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Early days of UK comics conventions and marts
The fanzine kicked off with a two page editorial promoting the forthcoming event, followed by six pages of ads to raise money and the inside covers blank. It obviously worked as almost 70 hardened fans attended! The event had also been promoted in the Irish comics fanzine Heroes Unlimited and, because Phil’s friend Steve Moore was a recently-recruited office junior at Odhams Press, it even got a mention in the Floor of 64 editorial page of the company’s Pow! and Smash! weeklies.
As with fanzines, the US beat Britain by a few years with such comics-focused gatherings. In 1964 two Detroit Michigan-based comic fans, Dave Szurek and Robert Brosch, put on a US mini-con with a similar attendance to the Birmingham UK event. Arguably the first dedicated comics convention, it was followed in 1965 by Jerry Bails (a founding father of US comics fandom) teaming up with Shel Dorf to take over the event and make it a larger convention, which they named the Detroit Triple Fan Fair (still hedging their bets, “Triple” being comics, science-fiction and films) with Shel as chairman.
In doing so, this convention became the template for Shel Dorf’s founding of what became the largest US gathering, The San Diego Comic-Con after he moved there in 1969. His first event there was the three day Golden State Comic-Con (August 1-2, 1970) which drew 300 fans together for the long weekend.
With the hyphenated Comic-Con name now a US registered trademark, it is the world’s fourth largest such event, after Tokyo’s Comiket and Europe’s Angouleme (France) and Lucca (Italy).
Comics conventions obviously have their roots in their “big brother” of science fiction cons, which have been going strong since the mid-1930s in both Britain and America. But while SF fans have traditionally snubbed comics fans for “needing pictures to read their stories”, the fancy dress tradition of SF cons is something comics fans generally sneer at as being “juvenile” (the current cosplay craze notwithstanding).
Borrowing from science fiction conventions, and continuing across the following few years of UK comics shows, on the Saturday the Birmingham con held an Edgar Rice Burroughs themed “midnight dum-dum” while on the Sunday morning 10.00 to 11.30 was given over to a “business meeting” including an auction for hosting the following year’s convention. Again an SF tradition, albeit one which did not continue beyond this inaugural year.
However, amid panel discussions, screenings of old films and listening to tape recordings of old radio shows (gripping stuff!), the highlight of this first UK comics convention was the fancy dress competition. While only six people rose to the challenge (including a young Nick Landau as Captain Cold and organiser Phil Clarke as Captain Marvel – see below), DC Comics had donated artwork by Neal Adams and Steve Ditko as prizes.
Whether the actual artists knew of this or not, the winner (Cyclops) received two original pages and the runner-up (Captain Cold) one.
Giving Phil a last-minute headache, the stencils for the intended con booklet never made it through the post, so a substitute was put together and printed two hours before the event started. Courtesy of reader Richard Sheaf, here it is…
Another SF convention standard borrowed for the event’s programme was a listing of registered attendees. Among them were Dave McCulloch, a Manchester fan who produced an early fanzine, Comic Cuts. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for his second issue which promised to be a Captain Marvel special. Other big name fans (or BNFs, as the SF world calls them) included Power Comics’ Steve Moore, working artists Paul Neary, Mike Higgs and Jim Baikie, fan artists Rob Poole and Richard Burns, Ges Cleaver, Titan’s Nick Landau and Mike Lake, Barry Clements, Oracle newszine co-editor Haydn Paul, Colin Teague, Golden Age collector Pat Comissiong, writer Peter C Phillips and possibly the first identified female comics fan Ellen Kendell.
Supporting members, again an SF con standard of people paying even though they couldn’t attend (in this case probably because their mums wouldn’t let them!) included writer Marcus Horne, Manchester fanzine editor John Muir and a 15-year old Alan Moore.
While not listed, along with fellow dealer Frank Dobson, Derek “Bram” Stokes was also in attendence. At this pre-Dark They Were & Golden Eyed time, he was simply known to us all as Igor (drugs have a lot to answer for!) and ran a mail order company The Vault of Horror.
One inspired idea Phil Clarke and Mike Higgs had was to incorporate a DIY convention badge into the booklet. In addition to its eight pages (page two being blank!), it came with a final page heavy card sheet of Mike’s cartoons offering attendees a choice of which badge to cut out and wear.
