An unusual hierarchy… one American entrepreneurial millionaire, one Spanish print farmer and one English editor who just didn’t know his place! Before telling the tale, here’s a previously unseen visual intro with four Judge Dredd roughs that artist Brett Ewins submitted for a Christmas cover in 1987…
And here are two great Ian Gibson finished pen and ink drawings which we used for the first two issues of Sam Slade, Robo-Hunter (really wanted to title the second one Robo-Hunter versus Robo-Chef, but common sense prevailed)…
The Dredd #6 cover shown above left (winner of our Brett sketch foursome that we opened this section with) is the actual colour rough we sent off to our Spanish film house for them to work from – a method prone to great frustration as they never seemed to interpret things quite right (and yes, colour roughs often are that messy, with artists cleaning their brushes around the edges).
Launching the 75c US Revolution
The Sam Slade #1 cover (middle) is scanned from the original dummy issue which I took along with the other seven intended new launches on a whistle-stop tour around America, taking in New York, Baltimore, St Louis, Grass Valley Ca, Chicago, Wisconsin and more…
It was February and the difference between the 6″ of snow in St Pauls (where I met the Comics Buyers Guide gang) and the Grass Valley sunshine of “Bud” Plant’s distribution base (only in California could you have a Bud Plant in Grass Valley!) made nonsense of my wardrobe. The St Louis stop-off was the coolest, where the limousine airport taxi had a well-stocked bar and played great music. But I still haven’t quite got over the prop job I had to fly out to Wisconsin in. Or that the only airport taxi out of the whole journey which tried to rip me off was in New York.
On my return trip from all the domestic flights, I’d landed at Kennedy airport and the cabbie, obviously assuming by my accent I’d just got in from Europe, took me to Brooklyn via a tourist route. When we passed Queen’s La Guardia airport and the cab fare was already over $20, I announced that I’d usually be at my Kings Highway destination for $20. Tail-ending my comment with calling him “number 2845” (or whatever his license number was) really made him pay attention and prompted him instantly turning the meter off. Had it happened anywhere else I’d have been none the wiser!
By this time, the direct market PR machine had really kicked in. While just about all my prior launches had been newsagent dominated, where you throw out 50,000 or so and wait to see how many come back, this was the wonderworld of comicshop presolds only, where every copy ordered had to be paid for and the element of risk was totally removed. Not as much fun and hardly market-growing, but preaching to the converted did have its cosy little financial safety net!
Here are four of the news stories my tour generated. First up a cover story in the weekly Comic Buyer’s Guide, plus page 13 in Amazing Heroes, page 12 in The Comics Journal and a cover for the UK Speakeasy. The hook was that we were taking the price down, producing 75c 36-page colour titles at a time when the majors were all $1.25 (you’re nowhere if you don’t have a Unique Selling Point).
The 2000 AD reprint line had previously been produced by publishers IPC/Fleetway, under the Eagle Comics banner, with London-based Titan Distributors paid to handle both the editorial and marketing. While they racked up an impressive run, the finances hadn’t panned out. Being aimed at the US, but billed from the UK, stores had apparently been sluggish in paying their bills – always putting the “foreign guys” at the bottom of the list and rarely having any money left when it came to paying them.
After a few years of spending money on print and editorial but not seeing as much come back in as they’d expected, IPC chose the safer route of simply licensing their US operation out. Head honcho John Sanders mentioned this over lunch one day to Spanish print farmer and editorial packager Lee Moncho (who is best remembered for having sold his printed and delivered horror/detective/western/war picture libraries to at least three different UK publishers over the decades).
Lee spent half of each year in the UK and by one of those fortunate coincidences in life, was friends not only with Yarmo Viikari, the head of of Finnish printer Tampareen Arpathedos Oy (now more sensibly named Acta Print!) – the company I had used for House of Hammer and Warrior but also with me! Lee’s company had been responsible for the cheap and cheerful Spanish colouring of Quality/Eclipse’s first co-produced issue of Miracleman which Yarmo had printed for us. Ah, but it’s a small world!
