Untold Tales From A West Reading Comic Collectors' Community - Part Two A
Part Two A: The Lean Years
In part one, I described the formative period of my childhood in the latter sixties. More importantly, we focussed on certain hows and whys, on particular circumstances and factors, that would become influences. So now, as we pick up the story a short while after I turned eleven, a year and a half into the new decade, we can understand how these experiences would almost exclusively determine the course of my life for the next half dozen years; and how a few random events and parental restrictions created an, as yet, undiscovered hunger for something beyond the urbane, something removed from the normal and natural. For the superhero. For comics. And for the overriding imperative to own them. To become, in whispered tones, a COMIC COLLECTOR. And maybe answer some of life’s imponderable questions. To geek or not to seek? Nerd or nature?
In a short while, we shall also witness how, as a victim of the times, circumstances forged a loyalty to the Marvel brand that would stay with me for the rest of my life. Perhaps I should have been shot right there and then, to save the torment and agony? Nah! Comics have been a really wonderful escape that I still enjoy to date, as my hair turns ever greyer, as my flesh follows suite and seemingly conspires against me, and my internal organs gradually decompose. In retrospect, I wonder if this could be a tale of morality, a fable for our future generations. Maybe it should carry a health warning: reading Marvel comics in particular and comics in general for almost all of your entire life turns you into one of Rick Grimes’ BFFs.
This man, this monster. Let us continue.
September 1971 saw the start of my secondary education and a calamity. My mother in her prejudiced wisdom decided I needed to read something more appropriate than the grossly educational Look and Learn, her one misaligned concession to the world of comics, so she cancelled that and convinced me, i.e. I had no other choice, to get the New Scientist magazine. In the anguished voice of Charlie Brown: aaugh! Imagine a cropped shock of once-blond, side-parted hair turning an indeterminate brown on top of an eleven-year old’s head with a highbrow whooshing sound over it. That was how it felt. I seldom read a word of that magazine and, worse, it didn’t have many pictures. The ones they deigned to print were black and white and usually concerned with mundane scientific people, mundane scientific equipment or mundane scientific graphs and of no interest to a kid whose eyes were less enthralled by techno-mumbo-jumbo and more inclined skywards, to the fantastical.
On the upside, a boon of starting a new school was the opportunity to make new friends. One such was James M, who lived in Crowthorne and whose parents would shortly undergo a totally unpleasant divorce, then a very uncommon occurrence. More so, it was an event rarer than a total eclipse in Berkshire, particularly in my principal sphere of experience. This was now a strict, very catholic, boys-only grammar school with Saturday morning lessons… though thankfully that misappropriation of leisure time became extinct by the end of the term, millennia after its kindred dinosaurs. Yup, even then, maybe glacially, times were changing.
One weekend that autumn, I went by train to visit Jamie and, as a parting gift, he gave me a pile of his old Commando comics, along with a red tissue paper covered, balsa skeleton of an unfinished, wingless Cessna aircraft. He thought I intended to complete the model, perhaps a fitting outcome to compensate for his lack of patience, but therein our motivations differed. This sorry wreckage was destined for a far more glorious fate – death by firework in a couple of months. More accurately, I would spill out the powder from a couple of bangers and sprinkle it judiciously at strategic points inside the aircraft. Although this caused a loss in explosive potency, it gave a far more satisfying slow-motion burn, a gentler consumption by fire, which would devastate this wood and paper construction. As enjoyable as this outcome was, it was less so than the death imposed on my usual plastic victims, be they planes or ships or tanks, each of which was rendered into a limited edition, uniquely individual, tortured Evdardian scream of Munch agony. Then thrown away.
The life expectancy of that ephemeral balsa plane was dwarfed by Jamie’s Commandos. These were in a different league with one long and complete story per comic, the likes of which I had never seen before. I eagerly consumed each one again and again over the next few months. They so tied in with my fascination for the war, which was, after all, a very prevalent passion for kids of this era, as we feasted on a constant TV diet of related films and documentary series such as All Our Yesterdays. But my eye for artwork was developing, too, and I started to appreciate the visual aspects of the story-telling, particularly because they featured a variety of artists and it was immediately apparent that some were better than others.
Although the almost apostolic conversion that propelled me whole heartedly into the world of superheroes and headfirst into the hoary hordes of Marveldom had not happened yet, it was not far off.
Another new mate I made at secondary school was a local-ish kid, Andy D, who I vaguely knew from primary. He lived on a side road off the Oxford Road, admittedly closer to the border of Norcot, but was nevertheless a bona fide, non-card-carrying resident of West Reading. We both shared vivid imaginations, so we were drawn to each other like fledgling nerd magnets, and we would later go onto become intrepid explorers as we scoured the area for US Marvels on our catalogue bikes.
