Monday, July 30, 2012

Affordable Wheels

This is the Affordable Wheels sign on Route 45 as you’re coming out of Martinsburg and headed towards Shepherdstown. There is no dealership, just the sign. To me, it’s kind of come to encapsulate Martinsburg.

I live in Martinsburg, WV by accident. Before I met my wife, she had decided to move out of her parent’s house and buy a house in Martinsburg for two reasons. One, it was much more affordable than Vienna, VA, and two, she liked the idea of living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I ended up out here with her because I accidentally fell in love with her and chased her out here. Not taking “No” for an answer. It was an answer that had came up a lot.

When I first moved out to Martinsburg, I hated it. I couldn’t wait to get us moved back closer to “civilization”. But Martinsburg has grown on me, especially now that I no longer commute to an area closer to D.C., and now every time we visit “civilization” the traffic and stupidness kind of just leaves us sick.

When Lorie first moved here back in 1997, the area was booming. The mall was new and the outlet center was going strong and Martinsburg was where fancy people from D.C. came to do their outlet shopping. The outlets closed awhile ago, and Martinsburg has yet to recover. The city seems… old. Which means I’ve started to love it more than ever.

Martinsburg has a history dating back to the Civil War. And that’s great, but it’s not what’s on my mind today. Driving through town you can force your mind to imagine what the place must have been like in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The bustling factory area a few blocks from town center. The all-important downtown with its many shops that were a draw for everyone in the area. There’s a soda-fountain counter pharmacy that’s still open. There’s a train station with an old, unused, roundhouse. And as you tour around town you get the feeling that inhabitants of Martinsburg lived very close together and the center of the city was everything.

But our society and culture is different now. The need to live close to where you work and shop for supplies is completely gone. Martinsburg has spread out and prospered in other areas that used to be farm land, leaving the center of old town Martinsburg kind of desolate looking. There are efforts under way to revitalize downtown Martinsburg, but I’m not holding my breath for that to happen. Maybe it’s my age, but I don’t feel like people really need malls and areas to shop anymore. Toy stores and book stores are having severe trouble staying open. Those were always my two reasons to shop. What’s left? Clothes? Shoes?

The Affordable Wheels sign is cool. There used to be a cracking, overgrown parking lot and a two-story house here. When I first moved to Martinsburg, the house was no longer selling the wheels, but instead offered an enticing selection of satellite dishes. Then it went unused for years. It was torn down last year.

I can’t help but think about the guy in 1955 who came to the Affordable Wheels lot, extremely eager to buy his first car and enticed by the idea that it was ‘affordable’. Where is he now? Does he still have the car? Does he think about it when he passes this old lot with the Affordable Wheels sign? And does he think about what Martinsburg used to be? Did he buy comics at the old pharmacy downtown? Did he read pulp novels? Did he listen to Jack Benny on Sunday nights with his family in front of the giant radio? Did he use his new affordable wheels to take a date to the drive-in movie theater that was just a little ways down the road on route 45?

And would he see our culture and era as a sad dissolving of his way of life? Or would he view it as a magnificent vision of a bright and hopeful tomorrow?

Or would he just do the cliché thing and say “What… no flying cars yet?”


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Serious about Serials

One of the many hobbies that I've cultured over the year is a love for 1940's movie serials. In fact, it's one of the things I've been doing with my father-in-law, Glenn Richards, over the last fifteen years. Every time we get together, we try to watch a chapter of one of these movie serials, or an episode of the 1950's Adventures of Superman television show.

Let me caution you in advance... watching movie serials is not for everyone. It's like base jumping or climbing Mount Everest, there must be training and preparation on your part before you just jump in. You can not just grab a DVD of a movie serial, pop it in the player, and watch the whole thing.

