The long story of a death of a comic shop in Glasgow

Back in the mid to late 1990’s I was all over the place not because I was drunk and on drugs (most of the time) but because I’d more or less pulled out of the comics industry and was now working in the licensed trade in Leicester. I was also having a great time going to festivals and gigs in the Midlands, the South West and London so if anything, my time in the story of Glasgow’s comics scene was reduced to at best, fleeting cameo roles.

I’m now back living in Glasgow after 28 years partly to recuperate from a stroke and recover from cancer treatment, which has seen me get better however as I’m now signed off work I have a lot of free time which means sitting around drinking tea with some old friends and talking about comics not to mention all the gossip I’ve missed in the last decades when I was sunning myself in Bristol.In the course of all this I’ve unpicked some scabby wounds which may well be new to me, but to the people concerned are old scars they thought healed. I’m not going to go into those because frankly, it isn’t my business to repeat what I’ve been told as this blog is about trying to put up my own recollections and tell a history (where I can) of things which haven’t been told.

However a friend on Facebook pointed out this blog titled ”Death throes of a comic shop‘. It makes interesting reading to say the least and as someone who was a bit-part player in the Glasgow comics scene at the time some of it seemed, well, wrong, even libellous in places. I didn’t have any first hand accounts of the time, and I’d only recently found out the exact reasons why legendary Glasgow comic shop AKA Books and Comics went out of business in the 90’s. So I thought I’d ask people who were there at the time and got their version of the story spun in the blog and their replies were all universal in that the aforementioned blog is indeed spinning a very skewed historical record of events, and indeed, some of the people named in the blog have some good reason to ask for a right to reply at least. One or two may well find themselves reaching for a solicitors number.

If you haven’t read the blog by this point I suggest you do.There’s some parts worth highlighting though.

 This small fact brings up the thorny notion of wether or not I name people here.  Having given it a long though I have decided not to.  All the names have been changed to protect the innocent as they say.  Not sure many come out of this looking like they were ever innocent but that is for others to decide based on my description of the story above!

The UK’s libel laws are a complex mess depending where in the UK you actually are, but as Katie Hopkins will tell you, you have to be very clear in not naming people or essentially slurring their name without some good reason or proof backing you up. I know this as in one of my blogs I did just that (don’t bother looking for it, it no longer is online) but like the person I was smearing, I was a victim (of a bastard called Joshua Bonehill) so once I found out the truth I deleted the blog and apologised to the person affected. I learned a lot about libel there. The fact is you can’t just remove a letter (in this case ”John” becomes ”Jon”) while making the person clearly identifiable to anyone with a passing knowledge of the time and people being discussed. That’s libellous potentially and in the next paragraph he makes it quite clear who he is.

It is worth saying that only really three people who were involved day to day in the running of the shop have ever known the whole truth, and each of them only knows aspects of that truth. Each of us has will obviously have a coloured memory of the events I will outline. However conversations in depth with one of the others confirms pretty much everything I am going to say here. Nothing would come as a shock to him as he knows it all. The other guy, well a lot of what I am going to say will come as a shock not so much as he will find it new information but that it is information he would rather stayed hidden away. See he is a “figure” in the comic book scene. As my American friends might say he has more front than Macy’s and this might give a few people a peek behind the facade!  My business partner had been with the shop since it opened.  Fair to say he was a founding member of the Glasgow comic book scene really.

So we’ve got a story of the last days of AKA, the subsequent shop that followed it, and the collapse of that shop which lead to what is now A1 Toys in Parnie Street in Glasgow.

That story is at best a skewed version of events. At worst it’s a mix of half thruths and bullshit interjected with ego-boosting self-aggrandizement with the odd snippet of full-on truth thrown in. I think the worst of it is the way the author makes it clear exactly who it is he’s talking about by throwing in facts which will clearly identify them. This is shaky ground to say the least.

One of the local comic book artists who I had become quite good friends with was negotiating a business deal with Jon about coming on as a silent partner.  Jon was keen on this, Kolin McFeel (yeah, not real name!) was a big name in the UK comic scene, having recently completed a seminal Judge Dredd and then a Chopper story for 2000AD that had set a very high bar for others to hit.

I mean, really, really??

That said, there are fair points made. For example:

I can’t remember when it was that things got a little sour but I know that it was caused when David called our hotel from the shop.  Turns out we were in San Diego when Batman 500 had been released and our order from Titan Distributors was missing the entire order, some 200 copies of it.  Jon and I managed to find the head of Titan in the convention hall and decided to ask what the hell was going on.  At that time comics were so time sensitive we knew that unless we could get the right book at the right time at least 50% of our non-ordered sales would go, and a good few orders would be knocked back.  The idea of customer loyalty to a comic shop was a myth in those days.  Get the books on the day of release or eat the loss of sales.

This is mostly true of the time. The release of Batman #500 dates this to late summer 1993 as at this point I was working in the nearly legendary Comics and CD’s on the Gloucester Road in Bristol and I can testify to just a huge book it was. I even ended up being interviewed on local radio about it so huge was it that the real world outwith of the comics bubble was interested.

For a shop to lose that was a disaster, and with Neptune Distribution having died a horrible death the year previously, a shop then would have found their options limited which is where I quote;

During our strategy talks we discussed moving our supply business away from Titan, who were merging with Diamond and to the US based Capital distributors.  We figured out we could import and transport comics to the shop and still get a better price than buying from Titan.  So we got a copy of their trade magazine and placed an order.  Jon had dealt with them before so an account was there and I was sure they would take our order happily and gain a UK customer foothold.  One thing that I didn’t ask, and that Jon didn’t mention, was our current situation with Titan.  It was that situation that would lead to the final moments of the shop, but we will get to that later!

A wee recap of the distribution of comics is in order. Today we get comics shipped in from the States so quickly you can still smell the sweaty armpits of the blokes who loaded up the boxes onto planes in America. It wasn’t always like that. In the 80’s you’d wait weeks, even months for comics to travel the Atlantic to reach the UK. There was only one big UK distributor, Titan, run by Nick Landau and Mike Lake. In the mid 80’s to the early 90’s there was also Neptune, based in Leicester where I worked for a time after moving down from Glasgow in 1988 where I’d previously worked at AKA. In 1993 Neptune was bust and the American distributor Diamond had taken over Neptune’s accounts (Neptune and Diamond always had close links) as they made huge strides into the UK market and global domination. en eventual monopoly on distributing American comics in the UK.

