Laughing Matters — Bloom County on Return of the Jedi

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.

death glass

As a kid in the nineteen-eighties, the comics page in the newspaper still held an allure. Let the grown-ups deal with all that yucky tragedy and conflict in the front section of the daily publication, I knew the only real pleasure could be taken from the pile-up on panels inside, delivering gags aplenty (and the occasional ongoing drama, but who read that stuff?). Like every other discerning comics reader, I had three favorites: Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Bloom County.

With the first two, I’m not sure when I discovered them, but I know with certainty the first Bloom Country strip that grabbed my attention. As Return of the Jedi dominated the box office, topping the weekly chart six of its first seven weeks of release (interrupted only by the opening weekend of Superman III), Berkeley Breathed devoted a week of strips to a gentle but pointed mockery of the spacefaring phenomenon. He knew how to find weak spots in the grandiose, kicking off the run with a rendering off a space battle in which the evil combatant was one of the countless merchandising abasements associated with the piece of blockbuster cinematic art. For years, I had that strip Scotch-taped to the wall of my bedroom, I loved it so.

Not long after, the first bound collection of Bloom Country strips, Loose Tails, was released. I bought it and then every one that followed. Other comics were clearly designed to be untethered to their time, but Bloom County commented on the ongoing pop and political culture I was beginning to absorb. As it turned out, Breathed’s comic was my gateway to the rest of the newspaper. To a degree, I have him to blame for the abundance of mental energy I now devote to all the new tragedy and conflict.

 

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

My Writers — Brian K. Vaughan

y the last man

As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I spent an embarrassingly long time trying the kick the habit of comic book collecting I plunged into as a kid. There was always one more series to hang on for, some promise of new wrinkles to an ongoing saga that I found painfully irresistible. To a degree, I just wanted to keep collecting and sought out excuses to justify the continued endeavor. There were instances, though, when I was genuinely ensnared while happily trotting away to freedom. On one such occasion, I clearly keep buying comic books only because Brian K. Vaughan was writing some of them.

Vaughan had been a professional comic book writer for a few years when he teamed with artist Pia Guerra to launch a title under DC Comics’ Vertigo banner. Y the Last Man had an irresistible hook and a perfect first issue (although I started with sixth issue, lured in by the enticement of “NEW STORYLINE” emblazoned across the cover). It’s lead character, Yorrick Brown, was seemingly the only male left on the planet after a strange plague instantaneously killed all mammals with a Y chromosome. Across five dozen issues, Yorrick and his new compatriots navigated a strange, treacherous landscape, marked by new tribalism and thoroughly upended geopolitics.

Exploratory and inventive, the series was serial storytelling at its best, and only in part because Vaughan was tremendous at deploying issue-ending cliffhangers. He shrewdly exploited the benefits of working with characters over an extended period of time, leaning on familiarity to drive stories while also letting them shift and grow gradually. He made astute points about psychology and society through believable interactions of characters, always fully justified in the logic of the narrative. He scratched at truths without pontificating. I kept following Vaughan across publishers and titles: Ex Machina, Runaways, The Escapists, and the only Doctor Strange comic I’ve ever really, truly enjoyed.

These days, I don’t buy very many comics. There are a few series I pick up in their collected trade editions, and I will occasionally treat my pal who’s still admirably devoted like she’s running a borrowing library. For regular issue-by-issue reading, though, there’s only one title left: Saga, with writing by Vaughan and art by the amazing Fiona Staples. As was the case with Vaughan’s previous works, it’s endlessly imaginative, emotionally potent, and ruthless in its cliffhanger endings. Without question, it’s one of the best comic book series I’ve ever read.

As a kid, I followed the methodology of a lot of comic book fans and locked onto individual characters and teams, working myself into fits of quiet outrage any time their adventures weren’t up whatever arbitrary standards I set. Thankfully, I quickly learned the foolishness of that mindset. Picking favorite creators was a far more sensible — and consistently rewarding — strategy. Under the common interpretation of the phrase, denoting status as a hobbyist as much as a consumer, I guess it’s accurate to say I don’t read comic books any longer. But I damn well do read Brian K. Vaughan. And I don’t plan to stop any time soon.

My Misspent Youth — What If? #19 by Peter Gillis and Pat Broderick

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 I was snapping up as many Marvel mags as my humble boyhood budget allowed, the regular adventures of my Marvel superheroes weren’t always quite enough to sate my need for wild imaginings. Because a diligent adherence to continuity was one of key ways Marvel set itself apart for their distinguished competition, the publisher was far less likely to indulge in so-called “imaginary stories” or, say, dropping in Don Rickles as a supporting character (though other real life figures were known to cameo). But Marvel had a space where creators could fully follow their thought experiments: a bi-monthly, double-sized comic called What If?

