Friday, February 26, 2021

The Squeak of the Spinner Rack

NOTE: This piece originally ran as part of 13th Dimension's ongoing series of Retro Hot Picks, spotlighting comic books on the rack in a selected month from the past. Dan Greenfield asked me to contribute to the post concerning books cover dated April, 1970 (which hit the stands in February) because he knew that was the very month I started reading comics. That may seem like very specific knowledge for someone to have about me, but there's a reason why (aside from the fact that I've blathered about it before). I've augmented the piece with additional art from the books described. 

One day in February of 1970, my father handed me something he’d picked up at the newsstand on the way home from work. He knew that I was a big fan of Superman (primarily from the Filmation cartoons that were at the time in reruns on CBS Saturday mornings), so he thought I might enjoy a comic book starring said character. Technically, it was the younger version of the hero, as the book was SUPERBOY #164, cover dated April 1970. My poor Dad, with this simple fifteen-cent impulse buy, had no idea of the Pandora’s Box he’d just opened for his five-year-old son. I became instantly smitten with the medium of comic books, and later that week, my mother took me to the Thrift Drug a few miles down the road from our suburban cul-de-sac and directed me to the comic book spinner rack near the front of the store, allowing me to pick out a couple more samples of this new interest of mine.

Anyone reading this is at least familiar with what an old spinner rack looked like—four vertical rows of up to ten wire baskets that held about a dozen or so books each. The rack rotated (hence the “spinner” part of its name) so that it could be placed in a corner or against a wall in and still allow for complete mining of the full field of pulp. Now, if you’re too young to have ever had the experience of foraging a comic book spinner rack, let me try to paint a picture. 

I can remember the rush I felt like every time I entered a drug store or a newsstand and saw a freshly-stocked comic rack. The overwhelming palette of color and bold imagery was an adrenaline jolt like few things I’ve felt since. I’d rush to the fixture and begin the scavenging, carefully flipping the tops of the books in each basket (most of which housed more than one title, which is why comic book mastheads contained as much information as possible, something that can look redundant from a design perspective in the 21st century but was necessary in context), picking the new issue of books I bought regularly and always trying out a new title if the cover grabbed me. 

I can still hear the squeak of the rack as I turned it to peruse the next row, squatting as I got to the lower baskets, standing up when I finished the vertical drop. I still remember the thrill of finding something I wanted hidden behind some issues I didn’t (romance comics, yuck!). I can recall the pile of comics growing in my sweaty little paws, the dimes, nickels, and quarters adding up with each selection (DC Comics mostly, but I bought from almost every publisher in the ‘70s), hoping that Mom or Dad was feeling extra generous that day and wouldn’t make me put some of them back (they rarely did). The only bad thing about the spinner rack was when you had to share it with another comic book fan (Hey, don’t spin it, I’m not done with this row yet!) Or when you could tell that the stock boy whose job it was to put out the new books didn’t care whether or not they got beat up in the process. But I can honestly say that of all the ways I’ve purchased comic books in the half-century (ouch) since that first issue—comic shops, subscriptions, conventions, used book stores, online—nothing was ever better than hitting the drugstore spinner rack. 

Anyway, back to that February day 51 years ago… Here are the books I picked out that day (and forgive my near-single-mindedness): ACTION COMICS #387, SUPERMAN’S PAL, JIMMY OLSEN #128, DETECTIVE COMICS #398, and SUPERMAN #225. Every one of these books (along with SUPERBOY #164) holds a place of distinction in my collection; they are not filed away in the comic boxes with their alphabetical / chronological brethren, they are on open display on a shelf in my studio, and the covers of each one resonate with me like pictures of any first loves. 

What I didn’t come to understand until many years later was the significance the timing of my entry into comic book fandom held. Also on the spinner rack that week was GREEN LANTERN #76, widely considered to mark the very dawn of the Bronze Age of Comics. So I started buying / reading / collecting comics the precise moment that my favorite era of the medium began. Looking at the gallery of all the comic books that came out that month (many more of which I’ve since added to my collection), I am again reminded that while I may often feel the sting of middle age, I wouldn’t trade the experience of buying these books at this time in this manner for anything. I am a true Bronze Baby and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

House ads from these comics that mesmerized me!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

SHIPS IN A BOTTLE: How STAR TREK Got Me Through Covid, Quarantine, and the End of Trump

Normally, I’m not a trendsetter. I don’t beta test anything, I like to wait until the kinks get worked out. But when it came to the Coronavirus, apparently I couldn’t wait. Working as a bartender, I contracted the disease sometime over the weekend of March 13-14, 2020, the last few days before the shutdown in NY and NJ. While my infection took a week or so to fully bloom, by the time it did, I had developed some of the more disconcerting symptoms: Difficulty breathing, incredible fatigue, and a hacking cough to wake the dead. A trip to the local CityMD confirmed: I had a heaping helping of Covid-19 with a side of pneumonia. The doctor said that under normal circumstances, I’d be hospitalized, but given the state of those institutions at the time (swamped and deadly), he thought it was actually better for me to tough it out at home (where, I guess I should note, I live alone). I was prescribed some heavy duty Rx (which my friend T.Jay, who also risked his health to drive me to the doctor, graciously picked up for me) and told to try to get as much rest as possible. 

