Felt Trips: “MASK” by Paul Childs

There’s a real poignancy to the adolescent Christmas. Awake at 8am rather than 4am, and unwrapping presents with a studied languor as the fevered excitement of childhood dissipates, year on year. The presents change, too: nothing signifies the end of innocence more than those muted, interim Christmas Days when garish, bulky toys are gradually replaced by sober books and albums.

For Paul Childs, the tipping point came in 1986… but it inspired a flurry of early teenage artwork influenced by one of the less-remembered 1980s toy franchises. And, as a bonus, his story also boasts a tangential link to the pop career of Miami Vice star Don Johnson:

Over to you, Paul…

“December 1986 is lodged firmly in my memory for a couple of reasons. It was the first year I got music for Christmas. I received tapes of Now That’s What I Call Music 8 and Hits 5 (also known as The One With A Red Die On The Front) and a boombox from my parents.

As kids were wont to do in the 1980s – with the internet only existing in movies like Tron, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and WarGames – I decided to write down the lyrics to all my favourite songs from these two albums. Well, those that hadn’t been printed in Smash Hits magazine, anyway. I sat, finger poised over the pause button, pen in hand. I gave up after four lines of Duran Duran’s lyrically confusing ‘Notorious’… which Now enthusiasts will know is Tape 1, Side 1, Track 1.

But I’m rambling. I’m here to talk about the other reason Christmas 1986 was important to me.

It was the last year I got toys for Christmas.

The big toy fad that year was MASK – ordinary cars, motorcycles and trucks that transformed into military vehicles. A very cool concept, and of course it came with a cartoon to sell them. That September I started secondary school and, while I still very much wanted the MASK toys, I started to notice other things that I’d rather spend my time thinking about. Like girls and clothes and hair gel.

Here’s me (right, wearing very fetching brown leather slip-ons with tracksuit bottoms) proudly displaying my musical haul, including very 1980s headphones, and my brothers Barrie (middle) with his Wuzzle Bumbelion and Lee (left) playing with my Thunderhawk. This was MASK leader Matt Trakker’s Chevrolet Camaro, which transformed into a fighter jet… the doors opened to make the wings.

A month or two later, in the spring term of 1987, I took one of my MASK toys to school to show to my friends. While we waited for Miss FitzPatrick to arrive and let us into the chemistry lab, I took it out of my Hi-Tek sports bag at the foot of the portakabin stairs. As I showed off my treasure, I heard a girl I really fancied laughing with her friends. When I glanced up they quickly looked away, but I knew they’d been laughing at me.

That was the day I stopped playing with toys.

However, I didn’t stop enjoying the adventures of Matt Trakker and his pals. As well as the toys and the show, I had also been reading the British MASK comic. When we moved house in 1988, the toys went to my Uncle Keith’s car boot sale in Kettering but I continued to read the comics, while hiding this fact from my schoolmates. The very idea behind MASK – ordinary folk who wore masks to protect their identity when they saved the world from the Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem (VENOM) – became an allegory for my own secret guilty pleasure. A phrase I hate, but which seems apt in this context…

The UK MASK comic was published by IPC from November 1986. It ran for two years before it merged with Eagle, just like my other favourite mid-80s comic, Scream!. Many of the same people behind the likes of Scream!, 2000AD and The Eagle were involved. Artists like David Pugh, Joe Colquhoun, Carlos Pino, Ian Kennedy and Peter Milligan provided spectacular monochrome art which, when coupled with some fairly dark stories, gave the title a much classier, adult feeling than the more colourful, frivolous style employed by Marvel at the time.

Drawing had always been a favourite pastime of mine so I started to copy panels from MASK, using a black Berol pen to craft my very own illustrations. And I got quite good at it.

No, I’m being modest. I got very good at it.

So good in fact, that my mum said I should send one of my pictures in. Which I did, not expecting anything. But in issue 52 (dated 9th April 1988), my work was selected for Drawing of the Week and I won a crisp tenner for it. That’s about £29 when adjusted for inflation to 2020 – a veritable fortune to a thirteen-year-old!

1988 was also the year I started buying Your Sinclair magazine, quite possibly the most important thing I have ever read. It was an incredible influence on me. With its daft, irreverent Viz-like style, it shaped my sense of humour and, even to this day when I write non-fiction, I can feel YS’s influence pouring out onto the page. In 1990, I drew this with the intention of sending it into the magazine:

It’s based on the box art for Ocean Software’s 1989 video game Beach Volley, but with the heads exchanged for members of the Your Sinclair writing team: the ‘Joystick Jugglers’ that were Davey ‘Whistling Rick’ Wilson and Duncan ‘Advanced Lawnmower Simulator’ MacDonald. I don’t know why, but I never sent it in. I suppose this must be a World Exclusive. This drawing has moved house with me seven times in the last thirty years, and I didn’t realise I still had it until I found it while tidying up a few weeks ago.

And then, when I started Sixth Form, I stopped drawing. I don’t know why. I just did. And I drifted away from comics too. Writing – which I also enjoyed – got the chop too. Being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood apparently meant 18 certificate films, rock music, beer and girls.

Well, I enjoyed plenty of films, music and beer.

Skip forward a few years to the year 2012.

After a chance encounter with novelist G.P. Taylor and this roadsign on the A6003 between Corby and Kettering (not at the same time, I have to point out), I started writing again. The full story is on my short story website, BadgersCrossing.co.uk.

After the writing, I began re-collecting the old toys I used to own as a kid. I started on Star Wars (I have all 79 of the standard figures and am always on the lookout for the 1984-85 special edition figures known as The Last 17), then picked up a few from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, E.T. and Battlestar Galactica. I’m currently 75% through completing The A-Team (with only Templeton ‘Face’ Peck to go), and I’ve started buying comics again… Spider-Man and 2000AD.

All this has made me realise that those things – the comics, the toys and the writing – made me happy back then. I stopped doing them because I was worried about what other people thought.

Finally, just a week or two ago, I picked up an old graphics tablet I was given years ago but have never used and thought “I wonder… can I still do it?”

I pity the fool who tells me I can’t.”

Thanks, Paul! Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

2 thoughts on “Felt Trips: “MASK” by Paul Childs

  1. William Scott Crawford August 22, 2020 / 12:49 pm

    Great to hear from another M.A.S.K. fan of the UK comics!!

    maskcomics.blogspot.com

    Search for M.A.S.K. comics on Facebook.

    #assembleMASK #MASKcomics #MASKcrusade

    Like

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