I have in my possession a collection of comics dating back to the 1960s, about 5,000 in total. It’s not a fact which has been widely known as some of these are quite valuable. There is an almost complete series of Look & Learn magazine, the children’s encyclopaedic wonder, spanning all kinds of topics over a period of decades; there are whole series of Marvel and DC superhero comics, some of them classic; there are ancient and much-sought-after issues of such British treasures as TV Century 21, Smash! and Pow! as well as the more common but still highly valued Lion and Valiant and many others.
‘Why do you keep them? Surely comics are for children?’ I am occasionally asked.
Those are questions which it is hard to answer rationally if you aren’t a comics fan yourself. Comics mean so much more than they are normally given credit for. To really understand their value, you need to look at them differently.
I have written elsewhere about the balance, in reading, between pages of closely typed text and pictures giving some colour, reality or dynamism to what is being written about. Some children don’t like reading, not because they don’t understand the words but because they find it hard to have any affinity for page after page of text with nothing to really explain or show what the story is about. Give such a child a book with a suitable balance of pictures and words and he or she will normally take it up enthusiastically, and from it will learn in time to bridge over to pages of pure text. This is really what is behind the so-called ‘addiction’ to computers that is moaned about so much today -children like to have words balanced with action or mass, and to many of them, a page of text alone can be dry and uninteresting at first.
But there’s even more to it, really. How do we form our own views of what is going on in the world? What lies at the foundation of our imaginative thinking? A child’s early reading is about more than just teaching a child how to read: it’s about laying in the basics of how they will understand things around them. Developing an affinity for certain books enables them to decide early on what it is they, as individuals, like or don’t like in life; reading books is helping them to determine who they are and how they will deal with the world.
Comics can play a key role in this, especially the comics of the 1960s and 70s. Why? For a number of reasons. Partly because, for complicated social reasons which we don’t have time for right now, comics on both sides of the Atlantic at that time were strongly moral: there were heroes and villains and right always won against might. The world was a bright place: in TV Century 21, the comic based on the Gerry Anderson TV series like Stingray and Thunderbirds, almost every story was set in a glittering, futuristic society which had sensible and working world government and which was full of exciting adventures, space travel and clear-cut conflicts. Designed imaginatively as news headlines, the comic’s covers initially presented to children the image of a future which was essentially wholesome and positive.
This was backed up by American models like Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, which developed whole new ranges of superhero including Spider Man, Thor, Dr. Strange, Captain America and Daredevil. These were so full of creative energy and a sense of exuberant morality and life that they are still being tapped into today by the movie producers of Hollywood. DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman, also had positive and exciting storylines which were full of colour and action where the hero always won.
Not a bad foundation for a child coming to grips with the large and adult world. In a way, a modern mythology was founded in those years which has been imitated ever since. Comics over the decades became darker and the storylines grittier and more ‘real’ as the generation which grew up with them tried to make them more resonant with the grimmer world around them, but in doing so they lost their strength and comic sales declined as storylines descended the scale.
Partly also, though, it was and is the pure creative energy of comics which gives them value: a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider is suddenly able to climb walls and gains super-strength (Spider-Man)? A doctor strikes his walking stick on the ground and in a bolt of lightning is transformed into the Norse God of Thunder (Thor)? A family bombarded by mysterious cosmic rays is imbued with weird powers ranging from superhuman strength to the abilities to stretch, burst into flames or become invisible (the Fantastic Four)? These are crazy, creative, wild ideas which teach a child how the imagination can be used freely and to generate wonder.
On one hand we could read about the adventures of an alien orphan empowered in god-like ways just by being here on Earth (Superman); on the other, we followed the tales of a man so haunted by the death of his parents that he trained himself to almost superhuman levels to fight crime (Batman). Here in Britain, the less ‘superheroic’ but no less imaginative stories included an escapologist whose bones could bend to fantastic extremes (Janus Stark), a man whose possession of an ancient Aztec treasure (the ‘Eye of Zoltec’) made him invulnerable to harm (Kelly’s Eye) or a secret agent whose exposure to electricity rendered him completely invisible except for his artificial metal hand (the Steel Claw). These narratives, and thousands like them, captivated the attention, spellbound the imagination and fired up new generations of creative artists and writers, all while balancing words and pictures in such a way that loads of words were being read without even noticing it.
So no, I’m not giving up my collection in a hurry -and if you get a chance, you should seek out such classics yourself and get a better understanding of their power and worth.