It was September, 1989 and I was stood in a room packed with comics professionals, trestle table upon trestle table of big name writers, artists, and editors from Marvel, DC and others. I'd just returned from either the lavatory or from buying myself a massive stack of X-Men comics in some other room of the convention, and as arranged I had found Charlie just where he said he would be, but it seemed that he had made a new friend. The instant I laid eyes upon Blinky, I saw him for what he was - the enemy, the kind of person about which I'd been warned but whom I hadn't really believed could exist in our universe. This was a man without any Elvis in him. As Blinky spoke, I felt as though someone had stepped across my grave, and then stepped back and dropped their trousers to deposit a fecal calling card. I was in the presence of the supremely cloying, of that which inspired the conviction that I must get away even if it meant chewing through one of my own limbs in order to effect an escape. My thoughts would from now on be filled entirely with the matter of how much longer I would have to remain in his odious presence, unable even to conceptualise some sweet future hour in which I would be far away from Blinky, and his blinking, and his athletic name-dropping. Suffice to say, I thought the guy was a bit of a knob.
I met Charlie Adlard back in 1985 as we were both taking a fine art degree at the Time Based Media department of Maidstone College of Art. We became good friends almost immediately. We both liked science-fiction and the music of Simple Minds, and we shared the same faintly puerile sense of humour. A further parallel was to be found in our mutual reluctance to adapt fully to self-consciously Bohemian college society. Charlie tended to dress smartly, at least to job interview standards, always appearing very clean and well groomed; and whilst the same could hardly be said of myself, neither of us particularly enjoyed jazz, free-form poetry, inscrutable European cinema, marijuana, or any of those other beatnik staples our fellows seemed to regard as cultural essentials. Whilst I attempted to pass off grumbling and poorly-executed music videos as art, Charlie's sensibilities often seemed even more at odds with the core values of the course. Having a more openly populist view of film and video, he'd been accepted on the strength of, amongst other things, Sweet Dreams, a home made horror feature shot on super 8mm film which figured amongst his earlier associations with the living dead, effected on this occasion by theatrical make-up rather than ink on artboard. We collaborated from time to time, helping each other out on various projects, Charlie acting or presenting in a few of my admittedly crappy video productions; and Total Big - the group I was in with my friend Carl - supported Soul, a noisy widescreen rock band for which Charlie played drums; and probably most significantly, he got me hooked on comics.
More or less the entire student body of our college had travelled up to London in order to attend a protest march against proposed education cuts, and during a break between chanting and waving placards, a few of us inevitably ended up in the pub. Charlie and our mutual friend Gareth - another Time Based Media student - had nipped off to a comic shop called Forbidden Planet, and now returned with their spoils, which in Gareth's case included a couple of issues of The Dark Knight Returns.
'You bought a Batman comic?' I asked, incredulous, my mental cinema awash with a slightly paunchy Adam West frowning, fist to palm as Robin exclaims Holy Robert Louis Stevenson, Batman.
Gareth's response was probably something more coherent than Pow! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Any More!, but I expect it duplicated the thrust of one of those magazine articles that had begun to appear under such titles. I examined the comic and was impressed by the quality of art and printing, but it still seemed like a strange thing to me. Nevertheless I guess The Dark Knight Returns had sparked my curiosity because some months later, Charlie and I were wandering around the Maidstone branch of Sainsbury's when, passing the magazine rack, I picked up an X-Men comic, specifically issue 211. I didn't really have any sort of comic habit, having given up on 2000AD a year or so before thanks to a sudden surfeit of unusually poor strips - The Mean Arena being one such offender - and I'd had no contact with an American Marvel comic since junior school.
'This still exists,' I noted.
'There's quite a good story running in there at the moment.' Charlie was clearly familiar with the title, and for some reason I found this surprising.
'Who's that supposed to be?' I indicated the snarling figure on the cover. 'I remember Cyclops and the Angel and that lot, but I don't think I know this one.'
'What does he do?'
'He has a metal skeleton and he extrudes claws which can cut through almost anything.'
I was suddenly aware of being a full grown man - at least in the physical sense - whilst finding this unfamiliar X-Person intriguing as a concept. It seemed there was a contradiction in there somewhere, or at least something of which I should probably be ashamed. If only it didn't feel so damn good.
