When I began writing a regularish column detailing comic industry rumours online over twenty years ago, it was noted that the same stories stories seemed to appear in British trade magazine Comics International. After a couple of phone calls, it was made official, my columns would be excerpted for the magazine for a column called Networks, and one Phill Hall was my editor.
He left Comics International a few years later, in an explosion of fury. He set up online PDF comics magazine Borderline which eventually closed after a business deal went south.
He's popped his head up and down in comics every now and then, and recently we serialised his memoir about being a comics retailer, until it moved onto areas the Bleeding Cool legal experts were uncomfortable with. Since then, I was made aware of other online adventures of his. We'll get to that.
He is now returning to comics, having set himself up as a comics publisher, Borderline PRess, with a bunch of new projects on display at Thought Bubble in a week and a bit.
He asked if we could have a chat.
Phill, every few years you seem to say goodbye to comics forever and seem to burn your bridges just so that you won't be tempted to come back. Then you come back again. What's going on?
It's like an addiction, isn't it? Or to quote an oft used saying – never say never again.
But, let's be honest about this Rich; burn my bridges? I have bi-annually pissed off a bunch of people since 2005, but half of that has been by doing what I used to do and what you hope to do every week – by exposing idiots where and when necessary. If you want to analyse it (and frankly, me and you seem to be two of the few people left around who like talking about me), when Borderline Magazine packed up I'd already burned a lot of bridges that I didn't necessarily need to rebuild and despite my propensity for being highly entertaining when I go on the defensive, I think the thing that pissed people off the most ten years ago was that i was being a bit too honest for some of them.
Then, yes, I think I spent three of four years attempting to fuck off as many people as I could and I genuinely think the intention was to give myself 'no way back', but for every Gail Simone I hacked off, two more people thought I was a breath of fresh air – I mean, I wrote a column for a comics website for two years and less than 10% of them were about comics and 90% of those that were had me telling you all what a sad bunch of wankers you were/are. Plus, and you've known me long enough, I'm not exactly a wallflower and I do know stuff – I've been around since the 1970s.
The other thing, the thing that was really touching and made me slightly less ambivalent about being an angry middle-aged man, was when I started to talk about Borderline Press to professionals, every bit of feedback was about my professionalism, my eye for details, my successes with Movers, at CI, with Borderline. It's like if people were aware of any tantrums I might have had or any controversy I got mired in, then it didn't matter because I was doing something i could be trusted with again.
Well, as for "hacking off" Gail Simone, which you most certainly did, may I quote;
"Oh, my apologies Blah. You're a woman… still doesn't stop me wanting to slap you about – stupid bitches need a good slap every so often. You want misogyny, I've got bags full of it, especially to people like you. I'm betting you are lesbian with a penchant for black, piercings and dodgy haircuts…
There is a fucking definite case for the return of fascism, especially if it means that utter wastes of space like you and Gail will be locked up in some big penitentiary with a lot of male rapists – that'll actually really give you something to bleat about. "
from a far longer message board thread – and hardly an isolated example. Do you think you can walk back into comics without addressing that kind of thing and not just dismissing it?
If I or anyone else, apart from you or possibly Gail, who probably forgot about this six minutes after it happened, is the remotest bit interested in what, if you read it in context, was a kind of histrionic reply to a histrionic reply. Perhaps the subtlety of what I was trying to convey was lost, but several people decided to gang up on one of the Village's writers, because he seemed to agree with Dave Sim's politics; I can't remember; all I remember is thinking how ironic it was that the guy who'd written the column had been subjected to buckets of vitriol from people for having an opinion – whether that opinion was right or wrong, it was his and he was entitled to it.
However, perhaps the irony was lost because comics fans tend to be humourless at the best of times. What I do find amusing is that you find this worthy of bringing up in this context. It has nothing to do with the work or the books I'm planning on bringing out. Borderline Press isn't about me and it isn't about some of the stupid things I've said in the past… Christ if that's the case no one would have bought Comics International when it came out because it was being produced by a monster; but people did and still do choose to remember Dez Skinn for all the positive things he did for comics. I might have called a lot of people cunts who didn't deserve it, but I also feel as though I've given a lot of good things to comics, in an understated way, and Borderline Press should be judged on how good it is rather than whether or not I'm sorry for being a twat 8 years ago. :)
But do you feel that some of your public statements in the past might cause you problems as a publisher entering into the market? Are the creators whose work you are publishing all aware of baggage you might be bringing with you?
