Monday, February 12, 2007

28 Days of 2000 AD #12: Diggle Unleashed

Andy Diggle is now a rising star writer for US comics, but ten years ago I hired him as my assistant on 2000 AD. He succeeded me as editor but resigned to pursue his true passion - writing. I interviewed him via email for THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD about his time on the weekly, beginning with how he got that first editorial job...


I’d studied comics as past of my Media Studies degree at De Montfort University, and later returned there to teach a part-time module on comics. A few years later I was working as an Administrator at University College London’s Department of Town Planning - which was every bit as dull as it sounds - where one night I bought the IT guy a few beers and wheedled the password for the university’s internet server out of him. This gave me unlimited internet access, enabling me to create my own web-site without having to pay for it. This would have been late ‘96, early ‘97, before the web had fully exploded into the public consciousness.

I created a web-zine called Fusion, mainly as an excuse to interview lots of groovy people - including Alan Moore, Alan Grant, William Gibson, Jeff Noon, even a phone interview with Mike Mignola. I also interviewed 2000 AD editor David Bishop, and got shown around the 2000 AD offices, which was pretty cool for an old fanboy like me.

Then I heard from a friend of a friend that 2000 AD might be looking for an Editorial Assistant, so I wrote to David Bishop asking if there was any work going. It turns out they’d advertised it in The Guardian anyway, I just hadn’t seen it. Anyway, I ended up on the shortlist, went for a couple of interviews, and got the job.

What state was the comic in when you arrived?

I’d stopped reading 2000 AD when the quality nose-dived in the early 1990s, but I’d still occasionally flick through a copy in the comic shop, just to see if there was any improvement. Things had gradually started looking up, and I began picking it up regularly again in early 1997 with Prog 1033, the 20th birthday issue.

David Bishop had been editor for over a year by this point, but he’d had to publish the huge backlog of material commissioned by his predecessors before he could really start to make his mark on the comic. As a reader I obviously had no idea what was going on behind the scenes, but I could see the comic was gradually improving. It still wasn’t great, but it was at least heading in the right direction.

Much of the material being published when I arrived in September ‘97 I found to be rather bland and uninvolving, to be honest. I was thinking, “Where’s the grit? Where’s the action?” 2000 AD used to be an action comic, but that aspect had gotten lost along the way. There was a lot of room for improvement.

How were relations between 2000 AD and Egmont management at the time?

2000 AD had haemorrhaged sales during the early 1990s, and by the time I arrived on the scene in September ‘97, Egmont weren’t interested in spending money trying to promote it. Quite the opposite, in fact. 2000 AD’s Marketing Manager (i.e. Publisher) Doug Pocock referred to 2000 AD as a “cash cow”, and explained that his policy was to “milk it until it’s no longer profitable and then cancel it.” Hell of a way to build a brand and exploit an invaluable stable of intellectual properties.

Instead they were reducing the editorial budget year on year, meaning less story pages and less money for the creators. Some of them hadn’t had a pay rise for a decade, not even to keep in line with inflation. Others had actually had their page rates cut. Egmont proudly described itself as a “marketing-led company”. The problem was, they didn’t seem to do very much in the way of marketing, at least when it came to 2000 AD. They’d already spectacularly mismanaged a TV ad campaign for 2000 AD before I arrived on the scene.

Then on my first day in the office, I walked into a total shitstorm over the infamous Loaded ads. Egmont had been promised some free advertising from IPC, and were insisting on running the “2000 AD: Women Just Don’t Get It” ads in the pages of Loaded. David Bishop was up in arms about it, begging the management reconsider their decision to run the ads. He was absolutely right - one look at the dummy ads and I immediately took his side. Any fool could see they’d do more harm than good, and would only serve to piss the readers off. It was just plain wrong, and I said so quite plainly to Egmont’s Managing director Julie Goldsmith at our first meeting. But she made it clear that editorial opinions didn’t count for anything, and David and I were overruled.

And lo and behold, once the ads ran, we were inundated with letters from outraged 2000 AD readers, several of whom cancelled their subscriptions. To make matters worse, David and I were forbidden from responding to these complaints either in person or within the pages of 2000 AD, making us seem complicit in the whole debacle. So that wasn’t the most pleasant welcome to the company I could have had. It was basically open warfare between management and editorial, forcing me to take sides from day one. But I thought, if that’s they way they want it, fine. It always felt like I was fighting a constant uphill battle against the management on behalf of 2000 AD and its readers.

It seemed to me that the management had very little idea how to profit from the squandered potential of 2000 AD. We would get these asinine proclamations handed down from on high, like the one which stated that all characters on the cover must be facing either straight ahead or left-to-right, never right-to-left. That was a nugget of wisdom Doug had apparently picked up at some marketing seminar, although when I asked him to explain the logic behind it, he was unable. Or his stated belief that cover-lines (i.e. the blurb written all over the front cover) are what “sell the comic.” Really? I always thought it was good stories and art, but what do I know? I’ve only been reading it since I was 10. But then this is the guy who said, “You market 2000 AD the same way you market toothpaste”, which I think demonstrates his firm grasp of the comic’s unique appeal.

I think that was the thing that depressed me the most - I’d been hired because I’d been able to demonstrate an understanding of what made 2000 AD successful in the first place, but once I was there, my opinions would be completely ignored by the management. It was infuriating having the future of 2000 AD determined by a publisher who once saw a picture of Johnny Alpha and asked me, “Is that Dredd’s new uniform?”

For example, I was keen for Egmont to pitch for the licence to publish the new Star Wars magazine. I mean, just imagine an official Star Wars comic using 2000 AD’s creative talent, it could have been a licence to print money. But Rob McMenemy, Egmont’s Marketing Director, decided not to pitch for it because he believed, and I quote, “Kids these days don’t know what Star Wars is.” Six months later, The Phantom Menace came out and went on to make a BILLION DOLLARS worldwide in ticket sales and merchandising. Finger on the pulse or what.

It took me a long time to ‘unlearn’ what I was taught at Egmont, to assert my own judgement and common sense.

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