Monday, 30 March 2009

The only item of Star Wars memorabilia I possess

This didn't come from the kitchen cupboard - I found it in a commemorative OXO tin from the 1980s, in a chest of drawers. It is one of a series of bubble-gum cards, issued to capitalise on the success of  Star Wars, with which all boys who grew up in the 1970s will be familiar. I've never been much of a fan, to be honest. I remember going to the Northfields Odeon to see it, with a boy in my class, for his birthday treat, and marvelling at how it could be that such special effects were possible; and thinking that Han Solo was rather cool in his waistcoat, and being scared of Darth Vader, but I never got that into the whole thing. In later years, it was amusing to wind up one of my friends who is obsessed with it by labelling it a "Western in space" (which it is, of course) to his enragement - he dislikes all 'old' films, particularly Westerns.  Alas, even Star Wars, and all of us young bucks who saw it first time round, are getting on a bit these days.  

Once upon a time, as a boy, I had loads of these cards. Looking at this one now, I vividly remember the feel of the waxy greaseproof paper the cards were wrapped in, and the awful oblong of stiff pink bubblegum that came with them (in those days cards weren't sold specifically for sick adult geek collectors, on their own, to put in dumb binders; they were for children, and it was thought you needed something more to justify the purchase - but not much more). This gum was covered with a dry white powder, and I felt compelled to chew it, even though I didn't like the stuff (who did?) just to ensure that I got value for money. I recollect that it cracked into razor-sharp shards the moment you snapped it between your teeth, before gradually morphing into a stodgy mass of the least flavoursome, but most powerfully fragranced gunk you could hope to find in this galaxy, or in any others far, far away. I also recall the backs of the cards: when your collection was complete, and these were assembled corner-to-corner in a big square, they would make a giant jigsaw-picture - I believe the scene was Luke and Han in the Trash Compactor - I spent many hours of summer holiday (happy?) torment trying to complete that. 

I think I may have had the whole set at one time. But I got rid of the lot. I'm not sure of the provenance of this particular card, number 60 in the set, but I know why I have it - because it features one of my favourite actors, the late great Peter Cushing, as Grand Moff Tarkin. It reminds me, at first glance, of two things. Firstly, his expression on the card reminds me that Cushing (like Bela Lugosi before him) treated every role, no matter how absurd, as if it was desperately serious, and worthwhile, even if it was little more than a cameo, and involved wearing a strange back-to-front coat with a watercolour paint-box on front, and being strangled by the Green Cross Code man (Dave Prowse, as Darth Vader). Secondly, it reminds me of that great story about Cushing wearing tartan slippers on set because the Nazi-esque boots were too tight and made his feet hurt. Only an actor of Cushing's stature - and old fashioned dignity, and lack of pretension - would have been permitted - or would have wanted -  to do this. I love that story, and also that other splendid tale about Cushing, in his final years, wearing a special white glove to smoke a single cigarette (one per day, no more, no less), which was in turn held in a long holder which was kept behind the counter - along with the glove, of course, and his personal cushion (Peter's Cushion?) - to be ritualistically brought out for his daily visits to his favourite cafe in Whitstable, Kent. 

It's a shame there weren't more pictures of Peter Cushing in the Star Wars bubblegum card series; and I would have liked to have seen one of the chap who played Mr Bronson in Grange Hill, too. Ah yes, I'd certainly hang on to one of those. But bafflingly the majority of the cards seem to feature the main stars of the films. In any case, it occurs to me that maybe Mr Bronson was in the second film, was he not? So he would be on one of the later cards with the red borders...I'd have to check with a Star Wars nerd to find out. Yes, someone nerdier than me.

You will find this bubblegum card in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.   

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Whoopee and Wow! 26th May 1984

British weekly humour comics had become exceedingly weird by the mid-1980s. Sales had slumped, and publishers - like IPC, who published Whoopee - were struggling desperately to figure out just what it was the kids wanted to read - if they wanted to read at all, that was, what with the distractions of their wonderful ZX Spectrum 48k computers and BMX bikes. When a comic was cancelled, the strategy was to amalgamate it into another more robust title - hence Wow! had been incorporated into the longer-running Whoopee, a veteran of the early 1970s. But I don't think the latter title lasted very much longer - this must be one of the last few issues, I would guess. I found it, crumpled and yellow, in my kitchen cupboard, underneath a pile of copies of Bullet, a British adventure comic that I might have a look at a later date. Or I might not. 