Well, if we believed our own hype then of course they're aware of them; but I think I've already answered this; I think my past is/was a storm in a very mundane and uninteresting teacup. If people want to know, you know, really know about me, they can read it in my book. I don't think who you are or what you've done stops you from being good at something or doing other things for genuine reasons. Most of my controversies on-line have been swearing at people and using the word 'cunt' a lot – not particularly my proudest moments, but hey… In print, I'm proud of all of them, because they were in print. I don't think I have any baggage, my laundry, for good or bad, is there to look at if you want and the bottom line is if someone you hated gave you something you absolutely adored, would you cut off your own nose to spite your own face? If what I bring is out impresses people that's all that matters. If people think, 'oh shit Phil Hall's making money from this I won't buy it,' then I thank you on behalf of the creators who I'm trying to do a good deal for.
The other thing is the majority of my public statements have probably been accurate.
Goodness. Okay, well, let's look at the work. You've talked in the past about writing your own work. Here you seem to be concentrating, again, on other people's work. Publishing rather than reviewing or reporting it, or even just giving it more exposure. Why the move, and what responsibilities do you feel as a result of that?
Play to your strengths; I'm a damned sight better with other people's work than I am with my own, although I think I improve every year as a writer and possibly, before I die, I might finish something good.
Plus there is ego involved here, possibly even superego. Borderline Magazine's strength; it's big BIG strength was the fact that the alumni of contributors and people given coverage is bloody impressive and that was down to me. The ten years away from comics I spent working with young people – criminals, the disenfranchised, the beginning of a forgotten generation and trust me, getting these guys motivated or interested in doing something is a tough job, but I could do it using the same enthusiasm, drive and motivational skills I employed at Borderline – the kind that produced fantastic award-winning articles and got a whole bunch of talented people writing to deadline every month for 2 years without earning a penny. I achieved all of this by being a good editor; by nurturing and developing people, as opposed to the way I'd been trained.
The fact that CI came out every four weeks for the duration of my 10+ years there; the fact that Borderline did the same, looked good and read well and even a really successful project I did three years ago that got young offenders working with pensioners, no one really knew I was responsible for these things – and perversely I sort of get more of a kick out of being the guy who makes things tick more than the guy who wants to stand up and shout – Hey! Look at me! Over here! Don't get me wrong; I have an ego and one day I want to be remembered for some shit and why not publishing good books, but it was never my intention to have my name on 566 Frames and I didn't intend to have my name associated with Zombre, but unfortunately I work with charlatans and poltroons. Dennis refused to have me publish my first book without an acknowledgement and I did edit it and Will thanked me in his editorial for giving him the opportunity to do it; so hopefully I can get my name off of them soon enough…
Seriously Rich, if this was about me don't you think I would have reminded you about this interview a lot more than the two/three times I did?
Plus there's the other reason; the one you want from me. I want to be the publisher because despite being a good editor I don't want to deal with comics people on a creative level any more. There are lots of reasons for this, but none of them are conducive to me having a successful business :)
So you are… learning to hide your real feelings?
Not at all. Most comic creators are precious ickle Gollums and most of them are self-effacing enough to realise this. The thing is I spent 12 years working with the homeless, the disenfranchised, the people who started with nothing and then had more shit taken from them; when you deal with the real world on a daily basis and then discover that Artist A doesn't know how to use a ruler and seems to think some insignificant pointless piece of information is more important than, I dunno, poachers skinning orang utans alive in Borneo, or the police arresting philanthropists in the USA for giving food to the homeless, or what our current coalition is doing to the disabled, you need to put some perspective on it.
But you see the creators are not the punters and frankly I could upset 100 creators a year and there'd still be 1000 standing around to take their place. As an ex-retailer, as an ex-journo and essentially an ex-comics person, my concern is to produce a product that I think the comic fans are going to like. When I had my shop I wanted product that sold, not product that made my shelves look pretty. As a journalist, I didn't really give a shit whether Cable was in that week's X-Force, but I did care if it meant Fred Smith and his comic shop was going to survive, because the retailer gets fuck all support from publishers and has the piss taken out of them by the punter. Well, do something that pleases the punter and the retailer should be a happy bunny. If I sell out then the creator makes money and so do I. It's a simple economic idea; I don't expect to become rich from this, but I do expect at some point in the future for the creators to look at a cheque or bank transfer and go, 'Blimey; he said it and he delivered.'
The bottom line Rich is simple; I might be Mr knee-jerk and I might say stupid, embarrassing things – but I'm honest, I've never bullshitted people and I've always delivered. If people want to put me in the way of their entertainment, like I said earlier, that's fine but it's not me who will suffer; it's the great creators who are placing their trust in me because they know I'm a professional in business. Plus, if people say, I'm not buying that because it's Phil Hall then how bloody sad is that?
