Back in the early 1960’s, in the UK and Ireland, comics were not the world – conquering communications medium that they are now regarded as. After the pleasures of the easily accessible, more locally produced children’s comics[bought at the newsagent shop with the daily newspaper], any imported from,for example, America, were more of an “underground” pleasure in that they had to be sought out from obscurity and were erratically distributed.In Ireland and the UK, unlike in America, distribution was, at best, spotty. Many comics were loaded into ships’ holds as bundles of ballast that eventually filtered through to small family -run Mom and Pop shops in towns across the country. They ended up on spinner racks or in a haphazard bundle in the corner of the shop. They were treated as cheap goods for children to be bought with the newspapers and cigarettes.They had certainly not become the world -straddler that inspired film directors to make large amounts of money nor indeed re-branded as “graphic novels” to conjure up critical intellectual reviews in the quality newspapers.
“WHERE IS TONY ROCHE ?”
BREAKING NEWS!!!!! JANUARY 2017 :
Since writing this original article some years ago about the origins of Comics Fandom in Ireland and the UK in the mid 1960s, there have been a few recent developments. Just when I thought the story was all but over , it seems that some fifty years later , Tony has finally been given the opportunity to tell the whole tale in his own words, as to how Comics Fandom began in Ireland with only a handful of us enthusiastic teenagers.Myself , Tony and possibly one other Irishman came in on the ground- floor with some thirty -odd English enthusiasts also joining in the fun , to start that particular ball rolling . It is a very enjoyable story, told in some detail and I (and my late mother, who assuredly saved Tony’s teenaged life with applications of tea and sandwiches at one point(!) )….am pleased to have played some part in its telling.Tony , having started something of a cultural phenomenon later went on to become a professor at UCD (University College Dublin’s School of English, Drama and Film ) until his recent retirement in early 2016. Fifty years later, he looks back Read it all here in “Journey Planet “#31 :http://journeyplanet.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/7/1/15715530/jp31.pdf
DECEMBER 2018 :
Just as the digital ink was “drying” on the virtual presses of “Journey Planet”#31 with its excellent interview with Tony, , “Heroes Unlimited” # 8 rolls off the ink and paper 21st Century presses some 50 years after what we all thought was the final issue in 1969…Now relegated to penultimate status , it is succeeded by the very fitting last issue as promised by Tony all those years ago, as we left our teenage-selves behind.Tony posted me a hard – copy earlier in the month , but for all those who might never feel its heft in their trembling hands, here the stalwart lads of “Journey Planet ” and major cheerleaders of the princely ‘Heroes Unlimited”, have come to the rescue and provided a special issue of their fine e-zine in its honour for all fans old and new to fully savour. Here is the whole thing plus introductions .This time I get to blow my own trumpet, once again, after 50 years and I feel suitably proud to be in their company. :
…..and take a look further down at some of those protean literary efforts….
CLICK ON ABOVE COVER TO SEE A FLIPBOOK OF THE COMPLETE ISSUE.
Wham had been launched as a rival to the Beano comic and featured some great artwork from ex -Bash Street Kids artist Leo Baxendale among others. By the time Tony Roche’s letter appeared in issue #140 in February 1967, the comic had begun to feature reprints of Marvel Comics characters such as the Fantastic Four.
Tony’s enthusiasm for comics spilled off the page and he mentioned that he was starting a new “fanzine” dedicated to the form.That is where I came in. I was fourteen ,and quite infected by comics madness ever since my uncle Paddy had bought me the Topper and The Dandy weekly comics, as a boy.I was already a “collector”, reading every kind of comic that I could find. There were all manner of comics around at the time .There were the UK comics such as The Eagle , Boys’ World, Rover and Wizard, The Hotspur, The Hornet, The Victor, Buster, The Valiant, The Beano, the Beezer and so on. Then there were the glossy covered American DC comics such as Batman , Superman , the Flash and Green Lantern, World’s Finest , Jimmy Olsen and so on. The fat annuals and “80 page Giants” were a great way of finding older “origin” stories for all the characters.Dell, Gold Key , Charlton produced solid comics work too but they hadn’t the more glamorous characters even though they featured excellent artwork. Then there was this strange little dowdy company ,”Marvel”. with its oddly coloured covers and cheap inner paper.These comics were radically different , somehow.They had a mystique about them . I had been buying the UK produced “Alan Class ” thick reprint collections at a shilling each, before I ever realised that much of these tales were old Marvel horror stories drawn by Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. These were dressed with titles such as “Astounding”, “Amazing” and indeed they were . Many of those stories were little morality tales masquerading as monster or sci-fi tales; good versus evil with some time-travel thrown in and usually a snap, shock -ending much like the stories of O Henry, which I’d previously consumed.
