British comics – the journalistic coverage

Published On July 24, 2006 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews

FPI: Today we’re going to be taking a slightly different tack for British Comics Month and talk to some of the folks who dedicate a fair bit of their time to reporting on and promoting British (and other) comics. I’m joined by Dez Skinn of Comics International, Barry ‘Baz’ Renshaw of Engine Comics‘ journal Redeye, Rich Johnston of CBR’s Lying in the Gutters, Matthew Badham of Bugpowder and John Freeman of Down the Tubes – guys, hi and thanks for joining us. I think perhaps it might be best to begin by you introducing yourselves and telling us a little bit about how you got into comics.

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BAZ: Hello there. I edit Redeye Magazine, a magazine dedicated to promoting indie comics in the UK, and I publish the Engine Comics line. Though originally from Liverpool, I’m currently living in Stockport with a very patient girlfriend and a very good Chinese nearby, two elements essential to a happy life. I’ve grown up reading comics since I can remember, reading the likes of Battle, Valiant, 80’s Eagle, 2000AD, and others from a very young age, and after discovering I could draw I pursued that as a career in comics. After recently escaping corporate slavery I’m now looking forward to a life of Aldi noodles and the life of a struggling illustrator.

John: I started downthetubes as a service site whilst working as a freelancer. I found that a lot of companies I worked with were asking me for info on artists, so putting up all my comics links pages saves a lot of time – plus it’s a showcase for some of my comics work. More recently, I took the tack that apart from sites like alienonline there were few web sites devoted solely to British comics and their work, so it now leans that way (although the Alien also covered SF&F novels in depth as well as comics and GNs – Joe). The response has been fairly positive.

Rich: By reading them I guess. Beano, Dandy and Whizzer & Chips to start, Marvel UK reprints of X-Men and FF to follow, American comics then found and pursued with gusto. At university back in 1991, I discovered the internet and shortly after joined my love of comics to my love of media reportage and created a gossip column about comic books for the internet. Still going strong.

Dez: It isn’t my real name. My real name is Derek. The Skinn bit’s real though, that’s my dad’s fault. I’m a working class Yorkie who doesn’t know his place. Failed as a research chemist (c1968), got bored with local newspapers (Doncaster Evening Post, c1969) went to London to see t’streets paved wi’ gold. Got a job as a trainee sub editor (c1970) on Whizzer and Chips — were you a Whizz-kid or a Chippite? — and it’s been downhill ever since.

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Matthew: I adored comics as a child and carried on adoring them into my teenage years. I remember sitting in a maths class at school and writing a Batman script rather than doing any work. I loved 2000AD. I loved the work of Alan Moore. I loved Tank Girl. I loved Deadline. I loved Kirby and Lee. I loved it all.

And then I didn’t.

Suddenly comics were boring and bourgeois and all about variant covers and dark anti-heroes. The rebel heart that had been Wagner, Mills, Moore, Kirby, McMahon and Hewlett got sucked out of them. And I started hating comics. I hated their commercialism. I hated their vulgarity. I got sick of paying top dollar for slight stories that mimicked the worst of cinema and sick most of all of creators who seemed unable or unwilling to create something new and interesting.

So I went off and did other things and then in 2001 discovered British small-press comics. Five years, and a few articles, later and I’m running Bugpowder (which up until a few months ago was run by Pete Ashton; go look him up on the ‘net. He’s a very significant player in the history of the small press).

And now I’m being interviewed in the company of Barry Renshaw, Rich Johnston, Dez Skinn and John Freeman, and I feel like a bit of a fraud.

FPI: Perhaps a bit obvious and simple but still a valid question – why do you do it? Is it a business or a hobby? Do you make a financial return from it, or do you always end up out of pocket? If it isn’t your main employment what do you do for a living and do you have any aspiration to eventually make a living from comics related work?

BAZ: I do it because I love comics, always have, always will. I don’t think it’s a job anyone can get rich from unless they’re very lucky. It started out as a hobby that became too big to stay as such, but the trick is of course to turn that into a self sustaining business, which as an illustrator publishing comics takes a lot of time, money and sacrifice. I could have stayed doing a job that paid fairly well or take control of my life and work for myself.

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John: Do I make money from it? I wish! I certainly don’t do it for any financial return, although I do link to graphic novels on sale at Amazon, and the site has gotten me work, largely strip writing for corporates rather than publishers so far. Currently I’m working almost full time for ROK Media, a mobile and multimedia content company (www.rokplayer.com). I’m also Commissioning Editor for Titan Magazines’ STAR TREK Magazine, which has just launched in the US, and recently started writing some features for Comics International, as well as writing cartoon strips for different companies.

Do I have any aspiration to make a living from comics related work? Been there, done that (I worked for Marvel UK for many years but never really tried to break into US comics and the UK adventure comics market has all but disappeared). I do earn some money from the cartoons I write but I wouldn’t say it was a living wage (an undead wage, perhaps!).

