A quick word about the Warren Ellis allegations

For those who don’t know a series of allegations were made regarding Cameron Stewart and Warren Ellis by women who said both groomed them when they were younger, and like each such revelation it’s followed by a range of women who’ve been through the same experience with the named people, and although nothing illegal went on (though Stewart might have his collar felt due to Canadian law) it’s certainly a case where both appear to have used their positions to basically get sex, or at least try to.

Fact is this is not uncommon in the industry.  I’m not as full in the industry as I once was, but back in the day you’d see certain people sneaking away with women, or men, who were not their partners with everyone turning a blind eye because this was just how it was done. Plus you didn’t really want to get involved as you never know if people have open relationships.

This, however, doesn’t excuse what Stewart and Ellis are accused of though I will say there’s been stories about Ellis for some time but we’ll see in the months to come what happens next as Ellis hasn’t said a thing on his social media which is unsual.

There’s also a ream of people coming into the story late saying things like they’ll burn their comics because these people are bad, which is insane because the fact is nobody is 100% pure, and you’ve already spent your money. The fact is human beings aren’t flawless and quicker some of the people coming in late to the story realise that the better, but we’re in a weird, strange period right now so don’t count on it.

I hope both apologise and open up a larger conversation about this in the industry, because although the problem will never go away it may help reduce it in future.

RIP Denny O’Neil

When I first started reading American comics few writer’s names stuck with me. Of course there was Stan Lee, but as someone who was more into DC Comics at the time really there was Gardner Fox and Denny O’Neil. I don’t really know why O’Neil became the first writer I made an effort to follow but in thinking of it, I can trace it back to his run on the Justice League of America and this issue.Partly because I loved The Creeper but mainly because it was a great read.

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It wasn’t a massive run but it helped drag the JLA from a fun wee comic to something more aking to what Marvel were doing. Today it’d be called a reboot. Whatever, it was just a great comic, and run, which made me notice O’Neil’s name at a time when you’re more likely to notice an artists name. And it was with an artist O’Neil was to be forever linked with because of their amazing work on Gree Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman. In both cases, characters are rebooted, made gritter to reflect the times of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s.

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His and Neal Adams reboot of Batman, his cast of characters and especially The Joker, became the default depiction of Batman up til Frank Miller’s version dominated from around 1986 onwards.

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He also rebooted Superman, and Wonder Woman, effectively dragging a number of DC’s core titles out of the early 60’s pre-JFK assassination times they were trapped in. Unlike some of his peers, O’Neil’s quality of work into the 80’s didn’t drop and in fact in some cases improved, especially his work on The Question which is a title often forgotten about when discussing the revival of the medium in that time.

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I could spend weeks going through how O’Neil’s shaped my appreciation for the comics medium. As writer, then editor he’s guided a number of creators through who later became giants in the medium, which to be honest few people can claim to have ever done. The entire size of his footprint on the industry is so large we’ll never see the true scale of it because being a creator in this industry and staying relevant in some shape or form for five decades won’t be repeated. He’ll be hugely missed.

 

Milestone Comics TV item from 1993

Back in the early 90’s DC Comics reacted to the lack of black representation in their titles and their creative staff by distributing comics produced by Milestone Media which was the brainchild of the late Dwayne McDuffie.

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The idea proved to be a successful one initially as well proving that DC were willing to back such a project and indeed, characters did develop a following with Static getting his own cartoon series. It is a shame that when some today leap to dismiss or slag the 90s off, this is forgotten about 99% of the time which can be blamed upon the ignorance and stupidity of those trying to teach history with no knowledge.

When it was launched in 1993 it came with a load of publicity, much of it outwith our wee bubble which is comics. Here’s a piece from the U.S at the time which is pretty good for mainsteam television reporting upon comics back then, or indeed, even now.

Go search some of the back issues down. Barring a few issues, most will still be pretty cheap and you’ll get yourself some of the better superhero stories of the 90’s done from an angle nobody else was doing.

DC Comics break from Diamond Distribution

The big comics news of the week is that DC Comics are breaking all ties with Diamond Comics Distributors in three weeks’ time. My first reaction was optimism as after all Diamond’s monopoly has not been a great thing overall for the industry, but the danger lies with Diamond going down (there’s been rumours of their demise for some time) with no replacement distributor on the horizon.

