The Rise and Fall of the UK Comic Art Convention

I’ve done some blogs previously about the prehistory of British comic conventions and the story of my first real comic convention but leaving aside the tale of the Eisnercon in Glasgow for a bit, let’s go diving right into the tale of UKCAC

UKCAC was the brainchild of Frank Plowright and Hassan Yussuf to capitalise on the growing popularity of comics in all it’s genres, not just superheroes or 2000AD which tends to be the case with a lot of British events these days, hence the ‘Comic Art’ part of the title. The first one was held in London in 1985 but seeing as I didn’t attend that one or the one in 1986 there’s nothing I have to say about them but they quickly turned into the essential comic convention in the UK.

So in 1987 I went to my first UKCAC and this also happened to be the last time I paid to get into any comic convention in the UK, which is quite impressive in it’s own sad wee way, but anyhow in the summer of 1987 a group of us at AKA decided to go to that year’s convention. I reckon there must have been around seven or eight of us which included myself, Pete Root, Jim from the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh, Peter Coyle and a load of regulars and drinking partners from AKA. We decided the best way to go around things was to hire a minibus which was really a converted long wheelbaseTransit Van.

Seven or eight blokes. In a van. Driving from Glasgow to London overnight. The logical thing not to do before getting in the van is not go for a curry, so we went for a curry, bought a load of beers and piled in the van for the long overnight journey down to London. Now this was a long time ago, but I do remember the stench of a load of sweaty blokes drinking and farting all the way down.

It wasn’t pretty.

Anyhow a load of us were staying at the university halls that UKCAC had arranged as cheap accommodation, while some of the others had booked in at the main hotel but before we all planned to check in we’d arranged a trip to Titan Distributors in the East End of London. Now we turned up in London very early, probably around 6 or 7am (we even saw Alexei Sayle popping out for some milk on a Saturday morning)  to the Titan warehouse.

Nowadays the warehouse is a set of yuppie flats….

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But back then it was a filthy old building next to a park full of used johnnies and used syringes, with a horrific greasy spoon cafe nearby, but we piled into the warehouse, and I remember helping Pete Root get some stuff for AKA. I can’t remember who exactly was there as most of the staff had the day off as UKCAC was on. Once we’d done what we needed to at Titan, we headed into Central London to check into our respective rooms, dump our stuff and wait to get into the convention.

1987 was probably the year when comics became massive. Watchmen was massive, and Dark Knight Returns and Maus had taken off, 2000AD was in another great period. People were interested in comics as a medium and things were fun. Okay, it was still a male dominated scene and the stench of misogyny and sweat were still rife but it was growing and there were a load of kids becoming interested in anything comic related which was great as many of those people are still fans today.

Here’s a thing about these events; they’re a massive blur, so from the time we joined the queue to get in, everything seemed to happen at once. We got in, and I headed for the dealers room with most of the others while everyone else went to the bar. At comic conventions you always end up in the bar but I was still in my fanboy phase so it was comics first, beer second.

It was around here that was introduced to Geoff from Neptune Distributors in a meeting which ended up with me working for Neptune five months later. The afternoon moved on and I went to several panels featuring the likes of Alan Moore and a fresh faced Neil Gaiman who was on a panel with Grant Morrison who we’d brought with us in the van of sweat. It was all jolly fun during the day and in the evening we mingled with people we’d never met before from London comic fandom and had a fairly fun time.

After a pitiful nights sleep at the university halls, we did the same again on the Sunday which was like attending a wake before the person has died. That’s how depressing the last day at a convention or a festival feels. It’s awful and it’s always like it be it a comic convention or festival or anything where you know you have to go home at the end of it all.

We watched some awards, picked up a few bargains in the dealers room, had a few more beers, said our farewells and piled back in the van of stench for the long, depressing journey back to Glasgow with a promise to come back next year.

Sadly this was a promise I didn’t live up to as by this time I was working at Neptune, which was fine, but I’d been diagnosed with a particularly nasty bout of Glandular Fever and was off work for more or less a month while been told to stay in bed. I was painfully ill and my body was covered in open sores so I was in no fit state to go anywhere so I missed UKCAC in 1988. I did get some nice stuff brought back by workmates but I’d rather been there in person. Next year I thought from the pit of my sickbed…

Which brings us to 1989.

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This year I was fit and healthy, still working for Neptune who co-sponsored the convention that year so that meant I was dashing around being nice to clients and potential clients which really means spending a lot of time in the bar, and the UKCAC bar was a large well-stocked bar.

