Armagideon Time

Decade

May 3rd, 2016

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Armagideon Time.

The site began its life as a music blog, though that conceit had all but fallen by the wayside when I migrated from Blogspot at the end of 2008.

I have no idea what I expected would come out of this project. There was small part of me that maybe hoped it would be a gateway to bigger and better things, but my unease about what that would require ended up sabotaging or demurring what modest opportunities did come my way. I didn’t want or need them enough to turn a diversion I’m ambivalent about into a job I’d certainly despise — and no one in the current climate is offering enough cash to still my qualms or motivate me to up my game.

There’s something perversely reassuring in the knowledge that I could nuke all this at any moment, should I have the desire. And I’ve flirted with the notion on multiple occasions, rest assured.

So why do I keep doing it?

Because, to paraphrase the wise and talented Matt Digges, the shit in my skull needs an out. Maura is a wonderful and patient sounding board, and we do discuss a lot of what I write about on this site, but even she has her limits. Writing for me isn’t a joy or an act of craft or a serious endeavor. It’s draining an infected wound. I get it out because holding on to these thoughts would have even more dire consequences for my mental well-being. Hence the personal, self-centric tone which I will never be rid of.

That there happens to be a small audience for what I lance out onto the digital page is astounding to me. It is humbling and I sincerely appreciate it, but that’s still incidental to my primary objectives for maintaining this place.

As for my future plans, I’m just going to work things out as I go along. That’s served me well enough so far.

(Oh, and be sure to check out the first comment below within the next week or so.)

We’ve reached the latter half of my experiences in 1990s comics fandom, so the time has come to abandon the rambling survey approach of previous installments in favor of a “special topics” format.

First up, a sentence no one — including myself — ever expected they’d ever see coming from me:

Wizard Magazine played a critical role in reinvigorating my comics fandom.

Bizarre? Yes, but absolutely true.

Sometime toward the tail end of 1996, Lil Bro handed me an issue of Wizard he’d picked up. I can’t remember which issue or how he came into possession of it in the first place. Odds are that he probably picked it up to check something in its wildly optimistic and utterly arbitrary price guide, the info he required not justifying the twenty bucks for that year’s edition of Overstreet.

Or he could’ve bought it because he got bored waiting for a bus. I gave up trying to understand my sibling’s thought processes and motivations decades ago.

In any case, the issue ended up in my hands and, by extension, Maura’s.

We’d both dodged Wizard’s hype train up until that moment, and a quick skim of the mag’s interior seemed to justify our reflexive avoidance. Yet hidden between the endless galley of titty comic ads and myopic fan-casting articles and heavy adver-dorsements for the Next Big Thing Apparent, there were small items of interest to be found.

Most of it had to do with the timing rather than Wizard’s Dorito-breathed brand of “journalism.” The worm (or more accurately, “the marketplace”) had begun to turn against the speculation-driven wave of cross-hatched, over-accessorized avatars of adolescent power fantasies. Waid’s Flash run and the Morrison/Porter JLA were hailed for a more back-to-basics approach to the superhero genre, which Marvel would soon adopt with its “Heroes Return” relaunch titles. The uncertainty of a collapsing market also made it possible for some interesting experiments to pop up — especially at DC where “quirky” titles like Chase, Major Bummer, Young Heroes in Love, and Chronos were given a place in the sun, albeit briefly.

Image Comics, once the vanguard of Everything That Had Gone Wrong With The Industry, had begun to reveal glimpses of the publisher it would eventually become. Trend-hopping drek was still the the norm, but the quality of works like Astro City, Leave It to Chance, and Jinx more than made up for it.

Wizard‘s coverage of these individual bright spots was uneven and never lost its obsessive fixation with hype and hawtness, but even a cursory mention of a potentially interesting comic made it easier to sift through the flood of soon-to-be-forgotten nonsense crowding the new release shelves. When you’re adrift at sea, even a shitty compass is better than no compass at all. If it wasn’t for a brief mention of a Firestorm guest appearance in a Wizard blurb, I’d never have given Starman a second chance after having dismissed the first couple of issues as pretentious psuedo-indie wank. (Though after thinking back on the excruciatingly drawn-out arcs toward the end of the series, I wonder if I should’ve just stuck by my initial assessment.)

