As this is the 500th post on Bear Alley I thought I'd take another look back at two of my favourite subjects: comics and me. All writers write about themselves eventually because all writers need to have a certain amount of ego in their makeup. How else would they have the confidence to believe that tens, or hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people want to read what they, the writer, has written?
(A quick guide to writers: (a) the novice writer says, "I wrote that!"; (b) the professional writer, having sweated blood to hit a deadline says, "I wrote that!"; and (c) the hack, having cashed his cheque, says, "I wrote that?!?" I like to think I'm still in the 'b' class of writers.)
Long, long ago in a town not too far away (Chelmsford, to be precise), I lived in a flat above a shop. It wasn't luxurious by any stretch of the imagination and I had everything crammed into one room, but it was close to the town centre and about thirty yards from my favourite pub. And dirt cheap because three of us shared what should have been a two person flat. I moved in around the summer of 1986 when I was working for a frozen food firm, Booker-Belmont, which was now within reasonable cycling distance.
The cycling came to a sudden and abrupt end when I was knocked off the bike by a careless driver who wasn't even curious enough about my health to stop and ask if I was OK. I managed to get home before the terrifying thought that I might have just been killed hit me. The bike, however, wasn't... I was halfway into work the next day when I realised that spokes were falling out of the wheel. As it was an old bike of no great value we gave it the bike equivalent of a Viking funeral and put it through an industrial crusher. With all due ceremony, of course.
Anyway, back to the plot. I'd already written a few articles about comics by then, mostly for Denis Gifford's Association of Comics Enthusiasts (ACE) Newsletter, Comic Cuts, whose name I've occasionally appropriated for running news here at Bear Alley. One piece, about Gerald Swan (who churned out comics during and just after the Second World War), elicited the response from Denis that contributors could, if they wanted, have a free advert in Comic Cuts. So I put in a little box ad asking anyone who was interested in the old picture libraries to get in touch as I was thinking of compiling a list. The advert appeared, I think, in January 1984.
I got just one response -- namely a guy called John Allen-Clark who phoned up while I was on holiday in Holland (and that, believe me, is a whole other story which, oddly enough, also involves cycling... and hospitalisation). John and I are still the best of comics collecting pals and I still remember with immense happiness spending many Sundays rummaging through his collection of comics at his home in Maldon.
And that's where the serious business of indexing comics really started. John had a far greater collection than I did and I was able to find strips by artists I liked in many different comics. And I wanted to keep track of where I was finding them, so inevitably lists started to grow from these visits.
The only article I wrote while I was working at Booker-Belmont was a listing for Starblazer which was the subject of my last bit of reminiscing back in August (Starblazer Memories part 1, part 2, part 3). On April 1, 1987, I quit -- it was a bloody awful job working long hours in an unheated warehouse. The only advantage was that we used to work such long hours there wasn't any time to spend our earnings and, living in such a very cheap flat, I actually managed to put some money in the bank. So instead of looking for another job, I knuckled down to organising the information I'd been compiling.
Out of the blue in late 1987 I received a letter from a guy called Gary Armitage. Gary was a fellow member of the ACE and was also interested in lists. He enclosed one with his letter. I think it was a list of stories that had appeared in Lion and various annuals and holiday specials featuring The Spider. I wrote back and included a list of stories featuring The Steel Claw.
From those two little acorns grew the indexing project that has kept me busy on and off for the last twenty years. Gary sent me a listing of all the characters that had appeared in Lion as a follow-up. Not to be outdone, I gritted my teeth and spent the next few weeks indexing Valiant. Gary put together most of the information for an index to the Power comics published by Odhams. I think I then tried an index to TV Century 21 and its various spin-off titles (I'm not 100% sure, but listings of the latter titles appeared in Comic Cuts in 1988).
Gary was eventually forced to drop out, the real world and real work getting in the way of a fine hobby, and I was also by then working full-time at R.H.P. But Hoffmans (as it was still known as rather than the fuller Ransom, Hoffman & Pollard) was only around the corner and I was only doing the occasional bit of overtime, leaving lots of free time to contact other fans of British comics and badger them into providing information for other lists.
David Ashford threw in his lot with this mad scheme, as did John Barber, Chris Street, Colin Rudge and my collecting pal John Allen-Clark. The first fruits of all this activity were various lists for Comic Cuts in 1990. During this period I also had my one and only fling at writing comic strips for Starblazer (for details see the 'Starblazer Memories' articles linked above) and was made redundant. In September 1989 I started working for Southwark-based City Sports which put a crimp in my writing career but still left me with evenings free... and by now I had a computer. In October 1990 I was made redundant (again!).
