FP is two separate chains and how does that exactly work? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that eventually.

Now that’s out of the way lets move straight onto Futureshock, Glasgow’s first proper SF bookshop which sold comics which opened in late 1980. It was and still is on Woodlands Road in Glasgow and was run by Bob Shaw (who I’ve blogged about previously) and Neil Craig. Both were part of Glasgow’s SF fan group, The Friends of Kilgore Trout (FOKT) and both had identified a HUGE gap in the market in Glasgow not only for SF books which you couldn’t get in regular bookshops, but for comics which as I’ve pointed out, were a bastard to get at the time. The shop itself was a smallish affair with a central unit where comics and magazines were stored, as well as books on every wall, and spinners everywhere crammed with comics, magazines and anything else that could physically be rammed into them.

In short it was a typical SF/comic shop, but it’s customers didn’t especially care as it meant no more long treks here, there and everywhere to track comics down as everything was in one place. Only problem was that Neil and Bob had zero business experience so were completely and utterly winging it, plus they didn’t really mix well as partners in a shop with Bob wanting to really focus on the book side of things while Neil wanted to focus on comics so there was obviously friction and that lasted in their time together until it boiled over with some of Neil’s frankly mental ordering decisions in regards some comics of the time. The final straw was Neil ordering 1,000 copies of each issue of Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s Wolverine mini series in 1982. To give you an idea how over-ordered this was, the X Men was only selling around 70 issues a month in the shop and it was their biggest selling comic. Saying that Bob wasn’t happy was an understatement so in late 1982 Bob and Neil split with Neil staying at Futureshock (where I assume he still is) and Bob taking his  half to open a new shop in the Candleriggs area of Glasgow called Photon Books, which was the original name for Futureshock.

The shop was on the corner of this building where the bus is passing by.

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Photon Books saw Bob get involved with a local family of rapscallions called the Holt’s, who also helped drag in a catalogue of bizarre local freaks who were funny, sad, scary and fucked sometimes all at once.

But it was here that the proto-scene of comic book fans of a certain generation in Glasgow found their legs and this is where I met the likes of Grant Morrison for the first time, though at this point he was just another person buying their comics like everyone else. There was Dom Reagan, Peter Coyle, Jim Clements, Mr Sloane (not his real name but he loved Joe Orton), and a few others who I’ve probably forgotten. By summer 83 the shop seemed to be doing well, and also, the local comics fan group centered round Pete Root (who had a stall in the Argyle Market), John McShane and Steve Montgomery had started organising comic marts in the city to much success and the rumours were flowing that they were looking to open up a shop themselves in the city centre.

Here’s some covers of the fanzines John, Pete, Steve, and others produced back then.

aka-7

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For much of 1983 Photon Books is where I got my comics. I was still at school working through my O Grades, and although AKA Books and Comics opened in the Virginia Galleries near where Photon Books was, I still bought most of my comics from Bob’s shop through loyalty to Bob who had helped me through some tough times over the previous year but I started drifting slowly towards AKA thanks mainly to John McShane telling me things about comics I’d never, ever heard about and Pete Root’s cynical humour.

By summer 84 AKA was firmly established as THE comic shop in the city centre of Glasgow, and Photon Books was on it’s last legs with the Holt’s and Bob falling out, the shop closing and Bob relocating back up to Woodlands Road about half a mile from Futureshock to open Books and Photos, or Photos ‘n’ Books depending on how much Bob wanted to take the piss out of his previous venture.

This was not a magnificent venture. Yes, it sold comics but Bob’s seedy private life often intruded into the shop (I was now spending most Saturday’s hanging around here talking bollocks with Sloane, Jim Clements and Andrew Hope who’d now become part of the loose group of comic fans in Glasgow) but in hindsight it felt like the last people at a crap party and that party was over because AKA was the force in Glasgow. It had stock which Bob’s shop didn’t and if you wanted new comics you had to go to AKA.

I remember exactly the two comics which switched me over to AKA. One was Crisis on Infinite Earths #2

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But the one which swung it totally was Swamp Thing # 35

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It was an important Alan Moore issue and Moore at this point was God for anyone British and reading comics in the 80’s, and thanks to the AKA organised comic marts, I’d met Moore along with a number of other creators like Alan Grant and Kev O’Neill. Bob’s shop didn’t have it, AKA did and I opened up a standing order there and then which was in the tailend of 84 and I was still at school doing my Highers but I was drifting more and more towards AKA while Bob’s Woodlands Road shop was in serious decline.

