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Boppin'

The Way I Talk (brought to you by pop culture)

Catchphrases have been a part of mass popular culture for as long as there has been mass pop culture. It goes back at least as far as the golden age of radio, with things like “‘Tain’t funny, McGee” (from Fibber McGee And Molly), “Coming, Mother!,” (from Henry Aldrich), and the whole litany–“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane…!”–heralding a new adventure of Superman. Hell, it probably goes back farther than that. The thread continues uninterrupted through “Bang, ZOOM!,” “You bet your sweet bippie!,””Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?,” and about nine dozen lines from Seinfeld, plus whatever more recent iteration I’m too curmudgeonly to notice. The devil made me do it.

I was thinking of what lines from pop culture regularly find their way into my own speech patterns. Some are more obscure than others, I guess, because my personality tends to be more obscure than others. I think the two phrases that pop into my daily discourse most often are “I’m comin’, Beanie boy!” (from TV’s Beanie And Cecil cartoon) and “HERE! In the SHADOWS!” (from the radio adventures of The Shadow). The former is better-known than the latter, and either is more widely recognized than my three runners-up: “I can’t pronounce Baccaruda” (from a Plymouth Barracuda commercial, reprised on record by the British group The Barracudas), the seemingly non sequitur “Now CRAYON I can say!” (from an episode of The Monkees), and “I own a hundred pairs of stretch socks” (from Marvel Comics‘s 1960s humor title Not Brand Echh).

(I have also been known to recite the opening bits from the TV shows The Adventures Of Superman and The Green Hornet in their entirety with no discernible provocation. I also sometimes blurt out made-up intros to shows that never existed, starring comic book characters The Challengers Of The Unknown or the original Captain Marvel. I am most certainly me.)

I live inside my pop obsessions. A number of slightly-used lines from TV, movies, comics, songs, and other effervescent sources could find their own random way into my patter at any given moment. “Hey, that’s O-NED-ers!,” “You gotta be quick!,” and “Chad? Who’s Chad…?” from my favorite movie, That Thing You Do! “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” from the 1966 Batman film, a line I once spoke directly to actor Adam West when one of us was in full Batman costume (I won’t say which one of us that was). “Your bullets cannot harm me; my wings are like a shield of steel!” from the Batfink cartoon. “No brag, just fact” from TV’s The Guns Of Will Sonnett, generally delivered in my best approximation of a Walter Brennan impression. Quotes from John F. Kennedy‘s speeches (“We choose to go to the moon and those other things…!”) and quotes from JFK impersonator Vaughn Meader‘s hit comedy LP The First Family (“I should like to point out that I am standing here in my shorts dripping wet,” and “The rubber swan is mine”), each spoken with my attempt at the right voice as the torch is passed to a new generation. With vigor.

The beat goes on. Lines from Casablanca and The Maltese FalconThe Dark KnightThe Grapes Of WrathThe Marx Brothers, audience response lines from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the deep tone of James Earl Jones, all jumbled together in a quotation gumbo: This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, the stuff dreams are made of. Why so serious? I’ll be there. Members of the faculty, faculty members, students of Huxley and Huxley students–well, I guess that covers everything. From the freezer to your table. This is CNN.

As I recite all of these lines in my ongoing role as whatever it is I’m supposed to be, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether or not folks pick up on the specific reference. It’s not a trivia challenge, a round of Name That Catchphrase! From “To the Batpoles!” to speculation of what’s behind the curtain Carol Merrill is standing next to, it’s just the way I talk. An early clue to the new direction. Sorry about that, Chief.

I do think it’s time to bring “You bet your sweet bippie!” back into the general lexicon. Save the Texas prairie chicken. I am Spartacus. Live long and prosper. And let’s be careful out there.

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(And you can still get our 2017 compilation This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4, on CD from Kool Kat Musik and as a download from Futureman Records.)

Get MORE Carl! Check out the fourth and latest issue of the mighty Big Stir magazine at bigstirrecords.com/magazine

Hey, Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 100 essays (and then some) about 100 tracks, plus two bonus instrumentals, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).

