By 1981, I no longer had any link with comics whatsoever. In 1983 I met the woman who would become my wife. At the same time I met her family. Several years later, thanks to one of her brothers I rediscovered comicbooks. In retrospect, that would end up being a very emotionally divided day…
Visiting my Mother-in-law has never been quite as bad as I make it out to be. Yes, in all fairness she cannot cook to save her life and has far too many extreme opinions with little or no sound evidence backing her up, but she’s always been a reasonably good woman to me, apart from when I don't agree with her. However, back in the late 1980s her opinions and willingness to share them with all and sunder occasionally drove me upstairs to the rooms of the wife’s pre-pubescent twin brothers. The conversation was often far more stimulating and one day while surreptitiously stealing up the stairs I noticed one of the twins sitting in the lounge reading a Spider-Man comic. It didn’t take much in those days to catch my attention, so I walked in sat down beside him and noticed a stack of other Marvel comics next to him. We got chatting and he told me he’d swapped them for a load of football annuals. I picked up one of the comics – it had been published that year. It was an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man and on the cover Spidey appeared to be fighting a version of a character not dissimilar to his old villain the Sandman*. It was however a chap called Hydroman - a watery chap who was not going to go down in the annals of history as one of Spidey’s most original or memorable comic villains. I was not overly impressed.
(*not to be confused with The Sandman, DC characters we discuss at length much later.)
I did however notice something interesting about this comic. It was split in two. Spider-Man’s battle with his watery nemesis lasted only 10 pages. The other 12 pages were taken up with a story called The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man.
It sort of changed my life.
The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man was one of those little vignettes that grab you by the balls and refuse to let go until you say uncle. It almost all takes place in a young man’s bedroom – he is a Spider-Man fanatic, Spidey’s #1 fan! He would do anything to be able to meet his hero in the flesh and guess what? He does. Who should pop through his bedroom window? The ol’ Webslinger himself. They talk and Spider-Man tells some of his deepest secrets, he talks about his origins, the people he cares about and what it has been like to be a hero. They get on like the proverbial house on fire and then something happens, something you don’t expect. The boy asks Spidey about his secret identity, about who he really is and without pause Peter Parker emerges from beneath the mask and tells the boy all the story, even who he is. They finish up, shake hands and say goodbye and Spidey swings out of the bedroom window. Then you discover the boy has terminal cancer and has very little time to live. My eyes filled up the same way as Peter Parker’s did in the final panel. I realised, once more, that comics were a most valuable medium. There was still magic in them.
The next couple of years were reminiscent to another period of my life. I bought comics like I have at times bought drugs. It was something I couldn’t afford but couldn’t stop buying. The brother-in-law and I used to trundle into town every Saturday and visit the comic shop. It was a crappy little place called Blitz Comics, above a video shop and the guy who ran it had about as much idea of running a comic shop as a Republican president has of running the USA. But it had a lot of comics and you could always do a good deal with the guy. I sometimes used to spend as much as £50 a week in that shop and that was probably about £49.50 more than I could realistically afford (I seem to recall I was unemployed at the time).
During this time, I taught my naïve young brother-in-law how to lie; not that he ever needed to thankfully, because my wife never seemed to ask any questions. I think she was pleased that I was bonding with her brother, especially as, by this time, we’d decided that kids weren’t on the horizon for us. Fortunately, I always had some kind of cover story in case she grew suspicious or inquisitive, but more importantly I kept all the comics round at my mother-in-law’s house, in plain sight – always be deceitful in full view of everybody, the finger of suspicion never gets pointed at you! The brother-in-law got to be custodian of the comics under the one condition – none got leant out and none were damaged – I had slipped, effortlessly, back into collector mode.
By 1988, I was proving to be the world’s worst sales rep and despite being in my mid-20s I was seriously worrying if I had any future at all. You have to realise that this was the late 1980s, Thatcher was still in charge of the country; we weren’t exactly seeing a huge surge in job vacancies and I seemed to have the inability to flourish at any job. Between meeting my wife in January 1983 and working at Initial – the towel and mat hygiene company, I had found and lost a number of jobs – I worked for the local council twice, a publishing company for four days, a logistics company for four hours; Levi Strauss for four months, and much of the rest of the time was spent unemployed, either attempting to be the next Morecombe and Wise with the man who would be my best man at my wedding, or dancing between getting stoned and being drunk. Hey, this was the 1980s, it didn’t matter how old you were, thanks to Maggie Thatcher you pretty much felt like you were on the scrap heap.
