Armagideon Time

No way to go

November 13th, 2019

The Watergate break-in. Nixon’s re-election. Bloody Sunday. The terrorist attack at the Olympics in Munich. Hurricane Agnes. The Christmas bombing on North Vietnam.

The year of my birth had no shortage of horrors and tragedies, but one of the most disturbing of the lot took place in countless bathrooms across America.

To ask “why?” is to imply that the universe is governed by quantifiable principles. Any pretense of “logic” flew out the window when some unholy alchemist of the household arts decided that folks’ shitters would be improved by wrapping every fixture in garishly hued artificial fur.

It is any wonder my generation grew up so psychically damaged?

Trade-in: Witch crazy

November 12th, 2019

When I first set about acquiring collected editions of “most favored” funnybooks, John Byrne’s year-long stint on West Coast Avengers/Avengers West Coast was near the top of my wantlist.

The run was controversial as it unfolded and remains so among segments of fandom who still give a flying fart about thirty year old superhero stories. It kicked off with Johnny B’s radical reboot of The Vision — making him blander and literally less colorful than before — and tragic breakdown of the Scarlet Witch after losing her synthezoid husband, magical twin toddlers, and ultimately her sanity. These plot threads were supposedly in service to an impending confrontation with the time-manipulating Immortus, but Byrne abruptly quit the book before making good on his various tantalizing set-ups. (The biggest one was left dangling for a decade before getting an overdue but somewhat satisfying resolution in 1999′s Avengers Forever.)

The run came to symbolize a creative M.O. which Byrne had started with Fantastic Four and Hulk and continued with the Superman titles — crash the status quo, float some intriguing subplot seeds, then depart in a fit of fanzine-rumored pique, tossing the mess in the laps of whichever poor stiffs got yanked into to replace him. His quitting WCA was a turning point in my Byrne fandom. It would be the last funnybook run I bought based on his solely on his creative presence.

Yet though I agree with all of the usual criticisms of Byrne’s stint on the series, I still hold a great deal of affection for it. It’s frustrating and frequently grotty in the extreme…

…but it also brought an intriguing perspective on the West Coast Avengers and super-team books in general.

The run followed up and expanded the free-form team dynamic Byrne had played around with in Alpha Flight, with an extra dollop of soap-operatic subplotting. No one is going to confuse these comics for Watchmen, but there’s a refreshing faith that the reader can keep up with the odd narrative structure without constant callbacks or exposition dumps. There’s a definite sense that things were heading some place (or places), so all the cryptic teasers and tangents will be made clear in time. It was infuriating when that — or Byrne’s broader plans for the Avengers franchise — didn’t materialize, but it doesn’t make the lead-up any less interesting.

Besides, any protracted story arc which features Mole Man’s giant monster, the U-Foes, and the return of the original Human Torch can’t be a complete failure.

Historically speaking, the run is of a set with Justice League International and the “Five Years Later” LSH relaunch. All three attempted different spins on the prevailing X-template for superteam series, and all three failed at sustaining their initial appeal over the long haul.

Honestly, though, the above fumbling towards critical analysis only partially explain my love for these comics. The actual reason is much more personal in nature.

My mom died on the last day of November 1988. I didn’t have proper clothes for her funeral, so a good portion of the week afterward was spent clothes shopping with my aunt and uncle as they scoured the Greater Boston retail circuit for dress pants that would fit me. One of the malls we visited had a Waldenbooks with a spinner rack of new comics. The first issue of Byrne’s WCA run was there, so I picked it up.

Reading it was a strange experience, because I kept thinking about the preview I’d seen for in a previews flyer. It had only been a couple of months before, but if felt like a lifetime ago. The start of the run coincided with the whole new chapter of my life, which carried no small amount symbolic heft in my grief-addled psyche.

I stuck with the series until Byrne’s departure a year later, picking up each new issue at New England Comics during our Saturday visits with my father in Boston. The comics — and my anticipation for the next installment of the story — were a rare constant in a stretch of time when the changes came fast and furious.

