Sexual abuse and the comics industry

The Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal continues to unfold to depressingly Savile-like proportions as the scale of sexual abuse in the film industry starts to unfold. The film industry is hardly unique. This is fairly common across most industries I’ve worked in, and I imagine most people have at some point seen something, or worse, been the victim of this sort of abuse. This is also true of the world of comics.

I’ve been in and out the industry since the early 80’s and you don’t hear the stories or rumours until you’re sitting there late at night at conventions when a few beers have opened mouths or just basically as part of the rumour mill all relatively enclosed industries have. So I’ve heard stories such as the one about the shop that shared premises with a pornographer that built a studio upstairs in the shop, or the one about the comic shop owner who would try to groom any young female customers he liked, or a whole load of stories of shop owners and con/mart organisers who were paedophiles and in some cases ended up convicted ones too. I personally saw one dealer at a convention try desperately to pay girls to sleep with him. In this case he was laughed out the convention, but this isn’t a one-off situation as I’ve heard other people doing the same crap over the years.

There’s lots of great wee stories about comic-related people that often verge into something horrible, but sometimes darkly funny. However there’s these stories which swirl round the scene and this is just in the UK but because the UK has such a small industry compared to the US the scale ramps up. Take example the stories that have circulated around Julie Schwartz. Schwartz was the man who shook up DC Comics in the 1960’s and 70’s by pushing what they did kicking and screaming into the modern age.

His position in comics is astonishing but those stories were from more than one person. Then there’s there’s what happened to writer/editor Janelle Asselin who has been a victim of threats and abuse in all her years in comics, especially when she spoke out. As she admits, the industry is a boy’s club…

Asselin also helped break the story about Dark Horse Comics editor Scott Allie, who was accused of assaulting women at conventions which is something that sadly doesn’t shock me one bit.

Things are getting better. More women are getting involved in comics but the old attitudes remain and while the big superhero publishers like Marvel and DC are essentially boy’s clubs this isn’t going away. The point is that when stories like Jimmy Savile or Harvey Weinstein breaks it should be an excuse for industries to be more open about what’s happened in the past and what is happening now, but there’s still a silence about this. Worse, there’s people who are victims being threatened or furthered abused mainly by fans of the person involved or of the publisher as they pile on the accuser.

Now I only know bits and bobs. I’ve not been full time in the industry for two decades, and I’m only sneaking back into it now, but there’s people out there who are allegedly ‘journalists’ who can help by trying to expose what’s going on but far too many of these people have one eye on themselves getting a job higher up the greasy pole, so will play along and help keep silent.

We’re hitting a potential watershed. This might be a chance to put the industry’s house in order and I hope people now come forward to ensure that abusers are exposed, even imprisoned for what they’ve done. It won’t be easy but this is a prime chance to change things and frankly, I don’t think we’ll get a better chance.

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RIP Len Wein

Writer, editor and comics creator Len Wein has passed away at the age of 69, which is far too soon. He leave behind a massive amount of not just important creations (Swamp Thing with Berni Wrightson and Wolverine with Herb Trimpe and John Romita Snr to name the two big ones) but some truly great comics work. For me, my first exposure to Wein was Justice League of America #100 and this great Nick Cardy cover.

Wein wrote the JLA from this issue to #114, and these remain some of my favourite superhero comics ever not just because they’re enormous fun, but for me, these were the first superhero comics I read that even had a hint of doing something more than just stringing together fight scenes. It remains a vastly underrated run.

His Marvel work in the 70’s helped entertain me massively, especially the joy filled fun that was Marvel Team-Up.

A nice fun run on Amazing Spider-Man,

And a long run on The Incredible Hulk which is where Wolverine first made his début.

It’s worth noting that if Wein hadn’t brought Wolverine into the new X-Men in Giant Size X-Men #1, the revamped X-Men might never have gotten off the ground and failed and Wolverine would be a minor character that once popped up in a few issues of the Hulk’s title.

Instead though, Wein made the masterstroke of sticking Wolverine into the X-Men and unleashed a massive fan-favourite for decades to come.

As an editor he’s responsible for helping Alan Moore and Gave Gibbons Watchmen into the world.

Overall Wein gave comics more than he’s probably appreciated for. Without him DC may never have hired Alan Moore in the first place and all that British talent DC mined from the 80’s to today. Wein changed the mainstream comics industry in the US and UK massively and his passing is a loss. Yes, we can dwell upon shite like Before Watchmen and later work, but let’s not dwell there and choose instead to remember his work for helping kids like me have some entertainment over the decades…

A century of Jack Kirby

On the 28th August this year comic artist/writer/creator Jack Kirby would have been 100 years old. I’ve spoken about his birthday in the past but this is a big event obviously and a celebration as at one point it seemed as if the Kirby family would never win Jack the recognition he deserved in life.

After all, Kirby helped shape modern pop culture in a way few people have but it is only in recent years he’s even got a snifter of the credit he should have got when he was alive.

Finally though at this centenary we see Kirby being paid tribute not just by friends, colleagues and a core of fans, but people outwith the ghetto of comics.