I was already reading the, then very rare Marvel comics and had come across Spider-Man #9, a battered copy of the first “Marvel Tales Annual” which featured all the origin stories of the characters. and several other titles such as the “Fantastic Four” , “The X-men”, “The Avengers” (I came in with the revival of Captain America in issue #4 which I still have), Daredevil” and “Strange Tales”, “Tales of Suspense” and “Tales to Astonish” which carried then peripheral characters such as Doctor Strange, Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Ant Man and Captain Fury and Agents of SHIELD. There were even a few Western and War comics titles and Marvel also began a series of reprints in titles such as “Fantasy Masterpieces” and “Marvel Collectors Item Classics”, in which they dipped backed into their 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s catalogue; all the horror and suspense stories were there alongside the original Captain America stories ,the Human Torch and the Sub Mariner. All of these creations would go on some fifty years later to dominate the cinema screens of the world but to some of us they were simply a secret underground pleasure in the shadow of the much duller, if better printed , Superman DC National comics lines .Such was the feeling of mystique that I was primed and ready to get involved further. I wrote to Tony and subscribed to to his little “Merry Marvel Fanzine” ,arguably the first substantial attempt at a magazine about comics anywhere in Ireland or the UK.
In the beginning , known comics fandom seemed to consist of about only thirty five of us enthusiasts spread across Ireland and the UK .Certainly, in my own hometown of Armagh in Northern Ireland I knew nobody who was quite as obsessed with comics as I was. At my grammar school there were only two in my class remotely interested in art of any kind and I had to fight to get an art- class started .My first art teacher was an excellent local painter called Hugh Largey who quietly showed me a few basics while the remainder of the class “sagged-off” to enjoy a rare free-period. He advised on my modest quiver of brushes and colours and encouraged me to throw inhibition aside and “just paint”. His concentration was on the artists from Giotto to Cezanne and he attempted to give me a grounding beyond the books I was consuming. This was my first “real” art instruction from a proper painter who understood these arcane notions of tone , composition and philisophical meaning . I was later to go to the Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds to be tutored by abstract painter and best friend of the actor Peter O’Toole , Patrick Oliver and eventually land up in Manchester Fine Art , but it all started here. Comic art was something else entirely and would then have been viewed by general society as a “commercial”, slightly philistine or “unclean affair”…a poor relation to proper gallery art. There had been no critical books in circulation about this novel form back then. The 1960s began that trend with “The Penguin Book Of Comics”. Even comic artists did not seem to appreciate the uniqueness of their own specialised artform.They were printed mostly on the shoddiest material available and most people thought of them as “kids-stuff”. my mother would have called them “Comic Cuts” after a comic of that name from her own younger years.At one time they’d been referred to as “Penny Dreadfuls”. There was one other lad at school, called Eugene who was only slightly infected with the comics virus and I encouraged him to subscribe to Tony’s fanzine , but I have to concede that I must have been something of an oddity in that I was the only other comic fan in the whole of Ireland who initially answered Tony’s call to arms.Another southern Irish fan later joined in time for the launch of “Heroes Unlimited” after the three MMF issues, but we were very few on the ground. It wasn’t as though I was some anti-social nerd either, who never left the sanctuary of his bedroom .Indeed , I had a wide circle of friends of both sexes, but none of them were into comics in the same way as I was .For me , they were a kind of magical talisman that transcended childhood’s first enthusiasms.Ultimately it was all about storytelling, a trait that was in the family DNA already .We “real” comic fans must have been a small group of either visionary ,or very odd fish .I think in retrospect we were a little of both. That would have been the extent of both those involved and the size of those first print runs.In those days when virtually all correspondence was made through the mailbox, I picked up pen and paper and began to write long , rambling letters of encouragement to Tony. The instantaneity of the modern internet did not exist , so each letter or package through the post was impatiently awaited with bated breath.From such small beginnings……..
You can link to a FLIPBOOK of a complete issue of MERRY MARVEL FANZINE # 2 here : http://www.calameo.com/read/00274690234ada4f74160
The first fanzine in the UK and Ireland, subsequently ran for three issues from 1966/ early 1967 and then the successor “HU” was laid to rest after issue number seven in the Summer of 1969.Both Tony and myself were already moving on…..
