John Sinclair, a bit part actor and comic book writer, is a personal friend and I'm pleased he was able to contribute a little something for the Great British Comic Book Weekend. Here John tells us how it was comic books that encouraged him to read in the first place.
When I went to school at the age of not-quite-5, I could already read. In fact I had a reading age of 12.
But my teacher wouldn’t accept it. She kept trying to catch me out. She would give me encyclopaedias and point at random words. She would write long complicated words on the blackboard.
And I would get them right every time. She would get very angry for me. For I was a smartass. I would put my hand up whenever we had a new thing to read. I would always be the first to say I was finished when we were given a new long book to read.
You see, I had always been around adults, so I was used to dealing with adults. What’s more I was used to competing with adults. You see, that’s how I learned to read. By competing with my father and grandfather for the newspapers when they came through the door.
When I was little, in the dawn of the 1960s, we lived with my grandparents, and one of our charming little rituals was the daily race for the evening paper. If I won, or if my grandfather won, he would put me on his lap and read the paper to me, pointing out difficult words and explaining what they meant. My poor old dad would just sit in his chair and sulk, reading the paper granddad had brought home from work that day.
Ours was a house full of newspapers; my dad and granddad would buy one each at work, and we would have that aforementioned evening paper delivered, but we would also have a skip-load of weekly papers as well; I learned to tell the days by the day the weekly papers appeared: Tuesday; Titbits, Wednesday: Weekend (even though it came out midweek), Thursday: Weekly News and the Radio Times and TWW Weekly (this was before the all-encompassing TV Times). Mondays and Fridays were spare days – but my dad used to get the Readers Digest for any spare moments...
I always loved the ‘proper’ articles but my granddad one day did something I shall ever love him for; he showed me the comic strips. Oh, the Daily Mirror had lots of ‘spot’ humorous comics, but it also had the bank of strip comics running under the letters column. It had Garth! It had The Perishers (and Wellington’s birthday- always a great event in the strip - was the week before mine! But above all it had ... Andy Capp! My granddad loved Andy Capp and it was the first strip I can remember looking at and actually getting the joke.
I had always been an artistic child – I was always to be found with a pencil in my hand - and it was then that I discovered that comic strips had my two favourite things together – drawing and words. And then my grandfather told me that there were things called ‘comics’..... ‘What’s a ‘comic’ granddad?’
He took me straight around the corner to the paper shop and pointed the row of brightly coloured periodicals to me.... my heart stood still.....I had found my one true love – I was home!
Granddad decided for me that one with funny animals on the front seemed most appropriate so I hurried home with my first issue of ‘Harold Hare Weekly...’
Within weeks I was getting the ‘Dandy’ on a Monday (nicely filling in that spare day) and the Beano on a Wednesday – thus freeing up ‘Weekend’ for the grown-ups.... and from there on there was no stopping me.
By then I had a little brother so of course he had to have his comics as well... Between me and him and my vast army of cousins we had nearly every comic going. We used to read Buster, Topper, Beezer, et al. We had a fair amount of the girl comics as well but we would never ever allow ourselves to be seen reading them in public. No, they were the ones we would read in the outside toilet or after lights out in bed with our prized Dan Dare torches. Funnily enough, at this young age I never used to like the Eagle or any of the ‘older’ comics, the ones with the words UNDER the pictures. They always seemed, sort of, well, ‘posh’ for me, too grown-up.
Then I went to school. And my problems started. Finally the headmaster himself got involved, I was given more advanced things to read and things settled down.
Now you might have noticed that all the comics I have mentioned earlier were British. Good old salt of the earth, chortle and chuckle, biff the bad-guy on the chin and get a spanking from a slipper if you were misbehaved British comics.
And then there was this wet lunchtime and we all had to stay in a classroom. To combat the usual mayhem there were games and toys and that ... and a pile of comics on a teacher’s desk to read. I can remember going through the usual suspects, and then there was a funny-looking coverless comic that was all in colour – this was a time when the only all-colour comics were the ones for little children and had only about 12 or 16 pages, you know, the Toytown and Enid Blyton stuff that I was much too mature for now..
So I picked this odd comic up and sat down to read it.
There are moments when your life changes. I mention one above. This was another. This is when I really really took a bend in life’s highway. This comic was a 1959 Detective Comic, and the first story featured a weird-looking bloke with pointy ears called The Batman who swung around on a rope and used his brain a lot to outwit Yankee villains. Didn’t think much of him.
