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2017: Not a Resolution, More a Plan

reportcardLast week, I posted a sort of 2016 report card for myself. You probably want to read that post first if you haven’t already. There were several takeaways from my navel gazing.

  • I want to play more board games
  • I want to read more books
  • I want to watch fewer movies
  • I want to reduce or eliminate time wasters (social media, silly mobile games)

That’s all well and good, but there is a big difference between wanting something to happen, and making it happen. If I want the first three items on that list to happen, I have to be vigilant about the last item on the list. I need to replace time wasted on Facebook with time spend reading. I need to leave the mobile games alone, and play a board game instead. The idea is to eliminate bad stuff, and replace it with good stuff.

unnamed-1We’ll see how I do. I’m looking at apps that limit my time on my tablet, as that is where 90% of my wasted time goes. I’m trying both BreakFree and Moment, though I will likely only stick with one in the long term. Ideally I need a way to control only certain apps, as I do most all of my reading on my tablet. I suppose I could just buy a Kindle for reading, though that seems like a waste…

I have other goals for myself this year that are not directly related to the items above. Here they are.

Publish my third book

Last November, I wrote 22,000 or so words on my latest story. That takes it to 26,000 total. I want to get that up over 30,000 before I publish. Right now, I’m in the middle of my first serious round of revision, rewriting, and fleshing things out. I have a set deadline for this, as I am appearing at the SBU Library Comic Con again this year, and it is the first weekend in March. Working back from there, that means the print version needs to be done and ordered by mid-February, and the Kindle version even earlier than that, say, the first week of February. That’s a tough deadline, but doable. The third book will be a significant milestone for me in 2017.

geekonfleek_009Write two Geek on Fleek scripts each week

I announced before that I’m partnering with my friend Brandon Pennington (who did the awesome cover art on my first two books) on a webcomic. We’ve now got a website, which you can check out at geekonfleekcomix.com if you like. I write the scripts, he does the art and layout. We mainly focus on geek culture, because that’s who we are, naturally. We started in December, and so far are keeping to our two strips a week release goal. My part is easy, really, compared to Brandon’s, but it can be hard to sit down and think of something funny. Mainly the ideas come when I am doing something else. Anyhow, I want to make sure I keep on top of this for all of 2017, making sure I have plenty of scripts in the queue for my artist buddy.

product_detail_3162030205001_4623757311001_automanFinally get started on a podcast of my own

Being involved with the Tupacast has been one of the highlights of the past couple years for me. I love talking about things with Chris and Kevin, and we always have such a fun time recording. We’ve even got some fans, which is nice. The only bad thing about the Tupacast is that it’s difficult to get all three of us together. I hope we can be better this year than we were last, but there’s certainly nothing stopping me from doing a podcast of my own.

So, I’m calling it now. This summer, when I have my six weeks off school, I will record and release the first three episodes of the Automan podcast. Yes, Automan, the cheesy Tron ripoff from 1983. Trust me, it’s awesome, and you will love hearing me talk about it. Probably.

There will be other projects, naturally. I’d like to paint more in 2017, as I have a huge backlog of unpainted miniatures. I also want to continue the Star Trek Haiku project in some way. But the big three goals are finishing book #3, writing Geek on Fleek, and getting the Automan podcast started. Hopefully I will be more productive in 2017 than I was in 2016!

Two Podcasts and a Comic Strip!

3591481091_6f63ecfd4eI’ve been very lax in posting news, due to NaNoWriMo, but there are three things I wanted to let everyone know about.

The first two are related to the Tupacast! After a several months long hiatus after we discussed Stranger Things on episode 15, we are back up and running again. It might be too late to listen to our Halloween memories episode, unless you enjoy candy. But it was still a good one. Our most recent topic was the awesome 80s flick Throw Mamma From the Train, which I had never seen before but enjoyed very much.

Episode 16 – Halloween Time!!

Episode 17 – Throw Mama From the Train

The last bit of news is very exciting. I am working with my buddy Brandon Pennington on a new comic strip. We’ve entitled it “Geek on Fleek Comix” which sounds good but who knows what it means? I don’t. We’ve got two strips up so far, and we’re planning to release new ones every Monday and Thursday. Stay tuned for a bigger announcement about the comics soon, but in the meantime, check out Brandon’s Instagram for the latest strips. For now, enjoy the two below!

A Box Chock Full of Vintage Awesome

As a follow up to the Pop Culture League blind box challenge from several weeks ago, Cool & Collected offered up mystery boxes to those of us who participated. For the low price of $20, I jumped at the chance of opening a box full of unknown but surely totally cool stuff. Lo and behold, last weekend, a rather heavy box was dropped off at my front door.

I was totally shocked with how much stuff was packed in the box! It just happened that my nephew, who is 4 years old, was at our house. He joined me, my wife, and our fifteen year old son as we gleefully went through it all. Check the pictures below for the full record, but here are some highlights!

  • As a Transformers fan, I was tickled to see Air Raid, a robot who transforms into a black jet. It’s my first vintage Aerialbot, oddly enough. Also: my first Happy Meal transformer, a hamburger! Always wanted to get these.
  • My wife is a Snoopy fan, and I love outer space… Astronaut Snoopy is perfect!
  • The 45 record of “Buy the World a Coke” makes me want to buy a record player.
  • An A-Team stamp? MOSC? Yes please!
  • You can never have enough Jawas.
  • I now own action figures from Hook and Water World. I never thought I’d be able to say that.
  • Even the comics were great choices: Iron Man, Indiana Jones, and NFL SuperPro!
  • I need to get a poster up in the game room for all the cool vintage stickers I’ve now amassed…

Major props to Brian at Cool & Collected. We had such a great time opening this stuff!