Rich: There is some financial return, but all eaten up by expenses. Buying comics counts as an expense, it really does. I’m an advertising copywriter, working for a Soho agency, and it’s in the field that I excel. Writing about comics is definitely a sideline. Writing comics even more so.

Dez: Do I make money from it? Well, Garth Ennis came over one evening after the pub and when he saw the house, said, “So… there is money in comics!” Yeah, it’s done me OK. Aspirations? A quiet life would be nice.

Matthew: I do it because I feel compelled to. I make no money from it. It does my soul good though.

You don’t need to know what I do for a living.

I have no aspirations.

FPI: What do you see as the main role of your site/magazine? Is it principally to report news or to write up analysis and reviews, do features expanding people’s knowledge?

BAZ: REDEYE was constructed to promote specifically indie comics with a focus on the UK scene, and so in that respect we have a different remit than Dez’s fabulous organ Comics International. My aim was and still is, to treat every single mini-comic, fanzine or pamphlet with the same integrity and coverage as CI would cover the latest releases from DC or Marvel, because I don’t see that being done elsewhere. That goes for news items, feature interviews, articles and reviews. They sit alongside preview art from upcoming titles and ads for other indie publications. A few years on and the mag has grown to keep up with the explosion in the scene.

John: Mainly it’s news. I’ve started to include some features and at some point in the next century I’ll be adding interview and feature material from the fanzine, Eagle Flies Again, with the full permission of the editor Ian Wheeler. Back issues of that ‘zine are hard to come by, so it seemed a logical step. If I do any interviews they usually appear on Comic World News first, in my (infrequent due to work pressure) Comics and Crumpets column.

Rich: To give a peek behind the curtain to people who never get the chance to look themselves. To hold individuals and companies accountable for their actions. And to celebrate the creation and enjoyment of the medium. Will that do?

Dez: We never run press releases, but we don’t delve deep for the dark underbelly either. For UK pundits (approx 10% of the market generally, more on lines like Vertigo), we’re the mortar which holds the industry’s bricks together. That was bricks I said, wasn’t it?

In many ways the magazine’s a retail aid. For the price of a comic, it covers just about an entire coming month’s output, through news, reviews and listings. That means shop customers can — and do — return with the mag marked up for what they want the retailer to order. And the shop makes about 85p a copy out of selling it, although lots still give it away to boost their advance comics sales.

I also think it’s an essential now, something people use when they need it. How else would they promote where their marts, fairs and conventions are being held. Plus shop signings, new shops opening… And it tells readers and journalists what’s out there, to give a positive spin on our industry. And, of course, whether Commando Picture Library is still being published.

Matthew: Bugpowder is your knowledgeable friend in the pub who points you in the direction of interesting stuff. We post (lots of) links that anyone interested in comics should follow. We don’t do analysis. We have a small press bias. Come and see what we’re up to. You won’t be disappointed.

I’ve been thinking about introducing some short features, but we’ll see.

FPI: Two of you are producing printed magazine the other three are utilising the web. Do you think that the format of the printed mag has changed or will change due to the fact that news can sometimes be pretty old by the time that it actually makes it to print? As for those doing web reporting do you feel that you are a supplement to the magazines or do you feel that they are simply flogging a dead horse of old technology?

BAZ: The news REDEYE prints are specific to the UK scene, usually not available anywhere else and are always the very last thing to be put in, so it’s still relevant by the time it reaches the stands. As someone who spends far too much time on the internet, I do get the majority of my comics/movie news from news sites rather than magazines. I’m going to pay £4 for a glossy mag then I’d want more than regurgitated press releases, so the features are what will convince me, and I would guess most people, to part with their hard earned cash.

John: There is simply no way print magazines can ignore the web, but I don’t see that print is dead. Comics International has a rapid turnaround and there’s still the ease of reading print – anyone who says they prefer to read everything on screen is either a liar, or under ten.

In my view, there’s two ways to make a magazine work in the webbed world: have the immediacy of Comics International, or find some unique content not on the web – not just opinion columns, which is what some newspapers seem to think gives them a Unique Selling Point. I think that there is a place for high end magazines too, with good quality paper that have decent photography and well-written features. Commissioned photography or artwork (comics, anyone?), perhaps re-sold as prints via a web site or mobile, to recoup the cost. Hmm, going off on a bit of tangent here…

Print can’t beat the immediacy of the web when it comes to news but I think there’s a danger that the good stuff gets drowned by the chafe. I’m constantly surprised that people I talk to don’t know about a certain Star Trek or comics story they’ve just read offline, even though it’s been online for ages. As more people get to grips with using RSS, and RSS gets more refined, I think that may change.

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Rich: LITG appears in full online and abridged in print. Each medium seems to have its own unique audience.

Dez: Our final pages go to print on a Monday night/Tuesday morning. We have printed copies in the office Wednesday or Thursday of the same week and it’s in UK shops that Friday. People would have to be glued to the screen to have already acquired an issue’s worth of info — reported in a level playing field objective fashion. Plus our Q&A, strips, letters pages and columnists add a unique mix to the blend.

