Armagideon Time

A token force

December 16th, 2014

Here’s something that should be familiar to funnybook readers of the early 1980s…

…an ad for MPC’s “golden token” promotion, where young model builders (back when such a thing still existed) could redeem some jumped-up proofs of purchase in exchange for build-it-yourself freebies.

While I could never bring myself to mutilate the inside front cover of a beloved issue of Avengers or Alpha Flight, I did find a set of “free” tokens inside an issue of Boys’ Life. I wasn’t a huge model enthusiast, but the lowest redemption tier (eight tokens, I think?) included a set of MPC’s 1:72 scale plastic military figures.

I owned a number of these sets, from partially-painted Napoleonic armies gifted from my grandpa to WW2 and Civil War units picked up at the local Zayre’s store. Despite the small size of the figures, they were more detailed than standard model plastic army men and far more diverse in terms of units represented. They also scaled well with Hot Wheels-sized vehicles and made for more epic playroom battles.

They weren’t particularly expense, but a FREE set of 40-odd figures was enough for me to convince my mom to pony up a stamp, modest S&H fee, an envelope. The six-to-eight week turnaround time felt like an eternity, one I spent day dreaming about which set of figures MPC would send me. Roman centurions? Zulu warriors? British commandos?

When the package finally arrived I opened it to discover they sent me the one with WW2 Luftwaffe ground crew. No guns, no cool uniforms, no dramatic action poses — just a bunch of coverall-clad pump jockeys and grease monkeys. Their role in my ahistorical battle sagas was limited to maintaining the motor pool and becoming collateral damage when the Union Army fought against the Afrika Corps and the French Hussars.

The few veterans that survived my childhood war of plaything attrition ended up staffing the utterly dismal toxic waste dump diorama I shat out onto a piece of old drywall the night before the 7th grade science fair.

(It’s tangential to today’s topic, but I really, really hated junior high science fairs.)

Anthem for Electric Youth

December 15th, 2014

What passing-bells for these who do what comes naturally?
— Only the fevers in the air.
Only those who wait for the possibility
Can take it, Fred.
No mockeries now for them; who have the most time;
Nor any voice of to make the world go round,—
The shrill, demented pleas to spare a dime;
And bugles placing bets on our own sound.

What candles may be held to whatever it may be?
Not in the hands of the next generation, but in their eyes
Shall lose sight of potential mastermind.
The new era of fun is gonna start with me;
Their flowers the inflation, flirtation, relaxation, elation.
It’s electric, electric, electric.

(via this and this.)

Song for Sunday #118

December 14th, 2014

The Moog Machine – Joy to the World

Silver Age Science Saturdays #45

December 13th, 2014

(from “The Incredible Brat”by Rocco “Rocke” Mastroserio in Space Adventures #50, March 1963)

Alienated labor

December 12th, 2014

Though touted for its prophetic qualities, science-fiction is actually about “the now.” The anticipations and anxieties explored in a work of sci-fi reflect those of the era in which it was produced. Even when the themes addressed are evergreen — future shock, loss of individual dignity — the individual manifestations are shaped by contemporary zeitgeist.

For every rare work of sci-fi that does manage to achieve a degree of timelessness, there are countless tales like “Super-Cook of Space”…

…which says very little about interplanetary space in 2200 and a lot about the America of 1959.

The tale — crafted by John Broome, Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs and published in Mystery in Space #56 — is set on the world of Procyon-3, where a Terran mining firm is excavating a rare mineral named “chold” for export.

(Between the hand-lettering techniques and crude printing methods used back in the Silver Age, “chold” comes out looking like “cholo,” which makes me envision giant drilling rigs grinding their way through rich veins of chinos, lowrider parts, and tattoos of the Virgin Mary.)

The human mineworkers are real steak-and-potato guys, idealizations of blue-collar American masculinity who resent the Fancy Dan space-pills management has foisted upon them as nourishment.

The foreman sympathizes with their gastronomical gripes and has a genuine Robot Super-Chef (complete with a removable cloth toque on its transistorized noggin) shipped in to improve the culinary conditions. The cyber-cook quickly demonstrates its worth by transforming a bundle of lawn clippings into sizzling butter-basted sirloin with a side of trans-fatty French fries.

After feasting to their arteriosclerotic hearts’ content, however, the miners notice a bizarre change has come over their normally ruddy and rugged features.

