I'm approaching fifty and it's supposed to be a time of reflection and reassessment. Bugger that. What I'm going to do instead is show you the first comic strip I can clearly remember. I must have seen strips before — my Dad used to get the Daily Mirror so I would have read Garth and The Perishers — but it was this particular strip that so caught my imagination that I instantly became a comic fan.
The comic is Valiant and the date is February 8th, 1969. When I saw this particular comic it was already a year or so old. It belonged to the older brother of a friend on mine, a guy called Roy who lived up the road from where I grew up just outside Chelmsford. I'm seven or eight and was around Roy's house when I spotted a small pile of colourful comics. Glancing through them I came to rest on a page featuring a story called ‘The Steel Claw’ and found the heroes of the stories in the following situation:
Louis Crandell and Blackie, Louis’ newspaper boy sidekick, were being held captive by an evil supercriminal known as The Question, and forced to play a deadly game of football against robots. Blackie was held by a giant mechanical hand next to the goalpost at one end of the indoor pitch; should the robots score he would be blown to smithereens, and as the episode opened it looked like Blackie was about to receive his free ticket to kingdom come.
The robot about to rocket the ball towards the back of the net was too far away for Crandell to tackle; he knelt, took aim, and fired a bullet from the finger of his artificial hand...
A couple of things strike me as I look back over what I’ve just written: where did those super criminals get all their money from for those extraordinary gadgets? I guess they must have had a stash of kidnapped scientists in some hideaway turning out the technology, but to maintain such an empire would have cost a fortune — no wonder they always had to dream up multi-zillion pound scams and hold the world to ransom. Imagine what would happen if the ball had hit: a few perfectly serviceable robots get blown up too, a chunk of the Question’s HQ would be destroyed. The maintenance on such a place would have been the dream of every cowboy builder in the world. Where were the pipe fitters? The glaziers and plasterers? Can you still get the parts for those old robots?
An attack of misty-eyedness almost stops me asking And why? Why would they always go to such elaborate lengths to create a robot football game just to blow up a newspaper boy?
Of course, I never asked those questions when I was a kid. If you go through life questioning everything you’d soon lose your sense of wonder and comics wouldn’t be fun any more. You didn’t question strips like ‘The Steel Claw’ — you KNEW that he had a floating metal hand which defied all the laws of aerodynamics, physics and gravity. You can scientifically prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the bumble bee cannot fly, which only proves that fact is stranger than fiction and some things you just have to believe in. And I was a fat little kid, y’know; intensely shy. All I ever wanted to be was invisible.
I beat Valiant into the world by a couple of months. Given the lead time it takes for a new comic to be put together, chances are we were conceived about the same time, although I doubt if the editors had any notion that, fifty years later, their creations would be the subject of a globally-available ramble from a forty-nine-year-old who still gets a thrill out of re-reading those old stories.