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Marvel UK: The Ones That Got Away

After a hectic 15 months or so, we’d survived industrial action, the constant dreaded deadline doom, HM Customs & Excise and mad motorbike messengers and somehow come through it all relatively unscathed. The titles were selling fine and everybody knew what they had to do and was doing it. For myself, I’d only one further idea I really wanted to get out of my system before taking a break. Stan had once told me he didn’t want me to end up a production editor, simply moving pages from one pile to another. Ever the flatterer, he said that would be a waste. He felt I should spend my days thinking up new titles, editing the first few issues to knock them into shape, then assigning them to somebody else and moving on. I wholeheartedly agreed!

But before that, lest you think it was all 100% successful in ideas making it through to execution, here are a few of the titles which didn’t get beyond the drawing board. Well, not exactly a drawing board, more like a desk with scissors, cow gum and felt-tipped pens!

The Ones That Got Away: SPIDEY (1978)

Before the wholesale sort-out on Marvel’s UK line, I spent a few months warming up for the transition as the company’s editorial consultant. I’d train it down to Sevenoaks from south London a few days a week, see how everybody was performing and give bits of advice here and there while privately building up my own team. Terribly cloak and dagger really, but when you’re producing a line of weekly and monthly titles any major overhaul has to run smoothly, without disrupting production.

It was during these early days that I put together my first ideas to increase Marvel UK’s output. They’d already captured the boys’ adventure market with their weeklies and had a couple of titles for bigger boys with their nascent line of monthlies, but I was looking at an earlier entry point, something closer the the Beano and Buster market. A title for younger readers, Spidey!

Along with my very first invoice (hey, £187.50 went a long way in 1978!), here it is…

Dez first Marvel invoice Spidey cover dummy

Not one which would have the fan press buzzing, but a title which I felt would give the company a wider audience appeal. Grab them as 7 or 8 year olds with Spidey, then wean them onto the adventure weeklies as 10-year olds, then the monthlies and imported colour titles when they reached teen years. Here’s some of the intended contents…

Spidey inside front coverSpidey dummy page 3Spidey page 6.pgSpidey p12 Young Irving Forbush

Looking at that second visual above, I’d obviously had the intention to resize the American pages very early on, to make them look more British with better value and more frames per page. Looking at the fourth reminds me how easy putting a dummy issue together could be at times, you could swipe material from anywhere. In this case, for Young Irving Forbush, I used a DC Thomson page of Pansy Potter, The Strongman’s Daughter (it only rhymes with a Scottish accent!). No idea what the end product would have been like. New material, but still no idea!

Spidey p7 Hulk 1 of 5Spidey p13 Captain Britain 1 of 5Spidey p18 lettersSpidey inside back cover

Seeing Captain Britain in there shows I obviously had my heart set on reviving the character, even though I eventually achieved such in a far sneakier way than a cover boast in Hulk Comic. The intended letters page was, of course, an essential ingredient. It’s the best form of reader retention that exists. If somebody sends a letter in, you’re guaranteed they’ll pick up the next few issues to see if it’s printed. And if it is, that’s a reader you’ve won for life! Another essential ingredient is the “house ad” page. No point having a line of titles if you don’t promote them yourself.

Spidey 659Would Spidey have worked? Who can say, as it never happened. But it must have got close to the launchpad as I was accosted by one of the industry’s leading writers a few years ago at a comics convention. Apparently he’d been waiting 30 years for the opportunity to ask me: “What happened to Spidey?”.

He told me how as a wee nipper in 1978 he’d been plaguing his local Glasgow newsagent on a daily basis asking for it. When the newsagent finally said it didn’t exist, the lad rushed home to reappear shortly with one of the existing Marvel weeklies and pointed to the Bullpen Bulletins page and announced, “Look, Dez Skinn said it was coming out so it must be!”. Sorry about that Mark.

Somewhat ignobly, it appears that the regular weekly Spider-Man comic was reduced to such in 1985 though.

The Ones That Got Away: ZONE (1979)

By the time I was firmly entrenched at the company, I was more than aware of a new style of more mature material Marvel US was producing. I’d found out early because their blonde bombshell licensing and syndication whizz Gail Munn had been in the UK and Europe syndicating a strip they were all going crazy about. Gail was an incredible powerhouse of a human being, one of the hardest workers I ever met. A stunningly beautiful petite creature she was also hard as nails when it came to driving a bargain. She’d start her day with a breakfast meeting at the crack of dawn then work solid through to the middle evening. If you weren’t a potential client, you couldn’t get a word out of her until 8.00pm! After that hour, she’d go on to party just as hard as she’d been working.

