The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Four

Part One. Part Two. Part Three.

British comics in the late 1980’s were a patchy affair. Comics like Warrior had spoiled fans while 2000AD was in one of it’s frequent lulls in quality it suffered in the late 80’s. The idea behind Trident Comics was to provide new talent to get published and for existing young talent like Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman to help us launch the line of comics which we did in 1989 with the first issue of Trident. an anthology title with a great John Ridgeway cover.

trident

Trident Comics’ editor was Martin Skidmore and to this day I have no idea how he managed to get people like Grant Morrison (who was in 1989 an established writer for American publishers like DC Comics) to work for next to nothing. We paid appallingly but nobody else was willing to publish work and not just distribute it in the UK, but thanks to our links with Diamond Distributors  in the US, across the direct market in America. I don’t think a lot of people know we used Dave Sim’s printers in Canada, and that Sim himself provided some help in helping get Trident off the ground. As to exactly what that was I honestly can’t remember and it may just have been getting us use of his printer but that enabled Trident to publish low cost comics and access the North American market.

We also were able to get Trident Comics into newsagents in the UK thanks to our links with Moore Harness (or General Book Distributors, GBD for sort) who distributed DC Comics into newsagents across the UK, as well as an astonishing array of porn mags. They were also based in Leicester and we dealt with Pete Stephenson, one of the great unsung heroes of comics in the UK. It was Pete who helped fight to get DC Comics into UK newsagents and if it wasn’t for him, a great number of people might not have picked up a copy of Justice League of America or The Flash and got themselves into American superhero comics. I know that people like Dez Skinn  have mentioned Pete but if anyone ever does a definitive history of British comics and its fandom, Pete needs a large mention.

So we were pretty well set up. Trident was going to have in it’s first issue not only a new Neil Gaiman strip, The Light Brigade, a new Eddie Campbell Bacchus story, but the outstanding entry in that first issue was Grant Morrison’s St Swithin’s Day drawn by Paul Grist. It also managed to get us an immense amount of publicity in the mainstream thanks mainly to these three panels.

stswithinsday1

This helped create a small tabloid frenzy with Tory MP Teddy Taylor being apoplectic with rage that we published something with was ‘blasphemous’ against Margret Thatcher which reached a peak in a March 1990 issue of The Sun which splashed the story across a double page spread. We couldn’t buy that level of publicity so we ran with it to the extent when  the collected version came out a month later we used Teddy Taylor’s quotes in house adverts as well as a T-Shirt we sold at the first GLASCAC in 1990. More about that first GLASCAC to come as in retrospect, it was probably the start of the end of Geoff and of Neptune even though it was also the peak of the company’s achievements.

stswithinsday

 

We also had some controversy with Saviour, the first comic written by Mark Millar.

saviour1-markmillar

 

Saviour drew attention not only because it had Jonathan Ross as the Antichrist (Ross apparently loved the idea) but because of the subject matter which stirred up a few moralist campaigners. Of course Mark Millar being young and up for a barney stirred things up and ensured he gained the maximum amount of publicity he could and we found from the off that Saviour was our best selling title by a mile. We even had to get a second print out which also sold out pretty quickly.

Our other launch title was Saga of the Man Elf, which is impressive only really for the involvement of Michael Moorcock, but even though it had vastly less of a print run than Trident and Saviour, it still sold out. Now I’m only talking about a few thousand selling out for Man Elf, nearly 6,000 for Trident and up to 10,000 for Saviour but these figures compared to most British independent comics were astonishing considering we barely spent money on promotion and we paid our creators appallingly. What the attraction of Trident Comics was though as complete freedom to do what you want and Martin Skidmore was very good in coaxing some fine work from people, not to mention he managed to do a great job plugging Trident through his wide social circle. The problem was that Neptune had issues with 2000AD.

Fleetway were at that point the publishers of 2000AD and they had a very cosy relationship with Titan which precluded Neptune getting the comic at the same time, so we’d get it a few days later which was useless to our customers who were competing with newsagents. We’d managed to get some sort of deal in getting it thanks to Neil and Geoff, but it was ultimately pointless, so the idea was hatched that Neptune would branch out and create a weekly comic that would become Toxic!. We’d already had a fairly good relationship with Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill through the production and marketing of the first Marshal Law t-shirt which was such a success in 1988.

marshallawfa

Sadly when Martin Skidmore heard Geoff’s idea for a weekly comic he was under the impression that he’d be involved, but in what was actually a smart move he ensured Martin stayed focused on Trident Comics by bringing in John McShane of AKA Books and Comics who would act as a sort of Stan Lee figure for not just Trident Comics, but the new weekly comic to be published by the new subsidiary Apocalypse Ltd. The reason this was smart was because it bonded AKA closer to Neptune, and it gave Geoff access to John’s friends who included most of the British comics scene, and especially people like John Wagner and Alan Grant. It was John Wagner who Geoff really, really wanted to get his hands on in order to lure him off 2000AD and Judge Dredd.

John had already done some work for DC Comics which included writing Batman in Detective Comics, but it was John and Alan Grant’s work for John McShane’s Fatman Press which caught Geoff’s eye and alerted him to some interesting possibilities. The Bogie Man was a four issue mini series drawn by Robin Smith designed to be released during Glasgow’s time as the European City of Culture but what Geoff saw was a disgruntled creator so words we said, and before we all knew it John and Geoff had managed to assemble John Wagner, Alan Grant, Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill as the creative core for this yet unnamed weekly comic. John Wagner had made it clear to Fleetway that as far as he was concerned he was off due to the lack of creators rights he was getting from the by now, immensely popular Judge Dredd. Fleetway relented to not only give Wagner a share, but gave him the Judge Dredd Megazine to do with as he wanted.

1989’s UKCAC in the September of that year was a triumphant one. Trident Comics were proving themselves. Neptune was drawing off business from Titan and grabbing new shops opening in the wake of the Batman boom and the announcement of a new weekly comic to rival 2000AD shook people up. Especially when Geoff made it clear he wanted it in full colour. 2000AD at that time was only partly in colour, and in fact there were no weekly comics published in full colour, nor indeed were there any monthly comics from Fleetway, though there was the bi-weekly Crisis, and  DC Thompson just didn’t do full colour. The idea of a full colour weekly was unthinkable and apparently something which would be hard to do. Fleetway had dabbled with the idea with Crisis but balked as the logistics were at that time, too much not to mention it’d end up being too expensive. Geoff wanted this comic to not just be weekly but under a pound which would be a incredibly tough thing to do, but the feeling was that it was doable. He was advised by Pat Mills and the others to get as much inventory as possible, plus let Kev ONeill get a year ahead in drawing Marshal Law which was to be the comic’s main draw.

I remember leaving that UKCAC in 1989 thinking we’d done things to seriously change the face of comics in the UK, and indeed, we were at the top of our game, which for the next six months we were. Going into 1990 was a huge case for optimism. Yes, there were still blow ups by Geoff, but things were calming down especially when Geoff announced his wife Sarah was pregnant which seemed to seriously chill him out. Neptune was also expanding as we employed two new people, Adam and Viv, to do sales and marketing, not to mention help me and John out in the warehouse. Gordon had a helper in the shape of Nigel who came on board to do design work for Trident and Apocalypse.

So why did it all go wrong? Well, in the next part I’ll explain but perhaps if Geoff hadn’t started fucking the female members of staff behind his wife’s back we’d all have stuck together….

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