It’s hard to remember now what life was like forty or so years ago: no computers (except for vast, bulky machines locked in vaults, with lights blinking and wheels whirring), no mobile phones (not even the brick-like, hand-wound things that came out a decade or so later), and of course no internet or social media. Messages had to be written out by hand; televisions had to be switched on and off using buttons and dials on the set itself; telephones belonged in kiosks placed around the town. ‘Pollution’ was the big environmental menace rather than climate change (which, when it was thought about, was thought to involve a new Ice Age approaching); the world was either preoccupied with, or in numb rebellion against, the global threat of nuclear destruction.
If one wanted to see a movie, one had to wait for it to appear at the cinema. If one missed it at the cinema, one had to wait, possibly years, for it to come out on television. And even then, there was no possibility of watching it again: films and television shows were shown once, for the most part, and there was no way of recording them. I was one of the first people in my circle to own a video machine, a clunky block of a thing, into which I had to insert book-shaped plastic containers containing spools of tape, pressing them physically down into the machine where they clicked into place. I loved it - it meant that I could record episodes of Doctor Who and be free of the tyrannical TV schedules forever. I kept it secret for as long as I could, hiding it under a blanket in my room at university.
It was Doctor Who, and the tyranny of TV schedules, which led me to my first ever publication. At the university which I was attending - a lonely introvert in a sea of extroversion, it seemed to me - there was, one day, a science fiction ‘movie marathon’ planned, and advertised in the selection of films to be played was the 1965 film Doctor Who and the Daleks, directed by Gordon Flemyng and written by Milton Subotsky. I had never seen it, but my love for Doctor Who was strong enough to overcome my terror of others and my lack of experience at staying up late, so off I went to sit in a university lounge full of strangers, enduring incessant background chatter and film after film in which I had not the slightest interest, in order to eventually, at about 4:00 am, see the first of those two 60s films starring Peter Cushing as ‘Doctor Who’. By that time, almost everyone had gone home or was asleep. The film itself was disappointing in the end, but the thing that I carried away with me from the evening, as I walked under the morning stars back to my room, was an advertisement which had been played between films at about 1:00 am: it was 1977, and the ad was for a new film due out in the cinemas later that year - Star Wars.
You have to imagine a dimmed room full of dimmed people, half-lying on sofas, some half asleep, mainly bored by what they had been watching prior to the appearance of the ad. All of a sudden, the screen boomed with those now-famous chords and the Star Wars logo appeared in a flash. The ad was only a few seconds long, but I recall light sabers and blaster pistols. The whole room came alive with cheers for a minute or so. Something was in the air other than the faint aroma of illicit drugs. A cultural domino effect had begun.
The university that I attended had a newspaper which I think was produced weekly. It was cheaply made: the quality of the paper was poor, and the typeface was difficult to read. Pictures were crammed in, not pleasant to look at. I suppose the editors were doing the best they could and learning skills which would take them to better things in due course. One day, I read a short science fiction comic strip which had been published in an issue. It had clearly been inspired by Star Wars. I decided that I would try to do the same thing.
Such was my general anxiety about Life at that time (and for several years after), though, that I did not feel that I could walk into the newspaper offices and submit my own comic strip easily. I pretended to be running an errand for a friend, a female friend called Henna Ramsay, who was too shy to show her work to anyone and who asked me to drop off the drawings for her and ‘see what they said’.
Luckily, the editor at that moment in time was a young chap called Kenton Miller who was a comics fan. He was delighted by the pictures and immediately agreed to run them over the remaining issues as a serial. I said that I would pass the good news on to Henna.
Soon the comic strip came out. It was in black and white, was called ‘Blue Star’ and was halfway between plagiarism and parody, featuring a helmeted character called Quenn-Michael the Hunter and a romantic couple who buzzed around the galaxy in their own spaceship. The plot was stunted but seemed to work: sent on a quest to discover fragments of a crystal, Thomas and Melwen become embroiled in a revolution and meet the mysterious character known as Starsword. There was comedy; there was action; there were some cramped and rather ugly drawings. In the end, the Emperor is defeated etc etc. The Voyager, a character who had acted as narrator throughout, hinted at a sequel.
What pleased me more than anything about it was that the university newspaper ran out of editions for the year, so Kenton published the remainder of the story as its own edition, several pages of comic strip clipped together and distributed around the campus. I would walk around and catch people reading it on lawns or sitting at tables outside cafés. They had no idea who had written it, but here it was, in their hands, being circulated and obviously holding their attention, at least for a while.
The joy was short-lived, of course. Nothing came of the grand plans that Kenton and I developed around that time for further stories. There was a sequel - ‘The White Company’ - but I tried to be too deep and Shakespearian and it wasn’t as good as the first. We sketched out all kinds of things, comic and serious, but soon went our separate ways. In the days before social media, separate ways was the default option.
But that joy, that moment of anonymous fame (if that’s not an oxymoron)… that was worth pursuing. Not for narcissistic reasons particularly, but for the realisation that I had the ability to capture attention and hold it enough for someone to agree to publish a separate edition of my work and for those students to sit and read it…
That might still one day be viewed as the beginning of something.