Movie serials are another American institution that died awhile ago. If you don't already know, movie serials are comprised of about twelve to fifteen short 'chapters', and theaters would play one chapter every week before the start of a movie. It was a way to score repeat business. But as with many other things, our entertainment habits have changed so much that the need for these serials doesn't exist anymore. The serials morphed into television, and that was all she wrote.
The great thing about serials is what they would do to get you to come back to the theater the following week. They always ended in imminent danger or perceived certain death for the main hero. Audiences would come back the following week to see how this was resolved. This formula wouldn't exactly work with romance or drama, but colorful heroes of the western, science fiction, or super-hero variety? Perfection.

One of the more famous anecdotes about serials within my particular culture, whether true or not, involves Hugh Hefner. Apparently in the sixties he used to show the Batman serial week after week in his famous private theater. His guests would cheer the heroes and boo the villains and just have a great time with the sheer camp of it all. Some Hollywood suits found out about it, and ended up giving us the Adam West Batman TV show.

The first live action appearance of many comic book super-heroes were in these serials. Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher, the Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and others.

I've talked before about how you have to approach older entertainment with an eye towards the era in which it was produced. That's why I say watching serials just isn't for everyone. I try to imagine my buddies Larry and Steve sitting down in front of a serial. I don't see it happening. Scott and Mario, however, would be able to enjoy it for what it was. If you're judging the material from within the time it was produced, the fight scenes, stunts, and costumes go from being cheesy to glorious examples of the era.

Also, there's the idea of what the movie going experience was back then. We have no frame of reference even close in comparison today. In the 1940's, most of the public did not have television. They went to the theater, payed about a nickel or a dime, and got to sit for several cartoons, a newsreel, a serial, and the movie. They didn't have to leave when the feature was done, they could hang out and watch it again. The theaters weren't run down and poorly maintained. And buying a popcorn was reasonably priced, especially back then. The experience of it is completely incomparable to anything we have today.

I've said my piece about serials, but I want to go on and talk about some of the specific ones I've seen.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel serial is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest serials ever made. Tom Tyler's Captain Marvel costume was great. The serial's weren't always very faithful to the source material, but Captain Marvel's basic concept of a boy becoming a man with super powers to fight crime was so elemental that everything just feels right.

Remember what I said about the serial's not always being faithful to the original source material? The Captain America serial is ridiculous. There's no shield, no Bucky, and generally no sense being made at all with this one. So naturally, I thought it was great.

While having no Joker, Penguin, or Riddler, the Batman serial is actually one of the ones closest to the source material. Although Robin's a little older, the Batcave is pretty bare, as is the Batmobile, and the ears are all wrong. Magnificent, but wrong.

Spy Smasher was a very popular 1940's hero published by Fawcett Comics, the creators of Captain Marvel. This serial has the best stunts I've ever seen from this era.

We're in the middle of watching the Blackhawk serial now. Back then, Blackhawk was published by Quality Comics and was I think their only movie serial offering. Blackhawk works best in the middle of World War II, fighting Nazis. In the serial he operates in California fighting gangsters. So... sigh. Budget cuts.

One of the best serials I've seen is called Undersea Kingdom. Famous wrestler 'Crash' Corrigan takes a submarine ride and ends up kicking major butt in the lost kingdom of Atlantis. And the helmets they wear! Glorious.

The Phantom Empire has to be seen to be believed. Wikipedia describes it as a mix of musical, western, and science fiction. Singing cowboy Gene Autry fights alien invaders. I loved every minute of it.

They made a Blackhawk serial. Awesome. The costume is accurate. Awesome. There are flying scenes. Awesome. The teacup? Wow. Blackhawk sipping tea out of that teacup. I could have done without that. To make matters worse, actor Kirk Alyn goes on to play Superman in other serials. So it's fair to torture yourself by thinking it's Superman dressed as Blackhawk sipping tea out of that teacup.


Friday, July 27, 2012

The Greek Perspective

Last Sunday, my buddy Mario Adractas and I were relaxing in the pool after our exercise routine. The conversation turned to comics and childhood memories, as it almost always does, and Mario had this perspective to offer.

