Lots to say about my 18-month stay, so sit back for a lengthy read (was it really only 18 months?)…
Jump down to… »Launching the Marvel Revolution
Jump down to… »The Savage Sales of Conan
Jump over to… »Marvel UK page two: Spider-Man and Star Wars
Jump over to… »Marvel UK page three: Enter the Hulk (and friends!)
Jump over to… »Marvel UK page four: Pocket Books, Specials and more, more, more!
Jump over to… »Marvel UK page five: Doctor Who – My Travels with a Time Lord
Jump over to… »Marvel UK page six: The Ones That Got Away
Before launching into this massive section, let’s have a quick personal update (for those who came in late). I’d been lured to London and away from the Yorkshire Post newspaper group at the start of 1970 by the thought of making a dream come true, getting a job in comics. Over the next nine years I’d worked on a range of titles, first for two major companies, IPC Magazines and the publishing subsidiary of Warner Bros, then for my own company Starburst Magazines Ltd.
But then financial woes took their toll. I’d used the entire production and editorial budget for Starburst #4 to buy the rights to House of Hammer. So by 1979 I owned both of Britain’s fantasy film magazines, I had offices deep in the heart of Soho, above the “world’s largest science fiction bookshop”, Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, with a contra arrangement that the shop would get free advertising in each in lieu of rent. But I’d run out of money and couldn’t afford to publish either!
In fact, I got so desperate that I’d taken to answering the phone with an Australian accent, so I could say that Dez was out of the office to avoid embarrassment. Which worked fine until Perth-born Starburst/HoH contributor John Brosnan phoned up one day and immediately asked “Dez, why are you putting on that rubbish Aussie accent?”.
I badly needed a rescue plan. Unknowingly, one was provided by no less a person than Marvel’s head man, Stan Lee.
But before that, a bit of history about Marvel’s UK endeavours…
After a few heady years, by 1979 British Marvel (as it was affectionately known in the 1970s) was on the skids! It couldn’t last.
With the weekly frequency of UK comics coupled with the potential of domestic advertising revenue, Marvel Comics had seen the attraction in complementing its exported monthly colour line with a range of black and white home grown British titles, reprinting the best from their archives – and each selling at least 10 times the number of copies of their colour exports multiplied by 52 issues a year instead of a mere 12!
Previously they’d happily licensed their strips and characters out to a range of publishers (most notably Odhams Press’s Power Comics line in the late 1960s) but by 1972 when a new planned co-production fell through they realised it could be far more lucrative to have a dedicated in-house New York staff handle the production of their own British weeklies and ship the pages over to the UK for a small team there to drop in a letters column and other UK-derived editorial material, not the least being paid advertising. They didn’t really understand the UK market, but such was the raw power of their properties that even without full colour they got off to a great start. Okay, so the early issues had a few recoloured pages and that bizarre use of a second spot colour before zipatone took over in earnest, but despite their attempts it certainly wasn’t the same as The Victor or Valiant!
But it didn’t matter. Their larger than life content, wrapped in the format of British weekly comics, was a massive success. While it had previously worked fairly well when UK publishers from Alan Class to Odhams’ Power Comics had used Marvel’s material as relatively inexpensive reprints, as Marvel itself was now doing it there was no cost whatsoever. Coupled with the stronger lure of Marvel’s masthead and the advertising income, it greatly boosted the company’s bank balance.
Launch titles The Mighty World of Marvel (7/10/72), Spider-Man Comics Weekly (17/2/73) and The Avengers (22/9/73) roughly emulated the British model, as episodic anthologies featuring several strips per title but the following year the company branched out from super-heroes with their simultaneous launch of Planet of the Apes and Dracula Lives (26/10/74).
But they probably didn’t consider that one UK weekly would alone eat through over 1,600 pages a year of material. So by 1975, having used much of their prime inventory, their new titles were short-lived affairs with The Super-Heroes and Savage Sword of Conan Weekly (both 8/3/75) and The Titans (25/10/75) all quickly merging into the cornerstone weeklies. In fact, mindless of the rate at which they were gobbling up material, one of 1975’s new launches (The Titans) and a renamed existing one (Super Spider-Man with the Superheroes) were turned on their sides and printed in a bizarre landscape format (a serious problem for newsagent racking) thus eating up two greatly reduced US side-by-side pages per UK page and each title getting through almost 64 pages of material per issue!
