Sexual abuse and the comics industry

The Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal continues to unfold to depressingly Savile-like proportions as the scale of sexual abuse in the film industry starts to unfold. The film industry is hardly unique. This is fairly common across most industries I’ve worked in, and I imagine most people have at some point seen something, or worse, been the victim of this sort of abuse. This is also true of the world of comics.

I’ve been in and out the industry since the early 80’s and you don’t hear the stories or rumours until you’re sitting there late at night at conventions when a few beers have opened mouths or just basically as part of the rumour mill all relatively enclosed industries have. So I’ve heard stories such as the one about the shop that shared premises with a pornographer that built a studio upstairs in the shop, or the one about the comic shop owner who would try to groom any young female customers he liked, or a whole load of stories of shop owners and con/mart organisers who were paedophiles and in some cases ended up convicted ones too. I personally saw one dealer at a convention try desperately to pay girls to sleep with him. In this case he was laughed out the convention, but this isn’t a one-off situation as I’ve heard other people doing the same crap over the years.

There’s lots of great wee stories about comic-related people that often verge into something horrible, but sometimes darkly funny. However there’s these stories which swirl round the scene and this is just in the UK but because the UK has such a small industry compared to the US the scale ramps up. Take example the stories that have circulated around Julie Schwartz. Schwartz was the man who shook up DC Comics in the 1960’s and 70’s by pushing what they did kicking and screaming into the modern age.

His position in comics is astonishing but those stories were from more than one person. Then there’s there’s what happened to writer/editor Janelle Asselin who has been a victim of threats and abuse in all her years in comics, especially when she spoke out. As she admits, the industry is a boy’s club…

Asselin also helped break the story about Dark Horse Comics editor Scott Allie, who was accused of assaulting women at conventions which is something that sadly doesn’t shock me one bit.

Things are getting better. More women are getting involved in comics but the old attitudes remain and while the big superhero publishers like Marvel and DC are essentially boy’s clubs this isn’t going away. The point is that when stories like Jimmy Savile or Harvey Weinstein breaks it should be an excuse for industries to be more open about what’s happened in the past and what is happening now, but there’s still a silence about this. Worse, there’s people who are victims being threatened or furthered abused mainly by fans of the person involved or of the publisher as they pile on the accuser.

Now I only know bits and bobs. I’ve not been full time in the industry for two decades, and I’m only sneaking back into it now, but there’s people out there who are allegedly ‘journalists’ who can help by trying to expose what’s going on but far too many of these people have one eye on themselves getting a job higher up the greasy pole, so will play along and help keep silent.

We’re hitting a potential watershed. This might be a chance to put the industry’s house in order and I hope people now come forward to ensure that abusers are exposed, even imprisoned for what they’ve done. It won’t be easy but this is a prime chance to change things and frankly, I don’t think we’ll get a better chance.

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DC’s Doomsday Clock shows how DC have ran out of ideas

DC Comics bring out a comic next month where Watchmen becomes part of the mainstream DC Universe. Written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank, Doomsday Clock is a 12-issue series telling the story in all its gory detail.

1980’s nostalgia is all the rage, and seeing as DC have mined Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns to an inch of its life, the other other jewel it has left from that era it hasn’t mined is Watchmen. That for years was protected but after the disastrous Before Watchmen anything was on the table, or to be precise, dragging Moore and Gibbons creation kicking and screaming into the DC Universe was the last roll of the dice for DC. I say that because I imagine jobs are riding on this being a hit and having sat in marketing meetings I’m also aware of what it looks like when a company rolls that die for the last chance. Doomsday Clock is that last chance.

This weekend is New York Comic Con, and a preview of the first issue was released. I present it here as sort of evidence for the prosecution. First thing that strikes me is that Gary Frank really is a fine artist. Second thing is that Geoff Johns isn’t the writer he clearly thinks he is. Take this panel for example…

On the surface it seems fine. Except the book is set in the 1992 of Watchmen’s ‘universe’ so terms like ‘undeplorables’ and ‘echo chamber’ are a 21st century term, and one that came into common usage this century respectively. Basically from the off Johns makes the script too on the nose, too unsubtle about what he’s trying to do and we don’t get an idea of the moral and political grey porridge that was Watchmen, but we’re being informed to think in binary. I have no idea how we’re supposed to think about the return of one of the very dead characters from Watchmen.

Actually I do. Rorschach was the big fan-favourite so it makes sense for Johns to bring him back, because you just know he’s going to fight, then team up with Batman.He’s a character who Johns said is the most fun character he’s written. Moore makes it clear just what Rorschach is here…

Everything in these six pages points to a paucity of imagination, a lack of understanding of politics or ideologies beyond that of a typical American liberal, and the fact that as the last roll of the dice for DC, it has to bathe in the nostalgia of the 80’s in such a way it doesn’t give people another Watchmen, but what some people think Watchmen should be which is a superhero story.

Johns isn’t without talent. He can write but rather than forge his own original idea (And as a very, very senior figure in DC he can do whatever he likes) but instead we get this which looks to ignore the main thing that Watchmen was which was a satire/criticism on not just comics as a medium, but the industry. All the subtly dense discussion of humanity, morality and politics replaced by fan-fiction wankery and superheroes punching each other. DC are packaging nostalgia, but they’re not providing anything new, original or giving themselves new titles as good as Watchmen.

And who would create that for DC when they see what they’re doing to Watchmen anyhow?

RIP Len Wein

Writer, editor and comics creator Len Wein has passed away at the age of 69, which is far too soon. He leave behind a massive amount of not just important creations (Swamp Thing with Berni Wrightson and Wolverine with Herb Trimpe and John Romita Snr to name the two big ones) but some truly great comics work. For me, my first exposure to Wein was Justice League of America #100 and this great Nick Cardy cover.

