My Monthly Curse by Phill Hall #14 – The Way We Look Now

Phill Hall used to be a comics retailer and the News editor for Comics International before launching the PDF comics magazine Borderline – then abandoning comics altogether. But now he is going to look back on it all for Bleeding Cool.

Just why did comics get such a bad press in this country and the USA?

When did the comic fan go from being a normal kid or college student reading comics the same way girls read fashion magazines to something subversive, dark and smelly?

What was responsible for it?

I’m going to try to answer that as we go along, but I’ll give you a rough measure of what I’m steering us towards. In October 2003, I was in Poland attending a convention. The reasons will be clear much later in this book, it is the biggest event of its kind in Poland and was attended by over 3000 people – more people than the average British comics convention, but well below even a provincial one in the USA. Admittedly all the people there looked like Poles, but the point was I couldn’t tell the difference between a guy walking down the street from 99% of the people who attended the convention and some of its eclectic talks and exhibitions. Yeah, Poland has a Goth or four and a few weird looking people who you really wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

These people read comics too, but you don’t get the feeling that they’re being subversive in a rather disgusting and seedy kind of way. Comics do that – radiate a grubby, seedier image – with people in the UK and USA, but nowhere else. In Poland, there were even people dressed in costumes and I didn’t feel uneasy in their presence – if that happened at the UK equivalent, I’d be making excuses to get the fuck away from them! I am actually being unfair; the Poles in fancy dress are probably as anally-retentive and nerdy as their equivalent in the UK, but you didn’t get the sense that the inside of their costumes were coated in crusted jizzum.

Looking back through the coverage comics has received in the mainstream press since the Superman movie was released in 1978, it hasn’t always been good. Perhaps it had something to do with the public’s perception of superheroes, as most that transferred to the small screen ended up being badly done, quite camp and hardly something to be taken at all seriously. But Superman the Movie added a degree of weight that comics should be taken seriously, after all, Marlon bloody Brando was playing Superman’s dad!

You’ll believe a man can fly?

Really?

Shame the movie was such a pile of wank. In terms of superhero movies it did stick pretty closely to a lot of the ideas developed in the comic. But it was just all wrong. Lex Luthor, a sterling comicbook villain, if ever there was one, was reduced to being the humour element and what made it worse was that Gene Hackman played him and Hackman could quite easily have been Lex Luthor down to a tee, instead he seemed insistent on doing a bad Jerry Lewis impersonation. Brando got paid more money for five minutes work than a small African nation has GDP and was so camp he made Hackman look good. Margot Kidder might have been an inspired choice for Lois Lane, but Christopher Reeve just didn’t cut it as the Man of Steel. The critics were not terribly impressed, the special effects were given a thumbs up despite them looking unbelievably fake 30 years on; overall it didn’t really endear itself to anyone. Superman II met with overall approval both from critics and fans of comics, but what positive momentum was regained from that was lost with Supergirl and Superman III. By the time Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released the Superman films had given as much street cred to comics as Adam West’s Batman.

The problem was, especially in the USA, comics fans loved the first Superman film, mainly for sticking rigidly with the comic’s origins – this inadvertently created even more tension between fans of the character and the people who were being ‘less than respectful’. There are even apocryphal stories about devoted Superman fans sending threatening mail to critics, and doing the disgruntled fan version of 1970s stalking, because they were concerned that the character’s roots would be compromised. Stephen King’s Misery could easily have been the true story of a comics fan and his favourite artist. The weird thing is it probably would have been more feasible…

I’m going to be really crap and offer this: I don’t really know when the mainstream press in the UK (and to some degree the US) turned on comics fans, and to be fair ‘turned on’ is almost too strong a term for it, it’s been more like derision and a general feeling of facetiousness. Arguably comics stopped being normal in 1954 when Seduction of the Innocent (a book written by Fredric Wertham that suggested comicbooks were the sole reason for juvenile delinquencies!) hurtled comics into the gaze of the serious media and press. Except in the late 1950s and early 1960s the readers of comics were actually thought of as subversive – well, the ones who read pre Comics Code of Authority books.

