Armagideon Time

(from “The Halloween God” by Gary Cohn, Dan Mishkin and Adrian Gonzales in Secrets of Haunted House #44, January 1982)

Greetings, my groovy ghoulies! October is upon us, and with it comes our 9th annual Halloween Countdown. Those brave enough to face its terrors will find thirty-one days of tricks and treats plundered from the pustulent plague pits of my popcult archives.

Breath deeply, and let the spirits move you.

Recommended listening: Crazy Hearts – Four Minutes to Midnight (from the Thunderbolt EP, 1982)

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Some no wave from the grave to kick the lid off the festivities and set your skeletal toes a’tapping.

The Long Game: No words necessary

September 30th, 2014

As I mentioned before, the right custom playlist can go a long way towards remedying GTA Online‘s repetitive gameplay. My adventures with Rosemary (formerly “Debbi”) the Valley of the Shadow of Death Girl were scored by carefully curated mixes of 1960s pop and an 1980s new wave/college radio classics which reflected the sociopathic breeziness of her endless summer of murder and mayhem.

It was fun while it lasted, but the inevitable sense of contemptible familiarity eventually spurred me to make a fresh start with Otto, my long-neglected primary character.

Using cash left over from the liquidation of his predecessor’s assets, Otto kitted himself out with the essential tools of his trade — heavy pistol, special carbine, sawed-off shotgun, a black dress suit, and a fake 1964 Ford Falcon. Where Rosemary embraced the glamorous life, Otto walked a seamier path between the poles of Chandlerian noir protagonist and Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs. No high rise luxury apartments for this rumpled triggerman, just a rented two-car garage tucked beneath an underpass in an industrial area.

Where Rosemary preferred a methodical live-and-let-live approach to violence, Otto opted for a less restrained approach to dealing with his peers. Perhaps it was the star we was born under (actually the flaming wreck of a stolen cargo jet which impacted right next to him when he first stepped into his virtual world) or maybe it was because I was fucking sick and tired of getting spawn-smoked by some adolescent gamebros, but Otto quickly set about smiting sinners and saints alike with sanguine glee. (It was he who brought the remote detonated sticky bomb game to a whole new level.)

He was not devoid of honor, but operated under a very specific code in which he would only player-kill:

1. For profit.
2. For vengeance.
3. As a valuable reminder that no one is immune to death’s sharp sting.

This change in perspective required a change of playlists to something more befitting a perpetually contused angel of death in blood-splattered suit —

– like an all-instrumental assortment culled from vintage Euro flicks, library music and contemporary-retro organ grooves, filled out with some my favorite 1960s soul/funk/surf/EZ listening jams.

I looked, and there before me was two-tone 1960s coupe. It’s driver was named Otto, and the theme from a 1970s German blue movie heralded his arrival.

Towards the tail end of my freshman year in college I found myself helming a Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaign for UMass Boston’s Sci-Fi Club. The game’s mix of grubby fantasy and cosmic horror proved a hit with gamers who’d grown jaded with D&D generic fantasy tropes, and soon attracted a devoted core group of players and an equal number of interested fellow travellers.

The run was so popular, in fact, that I was asked to keep things going during the summer intersession. Having nothing better to do with my time, I acquiesced to the groups’ wishes. Every Friday around noon we’d gather in a stinky, sweltering room on the fourth floor of Wheatley Hall to bash chaos spawn, eat greasy Greek pizza, and collectively recite the more graphic results on WFRP’s critical hit tables.

When the day’s role-playing hurly burly was done, we’d pile into the the shuttle bus and head out to Newbury Comics in the Back Bay to check out the latest funnybook and musical releases. I was already at a point where the latter was more compelling than the former. (I think I was down to Zot, Justice League America, and the 5YL Legion of Super-Heroes, and the the first two wouldn’t make it past the end of 1991.)

