Whatever happened to the London Comic Marts?

Once upon a time in a time far, far away, comics were still the preserve of boys to men who liked spandex clad musclemen hitting each other and things seemed good. Groups of these people, known as ‘fans’ would get together to buy comics from dealers at things called ‘marts’, held normally in old Victorian buildings, or in areas where electricity seemed like a recent discovery.

Living in Glasgow during the 1970’s I’d see ads for comic marts in far away exotic lands like London, Liverpool and Birmingham. I remember one of the early Alan Austin/Justin Ebbs price guides (FF #1 for only 200 quid!) that featured ads for something weird and wonderful called ”The Westminster Comic Mart’.

westminstercomicmart

 

For me sitting in Glasgow this all seemed amazingly exciting, and as I’ve blogged before, marts did eventually come to Glasgow, and I eventually went to a convention in England. The London marts were out of reach for the time being and although I did go to a UKCAC in 1987 (in retrospect, this was a life changing event as it resulted in me moving from Glasgow to, err, Leicester five months later) it wasn’t the one day marts.

This is where for those people who come now to conventions to cosplay, (or fancy dress as we used to say back in the day) or buy toys or find out about the new superhero film, or even more amazingly, buy comics will be wondering what the deal is?

Marts and conventions are different beasts. Marts are one-day events where the main focus is buying comics, though there may be the odd signing. Conventions are the Full Monty: talks, films, previews, portfolio viewings, the lot as well as buying comics. Marts are like ultra-concentrated conventions but are really hangovers from the time when there wasn’t enough fans in the country to have the sort of big events that are pretty common across the country.  With sketchy distribution of American comics in the 70’s and early 80’s, marts were often the only way to pick up collectors items without doing a trip to the US, which few collectors could do.  Specialist shops across the country were also not always reliable but they were at the mercy of the distributors, and marts had dealers who’d made links with dealers in the US, or more exotically, had dealers from the US with their funny accents and bad dress sense but almost pristine key Golden Age comics!

In the spring of 1988 I finally managed to get to a Westminster mart. The Westminster mart was the one where creators like Dave Gibbons or Neil Gaiman would pop down for a browse, and you could chat with them in the pub next door to the Westminster Central Hall.

westminstercentralhall

The Westminster Central Hall today is a grand venue sitting near the Houses of Westminster, but in the 80’s it was a little bit shabby just like most of the country was back then. London wasn’t this ridiculously wealthy city sucking the lifeblood out of everywhere else and it was still a great city.

Anyhow, the marts here were focused not just on the Central Hall, but a nearby pub, The Westminster Arms. This is where punters and creators would mix, and indeed, it’s where people’s careers in comics started. These marts were genuine events and as made clear in this rather evocative blog, people waited eagerly for them because there was nothing else out there on the pre-internet days, especially if you lived in a town or city without a decent comic shop. People saved up and came to these Westminster marts just as I’d seen people save up and come from all over the central belt of Scotland for the Glasgow marts.

Backing up the Westminster Marts were the Camden Marts which were held in a shitty hall, opposite a shitty pub just over the road from King Cross/St. Pancras Station which was an exceptionally shitty area. These were held on a Sunday as opposed to Westminster which was held normally on a Saturday. These were a wee bit more sedate, but still extraordinary busy.

But back though to that spring on 1988 when I went to my first London mart at Westminster. I was working for Neptune Comic Distributors at the time, and I’d been sent down on a reconnaissance mission to scout out any potential new business. It was also an excuse to buy some comics, mingle with the crowds and have a few beers with some mates (including John McShane from AKA Books & Comics which is where I’d been before moving to Leicester) from Glasgow who were down for the mart.

Walking into that hall on that spring morning was immense. Not only were there vast walls of people sweating furiously in the spring sunshine, but there were table after table of comics everywhere, and yes, I’d been to UKCAC once, and seen a run of Glasgow marts and the odd convention but nothing like this. There were EC Comics, Golden Age (I saw my first copies of Batman #1 and Superman #1) and stuff I’d never even heard of but looked amazing. There were also pages of original art including Jack Kirby pages for 50 quid!!