The series I most associate with this period was Andi Watson’s Skeleton Key, discovered by way of a shoutout in Wizard’s “Palmer’s Picks” column. Tom Palmer Jr. was to Wizard what Kurt Loder was to MTV News (minus the weary contempt and that weird Courtney Love interview thing) — the token knowledgeable adults in a playpen full of shrieking children. Even if there was a self-serving “see, we really are into comics as a artform” motivation behind the column’s inclusion in a non-stop gallery of overblown hype, the fact remains that it did spotlight a lot of great “indie” (or “indie-lite”) works that would have been otherwise overlooked by the lumpenfandom masses.

Whether it had any appreciable impact in terms of sales is another matter, but it did convince me to pick up a number of the featured titles. Palmer’s write-up of Skeleton Key was in the issue of Wizard handed off to me by Lil Bro, and the description and sample panels made it seem like something Maura would dig — an insightful coming-of-age story framed by magical adventures and featuring some extremely distinctive art. I found a stray issue at a local comics shop and passed it on to Maura, who went out and bought the rest of the run a few days later. After a long stretch of feeling alienated by the current state of comics, she’d found a series she truly adored and began to actively seek out other comics (Sugar Buzz, Blue Monday) in a similar vein.

As tends to be the case when a couple shared a hobby, our rekindled enthusiasms fed each other. We started attending cons again, hitting the shops around the region on a regular basis, and set up a joint pull-list for new releases. We eventually bailed on Wizard in favor of Diamond’s Previews catalog, because why deal with an irritating middleman when you get the uncut shit straight from the source?

Yet it did its job. It got us excited about new comics again. Perhaps not as intended and not without a lot of eye-rolling on our end, but any lasting positive accomplishment on Wizard‘s part was still a remarkable event.

In the fall of 1991, I leveraged my popular Warhammer RPG campaign into a successful bid for the Sci-Fi Club’s presidency. It was an uncharacteristically outward-facing move for me, but I was motivated by a intense dislike of the org’s incumbent president — a patronizing “alpha” geek who wielded the leadership gavel with Orwellian gusto. I. on the other hand, had no agenda except to prevent such overcompensating turds from ruining everyone else’s fun.

I did make a few earnest, if halfhearted, efforts towards the beginning of my reign to organize group outings and other open participation events. These initiatives died a quick death after I decided that romantic pursuits were far more fulfilling than the dubious benefits of playing King of the Nerds. First there was a short ‘n’ doomed fling with an art student, almost immediately followed by a serious relationship with the woman who has remained my partner for almost twenty-five years now. Both were club members, which was mildly controversial because “double dipping” was considered “bad form” in a group with a massive gender disparity and had a difficult time wrapping their heads about concepts like “agency” and “you never had a shot, kid.” I didn’t care because, honestly, fuck that noise.

It was around the time I starting dating Maura that my comics reading habits underwent some major changes. These changes had nothing to do with my change in romantic status, but happened to coincide in way that formed a lasting mental association between the two events. Within the space of the last few weeks on 1991, nearly every title I followed on a regular basis went on hiatus or changed creative teams in a way that killed my interest in the series. Zot wrapped up on a decent if cursory note. Baker Street stalled out on a cliffhanger. The Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League run came to a drawn-out and overdue end, and was replaced with a more traditional and less interesting take on the team. The left the Legion of Super-Heroes as the only surviving title on my pull list, and even that series was suffering from some protracted wheel-spinning.

The stretch from 1992 to late 1996 was probably the nadir of my interest in comics. It was by no means a dead period, but it is full of odd gaps viewed from the perspective of a detached observer instead of an actual participant. Blame my stubborn refusal to give up on the Legion — and its cake-and-eat-it-too spin-off Legionnaires, which threw in a squeaky clean teen version of the team alongside the grizzled, grimdark “Five Years Later” one — as it guaranteed I’d make at least two monthly visits to the comic shop.

The original wave of Image titles almost entirely passed me by, apart from fragmented info Lil Bro picked up from his Kool Aid-drinking peers and a confused flip through a copy of Brigade #1 someone left in the Sci-Fi Club office. The only Image comic I picked up as it was being published back then was 1963, but that was Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, Dave Gibbons, and Don Simpson doing a Silver Age Marvel homage-parody. I’m not made of stone, people.

The weird thing is that I wasn’t entirely dismissive of the Image-led trend at the time. While the actual comics were very much Not For Me, the characters and concepts did fascinate the tiny part of me that remembered hashing out baroque badass superheroes for adolescent fancomics and Champions RPG runs. That alone might not be grounds for a revisionist appreciation of that aesthetic, but you can’t say the creators didn’t know exactly who their audience was and what they wanted. The problem is that their ambitions got entirely out of proportion with their ability to realize them, and shakiness of the material was masked by a dangerous amount of speculative hoodoo.

