Review: King’s Reach — comics chieftain John Sanders’ marvellous memoir of the Ministry of Magazines

Periodical publishing is not what it was. Gone are the days when week in, week out millions of adults and kids would buy magazines or comics and spend time reading them. We will not see their like. Now it’s all about screens, not paper, and grabbing digests of information fed from social media streams. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just that, in the digital era, no one will ever feel the almost physical thrill of taking possession of the latest issue of a favourite title — or be eager to understand what makes the minds behind it tick.

John Sanders' memoir, King's Reach
Send him to the Tower…

John Sanders is one of those minds, and I’ve just finished reading his memoir, King’s Reach.

Some background: as a kid, I loved comics. British comics, I mean. I enjoyed Marvel UK’s reprints now and then, and read Star Wars Weekly regularly, but my heart lay with the home-grown material. DC Thomson’s output — Warlord, Bullet, Victor, Crunch — I dabbled with every now and then, usually when a titled merged or was having a marketing ‘boom’: giving way a bit of plastic tat. But it was IPC’s comics that I always turned to first. 2000AD, Starlord and Tornado formed the staple, from April 1977 onwards, an these were joined at times by occasional purchases of Battle Action, Speed, the revived Eagle and many others, including a raft of the funnies, like Buster, Whoopee!, Whizzer and Chips, and Cheeky Weekly. John Sanders oversaw the editorial teams behind all of them.

I still read 2000AD, albeit after a long break from 1987 to 2002. As a ten-year-old, I quickly realised that I wanted to work in comics. I never did. By the time I entered the jobs market, in the mid-to-late 1980s, comics were dying. Kids were keener on computer games, and those who did buy comics wanted US imports if they were teenagers, or TV cash-ins if they were nippers. In a bid to be hip, 2000AD had begun the shift that would see it disappear ever further up its own fundament; it only saw sunlight again when it was taken over by Rebellion in the new millennium. So I went to work on the next best thing: computer mags.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, computer magazine publishing was still in the hands of small outfits — VNU, Future, but most particularly Dennis Publishing — run by wide boys and girls who would not be unfamiliar to Sanders: talented and aggressive publishers and editors who worked (and drank) hard to get issues out to printers every week or month, and always had an eye out for an opportunity to close off an avenue to a competitor or to put out a spoiler title to go up against a rival’s offering. Sales and circulation figures were all, but there was a deep understanding that if you didn’t give the punters what they wanted, the numbers would plummet. Sanders’ memoir is populated by a cast of characters who, though I’ve never met, I can visualize totally. They’re just like the people I worked with.

Sanders’ own tale runs from the late 1950s, when he joins what will become soon become International Publishing Corporation (IPC), the ‘Ministry of Magazines’, through to his departure from Fleetway, the company formed to hold IPC’s Youth Group titles when they were sold in 1990. Sanders’ publishing chutzpah shines from the start: as the story begins, he is 26 years old, has already made his way to Fleet Street and the Featured Editorship of the Daily Sketch, and has just begun schmoozing the grandees of magazine publishing to win himself something better. It helps that his wife’s dad is in the business too, but that can’t be all that made the young Sanders such a go-getter. He doesn’t give much away about his early life or background — schooling in Brighton is all he reveals.

Sanders’ proposal for a magazine aimed at trendy young women, Whirl!, gets him hired by Fleetway, as Amalgamated Press became in 1959 after being bought by the Daily Mirror group, but management politics aborts the title in utero. Sanders’ management sponsor, Leonard Matthews, allows him to operate as a freelance six months while taking a Fleetway salary for just showing up each day. When this comes to the attention of the accounts department, he has to find something to do… and gains his first real editorship, of Matthews’ newly launched Look and Learn, the only kids’ magazine my comprehensive school would allow in the library.

Ranger: one Sanders lift-off that never reached the the heights

Three years later he’s moved onto his first true comic, the ill-fated Ranger. It takes a bullet in less than a year, but Sanders is able to leverage his management connections to get himself appointed to the role of magazine troubleshooter. He finds his niche: he fixes ailing titles, he launches new ones, he explores new markets. The boy must have done good because he survives not only the formation of IPC from a trio of rival publishers, including Fleetway, and its acquisition by the company now called Reed International but also the management consultants who come to oversee the re-organisation that follows the purchase. His old mentor Matthews doesn’t.