I don’t want to to put too much sentimental weight on these comics, because they’re not equipped to support it. But they were a “thing,” they way random issues of White Dwarf magazine were a thing and the Clash’s first album was a thing and Phantasy Star was a thing and the Earthsea trilogy was a thing. They were a bunch of fixtures I gravitated toward and genuinely loved because they offered a welcome distraction at a painful moment in time.

Though looking back on Wanda’s implied non-consensual hand job and Wonder Man’s mega-mullet, I wonder if I was just swapping one set of traumas for another.

Then playing

November 7th, 2019

Maura and I spent a good part of the summer of 2018 clearing out my grandmother’s attic of anything I possibly wanted to keep. There were fewer items on that front than I’d anticipated, though the prospect of shifting heavy crates in the sweltering heat tended to override most feelings of materialistic sentimentality.

The most exciting find was entirely accidental. We were making a final sweep of a dresser beside the attic door when I noticed the bottom of its drawers were lined with old newspaper. It wasn’t just any old newspaper, either. The acid-browned and brittle sheets including the full set of movie listings from the August 31, 1975 edition of The Boston Globe.

I carefully bundled the pages inside an oversized RPG manual and trucked them home for further perusal. Together, they offer a strange and sad and wonderful glimpse into a moment of cinematic and local history. A few of the venues exist in some semi-recognizable form. Most have long since succumbed to the region’s stratospheric real estate prices and propensity for grandiose redevelopment schemes (a.k.a. condos and strip malls).

Only a handful were personally familiar to me. Most existed — and persisted — as garbled memories of the litany of screening locations appended to movie ads on TV and radio stations when I was a kid.

“…Woburn, Lawrence, Dedham and Sack 57!”

So pull your Country Squire into the lot, hang a speaker from the driver-side window, crack open a cold one from the cooler, and enjoy the somewhat faded show…

We used to pass by the shuttered husk of the Lawrence multiplex on the way to adoption training classes in Haverhill. Woburn has undergone a number of expansions and is still going strong. The drive-ins are all long gone.

Those halcyon days before cable and home video became ubiquitous, when revival houses were the primary means of watching older films minus Ronco commercials. The Orson Welles closed down after a fire in 1986. (The block also used to house Looney Tunes, one of my preferred used vinyl shops in the early 90s.) The Brattle and the Coolidge Corner are still hanging in there.

Belmont is the super-rich suburb where Mitt Romney formerly resided, for the record. The (long gone) Pinehurst Drive-in in Billerica was where I first watched Star Wars and Superman during their initial runs. Its pre-movie piped-in audio provided my initial exposure to “Heart of Glass,” which spooked the heck out of me at the time.

Here we have Young Maura’s stomping grounds. The list of movies she watched at Medford Cinema through her tween years would both amaze and fill you with envy. She also remembers getting scared of something at the Medford drive-in and crying when she was really young.

You couldn’t do a better job capturing a cultural moment if you tried. Yeah, a strong case could me made for swapping in Jaws or Rollerball for Hennessy, but having a largely forgotten thriller anchored by a pair of familiar stars fits the temporal snapshot perfectly.

And that’s a nice use of the future Micronauts font for The Dragon Flies.

Punched out

November 6th, 2019

The Spinner Rack is one of the few bright spots in the hellsite known as Twitter. It’s a dedicated gimmick account, with said gimmick being an image-heavy rundown of the comics released x-many-years-ago on a given month and day. The results are always informative and entertaining, with an extra kick of nostalgia when a featured date falls within the bounds of my funnybook fandom phases.

Such a moment occurred last night, when the account issued a two-part tweet covering Marvel’s releases for November 5, 1985.

1985 was a watershed year when it came to me and my comics habit. At the beginning of the year, my pal Brian and I discovered a direct market shop in neighboring Stoneham. My trips to the store didn’t become a regular thing until Lil Bro and I were talked into taking on a paper route. I despised the gig but it did provide a stream of pocket money which didn’t depend of the whims of my increasingly erratic parents.

