My Misspent Youth — Moon Knight by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz

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 started collecting superhero comics, I adored first issues. There was probably some speculator instinct I picked up by osmosis, since this was the beginning of the era when comic books were occasionally positioned as a potential boon for nerdy investors by an aghast and amused mainstream press. Mostly, though, I loved the idea of being with a character from the very beginning of their existence. The true Marvel heyday of spectacular character debuts coming at a rapid pace was nearly twenty years before I started seriously scrutinizing the offerings propped up in the spinner rack, and I was envious of my ancestors in the pastime of feverishly consuming comics.

Although I didn’t really know it at the time, the boldly announced PREMIERE ISSUE of Moon Knight didn’t actually contain the first appearance of the title character. Moon Knight was introduced roughly five years earlier, tangling with Werewolf by Night. He then romped through some tryout adventures in Marvel Spotlight and the back pages of The Hulk!, a full-size magazine starring Marvel’s resident green goliath. Hoping to grab a more mature audience than the kids who usually read their monthly mags (you might not know it from inspecting the average clientele in a comics shop these days, but there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the periodicals were primarily aimed at and read by individuals too young to get a driver’s license), the magazine tried to deliver slightly racier and artistically-refined content. That motivation undoubtedly helped direct the choice of artist Bill Sienkiewicz to join writer Doug Moench.

The team of Moench and Sienkiewicz obviously made an impression with the fans, allowing Moon Knight to graduate to his own comic series. It was the first issue of that ongoing title that I eagerly grabbed off the stands. Maybe it wasn’t the true debut of Moon Knight, but, in mighty Marvel fashion, it absolutely played that way, presenting the superhero’s origin story.

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The short version is that Marc Spector was a mercenary on assignment in Egypt when a villainous African in the same line of work beats Spector and leaves him for dead. Spector’s heart does stop at one point, but he awakens fully alive in front of a statue of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu. Naturally, that prompts Spector to dress up in a costume and fight crime. Because, you know, comics.

Not content to operate with a single secret identity, Spector takes on a whole portfolio of alter egos.

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The concept behind Moon Knight seemed to be: What if Batman was actually crazy? Moench’s writing played up the idea that the character sometimes struggled with maintaining understanding of the realities of the separate personae he’d cooked up for himself. And then there was the looming Egyptian god statue that held sway over his confidence.

The moody, inky art of Sienkiewicz melded perfectly with Moench’s inclination to send Moon Knight into the seedier corners of Marvel’s Manhattan. Moon Knight was a kindred spirit to the original Daredevil run crafted by Frank Miller, which held my imagination tight.

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Where Miller pitted Daredevil against mobsters and ninjas, Moench took Moon Knight into far more bizarre territory. Before long, the cowled crusader was doing battle with all sorts of supernatural forces. It was a bizarre contrast to the more conventional villain-of-the-month fare that shared space in the Marvel publishing line. At times, I could barely wrap my growing brain around the material dished up by Moench and Sienkiewicz. That only made me appreciate it more.

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

Playing Catch-Up — Beggars of Life; The Crazies; Brillo Box (3¢ Off)

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Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928). Released one year after William A. Wellman directed Wings to the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture, this drama sticks close to a pair of thrown together traveling companions (Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen) as they ride the rails with hopes of reaching Canada, in part because the woman committed a murder in self-defense. Their journey is complicated by an encounter with thuggish hoboes, led by a man named Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery). While certainly of the era, Beggars of Life is reasonably raw in its depiction of the dangers on the dusty byways of the U.S., especially faced by the young woman as she crosses into the sights of lascivious men. Brooks and Arlen skillfully walk the line of between expressiveness and over-emoting that was the key acrobatic feat of silent film actors. Beery is a memorable presence, but he does largely get by on scrunching up his face and rubbing his scrubby head of hair. The plot doesn’t exactly fall apart at the end, but it does noticeably sway on its foundation.

 

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The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973). Director George A. Romero’s adeptness at incorporating sly social satire in to his horror films is most commonly cited when discussing his various dances with zombies, but this cynical gem is arguably a better demonstration of the feat. With only the bare essentials of backstory and explanation, the plot roars to life. A biochemical weapon developed by the U.S. military infiltrated the water supply of small town, leading the afflicted to descend into jabbering madness on the way to a fatal outcome. A typical gang of plucky survivors tries to escape while the authorities do the convoluted best to cover up the outbreak and develop an antidote, in that order of priority. The performances sometimes veer too close to amateurish, but I found nothing but delight in watching Richard France chomp through his turn as a scientist forcibly (and somewhat randomly) recruited to fight the virus. Romero clearly revels in the mayhem he sets loose, making pointed arguments about the bogged ineffectualness of the military and civic leaders in general.

