Saturday, 10 December 2016

Tennant's Extra!

Apologies it’s taken me a few months more than expected to conjure up a few choice morsels to whet appetites further for what’s to come in From Cents to Pence!, so without further ado lets whizz back a few months once again...


Neil Tennant: This is all such a long time ago, it was literally forty years ago.

Rob Kirby: Yes, it hadn’t really struck me until you said it. A quick question to start with. Had it always been you’re intention to go into journalism?

Neil: No, it hadn’t. My long term plan in life… well, I had two parallel plans. One was to become a successful song-writer and pop star, kind of thing, but I recognised that that was a difficult thing and an unlikely thing to achieve, and so I did my degree in History. I realised I was going to get some job, but my initial thought when I finished my degree was to do post-graduate [studies], an MA maybe. But, as you [say]… All the way through this period at Marvel and indeed through MacDonald Educational I’m also writing songs at home, y’know; little cassette demos of them. And I was always interested in music, and so I did vaguely think that I would like to be a music journalist because I was just so interested in music and rock music and all the rest of it. But anyway, as you accurately say, right when I finished my degree, a friend of mine who was a mature student –  I should say in her thirties – she’d been a journalist in Fleet Street, used to get the UK Press Gazette and pointed out this advert saying ‘Production Editor needed for Marvel Comics’. And she said ‘If you were ever thinking of going into journalism, which I must have said to her, this looks to me the sort of job that’d be a great beginning’.

Rob: This is always the thing, isn’t it… [getting that first foothold].

Neil: I went in and Ray Wergan interviewed me and they offered me the job, and so three weeks, I think, after I finished my degree, I had a job. I took the degree in June and by the beginning of July I had a job at Marvel Comics! (Laughs) As I always said to him, ‘I still haven’t had the cap yet!’ (more laughter). I knew Marvel Comics because, in the late Sixties I think, there was a different British version of Marvel.

Rob: Yeah, the Power Comics.

Neil: Yup. And my brother Simon used to buy them, but I used to read them. They were sort of quite a thing if you were sort of thirteen/fourteen in the late Sixties. There were quite a few of them I used to read. So that was my real introduction to Marvel Comics.

Rob: So, it was always on the British side, not on the American side, y’know, the American imports as well?

Neil: No, you might see American comics occasionally. The newsagent would have a sporadic distribution of them, y’know, up in Newcastle.

Rob: Exactly. Which was, of course, their whole reason for eventually setting up [in this country] rather than licensing, as you’ve mentioned, through the Power Comics or TV21.

Neil: Yes, yes. What happened to Power Comics? Did they go down the pan?

Rob: They did, yes. They had a huge explosion… they probably put out too many titles, the pound dropped, so they merged and merged and then stopped. They then put some stuff in TV21, again to save an ailing comic, and again that didn’t work…

Neil: TV21. We [referring to his brother, who bought the comic and shared it with him] used to love TV21. Yup.


Neil: I realised quite early on that the production thing was a bit boring, but it had to be done, obviously. But I could use the fact (laughs) of supposedly being editor of the Marvel London operation to pursue my own objectives, which were to write articles myself and to put them in there, particularly to do with music, and also maybe there could be a comic originated from there. Which I felt would be a really interesting thing to do. Alex Harvey had had comics’ graphics on at least one of his album covers and so he did the interview, and I tried to get one with Paul and Linda McCartney, but they wouldn’t do it. And I also tried to get one with the Bay City Rollers, who were also Marvel Comic fans, but they wouldn’t do it either.

Rob: We wondered if you were latterly going to try and arrange another interview with Marc Bolan around the time of his TV show, a couple of months’ before he died.

Neil: No, I wasn’t there then, I’d moved on. I was at MacDonald Educational by then. And we also only really needed one, I think, although I think Marc Bolan did suggest that he’d quite like to write a comic, but I don’t think I ever took that seriously. But he was a very sweet person, Marc Bolan. It was the first time I’d done an interview, bearing in mind I went on to edit Smash Hits, and I went to his publicists’ office in Earls Court, with a cassette recorder that Alan in the office had lent me. And we started talking by a table in this room and I turned on the cassette recorder and then we sat on the sofa and I just left the cassette recorder there. And Marc Bolan obviously thought I was an idiot (laughter) and he walked across the room, got the tape recorder, walked back across the room, put it between us, like ‘this is what you do’! And it was very, very sweet of him. One of my few regrets of my life is that he gave me a copy of the album Futuristic Dragon, and I was too cool to ask him to sign it.