Every Friday afternoon, I’d hop on my ten-speed and make the treacherous three-mile trek up Montvale Ave to scope out and score the week’s new funnybook releases. For the first time in my comics-reading life, I was able to follow specific titles on a regular basis without the risk of missing an crucial installment — and I embraced this opportunity with the blind enthusiasm of a thirteen year old fanboy. (Which I was.)

And what an incredible fricking time it was for going all out — Crisis and Who’s Who and OHOTMU’s “Deluxe Edition” and Atari Force and Secret Wars II and the road to X-Men #200 and Fantastic Four and GI Joe and oversized EC reprints and previously unobtainable graphic novels and Direct Market offerings and…

Suffice to say, I spent a lot of money on comics that year, and not necessarily wisely. My collecting habits became more methodical, mapped out months in advance using Marvel Age and freebie upcoming release flyers. There hasn’t been a time before or since those months where I was as legitimately excited about and invested in the current comics scene. There have been occasional flare-up since, but nothing as sincere and cynicism-free as my fandom was in the back half of 1985.

The puzzle isn’t what brought a halt to that as much as how it managed to last as long as it did. A year is a geologic epoch from a thirteen year old’s perspective, and there were no shortage of distractions competing with funnybooks for my fickle attention and limited amount of pocket money. The post-Transformers wave of Japanese mecha-merch began flooding toy aisles while Bradlees beckoned with its cheap cassette bins and discounted Stephen King paperbacks. The D&D basic set entered my life and offered a novel interactive angle to my adolescent power-fantasies.

And, to be totally honest, the whole comics thing was hitting a level of diminishing returns. Atari Force ended, Byrne left Alpha Flight for Hulk, Secret Wars II was painfully embarrassing, and most of the other titles I followed entered protracted periods of wheel-spinning. Between my age and the type of material I’d been reading, I’d begun to suss out the contours of the bigger picture, and it was depressing as hell.

No book evokes that sentiment as effectively as Incredible Hulk #316 did. The much-hyped (by Marvel Age, at least) issue promised a massive slugfest between a mindlessly rampaging Hulk and the heaviest hitters of both the East and West Coast Avengers, written and illustrated by John Byrne back when such a byline carried substantial fanboy heft. It promised to be Wrestlemania for kids who spent way too much time memorizing the list of “Class 100″ strength characters in OHOTMU (and, in fact, I coded a text-based “fighting game” featuring the characters in BASIC in my 8th grade science class when the story was first announced).

As far as I was concerned, there was no way this issue could possibly disappoint…and yet it did.

The Avengers’ big guns show up, indulge in banter, and lay some (mostly ineffectual) smack down on the jade behemoth. Then Doc Samson shows up, sporting an 80s coke-douche ponytail and fighting togs purchased from a Sigue Sigue Sputnik rummage sale. He fights the Avengers for a while, at which point the Hulk gets bored and wanders off.

Before the tangled mass of forearms and fists can pursue, Samson points out all the damage the battle has caused and asks the Avengers to let him bring down the Hulk his way. The Avengers grudgingly agree to his contra-logical arguments, because this is where the narrative was obviously leading and there was no point in dragging things out further.

There’s also a b-plot where Betty Ross and She-Hulk swap flashbacks while fretting over an experimental treatment aimed at shocking Bruce Banner out of the coma he’d been in since getting chemically separated from his alter ego. It fills a specific number of pages and accomplishes its assigned task.

It wasn’t that the issue felt underwhelming given the build up. I’d read enough post Brood War X-Men comics to be inured to damp squib storytelling. It was that I couldn’t think of an alternate way the story could’ve worked. That was probably Byrne’s point, to deconstruct the mechanics of superhero slugfests in general while providing an answer to “why don’t the toughest Marvel heroes just gang-rush the Hulk?” queries by fans.

That’s not a terrible angle to play, but in my case it ended up being the feather which brought down a terminally stressed edifice. It didn’t turn me against the genre or kill my interest in superhero comics, but it did in whatever bits of my unexamined fandom remained after Secret Wars II. It wasn’t even a conscious thing. I just started dropping one book after another. The weekly runs to the shop stopped, and I settled for whatever random issues grabbed my attention from the nearby CVS’s magazine rack.

