When I Was Young – The Day I Fell in Love with Superhero Comics

There are certain defining moments in our lives, when we make a decision that greatly changes or influences the way things will turn out from that point onwards. For me, as a comics fan, one of those defining moments was the day I fell in love with superhero comics.

I remember it like it was yesterday, a cold, wet lunchtime at the start of November 1972. I was eleven years old, and had just started, only two months before, as a first year pupil at our local grammar school, the most prestigious school in the north-west of Ireland. We had no canteens in that old school, so we had to bring in a lunchpack. The long lunch break (well over an hour), after scoffing a few sandwiches, a bag of crisps, and a small bottle of lemonade, was a real drudge. We always had about an hour or more to kill before the start of class, so I would head out of the school grounds to do a bit of exploring.

The school was about a mile and a half from the city centre, which was an unfamiliar place to a young boy like myself. I lived several miles outside the city, and I very rarely went into town, and never without my father. However, that was all to change pretty soon. As I became more familiar with the surroundings of my school, I began to venture further and further away from it. At first it was just a half-mile up the road to the chippy, where I often supplemented my meagre lunch with a bag of chips (French Fries, for our transatlantic friends). But gradually I started exploring further and further away.

Then, as time went on, I’d venture up towards the top of Bishop Street, the very long road that wound its way past our school from the outskirts of the town, and extended all the way into the city centre. Eventually, a few weeks after I’d started at the new school, I nervously wandered into the centre of our town, determined to explore all the shops (what was left of them, that is). The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were, by that time, in full swing, and the year 1972 is generally regarded as being the worst year of the Troubles. The city centre was not a safe place to be in those days, with bullets flying and bombs going off almost every day. It looked just like London, during the Blitz. Ruined buildings and gutted shops everywhere. It was a wasteland.

And William Street was one of the worst hit areas of them all. Even the City Cinema, where I’d watched many films as an even younger kid, was by this time a gutted ruin. There were barely three or four shops left intact in the entire street out of dozens. One of those lucky enough to remain untouched was McCool’s newsagents. I liked newsagents. They tended to stock lots of nice books and comics. This particular wet day, I went into McCool’s, mostly to escape the rain, which had soaked right through my overcoat and clothes to the bare skin, but also out of sheer curiousity, to see what comics were on the shelves.

I was an avid comics reader even then, although only of British weekly comics, particularly the more sci-fi oriented titles such as the Lion, the Valiant, the Eagle, and Countdown. I’d had very brief, fleeting encounters with US superheroes before, in the short-lived black and white Power Comics of the late-1960s, which published a mix of original British strips and reprints of US Marvel and DC superhero strips. Smash, Pow, Wham, Fantastic, and Terrific, were the direct inspiration for what was to come later, in the early 1970s, from Marvel UK. But I was too young when those were in the shops (only seven or eight years old), and so I paid very little attention to them.

I’d also seen a few of the much rarer import US colour superhero comics (Marvel and DC), which appeared sporadically during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in local newsagents, corner shops, petrol stations, and in the new breed of supermarkets springing up all over the place. I liked the look of these, but they were quite expensive. I had only very limited pocket money, there were so, so many comics out there, and I could only afford to buy two or three anyway. I usually just stuck with my regular diet of the same two or three British weeklies that I’d been buying regularly since I was four or five years old.

So up until the age of eleven, superheroes didn’t make any real impact whatsoever on my consciousness or buying habits. All that was to change that miserable, wet November day in McCool’s shop. I was scanning the shelves, looking for anything interesting, when I spotted a bright, colourful cover in among all the relatively drab British comics. The colours and quality of the comic stood out like a beacon. The incredible scene of four superheroes (who I later learned were the Fantastic Four) battling it out, seemingly in vain, against a huge green monster, with orange brow ridges and an orange mohican and lumps on its head, pulled me to this comic like a magnet.

