Tripwire’s senior editor ANDREW COLMAN takes a look at London’s Forbidden Planet, a comic shop which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year…
“People like us shop at Forbidden Planet” went the legend on those original adverts for London’s brand new comic shop in 1978. There were several versions of the ad, mostly found on the side of buses or in West End tube stations. All of them were illustrated of course by premier English artist Brian Bolland, featuring a host of archetypal Addams Family-esque ghouls and aliens – and those ads, the first I’d ever seen for a comic shop, certainly did their job. I was one of those “people” whose interest had been inevitably piqued by those beguiling posters, and this shop, along with Comic Showcase (which opened a couple of years later) soon became my mecca.
There had been other, earlier honey traps (I use that term loosely) in London in the mid 70s that sold back issues – musty, sooty places with surly staff such as Reedmore Books in Finchley Road (the building it was in – a pokey alcove overlooking a railway line, long since demolished), a stall in Camden Market, and my local newsagent, which had an old-school spinner rack but only sold a random selection of DCs. Apart from that there was the rather bijou Paradise Alley, located down a narrow passageway near the FP site, but it only had a smattering of comics.
Antediluvian as Reedmore Books was, the acrid smell of old newsprint and the endless piles of old comics (no bags, boards or alphanumeric ordering back then) represented an Aladdin’s Cave for me. It was here that I first heard collectors ask for individual books by name – Avengers 4 being the most wanted comic of 1975, as I recall. However, due to Marvel deciding not to distribute most of its titles during this period (in order not to clash with its Mighty World of Marvel line) it was hard to locate U.S. Marvels, and rarely were you aware when the next shipment was due to arrive.
There had more importantly been Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, based initially in Berwick Street and then St. Anne’s Court, Soho. A shop that has correctly been mythologised as the hub, if not birthplace of British comic and science-fiction fandom, it opened its doors in 1969, and soon became the hang out for the cognoscenti. Under the auspices of owner Derek “Bram” Stokes, who also organised the original UK comic conventions, it was the first proper comic retail store in England. It was also patronised by such luminaries as Alan Moore, and Nick Landau, who of course took Dark They Were’s template (and some of its staff, including future Comic Showcase owner Paul Hudson) for his new venture.
Landau, who already had experience importing U.S. comics, running marts and publishing fanzines throughout the 1970s, was a pivotal figure in the development of comic retail in England – having formed Titan Distributors with partners Mike Lake and Mike Luckman, he was now able to run a comic shop that could provide a comprehensive selection of imported American comics. Comics from then onwards would arrive on the shelves at roughly the same time as in the U.S., unlike previously when there was a lag of three months before the books, transported by ship, would turn up. This departure coincided with the arrival of the Direct Market, when speciality stores in the U.S. would get the lion’s share of print runs for dedicated, standing order customers.
The timing was perfect for Forbidden Planet – Superman and of course Star Wars had provided a massive boost for science fiction, comics and genre, and although DC was experiencing the Implosion, Marvel Comics (its universe still relatively cohesive at the time) was still bringing in legions of new fans. Situated in Denmark Street (still very much Tin Pan Alley back then) just off Charing Cross Road, the new shop was professionally organised, with plenty of highly desirable yet pricey back issues on the wall during those early years – I remember a Cerebus 1 on that display retailing for £300 (a lot of wedge for a teenage addict like myself). There was no question that FP had raised the bar.
It didn’t take long for Forbidden Planet to not just be a conduit for fandom, but also set the stage for some key moments in its history, one of which brought the comic medium to mainstream attention. I have fond memories of getting a pile of Freak Brothers and Rip off Comics signed by the great (and definitely cooler than thou!) Gilbert Shelton and Paul Mavrides in that very overcrowded shop back in 1982. More significantly, there was the Dark Knight Returns signing in 1985, moved to the nearby Café Munchen due to lack of space. This was the first opportunity for most fans to meet Frank Miller and Lynn Varley (Miller seemed fresh faced and somewhat innocent at the time) and get books signed by them. And yes, I still have my copies.
Forbidden Planet’s success quickly led to expansion, with an FP 2, focusing on T.V. and movie – related items, opening in St. Giles Circus round the corner from Denmark Street. In the mid 1980s, what was now known as the flagship store opened in New Oxford Street – a much bigger premises than previously, but with a pared down back issue section. From thereon, Forbidden Planet consolidated its position as the U.K.’s biggest comic retailer by opening branches in other cities – by the time the company split in two in 1992, with Mike Lake leaving to form Forbidden Planet International, there were branches in most of the U.K.’s major cities – there are currently 25 outlets across Britain from the two chains, with one in New York.
In 2003 the flagship store moved to its current address in Shaftesbury Avenue – an even larger shop with a frontage that exhibited statues, busts and merchandise – the shop was now a pop culture superstore, with comics relegated to the basement (diehard fans would always find their way to them). This was a move that most shops opted to make, with merch providing most of their turnover. Nevertheless there are still acres of graphic novels downstairs, along with the latest imports.
There have been, and continue to be, some great comic shops in central London that I heartily recommend, including of course Gosh! And Orbital, and the much-missed Comic Showcase. Others have come and gone, but all owe at least a little to Forbidden Planet, who certainly got the ball rolling for the next generation of comic retailers. Here’s to another 40 years.
Here’s the link to their 1980s photo archive too