Armagideon Time

Bear those ills we have

January 16th, 2020

When I launched the Nobody’s Favorites feature (over ten years ago, apparently) I made a public point of striving for more than just a “Mort of the Month” angle where I’d find lazy ways to snark on soft targets. Instead of a litany of smug cheap shots, I forced myself to find some angle — artistic, historical, personal — to approach the subject material and perhaps make a broader statement about, well, something or other.

I’d like to think I succeeded on that front. The feature stopped because the “value added” hooks became harder to find and there are only so many ways to summarize what an absolute trainwreck the Nineties funnybook industry was. Yet even at my conscientious best, Nobody’s Favorites still slipped in at least 50% more snark that originally intended.

Why? Because that stance is so easy to fall into. I can’t plead the lousiness of the source material because it’s a tendency I must force myself to curb even when writing about stuff I genuinely adore. Combining armchair criticism with “wittiness” and the metaphoric kidney punches start coming of their own accord. The jokes literally write themselves, and holding them back becomes the real test of one’s skill.

It’s a skill I’m still trying to master. It’s not easy when even comedic idioms use the the language of physical assault — “punching up” or “punching down.” It’s not that I’m aspiring to be a better person, but I’ve gotten too old to unleash my sneering wrath at petty targets. No one goes to their grave wishing they spent more time finding the right scatological pun to use for the alt-text of an out-of-context Green Lantern panel.

Plus, it feels like some generational curse in need of casting off. The cynical ‘n’ jaded Gen X’er hand waving their way through a world gone bullshit, a cliche as pathetic as the “whoa, heavy” made-for-TV hippies of Nixon Era cop shows or the polyester-wrapped disco lizards of the Carter Era. A dubious survival mechanism became an all-consuming posture, to the point where you’re left wondering “okay, dude, you’ve made an elaborate show pointing out everything you think sucks, so what the fuck do you like?”

That was my train of thought while I was trudging through the thing which inspired this mini-rant — various capsule record reviews in 1987 issues of SPIN magazine. Every venue and reviewer is going to have some form of genre/artist/scene bias going on, but SPIN’s seemed to be “everything sucks and I’m above it all.” The Go-Betweens were too “yuppified” and anodyne but the Dead Milkmen were too snotty and Big Black were trying way too hard and, oh, here’s half a sentence of faint praise to make it seem like these are well-considered criticisms and not parts of a pose.

I’d call it “adolescent edgelord” but it doesn’t even rise to that level of maturity. It more closely resembles a petulant seven year old shouting “NO” to each lunch suggestion offered by their harried mother.

The kicker was a guest column by Richard Meltzer (yeah, I know) in the in-your-face by design “Anti-Hero” feature in which he savages his late pal Lester Bangs for sincerely caring about music and genuflecting about things like “ironic” sexism/racism/homophobia in the scene. If only he’d calcified his earlier “fuck everything” posturing, he’d might have avoided an early demise. It’s an obvious put-on, except it really wasn’t when so many folks did — and continue to — take this shit as both moral compass and creative roadmap.

If giving a shit is a fatal disease, then fuck it, I don’t want to be cured.

Dum duh dum dum

January 15th, 2020

It doesn’t matter who the participating parties are, my eyes can’t help but be drawn to old ads for cross-promotional contests. My brain feverishly attempts to work out the process which united these strange bedfellows, speculates about the winners, and wonders about the current status of their major awards. I assume most folks opted for the “cash equivalent” option for the top prizes, but surely some couldn’t resist the siren song of an official Lawnmower Man VR rig or a haunted house party with Clarence Clemons.

As a marketing tactic, it tends to suggest a certain degree of desperation — a failure of nerve brought on by pre-release jitters about the quality of the product, necessitating a little pot-sweetening and a cardboard display blocking two-way traffic in some retail aisle.

Did it ever help? I doubt it, but it wasn’t as if it could make things any worse….

…which certainly applies to the Miller Draft/Dragnet promotional contest of 1987.