Rob: (laughs)

Neil: And, to this day, I bitterly regret that I do not have a copy of this album that says ‘To Neil, Love Marc’, because I still like T-Rex’s records, y’know.


Neil: I was astonished that you’d spoken to people in the American office, and they’d said such nice things about these nice English guys. I had no idea what they thought of us, really (laughs). They probably thought I was a bit of a pain because I was relentlessly complaining about Captain Britain. Marvel in the US was… You must remember in these days, phoning up New York in the afternoon was like phoning up the moon!

Rob: Hmmmm!

Neil: I mean, this wasn’t the period when everyone had been to New York and America several times – no one had been to America. America was a sort of dream land. And so to phone up Cadence Communications in New York in the afternoon, and get through to whoever I had to talk to, it was incredibly exotic. It actually was thrilling, to be honest. Phoning up New York, and saying ‘Sorry, I’m on the phone to New York’ (laughter all round). Y’know, I was only 21, so it was really like phoning up the moon! (chuckles) And I was interested to see again, in your book, that you’ve spoken to the American guys.

Rob: Hmmm, oh yes!

Neil: And we did have this thing where they would occasionally send me a record. Because in those days, of course, a record could come out in America that didn’t come out in Britain.

Rob: Of exactly, well that’s still the case now [to a lesser degree].

Neil: And so they sent a single by Bob Dylan that I really wanted called ‘Hurricane’, which wasn’t available in Britain, it wasn’t released, and it came over by the courier. And then I bought them a Mike Oldfield single.

Incidentally, Jim Salicrup still remembers that copy of Don Alfonso that Neil sent him!


  1. I know that Neil did a good job with Marvel UK, but I personally think that being as how he was so familiar with the Power Comics ( as was I )- if he had reprinted the strips in a similar order to how the Power Comics first did it, then those first few years would have been perfect!
    The biggest mistake? - Waiting years before reprinting the original X-Men!

  2. Hi John, it shows you how powerful the notion of the Bullpen was that readers believed it was London who were calling most of the shots :)

    While Tennant especially, and his predecessors, did do a lot of things from introducing all the merchandising sold to organising ABC matinee events and the like, what they did not have is any control over what was reprinted.

    You have to remember that until Dez Skinn took over in late 1978, all the weeklies (and then the monthlies) were more-or-less assembled in a special UK Bullpen in New York, and it was here that it was decided what would be reprinted and where. London certainly fed back reader's requests for characters that they'd like to see, from paperwork that has now come to light, but that was really the extent of their input.

    The London office had enough going on with all the correspondence, merchandise and competition mail, never mind creating and adding in advertising, letter pages and UK-created feature content; that latter ingredient again more so in Tennant's era.

    There was never more than a handful of people involved on the London side, although the Transworld staff - Marvel London having their office within Ray Wergan's Transworld business - would help out on occasion too.

    You won't be surprised to learn that the relationship between Marvel US, Transworld Feature Syndicate Inc. in NY, Marvel in London and Transworld (UK) Ltd. threads through every chapter of the first third or so of the book.

    From Cents to Pence! has long since developed into an alternative history of Marvel on both sides of the Atlantic!

  3. Really looking forward to reading about how the content for each mag was chosen. Dr Strange in the Avengers weekly? Why not Cap's WW2 Tales of Suspense run. Daredevil in MWOM? What about Ant Man? Love thinking about what the alternatives might have been.

  4. Sadly, there's nothing much I can add to that conjecture, bar the fact that the Silver Surfer received a weekly not so long after a huge spike of interest in the character was flagged up in one of the regular reports sent to the US tabulating the hot topics that readers were talking about.

    What I do have is the inside line on many of the business decisions and how things were run. There are a lot of surprises!

    And yes, Doctor Strange was a 'strange' choice for a supporting strip. You would have thought Ant-Man, given the Avengers connection. The later addition of Shang-Chi makes far more sense. At least it did once I realised that it tied perfectly with the Kung Fu TV series finally airing on ITV that same year - a very opportunistic move, and demonstrates how feedback from London was acted on. It certainly wasn't a one-way street.

  5. Hi Rob. Although it makes perfect sense to assume that TV21 added Marvel stories primarily to try and increase circulation, I'm inclined to suspect it was more because it was cheaper to include reprints than brand-new strips produced in the U.K. My reason for considering this is because TV21 never once (that I remember) ever featured any of the Marvel characters on the cover, except for occasional and rather nondescript mentions in the cover banner above the masthead. If the main reason for their inclusion had been an attempt to push sales, then they'd surely have been plastered all over the cover - even alternately at the very least? (The cover for the 1972 Annual featured Spidey, the Surfer and the Ringo Kid, along with Star Trek and Land of the Giants, but the weekly comic had already expired by then.) I believe it's more likely that, with a falling circulation, the publishers needed to cut the cost of weekly production. Of course, this theory falls apart if it transpires that it wasn't any cheaper to include Marvel reprints, but then we're forced to conclude that the publishers were incompetent in not promoting the Marvel strips as the comics major selling point.

