Bitter Sweet Symphony Part One/ The History of Glasgow’s Comic Shops in the 80’s…..

This is actually going to end up being part of a loosely connected series of blogs which tell not only the history of how comic shops in Glasgow grew out of the chaos of the 70’s and started becoming far more organised. First though a little bit of background as to how the comic shop came to be…..

Comics were traditionally sold in newsagents in the UK, or newsstands like this one in this wonderfully evocative picture of an American newsstand from the 70’s.

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In the UK you didn’t see many of these sort of newsstands but they did exist mainly at train and bus stations as I’ve previously pointed out, but the whole point of all this is to say there were no real ‘comic shops’ in the UK til 1970 when Dark They Were and Golden Eyed opened in London, and even then they included comics as part of the greater umbrella of ‘science fiction’ as you can see from this poster from the late 70’s.

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The same went for the shops that sprung up in the UK after this, so Forever People in Bristol, Nostalgia in Birmingham, Odyssey in Manchester, Timeslip in Newcastle and the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh were all at their core, science fiction and fantasy bookshops which also did a bit of comics, but the main focus was on the books, merchandise and magazines with the comics being an important but not the main part of their business.

All that changed with Forbidden Planet (FP) who followed the same trick as the other shops, but moved comics into a more central part of their business. You might also note if you click that link it takes you to a Wikipedia page about the shop which says that FP is two separate chains and how does that exactly work? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that eventually.

Now that’s out of the way lets move straight onto Futureshock, Glasgow’s first proper SF bookshop which sold comics which opened in late 1980. It was and still is on Woodlands Road in Glasgow and was run by Bob Shaw (who I’ve blogged about previously) and Neil Craig. Both were part of Glasgow’s SF fan group, The Friends of Kilgore Trout (FOKT) and both had identified a HUGE gap in the market in Glasgow not only for SF books which you couldn’t get in regular bookshops, but for comics which as I’ve pointed out, were a bastard to get at the time. The shop itself was a smallish affair with a central unit where comics and magazines were stored, as well as books on every wall, and spinners everywhere crammed with comics, magazines and anything else that could physically be rammed into them.

In short it was a typical SF/comic shop, but it’s customers didn’t especially care as it meant no more long treks here, there and everywhere to track comics down as everything was in one place. Only problem was that Neil and Bob had zero business experience so were completely and utterly winging it, plus they didn’t really mix well as partners in a shop with Bob wanting to really focus on the book side of things while Neil wanted to focus on comics so there was obviously friction and that lasted in their time together until it boiled over with some of Neil’s frankly mental ordering decisions in regards some comics of the time. The final straw was Neil ordering 1,000 copies of each issue of Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s Wolverine mini series in 1982. To give you an idea how over-ordered this was, the X Men was only selling around 70 issues a month in the shop and it was their biggest selling comic. Saying that Bob wasn’t happy was an understatement so in late 1982 Bob and Neil split with Neil staying at Futureshock (where I assume he still is) and Bob taking his  half to open a new shop in the Candleriggs area of Glasgow called Photon Books, which was the original name for Futureshock.

The shop was on the corner of this building where the bus is passing by.

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Photon Books saw Bob get involved with a local family of rapscallions called the Holt’s, who also helped drag in a catalogue of bizarre local freaks who were funny, sad, scary and fucked sometimes all at once.

But it was here that the proto-scene of comic book fans of a certain generation in Glasgow found their legs and this is where I met the likes of Grant Morrison for the first time, though at this point he was just another person buying their comics like everyone else. There was Dom Reagan, Peter Coyle, Jim Clements, Mr Sloane (not his real name but he loved Joe Orton), and a few others who I’ve probably forgotten. By summer 83 the shop seemed to be doing well, and also, the local comics fan group centered round Pete Root (who had a stall in the Argyle Market), John McShane and Steve Montgomery had started organising comic marts in the city to much success and the rumours were flowing that they were looking to open up a shop themselves in the city centre.

