Untold Tales From A West Reading Comic Collectors'  Community - Part Three: A New Dawn


Untold Tales From A West Reading Comic Collectors' Community - Part Three: A New Dawn

Untold Tales From A West Reading Comic Collectors'  Community - Part Three: A New Dawn

Dear diary, as we enter 1974, I am thirteen years old and remain a US Marvel virgin. In the back of my mind lurks the knowledge that these elusive gems are almost within reach, on sale in newsagents at Heathrow Airport. But how to get there? The answer, dear diary, was just around the corner.

 That January, my dad, mum, two younger sisters and I set off in our ageing, blue Austin 1100 to visit one of my mum’s many sisters who lived in Greenford, Ealing. As usual for such a trip and cars of this era, no audio media accompanied us. After all, it was just another of our frequent visits around the outer lying reaches of western London to visit her family, so no supplementary lap-borne transistor radio accompanied us.

 [ Resisted the temptation to use the term we used back then to describe such a portable electronic device because it has now been adopted for another more derogatory purpose, and which definitely should not be used in conjunction with the phrase lap-borne. ]

 A few years later, when we upgraded our car to a Ford Escort estate in a very mid-70s Arizona Gold, most wondrously it came with a built-in radio. The next evolution of in-car entertainment, the recently available cassette, was still some time away as an accessory. Eight-track was the only other option for those that could afford it. This was an earlier format of portable media, still magnetic tape, still on reels, and still stereo despite the implications of the name. It was also a much larger format than those C45, C60 and C90 cassettes we would come to love and stick in our Sony Walkman players and proliferating clones. Anyone remember Technics and BASF?

 Quick aside: here’s an anecdote about the worst use of an audio cassette ever inflicted upon mankind. And on a BASF, because these were pre-Technics times. The following year, when the Bay City Rollers were riding high on the wave of adolescent adulation, my sister ditched her love for Donny and the Osmonds, whole heartedly defecting to join the tartan hordes in the land of Rollermania. A neighbour’s daughter from the other side of the road had two of their albums, which my sister borrowed and taped. However, she only had one C60 cassette. The dilemma, of course, was how could she record well over an hour of music onto a media that was only 30 minutes per side. This is how: she played each one on our stereogram whilst recording them with the portable cassette player via its internal mike, only pausing the recording when she needed to turn the LPs over. And here’s the ingenious bit: she played them at 45 rpm, almost 50% faster than the standard 33⅓. The net result was an hour of awful bubble gum muzak sung on helium by neutered Ramones or Pinky and Perky on amphetamines.

 The second worst case: a distressingly disturbing recording of a TV theme tune. And this is how it happened. With my sole C60, rather than committing pop travesties like my sister, I instead collected TV theme tunes such as U.F.O., Thunderbirds and the Zoo Gang (by Paul McCartney and Wings). Another fave at the time was a short, animated, weeknight oddity called Rhubarb and Custard. As the program came on and I tapped the record button, my Bay City besotted sister announced her presence in the lounge with a wholesome, fruity belch that somehow erupted from the depths of her lungs and further yet to her gastric system. Here we go: deh deh derrr, deh deh derrr, deh deh… brrrreeeuchhhh.

 As long, loud, proud and sonorous as it was, it didn’t eclipse The Classic Fart of my other, younger sister. This was so powerful and sustained, it literally launched her off the sofa with a thunderous booming rumble that saw her deposited, writhing on the shag pile carpet, clutching her butt in genuine physical pain whilst my mum’s mini upright piano reverberated unsympathetically from such a sonic assault.

 In the balance of fair play, I must lay claim to the most unpleasant expulsion of bodily odour, perhaps in the entire history of my school. It occurred pretty much at this same time in our story when, single-handedly and before morning registration, I dealt a surreptitious and stealthily silent but deadly that susurrated sneakily and rapidly throughout the classroom and, within seconds, caused an emergency evacuation by thirty or so pupils. Gagging, aghast, holding their noses in disbelief, they tumbled out of the door, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. What’s more, as foul and hell spawn as it was, none of the blame came my way. Instead, a school friend, a Polish lad called Alfred W and yes, the inspiration for Werjy, the flatulent hero of my homemade comic, copped the blame. Sorry, Alf, though it wasn’t entirely out of character.

