In my forthcoming history of 2000 AD, THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, one of the key figures I wanted to interview with former Fleetway managing director Jon Davidge. He was publisher of the weekly during the troubled period of Maxwell ownership, and on well into the comic's Egmont regime. Happily, Jon was willing to talk and offered a management overview of what happened at to the company as a whole and within the 2000 AD editorial group during these tumultuous times. Here's the start of his interview transcript...
MANAGING DIRECTOR JON DAVIDGE
I’m fairly certain it was in the Summer of 89 when I joined as publishing director. It was about 18 months later I became MD, thanks to Peter Barber. He was the MD of the Maxwell division that Fleetway was in, Maxwell Consumer Magazines. He responded to an approach that had been made to me by Marvel Comics. To join them as MD which, to be honest, I didn’t really want to do – but they were offering a fairly big amount of money and the mighty title of Managing Director, which seemed to mean a lot at the time. It was Marvel UK. It must have been about the time Robert Sutherland went off and did his own things with the preschool stuff at Redan. Peter Barber said to me, you’ve been running Fleetway for long enough now, I don’t have very much to do with it myself. We’ll separate it out and you can become MD.
Prior to that I was a marketing director at a consumer publishing company called Argus. At the time I left it was acquired by Emap. I was doing the marketing for legendary titles such as Mother and Baby, having started life after university selling soap for Proctor and Gamble for two years. From there I went to book publishing, exporting Mills & Boon romances around the Commonwealth.
The company had been acquired by Maxwell in July 1987, and moved to Great London House in early 1989. What state was the comics division in when you arrived? What state was 2000 AD in when you arrived? What was it selling on average each week?
They were in GLH when I joined. They had only just got there. They were in some god awful corner. Just a terrible place. Certainly the impression I formed and the impression I was given by Peter Barber and other people at Fleetway was they felt totally worthless. They’d been bought by Kevin Maxwell. No-one quite knows why he bought what was previously known as the IPC Youth Group. He bought it and then just ignored it. No one knew what was going on, no one was in control.
John Sanders was, at this point, being manoeuvred out of the business for reasons that were never explained to me. They were completely rudderless. Prior to moving to GLH they’d been stuck in another Maxwell building that was rat infested, Vermin House. That was the degree of affection that Maxwell held their publishing people. I think they’d completely forgotten they owed it, to be honest. I don’t think they ever looked at it.
On the other hand it’s true that on Robert Maxwell’s beside table, after he died, were the latest five issues of 2000 AD. No one’s sure if they were there for him to check for libel or whether he was actually really into it. We’ll never know.
(Fleetway bought to fulfil capacity at BPC, which he owned?) Possibly so.
Dispirited is how I would describe the state of things. There were the 2000 AD/Crisis guys doing what they were doing. There was Gil Page and his team, doing Roy of the Rovers, Eagle, Buster, Whizzer and Chips and heaven knows what else. Roy of the Rovers was doing pretty well. Some of the monthlies were making quite a lot of money because they were largely reprint. We were publishing far too much stuff and the titles were looking tired. It was right at the end of the period when we were still printing on basic newsprint stock with smudgy black and white printing with some spot colour. The quality was looking pretty poor.
Pat McNally was the marketing manager. He agreed we had problems across the board with the publications and there wasn’t much he could do with them promotionally. He and I agreed to do some reader research, get an independent view of what the readers and potential readers thought of them. By and large the readers supported what was obvious to us – the comics were close to being penny dreadfuls.
We took a view at that point we could sustain a price increase if we started to really develop the material, across the board. From Buster through to 2000 AD and Crisis, both on the quality of the content in terms of scripts and artwork, and also the production values. Then we could justify and have no real problem with price increases. That was the strategy. Ironically, some of the old knackered reprints were making more money than some of the better new stuff. The distribution by IPC Marketforce had a great deal to do with it, although we didn’t know so at the time.
2000 AD wasn’t in a bad state. It was selling high 90s, low 100,000s every week and the content was good. Some fairly strange pagination though – colour in some stories, mono in others. Dredd in colour but split up through the comic. What it did was kept the price really low, I think it was 35p when I started. The comic looked like that because it was the cheapest possible way of putting it out. My impression, backed up by research, was that given the market-leading position, we really could start to make some quite good money without ripping anybody off by improving the quality. Some of that worked and some of it just plain didn’t. There was a lot more to it then met the eye.
Crisis was launched in September 88. During 1989 there was controversy about the pulling of a story called Skin. What can you recall about that? Did the story being pulled adversely affect Crisis?
I’ve managed not to think about Skin for 10 years. It was a horrible incident. I personally thought that it was spectacularly lacking in taste. I can’t say it offended. Me but this was the artistic equivalent of walking into Westminster Cathedral and shouting ‘Fuck off everybody!’ I struggled personally to see some merit to it. I could see it had shock value. I didn’t think much of the artwork, I didn’t think much of the story. There was another incident later on, the True Faith graphic novel, where I had Robert Maxwell himself on the phone.
I defended True Faith as long as I possibly could. Eventually Maxwell told me to withdraw it in graphic novel format. I didn’t have any problems publishing True Faith but I really didn’t think much of Skin, I thought it was the wrong thing to do. Possibly some editorial people, but certainly some creative people were just seeing how far they could push Fleetway. They pushed too far. It was eventually published by somebody else and probably sold ten copies.
My primary responsibility was to achieve commercial success for the business. My approach is to try for the best creative product because I think that’s the way to succeed in publishing. There’s other things you can do as well, such as cut costs and get better productivity. But I’ve always believed as a publisher that the primary way of being successful is to get great material. It’s very simple to me. To me Skin was the wrong thing to do. I don’t think I was around when it was commissioned. I felt we were caught out, to some extent blindsided by it.
Milligan did a lot of really good other stuff at that time. I don’t think Skin adversely affected Crisis. Crisis was the embodiment of what we all thought might exist as a marketplace, an adult comics market in the UK. That market does exist but it doesn’t exist in the mass market. That’s what affected Crisis. We were selling 20,000 copies a fortnight. Now, that was a good result, because there were probably only 30,000 people interested. It was not a mass market product.
We thought that because 2000 was getting slightly harder edged and was no longer a kid’s comic where it had started and it was growing up with its audience – we extrapolated that and believed there was an adult comics market, as happened in the US.
In 1989 2000 AD began publishing Sláine: the Horned God, with fully painted art by Simon Bisley. How much of a phenomenon was that? Some have said sales rose when Horned God was running, a rare feat for a single story…
Absolutely brilliant work. I thought it was sensational. This was what really started me realising there was much more to 2000 AD than I had first thought. Even though my first impressions of 2000 AD were that it was absolutely excellent. I adored the ironic sense of humour that flowed through it. Sláine showed me the other side, the visual side. The artwork was phenomenal. The storylines were good, but the artwork was phenomenal.
In those days we didn’t know what the net sales was, because it was firm sale. We didn’t have any idea exactly how many copies were being sold. We had a clue because distribution levels would go down if retailers and wholesalers were being caught with copies they couldn’t send back. We knew there was roughly, normally about 10% wastage. So we were probably selling 90,000 copies. But we were able to increase distribution when we had promotions and/or major editorial stories such as Sláine. Sláine put copies on, definitely.