Armagideon Time

My plan for daily Countdown posts went into the shitter on Friday when we had to deal with the real-life nightmare of the Kid getting admitted to the hospital, where she and Maura have been since. It’s no COVID-related, but related to a preexisting condition. She’s doing okay though what happens next is still being hashed out.

Content will be thinner than usual until shit settles down.

“With a cold shiver he could not control, Polen was suddenly conscious of a single fly loose in the room, veering aimlessly for a moment, then beating strongly and reverently towards Beelzebub.”

– Isaac Asimov, “Flies” (1953)

Recommended listening: Alien Sex Fiend – Buggin’ Me (from a 1986 single)

I wish I’d held back the Wire jam for this perfect moment, but 2020 defies anticipation. Fortunately my bench of musical annotations is deep and broad.

Figure Two: And this pattern is always the same?

Figure One: With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find…and it’s
themselves. And all we need do is sit back…and watch.

Figure Two: Then I take it this place…this Maple Street…is not unique.

Figure One: [Shaking his head.] By no means. Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we’ll
go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other…one
to the other…one to the other–

– Rod Serling, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960)

Recommended listening: Tot Rocket & The Twins – Employment Line (from a 1980 EP)

You know how it works now
But you don’t care
You’re not the victim of it all
So you think it’s fair

Real-life horror storytelling at its finest. Also the closest analog to The Clash that America ever produced.

When I opened the door into the elm-arched blackness a gust of insufferably foetid wind almost flung me prostrate. I choked in nausea, and for a second scarcely saw the dwarfed, humped figure on the steps. The summons had been Edward’s, but who was this foul, stunted parody? Where had Edward had time to go? His ring had sounded only a second before the door opened.

The caller had on one of Edward’s overcoats—its bottom almost touching the ground, and its sleeves rolled back yet still covering the hands. On the head was a slouch hat pulled low, while a black silk muffler concealed the face. As I stepped unsteadily forward, the figure made a semi-liquid sound like that I had heard over the telephone—“glub . . . glub . . .”

– H.P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933)

Recommended listening: Finitribe – Monster in the House (from a 1990 single)

I know I run the risk of alienating some folks by leaning hard on real life political horrors this time round, but I don’t give a flying fuck.

“We tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away.”

– Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

Some virulent flu-like disease has been my go-to Horseman of Speculated Apocalypses for a long while now. I even did a couple of flash fiction posts about it (which I should really clean-up and repost).

It has nothing to do with The Stand (which I’ve never gotten around to reading outside the spin-off story in King’s Night Shift collection), but that such and event would find ample ground to run wild in contemporary society.

Invisible, gradual, and oh so deniable up until the point where it’s too late stave off collapse — why it’s practically tailor-made to fuck with a society which prioritizes commercial abstractions over people and managerial methods which discourage “unpopular” decisive action no matter how necessary it may be.

The incremental roll-out fosters complacency and resentment against any containment measures which might upset one’s personal status quo (or bottom line). It’s all alarmist nonsense until the Reaper comes for you, at which point you’ll just become another ignorable statistic.

There’s nothing dramatic or sexy about it, just a tedium which erodes an already exhausting vigilance.

Recommended listening: Wire – I Am the Fly (from a 1978 single)

It’s always the little things.

The weekend following the arrival of my unique treasure, I experienced a particularly violent sneeze which dislodged a small fragment of tissue in my left eye, causing a half-moon shaped blind spot right in the center of my vision.

It wasn’t anything serious, but just another one of the little nightmares that become the norm once our flawed sacks of flesh hit middle age. I couldn’t do much in the way of reading or videogame playing or movie watching while I waited for the microscopic gobbet to dissolve or drift to a less intrusive part of the affected peeper, so I decided to pass time with YouTube’s extensive archive of CBS Radio Mystery Theater episodes.

The series, which ran from 1974 to 1982, was a throwback to Inner Sanctum, The Whistler and other classic spooky-suspense series from the Golden Age of Radio. (CBSRMT was the brainchild of Himan Brown, who’d created Inner Sanctum three decades prior.) Hosting duties were handled by E.G Marshall, framing the main event with a more avuncular take on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone riffs.

The radio plays themselves? Well, they are definitive proof of Sturgeon’s Law, but sheer number of episodes — almost 1400 of them — means that the ten percent that isn’t crap offers a pretty rich vein of material to explore. There’s mystery, suspense, crime drama, psychological thrillers, Twilight Zone style “modern fantasy,” old-fashioned ghost stories, with an occasional bit of science-fiction thrown in to the mix.