Happy Birthday, Jack Kirby!

Any debate over greatest comic book artist of all time is over before it starts. You can argue over who is number 2, but not who is “King”. Jack Kirby is at the top, and no one else can compare. Jack had a hand in creating the vast majority of the Marvel universe, and some of the best parts of the DC universe. From the X-Men to the Fantastic Four to Captain America and the New Gods, Kirby’s sheer creative genius and influence on superhero comics cannot be overstated.

Beyond the “folks in tights”, though, Jack was still a dynamo. Some of my favorite works of his come from a time that was, for most of the comic industry, a lull. The Comics Code controversy of the mid 1950s killed off EC Comics and their legendary sci-fi and horror books. The Silver Age had taken a few baby steps over at DC, but as the 50s rolled over into the 60s, Marvel wasn’t doing superheroes at all. They weren’t even called Marvel Comics yet; they were known as Atlas Comics.

Jack Kirby worked on several monthly Atlas titles, including science fiction and fantasy books involving giant monsters. Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, Amazing Adventures… these weren’t the high points of Kirby’s career, to be certain. But no one can deny the sheer creativity on display as well as the imaginative gusto with which “King” Kirby cranked out these often goofy but always impressive tales. In celebration of Jack’s birthday (he would have been 99 years old), here’s a selection of my favorite Kirby monsters!

If Useless Trivia Was an Olympic Sport…

PopCultureLeague-Logo-BigIt’s time for another Pop Culture League challenge. Last week was a simple one, but this time the prompt took a little more thought. Everyone has Olympics on the brain (except me, I watched maybe half an hour here and there) and thus, the question is this: if ________ was an Olympic sport, I’d have a gold medal. What am I really, really good at? It’s tough to analyze yourself. I consider myself to be pretty good at lots of different things, but nothing sprang to mind as being world class, which an Olympic medal certainly would require. I’m a good Dungeon Master, but far from the best. I am a good problem solver, and creative, but not in comparison to the best and brightest of the world. I talked it over with my wife, and she said to quit overthinking it, and told me exactly what my greatest strength was.

I can remember useless trivia with the best of them. Without a doubt, if that was an Olympic sport, there would be multiple gold medals hanging on our fridge.

Detective_Comics_601What sort of useless trivia? Well, I have an uncanny knack for remembering exact situations and moments based on things that seem totally random. For example, I remember exactly what flavor snowcone (blueberry cream) I was reading on a hot summer day when I accidentally spilled it on my aunt’s copy of X-Men #137. I can recall what issue of Batman I was reading when I took a trip with my grandparents to a a family cemetery on Memorial Day in 1989. (It was Detective Comics #601 with art by the amazing Norm Breyfogle). I remember exactly what my parents got me for my 15th birthday (a Sony Walkman, with cool earbuds in a wind-up case), because of the book I was reading at the time, Orson Scott Card’s novelization of the movie The Abyss.

There’s more to it than that, though. It goes beyond just personal memories. I am very good at remembering things I read, and since I read all the time when I was younger (not nearly as much as I’d like to these days, I’m afraid), my brain is full of both interesting, useful facts and also near-useless factoids. FASERIP, the mnemonic for remembering all of the different statistical categories in TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG is a good example. I remember that the special effects team in Return of the Jedi had trouble getting the AT-ST Scout Walker crushed by Ewok logs to look right, using several different types of metal before settling on nickel. Oh, and I know that the Hardy Boys always keep $50 stashed in the steering wheel of their car. So if you ever see them, and need a loan, don’t believe them if they say they’re broke.

Probably the best example, and the one that surely spawned my wife’s declaration of my perfect gold medal event, comes from when we were first dating. She understood my love for Star Wars, as evidenced by my mania for collecting Power of the Force figures as well as the lifesize Princess Leia standup in the apartment I shared with two other geeks. For my birthday, she got me Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, the classic original trilogy version. I was quite excited, and looked forward to the next game night when we could play. I got all my Star Wars fan friends together (the cross section of my friends and Star Wars fans is quite sizeable) and we played a game. My team went second. The other team answered about a dozen questions correctly before missing one, like “Who was the actor who played Lobot?” or some such.

b1500af8206f97b9f14771f946ab5c96Following this, my team went, and we actually managed to win the game without missing a question. One friend bellyached at one of our answers after the win. “How could you possibly know the number of the docking bay that the Millennium Falcon was pulled into?” Incensed at these accusations of cheating, I replied that I remembered it from playing the Star Wars Collectible Card Game, which featured Docking Bay 327 as a location. I don’t think I was the only one who began questioning my life decisions and priorities after that evening. I still have the game, though we haven’t played it since. It’s a great reminder of a fun memory, and I am so glad my wife decided to go ahead and marry me anyway, despite the Star Wars weirdness.

So there you go, the only Olympic event I could earn a gold medal in: knowledge of useless trivia.

 

Here are some other fun entries for this week’s Pop Culture League Challenge:

Jathniel is also a big fan of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. I didn’t read this before I wrote mine, I promise! We’d get along well, I am sure.

Rediscover the 80s is a world class Contra player. As a fan of co-op and the NES, as well as the Konami code, I approve.

The Toy Box takes the gold medal for cataloging toys. My Transformers wish list spreadsheet might give him a run for his money.

The other awesome contributions to the challenge can be found at Cool and Collected.