 

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Brillo Box (3¢ off) (Lisanne Skyler, 2016). In a breezy forty minutes, documentarian Lisanne Skyler mines her own family history for a meditation on art collecting, as hobby and as an act of financial speculation. In the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, Skyler’s parents were casual but prolific art collectors, filling their New York apartment with pieces from emerging artists who would shortly become known as the masters of their day. Among the pieces that artworks that they briefly claimed was on of Andy Warhol’s yellow Brillo boxes, which they inadvertently conferred extra longterm value upon it by insisting the artist sign in. (According to the documentary, the signed yellow Brillo box is one of only three of its kind.) In a tragicomic turn, Skyler’s father traded the piece away well before it skyrocketed in value. He bought it for $1000. Four decades later, it sold for millions. With a remarkably good-natured tone, Skyler’s traces the piece’s long history, with brisk, informative diversions into Warhol’s career, the terrain of modern art, and her own family’s shared biography. Without resorting to overt jokiness or sacrificing a mission to educate, Skyler crafts a brightly entertaining film.

The Art of the Sell — The Flintstones and Winstons

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Even as I roll my eyes and grit my teeth as transparent shilling for products infiltrates ever deeper into U.S. media offerings, I must admit to an abiding affection for the way the early days of television were filled with overt sponsor pitches, often baked right into the programs. There’s something charming about the way everything stopped so characters could expound on the virtues of soap flakes or breakfast cereals.

And then there were the incorporated spots that now look wonderfully absurd, such as a couple of modern Stone Age buddies enjoying a smoke together. Although The Flintstones have long since been relegated to the kid-friendly parts of the cable dial, when the program originally aired, in the nineteen-sixties, it wasn’t really viewed as family fare. It was just another sitcom, The Honeymooners reimagined with caveman jokes. So why wouldn’t Winston cigarettes sign up as a sponsor? And then meant a couple cartoon characters would got to sample the tobacco company’s wares on national television.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — 16 – 13

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16. The Creatures, “Standing There”

Siouxsie Sioux was never one to recede from pointed commentary, particularly when it came to sexist attitudes that have long been rife in society. For the first single from the Creatures album Boomerang, she and her fellow Siouxsie and the Banshees moonlighter, Budgie, delivered a fierce musical and lyrically pummeling of the sort of cads who loiter around the public square, gawking at women and hurling vile come-on commentary their way. No words are minced: “Ignoring your calling, ignoring your taunting/ Ignoring your feelings of self hate and loathing/ How empty and pointless your life must seem.” The wrecking swings are destructive gender roles extended to the music video, which included biblical imagery with a tart reversal. It’s the male who offers up the Garden of Eden’s forbidden apple.

This cut was down from 9 on the previous chart.

 

house of love

15. The House of Love, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”

The House of Love stand as quite the cautionary tale. An up-and-coming modern rock band from the U.K., the House of Love notched a couple small-but-beloved hits with singles as the late-nineteen-eighties encroached. Then they were the beneficiaries of a thickly generous contract from Fontana Records, which provided loads of pricey studio time and all the uncompromising expectations of commercial successful and executive micromanagement that came with it. Their second full-length — officially untitled, as was their debut — credited at least four different producers and boasted a big, polished sound that the band reportedly detested. Although, it’s difficult to say how vigorously they protested since most accounts agree that many of the key band members spent the recording process giving their most dedication attention to prodigious drug usage. Years later, lead singer Guy Chadwick characterized signing up with the label as “a dreadful mistake.” There may be missteps galore across the resulting album, but I maintain “I Don’t Know Why I Love You,” the release’s second single, is a fantastic single.

This cut was making its debut on the chart.

 

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14. Michael Penn, “No Myth”

In 1989, when Michael Penn’s album March was released, the best means to stir interest in the freshly introduced performer was to invoke his family tree. Part of the same Hollywood household that produced actors Sean and Chris Penn, Michael was the one who holed up in his bedroom with a guitar and a notepad. In the case of “No Myth,” the album’s lead single, Penn specifically noted it was written in his parents’ garage, shortly after the dissolution of his band Doll Congress. Following the sturdiest pop song template, “No Myth” was inspired by heartache, “It had to do with a serious relationship in my life that broke up, and I was just trying to figure out, ‘What the fuck was that?,’” Penn later reported. “So this song was the beginning of me trying to actually figure that shit out in song.” The track a somewhat unlikely hit, peaking in the Billboard Top 20 and — perhaps most surprisingly — helping Penn to best Bell Biv DeVoe, Jane Child, the Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, Alannah Myles, and Lisa Stansfield in the competition for Best New Artist at the 1990 Video Music Awards.

