Armagideon Time

Unlike the other titles in DC stable of Bronze Age “horror” offerings, Ghosts plodded along under the conceit that it was a documentary account of various supernatural shenanigans. Whether inspired by urban legends, lifted from “true” accounts of the supernatural, or crapped out by desperate freelancer with a past-due electric bill, the stories in the series were framed as authentic re-enactments of utter bullshit.

It was an interesting approach, aimed at circumventing the Comics Code Authority’s (recently eased) restrictions on horror-themed content while capitalizing on the contemporary mania for all things paranormal. From a narrative standpoint, however, it more often than not resulted in a weasel-worded mess that typically ended in some variation of “Did a ghost do that one thing that could totally be credited to some non-supernatural force? That’s for YOU to decide, readers!”

Effective horror stories typically feature a steady escalations of read and dread, teasing and tantalizing the audience right up until the storyteller drops the boom with a shocking dose of poetic justice or ironic revelation. It’s a formula the its shares with jokes, which makes sense when one considers that both formats emerged from oral anecdotal traditions. “Pull a chair up by the fire, and let me tell you” and all that jazz.

By pursuing a more documentary angle towards the material, the lion’s share of the tales in Ghosts come off as flatly delivered and highly disjointed — presented “edutainment” which fails to be either educational or entertaining.

So it was with the dreadful “Devil’s Own” in Ghosts #25 (April 1974), a garbled regurgitation of some Scottish folktale.

So there was this dude Ye Olde Edinburgh who used to visit the dying to offer them comfort, only his real purpose was to scare them to death with his Satanic walking stick and steal their shit.

But the story is not really about him, though, because his stick decided to go for evening flights around the city while he rode around in Satan’s stagecoach. This causes the townspeople to burn him at the stake (offpanel) as a witch while his Cane of the Damned spits and hisses at them from the pyre.

Then cut to two panels about the stick coming back to haunt folks, then some talk about Sir Walter Scott and a haunted mansion, and then the Demon Coach shows up alongside a caption that no one saw the stick ever again.

Wow, I don’t know about you, but I have some serious goosebumps going on. Oh, that’s right, my wife left the windows open to air out the house today and it’s kind of chilly outside today.

I’ve read enough of these Bronze Age DC horror comics to have few illusions about their level of quality (apart from the occasionally exceptional artwork). What does amaze me is how effective they were at giving Young Andrew the chills despite their overall mediocrity.

They may not have been swinging for the bleachers, but they did consistently hit that sweet spot where my pre-teen fascination with spooky stuff met up with the masscult zeitgeist fixation with the supernatural. Craft counts, but timing and audience awareness are where the real numbers reside.

Recommended listening: Gothic Girls – Devil (from Lilac Dreams, 1984)

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The “girls” part is a bit overstated.

Captain Marvel faced his share of terrors during his Golden Age adventures, but few were as frightful as the dreaded HORROR IN THE BOX.

To reveal the exact nature of the said box-borne horror would be to spoil the narrative conceit of the story, which was presented as a high-stakes enigma for the tykes of yesteryear to unravel.

The tale begins, as all great funnybook stories do, with a teenage boy excited about purchasing some shoes…

Note that Billy Batson is sporting a pullover featuring the likeness of his superheroic alter ego. I guess the “H” in “SHAZAM” doesn’t stand for “humility.”

During his subway ride home with his new pair of kicks, Billy bumps into a curious old gent carrying a similarly shaped-package, leading to a sitcom-standard switcheroo followed by a shock of existential terror.

Billy delegates the disposal duties to an equally terrified Captain Marvel. The Big Red Cheese attempts to pawn the parcel off on a friendly scientist pal, who refuses to take possession of the package and vehemently orders the World’s Mightiest Mortal to leave his laboratory.

Marvel then attempts to incinerate the box for safety’s sake…

…but his efforts are thwarted by a bucket-tossing busybody who was inexplicably opposed to someone setting strange package ablaze against the kindling-rich wall of their tenement building.