Next came an attempt to create new material in New York specifically for UK readers. But this fared little better with the far more expensive to produce (and somewhat trite) Captain Britain (13/10/76) lasting a mere 39 weeks. And this was despite the massive Stan Lee spearheaded publicity launch. Captain Britain’s artist Herb Trimpe (chosen because he’d spent time in Cornwall!) later summed up the strip as “a really stupid idea, but there was a paycheck in it”.
By this time, the company was getting desperate! Launched in 1977, Fury (16/3/77) presumably hoped to emulate the success of Warlord and Battle. Unsurprisingly it only lasted 25 issues with its reprints of Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos (not that the States HAD commandos in WWII, didn’t they call them Rangers, Stan?). Despite its totally misleading but wonderful cover paintings by Battle‘s Carlos Ezquerra (following a somewhat clunky Dave Gibbons drawing on the launch issue and IPC mainstay Eric Bradbury on #2), once you cracked the covers and saw the mishmash of content – including creaky 1950s reprints – it just didn’t look very British.
Trawling through boxes of nostalgia, I see there was a rather insightful report written for Comic Media News around this time about the state of Marvel’s UK titles (see right).
Short-run The Complete Fantastic Four and Rampage Weekly came next (again doomed by their own unique selling point – running the lead feature as a complete strip every issue meant that they devoured almost three years of material each in less than a year) but it was only the runaway success of 1978’s Star Wars Weekly (8/2/78) which saved the company from closure. Not that the parent company’s fortunes were very different, as 1980s US editor-in-chief Jim Shooter later commented: “We had been losing money for several years. If we hadn’t done Star Wars we would have gone out of business. Star Wars single-handedly saved Marvel.”
Seeing a sliding UK balance sheet despite Lucasfilms input, the US parent company offered their British imprint up for sale to existing comics publishers, but only the monolithic IPC Magazines expressed any interest. And at that only in Star Wars Weekly, which was outselling their own originated thus high breakeven 2000 AD.
I’d met Stan a couple of times previously and had first become involved in his UK operation as their quiz inquisitor for the annual Marvel Mastermind competitions. Although I’d actually known his London-based daughter, Joannie – named after her mother, before I knew Stan. I often used to roll over to her and her boyfriend’s Chelsea flat for *ahem* psychedelic Sunday afternoons.
Because of the family tie-in Isaac, her bloke, was toying with the idea of starting a British Marvel operation quite a while before America got the idea. We used to dream up many a stoned action plan (which might explain why nothing happened!). One strong memory I still have was catching a bus back to South East London from their place and jumping off because of an irresistible urge to munch on a choc ice… in the middle of December! And the next day, going in to IPC and having a chat about how bright the colours had been in a Sunday afternoon old British film on TV, Love on the Dole. Everybody assured me it had been a black and white film. Well I saw it in colour (thanks, Isaac!).While Isaac’s and my dream of us running a British Marvel operation came to nothing, he actually had a better idea in 1971 when he launched a new hamburger restaurant in Mayfair… The Hard Rock Cafe!
For note-takers, he and Joannie never did settle down either. Instead, a decade or more later he married Ringo Starr’s ex-wife Maureen Starkey.
But getting back on plot, I think Marvel really noticed me when Starburst #1 scooped them, coming out with lots of Star Wars coverage a full three months before their official licensed Star Wars Souvenir Magazine.
Then Starburst #2 scooped them again, featuring the Spider-Man Columbia film (taken from the US Nicholas Hammond TV specials) before British Marvel even knew it existed. With Columbia’s press office being only four floors away in the same building as me was a boon for exclusives, and their press officer being my girlfriend didn’t hurt either!
So the first thing I did was produce a 12-page report I’d been commissioned to write, on the overall state of the UK comics market, Marvel’s position therein and how to turn the company around (and as soon as I can dig it up, you know it will be posted here!). By fortunate timing, Stan was due over in the UK to give a talk to an international Rotarians group. As he’d be over for a weekend, in Bristol I think it was. and the talk would only be 90 minutes, he asked me to join him for the two days. Stan driving in the UK for the first time, in the biggest hire car available going down small country roads at 70mph was a memorable experience in itself, especially his first encounter with a roundabout.
