All my love to long ago
Originally posted May 2, 2010
Back during the Easter break, I found myself standing in a cold and bare basement, staring at a piece of comic art I hadn't seen in more than a quarter of a century, and my mouth was filled with the taste of the worst orange cordial I'd ever had in my entire life.
* * *
Memory can unexpectedly spark across the decades. You might think you've forgotten something, but it can be sitting there in a dark corner of the mind for years, and all it needs is a decent trigger.
It's been well established that the sense of smell is one of the best triggers for unintended memory - I could have sworn I caught a scent of 1998 the other day that made me ache to play Resident Evil 2 - but anything can do it. Listening to a song after not hearing it in years can often be unintentionally moving. Even songs that were once hated can have real emotional heft years later, with their reminders of days gone by.
The biggest unexpected rush of nostalgia I had before that Easter experience came when I put some reggae on the stereo and then heard it from another room. Something about that particular skank, that unmistakable beat, vibrating through the walls hit me in a way I hadn't been hit in years, and it felt like I was seven years old again, shuttled off to bed while all the cool older kids stayed up and sneakily smoked cigarettes and listened to some Wailers. There was a sudden rush of memory and feeling that was almost overpowering and I had to sit down for a bit.
That's what happened in that basement when I saw Captain Sunshine.
* * *
Not that Captain Sunshine. This one. Drawn by Colin Wilson before he went off to do Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper and Blueberry and Star Wars, there was only one issue of Captain Sunshine ever published and it was put out as a promotional push for a wrist-watch that was based on the principal of a sundial.
I'm still not sure how that worked.
* * *
Nostalgia is not always a good thing - wallowing in the past has ruined a lot of modern mainstream comics, keeping them in a state of unfortunate arrested development, and it's depressing how rare it is to see a major Hollywood blockbuster that isn't based on something movie executives liked when they were kids.
Change is one of the great constants of the universe, and it is good. Nothing stays the same forever and it really shouldn't. Mental, physical and spiritual evolution is an ongoing project throughout existence and within our entertainments. We change and everything changes with us.
But that doesn't mean we can't still enjoy all the things that once meant so much to us. There is still worth in the past, there is still warmth to be found in specific memories. As long as we don't live in the past and recognise the importance of the now, there is nothing wrong with wallowing in memories.
* * *
I almost missed the comic exhibition that featured the Captain Sunshine art altogether. Down in Wellington for a party on a boat, it was a glorious coincidence that the Armageddon pop culture expo was on. I managed to get a bunch of old comics, including the first ever Fantastic Four annual and some Legends of the Dark Knight and one of Paradox's Big Books that I astonished to realise I didn't have, and was wandering back to the hotel wondering if I could live without Lance Parkin's updated Doctor Who timeline when I saw the sign for the exhibition on a doorway I was passing.
I knew it was on, having read about it on Adrian Kinnaird's excellent kiwi-comics blog From Earth's End, and was genuinely chuffed to stumble across it like that. My knowledge of New Zealand comics is spectacularly woeful, but I'm trying to make up for lost time.
And it was a real eye opener. The rooms the comic art was being displayed in looked like something out of a Saw movie, but there were examples of locally produced art going back decades, a fascinating hint of the medium hanging on in there at the arse end of the world. Comics endure.
(You can see some shots of it and a good wrap up on Adrian's blog here. He was shooting some of them while I was wandering about, but I'm not in them.)
Most of it was all new to me. Some of it, like Barry Linton's grubby laughs, was oddly familiar. But then I saw the first page of Captain Sunshine and I couldn't believe I had forgotten about it.
* * *
This is what I suddenly remembered when I saw that art - sitting on the floor at my Aunty Val and Uncle Soul's place, reading that comic and drinking terrible, terrible orange cordial.
I know I was only about four years old, because that's when that comic came out, and that's when they lived in that house. By that standard, it's the earliest clear memory I have of reading comic books. I can remember reading a bunch of them when I was a little bit older there were definitely issues of Richie Rich, X-Men and Ms Marvel by the time I was in school, but nothing as early as that Captain Sunshine stuff.
The weird part is I had completely forgotten it had existed at all until I saw it again and the memory was so overpowering I swear I could taste that cordial in the back of my mouth. It was always there in my head, but it never popped up again in all these years, until now.
And no wonder, I haven't seen a copy of Captain Sunshine in a quarter of a century. Now I can remember seeing it everywhere when I was younger, in supermarkets and dairies and bookshops all over the country. There were 100,000 copies of that first issue produced and they ended up everywhere.
* * *
It was a warm and fuzzy feeling, seeing that art and feeling those memories surge to the surface. All that time ago, and it felt like it could have been yesterday.
And the really funny thing is that I think it only lodged in a deep part of my memory only because when I was a kid I hated the fucking thing.
I hated the cheapness of it, I hated the washed out and sickly colours, I hated the complicated sci fi of it, I hated the fact that it was everywhere and I couldn't read any other comics because that was the only thing that shop on the Kaikoura cost was selling. (At least they had the novelisation of Meglos.)
Whenever he talks about Marvelman, Alan Moore points out that he had a very low opinion of the comic as a youngster. If you couldn't get any Fantastic Four, or an Eagle or anything else, he would settle for a Marvelman, because it was still comics. It was still better than anything.
But his low opinion of Marvelman didn't stop him from having some genuine affection for the character, and that affection did shine through in his own crack at the concept. Just because we hate something as kids doesn't mean we can't have some feeling for it.
Because I would love to get my hands on an issue of Captain Sunshine now, but like all ephemera, it got lost in history. Even though issues of the comic used to clog second hand bookstores, they gradually faded away and I haven't seen one in years. Seeing the cover and first page was enough to bring it all flooding back and I can't help wondering how much more of a head trip it would be to read the rest.
* * *
It certainly helps that my appreciation of Colin Wilson has matured significantly over the years. He has only broken into the US industry relatively recently with Sleeper prequel Point Blank, a few issues of The Losers and a current commitment to the Star Wars universe, but he has decades of fine work behind him now.
His wonderfully grimy art, which also combines a real sense of kinetic energy with a detailed environment, is full of distinct characters. Any chance to read his his youthful and enthusiastic work is surely to be treasured, even with those awful colours.
* * *
But mostly I want to read it because it's a pivotal part of my personal comics past. It's certainly one of the first things I ever read, and definitely the first one I actually hated.
To retreat into that comfortable nostalgia, if only for a while, is not such a bad thing. Even with that cordial taste.