MWOM 006

It was The Mighty World of Marvel #6, the very first of the classic Marvel UK weekly titles, and the start for me of a life-long love affair with superhero comics. A few minutes browsing through it, and I was hooked. I whipped out my 5p and paid for it (5p? – you’d pay a hundred times that – £5, if not more, for a UK comic these days). The 5p was part of my dinner money, but some days I didn’t bother going to the chip shop, and spent the money on comics instead. After this particular day, that was to become a much more frequent habit. I wrapped the comic in a plastic bag and put it into my schoolbag, making sure it was well covered so that it wouldn’t get damaged by any rain seeping in. Then I made my way back to school, getting there just as the bell rang for the end of lunch break.

I didn’t get a chance to read the comic until after school. When I got home, I rushed up the stairs to my bedroom, took it out of my bag, and, for the very first time, encountered the magical adventures of the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and the Amazing Spider-Man. The only one of these that I vaguely recognized was Spider-Man, whom I had seen in an earlier British reprint comic (I think it was Smash), four or five years before.

These three sets of characters were to become, very quickly, a near-obsession with me (especially my favourite, the Hulk), and I was so caught up in it all that I nagged and nagged at my Dad until he gave me the money (all of 50p, and that’s including the cost of p&p) to send off for the first five back issues of MWOM, which I’d missed. When they arrived, a couple of weeks later (the wait seemed like forever), you’d have thought Christmas had come early :).

I’d become a superhero comic fanatic, and remained a regular reader of The Mighty World of Marvel for many years, at least up until the end of the 1970s. I also collected the newer spin-off Marvel UK comics such as Spider-Man Comics Weekly, and The Avengers, and I still have large collections of these as well. This obsession with collecting the Marvel UK b&w weeklies also started me on buying some of the US colour import Marvel and DC comics, whenever I could find them, that is (distribution of US imports was very unpredictable).

The irony was that while I was reading the classic Silver Age reprints of Marvel characters in the Marvel UK comics, at the very same time I was reading the then-current up-to-date Bronze Age adventures of the same characters in the US Marvel imports. I became a confirmed Marvel Junkie for the best part of a decade during the 1970s and early 1980s, and The Mighty World of Marvel and its successors were the direct cause of that.

Conversely I was never as big a fan of DC superheroes, with the exception of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which I loved, and the occasional issue of the Justice League of America and the Brave & the Bold. DC made the big mistake of not following Marvel’s example, and releasing a strong line of British reprint titles during the 1970s. Marvel had the entire UK superhero comics market to themselves.

After I started buying the Marvel UK comics, I dropped all of my earlier British weekly favourites, which now seemed pretty dull and old-fashioned compared to the colourful, exciting new superhero titles. Of course I now greatly regret doing that, and it certainly seems very short-sighted in hindsight (we all have 20-20 vision in hindsight). But I was young and stupid, and like I said, I only had so much pocket money to spend, and the Marvel UK comics took first priority back then, by quite some margin. Ironically, I’m now trying to track down back issues of some of the old non-Marvel UK comics that I was most fond of before I dropped them for the Marvel titles.

I still have all those early issues of The Mighty World of Marvel, an unbroken collection of the first 120 issues, locked away in storage. Every so often I pull them out and browse through them, drifting off on a sea of fond memories, a complete nostalgia rush. And every time I look at my old copy of The Mighty World of Marvel #6, in my memory I relive that cold and wet distant day in McCool’s shop, when I fell in love with superhero comics.

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Alastair Reynolds – Galactic North and Zima Blue

Anyone who knows me is very aware that I’m a huge fan of the science fiction writing of leading British/Welsh “hard” SF author, Alastair Reynolds (and of New Space Opera/Hard SF in general). I have most of his novels, with the exception of a couple of the most recent – I’ll have to rectify that omission soon – but as much as I like Reynolds’ novels, I like his short fiction even more.

