[50/50] Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Favorite Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

1338201233_watchmen-12-of-12Had a strange conversation with an older friend the other day who said he’d finally sat down and read Watchmen recently — and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. This is a guy well-versed in pop culture, history and comic books (heck, his father-in-law apparently created ‘Archie’  wife’s late father was a writer for ‘Archie’ for decades), so it kinda surprised me: 1) that he hadn’t read it in the nearly 3 decades since it came out as a graphic novel, and 2) that he didn’t think it was the brilliant literary work that most readers think it is — including Time magazine, which put it in the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

It is true that much of the tension of the world-on-the-edge-of-Apocalypse that permeates the book was far more palpable when it was released at the pinnacle of the Cold War. It is also true that what made so much of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre so original has since been fully absorbed by the rest of pop culture — to the point where dark and gritty is a cliche to now be avoided.

“Watchmen,” however, is a layered work that rewards careful and multiple readings, that reveals character as much through design and layout as it does text, and, in the end, is a masterwork of stark existentialism. Zack Snyder’s 2009 big screen adaptation of the book, while polished and well executed, comes close but still fails to capture the emotional resonance of the original comic book — something, strangely enough, the second trailer for the movie actually achieves.

dave-gibbons-watchmen-2

A thumbnail of the plot doesn’t do the book justice either, but it is a good selling point. Set in a slightly alternative universe (where Richard Nixon is still in office!), Alan Moore imagines what would happen if costumed crime-fighters a la Batman were real; if superheroes had to deal with getting old, with fame, with PTSD; and if such a group of people could make a difference in a world where the US and the USSR are about to launch a nuclear war. What good is being a hero if you can’t save the world?

2522519-watchman_When I was going to art school in Pittsburgh, Eides was THE place: half punk record store, half comic book shop, and the place where all my discretionary income went. It was where I first saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 and first heard Agent Orange, Black Flag and countless other bands. It was also where one of the guys behind the counter told me about “Watchmen” — and he said the store would buy back your copy if you didn’t think it was the best comic book you ever read. As far as I know, it was the only time they ever made this offer … and I suspect no one ever took them up on it.

 

It. Exists.

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

[As the following contains a potential spoiler for "Guardians of the Galaxy," I'll wait a few minutes for you to run out and see the movie. ... ... ... ok, you back? Wasn't that great? Anyway, spoilers in 3...2...1....]

 

It’s a goofy, throwaway joke, but the post-credit tag in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” kicked that summer movie up from very entertaining to A+++++. It also left anyone under 40 scratching their head and asking — “What’s with the duck?”

It was, or course, Howard the Duck. Director James Gunn had slipped in a sly homage to one of his favorite Marvel characters in the final scene. The cocktail-swilling, misanthropic talking duck once had his own best-selling comic book in the ’70s that was equal parts superhero parody, social satire, and existential musings. From the moment he appeared in 1974, Howard the Duck was a huge cult hit — and had a successful 5-year run until Marvel fired his creator Steve Gerber over creative differences, and Disney sued the pants on Howard.

Howard-the-Duck-01-00-FCHoward the Duck was also the spur to the greatest, dumbest quest of my life.

The cover of Howard the Duck #1 is still one of the best known covers of the Marvel era, with its send up of the fantasy illustrations of Conan the Barbarian and his ilk. In the issue, Howard is eventually sent on a fantasy quest dressed a la Conan, with nothing but a loin cloth, viking helmet and oversized sword. It’s ridiculous, but the spoof is so well rendered it works.

The thing is — I loved that cover. It’s so absurd but it plugged straight into all the stuff I liked at the time: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Dungeon & Dragons, wacky cartoon animals. And then one day, some guy at a game store told me that he heard they had made a D&D miniature of Howard the Duck in that exact pose.

htdEven though he didn’t have it and didn’t know who to order it from, he swore it was true. He’d seen it … or someone he knew had told him they’d seen it. And thus began my quest. For the next several years, in every game store I entered, I looked for it. I sought it out at conventions, and asked fellow gamers if they’d ever seen one. Some had heard rumors, some imagined they had seen it, but like the Maltese Falcon, evidence of the tiny figurine eluded me. Finally, I came to the conclusion the whole thing was an urban myth, that the game store owner had simply bullshitted me.

