There are certain defining moments in our lives, when we make a decision that greatly changes or influences the way things will turn out from that point onwards. For me, as a comics fan, one of those defining moments was the day I fell in love with superhero comics.
I remember it like it was yesterday, a cold, wet lunchtime at the start of November 1972. I was eleven years old, and had just started, only two months before, as a first year pupil at our local grammar school, the most prestigious school in the north-west of Ireland. We had no canteens in that old school, so we had to bring in a lunchpack. The long lunch break (well over an hour), after scoffing a few sandwiches, a bag of crisps, and a small bottle of lemonade, was a real drudge. We always had about an hour or more to kill before the start of class, so I would head out of the school grounds to do a bit of exploring.
The school was about a mile and a half from the city centre, which was an unfamiliar place to a young boy like myself. I lived several miles outside the city, and I very rarely went into town, and never without my father. However, that was all to change pretty soon. As I became more familiar with the surroundings of my school, I began to venture further and further away from it. At first it was just a half-mile up the road to the chippy, where I often supplemented my meagre lunch with a bag of chips (French Fries, for our transatlantic friends). But gradually I started exploring further and further away.
Then, as time went on, I’d venture up towards the top of Bishop Street, the very long road that wound its way past our school from the outskirts of the town, and extended all the way into the city centre. Eventually, a few weeks after I’d started at the new school, I nervously wandered into the centre of our town, determined to explore all the shops (what was left of them, that is). The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were, by that time, in full swing, and the year 1972 is generally regarded as being the worst year of the Troubles. The city centre was not a safe place to be in those days, with bullets flying and bombs going off almost every day. It looked just like London, during the Blitz. Ruined buildings and gutted shops everywhere. It was a wasteland.
And William Street was one of the worst hit areas of them all. Even the City Cinema, where I’d watched many films as an even younger kid, was by this time a gutted ruin. There were barely three or four shops left intact in the entire street out of dozens. One of those lucky enough to remain untouched was McCool’s newsagents. I liked newsagents. They tended to stock lots of nice books and comics. This particular wet day, I went into McCool’s, mostly to escape the rain, which had soaked right through my overcoat and clothes to the bare skin, but also out of sheer curiousity, to see what comics were on the shelves.
I was an avid comics reader even then, although only of British weekly comics, particularly the more sci-fi oriented titles such as the Lion, the Valiant, the Eagle, and Countdown. I’d had very brief, fleeting encounters with US superheroes before, in the short-lived black and white Power Comics of the late-1960s, which published a mix of original British strips and reprints of US Marvel and DC superhero strips. Smash, Pow, Wham, Fantastic, and Terrific, were the direct inspiration for what was to come later, in the early 1970s, from Marvel UK. But I was too young when those were in the shops (only seven or eight years old), and so I paid very little attention to them.
I’d also seen a few of the much rarer import US colour superhero comics (Marvel and DC), which appeared sporadically during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in local newsagents, corner shops, petrol stations, and in the new breed of supermarkets springing up all over the place. I liked the look of these, but they were quite expensive. I had only very limited pocket money, there were so, so many comics out there, and I could only afford to buy two or three anyway. I usually just stuck with my regular diet of the same two or three British weeklies that I’d been buying regularly since I was four or five years old.
So up until the age of eleven, superheroes didn’t make any real impact whatsoever on my consciousness or buying habits. All that was to change that miserable, wet November day in McCool’s shop. I was scanning the shelves, looking for anything interesting, when I spotted a bright, colourful cover in among all the relatively drab British comics. The colours and quality of the comic stood out like a beacon. The incredible scene of four superheroes (who I later learned were the Fantastic Four) battling it out, seemingly in vain, against a huge green monster, with orange brow ridges and an orange mohican and lumps on its head, pulled me to this comic like a magnet.
It was The Mighty World of Marvel #6, the very first of the classic Marvel UK weekly titles, and the start for me of a life-long love affair with superhero comics. A few minutes browsing through it, and I was hooked. I whipped out my 5p and paid for it (5p? – you’d pay a hundred times that – £5, if not more, for a UK comic these days). The 5p was part of my dinner money, but some days I didn’t bother going to the chip shop, and spent the money on comics instead. After this particular day, that was to become a much more frequent habit. I wrapped the comic in a plastic bag and put it into my schoolbag, making sure it was well covered so that it wouldn’t get damaged by any rain seeping in. Then I made my way back to school, getting there just as the bell rang for the end of lunch break.
I didn’t get a chance to read the comic until after school. When I got home, I rushed up the stairs to my bedroom, took it out of my bag, and, for the very first time, encountered the magical adventures of the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and the Amazing Spider-Man. The only one of these that I vaguely recognized was Spider-Man, whom I had seen in an earlier British reprint comic (I think it was Smash), four or five years before.
These three sets of characters were to become, very quickly, a near-obsession with me (especially my favourite, the Hulk), and I was so caught up in it all that I nagged and nagged at my Dad until he gave me the money (all of 50p, and that’s including the cost of p&p) to send off for the first five back issues of MWOM, which I’d missed. When they arrived, a couple of weeks later (the wait seemed like forever), you’d have thought Christmas had come early :).
I’d become a superhero comic fanatic, and remained a regular reader of The Mighty World of Marvel for many years, at least up until the end of the 1970s. I also collected the newer spin-off Marvel UK comics such as Spider-Man Comics Weekly, and The Avengers, and I still have large collections of these as well. This obsession with collecting the Marvel UK b&w weeklies also started me on buying some of the US colour import Marvel and DC comics, whenever I could find them, that is (distribution of US imports was very unpredictable).
The irony was that while I was reading the classic Silver Age reprints of Marvel characters in the Marvel UK comics, at the very same time I was reading the then-current up-to-date Bronze Age adventures of the same characters in the US Marvel imports. I became a confirmed Marvel Junkie for the best part of a decade during the 1970s and early 1980s, and The Mighty World of Marvel and its successors were the direct cause of that.
Conversely I was never as big a fan of DC superheroes, with the exception of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which I loved, and the occasional issue of the Justice League of America and the Brave & the Bold. DC made the big mistake of not following Marvel’s example, and releasing a strong line of British reprint titles during the 1970s. Marvel had the entire UK superhero comics market to themselves.
After I started buying the Marvel UK comics, I dropped all of my earlier British weekly favourites, which now seemed pretty dull and old-fashioned compared to the colourful, exciting new superhero titles. Of course I now greatly regret doing that, and it certainly seems very short-sighted in hindsight (we all have 20-20 vision in hindsight). But I was young and stupid, and like I said, I only had so much pocket money to spend, and the Marvel UK comics took first priority back then, by quite some margin. Ironically, I’m now trying to track down back issues of some of the old non-Marvel UK comics that I was most fond of before I dropped them for the Marvel titles.
I still have all those early issues of The Mighty World of Marvel, an unbroken collection of the first 120 issues, locked away in storage. Every so often I pull them out and browse through them, drifting off on a sea of fond memories, a complete nostalgia rush. And every time I look at my old copy of The Mighty World of Marvel #6, in my memory I relive that cold and wet distant day in McCool’s shop, when I fell in love with superhero comics.