In 1993 Titan were dominant. If you had other sources (and we did in Bristol for some comics) you could get a massive advantage over your competitors. People aren’t loyal on the whole and if there’s a gap in the market, or if the market can be weighted to advantage someone else then a business will do it. Sure there was a time where in the world of comics things were a tad more civil, and cities and towns that have more than one shop often see each other get on personally, but the idea of businesses doing well by each other went the way of frizzy perms and big shoulder pads in the 80’s. So in this background it’s perfectly reasonable for a business to try to fuck off their main supplier if they’re trying to fuck you off.

However things get, well, a tad libellous from here on in.

I would say to make a long story short but there is actually a word that explains what Jon had been doing with Capital.  That word was “fraud”.

‘Fraud’ is one of those things you need to be able to back up when you accuse someone of it. In this case anyone who knows who ‘Jon’ is will be querying where the author of the piece is going to provide documentary proof of this.

See, there’s a number of stories you pick up when you’re involved in an industry. I’ve told stories about people in comics on this blog. Some stories I’ve held back because they’ll be upsetting for friends or they cross a legal, and moral, line or bluntly I’d end up in the shite. The author of the blog doesn’t quite realise just how serious this stuff is or how harmful it can be, which isn’t to say they’re not allowed a voice, but be careful how you’re saying things. Which is an issue as the blog continues on as people are named, in some cases accused of things which having spoken to others who were also there (there’s an incident at the old Empire pub in Glasgow that isn’t quite as it is here) at the time.

Listen, I’m all for gossip and setting the record straight and in this case I can’t give a first hand account of all of what’s discussed on the blog but having discussed it with those who were I have to say that if you are going to discuss events be prepared to ride the ripples from them if you paint a version which doesn’t ring well with others who were there.

Or as the author of the blog says;

Over the years I have overheard my former business partner tell his stories, only the dates have been changed and I know the stories well as I heard them in the late 80’s and early 90’s and they had just happened then.  There is a “glory days” trap and he is in it.  I have no interest any more, he is part of the past and a past I am pleased to be shot of.  As we approach another anniversary of the events outlined I felt it was time to write my part down.  I am sure some would disagree with various details and some might even be offended by what I wrote but it is how I remember it happening.  As details come back to me, as anecdotes come back to me I might update this post.  If anyone who is there jogs a memory I might update as well.  Who knows, the past isn’t written in stone!

Well, here’s my attempt to ‘update’ the past. For the record some of those people mentioned in the blog will be made aware of what’s been said and they I’m sure will be only too glad to disagree with the details and put the record straight.

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Eight

Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Part Five. Part Six. Part Seven.

Neptune was bankrupt and had been taken over by Diamond. Trident Comics and Toxic! had went bust with creators left unpaid and art never returned. Geoff was bankrupt, but he still carried on. Geoff had managed via Todd to somehow grab the UK reprint rights for Dark Horse Comics series of comics based upon Aliens, Predator, Robocop and Terminator.  In fact Neptune wasn’t finally wound up til the year 2000, but it was Geoff’s return to publishing with Phoenix Press in 1992 which seemed to ensure he still had a toehold in comics but not for long as dissolved owing hundreds of thousands.

At this point the rumour flying round that Geoff had shacked up with Carolyn, Neptune’s former secretary and that he was on the run from various people who he’d not paid, not to mention his name after the Phoenix Press fiasco ensured his name in America was mud. Some of this came from conversations with Pete Stevenson (who by the late 90’s had retired from Moore Harness) who I used to see when I’d go scouring for stock with Chris and Maurice, or in one case, myself and a ex-girlfriend bumped into him in the Shires shopping centre in Leicester where Pete told me the gory story of the final days of Neptune, not to mention the debts and ill will Geoff had built up. All of Geoff’s stock had been seized by bailiffs and was sold in early 1993. It was in fact bought by Chris and Maurice and ended up being part of the stock for Comics and C.D’s, the comic shop I worked in on and off from around 1992 to 1994.In fact that Neptune stock haunts me even today when I help Chris and Maurice out at marts when I sort out comics that I’ve probably been sorting out the same comic for nearly 25 years…

As to Toxic! and Trident Comics back issues, well, they lived in my garage for a while when I lived in Clifton in Bristol. Whats left now live in Chris’s stock or here in his lock up in a farm just outside Bristol.

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As for Geoff, around 2000 when I got regular access to the internet I’d decided one drunken night to track Geoff down. I’d managed to locate him still in the East Midlands in Northampton or Leicester.  I’d thought nothing more of it until when in the writing of this I was wondering where he is now, so again went and did some research to find all his directorships suddenly stop in March 2005 yet a company he’d set up still has Sarah and his daughter as directors in 2014. This caused a little bell to ring in my head so I checked further and that little bell was indeed right as Geoff died in March of 2005. A few years back I’d worked briefly in probate and it reminded me of what happens when a sudden death occurs and directorships have to be closed all at the same time. Upon finding this out all my bitter anger diffused as there’s no point staying angry with someone who died so young.

He’d have been in his early 40’s which is really no age for anyone to go. He does have a legacy in comics but because of his actions he’s a forgotten figure who has passed into the mists of time, but without him 2000AD wouldn’t be full colour every week, there wouldn’t be a history of American comics coming out in the UK as soon as possible after they get released in the US. Mark Millar wouldn’t have got a break and a major foothold in comics, nor would a number of creators who got their first work published in Trident Comics or in Toxic!. In fact the actions of Geoff through Neptune and the other companies he had very much shaped how comics are today so every time you get you’re copy of Batman remember that there were serious battles to ensure this happened, but in effect you’re supporting a monopoly with Diamond.

