Is a monopoly on comics distribution 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.

Bitter Sweet Symphony Part Three/ The Great Glasgow Comic Shop Wars

In Part One of this series, I outlined the history of Glasgow’s comic shops in the 80’s and the second part I outlined the history of comic distribution in the UK during the 80’s, so we’re up to the point in 1988 where Geoff at Neptune comes into the office shouting  at me saying ‘what the fuck do you know about Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow?’

Before I go on I should point out there’s a lot of memories here based upon second or third hand stories and I’ve tried to make this as fair as possible but as will become clear in this (and the next blog) I was firmly on one side but I’ll try to outline what’s second hand to me. I will also say you really need to go back and read the first two parts of this before even trying to get stuck into this.

Now that’s out the way I can get on with answering the question as to just what the fuck I did know about Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow? The answer was nothing. I didn’t have a clue. Geoff didn’t have a clue. So he pulled me into his office and he explained what had happened.

He was speaking on the phone to Graham at Odyssey in Manchester when he mentioned to Geoff that he’d been down to the Titan warehouse in London (anyone who was a Titan customer could visit the warehouse which was in Mile End in an exceptionally unpleasant area) when he’d seen a shelf marked ”Forbidden Planet Glasgow” which sent his Manc Spidey Sense tingling. At this point I have to point out comic shop owners are the worst gossips in the world, so Graham blurted this factoid out to Geoff on the phone knowing this was an exceptionally juicy bit of gossip as AKA in Glasgow was one of Neptune’s top customers so FP opening in Glasgow wasn’t just taking on AKA, but Neptune.  I was told to get on the phone to Jim at the SF Bookshop to find out if he knew anything, while Geoff broke the news to Pete and John at AKA. Now this was early 1988 and I’d not long moved to Leicester so I’m putting this around February or March of that year and definitely before Easter which was the weekend of the 1-4 April.

Anyhow, I asked Jim the question ‘do you know anything about FP Glasgow, while explaining how we knew at Neptune’. He said he knew nothing, we chatted for a bit and then I went into Geoff’s office to hear him still on the phone with John McShane and to say that Geoff was fucked off is an understatement. This was a man prone to bursts of raging anger and his neck was going to explode like a Tesco’s bag full of beetroot, and by this point his partner Sarah was in the office mouthing ‘calm down’ to him which he sort of did before finishing the call to AKA. Then he spent an hour talking with me about what we could do to help AKA out. We weren’t going to let Titan/FP lay a few good punches on one of our best customers without coming out with steel toecapped boots aiming for their bollocks, so we came up with a plan…

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, a Batman graphic novel, was coming out in March.

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What if we could get it to Glasgow as the same time we would get it to London?

To explain; Neptune would get two deliveries a week from the US, one from Sparta Press from the US on a Thursday, and on a Friday we’d have the Ronalds shipment from Canada. The former would be the mainstream newsstand comics, while the latter would be the more ”prestigious’ titles aimed for the direct market. We’d get, them, take them to our warehouse in Staines, sort them and send them via ANC to arrive the next day, so Friday and Saturday for all of our customers apart from those in London, Leicester, Northampton and Nottingham. They were lucky enough to get a delivery by van pretty much hot off the presses, so there and then on the same day they landed in the UK. Titan did a similar thing but only delivered to London customers which meant we could pull a trick or two.

While we plotted and schemed in Leicester, the situation in Glasgow had erupted. It turned out that Jim from the SF Bookshop did indeed know about FP Glasgow, as he was actually going to be a partner in the shop. To say that Pete and John at AKA were upset about this is again, an understatement but I wasn’t in Glasgow when this was found out. I can only go on what Pete, John and various friends told me at the time, plus like I said, comic shop owners gossip and we were getting a fuckload of gossip about what was kicking off in Glasgow in the early part of 1988.