Levi’s and then the sales rep position were jobs that helped me continue to buy comics at an alarming pace, but by this time around I was specific about what I bought. I began to hone the ability that would eventually see me working in comics - the ability to spot a winner.
I was at a crossroads in my life. I didn’t think I had an obvious future in the jobs market – at least that was how I felt and like many others I figured the best way to succeed was to either try something different or bullshit my way into a job I figured I could do. We were running out of money and my options were limited. I figured that as I had some experience at selling, then I could perhaps con my way into a job as a sales rep. As it was, I didn’t have to do any conning – I went for an interview, told them the truth and they gave me the chance to expand my sales ability from salesman on a shop floor to roving sales representative.
I spent the next six months trying damned hard to succeed in the real world, but all the time the comics world was dragging me under again – I lived for the weekend; I spent days on the road and made sure that I was working in areas that took me into comics country. If I needed to go near Milton Keynes, I would make sure that I went to the shop in the town centre. If I was anywhere near Peterborough, I’d make sure that I’d get into House on the Borderland. When I wasn’t doing this, I was taking long naps in my company car or failing miserably to do the thing I was employed to do – selling. Then I got fired. My boss at the time, a thoroughly offensive guy called Bill Port, was also one of the most honest and decent blokes I’d ever met. He was a straight talker and frankly I hadn’t had enough people talk straight at me in my life. So when he caught up with me in the car park of our offices one Monday morning I wasn’t expecting the first real good talking to I’d ever had. It was also the first time in months of toiling away trying to sell dust mats that he seemed to treat me with any real respect.
“It’s time you faced facts. You can’t sell. You don’t want to sell. You have no commitment to the job and there are people in those offices who have a tenth of your ability and make you look like a wanker. You’ve got to make some big decisions in your life and I’m giving you about ten seconds to make them.” He hadn’t finished. “Look, you’re a nice guy, all of the team think you mean well and they all like you, but unless you start selling, you are no good to me. What do you want to do? Really, I mean, what do you want to do with your life?”
“To run my own business.” I wasn’t sure it was a true answer, but it seemed like the most honest.
“Then go and run your own business and be successful and come back and see me and say, ‘Bill, I’m a success. Have a beer.’ And if you do that I’ll be happy for you.” We parted company and I felt better than I had in years. I was going to be my own boss. This was April 1988 I had just turned 26. All I needed to do was find something I could be my own boss at!
Comics Lesson 2:
It is widely perceived that comicbook fans are like train spotters. This perception basically exists in the United Kingdom and the United States. It isn’t the given perception anywhere else in the world. Therefore you find there are two kinds of comics fan – the ones who don’t give a shit and wear their hobby for all to see, and the other quieter strain that treats reading and collecting comics like homosexuals practiced in the 1950s.
In reality, there are all kinds of comics readers and fans and there are a number of notable celebrity endorsers of comics. The problem is that the ones who care the most passionately for the medium are often the ones who have a look that only a blind mother could love.
Over the years comics has had well known people throwing their weight behind the medium, these include the late Bob Monkhouse (a one-time comics artist turned comedian), Jonathon Ross, Paul Gambaccini, Kevin Smith (the film director), Nicholas Cage, Lenny Henry, and Quentin Tarrantino. However, for all the celebrity fans out there it hasn’t done the general image of comics much good at all. When the general public aren’t looking with disgust at the freaks often wheeled out by the press, they are, in fact, sneering at their own ignorance when they take the piss out of superhero comics. The superhero film is incredibly de rigueur, the source material is rarely credited; even recent film hits like Kick Ass, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, Red and The Losers might all come from the comics medium, but the feature film has been the thing that has given them credibility. Once upon a time, back in the late 1980s, when Batman was first released, it had a profound effect on comics and comics buyers. But that was largely down to Adam West and Burt Ward and the older generations with long memories. Sales of Batman rose, as did; ironically, some of the top quality comics of the era, but this was down to nostalgia rather than a serious shift in attitudes towards comics.
Next time: I develop the idea of running a comic shop and discover that the world is against you from the off.