Again, things were a blur. I did a lot of running from the lower levels of the convention to the bar and was cutting a dashing figure back in those days, but we all had great fun teasing the Titan lot, and making nice little digs to the Forbidden Planet crowd who came down from Glasgow. Pettiness can be fun kids!

This is where things get a bit vague, as the next convention I went to as part of Neptune that was organised by the UKCAC team was the first Glasgow Comic Art Convention held as part of Glasgow’s City of Culture celebrations in 1990. This however is destined for it’s own blog, so this brings us swiftly to the 1990 UKCAC in London.

By this time I’d left Neptune in a blaze of glory a few weeks earlier, so myself an Neil (another former employee of Neptune) went down off our own backs to London to help out Chris Bacon’s tables but seeing as we didn’t have much money, we didn’t have anywhere to stay so we went down in the hope of winging it, which we did. We ended up crashing on poor Martin Skidmore’s floor, who by this point was still editor of Trident Comics and had his room paid for by Geoff and Neptune. This meant Neil and myself took the piss by ordering beers, food, making transatlantic phone calls, making noise, keeping poor Martin up and generally running up an enormous bill. 400 quid I believe. Considering I left Neptune being owed a few hundred quid I considered this payback.

But this was a transition as I moved to be firmly part of Chris’s retail set-up and for the next eight years the pattern was set for UKCAC, which meant turning up early on Friday morning. Setting up. Getting drunk. Selling comics, Getting drunk. Selling comics hungover. Going home. Sleeping.

The catch in all this that apart from one or two years, mainly later on, I had nowhere to stay so this meant blagging a floor, heading up to the Scala for an all-night film programme, or staying up all night in the bar drinking.

1991 was an interesting year in that I wasn’t working full time in comics, but had nearly a decade’s worth of experience in the industry by now, so I knew a lot of people. But I was helping out Chris now so that meant getting down early on Friday to help set up.

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After the set-up, there was a free bar paid for by Titan and Forbidden Planet as the Friday was a dealers day, so dealers from across the UK would come down for various fairly boring meetings. The free bar however was a chance to cover yourself in glory by drinking as much as possible in the hour the free bar was open. I was normally wonderfully successful in this, and would take as much of Mike Like’s money as possible seeing as I was a freeloader by this point.

It should also be said that the dealers room was fucking heaving in these days. You literally had tens and twenties in big thick wads coming over the tables. You can see this in this video from the five minute mark or so when you see the rush there used to be at UKCAC, and yes, that’s Little Chris (as opposed to Big Chris who wasn’t big) and our tables being filmed. 1991 though was a transition year and the following year was when the pattern of comics, drinking and hangovers kicked into full gear.

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This was a great year. There was some lads down from Glasgow as well which made things even more fun. I annoyed Warren Ellis. I helped an American writer/artist avoid getting a kicking for being a loudmouth twat. I crashed on a hotel floor somewhere. Sold some comics, stayed up all night in the bar, sold some comics hungover, packed up and went home feeling ill to Leicester which is where I was living at the time.

1993 was more of the same, but by now there was a group of people, so that was people like Doug, and Steve Noble, and all the other people who would come in and out of the scene. I was in Bristol at this point, so this was a huge year as it was a big Comics and CD’s outing which meant tonnes and tonnes of comics being driven up from Bristol to London, which we unloaded and loaded.

1993 also seemed to be the start of UKCAC’s decline. Frank had priced the event too high to help pay for the thing and get the calibre of guest it needed from the US, but it was still heavily supported within the UK but London isn’t a cheap place to hold conventions, nor is it a cheap place to stay for a weekend if you’re on a budget so from 1994 there was a decline in numbers, not to mention Frank seemed less enthusiastic about running these things in London and Glasgow (which had become a regular event since 1990, but 94 was it’s last year)  for five years.

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This is where years blur into each other. I’m not sure if 94 was the year where myself, Steve Noble and Doug stayed up all night on the Saturday, got drunk and then wandered round Russell Square to find a breakfast. Or if this was the year when Dez Skinn helped a fanzine publisher who was getting gobby with people avoid getting a thick ear. Or if this was the year when I woke in a strange hotel room with a female member of Forbidden Planet’s staff. Or if this was the year when Kev Sutherland dared me to go up to an editor of DC Comics and take the piss out of Vertigo titles. Or if this was the year where the only people left drinking in the bar were Scots and we were scaring tourists coming down for breakfast.