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Boppin'

Dennis O’Neil

Comics is a visual medium. But no matter how dazzling the individual images, how pretty the pictures, how powerfully the lines have been drawn, the story is what’s at the heart of it all. Without a story, all we have are pinup pages. Maybe they’re great pinup pages. But it’s not really comics without a story. Writer and artist. You need both to create comics.

Sometimes the writer and the artist are one and the same, from Will Eisner to Art Spiegelman to Carol Lay. More often (especially in commercial comics), there is a division of labor. The writer writes, the artists–usually more than one artist–pencil, ink, and letter, and also color if the work’s not for black-and-white publication. When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to be one of the writers. I wanted to be like Dennis O’Neil.

Dennis O’Neil had been a journalist from Missouri before breaking into comics as a writer in the ’60s. O’Neil initially wrote for Marvel Comics, then for Charlton, and began writing for DC Comics in 1968. It was at DC that O’Neil made his name.

I’m not sure of when I first became aware of O’Neil, nor can I identify which comic offered my first exposure to his work. Maybe it was in Beware The Creeper, or possibly Justice League Of America, neither of which would be among my favorite O’Neil runs. There was also his underrated work on Wonder Woman, chronicling the adventures of a de-powered Amazon Princess. I can tell you I loved his early ’70s work on Superman, the “Kryptonite Nevermore!” run that moved Clark Kent out of The Daily Planet to new duties as a TV newsman. O’Neil brought an unexpected sense of verisimilitude to his portrayal of the Man of Steel. I was 11 and 12, 1971-72, and I thought it was just the greatest thing ever.

It would not be O’Neil’s only claim to greatness. With artists Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, O’Neil took over Green Lantern in 1970, bringing the titular cosmic hero down to Earth to team with a costumed archer named Green Arrow, an also-ran superhero who’d hung around without much distinction since the ’40s. This dynamic creative team infused Green Lantern/Green Arrow with new energy, excitement, and an embrace of social relevance that drew the attention of mainstream media. Understand: Green Arrow was strictly a second-banana character up to that point; O’Neil and company revamped this Emerald Archer into the model for the popular character we know today. You don’t get to the Arrow TV series or the subsequent successful DC superhero shows on The CW without O’Neil, Adams, and Giordano showing the way. O’Neil also revived The Shadow for DC, wrote the return of the original Captain Marvel in Shazam!, crafted the magnificent Superman Vs. Muhammed Ali one-shot, and much later turned in some stunning work on The Question. He did more work for Marvel, as well. This isn’t even a thumbnail of O’Neil’s c.v.

But O’Neil’s most important and lasting work in comics was on Batman. No–make that THE Batman. Following the cancellation of the campy 1966-68 Batman TV series, the once-formidable Caped Crusader had become a joke. Batman’s tarnished reputation could only be salvaged with a return to his pulp roots. O’Neil wasn’t the first to consider reestablishing the shadows in The Batman’s world; Neal Adams had started adding noirish visuals to Batman’s appearances in the team-up book The Brave And The Bold, and writer Frank Robbins and artist Irv Novick (inked by Giordano) had already separated Batman from Robin the Boy Wonder by sending the latter off to college, all prior to O’Neil’s first Batman script.

Nonetheless, it all came together when O’Neil began to chronicle the goings-on in Gotham City. Whether working with Adams or Novick (both almost always inked by Giordano), O’Neil’s Batman was undeniably The Batman. From the early ’70s onward, this vision of The Batman as The Dark Knight influenced nearly every subsequent interpretation of the character. O’Neil created a new nemesis named Ra’s al Ghul, revived Golden Age villain Two-Face for the first time since the ’50s, and turned The Joker from the buffoonish Clown Prince of Crime that he’d become back to the murderous harlequin created by Bill Finger (and, I guess, Bob Kane, maybe) in 1940’s Batman # 1. 

