The door in the wall
This post will be one of the more introspective ones. I want to try and explain why I am writing the blog, and to be honest I'm not absolutely sure yet. I don't have much time for writing a blog and it's harder work than I anticipated. Its subject matter – thoughts arising from my collecting and reviewing IPC/Fleetway comics of the late 1970s and the early 1980s – is unlikely to resonate with huge numbers people. But I really want to do it, and so far I've really enjoyed it. So here's an attempt to work out why.
I grew up, with my parents, sister and two cats, in a very small farming village on the Essex-Herts border. My home was one of a little grouping of six houses on a no-through spur from the main village. Dora and Henry Owen, the couple who lived in the house across the road, held some sort of franchise as the local delivery agent for one of the newsagents in the nearby town. In the early hours of every morning (I sometimes heard the van arrive if I wasn’t asleep) they received a consignment of all the newspapers, magazines and comics that people in the village subscribed to, and Dora and Henry would then arrange for the safe delivery of each publication to the right house. My first 'job' was to pop over the road each morning before breakfast to pick up our family’s newspapers. The Owens had a little delivery hatch in the side of their house, with a tiny door that could be opened from either side (I assume they had a lock for this on the inside), and they would leave our papers in there for me to pick up through the outer door and carry home for delivery straight to the breakfast table.
When I've invented a time machine (just concentrating on the blog for now, but I'll get around to it soon) I plan to visit Dora and Henry's house some time in – oh, I don't know – maybe 1978. They had a room – an office – that I was invited into once or twice, possibly to discuss the practicalities of my very important job, or maybe to negotiate a change in my own subscription (with horror I recall an occasion on which the Owens seemed to be in cahoots with my parents to persuade me to give up one of my strip-based comics in favour of Look and Learn – the 'educational' comic that was to Whizzer and Chips what Blue Peter was to Grange Hill). All I can remember about the office was a cluttered desk surrounded by piles upon piles of newspapers and – most importantly – comics. Mint condition, fresh-from-the-press comics. Primary colours, big, bold letters, exclamation marks, thick black dynamic lines, that sharp yet sweet smell of fresh ink on the smooth, flat, unturned pages. Not just my comics, but those that would be delivered to other kids in the village. An Aladdin's Cave for this comic-obsessed child. Still today that room is representative to me of something magical, forbidden, pregnant with some just-beyond-perception treasure – it’s appeared in my dreams once or twice over the years, symbolic of something bounteous.
As I grew older I developed an interest in newspapers as well as comics, which led to me starting my career as a local newspaper journalist (before very quickly crossing codes into book publishing), so it's not only the kids' stuff that interests me as I think back to that room. But mostly it is. Time-travelling 21st-century me will revisit that office on a day when the Owens are all out doing their own deliveries. I'm not sure what I'll do when I'm alone in there ... I just know that I want to be there, to touch those comics, to scratch some itch that's been agitating me for nearly forty years now.
I was proud of that job, and thought of it as some sort of paper round even though it was essentially just a five-minute wander over a country lane to pick up my parents' newspapers (pretty much the only chore I had at that age). My mum took the Guardian, my dad took The Times. It may have earned me a slight increase in my pocket money but the real reward was the thrill of collecting the papers on the day that my subscribed comic was due. What excitement! I can recall now the soft click of the ball catch as I opened the little hatch door, the weight of the newspapers – marginally but quantifiably heavier with my comic nestled inside – and the smallest, tantalising glimpse of colour if the rough-trimmed edge of my publication was peeping out from within. Think of Roald Dahl’s description of Charlie discovering the last golden ticket inside the wrapper of his Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight – that’s what it felt like.
I'm remembering now that there were rare days on which my comic wasn't there for one reason or another – perhaps there had been a problem with the delivery, or Dora and Henry had forgotten to put it in, or maybe it was one of those dreaded weeks of a printers' strike (which dogged IPC far too often for my liking at the time) – and boy, that sucked. I became less Charlie Bucket, more Veruca Salt.