Tying a rock to the horrorbox and tossing it into the local river brings the Captain a brief moment of peace, until he suddenly realizes that would be the WORST POSSIBLE THING TO DO for reasons yet unspecified. His bid to dispose of it deep in the wilderness fails after a Grizzled Old Graduate of the Gabby Hayes School of Prospecting uncovers the unwelcome cargo and ships it back to Marvel, care of Billy’s Station WHIZ workplace.

So rattled is Marvel by this frustrating and horrific turn of events that he walks into the front fender of a moving Packard sedan, an action which almost unleashing the contents of the box but does lead to the type of epiphany you’d expect from someone blessed with the wisdom of Solomon.

Marvel’s faith in the prevalence of obsessive-compulsive disorders pays off. The horrorbox is reunited with its original owner, who seems rather nonplussed about all the fuss its contents have caused. And why shouldn’t he be?

It only contains a 16-ounce longneck full of the most deadly pestilence known to mankind!

Ha, ha! Just kidding. The cultures inside had been rendered harmless so that they could be researched for the betterment of humankind (specifically, the lads down in Fort Detrick who’ve been looking for a non-nuclear means of containing the Red Menace).

I’m a little uncertain about why the curious old gent bothered to label the contents of the bottle yet leave out the part about it being harmless. Didn’t even have to print up anything special, just maybe scrawl “will not cause the agonizing deaths of a third of the human race if opened” or something in Sharpie.

Marvel and the old man have a chuckle about the extinction event that wasn’t, and Billy returns to the WHIZ broadcasting booth to sew up the final dangling plot thread.

If you say in the first panel that a boy reporter bought a pair of shoes, in the final panel he should mention buying them. If the swanky new kicks are not going to be depicted with little emphasis lines around them, they shouldn’t be there. – Anton Chekhov

(“The Horror in the Box by Otto Binder and Artist Unknown in Captain Marvel Adventures #70, March 1947)

Recommended listening: Dali’s Car – His Box (from The Waking Hour, 1984)

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It’s been half a decade since I was a for-real music blogger, but I still get a thrill when I find the perfect match of music and material.

Though John Byrne has made a long public transition from comics superstar to embarrassing crank, my fascination with his early 1980s Alpha Flight run remains eternal. There was nothing else like it — in tone or structure — in the realm of mainstream superhero comics before or since.

It was a team book in which the entire roster of the team gathered only a handful of times. The bulk of the stories featured only an individual or pair of Alpha Flight members doing their own thing under the aegis of some slow-burning, overarching plot threads. Its Canadian setting gave it an odd vibe which set it apart from the rest of the Manhattan-centric Marvel Universe. It included a fairly diverse cast, which was as progressive in its time as it was problematic in hindsight. (In that sense, it serves as a sobering reminder how nothing ages as poorly as good intentions tend to do.)

Byrne himself wasn’t particularly fond of the franchise or the characters, yet Alpha Flight is probably the most experimentally entertaining superhero work he’s ever done. Perhaps his lack of enthusiasm played a part, spurring him to muck around with genre conventions as a way to keep things creatively interesting. Having eschewed the standard templates for superheroic team narratives, Byrne pushed Alpha Flight beyond the psycho-sexual sci-fi oddities of the Bronze Age X-Men and into the realm of body horror.

Now, this wasn’t four-color Cronenberg by any stretch, but it was almost unique (alongside Bill Mantlo’s work on ROM around this time) for a mass market mainstream superhero series in the early 1980s. From the grisly assimilation-invasion morphology of the Plodex to Gilded Lily’s alchemical immortality to Pink Pearl’s carnival of grotesques, elements of the subgenre shared space with — and overshadowed — the requisite spandexifed slugfests. Even the overarching meta plot of the run — the return of ancient and horrific Great Beasts of myth — were given disturbingly visceral subtexts to their cosmic horror underpinnings.

