Monday, July 24, 2006

More Newtons: 'Gentle' John Corneille Speaks

When Newton started to publish the Marvel Comics in the 1975 they decided that they needed a public face. In the same way that Marvel had 'Smilin' Stan Lee, who would promote the line via the media and also through the comics themselves, Newton needed someone who was accessible, young and hopefully in touch with comics. To that end they advertised for a comic book enthusiast to come on board and edit the Newton Comic line. The person they chose was a nineteen year old engineering student named John Corneille. John was a long time comic book collector and even help found the Australian Comic Collector fanzine (if anyone has copies then talk to me now!) as well as running conventions along the way. John was also branded with a name that still makes him squirm when he hears it - 'Gentle' John. Gentle John's Mailbag showcased letters from Australian readers, some of whom were discovering the Silver-Age Marvels for the first time, along with some who weren't fooled. To his credit John would run letters by the more knowledgeable fans who'd ask for details to be placed in the books to alert people to the original appearance. It might have gone against company policy, but John would use the word 'reprint' in many letters and as such wouldn't shy away from the fact that Newton were reprinting original Marvel comics that might be available elsewhere.

John is a friendly guy, open and honest and it was a pleasure to finally catch up with him for a phone interview a few months ago during which he lifted the lid on the world of Newton Comics, and in doing so revealed some information that not many either knew or were allowed to publish previously.

DANIEL BEST: What do you remember about Newton Comics?
JOHN CORNEILLE: I hooked up with Newton in about February 1974 when they got the idea going. Initially I was hired to work one day a week putting the books together. I juggled page numbers around the advertisements to try and keep a certain amount of coherence with the stories, but if we didn't have the art to finish a story then we just skipped the pages. Newton started actual production in April/May 1975. In December 1975 they just pulled the plug on the whole thing because it was just too much trouble. Then they came and started again after two weeks or so and that's when it became pretty much chaotic and it was just print whatever we've got. From May to December it was pretty much organized and then after that it was the last gasp of a dying company, so I've got a good idea as to what happened in the first year or so. It's a little bit of a haze after that because a lot of stuff just got reprinted and rehashed without any of my input. At the end there they were just printing anything they could. Some of it was virtually made up in the production department without any input by me and they just put new covers on things and re-issued the same things again. The company was going bust at that stage and they hadn't paid Marvel for any license fees and couldn't get any more material. So there's a lot of stuff out there that no-one would have any record of because they were just special issues and things and they just made up new covers and printed the same things.

Originally the guys who set it up went to the states and lined it all up. Marvel shipped out enough material for what was estimated to be about six months or so. Marvel got the initial payment for the licensing costs and I got a feeling that Marvel never got a cent out of them after that. So after they shipped the second lot of material I've got a feeling that Marvel didn't get paid anything because that was already when Max Newton started bouncing cheques down there. What happened was that Newton didn't get any material out of Marvel after the first six months.

For the first year they were pretty much organized with the Spider-Man stuff, the Fantastic Four and whatever, but after that first year it was a matter of print whatever we haven't printed or print whatever we've printed anyway but put a new cover on it. I wasn't even there for the last few months of it and they were just putting covers on old non-sold items, re-issuing and doing all sorts of dodgy things.

DB: The first titles were The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Avengers, Planet Of The Apes and the like. But there were also some odd titles out there. I can understand Planet Of The Apes due to the TV show, but Dracula?
JC: Well that's right, Planet Of The Apes was hot on TV in those days, and that was Marvel's best selling magazine. That was why Newton did Planet Of The Apes, otherwise it was supposed to be the normal stuff, so we had Spider-Man, Avengers, Conan, Fantastic Four. I can't remember Dracula.
DB: Newton did about 14 issues of Dracula and a couple of specials.
JC: I must have had very little input into that. To some extent it would have just been what we had. Marvel sent us some material and once we couldn't get anymore we went with it. The first six months was fairly organized, but after that it was whatever they could lay their hands on to some extent so that might explain the Dracula books. That was also the reason for so many annuals and compilations in the end run because they were looking for any way to put out any material they had left.

DB: The letters pages were interesting and frank.
JC: I used real letters for the most part, but sometimes if I needed to get a particular point across I'd write and then answer my own letters. But the bulk of the letters in that we printed were from real people.

