Armagideon Time

No, I shanty

February 15th, 2019

Harbor master steps out and says “the elephant seals left town”
Dolphins jump and jive, but the clownfish stuck around
Nat Geo and Cousteau, there’s seagulls in the sky
Mermaids, nymphs, silkies ask where, for and why
Gill yells, “we’re outta here, ” Shelly says, “right on”
We’re making waves and starting raves before they knew we were gone
Jumped into the launch and gripped the helm real tight
Wanna know the rest, hey, buy the rights

Prow bizarre
Prow bizarre, prow bizarre

Ooh, matey, ooh, matey
It’s making me crazy, it’s making me crazy
Every time I boat around
Every time I boat around
Every time I boat around
It’s in my wake
It’s in my wake

Trade-in: Prologue

February 13th, 2019

My grandmother’s passing last year forced me to confront a situation I’d been kicking down the road for two decades. During the years I lived under her roof, I’d treated the attic as a catchbasin for whatever overflow needed to be shifted from my room — boxes upon boxes of paperback potboilers and old textbooks, obsolete tech-junk, unpainted Warhammer 40K models, role-playing game materials, and the lion’s share of my funnybook collection.

Anything of genuine value had been already cherry-picked and carted off, leaving behind a disorganized mess I was too lazy to inventory but too sentimental to trash…until circumstances finally put an end to my procrastination.

Dealing with the comics was a particular ordeal. It involved digging through a dozen longboxes in the sweltering heat, trying to sort the wheat from the chaff while Lil Bro stood over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t try to skate out of the job. Over the course of the afternoon, I went from conscientious deliberation over each individual issue to tossing handfuls into the discard pile sight-unseen. A full third of my collection was purged, sold off to a local shop for forty bucks in credit (which I passed on to Maura).

The experience got me to thinking about the part of my collection that didn’t get purged, and the long odds that I’d ever revisit any of it. In olden times, I was meticulous about organizing my comics archives and could tell you the exact contents of each longbox. That system fell by the wayside after I settled into the House on the Hillside and would pull favored runs out for casual reading. Our shared storage areas were still in flux, so the comics would go back into any accessible longbox with available space. Some didn’t even make it that far, and got piled up next a stack of records or old gaming consoles by the eaves.

Eventually things got to a point where even getting to the boxes was more trouble than it was worth. I love Atari Force, but not enough to spend an hour shifting a bunch of storage crates around to access them. Or deal with them sliding off the coffee table and getting used as a chew toy by the Rock Stupid Puppy. Later prized finds — such as Date With Debbi or Aquagirl’s debut or signed copies of childhood favorites — coalesced into an entirely separate thing unto itself, stored within easy reach on a living room shelf.

And on top of all of that, I was feeling pretty burnt out when it came to funnybooks. I’d spent the better part of a decade reading, writing, and conversing about comics. A few rare exceptions aside, they didn’t bring the excitement I used to feel. The whole industry drifted away from my tastes, for better or for worse. There wasn’t any point in pissing and moaning about it, so I took it as a sign that it was time to move on.

It was similar to what happened after I turned away from music blogging, when I needed some time to refocus and drastically scale back the amount of mental real estate the subject had actively occupied for a significant length of time. When I did eventually re-engage, it was on my own terms and within specific vinyl-based parameters.

So it happened with comics. After a significant break from the infuriating din, my thoughts started turning back towards certain cherished runs and the urge to revisit them. Collected editions seemed like the way to go about it, especially most of these old (and not-so-old) objects of affection can be acquired inexpensively though discount and secondhand vendors, look better on the shelf, and I already spend too much time staring at computer screens.

The total number of these occasional and perennial favorites wasn’t that large, though it has turned out to be larger than originally expected. I’ve been able to fend off any urges toward “mission creep” thus far, though I have indulged in a few newer releases of previously unavailable material.

Now that role-playing feature has been put to bed, I figured I’d turn my meandering commentary to that ever-growing stack. It might not be as entertaining as Nobody’s Favorites, but it ought to be better than nothing.