I know there are folks out there who hold a minor degree of affection for the film, but it was a misfire from the get-go. A semi-satiric send-up of a show nobody but Dan Ackroyd gave a flying fuck about at the time, it feels like a rejected SNL skit padded out into feature length. It also has that unsettling…extruded…vibe of Reagan Era cynical cinema. Everything about felt like it emerged full formed from a focus group session, blatantly plastic and lacking remotely approaching a sense of authenticity. Too tame to be genuinely transgressive yet still dripping with a smirking, sophomoric sleaziness for sleaziness’ sake. Even slagging it feels like kicking a piece of styrofoam packing material around a vacant lot.

In other words, it was exactly the type of thing that stood to possibly benefit from a marketing partnership with America’s fifth choice of domestic dog piss.

The prizes aren’t half bad, despite the sunk-cost fallacy that came factory standard with all late Eighties Corvettes. It’s also little odd that the top three awards in a beer company promotion were motor vehicles, but what’s a DUI or three compared to putting one’s ass where Tom Hanks’ hinder once resided?

We actually had a Dragnet movie poster hanging in our room for a while. It wasn’t obtained through this contest, but through Lil Bro asking the dude who ran the Video Station (next to Ralph Bishop’s Seafood) if he could have it after it got pulled down to make room for a Police Academy 5 poster. I’m pretty sure we had it up until we moved in with my grandmother after our mom died, but I have no idea what happened to it after that.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a real promo contest without the requisite “void where prohibited” fine print. This one has quite the interesting spread of verboten states, and I assume it has to do with local restrictions on alcohol-related contests. Or the cost of shipping a shitbox prop police cruiser to Hawaii.

Every few months, the BBC releases a new installment of Top of the Pops: The Story of…, spotlighting a specific year through lens of the venerable pop music program. The format is strictly documentary-lite, generally apolitical, and typically focuses upon whoever accepts their invitation to provide commentary. (Think VH-1′s decade-themed specials from the Aughts — themselves inspired by BBC programming — but dedicated to a specific venue.)

I began watching them for snatches of punk and wave content, but the anecdotal and archived glimpses into a mythic past were enough for me to hang in through the Big Pop era. Historical curiosity overrode my long-standing aversion to plastic MOR synthpop, big hair, and pastel fashion disasters. Even if the acts weren’t up my alley, it was a fascinating look into a scene which intermingled with the one on this side of the Atlantic, yet still maintained a distinct — and often baffling to these Yankee eyes and ears — identity.

Then the series finally hit 1989, and shit got heavy. I made it about five minutes and a couple of Lisa Stansfield and Shaun Ryder appearances in before getting weirded out by how old everyone looked.

While I’m not above indulging in “hey, did you realize [insert beloved Gen X artifact] is [Y] many years old” social media pronouncements for lazy mindfuck thrills, I generally don’t brood about such things. My mom dreaded getting old so intensely that it contributed to her mental illness and death at age 37. Witnessing that as a teen made me conscious of any such stirrings in my own skull, and the need to squash them whenever they surface. I’m not fond of the random aches and pains or weird proliferation of stray ear and eyebrow hair, but I’m comfortable in my skin and where I’m at…

…except when 1989 is evoked, apparently.

There’s a pat explanation for this reaction. My mom died at the end of 1988, and her passing marked a hard boundary between “then” and “now” in my brain. Any after her death is “recent” memory, shit I can generally recall with a fair degree of clarity even beyond major milestones. Logically, I understand that three decades had passed — though I had to use my fingers yesterday to verify that 1989 wasn’t twenty years ago — but shaking the reflexive “not that long ago” assessment is tough to do.

The extended adolescence experienced — by choice or circumstance — by so many folks of my generation didn’t help either. All those long stretches of day-to-day living, with the traditional milestones absent or muted, can really fuck with one’s perception of time. When my dad was my age, he was a widowed Vietnam vet with two adult sons, making a decent living in a blue collar gig he stepped into when he was 40 after previously working for a defense-tech firm. In contrast, the stretch of time between buying our house in 2004 and the kid’s arrival last Summer was marked mostly by gaming consoles, changes to the household menagerie, and vehicles owned. What major events did happen mostly fed into the sense of stasis.

Generationally, we got locked into a deceptive “island of stability” from our twenties through mid-forties, which made its inevitable erosion all the more disturbing. I lost both my father and grandmother in the space of a year, while Maura lost her mother and a number of other relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Bowie and Prince shuffled off this mortal coil, followed by one cultural constant after another.