You get the picture…

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One thing was clear though. That was that the crowds were declining, London had priced people out and Frank was intent that year would be it’s last, so after the 1997 UKCAC there didn’t seem to be any stomach for it anymore, plus Frank was living in Glasgow now (I’d helped sell the city to him years earlier) and really hated the trips to London to organise UKCAC, but Glasgow was too far north for a location so in 1998 UKCAC was to be held in Manchester.

Now this isn’t to say Frank didn’t try in the last few London years. He did. He managed to get Jonathan Ross and Paul Gambaccini to present some awards, not to mention he was still trying to inject some life into UKCAC but it didn’t bring it back to life. There was also the fact that people were growing up and there wasn’t the younger crowds to come in as there was in 1990 to 1993. The event was pricing kids out.

So the last year in Manchester. I’d come up from Leicester with a mate Kev, I was working with at the sadly departed Pump and Tap who was a huge fan of Shaky Kane, so we went up winging it to Manchester. We turned up with no hotel, so we found this cheap dive near the station, which was a shite hotel but we only had intentions to use it to sleep.

As we turned up at the UKCAC venue Chris and Maurice hadn’t turned up from Bristol with the stock. In fact nobody seemed to have turned up. In fact it was a big empty room though there was a very helpful young girl who said everything was booked and we were the first people there.

So we waited, and by late morning on the Friday, Frank had turned up to shake things up to be followed by the first few dealers, including Chris and Maurice from Bristol who we were helping out. The rumours were already underway that this was the last UKCAC, and Frank clearly didn’t have the stomach for it anymore and I don’t blame him. He kept the thing going for over a decade, often with no thanks and a lot of spite chucked his way, but he was clear this was it as far as he was concerned, so Manchester was the end.

Only problem was that there were few dealers, and as the convention was set up around us on the Friday, it looked like there was nobody coming. There was a party in the convention hotel on the Friday night which Kev and myself went to (where he met Shaky)  which really did feel like a wake, but it was in a large hotel which also happened to have a student ball which meant the toilets quickly filled up with sick, and then I got very drunk and made a Manchester United fan look daft. I remember being taken back to my hotel by Kev and crashing out in preparation of the day ahead…

The first day proper of the convention was ok. As there wasn’t a lot of dealers, and actually more people than anticipated turning up, we made quite a lot of money and were coining it. The whole thing though just felt sad as we knew there was nothing to come next year, and the marts being held in cities across the UK were no substitute. This feeling of The End ran through the entire weekend, and into the Saturday night in the bar which is normally a fun time was still fun, but was full of people talking about what would happen next.

This however wasn’t a priority as we went back to our hotel room that night to find that someone had broken into it as they were too drunk to realise they were in the wrong room, so we ended up getting a free hotel for the weekend even though we had to kip in a room that smelled of someone else’s sick for one night as there wasn’t anymore rooms. the next morning went to breakfast and saw this chap sheepishly sitting across the room from us as we stared the fucker down.

Twat.

Anyhow, we did the usual on a Sunday. Sold comic hungover. I was interviewed by a girl from Manchester student radio who accused us of selling porn to kids which was completely not true. We just sold it to their dads…

The other interview was from BBC Manchester who came down to do the ‘oh, let’s laugh at the geeks’ piece telly often does when covering these events.

Sunday ran it’s course. We had a whip round for Frank as it was the farewell and used the money to buy some Captain Marvel comics from, errm, us, which was nice. Frank was made up though and seemed genuinely happy, plus he was getting shot of the whole UKCAC thing so he was relaxed.

As for everyone else there was talk of next year. Chris and myself were talking of looking into doing something in Nottingham, while a chat with Kev Sutherland opened up an avenue in Bristol, (which is eventually where a UK convention ended up but more of this another time) but nothing was confirmed beyond a chat in the bar. As far as anyone was really concerned it was over, so we all said our farewells, and Kev and myself got the train back to Leicester just in time to make last orders at the Pump and Tap to give a final toast to UKCAC.

So for 12 years or so UKCAC galvanised the British comics scene and brought out a generation of fans and creators. It did an amazing job. Yes it had flaws. Yes, it died a fairly sad death, but nobody else managed to put on such a good show. People tried, but nobody else succeeded, even a large American company who organised a convention at Alexandra Palace in the early 90’s failed to see it take off.

