Bitter Sweet Symphony Part Three/ The Great Glasgow Comic Shop Wars

In Part One of this series, I outlined the history of Glasgow’s comic shops in the 80’s and the second part I outlined the history of comic distribution in the UK during the 80’s, so we’re up to the point in 1988 where Geoff at Neptune comes into the office shouting  at me saying ‘what the fuck do you know about Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow?’

Before I go on I should point out there’s a lot of memories here based upon second or third hand stories and I’ve tried to make this as fair as possible but as will become clear in this (and the next blog) I was firmly on one side but I’ll try to outline what’s second hand to me. I will also say you really need to go back and read the first two parts of this before even trying to get stuck into this.

Now that’s out the way I can get on with answering the question as to just what the fuck I did know about Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow? The answer was nothing. I didn’t have a clue. Geoff didn’t have a clue. So he pulled me into his office and he explained what had happened.

He was speaking on the phone to Graham at Odyssey in Manchester when he mentioned to Geoff that he’d been down to the Titan warehouse in London (anyone who was a Titan customer could visit the warehouse which was in Mile End in an exceptionally unpleasant area) when he’d seen a shelf marked ”Forbidden Planet Glasgow” which sent his Manc Spidey Sense tingling. At this point I have to point out comic shop owners are the worst gossips in the world, so Graham blurted this factoid out to Geoff on the phone knowing this was an exceptionally juicy bit of gossip as AKA in Glasgow was one of Neptune’s top customers so FP opening in Glasgow wasn’t just taking on AKA, but Neptune.  I was told to get on the phone to Jim at the SF Bookshop to find out if he knew anything, while Geoff broke the news to Pete and John at AKA. Now this was early 1988 and I’d not long moved to Leicester so I’m putting this around February or March of that year and definitely before Easter which was the weekend of the 1-4 April.

Anyhow, I asked Jim the question ‘do you know anything about FP Glasgow, while explaining how we knew at Neptune’. He said he knew nothing, we chatted for a bit and then I went into Geoff’s office to hear him still on the phone with John McShane and to say that Geoff was fucked off is an understatement. This was a man prone to bursts of raging anger and his neck was going to explode like a Tesco’s bag full of beetroot, and by this point his partner Sarah was in the office mouthing ‘calm down’ to him which he sort of did before finishing the call to AKA. Then he spent an hour talking with me about what we could do to help AKA out. We weren’t going to let Titan/FP lay a few good punches on one of our best customers without coming out with steel toecapped boots aiming for their bollocks, so we came up with a plan…

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, a Batman graphic novel, was coming out in March.


What if we could get it to Glasgow as the same time we would get it to London?

To explain; Neptune would get two deliveries a week from the US, one from Sparta Press from the US on a Thursday, and on a Friday we’d have the Ronalds shipment from Canada. The former would be the mainstream newsstand comics, while the latter would be the more ”prestigious’ titles aimed for the direct market. We’d get, them, take them to our warehouse in Staines, sort them and send them via ANC to arrive the next day, so Friday and Saturday for all of our customers apart from those in London, Leicester, Northampton and Nottingham. They were lucky enough to get a delivery by van pretty much hot off the presses, so there and then on the same day they landed in the UK. Titan did a similar thing but only delivered to London customers which meant we could pull a trick or two.

While we plotted and schemed in Leicester, the situation in Glasgow had erupted. It turned out that Jim from the SF Bookshop did indeed know about FP Glasgow, as he was actually going to be a partner in the shop. To say that Pete and John at AKA were upset about this is again, an understatement but I wasn’t in Glasgow when this was found out. I can only go on what Pete, John and various friends told me at the time, plus like I said, comic shop owners gossip and we were getting a fuckload of gossip about what was kicking off in Glasgow in the early part of 1988.