It was extraordinary, not to mention utterly brilliant. I’d forgotten about my job of finding new business and had ended up spending too much money, not to mention I’d slowly slipped into the Westminster Arms with McShane and others to drink heavily. To this day, I’m not sure exactly how I got back to Leicester that night!?

Over the next few years, I’d pop to London on one of my frequent visits to take in a mart, buy lots of stuff I didn’t really need, and end up in a pub somewhere in London drinking away merrily. When I’d left Neptune I ended up working with Chris and Maurice, who’d eventually drag me down to Bristol and this gave me years of experiencing what it was like at a London mart on the other side, and although I think I only did one or two Westminster Marts before they died, they were astonishing to work. I remember one where I handed Maurice a wad of cash which must have been around 200 quids worth and this was in the first half hour in the wee bit of table space I was looking after.

My pattern for these marts would be that I either met up with Chris and Maurice in Bristol and would spend a few days sorting out stock, or I’d leave Leicester in the early hours to get to London around 8am. Fuck, that was often quite grim, especially those morning when I’d decided to go clubbing til 2am, or I had to leave a girlfriend in bed so I could sell comics to spotty fanboys. Even when I spent a year in Bristol it was like this. Here’s me looking the worse for wear on one of these trips one summer’s day..

mebristol1993

 

Note the eyes like pissholes in the snow, and that t-shirt is a long lost Gregory shirt with a design by the great Marc Hempel.

So these trips were fun most of the time, apart from the early starts, loading, unloading and then loading of vans and hours and hours spent in vans or buses to get to London. One time when I was skint and living in Leicester I stupidly hitched down, got picked up by the flatmate of a girl I was sort of seeing and nearly died around Luton when her car had a blowout, and it was only her amazingly good driving that got us to the hard shoulder without serious death.  All this aside, they were often fun examples of male-bonding over huge breakfasts, dreadful tea and coffee, not to mention comics. I never let the boys down at all, except once but I had very good reasons not to go down to London as I was, err, otherwise occupied at the time…

This was pretty much the pattern for much of the 1990’s as I drifted out of working in comics full time and moved into other fields, but I still kept my toe in the water with these marts. By the mid-90’s the marts in London had expanded to include one at the Royal National Hotel and in the TUC building in central London. I’m not revealing any great secret in my dislike of the TUC marts because of the location being singularly crap for a mart, but this was now the only central London mart after the Westminster marts ended which meant it tended to be pretty busy. You’d also see famous face, well, famous faces in the world of comics/pop culture stil. Look, there’s Kim Newman! Look, there’s Alan Davis! Look, there’s Adam Ant!!

Then around 97 or 98 the marts slowed down. Part of that was due to the sheer proliferation of shops in London, but also something called the ”internet” was starting to make inroads into how comics were bought and sold. Of course the great speculator boom of the early 90’s had faded as well, so most of the speculators had bailed with those left being more refined in their habits but one of the hangovers from the boom were the increased amounts of dealers at marts. Now some of these newer dealers were great, most however were rubbish, fans trying to play at running a business, or frankly, complete fucking crooks.

The organisation of some of these marts often led much to be desired at times, the TUC mart especially could descend into farce as dealers didn’t know who was were, or find out they didn’t have tables set up. I’d still have a day out but it’d be often so annoying working at some of these marts which were essentially dead by 2pm when they’d opened at midday. The lack of new blood didn’t help, nor did the amount of, well, seriously fucking creepy blokes not to mention people with little personal hygiene which put passer-by’s off. After all, if you were interested in comics and wanted to have a shufty at a mart would you want to stay somewhere where some people smelled of two week old sweat and semen?

I moved to Bristol again in the summer of 2000 and this initially didn’t stop me from making the early morning trip to London once or twice a month. After a few months though I realised it was wasting my time, as after all, I was making decent money in the job I was in currently, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to and although I enjoyed dipping my toes back in the waters of comics I grew to hate the early starts not to mention the lack of new blood coming in.

See it’s easy now with comic conventions coming out of your ears to think it’s always been like this, but it’s not. This really is still in the early days of a huge explosion that started around 2008 or so and I’ve no idea where this will lead, but in 2001 comics were still a pretty niche hobby, and it was still a hobby, not a ‘culture’ as ‘geek/nerd culture’ seems to be now.

