Armagideon Time

Con and back again

August 3rd, 2015

I did make it to Boston Comic Con for a few hours on Sunday. It was exceptionally crowded and noisy (though better than was on Saturday, I’m told), but I did get to talk to Jeff Parker and Kyle Starks, pick up a few odds and ends for the collection, and get my copy of DC Comics Presents #4 signed by José Luis García-López.

That latter addition to my small collection of beloved childhood comics signed by the creator got me thinking about which other issues I’d add to the list if the opportunity ever arose.

This is the short list I came up with on the ride home from the convention center:

Captain America #263 (November 1981) – Mike Zeck

Legion of Super-Heroes #293 (November 1982) – Keith Giffen

Atari Force #11 (November 1984) – Gerry Conway

Avengers #232 (June 1983) – Roger Stern

Doctor Strange #68 (December 1984) – Paul Smith

Alpha Flight #12 (July 1984) – John Byrne

Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 (April 1985) – Marv Wolfman & George Perez

Uncanny X-Men #166 (February 1983) – Chris Claremont

Avengers #217 (March 1982) – Jim Shooter & Bob Hall

I doubt I’ll ever pursue the project with any degree of dedication, but making the list was a nice opportunity to reflect on the comics and creators who got their hooks into me during my tweener transition into full-on fandom.

I’d love to hear what your lists might be.

Let them eat Turtle Wax

July 31st, 2015

This morning I brought my car to the dealership for some routine maintenance, an event which combines my Two Favorite Things in the Entire World — sitting around in a waiting room and fretting over the possibility of catastrophic news.

My courtesy room companion was a rough-edged retiree with a cane and a Skoal-branded trucker cap. He was there to get some work done on his Corvette. He spent the entire time cycling through the array of basic cable offerings on the area’s 55″ Samsung flatscreen, pausing only to let out a growl-grunt noise at random intervals.

He eventually settled on the Game Show Network, making it through the opening fol-de-rol of Card Sharks before a service tech handed him his keys and told him he was ready to go. I didn’t bother changing the channel after he left, as I had my PSP on hand to distract me and it was about as good as I was going to get in terms of daytime TV background noise.

At first, I assumed the broadcast was a note-perfect retro remake of the original Card Sharks. It wasn’t until once of the contestants mentioned “women’s libbers” that I looked up at the screen, saw Jim Perry’s polyestered presence, and realized it was an actual artifact of the age of Chic and Carter.

My retrological curiosity got the better of me, making it increasingly difficult to look away. By the time the $10,000 Pyramid — with celebrity guests Earl Holliman and the Big Haired Blonde Lady from Scarecrow and Mrs. King — came on, I’d put my PSP in sleep mode to focus my entire concentration on the game.

If you asked me about the rules of either show before that moment, I’d have responded with some vague and likely inaccurate impressions dredged from hazy memory. The act of watching them, however, triggered a unsettling surge of unsettling familiarity born of countless hours parked in front of the family TV set.

When I was in fifth grade, my class were issued recorder flutes and drilled on how to play certain short pieces. One of these was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which we practiced incessantly in preparation for a school recital. I know next to nothing about musical notation or composition, but put me in front of a piano, xylophone, or simple woodwind and I could plunk out “Ode to Joy” as a reflexive effort.

My understanding of the byzantine and prop-heavy realm of 1970s game shows comes from a similar space.

I was more unsettled by the arc of engagement I experienced after that triggered moment of epiphany. What began as “interesting retro artifact” turned into “I could do better than that dope” followed by “I should be in that contestant’s chair.” And I’m not talking about any contestant’s chair, I’m talking about being on a thirty-and-change year old episode of Card Sharks or $10,000 Pyramid.

As impulses go, it’s up there with wanting to be a Pony Express rider or mammoth hunter, mnemonic atavism at its most futilely bizarre. Such was the power of Stewart, Goodman, Todson, Barris and other peddlers of gimmicky fame and fortune that the intoxicating power of their work remains as potent as the mustard gas inside a rusting shell casing under some Flanders field.

The spell was broken rather abruptly during the contestant introduction sequence for a current remake of Press Your Luck. The be-sideburned auto plant workers and permed-up guidance counselors of yesteryear have been replaced by a clutch of spray-tanned Millennials whose plans for the grand prize all involved paying off debts and moving out of their parents’ homes.

These ambitions were stated with an astonishing level of contractually-obligated, fist-pumping enthusiasm that shocked and saddened me in equal measure.

Forget the all-expenses paid trip to Tahiti, kids. Breaking even is the new grand prize.