'I think I will buy this.' I placed the comic in my basket, boldly, as though having emerged from a notional closet.
Within the year I was a connoisseur, tracking down back issues, collecting obscure editions of other distantly related titles through which some sprawling storyline had taken a detour, and making a monthly Hajj to the comic shop Forbidden Planet by means of National Express coach. Parallel to the onset of my addiction, my friend Carl had introduced me to the more underground comics of Robert Crumb, Bill Griffiths, Jay Lynch, Drew Friedman and others, either responding to my increasing interest in the medium, or else attempting an intervention in the hope of saving me from the spandex ghetto. I took to producing my own comics, inspired in equal parts by the mainstream titles, the undergrounds, my own abandoned formative efforts from a few years earlier - which had in turn been inspired by the strips in Sounds music paper drawn by Alan Moore and Savage Pencil - and, most significantly, the fact that I was bored absolutely shitless with video art and needed some sort of creative outlet.
College came to an end, and by 1989 Charlie and myself, still united by an appreciation of X-Men comics, had arrived at similar artistic places albeit by different routes. He too was keen to pursue a career as a comic artist, and exhibited an endearing faith in my ability to crank out a half decent story. I'd been drawing my own absurdist pseudo-underground strips for various fanzines, but my ability fell some way short of my ambitions with respect to more mainstream work of the kind which would at least catch the attention of 2000AD or similar; and so resumed our creative partnership.
I had written some of a strip called Berserker, a generally lamentable effort involving telepathy, psychokinesis, aliens, the theories of Richard S. Shaver and all the usual stuff all bundled together and named after a Gary Numan album. Charlie did his best to illustrate the script I had provided but was hindered by the fact that it didn't actually have a story. Nevertheless we soldiered on, at last producing a few short eight page strips titled News From Nowhere which turned up in small press publications such as Inkling and Sideshow Comics.
We began to attend comic conventions, lugging samples of our work around in the hope of it catching the eye of a larger publisher, notably at UKCAC - the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention unfortunately acronomised as yoo-cack - held at the University of London in September, 1989. I had never before found myself surrounded by quite so many comic book enthusiasts, and never having been a fan of crowds, the experience was bewildering, even with the excitement of showing our work to persons whose comics we'd been reading. Marv Wolfman in particular stood out as a name I somehow recalled from as far back as the 1970s, and as the then current writer of the New Teen Titans of which I was a fan; in addition, he was not only American, but Jewish and from New York. This made him seem very exotic and exciting to me. He considered the work that Charlie and I had lain before him and smiled indulgently, this probably being the ten-thousandth time someone had tried too hard to impress him that day.
'I like what you guys are doing, but this thing with the originality of your ideas,' he began in response to some bumbling crap I had offered by way of an explanation. 'Well, I mean you can have a guy with a banana in his ear,' - and at this point both Charlie and myself thrilled at the broad and unfamiliar American pronunciation of banana - 'but I mean, Banana-in-the-Ear Man may be original, but you still have to tell a story.'
We remained awestruck for the next few minutes, energised by our encounter with greatness and oblivious to the fact of our having fallen a long way short of making a sale. We joked about producing a Banana-in-the-Ear Man strip for the sake of having created by Marv Wolfman tucked away in the corner of the title page.
After a few more attempts to sell ourselves as the next big thing I began to experience convention fatigue, possibly due to Charlie having a bit more drive than I did. I went off for a wander, either in search of the lavatory or to buy myself a massive stack of X-Men comics in some other room of the convention.
When I returned, Blinky had already introduced himself and was now schooling Charlie on how best to get ahead at comic conventions. He had scripts and he needed an artist, and his confidence in his own talent was terrifying to the point of bordering on the obnoxious.
His name wasn't Blinky, obviously, but I've renamed him a quarter century later after an involuntary tic which caused him to blink at least once a second, sometimes twice. Whilst it is undoubtedly poor form to make light of this one unfortunate physical characteristic of the boy - and he was a boy, fifteen years old at the upper limit I would guess - specifically referencing him by a name directly mocking what I suppose could be classified as a disability, I do so on the grounds of his being a thoroughly unpleasant tosspot who would later engage himself with a number of bewildering attempts to sabotage Charlie's eventually burgeoning career, so screw him and his big red shoes.
