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Saturday, October 27, 2007

A brief history of indexing comics

As this is the 500th post on Bear Alley I thought I'd take another look back at two of my favourite subjects: comics and me. All writers write about themselves eventually because all writers need to have a certain amount of ego in their makeup. How else would they have the confidence to believe that tens, or hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people want to read what they, the writer, has written?

(A quick guide to writers: (a) the novice writer says, "I wrote that!"; (b) the professional writer, having sweated blood to hit a deadline says, "I wrote that!"; and (c) the hack, having cashed his cheque, says, "I wrote that?!?" I like to think I'm still in the 'b' class of writers.)

Long, long ago in a town not too far away (Chelmsford, to be precise), I lived in a flat above a shop. It wasn't luxurious by any stretch of the imagination and I had everything crammed into one room, but it was close to the town centre and about thirty yards from my favourite pub. And dirt cheap because three of us shared what should have been a two person flat. I moved in around the summer of 1986 when I was working for a frozen food firm, Booker-Belmont, which was now within reasonable cycling distance.

The cycling came to a sudden and abrupt end when I was knocked off the bike by a careless driver who wasn't even curious enough about my health to stop and ask if I was OK. I managed to get home before the terrifying thought that I might have just been killed hit me. The bike, however, wasn't... I was halfway into work the next day when I realised that spokes were falling out of the wheel. As it was an old bike of no great value we gave it the bike equivalent of a Viking funeral and put it through an industrial crusher. With all due ceremony, of course.

Anyway, back to the plot. I'd already written a few articles about comics by then, mostly for Denis Gifford's Association of Comics Enthusiasts (ACE) Newsletter, Comic Cuts, whose name I've occasionally appropriated for running news here at Bear Alley. One piece, about Gerald Swan (who churned out comics during and just after the Second World War), elicited the response from Denis that contributors could, if they wanted, have a free advert in Comic Cuts. So I put in a little box ad asking anyone who was interested in the old picture libraries to get in touch as I was thinking of compiling a list. The advert appeared, I think, in January 1984.

I got just one response -- namely a guy called John Allen-Clark who phoned up while I was on holiday in Holland (and that, believe me, is a whole other story which, oddly enough, also involves cycling... and hospitalisation). John and I are still the best of comics collecting pals and I still remember with immense happiness spending many Sundays rummaging through his collection of comics at his home in Maldon.

And that's where the serious business of indexing comics really started. John had a far greater collection than I did and I was able to find strips by artists I liked in many different comics. And I wanted to keep track of where I was finding them, so inevitably lists started to grow from these visits.

The only article I wrote while I was working at Booker-Belmont was a listing for Starblazer which was the subject of my last bit of reminiscing back in August (Starblazer Memories part 1, part 2, part 3). On April 1, 1987, I quit -- it was a bloody awful job working long hours in an unheated warehouse. The only advantage was that we used to work such long hours there wasn't any time to spend our earnings and, living in such a very cheap flat, I actually managed to put some money in the bank. So instead of looking for another job, I knuckled down to organising the information I'd been compiling.

Out of the blue in late 1987 I received a letter from a guy called Gary Armitage. Gary was a fellow member of the ACE and was also interested in lists. He enclosed one with his letter. I think it was a list of stories that had appeared in Lion and various annuals and holiday specials featuring The Spider. I wrote back and included a list of stories featuring The Steel Claw.

From those two little acorns grew the indexing project that has kept me busy on and off for the last twenty years. Gary sent me a listing of all the characters that had appeared in Lion as a follow-up. Not to be outdone, I gritted my teeth and spent the next few weeks indexing Valiant. Gary put together most of the information for an index to the Power comics published by Odhams. I think I then tried an index to TV Century 21 and its various spin-off titles (I'm not 100% sure, but listings of the latter titles appeared in Comic Cuts in 1988).

Gary was eventually forced to drop out, the real world and real work getting in the way of a fine hobby, and I was also by then working full-time at R.H.P. But Hoffmans (as it was still known as rather than the fuller Ransom, Hoffman & Pollard) was only around the corner and I was only doing the occasional bit of overtime, leaving lots of free time to contact other fans of British comics and badger them into providing information for other lists.

David Ashford threw in his lot with this mad scheme, as did John Barber, Chris Street, Colin Rudge and my collecting pal John Allen-Clark. The first fruits of all this activity were various lists for Comic Cuts in 1990. During this period I also had my one and only fling at writing comic strips for Starblazer (for details see the 'Starblazer Memories' articles linked above) and was made redundant. In September 1989 I started working for Southwark-based City Sports which put a crimp in my writing career but still left me with evenings free... and by now I had a computer. In October 1990 I was made redundant (again!).

In December I produced The Mike Western Story and sent a copy to Bryon Whitworth who was the editor and publisher of The Illustrated Comics Journal, a fanzine about British comics that I was just starting to contribute to. I mentioned the various indexes that the collective group of fans were working on and Bryon expressed an interest in publishing them. We received a nod of approval from Fleetway to use illustrations and set to work on the first book.

