Untold Tales From A West Reading Comic Collectors' Community - Part Four: A New Dawn
UNTOLD TALES FROM A WEST READING COMIC COLLECTORS’ COMMUNITY
Part Four: Mergers and Acquisitions
Reader weather warning 1: a period of mild alliteration is expected.
Me – one of the youngest in my class, under average height, ‘nuff said (this is ain’t no confessorial)
Mike H – school pal dating back to primary school, had Avengers 4 at one point, much preferred DC (a mostly insignificant character in the context of our tale who should have been crucified for throwing away his comics)
Andy D – school pal, cyclic chum, current bestie and co-conspirator collector (with a brain that was evidently not the size of a planet)
Alf W – flatulent bully and school pal, fart Patsy (not Walker), definitely not a Hero for Hire (questionable morals, free of charge)
Tim S – school pal, felt the love of Marvel, wasn’t particularly interested in collecting and whose inability to draw was legendary (think David Lynch using his feet)
Tim L – school pal, part-time Marvellist, daddy money bags and teeth like yeesh (made Jaws look healthy)
Joe G – school pal, a mutual friend of mine and Mike, we shall meet him later (has the ability to terrify villagers, scare entire islands into human sacrifice, crack mirrors and sink a thousand shi*s)
Andy W – an occasional voice in our narrative but for whom the future endows a big part (by part, I am talking role and not member)
Andy T – Andy W’s neighbour and comic collecting Bucky Barnes (we’ve not heard or met him, so this is his first official cameo appearance)
The titular West Reading Comic Collectors’ Community: this hasn’t come together yet, either, but we’re starting to see some of the key players (so read on, MacDuff)
Reader weather warning 2: the next paragraph may also see a scattering of moderately magnificent metaphors.
As far as significant years go, for me 1974 was one of the biggest. This was the year that I managed to pop my cherry and finally get my hands on something that brought a thirteen going on fourteen pubescent teenager some significant pleasure. Yes, I was able to acquire real, US. all-colour Marvel comics. And without going blind. From an initial trickle of two titles, the tide turned and a stream of sporadic ex-warehouse appearances became a torrent when the Marvel monthlies were officially distributed. Better yet, they came as regular as clockwork to our area of West Reading. From our desert of despair, the sands had shifted, and our period of searching through the arid wastelands now found us neck-deep in a flooded oasis of great contentment. More so, the waters continued to rise…
Towards the tail end of 1974, Transylvanian Brain Surgery advertised their fanzine and back issues for sale in the Marvel UK titles. This was something new. This was something the likes of which we had never seen. To our eyes, TBS seemed to list practically every issue of every title, though sadly many were beyond our modest means. We – me, Andy D and a few interested school mates – submitted our requests in the mail, along with our Postal Orders.
Note one: I just googled to see if you can still buy POs and, guess what, you can! But I wonder whether, like the cheque, will they both become a thing of the past in our assimilations of technology and struggles to suppress the demons of global warming?
In that autumn of 1974, with our letters posted to TBS, we all then waited interminable week after week for our orders to arrive. It was a form of Chinese torture, cycling home each day from school only to find nothing beneath the letter box but letters for my parents and zilch for me. Unless I am mistaken, it was about a month later that my package finally arrived, though of course in this era, the passage of time was a lot slower than it is now.
Note two: the slower passage of time? Surely not another manifestation of climate change, just waiting for a Scandi teen to recognise?
Sadly, when I picked my anticipated package, it was far more flaccid and less pulsating than I had expected.
Note three: package a.k.a. parcel, not lunchbox a.k.a. member.
What should have had the girth of middle-aged beer drinker instead bore the scars of famine. It was so beyond wafer-thin, it wouldn’t have troubled Mr Creosote. As a covering letter from TBS explained, such had been demand they could not fulfil any of my wants. Consequently, I received a credit note with complementary copies of Sea Devils 13 and IW Space Mysteries 9 as compensation.
Me: Are you ready?
Charlie: Good grief. Yes.
