2016 minus 49: the comics that got me into comics

Posted: 13 November 2015 in 2016minus, comics
Tags: , ,

I was thinking about Amateur Press Associations today. I received a thick white envelope through the post and it reminded me that for some years, that meant one thing: Comicopia. As far as I know Comicopia is still running, though it’s been a while since I’ve been in contact with many of the then members. 

One section of Comicopia I always enjoyed was by the Canadian artist Gabriel Morrissette;  his sections were full of little sketches and drawings, revealing the full insanity that’s inherent in a comic book artist. 

One three panel gag, illustrating the effect Jack Kirby’s art had on him, has stuck with me. In the first panel, a child is looking at an unopened comic book. The boy then opens the book and there’s a small explosion. The final panel has the kid’s white eyes looking out of a smoke blackened face, singed hair smoking above it.

Have to say that was pretty much the affect on me when I saw US comic books for the first time. Because the first comics I read weren’t US super-hero comic books. They were weekly British comics, mostly black and white, or black white and red to be precise: comics like The Beano, TV21, Scorcher (including Billy’s Boots), Whizzer and Chips etc.

(It’s worth remembering at this point that the only accurate answer to the question Whatever happened to WHIZZER & CHIPS, BUSTER, WHOOPEE! and all the other great British comics? is My mother threw them away.)

Despite me enjoying those British comics, there was no real feeling of loss if I didn’t read them. I had plenty of other things to read, and only rarely –  with certain strips  – did a story continue from one week to another. Most of the strips were just gags surrounded by a setup for the gag on one side and a set up for the next gag on the other.

And then there was Look-in.

Now, I have no idea of the readership of this blog, but I’d put good money down on the table that not one in twenty UK readers has a clue what I’m talking about and not one in five hundred US readers does.

Look-in was ostensibly a television listings magazine for children; indeed, on the final two pages of the weekly publication there were listings for childrens’ shows being broadcast the following week. Importantly though, there were also adaptations of popular kids’ and ‘family’ television programmes of the time, continuing over several weeks. I come across some of these stories on the web every so often, and I’m usually impressed at how well much of the art still stands up today. The stories? Hmm, well, I’m less impressed with them these days. For more about Look-in, check out Lew Stringer’s blog. You might want to start here

Yet even with Look-in, there was something missing, something that just wasn’t there.

In the early 1970s – yes, I am very old – one week when I was ill, my father picked up some comics for me for me to read. I’ve no idea why he chose the comics he did; if he bought me comics, it was usually one or more of the aforementioned British weeklies. But no, this time he picked up a British reprint of an American comic book featuring this character named Spider-Man. I’d never seen anything like it, and I didn’t know what the hell it was, but I wanted more; I needed more. Of course, being seven years old in the 1970s – see, I told you I was old – it wasn’t immediately apparent how to get more. 

Skip forward a couple of months and I’m at Heathrow Airport. No, I wasn’t running away or anything; it’s not that kind of story. We were off on holiday as a family, and, waiting to board, my parents took me and my brothers to the news kiosk to get something to read on the plane. I still recall the thrill when I saw  real US comic books. Not the British reprints in black and white, but the actual comic books. So I bought the two whose covers most interested me.

Which ones? These:

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Yeah, I know – part of the reason I read comics today is because of characters like Grotesk and Brother Voodoo. Frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks to parents who, despite the comment above, actively supported my comics reading, I then got the Marvel Treasury Editions, then the regular British reprints, including X-Men, Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-Man… (There was also a brief flirtation with 2000AD but the less said about that, the better – it’s embarrassing all around.)

Now all of the above begs a question: What about DC?

Well the truth is that I wasn’t interested in DC Comics… because I’d hardly seen any. Until, at a friend’s house, I came across Batman: From the 30s to the 70s, a selection of black and white reprints of Batman tales. (It was some time before it actually occurred to me that the originals had been in colour.) He didn’t have the companion volume for Superman, so I didn’t get to read Superman for some years afterwards – and when I did, I was slightly disappointed. The Batman always did (and still does) struck me as a far more interesting character to read, and to write.

But for the moment, I was far more concerned with Marvel Comics.

And I devoured the comics. I guess that at some point I realised that these comics were written and drawn by people. After all, the Marvel comics had those funky credits. Nevertheless, I can’t, unlike others I know, pinpoint the exact moment I started realising that the comics I really enjoyed tended to be written by the same people or drawn by the same artist.

