Saturday, July 30, 2011

Martin Skidmore

My friend Martin Skidmore died last night, at the ridiculously young age of 52. It wasn't unexpected - he'd been diagnosed with cancer a few months ago, and with each examination it became clearer and clearer how aggressive his cancer was. I saw him in hospital yesterday afternoon - he was asleep, and deep down I knew he wasn't going to wake up.

I'd known Martin, at first through correspondence, the best part of twenty-five years. We weren't best friends - we didn't move enough in the same circles for that - but we did like each other and respected each other's opinions. We didn't always agree - he loved the Monkees and didn't love the Beatles, and whilst I do love the Monkees, I love the Beatles more. But Martin's opinions were always backed up by a deep knowledge of whatever it was he was talking about. He was one of the best-read people I knew, but 'best read' doesn't cover it, as his breadth of experience covered music, art, film and television, as well as book and comics (and football and wrestling).

Martin loved pop culture in all its forms, but never uncritically. I knew him through his love of comics; I first became aware of him when he edited his fanzine Worlds Collide. He then became editor of Fantasy Advertiser, at the time the main comics fanzine in the UK. Over the years he was in charge, he transformed the magazine, applying new standards of professionalism in terms of production, hosting a letter column that was more than happy to wander off the subject of comics when it was warranted, and encourging reviews that cut deep below surface impressions. Of course, this met some resistance, and there were some who considered that FA (as Martin officially renamed it) had become too pretentious in leaving behind its former role as primarily a news 'zine and becoming more of a critical magazine. But the contributors (who often disagreed with each other spectacularly in the lettercol) seemed to me tho have been attempting to apply to comics the sort of critical approaches that were being used elsewhere, and why not? If they often seemed negative, that stemmed from a refusal to tolerate the drivel that so many comics publishers thought (and still think) acceptable for the readers. The result was a serious rival, at least in terms of writing quality, for The Comics Journal, with perhaps a better sense that, deep down, the writers did love comics.

Martin himself epitomised that. He was never shy of calling something rubbish if he thought it was rubbish, but his praise for work he liked was effusive. And behind this was the fact that he was basically a kind man, and also modest about his own abilities - the naming of his own column as 'So-Called Critic' illustrates this.

In the late 1980s Martin got what must have been a dream job for him; he got to edit his own line of comics. Trident published early work by such writers as Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar (whose first published work was put out by Trident). I'm not going to say that these writers would not have made it without Martin, if only because he would himself scoff at such an extravagant claim. But he did provide opportunities for them to do work they might otherwise not have done, and Morrison's St Swithin's Day remains, in my view, one of the best things he ever wrote.

Sadly, financial issues with the parent company killed Trident in 1991. Martin went away and successfully reinvented himself as a Computer Scientist, and was a Senior Analyst at UCL when he was diagnosed and took medical retirement. But his love of pop culture and comics never left him, and in recent years he was a prolific contributor to Freaky Trigger and The Singles Jukebox. Last October, he restarted FA as an online presence.

I don't think I write much like Martin Skidmore. But I think he was an influence on my writing, above all in teaching me that writing must always have integrity if it is to be worth anything. Martin was incapable of anything less.

Goodbye, Martin.

(And I would like to mention Hazel and Sarah, who were troopers in looking after Martin in his last days.)