But the backup feature starred a guy all in green who did amazing things with a bow and arrow. He had an arrow with a boxing glove on the end. He had an arrow that shot gas. He had an arrow that dropped a net on the bad guy – in this case a fella who wore a time-piece on his face and called himself, oddly enough, the Clock. For some reason, maybe it was because I was such a huge fan of the then-current Robin Hood TV show, I took the Green Arrow to heart.
I was fascinated by this new type of comic, with its long stories, even up to 10 pages in length (!) and its unusual setting and milieu. I had probably not seen much SF by that age; this was the early 1960s remember, Gerry Anderson’s Supercar had only just finished and I had probably caught a whiff of William Hartnells’ Dr Who.
So I did something I should never have done. I took the comic home. The shame of it! I can only plead youthful ignorance and I did take it back. Eventually.
This was a Tuesday I think, and I remember sitting reading it over and over in the little sitting room of my grandparent’s terraced house...
By the next morning I had warmed to the Batman character, and was fascinated by an ad in the comic for something called an ‘annual’. It seemed to have lots of Batman stories in it, and I wanted it! So when my mother, who was going to Newport that morning asked if I wanted anything, I showed her the ad and asked, no begged her to get it for me. Naturally I didn’t hold out much hope. Even at that young age I was used to disappointment.
The hours dragged by, my mother finally came home... and she had it!!
All these years later I can still recall the feel of that moment. It’s hard to describe that sensation to non-comic fans, but an ex-girlfriend of the female persuasion once said it must be like ‘finding that perfect pair of shoes in a sale in a shop you never normally go into ...’
I wish I still had that comic, but this was in the days before I became known as a ‘collector’. These were the days before I had a cardboard box that I carefully put away all my comics into every night. This box and the all the others were eventually to find a home in the big cupboard at the top of the stairs in the modern house over in Trowbridge we later moved into. This was ever to be known as ‘the comic cupboard’. Now they sit in my library, or as my significant other calls it, the middle bedroom of my current house. Now they’re not your average run-of-the-mill cardboard cartons but proper long-boxes set out on shelves. Oooo the luxury! I even have an armchair and a side-table for drinks....
I count myself very lucky in that I was at the right age to be there when Marvel comics came into their own; I can remember picking up Spiderman 3 from Frys’ newsagents in Cardiff’s Caroline Street, and Fantastic Four 2 around the corner in the train station. Not to mention coming out of the Saturday morning pictures at the County Cinema and buying X-Men flippin’ 1 in the shop across the road...
In so many ways the 60s were a golden age for comics. Apart from the fact that the US comics were finally easy to obtain over here – before late ’58 us comics were shipped over as ballast so were only to be found in mostly seaside towns or ports like Cardiff - the impact of TV on the market created comics based on TV shows. For instance Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation empire begat TV 21, Lady Penelope, etc.
There were also all the educational comics like Look and Learn and their ilk. Beautifully produced things that were the direct descendants of the Eagle’s cutaway pages and completely under-valued by their intended market... I never knew anyone who ever actually bought one; I suspect that they were only ever purchased by parents for their kids to ignore.
Of course there were all the DC Thomson titles like the perennial Beano and Dandy, and oddities like Sparky (they’d never get away with that thick-lipped, grass-skirted African boy character today, even if Joan Armatrading Gs a well-known fan of the comic) and the rest, but they were beginning to be overtaken and eventually superseded by the various Odhams and IPC titles that were just that little bit more modern...
And don’t let me get started on my theory of how making all those big-screen adaptations of comic characters has actually hastened the movement of the comic book industry into a small, dark specialist corner away from the mainstream where it belongs....
But anyway there we are. How a geek was born.
That daily steeplechase for the evening paper and a wet and rainy school day lunchtime turned out this now middle-aged geek who ended up making a living by the pen. Starting out as a journalist where I’ve written for everything from the Radio Times to the Telegraph, I moved on to children’s TV where I still reside, churning out shows like Fireman Sam, Chloe’s Closet and the current Igham Ogham. Or as I put it, living on Channel 5 and CBBC between the hours of 5 to 10am Monday to Friday, 6 – 11 Saturday and Sunday.
Thank you Andy Capp and Harold Hare. Thank you Green Arrow and especially Batman. It’s been a great ride. I’ve enjoyed it.And I still spend much too much time in Forbidden Planet. According to my girlfriend anyway.