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.

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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.

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Look to the skies:My encounters with UFO’s

First off. I’m not talking aliens from Uranus. I’m talking about bloody odd things that can’t be easily explained but could be anything explainable light aircraft, meteorites, atmospheric conditions and of course aliens. Most of us have probably at some point seen something in the sky, The overwhelming majority of that time it’s completely and utterly explainable but as I take a Fortean attitude to the entire subject and it’s Halloween weekend, here’s some examples of things I’ve seen that I can’t explain.

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As a lad I used to walk to school, which was around a half hour walk from Milton to Possilpark in the north of Glasgow. One morning I saw something big, red and glowing in the sky which wasn’t unusual as we were on flightpaths for Glasgow Airport so I was used to seeing big glowing lights in the sky, and seeing as we were next to a load of playing fields, and street lighting wasn’t as ubiquitous as today, I was used to small meteorites burning up. In fact I used to try to track them down, but never ever managed to find any. Looking at Street View shows that very little has changed in terms of geography in subsequent decades.

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Anyhow, one morning it was especially cold, but bright and I set off to school as usual when I saw something big, red and glowing but instead of going down, it was going up in a vertical line. It wasn’t a plane as I was used to how planes moved, and it wasn’t a helicopter as there was no noise and it moved behind the trees at the top of the picture below.

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In fact the vantage point where I saw the ‘light’ was pretty much at the angle in the above Street View image and those trees haven’t changed in decades. I can’t explain what it is. I’m not saying that a red glowing light that moved up from behind those trees and rushed skyward was an alien spacecraft but it freaked me out. I must say all of this happened in a second or so back then I could do 100 yards fairly quickly, and by the time I got to the top of that hill there was nothing by the trees, or indeed, up in the sky. For nearly four decades that’s bugged me as although there has to be a reason (one friend years ago suggested Earth-lights) I’m open to the idea it was something extraterrestrial.

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There were a few other oddities over the years. Some I can write off as planes, or seeing something the wrong way or being amazingly, and brilliantly drunk but there’s one more I can’t write off.

Many decades later from the incident in Glasgow, I was now all grown up and off to see a gig in London (Joe Strummer) at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town. I was going after work which meant coming from where I was working in West London across London at rush hour, a thankless task at the best of times. So I wasn’t able to drink as time was tight as I’d arranged to meet people at the pub just next door to the club, the Bull and Gate, before the gig.

Coming out of Kentish Town tube you take a right, and that treats you to this view across London.

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As you can see, you get a nice clear view for miles which on that night in the late 1980’s was crisp, clear and dark so a couple of dancing lights stood out. Again, this was back in the days before street lighting swamped out all of the stars or any other lights so I was used to seeing stars and other lights in the sky, especially in London which by now I was spending a lot of time in for work and play.

There were two lights in the sky, roughly where the traffic lights in the middle of the above picture is, and there were not acting like a plane as planes don’t go up and down randomly nor do they cause hardened Londoners to stop and look which is what was happening as people were walking out of the tube. It went on for a few minutes before both lights vanished across London, and again I thought they might be helicopters but once I got to the pub someone else who’d seen them pointed out helicopters don’t move in slanted diagonal lines which these lights were. By this point I’d started on my third Guinness of the night so this dropped out my head until Sunday afternoon heading home to Leicester (where I was living at this point) on the train when my brain started wondering what these things were. Again, I’m open to a rational explanation but also a more unconventional solution.

I do have other examples; weird lights over Glastonbury (the town, not the festival), something that blocked starlight out on the M1, but these two stood out as things which have annoyed me as there’s no way I can explain them and that bugs the crap out of me.

Still, if you think that’s annoying I might tell the tale of the weird trip on the London Underground some time..

Jack the Ripper-1973 BBC docudrama

The first memory I have of knowing who or what Jack the Ripper was in history and why it was important was the 1973 BBC docudrama, Jack the Ripper.  This was in terms of television in 1973 way ahead of it’s time as rather than having a straightforward documentary series, the BBC decided to have framed as a crime investigation using two popular fictional characters from Z-Cars, Softly, Softly and Barlow at Large. Barlow (Stratford Johns) and Watt (Frank Windsor) were the leads in this series where the pair discussed the Ripper case over six parts in extraordinary detail while theorising who may have been the killer and the various conspiracies surrounding the case.

