Reviews by John Freeman and David Hunt
The Book: From within King’s Reach Tower on the banks of the Thames, John Sanders masterminded the output of Britain’s biggest comics publisher over twenty-five years.
Overseeing the launch of hugely popular titles like Tammy, Battle and the revolutionary 2000AD, Sanders fought corporate battles to expand the UKs’ comics output, faced down the government and the media in censorship battles and ultimately came up against a crooked business tycoon.
Leading an industry that at its peak sold 10 million comics per week, Sanders launched over a hundred new titles, faced massive social change and strove to keep comics relevant to generation after generation.
In this memoir he reveals, for the first time, his story and that of the medium that would go on to dominate global culture.
King’s Reach: A Review by John Freeman
John Sanders has previously been quoted by others as saying that if you really want to know how a company worked (or, as we find out in his new book, in IPC’s case, didn’t), then you should ask the management, not the foot soldiers.
Whether or not this quote has been accurately reported or not, King’s Reach very definitely provides some fascinating insights into the running of IPC and offers some revealing tidbits of information as to why its comics department was often given a rum deal, despite its success in terms of sales. However, I should caution that in the process, the book fails to mention many of the “foot soldiers” who helped shape some of our favourite comics alongside John, which is rather, in my view, to its detriment.
This might, of course, be quite deliberate. After all, several comic editors and creators have published their own accounts of their time working for Fleetway, including Pat Mills, who Sanders gives much attention to, Steve MacManus and Barrie Tomlinson. Former Fleetway editor David Bishop penned Thrill Power Overload with Karl Stock, and Michael Molcher has interviewed several former editors to the 2000AD Thrillcasts.
Perhaps, then, it is time to give former Editorial Director John Sanders some time in the limelight? Except that in doing so, anyone reading this book without being aware of other recollections of a specific time in British comics history might come away with the impression that he was singularly responsible for some of its most notable successes – and that IPC’s comics output was the be all and end all of comics publishing in the UK, which it most certainly wasn’t.
For those unfamiliar with John Sanders, he describes his career in comics and magazine in an entertaining fashion, although he does come across as easily slighted, such as when TV interview Michael Parkinson gets his name wrong; and also appears to hold grudges for a long time, clearly recalling the time Dan Dare creator Frank Hampson, from John’s account, was quite rude about him at an awards event and exacting a dismissive but rather discourteous revenge on him, of sorts, within the pages of this book.
John cheerfully reveals himself to have been the architect of “Hatch, Match and Dispatch”, the publishing strategy by which IPC created comic titles with the full intent to merge them with others, to boost the sales of the survivor. However, that he also notes that only the merger of Lion and Eagle in 1969 was the only major success of this policy would suggest that it had its weaknesses, to the detriment of the comics department as a whole as, across the 1980s and 90s, there slowly became fewer titles to merge.
More intriguing is his admission that comics generally came last in any sales meetings and sell-ins, the high-selling women’s magazines always given precedence over anything else in terms of promotion and company backing. The failure of the company structure, and John’s view that comics would have been better served run as an entirely separate business, are insightful and revealing.
Sadly, for me, these observations during this otherwise readable account of the world inside IPC are overshadowed by John’s tirades about creator rights (in short – he didn’t like the idea when it came to comics) and his criticisms not only of Frank Hampson, but Rene Goscinny, too. (That it would appear he was set up to annoy the latter is to me, rather incidental).
John does make some interesting points about the British comics industry as was in the 1960s through to the 1990s, particularly on how the sheer size of IPC and the number of titles it published worked against comics getting the promotion they deserved. However, I’m wary of some of the claims he makes. The fact that many have had their says previously aside, very few great editors get mentioned or credit for their work helping build the titles they worked on, which is disappointing.
What’s equally surprising is that this book fails to take advantage of freely available information online to re-examine past attitudes toward comics. For example, John mentions a speech by Lord Willis, the creator of the BBC drama Dixon of Dock Green to the House of Lords, in turn part of a wider debate on “Education In A Multi-Racial Britain which took place in December 1971. In the speech, appeals for wider reflection on the portrayal of minorities in mass media, including comics.
However, at the time, its reporting in The Times prompted John Sanders to write an angry letter to the paper in defence of IPC titles, which is published in full in the new book. Sanders makes it clear he wasn’t very happy about the comments or, as he describes them “a group of women with nothing much to do but make waves, who were connected in some way with Sussex University, [who] had produced a document suggesting that there were not enough ‘coloured’ characters in my comics.”
To be honest, I’d venture to suggest Sanders defence of the company isn’t much of a winner, particularly given the researches of David Roach and others into minority representation in British comics. Quite why John chose to try to make the case that British comics of the 1970s were actually more inclusive than they were, when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, seems rather bizarre.
Overall, I’d say Sanders criticism of management, which contributed to the downfall of comics in terms of strong sellers are interesting and insightful, but some developments mentioned in passing could have done with greater attention. This is not a book to be read in isolation from books such as Masters of British Comic Art, also published by Rebellion, or others mentioned above.
One final comment. It is a great shame that the book wasn’t checked more thoroughly for some unfortunate errors that have crept into the text. For example, Speed and Power was published between 1974 – 1975 and was not, as suggested, around at the same time as Ranger, published between 1965 and 1966.