It would be another two years before I started getting back into comics as an ongoing thing, and by them my tastes had shifted to the “bwah ha ha” Justice League, Watchmen, and localized manga.

Hopefully things will be a bit more settled by the time next Halloween rolls around, because this October was a wash.

Recommended listening: One sad coda deserves another.

My childhood consumption of “spooky” lit followed a fairly predictable path for its era. There were Hitchcock and Serling branded anthologies borrowed from the public library, collections of non-gory classics purchased from school book fairs, Twilight Zone Magazine tales of varying quality, check-out aisle digests related supposedly true tales of the paranormal and squicky passages discovered in my aunt’s collection of paperback horror potboilers.

Much of it went over my pre-teen head, either because of archaic language or crucial contexts which were beyond my comprehension. There was still plenty of nightmare fuel to be had, impressions of which still linger into the present day. Yet none of the fictional terrors managed to creep me out or capture my morbid imagination as intensely as Victor Miller’s The Book of Worries did.

I’m not sure where our household copy of the 1981 paperback came from, although factoid-filled vademecums abounded on the family bookshelves. Besides making for fine “casual” reading, they helped feed the “broad but shallow” knowledge pool my old man (and later yours truly) used a tool for performative mindfuckery. (It’s an easy way to make yourself look like a genius among folks too thick to suspect otherwise.) In any case, the book soon made its way into my grubby mitts and I dived into it with the gusto of a sensation-seeking doofus with zero understanding of what “anecdotal evidence” meant.

As the title suggests, The Book of Worries is a bleakly humorous collection of things to get anxious about. This being 1981, there was no shortage of material on that front — nuclear war/meltdowns, the energy crisis, economic woes, aviation disasters, terrorism, crime, health scares, environmental issues — all the fun shit which has since become part of the media’s background noise, but still had hot-button evening news novelty in an era on unending, cascading anxieties. (There’s no love lost between me and the Baby Boomers, but there hasn’t been enough discussion about just how much the diminishing returns malaise of the Seventies fueled their generational heel turn during the Reagan years. Narcissism and unrelenting panic are one hell of a cocktail.)

That material was “real” enough to give me seriously chills yet abstract enough to my kiddie-brain to compartmentalize. News footage and adult discussions aside, the prospect of a DC-10 crashing down in my neighborhood felt as remote as something out of Star Wars or a superhero comic. Even with shit like Woburn’s childhood cancer cluster felt someone removed from my day-to-day life, despite it claiming a childhood friend and a couple of kids in my Cub Scout troop.

Killer bees (and nuclear meltdowns and freak accidents) weren’t much different than ghosts or zombies, apart from the extra frisson of knowing they did exist, albeit well outside my little corner of the universe. I knew even at age nine that the Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t going to nab me while wading through the stream across the street, but there was extremely remote possibility that someone might have dumped their pet piranhas into it, and there resided the thrill.

Now that I’m older and have a clearer perspective of the world and its problems, those vicarious chills have largely evaporated. That shit doesn’t seem as abstract anymore, especially when it involves contemplating one’s mortality and anxiety about the future. I still enjoy spooky stuff for nostalgic and atmospheric reasons, but rarely seek out any truly unnerving material — not because it scares me, but because it just makes me depressed.

This mindset puts the The Book of Worries in a weird place for my middle-aged self. I tracked down a copy because it was an important artifact of my formative years (and dead cheap on the secondary market), but really can’t bring myself to browse through it. Given the state of things, I’ve little enthusiasm for adding more worries to the mix, even tongue-in-cheek ones from four decades ago.

Recommended listening:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there’s this isolated polar research station inhabited by an extremely irritable group of military men and scientists…

…which is unexpectedly infiltrated by something in a familiar form.

Things get a bit dicey when members of the research team start to dig a little deeper into the mystery…

…sowing further confusion and consternation among the staff.

Things rapidly go downhill from there, with multiple fatalities and the complete destruction of the facility.

The two survivors of massacre are left to confront each other in the smoldering ruins.