Howard the Duck 01 - 11And then the internet showed up.

I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but slowly the old curiosity came back. I had to discover once and for all if it was real or not. Googling variations of howard, duck, miniature, sword all proved fruitless however. Given the wild, open business environment back in the day, it was highly unlikely — scratch that, no chance in hell — that any company had bothered to license “Howard the Duck”™ for a simple lead miniature.

I did get a few hits: in the intervening decades, like-minded goofs had created modules, figures and entire games around sword-swinging anthropomorphic ducks. Weird, but didn’t count — I wanted the original. It was the holy grail or nothing. And then one day I stumbled across a site archiving old D&D figures and catalogs as if they were on an archeological dig in ancient Sumeria. And there it was —

Barbarian Duck.”

It existed. The urban myth was real.

A few more searches confirmed that Archive Fantasy Miniatures had indeed put out a 25mm Howard the Duck-like figure, complete with cigar, in 1976. Eventually one showed up on eBay. Suffice to say, I was the only bidder.

It is, admittedly, hideous. A small, misshapen lump of lead, it barely resembles the figure in the pages, much less the Howard the Duck of the cover. But it’s real, and it’s mine. And it felt good to scratch that itch.

So, who wants to play some D&D?

barbarian_duck

 

[50/50] Movie #14: The Sting

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Favorite Movie #14: The Sting (1973)

thestingSpeaking of old-timey classics, The Sting continues to hold up exceptionally well. This is all the more surprising when you realize that as much time has passed since The Sting was filmed, as the time it’s set in — the Great Depression.

Spinning a yarn of the two smoothest con men to every grace the screen, The Sting singlehandedly relaunched interest in ragtime composer Scott Joplin, and went on to win 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. The Academy Awards are, even in the best of times, either a self-satisfied mutual admiration society or a cynical marketing ploy (or both), but every so often they get it right.

The Sting is a near-perfect movie: an homage to caper films and the golden age of Hollywood, it is slick and entertaining in its own right. And while Paul Newman and Robert Redford are busily conning gangster Robert Shaw, the movie is delightfully misdirecting filmgoers with what’s happening on the screen. When the inevitable double-cross comes at the end, the audience is happy to be played.

This is the 2nd movie on this list by George Roy Hill, one of only three directors to score twice in the 50/50 countdown. His other — Slap Shot — is arguably the best sports comedy of all time. Both Redford and Newman did some of their best work under Hill, but Paul Newman in particular became a master of sly comedy under the director:

[50/50] Game #14: Wings of War

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Tabletop Game #14: Wings of War (2004) and Richthofen’s War (1972)

As today is 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, this is a timely entry. So to speak.

Unlike WWII, which still fuels the wargame industry like a perpetual motion machine, WWI was never a particularly popular era with gamers — with one grand exception. Anything that recreates the aerial dogfights of The Great War sells well — and are invariably fun to play. As deadly as the first use of the aeroplane was in combat (usually to their pilots), the high-flying romance of the period continues to enthrall game designers a century later. Plus, you get to shoot down your buddies, over and over!

There have been dozens of board, video and computer games published over the decades, such as the exceptionally clever Ace of Aces, an elaborately designed pair of books that allows two players to simulate a dog fight, though Avalon Hill’s Richthofen’s War is a sentimental favorite — if for no other reason than it was the first wargame I ever played. It blew me away, and I was hooked after one game. Not just on Richthofen’s War, but wargames in general. Like so many of AH’s titles, it also was slyly educational; soon my brother and I could tell you why a Spad 13 was better than a Sopwith Camel, and pick out the silhouette’s of planes that hadn’t graced the skies in 50 years.

