By 1981 Mike Lake, Mike Luckman and Nick Landau’s endeavours have crystallised into three companies – Forbidden Planet, Titan Distributors and Titan Books. The publishing company – which today is a huge, flourishing concern – begins its life through a single title, which features some of the most popular Judge Dredd stories licenced, in those days, from IPC. Titan Distributors pump-primes, and then helps sustain, a growing network of specialist shops in the UK and beyond. As well as comics, we supply science fiction and fantasy books, merchandise, film and TV tie-in titles, and books on pop and rock music.
At the time Titan Distributors is a company with largely young employees, with managers and bosses who are only slightly older. Most of us are fans of genre material, and occasionally take our dedication to the cause too seriously. Management is occasionally chaotic and staff emotional investment occasionally too much. As a result emotions occasionally run high over the years, and Titan feels more like a way of life than a workplace. At some stage during our time there all of us, myself included, do silly or unwise things.
All of which preamble is to assert that, as I write about Titan (if I use the single word I am referring to Titan Distributors) I have no lingering grudges or agendas to work out – it is all water under the bridge as far as I am concerned. If anyone from those days would like to get in touch, I would be only too pleased to hear from them.
I join Titan in November 1982. We occupy the second floor of a warehouse at 42-44 Copperfield Road, Mile End, London. All four floors of the building are now entirely occupied by a company called (ironically for some of us!) Acme Artists Studios. I can visualize the rambling, second floor space even now – the packing benches, the rows of Dexion shelving and pallets housing our stock, the small office cubicles at one end, the little goods lift next to the rather diabolical toilets.
Mike Lake is based at Copperfield Road. Nick Landau runs the publishing arm from the basement of Forbidden Planet 2, the film and TV store round the corner from the original FP. Mike Luckman – who I never meet – has moved to New York to set up an FP store there and to work with our US business partners, Seagate Distribution – Mike literally marries into the company, in fact.
Back in Copperfield Road an eccentric, ramshackle group of employees gather together to process the orders of our growing retail customer base. They include John Nicholls, warehouse manager; Wendy Lake, Mike’s wife, who manages the computer system; Cleveland Deroche our accountant; Steve Robson, rock books and West End sales; Nick Parry-Jones, comics; the cherishably plain speaking Wilf Wood, who oversees the packing and despatch processes; and a number of packing staff who mostly come from the local area.
To begin, I work with Paul Gamble – known to all as Gamma, who oversees the science fiction and fantasy books end of things. I fit in pretty quickly – in those days it’s possible to have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the comics and SF field – harder now as things have mushroomed so much. But in those days I know my stuff, and although I begin work on the books side I can turn my hand to pretty much any aspect of our operation/stock.
Gamma is one of the older employees, although we discover we share the same birthday. He is hippyish, very funny and an obsessive fan of Frank Zappa. To begin with I just check in stock, process orders on the SF side etc, but in due course my job becomes much more varied. In any case there are times when we all just muck in – when each week’s airfreighted comics arrive from the US, for example, then we drop everything to get our clients’ orders out ASAP.
To begin with, Wendy is the only woman working at Titan, a situation she handles with aplomb. She is, and remains, a warm, lovely and very capable woman. Unknown to her at the time, she quickly becomes my would-be style icon. To begin with I am quite shy around her, but over my time at the warehouse we become close friends.
My old chum Michael from school graduated before me, but has been at a loose end ever since, staying with his sister and his brother-in-law in nearby Forest Gate. When a vacancy arises in the comics department I suggest that he applies, thinking it might be fun to have him around. He is not, at the time, a comics expert, but after an initially shaky start he fits right in. Michael starts in January 1983 and will stay with the Titan empire many years more than I do. Initially cautious and shy (as I am in all situations in those days) I gradually come out of my shell and become good friends with Nick Parry-Jones (N P-J), Wilf and Gamma in particular.
The relationship between the Titan Distributors staff and the Forbidden Planet staff is often an uneasy one. We have many retail customers but FP, our sister company, is clearly the most important one. At the time FP is based in Denmark Street – once known as the UK’s Tin Pan Alley and still littered with music stores today. FP2 (film and TV) is round the corner in St Giles High Street. There is occasionally friction between the FP and Titan staff as each grouping regards itself as more important than the others. When I first arrive at Titan there is a direct phone line to the shop – a kind of Batphone situated next to John Nicholls’ desk. Pick it up and press the button and you are straight through to the FP basement. Or are you if anyone is there and can be bothered to pick up the phone. I remember John Nicholls having an angry exchange with FP shop manager Dick Jude on one occasion and slamming the phone down so hard it ricochets off the wall. Ah, those were the days …
I find all this quite exciting. Interesting people, congenial work, lot of banter, work hard, play hard, drink hard … occasionally rubbing shoulders with the famous (of which, more later). When I talk to my Dad though, I am embarrassed to admit I work in the comics industry (the conditioning runs deep) and go through all kinds of convoluted explanations of what the company does in order to avoid the word “comics”. Over the next few years though, I have a largely happy time. And in due course one of my colleagues will help me on the next stage of my transitional journey as well …