Jim Baikie was comic fandom’s first contact with working adventure artists. Most of his work was for girls’ comics, but the fact that he spoke to us was a genuine heady treat in those early days. Here is his booklet cover art (left) for the second UK comics convention, which switched location from Birmingham to London.
One nice aspect of conventions back then was the remarkably democratic gentleman’s agreement about organising them. There was no coveting or arguments, if somebody wanted to put on a show one year, everybody else stood aside and left them to it.
So it was that Bram Stokes, Frank Dobson and Steve Moore took it down to London for 1969. Fans were more than happy to travel, we were nearly all teenagers then, so visiting a different city was always an exciting prospect! Ah. such simpler times…
In fact the 1969 event was the first convention for me and, as a wide-eyed 18-year old Yorkshire tyke, it was also my first solo trip to London (see adjacent for my first actual visit to the country’s capital).
But it wasn’t all bright lights and excitement though as, not wanting to squander any comics-buying money on being a hotel resident, I took up Steve Moore’s kind offer of sleeping on a Z-bed in his parents’ living room in deepest darkest south east London. Nothing against Steve, but it was an experience I wouldn’t recommend to anybody.
It was bad enough having a two-day commute back and forth by overland electric trains from Shooter’s Hill (something I’d never experienced before, trains which make a massive noise when stationary but go silent when moving). But I also discovered why they are named Z-beds… They have this annoying habit of suddenly transforming into the shape of the last letter of the alphabet every time you’re beginning to fall asleep!
Thanks to modern technology, the convention booklet was a huge leap forward. Also, thanks mainly to Canadian fan John Mansfield (about whom, more to follow) it had some fascinating content, including original sketches by Vaughn Bode, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando and Al Williamson (above) and Jeff Jones and Berni(e) Wrightson (below).
Movie buff Alan Willis took on the role of films coordinator, screening from his Super-8 collection The Black Knight (which had nothing to do with the comics version, being the 1954 Columbia film), The Claim Jumpers (an episode of the 1952 Flash Gordon TV series starring Steve Holland in the title role) and a Durango Kid feature, Heading West with Charles Starrett as the western hero. Alan wasn’t actually a comics fan, so his bizarre selection can possibly be humoured!
So as not to fall foul of the law, Comicon Film Society was quickly registered with the British Film Institute to allow these screenings! And, yes, there was another fancy dress competition.
But the highlight of this year’s event was two of the guests. Both Londoners, but they were working for Odhams Power Comics line, producing back cover posters of Marvel heroes… Steve Parkhouse and Barry Smith. In this, his pre-Conan year, Barry had even had a few strips published by Marvel US (X-Men and Daredevil) so I eagerly bought some of the originals that he was selling. It was only half an hour later that I discovered I’d mixed the guests up and bought two of Steve Parkhouse’s originals. Gutted, I promptly sold them on (sorry, Steve!).
Here are a few of them (right). Not particularly inspiring, but we were all much younger then, and I was easily impressed…
I must have also been insane! I booked the inside front cover of the convention booklet as an ad for my fanzines (above, left) and decided that I didn’t want to use a typewriter… so I applied rubdown Letraset for every single letter! That’s over 1,000 characters, all lined up (very roughly!) and burnished on to a piece of board. Madness! It was awfully tempting to tidy up the scan for use on here, but I resisted. So you can click on it and see it in all of its enlarged glory… wonky lines, the odd hideous font, biro underlines and all!
Fortunately I didn’t seem to be the only one without a set square, as you can see from the booklet’s editorial (above, middle). Even the probably much-used Marvel ad (above, right) wasn’t put together by a Letraset wizard, judging by the clunky fit of the Comicon 69 strip-in! But it was great to have their support.
The third UK comics convention moved north… to Sheffield and the Rutland Hotel. Like the county the hotel was named after, this one has sort of fallen off the map!
It was organised by Sam Plumb (a total unknown in the comics world, he hadn’t done anything before and didn’t do anything after chairing this event) aided by the better-known Jon Harvey, Dave Fletcher and Peter D Parkin.
With no guest artists or special events lined up, it still provided fans and dealers with an opportunity to visit a different city for their annual get together and spendfest. For posterity (and because it didn’t have too many pages) below is the entire booklet.