 Before we get the grossness once and for all out of the way, let us end with this one final titbit. The elder of my two younger sisters has the proud distinction of discovering that you could cup your hand over your production facility as you let off and thus capture the resulting obnoxious output. With a quick and carefully placed thrust, the foul package could be released in the face and up the nose of your sibling to rather hilarious effect. Jeez, ta sis. In the words of Charlie Brown senior: faa..…ugh.

 Back to our basic family Austin which, at only seven years old, was nearing its demise. Cars of this era were not built to last. Just that previous summer, with the aid of an allegedly knowledgeable family friend, who wasn’t as knowing as he claimed, being all mouth and having no real intellectual substance, though paradoxically endowed with an inane and insane ability to verbally spew out copious amounts of male cow faeces; and a neighbour, modest, self-effacing, diametrically quieter until fine Scotch was involved, and as yet an undiscovered philanderer who betrayed the trust of his undeserving wife, but who actually did know better; with these two friends my dad had replaced the clutch, the car perching precariously on an assortment of borrowed jacks at the bottom of our drive. However, dad was pragmatic and, with no spare cash to hand, having recently completed the extension to our bungalow, understood it was simply a postponement of the inevitable – the Great Gig in the Sky was already playing for this vehicle.

 In a way, being subsequently part-exchanged for a new Ford Escort (with radio, yay), it had a better demise than our previous family car, which met its end in the latter half of the sixties. It was a black Morris Minor that had to be towed away, ignominious and defeated, after it decided to shed one of its rear wheels. The self-inflicted amputation, this vehicular self-harm, happened at the point when my mum reached the apex of a reverse out of our drive. Said wheel sheared off at the axle then rolled away down the hill (this part of Tilehurst where we lived is a rather hilly suburb of Reading) to settle at the side of the road twenty or so yards further below on the lip of the grass verge. Shorn of limb, the car could only lurch to its side as it watched in forlorn disbelief.

 Back to a cold and dreary Saturday afternoon in January 1974 when, with an invigorated car and surprisingly little persuasion, my dad agreed to a short excursion from my aunt’s house to take me over to Heathrow airport to do, as I *ahem* led him to believe, some plane spotting. Of course, there was an ulterior motive to my duplicity and that was to see if those newsagents in the terminals really did sell American comics, as a school friend had told me last September. So, after a token glance at various passenger jets from those windows accessible to us – actually I did enjoy looking at aircraft, though generally of a more military persuasion, regularly frequenting the Farnborough air show – I detoured into a shop and almost fell to my knees in delight. The info I had been passed from my mate was spot on, albeit a modicum past its sell by. There they were, just a couple of titles remaining, two US Marvels, one of which was Captain Marvel 30 in its fabulous all-colour majesty, the other a Where Monsters Dwell, which was about as attractive as a dose of the plague.

First note: deliberately avoiding any reference to a pandemic. Maybe a simile of venereal disease is a healthier alternative?

It might have been only two comics but such was their desirability to my starved, wretched soul, I fell upon both of them with the eagerness of ravenous man finding the remains of a three-day-old McDonalds in the bottom of the trash, buried amongst the ashes and stubs of Rothmans and Marlboro. That Captain Marvel was my first exposure to Jim Starlin and I mentally masturbated myself stupid on it as I absorbed every page.

Second note: I wonder, with this particular metaphor, if I can also say it blew my mind?

Third note: not one to wrap your lips around.

Fourth note: boom tish.

Fifth note: rolling tumble weed.

