King’s Reach: John Sanders’ Twenty-Five Years At The Top Of Comics by John Sanders (book review).

May 5, 2021 | By | Reply More

The first thing to clarify about‘King’s Reach: John Sanders’ Twenty-Five Years At The Top Of Comics’ is what the title means. ‘At The Top’ refers to him being the managing editor of the comics division of IPC. He was more of a businessman than anything else but he did see the direction of cultural trends and went along for the ride.

Sanders started as a features journalist with some flair for design. He came up with a magazine for modern women called ‘Whirl’, made up dummies and found stories to fill it but it failed due to internal politics. He still had his post but nothing to do, so he filled his time writing freelance articles. He launched ‘Look And Learn’, a very successful magazine of general knowledge for children that cost four times as much as most comics but parents bought it because it was educational. Sanders came up with tabloid-style headlines for articles such as ‘Nero Never Played A Note That Night’ and ‘Canute Wouldn’t Have Dared!’. The only comic strip in ‘Look And Learn’ was ‘The Trigan Empire’, still famous for its beautiful art by Don Lawrence though the scripts weren’t great.

Fleetway’s great rival in comics was D.C. Thompson in Scotland which had a non-unionised workforce, paid low rates and kept comics cheap. They had long-running success with ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’. Many talented British writers and artists learned the trade at D.C. Thompson, including Pat Mills and John Wagner. They were also keen to get better paid work elsewhere, so in the long run, its cheapskate methods failed.

In 1974, D.C. Thompson launched ‘Warlord’, a daring new publication with more violence than was hitherto customary in British comics. It sold well and Sanders hired Pat Mills to come up with a rival comic in the same vein for Fleetway. Mills wanted ‘rights, equity, the lot, which Sanders couldn’t give him, so he offered a big salary instead. Mills accepted and produced ‘Battle Picture Weekly’. It did well. There was a market for violence! The kids were used to it now on television with ‘The Sweeney’ and similar cop shows. Mills followed up with ‘Action!’ But it was too violent. The media protested. It sank. How to get away with violence and not upset the public guardians of morality? Make it Science Fiction! Mills created ‘2000AD’ and the rest is history. Not very important history to 99% of the population and not all that important to comic fans, but history of a sort.

Sanders’ role in all this was to put up the funding, protect his staff from executive interference, especially when the execs got scared by bad publicity and even defend the comics on television. He rightly pointed out that there was much more violence on television and in the cinema than in the comics.

In truth, the story of ‘2000AD’ is only a small part of the book. Sanders’ main legacy was his policy of ‘hatch, match and dispatch’ to keep the comics division in profit. Kids like new stuff, so ‘hatch’ was launching new comics. Sales inevitably declined over time, often just a few months, so the comic would then be merged with another one. The new comic would then grab two lots of readers, in theory, and the loss of a title was temporary because Fleetway would launch another one, which would go the same route.

The fact that this policy was based on quantity crowding the shelves rather than quality on the pages and treating the readers like idiots, seems to have escaped Sanders’ notice. I remember as a kid getting quickly tired of British comics disappearing but it didn’t matter much. Marvel had me by then. Sanders is inordinately proud of ‘hatch, match and dispatch’ and I don’t think he should be.

The rest of the book is about meetings and launches and publicity and deals and all the other stuff of management. Sanders’ view on contributor rights is that there were so many contributors to each comic and the profits were so slim that to pay them royalties would have done away with the profit and the comics. He gives figures to prove this. Bear in mind that British comics are anthologies and each one contained eight strips, so sixteen contributors just counting writers and artists. He may have been correct at the time.

Artists and writers have all sorts of special deals now and some are millionaires but the cover price of comics and graphic novels has increased dramatically and they’re aimed at adults. When they sold for the pennies from kids pocket money, maybe there wasn’t enough loot to go around. Even if there was, why bother? Corporations exist for the benefit of the shareholders, not the staff.

‘King’s Reach: John Sanders’ Twenty-Five Years At The Top Of Comics’ is an interesting read if you want to get the executive view of the industry. The print edition layout has big spaces between paragraphs to make the text take up more pages, a sort of tabloid look. The title hints at the humility of the author. Overall, he doesn’t seem to have been a bad boss, though, and played with a straight bat in the tough world of business. It’s to his credit that he resigned when crooked Robert Maxwell’s dodgy dealings became obvious.

John Sanders didn’t write or draw any comics or even do much editing except in the early days. He was a manager in a big organisation. As it happens, he was in charge when IPC launched ‘Battle Picture Weekly’, ‘Action’ and, finally, ‘2000AD’, which is where the interest lies and why Rebellion, the current publisher of that British icon, put out this book.

To an extent, he steered the overall policy of the comics division and it was successful. Was that success due to John Sanders or to creators like Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Moore, Carlos Ezquerra, Dave Gibbons and Kevin O’Neill? You decide.

Eamonn Murphy

May 2021

(pub: Rebellion, 2021. 306 page paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78108-821-7)

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Category: Books, Comics

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