Sex, Drugs & Comics – A Survivor’s Tale Part Ten (UPDATE)

Comic-Book-Baylon-PBK-cover2-lo-res1-227x350Tim Pilcher, ex-Vertigo Comics editor, is serialising the first chapter of his new book Comic Book Babylon: A Cautionary Tale of Sex, Drugs & Comics on Bleeding Cool. The Kickstarter to fund publication has just started.

UPDATE: Sorry, ran part nine again. Here’s ten.

In 1986 I started saving my money for monthly trips up to the London comic shops to get the precious gems I couldn’t find locally—back issues of titles I’d missed and those titles that never made it out to the newsagents. My two regular haunts were Forbidden Planet (FP) on Denmark Street and the Virgin Megastore concessionary, round the corner on Oxford Street. The former had replaced Dark They Were… as the comic book Mecca for fanboys. It was the first comic shop proper, set up by Mike Lake and Nick Landau in 1978. A more disparate pair you could not meet. Mike was your archetypal laid-back hippie stoner; long, dark hair and denim. Whereas Nick was the cutthroat businessman; glasses, short hair and sharp suits, with a penchant for fast cars. Yet, together they managed to inspire the explosion in comic book retailing in the capital and beyond.

FP’s bags, ads and T-shirts featured a wonderful drawing by Brian Bolland featuring a menagerie of assorted, scary mutants, freaks and weirdoes staring right back at the viewer. A knobbly-headed creature was saying “People like us shop at…” and underneath ran “Forbidden Planet.” It was a powerful icon—welcoming readers into a gang of oddballs and outcasts—that became associated with the shop for many years, before they switched to the current rocket logo, designed by en font terrible, Rian Hughes. Planet was not dissimilar to Dark They Were…, in that there was a slightly more organised chaotic mess. There was a bagging desk at the middle of the shop, which was where I first met Win Wiacek (who had previously worked at Dez Skinn’s Quality Comics shop). But as a shop, FP was dark and slightly foreboding.

By contrast, the small concession stand in the Virgin Megastore was retina-blindingly bright, with spotlights burning down, like miniature suns, on customer and staff alike, making the place a sweatbox in the summer. The tiny shop was hidden up a single flight of stairs within the Megastore, and was not the sort of place you stumbled upon. You had to know where you were going, and why. I first met Mike O’Donaghue (better known as MOD) here, as he worked behind the back issues racks that circled the entire shop, separating the customers from the staff, like some paper-based fortress. MOD went on to establish one of the earliest, more progressive comic shops at the time, Meanwhile… in Camden Town. That was around the corner from my third regular venue, Mega-City Comics.

I can still recall the vicarious thrill of picking up Watchmen #11 at Virgin and being stunned, unable to wait for the conclusion of Moore and Gibbons’ ground-breaking opus, but having to! Those long train journeys back to Eton flew by as I voraciously devoured my new “post-literate” booty.

It was on one of these buying trips that I first heard about a comic convention happening at the end of the year. I was nervous about heading up to London on my own for a whole weekend, but I finally plucked up enough courage and cash and headed up to the “Smoke” one weekend in October 1986 for the second UKCAC.

For the uninitiated, I should explain. As the comic book business was booming at that time, three smart chaps, Frank Plowright, Hassan Yusuf and Andrew Littlefield (and later Richard Barker), started up a convention for the growing legions of comic fans who wanted to gather together, eat crisps and talk about a subject that no one else in their lives gave a toss about. Unfortunately, Messers Plowright, Yussaf and Barker decided to call the annual gathering the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention. That’s UKCAC for short. That’s, you cack. The name was a constant source of amusement, with many booklet sketches commenting:

“UKCAC?”

“No.”

“It must’ve been me then.”

UKCAC was, by no means, the first British comic convention, there had been intermittent ones since 1976, but it was my first. The con was a revelation. Here were hundreds of people, just like me! Comic fans, unashamed in their passion. I was no longer a lone voice in the wilderness. Although, at the time, I knew no one at that particular show, in the “Fandom Assembled” list in the booklet there are 58 people who would eventually become my friends, co-workers, business colleagues, bosses, and flatmates. People like Duncan Fegredo and Matt Brooker, who had yet to break into comics professionally were just as wide-eyed and hopeful as me. That year the guests included Alan Davis and Dave Gibbons, who provided the booklet cover of Superman battling Thor. Others who attended were Gil Kane, Garry Leach, David Lloyd, Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz. Karen Berger was also there, acting as DC Comics’ British Liaison, seeking out up-and-coming talent. At that point I had no idea who she was, but she would play a pivotal role in my life in seven years’ time.

There were comics quizzes, art classes and all manner of panels. I remember a mind-blowing Brendan McCarthy art exhibition, and he has remained one of my favourite artists ever since.

I got my booklet signed by 2000 AD “script droid” Alan Grant, US writer of Batman Mike W. Barr, artists Jim Baikie, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Brett Ewins and many more.

I was 17 and was too poor to afford the subsidised lodgings in the student halls of residence, arranged by the convention, let alone a hotel, so I spent the night at the all-night cinema screening, trying desperately to sleep on three rickety plastic chairs in a huge, parquet-floored chilly gym hall at the University of London Union. The intensely eclectic film selection (long before the days of the “comic book movie” explosion) included Dune, Zelig, Crimes of Passion and Revenge of the Nerds—a tenuous, if not vaguely insulting, link to sequential art at best. After rough night of trying to sleep through 1941 and Body Double I emerged with a crick in my neck and a [snifflely] sniffly nose.