The second in a series of things I wrote that I didn't publish; this is from May 2010.
I'm pretty pleased about my firsts. First single - aged 6 - The Doors: Touch Me. First album - aged 10 - Holst: The Planets Suite. First US comic - aged 10 - Swamp Thing #1 (you'd understand if you understood comics). First famous prog rock group I met - 15 - Genesis. First marriage - aged 24 - still going strong!
A small, but select group that I realised has another notable first. The first person I ever sent and then received an email from: Terry Pratchett.
At least one of you reading this will have been there and will remember this. It was sometime in the early 1990s; Jay would remember better as he didn't consume vast quantities of drugs at the time; and I had just, with his help, I seem to recall - Jay's not Terry Pratchett's - set up my first modem and email reading software. Jay had a magazine, can't recall which one, but it had Pratchett's email address in it. I had just written a very positive review of the graphic novel interpretation of Mort and figured it would be interesting to see if he read the magazine I was working for.
His reply acknowledged that he had seen the review and that he read the magazine. Jay pointed out to me, after I received my first ever email and from some one famous, that my review of Mort had started off by me saying that I didn't read Pratchett because I found him a bit crap...
Me and famous (comics) people, eh? I do have a habit of inserting my foot or just saying something completely outrageous...
I was invited to the grand opening of a new era in comic book shops, back in 1990. A group of London businessmen had founded and opened this shop called Stateside Comics, which was basically your Marks and Sparks/Fortnum & Mason's of the comic shop world. It sold new comics and old, old comics for more money than your house is worth. It was the corporate comics shop personified. At the time, I had my own quaint, little, seedy and slightly grubby comic shop; all this glitz and glamour did nothing for me.
About midway through the opening 'gala', one of the owners called me and my friend over and we stood around talking for a few minutes. In our company were two goths, a bloke who would become one of my best friends and two of three principal owners of Stateside. With them knowing I was freelancing at the comics industry's only recognised comics magazine (and apparently my opinions were held in high esteem, for some strange reason), they were eager to impress me (which I now look back and laugh at considering I was this tracksuit wearing hippy, who looked like a 30 year old version of Frank Gallagher from Shameless) and one of the owner's, a guy called Mike Gold, says, "So, Phil, what do you think of our artist and all his groovy designs?"
Now, I'd already mentioned to several people that I thought the artwork adorning the shop was a poor and radically crappy version of comics great Jack Kirby (Google him), a man responsible for probably most of the comics that we regard as iconic nowadays. The Stateside artist was one Shaky Kane and there was nothing about his artwork that was anything more than badly done pastiche. However, I wasn't that analytical... "Sorry to say this Mike, but it's crap. The guy's a poor Kirby copy at best. I would have thought you would have gone for something a little less badly done retro," or words to that effect. But overall, my assessment was pretty derogatory. It took me nearly 20 minutes to realise why the two goths walked off in a strop. I thought they were fans, I didn't realise that one of them was Mr Kane himself.
He didn't like criticism; he never made it.
A year later, I think I usurped myself. I was at the annual UK comic book convention, which at the time was called UKCAC and was held in London. This was about 3 months before I became full time at the magazine and I was still very much a retailer first and foremost.
I was in a queue waiting to get into the publisher exhibition area, standing with a couple of fellow shop owners and we were chewing the fat and talking bollocks; ie, comics. We got onto the subject of the Marvel comic called The Mighty Thor, a book that I had loved as a kid, but by 1990 it had become a bit like Shaky Kane - a poor copy of a once great thing. I was still finding my feet in comics and therefore I had no real idea who was who and what was what, I just expressed my mind, freely and without prejudice. "Don't get me started on Thor," I said to my audience. "I was the comic's biggest fan for years, had everything from Journey into Mystery 83 (the first ever appearance) to the point where that moron Tom DeFalco started writing it." The group of people in front turned to listen to me. I can't remember my exact words, but I gave this scathing opinion of the Thor writer and Marvel's then editor in chief that I could have been describing a child molesting Nazi war criminal. One of the group in front was looking at me, the whole time. my audience had stopped sniggering and I looked at this short, stocky, bearded guy looking at me and said, "You know I'm right. DeFalco is shit."
And then we were allowed into the publisher room...
And one of my cohorts informed me that the guy who I enthusiastically praising Tom DeFalco's lack of writing acumen and probably inability to gain an erection without a rubber hammer was none other than... Tom DeFalco. Twenty years later and I hate to say this, but the only two words that come to mind, even now are: Tee & Hee...