Wein wrote the JLA from this issue to #114, and these remain some of my favourite superhero comics ever not just because they’re enormous fun, but for me, these were the first superhero comics I read that even had a hint of doing something more than just stringing together fight scenes. It remains a vastly underrated run.

His Marvel work in the 70’s helped entertain me massively, especially the joy filled fun that was Marvel Team-Up.

A nice fun run on Amazing Spider-Man,

And a long run on The Incredible Hulk which is where Wolverine first made his début.

It’s worth noting that if Wein hadn’t brought Wolverine into the new X-Men in Giant Size X-Men #1, the revamped X-Men might never have gotten off the ground and failed and Wolverine would be a minor character that once popped up in a few issues of the Hulk’s title.

Instead though, Wein made the masterstroke of sticking Wolverine into the X-Men and unleashed a massive fan-favourite for decades to come.

As an editor he’s responsible for helping Alan Moore and Gave Gibbons Watchmen into the world.

Overall Wein gave comics more than he’s probably appreciated for. Without him DC may never have hired Alan Moore in the first place and all that British talent DC mined from the 80’s to today. Wein changed the mainstream comics industry in the US and UK massively and his passing is a loss. Yes, we can dwell upon shite like Before Watchmen and later work, but let’s not dwell there and choose instead to remember his work for helping kids like me have some entertainment over the decades…

Trying to understand the Twin Peaks finale

The return of Twin Peaks came to a conclusion this week and to say people are polarised is, well, a massive fucking understatement. Trawl the internet and you’ll find people praising it or decrying it in around equal numbers, but the agreement is that nobody actually knows what the series actually meant, but watching the final two episodes something clicked in my brain: A DC Comics series from 1985 has a hint as to how to understand what David Lynch and Mark Frost have done here.

From here on in lies spoilers. Be warned.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was a DC Comics mini-series designed to tidy up DC’s convoluted continuity that had built up over the decades, and to destroy all the multiple Earths into one. Central at the core is the idea of parallel Earths separated only by ”vibrational frequency”. These different realities all had an Earth where something is different, or history developed differently, or even history moved at a slower, or faster, rate than ‘our’ Earth. Basically the idea of parallel worlds is a tried and familiar concept in science fiction and Lynch and Frost are playing with these concepts so remember that what we’re seeing is a story being told. Sounds obvious but there’s a point where certain characters in season three become aware they’re in a story and I’ll get to that point in a minute.

In the Twin Peaks finale, Dale Cooper travelled back in time to the point where Laura Palmer was murdered and stopped it and in doing so created a parallel world where Laura never died.

Cooper creates a doppleganger Earth by his actions and remember, we’ve been told all series this is about doubles and duplicates, and not just that. From the opening shot it becomes clear we’re watching something that isn’t just not in chronological order, as this scene could easily slot into any of the final two episodes.

The series has always played with dopplegangers and played scenes that could be from any time in the character’s lives.

However the opening scene of season three sets out the road map. Whether one can interpret it to give us a clear road map is a matter of some debate, but the story of the finale shows Cooper saving Laura Palmer ensuring she’s never murdered and everything that comes after that event changes.

But ‘Judy’ is still around even though BOB is destroyed so Cooper’s job isn’t over so he and Diane travel to another world where they become Richard and Linda. Cooper changes to become a strange hybrid of himself, Dark Coop and Dougie Jones even though he’s still doing his mission which is to find Laura, something he eventually does except she’s not Laura, she’s ‘Carrie Page’, but even in this reality she’s corrupted (Laura was created in Episode 8 to be the opposite of BOB) by violence but she’s still alive.

By the time we get to the final shot it’s clear the evil of ‘Judy’ can never be escaped as ‘Carrie Page’ remembers who she is and what was done to her.

The reality Cooper and ‘Carrie’ are in could well be ours, or it could be a dream within a dream as alternate realities open up where Laura is brutally murdered, only to be saved by Cooper who is then thwarted by the ultimate evil, ‘Judy’ in an never ending cycle of evil defeating good as they move from one Earth through the frequencies forever. Cooper can never win. Laura will always die. Evil will always win but good (in the shape of Cooper) will always fight it.  The End.

Of course this is one theory and anyone with half a brain can work out a way for this to carry into a season 4, but if Lynch and Frost want to end on a grim, scary but oddly positive note (good will never give up fighting) then this is it. If they want to carry on there’s enough for them to come back and carry on telling their story, but part of me would like it to end now with the mysteries (and there’s enough to fill dozens of blogs) continued. Twin Peaks season 3 is a unique piece of television that challenged the very act of watching television and as such making more of it challenges the point of it so I’d like it to end with all these loose threads dangling forever.

A century of Jack Kirby

On the 28th August this year comic artist/writer/creator Jack Kirby would have been 100 years old. I’ve spoken about his birthday in the past but this is a big event obviously and a celebration as at one point it seemed as if the Kirby family would never win Jack the recognition he deserved in life.

After all, Kirby helped shape modern pop culture in a way few people have but it is only in recent years he’s even got a snifter of the credit he should have got when he was alive.

Finally though at this centenary we see Kirby being paid tribute not just by friends, colleagues and a core of fans, but people outwith the ghetto of comics.

The man may no longer be with us but his powerful, astonishing, and glorious art and creations live on.

People flock to the latest Avengers film, or look forward to Justice League, or the new Star Wars, but no Kirby and no Avengers, no Darkseid to fight and no Doctor Doom who directly influenced Darth Vader so no post-1977 pop culture.

Happy anniversary Jack. It’s nice that more people appreciate you and that your creations thrill and delight a world, and as for your art, well, they’ll never be another like you. Cheers for everything..

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.

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.