My Misspent Youth — The Sub-Mariner #25 by Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema

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 a wise crab once noted, “The human world, it’s a mess.” With a kindred waterlogged spirit, that was a fair summation of the recurring motif in the pages of the various comic book adventures of Namor, the Atlantean royal better known to surface-dwellers as the Sub-Mariner. Introduced during World War II, the character was revived for modern Marvel first as a regular antagonist of the Fantastic Four and eventually grew to fill a more complicated role in the sprawling saga that generally divided figures into clearly drawn categories of good guys and bad guys. As the nineteen-seventies dawned, Sub-Mariner had his own title, which, by virtue of its setting under the sea, handily served as a platform for the publisher to address the growing national concerns about ecology.

 The Sub-Mariner #25, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Sal Buscema, is a prime example of Namor as a warrior for the environment, mostly because he makes a home in the vast body of water that often serves as a dumping ground for careless humans. Namor has just fought off a challenge to his leadership of the underwater city of Atlantis, but the peace is immediately unsettled by trouble splashing in from above.

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A Namor’s metal-crunching anger suggests, humans tossing dangerous material overboard isn’t a new problem. In this instance, Namor decides he’s going to respond by asserting his authority over this stretch of the ocean. Of course, blowhards bleating about their freedom when challenged isn’t a novel phenomenon either.

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That captain’s ability to do whatever he wants whenever he wants wherever he wants is far more important than the public health of others, especially if their skin colors are different. This comic book is a work of fiction depicting highly unlikely scenarios, you understand.

Attempts to foster change through instruction and clearly set expectation prove fruitless, so Namor decides to escalate. Although he has in his own physical form the options of swimming through the water at blinding speeds and flying great distances, his position of power also provides access to a fleet of righteous ships. Namor signs one out and heads straight to New York City.

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The startled passer-by is incorrect. Despite plentiful indications of the futility of diplomacy, Namor is still committed to that course of action. He goes to the United Nations and demands to speak to the assembly, a request that is granted, albeit with great anger and resistance. Clearly and accurately, Namor recounts the crimes against the planet perpetrated by mankind.

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The Sub-Mariner #25 has a cover date of May 1970, which means it was first shoved into spinner racks over fifty years ago. Every complaint Namor registered then is applicable now, with additional evidence such as floating islands of discarded plastic and climate change ravaging coral reefs. Despite demonstrated capacity for ingenious innovation and jaw-dropping scientific advances, obstinance and close-mindedness have prevailed to keep the planet stuck in a place of great peril. If anything, the situation is growing dire, all so rich companies can grow a little richer at the expense of the environment and the people living in it.

Five decades ago, those charged with telling the stories of Marvel’s mightiest knew that we could do better, that we must do better. They tried to teach us. All this time gone by and we, collectively, haven’t learned a thing.

 

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

Greatish Performances #50

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#50 — Lee Grant as Joyce Enders in The Landlord (1970)

Lee Grant was accustomed to fighting for what she wanted. Grant was placed on the infamous Hollywood blacklist after delivering a pointed eulogy for character actor J. Edward Bromberg, blaming his death on the stress caused by the insidious probing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. By her own accounting, Grant stayed on the blacklist for twelve full years, all of them squarely in the prime age range for film and stage actresses. She got some work during this span, but it was a constant struggle the television series Peyton Place and the film In the Heat of the Night put her back on sturdier career footing. With a survivor’s self-assurance, Grant was ready to take what she wanted, and that included the role of Joyce Enders.

The screenplay for The Landlord was gifted to Hal Ashby by Norman Jewison, Grant’s director on In the Heat of the Night. Jewison knew Ashby, an accomplished editor, was itching to make his feature directorial debut, and the more seasoned helmer saw a good match for the aspirant in this dark comedy about a spoiled, wealthy fellow named Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders (played in the resulting film by Beau Bridges) who buys an crumbling tenement building in the inner city. Grant coveted the part of Elgar’s mother, unconcerned that the character was ten to fifteen years older than her, making it a risky gig in the business that still slavishly valued youth above all, discarding older actresses like empty popcorn tubs. But Grant said she knew this woman. She’d seen countless versions of the character’s acidic privilege in her own family.

Crinkling her voice into an aged waver, Grant plays Joyce as person constantly teetering on the edge of aggrieved consternation but with a powerfully encultured instinct to present herself with genteel and refined social graces. She gleams when hosting and shrewdly reserves her most prejudiced sentiments for conspiratorially whispered asides, preferably while the golf cart is puttering away from the guests. There is an air of slight daffiness about Joyce, which Grant plays as a vestige of her money-fueled isolation from actual social ills. She has the luxury of choosing not to worry about significant problems and therefore can put petty slights in their place. But Grant also refuses to play Joyce as dumb, even as she starts to encounter, through her son’s real estate dabbling, parts of society that were previously obscured by her estate’s tall, tended hedges. When Joyce’s safe boundaries start to fray at the edges, Grant shows her not simply reacting. She works to figure out her situation, her eyes narrowing like a chess master thinking ten moves ahead.

