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My Travels With A Time Lord: Finally getting Doctor Who in his own title
Below are a few shots from the actual dummy issue, the scissor and paste-up mock up I put together to get a handle on producing the title, and to show the BBC what I had in mind. More about all that later.
And here is a handy potted history of The Doctor’s life in comics, my Sez Dez/The Skinny column for Future Publishing’s fabbo Comic Heroes #4. . As I admit in the piece, it took the introduction of the Daleks to really hook me on the series, but once bitten I became an ardent follower.
In fact, when first Doctor William Hartnell was making one of his incredibly rare guest appearances as it was at the nearby RAF Finningley’s air show in 1964, I successfully pestered my dad into taking me along. Thanks to the wonder of Youtube, here’s a wonderful old 8mm recording of the actual event.
To the right is a photo of me and me dad (with his box camera in hand to capture the moment), stepping out for said show.
And below, from 1975, is a look back at Steve Parkhouse’s first stab at Doctor Who, drawing a five page spoof strip plus cover for our very own MAD Magazine’s UK edition, from a script by Geoff Rowley…
From the same year, 1975, and the same company, Top Sellers, my first published brush with the time lord came through a back-up feature in the second of my “Sci-Fi Series” poster mags, The Six Million Dollar Man. A pretty light-weight start, and it took me four years and two company changes to be able to do anything more substantial!
But I got there! Here is a selection of photos from the Doctor Who Weekly launch period. First up me, displaying a frightening amount of hair (both facial and chestal!) talking up a storm at the 1979 Doctor Who Convention, followed by Tom speaking, signing and in relaxing shots from the Brighton SF Worldcon weekend.
It’s interesting to note, looking back at this trade flyer, why publishers were more willing to experiment with new titles back then. As the top right corner flash proclaims: “SOR for 4 weeks”. Not something to boast about really, as it meant that shops could return unsolds ONLY during the launch period. After that, they had to pay for every copy they ordered, whether they sold them or not.
For some reason it was considered a publishing breakthrough when a “no returns”/firm sale comicshop distribution deal was established in the States in the mid-1970s. It had been operating like that in regular outlets throughout most of the world for the best part of a century! Sadly not any more though. If you launched something like DWW now (as quite a few seem to be doing), you’d be paid ONLY for issues which customers bought, the rest being unceremoniously pulped by the wholesalers. Not a strong incentive to publish, unless you’re really really confident!
But thanks to Tom attending schools, shopping precincts and his press conferences around the country, we got fantastic media coverage. In addition to tons of local press, The Guardian gave over half of one of its broadsheet pages (see below), while the tabloid Daily Mail also ran a half-page story. In addition to paid advertising slots, it also featured editorially as a news story on the BBC’s News South East, Midlands Today and several other regional stations. Heady days.
The only downside was the entire science fiction literary community, who were in outrage. The Guardian printed a large feature on the world SF convention in Brighton (27/8/79) and had the decency to not once call it “Sci-Fi”. But despite all the notable luminaries present (Asimov, Bradbury, et al), almost half of their coverage was given over to a photo of media tarts Tom and I performing on stage.
Below is a great double-take visual, put together to celebrate the title’s 400th issue, released on October 15, 2008. The tenth Doctor, David Tennant, had been a big fan of the title in its early days. “I bought the first issue, in 1979,” he told Doctor Who Magazine at the time. “I just thought, ‘At last! Why’s this not happened before now?’ I was delighted. I chose it as my order. I used to be allowed one issue a week.”
In fact, prior to its launch he’d bought Marvel’s Hulk Comic. Until he saw an ad for Doctor Who Weekly launching the following week, that is. With his limited pocket money he had a tough choice to make. “I think I can guess which one you went for,” I remarked when told. His huge ear to ear grin said it all!
Doctor Who Weekly: How It All Began…
As has been stated in various places, I’d been wanting to launch a Doctor Who title in the proven-to-be-successful House of Hammer format, combining new comic strip tales with retro features, since 1976. But at the time BBC Enterprise (the sales and licensing division of the Beeb) considered the inclusion of a one to two page strip in TV Comic the exclusive extent they could run to (ah, how times change!). So, having been knocked back several times, I had to watch and wait.
As soon as TV Comic let the license lapse, I leaped into action and put together a scissor and paste-up “dummy” issue to show them what I had in mind. That I was with Marvel by this 1979 stage, rather than HoH-producing Top Sellers or my own Starburst Magazines Ltd, was coincidental, but their good fortune as I realised we should go for both the UK and the US markets in a single license.
The timing couldn’t have been better, really. My first Marvel UK title to feature originated new material, Hulk Comic, had got off to a spectacular launch of 250,000 copies and had itself attracted the attention of the BBC. Their documentaries folk had dreamed up a new programme about the world of merchandising and lined up somebody from Mary Quant to talk about licensing the fashion guru’s name, somebody from Walt Disney (’nuff said!) and… me. Apparently BBC Enterprises were also interviewed to camera, so, in the middle of an industrial action when the BBC was the only channel broadcasting, all their staff was under strict instructions to watch the programme.