At the time I was stupidly young, so I’m thinking I saw this on a repeat, not on its first broadcast in 1973 but it massively impacted upon me, a kid weaned on horror comics and films, as this real life crime which was more horrendous than anything I’d read in Creepy or Eerie. What I didn’t know at the time was it was based upon theories which saw the light of day for the first time here, which themselves led to the publication of Steven Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which itself helped influence Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell. Even the BBC series Ripper Street doffs its deerstalker cap to it.In terms of influence the 1973 Jack the Ripper is huge for the Ripper genre (oh yes, it’s a definite genre now) but television in the UK.

The blurring of fact and fiction was not something the Reithian BBC would have normally done in 1973 but this clever series manages to make the subject accessible to a mainstream audience of the time. Today it looks clunky, feels slow and is often a tad dull, but this was groundbreaking stuff as it pushes the Fourth Wall in terms of what we the viewer see as real. For the series to work we have to accept Barlow and Watt as real people living in the same reality as Jack the Ripper. Pacing problems aside, the series is a fantastic primer if you do decide to dive into From Hell, the comic of course, not the dreadful film. In terms of pure research hitting the screen this series can’t be beaten, even if some of the conspiracy theories have been roundly trashed in the decades since. One of the things that is superb from an historical point of view is that much of the East End of London still looked similar to what it did in the Victorian Era in 1973, which gives the series an authentically grimy feel.

It isn’t available on DVD, it probably never will be released commercially. There’s simply not enough interest, but it does live (for the moment) on YouTube in what looks like copies from a master tape. I’ve no idea how long these might last there but if you’ve got six hours free and are a bit of a Ripper enthusiast give it a go.

Shadow of the Ripper-1988 Jack the Ripper documentary

Back in 1988, there was a lot of fuss over the centenary of the Jack the Ripper murders with books, films, documentaries, comics, anything you can imagine basically being created to cash in on this gruesome anniversary.

Not everything was horribly exploitative of what still is the horribly brutal murders of five women.  Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell made its appearance in 1989 in Steve Bissette’s horror anthology Taboo, even the ITV Michael Caine drama has its moments as a good piece of schlock but this for me is the Holy Grail.

Shadow of the Ripper is a superb documentary presented by Christopher Frayling, an academic who takes an academic, but easily accessible journey through the Ripper story which involves a lengthy discussion of the social and economic issues of late 19th century London and of an Empire who at one point was the wealthiest the world had ever seen, but had the most astonishing poverty in it’s biggest city. In many ways there’s parallels with our position today, even down to the callous disregard for women.

The documentary is up on iPlayer, but it was it’s appearance on my YouTube recommendations that caught my attention, so here’s that version which everyone around the world can appreciate. It really is a superb bit of archive television.

The amazing persistence of Wendy James

Back in the 1980’s the band Transvision Vamp managed to knock out a couple of hits thanks to having a couple of catchy tunes, but mainly because of lead singer Wendy James. Having once attended a Transvision Vamp in Leicester Polytechnic in the late 80’s I can testify to the not inconsiderable attractions of Ms. James first hand.and in fact Transvision Vamp were a pretty decent pop-punk band for a year or two.

Then the fame set in, the backlash fell upon the backlash and Wendy James and her band struggled to make hits but James plugged on and on. She even did some stuff with Elvis Costello which I admit to never hearing. In fact the only time I’ve noticed Wendy James in the last 20 or so years is around 95 or 96 being in a pub off the Portobello Road in London near the location for the now defunct comic shop Fantastic Store. That’s because I noticed someone in the bar that looked like James and had it pointed out that in fact it is.

Being generally crap I didn’t go up and even offer to buy her a drink. Tsk.

But I recently noticed that she’s been crowdfunding a new album, The Price of the Ticket, and barring some unfortunate botox work, she’s looking amazing for someone aged 50 and not much older than me.

It sounds as if she’s still ploughing the same furrow she always has and you know what? I don’t mind that. At one point I’d probably been pompous enough to hate this but it’s comforting that in the year 2016 someone like Wendy James is still making music and clearly not giving a single fuck about what anyone thinks. That gives me a warm feeling inside.

Ghosts on the Underground

Many people over the years have pointed out how utterly scary being alone on the London Underground is, especially on one of the more remote stations or deep in the depths of one of the more labyrinthine stations. Even some of the entrances look like you’re about to enter some sort of entrance to something dark, mysterious and very, scary.

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Once you’ve crossed into the underworld it’s quite literally another place. In fact it’s entirely possible to be in the centre of one of the busiest cities on the planet and not see anyone, or indeed, anything. Do you dare go deeper?

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Once you’re finally at the right platform you can be all by yourself. In London. On a busy night. Think about that possibility for a second…

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It’s entirely possible to believe ghosts exist walking round the tunnels of London’s Underground, and indeed, some of these stations have stories to tell which is where this documentary originally broadcast on Five in the UK tells an interesting set of stories from people that make their living underground..

