‘Under new management’ – FPI speaks to Mike Conroy, new editor of Comics International
As many of you will know Comics International easily the UK’s longest running magazine connected with the comics news and features field changed hands sometime in early January; Mike Conroy will now head up the magazine as editor for the new owners. Mike has many comics related credits to his resume including the creation of the Eagle Awards and the writing of a number of books on comics related subjects. Prior to the release of the first magazine with the new ownership in place I got the opportunity to conduct a short interview with Mike. Given that Mike is just taking over a somewhat daunting task we chose not to delve to deep into some of his answers; instead we will probably take Mike up on his offer go back in 6 months or so and see what has changed and see how close to his aspirations he has got in reality.
FPI: Mike taking over the reins after Dez Skinn put in such a dauntingly long sting must be something that fills you with pride but perhaps a little apprehension given how resistant the comics trade can be to change. How are you feeling at this moment ahead of your first edited release?
MC: Right now? Under siege… I can sympathise with those guys who looked over the wall of the Alamo and saw all those Mexicans camped outside! However, I’m looking to turn it into a Rorke’s Drift-style scenario!
There’s a lot more work to do getting CI back into the shops than I ever imagined. Not only is there the inertia of the three months without an issue to overcome but there’s also everything that goes with setting up a new company to contend with. It would have been much simpler if we’d have bought Quality Communications rather than just the magazine but that’s not what happened so there’s no point carping on about it.
FPI: Let’s talk a little about Comics International’s place within the UK comics market historically and also where you hope to take it in the future. How do you look at Dez’s tenure on the magazine, do you feel he was getting it right all these years or that the magazine was in need of change, perhaps for some time now? How do you see it changing in the future – short, medium and long term?
MC: Was Dez getting right? I think the answer to that’s evident in CI’s longevity; nothing lasts 16 years if it’s not fulfilling a need. That said, I’d not been entirely happy with the magazine’s direction for quite some while. I wanted to broaden our focus and increase the depth of our coverage at a time when circumstance dictated otherwise. I didn’t feel we were reflecting the change in the market as we focused more and more on the commercial – aka superhero – end of the industry. Obviously we need to have a commercial focus in order to survive but you only have to look at CI’s coverage of manga to see what I mean. Even now it’s only two pages and I had to fight to get that much… at the expense of losing those pages from the main news section.
Look, as a publisher Dez had a hard call. A magazine only has so many pages and everything’s a trade off. Dez did it his way, now I’ve the chance to do it mine. It’s not about getting it right so much as being true to your vision. That CI has lasted so long is down to one man’s vision. I want to use the very strong foundations that Dez has laid down as a platform to launch the magazine in a different direction, one that I’m more comfortable with.
Where am I going? Well, I’ve been after Dez for years to increase the page count so I’m keeping the 100-page format and the £2.95 cover price that he introduced with #200. And I’m going to be using most of the extra pages to expand the news. But I’m not intending to offer more of what The Comics Journal once described as “press releases garnished with a quote or two from the creators.” Instead I’m looking to offer longer features-cum-interviews, sketchbooks and the like. My vision can be distilled down to a news-driven blend of Amazing Heroes and Starlog’s Comics Scene presented with CI’s traditional level playing field approach and straightforward reportage. I’d like to think that we can capture the middle ground between Wizard’s irreverent hyperbole, The Comics Journal’s serious, intellectual approach and whatever it is Comic Buyer’s Guide has to offer.
Things are not going to change overnight. As far as I’m concerned, there are no sacred cows in CI but neither am I interested in change for change’s sake. I’ve a sharp learning curve ahead of me and I plan to introduce my innovations slowly. Given CI’s three-month absence, my first issue [#201] is to be something of a transitional one but it will certainly offer a good indication of where I’m going with the magazine.
FPI : On the subject of changes, there are rumours floating around the Internet to the effect that your management style or personality led to clashes with two contributors even before you’d got your first issue on the schedule and that you fired both. Have you gone in both guns blazing, determined to eradicate those loyal to the previous regime, to let everybody know there’s a new marshal in town? Do you think you could have handled things better?