I am once again indebted to Richard Sheaf for this con booklet. With a cover by Ken Simpson, it also features art by fandom regulars Mike Higgs (page 2) plus Trev Goring (page 3) and a Dave Fletcher back cover. There’s also a handsome ad for Steve Moore’s new fanzine, Aspect, with an early piece of Barry Smith artwork.
My strongest personal memory of the event was that six of us shared a single room, drawing lots to decide who would get the bed, or the bedsheets, the pillows and so on. I got one pillow and a piece of the floor.
My left eyebrow bears a lifetime reminder of the weekend, broken by a small scar from waking up in the middle of the night, trying to sit up and banging my head on the metal bed frame.
Unbelievably, I must have fallen straight back to sleep because when I woke up a few hours later, my room mates were amazed by the amount of dried blood down one side of my face and caked in my hair.
We all thought it looked so cool that I didn’t wash it off for a few hours!
Dave Gibbons produced the cover art and title logo for this show’s booklet (below, left) while I typed up the tough guy editorial with its threat of a 25p fine if anybody was seen not wearing their convention badge (although I probably spent longer on that absurdly ornate signature than the entire editorial!). Steve Moore and Steve Parkhouse were also launching their beautifully produced new fanzine, Orpheus (son of Aspect, launched at the previous year’s event) and took this great full page ad (below, right) to announce it.
Below is a another piece of Steve Parkhouse wonderment, a spoof of Vaughn Bode’s work for the con booklet. By this stage an IPC editorial bod, Steve had come on a lot since his Power Comics back cover pin-up pages and was fast becoming a great artist totally wasted on blue-pencilling for Whizzer & Chips!
With Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian being all the rage at the time, the art portfolio (below) had an appropriate tie-in, featuring the work of Paul Neary, the ever-present Dave Gibbons, Jim Marshall and Jim Baikie. Fleetway war comics collectors may recognise the corner page number style as I borrowed a sheet of sticky-backed picture library folios for the job (one less bit of Letrasetting to be done!). Also interesting to note that all four artists applied strips of Letratone to add grey areas to their work.
As an aside, we were all madly jealous of US art supplies back then. Their version of Letratone was the vastly superior Zip-A-Tone. Instead of having to cut out sticky-backed areas of dot tints (and then scratch out portions of the surface with your scalpel for a fade effect) with Zip-A-Tone you had merely to rub down on the sheet and its dots would miraculously transfer to your artwork. We all used to scour the art shops and plead with any US pen pals to try to get hold of such magic! Apparently Zip-A-Tone went out of business in the 1980s but it’s interesting that manga artists have kept Letratone alive to this day.
1971’s gathering, held at Southampton Row’s Waverley Hotel once more, was organised by Derek “Bram” Stokes and yours truly, Derek “Dez” Skinn – comics folk obviously have a problem with that christian name!
As well as a star raffle and the inevitable film show, the weekend had three main events… Frank Bellamy came along with stacks of his old Eagle artwork and gave an amazingly in-depth talk on the trials and tribulations of working on Dan Dare and Garth as well as his enjoyment on Fraser of Africa and Heros the Spartan.
Another special talk featured Bristow‘s Frank Dickens and newspaper strip editor Keith McKenzie dishing out the dirt on producing three frames a day, while Mick Farren, Edward (Ed Weird) Barker and Cyclops editor Graham Keen held a talk about underground comix. Edward also produced some felt-tip sketches, but true to counter-culture comix and much to the anger of the management, he did his drawings on the hotel’s toilet walls!
Below is one of the stunning pieces of art Frank Bellamy created especially for the event. It was unexpected and too late for a place in the convention booklet, although all of them did finally make it into print in later years.
For ComiCon ’72, again held in London, the organiser was Comic Catalog/Comic Media‘s co-editor Nick Landau – now better known as the head of Titan Books and Forbidden Planet Ltd. Roping in Rich Burton, Dennis Lee and Tom Downes to help, his booklet was primarily an advertising vehicle with its 32 A5-sized pages being notable mainly for a Kevin O’Neill advertising strip (above, right) and a report on the 1971 ComiCon.
Above is a bizarre ad from the booklet promoting London animation studio Halas & Batchelor (who mus have believed the event to have a somewhat higher profile!) and a wonderful Mike Higgs strip. But while ComiCon ’72 focused more on its film show and dealers room than guest artists, its published convention report on the previous year’s show makes fascinating reading. Andy Skilleter covered the Frank Bellamy talk in detail, Milton Finesilver recalled the newspaper strip panel and “T. E. Swamplimper” wrote a review of the underground comix panel.
