Phill Hall used to be a comics retailer and the News editor for Comics International before launching the PDF comics magazine Borderline – then abandoning comics altogether. But now he is going to look back on it all for Bleeding Cool.
It's difficult enough to tell a linear story about Squonk!! mainly because of its own little metaphoric place in how comics, as a whole, work. We'd got to Jack 3, digressed, then to Mammary Lass and I digressed again; and now we're digressing again before we get back to everything else…
First up of my business partners would be Iain, a double-glazing and stone-cladding salesman from Peterborough and something of a self-made man. He was not rolling in money, but he did have everything he ever wanted, except a comic shop. He slid into my shop one Saturday afternoon shortly after the Head Shop opened upstairs, he wasn't into that kind of thing, but a mutual acquaintance of ours was. She went off upstairs, while Iain just lurked at the back of the shop looking at my old comics.
Iain told me many months later that he felt unsure about approaching me. He hadn't seen me as your typical comic shop owner and I positively oozed confidence, which is something shop owners can sometimes struggle with. Although he was a brilliant salesman and normally unafraid of approaching people, he recognised that I was not the easiest person to talk to about business propositions – basically I'm very much a 'you can't sell me something unless I want it, so don't try' person. So he targeted Monty instead. Iain knew that if he could win Monty over, then he could get at me from two directions. He was clever and I fell for it. Eventually a few weeks later, and enough time for me to have started to notice this little guy in his early 40s, Monty finally broached the subject at the pub the following Friday.
"He wants to buy into the shop."
"Then why isn't he talking to me?"
"Because he hasn't quite figured you out yet."
"He wants to buy the shop or buy into it?"
"Buy into it; he thinks you're one of the most sincere and genuine comics sellers he's ever met." That was true, I never willingly undersold, but I never sold anything to anyone that I wouldn't buy, so therefore I persuaded them to buy something else; sometimes more expensive with a longer run so that person has to buy back issues or ongoing new comics, thus boosting my profits – but they always thanked me! It wasn't that simple, but it was what I normally aimed for – the art of selling comics is to make your customer trust you – this is a marathon relationship, not a short sprint. You, as the retailer, needs repeat custom like MacDonald's needs fat, msg-addicted, half-wit children with no taste buds.
I agreed to talk with him the next weekend. It just happens that at the same time Jack 3 turned up with one of his mates who had a huge comics collection for sale. Iain became my first partner by default really. The seller wanted to sell, I wanted to buy, but had no real cash at my disposal. Iain probably thought he'd struck lucky by his timing. Silly man.
Everything was done within weeks. The legalities were sorted, money changed hands, contracts were drawn up (but never, as I recall, signed) and Iain became the co-owner just over a year after I opened. It should have been a clever move with both of us benefiting.
It was a nightmare.
What had already become something of a chore on a Saturday, now got worse because not only did I have to deal with the nerds and the drongos, I also had to wet nurse Iain and this meant having to do some pretty decisive things. The most prominent being taking Iain to one side and saying quite bluntly, "You've got to stop trying to sell people comics. You're intimidating them and because of this they won't come back." The reason I knew this was because some of the best customers, many not very good at expressing opinions to strangers, now trusted me enough to talk to me. Iain's style of muscling into someone's home and not leaving until they'd signed the dotted line just didn't work with comics, especially when you're dealing with people who struggle to have conversations on a day-to-day basis.
Iain's other big problem was he liked to rip the piss out of customers after they left, but didn't realise what sensitive souls comics fans are, and quite amazingly how loyal they become to each other. We'll touch on this later, but when my customers were inside my shop there were no boundaries – people who wouldn't acknowledge each other in the street would stand and talk for hours about their comics; they became friends inside the microcosm that was the 'Midland Road Community Centre'. When Ian badmouthed a customer another would hear and invariably it would get back to the source and butt of the joke. The nerds and geeks trusted and liked me because for whatever I thought about them I kept it to myself. Iain didn't. I've forever been accused of liking the sound of my own voice; Iain loved the sound of his and, problematically, didn't know how to listen.
