Armagideon Time

For our second seasonal trip to the necropolis of Nobody’s Favorites, we’re going to check in with a diabolic damsel from the dying days of disco. Ladies and gentlemen, bats and ghouls, slip on your finest pair of boogie shoes and say hello to the Satin Satan.

Also known as “Sabrina Sultress,” this Bianca Jagger-esque beauty was a supermodel by day and a sorcerous semi-succubus by night. She made her debut in Justice League of America #179 (June 1980) as the arcane antagonist of the two-part tale which marked Firestorm’s first adventure with the titular superteam.

Using an unholy blend of high fashion and hellborn magic, the Satin Satan entranced a series of bridge ‘n’ tunnel Lotharios in order to create an army of demonically transformed minions. It was a pretty bizarre plan as far as super-villainous schemes went, but props to Sabrina for figuring out a way to capitalize on her hyper-specific skillset and a nigh-unlimited source of raw material at hand.

The JLA entered the picture when the older brother of one of Ronnie Raymond’s high school pals vanished after a frantic night of shaking his groove thang (yeah yeah). The missing man’s trail led to the velvet rope of the exclusive “Studio” dance club, where a power-fro’ed onlooker recalled seeing him leave for Sabrina’s penthouse.

Sensing something more than a simple coke-fueled tryst was afoot, Ronnie transformed (by fusing with the befuddled Prof. Martin Stein) into the fabulous Firestorm to check out the seductive siren’s luxurious lair in person. There he found both the missing lounge lizard — changed into an immobile metal statue — and the Satin Satan herself, who sapped away the Nuclear Man’s will with a Luciferian liplock. (Attention, adolescent boys: This will never happen to you.)

Despite the crippling love hangover, Stormy still managed to send out a distress signal to the other Leaguers. They arrived to find the apartment empty save for a couple of the Satan Satan’s demonic minions, forcing them to use their earth-shaking powers to…uh…rifle through Sabrina’s underwear drawer and walk-in closets in search of a clue regarding her current whereabouts.

Upon exploding one of the demonic servants left behind by its mistress, Zatanna picked up mystical energy trail leading directly to the Satin Satan’s headquarters…

…a Central Park roller disco named “Hell on Wheels.” (And you thought Doomstadt and the Dark Dimension were terrifying places to hang a cape.)

An epic battle ensued yadda yadda Firestorm broke free of Sabrina’s control yadda yadda the magically enslaved disco denizens were freed yadda yadda Zatanna exorcised the demon which possessed Sabrina and made her evil and stuff yadda yadda.

With those salient and predictable plot points taken care of, the only thing left to do was toss in an appropriately ambiguous final panel and call it a day.

“…they might well wonder if the story has truly ended after all…”

Considering we never got follow-up stories where the Detroit Era League had to stop Sabrina’s subversion of the Hi-NRG scene or Justice League International got trapped in her Acid House of the Devil, I’d say the answer is “yes, it had truly ended.” (Note: I would’ve read the hell out of either of those stories.)

As a writer, the hyper-topicality the Satin Satan’s brief reign of terror makes me wince. The concepts involved had the shelf life of a supermarket bakery donut, and felt dated within moments of hitting the stands. It cuts to the quick of the genre’s uneasy balancing act between disposable entertainment and maintaining an ongoing sense of shared universe continuity. Every creative work is going to be a product of its era, naturally, but the trick is not to confuse “product of” with “prisoner to.”

As a student of history, however, stories like this are incredible cultural artifacts — specific moments in time captured and preserved like flies in amber. They exist entirely in their individual “now,” unsullied by embarrassed revisionism or after-the-fact myth-making. (Although when it comes to Bronze Age comics, you have to account for a time lag of a year or two between a cultural phenomenon breaking and being depicted in funnybook form.)

I guess what I’m saying is that the Satin Satan may have been utterly godawful, but she’s also my kind of godawful.

Recommended listening: Emilia – Satan in Love (from a 1981 single)

What the devil started, she’ll Finnish.