All give a great insight into their work along with a few great anecdotes, and one anonymous report includes the embarrassing gem of “Dez Skinn keeping the spirit of capitalism alive by selling insipid coffee and packets of crisps at three o’clock in the morning to ravenous, blurry-eyed fans”. Well, it was either crisps or albatross, and as all Monty Python fans know they only come in one flavour!
The reality was that in those early days, fans preferred spending their money on comics gap-fillers to hotel rooms, so conventions conveniently ran all-night film shows. Not that anybody watched them, it was to give attendees somewhere to sleep! Bram (pictured right, with partner Diane Lister) and I had found our way into the hotel kitchen and discovered their giant cans of industrial Nescafe.
So along with some hastily purchased potato crisps from an all-nighter across the road, we recognised a way to help fans survive the night (and an instant cash boost for the event).
We were such enterprising youths!
One offshoot from comics conventions was the rise in popularity and profitability of the gap-filling comics dealer, whose wares you could suddenly see before purchasing (and didn’t have to wait “up to 28 days” for delivery). But with fanzines now having US correspondents their news section offered terrible teases of new launches, back in those days of having to wait three months for American comics to arrive in UK newsagents.
However, by an amazing bit of good timing, the return from my first trip to New York was on the very day of the 1972 convention. Naturally, I’d been buying up tons of scarce old comics (hoping to cover the costs of my trip with their resale through Fantasy Advertiser). But there had been lots of new launches that month including DC’s much-anticipated Shadow by Denny O’Neill and Mike Kaluta, Weird Worlds featuring John Carter of Mars and the company’s relaunch of Captain Marvel, as Shazam to avoid conflict with Marvel’s existing Captain Marvel title. So I’d scooped up as many of each as I could find, knowing they’d be more than welcome in the UK.
Sleep deprived and jet-lagged I’d dragged my bulging suitcases into the convention’s dealers’ room, mere hours after I’d landed at Heathrow. The interest in these never-before seen new titles was such that I prioritised them for eager purchasers, jettisoning valuable 1950s comics into a box beneath the table for later examination (which never happened as I sleepily forgot all about them and somebody ran off with the entire box!).
But the excitement about these brand new titles was unbelievable. I remember my table actually being pushed back by the weight of eager fans, pinning me to the wall. In fact Chris Lowder had the misfortune of selling from the adjacent table and complained that the crowd around my table was so big that nobody could get to see what he was selling. If I’d been half the businessman I thought I was, I’d have seen an opportunity here to buy more, direct from America. But it took somebody else to do that a few months later!
Godfather of British fandom Frank Dobson, he who had launched Fantasy Advertiser to satisfy fan demand for buying old American comics, had noticed a gap in the market. These new comics conventions were great for dealers like him, with fans saving up throughout the year for an annual hands-on spend-fest, but twelve months is a long time. So Frank hired the upstairs room of a somewhat appropriately-named pub (The Eagle, 159 Farringdon Road, London EC1), invited a few dealer friends along to share the cost and held a “mini-con”, as he called it. “Mini” because it was a no-frills Saturday afternoon only event. A neat idea but no follow-up as he then promptly emigrated to Australia.
With him having already bequeathed his Fantasy Advertiser to me, I thought I’d maintain his legacy with his nascent live event too. Not crazy about the “mini-con” misnomer but intending to hold a similar event at the tail end of 1971, I went for the semi-alliterative Christmas Comic Mart as a more accurate name (“Mart” because I had fond memories of Exchange & Mart magazine and it sounded a tad classier than Market). I ran a promo for such in an issue of F/A then went on holiday.
When I came back I was stunned to discover somebody else was now planning a similar event, to be held the week before mine. So, not wanting to retaliate by jumping mine a week before theirs and starting a silly game, I let them have it and took some tables at theirs… leaving them with all the organisational and promotional headaches AND having to pay for ads in Fantasy Advertiser!
From Frank’s acorn of a pub-mart, an entire industry grew, with at one time four competitive events in London alone.
The sixth annual bash, ComiCon ’73, had Dark They Were‘s Bram Stokes taking on the challenge with Canadian fan John Mansfield and intending to move it to what was to become the show’s regular new home at the Regent Centre Hotel, Russell Square, W1. In its editorial two months before the show, Comic Media Newsletter #6 (now up to eight pages for 6p!) said “Jim Warren is definitely set to come. Steranko will also be coming but only if he can find some work over here to subsidise his air fare.” (He couldn’t, so he didn’t!)
