I’ve mentioned before, in passing, my involvement in British Comics Fandom in the Eighties, when for a few years mid-decade, I was a Big Name Fan, a recognisable name in that small but passionate and opinionated community.
When it started, I was in my late twenties, but believe me, I was far from being the oldest in that group.
It was a very important phase for my writing, but it came about purely by accident, and I owe it and what has resulted from it to a guy from Birmingham called Pete Howard who, as a sixteen year old still at school, was putting together a fanzine called Shadows and wanted contributors.
They’ve disappeared now, fanzines. The impulse to write and draw, the urge to contribute, the desperation to make your opinion known has gone on-line, and we have websites instead for that sort of this, but the Eighties was something of a golden decade for fanzines, and they were dying away as the /nineties began, long before the World Wide Web was anything but a notion in Wliiam Gibson’s head.
But all over Britain, there were fans spending long hours in their bedrooms putting together home-produced magazines, to be printed in limited quantities (and at the bottom end of the scale, very limited qualities, at least so far as the printing went), hoping to sell for not-too-great-a-loss, building up circulations in double figures, and dreaming of the ideal of three.
I was reading the odd ‘zine here and there, mostly Fantasy Advertiser (or FA for short), which had near-professional printing and a circulation close to 1,000, with news, columns and interviews. But I never even dreamed of writing for a ‘zine until I got a letter from Pete, out of the blue, inviting me to contribute to Shadows.
(Technically, it wasn’t me he wrote to. Several months earlier, in a fit of enthusiasm over a Frank Miller Daredevil, I’d written a Letter of Comment to Marvel, and been stunned to see it printed. I was also stunned by the name it was printed under, ***** ******* – you don’t think I’m going to reprint that, do you? – which was my punishment for only signing my name and not printing it as well. Pete wrote to *****).
My letter had been about the use of violence, and Pete wanted something along similar lines, so I took the plunge and wrote about DC’s new series, The Omega Men, which I carefully typed up on my sister’s electric typewriter and posted off. It must have been a godsend for Pete, as he pasted the typescript into his lay-out for his printer, which made it the clearest looking thing in the next issue.
Unfortunately, that (and a decent title) were the only good things about it, because the article was a piece of crap. Although, thinking back on it now, in the light of the last thirty years, it was a pretty perceptive piece of crap. However, it went down well, and Pete wanted more, so I volunteered to write about the still-little-known Cerebus.
Second time round, I was exponentially better. I was also hooked, and before too long, Shadows, with its six-times-a-year schedule and its shitty printing, was not enough for me and I was offering to write for other ‘zines. And since I’d been identified as the best thing about Shadows in a fanzine review in FA, I was welcomed.
And I became a regular in both FA and it’s only rival in terms of circulation, Arkensword, which had even better printing and specialised in longer interviews and artwork. In addition to articles, I was a regular reviewer in FA, as well as a writer of long, erudite letters to both ‘zines.
I was so successful that when FA‘s editor, Martin Skidmore, sought to upgrade the feel of the ‘zine in an even more professional direction, I found my name added as part of the Editorial Staff.
Now I’m not telling you all of this in order to boast or brag. I was very popular – a BNF, as I said – and placed highly in the annual Polls, and I thoroughly enjoyed my fame, however limited and specialised it was (though there was a moment when, on my way into my City Centre firm, I saw a copy of FA in a newsagents near the office, with my name on its cover, and spent the day worrying about one of my colleagues spotting it: I’d have never lived down the notoriety).
No, the point of all this is about self-confidence. Some people are born with this: they are unable not to believe in themselves, and in the value of their work, however much it may differ from the standards of their time.
The rest of us, and I am firmly planted in this class, lack this at the beginning. We approach our desire to write, the urge to put words together in a way they have not been previously, with an often not-too-well hidden fear that what we can do is inadequate: that it will not entertain, enlighten, persuade or provoke the readers we hope we can find. We are in search of validation, of approval, applause of recognition, in one degree or another.
We require confidence, in ourselves and what we do.
Confidence is, naturally, worthless with ability, whether that be inborn, or learned through application. But equally, ability is helpless without confidence. We need to believe in ourselves, that what we write is not only deserving of people’s attention and their time, but that they are, in fact, willing to give that time to us.
My years in fandom, with regular feedback on the things I wrote, the chance to speak my mind, and not just express but debate opinions, was invaluable. I look back at the things I wrote, and there’s barely a line of it I wouldn’t change if I were writing those articles now, and that goes equally for the ones where I haven’t changed my opinions in the years after. But equally, I find insights, thoughts and moments of expression that I cannot imagine my coming up with now.
So the work’s a mixed bag, with the emphasis on the awkward, the clunky and the obsessive, but without the enthusiastic response, I could not have moved on to what I was to do later: I was given self-belief, and I built upon it.
I’ve spoken before about getting out in good time, of being lucky enough to recognise that I had said everything I had in me to say, but it’s as much true to say that I was ambitious to write things of my own. In fandom, I was a critic, a generally positive critic thanks to the ability to choose my own subjects and praise work that I bought for myself, and which I genuinely liked. But I was nevertheless entirely dependant upon other people’s creativity. And I wanted to do something that was of me, was my work.
That’s what led me to the Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel. But there was, eventually, to be more than just that.