A short history of newsagents and how you bought your American comics from them.

Today most British newsagents have a limited range of magazines with at best, a handful of comics so 2000AD, the DC Thompson titles & a few others but compared to what it was like 25 years ago the range is limited. For decades til the late 90s, one could walk into your local corner shop pick up Marvel, DC, Charlton, Archie or most major US publishers of comics easily. You’ll miss many an issue due to low distribution and it not even being distributed in the UK at all, but it was possible to become a comics reader/fan from your local shop.

Strap in for another tale of comics history & a mention of possibly the most important person in British comics of the 70s-90s that virtually nobody has heard of.

Newsagents now are in decline. Corner shops might stock the daily papers & some of the better selling mags, plus whatever distributors throw in their stock (hence why you see puzzle & gossip mags dominating) so comics are at best, a niche interest now. In the past they weren’t. Corner shops were part of the lifeblood of local communities. Some still are but the rise of things like Tesco Metro has seen corner shops pushed out & with that, the choice of magazines go with it.

You now have to go to bigger shops so places like Smiths will have everything including what remains of the mainstream UK comics industry. It never used to be like that. From the 50s to the 90s it was easy to pick up US comics from newsagents. Initially they were brought over partly as ballast then sold to local distributors or bigger ones would ship some over, so it’s pretty common to see Golden to Bronze Age books in the UK with a UK stamp on them if they were Cents copies. Thorpe & Porter were the first to get DC to start shipping over UK priced issues, so I think it was an issue of Superboy which popped up with a Shilling price on it in the late 50s.

T&P are hugely important in British comics history but almost forgotten now in modern histories of UK comics. They were also a publisher so you’ll see UK versions of things like Classics Illustrated they published. They also had other companies which published things like Batman & Superman annuals during the 60s. This company was an absolute powerhouse which supplied nearly every newsagent in the UK. They had an incredible range. John Byrne getting a Superman annual as a kid is thanks to T&P. Alan Moore picking up early DC/Marvel titles. Dave Gibbons picking up Green Lantern. Kev O’Neill, etc all got into comics partly due to seeing and buying US comics in newsagents. Of course we had our own comics which is why our turn on superheroes used to be distinct to what the US did. T&P didn’t just distribute DC but Charlton, Archie, Harvey, even Marvel for a while before they were taken over by another big distributor Comag

T&P were bought out in the 70s & indeed, over the years had several new owners but the business was still based in Leicester & still distributed a huge amount of magazines/papers in the UK. For much of the 70s to 90s the man in charge of comics was a chap called Pete Stevenson & if you’re a certain age if you read a US DC title it is thanks to this man. He was one of the very rare people in the industry who liked comics!

Pete negotiated it so DC had all their titles distributed in the UK from around 87/8 to the late 90s when Pete retired. When DC bought Comico, Pete got those titles into UK newsagents til a complaint about an issue of Grendel arrived & those titles were pulled. Newsagents would get a pack of DC titles each month so you were as likely to get the latest issue of Warlord as you were the first issue of New Teen Titans. It was first come, first served. Any unsold copies would be sent back to the central warehouse in Leicester. It was here these issues were either sold in bulk to a very select few dealers (of which a mate was one) who’d buy by the pallet. The warehouse is massive. Imagine the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark & you get an idea of the size. I once spent a day there climbing up these shelving units about 12 metres high digging out comics like Sandman #1, Swamp Thing #21, New Teen Titans #2, & on and on as these shelves had stuff going back to the 70s. Sometimes Pete would get this back stock packaged into packs to be sent to newsagents, so if you popped into your corner shop in the late 80s & picked up 70s DC titles you can thank Pete.

The owners of the Sunday Sport bought the distribution part of the company in the 90s as they’d been having distribution issues so they just bought a distributor. From then you’d have to walk past women chatting about last night’s Corrie while stuffing porn mags into bags. They left Pete to do his thing though. The comics were doing well, especially as by 91/2 the full range of DC titles were in newsagents. Picked up a Vertigo title in your corner shop? Thank Pete.