There’s one more thing. This cartoon by Lew Stringer sums up a huge number of comics fans..

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It was in the programme for the last UKCAC in 1998 and it’s pretty spot on. I seem to be stuck at the minute between cynic and nostalgist…

Next time, something Glastonbury related or the Eisnercon story…

Bitter Sweet Symphony part five/ The Great British Comic Distribution Wars.

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

We’ve covered a wide series of events in this series of blogs so far, but the defining part of the late 80’s/early 90’s is the battle between Titan and Neptune for the comic book distribution king of the country. The effects of this are felt today.

Before I get stuck in, I really strongly recommend reading the first four parts of this series. They’re pretty essential to getting the bits of backstory and I hate repeating myself. This isn’t going to be a history of Neptune Comic Distribution as I’m saving that for another series of blogs, but just the battle between Titan and Neptune and the longer lasting effects of that battle.

So, let’s start with a recap of how Neptune registered on Titan’s radar after getting DC’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel into shops before them. They really started to get Titan’s notice when they started gaining lots, and lots of their custom through 1986 and into 1987, which meant that Titan lost part of big shops like AKA, Gosh!, Comic Showcase, Sheffield Space Centre and virtually all of the Virgin Megastore business in all of Virgin’s branches as well as medium sized shops like Negative Zone in Newport, or Talisman in Belfast.

Titan still had the majority of the distribution business in the UK, but it’d went from having 100% in 1986 to probably 70-80% by the start of 1988 with Neptune making more and more inroads into Titan’s market.

By the time I moved to Leicester and started working for Neptune in January 1988 the plan was to aggressively take more business. I would run the proposed Manchester warehouse, head office with still be in Leicester and Martin (one of the three partners) would run the London warehouse. We also had Tod Borleske, a former employee of Diamond Comic Distributors we’d nicked working in our New York warehouse based in Brooklyn. Essentially the idea was to have total coverage of the UK and with Tod in New York making valuable connections with Marvel Comics and DC Comics we’d be peachy.

Except it didn’t turn out like that. The Manchester warehouse had fallen through which utterly gutted me as it was just down the road from the famous Hacienda nightclub, and seeing as I was slowly drifting into that scene I was overjoyed at this.

The warehouse was on the right hand side of the picture about 300 yards from where the Hacienda (now a block of yuppie flats) is, and just past the lights.

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This put a halt to Neptune’s northern expansion, but it didn’t stop us acting quickly when Forbidden Planet opened in Glasgow. What I deliberately neglected to mention in my earlier blog was the fact that Geoff, Tod (who was visiting from the US) and myself drove from Leicester to Glasgow and back in a day to firm up a deal where AKA would give us 80% of their business.

We made this deal with John McShane and Pete Root over shark steak and beer in the Blackfriars pub which was a frequent haunt of the AKA Crowd and somewhere we knew the FP lot wouldn’t come to as things were frosty at this point to say the least. Word of this meeting got out (like I’ve said, comic shop owners love to gossip)  and this set people’s noses twitching but we pulled similar meeting with Paul Hudson at Comic Showcase in London and Josh Palmano of Gosh!. We’d also managed to get 100% of the Virgin Megastore business thanks to the chronic mismanagement of Paul Coppin who ran not just the Virgin shops, but Fantastic Store on London’s Portobello Road which was at that time an amazing place, and not the santised middle class playground of today.

I have to take a diversion for a second to tell a wee story about Paul. He was generally quite rubbish with business, and on more than one occasion I was there to help pick up thousands of pounds in cash so he could get his bills up to date. You know the measure of a man as he’s counting out silver in order to keep his businesses going for another week. Anyhow, I’d completely forgotten about Paul til one day in 2001 I saw an item on the news about planespotters from the UK being nicked in Greece and who should pop up but Paul. It was his company which organised that trip and it came as no surprise to me that he’d royally cocked it up. When he was being interviewed on TV he had that same sad, bathetic look he had when we were boxing up all the money he could get to pay his bills.

But I digress….

Neptune was the feisty young thing kicking the heels of Titan and here’s the thing; I’m 90% positive (I had three different people with close connections to Titan, Mike Lake and Nick Landau tell me this) the aggressive expansion of the FP chain was to help Titan claw back some of it’s lost market which led me to mention to Geoff one day as we were driving back from a shipment in London that Titan and FP being so interlinked was a massive conflict of interest. This set Geoff’s brain ticking.

