Tuesday, June 28, 2011

COLLECTOR'S EDITION excerpt #3: Buttons and Blows

My KISS fanaticism continued for a few years, but in early 1979, during my freshman year of high school, I was introduced to the music that would totally change my life. Shortly after Christmas break, one morning on the bus, I was talking with my friend Kevin about how I really liked some of this “new wave” stuff I was hearing on the radio, like Blondie’s “One Way or Another” and the Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” Kev’ told me that he had a few records I had to hear, and one day after school, I went over to his house. Kevin pulled an LP with a green, black and fluorescent orange cover, removed the vinyl from the sleeve and put it on his turntable, skipping to side two, track two, his favorite song on the album.

Drums, bass and guitars exploded in my ears, following a singer passionately exclaiming in a distinct, guttural British accent, “They offered me the office, offered me the shaaaaaa-op! They said I’d better take anything they gaaaaaaa-ot! Do you wanna make tea at the BBC, Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a caaaaaaahp?”

“Listen to how angry he sounds!” Kevin instructed. And I listened. Oh, how I listened.

The song was “Career Opportunities” off of the debut album by the Clash, and thus I was ushered into the previously-dismissed world of punk rock. Granted, by 1979, the movement was almost over, and, being a 14 year-old white boy in suburban Pennsylvania, it’s not like I could relate to much of the political content, but the energy, the anger, the intensity was all ridiculously inspiring. Kevin loaned me that record as well as the equally incendiary NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS, HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS to take home and get to know. Finally I had found music besides superhero themes that spoke to me. A few weeks later, I gave all of my KISS albums to my younger brother (a gesture I would later come to regret).

In short time, I was an avid fan of this music and began acquiring records by Elvis Costello, DEVO, Joe Jackson, the B-52’s, the Pretenders, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Specials, 999, the Romantics, XTC, the Psychedelic Furs and other bands that fell under this wide, but unifying anti-mainstream umbrella. For the first time, I felt a genuine, deep connection to rock and roll, and it started to change the way I looked at the world, as well as myself.

In December of 1979, the Clash released their third album, LONDON CALLING, a two record set that remains, to my mind, the single (or, technically, double) greatest rock album ever recorded (I usually don’t like absolutes, but this one I hold). I bought LONDON CALLING the week it came out—January of 1980 in the states—at the record department at Sears at the Park City Mall, and vividly remember showing it off to the friends I ran into at the Salad Haus.

On Thursday, March 6, 1980, I attended my very first rock concert: The Clash on the LONDON CALLING tour at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby PA just outside of Philadelphia. The ticket cost $7.50, and I went with my friends Kevin, Bill, Al and Nathan, as well as Kevin’s dad. We bought our T-shirts (including bootleg shirts outside the theater) and I got a copy of THE ARMAGIDEON TIMES "program" from the tour and we settled into our seats. Kevin's dad was cool enough to get a seat a few rows away from us so as not to cramp our punk rock style.

There were three openers: The B-Girls, a somewhat middling new wave combo and two reggae acts, Mikey Dread and Lee Dorsey. To say that the reggae acts were cooly-greeted is an understatement, but it points to how diverse and forward-thinking the band was. Finally, the rightly-tagged “Only Band That Matters” took the stage and tore into “Clash City Rockers,” beginning an hour and a half of incendiary punk magnificence.

At the time, of course, I had no idea what a big deal it was that I was seeing this band, at this time, on this tour. In fact, despite being near the back on the orchestra level, it was still so loud that I went to the lobby to sit out the encore, something that makes me wanna go back in time and kick my 15 year old butt back into the theater. But I couldn’t have predicted that over thirty years and literally thousands of rock shows later, as far as my concert history is concerned, nothing would ever measure up to number one .

Despite my worship of the Clash and the Pistols, I made a concerted effort to not refer to myself as a “punk rocker” mostly because I didn’t feel I deserved the honor… I wasn’t quite that downtrodden. Unless you count the non-stop abuse my friends and I received from our classmates for liking this music, an animus that even extended to the Police and U2, two bands that were in 1981 considered too freaky by the jocks and the preppies that were our arch-enemies.

