Is a monopoly on comics distrbution in the UK a good thing?

‘Geek’ culture is an a zenith right now with comics now seen all over the place, but back in the distant days of the 1980’s things were different. Comics were still very much a minority medium, and the comic book a niche product for mainly children and collectors; however by the late 80’s the seeds of today’s ‘Geek’ culture were sown when the UK’s direct market exploded after the boom created by work such as Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and in the run-up to Tim Burton’s Batman film, the industry hit what was considered by some at the time, as a peak.

Before I go on it is best to explain things in a bit more detail which may get a wee bit dry so stick with me here. The direct market in the UK took years to build up as comic shops slowly appeared (albeit normally as parts of a wider SF/fantasy bookshop) during the 1970’s in cities like London, Bristol and Edinburgh. In the early 1980’s comic shops started to really spring up with the growth of the American direct market, thanks partly to Titan Distributors ensuring there was a distributor of American comics based in the UK. In the mid-1980’s a number of competitors to Titan sprung up so there was nothing like the monopoly we have today where you only get your new comics via Diamond Comic Distributors.

American distributors like Bud Plant and Mile High dabbled with direct distribution to UK shops, but the issue was one of logistics. It wasn’t til American distributor Glenwood Distributing started air-freighting comics direct from the printers that it became possible to consider actually beating Titan at their game as they just relied mainly on sea-freight, or shipping comics from a third party outwith the printer. For the UK this meant that from 1985 onwards there were a number of distributors pushing to break Titan’s grip on what was a growing market in the UK, however it was Neptune Distribution run by Geoff Fry based in Leicester that broke the deadlock. As an ex-employee I go into details of Neptune’s history here, so go read those blogs for a more in-depth history of Neptune’s rise and fall, but what is important here is that by 1987 Neptune were knocking great big chunks out of Titan’s grip on the UK market.

Here’s where I get to something that’s a tad controversial. Titan and Forbidden Planet were linked by having the same owners in Mike Lake and Nick Landau creating an obvious conflict of interest. After all,how do you stop a distributor delivering to your customer base first potentially taking more business away from your company? Simple solution; start expanding the Forbidden Planet chain. This ended up causing a battled between Neptune and Titan that I outlined here. Then the editorial below was published in Fantasy Advertiser, published by Neptune and sold in Forbidden Planet. This was written solely by Geoff Fry but to this day I stand by the jist of it.

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When Mike Lake apparently read this in FP’s store then in New Oxford Street, apparently he went off his head with rage because this one editorial nailed the problem with having a distributor also acting as a retailer. They could use what should be confidential information to buy a business advantage in an area and they could unfairly compete with other shops by offering prices at wholesale prices (this happened when FP opened in Bristol in 1993) ensuring they undercut the competition. It should also be pointed out that publishers were not aware of this conflict of interest. I know of at least three retailers who pointed out to people from DC and Marvel what was going on, including one case where Mike Lake was asked to leave a DC retailers meeting when it was pointed out he also represented a distributor.

As I’ve outlined in my blogs Neptune did what it could to try to level the playing field but after Neptune’s implosion and subsequent purchase by Diamond the UK market started to be, frankly, less diversified than it is now to the point of being less adventurous. The reason for this is simple. Once Titan/FP had its hands round the neck of the market it squeezed so smaller titles that they or ourselves at Neptune may have taken on were dropped. Some shops also couldn’t compete with having a wholesaler who also acted as their main competitor which led to shops closing across the UK in the 90’s which to be fair wasn’t just the fault of FP/Titan as the speculator bubble of the 90’s burst taking a lot of people and businesses with it. In 1992 after swallowing up the corpse of Neptune, Diamond bought out Titan leaving the UK market to be served by one distributor deciding what they stock which in effect unnaturally shapes the market in the same way that say, having Virgin Trains running a train network on the basis of profit unnaturally shapes the market.

The title of this blog asks if a monopoly on comics distribution a good thing? It clearly isn’t. We’ve seen an industry grow beyond belief in the last decade with ‘geek’ culture being smeared everywhere yet the retail market in the UK has been shaped in the most unnatural way to barely any yelp from most of the so-called ‘journalists’ of the British comics scene who are more interested in self-progression so for decades have let this rotting sore in the industry fester. True, one or two have touched on this in the past and the Forbidden Planet situation but it remains one of those things that folk like me talk about in bars and coffee shops with others of our generation wistfully wondering why it all went so wrong when it could have went so right.

