BugPowder

Gav Burrows recounts his time spent in the UK Comics Fandom of the 1980s.

"The plan was that by pissing off comic fans 'til they stormed off, we'd leave a space for someone else to step into. Whenever we got a letter indignantly cancelling a subscription, it would be printed pride of place and we'd revel in it as if it were drugs, quoting the best bits to each other for months after. When one writer claimed FA had become a "warped, reedy voiced organ of the loony left" we considered putting it on the cover."

Comics & My Life
part two

More Insight and Embarrassment

by Gavin Burrows

originally published in Vicious fanzine #5, July 1996

This is the second of two articles about the role of comics in my life. I tried to justify the first part by all the sorts of gratuitous references to post-literacy, nature-of-the-form and other terms which fell out of an old copy of Media Guardian when I was trying to tidy up the front room. I'm kind of hoping everybody will have forgotten about that by now, though, because I've no excuses whatsoever in writing this part at all. It's just some ludicrous exercise in self-indulgence as I hit my Thirties and start the slow and inevitable decline into senility. Listen kid, I was reading comics when you were still in short trousers and reading... umm, er... well, comics, I suppose. Just indulge me, okay?

Fandom of Old

As fandom has such a turnover in membership, and is continually re inventing itself, it occurs to me that lots of people today will be surprised to hear what it was like back then ("Back then'' here means the early eighties, which is when I first go involved). Briefly it was big (tho' definitely not broad), it had its own forms of organisation, its own history and own enduring structures. But, bizarrest of all, it had an importance which extended beyond its own view of itself.

You have to picture the times. As there were few comic shops outside the capital, most people bought their comics by mail. This made conventions and other communications much more important - they were your only chance to meet fellow devotees of this arcane cult. But, more importantly, there was no professional or newsstand comics magazine, so fanzines could get surprisingly big as they were your only access to news. (FA regularly hit sales of 3,000.) If, as they often did, they came attached to a mail-order service, they were your whole access to comics. A critical voice was therefore created which was independent of the big comics companies.

But it wasn't just a matter of numbers reading fanzines, there were also numbers of fanzines. while today, everyone does their own small press comic and fancies themselves an artist, then you ran up a fanzine on your college copier and considered yourself a critic.

Virtually every higher education centre had one of these (It was all a very middle class hobby, of course). Why? Well, put bluntly - they were easier times. They didn't feel like the good old days, in fact our predecessors were always telling us they'd had the good old days, but compared to today, they were slack as fuck. when I was a student I had three lectures a week, tops. Maybe I'd go to one or two of them to show willing. I never considered a part-time job, I was too busy pissing up my grant cheque. I had to find something to occupy my time. The dole was similarly slack, today's bullying devices like JobClub or Restart were but a glint on the Employment Secretary's foreskin. (I don't think you'd go far wrong in saying that the Job Seekers Allowance is the greatest threat to all forms of creativity we've had in years.)

Now, all these fanzines related in a very particular way. I once read someone's account of the Sixties Underground, where they explained how there was a deep but unspoken hierarchy at all 'alternative' events which everyone was expected to slot into. You didn't go up and speak to Germaine Greer until you'd been formally admitted into the central court.

Fandom was like that. Everyone was doing their own fanzine, but they were just minor public schools to which FA and Speakeasy were the Eaton and Harrow. (I suppose in all honesty I should mention my arch-enemies at Ark. There were two positions to take. Some, like me, read it to take the piss out of it. (Editor Paul Duncan's explanation of how Alan Davis' art was 'Cubist' was always a favourite here.) Others didn't read it. But in those days you couldn't just not read it. You didn't read it. It was a Statement.) You did your fanzine as your calling card into polite London society, hoping for promotion. The dutiful could even get passed down titles as editors retired, like family estates. Upstarts who didn't know their place were shunned.

When I arrived at Westminster Marts and other fandom events of old, I felt excitement but trepidation. Lacking anything approaching real breeding, I assumed I'd be stuck in some outlying office, but maybe through diligence make it into middle management. My kids, I dreamed, maybe my kids would make it into the Royal Circle.

To my surprise, everyone seemed to embrace me. I was always vaguely suspicious that some kind of mistaken identity had happened, that at any moment someone would say "Oh, you're that Gavin Burrows" and that would be me up. (In fact, I still expect that to happen half the time.)

I thrilled to fandom. I loved the horizontal structures of criss-crossing letters, as everybody stuck their oar in. I'd leap enthusiastically into debates I knew not a thing about, and have my dumbfuck words come back to haunt me years later. I was a true believer.

The Palace Coup

But on another level, my response was more contradictory. You see, I'd carelessly double-booked myself into another subculture - that second great middle-class standby, radical politics. Now these didn't mix (or rather they mixed so well that each held up a mirror to the other they didn't like to look into). In fact, to this day political types regard me as a dodgy bourgeois artsy type whose political affectations are but an aspiration, while comic folk regard me as a sinister political entryist who's just pretending to be into comics.