Then it closed in I think spring 85. The final day was a clearing out sale which saw Sloane, Andy Hope, Jim Clements and myself mourn the passing of it for a few seconds before moving on, which most of us had to AKA by this point. This isn’t to say Bob isn’t out this story yet as you’ll find out soon enough.

At some point in 1985 I’d somehow graduated from being a punter who hung around AKA on Saturdays to talk bollocks with the other lads (the group now counted Gary Erskine as one of it’s number)  hanging around the shop, to being asked to mind the till as Pete and John spent Saturday afternoons in the pub which was odd at first, but eventually a few others in our group were trusted to do the same, and by this point the group had pulled another lad called Alistair in who would end up working for FP but I’m getting ahead of myself…

The point is by the end of 1985 there was a very clear and defined group of comics fans in Glasgow based around AKA and the regular Marts in the city. I’d left school, failed to get into Uni, and was doing what I could but I was enjoying myself in the deep warm pools of comics that being part of the AKA Crowd provided. When AKA moved from it’s little shop in Virginia Galleries next to the tearooms and fine china to the larger shop in the Galleries is when it probably hit it’s Golden Age. This was the time of Maus, Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns plus 2000AD was still amazingly popular, not to mention that the three shops where AKA was now in the Galleries helped feed off each other as the other shops were a record and a book shop so when one was busy, it’d often mean the others would also benefit. Things were pretty cool as well with the Marts as I’d now started helping organise them with some of the others in the AKA Crowd.

This all hit a peak with what was called the Eisnercon which was a full on three-day comics convention held at the Central Hotel in Glasgow with Will Eisner at guest of honour, but also there were a huge number of creators such as Alan Moore, Steve Dillon, Alan Davis and Bryan Talbot. I organised and ran the film room which meant going through  a vast number of one of AKA’s customers VHS collection (official and bootleg) to come up with a three-day programme. I also ended up sleeping in this room for three days and nipping back to John McShane’s flat for the odd shower as it was fairly close and he’d offered everyone the use of it for just such a purpose. It didn’t get the numbers through the doors it should have which is why there was never a second one but a number of people who did go would go on to be inspired to work within the industry, plus some long term relationships were formed including John McShane’s close relationship with Will Eisner and his family.

As this was all going on, Wednesday night used to be the regular meeting night for comics fans at the Lord Todd pub, and at some point the lads from SF Bookshop in Edinburgh started going which meant Jim Hamilton, and whomever else would come over as the other partner in SF Bookshop, Kenny Penman, didn’t really drink and wasn’t in Glasgow often. We did get Jo Callis who was working at the SF Bookshop after fleeing to Edinburgh after leaving the Human League, but it was normally only Jim who became close especially with Pete and John.

And this is how it was for 86 and most of 87. This didn’t stop AKA from having ambition as although AKA was in the city centre, Futureshock still had the West End tied up, which meant all those well off Glasgow University students, so AKA 2 was born in late 86 in a huge big shop at the far end of  Argyle Street near the West End, with AKA taking the bottom floor of the shop while Bob Shaw took the top floor for his own business ventures which we thought was making badges, doing CND stuff and whatever Bob did for money. We eventually discovered this is where Bob built his porn studio in a room behind a false wall in the kitchen, and that he was producing porn on a Reader’s Wives level, which when it leaked out to John and Pete caused an early end to the failed experiment of AKA 2 which really was about the wrong shop, in the wrong location, with Bob Shaw’s porn antics (which nearly resulted in him being beaten up on the premises) being the final straw.

With that experiment over, AKA spent 87 consolidating it’s position in the aftermath of the huge explosion in comics over the previous few years. Delivery days were normally packed with customers as they waited to see what was out that week, and we’d worked out a well oiled machine in getting the comics from the boxes to being sorted and priced, to standing orders and finally to the shelves. The only problem was that Titan, the distributor of comics in the UK (owned by Nick Landau and Mike Lake who also owned FP in London) were sending comics out a week after they’d shipped in the US which in the internet age seems astonishing but back then nobody really noticed but a series of titles having issues missing, the pricing policy of Titan and the general service meant there was a gap in the market for someone else to come through.