Only they were edited out and didn’t appear. But I did, at 8.30pm prime time on BBC-1 on the Wednesday night before my Thursday morning meeting with them!
So I arrived at 10.30am at their stately building, 1860s-built “The Langham” (once a hotel favoured by the likes of Mark Train, Napoleon III, Dvorak and Toscanini – long before the BBC bought it as overflow for their adjacent Broadcasting House in 1965).
It was such absurd timing that when I jumped out of the cab, the suited and booted commissionaire looked at me and said “Didn’t I see you on TV last night?”. Unbelieveable – he must say that to everybody.
The meeting was with head of licensing Roy Williams and his number two Christopher Crouch, both of whom seemed most affable and within minutes of my pitch kicking in happily agreed to everything I suggested. Once more I was amazed. Four years in the making and no more than four minutes in the clinching. Incredible.
It was a while afterwards, at one of our regular evening get-togethers, when I’d take over a bundle of printed copies and we’d crack open their drinks cabinet, that they fessed up. Both Roy and Chris had seen me doing my Hulk thing the night before the meeting, being all full of myself behind my big desk and and even bigger Hulk print run, and admitted that they thought I’d looked pretty scary. So the next day they’d buckled straight away. Ah, the power of television, eh pals? You just can’t make this kind of stuff up!
In fact Doctor Who Weekly owed much to Hulk Comic. Not only had it aided me considerably in getting the rights to a TV Time Lord weekly, but I even stole a catchy little slogan from our previous launch. According to me, old greenskin had been cover-bannered as “TV’s No. 1 Hero” until DWW launched… then I moved the accolade over to our new toy! If it’s a good idea once…
Not that BBC Enterprises paid much attention to looking at it, but here’s how the dummy shaped up…
About the cover: Some people who’ve been lucky enough to see the original dummy copy, which I usually take with me when invited to Whovian events and TV interviews, have remarked on how similar it is to the finished cover, but with an arguably better visual. Well, yes – it is similar because it should be! That’s the whole point of producing a dummy issue. As for the picture change, I agree. But how can you possibly launch such a title without including Daleks on the cover too?
A Letter from the Doctor: To make the title more personalised, I was adamant we should have the Doctor being seen to contribute, so this was one of the very first features I was adamant should appear. In fact it’s the inside front cover on the dummy (hence it being the “notes” page for my scribbled ideas, top right corner). But when I put the idea to Tom Baker, he admitted being too busy to produce a weekly letter and asked if I’d write it in his stead. Yes, sorry, it was me all along! But Tom did show me how he signed his name, so I could maintain the illusion… until now!
For dummy mock-ups, in those pre-computer days, we’d steal appropriate looking text from anywhere – I think this slab came from Famous Monsters of Filmland (but don’t tell publisher Jim Warren or he’ll feel he deserves a piece of the action!).
The actual printed Letter from the Doctor which I’ve reproduced above is from issue 2, an in-part homage to those wonderful old Adam Strange DC Comics strips which Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino used to produce. Hardened fans of such will recognise the puns: “via Beam-A-Zeat”, “The Planet Runn” and “Infantimber 0th, year of the gardner”. I loved these little add-ons, in issue three I had The Doctor thinking that the strong Yorkshire accent was an alien language (which should not be taken as an invitation for any smart-arsed Southerners to write in saying it is!)
The illustrations used for the bottom left of the dummy cover and the main part of the Letter from the Doctor page were both by Dave Gibbons and were taken from his “audition” drawings. Nowt goes to waste wi’ me!
The Photo-File: Hardly changed a jot! I realised we would have a lot of young readers who had never heard of William Hartnell, so I wanted to implant a sense of history from day one, in as palatable a form as possible.
The lead comic strip: Knowing the enormity of asking a single artist to take on a five or six page weekly strip 52 times a year was asking for trouble, my first choice was for two people I’d worked with in the past who I knew would deliver a first class job. Dave Gibbons’ samples proved me right, but Brian Bolland? Well, the joke I usually use is that I’m still waiting for his samples! (Sorry, Brian – a cheap shot, but you were known for being a bit slow back then!)
Remarkably, Dave proved up to the task single-handedly for years (even doing his own lettering), with one exception where Paul Neary and I filled in to give him a breather for two weeks with Timeslip. I’d had the idea for it while on one of my New York visits. Hanging out of a girlfriend’s apartment window to smoke a cigarette, I was thinking about the ever-pressing deadlines Dave Gibbons faced and how a standby fill-in would probably be appreciated. And I suddenly thought how cool would it be to feature all four Doctors in a single strip (I know what fanboys love!). So the problem was how to manage such. Then I thought of a space creature, resembling a giant jellyfish, which would engulf its prey before absorbing them. But unlike a jellyfish which absorbs physical nutrition, this would absorb its victims’ time, making them grow younger and younger until they devolve back to nothingness. This would give me an excuse to have the Doctor “degenerate” through his previous incarnations back to the William Hartnell version, who would have to stop the creature before disappearing!
