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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When I Was Young – Christmas 1975

I think it’s fair to say that spoiling children is not a good thing, as spoiled kids have absolutely no appreciation for anything that they’re given. It seems that the more you spend on them, the LESS they appreciate it.

Spoiled, ungrateful kids really piss me off. You know the sort I’m talking about, spoiled brats throwing a tantrum, hurling a £300 games console back at their parents because it isn’t what they wanted for Christmas. “I want an X-Box! You got the wrong one! Wahhh!” (I have actually seen this happening). If any kid of mine ever threw a tantrum like that, they would find themselves playing with Lego and not a £300 games console. Those kids need a good, swift kick up the arse, if you ask me. And the parents need an even swifter, harder boot to the rear end for making their kids turn out like that in the first place.

Modern society has become so materialistic that it sickens me. It’s all about (for both kids and adults) how many nice, shiny, expensive new things you can acquire. I get so angry when I see how much more is spent on Christmas presents these days compared to when we were kids, and the complete ack of gratitude on the part of most of those kids receiving those expensive presents. Speaking as an Old Phart, I can state with some authority that back “in our day” we got a heckuva lot less, but we appreciated it a lot more. Which brings me to Christmas 1975, and one of the best Christmas presents I ever received.

I came from a very poor family (I could give you a “We were so poor that… ” story, but you get the picture). My Dad had to raise five kids on his own, after he and my Mum split up. He gave up his job to look after us, and, as a typical working-class man in the early-1970s, he was very ill-equipped to do so. Indeed, he almost gave up on many occasions, but he loved us, so he hung in there against all the odds, refusing to leave us hanging high and dry, where many other men would’ve given up altogether.

The worst part of all this was that our lives were a constant struggle against poverty. Life on the dole in Northern Ireland at the start of the 1970’s was no laughing matter, especially if you had to raise a family on it. Maybe it wasn’t exactly Bangladesh, but it was as near as a so-called advanced western society came to it. We managed to eat, just about, and very poorly. Meat only two or three times a week at most (I got real sick of chips ‘n’ beans), and chicken only very rarely, on special occasions (like Christmas and New Year). Buying clothes for the kids and paying the bills and debtors was a major problem. What we would take for granted today as the everyday little luxuries in life were totally out of the question for us back then.

And, most of all, Dad dreaded Christmas, with a passion that even I could only imagine, for all my strong dislike of the Festive Season. Christmas meant extra spending on food and presents. But how could you spend extra when you didn’t have it in the first place? Trying to feed the kids and buy a few cheap presents to give at least an impression that it was Christmas was a recurring nightmare for my father. And this went on every year for at least a decade (until we were old enough to work and contribute to the household ourselves). He’d buy a few little toys and confectionery items for the younger kids, but I was older, and toys didn’t do much for me. He knew I liked books, but wasn’t too sure what kind of books. So he’d usually pick up something on space or prehistoric animals, which he knew I had a thing for, and that generally kept me quiet.

Then one year he struck gold. I remember it well. Christmas Eve, 1975. He landed back late with the Christmas presents, and handed them out to us. Nobody in our family believed in Santa, aside from the two youngest, who were very young and already in bed. I was fourteen years old, and the other two brothers were twelve and eleven, so we were too old to believe in Santa. We knew Dad was the Man with the presents, and we were waiting like hawks when he came in the door.

The younger brothers got their usual ration of toys and sweets, which kept them very happy indeed. Then he handed me my present, obviously a book of some kind, large format and hardback. I ripped off the wrapping paper eagerly, expecting another book on dinosaurs, or spaceships, or Doctor Who. But I was in for a real surprise. It was an Annual, and not just any old Annual. It was the Avengers Annual 1975. I’d already been a crazy superhero fan for several years by that stage, and collected all three Marvel UK weekly comics, the (Mighty World of Marvel, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, and The Avengers), even if it meant walking the four miles home from school every day in order to save my bus money for them (no such thing as pocket money for poor kids like us in those days). But I’d never been able to afford the expense of any of the Marvel Annuals, which, at nearly £1, almost twenty times the price of the average Marvel weekly, were well outside my budget at that time.

And here was my father handing to me the Avengers Annual 1975! He might as well have been giving me the Crown Jewels. I threw my arms around him and gave him a big hug. He was very taken aback by this, as he wasn’t one to display much overt affection in public (Real Men didn’t do that kind of thing back then), although we all knew that he loved us. But he was obviously surprised and delighted that I was so happy with the present. He’d taken a chance on it, thinking that I might like it, being a fan of superhero comics. But the degree of joy I’d shown was completely unexpected. He shook his head in bewilderment, smiling, as I rushed off to find a quiet spot to read my new found treasure.

You wouldn’t even have known I was in the room, as I sat in that corner, reading the annual over and over again for hours on end. I was captivated by the gaudy front cover, with Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Vision smashing through a wall. And the even better back cover with all the Avengers together in one pin-up. There were more pin-ups inside. And the stories! Wow! The first one was a great Steve Englehart/Don Heck strip featuring The Mighty Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men at the mercy of Magneto.

The second strip was part two of the same story, with the three remaining Avengers, plus Daredevil, and the Black Widow, all taking on the power of Magneto and his mind-slaves (namely all the other Avengers plus the X-Men). In another strip, the Avengers took on the Lion-God, my least-favourite of the stories in the annual, but still interesting. But the greatest eye-opener for me was a classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Captain America and Bucky strip, set during World War II. I loved that one! I’d never seen any stories in a Golden Age setting before, and I found it completely fascinating.

Overall, this was a fantastic gift from my father, and out of all the Christmas presents I have ever received, that Avengers Annual from 1975 has always meant the most to me. And the cost of that amazing present? A cool ninety pence. That’s right, not even one lousy English pound. Sometimes the value of something, no matter how cheap, goes way beyond anything monetary. Which is a big reason why I get so riled these days by spoiled kids and their lack of gratitude for the vastly more expensive things they get, and the stupidity of their dumb parents for splashing out so much money on the ungrateful little brats.

I still have it, that 1975 Avengers Annual, and all the other annuals that my father made sure to buy me for the next few Christmases after that. I wouldn’t part with any of them, not for any amount of money, even though they’re aren’t really worth a lot in money terms. They mean too much to me, carry too many fond memories for me of my late father, and all those Christmases from long ago, when we struggled just to survive the Festive Season, when we were lucky to get fed, let alone receive presents.

That cheap little present still means more to me than anything I’ve gotten for Christmas in all the years since then. There are some things that money simply can’t buy!