It gave the stories a disturbing zing to them, a novel experience that would soon become depressingly commonplace as publishers began chasing the “edgy maturity” chimera in earnest during the second half of the decade.

Still nothing will ever top the moment when I first encountered this in Alpha Flight #19 (February 1985)…

I was a few months short of turning thirteen, sitting in the back of my parents’ car with a fresh haul of new comics from the local flea market. I’d been reading “grown-up” horror fiction since I was in the fourth grade and working my way through the classic gorehound canon via my family’s new VCR. These fictions held no horrors for me. I was a big boy.

And then I saw those panels. I’m not saying I was scared, mind you. It just sort of happened that the issue got buried at bottom depths of my comics collection where I ran no risk of accidentally stumbling across it until trembling curiosity inevitably got the better of me.

Recommended listening: Moev – Beautiful Beast (from Dusk and Desire, 1986)

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More chills from 1980s Canada.

Ghosts and ghoulies are fine and all, but let’s talk about some truly spine-chilling fears.

The fear which follows a American president getting assassinated with a mail-order rifle and an unhinged engineering student murdering sixteen people from his perch in a campus clock tower.

The fear experienced by a industry as it anticipates a regulatory backlash against its livelihood.

The fear arising from the explosive realization that the marginalized and oppressed segments are not nearly as cowed and quiescent as previously assumed. (This is not a new fear, but the contemporary shape of a primordial terror dating back to the dawn of the nation’s history.)

The fear that the social order is crumbling, most acutely felt by a graying generation who’d experienced severe social traumas.

The fear of the Other.

The fear of the City.

The fear that someone is coming for your stuff.

The fear which comes when the Myth of the Individual collides with the reality of complex and interdependent social structures.

The fear that you may not be as brave or as powerful as you want to believe you are.

The fear born of mass media corporations’ realization that fearmongering equals profits.

The fear of running afoul of a deep-pocketed lobby whose campaign contributions subsidized your election to public office.

The fear that someday you or someone you know will be violently slain as a result of any combination of the above fears.

The fear that none of this will ever change.

Sorry, I didn’t mean “fear” in that last one. I meant to type “outraged disgust.”

Recommended listening: Zounds – Fear (from The Curse of Zounds, 1982)

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Speaking truth to the abyss.

(from “The Dead Dance on Halloween” by Writer Unknown and Charles Nicholas in Web of Mystery #14, October 1952)

“Fuck those spoiled creatures,” muttered Lona as she stood in the pet food aisle. “This week, they’re getting the store brand. Stupid things won’t even know the difference.”

In a life measured in ill-advised decisions, it would be her last.

Recommended listening: The Blue Cats – Wild Night (from a 1981 single)

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Not stray, yet still semi-feral.

When Parkhurst returned to the university after his stay in the sanatorium, the Book was waiting for him in his office.

Six eminently rational men of learning had set course for a previously uncharted South Atlantic island in search for the tome. Only Parkhurst had returned, after being found adrift on a derelict trawler three hundred miles southwest of St. Helena.

Of the other men, there was no trace, and Parkhurst’s fevered ravings were assumed by his rescuers to be the traumatic symptoms of extreme dehydration and exposure.

If they’d listened closer, they would have received cryptic clues about what really happened in the cyclopean tunnels beneath a certain pre-Neolithic temple and the horrible fates of Parkhurst’s companions.

In truth, Parkhurst had wanted to believe it was all a hallucination born of thirst and sun-madness, that the screaming disincorporation of the stalwart Spinoza and the blood curdling death-gurgles of young Chambers — oh, Lord, would the din ever cease — were simply phantoms conjured from a damaged psyche.

By the time he left the sanatorium, he was almost convinced it was a dream. Yet there on his desk was proof to the contrary, bound in the hide of some unknown beast and resting on top of a jumble of water-damaged notebooks. Some considerate — in intent if not in deed — soul had gathered his expedition materials from the trawler and passed them onto the University, which had delivered them to Parkhurst’s office during his absence.

