Armagideon Time

Rad influence

June 11th, 2021

All those PSAs and parental lecture were right — peer pressure can make a person do the darndest thing.

I can hear my mom’s voice now: “If Mike Sterling bought some original comics art, would you buy some, too?”

Well, yeah, mom. Mike is the coolest cat in the funnybook blogging scene, and that would still be true even if there weren’t only a half-dozen of us left standing in 2021.

Besides, it wasn’t as if Mike was trying to tempt me with a pack of purloined Parliament Lights. At most, he reminded me of a dormant goal which somehow failed to make it on my current wishlist. Scoring a favored page of comics art was a dream deferred by concerns about storage and display space, expense, and what page might possibly justify the above.

In an ideal world, it would be the Perez/Ordway group shot of the “Forgotten Heroes” which kicks of Crisis on Infinite Earths #12, but that’s never going to happen. So I settled for my second choice — a page of Henry Scarpelli art from A Date With Debbi.

As luck would have it, I managed to find a reasonably price page from issue #8 of the series, which also happened to have one of my favorite Debbi panels ever. It’s the third one in the above photo, in which Debbi exhibits the qualities which set her apart from her teen comedy genre peers (and may also mirror those occasionally displayed by a certain Queen of Animals).

Now it is in my possession, and I can proudly say that I own original artwork by a legendary teen humor illustrator and the father of one of the supporting cast members from Jennifer Slept Here.

A smashing find

June 4th, 2021

About five years back I caught some fortunate breaks which increased what the beancounters would call my “discretionary income.” Being a sober and pragmatic middle-aged man, I used that windfall to chase down various childhood artifacts of deep personal significance.

This was not some wild spree, however. Taking a page from my renewed record collecting, I set very specific ground rules about how and what I would buy. The goal was quality, not quantity — a carefully curated collection of representative samples instead of complete sets. Repros and re-releases were fine, as long as the price was low enough, the quality was high enough, and the do-over captured the essence of the original item.

There was wiggle room for smaller and cheaper stuff, such as the 1984 “Action Command” rebadging of Hot Wheels’ set of mid-1970s military vehicles or an assortment of most favored MUSCLE figures. And there were a few cases where estate sale lots ended up being cheaper than a specific individual item, which is what happened with the Galactica Colonial Viper and Flying Aces PRC jet plane.

Most of the items were replacements for things I’d lost during the upheaval following my mom’s death or from the half-remembered days of the pre-Star Wars 1970s. Reassembling this toybox of the lost hasn’t radically transformed my life, but there is a certain level of restorative satisfaction in seeing them on the shelf or occasionally turning an item over in my hands and vividly recalling a specific moment in time.

Relatively speaking, there weren’t a lot of items on that nostalgic reverie wishlist. It only took a few months to acquire most of them, at which point I switched to other retail therapy obsessions (7-inch singles, collected editions of favorite funnybooks). The remaining artifacts were either too expensive, impossible to find, or instances where I couldn’t remember enough details to conduct a search for them.

The quest for most significant and coveted item in that elusive remnant — a complete, good condition SSP Smash Up Derby car — actually dated back to before the millennium. It was the focus of some of my earliest eBay searches (next to a Pakistan-made “katana” and the second series of G1 Transformers minibots). I can’t explain why the toy came to symbolize the earliest years of my childhood (instead of, say, Mego dolls which were more in line with my geeky demeanor), only that it did. Obtaining one became a background noise level obsession, held in check only by the asking prices.

For those of you who aren’t old as dirt, Kenner’s SSP cars were 6-inch long plastic vehicles kitted out with a central gyro-wheel. Slotting and rapidly pulling out a notched “T-stick” into the center of the car set the gyro-wheel literally screaming, making the toy rip across the linoleum floor at high speeds until it smashed into a wall, bit of furniture, or family pet.

The Smash Up Derby line improved the formula by adding spring-loaded front bumpers, which sent parts of the toy flying off in all directions upon impact.