MC: (Sigh) The picture you paint would be laughable to anyone who knows me to any degree. I’m an affable sort of guy who tries to get along with everyone; hardly the type go throwing my weight around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pushover but I’m an old hippy… make love not war and all that! “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass and I’m all out of bubblegum!” (to quote Roddy Piper) just isn’t me at all.
As to what happened, I don’t believe in washing my dirty linen in public. Suffice to say that neither was fired. Both quit, one when I tried to open a dialogue and he misinterpreted my concerns as termination of his employment. In both cases motives were ascribed to me that were, in fact, so far off the mark as to be incredible. Could I have handled things better? Of course I could. To have two people both get the wrong end of the stick suggests that I’ve got to take at least some responsibility for what happened.
But regrets are foolish. They don’t change anything. You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt and get on with your life. Learn from your mistakes but don’t look back, that’s my motto. And talk to people… email may be swift but its lacking nuance, which leaves even the most innocuous remark open to misinterpretation.
And one is now talking to me about making contributing to the magazine in other ways so…
FPI : CI has been out there now for 16 years in which time the industry has gone through a number of ups and downs in terms of its viability and stability. It felt to us more recently that Comics International was perhaps undergoing its own crisis of, if not viability, then certainly of relevance. How were sales prior to the 200 re-launch compared to 10 years ago, 5 years ago? What is the mags current circulation?
MC: #200 wasn’t a re-launch; it was a celebration. That it happens to fit in with my desire to increase the page count just shows what a lucky bugger I am!
As to how CI’s current circulation compares with 5 or 10 years ago, as part of our purchase of the magazine, Dez provided us with figures going back over five years. From those I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, while there has been a gradual erosion of CI’s sales, it’s nowhere near as bad as the calamitous falls that were experienced by print media in general over the same period. In fact, despite the somewhat erratic schedule during 2006, the trend is currently upward.
FPI: Do you think that drop in sales reflects the fact that comics news is no longer well served by a magazine format and that without change inevitable redundancy lurks?
MC: That you presupposed a drop speaks volumes. I can’t get my head around the fact that people who sell paper ephemera consider a hard copy newszine to be obsolete and on its way to joining the dinosaur and the dodo.
Sure the Internet has had an impact on our sales but I don’t perceive cyber news to be quite the boogeyman others would have it be. Reading comics but getting your news via computer is – to me at least – a bit like putting honey on your fish ‘n’ chips; it tastes alright but salt ‘n’ vinegar’s much better! I think it’s a small but vociferous minority that gets all its comics news from Newsa-bloody-ramaet al. Most of ’em are browsers, simply dipping in to get the headlines, the basic facts. Of those some might be satisfied with just that but I think the majority still want to sit and have a read in comfort, whether it’s on the train, on the bog, in the bath, while having their lunch or whatever.
Most people I’ve spoken to agree that reading doesn’t just engage the brain and the eyes, it’s a tactile experience and you can’t get that off a monitor. Also, many feel they don’t absorb as much from the screen as they do off they printed page. Couple that with the fact that many sites lack discipline in terms of fact checking, journalistic ethics and the like and print remains the definitive source. Let’s face it, how often have you seen Internet news items edited after posting to take account not just of subsequent events but also to rectify errors. How can you trust something that can be altered so readily or vanish without a trace?
For a while I worked as features editor for Cool Beans World. When that operation went to the wall, everything disappeared off the ‘Net. Cyberspace is not a very stable medium. Don’t get me wrong, it has immediacy and can make use of technology that will never be available to print but its all smoke and mirrors. It’s unlikely ever gain the acceptance, the gravitas that print has. They said movies would kill theatre, that TV would mean the end of cinema but they’re all still out there just like radio. They’ve had to reinvent themselves to survive but they’ve managed it and, in the case of film, even prospered.
