Wax and wane

I am broken today. Two comic conventions in as many weekends and no break has pretty much outlined my limits post-stroke but thanks to events outwith my control I only have one more event this year before being thrust into the year 2019 where lots of things may be happening.

But the latest show I’ve done was probably the weirdest place I’ve done one in 35 years (and that includes nearly selling comics at Glastonbury) which was Mark Millar’s old primary school, St. Barthlomew’s, in Coatbridge. Upon driving to the school it dawned on me and my driver Jordan, that it was a fucking primary school, and that means everything in it would be wee, and of course it was. So big hefty units such as myself squeezed into tiny wee chairs meant for frames far, far, far younger than us. Also,we expected to turn up and for the dealers to be in a central gym or hall but we were strewn through the corridors of part of the school like discarded Panini World Cup 2018 stickers.

Luckily I ended up with a spare table, so managed to take over the end of one such corridor like this.

Plus I was positioned next to someone I’ve only spoken to online, so it was nice to put a face to the name and as the doors opened at 10am that was consolation for the fact nobody came to where we were. but with a wee prompt for the staff, and some carefully placed arrows, there were soon people coming up our alley for comic, and comic-based, delights.

And I ended up having more fun (while obviously making enough money for the day to not just pay for itself, but so I can put money in the bank) than I was expecting as it wasn’t just the faces that have become familiar to me over the last year, but loads of kids who were attracted by the impressive spread Mark and his staff had laid out with lots of guests like Frank Quitely, Leah Moore and cast members from Still Game and Burnistoun. Many of these kids had no idea what comics to collect having just come down to see what was going on, or come with a mate. I was taught years ago by someone wiser than me to encourage the kids because if you don’t, there won’t be an audience in the decades to come.

And that’s what made this event something a bit different, and a bit more fulfilling than just flogging comics to folk. Keeping the flame burning and passing it on to kids, boys and girls, was great but it’s worn me out . As for the show overall, it’s always hard to say when you’re stuck behind your tables, but people clearly enjoyed it and although there were problems (the cramped space being the biggest one, and although some of the issues were teething pains some things will need to improve if there’s a next time. Having a free for all for tables at a show where to be honest, too many tables were sold, was a big mistake especially when dealers left better positions very, very early in the day leaving some areas virtually dead)  I’d do this again next year.

But I’m done for now. One more show this year, which means I can regroup and plan out 2019 a bit better than just letting it happen and hope for the best which to be fair, is how I’ve led my life up to now but look where that’s led me!?!

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Come to Mark Millar’s Coatbridge con and say hello

If you’re one of the lucky 200 to have a ticket then swing by, say hello and buy some lovely comics from me. I’ll have a bloody good selection of back issues priced reasonably if I say so myself and it promises to be a comic convention a wee bit different for a good cause.

What I thought of Savior #1

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Around 25 years ago I worked for a comics distribution company in the UK called Neptune Distribution, and we had a publishing arm called Trident Comics. By far our most successful comic was Mark Millar’s very first printed work, Saviour.

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Saviour’s plot was that the Antichrist was real, pretending to be Jesus Christ born again and just happened to be the planet’s only superhero as after all, Christ has super powers really, so Mark just played with that idea over Saviour’s all too short run.

So here I am having a shufty through this weeks comics and I see a comic written by Todd McFarlane with Brian Holguin called Savior with this synopsis attached to it.

What if the MOST DANGEROUS man on Earth was also the one trying to do the MOST GOOD?

The world is real. The people are normal. And then he appears! A man appears with no background, no memory, and no place to call home. But he has powers. Powers that seem resemble those we learned about in Sunday School. Could it be?! Is it possible that this man is much, much more than that? Is it possible that he is our “SAVIOR” in the flesh? And if he is, then why doesn’t he know who he is or how he got his powers?

Strip away the spandex and trappings of the traditional comic superhero and ask yourself a simple question: “How would I react if GOD suddenly appeared in front of me, but everything we had been taught about him seems out of whack?” What you would have left, beyond your own doubts, is the presence of a man who has to deal with the fact that his appearance in the world is seen as both a blessing and a curse.

