Tuesday, 18 October 2011

My Monthly Curse: A Personal Comic Book History Review


Wow! I’ve just read Phill Hall’s book, My Monthly Curse: A Personal Comic Book History and all I can say is WOW! I have never read such a vitriolic and nasty attack on comics in all my life!

Hall was a comic shop owner, and is a respected comics journalist who worked on Comics International longer than practically anyone, apart from the owner/publisher Dez Skinn. He then set up his own format-pioneering PDF comics magazine, Borderline.

With My Monthly Curse he explores what’s right and wrong (oh, alright, just what’s wrong) with the comics industry. The intense minutiae he goes into for the first third of the book is mind-numbing. He delves in-depth into the workings of retail and the history and reasons for the direct market of comic shops and his own experiences owning a shop. It was an incredible slog. 

But… If you can drag yourself through the mire of the first 500 pages (on the iPhone version), then there’s some real buried treasure in the swamp. Namely, his 11 years working on Comics International. Hall paints a picture of the Cl offices, and it ain’t a pretty one.

According to Hall, the CI/Quality Communications head office in Finchely was one horrific, back-stabbing, highly dysfunctional family that make the Borgias look like the Waltons. Petty grievances, office politics, sexual politics, one-up-manship and rampant egos constantly undermined the entire operation to the point that it’s a miracle that a single issue of the “trade paper”/”fanzine” ever made it on to the shelves.
I personally know the majority of the people in this story, although not Hall, who I’m pretty sure I haven’t met—which is strange considering the amount of mutual acquaintances we have—but then again, maybe we have. My memory is terrible. Apparently, Hall was a bit of a Bette Noir in the nascent online comics community, but having only dipped my toe into these murky waters I decided that, like Garth Ennis and Alan Moore, it simply isn’t worth my time and energy to get sucked into utterly futile flame wars with people who’s opinion I simply don’t care about. Life’s too short.

The fact that Dez or any of the other protagonists in this sorry tale haven’t yet sued Hall for libel is incredible. The venom with which these grisly tableaus are portrayed obviously reveal an acrimonious feud between Hall and Skinn that has spanned decades, and that very fact alone should call into question the veracity of Hall’s accusations.

Except. Except… It all feels so desperately, sadly plausible. Having known Dez for over 15 years, and worked with him as Associate Editor on Comics International for almost two of them… I can see some harsh truths hiding in amongst the bile. While I have to state for the record that I never received any bullying, belittling or sexual harassment allegedly meted out to previous staff members, there was one occasion where I was very close to punching Dez in the face at 4am in the office. I just made sure neither of us ended up in that situation again. For both our sakes.

Make no mistake, this is not a well-written book by any stretch of the imagination. By his own admission, Hall’s writing is erratic, inconsistent and scattershot. He’ll be halfway through an anecdote then suddenly switch track, only returning to the original topic 20 pages later, making it hard to follow. His turns of phrase are trite and his examination of the comics industry is tedious beyond belief. Around page 14 or so he says, "I don't want to bore you too long" and I thought, "Too late!" I almost gave up on the book on several occasions, and I live, love and breathe comics!

Hall accuses many people of sexism in the book, but (probably inadvertently) engages in it himself on numerous occasions. The very fact that he used the faintly misogynistic title, My Monthly Curse (he equates working for Dez once a month as his “period”) didn’t impress me either. Not funny. Not clever.

The most annoying aspect of the book is the constant whining and self-pity that is marbled throughout. The rife “poor me”-isms don’t endear Hall at all, and I just wanted to shake him by the lapels and shout, “Yes, things are tough. Yes, you had a shit deal, and yes you were allegedly treated diabolically, but buck up! Get over it! Move on.”

The other overriding tone, alongside the wailing and gnashing of teeth, is that of anger. The book could be best encapsulated as “The comics industry is run by big corporations who are fucking evil. If you want to run a comic shop you’re a fucking idiot. I tried it and failed, and therefore no one else can succeed. ALL comic fans are fucking freaks, nerds and mentally unstable morons with poor personal hygiene. I hate everything about the fucking comics industry. But, hey, I’m not bitter.”

The very fact that he wrote 169,000 words of this rant means he obviously cares passionately about comics, but they’ve hurt him so much that he can’t admit it publicly. Hall alludes throughout the book that being a comics fan is like being a junkie—a common analogy—and this book reads like someone who’s going through cold turkey, trying to rid themselves of their illness, but secretly knowing they’ll be back on the smack within a fortnight.

What’s truly sad is that no one comes out of this sorry tale well, least of all Skinn and Hall. It’s this type of exposé     that, while important, ultimately belittles the industry and makes everyone feel just that little bit grubbier after having read it. This is “mis lit” writing at it’s worst. Doing more harm than good, except perhaps for the cathartic process for the author. I was always taught that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Something both Phill and Dez could’ve learnt from. And no, the irony of that statement hadn’t escaped me.

I make an oblique appearance on page 1018, when Hall describes his attempts at trying to get his comic proposal, Dead Girls, to my ex-boss, Art Young, at Vertigo; “I had a letter from Young’s assistant saying DC was cutting back on new projects for the time being, but keep on trying. I don’t think it was ever looked at.” I can state now, Phill—if you are reading this—that I never sent a letter out without reading the submission first. I had a constant stack of proposals on my desk that was a least a foot high, but I was careful never to dismiss anyone offhand. If it makes you feel better, I never got a single green light for any submissions I suggested to Art, so you were in good company. Why didn’t you keep trying? I’ve lost count at the amount of book submissions I’ve had knocked back. It’s part and parcel of being a writer.

Now, I’ll have to enter a disclaimer. I’m also currently working on my own memoir book about life in the Vertigo UK office, inspired by Grant Morrison’s considerably more optimistic Supergods, rather than Phill’s book. Hopefully, it won’t be quite as boring or as full of recriminations, but I’m the last person to judge my own work. I’ll let Phill do that it when it comes out.

But despite all my nit picking (I’ve come neither to praise or bury anyone here), My Monthly Curse does have some nuggets hidden in there (although they are few and far between) and it’s definitely an important book worth trying to read. After all, it could well be that—for a change—history has been written by the loser.

You can read it serialised here.