This seemingly simple directive proved difficult. Despite being constantly exhausted, sleep was elusive, mostly due to—you know—not being able to breathe. I spent my days on the couch, and my nights propped up in bed with every pillow I could find, like the Elephant Man, afraid that if I somehow fell into a horizontal position, I would instantly die. When the coughing fits would ensue, I’d close my eyes and speak my mantra, softly saying, “Breathe... Breathe... Breathe…,” over and over, until my dumb body finally listened. 

In addition to the drugs, the tea and water, the crackers, and the clementines (about all I could ingest), there was, of course, TV. A lot of TV. Like… all the TV. My first quarantine binge was a rewatch of MAD MEN, the entire seven seasons of which I managed to get through in a matter of weeks. And geez, that Don Draper is a piece of work, am I right? 

But that first week of being sick, I also decided that I would begin each night in bed by going back to one of my all-time favorite shows, albeit one I don’t own (yes, I still own hard media) and hadn’t seen in a long time: STAR TREK

And when I say, STAR TREK, I mean the original series (or, TOS, in the proper parlance). I’m kind of a classicist. For me, the original is usually the best. And with something as groundbreaking as STAR TREK, it’s hard to be objectively critical towards the relative shortcomings of its lesser episodes in light of everything that the series got right. 

I didn’t exactly “binge” TREK. I would usually do only one episode per night (via Netflix), and then switch to something for which I felt free to pay half-attention while fighting to fall asleep, not caring if I dozed off in the middle of, say, THE BLACKLIST or CRIMINAL MINDS (a terrible program I only watch because of a Paget Brewster obsession that I’m certain she’d find nothing but charming).

In short time, my nightly STAR TREK viewing became kind of the highlight of my day. I found myself looking forward to bedtime (even though, let’s be honest, given the circumstances, that could’ve been 7pm if I’d wanted) and my nightly voyage with the USS Enterprise, boldly going where no man (ahem) had gone before. There were episodes I remembered vividly, ones I sort of hazily recalled, and others I probably hadn’t seen since watching reruns as a kid at my grandparents’ house when they’d babysit me in the 1970s. 

I may not have remembered every episode with dilithium-crystal clarity, but I knew the crew like they’d been at my side since childhood. The cocky but virtuous (well, mostly) Captain James T. Kirk; The steadying presence of First Officer Spock, the human / Vulcan hybrid battling to keep that former half of his psyche buried, often unsuccessfully; The cantankerous conscience of the ship, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy; and the multiracial bridge crew, each a valued member and distinct personality in their own right. 

What resonated most with me every night as I sat ramrod in bed was the underlying message that creator Gene Roddenberry imbued into the series and for which I found myself in dire need: Hope. In episodes both good (“The Devil in the Dark,” “Amok Time,” “Mirror, Mirror” to name a few) and not-so-good (“Spock’s Brain,” “Spectre of the Gun,” “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”), Roddenberry’s vision of a future in which humanity had evolved to excise our baser instincts in favor of a more humanist, tolerant, and forward-looking existence was an even more soothing balm than the dollops of Vicks VapoRub slathered on my wheezing chest. 

And this optimistic vision of the future wasn’t just helping me to fight my own personal health crisis; perhaps even more importantly, it was giving me a much-needed catharsis from the other deadly scourge America was suffering, the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Space Force notwithstanding, the Trump administration (or, “administration,” as it should really be in quotes given its lack of administrating) espoused policies and attitudes that were completely anathema to those that Starfleet will come to represent in a few centuries. I NEEDED to see people—fictional, sure, but whatever—wanting to expand their horizons, striving to help others (even sentient rocks!), to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even at the risk of their own safety. I don’t think Bones would’ve had to yell at anyone on the Enterprise to wear a mask.

My daily STAR TREK ritual continued after I recovered from the virus, eventually shifting from bedtime viewing to what I’d put on the tube while I was making and eating dinner every evening (once that ritual resumed). As I wended my way through the third, final, and—as universally acknowledged—weakest season, I started to wonder what was going to replace it in my queue once I hit the final episode?

