It Came From Behind The Shelf No.5

Film, Media, Reading & Writing

I tend to get billed as the most English of writers, but there’s another side to this. From a very early age I was utterly immersed in US culture.

I knew the rules of baseball and what a ‘rain check’ was. I could name most American cars and movie stars. I read Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and Edgar Allen Poe. I wanted all the stuff I saw in the backs of American comics. I wanted 100 magnets and civil war figures, I wanted to sell ‘Grit’ and send away for the Charles Atlas Body-Building Course. And I had very specific needs about the comics themselves. I wanted to see Batman fight the Joker on top of a giant hat. I wanted another issue featuring Superman Red and Superman Blue. I wanted The Atom to tackle other carnivorous plants apart from a Venus Flytrap. I collected Jack Kirby’s bubblegum cards and every Marvel comic and Mad magazine, and even lame wannabes Cracked and Sick. I could tell Harvey Kurtzman from John Severin. I was more American than a kid from Kansas.

Which made it all the more embarrassing that I was a skinny English Londoner stuck in a hard-up, postwar, grey little world.

But as I graduated from magazines to books, I didn’t take American culture with me. I was reading Hesse and Kafka and de Maupassant, but didn’t get on with Hemingway or (at that point, although I now love him) Fitzgerald. I read everything Bradbury and Steinbeck ever wrote, though, but it seemed to me that US writers were best at recreating the pleasures and pains of childhood. As for the pulps, I never understood all the threatening stuff with guns – and still don’t.

American reality was another matter. I became obsessed with US concerns; Kent State, Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon’s impeachment meant far more to me than anything in British politics.

Along the way I started buying The National Lampoon, which had grown out of the Harvard Lampoon, and was filled with writing that switched from Pulitzer-level to low, hilarious cruelties. One issue was printed entirely in 3D, and its cover featured Stevie Wonder in 3D glasses. Highlighting an issue about the gap between the first and third worlds, Lampoon’s most outrageous cover went uncommented upon; it featured a starving Biafran baby made of Belgian chocolate.

The arrival of the Bush era swiftly sealed Lampoon’s fate; it turned right into nasty, then dumb, and finally collapsed. Some of its writers survived alone, some failed. I blame the arrival of hard-right comic writer PJ O’Rourke, whose funny but mean-spirited work undermined the liberal studenty views of the founders. A terrific book about the rise and fall of the Lampoon writers called ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’ is a good place to start if you’re interested.

Oh, and what did I find down the back of my shelves? (They are very deep) Every single copy of the National Lampoon except No.1, from when it began to when it stopped being funny. An immense and often hilarious chronicle of American history, seen through smart collegiate eyes. The Lampoon website still runs, but contains none of the laughter and insight of its progenitors.

3 comments on “It Came From Behind The Shelf No.5”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Ah Harvey Kurtzman
    Ah Jack Kurby
    Ah F. Scott, Hesse, Kafka shorts
    Ah not so much the National Lampoon, but early-early MAD big AH.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Ah, early MAD indeed. Spy vs Spy. No, I won’t go any further.

  3. Rob Nott says:

    My favourite ads from the pages of early ’70s Marvel/DC comics were for the (and I’m writing this from memory without checking the dusty archive copies in my infeasibly large comic/book collection) 6′ long Polaris submarine with working telescope, and nuclear missile launching system. Big enough for two kids to sit sit inside, the ads boasted. And indeed the sketch (notably, not a photo. That would give the game away!) of the toy did indeed show two very happy American kids sitting inside the main submarine tower – one operating the ‘working periscope’ while the other had his finger on the anti-Commie nuclear trigger button. And the best bit? It cost roughly $4.99 (plus shipping). Yes – a Polaris submarine with torpedo racks for less than five dollars! What boy wouldn’t want that for Christmas? And every year it was top of my Santa list, and every year I didn’t have it as a present, because that was 1972 and no one in Cornwall knew how to order stuff from the United States of America, even if it was cheap. Looking back now I realise that he $4.99 price tag was something of a warning sign and if I had received it as a present I suspect it would have been a few sheets of cardboard that you had to slot together. But still. Childhood dreams make things like that into things of magic and wonder. 🙂

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