Archive for the ‘comics’ Category

One old comic book turns into a time machine

519TGRT5JZLI flipped through one 40-year-old comic book the other day and was suddenly reminded of books I’d read and music I’d listened to way back then.

My time trip happened when I rummaged through the small collection of comic books from my youth to find the handful of “Guardians of the Galaxy” books I’d read in 1975. I was curious  to see how they compared with the film. They didn’t. Not at all.

I did find something  more interesting: reminders of other books I’d read, as well as the “lost” Spider-Man rock opera that really should have been the basis of a Broadway show, not that overwrought thing put together by Julie Tamor, Bono and The Edge.

I turned pages of bright four-color ink on yellowed newsprint. No. 3 in the series officially titled “Marvel Presents.” (The Guardians lasted about six issues in this run. They were never the heavy hitters of the Marvel Universe. Even Howard the Duck did better back then.)

First I came to an ad for the trade paperback “Son of Origins of Marvel Comics.” This was a follow-up to “Origins of Marvel” by Marvel editor-in-chief-of-everything-(still) Stan Lee. I’d devoured both books. I’d started reading Marvel Comics in 1972 or 1973, and felt most definitely late to a party that began in 1961 with “The Fantastic Four.” Stan’s books included anecdotes on how the first Marvel heroes were created, their origin story and another issue from Marvel’s great age of superhero creation. Reading the books then made me feel like I was inside the club rather than a late arrival. They’re still on my book shelf.

weirdheroes1Below the ad for “Son of Origins” was one for “The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar,” with Spider-Man, The Hulk and Captain America trooping with drum, fife and flag. This I did not buy. Here’s what I missed out on: “A glorious, full-color, 12-month trek through American history with the Marvel superheroes. Join The Hulk at Valley Force. Conan the Barbarian at the Battle of Lexington…” You get the point.

Near the back of the comic book was, as always, “Stan Lee’s Soapbox,” a must-read for teases on upcoming titles, crossovers and key collectible editions like “Giant Size Man-Thing” (that is, the comic book was giant size). In the column, Stan tub thumps for two Marvel writers, Archie Goodwin and Steve Englehart, who had contributed stories to a paperback anthology Weird Heroes. This really sent memory spinning. I don’t remember reading about Weird Heroes in Stan’s column. I’d discovered the first of the series in Book & Record in hometown Wappinger, N.Y. The cover, seen here, leapt off the shelf at me. In the books, editor Byron Preiss set out to create new American pulp heroes. What were the old American pulp heroes, you might ask? These crime fighters came before comic books or radio and were featured in magazines and books published on cheap pulpy newsprint. They included The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Avenger (pre-dating the Avengers of Marvel or British TV fame). Also the Bat, said to have been an inspiration for a certain Bat Dude. The Spider, said to have been an inspiration… Well you get the point.

Some of the new pulp heroes included Adam Stalker, Guts the Cosmic Greaser and Gypsy. Preiss put out eight volumes, though a renaissance of American pulp heroes never did happen (unless you count three-quarters of Hollywood’s output).

The highlight of this tour through my adolescent media consumption via one little comic was the full-page ad at the back for the record album, “Reflections of a Rock Super-Hero.” The banner at the top called it the “The Biggest Rock Event of the Year.” Don’t know about that, but the LP told Spidey’s tale better than the now defunct Broadway musical. Songs included “No One Has a Crush on Peter,” “Gwendolyn” and “A Soldier Starts to Bleed,” with narration between the tracks by Stan the Man himself. This I also still own a copy of.

One comic book pulled out because of a movie I saw in August, and I stumbled across all kinds of memories. It’s funny where the past finds you.

The Books of Nerd

978-0-7864-6682-5I first discovered McFarland & Co. Publishers many years ago when I bought the book Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1988 by Lee Goldberg. It was a delicious compendium of  TV shows pitched to the networks as scripts or actual pilot episodes that didn’t get made into series. It was nerdy joy. I could look up all the shows Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury proposed but didn’t get on the air. Or find which favorite stars appeared in failed pilots. Or just laugh at the goofy ideas for TV shows Hollywood came up with. Let me tell you, there were some goofy ideas. (Not that goofy ideas don’t actually get on the air.)

