My top 10 horror comics: 10: Marvel horror comics of the 1950s to 60s

Hey! I’m doing a list! Not done one in years and after a chat the other day I thought I’d do this, so here’s my top 10 horror comics, and to start I go back to the pre-superhero days of Marvel Comics, or as they were known then, Atlas Comics.

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Before Stan Lee got told to rip off DC’s Justice League of America, as well as their successful reboot of Golden Age superheroes, Lee wrote endless amounts of romance, monster and horror comics. Most were awful, but he had a stable of artists who managed to milk what little gold there was in Lee’s ideas. Artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko managed to do great things with very little, and indeed. it is Ditko who drew one of my favourite horror comics ever.

It Happened on the Silent Screen is simply a brilliant example of an artist on the peak of his game. As for Lee’s prose, the story doesn’t need it and can be read without the aid of it.

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These stories were normally five or six page stories featuring a monster of the month such as the wonderfully named Fin Fang Foom.

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All of these stories were merely a way for all involved to pay the rent as Atlas/Marvel bled everything they could out of the post Comics Code horror comic, and even into the superhero era as the likes of Fantastic Four started as a monster comic, while the first episode of Doctor Strange is simply a Ditko horror story. Eventually though these comics would die out being replaced by the superhero and Marvel would veer away from horror til the 70’s but more on that another time.

These small stories are what they are. They’re fun, disposable trash with a clearly bored Lee grinding out scripts as his co-creators refined art and storytelling styles for more important things to come but they’re a joy. A remnant of a time when horror was harmless and giant monsters always wore underpants…

 

Hunting down the video nasties

I blogged years ago about the hunt to find comic books as a kid, and that back in the day could be a nightmare, but when I was older the hunt for horror films surpassed it mainly because you could be imprisoned for owning some of these films. After the insanity of the Video Nasty moral crackdown, owning a copy of say, Zombie Flesh Eaters could get you thrown in prison.

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So people found ways to get past the censors, and the police which meant an underground network sprung up of bootleggers who’d supply you with dodgy copies of videos which were as clear as being in the middle of a foggy thunderstorm, but still had enough there to give you an idea of the gory antics going on. Here I highly recommend Jake West’s excellent documentary, Video Nasties: Draconian Days, for more about the times in the 80’s and 90’s pre Labour’s post 1997 liberalisation of British society.

As an aside, it is worth praising Tony Blair’s government for that brief period from 1997 to around 2001 when censorship was rolled back, which coming after decades of often extreme censorship at a state level it seemed like a new beginning. Sadly that wasn’t to last long after 9/11 but I digress…

That period in the 80s and 90s saw fanzines spring up which featured small ad listings in the back, as well as swaps, and although I got some films that way the main way I managed to get my uncut sex, gore and violence was through comic marts in London. As I was working these events I managed to get first dibs on some quality gore, not to mention the holy grail of bootlegs; the laserdisc copy. This meant uncut pristine clear copies of classics like Canibal Holocaust.

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Things were good if you were a fan and could get to these events, but this was still Tory Britain so at various shows you’d see customs and/or the police going round tables busting dealers and seizing tapes. Some dealers were prosecuted and a few served time for selling videos, with tabloids leaping on the ‘video nasties sold to kids’ angle, which actually never existed as these dealers weren’t that stupid. Thing was there was no way legally to see these films outwith of the odd private showing, or film festivals like Shock Around the Clock. That involved going to Kings Cross which in the early 90’s was a dark place if you went down the wrong streets, but if you knew the right places it really was home to the best fun you can have. Now it’s all Harry Potter tours and tourists getting the Eurostar.

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But a scene emerged though that time which has went on to bigger things. Not to mention that post 97 many of these films people could have been prosecuted for were now becoming legal. I can now pick up a copy of Last House on the Left without fear of prosecution easily or in the age of the internet, I can download a copy in seconds without heaving my fat arse off my couch. This is all great but I miss the hunt, and I miss the thrill of doing something illegal which stuck a knife in the eye of censors who were out purely to blame something for the problems they caused in society.

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And now in 2019 we’re on the verge of another wave of censorship with hard/far right wing authoritarian strongmen/women eying up what they can to control the public, or at least, blame Thing A for the fact that they’ve fucked everything up. You’d think we’d learn but hey ho…

However I miss those days. They were fun, you got to meet interesting people and saw great (and awful) horror films in places you really probably shouldn’t have been, but dear me, it was fun and we don’t get that sort of fun much anymore.

King of pain

Yesterday I had loads of plans. I was going to wait for some comics to be delivered, then a quick jaunt down the road to the SECC for MCM Scotland to check it out, and mayb e even pick up some deals. Those plans changed around 11am when I had a jolting spasm up my back, which for the last three years or so is something I’m used to, but this literally fucked me up. I dropped a couple of paracetamol and lay down for half an hour before expecting the drugs to kick in which would let me make the short journey to the convention.