Along with Lee and Yarmo, I was due to visit New York to discuss Eclipse’s delay in paying both print and editorial bills for that very issue. I was also set to visit DC’s editorial director Janette Khan, who I’d been introduced to at a UK comics convention a few weeks earlier and, upon hearing I was soon going to be in Manhattan, had asked me to stop by to talk about taking on their job offer as the company’s new editor-in-chief. I told Lee that while I was at DC, I’d put to them the idea of licensing IPC’s 2000 AD strips.
DC’s art director, Dick Giordano, was an old friend from the days of Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, and told me he welcomed me taking on the job – especially as he’d spent the last few years using Warrior and my address book as a takeaway menu for getting hold of new DC contributors! A match seemingly made in heaven.
Except that it wasn’t to be. Immediately prior to the meeting, Jenette had excitedly called one of my old Warrior team and announced that he’d be able to work with me again soon as I’d also be joining DC’s ranks. His response is said to have been “If Skinn works for DC, I quit!”. I also discovered later that Dick had kindly mentioned, almost prophetically, he thought I’d be a safer long-term bet.
But unbeknownst to me at the time, Jenette could obviously see the immediate revenue her star Brit writer was bringing in and so our somewhat brief and terse meeting went nowhere. A month or two later Mike Gold got the job.
The following meeting with Eclipse was no less surprising. Because I didn’t speak Spanish but Lee and I could both speak French, Lee had this left-field idea that if he and I wanted a private word during the meeting we should both speak French! So the Californian duo of Dean Mullaney and Cat Yronwode were sitting in a hotel room with a Spanish packager, a Brit editor and a Finnish printer; Yarmo was constantly tapping in permutations of discounts for immediate bill settlement into his calculator, and we were all, naturally, speaking in English. That is until Dean made a counter-offer and Yarmo turned his calculator sideways and started talking into it in Finnish and Lee turned to me and we started conversing in French. The expression on their faces was priceless.
But we reached agreement and departed amicably with Lee and me going off to have dinner. I told him the DC deal for Dredd and friends was now off and following a moment’s thought he hit me with a fascinating offer… Lee was also old friends with a New York entrepreneurial publishing millionaire (often referred to as the industry’s “invisible man”) and suggested we all got together, create a new company and take on the license ourselves!
I set about building a business plan and a post-lunch meeting was arranged for me at two-floor offices in the Bristol Plaza on East 65th Street and Second Avenue (offices that recently went on sale for $13.25 million!). It was imposing, I was nervous. So nervous in fact that my quiet little lunch consisted solely off a few shots of dutch courage. That was probably what led to me clinching the deal by saying one of my most outrageous comments ever…
The meeting went well, the Americans said they liked my plans and asked how much I would charge to put them into effect. Anticipating being beaten down (and having been told by Marvel’s financial director seven years earlier that I’d undersold myself to them), I threw in my top price and their startled response was “Do you know how much that is?”. Not considering for a second they may have been referring to my foreign ignorance of US salaries, I simply replied “Do you know how good I am?” and got the job!
We couldn’t get the name Quality Communications Inc, so we settled on Quality Periodicals Inc and, now ensconced in classy offices opposite the UN building, I got to work refining the production schedule before coming back to the UK to assemble a new editorial team and get cracking.
By now Quality’s retail side had expanded into a very minor chain, with a second shop in the oh-so-cool King’s Road Chelsea part of London. Like our not-so-cool New Cross location, it came with a basement so that was where the desks, plan chests and filing cabinets were rehoused.
Here are the covers of the eight dummy issues (seven having cut-and-paste mock-up covers) that we’d so impressed the trade press and wholesale buyers with…
I’d always been a sucker for covers having some uniformity, building a brand image and all that, so the already tried-and-tested Quality symbol on a yellow background was a given.
But in addition to corporate branding, I had a soft spot for the DC Comics idea of running a colour band above and below a blocked-in title box on covers (see visual right), so as they weren’t using it any more, I pinched it!
All of the dummies I had trotted around America with didn’t make it to print, sadly. Perhaps the world could live without Shock Treatment starring The Visible Man, but I was disappointed we never did get around to the “Quality Classic” line, which was to start with a collected series of Don Lawrence’s wonderful Trigan Empire strip from Ranger and Look & Learn. Had we done so, the intention was to then follow up with an album-sized card-covered series of The Eagle‘s classic Dan Dare by Frank Hampson.