Blinky was young and precocious with an unpleasantly smooth face which was yet to require the attention of a razor blade, and always appeared to be looking down upon whomever it was addressing at the time; and he spoke just a little too quickly, a faintly upper class whine cultivated in an affluent suburb of north London, a voice which lent itself to dismissing the listener as uninformed.
He was speaking to Charlie at ninety miles an hour, somehow effecting to sound both excited and yet at the same time oddly jaded by his own words, as though this undeniably wonderful information was the sort of thing which really anyone with half a brain should know. The information was something to do with a man called Neil, referred to with the familiarity of a personal acquaintance, someone with whom Blinky would be meeting later. Furthermore, it turned out that we would also be meeting him, because Blinky had recruited us as his street team in my absence. After a few minutes I realised he was referring to Neil Gaiman, just then beginning to accrue some fame in comic book circles.
'Well, we'll just have to see what Neil says.'
Blink. Blink. Blink.
I understood then that my initial assessment had been correct. This person was a tool, someone for whom status was directly related to relative fame within the established parameters of fandom. This, as Mojo Nixon would surely concur, was a person with no Elvis in him, the human personification of a beige cardigan or a packet of cheese and onion crisps consumed whilst reading a Batman comic.
We bustled along in the crowded hall, the three of us apparently subsumed by Operation Blinky. I wasn't sure what to make of this development. Charlie seemed to be okay with the guy, and I wanted to trust his judgement. On the other hand, I myself was fairly secure in my reservations, but found myself unable to really clarify them with enough resolve to be worth voicing. Operation Blinky came to nothing because, it was surmised, Neil was probably too busy or something.
In the months that followed, Charlie began to find paying work, notably regular strips in collaboration with Tim Quinn for the BBC's Number One magazine and The Sunday People. He'd even drawn a few strips written by Blinky, notably the portentously titled They Call Him The Marshal which, so far as I could tell, seemed to be Pat Mills' Marshal Law for some reason revised as a straightforward superhero adventure; but the partnership hadn't worked out so well, because Blinky was essentially a nutcase. My understanding was that Charlie had admired the kid's ruthless networking more than his scripts, and a visit to the family home in north London had been awkward and uncomfortable. Blinky's parents were good people, but the boy had revealed himself as prone to the weird temper tantrums of the unbalanced.
Meanwhile the two of us had worked together on a four part story titled A Reflection which we hoped might be picked up by Trident Publications, publisher of Mark Millar's Saviour amongst other titles. Charlie's artwork was really coming into its own by this point, but my writing was at best probably unremarkable, and A Reflection never found a home. A few years later it became subject, along with David Britton's Lord Horror, to discussion in an article on crime comics by Paul A. Woods which was featured in an issue of Knave, the monthly gentleman's interest magazine, but that was otherwise the end of that. We'd also produced a number of other prospective efforts, complete stories - such as they were - fired off to Marvel, DC, or IPC in the hope of their landing upon a sympathetic desk. After a while it became obvious that Charlie's ambition and enthusiasm had somewhat outstripped mine, as had his ability. This never became a subject of contention, but was simply the way things were. My main focus remained on the shorter, more underground strips for fanzines which I drew myself, and which I found more fun to produce.
At the next UKCAC we attended I was surprised and a little irritated to find we were met once again by Blinky. I'm fairly certain that by this point Charlie was already drawing in a professional capacity at some level, although Blinky still seemed to regard us as potential ladder holders by which he might continue his ascent towards caped destiny. On the first morning I found myself stood in a reception area as Blinky set a video camera on a tripod, directing us with tersely delivered suggestions. Charlie was helping in some capacity, but I don't think he knew quite what was expected, so perhaps we were a posse, the guys stood around in the background making funny shapes with our fingers so as to present the appearance of something so large that it must be taken seriously.
Neil had promised Blinky an interview for some private project, unless it was Alan or Grant or someone else with whom this pushy and faintly unpleasant schoolboy preposterously affected to be on first name terms; but Neil or Alan or Grant or whoever was running late had failed to appear, consistent with all odds. Blinky's elder and entirely more personable brother made some suggestion which was greeted with a snappy dismissal of the kind which inevitably arises when an important person finds himself obliged to rely upon incompetent inferiors.
