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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Not Brand Echh

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece. It’s separated here for convenience.
Never underestimate the transcendent power of just being silly.

When you’re a kid, “funny” and “silly” are pretty much the same thing. As we mature, our sense of humor may expand to embrace wit, sarcasm, irony, the sardonic, the acerbic, the caustic, the blackest of black. But if we retain some lasting connection to the inner child that understands how to have fun, we may also retain a fondness for broad slapstick, painful puns, exuberant goofiness, and the thrill of inane, delirious giggling. Silly is eternal. Silly is immortal. Silly can help to keep us young.

Most American kids in the ’60s and ’70s read Mad magazine at some point. Mad was more than merely silly; it was funny, and it occasionally achieved fleeting brilliance. It was also silly, willfully so. That anarchic, chaotic spirit was flashy, infectious; it inspired many, many attempts at the sincere flattery of imitation. Brilliance is difficult to copy convincingly. But silliness? Silliness is easy.

Not Brand Echh was brilliantly silly.

In 1967, the growing success of Marvel Comics continued to gather steam. Marvel had begun the ’60s as a lower-tier comics publisher; it would be the undisputed # 1 by the early ’70s, and it would never look back. As Marvel sought to expand its line, writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich suggested to Stan Lee the idea of a book devoted to parodies of other comics. Thomas and Friedrich wanted to channel the freewheelin’ free-for-all of the earliest issues of Mad in the ’50s, when Mad was itself still a color comic book needling other comics in such classic stories as “Superduperman,””Batboy And Rubin,” “Melvin Of The Apes,” and “Starchie.” They chose the name Not Brand Echh, utilizing Stan Lee’s familiar twist on the dismissive phrase “Brand X” when referring to other comics publishers, and pitched it to Stan as a series of take-offs on DC ComicsGold Key, and other four-color rivals. Lee insisted that the book needed to parody Marvel’s own line instead, but the concept was otherwise a go. With the tag line “Who says a comic book has to be GOOD??,” Not Brand Echh # 1 hit the stands with a cover date of August 1967.

The first issue’s dynamic and silly Jack Kirby cover subtly recalled the cover of Mad # 1 from 1952 (perhaps the only time anything was ever subtle in Not Brand Echh). It depicted The Fantastic FourThe Silver Surfer, the evil Dr. Doom, and a random scared kitty cat recoiling in horror before the advancing figure of Forbush Man, a Marvel in-joke based on the supposed mishaps of a hapless, fictional Marvel staffer named Irving Forbush. Ol’ Irv was a fixture of Stan Lee’s fan-friendly Bullpen Bulletins and Stan Lee’s Soapbox hype pages in all of the Marvel books, regular features that did as much to sell the Marvel image to eager acolytes as the stories themselves did. Turning Irving into a costumed figure–albeit one who appeared only on the issue’s cover–conveyed the message to Marvelites that this new book was guaranteed good fun for you, the discerning True Believer in this, The Marvel Age Of Comics. Excelsior!

Inside, Lee and Kirby parodied their own work, as The Fantastical Four tangled with Doctor Bloom and the stolen cosmic power of The Silver Burper. Subtlety? No time for that now! This was the broadest of broad humor, the artwork loaded with sight gags and chicken fat, the script laden with strained puns and wordplay. It was certainly silly. And, to a kid like me, it was freakin’ hilarious.

But I didn’t catch up to it until later. I may have seen Marvel’s house ads for the first issue, but I don’t recall seeing either the first or second issues on the racks at the time of their publication. The first issue I remember seeing was # 3, sitting on the spinner at Sweethearts Corner in North Syracuse, its cover hawking parodies of The Mighty Thor (“The Mighty Sore!”), Captain America (“Charlie America!”), and The Incredible Hulk (“The Inedible Bulk!”). I was probably intrigued, and also likely confused. I put it back on the spinner, and bought DC’s The Spectre instead. I couldn’t risk wasting my twelve cents on this uncertain tomfoolery, could I?

Could I?

Well, maybe I could. The image of Not Brand Echh stayed in my mind. When the fourth issue appeared at Sweethearts the following month, I was ready to take the ever-lovin’ plunge, make that furshlugginer leap of faith.

Silly. And absolutely captivating to this seven-year-old.

With a theme of “The Bad Guys Win!,” this issue showed off-kilter versions of Marvel heroes Daredevil (Scaredevil), Sub-Mariner (Sunk-Mariner), and The X-Men (The Echhs-Men, of course) being defeated by their arch-enemies, cracked view reflections of Electro (Electrico), Warlord Krang (Krank), and Magneto (Magneat-O). The humor was broad, manic, fast-paced, and as far removed from subtlety as The Three Stooges from The New Yorker. It made me laugh, man.

I missed the next two issues of Not Brand Echh (including the debut of the now-hyphenated Forbush-Man as a character [rather than just a cover joke] in NBE # 5), and returned for the seventh issue’s hysterical betrayals…er, portrayals of the origins of The Fantastical Four and the Distinguished Competition’s Stuporman. References in the latter story to DC’s Mort Weisinger and E. Nelson Bridwell (Mort Wienieburger and Birdwell) sailed over my head faster’n a speeding bullet, but were still funny, just ‘cuz. I was particularly taken by the image of a window washer who looked a lot like Ringo Starr, gazing up and shouting, “Look! Up in the ever-lovin’ sky! It’s a goony-bird! It’s a Jefferson Airplane! Naw! It’s nothin’ but Stuporman. Him we gotta look at every day. I wuz hopin’ it wuz maybe a goony-bird!”

