Armagideon Time

Despair implied

April 21st, 2014

I met my brother, down from New Hampshire
Who said: Two gnarled and ancient oak trees
Stand in the forest. Between them, high above,
Half rotten, a single crossbeam remains, whose placement,
And durability, and hank of decaying carpet attached,
Tell of the enthusiastic craftsmanship
Which once guided the young builders,
The hands that swiped a box a nails and the arms that lugged discarded lumber:
And on one trunk these words appear:
“Black Sabbath rules:
Scotty is a big pussy!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of disintegrating plywood, moldy and damp.
The loam of the forest stretches far away.

Best of AT: Feed your head

April 20th, 2014

(the following was originally posted to AT 1.0 back on March 23, 2008)
While I’ve used the above cover to The Unexpected #202 (September 1980) in at least two previous posts, I’ve actually never managed to get around to discussing the actual story to which it loosely refers. It’s a grevious omission on my part, and one I plan on rectifying in today’s special Easter installment of Armagideon Time.

Written by Michael Uslan and illustrated by Terry Henson, “Hopping Down the Bunny Trail” begins with the residents of Anytown, USA wondering about a mysterious advertising blitz for an Easter Egg hunt being held at the local Place of Ill OmenTM. While some parents have questions about the whos and whys behind the event…

…they are quickly shamed into silence by their less intellectually curious peers, who just assume that the municipal government is behind the proceedings.

After the Doubting Thomases have been convinced to put their faith in the City Council ahead of parental concern, the kids are sent off to join in the festivities and indulge in a moment of heavy-duty, low-grade horror comic story foreshadowing:

Upon arriving at the abandoned mansion, the children are greeted by the the Easter Bunny himself, a jovial lagomorphic nightmare who tempts them inside his secret lair with offers of candy and presents and strange mutterings about “nine days, three hours, and two minutes”…

The tykes let their greed (or stupidity, considering how vulgar Darwinism tends to be the motivation du jour for characters in cheapjack horror comics) overcome years of warnings delivered via filmstrips, after-school specials, and parental lectures about taking presents from talking animals (or even worse, from furries), and go gallivanting through the dark, bat-infested ruin in search of ovoid booty.

Things take a strange turn, however, when the kids fall into a concealed pit and land in a vat of chocolate sauce. This would normally be the point where a person with a fully functioning fight-or-flight reflex might tumble onto the notion that perhaps the Easter Bunny has his own separate agenda that goes beyond simply bringing joy to the children of Anytown. Not these kids, though, who seem to take it all in wide-eyed stride…

..until it’s too late to make a difference, that is…

Now some of you might be wondering how the act of mastic decapitation performed upon a confectionary effigy could justify a similar action taken against a living being. The answer is deeply rooted in the Lapinite world view, which does not differentiate between the symbolic and the actual when it comes to assessing transgressions and assigning consequences. This aspect of lagomorphic culture was also the reason behind the global outbreak of violent rabbit protests following the publication of Beatrix Potter’s manuscripts.

Lest the ersatz irony of that harsh (though cultural relativists may object to that description) act of retribution be lost on the readers, the writer and artist were considerate enough to restate it in the concluding panel, which in keeping with genre conventions possesses all the delicate subtlety of a grand piano dropped from a third-story roof.


If you thought that was creepy, you should have seen the sick plan for revenge the marshmallow Peeps staged that year.

Recommended listening: The Damned – White Rabbit

So UNbelievable

April 18th, 2014

The year is 1946 and the place is the shell-cratered ruin of one of Europe’s great cities, where an intrepid band of American engineers is helping out with the important task of rebuilding.

The extent of the devastation takes its toll on one of the lads, who despairs for humanity’s future. Fortunately, Johnny Everyman – the gadabout avatar of American “can-do” progressive idealism — is there to assuage his doubts with a pep talk right out of the Weiss playbook…

But wait — there’s more!

Before the despondent engineer could drop out and pledge his allegiance to the existential avant-garde, Johnny explains that there is indeed hope for humanity in the form of the…

Oh, sure, the League of Nations may have been a resounding failure, but the U.N. is an entirely different creature — a paternalistic attempt to formalize wartime alliances of convenience, effectively ruled by a security council of great and once-great powers with conflicting agendas! What could possibly go wrong with that scenario?

Johnny uses the fictitious dictatorship of “Marsland” (where not eating candy bars is punishable by death) for a hypothetical demonstration of how the United Nations would keep a lid on future acts of geo-political aggression.

