Kids – don’t take this badly, but almost none of the superheroes you enjoy today were invented for you. That’s okay, because they weren’t invented for me either. I was born in 1970 and by the time I got interested in comics as a kid, most of the Marvel characters had been round for well over a decade, Captain America was middle-aged and Batman and Superman were getting close to drawing their old age pensions! I’ve never lived in a world without these super-characters – few people have these days – and the fact that they’re still known worldwide and arguably more popular than ever before is testament to the genius of their creators. This is not an in-depth telling of the creation of the characters we love today, nor is it an analysis of their sociological effect on the kids of my generation; it’s a personal reflection on what a bunch of colourful super-powered characters meant to me growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.
Sunderland is a large town in the North East of England; when I was growing up, it was the largest town in the UK not to have city status, though it has since been granted that honour. Its people are mostly working class and its industrial heritage lies in ship-building and glass-making. My Mother at one point worked at the Pyrex glass factory, but by the time I came along she was doing a couple of little cleaning jobs in the evening to bolster my Father’s wage as a cooper, making barrels at the Vaux brewery. They were both interested in motor scooters and their courtship seems to have been an early 60s melange of coffee bars and scooter rallies, but they had settled down with a sensible second-hand car to create the best life possible for my elder brother and I. My brother grew to share their love of motorbikes, but I was always more of a dreamer.
I can’t honestly say where I first encountered superheroes. I envy those people who can pinpoint the exact moment that they picked up a comic or something similar, but I couldn’t have even told you that in my teens, let alone at age 51. From as young as I can remember my parents used to buy my brother and I the Beano and the Dandy (the Dandy was mine and the Beano was my brother’s, we’d read them then swap) and although I loved the adventures of Desperate Dan etc, as soon as I was able to choose additional comics for myself (and almost all of my pocket money went on comics), I started to gravitate towards either superheroes or outer space stories. Even though pretty much all of the UK reprints of American comics were in black and white, they somehow seemed so colourful and dynamic. They were like catnip to a growing boy.
One of my first loves was The Incredible Hulk. Now, the Incredible Hulk TV series didn’t come along until I was 7 and I’m pretty sure that I was aware of the character before I ever saw the TV show, because I distinctly recall feeling mildly indignant that the TV character was called David Banner and not Bruce. I must have read some of his stories in The Mighty World of Marvel, which was launched in 1972, though there’s the possibility that I had also seen him in imported American comics. Most of my comic-buying at this time was from the largest local newsagent, which had a truly epic selection of every newspaper, comic or magazine that you could possibly imagine, but there was also a comic stall in Jacky White’s Indoor Market in Sunderland Town Centre, which sold the latest imported American comics at a time when adult comic fans were few and far-between.
Every time I went to the town with my Mam, we’d brave the distinctive odour of all 1970s indoor markets (butchers + fishmongers + fag smoke) and I’d head straight for the comic stall. It was a corner stall, one side of which was a conventional newsagents selling the Daily Mail, Woman’s Own, Titbits etc and the other side selling the latest American comics. Inbetween the two was a bread tray full of cut-price comics, a couple of months out of date for his more discerning clientele, but an absolute goldmine for kids like me! I rarely came away from town without at least one comic from the cut-price tray and I tended to favour Marvel over DC, simply because I was more familiar with the Marvel characters in comic form through the Marvel UK reprints. DC’s history of UK reprints in the 70s was spotty at best and I don’t remember getting anything DC from the British side apart from the odd Annual or Pocket Book edition.
My knowledge of DC superheroes was almost entirely achieved via another medium – television! The 1960s Batman TV series was before my time but, like Star Trek and The Monkees, it was still being enthusiastically repeated throughout my childhood. Cries of ‘na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na – BATMAN’ were still to be heard across British playgrounds from children with their anorak billowing from their shoulders like some kind of Bri-Nylon cape. It was a beloved part of the TV landscape and yes, we knew it wasn’t to be taken seriously. There were also DC cartoon series in the form of The New Adventures of Superman, The New Adventures of Batman (we were already in ‘New Adventures of’ territory, can you tell?) and Super Friends. None of these did the DC characters any favours and went a long way to perpetuating the myth in the UK that DC characters were a bit silly in comparison to their rivals over at Marvel.
DC were ahead of the game with the new spate of live action series in the mid-70s though with Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman hitting the screen in 1975, a good two years before her nearest rivals The Incredible Hulk and the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man. It baffles me why there seems to be such an entrenched opinion these days that young boys will not watch a film or TV series with a female protagonist; I – and every boy that I knew at school – watched not only Wonder Woman, but also Charlie’s Angels and the Bionic Woman and nothing strange was thought of it. When did we take such a retrogressive step as a society? Anyway, enough about today’s messed-up world and back to the 70s – The Incredible Hulk TV series arrived in 1977 and was a massive hit this side of the pond. The Amazing Spider-Man, made in the same year, much less so but still managing to get photos on the cover of Spider-Man Annuals as late as 1982.