wings of warThe winner though, goes to Wings of War, a game that is simply ingenious in its simplicity. The design is brilliant because you can teach anyone how to play in less than a minute. Turns are lightning fast, and dozens of people can fly at the same time, making it a perfect convention game. With large matches, players also get a true sense of the chaos and capriciousness of a dogfight in the skies over the trenches of WWI, and why a pilot’s career rarely lasted long.

wings of rusty

 

Countdown King

Monday, June 16th, 2014

american_top_40_logoI listened to American Top 40 religiously throughout middle school, famously running out of the room during the ball drop at midnight when WKBO played the year-end countdown on New Year’s Eve. In the mid-’70s, Casey Kasem’s voice was everywhere: countdowns, commercials and cartoons. It was inescapable, and that was OK.

Sadly, his last few months reads like one of the bizarre dedications he made every week on AT40. R.I.P. Casey Kasem

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/business/media/casey-kasem-wholesome-voice-of-pop-radio-dies-at-82.html?hp&_r=0

The return of Snooze Button Poetry

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Snooze Button Poetry IV

Scandals and wealth: we get a tour from
Courage to take easy or no show classes.
The mob from scaling them to laying their eggs
New dresses and casual shirts released
……each week
Making it impossible for matter
……to dig out of the black hole.

—May 2014

Save the Murals: The Next Stage

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

#savethesthsmuralsAs I may have mentioned once or twice on facebook — :) — the murals in the halls of Susquehanna Twp. High School received a reprieve this week, when the school board changed the installation plans of a new HVAC system for the building.

This is a huge win for the artists and alumni, who quickly came together to preserve almost 45 years worth of artwork and an important piece of our collective history.

Some of you have been asking what comes next, and how you might help. The deal we reached was made possible by the generosity of the McClure Company — who agreed to knock almost half of the cost needed to protect the paintings during this summer’s construction — but also by a promise from the community to raise the rest of the funds ourselves.

Right now that number is $92,000.

Over the next month, hundreds of alumni and their families will attempt to bridge that gap with an online kickstarter. This includes NFL wide receiver and STHS grad Marques Colston, who is donating some of the proceeds from the remaining home games of the Harrisburg Stampede, his arena football team. We will also be putting together a team of photographers and designers to scan and digitize the murals to create a permanent record of the 80-some paintings that adorn the halls.

mural82If you went to my high school in the early ’80s, you might remember all the time I spent on that scaffolding painting my senior year. (I’ll admit it, it was a good excuse to get out of class, but I still learned an amazing amount that semester.) Now multiply that effort, that creativity, by 80 artists. That’s what we’re trying to save.

So, we’re now asking you, the public, if you would donate and help us reach our goal. $10, $25, whatever you can — it’s all good.

You can give online at https://fundly.com/save-the-sths-murals
— or you may write a check to the STHS Alumni Association,
PO Box 61474, Harrisburg, Pa. 17106-1474.
(Please note “Murals” on your check.)

The Fundly site is convenient but they take 4%-7% for fees. Mailing a check to the Alumni Association has the advantage of being an 501(c)(3) public charity, so your donation is tax deductible, and the full amount goes to Save the Murals.

Thank you. Seriously
+Jape

[50/50] Song #14: “I Ran”

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Song #14: “I Ran (So Far Away)” — Flock of Seagulls (1982)

DebutSeagullsI’ve really enjoyed the rise of Future Islands, a Baltimore-by-way-of-North Carolina band that recently hit critical mass — if for no other reason than I always feel like I’m back in college when I hear them. The time I first saw them, I jokingly described them as A Flock of Seagulls… if Tom Waits had been the lead singer. While Future Islands’ style has since become distinctively their own, they still sound like a they just came through a wormhole from the 1980s.

Hopefully they will avoid the fate of A Flock of Seagulls, better remembered (and mocked) now for their hair than the droll synthpop of their New Wave hits. “Space Age Love Song” and “Wishing (I had a photograph of you)” ensured they wouldn’t be one-hit wonders, but so what — it is “I Ran” that will be played again and again (as it was just about every hour on MTV in 1982). My freshman year at IUP the local automated radio station played it so religiously you could set your clocks by it, and there wasn’t a dorm you could walk through without hearing it echo down the hallway.