Also of note on the same page of Rich Burton’s May 1973 issue (see right) is another acorn… the first mention of a new service which would grow into Titan Distribution but ultimately be swallowed up as “warehouse 27” of America’s Diamond Comic Distributors. Richard tells us that his “partner-in-crime” Nick Landau was starting to import airmail copies of fan-favourite US comics so fans could buy them mail order from him, at 12p each, months before they would be in newsagents shops. For statisticians among you, that’s 5p above the regular UK newsagent’s cover price… but Nick was offering 2p off if you bought four or more.
In an uncharacteristically outspoken editorial, editor Rich revealed that with only a month to go, ComiCon ’73 had been cancelled. Bram had put it down to a lack of dealer support in the face of strong competition from the cheaper tables at the by now regular London comic marts, coupled with their free admittance. But Rich had uncovered a far more compelling reason. Canadian fan John Mansfield had apparently promised Bram that he was able to entice many American writers and artists to the event as well as some leading European professionals. But at the eleventh hour this appeared to be nothing more than an empty boast, as Rich revealed (right).
Ironically Bram’s “competition”, comic mart organisers Nick Landau and Rob Barrow, came to the rescue. Rather than have an entire year go by without the regular comics festival, they moved their next one day dealer show to the regular convention site of the Waverley Hotel and with the additional space available added talks, guests and events. But in comics circles John Mansfield has not been heard of again!
By 1974 the convention momentum had been lost. A combination of Mansfield’s “good intentions” falling apart coupled with the proliferation of comic marts feeding fans’ addictions had taken its toll on the annual two day events. So for Comicon ’74, again held at London’s Regent Centre Hotel near Great Portland Street tube station, organiser Rob Barrow charged only 60p ($1) for the entire two days.
As Rob recently confessed about the once more con booklet-free event, “It was little more than a glorified comic mart – it was even sub-headed the Comic Mart Summer Special 1974 – and the only guest “name” was Denis Gifford.” It had been an accident, but by having free admission to his marts and far cheaper dealer table prices for what was in effect a half day event only, Rob had driven away the entrepreneurial yet altrusitic convention organisers so to keep the annual event alive, he had taken on the responsibility himself.
Rob took an ad (left) to promote the event in #54 of my old Fantasy Advertiser, at the princely sum of £3 ($4.75) for a full page.
Looking back at the issue after scanning his ad in, it had the most amazing letters column (Battlefield by name, so titled to reflect the contentious comments it invariably contained). But this time the tightly packed three pages kicked off with a highly flattering rave by subscriber and soon-to-be Charley’s War artist Joe Colquhoun, followed by an equally complimentary letter from Ultimates inker-to-be artist Paul Neary and a serious debate stirrer from Tharg-in-the-making Alan McKenzie.
Again the event was held at the Regent Crest (a hotel which seemed to change its name every few years, probably so it wouldn’t be associated with comics fans to the outside world!). It never looked quite as elegant as its publicity photos show (above). Whenever we were there, taking advantage of the bar staying open as long as people were buying drinks, its smoke-filled lounge would be rammed with late night revellers in increasing levels of intoxication. This always seemed to shock the US guests present, who foolishly thought the main events happened during daylight hours.
A thin convention booklet was created this year, using the Bellamy image as a cover, along with three pages of text and ads plus a bunch of inserted promotional flyers.
But the big event was in having guest speakers once more. In addition to Paul Neary’s slide show on being a comics artist, the amazing Frank Hampson (left, 1918-1985) came along to talk about his time working on The Eagle‘s Dan Dare in this, the year after he visited the Italian Lucca show and won the much-deserved Yellow Kid Award for outstanding achievements.
As organiser Rob Barrow summed it up in his booklet editorial, “This year we hope to put on the best convention to date, having learnt from the problems that arose last year we now have two rooms, one for talks, films and auctions and the other for the sale of comics and related items”.
Yup, two whole rooms. That’s progress!
