The official Website of Dez Skinn, the British Stan Lee and owner of Quality Communications: 35+ years of communicating and innovating, publishing and editing such magazines as Comics International, House of Hammer, Warrior, Starburst, Dr Who Weekly, Jack Kirby Quarterly and much more!

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Jump to… »Warrior: Nine Months in the Making

A new decade and a new company. For me the 1980s was the age of Warrior, Marvelman, V for Vendetta, Halls of Horror and readying up Comics International for an April 1990 launch. But before any of that, a change of pace with some relevant history and a bit of local colour (pay attention at the back, there may be a test!).

Where would I be without Frank Dobson?

Fantasy Advertiser montage

Four 1965 issues of the first UK comics fan magazine, Fantasy Advertiser. Note the wonderfully polite criticism somebody has written on #7's cover.

A good friend of mine since my mid-teens was Londoner Frank Dobson. A mentor in some respects, he was one of the father figures of British comics fandom. Not that he offered a great insight into the history of comics, but he launched the first British comics “adzine” – as we used to functionally call such, alongside “stripzine”, “newszine” and the more generic “fanzine”. Guess if anybody ever did a mag about them it could be considered a “zinezine”. Whatever.

Fantasy Advertiser was created in 1965 as a way for Frank to sell his old comics through the post. It was little more than 12 pages of typed and rotary-drum (Gestetner) printed lists and a stapled-on card cover, usually drawn by his fellow south Londoner Steve Moore, but it brought like-minded people together – if only on Frank’s database! Suddenly, having seen one of his lineage ads in the Books & Magazines section of The Exchange & Mart, you knew you were not alone in your passion!

Frank was one of my first local friends when I moved to London, so I felt gutted when he said late in 1970 he was emigrating to Australia – even though he did hand over the publishing reins of his respected adzine to Paul (not the same) McCartney and me. You’ll find the full story here.

Frank came back in 1975 and opened a comic shop in south east London’s New Cross. Named after one of his beloved EC horror comics, it was called Weird Fantasy. And taking up his latest offer, I became his sub-tenant and moved into the two vacant floors above. No more long treks to get my weekly comicbook hit and no coincidence that it also became a major retail outlet for whatever I was producing across the next few years, whether House of Hammer and MAD or Starburst, Doctor Who Weekly and the Marvel UK line!

New Cross street view

Junction of New Cross Road and Lewisham Way – not a lot's changed in 30 years (except no more massive National Front marches and clashes with the anti-Nazi League - we used to have to board up the windows!). Funny how both my old comic shops were next door to pubs though. Where the middle floor "For Sale" board is on the above, there used to be an alternating six foot Spider-Man, Pressbutton or Marvelman figure between the windows. No way was anybody attending Goldsmiths opposite going to miss us!

But then Frank moved on (again) in 1979, and as I’d already got the rest of the building, he offered me the full lease, so I’d also have the ground floor shop and basement storage area. Not that the basement for used for storage for very long, its two rooms were soon converted into an office suite with three editorial desks in one and a massive drawing board in the other.

But I had to do something about that name. I don’t know how Frank put up with all the crank phone calls that came in to Weird Fantasy. So the entire black front was repainted in the local football colours (to keep Millwall sweet) blue with a golden yellow fascia, which read Quality Comics. Suddenly I had become a retailer!

Koo Stark

Koo Stark, who in 1982 was amazingly miscast as somebody working in a comic shop for the movie Superhero. But this was before The Simpsons' Comicshop Guy!

Ray Winstone then and now

Yes, Ray Winstone once did look that non-threatening! In Brian (Poirot) Eastman's 1982 short, Superhero, Winstone played a motobike messenger with ambitions...