Back then, like the Marvel horror reprints, these Z-listers were also the kind of comics a dealer could never offload. No right-minded collector would touch them, not even with a condom-fitted barge pole. I must admit to having felt a bit Queen Victoria. I was not amused. Andy W has since related how he and his sidekick, Andy T, were more successful. Perhaps they were quicker off the mark. They certainly lived much nearer to the post office, a not insubstantial distance from my house, so had more incentive and less obstacles in getting their envelopes PO furnished and posted.
Note four: the newsagents and post-office where we all bought our postal orders and stamps was the same shop from which I cycled to and bought my UK Marvel weeklies and from where Andy W got his delivered. And talking of which…
From the end of October, I added the new Dracula Lives and Planet of the Apes to my pull-list. The latter Planet of The Apes confused us at first. Tim S and I would wander as usual across the lengths of breadths the school grounds during our breaks as we tried to get our heads around it. Because we were a few months behind the US in getting our new monthlies, we didn’t know that POTA originated as an ongoing concern in the US. For a time, we were convinced that these offbeat and markedly different stories were created for us in the U.K. Of course, Captain Britain would fulfil that home grown capacity but that’s another story, though in summary we all thought it was a turgid pile of festering excrement.
In the closing stages of the year, Andy D and I discovered yet another new seam at a newsagent we dubbed “Cemetery Junction”. Yes, this junction is the namesake of Ricky Gervais’ film, and the newsagent was (and still is) bang on the stretched X intersection of two arterial routes into and out of the town. By the way, the junction acquired this name because the triangle formed by its two eastern flanks conceal a graveyard from the Victorian times, which had been full for many years. More than eighteen thousand graves. Yup, that is one hell of a lot death, which brings us nicely back in a circle to our discovery, a regular supply of mostly horror, more adult-orientated Marvel/Curtis black and white magazines. Each had the extravagant price tag of 20p. Thus, on top of Willis and Shorts, this became another monthly haunt, even though it was the far side of town and a considerable jaunt on our bikes.
Over the next year, I bought: Monsters Unleashed 5 and 6; Tales of The Zombie 4, 5 and 6; Haunt of Horror 1 and 3; Marvel Preview 3 (early Blade appearance); Savage Tales 4 and 5; Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction 1 to 6; Savage Sword 1, 4 and 5; and Kull and the Barbarians 3.
I must admit that I really enjoyed these mags. Their more risqué content and seemingly sexier women with way less clothing than we’d usually see in the all-colour stories appealed to my nascent pubescent sensibilities and totally compensated for their price. Furthermore, with a TV-hating puritanical pop who frowned at the slightest hint of flesh or bad language, though he barely sat in front of it, yet who had an uncanny knack of walking in just when something dodgy came on, these were a very welcome and uncensored glimpses of the illicit. However, despite all of the naughtiness, the best of the lot for me were the six issues of Unknown Worlds, which were like an intravenous drip of sci-fi deep into my nerd core.
Note five: so maybe my dad was a bit weird with his love that dare not speak its name (opera on Radio 3) and his so-coincidental-it-must-be-real sixth sense for suddenly appearing and causing frantic jabs at the remote control while feigning innocence because something slightly questionable had come on after an hour of clean, clean, clean; or, in the pre-remote days, hiding behind a cushion, still feigning innocence though this of course went unseen, hoping he wouldn’t look at the screen. Actually, this was plausible because the lounge was a through route from the back of our bungalow (kitchen, where the radio played his awful dirges, ta dad) to the front (bathroom, often with unflushed and evidently used sanitary towels, ta mum). His speed through all depended on how desperate he was or if he had picked the wrong sort of mushrooms (this happened occasionally, inspiring periods of porcelain propensity and, once, a really bad trip involving snakes).