Wertham’s book homogenised comics and yet they were to see a renaissance – not in sales, but in re-inventing icons. just as the US government was censoring comics, the Cold War and the things radiating from it were fashioning the next generation of comics fans and the icons they would follow. But this doesn’t explain why, at some point in our recent history, the comic fan stopped being associated with subversion and began to be regarded as a bit silly or childish.

I’d like to quote you from Brian Preston’s Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture; it so perfectly sums up the press and comicbooks. The author is wandering around an Australian cannabis Mardi Grass with one of the locals who comments, “The Australian media will come here, they won’t show up for any of the seminars, they’ll find the weirdest-pierced hippie, take his picture, and that’ll be Mardi Gras.”

Welcome to the world of comics and the mainstream press. The tabloid press is most probably responsible for the derision that affected comics fans at the hands of the media, again I can’t be sure, but I remember The Sun reporting on Superman: The Movie and thinking ‘Why are they looking down their noses at this?’ As comics became more and more popular, there was more chance if a story was big enough you’d read about it in the ‘real’ papers.

Before ‘alternative culture’ became key words in trendy, liberal-leaning newspapers, very few of the broadsheets would have given column inches over to comics. And the only time the tabloids would consider a comics story worth running was if it involved a film or TV series that was either popular or in production; or if it had a twat dressed in some pathetic imitation costume, with a beer belly hanging over his tights and a rescued baby kitten under his arm; that or for some political reason like the Fathers For Justice activists.

Of course, there were the obligatory publicity stunts by the comics publishers – we’ve seen everything from the Death of Superman to Dennis the Menace’s new punk look – and of course, by the nature of publicity stunts, credibility is greatly reduced, because news editors can see a publicity stunt a mile away.

This was the start of it; I’m sure – the reduction of comics to the brunt of a joke or two. The adults would have a laugh and the kids, who wouldn’t understand the innuendo, would just be pleased to see a picture of Spider-Man in Dad’s paper.

Everyone’s a winner, baby!

I’m convinced that over the last 20 years [25 if you count my editing] newspaper editors purposefully perpetuate the nerdy image of comics because it serves their purposes, especially during slow news periods. Our editors and journalists really are that cynical.

The example in Brian Preston’s pot book comes in whenever the debate steers its way into serious discussion. I watched a documentary on TV several years ago about comics; I thought it would be fun to watch, to see if I saw anyone I knew. I did. Unfortunately. I attended the event where most of the program was filmed, yet you would have been hard pressed to see me, or any of my associates and friends, on camera – we look too normal. Just about every person interviewed on the program looked like a freak. There was a distressed Goth girl gone mad on pink and dayglo who should have prioritised a visit to the dentist before attending any public function or TV interview – her lack of dental hygiene made her look dirty and eccentric, even if she chose to utter any words of wisdom. There was a well-known comics journalist/celebrity and gossip columnist who looked like an advert for Norse Gods selling tampons (thanks Phill – Rich), and there was an assortment of oddballs who all looked capable of inflicting extreme pain on chickens. Even some of the professionals on display made me want to go and collect train numbers. Why do the cameras always find the people the rest of comics least want them to find?

Because, they look like freaks and therefore make good televisuals!

You could be the most eloquent person in the world, with the most educated and perfectly informed view about comics, you could be stunningly handsome, have a fabulous line in wit and repartee, you could charm the knickers off of Fiona Bruce and you wouldn’t get a look in if there’s some fucking hobgoblin with a stack of Japanese porno books under his arm, constantly tugging at the front of his crimplene trousers, who can only grunt and sniff whenever asked a question.

He’s far better on camera – a 21st century freak show is what the public wants – not someone telling us some bollocks about how comics is actually a medium of its own and we should take it seriously because it isn’t just about superheroes!

