Armagideon Time

What the Heart wants

June 30th, 2016

After referencing the story in last week’s Q&A session, it dawned on me that I’ve never done a proper write-up about the Jack of Hearts guest appearance in Incredible Hulk #213-214 (July/August 1977). Today I’m going to rectify that, as it is one of my favorite Bronze Age Marvel moments and helped trigger the Great Back Issue Buying Spree.

I picked up the second half of the story in a quarter bin back when local comicons were rummage sale affairs staged in hotel function rooms. I was there looking for a couple of issues of the X-branded reprints of the early Moore/Davis Captain Britain stories, while Lil Bro sought out bargains to fill out his Silver Age Marvel checklist. As he made one last sweep of the dealers’ room, I killed time by flipping though a battered longbox of acid-browned excess inventory from the Me Decade.

While the bin would be considered a treasure trove of offbeat oddities (including lots of Kirby’s 1970s Marvel work), the issue of the Hulk was the only thing that caught my eye, and only because of the Jack of Hearts appearance on the cover. I had a weird affection for the character since my grade school days, and twenty-five cents was a reasonable asking price for a mold-scented hit of childhood nostalgia. When I came across the first part of the story in a similar bin at a later con, I plucked down some loose change for it, too.

The main plot (or rough-seamed joining of two plots, to be more accurate) of the story was draped over a host of ongoing subplots and set-ups that were utterly lost on me. Bruce Banner was living in a seedy NYC rooming house and hanging with his streetwise teen pal Jim Wilson, which gave the gamma-damaged scientist the opportunity to indulge in rage-fueled rampages and 70s sitcom-style interludes.

The destructive antics of Banner’s jade-jawed alter ego brought the attention of the understandable worried authorities, who engaged in a public-private partnership with Stark International to bring the Hulk to heel. Unwilling or unable to offer up Iron Man’s services, the Stark folks send over the seventeeth next best thing…

…the Quintronic Man, a team-piloted mech along the lines of Voltron….if Voltron debuted in the Disco Era and was designed by an Ideal Toys intern. I’m not really sure why a robot designed to explore alien planets required a glowering humanoid kisser, but I’m assuming Tony Stark came up with the concept during one of his wilder weekend benders.

Quintronic Man meets Hulk. Hulk attempts to smash Quintronic Man. Quintronic Man gasses Hulk. Hulk gets taken into custody. Hulk’s teen friend causes the police transport carrying the Hulk to crash. Hulk escapes. Quintronic Man’s crew fights among itself. Hulk trashes Quintronic Man.

It was solid but predictable fun, but the best parts (from my perspective) were the in-between sequences where a pissed-off Jack of Hearts goes sickhouse on a bunch of mobsters. As fate would have it, the radio in the goons’ lair was tuned to the All-Exposition Hour’s coverage of the Hulk’s rampage. Jack, being the sensible, stable youth he was, decided it would be really cool if he tried to take down the Emerald Behemoth.

So he did, by sucker-punching the not-so-savage beast during his evening constitutional. That Jack is a hero after my own Heart.

The battle started off well for Jack, but rapidly turned after Hulk’s rage-boosted second wind kicked in and Jack came to realize that a soon-to-explode freighter was not an ideal spot for throwing down with a angry man-monster.

After courteously waiting for Hulk to deliver his lesson in humility, the ship explodes. No sooner did the onlookers utter “NO ONE COULD’VE SURVIVED THAT” than a broody, waterlogged Jack pulled himself out of the murk in time to genuflect on his mistakes.

I never picked up the following issues, so I can only assume that Hulk has been dead ever since.

The two-part story is Bronze Age Marvel boilerplate in its purest, most unrefined form. It’s jammed packed with confusing subplots, mandated fight scenes, corny melodrama. The full-to-bursting captions, thought bubbles, and dialogue balloons suggest a profound mistrust in leaving any parts of the visual narrative open to reader interpretation. It is disposable trash of the most playground-lurid order imaginable — the type of stuff that ivory tower highbrows refer to when they use “comic book” as a pejorative.

I absolutely adore it.

It’s formulaic but it’s a formula that delivers of its suggested promise, like the feeling you get when you pop open an ice cold bottle of Coke and take a swig — something familiar yet comforting no matter how awful you know product actually is. I’d call it Proustian, but it less about actual memories than memories those memories. I was a fairly jaded dude in his mid-twenties when I first read it, yet it still managed to evoke visions of being a wide-eyed five year old sitting on my grandma’s stoop with a stack of well-thumbed funnybooks by my side.

