My talk with publisher Dez Skinn
As the longest running science fiction television series, Doctor Who is currently viewed as national institution. Created as a family program that served to educate as well as entertain, it went on to become a massive hit program garnering 10 million viewers weekly, spawning a franchise of home videos and collectibles.
One key part of the fandom was Doctor Who Weekly, a magazine published in 1979 by Dez Skinn. Composed of interviews, articles on past adventures and original comic strips by some of the most talented creators in the business. Doctor Who Weekly also has the honored recognition of being the longest running TV tie-in, a rank awarded by the Guinness Book of World Records.
I had the good fortune to conduct a short interview with Dez Skinn, a man viewed as the UK’s answer to Stan Lee. Throughout his long career, he has served as editor on over 70 titles as varied as Warrior Magazine and MAD in the UK. Dez Skinn has received several awards for his work in the field as both publisher and creator. As an integral part of the comic book world, he is a wealth of knowledge and offered up many startling insights on the medium.
Recognized by icons of the comic book world and more recent pundits of the medium, his praise is seemingly without end:
“Dez, in my opinion, is the UK Comic Book market. In faithfully publishing Comics International for many years, he has made it possible for guys like me to be able to interact with my many friends in the United Kingdom and played a significant role in getting Diamond UK accepted as a trusted supplier when we first purchased Titan Distributors back in 1993 and retailers didn’t quite know what to expect from us.. I’ll bet he didn’t even know that. With Dez, what you see is what you get, and that is a good thing.” –Steve Geppi- owner, Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc.
“Dez is the closest thing Britain had to Stan Lee. His contributions to the British comics industry are legion and legendary, and both the artform and business would have been poorer without his intervention. Whether transforming Marvel UK into a creative powerhouse, single handedly challenging all preconceptions as to what British comics could be with Warrior and V For Vendetta, or creating Comics International, the long running trade magazine for the British industry that gave it a voice and a public presence for so many years. Dez Skinn, a legend in his own lunchtime.” –Rich Johnston, BleedingCool.com
Dez Skinn: Wonderful, He was a consummate professional. People expected him to be whacky and eccentric and he never failed to live up to their expectations. But then, that’s what being an actor is about — giving your audience what they expect. Too many people forget this and seem to think the mask is the man though.
DP: What was your background as a fan of Doctor Who, had you been a regular viewer? Do you have a favorite era or Doctor?
DS: As a 12-yr old I was a tad disappointed with the original serial with its grunting cavemen, two school teachers, a girl (ugh!) and a dotty old professor, so I switched channels to watch The Buccaneers with Robert Shaw on ITV. Far more dashing!
But then they introduced some serious SF into the mix, with Skaro and its inhabitants, so it was bye-bye Robert Shaw!
So yes, I became a huge fan. I remember getting my parents to drive us out to an air show one year when WIlliam Hartnell was being driven around on the back of an open topped Land Rover, waving to us all. Finningley possibly, as it wasn’t far from home.
As for a favourite, much as I appreciated Patrick Troughton’s need to do something almost surreal to break the mould as the second Doctor, and much as I loved the dashing Jon Pertwee despite the Earth-bound nature of the stories, I guess I was always a Tom-boy!
DP: The comic strip feature in Doctor Who Weekly was simply amazing and had a big impact on the legacy of ‘Who. Despite being the longest running comic of its kind previous to 1979, the new Doctor Who Weekly version defined the series in the most dynamic way. It also attracted some amazing talent from Alan Moore to Grant Morrison and Dave Gibbons.
Did you know that it was going to take off in such a big way?
DS: With a quarter of a million print run for each of its first four issues, a TV advertising campaign and newspaper ads in top-selling tabloids, and all the editorial we got from taking Tom on the road, yes. I had a clue it was going to be massive! We’d a potential audience of up to nine millions weekly viewers, we didn’t need to sell them on anything!
I’d been Dave Gibbons’ best man at his wedding a few years earlier, and prior to that we’d ventured forth to New York together in search of fame and fortune in our young 20s, so he was my first choice as artist. Getting 2000 AD mainstays Pat Mills and John Grant to write such wonderful serials as The Iron Legion, City of the Damned and Star Beast didn’t hurt either. Everybody else was either part of my team I’d gathered on prior projects or basically wanted to jump on board the bandwagon, and why wouldn’t they?
DP: Do you have a favorite comic strip from Doctor Who Weekly?
DS: You mean other than my own? (Timeslip, DWW 17-18, apparently the most often reprinted Doctor Who comic strip). I’d come up with the idea for it at my girlfriend’s apartment in Tudor Mansions, opposite the UN building in New York on one of my regular visits over there to fly the flag and make sure they didn’t forget about us at Marvel HQ. I knew artist Dave Gibbons was sure to feel the strain of producing the entire lead strip solo every week, so I thought I’d come up with a little breather that somebody else could draw.
The fanboy in me wanted a storyline to involve the previous incarnations of The Doctor, so as a vehicle for such I dreamed up the idea of a space amoeba that sucked time out of anything it encountered. So when the TARDIS passed through it, The Doctor began devolving.
I was a bit miffed when I got back to London, having told the story to my art editor Paul Neary over the phone, to discover he’d jumped in and dialogued it all up to suit his own breakdowns though. But I still thought it was a pretty neat little story.
DP: Based on the success of TV21, Beano and Dan Dare, the comic strip seems much more successful in the UK than it is in the ‘States. This seems to be the case in Italy as well. What’s your opinion of the US comic book market?