I don’t think our fall in sales is directly attributable the advent of the Internet any more than I consider it responsible for the fall in singles (record) sales. Nobody has a limitless amount of disposable income but everybody’s spoilt for choice these days… games… DVDs… CDs… comics… books… movies… theatre… Even TV now offers umptythree channels where there was only one when I were a lad – and that was in black & white! Prior that we had radio and you could do other things while you listened; build Airfix kits, play toy soldiers, read The Beano or Eagle or even a book. The glass teat – as Harlan Ellison dubbed TV – demands more attention. It’s no wonder people read less.
But, while I can’t do anything about the seemingly limitless competition for the disposal £ (or $) that now faces CI, I can address the onslaught of the Internet…
At an editorial meeting some years ago, I suggested we should let the Internet be the daily papers and reposition CI as the Sundays (or at least one of ’em). We can’t beat it on time, so let’s offer more in depth coverage; something for the readers to get their teeth into. That’s my primary aim.
Look, there are many people who don’t surf the ‘Net, at least not for their comics news. Of course, there are others – possibly a hell of a lot more – who do. But of those, it’s my belief that many don’t do more than grab the headlines. Those that do read “everything” are a very vocal minority – you only have to look at the message boards where you’ll see the same names cropping up time after time.
I think the market’s still out there. It maybe be significantly smaller than it once was – for all the reasons already stated – but I believe that all we’ve got to do is reinvent ourselves.
FPI: Given these documented problems with the Internet siphoning of the news function with its greater immediacy what will we see in the magazine to reflect that changed situation. The Comics Journal has now dropped their news coverage as the lead feature (although they still publish news snippets) preferring to concentrate on analysis, features and interviews can we expect a similar pattern from CI or do you have a different model in mind?
MC: As I’ve already mentioned, my plan is to develop CI as something of a news-driven blend of Amazing Heroes and Starlog’s Comics Scene while keeping the magazine’s traditional level-playing fields, straight journalism approach. I’m going to include features-cum- interviews, sketchbooks and the like but – unlike the titles I’ve just mentioned – I’m not looking to include any nostalgic articles. Since my days as a retailer, I’ve always perceived CI as a sales aid and I want to strengthen that. I want it to become the comic shop equivalent of “Do you want fries with that?!”
Oh, and I lied (sorta) about no nostalgia features… I will be keeping the retro TV Sci-Fi in British Comics series that Dez introduced in #196; we’ve got it mapped out to #212.
Not only has it perked CI’s sales in the US but it fits in with other plans I have for expanding the CI brand name. And, no, I’m not going to go into details… Over the past few weeks, I’ve had plenty of lessons in how:
“The best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
For promised joy.”
Dez made it look so easy!!!
FPI : CI’s internet presence has always been an afterthought at best. It seemed the former management felt that giving news for free online would further undermine the need to buy the magazine. However, more and more comics news now comes from the web via sites like Journalista, Comics Reporter, The Beat, Newsarama, Bugpowder and our own. If you read them all you would have a pretty comprehensive idea of what was going on in the comics world on a day to day basis. I know CI now has many plans for a new internet site. What do you see CI bringing to the party – will it mirror any existing site or will it be carving a niche of it’s own through unique reporting? What’s your plans?
MC: Bit of a hard call on this one. I’ve got ideas and I’ve got a couple of bright tech guys coming up with their own wrinkles but I’m none to sure exactly where we’re headed. My first priority is getting #201 out and then getting the magazine back on schedule. My guys are developing various ideas but I’ve got to admit I’m not overly keen on producing yet another free competitor to CI!
I already think of CI as a working girl, still trying to sell her stuff on the street corners while the amateurs (and I use the word in its loosest sense) are giving it away for free down the club!!! It doesn’t make economic sense to join ’em!
But I do want to embrace the Internet and the CI website definitely features in my plans. It certainly won’t just be an afterthought.
Also, my backer, Peter Boyce, runs a company called Movie New Media and he’s soon to launch a desktop TV channel to complement CI. Among other things it will include a strand described by Peter (when I’m holding a gun to his head) as an audio/visual version of my Frame to Frame column. If my publisher’s into new technology, I can hardly ignore the Internet now, can I?