(panels from Incredible Hulk #213-214, July/August 1977; by Len Wein, Sal Buscema, Tom Palmer and Ernie Chan)

Forever week seven

June 29th, 2016

It’s time to resume answering your delightful questions, so let’s take on a query by longtime AT reader Zeno:

One of the things I enjoy most about AT is your ability to explain various pop cultural trends from post-WWII onward through the context of historical social and economic states. Have you ever thought about expanding this interpretative approach into a larger project such as a book or maybe a graphic novel?

Not if I can help it.

Becoming a paid-and-published author is seen as the desired end goal for internet scribblers. You build up an audience, you start pitching around to suitable sites, and eventually — maybe — land a paid residency on some content mill or score a book deal.

I wasn’t deaf to that siren song, even though I made a promise to myself when I started AT that I would not fall prey to unrealistic ambitions or expectations. That was easier said than done, especially once you start witnessing so many of your amateur hour peers start to migrate upwards toward the big leagues. If they could make it happen, why couldn’t I?

The answer to that emerald-tinged inquiry came to me only after a long and painful process of bad mistakes and worse behavior. It’s something I still grapple with on occasion despite having come to grudgingly accept it.

I am temperamentally unsuited to be a professional writer.

I chafe at deadlines. I take criticism and rejection way too personally. I lack the self-discipline to hone my skills to a proper level of consistency.

Yeah, I know that seems to fly in the face of decade of AT posts which could fill a phonebook-sized tome or four, but that’s because the I have complete control over what I do here. The only thing riding on my pageviews is my fragile ego. There are no expectations here save for the ones I set for myself.

Having to knuckle down an write a book whose purpose is to shift actual, cost-evaluated units? It would be a nightmare for everyone involved, even if some publisher was willing to gamble on a “aging provincial Gen X’er references a ton of crap no one gives a flying fuck about while saying mean shit about the stuff folks do enjoy.”

When I tried explaining this to a writer pal a while ago, he said it sounded like I was protesting a little too much. Maybe, but the truth remains that whatever desire I might have for that brass ring is overshadowed by my unwillingness to actually work for it.

It’s not as if I’ve walled myself entirely in my little niche. I’ve had a pair of short funnybook stories published in DIY comics anthologies — 2299 and Death Saves — and there a few more in the pipeline that I’ll be plugging here soon enough. The format fits my work style, and having incredibly talented and supportive collaborators has also helped take the edge off the experience.

Even so, I can’t see myself turning this into anymore than a creative sideline. Playing things by ear has been working out for me up to this point. Why throw additional stress into the mix.

And if some eccentric, 70s popcult obsessed billionaire stumbles across my stuff and feels like tossing a giant sack of cash my way? I wouldn’t complain. Much.

(header panel by the amazing Matt Digges, from our Death Saves contribution)

Mystery dance macabre

June 27th, 2016

The Great Sorting and Tidying at home continues, in which my understandably irritated wife has been taking on Herculean projects while I toss in the occasional “don’t pack those away where I can’t get at them.”

It’s a wonder I haven’t been served divorce papers yet, or at the very least a roundhouse kick to my solar plexus. (Just kidding, I contribute in other ways…when absolutely forced to do so.)

“We” were recently packing up the piles of books in the spare bedroom, separating them into sheep-to-be-shelved from the goats-to-be-crated-and-put-in-storage. It’s a bittersweet process — mainly because it hurts to see how many Warhammer novels I’ve purchased over the past decade — but it has also uncovered a few mislaid treasures I’d been trying to locate for a while now.

Top among these re-discoveries been William Poundstone’s Big Secrets trilogy, which has been long overdue for another read-though. The books are compilations of various bits of hidden information not known by the general public — soft drink formulas, the mechanics of stage magic illusions, hidden messages in pop music recordings, and so forth. Some of the entries of brush up against the realm of urban folklore (which makes sense, given Poundstone’s skeptic community cred) while others are pretty straightforward “how it works” explanations, but all are rich with fascinating details and leavened by the author’s dry wit.