Sadly the British comics scene was virtually moribund for years and it’s only in the last few years that serious diversity in British comics (I’m tired of seeing endless superhero, crap horror or twee fantasy titles with bloody elves) returned. There’s also nothing as interesting as Fantasy Advertiser being published which isn’t to say there’s some great comic related blogs out there; there are. Most though are just acting as free advertising for the bigger publishers and actual comics journalism (Bleeding Cool tries sometimes but mainly is a gossip column) is thin on the ground and no, saying something is awesome isn’t actually criticism.

So there it is. The rise and fall of Neptune Comic Distributors. Brought down by a man’s hubris but at the same time it had an enormous part to play in the history of British comics & as made clear in this series of blogs, the lives of a large number of people. Now it’s all out in the open I hope I’ve informed people who were around at the time of things that happened at the time, and of younger readers who knew nothing of this. If I have one last thing to say it’s that I’d have that time over again like a shot, but without the insanity. See even though there were times when the stress coming from Geoff was insane and verged upon bullying/intimidation, there were good times most of the time…….

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Seven

Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Part Five. Part Six.

1991 was a fucking crap year for me. Really crap. There were however some highlights which included the schadenfreude of watching Neptune implode from outside after I’d left. I was still involved in comics after my time in London at Comic Showcase with Chris and Maurice from Bristol who I was now helping out not just at comic marts in London, but I was now regularly going down to Bristol (where they were based) to help them prepare for the marts they’d do across the country from Leeds to Cardiff to London.

Neptune however marched on without me. In the autumn of 1990 Apocalypse Ltd (the company Geoff set up to publish Toxic!) brought out their first comic, a Marshal Law one-shot called Kingdom of the Blind.

marshallawkingdomoftheblind

This was a huge deal as we’d managed to get Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill to bring Marshal Law to us from Epic Comics, a subsidiary of Marvel Comics. It was a massive coup for what was still a small independent publisher based out of a drafty warehouse in Leicester next to a dodgy pub. Incidentally this is what it looks like now according to Google.

neptunewarehouse

I wonder if the current occupants have any idea of the buildings small part in the history of comics?

Anyhow, Toxic! was due to come out in March 1991. This was against the advice of Pat Mills, Kev O’Neill, the editorial staff brought in and anyone who was remotely sane, but Geoff was insistent before I left it’d be out in the spring even though I was there where Kev O’Neill told him that there was no way he could cope with a weekly schedule and maintain quality. Kev had also done most of the design and art direction for Toxic! so his workload was enormous, and frankly, he wasn’t getting the rewards financially for it. John Wagner was so fed up with it before it came out that once he had strips rejected ( Button Man is the most famous example, but I understand others were rejected) and The Bogie Man strip stalled after a few episodes. John however had been lured back to Fleetway so turned his attention back to Judge Dredd.

Toxic! did feature new creators but the heavy lifting was really done by Alan Grant and Pat Mills who ensured there were strips in there every week. Two strips in particular took off; Sex Warrior and Accident Man especially built up a strong following.

toxic9

It was however Marshal Law which was the lead character and the Judge Dredd of Toxic!, but as Kev O’Neill warned, he couldn’t keep up the schedule so weeks would pass without it’s main draw and that hurt sales.

Of course I was getting all of this filtered second hand via people still within Neptune of from creators or people involved with Toxic!/Trident Comics. John McShane had decided to knock things on the head, and Geoff was losing whatever favours he’d built up, plus the word from the US was that he was unreliable. Then again he’d had an awful reputation with small publishers because of his combative nature. To go back a bit, an example of this is when Alan Moore’s Big Numbers was due to come out he spent a day arguing with Debbie Delano (one of the team involved with publish Big Numbers through Moore’s company Mad Love) about pricing of the comic which ended up with Geoff ranting about Moore himself as it ended up with Moore having to step in to sort it all out. That act I understand ended up with Geoff getting an awful name among some creators who may have considered working for him.

At the same time Trident Comics plugged on with Martin Skidmore doing what he could to get people to work for next to nothing, which thankfully, Mark Millar did as he was the clear star Trident discovered. The problem was that the core of the business, the distribution, was falling to pieces. At the end of 1990 I was in London working for Comic Showcase and heard vague rumbles of bad things at Neptune as Geoff’s affair with Viv had become common knowledge which caused her to leave and things to be exceptionally stressed as all the people who’d helped build up Neptune for four years had now left, or been forced to leave mainly due to Geoff’s hubris. Later in 1991 while living in Nottingham I was still in touch with Neptune/Trident staff, not to mention still involved with comics so I heard how things broke down quickly.

Toxic! lasted 31 issues. By around half way through these issues the quality dipped as they started to use material meant for the anthology Trident or worse, rejected material, in order to make up for the fact John Wagner had left, Pat Mills had left (though legend has it that Pat did turn up at the Leicester warehouse with a couple of large gentlemen to claim what Geoff owed him), Kev O’Neill had gone and only Alan Grant still bothered to write material for them. Trident Comics folded not long after Toxic! died.

As for Neptune it too died in 1992 when Diamond (who by this point were looking for an avenue to get a toehold in the UK market) bought out Neptune thanks to the fact Geoff had ranked up so much debt with them that Diamond just moved into the UK taking a large portion of the UK market that Neptune had spent nearly six years building up. This put them up against Titan who were then bought by Diamond making Mike Lake and Nick Landau merrily wealthy men, but enabled a monopoly of comic distribution in the UK that is now so ironclad that it’s impossible (until the recent rise of digital comics and sites like Comixology) to break. If you want a hard copy of a comic in the UK, it’s 99% certain it’s been shipped by Diamond so we’re now back in the same situation we were in 1985 with one monolithic distributor essentially shaping people’s reading habits because of their links to the big players (Marvel and DC) in the direct market.

Yes, people now get their comics the day after they’re printed in the US, but private monopolies like Diamond aren’t healthy which is why it’s helped shape comic shops into selling mainstream material as Diamond’s cut off point for inclusion in their catalogue would make something like Trident Comics impossible on the whole now. It’s a major fight to get anything new into Diamond so we’re actually in a stale, regressive phase, yet the rise of digital comics and the variety of genres shows there’s a better future awaiting comics than just men in spandex twatting each other.

So by the end of 1992 Neptune was dead. Toxic! and Trident Comics were over. All brought down by one man’s impatience, his hubris and his inability to control his temper or where he put his penis. Yet the story isn’t actually over as I’ll explain in the next part of this ever-increasing series of blogs….