Now, fandom then was dominated by the Old Guard. These were duffers who had worked their way up through fandom by years of volunteering to do the boring jobs, and they were obsessed by the Golden Age and Silver Age. (I must have been told a thousand times when each of these was, but as I sit here now I'm buggered if I can remember either of them).

This was before reprints, so a comprehensive collection of old comics was a timely and cumbersome business that involved going round junkshops, dusty dealers and oldtime newsagents who never threw their out-of-date stock away. And when you'd got them, there was no slotting the pristine volumes neatly on the shelf next to your CDs. Oh no. Boxes and boxes of the things would dominate your house, too big to be ignored. Given all this effort, modern comics were to be regarded with suspicion. Come back in twenty years and we'll see they've you've shaped up. Meanwhile, we've some background detail in Legion of Superheroes #126 to discuss.

A showdown loomed. I'm happy to report that I very quickly fell in with the wrong sort (It's been a feature of my lucky life that I've often managed to fall in with the wrong sort in new social situations). Like Bolshevik conspirators, we plotted a palace coup. Demolish fandom's hierarchy? I don't think the thought ever occurred to us, actually. No, we plotted to seize the flagship itself. Of course, I'm talking about Martin Skidmore taking over FA.

FA was originally edited by a tweedy gent called Martin Lock, and was called Fantasy Advertiser - a name which perfectly conjured up its furtive and English sexuality. Fantasy Advertiser was chiefly characterised by reams and reams of tedious text, about such vital subjects as a review of the middle book in some fantasy trilogy which would summarise the plot for a few pages then reach some staggering conclusion such as "a good read" (This was all pre-Derrida, I hope you understand). It was quite impossible to read the thing from one end to the other, except in relay formation as a team event.

But Martin Lock wanted to jack it in to edit one of the most inept and unintentionally hilarious comics lines in history (tho. to be fair to him, perhaps that wasn't his conscious plan). So he needed a follow-on er.

Martin Skidmore previously edited a fanzine called Worlds Collide. I'm using a metaphor there. With a bellow of his Bristol accent he threw out all this stuff about 'SF' and middle fantasy books and Legion of Superheroes #126. He intended better things. He intended to use FA to get up people's noses.

FA and the New Economic Policy

This plan to offend everybody was a two-pronged assault of cunning simplicity.

First, he would get his drunken friends to knock up strips without elaborate rendering or intricate continuity where if you didn't know better you'd swear they'd done them down the pub.

Second, he'd get his slightly more sober friends to write elaborate treatises on 'Leninism and Mickey Mouse' or some such nonsense. This, we believed - get this, this is the good bit - this, we believed, was enough to knock down the walls of respectability for comics, and then the museums and galleries of high culture would be ours to frolic in. We were true believers.

The plan was that by pissing off comic fans 'til they stormed off, we'd leave a space for someone else to step into. Whenever we got a letter indignantly cancelling a subscription, it would be printed pride of place and we'd revel in it as if it were drugs, quoting the best bits to each other for months after. When one writer claimed FA had become a "warped, reedy voiced organ of the loony left" we considered putting it on the cover.

I would always fondly imagine they were talking about me, but everybody else would insist it was them (And nobody ever wanted to share the credit. We were Socialists after all!). I remember even now the disappointment I felt when Martin printed a review by me bemoaning the current state of some DC title, where I called for it to be run by a workers' council of inkers, letterers and printers, and for the characters within to seize control of their graphic style. The floods of complaints and canceled subs never came, alas.

In fact, it was always impossible to tell who they were talking about (It was hard enough to tell what they were talking about). They never said, for example, "The critique of modern capitalism as an economic theory in relation to Tony Stark's business interests in the last overview of Iron Man has been adequately dismissed in a recent edition of The Economist". Instead they would say "FA used to be a super good read until you communist swine got your filthy grabbing hands on it but you're not getting the rest of our democracy you Russian dupes and you think you're all very clever but my Dad says you're not!"

In retrospect, it's abundantly clear to me that it was the strips people objected to. Your eyes couldn't glide over them like they could a piece of dense text. This precisely parallels the split between painters and poets in the Surrealist group in the twenties, where history shows the painters coming out on top.

Horsemen of the Superhero Apocalypse

At this point, the first horsemen of the superhero apocalypse arrived. They came completely unconnected to FA in any way, but we were luckily completely oblivious to this at the time.

when you paid for your copy of Watchmen, Dark Knight, Marshal Law and the rest it wasn't like handing over coins. It was like loading an assassin's gun. Like armageddonists waving billboards, we trotted out our favourite long words to prove our predictions for the death of the superhero. No one would dare do them after this, they'd just be too embarrassed. We were about to knock down the walls of respectability, etc, etc. We were true believers. Like in Marshal Law, we were pushing an open door, kicking cripples. Only they turned out to be invulnerable cripples who we could kick as much as we liked, and all we'd ever get out of it was tired.