When I hit my teenage years, I sort of drifted from comics a bit. Oh I still read the occasional one here and there, but like many of my friends, comics just didn’t play a large part in my life.

A friend of mine, Regie Rigby, will, if you ply him with enough drink, tell the story about how I’m responsible for getting him back into comics (it involves a letter I wrote being printed in an issue of Batman) and I know that Dave Gibbons has written publicly about what got him back into comics – a Gene Colan cover of Green Lantern. With me, though, it was something different entirely. Well, two different somethings really. The first was catching up with an old school friend, the other was getting stood up on a date.

When I came home at the end of my first term (semester) from uni, I went to a friend’s house to play catch-up. We’d gone to different universities, and hadn’t seen each other for several months. While there, he asked a fateful question: “You used to like the X-Men, didn’t you?” and asking that, he tossed over an issue.

Uncanny X-Men #138.

  

I discovered later that the book was a couple of years old by the time I saw it, but after being away from comics for a while, the effect upon me was astonishing. The cover just hit me between the eyes. I didn’t know what to look at next: Who were all these characters? These weren’t my X-Men. What were all these covers in the background? What an amazing “Win a Toys ‘R’ Us Shopping Spree” banner! No, maybe not that last.

And Cyclops? Leaving the X-Men? Impossible. I had to read more. And what I found, when I cracked it open, was something that so many comics promise to be, but aren’t: the perfect jumping on point for a new reader.

Because, of course, Uncanny X-Men #138 is a ‘what has gone before’ issue, summing up the history of the X-Men thus far in 22 pages. Not only was I hungry for more story after having read the issue, I was incredibly impressed by the art. Hard to believe there was a time when I’d never seen John Byrne art before, isn’t it? Even harder to remember a time when John Byrne’s art was good.

That might have been it, though. I might have never bought more comics, except for getting stood up a couple of weeks later when I returned to Manchester.

We’d arranged to meet on a specific street corner in Manchester, just outside the City Centre. And she never showed. After an hour or so, when I finally gave up – hey, I was optimistic back then, ok? – I headed back to my halls of residence, passing, on the way, a small shopping precinct that I’d never previously noticed. I wandered in, out of curiosity, and discovered The Holy Grail: a comics shop.

A shop that just sold comics. Extraordinary! I had to be dreaming, but no, when I walked in, all I could see were… comics. The window display was.. comics. Lining the wall were… comics. And on the shelves… comics. Comics, comics, comics. As far as the eye could see. I’d never seen so many comic books in one place. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but not by much. I remember standing there in disbelief. And then as if in a daze, slowly, picking up half a dozen comics (probably the last time I left a comic shop with so few purchases.)

I went back the following day, having read the comics I’d purchased. And the next day. And it was on the third visit that my life changed. They were unloading the latest delivery. And it suddenly occurred to me that the books, different issues, that these new deliveries appeared… every… week…

Oh dear.

It’s an axiom that every comic book is someone’s first.

You’ve just read about some of mine.

Why not take a moment to wallow in nostalgia and remember yours..?

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Comments
  1. Jamie Pullman says:

    The Beano was the first comic for me, followed by all the others of it’s kind, but when I found 2000AD I loved it. Future Shocks, Dredd, Slaine etc, I loved them all.
    There was a comic shop called Rainbow’s End about 45 minutes cycle ride from my house that I heard of from a friend of a friend. It was small and scruffy with the comics all stacked in boxes on the floor, but wow, what a treasure trove it was. I discovered Swamp Thing, Viz, Batman, Love and Rockets (which I still think is the best on going comic series ever) and many more that have fallen by the wayside.
    The woman who ran it was never annoyed by my spending ages choosing whatever I could afford that week and I was very sorry to see it go out of business when a Forbidden Planet started up close by.

    Love and Rockets though, has anything ever been drawn better?

    • Well, I’d probably say yes because I never enjoyed Love and Rockets. I don’t know why; I just could never ‘get’ what everyone else ‘got’ from the book.

      2000AD, to which I allude in the blog, and me always had a complicated relationship. I wanted to like the comic and the strips a lot more than I did. I loved Strontium Dog but that was about it. I dropped out about three years into the comic and never really went back. The few times I did, I always felt the comic did the one unforgivable thing for a serialised comic: it relied upon you knowing what happened not last week, but what happened three months ago. They never assumed any issue was someone’s first and as a result there was never – at least I never found one – a good jumping on point.

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