The Book. The Tome-Not-To-Be-Named. The Black Folio. It was a work referenced by countless madmen and scholars over the centuries yet never seen or experienced first-hand.

What it was doing in the damned place was a mystery, one Parkhurst and his associates had been determined to solve. Now, with the book in front of him, he experienced a profound sense of trepidation.

To read its collection of blighted wisdom and arcane formulas was to court madness — or worse — in the form of the Tenebrae Ultima, the Word of the Unmaker-of-All.

Yet…hadn’t he already experienced madness and emerged from the other side of that phantasmagoric portal? Perhaps he owed it — to his fallen companions, his academic curiousity, and dare say it the world — to breach that what had only been spoken of in hushed whispers and cryptic references.

He picked up the tome with trembling hands and opened the front cover. The script was handwritten in a dark russet substance whose origins Parkhurst suspected but dared not dwell upon. The text was a jumble of ancient languages — Roman and Greek mixed with snatches of medieval Arabic and odd pictographs, but Parkhurst could deduce the meaning with an unsettling ease.

Glory be to the Unmaker-of-All, the Great Devourer, the Ultimate Truth. Here is wisdom, though like all things of value, it comes at a great price. You have been warned.

Parkhurst experienced a pang of disappointment. So far this was just occultist boilerplate, common to scores of self-aggrandizing manuscripts of dubiously “forbidden” lore. He continued reading.

To know the Unmaker is to know this: There are people of legal drinking age who hadn’t yet been born when Belly’s first album was released. You are now the same age as your grandfather at the time of your birth. If Marty McFly had travelled back thirty years today, he would have arrived in…

Parkhurst felt the world fraying around him. His vision grew distorted. He tried to look away from the page, but could not. He tried to scream, but his throat felt too dry to issue anything but a raspy croaking noise.

When Parkhurst’s secretary arrived to check on him that afternoon, she found nothing but a tangle of clothes mixed with a pile of calcified dust.

Of the Book, there was no trace.

Recommended listening: Modern English – Gathering Dust (from Mesh and Lace, 1981)

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Music to Watch Entropic Decay By.

The agonizing decision whether or not to mutilate your cherished copy of Ghostly Tales #117.

The dangerous flirtation with parental sanction as you hounded your harried mom for a check for two bucks…and an envelope…and a stamp.

The excruciating six-to-eight-week wait for your coveted prize, marked by multiple daily visits to your family’s mailbox. (Yes, even on Sundays. You know what your dad said about the postman’s schedule, but they must make exceptions for truly special deliveries.)

The unparalleled thrill of finally and inelegantly tearing open an 8 by 11 manila envelope addressed to you from Super Values of Charter Road, Philadelphia.

The painstaking process of deciding which recolored clip-art collage of the macabre you want imprinted on your sole untattered t-shirt.

The stealthy subterfuge in which you bypass the emphatic “you are NOT wearing that THING to school today” edict by cloaking your prize under a pullover you’ll discard once you’ve moved past the sight of your front porch.

The disheartening dread as you trudge back home bearing a note from the principal to your parents.

The solemn resignation upon realizing that last growth spurt has relegated your near-constant sartorial companion to the far back corner of an stuffed-to-bursting dresser drawer. (In the decade that follows, countless other cherished t-shirts will be reluctantly sacrificed to feed your mother’s insatiable need for dust rags. Not this one. Not ever.)

The mixture of embarrassment and unexpected joy when your middle-aged self rediscovers that old familiar friend in storage crate while cleaning out the attic of your late parents’ home.

Recommended listening: Brigandage – Ripped and Torn (from Pretty Funny Thing, 1986)

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Every scene-shaping musical inspires a wave of similar acts. Most are awful, some are quite good, and a handful are exceptional — yet nearly all lack that certain creative spark which animated the original instigators.