I phoned Paul at Marvel UK, where he’d taken on the role of being my new in-house art editor, and told him the plot in sufficient detail that he could draw it up for my finished scripting when I got back. I must have been right about it being something which would prove popular as it’s apparently now the most reprinted Doctor Who strip ever! (Of course, being only eight pages long may have contributed to that achievement.)
But I was a bit disappointed to find he’d scripted his own version of my story himself and already had it lettered by the time I returned. Much to my surprise, Paul had jumped straight in to drawing it up. But this was maybe because he saw it as an opportunity to prove something…
Paul had apparently been no more more impressed with Dave Gibbons’ first episode than he had been with Brian Lewis’s initial work for House of Hammer a few years earlier. When episode one of “The Iron Legion” arrived through the post, he piled on heaps of criticism about a fellow freelancer but this time – to my surprise – as a several page handwritten picture by picture critique. About frame composition, alternative angles, the lot. He said I should phone Dave up to go over all this, adding “I am meant to be your art editor, after all”.
I had always respected Paul as an artist, he had got his industry break several years before me, and for an American publisher (Warren Magazines) at that. So with him sharing my office and not wanting a confrontation so early on, I took his advice and called Dave to run through Paul’s notes with him. At the end of a lengthy conversation – Dave’s side being mostly exasperated grunts – he calmly said “So do you want me to redraw it then?”. “Er, no,” I replied, sensing the tension this had caused and how absurd such would be. “So why are you telling me all this?” was the (hopefully rhetorical) reply.
As I hung up I realised I’d been working with Dave for years and had never criticised his work before, in fact I’d always been amazed how quickly and professionally he had turned everything around, even his non-paid work for my old fanzines (example below). Suddenly I felt a proper prat.After that, with Stan Lee’s opinion of my bringing in an art editor ringing in my ears (“I wouldn’t do it, you can only have one boss!”), I suggested Paul should deal directly with artists when he had concern over their work.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Going back to the mock-up dummy, for the lead strip as with the cover illustration I again used a Gibbo test sketch of the Doctor, this time pasted over one of his 2000 AD Dan Dare pages, with only a TARDIS and a DW logo to thinly disguise my source! So, yes the Mekon was actually the first villain to face Marvel’s Doctor Who!
And talking of 2000 AD, Dave mentioned in one of our telephone conversations that top writing team Pat Mills and John Wagner had some fully fleshed-out Doctor Who stories which they’d pitched unsuccessfully to the BBC. So once again not wanting anything to go to waste, I called them saying we could possibly pay for their rejects! They were obviously pleased with the offer as they stayed on board to write several more excellent serials.
Mills and Wagner’s method of working was that while they’d chat through the idea for stories, they’d alternate over who had the job of dialoguing them and typing them up. Above and right are the actual five pages of Pat’s manuscript for part one of The Iron Legion, prefaced by his two pages of artist notes.
Don’t you love how polite we all were back then, putting P.T.O. at the bottom of each page, lest the artist not realise there were more, and little “cont.” notes for continuing dialogue over the page.
You can also see just how good Pat was by looking at the minimal amount of editor’s scribble I added to his script before it went out to be drawn up.
And mentioning getting it drawn up, I was more than aware of the difference between UK and US comics and wanted it done in such a way so it could easily be reprinted in the American comicbook format, with 20 page monthly episodes as opposed to our shorter weekly ones. So I instructed artist Dave Gibbons to only produce a “splash” introductory page every fourth instalment, while the fully story length would also work to multiples of 20. This way a single adventure would fit nicely into two or three US comics as well as eight or 12 UK weeklies.
I’d also hated the way some publishers, when collecting strips from weeklies, would have a full title logo and story recap every fourth or fifth page. With “continued next week” boxes even appearing, it detracted from the flow and made it obvious this was merely a reprint. So I devised a simple way around this and asked artist Dave Gibbons to always make sure the initial frame in the non-splash page episodes had sufficient “dead space” in the top left of the opening frame for us to add an overlay with the title logo and story-so-far narrative panel.
This meant UK readers could read a recap, while we’d simply shoot the film without the overlay for the US edition, so the story would run smoothly from beginning to end. Common sense really. And it worked a treat when Marvel US picked up the first two serials for a run in their try-out title, Marvel Premiere #57-60.
Unfortunately, nobody seems to have mentioned this to the next batch of UK editors, so later US reprints featured a somewhat ungainly gap every few pages where they simply removed the episode title and centred the image. Dave might have continued doing it Skinn-style, but if so nobody thought to make a copy of the pages without title logo overlays before sending him his originals back. So it goes.
At least I couldn’t be held responsible for how it turned out! Despite my three year struggle to get the Doctor Who license and painstaking approach to getting the formula and the contributors right from the first issue (remember: “Your first is always your worst!” so it’s worth going that extra mile) I was somewhat crest-fallen when I saw the US version.
I’d been working on this side of the pond in comics for almost a decade by now, but I was eagerly awaiting my US credit debut, when Doctor Who was reprinted Stateside. Imagine my disappointment when I saw that all reference to my efforts went totally without mention… My editor credit had been unceremoniously dropped, replaced by a namecheck for the colorist on the splash page, while on the letters column masthead Jim Salicrup took the editor credit and even his assistant, Bob Budiansky, got his name in print. I sulked for days about that!