In 2002 I knocked the marts on the head, and only dipped into the world of comics occasionally in the real world, but in the online world I was exploring this new world. It’s here where the reason why the London marts dried up lies as eBay finally stuck the knife into the mart. After all, why bust a vertebrae or two loading comics when you just need a good website with a good eCommerce engine driving it and you can make the same, if not more for vastly less hassle?

I still kept in touch, mainly via Chris who told me how far the marts had fallen and of the disgraces which meant the mart organisers changed hands. In researching this blog I came across this video…

Apart from the fact the Royal National Hotel still has that awful carpet, it’s a sad sight. Middle aged men who were young once because I remember them being so, all walking around looking at mainly awful looking stalls selling comics and crap. It’s got the air of a wake for someone nobody really liked that much. No kids, no young people. Just the same old fans and some of the same old dealers selling comics they’ve been lugging around since the 1980’s.

The convention has replaced it. Marts seem like the analogue version of today’s digital fandom with it’s geek culture that’s a genuine culture adopted by the sort of people twenty years ago would have kicked sand in your face on the beach.  It’s hopelessly lost against the tide of the massive influx of new people coming in to the culture, but for many of these people collecting comics isn’t a hobby. It’s the characters that draws them. The comics are almost an aside.

That said, I’d be sad to see the death of the mart. They do look like glorified car boot sales now, but there’s something warming to me that they still plod on as if the 21st century is but a mere inconvenience. They’re a fading ghost of a time passing away but they still troop on. I like that.

 

A postscript about Glasgow’s comic shops

I’ve blogged about Glasgow’s comic shops in the 1980’s and the subsequent messy situation in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, and it’s a subject that people seem to like reading about which is why I’m working on something else soon about the subject. However this is to point out some sad news that Plan B comics is closing down.

Image

It’s an end of an era to use that much abused cliche, but there’s been a comic shop on Parnie Street since AKA Books and Comics moved there in the 1990’s so this ends that run. Although I don’t know the exact reasons for the shop closing it’s clear that there won’t just be one reason for the shop closing so you can blame the recession, Comixology, Ebay, Forbidden Planet and any number of reasons but it’s probably a mix of all the above, not to mention Parnie Street is a central location, but a wee bit off the beaten path so you need to make the effort to go there.

There is a hint that it’ll return, but Glasgow already has a load of shops, and as mentioned, the ways to get comics now are many so it’s a tight market in cities like Glasgow.  Hopefully it returns in some shape and form in the future.

 

The Eisnercon-Glasgow’s First Comic Convention

eisnerconI mentioned in an early blog post about the Eisnercon, and went into detail about GLASCAC but haven’t said anything about the first real comic convention Glasgow held in 1985. This isn’t to say Glasgow didn’t have large comic related events, it did, but they were either the large Marts that the comic shop, AKA organised, or the signing sessions held at AKA featuring a lot of the rising British talent of the time but there wasn’t the big convention of the type we’d be familiar with today.

By the mid-80’s Glasgow was well established for holding regular SF conventions with Albacon being the regular one held over a weekend during Glasgow’s Fair Fortnight, which grew out of the original Faircon which is (and will be) a blog in itself. Anyhow the idea from John McShane, Pete Root and the others at AKA was to organise a large 3-day convention along the same lines as what was being done with SF conventions and to have a full programme of events, dealers room, film room (ended up being a video room but more on this later) and of course, a bar which would never, ever close unless it ran out of beer.

The convention was to be in the Central Hotel in Glasgow mainly because this is where the SF conventions had made a home so the management and staff were used to working with such events and that it was a cheapish, good central location. It also helped reduce the risks as although comic conventions were fairly common and frequent south of the border they also fell quickly by the wayside in a lot of cases, so a good location was paramount as was a good guest list which could be counted on with AKA’s connections but the convention needed an American guest for credibility and it got Will Eisner.

I’m going to have to make a confession here that I vaguely knew Eisner because of The Spirit, and his influence upon Frank Miller’s work but I really didn’t know much else even though I was by now firmly embedded in AKA and John McShane and several other customers adored his work. I was moving away from being a superhero reader only thanks to titles like Love & Rockets but it was still early days however this convention would change a lot of my reading habits forever.