So you can see, given the above description, why obtaining “a complete, good condition SSP Smash Up Derby car” might not be an easy proposition. Other toys might be incidentally subjected to rough play, but SSP cars in general based their entire concept around it.

I’d have settled for a vanilla SSP model based on a period muscle car, but even those run for ludicrous sums for ones which looked like they’d been excavated from an ancient battlefield. Eventually I settled on a smaller, but functional “Laker Special” model given out by Citgo stations as a promo during the Nixon Era. It wasn’t the big score, but it ticked the appropriate boxes well enough for me to move on and quit searching…

…until two weeks ago when I was fucking around on eBay and decided to search for a Smash Up SSP car just to see how much further that dream had slipped away. My heart stopped a second when the first listings returned was for a sealed-in-plastic deadstock 1975 Classy Crasher “Luxury Limo” with T-stick, for a buy-it-now price well within my acceptable range.

I’ve come to accept a certain degree of bullshitting when it comes to auction listings for vintage toys. The deadstock claim, where the toy had been sitting in a warehouse for forty-five years, seemed a little too good-to-be true, but the photos did show what was at least a complete model in decent condition. I mashed the buy button and awaited the what minor letdowns might arrive.

It arrived two days later and was amazed to discover that it was indeed shrinkwrap-sealed and utterly pristine. I’ve bought MIB toys from this decade which weren’t in as good condition as this Luxury Limo was.

Not only did I score a long-coveted childhood relic, I got one which was in perfect condition, looks classy as fuck, and is molded in apex-1970s orange plastic. I’ve been glancing at it on the shelf while I’ve been writing this, and I still can’t believe it’s real.

While I have revved it up a few times to savor that oh-so-familiar screaming gyro sound (Exhibit C in “why 70s parents always seemed cranky”), it has not and will never achieve its true smash up potential. While I was testing the bumper’s spring action, a wheel popped off and rolled under the sofa, and I felt my heart stop for a good sixty seconds until I retrieved it and snapped it back into place.

Should I need to terrify my animals with high-speed gyro antics, I still have my Citgo promo jobber.

(Sorry about the delay with the Crisis posts. What I though was going to be a low-key stretch of time has been filled with two major home renovation projects that have claimed most of my mental real estate.)

For past reference

May 17th, 2021

I’m still in the process of sorting out the first “real” installment of the Crisis feature, so let’s take a gander at an ancillary project which showed up on my doorstep this past weekend.

Who’s Who in the DC Universe has been on my short list of projects since I got onto the whole custom binding kick. DC’s looser and more artsy answer to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was a crucial companion piece to Crisis of Infinite Earths, showcasing DC’s rich historic tapestry while getting readers up to speed on, well, who was who in the mega-ensemble proceedings.

Who’s Who and its pair of miniseries updates encompassed the peak era of my DC fandom, which was spurred on by Crisis and lingered through the Millennium event’s diminishing returns and my shaky finances forced a pullback into dwindling number of favorite series. Like the original OHOTMU’s pre-Secret Wars status quo, it provides a snapshot of a specific, dear-to-me moment which I’ll never tire of revisiting.

I had just started getting serious about the binding project when DC announced it was going to release the entire run of Who’s Who and the update minis in a massive omnibus edition. The prospect of better printing (more on this in a bit) and less work on my end was mighty tempting, but I ultimately decided to continue with my custom edition.

Who’s Who makes for exceptional idle reading material — something to browse on a lazy afternoon from the comfort of the couch. That’s not really possible with the 1300 page, ten pound grimoire the omnibus was solicited as being. My plan was to split the material into two volumes to make it a bit more manageable and reduce the likelihood of it collapsing a lung if I nodded off while reading it.

The omnibus also scrubbed the Atari Force characters and team listing from the book because of licensing issues, which might not sound like a big deal but remember who is writing this post. The custom binding route also let me play around a little with the contents, such as appending the Who’s Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes spinoff miniseries and the Who’s Who parody issue of the first Ambush Bug miniseries.

Because this was a prestige project as far as these things go, I did spring for fancy die-stamped logos on the front covers since the bindery already had them on file. The trimming process did cut a little close to the center, but that’s to be expected custom bind jobs and doesn’t really bother me.