The combination of alien flora and unproven technology has altered their bodies so that they resemble the Procyon-3′s indigenous population!

Their consternation over this induced mutation is forced to take a back-burner to other events — specifically an armed uprising by the natives against the Terran mining interests.

Taking advantage of their new bodies, the miners decided to infiltrate the “small, well-organized band” of radicals who have led the poor, placid Procyonites astray with their crazy talk about using their world’s resources for the benefit of its residents rather lining the profits of some off-world corporation.

And, really, the miners only have the best interests of the natives in mind, as a revolution would only bring a rain of space-napalm upon Procyon’s population when Earth’s military rolled in to protect its vital planetary interests.

Though the infiltration part of their plan goes south when the effects of the synthesized steak dinners wear off, the miners manage to succeed in their efforts…

…by beating the shit out of anyone standing in their way and forcing the leader of the revolt to surrender.

On live tri-vid. With the barrel of a rad-pistol pressed against the back of his skull.

With the hegemonic order restored, the miners went back to scarfing their space-pills, the natives went back to their proper neo-liberal subservience, and the mining company’s shareholders got a little extra in their dividend checks that quarter.

As for the fate of the device which brought about this turn of events?

Hey, every Robot Super-Chef knows that you can’t make a galactic super-power with breaking a few space-eggs.

Lost in the prog

December 11th, 2014

Every time I see an ad or promo image or album cover like the above, I invariably imagine that members of the band living together in some communal arrangement like the Monkees, only with more lava lamps, Tolkien paperbacks, and shag carpeting.

Between the recording sessions for their “concept album about a blind boy who communicates with an extraterrestrial being” or its “circus-themed” follow-up, they’d pile into a custom-decoed Dodge Deora and use their powers of solarized slapstick to battle Baron Paraquat or the Diminishing Returns Gang — all set to some Moog-heavy noodling straight out of an intergalactic ren faire.

A 1970s childhood was a hell of thing, kids.

Recommended listening: The closest these zany progsters ever came to a mainstream hit. Bong and blacklight poster not included.

Ultimate Powers Jam #34: The Om

December 10th, 2014

Prepare to achieve transcendence, fellow seekers of enlightenment, because it’s time for another round 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.

This week’s slice of the cosmic unconsciousness comes courtesy of “Gentleman” Jack Feerick.

Every vibration awakens all other vibrations of its particular frequency. And all frequencies are harmonics of a single tone — an eternal drone underpinning and sustaining all creation. Before all things were, it was. The ground note in the endless song of the Universe. It is the source, the sound, the secret of existence. It is the Om.

Jawali Ramavishnu is a cultural anthropologist conducting post-doctoral research among the Tibetan diaspora on the Indian frontier. Oppression, assimilation, and mortality conspire to erase the strange, rich folkways of these once-isolated people. Indigenous Tibetan culture is an endangered species; within two or three generations, it may cease to exist as a unique entity. Jawali Ramavishnu is racing against time to preserve what he can.

Jawali’s area of specialization is folk religion, and he works among the monks and lamas living in exile, trying to document the esoteric practices of shamanic Tibetan Buddhism. Many of these rites have been shrouded in secrecy over the centuries; but these holy men, fearing that their culture might otherwise disappear forever, have taken the Indian scientist into their confidence. For his part, Jawali — although agnostic by temperament—finds himself strangely drawn to the ancient rituals, and to the wise, kindly old men who have become his teachers. In particular, he is much taken with one elderly lama, named Kelsang, who tells him tales of a fantastical place called the Singing Cliffs.

Traditional Tibetan devotions, the old monk explains, have a curious mechanistic aspect. The mere repetition through chanting of a holy word is enough to birth holiness into the physical world. Even inanimate objects can be vehicles for propagating the dharma. Prayer flags inscribed with mantras of compassion spread beneficence into all pervading space with every flutter of the breeze; a clockwork striker taps a tiny bronze gong etched with the character for wisdom, and wisdom is thereby propagated. In ages past, Kelsang says, exalted sages — part mystic, part tinkerer — devised great engines of salvation, massive automated installations that would bring consciousness to the whole world.

