Monday, 1 April 2013

Comic Book Babylon

Well, looks like the cat's out the bag at last! I'm finally launching my memoir of working at Vertigo UK. The title, Comic Book Babylon: A Cautionary Tale of Sex, Drugs & Comics, should give you a pretty good indication of the contents! Yup, this whole blog has been leading up to this event!

I was inspired by two other memoirs, Grant Morrison's Supergods and Phil Hall's My Monthly Curse, and—seeing as this year is Vertigo's 20th anniversary—I figured if I didn't launch the book in 2013, I never would. The book recounts my life, how it has been shaped by my passion for comics, and how I ended up as DC Comic's first British member of editorial staff, back in 1993.

Some of you may have read the interview I did for Sci-Fi Now where I said: "It was an incredibly exciting time to be working in comics and anything seemed possible." And that remains true to this day. When I was at the Vertigo London office, with my boss Art Young, we were given the keys to the kingdom in the form of unwavering expesenses. And we fully abused this privilege as much as possible. What followed was two and a half years of unbridled decadence and creativity that resulted in books like Face, Enigma, Rogan GoshKill Your Boyfriend, Flex Mentallo, and Ghostdancing, and excessive amounts of booze and drugs being consumed. 

This book blows the lid off the comics scene in the mid-Ninieties, at the tail-end of the Rave scene—when ecstasy was still rife—and when Britpop was burgeoning. What's been really hard about writing this book is that I wanted it to appeal to both comic and non-comic readers. Trying to write about comics without the minutiae that could bore the arse off the uninformed, whilst bringing something new to the informed fans, while simultaneously trying to entertain both, is no easy matter! I hope I've struck a happy medium.

Meanwhile, Rich Johnston is serialising the first chapter of the book on Bleeding Cool, but if you can't be bothered heading over there, below is what's been serialised so far.

There are three versions of Comic Book Babylon available: eBook (with additional images); the paperback (h 20cm x w 13cm); and 200 limited edition hardbacks with jacket (h 23cm x w 15cm).


There's a preview of the the project here and the whole thing goes live on Thursday 4 April. Please pledge generously! And spread the word! This project will only happen if lovely people like yourself, Tweet, Facebook, Blog and share the information and pledge! Thank you!

Any questions, just ask!


All the very best,

Tim.



Prelude:
“Oh my God. Oh wow. Everything’s all full of light. It’s beautiful. This is the most amazing thing. I can’t stop talking.” That’s the girl’s reaction when she first takes Ecstasy in Grant Morrison and Philip Bond’s 1995 comic, Kill Your Boyfriend.

My own initial experience with the drug, in a small basement flat in Paddington, was not dissimilarly inarticulate, “Oh fuckin’ hell. Shit. That’s so—Fuck. Ha! I can’t believe it.” Et cetera. It was an evening that opened up my eyes to an alternate universe. A universe of infinite colours and possibilities. I was seeing patterns on the walls. The low level lights sparkled and twinkled, as if through a starlight filter. I looked at my friends, Art, Paul and Ellie, and tribal tattoos were appearing on their faces and arms. Intricate swirling patterns that morphed and changed.

I was smiling. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was smiling so hard it hurt. I wanted to strip off and dance and shout. I had a deep, overwhelming love for everyone in the room. Not just for being my friends, or for introducing me to this new reality. Not even because they’d allowed me into their inner circle, but simply because they were fellow human beings, made of the same beautiful light as I was.

We stayed up till sunrise, talking, dancing, sensing, while the MDMA worked its magic on our synapses. This was fantastic. I was on top of the world and embraced in an all-encompassing, unconditional love. I had entered a living comic book world, where anything was possible.

It would never get that good again.


Chapter One: Description of the Writer as a Young Man

“I can tread on the heels of his memories, see through his child’s eyes and feel the early blossoming of his self-awareness.”
- Millennium Fever

My dad held me tightly by the hand as he strode through a crowded, noisy, smelly London fruit’n’veg street market. The road was littered with banana boxes, discarded orange tissue wrappers and abandoned grapes. My little legs struggled to keep pace with his determined stride, while simultaneously trying to dodge through the labyrinthine crowd. His long, dark, Seventies-style hair blew in the summer breeze, as I looked up at his Zapata-moustachioed face. Where we were going, I didn’t know, but when we got there, there was a hushed reverence about the place.