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Six

Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Part Five.

By the summer of 1990 Neptune was still wildly successful but the cracks were showing. One of the original three founders of Neptune was leaving, Toxic! was being rushed into a spring 1991 releases instead of an autumn 91, or even a spring 92 release, and Geoff was acting weirdly in that he was trying hard to be everyone’s mate, but there were rumours he was having an affair with a girl in marketing, Viv. Even the secretary Carolyn who normally didn’t say anything too negative was joining us downstairs in the warehouse for large gossiping sessions, and Martin Skidmore was dashing around like a dervish telling anyone who’d listen about Geoff and Viv at GLASCAC.

I still carried on my by now normal life that summer so lots of going out in Leicester and London, plus trips to Glasgow to sell comics and see friends there. I’d got through that summer which meant enduring another shockingly early early exit from a Scotland side at a World Cup, but as we were going into the autumn Geoff was acting sketchy. The height of this was a shouting match between him and Viv in his office that had Martin Skidmore come down to tell us what was going on and we all sussed out what the argument was about. I later found out she wanted to stop the affair but Geoff wanted to carry it on, even though by now his wife Sarah was back at work and well, things upstairs in the office was tense to say the least. I focused on just getting on with it and making things in the warehouse tick over. By now things were running so smoothly that Geoff wasn’t needed and on the occasions he did come downstairs to help us pull comics he would end up getting in the way, so would quickly vanish as quickly as he’d appeared.

What brought things to a head was that initially I wanted a weekend off for Reading Festival that year but things were tight as Martin had left, so we were running short of people, but I got the weekend off anyhow even though I ended up not going. I think I ended up dossing around with my flatmates and ending up down the pub. This pissed Geoff off even though by this point I’d not taken any time off apart from GLASCAC that spring and frankly, what I do with time off isn’t the matter for any employer of mine. This ended up in a huge shouting match between myself and Geoff that ended up with people stepping in between us to stop blows, and resulted in me quitting the next day. Thankfully I had some savings plus my last month’s wages but truth was I played my cards too early and should have really quit just after I’d done a mart with at least a few grand in the bank to cushion the blow.

After I quit I ended up going round Neil’s house who then spent the afternoon getting drunk with me and watching the Mad Max trilogy as you do in these situations. Drinking solves all….

In September of that year the annual UKCAC was happening in London and Neil and myself had decided to go down and help out Chris and Maurice from Bristol at their enormous pitch they always had at these conventions. We’d get the coach down early on the Saturday morning, meet up with Chris and Maurice and then worry about where we were going to stay later on in the bar. That UKCAC was also the official launch of Toxic! which was a big, big deal.

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Of course Neil and myself bumped into Geoff in an awkward meeting that was made even worse by the fact that Geoff had already walked past me as I was talking of Paul Hudson of Comic Showcase (one of Neptune’s largest customers) as he was offering me a job, which at the time, moving to London seemed attractive.

That Saturday night saw us drinking in the bar, which is exactly what British conventions are like most of the time (I will have a wee winge that some cons  now seem to have lost the social aspects as they’re just marketing conferences for film & TV companies to sell you shite) so we dived in and drunk heavily. During the night we bumped into Martin Skidmore who had his two or three beers and was merry. Somehow Martin agreed to let Neil and myself crash in his hotel room which was being fully paid for by Geoff, expenses included! This was a red rag to Neil and myself so we dined deep on Geoff’s abundant wallet.

We’d heard from Martin about how things were tense at the warehouse in Leicester, and that the open knowledge of Geoff’s affair was the sneaky gossip when Geoff wasn’t around. The evening wasn’t complete though without abusing the hotel’s room service so we ordered sandwiches and beers, lots of beers, while Neil called Tod in the US which back in 1990 must have cost a fortune. Essentially, we took the piss and wallowed in it til the wee small hours. It was our one last ‘fuck you’ at Geoff which ended up with poor Martin getting some earache but he found it enormously funny. I ended up nearly losing the job offer from Paul at Comic Showcase, but ultimately Paul thought ‘fuck it’ and realised that he’d quite liked to have done the same too. Sadly the whole London experience was so horrendous (though not being at Showcase, that was wonderful and the guys there were fantastic) I didn’t last in London too long. That however, is a tale for another time.

The next morning we left Martin snoring away and wandered the streets for a bit to sober up before diving into the final day of UKCAC to help Chris and Maurice, who I’d end up helping out on a regular basis a few short months later and indeed, we still drag our old bones out for marts and cons to this very day. 

Just because I had left Neptune it didn’t mean I was out of touch or didn’t know what was going on. though it did take me the better part of a decade or so to get the gory story of it’s final downfall and what happened to Geoff after it all fell apart. In the next part of this blog I’ll go into those details, including that Pat Mills story, and (assuming I can find them) some odds and sods that as far as I know aren’t online, what Geoff did after comics, and what all this meant for the British comics industry today.

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Five

Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four.

1990 was a new decade. The Cold War was over and there was a general feeling of enormous optimism even though the UK still had Thatcher in power but the feeling was that things were about to change. This certainly was the case at Neptune where we ended 1989 on an enormous high with the distribution side going well, Trident Comics going well and plans for what would become Toxic! going ahead full steam. Neptune had established a permanent office near Gatwick Airport where Martin and Paul, a chap who used to work for customs there had been lured across. Todd still manned the US office in New York, while the Manchester office fell though, we’d taken on Nigel who lived in Nottingham which meant we could do drops not just there, but Leeds and Sheffield. At Leicester we’d taken on another Paul to help myself and John (and frankly I needed someone normal to talk to) as well as Adam and Viv, who were primarily sales and marketing as Geoff took an increasingly back seat in the distribution side, but often ended up pulling comics with me. Both were young graduates and Viv helped increase the balance of sexes in the company as it was a very, very male orientated company.

The idea was to structure Neptune into a proper company with a MD, directors, sales/marketing staff. experienced warehouse staff to help me and Trident/Apocalypse would be the preserve of Geoff, Martin Skidmore and John McShane. For a while it worked. Yes, sometimes Geoff had to step in to help out Adam or Viv, and even occasionally he’d come down to the warehouse to help pull some comics to get away from Sarah who was heavily pregnant. Basically things were hard work but they were fun.

