At this time when tens of thousands of us will die thanks to the Coronavirus, we need a laugh so thanks to the bloke walking around Leicester Square in a plague mask looking a bit odd and creepy but in a fun way.
I’ve spoken about the sad decline of the London comic marts over the years to the point where all that’s left is the Royal National show held in one of London’s moderately awful hotels. Marts are traditionally one-day events where it’s all about comics, and mainly cheapish, affordable comics as well as your hot collectors’ books. The show had fallen on hard times, and things were generally in decline with the show being a shadow of the days when for the first hour as a dealer you’d literally be taking money hand over fist before things calmed down for the rest of the day.
A recent video, however, shows signs of life. I’ve not been now in five years and if this video is representative of where things are then things are better with more comics dealers and a returned focus on the medium rather than modern ‘Comic’ conventions which have next to fuck all to do with comics. This though is encouraging, and hopefully we’re seeing a revival of comic marts in not just London but across the UK.
There was an interesting piece the other day in the Leicester Mercury about punks in the city in the late 70’s at a Damned gig at the De Montfort Hall. Now I wasn’t living in Leicester then, I wasn’t even a teenager back in Glasgow, and didn’t got a gig til Blondie at the Apollo in the early 80’s then I was off banging round the city seeing gigs in places like Rooftops, The Mayfair (where I first saw The Fall) and of course Strathclyde and Glasgow Uni not to mention the Barrowlands which has barely changed in the decades.
But in 1988 I moved to Leicester, experienced the joys the De Montfort Hall, the Princess Charlotte (still one of the best pub venues I’ve ever been in and now sadly gone as a venue) and of course the bus trips to Nottingham for whatever was on at Rock City. Leicester’s close location to London meant that I’d often vanish into the gaudy neon lit streets of London, specifically Camden and Kentish Town, though it’d not be unrealistic to end up in a pub or club in Soho to bide the time before waking up the next day in bed/on the floor depending on how lucky one got.
Then Bristol became somewhere I’d go to and again I’d experience the nitelife there, so my teenage and formative years up to my mid 20’s was scattered across the UK like precious Infinity Stones as I didn’t just belong in one place, but many but at the same time I didn’t really centre myself in one scene but many.
Now, the point of all this nostalgia is this. Since my stroke and cancer, and in particular, since moving to Glasgow I’ve essentially become rooted in one place considering what I’m actually going to do for however many years I’ve got left but I’ve been doing my best to avoid making any actual decision by getting a job that vaguely pays or generally devolving any serious thought as much as possible. Well, tomorrow I go to the hospital for my 6-month cancer checkup and should, barring incident, be told only to come see the hospital once a year which means I can’t put off decisions or hide much longer. See I don’t want all my futures to be sitting wallowing in nostalgia, fun though that may be, but I want to create new moments and fashion new gems of memory to collect as time goes on that is beyond just existing and doing alright.
Tomorrow I may have to finally move on from the holding pattern I’m in and finally grasp the steering wheel of my life to guide myself to whatever is next. We shall see what happens…
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.
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.
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…
‘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.
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.