With the fourth edition of the annual Malta Comic Convention just around the corner Wicked Comics have a chat with influential writer, editor and publisher Dez Skinn who will be one of the guests to this years’ Malta Comic Con.
WC – Were comics always a passion of yours? How did you actually break in the industry?
DZ – Definitely a passion – I learned to read from them. Unlike books with their swathes of grey boring type, the beauty of comics is you can visually “read” them and actively want to understand the words. To my mind they’re the best-ever learning tool for literacy, and for gaining an active imagination, from their content.
As for breaking into the industry, during a dull stretch on local newspapers (The Doncaster Evening Post) I yearned for something more creative than writing up a story about a local dignitary’s wife spraining her ankle so with my CV and fanzines in hand, I headed for London and during one afternoon’s scurrying around I landed a job as a trainee sub-editor on the comics side of the world’s biggest publishing company, IPC Magazines.
WC – How would you describe your successful journey in the industry? Any tips for aspiring publishers?
DZ – My journey has been incredible, in part down to always trying to do my absolute best, never compromising, and being in the right place at the right time. That and a huge dollop of good luck, I guess.
Any publisher worth his salt should aim at the biggest catchment market there is, the general public. Preaching only to the converted, through comics shops, means you invariably have to follow the big boys, against whom you can’t seriously compete. But the general public don’t really know Marvel from DC and if your product’s good, with them not being weighed down by wants lists and existing favourites, they’e far more likely to buy it. This also gives you a far bigger print run, thus lower unit cost and a more attainable breakeven figure.
WC – Your influence on the British comics landscape was so huge that you are sometimes referred to as ‘the British Stan Lee’. What are your views on this?
DZ – Provided it doesn’t mean I take all the credit, I can happily live with that. I guess it means a tad more to the general public than “The British Jim Warren”! Personally I think I’ve made a career out of doing the obvious!
WC – After being in the industry for over four decades, what would you list as being one of your major achievements?
DZ – One of? That’s a toughie. Banging on again about the general public, with me having edited MAD seems to impress, but then so does coming up with the name V for Vendetta. But I guess having a bundle of Guinness World Records and my odd name being an answer to a question on BBC-tv’s Mastermind isn’t too pokey either! But my 10-yr old daughter’s been most impressed by seeing people actually want to shake my hand in the street, that and Doctor Who’s David Tennant having been a fan of mine as a kid!
WC – Quality Communications is your vehicle for launching properties. In the past you’ve stressed that you prefer quality over quantity and that’s one of the reasons why you left Marvel UK. Thus the question: What are the essential elements you look for, in terms of quality, when you judge a comic / graphic novel?
DZ – The “wow” factor is key. Although sometimes “sleeper” strips, like weird tracks on albums, can end up your favourites, provided they are initially carried by more commercial work. Thus Abslom Daak in Doctor Who Weekly, Night-Raven in Hulk Comic, Shandor in House of Hammer, V for Vendetta in Warrior. But unless a strip is actually in an anthology (to my mind still the safest kind of launch), it certainly needs that “wow” factor visually or people won’t read the words!
WC – Being an editor is a very important job and one that is very different from being the writer or artist behind a comic. Can you tell us in short what an Editor’s job entails and what is the best part of it?
DZ – I can’t speak for other editors, there’s lots of people out there who have kept their jobs by NOT coming up with new ideas. After all, if a new title fails the freelancers have still had a portfolio for their writing or drawing, but if it’s a western – say – when everybody wants a horror title, the editor goes down with his ship! To me, as more of an ideas man than a paper pusher, being the editor is all about coming up with a commercial idea first and foremost. Liken it to a ship: The writers and artists are the engine which gets the ship to its destination, but the editor is the captain who must decide on a destination that people actually want to travel to!
So I guess I’m a catalyst really. My prime function is to have (a) the idea, then (b) get the finance together, then (c) find the right people to work with and finally to take those often rough diamonds and try to polish them. Dear me, I’m in serious metaphor mood today!
WC – You’ve launched many artists and writers through the years, in fact some of the most renowned British creators today got their first big breaks through your publications. What are the elements that you look for in creators whose work you’re interested in publishing?