Note six: if you think my dad was weird, then what about this lot - the monks that accounted for a quarter of the teaching staff and owned our school. They were all, shall I say, characters. And mostly evil. More than 120 decibels vicious. Magnitude 8 plus on the Richter. We are generally talking Hitler level. For instance, one enjoyed beating miscreants with a hose pipe (not a euphemism). Any excuse. He would whip it out (still not a euphemism). He had hairs on the palms of his hands. And taught art.
Spike: Said Hamlet to Ophelia, I'll draw a sketch of thee. What kind of pencil shall I use? 2B or not 2B?
A second liked to jangle a very large bunch of keys and had a super power. This was the ability to wield them instinctively, without looking, much like a billy club. He could throw them with amazing rapidity, force and accuracy. Yes, he really liked to throw his keys. It pleasured him, an almost evident Mona Lisa smile lurking unseen, particularly when they struck home on the head of a teenage boy. Face, ears, nose, eyes, they were all fair game. Yes, he really liked to throw his keys and he really liked to draw blood. Ironically, he didn’t teach art.
Then there was a third, the absolute pillar of respectability. He liked to walk around very slowly, very definitely not jangling his keys, super stealthily, like a snake slithering up on its prey. And scowling so very much, so constantly, as if the merest smile would hurt. He muttered “Hurm, hurm”. We called him Trug. He was a cave dwelling, scum sucking, human salamander that could have inspired the Descent. And if he found you wanting, if you showed any fear, then he would bring his super power into play. This was an ability to weaponise an object. His first choice was his beloved wooden cane but a plimsole, a training shoe, a large enough book, a ruler, anything would do. And he could wield such a weapon with amazing dexterity and uncanny accuracy, as such the same instinctive ability as number two but, in his case, it was solely aimed at bottoms. Most of all, he really liked to caress those teenage buttocks very brutally with his shiny, throbbing cane. Yes, he really was the personification of perverted Corporal Punishment. To this day I really don’t know what he taught. It too wasn’t art.
By far from being the weirdest monk, but perhaps responsible for one of the weirdest happenings, there was kindly and whispering Bro Simon. He seemed neither capable of physical acts of violence nor ever showed how true his aim was.
Elvis: My aim is true.
Regan: Shut it.
B.S. was definitely a gentler soul and so quiet you could barely hear a word he said. His super power? It was the way he dealt so offhandedly with education in general and sex in particular. For all of the earnest grammar school intensity that was an intrinsic part of every lesson, his were always that much more relaxed. In fact, with his deadpan delivery and dawdling pace, it was almost impossible to stay awake for the entirety of any of his periods.
Technical note: period is the term our school used for lesson. Or class. Or lecture. It was probably adopted because it sounded like these sessions of education weren’t too long. But at fifty minutes a pop, perish the thought of a double, they certainly seemed to last an eternity. Well, that was quite a few decades ago. When time seemed to pass more slowly. When it always seemed to be sunny. Apart from when it wasn’t. Surely another manifestation…
Greta: the eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say - we will never forgive you.
Jimi: Voodoo chile.
Regan: Shut it.
Fleetwood Mac: Oh well.
As for the weirdest event itself? This is how it went down. It was a normal day, nothing unusual about it. No advance warning. No brace, brace, brace. No put your head between your knees and kiss your sorry butt goodbye. No signposting of the imminent Armageddon, so no chance of Armageddon outta here. BS just strolled into the classroom. As usual. For our weekly indoctrination class, a.k.a. Religious Instruction, a.k.a. RC brainwashing. He said nothing (not unusual), and issued each of us with a small paper pamphlet from a small cardboard box. The box had seen better days. He then walked out with a barely audible directive, telling us to read it, and read it again, and again, until he returned. And no one was to speak.