(panels from Alpha Flight #9, April 1984; by John Byrne, Andy Yanchus, and Michael Higgins)

Between this and the Plodex/Master arc a few issues before, it’s pretty clear which 1982 sci-fi/horror flick got its hooks into ol’ Johnny B’s imagination. I’m a bit surprised he dipped into that well twice in the space of less than a year, but I’d wager the whole “Thing/Thing” thing was too tempting to let slide. This was a man who spent years collaborating with Claremont, after all.

Recommended listening:

Ghosts as sheet-sporting shades of the dead do not exist.

Ghosts as unpleasant manifestations of past trauma totally do exist. In fact, my corpus is a veritable spookhouse of such entities, and their visitations have grown more frequent in recent years.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the more malevolent ones:

The Flayed Knee Nightmare: This one has been vexing me regularly since the last day of 9th grade, when I took a tumble off a scooter, stripping the skin of both my kneecaps and replacing it with bits of gravel and other road debris. My mother tried to exorcise it with long soaks in epsom-laced bathwater and peroxide washes, but the entity still manifests during long walks or any time I try to kneel.

The Carpal Phantom: The summoning process took roughly two decades but it’s been having a grand old time ever since. It’s frolicking in its domain even as I type this.

The Lumbar Devil: It came to me at my pan-washing station at the hospital kitchen. “You can totally lift that stack of twenty sheet pans over your head, Andrew,” it whispered to me. I was young and foolish. I listened to the beast. And my fate was sealed.

The Ankle-geist: Occasionally works in concert with the Lumbar Devil, but mostly shows up to remind of the many times I landed too hard or too awkwardly on my right foot over the years.

The Dead Finger: Not a presence but a void. No sensations can be felt on the pad of my right index finger, thanks to a curse inflicted by a rabbit who thought my digit was a carrot.

The Festering Maw: This is what happens when years of poverty, neglect, and laziness are allowed to ferment over a long period of time in a warm wet place. Sometimes agonizing, sometimes embarrassing, but always pretty disgusting. I’ve begun to bring this one to heel, but it has not been an easy (or cheap) process.

Recommended listening:

The Seventies were a demon-haunted decade, fraught with nightmares both real and imagined. The energy crisis and socio-economic malaise competed with various paranormal phenomena for space in the anxiety cortex of the collective consciousness. Paranoia triggers lurked around every corner, and the mass media wasn’t above amplifying those fears for increased market share and profit.

Killer bees were on a relentless march north, Satan and his cult minions stalked the suburbs, and the world order teetered on the edge of eminent collapse. And the oversized Baby Boomer demographic had begun to edge into its thirties, and that existential crisis provided fertile ground for various projections, deflections, and sublimations regarding the growing sense of their own mortality and its co-morbid contemplation of diminished expectations.

What else was there to do by the latter half of the Me Decade but to send in the clones?

Clones and similar forms of artificial life had been a staple of sci-fi for decades, but they saw a brief uptick in prominence during the tail end of the Carter years. This was partially due to Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil — a potboiler best-seller about fugitive Nazi scientists attempting to resurrect the Third Reich by creating young clones of their fallen Führer. The public’s awareness (and therefore its anxiety) of reproductive manipulation was further heightened by high profile news coverage — and the requisite editorializing — surround the birth of the world’s first “test tube baby” in 1978, which in term triggered a attention cycle stream of sensationalized (if not outright) spurious reports of advancements in genetic engineering.

The issues and anxieties involved were well-tailored for the moment — boomer morality and parental anxiety and the narrowing of horizons and just one more damn way science had gotten ahead of society’s ability to grapple with the implications. The 1979 thriller (and future MST3K fodder) Parts: The Clonus Horror coasted on the heels of Robin Cook’s Coma, shifting the dodgy organ harvesting conspiracy from deliberate medical “mishaps” to a campus full of oblivious replacement parts.

Even major label pop music got into the spirit with a pair of tunes about the perils of asexual reproduction.

Alice Cooper’s “Clones (We’re All)” was a former Teenage Frankenstein’s stab at retaining relevance in a post-Pleasure Principle world. That might be why it’s one of the few songs of his I actually enjoy, though its performance clip appearance on Pink Lady & Jeff and the Epoxies’ excellent cover version shouldn’t be discounted on that front.