I remember during one of my frequent trips to New York she and I went out clubbing one night. When I went into the office the next morning I found myself sharing the lift with the company president Jim Galton. Making small talk, he asked if I’d done anything interesting last night. Not realising quite how it sounded, I said I didn’t think Gail would be quite as efficient as usual as I’d kept her up most of the night. Jim must have been impressed because when I got back to London, the UK’s managing director Brian Babani asked me a decidedly lewd question about her which I chose to ignore. Sorry about that Gail.

But New York really was a different world in the 1970s. It was as if transtlantic flight hadn’t been invented. The first time I was in Marvel’s office, Jim Galton’s secretary insisted on parading me around the offices. She’d take me into a room with somebody typing away frantically and she’d say “This is Dez. Go on, Dez. Say something.” I’d come out with a puzzled sounding “Hello. How are you?” and every time get an “OhmygodyouareEnglish!” excited response. It was weird. But very handy. You could go into a singles bar in the evening (they were all the rage at the time) and confuse the barman by asking for a Gordon’s and tonic and be guaranteed at least a couple of instant conversation openers by nearby females (along the lines of “OhmygodyouareEnglish!”). Or so I’m told. Wouldn’t know myself, of course.

Anyway, aborted launches, let’s get back to them… So Gail was touting John Buscema’s Weirdworld overseas as the Next Big Thing.

Weirdworld by John Buscema
Three of the magazine-sized pages of John Buscema's Weirdworld. For record keepers, it ran in Marvel Super Special #11-13 (1979).

Like most of Europe, the UK had of course been doing more sophisticated colouring (and with far smoother paper than the rough newsprint those glossy Weirdworld proofs ended up on!) for over 25 years. In fact, all the way back to the 1936-launched Mickey Mouse Weekly which, despite the title, contained lots of fantastic UK created photogravure printed original art. But you try telling that to an American in sales! Besides, this was a breakthrough for Marvel and while it was a tad garish and twee, it wouldn’t cost me anything to print it anyway.

UK full colour art
There are numerous examples of fine full colour UK comic art to choose from but here are three from across the 1950s and 1960s by Mike Noble, Don Lawrence and Ron Embleton.

So with Weirdworld as a cornerstone for the first six issues at least, I got to thinking about other fantasy/SF material which would sit well alongside it so we could put out a classy upmarket squarebound glossy magazine. This was at least a year before Marvel launched Epic as its own classy upmarket glossy magazine, so suitable material was pretty thin on the ground. But if I’d got it off the launchpad and made it through the first year or so, it would have had a great second wind!

Alex Nino and Gil Kane
Two comic art greats: Alex Nino and Gil Kane

The large format Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction (1975, six issues) provided some solid material though, including the great Alex Nino’s first Marvel strips, adaptations of Harlan Ellison’s ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman and Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man.

The magazine also ran great interviews, so their text format content would help prove this was more than a mere funnybook. That was must-run material for me. I’d always been a huge fan of the anatomy and composition of Gil Kane’s work, so his award-winning Blackmark strip (originally a paperback, reformatted for Savage Sword of Conan #1-4, 1974/5) was a must too.

I even dragged Angus McKie’s Swordspell out again, it being as good as new having only appeared in my 500-print run 1975 Warrior fanzine (see here for the full story). None of this work was in colour, but what the heck, that would help keep the film-making costs down!

Zone content - Nino, Kane and McKie
An amazing variety of styles: The surreal Alex Nino, the elegant Gil Kane and the meticulous Angus McKie. The latter was produced for a fanzine, but I'd say it holds up pretty well against its high calibre bedfellows.
Bob Shaw
A man with a keen sense of wonder and a dry sense of wit, Belfast's Bob Shaw (1931-1996)

As a quick aside (hold down the groans please) SF author Bob Shaw once told me a funny story about Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction. The magazine’s editor Roy Thomas had adapted a very clever framing sequence for the anthology’s short self-contained stories using Bob’s “slow glass” concept (from the 1972 novel Other Days, Other Eyes) as a linking device.

The wonderful idea of slow glass was that it was a material so dense that light would travel through it very very slowly, differing according to the density of each piece. So individual chunks would in effect contain visible scenes from the past. But unlike his pal Harry Harrison who had earned a nice royalty from The Stainless Steel Rat, Bob didn’t think comics adaptations were worth bothering with (I was at the time of this anecdote mad keen on adapting his brilliant Who Goes Here foreign legion in space novel). He told me Marvel only paid $25 for his idea and he never saw it anyway because they mistakenly sent it to Isaac Asimov!