Iain had given the business much needed financial stability, but he was actively responsible for a 15% downturn in takings. Some of that I got back, but many good customers never darkened my door again. He wasn't doing it maliciously, he obviously wanted the shop to be as successful as possible, but in his overzealous attitude he neglected to think about who he was trying to sell to. I watched him once and because he was such a driven and decisive man he just could not get his head around the rather obtuse ways of the average comics fan. He just became more and more frustrated as his suggestions fell on deaf ears. I stepped in at the last minute on a number of occasions and saved the customer and prevented Iain from making an arse of himself.
Then things get fuzzy. By the summer of the following year I'd grown to hate Iain with a passion. Not only did he seem to have no idea about anything other than obscure 1950s and 1960s girl's Marvel comics, but also he was beginning to grate on everyone with his stream of racist and sexist jokes. Not only did we have many black and Asian customers, but we'd also managed to attract quite a few women and girls into the shop. Barely any came in on a Saturday and those that did stopped pretty soon after Iain arrived.
Iain got on famously with one of my better customers, the one you'll hear about soon enough called John. They could have been father and son, but while John was quite likeable even for his horrendous points, Iain wasn't. And that was about it. Even Scott who rarely commented about anything other than 'twattish Star Trek' fans was heard to say of Iain, "The man is definitely not right." If you knew Scott you'd realise the gravitas of that statement.
Even with all these new characters being introduced and foisted upon you, I'm going to muddy the waters even more now. The guy who ran the Head Shop is one of my oldest and dearest friends – he was also my drug dealer for a while. For the benefit of this little tale we'll refer to him as The Hippie (but only because he shares the same name as someone else in this story and you'll only get confused).
The Hippie had been selling me my weekly supply of hashish (or grass when it was available) for the previous few years or so. We got on really well, and still do, so much so he is still one of my closest friends. He was a dodgy geezer in those days and he knew far too many dodgier geezers. My first experience of his dodgy mates came when he first approached me to open a Head Shop upstairs from the comics. I was worried because of the kids coming in, but equally the deal he was offering me was too good to turn down. There was one catch; he wanted to bring his mate Tiny in on it. Tiny made Scott seem like a dwarf. He was just shy of 7' tall and looked like a cross between a werewolf and Frankenstein's monster. He was also involved in more things than I really wanted to know about. He organised raves and illegal parties, and was probably the guy who was not only supplying the Hippie with his legal shop gear but probably his illegal drugs.
I reluctantly agreed, but within a month or so I was becoming increasingly worried about what was going on in my building – not the possible sale of drugs, which I can assure you didn't happen, but the fact that the upstairs of the shop seemed to have become an office for every low life and potential felon this side of the Fens. I did not like these lowlifes walking through my shop to get to the stairs to go to the head shop. Nor did I like the way my regular customers looked at them or the way some of my nerds were looked at. Eventually I lost it and in an amazing confrontation in the middle of the Marvel comics section, I told this big fuck-off-of-a-guy to 'fuck off out of my shop' and take his wares with him. I stood up to a man who was almost a foot taller than me and he backed down and went. God I was scared, but I was also really relieved.
The Hippie came back to me a few months later with the same idea. This time he had a new friend with him. A guy with a wooden leg called Brian (I never did find out the name of his good leg). The missing leg had been worth about £150,000 to Brian – he probably could have got more, but he got bored with the waiting and took a settlement. Brian was a scream – he was typical of someone who had been in a near-death situation, life takes on a different meaning for them and for Brian his life was going to be fuelled by Thai prostitutes and enormous amounts of grass and cocaine. I liked Brian; for all his faults, he was a bit of a cool dude (but in a slightly disconcerting way, he was also a bit nerdy, too).
