Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Behind the Scenes at Look-In: The Best of the '80s

* Alistair McGown offers an insightful look behind the scenes at the creation of one of the latest books to hit the shelves from Prion...


When we came to thinking of formats for the original Look-in Best of collection, it was me who suggested that rather than put together a general purpose collection we instead split the book into definite decades. After all, I reckoned, no one person grew up with Look-in over a 20 year span from 1971-1989 and so the nostalgia hit would always be diluted by half a book the reader wasn’t that familiar with. Why not open with a '70s collection and then hold fire on the '80s, which could make a good sequel with greater appeal to a different demographic (see I can do this Marketing speak too even though I don't have an expense account or a prepaid 3G mobile or a Blackberry). And the '90s? Right from the off I felt the last few years of the magazine were beyond the pale in terms of (lack of) quality, while regarding plain old circulation its readership was then down from highs of 200-250,000 to under 100,000.

So the '80s sequel is now with us I'm delighted to say. I think we were much later into Spring than last time around before the book was greenlit, no doubt for umpteen interconnected logistical reasons as Carlton assembled their 2008 Prion roster. It must have been into March 2008 before Graham Kibble-White called me to confirm volume 2 was go. Overnight, just because I had a bit of time on my hands for a change, I drew up a list of logistical strip possibilities: what I had (a lot) and what I would recommend. This was just as well because as the deadlines became apparent, Graham was within days arranging to zoom up from London to see the McGown archive in Glasgow.

Graham arrived struggling with some virus thing so we cut back our two days' solid back issue flicking into a day and a half and sat for about eight or nine hours on Saturday going through about 300 issues. I think I took two hours off to go and watch an important Rangers match in the pub but, hey, they were my back issues and I knew them pretty well—it was up to Graham to select what he thought represented the essence of the '80s.

I'd always felt at the back of my mind that the collection would be biased towards the first half of the '80s (indeed the first few years of that decade) but I let Graham go ahead with what he wanted. I think he came to the same conclusion I did - the real quality was still there, particularly on the comic strip side, within the earlier years. For me, I felt Ashes to Ashes, then on TV, was a big if subconscious influence on making us hone in on 1981—looking back through the book I think '81 looms large! But it was a great year to my mind, a little while before UK pop culture was swamped by the Americana that flushed through the global conduit of Live Aid.

The 1981 issues were favourites of mine—most of my issues were my own from the time as I was addicted to Look-in around that year. The SF strips of the early '80s were particular favourites: Buck Rogers, Into the Labyrinth and Star Fleet. In the end we decided the latter two were too cult for this collection and although there was a Buck strip one episode-shorter we could have run, the one we went with—a surreal dream piece with a Seventh Seal feel - was a personal fave and I was delighted I got that in there. It was a pleasure to scan and restore this one and really appreciate every nuance of Arthur Ranson's work.

Again I am sure there will be cries of, "Oh, how could they miss (insert name of personal nostalgic fixation)?!" but believe us, everything is there for a reason and was fought over tooth and nail before we reached a final running order. Even then, marketing and I had been through numerous iterations to reach a cover design concept (we dropped an early dummy utilising a 1982 Arnaldo Putzu montage because the Prion sales team weren’t sure of the inclusion of The Fall Guy or Magnum PI on the front) and so a bespoke montage was thought the way to go. This was dictated to some degree by the limited availability of decent cover artwork—with Look-in pulling its trademark painted covers by 1982 we had much less to work with. Eventually we came up with a roster of faces with sufficient iconic appeal—Adam Ant, Buck, Worzel, Metal Mickey and Debbie Harry was our eventual compromise. Problem was that not all of these names were adequately reflected inside and so there was a little reshuffle of content at that late stage - I was able to source a none-more-1981 piece on Ant fans off the top of my head (I used to have this on my wall, aged 10—'Ant Rap' was the first single I bought and Prince Charming my first album).

I initially havered over which logo we should use on the cover—should we go with the best-known original logo (which endured from January 1971 to September 1981) or go with one of the shorter-lived crazily '80s ones? Graham said outright we should "Go '80s" and so, much use of the American Typewriter font later, he was proved absolutely right in that decision.

What we've come up with I hope not only reflects a decade for which Graham and I have inbuilt fondness but will also show some comic fans that Look-in in the '80s still had genuine quality when it came to strip art in particular - with great names such as Mike Noble, Arthur Ranson and Bill Titcombe still plying their trade and one or two top drawer newcomers such as Maureen and Gordon Gray being added to the art pool. The '70s is seen as the magazine's heyday undoubtedly, but this could be an eye-opener for some. Yeah, I know, just how good is that Five Star strip ...?!

Look-In: The Best of the Eighties, edited by Graham Kibble-White. Prion (ISBN 978-1853756863, 6 October 2008).


  1. Really enjoyed your Look-In blog. Have you done ny postings on the similarly named Look and Learn?

  2. I've got last years 70's one. I'll have to get this one. When is teh HIgh Noon graphic novel out? Can't find it anywhere

  3. I HAD A LETTER IN LOOK IN ONCE - would love to find out what issue it was.

  4. Hi Archavist,

    Copies of High Noon have definitely gone out through Amazon as I heard from someone who had received a copy they had ordered. It sometimes takes a while for books to trickle down into shops as they go through distributors then may hang around in stockrooms before being put out on shelves. Click on the image of the book cover over in the right hand column if you want to order through Amazon (same goes for all the other books pictured).

  5. Archavist - it's a bit of a needle in a haystack job without some decent clues but if you can remember roughly what year this was, who might have been in the issue or best of all on the cover, what the letter was about and your name I might, just might be able to track it down.



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