Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Really Glad You Came

The latest in a line of reminiscent wibbling... Done because I have nothing better to do (and mostly written in May 2009). this is largely about comics; the subject I declared several months ago that I had nothing more to say about. Well, this isn't strictly about comics, more about what a totally unlucky fucker I can be.

I've been interviewed, properly, twice. And I don't mean for jobs. The first one was to promote Borderline magazine and was really nothing more than generic; the second time was by an old friend called Ande Morgenson. Parts of that interview have surfaced from time to time, but the interesting thing was it took Ande nearly 8 years to complete it. One day, the contents of that interview might completely resurface; I'd like to see it, I don't have a copy. I think a lot of it would be really enlightening.

Ande, like another old comics friend of mine, Pete Ashton, was totally baffled as to why I stayed in comics for so long, especially the last four or five years where I seemed to get repeatedly kicked in the teeth. "Aren't you bitter?" He asked me once and there are times when I was. The thing is, he thought I'd be bitter about certain things when I was actually bitter about others. Ande said, "But you've been really close, so many times, doesn't that bother you?"

Hell, if I wanted to make this an microscopic psychoanalysis of my life as a nearly man then this would be a really, really long and introspective blog entry. Fortunately, the fact I almost made it a number of times is something I'm actually quite wry about...

1976 - I was sitting in my bedroom surrounded by stacks of comics. I was always really careful how I handled them, long before I realised they had any value, and I was wondering how I could store them safely. That evening over dinner, I mentioned it to my folks. My dad was the general manager of a company called the Morgan Adhesives Company or MacTac International as they were known in the UK. This company made the world famous sticky backed plastic used by Blue Peter and every council home in the 1970s - washable, 'stylish' wallpaper made entirely out of plastic. You would not believe how popular it was.

The point was, my dad worked for a plastics firm and he looked at me and said, "Why don't you keep them in plastic bags. We have stacks of wasted stock at the factory, I'll see what we've got." True to his word he came home with a couple of boxes of different types and sizes of plastic bag - about 10,000 in total.

Some were excellent, all were slightly the wrong size. Some were, to the untrained eye, totally unsuitable (yet would later become one of the biggest selling bags of all time). But they were something no one else had. To this aspiring comics dealer, just starting out and hoping to start doing his first comic marts in 1977, this seemed like a great way of attracting customers and selling my product in a unique and cleaner way - no more grubby finger marks and thumbed corners.

Despite the bags being slightly too big, they were lapped up by the punters and by the time 1978 rolled around, I was selling discarded MacTac stock at 50p for 100 bags or £1 for 250. I was coming home from comic marts with £200 a time (after my own purchases) and the majority was from the sale of comic bags.

When the stock at the warehouse began to disappear, I investigated having bags made, specifically to the size of a comic book. The thing that deterred me was the cost. I was 16 and despite getting huge returns for a product that I wasn't paying for, the leap from that to buying stock for resale was too daunting and the start up fees to high. In reality, they were piddling and insignificant. I would have been paying about 1p per 100 bags, but I needed to buy a minimum of £1000 to get it at that price and I didn't have a grand and more importantly, neither did my parents - not spare anyhow.

An entrepreneurial young man by the name of Justin Ebbs proved that nature abhors a vacuum and within a couple of months of me no longer selling comics accessories, he'd started up and was probably one of the richest people in the British comics retail scene for years and he'd stopped selling comics in the late 1970s with any seriousness, because the real money was in comics peripherals.

So, I could have made a fortune. Incidentally, the bag that I rejected initially was an acetate bag that would become what was later called a Mylar bag, which retailed for something like 5 times what a standard plastic bag would.

Oddly enough, another nearly almost happened at around the same time. I had immersed myself into UK comics at a good time; it was just on the edge of becoming something organised and I had one of the popular fanzines on the market, I was a known young dealer on the London scene and I knew most of the young people who would be the future of British comics. In 1979, when the likes of Dez Skinn, Richard Burton and a bunch of other names that most of you would be unfamiliar with, were beginning to forge lucrative careers, I lived in Northampton. At that time, too far away to be considered commuting distance, especially for someone who would have been employed on a low wage, but with massive prospects. I was told that had I been in London at the time, I would have been more preferable to others who were there and filled the vacancies.

1980 - The weird irony was that in 1980 I'd had enough. I gave up reading comics and sold the lot. I then moved to the outskirts of London and amazingly bumped into one of my old comics buddies in Westminster, one Sunday, while in search of beer and women. He was delighted that I'd moved down to London, suggested meeting up and told me about a couple of potential jobs that I could quite easily get, considering who I knew.

I was 18 and desperately trying to put multiple notches on my bedpost, get pissed and stoned as often as I could. Comics didn't attract women, the bloke I bumped into had admitted it himself not 3 years earlier. I never bothered to contact him and the entire 1980s almost disappeared without me even being so much as an afterthought.