Some will see him as a hero, a messiah. Other will see him as an enemy because there isn’t room for a person with god-like powers to disrupt the status quo of what we already believe. Some will rally behind him. Others will denounce him. But none of us will be able to ignore him.

It isn’t quite Mark’s tale, but it’s the same basic idea, so I threw caution to the wind and bought it off Comixology to give it a go. As a comic, it’s pretty dreadful. Yes, the art by Clayton Crain is fine but there’s pages of Claremontesque speech balloons that simply are just endless amounts of poorly written exposition that thinks it’s trying to be Warren Ellis but isn’t.

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It also suffers from the cardinal sin of too many modern mainstream comics in that it’s got one eye on a film/TV adaptation as it flows from opening exposition into the first big action scene and really, by this point I don’t really care. None of the characters we’ve been introduced to are anything but flat one-dimensional people, and the interesting idea quickly hits beats that anyone that’s seen the Nic Cage film Knowing will be familiar with.

In reality both McFarlane and Millar too the same idea and executed it differently, and yes, it’s hard to really judge a series after one issue but I can’t be arsed wading through cliches when to be honest, Mark’s Saviour of 25 years ago is still more interesting and it’s dated dreadfully.

If you really want to see the idea of a born again Christ in the modern age done well then I highly recommend Russell T. Davies’s The Second Coming that he wrote for ITV in 2003 and starred Christopher Eccleston. It’s a better, more entertaining, deeper, less cliched, dreary and obvious than this effort here from McFarlane.

What I thought of Chrononauts #1

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Chrononauts is the new comic from Mark Millar and the synopsis from publisher Image Comics is as follows…

Corbin Quinn and Danny Reilly are two buddies who love to have fun. They’re also scientific geniuses. When their research leads them to a time-traveling adventure, will they use their knowledge for the good of all mankind? Or use the space-time continuum for their own ends? This is the story of man’s first, televised steps through the time-stream and everything going wrong in the process.

 

Any initial resemblance to Ray Bradbury’s A Sound Of Thunder is probably intended as that story is one of the wellsprings of any SF story featuring time travel, but Millar’s hardly a source of original ideas. Millar’s great talent is throwing together entertaining stories in this case with artist Sean Gordon Murphy (beautifully coloured by Matt Hollingsworth) but the main problem is that sometimes these stories just aren’t very good. Part of that is because Millar tends to write everything with an eye on a film and that means he’s not really doing anything interesting in the medium of comics. Sadly this is a problem far too common in mainstream comics, but at least Millar does occasionally turn out good stories.

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This clearly has film potential slapped all over it but it does help that this is concentrating on the story first however there’s a sense of playfulness in this that’s often missing from Millar’s work.  This basically is a couple of American dudes discovering time travel so they can go and have adventures.

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Of course anyone reading this can see what’s coming and to Millar’s credit he telegraphs it early on in the issue.

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And of course things go wrong on the first manned event of time travel.

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What I do like is that Millar doesn’t waste time setting the story up. He’s cracking the plot on at a pace not often seen in most mainstream comics because he realises that the audience he’s pitching to are going to get bored quickly so it’s no fannying around here.

Chrononauts problem is that it’s an idea that wouldn’t be out of place in 2000AD (and in fact feels like a rejected idea) but although it’s an entertaining read its slight. in terms of weight. Characters are flimsy and painted in such broad brush strokes that it makes characterisation in a Jason Statham film look like a Werner Herzog film. This really is something for people wanting a mindless bit of fun or for people not exactly setting their aspirations high in terms of content. This isn’t to say it’s a badly done comic; it’s certainly not but Millar’s problem is that in his constant attempts to create comics that are essentially pitches to Hollywood, he’s lost a bit of what makes comics more than just a glorified film script. That said, I’ll pick up the next issue…

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise and Fall of Neptune Comic Distributors: Part Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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