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 has just started.
Having left home aged 16, I was trapped, living in the only accommodation I could afford—a bedsit room in a grotty building in the salubrious sounding Eton. The reality was a shithole. I had one room in which to live, that had the following furniture:
1 wonky wardrobe
1 single, lumpy bed
1 brown, stained chest of drawers
2 chairs (a small, rickety wooden one and a slightly larger, musty armchair)
1 table on which sat a tiny, ancient, rusting Belling cooker, which had a hot plate
and a grill.
All this filled the entire room, with a tiny space to be able to shuffle from the bed to the armchair. The shared bathroom across the hall had a stark, foreboding metal bowl, which doubled as kitchen sink and washbasin. There were no curtains in the room and indeterminate stains in the bath.
In the next room was a mentally unstable, heavily homemade-tattooed ex-squaddie who played loud music all night through the paper-thin walls. I once recklessly complained, receiving only threats and the volume increasing for my bother. To compound my woes, the landlord was a fat, miserable cunt of a man, with a terrible comb-over (as if there is any other sort), who would demand his rent, in cash, on the dot, every month. I suspect he wasn’t paying taxes. Worse, his personal hygiene and sartorial elegance were woefully lacking.
I would work from 8:30am till 6pm, walk home and sustain myself on beans on toast, pot noodles or similar derivates, while, less than half a mile up the road, Etonian students were dining on foie gras and peasants. The only thing that made this particularly grim period of my life bearable in bedsit land was my passion for comics.
Every Monday, on my day off, I would scour the newsagents of Windsor for my weekly fix of comic books. The reason for this was that:
a) There were no local comic shops.
b) I couldn’t afford to go to the London comic shops every week.
c) The inequities of comic book distribution in the UK.
Until the early 1990s American comics were distributed into British newsagents by Comag. However, their policies were less than discriminating and were seemingly based on bulk, rather than consistency of titles. This meant that while one newsagent might’ve got in Captain Atom, ElfQuest, JLA and Batman and the Outsiders one week, another would’ve got Wonder Woman, Blue Beetle and X-Men. The following month this could be switched around, or completely different titles would appear. Consequently, in order for me to get my weekly fix of comics, I had to trawl across town to at least four different newsagents to ensure I didn’t miss an issue of my favourite titles. Having said that, back then I was pretty undiscerning—picking up practically anything, provided it had a logo on the cover with a circle with four stars on it surrounding the two big initials: D and C.
As a kid, DC Comics always spoke to me in a way that Marvel never did. Whether it was the characters, the writing, the art, or a combination of all three, I got something from that company that Marvel’s titles could never quite satisfy. In the UK there was a famous kid’s humour comic called Whizzer & Chips. The idea was that it was, in fact, “Two comics in one, double the fun!” You were either a “Whizz-Kid” or a “Chip-ite.” In Scottish football, you’re either a Rangers or a Celtic fan. For New Yorkers, it’s either Mets or Yankees. And for American comics… you were either a Marvel fan or a DC fan. I fell hard, and irrevocably, into the latter camp.
It was during these grim days of living in Eton that I first discovered Alan Moore’s tenure, already halfway through, on DC’s Swamp Thing. Mixed amongst the brightly coloured spandex titles and flashy superheroic gaudiness, Swamp Thing stood out with its inverted palette of muted greens, browns and blues, and dark, heavily inked and brooding fully painted covers. This was something different. Something special. And very possibly something dangerous. I was hooked. These tales of menstruating werewolves, sub-aquatic vampires and terrors too terrible to tell, kept me awake at night. It never occurred to me that this writer was the same one who had wowed me just a few years earlier with D.R. & Quinch in 2000 AD and V for Vendetta in Warrior.