Armagideon Time

My introduction to the wonderful marginally adequate world of Charlton Comics came by way of a stray issue of Judomaster passed onto me by Uncle Steven. I can’t remember the issue number or cover date (though I suspect it was a mid-Seventies reprint timed to cash in on the Kung Fu craze) or really anything else except that it had a Sarge Steel back-up story and my seven year old self couldn’t make sense of it at all.

As pre-teen comics fans in the early Eighties, my friends and I had heard about Charlton’s bygone line of superhero comics but only in the vaguest sense. Whatever information we had came from third-hand accounts that originated in shop gossip or the fanzine realm. We knew the names of some of the principal players and — thanks to a tantalizing bit in a “Meanwhile..” editorial column — that DC had recent acquired the rights to the characters and had “big plans” in store for them. (It wasn’t until years after I read Watchmen that I put one and one together and realized it was the project they’d been hinting at a decade prior.)

The real buzz began for us during the lead-up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC’s reality-reshaping, inventory-taking epic in which the Charlton characters were to be given a prominent role. Blue Beetle made his DC debut in the first issue of the maxi-series, followed a few issues later by the other core players in his defunct shared universe. Like many bit players in Crisis, the “Action Heroes” (more about that in the next installment) benefited from the “Perez Effect” — in which even the lousiest back-bencher looked compellingly cool when rendered by the legendary George Perez.

It was especially true when it came to the Charlton characters, as I had no previous benchmark by which to compare their Crisis appearances. The sheer novelty of a fresh-to-me gaggle of superheroes only added to the mystique, while I tried to puzzle out each one’s particular “deal” from the tantalizing (and in some cases erroneous) glimpses Crisis (and later Who’s Who) provided.

I have long been a sucker for also-rans and obscurities, whether they came from the Eighties punk scene or the Seventies prime-time TV schedule or the Sixties funnybook realm. There’s something fascinating at looking at Jack of Hearts appearances or listening to The Partisans discography and trying to work out the reasons — justified or otherwise — why they never achieved critical mass in the popscult sphere. There’s also a gnostic appeal to latching onto these undersung underdogs. If you’re a Superman or Clash fan, you’re just one of many who share the same affection. If you’re really into Black Condor or Bum Kon, though, there’s an intoxicating sense of self-imposed exile involved, a private relationship between you and some dusty relic dragged up from the memory hole. It’s the stuff of which anti-hipster jokes are (rightly) made, but there’s no denying that pretentiously contrarian appeal.

At the same time, I have a reflexive distaste for anything blatantly off-brand. My doctor’s warnings be damned, I would rather harden my arteries with a full stick of Grade A butter than suffer that foul paste called “margarine” to darken my taste buds. Ditto for diet soda, meat substitutes, and non-Hot Wheels diecast toy cars (which technically aren’t foodstuffs, but the sentiment remains).

That feeling held especially true when it came to superheroes published outside the Marvel/DC axis. To be fair, there is a “more sinned than sinning” angle to this bias. The two publishers shared a dual monopoly on the post-1960 incarnation of the genre that extended even to a joint trademark on “superhero” itself. That level of dominance allowed them to set the tone and tenor of the genre around their specific house styles to the exclusion of all others, while their marketplace muscle meant its most talented practitioners inevitably gravitated to one of the two camps. Any upstart attempt to break into that business would have to labour under that industry-wide shadow while dealing with a diminished pool of available talent.

This is why stuff like the Mighty Comics misfire and Harvey’s depressing forays into superheroic fare feel so utterly anemic or the stuff of unintended parody. Either the execution was lacking or tangled up in a bizarre mis-read of overeager trend-hopping. Yet I didn’t get that vibe from Charlton’s Action Heroes. It might have been the Perez Effect talking, but I coudln’t help but think there was something more to that motley bunch of spandex-clad crusaders. The names, the powers, the concepts (or as much of them I could decipher) — were decidedly cooler and more intriguing than those of any other hothoused heroic line I’d experienced.

Those hooks dug deep enough to make the post-Crisis reboots and relaunches of the characters a priority on new release days. They became one of the main draws of my reinvigorated DC fandom, even if actual process of incorporation and quality of the comics were all over the map.

Wein and Cullins’ Blue Beetle was a fun bit of froth that probably should’ve leaned harder into its transparent mash-up of Bronze Age Spider-Man and Iron Man tropes, though the character went on to greater (comedic) prominence as member of the Justice League. Beetle’s ongoing also reintroduced a rather bland incarnation of the Question, who would be better served in his mature readers “zen noir” ongoing helmed by O’Neill and Cowan. Following a quickly forgotten try-out appearance in DC Comics Presents, Captain Atom was relaunched by Bates and Broderick with a slick new costume design and a very Eighties mix of Cold War skulduggery and slam-bang superheroics. (The first year and half of the series was pretty dang great and vastly underrated. It went downhill quickly after that, however.) Nightshade became a member of Ostrander and McDonnell’s outstanding Suicide Squad series, as well as serving as an occasional supporting player in Captain Atom.

