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.
Comics Lesson 11:
How many kinds of comics are there? Generally you have in the USA and UK – children's comics (what we call 'nursery titles', ostensibly these are comics aimed at the under 5s – TV show tie-ins, toys and cute cuddly bears), adolescent comics (which we have to put Superheroes, 2000AD and most of Marvel and DC into), funny comics (these are your Archie titles, Mad, Beano and Viz), Mature readers comics (ones with adults stickers, or content regarded as unsuitable for minors), independent comics and Underground Comix – which I believe is a sub-genre in itself, because underground comix technically include things like small press and independent comics companies that produce comics that are not intended for just anyone. Undergrounds differ from mature readers comics in a number of ways, from the way they are produced – a form of Direct Market, but more like a continual print for demand policy. Undergrounds are regarded as subversive, but I think we place too much importance on labelling comics, when the actual medium has so many existing genres working within it already.
Someone once said, "A comic is a comic is a comic" and essentially that is true.
It doesn't matter if you're reading a Teletubbies comic, perusing the latest Freak Brothers or religiously buying Batman, you are being part of the industry. To try and divide something that arrives on 24-pages of paper into categories is typical of comics fans, (it is the need to catalogue that drives them) but it doesn't matter if you have a comic produced by the 21st Century equivalent of Michelangelo and Charles Dickens, or something done by a moron and his dog – as long as it is saying something, it is a comic and therefore shouldn't be labelled any other way.
Labelling is something that is very difficult to do with 'independent comics' – a huge area of the industry that has continued to grow since the boom years. Strictly speaking an independent comic is one not produced by the two major US publishers – Marvel or DC. These can include any style of comics from slice-of-life to superheroes and through all points in between. Independent comics publishers have their place in this book, but essentially we're talking about the top two and the few pretenders – the market that dominates comics sales – superheroes.
There are other kinds of fans, and one of them was John (see, I hadn't just introduced him and then forgot about him). He was a convert. He came into the shop looking for some Dungeons and Dragons comics he'd heard mention of and within a month was spending 75% of his wages on everything.
The bastard son of an American serviceman and an ever-so-slightly eccentric mother, John lived in the most distinctive house in Wellingborough. It was the only house that looked like it had been built in Elizabethan times and had never been altered, cleaned or painted since! It should probably be worth a small fortune, but it is no longer there. In a recent drive through Wellingborough, it had gone and a block of flats was there instead. However, at the time it summed John up; he was something of an anachronism, despite his relatively tender years.
He didn't really look like a nerd – you see there isn't that many nerds that actually look like nerds. The nerds that look like nerds either don't think of themselves as nerds or actually think they look cool. Comics fans need thick skins and most of them could teach rhinos how to toughen up. John did, however, look like he'd just walked out of 1964. From his haircut to his dress sense you got the impression that perhaps his ever-so-slightly eccentric mother might have waltzed in from the Norman Bates School of Mothering. In fact he sounded like – in annunciation rather than accent – an American redneck; which, considering he had nothing to do with his father was odd.
He ended up being my best customer by a country mile. He wanted everything he needed and he wasn't prepared to wait so he bought everything he wanted! He couldn't understand even the basics of running a retail outlet such as a comic shop and made demands that were unrealistic; from saving complete runs of books (we're talking 50 or 100 comics) but waiting months before actually buying them, to unrealistic expectations – he couldn't understand why he couldn't buy something that had been earmarked – saved – for someone else and often offered over the top money for things he wanted! He was thrown out of Gosh once, a massive London comic shop opposite the British Museum, for offending the staff.
John was a racist, a bigot and something of an intellectual ignoramus. There were many who felt he was a thoroughly dislikeable young man. He was actually much older than he looked, because of his boyish features and his almost white blonde hair he could be easily mistaken for a school leaver, yet the day he ventured into the Midland Road Community Centre (two years after it opened) he was only four years younger than me, 25. Don't get me wrong; he actually seemed quite a nice guy until you started to get to know him. He was one of the bitterest people I knew and often made cheap shots at those less fortunate than himself. Yet amazingly he was really just a small weedy guy – he looked like he would blow away in a gale, yet he could also handle himself. No one fancied starting an argument with the guy because there was that element of doubt in your mind. 'Madness in his eyes' Phil Christian said once, and his parents were quacks, so I believed him.