Movie Review: Captain America (1979 TV Movie)

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.31.06A couple weeks ago, my son and I started rewatching the Captain America and Avengers films in anticipation of Captain America: Civil War. I had actually not purchased Cap 2 or Avengers 2 on blu-ray, so I hopped over to Amazon and snagged them. One of those “Other Suggested Items” caught my attention: a DVD with both late 70s Captain America made for TV movies on it, for $4. How could I argue with that price? The day after we watched Civil War, I popped the DVD in and selected the first movie, to my son’s protest. “Just give it ten minutes,” I asked, and we did that, and more. It is one of those strange movies that are so bad they are good. Think Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, or The Giant Claw, but with a superhero instead of bad monster effects.

Cap ’79 begins with a scintillating sequence of a custom conversion van driving on the coast. This lasts for several minutes, and is accompanied by generic 70s era music. There are lots of aerial shots here. The producers clearly wanted to get as much mileage out of their helicopter rental as possible, because there are several such sequences wasting time over the course of the film. Occasionally, the camera zooms in enough to see a blond guy driving the van. He might or might not be Steve Rogers, for all we know at this point.

Steve Rogers (and Captain America later, no need to swap actors!) is played by Reb Brown. Mr. Brown is tall, broad shouldered, and handsome enough, but, at least at this point in his career, has no stage presence whatsoever. He is the cinematic equivalent of a potted plant; he looks pretty good, but doesn’t really do much other than take up space. We learn that the TV movie version of Steve Rogers is an ex military guy who is wandering the land, trying to find himself, or some such thing. I think mostly he just wants to drive that sweet van around. (Side note: I wonder what Steve would think of the A-Team van?)

After a scene where Steve draws a picture for a beach bum friend, the bad guys first appear. Said bad guys try to kill Steve by spraying fresh oil on the highway. What a diabolical and reliable scheme! Their motivation for attempting to murder Steve isn’t clear at this point in the film, and after watching it all, I’m still uncertain why they’re doing this, other than It’s In The Script. Steve survives the wreck (which was more accurately a fender bender), then uses a motorcycle for a while instead. I think maybe he was a pro motorcyclist or something? When he had time for that in between tours of duty, who knows, but whatever.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.32.44The country’s best scientist, Dr. Simon Mills, portrayed by Len Birman, gets in touch with Steve. I like Dr. Mills, the actor is very good, really the best thing in the movie. Doc informs our “hero” that years ago, Steve’s dad had created a super steroid (yes they straight up call it that) called F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain). I take it back what I said about Len Birman, I think that acronym is the best thing in the movie. Anyway, these steroids worked fine on Steve’s dad, but since he was murdered, no one has been able to make F.L.A.G. work. Not without killing a bunch of lab rats, anyway. Dr. Mills asks Steve to help them by giving blood and whatnot so that they can try to perfect the steroid formula. As a patriotic veteran, and innately noble soul, Steve graciously volunteers, even at great personal risk to himself.

Wait! No, that’s not what happens at all. This version of Steve Rogers wants nothing to do with any of it, he just wants to drive around, visit beaches, and be a starving artist. For real. Some hero this dude is.

Later, the bad guys corner Steve and he is gravely wounded. Dr. Mills, for some reason, is the presiding surgeon. He decides that the only way to save Steve’s life is to administer F.L.A.G. to him. Without Steve’s permission, of course. Within moments of his injection, Steve recovers. F.L.A.G. works as well on him as it did for his father. He’s up and around in record time. Feeling the emotional toll of his near death experience, a grateful Steve dons the costume and goes off in search of the bad guys to foil their plot.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.35.47Nope, wrong again! Steve is outraged at Dr. Mills for saving his life! The anger he shows is probably the most animated Reb Brown gets in the whole movie. It’s unfortunate that he only really acts when his character is being a jerk! The guy has no interest whatsoever in being a hero. It’s only after he gets out of the hospital and is attacked a THIRD time by the baddies (in a meat processing plant, naturally) that he changes his mind. He spends a day at the beach in some uncomfortably small swim trunks chatting it up with Dr. Mills and his lovely assistant Dr. Day. Steve and Day kiss once, and never really talk to each other again. Are they now a thing? I don’t know. It’s weird. Steve draws a picture of a star spangled costume, showing that he accepts his fate. And thus, a hero is born. Wow. What an inspiring origin!

Remember the sweet van? It’s back, this time, outfitted with a motorcycle launching mechanism. Dr. Mills and all the other secret science folks were busy while Steve was at the beach, I guess. You can’t really talk about Captain America without mentioning his shield, right? It’s absolutely iconic, and a huge part of the character. It would have been easy for the creators to skip the shield, but they don’t, and I appreciate that. Instead of being made of a vibranium-adamantium alloy, it’s clear bulletproof plastic of some sort. Eh, okay. It reminds me of the energy shield Cap wielded for a while back in the 90s. Dr. Mills shows Steve that the shield can be both a defensive tool as well as an offensive weapon. The doc gives the shield a heave, and it flies for a bit as depicted by some very sketchy special effects before Steve catches it. That’s the first, last, and ONLY time anyone ever throws the shield in the movie. THE DOCTOR GETS TO THROW IT, NOT CAP. I changed my mind again, Dr. Mills really is the best thing in the movie. My brain is hemorrhaging from confusion at this point.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.36.24Another cool feature of the shield is that it is the windshield for the bike. I will admit that this motorcycle is sweet. It’s red, white, and blue all over the place. There are jets to get the speed up when needed, and also a silent mode that eliminates all engine noise. Steve, being an accomplished motorcycle rider, takes his sweet new toy out for a spin. A very, very long spin. Handily, there are some ramps and stuff on this super secret government base for him to play on. I know Evel Knievel was the bee’s knees at this point in history, but all this motorcycle stuff is excessive. It’s Captain America, not Ghost Rider, for crying out loud! Lo and behold, a helicopter full of bad guys appears, and they chase Steve down. He uses a ramp and the jets on the bike to jump into the helicopter and dispatch the evil guys. I’m still not sure why they feel he’s such a threat to their plan, which we’ve learned by now is something about a bomb. Like I said before, it’s unclear.