John had managed to get Eisner as the main guest along with Marv Wolfman who was still riding high from Crisis on Infinite Earths, while we had Bryan Talbot as the main British guest along with a couple of dozen others including Alan Davis, Alan Moore, and Alan Grant. This was a huge deal getting someone of Eisner’s stature and the British guest list would still pack out halls today so anticupation was huge.

One day sitting around AKA various jobs were being bandied around so people could do them and I fancied my hand at doing the film room, but unfortunately we couldn’t afford getting a projectors, films and paying for them, so we downscaled to a video room. One of AKA’s customers was a chap by the name of Hugh Campbell who used to do a nice wee fanzine called Fusion. Yes, this is a Grant Morrison cover of Kid Marvelman…

Image

It also used to be printed and assembled in the back shop of AKA and I did one issue, #5 I think, but it was a splendid fanzine which Hugh did a great job with. Hugh also had an amazing collection of VHS videos, including some pre Video Nasty versions of films which instantly appealed to the gorehound that I was back in those days, but the idea was to get a programme to appeal to everyone & to run it really late, or indeed all night, which meant people could kip in the room overnight.  The Central were amazingly accommodating and to this day I’m amazed at the stuff they let pass during the conventions they had there.

We publicised the convention in the shop, not to mention the other shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh, plus in the comic press and anywhere we could. Expectations were high and we’d tried to make it as affordable as possible, but advanced numbers weren’t what everyone hoped but there was still the will with everyone involved with AKA to make it work, plus we didn’t know what would happen on the weekend itself.

By the time the weekend came I’d got around 40-50 films from Hugh and built up a programme which I thought would go down well with things like the Superman films, Blade Runner, and  of course, a few Video Nasties. I’d also got myself a few minions to help and to allow me to dive out to the bar.

If all this sounds fun can I point out that organising convention can be fun but it’s also extraordinary hard work, not to mention that if something fucks up (as it did) then you’re held responsible and people will delight in telling you that but thankfully the convention came and went along it’s way quite smoothly considering that we were all utterly and totally blagging it as running a 3-day con with all it entails is an entirely different beast to running a mart.

As for Will Eisner he was a complete gentleman who had time for everyone including the tosser who thought he could tell him about perspective! How can some spotty faced wee wanker tell the man who drew this about perspective?!

Image

Moving on…

The video room was going well with the odd technical problem being dealt with as and when but I’d worked out that if I put really long films on in the evening then it’d give me time to grab some food, or a drink or get my head down for an hour or so. There was also an incident with a young girl who became upset by a scene near the start of the film The Howling which features an extreme scene of rape which takes place on a TV screen in the background of one scene. I hadn’t thought of that incident for years til being reminded of it.

The main programme consisted of talks & a lot of Eisner doing classes in drawing which were amazing to watch as the man was a genius. I don’t really remember much else of the programme as I was busy/sleeping/drunk but what I saw was fun, but the dealers room seemed awfully thin of customers. In fact the honest truth was the entire weekend was thin on the ground when it came to attendees with a rough estimate of 300 or so people there over the 3-day event.

It didn’t make it’s money back. It may have been an artistic success but AKA couldn’t afford to bankroll another one so we fell back on signing sessions and the bigger marts and there wouldn’t be a big convention in Glasgow again til 1990.

Looking back at it I suppose you could say it was ahead of it’s time and you’d be right. Had it been held in 1988 then things would have been very different but it was influential in helping some Glasgow based creators get some connections, plus Eisner’s classes clearly influenced some people to take up drawing but it’s sadly fell down the back of the sofa of history and been forgotten about. I’d like to get more stories from it as it’s an important bit of British comics history that needs to be fleshed out, so if anyone reading this wants to add anything then feel free to contact me as I consider this very much a work in progress…

Dark Satanic Mills-My First Comic Convention!

Following up from the last blog about comic conventions in the UK, I thought I’d tell the tale of the first comic convention I attended as a punter in 1986, though it wasn’t the first I’d ever been to as I’d helped organise the Eisnercon in Glasgow the year before but more of this another time.

