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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Aquaman

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 covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

I don’t think I was aware of Aquaman before my Dad bought me a copy of Aquaman # 30 (November-December 1966), which cover-featured Aquaman’s funeral. Aquaman would eventually become one of my favorite superheroes, but I doubt that I’d heard of him before getting this issue. But who can resist a cover full of superheroes? Fine, I didn’t know Metamorpho or Hawkman yet, but I sure knew Batman and Superman! The thing is, even if Bruce and Clark had been replaced on this cover by some other superheroes that I didn’t know–Green ArrowPlastic ManMartian ManhunterThe Hooded Halibut, even–I would still have been intrigued: it was a comic book cover full of superheroes! What more could a six-year-old want?! Perhaps it was a cheat that these heroes only appeared in a single panel in the story itself (with Metamorpho entirely hidden, but The Flash bringing up the rear), but I don’t believe that put me off.

Given that the King of the Sea’s comic book lasted another 26 issues in the ’60s (and has been revived again and again since then), and that he became a Saturday morning TV cartoon star in the Fall of 1967 (and did so again as one of the Super Friends in the early ’70s), and that he moved into blockbuster Hollywood feature film stardom with the Justice League and Aquaman movies…yeah, given all that, it ain’t a spoiler to reveal that Aquaman survived his own death in Aquaman # 30. He’s resilient.

I think I saw DC house ads for Aquaman #s 31 and 32, plus The Brave And The Bold # 73 (co-starring Aquaman and The Atom), but my next Aquaman adventure was Aquaman # 36 (November-December 1967), with its cover blurb proclaiming, “The King Of The Sea Is Now The King Of TV!” This would have gone on sale around the same time as the debut of the above-mentioned TV cartoon series, The Superman-Aquaman Hour Of Adventure on CBS. The series continued Superman and Superboy‘s  cartoon exploits from the previous fall’s The New Adventures Of Superman, supplemented by all-new animated action starring Aquaman and Aqualad, plus one additional cartoon each week starring one of a rotating line-up of DC superstars (The Flash, Hawkman, The Atom, Green LanternThe Teen Titans, and The Justice League of America).

These cartoons were terrible–hokey, juvenile, formulaic, and strictly by-the-numbers–but I just loved ’em as a kid. Frankly, the comics at the time weren’t exactly cutting-edge themselves, but there was undeniable energy, and there was artwork by Nick Cardy, who is possibly my all-time favorite comics artist. The TV show added a pair of black boots to Aquaman’s costume, and I don’t think it made much use of the comic-book supporting cast other than trusty sidekick Aqualad; the villains were there–I think I remember seeing Black Manta on TV–but there was no sign of Aquababy or Aquagirl. And there wasn’t nearly enough of Aquaman’s beautiful wife MeraThat was a shame! As drawn by Cardy, Mera was the hottest-looking female character in comics at the time.

But my favorite run of Aquaman stories began in 1968, when Dick Giordano took over as editor with Aquaman # 40. Giordano replaced veteran writer Bob Haney with young turk Steve Skeates, and the series just exploded with imagination, drama, and sensational quirkiness. Skeates’ first order of business was a long, long serial involving Aquaman’s search for Mera, who’d been abducted by unknown assailants. Giordano took Nick Cardy off the main art chores–Cardy retained cover art duties, and proceeded to knock everyone out with some of the finest covers of his long career–but found a more than able replacement in Jim Aparo. Like Giordano and Skeates, Aparo had come to DC fresh from budget-priced-but-brilliant work at Charlton Comics, a low-rent line we’ll be discussing in a couple of days. Aparo’s work on Aquaman was stunning, gorgeous–so much so that I still consider Aparo the definitive Aquaman artist, my eternal allegiance to Nick Cardy notwithstanding. This was just a terrific, underrated run, one of my favorite runs of any character at any time.

Sadly, sales weren’t sufficient to keep Aquaman afloat. The book was cancelled with its 56th issue (March-April 1971), cover-featuring “The Creature That Devoured Detroit!” The book may have been too off-kilter to survive, but it was a blast while it lasted. Aquaman returned a few years later in the pages of Adventure Comics (inspiring a letter of comment from a certain future blogger in North Syracuse), and he regained his own comic book in the mid-’70s. The current Aquaman comic book is pretty cool (and Mera is still a knockout), but no version of these characters could ever top my affection for the Skeates-Aparo-Giordano era.

