At the office. Or rather the coffee shop in the Strib World HQ. Lovely day: warm and sunny, perfect first-day-of-the-car weather. I aired the Element out on a few roads, and it’s much peppier than the CR-V. The verdict from the readership seems to be thumbs up, with the occasional gasp of horror; some people regard the Element as Aztek-caliber ugliness, slightly nicer than the Soviet Ice Cream truck (not my term, alas) but still regrettable. I can’t concur, obviously. The only other type of car in that genre I would have considered was a Jeep, because I like the heritage and the headlights.
I’ve made important decisions based on less. Hell, that sums up what makes many men choose a wife.
It came with a trial subscription to XM radio, and of course I’m hooked on that as well. Spent the drive home flicking between some meth-addict heart-rate techno station and Hank’s Place, which plays goldurned gen-u-wine Murcan music as pure as the morning dew on a still. The least necessary portion of the vehicle? The CD player. I remember when those were an AMAZING innovation, and consequently everyone suddenly had sixteen jewel boxes sliding around under the front seat.
Gnat loves the car. “I can’t wait for you to pick me from school so we can be in the new car,” she said, but little does she know that I’m unhappy about one small detail. She has a new car seat, and it requires a shoulder belt. So she sits off to the side. For five years she’s been in the rear view mirror. Now she’s moving out of my vision somewhat. Well, that’s how it goes. Then one day they’re in the front seat, slumped, headphones on. Unless of course we end up with similar tastes in music: that would be interesting.
Wonder if that’s ever happened.
Note: during the test drive, the salesman asked what I did, and I said I was a writer. He said he was reading a really interesting book about the Holocaust.
Really? I asked.
“It’s different,” he said. “The author’s father was in the concentration camps, and he tells the story, but he makes the Nazis into cats, and his dad’s a mouse.”
Fifty-something car salesman, and he’s reading a comic book. Bless him.
I have a new site today: Kings. I came in possession of a 1949 King Features Syndicate promotional album – all their cartoonists and writers in one big book, shipped to editors across the world. A few of the artists are still known today, but most are long forgotten. (One of them, Dave Bregner, was instantly recognizable from my own childhood; he drew men with big round black glasses and pointy noses, and the minute I saw the picture I was pitched back 35 years, to reading the afternoon paper on the living room floor, staining my elbows with fresh ink. I’ll be posting the entire book, with a few boring exceptions, over the next few weeks. Most of the illustrations were done for this book, so they haven’t been seen in half a century. I’ve also scanned the biography page, but it’ll be optional reading. Most images are about 80K.
Bonus: the guy who did “Jerry on the Job” is in here, too.
I’ve gotten some mail about this week’s graphics – usually do, but these have been short: Excelsior! Is all they have to say. That was how Stan Lee signed off his column in the monthly Marvel Bullpen Bulletin. His column ran in bright eye-bleeding yellow, and was usually some interchangeable exhortation to buy more Marvel. As if we needed any encouragement. Heck, I bought the inflatable pillows:
It smelled, and the creases never came out, but it was mine, and it had Spidey, and that was enough.
Oh, they could ask us to buy the chick comics (Millie the Model) or the half-heartened Western features, but they knew we were here for superheroes, for Titanic Combat, for the thwacks and the ptangs and titles like “Lo, a Villain Cometh!" or “Enter – the Paste-master!” or “This is the Way A Hero DIES!” The best Marvel covers had no word balloons – the comic equivalent of dumping the laugh track in the operating room scenes of M*A*S*H – and even the cheapo reprint Monster titles had a Marvel vibe, thanks to Stan and Jack.
Everyone read Spidey, because he was Us. Everyone read Fantastic Four, because we all wanted to be smart like Reid, funny and strong and Tragic like Ben (although we could do without the skin condition. On the other hand, he had a girlfriend chicks, which was a bit depressing to someone who got laughed at in the lunchroom for a single volcanic zit.) I don’t know if anyone wanted to be Johnny Storm – the whole burning & flying thing was fine, but there was something colorless about him. Likewise Sue Storm, who was a wimp at first – a literally colorless Betty Brand if that’s not redundant – before she got the Kirby Hottness Upgrade Package in the early 70s. Everyone read these books. They were the best.
You’d buy the other titles, too. You had your second-tier favorites – mine was Dr. Strange, Steve Ditko’s other masterpiece. You’d read Thor for a while, then drop it; you’d get on a Daredevil jag and think man, this is great, this is the most underrated mag ever. You’d take solace in the reprints when your favorite title got a new artist (losing John Romita for Gil Kane was traumatic, like learning that Ridley Scott has handed over a movie to - well, Tony Scott) or a particularly stupid story line. (Of Spidey’s eight arms, we will not speak.) All these stories are buried deep deep in the brains of millions of middle-aged men; we sit in movie theaters, see a chemistry professor who is missing one arm, and when it’s never explained, we chuckle, elbow our pals.
But you don’t have to have read Marvel. I know, there’s a big DC world out there, and for some the trials of Bruce Banner pale in comparison to the elaborate tales of the Green Lantern and his arch nemesis, the Yellow Bucket of Water. Or whatever that comic was about. It really doesn’t matter which comic you read; it was the act itself that counted. Closing the door, opening the bag, sliding out the comic with the care an archeologist would give a manuscript rescued from the Library of Alexandria, laying on your bed or the floor, and falling through the page. You went to a place where you knew the rules; you knew the backstories, the small tragedies, the secrets kept even from the people who milled around, eyes wide, arms outstretched, pointing up at apparition that loomed over the Baxter Building.