9 years later I would open my own comic shop; a year after that I started working as a freelancer for one of the people who would have given me a job in 1980... By 1993 I was working for Comics International.

1994 - DC Comics had an office in the UK. I'd just done a bit of work - badly, it should be noted - for Marvel UK and was desperate to impress the other people I had wanted to impress all my life. I received a call from out of the blue from a DC editor in New York called Neal Pozner. He was the editor of DC's in-house magazine aimed at freelancers and editorial staff called Shop Talk and he wanted to run a series in it about Brits working at DC and he knew of me through CI and columns I wrote for Comics World.

We discussed who I'd interview and we got a timetable sorted out, but he felt it would be a good way to ease me into the job by interviewing Art Young, the then editor in chief of DC UK (he later went on to work on Eastenders, in case some of you recognise his name). Art was an American, who was charged with keeping the Brit Pack in line; so interviewing him would be a good start.

I got on really well with Neal and we spent quite a while just chewing the fat and he was an inquisitive kind of guy; I wasn't just someone doing him a job, he genuinely seemed to like talking to me and we talked about many subjects. The last call I had from him before the Art Young interview, we concluded the business pretty quickly and he said, "Phil, have you ever wanted to be a comics writer?" I hadn't. I'd had some ideas for stories - one-offs and mini-series; but I'd always sort of considered myself to be a good backroom man. I worked for a man who loved and hogged the spotlight and I never had the desire to have the spotlight the way Skinn did. Besides, I'd never wanted to write comics, just novels. This peaked his curiosity and asked me about some of my ideas; those of you that know me will know when I go off on one it's difficult to turn me off; but Neal listened intently to me waffling on about stuff I'd written, stuff I wanted to write, and the thing that had been keeping me preoccupied for weeks - an idea that I thought was a uniquely different take on a subject often ridiculed. He, like me, could see how I could write this idea and give it credence because it was stuffed with allegory.

If Neal was just being polite (I'd spent best part of 75 minutes in a 2 hour transatlantic telephone call telling him my idea), he was disguising it very well. The story idea that must have seemed like a sales pitch with no sale was called Dead Girls and was essentially a post modern zombie story about three teenage girls who 'die' but don't stop living.

The story followed them through the discovery, the media frenzy, the religious aftermath, the wish to be left alone and ultimately their actual 'deaths'. Entwined throughout was a blossoming love story, a black comedy and an allegory to the AIDS virus, especially at the end of the story, when two girls in Australia develop the same 'symptoms' and then more and more after them.

Neal urged me to talk to Art about the idea and how it could be adapted into something for Vertigo. However, my then employer told me that if I did that I would come across as being completely unprofessional; that it would seem like I was using the interview to sell myself rather than the person I was interviewing. He was right, but I didn't know that Neal had spoken to Art and forewarned him.

After a pleasant meeting with Art, I started to say my goodbyes and he asked me if there was anything else I wanted to talk to him about. I said I had an idea or two I'd like to share with him, but I'd send them down to him when I had something down on paper. Neal really berated me on the phone for not talking to Art, but I got paid and we planned the next interview, which looked like it was going to be with Pete Milligan, a renowned writer also from these fair isles.

The next week, I knocked together a Dead Girls proposal and got it sent off to Art. The day I sent it I was due a call from Neal. It didn't arrive. The next day I heard the news that Neal Pozner had died of AIDS related illnesses - DC was in mourning. As a mark of respect Shop Talk was put on hiatus - it never came back - and my window of opportunity had vanished. Neal was trying to do me a favour, because he probably knew that if he wasn't around favours might be hard to come by.

Subsequently, Dead Girls landed in the general submissions tray, was looked at by Art's young ambitious assistant and got summarily rejected and if there had been a chance there, it disappeared.

1999 - My stock had risen in the world of comics journalism (yes, such a thing did exist!). Many people in the industry saw me as the person to deal with at Comics International and I had good relationships with almost all the UK's leading creators and most of those in the US. I was approached by a leading US publisher to act as their liaison - a sort position Art Young had at DC in the above anecdote. Except it wouldn't just be as an editor, it would also be as a facilitator; making sure the Brits who worked for them were happy and got what they needed. It would also only be a part time post, which would allow me to continue working at the magazine, but the guy who thought of the idea figured I was the best placed person to do it.

To cut a long story short, my then employer did such a good job at trying to sell the CEO of the publisher his own PA that the CEO decided to scrap the idea entirely. The worst thing about it was the two guys from the publisher's who had approached me with the idea having to explain to me that the idea had been shelved; they seemed more gutted than I was - but then again, neither of them had worked for the man I worked for.

I later found out that my employer at the time deliberately set out to put the scuppers on it. He thought he was getting some revenge on my supposed disloyalty. A year later, he got as close as he would ever get to apologising to me.