This cut was down from 10 on the previous chart.

 

metropolis

13. The Church, “Metropolis”

Arista Records were certain the Church were set to become regular hitmakers. The Australian band had scored a fairly unlikely Top 40 hit with “Under the Milky Way,” the lead single from the 1988 album Starfish. (“Under the Milky Way” peaked at #24 on the main Billboard chart, spending that week nestled between decidedly non-kindred singles by Richard Marx and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine.) After the Church made overtures to former Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones, who was developing a reputation as a skilled producer, the label insisted they reunite with Waddy Wachtel, who’d presided over Starfish, figuring the breakthrough would be built upon. Starting from that point of agitation, the band spent much of the sessions that would become the 1990 album Gold Afternoon Fix feeling angry and unappreciated. They were also dealing with the mounting drug abuse problem of drummer Richard Ploog, which led to his departure from the band. According to Arista, though, it was all sunshine and light. At least that’s how they presented the situation in the press release accompanying the arrival of Gold Afternoon Fix. Cohesion was emphasized.”I think what’s happened is that everone’s got their things off their chest,” bassist and vocalist Steve Kilbey said in the release. “No one’s got an axe to grind, coming on and saying, ‘I’ve written this song I want to do. Now it’s more like everyone’s got their own stuff done, everyone wants to interact more.'” The ascension to greater stardom so coveted by the label never manifested, but the album’s lead single, the splendid “Metropolis,” was a significant winner on the college charts.

This cut was making it’s debut on the chart and was the highest debut of the week.

 

I wrote about the chart we’re tracking through at the beginning of this particular Countdown. Previous entries can be found at the relevant tag.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist.

From the Archive: Michael Clayton

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Since I carved out a little digital space this past week to express my disappointment with one of the new movies being aggressively positioned as a Oscar contender, I’ll use this regular archival rummaging to share a review from ten years ago that examined a film that I felt was also overpraised. I actually find Michael Clayton to be a solid movie, but the fervent celebration it enjoyed left me a little perplexed. I’ll take director Tony Gilroy’s follow-up, Duplicity, over this one any day.

Screenwriters routinely see their work savaged after they submit their printed pages to the money machine that cranks out films, so it’s hard to begrudge a writer who, given the opportunity, perhaps adheres a bit too closely to their nicely processed words. Tony Gilroy, with plenty of produced screenplays since he made “Toepick” into a smugly satisfied put-down fifteen years ago, makes his directorial debut with Michael Clayton, and the film plays like the script probably reads. There’s a novelistic seriousness and sturdiness at play in this legal drama about a major law firm’s fixer and the crisis of conscience he faces when he’s called in to bring a mentally unhinged attorney under control. Gilroy wants the story to carry the weight, which generally works nicely, but there are passages where some directorial flourishes and inventiveness may have transformed the more familiar elements into something fresher. Even the actors sometimes seem overly beholden to the script, really punching the emotions that likely showed up in the stage directions. “Worried” and “Manic” come across clear as the studio logo at the start of the film.

It’s not just an empathy for the resounding satisfaction that must come from preserving work that’s often discarded which inspires an inclination towards forgiveness for these minor faults. There’s also the simple fact that all the pieces of the film, including these that I’ve just mildly maligned, add up to something satisfying. It’s hardly groundbreaking — the story of corporate malfeasance harming good, working people echoes from the spirited rambunctiousness of Erin Brockovich and the earnest crusading of A Civil Action to cite two recent examples — but it leavens its familiarity with its solid storytelling. It may be a marker of its era as much as anything that a film with the sheen of peak professionalism and a movie star at its center feels refreshing simply because it’s free of masses-massaging compromise. It’s very craftsmanship is the film’s greatest attribute.

George Clooney, the movie star in question, continues his trend of choosing projects that strive to say something. It may be amusing to identify this as continued penance for prior crimes against moviegoers. Truth is, as Clooney has gotten more capability to chose his projects, he’s defaulted to the sorts of 1970’s potboilers-with-a-point that he adores. His performance here may be more about presence than plumbing depths, yet he does artfully get to the title character’s weary problem-solving and desperate opportunism. He’s just as likely to get out of the way and let Tom Wilkinson verbally pinball through a scene as the conflicted lawyer off his meds, or, better yet, bob in the gentle wake of Sydney Pollack’s beautiful underplaying as a senior partner impatient with the needless distractions he’s facing. As the Dorian Gray portrait of Pollack-the-director continues degrading in the attic, the Pollack-the-actor who periodically waltzes through supporting roles grows more and more vibrant.