We have now been watching this movie for an hour and ten minutes, and finally thing are starting to move along. Drs. Mills and Day, along with some super hearing assistance by Steve, figure out where the bad guys are. Mills drops a bombshell, telling everyone that people used to call Steve’s dad Captain America, teasing him, I suppose. Yes, a nickname used to BELITTLE HIS FATHER is taken as the son’s superhero call sign. (I can’t even.) Dr. Mills tells Steve to “shove Captain America down their throats” which makes everyone uncomfortable, and then, at long last, Steve dresses up in his superhero suit (based on the drawing he made earlier, a mashup of Evel Knievel and the classic costume). What does he do first? He drives off on an extended motorcycle scene, of course.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.37.58

Finally, FINALLY, we have Captain America taking on some bad guys in hand to hand combat. Or, you’d think we would have it, but he ends up sneaking around the oil refinery bad guy HQ more than anything. He can jump really high, you see, and even though he is clearly visible on the outdoor catwalks, no one notices him until it’s too late. One thing I nearly forgot that simply must be mentioned is the sound effect that accompanies every display of Cap’s superpowers. It’s the Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman noise, almost exactly. Come to think of it, this Cap’s origin has more in common with astronaut Steve Austin than it does the comics.

In a very odd sequence, Steve breaks an oil pipe and sprays it all over a patch of ground. The inept security guards run right into it, and we are treated to slipping sliding hijinks. Cap watches from afar, laughing at them. I can see it now: when the creators wrote this scene, they were like “hey, remember how at the beginning they tried to kill Steve by spraying oil on the road? What if he sprayed oil back on them at the end? Man, that would be far out, right? Like, a thematic tie or something.” And then they went out for lunch at a fancy restaurant because they are Hollywood Writers and they are Important Creative Talent. The whole scene comes off as a Three Stooges bit. It’s totally awkward and out of place.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.38.45

Wasn’t there something about a bomb? Yes, indeed there was. Turns out the bad guys are sending a bomb somewhere else, and Cap has to go stop them! You know what that means: more motorcycle scenes! After several grueling minutes, Cap catches up to the truck hauling the bomb. He leaps off his bike in order to climb aboard, and inexplicably leaves his shield behind! There’s no way a bulletproof shield would in any way be useful from this point on, why even bother with it, you know? Cap uses an exhaust pipe to literally smoke out the head bad guy in the trailer with the bomb. Dr. Mills shows up, I think they disarm the bomb, and all is well.

Steve decides that he will now carry on his father’s work even more closely, by using the exact same costume Pappa Rogers used during his bad guy fighting days. Yes, that’s right, apparently Steve’s dad actually dressed up in a costume while crime fighting, and no one ever said anything about it until three minutes before the end of the film. I don’t get it, either, but the whole costume thing does explain why they called daddy-o Captain America. We are treated to a final scene of Cap riding on his motorcycle in his new costume, which more closely resembles the comic book version. He and Dr. Mills have a brotastic handshaking moment, and the credits roll.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.39.12Wow. This movie is really something. They managed to strip away almost every important attribute of Captain America. The key theme of the super soldier serum bringing out the inner qualities of Steve Rogers is totally abandoned. This dude is buff already, plus a motorcycle ace and an ex-soldier before he ever uses F.L.A.G., and that ruins it. Unlike the “real” version, this Steve doesn’t believe in helping other people and doing the right thing, either. He doesn’t even choose to use F.L.A.G., remember? Even when, due to events outside his control, he gets super powers, he still protests. Captain America is a lot of things, but a reluctant hero is not one of them.

This Cap doesn’t feel particularly patriotic, either. You get the feeling that he regrets his time in military service since he just wants to wander around doing nothing. Even when he does don the costume, he doesn’t fight America’s military enemies, just corrupt business men. There are no Nazis or even Soviet threats here. A Cold War era Red Skull reimagining would have made sense and could have been cool, but no. The villains feel like something from The Incredible Hulk TV series, which I am sure was a large influence on this movie. I believe it was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a Cap TV show, but the ratings weren’t there, and instead it spawned only a sequel TV movie.

If the creators hadn’t ignored what makes Captain America such a great hero, the movie would have been better. It could have inspired a decent TV show that was fondly remembered today. Instead, we got a bizarre mashup of the Bionic Man and Evel Knievel that doesn’t really work. Do I regret watching it? Not for a moment. It is perhaps the most 1979 thing you will ever come across, from the music to the fashion to the low budget. This Captain America movie isn’t good by any means, but the nostalgia factor and the excessive liberties (if you’ll excuse the pun) taken with the core character concept make it interesting. I’m curious as to how the sequel turned out, and when I watch it, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts here.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Clear Plastic Shields

 

Prince, Batman, and my Grandparents

Prince_BatmanPrince died today. This is distressing news for me, and, if social media is any indication, for many others as well. Prince is one of the greatest musicians of all time. He was the total package, a music icon. He had the right look and a larger than life stage presence. More than that, he was a prodigious talent, arguably the most talented guitarist of his generation, but also a gifted lyricist and songwriter. His rise in critical acclaim and popularity came in the mid 1980s, the same time I moved from listening to what my parents liked to what I myself liked. (Actually, it was what everyone else liked, but you know what I mean. It wasn’t Barbara Mandrell and the Oak Ridge Boys.) I never, ever changed the station when Prince came on, and in fact recorded several of his songs right off the radio onto cassette tape.