Those extra pages meant extra silver to secure a copy, so I needed to be selective, but when a premise caught my eye, I was helpless. One of the very first issues I bought posed the question, “What if Spider-Man had never become a crimefighter?” and featured a cover with everyone’s favorite neighborhood being introduced as the host of last night talk show. As much for the snazzy showbiz milieu as anything else, I eagerly grabbed it off of the comics rack at the supermarket.

Written by Peter Gillis and pencilled by Pat Broderick, the story began with the usual recounting of Spider-Man’s origin story. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and tries to use his newfound powers to win some cash at a wrestling match where audience members are challenged to last a round with a burly grappler. In the established lore, it’s Peter’s callous refusal to stop a fleeing burglar that sets into motion a chain of events that results in him fighting crime, at least initially to assuage some guilt. In this alternate version, Peter makes a different choice.

what if 19 start

As explained by Uatu the Watcher, the title’s usual narrator, Peter’s motivation is still selfish. He envisions the positive headlines that will follow his act of bystander intervention, guessing they will help him leverage his colorful personage into fame and fortune. As the cover promised, the resulting notoriety even nabs him a gig filling in for Johnny Carson.

what if 19 tonight

There’s a big Hollywood movie about his exploits (starring Marlon Brando and Gene hackman, natch) and a familiar fearsome feud with J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle, who’s angered that the public is more enamored with the empty showboating of the webhead than the tragic heroism of his son, John Jameson, an astronaut who perished on a mission. Jameson’s investigative reporters are a little more talented in this particular timeline, and they wind up uncovering Spider-Man’s secret identity, which is printed onto the front page of the paper as a major scoop.

In the main continuity, Peter Parker is worried about being unmasked because of the way it might put his loved ones in harm’s way. When he’s just another celebrity hustling for the next gig, he simply uses the revelation as a prompt to start his own PR firm, recruiting a bunch of other costumed do-gooders into his stable of clients.

what if 19 spiderman productions

This is What If?, so things are bound to go very, very bad. It was practically a requisite of the issues to have every road untaken lead to a dire outcome, as if to reassure readers that the Marvel writers got it correct in the first place. In this instance, the ill will between Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson escalates until our hero seeks revenge, ruining the newspaperman’s career with a story about supposed mob connections. Later, Spider-Man is confronted by a band of super-powered foes and discovered the mastermind behind their attack.

what if 19 end

Spider-Man collapses in shame, realizing Jameson’s accusations of villainy are basically true. The cosmic comeuppance is that the heavy guilt that has been part of Spider-Man’s existence since the beginning managed to find him after all.

It was a fairy heavy-handed morality fable, and I loved it unequivocally. And I still wouldn’t mind seeing Spidey host The Tonight Show.

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

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.

wca 1

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.

wca 2

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.

wca bbq

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.

wca4

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

Laughing Matters — “Hulk Sell Cars”

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.

There was a sad, gray time when there wasn’t ready access to anyone’s crackpot genius comic notions. For all the dismay that has resulted from the Wild West of the internet, led by rampant and tactical spreading of fraudulent information, I am grateful that it takes the barest of effort for me to call forth a stop-motion animation spoof commercial featuring the incredible Hulk as a car salesman.

 

 

Trivia Answer of the Day — Steve Rogers

This coming weekend, I’ll participate in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. As per tradition, this week is filled with idle reminiscing about memorable answers in past years. This time around, I’m focusing answers on the supplemental “Unplugged” version of the contest, which is staged a few times per year in Central Wisconsin. 

bernie

There are a multitude of ways in which 90FM’s Trivia — especially the “Unplugged” version — can leave a participant feeling deeply humbled. For me, few things rankle more than when I am left utterly blank-minded up against a question on a topic that I once mastered with encyclopedic command. It can be tough to accept how decisively I could be bested by the fifteen-year-old version of me.

We were asked to provide the first and last name of the comic book character who was once engaged to Bernie Rosenthal, one of the most talented glass blowers in New Yorker metroplex. Luckily, as I sat there agonizing over gaps in my memory, one of my teammates — whose current comic acumen should inspire envy in all — piped up and said, “That’s Captain America, right?”

Sure enough, the civilian alter ego of the star-spangled Avenger was the correct answer, and we secured a hefty amount of points. Pleased as I was to celebrate with my teammates, I knew the teenager I once was looked on with a touch of disappointment that I wasn’t the one who confidently piped up as soon as the question was read. I guess I need to go back and do some devoted rereading.

 

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.