Earliest Comics Memories (Part 1)

I was looking through some of my old UK Annuals earlier today, which brought back a lot of old childhood memories for me about the very earliest comics that I ever read. I started buying my first comics when I was about four years old, which would have made that sometime during 1965, and I read and (later) collected comics without a break from that point up until 1982, when I stopped reading them for about a decade.

Back in 1965 was the prehistoric past, decades before anything like specialised Local Comics Shops and the Direct Market even existed. Back in those dim and distant days, the UK comics industry was flourishing, and every little corner shop and newsagents had dozens of British comics on display. There were comics of all kinds, from the “funnies” like the Beano, the Dandy, Topper, Beezer and others, to war comics like Hotspur and Victor, sports comics like Tiger, and mixed-genre comics like Lion, Valiant and Eagle, containing everything from sci-fi and fantasy, to action adventure, to humour strips.

For me, it all began in back 1965, when I started to spend weekends at my granny’s (I used to spend every weekend with her between the ages of 4-8). Next door to her house was one of those wee corner shops (except it wasn’t actually on a corner), just like the thousands of other similar little shops (what Americans refer to as “Mom and Pop Stores”) so common on almost every street in the UK and Ireland, back in the days before the big supermarkets came along and put them all out of business. This particular shop was run by an elderly brother and sister team, and on my earliest visits to my granny’s, I initially started visiting the shop to buy sweeties, as any normal four year-old would do. But I very quickly learned that there was a heckuva lot more than sweeties in this shop.

Talk about a big Box of Delights. This one little shop had a long counter-top covered with almost every UK comic available during that period, spread out flat to cover an area about six feet deep and twenty feet long. I had never really paid attention to comics before, but, then, I’d never seen so many of them in one place, and so beautifully put on display. It was mesmerising, and very soon, I was completely hooked. I started off buying my first regular comic, the Lion, followed closely by the Valiant, both of which I would pick up every Saturday morning as soon as the shop opened.

The shop had one of those wee bell things above the door that rang every time someone entered or left the shop. The sound of this bell woke me up every Saturday morning at 6.30am on the button, as soon as the shop opened. I was up like a shot, got dressed, ran next door to the shop to pick up my copies of the Lion, Valiant and whatever else I could afford (sadly never anywhere nearly enough, as pocket money was very short back in those days), and then back into my granny’s, where I’d sit at the kitchen table, eating my breakfast and reading my comics. Sheer heaven. 🙂

This is where my life-long comics reading obsession began, and I have some of my fondest memories from this time in my life, when I was so young and innocent, and full of wide-eyed wonderment, and when I discovered comics for the very first time.

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Nostalgia Collecting – Old UK Comics and Annuals

They say that nostalgia is the narcotic of the over-forties. I’m almost fifty-three, and I can definitely admit that it’s particularly true of me. I’ve always been a very nostalgic person, always fascinated by the past, even back when I was a kid. So pretty much my entire life, I’ve been on a quest to collect old stuff, particularly stuff that has some meaning for me, or which connects me to the “Golden Age” of my youth.

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time and money on Ebay, picking up many of the rare relics of my childhood and early-to-mid teenage years. One of the things that I like most is to grab the occasional old (and by old, I mean 1950s-1970s) British comic, as opposed to the US Marvel comics (which I also enjoy collecting) that I became a fan of from my mid-teens onwards. Way back in the day, before I ever encountered my first superhero comics, I was an obsessive collector of several of the traditional British weeklies. But that was before Marvel UK exploded onto the UK comics scene with The Mighty World of Marvel and its offspring from late 1972 onwards, and changed everything.

Over the years I’ve bought a lot of old issues of my favourite pre-Marvel UK British comics from the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, mainly Lion, Valiant, Eagle and Thunder. I would also dearly love to be able to buy a whole bunch of Countdown and TV21 (otherwise known as TV Century 21), but these seem to be harder to find on Ebay and when you can find them, they are invariably a heckuva lot more expensive than the likes of the Lion, Valiant and Thunder. Maybe someday, when I’m rich. 🙂

Another particular focus of my collecting has been those old UK annuals, the hardback, once-yearly collections of strips and other goodies from our favourite comics. I remember these annuals very fondly from when I was a kid. They were the “Holy Grail” for me back then, something that I eyed up enviously in the shops, and which I really, really wanted to get my hands on, but which were way, way out of my price bracket. We were from a poor family, and I didn’t have a lot of pocket money back in those days (the late 60s and early 70s). And annuals unfortunately did cost on average ten times the price of those weekly comics which were already stretching my meagre resources to the limit. Back then, annuals were simply far too expensive for me to buy on a regular basis, and so were usually only acquired when I got them as occasional Christmas presents from my Dad or other relatives.