So, naturally, the first thing we did when we arrived was hit the hotel bar (as somehow we’d hit nothing else during the journey). Several hours and several gins later, he admitted my Tarzan calls as we walked through a motorway underpass beat his. Now that’s how to impress a potential boss! He also floored me by asking me to carry out all the plans laid out in my report.
And so gone was the creaky old “British Marvel” second class citizen name with its black and white stationery and based in Sevenoaks, Kent. In came London-based Marvel UK, flag an’ all! No confusing this outfit with the Americans!
Launching the Marvel Revolution
My first job upon joining Marvel in the autumn of 1978 was, I felt, to get the company to a more central location than Sevenoaks. While the original UK production team had started out in London, as part of Ray Wergan’s Transworld Features, when Ray understandably wanted to cut down on his central London overheads and decades of commuting, the whole lot had decamped to his Kentish home town.
But if my pending “Marvel Revolution” was to work efficiently, we needed to be easily accessible. We needed to be back in London.
I’d turned down the publisher role that had been offered, believing that there was too much editorial work to be done to worry about the business side of running a company (possibly my first mistake!).
Instead I chose the role and title of Editorial Director, leaving Marvel to find an outside publisher. They chose the ex-BrownWatson brothers Brian and Peter Babani, by this stage the exclusive Marvel annuals licensees as Grandreams, who took the work on in a part-time consultancy capacity.
The Babanis had relatives, I believe, who owned a property in Kentish Town, north London. They were taking the first floor for their new company, which included my old IPC/Warner pal John Barraclough as their editorial director and Nigel Money, my ex-House of Hammer and Starburst art editor, handling the design. It’s a frighteningly small world!
So we moved in upstairs from them, our five offices spreading across the area above two local shops. Back then one of them was a fast food takeaway, so I was thankful we were two floors away. Poor old John Barraclough’s office was directly above them and his wife would complain that he always came home smelling of kebabs.
We also had a large car park at the back of the building and freelancers often chose to come in that way – possibly to avoid the kebab smell of our front “entrance”, a small door between the two shops – even though they had to scale a fire escape and walk across a flat roof to get in through our fire door!
Of course, with the last lot staying at Transworld in Sevenoaks, we also needed furniture. Having to abandon my Starburst offices to take the new role at Marvel, I just so happened to have loads of plan chests, desks, chairs and the like. To help facilitate this move for everybody’s benefit, Marvel was more than happy to buy it all off me. Astonishing!
And we needed a whole new staff, with only accountant Gautum Basu moving to the Smoke and only Danny Fingeroth remaining out of the old New York team. Stan Lee had asked me if I could keep his brother Larry on, but there was little for him to do which wouldn’t have been demeaning. Now that’s what I call autonomy, being able to fire your boss’s brother!
Calling on old contacts and running London newspaper ads, I quickly assembled a team, including Alan McKenzie from my House of Hammer and MAD days who agreed to take on managing Starburst and, later, an art editor in Paul Neary who had done a terrific hard sell about me taking him on. Rich Burton, who had produced Britain’s top comics news fanzine, Comic Media News, was dragged out of working in a photo-lab in Surrey to take over editorial production on the weeklies while new recruits through newspaper reply interviews filled the art assistant roles. Together we set about implementing the sweeping changes my original report had deemed necessary.
Phase One: Growing and uniforming Marvel monthlies
If sales were to be boosted, the first change was obvious, we needed to brand the monthlies as home-grown British titles. Because their content was so clearly American, they suffered by association with the much lower selling imports.
The news trade confusion was obvious. Shops often lost financially when returning unsold British Marvels… by sending them to the wrong distributor. Marvel US’s exported magazine line went through a different company. They looked way too similar and it certainly didn’t help Comag distribute the UK line with smaller rival Thorpe & Porter handling the US titles.
Plus they had no brand recognition to link them all together – a bit of a soft spot with me. So I doodled up a house style that was both uniform and practical. I felt that running the artwork to bleed (off the edges of the page) made it a nightmare to get cover lines to stand out of full colour visuals. This was a time long before computer software was able to outline cover blurb in seconds. So the solution was obvious, separate the words from the pictures!
