Once upon a time in a time far, far away, comics were still the preserve of boys to men who liked spandex clad musclemen hitting each other and things seemed good. Groups of these people, known as ‘fans’ would get together to buy comics from dealers at things called ‘marts’, held normally in old Victorian buildings, or in areas where electricity seemed like a recent discovery.
Living in Glasgow during the 1970’s I’d see ads for comic marts in far away exotic lands like London, Liverpool and Birmingham. I remember one of the early Alan Austin/Justin Ebbs price guides (FF #1 for only 200 quid!) that featured ads for something weird and wonderful called ”The Westminster Comic Mart’.
For me sitting in Glasgow this all seemed amazingly exciting, and as I’ve blogged before, marts did eventually come to Glasgow, and I eventually went to a convention in England. The London marts were out of reach for the time being and although I did go to a UKCAC in 1987 (in retrospect, this was a life changing event as it resulted in me moving from Glasgow to, err, Leicester five months later) it wasn’t the one day marts.
This is where for those people who come now to conventions to cosplay, (or fancy dress as we used to say back in the day) or buy toys or find out about the new superhero film, or even more amazingly, buy comics will be wondering what the deal is?
Marts and conventions are different beasts. Marts are one-day events where the main focus is buying comics, though there may be the odd signing. Conventions are the Full Monty: talks, films, previews, portfolio viewings, the lot as well as buying comics. Marts are like ultra-concentrated conventions but are really hangovers from the time when there wasn’t enough fans in the country to have the sort of big events that are pretty common across the country. With sketchy distribution of American comics in the 70’s and early 80’s, marts were often the only way to pick up collectors items without doing a trip to the US, which few collectors could do. Specialist shops across the country were also not always reliable but they were at the mercy of the distributors, and marts had dealers who’d made links with dealers in the US, or more exotically, had dealers from the US with their funny accents and bad dress sense but almost pristine key Golden Age comics!
In the spring of 1988 I finally managed to get to a Westminster mart. The Westminster mart was the one where creators like Dave Gibbons or Neil Gaiman would pop down for a browse, and you could chat with them in the pub next door to the Westminster Central Hall.
The Westminster Central Hall today is a grand venue sitting near the Houses of Westminster, but in the 80’s it was a little bit shabby just like most of the country was back then. London wasn’t this ridiculously wealthy city sucking the lifeblood out of everywhere else and it was still a great city.
Anyhow, the marts here were focused not just on the Central Hall, but a nearby pub, The Westminster Arms. This is where punters and creators would mix, and indeed, it’s where people’s careers in comics started. These marts were genuine events and as made clear in this rather evocative blog, people waited eagerly for them because there was nothing else out there on the pre-internet days, especially if you lived in a town or city without a decent comic shop. People saved up and came to these Westminster marts just as I’d seen people save up and come from all over the central belt of Scotland for the Glasgow marts.
Backing up the Westminster Marts were the Camden Marts which were held in a shitty hall, opposite a shitty pub just over the road from King Cross/St. Pancras Station which was an exceptionally shitty area. These were held on a Sunday as opposed to Westminster which was held normally on a Saturday. These were a wee bit more sedate, but still extraordinary busy.
But back though to that spring on 1988 when I went to my first London mart at Westminster. I was working for Neptune Comic Distributors at the time, and I’d been sent down on a reconnaissance mission to scout out any potential new business. It was also an excuse to buy some comics, mingle with the crowds and have a few beers with some mates (including John McShane from AKA Books & Comics which is where I’d been before moving to Leicester) from Glasgow who were down for the mart.
Walking into that hall on that spring morning was immense. Not only were there vast walls of people sweating furiously in the spring sunshine, but there were table after table of comics everywhere, and yes, I’d been to UKCAC once, and seen a run of Glasgow marts and the odd convention but nothing like this. There were EC Comics, Golden Age (I saw my first copies of Batman #1 and Superman #1) and stuff I’d never even heard of but looked amazing. There were also pages of original art including Jack Kirby pages for 50 quid!!
It was extraordinary, not to mention utterly brilliant. I’d forgotten about my job of finding new business and had ended up spending too much money, not to mention I’d slowly slipped into the Westminster Arms with McShane and others to drink heavily. To this day, I’m not sure exactly how I got back to Leicester that night!?
Over the next few years, I’d pop to London on one of my frequent visits to take in a mart, buy lots of stuff I didn’t really need, and end up in a pub somewhere in London drinking away merrily. When I’d left Neptune I ended up working with Chris and Maurice, who’d eventually drag me down to Bristol and this gave me years of experiencing what it was like at a London mart on the other side, and although I think I only did one or two Westminster Marts before they died, they were astonishing to work. I remember one where I handed Maurice a wad of cash which must have been around 200 quids worth and this was in the first half hour in the wee bit of table space I was looking after.
