1991 was a fucking crap year for me. Really crap. There were however some highlights which included the schadenfreude of watching Neptune implode from outside after I’d left. I was still involved in comics after my time in London at Comic Showcase with Chris and Maurice from Bristol who I was now helping out not just at comic marts in London, but I was now regularly going down to Bristol (where they were based) to help them prepare for the marts they’d do across the country from Leeds to Cardiff to London.
Neptune however marched on without me. In the autumn of 1990 Apocalypse Ltd (the company Geoff set up to publish Toxic!) brought out their first comic, a Marshal Law one-shot called Kingdom of the Blind.
This was a huge deal as we’d managed to get Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill to bring Marshal Law to us from Epic Comics, a subsidiary of Marvel Comics. It was a massive coup for what was still a small independent publisher based out of a drafty warehouse in Leicester next to a dodgy pub. Incidentally this is what it looks like now according to Google.
I wonder if the current occupants have any idea of the buildings small part in the history of comics?
Anyhow, Toxic! was due to come out in March 1991. This was against the advice of Pat Mills, Kev O’Neill, the editorial staff brought in and anyone who was remotely sane, but Geoff was insistent before I left it’d be out in the spring even though I was there where Kev O’Neill told him that there was no way he could cope with a weekly schedule and maintain quality. Kev had also done most of the design and art direction for Toxic! so his workload was enormous, and frankly, he wasn’t getting the rewards financially for it. John Wagner was so fed up with it before it came out that once he had strips rejected ( Button Man is the most famous example, but I understand others were rejected) and The Bogie Man strip stalled after a few episodes. John however had been lured back to Fleetway so turned his attention back to Judge Dredd.
Toxic! did feature new creators but the heavy lifting was really done by Alan Grant and Pat Mills who ensured there were strips in there every week. Two strips in particular took off; Sex Warrior and Accident Man especially built up a strong following.
It was however Marshal Law which was the lead character and the Judge Dredd of Toxic!, but as Kev O’Neill warned, he couldn’t keep up the schedule so weeks would pass without it’s main draw and that hurt sales.
Of course I was getting all of this filtered second hand via people still within Neptune of from creators or people involved with Toxic!/Trident Comics. John McShane had decided to knock things on the head, and Geoff was losing whatever favours he’d built up, plus the word from the US was that he was unreliable. Then again he’d had an awful reputation with small publishers because of his combative nature. To go back a bit, an example of this is when Alan Moore’s Big Numbers was due to come out he spent a day arguing with Debbie Delano (one of the team involved with publish Big Numbers through Moore’s company Mad Love) about pricing of the comic which ended up with Geoff ranting about Moore himself as it ended up with Moore having to step in to sort it all out. That act I understand ended up with Geoff getting an awful name among some creators who may have considered working for him.
At the same time Trident Comics plugged on with Martin Skidmore doing what he could to get people to work for next to nothing, which thankfully, Mark Millar did as he was the clear star Trident discovered. The problem was that the core of the business, the distribution, was falling to pieces. At the end of 1990 I was in London working for Comic Showcase and heard vague rumbles of bad things at Neptune as Geoff’s affair with Viv had become common knowledge which caused her to leave and things to be exceptionally stressed as all the people who’d helped build up Neptune for four years had now left, or been forced to leave mainly due to Geoff’s hubris. Later in 1991 while living in Nottingham I was still in touch with Neptune/Trident staff, not to mention still involved with comics so I heard how things broke down quickly.
Toxic! lasted 31 issues. By around half way through these issues the quality dipped as they started to use material meant for the anthology Trident or worse, rejected material, in order to make up for the fact John Wagner had left, Pat Mills had left (though legend has it that Pat did turn up at the Leicester warehouse with a couple of large gentlemen to claim what Geoff owed him), Kev O’Neill had gone and only Alan Grant still bothered to write material for them. Trident Comics folded not long after Toxic! died.
As for Neptune it too died in 1992 when Diamond (who by this point were looking for an avenue to get a toehold in the UK market) bought out Neptune thanks to the fact Geoff had ranked up so much debt with them that Diamond just moved into the UK taking a large portion of the UK market that Neptune had spent nearly six years building up. This put them up against Titan who were then bought by Diamond making Mike Lake and Nick Landau merrily wealthy men, but enabled a monopoly of comic distribution in the UK that is now so ironclad that it’s impossible (until the recent rise of digital comics and sites like Comixology) to break. If you want a hard copy of a comic in the UK, it’s 99% certain it’s been shipped by Diamond so we’re now back in the same situation we were in 1985 with one monolithic distributor essentially shaping people’s reading habits because of their links to the big players (Marvel and DC) in the direct market.
Yes, people now get their comics the day after they’re printed in the US, but private monopolies like Diamond aren’t healthy which is why it’s helped shape comic shops into selling mainstream material as Diamond’s cut off point for inclusion in their catalogue would make something like Trident Comics impossible on the whole now. It’s a major fight to get anything new into Diamond so we’re actually in a stale, regressive phase, yet the rise of digital comics and the variety of genres shows there’s a better future awaiting comics than just men in spandex twatting each other.
So by the end of 1992 Neptune was dead. Toxic! and Trident Comics were over. All brought down by one man’s impatience, his hubris and his inability to control his temper or where he put his penis. Yet the story isn’t actually over as I’ll explain in the next part of this ever-increasing series of blogs….