And come through they did. Several US companies saw the expanding UK direct market as something to get into. If I remember right Mile High Comics dabbled with supplying shops directly, but it was Bud Plant Comics who had the most success supplying shops but without a UK warehouse they couldn’t compete, but by then Neptune Distribution had started in Leicester, made a few arrangements with Bud Plant and had started slowly eating into Titan’s market share from the time of DC’s relaunch of Superman, Man Of Steel in 1986 where they managed to beat Titan by three days.

By the time I’d made that fateful conversation with Geoff, the MD of Neptune at the end of 1987 and made the decision to move to Leicester and join Neptune, AKA was amazingly secure in the market in Glasgow, yes, there was still Futureshock in the West End and the odd attempt to open a shop in Glasgow happened but nothing really dug into AKA’s market as they were so dominant and they provided an outlet for people to talk about comics and in many cases, get a healthy career in the industry.

When I first visited Glasgow again in spring 1988 after my move to Leicester things had moved on. Alistair was now working for Jim Hamilton in Edinburgh. Grant Morrison had a career writing comics after years of struggling and failing to maintain such a career. Dom Regan had moved to London to work for Dez Skinn’s line of 2000AD reprints he was repackaging for the US market, Peter Coyle drifted away, so Jim Clements was still there to talk endlessly with Grant about ideas, and in fact Jim gets a credit in the Arkham Asylum graphic novel, Sloane was never really a full part of the AKA Crowd, and Andy Hope had sort of drifted slowly into the crowd even though he’d thrown up in Steve Yeowell’s pint of Guinness after a Zenith signing session at AKA. Things were safe and secure. A new AKA Crowd had formed round what was left of the old crowd and things were looking like it was sweet as a nut.

That is until one day at Neptune my boss Geoff came into the office where I was typing out order forms and shouted at me saying ‘what the fuck do you know about Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow?’

But that’s a story for the  the next part as I tell you about the history of comic distribution in the UK in the 80’s……

40 thoughts on “Bitter Sweet Symphony Part One/ The History of Glasgow’s Comic Shops in the 80’s…..

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  20. Once again your knowledge of that time amazes me. Worryingly I was also right in the middle of it and some of this is news to me. Where was I when Mr. Yeowell’s pint was being defiled? Mind you, Andy never was shy at binging things up.
    Reading your mention of Mr. Landau reminds me that when in L.A. with D.C. for their retailers meeting, Mr. Landau was in the audience at the presentation for retailers only and D.C. weren’t happy about his not making it clear he was also a distributor. It was suggested to me that I should mention this when the chair (Bob Wayne?) asked if there were any distributors in the room. I duly stood up, cliped, and Mr. Landau was politely requested to shove off. I ashamedly admit to some degree of satisfaction. That was the year I discovered Mexican superhero wrestling comics. Never been the same since.

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  21. I kept a diary so my memory isn’t as good as it used to be Steve. Old age and stress has killed it!

    I remember meeting Mike Lake for the first time and thinking ‘he’s alright but he’s a cock’ but Landau make my skin crawl.

    But more of this soon when I do my history of Neptune!

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  23. I have such fond memories of Aka in the late 80’s, especially Steve Pete and John, I had to limit how much cash I took with me!

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  27. That doesn’t look too different to the look of the shop back in the 80’s.

    I understand that the shop is tied up in Neil’s rather complicated and messy estate, and that it”ll remain like that for some time.

    Shame, it’s a little goldmine, not that Neil ever exploited that being Neil.

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  28. Not read all the messages above but as an old member of FOKT I remember some of the background. Bob and Neil started out together in Candleriggs then had a falling out and an intermittent war ensued with Bob moving around opening different shops often as not in close proximity to where Neil was currently operating. IIRC Second Foundation was a name Bob originally used in the Candleriggs days and as noted above it kept reappearing in different incarnations.

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  29. John McShane was my English teacher at school. I remember when he left being pretty shocked that he had given up a proper job to sell comic’s. Just shows what I knew…

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