Monday, November 11, 2013

Impossible Tales

My relationship to comic books got really strange in 2013. I have developed an interest in the last dark corners of the 70s, and have maintained my interest in Ditko and Kirby. 

Ditko in particular has had a banner year. Two successful Kickstarters, and an absurd number of reprints of work that purports to be public domain, as well as a couple I know him to get paid reprint rights on. 

Ditko Ate-teen, a reprint of Ditko's Package, and Lazlo's Hammer were produced via Kickstarter and self publishing. 

IDW and Craig Yoe came out with the (allegedly) public domain Konga and Gorgo books. Yoe printed links and references to how to get Ditko's new works in Konga. 

Dark Horse packaged a lovely volume of the complete Warren Ditko works. He apparently did get reprint rates on that one. 

Rounding out the year was Ditko Archives volume 4 assembled by Blake Bell through Fantagraphics. This series runs chronologically, capturing all of the non-Marvel work by Ditko. It just hit 1958, and is crossing over with the Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish Masterworks.  No money to Ditko, but Bell plugged Ditko's new works in this one. 

In the realm of back issues, I focused on 3 projects. Black and white magazines from Marvel/Warren, Doctor Strange, and movie adaptations from the 70s and early 80s. 

I was able to complete runs of Rampaging Hulk, Rook, Howard the Duck, and get a good start on Epic Illustrated and 1984/1994. I also got the first 11 Marvel Graphic Novels, most of the Vampirella Archives,  and a few other random magazines I remembered from the 70s. 

This included the second issue of Star Warp, a trashy movie magazine from the infamous Myron Fass. It contained images from Dawn of the Dead which held me in their thrall for 20 years until I finally viewed the film in 1998. I also picked up a single issue from his Eerie horror line which included a vivid black and white decapitation that haunted me since first seeing it in Melton Food Mart on Frankfort Avenue in late 70s Louisville. Googling "eerie fass decapitation" in Images will bring you the panel in all its absurdly grotesque glory. 

My final project for the year was to pick up a range of Marvel film adaptations from Star Wars to Howard the Duck. The project grew and evolved a bit, and seems to have turned into a writing project. I am looking to document the history of comics adaptations of movies starting with Dr. No and ending with Howard the Duck. The writing is coming along on this, and it's still being shaped. The work has spilled out at the edges and may need to be trimmed back.

I want to touch on Dr. No, as it was the first real example of the genre. From there, things start to pick up with Disney's self-adaptive works from gold key. Then Marvel starts to dabble with films that already had an opportunity to build a following, like 2001. Next they explored concurrent releases with Start Wars, Logan's Run and others. 

To wrap up the year, I grabbed a low priced volume of Marvel Masterworks: Ant-Man vol 1 and the Walt Disney Showcase: Boatniks comic. It felt like reaching the end of comics. Fringe, low quality pulp ephemera. 

That's kind of been the theme for the year. Approaching comics from the perspective of what was mass trash culture in the 70s, buying up the things that were never considered collectable. Weird mass distributed non-super-hero work. The insane and beautiful attempts at adult work, personal work wrapped in weird formats, and proto graphic novels disguised as a movie magazine. 

All of this reflection bubbles up as the clock runs out ion age 42. Only 30 minutes left in this year. It's been a good one, and really has resulted in some very strange self-reflection. The metaphoric touchstones are all about reviewing 1975-1982. The comic books show that, as does the interest in movies from that window. 

Wanting to reconstruct a version of the late 70s through media consumption has been a constant process with lots of different versions over the last 8 years for me. The next step in this process may be to move away from the Millennium City to a more established, worn urban area. I have lived in Austin for 18 years, and feel like it is time to grow up and get out, just like any 18 year old does. 

OK. It's time to go be 43. Thanks for listening. 



Saturday, April 7, 2012

Silvered ORB Issue 100



©2012 Patrick Joseph

The Day The Busy Signal Died

If you squint just a little bit you can see information doubling. You used to have to use an imaginary telescope, twice as powerful as Hubble to watch culture, science, data, population and and daily life reproduce and evolve. Much of our culture's thinking still runs through the conduit of the old tools, despite constant evidence that data is exploding at a visibly exponential rate.

This is what evolution looks like up close.

