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.

Gary Lineker verus the racists of Brexit

I’ve been a wee bit out the loop with current events the last few days, but it seems just when you think  the UK has fell into a horrible moral decline thanks to the EU referendum result, there’s always further for us to decline. Tory MP and skin sack, David Davies, wants to give migrant children coming from the Calais refugee camp dental checks to make sure they’re the ‘right age’.

For one, Davies is such a clunking racist that he doesn’t seem to see how this looks, or if he does he doesn’t care as something like this is going to resonate in a continent where the horrors of the Nazis are still a scar. However don’t estimate the depths the more extreme Brexiters can sink to in their inhumanity so these kids are being vilified in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun.Mainly because the editors of those papers are well, cunts.

Step into the debate one Gary Lineker, former footballer and BBC presenter who spoke out against the idea with this Tweet.

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Lineker was then attacked in his feed, and in the media by the sort of racist skin-sacks of sewage who think inspecting the teeth of vulnerable children and dragging them through these things doesn’t make the UK a neo-fascist state.Lots of people with the cross of St. George and the Union Jack in their profiles piled onto him but fair play to him, he stood his ground.

Now another skin-sack of animal faeces by the name of Jon Gaunt wants him sacked by the BBC for ‘bias’. Except the thing is he’s a screaming hypocrite.

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A look though Lineker’s social media reveals he’s spoken on a variety of subjects from football, to athletics, Donald Trump and Brexit. Yet this one Tweet sends racists off because by now we should realise there’s a core of Brexiters who want the hardest, most racist form of Brexit possible. These are the people who’d happily sew coloured stars onto people’s clothes so they could be identified as an immigrant, refugee or Muslim. The sort of person from the Male Online strip basically.

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So here’s where we are four months from the vote to leave the EU. The UK economy is tanking, the pound is undergoing the biggest devaluation since Queen Victoria sat on the throne, companies are hedging their bets as are countries who invest heavily in the UK, science and research look set for a decline after 2020, and racism is rife with the sort of ethnic nationalism that I never thought would see the day in the UK.

The sort of racism we’re seeing with MP’s discussing examining the teeth of refugees based on pictures in tabloid rags of what were in some cases, Home Office interpreters, in others, children. See, when I was 16 I looked older, 18 or 19. Plus as has been pointed out, papers like the Daily Mail normally love children who look older than their years.

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We’re in a dark place right now, so that’s why we should thank public figures like Gary Lineker for speaking out against the sort of racist neo-fascist filth that’s been unleashed thanks to Brexit. Good on you, Leicester will be proud of you!

 

 

20 years after Euro 96

Imagine this is you will, 20 years ago in England Euro 96 happened and the country changed once and for all.I know it feels like at best a decade ago, but nope, it’s two decades and the effects of it last to today.

The fact it’s a two decade anniversary was driven home by this excellent article over at the Quietus which places the decline of in particular England, at this point. I can see the argument and there’s much to it as this was the end days of the Major government and unbroken Tory rule going back to 1979 with Tony Blair’s shiny new Labour sitting there waiting to be given the chance to hammer a broken, bitter, useless Tory Party that’d ran out of steam, ideas and popularity.

Yet I disagree with this..

Seen via the rear view mirror, the mid-90s are a bit of an embarrassment. They feel like an era of complacency – an aimless interregnum between the fall of the Berlin Wall apparently ending history and 9/11 revving it up again with a vengeance. The resulting mainstream cultural totems constituted slim pickings; Blur v Oasis, the Spice Girls, Tony Blair. And then there’s Euro 96 which, in terms of national identity, feels like an illuminating metaphorical staging post; ostensibly just a football tournament but in a wider sense, embodying something sad and portentous that remains unresolved to this day. Like many milestones of that era, it was a wild ride. But it didn’t really take us anywhere.

The mid 90’s felt like a wonderful place to be at the time, especially if you were on the right side of 30. There was a sense of adventure that doesn’t exist in the streamlined, divided 2010’s, and Euro 96 was closure of the old days of football and the opening of the modern age. At the time we never knew that as hindsight is a glorious thing. We were just having fun and Euro 96 was huge fun until right at the end when the worst aspect of English blood and soil nationalism reared its head, yet til then it looked fantastic then Gareth Southgate walked up one balmy summer night to take a penalty and it was over for many..

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For myself as a Scotland fan living in Leicester at the time it meant vicariously living the dream that we’d maybe for once do well enough in a major tournament to get into the second round. Plus with Scotland games being based in Nottingham and Birmingham I could soak up some of the atmosphere even though I couldn’t get a ticket, and it’s also worth noting that we drew against an excellent Dutch side, beat a decent Swiss side and pushed England for around 50 minutes and were only put to the sword by a still stunning Paul Gascoigne goal that came after a penalty saved by David Seaman which saw Scotland yet again suffer failure.