Of course ghosts are total nonsense, but deep underground it’s a bit of a different matter….

One year after the Scottish Independence referendum…..

One year ago today the people of Scotland were voting in the most important democratic vote in the history of the United Kingdom. For two and a half years both the Yes Campaign (headed up by the SNP and Greens) and Better Together (run by the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems) campaigned hard about an issue that has raged not for decades, but for centuries. At the start of the campaign proper the No votes was so far in the lead that the UK establishment complacency was tangible at times, because you’d not put someone like Alistair Darling in charge of such an important campaign if you weren’t so cocky that you thought ‘even this dick can convince the Scots to stay’.

Yet over the years that lead came down, and down and down to the point where around the start of 2014 the Better Together campaign started getting nasty (well, nastier) and that summer saw something quite extraordinary happen:it suddenly felt that the Yes campaign wasn’t just catching up massively, but winning more and more arguments for independence. Then late last summer the Yes campaign sneaked into the lead in the polls which sparked the sort of panic that saw Project Fear (the name insiders gave Better Together’s campaign) go into overload with endless ‘vows’ from the likes of Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Nick Clegg (it’s odd how looking at how important the Lib Dems were because they’re fuck all now. Serves them right for lying with dragons) and endless celebrities who pleaded with teary eyes for Scotland to stay, even though most of these people hadn’t given a toss previously.

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In the midst of this the Daily Record (the official mouthpiece of Scottish Labour) printed the above cover that at the time must have been a great idea, but now hangs over the heads of the British establishment like a massive Sword of Damocles because this changed the question from ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ to ‘should Scotland be an independent country or should it sort of have more powers but you won’t get them unless you vote no?’.

And people voted No. All the months, years even, of slurs, smears, lies and attacks ended up  with the British establishment throwing everything they had at Scotland and getting a 55% to 45% result. Yet this was the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.The Yes movement got behind the SNP who burst into being a major party and led now by Nicola Sturgeon was a loud, and strong anti-austerity voice in the UK elections the following May that saw the SNP win 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. A feat Labour at their pomp couldn’t even dream of. Now a year on. the left in England have something for themselves in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn and may at some point finally catch up with the debate in Scotland

Polls at the moment put the Yes and No votes neck and neck, while everyone knows that at some point a second referendum is going to happen with a probably very different result, hence the ongoing Project Fear, but the Unionists are running out of abuse and things to say. They realise they’ve burned up everything they had and I think within 10-15 years tops, Scotland is going to be an independent country.

But why is a Scot living in England, as I am, so transformed by what happened during the referendum? In fact for most of my life I’ve either supported the Union, or latterly federalism. Why did the events of the 19th September 2014 in particular become one of the most defining moments in my life, and I imagine a hell of a lot of other people’s lives?

I came on board late to the cause of independence. To be honest, living in England provides an insulation to Scotland’s inner workings, plus it’s remarkably easy to lose touch but lose touch I did until around 2011 when friends came from Glasgow for their first ever Glastonbury Festival. Over that week or so at the festival I got up to speed with the situation in Scotland, and it married with my own position which had long since moved on from supporting the Union through to federalism through to not quite  knowing what to do but I was by the start of 2012 convinced the UK was failing but I had too much going on in my own life to worry about events back home in Scotland.

And it falls to cartoonist Steve Bell for jarring my complacency thanks to this cartoon published in The Guardian.

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I’m a Guardian reader. I emailed to complain. Like others I was told this was Bell’s own opinion and at that moment I saw Project Fear and the British establishment close ranks and go for Scotland’s jugular.

As a left winger I was expecting something better, but after seeing Labour turn into a pale shadow of the Tories over the previous 20 years, and democratic options become less, it struck me that the best way to break up the British state to the point where it has to re-write itself was Scottish independence, and Bell in his defence of a tired old Labour Party with nothing to offer had jarred me to start considering things I probably would never have living in England. At this point I have to wave a finger at the English left. They as a whole failed to support Scotland and I know friends at home complained of this, but barring a few notable figures, most just dismissed or even attacked the idea of Scottish independence.

Indeed even the likes of Owen Jones came swinging into Scotland bleating the same old straplines out of the big British Establishment Book, and promised a Labour victory in May 2015 that would transform everything!

Over the next couple of years massive things happened to me to make me firmly, and strongly not just support independence, but by the start of summer 2014 I’d decided that as soon as possible, I’d move back to Glasgow. At the time of writing this that looks like the start of 2016 once I get a few things sorted out.