DZ – Talent, pure and simple. You can teach most of the rest. For example (without a metaphor!), I once saw three simple pencil drawings on a sheet of paper. They weren’t apeing somebody else’s style, they were just exciting figure work. No backgrounds, no feathering, just solid figure drawing. Even though the artist was only 16 years old at the time I took him on with a guarantee of a full year’s work. That was at Marvel UK with Steve Dillon.
With writers it’s far more difficult. You can’t make a snap decision when faced with reams of type. In fact I’ve taken on some pretty high profile people in the past only to discover later than their ideas weren’t quite as original as I’d thought. They were just better read than me and didn’t have any qualms about plagiarism!
But would-be creators must be persistent, and thick-skinned. Almost everybody goes through a spate of rejection slips before finding their niche. The trick is to continue sending your work in without expecting glowing praise within a matter of days. Quite a few times I’ve given assignments to new artists or writers whose work I’ve remembered and names I’ve got to know by their continuing to submit ideas. Not too frequently, but at least on a monthly basis, so the editor can see you’re determined without considering you a pain in the neck. Everybody likes to leave the office at 5.30 and editors aren’t employed to spend their days in correspondence with hopefuls.
WC – What advice would you give to budding creators looking for a break in the industry?
DZ – Hmm. Think I’ve just covered that one!
WC – Do you visit conventions looking for new projects or new talents or do artists and writers come to you and pitch in their ideas and their work?
DZ – No. I visit conventions to see the world, enthusiastically promote whatever I’m busy doing and hopefully have a good time. I prefer the one-to-one basis way above queues of hopefuls, which can be embarrassing for everybody as you don’t really have much say in what you’re looking at/responding to!
WC – I’ve read in one of your past interviews that new creators should get their work financed by others instead of taking the task of self-publishing too. Do you consider self-published work amateurish? Are there other advantages apart from the financial one, when creators do not self-publish?
DZ – No. Not amateur. But just because you can draw doesn’t mean you can write, or letter, or publish and promote. I think people should play to their strengths, not let themselves down with awful lettering or spending their money on printing. Self-publishing can be soul destroying to a would-be creative. It’s not about writing or drawing, it’s about areas that only a small few would enjoy, or survive. The amount of time and effort you can spend trying to sell your work in printed form really isn’t for everybody! Better to keep drawing or keep writing and keep submitting your work to others, from high-profile publishers to established indies who would welcome you and possibly team you up with good letterers!
WC – Do you think that creators tend to be too self-absorbed in their work to receive constructive criticism?
DZ – I try not to generalise about that, but even Alan Moore used to need editing!
WC – Did you ever leave a project because the artists / writers were too stubborn to follow your editorial advice?
DZ – No. It isn’t just freelance creatives who need to be persistent. And I’ve been lucky generally to work with people I know, so I can work with them. There’s no point if the chemistry isn’t there. I tend not o give editorial advice so much as initial editorial direction. After all, editors are fortunate in that they are always surrounded by people so they should have a pretty good grass roots feel for what an audience would like. Being a writer or artist means you spend most of your week in total isolation, so you can easily lose track of the public mood. For me it’s all about what’s next, not repeating old formulae to an ever-diminishing fanboy scene. But to do that you really need to be in the thick of things. I constantly bounce ideas of people around me because I want their opinions. I have a huge admiration for people who work in isolation, I just couldn’t do it. But equally, I can’t expect them to hit the bull’s eye that often. Their main aim, after all, is getting enough work to pay their bills – ongoing steady work that they’re commissioned to do. Mine is more about thinking outside of the box.
WC – Your work on the magazine ‘Comics International’ can be considered as a milestone in your extensive career. Do you regret leaving the editorial seat of such magazine now that it stopped publishing in 2010? Do you plan in issuing a similar magazine in the future?
DZ – Stan Lee once said to me he thought my strength was in coming up with new ideas. Very flattering, but I think he may have been right. While I was at Marvel UK he wanted me to come up with an idea, edit the first few issues to get the formula sorted, then assign editorship and move on. I spent longer on Comics International than House of Hammer, Doctor Who Weekly, MAD, Starburst, Warrior and the rest put together. It was easy though, so I guess I copped out really. But after 16 years and 200 issues, I really wanted to get back into the driving seat! Maybe Comics International was of its time, a pre-internet age when the industry was booming with multi-million selling launches, shops and events popping up everywhere, lots happening. It needed a trade paper to sum it all up. But I was lucky, I’d been trained in the discipline of deadlines, accuracy, factual reporting and the like. So I found it easy to do. Also because I gathered a solid team around me, it never took up more than a week or two of my month, so I had lots of holidays!
