Untold Tales From A West Reading Comic Collectors' Community - Part One
Part One: The Formative Years
My family lived on the edge of Tilehurst, a pleasant suburb to the west of Reading, so I am not sure whether I can legitimately consider myself to be a true native of West Reading. However, we didn’t feel part of Tilehurst either, being quite far from its centre. In fact, we were much nearer to the Oxford Road, the main road that ran from east to west through the heart of West Reading, so I guess I can feel justified in bestowing myself honorary though unsanctioned membership, a rebel without a clause.
As for our so-called collectors’ community, there was nothing Stranger Things about it. We were just a ragtag geek collective, some lucky to have bikes, but all with a passion for heroic art, the Marvel universe and, most importantly, genuine all-colour American comics. Though we were a mixed bunch, both ethnically and socially, we were united by our lack of pennies and our overriding compulsion to acquire these titanic tomes. And why Marvel in particular, you might ask? The answer, I guess, is because we were victims of the times, with Marvel UK ascendant and, in our part of the world which was on the receiving end of somewhat sketchy DC distribution, there were simply no US Marvels to be found in any of the shops. Consequently, driven by an addiction to collect the genuine article, our rivalries were manifest, our shenanigans Machiavellian and our villainy pure Dickensian. JR wasn’t conceived back then but, had he been, we could have taught him a thing or two. We could also have given Norman Osborn a few tips in wickedness. As for Loki, well, let’s just say he wouldn’t have stood a rat’s chance in Hel if we were pitched in a battle of tricksters.
The Oxford Road today is wonderfully multicultural and the shops that have always thronged its sides more so reflect this diversity now. Perhaps less surprisingly, in the mid-seventies the enterprises were very much more conventional, independent and white, despite its side streets hosting several ethnic communities. They were mostly Asian, West Indian and Irish, with barely any Eastern Europeans, though being an unwillingly participant of enforced parental Catholicism, I knew quite a few Polish kids from a strong RC contingent whose families had come here during the war.
Our small group of comic nuts mostly came from this area, these streets, and similarly reflected this tapestry of bygone Commonwealth and Empire. We were all friends to a degree, some of us getting on better than others, and some behaving in ways that were less than amicable, let alone legal. One associate I met in this period went on to become a firm friend to this day. Sadly, the group itself was short lived, though it seemed to last for an eternity. In fact, it was really little more than a year. But what a terrific year it was, better than an entire season of the most awesome binge watch ever.
But before we get onto this, let me set the scene. How did I get catch the bug, the love of comics, of collecting them; of pop art, Marvel and superheroes? Well, I think the first sparks of what would become a lifelong passion were ignited in the sixties. It was a time when, by comparative standards, my family were modestly better off than many, though we were far from affluent. Perhaps my parents were middle-class in their mindset, but they were manifestly working-class in their financial flexibility. We never seemed to have two pennies to rub together. My dad, a teacher, supplemented the income by working on farms or dragging us out on 12-hour days to the side of a road in the middle of nowhere so my parents could count cars for a pittance. On a traffic census in the deepest countryside of the home counties, there are only so many ways a moderately quiet but adventurous kid can find entertainment without mobile phones, gaming devices or other mod cons not yet the twinkle of an inventor’s eye, with two contrary, reluctant younger sisters and a cultivated field. Mind you, it was a totally different matter on the farm. Take two six-year-old boys, me on a birthday treat and my bestie at the time, a close neighbour’s son whose birthday was very close to mine and who went by the name of Richard; then, after a day trip to the Science and Natural History museums in London, throw them into a barn halfway rammed with bundled hay bales and watch the ensuing full-on hour of fun.
In my upbringing, like any sort of treat or family indulgence, pocket money was somewhat token and far from generous. Frivolities such as a handsome weekly handout, I think, could not be considered when there were always so much more pressing and necessary things to purchase, like our adopted but non de rigueur staples of instant mash and sausage (particularly nice together with lashings of ketchup). Furthermore, whatever we received from my parents, or family friend Uncle Dick, or any real relative if I was lucky and usually only a birthday, was meant to be saved in a bank account. Talk about mental cruelty! There was almost never any consideration outside of these - seldom money for sweets, toys or comics. But neither I or my two siblings complained. We felt that we were well-maintained by our parents, mostly because my mum pushed the boat out at Christmas, and of course, like our contemporaries, when it came to money or the lack of it, for many years we didn’t really know any different. By the way, did you notice the deliberate dodging of the word ‘love’ in that last sentence? Was that a Freudian slip or an intentional slight against retrofitted (vis a vis reinvented) tyrannies of my upbringing. Nah, I just felt it was too coy. And, yes, I had an unashamedly and unquestionably good childhood. Nuff said.
Our family might have had a car and a phone but pretty much all of my friends from our community did not, though some certainly had more generous parents with not necessarily the means but more the willingness to find a way to divert pennies into the hands of their children. How I would envy those who could buy sweets or fizzy drinks from the school tuck shop. And how I took some degree of evil delight when, for a few of the more regular customers, their teeth rotted a few years later! Such a fate lay in store for one of my secondary school friends who we shall meet in a later installment.
In my mentioning all of this pecuniary paucity, don’t get wrong footed, the picture I will illustrate going forward is not one of gloom and poverty. It was far from that. It was a period of great joy and adventure and a freedom that would terrify the absolute crap out of modern parents; of deals and partnerships and exploration; of luck and skill and forging friendships. So, this is a tale not only about a community but also freedom, diversity, discovery and how it was possible, in just a few short months over the summer of 75, to build a pretty substantial comic collection.