I’d heard that half of AKA’s customer base had left to go to Forbidden Planet, along with people like Grant Morrison, Jim Clements, Gary Erskine and several others of the old (well, it was old to me now I was a few hundred miles away) crowd who’d been lured by the bright shiny new shop and the fact it sold new imports slightly cheaper than AKA which was something a shop like FP could do if it was also owned by it’s distributor. As I pointed out to Geoff one day in the car, this was a conflict of interest and that statement opened a huge can of worms but that’s for the next blog. Back to this one.

AKA was hardly going out of business but FP opening was a huge blow, and it was taken very personally by many on the AKA side, mainly because of Jim being involved and the duplicitous circumstances of it’s opening. In hindsight Glasgow could have easily supported another shop, and FP and AKA could have easily lived together without the bad blood but the decision was made by FP and those behind it to open the Glasgow shop in the way they did.

Or basically, they started it.

In March 1988, we’d found out exactly when The Killing Joke was going to ship and it was over Easter weekend, so we came up with a cunning plan; I’d take as many as I could physically carry on the train to Glasgow which might make you think ”hang on, isn’t it easier just to have shipped it up normally as both Titan and Neptune would have got it at the same time”?

Except we didn’t. We’d made arrangements to ship 2,000 copies in by special air freight at a cost of a Lot Of Money into the UK on the same day they were printed in Canada. Neptune didn’t make a single penny of profit from those issues, and in fact much like the story about Factory Records losing thousands over the 12” of Blue Monday, this was a case of making a point.

Had it actually went to plan. Which it didn’t. The problem was that customs decided to hold  comic shipments for everyone that weekend seeing as it was Easter and they were being anal about things. Also the logistics company we used decided to ship several thousand copies of expensive comics from Heathrow to Gatwick, and then as we were driving to Gatiwck to get them (with the plan now changed that I’d get the train from Brighton!) we were told on our carphone (ooo, technology) that they were heading back to Heathrow and head back there. Basically the entire plan went to shite but Titan were also in a mess, so we’d not lost our advantage!

This was the day before April Fool’s Day. We went back to Leicester to grab some sleep, and next day went back down to grab these previous comics which we did along with the regular shipment but we knew the entire plan would only work if we got got my arse on a train to Glasgow ASAP so AKA could get The Killing Joke before FP did. After a hectic few hours which saw myself and Neil Phipps (one of the Neptune lads I’ve mentioned previously) frantically taping together boxes (the fucking thing came in it’s own stand in boxes of 25!!) of Killing Joke outside Euston on a lukewarm Good Friday I legged it to a train leaving Neil to call John and Pete at AKA that I was on my way and I’d be about six hours….

Ten hours later I finally get to Glasgow Central. I’d stood all that time. In a carriage full of squaddies. And it’d got warmer. Plus I hadn’t eaten in hours. I also wanted water. I was frankly a fucked up mess by the time I got to Glasgow but I heaved off the several boxes of comics, loaded them on a trolley and wheeled it down the platform to see a grinning John McShane patiently waiting for me among the neds and jakies milling around Central Station at this time, which was late on Good Friday. Thankfully John got me, and the precious cargo into a taxi and we sped off to his new flat in Dennistoun where I humped the comics up the stairs, dumped them in John’s lobby and promptly passed out on his couch.

The next morning saw an early rise and we got the comics down to AKA as quickly and early as possible, though I do remember demanding a couple of rolls and square sausage and all the Irn Bru I could drink before doing anything. Anyhow, we got in around 8ish, I helped John break the boxes down (I didn’t mention that in addition to carrying up 200 copies of the Killing Joke, I’d brought up two boxes of their regular delivery) and place the Killing Joke into the standing order customers folders. There was about 20-30 copies left to stick out on display, which we did so by the time Pete Root turned up at 9am, the delivery had been done and dusted and I settled in to a seat behind Pete who was manning the till and waited for customers to come in to see what the reaction was.