Without making light of folks’ sense of grief and loss, this is how things happen. The cycle of life and all that jazz. It’s as natural as a pop star who was 25 in 1989 looking like a typical middle aged dude in 2020, yet here we are…and this is only the start of it.

I am extremely curious and somewhat terrified about how it will continue to play out.

Death or CD

January 8th, 2020

“It was like swimming against a current that swept you backwards however hard you struggled, and then suddenly deciding to turn round and go with the current instead of opposing it. Nothing had changed except your own attitude: the predestined thing happened in any case. He hardly knew why he had ever rebelled.” – George Orwell, 1984

Joking aside, format wars used to be a big thing among the punk set. Owning a pre-taped cassette version of a punk album was seen as ideologically suspect. Owning a CD version was tantamount to heresy back in the late Eighties.

Yet if it wasn’t for folks who went all in on the CD format duping their vinyl collections, I wouldn’t have had such a wealth of cheap second-hand material to dig through during my peak punk era.

…and I’m back, with a five alarm trigger warning for…well, a lot of stuff further on down the page.

For some nostalgic reason, I got into a Bronze Age Avengers kick during my holiday hiatus and set about cobbling together a stack of collections covering the eight-year run between issues #181 and #277.

While I had my moments of X-fandom during my wayward youth, the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were always my franchise of choice. For all the shunned outsider posturing, the X-Men always felt a bit cliquish to me — “We were born special and if you weren’t born special, you’ll never be one of us.” The Avengers, on the other hand, had more of a clubhouse vibe going on, with a constant churn of members and various hangers-on. One could aspire to be an Avenger and have a reasonable chance of achieving that goal. (They let in Tigra and Starfox, after all.)

The point here is that my love of the franchise goes waaaaaay back to the days of plastic bagged three-packs pegged by the Zayre’s checkout aisles, which happens to be the era collected in the 19th Avengers “Marvel Masterwork” collection. The high price point and low page counts tend to put me off buying Masterwork editions, but this particular one filled a particular gap in my trade paperback collections and a remaindered copy could be had for a reasonable sum.

The volume covers the tail end of John Byrne’s run as the series artist through the brief return of George Perez to that role, and there’s some damn fine stuff in here. There’s Hawkeye doing his dirtbag best against Deathbird, a two-part throwdown with the Grey Gargoyle, a visit from the new Ant-Man and the debut of the Taskmaster, an epic battle against Faux-gun Warrior Red Ronin, and the returning terror of Ultron. It’s ensemble cast superheroics at its disposable best, with plenty of humor, melodrama, and character interactions.

Unfortunately the run also contains Avengers #200, also known as “the worst Avengers story of all time.”

The issue has been the subject of countless hot takes, mostly accurate yet subject to the usual degree of hyperbolic inflation and contextual inaccuracies. That’s no to say the story isn’t utterly appalling, but that a wider angle view makes it look even worse than advertised.

You can google “Avengers 200″ for your choice of stomach churning plot summaries…though I’d caution against it.

The short version is that Carol Danvers — who in her Ms. Marvel identity was supposed to embody superheroic second wave feminism, though fell short in the male-written execution — becomes mysteriously pregnant and carries the baby to term at an accelerated rate. The baby rapidly ages to adulthood and reveals himself as son of longtime Avengers frenemy Immortus, who decided to escape his pa’s extra-temporal realm by kidnapping Danvers and slipping her a techno-roofie so he could impregnate her with his “essence” and be born into the material plane. When the device he needed to stabilize his internal energies is destroyed, he is forced to retreat back into limbo…and a weirdly smitten Danvers decides to go with him.

So it’s a story in which a feminist female hero gets raped, gives birth to her rapist’s baby who is also the reincarnated rapist, and then runs off into the sunset with him at the end.

Except there’s more to it, which makes things even worse. If it was simply a bunch of clueless dudes reworking the most problematic parts of “new wave” sci-fi with their thumbs, I could simply vomit and tag it as yet another historic example of why representation matters — an incredibly egregious example, but hardly an isolated incident for the medium, genre and era.