Apparently, when he and his brothers would visit relatives in Greece in their childhood, there was very little to do. Greek television was sorely lacking compared to American programs and Saturday morning cartoons. Mario characterized comic books as the only option for childhood entertainment and therefore treasured by he and his brothers during these trips.

It’s an interesting anecdote for its applicability to why kids just don’t read comics anymore. In the 1940’s, comics were a very new form of entertainment and widely read. The competition, if any, was radio programs and maybe the Saturday movie matinee. Television came along in the fifties as comic books, not un-coincidentally, began to wane. And then the Adventures of Superman hit the airwaves and the medium was given a boost.

Today, when my son sits down with his iPad, he has just a few choices of entertainment. He can read comics. He can read books. He can watch movies or listen to music. He can browse the internet, watch YouTube, or listen to Pandora radio. If he’s feeling creative, he can write, draw, make movies, make music, and even make animations. If he’s in an educational mood he can learn about a variety of different subjects in many different ways. And then there are the video games – which are hands down his favorite use of the device.

And that’s just with using one tool available in the house. Albeit, it’s the most advanced tool, but there are still other options around the house vying for his attention.

The point being, our culture has changed. Our entertainment choices have changed drastically in the last seventy years. It’s probably changed more in this last century than ever before.

So how are comics, just one medium in the dull roar of things fighting for your money, supposed to survive?

Odds are, they won’t. They’ve only survived this far because of the characters. People are drawn to this American mythology. They may stay for the unique storytelling or other factors. But this is a rare case of the subject of the medium driving the need for the medium.

I’m constantly trying to push the idea that change is good. With my kids, where I’m trying to prevent them from getting stuck in certain mindsets. Especially at work, where people find a groove and tend to want to stick with it. And with myself. Trying to expand beyond the boundaries of who I decided I was in my early formative years. I’m a better person for it. Logically, I understand that.

But still, there’s the romantic notion of nostalgia that keeps plaguing my mind. I’ll catch myself driving to work early on a summer morning remembering fondly my days of biking to the 7-Eleven to look for new comics and get a Slushee. And there’s nothing wrong with those nostalgic feelings. As long as when I get to work I force myself to get out of the car, get in the door, and continue the push to expand.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Face-Off - Me vs. Sofia Adractas

Okay, folks. Let's take a minute for another face-off! Hopefully, this one will go better than last week's face-off with Ashton.

Today, we have me:

Versus Sofia Adractas. Turning two years old this October.

Okay. I slip into the living room where she's watching TV and give her my 'flirtation special':


"Huh? Wha?"

"Mom, that nerd friend of Daddy's is interupting Sesame Street."

... and.... we're done.

Maybe I'll get back to this particular face-off when Sofia stops acting like I'm the beast she most associates with attacks on Tokyo.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Sandy the Golden Boy

In December of 1941, Wes Dodds was driving along a lonely New England highway when suddenly he came upon some giant bees. The giant bees attacked, as often giant bees are wont to do. NO ONE wants TAME giant bees. Dodds leapt from the driver seat of his roadster, rolled under the car, changed into his Sandman suit, and leaped back out into two fisted action.

This all happened in the pages of Adventure Comics #69, of course. And it was all very commonplace. Adventure Comics was an anthology title, headlining many heroes and stories, and this particular issue ended in eight pages of Sandman action. Deliriously glorious Sandman action, if you’re as passionate about this stuff as I am.

This was the Golden Age of comics. That’s the era between the late thirties and the early fifties when comic book super-heroes were new and exciting and very very plentiful and there were no rules. Everyone was making it up as they went along. They didn’t know they were busy creating a brand new American entertainment medium, they were just trying to make a fast buck.

The writer and artist of this Sandman story didn’t care about the huge coincidences that their story relied on. They just knew that they had eight pages to tell a story, so why bother with intricate setup on how hero meets villain/threat? He stumbles upon giant bees while driving in the countryside. That’s all you need to know, kid. Now gimme your ten cents and let’s keep moving.

