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Posts Tagged ‘marvel comics’

When I was a child, being raised as a boy, I was kind of an isolated one. Not so isolated before the age of nine, when I had my first clear sense of gender variance, but even before then I would tend to play by myself (I was quite asthmatic which was also limiting) and was obsessed in general with cultural artifacts rather than people. 

Music to begin with, played on our Deccalian record player and then ultimately our Dansette. But very quickly comics (I stole a comic from a cafe when I was about four!) and TV, particularly science fiction. And love of SF TV led at around 12 to love of written science fiction, firstly through Isaac Asimov‘s collection of stories I, Robot, as I was a robot nut. And then in the teen years my musical tastes widened tremendously, so you can find many different types of music and artists on our shelves at home. So I guess I was pretty geeky, and socially awkward in my teens for all the usual reasons plus the transgender reasons on top.

Great Science-Fiction

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Geek for some people is of course a negative term but I think it’s cool to be one (don’t like the term nerd however). And actually I’m an incredibly wide-ranging geek – I’m into all sorts of stuff. Which I think is one of the things that makes me good at my job – working with academic staff in all different disciplines across the University of East Anglia – because I am interested in what they’re up to and have enough geeky skills to talk a bit of their language and understand some of what they’re talking about, whether they’re a historian or teaching on a medical degree.

So I guess I know a lot about certain things (I can recognize whether a comic has been drawn by Steve Ditko, or Ron Embleton, or Barry Windsor-Smith, or Gene Colan, or Frank Bellamy, or Dave Gibbons … I’ll stop now), and a little about a lot. I ain’t no scientist, but I’ve heard of buckyballs.

But the reason I am writing about all this stuff is because a geek’s relationship to their geeky objects of interest is complicated. Initially it was just stuff I loved. And it was good stuff … it’s been kind of weird to treasure all this pop culture stuff as a child and then discover people teaching about it years later at universities. I didn’t see that coming based on the snobbery of some of the teachers when I was at university.

However as I became more troubled about my gender (and as an only child didn’t even have a sibling to consider daring to tell about my transness) some of these things became more a comfort blanket, a defence against the world, and an inert “friend” who would never contradict me.

So has that all changed since I’ve transitioned? Yes, but in slightly subtle ways. This is a kind of experimental bit of thinking here folks, but let me try and explain what I mean. My interest in music, for example, is kind of what I might define as “open-ended geekiness”, because the more you get interested in it the more possibilities open up.

I started as a child by liking Lonnie Donegan (you must hear his version of Frankie and Johnny) and Cliff Richard (well, I was a UK child of the sixties). But following my nose for interesting and different sounds has led me, to give a randomish selection, to Michael Nesmith’s post-Monkees career, Vaughan Williams, Little Feat, Maria Muldaur, the Thompson and Wainwright dynasties, Duke Ellington, David Lindley, Brian Wilson, Ian Dury, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Goldfrapp, Natalie Merchant, Mint Royale (check out their version of the Ask the Family theme tune, I’m not kidding!), Soft Cell, Stevie Wonder, Timbuk 3, June Tabor, Billie Holiday, fantastic film composers like Bernard Herrmann, and the genius of Delia Derbyshire (whose work is known by almost everyone in the UK but whose name is known by almost none). I’ve left you a lot of stuff to look up there but with no links – consider it homework!

So although you could be a jazz obsessive (and there’s nothing wrong with that anyway) in my case music keeps steering me through more and more interesting doors and is endlessly rewarding. Latest joyous discovery? The Decemberists a few days ago.

I could write a similar list about movies, particularly after Basil Edwards, my English teacher at secondary school, introduced us to foreign movies. I have a wide-ranging interest in movies and television. And in due course, when home video technology began to develop in interesting directions, my interest in movies and TV also developed into an interest in these technologies, and in collecting.

I was one of the relatively few people in the UK to buy a laserdisc player in the 1980s (for younger readers, these were early double-sided videodiscs the size of old vinyl Lps). LD became a relatively successful format in the USA when it was re-focused at movie buffs, but was pretty unsuccessful in the UK so you had to be obsessed to find players and discs. And over time, with the development of DVD and other home cinema technologies, I became even more obsessed with getting a really good home set-up, with surround sound and based around the first really decent plasma TV in the UK (which I did, around 2002).

And I’m not dissing it – it’s great to watch movies on. But a couple of years after I’d set up my nice plasma, surround amp and speakers, DVD player, personal video recorder, then along came High Definition and Blu-Ray. And I felt that pressure, to keep up at the leading edge of tech etc etc.

Only I know that this kind of obsessive geekism was, in part, one of the ways in which I was avoiding facing up to my transness – I had a comforting hobby which was a lot of fun, and didn’t involve people much, and kept changing/evolving etc. But it was secondary to the real interest, which was movies – it was about a better way of seeing them to be sure. But on the technology side, I guess I’m focussing on the fact that the technology was “obedient” and “loyal” and did what I wanted – and the outside world wasn’t like that and I always felt would bite me if I was honest about my gender identity.

That may sound a weird connection to make, but I think it’s about putting energy into something else because I was too scared to put in energy to dealing with my true self. And the reason I think there’s a connection is that although my love of music continues, and my love of movies continues, my obsession with keeping on the teetering edge of technology has gone.

