From an early age (probably four or five) I would receive a weekly comic from the newsagent. It would arrive rolled up in the newspaper along with what ever other magazines the household was subscribing to via this avenue (New Society). If I recall correctly my first was Playland, which was half way between a comic and a picture book (the action took place in pictures with captions beneath them). Strangely I recall Playland providing my first encounter with the word ‘welcome’, but not much else. (Later: I also recall being annoyed and frustrated at being unable to read it myself, and on at least one occasion being awake before my parents and probably stomping around trying to get someone to wake up and read it to me.)
Though the first real comic book across my desk was a random issue of Spooky, the tuff little ghost (purchased at a milk bar, now a small wine shop, in Cotham Road Kew near Genazzano and adjoining a tennis court where my father sometimes played with his friend Herb) my ongoing interest was in British comics, which did not feature long stories about single characters but weekly page-long stories (and sometimes continuing adventure stories). Wikipedia tells me that 1970s Knockout, the first comic I genuinely embraced, was launched in June 1971. English periodicals took a couple of months to reach us in Australia, so presumably it was August when I, coming up to 6 ½, encountered the debut issue in the newsagent’s next to the dentist with the circular window, also in Cotham Road Kew. The newsagent recommended it to me as a comic that only cost 10c (though looking at one of my two remaining issues, I see that while ‘10c’ is pencilled in the top right hand corner of the cover, the RRP printed on the bottom right is 8 cents). It recommended itself as being ‘all-colour’, a description I considered ludicrous and meaningless even then, as most of the pages were black, white and one other colour, included haphazardly and printed recklessly (see the frame from ‘Pete’s Pockets’ as an example). I took this on, just as I also took on the perplexing information that my father, as a boy, had also regularly purchased a comic called Knockout, entirely different in content but published by the same company (there had been an eight-year gap, Wikipedia now tells me, between the demise of that publication and the launch of the new one). A third strangeness about this interest – which only occurred to me as strange a few minutes ago – was that I did not know anyone who had a similar interest: this was a solitary pursuit.
Most children are like that stereotype of hobos jumping onto a moving train when it comes to absorbing culture. It’s a case of getting on, finding your foothold and balance and you’re away. A joke included in my issue of Knockout for 22 January 1972 shows two bearded men I now understand to be vikings, one with a horned helmet and another with two bicycle horns, with rubber bulbs, on either side. The conventionally helmeted viking says to the other: ‘WHEN I TOLD YOU TO GET HORNS FOR YOUR HELMET, I MEANT...’ No doubt I was at an age where different meanings for words (notwithstanding the common derivation of the idea of a horn) were becoming a commonplace notion but I am fairly sure this was my introduction to viking helmets – and vikings – and bicycle horns.
That said, there are many aspects of Knockout which today I realise I would have taken in my stride 37 years ago but which in fact were presented as faits accompli, and would have had as little essential meaning to a 43 year old reader then as they do now. A strip called The Haunted Wood presents a forest of evil, twisted and creepy trees in its title panel (this must have been a bit much for some readers; I note by the revamped 10 March 1973 issue I have, this panel is omitted).
A unnamed small boy, who serves only as a greek chorus for the trespassers in the wood who typically appear only to take away small branches, etc for humdrum domestic use, hangs around the edge of the wood warning of its dangers. The boy and his relationship to the wood is unexplained, as is the desire of the wood to stay whole. Every piece of lumber stolen from the Haunted Wood becomes animated and turns on those who would utilise it for (in the case of my two copies) a golf club or a standard lamp. The wooden objects then somehow propel themselves back to the clump of trees from whence they came (‘HA, HA!’ cries the boy as the standard lamp grows legs and runs home, ‘THE HAUNTED WOOD SURE MADE LIGHT WORK OF PROVING ITS POWER!’. The lame pun here would have made almost no impact on me at the time, if I had even noticed it, particularly as it is presented in such a convoluted sentence.)
Some strips in Knockout were more about fantasies of volition and magic powers for small children, or that at least was my interpretation. Pete’s Pockets was a fairly simple update of a common theme in both figurative speech and fantasy (not to mention timelordery) of the incomprehensively capacious repository. What was not explained was the unbelievable ugliness of Pete, whose face was like that of an ancient pugilist. Now, I suppose I can put that down to a number of things; an artist keeping his work interesting; a requirement to make the drawings funny, in ways the scripts for some reason rarely could be; awareness that, at that age and in that time, boys in particular were not required or perhaps were just not able to make those kinds of assessments about their physical appearance.
British comic characters tended to be male but there were always one or two girl characters. I gather Fuss Pot was one of the most popular of her time; she outlived Knockout itself by eleven years through three comics. It has to be said that Fuss Pot (who sleeps in a bed with the framed words ‘Fuss Sweet Fuss’ above her head) is a distinctly unpleasant character whose parents are, it is suggested but never stated, to blame for her appalling nature. Occasionally they get their revenge, such as here where, like some kind of greek tragedy crossed with Struwwelpeter, Fuss Pot has shaved her father’s beard off in the night only to have it pasted onto her own face.