The shop was a rag-tag mess of piles of magazines, stacks of Hawkwind albums, musty old science fiction paperbacks and bins of bargain basement comics. Various hairy, young men shuffled about the place rummaging through the endless publications, panning for gold. The place reeked of patchouli oil, presumably to mask the mustiness of old paper and poor personal hygiene.

The most impressive thing there was a huge wooden cut-out figure of Captain America by Jack Kirby on the wall, just above the stairs to the basement. His dynamic pose, leaping towards the viewer in the bright red, white and blue of the costume, as he brandished his giant shield, seared itself into my brain. From then on I was hooked on comics. I was five years old. The shop was Dark They Were and Golden Eyed.

To non-comic fans it’s hard to describe how important Dark They Were and Golden Eyed was to the modern British comics industry. This was where it all began. It was the first proto-comic shop in the UK. British Comics Fandom had its roots here. Mike Lake and Nick Landau met here and formed the legendary conflicted powerhouse duo that would set up the Forbidden Planet retail chain, Titan Distribution and Titan Books publishing house. Paul Hudson worked here and would go on to run three successful Comic Showcase shops in London, Cambridge and Oxford. Josh Palmano used to visit here and eventually set up his famous Gosh! Comics—possibly the best loved comic shop in London today. It was the clubhouse of what were to become some of the most influential comic creators the UK ever produced. Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore and Bryan Talbot all hung out here. As did Marvel UK and Warrior founder Dez Skinn. And a teenage mop-haired, leather-jacketed Neil Gaiman would frequently pop in, before heading off down the road to catch the latest bands at The Marquee, whenever he got into London. This was the nexus point. Genesis. Ground Zero. THE BIG BANG. In musical terms, Dark They Were… was the Sex Pistols playing at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976.

Dark They Were… was run by Derek “Bram” Stokes and took its convoluted name from a Ray Bradbury short story. Some kids’ dads take them religiously to football matches every Saturday and inspire a life-long tribal loyalty to the sport. My dad was different. For the few brief years we lived at the Toc H men’s hostel in Fitzroy Square, London, every Saturday morning, he would take me down to Dark They Were… I’d check out the comic bins, while he’d look through the endless science fiction paperbacks, like Michael Moorcock’s Elric series and William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters. The latter had a profound effect on me as a child, with its evocative cover of a tribal man with a spear fighting a giant crab-like creature, painted by supreme fantasy artist, Boris Vallejo.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, upstairs was also the first semi-official offices of The Fortean Times where Bob Rickard, Paul Sieveking and Steve Moore would meet “every Tuesday afternoon”, to discuss everything from Spontaneous Human Combustion to frogs found alive inside sealed stones. Steve Moore also wrote comics and would become a mentor to his namesake, Alan.

This small, proto-comic shop was where I was spiritually born.

After several years of moving around between London, Cornwall, and Kent, my parents finally settled in Virginia Water, on the Surrey/Berkshire border. My mum was employed as a live-in housekeeper and we had a large house to ourselves, next to an even larger house that she had to cook for, clean and manage. I was seven.

The first comics I consciously remember wanting and buying with my own money weren’t the Beano and Dandy (I was already a member of the former’s Dennis the Menace fan club, with its furry, goggle-eyed Gnasher badge). I was more cutting edge than that. My best friend, Andrew, and I both read Krazy. Launched by IPC in October 1976, Krazy was a humour comic that had a more contemporary, anti-establishment feel to it than anything the distinctly conservative Dundee-based DC Thomson published. We were entering the age of punk, after all. The back cover was always disguised as something innocuous like a schoolbook, a newspaper or some highbrow literature, so it could be flipped over at a moment’s notice, whenever a parent or teacher strolled by. The lead story was the Krazy Gang, featuring Cheeky, and their battles with their nemesis, the fetid Pongo Snodgrass. I loved it with a passion.