My dad got the first book as a Christmas present from my maternal grandfather sometime in the early 1980s, though it soon ended up in my greasy pre-adolescent mitts. Its humorously conspiratorial tone and wealth of “forbidden” knowledge were irresistible for a kid who cut his teeth on factoid vademecums such as the Book of Lists and the People’s Almanac.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve re-read the book over the past thirty-odd years. Or how insufferable I was to my peers as I explained what KFC’s seven herbs and spices are or what the backwards-masked message was on ELO’s “Fire on High.”

It was my introduction to the weird world of “numbers stations,” and I can remember giving myself goosebumps trying to tune in to some of the frequencies on a multi-band radio scavenged from my great aunt’s attic. The closest I ever got was a navigation beacon from either Manchester Regional Airport or Hanscom AFB, but that string of looped jargon was still enough to give me some Cold War heebie jeebies.

The two follow-up tomes were as eagerly devoured, but across a gulf of a dozen years. I didn’t even know they existed until the mid-Nineties, when my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) special-ordered them for us through the bookstore where she worked. The information inside Bigger Secrets and Biggest Secrets was no less fascinating, but there’s a difference between approaching such material as a jaded twenty-something as opposed to an impressionable eleven year old.

My current read-through has unearthed further revelations that do not appear in the text. Based on the bibliographic strata they occupied in the spare room, I haven’t touched any of the three books since starting this site back in 2006. Upon settling back into that old familiar groove, I suffered a massive anxiety of influence attack. These are works I’ve read repeatedly since my pre-teen years, and which had a sizable effect on shaping my interests. It shouldn’t surprise me how much of their tone and style I’ve internalized and incorporated into my own writing, but it was still an unsettling to have it laid out before me in black and white.

I should probably be conscious of that the next time I decided to dip back into Lipstick Traces or Tristram Shandy.

Equally haunting as that inspirational epiphany — if not more so — has been noticing how dated the books have become. The first was published in 1983 and the final installment was released almost a quarter century ago. Tricks involving analog phones and carbon paper might as well be discussing how to scam a free oxcart ride in ancient Sumeria. I don’t know how this datedness would play to a fresh set of eyes with little knowledge of the historical context, but for me it adds an extra layer of retro-strangeness — decrypting the ciphers and symbols of a culture which no longer exists and whose incidental trappings have become all but forgotten.

It’s an odd thing to be nostalgic about, but it has added to the experience of re-reading the books. The Cold War is over. The mysteriousness of numbers stations has been dispelled by factual revelations and popcult appropriation. I can listen to a box set of the recordings whenever the mood strikes me. Yet when I go back to those old passages, the old chills rise up again like the past three decades never happened.

Control freakout

June 23rd, 2016

I’ll get back to answering your questions next week, but today I’d like to reminisce about a cherished childhood companion…

…the Pointmaster.

The the flight-stick modeled 2600 controller was Discwasher’s attempt to branch out from stereo accessories into the then-lucrative realm of home videogames. It was heavily advertised in Boys Life, where is how it ended up on young Andrew’s “gotta git one” radar.

The primary stumbling block was the asking price, a substantial sum for a ten year old who measured wealth in dimes and quarters. For $16.95, one could buy three deeply discounted cartridge-based casualties of the gaming industry’s bubble economy, which was too tempting a prospect despite having to play them with the battered ‘n’ barely functional remnants of my VCS system’s original set of pack-in controllers.

As fate and corporate hubris would have it, the collapse of the aforementioned bubble was what ended up putting a Pointmaster in my grubby pre-adolescent hands. Or, in less fancy-pants terms: I picked up a red-stickered on for a fiver from a Toys’R’Us clearance bin.

In truth, it wasn’t that great as far as controllers went. The button placement was awkward, the stick was too loosey-goosey, and it was a bit lackadaisical about registering diagonal inputs. The Pointmaster was pure style over substance, which did fit into its very Eighties aesthetic package.

It got the most use in shooters like Starmaster, Robot Tank, Time Pilot, and Super Cobra where the iffy functionality could be overlooked because the controller served as a physical prop to enhance the pixelated fantasies unfolding on the family TV. It didn’t matter if the Pointmaster made it more difficult to dodge the enemies’ blocky blaster fire, because I was caught up in the act of imitating the Big Boys running computer-simulated scrimmages against the Soviet military machine.

Again, it was the Eighties.

For less jingoistic frivolities, I got by with a Suncom Slik Stik. It, too, was a TRU clearance purchase and I remember its because its manufacturers made a point of reinforcing the brand identity every time you so much as glimpsed at the thing.

