Marvel Comics thinks you’re all idiots

Marvel Comics are having yet another relaunch where every issue is an event and that sound you hear is the sound of the collective arse of Marvel Comics falling to the floor. Their ‘Legacy‘ relaunch promises to return to the old numbering system and a more ‘traditional’ form of superhero comic. Apart from being bollocks, it’s also an admission Marvel have fucked up, and worse, they’ve been treating you, the reader, as a bumbling idiot willing to lap any auld shite up as long as it has a ‘#1’ slapped on the cover.

This is contrived nostalgia passing itself off as a creative outburst, but it doesn’t matter if the comics Marvel produce are awful, which on the whole they are. Marvel are admitting they want to appeal to old fans, but hey, you’ll be able to have a handy checklist to work out the numbering of all your favourite Marvel titles which doesn’t sap the joy from creation but it does keep fans (and dealers fed up trying to work all this bollocks out) happy.

Still, as bad as this is, it could be worse.

Is a monopoly on comics distrbution in the UK a good thing?

‘Geek’ culture is an a zenith right now with comics now seen all over the place, but back in the distant days of the 1980’s things were different. Comics were still very much a minority medium, and the comic book a niche product for mainly children and collectors; however by the late 80’s the seeds of today’s ‘Geek’ culture were sown when the UK’s direct market exploded after the boom created by work such as Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and in the run-up to Tim Burton’s Batman film, the industry hit what was considered by some at the time, as a peak.

Before I go on it is best to explain things in a bit more detail which may get a wee bit dry so stick with me here. The direct market in the UK took years to build up as comic shops slowly appeared (albeit normally as parts of a wider SF/fantasy bookshop) during the 1970’s in cities like London, Bristol and Edinburgh. In the early 1980’s comic shops started to really spring up with the growth of the American direct market, thanks partly to Titan Distributors ensuring there was a distributor of American comics based in the UK. In the mid-1980’s a number of competitors to Titan sprung up so there was nothing like the monopoly we have today where you only get your new comics via Diamond Comic Distributors.

American distributors like Bud Plant and Mile High dabbled with direct distribution to UK shops, but the issue was one of logistics. It wasn’t til American distributor Glenwood Distributing started air-freighting comics direct from the printers that it became possible to consider actually beating Titan at their game as they just relied mainly on sea-freight, or shipping comics from a third party outwith the printer. For the UK this meant that from 1985 onwards there were a number of distributors pushing to break Titan’s grip on what was a growing market in the UK, however it was Neptune Distribution run by Geoff Fry based in Leicester that broke the deadlock. As an ex-employee I go into details of Neptune’s history here, so go read those blogs for a more in-depth history of Neptune’s rise and fall, but what is important here is that by 1987 Neptune were knocking great big chunks out of Titan’s grip on the UK market.

Here’s where I get to something that’s a tad controversial. Titan and Forbidden Planet were linked by having the same owners in Mike Lake and Nick Landau creating an obvious conflict of interest. After all,how do you stop a distributor delivering to your customer base first potentially taking more business away from your company? Simple solution; start expanding the Forbidden Planet chain. This ended up causing a battled between Neptune and Titan that I outlined here. Then the editorial below was published in Fantasy Advertiser, published by Neptune and sold in Forbidden Planet. This was written solely by Geoff Fry but to this day I stand by the jist of it.

neptune-conflict-of-interest

When Mike Lake apparently read this in FP’s store then in New Oxford Street, apparently he went off his head with rage because this one editorial nailed the problem with having a distributor also acting as a retailer. They could use what should be confidential information to buy a business advantage in an area and they could unfairly compete with other shops by offering prices at wholesale prices (this happened when FP opened in Bristol in 1993) ensuring they undercut the competition. It should also be pointed out that publishers were not aware of this conflict of interest. I know of at least three retailers who pointed out to people from DC and Marvel what was going on, including one case where Mike Lake was asked to leave a DC retailers meeting when it was pointed out he also represented a distributor.

As I’ve outlined in my blogs Neptune did what it could to try to level the playing field but after Neptune’s implosion and subsequent purchase by Diamond the UK market started to be, frankly, less diversified than it is now to the point of being less adventurous. The reason for this is simple. Once Titan/FP had its hands round the neck of the market it squeezed so smaller titles that they or ourselves at Neptune may have taken on were dropped. Some shops also couldn’t compete with having a wholesaler who also acted as their main competitor which led to shops closing across the UK in the 90’s which to be fair wasn’t just the fault of FP/Titan as the speculator bubble of the 90’s burst taking a lot of people and businesses with it. In 1992 after swallowing up the corpse of Neptune, Diamond bought out Titan leaving the UK market to be served by one distributor deciding what they stock which in effect unnaturally shapes the market in the same way that say, having Virgin Trains running a train network on the basis of profit unnaturally shapes the market.

