Armagideon Time

Time is tight this week, so the second half of the July ’65 hall of shame will have to wait until next Friday.

As a consolation prize, I made a quick dive into the Charlton Comics archive and plucked this tantalizing pitch from the acid-eaten newsprint…

…a Hit Records mail-order ad from the middle of the Swingin’ Sixties. It and its slightly updated kin were fairly ubiquitous staples in the publisher’s line of funnybooks, tying back into Charlton’s real money making gig as the folks behind Hit Parader magazine. Despite the similar names, Hit Records and Hit Parader were two distinct entities, though the Derby address suggests there was some strategic alliance going on behind the scenes.

Sixty currently popular tracks for under three bucks postpaid sounds too good to be true, and indeed it was. Hit Records specialized in recording and releasing their own versions of pop hits, which they’d market to dime stores as a discount option for willing or unwilling dupes looking for the “now sound” on the cheap.

The hustle might seem horrific to hidebound music purists, but wasn’t too far afield from the prevailing status quo at the time. This was a time before “authenticity” assumed an absurd importance and the concept of “the band as a brand” was still in its infancy. Even among the legit scene, the major songwriting savants would pitch their sonic goods to various acts until one of the recordings resonated with the public and became the “definitive” version we all know and love (and have heard way too many times since).

Hit Records took a more industrial — and considerably less ambitious — approach to this strategy by waiting to see what clicked in the pop charts, then rushing out their own budget rendition adequate for the dance floor or wherever else less discerning ears congregated. It also helped that they were based out of Nashville, which sported an exceedingly high concentration of talented session musicians to draw from.

Sporting pre-fab names that suggested some of legitimacy outside a quickie recording session, acts like “The Chellows” and “The Jalopy Five” tried their hand at crafting adequate approximations of familiar hits.

Some bordered on note perfect…

…while others amounted to a mass market variation of outsider art…

…but nearly all of them suffered from thinness on the production side which could be downright disconcerting, and made it sound like one was listening to some remnant of our universe’s “alpha build” pressed to vinyl and slipped into the final product.

The company managed to ride that formula right up until the end of the Sixties, when bargain-priced comps featuring slightly abridged versions of the real deal emerged as a more compelling alternative.

Similar soundalike schemes have managed to maintain a semi-dodgy niche up through the present day. I have a couple of disco-themed ones that came with a bulk purchase of pre-1980 easy listening LPs, and Maura was recently burned by an estate sale CD box set of doo wop classics that turned out to be contemporary re-recordings. As is typical of trash culture artifacts of yore, the original series of Hit Record releases has developed its own dedicated fan and collector scene.

While I totally understand the impulse, it actual manifestation is half a dozen bridges too far for me to ever cross.

Sometime during the 1996 primary season, I decided to pay a visit to Excalibur Hobbies in Malden Center. The shop had been my go-to place for all things role-playing during high school and my early college years, but fell by the wayside after my undergrad wanderings settled into the Allston-Cambridge-Somerville axis (a.k.a. the Used Vinyl Triangle). Backtracking from Wellington to Malden and the longish walk from the station to the store had become more of a hassle than it was worth, especially once a new crop of more conveniently located gaming stores began popping up in the wake of the Magic: The Gathering craze.

I’m not sure what compelled me to return to Excalibur on that occasion, apart from the hope of finding the either the Dark Future or Adeptus Titanicus box sets still taking up space in the store’s discount bin. Both were long gone when I got there, but everything else about the place was the same as it had been during my last visit in 1992. Any material acknowledgement of the changes that had taken place in the hobby since then were well concealed by the same ultra-dense array of unsold inventory dating back to the Carter Era. Stray sourcebooks from discontinued lines, supplements from multiple editions past, and materials from long defunct publishers still collected dust and accumulated further sun damage on the shelves.

Whether the store’s overwhelming sense of stasis was accidental or deliberate, it was extremely unsettling. I had covered a lot of developmental ground since the first time I’d set foot in the place, a couple weeks after my mom’s death. Excalibur, however, had remained fixed in a moment, right down to the magazines racked by the window. It seems silly for a twenty-four year old to think of themselves as some sort of wizened font of wisdom, but in those eight years I’d gone through grief and anger and punk and metal and more personal transitions than I could’ve ever imagined at the moment the cop showed up at my aunt’s door around midnight on November 30, 1988 and said “I’m sorry to notify you…”

Yet here I was, back at one of the early steps of that journey, with little indication anything had changed.

I ended up picking up a hard plastic blistercase (remember those?) of offbeat Talisman fantasy figures and a discounted copy of the boxed Death on the Reik module for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay before making an exit.

There was nothing left on my schedule except waiting for Maura to get off work at UMB, so I sat down to review my finds in the (now repurposed) McCormack Hall cafeteria. Actually, it was the little annex off to the side of the caf, where they’d tried to squeeze half a dozen tables, a bank of vending machines, and a repeatedly vandalized widescreen TV into what had originally been a place to store extra chairs.

Flipping through the convoluted adventure materials and examining the various lead figures (soothsayer, faerie, illusionist) began to induce a fit of extreme queasiness. The reek of frying medium and the TV’s non-stop, overload election coverage didn’t help, but mostly it came from a subtle but growing sense of post-traumatic stress. Everything felt wrong, and the more I tried to concentrate on the stuff in front of me, the stronger that feeling became.

So I threw it all back into the bag and went to the library to flip through some old collections of movie reviews instead.

The next (and last) time I visited Malden Center was around my thirtieth birthday. I’d acquired a car and a real job by then, and long since given up the mysteries of the city (and hassles of public transportation) for the familiar rhythms of suburban life. I had to meet Maura in town for some reason and decided it would be “easier” to do the 134/Orange Line combo rather than deal with parking and navigating Boston’s surface roads. The bus schedule left me with ample time to kill, so I decided to kill it by checking out some of my old haunts.