If our dummy is anything to go by, here’s how cool Trigo (hopefully with a better title logo!) would have looked…
Having taken the titles over from Eagle Comics, who had cherry-picked the best strips first, one of the most arduous tasks we had was assessing what had been reprinted, what hadn’t, what was worth reprinting and what wasn’t. To even begin this job, I figured we needed a colour-coded chart… of every single 2000 AD feature over the previous 10 years!
By damn fine luck, my then girlfriend’s 13-year old son, Craig Hunter, was a 2000 AD fan. So I provided him with the 20 bound volumes we’d had made up plus sheets of graph paper and left him to it… for about five weeks! His reward for finally finishing it after school almost every night (because that’s only a small section above!) was to start on doing the same with the specials, annuals and spin-off Starlord title (below). Like at Marvel UK, where a fan had sent in an entire book of cross-referenced US and UK stories, this became our Bible.
Moving beyond 2000 AD, below left is the cover to our Dan Dare mock-up, for The Man from Nowhere. Considering that this 1955 strip heralded artist Frank Hampson’s full-time return to his key creation, I’m at a loss as to why we ran a quickly coloured up visual on the dummy cover by Brian Bolland. And talking of Brian, below right is his transition cover for Judge Dredd. Commissioned by Titan’s Nick Landau, as were the previous 34 issues, it was damn perfect. Absolutely no changes were made except for the Eagle symbol being replaced by a Quality one. Even the $1.25 price tag remained the same. It was only with the renumbered first issue relaunch two months later that it dropped to 75c.
Below is the other transition cover. By then down to only two titles, Eagle Comics had commissioned Jim Baikie to produce a visual heralding the US start of 2000 AD‘s Skizz serial. Much as I liked Jim and his artwork, I didn’t consider it strong enough and reworked it to include a new logo (because I hated the old one) and added a dame and a monster – namely Judge Anderson and Judge Death. Interesting to note that back then neither company thought Alan Moore’s name (as author of Skizz) was worthy of a cover mention!
Below is another examples of in-house changes. Not from one publisher to another this time, but the sort of in-house tinkering that goes on to give a cover more impact. Visual one is the artwork Ian Gibson presented for Robo-Hunter #5. In the middle, how we darkened it up to give the end product more contrast (sorry, Ian, that was a lot of wasted line work you did!). Picture three is an example of why NOT to use cheap Spanish colourists!
By this stage, as well as its New Cross, south London shop, Quality had added a second retail branch in trendy King’s Road, Chelsea. Again it had a very large basement, so this became the editorial base for Quality Periodicals.
Despite it being a bright clean area, the biggest downer of working below ground is not having windows. So I created the illusion of one by fastening a large venetian blind to one of the walls! Occasionally, a freelancer would peer through the slats and be totally dumbfounded only to see more grey wall behind it.
And we were possibly the last company in the entire world to lease a telex machine. With the company split between New York, Barcelona and London, Lee Moncho (the Spanish partner) thought it would be an economical way to stay in touch.
Learning how to use it drove me crazy but I’d pretty well mastered it just when the world was introduced to fax machines!
But there was another great discovery made during this time… We’d found out that the Chelsea Social Club, opposite our office, not only sold drinks at subsidised prices but they had a pool table. Instant recreation centre! A great discovery in itself, but arguably more importantly, they had a dead fancy typewriter. Definitely a step up from the golf ball machine we’d been using at Marvel, and far more economical than the outside typesetting we’d used on Warrior. So when I got to be good friends with the Social Club management, I borrowed it to produce our editorial pages. Sadly, they wanted it back after three weeks so we had to buy our own.
By this time, a whole new staff had been assembled to deal with the planning and resizing of all the awkwardly-shaped 2000 AD pages, to fit into the 32-page US comic format. Vanessa Morgan was an old hand at comics production, among many other titles she had been editor of the 1980-81 title The Super-Heroes at Egmont (named after its 17-year old 1878 founder Egmont Petersen). I knew she was a great organiser, so she was my first phone call. Peter Hogan had built up a solid career as a music journalist, but also had a passion for comics and was dying to work in the industry. He was my second phone call. So that was the editorial side in place.