The news of Google's Project Glass is simultaneously amazing and commonplace in one go. The adoption of touch technology, a tactile GUI was scoffed at as unworkable in Spring of 2007. No one would want it, typing would be impossible, and it was just a gimmick. Tapping, swiping, squeezing and expanding with quick hand gestures turned out to be the most intuitive computing interface ever invented, and dominated was adopted by nearly every portable device manufacturer in under 60 months. Will a visual-voice hybrid become the norm in 36 months? Twenty-four? Or will it flounder for a few years like the Windows tablet computers did, being neither fish nor fowl until someone comes along and creates the interface from the ground up instead of bootstrapping to the old architecture?

Ten years ago e-paper was expensive, buggy, and was predicted to be a decade away from being market-ready. At the same time, wireless internet required special peripherals and could not compete with the speeds of a strong dial up connection. At this exact moment I can can walk to the Target 1 mile from my home and spend $79 on an e-paper based reading device that can download the entire works of Shakespeare in 57 seconds for free while I walk home with it.

A 4G enabled pair of glasses could conceivably be your stereo, e-reader, television, VCR, telephone, internet browser and GPS device inside of 24 months.

Any American born after 9-11 has never had a moment where a streaming video, search engines, MP3 players or cell phones were ever new to them in any meaningful way. They are as ubiquitous as color television, card catalogs, record players, and rotary phones were to someone from Generation X.

I had a conversation a few days ago with someone who had not seen a single minute of any "Star Wars" film. She's an adult with a good job who pays her own rent, drives, and can comfortably access any computer's system directory and mess around without breaking anything. This is the first person who I have met for whom NOT watching those movies not only didn't seem strange, it didn't seem remotely relevant. Time-line wise, it would be as if I never saw Disney's first live-action feature, 1950's "Treasure Island". Which I haven't.

The funny thing about the future is that we both spend a lot of time as a culture predicting it, and yet, at the same time, we never see it coming. Back to internet speeds and e-paper for a moment. The idea of streaming movies existed in 2000 when I first bought a "modern" computer and started up an Earthlink account. Wi-Fi existed too, but I didn't know about laptops yet, or why you'd need wireless ever.

The prevailing thought at the time was that the infrastructure would be so cost-prohibitive that creating a network that could stream a 90 minute film in anything remotely like "real time" was considered virtually impossible on any mass scale, and at least 15 years away. Downloading a 30 second movie trailer was a 40 minute affair, so this was not an unreasonable assumption.

In 2005 I downloaded my first multi-gigabyte file in under 2 hours. Four years later, I got rid of my DVD player, and my wife and I rent all of our movies through a black box that's smaller than a 2-CD jewel case box from the 90s. Just click Rent, Buy, or Play and it's up and running in hi-def in under 1 minute.

Six months ago I downloaded a whole new operating system for both laptops in my home. 8 gigs of data, 4 per computer, downloaded in the time it would have taken to walk up the street and get that e-reader I mentioned earlier.

Anyone that tells you the future is fantasy and that we are anywhere close to leveling off is a damned liar.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

From the Journal of the Silvered ORB


They say that magic is just technology that hasn’t reached mass adoption yet. 
Think of the witch doctor, the herbalist of pre-industrial times. Potions, magic blends of herbs crushed with mortar and pestle. Abortifacients, stomach remedies, headache powder, proto-viagra, elixirs to soothe and cure. Today, we call those prescriptions, and they can be found in any remotely developed region.
We have moved beyond bartering chickens, gold and canned fruit to ease our maladies. Instead we move ourselves down paths forged by man and machine in metallic horses and trade abstractions of energy, digital bits of currency across microfilaments with individuals that represent massive conglomerates to receive mass produced pills assembled by machines, but still dispensed by the hands of an educated few. 
We don’t call them witches, warlocks, medicine men, or shamans. They’re just people working at a job inside giant refrigerated structure filled with an infinite variety of food shipped from all over the globe.  
We eat everything at any time. If you are gathering eggs at 6AM it is out of will and not necessity. You can just as easily buy them by the gross at midnight along with fresh, legal wine, a chocolate cake, sushi, and a packet of birth-control pills from the same pimply faced all-American high school student suffering through her first summer job.
The medicine woman knew about love. Marriages could be arranged, potions brewed, spells cast with herbs, a strand of hair, and a knotted scrap of cloth from the edge of a petticoat. Love spells require a few keystrokes sent out into pool of infinite knowledge that references itself so well that it can guide you to the specific partner of your dreams. The act of banging on plastic buttons in a specific sequence can bring you from isolation to sexual congress in a matter of hours. 
Necromancy for the masses. This is an easy trick. We used to struggle to speak to the dead, to embrace the past, and to avoid loss. Silver crossed palms, charlatans threw voices, worked with ringers, engineered pulleys and illusion to bring a sense of closure to war widows, plague survivors, and other orphans. 
We have a permanent time capsule that can be entered through a magic mirror that anyone can carry in their pocket. We can document our every action with words, photos, drawings, videos, and audio recordings for future generations to access and immerse themselves in for decades to come, long past our personal moment of expiration. Social networks have replaced the need to fortune tellers and mediums. 
We have learned to create our own ghost. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Wes Craven's Swamp Thing