In the Twenty-Aughts where, to quote Jane’s Addiction, nothing’s shocking, it’s hilarious to remember how the mere addition of a Dead Kennedys button to your sweater could garner you an afternoon in detention, as my friend Mike learned. Granted, it was a DK’s “Too Drunk to Fuck” button, but buttons and T-shirts didn’t have to bear profanity to garner us “punkers” (a much despised term) ridicule and abuse.

The day after seeing DEVO in Philadelphia on their NEW TRADITIONALISTS tour in 1981, my friend Bill and I wore our concert tees to school. But, as with most DEVO merch, these weren’t simple white shirts emblazoned with a logo; They were the same shirts worn by the band on the cover of that album, blue shirts with a black V-neck collar and black short sleeves. The left sleeve said “New Traditionalists” in red arcing letters over the face of an astronaut, and the DEVO logo was on the left breast in red and black circles. Yeah, they were kinda goofy. That was the point. But Bill and I received non-stop abuse the entire day (especially if we happened to be together at any point).

I also got loads of shit for the Go-Go’s baseball shirt I bought at their concert on the University of Pennsylvania campus a few weeks later, due to its fuchsia sleeves. My homemade B-52’s shirt, emblazoned with the line “I’m not no limburger!” drew much ridicule, and not due to the intentionally bad grammar. And the one day I wore a skinny new wave tie to my no-tie-required public school… you’d have thought I was walking around in a ballerina tutu. But to me, their rejection was a badge of honor.

The thing that made our social ostracism relatively easy to bear was that my friends and I (well, most of us, anyway) weren’t passive about this punk rock thing. We worked at it. It wasn’t easy to find this stuff back in those days before technology made everything instantly available. We’d buy Trouser Press and expensive imported copies of British music mags New Music Express and Melody Maker to read about new bands. We’d listen to the two local college radio stations, Millersville State College’s WIXQ and Franklin & Marshall’s WFNM and hope that the DJ would say the name of the band of that cool song we just heard so we could go to the mall or downtown to Stan’s Record Bar to try to find it that weekend (a number of my friends also made frequent drives to Philadelphia or Baltimore to go record shopping, but I only joined them once or twice).

One popular means of acquiring music that was not an option for the new wave fan was any of the record and tape clubs that advertised in seemingly every magazine in the 1970s and ‘80s. While the prospect of 13 LPs for 1¢ might have been enticing to the financially challenged teen, the selections left much to be desired if you were of the punk persuasion. An ad for the Columbia House Record& Tape Club in the August 1979 issue of PLAYBOY lists 259 selections (available on LP, 8-track, cassette or reel-to-reel). Of those 259, the only ones I would’ve considered buying at the time were The Cars’ selt-titled debut, Blondie’s PARALLEL LINES and PLASTIC LETTERS and Elvis Costello’s ARMED FORCES. That’s four out of 259, and by that point I think I owned all of those already .

Amazing as it is consider in 2011, I also discovered cool bands by watching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. The Monday after the B-52’s performed “Rock Lobster” and “Dance This Mess Around” on SNL in 1980, my friends and I convened before homeroom to discuss how mind-blowingly awesome they were as most of our classmates derided the Athens band as “weird,” “stupid” and that most suburban of pejoratives, “gay.”

The ridicule extended beyond my classmates. One particularly notorious event occurred at the one and only “Bring Your Own Records Dance” held at my high school. Barely anyone who attended the thing dragged their heavy vinyl along, but my friends and I did, and so GJ the DJ (no, really) was obligated to play some Buzzcocks and Rezillos, to which we merrily pogoed on the squeaky gym floor.

Until one of the teacher chaperones, Mr. Meany , came up to our little group of new wavers and said that no more of our records were going to be played. Stunned, we asked why, as we were practically the only people who were actually dancing at the “dance.”

