From the Archive: The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I’ve occasionally acknowledged, it took me a bit of time before I plunged into the world of superhero comics. As was my wont at that age, I clung to the kiddie material I loved longer than I probably should have. At different times, I’ve probably retrospectively tagged various comics as my gateway into the supposedly more mature fare populated by the costumed do-gooders of the Marvel Universe, but it’s probably fair to say my most robust initial exposure to the characters came from a somewhat unlikely source: The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book.

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Published by Fireside Books, these were big floppy slab of books, with page after page of relatively easy puzzles themed around the various colorful characters who populated Marvel’s magnificent monthly mags. I was already a sucker for crosswords, mazes, and other mental challenges designed to wear pencils down to nubs. It only made them a little more dynamic when they were themed around super-powered beings soaring through the sky.

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“The answer called correct on page 116.”

Some of the puzzles were only tangentially related to the Marvel comics, but others ostensibly required a working knowledge of the four-color adventures that kept spinner racks handsomely stocked. The complete the Nova maze, I only needed to know how mazes worked. Playing fill-in-the-blank with Daily Bugle headlines was a different matter.

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There’s no real reason to believe these sorts of exercises would have stirred my interest in the actual comics, but they did. I genuinely wanted to know the particulars of the story that would have gotten Daredevil identified as a killer by a major metropolitan newspaper, for example. There were similar head-scratchers that pulled panels straight from the comics or teased bygone storylines (back when there was a mere fifteen years of history to draw upon).

I know I wasn’t fully, properly connect to the Marvel Universe through these books, but the osmosis of my time lingering over the pages did its job. I wasn’t transformed into a devoted Marvel reader by these books, but, strangely, I can credit these books into priming me for the helpless fandom to come.

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The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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Laughing Matters: Louis C.K., “Of Course, But Maybe”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Louis C.K. has talked openly and repeatedly about the way that George Carlin changed his career. It was Carlin’s practice of throwing out all his material once it was documented in one of his many HBO specials and then building an act anew that inspired C.K., making him go deeper and be smarter with his own work. So when C.K. signed on for his own HBO special, he paid direct homage to Carlin by recording it at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona, home to one of his esteemed predecessors most notable early outings for the pay cable network.

Fittingly — and perhaps intentionally — C.K. also closed the show with the most Carlin-esque bit he’s ever created, an ingenious riff on dueling intellectual impulses that vibrates with exactly the sort of precise language disguised as casual musing that the Carlin perfected. It’s utterly remarkable.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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That Championship Season: Community, Season Two

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It is dizzyingly appropriate that Community was a television series that eventually got swamped by its own behind-the-scenes backstory. From early in its run, Dan Harmon’s creation discarded most of its nominal overtures to sitcom convention in favor of demolishing any and all familiar tropes. The most basic summary of the show indicated that it was about a study group at a struggling community college. In actuality, Community was a television show about television shows, so enthralled with the clicking gears of traditional narrative that cracked the shell right off the machine, peering excitedly inside. It makes sense. That’s where all the action is.

Devoutly, defiantly strange, the show had no business being on a major network, and the executives at NBC, the program’s original home, never seemed to understand it. Even as the fans were engaged in a spirited, adoring dialogue with the show — utilizing then-upstart social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr — there was an air of bafflement to any official network and studio interaction with the show, up to the insane renewal to a fourth season without a corresponding invitation to return for Harmon, whose singular, obsessive vision provided the suspension cables to the dangerously swaying bridge. That drama combined with the fervent fan campaigns willing multiple seasons into existence — largely on the prompt of a single throwaway gag — to make Community about the construction of Community as much as it was about anything that actually made it to the screen for a Community episode.

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Before that whirlpool of self-reflection started its unstoppable swirl, Community was often a work of pure brilliance, offering a new standard for how inventive a comedy could be, at least if the particular were at all capable of being repeated. By its very nature, the show was destined to burn itself out. It wasn’t a candle lit at both ends; it was a stick of dynamite with a dozen fuses.

Given its postmodern, meta layering, Community could only get so far. Repeatedly demolishing and rebuilding a structure will always leave it rickety over time, no matter how much loving care goes into the process. Anyone laying odds surely would have pegged season two as the likely creative peak: characters and relationships have been established well enough to develop easily reachable story possibilities but the jolt of newness can still exist. The path is worn in, but not trampled into disrepair.

