As much as parents, school and TV, the mental scenery for my childhood was created by comics. The years could be measured out in the comics I read regularly, and the thread connecting them was my slate, the scritchy-scratchy companion of my childhood years. About the size of an A4 page, a rectangle of slate in a wooden frame, which lived at the side of the livingroom chair in a dust-ruined polythene bag, along with my slate pencils – a thin stylus of slate, one end wrapped in paper, and a rag for wiping off the current picture in preparation for the next. I would hold it in my left hand, raised for privacy, and draw with the right, the sweat of the left hand creating a film on the reverse side so that you couldn’t draw on it – the pencil would simply ‘skite’ over it.
This was my constant occupation, drawing one panel of an imagined comic strip, wiping it out and drawing the next. My face would be contorted into that of the character I was drawing, whether noble and determined (hero) or snarling and lip-curling (villain).
The slates were a relic of 1940s and 50s schooling, and became increasingly hard to replace when one got broken due to a fall or being sat on. But my mum or gran usually managed to find one when needed, and the evening TV was punctuated by my tapping, clicking and scratching, in my private world. I would never let anyone see what I was drawing – ‘anyone’ meaning my parents – and soon learned the best positions to sit curled in the chair for comfort and secrecy.
As I grew, the characters changed to reflect those of the comics I was reading: Danny on a Dolphin from the Beano, The Jellymen and The Bushwhacker from the Beezer; The Iron Man and UFO Agents from Boy’s World; my favourite from that comic was Wrath of the Gods, about an ancient Greek adventurer called Arion, who managed to encounter in his travels Medusa, Procrustes, Damocles and Atlas. Beautifully drawn and with a tone of high solemnity (rumoured now to have been provided by sci-fantasy writer-to-be Michael Moorcock), it still managed to give Arion a ‘strong-man’ travelling companion named Klobbax! Boy’s World merged first with The Valiant, bringing in Captain Hurricane (who every week would have a ‘ragin’ fury’ and destroy entire German platoons before dinner) then with The Eagle, bringing in now-revered strips like Dan Dare and Heros the Spartan. Heros was the first I’d seen of the artist Frank Bellamy, and probably the first time I’d noticed a distinct personal style in a comic artist.
When the comic TV21 came out, based on the characters of Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5 and Stingray, I was hooked from the first. The comic had a mock-newspaper approach, reporting the events of the 21st Century (which seemed impossibly far off) being brought to you as they happened (complete with Stop Press on the back page!). When Thunderbirds was introduced, there was Frank Bellamy again, his distinctive style and signature making the inanely-grinning puppet characters into rugged square-jawed action men. (I even discovered Frank Bellamy again in my dad’s Daily Record, when he took over the daily strip Garth.) All of this was faithfully reproduced on my slate, creating new adventures for the characters.
I also produced a paper comic at school called Action!, where I wrote and drew all the strips. It was passed around the class in primary 6 and 7, and seemed to be tolerated by teachers (i.e. not confiscated and destroyed). I think it reached five or six issues.