Mostly I remember the racks being crowded with an unsustainable excess of titles I couldn’t make heads or tails of. Even stuff by creators I would’ve taken a chance on stood a significant risk of falling through the cracks, though I was fortunate enough to find Keith Giffen & Tom and Mary Bierbaum’s weird and wonderful The Heckler out from the sea of Blood-Cyber-Force-Blade dross. (It didn’t last past six issues, of course.)

Though this was the golden age of DC’s alt-leaning Vertigo imprint, I barely sampled its roster of offerings. Based on the recommendation of one of Maura’s fanboy pals, I tried a couple of issues of Shade the Changing Man and the Rachel Pollack Doom Patrol, but was put off by affected quirkiness of the material. I picked up the third issue of Sandman Mystery Theatre in hopes that Guy Davis would eventually announce Baker Street‘s return as a Vertigo book. It never happened, but the series soon became a favorite of mine and was one of the few titles added to my pull list during this period.

Sometimes cover price was a deciding factor. I tried the first issue James Robinson and Paul Smith’s The Golden Age, loved the revisionist take on DC’s World War II heroes, and ended up waiting ten years to pick up the trade because I couldn’t commit to four bucks an issue at the time.

Comics’ Greatest World, Dark Horse’s attempt to add yet one more shared superhero universe to the already straining shelves, briefly got my attention thanks to the dollar-priced introductory issues and Adam Hughes’ art on Ghost. My interest didn’t survive his tenure on the series, which was woefully short.

I was still collecting manga floppies through this era, though the scene had already begun to shift away from my tastes. Oh My Goddess! somehow ended up on my pull list (and stayed there for most of the rest of the decade), alongside Adam Warren’s periodically released Dirty Pair miniseries.

In terms of mainstream Big Two comics, the LSH was my only constant during those three years. It was the only reason I picked up 1994′s Zero Hour, one of DC’s attempts at force rebooting its tangled continuity. The event ended up wiping the Legion’s history clean, leading to a fresh back-to-basics approach for the “super-teens in outer space” concept. At the time, I figured it was going to be my jumping off point for that franchise, but the “Archie Legion” reboot managed to win me over with its adorable, soap-operatic charm.

My Marvel experiences in those days were a bit more remote, as they were all driven by other people. Thanks to Lil Bro, I kept up with Captain America through the weirdness of the later Mark Gruenwald run and the (kinda boring) Mark Waid and Ron Garney run. (Gruenwald’s departure from the book was the moment where the “Marvel” of my fanboy youth ended. It ended earlier elsewhere, but Cap was the last comic where I felt that I could still recognize the characters as the ones I grew up with. That’s not a complaint, just an observational aside.)

I did not buy or read any issues of the lead-in “Onslaught” event, but I did buy every issue of every “Heroes Reborn” book. This is an undeniable fact, though I’m still not sure how it happened. Maura may have been the indirect cause. In her art school days, she had been a pretty avid comics reader and a big fan of the X-Men and especially the New Mutants. She didn’t drift away from the hobby as much as it drifted away from her. When the first issue of Generation X hit the stands in 1994, I bought a copy for her thinking that its “Even Newer Mutants” vibe might appeal to her.

It did, long enough to convince me to pick up all the Age of Apocalypse event books. It also somehow conditioned me to check out “Heroes Reborn,” if only out of the same impulse that makes folks slow down when passing a gory car accident. Don’t let the after-the-fact contrarians tell you otherwise. Those comics were terrible on multiple levels, and represented every sin of the 1990s piled into a creative tire fire.

They really should’ve marked the end of my non-nostalgic superhero fandom, but subsequent events would prove otherwise.

Winners and losers

April 26th, 2016

My plans to sustain last week’s productive streak have been temporarily derailed by Mother Nature trying to make my skull explode and my senile beagle-boxer’s transformation into a slathering hellbeast when we took her in for her annual checkup. (No one puts a muzzle on Addy, not unless they want to add “three-fingered” as an honorific title.)

I was hoping to finish off my autobiographical journey through 1990s comics fandom before the Next Big Event (hint) started to demand my full attention, but that’s looking less likely by the minute.

In order to assuage my guilt over depriving you of your expected Terrible ’90s fix, please enjoy this documentary record of the most Chromium Age contest ever…

Such a titanic intellectual challenge required an appropriate payoff. The grand prize winner of the contest was granted both a lingering sense of shame and every Image comic published up through the later summer of 1994.

Current retail value: .00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 cents.