This being the Dying Days of Vinyl, the record bins had been truncated and shifted to the non-music section of the shop and were halfheartedly stocked with an equal mix of perennial classics, small label oddities, and unsaleable remainders. Given the flood of upgraded-to-CD-so-ditch-the-record material flowing into the used shops at the time, I never really considered checking what Newbury Comics had to offer on the full-price-new front.

If hadn’t been driven to boredom waiting for my fellow geeks to finish their shopping, I probably wouldn’t have flipped through the bins and thus never picked up this crucial keystone in the development of my musical tastes…

Punk on the Road, a 1990 compilation released by Link Records’ “Skunx” imprint.

The shrink-wrap boasted about the album being pressed on colored vinyl (a muddy mix of gray/green/pink), but the real draw was the assortment of tracks — 16 in total — spanning the British punk scene from its birth through the “UK82″ years. I was familiar with about a third of the featured artists (thanks to cassette copies of the Punk and Disorderly and Filth and the Fury comps) which was enough to convince me to drop a tenner for the album.

I’ve never been keen about live punk recordings, mainly because they foreground sloppy playing and shitty club acoustics while excising the performance art aspects that make such failings tolerable. This was 1991, however, where the scarcity of easily available material (for a cash-poor suburban teen) meant that beggars couldn’t afford to be choosers. Most of the cuts on Punk on the Road do indeed sound — in scientific terms — like shit, but they did retain enough of their magic to inspire further exploration.

(Not the version on the album, but close enough.)

The compilation was my introduction to Sham 69, the Angelic Upstarts, The Business, and the Anti-Nowhere League — and the impact of that on my punk rock evolution cannot be understated, as will be shown in due time.

Fun Fact: I don’t know why, but I really want to play Sega Genesis games in my underpants right now.

Song for Sunday #111

September 28th, 2014

Class Action – Blast Off

Proof that there’s gold in them thar stacks of new wave obscurities.

It has all the makings of a Top 40 pop hit, but the 1984 release date was a year or so past the point where that could have realistically happened.

Silver Age Science Saturdays #38

September 27th, 2014

(from “Peril from the Long-Dead Past!” by Stan Lee, Bob Powell and Vince Colletta in Tales to Astonish #68, June 1965)

I ♥ petty supervillain process panels.

Alles gut

September 26th, 2014

During my exploration of mid-20th Century popular periodicals, I unearthed this odd artifact…

…a 1944 dinner menu for Milwaukee’s Schwaben-Hof restaurant.

''You know what would go well with this dinner, Hans?  The Sudetenland.''

The place, as far as I can tell, was a themed eatery specializing in Germanic fare and ambiance (of the lederhosen and dirndl variety, not the mass graves and book-burning kind). Sounds a bit like the old Wursthaus in Harvard Square, minus the risk of finding the half-corpse of a cockroach in your Sauerbraten

It’s quite the spread, too. Just the thing for a man of means (the entree prices average around twenty inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars) to maintain an insulating layer of fat to weather the Midwestern winter and lay the groundwork for the inevitable fatal coronary behind the wheel of his Bonneville twenty years down the road.

I’d be a little apprehensive about the “deep sea scallops,” though. Maybe it’s just the New Englander in me talking, but the notion of ordering “fresh” seafood any more than a hundred miles from a coast spooks the shit out of me — especially after considering the state refrigeration and transport technology circa 1944.

This week we’re going to shine the Spotlight of the Unloved at The Bouncer.

You’ve got the wrong medium, though Square’s Harajuku-meets-Ed-Hardy PS2 beat ‘em up certainly fits the Nobody’s Favorite bill.

The Bouncer I’ll be discussing was a minor member of Batman’s rogues gallery…

…who made his debut in Detective Comics #347 (January 1966). It was a weird time for the Dark Knight — following the high water mark of Silver Age weirdness but preceding the TV-driven Batmania and the “serious-minded” backlash it would spawn. And while the Marvel Age of Comics hadn’t yet become an existential threat to DC’s superheroic hegemony, DC editorial still felt obligated to mimic of its upstart rival’s tone of brash, “with it” informality. Sure, the net effect of these imperfect and uneven attempts was akin to Jack Webb donning a Nehru jacket and a set of love beads, but at least they tried. Sorta.