…Although, looking at some of the pin-up filler art they commissioned to fill gaps where advertising pages hadn’t sold, being distanced from these early US editions probably wasn’t such a bad thing! (See above right, if you’re brave: A page by the artist behind the birth of the new – a.k.a. commercially successful – X-Men, Dave Cockrum, and the usually reliable veteran inker Frank Giacoia.)
There were lots more similar travesties published over there (don’t get me started on their initial run of covers – before they had the sense to hire Dave Gibbons to produce such). I don’t think they quite got it!
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Chronologically, we were talking about the dummy and the actual content. So, using the Sinbad & The Eye of the Tiger/House of Hammer format which had worked so well in the past, I wanted to reach as wide a cross section of the nine million TV viewers as possible. Having a strong comic strip content added something new and highly visual for impulse buyers browsing (and helped appeal to the younger readers) but we needed something for the dads too. I wasn’t that worried about appealing to the fan audience because I figured that they were completists and would buy it anyway. So, to offset the somewhat expensive comics pages, text and photo features were a logical addition, exploring the history of the show and doing a bit of a Famous Monsters of Filmland by featuring as many monster photos as possible.
Despite the magazine reflecting the show by being weekly, it’s perhaps interesting to note that we never once considered news to be important. While magazines now believe news to be their key selling point, we were happy to wallow in the past.
Here’s how I portrayed the features part of the title in that mock-up copy…
Pretty crass, sure… but it gave the idea of how it would look. Of course, we’d never abridge The Doctor’s name to initials in the real thing, any more than we’d call him “Doctor Who”, but this was a mere mock-up. And the competition page? Well, my scribbled note of “ongoing weekly comp page – helps on reader retention” pretty much says it all. And a £2.00 prize went a lot further when the whole magazine was only 12p!
The Grolids! No, you didn’t miss an episode, they never existed. I simply needed a short and snappy monster name to fit the space and didn’t want to overuse Daleks, so as it wasn’t the real thing, I simply rubbed down the first name which came into my head… The Grolids! One of the advantages of making a dummy copy is you can get away with anything, as long as it gives the idea of what the end-product will be like. Hence the next spread using a Hulk picture as a bleed background and a bunch more cut-up text from elsewhere to fill the gaps between pictures.
This one was pretty obvious – even if we never did it in the finished title, a feature on the man behind The Doctor. Still get a groaning chuckle out of reading that cross-heading on page three “And Yeti More Monsters”. As for the inside back cover, with its next issue blurb, we’d use anything to hand when making up a dummy, so there’s a frame of Star Wars Weekly art at the top and a shot of the Millennium Falcon at the bottom!
Making DWW a halfway house between a comic and a magazine, my original breakdown had been to kick off with a new Doctor Who strip, then a few text and photo features, a comic strip in the middle, a few more text and photo features, then a third comic strip at the back. A variety show, if you will, with a morse code rhythm. By that I mean something I’ve always considered important: If you have two long and weighty features, you should never run them consecutively. Dot-dash-dot-dash-dot-dash. Long-short-long-short-long-short.
So a five-page strip is followed by a single page feature (A Letter from the Doctor, in this case). That’s then followed by a meatier feature (Gordon Blows and me, under the pseudonym of “B. Aldrich”, writing Day of the Daleks) with it ending on a two-page spread so there wouldn’t be a clash with what followed, in this case the War of the Worlds comic strip serial, justified by a Tales from the Tardis header and a Paul Neary-drawn Doctor providing the intro. Then comes the always-advisable house ad, to boost sales on related titles – in this case Star Wars Weekly and Starburst (“Two More S-F Winners from Mighty Marvel!”).
The Doctor (well, yours truly really!) then has a page to talk about the free gift (pictured below, left) reminding readers there will be more in the next three issues plus the obligatory suggestion to place a regular order with your newsagent.
Then follows the second feature article of the issue, the all-embracingly titled “The Story of Dr Who” (for which I humbly apologise for abbreviating Doctor to Dr, it was all about the Letraset fit!). This is followed by a single page reader retention competition, with a five pound bribe to get readers to come up with a Crazy Caption (a bribe I’d boosted from the £2 suggested in the dummy issue!), facing the eagerly accepted paid advertising (in this issue for football badges and old postage stamps, plus the bizarre Mr Bellamy liquorice ad on the back cover).
The issue is rounded out with the first of the regular Photo-Files (on William Hartnell, the first Doctor of course) and the Return of the Daleks comic strip by Steve Moore and David Lloyd.
So that’s dash-dot-dash-dash-dot-dash-dot-dot-dot-dash. Ten different parts to a 12p title made up of three strips, two features and five shorts. Like I said, a variety show. Pretty basic layouts for the features with their massive 12 point type, but I remember always skipping the text stories in Christmas annuals because they looked hard work with their small type and minimal visuals and I didn’t want our younger readers to do the same!
For the same reason, I instituted a house rule that all features should be at least 50% visual, so the text couldn’t weigh it down. In fact we used to lay out the feature pages and make the text fit around the photos to guarantee that the rule wouldn’t be broken!