Forbush-Man returned in the next issue, chronicling his efforts to join a super team, and getting into misadventures with The Flighty RevengersKnock Furious and the Agents Of S.H.E.E.S.H., and The Echhs-Men. On that issue’s final page, a dejected Forbush-Man decided that no really famous group would ever want him as a member, and so he walked away from a chance to join The Beatles. This was, incidentally, the first time I recall ever seeing The Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band garb. The story concluded with the nonsensical moral, “The Byrds in the hand are worth The Who in the bush!” Awrighty….

Not Brand Echh switched to a 25-cent Giant format with its ninth issue, and expanded its scope to lampoon movies (Boney And Claude) and TV shows (The Mean Hornet), as well as Archie comics (“Arch And The Teen-Stalk”) and the familiar Marvel parodies (The Inedible Bulk versus The Sunk-Mariner, and Captain Marvin). But for me, the best was yet to come.

Best?

Worst!

It took two chapters (here and here) in my ’60s memoir Singers, Superheroes & Songs On The Radio to recount my memory of 1968.  Comic books were among the highlights of ’68 for me, and one of those highlights was Not Brand Echh # 10. For this was an all-reprint issue, The Worst Of Not Brand EchhWith this blockbuster, I had the chance to catch up on some of the Brecch blechh I’d missed: The origin of Forbush-Man! Spidey-Man versus Gnatman and Rotten the Boy Blunder! The origins of Charlie America and Mighty Sore! Knock Furious versus The Blunder Agents (my first vicarious exposure to The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents)! There was only one story I’d seen before, The Ecchs-Men versus Magneat-O tale from NBE # 4, which I appreciated here like a reunion with an old friend. But the prize among prizes for me was “The Silver Burper!” from Not Brand Echh # 1.

For this inaugural Not Brand Echh story, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pulled out all the stops for a jackhammer take-off on their own epic Fantastic Four classic, wherein the unspeakably evil Dr. Doom appropriated The Silver Surfer’s power cosmic. Chicken fat sight gags and goofy side comments pummeled the reader mercilessly, and I would recite many of the lines for decades thereafter. I can rule the world! The universe! DISNEYLAND! Or, How joyfully he frolics and gambols in the noonday sun! Such innocence should be rewarded! SHOOT HIM!
And, of course, my favorite of all–this exchange between Mr. Fantastical and Dr. Bloom:

DR. BLOOM: I have far more power than you!

MR. FANTASTICAL: But I know more big words!

DR. BLOOM: But I can SPELL them better!

MR. FANTASTICAL: My hair is wavier!

DR. BLOOM: My nose is shinier!

DR. BLOOM: I own a hundred suits of armor!

MR. FANTASTICAL: I own a hundred pairs of stretch socks!

DR. BLOOM: I’m the boss of a whole complete country!

MR. FANTASTICAL: I own a hundred pairs of stretch socks!

DR. BLOOM: But here’s the clinker, big mouth–Do YOU have your very own magic surfboard? Hmmm??

MR. FANTASTICAL: I own a hundred–URKK!

DR. BLOOM: Oh, shuddup with the socks already!

I believe I just snorted, and milk came out my nose. Again. Fifty years later, the memory still makes me chuckle, and smile.

Not Brand Echh only lasted for three more issues, finally succumbing to Forbush fatigue after its thirteenth issue. Marvel tried a more general parody comic book called Spoof in the early ’70s, and even tried a magazine called Crazy to compete directly with Mad magazine. I sampled both the short-lived Spoof and the longer-lasting Crazy, but found neither to be of interest to me.

Most of us are only kids once. The oddball things that tickle our fancies at a specific age, a particular flashpoint in our lives, can assume greater resonance in our emotion and memory than some other random thing that doesn’t enjoy the benefit of nostalgia or cherished recollection. By any attempted objective measure, Not Brand Echh really wasn’t exactly Proust, nor Swift, nor even Bennett Cerf. Well, maybe that last one. I think much of the artwork is beyond easy reproach–Marie Severin, in particular, was practically peerless in her mastery of humor comic visuals–but neither Stan Lee nor Roy Thomas was quite a natural at writing comedy. Much of the humor is forced. Nearly all of the parody names are awkwardly, painfully strained (and therefore a huge influence on my early, inept attempts at writing humor). But I was seven and eight years old when I first read these. This is explanation, not excuse. I adored this stuff, and no invasion of rational thought will ever change that enduring fact. Oh, shuddup with the socks already! Who says a comic book has to be good? Well…who says this isn’t good? Make mine Brand Echhs! Sometimes silly can offer all the satisfaction a kid could ever need.

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Our new compilation CD This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin’ pop, starring Pop Co-OpRay PaulCirce Link & Christian NesmithVegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie FlowersThe SlapbacksP. HuxIrene PeñaMichael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave MerrittThe RubinoosStepford KnivesThe Grip WeedsPopdudesRonnie DarkThe Flashcubes,Chris von SneidernThe Bottle Kids1.4.5.The SmithereensPaul Collins’ BeatThe Hit SquadThe RulersThe Legal MattersMaura & the Bright LightsLisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here.

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