Everyone likes a good Alan Moore story and this is an old one but a good one. I was sitting in the pub talking to Alan back in the 1990s, I asked Alan why he'd put a stop on Marvel reprinting his Captain Britain stories and he went into one about how Marvel had fucked him over here, there and everywhere and I said, 'yeah, but what about Alan [Davis] and Dave [Thorpe]; are they pissed off with Marvel the way you are? Are they behind you 100%, even if Dave hasn't worked in comics since and, you know, the royalties he could get from that might sort him out.' Watching the penny drop was quite a sight and, of course, the rest is history.
What kind of work is important for you to publish? Is it just individual taste or do you feel you have a point to make with the projects you take on?
Self-confessed comics hating misanthrope returns to arena to publish books that float his boat… The Adventures of the Beer Drinking Mycologist doesn't strike me as the kind of thing anyone apart from me would enjoy and I'd probably be really critical and scathing of it for not having done its homework.
I mentioned Movers and Shakers? Well, if you strip out the stuff you based your comics career on ;p what was left was essentially a marketing column, which led to me actually writing most of the analytical and marketing stuff for CI. There is an irony there in that I am not a mathematician, in fact I struggle with complicated maths and I marvel at peoples' skill at Microsoft Excel, yet I'd basically analyse the industry from an economic as well as existential point of view every month. The point I'm trying to make is I've always been pretty good at spotting a good thing. When I did Movers, my tips were pretty much on the button and that could be construed as a kind of dry run for what I'm doing now.
But, that is also bullshit. I have my team. I am nothing without my team. The reason we get stuff done is because if I was on my own it wouldn't happen, but equally I'm not a lazy delegator, my team will tell you that for everything I ask them to do, I do three other things. I had a massive team with Borderline Magazine, but with Borderline Press it's been a little different – there are some similarities though. Martin Shipp is still on the team, except this time round he's doing the Danny Black job of being the PR guru. Danny Black is back doing what he does best and surfing the internet in an attempt to convert the masses and Dennis Wojda is also acting as my Eastern European A&R man and has already pointed me in the direction of releases 3 and 4.
Then there's my right hand man Will Vigar. Bags of experience at all manner of stuff but not this kind of thing and a bit agoraphobic unless there's a Costa close by. Will has kind of fallen into Borderline Press and it was all mainly down to me. He wasn't part of the Borderline Magazine team, we knew him, but he was involved in his own thing, so this time around I included him in the round-robin type emails and eventually he came to me and said, 'you should do a zombie anthology, show the world that you can do commercial as well as esoteric European works of genius' or words to that effect and, to be honest, all I could think was 'why the hell not?'
That also ties back in one your previous question about working with others again and why I want to be the publisher rather than the editor-in-chief. Will and I went through hell during the deadline period for Zombre and most of that hell was caused by me being a precious twat and because Facebook has this effective chat mechanism which allowed me to be in almost constant communication with Will during the entire process – fucked if I'm doing that again. That's why 'editor-in-chief' has been replaced with 'publisher' now. Will knows that the first I want to really know about Beasts is when he sends me the finished art pages as 600dpi jpegs.
That said, I do have a massive say in what we're going to publish, but that's more to do with what I won't pay for rather than what I'd like to. The next two projects are both Swedish – that wasn't intentional, it was down to both of them existing already, being available and impressing me and the team. We're doing one almost identical to the original, while the other is getting a hard cover and I hope it will be an unusual, unique, bit of graphic novelisation that will also be able to retail at a price that isn't off putting, plus it's like Beryl Cook on acid.
You're exhibiting at Thought Bubble in a week and a bit. How do you think Thought Bubble compares to other shows, and why was it the one you picked to debut all this work?
Honestly? We're doing TB because it coincides with us having two books for sale and it's big for small press and independents and we're not doing spandex. The only other conventions I've been to since Lodz in 2003 were Caption this year which is essentially a shed with nice people in attendance and NICE and I sat in the coffee bar, used their wifi and caught up with my emails while waiting for friends and possibles to shuffle past.
I have no idea what to expect from comics conventions any longer. I expect my biggest concerns will be whether or not I can get decent vegetarian food in Leeds and if I can find a pub that sells decent real ale. I also figure it's important that we do some of these big shows; sell and talk to people directly – let them make up their own minds about my sincerity. I have said from the outset, I'm not doing this for altruistic reasons, I want to make money, not just for me but for the creator we have faith in. The team felt Dennis's book was sublime and beautiful – the kind of thing Borderline Press should be associated with. 566 Frames is a book people will fall in love with if they give it a chance.
We're also going to Si Spencer's SWALC thing a week later – Si is one of the contributors in Zombre and he's been really supportive to the new cause. He's just one of many people who are looking at the big picture – a new publishing company that is trying to do for UK creators that few of them often see – a good deal, while using the cream of European graphic novels to educate, entertain and establish ourselves.
Phill Hall will be exhibiting at Thought Bubble in Leeds in a week and a half. The website for Borderline Press is here. You may begin preparing your placards… now.