Print, because serious money is spent on it, has far more gravitas than the net, where most material is neither edited nor objective and s-p-r-a-w-l-s.

Matthew: Bugpowder supplements everything. Like a curious child let loose at a funfair, Bugpowder’s job is to run around shouting and squealing, and pointing at all the big, shiny rides. And as for the vomit on the carousel and the bearded lady, well, we’ll probably draw your attention to those as well.

FPI: We’ve had printed fanzines for decades of course, but do you think the web has made it a bit easier for writers and artists at all levels of the industry to get noticed and to communicate with readers? Do you think the fact that the web allows for a more immediate interaction between creators and fans in the form of emails, blog comments and forums helps to build a sense of a comics community as well as help spread a digital version of the old word-of-mouth on titles?

BAZ: I think the web has certainly made it easier for readers and creators to communicate. It does level the playing field for the industry, where a home made title can compete digitally with Marvel or DC by having a (usually) better website and more personal response to those who take the time to read it. The more that creators at all levels realise how they can cultivate and help develop that loyalty in their readership the better, though again they need to remember that not everyone has immediate broadband access. Even if a site gets millions of hits, it’s all meaningless if it doesn’t translate into solid sales.

John: The feedback opportunities offered by the web are fantastic but I think editor or creator worth their salt has to have their own vision and direction, and not be sidetracked.

As so creators – yes the web is a great opportunity, I would never have worked for one Italian publisher without having my web site, but as I said earlier, the problem with the web — although some would say it isn’t a problem – is that anyone can set up a blog or a web site and become an instant pundit. Finding the good stuff amongst the chatter out there can be something of a minefield.

My feeling is that a lot of web surfers find sites they like, and stick with them, as long as they’re updated regularly, which one of the reasons I’m trying to do at least something on the site each day, even if it’s just adding a couple of links. My view is that we’re actually going to see a lot more opportunities for editors than writers in future — people who can read and assess, and importantly find interesting nuggets of information, either through their online or offline contacts. So folk like Rich, Matthew, Barry and Dez, hopefully, me, shouldn’t be out of work anytime soon!

Rich: Totally… but this rapidly becomes noise. It’s a lot harder to stand out now, because on the surface a lot of effort looks the same as a little.

Dez: No, not really. Sorry. There’s so much to wade through that. Outside of the credibility factor of the printed page, the net is so vast that people generally only visit a minute fraction of the total. It’s great vanity publishing though and perfect for presenting a cost-free portfolio to publishers. And a good apprentice programme — as fanzines used to be for artists and writers, something sadly lacking in print comic publishing.

The interaction between fans and creatives is invariably damaging to both. Creatives often can’t take the knee-jerk OTT criticism online, often from anonymous sources, and many waste time arguing with fans, or presenting quite scary political standpoints that damage their credibility and really rather not to know about. They demean themselves.

Matthew: The ‘net can be good for creators. But I think you usually have to be established before it becomes useful. Look at Warren Ellis and the way he uses it. Mostly, though, the Internet is like a big pub where no one minds their manners and every opinion is given equal credence no matter how foolish it is. I’m weaning myself off the ‘net, because, well, too much noise. In fact, I’m only really still using it to source links for Bugpowder. And so many people are so rude. They’ll slag artists and writers with no consideration for their feelings in badly written, ill-informed posts…

Hang on, this response is pretty badly written and fairly ill-informed.

It’s been good for the small press though, as a networking tool, although some small pressers fall into the trap of thinking their work has significance and value because they have a website. But anyone can have a website.

FPI: How many people are you reaching with your output?

BAZ: It depends how you define ‘reaching’ and ‘output’. To begin with I’ll talk about actual sales of the magazine, and I’ve no problem with giving this information because I think it’s an example of just how screwed distribution is in this country. With the magazine we print usually up to 400-600 mark, which we know we can sell at marts, direct to retailers and mail order, but as we do them in small batches, unit price is higher thus meaning less profit, and because of the high cut from distributors we usually just about break even.

After talking to magazine distributors it was clear that the current wholesaler system to newsagents is so unpredictable and expensive it’s not even worth entering into. Diamond Comics Distribution is equally expensive to have any kind of presence within a 500 page catalogue. So instead my focus is on developing alternatives to that system, and investing in the initiatives like Shane Chebsey’s Smallzone Frontline Service and FP’s UK Comics month.

I also think it could be cathartic to see some comparison of sales figures from the UK industry, because then we’d have to get beyond the whole hyperbole about selling out print runs and confront the reality that distribution and awareness is minimal compared to other art forms or industries. Rather than singing doom and gloom about how things aren’t as they were 15, 20, 30 years ago, maybe then we can turn our attention to improving things rather than moaning about how everything is shit.

