My Misspent Youth: American Flagg by Howard Chaykin

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.

Flagg1

While there were underground comix for a long time, I started reading four-color adventures at about the point the independent comics movement got underway. Thanks in part to the emergence of the direct market and a greater number of shops that essentially sold nothing but comics, there was suddenly an broader audience willing to pay a little bit more for material that was outside of the traditional Big Two publishers of Marvel and DC. I’m thinking of the comics that still fit squarely into tried and true genres, but were a little more adult, a little more daring, a little more distinct. As a result of all that, the independent comics intimidated me to no end.

Compounding my trepidation was the higher price tag. American Flagg #1, for example, cost one full dollar! Almost twice as much as the same month’s issue of Fantastic Four or The New Mutants. How on earth could I justify such an expense? Especially when I knew nothing about the character and didn’t feel compelled to figure out how he fit into a well-established fictional universe. For those reasons, I instinctively kept my distance from writer-artist Howard Chaykin’s creation, no matter how much it intrigued me. On the rare occasions when I did get a glimpse of what lurked behind one of its glossy covers, it was dizzying.

flagg2

It was unlike anything I’d seen before, albeit in part because I hadn’t knowingly seen any of Chaykin’s earlier work, or, for that matter, similarly dynamic efforts like Manhunter, by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson, or much of anything by Jim Steranko. Many of the comics I was reading at the time were shifting the boundaries of superhero fare, but ever so slightly. Chaykin was delivering a wild hybrid of hard science fiction and superhero saga, marked by unapologetically dense pages of vividly challenging visuals and avalanches of jargon-punched language. It was maybe the first comic series I encountered where it was practically impossible to join midstream. Chaykin laid out his near-future techno-nightmare scenario in the first issue and put the full responsibility for catching up on anyone who wasn’t there from the beginning.

flagg3

When I finally read an issue, I was baffled. And I felt a little dirty. Along with his satire aimed at politics, media, and whatever else struck him from month to month, Chaykin devoted a lot of his mental energy to sexy, sexy images, training his pencil on the task of rending those images with impressive alacrity. Taking advantage of the added freedom of creating for a publisher who wasn’t especially worried about impressionable kids picking one of their comics up from the lowest shelf of the drugstore’s magazine rack, Chaykin filled his pages with scantily-clad women, most of them with a predilection for bustiers and garters.

flagg4

At the cusp of my teenaged years, I should have been a prime target for such salaciousness, but instead it made me nervous, as if someone was going to catch me reading it and ship me off to some reprogramming camp for the misguided youth who get turned on by pencil and ink drawings. My monthly reading of John Byrne’s Alpha Flight was already proving that I could be uncomfortably attracted to a a comic book character. I didn’t need Chaykin’s amped up version of panel-by-panel sexiness causing further turmoil to my hormone-rattled psyche.

And yet I kept circling around American Flagg, tentatively but with keen interest. I was seeing the ads for it regularly crop up in other First Comics titles I read, and I was tuned in enough to the comic book press to know Chaykin’s series was well-regarded. And it sure looked cool. Hell, it even managed to snare unlikely fan-vote accolades from time to time, as when Raul the cat just barely nosed past Beta Ray Bill to win Favorite Supporting Character in the annual Comics Buyer’s Guide poll. That might not seem like much. Believe me, it was a major upset in 1984.

flagg5

The circle finally closed years later, and I read a big batch of American Flagg comics, my brain nicely marinated in a bevy of challenging indie fare by that time, making me far better prepared to absorb the intricacies of Chaykin’s storytelling. I’m honestly not sure how it holds up apart from my catch-up nostalgia. Like any science fiction that can be carbon dated in terms of decades as easily as years, some of the forecasting in its pages must seem a little silly. For me, though, reading it primarily gives me a chance to feel like a bolder version of my younger self. That’s an experience that doesn’t have an expiration date.

Previously…
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 6

6. Jethro Tull, Bursting Out

Look. It’s Jethro Tull, the band that brought flute solos into rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a double live album, because it’s the nineteen-seventies and double live albums were the standard filler on the discography of the bigger bands. If you want to hear it, the whole damn thing is online. Every once in a while in these countdowns, I give myself a pass. I’m giving myself a pass.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time

From the Archive: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Though the release model was already suffering from the continuing explosion of the home video market, Disney was still slipping into their vaults for regular theatrical release of their animated classics. Not 3D version or even prints that were given anything but the most cursory clean-up, but instead they’d just drag one of the old favorites out confident that youthful moviegoers hadn’t had a chance to see it previously. One Hundred and One Dalmatians took its turn in the summer of 1991. As the mostly dutifully transcriptions below indicates, I had the official formatting of the title wrong. I’ve cleaned up my most egregious misspellings, though, including the breed of dog and the name of the villain I effusively celebrate. Luckily, this was for the radio. I said the stuff right.

