A Radio Milestone! Alex Fitch has Made 500 Panel Borders radio shows… Roll on 500 more…

Alex Fitch in action by Philip Spence (www.ninja-bunny.com)
Alex Fitch in action by Philip Spence

As it hits its 500th episode later today, presenter and producer Alex Fitch looks back at the many highs of producing the Panel Borders, Britain’s only regular radio show devoted to the Ninth Art, revealing the show’s origins, and some favourite interviews…

After 15 years in various time slots on air, and various lengths, Panel Borders has astonishingly reached its 500th episode. As the UK’s only regular FM radio show on comics, it’s always been a pleasure and a labour of love to interview the numerous creators that have featured in every episode, including the likes of Audrey Niffenegger, Raymond Briggs, Bryan and Mary Talbot, Mariko Tamaki, Stan Sakai, Julie Hollings, Gerald Scarfe, Becky Cloonan and many more.

In some respects the show came about almost by accident. I had presented a number of episodes of Resonance FM’s weekly film show – I’m ready for my close-up – in 2006, and the producer of the show let me know that he was happy for the programme to cover other aspects of visual culture such as comics.

With this in mind, I went along to a talk that Alan Moore gave in Central London with a signing afterwards, and asked him if he’d be interested in doing an interview. He said yes, and gave me nearly two hours of his time by phone later that year. I broadcast a 90 minute edit of this across a half hour, and hour long show in January 2007.

Then I when to the Bristol Comics Convention that year, and asked other comics creators if I might interview them, a few said they’d heard my chat with Alan and were happy to do so, so this early interview opened many doors…

Because I recorded “too many” interviews at that convention – which if broadcast, would have turned the film show into a comics show for several weeks – my producer at Resonance suggested launching a separate comics programme as well. Another programme-maker at the station had been thinking about launching a comics programme and had even created flyers about it, but after months of waiting for him to deliver it to the station, it had never been made. I wasn’t keen to call my show ‘Strip’, but as that was the advertised title of the other programme, it was a concession I made for the broadcast version, as Resonance were giving me an hour-long slot.

Alex Fitch in 2007
Alex Fitch in 2007

As it turned out, however, I got to use Panel Borders as the name of the podcast before several of my interviews went out on air, as Resonance only broadcast repeats in the Summer of 2007 during a studio move, so by the time ‘Strip’ went on air, I’d already established PB as a ‘brand name’ and after a couple of years persuaded the powers that be to let me give the broadcast name of the programme the same as the podcast.

I’d googled to find out what titles were being used for comics podcasts at the time, as I didn’t want to use a name that anyone else already was using, and came up with Panel Borders as having a nice ring to it, encompassing the possibility of it being chats within the borders of the comics industry and beyond, and a pun on the idea of ‘boarding’ a panel discussion…

The show has given me opportunities to chat to many of my favourite comic creators over the years. Some have been a bit grumpier than expected – for example, a particularly famous X-Men writer was audibly annoyed that his signing table at the comics convention I interviewed him at was next to the toilets and this might have come across on air. A creator of more adult orientated comics did ask “What kind of comics journalist are you?!” when I revealed that I hadn’t read one of his titles, but this was (probably) tongue in cheek, and 99 per cent of the creators I’ve spoken to have been a pleasure to chat to.

Amusingly, when I interviewed Mangaka Toshio Maeda at a Danish convention, he asked me if he should “act as the villain” when interviewed (as apparently that’s a trend in Japan), but I was happy to go for a friendly chat instead!

I’ve interviewed Alan Moore a couple more times since our first chat by phone, and like to think that we get along quite well. That said, I interviewed him on camera in the back room of the comic shop, Gosh!, with the video camera held by small press creator Oli Smith, and the next time we met, when I reminded him of that, he said, “Oh yes, how are you doing Oli?” – so I guess I’m less memorable than some of my collaborators!

I’ve spoken to hundreds of writers and artists over the last 15 years, and have tracked down most of the people on my “wish list”, either face to face or by phone. I’d like to have a proper chat with Neil Gaiman some day, rather than the couple of brief ten minute conversations we’ve had at events. I had been asked to chair an interview with him on stage at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2013, but unfortunately it was the same date that I was helping to run Caption in Oxford; luckily Hannah Berry did a fantastic job, but I worry that that my one chance to do so has been and gone!

I’d also would very much have liked to interview Stan Lee before he passed, and did my best to connect with “his people” when he came to the UK for an event in the Docklands, but it wasn’t to be.

Outside of the world of comics, it’s been great to talk to fans of the medium such as the late film-maker Nic Roeg – an interview set up by Ian Rakoff, founder of the Rakoff Collection at the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It’s also been a joy to do my occasional “comics on comics” interviews with such comedians as Robin Ince, Stewart Lee, and Sandi Toksvig talking about their love of the medium. The latter was one of the few times I’ve ended up locked in a space with my interviewee – the door jammed to the room in the Cartoon Museum where I was interviewing Sandi, and we had to hammer on the door to get the attention of someone outside to free us!

Another time, when I interviewed David B in the garden of SelfMadeHero’s offices in London, it started to rain as we wrapped up, and then found out we’d been locked outside, but luckily someone let us in fairly soon after.

Other interview venues have also been unexpected, including a chat with Klaus Janson in a Wetherspoons in Birmingham, and finding the Totnes ‘collective’ – Jock, Lee O’Connor, John Spelling and Dom Reardon – in their beautiful part of the world.

I was lucky when I lived in South East London to be in a part of the world where the likes of Kieron Gillen, Sarah Gordon, Howard Hardiman, Simone Lia, Gary Northfield, Tom Humberstone, Woodrow Phoenix, Sarah McIntyre, Stephen Collins, Dave ‘Lando’ Lander and Jules Scheele also lived at the time and I felt welcomed into the local comics community by them. The same has happened with my move to Brighton, being in the environs of David Lloyd, Corinne Pearlman, Hannah Berry, Hannah Eaton, Daniel Locke, Zara Slattery, Myfanwy Tristram, Michi Mathias, Joe Decie, Simon Russell and many others.

Equally, being invited to chair at various events across the country, I’ve loved the amazing opportunities I’ve had to do interviews on stage, such as with Gerard Way in Leeds Town Hall, as part of Thought Bubble, Barbara Yelin and Reinhard Kleist at Bath Literature Festival, Bryan Lee O’Malley at the British Library, and numerous Q&As at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival.

Unless I got back to a weekly schedule one day, I’m unlikely to make 1000 shows on comics, but perhaps I’ll get to 600 in the early 2030s! In the meantime, I have more interviews to look forward to, new comics to read, and new creators to meet for the first time…

Alex Fitch

Our congratulations to Alex and all those involved in an amazing milestone!

The Inking Woman - Cover

Today’s 500th episode of Panel Borders about the art of the contemporary graphic novel and strip cartoon, with Alex Fitch is titled “Discerning the Past“. Alex takes a nostalgic look back at important moments in the history of comics, discussing anthology title The Inking Woman with two of its editors, Dr. Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate, and how they compiled the book’s survey of 250 years of female cartoonists.

Also, co-founder of the Forbidden Planet chain of shops, Mike Lake talks about his involvement in the birth of the British ‘direct market’ in the UK which inaugurated organised distribution of American comics in the UK in the 1970s.

• Panel Borders: Discerning the Past airs at 5.30 – 6.30pm tonight, Wednesday 2nd June, on Resonance 104.4 FM and DAB (London), repeated Friday at 2.30am / broadcast streamed at www.resonancefm.com / extended podcast after broadcast at www.panelborders.wordpress.com

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