By some weird twist of fate, Prince’s passing happened right in the middle of my muddling through Billboard‘s mid-Eighties archives, an era which saw the Purple One’s unquestioned ascendancy into the Big Pop Pantheon alongside the King of Pop, the Boss, and the Material Girl. What had been a matter of thread-weaving and data-processing has taken a turn towards the poignantly macabre.

I’d been getting similar vibes sifting through the frequent mentions of Jacko, Whitney, and Falco, but those were distant echoes compared to yesterday’s bombshell. One minute I’m trying to parse something like this…

…and the next minute my social media feed was buzzing with unconfirmed reports of one of the mentioned artists’ deaths.

The above piece came from the December 13, 1986 installment of “The Rhythm & The Blues,” Nelson George’s round up of industry news and trends in the real of what Billboard still officially classified (or pigeonholed) as “Black Music.” It originally caught my eye because I love seeing artists shit talk other artists, especially when my emotional investment in the involved parties is effectively nil.

I have to say, I’m with Randy Newman on this one, despite my previously stated dislike of Prince’s music.

Springsteen was a tremendous talent in his prime (before he turned into a blue collar James Taylor) yet even at his best he wasn’t much more than an exceptionally polished bar band act pitching towards a pretty easy to placate target demographic — the beer-goggled sentimentality of real or affected Regular Joes. “Cars and fleeting youth and grease and sweat and can you feel that old magic and best buds with evocative nicknames in this dead end town” followed by a wild Clarence Clemons sax solo. I ain’t immune to it — thanks to my skin color, gender, and upbringing — but musically it was as regressively pandering as anything Bob Seger released in the 70s and 80s.

Prince, on the other hand, transcended any and all expectations or genre boundaries, funk beats and metal riffs and whatever else tickled his fancy while making sure the goods got delivered. The musical world rolled past Springsteen years ago. I don’t think it will ever manage to catch up to Prince.

I was really baffled by last paragraph’s statement on the artist’s comparative career trajectories. For all the talk of Springteen’s ascendancy, the man was still coasting on the phenomenal success of an album released two years prior. Born in the USA was huge, but it also reduced Springteen’s “working class rocker” persona to a slickly packaged product and owed a good portion of its popcult footprint to listener’s poor comprehension skills and the “morning in America” zeitgeist of the early Reagan Era.

And should you ever feel the urge to say as much to a socialist Boomer professor in an American Studies class, bring some sort of faceguard to protect you from the spray of outrage-induced spittle.

I wish I could have a “descending orbit” as prominent as Prince’s apparently was in 1986, with a critically and commercially successful album release, along with four hit singles (one, “Kiss,” hitting the top of the charts) and the Prince-penned “Manic Monday” taking the Bangles to #2 on the Hot 100 chart. Poor guy, it’s a wonder he ever managed to recover from such a terrible year.

Saying that you don’t care for Prince would be an invite to be mobbed by an angry horde even before today’s tragic news. Restating it now is simply begging to be strung up then torn to bloody shreds.

It doesn’t make it less true, though. I, Andrew Otis Weiss, do not like Prince’s music. It has nothing to do with curmudgeonly contrarianism affected for pageviews, but dates back to some of the least pleasant memories of my childhood.

Like nearly everyone else in earshot of a Hot 40 format radio broadcast in 1983, I was repeatedly exposed to repeated spins of “1999″ and “Little Red Corvette.” While they weren’t the “Der Commissar” or “Mr. Roboto” I tuned in to hear, they weren’t ear poison on the order of “Shame on the Moon” or “Up Where We Belong,” either. I was very much Prince-agnostic, neither inspired to crank the volume nor change the station when his tunes made their tight playlist go-round.

My mom, on the other hand, adored Prince. That wasn’t an unusual response, and was in fact part of the total pop package that the Artist had carefully assembled. Unfortunately, my mom’s Prince fixation just happened to coincide with a cancer scare and the desperate retreat from mortality it triggered in a most self-destructive manner. My mother was a very beautiful woman and retained her youthful looks for an enviably long stretch of time. She took vain pride in the fact that she’d still get carded at the tender age of 31.

That shit can’t last forever, though. Eventually entropy begins to reveal its hand in minor, but ever accumulating ways. It didn’t matter that no one else seemed to notice the little creases and laugh lines and stray bits of gray. My mom had invested so much of herself for so long in her aura of eternal youth that she was unable to cope when it began to fade, especially when a minor cancer scare forced her to confront her own mortality.

She responded with utter denial and a willful retreat into immature excess — clubbing, partying, hanging out with a collection of cokeheads and wannabe musicians she worked with at the speaker factory behind the mall.