Wanting to make sure this new launch had a respectably low breakeven, to keep America happy, I’d planned from the start that the second strip would a serialised literary classic and it didn’t hurt that Marvel US had only recently before published some of the best of them!
But putting together dummy issues – using anything you could lay your hands on – was relatively easy. It was only if your idea was approved that the actual tough work started… when you had to seek out the real thing!
Now that it was approved, the first thing we needed was a staff to actually be able to produce it on a weekly basis! I got hold of Alan McKenzie (left), my trusty number two from the days of House of Hammer and MAD who signed up for it and, through an advertisement in London’s Evening Standard newspaper, I dragged two newbies into the wacky world of comics; Jenny O’Connor as editorial assistant (right) and South Africa-born Graham deLacy as art editor (right, inset).
Graham finally found his way back home where he now works as a photographer while Alan went on to become editor of 2000 AD and author of several genre books including How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips and The Harrison Ford Story. Jenny rose through the ranks to become editor-in-chief of Marvel UK then editorial director of the spin-off Redan Publications but is possibly best remembered by comics fans as Just Jenny – the letterer of V for Vendetta.
While I was adamant that the weekly should target as much of the mass market TV series-viewing audience as possible, I was aware that it would be closely scrutinised by the programme’s ever-growing hard core fan base. So any mistake in Who lore would be met with instant disdain. With a nonchalant disregard for running any forthcoming TV series news, I also needed the two historical features to be painstakingly accurate. There’s little point in checking for errors in speech balloons if the features were full of factual mistakes.
So I tracked down the phone number for one of the key members of the then-three year old Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS) and, as he put it in later interviews, made Jeremy Bentham an offer he couldn’t refuse!
Over a lunch I outlined where the title would be going and asked him if he would come on board as our facts consultant, photo researcher and regular feature writer.
To his credit, despite there being little left in the budget to actually pay for any of this, Jeremy leaped at the opportunity and somehow stayed with the title far longer than I did!
And the title got off to a great start! The business model back then was to offer the first four issues to the news trade on a sale or return (SOR) basis, usually backed by a national promotion and free gifts to encourage wholesalers and retailers that there would be a big demand. Then, once the trade could see the sales levels, the risk would shift from the publisher (who had to initially accept the cost of whatever unsolds resulted) to the poor old retailer! If a newsagent ordered ten copies of issue 5 onwards, they would have to pay for ten copies, no matter how many they actually sold (know in the trade as “firm sale”).
Doctor Who Weekly: Costing a new title
So we printed 250,000 each of the first four, then held our breath. But it wasn’t as big a risk as it sounds, because budgets (production, editorial and printing) usually equated to a 25% sale, so anything above that would be gross profit. Gross because the cost of media advertising would need to be factored in, amortised across the first six months.
Or at least that’s the way we’d done it on IPC Magazines’ titles. But this seemed to be news to Marvel UK. One day shortly after the launch, company accountant Gautam Basu rushed into my office all het up, his regularly high-pitched voice reaching new peaks as he told me how much money Doctor Who Weekly was losing.
Looking through the cashflow forecast I instantly spotted the reason for his panic. He’d put the entire £30,000 or so launch ad spend against the first issue and carried the bottom line loss forward to the second. Projecting that minus figure forward, albeit diminishing, we’d seem to be in the red for months! I explained the idea of spreading it across the first 26 issues, so each would only carry around £1,150 of the total, which seemed to calm him a little until he said, “But what if it doesn’t last 26 issues?”. Ah, the perils of publishing!
For the statisticians among you, I’ve put together charts of the actual sales figures of the 23 issues I was mainly responsible for, and of the following 24, to be able to include the details on the first four monthly issues (issue 44 to 47)…
While there was an inevitable high amount of wastage across the first four weeks, they all achieved a healthy 50%+ sell-through in establishing the title. And there’s an amazing spike on issue 9, where trade orders (thus sales) leaped dramatically. Nothing to do with that issue’s cover or content, it was because the demand beyond the first four trial issues (where shops had a quarter of a million of each to sell or return) had been greatly under-anticipated.
With the first firm sale issue obviously selling out very quickly, newsagents across the country boosted their advance order levels by 25% more than the blind guessing they’d made up to issue 8 (because they were ordering almost a month ahead, it took until issue 9 for the trade’s more confident order level to take effect).
There’s a second spike with issue 26, cover boasting “1st New-Look Issue!” bizarrely featuring the very final part of the 8-issue Star Beast serial while new features were an incredibly juvenile UNIT Club Page (“Know Your Enemies: The Daleks”), a Spot the Difference page, a text story and a non-Who Fantastic Facts page. While these were somewhat unlikely to inspire any readers other than the very young, the trade obviously believed the hype as orders increased by 10,000!
Other than that issue it follows the traditional pattern of a slight issue-by-issue decrease. Frustratingly, this is not a reflection on quality, but rather that the generally conservative newsagents anticipate losing around 2 or 3% sales on a regular basis and, making a self-fulfilling prophesy, will cut their orders accordingly. An inescapable downward spiral.