I had to walk past the storefront twice before realizing that Excalibur had been replaced by a tanning salon. It wasn’t a shock, though I had harbored dim hopes of scoring some out-of-print 40k vehicles and figures. Even temporal stasis has a shelf life, it seems.

The New England Comics store around the corner was still in business, though sporting a radically different floorplan than the one I remembered. They were also having a seasonal sale, so I picked up a deeply discounted copy of the Black Canary Archives while I was there. I started to read it while waiting for a northbound Red Line train to arrive, at which point a scuffy dude who had apparently been doing Listerine shots (neat, no chaser) parked himself distressingly close to me on the bench before leaning in for a better view of the book.

“She ain’t half bad lookin! Is she a supah hookah?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I responded, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything better to say.

From the summer of 1990 through the spring of 1991, I regularly listened to WMBR. The scrappy little underdog of Boston’s alt-and-college radio was broadcast out of MIT, nestled at the bottom of the FM band and sporting a signal that managed to reach the wooly wilds of Woburn with little static or distortion. I’m not quite sure how I discovered the station, but it hooked me the moment it spun “Oh Bondage Up Yours” by X-Ray Spex during one of its evening programming blocks.

WMBR’s Breakfast of Champions and Late Risers’ Club became a staple of my indigent punk rock mornings, music to dawdle in bed to before getting up of a strenuous day of playing Phantasy Star II in my underpants in front of an oscillating fan. Most of the music wasn’t really to my tastes, but the chance of hearing some punk obscurity kept me listening through the long stretches of standard template indie rock. I did discover a few new favorites — such as King Missile and Shonen Knife — through the station, as well as a wider perspective of the local club scene by way of a litany of familiar and since forgotten venues.

There was one specific and heavily played track whose title and general idea stuck with me long after any memory of the melody had evaporated from my skull. The ditty was titled “The Possession of Dr. Zachary Smith,” a tongue-in-cheek popcult rave up (when such things were still novelty rather than requisite) about the titular gadabout from Lost in Space. The performers even threw some voice samples from the show into the mix to demonstrate their commitment to the concept.

I’d occasionally think of the song every so often in the years and decades that followed, usually after hearing the earlier and similarly themed “Where’s Captain Kirk” by Spizzenergi.

Any attempts to recall anything other than the title and use of voice samples were in vain, and over time the sound of the Spizz single blended together with what little I could remember.

Finally, about five years ago, I caught a lucky(ish) break when a Google search came back with an archived Breakfast of Champions playlist from late 1990. “Lucky(ish),” because while it provided a band name to place with the song — The Hellcats from Outer Space — there was little else to follow up with. Neither peer-to-peer networks nor any of the major streaming services had it available to listen to, and eBay searches for the single turned up nothing.

It wasn’t until I started messing around on Discogs a couple of months ago that it occured to me to check and see if it was available on site’s marketplace. To my delight and surprise, there were no fewer than a dozen copies being offered for sale. A buck-fifty plus shipping and seven days later, and I had the single in my grubby mitts at long last.

There was a twinge of trepidation as I slapped it on the turntable. These extended chases tend to involve a good deal of disappointment, as the object in question rarely lives up to expectations inflated by covetousness, nostalgia, or a combination of both. Twenty seven years is a long time, especially when the last time I listened to the “The Possession of Dr. Zachary Smith” it was with an eighteen-year old tryhard geek-punk’s ears.

Still, closure is closure. I lowered the stylus onto the disc and….it was okay, I guess.

The song was a lot more metallic than I’d remembered it being, chock-a-block with the thrash metal riffs that feel oh so familiar and more than a little generic to my middle-aged ears. Everything rests on the tracks retro-schlock concept, rendering the music into little more than an afterthought. I can see why I caught my notice at the time — crunchy guitars and novel subject matter — but it feels like a anachronistic entry in the late Seventies “schock punk” scene. You know the drill — a bunch of Kiss-loving wannabe musicians read some article about the Sex Pistols in their suburban newspaper and decide to jump trains by marrying a bog-standard hard rock sound to a third-hand impression of what punk lyrics were, resulting in a tune perfectly suited for some network sitcom or afterschool special about the scene. Early American punk is lousy with such acts, with an emphasis on “lousy.”

By that standard, “The Possession of Dr. Zachary Smith” is more than adequate at what it does (which at this stage of my life means “inducing regret and eyerolling in bulk”). I don’t regret picking up a copy, if only as a nostalgic artifact of a bygone era.

I picked Captain Atom’s relaunch via reprints to kick off this feature because it marked the start of a more or less continuous run which lasted the duration of Charlton’s “Action Heroes” Era. The Captain’s return didn’t happen in a vacuum, however. The process of molding the semblance of cohesive line around that flagship character was slow, furtive, and overlapped with the tail end of the publisher’s earlier attempt at jumping on the Silver Age superheroic gravy train.

While I didn’t want to get bogged down covering these various trial runs, I do think there’s some contextual value in spotlighting the parts that did unfold after the good Captain was dragged back into the public eye. Two of these efforts dropped in July 1965, a month after Captain Atom’s return. Because my time and my patience are limited, we’re going to focus on Blue Beetle #50 this time around (and pray I recover enough strength to deal with other half of that dud-ly duo by next Friday).

Blue Beetle was one of the earlier Golden Age costumed heroes to make his mark, debuting in Fox Comics’ Mystery Men Comics way back in 1939. The hero was a veritable mish-mash of tropes — a cop who gained superpowers through a mysterious wonder drug and slammed evil in a special bulletproof costume. The concept may have lacked a certain flair, but it was enough to snag the hero a daily comic strip and radio serial in addition to his funnybook appearances.

After the funnybook-reading public’s interest in superheroes faded and Fox’s publication schedule tapered off into oblivion, Charlton — who’d built a business model around acquiring and repackaging fallen rivals’ inventory material — acquired the rights to the Blue Beetle. Though he was the highest profile superhero in Charlton’s roster of properties, their efforts of leveraging that into anything marketable tended to fall short of the mark. The bread-and-butter of Charlton’s comics division tended towards “genre material” — horror, romance, war, et cetera — which likely made any focus on Blue Beetle a tertiary concern, at best.

