Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”

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These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

In the spring of 2007, few artists inspired more eager anticipation for new material than Kanye West. His first two full-length albums, The College Dropout and Late Registration, drew exalting reviews, and his reputation as a fearless, volatile truth-teller had only been boosted by his off-the-cuff remarks during a live telethon raising money for Hurricane Katrina relief. While fumbling and unpolished, his remarks accurately and empathetically recognized the ways in which a Republican presidential administration’s deeply embedded bigotry impacted their policy decisions to the detriment of those who were less well off than, say, a multi-millionaire recording artist.

West and his the stray members of his team had been teasing the imminent release of new music for some time when the snippet of a song, less than 30 seconds in the length, appeared on the internet and spread with the rapidity and relentlessness of a career-killing tweet. One week later, the full track “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” emerged, serving as both the title cut to a new mixtape and the lead single for West’s third album, Graduation, which would follow in the fall.

On the track, West collaborated with Atlanta producer and performer DJ Toomp, who brought a swampy heaviness to the track. It was somewhat atypical of West’s sound to that point, but the words that tangled boastfulness and anxiety into one fierce tangle made the author of the track unmistakable. While it earned fevered praise from most quarters, it struggled a bit on commercial radio, holding the single just outside the Billboard Top 40. Still, West long held it was the best track he’d done, and some portions of it certainly strike me today as deeply pertinent. “I feel depression, under more scrutiny/ And what I do? Act more stupidly,” West raps, and the masses collectively nod in assent.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #940 to #937

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940. Dead Kennedys, Frankenchrist (1985)

Frankenchrist, the third album from Dead Kennedys, should have been a celebratory return to recording for a band that helped define hardcore punk. The group had withdrawn from active engagement with making their own music, largely to nurture along their record label, Alternative Tentacles, which began as a shingle for their own releases, but was quickly growing to accommodate other acts. After a couple years as music biz honchos, Jello Biafra and his crew were bashing on their instruments again.

The album was received with mixed emotions by the band’s most devoted fans, some taking umbrage at the development of sonic textures more complex than the jet engine blast that typified punk rock of the day. The real complications, though, arose from an element of the album’s packaging. Within the benign condescension of the album sleeve depicting Shriners puttering along a parade route in undersized automobiles, a poster print by H.R. Giger awaited like a poisonous prize. A rendering of Giger’s 1973 piece Work 219: Landscape XX — or, more descriptively, Penis Landscape — was presented with the following warning:

The inside fold out to this record cover is a work of art by H.R. Giger that some people may find shocking, repulsive, or offensive. 

Life can sometimes be that way.

Reportedly, the relentless provocateur Biafra originally wanted the Giger work to serve as the album cover, but saner souls prevailed, relegating Penis Landscape to a more hidden locale. That was problematic enough. The trouble started when a fourteen-year-old girl purchased the album from a California record store, intending is as a gift for her brother, who was three years younger. That didn’t sit well with mom. She contacted the authorities, and eventually the vice squad paid a visit to Alternative Tentacles. Biafra and his cohorts were charged with distributing harmful material to minors. Though the charges were beat in court, the legal bills almost bankrupted the label.

The Shriners sued, too. Evidently, Dead Kennedys failed to secure the proper rights to that image.

As for the music on the album, it’s unmistakably the Dead Kennedys, all right, for good and for not-so-good. Their place as seminal practitioners of nineteen-eighties punk — when the tuneful craft of the nineteen-seventies version of the music largely gave way to an angry, adrenalized, headlong variant — is wholly deserved, and there are compelling arguments in their favor on Frankenchrist. The neck jerking momentum of “Helination” and the machine gun drum blasts on “This Could Be Anywhere (This Could Be Everywhere)” demonstrate a fevered command of the form. And “Chicken Farm,” a condemnation of the U.S. attitude toward Vietnamese refugees, holds some of the Dead Kennedys’ experimentation, sounding agreeably like A Flock of Seagulls yanked through a hardcore filter.

But the band could also be blundering in their political and social commentary, especially when it was framed in smug comedy. The gruesome comic mockery of “Jock-O-Rama (Invasion of the Beef Patrol)” is repellently sour, and  “MTV — Get Off the Air” is simply dumb and didactic, and that’s after the embarrassing sketch at the opening. The album closes with the epic “Stars and Stripes of Corruption,” in which Biafra sings about paying a visit to the nation’s capital in order to urinate on federal buildings and generally survey the landscape with disdain (“The Washington monument pricks the sky/ With flags like pubic hair ringed ’round the bottom”). Sometimes it’s tempting to credit older music with a daring for its time, but even in the nineteen-eighties this was insipid.