WC – One of your recent works is ‘Comic Art Now’. Do you think that in the foreseeable future you will compile a second volume of this artistic directory? What can artists and writers do to be featured in this directory?
DZ – Again an obvious idea. Everybody hates when ad agencies rip off comics ideas or art styles, so I thought a book where you showed artists’ work and gave their contact details would be to everybody’s benefit. I know quite a few people who got work out of it, which makes me feel happy. I’d love to have seen it continue as an annual directory but I think my publisher didn’t share my vision. Perhaps that’s why I usually work for myself… the world is run by non-creatives because creatives frighten the accountants.
WC – The digital era has affected the creative industries a lot. Some comics are published solely online whilst others that are available on both formats (printing and digital) see more sales in the latter format some times. What is your take on the digital era of comics vis a vis the publishing industry?
DZ – I think it’s a wonderful tool, for promotion and exposure. But by itself I just can’t yet see how anybody can possibly make a living purely out of internet comics. Now the iPad, that’s a whole different thing. It can offer far more interactivity and I’m amazed by it.
WC – How much has the industry changed since you started and do you think it’s currently in a better or worse place?
DZ – Creatively it’s much better, without doubt. But financially, far worse. At IPC they would cancel titles if their sales dipped below quarter of a million a week, firm sale. Now it’s all returnables only, with these ridiculous “value added cover mounts”. It seems more money is spent on the “free” gift than the content, as a lure to the newstrade who recognise the value of a toy or a CD but not a well-crafted title. I have to say I loved the old days, when the trade would take whatever you published, when they would make their money out of sales rather than charging you shelf space. With Starburst, for instance… all I did to launch it to the trade was a single-sided colour flyer with a tear-off coupon along the bottom. My distributor circulated them to the trade and came back with launch orders for 72,000 copies. Fantastic! And, if sales dipped back then, you’d simply do “box outs”, where shops got top-up extra copies to see if they’d sell. We even had van wholesalers who’d tour the newsagents, taking back unsolds, replacing sold out titles and making recommendations. Now it’s all centralised through monopolistic wholesalers, giving the retailer no choice whatsoever. A great shame. Nowadays, somebody like me would have a nigh-on impossible job throwing new titles out there to see what sticks. The trade wouldn’t let me and the distributors have no power any more – neither do the publishers for that matter, despite taking all the risks.
WC – Education through entertainment is a really important issue and you are working closely with the United Aram Emirates especially Abu Dhabi. Do you think that there needs to be more awareness with regards to the benefits of comics to teach not only literacy but also various subjects?
DZ – Ah, the United Arab Emirates… an amazing case study. I discovered out there that despite it being probably the richest country on the planet, it has the highest unemployment in under 25s. It seemed incredible to me until I discovered a few things. Like how the arts hadn’t been taught in schools until relatively recently. It’s one of those highly logical but deeply flawed approaches. If you want your child to be a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant… a highly paid job, why teach the arts? So there was no enjoyment, no artistic expression, no creativity. Also no nationally distributed comics! I seriously believe that entertainment is a great source of education. I’m working with the Qatar Foundation now on a serious comics-related programme and I hope that through comics, through improving literacy, we can long-term improve employment figures.
WC – Are you looking forward to the Malta Comic Con 2012 and what do you expect to find?
DZ – It’s ages since I’ve been to Malta, but I have very fond memories, so I’m looking forward to it more than any other convention I’ve been invited to (except any that the organisers of which are reading this, of course!)
WC – Do you have any projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
DZ – Yes I always have projects in the pipeline, but I long ago learned that not every idea you have is a good one. But right now I have a new title I’ve been working on for a while that I seriously believe will put anything else I’ve done in the shade. But I also prefer not to talk about new ideas before they become realities!
WC – Do you have anything else you wish to add?
DZ – Only that my enthusiasm has never diminished. I don’t think I’ll ever become jaded, working in comics. It’s a fantastic medium, unlike any other, and I really believe its potential has yet to be realised. I only hope I can continue doing my bit to help get it there!