This state of affairs would be disrupted by the successes Marvel and DC had in revamping the superhero formula for the Space Age. Costumed adventurers were hep again, and so Charlton once again repurposed the most vaguely familiar gun in their arsenal to take advantage of the trend. Out went Officer Dan Garret, rookie cop turned generic two-fisted mystery man. In came Doctor Dan Garrett, tough guy archeologist turned generic superhero by way of an ancient Egyptian magic scarab.

The Nu-Blue’s adventures were decidedly mediocre attempts to ape the Big Two’s formulas while not really understanding what made them tick. Marvel and (occasionally) DC grasped that readers would reward quality work and a conspiratorial sense of “value added.” Charlton’s take tended to be “whatever, dorks, we’ve already got your money,” married to an industrial (and borderline sweatshop) approach to production.

What I’m getting at here, kids, is that these mid-Sixties Blue Beetle comics are kinda lousy. So lousy, in fact, that they can’t even be salvaged through the lens of camp culture.

The most significant thing about Blue Beetle #50 was its issue number, which jumped forty-five places from the previous installment a few months prior. The explanation was simple enough. Due to the weird economic vagaries of periodical distribution and mailing, they shuttered the character’s existing series and dumped him into the retitled Uncanny Tales comic.

Leave it to Charlton, of course, to turn a weak attempt at channeling Stan the Man into a confession that they have no idea what they’re doing.

Onto the the story, and what a (crap) story it is.

The square-jawed Dr. Garrett agrees to accompany a distressed damsel to the Gulf Coast in search of her missing father, an oil tycoon who vanished after the drilling rig he was touring mysteriously collapsed.

The pair decide to pay a visit to another platform in the area, ignoring the warnings of its heavily armed roughnecks and demanding an audience with the facility’s supervisor. The vertically challenged boss man turns out to be the sinister Mr. Crabb, a magenta-skinned individual with a fondness for capes and posture-induced scoliosis.

Crabb attempts to take them prisoner. Garrett and the damsel throw themselves in the shark infested water to escape, leading to some tense goofy moments before the dashing doctor can transform into Blue Beetle and save the lass from some hungry sharks.

As the pair catch their breath on the surface, Crabb appears behind the wheel of the only cool concept in the comic — A GIANT ROBOT SCORPION.

Despite trying his level best to stop the fiendish (and cool) construct, Beetle and the damsel are captured and taken to Crabb’s undersea base. The damsel finds out her father is still alive and being held captive. After a touching reunion where Dad explains how Crabb is siphoning off petrol from rival platforms in order to sell it to the Chinese Communists, the father-daughter duo escape from their cell, where they run into a revived Beetle during another encounter with Crabb.

After a couple more indecisive encounters with Crabb and his GIANT ROBOT SCORPION, everything explodes. Beetle hauls Dad and the damsel to the surface, ponders whether Crabb managed to escape, and blithely ignores the massive ecological catastrophe he played a major role in creating.

The World’s Worst Comics Awards described the first issue of this run as “what folks who disparage comics think comics are like.” I can tell you that situation did not change in the least by the time the sixth (or “fiftieth”) installment hit the stands.

Zillion dollar baby

May 24th, 2018

Still gives me the chills.

I have previously discussed my love of Zillion, the Sega Master System’s consolation prize for folks who really wanted to play Metroid but backed the wrong side during that generation’s console wars. While the actual game was a bit thin compared to its NES counterpart (and owed more to the Impossible Mission PC game than to Samus Aran’s Big Adventure), its blend of action, exploration, and punching in countless strings of access codes was uplifted by visuals and music lifted straight from the licensed source material.

As a result, Zillion played a bigger role than Robotech or the era’s small wave of translated Japanese in fueling my passionate fandom towards all things anime and manga during the late Eighties and early Nineties. Even the game’s dismal sequel — which somehow managed to combine a transforming mechabike and some of the best graphics ever seen on Sega’s Little Console That Couldn’t into something that couldn’t clear Teen Andrew’s pretty low bar for adoration — couldn’t dim my love for the franchise.

The first Zillion game was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal time in my life, the vortex of domestic chaos which ultimately resulted in my mom’s death. Over the years, it has become a significant mnemonic locus, an odd but important reminder that things weren’t all bad back then and certainly didn’t lack moments of genuine joy. Again, it’s a strange vessel upon which to impart such significance, but it’s not as if I had a conscious say in the matter.

It’s why I can’t listen to either the original or in-game chiptune version of “Push” without lapsing into a state of pure nostalgic bliss.

Over the years, I’ve managed to assemble a small collection of Zillion-themed memorabilia. The franchise wasn’t exactly huge, so there isn’t much of it compared to Macross or Gundam or other of its cash cow contemporaries — some domestic and imported fanzines, a folder of fansubbed .avi files of the anime series, a run of the shitty Eternity Comics series, a copy of the original soundtrack LP, and a cel featuring one on the main characters I picked up for a tenner during my one of my earliest eBay forays. I still do some searching around every few months in hopes of turning up something new-to-me or interesting. Most of what comes up is either overpriced (e.g. fifty-buck laminated pencil boards) or not really my thing (e.g. a vinyl cheesecake figure of the one of the female characters).

But then I stumbled across this, resulting in a gasp of covetous shock…

Zillion was conceived in conjunction with Sega to be as marketing campaign for both the videogames and a Japanese attempt to cash in on the Laser Tag craze. That’s why the trio of heroic leads made such a big deal about the “Zillion” pistols they carted around in their battles with the evil Noza Empire and just so happened to be modeled after the Master System’s lightgun peripheral. The toy cartoon angle led to the series a bad rap (among the folks writing the Stateside fanzines, at least) for being overly simplistic and other sins real or imagined against the highbrow tastes of folks who wrote filk tributes to Fist of the North Star.