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Obviously Covid has pushed whatever plans DC had up to now so we have a point where all DC product will now come from two new distributors to comics which suits their new owners at AT & T.  Truth is there’s little money in periodical comics for the big multinational owners of Marvel or DC, barring the creation of new IP who they can exploit to the hilt.

But my early optimism is now vanishing as they could easily switch to a trades only policy, at least for the majority of the line while keeping a few higher profile books going monthly. The logical outcome of that is less risktaking, less new talent, worse books, more big events and a complete stagnation of the superhero genre which, whether we like it or not, still keeps most comic shops going.

At the minute things are still developing. It is worth reading this post by Chuck Rozanski as to where he stands. Also Bleeding Cool is saying UCS (one of the new companies distributing DC) will be distributing old Marvel titles which seems to be old Midtown Comics stock. There’s also a question as to how UK shops will be DC’s titles in future as it’ll cost too much unless you’re putting in a massive order, which may mean a prohibitively high secondary market and the return of the non-distributed title, but it certainly means those lower selling titles people were buying won’t come over here in numbers if at all?

If I was smart and had the capital behind me, I’d be arranging shops into units so they could place more cost-effective orders, or I’d even be talking about opening a central distribution depot if you can get the discount and agreement off DC as they may decide that 10-15% of sales they’ll lose from the UK are worth keeping and open up themselves. I dunno, we shall see but this is not a good time for this to be happening with this much uncertainty just as some reopening of the industry after Covid-19 was happening.

Alan Moore and Adam Curtis in conversation…

Alan Moore is a writer who helped change comics back in the 1980’s, and Adam Curtis is the UK’s finest documentarians while both skirt around the edge of mainstream culture to say the least. Below is a conversation between the pair from May 2018 which is a pretty absorbing listen, especially in light of the post Covid world where things are changing all over the place creating an even more uncertain world.

Spend an hour listening to this. It’ll be worth it.

Comic books in the 1990s were awesome

Whenever you read, or more likely see or hear a history of comics on YouTube, social media or whatever laughingly passes for comics journalism, you’ll find at some point some posting in a slightly sneering way about the 1990’s.

For example.

 

 

Now it’s easy to mock Rob Liefeld, and indeed I have many a time in the past because his work is poor (though there was worse than him back in the day, and there’s worse than him making a living even today) , but to write off a decade as the 90’s is often is the sort of lazy, sloppy commentary generally used by comics ‘journalists’, millennial YouTube commentators and people who don’t know about the history of comics.

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Truth is a bit more complex. Yes, the 90’s were a time when bad comics were around in numbers, but it also gave us comics that reached out from our wee comics ghetto and dragged in new readers by the hundreds of thousands. You might not like Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or Jim Lee’s X Men, but they brought in a mainly younger audience, many of which did graduate to reading better comics.

But the early 90’s especially featured the peak of DC Comics as a publisher with their Vertigo line producing Sandman, Shade, Swamp Thing, and one of the most underrated 90’s comics, Pete Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma.

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Even DC’s superhero line wasn’t bad before it too fell under the influence of early Image Comics, and while Marvel saw them take everything they’d built up since the late 70’s when they nearly went bust and waste it so they actually did go bust in the 90’s, the medium was healthy. The industry had problems but when you’ve got peak Neil Gaiman Sandman, mixed with work from Daniel Clowes, Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, Peter Bagge’s Hate, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Hellblazer then their amazing work on Preacher,  Frank Miller’s Sin City, Pete Milligan and Brendan McCarthy’s Rogan Gosh, Seth’s Palookaville, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, and many, many others.

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The Noughties were a good time too. Yes, there were skiploads of landfill superhero comics printed just as there was in the 90’s, and artists bizarrely became popular (including some who were cut out of the Image Comics stereotype)  who had as much talent as Liefeld has. It can be argued though that the latter part of that decade saw the Big Two descend into mediocrity and revamp after revamp in order to push themselves up in sales.

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In fact I’d argue the 90’s were one of those rare golden ages comics as a whole gets that we’re now overdue on. Creators were free to do what they more or less wanted. Genuine creative genius’s hit their stride, while the medium took strides forward over the burning piles of Youngblood #1.  Even Image outgrew its early years and now publishes many of the best mainstream comics out there on the market today.