Overall, I’m really happy with how two volumes turned out, and they still managed to set me back less than the MSRP of the official collection.

A few other notes about the project:

– Most of the source issues were pretty inexpensive and purchased via eBay lots. The only real hassles were finding acceptably legible copies of the first two issues, which were printed using the shitshow “Flexographic” process the Big Two toyed around with in the mid-1980s. The person who sold me the first eight issues courteously included extra copies of #1 so I pick the least cruddy of the lot.

– The toughest issues to find were Update ’87 #4 and Update ’88 #4 — the former because it had a Todd McFarlane cover (and speculators are knuckle-dragging dipshits) and the latter because…honestly, I don’t know why, apart from being the final installment of a format that had lost its novelty.

– The Who’s Who in the Legion issues were also surprisingly pricey and hard to find, considering the current state of LSH fandom. The paper stock also had greater degree of discoloration than I would’ve expected. If it was just one person who stored the lot a little carelessly, that would be one thing, but the issues were sourced from multiple vendors around the country. Oddly enough, I had the same problem with Update ’88 #4, which makes me wonder if there was something going on with DC’s printer and/or paper supplier at the time.

– I have never encountered a more perfect dichotomy between the 1980s and 1970s as can be found in the opposing pages below:

“When I finally get around to my Crisis on Infinite Earths post..”

What began as a mixture of threat and promise has become something of a personal in-joke over the past few years, lofty ambitions colliding with the reality of my protracted disengagement with this site.

Between you and me, writing is something I do when I can’t do what I’d rather be doing instead. This site was born from the need to kill time, but things have changed dramatically over the course of fifteen (oh fuck that can’t be right) years. Blocking out ninety minutes for a stream-of-consciousness shitpost has become nigh impossible, never mind trying to sustain a continuing feature or conscientiously composed piece of serious analysis.

Yet for all the hemming and hawing and delays, I never doubted my big steaming take about DC’s multiverse-shaking maxiseries would ever see the light of day. In fact, the determination only made the task much more daunting. This was going to be an important project (by my standards, at least), and which meant doing it properly.

No half-assing. No tangential turns. No near-misses with the assumption I’d eventually return for another run on the target. In short, none of the shit I used to excuse the fire-and-forget methodology which characterized my previous takes on Crisis and, well, everything else I’ve babbled about on this site.

This meant doing research, making an outline, and all that other shit I thought I put behind me when I engineered my expulsion from grad school twenty-five years ago. Y’know, actual work, and in carrying it out I came to realize that the subject would require more than just a single hyper-longform essay to address as I wanted to address it.

For reasons I’ll get into over the course of this series, Crisis on Infinite Earths is very near and dear to my heart. It’s probably my favorite superhero story/series/epic ever, and that goes beyond what’s contained on its individual pages. The desire to do justice to the subject was a big component of my years of procrastination.

And now I’m ready. Or as ready as I’ll ever get. Consider this post the last second equivocations of someone about to make their first dive off La Quebrada. It’s time to make the leap and hope I stick the landing.

So far, it’s shaping up to be around five installment, dropping on a weekly basis.

This body’s favorites

March 29th, 2021

The goal of my ongoing binding project was to create durable and easier-to-shelve collections of funnybooks which, for various reasons, haven’t and most likely wouldn’t see an official trade paperback or hardcover release.

Most of these fall into one or two year runs from a single title — Atari Force, Young Heroes in Love, the first eighteen issues (and annual) of Fury of Firestorm and Captain Atom, the post-Zero Hour Legion of Super-Heroes run from where the official trades left off through the team’s battle with Mordu — straightforward stuff which easily lends itself to a single bound volume.

Yet my vast hoard of longboxes also contains a lot of equally beloved odds and ends. I’m talking single issues or short arcs where the story, characters, creative teams, and/or a hefty dollop of nostalgia made them stand out among their surroundings. Most of these fall with the fabled 1980s, back when finances and logistics made it difficult to follow most ongoing series on a monthly basis and fill-in arcs were more common.