To use the marijuana analogy again, shortly after Labour came to power in 1997 there was a debate on TV as to whether or not cannabis should be legalised. It was the first serious public debate about the substance I had ever seen. On the anti side there were hosts of well-spoken, well dressed, conservative spokespeople with convincing arguments. On the pro side was the same evenly balanced panel of spokespeople. The studio audience was also split into categories, those in favour, those against and most importantly those who wanted to be convinced, the ‘don’t knows.’ The audience was a good cross section of society with one main difference, there weren’t any dreadlocked-strewn-nose-pierced-dressed-like-they’ve-just-finished-working-on-a-radioactive-pig-farm representatives on the anti side. This wasn’t so bad until a couple of them wanted to speak and have their opinions heard. What we got were three people eventually putting their points across. The first person, a young guy who looked off his face basically burbled on, made a few antisocial comments and put together an argument that was as constructive as jelly – You just don’t understand, man. Pot is good and if you can’t see that you’re stupid. When the second person spoke – a woman decked in dreads and covered in home made tattoos (not that I have any problem with this at all) – she did nothing to enhance her colleague’s 2-minute burble – Yeah man, it’s fucking excellent and you lot don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s all a conspiracy to stop people from thinking. Finally, the dodgiest looking of the lot stood forward and he delivered an impassioned, thought-provoking, carefully rehearsed speech which really did get the point over about everything from the medical and economic strengths of the plant to the amount of money being spent policing a substance that wasn’t really causing anyone, but the smoker, any harm. He added that he actually wasn’t looking for a legalisation, but just a far more relaxed attitude with more resources focused on real drug crime. But guess what? He’d lost the audience for two reasons; not least because of his friends’ half-baked attempts at being radical, but also because by the time yer man stood up to talk, people had already formed an opinion of him before he opened his mouth. He could have agreed with the anti people and they still wouldn’t have heard him; their minds were made up, they were waiting for someone else, in a suit, to speak.

This is the comics industry. Rarely does someone who isn’t a carnival sideshow freak get the opportunity to get good airtime on either radio or TV. I’ve done a heap of radio interviews in my time; the problem is no one sees you. You could be the freak from the loony bin round the corner for all the listener knows, anyone can sound nice and informative and harmless on the radio. I’ve never got the chance to appear on TV relating to comics. I think it’s because I’m everything I described earlier about who should be interviewed.

I remember while working for Dez Skinn, he appeared on Sky News talking about the forthcoming Death of Superman and Dez is a pretty presentable guy – he doesn’t look like a nerd. But, despite trying desperately to keep the subject focused, the presenters (and producers, presumably) were more interested in turning it into the light-hearted news piece before the weather.

A TV favourite is Alan Moore; but he does nothing for comics’ image. He’s a practising magician and that sentence alone is enough for most people to be turning over channels or worse, switching on the Freak Radar so they can ridicule the writer for looking like a twat. He may well be held in the highest regard by discerning comics fans, but he looks like the freaks we don’t want being paraded out in public. Even relatively normal looking Neil Gaiman – now a successful novelist – is capable of drawing ridicule because his love of black and his trademark dark glasses.

Even when one of the more radical broadsheets, The Guardian, ran a review of a number of those critically acclaimed comics I mentioned earlier – Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (when they came out in collected editions) – it didn’t do enough to assuage most peoples’ preconceptions. After all, if all you get wheeled out in front of you whenever comics made national news is someone who is identified as being not as normal as the watching population, then the words ‘crack’ and ‘pot’ surely must apply somewhere along the line? [In the 90s and early 21st century, the two things – quality and nerdism couldn’t be separated. Now, as an edit in 2011, I can say that at least three broadsheets refer to comics in the same way as any other entertainment medium; most graphic novels will get reviewed alongside ‘proper’ books and people like Chris Ware and his Acme Novelty Library has won serious literature awards. So things are a bit better now.]

It’s difficult to describe comics fans because the vast majority look like you. You can’t normally tell if they’re into comics even if you spend an evening chatting in a pub. Most people don’t really talk about it – not to the uninitiated, anyhow. It’s the stigma attached, you see? But, there are always the others – the pungent minority; if we were going to be honest about this, the kind of people you would be scared of if you were female and alone in the same country with. But even that is unfair because a large percentage of the freaks don’t actually look like freaks. The visual freaks and weirdoes are the ones the press focus on because all they need is the picture and those tell a thousand words – some of the freaks are more eloquent and educated than fucking Stephen Hawking! But even that isn’t fair because most of the freaks actually do have something to say, you just aren’t listening to them, you’re too busy looking at them.