It’s also forgotten now that England in the early games were soundly criticised until their final group game against the Netherlands where they came up against the same side we’d held to a more than respectable draw and battered to a inch of their lives. To this day I don’t think I’ve seen an English side play as well as they did that evening.

After that something did click in England. People reclaimed the St George’s flag from the far right, people seemed more open and a genuine surge of openness. Indeed, by the time England played Spain in the next round there was a sense of belief that maybe all the wrongs of the last decades could be washed away like you’d hose vomit off a pavement outside a nightclub after a student night.

I spent the day of the England V Spain game working at one of the last Westminster comic marts. Afterwards I ended up having to walk up from Westminster in search of a pub that had a TV (as amazing as it sounds, not every pub had a telly in those days) and wasn’t rammed to the door. Eventually I settled on the McDonalds in Piccadilly where with some confused tourists and a load of English fans I watched a tense set of penalties which saw England through to the semi finals against Germany.

And we know what happened then.

I was working in a nightclub in Leicester that night. We opened early at 8pm in the hope if attracting people, but nobody turned up so we sat around in the DJ booth drinking beer and watching the game. At the moment Southgate missed the last English penalty I turned round to one of my colleagues and said something along the lines of ”this is not going to be a good night”. It wasn’t. The first three lads through the door proved themselves to be trouble from the off and were quickly removed as were many other angry, bitter English fans who’d seen what they saw as a personal slight.  By the end of the night I never wanted to see another England flag or supporter in my life and so did friends and colleagues I worked with.

When the dust settled the anger for some didn’t stop. It still seethes today and here is where I verge back into agreeing with the Quietus article. The roots of today are rooted in 1996 as it was a transformational year. 1997 saw Blair elected and some of us quickly saw we’d been conned and I walked from the Labour Party by the start of 1998 which was a World Cup year which yet again saw England attempt to burn away what some called ‘hurt’ but was really entitlement but things (barring one or two blips) did change. English football became a product and a lifestyle choice rather than something you’d follow because you stuck by your local side. Hooliganism faded. Then it blew up again this week.

I loved Euro 96. It was a time when the people of England finally embraced a civic nationalism, reclaimed the St. George’s Cross from the far right, and genuinely thought about their own culture and identity going into the future rather than constantly dwelling on the past. It didn’t last, but for a time it showed what England, as a country and as a football team, could achieve. Now people settle for fighting people on European streets singing about a war they were never involved in and a team built on spectacular failure. Perhaps one day it may become a forward looking country again, but I fear not at least for a generation.

A quick word about Leicester City winning the league (hopefully).

I’m a supporter of Partick Thistle, Glasgow’s non Old Firm team. It’d have been stupidly easy for me to support either Celtic or ‘Rangers’ but I decided to support my local side because they had the mighty Alan Rough!

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I lived in Leicester from 1988 to 2000 with some time off for good behaviour in London, Bristol and Nottingham in there too, but I occasionally ventured down to Filbert Street to see a Leicester City side sometimes win. but mainly whenever I was there it was grinding 0-0 draws.

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For those out there that have supported Manchester Utd since ‘‘that glorious night in Barcelona’‘, or Arsenal since they won things, or Chelsea or Man City since the money tap was turned on, clubs like Leicester are the sort of places they turn up to for a few seasons before they end up being relegated. They’re places where these fans turn up and wonder why fans of a club like Leicester stick with them and they don’t rush down the nearest J.D Sports to buy a replica Chelsea top ASAP as after all, in the modern age of football these sort of clubs win nothing at the top level so what’s the point of sticking by them?

Well, today Leicester play Manchester United at Old Trafford and if they win then Leicester win the top flight of English football for the first time in their history.For a fan of Leicester this is going to mean something more than a fan of a wealthy club jaded on success moaning that they didn’t win something that they think they’re entitled to. Sticking by a club like Leicester takes commitment because you see the bad times, and the club will have seen some awful times but the hope is always that your club bounces back and that maybe you’ll end up in a comfortable place in the top flight.

Yet today Leicester could win the league. As a Partick Thistle fan who last won anything three years ago and looks at the trophy cabinet moths with as much pride as our scant few trophies. But you stick by your team. You’ll be slagged off, laughed at, mocked and when relegated, crushed, but you can come back. You might even win the league as may happen today.

Leicester City is the closest I’ve got to an English team I’ll be interested in looking at their results first, but they’re not my team but for fans of clubs that will never do anything major, we can live vicariously through them. Yes they’re a relatively well off club, but in the modern era having a club like Leicester stand on the cusp of winning the biggest prize in English football is an astonishing achievement.

So at 4pm today, people like me and most importantly, the thousands of fans who’ve stuck by Leicester for years are hopefully going to see the club prove the impossible can happen. Whatever happens in the future these fans will remember this for as long as they live.

All Leicester have to do today is win….