Of course, I didn’t think I’d have much of a use for Frank’s “Weird Fantasy” T-shirts any more, but being a Yorkshireman, I throw nowt away! Then, within only a couple of months of opening, we had a call from Picture Partnership. With British Film Finance Corporation funding, they were making a film called Superhero starring Ray Winstone and Koo Stark (long before they were famous). The producer was Brian Eastman, the man behind TV’s Poirot. The plot revolved around a motorbike messenger (Winstone) falling for a comicshop employee (Stark). Yes, it was a fantasy! To interest her, he takes on the identity of a superhero named Nightrider (only a few months before Hasselhoff took on the mantle in the US).

As much of it was set in a comic shop, they needed to borrow some props. So, along with racks, boxes, posters and comicbooks, we let them have one of Frank’s old Weird Fantasy t-shirts. I went over to watch the final day’s shoot in east London and had a coffee with Koo. When she said “Oh, you’ll want your T-shirt back!”, I blushingly replied, “No, that’s OK. It looks better on you!”.

And yes, this was the infamous Koo-Stark-wearing-a-T-shirt-with-Weird-Fantasy-on-it picture which made all the tabloids in connection with her not really being suitable for a chap like Prince Andrew (they didn’t realise it was only the name of a comic!). Apparently she sent the publicity shot of her wearing it to him while he was fighting the good fight in the Falkland Islands and it was leaked to the press. Kinda blew any publicity on that one with our name change though! Sorry, we no longer have a still of her wearing it. Hope this visual (above left) will do instead.

Quality New Cross exterior and gang

Opposite Goldsmiths, University of London, Quality Comics – the home of Warrior and Halls of Horror. Left: Scaring off customers, Dez, Liz, Garry and our large and imposing front of house retail manager Win. Right: The backroom boys and girls: Dilys, Dez, Richard, Win, Garry and Liz.

Seeing those photos again reminds me of how confused the imbibers of the next door pub must have got. Simple local folk, they knew I ran the “bookshop for kids” next door. But they could never fathom out how come it took six of us! It was almost like a Man from UNCLE front. You didn’t tell them you were a publisher, that would only confuse and distance them. You sold kids’ comics, pure and simple.

Although I must have foolishly mentioned we did a little bit more to somebody because one evening a pool table acquaintance took me to one side. “You do printing, don’t you?” he inquired. I hesitantly agreed, having no idea what had prompted this line of inquiry. “It’s just that it’s the wife’s birthday coming up and I was thinking you could print a card for her…” he added.

“That would be just the one copy then?” I asked. “Oh, yes. Just the one” he said. “Well, with our stuff we usually print about 30,000, so I don’t think we’d be able to do just one,” I told him. “Oh,” he said and shambled back to the bar.

But the hairiest time in the Marquis of Granby (other than when I foolishly agreed to play pool for money against a Millwall supporter, more foolishly won and yet more foolishly asked for the fiver) was more like something out of Shaft. I’d turned around from the pool table to find the biggest black guy I’d seen in my entire life looming over me, with two only fractionally smaller versions behind him. “Hmm,” he pondered. “You own that… comicshop place next door, don’t you?” he asked. “Y-yes,” I stammered, thinking this was some street insurance shakedown about to be bestowed on me.

“Hmm,” he pondered again. “You get lots of our people’s children in there, don’t you?” he asked. “Well, yes. But we get lots of white kids too,” I replied, sounding a bit more chipper but still seriously worried, and totally confused by the direction this was going in.

“Yeah, but you look AFTER them, don’t you?” he replied. “Well, provided they don’t try to nick anything!” I came back with.

“Hmm. Do you ever get any… trouble?” was his next seriously scary question. “Well, not yet, no!” I said, not sure whether he’d appreciate my attempt at wit, but being incapable of keeping my mouth shut.

Then he smiled. The biggest most dazzling smile imaginable. I half recall seeing a few gold teeth, but I’m sure that’s a movie I’m mixing this with. “Good. I wouldn’t want to see you get any trouble. If you do, don’t worry. I’ll look after it. You’re all right.”

And that was it. He turned, they turned. He walked out. They walked out. And I slowly realised I’d just been blessed by the black godfather of New Cross. This sort of stuff isn’t supposed to take place in real life, is it?