In the following year’s Avengers Annual, Chris Claremont (via Danvers) calls out the team for not realizing how horrible the situation was. It was an overdue correction, but one that itself overlooked the fact that at least team — and the story’s multiple plotters — actually did realize it at the time. Hawkeye smelled a rat from the beginning, and was the one to bust up Immortus Junior’s machine. Iron Man was leery about letting Danvers leave with her rapist when it was happening and when reflecting on events afterwards. The same goes for Wonder Man, who also did his awkward best to offer emotional support to Danvers.

…and Thor? Well, ancient gods have never had great judgement when it comes to these types of scenarios. Compared to swans, “golden showers,” dicks cut from elder gods and tossed in the ocean, getting techo-roofied by the soul-patched son of a wannabe time lord must seem pedestrian by comparison.

Danvers herself consistently asserts the wrongness and her sense of violation to the other Avengers…right up until the moment when she sees her full grown (eeweeweeweeweeweew) “child” and gets all squishy over him.

This wasn’t simply thoughtlessly stumbling into problematic implications. There are enough in-story indications to suggest that at least some of the creative parties involved knew this was dire shit…before going ahead and making things even more horrible anyway. Or were brought in later to tone it down from something even *shudder* more nauseating. Whatever the case was, the issue is a resounding bum note in an otherwise great run.

Fun Fact: The original 1983 Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe does not contain an appendix entry for Marcus (Immortus’s son), nor does it reference him in the “known relatives” line in the entry for Immortus or anywhere at all in the entry for Binary, Danver’s then-current identity.

…and Claremont’s righteous anger about doing right by the victim ended up counting for less than his desire to add a new opportunity for dialect writing to the X-roster.

The reason for the season

December 16th, 2019

Pal Matt warned me that the first Christmas with the Kid would be a bit wild, and he was right.

The past couple of weeks have been a manic quest to obtain the stuff she both wants and needs. She herself was guarded and non-committal about it at first, but eventually succumbed to the spirit of the season and dedicated a few hours and journal pages towards a semi-comprehensive wish list. (“But I still want to be surprised,” she added for emphasis.)

Maura and I believe we’ve hit our targets along those lines, within the giddy parameters of “first holiday season with a new daughter who is also the only kid in the house.” Being on the parental side of process got me to thinking about my own wishlist-making years and the more memorable items in my youthful holiday hauls.

The tricky part was separating Christmas gifts from birthday presents from random acts of parental (or grandparental) indulgence. I’m pretty sure most of my major Star Wars toys were birthday presents, and family’s Sears 2600 clone was unexpectedly bestowed upon us by my Grandpa Charlie. There are more than a couple Christmases — especially in my tweens and early teens — where I can’t recall any gifts of note, which can probably be chalked up to the gift certificate trend hitting its stride during those years.

What follows is a brief rundown of some notable things I do remember.

The Fisher-Price Sesame Street playset was the first big Christmas gift I remember receiving, but for a really strange reason. The box had a distribution label on the side which stated “Sesame Street, NY” along with a string of numbers. It was clearly some kind of Sears warehouse tracking thing, but my neurotic post-toddler brain took it to mean that it was supposed to be for the real Sesame Street and Santa dropped it off under our tree by mistake. I could only be convinced to open the package after a long explanation from my exasperated mother.

The smaller bits and bobs from it soon scattered to the winds of rough play, though the building itself managed to hang in there through the mid-Eighties, where it served as the bridge of a makeshift GI Joe aircraft carrier Lil Bro and I made from a old sled. I’ve flirted with the idea of hunting down a semi-complete replacement for it, but have so far settled for a couple of the original figures.

The 1978 release (with actual modern minifigs instead of faceless prototype jobbers) of the Lego Coast Guard Station was #1 on my Christmas list that year, and I was over the moon when it actually ended up under the tree. I want to say the set was my introduction to minifigs, but I’m pretty sure I had a solitary astronaut from a previously gifted small space set. The set was built “correctly” once before getting stripped for parts to build various crazy quilt monstrosities. The minifigs’ torsos and other stickered bits got incredibly grimy after a few months of play, but the blue baseplate survived into my teens.