There had been other TV binges through quarantine, of course. I plowed through THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and BOSCH and SCTV and DARK and SUCCESSION and OZARK and some others I can’t quite think of right now because I’m getting bummed out at the thought of how many hours I’ve spent watching TV the past eleven months but ANYWAY MY POINT IS…. None of those shows provided me with the kind of catharsis that STAR TREK did. Okay, maybe DICK VAN DYKE came close (albeit in a very different, more personally aspirational way). 

The logical transition was to jump to STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. But here’s the problem: I didn’t like TNG (again, vernacular). I watched it sporadically in its initial run from 1987 to 1994, but it never clicked with me the way TOS did. Particularly as the show became more invested in family dynamics (in the final season, there are THREE EPISODES IN A ROW about fathers and sons!) and romantic entanglements (I’m sorry, you know who should never get together? A Klingon and a Betazoid), it just never felt like the TREK I loved.

Also, Wesley Crusher. Never forget Wesley Crusher. Lord knows I’ve tried. 

But, with a little prodding from my friend Adam (an avowed TNG acolyte whose opinion I do value) and knowing how much my brother, Ken worships Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Enterprise-D, I decided to give TNG another shot, from the beginning. 

It was a tough go at first. Unlike TOS, which found its footing rather quickly (after the post-pilot reboot, of course), TNG took a while to figure out who goes where and how everyone fit together on the sparkly, if flatter new Enterprise (the bridge of which always evoked more an airport VIP lounge than the command center of a Federation starship to me). Heck, they went through like three different chief engineers before finally realizing Geordi LaForge was the obvious choice for the gig. 

Also, Wesley. There was Wesley. 

But by the second season, I found myself beginning to warm up to the show, and by the time Picard was assimilated by the Borg at the end of Season 3, I was all-in. And while TOS will always be my favorite, I have to grudgingly admit that if I had to pick a captain under whom to serve…. It’d be Picard over Kirk. It’s not just that Jean-Luc (the Frenchman with the British accent) has more impulse control and better elocution than James Tiberius (pretty sure Picard knows how to pronounce “sabotage”), he also exudes the kind of bold, but smart leadership that inspires more confidence than Kirk’s oft-reckless, Shakespearian breach-diving. Kirk might be more fun than Picard (and slightly less scary), but he’s also far more likely to get your red shirt disintegrated (with you in it). Also, I’m sure that my being older makes it easier for me to relate to the fiftyish—but still dashing—Picard. Not that I’m dashing. But I am fiftyish (heh). 

But it’s not just Picard that endeared me to TNG this time around. I actually grew to care for the characters (although no, I was not sad to see Wesley go in Season 4). I came to love Data (even if, to me, it seems plainly obvious from the start that he absolutely has emotions); I stopped thinking of Will Riker as simply a chair-straddling cheeseball; I began to see the need for Deanna to have the seat next to the captain on the bridge (although I wish the character had been treated better in the series, and wasn’t mysteriously absent in some episodes when she’d be most needed). I thought Ro Laren was a fantastic addition and wish Michelle Forbes had been willing to commit to the series as more than just a sometimes guest star. But more than the characters themselves, it was their interactions that came to define the series, their incredibly believable relationships with each other, both one-on-one and as a larger group. I still had issues with the more soap operatic installments, shows that centered around children, and pretty much every single Klingon-centric episode (Honor! Tradition! Honor! WE GET IT ALREADY! Geez, give it a rest, shellhead!). And, again, the quality of the shows varied widely from great (“Darmok,” “Chain of Command,” “Sarek”) to, um, WTF (“The Child,” “Sub Rosa,” “When the Bough Breaks,” and of course the infamous “Code of Honor”). But once it gelled, this cast and crew became a true ensemble that engendered the same kind of inspirational affection I’d felt for Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and, uh, maybe sometimes Chekov. 

(I should also make a note that I followed up every episode of both series the next day with its corresponding installment of the fantastic MISSION LOG PODCAST, in which hosts John Champion and Ken Ray [since departed] pull apart each episode with wit, intelligence, and alacrity [sadly, a scarcity in podcasts]. If you’re into TREK at all, I can’t recommend it enough. As of this writing, they’re up to Season 5 of DS9 [with Norman C. Lao replacing Ken Ray as of 2019], so there’s lots more to come.)

As my TREK marathon stretched out over month after month I realized it was actually going to outlast the Trump Administration, which felt… really good. And while the Orange Overlord’s ouster didn’t quite go as planned, it was still a happy ending (even if, as with TREK, it was an open-ended finale). 