    I'd say that you still need to track down Pippa M. Melling or the book won't be complete. Even a photo and/or biographical details would be great.

  6. Indeed - I couldn't agree more, and reached the same conclusion you did. The difference between the Power Comics and TV21 (Volume 2), is that although both fell back on reprints because they were cheaper to obtain, Alf Wallace was a keen Marvel fan and promoted the strips on the covers accordingly to make them into, what became a branded, a range of themed comics. Adding Marvel content into TV21 was almost certainly a cost-cutting make-over (which Marts Press were renown for anyway), hence leaving Star Trek on the covers, which would have been as the most saleable element of the magazine.

    I'm not sure I'd say 'incompetent', but more short-sighted in not better using the material they had, but you have to remember that there wasn't yet a full groundswell of a larger, organised fandom to help underpin the sales of an all-Marvel title, so it was always going to have to appeal to a wider, and undoubtedly mainly younger, general comics reading audience to succeed. By 1972 regular Marts were up-and-running, and a news-hungry fan press was really getting going (that latter element being invaluable in writing this book once you start burrowing) and by 1972 the stars had aligned to make that a possibility at last.

    And that, as I've discussed in From Cents to Pence, is one of the reasons that Stan started considering how to do things better in Britain. Another was the poor state of imports into the country. The final spur into action? That's whole other story, so we'll leave that one for the book :)

    As regards the mysterious Pippa... The problem with reaching out to those involved with the early years of the Marvel UK story is that they don't necessarily have any online presence and have often completely disappeared from the publishing industry, all of which makes tracking down a contact fiendishly difficult. I only got lucky with Ray Wergan as he had a letter extracted in a regular column in The Times on Saturday that I usually read, whereas I rarely read the standard letters page (although it turned out that he's had a few letters published there too). If I'd turned over two pages by mistake I might never have made contact with him, and you'd have probably had the book in your hands by now, but it would have been half of what it is now thanks to that chance discovery, as what he revealed then led to many other key discoveries.

    So yes, I'd love to have Pippa's input (and photo), if she's still with us - and indeed did have a very tentative lead recently that has delivered zip, so it seems that I've run out of options now, which is a great shame.

    As for this unfortunate omission making the book incomplete, I have no delusions there. You can't possibly ever write the absolute, complete history of any topic - every nuance of the story can be open to interpretation and the bias or interests of the author, and there are always new facts coming to light that change what you may have already have concluded. For instance, I'm going to have make a few last minute changes as I wasn't aware of several business moves to do with Thorpe and Porter and Williams, and so what I had written doesn't reflect the wider picture, simply because I was unaware of it. That is the nightmare from which there is no escape when it comes to this kind of work! The best one can hope for is to write the definitive work on a subject, which I hope is what we've ended up with :)

    Only getting out on the bookshelves at last provide any proof for that assertion.

  7. Sorry a few missing words to that last line, which I can't seem to find an edit tool for - ggrrr.

    What it should have said is: Only getting the book out on to the bookshelves at last will provide any proof for that assertion".

    And that's what I'm really hoping to do as soon as I can by finishing the last things that I still need to write and then not writing any more!

    1. Ah, right. When you said that Marvel strips were put into TV21 to 'save an ailing comic', I thought you meant to try and increase circulation based on an interest in Marvel characters in general, not to cut costs. Wouldn't Peter (Peta) L. Skingley have had some contact with his/her predecessor (Pippa M.)? Might be an avenue to explore. I believe her spouse's name was Rayner, and that she was married in Norfolk.

  8. Sadly, besides a brief hand-over from Pippa - the only time there seems to have been any handover between editors up until Dez arrived on the scene to take over from Nick Laing - Peta left publishing completely and had no further contact with anyone. She was only reacquainted with Alan Murray quite recently when I arranged a short meet-up after she suggested coming down to see her so she could show me a few things that she'd found.

    As for your parting suggestion - it could be, or may not be, 'our' Pippa - I've already tried two different means to make contact based on what little info I could find out but have heard nothing from either, so it could be very out of date intel by now... even if we have the right Pippa Melling. These things so often rely on chance and a lucky break. Appreciate your input, anyway.