The mid- to late-Seventies was a fantastic boom time for British comics. In the space of four years, four publications were launched that were to change my life and inform my comics reading for the next 20 years. I was into the new wave of edgy comics being put out by writer/editor Pat Mills and his cohorts at IPC. Those titles were Battle, Action, Starlord and 2000 AD. 1975’s Battle was a war comic and—along with Commando Picture Library—taught me all the German I’d ever need to know, from “Achtung!” “Schell!” and “Donner und Blitzen” to “Gott im Himmel!” and “Nien! Nien! Der Englander Schwien!” However, unlike DC Thomson’s Commando series, Battle was brutal in its depictions of war. Darkie’s Mob—apart from having unfortunately unintentional racist connotations in its title—was a savage story of WWII in South East Asia. One issue saw the eponymous hero nailed to a corrugated steel roof by the Japanese, in all its bloody glory.

And Action wasn’t much better. Here, we had possibly the most subversive comic of the Seventies. Issue #1 was cover-dated Valentine’s Day, 1976 and it massacred the competition. The comic lifted concepts—or “dead cribs” as Mills called them—from all the cool films that were out at the time and turned them into strips for kids. Jaws became Hook Jaw, Rollerball became Death Game 1999 and Dirty Harry became Dredger. It was a masterstroke. All these were films I, and my friends, wanted to see, but were far too young to get into at the cinema. But now I could get my own versions on the comics’ page, for a mere 7p! Every story was bloody, violent and subversive.

The very gore and brutality that made Action popular with me and all the other kids, also acted as a red flag to “concerned citizens”, with The Sun newspaper calling it "the seven penny nightmare". Action became the centre of a campaign led by do-gooding busybody Mary Whitehouse and her evil cronies, the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, as they tried to ban the comic. IPC sensed trouble on the wind and tried toning the content down.

By September 1976—less than seven months after launching—they even sent Action’s editor, John Sanders, on to the primetime TV show Nationwide, where he tried to defend the comic from a forceful attack by interviewer Frank Bough, who condemned the comic for corrupting Britain’s youth. This was the same Frank Bough who was later vilified in the tabloids in the ‘90s for taking cocaine, wearing lingerie at sex parties and visiting dominatrixes. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but if the tabloids have taught us anything, it’s that self-righteousness is a double-edged weapon that’s dangerous for those in the public eye to wield.
Bough’s fall from grace paradoxically happened around the same time as Martin Barker’s excellent book Action - The Story of a Violent Comic was released. History loves irony.

Although Action remained popular, its days were numbered and it eventually was watered down so much that it was merged with Battle to create Battle Action, before the Action part was finally removed.

However, creator Pat Mills learnt a lot from creating Action and put all this knowledge into his next opus. When 2000 AD launched on 26th February 1977, punk rock was flourishing and the magazine borrowed liberally from the culture with characters like Spikes Harvey Rotten. The comic was a revelation to an eight-year-old me. Mature, radical and unusual, it became my favourite comic after Action had its balls cut off by the media. Although, admittedly, it was initially all about the free gifts. Prog 1 (they didn’t call them issues) came with a cheap red plastic mini-Frisbee or “Space Spinner” as they called it. My friend Andrew and I bought multiple copies of Prog 2 to get the M.A.C.H. 1 stickers. M.A.C.H. 1 was a Six Million Dollar Man rip-off—sorry, “dead crib”. The TV series was the hottest show around and one of our favourites. The stickers depicted bits of wiring and electronics you were supposed to put on your body “revealing” your bionics underneath. I recall being in a restaurant with Andrew’s parents and us, bored, covering our arms in fake digital circuitry. Incidentally, Andrew had on his bedroom wall a similar cut-out of Captain America I’d first seen in Dark They Were. Only this image was taken from the cover of Captain America #193 (January, 1976) by Jack Kirby and John Romita Snr. I coveted that almost life-size wooden figure for years.

2000 AD was “edited” by Tharg, a green alien with a telephone dial ("The Rosette of Sirius") stuck on his forehead, who apparently had nothing better to do than mess around with Earth’s periodical publishing industry. “Borag Thungg, Earthlets” he greeted us, introducing a generation of boys to a new “Zarjaz” language. The rest of the editorial and creative staff were all robots with names like Burt (Richard Burton—not the actor), AALN-1 (Alan Grant), Mac-2 (Alan Mackenzie), Bish-OP (David Bishop) and Dig-L (Andy Diggle). It was a bit of a crap in-joke, but we went along for the ride anyway, our tongues firmly planted in our cheeks. It’s a daft joke that 2000 AD insists on pursuing to this day.

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