DS: They lost the plot, basically. We all started the same, with variety act-style anthology titles, across Europe, the UK and the States. Then they became enamoured with the idea of characters getting their own titles and it slowly got to the ridiculous situation where their modern day legends, superheroes, totally dominated and stilted true creativity and diversity in favour of the quick buck. No wonder newsstands gave up on them with their constantly changing short run titles trying to replicate their big hits. Nobody knew what to order or what would sell outside of Superman, Batman X-Men and the other majors. And even those were flooded to overkill with so many spin-offs and companion titles they glutted the market.
The beauty of the European or even Japanese model is that you can test launch a new character in an anthology without harming the total, rather than a risky stadalone cold launch with no evidence it will work.
Now the US industry seems to be run by fans for fans and nobody else cares (except the corporate owners, who basically see it as an inexpensive self-financing R&D side for potential movies). Everywhere else in the world anthologies still rule and can weather the storm and reflect trends simply by changing their cover features. Far safer for the trade to order such known and established sellers and far easier to maintain your audience.
DP: In 1979, without the advent of usenet groups or the Internet in general, the articles in Doctor Who Weekly gave readers a rare insight behind the scenes of the popular program. There were similar magazines published previous to this, but nothing so geared toward a single program.
DS: True, I always was a sucker for behind-the-scenes features on TV and film. Plus we had a 16 year back catalogue of characters and plotlines we could cover, for nostalgic dads and inquisitive newcomers. One major difference between then and now though was that we never felt a need to include any news in DWW, all the features were historical. Now of course, news seems to dominate.
DP: After your departure, have you had a look at Doctor Who Monthly? I miss the transfers and other extras.
DS: I was somewhat amazed by some of the well-meaning but naive changes made. Cartoon covers on a live action TV tie-in? I’d done exactly the opposite when I took over Star Wars Weekly, dropping those awful drawings in favour of actual scenes from the film, resulting in an obvious sales boost. What is it they say about those who don’t learn from history being fated to make the same mistakes? Somebody obviously wasn’t paying attention!
It had also been a very carefully balanced trick of not talking down to your readers but keeping both the young and the not so young on board. I don’t think the next generation of editors had had the formal training of places like world-leader IPC Magazines, where you learn to identify your audience and aim squarely at them. As others discovered to their cost, it’s not as easy as it looks!
DP: Just this past year, Marvelman has finally returned to comics (no longer Miracleman). I’m a proud owner of the rare original material, but I know that new printings are on their way as well as the character possibly being included in the Marvel Universe proper. This has to be an exciting time for you. Can you share any of what’s to come for this character?
DS: For me more royalties hopefully, especially now that the V for Vendetta ones are starting to dry up! But there’s an awful lot of work to be done before Marvel can start on reprinting our 1980s stuff so hang on to your old Warriors!
DP: How do you think that the comic book market has changed in the last ten years or so? Has the advent of digital comics and with big budget movies based on comic book properties changed things?
DS: Digital comics are great samplers for the real thing and a fabulous sales boost, because I doubt if anybody prefers to read stuff only online, they like something more tactile. Movies? Well, a proven property is always a safer bet, whether it be adapted from book or comicbook, so it makes sense that Hollywood is snapping up every new idea out there. How many of them get made, and how many of those made will be worth watching is another matter. But it fuels both Hollywood and the creators bank accounts so that’s got to be a good thing.
DP: I have been reading your regular articles on comics history. It’s such a joy to read about the industry history and it is plain from reading your editorials that you could go on forever. How do you approach these articles? Do you have a list of material that you’d like to write about or do you write them on the fly?
DS: Very much on the fly. If they’re for somebody else… well, I’ve been trained to write to fit and believe that just like a story a column should have a format, a beginning middle and end with a logical denouement which ties in with the original premise. It’s all about structure, whatever you’re writing. Structure, knowledge and some imagination of course. Also, for feature writing, you’ve got to have an impeachable reference source (as in something other than the internet) and/or a damn fine memory and library. Being a Yorkshireman who never throws owt away and never fried his braincells, I guess I’m pretty lucky!
There’s something else though. If you ever expect to make money as a writer, you MUST learn to think clearly. You have to be able to think and speak in paragraphs if you’re going to write in such. You don’t have time for multiple drafts and rewrites. If you can’t think and talk in paragraphs, you can’t write in paragraphs. I’m often appalled to read or hear muddy sentence structure from people who really should know better.
And of course, editors want a quiet easy life… they expect articles to be written to length and need minimal editing AND arrive on time. To do that you need to know how to write professionally. Anybody can write a postcard, but that doesn’t make them a writer. There’s a little more to it to write engaging features or fiction.
DP: Thanks so much for your time, Mr. Skinn.
DS: My pleasure. The industry and the audience has been very good to me, so I’m always more than happy to put something back in!
Regular readers of this blog should bookmark http://dezskinn.com/publications/ to read his nostalgic, analytical and anecdotal reminisces on a lifetime in comics. He’s currently uploaded words and pictures on everything he’s been involved with over the years, from Buster to MAD Magazine, Monster Mag and Tarzan to House of Hammer and Starburst, The Hulk and Conan to Star Wars Weekly and Spider-Man. Plus, of course, his creating and launching Doctor Who Weekly (he’s written over 90,000 words so far and he’s hardly made it out of the 1970s yet!)
Many of his books and back issues, including Warrior (featuring Marvelman and V for Vendetta), House of Hammer, Starburst, Comix: The Underground Revolution and his 1990s comics trade magazine Comics International can still be purchased through his company’s eBay shop at: http://tinyurl.com/Dezmags
Tell his people we sent you and they’ll even get him to sign them for you!