The joy of Leicester City FC

Leicester City for years have been a team that at best, grabbed themselves the odd cup and gathered respect for mainly not being relegated. This season though they stand proudly at the top of the English Premier League five points clear of Spurs while all the predictable suspects you’d expect to win the league are languishing  far, far behind them.

I spent a number of years living in Leicester so I get how much this means to the people there, and indeed, any neutral is shouting on Leicester to win if only to achieve something that should be un-achievable in the modern age of football in England.

Manager Claudio Ranieri has done an amazing job and last night against Newcastle did this near the end of the game.

So for Claudio, for the people of Leicester and every neutral in the country, I hope Leicester do it. It’d be a gloriously inspirational event in football and god knows it needs such an event.

Download Festival is being turned into an authoritarian nightmare by Leicestershire police

I’ve dedicated a large number of my blogs on festivals especially Glastonbury and Reading, but Download Festival isn’t one I’ve been to, at least in this incarnation, but I have been to Donnington for a Monsters of Rock but more of that another time. This blog is about something less fun, and vastly concerning to anyone worried about civil liberties and abuse of police power in an increasing surveillance state.

The Register has a story about the use of facial recognition software and surveillance of people via the RFID wristbands festival goers will have this year. It points out just what this is all in aid of.

According to an interview with DC Kevin Walker, published in Police Oracle on Monday, “Strategically placed cameras will scan faces at the Download Festival site in Donington before comparing [them] with a database of custody images from across Europe.”

The Register has been told the database of “lawfully held European custody photos” is “a stand-alone database of legally held custody photographs drawn together with partners in Europol”.

In response to a freedom of information request we filed to Leicestershire Police in April asking whether NeoFace had, or could, utilise information received from outside of its custody database — making specific reference to SIS II — we were told: “NeoFace has been intentionally limited in scope to ensure that it only uses images held on our custody database. It is a stand-alone system that does not link with other national databases such as the PNC.”

So think about this for a minute. Festival goers are going to be scanned, and presumably checked to see if their face matches anyone of the police database. Now as good as this software is, it’s not 100% accurate so innocent people will suddenly be logged on the database by the police but that’s not the point. The point is the fact this breaks a right to privacy but as the Register points out…

We have also learned that the Police Oracle‘s publication of the interview has caused significant upset for management at Leicestershire Police, who did not want any advance publicity of their “new” surveillance project.

The public would have been informed that it had been placed under surveillance after the event had ended, presumably as part of a “you didn’t know, therefore it wasn’t intrusive”, justification for the scheme.

Leicestershire Police were going to tell nobody going to festival that they were having their faces scanned and their entire movements tracked until after the festival was over, and even then most people won’t have known.  Considering how some people like to keep their wristband on for months, even years after the festival, the police could effectively track these people for as long as the RFID chip lasted.So this weekend people are having their faces scanned, checked against a police database and their every movement tracked and they’ve not been told about it or asked to give their approval, and they could be tracked long after they return home.

I know they’ll be people saying ‘but if you’re innocent there’s nothing to worry about‘ but it’s another sign that under the Tories the UK is shifting to a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ mentality that chips away at one of our most basic freedoms. I’ve written to my MP in order to see if she can bring it up in the Commons and I suggest people do the same as if this becomes the norm not just at Download, but Reading, T in the Park and even Glastonbury then that’s effectively a surveillance state and we can’t  sit down and take it.

Love Me Tender

I love the film Wild At Heart from the moment I saw it at a cinema in Camden in 1990 during the short time I lived in London. It is in my eyes probably the most romantic film I’ve ever seen, which is probably a sign I needed (and indeed probably still do)  serious mental evaluation more than anything else. Apart from being stunned by another brilliant film directed by David Lynch, I was just taken by the end scene where Nicolas Cage as Sailor Ripley leaps across cars to find his girl Lula.

Here’s that very scene…

Well after that I had it in my head that sometime, someday I would do that to a girl I liked, (being younger, fitter and dafter than I am now) and see if she also believed in individuality and personal freedom as Sailor Did. Sadly if you tried leaping on cars to proclaim your devotion to a girl in London in 1990 you’d end up probably shot, beaten to a pulp or locked up, so it wasn’t til the following year when I’d returned to Leicester that one night I drunkenly decided to reenact the end of Wild At Heart towards a young lady who’d caught me in her gravitational pull.

That night after too many pints of Guinness I was walking back home in a crowd with her and decided (as one is want to do when you’ve drank a skinful) to leap on a car, proclaim my love or at the very least, my lust for her, and hope she goes for it. Well, I lept on an old Vauxhall, spat out a drunken version of Love Me Tender in a Nic Cage-esque drawl and after she stopped laughing she seemed touched, or at least was scared enough to humour me in case I went Full-Cage. Thankfully she seemed to pity me for long enough to also want to throw herself at me and that wee fling lasted a jolly few months before it imploded like a bad Nicolas Cage film.

The lesson I suppose is there is no lesson when it comes to Nic Cage films and girls. What did you expect? Something meaningful?