For the art side, across the previous few months another keen fan of the industry had been regularly visiting our new shop to show me his samples. While his pencils were a little weak, his inking was great and his eagerness and enthusiasm was the sort of thing money just couldn’t buy. But we bought him anyway. So Dave Elliott got a job with us, as the line’s art editor, no less. As a bonus, his brother Mike was also a dab hand with a brush, so he became one of our legion of resizing artists.
The dynamic duo of by then Cumbria-based ex-IPC staffers Annie Halfacree and Steve Parkhouse had done a splendid job resizing US pages for Marvel UK, never missing a deadline, so they were a natural choice for our new enterprise. As was a keen industry newcomer, the Scots kilt-wearing punk Dominic Regan (left) and IPC’s ace letterer Steve Potter.
The New Cross Quality shop was now being managed by Bruce Paley, a New Yorker who’d visited London to research his Jack the Ripper book (The Simple Truth) and loved the lifestyle over here so much that he’d stayed.
Bruce phoned me one day to say another New Yorker was in town and needed work. So, for my sins, I took on an additional art assistant in Scott Dunbier.
I say for my sins because Scott was a bit of a double-edged sword (bless him). When a telephone bill came in one month that was almost double its usual amount, I discovered it was down to Scott… He’d been working late in the office most evenings, and listening to live US baseball games down the speaker-phone.
He also wasn’t the fastest of resizers. In fact, his lateness led me to instituting a penalty clause (memo left) that 5% would be deducted from invoices for every day beyond deadline that work was turned in. When his final job arrived, he technically owed us money!
The direct market was still in its relative infancy, with eight or more independent rival distributors, all of whom needed promotional sheets for each of their customers. By month three, it had become a four-page flyer with us having to print off thousands of copies of each page. A nightmare!
Another toughie was getting an entire system in place, a system which would be idiot-proof (not that our team’s parents raised any idiots, of course!). Our IPC liaison, who would supply us with art prints or film negs to work from, was my old boss’s boss, the sergeant-major of Fleetway House, Sid Bicknell. In the Maxwell revolution, he’d lost his stripes and, like ex-editorial and managing director John Sanders, both found themselves reduced to far lesser roles. Whether such experience being left to waste hurried along the demise of the UK comics industry others can deliberate.
Without handy on-screen jotting aids, all the initial notes were scrawled on reams of paper, from single A4 sheets to a mammoth 14-sheet 2000 AD issue contents chart. And to keep tabs on what was where and when, the duly authorised order letters. Chasing Sid Bicknell over delivery of such was a bizarre sensation, his voice from 13 years earlier still echoing in my head, “Lad, my office. *Sigh* And bring those proofs with you.”.
Looking back, we must have repaid Sid in spades, and made his life a nightmare! Our order #42 (above, right) asked for The Black Arrow from Ranger, Legend Testers from Smash! and Pike Mason from Boy’s World… all pages of each, all As Soon As Possible! We never let on that in some cases we only wanted to see and read the stuff, to see if any of it was actually usable!
Expanding the line: Looking beyond 2000 AD
With an in-house team now in place and initially four monthly titles, we soon looked at expanding the line. So along with a Strontium Dog market-testing special, because I felt there was tons of great stuff beyond the 2000 AD stable, Spellbinders did a mix and match, with Mike McMahon’s wonderful Slaine and from Smash! Ken Mennell and Eric Bradbury’s seriously chilling Cursitor Doom (renamed Amadeus Wolf).
I’d actually revived the character before in two Fleetway annuals, The Buster Book of Spooky Stories 1975 and 1976 but this time I had far bigger plans for him.
The other addition that month was the brilliant old Valiant strip, The Steel Claw, written by prolific SF author the late H. Kenneth Bulmer (1921-2005) – a man I had a special affection for as he had done a wonderful job of finding me a girlfriend a few years earlier at a Bill Bates science fiction party by calling out to the assembled multitude that I worked at IPC, so I was rich. Cheers for that, Ken!
But the Steel Claw’s main strength was its artwork, by the brilliant Barcelona-born Jesús Blasco (1919-1995, left). Considered one of the true masters of comic art, Blasco produced a considerable amount of work for the UK, from the early 1950s in Comet and Sun through to almost all of what became IPC’s titles, Lion, Tiger, Eagle, Look & Learn, Action and 2000 AD. But it was his 1962-1973 stint on The Steel Claw for which he is most remembered.