Of course, sometimes my propensity for being a complete and utter bastard can have the adverse affect. I didn't write reviews very often, but when one of my then comics heroes Chris Claremont walked off the writing chores of one of my favourite comics - The X-Men - I was mortified. As far as I was concerned, for all his faults, NO ONE could replace Claremont. The new writers had a hard time. Marvel put two aspiring young Turks on the two X-Men books; Fabian Nicieza, a former editor on one and Scott Lobdell, a former comedian on another. I hated both of them. Nicieza was my preference, if only because he'd written some good stuff in the past. However, this didn't stop me from launching into a series of personal attacks on his work, which led to the two of us having a massive argument in a public forum. Oddly enough, we became good friends after the dust settled.
Lobdell, was another kettle of fish entirely. I was friends with his and Nicieza's boss, a guy called Bob Harras. He knew who I was and who I worked for and appreciated the influence a major comics magazine had. Plus we liked each other. Bob told Fabian and Scott that I was the guy he'd be using as a yardstick. He'd read them my reviews at every monthly editorial meeting; he basically beat them both with his 'Phil Stick'.
Scott really, really didn't like me. While I gave Nicieza the benefit of the doubt, In my opinion, Lobdell was a buffoon and a fraud; there was no way he had earned the right to write the best selling comic in the world. In fact, Scott was bugged by me and my unrelenting criticism so much, he almost quit. It would have happened if it hadn't been for his father. Scott told me a few years later, after we'd also become good friends, that his dad had said that the only way he could beat this was to write stories that impressed me and changed my opinion of him. This is exactly what Scott did and slowly, over the space of two years, his stories went from 1 and 2 ratings to 7 and 8s.
I still occasionally hear from both of them. Fabian seems more interested in discussing football (soccer) than comics, which suits me fine - his daughters are both excellent, ahem, soccer players and as he is of Argentinian origins, football is a religion to him. Scott will send me an email every other year, saying we should catch up. We never do, but the fact he still does it is good enough.
My worst faux pas though was when Marvel gave upcoming British artist Liam Sharpe the job of drawing The Hulk. As a big fan of the emerald monster, I was intrigued. The story was as usual pretty excellent, but the artwork, from an artist with huge potential was pretty abysmal and I said so. In fact, I tore into Sharpe like the bully kicking sand in the weed's face on the beach. He quit the Hulk and I was satisfied that I'd ruined a potentially successful career, I retreated to my Fortress of Solitude.
A couple of years later and I'm standing at the bar at the Bristol-based UK Comics Convention, feeling quite drunk, when this bear walks up to me and asks me if I was Phil Hall. I stupidly said, yes; which could have been really silly considering the size of this man in front of me. He wanted to shake my hand; which I duly did. He wanted to thank me for putting his career back on track and suddenly my interest was peaked. He started talking about the shoddy work he'd done on the Hulk and he must have seen all the colour drain from my face. I looked at him and said, "You... You... You're... Liam Sharpe?" Knowing the answer before I asked the question. Liam Sharpe makes the Hulk look a bit of a poof. He was enormous, definitely a bit of a biker look going on and despite my 6' frame, I felt dwarfed by him. He could quite easily and in many cases quite justifiably have ripped my head off and shit down my gaping wound and I wouldn't have had much of an argument. But, instead, he was thanking me like I'd given him a kidney. I even tried to apologise for all the hurtful things I'd said in the reviews, but he wouldn't have any of it. "If you hadn't said what you said, man, I wouldn't be working in comics now."
I've seen him a number of times since, even at a Rush concert, a long way from his home town on the south coast, and he always gives me a hug - I struggle to breath for days, but there really, truly, is no malice intended.
I was told a few years later, by someone who has been in the industry a lot longer than me that creators respected my opinions because I wasn't like all the other sycophantic hangers on. I talked business for as long as necessary and never dwelt on anything. Most of all, I was interested in the creators as human beings, not as sausage machines - which was how one artist described himself at a convention once.
I've never believed that people doing a job should be put on a pedestal. That said, it might be a character fault of mine to feel it is my duty to bring them down to earth. I've sat and had drinks with Alan Moore a number of times - we rarely talked comics and one of the few times we did, I berated him for not allowing one of his earlier works - Captain Britain - from being reprinted by Marvel. He had his reasons for not letting Marvel reprint it, but he was also stopping two other creators, not as successful as him, suffer from not getting the remuneration they deserved from reprint royalties. Within 6 months of that conversation, Marvel had scheduled a reprint. Dave Thorpe and Alan Davis would get what they deserved from such an excellent series and Alan gave his royalties to the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund. Everyone was a winner!
Obviously, sometimes I really upset people...
In 2002, a review from D.R. Booth of a Catwoman comic in Borderline had someone completely unattached to this comic, but a top name professional all the same, contact me with a letter filled with hurt, recrimination and bad language. Booth, one of our team of reviewers at the time has written a review of said comic, but had actually neglected to review the comic at all, preferring to question whether or not the female writer of the comic had gotten work in the industry because she slept with a more successful writer. I accepted the review because the reviewer was saying that the writer of the comic was so bad, the only way he could see how she got the job was by performing sexual favours. I felt it was a good review; it was satirical, funny and ultimately 120 words that wouldn't start a war or kill anyone.