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What’s remarkable is just how good that second season is. In its exploitation of the possibilities — made more boundless by the narrative shenanigans that are key component — Community takes advantage of the strengths of classic narrative structure while brightly calling attention to the contrivances built right in. During the first season, the show skewed towards more specific spoofing — lifting directly from the likes of M*A*S*H and Goodfellas — but the second season took swings at genre more broadly, which, in a lovely paradox, actually allowed Harmon and his collaborators to be more specific. There were still little riffs that could be tied to a single pop culture predecessor, but there was a greater likelihood to parody material more generally: zombie and infection movies in “Epidemiology,” twisty mysteries in “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” and the whole range of action-based cinema in the spectacular paintball two-parter that closed the season.

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Even as the deconstructionist showmanship is the dominant personality trait of the season, the show the would stall out if there was little else going on. Harmon and his collaborators keep the material firmly grounded in character. As fun as it, in “Cooperative Calligraphy,” that the characters in a bottle episode are constantly discussing the rules and motivations of a bottle episode, it is ultimately the soundness of those characters — and the writers’ ability to shrewdly spark them off each other — that makes it work. Similarly, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” arguably the high point of the entire season, is fun as an excursion into the geekiest corner of geekdom, but it’s the way the episode still manages to offer revelatory glimpses of the people moving through the fiction that gives it resonance past the gimmick.

The improbable balance of the show is evident in the pendulum swings between churlishness and warmth. “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” takes bitter swipes at the storytelling shortcuts available to comedies that adopted a quasi-documentary format (notably The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family) and yet also slaloms convincing to genuinely poignant moments. And “Paradigms of Human Memory” parodies the laziness of clip shows by sprinkling in highlights of episodes that never happened, ingeniously deploying the offhand resolution of one of the will-they-or-won’t-they storylines of tedious necessity that the series included. It plays like an odd gesture of respect to the characters, wresting them from the threadbare cliche with a minimum of fuss.

That commitment to an internal emotional integrity that is at least as robust as that energy devoted to the the excitable storytelling card tricks is vital to the second season of Community. An exercise in meta-narrative, no matter how clever, can easily feel hollow. That problem is avoided by filling the empty space with heart. That explanation is itself a wincing cliche. But Harmon and company proved that knowing mockery of the tried and true doesn’t necessarily invalidate a simultaneous embrace of the strengths that made the narrative tactics overly familiar in the first place. Indeed, it may allow for the loving hug to be just a little bit tighter.

D&D

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three
Louie, Season Two
Togetherness, Season One
Braindead, Season One

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CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 67 – 65

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67. Psychedelic Furs, “Heartbreak Beat”

Columbia Records really wanted new music from Psychedelic Furs. In 1986, the band were unlikely beneficiaries of the John Hughes teen movie factory, which was producing new material at a rapid clip. “Pretty in Pink,” the title of a 1981 single from Psychedelic Furs, was typed onto the cover page of Hughes’s high school romance script that he turned over to Howard Deutch to direct. The resulting film, released in 1986, was a box office success, and the Furs’ freshly recorded take on the song turned into a hit, just missing the Billboard Top 40. Anxious to capitalize on the sudden name recognition for one of their most cantankerous acts, the label rushed the Butler brothers and their bandmates into the studio. Later, the band would claim they weren’t ready, that their material wasn’t up to snuff. If the label agreed, they didn’t much care. Columbia gave the album a heavy promotional push, including ads that excitedly touted the 1987 release as the band’s “masterstroke.”  The first single from the album, “Heartbreak Beat,” was lead singer Richard Butler’s stab at capturing the essence of New York City. “It’s about that feeling when you walk through Washington Square Park and you’ve got all the boxes going and it sounds like this huge phase-shifter,” he said. “New York has definitely affected the feel of the songs. I very much pick up on what’s around me, steal things, phrases, the feeling of being out at night in New York.” Whatever reservations the artist may have had about the album and the songs on it, The single “Heartbreak Beat” had the desired business effect. It became the first and only Top 40 hit for the Psychedelic Furs in the U.S.

 

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66. The Cult, “She Sells Sanctuary”

At the time Steve Brown was hired to produce Love, the sophomore album from the British hard rock band the Cult, his most recent high profile gig entailed presiding over a rubbery dance workout for Wham! This was hardly expected resume fodder given that the Cult was far more likely to draw comparisons to Led Zeppelin and other titans of late-sixties and early-seventies pounding, metal-flecked songs. Reportedly, Brown got the position after telling the group they should record “She Sells Santuary” without a single change, making the correct prediction that the track would make it up to #15 on the U.K. charts. Maybe Brown understood the evergreen appeal of the song’s topic. “What’s the song about? Sex,” lead singer Ian Astbury asked and answered. “Plain and simple, it’s about sex. I’ve had sex and I’m very proud of that fact.” In a later interview, Astbury got a little more expansively philosophical about the song’s inspiration. “’She Sells Sanctuary’ was probably referring to the power of finding solitude in a woman’s arms and the matriarchal energy, whether it be an actual physical person or in a spiritual sense, the greatest matriarch, and thinking of the cosmos as a female energy rather than a male energy,” he said. “These are archetypal things I was picking up from discovering things like Joseph Campbell and Buffy Sainte-Marie or even Jim Morrison.” Although “She Sells Sanctuary” hardly sounds like some sadly softened sell-out, the Cult still found it engendered animosity from their existing fans, apparently disgruntled that their underground heroes had tasted even a modicum of chart success. “Oh, Jeez, we’ve lost a hell of a lot of people,” Astbury said when the single was still riding reasonably high. “People with zero going for them, they like to latch onto something which is very small and unique and feel a part of it. And then when it gets bigger and more people get into it, it becomes dirty, I guess. Not as personal.”