Dennis O’Neil saved Batman. The lasting impact of his Batman writing is beyond measure; if not for O’Neil, you can be damned sure that Batman–THE Batman–wouldn’t have become the multimedia juggernaut we now know. It wasn’t just O’Neil, of course. Still, none of it–the movies, the mania, the pop cultural preeminence, none of it–could have ever existed otherwise.

I was blown away by O’Neil’s Batman. I’d been hooked on superheroes in general and Batman in particular by the TV show in 1966, when I was six. As an adolescent and young teen, I read O’Neil’s Batman and exulted in the thrill of a Dark Knight, a Batman I could believe in. 

I was 13 or 14 when I decided I wanted to be a writer. Specifically, I wanted to write comics. I wanted to write Batman. Goddamn it, I wanted to write Dennis O’Neil’s Batman.

I failed at that. And that’s okay. The effort made me better, gradually, over time. Dennis O’Neil was one of my biggest influences as a writer. If you have ever enjoyed anything I’ve written, fiction or non-fiction, for this blog or elsewhere, it all comes from me wanting to be Dennis O’Neil, and Harlan Ellison, and Woody Allen, and Mark Shipper, and Max Allan Collins, and…yeah, it’s a long list. The list starts with Dennis O’Neil.

Dennis O’Neil passed away last week. He was 81. Comics fandom mourns. Gotham mourns. If The Batman also mourns, his emotions remain hidden in the shadows that are his home, his mask and cloak concealing any hint of his thoughts. He sees a signal in the night sky, and knows he is needed elsewhere.

And he is gone. As if he were never there.

Thank you, Dennis O’Neil. My life and my imagination would have been much poorer without you. Thank you. Just…thank you.

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Comics

The Everlasting First: Quick Takes For “S,” Comics Edition

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.

The Sandman

My first Sandman was the 1940s DC hero, his gas-masked face first shown to me on the cover of Justice League Of America # 47. That was also the first issue of JLA I had ever seen, spied on the spinner rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri during the summer of 1966. The summer of BATMAN! As a six-year-old on vacation, I was allowed to pick one twelve-cent four-color treasure off the rack to have for my very own. I was torn between this, the latest Batman, and an issue of Marvel’s Tales To Astonish. Mom said to buy the Batman and be done with it. Thus was my introduction to The Sandman deferred.

That issue was, of course, one of the annual summer team-ups of the Justice League and their alternate Earth counterparts The Justice Society of America. I followed the JLA/JSA crossovers with religious devotion from 1967 on. The Sandman made a cameo appearance in the first part of the 1968 crossover (JLA # 64), which must have been the first time I saw the character. Even though he wasn’t used all that much, The Sandman quickly became one my favorite JSA heroes, and I immediately wished that I could see more of him.

(And, although I preferred The Sandman in his original Green Hornet-inspired wardrobe of green business suit and a gas mask [plus cape], I did very much enjoy reprints of the Joe SimonJack Kirby version, decked out in traditional skintight superhero costume, proudly presented in early ’70s issues of The Forever People.)

The Seven Soldiers Of Victory

In the late ’60s, DC Comics published a series of text pages called “Fact Files.” These pieces told the back stories of various DC characters from the ’40s, and they were my introductions to Sargon the SorcererTarantula, and The Seven Soldiers of Victory. The Fact File for The Seven Soldiers of Victory stirred an interest beyond any of the others: a super team I didn’t know! Of its members, I was familiar with Green Arrow and Speedy, of course, but the others–The VigilanteThe Shining KnightThe Star-Spangled Kid and StripesyThe Crimson Avenger, and unofficial eighth Soldier Wing–were all new to me. A gorgeous Murphy Anderson pinup page of these Law’s Legionnaires (published in the giant-sized Justice League Of America # 76 in 1969) served to further whet my appetite to read the adventures of The Seven Soldiers of Victory.

The Silver Surfer

House ads in 1960s comic books were both a treat and a tease, enticing me with tempting images of far, far more comic books than I was ever going to be able to own as a kid. I don’t remember seeing Fantastic Four # 55 in any stores in 1966, but I remember seeing its cover in a Marvel Comics house ad, and thinking a six-year-old’s equivalent of COOL! I don’t think I saw The Silver Surfer in an actual comic book until he got his own title in 1968.