To make sure that we can maintain the critical success of the magazine though we need to continue to increase our circulation, which is why I’m in talks with various bodies related to the Arts Council, Literature Northwest and others to get REDEYE into libraries, universities and schools, and galleries, partly because I think the mag would get a good reception (thus increasing sales), and partly because I think that is where the UK needs to expand out of back street niche shops and helping to raise awareness of the medium beyond superheroes.

Critically, we’ve had nothing but good press. In that respect we’ve helped raise awareness of indie press and introduced work to people, readers and retailers alike, who haven’t seen it before.

John: Currently, downthetubes gets some 14,000 unique visitors a month.

Rich: It depends on the stories. Anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 depending on that week’s content.

Dez: Sales or readers? Sales were around 15,000 steady, but Diamond US has come through with a 50% increase on our #200. Readership? Depends how many per copy. 1.5 is a figure I’d go on. We’d get more hits online, but as most sites are free, hits don’t equate to paid readers. Or really to credibility, they’re like attendance figures at conventions, open for interpretation. When people buy a magazine they make sure they read it thoroughly. Search buttons make online reading a skimming process at best. Although there have been some fascinating stories reported online, it’s just a shame they aren’t more permanently recorded (aka: printed).

Matthew: Couldn’t tell you. I don’t think it’s that many. Hopefully, after this, we’ll reach far more. I was a Bugpowder reader before I was a Bugpowder poster. It’s a great weblog (it’s more of a blog than a site) and, as a reader, I used to visit it every day.

FPI: How do you see the difference between the way you cover comics and the way it is reported in the printed/internet press?

BAZ: Our mandate has always been to treat everything we see with equal respect, rather than judge it on what type of glossy paper it has or how many it’s sold. It’s quality that counts. So that is my approach to writing and reporting news: this is a piece of art that someone has taken the time to make, so it deserves your respect. In the same way that in a broader sense, more people in the UK will become aware of good comic book material when they get access to it. If retailers and reporters treat it with respect, so will customers. The mainstream press still seems caught in the 80’s revelation that comics aren’t for kids no more. Fuck’s sake, let’s try and catch up with the rest of the world and not be so backward.

John: I don’t write a story for the web site any differently to the way I would write a news story for print, but the great thing about the web is that you can quote a part of a story on another site and then link to it. If people are interested enough, they’ll go and read that. Why re-write when you are just a click from the source? Links to related stories are also a great thing, too.

In terms of content on downthetubes, I’ve tried to identify a niche – British comics (and some other non UK comics I like) and cover it. It’s not a full time job, so I can’t cover everything I’m sent or post it in time, but I do try.

Rich: Well, gossip seems to be infecting everyone of late. Newsarama has bought The Great Curve. Publisher’s Weekly has bought the Beat. CBR bought Comics Should Be Good. Everyone’s getting a slice without harming the central brand.

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Dez: We run tight. Our stories have to fit pre-designated space. Brevity is the byword, so readers don’t get bored. I hate there being any skip pages, so we keep things tight. But online, it can sprawl, as I said earlier. Also, the editing process it far more rigorous in the print world, when you spend money printing it, you don’t want a permanent reminder of having got something wrong. My news editor gets absolute hell each issue, and is proofread /fact checked by at least two people. Also, there isn’t the rush to beat rival sites, so hopefully fewer gaffs appear.

I do envy the luxury of “extra pages” that websites have though. It just has to be kept tight, but that might be an unfair criticism because I doubt if many online journalists have had actual editorial training. Being a fan doesn’t automatically qualify anybody to be able to write interesting copy. While we can’t all draw, we can all write, but some of us fail to realise we can write little more than a postcard.

Matthew: We don’t really cover anything. We’re more about pointing things out that people can go and investigate for themselves. So, we’ll post links to interesting websites, articles, interviews and blogs. I’ve posted links to Down the Tubes, Lying in the Gutters and to Redeye’s website. But not to the Comics International website. Sorry, Dez.

FPI: What are your impressions of the British scene at the moment? Impoverished because the most successful talent is siphoned off to work on American publications or healthy because of the diverse base we have to draw on?

BAZ: I say this a lot at panels and conventions, but the UK indie scene has become the UK comics industry by default, simply because there aren’t enough home-grown titles to sustain established or upcoming talent. Why is the UK industry so impoverished? A chronic lack of investment, a chronic lack of understanding of the medium in general culture, and unwillingness by publishers to experiment, meanwhile manga and graphic novel sales jump through the roof. None wants to risk launching a new title for fear of failing. Because no one will risk it, there’s nothing on the shelves. Because its not there, people can’t buy it. Because people can’t buy it, publishers think there isn’t a market there. It’s a vicious circle that someone somewhere needs to break. I had hopes that the Virgin Comics line might be the one to do so but it looks like it will be keeping to the established routes rather than going newsstand.