It drove my father into fits of rage and I wasn’t too crazy about it myself. My dad’s own set of demons had been ramping up their game at the time. My mom had been the one person capable of mitigating my father’s behaviors, and now she was (intentionally or unintentionally) amplifying them and leaving me to face their full irrational fury. I can’t bring myself to hate her for it, but I can’t bring myself to ever fully forgive her for it, either.

Also, no eleven year old boy needs to see his mom in a pleather miniskirt and fishnet stockings.

There were a lot of musical acts my mom embraced during this period — Cyndi Lauper, Van Halen, Sade — so what made Prince the one that suffered the brunt of my negatively associated backlash?

That fucking “X-Ray,” that’s what.

X-Ray (real name Dave Something-or-other) was one of my mom’s coworkers on the assembly line. He was a swarthy French-Canadian who had once been told he “kinda-sorta looked like Prince” and leaned into that with enthusiastic ineptitude. The comparison was more than mildly overstated and really depended on how long it had been since the person making it had seen an actual picture of Prince. He was a whiny-mopey manipulator who used self-created problems as chick-bait and…

Let me put it this way. On Halloween 1991, I was on my pre-Maura girfriend’s couch watching Silence of the Lambs. When Jamie Gumm made his first appearance, I broke away from the makeout session, stared at the screen, and thought “who the fuck does he remind me of?” The answer didn’t come to me until 2 AM the following morning. He reminded me of X-Ray.

He had a weird interest in my mom, and would hang around her like the world’s most strangle-able puppy dog. My mom loved it because it fed her fragile ego. My dad despised it because he was ferociously jealous and X-Ray possessed every quality my father disliked in a man. I didn’t mind it so much at the beginning because “hey, there’s a rock musician hanging out in my living room,” but the fascination faded fast as X-Ray became a catalyst by which my parents’ worst pathologies could feed each other in a long, painful death spiral. (The death in question being my mom’s, after five years of this wrecked her both physically and mentally. If the fall down the stairs hadn’t killed her, her rotted liver soon would’ve.)

This a lot of baggage to saddle one musician with, but that does speak to the power of pop music.

In another timeline, Prince evokes memories of sunshine and rainbows for me. In this one, however, the opening synth barrage of “1999″ can elicit only a picosecond’s thrill before the full weight of unpleasant memory comes crashing down on me. I have immense respect for the man’s talent and his accomplishments, but only from the most remote of distances.

In the fall of 1990, I enrolled as a freshman at UMass Boston. My original plan had been to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but punked out after having some issues with my financial aid package and experiencing a growing unease about relocating to an unfamiliar locale with nothing in the way of a support system.

My guidance counselor was visibly disappointed my change of heart, but it turned out to be the right decision. The idea of going to an out-of-state college was a notion impressed upon me by others, not something I particularly desired. UMass Boston had a rep for being a safety school and haven for “fifth-chancers,” but it was exactly what I needed at that part of my life. As a commuter college, it didn’t feel much different than being in high school…apart from the fact that the median age for its students at the time was in the vicinity of twenty-five years old.

Even with that shallow adjustment curve, it took a while before I was able to adapt to UMB’s social culture. I’d made a couple of friends during orientation (including a dude I swear ended up playing drums for The Dents fifteen years later), but most of my between-class time for the first half of the semester was spent sitting on a couch by myself in one of the student lounges.

I longed for some form of community, but I had no idea where to find it until I stumbled across an amateur hour Sharpie-scrawled flyer seeking members for a “Comics Connection” club. The open house for the club was held on the fourth floor of Wheatley Hall, in the warren of offices set aside for registered student organizations. I was the only person who showed up, which meant I got to listen to the club’s would-be founder expound at length about his ambitious plans for fanzines and mini-conventions and other non-starter pipe dreams.

It would’ve been a complete waste of time, save for the arrival of a Student Life trusty checking to see when the meeting would be over. The trusty was one of those “sophisticate” geeks –high Seventies professorial fashion and a Gandalf pipe draped over a core of condescending smarm — that I’ve never been particularly fond of, but he was effusive to me as he was dismossive of Mr. Comics Connection.

“Hey, if you like comics and stuff, I got some people you ought to meet” he said as he guided me down the hall, where introduced me to the members of the UMB’s Sci-Fi Club. They were a pretty representative cross-section of hardcore geekdom circa 1990 — neckbearded lifers, preening SCA elitists, faculty brat freaks, industrial-goths, and general issue Rush-loving fanboys. All of them were far more committed to the lifestyle than I was, but that (mostly, sorta) ended up being a positive thing, especially when it came to funnybook fandom.