It was actually a really solid (in multiple senses of the term) controller, a small yet sturdy approximation of an arcade cabinet stick. The Slik Stik’s compact design gave it a tight and responsive feel that lacked the dead spots and fiddly nature of the Pointmaster or even the official 2600 joysticks.

When my 2600 console finally gave up the ghost, the Slik Stik found a new life as my default Commodore 64 controller. It saw me though Pitfall II, Toy Bizarre, Radar Rat Race, and a decent number of AtariSoft arcade game ports. It even managed to get some use as a back-up joystick for my Sega Master System, though the lack of a second button limited its use to cheesing the two-player power-up curve in the home version of Quartet.*

I managed to hold on to both the Pointmaster and the Slik Stik well into my college days, bundled up with the C64 and its tape drive in a corner of my grandma’s cellar. They may be there still, though it’s more likely they fell victim to one of her passive-aggressive purges of the “junk you left here and said you’d get rid of one of these days but you never come to visit anymore or even call and I’m not a spring chicken anymore and I worry about you and Maura and sometimes I think about what a shit your father is and that Obama makes me so mad and…”

Sometimes nostalgia comes at too high a price, even for me.

*Instead of the pick-up system used in the arcade version, the SMS port of Quartet granted power-ups when a player met specific score thresholds. These were set considerably lower in a two-player session, so I’d start a 2P game and then uses the other controller to make poor Edgar suicide before continuing the game as Mary. We called it the “Dedgar Strategy.”)

Jack and clubs

June 22nd, 2016

Today we have three questions from Mike Loughlin:

I’m a little bit younger than you so I didn’t get into the Boston area punk/hardcore/ska/indie scene(s) until the mid-’90s. Were you into the bands that emerged in that era, and if so which ones caught your attention?

My unqualified punk rock period ran from 1989 to 1993 (roughly, as there was some bleedthrough on either end of that timeframe). Much of that was spent looking backwards, via still-in-print releases from the local hardcore scene’s early 1980s salad days. There was the This Is Boston, Not LA comp, a couple of LPs by The Freeze, and (really foul smelling) tapes of Jerry’s Kids, Gang Green, and Proletariat albums.

Slapshot was still gigging regularly then, but they also seemed to attract an aggro-minded crowd which I avoided the the plague. I did catch Sam Black Church and Type O Negative as opening acts at a couple of all-ages shows.

Even though I didn’t make much of an effort to get into the various club scenes, I had several college buddies who were on friendly terms with the local industrial (anyone remember DDT?), ska, and indie rock crowds. I supposed I could’ve used those connections as an in, but being near those folks made me feel like a suburban bumpkin. (Which I was, to be fair.)

By the time the mid-Nineties rolled around, my tastes had shifted towards synthpop/industrial/post-punk/goth stuff picked up second-hand at used record shops or purchased new (and for a stiff price) from the import bins. Unless you count nominally “indie” acts like Belly or Letters to Cleo, the only local release I recall buying during those years was a Mistle Thrush EP.

I know that undercuts my whole “Boston Pride” shtick, but what can you do? The heart wants what the heart wants, and my ticker never wanted to listen to Bim Skala Bim or hang out in the Model Cafe with Mary Timony.

Were you ever a fan of the Hulk, in any incarnation? If so, which version of the character/run on the title is your favorite?

I’ve always preferred the Hulk as an adversary or plot complication, rather than a protagonist. Even when I was a kid who relished slam-bang, Trimpe-or-Buscema-rendered donnybrooks, the character felt a kind of one-note to me. The only times I followed his ongoing with any regularity were during John Byrne’s abbreviated stint and the McFarlane-illustrated “Grey Hulk” run.

Even so, the Bronze Age two-parter where Hulk battles Jack of Hearts is one of my favorite funnybook stories ever…which leads nicely into the today’s final question:

Who would be your ideal creative team for a Jack of Hearts comic?

That’s an easy one. Yours truly scripting with the mighty Matt Digges handling the art (and likely cursing the person who came up with Jack’s costume design).

Ben asked What is the most overlooked part of the 60s/70s culture wars?