Around March of 1991 we had a proof copy for the first volume of Thriller Picture Library: An Illustrated Guide which, looking back on it now, is a bit of an embarrassment. Although we included every single cover, they were black and white and poorly shrunk down photocopies which didn't come out very well at all. I'm rather more pleased with the introduction (written by David Ashford) which I laid out myself. Ali Cottee, who was one of my flat-mates, did the cover illustration based on a James McConnell cover and we hand-lettered the cover and title page (which you can see at the top of the column). At the time, Ali was working for the company who did model work for Thomas and Friends TV series (famously narrated by Ringo Starr); she was a damn fine painter and sculptor, too. The photocopying doesn't do the original (long lost, I'm afraid) any justice. She also did the second cover (based on a McConnell Robin Hood) and I did the third, which was based on a blown-up cover image from one of the John Steel stories.

The first volume came out in April 1991, the second and third in October 1991 and January 1992 respectively. A month later, Bryon put out a single volume edition.

Later, Bryon bought himself a colour photocopier and put out new copies of the Thriller index with a colour dustjacket (hand-coloured by Bryon himself).

In February 1992, Bryon published the 2-volume Fleetway Companion which combined a number of complete and incomplete listings for titles that had come out in the 1960s, '70s and '80s; again, he put this out as a single volume almost immediately with additional material (War Libraries) which I'd intended to be the third volume. But Bryon, hand producing indexes to order, liked the bigger volumes for some reason. The Fleetway Companion ran to a massive 385 pages and I think it was the best-seller of all the indexes we did.

The Comet Collectors Guide and The Sun Collectors Guide followed in March and August 1992, along with Super Detective Library: An Index, also in August, all written in collaboration with David Ashford. The Power Pack (covering Wham!, Smash!, Pow, Fantastic and Terrific) was published in March 1993, Cowboy Comics Library (with David Ashford) in May 1993, Valiant: The Complete Index in December 1994, The Complete Lion Index in June 1995, The Buster Index (compiled with Ray Moore, despite the d/j giving me a solo credit, and with an introduction by Lew Stringer) in February 1996 and Knockout Comics: An Illustrated Guide (with David Ashford and John Allen-Clark) in December 1997.

The last of these, the Knockout, was in a new A4 size (all the others had been A5). We also did a 2nd edition of the Super Detective Library in the new format with all 188 covers reproduced, postage stamp-sized, in colour.

Bryon retired to France a couple of years later and gave up producing the indexes and the Illustrated Comics Journal. The latter was taken over by David Mirfin, although only one further issue appeared. The proposed Tiger Index was never completed.

I still get asked about the indexes, mostly from people who want to pick up copies, but I only ever received one or two copies of each title. I'm surprised to see they still turn up occasionally on ebay and elsewhere at over-inflated prices; as far as I'm concerned they're retired and have been put out to pasture. The early lists have been thoroughly overhauled over the years and for this reason we began producing a new series of indexes this summer. The new series -- properly printed and vastly superior in every respect -- will eventually include all the old volumes alongside new volumes. Regular readers of Bear Alley will know already that we've already published one volume -- The War Libraries -- and there's another in active production -- The Thriller Libraries (which replaces Thriller, Cowboy and Super Detective). David Ashford and I are already updating information for Knockout and David Roach is busy with the third volume of the pocket libraries series and researching girls' comics.

These occasional reminiscences bring back lots of happy memories. I even have fond memories of that lousy flat in Chelmsford, the venue for dozens of impromptu parties that went on into the early hours of summer mornings; the flat was located above a row of shops and, first thing in the morning, you could smell fresh rolls being cooked in the bakery next door and coffee being ground at the delicatessen on the corner. Sitting on the doorstep reading Modesty Blaise novels in the sunshine; plotting vast graffiti projects for the white walls opposite with Ali; watching Neighbours with Sooty (I'll save her for the thousandth column!); having Nick bang on the door to tell us we'd had a phone call down the pub... happy days!

11 comments:

Captain Storm said...

Brilliant article Steve!I thoroughly enjoyed it!I see you have retired the old indices.Hope as time passes you may consider bringing the Valiant and Lion Indices out of retirement and including additional strip titles that have since seen the light of day vis a vis Adam Eterno and The Spellbinder??My wallet is open :-)Great to hear you're working on the Knockout Index.Must admit my only interest there would be the original Kelly's Eye titles.Would love to do a Complete Adam Eterno Companion sometime in the future but my pesky day job keeps using up my time.Anyway,my web site projects are a step in that general direction so who knows......!

Steve said...

Hi Captain,

We will eventually have fully revamped indexes to Lion and Valiant but they are both some way off. While most people think publishers have magic purses which are always full, in our case that isn't so.