By this time Neptune had bought Fantasy Advertiser, the UK’s leading comics magazine, but what Geoff really wanted was it’s then editor Martin Skidmore had in contacts withing the creative comics community, and of course his reputation for honesty as the plan to launch a line of small press comics under the banner of Trident Comics were well underway by the time I joined and they were quite successful.

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That’s the first issue of our anthology title we did. Isn’t that a lovely cover by John Ridgeway? I will include a history of Trident when I do a history of Neptune, but again I digress…

The point is that we had Fantasy Advertiser (FA), which was the only thing Titan bought from us as their shops wanted it. So this meant that Geoff decided to stick a huge editorial on the inside of one issue titled ”conflict of interest?” using exactly the same font and design of the Lloyds Bank ads of the same time.It was something Martin didn’t want to run but he didn’t have a choice. If anyone reading this has a scan of it I’d love to add it to this blog, so please drop me a line if you do.

It ran and that issue of FA went in FP Glasgow, London and every Titan customer in the UK. We got phone calls from Mike Lake, Jim Hamilton and several other dealers who called Geoff and everyone at Neptune all the fucking cunts under the sky.Fine. The lines had been drawn and I was quite happy standing on the Neptune side.

Throughout 1988 we pulled stunts as pointed out in Part Three of this series to help AKA in it’s fight with FP, but we did similar stunts with other shops like Comic Showcase and Gosh! to get them their comics before Titan dropped off their copies.

This is where it gets dirty because there used to be two vans wizzing round London dropping off comics; one from Neptune and one from Titan. I did the London drop many a time normally with Martin, but occasionally with Geoff and it’d see us pull some truly amazing and illegal stuff such as screaming round Soho Square to cut off the Titan van, or tailgating behind an ambulance up Tottenham Court Road to get from the West End of London to Camden in the quickest time ever to drop off at Mega City Comics.

It was dangerous, risky, stupid and daft. We’d picked a fight with a much larger company who was connected and had the power of a growing retail chain behind it. But we were eating away at Titan and more importantly, most of the time it was enormous fun to prick the rather pompous nature of Titan and many of those connected with it. I actually remember being in tears laughing as we burned up the Titan van on Friday afternoon, and in fact I still had tears running down my face when I got to Kilburn to meet mates at the Bull and Gate for a gig later that night.

The whole thing was bloody huge fun from the summer of 1988 through to the summer of 1990, but the best, and possibly most lasting strike against Titan was one of the most massive fuck ups by any company I’ve seen.

In summer 1989 Tim Burton’s Batman film was the biggest thing ever in the history of everything.

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This meant that for comics the exposure was huge, and in fact probably the biggest the medium had ever had in decades. Now I’ve heard from younger comic fans on message boards and in person that this film ‘wasn’t a big deal’. or ‘it wasn’t as big as The Avengers‘. This is of course, utter steaming heaps of hairy bollocks. Batman was a huge cultural event that seeped into virtually everyone’s consciousnesses to such a degree you couldn’t avoid seeing the Bat Symbol everywhere and this was in the UK, In the US everyone seemed to have the Batman logo on them.

Because of this DC Comics decided to capitalise by releasing a Batman comic, or a comic with Batman in it, every single week and most weeks you’d have two or three titles with Batman related stuff in it. Things were huge! If you had any comic related business in that summer it was a license to print money. You. Could. Not. Fuck. Up.

Titan did.

Batman opened in the UK on a humid Friday in August 1989. There wasn’t any particularly big Batman comic that week from what I remember, but I do remember there being a load of titles from Marvel and DC, as well as a load of independents. I’d also asked to stay in London instead of going back to Leicester that night so I could hang around Leicester Square and I’d arranged to go out clubbing with my girlfriend of sorts in London that night before going back to Leicester the next day as we’d planned a Neptune outing to the local cinema in Leicester to see Batman.

Everything that day was pretty normal, we started our van drop in London around 2ish and dropped off at Comic Showcase first where we were told that Titan wasn’t delivering that day because they’d given everyone the day off to go and see the Batman film. Martin and myself couldn’t quite believe it so we called Geoff in Leicester on the carphone and asked if he’d heard anything and he hadn’t. By the time we dropped off at Gosh! the word was that nobody in London, or in fact, anywhere in the UK the next day were going to get their Friday comics. In one massively insane move Titan handed us a huge amount of business as on the Monday we had shop after shop contacting us to increase their orders with us, and also we won several bits of new business all because Titan were just bloody daft.