I probably love these significant strays more than I do the few books I did follow on a monthly basis back in those days. They cut to the core of my comics experience in those formative years before cynicism sunk its hooks too deeply. Most of these issues have either not been collected in book form or collected in larger volumes with material I could care less about.

If the point was to consolidate my collection into a smaller assortment of shelf-friendly favorites, then these miscellaneous issues deserved a place in the process. Thus was born…

1980s DC Favorites.

To keep things organized, I even threw an informal table of contents into the binding pile.

I won’t run down the entire roster, but the All-Star Squadron arc where the Red Bee gets swatted is in there, along with Forgotten Heroes two-parter from Action Comics, the post-Crisis revision of the JLA’s formation from Secret Origins, and some pre-5YL LSH stories where the team got a semi-cyberpunk makeover and Keith Giffen tried his hand at imitating Kevin Maguire.

(Though with the oddly proportioned faces Giffen rendered, maybe he was trying to be Kevin MUG-WIDER. Hey-o!)

The focus on DC wasn’t etched in stone from the beginning, but developed as I started gathering material for the book. Most of my favorite Marvel odds and ends from that era have been collected in Masterworks or some other edition I already own. My younger self was more willing to dip in and out of DC’s offerings, where Marvel material tended to be either a monthly read or dropped entirely. (I have since compiled the source material for a roughly equivalent volume of Marvel material, but I’ll leave that for a later post.)

Taken as patchwork whole, 1980s DC Favorites is a hardcover edition of what would’ve been the reading pile for a lazy weekend during my teens, back when I’d sift through my solitary longbox, pull out an assortment of satisfying reads, and work my way through the stack between flipping cassettes and noodling around on the Sega Master System.

The 1990s Favorites collection is a different beast for a much different era, the title being an excuse for throwing a trio of uncollected miniseries and the Invaders reunion arc from Byrne’s Namor run into a handy single volume.

That’s not a knock against its contents, but it’s very much an item of convivence instead of a curated crazy-quilt tapestry of childhood wonders.

League ‘n’ lizards

February 5th, 2021

Apparently today marks thirty-four years since the debut issue of the post-Legends “Bwah Ha Ha” incarnation of the Justice League.

It’s a day I remember well, though for more personal reasons than its significance within funnybook history. My paternal grandmother had moved out of our house the month before, returning us to nuclear family status after seven long years. My parents were eager to make up for lost time, bragging Lil Bro and I on a series of weekend drives and restaurant dinners.

Looking back, there was a definite forced quality to it all — the notion that we could just go back to being a “normal” family by taking a day trip to Rockport followed by a meal at the 99, all the while ignoring my parents’ co-dependent downward spiral. Not that I concerned myself too much with that at the time, though. Lil Bro and I now had separate rooms, my parents seemed happier, and misguided hope springs eternal…especially when you’re just shy of 15 years old.

On this particular weekend, I’d convinced my parents to make a pre-drive detour to the local comic shop in Stoneham. I’m not sure why. My interest in comics had all but fizzled out after Secret Wars II‘s protracted nonsense and DC’s fumbling for a post-Crisis throughline. By end of 1986, I was down to occasional purchases from the slim selection of comics that made it onto the magazine rack at the CVS in the Woburn Mall.

I’m sure there was a reason I cajoled my parents into making a side trip to the comic shop, but it has been lost to time. I do recall the place being more crowded than usual and feeling a bit overwhelmed by multiple weeks of new releases which had passed me buy. I can also remember feeling that I overspent, though that wasn’t an unusual sensation in those days when money was tight and every purchase I made came with a side order of buyer’s remorse.

However big the stack of books I bought that day was, I can only remember two of them — Justice League #1 and Dragon Magazine #117.

Justice League did not click with me at all. Despite the comedic reputation the run would later acquire, the debut issue was pretty dark and dour, ending with Batman walking away after passively encouraging a mentally ill man to commit suicide. Kevin Maguire’s art was amazing but I couldn’t get into the overall vibe, not that I was really looking for new series to follow at the moment, anyhow. (It would be another year before I gave the series another shot, after which it became my favorite comic on the stands through my freshman year in college.)