So, anyway, Whoopee by this time was well past its sell-by date, struggling to survive, clinging on for dear life; in a perpetual state of identity crisis, with its editors anxiously reliant on the increasingly uninspired exploits of time-tested popular favourites like Sweeny Toddler (seen here on the cover, drawn by Tom Paterson), who was by now rubbing shoulders with an ever more motley crew of vaguely surreal, ultra contrived, conceptually bizarre characters and concepts, many of which had been rather hopefully salvaged from even less successful comics in the IPC Publishing line. So, dear reader, if you have a few moments to spare, let us pause from life's race and glance a while at a few of those weird, forgotten flops from the pages of Whoopee, before we consign them once more to the rotting heap of newsprint so akin to the eventual oblivion that beckons to us all.

 Let us begin with Stage School. This double page tale is adequately described by the title. A special school, full of the kind of brats that end up in Eastenders and The Bill. Taught by a quaint British comics style teacher, in mortar board and gown. Perhaps at the time it seemed somewhat exotic and outlandish to imagine such an institution? 

Looking back now it seems strangely prophetic. Note the junior Tommy Cooper. Is it Robert Nixon doing the art on this? 

Stage School epitomises the case for the reinstatement of corporal punishment. Bring back the birch. They all need a good thrashing, the little bleeders. 

We turn now to Creepy Comix. Once upon a time, comics were considered such a potent influence upon the nation's youth that questions were asked in parliament - yes, I'm referring to the Horror Comics flap of the 1950s.
Indeed, my Pater tells me that such was the furore once upon a time that when he was a lad his Dad tore up his British reprint of that fine EC publication Tales From The Crypt.

By 1984 it must have been apparent that comics had no influence whatsoever over anybody at all, certainly if we go by this strip, in which the comic of the title comes to life, producing horror monsters at useful moments - one of which is a demon, in fact - that pause from their rampages of destruction to help a young lad overcome the traumas of school life and get a good hot shower for the gym class - "Ooh, lovely!" Nice art by a very familiar artist whose name I have forgotten.

Family Trees is such a weird concept, you wonder how, and why, they came up with it.

It's a kind of soap opera type strip, by all accounts, but the characters are all trees. I believe the premise is that they are looking for a place to live. Each week, while they search, they dash out of the foliage - er, actually they are the foliage - have tree-fun doing exciting things like throwing coins down wishing wells (?) - but are forever thwarted in their attempts to find rest. Then they dash back into the foliage. Highly ecological, but exceedingly dull.

Boy Boss is another strange one. A kind of wish fulfillment fantasy where a kid runs a company; but the grim Jasper Ferret, the accountant, wants to stop him from having any fun, by forcing him to attend the meeting of "The Institute of Young Directors".
Of course, the joke's on Jasper when the other young directors are as outlandish as Boy Boss. Note the androgynous director of "Biff Records" and the frankly disturbing dog/bear man across the table. This strip is by Frank McDiarmid, who drew most of the Cheeky comic. His art saves this one.

Look who's on the joke page - the Krankies. Pause here to thank the lord that we don't have to see them on TV any more.  In classic comics style, the "Star Joke" is "told by" the Krankies by virtue of attaching speech bubbles to a cheaply obtained press photograph. Well, it sure beats booking them through their agent. Fan-da-bi-dozy! Incidentally, I think I have their LP somewhere, but I seem to recall it has a massive scratch across most of Side One, where, I suspect, a disgruntled yuletide recipient of said album expressed their dissatisfaction with the "music" contained therein. 

Spare Part Kit. I remember this character always gave me the creeps, as a child, and he still does. It was something about the premise - a boy who carried muscular arms and legs, and a "six-pack" torso around with him, donning them to become "bionic" - in combination with his knobbly knees and his goggle-eyed, curly-haired, Harpo Marx-like visage.  It sends a shiver down my spine. I'll say no more about it. 