With the rerelease of Walt Disney’s classic animated feature 101 DALMATIANS, we all get a chance to spend some time with one of the greatest villains the studio ever put to screen. Cruella de Vil is the lanky fur-lover with sharp, rigid features that puffs yellow smoke and whose chief desire is to take 99 of the cutest Dalmatian puppies you’ve ever seen and turn them into fur coats. Just seeing Cruella de Vil scowl into a window as she crawls by in her lavish automobile is enough to send a chill up anyone’s spine. Betty Lou Gerson provided a wonderfully wicked voice characterization for the 1961 feature, hissing and growling her way through every nasty moment. Among the 99 pups are the kidnapped offspring of a Dalmatian couple named Pongo and Perdita who lauch a rescue mission that is genuinely suspenseful and enormously fun. And of course each and every one of the puppies is incredibly cute, especially when they’re playing in soot to cover themselves from snout to tail, or arguing their way through a session of family television viewing. At times the backgrounds seem a bit too static and the figure animation shows its rough edges more than one would expect for a Disney feature, but those seem like minor concerns when one realizes all of the painstaking effort that must have gone into keeping all those Dalmatians from losing their spots. 101 DALMATIANS delivers the way the best Disney features do: it brings out the child in everyone and proceeds to delight. (3 stars, out of 4)

One for Friday: The Swimming Pool Q’s, “More Often Than Never”

I knew practically nothing about the Swimming Pool Q’s back when I used to play them on 90FM, but I know a few more things now. The group formed in Atlanta in the late nineteen-seventies, in part thanks to connections made through Glenn Phillips, cult hero singer-songwriter and former member of the Hampton Grease Band. They released their first album in 1981, followed by a pair of releases on A&M Records, recently pulled together in a deluxe reissue using funds from a successful Kickstarter campaign. By the time I found my way to them, they’d parted ways with the label and had landed with Capitol Records, releasing what would prove to be their last album (at least in a first pass at music stardom), 1989’s World War Two Point Five.

World War Two Point Five was one of those dependable albums for me in the station’s C-Stacks, the home of the most obscure music in the library, the albums we were completely confident the average mainstream music fan had never knowingly heard of. Honestly, it was the distinctive album cover (designed in part by Anne Richmond Boston, a former band member) that stuck in my head as much as the music, at least at first. The record proved to be one of those safe bets: wherever I dropped the needle, the music that emerged was good, fitting nicely into almost any set and often prompting a fine idea as to where to go next with the program flow. There wasn’t a “hit,” one song that I or my cohorts at the station played more than anything else. I always played whatever caught my ear when hopscotching across tracks while cueing it up. I know that brisk, bright opening guitar line on “More Often Than Never” grabbed my attention more than once.

That Kickstarter campaign didn’t solely lead to the rerelease. The Swimming Pool Q’s have been playing live dates with some regularity and even recorded some new music together. I’m quick to grouse about the endless reunion cycle of band’s from my personal era of college rock (why anyone is excited about the prospect of a new “Pixies” release is beyond me), but there’s something charming about these also-ran bands getting a chance to soldier on, playing to small but devoted audiences. It feels less like crass cashing in and more like a graceful chance to keep living a long-held dream, albeit in a more modest form.

Listen or download –> The Swimming Pool Q’s, “More Often Than Never”

(Disclaimer: While there is clearly some music by the Swimming Pool Q’s that is readily available to someone willing to throw their money down, it appears to me that World War Two Point Five is entirely out of print. The track is shared here with that understanding. I absolutely mean to impede no fair commerce for the band. In fact, I strongly encourage anyone who found their way to this post to head over to the band’s website and think about supporting them directly, through a purchase or even a ticket to a show. All that typed, I will gladly remove the track if asked to do so by any entity or individual with due authority to make such a request.)