This is a problem with percieved comics history, the ‘journalism’ it pretends it has, and how people take an accepted vision of the past & buy into it without actually looking into it. The 90’s was a decade of change and upheaval in comics as a whole, but there was also a creative outpouring that still bears fruit today. What the issue is we look at the current comics landscape and see it lacking. Where’s the new blood to match a Dan Clowes or a Garth Ennis coming from today? Sure, there’s some great creators out there but we’re waiting for another golden age but it isn’t coming anytime soon but that’s another blog.

So go back and give the 90’s the love it deserves. There’s probably a whole load of great comics you missed or got put off reading. Give it a try!

The best comics channels on YouTube

Go onto YouTube and you’ll find channels for everything, but comics have been served very, very poorly as a medium there with many channels being unwatchable rubbish with the presenter/s showing little or no knowledge of what they’re talking about, or being of the opinion comics are purely superhero comics from America, or are endlessly bleating on about speculator value or are just plain shite.

Recently though things are improving. Over the last year or two, there have been channels providing some great material or some channels have improved vastly. Now there are thousands of channels out there, with about a dozen or so being ones I check on at least once a month.  Here’s what I think are the top three out there that you should be watching if you’re a fan of the medium.

Starting from number three…

3/ Strange Brain Parts

This channel is a solid channel dealing with mainly non-superheroic comics, but it does cover a wide selection of genres. These are archiving comics which for various reasons have fallen through the cracks in history, and never show up in the usual history of comics you tend to see or read. A good example of this is American Flagg! which should be more acclaimed than it is.

 

2/ Comic Tropes

This channel was initially nothing to write home about. It was talking about mainstream comics in a way which wasn’t especially interesting, but then it started getting better and better so although it talks about superheroes, there’s a joy behind it rather than using comics as a way to get to talking about film or TV adaptations. Plus anyone introducing classic comics to an audience probably unaware of what’s being spoken about is a plus.

As an example here’s the film on the works of Bernie Krigstein.

 

1/ Cartoonist Kayfabe

If there’s a reason why many channels have made the step up then it can be put down purely at the feet of this channel run by creators Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor. Both men aren’t just creators but they have a love of the medium which may sound off to point out but you’d be amazed how many creators don’t especially love the medium, just a genre.

Piskor and Rugg’s tastes vary from proper grown-up work from the likes of Dan Clowes, through to 80’s black and white indies and early Image Comics, so we get a varied mix of what they love which comes over in their videos. Also their work in logging the history of comics via their history of Wizard magazine sounds initially a futile task but seeing it all play out with hindsight you can see just how it manipulated the market for the worst.

Then there’s the lengthy interviews with creators which aren’t just dribbling nonsense, but detailed and informed. Basically if you have any love for comics as entertainment, and as an art form then this is an essential channel. As an example here’s a couple of examples. First up is their interview with Todd McFarlane which should be essential viewing for anyone trying to break into the industry.

Next is their two and a half hour review of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, which for someone like me who’s read it literally hundreds of times was still informative as it showed me things I’d missed in previous readings.

I’d recommend suscribing to all three channels to keep up to date with their output which is weekly at least with Cartoonist Kayfabe putting out almost daily videos.

The curse of the modern comic book speculator

Back in the 1990’s the entire comic book industry in the US and UK imploded on a truly massive scale thanks mainly to the speculator boom of the time. In short, the industry in the late 80’s saw the start of the boom times with superstar artists and writers like Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld coming to the fore selling comics by the millions.

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Things were fine for a while. Comics sold by the box-load as speculators would by double, triple even dozens of copies of a comic if they thought they’d get a return on it. Publishers brought out multiple variant covers, along with gimmicks like glow in the dark or die-cut covers.

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I was working in a comic shop in Bristol at the time and can testify seeing customers come to the till with multiple copies of a ‘hot’ comic, purely because Wizard or the likes had said it was going to be worth a fortune! Of course, this was all built on sand and by 1993 the cracks were showing. By 96 everything had collapsed around everyone with speculators being stung as those 50 copies of Secret Defenders #1 they had bought. Shops were stuck with boxes of unsold stock. The industry as a whole nearly collapsed with the weight of the idiocy of it all.

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Of course things got better and fast-forward to today and even though there’s many saying the industry is doomed (and Covid-19 will affect the industry like nothing else) it will survive because the medium will survive.  But the speculator never went away. In fact the speculator drives a large part of the industry today, especially with variant covers being a trick to drive up sales used by every publisher.