You knew more than them. Who else knew Captain Stacy told Peter Parker he knew, right before he died at the hands of Doc Ock?
Well, the bricks thrown by Doc Ock, but you know what I mean.
Lately I’ve found some old comics, and wondered if my experience was similar to kids in the Golden Age. I’ve found some old 40s comics, and they’re mostly horrible. Cheaply made, poorly drawn, shoddily written. They’re aimed at eight year olds, it seems. One has to wonder, for example, why Superman confined himself to helping the war thus:
Jeez, how about going to Berlin and killing Hitler with one punch? Take his head off, put it in your trophy case in the Fortress of Solitude. It’s one thing for people to grapple with the question of God’s silence in a time of evil and death, but it’s quite another when you have a super-being flying around in a fresh-pressed cape. (Note how one of the dogfaces seems to be pointing to someting else, like an enemy supply transport Superman forgot to take out on his way down.) Thanks for the Milky Ways, Supe, we really appreciate you flying all the way to Okinawa, but if you really want to help, you’d head to Tokyo, an ‘-
Sorry, lads, can’t hear you! I’m off to deliver shaving cream to the beaches of Normandy! Those boys have been using bar soap for the last few days, and that’s hell on the skin!
Right, well, okay. (Superman vanishes in the clouds.) How’d he beat the draft, fer chrissakes? Flat feet? Oh, I know – couldn’t give him the shots on account of the needle busted when they gave him a poke. Can’t let him in this man’s army, oh no! Four-F for you, friend. Now fly along home. Fuggin' civilians. Probably has two girls back home.
Not to say they didn’t do their part:
Japanazis! They're impervious to super-strength, but stamps will do the trick.
Then there’s dubious decisions, like a WW2 comic with the early version of the Human Torch, investigating gasoline black marketers.
Yes, when you have a gasoline smugglers to fight, call in Mr. Vapor Igniter!
The number of bad comics and bad heroes and bad artists is remarkable, and makes you realize these things were pitched at eight-year olds. In the 50s, the comics required an older sensibility – why, you had to be eleven to appreciate the twists in an EC horror comic.
What irony! Poor girl got it coming and going in every other story, it seemed:
If parents checked up on what their sons were reading, they might have had some concerns:
Whatever happened to those wholesome Batman and Robin comics? Nothing suggestive there, for heaven’s sake.
Well, uh – oh, it’s just an innocent day at the swimming hole, for heaven’s sake.
The public outcry about horror comics gave way to anodyne Giant Creature books – Titan, Spoor, Fin Fang Foom, all the other giant English-speaking creatures from other worlds who laughed at the puny mortals right up until the moment where they were tricked, and earth was saved, usually by a white straight-faced scientist with a forelock.
Tremble, puny humans! I have come from the briny depths, and my breath smells like nuclear tuna!
After these came the resurgence of the superheroes, and that’s where I came in.
And never left, really. These books still have a tremendous pull, mostly for nostalgia’s sake. (As you may suspect, I am somewhat given to nostalgia.) I still read comics from time to time, depending on the artist, but I don’t keep up on anything. I got out when the future was still the future, and the moody grim cynical nihilism that was always an inch below the surface took over and defined “adult” comics. (Meaning, aimed at teens.) Now the future is the present; we all have gadgets and computers, space exploration is rote and dull, and the idea of the future – a place with jumpsuits and slender finned rockets and Planet Squads and men barking “Come in, Space Command!” to a hand-held mike – seems like a false alarm. There is no future, as such; there’s just more of the same. Quicker smaller better faster, but no big change. No skyscrapers with Saturnian rings around their apex, no 50th floor walkways, no interplanetary Congresses with Venusian fish-men applauding Future Superman for his exploits. In a way I envy the kid who grew up in the 50s, and read comics in the basement, confident he’d live in a different world than the one his parents had made. In a way I don’t envy him at all. At least I grew up to see Spider-Man swing through Manhattan in a most convincing fashion. If only on the screen.
Later. Home. Midnight en route. Well, that was whatever it was; hope it meant something. Life, as usually, provided the postscript. I picked Gnat up from school and drove around with the windows down and the music loud. A new car is an excuse for guilty-pleasure music, so I hit the 80s channel. (Exploring the dial today I came across the rap block, and honest to God, this is what I heard the moment I accessed the first channel: “So I shot a ho? f*c k her / it’s just a bitch, I ain’t no sucker.” Jeebus Crow.) I turned up “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight” because it’s a good big well-produced piece of happy noise (Seizure-inducing video by Godley and Crème, if I remember correctly) and I like it, even though it wears out its welcome a minute after that lovely C section.
“I’m going to be an adult in the future,” Gnat said from the back seat, apropos of nothing, “because I was born in the past.”
“I’m in the future now,” I said.
“When I was a kid, today was my future.”
She thought about that for a while, then smiled, and honest to God, she laughed and said:
“You thought you were going to have flying cars!”
I almost drove off the road.
“Oh nothing. That’s just a thing in the future on shows, cars in the skies. But it’s really not real.”
True, but you can get close. I rolled down the windows and punched the button on the steering wheel to change to the techno station. YEAH! she said from the back. The light turned green; I punched it. Daughter and dad on a spring afternoon, laughing and bobbing our heads to the music, wind in our hair. Flying.
Reminder: King Features starts today. Enjoy! And yes, I know about Superdickery, and no, I didn't get these pictures from that fine hilarious site.