The ordeal of Frankenchrist clearly took a toll on the band. After only one more studio album, the band broke up and embarked on a decade-plus of acrimonious lawsuits over credits and royalties.

 

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939. Gary Numan, Telekon (1980)

Gary Numan was working hard at the dawn of the nineteen-eighties. Including Replicas, released with the band Tubeway Army, Numan cranked out three full-length studio albums in less than two years. Later, he’d group these records together, referring to them as his “machine” trilogy. Each one of them topped the U.K. album charts. Telekon was the third and final installment.

In the U.S., Numan had a tougher time garnering commercial attention after his first solo single, “Cars,” made it into the Billboard Top 10. Listening to Telekon, it’s fairly clear why audiences reared on disco and similarly eager pop nuggets would struggle to connect with Numan’s efforts. The album is awash in intensely sleepy dance music. It’s complex and intriguing, but also icy and distant. Album opener “This Wreckage” is elegant and elusive, edging up to a recognizable pop song structure only to veer away into jagged synthesizer cadences. It’s wholly typical of the material on Telekon.

The album is strong and prickly, like a glimmering light that beckons an unsuspecting wanderer into a briar patch. “I’m an Agent” has a Bowie-esque shimmy that evolves into high drama, and “Remember I Was Vapour” has a touch of Lou Reed’s plainspoken poetry to it. Arguably the most intriguing track is “I Dream of Wires,” which plays out as a prized artifact from a fantasyland where Giorgio Moroder produced Laurie Anderson and it hit like the Beatles.

Numan might have confused most U.S. listener with Telekon, but some important figures connected with it immediately. Telekon was one of the albums Prince studied like a religious text, and ghostly Numan fingerprints can be detected on some of the purple genius’s most ambitious works in the era. “There are still people trying to work out what a genius Gary Numan is,” Prince once said, a utterance Numan’s advocates never tired of cited.

 

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938. Squeeze, Cool for Cats (1979)

Cool for Cats was Squeeze’s second album, but it felt like their proper debut for many of the band members. Their self-titled album, released in 1978, was only a moderate commercial success at home in the U.K. More problematically, the recording of it was largely a miserable experience, largely due to producer John Cale’s insistence on reworking material in ways that edged it away from the band’s sound. When it came time for the sophomore release, Squeeze found a studio collaborator who was more amenable to their predilections, which amounted to conjuring up practically perfect pop songs.

From the lyrics, Squeeze were also a bunch of randy fellas. Lead track “Slap and Tickle” is a spirited romp through the messiness of modern courtship, complete with the please “Never chew a pickle,” and “It’s Not Cricket” recounts barroom tales of debauchery with relaxed glee. And “Touching Me Touching You” is possibly the most buoyant paean to masturbation ever recorded. Squeeze presents all this with such good cheer, it’s easy to overlook the bawdy bits. At least radio programmers did enough to make many of the tracks hits. Three different singles made it into the U.K. Top 40, two of them just missing the top of the chart.

It likely also helped that Squeeze were rock ‘n’ roll classicists at heart. One of the bigger hits was “Up the Junction,” which is smartly observant and built on a lovely pop melody, like a “Penny Lane” grappling with modern problems without the relief of nostalgia. “Goodbye Girl” takes a timeless pop hook and applies new wave polish, and the band romps with pure Jerry Lee Lewis honky-tonk on “Hop, Skip & Jump.” Nearly every track on Cool for Cats feels like it could have been lifted from a previous era, yet simultaneously springs with the vividness of pure invention.

 

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937. Devo, Duty Now for the Future (1979)

Devo famously received help from art rock titans Brian Eno and David Bowie in recording their attention-getting debut, Q: Are We Not Me? A: We Are Devo! For the tricky act of following that up, they stayed without the same collaborative sphere, enlisted as producer Ken Scott, who had previously served the same role for Bowie on the amazing stretch of records that ran from Hunky Dory to Pin Ups. He helped the band craft Duty Now for the Future.

The resulting album stretched out Devo’s arch, confrontationally deconstructionist pop music without compromising its eccentricities. Any band fishing for mass approval isn’t going to record a track like “S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain),” which uses a pinging beat to ruthlessly escalate anxious body horrors (“Cold sweat on my collar/ Dripping to my boots/ The waves of nauseous pain/ Sets off the pressure pad alarms”). It might not be the Platonic ideal of Devo songs, but it’s close.