It’s this reorganisation, during 1970 and 1971, that cements his focus on comics rather than magazines in general, and gives him publishing oversight of the business, IPC’s Youth Group, for which he is best known.

The Glory Years

Male comics fans looking for new details on the creation and production of some of the key titles of the era — Battle, Action, 2000AD — are not going to read much they don’t already know, and will probably want to turn to David Bishop’s Thrill-Power Overload, Steve MacManus’ The Mighty One, and Pat Mills’ Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! if they want more detailed stories. But Sanders presents a big picture view of the world in which these more specific histories and memoirs are set. He also gives far more space to girls’ and infants’ comics, and to magazines, than the boys’ books usually allow.

That includes some of the other titles that were around at the time but ignored by my adventure-hungry eyes. In 1969, Sanders brought into being Shoot!, which became a hugely popular soccer weekly and lasted into the 1990s. Sanders has much to say on Shoot!’s battle with rival title Match, from EMAP, and how IPC’s sales policies weakened its title’s ability to compete. Indeed, one of the joys about this book are Sanders’ frequent forays into the business of magazine and comics publishing: the deals done to get them sold, how they were distributed — networks of regional wholesale companies who have all long gone now — and how they were financed. This was the engine that kept the ship steaming ahead, pace the creative talents of the division’s editors, writers and artists.

Sanders shows how the publishing landscape changed during the late 1960s as once rival publishing companies acquired or merged with each other to form IPC. Later he covers the quakes the shook the industry in the 1980s. Rarely do writers’ and artists’ recollections touch on these topics — other than to grumble that they weren’t paid enough. Sanders not unreasonably points out that businesses which paid all they wanted wouldn’t have stayed in business for long.

But he shows no sense of irony when, having made the case for keeping such costs down, he goes on to talk about all the bibulous lunches he and his fellow publishing potentates took in the Savoy Grill, one of London’s more expensive eateries.

It’s on the business side that Sanders most left his mark, primarily with his hatch, match and dispatch plan — create a title and then, if it fails to pay its way, merge it into another title to boost the latter’s sales, before killing off the name entirely. The aforementioned Shoot! was the first, created in part to become a home for IPC’s existing but troubled soccer title, Goal. Sanders’ scheme was to create a continuous ferment of new titles to shore up existing leaders or become their replacements as the demands of his young readers changed. At one point, Sanders causes five competing titles to be launched in order to deny arch-rival DC Thomson and others a foothold in the emerging market for magazines for teenage girls.

There’s not much else here about IPC’s rivals, though. DC Thomson is mentioned as a source of talent and in un-unionised contrast to the closed shop that was IPC, but Sanders never goes into details. Nor does he discuss Polystyle, publisher of a rafte of TV-centred comics during the 1960s and 1970s — Countdown, TV Comic, Target and so on — or Marvel UK in its pre- and post-Dez Skinn incarnations. Did they rate insufficiently as competitors at the time, or has he just forgotten about them? Sanders’ focus is naturally his IPC, but it would have been nice, now that so much time has elapsed, to hear his views on the wider comics market in his era.

Nerve Centre

The inevitable emphasis on IPC means that much of Sanders’ story takes place within the walls of King’s Reach Tower, the modest skyscraper on London’s South Bank that is best known to comics fans as Tharg’s Nerve Centre — it’s a disguised spaceship, don’t you know. I once visited King’s Reach Tower for an unsuccessful job interview with New Scientist. Sanders’ Youth Group had already moved out by then, first to nearby overflow premises and then way over the other side of the river when they were bought by Robert ‘Cap’n Bob’ Maxwell. This is one of the more interesting parts of the book as it slowly dawns on Sanders, his nous having for once deserted him, that his new boss has only acquired the division for financial expediency. It’s told as a nice running gag about a stolen company car. New titles are prepared for launch and cancelled just days before they are due to go to the printers. Promising third-party titles are acquired and then shut after just a couple of issues. All because Maxwell wasn’t interested in publishing, but in staying rich though creative accountancy.

