Standing at the Edge
Portrait of the Comic Fan as a Young Man
Part One: From Dennis through Optimus to Nearly Stopping
By Christopher Brosnahan
I've been a fan of comic books since I can remember reading. Both of my parents were teachers, so I had a good education at an early age, and I was actually a fairly advanced reader. But my parents knew that desserts make the main course sweeter in memory, and I read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as my main course, and The Beano as a dessert.
The Beano, for those who are unaware, is a British comic for kids. It was generally anarchic, and involved lots of kids who behaved very badly. It also involved a lot of racial stereotyping in it's past, which is incredible to look back on—we're talking black people being quite literally portrayed as monkeys here—but it has also updated, and shed its past image. It has also toned down on the violence, which is a shame in its own way. The comic feels tamer these days. And it's not just me growing up either. There was a ban on the violence in the comic when I was about seven years old, and it hasn't been the same since. This was a comic whose lead character was a bully, and a nasty one at that. Glorious anarchy, that really isn't the same these days.
The lead character was Dennis the Menace. Not the blonde haired cherub of American comics, TV and film, but a spiky haired little demon, with a red and black striped jumper on. It is no coincidence that the same colour scheme was decided on for Freddy Krueger, believe you me. Dennis' mortal enemy was Walter the Softy, who was a wimp that Dennis bullied mercilessly. It's quite strange, looking back on it, that Dennis became a hero to millions, but there you go. The UK is a sick place, deal with it. There were many back up strips—generally, Dennis was given the inside front and back covers, and the rest of the strips were each given a page. These ranged from ostriches and chimps, through to the Bash Street Kids (a bunch of kids in a school—the memorable ones being Pug, the ugly one, a fat one, and a kid who had his jumper pulled up to his nose for a reason that was never explained), Minnie the Minx, and Roger the Dodger.
There were also its sister comics: The Dandy, The Beezer, and Whizzer & Chips, but I never got into these the same way I got into The Beano. I even joined the fanclub, which made it one of two fanclubs I ever joined. I got two badges with it. A Dennis the Menace red and black tin one, and a hairy Gnasher the dog badge. Unfortunately, through some animal sense, the family dog—an incontinent Old English Sheepdog with the brains of a dead fish—decided to chew my Gnasher badge up. It opened the envelope to do this, I swear. Somehow, it managed to rip open the envelope, chew the crap out of my badge, and not touch anything else. As you may guess, I cried for hours over that. I mean, I'd waited four to six weeks, saved three coupons, and sent sixteen pence. No way did I have the patience to do that again.
Incidentally, The Beano and The Dandy are apparently the world's longest running comics, having run weekly or so since 1938. So there you go.
There were many other comics that I got into at this age, thanks to my school, (which had loads of them in), my local newsagents (which had cheap back issues), and friends. I can't remember half of the titles, but they were always compendiums of different comics. There were a lot of WWII stories, I remember that, and I really remember one about a stunt-car racer who had a horribly burnt face. He hid it under his crash helmet, but would use it to scare people off if he had to—like one time the audience, trying to help him, nearly cost him a race. A bizarre comic. There was also, in these comics, a hell of a lot more racial stereotyping than I remember, but I was a kid, and saw no more harm in those than I did in Golliwogs. Yes, they were horribly racist, but at that age, I just didn't get that. They were just toys to me. Mind you, it's not like I was ever attached to them, so I have no issues with them being banned. Unlike the violence in The Beano. I minded that.
(As a lovely aside, one of the editors for The Beano was called Euan Kerr... I love to think that this is a pseudonym chosen in order to get an adult joke into a kids comic—Euan Kerr = You Wanker.)
At the age of seven or eight, I stopped reading The Beano. It had begun to get old hat anyway, and it really had changed. I wasn't as keen any more. I still read it, but not on a weekly basis. Instead, I had discovered science fiction/fantasy. I'd discovered the genre in the exact same way every other kid my age did: via Transformers and He-Man. Both of these were published by Panini, which, at the time, was in charge of Marvel Comics UK—if I remember correctly. They were fortnightly A4 comics which, luckily enough, came out on alternate weeks. I wasn't as big a fan of He-Man—as much as I enjoyed it, I just never really got into it as much. However, Transformers? I stayed into that until the end of its run in 1991. I loved this series.