This is why you usually see fully-fledged “boom” issues in magazines every year or so, to encourage the trade to order more – using title mergers, redesigns and free gifts as an incentive, as well as starting brand new stories and features. Unfortunately I had left Marvel UK before having reason to explain this tried and tested philosophy to my successors, so I don’t think they produced any real “boom” issues!
Moving to Monthly Madness?
Going back to 1980, at first glance changing the Doctor Who title from a 12p weekly into a 30p monthly with issue 44 would seem to make sense. Orders dropped by only 10% against this 250% price hike so that’s got to be good, right? Well, no actually. Dismissing the fact that 36 pages cost more in paper and editorial than 28 (and desperately trying to ignore the decidedly non sci-fi colour schemes of pink, yellow, blue and green), you need to risk Sale or Return trade terms once more, to establish it. Plus the overheads rise massively and the turnover decreases dramatically!
Printing twice as many as you will probably sell without any relaunch PR would scare me enough, but those other two reasons would certainly make me seriously consider the wisdom of such a move.
To elaborate, even in 1980 it wouldn’t be unrealistic to presume that the total cost of the premises, plus management, production and accounts/admin/secretarial staff and sundries (power, phones, stationery, couriers, flights, entertaining and such) would be in the region of £100,000 a year. By my reckoning, our five weeklies, three monthlies and handful of specials added up to 300 titles a year. This overhead would be shared out between each of them, around £330 each per issue.
But make Doctor Who a monthly and none of these overheads would decrease but you would have 40 less issues a year to share them between. That’s £13,300+ of overhead that would have to come from somewhere. Unless it’s all unrealistically lumped against the new monthly version (which would doom it instantly!) it would be spread out evenly across all the line, decreasing the viability of each and every title that Marvel was producing.
Also the dedicated salaries, around £30,000 a year, spread across 52 issues would have been under £600 each week, but as a 12-issue monthly would cost the title almost £2,500 an issue! Some of the staff’s time and those overhead charges mentioned above should have been costed out elsewhere on new titles to fill the gap, probably the reason behind the slightly late flurry of ho-hum reprint launches soon after it was cut… Marvel Team-Up was launched in September, then in October came Savage Action Monthly, a second wave of pocket books and weeklies Valour and Future Tense. That’s a lot of new titles, possibly panic moves made in haste, as not one of them lasted anywhere near a single year.
More sensibly, IPC used to launch new weekly comics BEFORE any cancellations, thus being able to merge both readers and titles with less successful ones. Keeping the numbers up keeps the overheads down, keeps the turnover up and keeps the staff employed.
As Marvelman stalwart Mick Anglo told me a few years later, when explaining the 1950s publishing philosophy of an earlier reprinter of Marvel fare, Len Miller & Son, “It didn’t matter if it was only making 6d an issue profit, Len would still keep a title going so it would absorb part of the overheads.” Wise words indeed. In fact, in the case of Doctor Who Weekly to apply Len Miller’s approach and avoid the disaster of a domino effect on everything else, if it was absorbing £330 or so of fixed overheads each issue, it could afford to lose as much as £299 an issue and, for the sake of everything else, still be worthwhile producing! There’s a concept to get your head around.
And turnover? Banks and overseas bosses love to see large turnovers. With Marvel getting around 50% of the cover price, 52 issues at 6p on a projected 50,000 future sale is £156,000 a year going through the bank account. 12 issues at 15p on around a 44,000 sale is almost half, being under £80,000.
Worse, by boosting the cover price so much while basically leaving the content as all-age (retaining the Crazy Caption page and the like) risks taking it outside of the pocket money of the all-important majority audience, the younger end of the market. Four weekly issues may have cost 18p a month more than one monthly edition, but I’ve yet to meet a schoolkid who has anything left because he hasn’t got through his pocket money every single week.
Even poor little David Tennant must have been hard-pressed to afford it when it switched!
And of course readers of all ages would scream that more than doubling the cover price for only eight extra black and white pages reeks of “rip-off” to the highest degree. Is it any wonder that before too long the title’s major audience was the completist diehard Doctor Who fan?
As you may have gathered, I don’t think I’d have hastened the inevitable sales decline by doing any of that!
Doctor Who Weekly: Beyond the TARDIS – those great back-up strips!
With Jeremy Bentham looking after the features and the lead strip in the best of possible hands, I was able to focus on my favourite part of producing a licensed title, going beyond the license! I’d wanted to end each issue with something original, something which would extend the Doctor Who legend, something I hoped the fans and casual readers would love equally. And what a great box of toys we had to play with!
Naturally enough we kicked off with a Dalek four-parter (because nobody at the BBC had told us, contractually or otherwise, that writer Terry Nation had cannily retained the rights to his pepperpot creations!). Written by my ever-reliable ex-IPC colleague Steve Moore, I gave the art over for this one to David (V for Vendetta) Lloyd, with Paul Neary coming in to give David more dynamic layout assistance from issue 2.
