Inspiring Older Readers
Comics helped to make me the man I am ( I think that’s a good thing....?)
When I think back to the Christmases of my childhood – actually into my very early teens – comic annuals are an ever-present and indispensible feature of present opening. I’m pretty sure that the world would have tilted off its axis if I didn’t have a Beano and Dandy annual to settle down with. As I got older I sacrificed The Dandy in favour of a more grown-up read – something like The Victor .which would have a good dose of war stories and sport between the covers.
Of course, Christmas was just the tip of the iceberg. The real and lasting thrill of the comic was the weekly delivery that plopped through the letterbox and for which I waited with almost fevered expectation. The Beano was always a guaranteed good read – Lord Snooty and his Pals or Denis The Menace were reliable quality and there was the occasional free gift to spice it up. However, my fondest memories are for a comic called The Hornet which I think had only a brief lifespan before it became incorporated into The Victor.
Until I was around 13 or 14 I didn’t read books and we didn’t have books in the house – my parents weren’t readers – and so these comics were my windows on the world of imagination. The Hornet seemed to have a lot of war stories in which British heroes achieved frankly insane acts of bravery and, looking back, I suppose that’s entirely understandable given that at the time these stories were written the country was barely 15 years out of a world war of previously unimaginable proportions and had ended up on the winning side.
Sporting heroes were also big news. In particular I remember William Wilson a runner who competed in a generically ‘old-fashioned’ black leotard and who was an astonishing record breaker. The key to this story was that Wilson was in fact extremely old (I can’t remember just how old but, trust me, old...) and he was able to be this extraordinary athlete because he had learned how to slow his pulse and heartbeat down to such a level that he barely aged.
But above all, and my absolute favourite, was Alf Tupper, Tough of the Track. Alf was a scrap-metal dealer who was also a wonder athlete. However, because he managed on such a low income he depended on finding his kit in the discards and the rubbish. If necessary, Alf would run, like Wilson, barefoot even if the pain this caused him was beyond mere mortals.
I don’t really remember how the stories of Wilson or Alf were developed – it all sounds terribly dull from this distance – but in my mind both spent inordinate amounts of time thwarting various arrogant foreign runners (who were also spies) who sneered at our heroes and their eccentricities.
Looking back now I’m struck by how astute the comic proprietors were in terms of their audience. Pretty much all of the central characters in all of the stories were working class and specialised in overcoming the odds. Talent rather than money – so the stories ran – was the key to success; an early story of the power of the meritocracy myth. It’s also true that the war stories focussed on the ranks or the non-commissioned officers and, ultimately, much of what they did was for their immediate comrades. Upper class officers were always looking on in the margins however providing a commentary on the salt-of-the-earth qualities of the British grunt.
Whatever the politics I lapped them up and these stories were my eventual gateway to books. I have the greatest respect for the often anonymous writers of these comic strips because they understood their craft to perfection. They gave me the ultimate pleasure of an imaginative hinterland and when I needed some space of my own they whisked me away from the two up two down house I lived in with my parents and two brothers. I owe them so much.