The Brief History of the British Comic Convention part three: Public Image Ltd

A small group of people are sitting in a bar in a hotel in Manchester during the last UKCAC in 1998.For 30 years in the UK there’s been at least one annual large comic convention somewhere in the country, but at this movement there’s nothing planned for 1999 and the only people who seem to care are the half dozen or so people sitting nursing their drinks on a Sunday afternoon. A comment splits the onrushing gloom…

”How about we tag onto a Babylon 5 convention?”

It is at this point the British comic convention hits its lowest point. But lets go back to part two and the end of the 1980’s. Comics are everywhere. Alan Moore and Robert Crumb get name-checked on pop songs. Channel 4, BBC Two and the broadsheet papers start taking an interest in the growing and developing medium. Books like Watchmen and Maus are compared with the best of modern traditional literature. Conventions and marts are bursting with attendees. Shops are opening up at a dramatic rate as the direct market grows to accommodate this new, excitingly engaged audience who have a thirst for every genre from superheroes to SF, to horror, indeed, anything seems the limit as 1990 comes.

The British comic convention grows too. There’s now a Glasgow Comic Art Convention to complement the London based one, and smaller conventions and marts are all over the UK.

Comic publishers start springing up with the most successful being Image Comics who arrive on the scene in 1992 publishing a dynamic, if somewhat intellectually thin, set of superhero/adventure comics that cater to the growing speculator market.

Image were a speculators wet dream.Comics that came out one week would increase in value the week later by nonsensical amounts, so potentially you could make 1000% more than you paid for a comic. So companies started making comics ‘more collectable’ with special and variant covers at the expense of any sort of quality. The ‘Imagefication’ of mainstream comics brought the speculator into comics in droves and as more and more product was pumped out to be valued instantly higher than it should be. A bubble was forming that couldn’t last.

In the meantime the British comics convention was at its peak. More and more one day events were springing up from Gloucester to Cardiff to Newcastle to Belfast and of course, UKCAC and GLASCAC were running along nicely.

Then the bubble burst.

The industry couldn’t cope with the amount of product being pumped out and in fact, the industry was in a slow decline from around 93, but by 1996 the comics industry was in an awful place. Companies were going out of business, and Marvel (who were pushing out million selling comics at the start of the decade) hit a hard decline that saw them nearly going out of existence. Comic conventions and marts also suffered as the speculators moved onto whatever else they did which meant retailers had boxes of unsold copies of comics with special/variant covers and nobody to buy them.

In 1998, UKCAC moved from London to Manchester, while the Glasgow conventions were now long gone. For those of us who were there it was a fun event, but the feeling it was a wake hung around which leads us back to a bunch of us sitting in the bar contemplating latching onto a Babylon 5 convention in order to keep the idea of a large British comic convention alive.

Other ideas did come to the fore, including one which involved organising a show in Nottingham as London was too prohibitive in terms of cost. Things looked bleak as shops closed weekly while the marts in London and elsewhere were a struggle to turn a profit if you were a retailer but some light was at the end of the tunnel for the British comic convention.

1999 wasn’t just the last year of the old millennium, it was also in many ways the beginning of where we are today with the modern comic convention and it all started in Bristol.

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The Brief History of the British Comic Convention part two: London Calling

In the first part I briefly covered the birth of the British comic convention in 1968 in sunny Birmingham and the development of the British comics scene during the 1970’s. By the 1980’s the comic convention had settled into a pattern which would look somewhat more familiar to a post-cosplay era attendee than they may think with the panels, and of course dealers room, supplemented by the fancy dress parade

The 80’s opened with a variety of conventions and marts, including the Westminster marts in London which were a hub for fans and professionals to meet, with often fans crossing the line to become professionals themselves thanks to meeting the right people. These marts were also a hunting ground for organisers of the Glasgow comic marts in the 80’s who would lure the likes of Alan Moore or Steve Dillon north of the border with the promise of curry and beer.

By the mid-80’s it was clear a massive wave of talent was forming in the UK, and for conventions boom times were approaching. In 1986 the Birmingham Comic Art Show appeared which I’ve written about before.

Meanwhile in London, the UK Comic Art Convention (UKCAC) was also coming into its stride having a few years to find its feet, and audience. It quickly became the leading, and indeed, only large comics convention to be held regularly for the rest of the decade.

UKCAC’s influence is felt today by countless numbers of people probably unaware of it ever existing. If people hadn’t went to these conventions then they’d never have worked in the industry, or at least, found it hard to break into the industry. It was a crucible for future generations, plus they were enormous fun for pro, fan, retailer, or anyone casually attending in what was a boomtime for comics as a medium.

By the end of the 80’s everything looked peachy. Comics were getting the respect they deserved and the British industry ruled the world. The last decade of the millennium looked bright for the comic convention which had grown out of humble roots to something that promised bigger things as comics became more mainstream, and hey, the direct market was growing and that could only mean more sunshine ahead.

Next up, the 1990’s and it all goes tits up.

Ghosts of the past on Google Streetview

I’m a bit of a Suede fan so YouTube often throws Suede videos at me like a bored petulant schoolchild throwing paper at his teacher. This morning it coughed up Electricity at me, one of their songs from 1999.

The video was film by the sadly departed Astoria club on Tottenham Court Road, and in Falconberg Court, one of those wonderful old London alleyways, which near places like the Astoria used to reek of the history of the place through the smell of sex, urine and kebabs.

I thought I’d see what it looked like on Street View and got this.

The image is from October 2008 when the Astoria was being (in my view, disgracefully) ripped down to make way for Crossrail. This is no longer what this part of London looks like, but Streetview contains this ghost of what was once there and through that it provides an idea of what was lost.

In fact Google has thousands of such images from around the world sitting there reminding us of our mortality, what we’ve lost and how things are changing sometimes for the worst to be recorded in every gory digital detail. We can be reminded of pouring out onto a bust London street at 3am working out whether to make one’s way back to wherever you were sleeping that night, or to stumble into Soho, Camden or somewhere outwith Zone One or Two to carry on drinking and not caring about running the risk of a lengthy treatment of anti-biotics.

These shadows of the past will linger reminding us of better days. Google may have it’s issues, but I for one welcome these reminders of memories that twinge like phantom limbs upon viewing them. In fact you could even write a song about it…

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.

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.

ufo

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.

ufo1

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.

ufo2

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.

ufo3

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.

ufo4

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.