But I was obviously getting desperate in seeking out diverse sources of material because I also intended to include the standard comics format SF superhero strip Deathlok the Demolisher by Doug Moench and Rich Buckler. But I still think the variety of content, coupled with the glossy format, would have made this a wonderful magazine.

In the house style of the other Marvel UK monthlies, here’s my 1979 hand lettered cover dummy (ah, for Photoshop back then!)…

Zone1 dummy cover
Long before London Underground created travel zones, I came up with a unique gimmick for this one, incorporating the issue number into the title. The idea was you would in subsequent months ask for Zone2, Zone3 and so forth. Of course were it to be a success, it would be a bit of a mouthful to ask for Zone-Three-Hundred-And-Seventy-Four please. Ah, I should be so lucky.

The Ones That Got Away: HAUNTED! (1980)

Haunted cover rough as Supernatural
Not the most readable of titles.

Looking back, it could have been a bit of an obsession of mine but I wanted Marvel UK to have a dedicated horror comic. Actually, I thought it was such a commercial idea I’d wanted every company I’d worked for previously to have one, so it isn’t really very surprising! But I started out on this one with the most ridiculous of titles: Supernatural.

Why ridiculous? Well, I have this theory that if you can’t read a magazine’s title from across the road, there’s something wrong with it. Maybe it’s too clever a type face, too obscured by the top of somebody’s head (a popular faux pas in the lifestyle magazine world!), not enough colour contrast with the background or too many letters. Whatever the reason, any of the above means it’s not fulfilling its prime function.

Guess which one S-u-p-e-r-n-a-t-u-r-a-l got wrong? On the right is the first cover cut-up I assembled to prove the point. So back to the thesaurus for a snappier alternative.

Haunted came up as a damn fine alternative, in fact the best alternative. Except that it didn’t quite make sense. What was actually haunted? The strips might be horror (the usual mix of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Werewolf et al) but they weren’t being haunted.

Haunted US coverHaunted first logo roughThen I remembered a 1950s US comic, long defunct, so I pinched its approach, saying the actual comic was haunted. Brilliant. I immediately doodled up a logo with a similar title, Beware! This Comic Is HAUNTED… Every Week!.

My 8-year old daughter just saw it on screen and loved it, so I guess I was getting somewhere. Not sure about that little demon character taking up so much space, but it’s a start. Sure enough the demon went next, to be replaced as host by one of my favourite Marvel characters, Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts.

I then commissioned Steve Parkhouse, somebody I considered a great comics calligrapher, to produce a tidier version of a title logo (as an editor, you’re useless in isolation – you can only be as good as those around you!). The format was going to follow that of Mighty World of Marvel, or Marvel Comic as I’d renamed it, as a 32-page self-cover anthology with lots of crammed-in horror strips, plus a few offbeat feature pages.

A late entry this one, I’d put the Spidey dummy together as a consultant before joining the company full time, this one I was putting together as a consultant after leaving the company full time! Hence the next step, commissioning a proper artist to make something sensible out of my cover rough (below left), was a letter typed up on my old company paper.

Haunted dummy cover Dez roughHaunted brief to GibboHaunted dummy cover by Dave Gibbons

Haunted dummy cover 2011 revisionHaunted issue 2 Gibbons rough 1I guess I got my fifty quid’s worth out of the ever-reliable Dave Gibbons (was there ever a new project I didn’t involve him in?) as he sensibly tightened up the topline, moved Doctor Strange’s hand away from his face and got rid of that awful window surround I’d given the visual.

But I think I’d been asking too much with that wordy speech balloon. Had this gone any further, I’m sure I’d have seen the sense to split the words up and do something similar to the update I’ve just put together, left. Man, I so love being able to play with these old toys again!

I don’t recall if I offered him more money or he just got enthusiastic, but Dave then proceeded to pitch ideas to me for the cover to issue two. Wasn’t crazy about his first stab (right) but I definitely liked his next versions (below).
Haunted 2 Gibbo roughs 2 to 4

With the covers coming together nicely I made up a full dummy of the title, here are some of the splash pages…
Haunted splash pages montage

One of the key ingredients in getting a title right, in making sure the spreads print as such and there’s no clash between the end of one strip and the start of the next (usually overcome by inserting a handy-dandy features page or ad) is the pagination, or flatplan. Here’s the one I put together for Haunted‘s first issue (with a list along the bottom of the massive amount of Marvel horror material it could include later)…

Haunted 1 pagination sheet

Despite having so much potential content, I made a point of including a self-contained horror short (A Strange Tale of the Supernatural, above right) because serials are fine, but it’s nice to have something complete each week. I also had the slightly wacky idea of incorporating a page given over to “Reader’s Experiences” (hopefully I’d have come up with a better name before it was printed!). That would have been a toughie to kick-start, but I lived in hope that enough readers had personal horror stories to tell for at least one page a week of such.

