In the 1980s a regular highlight of the British comics scene was UKCAC (the UK Comic Art Convention) organized by a lovely guy called Frank Plowright. I have no idea where Frank is now. By the late eighties it has a settled venue – the Institute of Education in London – and generally takes place on a weekend in September. Everybody who is anybody is there, including a great many who start attending as fans and, over the course of a few years, turn pro.
As already mentioned, the only convention I ever attended as a fan was in Birmingham in 1979. But as a professional, I am a regular attender at UKCAC – helping staff the Forbidden Planet dealer tables to begin with and then in my Acme capacity. Here’s a link to the flyer for the 1988 convention. Look, I’m listed as a guest! That’s me, hiding inside the collective title Acme Press Gang!
Of all my UKCAC memories, two stand out in particular. I have now realized through diligent research, that one took place in 1987 and the other in 1988. But as I have already consigned 1987 to the dustbin of history, I will write about both events in this post.
In 1987 two of the guests at UKCAC are Will Eisner, who created his innovative newspaper strip The Spirit in 1940, and Alan Moore, who has just redefined superhero comics completely with his reinvention of Marvelman and Swamp Thing and his groundbreaking collaboration with Dave Gibbons, Watchmen. Both creators are keen to meet each other, and Acme offers to take them to dinner.
In the 1970s The Spirit is collected and reprinted in a regular comic by underground comix publisher Kitchen Sink Press. Interest in the comic revives Will’s career, leading to a whole bunch of groundbreaking new work. This new phase begins in 1978 with the publication of A Contract with God, considered by some to be the first graphic novel. I bought the first edition in 1978, and dutifully bring my treasured copy to UKCAC for him to sign, which he does with grace and warmth. Will turns out to be one of the nicest people you could wish to meet, and we chat briefly as he signs my book and we wander towards the restaurant.
We are eating at Topo Gigio’s, an Italian restaurant in Soho (no longer there, I think) improbably named after a well-known Italian puppet character from the 1960s. The whole Acme gang is there plus Will, his wife I think, and Alan Moore. For some reason Will and Alan end up between me and the others, so I can’t talk to my chums. I am seated next to Alan, and Will sits opposite him. Their conversation is quite animated. They are several comics generations apart, and also have rather different political philosophies from each other. So the conversation doesn’t stay on comics for long, but moves onto other things, occasionally getting a little heated.
Seated at the end of the table, I attempt to join in on the conversation, which seems to be not unreasonable. After all, I haven’t had to eat my meal in silence since I was at prep school. I appreciate that they are superstars but hey, I have an opinion or two. My contribution is however not required or desired. Alan ignores/talks over anything I say, until in the end I sit in silence with my spaghetti. To be fair to him, he is getting a chance to talk to one of his own heroes, and I am not, at the time, bouncing with personality or confidence. However in the unlikely event that I ever become a superstar myself and find myself having dinner with mere mortals, I will try make a point of including them in the conversation, particularly if they are the ones who have picked up the tab. But there you go.
I have a more significant involvement in Acme’s activities by the time of UKCAC88. By then I am News Editor of Speakeasy, and contributing articles, in between temping engagements. That year Fleetway are expanding into new publishing areas, heavily influenced by the growth in graphic novels and the independent comics scene over in the USA. The first of the new titles is Crisis, a self-consciously political comic masterminded by Pat Mills. Acme (always keen to see the UK market grow overall) agrees to promote Crisis heavily in Speakeasy, and in due course I interview all four of the creators involved – writers Pat Mills and John Smith, and artists Carlos Ezquerra and Jim Baikie, and we run the interviews over successive issues. They are all interesting to talk to: Ezquerra I find particularly friendly, although his artwork has never been to my taste, sadly.
Our promotion of Crisis leads to a significant injection of advertising funds from Fleetway which allows us, as a one-off, to double our page count and put a full colour cover on Speakeasy #91, which comes out at UKCAC. I’m looking at my copy now. You can see the cover, with art by Ezquerra, if you select the relevant thumbnail on this page.
