Sex, Drugs & Comics – A Survivor’s Tale Part Eight

Comic-Book-Baylon-PBK-cover2-lo-res1-227x350Tim 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 has just started.

Comics were undoubtedly in my blood from day one. I had “four colour funnies” running through my veins before I’d even heard the expression. Cut me and I bled cyan, magenta, yellow and black. I inhaled the musty smell of old comics, as if they were perfume. I sweated Indian ink and I came in process white. It was my destiny to work in comics.

At least that’s what I told myself as I folded a purple-striped business shirt and put it back on the shelf for the fourth time that day, fighting back the mind-numbing tedium that gnawed at the back of my brain. I had spent the best part of a year working in Austin Reed’s menswear shop in “The Royal Borough of Windsor” and was slowly being driven insane by the banality and poor dress sense of local businessmen. I had started working there on Saturdays while at Windsor & Maidenhead Art College studying “Design & Display” in the misguided belief that this was a graphic design course. It turned out that it was, in fact, window dressing, and I was the only guy on the course. The only thing that I did of any note there was to make a replica of V for Vendetta’s Guy Fawkes-inspired mask—based on the cover painting by Garry Leach on the cover of Warrior #11. This was 25 years before the Anonymous “hacktivists” and the Occupy movement adopted the image and made it a ubiqutos bête noire. After six months of less-than-enthusiastic input from me the art college asked me to “shape up or ship out.” I chose the latter, and rashly took up a full-time position at Windsor’s premier men’s outfitters.

There is something inherently creepy about men’s suit retailers, and Austin Reed’s was no exception. For those that have ever seen The Fast Show’s “Suits you, Sir!” sketches, it was exactly like that. Paul Whitehouse’s character even looked like my manager, Barry.

My time at Austin Reed’s was tedious beyond belief. We once had a promo video installed with a TV screen in our department and we were unable to turn the sound down. Thus, we were subjected to the same musical loop every 15 minutes, eight hours a day, five days a week, for over a month. Even now, if I hear Captain of Her Heart by Double, or Bill Withers’ Lovely Day I have a Pavlovian compulsion to smash the nearest television set. The only highlights of the Austin Reed days were a schoolboy crush on my 50-year-old co-worker, Carol (I had a thing for older women), and serving TV presenter, Johnny Ball.

He was getting ready to do a new series of his famous maths/science programmes; Think of a Number; Think Again…; Think of a Title With the Word Think in It, etc. He was a lovely bloke, but had absolutely no dress sense. He needed a series of tie and shirts for the show and I helped show him which ties matched with which shirts. It was a mild joy switching on the TV and seeing him wearing the clothes I’d sold him, and more importantly, in the right combinations. When I remarked this to his daughter, Zoe, years later at an awards do, she jokingly agreed that her dad’s dress sense was cause of much consternation in the Ball household.