I’ve seen photos of the Zillion laser tag sets on fan sites before, but never in my three decades of attending cons, visiting Japanese import shops, and browsing eBay had I seen one offered up for sale. It would’ve been an insta-buy, but a glance at the asking price set off an internal war between the parts of me that want the damn thing, thinks that’s way too much to spend on a hunk of plastic, knows it’s technically affordable, can list a dozen other more pressing needs, and recognizes that I have few truly deep fandoms of which this one is especially significant on a deeply personal level.

They’ve got a week to determine a victor. I’ll keep you posted on how it turns out.

Necromunda marked the end of my days as an active tabletop gamer. Most of my gaming pals had scattered to the four winds, and the ones I did manage to keep in contact with were busy with other concerns. We’d reminisce about the “good old days” during our increasingly infrequent meet-ups and float the idea of maybe starting a fresh campaign, but we knew nothing concrete would ever come out of it even as we speculated about what shape it might take. The Sci-Fi Club was gone, repurposed as an academic office on a space-starved campus, and with it went the convenient centrality it had provided.

Although videogames, comics, and other retrological crap had eclipsed the role playing games as an all-consuming interest, I did still make a token effort to keep a hand in the scene. Nearly all of it was done as private mental exercises, where I’d fill a notebook (and eventually computer text files) with incredibly detailed notes for theoretical campaigns. There’s something about world-building I find meditative in its own right. Working out temporal and topographic tapestries has proven to be a reliable distraction from unpleasant real life concerns — drowning out thoughts such as “oh, god. I’m graduating in a month and have fuck all job prospects” with “in the seventeenth year of the Fifth Age, the surviving Eldren departed the Broken Realm, leaving behind a few thanaturges to slay the remaining members of their rogue kindred.”

Even today, my substitute for counting sheep involves plotting out some random RPG adventure in my skull.

For a pretty lengthy stretch, my focus along these lines involved the 4th edition Champions rules. The game had fallen off my radar after the start of my series of college era Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaigns, but was rekindled thanks to the Great Back Issue Buying Spree of the mid-to-late Nineties.

Sometime during the twilight of the comedy troupe era, I got the nostalgic hankering to read old issues of Firestorm and other favorites from my tweener years. Most of my original copies had been succumbed to the entropic grip of time or gone missing in the years since my mother’s death, but Lil Bro’s serious comics collecting phase had entered full swing and he invited me to tag along with him on his many, many trips to local shops that maintained a decent inventory of back issues. Over the following three years, I had managed to amass an ample cross section of Marvel, DC, and some indie books spanning the period from 1978 through 1990.

Reading through that material — along with various “Essential” collections of Silver Age Marvel stuff and post-revisionist homages like Astro City — got me excited about the superhero genre after a long-ish fallow period and sparked all sorts of ideas about translating it into a role playing campaign. I even managed to rope Lil Bro and Maura into brainstorming characters for a potential run (with the latter’s concept for a nuclear-powered bombshell eventually serving as the inspiration for my DC Universe Online character a decade later).

To this end, I began picking up some of the Champions sourcebooks and supplements that had been released since I’d lost interest in the game. I wasn’t hunting for anything in particular, just various mechanics or idea seeds worth transplanting into my grand, never-to-be-actualized vision. Most of the books had at least something worth consideration, even if it was just “a mildly entertaining thing to flip through on the shitter.”

On the other hand, Dark Champions — one of the thicker tomes of the lot — had nothing but induced heavy eyerolling to offer.

The 1993 release was the game system’s sad attempt to keep up with the grimdark wave which had overtaken the superhero genre and inspired this site’s “Terrible ’90s” tag. While the core Champions rules were locked into an off-brand Bronze Age stasis, Dark Champions was hellbent on welding a whole new iteration of fan-wank onto that rusting chassis. Much of the sourcebook was dedicated towards selling players on the notion of superheroes who casually kill their opponents, which the author treats as an utterly radical idea and not something every single Champions gamemaster has had to deal with multiple times over the course of trying to shoehorn a bunch of Punisher tee-wearing edgelords into a remote approximation of the Claremont Era X-Men.

Substantial portions of the tome were given over to equipment listings for various real-life firearms, as well as mechanics for more “realistic” rules for using them in the game. (Because, really, the Champions game system really needed more complex combat resolution rules. You weren’t planning on doing anything else but running a simple fight against three minions for the next two weeks or so, right?)

The height of Dark Champion’s sad-larious antics, however, came in the form of its semi-official mascot, the Harbinger of Justice. Put forth as a representative example of the campaign setting, the overarmed and over-accessorized lovechild of Deathstroke and Frank Castle was an ungodly agglomeration of stats and abilities whose point totals exceeded the core game’s Galactus and Beyonder analogues.

There was nothing the gun-summoning juggernaut could not do, as expressed in the breathy and overly lengthy write-up which boasted that the character had personally dispatched over a thousand enemies, both mundane and super. The character’s obscene power level and convoluted ability sets didn’t really lend themselves to any form of practical use as a template. For all intents and purposes, he was a walking deus ex machina which made any attempts at codification irrelevant. You could just skip the rolls and algebraic combat modifiers and just assume he could do whatever you needed him to do.

So why was the Harbinger given such lavishly detailed attention?

Because he was the author’s own player character. The Dark Champions sourcebook was his world. The poor dupes who bought a copy were just forced spectators of those tryhard efforts at awesomeness. The character was so pathetically egregious in its excess that it developed into both a cautionary example and a punchline (even in Hero Games’ own in-house magazine). The criticism prompted the author to push back and claim all the harbingers points had been legitimately earned, which just made debacle that much more laughably tragic.

Thanks to the Great Back Issue Buying Spree, I’d managed to slip free of the grimdark snare. It taught me to enjoy the goofier parts of the superhero genre without getting hung up on some defensively adolescent notion of what constitutes “mature content.” Stuff like the Batman TV show and the Legion of Super-Pets were fairly ridiculous, but the were also pretty entertaining and certainly didn’t deserve spittle-flecked rants by fanboys with a self-contradicting need to be taken seriously. Reading Dark Champions at the time felt like staring back at the prison walls after I’d just had my sentence commuted.