Whew. That’s a lot to unpack in a fire-and-forget blog post. History is written by the victors, which meant entire currents and significant moments got swept under the rug (if only temporarily in many cases) by the reactionary Powers That Be. Plus, notions of intersectionality were largely relegated to academic arenas or “radical fringe” elements of the various movements, meaning so much of the culture war discourse was framed as zero sum hierarchies of injustices — something which said Powers That Be were happy to capitalize upon.

Having an Extremely White Dude (i.e. yours truly) try and assign priorities or call out overlooked aspects would be an act of folly and unfair to the folks who were doing the actual fighting and suffering.

The best I can do is prattle about an item of personal interest which tends to be neglected when the topic comes up.

I’m a bit amazed how the ever-more-frequent celebrations and histories of punk rock frequently ignore its roots as reaction against the failing left/Labour paternalist consensus. Thatcher wasn’t elected until 1979 and Reagan until 1980. It’s not that punk was necessarily right-leaning, but its hazy — and, let’s face it, marketing driven — philosophies centered around self-actualizing epiphanies frequently manifested through the adolescent urge to “freak the norms.”

It was a form of what would later be labeled “wokeness,” and — like its internet age incarnation — was susceptible to “got smart” posturing. It went after hippies and disco, while adopting Nazi symbols and references. It rejected self-restraint and embraced and calculated acts of outrage, to the point where someone like Elvis Costello could drop the n-bomb just to piss off Stephen Stills and the pre-eminent punk band had a song titled “Belsen Was a Gas.”

Granted, there were plenty of bands who didn’t dip into that well and plenty of ones who’d eventually walk it back. Yet it still managed to forge a template that would linger in both subtle and very apparent ways — the Oi scene for starters, but also in the sneering meathead nonsense of the American hardcore scene. It was nihilism rather than Nazism, but it still flew in the face of idealistic notions that the scene was some anti-authoritarian leftist movement empowered by the likes of Crass or the Clash.

Punk was a youth movement and kids can be a bit clueless. That was also true for the hippies and I’m sure it’s true for whatever scenes the Kidz are into today. In the hindsight of my middle age, I look back at my punk era as a form of developmental scaffolding. It was helpful for shaping me into my present form, but its physical infrastructure eventually became unnecessary. My opinion of it remains positive, but with many after-the-fact reservations and qualifications.

There’s no benefit to turning a blind eye towards punk’s more problematic aspects, especially within the context of an aging scenester’s rose-tinted nostalgia. Those flaws date back to the movement’s genesis and they need to be confronted, not ignored or handwaved away because you’ve let your self-image get too wrapped up in a myth.

Go west, young fan

June 20th, 2016

Fellow quarter bin enthusiast Greg Araujo put forward a trio of questions. They’re great and I’ll try to answer them all in time, but today I’m going to take a swing at #3′s twin queries:

Is there a beloved story or story line you dislike?

There are a number of fan-favorite funnybooks that do nothing for me — Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil‘s “Born Again” arc, Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Scott Pilgrim — but I’ve hit a developmental stage where “dislike” has mellowed to “weary apathy.”

If you happen to dig them, cool! Like I said, I’m past the point of casting vituperative judgement over differences in taste.

A hated story or story line you like?

I don’t know if “hated” accurately describes folks’ attitudes toward it, but there is a certain infamous storyline that I’ve felt obligated to defend on several occasions — John Byrne’s West Coast Avengers/Avengers West Coast run.

It’s not hard to see why those comics get the gas face from a lot of folks. It epitomized so many of Byrne’s unpleasant creative tics, mucking up the status quo with some radical retcons and continuity adjustments before departing in a huff and dumping the mess in someone else’s lap.

And, to be fair, I can see how developments such as transforming the Vision and Scarlet Witch’s kids into the World’s Creepiest Puppet Show…

…or Heel Turn Wanda giving Wonder Man an heavily implied hando….

…could generate negative sentiment among the base.

Without trying to defend that nonsense (because, honestly, I can’t), I will say it regrettably overshadows an fairly entertaining and mildly innovative run of comics. For starters, it was John Byrne’s return to Marvel after a three year stint at the Distinguished Competition. The significance of that might be lost on kids born after 1980 or so, but for my demographic peers it was a Big Deal. Our memories of his X-Men and Fantastic Four and Captain America work was recent enough to give Ol’ Crankypants another chance.

Before Byrne took the helm, the West Coast Avengers was a lower-middle tier afterthought coasting on the novelty of the original 1984 miniseries and okay-for-the-era sales. I know some folks who will swear by the trippiness of the Englehart/Milgrom run, but it never felt more than an inertial placeholder for me.

