The return of Protect and Survive

Back in March 2017 the Imperial War Museum announced it was going to reissue the pamphlet from 1980 outlining how to survive a nuclear war. Of course it was utter bollocks because there’s no way to survive such a war, but the UK government of the time couldn’t, or to be exact, wouldn’t tell people that nuclear war would mean their likely death either quickly in the blast and firestorm, or slowly and painfully thanks to the fallout.

Except what should have been a reprint to remind us of the years when we seriously thought the Russians or Americans would start a nuclear war ends up being something that reminds us the threat has returned. True, it isn’t anything as severe as the 50’s to the end of the Cold War in the late 80’s, but thanks to Donald Trump, North Korea and insane politicians who think a nuclear war can be limited, we’re on the verge of entering a dangerous phase.

Hopefully sanity prevails but with lunatics and demagogues in power we can’t be too sure, so make sure you’ve got loads of white paint, some potato sacks and a screwdriver…

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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.

Whatever happened to the 2000’s?

The other day I was chatting to someone at my new workplace and we both did that thing where me thought the 1990’s were last decade, not 20 years ago as we missed out the 2000’s from history. This isn’t the first time this has happened and it probably won’t be the last, and it isn’t just me but friends have also done the same thing but I never did this in any other decade so what is it about the 2000’s that make people skim over it, even miss it out completely?

One big obvious thing is 9/11 which cuts into the decade like a scar. If you’ve seen, or grown up, with an event which was televised, talked about and effected everything that came after it then it’ll be something that people want to forget yet there’s so much great about a decade that nobody really wants to own.Sure there wasn’t a single music scene that came through as there had been since the 1950’s, but we had acts like The White Stripes, The Libertines, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and loads more come through in a decade where manufactured pop dragged its shitty arse all over the decade like an Alsation with worms.

Yes, culture did suffer from being it seems fully monetised and commodified, but it’s been 16 years since the Brass Eye paedophilia special.

And can you imagine anything as nihilistic as Team America being released by a major American film studio in 2017?

Today we’ve got studios tripping over themselves to create extended universes along the lines of Marvel, and as enjoyable as the Marvel films now are they’re all following a formula, but the 2000’s gave us the flawed, sometimes tedious but interesting Ang Lee Hulk film.

The 2000’s seemed to be about washing away the 90’s while setting up the rest of the century, so we had Tony Blair setting up politics in the UK and George Bush in the US making it clear their bloody pawprints are seen on everything that’s come since but so do the protests for the Iraq War which have ended up shaping everything since from the Scottish independence movement, to Corbyn, to Bernie Sanders.

I’m in that crowd somewhere. It was a remarkable day with the very old and very young uniting with the left, right and centre in a way I’ve never, ever seen before or since. It engaged people and gave them an idea that a mass movement could be a good thing even though our work never actually stopped the war, it did create a spark.

Decades come and go but the 2000’s deserve a wee bit of praise, love and affection because so much of where we are now comes from there, and there’s a real chance this may well be the last decade where art, culture, politics and the world in general were something worthwhile and actually understandable because right now culture is patchy, and politics are as impossible to read as a drunken doctor’s signature.So give the 2000’s another chance. You won’t regret it.

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.

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…

A look at the Marvel Bullpen in the 1970’s

The 1970’s was a great time for comics when arguably Marvel Comics were still in their pomp, and it really isn’t a point of discussion that DC Comics were in a terrible state with sales down thanks to a slump which was to last til the early 80’s. It was that Jurassic period of comics fandom and creativity.

Thanks to YouTube a wonderful bit of archive popped up showing not just how much some prime Golden Age comics sold for in the late 70’s (hint, much less than now) but what members of the Marvel Bullpen looked like around this time. It’s a wonderful bit of archive so enjoy…

The joy of Action Transfers

As a child in the 1970’s we made our own fun to escape the beige drabness of a decade that’s looked at more fondly that it probably deserves. One of the ways we did that were Action Transfers, which looked a bit like this.

That’s the Space: 1999 transfer set, It was just one of many sets released by Letraset to a hungry horde of kids who’d lap them up and spend hours (well, I did) trying to work out how to position your transfers.

The concept was simple; you’d have a selection of transfers and a background to position them on. Here’s an example and one of my favourites as a kid, The Red Planet.

You also has a sheet of transfers like so…

And you end up with your own adventure. Imagine it as an early attempt to create interactive adventures without an Occulus Rift or a Playstation. They were amazingly fun, and of course disposable at the time but not with the misty haze of nostalgia in full flow they seem like a crude, but also amazingly sophisticated form of entertainment.

There’s a glorious website that comprehensively outlines the history of these transfers that is quite literally like swimming in the past, especially for what is the iconic age of transfers  for me which is the mid 1970’s. This is the era of Super Action Heroes, which is Batman, Superman, Kojak, Star Trek and many others.

The backgrounds for these transfers were amazing. I don’t know who drew them all but there’s fantastic artwork on display, not to mention some glorious 70’s gore.

See they sneaked out subversive sets like the Kung Fu one above which in today’s climate would be unthinkable to market to kids, but fuck it, it was the 1970’s.

These sets were a way to explore spacial dimensions, so you’d have to work out the best positions for the transfers which meant working out scale and perspective. You’d sometimes get hints like the New Avengers set below but most of the time you were left to explore things yourself.

Some of the sets I never got. I wish now looking at them that I did like this Black Hole set which apparently has been drawn by the creator of Spider-Man, Steve Ditko. Sadly Action Transfers went the way of many a kids entertainment in the 70’s as other forms of entertainment (mainly video games) elbowed Action Transfers out of kids attention and attempts to keep on top of tastes (I would kill to have these 2000AD inspired sets) and they passed into extinction.

35 or so years later these sets are fantastic things. If I could go back in time I’d get my younger self to buy two sets; one to use at the time and one for my future self to play with. Perhaps one day some company somewhere will bring something like these sets back?