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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Saturday Morning Thrills

When does a hobby become an obsession? I loved the comics that I read when I was a kid and felt an overwhelming sense of loss when I discovered that my mother had casually given away a load of them to neighbours and relatives – including my copies of TV21 and Joe 90: Top Secret and a pile of books that included a Lone Pine novel sent to me and autographed by Malcolm Saville. I’m sure we all have horror stories like that.

But even I eventually gave away my beloved stack of Valiant comics, although they only went as far as my sister and at that time we were still living in the same house. It was only a few years later when I’d moved out and my sister was in the process of buying a flat that the question of what to do with them cropped up. My answer was that, the next time I was back at the old family home, I’d take one last look before getting rid of them. Just one last look…

What you have to remember is that this is the comic that had all my favourite strips: The Steel Claw, The Wild Wonders, Raven on the Wing, Kelly’s Eye, Mytek the Mighty and others that I had spent five of my most formative years reading. This was the comic that, one Saturday morning, I became so engrossed in between the counter and the door of our local newsagent, head buried in the latest episode of Return of the Claw, that I’d walked almost all the way home when I bumped into one of my neighbours. She gave me a quizzical look and asked why I hadn’t taken my dog with me as I always did.

The poor mutt was still tied to a fencepost outside the newsagents.

Now I’m older, I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever come across a book or a comic that will engage me so wholly and utterly ever again. Children haven’t changed: if they like something it’s almost impossible to peel them away from it, whether it’s a comic, a DS game or a TV show. I’m not sure I could ever immerse myself so completely in something now. Life has too many deadlines.

I’ve reached that (middle-)age where I find myself revisiting old childhood favourites, although sometimes with a little trepidation. I read dozens of thrillers when I was a kid as I grew up in a family where books were left lying around – mostly by my Dad – but on re-reading some have proved to be disappointing. The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean, for instance, I remember as being a high-speed race against time but this time round found it very slow-moving. I was a little wary of buying the Lone Pine series by Malcolm Saville (reprinted by Girls Gone By) because I loved the books so much when I was a youngster… but I took the plunge and they’re not bad. Not quite as exciting plot-wise as I remember but I still love the characters.

Then there are comics. Although I gave up on Valiant in early 1975 – spending my pocket money instead on Speed & Power – I never did leave comics behind completely. The Saturday morning ritual was too ingrained and there was always something on the newsagents’ shelves that grabbed my attention, whether it was Vulcan or Action or Battle Picture Weekly or 2000AD or Starblazer or Warrior.

And then my sister, bless her, moved out of the family home and I took just one last look at my old Valiants and felt that Saturday morning thrill all over again. Moreso, in a way, because I appreciated the quality of the artwork more on this second voyage of discovery. Before, I think my attitude to the artwork was that it simply illustrated the script; some artists were better than others but the story was what was important. Blame it on my odd upbringing: whilst many learned to read via comics, I only started reading comics a couple of years after I began devouring novels at a terrific rate.

Second time around, I began to realise that the best strips were a combination of great storytelling by both the scriptwriter and the artist. I realised why I loved the work of Jesus Blasco, Mike Western, Eric Bradbury and a handful of others whose work I could spot as they changed strips, even though I didn’t know their names – they were great storytellers in addition to their talents at depicting the characters and situations.

I began collecting older comics, often those which featured artists whose work I recognised. The adventures of characters like The Steel Claw were dotted around all over the place, not just in Valiant but in the annuals and summer specials but also the Fleetway Super Library and reprinted in Vulcan. Like any collector I was interested in reading every story and wants lists began to evolve into indexes, neatly typed up on an old Brother electric typewriter, scribbled over with notes and then typed and re-typed again.

When does a hobby become an obsession? I think I’ve just answered my own question.

I recently launched a new series of indexes with the publication of Hurricane & Champion, which were supposedly the two companion papers to Valiant but had almost no connection with that paper beyond using its popularity to sell the new titles. It meant re-reading a lot of stories that I hadn’t seen for years and I’m glad I did. There were a couple of gems lurking in those yellowing pages that I’d forgotten about. One was a series of swashbuckling adventures featuring a character called Hugo Dunwiddie, who set himself up as a sword-for-hire in Cromwell’s England, which, thanks to their length (4-5 pages a week), had the space to develop plots and characters in a way that most strips lacked as they lurched from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. Another was a surreal humour strip called ‘Cosmic Nick’, about an alien stranded on Earth due to having accidentally sent a washing line of clothing back to his home planet. The aliens on his home world (Clotto) become convinced that clothing is the dominant life form on Earth and that humans have been enslaved by shirts, trousers and jackets.

Over the years I’ve stumbled across dozens of great comic strips, many of them completely forgotten. If you like Dan Dare, try Rick Random; if you like Charley’s War, track down episodes of Trelawny of the Guards; if you’ve overdosed on Roy of the Rovers, pick up Hot-Shot Hamish for some light relief. 

Re-reading these old strips is like rolling back the years, with the added bonus of being able to appreciate the craft of the scriptwriters and artists who worked on them. Don Wollheim once said that the Golden Age of Science Fiction was the age of 14. I guess you could adapt that to comics by saying that the Golden Age of Comics as far as I was concerned was between the ages of 8 and 12. Well, I’m a lot older than that now, but I’m pleased to say that I still find reading comics a hugely pleasurable pastime and, at their best, they still give me those Saturday morning thrills.

(* Originally published at The Tainted Archive, 2 April 2011; illustrations © IPC Media.)

5 comments:

Peter Richardson said...

Lovely posting Steve. Made a truly enjoyable Saturday morning read.

Many thanks!

Norman Boyd said...

Just finished re-reading Jeff Hawke and I'd forgotten how wonderfully inventive Patterson and Jordan's stories were. Thanks for the memories Steve and let me tell you that I enjoyed discovering for the first some of the characters you mention, in your incredibly interesting Hurricane and Champion index. Not collecting things obsessively any more myself, (then thinks to himself in a bubbly balloon, what about Bellamy?)

Kid said...

Lovely reminiscence. Took me back to my own childhood. Did you keep those VALIANTs after that "last look" or give them away?

Mike W said...

Saturday morning comics was a real tradition in the 60's. I had Swift and then Valiant & my brother had Hurricane. We later 'progressed' to Look and Learn.
I was in the Bristol Smiths yesterday & the small section of 'children's comics' were all garish photofronts with free gifts attached with not one child in sight!
However, the sci-fi section had at least four middle-aged men & a couple of 20 something guys all looking at 2000AD!!!

Steve said...

Just to assure everyone: after dipping into them, I couldn't bring myself to get rid of them. It was a stack some four feet high which I squeezed into nine bags, then caught the bus home. I was in agony by the time I got back to my flat (I slipped a disc aged 22 and have suffered from back problems ever since).

I still have them.