Byrne hit the ground running, letting loose a barrage of BIG CHANGES and SHOCKING DEVELOPMENTS right out of the gate. However, it wasn’t what he did as much as how he did it — with a dozen intertwined short-and-long-term plot threads that were advanced through cliffhanger moments and oblique after the fact references. The run’s narrative structure paralleled what Giffen and the Bierbaums’ were doing over in the “Five Years Later” Legion reboot, which also broke from the traditional set-up/pay-off dynamic for the genre.

It could be frustrating at times, yet it was also highly engaging in that it was leading up to something immense. Something that never happened because Byrne abruptly left the series and took the last vestiges of my tolerance for his antics with him.

Still, in those sixteen issues he managed to craft something that was as fascinating as it was flawed, with the return of the original Human Torch and a fun dust-up with the Mole Man thrown in for good measure. It also rekindled my waning interest in the Avengers and comics in general, which is something that did manage to survive the run’s unsatisfying and infuriating end.

Gone boldly gone

June 16th, 2016

Tales to Enrage asks “Do you have any connection to Star Trek outside of the Original Series?”

Yes and no.

Though both loomed large during my formative years, my relationship with Star Trek has been more complicated than the detached empathy that has marked my experiences with the Planet of the Apes franchise.

Much of that had to do with timing. Star Trek was a syndicated mainstay of the local UHF market growing up, and I have memories of being terrified by the rock-eating lava monster and salt-sucking vampire that menace the crew of the USS Enterprise. The rest of the original series package — apart from the familiar theme song and popcult propagated Spock-isms — was lost on my four year old self, then utterly buried by the toyetically binary spectacle of Star Wars a year later.

That pattern essentially held for the next twenty years, where a flicker of interest in the franchise would be snuffed out by some other sci-fi attraction more in tune with the prevailing zeitgeist. There were Blade Runner, Alien, Aliens, Star Blazers, Robotech, The Last Starfighter and so forth, all more reflective of my interests while making the original series feel more dated and goofy with each passing year.

There were bouts of interest between those other attractions. The first blank VHS cassette I purchased (for $6 at Zayre’s in North Woburn) was to tape a six hour “best of” marathon of original series Trek episodes off of Channel 68. I still have it somewhere in one my storage crates, affixed with an imperfectly applied and peeling label with “SPACE SEED, MANGERIE [sic], TRIBBLES, MIRROR” scrawled in black ballpoint ink.

My brother’s fifth grade teacher lent him taped copies of the Trek films to date and we watched the run of them up through the The Voyage Home, which was the last one to date at the time. We ordered tribbles and other dumb merch through a catalog, mastered Spock’s “Live Long and Prosper” hand sign, and argued over whether or not to pick up the Traveller basic rules set over FASA’s dedicated Trek RPG system. (We went with Traveller because it was half the price of the Trek box set.)

That heightened state of interest was abetted by the advance hype for Star Trek‘s much anticipated return to the small screen with an all new syndicated TV series. I watched the two-hour premiere at my high school buddy Damian’s place. He loved it, but it nothing for me and I drifted on to other pursuits.

Since then, my engagement with Trek has been intermittent at best. My college punk rock sidekick Leech was a frighteningly dedicated fan of the franchise, and tried to drag me back into that sphere with gifts (an Evil Kirk playmates figure, a dufflebag full of the original series episodes on DVD after he bought the “deluxe editions”) and too much Trek talk. It didn’t work, especially since these bouts of evangelism were interrupted by fallings-out that killed our friendship for long stretches of time.

I’ve never seen an episode of Deep Space Nine. I spectated a season or two of Voyager after Maura developed an interest in the series, but it felt like a long chain of missed opportunities and fan-pandering creative calibrations. I don’t loathe it that way some segments of Trek fandom claim to, but I wouldn’t champion it, either.

I steered clear of Enterprise because, well, come on

Maura dragged me to see the 2009 reboot on the big screen, which was a fine popcorn flick but nothing that was going to reverse three decades of personal custom.

If I have nothing else (read: “videogames”) on my plate, I’ll occasionally watch the MeTV airing of an “enhanced” episode of the original series. The story and characters are no longer the draw for me, as I find myself more interested in placing the names/faces of the guest stars and the gorgeous color cinematography.