So it was with the Beatles and the British Invasion, where countless bands remained tidally locked to the skiffle/Merseybeat sound even as the Fab Four charted a course into experimental territory. It was also the case with the Oi! scene’s stubborn adherence to the template laid down by the first Clash LP.

Thus it should come at no surprise that there were a number of tortured-haired taffy-pullers who pinched a lot of the style yet a modicum of substance from Siouxsie Sioux’s playbook…

…and I’m perfectly fine with that.

(from “The Falcon’s Claw” by Writer Unknown, Dan DeCarlo and Jim DeCarlo in Josie and The Pussycats #68, April 1973)

Salutations, fellow creatures of the night!

October has begun, with it comes Armagideon Time’s annual Halloween Countdown — thirty-one days of ghoulish grooviness to fright and delight.

This marks our tenth time around the haunted carousel. I do have a few special tricks and treats to commemorate this occult occasion but, as always, my journeys through the season’s dark country will be as the spirits choose to move me.

All roads lead to the witching hour, so let’s indulge in a little travelling music…

Recommended listening: Shadow of Fear – Now’s the Time (from Shadow of Fear, 1985)

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A 100% Ohio Death Trip, though the road maps were clearly etched in the U.K.

Nobody’s Favorite: Null and zoid

September 30th, 2015

Armagideon Time’s 10th (?!?) Annual Halloween Countdown starts tomorrow, but I thought I’d take a break from my preparatory crypt-rummaging to squeak out a quick installment of this (sadly neglected as of late) litany of funnybookdom’s lost and the damned.

This week we’re returning to the bottomless advertainment abyss of 1980s toy tie-ins with Marvel’s 1984 Starriors miniseries….

The tale actually begins with the Zoids, a Tomy toy franchise which attempted to combine the interchangeability of Lego bricks and Micronaut figures with the motive power of wind-up mechanisms. The effort failed to gain traction among American tykes, though it did become an enduring franchise in the Japanese and (to a lesser extent) European markets.

That’s where the story would have ended, if not for the subsequent deregulatory boom which propelled properties like Masters of the Universe, Transformers, and G.I. Joe into massive multimedia phenomena. It was total information awareness in toyetic form, marketing not just a lumps of scuplted plastics but an entire mythos of sales-driving backmatter to buy into.

In a frantic effort to replicate or repeat those successes, toymakers unleashed a host of similarly structured franchises aimed at breaking off a piece of that sweet, multi-layered revenue stream. In such circumstances, it was only logical that Tomy would look at the earlier near miss of its Zoids line and decide to retool the concept according to the prevailing paradigm shift. Thus the Starriors were born.

Simpler and more eye-catchingly gaudy than their precursor products, the Starriors hit the mythocentric ground running with pack-in and tie-in funnybook backmatter courtesy of a deal with Marvel. In the grim darkness of the far future, humanity has been forced into subterranean hibernation by deadly solar flares! In their place stride a race of sentient robotic organisms who punch, drill and saw the shit out of each other! Each construct has a personality born of a marketing department’s focus testing and name chosen by a sugar-addled six year old!

Seriously. Every single one of the Starriors’ names evokes a suit with a clipboard standing over the shoulder of a distracted first grader.

“So, what do you think the one with the sawblade should be called?”

“Um, uh, ummmmmm. Saw Tooth Cut Guy. Can I have some more Capri Sun?”

As inane as it all was, it’s hard to fault the creative team of Starrior comics for taking a slow-pitch assignment. That anything semi-coherent could’ve emerged from a marketing bible and set of “must include” bullet points is a minor miracle. Granted, what did emerge came off as a unauthorized Golden Book version of some forgotten 2000 AD strip…

…which I apologize for making sound far more interesting than Starriors actually was. In truth, it’s a bunch of uninteresting (if well illustrated) robots getting expository about each others’ personalities and powers while constantly dropping each other’s names…which also happen to describe their personalities and powers.

