I believe I may have mentioned I am not a sporty child. Asthmatic, weedy, the last to be chosen for teams at school … dreamy, a lover of stories, self-obsessed …
Leisure time is mostly a potent mix of television/radio, books, records and comics. I will bore you rigid about the other stuff another day, but on this occasion … ah, COMICS!
British comics in the 1960s are fairly dull. A slightly sweeping statement I know, but bear with me. There is a strong tradition of humour in British comics which doesn’t concern me here (except to briefly acknowledge the genius of Leo Baxendale). In childhood I am much more interested in adventure comics, of which the key exemplars in the sixties are Eagle (well past its fifties prime by then) and TV Century 21, both of which feature many fine artists including the incomparable Frank Bellamy.
Generally though I find American comics much more tempting. In the 1960s unsold comics are used as ballast on transatlantic ships, and this dirt cheap gold is then distributed to newsagents shelves around the country, mostly by Thorpe and Porter. Oh yes dear reader, today you are in the grip of my not-so-inner nerd. But there is a point, so bear with me.
I begin with the slightly milder DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman. By the sixties DC is well off the boil, and the Superman mythology has been elaborated to a demented degree. Superman has a super girl cousin, a girl friend who is a reporter, another who’s a mermaid, a super-dog and super-cat companion. He keeps a city from his destroyed home planet in a bottle, has a Fortress of Solitude in the North Pole and must beware of Green, Gold and Red Kryptonite. Blue Kryptonite on the other hand, is only a hazard for Bizarro Superman (if you don’t know about the Bizarros, you owe it to yourself to find out).
DC’s rather deranged mythology does appeal to the nerd in me, but I find few of their comics genuinely exciting. Although comics from Marvel share the rack space with DC, I ignore them initially until an enterprising UK publisher sneaks them under my radar.
In 1966 I start buying a UK comic called Smash!. If I’ve got the sequence right, the initial appeal is that Smash! reprints the Batman newspaper strip from the USA. Batman is huge that year because of the TV version starring Adam West and Burt Ward and I am keen to grab any and all Batman comics and merchandise. In short order Odhams shape Smash! and its companion comics into a coherent range of titles branded as Power Comics, whose key selling point is black and white reprints of Marvel Comics strips. They begin by reprinting the story from Hulk issue 2. I can only assume they begin with that story because of the arresting image of the Hulk emerging from a swamp. I am transfixed when they use this image as a teaser the week before and then again when it appears full size as part of the the actual strip. Go on, have a look. Good isn’t it? When I first see it I am genuinely terrified – and instantly hooked. This strip is in fact a very rare example of the incomparable Jack Kirby’s pencil art inked by the equally incomparable Steve Ditko. The two artists’ styles are very different but they turn out to be powerful collaborators (although the experiment is rarely repeated).
Kirby and Ditko are Marvel’s star artists in the 1960s, collaborating with Editor and head writer Stan Lee. Kirby’s artwork at the time is very dynamic and kinetic, whereas Ditko’s is extremely quirky. Marvel develop an elaborate “Universe” of hundreds of interlinking characters, much of which is delivered to me weekly through the Power Comics reprints. A key text for an isolated, lonely child who feels “different” is Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man. In the original version, Peter Parker is a nerdy, misunderstood loner, unsuccessful with girls, who accidentally acquires super-powers. This gives him a secret life which gives bring great pleasure and benefit but also frustration, and which he can never share with friends or family, so he becomes terrified of possible exposure. Superhero secret identity – trans hidden identity. Marvel Comics are a huge spur to the imagination for me and also a huge comfort – a hint in some strange way that there might be a world where I am accepted, that things might be all right in the end.
One of the difficulties in collecting American comics at the time is that distribution is so spotty, so there are issues you can’t find but need to plug gaps in your collection. I am discussing this at school one day and a classmate called Terry suggests I buy the magazine Exchange and Mart, as he thinks that people may advertise comics for sale in there. I have never heard of the magazine, but I duly buy a copy and there in the small print find an ad for a fanzine (although not called that in E&M) called Comic Catalog, edited by Alan Austin. I send for a copy and discover an entrancing hidden world of fans and collectors. At the time, I little know that Terry’s casual remark has also led me down the first steps of a career-defining path.