And then, on Thursday, February 18, 2021, after almost a full year and 256 episodes total (80 for TOS, 176 for TNG)… I was done. I sat down with my “steering wheel” (as my brother calls my generous portioning) of rigatoni with red sauce and a bottle of Bordeaux (felt appropriate) and settled in for “All Good Things…,” the feature-length 1994 finale of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. In the episode, Q, the omnipotent, extra-dimensional thorn in Picard’s side (kind of his Mr. Mxyzptlk, I always thought) reveals that the trial of mankind begun in the series’ pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” never ended, and bounces Picard between the past, present, and future to solve a potentially life-eradicating time anomaly that, it turns out, he caused himself. The crew(s) of the Enterprise prevail, of course, and mankind is spared, but Picard has a new perspective on the life he led, lives, and may one day lead. He decides to remove the arm’s length at which he’s kept his “family” and, in the series’ final, iconic scene, joins his senior staff in their regular poker game for the first time. 

I’m not ashamed to admit that I sat there with tears streaming down my face, even though I knew what was coming; “All Good Things…” is one of the handful of TNG episodes I knew well (and greatly enjoyed). My emotions were more about the totality and weight of this journey that I had taken with both Enterprises over the course of 256 (give or take) mostly-consecutive nights. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the aid that Gene Roddenberry (et al) had given me in dealing with a serious illness, a forced, solitary confinement in my home, and a daily reminder that the fate of my country and the world was in the hands of a malevolent being that made Khan Noonien-Singh look like a Keebler Elf (with much better pecs). 

So now what? What takes the place of these two shows? I guess I could go back to the 1973-74 animated TREK series (which is now considered canon), but I don’t have CBS All-Access (which also precludes giving PICARD and LOWER DECKS a shot). I’ve watched all the movies starring both casts (the TNG films being even more spotty than the TOS ones… call me crazy, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE remains my favorite film starring the original crew, and I really like the much-derided NEMESIS, the final TNG flick). Despite getting well into Season 2 of DEEP SPACE NINE, I gotta say, it does nothing for me (if I have to hear the term, “gold-pressed latinum” one more time, I’m going to explode). I’ve only ever seen a few episodes of VOYAGER, but it’s my mom’s favorite, so I’ll give that a shot. I sampled ENTERPRISE (not bad, I’ll probably finish that one next, timeline be damned). And I just recently caught up with the first season of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY thanks to CBS’ rerunning on its old-fashioned non-streaming tee-vee network. It’s fine. I guess. 

But I have the same issue with every post-TNG iteration of STAR TREK, and it’s something that actually began in later seasons of TNG. From the beginning, Gene Roddenberry insisted that in the future he created, conflict would mostly be a thing of the past. Granted, seeing as how conflict is the very foundation of drama, you’d think this would be a bit of a hindrance to storytelling, but TOS managed to work around it (and few would argue that the relationship between Spock and Bones was sunshine and lollipops). But there were specific aspects of 20th century society that he wanted to paint as anachronistic: racism, sexism, capitalism, religion, and poverty, to name a few. Those things could be shown as existing on more unenlightened alien worlds, but in the Federation… nuh-uh. 

Not every writer and producer who worked on STAR TREK under The Great Bird of the Galaxy (as Roddenberry was known) shared this vision, and in the wake of the series creator’s death in 1991, those thematic shackles were lifted (they had actually already begun to loosen after Roddenberry took a less active role in the series after the first season). Crew members bickered more, altruism seemed to take a back seat to lesser virtues with some characters. The existence of God and money in the 24th century seemed to be at the whim of the writer of any given episode (how can you “buy a round” in Ten Forward if everything costs nothing?). The different shows’ inconsistencies and darker tones may have made things easier for the creators, but for me…. Something got lost. 

Pop culture has always played a huge role in my life. Some might argue too much so, but that’s (like everything) a subjective call. If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t find fault in shedding tears over fictional space explorers from the 24th century. But even if you can’t relate to this kind of connection to a 55-year-old TV franchise, please try to understand that what I’ve detailed here is not hyperbolic. 

I always knew that STAR TREK was more than just an iconic science fiction franchise, I always understood its importance in the realms of culture and science, I just never dreamed that it would come to mean so much to me in a time of strife. I NEEDED that daily escape into a world in which people are GOOD and things are BETTER and disease and hate and selfishness are things of the PAST as much as I needed the antibiotics and steroids prescribed to me. Maybe more. Beverly Crusher may not have waved a beeping, blinking, gray hand-held device over my chest to instantly cure my Covid / pneumonia, but the fictional world in which she lives played a big role in keeping me from falling into despair during the past, really difficult eleven months. And for that, I’ll always be grateful to the crews of the USS Enterprise and those who made it so. 

STAR TREK TOS & TNG posters by Dusty Abell


Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Daily Superman II

 As I post this, February 11, 2021, it's the one-year anniversary of my Instagram page, The Daily Superman. In October, I put up a gallery of 50 images from the first eight months of the site, and thought I'd mark the anniversary with another 50 original photos from my collection taken for the page. C'mon, follow me! You know you wanna!