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.
There were others who helped me out over the three and a bit years Squonk!! was open, but these mainly played walk-on roles in this soap opera. That was apart from Phil Christian, someone else who wandered in off the street and never went away. Phil was another monstrous human, but unlike Scott who was now in his 20s, Phil was only just 16 and still at school. He was from Sri Lanka, yet had the look and the build of an Aborigine sumo wrestler. Phil had this thing for The Punisher, a vigilante with a big gun and a bigger attitude – a sort of Clint Eastwood on Angel Dust with Charles Bronson's Death Wish thrown in for good measure. He modelled himself on The Punisher and to be honest I wasn't about to find out if he could do a good impersonation. His parents were both psychiatrists and he attended the local private school despite admitting he was as thick as shit.
Phil wasn't so much a helper as a bouncer. We held a number of private parties on the upper floors over the years and we often employed Phil to stand at the door and only allow invited people in. He even turned up regularly wearing a suit and dickey bow, just to add to the illusion. Like Scott, Phil was just a big softy at heart – both of them were terrified of me and that just didn't seem right, nor made a lot of sense.
Phil had disappeared off the shop radar by the time I finally called it a day and phoned all my creditors up and said, 'come and get me', comics retail had lost its shine and its appeal, and I'd lost somewhere in the region of £40,000. I took the decision on the second Saturday I hadn't received my new comics delivery. I owed my distributor over £5000 and they had stopped my spiralling credit. It was something of a no win scenario for them, if they had continued to supply me, I could have started to pay them and kept the business afloat, but even now, years later I'm kidding myself. I owed far too many other people money to be able to honestly commit myself to some form of repayment plan.
Brian took it well, he hadn't lost that much money and he thought it had been a great hoot and he realised that while I might have seemingly shafted my first partner, I hadn't with him. In the shop the day it finally closed down were Luan, The Hippie, J3 and some of his mates, John (who I promise we'll get to) and some other faeces in the crowd. It was a sombre affair. I was gutted. But I would have preferred to have stayed gutted, because at about 1pm the most unexpected visitor turned up – Dez Skinn had driven up from Finchley for my last day, or, what actually happened was on my last day in my shop, he came up and took over my day, he monopolised me and my customers and prevented me from giving the shop the last rites – don't get me wrong, it was great of him (at the time) to come up, but he loves his ego being massaged so much he couldn't even leave me to my final day without stealing my thunder. But by 6pm it was all over – Dez went home and I locked the door of Squonk!! for the last time as a going concern.
In a way, I was relieved.
The dream had become a nightmare and now I could wake up.
And we're back in the room! I was talking about Jack 3.
There's a sort of generic nerd/fan and J3 could be classed as one of those guys – although nowhere near as bad as some. J3, as well as living a relatively normal life, also was a collector with ambition, some writing talent and an insatiable appetite for buying comics. J3 was the customer who immersed himself in all aspects of comics, from reading them to trying to write his own; he embraced the modern fandom culture and the kind of fan straddles lots of different types of mediums – film, books, TV, fantasy, and the paraphernalia surrounding everything. In many ways, J3's type of fan is the one that attracts the most attention outside of the freak show normally associated with hardcore comic fans. Some fans, not just of comics but also anything else that attracts collectors, aren't just part of the scene, they need to be in it completely. This was and to some extent still is Jack [And still is in 2011].
J3's story is simple; as a customer he was great; he became a friend who I'm still good friends with now; he is still the same person, but economics have tempered his enthusiasm. However, the type of fan category he falls into is worth touching on, because the total experience fan isn't the same throughout the medium. I suppose I could have said all that 30 pages ago, but the kind of fan Jack was, could be identified as the archetypal comics aficionado and no study of comics can be complete without really looking at the geek – uncovered.
They're the full set merchants, dedicated followers of specific writers and artists, the person who will buy all the comics, then will buy the collected edition and then the hardback, autographed edition and end up with the same story three or four times but still treasures and reads them all (when there's time). This is the fan who will travel anywhere to look through a new (to him) shop's stock.
There are those fans who WILL NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES SELL THEIR COMICS! (There are a lot of those about).