I’m most partial to the direct adaptations of tales by likes of Bierce, Poe, Stevenson, Le Fanu and the rest of that old school spooky stories crew. The efforts to contemporize them were less successful, with a scfi-fi slanted take on “The Masque of Red Death” coming off as extra goofy during the present circumstances while a serial-killer noir interpretation of “The Cask of Amontillado” just feels overlong and gross.

The above doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement, but I found it’s wiser to undersell, rather than oversell, retro entertainment artifacts. There a thick layer of not-so-finely aged cheese to the material, many of the plots are shallow reskins of familiar tales, and every female character under thirty sounds like they were voiced a chain-smoking great aunt who grew up in Toronto.

But if you have an hour to kill on either side of sunset, a comfy sofa to stretch out on, and a willingness to roll with the periodic bouts of goofiness, tuning (or rather “streaming”) into of the choicer episodes can be a sublime spooky season experience. So much so, in fact, that I’ve kept it as a Sunday afternoon tradition even after my eye problem cleared up.

Recommended listening: Peter Wolf – Lights Out (from a 1984 single)

Speaking of cheesy shit from the past I can’t help enjoying…

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, “Black Cat” (1923)

Recommended listening: UK Decay – The Black Cat (from The Black 45 EP, 1980)

Meow more than ever.

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842)

Recommended listening: Cabaret Voltaire – Spread the Virus (from Red Mecca, 1981)

I’m not what form the Halloween Countdown will take this year.

A deadly plague is sweeping a world already pushed to the brink of hysteria. Meanwhile, your humble narrator has spent the last six months walled up in his ancient New England manse, surrounded by dusty artifacts of bygone ages. His body still suffers the lingering debilitation from the dread disease, while his overstimulated mind burns with odd and pointless manias.

I doubt Edgar Allan Poe himself could do anything with such material.

Yet custom must be observed, and so I open the doors of my vault to you poor wandering souls. I entreat you to tread lightly, for my ears are not accustomed to the noise.

Recommended listening: Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion! – Least of All Monsters (from Beware The Dangers Of A Ghost Scorpion, 2020)

A rip-rockin’ local act whose surf-horror stylings caught the attention of the macabre Maura, who added this LP to our collection of cursed discs.

The force that binds

September 16th, 2020

One of the perks of taking an extended hiatus is having actually new developments to talk about upon returning —

— things such as the above object of beauty.

The collection is not a hoax or imaginary story. Nor, I regret to inform you, is it the product of DC’s trade collections department coming to their senses. It is a one-of-a-kind custom jobber I undertook on my own (with the help of a bookbinding firm, of course).

The matter of beloved “never-have-or-will-ever-be-collected” runs and series has been at the back of my mind since I started consolidating the perennial (and sentimental) favorites from two dozen longboxes into a smaller and more manageable set of trade paperback and hardcover editions. The vast majority of these “essentials” were available in some collected form or another, though there were a handful of top-tier cherished runs which — for licensing or legal or economic reasons — never made the trade grade.

Most of these strays were DC offerings from the immediate pre-and-post-Crisis periods, a motley assortment of faded flashes in the pan or decently entertaining efforts which never gained traction with fans. At the top of the list was Atari Force, “a great series doomed by a troubled license” (as the owner of my local comic shop put it back in the day).

The twenty issue series (followed by a one-off “special” of inventoried back-up material) followed up on the events of the digest-sized comics packed in with certain Atari 2600 games in a bit of intra-divisional marketing synergy. (Both DC and Atari were owned by the Warner Brothers media empire at the time.) Connections between the comics and the games were tenuous at best outside of a few referential names and nods to Star Raiders lore.

The pack-in digests weren’t bad, but hewed closely to the generic pre-Star Wars 70s sci-fi template. A multi-ethnic bunch of experts were tapped by the Atari Institute to traverse the multiverse in the dimension-hopping Scanner One spaceship in hopes of finding a “New Earth” for humanity before the old Earth became uninhabitable. Oh, and they argued and fell in love with each other while kicking evil alien monstrosity ass.

The monthly series used that as springboard for jumping a ahead a couple of decades, where New Earth is thriving and the super-powered kids of the original crew, along with various hangers-on and associates, get recruited by the middle-aged embittered leader of the previous mission to determine if the evil alien monstrosity somehow managed to survive its ass-kicking.