I was spending my spare time flitting between drinking myself into a haze in Leicester, or doing the same in London and Glasgow, though by this point I’d been introduced to my first E and thus became a bit of a lovely association with the drug. I’d also started selling off large chunks of my own rather large and increasing collection, not to mention I was buying new comics from Neptune plus I was getting comics cheap from Chris Bacon and Maurice Pitman, a couple of comic dealers from Bristol who’d been introduced to me by Neil, and that I still help out to this day. Though we are older and heavier than we were back in those young, sexy days!

I’d do comic marts in Glasgow which meant shipping my stuff up to AKA, getting them dropped off at my table at whatever venue these marts would take place. Sell loads and come back with massive wads of cash in my pocket even after a night out drinking heavily. I remember one such occasion where I’d went to Glasgow for a mart, and been introduced properly to Bridget (one of the new AKA lads’ Andy Sweeney’s girlfriend, and who is one of the crew who come to Glastonbury now with me) ), she helped me sell hundreds or pounds of comics and from then on in things are a blur. I remember having a meal, going to a pub going with Dominic Regan to a house party and then the next thing I remember is waking up in a bed with around four people passed out on top of each other. Thankfully I’d stashed my takings at AKA but I was in a house somewhere in Glasgow and I needed to get back to AKA, grab my bags, grab a taxi and get my plane back to London so I could get to Kilburn to see a gig at the Town and Country club, before eventually heading back to Leicester on Monday and sleeping. I remember waking someone up, finding out where I was. Calling a taxi and telling the taxi driver to take me to Virginia Galleries so I could pick up my stuff from AKA and then to take me to Glasgow Airport. Frankly, the look of disgust the driver was throwing at me was immense. Then again my hair looked like four people slept on it, I smelled of people who weren’t me, and I looked liked I’d been ingesting pure alcohol laced with MDMA for a week. The driver did indeed wait for me outside AKA as I grabbed my rucksack and my briefcase which contained over a grand in cash (after paying for shipping to and from Glasgow, tables and bunging Bridget some cash) which in 1990 was an impressive haul for a mart. I took the cash out the briefcase and stuffed it into a pocket of my leather jacket.

By now I didn’t give a fuck about pissing this taxi driver off. He clearly thought I was taking the piss but as we pulled up outside Glasgow Airport I pulled out a wad of cash and for some reason the driver was suddenly amazingly nice to me. He even offered me his business card as he probably thought I was either a drug dealer or involved in something to do with media/music. Little did he know it was worse than that, it was comics!

This was my life. I utterly loved it. I really didn’t want to give it all up and I could stomach dealing with Geoff’s rants though these were becoming less in relation to the distribution side which by now was a well oiled machine. The rants were being thrown at poor Martin Skidmore who was trying to straddle the line between being an editor and a mate to some of Trident’s creators. Fortunately Mark Millar was astonishingly professional for one so young and inexperienced and if he’d not turned out scripts on time Trident Comics would have floundered. We’d even started plans for another ongoing comic to be written by Mark and drawn by Andrew Hope; The Shadowmen. The idea was to make Mark our superstar writer and the next Grant Morrison, a quote that Geoff said often and little did we know how prophetic that phrase would actually be.

During the week my routine developed into drinking at the Pump and Tap in Leicester, going for late drinks at Que Pasa, the tapas restaurant just across the road from the Pump, then going home to pass out and get up in the morning to pull comics/sell comics to shops across the UK/do anything to avoid engaging John in a conversation about Star Trek. Considering how much I put into my body back then I’m amazed I got past my 25th birthday but I was in my early 20’s, doing a fun job working with some good people and things I enjoyed, plus I had a lot of disposable income. Neptune wasn’t just stable, it was growing and I by now was getting a lot of benefits from the company, so coming up to the first Glasgow Comic Art Convention (GLASCAC) in the spring of 1990 things were brilliant.

The planning for this first GLASCAC was immense. I know in these days of comic conventions saying this every five minutes this seems like hyperbole but in 1990, this wasn’t. That first GLASCAC was massively important not only in helping Neptune maintain a public image, but for Trident Comics and Toxic! (which now had been named to much disagreement) to be launched with a provisional autumn 1991 launch. We’d spent weeks working out what we’d do and how we’d not only promote ourselves at GLASCAC, but somehow get that week’s comics out. So a plan was hatched.

Geoff, Viv and Martin Skidmore would fly up from Leicester on Friday afternoon, link up with John McShane at AKA and meet and greet John Wagner, Alan Grant and Kev O’Neill. Myself and Nigel would fly up from London after doing that week’s comics So on the Friday morning myself, Nigel and John made our way in the van to Staines (where we had a warehouse) to await the delivery. Except we got a call from Martin in Gatwick that the delivery was delayed which put our flights at risk. Again, a plan was hatched. We’d pick up the shipment from Heathrow and instead of taking it to the warehouse in Staines we’d create a shipping area outside the ANC warehouse next to Heathrow. This meant that the workers at ANC saw the astonishing sight of five grown men pulling out comics out of one box to put them in another box, but we somehow managed to get it all done, though Nigel and myself still had to get to the terminal, check in and get on our plane. Thankfully we could count upon Martin driving like a lunatic as he dumped us outside our terminal, sprinted inside, checked in and got to the departure lounge with minutes to spare.

Once on the plane we started laughing like nutters as we’d been up for hours, hadn’t eaten all day and were now enjoying some large G & T’s. We’d managed to change in the toilets of Heathrow but we still looked worn out but never forget the healing power of gin, plus I’d managed to sneak some speed on the plane hidden in my boots which helped.

Upon arriving in Glasgow we made our way to our hotel. This is where Geoff, Martin Skidmore and Viv were staying.

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This was the Copthorne Hotel (now a Millennium Hotel) by George Square and then (and now) is a fine hotel .

Nigel and myself were staying here.