On Duty Now for the Future, Devo consistently exploring synthesized soundscapes without ever getting overly precious. Employing bleeps with greater prominence than crunching guitars doesn’t diminish the punk energy. The delightfully intense “Wiggly World” and the thrusting, fervid “Strange Pursuit” are straight out of a sweat-smeared club, albeit one with irritable robots as proprietors. The band also demonstrates an uncommon skill for controlled yet loopy explorations, as on the playful modernized surf rock of “Pink Pussycat” and the electronic percolator “Timing X.”

As usual, the album was merely part of the story, serving as a launching pad for all sorts of postmodern tomfoolery. On the subsequent tour, Devo became advocates for the spoof religion the Church of the SubGenius, going so far as to serve as their own opening act under the guise of Dove (The Band of Love). The plan stood as a sort of wicked opposition to any strategies that would develop popular appeal. But one album later, they stumbled on a huge hit anyway.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — X-Men: Last Stand

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I thought by now I’d already transferred any and all writing I’ve done on superhero movies into this space, but it turns out I was mistaken. Perhaps it was a internalized defense mechanism preventing me from even taking a moment to to think about director Brett Ratner’s dreadful outing with the students and alumni of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. I wasn’t precisely correct in my dread predictions about X4, but my theory about this misbegotten outing setting the muddled tone for the mutant movies that followed holds up, at least until the odd miracle of Logan. This was originally written and posted at my former online home.  

Since I’ve recently been tagged twice by people with a certain cartoon, I’ll specifically refrain from citing any knowledge derived from the four color exploits of Marvel’s Merry MutantsTM in making my case on X-Men: The Last Stand. It’s not like the printed adventures of the X-Men are some parade of pitch-perfect stories that should be exempt from tampering, anyway. It might be helpful to look at what made the original comics successful to help contextualize the flaws and strengths (okay, mostly flaws) of the new film, but since we’re talking about the third film installment we’ve already got prior films to draw on. And when you’re writing about a sequel, those earlier outings are fair game.

And, in the case of this film, they’re absolutely necessary viewing. Maybe the home and portable viewing technology has reached such a point that it’s no longer reasonable to expect that individual films representing big studio franchises have some capability of standing on their own, but I don’t recall ever seeing a film that tried less to bring potential newcomers in the audience up to speed. Not sure why Magneto is telling Wolverine he can smell his adamantium? Sorry. Try checking Wikipedia when you get home, I guess. That problem extends to elements and characters that are new to the films, so anyone who doesn’t lean back in their theater chair with a working knowledge of the quite convoluted make-up of the mutant-driven corners of the Marvel universe is likely to still be in the dark when the auditorium lights come up at the end of the film’s important post-credits coda. This is just one of the issues with the dismal script by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, who between them have left word processor tracks on Catwoman, Fantastic Four, and Elektra, so they’re apparently Hollywood’s go-to guys for mucking up superhero movies. The dialogue is routinely flat, the characters are underdeveloped and the plot has more holes than Juggernaut puts into the converted prison where they manufacture the anti-mutant serum that drives the plot.

The flagrant missed opportunity with that piece of the story might not be Exhibit A against the film and the filmmakers, but it certainly helps lock in the verdict against their efforts. An antidote of sorts has been developed, a serum that counteracts the gene that causes mutations, stripping individuals of their special powers, but also clearing away any pesky physical manifestations that cropped up. Not a big deal if you generate ice or walk through walls, but probably a lot more enticing if blue fur and fangs were included in the power package. Rather than really wrestle with the moral dilemmas raised by this new pharmaceutical, the film makes only a few cursory stabs at enriching the material thus, preferring to use it as just something to drive the plot along and provide a handy escape hatch here and there. One of the appeals of the X-Men in the first place is the way they stand in for any outsider group, oppressed by those who fear them. That’s the subtextual pull of the greater story, and it seems to be utterly lost on the people behind the new film. This serum isn’t just a MacGuffin; it’s something that completely upends the dynamic that drives the rushing undercurrent of the story. Here it’s treated as just another piece to put in place. Another frame of film, marginally different from any other.

That’s the special skill of director Brett Ratner, who has an uncanny ability to deliver utterly pedestrian directing jobs. They’re never all that bad or muddled, simply desperately undistinguished. It’s hard to spot a baldly mishandled sequence, but the entirety of it is hopelessly bland. It’s a beautifully cooked meal, completely devoid of any of the seasoning that would actually give it flavor.