Splash page of Aquaman # 56
My letter to Aquaman, Adventure Comics # 444

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Quick Takes For A

Everything’s gotta start somewhere. Before it becomes your favorite food, your favorite movie, or the love of your life, it’s just something you’ve never tasted, something you’ve never seen, or someone you haven’t yet met. And it’s also true of favorite musical performers, and of favorite fictional characters.  For The Everlasting First, we’ll take a series of looks back at my first exposures 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. Each entry in this 26-part series will be devoted to a single letter of the alphabet, and will include my reminiscence of both a rock group or singer and a comic book or comic book character (or other print-related topic) whose name starts with the letter of the day. Yes, it’s Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do)‘s answer to Sesame Street

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.

ABBA: First ABBA song I ever heard was “Waterloo,” on WOLF-AM.

ACTION COMICS:  First issue I owned was Action Comics # 356 (November 1967), starring Superman in “The Son Of The Annihilator!,” plus Supergirl in “The Girl Of Straw!”

ACTION SWINGERS: I don’t think I’d even heard of them before coming across a used copy of the group’s Decimation Blvd. CD at a shop in Lake George, NY. Bought it on a whim–the album title’s sly reference to Sweet‘s Desolation Boulevard was a positive factor–and subsequently enjoyed it at a rather loud volume. “No Heart & Soul” became an early favorite on This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio.

ADVENTURE COMICS:  Adventure Comics # 358 (May 1968), starring The Legion of Super-Heroes in “The Mutiny Of The Super-Heroines!”
THE ADVERTS:  “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” on Brockport’s college station WBSU.

ASTONISHING TALES: A Marvel split-book, published after the era of split-books–Tales To AstonishTales Of SuspenseStrange Tales–had passed with the end of the ’60s. Nonetheless, Marvel tried it again 1970, and I came in with Astonishing Tales # 2 (October 1970), starring the jungle hero Ka-Zar in “Frenzy On The Fortieth Floor!” and the evil Dr. Doom in “Revolution!” The Ka-Zar story was pencilled by Jack Kirby, and Dr. Doom was drawn by Wally Wood–two legendary comics artists under one cover, for a mere 15 cents! Picked this up off the spinner rack while on vacation in Pensacola.

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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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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Green Hornet

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 covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

Another challenge for The Green Hornet, his aide Kato, and their rolling arsenal, The Black Beauty! On police records a wanted criminal, The Green Hornet is really Britt Reid, owner-publisher of The Daily Sentinel, his dual identity known only to his secretary and to the District Attorney. And now, to protect the rights and lives of decent citizens, rides The Green Hornet!

Oh yes–the 1966 TV series was absolutely my introduction to The Green Hornet and Kato. But first, a little background information is in order.

The Green Hornet was originally one of the most successful radio heroes of the 1930s. Created as a contemporary follow-up to the success of The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet’s modus operandi was to make everyone–the public, the authorities, the underworld itself–believe he was the biggest, baddest supercriminal of them all. The Green Hornet and Kato would move in on some crook’s evil scheme, ostensibly to cut the Hornet in on a piece of the ill-gotten profits, but really to work secretly in smashing that scheme and bringing the crook to justice. The parallels between The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet were many: just as The Lone Ranger was often mistaken for an outlaw because he wore a friggin’ mask, fercryinoutloud, The Green Hornet posed as an outlaw to accomplish his crimefighting goals; each had an ethnic assistant–The Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion Tonto and The Green Hornet’s Asian chauffeur Kato–but neither was really played as the comic relief or stereotype that could have been expected in Depression-era pulp entertainment (Tonto’s broken English speech patterns notwithstanding); both had distinctive modes of transportation–The Lone Ranger’s fiery horse Silver and The Green Hornet’s supercar The Black Beauty; both eschewed killing, obeying a strict moral code, even when dealing with a murderous criminal element; and both had telltale signature weapons (The Lone Ranger’s silver bullets and The Green Hornet’s nonlethal gas gun). It was even revealed that the two characters were blood relatives: John (The Lone Ranger) Reid’s nephew Dan, who appeared in some of The Lone Ranger’s adventures, would grow up to be the father of Britt (The Green Hornet) Reid.

While The Lone Ranger’s success survived the demise of the golden age of radio, leading to a classic TV series (and a pair of feature films) in the late ’40s and ’50s, The Green Hornet could not duplicate that success in other media. Both characters appeared in movie serials, and both appeared in licensed comic book series, but The Green Hornet was really long gone from the spotlight by the time he returned in 1966.

The Green Hornet’s return was prompted by the success of Batman, the campy, twice-weekly ABC TV show that had been the breakout hit of ’66.  Batman producer William Dozier wanted to return to the four-color well, hoping for another comics-related hit. He shot an unsold pilot for Dick Tracy. He shot test footage for a legendarily awful sitcom approach to Wonder Woman. And he sold The Green Hornet series to ABC.