“You guys aren’t dancing. You’re doing THIS,” Mr. Meany said as he, I shit you not, bolted forwards and slammed his shoulder into me, knocking me backwards. My friends stood stunned as I regained my footing only to have him slam into me again, repeating his judgment (I wonder if he’s a fan of SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE these days).

Somehow, probably because I was a giant wuss, I was able to maintain my cool and pointed out that we weren’t even gently slam dancing, that our skanking and jumping may have been unusual in the eyes of those who only did the grinding, hand-on-butt slow dancing, but was totally harmless. Even at the time, I realized that Mr. Meany was trying to get me to physically retaliate so he’d have a legitimate reason to eject us from the dance, but, despite a steady diet of superhero vengeance coursing through my psyche, I refused.

Instead, we just took our records and sat on the bleachers, feeling righteous indignation over the breadth of our ostracism from the mainstream. Fuck this school, basement parties were way better anyway.

And we did have basement parties. I’d drag my stereo and records to the basement and set them up on the washer and dryer, move the piles of boxes out of the way and make room for my pals and I to pogo around the metal poles to Black Flag and Dirty Looks and GenX. As I was a non-drinker in high school (although I never applied the term “straightedge” to myself), my friends would do their illegal imbibing outside throughout the evening.

Towards the end of my senior year in high school I started a relationship with one of the girls in our little punk clique (It was her Elvis Costello t-shirt that first caught my eye, and for that reason I shall refer to her as Alison). Our punk rock devotion was the main thing that Alison and I had in common, much to her parents’ chagrin. They far preferred her prior boyfriend, a conservative, slightly older guy who worked in a bank and hated the music Alison listened to. Of course, her parents didn’t know that he was also a giant cokehead, but I have a feeling that even if they had, they still would’ve liked him more than this rebel-rousing “punker.”

Due to this disdain, Alison’s parents refused to allow me to take her to our senior prom, which was actually okay with me, as the prospect of renting a tux to dance to Journey songs didn’t exactly thrill me, nor most of my other pals. And so we planned our own unofficial prom. We got dressed up in our new wave finery and had a fancy-schmancy dinner at a downtown Italian restaurant before adjourning to my parents’ basement for some formal slam dancing. Man, how I wish I had photos of that event, especially after it was crashed by a bunch of people who ditched the official prom to come join us in the basement.

See, a funny thing happened during the last semester of my senior year. All of a sudden, this new wave / punk stuff started to become a little more popular, thanks in part to this new cable channel called “MTV,” which stood for “Music Television” and showed these things called “music videos.” And since new wave bands were practically the only artists who had videos ready to go when the network premiered, suddenly acts like the Buggles, Wall of Voodoo, DEVO and Siouxsie and the Banshees were getting wider exposure than ever they had ever dreamed possible.

And suddenly, the popular kids at Hempfield were hosting “Punk Parties,” where they’d, at least for one night, stick safety pins in their polo shirts and spike their hair and play music that just a year earlier was deigned unfit for human consumption. Of course, they didn’t go out and BUY any new wave records, they just asked to borrow them from one of my punker peers. I never, ever agreed to loan any of my precious vinyl to any of these posers, and not just because they STILL wouldn’t have invited me to the party.

Finally, in June of 1982, I graduated from high school, and while our official graduating class song was Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” for me it was the Clash’s “Clampdown,” with its empowering message, “Let fury have the hour / anger can be power / do you know that you can use it?”
from the forthcoming book, COLLECTOR'S EDITION: Confessions of a Pop Culture Obsessive-Compulsive
by and © Karl Heitmueller Jr.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bronze Beauties #31: GREEN LANTERN

It’s an undisputed fact that DC Comics’ trinity of most iconic superheroes is Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. But who’s #4 in the DC Universe? Until now, it’s been kind of a toss-up between the Flash and Green Lantern, but after this weekend, the scales may tip in GL’s balance with the release of Martin Campbell’s big screen adaptation of the story of Hal Jordan.