The style of action, threat and chance circumstance are not what sets this story aside for me. It’s the changes to the character itself. Golden Age characters rarely change, with a few notable exceptions. They fill a role, and if that role doesn’t work out they’re jettisoned for the latest and greatest. There’s no existing fan base crying out for the return of old favorites. There ARE no old favorites. So to see the editors of DC comics take an existing character and completely change his outfit and crime-fighting style is a little interesting to me. With this issue, Sandman goes from the strange looking three-piece-suit with gas mask look of previous issues to a much more established super hero look of gold and purple with a cape.

There’s no rational or recognition from the character regarding the change. There’s no promotion on the cover or elsewhere regarding the change. It just is! So plunk down your ten cents and let’s keep moving.

But the Sandman strip would commit one more drastic change with this issue. Sandman would gain a kid sidekick, Sandy the Golden Boy.

When Sandman rolled under that car to dodge the giant bee and change into his fighting togs (natch), across the street watching was a ten year old boy in a tree house. A boy who JUST HAPPENED to be a huge Sandman fan. A boy who JUST HAPPENED to be wearing an approximation of the Sandman’s costume. That’s right, the new one. And a boy who JUST HAPPENED TO be named Sandy.

Sandy commits several sins in the eyes of modern story-consumers. ONE… he had no idea that Sandman would change his costume starting with this issue. None of us did. The artist probably didn’t know until the editor strolled in and yelled “Make it more like Batman”, as noted by So how did he know to be wearing this particular costume? TWO… he knew all about the giant bees and how to stop them. THREE… he leaped into battle against the bees as soon as Sandman shows up. FOUR… he’s named Sandy.

In September of 2011, DC Comics relaunched their entire line of comics under the banner the new 52. The effort was headlined by the re-telling of the origin of the Justice League. They got together and battled Darkseid. It took six issues told over the course of six months.

In December of 1941, the Sandman discovered giant bees on a lonely New England road, got a new costume, met and inducted a new sidekick, found the mad scientist responsible for the bees, and kicked everyone’s butt until America was safe again. It took eight pages.

Story-telling has changed just a bit.

There are several factors to account for the way it evolved. I’m not interested in all that for the purposes of this story. I’m interested in the stark differences. Reading old comics, listening to old radio shows, watching old TV shows… it’s not easy. For the most part, people don’t do it. There are so many cultural differences in both the references being made and the very fabric of how a story is told that the jump between them takes some work.

My sister saw the first Star Wars movie in the 1990’s. She thought it was hokey and ridiculous. That’s hearsay to anyone from my generation.

My buddy Steve characterized all older comic art as ‘rough’ and ‘unfinished’. That was a statement that made it hard for me to breath for a few minutes.

My son Ashton doesn’t think my Jack Benny radio shows are funny, even as I sit giggling at them.

My wife Lorie thinks that the Bob Newhart show is a formulaic bore, even as I sit giggling at the episodes.

In college, my buddy Mario and I fell asleep trying to watch the African Queen. We thought it was the slowest movie ever, and it was 2 A.M.

In high school, I hated reading old comics. I thought they were boring. I guess when you study something long enough, and begin to show passion for the history of a thing, then your attitudes toward it will change. My attitude towards old comics, books, radio shows, televisions programs, and movies is completely different today than it was twenty years ago.

But what does that mean for future generations?

There is SO MUCH entertainment in our culture and our past. Even our immediate past. If we were to stop making television shows and movies right now and only watch things from the past that we haven’t seen before, we would still probably never catch up. When we look at it from an inventory perspective, it doesn’t make any sense to keep making more comics, books, and television shows. But when we look at it from a cultural perspective, the language and storytelling practices are changing so much that reading comics from six decades ago is like reading a foreign language. So we have to keep making more stuff to meet the needs of our current culture. And in all that stuff, all those stories, where does a dinky little eight page story introducing Sandy the Golden Boy fit in? Who will remember him after six more decades? Does the fact that he saw print and popularity in the 1940’s make him immortal? No!

And what about the giant bees?

My head hurts again.