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The problem is they’re driving up prices, sometimes artificially, to the point where comics are seen mainly as an investment and not an art form. Look through comic channels on YouTube and it’s crawling with people seeing comics as a way to make money, which is basically just the 90s speculator market rebranded for the 21st century.  It’s whether that part of the industry burns out what will be an exceptionally fragile industry post Covid19 that’s the question.

And I don’t mind the usual day-to-day dealers making what they can, I’m one myself on a part-time basis, but the issue if overblowing the market which leads to the medium dumbing down (more big events! more relaunches!) even further than it is.  If Covid19 give us anything, it is a chance to reset things so that speculators don’t drive up prices to the point where the betterment of the medium comes waaay down the list to the latest ‘hot’ issue.  Separate the medium from the business and encourage people to read, even create comics rather than just see them as a way to get rich quick.

Sadly I doubt that will happen so we won’t find a good balance, but we’ll see how things turn out as it will be a very different industry after all this is over.

 

A short history of ballast comics

Comic distribution is now in the hands of Diamond Comic Distribution for a large chunk of comics, though other methods are available thanks to publishers like Self Made Hero. You want a comic or trade or graphic novel it’s pretty easy to get what you want these days, and unlike when I was young, a bloody chore. In the UK prior to the mid-80’s, you’d need to rely mainly on comics shipped via sea- freight meant for the UK market, so this is why older Marvel and DC comics have Shillings or Pence costs on the cover rather than Cents.

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British price variants made up around 5% of the total print run, which back in the day of 100k print runs, meant a decent amount of copies made their way to the UK market. There’s a good article here explaining the differences, and it’ll also explain why Cents copies of older comics are worth vastly more than their Pence variants. These copies were distributed to newsagents, so your local corner shop would have the same issues as larger shops like W.H. Smiths or John Menzies.

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There’s an entire blog to be written about the issues that system had, but this is about what still think an urban legend today, which is ballast comics.

Ships have to have ballast, and pre WW2 some of the cheapest, most disposable forms of ballasts were comics, so the first American comics brought to the UK came over in the bellies of ships. The ones not thrown overboard of course, the rest would drip into the UK, but of course by later in the war tens of thousands of American comics were coming into the UK thanks to American troops but these books were still used as ballast. In fact the late artist Jim Baikie first saw comic books in pages which would wash up on the shores near where he lived.

In the post-war years, comics would still come over this way, even when Marvel, then DC, were being distributed across the UK but again, these were Cents copies that entered the UK market.

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You’d also have comics coming over which weren’t officially distributed in the UK, which were of course, nuggets of gold as official distribution of American comics meant you’d be able to get Avengers one month, but not the next and in those days that meant relying upon dealers or fans going to America buying a load though by the start of the 80’s the likes of Titan had sprung up in the UK shipping in American newsstand comics.

So to explain what actually happened with this unofficial supply of comics. Ships would load on ballast with comics being one of the cheapest options as back in the day you’d have print runs of hundreds of thousands, so when newsstands returned unsold copies in the US, they’d be used by ships because they were so disposable. These copies would get to the UK and if not flushed into the Atlantic, they’d be kept on or dumped portside and this is where for us it gets interesting.

If you lived in a big port city (which I did having grown up in Glasgow) you’d find piles of comics, sometimes slightly water damaged, in markets or newsstands. I remember one stall in the old Barras market, plus one in St. Enoch’s Square where I’d go down and pick up imports such as Amazing Spider-Man #129.

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Sure, there’d be a bit of warping but you’d get comics now that’d you’d have to wait years for the UK reprint, plus there’d often be loads (one stall used to literally have 50-60 of each issue they had) of them so I do remember having multiple copies of what became key issues. ASM #129, for example, I had enough copies to keep me financially ok for a long time into the 90s whenever I needed an extra influx of money. My only wish is I’d kept some of those today! However people would go along dockyards buying pallets of comics to keep themselves going, and this wasn’t just Glasgow but in other port cities like Bristol and London. The further away from one of these cities, the less likely it seems you were in coming across such copies.

When I got older in the 1980s and started working in comic shops, these ballast copies starting drying up as seafreight became less used to get comics to the UK. Every now and then you’d hear of someone coming across a box or two. When I was working in Bristol and the waterfront there was being redeveloped the dream was to find a stash of Golden Age, and every now and then you would find small piles of them. A shop in London in the early 1990’s did manage to get lucky with a load which was brought into them, but once the UK’s big port cities saw their docks redeveloped into expensive flats the chances of finding these batches of comics died.