I hope.

After we get home from work in the evening, there’s a time frame of roughly an hour where Maura and I are both downstairs feeding the animals and taking care of other immediate concerns. It’s also an ideal window for spinning some records.

The downstairs of our home has an semi-open floorplan. What is spun in the living room is clearly audible in the kitchen, which means that the selections played tend to my mutual favorites or queued up on a “one of hers, one of mine” basis. Our musical tastes aren’t that divergent overall, but where the do diverge the gulf is nigh insurmountable. When I’m browsing for new singles to add to the library, I try to keep an eye out for any of Maura’s favorites we’re currently lacking.

Her influence has particularly shaped the contours of the “oldies” and disco sections of my record collection. For the most part, it’s an unspoken thing based off mental notes taken over the course of twenty-seven years.

And then there are the times when she’ll flat out say “you should find a copy of…,” which was the case with the “Makin’ It” 7-inch single.

The late-phase disco jam was the theme to a short-lived ABC sticom of the same name, a Garden State take on Saturday Night Fever with David Naughton playing a working class stiff with disco dreams. The show only lasted two months (which, despite claims to the contrary, had less to do with the backlash against disco music than with the realities of being a mediocre mid-season replacement) but Naughton’s recording of the theme song managed to become a Top 10 hit.

I’ll always associate the song with a pair of memories separated by two decades. During a round of high school drama club reversals, a friend whispered “I’ve got looks, I’ve got brains, and I’m breaking these chains” to me while some wanna-be thespian haplessly hammed his way through a line read onstage. I broke out into a eye-watering giggle fit which made the drama teacher livid with rage.

The other time was when I was home recovering from a brutal root canal procedure, watching Meatballs on cable for the first time in ages, and realizing that “Makin’ It” had somehow made it onto the soundtrack. (You’ll have to trust me when I say it felt much more profound through a haze of painkillers and two days without sleep.)

Despite (or because of) those memories, I hadn’t considered picking up the 45 until Maura suggested it.

The shipping cost ten times what the (near mint!) single itself set me back…and it was sent out via USPS Media Mail.

Jokes aside, it was a good call on Maura’s part. It’s a fun bit of dance-floor fluff which marries the upbeat schmaltz of a Seventies sitcom theme with the disco chops of the songwriting team behind “I Will Survive” and “Shake Your Groove Thing,” and sung by a dude better known for lycanthropic tourism and carbonation-based cult recruiting.

He could picture the scene

February 7th, 2019

Maura and I had to drive out to Springfield on Tuesday. The trip took about an hour and a half each way, which meant quite a few searchers for the Least Shitty Song on the satellite radio’s roster of preset go-to stations and their shallow playlists. Somewhere on the outskirts of Auburn, I switched to the Eighties station. It was playing “Under Pressure,” which sent a weird yet familiar chill down my spine.

I get the sensation whenever I hear the song. It’s not because I think it’s an exceptional slice of pop music — which it most certainly is — but because it triggers a reflexive sense of awe stretching back almost four decades.

My paternal grandfather was a pathological grifter who played for the smallest, most short term stakes imaginable. He was a one-man pyramid scheme, beneficiary and victim rolled into a serial bullshitter with galactic levels of overconfidence. There was never any doubt his schemes would eventually blow up in his face. When they did, he fucked off to Florida and left my parents to deal with the loose ends — namely my disabled grandmother and teenage aunt, who came to live with us in our tiny two-room apartment.

There were a lot of changes to get used to with this new arrangement. A minor — but significant — one involved music. My parents’ tastes fell along the Beatles/singer-songwriter/soft rock axis, which my impressionable younger self incorporated though osmosis. While my peers enlisted in the KISS Army, I was grooving to the smooth sounds of Neil Diamond and Chuck Mangione.

The arrival of my aunt added a whole new layer to the mix. Cranking up the stereo wasn’t limited to weekends or parties any longer — it became an everyday thing, and the playlist was 100% pure rawk. She mostly gravitated to the hard rock/AOR staples in heavy rotation on WBCN and WCOZ (Boston’s home for “Kickass Rock ‘N’ Roll!”) — The Kinks, The Stones, The Who, Cheap Trick, and so forth — but also made some minor forays into the then-novel realm of punk and new wave.