Maybe it’s just me, or does this kind of thing happen to everybody? Weird, weird, weird.

Warrior: Nine months in the making

Warrior full set

QCL covers montageAs Quality, we revived Halls of Horror, published 16 years of Comics International, organised conventions and produced the odd book, two art portfolios, some American comics and quite a few one-shot magazines. But the creative high point had to be Warrior. Born out of a number of frustrations, it had begun life with my previous company, Studio System. There we’d been a service company for film and fashion, a design studio only busy when they needed us – on a seasonal basis. While it was great to take all our toys into bigger sandboxes, I really wanted to get back into the monthly discipline of magazines, where you were your own boss.

Another of the frustrations had been the way comics worked. It didn’t occur to most creators while they were young, but working for large companies meant you only had an income if you grafted. You were paid by the page, with nothing for the idea or the development. The writer or artist who sweated blood on the first episode would receive no more money than those who produced the far easier later ones. You didn’t own it, you often didn’t even get your artwork back. Not even royalties from foreign editions or merchandising. It was theirs. So were you. With Warrior I set out to change all that.

The first that anybody outside of our Studio System team knew about this new title was through an interview I did for an industry newsletter. Looking back it was remarkably outspoken, showing the frustrations I felt for others as much as for myself. The title had such a long gestation period (a woman could have created a baby in the same amount of time!) so a lot of things changed, but I really wanted to get this one right from issue one. “Your first is your worst” is a phrase that constantly haunts me.

Here’s my angry young man interview in full, from the Society of Strip Illustration’s monthly journal, November 1981…

Dez SSI interview 1980 p1Dez SSI interview 1980 p2Dez SSI interview 1980 p3Dez SSI interview 1980 p4Dez SSI interview 1980 p5

I’ve often stated how it would be possible to have a baby in the amount of time it took Warrior to go from inception to birth. But I seriously believe that perfect planning prevents poor performance. Your first issue is always your worst, through lack of experience with the title. So whenever I’ve had a new title in the incubator I’ve always spent months doodling. Logos, cover design ideas… doodling. And pasteups, dummy first issues so I could see how the spreads would work, whether there’s enough impact at the front and whether it ends on a crescendo.

You can’t overstate the importance of all this. It’s impossible for any editor to imagine how all those disparate pieces will look without a pasteup dummy to scan. If you can’t thumb through it (from the back, because we’re odd like that), you won’t know how a potential reader, an impulse buyer, will judge it in the newsagent’s.

Getting the cover right

Warrior v1 no 5Warrior cover rough mk 1Warrior cover rough mk 2
Back in the day when I was trying to get him into comics through lettering for some IPC weeklies, Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons had come up with a wonky-but-kinda-nifty title design for my short-lived 1970s Warrior fanzine (above, left). I always thought the title was a corker so it was inevitable that if I wanted to gather together all those inspired writers and artists from my days at Marvel UK, Doctor Who Weekly and House of Hammer for a foolhardy alternative to corporate comics, what could be a better name than Warrior?

It was a very rare situation, having a title first, with anthologies they often come last! So the first fun job was to italicise the entire logo and do something about those wonky Rs – all three of them! The first tough job was the actual content.

An old New York friend of mine, a magician turned artist named Jim Steranko, was working at the time with filmmaker Steven Spielberg – producing visuals for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the proposed Hawkman film (no, it never did go into production).

It’s common sense to have a commercially successful name or visual on your cover rather than expect anybody to care about your “exciting new ideas”, unless you’re a massive launch campaign to familiarise people with your “exciting new ideas”. We were headed for what is called a cold launch in the trade, as in throw it out there and hope somebody buys it. So using a big league namedrop was my chosen path. Steranko supplied us with some great sketches and, tweaking my old strips ‘n’ features mix, his film-related material became the main attraction of my scribbled mark one cover mock-up (below, middle).

By this time, I’d been out of regular weekly or monthly comics for a couple of years, running a film and fashion design studio in London’s west end with my partner Graham Marsh and his wife June. But as challenging as it was (see here), it was also frustrating. Because we were a service company for seasonal industries, some months we couldn’t hire enough help while others we were paying people just to sit and do nothing.