That’s the short version — because I don’t feel like writing up a long version — but the vibe of the regular series fell somewhere in-between Star Wars and Legion of Super-Heroes. It code switches between space opera and super-team in way that played to the strengths of the medium, instead of crashing up against it as most Big Two sci-fi comics series did in ’70s and ’80s. Think of it as DC’s answer to Marvel’s Micronauts, but with a clearer through line.

It helped that the first half of the run was (mostly) illustrated by José Luis García-López, who got s chance to cut loose with all manner of groovy character designs and futuristic tech, but everyone involved brought their best to the project. Ricardo Villagrán’s finishes meshed beautifully with García-López’s pencilwork, Gerry Conway turned out some of the sharpest writing he’d do that decade, Tom Zukio did some fantastic coloring-for-effect work, and Bob Lappan pulled out the stops when it came to lettering alien speech that slyly conveyed the general gist of the dialogue.

Even after García-López and Conway tapped out halfway through the series, the new team of Eduardo Barreto and Mike Baron still kept things chugging along nicely through the home stretch.

Atari Force was one on my favorite series during my tweener years. It wasn’t due to the videogame connection, but because it was a really solid team book with an interesting cast of characters overseen by an excellent creative team (or teams, technically). It was an especially impressive feat considering that I had yet to outgrow my “if it ain’t in Big Two continuity, I’m not interested” biases at the time I picked up my first issue of the series.

I was sad to see it end, though it took a few years before I realized that the “we always planned it as a 20-issue run” excuse given at the time for calling it a day was bullshit masking Warners’ desire to shed themselves of the cash-sink Atari had turned into after the domestic videogame market crashed. Never a hot property in speculative circles, the back issues became quarter-bin staples for the following couple of decades (which is how I ended up completing my run and replacing my beat-to-shit original issues).

It’s a series I enjoy revisiting every couple of years, a rare case where nostalgia is a value added thing and not some sweet coating on a bitter-in-hindsight pill. Most of the trades on my bookshelf don’t attain that state of grace, which is why I really wanted an Atari Force collection — even if I had to see to it myself.

I knew professional and DIY binding was a thing from some old Newsarama and Comics Alliance posts, but wasn’t clear on the specifics or price or other details. The notion of binding up Atari Force and other uncollected runs went into the same mental space as the rest my vague aspirational projects — the “I will look into it later” file.

It likely would have stayed there until the heat death of the universe if long time pal and comics retailer extraordinaire Mike Sterling hadn’t lobbed this into his Twitter feed a few months ago.

A complete Atari Force run in clean condition from a retailer I trust and for a decent price? I’m not one for omens, but this was too on-the-nose to pass up. Plus, it was a chance to toss a little dough at a small business at a moment when the pandemic had screwed with their bottom line. Direct messages were sent, money was exchanged, and soon I had a pile of ready to bind comics on my “to-do” shelf.

…where they sat for another month before I finally knuckled down and did the research about getting the job done. Between the bindery’s detailed FAQ page and a blog post from a person who put up screenshots of an order form they’d submitted with further clarifications, I managed to get the stack prepped and shipped out for processing. About seven weeks later, I got an invoice from the bindery, promptly paid it, and had the finished product in my hands a week later.

I’m not going to lie. I held the tome to my chest several times in the first couple of days after it arrived and whispered “I love you” to it (when Maura and the Kid were out of earshot, of course). I even cleared it a place of honor on the Very Important Books part of my shelf, alongside Retro Hell, the OHOTMU Omnibus and the 1980 and 1981 Sears Wish Books.

To answer some questions I was asked elsewhere about the process:

The bindery I used was Herring and Robinson. The only extras I selected were headbands (the cloth bits at the top and bottom of the spine) and the small “DC Bullet” diestamp above the title. The total including shipping came out to $40.

Yes, there’s a sliver of loss close to the spine edge of the page. It’s not a lot (though your metrics for that may differ from mine) and some of it depends on how the original pages were centered in the component comics and the overall thickness of the bound edition. I really haven’t tried to see how wide I could open the book because it is my precious darling and I won’t do anything that might hurt it.

I got exactly what I had been hoping for — a handsome and handy collection of a comics series that can be shelved in my living room and not relegated to some difficult to access attic longbox. I’m happy enough with the work that I’ve already sent off another pair of runs — the complete Young Heroes in Love and the first eighteen issues (and first annual) of the 80s Captain Atom series — for similar treatment.

I probably won’t hug those, though.

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