(She was the person who exposed Andrew Age 8 to the US version of The Clash’s debut LP, which made rediscovering it as teenager punk rocker feel like a homecoming and cemented by devotion to the band.)

The experience both broadened my horizons and made me realize how square my parents actually were. It wasn’t just about the music, but the experience of appreciating it — or, rather, watching how my aunt and her junior high girlfriends experienced it. One minute they’d be chattering and giggling around the kitchen table, and the next they’d fall into quiet awe when the opening bars of some Most Revered Song kicked off. And I, dicking around on the linoleum floor with my Star Wars figures or Hot Wheels cars, would also shush up under fear of getting yelled at.

There was a very specific canon of hard rock hymns the girls observed. “Free Bird,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Born to Run” were the apex trinity, which isn’t that remarkable considering the era and socio-economic statuses involved.

Others were less obvious but still subject to religious devotion — “Maggie May,” “Jukebox Hero,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Lola,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Games Without Frontiers,” and “Under Pressure.” “Total Eclipse of the Heart” joined the pantheon briefly before succumbing to its own success and the unforgivable sin of “being overplayed.” The experience was rooted in random moments of musical rapture, the thrill of having “that song” crop up unbidden from the airwaves. Ubiquity soured the experience.

Though I wasn’t a participant in the worship, that associative reverence has persisted to the present day — no matter what I think of the individual songs. Or the disgusted “are you seriously going to listen to that” look Maura shoots at me when I pause before changing the station.

I started this feature after a late summer visit to my grandmother’s house in 2016, where I risked the infernal heat of the attic to take a quick inventory of personal effects I’d left up there. Working on the Death Saves stories had got me to thinking about the contents of the crate of old gaming paraphernalia, and how so much of it was tied to significant moments from my mid-teens to early twenties. The notion of chronicling that journey through individual artifacts struck me as an elegant — and very “on brand” — narrative framework.

The end result was a sprawling, poorly paced mess but perfectly in keeping with my adolescence and early adulthood. Over the course of writing it, my grandmother passed away and the duplex where so many of the entries were set was cleaned out and sold. The crate of RPG stuff ended up on the first floor landing of my home, a temporary resting place — but not so much so to avoid supporting a cat bed at the moment.

The collection it holds is significantly smaller now, shorn of several dozen issues of White Dwarf and reams of notebook paper scrawled with now-indecipherable campaign notes. The rest I kept, or tried to. A number of items I swore should’ve been in there have gone missing, most notably my set of “orange spine” AD&D manuals. I can’t imagine anyone walking off with them, but also can’t recall bring them up to the House on the Hillside at an earlier date. Maybe they’ll turn up when we finish the re-organization of our own attic this spring. (I actually promised all of them — with the exceptions of sentimental faves Oriental Adventures, Monster Manual II, and Fiend Folio — to Lil Bro if they do resurface.)

There were a few systems and sourcebooks that slipped through the cracks over the course of this feature — Palladium’s Revised Recon and Heroes Unlimited, FGU’s Bushido, and a really bizarre Australian small press superhero RPG I found in Excalibur’s clearance bin. I thought about retroactively fixing it but there’s not a lot worth saying about them except Palladium’s wannabe D&D mechanics were lousy, a Vietnam War based RPG was grotesque even for the mid-Eighties, and I’ve seen actuarial tables with more thrilling action than Bushido’s tables-within-tables-within-tables nonsense could generate.

What, you want to know more about the Down Under superhero thing? Fine.

Imagine you attempted to create a complex superheroes rules system in a single-draft, stream-of-consciousness jag fueled by Jolt Cola and Ny-Quil but kept losing the thread and got wrapped up in tangents covering all the drugs a player’s knock-off Wolverine could sell for money and inexplicable illustrations of a rabbit eating a carrot alternating with exposed nipple shots of a teenager’s attempt to turn a Playboy centerfold photo into a superheroine sketch.