It was from them I first heard about Yummy Fur and Brat Pack, was able to borrow a copy of Milligan & McCarthy’s Skin, read issues of Toxic, and felt inspired to give Nexus and Grimjack a shot. Much of it wasn’t really up my alley, but learning about it and — more importantly — the places around town where such stuff was available was an education more invaluable than anything I’d been picking up in my actual college classes.

My weekly trips to New England Comics with my father and brother continued through most of this era, though they started to trail off during summer of 1991. I was running a Warhammer Fantasy RPG campaign at the time, and it was popular enough that we kept it going through the intercession. The group met on Friday afternoons, and lot of us would hop onto the subway and head out to the original Newbury Comics store in the Back Bay after the session concluded. It was just as easy to pick up my new releases at that point as it was to listen to my dad’s complaints about getting dragged to NEC the following day, so I started buying most of my comics there.

(It also helped that Newbury Comics still had a pretty decent selection of import punk and Oi records in stock, which catered to my other fan obsession at the time.)

The list of books I followed hadn’t changed much since my high school days: Zot, Legion of Super-Heroes, the two Justice League monthlies, and a smattering of manga titles. Baker Street eventually joined the roster, after much internal debate over whether it was an ideologically suspect attempt at scene-biting, as did The Last American miniseries.

This was also the era of World’s Worst Comics, which spurred an interest in back issue oddities picked up (along with a lot of cheap LSH and DC Comics Presents issues) at a short-lived shop (now an upholstery place) across the corner of Swanton and Main in Winchester or by Lil Bro on my behalf during his regular convention visits.

Though I didn’t follow any of the “hot” titles of that era, I wasn’t ignorant of them either. One of the dudes in my Warhammer group was a very Zen army vet who would buy a substantial stack of Lee/Liefeld/McFarlane each Friday, then hand Lil Bro or me the bag because “he wouldn’t have time to read them until after the weekend.” It didn’t make much sense to me, but it did give me a chance to experience the immediate pre-Image Era in all its underwritten, crosshatched insanity.

It wasn’t anything I would’ve followed on my own dime, but I won’t deny that — at the time, with no foreknowledge of what was to come — there was something vibrant and exciting going on amidst the garish stupidity of it all. The stuff had style, a potent package of semiotic triggers directly wired to the part of the adolescent psyche that spent countless hours contemplating a billion variants of Not-Punisher/Not-Batman/Not-Wolverine/Not-Your-Favorite-GI-Joe-Figure. I was — fortunately — a couple of years too old for it to achieve maximum effect, but I certainly felt the buzz of that over-accessorized contact high.

My Warhammer campaign concluded during the final week of the summer intersession. This phase of my comics fandom would hang on for a slightly longer stretch.

(The events that led to my Warhammer campaign and status as Sci-Fi Club Big Shot are depicted in the story the magificent Mathew Digges and I did for the Death Saves comic anthology. The hustle is real, folks.)

I’ve discussed the situation (read “pit of excess and desperation”) the funnybook industry found itself in during the era I’ve dubbed “The Terrible ’90s” on multiple occasions over the course of Armagideon Time’s lifespan, but thought it might be worthwhile to take those anecdotal asides and weave them into a long-form autobiographical postmortem for that strange and horrible decade.

The best place to begin would be the end of 1988, in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death. The months leading up to her passing has been marked by extreme poverty. Though I had just started working part-time in the Choate Hospital kitchen, most of the sixty bucks I took home each week was given over to my parents as board, with an additional “we ran out of booze money” surcharge applied a few days later.

Of the fifteen bucks a week that left me for spending money, comics barely rated on my list of priorities. There was the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League, a few translated manga series, and Captain America (for my little brother). Even if I had the scratch to expand my pull list, I doubt I would’ve. The obsessive line-wide fandom of my junior high days had sputtered out years before — done in by Marvel’s post-Shooter drift, DC losing its post-Crisis momentum, and Watchmen‘s revisionist allure souring me mainstream superheroic stuff.

That all changed following my mom’s death. For starters, I was sent to live with my maternal grandmother, who didn’t believe in charging board and thus tripled my pocket money.

Fresh proximity to my father’s family meant I was able to reconnect with my Uncle Gary. Gary was a comics geek turned Jesus freak. His initial conversion in the mid-Eighties was a momentous event for my brother and I, as we were bequeathed his large collection of Bronze Age Marvel comics and other assorted treasures. By the end of the decade, he’d somehow managed to reconcile his faith with his fandom, and was back on the comics-buying wagon.