John didn't really change, but he mellowed. I had a couple of black guys who regularly shopped in the store and liked the same books as John. One day, feeling in an especially mischievous mood, I introduced John to Dwayne (John was so racist he had dropped a comic from his standing order because he discovered the artist, who he really liked, was black – I shit you not).
Dwayne treated the 'community centre' the same as anyone else – no class, no race, and no boundaries. He plunged into a conversation with John who quickly was on the verge of apoplexy, so I decided to make a hasty exit down into the cellar – which had become my den of smoking iniquity – and waited for whoever I'd left in charge to come running downstairs to tell me Dwayne has ripped John's head off and was shitting down his neck. Daring to return ten minutes later, when I still hadn't heard raised voices I found John and Dwayne deeply into a conversation about the actual racial undertones that have been prevalent in the X-Men since it started. John, despite his extreme views, was a huge X-Men fan and, if you think about it, this didn't really sit well with a man who would, to hear him talk, gladly joined in the fun during the holocaust, if you'd given him half the chance to go back in time. I wouldn't say they became friends, but they shared common ground in the shop, which had an anthropological success and that helped make me money. I don't think they could ever have been friends mainly because I don't think John had anything but contempt for Dwayne – as a person; but he did have a grudging respect for the man's comics tastes.
John also differed from a lot of my other customers in that he was a perfectionist. He only bought the comics that were in the best condition, even if that meant spending more on them.
Let me tell you about some of my other customers: Mark and Darren were carpenters, who after leaving school and serving their apprenticeships, decided to go into business. I was looking for a cheap and easy replacement for the cardboard boxes I displayed most of my back issues in and a customer suggested I call this old school mate of his. Mark and Darren turned up one Saturday afternoon, with their highly decorative girlfriends in toe. While Darren and I talked about what I wanted and how much they'd cost me, Mark was going ape-shit over a box of Thor comics. My conversation with Darren was punctuated with statements from Mark such as, "Wow, I used to have that!" and "Shit, is it really worth that much?" I expected them to make a hasty exit when we finished discussing the work needed, as the girls were looking rather worried, especially as some of the less desirable customers had fixed their eyes on the girls' tits and weren't stopping, despite uneasy looks thrown at them. But instead of leaving, Mark was busy pulling out a stack of Thor comics from the cheaper section of the boxes. I was thinking I might have a result here when Darren turned to me and said, "Have you got any Fantastic Four comics?" Is the pope catholic?
These two guys weren't huge collectors; Mark increased his buying habit to about 10 comics a month, while Darren stayed with just the few he enjoyed. The thing was, these were both lads about town, Loaded and FHM readers, with trophy girlfriends, flash cars and modern lifestyles, yet they had no negative thoughts about walking into a comics shop and spending £20 a week. They even made friends of some of the other customers, especially the xenophobic John. These guys had disposable income and didn't see comics as a nerdy way of spending it.
Then there was Paul and Barry. Paul was a forensics expert with the police force and Barry was a former bricklayer turned prison officer (they didn't know each other). Barry walked into my shop the day I opened and bought a lot of Batman comics – he was a Batman fan and had started reading the comics again after the release of the film. He was a practical man, he didn't get caught up in hype, he just bought the main Bat books and maybe, if you told him it was important, he would buy the spin-off or guest appearance. He didn't buy the expensive variant cover editions, nor did he buy any more than 1 copy of anything. He was a collector, but he was essentially a reader and a fan. When he knew I was closing he was honest enough to tell me he'd moved his standing order of Batman comics to the comic shop in Northampton. He probably still buys Batman today and nothing else.