There was also Tim S from Bracknell, who would develop into another albeit less-committed Marvelite, and with whom I shared a profound curiosity that inspired many meaningful discussions about our favourite comic book heroes. His poorly drawn tales of two hairy tyrannosaurus rex called Barc Molan and Fickey Minn served, alongside the TV series of the Six Million Dollar Man, to inspire the creation my own graphic novel. Of course, the term “graphic novel” was a decade away at this point so, to be accurate, my saga was more akin to an unending, ramshackle, gradually evolving, crude endeavour of word and art in, at first, a Kirby vein, then Rich Buckler and finally Jim Starlin. Central to the tale, which also featured very hostile communists, aggressive dinosaurs (with an unpleasant detour through the stomach of one) and hooded, faceless acolytes in a cavernous hell overlorded by the devil himself, was a bouncing reconstructed teenage humanoid called Werjy who touted a frizzy, almost afro thatch. Besides such a hapless misfortune of hair, he was rather on the rotund side with arms and legs that had been swapped out for life-like pneumatic limbs. At normal extension, they enabled him to masquerade as a teenage school boy, but when they were retracted, they allowed Werjy to turn himself into a giant rubber ball, fighting on the behalf of altruistically challenged authorities. My darkly conflicted half-hero also suffered from terrible gastric problems that enabled sustained bursts of flatulence, propelling him distances on par with a leaping Hulk. Please note: any resemblance to a similarly bowel-afflicted, barnet-burdened, bordering-obese class mate and thug called Alf, who we will meet later, was purely intentional.
After that brief foray into the near future, it is now that our tale finally and firmly takes its first steps into the Marvel universe. Rather bizarrely, I missed the boat that set sail at the tail end of 1972. Instead, it was a recommendation from Tim that inspired me to jump aboard the Mighty World of Marvel with issue 20 in early 73. Suddenly the seas parted, the planets now aligned and I was hooked. No longer were these stories too grown up for me. They spoke directly into my cortex and then to my heart: the art, the characters, their incredible adventures and epic battles. Good bye WW2 and hello Marvel. Did I say first steps? It was more like a stampede.
A few weeks later, I added Spider-Man with issue 4 and was right there on the nose when Avengers 1 appeared that September. On the way to and from school each day, as we strolled through the local park, Andy D and I would discuss these black and white bastard offspring. They fanned the flames of our mutual yearning to acquire the US originals. Similar conversations extended to lunchtimes with Tim as we braved all sorts of weather, circling the grounds of the school, dissecting everything we knew about the world of Marvel. We speculated on how it was in the American originals, of which we had no way of getting any information other than hearsay, but wanted to get our hands on. There was no internet, of course, and we didn’t know about fanzines at this time either. So, this was the accelerant to my yearning, now on a on a scale that an artist feels for their lost muse. By Crom, we so wanted to own the real things, in all-colour, with a full twenty pages of story. But it was not to be. Not yet.
Now a digression to further set the scene. Back then, retail in the seventies followed much the same patterns as it had for those many years before. It was mostly real shops, family shops, small shops, corner shops, abuzz with local people and transacted with real money. There was no global market, no Amazon, no eBay or any form of online ordering. No PCs, no tablets, no mobile phones. The nearest thing to technology was the TV and that was a tangle of oversized components, wires and tubes. Furthermore, few families possessed verbal real time connectivity provided by the yellow-liveried GPO, the seventies precursor to BT. So, with a dearth of household phones, there was no concept of, no demand for and therefore no such thing as telesales or phone ordering either. Worse, there were no store cards, no credit cards, no debit cards, no bank cards of any persuasion; no ATMs, no bank machines, no contactless chip and PINs, no PDQs, no tap and go, no Apple pay, and so on. Luckily for us, though, money had been invented, even if it had recently undergone an evolution from the oversized old LSD coinage to our modern-day smaller decimal. We also had personal cheques, but these were barely accepted anywhere apart from paying bills. So, it was all pretty much pay as you go, in cash, in person and in full, aided by the fact that most jobs paid weekly in cash.
On the upside, those enormous, almost encyclopaedic mail order catalogues that seemingly sold everything had also been invented, though they were usually settled by cheques in the post. Probably much the same as today, as younger kids, we drooled over the winter edition prior to Christmas, with page after glorious page of toys. As pre and early teens it was knives and air guns, though for use in the exploration of and possible harm to nature rather than human anatomy. Later it would become hi-fi and musical equipment, before stereotypically evolving via women’s underwear into fashionable clothing. In addition, these catalogues offered the same huge and distinct advantage, and that was deferred payments where, at an extortionate percentage plus, they could be broken down over much longer terms. Thus, in the same way as today, they provided a means for smoothing expenditure and making it feasible to purchase those more expensive desirables. It was this last benefit that played a big part in my transmutation to avid collector.
That summer, after some serious deliberation over the catalogue’s cycle section, and by mutual agreement in my favour, my mum had put pen to order form, popped it in the post and a couple of weeks later, just before my thirteenth birthday, delivered directly to our door was a rather cool, moderately expensive, ten-speed racer. Not to be outdone, Andy’s mum followed in a similar vein a short while afterwards. The thing was, beneath their different titles, covers and branding, both our mums essentially had the same catalogue. As a result: by the end of August, we had the same magnificent steeds. Thus, it was to be, on our embarrassingly identical bikes, every Saturday we rode and explored, bolding seeking newsagents and diligently checking their racks for US Marvels. We didn’t entirely resemble Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, but I wouldn’t hold it against anyone if they took a second look.
Was it this strange quirk of fate that would forge a new path, that would change our destiny? Perhaps a committee of our greatest thinkers might say not, but I feel it was a portent. Little did I know, as the cliche goes, how right I was, that it was all about to change.
Coda one: same time.
Coda two: same place.
Coda three: same channel.
Coda four: to be continued.
Cue theme tune: da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Batman.