The Bouncer was an unnamed but “criminally-minded” metallurgist who found (using a medieval smelter in the backyard of his thatched hut) a way to combine bronze, steel, and rubber into a miraculous “elastalloy” capable of rebounding from any and all physical impacts.

Such an innovation should have netted its inventor billions in patent revenue — the applications for the automotive and superball industries alone are staggering to contemplate — but the metallurgist’s “triple heart” (a REAL THING, according to an editor’s blurb!) wanted what it wanted…

…and what it wanted was to dress-up in a turd-colored elastalloy bodysuit and knock over jewelry stores.

After two defeats at the hands of the bouncy badguy, Batman and the Boy Wonder figured out that elastalloy loses its special properties when subjected to extreme cold. An opportunity to test this theory occurred when the Bouncer’s overconfidence led him to call the Caped Crusader out for a one-on-one duel.

With the help of “special electrodes” concealed inside the their costumes, the Dynamic Duo were able to generate an invisible “quick freeze beam” which put the kibosh on the Bouncer’s extremely cunning plan to…um…

…hurl an elastalloy gun against a wall and hope that an accidental discharge would fatally wound Batman. (Again, this is a villain who could have been stinking rich by legitimate means but instead decided to dress like a poop golem and fight two dudes dressed like avian critters.)

Because this was one of roughly a million 1960s “BATMAN DIES!” stories, writer Gardner Fox (appearing as himself) added an extended “imaginary story” coda in which the Bouncer’s “triple heart” (TOTALLY REAL, I SWEAR) clued him into the freeze beam trick and managed to kill Batman with his gun toss trick. It was left up to Robin to come up with his own implausible gimmick for neutralizing the villain’s “elastalloy” suit, and ended with the not-yet-dead Earth-2 Batman crossing the dimensional barrier to take over for his deceased counterpart.

He even brought Earth-2 Alfred with him, who hadn’t died and been resurrected as a reality-warping supervillain with a skin condition. (No, I’m serious.)

Goofy, sure, but it did give us this glorious panel:


The Bouncer (sporting a new crimson hue) reappeared in 1981 as one of the marks in the Monarch of Menace’s “captive Batman” con. No invisible freeze beam was required to bring him low on this outing, just Batman’s foot and the laws of Newtonian physics (which had been inserted into the DCU during a 1977 retcon).

As easy (and fun) as it is to mock forgotten z-list villains like the Bouncer, there’s something endearing about their nonsensical motivations and explicit disposability. They weren’t built to last the ages, but to serve as foils for stories that were expected to fall into the memory hole after a year or two. Motivational complexity was moot, discarded in favor of visual “hooks” and dedication to malfeasance of the most generic variety.

The individual characters might be Nobody’s Favorites, but collectively I adore them.

Ultimate Powers Jam #31: Angus-8

September 24th, 2014

Are you ready to ‘bot and roll, kids? Because it’s time for the return of…

…in which I use the character creation rules in the Marvel Super Heroes RPG’s Ultimate Powers Book to roll up a random batch of powers and abilities, then sit back and watch as some incredibly talented folks work their creative magic upon the quantified chaos.

Today’s exercise in speculative cybernetics comes courtesy of magnificent Mike Podgor.

When Doctor Stevens was brought onto the NG-US program, designed to create cheap and efficient robots to ship to impoverished areas to help them stabilize the local economy and ensure that no one would die from the elements or starvation, he was positively elated. Unlike so many other products he had worked on, this one seemed like it was going to do some actual good that didn’t involve smashing things or becoming some sort of peacekeeping force that would inevitable fall into the wrong hands. He developed the first prototype and it was immediately shot down. Seven prototypes later, and Stevens recognized what was going to happen. He was going to create some sort of humanoid robot that would then go on some sort of rampage, either eventually turning good or being destroyed. This had happened to him a lot, and he had seen so many projects end in this way, and he decided to sabotage any of those efforts. While many of the companies in the Marvel universe would then black-list him, he knew he could rely on one of the many good-hearted robotics moguls for gainful employment.