And, while it may seem trivial, someone who knew who award-winning TV presenter and campaigner Esther Rantzen was and how to spell her name, rather than as “Esther Ransom” would have been to the book’s advantage. Especially when you spot the error after that long passage where, as I mentioned, John recalls getting annoyed because Michael Parkinson got his name wrong…
King’s Reach: A Review by David Hunt
David Hunt was editor of Battle and many other IPC titles, and worked alongside John Sanders
I read John Sanders’ King’s Reach publication with great interest and found it to be a fascinating insight into the hierarchy world of producing comics but, maybe more importantly, a revealing personal insight into John’s ego …
I’m a little perturbed that he fails to mention many good and loyal foot staff soldiers and talented contributors who worked so diligently producing the titles he oversaw. I also believe that John Wagner and Pat Mills’ introduction to the Group in the mid-70s is glossed over almost as if it were an inconsequential event. Was this because they were constantly giving him grief regarding better rights for freelance contributors?
I, personally, suffered heavily pension-wise because of the Maxwell involvement, but I never realised John Sanders himself was masterminding a takeover of the Youth Group, and that post buy out by the Maxwell Group he himself did so well out of it financially. At least he was refreshingly honest about this, but I have nothing but distaste for the Maxwell crooks who robbed me and so many others of a decent retirement pension.
John was a very necessary and exciting force for change when he first headed up the Youth Group and I felt he championed his staff against the ‘bean counters’ who often saw us comics’ creators as merely a nuisance. He loved nothing better than giving stuffy Board members a bloody nose. I had a few run-ins with him myself but in the main I enjoyed his ready wit and his undoubted support of the Youth Group. I really enjoyed reading the following extracts from his Kings’s Reach book …
“There was no logical way that you could train a comics’ editor except in the office. So where would you find them? Small boys who had been absorbed in their comics as readers and had grown up wanting to live the life were ideal candidates. Some of them became ideal editors, some didn’t. Those who did bore no resemblance to my erstwhile Fleet Street colleagues. They drank in obscure back street pubs; they would never have been seen in El Vino’s and probably never knew where it was. From being office boys they had grown into picture strip writing until it seemed to them they were like characters from their stories: dark, mysteriously introverted and self-effacing folk …”
“The reason that an existing editor can’t produce a new title for you is that the successful editor lives, sleeps, eats and breathes his magazine every hour of the night and day, 24/7. I know, because I have edited a few magazines. There is no space in your brain except for your magazine, your baby, your link with your readership. You don’t have the energy nor the inclination to produce something different until you stop editing your own magazine.”
These extracts perfectly sum up my career in comics.
AN EXTRACT FROM LORD WILLIS 1971 SPEECH
Here are the comments that The Times reported on and so annoyed John Sanders back in 1971. You can read the full debate and Lord Willis’ comments in context here via Hansard. Do note the text as been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors
“A great deal has been said in this debate about the education of black children in the schools. As I have said, I do not want to touch on that subject. I want to deal with the role that the media are playing. It seems to be absolutely extraordinary that, with the power of television and mass publication to-day, this power to reach into every home and to approach almost every individual in the country, we should even have to debate this question to-day, because here we have the most powerful antidote against prejudice known to man. It seems to me that we are not using it. It is not being used because the attitude is negative.
The suggestion is that the problem does not exist. I have spent a little time this week studying comics. I have been wading through the comics and the weeklies. I have been up to my neck in Rover, Hotspur, Twinkle, Wizard, Scorcher, Buster, Teddy Bear, Beano, Countdown and a couple of dozen others; and I am happy to inform the noble Lord, Lord Champion, that Billy Bunter lives. It is in a strip cartoon that might distress the noble Lord; but he lives, just the same. I must say that I hunted vainly for an old favourite of mine, Tiger Tim, and I could not find.
“These comics have a vast sale—something like 10 to 11 million each week, and more abroad. I must say that there was nothing really vicious or bad about the vast majority of them. But they are being read by millions of children, and they give a basic impression that we have a completely white society. That is the first and most negative thing about them. If you were to read the majority, you would think that we did not have any coloured people here, and they had never been heard of. Out of 33 comics, which was one newsagent’s entire weekly stock, 16 were absolutely all white; not one mention of a coloured person; not even the portrayal of a coloured person in any of the coverage, including the five comics with the highest circulation published by I.P.C. Seven had stories or images which were positively bad. They were coloured people or children portrayed as subservient; simple-minded Uncle Tom characters; written as though the British Empire was still intact, full of white Sahibs, and all the natives came up and touched their forelock and said ‘Bwana’: not, lot me say, terribly harmful, except that they create the impression of a superior race and an inferior race, one born to be the carriers of water and the other born to drink it. Comics and stories are very powerful things in helping to shape young attitudes, and I think that some pressure ought to be brought to bear by the Government on these publications to take a more positive line.
“The word ‘propaganda’ comes up. They say: ‘Oh, well, it is not our place to make propaganda. ‘Quite frankly, I think this is a nettle that we have to grasp (and I shall come back to this point when I talk about television), and say ‘Yes; we want a bit of propaganda for good race relations.’ Propaganda for equality between human beings is Christian, and nobody objects to propaganda for the Christian Church, or humanist, and nobody objects to propaganda for the humanist principles. I think we should say to these people: ‘It is time to review the publication of your comics and see where they fit into this multi-racial society’—because they have a tremendous and important influence on children. They do give the overwhelming impression that the world is made for the whites and is inhabited only by those who are white.”
• There’s an observant and well written review of King’s Reach here, by John Sanders by Tony Smith, formerly a senior editor on the hugely popular British technology news site The Register, whose experience in computer magazine publishing offers some interesting insights into the book from someone not as close to comics than myself, other than as a reader