Needless to say, when he returned sometime later, it was unsurprisingly close to the end of the period. Wordlessly, he collected the pamphlets, placed them back in the box and walked off. And the reason for leaving us alone with our pamphlets? What can I say? They were truly horrific. For me, the experience was so bad, I have mostly erased it from my memory. Perhaps that is how I managed to evade PTSD or a life of crime. All I can vaguely recall is that it described some sort of uncommon event, a nocturnal emission, a night-time ejaculate that a boy of our age could experience and, if we did, it was imperative that we should ignore it. Just lie there. Do not move. Do not think about it. Do not do anything to encourage it. Or we would go to hell. Straight down. No purgatory. No remission. And do not touch ourselves in this area. No matter how it felt (it never elaborated any further). If we did, we would surely burn in that hell for all eternity. Burnt pork. Carbonised kebabs. Yea, verily, we would all be damned to an afterlife of torment and misery. To borrow from Hawkwind’s Sonic Attack:
In case of nocturnal emissions in your nether regions, follow these rules
If you are sleeping it is imperative
To bring your body to wakefulness immediately
Do not waste time rubbing your parts
Do not waste time seeking a damp proof tissue
Try to get as far away from the snake gravy as possible
Do not panic, do not panic, do not panic
Do not panic, do not panic, do not panic
These are the first signs of night-time ejaculation
You will notice small tremors between your legs
You will notice a clenching of the buttocks
You will hear a distant hissing in your ears
You will feel dizzy, you will feel the need to stroke it
You may be subject to fits of hysterical shouting or even laughter
You must do nothing else, nothing else
Do not touch yourself, do not touch yourself
Do not touch yourself, do not touch yourself
Note seven: that was it. Sex education. Forty-five minutes. One pamphlet. More like sex avoidance. Become a monk. Grow hairs on your palms. In the name of the Lord. What a load of toss.
Note eight: my real sex education came from my sister.
Note eight revisited: Um, maybe I should rephrase that. The way it really happened was that she lent me her school text book with requisite diagrams that explained the mechanics of sex in gory detail. Of course, it could have been worse. It could have been a popup book. So, her hands may have smelled like farts (see issue #3) but her heart was made of…
Me: No!!! Stop right there.
Note nine: let’s get this right, plain and simple, there was no altruism here. She was evil. She just wanted it to freak me out like it did her. Bad news, sis. I was made of sterner stuff. And no, I didn’t do a later, anguished Charlie Brown in a tunnel as a train went overhead in pre-war Berlin.
Sally: You have to understand the way I am, Mein Herr.
I just took it onboard.
Kurt: And so it goes.
That November, I fell in love with the next half dozen or so issues of Jungle Action from 11 onwards, with Don McGregor’s writing coupled with Billy Graham’s sublime art and Klaus Janson’s inks. The creators’ names seemed to have disappeared into the mists of time, but they managed back then to deliver something of pathos and beauty that struck a chord deep within. Then…
Horror of horrors! In December, the monthly prices increased to 8p.
That minor downer was offset the following year, 1975, which saw the first purple patch of my collecting when it went thermonuclear. The first significant event, again from a purely personal point of view, was in February when Strange Tales 178 came out, introducing Starlin’s Warlock saga. Apart from Captain America 110, which I hasten to add I did not own yet, I don’t think any other comic had such an impact. I remember taking it with me when we went to visit another of my mum’s sister, who also happened to live in Ealing.
Note ten: a gaggle of my mum’s sisters, all married and with families, and sole brother, ditto, but who even then was going medically insane, arguably because he was the only male and the youngest of ten siblings, had settled into this area on the western side of London. The others were spread across the world.
Note ten revisited: yes, he really did go mad. Oh, and there was another aunt who we never met. She too lived in the area and was married with a family; and she was mad. Always was, apparently. That’s why we never met her. She had two sons, but they were sane. Sadly, for one that didn’t last. A man from the middle east tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a third storey window. He landed on my cousin’s head. That didn’t help. Either of them.
Note eleven: my dad also came from a large family. They were Irish and had settled closer to home, mostly on the north side of the Thames. They were mostly sane. Apart from one brother. He went mad when his wife divorced him. After living rough in sheds across various allotments, and though my dad tried to rehabilitate my giving him the use of my bedroom for a month (ta, dad), he killed himself by drinking bleach. Outside the main entrance to the Royal Berks Hospital. There’s a failed cry for help if you ever needed one. His name was Brian. For decades afterwards, my dad kept on calling me Brian. I too was tempted to cry for help even though his death meant I got my bed back and I didn’t have to sleep on the sofa.
