By Andrew Biggs
My friend Stuart is in charge of Bangkok Comic Con, a four-day annual exhibition held at Bitec.
Stuart is an affable, friendly, wordly fellow despite his roots in Gippsland, Victoria. Or rather, he is affable and friendly for 48 weeks of the year.
As his annual event looms his face becomes strained and gaunt, and friends are tossed aside as the stressful task of running a mega comic book event takes over.
You’d think an event filled with the likes of Wonder Woman, Doraemon, Superman and Spongebob Squarepants would be kind of fun to organize. It’s not.
Stuart co-ordinates this event featuring 120 different exhibitors ranging from HBO and Warner Brothers down to independent artists and it takes a toll on his personality.
Breezy phone calls about life are replaced by “in-a-Comic-Con-meeting-call-you-back” spoken in under a second and then a clunk as my call is ruthlessly cut off … with the exception of a call I received last Tuesday.
“Two liaison officers have pulled out at the last minute,” he panted without so much as a “hi Stu it’s me”. “Do you know anybody who can do it? It’s for Comic Con.”
“I take it they need to have a basic knowledge of comics,” I answer.
“Not at all. They just need to be able to speak English. Anyway are you coming yourself? Were you ever into comics?”
Was I ever into comics?
Was I ever into comics?
Oh Stu …
I am a child of the 1970s, and much of my youth was spent lying on my bed with my eyes affixed to comic books; the same way today’s youth affixes itself to smart phones and tablets.
I didn’t have Facebook to find my friends. But I did have Richie Rich, Archie and Jughead, Electroman, Little Lotta, Superman, The Human Torch, The Invisible Woman and Batman.
I was obsessed with these characters, mainly coming from the Marvel and Harvey Comics stables, and to this day I can remember all sorts of trivialities about them. Harvey Comics’ Richie Rich was the “poor little rich boy” who, when I was 10 years of age, I could not fathom how we were supposed to feel sorry for him.
Richie had yellow hair and a big red bow tie, suggesting he was a child version of Donald Trump without the obnoxious bits. He had a friend called Little Dot, aimed towards female readers and for whom I never really had an affinity. Her quirk was that she loved “dots”, which didn’t excite me as much as the thought of having a butler, private jet, caviar for breakfast and a fountain outside my mansion.
Another of my comic obsessions was the fat girl called Little Lotta with superhuman strength, always bashing up bullies with cartoon violence that was exciting for a 10-year old. It probably explains the violence that arose in the 21st century when all those Little Lotta fans grew up.
As I grew older I progressed onto Superman, X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Green Hornet. I devoured these stories then devoured them again and again. One of the biggest fights I ever had with my younger brother was when, as retribution for my accidentally melting part of his Hot Wheels Sky Jump set, he gathered up my Marvel Comics and set fire to them in the backyard.
Each comic book contained two long stories and one short one, but they also contained ads for things only a pre-pubescent Sunnybank boy could ever dream of.
There was the Hypno-Coin, a round disc that could hypnotize your friends, that cost only a dollar. The catch? You had to send that buck to New York, in the far-flung United States, and do you think they’d send it all the way back to Australia for that piddling amount?
Other items totally out of my reach yet advertised relentlessly included a book on how to throw your voice, Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs (“See through clothing!”). How I wanted those X-Ray Specs! How I wanted to see through clothing! Consider it pre-internet porn for kids.
There were some comic book characters I never took a shine to. I was never enamored of The Amazing Spiderman. He was a little too dark and melancholic for me; I was much more at home with Archie and Jughead and Betty and Veronica, or the juvenile whodunits of Scooby Doo that spawned a TV series I watched religiously — or perhaps it was the other way around.
(I even wrote a play when I was 12 called The Groovy Cats that ended with the Cats catching a wicked janitor, whose final words were: “I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky kids!” I’ve been plagiarising ever since.)
I was about 14 years old when I stopped reading comics and moved onto books. Before I was 20 I’d gone though severe phases of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King and my all-time favorite, Roald Dahl — both the kids stuff and his wonderful adult short stories.
That was all a long time ago.
It was a little embarrassing when in 2013 Bangkok was declared the “World Book Capital.” Apparently this moniker moves from country to country each year, but why would Bangkok be even considered for such a title? World Food Capital, maybe, but books?
My own books are distributed by Thailand’s biggest bookseller and for three years now they have been feeling the pinch. It is a tragedy that books could be going the same way as music albums, thanks to the free-for-all internet and a culture in this country that does not warm to purchasing things over the net.
Despite this the news is not all bad. Thailand has a literacy rate of 96 per cent.
Three years ago the Thai reading rate was five books per year. Actually this sounds good; only it pales compared to Malaysia’s 40 books per year and Singapore’s 50. Surprisingly, Vietnamese people read 60 books per year despite having a literacy rate lower than Thailand’s.
If comic books leads to reading novels as one grows up, like it did with me, then let’s not be too down on Thai youth. They were an important step towards my current status as nerdy bookworm, and I’m proud of that.
So yes, Stuart, in reply to your flippant question I am a man who grew up on comic book characters. I craved the wealth of Richie Rich, the strength of Little Lotta, the deductive power of the Scooby Doo kids. Alas I got none of them in adulthood; although I seemed to have ended up with the brooding melancholia of Spiderman, ironically.
Stuart is my friend. I can’t let him down.
In a fit of altruism, I call him back the next day.
“Listen Stu, if you’re in a tight spot I’d be willing to help you out. After all, what are friends for? I’ll be a liaison officer for you if you can’t find anybody.”
“It’s okay we found two people,” he snaps back. “Besides you’re not really into comics are you? Listen I’m in a Comic Con meeting I’ll call you back.”