No, this is about my first trip south of the border to Birmingham for a comic convention held at the NEC in Birmingham, well, it was by the NEC, it was actually held at the National Motorcycle Museum nearby and to this day it was one of those experiences that was fun, exciting, depressing, miserable, surreal and painful at the same time. Bit like being locked in a lift with George Osborne and not having a pick axe handle with you, so you have to beat him to death with your fists which isn’t as fun as the satisfying thud of wood on his flesh…

Anyhow, the year is 1986. People are depressed because it’s the 80’s and it’s a bit shite. Comics are on the verge of a massive breakthrough into the mainstream thanks to Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus, which meant that more and more people were taking interest in comics.

UKCAC had already started up, but I decided to go to this convention in Birmingham as it had an immense guest list including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons (who were talking about the forthcoming issues of Watchmen on one panel.) but really it was all about Clive Barker.

So a few AKA regulars decided to go down because it was cheaper than UKCAC, not to mention the lure of a good guest list did it’s trick and eventually the numbers were whittled down to just the four of us; myself, Jim Clements, Peter Coyle and a now exceptionally famous comic writer (GM) who was coming down to see Barker and Alan Moore not to mention doing some crucial networking.

However seeing at Pete and myself were daft wee kids, Jim was a mentalist and GM was hardly the most reliable of people the organisation fell on the head of John McShane (one of the owners of AKA) who booked two twin rooms in the convention hotel in the middle of Birmingham as well as pointing us towards a night bus which would drop us right outside our hotel and on a muggy July evening in 1986 the four of us met in the pub on a Friday night (which for Jim and GM was a rare thing) to go up to Buchanan Street bus station for the overnight trip from Glasgow to Birmingham.

I don’t remember much of the trip down. Jim sat next to GM and talked about Alice in Wonderland all the way down, while Pete and myself chatted or slept most of the time. The point is this was a hellish journey as travelling on long distance buses (remind me to tell you about the time I went from Bristol to Paris on a bus) is utter fucking hell to me. But we didn’t have the money for a plane or a overnight sleeper on the train.

After what seemed like a multitude of eternities we pulled up in the centre of Birmingham at 6am in the morning. Now I’ve since been through Birmingham at that time to catch connecting trains, or coming out of a club or coming back from a rave from just  outside Leamington Spa but nothing prepares you for the grimness of Birmingham city centre at 6am.

But we were outside our hotel! A bed for all of us was waiting as was breakfast! All we had to do was check-in.

Except we couldn’t. We couldn’t check-in til 8am, so we had two hours to waste. In the centre of Birmingham. At 6 in the morning. In 1986. We asked where we could go for a cup of tea and we were pointed to the nearby New Street Station.Now today, New Street and the Bullring have been redeveloped and Birmingham actually looks like a proper city, but in 1986 it looked like something from William Blake’s writings but even bleaker.

Image

We got to New Street and realised we couldn’t actually get to the cafes to get a cup of tea because you needed to buy a platform ticket, so thinking ‘fuck that’ Jim and GM volunteered to go get us all cups of tea.

And we sat (seeing as there were no seats we had to sit on the floor) on New Street Station at 6ish in the morning talking comics and vowing never to return again in our lives to Birmingham, but we managed to get our tickets to the NEC sorted and we realised the hotel and convention were miles apart.

Oh well…

Eventually the station started to fill as it was Saturday morning, which freaked us all out a bit as we’d been in this weird bubble of our own for 12 hours and sleep deprivation had kicked in. Thankfully it was now time to go back to our hotel and check in to get our nice comfy bed each and chill out for a bit before the convention opened at midday.

I remember being the person out of the four of us who went in first, told the girl behind the reception the name the rooms were booked in and waiting for the keys to our twin rooms. At this point the girl started looking at us oddly. Very oddly. Very very oddly up to the point where where pointed out that there wasn’t two twin rooms with four comfy, comfy beds waiting for us but two double rooms with two large double beds waiting for us. There wasn’t a chance of getting any twin rooms as the hotel was fully booked, so myself and Pete instantly bagged each other to share one room which left Jim and GM to share the other. Before this, I decided to phone John McShane in Glasgow to tell him of the situation. I think he’s still laughing about it.