Hey, now. This is a Code-approved comic and there’s no place in it for that kind of lewd talk. I’m quite frankly appalled by this blatant innuendo, especially as it also contains diabolic overtones. You can expect to receive sternly-worded letter from-

Uh, never mind.

(from “The Devil’s Own” by Writer Unknown and Tony Caravana in Ghosts #25, April 1974)

Recommended listening: Shocking Blue – Daemon Lover (from Scorpio’s Dance, 1970)

Brimstone cold psych rock.

“So what’s the assignment, again?”

“A wereshark. Like a werewolf, but a shark.”

“So is it like a special-looking shark or something?”

“No, it looks like a regular shark, though the art has to express the ‘were’ part. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out. Oh, and I need it on my desk at eight tomorrow morning.”

“Fantastic.”

I can easily visualize a decent adventuring scenario involving weresharks — a tropical spin on the isolated and not-quite-right village trope with a bit of the ol’ Innsmouth vibe thrown in for good measure — but the creatures’ limitations as a threat are also quite apparent.

Land-dwelling lycanthropes have more latitude when it comes to stalking and harassing player characters. The nocturnal nature of their curse and the arboreal environments they haunt make it possible to set up tense scenarios where something is lurking in the shadows, toying with its prey and using the characters’ panic to herd them towards the anticipated slaughter.

You don’t really get that with weresharks, though. Even if the player characters were of an aquatic bent (which none of my groups ever were), any physical threat would have to involve getting them out onto deep enough water during the dead of night. Any characters that would take that blatantly obvious bait would’ve met their demise long before reaching a level where a wereshark would be a fair challenge.

Otherwise, all they have to do is head inland to negate the threat.

This also brings up the mechanics of a wereshark’s transformation. They’d somehow need to arrange to be a few yards from the shore when the curse takes effect. What happens if they get caught out on dry land?

Maybe that’s what happened to the tragic-looking creature in the Monster Manual II entry. He was out with his buddies in a neighboring village, drank too much of the local hooch, and lost track of the time. Now he’s stuck flailing about half a mile from the lagoon, slowly suffocating, and remembering the time when he made fun of that pack of weremoles for being a bunch of near-sighted wussies.

Recommended listening: Eddie Duchin and His Orchestra – Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (from a 1938 single)

Sink or swing.

It’s Friday the 13th, a day traditionally associated with bad luck.

I’m not a superstitious person. Even if was, any additional ill omens would be gilding the misfortune lily at this point.

It would take a cutting edge supercomputer to figure out how many times those little monsters cross my path on a daily basis.

Recommended listening: UK Decay – The Black Cat (from The Black EP, 1980)

A compelling take on the subject, but the real curse involves keeping the litter box clean.

The Seventies were a boom time for paranormal wankery packaged as documented truth. The stuff was ubiquitous and inescapable, and it propagated itself across every available medium. Even respectable news venues got in on the act with bits of dodgy nonsense about UFO sightings and ESP filling the gaps between reports on more mundane manifestations of the national malaise.

This was the cultural topography of my childhood, and it left an indelible mark on my psyche. Nowadays I know it was a load of poorly sourced (or outright fabricated) hooey, but at the time I embraced with equal parts fascination and terror. I read and re-read accounts of spontaneous combustion and Loch Ness monster sightings, treated In Search Of… and Project UFO as the Gospel truth, and lived in constant dread that a poltergeist would take up residence in my family’s tiny apartment.

My mania cooled a bit by the dawn of the Eighties, nudged into more skeptical channels by my parents, teachers, and the fitful trudge towards a semblance of maturity. That last bit makes the process sound more precocious (and pretentious) than it actually was. It wasn’t some sudden embrace of scientific thinking, but an erosive demystification based upon empirical observations. In short, if there was an invisible world of cryptids and aliens and unquiet spirits, there was little evidence of it in my little corner of the suburban fringe.

Part of me still wanted to believe, despite all the evidence suggesting otherwise. So I took things into my own grubby hands and use my overactive imagination — and highly impressionable pals — to create my own paranormal mysteries.