When Joyce ventures out to Elgar’s building, her encounter with a resident named Marge (Pearl Bailey) leads to Grant’s tour de force of vibrant discovery and self-reckoning over a long, impromptu, boozy lunch. Mindful of the way alcohol would break down the character’s defenses, Grant slows down the reactions and amplifies the emotions as Joyce external processes her life with this new, unlikely friend. Every beat of the performance is a new delight, as Grant fills the character with colorful twists of verbal tone and flickers of awareness across her face. There is an abundance of twitchy, fussy detail that never festers into indulgence, because Grant already did the work to established this tremulous bearing as the recognizable truth of the character. She stays right at the edge of comic exaggeration, testing the water with a gentle dip of a toe that raises only the slightest ripples.

Grant’s delightful, devious inventiveness as Joyce earned her an Oscar nomination, her second overall and first since being cast aside by a fearful Hollywood. Five years later, she won an Academy Award for her ferociously strong performance in Shampoo, another Ashby film. He’d already seen her close up in The Landlord. He knew what she could do.

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
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan
#49 — Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Okie from Muskogee”

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.

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An inarguable legend of country music, Merle Haggard had only one Top 40 single during his career. He was dominant of the country charts, delivering thirty-six #1 songs (and two more collaborations with others that reached the pinnacle), including a stretch from 1971 to 1976 when practically every single landed at the top. Across sixteen singles, he the forlorn ballad “The Emptiest Arms in the World” stalled out at #3 and novelty Christmas number “Santa Claus and Popcorn” missed the chart entirely. Every other single climbed as high as it could.

Although “If We Make It Through December” was Haggard’s only single to crack the main Billboard Top 40, he came tantalizing close on one other occasion. Co-written Roy Edward Burns, the drummer in Haggard’s band at the time, “Okie from Muskogee” aimed some country-boy conservative ire at the hippies who were then taking to the streets to protest ongoing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ We don’t take our trips on LSD/ We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/ We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.” It’s familiar buckshot fired in the culture war, the patriotic reverence for militaristic endeavors used as a means of passing disdainful judgment on the selfish ingrates who grouse about endless wars.

There was some speculation that Haggard always meant the song to be a satire of conservative attitudes, but he always insisted that wasn’t the case, even as he was also penning songs such as “Irma Jackson,” which told an interracial love story with a level of sympathy far removed from the prevailing attitudes of listeners who championed “Okie from Muskogee.”  Years later, Haggard told American Songwriter the complaining protagonist of “Okie from Muskogee” accurately reflect his own views at the time, though he attributed those opinions to being “dumb as a rock” when it came to the power structure deceptions that were used to justify the war.

“If you use that song now, it’s a really good snapshot of how dumb we were in the past,” said Haggard. “They had me fooled, too. I’ve become educated. I think one of the bigger mistakes politicians do is to get embarrassed when somebody catches them changing their opinion. God, what if they learned the truth since they expressed themselves in the past? I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection.”

“Okie from Muskogee” peaked at #41 on the chart for January 2, 1970.

 

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 — #508 to #505

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508. Ramones, Halfway to Sanity (1987)

The photo shoot that provided the cover art for Halfway to Sanity provides a pretty solid temperature check of how the Ramones were feeling about being the Ramones at the point of their tenth studio album. According to photographer George DuBose, he’d only gone through three rolls of film when Johnny Ramone announced he’d had enough. DuBose assumed Johnny meant it was time to get to another location, but that wasn’t the case. He was completely done, and everyone else just shrugged and acquiesced, despite DuBose’s insistence that he’d been paid too much by Warner Bros. Records to deliver that few shots.

The Ramones were just as impatient in the studio, opting to record the music first and overdub vocals later only because it was the fastest way to get through the sessions. Johnny and Joey Ramone were locked in their ongoing battle — spurred largely by the fact that Johnny took away Joey’s girlfriend and married her — and Dee Dee was screwing around with a solo career as a rapper. There’s plenty of indication across the album that the band just wasn’t into it at the moment, including the tired rehash “Bop ‘Til You Drop” and run-with-the-first-idea mundanity of “Weasel Face” and “Worm Man.” Even a relative highlight such as “I Wanna Live” is made leaden by a nagging sense that the Ramones are simply going through the motions.