This has long been rumored to be the final film in the franchise, a decidedly welcome close given the sputtering rewards offered by Last Stand. Too bad the box office tally made a forceful counterargument. Not only is X4 likely back in play, it will most assuredly follow the lead of this film, by far the weakest in the franchise. I doubt the folks at the studio can smell Wolvie’s adamantium, but I’m willing to bet they can smell the money it helped generate.

One for Friday — The Avengers, “Everyone’s Gonna Wonder”

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In the late nineteen-sixties, New Zealand club owner Ken Cooper wanted a house band. The patrons shuffling in and out of The Plaice were fans of psychedelic music, so that’s the sound Cooper sought, assembling a handful of local musicians into a prefab paisley pop outfit. The resulting band was strong enough to nab a record contract, at the A&R man at their label accordingly treated them like a Kiwi Monkees, sourcing songs for them to perform and directing their personal style as much as their music. For a time, they were outfitted in bowler hats, mimicking British TV spy John Steed whose series shared a name with the band: The Avengers.

The band’s debut single, “Everyone’s Gonna Wonder,” was penned by Chris Malcolm, a songwriter who was born in New Zealand but largely grew up in the U.S. The song was inspired by a visit to coffee shop, where he was intrigued by a couple who sat staring at one another, completely oblivious to their surroundings. He wrote the song for and about them, taking his own pass at recording it before the label passed it on to the Avengers. The band took into the Top 10 on the New Zealand charts, a strong enough showing to spur two studio albums and a live disc, all released in the span of a couple years.

Listen or download —> The Avengers, “Everyone’s Gonna Wonder”

(Disclaimer: Music from the Avengers gets reissued every now and again, but I’m unclear on its ease of availability, especially at a local, independently-owned record store, where all album purchases should be made. If their album is available, please take the sharing of this track as enticement to engaged in commerce rather than a replacement for it. Although I believe putting this file in this space at this time constitutes fair use, I will gladly and promptly remove the song from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Greatish Performances #36

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#36 — Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne in Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

As impressive as the Marvel Studios business model of craftily interlocking films has been (and markedly difficult for others to replicate), the actual cinematic quality of their output has been shakier. The combination of craft and inspiration needed to elevate material past product into art is compromised by the sheer mechanics of the upstart movie moguls’ master plan. Surprisingly, given the fact that the studio’s extraction from source material is based far more on the costumed figures than any particular storylines in which they appeared, one of the most consistently weak areas is in character development.

This key shortcoming is typically disguised by the incredibly astute casting choices the studio has made, at least after a slightly bumpy beginning. (Wave to the people, Terrence Howard and Edward Norton!) The characters cohere less from what’s on the page and more from a strange alchemy of the actor’s charisma and the fundamental possibilities of the respective roles. Robert Downey, Jr.’s turn as Tony Stark is emblematic, drawing on the actor’s impish restlessness and flash fires of bizarrely ingratiating ego to create a vision of the kajillionaire inventor that has no precise antecedent in the panels from which he is mined. Downey is consistently winning in the part, but even now he cuts against the material as often as he aligns with it. The approach is defining, and individual actors who have long hauls with their roles typically do better when they strip away the layers of character and are noticeably, comfortably themselves on screen. Scarlett Johansson scraps the accent and ignores Black Widow’s haunted history. Chris Hemsworth gives up on the burdensome Shakespearean weight imposed on Thor.

If I’ve identified a rule, there’s of course an exception. In Ant-Man, Evangeline Lilly plays Hope van Dyne, the daughter of the scientist (Michael Douglas) who created the size-changing technology that allows the titular hero (Paul Rudd) to shrink down to a minuscule version of himself. Enlisted to help train Rudd’s character, an ex-con whose presumed slippery ethics are a major part of the reason he was asked to suit up for wild adventures, Lilly’s Hope is fierce and strident. She puts her charge through the paces with a perturbed sense of duty, all the while exuding a forthright assurance that prompts the natural question as to why she wasn’t given the chance to play superhero in the first place.

Female roles — even leading female roles — haven’t exactly been a strength of the Marvel movies, which Lilly’s performance seems to comment on, particularly in the satisfying meta moment in the tag-on scene that finds Hope being introduced to a costumed tailored for her and noting, “It’s about damn time.” Other Marvel movie characters are saddled with plenty of backstory, but the details tend to be plot points almost detached from the person. Lilly takes every bit that’s given to her — resentment toward her father, acumen acquired from years in the family business, pangs of regret related to her missing mother — and uses it fully, building Hope layer by layer. There is nuance in her reactions that convey the history she carries. She’s more than an action figure biding time until the next set piece. Watching her process information is more fascinating than any of the movie’s digitally-drawn derring-do.