The man may no longer be with us but his powerful, astonishing, and glorious art and creations live on.

People flock to the latest Avengers film, or look forward to Justice League, or the new Star Wars, but no Kirby and no Avengers, no Darkseid to fight and no Doctor Doom who directly influenced Darth Vader so no post-1977 pop culture.

Happy anniversary Jack. It’s nice that more people appreciate you and that your creations thrill and delight a world, and as for your art, well, they’ll never be another like you. Cheers for everything..

Princess Diana has risen from the grave

20 years ago Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris and the UK lost it’s tiny little mind for what seems like a lifetime, but it is only 20 since the ‘people’s princess’ speech from a then, fresh-faced Tony Blair which really helped the lunacy kick into gear.

The week before was the Reading Festival and the dregs of Britpop died a death then, but waking up on that warm August Sunday morning 20 years ago to face wall-to-wall media enforced grief imposed upon a people who somehow mainly became infected with something that wasn’t just normal human responses to the death of someone famous, but something almost hysterical in it’s response.

Then there was the conspiracy theories. Oh god, the theories! I went to my local that Sunday night (I was living in Leicester at the time) and even in those early days of the internet there were people talking of what they’ve read online. As for the funeral it was a ridiculously mawkish display from a people who’d lost all sense as they were all driven forward as driven on by some memetic infection as everyone had to shown to pay respects and be stricken with grief about someone many of them were sneering at or lapping up Sunday tabloid headlines the week before her death.

The lunacy took years to die down. It even affected comics as writer Pete Milligan and artist Mike Alldred were planning to use Diana in the pages of X-Statix, an X-Men spin-off title, in 2002. That was until the press got hold of the plan.

And after a Daily Mail/Express fuelled outrage, Marvel changed the storyline from it being about Diana to a nondescript ‘pop star’.

It didn’t have anything like the same impact even if reading the story it was clearly Diana, the faux outrage neutered the story. Thankfully things started retreating into the pages of hysterical tabloids as people woke up from what was a feverish dream, or nightmare depending on your point of view.

And now here we are in 2017 facing the 20th anniversary of her death and those that canonised her in death (but mocked/hated her in life) are now flooding back into the media like a burst sewer telling us of how sad, upset and tearful we all were. Well, we weren’t. On the day of her funeral I went to the pub, and with others, played pool and stuck the Sex Pistols on the jukebox til the whole thing washed over us. Two decades on and I’m a different person to the one I was on that warm late summer’s day, but I again treat the oncoming storm of Diana programming and articles with suspicion. After all, Diana can now be used as this immortal figurehead of a Britain that doesn’t exist except in the heads of people who see the British identity as a superior one, and her ‘sacrifice’ gives these people a martyr to rally behind.

So I suggest over the next few weeks retreating to the pub to ignore this. Even if you, like me, no longer drink. It’s the only way to maintain sanity.

Marvel Comics thinks you’re all idiots

Marvel Comics are having yet another relaunch where every issue is an event and that sound you hear is the sound of the collective arse of Marvel Comics falling to the floor. Their ‘Legacy‘ relaunch promises to return to the old numbering system and a more ‘traditional’ form of superhero comic. Apart from being bollocks, it’s also an admission Marvel have fucked up, and worse, they’ve been treating you, the reader, as a bumbling idiot willing to lap any auld shite up as long as it has a ‘#1’ slapped on the cover.

This is contrived nostalgia passing itself off as a creative outburst, but it doesn’t matter if the comics Marvel produce are awful, which on the whole they are. Marvel are admitting they want to appeal to old fans, but hey, you’ll be able to have a handy checklist to work out the numbering of all your favourite Marvel titles which doesn’t sap the joy from creation but it does keep fans (and dealers fed up trying to work all this bollocks out) happy.

Still, as bad as this is, it could be worse.

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.

A short word of praise for the woman that helped make Marvel Comics, Flo Steinberg.

One of the most crucial but unsung figure in the creation of Marvel Comics, Flo Steinberg, has passed away.  At a time when women in American comics were at best, limited, Steinberg’s role is extraordinary in that if she didn’t act as not just Stan Lee’s ”secretary” (she seems to have had more like an editorial role) but as the glue, and blood of those early Marvel years in the 1960’s.

Steinberg famously left Marvel when they wouldn’t give her a $5 pay rise, but she didn’t just hold together Marvel at a time when the myth didn’t reflect the reality, she was an essential part in subsequent decades in trying to sort out who created what, and who essentially got shafted by Stan Lee’s myth-making. Of course only recently did the Kirby family finally get a settlement from Marvel/Disney, but as Steinberg herself later found out, Marvel wasn’t the merry place we all thought it was mainly thanks to Flo ‘s work with The Merry Marvel Marching Society (a Marvel fan-club in the 60’s) that cemented fandom’s image of Marvel Comics that lasted long after she left.

I especially like Kirby’s barely suppressed passive-aggressive tone…

So cheers Flo, you held it together and helped give us of a certain age joy. I hope now you get the credit you deserved when you were alive.