They're hypothesisers – fans who constantly try to second-guess where writers are going. These are the kind of fan who, if they can't second-guess, will analyse everything in the story, trying to see hidden clues and messages (that in most cases aren't there). Exposing their anally-retentive plumage for the world to see.
This type of fan is also a little bit precious and this leads to problems, especially when someone (artist or writer) they like or respect is criticised. These fans tend to be unbelievably knowledgeable, specifically about stories, artists, specific issues and when things of importance (or no importance) happened, and their specialities are normally the areas they collect with the most enthusiasm. However for every issue of Sandman a fan can recite to you almost verbatim, they are also unbelievably ignorant about the industry.
J3 once epitomised everything that is contrary about comics fans – his ignorant belief that comics was not the seething hot bed of shit I always claimed it was. His blissful ignorance that 'normal' people viewed comics and their fans as normal was almost sweet. He loved comics so therefore comics could really do him no harm. God, I wish I had that optimism about it, then and now.
The point is that the total experience fans ultimately hold no ill-feeling or malice towards the publishers, the distributor, the shop owner or the fellow fan – they are altruists. they don't want to believe the corporate bullshit they read in comics magazines or on the Internet or, in J3's case, what he once heard from my cynical gob. J3 and many like him don't like seeing anyone behaving negatively towards comics or the fans, in their opinions, it is counter-productive; it is negativity for the sake of it and, apparently, there's enough negativity already. These fans place creators like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and a host of others on pedestals and like Gods, they will not have anything negative said about them (unless it's being said by someone else they hold even higher in regard). Praise them, don't criticise or make mortal.
J3, to his credit, is one of those guys who's happy to organise 'fan meets' or if he can't organise them, he'll be there, showing solidarity and being with kindred spirits. He's also the sort of guy you need popping into your shop twice a month because he will boost your day's takings. He isn't a political animal and therefore he really represents the majority of all comics fans – whether they're nerds or accountants who keep their lights under bushels. J3 was just slightly more extreme in his obsession. But he didn't dress up as superheroes at conventions… Had he done that we wouldn't be sharing a curry now.
Some fans, especially all of the Jacks I've mentioned, are a bit weird – they need to know what is going on and how it will affect their hobby (and then they log it away for future uses). They are information vampires and want to know what is going to happen rather than read about it as a new experience. The Internet was the most amazing thing ever invented because it not only fed them all the information about their favourite things before the magazines could – but it also allowed like-minded people to exchange info, swap gossip, speculate, chat and generally be very 'sad' about their hobby, but it also allowed them to build a better community – the first truly interactive comics fandom.
The Internet began to produce the comics super-nerd. Hell, even in the good old days of the 1970s there were geeks at comics marts, and in those days they had to venture out of the house to get what they wanted. By the 1990s when mail order had really organised itself and the Internet came along, many comics fans could be totally active in comics yet never leave the chair in front of the computer. Anyone who spent time on message boards in the 1990s, not just comics, but music, TV or politics, will recognise the kind of person I'm alluding to. The person with an answer for everything and who seems to post 22 hours a day, sometimes more.
There is a kind of fan who should have a life and every so often might find one, but then reverts back to type. If he's lucky he'll find someone who can put up with being an Internet widow as well as a comics wife. I've known people who all fit into the above categories – the categories that probably sum up most kinds of collectors in whatever collecting field you're in – and the only real feeling I get, and I know this because I've been there, is selfishness. Comics fans or collectors probably the world over are selfish people and ultimately only care about themselves. They aren't particularly bitter and twisted people, they just want what they want and will get it.
In the 90s, when Jack 3 wasn't reading his comics, surfing the net, or watching his TV programs, he was writing his own stories, planning his own series and generally working constantly to come up with the idea that will give him his big break. You would be surprised at the number of people who aspire to the same thing as him, throughout comics. They might not brag about it, but if they believe in themselves, they'll try somewhere. If Jack 3 isn't writing comics, he's writing stories, he's writing articles for fan's magazines, or as has been the case in recent years, he's been busy starting his own small independent publishing company and getting involved in the fan scene.
For many fans, it's about acceptance and it's about becoming important through whatever means possible – if you can't do it through sheer talent, then do it through hard work and tenacity or if that fails then suck up, be sycophantic, schmooze or creep – flattery (and buying their targets lots of alcohol) normally helps.
