In this interview for our Meta Grid blog Tim Pilcher talks to Ernesto Priego about his Kickstarter crowdfunding project, a memoir of working at Vertigo Comics UK titled Comic Book Babylon: A Cautionary Tale of Sex, Drugs and Comics.
Ernesto Priego: Please give us an introduction to Comic Book Babylon. How and when was the project first conceived?
Tim Pilcher: The book is “The Rise and Fall of Tim Pilcher” and talks about how I was always a fan of DC Comics and how I ultimately got to work for the publisher I’d read as a kid. I was talking to Paul Levitz the other month and realised that I was the first British member of DC’s editorial staff. I guess the book was first planned shortly after I left DC Comics back in 1995. It was under very awkward circumstances and I felt very bitter about the whole experience. I sat on it for almost 20 years wondering whether I should tell all. I guess “revenge” is a dish best served cold! ;-)
EP: Can you tell us a bit about which authors were involved with the British office, and (I know you tell this story in the book!) some of the key series that were developed at that time here in the UK?
TP: Most of the creators we worked with were in Art Young’s stable [associate editor for DC Comics] whom he’d worked with on DC titles like Animal Man (Grant Morrison & Peter Milligan) before taking them off to Touchmark, and then eventually bringing them back to Vertigo!
Others included artist Paul Johnson (who introduced me to Art in the first place) and J.M. DeMatteis on Mercy, Duncan Fegredo and Peter Milligan on Enigma and Face (my personal favourite), Jon J Muth on The Mystery Play, Steve Yeowell on Sebastian O, Jamie Delano and Richard Case on Ghostdancing, Ted McKeever on The Extremist (with Milligan), Nick Abadzis (Millenium Fever), Frank Quitely on Flex Mentallo, and Morrison and Philip Bond’s Kill Your Boyfriend. We reprinted and collected Rogan Gosh by Brendan McCarthy and Milligan, and many many more!
We specialised in doing one-shots and miniseries, to prevent the tired-out inertia that eventually hits an ongoing series. This was one of the stipulations Art made before coming back to DC. With hindsight this was a smart move as it’s where the industry has been heading ever since.
EP: What Vertigo published in the 1990s so refreshing precisely because it was not US-centric. I’m sure it coincided with the ´Cool Britannia’ trend doing the rounds in the US and many other other countries in terms of pop music, fashion, the arts… Britain was cool! British comics authors were cool, and they made DC Comics suddenly cool and innovative and ‘literary’, the kind of comics you were not embarrassed to be seen reading as a grown-up. How do you see it with the hindsight of the present? What has been left from all that, in comics and in the UK?
TP: Vertigo and British comics were very cool at the time. The whole Britpop scene was kicking off and bands like Blur and Elastica hung out in the convention bars. The music scene was integral to comics like Deadline, where you had comic creator Will Potter drawing a strip for the anthology, while being the bassist for indie rockers, CUD. Plus Jamie Hewlett was doing covers for The Senseless Things’ (TST) records. Jamie, TST’s dummer, Cass Browne, and Damon Albarn from Blur all got together on the famed Gorillaz project, so the seeds were sown way back then.
What Vertigo did was make the writers equally, if not more, important as the artists, and they were feted for looking at influences from outside of comics, which was rare (at the time) for an industry that spends a lot of its time navel gazing. Writers were reading works by Will Self, Martin Amis, Rimbaud, and esoteric works which they brought to their comics. This meant we felt that we were on the cusp of getting comics accepted as a true literary art form. Unfortunately Vertigo, Fantagraphics and a few others were still in the minority at this stage, and so the “False dawn of the graphic novel” failed to reach the tipping point of social acceptance. However, I think without Vertigo, the industry wouldn’t have had the success it enjoys now, both critically and commercially. What it did was allow people to see beyond what was possible with comics and broadened people’s horizons, encouraging experimentalism.