Even that sounds a dozen times better than the actual product.

This post marks the conclusion of a journey that started with a Fighting Fantasy book purchased at a department store when I was thirteen and ended with a Warhammer 40K supplement I bought for bathroom reading when I was forty. The announcement that Dark Heresy was getting a second edition do-over killed any need I felt to continue, especially since I’d been buying the supplements solely for the fluff value. It was fun while it lasted, but I’ve moved on.

Of course, I also told myself that when the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play was announced….

You say decade, I say decayed

February 4th, 2019

Too much of popcult history involves counting the hits and ignoring the misses, unless the miss is catastrophic or bizarre enough to accrue its own mythology.

Yet the vast majority of shared cultural experiences and artifacts does not fall into either of these camps. They’re not enduring landmarks, but rather incidental bits of scenery viewed briefly from the window of speeding temporal train and then forgotten…provided they were even noticed to begin with.

Any genuine attempt at piecing together a cultural history must account for these ephemeral phenomena. They’re the contextual background noise and crucial cipher required to understand the wider landscape beyond a handful of familiar touchstones. The shit fades fast, too, even for more recent epochs where you’re more inclined to trust your memories.

Or, to put in another way, the following list of “songs you must hear now” from the February 2009 issue of SPIN is younger than the second incarnation of this site…

…and Mos Def is the only artist whose name I still stumble across on anything remotely approaching a regular basis. The Screaming Females also ring a faint bell, probably via some association with the music/mp3 blogging scene AT was arguably part of for a couple of years.

The issue also had a feature about the next big thing in the pop scene for 2009, including Ladyhawke, Bon Iver, Glasvegas, Cut Off Your Hands, and a couple other acts represented by mp3s shoved in a folder you haven’t accessed since Obama’s reelection.

The second coming of my Warhammer fandom kicked off with the purchase of the second edition WFRP rulebook a couple weeks after our wedding and staggered along until the vicinity of our tenth anniversary. The purchase and frequent browsing of the tabletop RPG rulebook was the backbone of my renewed interest, but it was supplemented by licensed novels as well as various Warhammer-branded console and computer games. There even a few times when I came close to diving back into the 40k wargame, but lack of funds and the massive collection of mothballed miniatures already collecting dust in my attic held me back.

I wouldn’t call it an all-consuming passion, though I can fix nearly every major event in my life from that period — from the trip to Gettysburg to my dog’s first cancer surgery — to a specific Warhammer RPG publication I happened to be reading at the moment.

The intensity of my interest waned quite a bit by the end of the cycle. The Horus Heresy novels got bogged down in length padding wheelspinning and I quit scoping out publishers’ pages for info about upcoming releases. I didn’t realize Black Crusade was a thing until I got a “you might be interested in” prompt from a online retail portal, and my introduction to Only War

…came from a non-fandom friend.

The book was the fifth and final component of Fantasy Flight’s 40k RPG line and focused upon the trillion-strong cannon fodder of the Imperial Guard. The Guard were my first and foremost love during my wargaming days, probably because the hordes of expendable troopers and chunky-ass armored columns evoked childhood memories of playing with “boxes of men” on the floor of our North Woburn apartment. My family was an “Army family,” which is something no amount of anti-authoritarian pacifist ideals could fully erase.

Playing a Guard force meant tossing all sentiment aside. When I threw a line platoon into close combat with a rampaging enemy horde, it was about buying time for my tanks to get into position and forcing my opponent to waste a turn hacking their way through a forty-strong meat shield. Only War sought to evoke that sense of disposable pathos on a personal scale.

The game’s mechanics are a lower powered hybrid of those used in Deathwatch and Black Crusade, as befitting a group of expendable schmoes on the front lines of a galactic perma-war. The characters’ regiment determines the starting equipment and general focus, with specialization archetypes available to individual squad members. Line troopers can shift between specializations at certain experience point milestones, while support auxiliaries — such as psykers, tech-priests, and abhuman auxilaries — are locked in by can gain additional bonuses to their characteristics. Each specialization is marked by a set of aptitudes which determine the cost of purchasing various advancement options (and nudge players into following logical development paths).