As for Peacemaker…well, the less the said about that, the better.

The point is that I truly dug these characters, and their presence in a book could decide whether or not Blaine’s Comics scored another couple of bucks from me on a given Friday. Even after I drifted away from comics fandom as a bulk proposition, I still kept tabs on their various arcs…if only to shake my head and sigh at the directions they’d gone in since the last time I’d checked in on them. When I embarked on the Great Back Issue Buying Spree, their original Charlton appearances were at the top of my want list — and one of the few exceptions to the limit I’d set for spending on any single issue. (I don’t think any ended up setting me back more than seven bucks, though.)

Over the past two decades, I’ve acquired most of the comics from the line (some a couple times over, thanks to my failing memory and/or asking prices too low to pass up). Reading the source material after experiencing the various echoes it left behind has been something of a trip, which brings us to the purpose of this new ongoing feature. The object is to work my way through the entire “Action Heroes” line — from its furtive start to its abrupt finish — and spotlight each issue with the critical insight and poop jokes for which I’ve become marginally famous. Plus, it’s an opportunity to get back to writing about comics again, since I’ve lost the plot on the whole Nobody’s Favorites thing.

I still have to work out a chronology for the feature, because the timeline (like everything else about Charlton’s funnybooks) is muddy as hell. Something should fall into place by the time I get to work on the first featured comic. That should be two weeks from now, because next time around I’m going to lay a little historical background about Charlton’s funnybook operations on you poor pitiful souls.

My purchase of the second edition Warhammer 40k box set in the autumn of 1993 was followed by the acquisition of the Dark Millennium supplement (containing shit that should’ve been in the core game), various “army books” containing unit lists and force composition rules, and a staggering array of figures and vehicles purchases through Games Workshop’s mail order service. By the time the summer of 1994 rolled around, the only thing I was lacking for some cosmic carnage on a table top scale was a regular roster of opponents.

The indulgent affection I harbor for the various Warhammer franchises has never extended to the motley assortment of misanthropes who collectively constitute its fanbase. That’s typical of my relationship with fandom in general, but it’s been most acutely experiences in this particular circle. Aside from the extreme social anxiety of playing neckbeard roulette with a pick-up group of pungently scented strangers, there’s the fact each 40k player has their own interpretation of the (frequently opaque) rules. There’s a sad truth in Pal Mike‘s (or was it Pal Dorian‘s) old joke that battles in 40k were resolved by whoever shouted loudest across the gaming table.

It has led to a situation where I avoid discussing the game with friends who do (or did) play it, because of the uncomfortable sensation of speaking a common language separated by radically different sets of house rules — especially so when the other person is a devoted meta-baron who focuses on exploiting every loophole, while I prefered to play to the strengths and weaknesses of my chosen faction and let the dice fall where they may.

Lacking anyone to play against, I concentrated on fine-tuning and customizing my miniature hordes and related accoutrements in private. I sifted through battle reports in White Dwarfs in search of useful strategies. I drafted sample army rosters at various point levels drawn from my pools of available figures. I experimented with paint schemes and model conversion to give my forces a unique visual edge.

The most significant event on that front was the discovery, during a walk from the bus stop with Maura, that a framing place in Medford Square had dumped a massive stack of foamcore and heavy cardstock sheeting on the curb for the garbage truck to collect. The material was the much touted medium for constructing 40k battlefield scenery, but the art-store asking prices had prohibited me from undertaking more than a few simple experiments with the stuff. Now, free for the taking, was a pallet load of the crap.

With the help of Maura’s mom and the family car, we grabbed as much of it as we could and dragged it back to my place in Woburn. Over the next few months — and with the help of my grandma’s church craft club hot melt gun and some of my old art supplies — I transformed the pile into a wide array of ruins, fortifications, and industrial facilities. I discovered I had a real knack for this kind of project, and the act of visualizing and constructing these pieces became a hobby unto itself.

Like the rest of my 40k noodling at the time, it was a load of pointless but entertaining busywork. Yet it kept me entertained and focused while I adjusted to my post-Sci-Fi Club, post-punk existence. There were plenty of other distractions to occupy me during that time, as well.

I still had my job at the library. The work wasn’t as laid back as it had been during the summer weekend shifts, but it continued to serve up all sorts of interesting treasures from the stacks and reference desk. My drift into the realm of postpunk and goth music led me to the college’s slim assortment of books about horror flicks, which in turn resulted in my picking up a copy of the original Psychotronic Guide at Wordsworth, which then convinced me to watch as many of the referenced works as I could.

I started off with Hammer horror and Roger Corman’s “Poe Cycle,” but quickly branched out into early “trangressive” stuff from the late Sixties/early Seventies and then everything from samurai epics to Veronica Lake vehicles to Eighties nuclear war paranoia flicks. I’d get up on my days off, flip open Psychotronic or some similar guide, pick out three films of possible interest, then head into town and see if I could find rental copies at any of the dozen places where I held a membership.