For me a more diverse, interesting industry comes with wholesalers who will play fair let alone taking risks as we’re now in a state where the Diamond catalogue is a minefield of variant covers and tedious new superhero comics with little new or exciting because once a monopoly is secure you can do anything. Yes, shops like Page 45 in Nottingham and Gosh! in London do what they can to show the comics industry is a diverse thing, but while there’s only one distributor we have a situation where any diversity is hard to find and if you’re a small press publisher then it can be a struggle to be discovered. Although digital helps for some, it doesn’t for most which means for new British talent it’s either hoping 2000AD accept you, or but some stroke of talent/luck your comic finds a market because as sure as shit isn’t likely that Diamond will distribute your book or FP will bother to stock it.

It’s impossible to turn back the clock but it is possible for the future to be changed. How that changes depends on what we all do as fans if we’re fed up of a monolithic monopoly controlling distribution. I’m not offering solutions here, but consider this a call for people to consider what’s best for the future as at some point this bubble is going to burst as all bubbles do and for our industry to remain interesting and diverse we need to shake the system up in a way that shifts power from the large corporations to the independent retailers, the creators and the fans or the future is bland, boring and fucked.

My Top 20 SF Films-12-Forbidden Planet

I’ve recently dived into doing ”best of’ lists, so as I’ve explained, I’ve decided to do my top 20 SF films. This is my personal list, so feel free to disagree with it and of course, you’ll be horribly wrong.

Previously at # 20, The Matrix19, Seconds, 18A Boy and His Dog17Sunshine16Dark Star15Rollerball14 Altered States and 13, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

At #12 we flail our arms wildly with joy as it’s the SF film that set up every space adventure film that followed it, it’s Forbidden Planet.

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This is Forbidden Planet. I don’t really need to recap the plot, and anyhow it’s Shakespeare’s The Tempest anyhow, but in space with Ann Francis in a short skirt being chased by monsters from the ID.

I remember first seeing this way back in the 1970’s as a kid when the BBC broadcast it on an evening & was instantly captured by the glowing Technicolor, Robby the Robot, and giant sweeping scale of the sets, the ideas and most of all, the fact the film is enormous fun. This is how to do Space Opera, or at least it was until another film later on in this list came along.

As a film it still stands up today as a cracking bit of SF adventure, plus the electronic score was decades ahead of it’s time. You can hear bits and bobs of it pop up in artists like the Aphex Twin’s work every now and then, plus it’s fun to watch Leslie Neilson in a straight role as we forget he was a leading man back in the day…….

Just watch it and enjoy it. It’s what it’s there for….

Next time in a galaxy far, far away……

The Great Glasgow Comic Shop Wars- 25 years and one day later…..

Yesterday I wrote a blog. It seems to have been quite the kerfuffle, but as you can see from reading it there’s good reasons to as even I find it quite amazingly angry, bitter & and twisted some 24 hours later. However I stand by every single bit of it but this is a last word (for now) about that particular chapter now that Andy Hope has revealed he’s writing Fantomex for Marvel Comics.

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I know Andy is doing interviews and kindly Tweeted yesterday’s blog on his Twitter account which is why I imagine yesterday’s blog had more hits than anything else I’ve ever blogged about, including my Glastonbury blogs. So this is to say thanks to Andy, and I hope that when people stumble across this blog they go back and read my little biography/history lesson.

Just to make it easy here’s the links to each part.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Epilogue

For those people coming to this fresh, yes, there are huge chunks probably missing but I didn’t feel that served the story I was trying to tell. I am going to do a history of Neptune Distribution (I’ve made a start but trying to read my handwriting from 25 years ago was a task then) but my main priority for the summer is writing about Glastonbury and festivals in general as anyone with even a passing knowledge of this blog will have sussed out how much of my heart lies there these days. Not to say comics are dumped, but sitting in a field in the sun with like minded good people beats sitting in sweaty comic shops, warehouses or offices full of marketing people talking about comics.

Though in saying that there has to be a way to combine both & oddly enough I’m working on that….