First, the U.N. would reach a consensus…

…providing a member of the security council doesn’t veto the resolution due to a “special relationship” with Marsland.

Then a multinational force would be mobilized to put an end to the aggressor’s schemes…

…unless intransigence about national sovereignty and military authority smothered any hope of effective action in its cradle. Or a muddled mission plan forced U.N. troops to sit on their hands while genocidal hell broke loose.

Having thwarted Marsland’s schemes of conquest, the architects of aggression would be brought to trial and made to answer for their crimes…

eventually or perhaps never. Hey, no one said it was a perfect system!

As easy (and grimly entertaining) as it is to mock the earnest optimism of Johnny Everyman stories, there’s a unassailable poignancy to Jack Schiff’s earnest idealism. His hope for a better, socially progressive post-war world was utterly sincere, if somewhat naive in hindsight. It wasn’t his (or so many others who’d held the same dream) fault that realpolitik principles of “national” (read: “economic”) interest would inevitably trump the lofty rhetoric of wartime propaganda.

Johnny Everyman is important because it shows that “that’s how things were” should not be a blanket excuse for past unpleasantries, but can be a reminder of something vital that has been lost.

And if you want to know how the above story ended, click here.

(from World’s Finest Comics #25, November-December 1946)

Stupid, yes. Also demonic.

April 17th, 2014

Back in June 2012, I endeavored to solve the enigma of the oddly shaped mirror which graced the Fonz’s apartment.

The puzzle was resolved by some helpful readers, who pointed out that the fixture was in fact a “hall stand,” had appeared in other Paramount productions during the early 1970s, and was still ensconced in the studio’s props department as late as ten years ago. My initial suspicions of demonic influence and unholy pacts were determined to be unfounded….

….OR WERE THEY?

In a chilling twist of fate, a new revelation magically manifested in the comments section of that long-forgotten post this very morning. A mysterious entity by the name of “Rik” pointed out that the mirror’s unmistakable presence could be found in The Devil’s Daughter, a 1973 Paramount effort calculated to cash in on the malaise-driven mania for all things dark and demonic.

You can catch the entire satan-o-travesty in its grainy transferred glory here, but the true star of the piece can be spotted (along with Jonathan Frid’s melancholy mug) in this screencap:

The film also featured Shelley Winters and Joseph Cotton — two actors who were all too familiar with the concept of devil’s bargains — and was helmed by Jeannot Szwarc, who later went on to direct both Jaws 2 and Supergirl.

You don’t need to be Cotton Mather to catch the scent of brimstone here, kids, and that’s without taking the presence of Abe Vigoda into ominous account.

Just a reminder…

April 16th, 2014

S’taht tahw I llac..

…ERAMTHGIN LEUF.

(from World’s Finest Comics #24, September-October 1946)

“Invisible Destroyer” is a name brimming with pulp possibilities, from a raging b-movie behemoth to a masked mastermind obscured behind an empire of expendable proxies. More’s the pity, then, that the actual form of the character opted to express its implied qualities in the goofiest manner imaginable.

Making his debut in Showcase #23 (December 1959), the Destroyer was one of the earliest entrants in Hal Jordan’s rogue’s gallery. The less-than-advertised adversary was a being of PURE ENERGY unknowingly projected from the iota of EEEEEEVIL which dwelled in a kindly old scientist’s subconscious…

…the same part that harbored a forbidden desire for Rocky Jones, Space Ranger cosplay, apparently.

After using a front-page newspaper ad to lure Green Lantern into an ignominious beatdown, the fin-headed fiend sought to free himself from his unwilling corporeal host by detonating a nuclear weapon (this was 1959, after all) over Coast City. His plans were foiled by Green Lantern, who used his power ring to “shrink” the explosion to a more manageable size before using a surge of “anti-energy” to wipe both the Destroyer and the “evil” part of his host’s brain from existence.

(FUN HISTORICAL FACT: In terms of lazy writing, induced brain damage was to Silver Age funnybooks what rape is to their present-day counterparts.)

The Destroyer re-appeared half a decade later in Justice League of America #41 as a incidental villain in a larger tale about how The Key dosed the League with psychotropic drugs. (Hawkwoman escaped the effects because she slipped her hallucinogen-laced milk to her pet cat. It’s a shame that one of the Bobs — Haney or Kanigher — didn’t use this plot point to bring DC back into the funny animal game with Mr. Meowser, the Balls-Trippin’ Kitten.)