Gary was really good to us Weiss Boys in the weeks after my mom passed away. He took us to our first comic convention (where I blew $100 on bootleg anime tapes and the Marvel Premiere issue with Jack of Hearts) and showed us around the various funnybook shops in Harvard Square. His geeky enthusiasm was infectious, especially for a depressed sixteen year old looking for something to distract him from recent events. A renewed interest in comics may have been a means of avoiding an unpleasant reality, but it was one that stuck…for a while, at least.

Even so, it probably would’ve come to nothing if not for the single most critical event which drove my turn-of-the-decade fandom — my father’s move to South Boston. Each Saturday afternoon, my brother and I would take the 134 bus in to meet my dad at Wellington Station. The important thing was spending time together, though the specifics often came down to wasting time walking around Boston, hanging out on Long Wharf, and visiting the New England Comics store in Malden Center. My dad thought comics were a load of foolishness. He grumbled and teased us and insisted on waiting outside the place, but he still tagged along and occasionally pitched in a fiver if something we really wanted was just out of our price range.

It was the first time in years I had regular access to a legitimate comic shop with a decent layout and selection of new releases. The giant “THIS WEEK’S COMICS” shelf, stocked deep and wide, along with NEC’s in-house newsletter encouraged me to try out stuff that I would have otherwise avoided — Zot, the Outback Era X-Men, Iron Man, John Byrne’s West Coast Avengers and Roy Thomas’s Dr. Strange runs, the “Five Years Later” LSH relaunch, Justice League Europe.

The store also had a decent selection of quarter bin books. On slow or skip weeks, I’d makeup for the lack of new releases with a sizable stack of the past decade’s leftovers, already gone yellow with acid-eaten age. It’s where I picked up most of my early Alpha Flight run, along with some Byrne issues of Fantastic Four and Perez issues of New Teen Titans.

It was all catch-as-catch-can, just picking up stuff I enjoyed because I enjoyed it. My interest in most of the books faded after a few issues (or the abrupt departure of a creative team), but my interest in comics as a whole was stronger in 1990 that it had been in half a decade.

(On a side note, I still feel a little weird and depressed whenever I go back and reread those few runs which spanned my mom’s death. JLI is one of them, as are Grey and the first volume of Appleseed. Mostly because I can clearly remember talking about certain issues and stories with my mom — who was more supportive of the hobby — and it’s impossible to look at a comic that came out a month before her passing without morbidly musing on how little time she had left at that moment.)

Sorry, we don't want any.

You never forget your first pregnancy scare.

Mine occurred in the summer of 1992, when the otherwise idyllic post-Leech “Club of Two” status quo was upended by Maura’s confession that she was a couple of weeks late.

I wasn’t sure how to process it, despite her reassurances that it was probably a false alarm. I was twenty, unemployed, and my finances depended entirely on my scholarship. What would happen? How would our families handle this? Neither of us were in a position to accommodate such a radical shift in lifestyle. Outwardly I attempted to be level-headed and supportive, but inwardly I was in a state of blind panic scored by half-remembered snippets of high school health class films.

Before we could work out a plan of action, though, we had to know for sure — which is how we ended up in a CVS outside Harvard Square, comparison shopping for home pregnancy tests.

During times of extreme stress, the mind often seeks comfort in familiar rituals. In this case, it meant a distracted bout of crate-digging in the Looney Tunes a couple doors down from the pharmacy. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just a brief respite from the immense weight that had been pressing down on my slouched shoulders. This was normal. This was routine. This was a way to avoid thinking about the unthinkable for a few minutes, at least.

My record purchases that day were an afterthought, a means of completing the pretense that everything was correct and accounted for. I picked up a copy the “All Systems Go” 7″ by the Poison Girls and The Contortions’ Buy LP — the former because I’d heard they were “like Crass, but good” and the latter because I’d recently read something about the New York’s “No Wave” scene that cited the Contortions and the record cost me a buck and change.

We decided to take the 134 bus back to my place in Woburn, where it would be easier to use and dispose of the kit than Maura’s parents’ house. It was a long ride, made even longer by the unanticipated presence of a kid we knew from our college Sci-Fi Club. His name was Chris and he was bizarre even by geekdom’s standards for personal idiosyncrasies. He looked and behaved like an off-brand Muppet incarnation of a Bachelor Party era Tom Hanks. He was spastic in a clinical sense, punctuating everything with wild gestures and a voice that could drown out an idling jet turbine.