That said, Dark Champions ended up becoming one of the better selling 4th edition sourcebooks, with it and a slightly depowered Harbinger being brought back in subsequent editions of the game. The marketplace muscle of adolescent edgelord fare may be capricious at times, but it can still reap sweet returns when it hits the mark.

It’s time to ditch the chronological structure of this feature, which I had hoped to avoid from the beginning yet still managed to fall into in short order. The conceit served no practical purpose, except to ensure that the write-up of any given record would end up getting posted months after the initial flush of excitement had faded.

If the series of K-Tel posts and other entries in this feature hadn’t clued you in already, I’ve been a big fan of compilation albums since my tweener years. There were a handy and — more importantly — affordable way of obtaining favorite songs and discovering new-to-me artists without dropping the dough on a dedicated release. This was especially true during my mid-teens, when I gave up on contemporary music in favor of the pop-rock-soul sounds of the Sixties.

The department store bargain racks were packed with cheap collections of Sixties hits, thanks to the cresting wave of Boomer nostalgia during the back-half of the Eighties, and I spent a good deal of time sifting through them in search of specific “must haves.” JCI’s “Baby Boomer Classics” series was the gold standard as far as these things went, offering titularly themed (Soul Sixties, Electric Sixties, Surfin’ Sixties) rosters of original master recordings on chrome cassettes for under a fiver. I also dabbled on the mail order front by purchasing the notorious Freedom Rock set, which featured a deeper bench of offerings and, for some bizarre reason, “Freebird.”

The habit persisted through my brief thrash metal phase and the early part of my punk period, though my love of Sixties music had succumbed to grip of embarrassed erasure by the time Time-Life’s Classic Rock series of compilations rolled around.

Even if I hadn’t (stupidly) repudiated that part of my past, I don’t know if I would’ve made the plunge. For starters, they were a mail-order jobber, which was a logistical pain in the ass for a teen without a checking account or credit card. Even worse, they were one of those “on approval” deals where’d they keep shipping new installments on a regular basis, and there was no shortage of horror tales around the lunch table about friends-of-friends who’d been snared by similar schemes.

The series completely slipped from my skull for almost three decades, only resurfacing after I came across a print ad for it in a random DC back issue from the early Nineties.

(A big thanks to Greg A for finding a copy of the above ad for me, since I just sold the part of my funnybook collection where I’d first encountered it.)

My current record-buying renaissance was in full swing, and the compilations fit both my urge to reconstruct my pre-punk music library and my ongoing quest for long-players that would mutually acceptable post-workday spins for Maura and me. I was inspired to do a couple of exploratory eBay searches for various entries in the series, and was staggered by the exceedingly optimistic prices folks were asking.

Look, man, I’m sorry you got suckered into paying twelve bucks plus shipping for thirty-odd records during the Bush the Elder years, but let’s be realistic here. No one is going to spend upwards of forty dollars for two dozen songs that can obtained much more cheaply and easily in countless other places or formats. I had better luck on Discogs’ marketplace (after I worked up the courage to create an account) where decent condition copies of the various albums could be found domestically for under a tenner.

As tempting as it was to just pick up the entire lot, I’ve been trying to prioritize quality over quantity. As mentioned above, the featured material is readily available elsewhere, so there’s no point in buying something based on a couple of tracks out of a roster of twenty. In order to seal the deal, the has to be least one exceptional side — or a couple of pretty good ones — I can spin from start to finish without any bum notes souring the experience.

There were a few entries in the Classic Rock series which did fit that bill — one of the 1964 comps, a couple of the 1965 ones, the first 1968 one — but none so flawlessly as the original 1967 collection.

It’s only befitting an incredible year for pop music, but that’s still one hell of a roster. I’ve spent entire weekends cycling through the entire thing multiple times.

In terms of trade dress and production quality, the series is very much an upmarket, chronologically compiled sibling to the sell through JCI comps. (Both were released by Warners through its sub-imprints.) Each Classic Rock installment set came in a gatefold sleeve annotated with copious factoids and photos about the featured artists. While the number of featured tracks feels a little on the slim side compared to K-Tel offerings or later CD-based collections, it was done with an ear towards maximum fidelity. The subscription-based marketing scheme behind the series may have been a bit dodgy, but the Time-Life folks did take pains that the whales they snagged would get their money’s worth.

The luxurious low end of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” made a respectable showing even through the tinny built-in speakers of my bargain-basement turntable. That’s no mean feat, and it amped up my eagerness to get a proper set-up installed sooner rather than later.

As happy as I’ve been with the Classic Rock collections I’ve acquired, I’m still a bit baffled by the name of the series. Never mind the fact that most of the featured material falls into the pop and soul categories, the term “classic rock” denotes a very specific format that’s much different than what’s being offered there. The term-as-commonly-understood was coined by the radio industry in the mid-Eighties under some fairly contentious circumstances. Most of the stalwarts of the previous decade’s AOR scene had either broken up, lost their charting power, or drifted into the realm of soft rock power ballads.

The pop ‘n’ glam metal scene was the logical heir apparent, but mired in too much culture war controversy for programmers to unequivocally embrace. The record labels, on the other hand, were making a concerted press to elevate the critically acclaimed tier of “new music” acts — The Replacements, U2, REM, Husker Du, even Prince — onto the AOR throne. Programmers weren’t convinced (with good reason) that jobsite Joes would be as willing to swap out “More Than a Feeling” for “Books About UFOs,” and opted instead for a fixed canon of proven favorites aimed at the 15-to-35 white male demographic. Thus was “classic rock” radio born.