2002 - if anything was going to get me close to bitterness it would be Borderline. People seem to think that I'm blowing my own trumpet when I claim that Borderline was the best all round comics magazine ever to have existed and I probably am, but all I did was assemble the best people in British comics who weren't either working or involved in a clique. Those people produced a magazine about comics, not just about a sub-genre of comics. I might have come up with the idea, the design, the delivery idea and content balance; but the people who worked for it were the people that made it so good and were ignored and neglected when they should have been canonised.

I should have realised the day I got the phone call from Sheffield offering me lots of money for my magazine that I was about to be a nearly statistic again. I have a colleague in my real life who for last 5 years has this annoying habit of saying "Cool Beans" every time she was happy with an outcome for something. I could have happily killed her every time she said it.

Cool Beans World might as well have anally raped me, abused my non-existent children and pissed on the graves of my parents. They cost me time, money, credibility and in my naivety, pride.

CBW offered to pay Borderline £2000 a month to produce the magazine exclusively for them. They saw it as a mutual back scratching exercise; we get paid for producing this soon-to-be award winning magazine and they get more people using their new pay-per-view website. I should have realised that we were a last ditch attempt at trying to get people to use their financially crumbling company. We didn't get paid; some of my people lost loads of money on expenses accrued and some notoriously famous twats in the industry laid into us like vultures round a corpse. The fact we continued on for another 12 months, trying desperately to make something from a magazine that over 100,000 people were happy to have for free, but less than 100 would pay $1 for was both stupid and admirable - just don't ask me how the split worked.

I'm not suggesting that CBW were completely to blame. Six weeks after that fiasco died down, we were approached by Rebellion; the company that had just bought 2000AD and with their help we had pretty much walked away with the Best Magazine About Comics category at that year's comics awards. Rebellion were interested in taking us on and publishing us as a glossy monthly and giving us a physical presence. The owner loved us, his staff loved us, his accountants laughed him and his staff out of their offices and we never heard from them again.

Curiously, in 2000, while I was still at CI; I ventured down to Bath for a meeting with Future Publishing about starting up at comics magazine called Heroes. They liked me. They liked my idea. Their accountants laughed them and my idea out of their office.

I didn't become a comics peripherals magnate because I was too tight; I didn't get a job working in comics in London because I wasn't prepared to move and then I considered the medium too childish; I didn't take the advice of one employer over the other and I only have myself to blame; I worked for a destructive control freak, no one forced me to... That's why I can't be bitter about that stuff.
Remember ages ago, I talked about a comic I had that was worth thousands of pounds, but my mum had given it to the snot-nosed brat down the street? If I'd done what she'd asked me to do, that wouldn't have happened. How can I be bitter about it? I can feel as though I gave some twat from Goole the best years of my life and for nout, but it was my choice. I suffered the ignominy of being ridiculed, abused and belittled by him; I could have walked away; but I didn't. My choice, no one forced me.

Borderline was always different. I took it all far too personally. I allowed my loyalty to obscure the facts - it was never going to work as long as mankind have holes in their arses. The staff deserved to be picked up by any discerning organisation; they should be able to put it on a CV and be proud its there.

They can proudly announce that the 3rd issue of the magazine they helped produce was downloaded by over 200,000 people, 91,000 more copies than the X-Men in that same month. They can brag that they worked on a magazine that won an award within its first year and that we were all regarded as heroes in countries as wide and diverse as Poland and Brazil. 11 of the artists we featured in our sketchbook sections went on to get full time gigs with publishers; one now works for a major publisher producing book illustrations. Or the simple fact that we took a new computer format format and produced the world's first designed for PDF magazine - yes you could print it out, but it was actually designed to fill your computer screen. There had been magazine converted into PDFs before us, but never created with PDF in mind. Borderline was innovative and it deserves to be recognised as a truly excellent experiment; the people who contributed to it should be regarded with respect; by God they deserved it.

Actually, there's nothing really to be bitter about at all. It was 2½ years of rollercoaster craziness. The highs will outlast the lows for many years to come. Some good friendships were cemented and some true colours seen. It was enlightening; it was mad and crazy and I wouldn't change it for anything (except maybe a shit load of cash!).

I sometimes wonder what if... but equally, if I hadn't decided on January 28th 1983 to stay in Northampton rather than move to Maidstone, I wouldn't have met my wife that evening. If I'd never opened my shop, I would never have gone bankrupt, but I would never have ended up working at Comics International, created Borderline, worked at the YMCA or been where I am now...

Bizarrely, if I could turn back time, the things I'd do differently would be I'd never have started smoking; I would have bought an African Grey parrot or a Macaw and I would have made sure that my wife had all the things she went without while I fucked about on drugs and pipe dreams. I might also have taken more care of my body, because that's the one thing I'm really quite bitter about...

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