Oh well…

We got in our double rooms and very nice they were. We thought it’d only be for the one night as we were going back to Glasgow on the overnight bus on Sunday night and we’d probably be mixing in the bar anyhow. Jim and GM were probably going to continue talking about Alice in Wonderland and drinking a water between them.

After tidying up and chilling out, we got our act together and went back to the hell of New Street Station to get the train to the NEC, and as we got onto the platform we saw other obvious comic people and chatted with them as we headed up to the venue.

At this point I need to point out that the NEC wasn’t fully built, and as we quickly discovered neither was the road from the NEC to the Motorcycle Museum so once we got there, you either waited for a shuttle bus that didn’t seem to run, or walk the mile or so through a building site. We chose the latter which fucked up GM’s winkle-pickers but we eventually got to the Museum and after weaving our way through the venue we found the convention which was held in a number of their halls, and I headed to the dealers room which wasn’t especially full but it was interesting to see faces for the first time like Martin Skidmore who’d enter my life again two or three years later.

Now I confess to being a huge fanboy at the time. I lapped up panels featuring creators talking and was engrossed by Alan Moore telling us his plans for his DC after Watchmen assuming DC played nicely. This was one of the first times in public  I think he was clearly making the point that he was getting fucked off by DC, but he was cheery and fun not to mention great to listen to.

Sadly Clive Barker wasn’t, not because Barker isn’t a great storyteller. He is. It’s just he had to cancel, so we listened to Ramsey Campbell talking boringly about horror and his works, so I left GM and Jim to lap this up and headed to the bar to meet Dom Regan who had moved from Glasgow to London a year or so earlier to work for Dez Skinn’s Quality Comics and his line of 2000AD reprints aimed at the American market and this was the first time most of us had seen Dom since his move to London.

We caught up, drank beer slowly as you do when you don’t have a lot of cash and you’re young in a strange city, and had an enjoyable day before heading back to the hotel to get something to eat and head to the party in the bar for the convention. Before that though myself, Jim, Pete, GM, Dom and a mate of his all sat in our room talking bollocks, drinking weak lager and preparing for the party ahead.

Problem was that we were all so bloody knackered through lack of sleep, hiking through the NEC, the building site outside the NEC, all over the convention and not eating properly we were on the verge of collapse but it’d have been daft not to come all this way and not go.

We went down to the party which was held in one of these faceless hotel bars that hotels seem intent to always have, but if was fun. I do seem to remember a joke about Double Diamond that somehow kept the spirits up but I’ll be buggered if I remember it exactly. I just remember laughing.

And we all did. We had a fun time before going to our double rooms and sleeping as far apart as two people possibly can in a double bed. Having went through a few painful splits with girlfriends I can say this was even further than that.

On the Sunday we got up, had breakfast, sorted ourselves out, packed our bags and hiked again up to the NEC for the final day after checking out our hotel. Nothing much happened that stands out. Jim and GM spent more time talking about Alice in Wonderland, more weak lager was consumed and we left early as the bus back to Glasgow left early evening.

As we said a farewell to the NEC I thought that was the last time I’d do anything  comics related there. That proved to be amazingly wrong as a future blog will tell you, but we headed back into Birmingham city centre through all the greenery of the outskirts of the city and finally into the shit-brown and grey of 80’s Birmingham to get the bus home.

The bus pulled out of Birmingham and I don’t remember us saying much as we were all knackered but by this point you see I discovered how much I love travelling, and making as much of an adventure of these things as possible. I also decided there that I wanted to go to Glastonbury to help feed this sense of adventure, but that would take another six years to realise.

I remember us getting back into Glasgow early on Monday morning and mingling at the bus station with people going to work and realising I didn’t want to work in offices, or do normal things. I wanted something else but I didn’t know what, but we said our very tired farewells and I got the bus home to Milton where I was then living to collapse in my own sad wee bed.

As I write this I stopped wanting to be different a while ago and have spent too long working in offices with similarly sad people who have either seen their life slip out of view, or haven’t had one as yet.  This isn’t a sad end to a story, but it’s a bit of perspective and writing these blogs are helping me find what I thought I’d lost so yes, you’re allowed to feel happy now.

Next time, the story of the Eisnercon and then, UKCAC through my eyes!