At the same time, American comics were now being airfreighted into the UK via Titan and Neptune distributors, while seafreight comics were still something shops could order, customers didn’t want to wait three to four months for the latest issues to arrive, so they were meant mainly for newsagents until that stopped in the 90s. Again, more on this another time.

These days everyone and their dog knows comics are worth money, so I never expect any collection or stash like this to turn up ever, ever again so anyone younger than 45 isn’t really going to know what it’s like to find a pile of comics on a table and find a literal goldmine. I miss picking up those slightly warped gems that’d fill holes in collections while at the same time stashing a few aside for a rainy day but the industry moved on, and now we get comics within 24 hours of our American cousins, something we could only dream of back in the olden days.

Comics to read in the time of Coronavirus

The entire world is locked down, and the comics industry is taking a massive hit. So, of course, are thousands of others, but here’s one which can provide you with something to do while the majority of the planet is in lockdown. Here’s some recommendations to help you pass the weeks ahead.

First up the obvious ones.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

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In short the best superhero comic you will read. Forget the film, the TV series or attempts to integrate it into the DC Universe. This is a book I come back to about once a year and find something new in it, some 35 years after first reading it.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Jansen, and Lynn Varley.

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The second best superhero comic you’ll read. Sadly some of the impact has been lost due to the book being mined by film, TV and comics without anything new to say about Batman or comics itself. Only dive into the continuation series if you really are desperate for something to read, though a quick word about the Dark Knight Strikes Again.

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Its clearly a reaction to the grim and gritty style of comics which came out of DKR and Watchmen, but the book changes tone halfway through when Miller took out his rage from witnessing 9/11 happen on his doorstep out on paper. It is more of a document of the time than a good read, so for that take heed before dipping in.

Maus by Art Speigelman

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Part autobiography, biography and historical document mixed with slice of life. Maus is a remarkable, if often hard to read book but it is a comic which should be read. It is one of the best comics ever made.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth by Pat Mills, John Wagner, and various artists.

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You can dip into any of the first 20-25 of the Judge Dredd Case Files (which collects all of Dredd’s stories in order of publication) and find a classic, but this is the story which made Dredd what he is today. This is the one which turned Dredd into the top feature in 2000AD and it’s a cracking story that ties right into the Judge Cal storyline. Wagner and co. were on absolute fire at this time.

Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

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This is the comic that turned DC’s superhero line around and is still the Big Event comic that set the benchmark for the dozens of subsequent events since. This is big, sweeping superheroics and is just huge fun.

Daredevil by Frank Miller

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There’s various editions of Frank Miller’s revolutionary run on Daredevil, but however you get it, these comics redefined superhero comics at a time where they were at a low for experimentation. Miller’s work here casts a shadow today with many a less talented creator trying to ape what Miller did.

Miller did a second run, Born Again, in the mid 80’s with David Mazzucchelli.

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This is my favourite superhero story ever. It’s a genius bit of storytelling from a set of creators at their peak.

Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers

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To say Love and Rockets is influential is underestimating things. Created by Jaimie and Gilbert (with occasional work from Mario) there’s two main strips; Gilbert’s tales of working-class Hispanics and Jaimie’s tales of west coast American punks growing up.  Both strips run more or less in real-time so we’ve seen characters age with new characters coming in. I’d recommend starting at the beginning then spending all the free time you have (which is a hell of a lot right now) working up til today.

Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and others.

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One of those massively influential comics that stands the test of time. Moore brought a talent and style to mainstream comics that’d previously only been hinted at with the likes of Steve Gerber. This is probably Moore’s most easily accessible work and it is gloriously drawn by his co-creators.

Justice League International by Keith Giffen, J.M DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire.

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Superhero comics have drawn from many other genre but this was really the first time it’d drawn directly from sit-coms and the result was a self-aware, funny superhero comic which still had big fights and superheroic conflict but in a way that didn’t distract from the tone.

A Contract With God by Will Eisner

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Arguably one of the first ‘graphic novels’, but that aside this is one of Eisner’s greatest works as he tells a handful of stories from pre-WW2 New York which may, or may not be semi-autobiographical in places.

So there’s a dozen to keep you going for now. If you do want to buy them please go check out your local comic shop first before Amazon as they need your money more at this time.