The patter of little hooves

July 30th, 2015

I’ve been informed that links to digital edition of Death Saves have gone out and the physical copies should soon be making their way to the anthology’s backers. I also got a sneak peek at the Total Kill Party Guide extra, and it’s a pretty sweet package of helpful information and general hilarity.

As I read (and chuckled) my way through it, I felt a pang of regret that I didn’t have the time to contribute my own deviously sadistic snare for unsuspecting player characters —

– The Lair of the Dead God.

Drawing inspiration from the infamous Dragon Magazine article about “Tucker’s Kolbolds” and the first Alien movie, it was my attempt at injecting a little extra nail-biting panic into the already unforgiving world of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. It was a trickier proposition than it sounds because WFRP characters tended to be fairly fragile to begin with, so it was less a problem of mortality than it was of finesse. When a single ogre can make short work of a mid-level party in a couple of rounds, it takes a little extra thought to craft a scenario that truly keeps the players suspended in a prolonged state of blind panic.

The lair’s layout was modeled after a human ribcage, as befitting a long forgotten patron deity of the undead. The players got word of it through some old tomes discovered in a previous adventure, which conveniently emphasized the fact that the central shrine in “sternum” area contained a massive goat skull icon sculpted from pure gold. The numerous “ribs” circled back upon themselves, frequently narrowing into passages too small for the players (including the party’s token halfling) to squeeze through…yet still navigable by the lair’s sole resident and custodian…

…the Chaos Baby.

Using the WFRP stats as a base template, I assembled the jolly toddler from various mutations plucked from the original Realms of Chaos sourcebook.

Its key features were:

- boosted melee skill and a pair of armor-cleaving claws
- enough hit points to stand a pair of solid sword blows, plus regenerative powers
- infravision
- the ability to spit a cone of acidic bile
- goat legs capable of leaping, running, and crawling at twice the players’ speed

Chaos Baby wasn’t intended to be a lethal face-to-face adversary, but a dangerous irritant. All the players had to do was haul a couple hundred pounds of precious metal down a pretty straightforward exit route….while getting sprayed with acid puke by a small, quick-moving target with multiple avenues from which to harrass them.

What elevated it to the stuff of legend, however, was The Laugh. Every time the creature emerged to spit and run, it would taunt the players with my best approximation of “neener neener neener” in the Dark Tongue. Every piece of armor destroyed, every slain pack mule, every missed crossbow shot was greeted with the taunt, and it drove the players absolutely bugfuck.

I’ve GM’ed runs where players have brought down arch-demons, supercriminal masterminds, dragons, alien armadas and other world-shaking threats, but none of those occasions were met with the triumphal glee the players displayed when they finally cornered and slew the creature. (They lucked onto its location after stopping up a few of its boltholes with crap from their backpacks, and would not stop stabbing and chopping until it was rendered into chaos baby puree.)

The momentous event was only slightly tarnished by the following session’s discovery that the golden icon was cursed, and would inflict a magical flesh-eating malady on anyone who handled it for a prolonged period of time.

Gone with the gold

July 29th, 2015

While I have my doubts that the world needs another Boston 2024 post-mortem, my public rep as “that guy from Boston” kind of requires me to weigh in on the subject.

The Boston Olympics dream is dead, and good riddance to it. It was a bad idea executed badly, but I would have been opposed it even if the jokers in charge had presented an authentically workable, privately-funded plan. The Games are a bad fit for the city, full stop, and no amount of urban planning wizardry will ever change that.

Boston is a compact, densely settled area whose primary avenues of access — Route 1, I-93, and I-90 — are saddled with nigh-unsolvable bottlenecks. (If you want to posit Routes 2 or 9 as alternatives, that energy would probably be better spent preparing for your ten mile, three hour commute home.) The surface road grid is a notorious throwback to colonial era cowpaths punctuated with the severe automotive terror of free-for-all traffic rotaries.

Any improvements to the grid would have to be a holistic affair, and that is never going to happen. Or, if they do, they will be piggybacked on a huge development project that takes three steps back for every half-step forward (such as the proposed Columbia Point condo scheme, which would dump Morrissey Boulevard’s fury road traffic onto the narrow, pedestrian-and-cyclist-heavy Day Boulevard).

The Expressway is the nub of the problem, but despite the unfunded utopianism of Boston 2024 supporters, but will never see another major adjustment in our lifetimes. The Big Dig’s overruns in cost and completion time and regional congressional political saw to that. Again, it was fix that transformed into a net setback, as the aggressive development of the Seaport District and northward migration of commuters instantly nixed any dreams of excess capacity.