Except the pain got worse, plus I was unable to actually move. Yeah, the drugs kicked in easing things somewhat but I felt like I’d been given a kicking that wasn’t going to end. Again, I tried getting up but again, no joy as everything from the chest down was in agony, so I thought ”fuck it”, and took a couple of solpadol (yes I know this was risky) to make myself functional so I could go out. The solpadol did ease the pain but my right hip was now not really functioning so I couldn’t get out of bed, so I’ll give it another half hour I thought.

Around 3pm I came to realing the day was more or less gone and that although the pain was less now, my right hip and leg felt useless, and upon trying to get up I struggled to make it to the couch, let alone the kitchen to make something to eat, or even a cup of tea, but I struggled a bit and managed to sit down trying to chill out and focus on something.

See there’s the thing about chronic pain; it fucks your life up & the knowledge it isn’t going away isn’t fun either so you get fed up because what should have been a fun day at a comic convention picking up cheap deals and running into friends turned into a day of agony and discomfort. I’m fed up of it but hey ho, this is the new normal I need to actually adjust to maybe someday.

On the other hand yesterday did send me down a YouTube rabbit hole so I now know everything there is to know about the Manchester Pusher who is not what you think it might be…

Trying to catch a Black Kiss

I’ve been asked loads and loads to expand upon my series of blogs about Neptune Distribution and the UK comics scene of the 80’s and early 90’s when things were changing so rapidly, This is a shortish story about Howard Chaykin’s infamous erotic horror comic Black Kiss and the state of censorship then, and indeed, now not to mention the way history has been rewritten…

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Black Kiss was a 12-issue mini series from the mind of Howard Chaykin published in 1988 by Vortex Comics. Billed as an ‘erotic horror story’, it promised to be one of the biggest selling independent titles of the year as Chaykin was hot off his revamp of The Shadow for DC, plus he’d recently returned to rescue American Flagg! after his departure some years previously. At this time he made up part of a trio of creators (Alan Moore and Frank Miller being the other two) who would be vocal about censorship in comics, and especially the situation at DC which was becoming censorious with a threatened ratings system.

The late 80’s were a hard time. Hard right wing governments were in place in the US and UK with both pushing a hard line in censorship, though the UK didn’t have a constitution to protect it from the worst of the censors demands.  In the middle of this we were trying to ship comics into the UK which were to be blunt, filth. Wonderful, glorious filth not to mention splendidly violent (which didn’t seem to trigger customs as much) but what customs were especially looking for was sexualised violence. Black Kiss was full of sexualised violence, plus it was published sealed in a plastic bag so it was literally targeting itself out for customs.

Customs then was a bit like playing Russian Roulette. On a good day and in certain airports, you’d be able to ship anything passed without a problem. On bad days they’ll have you sitting there for hours, maybe eventually releasing your entire shipment, sometimes not. Sometimes they’ll keep a box. Sometimes they wouldn’t give a fuck. What was weird working for Neptune was our boss Geoff was a rabid Tory and Thatcherite, but he was also against censorship so we’d bring stuff over that our competitor Titan wouldn’t, and in the case of Black Kiss they’d had their shipment held at customs while ours sailed through. Happy days!

We would do a number of things to get our copies through. We’d wrap them in newspaper, or hide them in a box of Disney comics (”Oh Mickey, what are you going to do with THAT!!’), or we’d distract customs while I lifted a box from the to be screened pile to the screened pile.  We risked our freedom for comics!

It didn’t always work. Customs would open up boxes, rip open a copy and decide that one erect penis was obscene (they’d already nicked a copy of Love and Rockets for showing an erect penis around the same time) and to this day I can’t work out why most societies have an issue with erections as half the planet has had one at some point, and the other half has some experience with them so in comics made by adults for adults there shouldn’t be an issue but it was a red flag to customs.

Black Kiss did indeed top sales charts in the UK regardless with Chaykin proving himself a creator at the top of his game again, but in the years since both Chaykin and Black Kiss have been airbrushed from the history of the time. Histories of the time will mention Watchmen, Dark Knight and Maus, but not Black Kiss because I imagine most modern comics historians find it seedy or something.  However the mainstream today is full of comics that would make Chaykin’s book look tame in terms of the sex and especially the violence. Sure, there’s no erections or such but it stops short of being honest enough to be pornography plus there’s a glossy sheen to the violence, especially sexualised violence, that even makes an auld liberal like myself often baulk.

What we did though at the time was to push what was and wasn’t acceptable to bring into the UK because the truth is we struggled all the time with bringing comics into the UK because some arsehole in customs might play things by the book, or someone decided that a title should be seized because it had a zombie or tits on the front, or in some cases, zombie tits on the cover. The more middle class of you reading this might be thinking ‘ah well, it’s only the exploitation market’ but the fact is adults have the right to read what they want, and some genuine works of art (and I consider Black Kiss to be such a thing) were caught up in this government led witchhunt. Had there only been one distributor of comics to the UK as there is today then we may not have had these challenges to the system shipped in, and in fact things today would be different.