Here’s some covers of the fanzines John, Pete, Steve, and others produced back then.

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For much of 1983 Photon Books is where I got my comics. I was still at school working through my O Grades, and although AKA Books and Comics opened in the Virginia Galleries near where Photon Books was, I still bought most of my comics from Bob’s shop through loyalty to Bob who had helped me through some tough times over the previous year but I started drifting slowly towards AKA thanks mainly to John McShane telling me things about comics I’d never, ever heard about and Pete Root’s cynical humour.

By summer 84 AKA was firmly established as THE comic shop in the city centre of Glasgow, and Photon Books was on it’s last legs with the Holt’s and Bob falling out, the shop closing and Bob relocating back up to Woodlands Road about half a mile from Futureshock to open Books and Photos, or Photos ‘n’ Books depending on how much Bob wanted to take the piss out of his previous venture.

This was not a magnificent venture. Yes, it sold comics but Bob’s seedy private life often intruded into the shop (I was now spending most Saturday’s hanging around here talking bollocks with Sloane, Jim Clements and Andrew Hope who’d now become part of the loose group of comic fans in Glasgow) but in hindsight it felt like the last people at a crap party and that party was over because AKA was the force in Glasgow. It had stock which Bob’s shop didn’t and if you wanted new comics you had to go to AKA.

I remember exactly the two comics which switched me over to AKA. One was Crisis on Infinite Earths #2

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But the one which swung it totally was Swamp Thing # 35

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It was an important Alan Moore issue and Moore at this point was God for anyone British and reading comics in the 80’s, and thanks to the AKA organised comic marts, I’d met Moore along with a number of other creators like Alan Grant and Kev O’Neill. Bob’s shop didn’t have it, AKA did and I opened up a standing order there and then which was in the tailend of 84 and I was still at school doing my Highers but I was drifting more and more towards AKA while Bob’s Woodlands Road shop was in serious decline.

Then it closed in I think spring 85. The final day was a clearing out sale which saw Sloane, Andy Hope, Jim Clements and myself mourn the passing of it for a few seconds before moving on, which most of us had to AKA by this point. This isn’t to say Bob isn’t out this story yet as you’ll find out soon enough.

At some point in 1985 I’d somehow graduated from being a punter who hung around AKA on Saturdays to talk bollocks with the other lads (the group now counted Gary Erskine as one of it’s number)  hanging around the shop, to being asked to mind the till as Pete and John spent Saturday afternoons in the pub which was odd at first, but eventually a few others in our group were trusted to do the same, and by this point the group had pulled another lad called Alistair in who would end up working for FP but I’m getting ahead of myself…

The point is by the end of 1985 there was a very clear and defined group of comics fans in Glasgow based around AKA and the regular Marts in the city. I’d left school, failed to get into Uni, and was doing what I could but I was enjoying myself in the deep warm pools of comics that being part of the AKA Crowd provided. When AKA moved from it’s little shop in Virginia Galleries next to the tearooms and fine china to the larger shop in the Galleries is when it probably hit it’s Golden Age. This was the time of Maus, Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns plus 2000AD was still amazingly popular, not to mention that the three shops where AKA was now in the Galleries helped feed off each other as the other shops were a record and a book shop so when one was busy, it’d often mean the others would also benefit. Things were pretty cool as well with the Marts as I’d now started helping organise them with some of the others in the AKA Crowd.

This all hit a peak with what was called the Eisnercon which was a full on three-day comics convention held at the Central Hotel in Glasgow with Will Eisner at guest of honour, but also there were a huge number of creators such as Alan Moore, Steve Dillon, Alan Davis and Bryan Talbot. I organised and ran the film room which meant going through  a vast number of one of AKA’s customers VHS collection (official and bootleg) to come up with a three-day programme. I also ended up sleeping in this room for three days and nipping back to John McShane’s flat for the odd shower as it was fairly close and he’d offered everyone the use of it for just such a purpose. It didn’t get the numbers through the doors it should have which is why there was never a second one but a number of people who did go would go on to be inspired to work within the industry, plus some long term relationships were formed including John McShane’s close relationship with Will Eisner and his family.