Trawling through the old red-leather bound volumes was both a pleasure and chore, seeking out half-remembered stories, some not living up to nostalgic memories, while others exceeded them. With no files to access, I made copious notes about everything during this period. Here are four pages of such, as I attempted to figure out story page counts on Claw strips and stumbled across other hidden gems at the same time…
A keen Blasco fan, Garry Leach provided stunning cover art and colour overlays for our first 4-issue miniseries reprinting the master’s work…
As well as with the newly-renamed Amadeus Wolf (and yes, it was inspired by the then hit single Rock Me Amadeus and was a play on Mozart’s christian names) we had big ideas for The Steel Claw. We even hinted at what was to come through newly-created intro pages in the first three issues of the mini, with words by me and art by Garry Leach…
They had been published in colour, but Garry’s line work is so good and the colouring was so poor, that I’d rather they be remembered as shown here! The fourth issue, a 52 pager, brought all our hints to a head at the end of the main story, with the art making a segue from Jesus Blasco to Steve Whittaker and Dave Elliott in the final frame (below left) before showing Amadeus Wolf in the story and linking in with Warrior #26’s Big Ben serial about a super-powered child, as touched on in the footnote on frame two, and culminating in Big Ben artist William Simpson’s full pager (below right). Wow, it’s taken 25 years to give that part of my intended masterplan away!
The next step in bringing all this together was to be a Steel Claw series featuring the empowered children, this time written by Tom Tully and again drawn by Jesus Blasco, The Return of the Claw. Teaser ads appeared on the inside back covers of #2-4 of the initial mini, but all the art boards suddenly disappeared from the office and it ground to a halt! (If you spot them on eBay, be sure to drop me a line.)
Ah, I had such plans. As with Marvel UK, the aim was to build up a good cash flow with reprints then invest in new material that we could control and benefit from by turning from licensee to licensor. I did have another stab at bringing it all together ten years later, in the 1996 Warrior Special‘s Big Ben episode, when (below left) Trevillion actually made an editorial appearance (it had been drawn by William Simpson for the unpublished Warrior #27 in 1984). And he wasn’t the only one to cross over…
With our special coppers bearing more than a passing resemblance to Gordon Jackson and pals from the TV series The Professionals and our dashing (human) hero was The Sweeney‘s Jack Regan, when the Jackson lookalike makes a transatlantic call for help to Washington, DC (below right) he is told “One of his bodies has been shipped over already” and “No, Brown’s on his way back from South America.”
Yup, Big Ben, the published spin-off from Marvelman who already linked in with Grant Morrison and John Ridgway’s The Liberators, was to involve lookalikes from The Professionals and The Sweeney, plus Talon (our revised Steel Claw), Amadeus Wolf (our revised Cursitor Doom) and No-Man and Dynamo from THUNDER Agents. Would have made one heck of a crossover, but it’s lucky we didn’t go there. We really shouldn’t have listened to Deluxe Comics’ David M Singer about who owned THUNDER Agents! But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Now this was a serious breakthrough – a photocopier which actually reduces images! No more expensive photo studios, no more delays, instant reductions of artwork to print size (or even enlargements when required). Of course, it was as big as a desk and cost an arm and a leg to lease purchase (over £5,000 outright!). But it suddenly made it possible for us to realistically carry out the extensive editorial plans I’d sold our American financiers on.
And the quality of the prints was amazing. It was an A3 machine (up to 11.75 x 16.5″ copies) which made such good prints that one time I thought I was looking at an original when it was a mere photocopy. Gone were those sacrilegious days of bodgers hacking up originals or photo studios making a fortune out of creating prints.
Having some experience with resizing pages to suit a different country’s comics format (Marvel UK, as you asked), I pride myself to this day on how undetectable the resizing artists’ work was. In fact, when Brett Ewins was in the office delivering a cover he admitted he couldn’t spot any of the resizing done to one of his Judge Anderson strips.
So, with team in place and the technology of IBM golfball typewriters making outside typsetting redundant, plus a reduction photocopier and a telex machine for the cost-effective transmission of matters financial, we were on a roll!