Despite being sunk domino mask deep into the K-hole, Green Lantern was able to dispatch the Destroyer back to limbo by means of a giant car battery — a nifty gimmick that a certain Caped Crusader would later nick for his own arsenal of tricks.

That jumped-up moment of defeat would be the end of the road for the Invisible Destroyer, apart from the occasional flashback or retcon cameo appearance. His significance as a historical footnote may have netted him a Who’s Who entry, but couldn’t mask the truth that the character fell well short on both the invisibility and destruction fronts. Indeed, he was little more than an empty suit filled out with villainy most generic and ready-made for mothballing in the bottomless cedar chest of Nobody’s Favorites.

It don’t mean a thing

April 11th, 2014

Hey there, hepcats! Are you ready to groove on a happening slice of the teen scene? Because your Uncle Andrew has got quite the megillah to lay on you.

It began when professional fuddy-duddy Mr. Morris tasked Billy Batson with looking after his niece Ellen while he cut a deal with a fellow fat cat.

While the bobbysox beauty gave the strictly squaresville boy reporter the brush-off, she flipped her wig at the sight of his superheroic alter ego…

…especially after she convinced him to trade in his fighting togs and deck himself out in some dynamite glad rags.

The hep honey and her stuffed shirt escort proceeded to raise a ruckus with a bunch of other free-sprited teens at her uncle’s stately manor. When the Big Red Cheese turned out to be a disappointing dead hoofer…

…the fresh young firecracker suggested they move the shindig to the Hotlix Theater, where her favorite trumpet player was getting really gone with his wild horn.

It was all too much for the swing-diggin’ swooner, who passed out in the corny Captain’s ample lap. Hoping a flop in a flivver might revive the dizzy damsel, Marvel loaded her into a conveniently parked jalopy for a evening spin along Fawcett City’s picturesque Dangerous Cliff Boulevard.

Unfortunately for Marvel, a couple of bluenosed biddies confused his gallantry for child abduction and set Johnny Law on his tail. The excitable Ellen found the situation just ginchy, however, and saw it as an opportunity to fulfill a romantic dream which would immortalized in countless teen ballads to come.

Marvel extricated the suicidal sweetheart from the vehicle before it sunk into the quicksand below. As fate would have it, this treacherous plot of land just so happened to be the misrepresented subject of Mr. Morris’s aforementioned business deal. Marvel confronts the grifter, who fesses up to the con, and returns Ellen to the custody of her ambiguously grateful uncle.

A wild time, all round, though it all turned out copacetic in the end. (Except perhaps for the poor stiff who owned the demolished hotrod, but that’s how the cookie crumbles.)

(from “Captain Marvel Cuts a Rug!” by Bill Woolfolk, C.C. Beck and Pete Costanza in Captain Marvel Adventures #83, April 1948)

Lead and follow

April 10th, 2014

“I drove through North Woburn today, and they’ve torn down the Shops.”

“The Shops” was the local nickname for the New England Lead Burning facilities, the Weiss family business which occupied a patch of land next to the ancestral home at the far end of the neighborhood where I grew up. Though my great-grandfather and grandfather were involved in the lead burning trade — which is a more ominous way of saying “lead smithing” — ownership and control of the company was held by cousins and uncles many times removed. (I still have a government medal issued to my grandfather for his work on the reactor shielding for the USS Nautilus.)

My branch of family did hold onto (until my aunt sold it and moved to New Hampshire) the three story, imperfectly finished Victorian house next to the facilities. It was there that my grandfather worked his self-defeating schemes, my grandmother lived a life of gentrified delusion, and my dad developed into a two-fisted troublemaker. It was the center for most family gatherings up through my early teens, where the clan would sit under the ancient oak tree in the Shops parking lot, nurse beers, eat watermelon, and watch whatever illegal fireworks display could be cobbled together for the event.

The old house and Shops also served as the gateway to the sprawling post-industrial wildness the locals dubbed “Down Back” — sand pits and swampland crisscrossed with abandoned railroad tracks and littered with illegally dumped cast-offs and toxic reminders of the old tanneries.