I could never choose a favorite Prince song, but one in particular takes me back to a vivid memory when I hear it. In 1989, I was fifteen years old and in the peak of comic book frenzy. Tim Burton’s Batman was coming to theaters, and I was reading all the great Batman stuff I could get my hands on. The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Killing Joke, you name it, I read it. Batmania was so powerful a force in my life that I collected Batman related newspaper and magazine articles in a scrapbook. (I wonder if I still have that somewhere?) When I hard that Prince was creating songs featured in the film, I was thrilled. Batman and Prince were like chocolate and peanut butter, two things I loved that would surely be more awesome together.

I was not disappointed when I first heard one of the songs Prince wrote for Batman. I taped “Batdance” and listened to it over and over again. It was strange and different yet catchy and amazing. Sampling speech is a common thing in music now, but back in 1989 it was quite unusual. Snippets of voices and phrases from the movie blended in perfectly with the rest of the song. “Batdance” was like three songs mixed in one: a hard driving, drum heavy first half, a more relaxed, strutting funk in the second half, with a ridiculous guitar solo in between. I loved “Batdance” and couldn’t wait to see the music video when it premiered.

prince-batdanceOne problem: my family had made plans when “Batdance” was scheduled to hit MTV. We’d be at my grandparents’ house for a cookout on the grill and homemade ice cream. Normally, this would be something to look forward to, but not this time. I wanted to be glued to the boob tube so I could watch Prince that evening. Being fifteen, there was nothing I could do about it. When we got to Grandma’s, it was a full house. My favorite aunt was there, as she was young enough that she stilled lived with them. My uncle and his wife and my two cousins were also present. There were lots of burgers and hot dogs to grill, plus three different kinds of ice cream to make. We all ate way too much, and proceed to sit around visiting in the living room. I was preoccupied. According to the grandfather clock, Prince would be debuting “Batdance” in just a few minutes. My parents had given no indications that we were leaving, but even if we left at that exact moment, it would take too long to get home anyway. It seemed I was out of luck.

Desperate, I pled with my Grandpa to change the channel from his baseball game to MTV. Now, you must understand that my family was conservative then and still is today. My parents didn’t let me watch rated R movies until I was in high school. There were certain TV shows I couldn’t watch (Miami Vice, for one, as it had a very high ratio of bikinis per minute). I’d been forbidden to watch MTV when I was younger, but as a teenager that restriction had eased a bit. These rules were for our house, however. My grandparents were more strict. At Grandpa’s, I never got to pick what we’d watch. The first instance of coarse language or a scantily clad person would result in the immediate changing of the channel. I knew this, and I understood that watching MTV was pushing it. My desire to see “Batdance” overrided my common sense. Surprisingly, my grandpa agreed. Perhaps a belly full of protein and strawberry ice cream made him more susceptible to my plight. In any event, he flipped the channel over just in time for us all to watch “Batdance”.

I sat about three feet from the screen as the beat started up. The purple, smoky set and the sheer spectacle of the video were mind blowing. Girls in skintight Batman costumes gyrated, but they flipped their capes around enough that I didn’t think my grandparents would object. Several guys dressed up as the Joker partnered up with the Batmen (Batgirls?), showing off slick routines and outstanding moves. Prince looked incredibly cool, painted up half as Batman, half as the Joker. My comic addled brain knew this must have been a Two-Face reference. The guitar solo began, and Prince totally nailed it. He went after the guitar with lusty abandon. I stole a look at my grandma, and it was clear that she disapproved of Prince’s thrusting hips and writhing motions. I ignored the look on her face and kept watching.

imagesAnd that’s when the Vicki Vales stepped in. A whole host of tall, leggy blondes appeared, and Prince started crawling between their legs. Now, everyone in the house was watching. The Vickis busted out some moves, all while wearing the shortest skirts that the world had ever seen. The “leader” Vicki had letters spelling out “ALL THIS AND BRAINS TOO” on her top. I instantly recognized the phrase from The Dark Knight Returns. Considering the looks of the adults in the room, “Batdance” wasn’t going over well. I was beginning to worry. Right about this time, one of the Vickis pulled her skirt up to reveal a Batman tattoo right on her thigh/hip/naughty area. Mentally, I grimaced; this was too much for my poor grandparents. I’d listened to the song a thousand times, so I knew that there was a bit of salty language near the end. I decided it would be best for my long term health as well as my relationship with my living ancestors to stop before that point. I told Grandpa to please change it back to baseball, and he did.

“I can’t believe what passes for entertainment these days!” Grandma exclaimed. Grandpa nodded in agreement. There was discussion among the rest of the adults along those same lines. My aunt was cool about it; she told me she thought it was pretty awesome. I agreed 100%. It was one of the best music videos I had ever seen. The choreography, costumes, and theatrics elevated it to something truly special.

I know “Batdance” isn’t Prince’s best song. It’s not even in the top ten. But when I heard of Prince’s passing, “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Purple Rain” weren’t what sprang immediately to mind. “Batdance” was the first song I wanted to listen to. Hearing the song again, followed by watching the video, took me back in time. It made me remember the thrill of hearing it for the first time on the radio. It reminded me of how much Grandpa loved watching ball games, but loved me more, enough to change to a channel he didn’t approve of. And it also reminded me of that summer of Batmania, and how much I loved the movie both then and now. I’ll always enjoy all of Prince’s music, but “Batdance” has a special place in my heart. Like all his fans, I am thankful to Prince, for his music foremost, but also for the memories that come to mind whenever I hear it.