 

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65. Echo & the Bunnymen, “Lips Like Sugar”

“Getting reasonably big in America is a natural thing,” Echo & the Bunnymen lead guitarist Will Sergeant said at around the time the band’s 1987 self-titled album delivered them a commercial breakthrough in the U.S. “We’ve been pushing away at it for so long that it’s happening automatically. It just takes longer because its too big.” The band’s fifth album overall, Echo & the Bunnymen seemingly found the band taking a stab at broader commercial success, though they maintained a stubborn commitment to their own muse regardless of what their music business overlords wanted. (Reportedly, one of the label execs directed them to deliberate ape the sound of Peter Gabriel’s So.) They went so far as to insist that the little swell of success they were experiencing was the result of building a reputation as a strong live act after years of touring, the sort of folk tale that affords an act the soundest integrity. It’s hard to deny, though, that a track like “Lips Like Sugar,” with its yearning hook, seems almost genetically-engineered for radio success. Of course, the counter argument is simple and satisfying: Who cares if it’s deliberately commercial if it also sounds as good as anything Echo & the Bunnymen ever recorded. Released as the second single from the album, the track was one of those that briefly felt like it was everywhere, even as it didn’t so much as ruffle any of the commercial U.S. charts.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Dreamgirls

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The proper way for me to raid my own writing history to align with the major release this weekend entails unearthing my original radio review for the animated classic Beauty and the Beast, from 1991. I did write one at the time. And I was fairly proud of it, if I’m recalling correctly. That review is lost to the eroding waters of time (or at least taped into a box that hasn’t been accessed in a good long time). So I’ll instead look to the director of the new live-action take on Disney’s finest animated effort (Pixar movies don’t count). This review of Dreamgirls first appeared at my former online home.

The new movie musical Dreamgirls has two distinctly different halves, separated by the number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” which has to stand as one of the most impressive showstoppers in the annals of Broadway. Of course it’s not hard to spot that the song signals the act break when the production is on the stage, but it’s more than that. The two sides of the movie are quite different in their effectiveness. Some of that may derive from shortcomings or strengths inherent to the material, but there’s some clear filmmaking choices shaping the impact as well.

Writer-director Bill Condon previously helmed the marvelous Gods and Monsters and the compromised Kinsey (and Candyman II, what the hell?) but the main bullet point on his resume that landed him this long-developing gig was the screenplay adaptation for the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago. In that film, he notably invented the notion that all of the music performances were the imaginings of the obsessive Roxie Hart, so desperate for her place on the stage that she sees the whole world as a grand music performance. Here, Condon has the luxury of the primary storyline charting the rise of a Motown-styled “girl group” called the Dreams (a veiled-so-thinly-you-may-not-even-notice-the-cloth-hanging-there version of the Supremes) and the freshly invented Detroit record label they help make into a major force. For the most part, characters don’t break into song while walking down the street, but while they’re on stage or in a recording studio, keeping it more grounded in reality, which modern audiences seem to need with their musicals.

That hurts him somewhat, too, as there are a few moments that require that sort of old-style staging with characters singing to one another not because they’re putting on a show, but because they’re expressing emotion or even passing along exposition through song. These few moments are rare enough that they sit somewhat uneasily in the film. More problematically, much of the first act is an overdirected jumble that progresses too rapidly. We feel like we’re watching the characters proceed without really knowing them, as Condon seems more interested in creating some razzle dazzle with his shot choices and editing techniques.