Haunted feature spreadAs another text feature, but one I’d have no problem filling, I planned a “weekly look at monster movies new and old”. At the dummy stage it again still has the original Supernatural title as Supernatural Screen Scene (I just love those alliterations!).

After I had resigned from Marvel, I was sorry to hear there followed a period of animosity between management, accounts, production and editorial, all with their own axes to grind and all attempting to improve their status in the revised hierarchy. In this turmoil, their first in-house creation was a disappointment, Forces in Combat (15/5/80) cover featuring Sgt blooming Fury – less than three years after his own misguided title Fury had crashed and burned.

In my new found consultancy role, I had then been asked by management if I could do something better, hence Haunted. But in the political turmoil of “who is in favour this week” it was ultimately rejected. A shame, as I think it would have been a strong addition to the weekly line with its own very different identity. But sometimes political decisions overrule logic (or maybe I’m just biased).

Post-Skinn Marvel UK launches
The first crop of post-Skinn launches from Marvel UK. Not quite a counter-revolution...
Award-winning Marvel UK editor Berni Jaye
One of the 1980s stars at Marvel UK, the award-winning editor Bernadette Jakowski or Berni Jaye. I'd hired her as a freelance colourist in 1979 but she rose rapidly through the post-Skinn ranks, finally leaving to pursue her favoured career. That somebody refused to work for the company again because he heard she was fired was a wonderfully absurd excuse for him wanting to move on.

The ones they chose to go with instead, Valour (launched 5/11/80) also featured Doctor Strange, plus Conan, Thor and Devil Dinosaur – not the most inspired lineup, while Future Tense (again 5/11/80) with The Micronauts, Starlord, Seeker 3000 and Paladin also lacked a unique selling point, with its even more B-list cast of also-ran SF characters. Insane!

Their October 1981 new monthly, Blake’s 7, could surely never be more than a pale shadow of Doctor Who Monthly – a title they were saying in interviews was already struggling! But one staffer told me the lack of experienced leadership and the in-house feuding had led to a very bad atmosphere, and I’m afraid it showed in the end product.

Were I the gossiping kind, I’d probably elaborate, in a tell-all tabloid fashion. About how everybody hated the new production manager, how the accountant saw his own job advertised in The Daily Telegraph (because he knew where the bodies were buried and nobody wanted the US to find out); how a new employee had a covert brief to spy on people so the US knew what was really going on; how editorial had become the bullied runt of the litter and had gone feudal; how somebody was using their position to enhance their private life with another member of staff. Oh, tons of stuff. But I don’t do that, so I won’t.

Return of the Jedi cover cock-up
Understaffed or undertrained? From 1983: A classic cover cock-up in 480pt!
But I guess I can’t have helped, seemingly overburdening them with new ideas just before leaving. So with all this turmoil, despite having only just resigned I ended up agreeing to editorially package the new lot from home, these first four pocket books plus Frantic and Superhero Fun and Games and once again taking a regular consultancy fee to be some kind of editorial nanny. Whether they listened or not, it acted as a useful little stop-gap until I could find something new to play with.

But I gather there was a divided and feudal atmosphere in the offices between management, accounts and editorial, so it was only a few months later that I walked away completely, to seek out new challenges rather than work on rehashes in such an obviously unhappy environment.

I’m told it took until Robert Sutherland became managing director for the company to stabilise and get back on track again.

But I’d fulfilled my brief from New York, which certainly hadn’t included child-minding the offices! It was time to get out and leave others to fight over pole position. It’s a great shame, it was a heady and exciting 15 months. But maybe all revolutions end this way.

My adopted kids were now in the hands of others, but so was my own baby, Starburst, a magazine far closer to my heart and the one which had made all this come true. Who’s to say that without this maverick indie being launched less than three years earlier, my “British Marvel” rescue plan would never have been commissioned and their whole UK company could have crashed and burned in 1979!

As a parting gesture, I was given space for a full page bye-bye editorial in Alan McKenzie’s first officially edited issue, Starburst #20, which was nice of him. Here it is, along with my little run of issues…

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