Note twelve: despite the mishaps, I had a staggering number of cousins. Family get togethers were humungous events, requiring military planning and the same precision in logistical support.
Note thirteen: on my mum’s side, these were usually gastronomic galas, with a spread of delicious, home-cooked Ceylonese curries as their centre piece. And by Ceylonese, I mean Ceylonese and not Sri Lankan, because they were born in Ceylon and lived there in Ceylon until the late fifties when it was still Ceylon. So, they were Ceylonese. And European. And white. Dammit. They were colonials. But they were good colonials. Or so they told us. Good people. Greatly loved. Or so they told us. Dammit. Half of them were raving nutters.
Douglas: Ceylon and thanks for all the fish.
Back in my affluent and reasonably sane aunt’s detached Ealing house, I spent hours with my Starlin comic, just staring at those Warlock panels, absorbing that art, and once again titillating my neurons to the point of internalised orgasm. Yeah, yeah, I know: stop going on about how these comics always did this or that to you, ya great galoot. But, hey, this was Marvel pushing the envelope like never before and it was truly awesome to be part of it.
In March, my weekly buys hit seven with the launches of Super-Heroes and Savage Sword of Conan. Something had to give. My limited pocket money could not feed these three habits running in parallel – UK weeklies, US all-colour monthlies and US magazines. Was I conflicted by this battle between the two sides across the pond? Of course not. I pretty much dropped everything UK originated apart from Super-Heroes, which I maintained because it featured reprints of the Surfer, another of my firm faves from Marvel’s cosmic underbelly.
Note fourteen: the asterisked, prescient plot device from the last article starts to pay off, true believers…
By now, that Silver Surfer issue 15 I had purchased from the Candy Box had become one of my most cherished items. I must have read it (very carefully to maintain its pristine condition) as many times as my Warlocks and early Deathloks. It seemed to portray his pitiful plight more poignantly than ever and, as we shall see, it will go on to gain even greater significance. Most of my friends and yet-to-be-met West Reading collector mates will drool over it. To us, the Surfer would become exotica on a board.
Note fifteen: to this day, I still think Buscema’s Surfer captured the grace and angst of Norrin Radd more than any other before or after. Way to go, Big John.
Around this time, Castle Hill hit pay dirt. From a pokey little newsagent and tobacconist, next to the long since demolished and replaced Doll’s Hospital, I picked up Jungle Action 8 and Astonishing Tales 18. Of more interest, they stocked something we had never seen before: Atlas comics. It was my chance to get a whole bunch of US first issues and, what’s more, I enjoyed a couple of the titles, particularly Phoenix. However, none of us recognised these as a valid form of currency – they were very much dead in the water from the moment they hit the racks. And, of course, our indifference was reflected in their American homeland where the Atlas line folded a handful of months later.
That spring, Andy D and I cycled to TBS uninvited and, after journey of just over 20 miles, found a tree-shrouded family home in Mytchett, Surrey. Luckily the TBS guy was in and we were taken to a bedroom full of boxes and boxes of comics. I feel that we were merely tolerated for our unsanctioned visit because we were allowed to peruse just a few of these, and they contained comics that lay more towards the cast-off end of the spectrum. To justify our epic journey, we both bought a couple of token comics each but they were neither particularly cool nor exciting. That arduous journey home was somewhat harder, now our expectations had been so deflated.
A few weeks later, another newsagent on the Oxford Road started to sell DCs which, like Marvel comics, were seldom seen, though not to such an infrequency. It was opposite Brock Barracks and not too far from Swallows. Though we had little enthusiasm for the Distinguished Competition, I still bought a Kamandi (to check out what Kirby was up to), a couple of Batmans and Joker issues 1 and 2.