John: This is a hoary old chestnut — British comics publishers are still commissioning, they just aren’t commissioning much of the comics I’d like to read, the comics I grew up with like TV21, Valiant, 2000AD etc. There’s some fantastic humour stuff out there, both mainstream — the beano, Wallace and Gromit — and the internet is a boon to small press creators. I love stuff like Solar Wind, Future Quake etc. etc. I’d love to see more adventure comics but as far as many publishers are concerned it just isn’t going to happen unless they can come up with an appealing format that would the a fresh comic and not a retread of what’s gone before. Personally, it would be great to see someone launch TV21 or Warrior today but that’s a 1960s approach. No-one’s yet come up with a 21st century, ground-breaking, mass market adventure comic. Given the problems and the cost of actually launching a comic in the UK market I don’t think it will happen, either – sadly.

Rich: It’s become more of a hobby industry. Which isn’t to detract from the content. But the audience for it hasn’t been nurtured as it used to be. Maybe it can’t. Someone should really write a comics reader programme for the Nintendo DS…

Dez: The Office of Fair Trading is about to make it even more difficult for publishers selling under 50,000 copies to survive. A long story, but basically it disempowers publisher and distributors, putting newsagents and customers in the driving seat to decide what should be stocked. Based on? Who can say. Retailers aren’t experts in the wide range of subjects their titles cover, so they can’t recognise a new winner without a track record, and customers can’t order something they’ve never heard of. The biggies will be fine, they pay for TV ads and point of sale promos. But the small guys? Dead in the water.

Additionally, given the “shelf rent” now charged by supermarkets, garage forecourts and major chains, it’s about to become impossible to launch anything that isn’t lifestyle, computer or gossip. They’re the sellers, so that’s what retailers will order. They won’t give up valuable space for niche market product, and — thanks to the OFT — distributors won’t be in a position to convince them to carry the next Viz, for example. Experimentation? A thing of the past.

Matthew: The small press is in a good way. But it’s always in a good way.

The rest…I don’t really know or care.

FPI: When I first started reading comics as a kid in the 70s there was a fair number of British titles to pick from, but with few specialist comics stores the American titles were harder to get; now that has largely been reversed. What do you think have been the main changes in the British comics business over the years and where do you think those changes leave up and coming talent trying to break through? Do you feel those comics stores care about British comics talents once they are outside the DC/Marvel publishing access?

BAZ: I think Dez would be best to give an overview on how things have changed. As mentioned above there just isn’t the opportunities available for up coming talent to develop besides doing it for themselves. I don’t think the current structure in comic shops allows for any creators to have decent coverage once they are out of the DC/Marvel spotlight, and by structures I mean that comic shops are ordered by publisher, rather than by author or genre. You wouldn’t go into Waterstone’s or Smiths and look for a book by Penguin, or Simon and Shuster, or Pantheon, so why are shops ordered by publisher?

If someone has read Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman or Invisibles, will he take the time to go looking for his X Men run, his JLA or his 2000AD stuff? Wouldn’t it be easier to do sections by popular author? If a potential customer walks in and has seen Sin City, and wants to try something in the same vein, how will they be able to find 100 Bullets, Queen and Country or Human Target? Wouldn’t it make more sense to order things by crime, adventure, sci-fi, horror, instead? If a 13 year old kid comes in having watched Spiderman, and wants to get into reading comics, where will he start? Which version of Spiderman? Which universe? It’s incredibly confusing to people not versed in the last 80 years of comic history. They won’t have a clue and just walk back out again.

John: Comics have suffered from changes in the news stand retail market that I’m sure Dez can say more about than me. The lack of adventure comics from British publishers does mean there are fewer openings for would-be action adventure artists in print in this country, and breaking into the US comics scene isn’t easy (keep trying, that’s all I’d advise).

This is probably another tangent, but I’m going to say it anyway, as a former comics editor. If people really want to write and draw they will: don’t be afraid to contribute to a fanzine or a web site for nothing (the feedback, if any, will be helpful); take your portfolio to conventions but ONLY TAKE YOUR VERY BEST WORK – from experience, I can tell you editors will make up their minds about you VERY quickly. Don’t show a DC editor Spider-Man or the 2000AD editor Batman: tailor your portfolio to who you want to work for. Never show a comics editor pin ups, make sure you show them pencilled pages based on a good script. If you’re a writer, team up with an artist and present your script as a strip.

As to whether those stores care… Generally? I don’t know. Lancaster, where I live, has only just got a comic stall back in its Market and its early days, they don’t get their first comics order until September! If I buy US comics I do it online and if I buy fanzines I usually do it at the Bristol Comics Festival, usually direct with the creator or buy a wad of mags from Smallzone, who now have their own catalogue — that shows how much small press is out there, and harks back to the grand days of Paul Gravett’s Fast Fiction in the 1980s.

It’s great to see stores stock fanzines, and the FPI initiative on that front is welcome.

Rich: Up and coming talent, if they want to make a living, needs to look to Marvel/DC or TokyoPop. Or create a property, self/indie publish it and sell the option to Hollywood. OR alternatively, make it a sideline – a creatively fulfilling part of your life, but one that doesn’t need to support it.