To be fair to Sanders, he doesn’t hide his own questionable behaviour at this time. When told to shut a new launch, he allows morale-drained staff members time to quit of their own accord in order to minimise the company’s redundancy payments. He’s fairly up front about his launch failures too, but naturally he focuses on his and the division’s successes: Shoot!; the literally ‘read ’em and weep’ pages of Tammy; Tina and Disneyland for the tots; 2000AD, of course.

There are omissions. Sanders doesn’t once mention Eagle’s high-profile relaunch in 1982, with its focus on photo-strips rather than drawn artwork, especially when he says he could never see the attraction of photo-strips in earlier girls’ comics. There’s nothing about many of the other titles that launched under his stewardship, including Top Soccer, Tornado, Speed and Wildcat — perhaps they don’t register in his memory as much as the successes do. All victims, of course, of hatch, match and dispatch.

But there are some curios. 1984’s horror comic Scream! was laid to rest because kids didn’t find it scary enough (true, that’s why I never got past issue 2) but adults who’d spotted it on newsagents’ shelves assumed it would terrify the poor wee things. If only they’d have bothered to ask. Or how about Big K, Sanders’ ill-fated attempt to cash in on the British home computer boom and edited by the late Tony Tyler, who I knew later as a MacUser columnist.

Viz, 1975-style

Then there’s That’ll Be The Day!. I’d never heard of this 12-page satire comic for grown-ups that Sanders launched in 1975. An attempt at a more demotic Private Eye, TBTD! closed after a single issue, says Sanders, because IPC’s sales department didn’t want it.

The one and only — literally — That’ll Be The Day!

Even by the standards of 1975, TBTD!’s humour was questionable, especially to those on the political left. Similarly, left-wingers might not like to hear what Sanders has to say about union activism, either. He limits his ire to the actions of IPC’s NUJ chapel, but his points apply equally to other publishing unions whose actions impacted Sanders’ stable of titles, such as the printers. Imagine a world where anyone who wanted to launch magazines was consistently rebuffed by printing companies not because the job was too small but because the pages had not been set by a member of the typesetting union. I know — exactly this happened to my parents. It’s why, even though politically left of centre, I refused to join the NUJ. I’m not remotely surprised that Sanders, who had started out as a reporter, eventually had enough and sent back his NUJ card.

That said, Sanders doesn’t come across as dogmatic and remains even-handed. His irritation with the unions was not ideological — they just got in the way of his plan to run a profitable business selling comics. Blundering old school managers who couldn’t see that decades old business practices would need to be completely overhauled for the 1970s come in for much greater criticism than the bruvvers. And Sanders never dismisses editorial or creative skills, even among those staff members who weren’t really up to snuff.

It’s ironic then that if there’s one real flaw in Sanders’ book, it’s that it could do with a good editor. There are lots of glitches of the kind that writers often make in draft and which editors should have picked up and altered. A few examples: on one occasion, Sanders tells us that IPC had 2,500 employees — twice in the same short paragraph. The new editor at the Daily Sketch during Sanders’ time there was Colin Valdar not Valder*. He talking about comics retailing for three or four pence at a time when inflation had already pushed then well into double figures. Several times Sanders tells us that Eagle launched in 1951, but it was 1950 — April, to be precise. Any easy mistake for an ageing memory to make — Sanders is well into his 80s, by my reckoning — but yet another that a fact-check would have identified.

These are minor errors that most writers, me included, make. It’s why we have editors, or why, in these times when content is published by businesses who do not consider themselves publishers, there needs to be more editors in work not fewer. As a technical writer, this is a point I frequently make to my employer — a company of 3500 employees who could easily afford a handful of copy editors. Alas, my pleas falls on deaf ears. I think Sanders would understand.

And I think I would have liked to have worked for him. I never will now, but at least I have the hugely entertaining King’s Reach as compensation.

King’s Reach is published by Rebellion for £12.99.

* According to what was once the UK Press Gazette, anyway.

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