Beers I Have Known: Mickey’s

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

 

mickeys

While I stand by my contempt for the portion of hipster culture that has adopted Pabst Blue Ribbon as a preferred beer, largely, I believe, thanks to the seed planted nearly thirty years ago by a movie character who may not be the best role model, I must confess that I have occasionally made my beverage choices on the basic of favorite fragments of pop culture. The reason I have drank Mickey’s over the years–maybe the only reason I’ve drank Mickey’s–is because of its memorable prominence in the Ed Haynes song “Splash.” Indeed, I can’t even look at the image above without automatically thinking, “Mickey’s Big Mouth used to be my beer,” a lyric from the song. In my recollection, weirdly enough, I’ve almost always purchased my bottles of Mickey’s from the sad beer coolers of gas station convenience stores, although I suppose its status as a malt liquor is somewhat in keeping with that. So even if that memory of exclusivity of purchasing location is incorrect, I’m happy to preserve the historical flaw.

Previously…
Point Special
21st Amendment Bitter American
Abita Restoration Pale Ale
Rolling Rock
Skull Splitter
Foster’s
Highland Thunderstruck Coffee Porter
Red Stripe
Rhinelander Bock
Samuel Adams Boston Lager
New Glarus Brewing Company Wisconsin Belgian Red
ABA Hoppy Saison
Hamm’s
Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager
Three Floyds Apocalypse Cow
French Broad Brewing Gateway Kolsch
Big Boss Brewing “High Monkey”
Stevens Point Brewery Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale
The Native Brewing Company The Eleven Brown Ale
Labatt Blue
Smuttynose Winter Ale
Point Beyond the Pale IPA
Guinness
Capital Brewery Supper Club
Highland Brewing 20th Anniversary Scotch Ale

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Eight

eternity28

#28 — From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
Any film from the first part of the nineteen-fifties is going to seem tame when measured against the norms at play some sixty years later, so its advisable to remember that the beach make-out scene in From Here to Eternity became iconic, at least in part, due to its raciness. The various censorious powers-that-been offered a fleet of suggestions as to how to make the moment palatable, from having the two lip-locked lovers demurely stand up to slapping a nice, thick bathrobe across Burt Lancaster’s bank vault torso. There was also the serious suggestion that the scene was entirely unworkable and should be excised altogether. Director Fred Zinnemann conceded to plenty of other changes from the somewhat salacious source material, a 1951 bestseller of the same name by James Jones, in order to quell the worries of the self-appointed protectors of the fragile collective psyche of the nation. He stuck by the beach scene, though, maybe recognizing its potential as a defining image, maybe simply because it was one of the clearest ways to convey the tragic passion of the story. Regardless of why, he was correct to fight that fight. The veiled heat of that scene says a lot about the whole of the film.

Set at a Hawaiian military base in 1941, in the months leading up to the day that a batch of Japanese Zeroes cast into infamy, From Here to Eternity is sharply about the deglamorized toil of serving in the armed forces. Built with an episodic structure, the film gets at the loneliness and ache that comes with the constant insecurity of putting on a uniform when a nation is on the brink of global war, exemplified by the illicit romance between Lancaster’s first sergeant and the neglected military wife played by Deborah Kerr. That’s one of many little rebellions depicted in film, along with the refusal of a freshly transferred private (Montgomery Clift) refusing to participate in the base’s boxing team and the overall miscreant leanings of Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra). In the deliberately raggedy, episodic storytelling of the film (Daniel Taradash is the credited screenwriter), many of these characters are ultimately killing time, trying to wait out their misery through different means. They don’t know precisely what greater problems are looming, but they have a clear sense that safety is an illusion. One of the feats of the film is the way Zinnemann manages to make the specific foreknowledge the audience holds and the more elusive dread felt by the characters such kindred, even identical, sensations.

Zinnemann balances the whole of From Here to Eternity expertly, especially as he shifts back and forth between storylines. He shows a similar, and perhaps even more valuable, ability to handle sometimes divergent tones, especially in the performances. Clift is at the height of his exploratory Method intensity, which is answered by Lancaster’s masculine ease and snappish authority. Frank Sinatra resides somewhere between the two, yammering excitedly at times but also content to slump into crooner cool. There are similar counterweights in the main actress roles, with the added friction that comes from casting against type, with both Kerr and Oscar-winner Donna Reed gently but decisively adding complexity and sexual boldness to their similar images of upright gentility. The diversity in acting approaches gives the film an welcome verisimilitude by aping the unpredictable dynamics of a community. When the bleakest turn of events comes, as it must, Zinnemann earns the melodrama because of the way he’s collaborated to make the people enduring it surprisingly real.