Outside of a handful of heavier cuts, the material contained on the Classic Rock comps was more akin to the stuff you’d hear on “oldies” station playlists, which had grown to encompass the entire Sixties by the twilight of the Reagan Era. Maybe the name was a misread or attempt to co-opt freshly minted term before the boundaries hardened, or maybe Time-Life’s marketing wizards decided that anything with “old” in it was more than the age-conscious Boomer target demo could countenance, while “Youth Oriented Pop Hits Year-By-Year From The British Invasion Period Through 1970″ was too little too unwieldy.

Perhaps I will contemplate this further while giving the 1967 installment another spin or three.

The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was once tasked to pen a history of the House of Brunswick. Though his patron was simply looking for some fulsome genealogy for use as political leverage and personal validation, Leibniz embarked on compiling an exhaustively comprehensive work covering all aspects of the bloodline, its holdings, and its people. The project took decades and was never formally completed. What did eventually get published filled three entire volumes.

This is one of the few items I can recall from my Philosophy 101 class — which was mostly spent keeping my head down in the back corner of the lecture hall and plotting out dungeons for my Warhammer campaign — because it resonated with my own experiences with the will toward “completeness” and the perils of “mission creep.” One of the first things even an armchair historial learns is that nothing in human history is ever self-contained. There are always dangling threads, overlap, explicatory context, and post-event aftershocks involved. Each tentative conclusion gives rise to another half dozen questions.

That messiness even extends to such relatively simple projects as “a history of Charlton’s ‘Action Hero’ line of the mid-1960s.” What appeared on the surface as a relatively brief and minor blip in comics publishing history was actually a the culmination of a spasmodic process where every “THIS is where it began” gets immediately followed up by a little internal voice saying ” yes, but what about…?”

In attempting to fix a definitive starting date, my inner Leibniz dueled with the part of me that wanted to get this shit over with so I could get back to playing videogames. Fortunately, I was able to reconcile the two in time for the first “real” post in this series — Strange Suspense Stories #75 (June 1965).

The issue marked the return of Captain Atom, the flagship character of the Action Hero line who debuted in Space Adventures #33 five years prior and was shelved after a handful of stories. Originally created to capitalize on the popularity of DC’s Space Age superhero resurgence, the Captain was pressed back into duty to cash in on the paradigm-shifting popularity of Marvel’s upstart spin on the formula.

The trio of Captain Atom tales in the issue were reprints pulled from his previous run in Space Adventures — written by Joe Gill and illustrated by Steve Ditko — and led off with the hero’s origin-spinning introductory tale. (That may seem like the obvious approach, but nothing should ever be taken for granted when it comes to Charlton Comics.)

If the wall of crudely lettered text didn’t clue you in, Captain Allen Adam was just the ginchiest guy in the military-industrial complex. Why there was simply nothing that hunk of Cold War beefcake couldn’t do…except hold onto a screwdriver or check his watch during a pre-launch internal check of America’s latest and greatest nuclear missile.

Nowadays, those wimps at NASA will scrub a launch if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. Back in those more ballsy times, though, the brass would think nothing of just firing away while the program’s golden boy is trying to extricate himself from the warhead capsule.

The sequence covering Adam’s one way trip to thermonuclear oblivion is some harrowingly effective comicking, cutting back and forth between the grisly effects of the launch upon his mortal frame and the impotent horror of his commanding officer and best buddy on the ground. (It’s also fascinating to note how much of that grim inevitability Moore and Gibbons channeled into Dr. Manhattan’s origin in Watchmen.)

The missile reaches its destination and its payload detonates in an massive burst of atomic fire. It would seem poor Captain Adam has met a tragic (and very avoidable) end…

…or had he?

The ground team’s moment of mourning is interrupted by the arrival of the being formerly known as Captain Allen Atom, now sporting a stylish silver mane and a lethal aura of radioactivity. The accident has also brought out the Captain’s bossy side, manifested by his demand for a chainmail onesie crafted from the rad-dampening super-metal “dilustel.”

With his deadly emissions held in check by the suit, Adam gives the nation’s top brass a display of his stock set of superpowers — super-fast flight, the ability to burn away his civilian clothes, and…uh…other stuff the creators will get around to eventually, I guess.

The show was enough to impress Ike himself (re-touched to look like the love child of Kissinger and Castro in the reprint), gives Adam a set of superheroic accessories for his containment suit and the laziest code name ever.

“Your name will be Captain Atom!”

“But that’s my name now!”

“No, ‘atom!’”

“‘No’ what, sir?”

Reluctant to leave things at just a simple origin story, Gill and Ditko shoehorned in another page and a third about a pair of Commie spies sabotaging a American missile to start World War III. Atom intercepts it with nuclear haymaker, it detonates harmlessly, and the creators could rest safely thinking they gave readers (all ten of them) their money’s worth.

“Captain Atom on Planet X” is the second tale featuring the atomic action hero in the issue and was reprinted from Space Adventures #36 (October 1960).

The titular planet is not a planet at all but rather an orbiting panopticon sent up by the utterly blameless United States to “monitor” other nations and, if need be, direct ICBMs at them.

For some unfathomable reason, this situation is not cool with those irrational dopes in the Communist Bloc and they attempt to knock the satellite from the sky with their missiles. Captain Atom foils their efforts and a grudgingly resentful peace is preserved. (Again, it’s fascinating to see how much of this stuff worked its way into Watchmen.)

“The Second Man in Space,” the third and final Captain Atom story in the issue, is another reheated slice of Cold War agitprop passing for a superhero story. It originally ran in Space Adventures #34 (June 1960) and was given the additional subtitle “THIS IS HOW IT HAPPENED BACK IN 1961″ for the reprint.

After completing the first successful launch of a man into space, the Soviets lose contact with the hapless cosmonaut’s capsule. They attempt to cover up the mishap by staging phony conversations for global consumption, but the Pentagon brain trust smells a big commie rat. Captain Atom volunteers to zip up through the stratosphere to investigate, where he discovers that the Russian spaceman has been gravely injured by the capsule’s acceleration during the launch.

