It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single geek in possession of a column, must be in search of a gimmick...or, at the very least, a good by-line.
I am a geek. I wear my ironic anorak with pride. That said, to be asked to opine for your delectation and delight on matters genre-related came as something of a surprise.
Put simply, I don’t have great Sci-Fi credentials.
Oh, as a bright-eyed and bushy tailed young quot, I could have quoted screeds of script from ‘Star Trek’, and confidently commented on continuity quirks in the mythology of ‘Dr Who’. And I did. Often. Much to the annoyance of my friends and family. I may not have known my Nine Times Table, but was contentedly aware of Gallifrey’s interspacial co-ordinates in relation to Galactic-Zero-Centre (well, you never know when that kind of information will prove invaluable). I gorged myself on pastry-engineer turned scribbler ‘Skylark’ Smith’s delightfully doughy daydreams. I cracked my teeth on Harry Harrison’s ‘Stainless Steel Rat’, and got sand in my molars chewing over Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’. I learned the act of fine fictive dining through the three-course delight that was, is, and shall be ever more ‘Lord of the Rings’. I was voracious. I lived and breathed ‘Star Wars’, on it’s first release, and my mother commented - as the alien Mothership arrived at the end of ‘Close Encounters’ - that they’d probably come to take me home (Thanks, Mum!). Hell, I even watched every episode of ‘Space Cops’, not because it was any good (that would just be crazy talk), but because it was Sci-Fi.
My great passion, though, was comics.
Well, not originally. As a very young child with an advanced reading age I utterly loathed the funny-animal/cheeky-brat titles that dominated the British market in the early ‘70s, and, worse still, the true-blue, gleefully xenophobic war comics which, for years, were the only option for boys who had outgrown the slapstick sado-masochism of The Bash Street Kids – still fighting forty-year-old battles, and creating a generation of blokes whose command of German language and culture remains limited to occasional outbursts of ‘Achtung!’, ‘Gott in Himmell!’ and ‘For you, Tommy, ze var is over!’
No. My true loves were not of these shores. I had a taste for the exotic, even as a seven year old. My youthful heart yearned for the four-colour delights of the US imports – Marvels and DCs, mostly – brought over as ballast, and sold off at the quayside to newsagents.
These were heroes with amazing powers. Brave men, sexy women, marvellous mythologies, gloriously silly gadgets and gizmos, satellite HQs – ‘flight rings’, fer chrissakes! - able to face down all manner of menaces, mystic, monstrous or mundane. And they didn’t kill. And in between all the death-rays and thwarted caraclysms I learned about racism, drug abuse and corporate corruption reading Denny O’Neil’s ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ – subjects hardly ever offered up to young audiences in the squeaky-clean British media of the day. There were ideas here…not just nasty Teutonic types being bally-well blown to billy-o by plucky King-and-Country types.
I learned a lot from Black Canary and Wonder Woman, too (no, not like that) – women in British comics were mums, girlfriends and teachers, burdensome beldames, battleaxes or victims - but these women were heroes every bit as powerful and courageous as their muscle-bound male compatriots. They just had their bumps in more pleasing places. When the Fantastic Four called themselves ‘Imaginauts’ you knew damned well that they were right: anything was possible – anything at all – within those pages.
Crammed into the revolving racks at the back of corner-shops, you were lucky to find two consecutive issues of the same title. I started making myself known to certain strategically-located proprietors, asking them to keep hold of particular issues of ‘The Flash’ or ‘Detective Comics’ if they chanced upon them. Mostly, though, like the work of any gumshoe seeking elusive prey on those mean streets, it was down to leg-work. That added to the exotic nature of the prize. If you really wanted to find out how the JLA escaped the ‘Crisis on Earth-S’ in #136 of their book (and I did, I really did) you had to run around every newsagent and grocer in town seaching for #137.
Marvel had their own black-and-white UK reprints, of course, and the stories printed there were probably better drawn and scripted than their imported DC cousins, but there was less of an effort required to get through the threshold of the ‘Mighty World of Marvel’, and, as you know, every true geek loves a quest.
Then came ‘2000AD’, the short-lived (but superior) ‘Starlord’, and less satisfying ‘Tornado’, and for a few years the best sci-fi and fantasy comics I was reading came from closer to home – ‘Skizz’, ‘The Visible Man’, ‘The Ballad of Halo Jones’, ‘Ro-Busters’…. The early ‘80s saw the so-called ‘Marvel Revolution’, where their half a dozen quality reprints were cruelly supplanted by twice as many insubstantial cut-and-paste knock-offs. It was a cynical, unsatisfying move to make more use of the company’s back-catalogue. I felt cheated. I felt used, goddammit!