This is what movie-making looks like when a writer preserves the integrity of his own vision. This what movie-making looks like when everyone involved cares about the finished product with something more valuable that box office rewards in mind. Studio movie-making used to look like this far more often. It is something of an achievement, that it can briefly look like it again.

One for Friday — Tommy Keene, “In Our Lives”

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One of the great pleasures of working in college radio is discovering monumentally talented songwriters and artists, and then claiming some sliver of their coolness by playing their songs on the radio. This was especially true in my personal era, back before sampling just about any existing track was a click or two anyway. It felt downright revolutionary to have a little bit of knowledge about a great performer, slipping their songs into a playlist. “You guys think Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe is cool? Well, just listen to this.”

I found Tommy Keene relatively early in my college radio tenure. The 1989 album Based on Happy Times arrived during my first year at the station, and it became a touchstone, the sort of record I routinely circled back to, finding a gem no matter no matter where I landed on the track listing. Eventually, I dug into what little back catalog we had in the library, notably Songs from the Film, which has enough lingering cachet that Keene was able to tour on it in recent years. Like the album I landed on first, every track was a winner.

There was something remarkably pure and lovely about Keene’s songwriting. There was some power pop around the edges, but it was mostly lean, perfectly realized songs about simply being. The songs felt specific and universal all at once. And they had sterling hooks that Keene played with sharp, unfussy musicianship. For as much time as I spend championing dense musical soundscapes from modern artists, listening to Keene reminds me that there’s a special artistry to more direct rock songwriting, songs that make their points in three minutes and then fade out in chiming assurance.

Plain and simple, Tommy Keene was one of the greats.

Listen or download –> Tommy Keene, “In Our Lives”

(Disclaimer: Honestly, I haven’t done my usual due diligence to see if Keene’s Songs from the Film is in print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. I wanted to share this today, regardless. I don’t mean to impede commerce, but instead to encourage it. Head out and buy every Keene album you see. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Now Playing — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the new film by Martin McDonagh, begins on the outskirts of a small, Midwestern town. A woman named Mildred (France McDormand) notices a trio of dilapidated billboards lined up in a satisfying grouping. She has an idea. She buys up the ad space for purpose of sending a message to local law enforcement, using confrontational language to call attention to an unsolved crime involving her daughter (played, in flashback, by Kathryn Newton). She wants a reaction. She gets one.

McDonagh’s film follows the tumult stirred by Mildred’s provocation, paying particular attention to way it scalds already fraught relationships with the community. Even without the grief and anger stirred by her child’s murder, Mildred is a challenging, strident individual, prone to tough verbal jujitsu meant to leave other emotionally bruised. Writing that sort of dialogue is McDonagh’s wheelhouse, and McDormand is equally comfortable delivering it. The film almost immediately locks into a groove destined to leave the fans of such material in ravished delight. I’d often consider myself a member of that little clan, but Three Billboards left me cold.

As with McDonagh’s previous feature, Seven Psychopaths, the mechanics of the storytelling are overly clear, like one of those pocket watches with a glass back to show kids how a timepiece works. The film abounds in interesting themes about anger and vengeance and forgiveness, but the screenplay drives every point home with such leaden exactitude that I half-expected the projector to pause, the lights to come out, and a tweedy professor to step out and murmur, “So, let’s discuss.” The didactic quality of the drama makes McDonagh’s penchant for brazenly profane dialogue seem like a cheap affectation, nearly on par with the worst of Quentin Tarantino’s self-congratulatory curse-and-ethnic-slur minefields. The plot also relies on painful improbabilities to drive its dramatic confrontations, another marker of McDonagh problematically discarding narrative discipline in favor of romping intellectual mischief.

McDonagh similarly doesn’t shape the performances effectively. He clearly cast McDormand to do her thing, but some of the biggest moments play poorly, lapsing into the falsehood of showy monologue. As a lunkhead cop (who transforms from racist to basically decent and good-hearted in some act of unseen spiritual alchemy), Sam Rockwell has the same issue in playing a role that’s so tailored to his skills that he sometimes overacts, as if the ease of connecting with the character made him restless. Only Woody Harrelson, as the town’s combative but level-headed police chief, delivers a performance without unseemly divots, in part because he’s one of the only people on screen who seems to remember the value in consistently finding the real person within the stylized dialogue.

I believe I know what McDonagh is trying to say with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I appreciate — and even admire — his message. When it comes right down to it, I’m simply repelled by the way he’s saying it.