I was one of the biggest fans of The Incredible Hulk and had a massive poster of Lou Ferigno as the Hulk on my bedroom wall. My Mother used to tell the tale of scouring every shop in the area to buy the 12” Hulk doll that was the best-selling toy one Christmas and eventually having to travel to another town to get it. I also had a Hulk pillowcase and even signed up for the campaign by the Heath Education Council that had the jolly green giant promoting better tooth brushing (“Grrr! Even Hulk hates teeth that turn into ugly monsters!”). My first trip to the cinema without a parent as chaperone was to see an omnibus of two episodes of the Incredible Hulk TV series that had been smashed together to make a movie. It must have been a school holiday re-release as, according to Wikipedia, the UK cinema release was in May 1978, but the two things I distinctly remember is that there was snow on the ground and it was bizarrely double-billed with Lassie Come Home!
These TV mash-ups were just cheap money-spinners though and even at the age of 8, I could tell that they just didn’t compare to the sweeping grandeur of 1978’s Superman – The Movie. After the massive success of Star Wars, every studio was keen to ruthlessly promote their latest blockbuster and Superman – The Movie was hyped to within an inch of its life. It was a terrific movie (still is) and proved that superheroes could be made to appeal to audiences other than kids and geeks (not that geeks existed then). Even my Mam liked Superman – The Movie and she never liked anything that was, as she put it, ‘outer spacey’! In that moment, something changed and the superhero movie culture that we have today might never have happened if it were not for Richard Donner’s first Superman movie. If it had bombed, everything could have been different; superheroes could have still been seen as Saturday morning kids’ cartoon only fare.
However, despite the its great success in the UK, no-one seemed keen to cash in on Superman – The Movie by reprinting DC Comics, so they still went largely under my radar. I’ve become a little distracted by film and television, so let’s wind back the clock to late 1975, when Marvel UK attempted something a little radical by printing their titles The Titans and Super Spider-Man with the Super-Heroes (catchy) in a new landscape format, which displayed two pages of comic strip art per printed page. Even though I was just shy of 6, I can still remember these bizarrely-shaped comics, which didn’t last long – partly because newsagents hated how they couldn’t display them properly, but mostly because they used up material at a rate of knots. The two titles combined into Super Spider-Man with the Titans, also in the landscape format, before all titles returned to a more traditional layout.
In the middle of all this came Captain Britain, Marvel UK’s attempt to create something original for the British readership. Although the comic strips were produced in the United States and shipped over, I remember being tremendously excited about the launch of Captain Britain and assumed that any discrepancies between the strip and the Britain I was familiar with was because it was set in London. Who know what goes on in London, right? Maybe they do all have bowler hats and say, “Great Scott!” I always loved Captain Britain though and although his weekly didn’t last all that long, I continued to follow his adventures into the 80s (of which more later). The late 70s also saw The Fantastic Four getting their own weekly title. I was always a big F4 fan and never felt they got the respect that they deserve. A memory that has stuck in my brain for decades is that of walking down General Graham Street, the street in which I used to live, and daydreaming a Fantastic Four adventure; for a moment, I was there and part of the adventure, before reality come crashing down once again. Funny how you remember these things, isn’t it?
Any money not spent on comics during this period probably went on packets of Topps Comic Book Heroes collectable bubblegum stickers. These were the American Marvel Superheroes bubblegum stickers repackaged for the British market and for the princely sum of 3p you got a flat stick of gum so hard that it was like chewing plastic and 5 stickers featuring Marvel Comics characters ranging from the well-known to the downright obscure. Each of the dramatically posed characters had a word bubble with a ‘funny’ comment; these presumably were exact duplicates of the American copies because some of the jokes just didn’t translate. The one that sticks out in my mind was Hercules holding forth a finger and saying, “Look, I have a hang-nail!” Yeah, the jokes were a bit corny and haven’t aged well at all, but these stickers introduced me to characters that I might not have seen or heard of before.
As the 70s came to an end, my interest in superheroes waned. My other interest was science fiction and on the crest of the Star Wars wave, TV and the cinema were full of new and exciting sci-fi: The Black Hole, Flash Gordon, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century to name but a few. My meagre pocket money could only stretch so far and the appeal of big flashy struggles in outer space won out over muscular men in tights. But fear not, for my appreciation of superheroes would return in that terrifying decade known as the 1980s in new and interesting ways; secret ways, satirical ways, mature ways and ultimately dark ways. This was the decade when it all changed, when the rulebook was thrown out of the window and the idea of the superhero as merely ‘kids’ stuff’ was, for good or bad, lost forever.
To Be Continued, True Believers…