Initially I thought it was just because transition keeps you very busy – at this stage it’s like having a second full-time job. But actually, I don’t need the comfort blanket anymore. Because the other thing that has changed is I am much less of a loner than I used to be, and much more of a social person. To put it like that is something of a caricature, ‘cos I did have a lot of fun with friends and family pre-transition, but it’s an interesting difference of emphasis. A lot of preoccupations from before I acknowledged I was a woman have changed, shifted, in some cases disappeared. And a lot of new interests have started to arise because, I think, I am free to be myself (my true self) for the first time in my life.

So the good geeky bits (which I use in life and work) are preserved, and the geeky bits about hiding from the world because I was scared of it have receded. I was much shyer trying to live as a man than I am now I’ve accepted I was always a woman and am able to live as one.

But there’s another, final dimension to this, which is that I wanted to try and be creative before I transitioned – to write, to perform, but I was generally too scared to have a proper go at it. So I went to work for a comics/SF distribution company, rather than try and write. And I acquired a huge music collection rather than play music. Everything always at one, or more, remove. I got dragged into doing a bit of writing in the end, but only ‘cos other people believed in me, not ‘cos I did.

I am not trying to generalize about trans people here. Many are very successful before they transition and I was not totally unsuccessful, but I made a lot of early career/life choices based on having a very low opinion of myself. But lot of trans people do feel very stuck, because they can’t see how to engage fully with life. And they find ways round it, but they are often ways which involving hiding and denying their truest self, and therefore not taking opportunities when they present themselves.

That’s changed for me now – I have a sense of life and creative opportunities opening up, just as I wished they would in my younger years because, finally, I believe in myself. And my geekiness has evolved – it no longer dominates me, it’s just part of my toolkit.

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I find it very exciting to discover the existence of comics fandom. Most of the early fanzines I buy have ads in them from dealers – at last a reliable way of tracking down and collecting the comics I’ve missed! But although I do buy some titles by mail order I retreat very quickly from the idea of being a completist. Both the effort involved and the cost seem quite daunting.

More important is the discovery of like-minded souls, who are writing articles, news stories, reviews about comics. Some have connections with fans and publishers in the USA, and are beginning to import those titles which are not properly distributed in the UK. Some of these names will become pivotal in the UK comics industry. Nick Landau and Richard Burton will go on to work on 2000 A.D., and Nick will also help set up the Forbidden Planet comics store (later a chain). In the late seventies Dez Skinn revamps Marvel’s UK publishing subsidiary, and then sets up his own line of comics.

And as well as fanzines, there are conventions. And comic marts, the comic book equivalent of record fairs. And at the time one single comics and SF store, Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed . This is all incredibly exciting, and you would think that my young nerdish self would plunge into this new world. Well, you would be right-ish. I subscribe to (and devour) some of the better fanzines. I read the names of these people, not much older than myself, who are confident enough to band together and create UK comics fandom, and later a burgeoning UK publishing and retail industry – Burton, Landau, Skinn, Martin Lock, Trevor Hughes, Rob Barrow, Lee Hopewell and many more. I envy their ability to voice their opinions in print, and long to do so myself. But I am too frightened to take any but the most faltering steps into this world.

Partly this is lack of confidence in my own ability to write – I am also intimidated by the idea that people have opinions – I am much too scared to have opinions. My father’s negative views on comics are also influential – while I sneak an ever-increasing quantity into the house, I make sure he never catches me reading them. If he’s around, I read them in my bedroom – and indeed spend more and more time in there, even on the hottest and sunniest of days. But strongest of all is the fear of being visible at all, of being noticed. Because I think that if people notice me, they won’t like me.

At that time I have a conviction that I am ugly, or unnoticeable, or both. Mostly I assume my face is almost featureless, that if schoomates meet me out of context – in town or on the bus for example – they won’t recognize me without the visual aid of being seated in uniform at my usual desk. Looking back now it’s clear to me that even a few years earlier, before I hit my teens, I had a better opinion of myself, but now things seem very different. I don’t know how to be a teenager – something I have in common, I later realize, with a lot of my peers, but in particular the strain of being a trans teenager has more and more effect on my general self-esteem, making me reluctant to draw attention to myself, or to voice my opinions. Changing that about me will prove a long, slow process.

So comics fandom, which could have been an exciting other world for me, seems untouchable and unreachable, as I am too scared to fully participate. I have one LoC (Letter of Comment) published in a fanzine, but that’s about it. The first time I visit Dark They Were … (which is located in scary Soho) my mother accompanies me and I am too scared to go in, although eventually I become a regular customer. I see the UK comics scene blossom before me, at a distance.

It’s not until I’m at university that I gather up enough courage to attend a comics convention. In many ways it is not a huge success for me, but at one stage I meet, and talk briefly with Mike Lake, Nick Landau’s business partner. A few years later, when looking for my first job after university, I capitalize on that meeting, which is very unlike me at the time. A few years later, despite my earlier fear of fandom, I find myself working in the comics industry thanks to that chance meeting – a tale for another time.

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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.

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