As an aside, people often ask “What does an editor do exactly?”. Well, even on reprint titles the answer is… quite a lot! Here’s an old 5-page memo I’ve dug up, sent to the QPI team of editors on these titles…
Above is the Letraset and paste-up artwork for a house ad we ran across all the titles. Can you spot the one which never came out, chums? Steelsmith & Co was our (understandably) renamed version of Boy’s World‘s The Iron Man (1963).
This wonderful strip about a human-looking robot with the strength of 100 men had been drawn initially by Gerry Embleton and then Martin Salvador. With an impressive seven year weekly run, it continued in The Eagle (following an inevitable merger) much to original editor Marcus Morris’s disgust as he apparently detested fantasy characters with special powers. Each to their own…
Here’s one of the old Iron Man strips, not quite up to the usual weekly standard as it was one of the cut-price annual jobs, alongside Steve Whittaker’s painstaking work on a new title logo in those long-gone pre-computer days. Take a close look at the strip’s first page and you’ll see my jottings top and bottom as we mused over a new name. At the top I was pondering the different character count between Steelsmith, Metalsmith and Ironsmith (because the poor old letterer would have to make the new name fit the space), while at the bottom I’d democratically noted the top three names of those in the office that day. Paul and Peter got outvoted!
Despite a very shaky start with a not-so-hot Judge Dredd cover he produced and sent to press while I was away in the States bigging the line up (which had print partner Lee Moncho demanding I fire him!), Dave Elliott did a bang-up job on both the wraparound cover art (right) and the interior resizing of the classic John Wagner and Cam Kennedy Midnight Surfer strip for our first 52-page special. Above are the opening two spreads.
By then we’d also learned not to trust the work that Spain was turning out, so Steve Whittaker came in to do an excellent job of the colouring. Must admit I’m still kinda proud of that one!
Talking of Steve Whittaker, I discovered he and I had a shared passion, we both loved Luis Bermejo’s quirky old Johnny Future strip from Odham’s Power Comics title Fantastic. Owing nothing to the look of US super-heroes, here was a spandex strip devised in the UK. This came about when Marvel complained about the Hulk-like Missing Link strip which the title was originating alongside reprints of their own strips. Both Link and his futurised Johnny version were drawn in Spain through Selecciones Illustradas by the 1931-born artist (right).
Looking beyond 2000 AD for material owned by IPC which we could develop, first through reprints and then new material, we both agreed that this one would be great! But, in the time-honoured tradition of hedging one’s bets, rather than give Johnny (or Jonny, as we renamed him for copyright reasons) the entire comic, we sought out a suitable co-star.
Despite the great composition and superb use of solid blacks, we felt Bermejo’s costume design left a little to be desired, so Steve set to at changing both the swimming cap head gear and that ever-changing chest emblem (just what DID it mean?). Below are a couple of his early ideas, facing Johnny’s first appearance in Fantastic (27/4/67).
Another wonderful but quirky old Power Comics strip we felt would sit well with this very European superhero was the time travelling adventurers Jordi Bernet-drawn Legend Testers (from 1966’s Smash!). Born in Barcelona in 1944, Bernet has been drawing comics since he was 15. Best best known in Europe for his superb gangster strip Torpedo, with his Alex Toth meets Joe Kubert style he only recently rose to fame in the States as dominant artist (in the opinion of series author Jimmy Palmiotti) on the revived Jonah Hex from DC Comics.
But most of our plans were dashed when less than a year in, I had an off-record call from New York, advising me that our financial and accounts partner was about to pull out, to invest in the more lucrative telecommunications industry. From day one I’d had to fight with our production partner in Spain (an amicable fight, but a fight nonetheless) over the drawbacks of colouring and printing being done on the cheap. I could see the writing on the wall, so like the States, I also withdrew our editorial services, leaving only the reprint license behind.
The titles continued without us, a credit to the source material, but with pages inexpensively stretched instead of resized (so gun barrels and planets suddenly took on an oval appearance), and in black and white instead of colour. With their minimal costs, the reduced line limped on for another three years before closing with the November 1990 cover dated issues.
By then I was of course deeply entrenched in another project, this time producing a monthly comics trade paper titled Comics International.
To be continued…
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