The most “successful” of these efforts was the Ak-En-Ak, a homebrew variant of the Sasquatch who haunted the marshy forests surrounding my North Woburn neighborhood.

Though rooted in the countless “Bigfoot” narratives I’d been exposed to during the Carter Era, the Ak-En-Ak was very much a product of early eighties media damage. His appearance was directly inspired by Ookla the Mok from the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon and his fearsome cry was lifted from the faux tribal war chant used by Adam Ant in “Prince Charming.” (Few romanticized rhapsodies about the powers of “childhood imagination” bother to mention how prominently it wears its obvious influences on its sleeve.)

I baited the hook on a summer evening while swapping scary tales in my backyard. My pal Artie was in on the scam, and tossed in his own embellishments as I described the Ak-En-Ak in frightening detail to our mutual pal Scottie and a kid named Chuckie who used to hang out with us despite our obvious dislike of him. I mentioned the creature’s long, blood-stained claws, its hunger for human flesh, and how it totally murdered two friends of my aunt’s who went drinking in the woods the previous year but the police covered it up because they didn’t want to panic the neighborhood.

“So let’s get up early tomorrow,” I concluded, “and see if we can find it.” Scottie and Chuckie were not keen about this proposal, but didn’t want to look like wimps in front of the very enthusiastic Artie.

We began the hunt as a quartet. Artie kneeled and pretended to see tracks on ground. I sniffed the air and asked the others if they smelled something strange. (As this was North Woburn in 1982, the answer was always going to be “yes.”)

We then proposed splitting into two groups, with Scottie and Chuckie following the brook and Artie and I cutting towards the swamp. We waited for them to pass out of our line of sight, at which point I smeared myself with mud and leaves, yowled out the Ak-En-Ak’s borrowed cry, and played dead.

Artie screamed. “SCOTTIE! CHUCKIE! COME QUICK! OH JEEZE! THE MONSTER ATTACKED ANDY!”

Scottie and Chuckie stumbled back into sight. Artie laid it on thick. I struggled to avoid cracking up.

“We were just walking and it came out from behind those rocks and it grabbed Andy but I hit it with a stick and it ran off and oh fuck what are we gonna do?”

Scottie kneeled over me and tried to pretend he remembered any of his Boy Scout first aid lessons.

Chuckie slowly backed his way in the direction of the road. “Guys um guys I don’t like this I’m scared guys I gotta go.” And then he was gone.

I swatted Scottie’s arm away and sat up as best I could through my gut-cramping laughter.

“Did ya see his face, Andy? Did ya? Oh god it was massive. I’m fucking dying. I think I’m gonna hurl.”

Scottie was pissed about getting pranked, but quickly realized it was wiser to join us in laughing at Chuckie than to risk getting laughed at himself. (During later re-tellings of the tale of other kids in the neighborhood, he’d claim that he was also in on the joke.)

A few days later, Artie and I spied Chuckie walking down the sidewalk by the edge of the woods. We hid in the undergrowth and yelped out the Ak-En-Ak cry as he passed, at which point he broke out into a wild run. He stopped coming around after that.

The site of my tragic mauling is now occupied by a pair of McMansions owned by folks who apparently don’t mind having a shit-reeking mire in their backyards. The last time I saw Chuckie was during junior high, when he tried to moon a schoolbus and someone (not me, I swear) threw a handful of sandy gravel at his naked pasty ass.

Recommended listening: The Creatures – So Unreal (from the Wild Things EP, 1981)

More weirdness drawn from familiar things.

In early 1932, a unemployed drifter named Eustace “One-Thumb” Enright experienced a fit of inspiration in a Gary, Indiana soup kitchen.

A talented doodler since childhood — when he would sketch comedic caricatures in charcoal on the wall of his family’s barn — Enright came up with the idea of a comic strip featuring a wandering waif named “Harry Hobo” and his various misadventures wandering Depression Era America. The basic concepts and characters were drawn from Enright’s own experiences and the work quickly developed into a pitchable (if rough, given that it was mostly sketched on discarded scraps of cardboard) form.