I’d heard that half of AKA’s customer base had left to go to Forbidden Planet, along with people like Grant Morrison, Jim Clements, Gary Erskine and several others of the old (well, it was old to me now I was a few hundred miles away) crowd who’d been lured by the bright shiny new shop and the fact it sold new imports slightly cheaper than AKA which was something a shop like FP could do if it was also owned by it’s distributor. As I pointed out to Geoff one day in the car, this was a conflict of interest and that statement opened a huge can of worms but that’s for the next blog. Back to this one.

AKA was hardly going out of business but FP opening was a huge blow, and it was taken very personally by many on the AKA side, mainly because of Jim being involved and the duplicitous circumstances of it’s opening. In hindsight Glasgow could have easily supported another shop, and FP and AKA could have easily lived together without the bad blood but the decision was made by FP and those behind it to open the Glasgow shop in the way they did.

Or basically, they started it.

In March 1988, we’d found out exactly when The Killing Joke was going to ship and it was over Easter weekend, so we came up with a cunning plan; I’d take as many as I could physically carry on the train to Glasgow which might make you think ”hang on, isn’t it easier just to have shipped it up normally as both Titan and Neptune would have got it at the same time”?

Except we didn’t. We’d made arrangements to ship 2,000 copies in by special air freight at a cost of a Lot Of Money into the UK on the same day they were printed in Canada. Neptune didn’t make a single penny of profit from those issues, and in fact much like the story about Factory Records losing thousands over the 12” of Blue Monday, this was a case of making a point.

Had it actually went to plan. Which it didn’t. The problem was that customs decided to hold  comic shipments for everyone that weekend seeing as it was Easter and they were being anal about things. Also the logistics company we used decided to ship several thousand copies of expensive comics from Heathrow to Gatwick, and then as we were driving to Gatiwck to get them (with the plan now changed that I’d get the train from Brighton!) we were told on our carphone (ooo, technology) that they were heading back to Heathrow and head back there. Basically the entire plan went to shite but Titan were also in a mess, so we’d not lost our advantage!

This was the day before April Fool’s Day. We went back to Leicester to grab some sleep, and next day went back down to grab these previous comics which we did along with the regular shipment but we knew the entire plan would only work if we got got my arse on a train to Glasgow ASAP so AKA could get The Killing Joke before FP did. After a hectic few hours which saw myself and Neil Phipps (one of the Neptune lads I’ve mentioned previously) frantically taping together boxes (the fucking thing came in it’s own stand in boxes of 25!!) of Killing Joke outside Euston on a lukewarm Good Friday I legged it to a train leaving Neil to call John and Pete at AKA that I was on my way and I’d be about six hours….

Ten hours later I finally get to Glasgow Central. I’d stood all that time. In a carriage full of squaddies. And it’d got warmer. Plus I hadn’t eaten in hours. I also wanted water. I was frankly a fucked up mess by the time I got to Glasgow but I heaved off the several boxes of comics, loaded them on a trolley and wheeled it down the platform to see a grinning John McShane patiently waiting for me among the neds and jakies milling around Central Station at this time, which was late on Good Friday. Thankfully John got me, and the precious cargo into a taxi and we sped off to his new flat in Dennistoun where I humped the comics up the stairs, dumped them in John’s lobby and promptly passed out on his couch.

The next morning saw an early rise and we got the comics down to AKA as quickly and early as possible, though I do remember demanding a couple of rolls and square sausage and all the Irn Bru I could drink before doing anything. Anyhow, we got in around 8ish, I helped John break the boxes down (I didn’t mention that in addition to carrying up 200 copies of the Killing Joke, I’d brought up two boxes of their regular delivery) and place the Killing Joke into the standing order customers folders. There was about 20-30 copies left to stick out on display, which we did so by the time Pete Root turned up at 9am, the delivery had been done and dusted and I settled in to a seat behind Pete who was manning the till and waited for customers to come in to see what the reaction was.

