Armagideon Time

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)

But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent,
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race.

There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life,
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse.

Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.

Wet with thine own best blood shall drip
Thy gnashing tooth and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go—and with Gouls and Afrits rave;
Till these in horror shrink away
From Spectre more accursed than they!

– Lord Byron, “The Giaour” (1813)

I finally got around to watching The Kiss of the Vampire the other night. The 1963 film was one of Hammer’s attempts to keep the bloodsucker mojo going until Christopher Lee took up Dracula’s dark mantle again, and it’s a perfectly adequate period horror jobber done in the studio’s signature mildly titillating yet oh-so-mannered style.

My biggest problem with the film is that Dr. Ravna, the suavely sinister leader of the vampire cult, kept reminding me of Henry Winkler playing Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development. That’s entirely on my media reference damaged head, but damn was it distracting.

Recommended listening: I Monster – Lust for a Vampyr (from A Dense Swarm of Ancient Stars, 2009)

…and we’re back, just in time for the closing stretch.

The Kid is doing fine, though things took a bit longer than expected. The same goes for getting back into my regular routine after eleven days of holding down the home front by myself while the ladies were at the hospital. At least my car got a bit of action after idling in the driveway for six months.

When in comes to such fraught moments, distractions become a greater necessity even as the act of choosing them becomes more complicated. Familiar standbys get pushed aside, lest they be permanently tainted should events take a turn for the crappy. Better to stuff oneself with “brain carbs” in bulk, which in my case was “whatever low-grade AIP drek I could find streaming somewhere.” Crab monsters and blood beasts and ghosts sporting invisible bikinis — the blessed white noise of cheap special effects and familiar character actors phoning it in for an easy paycheck.

Musically, I did fall into the familiar favorites rut by leaving Bauhaus’ Mask LP on the turntable for the duration. It’s a buffet of perfect seasonal soundscapes from a band managing to balance — if only for one darkly shining album — their goth pioneer gimmick with their unabashed Bowie fandom.

Recommended listening: Bauhaus – The Passion of Lovers (from Mask, 1981)

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.

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