We’ve covered a wide series of events in this series of blogs so far, but the defining part of the late 80’s/early 90’s is the battle between Titan and Neptune for the comic book distribution king of the country. The effects of this are felt today.
Before I get stuck in, I really strongly recommend reading the first four parts of this series. They’re pretty essential to getting the bits of backstory and I hate repeating myself. This isn’t going to be a history of Neptune Comic Distribution as I’m saving that for another series of blogs, but just the battle between Titan and Neptune and the longer lasting effects of that battle.
So, let’s start with a recap of how Neptune registered on Titan’s radar after getting DC’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel into shops before them. They really started to get Titan’s notice when they started gaining lots, and lots of their custom through 1986 and into 1987, which meant that Titan lost part of big shops like AKA, Gosh!, Comic Showcase, Sheffield Space Centre and virtually all of the Virgin Megastore business in all of Virgin’s branches as well as medium sized shops like Negative Zone in Newport, or Talisman in Belfast.
Titan still had the majority of the distribution business in the UK, but it’d went from having 100% in 1986 to probably 70-80% by the start of 1988 with Neptune making more and more inroads into Titan’s market.
By the time I moved to Leicester and started working for Neptune in January 1988 the plan was to aggressively take more business. I would run the proposed Manchester warehouse, head office with still be in Leicester and Martin (one of the three partners) would run the London warehouse. We also had Tod Borleske, a former employee of Diamond Comic Distributors we’d nicked working in our New York warehouse based in Brooklyn. Essentially the idea was to have total coverage of the UK and with Tod in New York making valuable connections with Marvel Comics and DC Comics we’d be peachy.
Except it didn’t turn out like that. The Manchester warehouse had fallen through which utterly gutted me as it was just down the road from the famous Hacienda nightclub, and seeing as I was slowly drifting into that scene I was overjoyed at this.
The warehouse was on the right hand side of the picture about 300 yards from where the Hacienda (now a block of yuppie flats) is, and just past the lights.
This put a halt to Neptune’s northern expansion, but it didn’t stop us acting quickly when Forbidden Planet opened in Glasgow. What I deliberately neglected to mention in my earlier blog was the fact that Geoff, Tod (who was visiting from the US) and myself drove from Leicester to Glasgow and back in a day to firm up a deal where AKA would give us 80% of their business.
We made this deal with John McShane and Pete Root over shark steak and beer in the Blackfriars pub which was a frequent haunt of the AKA Crowd and somewhere we knew the FP lot wouldn’t come to as things were frosty at this point to say the least. Word of this meeting got out (like I’ve said, comic shop owners love to gossip) and this set people’s noses twitching but we pulled similar meeting with Paul Hudson at Comic Showcase in London and Josh Palmano of Gosh!. We’d also managed to get 100% of the Virgin Megastore business thanks to the chronic mismanagement of Paul Coppin who ran not just the Virgin shops, but Fantastic Store on London’s Portobello Road which was at that time an amazing place, and not the santised middle class playground of today.
I have to take a diversion for a second to tell a wee story about Paul. He was generally quite rubbish with business, and on more than one occasion I was there to help pick up thousands of pounds in cash so he could get his bills up to date. You know the measure of a man as he’s counting out silver in order to keep his businesses going for another week. Anyhow, I’d completely forgotten about Paul til one day in 2001 I saw an item on the news about planespotters from the UK being nicked in Greece and who should pop up but Paul. It was his company which organised that trip and it came as no surprise to me that he’d royally cocked it up. When he was being interviewed on TV he had that same sad, bathetic look he had when we were boxing up all the money he could get to pay his bills.
But I digress….
Neptune was the feisty young thing kicking the heels of Titan and here’s the thing; I’m 90% positive (I had three different people with close connections to Titan, Mike Lake and Nick Landau tell me this) the aggressive expansion of the FP chain was to help Titan claw back some of it’s lost market which led me to mention to Geoff one day as we were driving back from a shipment in London that Titan and FP being so interlinked was a massive conflict of interest. This set Geoff’s brain ticking.
By this time Neptune had bought Fantasy Advertiser, the UK’s leading comics magazine, but what Geoff really wanted was it’s then editor Martin Skidmore had in contacts withing the creative comics community, and of course his reputation for honesty as the plan to launch a line of small press comics under the banner of Trident Comics were well underway by the time I joined and they were quite successful.
That’s the first issue of our anthology title we did. Isn’t that a lovely cover by John Ridgeway? I will include a history of Trident when I do a history of Neptune, but again I digress…
The point is that we had Fantasy Advertiser (FA), which was the only thing Titan bought from us as their shops wanted it. So this meant that Geoff decided to stick a huge editorial on the inside of one issue titled ”conflict of interest?” using exactly the same font and design of the Lloyds Bank ads of the same time.It was something Martin didn’t want to run but he didn’t have a choice. If anyone reading this has a scan of it I’d love to add it to this blog, so please drop me a line if you do.
It ran and that issue of FA went in FP Glasgow, London and every Titan customer in the UK. We got phone calls from Mike Lake, Jim Hamilton and several other dealers who called Geoff and everyone at Neptune all the fucking cunts under the sky.Fine. The lines had been drawn and I was quite happy standing on the Neptune side.
Throughout 1988 we pulled stunts as pointed out in Part Three of this series to help AKA in it’s fight with FP, but we did similar stunts with other shops like Comic Showcase and Gosh! to get them their comics before Titan dropped off their copies.