Faxon and Rash, Kasdan, Lloyd, Lord and Miller, Snyder

Darling Companion (Lawrence Kasdan, 2012). I’ve got loads of residual affection for writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, but he sure doesn’t make it easy to be one of his defenders these days. Darling Companion was his first film in nearly decade, following the appallingly bad Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher. It doesn’t make an argument that he used his creative downtime wisely. As wispy of a film concept as anyone’s likely to come across, Kasdan’s story (co-written with his wife, Meg Kasdan) concerns an older couple who adopt a stray dog and then lose that new furry family member in the woods around their Colorado vacation cabin. And that’s about it. There are different personal conflicts and evolving relationships at play among the extended group of family and friends staying with them at the cabin, mildly heightened by the stress of the absent pet, but they have no depth or bite. Kasdan assembles a stacked cast that includes Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, and, in a dinky part that could heave been written in its entirety on the back of a PetSmart receipt, Elisabeth Moss, causing my partner-in-all-things to refer to the movie as “interesting actors doing uninteresting things.” She’s spot-on.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013). The kindest thing I can say about Zack Snyder’s reboot of Bryan Singer’s reboot of the adventures of the original superhero and the last son of Krypton is the director’s worst tics, the stuff that makes other entries in his filmography downright unwatchable, are largely tamed. The oppressive slo-mo and fetishistic sexualization of everything in sight may be gone, but Snyder still has an evident love of the garishly bombastic. By all evidence, he values cool shots over all else, which could be acceptable if his version of striking visuals wasn’t mired in some bizarre arrested development version of thought and creativity. Everything across the film’s overlong running time comes across as the very first idea presented that made Snyder helplessly mutter, “Killer.” It’s a rough draft of awesomeness. It’s also incredibly boring, proof that bigger sometimes leads to nothing more than bludgeoning excess. No one in the cast distinguishes themselves, but special scorn is necessary for Russell Crowe’s amateurish shouting as Jor-El, Superman’s pop from across the universe.

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011). I read recently that Phyllida Lloyd maintains she was being completely deliberate with the hacky, cheesy elements of her directing job on the dreadful big-screen jukebox musical Mamma Mia! I wonder, then, what her excuse for the same bumbling, ham-fisted approach to staging and developing insight that crops up in her presumably serious attempt at making a biopic of legendary, controversial U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Played by Meryl Streep (and, for a surprisingly amount of time, Alexandra Roach), Thatcher is ultimately more of a witness to history than she is a shaper of it. Her vaunted steeliness–which gives the film it’s very title–is in evidence in only the most facile way, in scenes that play like weak tea drama. Streep finally won her third Oscar for her performance here, but the work was basically incidental. With far more nominations than any other actor, she was going to get rewarded again, and the time had simply come. It’s not a bad performance, but nothing really distinguishes it from boilerplate docudrama either.

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, 2013). The writing team that got to stand near Alexander Payne as he gave a speech when they all won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for The Descendants may have been obscured in his heavy auteur shadow, but at least they got to leverage that experience into making their directorial debut. Supposedly pulled somewhat from the youthful experiences of co-director Jim Rash, the film is a fairly standard-issue slice-of-life, coming-of-age movie, settling into a crummy water park to help give it some added flavor. The film has its moments, many directly attributable to Sam Rockwell doing his Sam Rockwell thing as a mentor of mild ill repute the youthful protagonist (Liam James) gravitates to at the park. Rash and Nat Faxon pull the whole thing together with a reasonable skill and an eye for the occasional telling moment or side detail. It could use some more storytelling meat to make it seem like it has a real reason for being as a film.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014). I think some of the heady praise doled out to The Lego Movie is an indication that a lot of critics were rounding up, but it’s hard to deny that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller spun up art from the unlikeliest clay. Or, rather, plastic. Just as they’ve done in the Jump Street films, the pair sidestep the pitfalls of crassly conceived material by calling attention to the shallowness of it all, creating by explicitly pointing out how they’re creating it, cheekily mocking all the inherent contradictions and compromises along the way. It’s remarkable that a condemnation of Lego’s current business model of ready-made construction kits is one of the less subversive elements of the film. It’s occasionally a little sloppy and the pathos of the very weird third act twist sits a little awkwardly against the rest of the movie’s wild energy, but the filmmakers deserve credit for seeing their vision through to its logical endpoint. I wonder how deep they got into the filmmaking process before they were sure–really, really sure–no one was going to take it away from them.