The title of this blog asks if a monopoly on comics distribution a good thing? It clearly isn’t. We’ve seen an industry grow beyond belief in the last decade with ‘geek’ culture being smeared everywhere yet the retail market in the UK has been shaped in the most unnatural way to barely any yelp from most of the so-called ‘journalists’ of the British comics scene who are more interested in self-progression so for decades have let this rotting sore in the industry fester. True, one or two have touched on this in the past and the Forbidden Planet situation but it remains one of those things that folk like me talk about in bars and coffee shops with others of our generation wistfully wondering why it all went so wrong when it could have went so right.

For me a more diverse, interesting industry comes with wholesalers who will play fair let alone taking risks as we’re now in a state where the Diamond catalogue is a minefield of variant covers and tedious new superhero comics with little new or exciting because once a monopoly is secure you can do anything. Yes, shops like Page 45 in Nottingham and Gosh! in London do what they can to show the comics industry is a diverse thing, but while there’s only one distributor we have a situation where any diversity is hard to find and if you’re a small press publisher then it can be a struggle to be discovered. Although digital helps for some, it doesn’t for most which means for new British talent it’s either hoping 2000AD accept you, or but some stroke of talent/luck your comic finds a market because as sure as shit isn’t likely that Diamond will distribute your book or FP will bother to stock it.

It’s impossible to turn back the clock but it is possible for the future to be changed. How that changes depends on what we all do as fans if we’re fed up of a monolithic monopoly controlling distribution. I’m not offering solutions here, but consider this a call for people to consider what’s best for the future as at some point this bubble is going to burst as all bubbles do and for our industry to remain interesting and diverse we need to shake the system up in a way that shifts power from the large corporations to the independent retailers, the creators and the fans or the future is bland, boring and fucked.

A short word of praise for the woman that helped make Marvel Comics, Flo Steinberg.

One of the most crucial but unsung figure in the creation of Marvel Comics, Flo Steinberg, has passed away.  At a time when women in American comics were at best, limited, Steinberg’s role is extraordinary in that if she didn’t act as not just Stan Lee’s ”secretary” (she seems to have had more like an editorial role) but as the glue, and blood of those early Marvel years in the 1960’s.

Steinberg famously left Marvel when they wouldn’t give her a $5 pay rise, but she didn’t just hold together Marvel at a time when the myth didn’t reflect the reality, she was an essential part in subsequent decades in trying to sort out who created what, and who essentially got shafted by Stan Lee’s myth-making. Of course only recently did the Kirby family finally get a settlement from Marvel/Disney, but as Steinberg herself later found out, Marvel wasn’t the merry place we all thought it was mainly thanks to Flo ‘s work with The Merry Marvel Marching Society (a Marvel fan-club in the 60’s) that cemented fandom’s image of Marvel Comics that lasted long after she left.

I especially like Kirby’s barely suppressed passive-aggressive tone…

So cheers Flo, you held it together and helped give us of a certain age joy. I hope now you get the credit you deserved when you were alive.

100 Years of Jack Kirby

It’s the San Diego Comic Con (well, it’s barely a comic convention than a media whorefest) this weekend, and the convention is celebrating Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday with a fantastic programme cover recreating one of his Jimmy Olsen covers from back in the 1970’s.

I’m glad they’re doing this as quite simply had there not been a Kirby all those people drawn to ”geek” culture would have drifted elsewhere. No Kirby, no Captain America, no Fantastic Four, no X-Men, no Iron Man, no Avengers, no Thor, no Mister Miracle, no Groot, no Nick Fury, no SHIELD, no Darkseid, no Black Panther, no romance comics, and in fact, the entire American comic book industry not to mention modern culture would look entirely different.

So well done to San Diego for driving the point home. No Kirby, and comic conventions would probably just be full of middle aged men buying back comics they sold when they were in their 20’s, and verbally wanking over Barry Smith’s Conan. Actually…

Anyhow, we should celebrate Jack Kirby and I hope the attendees this weekend make Jack proud.

The Brief History of the British Comic Convention part one: It all comes from Birmingham

The British comic convention today is a myriad of cosplayers of all ages and you can travel the UK attending a large convention in cities from Aberdeen to Exeter as the comic medium enjoys the coverage and exposure that many of us over the age of 30 could only have dreamed about in the past. Yet it wasn’t always like this. Everything starts somewhere and the British comic convention starts back in 1968 where the first British comic convention took place from the 30 August to the 2nd September in the Midland Hotel in Birmingham.

More information on the con can be found here, but needless to say that if you want a zero point for what becomes the British comics industry and scene today then late summer 1968 in a hotel in Birmingham. Attendees included Mike Lake, Nick Landau, Jim Baikie, Steve Moore, with a stupidly young Alan Moore listed as a supporting member (early comic conventions ran with the SF convention model before diverging later on) who all changed comics in the UK in a number of different ways.