I remember Big Ralph (as opposed to Little Ralph, of course) riding a banana seat bike around the parking lot, stopping only to take a whack at the Shops’ aluminum siding with a hatchet he’d acquired somewhere. I also remember stumbling across the constellation of catheter tubes Ralph would leave behind after he was paralyzed from the waist down in an industrial accident. He used the settlement money to buy himself a customized van, which he’d park in the far end of the lot while he partied with his pals.

The Shops were also where my little brother impaled the back of his thigh on a metal pole while goofing around during a family barbecue. Our phone had been shut off at the time, so the police had to send a patrol car to inform my parents of the incident.

As suburban sprawl encroached upon the old neighborhood, the Shops turned into an encysted remnant of a fading past, the steady stream of tractor trailers to-and-fro were seen as a dangerous blight on what had become an residential enclave. There was talk of reopening some abandoned “paper” roads to divert the traffic into a neighboring industrial park, but it was easier in the end to relocate. (I don’t even know if any Weisses are still involved in what has become a global corporation.)

I’m sure the local developers have lofty plans (i.e. “ready made subdivisions and condo complexes”) for the site, seeing how they’ve managed to carve up every other plot of open space in the area. I’d be interested in seeing how that shakes out in light of a century of heavy metal contamination, not to mention all the other unrecorded toxic treasures (mass animal graves, drums of industrial chemicals, bags of arsenic) resting underneath the surrounding landscape.

It dawned on me that with the Shops gone, the last remnants of the Weiss legacy in Woburn are a couple of headstones, some names on the city’s veterans’ memorial, and yours truly. I don’t know why that makes me wistful, but it does.

Condemned, then demolished

April 9th, 2014

Contrary to the accepted historical narrative, “Disco Demolition Night” did not bring about the end of the Glitterball Dynasty.

It’s easy to see how that notion would weave itself into the cultural tapestry, especially among folks inclined to interpret the 1970 disco scene as inclusive and diverse socio-musical utopia — a grand and glittering era done in by a Hesher Hitler and a a jean-jacketed legion of rockist Brownshirts. Yet while reactionary shifts in the social landscape did play significant role in disco’s demise, their exaggeration provided a handy scapegoat upon which to pin the effects of other, more important trends.

Read enough post-mortems of the scene and you’ll soon pick up the standard mantra. “We were going to be superstars before the conservative rockist backlash stalled our careers.” It’s comforting. It’s mythic. It ignores a host of other unpleasant truths.

If one were to credit the death of disco to a single cause, the success of Saturday Night Fever is a more convincing culprit.

During the infancy of the scene, “disco” was simply a synonym for “dance music,” the type of tracks spun in discothèques. The music was a mix of European freakbeat, Latin jams, funk, and late-period Northern soul which would eventually cross-pollinate and coalesce into a an amorphously recognizable sound. “Rock the Boat,” “The Hustle,” and “Love’s Theme” are individually identifiable as disco tracks, though the stylistic threads which unite them — apart from dancebility — were tenuous as best.

The disco scene was a product of The City, bubbling up from the underground club cultures (most prominently gay, black, and Latino) of various urban hubs. It was diverse and cosmopolitan, and dressed in an exotic exclusivity which dovetailed nicely with the wider cultural-generational shift from introspection to full-on narcissism. Between the elaborate light shows, velvet ropes, starfucking, and copious drug consumption, disco was tailor-made for hedonistic souls seeking escape from the cultural malaise of diminished expectations.

As the disco grew and began encroaching upon the mainstream cultural consciousness, record labels and venue owners latched onto the phenomenon, seeing a potential for profit in a time of economic uncertainty. Radio, undergoing its own sea change of consolidation and standardized programming, was a tougher nut to crack. Though a number of stations experimented with “all disco” format changes, the results were mixed and tied to local market conditions. (New York? Easy sell. Tulsa? Not so much.) Even in markets where the disco format proved viable, programmers struggled to reconcile “what folks will dance to” with “what folks will listen to.”

By the time 1977 rolled around, disco had managed to carve out a respectable slice of market share for itself while sustaining a surprisingly robust assortment of support industries pitching everything from DJ training to fog machines. Growth was steady, profits were anticipated to rise, and the scene was expected to make further inroads into the mainstream.

And then the film/soundtrack double whammy that was Saturday Night Fever dropped. Its runaway success kicked disco mania into overdrive. Disco was no longer a “big thing.” It became THE thing.

Disco ceased being a scene and transformed into a full blown fad. The image of John Travolta as polyester-clad king of the electronic dance floor became as associated with the visuals of disco as the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” became inexorably bound to the musical aspect. Both soon became utterly inescapable.