The Spider

Nostalgia was big in the ’70s, and this boom in the art of looking back gave me all manner of opportunities to discover superheroes and adventurers from the ’30s and the ’40s. I fell hard for 1930s pulp heroes, especially Doc Savage and The Shadow. I believe I first read about The Spider in Steranko‘s amazing two-volume reminiscence The Steranko History Of Comics. Since Marvel and DC had respectively licensed Doc Savage and The Shadow for new comic books, I hoped one or the other would also see fit to revive The Spider. But it was not to be.

Spy Smasher

Ah, Spy Smasher was a hero to me long before I ever had a chance to see him in any sort of adventure. Like The Spider (but earlier in my timeline), my interest in Spy Smasher was ignited by the comics histories I was absorbing in the ’70s. My first glimpse (and probably first awareness) of Spy Smasher was in the book All In Color For A Dime, and its full-color reproduction of the cover of Spy Smasher # 1 from 1941.I saw the book on the shelf at World Of Books in North Syracuse some time in the early ’70s, flipped through its pages, and I was hooked on all of these heroes of the past.

My interest in Spy Smasher was subsequently reinforced when I learned that–like his comrade the original Captain Marvel–he’d starred in his own movie serial in the ’40s. More comics histories (especially the Steranko books) continued to feed this interest. Other than his part in the 1976 JLA/JSA crossover (JLA # 135-137) and the reprint of his first appearance in DC’s tabloid reproduction of Whiz Comics # 2, I didn’t get to read an actual Spy Smasher comic book until years later, nor see his serial until decades later. But I was and remain a fan. It all started with All In Color For A Dime.

Star Wars

To paraphrase both Josie & the Pussycats and TV ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes: we’ve come a long way, baby. In these days of summer movie blockbuster events, it seems a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away that such things didn’t exist. In the ’70s, my friends and I all saw lots of movies in the summer, but the idea of any individual popcorn flick becoming a pop culture flashpoint was…well, fantasy. 

Until Star Wars rewrote the rules in 1977. I can’t tell you objectively if the movie holds up now, but when I was 17, freshly graduated from high school? Star Wars was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. I knew comic books and science fiction, from the most basic space opera through attempts at more intelligent and mature storytelling, Buck Rogers to Harlan Ellison. I’d seen the first Flash Gordon movie serial, doted on TV reruns of Star Trek, ogled Valerie Perrine in the film version of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, turned my nose up at Space: 1999. I wanted more. I wanted serious science fiction and high adventure.

Star Wars was definitely not serious science-fiction, but it was the full-screen realization of every pulp, serial, and superhero fantasy up to that point. Good versus evil, confident in its cosmic skin, with none of the self-consciously campy ooze that characterized so much of ’70s genre films (lookin’ at youDoc Savage: Man Of Bronze). It was fun, it was fascinating, and everyone I knew saw it several times. The dawn of the era of the summer blockbuster was upon us.

But the film was not my introduction to Star Wars. I had picked up the first issue of Marvel’s licensed Star Wars comic book, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Howie Chaykin. The first issue was cover dated July 1977, but it was on the stands months before that, and I believe several issues had been published before the film’s opening scroll promising CHAPTER IV: A NEW HOPE appeared on any theater screen. I don’t think I was quite blown away by the comic book, but it was interesting enough that I stuck with it for a little while. And when a bunch of us made plans at Faith Berkheimer’s graduation party to see that new sci-fi movie opening the following week, I was the only one of my pals to already know a thing or two about Luke Skywalker and company.

And still, I had no idea how big Star Wars would be. I’ve yet to see any of director George Lucas‘s prequel movies, and I’ve only seen one of the latter-day Star Wars efforts (The Force Awakens, which I did enjoy). But those first three Star Wars movies were events, the precursor to the Marvel movies of today. Pass the popcorn. May the Force be with you.

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