Another London-based Rob Barrow event, but this time Rob sensibly brought in some friends to help make it a bigger and more smoothly-run show. In addition to new Fantasy Advertiser editor Colin Campbell on publicity, Bemusing Magazine‘s Martin Lock looking after the dealers, Comic Media‘s Nick Landau handling the talks, and yours truly holding the auctions, Comic Media News editor Rich Burton did a splendid job of the convention booklet, with a superb range of artists providing visuals, including the above cover art by Trev Goring – now a Los Angeles-based storyboard artist.
Unfortunately, the artwork promised in the progress report (above right) by Frank Bellamy and Jim Steranko was noticeable by its absence. But fans were more than compensated by the stellar array of talent who did contribute.
Thanks to the input of the Society of Strip Illustration (SSI), the new young turks of Dave Gibbons, John Bolton, Kev O’Neill, Paul Neary and Brian Bolland found their work alongside industry veterans including Ron Embleton, John M Burns, Brian Lewis, Martin Asbury and Frank Hampson plus Amazing Spider-Man artist John Romita and underground comix naughty boys Bryan Talbot and Hunt Emerson. To a large extent this year’s booklet set the style which would in a few years dominate convention magazines.
Nick Landau had possibly the easiest job out of Rob’s team though, as the two guests were again local to London. The artist of Hunter in Warren’s Eerie magazine, Paul Neary, gave the Saturday afternoon talk while SSI veteran and Matt Marriott newspaper strip artist Tony Weare gave a talk on Sunday. To an amused gathering Tony’s talk was preceded by a wonderful geek quiz: Brain of Fandom ’76!
Advertisements in the booklet had by now reached a professional standard, with contributions from Marvel US for the launch of their UK weekly Captain Britain, Denis Gifford’s Ally Sloper magazine (which sadly ceased after only four issues), some very slick ads for the current crop of fanzines and the ever-present comic marts, plus shops and mail order dealers and my own House of Hammer magazine. Suddenly our little industry was muscling up!
Saddled with the job of auctioneer, I was well aware that auction audiences had a habit of falling asleep as most of the items on offer tended to be strangers to the words scarce, rare or valuable. So I decided to liven up proceedings with a twist or two. I announced that one item was an ungraded “FF #1″, being sold blind. Once bidding had finished, I called the winner to the front and presented him with a tatty copy of DC’s pretty appalling Freedom Fighters #1. Another jolly jape was my lucky dip bid. This time letting the audience see what was for sale, I held up a pretty scarce item, worth around £25 then put it in a sealed brown paper bag. I then proceeded to do the same with a beaten up Beano and a coverless Charlton romance comic. Bids were then taken in turn for the three sealed bags with the total amazingly coming to more than the £25 that one of the bag’s content was worth. I then called the three winners to the front for another round of ritual humiliation for two and elation for the third. One by one they opened their bags, so the entire audience could see what they’d each spent almost £10 purchasing. Fortunately it was all taken in good spirit.
But the whole thing backfired on me because the event seemed to go down well so I ended up being the convention auctioneer for the next few years until I suckered Mike Conroy into taking on the job – a trick I was to repeat on him with a certain news magazine a full 30 years later!
1976: COMICS 101 AND KAK
This was also the year that UK comics muscled up, both mainstream and alternative. While ComiCons traditionally invited UK guests this was mainly down to finances, the events being focused on US titles. So, to celebrate this being considered the 101st year of British comics, historian Denis Gifford created his own event to celebrate UK titles as Comics 101.
Guests included staff and freelancers from rival publishers DC Thomson and IPC through to such smaller indies as reprint publisher Alan Class and Marvelman‘s Mick Anglo. Stanley White was honoured as being the UK’s first science fiction artist for his work in Mickey Mouse Weekly (Ian on Mu, 1936) and Garth creator Steve Dowling was almost reduced to tears at the fan response he got when taking to the stage. Like so many other British comics creators he admitted to having had no idea that people cared so much for his work.
An evening dinner included the Ally Sloper Awards (the convention having been timed to coincide with the launch of Gifford’s new Alan Class-published Ally Sloper comic).
Held at the Mount Royal Hotel (right, now one of the Thistle group) in the shadow of London’s Marble Arch, Comics 101 is best remembered by some for a speech made by IPC Magazines’ managing director John Sanders to an audience including many of the country’s leading comics artists of the time. During a Q&A finale to his talk, one question was “Why do you use so many foreign artists in your comics?”.