Gear is distributed, rather than purchased, and subject to the whims of the highly inefficient Imperial bureaucracy. Unlike the honor-bound Space Marine chapters, however, clever guardsmen can resort to guile or outright theft to supplement their kit (and run the risk of getting summarily executed by a Commissar).

The most significant innovation Only War brought to the 40k RPG realm was the use of comrades, essentially stats-free NPCs under the control of their PC siblings-in-arms. Most of the specializations grant players a comrade, who can be used to help enact special abilities in the form of “orders” to provide cover fire, assist in treating an injured character, or act as a spotter for indirect fire attacks. They also offer a handy alternate target to slightly lessen the lethality of life on the battlefields of the Forty-First Century. (Commissars are not granted comrades, but can execute those of other players to help stiffen squad resolve.)

If you couldn’t tell by the title, the Only War is extremely combat-focused. While the setting allows for more in-depth character interactions than Deathwatch and its stick-up-their-asses Space Marines, the entire point of the Imperial Guard is to throw itself into a meat-grinder at the orders of an uncaring absolute dictatorship. This means that the adventure and campaign objectives will be imposed from above with the execution left to the players. It does help to simplify the narrative logistics, but at the risk of getting bogged down in morass of indistinguishable operations and slow attrition. It’s certainly true to the wargaming source material, but I don’t know entertaining it would be over a medium-length RPG campaign.

Like every single other of my 40k RPG purchases, the real selling point was the copious volumes of fluff woven between the actual game mechanics. The core book and two supplement volumes did a great job of spotlighting the vast array of regiments, vehicles, and other details involving the Imperial Guard. A good deal of attention is given to the exclusive Forge World units and gear which hit the scene after I quit playing 40k.

(And thank Nurgle for that, because I’d have bankrupted myself assembling a Death Korps of Krieg detachment.)

Only War and its supplements were the last RPG publications I’ve purchased to date. I don’t anticipate that changing, but at least I ended things on a nostalgically significant high note.

Delay of Phlan

January 29th, 2019

We live in an era rich in retrogaming options. A bewildering variety of pixelated treasures (and trash) from the past three decades can be revisited — legitimately — via dedicated plug ‘n’ play machines like the NES Mini, classic collections playable on multiple platforms, and various upscaled current-gen remakes. The notion of playing an arcade perfect version of The Speed Rumbler on a home console would’ve seemed like a pipe dream to the MAME-trawling Andrew of twenty years ago, never mind his teenage incarnation who dropped countless quarters into the coin-op cabinet at the local pool hall.

I used to taunt Sega’s and Capcom’s social media feeds with demands to bring Guardian Heroes and the D&D beat ‘em ups to the Xbox 360 digital storefront. The trolling was intended as performative nostalgia, but then the two publishers actually did release the games on to that platform. (I’m not taking credit for that, but I’m not denying all responsibility, either.) I picked up both, as I pick up most retrogaming releases of even minor interest. At the very least, it’s a gesture of support and encouragement fueled by the vain hope of very seeing a HD editions of Burning Rangers or Tech Romancer.

Yet for all the “greatest hits” discs and “arcade classics” downloads cluttering my entertainment center and console’s hard drives, I don’t really get around to playing them all that much. No matter how much I loved these games in the past or continue to rank them high on my all-time favorites list, it has become difficult for me to get past their technical limitations and often punishing gameplay (with the exception of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the Greatest Videogame Ever).

It’s fine when it comes to coin-op classics like Dig Dug or Galaga, because they really aren’t meant to be taken in large doses. With more immersive fare — particularly strategy or RPG games from the 8-and-16 bit eras — I rarely last past the first half hour before giving up and going back to the well-polished feedback loop of the Destiny grind. The time, patience, and thumbskill I used to have are no longer there.