You may, at this point, be thinking that there probably isn't much I could tell you about Transformers, and you may be right. However, you may also not be aware that the Marvel UK version of Transformers had a completely different line of comics to the American ones. This was due to the fact that the UK comics came out fortnightly, rather than monthly. In order to cope with the extra material, the UK magazines commissioned their own comics, which, to be frank, were better than the American comics in every way. Eventually, the US magazines switched over to the UK ones, and they're also the ones that are being sold in graphic novel format now, most of them for the first time in the states. I have a couple of specific memories of these, since these were the main comics I bought for years.
My first taste of Transformers came with the 1985 annual, and the Decepticons scared the hell out of me. It involved Prowl, or someone, wandering around the streets, and being attacked by Rumble. After having no other experience than The Beano, reading about a genuinely violent villain was a fairly new experience for me. And a bloody scary one. The next taste of Transformers I had was the first proper comic I ever bought. It was issue nine of Transformers, and was the "Man of Iron" storyline. This was different to any other stories, since it was quintessentially English, and very dark. It was about a kid who got involved in the hunt for the first Transformer to come to earth, who did so in the Middle Ages. This wasn't like anything else I'd ever read, and I adored it. My last memory of the series was a storylines involving comatose Autobots, and Shakespearian quotes—"In that dream of death... what dreams may come."
The movie came out not long afterwards, and I became even more of a fan. At this age, I was into Transformers to an insane degree, and it's a love that I still have. The movie consolidated it, and the British comics just got better and better. Simon Furman (who now writes for the Dreamwave line of Transformer comics) wrote it, and even re-reading it now, it's still good. Overall, a perfect comic to get hooked on.
Now, at this point, I moved to Ireland. I was eleven years old, I had an english accent. I went from the city to as rural as it gets. Comics were out of the question, because nowhere stocked them. For a few years, I didn't read any comics.
I was still into sci-fi/fantasy. It was during these years that I got into Doctor Who, which remains the best sci-fi series in history—and one which produced an obscure cult Marvel character, due to the Doctor Who magazine/comic. Major bonus points if you can tell me who—which kept my toes in the genre. I also became a huge fan of the cult series The Prisoner, which was a series about a former secret agent who gets trapped in an island by unknown forces, who want information from him. I also became obsessed with horror films at this age, so between these, and my Commodore 64, I thought that I had put comics away for good.
I became interested in the comics industry a little more. An uncle gave me a book about Batman in 1989, which was a monster of a book, celebrating fifty years of Batman. There was fascinating stuff in this, and it unknowingly gave me my first taste of Alan Moore, when it recapped The Killing Joke. I loved the Batman films as well, and I remembered the Spider-Man cartoons (Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends) from my childhood, but I just didn't have access to comics. Or, at this age, the interest either.
Now, in an alternate reality, I developed some other obsession. Probably computer games or programming or something like that. I had a love of games, and I loved books as well. I was growing up, and I hated school because I was bullied for being English in an Irish school. I lived miles from anywhere, and I didn't know many girls because I was at an all-boys school. Hell, I was a geek. No, not even a geek. I didn't fit in with the geeks. I was just weird. In this reality, I never found anything to talk to anyone else about, and in this reality, I didn't meet close friends because of comics. Comics, in their own way, changed my life, because they gave me something in common with a couple of other people that, otherwise, I wouldn't have had anything in common with.
So what happened?
I was in the canteen at school—I say canteen, I mean an area where you could sit and eat your packed lunch. If you wanted to buy food, you walked into town—and another social misfit of my age was sitting next to me, reading a comic. It was called Wolverine, and had something to do with some cartoon on television. We were talking a bit about it, and at some point in the conversation I came out with that old chestnut: "Aren't these for kids?"
He responded by showing me one page and one page only. He wouldn't let me read the rest of it. I never liked him. The page was one panel, and it was all I needed.