As with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” I could listen to the bionic reverb that makes up the backbone of the song on an infinite loop. Forget about the hypnotically-bad haircut; “I Ran” is mesmerizing all by itself.

Bonus North Carolina connection: After their last hit in 1984, A Flock of Seagulls went into a slow spiral over the next decade or so. The breakup, when it came, was painful, and created a rift between the two brothers at the core of the group. They reportedly didn’t talk to each other for years. It turned out that Alister Score, the drummer, now lives just north of here, one county over. When lead singer Mike Score formed a new version of the band for an ’80s oldies tour in 2008 with Naked Eyes and Human League (cripes it hurt to type that line), and played at nearby Koka Booth, he invited his brother to sit in and play the drums for “I Ran.” Awwww.

“Road to Ritter”

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

0707S_029I first met Mike Ritter in 1999, on the rooftop patio of this great little bar in Chattanooga. Directly across the street from the daily newspaper, it was where all the reporters went to drink after deadline (or, maybe, before), so we cartoonists felt right at home. Mike was going on and on about the classic ‘Road to …’ comedies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, which, as I would soon discover, were not just his favorite movies, but quite possibly his favorite anything. I remember thinking at the time, ‘no one can talk about Dorothy Lamour’s outfits for 20 minutes and not be gay.’ So, got that right….

Others have recounted his incredible talent, wicked wit, and sense of humor. All true. Mike’s passion and insight were keenly refreshing. He once described the AAEC convention as a necessary way station to recharge his inspiration every year, always giving him just enough of a kick to make it through to the next year’s convention. ‘It’s like one of those turbo boosters on a Hot Wheels track, launching the car around for another lap.’ There isn’t a cartoonist gathering I’ve gone to since where I haven’t thought about that.

I loved Mike’s drawing style and warped perspective — both literally and figuratively. As energetic as his line could be, his work often had a dark tinge to it, full of shadows and inky blackness. My all-time favorite cartoon by him was one on a national frenzy over a huge lottery jackpot, after people had reportedly spent their savings on tickets. A forlorn figure hunches over a pile of shredded lottery tickets in the middle of a vast, empty apartment. The small child sitting on the floor looks up at the figure and asks, “Did we win?” It is heartbreaking.

(I couldn't find the lottery cartoon, but here's an appropriate one.)

(I couldn’t find the lottery cartoon, but here’s an appropriate one.)

Looking back now, I realize it’s been almost 10 years since Mike and I talked, twice as long as the handful of years we were friends. We worked together when he was President of the AAEC, but even then it was clear he was starting to pull away. Mike got harder and harder to get ahold of and, as happened to so many of us, stopped returning my calls altogether. I was happy to hear he had resurfaced in Atlanta a few years ago, apparently successful in rebooting his life.

It sounds as if Mike had begun to reach out to old associates recently. We had friended each other on facebook and traded a few chats, but his untimely demise ended that chance to get drinks and catch up.

You know, I believe “Road to Morocco” might cheer me up. I know Mike would enthusiastically agree.

I survived Three Mile Island

Friday, March 28th, 2014

TMI-credit-Joe-Ulrich-216x300

— An excerpt from my Indy article on TMI:

That night my friend Monty called. They were going to see The China Syndrome, which had opened the week before. My mother objected, but, now that I think about it, her reluctance probably had more to do with the fact that Monty had just gotten his driver’s license than anything else. “We have to go,” I told her. “This is historic! Besides, if there’s a meltdown and evacuation who knows when we’ll see our friends again!” She relented.

The theater was packed. At one point in the movie a character talks about the devastation that will be caused by a nuclear meltdown. “It would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania!” the character says. The audience went wild. As we left the theater there was a TV news camera crew in the parking lot interviewing people about seeing a movie on a meltdown in the midst of a meltdown.

Read the whole thing here: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/i-survived-three-mile-island/Content?oid=1215163

Photo via WITF

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