In closing, I’ll be rounding off my history of my experiences of Glastonbury, tackling a few more blogs about my experiences of other festivals and then I’m going to do a big juicy history of Neptune Distribution with all the sex and violence intact…

The Great Glasgow Comic Shop Wars-25 years later……

In parts three and four of my rough history of Glasgow’s comic shops, comic distribution, and chunks of my life between the ages of 21 to 26 or so, I went into detail about those times but a few recent events, not to mention some of the reactions to those blogs, have prompted me to do a little follow up to clear a few things up.

It should be needless to say that you really need to go read the other blogs before coming back to read this.

Firstly my ire and spite was not aimed at anyone working there (outside of the majority of directors/management involved with the situation at the time) past or present. Yes, I do think some people tried to not get involved but there were also people who should have known better and I’m sure those people know who they were so I’ll say nothing else apart from point out that taking a moral stand involves having a spinal column and a sense of right and wrong.

Secondly, I was trying to put a few things straight as the history of British comics tends to ignore, or at best vaguely allude, to the corporatism of what Forbidden Planet did, and how it changed comics retailing in this country by making their shops the Starbucks of comic shops, not to mention having shops trying to follow in their wake rather than follow their own independent path.

Thirdly, it was to point out the sheer bastardry of how people acted at the time. As I said, when I was working for Neptune we did get behind AKA Books and Comics and we did stir things up on a massive scale, but I make no apologies for my actions, nor anyone at AKA because frankly we weren’t the ones who abused friendships and acted underhandedly.

A lot of comics journalism tends to veer on the side of being nice enough to stay on the right side of all concerned, but seeing as I’m not a journalist, nor working in comics I don’t need to bother with that so you read my side of what happened. If you don’t like it and think I’m a cunt then you’re not the only person who thinks that of me. At least I didn’t betray my morals, or my friendships.

The latest round in this was also fired by me old mucker Andrew Hope on his Twitter account who posted this Tweet as he’s now working for Marvel Comics on something quite huge, though someone has to revamp the Human Fly…

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But joking aside, you can see how that even though Andy’s not lived in the UK for over 20 years and hasn’t been involved in comics, or the Glasgow comic scene in that time, the whole thing still leaves a scar though I’m chuffed about Andy’s AKA hashtag which is a nice reminder of where his heart still lies.

It’s because of Andy and a few things I learned at this years Glastonbury in among the fun and joy that prompted this addendum to my earlier series of blogs. I’m glad the response to those blogs was so positive from the right people back in Glasgow, and I hope some people who think I’m stirring things just choke.

I know this all seems bitter, bad tempered and spiteful when for most of my writing I’ve tried to throw in a bit of humour, but I thought I’d make things clear that some wounds don’t heal, and you should never forget or forgive if the other side don’t care about such things and anyhow, my time for doing that was years ago so this is a deep scar that’s not going away.

So I wish Andy well. He didn’t need to reach out to FP Glasgow, but he did and for that he’s probably better than me, but now this piece of catharsis is finally out my system I hope to improve and become a better rounded unit.

Nah, not really. I’ll let this thing fester in me for years because I know I could have, and should have done more not to mention I should have went home more often. Not that it might have made things better but I feel that some people didn’t get the support they should have, even at funerals.

I hope to draw a line under this chapter with this as I’ve got other things to deal with, plus I’d rather write in a lighter tone, but right now I’m seriously considering selling everything to live in a field somewhere (seriously) and with Andy’s Tweet this gave me an excuse to blurt this out & relieve a wee  bit of stress.

Here’s a picture though of a cat to make everyone laugh…

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Bitter Sweet Symphony epilogue/ Oh Look, There Goes Concorde….

After doing six parts of this series of blogs which summarise a large part of my time in comics, not to mention some major parts of comics history from the history of Glasgow’s shops in the 80’s, to the growth of the direct market and British distribution, the messy battle between AKA Books and Comics and Forbidden Planet in Glasgow, a bit of background on FP, the battle between Neptune and Titan and last time, the opening of FP in Bristol you have to ask me as a reader ‘well, that was some nice stories, and I didn’t know most of it but what are you on about?”

Well, it’s fairly easy. These are stories which people don’t know, or maybe only know bits and bobs of it or looked in from afar. It’s a heady cocktail of stories that were sad, fun, interesting, boring or whatever, but throwing these stories out were to make a point:

That they’re gone. They ain’t coming back and like all good things that promised so much and were amazing at the time they’ve been replaced by more dreary and mundane things. It’s a final flight to remind me, and you of what is done and past, or if you didn’t know, at least inform you of a bit more of what happened at a time when the comics industry in the UK was completely transformed from a ramshackle bunch of shops owned by hippies, amateurs and crooks to big business, and the loss of variety and creativity.