Within a few weeks, Brian was making serious noises about investing into the business, but he had one major problem and hurdle, Iain. By this time our relationship had disintegrated into acrimony, neither Iain nor I were talking to each other. I had grown tired of his less than adult behaviour and the fact that he had the desires of a ten-year-old – if he didn't get what he wanted he'd have a temper tantrum. A perfect example of the man's obstinacy – we were booked to start doing comic marts again, Iain felt that the extra money made with the overstocks would be good for cash flow and I was happy with that; it was a good idea. We did a couple and were booked into the Sheffield comic mart (not even a particularly great money spinner, but Iain liked the mart because some of his mates were there). We hired a van in the relative mild climate of Northants and with the Hippie (driving), and Iain and me in transit (so to speak), we set off for Yorkshire. By the time we reached south Leicester the snow had started, six miles later we ground to a halt – the motorway had been classed as impassable from that point on. We were taken to a break in the barriers, turned around and told to head back to where we came from. Iain couldn't accept we were going to miss the mart, even though it was now gone 10am and we were still a good hour away from Sheffield even with clear roads. We reached the barrier and Iain rolled his window down and spoke to the coppers directing traffic. "How bad is it?" He asked.
"Bad enough for us to turn you round, sir," was the reply.
"Are there any other routes open?"
"If the M1 is closed, sir, I doubt very much anywhere else is going to be passable."
"But…" The policeman cut Iain off.
"Sir, North Leicester constabulary are saying that ordinary streets are blocked by snow, traffic on most roads is chaotic. It is entirely up to you if you want to try and go north, but you're not doing it on this road. Now you're holding the traffic up even more, please move on." My best guess is that the policeman probably did have a father and had seen straight through Iain immediately – a jumped up little man who had to have his own way. Within a mile of the journey back the snow was all but gone and Iain had the Hippie pull in Leicester Forest North services. There we sat and argued for at least another hour about the futility of attempting to drive there not using the motorway and having to go through the Peak District to get into Sheffield the back way, probably an hour after the comic mart was supposed to have started. Ian was still determined to go; finally the Hippie solved the problem.
"You're paying me to drive and I'm not going to drive up there and I don't want to be paid. I'm going home and as the van is in my name you can join me or walk to fucking Sheffield." We were heading back to the shop within 5 minutes. Iain was visibly pissed off. He really wanted to have a go at God – you could see it in his face. Ironically, on our return to the shop in a totally snowless Wellingborough, Monty informed us that the Sheffield mart had been snowed off – this was pre-mobile phone days. Amazingly, this didn't change Iain's mood in the slightest and he stomped about the shop complaining about the weather.
Brian worked out exactly how much money he could invest and we looked seriously at buying Iain out, then someone, Monty I think, spotted that takings had dropped pretty seriously since Iain arrived and standing orders were being left unclaimed. In fact, there were customers we hadn't seen for months who were getting their monthly comics stacking up and not claiming them. I went to my accountant and he worked out that since Iain's arrival the business had lost its value and was in a far unhealthier state then than it had been before Iain's arrival. We also found a legal back door that we didn't realise was there. Ian disappeared over the horizon £10K lighter in the pocket and without anything to show apart from a few sneers and a slightly improved comics collection. I was still pinching myself when Brian came in and invested all that extra cash into saving the business. Brian also introduced something to the proceedings I'd never considered before – we all had to pay for our own comics. This would save some money. Fortunately this happened around the same time as Monty went off to university – he had a huge standing order and hardly ever took any money in actual cash pay.
Instead of being joined by someone I imagined would be stoned every day and would leave me to run it, Brian took a very hands on role in the shop and many of the customers liked him. He didn't try to sell them anything; he chatted, listened and made lots of mental notes – he was the amateur and he wanted to learn all about the shop from the experts – the customers. He had ideas, many of them naïve, but at least he was thinking forwards and sales started to pick up, but it was too little too late.
However, for all Brian's money and input, it was already on the cards that this would be a tough year for the shop, one that it might not recover from. We had a good year though, before it all came crashing around our ears.
This brings me back to Mammary Lass as she was christened in the shop. Luan Jones had been a short-lived girlfriend of The Hippie. When she was 17 she decided she wanted to move away from home and as we were in a bad financial situation it seemed like a good idea for her to move in with us. In reality, it couldn't have been that much different from living at home, but we weren't her parents and she could smoke, drink, shag and not get hassled by us for it.