Looking at my two remaining copies of Knockout now, and knowing what I know about publishing, I gather the comic was not a huge success. An ambitious cover strip called The Full House, in which the six panels of the strip represented six rooms in a house in which a family were reacting and responding to a central theme described by two birds on the roof (eg ‘THEY’RE WORKING OUT WAYS TO CUT THAT BOY’S LONG HAIR’) was relegated to conventional format inside, and another feature, Joker, about a boy who liked to prank, was given front cover status. Within two years Knockout was finished, or at least, merged with another comic, Whizzer and Chips (confusingly, Whizzer and Chips was already ‘two comics in one’). I do still recall the rather chilling message on the cover of the last Knockout where it was proclaimed that ‘the editor has news for you inside’. I am not sure that there was a comic strip there about the editor kicking back and proclaiming to me that everything I thought was solid would melt into air, but that is briefly what it felt like. I coped. It might even have been a slight relief, since I was seeing another comic on the side (see below).
As much as I was extremely loyal to it, one of the strangest things about Knockout – and I remember thinking about this then, and will still reflect on it now – is how terribly unfunny it was. The references to merriment throughout (from a masthead proclaiming, things like ‘FOR A RIB-TICKLING LAUGH READ BONEY INSIDE!’), the rhyming descriptors atop each page (‘PETE’S MASTERS STARE IN DISBELIEF... ALL BECAUSE OF A HANDKERCHIEF!’) bring it home: I am quite sure I never once laughed at anything in Knockout, and while this may have been in part because I didn’t get all – most, probably – of its references, I also suspect it just wasn’t funny. Looking at it now, I am surprised to find that a lot of the art is actually quite amusing and well-executed, despite – rather than because of – the storylines. Given this, I wonder what it was that drew me to publications like Knockout. It could have been that the Englishness was about as exotic as I could be comfortable with, a certain frisson of strangeness. It might not have been the Englishness so much as this strange world where every man was bald or balding, where class was a premium (eg the Knockout strip The Toffs and the Toughs); where we found clearly marked-out authority figures such as teachers in mortar-board hats and minor officials in uniforms.
At the same time as receiving Knockout I was allowed – spoilt child that I was – to receive a second comic. I don’t know why I chose TV Comic but it might have had something to do with some of the American cartoon characters in it (Road Runner, Tom and Jerry) portrayed, in that very odd way that the English had been doing for a half a century, with English interests and concerns. TV Comic had been around for twenty years when I picked it up, and had apparently always traded on specially-written stories featuring television characters padded out with non-television themed strips. In truth I quickly came to prefer TV Comic to Knockout largely because of the absurdity of stalwarts such as Mighty Moth and Texas Ted. One of the best things about Mighty Moth was that he referred to his foil, a Terry-Thomas-styled middle-aged man – as ‘Dad’.
As far as I recall there were no children in Dad’s house, only his wife ‘Mum’. Was man father to the moth? Since this was not possible, it was absurd, and therefore always funny. Texas Ted ‘ ‘big hat, big head’ – was not quite as funny (though it was better-drawn, not that that would have come into my thinking at the time indeed it might have made it harder to follow) and did appeal to a burgeoning, though as-yet-undeveloped distrust of certain aspects of American culture; which is not to say I identified at all with Ted’s cousin, whose name I recall as Cedric, or in fact with Britishness at all per se.
The Basil Brush strip featured the television fox in a way he was never seen on television – as some kind of provincial lord with a butler called Chummers (Terry-Thomas, who probably never read TV Comic, would have felt strangely important if he ever did: Dad was based on his appareance, and Basil Brush was reputedly based on his voice and film persona). I note that in the one issue of TV Comic I still retain (7 October 1972) Basil takes us through a range of racial and class cliches as he dreams of finding a new butler to replace Chummers merely on the basis that he is sick of seeing the same faces in his mansion. What the moral, or subtext, of this story could possibly be I can’t imagine. Certainly the race of the cannibal butler is obscure. It is probably too obvious to bother stating that there are no recurring and/or sympathetic non-white characters in any of these comics.
In 1974 my family did actually relocate to Britain for a year, when my father was on long service leave. Here I met other boys who did, genuinely, read comics (though like me they did not laugh at them). It is possible that my experience of British comics had inducted me, without my even realising, into the culture, though of course one needed to realise that the comics’ Britain was a sanitised, archaic reflection, nothing like the real Britain of the time – strikes, streakers, dog shit everywhere (a la the Earl’s Court scene in Barry McKenzie), bad teeth and skin and good television. By that time I was into Monty Python and Dr Who, though I still read comics (I had graduated to a rather superior little publication of a more intellectual slant, known as Sparky). Come to think of it, I have never stopped reading comics. Yet while I have often enjoyed the nihilistic satire of, for instance, Viz and similar parodies of the children’s comic – a form which, I gather, is now almost entirely gone from the marketplace – I do continue to feel affection for the silliness of the comics I read as a child. ‘Silliness’ is the nicest word you could use, because they weren’t funny. They were appealing in part because they featured regular characters with unusual characteristics or participating in strange relationships but most importantly just because they were strange – I suppose, in retrospect, archaic and clinging on to old ideas and themes. It’s not impossible, I suppose, that a portion of the readership was subliterate adults.
All I know is that I learnt a lot from comics, a lot of which I might have done better to never have learnt at all – Wikipedia now tells me that vikings did not actually wear horns on their helmets – but for all that, which provided me with a kind of cheerfully faulty translation device for understanding the wider English-speaking world, through a good-natured rehashing of dominant tropes. I took it all in, the bald dads and food obsessions and angry policemen, and made it work for me as a way of seeing.
Who should I sue? Who should I thank?