Only a small handful of these titles are still capable of clearing those hurdles. Even then, it’s more aspiration than actualization, with the threshold of tolerance measured in hours rather than minutes. A few of the Koei strategy-sim offerings fit into this category, alongside the Genesis Shadowrun RPG.

And then there’s Pool of Radiance.

The first of the official D&D licensed “Gold Box” role-playing games debuted on home computers in 1988, before getting ported to the NES and re-localized for North American audiences in 1992. I picked up a deeply discounted copy a year later, as an impulse purchase while buying Street Fighter II for my newly acquired SNES console.

The game was downright ambitious as a CRPG offering, and even more so on the NES’s aging hardware — a content-crammed starting AD&D campaign that remained faithful to the pen-and-paper source material. The visuals (apart from the overworld map) were dismally crude, but the rough edges only contributed to the game’s overall vibe. It was a little messy and confusing, but so were the tabletob experiences it tried to replicate.

Weird shit was going down in the (mostly) ruined city of Phlan, and so it was up to the player to assemble a party of intrepid adventurers pulled from the fixed set of class/race archetypes. Each member of the party had to be created individually, a time consuming process of rolling and rerolling characteristics and hit points until hitting a workable combination.

There’s nothing like finally landing an 18(00) strength roll for your fighter, only to notice that he had a grand total of two hit points. The process might have been a bit too punishing and time-consuming, but it made landing a great — or even “good enough” — set of rolls a truly sweet experience. Once a hack-and-slash quorum had been obtained, the party is set loose to wander Phlan’s single non-ruined neighborhood in search of gear and possible leads.

The navigation was conducted via block-based FPS movement crosschecked against an partial overhead world map. The latter was more effective for tracking one’s movements, as the first person perspective was solely populated by menu prompts, text boxes, and character portraits which only appear when directly stumbled upon. Combat was waged on a isometric renderings of the encounter locale and played out in a turn-based fashion following the AD&D rules.

The game could be extremely brutal and unforgiving, particularly at the outset when reminders about the extreme frailty of low-level AD&D characters lurk around every corner. Save points were few and far between, and opportunities to rest and refit in the field fraught with the high likelihood of a party-wiping ambush. It’s the type of game that will make you want to smash the controller in frustration, but it also teaches you how to be cagey. Direct damage spells and attacks mattered less than the clever use of sleep, charm, and hold enchantments to disrupt large formations of foes and gain tactical advantage.

The process of clearing out each separate block of the ruins was an exercise in careful planning and good fortune. Winning the battle that stopped random encounters for a particular block was a profound moment of triumph even before your party divided up the spoils, as was working out how the various neighborhoods connected to each other and the overworld map. Each victory felt earned and consequential, which encouraged me to use what I’d learned to press my luck against tougher foes.

Pool of Radiance is my favorite NES role-playing game by a wide margin, engrossing enough to seriously compete with the SNES version of Street Fighter II for my attention during the summer of 1993. There was something incredibly satisfying about muddling through its complex and unforgiving mechanics until I reached something approaching mastery. Every so often, I’ll think about the game and the fond memories I have of playing it, always ending with “I should give it another shot.”

It was a crude mess when I bought it, so it’s not like the game could possibly age any less gracefully, right? Remember clearing out that first block and your party getting their first level advance and magic items? Or leaving the gates from the ruins and stepping onto the overworld map for the first time?

And so I’ll dig it out and boot it up and make it to the character creation screen. After a hundred rerolls, I’ll finally settle on one set I can live with, save the character along with the couple of ones I created during similar moments in the past, then put the game away for another couple of years.

Based on the existing progression curve, I should complete my adventuring party’s roster sometime in 2023. Monstrous denizens of Phlan, you have been warned.

Till you drop

January 28th, 2019

Over the past few months, I’ve accumulated an ever-growing trade collection stack of fondly regarded funnybook runs. The whys and wherefores surrounding this development will probably be addressed in an upcoming dedicated feature (once the RPG one has been put to bed), but all that matters for this specific post is that scored a secondhand copy of the Dirty Pair: Plague of Angels paperback collection.