I have no idea what’s going to happen with the GREEN LANTERN movie. Like most fanboys, I wasn’t initially crazy about the casting of Ryan Reynolds (Hal Jordan is not exactly a smart-ass) and the toe-baring CG costume. But with each subsequent trailer, it looks like they nailed the vast scope of this part of the DCU and have done a remarkable job of priming the general public as to the concept of the Green Lantern Corps. Whether they have interest in this unique combination of superheroics and sci-fi remains to be seen. The main drag for the fanboys is that we know in advance how the movie’s going to end (ditto CAPTAIN AMERICA).

In 1959, editor Julius Schwartz re-envisioned the mystical ring-bearing golden age Green Lantern as a science fiction hero, our space sector’s chosen recruit for an intergalactic peacekeeping force, the Green Lantern Corps. As written by John Broome and drawn by Gil Kane, Green Lantern was one of the key figures of the 1960s Silver Age superhero renaissance.

But GL was perhaps even more important to the emergence of the socially relevant Bronze Era. In early 1970, Neal Adams’ striking cover to GREEN LANTERN #76 (now cover-titled GREEN LANTERN / GREEN ARROW) indicated that the times were (yes, I’m going to say it) a-changing. DC Comics was being infused with—some veterans said taken over by—fresh, idealistic young writers like Denny O’Neil, who took over the title with this issue. Using the comic as a platform to tackle social and political issues, O’Neil paired GL (depicted as a conservative symbol of the establishment) with Green Arrow, who had recently been revamped from a mere Batman clone into a radical, van dyke-sporting leftist. Along with Black Canary and a member of the Guardians of the Universe (who oversee the GL Corps from the planet Oa), the “hard-traveling heroes” crossed America in a beat-up pickup truck, tackling such Earthbound issues as environmental abuse, racism, poverty, sexism and, most startlingly, drug abuse.

GREEN LANTERN / GREEN ARROW was one of the first superhero comics to push the boundaries of the formerly staid genre, ushering in the Bronze Age of Comics. In GL #87, John Stewart was designated as the new sub for Hal in case of emergency, becoming one of the first African-American superheroes. Neal Adams and Dick Giordano’s realism-based illustrations further signaled a change in the medium. And while the series only lasted until #89, its impact has never gone away.

Green Lantern bounced around the DCU for the next handful of years, starring in backup stories in THE FLASH, appearing in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA and other random titles, until his own comic was resurrected in 1976. This time, the series went back to its more science fiction ‘60s roots, and over the next few decades, readers met more and more members of the universe-spanning Corps.

To sum up what came in the next few decades would not only take another couple of thousand words, but the taste in my mouth would go from sweet to sour as Hal Jordan was one of the main casualties of the so-called “Dark Age” of comics in the 1990s. Suffice it to say that Parallax (the evil entity of the new movie) was involved and Hal Jordan died and there were some replacement Green Lanterns with really awful costumes and eventually DC Comics realized that they needed to bring back Hal and everything’s kinda back to normal now (the number of times DC’s gone back to the core characters after failed “reboots” makes you wonder if they’re ever going to learn their lesson…. Based on recent news, apparently not).

Despite GL #75 being released in 1970, it’s still very much a Silver Age book, and I include it here primarily to showcase the stark change from that issue to the groundbreaking #76 (which, coincidentally, hit the stands the very month I started buying comic books).

From top to bottom:
GREEN LANTERN #75 (March 1970) by Gil Kane
GREEN LANTERN #76 (April 1970) by Neal Adams
Incidentally, a copy of this comic book recently sold at auction for $50,000, making it the highest price paid for a Bronze era comic book.
GREEN LANTERN #86 (November 1971) by Neal Adams
GREEN LANTERN #88 (March 1972) by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano
(This issue reprinted old stories)
GREEN LANTERN #123 (Dec. 1979) by Gil Kane
Years after he'd left GL, Gil Kane returned to work sporadically on the comic, starting with this beautiful cover harking back to the character's Silver Age iconography

All artwork ©DC Comics, inc.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

On the Importance of the Red Shorts (a fanboy rant against the new Superman costume)

by George Perez, SUPERMAN #1
For the past few weeks, I’ve been living in denial. I knew it was coming, but I held onto that one tiny sliver of hope that the teaser I saw was an aberration, perhaps a spare, second design to be used only on special occasions. But no.