After building the eighth prototype, which he dubbed the Angus-8, he hired someone to write a complex series of Asimov-esque laws into the robot’s programming so that it couldn’t be used for evil. This resulted in a robot that wouldn’t hurt a fly, and was completely terrible at any and all forms of combat. Stevens declared this to be enough, but unbeknownst to him, his hired programmer had a hankering to be a super-villain, and left a backdoor in the robot’s program that would allow him to take control of the robot and rob a bank or something. The programmer did not have very much foresight in this matter, but in the end it didn’t matter, because the backdoor conflicted with the robot’s other programs and resulted in Angus-8 gaining free will and developing a brain rivaling that of the Marvel universe’s greatest minds.

Angus-8 quickly made his way to Stevens, who was immediately glad that he had taken those precautions. He advised Angus-8 to go on the run and, with one final tweak, altered the robot’s solar panels to destroy him if he spent too much time in the light. Stevens reasoned that this would keep Angus-8 out of sight, and in the two years since that night, Angus-8 can sometimes be seen rolling at high-speed up and down the nation’s side roads and trying to find books and dark places to hole up in during the day.

(Nuts and bolts assembled by Mike Podgor. UPJ logo provided by Dave Lartigue.)

Are you an artist, writer, or terrifying combination of the two who’d like to try your hand at the Ultimate Powers Jam? Then drop me a line at bitter(dot)andrew(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll commence the dice to rolling!

Format loyalty is a hard thing to shake. Although Rock at the Edge inspired a number of music purchases, these additions to my audio library were almost exclusively cassette versions with the sole exception being…

…the 1977 Chrysalis re-release of Blondie’s eponymous debut album.

I can’t recall why I opted for vinyl in that specific instance, but I suspect already owning a tape copy of the band’s greatest hits album and Mystery Train’s two-buck price asking price both played a part in my decision.

In any case, it was a wise purchase which got a shitload of spins on my turntable during the summer months of 1991. The material may not have hit the luminous, disco-inflected peaks the band achieved on Parallel Lines or Autoamerican, but it does deliver some beautifully brisk bursts of melodic power pop.

It’s also odd, after almost four decades and relegation to the realm of supermarket music, to consider that Blondie’s sound was once considered controversial — not as controversial as more overtly abrasive material by the Sex Pistols or the Clash, but still enough of a paradigm shift to freak the guardians of the A&R status quo.

Even the hardest cut on the LP (see above) has a Linda Ronstadt meets the New York Dolls vibe, the type of track that would appear in a 1970s sitcom dealing with those zany punk rockers. The original title and subject matter of “X Offender” were enough to spook execs and DJ who had no problem with the orgasmic raptures of “Love to Love Me Baby” or the dance-porn come-on of “More, More, More,” yet the song is bubblegum at its hooky, effervescent best.

It hardly seems the stuff of pop music system shock, but it was. You can see in unfold in the moment during Blondie’s appearance on The Midnight Special in October 1979. Even then, with the band at the height of their success as the face (Debbie Harry’s, mainly) of American “new wave,” there’s a sense that much of the audience has difficulty processing “Dreaming” and its perfect realization of the power pop formula.

My copy of the LP includes an inner sleeve ad featuring other “hot” Chrysalis artists circa 1977 — including Robin Trower, Steeleye Span, Gentle Giant and other reasons why Blondie was indeed revolutionary for its time.

Depressing Fact: Not to put too fine a point on it, but Billboard features and ads promoting Blondie’s early material sure included a lot of glamour and pin-up shots of Debbie Harry, and none of Clem Burke or Chris Stein posing provocatively in their bikini briefs. Go figure.

Take flight

September 22nd, 2014



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