There are plenty of performances worth cheering across the Marvel movies. In addition to transforming narrative into a weirdly open-ended and overlapping act of ongoing effort, the studio has shifted the tectonic plates of movie stardom. Downey is a more major figure than he’s every been, but that celebrity is so thoroughly bound to Tony Stark that it’s strange to see him do anything else. Lilly transcends the built-in limitation of the model by simply giving more, by not stepping away from the actor’s foundational chore of of finding the inner being of the character and depicting it with honesty and constancy. In this movie universe of mighty feats, nothing is more heroic.

 

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican

Great Moments in Literature

“They had dozens of sexual partners before they married each other. Dance floor romances, Ibiza flings. The nineties, ecstatic decade! They were married though they needn’t have married, and though both had sworn they never would be. It is hard to explain—in that game of musical chairs—why they would have stopped, finally, at each other. Kindness, as a quality, had something to do with it. Many things were easy to find on those dance floors, but kindness was rare.”

—Zadie Smith, NW, 2012

 

“EVEN THOUGH YOU’VE NEVER SPOKEN TO ME … EVEN THOUGH I KNOW WHO YOU TRULY ARE … I TRULY LOVE YOU WITH A PASSION NONE MAY EVER MATCH IN THIS STAR SYSTEM! TO PROVE THIS LOVE, I’LL PRESENT YOU WITH A TOKEN OF MY AFFECTIONS — A TOKEN SUCH AS NO LOVER IN HISTORY COULD EVER MATCH! THIS DAY, I GIVE YOU EARTH!

—Jim Starlin, CAPTAIN MARVEL, Vol. 1, No. 31, “The Beginning of the End!,” 1974

My Misspent Youth — West Coast Avengers by Roger Stern and Bob Hall

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.

When West Coast Avengers first hit comic shops, in the summer of 1984, it pressed in on a lot of my weak spots. I had already proven to be ludicrously susceptible to Marvel’s limited series, then still a relatively new part of their publishing model. If one of the planned shortened series held even the most meager of appeals to me, I sought it out, swayed by the promise of a finite store and — probably — because of the collector’s urge to nab every possible first issue.

Written by Roger Stern and pencilled by Bob Hall, West Coast Avengers held the added promise of introducing a major new group in the Marvel Universe, promising a Pacific Coast branch of the Avengers, back before there were about a jillion spinoff iterations of Earth’s mightiest heroes. That it also had a central role for Hawkeye — a favorite character whose own limited series I’d recently consumed eagerly — absolutely mandated my investment in all four promised issues.

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A longtime figure on the main Avengers squad, albeit one who could be a touch cantankerous about his membership, Hawkeye was dispatched with his newlywed bride, Mockingbird, to California with instructions to assemble a satellite branch of the super-team. Although the Avengers often had a few major heroes on the roster, the title was also something of a holding pen for characters without enough appeal to anchor their own books. This is the tradition West Coast Avengers upheld. Except for Iron Man (whose armor was then being worn by James “Rhodey” Rhodes), the team was further populated by a Marvel B-Team, including Tigra and Wonder Man, with weirdo Batman analog Shroud hanging around, as well.

Accordingly, the newly aligned heroes were beset by minor league troublemakers. They first tussled with a loopy empty void who went by the Blank (so dubbed by a bystander at a bank robbery he tried to perpetrate as his inaugural criminal act). In his bad guuy endeavors, the newcomer was joined by an old supervillain from the pages of The Avengers, the probably self-explanatory Graviton.

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Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t disparage Graviton. According to Wonder Man, he’s one of the most dangerous men the Avengers ever fought.

It was a strangely epic piece of storytelling, stretching the main conflict across most of the four issue series. This was well before the era of decompressed storytelling, so the mechanics of the story felt novel, almost exciting because it suggested an authorial purposefulness apart from the more common pinging from one villain to the next. For me, those qualities were central to the appeal of the limited series format.

I also really liked it when superheroes stayed in full uniform to perform mundane activities, like grilling dinner.

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Marvel might have launched the limited series format to tell stories they didn’t quite have any other place for, but it quickly dawned on the editorial chiefs that these short runs were a fine avenue for tryouts. Less than a year after the limited series was completed, West Coast Avengers launched as an ongoing series. It had surprising longevity, stretching to over one hundred issues.

The shiny promise of a decisive endpoint eliminated, I didn’t follow the team in their ongoing efforts (at least until a certain writer-artist took over the title in the midst of its run). Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and the rest of the gang were going to need to save residents of the Pacific Time Zone without my attention and monthly contribution of sixty-five cents to the Marvel coffers.

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