Possibly meant as an offhand quip, Sanders replied, “Because there aren’t any good British artists!”. This incensed artist John M Burns to such a point that following the talk he gathered together a group of other artists present, including Ron Embleton, Don Lawrence and Frank Hampson, and suggested they and others should all boycott IPC. This never happened, but I remember thinking at the time how ineffectual such a boycott would be as John Sanders had already made it clear he favoured South American, Spanish and Italian artists anyway! But the pub lunch meetings these artists (and a few of we wordsmiths) held to discuss such did have a worthwhile end-product as they evolved into the formation of the Society of Strip Illustration. Initially led by John M Burns as a somewhat elitist invitation-only group, its later chairpersons included Martin Asbury, Arthur Ranson, Vanessa Morgan, David Lloyd and Neil Gaiman.
While the SSI finally dissipated into something of a fan gathering as the somewhat inappropriately-named Comics Creators Guild (having more would-bes than weres), it could be argued it had been a prime mover in the British Invasion of US comics, with American guest speakers at a 1983 meeting, DC Comics editors Dick Giordano and Joe Kubert, signing up our talent wholesale.
KAK: The Konvention of Alternative Komix
1976 was also the year that the Birmingham Arts Lab launched its own convention: KAK – the Konvention of Alternative Komix. Held on July 2-4, it brought together both the remnants of the 1960s underground comix movement and the new wave of alternative artists. Among those present were Chris Welch (of Ogoth and Ugly Boot fame), a young Steve Bell – long before becoming resident political cartoonist for The Guardian, Bryan Talbot – then producing The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, The Cloak‘s Mike Higgs and the event coordinator Hunt Emerson, who produced for the cover art for the 28 page KAK Komix magazine (below, left).
Strictly speaking, it was more of a conference than a convention, with most attendees being artists. So the talks veered towards discussing practical matters such as distribution, finance and the rampant sexism present in comix (which resulted in the males present hard-pressed to defend themselves against the onslaught from cartoonist Suzy Varty and friends!).
In addition to an Ar-Zak Birmingham Arts Lab-produced 20 page comic (above, middle) including work by Hunt Emerson, Bonk, Gilbert Shelton, Steve Bell and Bryan Talbot, an 8-page tabloid souvenir was also produced (above, right), featuring Brian Davis, Tony Benyon, Malcom Poynter, Szostek, Steve Berridge, Ben Hillman, Steve Bell, Mike Feeney, Cary Richardson, David Noon & Suzy Varty.
Not having attended myself, I recently asked Bryan Talbot for his recollections. He said, “I attended the Konvention of Alternative Komix at the Brum Arts Lab with Brainstorm publisher Lee Harris and met there my old mate and underground colleague Hunt Emerson for the first time, not to mention Chris Welch and Suzy Varty.
Bryan continued, “I sold a page of artwork for the first time – a page of Brainstorm one that was part of the exhibition – for £15. It was quite a small event and most of us were stoned all the time, so it’s a bit of a blur! But I do have memories of sleeping on the floor of someone’s flat, along with about a dozen other attendees.
“The following year I attended the second and last KAK in London. It was bigger, with some formal panels and talks, including an embarrassing seminar where all the artists were berated by some hard line feminists.”
Left: Yet another Frank Bellamy visual (another of those he had produced for the 1971 convention auction) finally surfacing as the cover artwork of Rob Barrow and Colin Campbell’s Comicon ’78 booklet (now in colour!).
Right: Newcomers to convention organising, Valhalla Books’ Ian Grey-Starling, Ian Knox and Nev Ferris flew Jim Starlin over for their London convention. At the time this was seen as the “upstart” event to the regular annual comicon, which had by that year relocated to Birmingham’s NEC.
Below left: A somewhat modest little ad for the Rob Barrow-organised Comicon ’77 in Comic Media News #30 appears on the same page as editorial announcing the creation of the Eagle Awards.
Adjacent are the results to the first two years’ worth, covering titles from 1976 and 1977.
On related fronts, Comic Media News – which itself was a successful news-focused spin-off from a short-lived fanzine Comic Media – begat a spin off of its own as editor Rich Burton’s “partner in crime” Nick Landau gave a name to his mail order comics dealing. Not quite as long-winded in name as its parent had been (Comic Media and The Comic Reader UK Edition Newsletter has to be the longest title outside of Marvel UK!), Nick’s new service was given the functional does-what-it-says-on-the-can name of Comic Media Distribution Service.