Halfway to Sanity briefly jolts alive whenever the Ramones stray from their well-established norms. “Go Lil’ Camaro Go” is significantly sweetened by Deborah Harry’s guest vocals, suggesting a whole album of Joey Ramone duets might have been a smashing success. “I Lost My Mind” is classic Ramones at the core, but it’s nicely rattled by the screaming vocals by Dee. And the band even takes their brand of punk close to the emerging hardcore variant on “I’m Not Jesus.” If none of these tracks truly matches the power of the Ramones in their mid–nineteen-seventies prime, they at least suggest what an engaged, evolving version of the band might have been.

 

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507. Sector 27, Sector 27 (1980)

After two albums with a band bearing his name, Tom Robinson sought creative and career reinvention. After achieving quick notoriety with early singles — including the gay rights anthem “Glad to Be Gay,” a radical declaration of personal identity for Robinson to make in the late nineteen-seventies — he felt stalled. He broke up the Tom Robison Band and formed the new group Sector 27. Although Robinson’s name was featured prominently on the cover of the band’s self-titled debut album, the goal was collaboration. Working his bandmates edged Robinson away from the fiery political pontificating that filled many of his other songs, resulting in a slick, sensible set of new wave cuts.

Some of the cuts sit so squarely in the prevailing sound of the time that they offer prime evidence of Robinson’s place in helping to invent the new pop sounds. “Not Ready” has a riveting post-punk edge, “Can’t Keep Away” suggests the early, more aggressive efforts by the Police, and “Where Can We Go Tonight?” is quintessential new wave. But there’s also a strong sense that Robinson and his crew could only take their ideas so far, that they’d run up against the boundaries of their creativity before they could really expand their art into something special and transformative. “Mary Lynne” is a good example. It’s rendering is so C-student straightforward it suggests what Joe Piscopo would have created had he pursued music instead of comedy.

If Robinson dialed back the political commentary for the record, that didn’t put an equal damper on his pointed observations. That leads to the oddity of “Looking at You,” a Lou Reed–style tale of urban human squalor delivered as British pub rock. And Robinson nips at the feeding hands of the music business on “Take It or Leave It”: “We’re billed as a brand new attraction/ But it’s business the same as before/ You gradually find in a matter of time/ What’s promised is not meant at all.” As the lyrics imply, Robinson was carrying so pronounced disenchantment with the machinery of making music for a living. That evidently extended to the new band. He quit the group not long after Sector 27 was released, and has stuck with a solo career ever since. The other band members continued on without him, releasing a few singles before officially dissolving in 1985.

 

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506. Rachel Sweet, Protect the Innocent (1980)

A diminutive singer with a dynamo voice, Rachel Sweet spent her childhood years flitting around the fringes of showbiz, opening for the likes of Mickey Rooney and Bill Cosby. She was eventually signed to Stiff Records and released her 1978 debut album, Fool Around, when she was sixteen years old. Positioned as a teenybopper for the muckier era of the nineteen-seventies, Sweet couldn’t quite find a foothold, which presumably led to some concerted reinvention for her sophomore release.

The model for Protect the Innocent was evidently Suzi Quatro with a new wave spin. I’m not sure that was the shrewdest move in the hunt for global commercial success, but it makes for a surprisingly strong batch of songs. The range of unique songwriters Sweet borrow from is surely part of the appeal. She covers the Velvet Underground on “New Age,” Graham Parker on “Fools Gold,” and Moon Martin on “I’ve Got a Reason,” sounds on that last one like Pat Benatar’s little sister. On “New Rose,” Sweet even dips into the songbook of the Damned, hardly an act that seemed a source of untapped pop hit potential. “Baby, Let’s Play House,” originally recorded by Arthur Gunter but best known as an Elvis Presley hit, races along with Sweet packing a mountain of personality into her vocals.

The originals are solid, too. Opening track “Tonight” is brash and irresistible. And “Lovers Lane,” one of two cuts for which Sweet takes sole songwriting credit, is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen when he he nostalgically turns his hand to nineteen-sixties pop stylings. There’s even a gleaming, plaintive saxophone solo. Sweet wasn’t going to challenge the Boss for primacy on the arena stage, but she could have presided over a dandy night at the Stone Pony.

My fond assessment doesn’t match the critical response at the time of the album’s release. Protect the Innocent was largely dismissed or derided, and her career coasted to a halt. Sweet did have at least one more droplet of pure delight to dispense, though, co-writing and performing the title song for John Waters’s Hairspray.

 

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505. Jackson Browne, Hold Out (1980)

When Jackson Browne titled his 1977 live-ish album Running on Empty, it came across as a wry gag about life on the road for a touring musician. By the time he released his next studio effort, nearly three full years later, critics were starting to grouse that there was more to the metaphor of continuing on when the tank is just about dry. Fans were kinder, buying copies at a steady enough clip to make Hold Out the only Browne record to top the Billboard chart.