Note sixteen: to this day, I still have some of those comics I bought back then. How I wish those first two Jokers were amongst them – they have become quite valuable since. Mind you, this is nothing compared to another particular issue I acquired later in the year, a hugely important major key, in mint condition and incredibly valuable now, which I also sadly disposed of a short time afterwards.
Charlie: This is getting boring.
Douglas: I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer.
Stan: Face front, true believer. With great power…
Me: Jack, can you?
Regan: Shut it!
Around this time, I rekindled a friendship with a school mate that dated back to primary school. His name was Joe G. Though he was in the same year as me in secondary, he was in a different class or form as the school liked to call them, though biological taxonomy would be more appropriate than class. He lived/dwelt a stone’s throw off the Oxford Road and not far from Willis and Shorts (you don’t come much more West Reading than this). Our common interests in strategic board games and chess had also turned to comics. Now, Joe was also a long-standing friend and fellow classmate of Mike H (who had given me all this Supes when I was a relatively wee nipper) and had benefited from the same generosity. But in Joe’s case, his love for DC had not been eclipsed by Marvel. Nevertheless, he still bought and enjoyed Marvel comics, and had a very complimentary collection to mine with titles I was less invested in. So, somehow along the way, we agreed to become comic collecting partners, merge our collections and split the titles between us. The other benefit from this was that it created some interesting duplicates, or in other words good collateral for swapping. In addition, we could combine our scant spending power and purchase a larger spread of titles.
Like most families at that time, his parents had neither phone nor car, and only-child Joe didn’t cycle either. He wasn’t physically capable. Really. No sense of balance. Poor physical co-ordination. As fast as a speeding sloth. So, communications were difficult and I had to do most of the mountain to Mohammed, tending to visit his (almost exclusively) more than he came to mine. Fortunately, the number of times he came to mine was close to never, and it was just as well ‘cos he wasn’t the prettiest of people. He bore a striking resemblance to Herman Munster, I kid you not. Worse, his mannerisms were plainly strange as well. At school, he had a habit of propping himself over his desk, pivoting on his elbows, back legs spread, bum high in the air, rocking gently backwards and forwards, going: “Hurm, hurm.” No, he wasn’t a cave dweller, but he really did have the complexion of a subterranean and, for the betterment of the gene pool, should have been eaten at birth because something obviously went wrong at that point. But, for all that, he was a nice guy, and clever too.
Spike: Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion.
Poor ol’ Joe, how he suffered. The elder of my two sisters ripped the piss out of him. Her pure evil really manifested itself when he was around. As for my other sister, he just plainly scared the living arse biscuits out of her. Mind you, she was easily frightened. Just point to some cracks in dry soil, tell her they were caused by earthquakes and she would have nightmares for weeks. However, no matter what way I look at in now, for her I suspect Joe was the worst vision of hell she had ever embraced. Might well explain why she had to emigrate to somewhere far, far away. Like Scotland.
For the few short months that our partnership lasted, it worked like a dream. I was in bed with Joe, though purely in the business sense of course (otherwise it would have been like practicing conjugal athletics with a xenomorphic Frankenstein). My core titles were Fantastic Four, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, Jungle Action and Sub-Mariner, whereas Joe had Thor, Iron Man, Defenders, Avengers, Marvel Team Up, Luke Cage and, of course, the DCs. Our combined collections and distributed foci allowed us to each concentrate on our own set of mutually exclusive tomes. The shops around town supplied our habit and, though we were quite well-fed, our appetites were still limitless, only matched by our aspirations.
Racing towards that summer of 1975, circumstances were about to change. With a rapidly increasing sphere of fellow collectors and yours truly performing practically all of the donkey work, the writing was clearly on the wall and our inevitable separation was not far off. With that split came an erotically huge expansion in the number of my US Marvel comics, when the galaxies seemingly aligned, lady luck bestowed her blessing, opportunities were forged, breaks were taken, and the ranks were swelled by orders of magnitude that were empirically astronomical.
How was I going to engorge my collection into such realms of hyperbole? To be continued...