Tim Pilcher, ex-Vertigo Comics editor, is serialising the first chapter of his new book Comic Book Babylon: A Cautionary Tale of Sex, Drugs & Comics on Bleeding Cool. The Kickstarter to fund publication starts next week.
Chapter One: Description of the Writer as a Young Man
“I can tread on the heels of his memories, see through his child’s eyes and feel the early blossoming of his self-awareness.”
– Millennium Fever
My dad held me tightly by the hand as he strode through a crowded, noisy, smelly London fruit’n’veg street market. The road was littered with banana boxes, discarded orange tissue wrappers and abandoned grapes. My little legs struggled to keep pace with his determined stride, while simultaneously trying to dodge through the labyrinthine crowd. His long, dark, Seventies-style hair blew in the summer breeze, as I looked up at his Zapata-moustachioed face. Where we were going, I didn’t know, but when we got there, there was a hushed reverence about the place.
The shop was a rag-tag mess of piles of magazines, stacks of Hawkwind albums, musty old science fiction paperbacks and bins of bargain basement comics. Various hairy, young men shuffled about the place rummaging through the endless publications, panning for gold. The place reeked of patchouli oil, presumably to mask the mustiness of old paper and poor personal hygiene.
The most impressive thing there was a huge wooden cut-out figure of Captain America by Jack Kirby on the wall, just above the stairs to the basement. His dynamic pose, leaping towards the viewer in the bright red, white and blue of the costume, as he brandished his giant shield, seared itself into my brain. From then on I was hooked on comics. I was five years old. The shop was Dark They Were and Golden Eyed.
To non-comic fans it’s hard to describe how important Dark They Were and Golden Eyed was to the modern British comics industry. This was where it all began. It was the first proto-comic shop in the UK. British Comics Fandom had its roots here. Mike Lake and Nick Landau met here and formed the legendary conflicted powerhouse duo that would set up the Forbidden Planet retail chain, Titan Distribution and Titan Books publishing house. Paul Hudson worked here and would go on to run three successful Comic Showcase shops in London, Cambridge and Oxford. Josh Palmano used to visit here and eventually set up his famous Gosh! Comics—possibly the best loved comic shop in London today. It was the clubhouse of what were to become some of the most influential comic creators the UK ever produced. Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore and Bryan Talbot all hung out here. As did Marvel UK and Warrior founder Dez Skinn. And a teenage mop-haired, leather-jacketed Neil Gaiman would frequently pop in, before heading off down the road to catch the latest bands at The Marquee, whenever he got into London. This was the nexus point. Genesis. Ground Zero. THE BIG BANG. In musical terms, Dark They Were… was the Sex Pistols playing at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976.
Dark They Were… was run by Derek “Bram” Stokes and took its convoluted name from a Ray Bradbury short story. Some kids’ dads take them religiously to football matches every Saturday and inspire a life-long tribal loyalty to the sport. My dad was different. For the few brief years we lived at the Toc H men’s hostel in Fitzroy Square, London, every Saturday morning, he would take me down to Dark They Were… I’d check out the comic bins, while he’d look through the endless science fiction paperbacks, like Michael Moorcock’s Elric series and William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters. The latter had a profound effect on me as a child, with its’ evocative cover of a tribal man with a spear fighting a giant crab-like creature, painted by supreme fantasy artist, Boris Vallejo.
This small proto-comic shop was where I was spiritually born.