At the urging of Max Romero I have just watched 1982's Swamp Thing for what may be the last time. In the 30 years since it was released, I try to watch it again every 5 years or so.  This may be only the third time I've made it all the way through after over a dozen partial viewings.

Why would I give Wes Craven's least-loved pre-Nightmare movie so much time and consideration? Because I want so badly for it to be my favorite comic book adaptation of all time. Each screening has me rooting for it, begging it to unveil some hidden charm I missed on the previous pass. I want to be scared, I want the swamp to feel forboding, I want to find Adrienne Barbeau remotely attractive.  I want to finally understand why the black kid who can't act is in the movie. I even want to know why Ray Wise and Louis Jordan, both of whom CAN act, are in this.

Why do I care so much? Craven is an excellent horror director, and Last House On The Left is one of the strongest horror films of the 70s. In turn, the Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson run of Swamp Thing on which the film is based are among the best horror comics of the 70s. On paper, this translation should be the best monster movie since Creature From The Black Lagoon.

The story, in essence: Stationed in the bayous of Louisiana, scientist Alec Holland and his wife Linda strive to create a bio-restorative formula to solve the coming food shortage. He and Linda are sabotaged blown up by agents of an evil corporation. Linda dies outright, but Alec is doused with their formula, and runs burning into the swamp which (naturally) turns him into a muck-encrusted mockery of a man. He searches to regain his humanity. Along the way he becomes the arch-nemesis of mad scientist Anton Arcane, and encounters a wide assortment of monsters including a werewolf, a demonic priest, an alien, radioactive children, and Batman in his brief stellar run. The stories were moody, poetic, and introspective monster comics. 

The first 10 issues of the series made a huge impact on many that read them, including horror director Wes Craven. With a string of thoughtful and disturbing horror classics behind him, Craven was a brilliant choice to adapt what was arguably the best horror comic series of that decade to film. 

The version on Netflix Streaming is what is called the European version. The American version was PG, but the Euro one contained, to my understanding, a brief scene of Barbeau bathing topless in the swamp. When I pressed play, the opening credits were in French, so I figured I was about to see this elusive version. For the curious, it is called "La Creature Du Marais" in French. 

It turns out that the bathing scene wasn't the only cut footage in the PG edition. There is a scene of decadence in the villain's castle. Essentially, there is a sex club set up right outside his dining room complete with topless exotic dancing, and sensual breast play available to Arcane's hired help. No American employer offers such decadent benefits.

Why do the breasts 72 minus into the movie matter in this review? I'm glad you asked. 

The film begins with several establishing shots of the swamp. Time is taken to establish the trees, marshes, and the rest of the bayou habitat as a character. The camera then takes us above the canopy of the glade to a helicopter where we meet Barbeau's character, Abby Cable. This beginning is identical to the start of most every European cannibal film of the 70s. We are the white outsider being ferried into a secluded land beyond our understanding. Much of the opening dialog reinforces this idea of the swamp as character. We are promised something scary and surprising that will shake our civilized selves to the core. 

By the time we are ten minutes in, this idea is entirely dropped. The only hint that this is a horror film with roots in 70s exploitation and man vs nature metaphor is when we are introduced to the breasts. Abby Cable's are shown to demonstrate how lovely, natural, and peaceful the swamp can be. The roughly handled breast at Arcane's villa is decadent, and indicates Arcane's intention to go against nature, looking for a capitalistic solution to the limits of mortality. 

It's clear that Wes Craven loves the source material. I don't know if the restrictions of working with material owned by a media conglomerate limited his film making instincts, or if there was some important connective tissue left on the cutting room floor. The casting was good, with Ray Wise looking exactly like a Bernie Wrightson drawing, and Louis Jourdan striking the right tone between serious scientist and megalomaniac. Unfortunately, casting isn't enough.