The following month was UKCAC, the UK’s main comic convention (I’m going to do a rundown of all the UKCAC’s and GLASCAC’s I attended) which saw Geoff and Mike Lake being cold to each other, while I ran around the con like a total lunatic having the sheer time of my life and in fact if there’s one weekend I would love to relive it’s that weekend. I got a few sly digs at the FP Glasgow lot, took the piss out of Mike Lake and was pretty damn spectacular all weekend. Going home on the Sunday saw me laughing all the way back in Geoff’s car with him as we told each other of how much petty fuckwittery we’d pulled to piss off Titan.

At the first GLASCAC the following April, it was a similar story. I remember vividly standing in George Square in the glorious spring sun smelling the flowers and thinking ‘this is fucking brilliant!’ as I spoke with Andy Sweeney, one of the new generation of the AKA Crowd.

Then after that things went wrong. Geoff pushed forward with Toxic! too early as he was now intent to take on Titan Books, which left me effectively running the Leicester warehouse, while Tod was trying to keep Diamond on our side in the US and we were really starting to notice that Geoff was shagging the female members of staff which was causing a fair amount of tension in the office.

I left in autumn 1990, went to work for Comic Showcase in London, and royally fucked things up before moving back to Leicester just before Christmas and completely fucked things up but I was still observing what was happening with Neptune.

Geoff was losing control. Without being too big headed he lost a lot of good people in a six month period and didn’t replace them with better people while he was bleeding the distribution part of the business to pay for the publishing side which was going down the tubes thanks to Geoff not listening to people like Pat Mills (I will tell the story about Pat turning up at Neptune demanding payment another time) and John Wagner.

Neptune struggled on for a year or so before dying in 1992 when Geoff sold it to Diamond.

Titan was also bought by Diamond.

So the winner of the Great British Comic Distribution War wasn’t Titan or Neptune, it was Diamond. They got themselves a nice monopoly of the UK market and that’s ended up with the depressing reality that they control what’s being sold. You don’t have Trident Comics, or companies taking risks. It’s all safe. It’s all about money and you don’t have anyone willing to take Diamond on as they have the market, not to mention DC and Marvel and you as a shop aren’t going to have a business if you don’t sell their comics.

What could have been so much better, and for a time if was glorious. I’ll tell you the full tale of the Rise and Fall of Neptune another time, but this is the point; we died not because of Titan but because of ourselves.

But dear bloody god, how that time especially between 1989 and 1990 shone like the sun on the first day of your school holidays during summer. I would do anything, really, anything, to get that time back. there’s times in my life I want back, and this is one of them. Again though, I will go into detail soon enough as to the full details but fuck me, I long for them.

Moving on, we get near the end of Bitter Sweet Symphony. Only two more parts to go.

Next up: The Great Bristol Comic Shop 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 two/ Battle of the Planets

Last time I outlined a brief history of comic shops in Glasgow which is really a small part of a larger story about the rise of the direct market in the UK as more and more specialist comic and SF/fantasy shops grew across the country. Now there’s better people than me who have outlined the death of the newsstand market in the US and the history of the direct market as a whole in the US.

The UK direct market was slightly different in that American comics were still available in newsagents til the late 90’s thanks to Comag and Moore Harness, who finally kicked the bucket four years ago. The direct market was different in that you finally got the non distributed comics that were so hard to get in the UK, and you got them relatively cheaply so this is where there was a gap in the market and with Titan Distributors you had the first organised distribution system across the UK as opposed to the patchy methods of getting comics in directly to the UK in previous decades that was at the whim of the major companies like Marvel or DC.

There was also the problem that there was a lot of crooks in the distribution game so it was a front to launder money for gangsters or to distribute porn, which was the case in the US as well as here in the UK, but the point we pick things up here is the early 80’s when Titan Distributors are the main supplier to comic shops across the UK. That wasn’t to say we’re talking the million pound industry we have today. There was probably only two or three dozen shops across the UK by the middle of the 80’s, not counting the Virgin Megastore comic shops which sold comics and magazines like Fangoria to the record buying public.

Titan had a nice monopoly in that in those days in that you had to buy from them even though there were more than a few dealers voicing concerns that there could well be a conflict of interest as Mike Lake and Nick Landau who owned Titan, also owned Forbidden Planet in London and should they want, they could easily open FP’s across the country selling comics at less than any other shop.