A closer investigation gives the Captain a chance to show off a brand new power — dematerialization — before jetting back to some random Manhattan hospital for some (don’t laugh) “space vaccine. (I said “don’t laugh,” dammit.)

There’s also a panel given over to a silent flyby past an unimpressed Statue of Liberty for some reason.

Atom fixes up the ailing cosmonaut — who decides on the spot that Americans are just swell and his leaders are a bunch of no-good dirty liars — before stealthily using his superpowers to return the capsule back to its owners. The apparatchiks’ glee at successfully putting the first human in space and getting him back again is undermined by the cosmonaut’s assertion that he was actually the second person in space and the American helped him was the first and is so much cooler than him and “Gulag Archipelago, one way ticket? What’s that?”

It’s a truly stupid story on multiple levels, but worth it only to witness how the seething resentment about the USSR reaching that milestone first got extruded into an absurd lump of revisionist fanfic. If only that type of thinking had stayed limited to the realm of off-brand superhero comics.

So there you have it, a modest synopsis of the first (by my reckoning) offering of the Action Hero Era. It’s a comic where reheated mediocrity is offset by flashes of brilliance and some depressingly retrograde politics — quite emblematic of the entire imprint, actually.

A few days after the first semester of my freshman year ended, I got a call from one of the few people from high school I’d kept up with since graduation. She was back from college and was holding a party at her mom’s house that weekend. “All the old crew is going to be there,” she said in way which could be interpreted as either threat or promise. Still, I had fuck all else to do and nothing else planned for the night. There was also a part of me that was mildly curious about what everyone had gotten up to over the past four months.

It was about what I’d expected, or would’ve expected if I possessed a proper frame of reference — a bunch of not-so-close friends and acquaintances do their eighteen year old damndest to assert adulthood. Formerly dweeby preps and drama club wallflowers imbibed gallons of hootch, chainsmoked, and flaunted their new oh-so-naughty piercings and tattoos. When they weren’t doing these things, they talked about doing these things while I parked my ass on the kitchen table and did my brooding introvert routine.

When the time came to pick up the take out some had ordered, I volunteer to tag along for the ride. We made a side trip to a 7-11, where I bought a bottle of Dr. Pepper and ran into another former classmate named Chris. In high school, he’d been an occasional tormentor of mine and dwelled in the nebulous realm between jock and burnout. He was also a near-translucent ginger, which made the sight of him sporting spiked black hair and eyeliner even more unsettling.

“YO, DUDE,” he bellowed as he drafted me into some complex punk handshake thing I tried to keep up with, “YOU HAD THE RIGHT IDEA, MAN. THE RIGHT IDEA.” He flipped the laper of my punk jacket with a finger the color and texture of a newly hatched maggot. “I’M BACK FROM ENN-WHY-CEE. YOU HAD THE RIGHT IDEA, BUT YOU GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS TOWN BEFORE IT KILLS YA, KNOW WHAT I MEAN?”

I considered his words as I silently computed the odds he’d be found dead from an OD in CBGB’s bathroom within six months.

Back at the party, I sipped my drink and slipped my copy of The Go-Go’s Greatest Hits into the stereo. “OH MUH GAWD! I LOVE THIS SONG!” slurred a former member of the yearbook staff as she wobbled towards my general direction, her high hair halo brushing up against (and briefly) getting tangled in a hanging lamp.

I felt that I’d slipped into some alternate dimension, no so much and “evil mirror universe” but one where every person I’d gone through school with had become a sloppy drunk. By the time things had begun to settle into the barely coherent, whiskey dick hook-up stage of festivites, I decided it was time to make my overdue exit. I didn’t bother saying my farewells. No one was still lucid enough to comprehend them.

It was a cold, snowy, and roundabout walk back to Hammond Square. The sidewalks — where there were sidewalks — were icy as fuck and there was no sign of activity anywhere. I decided to take the route past the cemetary and out to Mishawum (pronounced “mish-you-wahm”) Road and Main Street. The going was slow and I’d discovered my Walkman’s batteries had ebbed to a point where only the radio still functioned. Since the headphones were doing double duty as earmuffs, I scanned the FM band in search of anything to distract me from the shitty walking conditions and my building sense of despair.

Eventually I rolled past a snippet of old timey theatrical dialogue, and parked the dial there. A bunch of people with Hollywood southern accents verbally emoted about race mixing and staging from show before lapsing into interludes of song, and I’d figured out it must have been a broadcast of Show Boat even before the NPR announcer broke in for station and program identification.

I listened to it for the rest of the walk home, letting it finish it out on my stereo before I turned in for the night.

Classic Hollywood musicals aren’t really my thing (though I will make time for South Pacific or Meet Me in St. Louis when they show up on Turner Classic Movies), especially one with fraught with a fuckton of problematic racial politics. At that moment, however, it was a psychic lifeline. Randomly stumbling across it during a moment of profound alienation felt like a sign, a weird message from the aether that there was something else out there. I know it sounds a bit maudlin, but I was a mildly inebriated (one of only two times it ever happened) pathetically sentimental eighteen year old myself.

All I’m saying is it turned something I didn’t want to remember into something I will never forget.

For a dude who was constantly short of cash, Jeremy could be pretty resourceful when it came to some glittering object he coveted. (Which might have been the cause of his cashflow problem, alongside the staggering student debt he’d racked up before dropping out of BU, now that I think of it.) A week after he begged a twenty off me for dinner and a blister of genestealer figures, he called to announce he’d acquired a copy of Necromunda.

The game was one of the many spin-off box set jobbers Games Workshop released, frantically supported, then abandoned during the Nineties. The cybergothic gangfighting concept was based off the earlier “Confrontation” rules published as stray drips and drabs in the pages of White Dwarf a few years prior. As the core Warhammer 40k game had upscaled into larger scale engagements with more models per side, Necromunda was a more modest affair in keeping with the skirmish-based spirit of the original Rogue Trader rules.