And for all the faults of today I’d rather we as adults choose what to read or watch rather than have to play games so people can make their own minds up.

The joy of diving into back-issue comics

Here’s a brutal fact. Most comics are crap and not worth the price on the cover. As a semi-occasional dealer this is breaking one of the rules of comic dealers which is not to downplay what you have, but no, really, most comics end up slowly rotting somewhere because they weren’t bought, or over-ordered, or just crap. Dealers who have been around a while however are a teasuretrove of delights as their over-stocks could be utter gems, or their crap something you find to be a diamond.

Back in the days of Bristol’s nearly remembered, semi legendary comic shop Comics and C.D’s, I’d spend hours upstairs in the warehouse raking through endless long boxes to decide the fate of many a comic from a Destroyer Duck to Alpha Flight through to Wild Dog as to whether they lived on in the back issues proper or ended up relegated to the 50p boxes. Today most shops sales stock tends to be New 52 crap and recent stuff which was over-ordered which might, one day, be worth a pound.

The below is a great video of Jim Rugg, Ed Piskor and friends searching through the dollar boxes of a local shop for diamonds and they find many a diamond for next to nothing.

Even as a bitter, old, entrenched old bastard like myself feels a spark when finding something gloriously cheap. I mean I’d kill to pick those Jack Kirby 2001 comics up for a buck each but on this side of the Atlantic it isn’t going to happen. Nobody over here is that public spirited!

I bring a few boxes of overstocks/crap to the bigger shows I do. I do throw some gems in there as a public service but you’ve got to be fast or you’ll miss them. Come along next year at the Edinburgh show and you’ll see what I mean. Til then buy more comics, and search out those diamonds in the rough…

The crushing misery of the welfare system

Last night I came home to a large brown envelope that contained a letter and form from the DWP asking me to be reassessed for my Personal Indepndence Payment (PIP) which I frankly need to  carry on doing basic things like live. I wasn’t expecting this til early next year so to be put through this process now when things are fragile sent my anxiety all over the place to the extent that although I eventually calmed down after getting a friend to help me fill it out during the week, I was sick and dizzy so ended up in bed just after 9 last night.

The reason I’m dreading this is the process is designed to put people off  and the system itself if you do apply is deliberately gamed against you, not to mention the Tory government would rather you die than claim. So complaints have went through the roof, and a seeming endless trail of people have taken their own life or left bereft of hope after reliving past traumas.

Now for those of you outwith the UK the process is this; you fill in a form and return it to the DWP who then give a judgementas to what you’ll be awarded monthly. Sounds reasonable enough yeah? Except the initial screening process may well be with a medical professional the final assessesment is by someone with no medical training somewhere buried in the system. These people work in a performance based environment so they work to targets. Get seen on a day when they’ve given plenty of awards and you could be refused only for it to be revoked after appeal months and months later. There’s also the fact the system is designed for you to relive trauma every three years.

I’d hoped the new Scottish system would have been devolved in time but sadly not, and as an aside if anyone screams ‘NATIONALIST’ to folk like me who see an independent Scotland as the only way many of us are going to be free of living with fear then I point them to this and say this is what the UK is doing to people. Tens of thousands are dead thanks to a system unfit for purpose and things are only going to get worse thanks to Brexit which adds another edge to this as the carnage that awaits us from that will directly affect people like me.

So wish me luck. I’ve been quietly dreading Brexit, but having this happen while that happens is going to stretch me thin.

50 years of a man on the Moon

50 years ago Neil Armstrong and Buzz Adrin walked on the Moon making them the first human beings to ever set foot on a body other than the Earth. Since the end of the Apollo programme there’s been occasional teases that maybe we’ll go back and beyond but til now humanity has been having to deal with the fact manned space travel is not a politically popular thing due to the cost. But with private companies moving in, not to mention a genuine international move towards working together to push us off Earth to the Moon it looks as if this time we may actually go back.

As I grew up in the wake of the landing and pushed on by things like Booke Bond’s Race into Space card set as well as science fiction made me think that by the time I turned into a teenager in the 80’s that we’d have bases on the Moon, maybe Mars, and pushing into the solar system. We didn’t.

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So here we are looking back at what three men (Mike Collins being the man who went to the Moon but never set foot on it) and tens of thousands of scientists, astronomers, engineers, and just about every profession you can imagine did to  put man on the Moon.

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One major memory of my childhood wasn’t the landing itself as I was too young, though I do remember some other landings. No, it was 1979’s The Space Movie which I adored.

We now have YouTube and the enormous resource that it has become so we get access to glorious documentaries like this.

Or the great James Burke presenting this tenth anniversary programme.

Life and history changed then. We should have become an outward, space-faring race that cared for its home planet instead of what we did become however there’s a spark of hope with the genuine joy and awe of this 50th anniversary.

I won’t be alive by the 100th anniversary but I hope humanity looks back at this one as a turning point as we reached to the Moon and beyond.