The original miniseries was the third domestically-produced licensed manga outing for the devastating duo of sci-fi troubleshooters, and the last before the franchise jumped from the ailing Eclipse Comics to Dark Horse. According to the collected editions’s indicia, Plague of Angels was originally released in 1990. The small existential crisis that revelation triggered was drowned out by lucid memories of picking up the third issue when it hit the stands.

I can recall it so clearly because it was weird as hell. My high school buddy Damian had some unspecified “business” to take care of in Wilmington and I tagged along for the ride. One of the stops was at the site of the old Trains & Games arcade, which had closed up shop and been replaced by an utterly doomed comic shop. I say “utterly doomed” because nothing about it gave any suggestion of permanence. The bulk of the floor space was given over to a couple of dozen longboxes filled with bagged but unsorted back issues, stacked on or under the type of fold-able tables normally associate with a function hall’s basement.

The store was, for all intents and purposes, a convention’s dealer’s room display with a commercial real estate lease, right down to the cashier’s uncertainty about whether he could make change for a two dollar and twenty-five cent funnybook paid for with a fiver. Ironically, the sheer absence of character or atmosphere is why I’m still able to recall it nearly three decades later.

It was an extreme example of the strange of class of very short-lived comics shops that emerged in the immediate pre-Image boom period. They weren’t part of a dedicated trend as much as independent offshoots drafting off the “sports cards and collectables” frenzy gripping the speculator set. Optimism about “rising tides lifting all boats” and all that jazz married to romantic visions of a fanboy’s dream job, and further buoyed by recession-reduced commercial rental rates.

I didn’t have a preferred place to purchase the handful of titles I still followed during those years. If I passed by some place during my punk rock wanderings, I’d go in, scoop up whenever issues I’d missed, and be set for another month or two. I rarely hit the same place twice, and I doubt I could’ve even if I wanted to. Previously empty storefronts would briefly sport a Wolverine standee and “Marvel Comics Sold Here” sign before reverting back to the yellowed-newspaper-taped-to-glass aesthetic the next time I passed by the location. There was a strong indentikit vibe to the places. They’d been set up quickly and cheaply, sported the same ensemble of publisher-issued promo posters, and never lasted enough to develop any sense of material character — just various configurations of longboxes, bagged books, and an overloud boombox, plus the scent of whatever takeout combo the proprietor had for lunch that day.

They were so short-lived and nondescript, I can’t any of the shops’ names. When I think of them, it’s always in terms of locations “the place along Mass Ave” or “the one next to the Medford post office.”

There was one that I genuinely did appreciate and miss when it vanished. It was on Main Street in Winchester opposite the Swanton Street intersection, not that far from where I currently live. The owner took the pains to make the place feel like more than some funnybook selling Flying Dutchman. The new release racks and back issue bins were made of hardwood, and lent a distinct fragrance to the place. He was also friendly and knowledgeable, and eager (but not too eager) to offer suggestions. He also had the finest quarter bin stock I’ve ever seen in a shop — a smorgasbord of unbagged but otherwise pristine Bronze Age overstock that never failed to pad out my order by a few bucks during my visits. It was a good enough place to make me want to bike there every Saturday morning during the summer of 1991, and it hepped me to several books that became regular reads and enduring favorites.

…and I still couldn’t tell you what the store’s name was for the life of me.

A gut feeling

January 25th, 2019

Some friends and I were chatting the other day about how certain funnybooks evoke vivid “sense memories.” If you’ve been into the hobby for a long enough stretch of time, you’ll know what I’m referring to — flipping through some back issue from your formative years and getting a double-barreled Proustian blast of tastes, sounds, or smells from a bygone era. The artifact that triggered the discussion, for example, was an early Eighties issue of Daredevil that had me tasting strawberry Tangy Taffy and hearing the audio of the Atari 2600 Vanguard port like the past thirty-six years never happened.

Most of the time, these little nostalgia trips are pleasantly nostalgic interludes and I have specifically picked up stray bits of quarter bin flotsam in hopes of kickstarting one. The most memorable and intense of these comics-related reveries, however, is rooted in the stuff of gut-churning nightmare.

