WebFinds: Looking back on Speakeasy, a comics magazine that crashed and burned

Laser Eraser and Pressbutton, on the back cover of Speakeasy Issue 44. Art by Will Simpson and David Hine
Laser Eraser and Pressbutton, on the back cover of Speakeasy Issue 44. Art by Will Simpson and David Hine

(Updated on learning of Natasha’s passing in 2012): Tim Pilcher’s reminiscences of his experiences at Vertigo UK, recounted in the recently-released, Kickstarter-funded Comic Book Babylon (current stockists below), reminded me of another aspect of 1980s comic publishing – Speakeasy, a title that rose, crashed and burned which, to an outsider at the time, seemed a terrible shame.

An ACME edition of Speakeasy.
An ACME edition of Speakeasy.

Speakeasy, at its height, was a wonderful pot-pourri of comics news and interviews edited by the late Natasha Curson, but after it was  bought by John Brown Publishing the title seemed, after a while, to go off the boil. At John Brown it was designed by Rian Hughes, designed by the team at Titan Books and included Grant Morrison among its many columnists.

The transition from a more ‘fanzine’ magazine to pro magazine was “interesting”, to say the least judging from Natasha’s account of life at ACME and John Brown which I recently came across.

Natasha, a woman with a transgender history (she transitioned in 2009, was editor of Speakeasy (which, in its final days, was edited by Stuart Green) but has previously worked for Titan in its early days, at the comic co-operative Acme Press and wrote for the comics paper The Buzz. She worked at the University of East Anglia, but died in 2012 (see obituary added in the comments below, published by the University).

Natasha’s articles on Speakeasy make for interesting reading, noting the title’s inability to “break out” from beyond comics, the perils of staff in-fighting and offer a snapshot of the British comics industry of the time…

• Acme – take two Earthquake pills and exit over the cliff…
On the company and major life changes

• Adventures in Comics with ACME Press
On the development of Soeakeasy and ACME’s ambitious comic projects

The Accidental Editor
The rise of VIZ and the first hint of a new comics news magazine for the UK – Speakeasy

• My Year of Speakeasy Hell Part 1
On getting the job of editing Speakeasy, John Brown and Vic Lime

speakeasy-91• My Year of Speakeasy Hell Part 2
On getting Speakeasy up and running, meeting Stuart Green, working with Rian Hughes

• My Year of Speakeasy Hell Part 3
Comics International rears its head as a rival, free title…

• My Year of Speakeasy Hell Part 4
On Dez Skinn, designing Speakeasy and growing staff tensions…

• My Year of Speakeasy Hell Part 5
Staff feuds and leaving for the Radio Times

• Natasha Curson – a trans history by Natasha Elena Curson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Comic Book Babylon by Tim Pilcher is currently on sale from OK Comics, Leeds, Orbital Comics, Gosh! and The Cartoon Museum in London; and Dave’s Comics in Brighton. If you contact Tim via the book’s Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/ComicBookBabylonKickstarter – he’ll tell you how you can order a copy direct from him

Published by

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", working as an editor, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years. His credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel UK and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines. He also edited STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics, including Team M.O.B.I.L.E. and The Beatles Story. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare” for Tian Books. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

5 thoughts on “WebFinds: Looking back on Speakeasy, a comics magazine that crashed and burned

  1. Fascinating stuff, much of which I didn’t know, despite having been a regular contributor to Speakeasy. I hardly knew Natasha and had most of my dealings with Richard Ashford, who came across as the most editor-ish of the gang of four at the time. I get the impression that none of them are working in the comics industry these days, a shame for such a keen and talented bunch.

  2. I remember Speakeasy being handed out for free at the Westminster Comic Mart. I was just a kid really but used to get the train to London several times a year just to go and tour the comic shops and markets. The version of Speakeasy I liked best was the giant folded up newspaper full of features and interviews in what seemed like densely packed text and pictures, a bit like Private Eye. It added to that feeling of comics being a bit on the edge, an outsider, able to venture anywhere because nobody but comic fans were looking!

  3. Following up on this, I’m sorry to report that Natasha Curson died in 2012, which was not obvious from the format of her web site when you dip into it via a search engine. My apologies to those who knew her well for this oversight on my part.

    A Natasha Curson Memorial Talk is part of Norwich Pride week (http://www.norwichpride.org.uk/).

    The University of East Anglia posted the following obituary in April 2012. (http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/internal/broadview/archive/April+May+2012):

    “Natasha Curson, who died last month, was known to many colleagues through her roles in CSED and the UCU, of which she was a former branch president.

    “Appointed in December 2000 as educational advisor, she became manager, Learning Technology Group, and, in 2005, director of Postgraduate Programmes in HE Practice. She was also, for a time, honorary lecturer in EDU and part of an AHRB-funded British Cinema History Project in EAS.

    “Paul Levy, head of CSED, said: ‘Natasha was a fighter and although her illness in the end overwhelmed her, she never lost heart or her positive outlook. After the tremendous changes she had made in her life and work over the last three years, it is tragic to lose her now when she had so much still to offer the university and the community.’

    “Lydia Richards, UCU eastern regional official also paid tribute: ‘Natasha had strong principles and clear values that carried into every aspect of her trade union work, although one of the things that I will most remember her for was her ability to make me laugh when the going got tough.'”

    • Donations can be made in Natasha’s memory to Evolve, a group for 11-25-year-olds who describe themselves as transgender or are questioning their gender. Donate online at http://www.localgiving.com (search for ‘Mancroft Advice Project’) or send a cheque payable to ‘Mancroft Advice Project’ to Clare Franklin, development coordinator, MAP, The Risebrow Centre, Chantry Road, Norwich, NR2 1RF.

  4. I’m sorry but Natasha’s talking about 3 years of Acme Press, which they knew absolutely nothing about. From Speakeasy morphing from a fanzine to a pro-zine and the eve of the signing of the Mike Grell James Bond book was my period, and Natasha wasn’t there. Sorry. By the way Richard was hardly there either he had a well paid job in TV production. Dick Hansom came in one weekend a month and bashed out the “US News” and Cefn worked full time alongside me for 1 year while the company could pay him. I won’t comment on after I left because I don’t know anything about it. Natasha was invited in to Acme for fairly cynical reasons, to give us an idea of how Titan Distributors worked, but no light could be thrown on that murky matter. The inclusion of a fourth person on the board who had another source of income but would make important decisions about a company that I was desperately trying to build up so that it could actually pay me was the final straw that broke the camel’s back and I left. Nothing personal about Nigel at the time, I wasn”t around long enough to form any opinion positive or negative. Everything that happened at Acme Press prior to Natasha joining seems to be credited to Richard Ashford, which is totally wrong, sorry.

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