The bigger syndicates weren’t interested in Enright’s brainchild, but it eventually found a home at Columbia Features, a scrappy firm mostly known for such regional fare as “Lawdy ‘n’ Mammy,” “Okie Dopey,” and “Big Mick Begorrah.” Columbia saw potential in “Harry Hobo” and signed Enright to a deal that saw the strip published daily in scores of smaller market papers.

The public’s reception of “Harry Hobo” was muted as first, but the character’s popularity soared after a pair of high profile controversies in which the American Legion and railroad industry association objected to what they saw as slanderous caricatures in the form of the vindictive “Pat Riot” and the thuggish “Bull Axehandle.” Columbia briefly considered dropping the strip and kicking Enright to the curb, but it quickly became clear that the attention only increased Harry Hobo’s popularity with the Depression-weary public.

This translated to a massive and anticipated windfall for Columbia Features, who wasted no time pursuing licensing and animation deals to further their profits. Little of this revenue saw its way into Enfield’s bank account, however, thanks to the dodgy contract he’d signed out of desperation. Enfield’s discontent with “those bastard parasites” helped fuel his involvement with radical politics. He became a full-fledged member of the American Communist Party and a frequent speaker at its gatherings. As his politics shifted leftward so did the tone of his “Harry Hobo” strips, which began to take on a pointedly polemic tone. Comedic hi-jinks against authority figures shifted into calls for class solidarity and the equitable redistribution of wealth.

Fearing the for the future of their most popular strip, the syndicate evoked a clause in Enfield’s contract which allowed them to assume sole ownership of the character. Enfield responded by publicly denouncing Columbia Features and releasing a self-published pamphlet in which Harry Hobo was violently murdered by goons hired by the Filthy Fat-Cat. In Harry’s place rose his restless spirit, “Hobo Ghost.”

As the official and apolitical “Harry Hobo” sank into a death spiral that would eventually take Columbia Features with it), “Hobo Ghost” developed a fan-following of its own. The character was presented as an intercessionary figure, a mystical being dedicated to righting wrongs and delivering vengeance upon the corrupt and greedy folks who preyed upon the Common Man. The character could be seen as an immediate precursor to the later wave of costumed “mystery men,” and was in fact an early adopter of the funnybook format (thanks to Enfield getting blacklisted by all the strip syndicates).

“Hobo Ghost” chugged along and continued to gain popularity right up until the summer of 1939, when the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi German and the USSR plunged Enright into a deep state of depression. Worried about his health (and seeing the as yet unrealized profit potential of his creation) a group of Enright’s more liberal-leaning pals convinced him to transfer ownership to Aspirational Studios for a generous lump sum. The heartbroken Enright signed the deal then decamped for the West Coast, where he died of liver failure in a Los Angeles boarding house in 1943.

Hobo Ghost survived Enright by a full decade, albeit in a diminished and sanitized capacity. Aspirational’s animation division commissioned a dozen or so shorts split between racist-tinged wartime agitprop and slapstick kiddie fare. Publishing rights for the character were handed to Swell Publishing, where the resulting funnybook served mainly as a vehicle for off-model art and terrible puns based on the words “boo,” “hanut,” and “ghost.”

Neither the cartoons nor later comics delved into the Hobo Ghost’s political leanings or Enfield’s assertion that the character’s bindle contained the decomposing remains of Harry Hobo.

As the 1950s dawned, Hobo Ghost’s popularity was almost entirely eclipsed by the more kid-friendly Casper the Friendly Ghost franchise. The character had all but faded from memory Bby the time Aspirational went bankrupt in 1957, leaving the actual ownership of Hobo Ghost in a state of legal limbo for decades.