There is another significant interview in that issue, and this is one which gets me into some difficulties. The interviewees are writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. At this point Gaiman has been working as a journalist for many years, at one stage writing the first book about Douglas Adams of Hitch-Hiker’s fame. In collaboration with McKean he breaks into comics in 1987 with a book called Violent Cases. In due course, like many of the Fleetway creators, the pair are headhunted by Karen Berger at D.C. Their first commission is to perform an Alan Moore-style reinvention of a seventies character called Black Orchid, which at the time of the 1988 convention is not quite out yet …
Ah, Neil Gaiman. I am just the merest hint of a sore-throated whisper of a footnote to his illustrious career. However at UKCAC88 I am briefly the focus of his angry attention. It happens like this …
By the summer of 1988 one of the original Acme co-op members, Bambos Georgiou, has left, so it’s just the four of us – Ashford, Curson, Hansom, Ridout. Richard Ashford invites a friend of his, Alan Mitchell, to become involved with Acme although not, at the time, as a co-op member. One of Alan’s first assignments is to interview Gaiman and McKean about Black Orchid. In due course he drops the tapes off for me to transcribe, and the resulting interview appears, over four pages, in Speakeasy #91.
I lightly edit the interview so that it reads slightly better in print, but don’t change or cut it significantly. There is no indication in the tape that anything Gaiman or McKean say is not for publication, although Neil talks about the plot a fair bit. To this day, I don’t know whether Neil asked to check the transcript with Alan, or not. If he did, I wasn’t told. In the end, I was just the typist, and sub-editor. Anyway …
We (the Acme gang) are all at UKCAC. The colour, double-size Speakeasy – with pieces on Crisis, Black Orchid, and another new title called Deadline, which will launch Tank Girl on the world, therefore leading, in due course, to Gorillaz – is selling like hot cakes. See how many famous people I have stood quietly next to? I was like Zelig …
At some point early in the first day of the convention, Neil gets hold of a copy of Speakeasy and reads the interview. Shortly afterwards my Acme colleague Cefn Ridout tells me that Neil is very, very angry. With me. He is not angry with Alan, who interviewed him, but he is angry with me because I have left too many spoilers in the transcribed version. I don’t think we called them spoilers then, that’s an Internet term, but you know what I mean. Apparently I have given so much away he is worried it will hurt the sales of Black Orchid: he is trying to find me so that he can have it out with me. Perhaps an understandable worry on the threshold of an international career, but again I say, I was just the goddamn typist! No-one said to me print this, and don’t print that. In point of fact if the plot information had been removed, Gaiman’s contribution to the interview would have looked vanishingly small. Nonetheless I am very anxious. If he finds me, I have no idea what I am going to say. So instead of just enjoying the convention like everyone else I spend the whole time in a state of apprehension, trying to avoid running into Neil Gaiman. Happily I do manage to get through the con without bumping into him, but it is not the happiest weekend of my life. If something like that happened to me now I would probably be able to face the consequences, whatever they might be, and stick up for myself. But for reasons regular readers will know all about, I am at the time a fairly timid soul, and neither in the best of health nor the best of spirits. I am running scared from most things, and Neil Gaiman is no exception.
Shortly afterwards Black Orchid is indeed published, to decent sales and considerable acclaim. Neil’s work on the title leads him to be commissioned to reinvent another D.C. character, Sandman. This comic is an enormous success, finding a devoted audience and turning him into an extremely significant comics writer – the start of what proves to be a stratospheric rise in his career. The next time Neil bumps into Alan, he makes a point of thanking him for the interview, saying how great it was and how much it may have contributed to Black Orchid‘s success. Well there you go. It was nicely typed, too. Disclaimer – both Mr Gaiman’s positive and negative comments were, of course, relayed to me second-hand.
As a result of this little non-encounter, I have never been able to read Neil’s work with much objectivity – my loss, perhaps. I keep trying intermittently though – I have a copy of his recent work The Graveyard Book waiting to be read by my bedside. UKCAC88 is almost my last convention – although I do parachute briefly into a later UKCAC to collect an Eagle Award for Speakeasy. Shortly after the convention I sever my relationship with Acme, as the effects of my recent surgery become more evident, and more significant.