A week after she moved in she realised that money didn't grow on trees, so we came to an agreement, she could work in the shop and get paid a basic wage minus her board and lodgings and she'd get bonuses depending on how well we did – she didn't do too badly from that set up. She didn't mind the arrangement and despite having no interest in comics at all she was a natural at selling and engaging the customers. They loved her – or maybe they loved her chest because despite her elfin size, Luan had an enormous pair of tits and was never afraid to have a bit of cleavage on show. The fans who spent most of their evenings locked in passionate throws with toilet tissue were transfixed by her – a girl, with tits, talking to THEM! Luan could sell oil to the Arabs as long as they could get a glimpse down the dark and inviting crevasse that was her cleavage. Luan took over the shop, literally, within weeks of starting. I trained her far more in-depth than I ever bothered with Monty, she knew everything from the banking to the books and beyond and I trusted her implicitly. I needed someone to be able to run the shop while I sat down in the cellar, smoking myself stupid on Thai sticks and considering suicide as a viable alternative to running a shop.
Brian was forever out of the country screwing his girlfriend, a Thai prostitute for nine months of the year and Brian's own personal sex slave for the other three, so I had vast quantities of time where I felt alone, isolated and incredibly stoned. Some of the adventures I had would have been great for this book, but I can't remember them. This time was my own personal dead zone – lots happened, just don't expect me to remember any specific details.
I had grown more and more dependent on Dez Skinn for support from a business and personal point of view, and an old friend from the same era, who I had become friendly with again called Mike Conroy was equally important for me to cast an objective view of my failing business. All three of us sat on the inaugural CoBRA committee and Mike was the only retailer left with any future and that would disappear before long. Conroy gave me the emotional support I wasn't getting from home and he was backing me up, giving me hints, tips and plans to try and beat the Official Receiver.
With Christmas looming, my house heavily behind with mortgage payments, creditors' at my door demanding money and the threat of my weekly supply of new comics at risk, I had to do something drastic. I booked some tables at one of the most popular comic mart venues in London, produced a huge banner that read 'Everything Half Price or better!' and put virtually everything we had in the shop up for sale! I then witnessed huge swathes of my finest back issue stock bought up by opportunistic dealers who, ironically, would be in the same boat as me within two years. At the end of the day I had taken well over £2000, of which I handed over £1500 straight away to my distributor and my deliveries were restored by the following week. I probably sold something like 5000 comics that day and could have gone home with everything left in the boot of a small saloon car, but we'd hired a van to come down and that rattled all the way home, but we were happy and solvent again, at least temporarily.
Another of the great things to come out of that day was when the guy who organised these events, Rob Barrow, decided to charge me half price for my tables, which, trust me, was a grand gesture. But it also illustrated how much people liked me; this was before I'd started working for Comics International, I was just this young guy running a shop, who got on well with any one he met. Jesus, how I miss my youth…
Comics Lesson 10:
Comics people really do like each other. They might be in competition, but they all have common enemies therefore they all tend to stick together. Retailers, the ones with their backs furthest against the wall, really do try and help each other out to a point. You'd be hard pressed to see the camaraderie that is exhibited between people in comics anywhere else. It is touching, but considering the prejudices many have faced, it's understandable. They wouldn't piss on each other if they were on fire during the good periods, but imminent closure is probably the only thing that will rally retailers together – it's simple really, other retailers will always benefit from another's misfortune whether they survive or not.
But that doesn't stop them from trying it on with the poor struggling retailer. The day in London when I took £2000, near the end of the day another dealer who had been avoiding me for most of the day came over and started to pull comics out of the 25p box by the handfuls. He then looked at me and said, "What's the best price you'll do these books for?" I looked at him, then at the books, which were all basically £1.00 off retail price already and said, "I think making 5 times the cost on a book is enough profit, don't you?" He looked at me, looked at the comics he'd pulled out, shrugged and put them back, no, he just crammed them back into the box – no respect for the comics or the man selling them. I laughed like a drain when my brother told me the guy had gone out of business a few years later – there was never a more deserving cunt.
Next time: picked up cliffhangers; the extremes of collecting. Don't worry, the bits you want to read about will be here soon enough!