FPI: Your new owner comes from a world outside comics and given your CI column was generally dealing with comics in other media (although we know you also handled many of the news stories) are we likely to see a move away from comics in the magazine? Movie and TV coverage perhaps? Advertising for movies and lifestyle products and the like? Do you see a new focus more in line with your editorial interests and the owners business diluting the comics content?
MC: Short answer? No. But that said, there will be an increasing amount of reporting of comic-based movie and TV projects. That’s because it’s my main area of interest after comics themselves and because Peter is able to open doors for me. More importantly, it’s because it makes CI more accessible to the man in the street. If we can get him to pick up an issue because of 300, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3 or whatever, it becomes a portal for him… and it helps us sell more copies!
FPI: It seemed that Comics International this past 2- 3 years adopted a tone which many in the industry had started to consider fairly anti comic shop. Dez’s editorials (whilst no-one doubts his love of the form) could be fairly grudging about the industry and at least 2 of the regular columnists spend much of their time championing comics as books (with the implication it might be better to buy them in bookstores) and that comic stores should turn into some bastardised form of Waterstone’s. I don’t think anyone would say there were no problems with UK comics retailers but this did smack of ‘biting the hand that feeds’. Where do you stand on the whole UK comics stores and distribution question? Will we see the tone of the magazine embrace the vitality of the medium and show some enthusiasm towards those who are its advertisers and sellers?
MC: I don’t think Dez was in any way anti-comic shop but I do think his lack of fear sometimes interfered with his judgement. Not one to pussyfoot around, he’s in your face about calling a spade a spade and sometimes doesn’t consider the repercussions. Was he right in the situations you allude to? I can’t say. All I do know is that – as I’ve said in private discussions – I’d have handled things differently.
As for the future, since the beginning of the year, I’ve been phoning retailers, opening the lines of communication and telling them the basics of my plans. The shops are CI’s lifeline and I want the owners/managers to know we’re there for them just as much as they’re there for us. It’s a two way street.
Beyond that, it’s a bit difficult. How exactly could we show “some enthusiasm towards those who are its advertisers and sellers” without jeopardising our neutral position. I’ve already had several complaints about what was perceived as Dez’s bias towards a couple of shops. I understand what provoked the gripes but, if some owners are more pro-active than others, should I be the one to rein in their enthusiasm?
And what do I say to those who may suggest I’m favouring FPI by agreeing to this interview?!
On a more positive note, you should definitely see CI “embrace the vitality of the medium”. While we’re a commercial product and superheroes must of necessity be our main focus, the extra news pages will provide room to look at some of the exciting and innovative material being produced beyond the Marvel/DC/Dark Horse/Image hegemony.
I’m also beginning an expansion of our manga coverage and looking at implementing a reviews section concentrating on trade paperbacks and graphic novels and covering them at the time of release. I want these reviews to be longer than CI’s usual 50-60-word capsule comments and more akin to those that you read in newspapers and newsstand magazines.
It’s another way of a) aiding the retailer and b) making comics more accessible to that mythic man in the street.
Let’s face it, while their lives might be a little harder without it, the retailers can survive without CI. It doesn’t work the other way round. We want the shops to thrive and for the staff to see our magazine as a way of achieving that. If they flourish, we flourish. It’s called symbiosis.
(By way of full disclosure Forbidden Planet stores recently substantially cut its orders due to this perceived tone. We hope that Mike’s tenure will make us feel CI is a title worth reinvesting in as a retailer – Kenny)
Setting the record straight, following a chat with the Powers that Be at FPI, the orders have gone back up. It shows a lot of faith in me and my plans.
FPI : There’s a feeling we have long held , and to some extent been guilty of, that the reason many comics stores continued to carry (and advertise in) the magazine is they had always done it and they just never thought to stop. Are you at all worried that if you start to change the format of the mag some may actually sit up and question their position viz a viz the magazine and either decide to stop retailing it or stop advertising. I could foresee a time where the magazine became , let’s say, Comics Media International and refocused to include a wider field and retailers saying I don’t really need this now, my customers get their comics news of the web and already have a number of film and TV mags they read. Although to not change may reap the problem of having become redundant we discussed above. it could be seen as between a rock and a hard place – how do you see it?
MC: Evolve or die!