This is Superman’s new costume. And if you thought the geeks got bent out of shape about Wonder Woman’s do-over last year, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

For those of you not versed in such matters, DC Comics is in the process of revealing an upcoming reboot of their universe. In a few months, all of the major DC titles will restart with new #1 issues, in a few cases replacing books that have been running for three quarters of a century, with numberings in super-vision-eyeshot of a thousand. Additionally, most of the characters’ costumes have been either completely redesigned or given some simple “modern” tweaks, in order to make them, according to artist and co-publisher Jim Lee, “more identifiable and accessible to comics fans new and old.”

Excuse me? “More identifiable?” How is this MORE identifiable than one of the most iconic designs in not just comics, but all of pop culture history?

This is just the latest manifestation of the kind of short sighted flash(point) over substance that’s defined mainstream comic books for the past decade now. Overarching, complicated “crossover events” dominate DC and Marvel comics, making it nigh-impossible for any casual reader to just pick up a comic book and have any clue what’s happening. To complicate matters further, both publishers have numerous different versions of some of their most popular characters running concurrently. It’s a fucking mess.

art by George Perez
So, yes, a periodic house cleaning is not a bad idea. DC’s 1985 CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS streamlined their “multiverse” into one cohesive universe and timeline, but of course, within a decade or so, things became muddled again and thus began a series of tweaks and redefinitions that’s become practically ongoing.

I don’t buy any comic books on a regular basis any more, but I still love the art form and particularly the superhero genre (it’s just that these days, I mostly get my fix from OLD comics and other media adaptations). When I do buy modern comics, it’s usually in the collected trade paperback format, which gather extended storylines under one cover. But even then, the end result is often still so reliant on previous and/or related stories and convoluted continuity that it’s impermeable to the lay reader.

I recently bought Geoff Johns’ FLASH: REBIRTH, thinking that it was the story of the resurrection of the Silver/Bronze age Flash, Barry Allen, who gave his life to save the universe in the aforementioned CRISIS. I liked what Johns did with a similar storyline in which Barry’s contemporary, Hal Jordan came back to life and retook the mantle of Green Lantern.

But as I started reading the book, I realized that Barry was ALREADY BACK, that it had happened in another comic, and that REBIRTH was about tying up all the loose ends that go along with undoing an already Byzantine mythology. By the end of the second chapter, I was so lost that I just tossed the damn thing on my elimination pile (the fact that Ethan Van Sciver’s stiff, clunky art hurt my eyes only added to my enmity).

So the concept of a universe-wide restart isn't the problem itself. And in fact, I WOULD pick up some regular comics (especially with DC’s new lower price point) if I could follow what was going on. But what’s been revealed thus far just feels like they’re going about it in a wrong-headed way.

One of the most successful tweaks of a character was Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE storyline in 1987. Unlike Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS series of the year prior, YEAR ONE was part of the “official” continuity, a slight reworking of the story of the caped crusader’s nascent career and burgeoning relationship with a Lieutenant Jim Gordon. It was a fantastic story, beautifully rendered, and left an impact on the character felt to this day.

And here’s the thing: BATMAN: YEAR ONE wasn’t a mini-series, nor was it the beginning of a renumbering of the character’s titular comic book. The four-part story simply ran in BATMAN #404 through 407. Nobody was confused, and certainly nobody ignored it. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the story was the thing, not a gimmicky renumbering or costume modification.