This isn’t to say there’s good shops, not to mention people involved in comics in the UK today. There’s bloody loads of them. However I’ve had the feeling for decades that if AKA hadn’t had FP open up you’d see more new talent coming out of Glasgow, or if Comics and CD’s hadn’t sold up I’d be sitting behind a till just up the road from where I live now, or if Neptune hadn’t collapsed spectacularly I’d still be there, or Trident Comics would still be going, and on and on and on.

You get the picture. There’s a vanload of regret here, not to mention sadness that so much opportunity was missed, or wasted even if for much of time I was involved in these things it was fantastic, shiny and wonderful. I shouldn’t really regret these times as they were great, but it’s those missed opportunities for the future, now my past, that I do but if I had a superpower it’d be the power of hindsight.

So these times go flying off into the past, and that’s the point not just of my little bitter sweet memories of those times, but probably much of what I’ll end up blogging about generally. It’s going to be like the final flight of Concorde…

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Next time: something bridging my love of comics and Glastonbury Festival….

Bitter Sweet Symphony part six/ The Great Bristol Comic Shop Wars

Go read the other parts of this series otherwise you might be a wee bit lost……

Part one. Part two. Part three. Part four. Part five.

We’re in the last two parts, both of which are relatively quick and to the point, so lets crack on…..

In early 1993 I moved down to Bristol to work at Comics and C.D’s on the Gloucester Road. The shop was owned by Chris Bacon and Maurice Pitman (known to most people as Marr) , who were a pair of characters I’d first encountered in my Neptune days through Neil Phipps who was a colleague there. Neil had worked for Chris when Chris owned a comic shop in Leicester which used to be in the underpass by the Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) around 1986. They ran a business selling comics mainly at comic marts like the Westminster comic mart which was utterly bloody massive in those pre-internet days when getting comics was a chore and a half, and they bought old stock from Neptune thanks to their connection with Neil.

After Neil left Neptune after a truly spectacular falling out with Geoff, I became Chris’s main contact there and continued to flog him whatever we were trying to clear, and when I left Neptune started helping Chris and Marr out at marts, not to mention travelling to Bristol to help tackle the massive amount of stock in Marr’s extension. In 1992 they decided to open up a shop in Bristol as Forever People on Park Street was really the only game in town. This didn’t cause any major problems as Chris and Marr were on good terms with Mike at Forever People plus Park Street and Gloucester Road had different types of shoppers compared with how things are today. If anything Comics and CD’s caused a little ripple at Plastic Wax but that passed, and they’re still around looking very much as they did back then.

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I moved down to Bristol around March 1993, and ended up having some great fun in the shop which was on Gloucester Road at a time when every shop on the road (which is one of the longest roads in the city) was an independent shop.

The shop was just past what is the Co-Op and is now a rather nice wee deli.

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I’ll go on about my time at the shop, the fun and games, more about Chris and Marr, that experience with half a roast chicken in a service station on the M4, late night drinking sessions and the fun and antics of 1993’s UKCAC, and of course the Vertigo signing session that spilled from the shop and cut a drunken swathe across Bristol before ending up with Jamie Hewlett drawing Tank Girl sketches for people at the Cadbury House pub.

The point is that things were again pretty cushy for me. Things were fun. Everything was shiny and fab! I was even at the shop when Chris bought Neptune’s remaining stock at a bailiff sale in Nottingham and we got their stuff from there to the shop, so all this stuff followed me around. In fact, when I moved back down to Bristol in 2000, some of it ended up in my garage in Clifton but I’m getting ahead of myself….

Then who should come lurching back into the picture waving at me but Mike Lake and Forbidden Planet….

As previously pointed out, FP were expanding across the UK in the wake of the success of sorts of FP Glasgow, and then opened in Cardiff, Nottingham and across the country but in a city where they had existing customers they were still avoiding opening. In Bristol they had not only us at Comics and CD’s, but Forever People who were one of the very first comic shops in the UK..

The attitude by now coming from FP was ‘fuck it’ so they opened in Bristol and promptly undercut both shops in the city. Comics and CD’s struggled on for a bit before Chris and Marr sold the shop to Mike Allwood who renamed it Area 51, which is still in Bristol, but a bit further up Gloucester Road in a much, much smaller shop.

