I’d just walked out on a film I’d been working on for over a year. I felt like I’d broken the spell and furthermore was no longer a prisoner to my director, Lindsay Anderson. So I had time on my hands and a quest in view. My friend KK told me that I should come and see America. It’d be worth it to buy comic books. I said I’d go to New York first. She reckoned old comics in Oregon would be less expensive. She said she’d be waiting for me at Portland airport. But it was 1972 and I was flying to New York – my first visit to America. And I was about to have a superhero experience on my first night.
After an evening at a friend’s apartment and heading back to the place I was staying, I thought I’d take advantage of being in the city and walk back through the park. I told my host “no need for a cab”. He gave me a sort of blank look but he didn’t say anything, and anyway I wasn’t up for listening. In the latest issue, Spider-Man had spun his way across Central Park with ease. It was late. The snow was deep and still falling. In the 70’s, no one in their right mind walked across Central Park after dark. But I scoffed. I waved the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man at my friend knowingly and set off…
Deep in the middle of the park, trudging through the snow, I got a bad feeling. Looking back I saw two guys following me. I changed direction. They changed direction. The snow was too deep to try running, and turning one’s back was never sensible (I knew this from comic book lore). Apprehensively, I said to myself: “This is it…”
I took off my glasses, pulled my woolly cap low, swung round quickly and headed straight toward the two guys. The closer they got, the bigger they looked. I stuffed my hands into my pockets and quickened my pace. The blurred muggers stopped in their tracks. They turned and fled. I was shaken but alive.
I put my glasses back on and spotted a glimmer of light. I drew closer and saw another lamppost. I followed the lampposts on the side of the winding road that cut through the park. I reached the iron railings and a gate. I’d made it in one piece. It was seriously cold – my teeth were clattering. It was hardly the right season to visit the States. Coming from a childhood in South Africa of relentless sunshine I always thought England was bad, but the American temperature was worse. I was staying with a friend and his wife. They heard me coming in. They could not believe I walked across Central Park through a blizzard to get home.
Little did I know that my next port of call would be as dangerous? My friend KK was one of the warmest people I had ever met. The reason I was in America was because of her. She’d invited me over to see her part of America – the Pacific Northwest, and there was a comic convention there, so I went. On the way from New York, changing planes in Chicago, I stopped at a little kiosk selling comics. I was so engrossed that I nearly missed my fight announcement. At Seattle I boarded an old fashioned propeller job bound for Portland. The flight was hair-raising and rickety. The winds were whipping and buffeted the plane about. I wanted something to take my mind off the possibility of impending disaster, so I imagined Smilin’ Jack ploughing through the storm watching a stuttering propeller, wondering if his luck would hold, and if his girl would be at the backwater airport waiting for him.
On the last leg of the journey confidence waned. The storm was getting worse. At one point I thought the plane wasn’t going to make it, but it did. We landed intact. At Portland airport, KK and her three-year old son Arrow were waiting – but they weren’t alone.
What had I stepped into? Holding onto KK was a grinning loon. His coat was long and floppy. Everything about him was long and floppy. His pallor was pale. His eyes were red. Ownership of KK glowed through the falling snow. A comic book villain. I felt like I was caught in the opening round and I’d been sucker punched. The boyfriend picked up my bag. She stepped forwards. He stepped away. Arrow pushed himself between us forestalling my first tactical error. I picked Arrow up. He flung his arms round my neck. Another kid rushed out from behind KK’s boyfriend and kicked me. The boyfriend pulled his son aside. I lowered Arrow to the ground. Holding hands we trailed on behind the entourage. I hunched over to hear him. “I knew you would come”, he whispered – and tottered away. I thought of a favourite panel from Smiling Jack…
The next day was a comic book convention. All the dealers from Oregon would be there. KK’s boyfriend laughed as his long coat swept up behind him. He pointed at his pickup. It looked held together by bits of string and wire. I felt that all that was missing was Little Orphan Annie reading from the Grapes of Wrath to a bunch of bigots. I always have felt that Annie was more relevant to my situation than Steinbeck. Annie never lost her social conscience or her heart. That’s who I needed in my corner to take on the KK situation. Annie would definitely not have let me go into Central Park after dark….
The next day I charged in ahead of the others to the Convention. It was a funky hall and it was packed with people of all ages and more stalls than I ever seen. I was manic. I finally settled at a stall where I liked the dealer. I bought some late forties Blackhawks – poetic, balletic art by Reed Crandall. I told the dealer I had Blackhawk #1 but coverless. We got chatting. I described my interest as a reader – not a collector. He showed me recent issues of the Green Lantern/ Green Arrow crossover story (republished in the 80’s with the title ‘Hard-Travelling Heroes’). Written by Denny O’ Neil, the art was Neal Adams: a formidible duo. It was an epic journey across America tackling bigots and racists, poverty and drugs. No doubt it was inspired by the 1969 road movie, Easy Rider. It struck a chord. Comics really were changing. Vietnam was leaving its mark, and clearly so had Easy Rider. Collecting was changing too: the dealer I liked now kept his collection in a bank vault.
I lost track of time, and KK finally found me. I’d bought about 20 comics. I’d come back later. Not knowing what the travel arrangements were I didn’t want to have too much to lug about. Nevertheless, the convention was brilliant. But KK and her boyfriend were headed home to Idaho. I had to come with. I wasn’t sure. To me Idaho sounded like the backwoods, straight out of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow storyline. What if I ran out of comics? I’d be like a junkie without drugs, an alcoholic without booze? But a committed addict without comics: what about that, in the desolate, isolated backwoods of Idaho? No matter what my qualms, it was an offer I dared not refuse. After all, I’d already flown halfway around the world.
I couldn’t help thinking about John Boorman’s Deliverance, a backwoods horror drama set in the Appalachians that I’d been working on only a couple of years previously. For me, I was in the middle of another chilling drama, foreshadowing what was set to happen in to me in Idaho. After all, anything could happen in the American backwoods I thought. KK’s place turned out to be set into a valley with one road and three farmhouses. This time of the year there’d be only one family of neighbours and a Black Panther, who was on the run. We had to leave quickly to reach Idaho before the blizzards made travel impossible. My first thought was getting out! Would I have accepted had I known how dangerous the journey was going to be? Only the Shadow knows…