This drawing of first blood somehow seemed to turn the tide. Months of the seemingly mad and fruitless combing of newsagents around the Reading area on our bikes suddenly started to reap dividends. That spring, the first and arguably never bettered find that Andy D and I came across was an assortment of late Silver age titles in the Candy Box newsagent/sweetshop, located on the edge of the town centre and since demolished when they built the Inner Distribution Road. Over a couple of weeks and for 6p each, in pristine mint condition, I purchased Avengers 69 and 73; Daredevil 58; Fantastic Four 93, 96 and 97; Sub-Mariner 16 and 20; Silver Surfer 15* and Sgt Fury 27. There were also, ugh, some romance titles and even though they were the real thing, Marvel and US and all-colour, there they remained: on the rack, unwanted, despised. After all, we had standards. Where Where Monster Dwell may just have scraped through, there were some places we just didn’t go.

*Pay attention, true believers. This is a comic of note. It has significance. More on it in a later part.

Sixth note: ain’t it odd? How delightful it is that time has so changed perceptions and these once maligned objects, these romance comics, have witnessed the semblance of a renaissance. I am continuously amazed by the fact that, when these titles make an occasional appearance on eBay, more often than not, as long as their price and condition are reasonable, they are gobbled up, sometimes after a flurry of bids. Question: have you ever tried to acquire one of those four excruciatingly rare Night Nurse issues from the seventies? Answer: good luck.

Maybe it’s unfair to quote Night Nurse as an example. Many stagnant back issues have been helped by Marvel’s conquest of the televisual media. Of course, Night Nurse is just one example, stepping out from Netflix’s Daredevil, as is Patsy (Walker), a.k.a. Hellcat, courtesy of their Jessica Jones.

 And so it goes.

However, the gen pop’s interest in romance and more girly-oriented comics spreads further than these obviously stimulated titles. Perhaps it is because comics in this niche bring with them an innocence, a wonderful encapsulation and evocation of a different era? More so, some of them had truly wonderful covers, especially those of the late silver age by the late and great Johnny Romita (senior, original and one of the elite archetypical Spidey artists). Likewise, for those Where Monsters Dwell, those pox-ridden wretches of comics that recycled lame Atlas horror tales, that back then lurked unwanted in most dealers’ bargain bins along with other titles such as Vault of Evil, Tomb of Darkness and Dead of Night, and at which we blew raspberries in the general direction of, how crazily expensive and collectable they have since become.

And so it goes.

Seventh note: even the denizens of the depths, the discarded detritus, the slaughterhouse scum, the woeful western comics have found some trendy traction if they are in decidedly decent enough condition!

Eighth note: I hope Smilin’ Stan, wherever he may lie (and however he may smell) enjoyed those alliterations. And Kurt enjoyed his references.

Our second find came a short while later in the early summer at a newsagent in Tilehurst, next to the Methodist Youth Club, where I would later go to meet girls but actually ended up getting into bed with the members of my first band (my bands were always amateur and usually more enthusiastic than talented). From this shop we bought a few imports which included Marvel Two-In-One 1 and Cat 4. The former was a landmark for me and it brought a great joy better than the angel’s good tidings, because I now owned a genuine US first issue. And, unlike the Candy Box, this shop bore fruit for a while thereafter.

According to Andy W, who I was yet to meet, around this time another array of silver age comics turned up at Swallows on the Oxford Road and, even though this was the closest newsagent to Andy D, we never knew about it. Talk about being right under your nose! Oh, what irony, what cruel fate. Well, c’est la vie. You can’t win ‘em all and retrospective slapped wrist for Mister D. Meanwhile, invigorated like my dad’s car, though still in possession of our original clutches, we persisted with our bike-bound epic explorations every Saturday morning, extending them to yet further limits and encroaching into the other side of the town, but to just those parts where we had some limited knowledge.

Ninth note: how ironic! All of my subsequent homes, almost entirely as a married man, have been to this other side of the town, to the east of Reading, and to exactly those parts where we never ventured. The reason for relocating to such foreign pastures was purely akin to Mister Spock, or in other words, logical, to live halfway between our families, mine still on the border of Tilehurst and remaining so until a few years back and only then because of my parents’ demise, and my wife’s in Bracknell, who had also remained in their house until they succumbed to the same end.