1982 was the Year of the Joe, and all I wanted for that Christmas was the reborn franchise’s marquee vehicle — a battery-powered faux M1 Abrams tank. Honestly, I probably coveted the exclusive driver figure as much as I did the vehicle itself. I’d already copped wise to the whole Santa jive, so I lobbied my poor parents relentlessly about getting a MOBAT as my big gift.

It seemed like it was in the bag, so imagine my expression when the toy did not manifest under the tree on Christmas morning. Even worse, all the toys Lil Bro had asked for had appeared, making me wonder if I was being punished for something. It wasn’t until after my parents woke up and the unwrapping phase began that I discovered that my grandfather had bought MOBATS for both Lil Bro and me out of “fairness.”

My dad filled me in on the details when Lil Bro was out of earshot. “Ma and I drove over trying to find the damn thing, and once we did Charlie told us he already got you one. Don’t blame us.” He’d recount the story, occasionally swapping in Star Wars or superheroes for G.I. Joe, a few dozen times over the following thirty-five years. He’d also use it as an excuse for not putting much thought into gift-buying.

My parents gave me a surplus M65 field jacket as my big Christmas present in ninth grade. That sounds a little tragic, but I really wanted one. My paternal hero worship was at a peak along with cultural fetish for military fashions in general. It was warm (especially with the insulated liner my dad snagged from the armory during his National Guard days), it had plenty of handy pockets, it could be worn while biking, and it became a fixture of my cold weather look until I switched to a punk leather jacket in my late teens.

A pair of shitty leather work gloves and a cut-out bin cassette of Chuck Berry’s greatest hits were what I got for gifts on the last Christmas before my mom passed away. I wasn’t expecting anything, to be honest. My dad was pulling a month in a drunk tank and my mom was laid up with what she called “agoraphobia” but was really fear of being too far from a gallon jug of port wine. My concern, under her shaky direction, was to make sure Lil Bro’s holiday was decent — scraping together enough to pick him up some cheap shit from the toy store’s clearance aisle and a tiny Christmas tree from a nearby florist.

I wasn’t expecting anything, which made these two token gifts all the more meaningful. Even at their lowest point, my parents managed to do something…and it gave me a little spark of hope, no matter how short lived it turned out to be.

The fright stuff

December 12th, 2019

“Slowly but inexorably crawling upon my consciousness and rising above every other impression, came a dizzying fear of the unknown; a fear all the greater because I could not analyse it, and seeming to concern a stealthily approaching menace; not death, but some nameless, unheard-of thing inexpressibly more ghastly and abhorrent.” – H.P. Lovecraft, “The Crawling Chaos”

A sense of right and pong

December 10th, 2019

From the musty innards of the 1975 Sears Wish Book comes…

…the first game console my family ever owned.

For decades I’ve had to rely on hazy childhood memories about the device. I knew it was a Sears-badged (because Sears was where families such as mine bought electronics in those days) Pong clone with paddles integrated into the casing, but not the specific make or vintage until I stumbled across this listing.

The big tell — which I’d honestly wondered if I’d been imagining it — was this primitive take on power sourcing…

Anything involving battery power in my childhood home meant a couple hours of active life followed by years of motionless (or noiseless or lightless) limbo. This is probably why the system was packed away in my parents’ closet with the model train sets and slot cars and other shit dragged out on extremely rare occasions. Even during good times, batteries were seen as a low priority luxury item.

Speaking of luxury items, the Tele-Games unit’s $98.95 price tag comes out to around $430 in 2019. Post-inflation calculations should always be taken with a few grains of salt, as they don’t account for contextual factors such as household expenses, interest rates, debt/savings ratios which provide more accurate pictures of relative spending power. Still, that kind of money would buy you a functioning muscle car in need of moderate body work in 1975 North Woburn. (Hell, my high school friend offered to sell me his slightly dinged 1966 Ford Fairlane for $100 in 1988.)

Our console was most likely a gift from my maternal grandfather, who loved such gadgets and bestowed a much beloved Sears 2600 clone upon us a few years later. I doubt we received it in 1975, though. It was more likely 1976 or 1977 after a price drop.

My final memory of this technological wonder was my tweener self asking my mom if I could have it, then opening the box and finding that the batteries had leaked their corrosive goo all through the device. I’m sure I felt sad for all of five minutes before going back to playing Pitfall.

