Chapter One: Part 4
Well, it's looking incredibly likely that we may even make our funding target before the week is out (currently at 73%)! So as a special treat, here's an extra long excerpt from Chapter One. Enjoy, and thanks for all the support!
Whenever my mum would do the weekly shop at the supermarket in Egham, I would visit the newsagent’s next door. This was an incredible Aladdin’s cave of wonders. This enormous member of the Martin’s chain stocked just about every conceivable periodical in existence, including many titles that were unavailable anywhere else. They had all the standard American DC (Not to be confused with the Dundee-based DC Thomson) and Marvel superhero comics, of course, like The X-Men or Justice League of America, but it was here that I discovered my maturing tastes in comics—I’d come some way since being confused by pssst! I came across the lavish, full-colour, thick, magazine-sized Epic Illustrated, published by Marvel and edited by the late Archie “Nicest guy in comics” Goodwin. The high page count and production values were reflected in the price and it reminded me of my dad’s copies of the science-based Omni magazine. Reading Rick Vietch’s Abraxas and The Earthman for the first time, in those pages, blew my tiny teenaged mind. This “Moby Dick in Space” was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Where else could you read about the crew of a spaceship who consisted of a giant praying mantis, a half-woman/half-leopard and an Earthman who wore his own flayed skin like a wrap? The ship itself looked like a giant tree, as it glided through the galaxy in search of a giant, red space-whale—the Abraxas of the title. Psychedelic comics at their best, it was simultaneously engrossing and unsettling, and I remained frustrated that I’d have to wait a whole month for the next issue (I’d been spoilt by 2000 AD’s weekly schedule).
Within that newsagent’s I also discovered Marvel UK’s Captain Britain, written by Jamie Delano and drawn by Alan Davis. I was a huge Alan Davis fan at the time, right from his early work on the aforementioned Harry Twenty on the High Rock in 2000 AD. The earlier episodes of Captain Britain by Alan’s Moore and Davis that appeared in Mighty World of Marvel and Daredevils, slipped under my usually acute comics radar. In fact, the vast majority of Marvel UK’s output—with the exception of the initial launch of Captain Britain Weekly by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe in 1976—completely slid passed me, like some Teflon-coated stealth publisher.
But it was in this newsagents, this wonderful purveyor of dreams, that I first discovered possibly the most important British comic launched since 2000 AD, Warrior. Similarly, I’d managed to miss this black and white magazine-sized anthology for four whole months, but as soon as I saw issue #5 I was hooked.
I ordered the first four issues in the post from a man called Dez Skinn, who was the editor/publisher. Three whole months passed, and I’d all but given up hope of ever filling the gaps in my collection when they arrived. This meant I could now catch up on the missing chapters of my favourite strips, Marvelman by Alan Moore and Garry Leach, and V for Vendetta, by Moore and drawn by David Lloyd.
Warrior was a portal to a world of comics I was completely unaware of. The cover to issue #1 proclaimed “He’s Back! Axel Pressbutton-The Psychotic Cyborg!” I didn’t even know who he was, let alone that he’d been away. Similarly, the Marvelman strip had the hero announcing, “I’m back!” But the sheer presumption and audacity that I should know who these characters were carried me on. I eventually discovered that Axel Pressbutton had appeared in a strip, The Stars My Degradation written by Steve Moore and drawn by Alan Moore (under the guises of Pedro Henry and Curt Vile) for Sounds music magazine. Whereas Marvelman was a British superhero created by Mick Anglo 15 years before I was born. Both were completely esoteric to me, but it actually didn’t matter what their origins were, as they’d been completely revamped for Warrior.
I loved the fact that on the back covers of Warrior they had a catalogue of all the cool badges you could buy. 20 years later I would work with Dez on his Comics International magazine, and other projects, and the whole experience was enlightening and highly educational. Apparently, the designs on the back cover were the actual ones used to make the badges. All Dez was doing was running off a couple of extra hundred covers from the printers and using those to make the badges in a typical money saving Skinn scam—you can take the man out of Yorkshire, but…
Years later my parents became friends with Lis Massey, who, it turned out, used to work on Warrior as Editorial and PR Assistant, and posed for the cover of #13 by Garry Leach. My dad shares the same birthday as Lis. I only mention that to illustrate how small the world is and how it was fated that my life was to be entwined with comics.
Comics were undoubtedly in my blood from day one. I had “four colour funnies” running through my veins before I’d even heard the expression. Cut me and I bled cyan, magenta, yellow and black. I inhaled the musty smell of old comics, as if they were perfume. I sweated Indian ink and I came in process white. It was my destiny to work in comics.
At least that’s what I told myself as I folded a purple-striped business shirt and put it back on the shelf for the fourth time that day, fighting back the mind-numbing tedium that gnawed at the back of my brain. I had spent the best part of a year working in Austin Reed’s menswear shop in “The Royal Borough of Windsor” and was slowly being driven insane by the banality and poor dress sense of local businessmen. I had started working there on Saturdays while at Windsor & Maidenhead Art College studying “Design & Display” in the misguided belief that this was a graphic design course. It turned out that it was, in fact, window dressing, and I was the only guy on the course. The only thing that I did of any note there was to make a replica of V for Vendetta’s Guy Fawkes-inspired mask—based on the cover painting by Garry Leach on the cover of Warrior #11. This was 25 years before the Anonymous “hacktivists” and the Occupy movement adopted the image and made it a ubiqutos bête noire. After six months of less-than-enthusiastic input from me the art college asked me to “shape up or ship out.” I chose the latter, and rashly took up a full-time position at Windsor’s premier men’s outfitters.
There is something inherently creepy about men’s suit retailers, and Austin Reed’s was no exception. For those that have ever seen The Fast Show’s “Suits you, Sir!” sketches, it was exactly like that. Paul Whitehouse’s character even looked like my manager, Barry.
My time at Austin Reed’s was tedious beyond belief. We once had a promo video installed with a TV screen in our department and we were unable to turn the sound down. Thus, we were subjected to the same musical loop every 15 minutes, eight hours a day, five days a week, for over a month. Even now, if I hear Captain of Her Heart by Double, or Bill Withers’ Lovely Day I have a Pavlovian compulsion to smash the nearest television set. The only highlights of the Austin Reed days were a schoolboy crush on my 50-year-old co-worker, Carol (I had a thing for older women), and serving TV presenter, Johnny Ball.
He was getting ready to do a new series of his famous maths/science programmes; Think of a Number; Think Again…; Think of a Title With the Word Think in It, etc. He was a lovely bloke, but had absolutely no dress sense. He needed a series of tie and shirts for the show and I helped show him which ties matched with which shirts. It was a mild joy switching on the TV and seeing him wearing the clothes I’d sold him, and more importantly, in the right combinations. When I remarked this to his daughter, Zoe, years later at an awards do, she jokingly agreed that her dad’s dress sense was cause of much consternation in the Ball household.