Something for the Weakened

A History of Collecting – Part Twenty Three – Referee

Sunday, December 11th, 2005 by

Nerr nerr nerr nerr. You know the drill.

Let’s take a step back from the continuity again for a minute. I’d love to say that the vast well of comic based knowledge encased in my skull comes from reading everything ever to have come out in the medium from all corners of the earth. If only it did. To manage that would probably taken every second of my life so far, far more cash than I’m ever likely to see and the ability to comprehend almost every language the world has ever produced instinctively (I wouldn’t have had the time to learn them if I’d spent every second . . . oh, you got it). In fact a great deal of it comes from a few of the many reference books available upon the subject.

I think it all started with the Encyclopedia of Comic Characters by the late, great Denis Gifford. Reading Denis’ biography inside the book, it was clear to me that we were on a similar wave length. Here was a true inspiration to the true collector. He must have been in his fifties when he wrote this particular book, but had been collecting comics for at least forty five of those years. Following his death, at some point within the last two years, there was some question as to what would be done with this enormous wealth of paper. Slightly unsurprisingly, a single man, the archive that he had amassed through his life defies belief. Rooms packed from floor to ceiling with stacks of four coloured pamphlets so large and diverse that it boggles my mind. From all four corners of the world, dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century and beyond, the fate of this beautiful resource is unknown to me now. I can only hope that it wasn’t split up and scattered between collectors and bin men around the country.

The book was something I came upon by mistake. Rooting around a book case in a second hand shop in Banbury (I think), the chunky hardback fell into my hands. My fascination with the medium was a long way into it’s full swing by this time, I presume I must have been around eleven or twelve at this time. Not sure that it was actually second hand, more likely to just have been remaindered by it’s publishers, but thanks to it’s being cheap, it wasn’t hard to afford it. Or convince my parents that I needed it, whichever of the two it actually was. Home, I pored over the pages, fascinated by all the information it contained – a listing for almost every comic character to have appeared regularly in a British comic since Ally Sloper, the first character to appear regularly anywhere in the world, preceding the Yellow Kid by at least twenty years American readers (yeah, there aren’t any, but one day maybe . . .).

I spent the next few weeks going through the whole book. It’s listings of the characters creators was the thing that possibly intrigued me the most. Cross referencing names and artistic styles to comics already in my collection, the fascination with so many titles that had long since passed into history, characters who had clearly changed artists in their long or short histories. There were some frustrations too; the lack of writer credits (admittedly the majority probably had been devised by artists or writer/artists, but those that hadn’t been would probably have been near impossible to track down. Far easier to recognize an artist’s style and name them), the brevity of some entries, the occasional insistency in the index (which I scoured and, on a few occasions, corrected) but for the most part the book became an invaluable resource to me. Inevitably I became intrigued to find more.

First stop was the library. Being only a small district branch in a market town, I shouldn’t have expected much, but was rather disheartened by the lack of material available. Eventually I did manage to track down another of Gifford’s books, whose actual name escapes me. Something along the lines of The World Book of Comics, but I’m not entirely sure. Again, the focus was primarily on works that came out in the UK, but there was a quantity of, as the title suggested, world comics’ history on display as well. This was probably my first experience of manga, the first time I saw work by Crumb, the first time I got a vague feeling of the vast wealth of material that was available around the planet. I didn’t scour the book in as much depth as the Encyclopedia, though must have kept it out from the library for a good couple of months.

The only other available title was a book by Alan McKenzie. Probably around the same time as the book came out, McKenzie became the new Tharg – fictional editor of 2000AD. The period he presided over is considered one of the weakest periods the magazine ever experienced in terms of material. This presumably wasn’t helped by his printing a number of stories he had written himself. His writing was utterly appalling in my opinion, though as an editor he did still manage to break a few names into the big time. But again, another tale for another day. McKenzie’s book was all about how to write and draw a comic. This interested me (don’t worry – I’m planning a horribly detailed trawl through my own attempts at comic creation soon, chums!), but for some reason the book didn’t. Perhaps it was McKenzie’s style of writing (did I mention how poor it was?), maybe I just wasn’t as interested as I thought, but over the two or three months of continued renewing I can’t have ever read much more than twenty pages. Could be because there weren’t enough pictures.

The final major reference tome that came into my possession was, I believe, the Penguin Book of Comics. The authors or editors names escape me, but I seem to recall that it was an English edition of what was originally an American book. Thus, like dear old Denis, their focus was very much on the of the pond their bread was buttered (ungh! Mix that metaphor, baby!). This was given to me as a Christmas present one year, and I think I spent a great deal of time flicking through it while the rest of the family were engrossed in a Bond film or some such. That was until I came to part of the section on French comics. Many of you are probably unaware that Barbarella was originally a comic. The editors here were. I decided not to mention the images, though assume that the book would still open on that exact page if dropped today.

I didn’t buy or read many more books about the medium after that. I had gleaned a great deal of information from these smatterings and was of course willing to learn more. That more turned up sometime later, when I accidentally happened upon an advert. For, of all things, a magazine? About comics? But there couldn’t be a market for that. Could there?

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