Trade-in: Well in hand(book)

November 21st, 2019

I prefer to let my featured selections percolate for a few weeks before discussing them here. It gives my brain time to process the material, jog loose any stray memories, and conduct more than a surface level survey. We’re going to put aside that informal rule for this installment, which discusses a much-anticipated tome which dropped a couple of days ago.

Given the recent spate of delays and cancellations involving comics collections, I had my doubts whether the omnibus edition of the original 1983 Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe run was actually going to materialize on the promised date. My suspicions of an elaborate (and cruel) fake-out didn’t evaporate until I tore open the shipping box and ran my grubby hands across the book’s cover.

And what a book it is — an issue per issue reprint of the entire miniseries, complete with the serialized “alien races” and appendix portions tucked at the end of each installment. (I had wondered if Marvel was going to bundle those sections for the sake of flow, and I’m thankful they didn’t.) The book is slim as far as omnibus editions go. It does raises questions of value for money spent, but it also means that the tome more physically manageable. I love my other omnibus editions but those thousand-page-plus behemoths really aren’t suitable for the casual browsing the Official Handbook demands.

Folks who visit here for reasons other than comics commentary are probably wondering what the heck the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe is and why it makes me (and scores of my peers) so swoony. Back in the early 1980s, Marvel’s EIC Jim Shooter floated the idea of doing a “Jane’s Guide” for its shared universe characters. The idea was farmed out to editor and continuity guru Mark Gruenwald, who expanded the concept into an wide-angle directory of the people, places, and things from Marvel’s Timely Comics origins to the then-present day.

Want to know how tall the Titanium Man was? Want to know exactly how Guardian’s battle suit worked? Want to know all the twists and turns of Vision’s origin story? The Handbook had that info in both excruciating and faux plausible detail. Originally planned as for a dozen alphabetical installments, it was expanded to fifteen via a two issue addendum of dead and inactive characters and a single issue guide to weapons and equipment.

To understand the significance of series to me and generational peers in fandom, you have to understand that this was a pre-internet era where documentation outside the source material was next to nil. There were times (*cough* DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes *cough*) where I went multiple issues without knowing a character’s name, never mind their powers or origin story. Occasionally Dynamite or other kiddie mags would fill in some details, but most of the time we had to rely on occasional in-story recaps, book ‘n’ record sets, or the dubious testimony of comics-reading pals.

For DC, it wasn’t that huge an issue because its upper-tier characters had a higher media and marketing profile. (For real, I first learned Wonder Woman’s origin from a Ground Round placemat.) With the exception of Spider-Man and the Hulk, Marvel info was fairly elusive. It could be frustrating for a kid lacking regular access to a spinner rack, but it also lent the Marvel Universe an alluring aura of mystery. Each little nugget of info gleaned from a flea market quarter bin purchase felt like a hard-won victory and kindled the desire to learn even more.

Prior to the Handbook, Marvel published a puzzle/activity funnybook series titled Fun and Games containing mazes, word searches, trivia quizzes and the like pulled from the various corners of the company’s fictional universe. Stray issues of it were a guaranteed quarter bin purchase for me — not for the puzzles, but for the tantalizing references to unfamiliar Marvel characters and concepts. Similarly, I doubt Jack of Hearts would’ve resonated so strongly with my younger self minus the novelty of stumbling upon a (supposedly) hot new character.

By the time the handbook debuted, I’d just discovered a semi-reliable source for new comics to supplement the stuff I was pulling from the flea market and “collector show” which popped up at the Woburn Mall on a regular basis. It was at the latter where I first came across an issue of the Handbook, and it was awestruck love at first sight. All these little mysteries and backstories had been codified with a matter-of-fact gravitas which meshed perfectly with my obsessive fanboy curiosity.

I only ended up scoring the last few issues of the main run and the “Book of the Dead” issues but I read-studied-memorized them with an almost religious fervor. The handy thing about after-the-fact prose summaries of funnybook storylines is that they can make even the most convoluted continuity cobbling seem like seamless cosmologies. The Handbook’s write-ups of the history of the Eternals and the Celestial Madonna arc outstripped the actual source materials by multiple orders of magnitude. Disposable jabronis and also-rans radiated mythic auras by virtue of getting an entry in the roster of deceased characters at a time when confirmed permadeth was still relatively rare in the genre.