This is the Central Hotel which today is another fine hotel, but in 1990 it was rundown and falling apart. It was still a good hotel but it wasn’t the same sort of luxury, but Geoff had given a vague reason as to why Nigel and myself couldn’t stay at the Copthorne and anyhow, it wasn’t that far a walk (5-10 minutes depending on sobriety) from George Square. Anyhow, we were glad of a bed and once off our plane we headed right to the hotel to check in, get to out rooms, tart ourselves up, grab something to eat at the Central and head to the Copthorne for the evening’s merriment.

At the Copthorne we met up with Geoff, Martin and Viv who were all deeply embedded in the evening, though as Geoff was a teetotaler we could get a straight answer form him while Martin and Viv seemed to have enjoyed a small shandy or seven. Before I could hit the bar I was given the job of keeping John Wagner happy which I was only glad to do as I liked John and had known him for some years thanks to my association with AKA. Eventually in the wee small hours Nigel and myself left to go back to the Central to get some much needed sleep for what was to be a huge day the following day.

The convention itself was to be held in the City Chambers. An amazingly impressive building to hold a comic convention in.

Even more impressive was the interior.

Neptune/Trident/Apocalypse had a pitch on the top floor while the bulk of the dealers were on the lower floors and the talks, etc were scattered around the City Chambers and the Copthorne. Before getting to setting up I introduced Nigel to a full Scottish breakfast which gave us the energy to set things up, so we headed to AKA to help the lads there load up their stock and a load of Trident Comics we’d shipped to AKA that we’d sell at the con. When we got to the City Chambers we linked up with Geoff, Martin and Viv to set our pitch up. We’d got a corner so we set up a load of comics on one table and on another we were going to have signings from our creators over the weekend.

Once we set up it was a matter of sitting back and waiting for the crowds to come in and come in they did. The convention was utterly rammed with the City Chambers full of sweaty fanboys buying comics in the most opulent location I’ve ever been in for a comic convention in over 30 years. That Saturday also saw a Poll Tax demo outside in George Square which gave us an opportunity to sell loads of copies of the collected St. Swithin’s Day comic to protesters outside which was enormous fun.

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That first day was wildly successful.  We sold loads of Trident Comics, including selling out of St. Swithin’s Day while the interest in Toxic! was high. I’d also spent a large part of the Saturday afternoon taking the piss out of various people with John Wagner, wandering round the City Chambers chatting with people, chilling out for a while  at the bar in the Copthorne, and ending it with chatting with Poll Tax protesters to be told that there were rumours of a massive riot in Trafalgar Square at the Poll Tax demo there.

That evening was a blur, but I’d arranged a Sunday morning kickabout at Glasgow Green between Neptune and AKA (we used to regularly have Sunday morning football with the guys at AKA before I left Glasgow. You’ve not lived til you’ve seen John McShane fail to control a ball) so that didn’t stop serious drinking before heading back to the Central for a bit of sleep before meeting everyone back at the City Chambers the next morning.

The next day Nigel and myself turned up to meet Martin Skidmore who was all by himself in his football kit. i asked where Geoff and Viv were and he said he’d knocked on Geoff’s door but got a flustered reaction from Geoff as he gave Martin a story that he’d ‘slept in’ and didn’t fancy playing. Martin thought this was odd as Geoff loved football and had got us playing in a five-a-side league in Leicester, but he left in and knocked on Viv’s door but got no reply which is when Martin’s brain put 2+2 together thought ‘hang on, is Geoff fucking Viv?’ Telling me about it I initially said to Martin that Geoff was a tosser but he’d not sleep with a member of staff at essentially a business weekend hundreds of miles away from his wife and infant child? Would he?  I put it in the back of my head for the rest of the weekend

The last day was one of mopping things up. Meetings were had, things were decided and people started leaving for home, but I’d arranged to stay in Glasgow for a few more days before flying back to London and eventually Leicester. By the time I got back to work (after seeing a devastated central London) later the next week I didn’t think anything of Martin’s comments but a few weeks later it was announced that the other Martin who was one of the original three people setting Neptune up was going to leave in the summer. That came as a huge surprise that Martin was going to leave, and it was actually a bit worrying as it gave more control to Geoff.

I’d also heard that Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill were telling Geoff to put off publishing Toxic! in the spring of 1991 rather than the autumn as originally planned. Geoff was trying to push things on the publishing side far too fast, and although the distribution side was steady it wasn’t really growing. There was also gossip flying around the office and warehouse about Geoff’s extracurricular antics involving Viv who by now was attending ‘business meetings’ alone with Geoff.

By June/July things were cracking and in the next part I’ll go into the full gory details…..

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Four

Part One. Part Two. Part Three.

British comics in the late 1980’s were a patchy affair. Comics like Warrior had spoiled fans while 2000AD was in one of it’s frequent lulls in quality it suffered in the late 80’s. The idea behind Trident Comics was to provide new talent to get published and for existing young talent like Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman to help us launch the line of comics which we did in 1989 with the first issue of Trident. an anthology title with a great John Ridgeway cover.

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Trident Comics’ editor was Martin Skidmore and to this day I have no idea how he managed to get people like Grant Morrison (who was in 1989 an established writer for American publishers like DC Comics) to work for next to nothing. We paid appallingly but nobody else was willing to publish work and not just distribute it in the UK, but thanks to our links with Diamond Distributors  in the US, across the direct market in America. I don’t think a lot of people know we used Dave Sim’s printers in Canada, and that Sim himself provided some help in helping get Trident off the ground. As to exactly what that was I honestly can’t remember and it may just have been getting us use of his printer but that enabled Trident to publish low cost comics and access the North American market.

We also were able to get Trident Comics into newsagents in the UK thanks to our links with Moore Harness (or General Book Distributors, GBD for sort) who distributed DC Comics into newsagents across the UK, as well as an astonishing array of porn mags. They were also based in Leicester and we dealt with Pete Stephenson, one of the great unsung heroes of comics in the UK. It was Pete who helped fight to get DC Comics into UK newsagents and if it wasn’t for him, a great number of people might not have picked up a copy of Justice League of America or The Flash and got themselves into American superhero comics. I know that people like Dez Skinn  have mentioned Pete but if anyone ever does a definitive history of British comics and its fandom, Pete needs a large mention.