That said, it’s unlikely that we’ll go the Wizard route. That’s really become a pop culture magazine and, while comics still account for a significant percentage of its content, I’m not sure what market it’s aiming for. That it’s selling a lot more than CI suggests it’s doing something right but it’s not the audience I’m reaching out to. My sensibilities are different… or maybe I’m getting old!
As for shops dropping CI because of a content change, I hope I’m not a stupid person. In fact, I know I’m not. Any changes I make to the magazine will be because I believe they will better suit the requirements of the shops’ customers. If sales fall it’ll be because I got the mix wrong not simply because of the changes.
But the reception my ideas have received from the retailers I’ve spoken to indicate the future’s looking bright.
Ask me again in a few months.
FPI : One thing we have enjoyed in the last few years is CI’s championing of British comic talent like David Hitchcock and Paul Grist. Will this continue? expand?
MC: Yes and yes… if the material’s there. What sort of a British comics magazine would we be if we didn’t support homegrown talent?
FPI: Can you foresee a time when CI itself might become a publisher of stand alone comics material?
MC: Get thee behind me, Satan!
Seriously, I’ve never given it a thought but my immediate response would be, no! It’s an entirely different form of publishing that’s littered with failures on both sides of the Atlantic. More so than ever in recent years. It’s a tough market out there and it’s seemingly owned by the Big Two.
FPI: Mike we’d like to give you a platform for anything you would like to tell us about the magazine or yourself we haven’t covered?
MC: Only that my first issue [#201] is something of a transition. It gives an indication of where we’re going but the transformation isn’t going to take place overnight.
On a separate not, why not head over to www.eagleawards.co.uk and nominate your 2006 favourites for this year’s awards (nominations close on the 28th of February – Joe). Also, join the forum… proffer your views on the current Eagle Awards set up… the relevance (or otherwise) of the categories… talk about what you think might be nominated next year… In short, get involved!
FPI : We always like to ask our interviewees to point us towards some of the comics they are currently reading or think highly of. What would be your current recommendations?
MC: God, there’s tons but, to put it all in perspective, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I like my Silver Age superheroes and I prefer ’em drawn by the likes of Kirby, Ditko, Swan, Kane, Infantino and Buscema as much as I like ’em written by Lee, Kanigher, Fox, Broome, Thomas et al. I also love the wave of innovators that followed them. Artists such as Adams, Steranko, Wrightson, (Windsor-)Smith, Starlin and guys like Byrne and Pérez that were in the next wave as well as writers like Englehart, Moench and Gerber. I’ve recently been working my way through the Marvel Omnibus editions of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men even Kirby’s Eternals! I love these giant hardcovers but you can’t beat a real old comic!
I’ve also been reading Justice Society (DC’s All Star Comics compilation) but when I look at the current titles I’m reading, I’m amazed at how few on the ‘must read’ pile are superhero comics. Of course I’m following all the obvious titles as well as 52 and Civil War but they’re all being supplanted in the “first out of the box” stakes by DMZ, The Other Side, Palmiotti & Gray’s Jonah Hex, Samurai: Heaven and Earth (with great Luke Ross art), Fables and Jack of Fables and Rex Mundi.
A couple of current favourites that fit into the traditional mould are Astro City: The Dark Ages and Red Menace but the one title that deserves all the publicity (and sales) it can get is Scalped. I can’t say enough good things about and its writer (Jason Aaron, who also wrote The Other Side). I’ve been pushing this since Jason showed me pages last year.
What does this list say about me? Probably that I may be a traditionalist but I just love comics in all their myriad ways. A few less obvious titles to add to the list: anything by Jack Jackson aka Jaxon or Corben, Larry Gonick‘s Cartoon History of the Universe and Cartoon History of the Modern World, Chicken with Plums by Marjane (Persepolis) Satrapi, books like Joe Sacco‘s The Fixer.
I’ll stop now. We could be here all night!
FPI: Any final thoughts?
MC: The past is a different country. They do things differently there.
FPI : Many thanks Mike
MC: It’s been fun!
FPI: And good luck with the new CI.