It also influenced my back issue purchases, as made evident by my full runs of Bronze Age It! The Living Colossus and Torpedo appearances. My memories of reading my small stack of Handbook issues remain lucid after some thirty-five years — flipping through the second Book of the Dead during a sixth grade nature retreat and developing an appreciation for Wonder Man while sitting on a lawn chair outside my uncle’s apartment, the loose-from-wear pages and appendix layout clear as yesterday in my mind’s eye.

The Handbook was enough of a success that Marvel followed it up with a “deluxe” edition a couple of years later, which ran roughly concurrently with DC’s similar Who’s Who index. While I picked up every issue of that revised and expanded do-over on the stands, it lacked the magic of the original run. My comics fandom had entered its peak by then, thanks to discovering a direct market shop in biking distance and an uncle who gifted us his deep collection of Bronze Age Marvel stuff during a religious epiphany (a move which I’m told he later regretted).

Simply put, there weren’t as many mysteries to savor, just current plotlines and older source material which rarely lived up to the expectations established its Handbook summaries. The deluxe edition couldn’t be the magical gateway the original had been because I no longer needed a gateway. I could reflexively cite the Punisher’s first appearance or Baron Blood’s decapitation chapter and verse.

On a more subjective level, the Marvel Universe reflected in the original Handbook will always be “my” Marvel Universe — pre-Secret Wars, with Ghost Rider, Yellowjacket, Spider-Woman sidelined, Dracula and Phoenix dead, the New Mutants just arrived, Paul Smith is the X-artist, and James Rhodes is Iron Man and Monica Rambeau is Captain Marvel. My fandom may have hit peak consumption a bit later, but that particular moment was my for-real, regular basis jumping-on point. This is not to say “my Marvel” represents some artistic apex, but that the first edition of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe managed to synchronize the perfect material, perfect moment, and perfect audience in my particular case.

It’s a Proustean madeline and a geologic core sample and quasi-religious artifact rolled up in a single tome that makes for some ideal bathroom reading.

Plus, you get to see Mark Gruenwald use his professional position to resolve what I have to assume was a twenty year old playground argument.

You bric it, you brac it

November 14th, 2019

In Victorian times, members of the newly minted bourgeoisie would express their prosperity by decking out their domiciles in the style of a TGI Fridays. Every surface, patch of wall, or cozy corner had to be crammed with a bewildering assortment of knickknacks.

What began as a curated clutter of somewhat valuable objets d’art soon turned into a wider phenomenon, as less fortunate folks sought to emulate the smart set’s affectations with mass produced curios aimed at giving an aura of store-bought sophistication on the cheap.

The trend eventually ebbed, as these things tend to do, only to resurface half-a-century later in another era of material prosperity and conspicuous consumption. This also happened to overlap with a bout of market-driven nostalgia which attempted to triangulate itself between Gilded Age opulence, Roaring Twenties hedonism, and frontier period rustic modes. Being a kid in those times meant the homes of every older relative resembled a folksy fusion of Holly Hobby’s front room and a burlesque bordello.

And when said relative died or downsized their post-retirement digs, there’d be a mad rush among the younger folks to lay claim on the assortment of “antique” globes or swords or dueling pistols collecting dust in the den. Discovering how flimsy and cheapjack the items were became an important life lesson, how the long coveted stuff of dreams was actually cobbled together from flimsy sheets of tin, particle board and paste. (It was a lesson also learned at home, after some constant yet function-free fixture fell victim to misadventure caused by rough play.)

Despite the dubious provenance of its artifacts, it’s an aesthetic I sincerely miss. There’s something cozy and comforting about it which is sorely lacking in spaces kissed by “konmari.” Combine it with the scent of a stew cooking and the stuffiness of steam radiator heat, and it fills me with a comforting sense of “home” as a home should feel.

It’s something I prefer to evoke with my own mix of family heirlooms and significant curios, however. The pre-fab crap does evoke some bit of nostalgia, but the off-the-rack impersonal aspect of it does little for me. Plus the shoddiness of that shit makes it difficult to score outside of estate sales, where more often that not it will be coated in a grimy layer of dust mixed with tobacco tar.

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