Finally, Mustapha Million, the kind of light-comedy foreigner once so prevalent in the Great British comic, but who vanished from all mass-produced media sometime shortly after they stopped repeating Mind Your Language on ITV. We shall not see his like again.

A pretty ropey old comic, all told, but still I'm sad that they don't make 'em anymore. I was going to throw this issue of Whoopee out - but maybe I'll put it back in the kitchen cupboard for a few more years.

You will find this comic in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.   

Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer: The Francis Blake Affair

I've just been reading this recently translated Belgian Bande Dessinee featuring the intrepid, stiff-upper lipped British duo Blake and Mortimer, originally created by Edgar P. Jacobs, the artist who worked closely with Herge on some Tintin books (notably The Seven Crystal Balls) before they had a bit of a dust up. Jacobs wanted more credit on the series - I think he was keen for the books to be labelled "The Adventures of Tintin by Herge and Edgar P. Jacobs". Not much to ask, eh? Needless to say Herge was not best pleased and eventually Jacobs received the order of the boot. 

Off he went and created his own comic book series about spiffing Brits Blake, a top-ranking secret service man, and Mortimer, a genius physicist. Just average chaps. They share a posh flat in London with Egyptian statues lying about the place and hunting trophies on the walls, where they lounge about in their grey flannels, say "blimey" a lot and smoke their pipes. But - no smirking at the back! - they're just good friends, right? 

A few years back I read The Mystery of the Great Pyramid, by Jacobs, expecting Tintin-level excellence, but was greatly disappointed. I realised then why Herge had to show Jacobs the egress. The basic idea was entertaining enough, and the strip looked great - with Jacobs employing the same clear line drawing style that Herge used - stylistically almost identical in some respects - but unfortunately Jacobs lacked the humour or visual economy of Herge. The story was torturously overwritten, over complicated, and relentlessly po-faced. The characters - even the main ones - seemed to be empty, stiff-jawed moustachioed ciphers.  And if that didn't put you off, the stiff new translation into English would. 

So I picked up this new volume - done in the 1990s by a new writer/artist team, Van Hamme and Benoit, working for the Jacobs studio - in the hope that it might be better than Jacobs' originals. It's a good effort, and has its moments, but unfortunately it seems authentically Jacobsian in its overbearing, wordy, grim-visaged convolutions. And once again, the translation seems more suitable for a physics textbook than a comic strip. 

Here's a sample of the delightfully sprightly dialogue for you. 

Mortimer: But that's Ardmuir Castle! That's where I was invited to attend a physics seminar.

Blake: I found one of those publications on Ardmuir Castle in Olrik's pocket. And that's how I finally understood what kind of "move" our enemies were preparing: the kidnapping by a foreign power of the best physicists in the Kingdom!

Mortimer: Good Heavens! That...that would be appalling!

Blake: Indeed. This would represent a technological step backward of almost ten years for Britain and her allies. And, an equivalent gain for the country that would thus obtain the forced collaboration of the unfortunate scientists.  

Still awake at the back there? Like Mr Jacobs' earlier originals, it all looks splendid (though the period and location details are somewhat odd - attention all European cartoonists: no, British police didn't carry guns in the good old days, and I wonder how many inns would have served "a fried sausage and beans"), but it's all so desperately serious and pointlessly complicated and the speech bubbles are sadly crammed to overflowing with dry, stiffly translated, purely plot-progressing blather. By the end of the book I was wishing that the evil Olrik had kidnapped Mortimer, Blake, and every other bow-tied stuffed shirt in the volume, if only in the hope that it would make them shut up. 

You will find this book in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.

The First Post

Hello, hello, this is the BBC Home, no, it's not, it is a "blog", I understand, some kind of ethereal realm where I can expose every facet of my poor, tormented, sensitive soul to the world... no, not really, never fear, only joking. But I might document some rather fascinating old, obscure stuff, and that sort of rot. What do you say to that, eh? We'll have some larks. Aren't you excited? Who are you, anyway? 

You will find me in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.