Those days were particularly heady because the phenomenon was so British-centred. Miller excepted (and even he came to conventions!), it was mostly 8ritish creators who had read FA (and occasionally been in it). We'd stand at the bar talking to them at comic events, while autograph-hungry fans wandered the corridors wondering where they could be. But, excuses aside, it's be hard to escape the charge we were somewhat young and naive. We feared for nothing but our ideology falling on our heads!

The next thing Alan Moore did was a Batman Annual and the next thing Frank Miller did was a Batman mini-series. They were the best of times, they were the worst of times.

Tho' what they wrote was definitely right for the time, there's no doubt the long-term effect was bad. Two great trends were to follow. In one, long passages of brooding misery would be cut with short bursts of senseless and graphic violence. This was called 'Serious Work'. In the other, long passages of senseless and graphic violence would be cut with short bursts of brooding misery. This was known as 'Revitalising the Genre'.

It's abundantly clear now that the Comics Fad was more akin to the Filofax Fad than anything about walls of respectability. There was an economic boom, people had more cash in their pockets and new gimmicks needed inventing to fleece them of it. For a brief time, you had to have a comics collection, for the same mysterious reason that you had to have CDs you already had the records of. For this reason, the New Comics bubble collapsed at the first sight of the recession. (well, that and the fact that almost all of them were shit.)

The Wrong Sort, part two

But remember my lucky streak in always finding the wrong sort? Well, I got them again. While the 'New Comics' bollocks was actually killing comics, appealing to everybody's greed by making them tailor their work to the (somewhat limited) mindsets of the big companies (everybody was working on their moneymaking proposals then, it was like The Player), the recession saved them.

People went back to nicking copies off their office copier, doing what they wanted and fuck the radioactive paper gimmicks. People lost their yuppy job, and had time on their hands to do something creative again. I got sent a mail-out from something called Zum! which promised to be the new Fast Fiction (a small press review sheet and distro service, if you didn't know). Frank Miller had already told us "If you intend to die, you can do anything." The same proved true of selling badly.

Of course, that was over five years ago, and I think it's clear that the small press expansion is over. It's now at a phase of consolidation, where people already doing things try to do them better. The inevitable next stage is dissolution, when they get fed up with doing them at all, and stop. When someone suggested this at an early-on small press meeting, it was met with gasps of "Heresy!" in the right-on atmosphere. But it's not only inevitable, it's also good. It's that fluidity that makes Fandom. The only alternative is stagnation, and if you want to see what that's like, just look at corporate comics.

The only thing I haven't liked about this latest wave is the post Thatcherite cult of the Individual which has permeated it. Most energy has gone into creating open-access institutions such as the Caption newsletter or even Vicious for that matter. People used to seriously argue that if there was a small press distribution service (ie, someone who did all the boring stuff of selling your comics, then gave you money for them) this would be some terrible Stalinist thing and all our comics would start looking exactly alike. I can only say that if someone's individuality is as fragile as that it's going to be pretty much fucked from the outset really. I've always been a believer in doing things mobhanded myself...

The New FA?

Bear in mind this was written in 1996. Things have, again, moved on. - Pete

In the last Vish, Pete Ashton, ye (non) ed, said he'd picked up some old fanzines to peruse - and that they were boring as fuck. There's a reason for that - they were. Or, at least, if my old letters were anything to go by. I read some of them before writing this and my toes curled. Plus, I'm really glad DTP systems got more available - five minutes of looking at those old illustration-free slabs of typewriter-text was more than enough. How come we didn't all go blind? The on-way is the right way, as they say.

But there still seems some mystique which hangs around the name FA, suggesting people still miss it after all these years. Barely a month goes by without something being called "the new FA" by some inventive sort. Personally, I think it's still here. Only, in our atomised present, it's split into three.

The Panelhouse has inherited the auteurism, taking the pantheon of comics greats and repolishing them like ornaments. Comics Forum has taken the politico-cultural theory, telling us that Dennis the Menace is actually 'discourse' and the like (Significantly, Forum has frequently returned to discussing Kirby while Panelhouse has mostly slighted him). Vicious is 'NML', FA's long and lively lettercol split off whole and turned into a mag of its own (Forum and Panelhouse only have short lettercols, and don't print correspondents' whole addresses - very unFandom!). I wonder how many buy all three.

Anyway - enough reminiscences! I'm off to collect me pension and confiscate some schoolkids' footballs. I'll see you in the Post Office queue. Bye!

© Gav Burrows