The Singing Cliffs — a project, Kelsang says, that was begun in the 15th Century but never completed — was to have been the mightiest of these; a labyrinth carved into the living rock of a hillside, redirecting the flow of a mountain stream into a mazelike aqueduct where its current would turn a full ten thousand prayer wheels of ever-increasing size, flooding the mountains with the energy of the mantras within even as the rotations of the wheels themselves would set up vibrations evoking the base note of the eternal Om and its overtones, a fully-automatic prayer mill that would sound forth the universal drone in all its harmonic complexity. But there were those who feared the unleashing of such power, Kelsang says, and construction was abandoned. Now, he says, even the location of the Singing Cliffs is lost to memory.

Jawali is intrigued by these stories. They are the stuff of fairy tales, of course—parables, perhaps, with the Singing Cliffs as a Babel-like metaphor of human folly. Or so he believes. Until the day that old Kelsang dies, and Jawali discovers, folded in among his meager possessions, ancient scraps of silk that bear hand-painted diagrams—the very blueprints of the Singing Cliffs, and a map showing its location.

And deep within Jawali Ramavishnu, a vibration is awakened.

And as its amplitude increases, so does his obsession. Though he is an academic and nothing of an adventurer, Jawali undertakes a dangerous and illegal border crossing, trekking deep into the interior of occupied Tibet. It is a journey of weeks, alone and on foot, dodging Chinese patrols as he hikes through the treacherous mountain backcountry. At last — lost, starving, and near death — he stumbles upon the derelict remnants of the legendary Singing Cliffs.

Taking shelter within the ruins, Jawali sets about repairing and completing the structure with a monomaniacal zeal. With his own hands, he hews the last trenches for the aqueduct and puts each of the ten thousand prayer wheels into working order. He labors relentlessly, pushing himself to the brink of collapse. After some weeks, he realizes that he no longer requires food, drink, or sleep, and he labors all the harder, sustained only by the vibration — of which he is always aware, now, faintly perceptible, just on the edge of hearing: the Om.

After a solid year of labor, Jawali has completed the restoration of the Singing Cliffs — but the great engine of the dharma sits silent, for the mountain stream that was to have turned its ten thousand prayer wheels has changed course in the intervening centuries; it lies at bay behind a dam built by the Chinese occupiers to feed an agricultural irrigation project on the steppe.

Which is how the cautious academic Jawali Ramavishnu, gripped by the perfect logic of obsession, comes to steal a backhoe and a large amount of high explosives from a construction crew laying rail tracks through the mountains.

From there, it’s a race against time, with Jawali trying to outrun both police pursuit and the ticking countdown clock of the charges he’s placed. The dam blows while he’s still excavating the trench; he makes it back to the Singing Cliffs just ahead of the rushing water, only to find the army closing in. The guns are in place, the artillery rolling in for a prolonged siege—and then the water flows into the aqueduct, and the first of the wheels begins to turn.

The sound is a soft whine to begin with, high and curiously sweet, growing richer and deeper as the lower harmonics phase in and swell, a glorious, orchestral wall of sound, the frequencies pure and true, the harmonies thrilling even as the amplitude increases, invoking ever-deeper vibrations until the mountains for a hundred miles around shudder with a subsonic hum that could rattle the teeth from your jaw, the vibrations awakening all other vibrations of their universal frequency until there is nothing left of man or matter or mountain. Until there is only the vibration.

And then, just as it seems the whole world might be shaken to pieces, the sound fades away, as if something — or someone — has absorbed it, or withdrawn it. Of Jawali Ramavishnu, or the army brigade, or indeed the Singing Cliffs complex itself, there is no sign.

But since that day, whenever the universal harmony is threatened, he has been there to set it right; a faceless figure in crimson and saffron, sustained and healed by the sound that he serves. He is always ready to unleash his steel-shattering sonic powers against those who would knock the music of the spheres out of tune. He is the embodiment and the protector of the great ground note whose harmonics sing Creation into being. He is the Om.

(Wise words and attuned art by Jack Feerick. 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!

In this week’s exploration of unsung objects of funnybook affection, I shall turn my gaze skyward…

…where the majestic Black Condor soars.

The character made his 1940 debut in the first issue of Quality’s Crack Comics, and like many of his early superheroic counterparts combined a familiar pulp archetype with a modest metahuman flourish. Condor’s tale mirrored that of Tarzan in many ways, but with the simian elements swapped out for avian ones and the Himalayan peaks subbing for the sub-Saharan jungle.

