In 2023, the names 'Charlie Brooker' and 'CeX' will perhaps prompt two very different emotions from many people. The former is the acclaimed English presenter, author, producer and satirist who created the wonderfully dark and thought-provoking sci-fi drama series Black Mirror, while the latter is an international second-hand retailer which specialises in buying-in pre-owned games, tech and movies and hawking them to new customers.
Rewind back to the early '90s, however, and the fortunes of these two entities were somewhat different. CeX (more commonly known back then as 'The Computer Exchange', rather its modern 'Complete Entertainment eXchange' branding) was operating from its Whitfield Street store, close to London's famous Tottenham Court Road – a location which, at the time, was bursting with retailers selling the latest gadgets and gizmos.
It would later relocate to the nearby Rathbone Place (where a CeX store still exists to this very day) and begin its nationwide expansion – but, at that particular moment in time, it was a long way from being the franchised behemoth it is today (CeX now has over 380 stores in the UK alone, and branches as far afield as Mexico, India and Australia).
Like any other specialist video game retailer operating in the early '90s, CeX was almost totally reliant on print media to attract customers. Unlike the CeX of today, the original Computer Exchange sold brand-new titles as well as second-hand ones and was, for a time, one of the biggest 'grey import' dealers in the United Kingdom, selling Japanese and North American hardware and software right the way up to the turn of the millennium (it stopped selling imported Nintendo and Sony products after legal challenges from both companies).
So, where does Mr Brooker fit into this story? Well, in the late '80s, he had been working as a cartoonist on the British comic Oink!, which ran between 1986 and 1988. He spoke to Rock, Paper, Shotgun in 2013 about how his cartoon work led him on a different career path:
My career has always been a weird sort of one thing that leads to something else that’s not quite related to anything else. So when I fucked my dissertation [on video games] up...I’d been working as a cartoonist. But the comics I’d been working for had folded, and I didn’t have any money, didn’t know what the fuck was I going to do. So I started working in Music and Video Exchange, Notting Hill Gate. I was working in the computer games department.
So that was Music and Video Exchange, and a guy ended up going off to set up CEX so I was working there - I did some comic strip adverts for them, because when they found out I was a cartoonist they’d get me to do cartoons for them. And they’d appear in various magazines, and one of them was PC Zone which was based round the corner.
These cartoons were essentially the adverts which would get printed in magazines of the period and starred Toby, a games-loving individual who, alongside his irritating sibling, would indulge in bouts of comic violence and slapstick comedy before proclaiming that CeX was the best place to obtain your video game software and hardware.
The ones we've sourced on this page were taken from various issues of EDGE magazine, but, as Brooker says, PC Zone also printed them – and this is what gave him his break in games journalism and writing:
One day it was Patrick McCarthy - David McCandless would pop in - but no, Patrick McCarthy wanted to know if I was interested in doing some comic strips for the magazine and so I went to chat with them. Macca said to me, ‘Why don’t you write a review?’ And my reaction was ‘I don’t think I’m qualified to do that.’ Like you needed a special qualification! I had a PC and... it was around the era of Alone In The Dark - I remember going there and seeing an early beta of Doom and thinking ‘God this changes everything: THE GUN BOBS AROUND. IT BOBS ABOUT A BIT’. And having a networked game of Doom.
Since then, Brooker has authored multiple books and written for shows such as Dead Set, Brass Eye and The 11 O'Clock Show – as well as creating the aforementioned Black Mirror and the underappreciated (but scarily prophetic) Nathan Barley. He has also written and presented the excellent Screenwipe and Gameswipe shows for the BBC, as well as many other productions for several broadcasters.
Black Mirror's global success has elevated him to a completely different level of fame, but we'll always love him for those deliciously irreverent CeX advertisements featuring the deranged ramblings of Toby.