But it was with the second serial (DWW #5-7) that we kicked into top gear. It had always struck me as odd that the Time Lord’s arguably second best villains, the Cybermen, had a teardrop as part of their metal faces. A great visual cue for a tale of tragedy and pathos that amazingly enough had never been realised. We just HAD to do something about that!
Enter Kroton, the Cyberman with a Soul…
While I’d added Paul Neary to the visuals for the initial Dalek strip, I wasn’t too crazy about his Cybermen, they seemed too flexible for metal men and a little chubby to boot! So while he drew up the first part of Steve Moore’s “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman” (above, left) I switched the art chores to 17-year old Steve Dillon for the second and third instalment (above, middle). The story, with its finale enlarged for the top of this section, had meant to be a one-off, but I liked it so much and it proved so popular that a sequel was soon planned, courtesy of Steve Moore and Steve Dillon once more. So when it finally appeared, in an issue that I planned but incoming new editor Paul Neary finished off (DWW #23) it had the distinction of being the main cover feature (above, right) on my final cover design.
And what a worthy title for such a great sequel… Ship of Fools. Originally a book (by Sebastian Brant, 1494), it had inspired Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the same name and been the title of songs by as many people as The Doors, Grateful Dead, Erasure, World Party, Robert Plant, Echo and the Bunnymen, Robert Calvert, The Cult and one of my then favourite Irish folk bands Dr Strangely Strange. A classic title we just had to use for a classic strip! Ah, such creative self-indulgence, and why not?
But we played with lots of alien races in those two-to-three part 4-page strips, from Ice Warriors to Sontarans to Ogrons. While regular writer Steve Moore wasn’t the biggest of Doctor Who fans, we had trusty Jeremy Bentham on hand to fact check the scripts and provide photo refs for artists. While they were somewhat overshadowed by the Mills-Wagner-Gibbons main event, I’d like to think they contributed a key ingredient to the title’s success, and sometimes rivalled the lead strip in quality. Below are three examples, drawn by Paul Neary (left), Steve Dillon (middle) and David Lloyd (right).
But what fascinated me the most was not the villains from the TV series, but rather the at-the-time mysterious homeworld of the Time Lords and the secrets of this amazing race. While its creation had been little more than a plot device initially, a way to justify a time-travelling TV hero, I had always been a sucker for the story behind the story. So, on the assumption I wasn’t the only one, it wasn’t long before I commissioned Steve Moore to write something with a Gallifrey setting to be drawn up by our teen prodigy Steve Dillon, despite the groans from poor old researcher Jeremy!
Here’s the end product, from DWW #9, the first four-page episode of “The Stolen Tardis”…
But creatively we were still working within a straitjacket, within the tight restrictions of BBC copyright properties. Also, all of our painstakingly created origination wasn’t really ours. Outside of foreign editions of Doctor Who, there was nowhere we could go with it. Echoing my old House of Hammer days, with Father Shandor, Demon Stalker spinning out of the Dracula, Prince of Darkness film, I wanted to develop something which was ours. Our Judge Dredd or Batman, if you will. We had the audience, we had the springboard title, all we needed was the idea.
I’d long been a fan of the Roman Empire’s tactics, how they took warriors of conquered nations to police other lands for them. So I loved the idea of Gallifreyan-judged guilty ne’er do wells being sent off to fight until they dropped for the Time Lords. A little harsh, but we are talking serious bad guys here.
As I was also editing Savage Sword of Conan at the time, I also felt the idea of a Conan-like character would have a cross-market appeal.
Throwing in a third disparate element, the film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had made a grisly but great weapon of a cutting tool, so the mixed and matched concept of a barbarian with a mechanised sword seriously took my fancy. And the pun of it being called a chainsword was irresistible!
Steve Moore came up with a name for this anti-hero character, one which I felt was a little close to the villains he would initially face, but it had a ring to it. So with DMM #17 it all came together as we introduced Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer! Here’s Steve and Steve’s first episode…
Running the serialised literary classics of HG Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson as Tales from the TARDIS can be viewed in many ways. Sure, it was a good budget buster, as the material had already been produced by our parent company in the States. And, considering the original Verity Lambert premise of the Doctor Who TV series had been to educate as well as entertain, with stories set in the historical past as well as the science fiction future, I felt more than justified in running such. I personally had my first brush with true literature through the easy-read US comics series Classics Illustrated and I thought it was a great way to inspire our audience and hopefully encourage them into reading the real thing, just as it had with me.
These were, after all, the very roots of modern science fiction and were far more faithful adaptations than the films which Hollywood had turned out.
Obviously the next editor of DWW didn’t share my beliefs though. Amazing as it was to me, he chose to drop the serialised Classics, even though there were lots of great stories still not used. Here are the US covers to some of them…
I would have thought the younger end of our readership, the bulk of our audience, would have thrilled to reading serials of Frankenstein, Dracula and, of course, The Time Machine (which would have lent itself to a few great intro comments from The Doctor!). But instead, behind comic art covers (another strange move, I’d say for a TV tie-in!), readers got to see enlarged and somewhat blotchy reprints of remarkably dated-looking early 1960s Stan Lee and Steve Ditko fantasy strips.