It’s a ten mile run from my workplace in Dorchester to the Medford Center offramp. It should take 15 minutes under ideal conditions. It currently averages at 40 minutes and that’s an hour after the peak of rush hour.

“But what about public transportation? Boston 2024 was going to fix the MBTA’s problems!” First up, no it wasn’t. They might have squeezed the state into completing some event-critical projects, but the underlying problems were never going to be addressed.

Here’s the truth about the sorry state about the MBTA: No governor since Mike Dukakis has given a shit about it. For the past quarter century, it has been bled white by a succession of budget cuts and ineptly led by a gallery of political hacks. Charlie Baker’s push for reforming the service is nothing more than a union-bashing power play. The whole notion of the MBTA being obligated be self-supporting in terms of fare revenue is idiotic and ignores the wider benefits of an expanded, affordable and robust mass transit system — reduced traffic, reduced pollution, reduced road wear, better links forged between otherwise far-flung residential/occupational/commercial areas.

If the MBTA had truly kept pace with regional growth, the subway/light rail system would currently extend to the fringes of the 128 loop, with additional bus and commuter rail service pushing out to the I-495 curtain and beyond. As it now stands, it would cost more for me to commute from Woburn via public transportation that it does to drive in, and with double the total travel time.

Boston 2024 was pitched as a “transformative moment” but for whom? There was plenty of lip service paid to affordable housing, but all I saw were grandiose renderings of luxury condo complexes and upscale shopping arcades. The current, ever-changing face of the city reveals its commitment to affordable housing — oversized monuments to gentrification popping up all along the I-93 corridor. That’s where the money is. That’s what the developers are chasing. Any affordable housing deals are either a tax dodge or sop or negotiation bludgeon (as in “if we can’t build 500 luxury units on the site, I guess we’ll build 1000 affordable ones and populate them with folks from the projects.” You can guess how most suburban communities react to that tactic).

A lot of reforms are needed, but nothing coming out of Boston 2024 came off as a good faith argument. Even if it had been, the event would have been a long and costly distraction with vague promises of incidental benefits. Boston is already a “world class city,” whatever the fuck that oft-bandied term is supposed to mean. We don’t need to host the Olympics even if we theoretically could make it fit into an fundamentally unsuitable infrastructure for it.

Let the rest of the world laugh at us as they fall over themselves for the privilege of buying into the mother of all civic scams.

I’ll be laughing right back at them…while stuck in traffic and cursing every SUV with New Hampshire plates.

Blank space

July 28th, 2015

You can keep your Transformers vs. G.I. Joe and all-woman Ghostbusters. Here’s the big-budget reboot I want to see…

SPACE CONQUERORS, an Al Stenzel join which ran in the back pages of Boys’ Life during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It’s long past time that a new generation of fans were introduced to such memorable characters as Kurt, Primo, Poor Bastard Who Is Destined to Die Tragically, Queen Chastely Fuckable of Onan IV, Vaguely Ethnic Primitive Underling, and the Comic Relief Space Children!

Thrill as they stand around waiting for stuff to happen!

Marvel at dialogue that wasn’t so much written as industrially extruded!

Cheer as the omniscient narrator steps up to provide maximum narrative economy at the expense of any sense of tension!

(I mock, but I have to salute a dude who managed to land and maintain a steady gig while expending the least amount of required effort. When I quipped about the strip reading like a mass-produced product, I wasn’t kidding. “We need three column inches of sci-fi stuff by Monday, guys! The more generic, the better!”)

There are exactly two bootleg recordings in my record collection. One was a gift from a not-yet-girlfriend and the other was the the Misfits’ “Back With a Bang” seven-incher…

…picked up In Your Ear’s Allston location for seven bucks. The blank white label, scratched out pressing indicia, and photocopied B&W sleeve all screamed “dodgy product,” but the a-side was too delicious to resist.

Like a lot of kids who straddled the hardcore/thrash metal divide in the late 1980s, my first exposure to “Last Caress” came via Metallica’s Garage Days EP and the Misfits became one of the gateway bands during my transition into full-on punk rockerdom. As much as I tried to aspire to a UK82 fashion and attitude vibe, the Misfits’ devilock-and-retro-shock aesthetics remained a key part of my punk persona.

They were the godfathers of “horrorpunk,” a hooky mid-tempo (before they embraced a harder/faster/louder demi-metal approach) celebration of 1960s pop/garage rock and trash culture morbidity — with visual gimmicks and a frontman able to work that angle for maximum effect. Between 1982′s Walk Among Us and the long-shelved Static Age, they turned out two of the finest punk albums ever recorded.