Each player took control of one of the high concept gangs which battled for loot and turf in the hazardous sub-strata of a continent-spanning megacity. Each gang consisted of a mix of rank-and-file gangers, disposable neophytes, and big gun-toting “heavies” directed by a “leader” character. Rosters totalled around eight to ten models per gang, which could be supplemented by “hired guns” — assassins, gunslingers, scouts, and the like — who possessed additional abilities and were available on a pricey per diem basis.

In keeping with the smaller scale focus, the game was less concerned with tight unit cohesion than 40k was. Sticking together was encouraged by mechanics such as “pinning” — where a targeted model would be forced to hunker down behind cover if it failed a morale check — but lone wolf sniping and flanking approaches were left to the discretion of the individual players. Necromunda also put a greater emphasis on verticality than 40k did, with the pack-in plastic ‘n’ cardstock scenery including multi-story towers and rickety gantries to ascend in search of a tactical advantage.

The biggest innovation Necromunda brought to the gaming table was its incorporation of role playing elements. Previous GW wargames had encouraged players to improvise rules for serialized campaigns, but Necromunda included those mechanics right out of the box. As a player’s gang completed engagements, it received rewards and penalties based on its performance. Individual gangers could obtain special skill or stat advances, turn up a rare bit of loot to add to their kit, or suffer from a permanently debilitating injury. Income for upkeep and basic maintenance was derived from the number and quality of places it held as its “turf,” which could change hands depending on an skirmish’s outcome.

The system was ideally arranged to be administered by a third-party “Arbitrator,” but was capable of functioning just fine between two regular players willing to be flexible and fair with it.

I never got around to playing the game with Jeremy, though I was intrigued enough to buy my own copy of the core rules and the Outlanders supplement. At first it looked like another thing I picked up out of curiosity but never got around to playing, but then something strange happened. Lil Bro got legitimately interested in it.

As part of my role as the elder sibling, I spend a good deal of my youth imposing (consciously or unconsciously) on my baby brother. This was further reinforced by our peculiar family situation, where that insularity that comes with having fucked up parents strengthened both our friendship and that parentified sibling hierarchy. It led to a lot of tension during our later teens, but mellowed out by the time we’d hit our twenties (or just plain twenty in Lil Bro’s case). It’s why I never tried to pressgang him into playing 40k with me, though I probably would’ve if we’d been ten years younger. He’d come into his own thing, I’d settled into mine, and it was healthier to embrace any overlap instead of faulting the differences.

Lil Bro getting into Necromunda without getting prodded into it was a big thing, and I was more than happy to indulge him. We spent a sizable portion of that summer pitting our gangs against each other on the floor of my grandmother’s living room. He started off with the masked zealot Cawdor faction before switching to a Dune-inspired Van Saar gang, with clan of scabrous Scavvies as an occasional alternative. I mostly stuck with an Amazonian punk Escher gang, with a hi-tech Sypre hunter group and Ratskin warband when I felt like a change.

(Dear lord, the Ratskins. They were supposed to be the underhive’s indigenous inhabitants, whose knowledge of its hazards gave them a leg up on the other upstarts. In keeping with the Old West underpinnings of the game’s theme, the faction’s aesthetics and fluff were drawn from North Americas native tribes…or a British game designer’s vague notions thereof. I’m sure they meant well and did their best to be respectful but…..woo. Hindsight is a hell of a thing.)

Most Necromunda battles could be waged in under ninety minutes and some scenarios could be completed in under half an hour. There were days when Lil Bro and I would play four in a single day in pursuit of a new stat advance or to rescue a valuable ganger captured in the previous dust-up. “One more game?” became our mantra, and our dedication was so fierce that we kept on playing even after the dude who lived across the street used a stink bomb to flush a groundhog out of his garden and flooded the ground floor of our house with the eye-watering stench of egg salad farts for most of the afternoon.

As our gangs evolved and obtained new gear, we’d convert existing models or pick up new ones to reflect the changes. I sacrificed my 40k Vindicare Assassin figure to convert a unique and distinctly badass leader for Lil Bro’s Van Saar group. Any remaining cardboard and foamcore in my stash was used to whip up increasingly complex structures for our battles. (The boxes containing that scenery were one of the things I left in my grandmother’s attic, and now I’m torn about what to do with them. I don’t really have the space to store them at my place but I’d also feel bad about plopping them into a dumpster.)

That was our summer. If we weren’t working or hanging with our friends/significant others or buying old comics in bulk (this was also the beginning of the Great Back Issue Buying Spree), we were sprawled on the industrial carpet of my grandmother’s living room, measuring ranges, rolling scatter dice, and praying for the least crappy outcome on the post-match casualty table. It was all consuming while it lasted, but faded fast once September rolled around and our college schedules became a priority. By the time the next summer rolled around, our interests had drifted elsewhere and Lil Bro was preoccupied with his transfer to UMass Amherst.

I have a difficult time playing competitive games against Lil Bro. There’s a part of me that can’t help hearing my parents say “look after your brother” no matter how desperately I want to win against him. Necromunda was the exception because it gave a sense of progress no matter who emerged victorious from a given engagement. Sure, you might take some lumps and lose your gang’s MVP to a series of unlucky rolls, but those setbacks were in service to a greater narrative. It was more about cultivating your little crew of miniature avatars over the long haul than total domination in a given match. That went a long way towards mitigating and pressure or guilt I might have felt about a lucky streak or crushing loss. We were opponents, but we were also working together towards something, and I was just as interested in his gangs’ development as I was in my own.

I haven’t played or thought much about Necromunda since then, apart from placing a few of my favorite figures in the dining room curio cabinet as a sentimental gesture. When I heard Games Workshop recently released a shiny (and expensive) new edition of the game, I did consider buying a copy for a few moments. Honestly, though, I’m past the point where I can justify dropping that amount of cash on something that’s just going to take up space in my attic within a week of it arriving. Even if Lil Bro was willing to pick up that old thread, the logistics of our present lives would make scheduling such a thing more hassle than it would be worth.

Then again, I still have all our old figures and boxes of scenery just idling in storage…

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