The goal wasn’t to become “a film guy” (I didn’t), but to tap a fresh vein of material for anything remotely interesting. That said, the cinematic history and analysis books I did work through in parallel with never-ending home matinee did end up introducing me to the wider realm of social and cultural history, which then became my primary focus in the final half of my undergrad experience (and for the two decades since).

Besides the massive infusion from the goth and postpunk mope music, my listening habits continued in the same trajectory they had been going — tons of shit from the previous decade with a smattering of current acts like Belly and Portishead. There was lots of new wave stuff thanks to the eternal feedback loop of mass-market CD compilations of the stuff and huge inventories of cheap used vinyl. Come for the Modern English, stay for Josie Cotton and Sparks. The Cleopatra label’s goth rock reissues and sampler discs convinced me into check out their wider catalog and then-contemporary Euro outfits such as X Marks the Pedwalk and Aurora.

I was trying to peel the sticky label from the cover of the latter CD on a bench in Harvard Square when another huge development of that era unfolded. As I cursed the stubborn adhesive, a familiar “Hey!” boomed in my ear. I looked up and my old, estranged, attempted-girlfriend-stealing, punk rock pal Leech was standing over me. He hadn’t fallen entirely off my radar in the two years since I considered beating him to death in a campus stairwell. We continued to drift on opposite sides of the same extended social circle, and I’d heard that he’d gotten into filmmaking and had some grandiose scheme along those lines.

The old rage had long since burned itself out, and so we engaged in awkward pleasantries for a few minutes before he brought up the reason he approached me. He was putting together a sketch comedy group, had actual backing (or so he claimed) by folks in the local biz, and wanted to know if Lil Bro (who had done a series of funny/experimental video shorts in high school) would be in interested in signing on. When I told him that Lil Bro was busy with his summer job and getting ready for college, he then asked me if I wanted to join the troupe.

Because I was bored and restless and stupid, I said yes.

Many moons ago, there was an enthusiastic em-pee-three blogger who leveraged the discovery of the most amazing magazine cover ever…

…into a delicious but fleeting moment of fame.

At the time, thay grey area gunslinger was still affectedly hip enough to lay down some irony-drenched firewalls against any insinuations that he might actually enjoy the music of Linda Ronstadt. That would have been absurd, especially since she was the type of artist that punk rock strived to repudiate. No soft rock mellowness would ever haunt his overlarge ears, if he had a say in the matter.

The passage of time and the slow drift into middle age works strange and subtle changes on a person. The writer dropped the em-pee-three thing, opting to crawl up into his own skull (by way of his ass) and write about what he found there instead.

Over the course of this self-indulgent exercise in inventory-taking, he came to embrace a lot things of he’d written off or relegated to the Closet of Embarrassments. Some of it was driven by simple nostalgia, and other parts by the realization that performative “coolness” was a pointless exercise at his age. (It helped that he knew plenty of cautionary examples which drove that latter point painfully home.)

And so, around this time last year, the writer — feeling hopped up on Warren Zevon’s backcatalog and various mid-Seventies K-Tel mixes — dropped a couple of bucks for a vinyl copy of Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams, the 1977 LP which toppled Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the top of the album charts.

The purchase did violate the one rule I imposed after getting back into record collecting again — “Buy for the entire album, not for a track or two.” My pre-1995 LP archives are packed with albums I picked up on the cheap for the sake of scoring a single cut. I don’t regret doing it, as used LPs tended to fare better than used seven-inchers in terms of condition — and were comparably priced.

The advent of streaming audio services has eliminated the need for such cash-and-space-intensive shenanigans. I can pull up any one-off track I feel like hearing with a few clicks on my phone or laptop or game console. When I throw an album on the turntable, it’s because I want to experience the entire thing (or a single exceptional side, depending on the circumstances).

Simple Dreams actually has a trio of cuts — “It’s So Easy,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” and “Tumbling Dice” — I decided were worth owning, but they’re non-consecutive ones which require some flipping and needle-dropping to hear in a single listening session.

All three were radio staples of my childhood, and all three were songs originally performed by male artists given a soft-rock/pop country makeover. For “It’s So Easy” the effect is mostly aesthetic, with Ronstadt and her backing musicians foregrounding the honky-tonk flourishes of the Buddy Holly original. The process was more pronounced on “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and “Tumbling Dice,” where the gender-reversal and its associated politics work their transformative power on the dude-centric source material.

When Mick Jagger played the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” tomcat, it’s taken as a matter of course. When Ronstadt takes on the role, it bucks the current of expectations — and she knows it, swapping out the Stones’ “baby, I can’t stay” for the deal-with-it reinforcement of “baby, get it straight.”

Similarly, Warren Zevon’s rendition of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” was a tongue-in-cheek send-up by way of oblivious humblebrag — a hapless soul beset by all these rough ladies though no (acknowledged) fault of his own. I love the original because it verges into the realm of country-western parody, which Zevon sold with bashfully befuddled sincerity. The joke is predicated on gender, the notion that a dude being aggressively pursued could ever be seen as a problem.