There has been a quiet resurgence of interest in Hobo Ghost material over the past few years, which has seen a six-volume hardbound collection of the original comics from Graphafantix and a collector’s edition blu-ray release (sporting a “WARING: THESE ARE RACIST AS HELL” label) of the cartoon shorts. The character was also referenced in an issue of Alan Muir’s acclaimed Gathering of Exceptional Public Domain Dudes. During a convention in 2009, the famed British comics creator Mark Ellison expressed his interest in doing a relaunched aimed at bringing Hobo Ghost back to his gritty roots, though nothing has so far materialized.

Recommended listening: Ghost Dance – Where Spirits Fly (from Gathering Dust, 1988)

Who can say what’s real anymore?

Today we’re going to dabble in a dark art that always makes me cringe with existential terror.

That’s right, it’s SELF-PROMOTION TIME.

The crowdfunding campaign for Advanced Death Saves has gone live! Like its predecessor, the anthology features tales of tragedy lifted straight from the gaming table, written and illustrated by an amazing roster of talented folks.

Also like its predecessor, it includes a collaboration between the mighty Matt Digges and yours truly!

The story is titled “Sawbones” and it’s a ghoulish little bit of grubby horror-fantasy inspired by a Warhammer — excuse me, “Gorebludgeon” adventure from my college days. Matt did an amazing job translating my tortured prose into some damn fine comics.

(No joke, the man is a wonder and working with him has been both educational and awe-inspiring.)

It’s just one of some thirty-odd tales in the anthology, including some nifty contributions from long-time pals and AT supporters Dave Lartigue and Ken Lowery. So, please, give a lookover and help spread the word.

While I’m wobbling unsteadily on my pitch platform, I should also put in a good word for this year’s edition of BOO! Halloween Stories 2017, which will be available for digital purchase on October 18.

Included in the frightfully fun package is “Mhairi,” in which the diabolic Daniel Butler and I reunite to a put a modern day spin on an old familiar tale. Daniel is a top flight talent and a great guy to work with even if I don’t understand a tenth of the art-jargon he lets fly when the muse overtakes him. (He’s also a pretty great Destiny player, despite his weird love of hand cannons.)

Recommended listening: Blood and Roses – Enough Is Never Enough (from Enough Is Never Enough, 1985)

Rocking a Carpenter-wave sound three decades before it became fashionable.

It has been a while since I delved into the dank depths of Nobody’s Favorites, and what better time than the Halloween Countdown to exhume the Dreaded Feature That Cannot Die?

In keeping with the seasonal spirit, we’re going to turn the spooky spotlight (it’s covered in cobwebs, okay?) upon the night-loving non-entity known as Nocturna.

Nocturna (aka “Natasha Knight” or “Natalia Knight”) was a recurring member of the pre-Crisis Batman Family cast, and an odd artifact of the time immediately before Frank Miller (and Jim Starlin) steered the Caped Crusader onto a grittier path.

She made a shadow-obscured teaser debut in Detective Comics #529 (August 1983) before fully revealing her pigment-deficient self in Batman #363 (September 1983). The adopted daughter of a prosperous crime boss, Nocturna developed a passion for stargazing and an appreciation for the finer things in life. When her ill-gotten gravy train got derailed by a successful hit on her mobbed-up pappy, she turned to high-stakes larceny to fund her lush lifestyle.

She was assisted in these endeavors by the mobster’s biological son Anton, a creepily doting ninja wannabe who dubbed himself “The Thief of Night” and — during his later descent into edgelordian nonsense — the “Night-Slayer.”

Oh, and somewhere along the way she got zapped by an experimental “astronomical laser” which bleached her skin and made her sensitive to light because “comics,” I guess.

Nocturna/Natasha’s antics brought her to the attention of the Batman, who was torn between his devotion to justice and his lust for the gothic hottie.

The inner conflicts and bizarre love triangle which ensued were pretty standard Bat-tale boilerplate, with Nocturna functioning as a slightly more suggestive yet less interesting analogue for the recently sidelined Catwoman. As far as filler material went, though, it was perfectly adequate stuff capable of keeping the franchise fires burning for a couple of months…but then things took a turn for weird.