In 1996 (I think) Pete retired. I was living in Leicester at the time so would pop to his warehouse to get comics pretty regularly. He did introduce us to his replacement who from the start, was clearly a Massive Wanker. Massive Wanker hated comics. He didn’t like having to deal with DC. At this point, DC was also getting hassle from shops annoyed that the range newsagents were getting was ‘stealing’ sales from them. There was a dealers meeting at one UKCAC where Bob Wayne had to take questions about newsagent distribution. The writing was on the wall for US comics being distributed in shops in the UK as at the same time Comag were trying to phase out distributing Marvel titles.

If you picked up a US Marvel at this time with a huge fuck-off UK price sticker on it, blame Comag’s own Massive Wanker. Marvel though was also dealing with the collapse of Marvel UK & the comics crash of the 1990s.DC titles though were still selling in newsagents. There was still a customer base as outwith your big cities/towns most places didn’t have a comics shop. Especially as the 90s crash wiped smaller shops out in many of these places.

So Pete retired, his replacement helped phase DC titles out as at the same time DC were getting pressure from the UK direct market. Many of the shops complaining didn’t think that people discovering comics in newsagents in many cases would become their customers. The UK comics market declined sharply. The DC license to repackage US titles got passed around several times since & it became harder & harder to pick up US comics reprints everywhere. Now you’ll be lucky to find even DC Thompson’s titles in local shops.

But for decades Pete Stevenson ensured US titles were in nearly every newsagent in the UK. If you got into comics because you picked up a US DC title from the 70s to 90s then it’s down to someone missing from comics histories. The only place you used to find any serious mention of Pete was over on Dez Skinn’s site before he took most of it down for his book.

But thanks to Pete’s retirement, the UK direct market, DC themselves & the start of your local newsagents being closed or replaced by a more homogenous megacorp muscling in on the local shop market we saw a way to get into comics removed forever. The damage done can’t be overblown. It was a whole vandalism enacted upon fans & people who may have picked up say, an issue of Sandman or the latest Superman & decided to get into comics seriously that affected subsequent generations of comics fans as well as the medium in the UK. It’s only in the last few years with self-publishing and crowdfunding that things have improved be there lies a sense of loss that we’re unlikely to get the same cross-pollination of UK and US comics inspiring young new creators today.


6 thoughts on “A short history of newsagents and how you bought your American comics from them.

  1. Pete was a lovely fella. I remember Paul Coppins face dropping when he first went to GBD. Fun times.
    I always thought it was owned by Sullivan /Gold as their main porn distributor. The comics and puzzle mags being a method to soften its image?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent. Some of it new to me.
    I do remember going with our Pete to John Menzies warehouse to pick up distributed comics. Pete also supplied imports to those of us who frequented Wintersgills in Gt Western Rd. He’d pick them up from Central Station as they came from London by train.
    Late ’50’s, you could also find Australian comics in some smaller newsagents. They must have come over as ballast, and in the ’60’s there were those Double Double comics. The stuff that turned up was amazing. A revelation to young eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. No, it’d been in operation as a distributor/publisher before Sullivan and Gold got their grimy wee hands on the place. It is remarkable that for decades the British comics industry was focused in London, Dundee and Leicester.

    As for Paul Coppin, Google his name and ‘plane spotter’.


  4. The Double/Double comics were Thorpe & Porter and a way to repackage returns hence why each issue was completely random outwith the cover.

    Do you remember the guy outside of the St Enoch’s hotel in the 70s who’d sell older comics for silly money? I remember picking up dozens of copies of things like X Men #100, ASM #129 and even some Silver Age. I think he’d found a warehouse of comics which was destined to be used as ballast but he bought it cheap and sold it cheap.

    Menzies would have been supplied by T&P/GBD/Moore Harness/whatever the name was that week. I do remember the blue van that’d drop off comics at the shop that Pete had bought. At Neptune we’d put out the occasional order form with any stock Pete Stevenson wanted shot of. Stuff that’s worth thousands now.

    Oh for a time machine…


  5. I remember being in a pub in Bristol having a beer after work idly watching the telly behind the bar when up pops Coppin in the news. Right on the phone to Bakie to get him to see it.

    Next mart after that was full of people ripping it out of him in his enforced absence.


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