Dez: Where did you live?! I’m surprised you couldn’t get almost any US comic in the ’70s (small town outside Glasgow, reliant mostly on local RsMcColls, which meant mostly mainstream UK stuff, occasional DC or Marvel – Joe). Everything was distributed (even to Goole, Yorkshire) thanks to Thorpe and Porter… Marvel, DC, Tower, Charlton, Atlas/Seaboard, Gold Key/Dell, Warren, Archie, even Classics Illustrated. It was great back then. Also with second hand shops and market stalls you could keep on top of everything, even on a schoolboy’s budget. Now, thanks to comic shops, leftover unsolds are “back issues”. Instead of them being sold off cheap to clear dead stock, they’re bagged and boarded and a premium is charged. Not a clever way to grow an industry. Not that individual back issues have any meaning in isolation, thanks to convoluted episodic “story arcs” produced only to cheaply fuel the bookstore market through collections, or graphic novels as they’re all incorrectly labelled now. Trade paperbacks? Even worse. What does that mean?

But then, publishers never did make anything out of back issues sales, and always resented dealers making money out of their back stock. Through the serials and the cheap “trades” they’ve effectively killed the back issue market dead.

And whether comic shops “care” isn’t the issue. There are only about 150 in the UK. They can’t support an industry. With comics no longer in newsagents there’s no new blood wanting to become tomorrow’s creatives anyway… just the same old ageing fanboys turned pro 15-25 years ago trying to relive the past with countless rehashes of previous highpoints. A very sad end, especially for the UK where we were world leaders in both quality and sales 40 years ago. Now, as with most areas, we’re a bolt-on to the US. The WildStorm revival of UK leader titles (the Albion family) is appalling. Either too late or too obscure to mean zip in the US. A sad end.

Matthew: In terms of the first part of the question, I’m not business-savvy enough to answer it. In terms of the second part, I will say that we tend to get the society, and comic shops, that we deserve. If you want your comic shop to stock more esoteric fare and support leftfield creators, British or otherwise, then tell them. And change your buying habits. Try new comics. Try small press stuff. And stop buying Civil War and all its tie-ins like some slavering, brain-dead zombie.

FPI: Although I’ve picked up the occasional self-published work over the years I’ve mostly found the diversity of Indy British titles added on during British Comics Month to be quite an eye-opener and I’m not exactly someone who is out of the comics loop. It’s fairly obvious that a lot of comics readers are largely unaware of these sorts of titles. Where does the fault for that lie? Do you feel it’s down to the quality of presentation of the creators, the distribution channels, the mags and websites like yourselves who are covering comics or just the supreme indifference of fans and owners raised on mainstream superheroics? Or even just budgets – most readers can’t buy everything they want to read and so are often going to stick to what they know they like?

BAZ: There are many issues involved, and in many ways one thing leads to another. Self publishers only have a certain amount of disposable cash to put into doing their comics, which means they won’t be able to afford the high end quality Marvel and DC can afford to put out, nor print in the hundreds of thousands. So, with limited numbers they try to get them into retailers via distributors. Distributors compare it with everything else available and may go, well its photocopied, black and white and looks a bit amateur. I don’t think this will make us money, so I’ll reject in favour of the latest superhero cross over because it’s glossy and that will be ordered by retailers.

Retailers, often getting s/p titles sale or return direct from the creator, may put them in as a token gesture on a shelf out of the way, next to the dusty overpriced Asian DVD collection, as shelf space needs to have paying product on there, and they’re pretty sure the latest superhero cross over will sell more copies anyway. Customers who come into the shop to get the latest superhero crossover may pass it by because it looks amateur, and thinks it can’t be that important otherwise the manager would have placed them in a promotional spot, so I’ll leave it. After a while, the creator will come back to the manager to pick up his comics, now battered and dirty, and be disappointed after he’s told they didn’t sell.

So, to round up: distribution is poor to nonexistent for S/P titles and creators often need to do it themselves. Support from the vast majority of retailers is minimal and would need a massive promotional event (and self education) to get customers to even take notice, and that takes initiative from managers and staff. And the amount of times I’ve seen big comic book blockbuster movies come and go and retailers not making any effort to capitalise on the free publicity and new potential customers, is frankly heartbreaking. If the shops don’t take the time and effort to do and try new things then neither will the customers, and you will never have that shift in perception that the UK needs to see beyond the latest superhero crossover.

John: You have to realise that many of the fanzines that get deserved attention from comics fans may be high quality stuff but these aren’t publications backed by high production budgets. Mostly, a fanzine editor will only print 100 copies at a time. When you only produce that number of print copies it’s hardly surprising very few people have heard of titles like FutureQuake, Solar Wind, Monkeys with Machineguns, Zarjaz etc,. etc. etc.

Rich: Express, Slab O Concrete and Red Route are no more. Diamond UK have not picked up that baton – and to be fair, why should they? It’s time for someone to step up to the plate. But not me.