Sometimes that distance from the characters is a natural extension of their very construction. Eddie Murphy plays James “Thunder” Early, a consolidation of James Brown, Little Richard, Bobby Womack…hell, by the time he shows up in a colorful knit hat singing “message songs” it starts to seem that Early is meant to be every black male who carried a tune in front of a microphone between 1955 and 1975. The character is a skilled performer of R&B, soul, funk and even delivers a proto-rap song in a defiant television performance. Presumably we’ll need to wait for some sort of DVD extended director’s cut to see him master delta blues and invent trip hop. That the character has any recognizable through-line at all is a credit to Murphy’s performance. In the past, his best work has been marked by a sort of freeform creativity, a whipsmart fluidity that finds the comic truth (or, on occasion, the poignancy) in any given moment with a considered liberation from the rigors of maintaining the bigger picture of the character or the film. He achieves the opposite here, completely subsuming any tendencies he might have towards caricature, shifting quickly past the most obvious earmarks of his pop chart inspirations to lock onto the echoing disappointment of Early’s life. It may not even be accurate to say this is Murphy’s career-best performance, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him approach a role as an actor rather than as a performer.

Generally, the strength of the performers helps that second half gel into something potent and moving. Condon finds a more agreeable rhythm, letting the stories unfold gracefully while concentrating his fussier energies on the more enjoyable diversion of filling the background with entertaining pastiches of Motown hallmarks, from album covers to performers. Besides Murphy, Jamie Foxx is excellent as the film’s Berry Gordy stand-in, quietly establishing the firm, menacing strength and decisiveness of a powerful man. And then there’s Jennifer Hudson, keeper of the most tragic and triumphant story arc as Effie White, the member of the Dreams whose place at the front is supplanted by a prettier, safer singer played by Beyonce Knowles. Hudson performs “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” with the appropriate raw abandon and just pulling off that moment practically guarantees an invite to the Kodak Theater. She’d solid throughout, playing Effie’s self-defeating righteousness with a smooth, on-target emotional efficiency, but it’s the centerpiece song that really sticks. The belted anguish of the moment hits the heart hard and elevates everything that follows.

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One for Friday: An Emotional Fish, “Grey Matter”

AEF

An Emotional Fish formed in Dublin, Ireland. That seems all the justification that’s needed for sharing this song today.

For all those who are going to take today’s quasi-holiday as an excuse to abuse their own grey matter, for the love of Daniel-Day Lewis, at least do it with Guinness, won’t you?

(I feel a little bad I’m skimping on the words here, so I will note that I’ve previously written about An Emotional Fish in a more expansive manner.)

Listen or download –> An Emotional Fish, “Grey Matter”

(Disclaimer: I’d like to type that I put in diligent effort to determine whether or not this song is available in a physical format that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the owner of the business in question and the original artist. If it’s available, but it, post-haste. If not, buy something else from that record store. It’s the right thing to do. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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The New Releases Shelf: In Between

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The Feelies celebrate St. Paddy’s Day 2016 in style (via Facebook)

When I was writing music reviews for Spectrum Culture, I sometimes felt obligated to volunteer for the new releases from bands who had banged out tunes at club shows staged before some of my cohorts were born. There was no clanging indication that I was an uncommon elder, but I felt a certain protectiveness. My own longstanding skepticism of bands who’d arguably overstayed their welcome — or, worse yet, reunited after a significant layoff — made me want to make sure that the artists I’d once played new records from on college radio were getting a fair shake. That I had no indication whatsoever than anyone there shared my knee-jerk prejudice against high mileage groups was evidently an inconsequential data point to me.

And that’s how my own preconception about reunion efforts was knocked asunder by the Feelies. To be sure, the band’s 2011 album, Here Before, doesn’t really stand up against their finest achievements, but it made a strong enough case for dusting off the old guitar straps. Their famed jittery music stylings had aged and softened in agreeable ways, maintaining the restless creativity but settling into a mode that suggested a charmed and charming ease.

That wisdom-dappled mellowing continues with In Between, the latest effort from the Feelies. Arriving six years after Here Before, the album doesn’t have the same surprising thrill of resuscitation. It instead offers its own sort of template. This is how a college rock band can persist in dignity. It is gentle progression rather than anxious snatching at past glories. The only real echo on the album is the title cut, and only because it’s presented in two forms: a rustling breeze of a song when it opens the album and a grandly squalling hurricane when it returns for a nine-and-a-half-minute reprise at the end.

The material is recognizably the product of the Feelies throughout, but they spend just enough time digging into new little corners of their music. “When To Go” locks into a ruminative groove, and “Gone Gone Gone” is notable for its piercing sonic escalation. Maybe the most characteristic song is “Flag Days,” with its lolling, direct lyrics (“Somebody’s talking/ What are they saying?/ Why are they whispering?/ Nobody’s listening”) peppered with the most relaxed “Come on, baby” in rock ‘n’ roll history. And why shouldn’t the Feelies be relaxed? After all these years, it’s perfectly acceptable for their rhythms to be a little less crazy.

 

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