When I first stumble across UK comics fandom, in the early 1970s, Nick Landau is editing the fanzine Comic Media. In its later issues this has become a very slick package indeed – interviews with professionals jostle for space with reprints of some of the finer newspaper strips of yesteryear, including Modesty Blaise, written by Peter O’Donnell and featuring remarkable artwork from Jim Holdaway and Will Eisner’s unique The Spirit. There are plans to produce a news supplement – Comic Media News (CMN) – but in the end this becomes a much more ambitious publication, edited by the estimable Richard Burton, which supersedes Comic Media entirely.
By the time I join Titan, Nick and Richard have both gone on to work at IPC on early issues of 2000 A.D.. Richard finds his niche there while Nick, after a brief spell as the second Tharg (follow the previous link if you don’t know who Tharg is), goes back to building up the Titan empire. The demise of CMN leaves a gap for a decent newszine, which is, in due course, filled by Speakeasy. Long-time comics fan Richard Ashford starts Speakeasy in August 1979. By the mid-1980s he’s involved other fans in its production and it has become pretty successful. It’s in the nature of fanzines that their marketing tends to be a home-grown affair – garnering sales through word of mouth, ads in other fanzines and by selling copies at conventions and comic marts.
In due course Richard harbours ambitions to develop an publishing company on the back of Speakeasy – to be called Acme Press. The British comics scenes seems to be growing. 2000 A.D. is very successful, and many writers and artists who got their break in its pages are starting to get offers from Marvel and DC in the States. At the arty, small-press end of things Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury are founding Escape. Dez Skinn founds Warrior, a monthly magazine with a 2000 A.D. flavour which is to prove a crucial step in Alan Moore’s career in particular. For Dez he radically reinvents the fifties UK comics character Marvelman (originally a British clone of US 1940s character Captain Marvel) and creates (with David Lloyd) the groundbreaking V for Vendetta.
So there is lots going on. Richard and his chums – Cefn Ridout, Bambos Georgiou and Richard Hansom – approach Titan and suggest that we take on the distribution of Speakeasy, and a deal is negotiated. Michael and I, in particular, get friendly with the Acme boys. I particularly remember bonding with Cefn and Richard one night at a comics convention in Birmingham, where we find ourselves sharing the hotel bar with a large contingent of women attending a Johnny Mathis convention. One of the more unusual cultural crossovers I’ve experienced …
When Acme decides to expand their team, they invite me to join them – having become aware of my columns in The Buzz. There is no need to leave Titan to become involved with Speakeasy. Acme is a rather ramshackle worker’s co-operative and to which we all put (largely unpaid) effort in. Richard does manage to get some government financial support I think, which allows one salary to be paid (£5000 per annum). Various co-op members take turns at being the salaried individual.
Because money is tight, Richard develops a talent for finding early projects by well-known names, theorizing that the names will lead to decent sales. This kind-of works, but not usually that straightforwardly. We publish Powerman, which features early work by Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland designed for the Nigerian market in the mid-seventies. Our Alan Moore project is Maxwell the Magic Cat, a humourous strip produced for the Northants Post in the late seventies. It’s good actually – have a look – but projects like this tend to reinforce the ‘budget’ nature of our activities. Mind you if you have copies of our original Maxwell books hang onto them, they fetch a good price! At one stage we try (but fail) to get the rights to reprint the Gerry Anderson-inspired strips from TV Century 21. Long-term Anderson fan Dave Nightingale (a very nice former police officer) eventually pulls this off, and then when Thunderbirds becomes a hit again in the 1990s a newstand comic reprinting the strips is a big hit. Acme is always nearly, but not quite there.
We do try to back projects by people we like as well. Kiss of Death, which in retrospect some of us come to see as a prophetic title, showcases excellent work by the then-relatively-unknown artist John Watkiss. Aces is an anthology reprinting European strips, while Rael translates a European comic album drawn by the marvellous New Zealand artist Colin Wilson.
Although Acme’s profile is raised as a consequence of all this publishing, our finances remain precarious. Nonetheless, our ambition is undiminished. We open a comic shop in Brixton, South London, with a basement gallery to showcase work by different artists. At our otherwise successful launch party, Marvel editor Archie Goodwin‘s wife stumbles on the (admittedly precarious) steps down to the gallery and cuts her head. Luckily for us, Archie is one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet and he is incredibly gracious and kind about the incident. Archie is no longer with us, and is much missed.
My Acme era stretches beyond my time at Titan. For reasons I will shortly go into (both financial and medical) I never take a turn on the £5k salaried post, so although I am involved in the decision-making I am not as involved in the practicalities as I might be. Probably a mistake in retrospect, but I also still lack confidence. My main creative input is to Speakeasy. I become US News Editor, and then overall News Editor. I develop a little bit of confidence about my writing skills – on one occasion Dick Hansom, who is editing Speakeasy at the time, tells me he likes my writing and that my news pages are the thing he looks forward to most each month. Such positive words never give me enough confidence at the time to try and forge a writing career – and as you can see, it has taken transition for me to find my voice.
I will return to Speakeasy in due course, including recounting the famous Neil Gaiman incident. But I now need to return to Titan, and to the incidents which follow after telling my friend Wendy that I am transgender.