Some fans will continually advise you that you should be reading what they are reading. Comics fans think if they get a real kick out of a comic then others should to. It doesn't occur to them that other fans are not necessarily into the same things as them. It's easy to use 'a matter of taste' as an argument when someone doesn't like something you recommend, but with some people it isn't taken at all well. Comic fans shouldn't be allowed to review comics, unless it's something they have never read. Comics are just too damned personal for them to be objective. J3 wasn't a reviewer; he'll admit it's something he really couldn't do well. But many end up reviewing comics for magazines, website or their own blogs and invariably they review the books they buy, because you're not going to buy a comic you don't read just to review it, are you?
[An aside: I didn't mention this earlier, but no one who writes reviews are ever likely to receive free copies of Marvel or DC comics to review. Aside from the time element – by the time a comic is reviewed it's past its sell by date – publishers are happy to supply creators on their payroll with every thing they publish, but if you're a reviewer for a reputable magazine or website – go and buy it sucker, you're not getting anything for nothing from the majors. Fantagraphics and publishers of their ilk, ie; specialist independent publishers do send review copies, but that is because their product is designed for a long shelf life and is not hindered by the laws of spandex.]
Devoted fans can also suffer from Spoilerism – a condition that would involve them telling you everything you don't want to hear about a comic (or TV program), despite telling him quite loudly and into their face that you do not want your own enjoyment spoiled by them. Some fans get a real charge from knowing what is going to happen next in their favourite comics and TV series, it doesn't spoil it for them like it might for many others, it enhances enjoyment. One of my non-comics friends suggested that it has something to do with control and power. Information is power and if you know something that someone else doesn't, you have the upper hand on them. I have met far too many fans who have deliberately spoiled endings or important parts of a TV series or a film because while they claim what they are going to tell you won't spoil it; it always does!
Collecting is related in a small way to autism. Most collectors are men; that might sound like a sexist statement, but it is true. Like rock music, the predominant majority have penises. It is also a form of tribalism; as Squonk showed, comics are actually great levellers, the problem is it has to happen between comics fans. We touch on this with John, but the point is comics is a brotherhood, that unlike the Masons, welcomes women into the fold because it gives them something to look at. I'm sure there are as many women in comics who view it as just a job rather than tingle with excitement because they're working in comics!
This universal respect that fans have for each other – it's like the nerds know they're nerds but don't give a fuck – is actually very positive. Comics have always performed a form of social unification, probably because class has never been an issue in comics. They all share a common bond, a love for the medium, and therefore many of us will put up with each others eccentricities.
The archetypal nerd isn't the kind of person you'd want sitting opposite Jeremy Paxman because he would lose sight of the big picture and get rooted in minutiae. It is difficult to discuss comics without getting someone confused, as many of you will probably attest to by now (See? There is a pattern to this, it's not just slapdash for the sake of it, it has to be told in a way that perfectly encapsulates comics). Minutiae is an important thing for nerds, because it gives them depth to their meaning. It might not work for anyone else, but hey, you might get pleasure from picking your toenails in the bath and making models of the Titanic with the clippings! Chacun à son goût.
A radio interview I did recently could easily have been five times longer and still I wouldn't have been close to even scratching the surface of this labyrinthine industry. It is probably because it is all inextricably linked – you can't talk about one area of the industry without having to discuss another part that helps make sense of the first part. But, that is what a lot of what this is about – the fact that it is actually difficult to discuss one aspect of this industry without another part barging in and to best understand why it works the way it works you need to enter the labyrinth. This is probably another good reason why the press don't treat comics in the same way as other arts. The entire set up of comics' industries all over the world is simple compared to the existing one in the UK and USA. No one changed anything in comics, they just bolted on bits here and there and now it is a lumbering beast, a bloated near-corpse that has become mired in an almost impenetrably confusing shell.
Comics are fucked up. There is nothing about comics that is simple to understand or explain. It is not just a can of worms, it's an entire dustbin full of not just earthworms, but every other species of worm you can imagine. Even I'm confused and I'm writing this…
Next time: John – the good, the bad and the awful.