Dez: I’d say none of the above. Even if an indie publisher wanted to reach a mass market by going newsstand, it’s a bigger problem than merely the cost now, as I said earlier. The variety’s always been there, but now it’s serious small scale, where comics selling 20,000 get into the Top 100, and UK indies boast if they sell over 3,000. A niche within a niche. And as for value for money anywhere in this shrinking industry? Don’t get me started. Even major publishers have become short-termers. There’s no overall plan, just gimmicks and inflated cover prices. As long as Jim Lee or Frank Miller’s name’s connected it sells. As soon as they leave, sales drop back again. Properties are now second fiddle to creatives. A dangerous situation.

Matthew: Why would people know about these titles? They have small print runs and often no advertising budget. Still, if people want to know more about the small press, they could do worse than to visit Bugpowder, pick up a copy of the excellent comics mag Redeye (declaration of interest: I’ve written some articles for Redeye) and head down to Caption, the small press convention (www.caption.org) in August. But, yeah, people do tend to stick with what they know.

FPI: Sometimes a bit of what is called News these days is actually largely hype. When you are reporting a story do you try to look behind that snippet of info – often from publishers to see if there is more of a story (rich, looking at you and your Civil War variants post here!)? Do you feel that press releases from companies shouldn’t ever really be featured as news or is it fair enough to post them as long as you say where they came from so readers know and can draw their own conclusions?

BAZ: As long as press releases are labelled as such then that’s fine. You can usually tell hype a mile away. It’s a journalist’s responsibility to go beyond that and investigate himself to find out the actual news story. I provide a basic press release template for everyone to send their information to REDEYE then I’ll go back and ask additional questions, as well as keeping an eye on the likes of Bugpowder and Down the Tubes to follow up any leads.

John: There’s nothing wrong with hype, as long as you realise it’s hype. I’m not interested in Civil War or Infinite Crisis so maybe I’m not the best person to answer this. No, press releases are the bare bones of a story. Hopefully I’ll have the contacts with the original creators to follow up and get quotes to ‘dress’ a news report, if I have time. I try to avoid simply re-pasting a press release. If I do have to do that I might as well juts run the first line and link to the web company’s web site. It would be good if PR included links to page samples, so readers could judge the product for themselves.


Rich: I don’t run press releases. They may sometimes start me off on a direction, but I hate running stories that other people have already run, unless there’s a very good reason. Press releases kill, remember that.

Dez: It isn’t really news that a new comic is starting from #1. That’s merely a fact. We generally try to find a hook for the story to justify running it. Press releases provide 5% facts and worthwhile quotes, the rest is only for the gullible among us.

Matthew: If the press release is a jumping-off point and you use it to investigate and then write a fuller, less biased story or news item, then cool. But when your article or news item is a copy and paste job from a press release, then that’s not so cool.

FPI: The US comics coverage scene is a little more diverse than that in the UK wouldn’t you say? You get the heavy feature/analysis based mags such as Comics Journal and Comic Art, thru the Adzines like CBG (although noticeably of late carrying more features) down to hype driven mags such as Wizard. Where do you see your type of coverage fitting along that line? Where would you ideally like it to sit?

BAZ: Probably somewhere closer to TCJ than the others, but not so dense or esoteric that you can’t get into. It should be accessible to people who have never read a comic before in their lives to life long Squaxx. Too much either way and you alienate the audience.

John: I’m happy enough that British comics fans have found my site and enjoy what I do with it. I don’t expect it to get the hit rate of Wizard or Comic World News, since I’m not covering US comics.

Rich: No, the US scene is better funded. But have they produced anything to compare with NinthArt? I’m perfectly happy sitting where I am…

Dez: We’re more of a Screen International of comics. News, yes, but not hyped, not elitist, and not advertising led. And we’re not dominated by news. Having been running longer than either Wizard or Diamond Previews we found our own niche way back when. And I’m proud to say we still outsell both in our own territory and don’t want to prostitute ourselves (format and content-wise) to fit their blinkered kowtowing US pundits, however more there may be.

Matthew: I think Bugpowder is unique and I’m very happy about that.

FPI: Do you generally feel when looking at modern comics ‘A golden age’ – or “Oh, God”? Or a bit of both some days?

BAZ: Bit of both some days. There’s a lot of good stuff being done but it takes time to sort through the crap to get to it.

John: I can’t really comment. As far as British comics are concerned we’re not doing that well in the adventure market, but that said British creators are carving quite a niche for themselves in the US, something that’s an ongoing and welcome event for those creators, and I wish them every success.

Rich: The best material we’ve ever had, being published in the best formats and with great production values, to the smallest audience. Shame really.