“Stop, being so cranky, Crank!”

“I’d expect such hot shots from you, Hotshot!”

Though the hardcore brand evangelism may have come to naught, the painted Bill Sienkiewicz covers (standard Marvel practice for gilding its turdburgers at the time) have kept the series from falling entirely down the memory hole.

Well, that and the entrenched remnant fandom which clings to even the most excremental toy franchises of the 1980s. Even now, some dedicated soul is hard at work updating the “official” Starriors wiki while engaged in a high-stakes flamewar over the differences between Trashors and the Rammors. It’s also a given that this person will have used “edgy,” “ahead of its time,” and “mature” to discuss the epic advertainment battle between Slaughter Steelgrave and Hotshot.

If you are lucky, you will never meet this person in real life.

Every lord needs a throne

September 29th, 2015

It’s a summer evening in 1967 and you are having dinner with the president of your firm. None of the other schmoes in the sales department got invited to his exurban manse for cocktails and porterhouses, which can only mean that you’ve been singled out for Big Things, indeed.

The entire place has been decorated in full op-art intimidation style. Every fixture, every furnishing reeks of avant-garde modernism and conspicuous opulence. You attempt to feign a mix of casual nonchalance and obsequious awe — no small feat when it is impossible to tell a Space Age easy chair apart from a priceless abstract sculpture.

The booze isn’t helping, either. The boss is a hard drinking man, and perhaps you’ve pushed yourself a little too hard trying to match his intake. You didn’t want him to see you as a lightweight, after all, and you were doing well enough until the combination of beefsteak and bourbon became too much for your colon to bear.

“Might I use your…”

You don’t have to finish the question. The boss has anticipated your need. “Top of the stairs, on your left.”

Your ascent is slow. You take it one step at a time, white-knuckling the hardwood bannister and praying that you don’t trip on the shag carpeting. Your shoulder only slightly grazes the doorframe as you enter the unlit bathroom. You fumble-flip the light switch and you eyes are greeted by this…

Thinking you’re in the grip of a hallucinatory experience, you stumble back against the Venetian marble sink. No, this is no illusion. This is all too real and all too much for your booze-addle brain to process. Your bowels are a insistent master, however, and so you find yourself unfurling your slacks and settling your cheeks down upon the thoraxine bowl.

The laminated wood seat is disturbingly warm against your bare flesh as you let loose with a torrent of skittery, semi-liquid filth. You scan about for some toilet paper before realizing that the roll in ensconced in the head of the fixture, directly behind you and slightly out of reach.

As you lean back to grasp it, you lose you balance and a drunken tumble off the bowl. Your attempt to arrest your fall leads to one of your meaty limbs snapping of one of the toilet’s wings as your bare bottom leaves a foul brown smear on the imported carpeting below.

You do your best to clean up, but the damage is impossible to mask. Your boss it waiting for you at the bottom of the stairs.

“Whattsa matter, sport? You fall in?” You respond to his smirk with a sheepish grin you pray masks the depths of your existential terror.

“Whad’ya think of the bowl? It’s one of a kind! A genuine object du art! Set me back ten grand!”

You feel your gorge rising as your haze-clouded brain tries to reconcile the stated price tag with the events of the past ten minutes. Your split level ranch set you back eighteen grand when you bought it two years ago.

“I…I think I need a little fresh air.” You step out onto the front porch and make a bee line to the driver’s seat of your Bonneville.

You hear your boss calling after you from the house, but you pay it no mind. You don’t pay anything any mind until the low fuel indicator flashes three counties over. As you top of the tank at a all-night rest area, you realize there is only one thing you can do.

It has been three months. The busboys at the cantina have nicknamed you “el Gringo Loco,” smirking and whispering whenever they drop off a new load of dishes at your station. They never ask questions, though, which suits you fine. The pay keeps you in enough cheap liquor to blot out the memories, even if the incessant buzzing in your skull never completely subsides.

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