Unlike the long, bloody and bitter war between AKA and FP in Glasgow, this was more of a  Audley Harrison-esque battle which was over before it really started. Chris and Marr retreated back into doing conventions and marts, not to mention selling wholesale to other dealers from the UK and US.

I moved back up to Leicester just before Christmas 1993, and that was the last I spent earning a living full-time in comics but would still continue to work for Chris and Marr for the rest of the 90’s up til the last major Bristol Comics Expo in 2008, though I did help Chris out at last years frankly disastrous Expo, but again, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The point is that the real world was trying to come crashing into my life and if there’s one thing about working in any part of the comics industry, you don’t interact with the real world much. Thankfully though working in the licensed trade is almost as unreal as comics but I really am bloody getting ahead of myself..

Next time: so what was the point of this series of blogs anyhow?

Bitter Sweet Symphony part four/ Return to the Forbidden Planet

Part one. Part two. Part three.

Before I get into the Great Comic Distribution Wars, I thought it was worth having a quick piece  to follow up what happened in Glasgow when FP opened their shop there in direct competition to AKA.

From 1988 to 1993 Forbidden Planet followed me like a mugger with a carving knife and an erection trying desperately to fuck my plans up at exactly the wrong moment or when things were going well such as the situation in Glasgow that I recounted in part three. Let me explain….

In 1991 I was living in Nottingham after moving from Leicester (more about this sometime in the future) and working a living between working nights in warehouses and doing comic marts in Nottingham, Leicester and Birmingham with Chris Bacon (more about Chris in Part Six of this series, The Great Bristol Comic Shop Wars) and having an interesting time to say the least. For various reasons (which I’ll expand upon another time, but it’s non-comics related so not relevant for now) I moved back to Leicester in the summer of 1992, but while I was doing marts in Nottingham I was effectively made persona non grata at Forbidden Planet in Nottingham (”you’re the competition!!!”), and when I moved to Bristol in 1993 to work at Comics and CD’s on Gloucester Road (more about this in part six) I  chose to withdraw from the battle because FP had opened up in Bristol and fucked the shop, but again, I get ahead of myself.

So if I came over as bitter, and still come over as bitter then it feels like I’ve got good reason, but with the super power of hindsight I know it’s not as easy as that, but I’ll expand upon all this in the next couple of blogs.

The point of this blog is to make a few points. I am not saying Forbidden Planet did anything dodgy during their aggressive expansion policies of the 80’s and 90’s even though they absorbed some of the original British comic shops like Odyssey in Manchester and Nostalgia in Birmingham. In fact people like Graham Holt who owned Odyssey became directors of Forbidden Planet, or one of the many companies and subsidiaries that sprung up with ”Forbidden Planet” in it’s name.

In fact there’s several different Forbidden Planet’s as you can see by clicking this link. This results in the frankly surreal situation of going to conventions and seeing two different FP stalls in direct competition with each other. It’s a story that several comics journalists have touched on including Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool , but nobody has ever delved into the messy history of the organisation properly, and frankly someone should. Not because there’s any dark, murky secrets. I don’t think they are and there’s been rumours over the years suggesting just that but I’ve never seen or heard an ounce of proof to suggest wrongdoing, even though 20 years ago I might have dearly wished that to be true.

No, it’s to do a history as to how FP turned comic shops into corporate faceless things, which meant many newer shops followed the template and became equally faceless in an attempt to follow in FP’s wake. It’s an important part of British comics history that people have, to me, deliberately avoided for a variety of reasons.

I appreciate that people like going to FP, and I’ve shopped there myself, but like McDonalds  or Costa Coffee it crushes individuality and creativity in their particular industries. If you look at the examples of the really quite excellent Page 45 in Nottingham  or Gosh! in London, then you can see how comics shops should be in my own humble opinion. I can get genuinely excited going into Page 45 and recapture that joy I had when I was hunting round Glasgow trying to find comics and frankly that’s a precious, glorious thing I don’t get going into FP and staring at a wall of expensive toys, or asking surly staff where a book or comic is. I want to feel like the people running the shop care, and you get that if you go into a local, independent deli, or coffee shop, or comic shop. You don’t get that at Costa, or McDonalds, or FP. It’s just about the coin.

And now that’s off my chest, next time will be The Great Comic Distribution Wars.