So, in adult life, I’ve been trying to rectify things a bit by picking up a lot of these old annuals, and I’ve developed a real knack for snapping them up dirt cheap, or, at least, relatively cheaply. I’ve managed to get my hands on most of the Valiant, Lion, and Thunder annuals, and a whole bunch of assorted other UK comics-based annuals including Hotspur, Battle, 2000AD, Starlord, Eagle, Dan Dare, Countdown, The Trigan Empire and a few others. Add to those the various 1970s annuals put out by Marvel UK, and that’s a lot of annuals.

And just to add quite a few more to the already huge pile, I’ve also built up quite a collection of annuals based on various television sci-fi series, including pretty much all of the Doctor Who Annuals right from the very first one in 1964 up until the late-1970s, plus a bunch of Star Trek, Space: 1999, Blake’s 7, UFO and other assorted television-based annuals.

I often look at these ever-growing stacks of old annuals and comics in my spare room, and wonder “Am I going mental? Why am I collecting all of this old stuff? What the hell am I going to do with them?” Then I open one of them and feel the tidal wave of nostagia wash over me, all the old memories boring up from the depths of my moth-eaten excuse for a brain. And I feel good. Really good. Maybe nostalgia is the narcotic of the over-forties after all, and if it is, I hold up my hands and proudly proclaim that I’m a complete addict.

At least nostalgia is a much safer and more productive addiction than cigarettes, booze and drugs. And we all need our little hobbies to spend our money on, or life would be unbearable, all bills and shopping and crappy Real Life nonsense. The thought of that being all there is to life makes me shudder…

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.

Collecting Old Comics Stuff

I’ve been going through a bit of a crazy phase recently. Almost a reversion to my youth, or, at least, my youthful collecting habits. I’ve been spending a lot of money on Ebay, trying to pick up some of the rare relics of my early-to-mid teenage years, when I was an obsessive collector of British comics, as opposed to the more easily found US comics that I became a collector of from my later teens onwards.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been buying a lot of old issues of my favourite British comics from the 1960s and 1970s, mainly Lion, Valiant and Thunder. I would dearly love to be able to buy a whole bunch of Countdown and TV Century 21 (aka TV21), but these are a lot harder to find and a heckuva lot more expensive than the Lion, Valiant and Thunder. Maybe someday, when I’m rich.

I’ve also started collecting old annuals, those hardback, once-yearly collections of strips and other goodies from our favourite comics. Again, mainly Valiant, Lion and Thunder, although I did also pick up a nice Countdown Annual from 1972. I remember from when I was a kid – these were the Holy Grail, usually too expensive for me to buy (I didn’t have a lot of pocket money back in the ’60s and ’70s, and annuals cost on average ten times the price of the weekly comic), and usually confined to Christmas presents from my Dad or other relatives.

Well, I’ve made a really good start on picking up many annuals from the ’60s and ’70s period, and I’m starting to develop a real knack for picking them up dirt cheap, or, at least, relatively cheap. (I’ve just won two more as I’m typing – Lion Annual 1973 and Thunder Annual 1973). I often look at this ever-growing stack of annuals beside me, and wonder “Am I going mental? Why am I collecting all of this old stuff? What the hell am I going to do with it?” And then I open an annual and feel the tidal wave of nostagia wash over me, all the old memories boring up from the depths of my moth-eaten excuse for a brain. And I feel good. Really good. Maybe nostalgia is the narcotic of the 40-somethings (I’m 46). If it is, I’m a complete addict. Since my son died in April 2006, I have little else left in my life.

At least nostalgia is a much safer and more productive addiction than cigarettes, booze and drugs. And we all need our little hobbies to spend our money on, or life would be unbearable, all bills and shopping and crappy Real Life nonsense. The thought makes me shudder…