(During Star Trek‘s original run, TV manufacturers used the series as a proof-of-concept marketing tool for selling the public on upgrading to color sets. The garishly lush color palettes of mid-60s TV shows were no accident, but deliberate showcases for consumer technology’s then-current darling.)

And, yes, I have heard William Shatner’s cover of “Common People.”

I feel good

June 15th, 2016

David H asks: What’s the best time you ever had dancing (punk vs nonpunk)?

I spent my elementary school days as a socially maladroit hybrid of the “nerd” and “paste-easter” archetypes, a combination of top marks and weird tics that did so much to endear me to my empathetic and understanding peers.

In my third grade year, the district sent out a school psychologist to evaluate my behaviors under the non-shaming pretense of “I.Q. testing.” My parents were informed that I was most likely a spectrum case. They responded to this information by opting to “mainstream” me, which meant doing nothing and seeing how the chips fell from there. The world wasn’t going to change to accommodate my quirks, they reasoned, so it was best that I learned — though painful trial and error — how to deal with the world.

I didn’t find this out until decades later, which clarified a lot of things in hindsight yet was ultimately an irrelevant bit of personal trivia. I am who I am, for better or worse. From that perspective, having a spectrum disorder was no different than having to wear glasses or being left-handed — the fish not noticing the water he swims in and all that jazz. It’s a bit too late to make excuses based on that, even if I didn’t think that would be a colossal cop-out.

Getting back to the question at hand, one of my physical ticks was the hardwired ability to perform an odd softshoe (or “soft store-brand sneaker”) shuffle similar to the “Mexican Hat Dance” steps. It’s nothing I actively learned, but something hardwired into the neural pathways — likely overwriting the place so-called “neuro-typical” (man, I hate than term so much) folks store their “enjoyment of social gatherings” and “cilantro tastes good” subroutines.

During one of the expressive play sessions that post-1970 pedagogical theory embraced so avidly, our teacher put on a copy of Rubber Soul and invited my class to dance freely beside our desks. I broke into my shuffle-step, which generated whoops of mocking laughter and an technical name for my signature moves: “The Andy Dance.”

(Ever wondered why I always insist on using my full first name and dislike being called “Andy?” Wonder no more.)

The Andy Dance was both a blessing and a curse over the course of my grade school career. When I transitioned to junior high, my former classmates made sure it came along with me. Anytime I walked past a group of dudes (always dudes) in the hall or the cafeteria’s Cool Kids Zone, the dur-hur taunt would be uttered. “Hey, do the Andy Dance for us!”

I did my best to ignore them, until the fateful day that would change everything. The day I worked up the shaky courage to shout back “Only if you pay me first.”

And they fucking did.

Getting a quarter per instance of public humiliation sounds like a raw deal, but keep in mind this was a time when a Marvel funnybook would set you back sixty cents. More importantly, it allowed me to take control of an unpleasant situation and turn a profit from it on my own terms, helping me transition from “geeky pariah” to “amusing character.” This subtle shift was lost on my guidance counselor, who saw it as an act of attention-seeking abasement instead of a means of deflecting even crueler (and more physical) forms of abuse from my peers.

It worked. By the time ninth grade rolled around, I’d managed to cultivate an aura of eccentricity that bordered on actual popularity. I ran for — and nearly won — the class presidency. There were a couple of geeky girls who probably would’ve gone out with me…if I hadn’t been so obvious and obnoxious about that sort of thing.

As my public persona grew and evolved, so did the Andy Dance. I’d gotten heavily into sixties soul and rock, dance-friendly jams which introduced a whole new set of goofy-retro moves to the old routine, even as the public performances grew fewer and further between. Having elevated me above the nerd herd, the dance’s importance receded in favor of a less spasmodic set of affectations.

The Andy Dance’s last hurrah took place at the school’s 1987 spring dance, the final one I’d attend before moving on to high school. Despite my dislike of crowded social gatherings, I was a regular at school dances. I’d have my mom do up my unfashionably long hair in some wild glam rock mane, don some ridiculous music-video inspired Bradlees duds, and cut footloose on the floor. It was a means of cementing my Terpsichorean-boosted image, but what I was really hoping for was that one of my homeroom crushes would be smitten by my devil may care attitude and ask for a slow dance to the latest Bryan Adams jam.

What I usually got was a few laughs from my classmates, followed by sitting in a dark corner of the cafeteria while Jack Wagner’s “All I Need” helped bring my adolescent hormonal angst to a cheesy fever pitch.