Comics of the 80s: Squadron Supreme

Official_Handbook_of_the_Marvel_Universe_Vol_2_12In the summer of 1986, I was twelve years old and in full-on comic book collecting mode. At the time, my mother taught arts & crafts classes at a store called Country Merchant. One afternoon, I convinced her to stop by the grocery store on the way to her class so I could pick up a new comic to read while she was teaching. When I saw the cover to The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition #12 that afternoon, I knew had to have it. Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer alone would have been enough to sell me on it, but I also recognized Storm from the X-Men and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. There were other characters on the cover though, that I didn’t recognize. While Mom taught her class, I pored over that comic, only pausing long enough to buy some Strawberry/Grape Nerds and a cold soda from the bowling alley a few doors down from the store. This was my sugar-fueled introduction to the strange new characters on that cover: the Squadron Supreme.

The Squadron Supreme first appeared in the 70s, but are most famous for their 12 issue mini-series, published in 1985 and 1986. For a long time, my only exposure to the Squadron came from the summary in the OHotMU (love that acronym), but at some point in the years since then, I read the trade paperback collecting the series. Recently, I reread it on once again using my Marvel Unlimited subscription. It’s a powerful tale, and doesn’t get nearly the coverage it deserves, so I thought I would share a few thoughts on it. My few thoughts quickly grew into a lengthy review, too long for one blog post. Today, I will simply cover a bit of comic book history in order to provide some context to the story, and take a look at the events in the first three issues of the mini-series.

The mid-1980s was a time of great change in the comic book industry, which was transitioning from the Bronze Age to the Modern Age. The Bronze Age began in the early 70s, and was characterized by abandoning the outlandishness and moral purity of the Silver Age and taking on a more realistic tone. In the Bronze Age, comic characters actually died: Spider-Man couldn’t save Gwen Stacey, and Jean Grey allowed herself to be killed at the end of the Dark Phoenix saga. During this time, Batman shunned the 60s TV series, Adam West influence and became a more sophisticated, globe trotting hero, best exemplified by the famed Denny O’Niel/Neal Adams run. Green Lantern and Green Arrow teamed up to tackle social issues like racism and drug abuse.

Following the Bronze Age, the Modern Age took the realism of the previous decade and a half and cranked it up. Frank Miller’s work on Batman (Year One and The Dark Knight Returns) remade the World’s Greatest Detective into a more brutal, Darker character. The Dark Knight Returns, in particular, shaped Batman’s portrayal in the years ever since into a grim, brooding character. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen used new characters loosely based on those DC Comics aquired when they bought out Charlton. With freedom from continuity and editorial constraints, the two creators made a masterpiece that redefined the concept of the super hero. In Crisis on Infinite Earths, the DC multiverse, including many beloved Golden and Silver Age characters, was destroyed. A single, more new-reader friendly universe was created, and populated with characters that looked similar, but acted slightly differently. One example of post-Crisis revision was the relationship between Batman and Superman; previously, they were the closest of friends, but now they often found themselves at odds with one another due to their vastly different viewpoints on the world. This was a far cry from the happy feely days of their monthly team-ups in World’s Finest Comics.

Squadron1Over at Marvel, the transition to the Modern Age was a bit less clearly defined. Two of the grimmer, grittier characters who flourished in the Modern Age were Wolverine and the Punisher. Though both were created in the Bronze Age, their more direct methods, willingness to kill, and darker nature would be emphasized and emulated throughout the Marvel Universe. Captain America resigned his post after a disagreement with the government and became known simply as the Captain, wearing a less-than-patriotic black, white, and red suit. Iron Man fought the Demon in a Bottle in the late 70s, but constant struggle with alcoholism became a long-running plot point in the 80s. Like Cap, Tony Stark gave up wearing the Iron Man armor for a time, and came into direct conflict with other heroes in the Armor Wars saga. Even the quintessential everyman hero, Spider-Man, received a black costume, which eventually became one of his greatest enemies, Venom. During the landmark Kraven’s Last Hunt series, Kraven the Hunter defeats Spider-Man and takes on his mantle in brutal fashion.

Very early on in this time of great change in comics, writer Mark Gruenwald told the epic tale of the Squadron Supreme, which is undoubtedly his magnum opus. The mini-series ran concurrently with Watchmen, and predated The Dark Knight Returns and most of the other comics that heralded the beginning of the Modern Age. Though it is undoubtedly less famous and influential than these other works, Squadron Supreme shares many of the same characteristic elements with them. Innocence, clear-cut morals, and happy endings are thrown out the window, and what is left is a brutally honest, achingly realistic take on the havoc that a group of super-powered characters can wreak, even though they have the best of intentions.

Upon first glance, the Squadron Supreme would seem to be a knock-off of the Justice League. The similarities are too obvious to ignore. Hyperion is a super-powerful paragon from another world with amazing strength and atomic vision. Nighthawk is a normal (albeit wealthy) fellow who fights crime in a blue and black suit. Power Princess is a tall, beautiful, dark-haired warrior princess from a storied place called Utopia Island. Even more obvious ripoffs are super-quick speedster the Whizzer and Doctor Spectrum, who makes constructs of light using a powerful gemstone. There are some minor differences in the main cast, and a few less obvious analogs (Tom Thumb is sort-of the Atom, but mostly not). There are a good number of new characters, particularly within the large supporting cast, but in essence, the Squadron Supreme is a Marvel-ized version of DC Comics’ premiere superteam.