But 2014 was insane. I couldn’t campaign for the Yes campaign sitting in Bristol, but I could online as much as I could, plus I also worked on convincing friends here in regards the benefits to everyone of Scottish independence as after all, the problem is not the English, but the establishment. The people of England need freedom from that and self-determination too. Sadly a few in the week before the vote decided to believe the bullshit on the media and not the reams of information and endless hours of a debate that’s raged for generations. So they failed to get it, though they’ve since become supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and seem a bit sheepish about some of their opinions last year. Live and learn…

By July 2014 I’d been sucked into the cause and endured my ‘Cybernat’ initiation ceremony so that in the last months I could push as much as possible the cause. I dearly wished I could have been there in person but even from hundreds of miles away I could lock in on the atmosphere, and thanks to friends in Scotland who were all firmly Yes, I ended up with dozens of first hand accounts of how Scotland was transforming into something else. What that is I don’t know because it’s not over yet, but things were gloriously electric.

The last week was astonishing. Just over a year later I’m still in awe of this picture taken in Glasgow the last Saturday before the vote.

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On that Saturday before the referendum I was in Cardiff at a rally in support of Scottish independence. I could not believe the pictures I saw coming from all over Scotland because for one fleeting moment I though ‘they’re going to bloody well do it!’. All the lies, threats, abuse and ‘solemn vows’ had been made and in that few days it looked like the people of Scotland were going to do it. In London puffy-faced city traders guffawed their support for the Union and it looked to be in vain, and I’d be remiss not adding the below video attacking our imperial masters…

Then came the day of the vote. Glasgow voted Yes, So did Dundee. Nowhere else did as No beat Yes 55% to 45%. I stayed up til the point when it was clear it was lost. I was on social media and friends were disconsolate. People were giving up, were angry, sad and there was a lot of tears from a lot of people. Then David Cameron made his speech, made the referendum about English Laws for English Votes, and at that point the old Johnny Rotten line of ‘ever have the feeling you’ve been had‘ couldn’t have been more accurate.

I had an opticians appointment in the centre of Bristol that afternoon, so I spent around 90 minutes getting things sorted out which meant I missed everything that was happening in Scotland. Wandering around in the bring sun of a late Bristolian summer the events of the Indyref seemed so far away and they were. Then I got to the pub, got sympathy from friends, and was told Alex Salmond had resigned, so with the figurehead and driving force gone it seemed all was lost, so fuck it. I got very, very drunk.

Then when I got home around 11pm I turned on my laptop, and on my Facebook friends in Glasgow were telling me of Unionists burning saltires in George Square in Glasgow, not to mention they were going round abusing people, and being racist and homophobic. In the midst of it all were two wee teenage girls and they stood their ground and did not falter in their belief.

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If these girls weren’t going to give in as they’re in a middle of a horde of drunken, abusive racists then poor old me sitting comfortably hundreds of miles away wasn’t, and neither were hundreds of thousands of other people. I don’t think the Unionists realise just how much the events of September the 19th 2014 shaped the future and inspired people who were broken to get up, dry their eyes and carry on the fight.

You then had the entire Yes movement throw it’s support behind the SNP who were now led by the formidable Nicola Sturgeon and the fight carried on to the general election back in the spring when 56 of 59 Scottish seats were SNP. A landslide never seen in Scottish history.

And here we are. A year on. Scottish independence as an idea isn’t dead. In fact judging by the terrible panic from the establishment they realise it’s very much still a chance, and with polls showing a slow creep from No voters to Yes, it does suggest a certain inevitability to it, but that doesn’t mean people are sitting back because they’re not. Nobody on the Yes side want to feel like they did that morning last year. Nobody wants to see the likes of Cameron smiling in that way again. They don’t want that feeling and that helps drive people.

At some point there is going to be a second referendum, probably in the next decade, maybe sooner depending on the EU referendum which could throw up the situation where Scotland votes to stay in the EU, and is threatened to be pulled out by England. Then all predictions are off but til then the slow work of eliminating every single argument the No campaign had (which isn’t that many to be fair, it’s mainly currency) is continuing as people in Scotland still try to convince the other side to come over to independence. In the next decade that independence will I’m certain happen but it’ll be tough, but then the really hard work of building a new country begins.

In the meantime I’m continuing apace with plans to move back to Glasgow, not just the city of my birth and the place I want to spend the rest of my life in, but it’s a Yes city.

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Here’s the thing, Glasgow will say Yes again, as will the majority of Scotland…….