So we were pretty well set up. Trident was going to have in it’s first issue not only a new Neil Gaiman strip, The Light Brigade, a new Eddie Campbell Bacchus story, but the outstanding entry in that first issue was Grant Morrison’s St Swithin’s Day drawn by Paul Grist. It also managed to get us an immense amount of publicity in the mainstream thanks mainly to these three panels.

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This helped create a small tabloid frenzy with Tory MP Teddy Taylor being apoplectic with rage that we published something with was ‘blasphemous’ against Margret Thatcher which reached a peak in a March 1990 issue of The Sun which splashed the story across a double page spread. We couldn’t buy that level of publicity so we ran with it to the extent when  the collected version came out a month later we used Teddy Taylor’s quotes in house adverts as well as a T-Shirt we sold at the first GLASCAC in 1990. More about that first GLASCAC to come as in retrospect, it was probably the start of the end of Geoff and of Neptune even though it was also the peak of the company’s achievements.

stswithinsday

 

We also had some controversy with Saviour, the first comic written by Mark Millar.

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Saviour drew attention not only because it had Jonathan Ross as the Antichrist (Ross apparently loved the idea) but because of the subject matter which stirred up a few moralist campaigners. Of course Mark Millar being young and up for a barney stirred things up and ensured he gained the maximum amount of publicity he could and we found from the off that Saviour was our best selling title by a mile. We even had to get a second print out which also sold out pretty quickly.

Our other launch title was Saga of the Man Elf, which is impressive only really for the involvement of Michael Moorcock, but even though it had vastly less of a print run than Trident and Saviour, it still sold out. Now I’m only talking about a few thousand selling out for Man Elf, nearly 6,000 for Trident and up to 10,000 for Saviour but these figures compared to most British independent comics were astonishing considering we barely spent money on promotion and we paid our creators appallingly. What the attraction of Trident Comics was though as complete freedom to do what you want and Martin Skidmore was very good in coaxing some fine work from people, not to mention he managed to do a great job plugging Trident through his wide social circle. The problem was that Neptune had issues with 2000AD.

Fleetway were at that point the publishers of 2000AD and they had a very cosy relationship with Titan which precluded Neptune getting the comic at the same time, so we’d get it a few days later which was useless to our customers who were competing with newsagents. We’d managed to get some sort of deal in getting it thanks to Neil and Geoff, but it was ultimately pointless, so the idea was hatched that Neptune would branch out and create a weekly comic that would become Toxic!. We’d already had a fairly good relationship with Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill through the production and marketing of the first Marshal Law t-shirt which was such a success in 1988.

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Sadly when Martin Skidmore heard Geoff’s idea for a weekly comic he was under the impression that he’d be involved, but in what was actually a smart move he ensured Martin stayed focused on Trident Comics by bringing in John McShane of AKA Books and Comics who would act as a sort of Stan Lee figure for not just Trident Comics, but the new weekly comic to be published by the new subsidiary Apocalypse Ltd. The reason this was smart was because it bonded AKA closer to Neptune, and it gave Geoff access to John’s friends who included most of the British comics scene, and especially people like John Wagner and Alan Grant. It was John Wagner who Geoff really, really wanted to get his hands on in order to lure him off 2000AD and Judge Dredd.

John had already done some work for DC Comics which included writing Batman in Detective Comics, but it was John and Alan Grant’s work for John McShane’s Fatman Press which caught Geoff’s eye and alerted him to some interesting possibilities. The Bogie Man was a four issue mini series drawn by Robin Smith designed to be released during Glasgow’s time as the European City of Culture but what Geoff saw was a disgruntled creator so words we said, and before we all knew it John and Geoff had managed to assemble John Wagner, Alan Grant, Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill as the creative core for this yet unnamed weekly comic. John Wagner had made it clear to Fleetway that as far as he was concerned he was off due to the lack of creators rights he was getting from the by now, immensely popular Judge Dredd. Fleetway relented to not only give Wagner a share, but gave him the Judge Dredd Megazine to do with as he wanted.

1989’s UKCAC in the September of that year was a triumphant one. Trident Comics were proving themselves. Neptune was drawing off business from Titan and grabbing new shops opening in the wake of the Batman boom and the announcement of a new weekly comic to rival 2000AD shook people up. Especially when Geoff made it clear he wanted it in full colour. 2000AD at that time was only partly in colour, and in fact there were no weekly comics published in full colour, nor indeed were there any monthly comics from Fleetway, though there was the bi-weekly Crisis, and  DC Thompson just didn’t do full colour. The idea of a full colour weekly was unthinkable and apparently something which would be hard to do. Fleetway had dabbled with the idea with Crisis but balked as the logistics were at that time, too much not to mention it’d end up being too expensive. Geoff wanted this comic to not just be weekly but under a pound which would be a incredibly tough thing to do, but the feeling was that it was doable. He was advised by Pat Mills and the others to get as much inventory as possible, plus let Kev ONeill get a year ahead in drawing Marshal Law which was to be the comic’s main draw.

I remember leaving that UKCAC in 1989 thinking we’d done things to seriously change the face of comics in the UK, and indeed, we were at the top of our game, which for the next six months we were. Going into 1990 was a huge case for optimism. Yes, there were still blow ups by Geoff, but things were calming down especially when Geoff announced his wife Sarah was pregnant which seemed to seriously chill him out. Neptune was also expanding as we employed two new people, Adam and Viv, to do sales and marketing, not to mention help me and John out in the warehouse. Gordon had a helper in the shape of Nigel who came on board to do design work for Trident and Apocalypse.

So why did it all go wrong? Well, in the next part I’ll explain but perhaps if Geoff hadn’t started fucking the female members of staff behind his wife’s back we’d all have stuck together….

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Three

Part One. Part Two.

In the spring of 1989 Neptune moved warehouses from a small cramped one in Enderby just outside Leicester (opposite the Conservative club where you’d often see the likes of Nigel Lawson leaving slime trails as he entered the building) to a much larger one in South Wigston in Leicester. This effectively was obviously because the distribution arm of the business was growing at a massive rate thanks to how we managed to get comics in quicker or at the same time as Titan, but it was also in preparation for Trident Comics. This meant Martin Skidmore actually had a desk as opposed to floating around, and we’d also gained a proper upstairs office for Geoff which meant we’d see less of him flying around in the warehouse. Also, Gordon had made the transition from warehouse lackey to helping Martin out with art direction and marketing for Trident, so we needed to recruit  new body so we ended up with John who’d previously worked at Final Frontier, the comic shop based in Leicester itself at the top of High Street which is now closed down.