Q logo variationsIt was a great experience working with Graham and seeing his superb design skills, but I wanted to be master of my own destiny once more. I wanted to be able to project the amount of work I’d have the next year, and for it to be in regular bite-size chunks. So getting back into publishing seemed a good alternative. Besides, I was missing that whole world terribly.

As can be seen from the detail to cover rough II (right, top), Warrior was to be a Studio System product and in fact my partner Graham did get a co-publisher credit in the first two issues with the editorial address starting out at the studio’s somewhat insalubrious Soho location of 10 Frith Street, London W1. A first floor corner location, half of the windows looked down into Bateman Street, somewhat distracting as this was where all the ladies of the night plied their trade. In fact, while I left our 1981 Christmas party early, I gather that later on that evening, full of seasonal spirit, Garry Leach and Jerry Paris (possibly with Steve Dillon in tow) invited the street girls up for a drink!

I think it was Garry who had come up with that initial company Q for Quality design. Snappy, but in the first application the dead space we had between it and the issue number on the dummy cover annoyed me and squeezing a topline down so small was insanity. So I curved the tail of Gary’s Q around the entire letter, to give it the finished look which has continued to this day and stretching the border to incorporate Warrior’s topline. Always been kinda proud of that idea..

But further nostalgic reminiscing must wait, paying projects beckon!

And finally…

Doing the Time Warp again, below is a real hoot from December 2000. It will take a while to get to the full story but I just stumbled across this letter so I couldn’t resist scanning it in along with the “offending” cover because I thought you’d like a taste of things to come when I get finished with the 1980s (and 1990s, for that matter!).

Strange, McFarlane had never ever complained about free publicity for his projects across the previous 127 issues.

Ah, the madness of it all!

McFarlane letter p1McFarlane letter p2CI 128 abandoned cover

Time Warp Two: That dear old rascal Mick Anglo, who had been editorially packaging Marvelman for original publisher L. Miller & Son from 1954-1963, reached the ripe old age of 95 before dying on October 31, 2011. But a year before his demise, he was fortunate enough to see the promise Dez Skinn had made to him back in 1982 finally come to fruition when Marvel Comics released reprints of the 1950s strips in line of trade paperback collections (Marvelman Classic and Young Marvelman Classic) and a standard 32 page mini-series, Marvelman Family’s Finest featuring some stunning new cover art to liven up their black and white interiors for a more demanding audience. But with the mini-series sales plummeting to less than 4,000 copies by the sixth issue end of the run and the chunky collections below 300 by volumes 2 and 3 respectively, any further publication looked unlikely.

Having bought the Miller property outright from a company named Emotiv rather than Anglo or anybody else, only Marvel would have been hurt by the poor sales – according to the excellent blog by Padraig O Mealoid.

Marvel Comics Marvelman set

These images are, of course, copyright Marvel Comics and are used here in a reviews context only.

But with no movement from the House of Mouse (Disney now being Marvel’s parent company) on acquiring the much more lucrative Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman strips since their they announced their involvement on July 24, 2009, at the San Diego Comic Con, the likelihood of such seeing print again seems increasingly unlikely. A sad end to a much debated and highly litigious history.

But perhaps the last laugh in all this goes to the late Mick Anglo, who prophetically summed things up in issue 65 of the original run, with an unfortunate naming of the film company involved with Marvelman!
MM 65 - Birth of Marvelman splash with pullquote
Obviously Mick Anglo wasn’t aware back then of the most firm IPC Magazines rule mentioned here a few pages back. The one which covered blurry printing creating embarrassment: “…the most important rule of all was to avoid two words, flick and Clint.”

So if you’ve fond memories of the Warrior printing of Alan Moore’s Marvelman strips, while waiting for me to cover its full chequered history, check here for possibly the only place you can get them here.

To be continued…


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Page modified by Dez Skinn on May 27, 2012