My Comic Book Prehistory

In writing on this blog about my history with comic books, I identified a particular issue of The Uncanny X-Men as my ‘first’. This is true in the sense that it was the comic that kick-started my obsession with comic books and the world of collecting and fandom and even blogging about comic books. But it’s not true in the strictest sense of ‘my first comic book’.

I had been reading comic books in one form or another before the happy purchase of Uncanny X-Men #201 from a newsagent that fateful day, all of which formed a positive impression on me and ignited the flame of appreciation for the medium, so I thought I should mention them and give them their due for the sterling supporting work they did.

The earliest comic book I remember reading was The Beano. The Dandy was also purchased for us, but because the only memorable character was Desperate Dan (his huge chin covered with bristles and his penchant for pies with bull horns sticking out of them), it was quickly ignored. It was The Beano that had the characters that kids loved: Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, Billy Whizz, Lord Snooty, The Three Bears and perhaps my favourites, the Bash Street Kids (with the related strip about the Bash Street Pups, called Pup Parade). The anarchic sense of humour resonated strongly, as did the art aping that of the creator of many of these strips, Leo Baxendale.

(An aside: I loved the Numskulls strips, about the tiny technicians living inside the head of human man; I always associated the Numskulls with The Beano, but the internet informs me that this was not true of the time I was reading it: the Numskulls were in The Beezer, only joining The Beano in 1993.)

The Bash Street KidsThe Beano was also my first interaction with fandom: I was a member of the Dennis the Menace fan club, membership of which included a wallet and a badge of his dog, Gnasher, with googly eyes and fake fur around the edges.

Like many boys of the time, I became interested in the second world war, obsessed with the uniforms and guns and tanks and planes. This phase didn’t last for more than a few years, but it did lead to the next comic book I remember reading, Commando (actually called Commando War Stories In Pictures, but everyone calls it Commando, even uber-fan Garth Ennis, who didn’t grow out of his war-obsession phase). I remember the strips as realistic, which appears to be the point according to the editors at the time, who had served in the war and wanted the stories to reflect reality without the binary notion of ‘good vs evil’, and were intended to be easily read.

The other comic books to make an impact at the same time were the Asterix books. I still recall the omnibus edition of the first four books that our parents brought for us (Asterix was considered educational because it historical and had Latin in it), which ended up much the worse for wear after it was read and re-read and re-read by my brothers and me. Funny, exciting, with colourful characters (and, yes, educational – some of the Latin phrases still linger) and beautiful art, the adventures of the Gaulish village resisting the Romans were firm favourites, as they were for many other people as well.

(Aside: I’m not sure why we weren’t bought the equally educational bande dessinees, The Adventures of Tintin, which seems a natural supplement to Asterix, but it means that I missed out on the other cornerstone of the European comic-book presence in the UK.)

The rise to my collecting superhero comic books was slowly building due to the widespread access to superheroes and comic books. Superheroes had been on TV (Batman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk) and comic books were cheap (cue nostalgic trip down memory lane to when comic books were only 30 pence) – a family friend would bring along a handful of comic books when he would stop by for a chat and a cuppa with my parents. These were mostly DC books for some reason; I’m not sure if the local newsagent had a preference or if the supply chain filtered them to different shops, but it meant we got a very odd selection of titles – Jonah Hex, ‘Mazing Man, The Legion of Super-Heroes, even an Alan Moore Swamp Thing, along with a Superman or Batman book. Curiously, I was taken with The Legion of Super-Heroes, perhaps due to my love of teams but also due to the large cast, being dazzled by all the powers and names, but it wasn’t enough to step over the boundary into fully fledged fan.

(An aside: I would be recommended Keith Giffen’s ‘Five Years Later’ run on The Legion of Super-Heroes and become a huge fan about 10 years after this.)

(Another aside: this DC bias could be the reason why I missed out on Warrior and Alan Moore’s groundbreaking work on Marvelman and Captain Britain, but I’m not sure if I would have been able to appreciate it at the time.)

2000 AD charactersThe first steps into becoming a collector of comic books would be the same as for many a British fan of the medium: 2000 AD. A weekly comic book that covered science fiction and action in wonderfully OTT fashion, 2000 AD was laser-guided entertainment for a British teenage boy. There was also a little cut-out form in the prog that you could fill in and give to your local newsagent (mine was at the end of the street) and a copy would be reserved for you every week, even if the newsagent would defile the issue by writing an identifying number on the front cover (shudder).

I started collecting 2000 AD in 1986, the year in which it reached its 500th issue, and I would be there for Peter Milligan’s Bad Company and then Grant Morrison’s Zenith, but I shall leave discussion of my favourites for another blog post specifically about 2000 AD. What 2000 AD got me used to was receiving a regular dose of comic book action, plus the desire to see more from the past – around that time, 2000 AD was releasing collected versions in magazine form (although the same size as 2000 AD) of classic older strips, under the title Best of 2000 AD. This meant I got my hands on classic stories of Judge Dredd (the Judge Death story in particular), Strontium Dog and Rogue Trooper, enforcing my love of 2000 AD and getting me to buy more, preparing me for the same tactics when I switched alliances, unpatriotically, to foreign publications.

I would eventually stop buying 2000 AD for monetary reasons: my collecting of American superhero comic books (mostly Marvel and then mostly X-Men books) had overtaken my meagre funds, especially as someone had introduced me to Forbidden Planet (back when it was on Denmark Street), so something had to give and 2000 AD was it. Anyway, all the big names were going over to work for DC, so I would soon be buying their work again.

So there you have it: a condensed but accurate history of my comic book experiences prior to the ‘one that started it all’ blog post. Wait – does that make this a prequel? Damn, comic books have infected my brain …

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