Comics as a medium are currently more popular than at any point in my life, and getting your weekly fix of superhero comics is so easy, so if you live in the UK you get them the day after they’ve shipped in the US. If you buy them digitally from a site like Comixology you can get them on the same day as publication in the US. In 2014 there is nothing stopping you from getting your comics within 24 hours of publication in the US.
In the 1980’s this wasn’t the case and although I’ve covered this ground before, it’s worth going over again briefly to recount the struggles comics fans had to get comics in the 70’s and 80’s. I’ve outlined just how annoying it was to get your favourite comic before in detail, but the situation is by the establishment of the direct market. The establishment of the direct market is a long history and this series of articles at The Comics Journal gives a great history of it’s establishment and history, but it’s obviously a US focused series of articles.
In the UK, the establishment of the direct market saw a number of shops ship their own comics in from the US, but eventually a single distributor appeared which was Titan Distributors who supplied most of the comic shops/ SF Bookshops across the UK. At that point those would be notable shops like Forever People in Bristol, Odyssey in Manchester, Timeslip in Newcastle, Nostalgia and Comics in Birmingham and the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh.
There was also Moore Harness who distributed comics, mainly DC Comics, to newsagents across the country while Marvel’s comics were distributed by Comag and didn’t feature the range of DC Comics, which had a fuller range distributed in newsagents but still had gaps. There was also the fact you had to wait months. Three at least as these were shipped to the UK as seafrieght while the comics Titan shipped were flown across by air, though they tended not to hit the UK til over a week later after publication in the US. In those pre-internet days there were no spoilers, but although shops were doing alright there was problems with Titan’s distribution. Titan however was the only game in town until Neptune came along.
The reason why anyone reading this get their comics on a Thursday is because of Neptune. They created a ripple effect and showed there was a demand for getting comics across to the UK as quickly as possible, so when you pick up a copy of Batman 24 hours after it’s been printed, give a wee thanks to those of us involved in the distribution field in the 80’s. I accept cheques and Paypal…..
So the situation by the mid 1980’s was that shops had a few sources to get their comics; Titan, Moore Harness and off their own back by creating relationships with one of the dozens of distributors in the US though that was risky, and anyhow because of how Titan’s discounts worked, you’d be best throwing your money with them even if at times their services was, well, shite. Comics would miss issues, or ship so stupidly late, or you’d only get a few issues of titles, or a shop in one city would get one fairly hot title and another nearby wouldn’t because they were on better terms with Titan’s owners. It was frankly, a mess and at the time I was firmly entrenched with AKA Books and Comics in Glasgow and I can say that from experience that Titan were ok, but like any company running a monopoly (which effectively they did in the direct market in the UK) they were complacent. There was also a huge gap in the market and some tried to take Titan on but the problem was they were mainly fans with no idea how to run a business and it needed a businessman who was a bit of an utter bastard to to take Titan on. That utter bastard was a student at Leicester Polytechnic called Geoff Fry.
Geoff lived at 67 Barclay Street in Leicester with his girlfriend Sarah and their friend Martin. Geoff was a comics fan, and a keen admirer of Margaret Thatcher. The others had no interest in comics at all but they were keen on Geoff’s vision of setting up a distribution company to rival Titan, and of course, to make shitloads of money. They started on a small scale in 1985 and I still remember their cold call to AKA pitching their business as I was the one who took the call. Of course calling your company Neptune is a clear sign that you want to take Titan on. and for Geoff he saw Mike Lake and Nick Landau (owners of Titan and as it was then, the Forbidden Planet shop in London) as people he wanted to take on personally even though he’d never met them. He still saw this as a personal fight against them.
AKA were one of Geoff’s first big customers after winning us over by getting John Byrne’s Man of Steel, a Superman mini-series which redefined the character to AKA before the Titan shipment.
Getting these copies on a Tuesday as opposed to a Thursday, or even a Friday or Saturday morning changed things. It meant that AKA could pull the rug out of any other shop by doing something they weren’t and giving fans a chance to buy these comics first. See, comic fans are not known for their patience, so Neptune gave AKA an advantage over shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh which meant customers were more likely to buy their comics from AKA, and the more Neptune did this the more business they were given. This was repeated across the UK and as Neptune grew the business could no longer be run from a terraced house in Leicester by three students and they moved up a gear, by getting warehouse premises in Enderby,just outside of Leicester, and recruiting staff such as Neil, a lad who’d worked in a comic shop in Leicester by the Polytechnic that Geoff went to.
On moving to Enderby, Geoff was able to expand his ambitions. He wanted more business and I know from when I was still at AKA that he was pushing hard for more business but we weren’t daft, and still had a good part of our comics coming from Titan, not to mention the seafrieght comics from Moore Harness. For much of 1986 and 1987 Neptune were gaining shops across the country and eating into Titan’s monopoly. The big change for myself came at the UKCAC of that year.when I met the Neptune lot who were at attendance punting for business, not to mention trying to piss off Mike Lake. A few months later I was speaking to Geoff on the phone and was offered a job at Neptune which started in January 1988.