Following a false start year offering similar wares to most other mail order dealers, CMDS (as it was rapidily abbreviated to) soon focused on air-importing US comics, both for the growing number of specialist comics shops springing up around the UK and direct to fans. It would be a few years before it successfully fought off such colleagues turned competitors as Colin Campbell (below right) and renamed itself Titan Distributors.
Initially, the concept of “advance order imports” (as they soon became known) was seen by comic shops as an attractive add-on to their stock of collectable back issues and a guarantee that customers would visit on a more regular – ideally weekly – basis. Having brand new titles obviously boosted their turnover and offered customers an irresistible sneak peak several months ahead of the regular newsagent supply of US comics, albeit at a premium price. But back in those days when almost every Marvel, DC and even Charlton comic was readily available at stations, airports and local newsagents, once a reader had started on the more expensive advance copies, if he reverted to nationally distributed editions he would have a three-month wait for his next hit. That wasn’t going to happen! But this addiction also had a damaging effect on the bank balance of his supplier, the comics dealer.
Previously shops had paid very little for their stock, bulk buying collections when needed. Invariably manager-owners with back street locations, they kept their overheads low. But as the range of new titles increased they rapidly began to occupy more space and land the previously debt-free owner with ever-increasing monthly bills.
Instead of every retail pound taken being around 80% profit and stock having an eternal shelf life, import titles drew customers away from back issue purchases and the profit shrank to around 30% but, more importantly, the shelf life was reduced to a mere four to eight weeks. As the 1970s drew to a close comic shops were going through a forced evolution as the highly profitable mainstay of their business, back issue sales, was marginalised and owners found themselves struggling to meet ever-increasing monthly bills to pay their supplier for their non-returnable weekly supply of advance order imports.
Ironically, if their guess-work ordering levels were too optimistic, those unsold copies became the shop’s back issue stock, marked down to a fraction of their original cover price to complete with the cheaper news trade distributed copies about to be on sale everywhere. On the other hand, were retailers to be cautious and under-order to sell out quickly, disappointed customers would soon find an alternative regular source of supply – their loyalty being to the product, not the supplier.
Suddenly a love and a knowledge of old comics wasn’t enough, in fact it didn’t even count. Comic shop owners expertise had to lie in understanding cash-flow and predicting new trends if they were to survive.
Fandom, with its annual pilgrimage to a back issue mecca and its Aladdin’s caves of four colour treasure troves, virtually died in its first decade. The commercial face of capitalialism had taken over from the intimacy of fandom. The emphasis on the new and the now drove the old and historical to the brink of extinction.
Several old school diehards resisted investing in new releases beyond X-Men and a few other top sellers. But within a year they conceded as their core market was under attack from another quarter. Their knowledge of back issues values had always been their retailers’ strength, both for buying and selling. But as well as comics, US Price Guides were now being imported in bulk, so suddenly everybody could have the knowledge of an expert. Rapidly disappearing were those days of picking up bargains as sellers often unrealistically insisted on the buying price being a “percentage of price guide”.
Also anybody with a price guide could open a specialist shop, although this led to many disasters. One example of such was London’s large chain of secondhand shops, The Popular Book Exchange.
The bane of many a fan, Popular insisted on stamping their massive diamond-shaped address on covers before any traded-in items went on sale. No amount of pleading made a difference. It could be a near mint Spider-Man #1, you could offer to pay far more than their secondhand selling price, they’d still stamp the cover and then write the knock-down price in thick felt-tip pen. That is, until price guides became accessible. Overnight Popular’s 20 or more branches all became collector shops! They still sold sweat mags and paperbacks, but comics were now elevated and proudly displayed on walls, with their guide values being the asking price. Sometimes a source of merriment for those in the know, you could see on their walls displaying UK editions of Vampirella, Avengers, MAD and the like, all ludicrously overpriced (nobody told them these were merely reprints of the real thing!). However they offered bargains sometimes, US Guides not able to differentiate between UK distributed and non-distributed issues.
Personally I never understood wanting to produce a price guide – why should anybody believe the author’s naturally biased or ill-informed value judgments above anybody else’s? And actually compiling a price guide must be akin to typesetting a telephone directory. But chacun à son goût, as we Yorkshiremen are prone to say! The floodgates had been opened and nothing would ever be the same again.
To be continued…
Next section: IPC/Fleetway