DB: You didn't keep any records or files from those days?
JC: No. I'm a collector myself but the thought of twenty or thirty years time someone might be interested in this stuff was just not conceivable to me at the time, even though I was collecting stuff that was only twelve years old at that stage. So no, I didn't keep any records. In fact I doubt that even they kept anything. It was a very ad-hoc situation down there. It was the last throws of a dying company (Regal Press, Newton Comics parent company). It was organized for the first year and then after that it was print anything and really they just didn't care. They were really not happy with fussing too much about, "Well we really shouldn't do this or do that". After a while they said, "Look, nobody cares. Just put it out and sell 'em."

DB: I've spoken to people who worked at Marvel at the time and no-one remembers Newton.
JC: No, they wouldn't. Their only input was meeting the guys from Australia, doing the initial set-up, sending the material and getting an initial payment.

What would probably be interesting to you now is the licensing fee amount.
DB: Absolutely.
JC: I can't remember it exactly, but I remember that it was in the order of $30,000 for the initial period, which might have been either six months or a year, and I reckon that Marvel got half of that, which was a fair bit of money in those days, that was a house in the suburbs, so they got about half of that, or even $10,000, and I don't believe that Marvel got another cent after that. I think there was correspondence for a while, but Max Newton was the expert at stalling people. I was in the office with (Regal Press editor) Marty Dougherty when he took a couple of calls from the United States and after a while they said we won't take the calls from Marvel anymore. Mind you Marty was incessantly guilty about that, he actually had no stomach for the way things were run around at Newton and I think he was looking for a way out and he moved as quickly as he could. He then had a huge battle to get any of his entitlements out of Newton. He was one of about two really straight guys around there; it was a very uncomfortable place for them.

Also at that stage the sales had dwindled quite a lot. When they started they did contra* advertising with Channel 9, the afternoon show of Hey Hey It's Saturday**, and so sales initially were quite high. Spider-Man #1 initially was 30,000. They thought the sales were 30,000 but they didn't realize how long it took for the returns to come back. They were in the publishing business and they would have known all of that, but I think what happened was the newsagents kept them past their normal cycle because they were doing well. Then the next magazines that came out were The Avengers and the Fantastic Four and they went out with about 25,000 print runs. It was only about five weeks in that we discovered that where we thought that Spider-Man had sold 30,000, about 8,000 or so came back. Then quite a lot of the other books started coming back. What it meant was that quite a lot of the actual sales figures topped out at about 20,000 or so with the TV advertising, then the novelty wore off and the sales for the rest were about 8,000 to 10,000. About three or four months in most of them were selling more like 3,000 to 4,000 per issue which was getting pretty marginal for them. When those figures started to hit home around November they pulled the plug. Then they thought about it and decided well it's only newsprint and it's all very well saying we're paying for this and this and this and is it all worthwhile but if we just presume that we've got all this stuff and we're not paying anybody anything...so they decided to put them out even though they were only selling 3,000 copies. Then they just printed everything they could after January 1976.

DB: Newton also did a cross promotion with Weeties***.
JC: They were the kings of contra those guys and there were all sorts of promotions going on. The only one I really remember clearly which was the initial one which had the biggest success, and that was the afternoon TV show. Newton outsold the American magazines four to one for a while in Australia but the kids got weaned off them and the American books dominated. My main issue, and I voiced it, was that you could buy a proper colour edition for twenty cents, so why would you buy a black and white reprint for thirty cents? They said that the mums don't know that and they were right and I was wrong. The kids would see a comic on TV, they'd ask for it and the parents would buy the shiny colored Newton comic and pass up the original American one. The Newtons did have more pages though.

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* Contra deals rule in Australia. The late Graham Kennedy would do the bulk of his endorsements via contra deals. A contra deal is where a person advertises a product in return for the product itself, usually in lieu of a cash payment. It can also be used, as it was in this case, for reciprocal advertisement. Thus Channel 9 advertised Newton Comics, in return Newton Comics ran ads for Channel 9. No cash changed hands and the ads were probably written off the books as a freebie.

I'm always open to contra deals. I've done more than a few in my time. My favourite was a running ad for a certain wine during my time at the ABC. I was pissed as a little beetle every second Thursday.

** A long running television show, in case you're too lazy to click the link. It originally started out as a children's program and evolved into a prime-time weekly variety show, probably the last of it's kind.

*** An Australian breakfast cereal. The breakfast of champions really. Great with milk and one of the best breakfast cereals to eat once it's gone soggy.

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