At this time Marvel had only recently begun experimenting with the monthly magazine format in the UK and had only two titles: Savage Sword of Conan (11/77) which featured a single story reprint from the similarly-titled US magazine in its 48 pages and Rampage Monthly (7/78) which ran material that would have been equally at home in a weekly. That both actually HAD been far cheaper weekly titles not long before made the move into monthlies more of a dumping ground for failed weeklies than a brave new experiment.
But the format appealed to me, wearing my turn-the-company-around hat, it had potential. The higher cover price and longer shelf-life offered a lower break-even on costs and the possibility of a higher volume sell-through. At the time, this was the weakest part of the company, despite arguably having the greatest potential. It was Phase One, something I wanted to both save and expand as soon as possible!
The new look not only distinguished it from the at-the-time glossy covered weeklies but it also allowed for text down the all-important left edge (the only part potential buyers can see when newsagents overlap titles to fit more on a shelf!). For the same reason I adopted the simple but clever US-style corner box – something I once heard Steve Ditko had come up with when designing the cover for 1963’s Amazing Spider-Man #2.
Adding Starburst to the mix with the same cover style bonded the three magazines together as Marvel’s teenage titles with Marvel Superheroes to follow shortly.
By today’s standards it looks somewhat clumsy and basic, but this was 1979! In fact, readers caught on quickly and before long were submitting their own ideas for new titles, using this grid in their cover doodles.
Stan Lee liked this look so much that, probablu to his art department’s disdain, he imposed the same design style on his US magazines.
Suddenly Marvel US was following Marvel UK. That was a twist!
But adding Starburst to the Marvel fold from issue four (11/78) was kinda messy. Newish but not brand new, it risked frustrating collectors (and we all know what completists comics fans can be) or even worse: putting them off totally. But I had a plan…
My distributor of Starburst #1-3, Moore-Harness by name, was primarily a van wholesale outfit. Sure, they supplied WH Smiths and John Menzies, but they also repped them around the indie retails in mobile library style large vans. This meant I got almost half of the unsold copies back as physical copy returns.
Now I may have sold Starburst to Marvel, I may have sold all my desks, chairs and plan chests to Marvel, I may have even sold myself to Marvel. But I hadn’t sold the back issues… yet!
So, instant problem solver: make the Starburst back issues available to Marvelites through house ads across all Marvel UK’s titles! And with a 50/50 split between us, there were no losers! And they sure shifted, a few thousand of each if I remember right. So, considering it had retailed at 50p and I’d only have got 25p of that on copies sold, here I was getting half of 60p on tons of leftover written-off unsolds with Marvel paying for postage. Marvelous!
Marvel was very keen about taking on Starburst. And not simply as a UK title. On one of my visits to New York, I got to hold a meeting with some US staffers to discuss taking the title over there. The build-up to the meeting also gave me an insight into the “us and them” way they worked.
Stan had suggested it, of course, so I gathered a few people together, including one of their designers, a production bod and an editor (Dennis O’Neil) and took them up to the management floor where we could have some privacy. I remember one of them saying they rarely got to see “upstairs”. They were obviously kept in their place.
But when we strolled into the boardroom, we found the company president Jim Galton already holding a meeting there. The others looked a little flustered by this but Jim casually said to me, “You can use my office, Dez”. So we did. But the other guys still looked flustered by it all.
Denny (as he liked to be called back then) had some great contacts in the literary SF world that he was happy to throw into the mix and was very keen to get Starburst out there but, as is often the case, it never happened. But 365 UK issues was still quite an achievement for the title.
And what about House of Hammer, you may ask, as Marvel was so keen on Starburst. There were two decision makers at the time, my stint being just before Jim Shooter was added to the mix to sort out editorial problems. Stan said that Marvel had tried horror mags a few years earlier and they hadn’t really worked.
Jim Galton’s opinion had already been summed up almost three years earlier by the following letter when I’d first pitched it to them as a licensed US edition…
So the title was put in mothballs for a further three years until I was back in the driving seat.
So that was Phase One of the Marvel Revolution completed, with everybody happy (except for Hammer fans!). But bigger things waited in the wings…
Next section: Marvel UK page two: Spider-Man and Star Wars