1984 was the year when my universe expanded dramatically, moving from the confines of a small wedge of North Woburn to wherever our department store BMX bikes could carry us. If the weather was good and we had enough quarters to spare, my pals and I would hit up the arcade in Wilmington during the brief window between the end of the school day and the beginning of dinner. We made forays up to the Burlington reservoir and runs into Woburn Center. And, because it was the Eighties, we went to the mall.

The Woburn Mall wasn’t any great shakes from a tweener’s perspective. Its smallish mezzanine was mostly given over to clothing and shoe stores, and my days scouring the TSR rack at Booksmith and the cassette cut-out bin at Lechemere were still a couple of years in the future. Barring the occasional “hobby show” where coin and comics vendors set up tables with their wares, there was no real reason to hang around the place — and yet we still did.

The mall did sport a CVS whose magazine rack featured a small selection of Marvel and DC comics. The title choices were a bit random but did include the double-sized issues and annuals the newsstand in the center of town refused to stock, which made it worth checking out on occasion. It was where, in the late summer of 1984, I dropped sixty cents on a copy of Avengers #249.

The story wasn’t anything mind-blowing, just a transitional tie-in to the “Casket of Ancient Winters” arc unfolding in Thor. The most notable things about it were the odd-to-my-eyes cover lay-out and the return of Hercules to the Avengers’ roster. That was where the series was at during the first couple of years of Roger Stern’s run — an ensemble crossroads-slash-clearinghouse that leaned heavily towards continuity maintenance. It’s the reason why I adored the run as a kid, even though the individual installments tended to be underwhelming.

I paid for the comic, then my friends and I strolled over to the McDonald’s on the other side of the mall for pool our pennies and buy the cheapest shit on the menu. Normally, we’d nurse our soft-serve sundaes, small fries, and fountain drinks until we got bored or were asked by a manager to depart the golden arches, but this time was different.

In a bid to draft on the triumphalist sentiment of the 1984 Summer Olympics, McDonald’s launched a “They Win, You Win” promotion where folks where scratch cards were handed out with every purchase. If the U.S. happened to score a medal in the event listed on the card, the lucky winner could turn it in for a small drink (bronze), fries (silver) or a Big Mac (gold, the only step of the prize hierarchy I recall for certain).

Basing prize payouts on external circumstances is always a dicey proposition. (Note how no one up this way does the “if the Red Sox win the World Series, your big ticket purchase will be free” promotion anymore.) When the Soviets and other communist countries pulled out of the ’84 Summer Olympics, it became a cash-hemorrhaging clusterfuck of free-of-charge junk food for Ronald and the gang.

Even stupider, turning in a prize card would net you another card to scratch off and check against the leaderboard standee across from the registers.

In the space of fifteen minutes, my friends and I — with the help of a Cold War dick-waving contest — had amassed a small mountain of Big Macs ringed with a forest of fries and fountain drinks. It was enough food to feed a family of fifteen, divided up between three gangly pre-teens in tattered heavy metal raglans.

We were young, we were foolish, and we were psyched about our unexpected good fortune, so you bet your ass we finished off the entire pile. At that age, in that place, “getting McDonalds” meant your parents bringing you back a basic hamburger or cheeseburger. Anything above that on the menu was reserved for sophisticated adults with cash to burn. The first time I ever seriously considered that I had “come of age” was when my mom brought me back a Quarter Pounder for the first time. Big Macs were the food of kings, and there was no way we were going to let that feast go to waste.

We stepped out into the muggy blast furnace of an August afternoon in New England and mounted our bikes. We made it to the outskirts of the industrial park that separated our neighborhood from the mall before the mass of grease, gristle, salt, and starch in our distended bellies decided to add an explosive finish to our triumphal procession.

….and that is why I can’t look at the cover of Avengers #249 without experiencing an aftertaste of vomit in my mouth immediately afterward.

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © Armagideon Time. All rights reserved.