My son Ashton is looking forward to the day in our future where I don’t understand tech toys and tools and he has to show me how to use them. Little does he dream that his own kids will be looking at his childhood entertainment sources as boringly and annoyingly retro.

I should teach him a lesson by dressing him up as Sandy the Golden Boy to my Sandman for next Halloween. How totally hipster ironic would THAT be?


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Discovering Mars Part Two

In my second encounter with the Martian Manhunter, I was to learn that he blows really hard.

No, really.

It was summer of 1981 and for the Dill family, time to move again. My father was in the Air Force and my childhood was comprised of a series of moves from Air Force Base to Air Force Base. From fall of 1978 to spring of 1981 we lived in a tiny town called Rochester, New Hampshire. At that point, three years seemed like forever and I had thought we were pretty much settled. But my father got orders and we were moving from New Hampshire to Montgomery, Alabama.

My mother, in her traditional effort of getting together a pile of ‘trip happies’ to keep us quiet on the long car rides, had bought for me a copy of DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest #11. It is one of the greatest comics known to man.

This comic evokes powerful memories from my childhood. There were two stories in it and to this day I think of them as two of the best Justice League stories ever. The Digest reprints Justice League of America issues 100 through 102, and in the back of the book, it reprints Justice League of America number 17. I read it in the car when we started off on our trip. I read it during the week we stayed at Ocean City, New Jersey with Grandmom Dill and cousins galore. I read it when we stopped off with Grandmom Lomax in North Carolina. I read it when we ended up at random motels along the way. I read it when we finally arrived in Alabama and sat on the floors of an empty house waiting for our stuff. My copy is still in my collection. Falling apart, bent, smelly, stained, and with hints of grains of sand.

LOOK at that cover. It is covered in heroes. And boasting “33 super stars in one epic adventure”. It’s a dream come true.

But, it’s worth it to note how very different it is from today’s comics. Yes, it’s got one three part story with 33 heroes and yes, it’s a bit overcrowded. But the writer was able to give each hero their own showcase, if even for a few panels. For instance, I remember that Aquaman’s few panels were finding the character he was to search for and swimming through a cave system that had become dangerously flooded.

The story splits the heroes up into smaller groups and sends them out on missions to accomplish one unified goal. This was the writer’s way of fitting in 33 heroes and giving everyone something to do. This was how super-hero group storytelling should be done. In today’s comics, story pacing and action scenes are completely different. Today, if I saw a cover blurb boasting the number of heroes in the comic, I would dread reading the overcrowded, boring slugfest within and expect it to have lots of splash pages with meaningless crowd scenes.

But when I was twelve and comic book writers knew how to craft a story with plot, well… that was wide-eyed gangbusters!

Anyway, among these 33 heroes and their well balanced story, Martian Manhunter made one brief cameo appearance.

At this point, he had already left the Justice League.

So still, I knew nothing. How disappointing.

Then I got to the back of the book and there was the reprint of an even older Justice League story. “The Triumph of the Tornado Tyrant”. This showed me that the Justice League story I had just read was actually a nod to the Justice League stories of the 1960’s written by Gardner Fox, who ALWAYS split the heroes up to get them those crucial couple of panels of solo focus. So I learned two very important things about this mysterious hero from Mars.

His weakness was fire.

He blows pretty hard.

And that was it.

So help me out with my inventory of 12 year old Chuck’s understanding of this new/old and exciting character.

1) He was green.
2) He was from Mars
3) He could fly
4) You could take him out with a match and some gumption
5) He blew

So, yeah. How was I supposed to pretend to be Martian Manhunter at Ocean City when doing my ‘super heroes versus the waves’ bit? (My Superman always got bowled over by the unrelenting waves. My Aquaman always swum through them with grace and action-packed aplomb.)

I would look at the oncoming wave, mentally change myself to the Martian Manhunter, check to the right, check to the left, make sure no one was looking, and I would blow at the wave. Cause… to the best of my knowledge, that was Martian Manhunter’s super power. I guess.

Still got a face full of wave, though.