John was, well, quite frankly socially inept as he’d joined a group of people who were either total pissheads or really didn’t care about Star Trek as much as John clearly did. He could however drive, so that took a bit of driving off Neil and Geoff though it did mean Gordon and myself would often be stuck in a transit van with a terminal geek who wouldn’t know a Harvey Kurtzman comic if it bit him on the arse. Yes, we were comic snobs. Deal with it!

Sadly not long after we moved we lost Neil as he’d had enough of Geoff’s insane bullying so he walked. I won’t go into any further detail as I hope Neil himself (it is after all his part of the story to tell and he can correct me/fill in the blanks my memories and 25 year old diaries are missing) will fill in the blanks in the comments but needless to say this left Geoff angry to the point where he was spitting with rage one time to an audience of myself, John, Martin and Gordon in the warehouse. After he’d finished spitting blood we all decided we were working for a loony, which of course we were but things were still fun and it was still a great job for all the shite we had to take. Thankfully things were busy so we still had routine of Monday to Wednesday prepping for the deliveries on Thursday and Friday. As we were taking on more new accounts and having existing customer like AKA Books and Comics in Glasgow, or Comic Showcase and Gosh! in London boosting their orders we’d often end up with weeks where we’d not finish on a Friday til late, which meant getting home to Leicester after pub closing time.

What had helped Neptune was the aggressive expansion policy of Titan’s Forbidden Planet chain which had already seen a shop open in Glasgow (as detailed in this lengthy blog of mine) and was seeing potential shops open in Manchester and Birmingham. We’d do as much as possible to help shops out with AKA getting the advantage of myself often coming up to Glasgow with boxes of stuff on trolleys a day before any other shop would get stock, while London shops would get deliveries on the same day. That meant insane races round London which then should have seen us being nicked and today would see us probably be locked up personally by Boris Johnson personally. In this respect Geoff’s insanity served the company well as it drove us on against the much larger Titan who were becoming increasingly fed up with us.

Geoff had seriously stirred things up the previous year by printing a full page editorial on the inside cover of Fantasy Advertiser #103 titled Conflict of Interest. Sadly I no longer have a copy so can’t show it (if anyone reading this can provide me with a scan please get in touch in the comments below) , but the jist was the editorial outlined Titan and Forbidden Planet’s relationship, and how having a distributor supply their own and independent shops would create a conflict of interest which it did as FP would often be given a priority over other shops. What really pissed off Titan, and especially Mike Lake, was the fact this editorial was in a magazine which was stocked by Forbidden Planet which from what I remember, caused one or twenty interesting conversations in various FP shops. Battle lines were drawn.

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1989 was an enormous year for Neptune, yet looking back it could have been bigger had Geoff allowed people to get on doing their jobs, which by now, we were all really good at our jobs. It felt at times like playing for a top football side but watching the manager try to play in all the positions at the same time while shouting at us for not helping him enough even though he was getting in the way. A flashpoint which clarified things was on an occasion where Tod was over from the US and we’d taken him out in Leicester for a few drinks. While were were out in The Globe, we’d bumped into Neil and had a jolly night drinking with him. Next morning I turned up for work and walked into a shouting match with Geoff, Sarah and Tod which then developed into a massive argument with everyone in the building as Geoff had decided that because he hated Neil that we shouldn’t have anything to do with him. This was fucking insane and we all made it clear that this was indeed, mental but there was no getting through to Geoff and the end of this prolonged argument was that the profit share (which saw everyone gain an extra few hundred quid at least) we were all part of was cancelled out of spite. This seriously fucked everyone off and we all made it clear individually or as a unit over the next few days Geoff was out of order, and several people were talking about leaving. Considering that by this point we’d built up a solid team this would have killed Neptune and Trident off so eventually Geoff (or more likely, Sarah had nagged Geoff) relented and even made a half-arsed apology to us for speaking to us like children. After then (this would be around the late winter/spring of 1989) things actually calmed down and amazingly, Geoff calmed down too as partly he was concentrating more on Trident but also I believe he started anger management classes. There’s a soap opera/sitcom in all this you know.

1989 as it progressed saw the year of the Tim Burton Batman film and this was insane for anyone involved in comics who had an ounce of business sense. Sticking a Batman logo on anything was a license to print money and that meant we all made loads of money in the run up to the film opening here in the UK in August of 1989.

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I’ve detailed elsewhere about how it was impossible for anyone to fuck this up, yet Titan did. On the day the film opened in the UK, Titan gave their warehouse lads the day off which meant we had a clear run in London to drop off comics that shops wouldn’t get from Titan til the Saturday, or in some cases, the Monday after the film opened. Considering the queues outside the cinema in Leicester Square we saw as we stopped by to take in the atmosphere, i’d say those Titan lads probably waited hours as well. This though was a defining moment as it was a bollock dropped and for many people showed how complacent Titan were so this led to more business coming our way. Now this didn’t mean we were hammering Titan to the ground but when we’re delivering comics as normal while your competitor takes the day off to see a film, albeit a Batman film, it does show a certain contempt and/or slackness.

I remember meeting up with the Neptune crowd on the Saturday in Leicester as we went to see the film telling them of the stories of the previous day, and all of this made Geoff drool with glee at what we were going to get on the Monday. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw him happier, or acting like a normal person as I did that day and after that he took less of an active role in the distribution side as Trident Comics were ramping up plus he was by now throwing around the idea of producing a weekly comic to rival 2000AD. That comic was TOXIC! and in it’s small way changed the British comics scene completely.

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In the next part of this history, I’ll go more into depth about Trident Comics, tell the full story of UKCAC 1989, the sordid secrets of GLASGAC in 1990 and tell the story of how one man’s hubris ended up pulling down the whole house of cards which in the process ended up setting up the monopolies which still dominates British comics distribution and retail today.