Because of these similarities, it was wise of Gruenwald to use the Squadron Supreme for his story. He couldn’t use the more popular, existing Marvel characters, since the story wouldn’t really work in the standard Marvel Universe. Introducing totally new characters would have been very difficult, given how many of them are involved. Using characters so clearly based on previously established archetypes is a great solution. It worked for Alan Moore and the Watchmen, and it works here too. There are so many characters that few of them have any significant amount of “screen time”. The similarity they share with other heroes with known powers, personalities, and motivations allows the reader to quickly and easily relate to them.

The first issue of the mini-series begins with the Squadron Supreme split up and working in teams. One group deals with the Squadron’s satellite home base, which is falling quickly out of orbit. Another set of teammates handles an interaction between a group of soldiers guarding food stores and a hungry mob. The remaining Squadron members risk their lives dealing with a fire at a natural gas plant. These sequences are an excellent introduction to the team, as the reader can quickly get a sense of the personalities and powers of each member. The Squadron meets back up, and we are given some background information. Recently, Nighthawk, who had been elected President in his civilian identity, was mind-controlled by the alien villain Overmind. Against his will, Nighthawk led Overmind to the rest of the Squadron, and only Hyperion managed to escape the alien’s influence. The rest of the Squadron was forced to take over the American government, then began war with the rest of the world. After the Squadron’s total victory, the whole Earth became one big police state under their rule. In the end, the Squadron managed to foil Overmind’s scheme, but there is an extreme amount of damage to repair and many problems to be solved.

Photo Sep 15, 10 37 35 AMThe Squadron is at its lowest point; they are hurting, ashamed and frustrated. Hyperion, unhappy with all the problems caused by the Squadron’s near-defeat,  suggests that they take on a more active role in world events. The Squadron’s first in command believes they should work to eliminate war, crime, hunger, disease, and even death itself from the world. After some debate, a vote is cast, and only Nighthawk and Amphibian (the Squadron’s Aquaman analog) are opposed to Hyperion’s scheme. Nighthawk resigns the Squadron in protest. Realizing the implications of Hyperion’s plan, Nighthawk makes plans to assassinate his old friend with a Kryptonite Argonite bullet. Joining the Squadron at a press conference, Nighthawk resigns as President, and draws his weapon as Hyperion announces that the Squadron will take over the government. Nighthawk struggles with his conscience but in the end cannot bring himself to violate his principles by killing his friend. As the Squadron Supreme unmasks, they vow to solve all the world’s problems within one year. And all this happens in just the first issue!

It’s clear even from this early point that this is not your ordinary comic book series. There are no simple bank robbers being caught, or muggers being apprehended; we’ve essentially got Batman contemplating murdering Superman as the climax of issue #1. The focus of the entire mini series is on the conflicts in the Squadron Supreme itself, and oh boy, are there conflicts. These characters are put into situations that are grueling and terrifying, but always realistic and authentic. The struggles they go through feel natural, which is something you don’t often say about comics, particularly the standard fare of the time. Often, the heroes in the Squadron act in totally selfish ways and the results of these actions are far-reaching. The real meat of the tale is how the Squadron members deal with the consequences of being super heroes who have made the decision to rule the world.

In issues #2 and #3, young Squadron member Nuke, with nuclear-based powers, learns that he has unknowingly been emitting strong radiation, and this radiation is killing his parents. Nuke approaches Tom Thumb, the Squadron’s resident super-scientist, and asks him to find a cure for cancer. Tom works frantically to do so, but cannot. Desperate to fulfill his promise to a friend, Tom uses a time travel device to contact a villain from the future, the Scarlet Centurion, in order to obtain a cure. The Scarlet Centurion eagerly agrees to share the cure, but under one condition: Tom must use deadly argonite on Hyperion, weakening him so the Centurion can finally defeat his most hated opponent. Tom is torn by the offer; he weights the cost of one life, even that of a friend, against the lives that could be saved with a cancer cure. In the end, Tom refuses the Scarlet Centurion’s offer, and returns home where he shares the bad news with Nuke.

Photo Sep 17, 1 13 52 PMNuke is distraught over his friend’s failure, and blames Tom when his parents die. The young hero disappears for some time, and though Tom knows why Nuke left, he keeps it from the rest of the Squadron in shame. Eventually, Doctor Spectrum is sent to track down Nuke, and finds the young man near his parents’ graves, mad with grief. Nuke sees the opportunity to take out his anger on his teammate, and attacks him. During the fight, while defending himself from his fellow Squadron member’s vengeful attack, Spectrum encloses Nuke in a power bubble. Nuke attempts to escape, but dies when he burns up all the air in the bubble. Though it was an accident, Doctor Spectrum bears a heavy burden of shame regarding his role in Nuke’s death for the remainder of the series. There are obvious similarities between Nuke and Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen; I don’t recall seeing plot points like this before, but it seems quite plausible in hindsight. This entire sequence of events with Nuke, Tom Thumb, and Doctor Spectrum is dark and depressing, but, it feels genuine and natural.

Again and again, this theme repeats throughout the series. Comic fans have often wondered what it would be like in the real world if people had honest-to-goodness super powers. The naive Silver Age comics aren’t a good representation of this, and while Bronze Age comics are more realistic, we still had morally upright heroes with few (if any) flaws. Squadron Supreme does a fantastic job of presenting characters (I hesitate to call them heroes) with authentic problems and negative characteristics. It’s an engaging read, and the first three issues I’ve talked about at length in the post only scratch the surface of the whole story.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at one of the most prominent themes of the series as the Squadron Supreme develops a behavior modification device. The nature of free will and other very muddy moral situations come to light, as you might expect. It’s powerful stuff!