Nocturna’s arrival happened to coincide with Dick Grayson’s stepping back from his role as Robin and his replacement by Jason Todd. This Jason Todd wasn’t the pubescent problem child awaiting a reader-demanded date with the business end of a crowbar, but the pre-Year One cipher who was little more than a carbon copy of his predecessor.

To liven things up (providing your definition of “excitement” is pegged to daytime soap operas), the new Boy Wonder was thrown into the middle of a prolonged custody battle between Nocturna and Bruce Wayne, with the former eventually becoming his adoptive mother.

For Nocturna, it was a strategy to coerce the Batman into something more long-term than the occasional booty call. For Batman, it presented a problem he couldn’t punch or buy his way out of. For Young Andrew, it was a weird contrivance that couldn’t even meet the very low bar my suspension of disbelief supported at the time.

I mean, two high profile media figures battling it out over some random orphan? As if that wouldn’t be front page news, even regionally? And that scrutiny wouldn’t lead even the most oblivious folks to put two and two together in terms of who the people involved actually were — especially when a supposedly reformed Nocturna and Robin were going out and fighting crimes together?

There’s enjoyably dumb and then there’s downright stupid. (Not to mention that my takeaway from it at the time was “women will use kids to entrap guys,” which wasn’t exactly a healthy message for a boy entering the maelstrom of full-bore puberty.)

Nocturna’s efforts to become a law-abiding parental figure came to naught after Nu-Robin discovered she was still thieving on the side. Meanwhile, her jealousy-deranged ex, Anton, got himself involved in all manner of hijinks including dressing up like Batman and convincing everyone the Caped Crusader was a criminal — despite the prominent ‘stache and goatee protruding from under his cowl.

It ended in the manner one would expect from an editorially mandated clean-up job. Anton took a fatal fall while fighting Catwoman (who showed up to enforce her trademark against the newcomers) and Jason Todd dumped the wounded Nocturna in a hot air balloon in an act of mercy (whether towards her or to the readers is anyone’s guess). The balloon then exploded in the Crisis-wracked “red skies” and Nocturna was presumably swept up into a wave of multiverse-obliterating antimatter.

And here I thought killing MASH’s Colonel Blake in an off-screen helicopter crash was a harsh kiss-off.

She was never seen again — unless you count the introduction of a vampire character with the same codename and basic look a few decades later. I certainly don’t, but I’m not going to tell you what to think.

Looking back at this period of Bat-history, I’m most amazed at how long the Nocturna era lasted. It ran from 1983 up through Crisis on Infinite Earths two years later — an incredibly long stretch of time by contemporary funnybook standards — and it unfolded between both of Batman’s monthly solo titles. That’s a whole lotta paper, ink, and effort dedicated to a storyline, and yet it has been obliterated from memory by the reboot(s) that followed it.

The same could be said about most of DC’s mid-Eighties revamps, but not nearly to the same extent. I’ve seen and heard more discussion about Superman and even Wonder Woman in their immediate pre-reboot days than I’ve encountered about the Batman solo titles (with the exception of the short Barr/Davis run). The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, and The Killing Joke hit so hard they blasted all of it from popular memory.

The pitiful and pale Nocturna just happened to be at ground zero.

Recommended listening: Vicki Sue Robinson – Nighttime Fantasy (from the Nocturna OST, 1979)

I’m not saying Nocturna would’ve fared better if she was the disco-dancing granddaughter of Dracula like in the 1979 movie, but I’m not saying she wouldn’t have, either.

Every generation gets the Masque of the Red Death it deserves.

Recommended listening: Curtis Mayfield – (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go (from a 1970 single)

Funk don’t come heavier than this.

hi i’m bekkacat here for guess pose with best new friend pumpkinfriend

bekkacat give pumpkinfriend all the hugs

pumpkinfriend no yell at bekkacat when bekkacat clear junk from shelf or sometimes wants MURDER DEATH KILL

bekkacat loves pumpkinfriend

Recommended listening: Tricky (feat. Goldfrapp) – Pumpkin (from Maxinquaye, 1995)

bekkacat thought trip-hop was when bekkacat jumps for windowsill and misses

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