As this was all going on, Wednesday night used to be the regular meeting night for comics fans at the Lord Todd pub, and at some point the lads from SF Bookshop in Edinburgh started going which meant Jim Hamilton, and whomever else would come over as the other partner in SF Bookshop, Kenny Penman, didn’t really drink and wasn’t in Glasgow often. We did get Jo Callis who was working at the SF Bookshop after fleeing to Edinburgh after leaving the Human League, but it was normally only Jim who became close especially with Pete and John.

And this is how it was for 86 and most of 87. This didn’t stop AKA from having ambition as although AKA was in the city centre, Futureshock still had the West End tied up, which meant all those well off Glasgow University students, so AKA 2 was born in late 86 in a huge big shop at the far end of  Argyle Street near the West End, with AKA taking the bottom floor of the shop while Bob Shaw took the top floor for his own business ventures which we thought was making badges, doing CND stuff and whatever Bob did for money. We eventually discovered this is where Bob built his porn studio in a room behind a false wall in the kitchen, and that he was producing porn on a Reader’s Wives level, which when it leaked out to John and Pete caused an early end to the failed experiment of AKA 2 which really was about the wrong shop, in the wrong location, with Bob Shaw’s porn antics (which nearly resulted in him being beaten up on the premises) being the final straw.

With that experiment over, AKA spent 87 consolidating it’s position in the aftermath of the huge explosion in comics over the previous few years. Delivery days were normally packed with customers as they waited to see what was out that week, and we’d worked out a well oiled machine in getting the comics from the boxes to being sorted and priced, to standing orders and finally to the shelves. The only problem was that Titan, the distributor of comics in the UK (owned by Nick Landau and Mike Lake who also owned FP in London) were sending comics out a week after they’d shipped in the US which in the internet age seems astonishing but back then nobody really noticed but a series of titles having issues missing, the pricing policy of Titan and the general service meant there was a gap in the market for someone else to come through.

And come through they did. Several US companies saw the expanding UK direct market as something to get into. If I remember right Mile High Comics dabbled with supplying shops directly, but it was Bud Plant Comics who had the most success supplying shops but without a UK warehouse they couldn’t compete, but by then Neptune Distribution had started in Leicester, made a few arrangements with Bud Plant and had started slowly eating into Titan’s market share from the time of DC’s relaunch of Superman, Man Of Steel in 1986 where they managed to beat Titan by three days.

By the time I’d made that fateful conversation with Geoff, the MD of Neptune at the end of 1987 and made the decision to move to Leicester and join Neptune, AKA was amazingly secure in the market in Glasgow, yes, there was still Futureshock in the West End and the odd attempt to open a shop in Glasgow happened but nothing really dug into AKA’s market as they were so dominant and they provided an outlet for people to talk about comics and in many cases, get a healthy career in the industry.

When I first visited Glasgow again in spring 1988 after my move to Leicester things had moved on. Alistair was now working for Jim Hamilton in Edinburgh. Grant Morrison had a career writing comics after years of struggling and failing to maintain such a career. Dom Regan had moved to London to work for Dez Skinn’s line of 2000AD reprints he was repackaging for the US market, Peter Coyle drifted away, so Jim Clements was still there to talk endlessly with Grant about ideas, and in fact Jim gets a credit in the Arkham Asylum graphic novel, Sloane was never really a full part of the AKA Crowd, and Andy Hope had sort of drifted slowly into the crowd even though he’d thrown up in Steve Yeowell’s pint of Guinness after a Zenith signing session at AKA. Things were safe and secure. A new AKA Crowd had formed round what was left of the old crowd and things were looking like it was sweet as a nut.

That is until one day at Neptune my boss Geoff came into the office where I was typing out order forms and shouted at me saying ‘what the fuck do you know about Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow?’