Tim Burton's Superman
Although Batman’s costume has been tweaked quite a bit over the years. But Batman’s visual look, while certainly distinctive, is more open to interpretation than Superman’s (or Wonder Woman’s, for that matter). The unique elements of the Superman outfit are SO iconic that all previous efforts to significantly alter it have fallen flat (moreso in the movies than the comics).

Superman’s costume HAS gone through slight modifications since he was introduced in 1938. The boots, cape, belt and of course, S-shield evolved over the years, settling into the iconic standard by the mid-40s. The specific details have stood the test of time: The M-Shaped double scallop at the top of the boots, the circular belt buckle, the pentagon with the five floating yellow shapes creating the S shape, the tucked-in cape. These may seem trivial, but they’re all intrinsic parts of the whole that, when abandoned, just don’t look right.

So let’s check out this new design. There’s a high collar, that turns the cape's ends into epaulets somehow attached to the neck. We’ve got a ridiculous red (utility?) belt with a superfluous pentagon buckle. Those boots, I have no idea what the hell they are. The armor-resembling calves and knees. The pointless detail piping on the shirt and legs. The bottom arc of the S is no longer rounded. And, perhaps most predictably, the red shorts are no more.

At this point, I’m not sure if this is a Jim Lee redesign or if it was done by George Peréz (who drew the image, from the forthcoming SUPERMAN #1). Certainly, it has all the earmarks of an overdone, awkward Pérez design (he may be one of the most popular comic book artists of all time, but his costume designs are the worst… check out Jericho and Dick Grayson’s first Nightwing outfit, to name just two). But the S and the high collar scream Lee.

art by Jim Lee. Meh.
I have to admit, I am not a fan of Jim Lee’s art. Lee broke out in the 1990s, one of the superstars of the “Dark Age” of comics, when over-rendered superheroes with Schwarzenegger physiques and ridiculous weaponry gritted their teeth and killed anything in their way. This was a period when one of the hottest artists in comics was Rob Liefeld, a cartoonist with perhaps the worst grasp of anatomy in the history of the medium. While Lee wasn’t as bad as Liefeld, his style of rendering always left me cold, and I’ve noted in recent years that while he’s somewhat adept at drawing muscular, spandex-clad men with facial scruff in their 30s, mechanical devices and vehicles, other than that, he’s lost. His women look like men with grapefruits taped on their chests, his older characters are botoxed to the point of no return and anyone without a hero’s physique somehow still manages to look ripped (his version of the Joker is more comical than Cesar Romero’s).

art by Gary Frank. Yes!
Jim Lee became the co-publisher of DC in 2010 alongside Dan DiDio (with Geoff Johns anointed the Chief Creative Officer). All three of these guys are bona fide fanboys, to be sure (and, FLASH: REBIRTH aside, Johns has written some great comics… his SUPERMAN: SECRET ORIGIN was maybe the best version of that oft-told tale I’ve ever read). But they also all seem to lack a faith in the characters whose destiny they currently control.

There’s a reason Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have lasted uninterrupted for nigh 75 years. They are innately perfect pop culture creations, so distinct at the core that they can be adapted to fit the changing technology and times. But, and here’s the rub, they have all become so much bigger than their comic book incarnations that while DC may own the copyright (for now anyway, in the case of Superman), they don’t own the characters. They belong to the public and the public doesn’t like it when icons are changed, especially if there wasn’t anything wrong with them in the first place (insert overused, but apt New Coke metaphor here).

As with Electric-Blue Superman and Mullet Superman and SUPERMAN RETURNS Superman, this redesign will hopefully (and probably) turn out to be a temporary aberration (regardless of what costume Henry Cavill’s Kal-El wears in THE MAN OF STEEL).

Superman’s design appeals to the id, the dramatic combination of simple shapes and primary colors strikes as much a chord within us as his strength of character. It’s not only pointless, it’s flat out demeaning to think that he needs an “update” or has to get rid of his red shorts because they’re “silly” or not cool. Superman is beyond all that. He’s Superman.

art by Drew Struzan. Awesome.