Dragon Magazine #117 was purely an impulse purchase, pulled from a magazine rack by the counter as I was checking out. I came late to the fad-driven Dungeons & Dragons mania of the 1980s, mainly because of the high (for me) buy-in cost and my inability to grasp what the game was about. The bewildering array of ancillary artifacts — toys, cartoons, spin-off board and video games, miniatures, model kits — buried the core concept of role-playing (or painted it as Tom Hanks playing dress-up and murdering people).

It wasn’t until the summer of 1986, after I’d muddled around in a friend’s one off adventure and tooled around with a couple of Fighting Fantasy books, that I finally took the plunge with a dinged up copy of the D&D Basic Set found in an Osco Drug clearance aisle. From there I went all in as far as the game’s diminishing retail presence allowed, picking up an oddball assortment of sourcebooks and supplements from the ever-shrinking RPG sections at chain toy stores and mall bookstores.

The hobby filled the space funnybooks had occupied in terms of both my interest and my limited spending money. Yet while I was willing to drop a tenner on marked down copy of the Oriental Adventures hardback or Monster Manual II, when it came to Dragon Magazine, I limited myself to the pair of “best of” issues which contained a roster of badass *nudge nudge wink wink* nonplayer character classes which were not *nudge nudge wink wink* to be used by player characters. With a $3.50 cover price, an issue of Dragon cost more than a GI Joe figure, mini Transformer, or small scale Go-Bot — all of which could provide a more instant form of gratification.

Giving in and finally buying the latest issue was like crossing a minor personal Rubicon, an admission via impulse purchase. It’s hardly world-shaking shit and would be short-lived as hell, but such is the nature of adolescent epiphanies. The punchline is how utterly unremarkable Dragon #117 turned out to be. Unlike most issues from that era, it did not take a multi-article deep dive into a single theme or concept or include some nifty pack-ins or extras. The issue is an odds and ends assortment of pretty underwhelming addenda and campaign advice. The only bit of it I actually ended up using around the gaming table was a price guide for sundry items excluded from the official rulebooks.

Yet the featured content was secondary to the package as a whole — the gloriously lurid ads for systems and publishers I’d never heard of, tantalizing glimpses of games across a wide variety of genres, listings for mail order services and specialist shops. All of it pointed to a scene much larger than the handful of toy, book, and mall hobby stores and their limited inventory. It opened up so many paths, and holy shit did I spend the better part of a decade wandering them.

One of those paths turned out to be Champions, a superhero RPG I discovered through Dragon #117 and which would rekindle my love of funnybooks by the year’s end. Geek life is a flat circle, after all.

Twenty-twenty hindsight

December 31st, 2020

My plans to come roaring back after the Halloween Countdown didn’t pan out, but the time wasn’t entirely wasted. The world is awash in ill-conceived takes forged from bullshit and claims of unearned authority. Instead of joining that yowling chorus, I’ve decided it’s better to speak only when I have something to say. (On this platform, at least. I still shitpost like a motherfucker on twitter.)

This past year might have been a garbage fire on so many fronts, but it did give me a chance to step back and experience many things that I hadn’t had the time to experience otherwise. When shit went down and it became apparent that the new pandemic lifestyle wasn’t going to be a six week deal, I vowed that I wasn’t going to spend it grinding for nonsense in some live-service timewaster of a videogame.

I watched lousy made-for-TV movies from the 1970s. I hunted down bizarre retro obscurities on streaming sites. I leafed through directories of prime time TV series and Eurospy films and forgotten arcade games. I dived back into half-remembered favorites from the PS1 and Sega Saturn era. I assembled oddball runs of personally significant funnybooks for binding.

Most importantly, I’ve been doing all this without feeling the urge to log into this site and vomit forth my immediate impressions about these things. I let the hodge-podge of theories and ideas and reactions simmer while I enjoyed them (or despised them) in the now. While regaining a sense of discipline in regards to posting might be something of a struggle, whatever does come out of it will likely be stronger for the pause.