To give you an idea of why these things take time, here's how it works:

Being a publisher of short-run books means we have to pay all the costs up front. So, say it costs £5,000 to print and ship 500 copies and you set the price at £25 a copy, you have to sell 200 copies minimum to make your money back. (More if your authors are on a royalty. Even more if you offer discounts to other shops. But let's keep the numbers easy.)

If you sell a couple of copies a week (and that's probably all we will ever do as we're not in any shops and don't have an advertising budget to let the wider world know we've got the book out) that would mean two years to break even. Meanwhile, your money is tied up in unsold stock.

But let's say you sell 100 copies in six months and have the confidence that you'll eventually sell the rest. So you do a second volume. The costs haven't dropped and you're not spreading costs over multiple volumes, so that's another £5,000. You've now got £7,500 worth of stock and you sell 100 of your new book and 50 of the old book in the second six months. So you print book number three, sell 100 in six months plus 50 of the previous book and 25 of the older book.

You're now eighteen months older, have three published books under your belt and you're currently £4,375 out of pocket even though your books are selling steadily at a reasonable mark-up.

For this reason alone we wouldn't be able to rush all the indexes back into print. The other reason, of course, is that we're spending a considerable amount of time revamping the lists to make sure they're as accurate as humanly possible, adding features that weren't in the original volumes, having them properly designed (no more hand lettering from my shaky paws but an additional expense) and including colour sections whenever we can.

It took five years to get the original volumes out; because we're thinking of combining some of the books (as per the Thriller Index which brings together three of the old volumes) it won't take that long to do them again but we are still looking at years rather than months to get them all out. However, in the long run I think we'll have a set of books that people will be pleased to have on their shelves that are actually worth the money they spend on them rather than the over-priced photocopied indexes of old.

Captain Storm said...

Can't wait!

John A. said...

Don't scoff at "the over-priced photocopied indexes of old" Steve. The battered, rough and ragged pamphlet has a queer sort of charm and a historical aroma that your fancy hardcover full-colour "garphic index" can only pretend to. (I'm speaking tongue-in-cheek, of course.)The indexes are much in the vein of self-published fanzines, which have a long and noble history. Thanks for the look !

Steve said...

I'd agree in a second, John, if it wasn't for the price that had to be charged. They were produced one at a time on a photocopier which was an expensive way of doing them and, unfortunately, the quality didn't match the price by a long shot in many cases.

Maybe it's just me: I think of the months we put into researching each book only to have the end result look so amateurish. No reflection on Bryon, the publisher, who slaved over a hot copier, just a fact of life that when you start photocopying photocopies the results are lousy.

The new War Library index is professionally printed and isn't much more expensive than the old photocopied books and I think people buying it are finally getting value for their money.

I'm still a fan at heart so I still write for fanzines when I get a chance (Eagle Times, Fumetto and Crikey! in the past six months). That's where I started and I still haven't gotten out of the habit if I can think of something interesting to write about.

A Dashing Blade said...

You're being far too modest in your biog Steve! What was the story behind you TV appearence?

Captain Storm said...

I've thrown down the gauntlet to the folks over at ComicsUK vis a vis doing their own indices particularly the D.C. Thomson back catalogue.Though I did mention that perhaps they would be better at sticking to a given character and their appearances across weeklies,specials,annuals etc.

Steve said...

My TV career? I think I'll leave that for another anniversary column. I've made three TV appearances (although my hands have appeared four times) so it's not exactly a glittering career. When I get to it I'll explain the thing about the hands... and maybe the thing about the two half naked girls.

Anonymous said...

The penultimate sentence in the main text of the Power Pack mentions "Alfred Cosser" becoming editor of the TV Times - presumably that should be Albert (and not Alfred Wallace)?

Steve said...

Yes, it should be Albert Cosser, not Alfred. I'm sure there were other (albeit minor) mistakes in the book, which is why I want to revamp all those old lists. Our schedule is hazy to say the least: we've still got to sell quite a few more of the War Libraries index to pay for the next one (Thriller Libraries), and that will need to sell a few hundred before we can do the third and so on.

I know people would love to see them come out a bit quicker but it's not possible: I have a full-time job, so the research can only be done on weekends and evenings; and I don't want to see Geoff -- who has stumped up the money to pay for the books to be properly printed -- lose his shirt over them. (See my answer above about how costs and stock can so easily build up.)

But, one way or another, the books will come back into print.

Anonymous said...

Very fast response - thanks! Yes there are other minor errors, eg concerning the size/price of Wham -totally forgivable because you were too young at the time! I'm now 52 so Wham! was quite popular at primary school (although less so than TV21) - I was one of at least 3 Wham readers in my class - the debut of Jasper the Grasper went down well - but then, shortly thereafter with issue 44 dated 17 April 1965 - the triple Whammy! - price up to 7d, pages down from 24 to 20, only the front page staying in colour - the others gave up on it immediately, I only stayed for a few more weeks having graduated to Eagle which was always better value!