This is where it gets dirty because there used to be two vans wizzing round London dropping off comics; one from Neptune and one from Titan. I did the London drop many a time normally with Martin, but occasionally with Geoff and it’d see us pull some truly amazing and illegal stuff such as screaming round Soho Square to cut off the Titan van, or tailgating behind an ambulance up Tottenham Court Road to get from the West End of London to Camden in the quickest time ever to drop off at Mega City Comics.
It was dangerous, risky, stupid and daft. We’d picked a fight with a much larger company who was connected and had the power of a growing retail chain behind it. But we were eating away at Titan and more importantly, most of the time it was enormous fun to prick the rather pompous nature of Titan and many of those connected with it. I actually remember being in tears laughing as we burned up the Titan van on Friday afternoon, and in fact I still had tears running down my face when I got to Kilburn to meet mates at the Bull and Gate for a gig later that night.
The whole thing was bloody huge fun from the summer of 1988 through to the summer of 1990, but the best, and possibly most lasting strike against Titan was one of the most massive fuck ups by any company I’ve seen.
In summer 1989 Tim Burton’s Batman film was the biggest thing ever in the history of everything.
This meant that for comics the exposure was huge, and in fact probably the biggest the medium had ever had in decades. Now I’ve heard from younger comic fans on message boards and in person that this film ‘wasn’t a big deal’. or ‘it wasn’t as big as The Avengers‘. This is of course, utter steaming heaps of hairy bollocks. Batman was a huge cultural event that seeped into virtually everyone’s consciousnesses to such a degree you couldn’t avoid seeing the Bat Symbol everywhere and this was in the UK, In the US everyone seemed to have the Batman logo on them.
Because of this DC Comics decided to capitalise by releasing a Batman comic, or a comic with Batman in it, every single week and most weeks you’d have two or three titles with Batman related stuff in it. Things were huge! If you had any comic related business in that summer it was a license to print money. You. Could. Not. Fuck. Up.
Batman opened in the UK on a humid Friday in August 1989. There wasn’t any particularly big Batman comic that week from what I remember, but I do remember there being a load of titles from Marvel and DC, as well as a load of independents. I’d also asked to stay in London instead of going back to Leicester that night so I could hang around Leicester Square and I’d arranged to go out clubbing with my girlfriend of sorts in London that night before going back to Leicester the next day as we’d planned a Neptune outing to the local cinema in Leicester to see Batman.
Everything that day was pretty normal, we started our van drop in London around 2ish and dropped off at Comic Showcase first where we were told that Titan wasn’t delivering that day because they’d given everyone the day off to go and see the Batman film. Martin and myself couldn’t quite believe it so we called Geoff in Leicester on the carphone and asked if he’d heard anything and he hadn’t. By the time we dropped off at Gosh! the word was that nobody in London, or in fact, anywhere in the UK the next day were going to get their Friday comics. In one massively insane move Titan handed us a huge amount of business as on the Monday we had shop after shop contacting us to increase their orders with us, and also we won several bits of new business all because Titan were just bloody daft.
The following month was UKCAC, the UK’s main comic convention (I’m going to do a rundown of all the UKCAC’s and GLASCAC’s I attended) which saw Geoff and Mike Lake being cold to each other, while I ran around the con like a total lunatic having the sheer time of my life and in fact if there’s one weekend I would love to relive it’s that weekend. I got a few sly digs at the FP Glasgow lot, took the piss out of Mike Lake and was pretty damn spectacular all weekend. Going home on the Sunday saw me laughing all the way back in Geoff’s car with him as we told each other of how much petty fuckwittery we’d pulled to piss off Titan.
At the first GLASCAC the following April, it was a similar story. I remember vividly standing in George Square in the glorious spring sun smelling the flowers and thinking ‘this is fucking brilliant!’ as I spoke with Andy Sweeney, one of the new generation of the AKA Crowd.
Then after that things went wrong. Geoff pushed forward with Toxic! too early as he was now intent to take on Titan Books, which left me effectively running the Leicester warehouse, while Tod was trying to keep Diamond on our side in the US and we were really starting to notice that Geoff was shagging the female members of staff which was causing a fair amount of tension in the office.
I left in autumn 1990, went to work for Comic Showcase in London, and royally fucked things up before moving back to Leicester just before Christmas and completely fucked things up but I was still observing what was happening with Neptune.
Geoff was losing control. Without being too big headed he lost a lot of good people in a six month period and didn’t replace them with better people while he was bleeding the distribution part of the business to pay for the publishing side which was going down the tubes thanks to Geoff not listening to people like Pat Mills (I will tell the story about Pat turning up at Neptune demanding payment another time) and John Wagner.
Neptune struggled on for a year or so before dying in 1992 when Geoff sold it to Diamond.
Titan was also bought by Diamond.
So the winner of the Great British Comic Distribution War wasn’t Titan or Neptune, it was Diamond. They got themselves a nice monopoly of the UK market and that’s ended up with the depressing reality that they control what’s being sold. You don’t have Trident Comics, or companies taking risks. It’s all safe. It’s all about money and you don’t have anyone willing to take Diamond on as they have the market, not to mention DC and Marvel and you as a shop aren’t going to have a business if you don’t sell their comics.
What could have been so much better, and for a time if was glorious. I’ll tell you the full tale of the Rise and Fall of Neptune another time, but this is the point; we died not because of Titan but because of ourselves.
But dear bloody god, how that time especially between 1989 and 1990 shone like the sun on the first day of your school holidays during summer. I would do anything, really, anything, to get that time back. there’s times in my life I want back, and this is one of them. Again though, I will go into detail soon enough as to the full details but fuck me, I long for them.
Moving on, we get near the end of Bitter Sweet Symphony. Only two more parts to go.
Next up: The Great Bristol Comic Shop Wars……..