The premise takes on a much different (and potentially sinister) tone when sung by a woman, yet Ronstadt managed to maintain some degree of the original’s playfulness by adopting a note of bemused world-weariness — an exasperated eyeroll in place of a confused shrug. The narrative voice in Zevon’s version couldn’t understand what was happening to him, the one in Ronstadt’s is all too familiar with the score.

The rest of the material on Simple Dreams is…okay, I guess, but I have difficulty listening to it in side-sized dozes without triggering latent childhood traumas. There is no direct association between specific tracks from the LP and my troubled memories. It’s just that I was a high strung kid from a dysfunctional family and the songs got some pretty heavy airplay at the time. Unearthing some nausea-inducing memory from that crowded field isn’t exactly a difficult thing.

Image is everything

April 13th, 2018

It’s the spring of 1995, and I am nearing the end of an agonizingly long Green Line trip to Brookline.

I’m doing it to meet a friend, one I had been estranged from for a couple of years but have recently reconnected with. In the time since we went our separate ways, he had moved out of his mother’s apartment and got himself his own place on Beacon Street. He has been eager to show me the place, perhaps as way to illustrate how he has progressed from his former status as perpetual fuck-up.

My morbid curiosity compelled me to go, even though I’d sooner go to hell than head to Brookline.

My friend is waiting for me at the trolley stop. “It’s just a few blocks up this way,” he gestures and we start walking. His new apartment is just a couple of doors down from the Planned Parenthood clinic where a dipshit zealot shot and killed a receptionist during an armed rampage a few months prior.

My friend’s place is on the second floor. It’s a typical Studentville jobber, similar to but slightly more upscale than the rentals along the Comm Ave corridor in Allston.

At least, I think it might be nicer, because it’s hard to tell with the thick sheets of cardboard my friend has used to cover every window in the place. The only light comes from a 40-watt bulb over the living room area. The wall-length racks of CDs and piles of music mags are visible only as shadowy outlines.

“Pretty great, isn’t it.” My friend has misinterpreted my stunned silence as awe. I don’t bother correcting him. “Hey, you hungry? Thirsty?”

He lopes over to the apartment’s kitchenette and throws open the door to the fridge. The light inside is several orders of magnitude brighter than the bulb in the living room. It throws the contents into stark and nauseating relief.

There, backlit as if by the radiance of the divine hand itself, resides two dozen packages of Oscar Mayer hot dogs, fifty-odd cans of OK Soda, and nothing else.

My capacity for speech is failing fast, but I need to say something. “You…” I quaver, “actually drink that stuff?”

“Oh, yeah!” He pulls a can from the shelf, pop it open and takes a long swing. “It’s pretty…OK.” He lets the last two syllables hang in the air for a moment, like they were the punchline of some phenomenal joke, then pulls out a second can and offers it to me.

I shake my head. “Why don’t we just grab some pizza in Kenmore or something?”

The overpriced pizza ends up being reheated garbage and the fountain drinks watery slop. I still feel like I dodged a high caliber bullet, though.

I did not make a return visit to my friend’s apartment. A few months later, he lost his lease and moved back in with his mom.

Recommended listening:

The second edition of Warhammer 40,000 dropped in the autumn of 1993. Unfortunately for me, Games Workshop’s pre-release hype-storm had attained its desired effect and made finding a copy of it nigh impossible for a few weeks following the game’s release.

I did eventually come across one at Pandemonium Books in Harvard Square (back when it was located in a tiny space above the Wursthaus) while I was dicking around waiting for Maura’s shift at a nearby cafe to end. The asking price was steep — somewhere in the vicinity of seventy-five smackeroos — but it one I was more than willing to pay. (Actually, it was the first item I put on my shiny new credit card, kicking off a whole ‘nother dubious legacy.)

That investment netted the buy a good deal, though. Unlike the modest (but also pricey) hardback edition of the original 40K: Rogue Trader rules, the new incarnation of the game was released as a massive boxed set full of things for a starry-eyed fan to gawp over and silence any feelings of buyer’s remorse. Following the model first pioneered by the publisher’s Dark Future and Adeptus Titanicus vehicular combat games, the second edition 40k bundled everything a prospective player needed to get into the game into one captivating package.

The biggest draw were the figures, sprue after sprue of plastic Space Marines (rocking a kicky new armor design) and Orks just awaiting assembly and deployment. They were accompanied by punch-out cardstock ruins to battle over, and a dazzling array of dice (both mundane and task-specific), measuring sticks, and a staggering assortment of cardboard tokens, reference sheets, blast templates, vehicle and special wargear cards to sift through. The meat of the game was represented by a trio of softcover books — one for the actual rules, one covering wargear, and one to provide background info on the history and various factions of its fictional universe — and a supplement pamphlet containing placeholder army lists.

It was a lot to take in, and a few weeks of ooh-ing and ahh-ing elapsed before I began to delve into the meat and bones of the revised rule systems. What I discovered was something interesting but vastly different than the 40k I had known. The original rules were designed to serve as a RPG-wargame hybrid involving maybe a dozen models on each side. Formal unit lists were eventually rolled out via White Dwarf and other in-house publications, but as “suggested serving methods” for use in an open ended venue.