After his American explorer parents were slain by a pack of Mongolian bandits, an infant Richard Grey Jr. was taken in by a “super-intelligent” condor (even though condors exclusively habitat in the Western Hemisphere) and raised alongside her clutch of chicks.

Though raised in the ways of noble vulturedom, Richard fretted over his inability to take wing like his adoptive feathered family. Undaunted by his lack of wings or other evolutionary adaptations required for flight, he spent long hours studying air currents and aerodynamic principles until he was able to will himself to soar upon the winds.

(Listen, if you’re going to start questioning the narrative logic of Golden Age superhero stories, we’ll be here all night and I have catboxes to clean. Besides, a pair of retcons later spackled over the gaps by claiming that Richard was either a fortuitously empowered mutant and/or was exposed to a fortuitously situated meteor fragment.)

No longer a flightless fledgling, the sky-skimming youth left the nest and met up with a monastic friar who instructed him about the ways and speech of humankind. Taking on the sorta-costumed persona of the Black Condor, Richard wreaked vengeance upon his parents’ killers before soaring back to the States and taking over the identity of an assassinated senator named Thomas Wright who — in one of those handy coincidences so common to the genre — happened to resemble Richard almost exactly.

(Condor did pretty well as a legislator, all things considered, though he did take some heat over his move to classify regurgitated carrion as a vegetable in school lunches.)

Condor’s battle against goons, gangsters and Axis agents through 1943, though he was brought back — along with a bunch of other Quality characters purchased by DC — as a member of the Freedom Fighters of Earth-X. (If you’re unfamiliar with pre-Crisis DC multiversal continuity, Earth-X was essentially P.K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle done with capes and tights by a work-for-hire Bronze Age funnybook writer.)

Here’s the thing about my love of Black Condor. It has nothing to do with his pretty forgettable Golden Age stories or the 1970s Freedom Fighters stuff or the 1980s All-Star Squadron arc spotlighting the Quality roster (though it was a childhood favorite of mine). It almost entirely comes down to the Who’s Who entry for the character…

…illustrated by the incomparable Jerry Ordway.

Look at it. Even with the shitty Flexographic printing, it’s damn near perfect. It sells the concept perfectly, evoking a simpler time swashbuckling glory where all a hero needed to hold down a monthly feature was a confident smirk, a vaguely defined raygun, and the power of flight. Black Condor — or, more specifically, Ordway’s rendition of him there — captures everything that I love about Golden Age superheroes, even if the reality of the source material rarely matches that idealized dream.

(And, no, I don’t give a flying fig about the later incarnations of the character.)

This week’s featured platter is another artifact of the “Summer of Warhammer,” found collecting dust in the original Newbury Comics store’s remnant record bin.

I knew of The Avengers — an early S.F. punk outfit fronted by Penelope Houston and who opened for the Pistols’ “last” show — through Frontier’s first Dangerhouse Records compilation and scattered references in the few “punk history” books available at the time. Yet I never expected to actually find an album by the band, and especially not racked with a bunch of unsaleable cast-offs shoved into the back room of a well-trafficked music store. That’s the stuff of lottery-winner luck, which has rarely (if ever) blown my way.

Even though the song titles and cover photo jibed with my knowledge of The Avengers, I spent a long fifteen minutes agonizing over the purchase. Eight bucks was a lot of cash, especially to an unemployed student coasting on scholarship money, and I dreaded getting burned by some bait-and-switch scheme.

It seemed too good to be true, and it wasn’t until I pulled the trigger and peeled off the shrinkwrap that I discovered the truth was even better than I imagined. Not only was self-titled record a collection of studio, demo, and live recordings from The Avengers’ short career…

…but one that was pressed to transparent blue vinyl. (The many variant pressings and dodgy origins of the album have been ably chronicled here, where is also where I swiped the above image from.)

It’s fourteen tracks of scorching punk by an incredible female-fronted first-wave punk outfit released on colored vinyl long before such novelties became the industry norm. My luck in scoring a copy might pale in comparison to winning the Powerball jackpot, but it’s certainly one of the crown jewels in my record collection.

Fun Fact: Whenever I spin “We Are the One” in earshot of other people, at least one non-punky listener asks about the song and band and where they can obtain a copy. Something about the song really seems to resonate with certain people who’d have no truck with punk music otherwise.

Song for Sunday #117

December 7th, 2014

Pearl Harbour & The Explosions – Shut Up and Dance

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