At this point Neptune were not at their peak. They were still in a fairly small warehouse in Enderby which saw everyone tripping over each other at times, and everyone worked their arses off. I addition to Neil and myself, there was Gordon, a serious Harvey Kurtzman fan, and we made up the warehouse team in Leicester, with Geoff and Martin helping. In the office, Sarah was helped by Carolyn so it was a small team punching probably way above our weight. Also at this point I have to point out that frankly, Geoff was a bit mental. I think by the end of my first week I’d seen him have a stand up argument with Neil and then with Sarah and then with Gordon. I was used to the odd argument at work but this was something else. Geoff to put it mildly, had anger management issues. This aside though he was someone who could run a business but he was very, very lucky in assembling a team around him who were also young and hungry, not to mention weren’t suffering from the complacency Titan suffered with. We all wanted Neptune to work as well as we all wanted to give Titan a bit of a kicking because we were hip young gunslingers in the world of comics distribution.
After a while I settled into a routine. Monday was the day we’d ship out all the minor accounts across the UK and tidy up the delivery from the previous week. Tuesday we’d start getting information from Tod (our man in New York who formerly worked for Bud Plant) by the miracle of fax about what was going to ship on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday was a day of preparation so we’d write up pull lists for our accounts and on Thursday we’d ship ourselves down to Staines to pick up the Sparta shipment from the US. these were the general newstand comics sold in the US also sold to the direct market. Friday was the day we’d get the Ronalds shipment from Canada via the Us and these were the direct market comics from mainly DC Comics, but we’d have Marvel and other publishers there too. Thursday and Friday meant leaving Leicester normally quite early in order to get down to Staines, or direct to Heathrow to pick up the shipment, break it down, and then get it out in London thanks to Martin bombing round London in the van, and across the UK to those shops who wanted a Friday/Saturday delivery via ANC. Then we’d truck back up to Leicester via the M25 and M1 and hopefully get back in time for last orders before heading off to The Fan Club or if you were feeling more rocky, Sector 5 which used to be next door. Saturday would see hangovers and afternoons shopping or drinking in The Globe. Sunday would be spent in the late, lamented Pump and Tap pub and then an early night for the week ahead.
This is of course, if everything went smoothly. Often we’d be in London at 8 in the morning, or still pulling comics in Staines on a Friday at 6 in the evening and we’d always be stuck in traffic jams getting back from Staines to the point we’d take a short cut through Oxfordshire so we’d avoid the M25. All this work did mean we were creeping up on Titan which was reducing their market share, which in 1988 in a comics scene far, far smaller than today, meant money was being lost from them to us.
Sadly we’d fuck up but a lot of the time it was down to Geoff’s impatience or his arrogance. A classic example is the Batman story A Death in the Family and this issue in particular.
This was a massive issue as it featured the point in a story where readers could call a number in the US and decide whether Robin lived or died. It was getting mainstream media coverage and shops were frantic to get their copies, but the shipment came in late, not to mention we got reduced numbers as the shipment was split so Geoff fiddled with numbers to split it across shops in London which was the priority. Unfortunately things were fucked up because Geoff decided to pull comics in a moving van and poor Gordon was the sod stuck with having to put comics into boxes. We did warn that things would fuck up and lo and behold, the next day saw Geoff raging at us when in fact, he bore serious responsibility for it all.We got earache, and I remember leaving work that day serious miserable. Next day though Geoff was all friendly and nice which obviously was because Sarah had a word so he tried to be nice which if I remember meant paying for our lunches at the pub near the warehouse in Enderby while trying to avoid being punched by one of us.
This aside though we were incredibly good at not only getting new business, but expanding existing customers. For example, one time we (Geoff, Todd and myself) were to see John McShane and Pete Root at AKA Books and Comics in Glasgow to discuss the whole business with Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow and the potential for a closer relationship between Neptune and AKA, not to mention more business. Now most sane people would either go up for a few days or even though internal short haul flights were normally expensive in 1987, it was worth flying up for what was going to be a hopefully successful meeting. Nope, we drove from Leicester to Glasgow and back in a day with a few hours of a meeting crammed in a middle, plus a pub lunch at Blackfriars, a pub I always made fine use of when I lived in Glasgow.
It did end up being a great meeting which ended up being mutually successful but we were frankly making all this up as we went along. This became clear when Geoff decided to inform us about his plan to start publishing comics, which frankly did excite the hell out of all of us. He’d already bought Fantasy Advertiser by hiring then custodian of the magazine, Martin Skidmore, a Bristolian who was very well known on the British comics scene and is sadly no longer with us. What we did do was to make Fantasy Advertiser look more professional by throwing a few more quid than Martin had at it, but really what Geoff wanted was Martin’s contacts which is why he was made editor of the Trident Comics line.
It has to be said that even though Geoff was an arch Tory and Trident was motivated mainly by trying to get one on Titan who’d never delved into making original comics, there was a large element of trying to make very good comics using new and existing talent. We managed to get people like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Eddie Campbell, John Ridgeway and even Michael Moorcock on board as well as new talent like Paul Grist, Nigel Kitching, Dominic Regan and Mark Millar. It was an impressive line-up for a small company operating out of a tiny warehouse just outside Leicester and this company was paying these people pennies, but the deal was they could do whatever they wanted.
The problem was the warehouse in Enderby was too small, so in 1989 we moved from Enderby to South Wigston and into a much, much larger warehouse. The business was booming and plans were to expand across the UK with a Manchester warehouse opening as well (to be run by me! Jings!) plus Trident to get off the ground, things were busy and that meant Geoff had to delegate. The business was about to hit it’s peak and in its own way change the face of British comics, not to mention distribution forever.
In the next part of this blog I’ll detail the story of the move, how staff came and went, the tales of various UKCAC’s and GLASCAC’s, the rise of Trident Comics, the birth of Toxic!, and the beginning of the end.
And I’ll also tell the full gory story of Geoff’s wedding…..