Having stuck platinum, the various beneficiaries of the disco scene attempted double down on the winning streak with all the semi-imaginative fervor consumer capitalism could muster — franchises, crossover recordings, novelty acts, and other expansion efforts as wide as they were unsustainable over the long term. The problematic “facelessness” of disco acts was only made worse by a flood of producer-driven cuts competing for limited spin-time.

As disco’s sound had been pinned to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in the collective subconscious, so did the music begin to devolve into a rote formula which discouraged innovation and pushed its advocates back into the underground of the dance music scene. While John Saxon may have radiated sexiness in a leisure suit, the same did not apply to one’s potbellied alcoholic uncle. Similarly, as disco took hold in suburban hotel lounges and Middle American wedding receptions, its aura of exoticism passed into the realm of tawdry sleaze.

Post-Fever disco was a fad, and fads are born to dissolve into the stuff of punchlines even as their die hard champions press further into the realm of self-parody. Disco was rooted in a sense of effervescent frivolity (i.e. “dance music”) driven to ludicrous excess. An ugly surge of reactionary populism may have spurred disco’s demise, but the scene was already in a state of terminal decay and drastically diminishing returns which would not have been reversed by Jimmy Carter’s re-election.

When it comes to hobbies which lend themselves to effective supervillainy, the art of juggling is right down there next to philately and marigold cultivation. It’s not that I’m impugning the quick-thinking and manual dexterity of juggling enthusiasts, it’s just that it’s difficult to perceive an appropriate aura of menace from something I reflexively associate with that one Montessori school alum in my college Dungeons and Dragons group.

However, this high hurdle for hearty heinousness did stop the late great Mark Gruenwald from gracing the Marvel Universe with an entire team of prop-tossing ne’er-do-wells otherwise known as…

…the diabolical Death-Throws.

The group debuted in Captain America #317 (May 1986), as part of an unasked-for epilogue to Gruenwald’s Hawkeye miniseries from a few years prior. Just as Crossfire (the fifth-tier mastermind who served as Clint Barton’s nemesis in the earlier tale) was about to stand trial for his misdeeds, his former henchmen Oddball (juggles balls) and Bombshell (juggles bombs) bring in Ringleader (juggles rings), Tenpin (juggles bowling pins), and Knickknack (juggles random crap) to spring their former boss.

Though Gruenwald would later flesh out the backstory of the Death-Throws in excruciatingly convoluted detail, I think he really dropped the ball (HA!) by not using the group’s introduction as a springboard for a Blues Brothers-ean “getting the band back together” montage — Oddball and Bombshell showing up in full costume at a ren faire/adult education class/kid’s birthday party, guilting their psuedo-contented pals into making the leap into full-time supervillainy. “Are you really happy doing kids parties? You could be tossing bowling pins at Thor!”

(Call me, Marvel. We can make this happen.)

In any case, the Death-Throws’ grand plan ran into a snag when Crossfire confessed he’d sunk his entire fortune into a the mind-controlling funeral parlor organ that was the centerpiece of his previous wrecked scheme, and would be unable to cover his liberators’ expenses. The Throws expressed their anger at this revelation by subjecting Crossfire to the unparalleled horrors of…

JUGGLE TORTURE.

The Death-Throws offered to ransom Crossfire to Hawkeye, in hopes a bagging a slightly more profitable hostage. Captain America agreed to Hawkeye’s plus-one for the exchange. The two heroes decided to switch weapons before walking into the obvious trap (purportedly for “tactical reasons” but more likely to add a mild element of challenge to the routine z-list villain beatdown to follow).

The Death-Throws went all out, but there was really only so much their limited skillset could accomplish against guys who stomp Absorbing Man and Kang on the reg. Such is the sad truth of juggling — it rarely impresses the spectators as much as it does the practitioners themselves.

Despite their initial setback, the Death-Throws did go on to pursue a modest career propelled by their creator’s love of recursive continuity and subsequent writers’ post-ironic affection for high-concept obscurities.

They reside still at the margins of Marvel’s shared universe. Should you need a variety of objects thrown for nefarious purposes and Bullseye is too pricey for your discretionary villainy budget, just leave a message at the Chautauqua hall of Nobody’s Favorites and the Death-Throws might help you.

Or they’ll get defeated by Squirrel Girl inside thirty seconds. You get what you pay for, after all.

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