As he put it in an undated letter to the BBC, around March 1980, “We are also stopping this type of story after the current “First Men in the Moon” has run its course and will be concentrating on time travel tales which will be complete in each issue.”
Each to their own I guess, and given the freedom new editors invariably like to put their own stamp on a title.
Doctor Who Weekly: Making a feature of the past
As well as the inevitable “Monsters of Doctor Who” two to three page feature each issue (thanks to our other on-tap Doctor Who expert Gordon Blows) the main text and photo event of each issue was inspired by the American title, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Each of their issues would tell a classic Universal horror film as straight fiction, not a review but the actual story, peppered with photos. I loved this! It enabled me to know the old Frankenstein and Dracula films inside out, even though I was too young to watch them on the screen. So, with a history of 17 years worth of Doctor Who serials, I thought we should do the same.
So, thanks to the irreplaceable Jeremy Bentham, from issue two we went back to 1963 for a chronological retelling of the Doctor’s adventures from the very start (although these also ended when I departed, in favour of non-Doctor Who juvenile features as the new editor aimed at an even younger market).
For the completists and to give Jeremy space to go beyond merely retelling the story, we added two small boxes at the end of each feature, one titled Comment, where interesting facts and observations could be made, the other providing actor/writer/director credits for the story. When Alan McKenzie took over as editor number three, he sensibly revived this chronological feature, albeit without Jeremy’s pithy summations.
With the landmark second story, “The Dead Planet”, which introduced the Daleks, we lavishly gave no less than ten pages to spreading the retelling over two issues. Some things just have to be savoured slowly!
Looking back over 30 years later, I still feel quite proud of what we achieved. By never writing down to our readers, or offering anything more condescending or patronising than the essential reader participation section (with the Crazy Caption and readers’ art/photos section), I think we struck a good balance in those early days when there was no internet, DVD collections or Doctor Who Confidential tv series to compete with us!
Anybody wanting further details on the issue-by-issue content of these old weeklies should check this fact-packed site, Loving Who.
But I must admit not envying the task the current editors have, of having to offer a unique balance of material that cannot be found elsewhere. And I doff my hat to them for managing to achieve it!
To close this section, a special mention: In 2009 I was approached by two fine folk Gareth and Colin who have since produced the Vworp Vworp magazine, a wonderful title dedicated to celebrating the comic strips of Doctor Who Weekly/Doctor Who Magazine across the decades.
In addition to wanting an interview, they gave me a fascinating challenge when they asked me to design the variant cover for their first issue… in the 1979 style of Doctor Who Weekly. Bless them, they even commissioned artist Paul Grist to produce free transfers that they could cover mount!
That was followed by me being invited up to Manchester to participate in their Doctor Who pubcon (a fine location for such an event!). I was stunned when my talk was being introduced to see a giant projection of the visual below… I guess they were suggesting that somebody other than The Doctor has been regenerating across the decades.
Shame I don’t get younger each time though!
ITEM! (as we used to say on Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins text page)
Joining in the celebration, we decided to produce a limited edition fascimile of the actual mock-up which got the whole thing started. An issue #0, if you wish.
As well as the entire dummy lovingly printed on heavy card, resembling in sheer weight the real McCoy with its layer upon layer of paste-ups, we’ve added a signed and numbered Letter of Authenticity and a DWW-style “Letter From The Dezter” explaining how it all came to be.
At time of typing our mail order maven, the ever-overworked Carlie, still has copies in stock. Click here to read more… DWW facsimile
There was also a great group shot taken of numerous editors, artists, writers and even a few actors from the magazine’s 37 years (with me hogging the limelight, of course)…
I’ve received quite a lot of feedback about this page. So, in the fine old tradition of letters columns, here’s one comment which pretty well sums up most of them.
From: Neil firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m sure you get many emails from people of around my age (41). I’ve read and enjoyed lots of your publications over the years but I have to draw attention to one in particular – Doctor Who Weekly.
On Sundays back in 1979 I used to “help” my dad on his milk round and this involved popping into a newsagents in Cromwell Road, Hove, to get some sweets and a couple of comics. Being a big Doctor Who fan you can imagine my delight when I saw the first issue of Doctor Who Weekly on the shelf. I bought it and then spent the rest of the round reading it. Needless to say, I wasn’t much help to my dad that morning. But he didn’t seem to mind, bless him.
I still remember the excitement I felt when each issue of DWW was due. A week was long enough to wait, but when it turned monthly I remember being inconsolable for a while. I got over it eventually :-)
I found the articles about DWW and DWM on your website very interesting. The illustrations and pages brought back very pleasant memories. I have still got those old issues although I haven’t looked through them for years. Maybe now is the time.
DWW was the first time I saw photos of previous Doctors and stories. Also I loved the back-up strips, in fact Tales from the Tardis was my introduction to HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc. You got the mixture of comic strip and articles spot on.
I still get DWM. And now I’m eagerly awaiting the second issue of Vworp Vworp.
Sorry if I’ve gone on a bit. Thanks for Doctor Who Weekly, Dez.
Best wishes, Neil
Next section: Marvel UK page 6: The Ones That Got Away
Page modified by Dez Skinn on June 27, 2016