My first memories of comics date from around 1970. I must have read nursery comics before then – or had them read to me – but, like many Brits, I find The Beano lurking at the start of my memory lane. My favourite strip was The Bash Street Kids, by the remarkable Leo Baxendale, but my favourite artist was Robert Nixon, who had taken over Roger the Dodger from Ken Reid.
I would later follow Nixon over to IPC (or Fleetway, or whatever the company was called that week), and strips like Kid Kong for the likes of Shiver and Shake and Whizzer and Chips.
Adventure comics at the time were dominated by television adaptations. The finest in my young days was Countdown, later renamed TV Action, and I was particularly taken by the artwork of Gerry Haylock on UFO and Doctor Who.
It wasn’t until a dying TV21 was swallowed by Valiant that I encountered the original characters now associated with 1970s British comics, like The Steel Claw, Kelly’s Eye, or my favourite, Janus Stark.
By the time 2000AD started up, I felt that I was too old for comics, so it was with guilty pleasure that I picked up the occasional issue. A few years later, and more secure in my tastes, I bought up a complete run to date from a younger boy.
But I hadn’t given up comics completely in the meantime. The hardbound volumes of Astérix were much more respectable than the British weeklies, and Albert Uderzo’s artwork appealed to me enormously (as did René Goscinny’s writing, although at the time I tended to attribute all virtue to the artist). I soon ran out of the English translations, and started struggling through my older brother’s copies of the French editions, whose British distributor used to enclose notes explaining all the French puns and cultural references.
And there were also newspaper strips. My father preferred the Daily Mirror, my mother the Daily Express or Daily Mail, so I was exposed to a range of strips from Andy Capp to Garth to Fred Bassett.
There were also the political cartoonists: Keith Waite, Cummings and Mac in those three papers, and, best of all, Trog (Wally Fawkes) in The Observer and Punch.
(The original of that portrait of British Prime Minister Ted Heath would have been in colour, but I have scanned it from the 1977 black and white collection, The World of Trog.)
What of American comic books and superheroes? To tell the truth, I wasn’t impressed. To be sure, I hadn’t seen them at their best, but in the weekly editions put out by Marvel UK. What had been intended as a single issue in America would have been chopped nonsensically into three or four parts to be read separately. In addition, the colour would be missing, and the artwork blown up to about half as big again as the intended size (and possibly “bodged” to fit a different shape of page), leaving it looking empty and crude.
It wasn’t until I missed a bus in 1981, and bought a US comic on a whim to pass the time, that I engaged with the real thing. The comic was Justice League of America 195, the first part of a JSA/JLA team-up by Gerry Conway and George Perez. I was instantly taken with the idea of Earth-2 and its 60-something Superman.
After a few months trying to cope with the seemingly random distribution of US comics to British newsagents, someone told me about specialist comic shops. So, during the 1980s, I was able to eat up Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns, Warrior, with its remarkable starting line-up of Marvelman, V for Vendetta and Laser Eraser & Pressbutton, Eddie Campbell’s Alec, Love & Rockets, Levitz and Giffen’s Legion of Super-Heroes, American Flagg, Escape, Watchmen … in short, I had joined the mainstream of English-language comics culture; where I am still paddling a quarter of a century later.