No, the real problem is the trainspotter-model comic collector. The ones who hang on every pause of a conversation to slip in and take them over with … shite! These are the people who start conversations with sentences like, “Are you aware that Spider-Man’s black costume isn’t black at all, but dark blue?” Or. “If I’m thinking the same way as Chris Claremont, and I’ll bet you I am, I’d say Cyclops and Wolverine are heading for another big fight.” Or, “Personally I’m concerned we’re not getting our money’s worth anymore. I only counted 3842 words this issue, which is the first time it has ever dropped below 4,000 words.” And one of my favourites, “Who do you think would win if blah and blah had a fight?” When I had the shop, I couldn’t ever say what I really wanted to, which was normally either, “I don’t care” or, “For fuck’s sake will you go and get a life and have some sex even if it means buying a prostitute and telling your mum she’s your girlfriend.” Don’t get me wrong, I have indeed sat and speculated on the outcomes of plotlines, made forecasts about stuff I’m ripping the piss out of this moment and gotten excited over things that my mind has, for some reason, completely overwritten… But that was when I was a retailer and needed to make a living. The chameleon in me – the part which would still make me a good comic store manager, even today.

This uber-nerd type of fan is very useful to store owners, but also very much a potential source of ridicule and as I said you need to treat the special ones well and if that means protecting them from cruel, but staggeringly funny jests about themselves, then so be it. You can laugh later when you have their money and they’ve left town again for another week. But, I made my living from geeks, so I have some respect for them.

Comics Lesson 8:

In the real world, things like the prices of shares can go up as well as down, or the other way around, in the comics world it takes a brave man to start dropping his prices and there aren’t that many of them.

Comics, as stated, can increase in price because of a number of factors – scarcity, demand, a hot link – either a character or a creator, or maybe just because it is very old.

In the case of scarce, rare or very old comics – the chances of obtaining a copy in a condition you need (we’ll talk about conditions later) becomes increasingly difficult, and therefore the number of comics dealers with these books is diminished. With demand it is something purely driven by greed – why bother selling 10 comics for £2.00 each when you can sell two for £10 and hope to make as much money if another mug comes along to do it again next month? I have seen comics increase in price so fast that single comics changed hands as many as six times in a single day and had increased in price by 1000%!

Take the Platinum Spider-Man #1 retailer incentive comic. Until it arrived in the UK it was selling modestly in the US, but because it was uniquely scarce in the UK the price increased from £50 to £500 by the end of one day’s trading at a Leeds comic mart. The highest price achieved for this special issue was £850. Probably today if you can find a copy for sale you’ll see it at about £250, it’s the price it levelled off to in 2005 [looking on eBay today, copies are a high of £100].

But I’m slipping away from the main point – when a comics dealer prices a comic, especially an ‘in demand’ item, the odds are it will always remain ‘in demand’ even after there is no demand left. Comics dealers rarely price books down. They might, if feeling a cash flow pinch have a sale and knock up to 90% off back issue prices, but these tend to last a week and rarely do much extra business (unless you can attract people from outside of your catchment area who haven’t seen your selection of back issues before – but again, more ifs and buts; this isn’t Tescos, you know).

During the 1960s and early 1970s the work of artists such as Steranko, Neal Adams and Berni(e) Wrightson all became ‘in demand’, and the prices of their books were as much as 500% higher than others in that run of issues not drawn by these people. By the time I’d entered retail in the late 1980s most of the young readers and collectors wouldn’t know a Steranko, Adams or Wrightson if they wandered in off the street and took a large bite out of their arses. Yet, dealers refused to bring their prices down and the reason for this was simple – there might either be some old collector out there who still wants it and they’ll find you eventually, or the retailer is frightened of selling it cheaper in case another dealer or retailer buys it and then sells it to that one customer you’ve been waiting for.

Sounds pathetic and paranoid, doesn’t it? Sadly, it’s true though… This bizarreness is actually driven by the nerdy comics fans. If comics fans weren’t so fucking weird and obsessive this would never happen.

So it’s uncommon for comics to drop in price and those that do rarely drop back down to the prices of the others because of fear. Comics retailers’ back issue departments make so little money the genuine feeling is even though they are already cutting off their noses to spite their faces they don’t realise it, to change it and make it drastically cheaper and different would make them realise it and realisation is something comics shop owners are lacking in. Plus, even if no one ever buys a single back issue, it looks so fucking cool to have that many…

Next time: things get personal… Life in Squonk!! and its peculiar customers!

About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

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