Anyway, I hope your 2020 wasn’t too much of an ordeal, and let’s hold out a glimmer of hope 2021 will be brighter for us all.

Oh, and here’s Dani, who legally became my daughter just before Thanksgiving.

All Hallows’ Eve has arrived, and with it comes the conclusion of this regrettably interrupted countdown to doom.

The two week break did give me a chance to sample a bunch of seasonal distractions I wouldn’t normally have had the time for, though yesterday’s snowfall really harshed the high autumnal buzz I’d been experiencing once it was clear the Kid was out of the woods, medically speaking.

Oh, well, it wouldn’t really be 2020 without a wrench (or three) tossed into the works. The spooky season loses some mystique after nine months of existential terror.

Recommended listening: UK Decay – The Last in the House of Flames (from For Madmen Only, 1981)

Just be sure to scatter the ashes when you leave.

He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light (yuki-akari), he saw a woman in the room, – a woman all in white. She was bending above Mosaku, and blowing her breath upon him; – and her breath was like a bright white smoke. Almost in the same moment she turned to Minokichi, and stooped over him. He tried to cry out, but found that he could not utter any sound. The white woman bent down over him, lower and lower, until her face almost touched him; and he saw that she was very beautiful, – though her eyes made him afraid. For a little time she continued to look at him; – then she smiled, and she whispered: – “I intended to treat you like the other man. But I cannot help feeling some pity for you, – because you are so young…. You are a pretty boy, Minokichi; and I will not hurt you now. But, if you ever tell anybody – even your own mother about what you have seen this night, I shall know it; and then I will kill you…. Remember what I say!”

– Lafcadio Hearn, “Yuki-onna” (1904)

“Just a minor squall,” they said. “It will melt away by the afternoon,” they said.

They were wrong.

Recommended listening: Seeing Red – Ice (from a 1985 single)

Of all my cherished spooky season stand-bys, nothing comes remotely close to the November 1982 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine.

Despite the cover date, the issue was magazine’s second annual Halloween special, and special it certainly. It’s pages sport an embarrassment of riches to remind readers what a singular moment it truly was.

There’s Stephen King hyping an as-yet-undistributed indie flick titled The Evil Dead. John Carpenter shoots the shit with James Verniere. Tom Disch drags both John Gardner and Battlefield Earth. The great Gahan Wilson uses the rise of NHLs — “Non-Human Leads” — to frame his reviews of E.T (liked it), The Thing (enjoyed it), and Poltergeist (left him cold, though he could smell the creative politics involved).

On the fiction side, the issue includes three of my all-time TZM favorites. John Alfred Taylor’s “Hell Is Murky” is contemporary cosmic horror done right, ditching the mythos name-dropping for some paranoiac dread rooted in post-Manson Los Angeles. Jeffrey Goddin’s “The Smell of Cherries” pays grisly homage to classic ghost stories, while Katherine M. Turney’s “Night Cry” offers an efficiently compact jolt to the terror cortex.

There are also a trio of Halloween-themed tales which haven’t aged as well as the above, but still retain a good deal of sentimental charm.

I remember reading my original copy of the issue in the back of the family Cordoba during an afternoon dive to the Topsfield Fair, which is probably why I can’t leaf through the thing without hearing the Joan Jett cover of “Crimson and Clover” in the back of my skull. It, along with the rest of my TZM collection, fell victim to entropy or apathy over the years.

When I started to reassemble a fresh run of the magazine’s first few years during the mid-Aughts, the 1982 Halloween issue was at the top of my wishlist. Unfortunately, it was one of the more difficult ones to track down for a reasonable price, though I eventually lucked out and picked it up in a lot auction with a few other issues I was still looking for. While the rest of the collection has been relegated to a storage crate in the attic, I’ve kept the Halloween issue handy for periodic perusal.

Even though I’ve damn near memorized most of it by now, revisiting it always gives me a nostalgic thrill whenever spooky season rolls around.

Recommended listening: Magazine – Definitive Gaze (from Real Life, 1978)

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