The second edition stripped away that messiness by establishing fixed, faction-specific loadouts and unit structures. The days of throwing together a squad of random figures based on their coolness factor were over, replaced by clearly defined rosters with mandatory inclusions. The squad-based skirmish focus was inflated to platoon-level actions, with forces running anywhere from twenty to fifty units on a side.

(A cynical soul might observe that this upscaling meant having to buy more models from Games Workshop, and I wouldn’t contradict them on that point.)

In addition to the emphasis on larger scale battles with formal rosters, second edition 40k also made some rules revisions which would have a profound effect on the flow and balance of the game. Some of these fixes, like simplifying the group of redundant “mental” stats into a single “leadership” value, were welcome and long overdue. The revised melee and overwatch mechanics, however, had much larger (and probably unintended) consequences over the long term.

Melee combat was given a greater emphasis and increased lethality, giving it the potential to rout and destroy entire squads in the course of a single turn. The problem was that it gave a nigh insurmountable advantage to the unit with the higher weapon skill stat, meaning high WS factions could steamroll through their less adept opponents with impunity. If you were playing, say, an Imperial Guard detachment, there was no reason whatsoever to get stuck in. Even melee-based units with the faction — like Orgyns or Rough Riders — didn’t stand much of a chance against generic infantry mobs with a higher WS stat, and so were better relegated to the cupboard than deployed on the field.

To counterbalance the lethality of the melee combat, the second edition 40k rules introduced an overwatch mechanic where a player could suspend a unit’s action in their own turn in order to take a ranged combat action during their opponents’ movement phase. The idea was to provide a means to blunt the charges that kicked off a melee assault, but it tended to result in scenarios straight out the WW1 Western Front — each side exchanging potshots from behind cover until one got desperate or bored enough to throw their forces into a concentrated storm of fire.

These static tendencies were further encouraged by the second edition’s adoption of a “victory point” system which incentivized hunkering down over playing for the objective. Why expose my little dudes to destruction on open ground when I can cover the capture point from multiple angles at a distance and rack up more points by routing and wrecking any enemy force that approaches it? It was problematic to begin with, and only got worse as the game introduced additional units which broke the meta and turned every battle into a arms race decided before the opposing forces hit the tabletop.

Those issues would come to characterize my second edition 40k experience, but that was still a ways down the road. My late 1993 honeymoon period with the game featured little if any actual tabletop action. After attempting a couple of short battles with an unenthusiastic Lil Bro, I decided to focus on building up my Guard and Eldar armies to the minimum required standards, customizing hero and leader characters from miscellaneous bits, and crafting approximations of as-yet-unreleased vehicles from cardboard scraps and balsa wood.

In other words, I found a way to make the model train enthusiast lifestyle even geekier.

The little oddity that could

April 10th, 2018

Gift cards are the low-hanging fruit of holiday shopping, offering an easy out when one’s time and inspiration reserves have been depleted.

“Here’s $25 for TGI Fridays!”

“Thanks, here’s $25 for Target!”

And thus the lateral transference of bespoke wealth carries on, sustained by a sense of obligation and the notion that gifting cash is embarrassingly gauche.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when gift certificates — issued on paper rather than a pre-paid debit card — were things of exotic wonder, and largely relegated to fundraiser raffle prizes and Christmas presents from distant (geographically or genetically) relatives.

My paternal grandfather used to send them to us during the first few years after he fucked off to Florida to avoid his long list of creditors. A week or so before the holiday, an envelope would show up bearing his scrawl and small stack of gift certificates bearing some reasonable approximation of our given names. At least he had the presence of mind to purchase them from a national chain and not some family operation in a remote corner of Jacksonville.

The Service Merchandise ones were the best, because they always gave cash back no matter how small the purchase. I’d blow a couple of bucks on some small item, get the balance in cash, then take it to the Heartland Drug across the plaza to blow on trashy paperbacks, bulk candy, and steeply discounted 2600 games. It was the pre-teen bottom feeder version of the Epiphany, and a fine way to mitigate the anti-climatic post-Christmas comedown.

Sears gift certificates posed a trickier situation, mainly because the cash-out option was not in the table. I don’t know whether that was store policy or not, because the ultimate arbitrator on that front was my mom. Any balance not spent on playthings (back when Sears actually had a year-round toy department) would be put aside for future Boy Scout trappings or other joylessly essential purchases.

The situation resolved as a mad rush to find something — anything — remotely interesting on the denuded shelves before my mother lost her patience. The incident year I recall most clearly was at the tail end of 1981 or very beginning of 1982, when I gathered up as many diecast vehicles and accessories as I could find. In addition to a couple of replica WW2 fighter planes, I settled on a Chevy Citation Hot Wheels car…

…that was easily the saddest fucking thing to ever get released by that line. I thought about maybe finding a nicer looking photo of the model, but realized the above one truly captures the essence of the vehicle as seen in the real world. (The only thing that’s missing is a miniature planter made from an old truck tire and a tiny plastic feral dog pissing on it.)