But that’s a story for the  the next part as I tell you about the history of comic distribution in the UK in the 80’s……

Secret Origins part two

In this first part I explained the early parts of my life up to around 1980 and how things were hardly caviar and champers every night, but it was alright but some big events happened in 1980 to change things as they were, and in hindsight, change the course of my life as a number of events happened which changed things.

First up was my brother Steve announcing he was moving out the family home. This caused huge arguments but the jist of what had happened was got deeply involved with FOKT, the local SF fan group and organising SF conventions in Glasgow and was moving high up in the group and in fact was in charge of organising Hitchercon 80, which was as far as I know the first Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy convention anywhere in the world in September of that year and is another story. Before that he was heavily involved in helping organise Albacon 80, the first Easter SF convention held in Scotland, which as I’ve said elsewhere this was the first convention of anything I went to. I was taken by my mother (who always had a sly interest in SF) for the Sunday and I spent my money on comics, and my time watching films before being taken home a tired and happy bunny, bu, guess what, this is another story.

The next was this meant I didn’t need to share a bedroom with my older brother James, so for the first time in my life I had my own bedroom!! This meant my books, comics, and all my other wonderful, glorious crap could be spread out in my own room which gave me a freedom I never had before.

Next was the opening of Glasgow’s first comic shop, Futureshock, which brought me in regular contact with Bob Shaw who by now was almost a family friend because of his friendship with my brother Steve and the fact I think Bob wanted to help me get out from under the shadow of my brothers, not to mention he also really hated the girl Steve started seeing now he was living in the West End of Glasgow.  With Futureshock’s opening I was able to get new American comics without struggling across the city, and I was also aware that a group of comic fans also met at the Wintersgills pub but on a different night. I obviously couldn’t go as I was only 13 but a world was opening up to me.

There was something else as well; the fact Futureshock was based in the West End, meant regular trips there and exposure to the sounds of Postcard Records which to someone brought up on Bowie, and exposed to Punk was a huge breath of fresh air.

Lastly was the slow unraveling of the family unit. Steve moving out seemed to disrupt things more than expected, so James became even more quiet and weird, my father had to work even more hours as Steve was no longer contributing while my mother seemed to lose something of herself and as for myself I became less introvert

The next few years saw me go to more SF conventions in  Glasgow, this time by myself and the first Glasgow Comic Mart (like a convention but over a day with no guests, just dealers) happened in the spring on 1982 and it was here I met Pete Root, Steve Montgomery and John McShane. I didn’t realise then the impact of all this because all I wanted was Warrior #2.

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But I get ahead of myself. I’d become more independent which cheered my mother up, and my father was encouraging me but throughout 1981 my mother started becoming ill, and in 1982 died after a fairly long and painful bout of cancer. The aftershocks of this saw my father slowly fall apart, and over the next year or so I started drifting away and losing myself in comics, SF and music.

Bob Shaw had also split with his business partner at Futureshock and had opened Photon Books in the Candleriggs part of Glasgow, and it was here I started meeting characters like Sloane, Andrew Hope, Peter Coyle, Dom Regan, Jim Clements and a lot more weird and wonderful ones, and Rab. Dear god Rab, the human STD.

It was here I found out that my brother Steve had vanished from Glasgow after his pretty vile girlfriend ripped him, and everyone around her, off, including Bob who by this point was separate from FOKT and the Glasgow SF scene due to a run of highly personal arguments and fall-outs.

In December 1982 my father and me went to Australia thanks to my uncle paying for us to go over for a month to recover from the aftermath of the previous year. We were there in the middle of summer in a place called Wollongong which was exotic and bizarre to my 15 year old self. It was also hot, very, very, very, very, very hot. Even during the summer of 1976 I’d never experienced this sort of heat, and frankly couldn’t cope with it but I loved my holiday there as it was the first holiday I ever had and even brought back a few tectites for Bob.