But most weeks my comic or comics were there. Yes! I should tell you what they were. Oddly, even though I have since collected nearly every single issue of the comics I subscribed to at the time, I haven’t yet managed to work out the exact dates that I started and finished reading most of them. My first comic was actually a DC Thomson title, The Topper. This pre-dated my days of popping over to pick up the papers myself and I think it was actually my dad's comic, bought with me in mind but in his name. The first that I chose for myself was Whizzer and Chips, which I read from early 1977 to some point in 1979. During this period I added Cheeky, which was followed/replaced by Jackpot. In 1980 I subscribed to my first of the boys' adventure titles, the brand new Speed, which I received for the entire eight months of its short run before it was merged into Tiger – I was just getting into football at this time so I was happy to continue reading this sport-only comic. In August 1980, around the time of my tenth birthday, I started reading 2000AD – by far the most memorable and influential comic of my youth, although looking back at the covers and contents I think I must only have read it for just over a couple of years, stopping some time in 1982 soon after starting secondary school. By this time I had started reading the relaunched Eagle comic (I wore the free Eagle cover badge on the lapel of my school blazer, earning me the nickname ‘Eagle’ for a short while – less innocent nicknames followed as the years went by) and had switched from Tiger to Roy of the Rovers. I gave up on what I regarded as kids' comics around 1984 or 1985, moving on to weekly and monthly magazines such as Doctor Who Monthly, Warlock, Shoot! and Match.
It's at this point in many memoirs and interviews that a subject claims to have put away childish things, due to 'discovering girls'. I was different: I'd already discovered girls. Frustratingly, they hadn't yet discovered me. Thinking about it now, the whole no-through spur in a small farming village may have been one of the reasons – I probably should have distributed maps. But I like to think that even if I had been discovered as a teenager it wouldn't have meant me having to give up on the other things that made me happy. Without turning into Old Collie here, that is:
All the comics that I read during that period were published by IPC, and so it is that the IPC titles of that time are the focus of this blog. DC Thomson was and is an incredible publisher – Scottish institution and British institution – which produced the highest calibre of comics with greater success and for a longer period than IPC, but for me IPC were the best. They had a diversity of styles and formats, an attitude, a character, a cockiness that appeals to me even today as I look back at the many titles they created. I'm a collector of this publisher's output from this particular chapter of British comics history – not only those that I read at the time, but the other titles from the IPC stable, to which I felt a distantly-related connection through their appearances in advertisements in my own: Cor!! and Knockout, Shiver and Shake and Monster Fun, Krazy, Buster and Whoopee!, Valiant and Action, Starlord and Tornado, Battle and Scream! Even the girls' comics: Misty and Jinty, Tammy and Penny, June and Lindy – they had no appeal to me at the time, but I've since discovered that they were more sophisticated in art and storytelling than most of the boys' titles.
I love searching for back issues in good condition of all of these comics, ticking them off in my little collector's book, indexing every story and filing them in binders with colourful spine labels that show off the wonderfully colourful and dynamic covers by the talented artists that worked for IPC at this time. Other collectors of all sorts of things will recognise some of these feelings, I'm sure, but they may or may not agree with me that for all the pleasures of collecting nostalgia, it's not possible through the relics themselves to recapture those precise feelings of childhood, the experiences of being a reader of these comics at the time, the sense of identity and discovery and understanding, the relationship with the stories and characters brought to life by the connection of my creative young mind with the lines, frames and speech bubbles laid out in sophisticated and often surprising designs on the pages before me. And nor should it be, otherwise what value and uniqueness does young David keep for himself? But I can't deny that there is something in me that still yearns to somehow recapture those feelings, to turn a page of some mint-condition issue of a 1979 Whizzer and Chips or a 1981 2000AD and for those long-lost sensations to blaze out at me like an unexpected 'FREE GIFT!' I know that that won't happen ... but I want it to, so I'll keep searching for it. And if I keep an open mind then perhaps the search will lead me to something else, some new understanding or revelation, about myself or about the comics or the world from which they come. I’m going to try to journal this search, and to share what I see and think and find – as much for self-validation as the hope that anybody else would find such insights worth reading. And there we have it – I've stumbled upon my reason for writing this blog.
That turned out to be quite serious. So here are some fun bits. How many of these stories and the comics they appeared in can you name?
Thank you for all the lovely comments and encouragement I've received so far - I'm delighted that people seem to like the blog. I've written two and a bit posts in less than a week but it's back to work and back to school next week so they'll be a bit less frequent from now on. I'd like to try and post a new entry most Saturday mornings so keep your eyes open for those. I'll also tweet a bit more regularly than that so please follow me @GNFARcomics and have a chat with me there if you use Twitter. And I have a Pinterest account where I'll try to pin all the images. If you think other people you know might be interested in the blog then please share the link however you think best. Cheers!