The other notable purchase in that lot was a “0-4-0 Loco” Matchbox toy, which was not a car but rather a small replica train engine.

I bought it because it was so unusual — the striking color scheme, the retro vibe, the inclusion of a train in a line better known for slick-looking sports cars and futuristic utility vehicles. It felt less like some mass-market toy aisle product and more like something — like the full-color army men or painted plastic dragons — my maternal grandfather would bring me back from Germany during one of his business trips as a radar engineer.

There was something decidedly “Euro” about it, which makes sense considering Matchbox was a UK-based firm. Why they thought a replica of an ancient British steam engine would fly in the North American toy market is another question, but I did indeed love that strange little toy.

Plus, I loved trains. The Boston-Lowell line ran a mile from my home. One of my dad’s lazy Sunday pastimes was to park his overpowered ride by the tracks, where he’d sip his beer and I’d sip my grape Fanta and wait for a northbound freight to pass by. The world of trains fascinated me the way the Everett gas tanks and old chemical works fascinated me, industrial behemoths crafted by human hands yet utterly alien to my kid-level perspective. (Only seeing them outside of regular working hours also played a part, I’m sure.) When my old man set up his old set of model trains, I’d obsess over the brick red Gulf tanker car, with its ladders, railings, and mysterious markings about “MAX WEIGHT” and “DISPLACEMENT.”

The 0-4-0 Loco didn’t really fit in the rough play realm of its automotive brethren, a world of stunt jumps and improv demolition derbies and other acts of violent attrition, but I also didn’t want it to suffer those paint-chipping indignities. I found other ways to incorporate it into the gearhead fantasy universe my friends and I created.

In the childhood ecology of my North Woburn neighborhood, the life cycle of an oversized cardboard box began with “GUYS, THE RAFFERTYS PUT A WASHING MACHINE BOX ON THE CURB” and proceeded through a series of distinct steps ending with “TOSS THAT PILE OF CRAP IN THE GARBAGE BEFORE IT WRECKS MY GRASS, YOU DAMN KIDS.” Between “rolling down Tomato Hill inside it” and “dissolved into mush by an unexpected cloudburst” came the very important “cut it up into play mats” stage.

Using our shitty little pocket knives (or our parents’ best pairs of scissors), we’d slice off portions of the box into long flat sections that we’d turn into fantasy road grids with magic marker. Sometimes it was a joint effort between a few of us. Sometimes we’d work individually on a single piece, then find a way to connect them up when we were done. (Personally, I preferred to work alone because my friends sucked at art and I was meticulous about my efforts.)

Starting with some suitably dramatic surface roads, we’d mark out highways, dirt tracks, service areas, repair shops, fire and police stations, liquor stores, dragstrips, visualizations of our ideal future homes (complete with huge swimming pools and a fifteen car garage), and other places for our favorite Hot Wheels and Matchbox rides to explore. They were cheaper than an official playset and their transitory nature meant that each incarnation sprung fresh from our fevered imaginations.

After 0-4-0 Loco joined my roster of vehicles, I started adding train tracks and freight yards to the mix. Even better, my cousin passed onto me a flatbed car for the train he’d somehow acquired and had no use for, adding an additional layer of verisimilitude to the fantasy. In practice, most of the train’s exploits involved gory crashes with less favored cars, followed by high speed jumps over the resulting pile-up, but it was still a significant and dramatic role to play.

I don’t know what happened to my original 0-4-0 Loco toy. It most likely fell prey to the usual process of plaything attrition, or got lost in the messy dump-off following my mom’s death. It completely slipped from my memory until last week, when for some reason I remembered the time my pal Artie stole a fancy orange and turquoise Matchbox dragster from one of the neighborhood toughs and tried to avoid the heat (and inevitable beating) by trying to pawn the car off on other members of our circle.

Curiosity about the car led me to a year-by-year directory of Matchbox offerings, which in turn featured a listing for the 0-4-0 Loco and a full-force blast to my nostalgia cortex. The model was apparently part of a small wave of vintage British railway vehicles and rolling stock, along a tracked playset. It was interesting in an academic sense, but I was happy enough with tracking down a near-pristine 0-4-0 Loco with passenger car (which I wanted, but never owned back in the day).

It’s just a lump of painted metal and plastic, but damn does it carry a heavy load of psychic freight.

When I started assembling my list of “essential” albums to seek out on vinyl, Lush’s Gala was one on the first entries I added to it. The 1990 debut (actually a compilation of singles and the Scar “mini-LP”) by the shoegaze scenesters possesses all the qualities I look for in a record — a consistently engaging experience where I can just slap it on the turntable and let it play all the way through. The dreamy mix of ethereal vocals, guitar jangle, and soft-edged distortion effects is chill-out music at its most sublime.

Like a lot bands from that era, I originally gave Lush a pass in favor of more aggressive (and obnoxious) fare better suited to my snarling punk persona. As the Nineties wore on and my reflexive dislike of anything remotely “art school” receded into the stuff of embarrassing memories, I grew to love the band. Both their music and their cover imagery (crafted by Vaughn Oliver, the creator of the 4AD’s distinctive brand aesthetic) have come to symbolize that era in my head, even if I was as outsider looking in (and shaking my fist) as it unfolded.