1983 to 86 are pretty much a blur. A lot happened in those years; I left school, became part of the original  AKA Books and Comics gang, discovered the joys and delights of the ‘Tech’ which was the bar/club part of Glasgow Tech College, went to Brighton for a weekend, became politically active, supported Partick Thistle, helped organise what became known as the ‘Eisnercon” which was Glasgow’s first real comic convention, started avoiding Bob Shaw due to the fact he appeared to be Glasgow’s leading pornographer, and did loads and loads which I will go into detail eventually on these blogs.

By the end of 86 though the family was pretty much split. James had moved to just outside Falkirk with his girlfriend. My Father had hit the bottle and was working or drinking and I was left to my own devices which eventually meant I was becoming pretty demoralised. I had tried to get into Glasgow University to do English a few years earlier but my four Highers and 7 O Grades were not enough (now, they’d get you as far as you want to go) and I stupidly turned down a chance to do a course at Stow College because I had this idea it was Glasgow Uni or nothing, so this meant I flitted from nothing, to the dole, to whatever AKA could spare.

At the start of 87, I started dipping into my comics and selling them at marts. The first time I did a Mart I walked out with £400 in cash. That was a fucking fortune in 87, so I dipped in and out of my comics and found this actually helped supplement my lifestyle as my father was spending money on booze all the time, and my brother was turning into a giant arsehole so I was on my own really.

By the end of 87 I was helping Pete Root out with ordering at AKA and I was on the phone chatting with Neil Phipps, one of the lads at Neptune Distribution who were one of the companies we used to get our comics. We were having a chat and he mentioned that they were having a right hassle getting a new member of staff, which made me say ‘well, I’d do it if I lived in Leicester’ (which is where Neptune were based) which resulted in Neil shouting this across the office to Geoff, the MD of Neptune and Geoff coming quickly on the call and saying that’d he’d pay for me to come down for an informal interview though he was effectively hiring me there on that call as we’d met at that year’s UKCAC and we’d spoken often on the phone.

I came off the call and spoke to Pete, who by now was sitting next to me behind the til asking me in Pete’s typically understated way ‘what the fuck’s all that about?’. I explained and Pete said it’s something I should think about seriously about before taking me to the pub to seriously think about it, before being joined by John McShane who advised me that it was a chance too good to turn down. Both knew my circumstances and background & I knew they were right. I needed a sharp change in direction and this was it.

So in December 87 I went down to Leicester for two days to see Neptune and Geoff, and we agreed I’d move down in the New Year and start as soon as I got myself down. I managed to find myself somewhere in Leicester to live with the help of Neil, and forgetting that you needed money to hire a van and pay rent, a loan from John and Pete from AKA to help me on my way.

My father didn’t take the news of this well. But by this time he’d found himself a widow and was calming down a bit, but my brother was a cock about the whole thing and spouted some of the most amazing anti-English spite I’ve heard from any SNP supporter. I haven’t spoken to him since.

I was amazingly sad to leave people behind, but I’d made a decision to move and  there was a new generation of AKA lads (who had to handle the Glasgow Comic Wars first hand while I just stirred it from afar)  coming through which was good, but I was off to sunny Leicester and the glamour it brought….

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Which brings me to the end of my Secret Origin. If it seemed I was being vague, or didn’t go into detail you’d be right. Some of this is because I fully intend going into greater detail and partly because there’s some things I prefer keeping to myself and partly because the diaries I kept from back then are incomplete and my memory isn’t going to fill in all the details.

But this should give enough context for everything I blog about from now on. I’m going to try to keep an order of sorts, but I’m going to probably end up leaping here, there and everywhere so next up could be the tale of Hitchercon 80 and how amazingly nice Douglas Adams was to me, or the history of comic shops in Glasgow in the 80’s, or that trip to Brighton in Easter 1983, or the trip to a comic convention in Birmingham in 1986 which saw people drawing straws as to who’d share a double bed with Grant Morrison, or the late nights of debauchery and on and on.

You’ll just have to wait and see what comes out first.