My pattern for these marts would be that I either met up with Chris and Maurice in Bristol and would spend a few days sorting out stock, or I’d leave Leicester in the early hours to get to London around 8am. Fuck, that was often quite grim, especially those morning when I’d decided to go clubbing til 2am, or I had to leave a girlfriend in bed so I could sell comics to spotty fanboys. Even when I spent a year in Bristol it was like this. Here’s me looking the worse for wear on one of these trips one summer’s day..
Note the eyes like pissholes in the snow, and that t-shirt is a long lost Gregory shirt with a design by the great Marc Hempel.
So these trips were fun most of the time, apart from the early starts, loading, unloading and then loading of vans and hours and hours spent in vans or buses to get to London. One time when I was skint and living in Leicester I stupidly hitched down, got picked up by the flatmate of a girl I was sort of seeing and nearly died around Luton when her car had a blowout, and it was only her amazingly good driving that got us to the hard shoulder without serious death. All this aside, they were often fun examples of male-bonding over huge breakfasts, dreadful tea and coffee, not to mention comics. I never let the boys down at all, except once but I had very good reasons not to go down to London as I was, err, otherwise occupied at the time…
This was pretty much the pattern for much of the 1990’s as I drifted out of working in comics full time and moved into other fields, but I still kept my toe in the water with these marts. By the mid-90’s the marts in London had expanded to include one at the Royal National Hotel and in the TUC building in central London. I’m not revealing any great secret in my dislike of the TUC marts because of the location being singularly crap for a mart, but this was now the only central London mart after the Westminster marts ended which meant it tended to be pretty busy. You’d also see famous face, well, famous faces in the world of comics/pop culture stil. Look, there’s Kim Newman! Look, there’s Alan Davis! Look, there’s Adam Ant!!
Then around 97 or 98 the marts slowed down. Part of that was due to the sheer proliferation of shops in London, but also something called the ”internet” was starting to make inroads into how comics were bought and sold. Of course the great speculator boom of the early 90’s had faded as well, so most of the speculators had bailed with those left being more refined in their habits but one of the hangovers from the boom were the increased amounts of dealers at marts. Now some of these newer dealers were great, most however were rubbish, fans trying to play at running a business, or frankly, complete fucking crooks.
The organisation of some of these marts often led much to be desired at times, the TUC mart especially could descend into farce as dealers didn’t know who was were, or find out they didn’t have tables set up. I’d still have a day out but it’d be often so annoying working at some of these marts which were essentially dead by 2pm when they’d opened at midday. The lack of new blood didn’t help, nor did the amount of, well, seriously fucking creepy blokes not to mention people with little personal hygiene which put passer-by’s off. After all, if you were interested in comics and wanted to have a shufty at a mart would you want to stay somewhere where some people smelled of two week old sweat and semen?
I moved to Bristol again in the summer of 2000 and this initially didn’t stop me from making the early morning trip to London once or twice a month. After a few months though I realised it was wasting my time, as after all, I was making decent money in the job I was in currently, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to and although I enjoyed dipping my toes back in the waters of comics I grew to hate the early starts not to mention the lack of new blood coming in.
See it’s easy now with comic conventions coming out of your ears to think it’s always been like this, but it’s not. This really is still in the early days of a huge explosion that started around 2008 or so and I’ve no idea where this will lead, but in 2001 comics were still a pretty niche hobby, and it was still a hobby, not a ‘culture’ as ‘geek/nerd culture’ seems to be now.
In 2002 I knocked the marts on the head, and only dipped into the world of comics occasionally in the real world, but in the online world I was exploring this new world. It’s here where the reason why the London marts dried up lies as eBay finally stuck the knife into the mart. After all, why bust a vertebrae or two loading comics when you just need a good website with a good eCommerce engine driving it and you can make the same, if not more for vastly less hassle?
I still kept in touch, mainly via Chris who told me how far the marts had fallen and of the disgraces which meant the mart organisers changed hands. In researching this blog I came across this video…
Apart from the fact the Royal National Hotel still has that awful carpet, it’s a sad sight. Middle aged men who were young once because I remember them being so, all walking around looking at mainly awful looking stalls selling comics and crap. It’s got the air of a wake for someone nobody really liked that much. No kids, no young people. Just the same old fans and some of the same old dealers selling comics they’ve been lugging around since the 1980’s.
The convention has replaced it. Marts seem like the analogue version of today’s digital fandom with it’s geek culture that’s a genuine culture adopted by the sort of people twenty years ago would have kicked sand in your face on the beach. It’s hopelessly lost against the tide of the massive influx of new people coming in to the culture, but for many of these people collecting comics isn’t a hobby. It’s the characters that draws them. The comics are almost an aside.
That said, I’d be sad to see the death of the mart. They do look like glorified car boot sales now, but there’s something warming to me that they still plod on as if the 21st century is but a mere inconvenience. They’re a fading ghost of a time passing away but they still troop on. I like that.