Because I bought the book, I started receiving the catalog from McFarland. It is heaven for a nerd like me, or as I like to think of myself, a pop culture vulture. Admittedly, some of the titles can be a bit academic—esoteric even. Take It Happens at Comic Com: Ethnographic Essays on Pop Culture Phenomenon or The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times. Not to mention Myazaki’s Animism Abroad: The Reception of Japanese Religious Themes by American and German Audiences

Lest I scare you away, there are many books in the catalog that are accessible. McFarland’s authors cover a wide range of topics in the universe we call genre entertainment, including TV, film, old radio, music and pulp fiction.

Here are a few titles this pop culture vulture would love to add to his groaning physical and virtual to-read bookshelves:

  • Zane Gray’s Wild West: A Study of 31 Novels
  • Anti-Foreign Imagery in American Pulps and Comics
  • Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis
  • Columbia Noir: A Complete Filmography, 1940-62
  • Women of Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance
  • Pulp Fiction to Film Noir: The Great Depression and the Development of a Genre
  • Route 66: Images of America’s Main Street
  • The Flash Gordon Serials: 1936-1940
  • Superheroes and Gods: A Comparative Study from Babylonia to Batman

I could go on. Probably would if I wasn’t agraid of losing, you, the reader. If you don’t see a genre you love, there’s a good chance  McFarland has a book on it anyway.

In fact, even if you never by one of their books, get on the mailing list for their catalog. Readers and writers of what’s termed genre fiction—sometimes derided, sometimes a boast—will love flipping through pages of titles written for the pop culture vulture in them.

Me, I’m about to order A History of the Doc Savage Adventures, about a pulp hero series from the 1930s I discovered in my teens during the 1970s and thought was my special literary secret for the longest time.

(Disclaimer: I have absolutely no connection financial, publishing or otherwise with McFarland Publishers or its authors. I just think the company is putting out cool little books on—to me—cool big topics.)

What pop culture are you a vulture for?

Spider-Man shows up on Broadway

I saw Spider-Man on Broadway just before the holidays. Funny thing was, I saw him in the theater right next to where the musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is playing. This got me to thinking how the producers of the now famous, near-greatest-Broadway-disaster ever could have created a much better show for a lot less money.

Patrick with two performers from Cirque Shanghai.

We actually were in the New Victory Theater, literally next door  to the Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd St. where “Spider-Man” runs, to see the Cirque Shanghai perform “Bai Xi.” The title means “one hundred amazing acts.” And they certainly were. Men and women hurtling and soaring through the air, often without benefit of safety harnesses. A woman stacked chairs three stories high and then stood atop the vertical tower. And then disassembled her way down again. Two men ran around the spinning double Wheel of Death, seemingly sticking to the metal of this out-of-control carnival ride like a spider-man would.

My gasps, my ten-year-old son’s gasps, at the “Bai Xi” stunts were far louder, far more numerous and far more enthusiastic than when we saw “Turn Off the Dark” a year ago as it lurched toward its eventual opening night.

That’s when I had my brilliant idea. The producers of “Turn Off the Dark” should have just shipped a few issues of “The Amazing Spider-Man” from the early days to these practitioners of the 2,000-year-old art of Chinese acrobatics. They’d have come up with twice the show, saving who knows how much money. And it would have opened on time.

Superman vs Rupert Murdoch

I’m still reading DC Comic’s No. 1s. In the first “Superman” in the restarted series, Clark Kent is furious the Daily Planet has been bought by mogul Morgan Edge, owner of the Globe and all sorts of nasty TV and Internet news outlets. Here’s what’s in the speech bubble over Clark’s head as he argues with Lois Lane: “You covered the stories dealing with the Globe’s illegal tactics–wiretaps, extortion, out-and-out lies. Is that the type of newspaper you want the Planet to be? Just another scandal-mongering rag?”

It’s clear to me Rupert needs to do more than sic the “Fox & Friends” crew on Superman. Sure, they can point out his form-fitting costume—what real men wear any sort of costume, really?—and the flouncy red cape and red boots that are worse than Ugg ripoffs. But this demands a greater response, something massive. News Corp. needs to buy Marvel Comics from Disney and start the real war. Bring the Red Hulk pain—no cape or boots there—and Wolverine, who’s got enough anger to fuel an entire Tea Party convention. Plus, Rupert adds the Daily Bugle and all of Tony Stark’s weapons factories into his empire.

As part of the deal, for only a considerable sum, I will throw in my not-so-mint copy of “Superman vs the Amazing Spider-Man.” Back in 1976, it was billed as “The Greatest Superhero Team-Up of all Time!” as well as “The Battle of the Century” (funny how these team ups always meet-cute-fight, then work together).