Paul was a Spider-Man fan, who had got hooked on the character with the cartoons in the late 1960s. When he saw a comics shop opening in his hometown he made a beeline for the Spidey boxes. Paul's story is the same as Barry's; two family men, who spent, on average, the same as a couple of pints on a bit of escapism. Any stigma attached to the industry wasn't apparent to him.
Then there was someone like Martin. Martin was high up in the local council; he was an important accountant who had to balance huge budgets, drove a big car and I often saw him around town with his long-standing partner, a very elegant woman. Martin collected comics when he was a kid, but he came from a relatively poor background and always limited his funds. He could easily have bought my entire shop's stock in a few visits, especially after the look on his face after he first walked in, but he was ostensibly an accountant and therefore he always restricted his weekly budget to £200 (and went over that every other week). Martin is the sort of godsend that arrives at independent comics shops with an open invitation to the owner to think about eating properly again. When I shut up shop, Martin stopped collecting comics. He couldn't be arsed to drive the 10 miles to the nearest other shop; my shop was in his hometown and he could walk there. If you're a retailer and he moves to your town – thank me.
I'm a good salesman when I'm selling something I believe in. I can convince people that they can challenge their perceptions and preconceptions. No better example of this happened with Kev, the trendy vicar. Kev was the new man of God in the church where I married my wife, he was the reason I ordered quite a few obscure independent comics and he loathed Marvel Comics. Despite being a devotee of the X-Men, the Hulk and Superman, my favourite comic while I ran the shop was Daredevil, which was being written by the unbelievably talented Ann Nocenti and was drawn by one of Marvel's then up-and-coming talents, John Romita jr. It took themes from some of Frank Miller's run on the book and elements from a story we'll go into in some detail towards the end of this involving the hero called Captain Britain. There was a fifteen issue run of comics that plunged the hero to the depths of despair; having him have existential crises and exploring the 'devil' in his name. It was quite superb and I targeted Kev with this comics run, acting like a pusher and slipping one of the issues into his bag and telling him it was on me. I didn't convert him, but he did buy all the issues of Daredevil that mattered and at a slight premium!
Karen was just 14 when she walked into my shop. Her older brother was a comics fan and a regular visitor to the store and he introduced his younger sister to the delights of the X-Men. Karen spent just about every spare penny of her pocket money for two years on X-Men comics. Occasionally she would have extra money and buy one of the more expensive comics and she'd always ask someone what one was the best. She was a shy girl and wouldn't say boo to a goose, but gradually she came out of herself and would get involved in comics conversations with other customers and was treated as an equal – there were no age restrictions either in the Midland Road Community Centre. After the shop shut down I lost contact with Karen, until one day in 1998 when I received an email out of the blue. She was at university in her final year, and was a fit, healthy, 21 year old female comics fan, who still loved the X-Men. Her boyfriend thought it was funny, but didn't look down on her. No one at her university thought that reading comics was such a bad thing. The amazing thing is she'd be 34 now; I just hope that if she has kids she's introduced them to comics.
And Karen, being a girl, brings us nicely back around to Mammary Lass, to prove to all the people who thought I'd also forgotten about her that I haven't. I talk about Luan Jones in several parts of this, but I never really tell you about her. She was the kind of girl who would show extra cleavage if it brought in money; it was all about the profit, not how you got it with her. As I've stated elsewhere; she developed the mail order side of Squonk; she schmoozed with the customers, bent over in front of important people and yet you just wouldn't argue with her; she'd fuck you over (and not in a good way).
The name Mammary Lass was a sort of homage to a DC series called Legion of Superheroes, which even today tends to be associated with gay comics fans. Members of LoSH tended to be synonymous with their names – Triplicate Boy, Invisible Kid, Colossal Boy, Lightning Lad, etc. Which is how Mammary Lass was born! She had big tits, wasn't afraid to thrust them in some discerning fanboy's face and was Christened so…
If there's anything else important about Mammary Lass, I'm sure we'll cover it.
Now, I think we've stopped digressing and wandering off into different directions. I think…
Next time: it's all about Rick. It's comic comic relief week!