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?

The long story of a death of a comic shop in Glasgow

Back in the mid to late 1990’s I was all over the place not because I was drunk and on drugs (most of the time) but because I’d more or less pulled out of the comics industry and was now working in the licensed trade in Leicester. I was also having a great time going to festivals and gigs in the Midlands, the South West and London so if anything, my time in the story of Glasgow’s comics scene was reduced to at best, fleeting cameo roles.

I’m now back living in Glasgow after 28 years partly to recuperate from a stroke and recover from cancer treatment, which has seen me get better however as I’m now signed off work I have a lot of free time which means sitting around drinking tea with some old friends and talking about comics not to mention all the gossip I’ve missed in the last decades when I was sunning myself in Bristol.In the course of all this I’ve unpicked some scabby wounds which may well be new to me, but to the people concerned are old scars they thought healed. I’m not going to go into those because frankly, it isn’t my business to repeat what I’ve been told as this blog is about trying to put up my own recollections and tell a history (where I can) of things which haven’t been told.

However a friend on Facebook pointed out this blog titled ”Death throes of a comic shop‘. It makes interesting reading to say the least and as someone who was a bit-part player in the Glasgow comics scene at the time some of it seemed, well, wrong, even libellous in places. I didn’t have any first hand accounts of the time, and I’d only recently found out the exact reasons why legendary Glasgow comic shop AKA Books and Comics went out of business in the 90’s. So I thought I’d ask people who were there at the time and got their version of the story spun in the blog and their replies were all universal in that the aforementioned blog is indeed spinning a very skewed historical record of events, and indeed, some of the people named in the blog have some good reason to ask for a right to reply at least. One or two may well find themselves reaching for a solicitors number.

If you haven’t read the blog by this point I suggest you do.There’s some parts worth highlighting though.

 This small fact brings up the thorny notion of wether or not I name people here.  Having given it a long though I have decided not to.  All the names have been changed to protect the innocent as they say.  Not sure many come out of this looking like they were ever innocent but that is for others to decide based on my description of the story above!

The UK’s libel laws are a complex mess depending where in the UK you actually are, but as Katie Hopkins will tell you, you have to be very clear in not naming people or essentially slurring their name without some good reason or proof backing you up. I know this as in one of my blogs I did just that (don’t bother looking for it, it no longer is online) but like the person I was smearing, I was a victim (of a bastard called Joshua Bonehill) so once I found out the truth I deleted the blog and apologised to the person affected. I learned a lot about libel there. The fact is you can’t just remove a letter (in this case ”John” becomes ”Jon”) while making the person clearly identifiable to anyone with a passing knowledge of the time and people being discussed. That’s libellous potentially and in the next paragraph he makes it quite clear who he is.

It is worth saying that only really three people who were involved day to day in the running of the shop have ever known the whole truth, and each of them only knows aspects of that truth. Each of us has will obviously have a coloured memory of the events I will outline. However conversations in depth with one of the others confirms pretty much everything I am going to say here. Nothing would come as a shock to him as he knows it all. The other guy, well a lot of what I am going to say will come as a shock not so much as he will find it new information but that it is information he would rather stayed hidden away. See he is a “figure” in the comic book scene. As my American friends might say he has more front than Macy’s and this might give a few people a peek behind the facade!  My business partner had been with the shop since it opened.  Fair to say he was a founding member of the Glasgow comic book scene really.

So we’ve got a story of the last days of AKA, the subsequent shop that followed it, and the collapse of that shop which lead to what is now A1 Toys in Parnie Street in Glasgow.

That story is at best a skewed version of events. At worst it’s a mix of half thruths and bullshit interjected with ego-boosting self-aggrandizement with the odd snippet of full-on truth thrown in. I think the worst of it is the way the author makes it clear exactly who it is he’s talking about by throwing in facts which will clearly identify them. This is shaky ground to say the least.

One of the local comic book artists who I had become quite good friends with was negotiating a business deal with Jon about coming on as a silent partner.  Jon was keen on this, Kolin McFeel (yeah, not real name!) was a big name in the UK comic scene, having recently completed a seminal Judge Dredd and then a Chopper story for 2000AD that had set a very high bar for others to hit.

I mean, really, really??

That said, there are fair points made. For example:

I can’t remember when it was that things got a little sour but I know that it was caused when David called our hotel from the shop.  Turns out we were in San Diego when Batman 500 had been released and our order from Titan Distributors was missing the entire order, some 200 copies of it.  Jon and I managed to find the head of Titan in the convention hall and decided to ask what the hell was going on.  At that time comics were so time sensitive we knew that unless we could get the right book at the right time at least 50% of our non-ordered sales would go, and a good few orders would be knocked back.  The idea of customer loyalty to a comic shop was a myth in those days.  Get the books on the day of release or eat the loss of sales.

This is mostly true of the time. The release of Batman #500 dates this to late summer 1993 as at this point I was working in the nearly legendary Comics and CD’s on the Gloucester Road in Bristol and I can testify to just a huge book it was. I even ended up being interviewed on local radio about it so huge was it that the real world outwith of the comics bubble was interested.

For a shop to lose that was a disaster, and with Neptune Distribution having died a horrible death the year previously, a shop then would have found their options limited which is where I quote;

During our strategy talks we discussed moving our supply business away from Titan, who were merging with Diamond and to the US based Capital distributors.  We figured out we could import and transport comics to the shop and still get a better price than buying from Titan.  So we got a copy of their trade magazine and placed an order.  Jon had dealt with them before so an account was there and I was sure they would take our order happily and gain a UK customer foothold.  One thing that I didn’t ask, and that Jon didn’t mention, was our current situation with Titan.  It was that situation that would lead to the final moments of the shop, but we will get to that later!