Dez: Impossible to generalise about the fantastically diverse range. Superheroes may be way beyond their sell-by date as the dominant genre of an overpriced niche, but now, thanks to a world view being acknowledged, there are more mainstream alternatives to build the comics reading public. When anthologies died and page counts were cut, US comics forced themselves into a blind alley (no back-up strips to experiment with, just a sea of “character” titles). It’s taken the Brits and the Japanese with their different approaches to the sea of US creative fanboys-turned-pro to drag them out of the rut.

Matthew: It’s always a golden age for someone.

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FPI: Will we still have comics shops in 5 years or will we all be shopping at the mainstream bookstore chains for our comics?

BAZ: I think we will but comic shops need to evolve and not just rely on more merchandise to ‘expand’. Trying to compete by selling games, DVD’s and toys that can be bought for a fraction of the price in high street stores round the corner, or more likely online, seems a pointless waste of money for a business. A comic shop is a comic shop, and as much as there is some crossover of interests into other mediums, trying to be all things to all men just won’t work. You don’t go to a clothes shop to buy petrol for your car.

John: Well, people have been proclaiming the death of independent book shops for years since Amazon first arrived, but they’re still hanging in there — if they’re good enough. It’s not an easy business, having to order stock three months in advance and then being caught with unsold stuff because some twonk of a regular punter doesn’t come in to collect and buy it, or decided to go elsewhere. I’ve seen that prove the downfall for some.

Mainstream book stores may sell graphic novels but if they don’t have a member of staff who knows the market — and sometimes, even if they do — then they won’t have any more success than a comic shop. There have been plenty of comic shop closures but again, those that are good have adapted to the web — FPI, Forbidden Planet, Mega City, Page 45, for example — and have boosted their sales because of it.

Rich: No mainstream bookstore chain will offer the depth of knowledge or stock the “long tail” items, such as small press comics. And with a readership as it is, they’ll be able to make money from supplying just that service.

Of course, if Asda decides to stock the Top 50 comic books every week, at half price, they’re all sunk.

Dez: We still have indie record shops because the high street cannot possibly carry the back-stock, trades or pamphlets, which the more-than-casuals crave. So it will be with comics.

Matthew: Don’t know. Don’t care.

FPI: Carte Blanche: any other gripes, ideas about the industry, the medium you want to get off your chests?

BAZ: Let’s have less pessimism, less snobbery and elitism, less of comics as our dirty little secret and start making efforts to turn comics back into a medium for the masses.

John: Ho hum. Creators rights — let them be at least on a par with book publishing. Too many superheroes. Not enough British adventure comics!

Rich: Nope. Only that Nintendo DS thing.

Dez: No, I’ve fitted them all in already.

Matthew: No gripes. Life’s too short and comics aren’t actually that important.

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FPI: This is something I’ve asked several folks recently, but if you had to recommend some titles for someone who wasn’t really a comics reader but wanted to take the plunge, what would you suggest?

BAZ: Depending on their tastes, V for Vendetta, Sandman, Kingdom Come, Marvels, Bulldog: Empire, Tricked, Exit, Jimmy Corrigan… so many.

John: Hmm, that isn’t easy. My answer would depend on who’s asking. I’ve never been a huge DC fan and as I mentioned, my awareness of US comics isn’t as strong as the other guys here. I pick up Straczynski’s Spider-Man and have read some of his Fantastic Four issues, because I like his work. I enjoyed Top Ten. Indie-wise, I’d advise buying the collections of Strangehaven or checking out the Top Shelf product line; fanzine-wise I’d recommend titles like Malcolm Magic — the Blink Twice guys are great! — Zarjaz, and, oh, many others. Online comics-wise my fave at the moment is Beaver and Steve.

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Rich: I’d suggest asking what other entertainment they like, and matching that. Lost? Strangehaven. West Wing? Eagle. The Mighty Boosh? Sleaze Castle. 24? Civil War. Anything on BBC4? Persepolis, Golem’s Mighty Swing, Palestine. Not hard, really.

Dez: Again too vague. Male? Female? Teen? Adult? Broke? Affluent? Middle-aged? Wrinkly? Can’t answer specifically, but what is brilliant is that there IS a title out there that you could recommend for any of the above.

Matthew: Kane by this country’s Eisner, Paul Grist. Anything by David Baillie and anything by Sean Azzopardi, two unsung and very talented writers. The Weekly Strip by Jeremy Dennis. Kingdom of the Wicked, a warped fairy tale by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli. Check out artist Sam Hiti’s website. Dark by the Rubin sisters. Manhole by Mardou. There’s No Time Like the Present by Paul Rainey. The Rainbow Orchid by Garen Ewing. Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks. Space Usagi by Stan Sakai. Hope for the Future.

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To be honest, I don’t know. There’s so much out there that’s deserving of attention. One good thing about the Internet: there are so many creator websites and blogs out there that you can often try before you buy.

Go out. Explore. Find something new.

After all, what the hell else is life about?

FPI: Guys, thank you all very much for taking part.

BAZ: Thanks for asking.

John: You’re welcome. Thanks for asking!

Dez: It was real!

Matthew: Cheers. Now go visit Bugpowder.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

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