But they didn’t. Lake and Landau both made it clear often that they wouldn’t open a shop where they had an existing Titan customer, so that ruled out Glasgow, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham and basically every major British city.

The only problem as I mentioned in passing in the first part that Titan deliveries would turn up a week or so after being released in the US, which wasn’t a huge problem in those pre-internet days but deliveries would often turn up with comics that the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh would get but AKA in Glasgow wouldn’t and vice-versa. Then there was the fact Titan could charge what they wanted within reason seeing as they had a monopoly and this meant American distributors looked at the UK with envious eyes, and slowly and surely they made their plans against Titan.

Mile High Comics made some attempts to distribute directly to shops in the UK, but the problem was they didn’t have a warehouse in the UK, so you ordered directly from their warehouse in the US and they packaged and shipped to the UK. This was basically what some dealers had been doing with them prior to Titan anyhow, but they opened the door before Bud Plant Comics made some attempts to piece the UK market and based on the West Coast of the US, they had a little bit more success but again, without a UK warehouse they were fighting a lost cause. Titan just made sure they didn’t fuck up, or put their prices up too high in case it alienated customers.

This changed when Neptune Distribution came on the scene in 1986. Neptune was set up by three students at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) who lived at 67 Barclay Street (more on this address another time) by the name of Geoff Fry, Sarah Hunter and Martin, who’s last name completely and utterly escapes me. It was Geoff though who was the comics geek, while Sarah and Martin were not readers. Sarah and Geoff were also seeing each other which is not important at the minute.

Geoff was the mastermind behind the operation and considering it was run out of their small living room in Barclay Street, they had a base of operations not to mention Geoff was smart enough to make contact with Bud Plant in the same way that Lake and Landau had made a connection with Phil Seuling’s Seagate Distributing at the start of Titan’s operation in the UK. This meant that Neptune could shift comics quickly and store some stock in what became the stock room, or normally, one of the bedrooms upstairs as Sarah and Geoff now shared a room.

The main problem for Neptune wasn’t to capitalise on Titan’s flaws, but to convince shops they weren’t a a risk or unreliable like the few other  distributors who tried to break Titan’s monopoly. The break was John Byrne’s Man of Steel, which was DC’s big Superman relaunch in 1986.

steel

 

Neptune managed to get this title to the few shops it had as customers three days before Titan. It sounds like no big deal at all, but it helped from stopping people go to the competition in either Glasgow or Edinburgh in AKA’s case. It was a nice way of getting one up that one of the biggest comics of the year was on sale before anyone else had it.

Neptune used that success to grow the business and they gained shops in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leicester, Sheffield, and across the UK fairly quickly over a period of 8-12 months as the direct market erupted after a huge amount of mainstream publicity over creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller, and work like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus. Shops were springing up everywhere and there was a battle starting to brew between Neptune (the bright young challenger) and Titan (the undisputed champion) mainly to gain business but Geoff had it in his head to take on Mike Lake due to the fact he’d went away after a meeting with him utterly hating him. Plus this was the 80’s and the height of Thatcherism so Geoff wanted to crush Mike Lake because he was more successful than him.

By the end of 1987 Neptune had grown and was continuing to grow as they moved from the house on Barclay Street to a warehouse in Enderby, just on the outskirts of Leicester and near the M1. This was Neptune’s big advantage over Titan in that they could reach the shops in the Midlands and North of England quicker than Titan who only did van deliveries to London shops while Neptune did van deliveries not only to London shops, but across the Midlands.

When I moved to Leicester and started work for Neptune the intention was not for me to stay there, but go to run a Manchester warehouse which would supply the North of England and Scotland, while Leicester would supply the Midlands, and the London warehouse in Staines  would supply London and the South East. There was also a vague plan to expand Neptune’s US operation which was at that time, sharing a Bud Plant warehouse in Brooklyn in New York.

The situation at the start of 1988 is Neptune eating away at Titan’s market, with Titan trying to get as much of it back as possible while Mike Lake and Nick Landau still saying that FP will not expand outside of London to any city or town where there’s an existing Titan customer.

So we’re up to the point in 1988 where Geoff comes into the office shouting  at me saying ‘what the fuck do you know about Forbidden Planet opening in Glasgow?’…..

Next time, the Glasgow Comic Shop Wars….