I haven’t lost sleep regretting the person I was back then, but I freely admit that my (inscrutable in hindsight) stances walled me off from a lot of stuff that would’ve been right up my alley. Lush never earned my ire like the grunge scene or the Pixies fans did, but they were one of the bands Young Angry Andrew (or technically “Otto”) associated with those poetry-huffing snobs in the Wit’s End Cafe who thought they were so superior to us scruffy punk rock types and they can all eat my fuck and c’mon, Leech, let’s throw a chair off the Wheatley Hall balcony and watch it smash to bits on the field below fuck yeah that’s the shit.

Umm, yeah.

Eventually — hopefully — that myopic tribalist rage falls away or gets sanded down into something a little less, well, stupid and you begin to reassess the objects of irrational disdain and possibly develop a genuine appreciation for a few of them. Lush was one of those things for me, to the point where it’s difficult to envision a time when that wasn’t the case.

As my favorite Lush release and one of my favorite albums, full-stop, Gala should’ve been up there with Entertainment and Can’t Stand the Rezillos in the “records I bought as soon as they occurred to me” category, but finding a remotely affordable copy was nigh impossible. It’s been a recurring problem with tracking down certain favorite LP’s — my “golden years” just happened to take place during the “death” of vinyl and the ascension of compact discs as the One True Format.

What did get released on record during the late Eighties and early Nineties was restricted to smaller print runs, usually aimed at foreign markets. The hands those copies made it into aren’t ones willing to let them go easily, creating a seller’s market of the most infuriating variety — and that’s before my “you’re fucking kidding me” obstinacy kicks enters the equation.

After a few months of fruitlessly sniffing around for a reasonably priced cop of Gala in non-shit condition, I stumbled across a “related items” listing for Ciao! The Best of Lush.

Originally released in 2001, the compilation was given the double LP treatment (on red vinyl) for a limited run in 2015. While the notion of “greatest hits” collections for post-1990 bands hits me square in the fleeting mortality cortex, the twenty buck asking price and featured material were able to override any pangs of existential dread on my part.

The set follows a similar “reverse chronology” model as The Story of the Clash, starting with the band’s baffling attempts at riding the Britpop craze and working back to their shoegaze glory daze. Sides three and four feature tracks pulled from both Gala and its 1992 follow-up Spooky (along with “When I Die” from 1994′s Split), capturing the band at their dreampop peak.

It’s not the album I was looking for but, in some ways, it’s even better — especially for some lazy afternoon lounging and listening from the comfort of a cushy sofa.

Dead alive in 1995

April 6th, 2018

I remember next to nothing about MTV’s Club Dead, apart from the lingering feelings of horror and disdain the whole “full motion video” CD-ROM game fad of the early-to-mid-Nineties instilled in me. Ballyhooed as the “Next Big Thing,” the FMV game thing was really just a massive cop-out that took advantage of the CD-ROM format’s massive leap in storage space from its floppy disc forebears. It ended up manifesting as an aggressively hyped nightmare of grainy compression, made-for-public-access-TV stage sets, and too many struggling and/or failed actors addressing the screen with a unsettling tone of familiarity.

Dragon’s Lair might’ve been simplistic on the gameplay front, but at least it was backed up by some gorgeous Don Bluth animation — not a haggard former child actor going through the motions for bail money. I have no nostalgia for these games and the only curiosity I might harbor about them is of the most morbid variety.

That said, the 1995 SPIN Magazine ad for MTV’s Club Dead is a masterpiece of middle 1990s trash futurism.

Just look at that garish motherfucker. It’s like someone tried to recreate a Vaughn Oliver 4AD album cover with a shareware graphics editing program…while blindfolded. There’s a hideous majesty in its meat-thumbed attempts to channel the technological zeitgeist into a pitch for some film school dropouts’ attempt at interactive cyberpunk fiction.

So a pretty solid summation of the era, actually.

We live in a contentious political climate, one in which important debates are framed by ideological rigidity and personal attacks. There are some who lament this current state of affairs and seek common ground through compromise. It is a noble enough sentiment, but suffers from a great deal of delusional thinking and moral equivocation.

You can rattle off statistics and discuss concessions until you are blue in the face. Years of hard experience have made one truth absolutely clear.

The only way to stop a bunch of cliched villainous archetypes….

…is with an equally cliched bunch of heroic ones.

In case you were wondering, D.E.A.T.H. stands for Dedicated Enemies And Traitors to Humanity. It’s a little over the top in terms of the gap between stated intent and displayed action, but still one of the better acronyms to emerge from an era which was (figuratively and literally) lousy with them.

“Fightin’ Five” was code for “Let’s Do a Low-Rent Rip-Off of the Blackhawks and Splice a Little James Bond Crap in There, Too.”