I dressed down for this final dance, opting for my everyday wardrobe of Chuck Taylors, Hawaiian shirt and jeans, with layered ‘do culminating in a greasy rat tail. I had no intention of performing the Andy Dance either. I’d put it behind me, but that didn’t stop a parade of classmates from asking me to bust out those moves for old time’s sake.

I said I’d do it if the DJ played a serious classic soul track, counting on his shallow Hot 40 playlist to do the dirty work for me.

Ten minutes later however, his faux Rick Dees voice boomed over the PA system. “I, uh, have a request for something called the Andy Dance? And it requires a soul song?” That last bit was lost in the Godfather of Soul’s yowl as the opening beats of “Living in America” resonated through the cafeteria-turned-auditorium. They fucking got me.

Whatever smartasses made the request also managed to improvise a small stage from a pair of rickety cafeteria tables, which I was directed to hop up on top of for my big performance.

It was fucking glorious, and any doubts I vanished when I saw that sea of faces looking up at me and cheering. I didn’t care if they were just gawking at the spastic geek. I gave them everything I could wrest loose from this gawky-gangly white boy frame. The got the Frug. They got the Swim. They got the Batusi. They got Pee Wee Herman’s “Tequila Dance.” Alvin Ailey and Gypsy Rose Lee combined couldn’t have worked a crowd better.

I was so caught up in the moment that when Brown’s belted out his concluding “I FEEL GOOD,” I stagedived off my wobbly platform and into the audience. It’s not something I would’ve done if I was thinking straight, because I wouldn’t have trusted my peers to catch me. But they did, cheering so loud that the made the plate glass windows vibrate.

It was the closest I will ever come to godhood. More importantly, it’s the only memory of my junior high years that doesn’t make me cringe with embarrassment.

No going back

June 14th, 2016

Once more into the breach with a trio of questions comes from longtime AT reader Crowded House:

What were the bands you really wish you’d gotten into earlier than you did? Conversely, what are the ones you used to like and can’t stand to listen to now?

I regret not paying closer attention to the shoegaze scene while it was trending in the early 1990s. While that could be laid that at the feet of my aggro punk puritanism, it doesn’t explain why I made exceptions for bands like Darling Buds and Throwing Muses but not Lush or Slowdive. It more likely had to do with having no one in my social circle into that scene, so it just sort of passed me by until I thumbed through a copy of the Guinness Guide to New Wave and Indie Music later in the decade.

It worked out, though, because I’d grown more receptive to the whole shoegaze aesthetic by then.

On the flip side of that, I’ve all but lost my interest in the louder/faster school of hardcore punk over time. There are still individual tracks that I still enjoy, but the music was so wrapped up in a time of my life I’d rather not revisit — immature, angry, and spoiling to freak the norms because that was part of the received script. I don’t regret that phase. It was a crucial step in my personal development, but not exactly a pleasant one.

As this point, I’m more inclined to be charitably nostalgic towards the thrash and prog metal stuff I rocked out to just prior to my punk rock phase.

What was your first experience with event fatigue in comics? Or did you pass that altogether and go straight to event apathy?

Secret Wars II was a rude awakening, but DC’s Millennium is where I got off that hype train.

Crisis on Infinite Earths rekindled my DC fandom. Legends cemented it. Millennium made me reconsider it.

The scores of tie-ins would’ve been a pain to keep up with, but I’d lost interest by the second issue of core miniseries. The whole grand Manhunter conspiracy thing felt dumb as hell, especially after they started retconning sleeper agents — including the entire population of Smallville — into the supporting cast of every DCU title on the stands.

Legends was cheesy nonsense, but at least it had Ostrander and peak Byrne at the helm, setting the stage for even better things to come (i.e. the Justice League and the Suicide Squad reboots). Millennium had a lot of New Age wankery bound up in Green Lantern Corps ephemera and agonizingly on-the-nose attempts at social relevance that frequently crossed over into the unintentionally offensive realm.

1990′s nostalgia…why? I mean, I get it in the abstract, it’s just…why?

Because uncertain times and a growing sense of one’s mortality can make anything feel comforting in hindsight. At this very moment, I guarantee you there’s an anxious thirtysomething out there trying to fend off the early stages of decrepitude by playing the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” video on YouTube over and over again.

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