EP: Can you contextualise what happened later? Is commercial or global success for British comics authors unavoidably linked to publishing in the US? In your opinion, has the UK been able to retain its talent and create loyal audiences here?
TP: The false dawn was created by the “Holy Trinity” of Maus, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The British press lapped this up, proclaiming a new era in comics, but the truth was the vast majority of material still out on the shelves was sub-standard superhero fare which the general public didn’t really give a toss about. So there was a willing readership who were simply not being catered for. A few publishers were doing it (Fantagraphics, and the like) but it was hard to find them and mainstream publishers like Penguin didn’t know how to market Spiegelman & Mouly’s Raw correctly.
The problem for most British creators was that, in the late Eighties/early Nineties, the majority of UK comics publishers (like IPC) realised there was more money in printing magazines than comics, so many sold off or simply killed their titles. Fleetway came along and tried to rescue titles, like 2000 AD and Crisis, but it was the law of diminishing returns (Deadline bucked that trend) and once the publishing programs closed there wasn’t anywhere for creators to go and get work, apart from the States, hence the “British Invasion!” They had to go where the money was! So yes, their livelihoods were inextricably linked to the USA. A few turned to France early on (Pat Mills, unsurprisingly, was one of the first to head to the Continent, along with Colin Wilson) but language barriers, the amount of artists already established there, and working practices, prevented many from working in Europe.
I think that most British comic fans are fiercely loyal and protective of British creators, even if they are working for foreign companies. They are seen as “ours”, and a great British creative export that brings money into the UK. That has never been fully acknowledged or appreciated by UK governments properly.
Given the choice, I think the majority of British creators would rather work for British publishers, but there’s not enough of them to be able to employ everyone! Although in recent years it has been looking very healthy with companies like Jonathan Cape, Blank Slate and Self Made Hero leading the charge.
EP: And now you are crowdfunding Comic Book Babylon on Kickstarter. At the time of writing you have already collected two thirds of the target… is this the future of independent publishing?
TP: Well, we’re no Veronica Mars movie, but I’m beginning to think so! This was very much an experiment to see if anyone was interested in reading this hitherto untold history of comics (from my perspective), as I genuinely had no idea. Apparently people are keen to find out, which is wonderful. To be honest, I’m completely flabbergasted as to how quick the response and generosity has been! It’s restored my faith in human nature.
The best thing is that I know the books are going to people who are genuinely interested. In the old days of publishing, you’d just print X copies and hope people would pick it up. Kickstarter allows you to reach and interact with your readership directly in a way for me, as an author, has not be previously possible.
I’m just about to be made redundant from my publishing job, and so this is my only income at the moment. If this does as well as I’m hoping, it could pave the way for me doing other books via Kickstarter.
Although we’ve almost reached our goal, we’ll be creating some stretch targets to be able to provide even more upgrades such as better quality badges, colour photographs in the book and other upgrades (you heard that here first!). There’s a big responsibility in making this the best book it can possibly be and I don’t want to let anyone down! Fortunately, I’ve the excellent team of Rian Hughes, [Comics Grid editorial board member] Brad Brooks and Pádraig Ó Méalóid supporting me with the design, editorial and promotion. They’ve been incredible!
EP: It seems to me Comic Book Babylon will be an important part of the ongoing history of British comics publishing, completing the picture of a seminal period. To end this brief interview (we could talk for hours!), do you have any final words you would like to share with us to entice our readers to support the crowdfunding campaign?
TP: Thanks! I’d just add that this “secret history” is unlikely to ever make it to the shops, so the only way people will be able to get this is if they pledge! If you want to find out how the Vertigo UK office operated; what it was like working with various creators such as Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo; and what happened to me one psychotropic night at UKCAC 1994 with two famous comic writers, then this is the only place you discover it! Plus there are “guest appearances” by The Spice Girls, Blur and many more!
Even if we make our target we won’t be resting on our laurels. We’ll be making it the best experience we can afford, so the more money we make, the better the product. So please keep pledging! It’s all up to our patrons to make it happen!