Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The serious business of researching comics

More birthday reminiscing. Just skip down the page it if you don't like this kind of stuff.

Although I'd had a few pieces published in the Association of Comics Enthusiasts (A.C.E.) Newsletter in the early 1980s, I didn't really get into the serious business of researching comics until the late 1980s. I spent part of the 1980s stumbling through various jobs that didn't interest me and held onto my sanity by producing (yes, you've guessed it) lists of various British paperback publishers for Richard Williams' Dragonby Bibliographies series. I'd also produced the Fantasy Fanzine Index for the British Fantasy Society and was doing interviews for a fanzine called After Image that was being produced in Colchester.

After Image was a really nice A4 production with two-colour covers (the first two were A5) and my first contributions appeared in the fourth issue--a mini-interview with Richard Piers Rayner and Vincent Danks about their new comic The Solthenis. The interview was recorded at UKCAC '87 on a little dictaphone I'd bought especially for the occasion. It wasn't the only fanzine I wrote for but it was the first I contributed to regularly: I also had interviews published in issues 6 and 7 before the magazine folded.

1989 saw the publication of the first edition of the The Comic Book Price Guide for Great Britain, co-edited that first year by Lance Rickman and Duncan McAlpine. Lance and I put together the whole of the British section in a mammoth all-night session which ended around five in the morning. We did a print out of the whole section because I was convinced that the two of us were getting to the point of hallucinating titles; I promised I'd go over the whole thing the following evening after I'd slept off the gallon of coffee I'd consumed to keep me awake.

Back in Chelmsford, and three hours sleep later, I staggered down to the Royal Steamer where a group of us were meeting up. The flat I was living in at the time didn't have a phone so people used to leave messages for me down the pub. (The flat was a two-bedroom dump but, split between three of us it was cheap. And it was next door to a pub.) So I staggered in and mein host, Derek, said: "There was a phone-call for you. Sounded urgent," and handed me Lance's phone number.

That's how I discovered that Lance's computer had crashed a few minutes after I'd left his house and our whole night's work had been wiped out. The only surviving record was the print out.

I'm still amazed the book came out on time. It had to, really, because there was already a signing lined up for Forbidden Planet. My first signing. Not that anyone was there for my signature! I was sat next to Dave Gibbons, and Brian Bolland was just beyond him so the queue was crawling. I think people stuck their books in front of me out of sympathy, error or just to give their arms a rest.

I was an associate editor of the Price Guide for all 8 editions and it meant that I had to be a bit more organised about my research. I bought my first computer in April 1989 -- "It's got a 30 megabyte hard-drive. You'll never need to buy another computer with a hard-drive that size," the guy selling it assured me -- to replace my Brother typewriter and set about typing up all the lists that I had in files. I was going to turn my bed-living room into a paperless office.

Some hope!

But I did get a lot of the basic lists that began appearing in the early 1990s typed up and took my first stab at listing every artist who had ever worked for British comics for two visiting French fans of BD, Dominique Petitfaux and Gerard Thomasian who introduced me to the names of dozens of European artists who had worked in the UK. All promptly catalogued on the computer, of course.

One of the fanzines I had written for was Golden Fun. I managed to sneak into its pages with an article in issue 18; issue 19 proved to be its last. With After Image also gone, I had the daft notion that I'd produce my own fanzine. I had a good working relationship with the folks at Kwik Print, just round the corner from my flat -- they were used to me dropping in with stacks of comics or old paperbacks to photocopy and I knew they'd do me a good deal.

Which is how The Mike Western Story came to be. I'd been corresponding with Mike for some time and his letters--chatty and informative--were perfect for reprinting. Thanks to the computer I was able to even play around with layouts so that I could have Mike's text alongside a running commentary about his work. It took bloody ages to get everything lined up so that the pictures fitted in but I eventually had the whole thing cobbled together and printed up enough pages for 50 copies. I have incredibly happy memories of that little booklet. I really did sweat blood over it. Maybe not sweat because the flat had no heating and it was December, but I managed to slice the tip of my thumb off with a scalpel while I was mounting photocopies so there was definitely blood.

The introduction mentions that this was to be the first of a series of books. As things turned out, I never got beyond that first booklet, although I had quite a lot of feature material already written and laid out. Enough to be confident that the next (first) issue of this unnamed fanzine would include an article on Graham Coton; other articles lined up for the fanzine-with-no-name included a long article on The Steel Claw, another on Jesus Blasco, one on Arturo Del Castillo, a heavily illustrated piece on A.L.I. artists who had worked on the Buffalo Bill strip in Comet, and another big interview, this one with Geoff Campion, with whom I was corresponding at the time.

What went wrong? I spent most of 1991 without a full-time job, writing stories that wouldn't sell, a book that sold out but which earned me a total of about thirty quid and a book that I eventually gave away for free. A dark year for the most part, although 1991 also saw the appearance of the first comics index and I got to edit the souvenir booklet for the first ever Paperback & Pulp Fair.

In December, with literally only two 10p pieces to rub together, my whole life turned around when I was asked to edit a new magazine that was being planned by a Colchester publisher. That was Comic Collector... but that's a story that will have to wait... I may save it until December 2011 by which time the memories of so many sleepless nights will have faded.

Just to bring this little bit of autobiography to a happier conclusion, I should mention that most of the material prepared for the fanzine-with-no-name was eventually published in Bryon Whitworth's Comic Journal. And Bryon published a second edition of The Mike Western Story in 1992 for which Mike provided brand new front and back cover images which you can see below. He's still one of my favourite artists and it was really thanks to Mike being such a generous and friendly correspondent that I began to take the research of old British comics more seriously. Lists were all well and good -- and I love 'em! -- but what Mike showed me was that getting first hand information from the people actually involved in creating the comics could be even more rewarding.

Mind you, a word of advice: never try to interview someone over a phone in a pub. Believe me, it's a nightmare you don't want to face.


  1. Fabulous suff, Steve. I'll have to hunt down a copy of The Mike Western Story! Happy birthday to Bear Alley. Love the blog!

  2. Happy Birthday from me too Steve!

    You know I used to think you were born 50 years too late and really belonged back in the era of your beloved 'Mushroom Jungle'. The funny thing is that since the arrival of the internet, blogs and Look & Learn Magazine Ltd. it's finally become obvious that you were born a little ahead of your time instead! Isn't life strange...? ;)

    - Phil Rushton

  3. Steve,really enjoyed reading your story.Reminded me of the time spent hunting down old Hotspurs and Crunch comics for my Starhawk project.Also,are you gonna update your Lion and Valiant indices?If so,include your story in it.Brilliant!



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