After this came a plethora of zines each taking advantage of the new technologies. The Merry Marvel Fanzine and Heroes Unlimited, created and edited by Tony Roche and aided and abetted by the likes of Ken Simpson, Ges Cleaver,Robert Poole and Paul Neary were, by general consensus, the first comic fanzines in the UK and Ireland, though, and like their creator are increasingly very difficult to find anywhere. I became one of a small group of subscribers, supporters and letter writers. Fortunately , as a natural collector, I kept the majority of mine and bought back the missing issues at some quite high prices . I haven’t now got my old issue of MMF #1 [ the long foolscap issue] so if anyone is interested in sharing scans of this first issue, let me know! I still remember , as a fourteen year old fan , painstakingly one-finger typing out a copy of MMFANZINE #1 on a rackety old Remington typewriter so that fellow comics fan Eugene Murray could have his own personal copy and share in this great new discovery.The original was printed in that old blue fuzzy ink . Unfortunately Eugene’s copy could only be reproduced in black and white. There were no handy scanners or photocopying machines in the library back then. Dedication was a requirement!!
I have now uploaded “Flip Book ” versions of my two issues of the “Merry Marvel Fanzine” and the full seven issues of “Heroes Unlimited”. You can see the full issues as flipbooks from the links below. Simply click on the covers and they will open for your enjoyment:
*** SPECIAL BONUS :THE FIRST UK COMIC CONVENTION OF 1968 https://paddykool2.wordpress.com/comics-comix-and-fandom/1968-the-first-u-k-comic-convention/
You can find links to them above but in the meantime here are some covers and pages to give a flavour of our teenage passions.I’ll scan and add as many as possible in the future , time and patience permitting. Tony dropped out of sight after Heroes Unlimited(See below for an update) , probably pursuing other teenage interests like girls and music, but my own artistic leanings were to take me to art college three years later where I re-acquainted myself with comics through imported copies of classic underground comix and Dez Skinn’s door opening”Fantasy Advertiser”.
The first wave of American underground comix was all but spent by then but such was the alternate underground press that copies were coming through from the Real Free Press in Holland and UK versions were being produced too.I picked up a copy of a UK produced version of Robert Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat”, whilst an art student in Leeds. An excellent bookshop named “Books” was the initial source . This excellent shop stocked all sorts of literature and was where I found a treasure trove of bundles of underground comix and books on art.
It was situated just off the student campus. I happened upon an advert for Dez Skinn’s “Fantasy Advertiser inside this comic. That was my re-connection .
At this time I’d begun attempting some comic strip ideas myself, spurred on by the idea of those underground comix ,which required much less space and materials to produce than large oil paintings…..
Tony was long out of circulation by this time.I hadn’t seen him for about six or seven years by then and had , at this stage ,personally evolved into a long-haired hippy Fine Art student.He still remains ,in large measure, some fifty years later, somewhat like Steve Ditko creator of Spiderman, an enigma. A part of my teenage past. Not entirely forgotten though.
It doesn’t take much, but Dez Skinn’s [Who started off his career in those same little fanzines and subsequently became Mister Comics UK, the Stan Lee of UK Comics and the originator of most of the comics spawned here in this past thirty years.}
kind words of praise [ …see comments below….] has encouraged me to upload some of these fanzines in their entirety so if you flip the tabs above you will find drop-downs for various issues of HEROES UNLIMITED as I find time to upload them.Recently, whilst browsing with Dave in Liverpool’s Waterstones, I came across Teal Triggs “FANZINES” and therein was the cover of a hand-coloured copy of HEROES UNLIMITED # 2.
I wonder was that one of Ges Cleaver and Robert Poole’s artistic jobs on Paul Neary’s artwork. It’s a funny old world out there.
You will find more detail of my involvement in MERRY MARVEL FANZINE and HEROES UNLIMITED in a nostalgic ramble over four web pages at the following link ….
and hopefullyas I scan and upload a selection of individual issues in the future, you’ll be able to check them out on the individual dropdown tabs above in this section.
Also of interest is this link which appears to further bring the story up to date, especially page 17-22 which references my own memories .http://efanzines.com/JourneyPlanet/JourneyPlanet22.pdf
Below here is my own copy of “Merry Marvel Fanzine #2 ” which has somehow become part of the focus for Dublin’s bid to bring the World Con to Dublin in 2019…
BREAKING NEWS!!!!! JANUARY 2017 :
Just when I thought the story was over , it seems that fifty years later , Tony has finally been given the opportunity to tell the tale in his own words as to how Comics Fandom began in Ireland with only a handful of enthusiastic teenagers. It is a very enjoyable story, told in some detail and I am pleased to have played some part in its telling.Read it here :http://journeyplanet.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/7/1/15715530/jp31.pdf