The war I’m talking about will be one for millenium and won’t have any namby-pamby liberal teaming up halfway through.

The theater of the mind

In a hotel near Newark airport, set between railroad tracks and spaghetti-piles of New Jersey highway, the Friends of Old-Time Radio will sit in meeting rooms for the last time this weekend, asking and answering the question, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” The friends will no longer meet after their 36th convention, reports David Hinckley in the Daily News. They will go as silent as the medium they love.

Old radio fans celebrate the days when radio was television, and fllled the airwaves with crime shows, dramas, comedies, variety and news of a great war and the massive changes that followed. If you’ve ever heard of “The Shadow” or “Dragnet” or Jack Benny or Edward R. Murrow or a dummy named Charlie McCarthy, you’ve heard of the programs and the stars of the Golden Age of Radio. The radio you listen to now, the tunes and talk, is what we were left with once television took over the world.

read the rest of my column at Ink By The Barrel: Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? – Pelham, NY Patch.

DC Comics, no. 1

I don’t feel the slightest bit nerdy writing about the latest pan-galactic shake-up of DC’s comic universe. I know for a fact the New York Times has published not one, but two, Arts front pagers on these mighty developments. The first story hyped the re-numbering back to 1 of all 52 DC titles (because what’s better for a slumming culture editor than putting at top of the page a huge color splash of the Justice League charging off to do justice?). The second reported the stellar sales for the titles in their first month.

DC didn’t just reset the numbers, it reset the stories and reintroduced its caped folk. If you were Batman or Superman, you’d been around for decades and the layers of story, characters and soap operatic turns clung to you like barnacles on a sucken ship. This doesn’t mean DC rebooted right back to the beginning. Superman doesn’t start with baby Kal-El rocketing to Earth, nor Batman with little Bruce Wayne seeing his parents murdered. It was more a cleaning out of the attic and second floor of their story houses.

I was a Marvel kid and so know nothing of all the twists and turns DC made disappear. And I’m aware that with Hollywood rebooting reboots of reboots (see the Superman, Batman and Spider-Man movies), this may not seem novel. But what I liked about the idea is that my ten-year-old and I can start together reading these seminal titles Action Comics and Detective Comics, featuring Supes and the Dark Knight, respectively, without either of us needing the Comic Book Encyclopedia at our side to get the back-back-backstory. (I’m not even sure why the comic book industry uses the word continuity; seems more like discontinuity.) I was also leery. I’ve been let down by Big Comic Events before, on the Marvel side of the wall.

Of the first three titles I bought, I was impressed by two. Action Comics and Detective Comics Nos. 1 both feature great art and decent stories, with a darkening of Superman’s character the most interesting development (darkening Batman now would be all but impossible short of renaming him SatanGuy). Justice League of America No. 1 was weaker, but superhero teams never do it for me. Too much hero banter, not enough smash. Patrick liked them all, of course. I’m now looking forward to lesser titles: Deadman and Dark JLA, and the Nos 2. It’s fun to look forward to comics and feel a part of the start.

Sweet dreams, comic strips

Two comics in the Daily News on Saturday featured shout-outs to two of the great all time strips. And this had me wondering. Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, often appears alongside his creations. In Saturday’s, he tells the pig (I don’t know the pig’s name) that he’s reading Pogo by Walt Kelly and goes on to riff on Pogo’s famous line from the McCarthy era, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Pogo was doing political satire 20 years before Doonesbury was blot in his creator’s ink jar.

On that same Daily News page two strips below, Mutts featured a squirrel chucking a nut into a panel of Little Nemo in Slumberland, in fact, onto the iconic image  of Nemo falling out of bed after one of his classic, brilliant and beautiful adventures in the dream world. The punchline from the squirrel, “Sweet dreams.”

I first wondered how many people reading the two strips would get those references. Then I wondered how many would, like me, notice the oddity of two comic-strip-history shout outs in the same day. And I finally wondered if all this riffing is a sign their creators are marking time to the end of the history their art form, to sweet dreams for three panels and a joke or cliff hanger. Yes, you can get the strips online now as papers have cut back (the Daily News, the ultimate funnies paper, down from three-plus pages to two). But will millennials and post-millennials, tablet in hand, follow their favorite daily comics? How will they even discover their favorites? The strips were the ultimate print art form and I take it as the beginning of a goodbye when Nemo—a 106-year old character—shows up in a strip on Saturday. Sweet dreams.