And the reaction was quite amazing. Titan hadn’t got their copies out in time. This was Easter weekend and that meant if something didn’t turn up on the Saturday, you’d not get it til Tuesday. Now we only got 200 copies up to Glasgow (the rest came later) but the point was people came in, saw the Killing Joke in AKA, bought their copy and went up to FP to tell Jim and those who left AKA that this incredibly long awaited comic was down the road and oh, where’s your copies?

Which was exactly as Geoff, John, Pete and myself had planned. It was an incredibly expensive, agonising and exhausting way to essentially stick two fingers up at FP and scream FUCK YOU at them but bollocks to it, this was a stunt needing to be done and it created a bit of gossip because we should know comic shop owners are gossips by now.

I went back to Leicester on the Monday, while the situation in Glasgow worsened. FP were aggressively pushing into AKA’s market share and a hell of a lot of very, very, very, very bad blood started coming to the fore. I only experienced this second or third hand but this piece sums things up well on a superficial level but the bleeding of staff and customers from AKA to FP was causing damage and although AKA was still getting the signing sessions which made it such a hub of creativity and excitement in the previous years, there was a feeling among those who I spoke to who did make the move to FP that they were going to miss out on something by going to FP.

In hindsight it was gloryhunting in the same way office bores bleat on about supporting Manchester United because they don’t want to be on the losing side, and it was seen that AKA was on the losing side from the off by some.Some people did try to bridge the gap, or just didn’t care. For me though I was increasingly occupied with the Great Comic Distributors War (more on this in the next blog) Geoff had started with Titan, plus my social life in Leicester was expanding since Neil had shown me the gloomy, filthy, glorious wonders of The Fan Club and the ritual of ‘grabbing a goth’…

This isn’t to say I wasn’t taking an interest in the rather sad civil war that broke out in Glasgow throughout 1988 and into 1989. I did, but I tried my hardest to help by doing my job well, and not to mention being involved with more stunts like the time we flew John McShane down from Glasgow to Heathrow for 30 minutes so we could dump a whole load of Arkham Asylum graphic novels we’d shipped in before Titan so we could get the book out in sale in Glasgow on the same day it landed in the UK. This one really fucked FP off in a huge way as Grant Morrison was now part of the FP crowd and this was his big book, so for AKA to get it before FP was a delightful ‘fuck you’ to the shop but it only ended up causing more bad blood, more spite and more grim depressingly bad feeling.

By the time of the first GLASCAC in spring 1990 there was a Cold War going on with AKA and FP agreeing to stay out of each others way but really, this wasn’t my war. I was involved in a bitter and bigger one with Titan while what was happening in Glasgow was important not to mention amazingly sad to me, I was at best a peripheral figure who swanned in and out of life in Glasgow only catching snippets of what was affecting people every day. It’s not trite to say that for some of us involved in the whole thing learned some valuable lessons about humanity throughout this, which for me was to stick by your mates and learn when people are lying to you. As someone who’s spent now over a decade in sales and marketing I can tell you a liar from 50 feet, and some of that skill was picked up during these times when you couldn’t trust who was saying what, so you had to pick sides. Even if I’d not went down to Leicester to work for Neptune, I’d have still sided with AKA because I’m always going to side against the independent against the Big Company.

Eventually some wounds did heal. After AKA closed down, Pete Root went to FP with his back issues and ran his business from the back of the shop. John McShane made some sort of peace with Jim and those at FP, but I’ve not spoken to John about this in over a decade and sadly, Pete died a few years ago. I’m going to do something just for Pete another time.

At the end of 1990 comics were hardly my main priority as I’d royally fucked my life up, so I wasn’t going to Glasgow, or in as close touch as I was in the previous years but still heard enough coming from there thanks to some of the newer AKA crowd but mainly the fantastic Andy Sweeney who kept me informed throughout the 90’s when I was becoming something else entirely. By the time I’d sorted myself out in the spring of 91 the Glasgow Comic Shop Wars had passed, but there’s another part to this which is the Great Comic Distribution Wars. That’s for next time……

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……