“My Clone Sleeps Alone” appeared on In the Heat of the Night, Pat Benatar’s 1979 debut album. It’s a fascinating artifact of the efforts to position the singer as a rockier American counterpart to Kate Bush before she and her band settled into a killer pop-rock groove. (Benatar, along with Dire Straits and AC/DC and, um, Prince, were saddled with the short-lived “new music” tag, which also encompassed more commercial new wave sounds and pretty much any other remotely “off-beat” act which marketers believed could supplant the toppling disco/arena rock hegemonies.) I could just as easily imagine Toyah or Lene Lovich or Hazel O’Connor performing it….which was the point, I suppose.

Both the Cooper and Benatar tracks hearken back to the roots of the sci-fi cloning trope as depicted in Huxley’s Brave New World, where social harmony is established through cold scientific “logic.” It’s not about the genesis of the drone beings — though it never hurts to capitalize on pre-existing buzz — but the faceless, emotionless absence of individual identity. It shares less with marketplace metaphors of Parts: The Clonus Horror than it does with the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That film’s depiction of sleepwalking conformity was more effective because it was presented as an active contagion, in contrast to the hypothetical dystopias predicted by clone-fear narratives.

“In a hundred years, there will be vat grown people devoid of emotion” lacks the immediate kick of “if you nod off for a moment, you’ll become a soulless automaton” — especially when the 1980 election was looming on the horizon.

I may not be feeling this spooky season as strongly this year, but it’s not for a lack of trying. As part of my not-quite-successful attempts to kickstart the chills and thrills, I recently purchased a pair of a seasonally appropriate soundtrack releases on glorious, overpriced vinyl.

Both should be familiar to anyone who has been followed previous Halloween Countdowns, though they’ve been gradually relegated to the backbenches because of cyclical changes in my listening habits and an unwillingness to dip too many times from the same well.

The first of the pair is a recent release which falls into the “what took them so damn long” file — instrumental/choral score to Candyman by Philip Glass. Previously relegated to the ethically shady realm of fileshare networks, it can now be savored with a clear conscience.

The film was a welcome (if overlooked) anomaly in 1992. Its late-cycle slasher trash marketing campaign concealed a very effective adaptation of Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden” which shifted the urban folk horror from the council estates of Thatcherite Britain to the Chicago housing projects of Bush the Elder’s America. It also leaned more heavily into the mythic implications of the story than the source material did, making it a more satisfying experience in many ways.

Warren Zevon once described “Werewolves of London” as a “dumb song for smart people,” and that also applies to Candyman. There’s no shortage of guts and gore and dumb decisions going on in it, but also a sense of striving for something higher than the genre boilerplate it could’ve settled for…and Glass’s score exemplifies that vibe.

What Candyman tried to do for 80s template slasher flicks, Silent Hill attempted to do for “survival horror” videogames. Eschewing the Romero-template zombies and prerendered (i.e. “flat”) backgrounds which Resident Evil established as standards for the genre, Konami went fully polygonal and extremely Lynchean with its interactive tale of diabolism and dreadful secrets in a small tourist town.

To do so, they reworked the Playstation’s hardware limitations into integral parts of the experience. Dismal draw distances were masked by omnipresent fog and darkness which gave amped up the psychological dread and provided greater heft to audio cues and ambiance. Monsters and other life-threatening abominations still abound, but the real terror comes from the overall sense of disorientation in a world which abruptly shifts from creepy to the stuff of raw nightmare.

The soundtrack naturally plays a large role in that, alternating between hauntingly melodic string arrangements and full-on sonic assaults of industrial ambiance. It was compelling enough to convince to to spring for an extortionately priced import soundtrach CD two decades ago, and remained compelling enough for me to pick up a slightly less expensive double-LP domestic reissue it last week.

While both soundtracks met my “essential records” criteria, neither have done much to boost my Halloween spirit so far. Maura has been digging their return to household rotation, though, which is great.

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