My heart broken by my first love, I moved on…to university. I didn’t look back.
As I grew older – as my eyes dimmed and my tail, sadly, became the only part of me that was even remotely bushy – my interest in fantastical fictions failed. I ‘put away childish things’, and embraced new forms of geekdom – literary, musical, historical and philosophical. I enjoyed ‘The X-Files’ (mostly), and the various ‘Star Trek’ movies, but (aside from an acknowledgement of the universal truth that all the odd-numbered flicks were crap) found that I had lost my enthusiasm for the genre – or, rather, that I still liked a lot of what I used to like, but not to the obsessive, passionate degree that had typified my former fandom. I rarely, if ever, read modern sci-fi or fantasy – save for the occasional academic re-appraisal of Wells, Stoker or M.R. James. As for comics. Pah! Kids stuff.
Then an odd thing happened.
On a dull, grey Edinburgh afternoon in the mid-’90s, I took shelter from the charming climate of Calidonia’s capital in the city’s Forbidden Planet. I perused the comic-racks in puzzlement. One cover in particular caught my eye: Wally West was (apparently) ‘The Fastest Man Alive’? Bollocks. Where was Barry Allen? Why was Kid-Flash wearing his Uncle’s clobber? I must have been sufficiently slack-jawed to attract the attention of one of the staff, as I felt a consoling hand on my shoulder.
Eh? I felt – ridiculous as it may seem – guilty. I had spent so many glorious hours in the company of this character, as a kid. And I hadn’t known he was gone. It got worse: Hal Jordon was dead, too, as was Oliver (NO! Not Ollie!) Queen. Superman had died, too, apparently, but he got better. Feeling negligent, I picked up a bundle of comics – far too many, probably, but I was performing penance, so I deserved to pay the price of my negligence and betrayal.
So it started. I began to pick up ‘The Flash’, ‘Green Arrow’ and ‘Green Lantern’ – to see what exactly had happened to my childhood heroes. I started rummaging through back-issues for stories that would bring me up-to-speed with their histories and mythologies ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’, ‘Emerald Dawn’, etc.. I rediscovered my love of Batman (purely platonic , I assure you). I discovered – or re-discovered – my favourite Silver and Golden Age characters again. Those were the days, I told myself - then realised that, as an adult, I’d been reading the adventures of Kyle Rayner and Wally West for far longer than I’d enjoyed those of Hal Jordan and Barry Allen as a kid.
Also in the bundle, picked up that stormy afternoon, were Alan Moore’s ‘Saga of the Swamp Thing’ and Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ – chosen simply because their titles were familiar (though the name Alan Moore did ring a bell). ‘Swamp Thing’ begat ‘Hellblazer’; ‘Sandman’ begat ‘Death’, and ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’ and ‘Books of Magic’ and ‘Black Orchid’ and…well, you get the idea. Soon all this begatting left me some glorious understanding of the infinite varieties of textual and visual narrative which, uniquely, the comic medium offers. Well…that and a monthly bill in excess of £250.
I read everything I could - crime, superheroes, horror, fantasy, political and autobiographical comics – and bored the ever-livin’ crap out of my friends and family evangelising on their behalf. And all of these capes and cowls, swamp things, dream-weavers, gumshoes and femme fatales led me, in time, to God.
And he was good.
Bloody brilliant, in fact.
And he was the Way, the Truth and the Light. He truly sparked The Spirit in me, once more.
And his name was Eisner.
And, let’s face it, if you need it explained to you why Wond’rous Will is the Big Cheese of the comics pantheon then you have no damn right to call yourself a Geek…bugger off!
And my passion has not abated – to which the shed I recently constructed and damp-proofed to accommodate my 16,500 back-issues, and the shelves which strain under my 600+ graphic novels can bear testimony.
So. Comics it is.
I’m still not a huge fan of sci-fi or fantasy in films, TV or pros , but I do love my little Mylar-bagged marvels, and can argue – hand on heart – why Kitty Pryde is one of the most culturally significant characters in modern publishing, take delight in the Victorian pop-culture references in Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentleman’, and rave about the post-modern genius of David Mack.
And that, gentle friends, is how – one rainy Sunday, fifteen years ago - The Hangman got his Geek Groove back…just so you know where I’m coming from should I choose to entertain, elucidate or bore you shitless with my merry musings over the months to come..