In December I produced The Mike Western Story and sent a copy to Bryon Whitworth who was the editor and publisher of The Illustrated Comics Journal, a fanzine about British comics that I was just starting to contribute to. I mentioned the various indexes that the collective group of fans were working on and Bryon expressed an interest in publishing them. We received a nod of approval from Fleetway to use illustrations and set to work on the first book.
Around March of 1991 we had a proof copy for the first volume of Thriller Picture Library: An Illustrated Guide which, looking back on it now, is a bit of an embarrassment. Although we included every single cover, they were black and white and poorly shrunk down photocopies which didn't come out very well at all. I'm rather more pleased with the introduction (written by David Ashford) which I laid out myself. Ali Cottee, who was one of my flat-mates, did the cover illustration based on a James McConnell cover and we hand-lettered the cover and title page (which you can see at the top of the column). At the time, Ali was working for the company who did model work for Thomas and Friends TV series (famously narrated by Ringo Starr); she was a damn fine painter and sculptor, too. The photocopying doesn't do the original (long lost, I'm afraid) any justice. She also did the second cover (based on a McConnell Robin Hood) and I did the third, which was based on a blown-up cover image from one of the John Steel stories.
The first volume came out in April 1991, the second and third in October 1991 and January 1992 respectively. A month later, Bryon put out a single volume edition.
Later, Bryon bought himself a colour photocopier and put out new copies of the Thriller index with a colour dustjacket (hand-coloured by Bryon himself).
In February 1992, Bryon published the 2-volume Fleetway Companion which combined a number of complete and incomplete listings for titles that had come out in the 1960s, '70s and '80s; again, he put this out as a single volume almost immediately with additional material (War Libraries) which I'd intended to be the third volume. But Bryon, hand producing indexes to order, liked the bigger volumes for some reason. The Fleetway Companion ran to a massive 385 pages and I think it was the best-seller of all the indexes we did.
The Comet Collectors Guide and The Sun Collectors Guide followed in March and August 1992, along with Super Detective Library: An Index, also in August, all written in collaboration with David Ashford. The Power Pack (covering Wham!, Smash!, Pow, Fantastic and Terrific) was published in March 1993, Cowboy Comics Library (with David Ashford) in May 1993, Valiant: The Complete Index in December 1994, The Complete Lion Index in June 1995, The Buster Index (compiled with Ray Moore, despite the d/j giving me a solo credit, and with an introduction by Lew Stringer) in February 1996 and Knockout Comics: An Illustrated Guide (with David Ashford and John Allen-Clark) in December 1997.
The last of these, the Knockout, was in a new A4 size (all the others had been A5). We also did a 2nd edition of the Super Detective Library in the new format with all 188 covers reproduced, postage stamp-sized, in colour.
Bryon retired to France a couple of years later and gave up producing the indexes and the Illustrated Comics Journal. The latter was taken over by David Mirfin, although only one further issue appeared. The proposed Tiger Index was never completed.
I still get asked about the indexes, mostly from people who want to pick up copies, but I only ever received one or two copies of each title. I'm surprised to see they still turn up occasionally on ebay and elsewhere at over-inflated prices; as far as I'm concerned they're retired and have been put out to pasture. The early lists have been thoroughly overhauled over the years and for this reason we began producing a new series of indexes this summer. The new series -- properly printed and vastly superior in every respect -- will eventually include all the old volumes alongside new volumes. Regular readers of Bear Alley will know already that we've already published one volume -- The War Libraries -- and there's another in active production -- The Thriller Libraries (which replaces Thriller, Cowboy and Super Detective). David Ashford and I are already updating information for Knockout and David Roach is busy with the third volume of the pocket libraries series and researching girls' comics.
These occasional reminiscences bring back lots of happy memories. I even have fond memories of that lousy flat in Chelmsford, the venue for dozens of impromptu parties that went on into the early hours of summer mornings; the flat was located above a row of shops and, first thing in the morning, you could smell fresh rolls being cooked in the bakery next door and coffee being ground at the delicatessen on the corner. Sitting on the doorstep reading Modesty Blaise novels in the sunshine; plotting vast graffiti projects for the white walls opposite with Ali; watching Neighbours with Sooty (I'll save her for the thousandth column!); having Nick bang on the door to tell us we'd had a phone call down the pub... happy days!