(panels from Fightin’ Five #40, November 1966; by Joe Gill, Bill Montes, and Ernie Bache)

By the time the summer of 1993 rolled around, my days as an active member of UMB’s Sci-Fi Club had come to an end. I still maintained friendships with a handful of members, but disengaged from the org’s day to day business and the churning clouds of geek-drama which surrounded the Cool Dude’s ascendency to Alpha Dork status. It was a messy divorce, full of nastiness of my part as I doubled down on railing against the immutable while burning through what remaining political capital I still retained. Eventually, I realized that it was a fruitless struggle and I had better things to do with my life than get het up over a bunch of sad souls trying to reinvent themselves as live-action World of Darkness characters.

Instead, I refocused my attention on more pressing concerns. My relationship with Maura was first and foremost of these, but there were other significant things unfolding around me. It was around this time that I managed to score a job at the campus library’s reserve desk, where I spent my Saturdays assisting a half dozen patrons in between seeking out interesting finds in the stacks to keep me entertained during the dead stretches of my shift. The job also introduced me to the nascent wonders of the “world wide web,” thanks to a monochrome public VAX terminal I used to browse the Internet Movie Database and dabble in the realm of MUDs and Roguelikes.

My look and sense of subcultural identity underwent a slow but dramatic change during this period, as well. My previously rigid conception of “punk” had already taken a beating after I’d discovered the anarcho-scene and its anti-conformist moralizing. My initial reaction to their anti-fashion stance was along the lines of “get fucked, hippie.” As the early 90s alterna-splosion built in intensity and aggressively commodified anything remotely punk-adjacent, however, I started to grasp the meaning behind the message.

Being an anachronistic outlier was part of the thrill for me. When that vanished, so did my interest in maintaining the look. I had my devilock buzzed back into a rockabilly buzzcut that eventually grew out into a shaggy-banged shoegaze ‘do. I hung up my leather jacket and flannels in favor of a Euro-cut dress shirts, pullovers, vests, and bolo ties. The trio of safety pins I wore in my ear were replaced by a single gold hoop that was a gift from Maura and has stayed there to the present day.

My vast collection of Oi records got shelved, replaced by a wider roster of post-punk, gothic, new wave, and import industrial jams — which mysteriously seemed to sound a lot better than when I’d first listened to them and rejected them during my days of spikes ‘n’ sneering.

And I started getting seriously back into the world of the Warhammer 40k. There was no one specific incident that triggered it — or one that has stuck in my memory, at least. All I have are vague recollections of a swiping a then-recent copy of White Dwarf from the Sci-Fi Club on one of my last visits, digging out my old copy of Rogue Trader to mine for ideas to use in a pirate-themed Star Wars RPG campaign I mapped out and never did anything with, and using the haughty Eldar (i.e. “Space Elves”) as the basis for my faction in a short-lived Mekton Empire starship battle thing I organized.

Whatever the actual reason or reasons, I finally viewed the system and setting as a thing unto itself rather than a complicated mess whose only value was on the inspirational front. It had been years since I’d last dabbled with the game, and it had slowly mutated into a strange and convoluted direction since then. The origin concept of an open-ended, RPG-flavored skirmish wargame had been imperfectly upscaled into a tangled mess of army lists and large unit actions conducted with rules designed to handle maybe a dozen figures per side.

Games Workshop promised these issues were going to be hashed out in the upcoming second edition of Warhammer 40k, due out later that year. In the meantime, the core 40k system had entered a semi-fallow state, eclipsed by the larger scale/smaller figure “Epic” game set in the same grim future universe. Realizing there was no point in getting hung up on specifics until the revision dropped, I fixated on the breathy hype pieces published in White Dwarf and worked on marshalling my miniature forces for when the game arrived.

The figures themselves were pretty thin on the ground in the months leading up to the second edition. Games Workshop’s attention was focused on supporting its more current offerings and caught up in the switch from lead-based models to less toxic “white metal” and plastic ones. Finding anything associated with my two armies of choice — the aforementioned Eldar and the Imperial Guard — was minor triumph, and required a good deal of legwork.

I found a box of plastic Guardsmen collecting dust at Excalibur in Malden, along with a blister two-pack of metal Commissars. The Guard Command section came from Eric Fuchs in the Burlington Mall, along with a quarter of Dire Avenger aspect warriors. Sears’ short-lived attempt at an in-house hobby shop provided a full metal penal legion squad and a pair of old school (and goofy looking) Sentinel Walkers.

I can vividly remember the afternoon when I stumbled across a blister of Fire Dragons at the Complete Strategist. I forced Maura into making a side trip there before catching So I Married an Axe Murderer at the Copley theater, and afterward I marveled at the models while we ate pizza from Sbarros in the food court.

After hauling these rare finds home, I’d clean them off with a craft knife at my desk before attempting to paint them with the finest budget acrylics Michaels had to offer. It usually took two or three tries before I hit an acceptable balance of competency and color scheme, so there was always a tumbler full of failed attempts soaking in rubbing alcohol on my windowsill.

By the time the second edition of Warhammer 40k dropped, I had assembled and painted the core elements of two respectably sized armies. Or so I thought.

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