Unsure of quite what I was doing there, I found myself talking to Phil Elliott whom I'd spotted passing through the reception area. Phil Elliott is a comic artist and designer now best known for his work with Escape and Fast Fiction, the seminal English small press publisher and distributor. I knew him better as the artist of The Suttons which had appeared in The Maidstone Star, which had been my local newspaper for a while. He seemed pleasantly surprised that someone should remember The Suttons and we enjoyed a briefly conversational chat about life in Maidstone. Blinky hovered around at the periphery, apparently hoping to deduce whether I was talking to someone who might be considered famous. I'd heard him endlessly gibbering on about X-Men comics, Watchmen, Frank, Neil, Grant, and so on and so forth; and in my mercifully limited experience I had not had him pegged as someone with even the slightest interest in comics beyond the caped and mainstream variety.
'Excuse me, Mr. Elliott, I wonder if you could spare five minutes for a short interview.'
Blink. Blink. Blink.
Luckily for me, my friend Carl had also stumped up the price of admission that year, and he had no intention of being drawn into Blinky's web of low-level sociopathic manure. I knew Charlie had grown weary of the Machiavellian little turd, but not so much as to allow for the necessary cessation of manners by which he could tell him to piss off. My own tolerance was less robust, and Carl understood this so we went off to browse for comics, this being why we had come to UKCAC in the first place. At some point later Blinky tracked us down and deposited himself at our table as we sat drinking tea in the canteen. Charlie was off somewhere showing samples of his work to a publisher, he told us. Blinky explained that he was proud of Charlie, apparently somehow unaware that we both knew Charlie substantially better than he did. Another thing Blinky had somehow failed to appreciate was that we had nothing in common with him and no interest in what he had to say. He began to offer his unsolicited views on Batman, Wonder Woman, what Neil thought of this, that and the other. We finished and got up, then began to walk away. Blinky followed, reluctant to deprive us of his monologue. Carl and I walked faster and Blinky increased his pace accordingly, still talking all the while.
'On the count of three.' Carl took a deep breath, a quick glance to ensure that I understood as his voice sank to just above a whisper. 'One - two - three—' We ran, sprinting away from Blinky as fast as we could without falling over, howling with laughter at the absurdity of the situation, that such a schoolboy act should have proven necessary. We never saw him again other than as a distant face to avoid observed as it moved within a crowd, and neither did Charlie further enjoy the benefit of his advice so far as I'm aware. In any case, Charlie's efforts were beginning to pay off as he began drawing Judge Dredd strips, and then secured a regular gig as the artist of Armitage in the Judge Dredd magazine.
Blinky, apparently having abandoned his attempts to break into comics on the strength of They Call Him The Marshal and whatever else he'd come up with, settled down to writing about what others were doing, producing a comics industry fanzine capitalising on the cancellation of the long-running Speakeasy. The fanzine has done well, and is still going even now. It began on the premise of there being no publications then covering both comics and music; just as there were no publications specialising in both American foreign policy and celebration cakes, or classic cars and ironing. So Blinky's Charivari as it wasn't actually called stepped in to fill the presumed gap, covering comics just as Speakeasy had done before even to the point of recycling some of the regular features of its predecessor, alongside reviews of records by Nirvana, Suede, and all those other bands struggling to get by without coverage in the many, many existing music papers and related magazines. I saw a few issues but all I can recall - aside from a tone of self-congratulation and constant reminders of which famous people had praised the magazine that week - was one of those big head caricatures accompanying some review, badly drawn macrocephalic Kurt Cobain and that Dinosaur Junior bloke bumping fists to represent a cool and awesome meeting of awesome minds, which was of course awesome; and Blinky's scathing summary of the Armitage strip in Judge Dredd magazine which hilariously observed that Armitage was also the name of a company who manufacture ceramic toilet bowls, and the art of Charlie Adlard was like something found in a toilet bowl.
I expect he was referring to poo. Do you see?
Charlie continued to slave over a hot drawing board, getting promoted from one title to another, before ending up as regular artist on Image's absurdly successful Walking Dead, the enduring appeal of which means that Charlie now lives in a hollowed out volcano complete with ICBM and his own private army.
You probably won't have read about that in Blinky's Charivari, but never mind.