A Few Thoughts on Herb Trimpe

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Earlier this week, news broke of the death of comic book artist Herbe Trimpe. As a long time comic book aficionado, I was deeply saddened to hear of Mr. Trimpe’s passing. He was best known for his run on The Incredible Hulk in the 70s and perhaps his greatest claim to fame was that he was the first artist to draw Wolverine in the pages of a comic. The Canadian mutant would go on to be one of the most recognizable and popular heroes in all of comics once he joined the X-Men.

I am a huge fan of Herb Trimpe’s work, but not really the stuff he is best known for. I have only a handful of solo Hulk comics in my collection, as I prefer him when he is on a team. And Wolverine is a character I really loved back in the Claremont/Byrne days but who has changed into something far less heroic and, to me, less compelling as of late. Setting aside the Gamma Goliath and Logan, what I really love about Herb Trimpe’s work is the stuff he did on non-mainstream titles.

Trimpe was never a big shot all-star comic talent, and I mean that in the best way. His art wasn’t the flashiest, nor was he a household name (in my house even, where we talk about comics more than most). He was a solid, reliable artist who was extremely prolific, yet he never seemed to phone it in or have an off-issue like others did. Jack Kirby was a clear influence on Trimpe, and that only adds to my admiration for him. Trimpe kept up the high quality work even when given assignments for lesser known media tie ins, which was probably among the less desirable work that was available. It was these weird, often short-lived books that made me a big fan of Herb Trimpe and his style.

Herb Trimpe was involved with Marvel’s Godzilla comic, which ran twenty-four issues beginning in 1977. The Showa era of Godzilla films had ended, yet the character was still popular enough that Marvel licensed the non-gamma green giant. Trimpe’s pencils were brilliant, and took Godzilla across the United States, battling many Marvel heroes along the way. My favorite was his encounter with Devil Dinosaur, a Kirby creation I’ve always loved.

After Godzilla, Trimpe took on art duties for Shogun Warriors, a comic based on a toyline based on Japanese giant robot anime. This is my favorite of all Trimpe’s work. Even though the concept was a bit goofy (or maybe a LOT goofy), he gave it his all and Raydeen, Combatra, and Danguard Ace never looked better. The series was unfortunately short-lived, lasting only twenty issues, but it was truly epic in scope.

IMG_20150414_170612161Afterwards, Mr. Trimpe continued work on comics based on toy licenses. He illustrated G.I. Joe: A Real AMerican Hero #1, and that title went on to extreme success, lasting over a decade. He also drew three issues of The Transformers, and they are among the most memorable of that entire series. His full page illustration of Buster Witwicky dismantling Jetfire via thought (see the gallery below) is particularly impressive. Herb Trimpe worked on Godzilla, Shogun Warriors, G.I. Joe, and Transformers, a fact I find mind-blowing. These are some of my favorite characters of all time!

I told this story in my book, but it bears repeating. I actually met Herb Trimpe several years ago. I had never been to a comic convention before, and had my copy of Shogun Warriors #1 with me for Mr. Trimpe to sign. I waited in line for quite a while, making small talk with the other fans. Almost all of them had copies of Wolverine’s first appearance to be signed. I felt a bit embarrassed when they asked what I had brought, and it was a book worth less than a McDonald’s value meal. However, Mr. Trimpe’s reaction was different. He told me he hadn’t seen one of those in years, and I told him it was special to me because of childhood memories. He nodded his head as he signed, and then I got to watch him sketch Hulk’s head on a print of Wolverine that he had available. (It seemed right to have Hulk and Wolvie on the same page, else I would have asked for Optimus Prime, maybe). Mr. Trimpe was kind and welcoming, even though I know he must have been tired from signing books all day. I got a frame and hung the print on my wall, and it is there to this day.

It was a pleasure to meet Herb Trimpe, and I treasure the brief time I got to spend with him. I am saddened by his passing. He may not be one of the biggest name artists in comics, but he had a prolific career and produced some incredible work, maintaining quality for years and years. To me, that makes him memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Update

Yeah, yeah, it’s been over two months. Quite frankly, our lives have been so busy and filled up to overflowing that I’ve had less time for pretty much everything. But, I’ve got a few minutes here to rant and ramble a bit, so here goes.

First of all, school. March and April are by far the most stressful months of the year for teachers. Pressure is mounting for the upcoming state tests. The new addition to the school has been completed and six classes had to move to new locations. All of this means more meetings, more computer work, and less time to actually be teaching. It has been a real headache, plain and simple, and I am getting a serious case of burn out. I simply must cut back on my workload next year, that’s all there is to it.

Deana and both boys were sick a week ago, each of them down with strep. Luckily, I made it through with only a sinus infection. We’re on the mend now, but it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

We concluded a gospel meeting with Kevin Presley last week. Crowds were huge! I can’t recall the last time I saw the building so full. The singing was really uplifting, for sure. It was nice seeing so many friends from different congregations.

I’ve been reading more comics lately. Partially, this is because of an excellent sale on hardcovers and trades a month or so ago. It’s also due to the fact that after working on computers all day, playing PC or 360 games loses a bit of its appeal. Especially when my connection has been flaky and I am sicking of troubleshooting it. I can’t bring myself to fix cables at home too…

Reread Watchmen in hardcover, with the new coloring. It looked amazing; Dave Gibbons has one of the cleanest lines you’ll ever see. The movie was better than I expected. The adult elements were pushed a bit far for my tastes, but that it what the comic was known for, so it was hardly surprising. I look forward to watching it at home, since the theater I saw it at was slightly out of focus and the sound appeared to be coming from a 1950’s record player.

Work at Co-Optimus and Let The Bible Speak is going well. Both of these projects are keeping me busy, maybe even a bit too busy.

I’d write more, but just got another tech phone call. Someone’s SMART Board isn’t playing sound anymore…