There’s some good material on Hold Out, including “That Girl Could Sing” and “Boulevard,” which both became hits and album rock radio staples. But it’s possible that — and wholly understandable if — music writers never quite found their way past “Disco Apocalypse,” the flat, inane recounting of being absorbed into nightlife that opens the album. It’s difficult to discern if Browne is celebrating, condemning, or satirizing  club culture (“When the world starts turnin’ and the floors are shakin’/ And the dreams are burnin’ and the skies awaken/ Through the wind and the fire they will be dancing still”), so it winds up feeling like it’s nothing at all, a song without a point of view. The sense of aimlessness persists across the album.

It’s sometimes worse when the message is clear, as on “Of Missing Persons.” Inspired by the death of Lowell George, Browne signs an ode of comfort to grieving daughter of the Little Feat maestro. The songs comes across as maudlin, condescending, and stupidly chauvinistic (“Your brothers are all older/ And they’ll take it in their stride/ The world’s a little colder/ But manhood’s on their side”). The album finishes with the agonizing marathon “Hold On Hold Out,” which stretches to more than eight minutes. The track is an indulgence Browne hasn’t earned elsewhere on the album. Empty might be too damning a charge to levy against Hold On, but it’s hard to deny that major portions of it are noticeably hollow.

 

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

Outside Reading — Paku-Paku-Paku edition

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Pac-Man, The Japanese Game That Took Over The World, Turns 40 by Matt Alt

On the occasion of the fortieth birthday of the yellow fellow originally known as Puck-Man, Matt Alt writes a brief history of the arcade game sensation. It’s filled with fascinating details about the game’s genesis, including the stealthy ways some Japanese cultural touchstones slipped in with the chomping hero and his ghostly adversaries. I remember well how thoroughly Pac-Man took over in the nineteen-eighties, and Alt captures the scene incredibly well.

 

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To Compare an Apple to a Submarine by Caity Weaver

Among the many reasons to value The New York Times, there is the wonderful circumstance that the nation’s most important and venerable newspaper allows some goofball genius writers to run with whatever cockamamie idea pops into their head. Case in point: Caity Weaver takes a doltish comment spat out by Jeffrey Katzenberg in defense of the laughably soft launch if his Quibi endeavor and uses it as a prompt for a meticulous examination of whether there is an acceptable methodology to use in comparing apples and submarines. Consistently amusing without ever reducing the journalistic endeavor to a mere joke, Weaver’s article is a happy relief amidst the steady thrum of dreadful news.

 

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Ninth Street Women (2018) by Mary Gabriel

This hefty tome is a corrective to the history of mid–twentieth century U.S. art history that overwhelmingly favors male painters while ignoring the women who were creating equally revolutionary works. Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler are the primary subjects of Mary Gabriel’s artful shared biography, but the book generously expands to cover almost the entirety of the New York art scene in the years before, during, and after World War II. Gabriel is exhaustive in her details, providing a tactile sense of what is was like to be in the midst of this astonishing eddy of artistic invention. Much as Gabriel wants to keep the focus on the artists who align with the third word of the title Ninth Street Women, the dudes can’t help but intrude. Most notably, Krasner’s spouse, Jackson Pollock, dominates at times, proving just as unavoidable an axis point for the book as he was for the booming art field at the time and ever since.

This Week’s Model — Shilpa Ray, “Manic Pixie Dream Cunt”

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For our household, it started at the Hideout. Looking for concert stops to make on a road trip a couple years back, we went to a little club in Chicago and bought our tickets for a performer we’d never heard of. Clutching local beers and standing in midst of the tight room, we had one of those music-filled nights that approaches perfection. It was the ideal introduction to Shilpa Ray.

Presiding over her harmonium, Ray and her band moved through a set of pointedly raucous songs, steeped in the roughest blues and the greasiest garage rock. And yet there was also a cabaret clarity and a crafty tunefulness to the material that made it more than a mere sonic bulldozer. Fortified by a march of whiskey pours delivered by the audience like Fantasia brooms, Ray sang with raw-throated fury, as if building might collapse at any moment and meeting it with a rebellious bellow was the only proper way to go down fighting.

Ray’s new single, which is a song that’s been in her live sets for a while, is another of the bruised-knuckle battle cries that ensnared me in the first place. Fierce and unapologetic, “Manic Pixie Dream Cunt” could sound like a put-on from just about anyone else. In Ray’s repertoire, it’s a comfortable part of the through line, the latest chapter in the manifesto memoir about not giving a damn about what anyone else thinks.