So, my reply to the writer who had been on the receiving end of the 'sexual favours' was measured, professional and direct. No, the magazine wouldn't offer a retraction; they were the comments of an individual, which we had a disclaimer about at the beginning of the magazine and the magazine would not issue an apology. His response to my reply was startlingly vicious. The writer, who I believe was hoisted by his own self-importance, threatened us with legal action, he threatened to 'sue our asses off' and even sank to the point where he said if he ever met me or the offending reviewer he'd show us what was for.
As you might imagine, this pissed me off a little. Had I been at Comics International, it would have been handled differently; my old boss would probably have turned it round and run the letters as a way of showing what a plonker the writer was. Instead, I replied saying that he could sue us all he wanted; we didn't have any money; every one involved was a volunteer and that I'd see him in court - if he paid my expenses. The confrontation petered out; but friends of this writer started to stop being so helpful to us - it wasn't a major problem, we didn't depend on US creators - but it upset a few people on the 'staff'. It could well have been the first straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak.
This was compounded by a further altercation between me and a A list British writer about a year later. Naturally, it wasn't my fault how it started, but when I have arguments with people I don't tend to dance about; I go straight for the throat and work my way backwards. With Fabian Nicieza this worked; the argument we had had on Usenet started viciously and ended up with us laughing about it. With Warren Ellis, I took his holier-than-thou accusations and rhetoric badly, so I just out Ellis-ed him. The Southend-based writer (not the Nick Cave band member)n was renowned for being a no holds barred, straight for the jugular kind of bloke and for much of the late 1990s the two of us become good mates because we were very much the same. However, by the early 2000s, we were no longer mates, because, for some reason, bad blood had risen.
Borderline was in trouble. It had been let down by Cool Beans World; lost a lot of its US benefactors, had failed in its bid to become a 'proper' magazine and people involved in its production were suffering. A publisher called Top Shelf had, several months earlier, announced it was going out of business unless it could be saved by either donations from people or same said people buying their back catalogue of unsold books. Top Shelf not only saved itself, it actually went into the black. Comics people had united for a good cause and saved it.
Borderline was a real success - critically. However, it had a group of people who really didn't like it. This group was essentially the sycophants of the Warren Ellis Forum on Delphi. The WEF was the largest gathering of arselickers in the comics industry and a very high proportion of them would walk barefoot over broken glass just to stick matchsticks in Ellis' shit. If he said the sky was a lurid pink, by God it was. He lorded it over fans, fellow professionals and a small group of people who I still find it difficult to categorise. There was a group of wannabe writers and artists, some designers, a few programmers and a fair share of 'I'm not sure what he does but he's friends with Ellis or his cronies' type people. From the moment Borderline came out, Ellis and his band of brothers attacked it remorselessly. There was no rationale for it; my team consisted of some very knowledgeable people, many who were on this WEF thing, and none of them could see any real reasoning behind the disdain - except that I was involved in it.
So, when Danny Black, my PR guru, came up with the idea of asking the comics industry to bail us out; it was the WEF that took the request as something personal. Ellis, who by this time had become so hoisted by his own petard, rarely posted on his own forum, but he made this an exception and he made sure that what we were trying to do was looked upon as crass and distasteful. His flunkies all backed him up and I, when I eventually saw the abuse being levelled at us - and it was abuse - decided that I needed to go onto the WEF and make an attempt to stop it from turning into a lynching.
Ellis took serious umbrage at my presence; so I made it personal and attacked him and the fact he'd just recently lost his father. The things I said were not nice and there was absolutely no excuse. The only mitigating circumstance I had was the fact that Ellis and his crones had been seriously disrespectful and downright nasty to my editorial team, who didn't deserve the harsh words and defamatory comments made about them or the magazine they worked for nothing to produce every single month. The only thing I've ever believed about the entire hate campaign aimed at Borderline was because none of them had come up with the idea first and they all believed they were the next generation of bright young things to come from comics journalism.
Little did any of us suspect that while way ahead of its time, Borderline was also the last throw of the dice. The final fling for comics magazines. I'm proud that it was an excellent advert for what comics journalism is capable of. I'm not proud of the fact that people hated it because of my involvement in it. Personally, I blame a lot of that to the man who gave me the opportunity to work in comics magazines in the first place; but that's a story for another time and another place.
But Borderline was another first for me. My first comics award; my first proper comics magazine, developed, designed and delineated by me (I say delineated, because all I did was polish all the brilliant work that others submitted to it) and for all the bad luck that dogged it and the bad vibes that, at times, still reverberate. I'm proud of it and the fact that we gave it a real go. The naysayers all won in the end, but it took a long time to put us down for good.