I have heard the movie catch a lot of crap for the Swamp Thing's rubber suit. I have a large suspension of disbelief for that kind of effect, and don't even mind when you can see the suit's pants fold and shift during action scenes. It's fine, really. The trouble comes at the end when, predictably, you end up with a monster vs monster showdown between Swamp Thing and the immortality grasping Arcane. 

With each subsequent appearance in the comic, Arcane becomes more horrifying. He goes from old mad scientist, to malformed subject of his own experiments, to a truly inhuman bug-meat hybrid. Every artist that has drawn him has brought something new and upped the ante first established by Bernie Wrightson. 

Stakes were high on Arcane looking like the bad Uncle that haunts your dreams and sends you to therapy. 

Audiences were rewarded with a rubber horse in a fright wig:

Dude, your fly's down.

By comparison, here's an illustration by Steve Bissette showing Arcane in 3 of his better-known comic book iterations:

Creepy Uncle Will Fuck You Up

Seriously, there is no comparison. It’s ludicrous. Nothing about the movie costume for Arcane makes sense. Swamp Thing's rubber suit actually looks like a guy who had his laboratory explode in his face, caught fire, and had moss grown back over his skin. Jordan’s Arcane looks like a dude that forgot to rent his Halloween costume at 8PM on October 31. It's embarrassing and deflates a lot of the potential tension in the film's final conflict between the monsters.

Overall, the movie is pleasant and watchable enough. Sadly, it never really commands your attention.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Uncle Ben Dead


I don't remember my friend's name. His dad's name was distinctive and unforgettable. Barry Berry. We were friends by proximity. My step-dad Daniel was a contractor worker, and was involved in a project with Barry. An electrician, perhaps? Anyway, he had a son my age. We were both 13, and we both read comics. 

After a few meetings we were hitting it off pretty well. Most of our friendship happened in Spring of 1984. We lived in different counties, so our adventures were pretty limited by our parent's business needs. Still, we saw each other a couple of times a month, mostly him coming over to my house.

One evening, he brought over some comics that included two issues of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. I had been collecting it, and owned the first 12 issues, but was struggling to get the final few. The series was an encyclopedia of Marvel's characters, featuring drawings and profiles of all their heroes, villains, and a few supporting characters. They were perfect for a child of 13 looking to dig further into the history of Marvel. The two volumes that eluded me, numbers 13 and 14, were subtitled The Book of the Dead. They featured Marvel's "confirmed dead" characters. Phoenix, Bucky, Uncle Ben, Banshee, Captain Marvel, and others all got an entry. Unsurprisingly, most of the dead have resurrected at least once in the intervening decades. 

My friend was into comics, but not as deep into it as I was. One hard-earned dollar got both issues from him to add to by collection. This transaction permanently cemented him in my memory. 

The last time we hung out was at the beginning of the Summer. We were drug to the grand opening of the house Daniel and Barry built. We met the interior designer they had hired, a curvy robust woman who I instantly fell for. In my teenage mind I schemed to someday date her. To this day I enjoy the company of curvy women with intelligence and sass. 

Anyway, we got permission to use the  swimming pool that weekend, under certain restrictions. We couldn't have food anywhere near it, and we had to wear our t-shirts for some reason that escapes me after 30 years. I am sure my 125 pound self in a wet white Hanes Tee looked dead sexy to a 27 year old woman. A boy can dream. 

The Summer started to reveal itself. It was a blur of breakdancing and Ghostbusters. 

One night in June, Daniel took me aside. 

My friend was dead. He was crushed to death while playing with their garage door. Playing chicken with the garage door was a pretty regular game at our age. Some dark part of me was jealous. I didn't have the space to process it, and don't even remember crying. It was just weird.

His death came up as a topic of discussion when the school year started. The teacher was a little incredulous that I was friends with "that kid who got killed playing with his garage door".

As it turns out, a second and more famous case from that same summer happened in Nebraska. It received national TV attention, and may have intermingled with my memories of the events.

Attempts to Google the incident just brings up an episode of Rescue 9-11 from 1991 detailing the NE tale. 

In the intervening 30 years Captain Marvel, Phoenix, and even Bucky have all come back to life in comics. My friend is still dead, and there's no encyclopedia with a record of his existence. All I have are scant childhood memories, and some uncomfortable irony.

I'm sorry I lost your name, and I'm sorry the internet doesn't know who you are. I found your father's LinkedIn profile. He's still in construction, so I guess he's doing OK. 

Thanks for the comics.