Dez Skinn goes into fantastic detail of the con on his site, with fascinating snippets like DC Comics giving pages of Neal Adams and Steve Ditko art to be given away as prizes in the fancy dress competition, which I strongly doubt neither Adams or Ditko knew anything about. Skinn’s site is also a fantastic resource on subsequent conventions throughout the 70’s as the 70’s Comicon moved from Sheffield, to London and around. It’s also worth noting that we’re not talking of a mass audience here. We’re talking of a few hundred attendees with maybe at most, a few thousand active fans outwith of people casually buying comics and leaving at that rather than take it that extra yard by searching out other fans. At a time when comics in the UK were seen as a childish, laughable pastime it isn’t hard to see why it actually took a bit of guts to stick your head up over the trenches and admit you loved comics.

At this time as well the comics scene we know today was being formed out of the primordial goo. Many of the names mentioned in Skinn’s excellent history went on to become either established creators, or in the case of Nick Landau, an essential cog in the industry.Magazine like Comic Media News were the internet of their day as they played a part in helping build the industry in the UK.

Sadly Dez Skinn’s history ends in the late 70’s and the promised continuation has so far, not appeared but by the late 70’s the scene was firmly established and ready to move into the 1980’s where the UK comic convention arguably enjoyed a Golden Age. If you’d like to add to this blog to expand it then please feel free to do just that in the comments below.

Next up, the 1980’s and UKCAC…

What I thought of Glasgow Comic Con 2017

I’ve attended more comic conventions and marts as an ordinary punter rather than a dealer or publisher in the last three months than I have for the last 35 years.The latest is the Glasgow Comic Con (GCC) which is a well established con having started in 2011 and seemingly growing every year.

I’ve discussed often on this blog the state of British conventions and how they split into two; the San Diego multimedia type and the one where comics are still the primary focus. GCC falls firmly in the latter type which is good as the former comes with issues which I’m not going to spend too much time on but the main one is that there doesn’t seem to be much love for the comics medium itself at these shows. This cannot be said of GCC where creators ranging from small press to established creators rub shoulders, and they do rub shoulders as the venue (Royal Concert Hall) is simply impractical as the convention has simply outgrown it.

Take the dealers room. Not a huge selection of dealers but getting through the aisles was a chore, especially if you’re disabled as I am or if you’re in a wheelchair. Now this wasn’t anything as bad as the Bristol Comics Expo in 2014 which was frankly, fucking recklessly planned on part of the organisers but put it like this; I had more people bump into me nearly knocking me over in a day than I did during the week I was at Glastonbury. Now I don’t know if they can find a hotel, and I don’t know what the place is like since the refurbishment, but the Central Hotel did us right when we organised Glasgow’s first comic convention 32 years ago. Whether it can be got for the right price is another matter but I can’t see the current venue being practical in the long term.

This aside, the convention is astonishingly professionally run. Far too many cons have staff who seem to have no skills in actually dealing with people, but this wasn’t the case here as a one-day con fairly rattled through a programme of talks featuring 2000AD creators such as Pat Mills and Fraser Irving, not to mention signings from John Wagner, Jamie McKelvie and Keiron Gillen.

The small press row/room endured the usual sub-superhero nonsense or elves (bloody elves!) I’ve been seeing in small press rooms going back decades but there was enough originality not to mention talent on display to suggest some of the folk there have a career in an industry which is utterly unforgiving and brutal. Look though to Gillen and McKelvie. I remember the Bristol con in the early 2000’s where they launched Phonogram as a sharp injection of thrilling originality from two talents who were ahead of the game. it was a breath of fresh air to see creators try hard to make something new and that for me is your gold standard if you’re an aspiring creator in the 21st century. Superheroes and fantasy are genres where you wade through them but if you do use those genres make it personal and most of all, good!

Highlight of the day was former UKCAC organiser Frank Plowright interviewing Pat Mills about all the things Pat likes talking about, though I must say Pat was very chilled when mid-90’s 2000AD was brought up.

Overall this is a nice medium sized one-day event that’s grown out of the venue and the one day and we need comics conventions that are still about comics, rather than media or cosplay. Let the megacons soak up that market and it’s nice to know all these years after a load of us kicked off Glasgow’s comic marts/cons in the 80’s that they’re still going strong today.

Los Angeles pays tribute to Adam West in the best possible way.

Adam West sadly died recently. His Batman is for me, the only Batman as he wasn’t a psychopath like Michael Keaton’s, or a sociopath like Christian Bale, or a murdering lunatic like Ben Affleck’s. No, West was good, cheerful, honest and decent and although his Batman looks archaic it is still Batman.

So the people of Los Angeles marked West’s death in the best, and most glorious, way possible. Have a look..