Against this backdrop of limited spending power, there was also my parent’s and more so mum’s not atypical disdain towards comics. Just one time she relented and allowed me to have a comic delivered once a week, accompanying my dad’s Daily Telegraph, and that was Thunder when it first came out in 1970. But it was a short-lived dispensation which was rapidly replaced by the educational Look and Learn. At least that ran a beautiful Trigan Empire story. Apart from this one concession to strip art, I made as much of it as I could. Sadly, there wasn’t anything else remotely superheroic about it, mostly presenting nicely illustrated articles (yay, pictures) of derring-do, often of superlative courage, but all so ultimately human. And without a cape in sight!
Prior to this, my only other common exposure to comics was whilst I sat in the barber’s, waiting for a haircut that would lead to the rest of the day consumed with unsated itching. I eagerly devoured the likes of Beano, Dandy, Buster and Topper. Unfortunately, there were never any superhero comics. And how I adored superheroes right then: Adam West’s Batman was on TV and I loved the Caped Crusader. All I wanted to do was read about him and any other heroes. Beano’s General Jumbo didn’t cut the mustard. The only strip that just about made the grade was Thunder’s Adam Eterno, the man who couldn’t die.
But, back then in the middle to latter half of the sixties, another huge influence was Thunderbirds. All new episodes appeared on TV for the first time each week and, besides trying to replicate everything I saw with Lego, I dreamed of reading about them and the other Gerry Anderson creations in TV Century 21. Unfortunately, these comics were beyond rare. At 7d a shot, more than double the price of an average comic, no one I knew ever seemed to have one, let alone lend around a copy.
For a short but fateful period in 1967, just down the road from us, a house consisting of two maisonettes became empty, when coincidently both families had moved out at the same time. A group of us adventurous six going on seven-year-old boys found that such an opportunity was just too tempting. We had to explore that garden. What we discovered there meant nothing to my friends, but for me it was the kindling that first stoked that fire, that hunger, deep inside. Thus, for the next few days, on the way to school each morning and on the way back each afternoon, I would nip down the side of the house to the back and stare dreamily through a shed window at an out of reach copy of TV Century 21. It lay on the wooden floor, behind a locked door, in full colour, and open on a page with beautifully rendered artwork that showed the Zero-X crew under attack from a giant Martian fire breathing monster. I have since figured it was issue 107 from January that year in a story called “Return to The Red Planet”.
It was those gorgeous colours that so drew my eyes. All of our affordable comics were black and white with an occasional, pixelated pastel shade thrown in. Of course, that was one better than the ridiculously expensive TV, on which everything was entirely black and white. These rented behemoths suffered a small screen, albeit in an oversized carcass that glowed from deep within, and broke down with the regularity of a waning media star. It would take another seven years before we could afford the relatively new colour version, and then it was still a rental. At least the valves, the parts that consistently seemed to blow at peak time then sadistically deny us a day or two of viewing until the Radio Rentals man could come out and replace them, were being phased out by the introduction of the more reliable solid-state transistor. This was state of the art technology! For us, microchips were those dregs you scooped into your mouth from the bottom of the newspaper when all of the other chips had been scoffed. So, within this gestating Eden of media saturated greyscales, those fantastical two open pages of TV Century 21 were a glimpse of a forbidden fruit; the seeds, they were a-sowing.
In August that same year, the slightly older son of my mum’s boss, a professor of Fine Art at Reading University for whom she was the departmental secretary, gave me his copy of Fantastic 28. It featured Thor’s conflict with the Cobra and Mr. Hyde. Though I was both intrigued and disturbed by the story in equal doses, it was just too grown up for me. Similarly, a second-hand copy of the 1967 TV Tornado annual came my way and that was a tad adult as well. I didn’t relate to the Phantom or the Green Hornet, they were too exotic. The Man from Uncle was too grown up. Tarzan was about the only strip I could get along with, but then he was huge back then (in popularity). We had the Ron Ely series on TV along with regular screenings of a plethora of old Johnny Weissmuller films.
My disregard for these Marvel and Gold Key tales was prejudiced by another recent addition to my literary repertoire. A close school mate, Mike H, had introduced me to DC comics. When I went round to his house for tea – from ours he lived a good 15-minute walk away, which I did usually on my own, even at that age of seven – he would let me take a couple of comics back home from his huge boxful. They were always American and mostly DC. I remember trying a rather well-read copy of Avengers 4, obviously a few years old by this point. It was harder going for me than Superman of which Mike seemed to have an unending supply. Consequently, I avoided his other Marvels and stuck with the more fantastical DC. In retrospect, I just wonder what else was in that box, what other significant Marvel and DCs were in that accumulation? Shame; no doubt they all ended up in the bin.
The lure of the superhero dulled towards the end of the sixties, remaining dormant for a while, as “me and my mates” grew increasingly obsessed with the Second World War. There was also a slight shifting in the sands: at least I was now able to save up and spend my still minimal pocket money on the things I wanted, which were stamps or Airfix kits. Then, when the Countdown comic blasted off in early 71 with its Gerry Anderson, Doctor Who and similar stories, it became a permanent fixture in my firmament and cemented into place my appreciation of sequential art as a form of storytelling.
The mighty oak, or baby Groot, had broken ground, but for how much longer will I maintain this germinating metaphor?
To be continued...