Firstly, there was Lower Earley, where we spent our three years, initially living together in sin before acquiring social acceptance from our families by getting married, and where we experienced life in the, as of then, largest building estate in Europe. Maybe it was this sterile expanse of suburbia that inspired a renaissance in my comic collecting, stimulated by that random find of Thor 314 in a newsagent shop near the south coast.

From Lower Earley we moved to Woodley, and to an era which saw a gradual cooling of my collecting capabilities. A mortgage and the additions of a next generation took their toll though I managed to triple the peak size of my first collection. We have since remained in Woodley, and are now in our third home, kids grown up, and a stone’s throw from Theresa May and George Clooney [coincidence not opulence]. In the last few years, though I have followed comics ever since those days back in the 70s and for a long time had limited myself almost entirely to new comics, I have started to collect back issues again. I no longer feel that same sheer pleasure at my latest acquisitions I experienced back in the day, but that’s probably down to age and a decaying sense of smell. But what I can say is that the Internet and all of its possibilities means the hunt if still on, it is still great fun and it involves one heckuva lot less cycling. My collection is now triple that of the previous triple, and that’s a lot of boxes!

Tenth note: the strange thing was that these suburbs, that I have since called home, were never that far from where I originated – a mere five or so more miles. Yet, back then, they were strangely exotic and uninteresting to us natives of West Reading. They never pinged on our search radars, even though they were accessible by bike and also despite both Andy and I having class mates that heralded from these distant shores. None of our associates from these parts swore any fealty to the great Marvel divinity, so we were never given reason to believe that their homelands were worth a visit. In retrospect, as much as I’d like to say otherwise, we really didn’t miss out on anything, anyway. Such is life.

And so it went.

That August saw the most earth-shattering seismic event of all time, or so it felt for us eager young geeks. A new distribution deal struck by Marvel meant that our drought had finally come to an end. It wasn’t widespread. Its epicentre, as far as we were concerned, was located at one particular newsagent on the Oxford Road, one that had been of no interest up to this point, midway to town and near the West Reading railway bridge. It was called Willis and Shorts, and it is still there to date. Once every month henceforward, and usually on a Thursday if I recall correctly, they received a shipment of new US comics that, in the most part, didn’t conflict with the Marvel UK output. Often there were only one or two copies of each title, so you had to be prompt or you would miss out. That first lot included FF 149 and the debut of Rich Buckler’s Deathlok in Astonishing Tales 25, another comic that had a profound effect on me and massively influenced by own magnum opus, now into its second year. By the way, though I said “new”, these titles were not that hot off the presses. In fact, they were three or so months behind their distribution in the States, so the cover date actually coincided with the current month. And the price? They were 7 pence each.

When we returned to school that autumn, Tim L, not a real fan but someone with a very generous and quite well-to-do accountant dad, brought in the first Marvel Treasury edition featuring Spider-Man. At 40p, it was beyond our budgets, but he took pity on us and lent it around. And guess what, with that sort of disposable at his disposal, he was a daily fixture at the school tuck shop, favouring Day-Glo green or red fizzy drinks. Need I say more about his forthcoming dental misadventures?

There were no more ex-warehouse offloads for the rest of that year, but we were content with our regular fix from Willis and Shorts. I recruited school pal Alf (yes, the same guy who was innocent of imposing an olfactory abomination on thirty classmates), to occasionally hinder Andy D at the bike shed. After all, it was an activity that fell in line with his bullish, bullying behaviour and, what’s more, he enjoyed it and was only too happy to oblige, gratis, leaving me fee to spend my pennies more profitably. This evil delaying tactic meant I could get to the shop first after school on that critical day when the next shipment was due, to buy me some time to snaffle those lonely single issues. Luckily, Alf was either that subtle or more likely Andy was that oblivious (we shall meet another character with the similar mental capacity of an amoeba in a later tale), that my nefarious scheming never came to light.

The following year saw far worse and way more heinous acts of villainy. To be continued…


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