I’ve been a fan of his short SF going right back to the very first short story of his (that is, the very first that I read, not the first he had published), “Spirey and the Queen”, which appeared in Interzone 108 (June 1996). I liked this story a lot, so I did my usual thing and put his name into my little mental list of “new SF writers to watch out for”, with the intention of reading any other Reynolds stories that I came across.

But it was really with “Galactic North”, which was published in Interzone 145, that he became one of my favourite SF authors. Reading “Galactic North” (and, around the same time, and also in Interzone, another one of his stories, “A Spy in Europa”) was like receiving a high-octane boost of adrenaline, and just pushed all the right buttons for me. This exciting New Space Opera, a fusion of ultra-hard SF and the more traditional action adventure of classic space opera, was like a breath of fresh air to me. From that point onwards, I began to hunt eagerly for every SF magazine that I could find containing any Alastair Reynolds stories, followed by every Reynolds novel that was released, starting with his Revelation Space sequence of novels, REVELATION SPACE, REDEMPTION ARK and ABSOLUTION GAP.

Right now, on my bookcase, I just happen to be looking right at a couple of lovely collections of short stories written by Reynolds:

Galactic North

The first is a very nice signed 1st edition hardcover of GALACTIC NORTH, his first short story collection. This is a collection of stories set in his classic Revelation Space universe, which includes both of the above-mentioned stories, “Galactic North” and “A Spy in Europa”. This is a fantastic selection of stories, spanning a time from barely a couple of hundred years in the future, way up to a distant forty thousand years ahead, and set in a universe inhabited by the likes of the Conjoiners, Ultras, Demarchists (all sub-branches of humanity), the Inhibitors (ancient alien killing machines which have been awakened from aeons-long sleep, with one single objective – to annihilate any emerging intelligent species, in this case, humanity), and any number of other brilliant creations from the amazingly inventive mind of Mr. Reynolds.

Zima Blue

The second hardback collection is ZIMA BLUE, a companion volume to GALACTIC NORTH, this time a selection of his non-Revelation Space short fiction, which includes the aforementioned “Spirey and the Queen” and other equally excellent tales. These fascinating and enjoyable stories show that Reynolds is not a one-trick pony, and has many other great stories to tell that are not based in the Revelation Space universe. His more recent novels based in various non-Revelation Space scenarios, including HOUSE OF SUNS, CENTURY RAIN and PUSHING ICE, show that there is an entire multiverse of new stories still to come from the fertile mind of Alastair Reynolds.

I’d already previously read almost everything in these two collections, with the exception of several of the newer stories, but it’s really nice to get all of these excellent stories in two nice books, instead of having to go hunting through piles of SF magazines trying to find individual stories.

These two books are an absolute must for all Alastair Reynolds fans, and I’d not only recommend them to anybody who enjoys Hard SF/New Space Opera, but indeed good, ripping SF yarns of any kind. Anybody who may not yet have had the good fortune to have read any Alastair Reynolds, take my advice – grab these two collections, jump in, feet first, and enjoy some of the best SF short fiction available.

Early Star Trek – How The Original Series Might Have Been

History is totally in the blood for me. I’m a hardcore history buff, and I’m fascinated by history of any kind. I majored in history at university, and I’m a history teacher by trade, although I packed it in very early on (almost thirty years ago) to become a DJ (more fun than teaching, and more money too). I loved the history, but not so much the dealing with classrooms full of rowdy teenagers who didn’t appreciate the subject the way I did.

It isn’t just “real” history that fascinates me, but also imagined or potential history, either past or future. As both a science fiction fan and an historian, the “what might have beens”, “what-ifs” and “what might bes” also really fascinate me. Like many a good SF geek, I’ve even made up a few “future” and “alternate” histories of my own over the years. So it’s hardly surprising that I often mix my love of history with my obsession with SF/sci-fi, both from a fictional and a philosophical perspective.