Other members of the club loathed him with an incandescent passion, but I tried to be nice to him — partly because the other Guy From Woburn in a college full of South Shore people and partly because there’s a part of me that empathizes with socially inept outsiders even as I hate having to interact with them. Maura, being a compassionate soul, also did her best to show Chris a little kindness, which he naturally interpreted as a romantic overture.

Chris’s antics were manageable in within the Sci-Fi Club’s environs, where one could manufacture a plausible excuse for escaping his orbit. This could not be done on a forty-minute bus ride, however, where he relished having a captive audience for his stream-of-consciousness barrage. There we were, trying to wrap our heads around the fact that our lives could be utterly changed in the immediate future, but unable to discuss it because we were trapped listening to spittle-punctuated rants about Ferngully being communist propaganda and Hulk Hogan’s chances at Wrestlemania.

I tried to disengage from the one-sider conversation by staring at the sleeves of the records I’d purchased, but Chris used that opportunity to get even creepier with Maura.

When our stop finally arrived, I felt like I’d been liberated from Devil’s Island.

Maura took the test. It came out negative. We celebrated by having dinner at our favorite (and much-missed) Chinese restaurant.

If things swung the other way, the kid would’ve just turned twenty-three. It’s strange to contemplate, given how our lives ended up shaking out, but I prefer not to dwell upon it. There’s no good end to following that road.

Chris eventually left college. His fixation with Maura has since sporadically manifested through creepy-ass emails and letters, all trashed and unanswered by their understandably spooked recipient.

I’ve not listened to either the Poison Girls single or the Contortions LP in the twenty-four years since I purchased them. At the time, they were totems. Nowadays, they’re reminders of something I’d rather just forget.

The most horrible bling

April 13th, 2016

I have learned though painstaking research (and painful experience) that there is no absolute nadir when it comes to the 1990s comics scene. Whenever you think you’ve reached the bottom of that tomb of four-color horrors, the ground beneath you gives way and plunges you into an even more fetid sub-basement.

Case in point: I thought the “Official X-MEN Watch Collector’s Club” was a pretty indicative example of the era at its most shamelessly shameful, but no sooner did Monday’s post go up than I came across this exhibit in speculative merchandising run amok a few pages later.

Charging over three hundred bucks for a set of cheap timepieces decoed with pre-existing comics art is grotty, but at least they appealed to a fairly strong fandom at the time. I myself would never be caught dead wearing a Professor X pseudo-Swatch, but there were plenty of fans who loved the X-franchise enough to express their fandom in such a fashion. Whether they did or not is another matter, but the sentiment was there regardless.

You’d have a hard time finding any example of geekdom who hasn’t at some point given in to — or at least been sorely tempted by — some pricey bit of merch which pushed their particular set of “BUY ME” buttons. It’s a manipulative con from the supply-side standpoint, yet one which is predicated on the affections — sincere or ironic — of the targeted end user.

Wizard Magazine itself operated under those parameters, pitching a hype-skewed celebration of comics fandom to a certain demographic of comics fans. It was enthusiasm peddled with an agenda, but it was capitalizing on a larger trend. Folks read Wizard because they were fans of funnybooks, which makes the notion of “Wizard Collector Rings” even more baffling to contemplate.

Wizard was a product of and support system for a type of fandom, not a fandom in and of itself. The rings weren’t like Playboy keychains or Mad Magazine belt buckles which spoke to distinct subcultures which evolved from those respective periodicals and the readers they attracted. As reductive as they might have been, they held no small amount of cultural resonance — even if associated with an oily wannabe Lothario or a sneering acne-spotted misanthrope.

A Wizard ring, on the other hand, said what exactly? “I’ve been exposed to ten times the recommended dose of Valiant Comics hype and can quote a vastly over-inflated near mint ‘value’ of Wolverine and Havok #3?” Shit, I’ve know plenty of dudes who could generate that vibe without blowing 260 bucks on a garish hunk of jewelry. (They’re the primary reason I stopped going to comic shops.)

Even if the rings weren’t gobbled up by the gullible masses, the fact that they were even offered for sale was a troubling sign for the 1990s comics scene on par with ever-escalating cover gimmicks and fitful release schedules for “hot” series. The rings embodied what Pal Dave has labeled “being a fan of being a fan of something” — that decadent stage of dedication where the carnival barker assumes he’s a bigger draw than the actual attractions….usually right before the entire midway burns to the ground.

No worries, though. Despite the mid-Nineties collapse of the funnybook bubble and Wizard’s long-overdue demise, the plan to reshape the world to resemble the back half of a Diamond Previews catalog has continued unabated.

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