Comics (3)

In the 60s, American comics found their way to the UK as ballast on planes, nothing more. Often they were random packages of old and new ones. Some titles would be available new (actually about four months after their American publication), but there would be intermittent gaps in the supply.

So collecting comics was like collecting stamps:

  • supply was unpredictable, so you’d grab and hoard
  • it could take a long time to trace and find back issues
  • obscure newsagents in out-of-the-way Ayrshire towns could be treasure-troves of comics, as could friends’ bedrooms and attics.

There were only five or six of us in the school who collected Marvel Comics, and no-one else in town as far as we knew. We were regarded with some derision for reading comics at all.

Spider-man 1The economy of Marvel collecting was based on trade (‘swapping’), but we fell into specialisations, where the aim was to have a ‘clear run’ of one’s favourite title from issue 1 to the current. For most titles this was impossible – first issues were hard to find even then. Sometimes one might give up a particular title and hand one’s straight run over to someone else in exchange for a number of comics that would bolster your other collections.

I kept mine in a wardrobe, piled with illustrated tabs of paper marking the end of one title and the beginning of another. I watched with satisfaction as the pile grew taller, became two piles, needed a second shelf. A friend kept his on a snooker table that slid out from under his bed. Another friend entered the market later than us, but had a paper round, which enabled him to buy whole collections for cash (which we were never comfortable about, but tolerated as it increased the number of our small band).

The specialist comic/scifi shop and the comics nerd of Simpsons fame, who stores his comics unopened in individual bags, were yet to be born. We were all enthusiasts who eagerly read every issue, debated the story and art and, in some cases, wrote and drew our own stories. We were proto-nerds.

Once a month, one what seemed like a random date, the word would get round the the ‘New Batch’ was in. We would fan out across the town, often in our school lunchtimes, feverishly fingering through the tightly-packed rotating magazine stands in far-flung newsagents in the hope of finding not only the latest issue of the titles we collected but also issues that would be of value in the swap market. Then onto the phone in the evening.

‘Ive got FF#52 – you can have it for Spidey#64 and 65.’

‘Steranko’s doing X-Men!’

‘They’ve brought back Doc Doom again!’

‘Submariner’s getting his own mag!’

There must have been a growing wave of interest across the UK because in 1969 (I think), a selection of Marvel titles appeared with UK prices printed on them, rather than labelled on. This was the beginning of the UK comics retail business, although it would be some years before I would set foot in my first specialist comic shop.

Gradually and inevitably in the lives of young men, rock music and girls supplanted comics in our lives. (One harbinger of this was my noticing a sustained interest in a poster of female superhero The Wasp, which seemed to shine out from the muscle-bound stalwarts in the other posters around it. Hmmm.) Our group of friends and rivals stayed close but the competition to collect straight runs was replaced by the competition to master new chords on our new acoustic guitars.

We're Only In It for the Money! advertI’d been intrigued by an ad that had appeared in all Marvel comics in 1968. We all thought it was the funniest ad we’d ever seen, but we’d never heard of the Mothers of Invention. Looking back, it was the bridge between the two worlds of my adolescence.

(See the ad full size)

I still wanted to be a Marvel artist, and submitted my portfolio to various art colleges, but while they recognised my skill at drawing muscular men in elaborate costumes and vehicles, they pointed out that skills at life drawing, painting and design were also required. I realised I was not destined for the Marvel Bullpen after all.

© Norman Lamont 2005

Comics (2)

I got my first Marvel comics by swapping various comics with the boy next door. I would have preferred Batman, but I took what he had. There were a few of the non-superhero fantasy shorts by Kirby or Ditko, then a Strange Tales featuring the Human Torch meeting the Sub-Mariner and an early story of Dr Strange. There was a sense of a new and complicated world, quite different from the simplicities of Superman and Batman. In this world, as brought home to me by an Avengers issue, the first I read carefully, the heroes argued amongst themselves, boasted of their power, and were sometimes defeated, artists were celebrities and stories continued over several issues. I noticed smaller differences that intrigued me, like the way heroes’ names weren’t always printed in bold, as they were in DC comics. One night, in a chip shop / newsagent in the neighbouring housing estate, I bought Thor Annual #2 and I was hooked. Lee and Kirby had swept me into their world.

Thor annual #2.I still read the British comics I had read before, which became easier and cheaper as they all merged. But the stories and characters now seemed one-dimensional and the art pedestrian, with the exceptions of Franks Bellamy and Hampson.

Then a new comic was launched in the UK called Fantastic!. It consisted almost entirely of black and white reprints of Marvel comics from previous years. Fantastic! featured Thor, the X-Men and Iron Man, and a companion was soon launched called Terrific! which featured the Avengers among others. Some editing was done – word balloons with American spellings were overwritten, sometimes crudely, and all references to the USSR (which frequently featured as a villain) were changed to fictional names or ‘an Iron Curtain country’. But here was all the background I needed to make sense of the characters I was coming to love in the Marvel Universe. You could see the development not only of the characters but also of the artists, particularly Kirby from his early naturalistic style to the exaggerated and chaotic but exciting style of his heyday.

Fantastic!

Saturday morning was the time I would walk across to Whiteletts, the nearest R S McColls newsagent that stocked Fantastic! and Terrific! I’d all but lost interest in pop music at the time, save for a few hits I liked; that Saturday morning walk is forever associated in my mind with Cat Stevens’ Matthew And Son.

Marvel heroes and Marvel styles began to dominate my slate-scratching, and when I came to discover other Marvel fanatics at school, probably a year into the obsession, I began to transfer my drawings to paper, and to dream of following in the footsteps of Kirby, Ditko, Romita, Colan and Buscema to the Madison Avenue headquarters of the Marvel ‘Bullpen’.

© Norman Lamont 2005

Comics (1)

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.

Slate and slate pencil.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.

The beezerAs 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.

© Norman Lamont 2005