In the decades after the band’s dissolution, the marketability of that package would become the stuff of which punk puritanical jokes are made — with the band’s “Crimson Skull” appearing on everything from cat litter scoopers to babywear onesies. (I picked up my current Misfits t-shirt at Sears while shopping for a set of socket wrenches, as much for the absurdity of it than out of any need to have one.)

Back in early 1992, though, those days of Hot Topic and poses were still a few years down the road. What mattered then is that I was finally able to find a studio recording of the most seductively sinister slices of affected adolescent transgression ever pressed to vinyl.

Or, in the words of a horrified Maura, when I first played it for her: “This song is so…so….evil.”

Fun Fact: The flip side featured a trio of live tracks supposedly from a a performance at a Washington, DC club but actually were recorded inside a soggy Saltines box.

Song for Sunday #146

July 26th, 2015

Postmodern Jukebox – Burn

(from “S.A.T.A.N.” by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck in Fatman the Human Flying Saucer #3, August-September 1967)

One of my projects at last year’s Heroes Con was getting some favorite comics from my childhood signed by the folks who crafted them. For Roy Thomas, it was All-Star Squadron #35. For Pat Broderick, it was Fury of Firestorm #1. For Bob MacLeod, it was New Mutants Annual #1.

When I found out that José Luis García-López was going to be a guest next week’s Boston Comic Con, I figured I’d continue that tradition by getting his autograph on a comic that truly rocked Young Andrew’s world.

No, not Atari Force #1, though I did consider it for a moment before deciding that DC Comics Presents #4 was the only logical choice.

I got the comic in a poly-bagged three-pack back at the beginning of my transition from “kid who read comics” to “kid who was a fan of comics.” I still have my wrinkled and semi-tattered original issue in a longbox somewhere, but it was more practical to pick up a duplicate copy which wouldn’t disintegrate in transit to the con.

Pal Mike of Sterling Silver Comics was ready to set me up with a replacement (because the man is a stone cold comics retail pro), but I ended up finding an acceptable copy at a collectables shop during a day trip to Hyannis yesterday. (I really am sorry, Mike.)

It had been at least a decade since I last read it, so I decided to revisit it during the long ride back to Woburn. I was worried that it — like so many other objects of youthful affection — might not hold up after three-and-a-half decades of funnybook evolutionary drift, but my fears were unfounded. If anything, the story has improved with age.

So what’s the big deal about this comic? For starters, it features García-López at his illustrative best.

His A-game even carried over to the many, many requisite Bronze Age transition panels, making it a consistent visual treat from beginning to end.

Even better, it was done in service to a pretty solid Len Wein script which maintains a high-level of action-packed melodrama even though a number of longish continuity callbacks and heavy duty exposition sequences.

As much as DC — and especially the Superman books — had a semi-deserved rep for being behind curve during the era of Marvel’s ascendency, the note-perfect collaboration of creative talents demonstrates that the publisher was still capable of knocking it out of the park without having to swipe from the competition’s template.

I’m not going to recap comic’s plot in detail, partly because I don’t want to spoil it and partly because it’s an overused device to pad word counts at the cost of any substantive insights about the work in question. If the excerpts I’ve posted haven’t piqued your curiosity, snarking about the story in mind-numbing detail isn’t going to do any good, either.

It’s Superman, written and illustrated exceptionally well, teaming up with the Metal Men, also written and illustrated exceptionally well, to take on an apocalyptic threat caused by a z-list supervillain and a barely-controllable chemical kaiju.

Furthermore, it’s a story rife with all the ridiculed Bronze Age narrative tropes — thought bubbles, flashbacks, overwritten caption boxes, fast-and-loose plot logic — yet it managed to turn each of those so-called flaws into strengths.

It has a “chapter” titled “The Man Who Murdered the Sun!”

It is gorgeous to look at and entertaining as hell to read.

It is the comic that defined everything I wanted from a superhero comic to my seven year old self, and set a standard that I still maintain to the present day.

It is, was, and will forever my favorite single issue of a comic ever published.

Oh, sure, it starts off innocently enough with florally decorated stockings and homemade lo-cal salad dressing, but where does it go from there?

I’ll tell you — smoking Purple Haze with Jamie Hendricks and riding around in a VW van looking for draft cards and bras to burn between orgies.

No good can come of it, mark my words. We didn’t need any onion salt to sock it to Hitler, nosiree. You think Curtis LeMay wears little flowers on his socks? He does not, and even if he did, it would be because it was the only way to beat those Godless Reds at their own game.

(text page excerpt from “Debbi Makes the Teen Scene” from Date With Debbi #13, February 1971)

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