A wee recap of the distribution of comics is in order. Today we get comics shipped in from the States so quickly you can still smell the sweaty armpits of the blokes who loaded up the boxes onto planes in America. It wasn’t always like that. In the 80’s you’d wait weeks, even months for comics to travel the Atlantic to reach the UK. There was only one big UK distributor, Titan, run by Nick Landau and Mike Lake. In the mid 80’s to the early 90’s there was also Neptune, based in Leicester where I worked for a time after moving down from Glasgow in 1988 where I’d previously worked at AKA. In 1993 Neptune was bust and the American distributor Diamond had taken over Neptune’s accounts (Neptune and Diamond always had close links) as they made huge strides into the UK market and global domination. en eventual monopoly on distributing American comics in the UK.

In 1993 Titan were dominant. If you had other sources (and we did in Bristol for some comics) you could get a massive advantage over your competitors. People aren’t loyal on the whole and if there’s a gap in the market, or if the market can be weighted to advantage someone else then a business will do it. Sure there was a time where in the world of comics things were a tad more civil, and cities and towns that have more than one shop often see each other get on personally, but the idea of businesses doing well by each other went the way of frizzy perms and big shoulder pads in the 80’s. So in this background it’s perfectly reasonable for a business to try to fuck off their main supplier if they’re trying to fuck you off.

However things get, well, a tad libellous from here on in.

I would say to make a long story short but there is actually a word that explains what Jon had been doing with Capital.  That word was “fraud”.

‘Fraud’ is one of those things you need to be able to back up when you accuse someone of it. In this case anyone who knows who ‘Jon’ is will be querying where the author of the piece is going to provide documentary proof of this.

See, there’s a number of stories you pick up when you’re involved in an industry. I’ve told stories about people in comics on this blog. Some stories I’ve held back because they’ll be upsetting for friends or they cross a legal, and moral, line or bluntly I’d end up in the shite. The author of the blog doesn’t quite realise just how serious this stuff is or how harmful it can be, which isn’t to say they’re not allowed a voice, but be careful how you’re saying things. Which is an issue as the blog continues on as people are named, in some cases accused of things which having spoken to others who were also there (there’s an incident at the old Empire pub in Glasgow that isn’t quite as it is here) at the time.

Listen, I’m all for gossip and setting the record straight and in this case I can’t give a first hand account of all of what’s discussed on the blog but having discussed it with those who were I have to say that if you are going to discuss events be prepared to ride the ripples from them if you paint a version which doesn’t ring well with others who were there.

Or as the author of the blog says;

Over the years I have overheard my former business partner tell his stories, only the dates have been changed and I know the stories well as I heard them in the late 80’s and early 90’s and they had just happened then.  There is a “glory days” trap and he is in it.  I have no interest any more, he is part of the past and a past I am pleased to be shot of.  As we approach another anniversary of the events outlined I felt it was time to write my part down.  I am sure some would disagree with various details and some might even be offended by what I wrote but it is how I remember it happening.  As details come back to me, as anecdotes come back to me I might update this post.  If anyone who is there jogs a memory I might update as well.  Who knows, the past isn’t written in stone!

Well, here’s my attempt to ‘update’ the past. For the record some of those people mentioned in the blog will be made aware of what’s been said and they I’m sure will be only too glad to disagree with the details and put the record straight.

The dead places of Glasgow fascinate me

Glasgow has the third oldest underground network in the world.The subway has been around since 1896, and is nicknamed ‘the Clockwork Orange’ due to the fact the line goes in a simple circle on subway maps and the trains are bright orange. I’ve recently returned to Glasgow after 28 years away and the subway still smells and sounds as it did when I was a child, but like any underground network it’s shrouded in ghosts.

glasgowsubway1

Descending into the subway is like any other in the world. You enter a subterranean world where the world above melts into a world where it seems Morlocks could lurk round every corner as the world above vanishes behind you.

glasgowsubway2

Once underground you enter a world of smells and sounds like any other.

glasgowsubway3

The subway in places links up with Glasgow’s railway system, some of which is also underground, and is also, very, very old. Some stations over the years have died leaving only their grafftii-strewn corpses to be hidden by darkness and twilight, not to mention nature reclaiming what was once hers.

glasgowsubway4

One of those stations is the Botanic Gardens. As a kid I used to explore it with the bravery only children can have in delving into places which you shouldn’t.

These places are haunted by the past, and hounded by the present. They exist as shadows of time lost with only a sign to remind people what lurks nearby.

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Dead places fascinate me. They make me think of what people did in them then before being reclaimed. They make me wonder what might happen to the world if we let nature reclaim everything as opposed to the odd station and building here and there. It fascinates me just how quickly dead buildings are reclaimed.

These places are haunted, not by ghosts of the scary kind but by ghosts of our imagination. I adore these places but even so, they’re not for the faint-hearted…

The closest thing we have to a documentary about Action

Action is the legendary British comic that was essentially the precursor of 2000AD thus cementing its history as one of the most influential comics ever published in the UK. With 2000AD being 40 this year, and Action celebrating its 40th anniversary last year we’re getting further and further away from an important piece of comics history.

Imagine then my joy at stumbling across a number of videos on You Tube with interviews from Jack Adrian, Ramon Sola and Pat Mills. It looks as if an Action documentary was being made but these tantalising wee snippets are all we have of it which is a shame as it really is a piece of comics history which needed documenting like this.With Titan Comics publishing new Hook Jaw comics it seems relevant to document this now for the next generations. I’ve included in this blog all the clips I could find but if anyone finds or knows more feel free to point it out on the comments.