But it also fascinates me on a more academic level. And when I’m talking about history here, I’m not referring to the above-mentioned made-up future/alternate histories (which I absolutely love), but the real thing, the factual, background history and details of how SF literature or my favourite sci-fi series were conceived and how they evolved to become what we’re familiar with in our books and on our TV screens. Imagine the fun that any student of SF/sci-fi would have researching the history of SF, Star Trek, Doctor Who or some of their other favourite sci-fi shows? It would be a surefire A++ on any university course, wouldn’t it? You couldn’t stop me from studying obsessively for that one!

As a huge fan of Star Trek: The Original Series (from now on referred to as TOS), it was a given that I’d be totally fascinated by the history of Trek, in particular the very early history of TOS. How Gene Roddenberry came up with the idea, what all of his earliest concepts and ideas were, and how they evolved into the TOS that we all know and love. In my youth (this was 30-plus years ago, in the antediluvian pre-internet era), I used to dig up a lot of information from older TOS books with lots of behind-the-scenes info, and a particular favourite topic of mine was the initial (pre-James T. Kirk) creation and evolution of TOS history.

I recall one excellent early book – The Making of Star Trek, by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry – that one had such a great influence on me. Up until that point I’d only ever read TOS fiction and a few behind-the-scenes magazine articles. Reading this book was like a shot in the head. This was the first time I’d ever come across anything documenting early TOS history in so much detail, and The Making of Star Trek certainly did give an abundance of info on Roddenberry’s earliest TOS concepts and scripts.

One of the earlier chapters in the book dealt with the radically different earliest concepts of the series, back in the days when Robert April was the first captain of the Enterprise (fans will remember him appearing later in the Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS) episode The Counter-Clock Incident). This one chapter was full of so much incredible background information (none of which I’d known before), complete with copious script excerpts, all of which was absolutely amazing, fascinating stuff to feed my obsessive, eager young geek mind!

Some of the differences with later, televised TOS were startling. I remember being totally shocked that Spock was originally a half-Martian, not half-Vulcan, with crazy, shaggy pointed eyebrows and red-tinged skin (instead of green), and he had LOTS of emotions. There were also no transporters in these initial concepts, and other ships had to routinely dock with the Enterprise. But this was quickly deemed to be far too costly as it would be happening in pretty much every episode, so the concept of the transporter was introduced (basically a beam of light and throw in some tinsel – can’t get much cheaper than that). The transporter is now such an integral part of the Star Trek universe that it’s incredible to think back and realize that it was only thought up to save money on the SFX budget.

As revisions and changes were made to the early Trek concepts, Robert April evolved into Christopher Pike, so we also get a lot of great background info on this part of TOS conceptual history. And, since the first pilot, The Cage, was based on these concepts, and was already a particular favourite story of mine, I was hooked. One of my favourite “What-If?” scenarios has always been “What if The Cage had been accepted by the networks?” What if Jeffrey Hunter had decided to stay on in the role of Captain Pike, (and also assuming he didn’t die in May 1969, and was able to carry on in the role) and there never was a James T. Kirk (I can hear the legions of female Kirk fans wailing in anguish)? What if Majel Roddenberry had remained as Number One, and Spock a less important character? And what if there had never been a McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu or Chekov? How different would the show have been, and how long would it have lasted?

It’s enough to make the mind boggle and get tied up in knots! As a hardcore hybrid historian and sci-fi/SF fanatic, I’ve always thought in terms of “what-ifs” and alternate histories, and this alternate version of Trek, splitting off from those initial pre-TOS concepts and developments, has always been one of my favourite “what-ifs”. This line of thinking opened up for me a whole new universe of a Totally Alternate TOS. As far as I’m aware, nothing like this concept exists anywhere in Trek fiction, either commercial or fan fiction, I’ve always thought that a TOS series and entire future TOS/TNG/DS9/VOY/ENT chronology built upon this alternate concept would be a great experiment for a new series of Trek fan fiction, with maybe even a few stories in collections like The New Voyages and Strange New Worlds.

I’d certainly love to see something like this, particularly in fan fiction or book form. I’m just amazed that nobody seems to have done it yet! 🙂