And the reaction was quite amazing. Titan hadn’t got their copies out in time. This was Easter weekend and that meant if something didn’t turn up on the Saturday, you’d not get it til Tuesday. Now we only got 200 copies up to Glasgow (the rest came later) but the point was people came in, saw the Killing Joke in AKA, bought their copy and went up to FP to tell Jim and those who left AKA that this incredibly long awaited comic was down the road and oh, where’s your copies?

Which was exactly as Geoff, John, Pete and myself had planned. It was an incredibly expensive, agonising and exhausting way to essentially stick two fingers up at FP and scream FUCK YOU at them but bollocks to it, this was a stunt needing to be done and it created a bit of gossip because we should know comic shop owners are gossips by now.

I went back to Leicester on the Monday, while the situation in Glasgow worsened. FP were aggressively pushing into AKA’s market share and a hell of a lot of very, very, very, very bad blood started coming to the fore. I only experienced this second or third hand but this piece sums things up well on a superficial level but the bleeding of staff and customers from AKA to FP was causing damage and although AKA was still getting the signing sessions which made it such a hub of creativity and excitement in the previous years, there was a feeling among those who I spoke to who did make the move to FP that they were going to miss out on something by going to FP.

In hindsight it was gloryhunting in the same way office bores bleat on about supporting Manchester United because they don’t want to be on the losing side, and it was seen that AKA was on the losing side from the off by some.Some people did try to bridge the gap, or just didn’t care. For me though I was increasingly occupied with the Great Comic Distributors War (more on this in the next blog) Geoff had started with Titan, plus my social life in Leicester was expanding since Neil had shown me the gloomy, filthy, glorious wonders of The Fan Club and the ritual of ‘grabbing a goth’…

This isn’t to say I wasn’t taking an interest in the rather sad civil war that broke out in Glasgow throughout 1988 and into 1989. I did, but I tried my hardest to help by doing my job well, and not to mention being involved with more stunts like the time we flew John McShane down from Glasgow to Heathrow for 30 minutes so we could dump a whole load of Arkham Asylum graphic novels we’d shipped in before Titan so we could get the book out in sale in Glasgow on the same day it landed in the UK. This one really fucked FP off in a huge way as Grant Morrison was now part of the FP crowd and this was his big book, so for AKA to get it before FP was a delightful ‘fuck you’ to the shop but it only ended up causing more bad blood, more spite and more grim depressingly bad feeling.

By the time of the first GLASCAC in spring 1990 there was a Cold War going on with AKA and FP agreeing to stay out of each others way but really, this wasn’t my war. I was involved in a bitter and bigger one with Titan while what was happening in Glasgow was important not to mention amazingly sad to me, I was at best a peripheral figure who swanned in and out of life in Glasgow only catching snippets of what was affecting people every day. It’s not trite to say that for some of us involved in the whole thing learned some valuable lessons about humanity throughout this, which for me was to stick by your mates and learn when people are lying to you. As someone who’s spent now over a decade in sales and marketing I can tell you a liar from 50 feet, and some of that skill was picked up during these times when you couldn’t trust who was saying what, so you had to pick sides. Even if I’d not went down to Leicester to work for Neptune, I’d have still sided with AKA because I’m always going to side against the independent against the Big Company.

Eventually some wounds did heal. After AKA closed down, Pete Root went to FP with his back issues and ran his business from the back of the shop. John McShane made some sort of peace with Jim and those at FP, but I’ve not spoken to John about this in over a decade and sadly, Pete died a few years ago. I’m going to do something just for Pete another time.

At the end of 1990 comics were hardly my main priority as I’d royally fucked my life up, so I wasn’t going to Glasgow, or in as close touch as I was in the previous years but still heard enough coming from there thanks to some of the newer AKA crowd but mainly the fantastic Andy Sweeney who kept me informed throughout the 90’s when I was becoming something else entirely. By the time I’d sorted myself out in the spring of 91 the Glasgow Comic Shop Wars had passed, but there’s another part to this which is the Great Comic Distribution Wars. That’s for next time……

10 thoughts on “Bitter Sweet Symphony Part Three/ The Great Glasgow Comic Shop Wars

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