Actor Van Williams was cast as crusading publisher Britt Reid and his alter ego, The Green Hornet. A then-unknown Chinese-American actor named Bruce Lee became Kato. And they were both just outstanding in their roles. We all know of Lee’s subsequent fame and acclaim as a martial arts expert and movie star in the early ’70s, and much of his raw talent and charisma was already evident here. But one shouldn’t ignore Williams’ easygoing charm and believable authority as the titular hero; this show wouldn’t have worked without the talents of both Williams and Lee.

Unlike BatmanThe Green Hornet was played relatively straight; there were few truly outlandish villains, very little campy humor, and a sense of action and adventure that was never really present in the exploits of our Caped Crusaders over in Gotham City. It was a crime drama, a detective show, where the leads happened to have secret identities and high-tech crimefighting gear. Even when the shows crossed over, as The Green Hornet and Kato tangled with Batman and Robin on a two-part episode of Batman, Williams and Lee still seemed to play things straight amidst all that campy silliness (versus the exaggerated, comedic “straight” required of Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin).

Where Batman was a colorful, incandescent explosion of self-conscious pop-art exuberance, The Green Hornet was cool. Taking a partial cue from Peter Gunn, each episode was propelled by jazzy, uptempo music, with Al Hirt‘s “Green Hornet Theme” (itself a jazzed-up version of “Flight Of The Bumblebee”) setting the tempo at the beginning of each show. Lee’s impressive skill with gung fu was simply dazzling, and the show delivered tight-lipped thrills with panache and style.

It was doomed from the start.

Batman‘s mass popular appeal had been as a self-aware joke. The American viewing public was not in the mood for super-heroics played straight, and The Green Hornet lasted but one season. After Bruce Lee’s death, as anything he’d done became a potential box-office bonanza, three episodes of The Green Hornet were badly stitched together, fattened up with extraneous and nonsensical Bruce Lee fight scenes from other, unrelated episodes of the show, and released to movie theaters as a feature film in 1974. The film has been variously referred to as The Green Hornet and as Kato And The Green Hornet. I saw it (as Kato And The Green Hornet) at The Biograph Theater in downtown Syracuse, an old-time movie house (originally called The Eckel) that was in its death throes, and would be a parking lot before long. A DVD version of Kato And The Green Hornet remains the only legitimate home-video release of anything from The Green Hornet TV series.

During the show’s original run, there were a handful of tie-in products. Gold Key Comics published three issues of a Green Hornet comic book, the hero’s first comics appearances since a one-shot in 1953.  There was a set of Green Hornet playing cards, a paperback novel called The Infernal Light, a Green Hornet Halloween costume (which my Dad tried to get me to choose, insisting it would be more distinctive than the Batman costume I went with instead), a Green Hornet costume for the Captain Action action figure, and a Green Hornet Better Little Book. Al Hirt released an LP of (mostly) TV theme songs, The Horn Meets “The Hornet,” with a proud cover of Hirt standing next to Van Williams, in costume and in character.

The Green Hornet largely faded from pop culture after that. There have been sporadic attempts to license the character for comic-book revivals, and there was a simply horrible feature film version starring Seth Rogen a few years back. I’m thankful that didn’t catch on! I’ve heard some of the original radio episodes, and I’ve watched the first movie serial from the ’30s, and enjoyed them. But my Green Hornet remains Van Williams, with Bruce Lee at his side, charging forth in The Black Beauty with gas guns, Hornet’s sting, and gung fu, set to kick the bad guys’ asses and elude the police while jazz plays in the background and foreground. Another challenge for The Green Hornet? Yes, please.

Oh. And release the TV series on Blu-ray awready!


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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Hoppy The Marvel Bunny

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 covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.
My 50+ year love affair with comic books is based primarily on my fondness of superheroes. But I’ve dabbled in other comic-book genres at times. Carl Barks‘ Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck stories are recognized classics, Sheldon Mayer‘s Sugar & Spike deserves wider recognition, and I’ve been known at various points in my life to follow the four-color sagas of ArchieEnemy AceBat LashGroo the WandererMs. TreeTomb Of DraculaLove And RocketsFish Police, and Fission Chicken.

Although it was never a specific interest, I’ve occasionally had some affection for funny-animal superheroes, too. My first such passions were Mighty Mouse and Underdog on TV, followed by Henry Boltinoff‘s single-page (or less) Super Turtle fill-in strips in various DC comic books in the ’60s. And I also dug Super Goof, a Gold Key Comics title, which starred the familiar Disney character Goofy; whenever our dear Goofy gobbled down one of his secret supply of Super Goobers, he’d upgrade into the costumed, super-powered Whatever-The-Hell-Goofy-Was Of Steel, Super Goof. Sure, you can laugh, but it was the closest Disney comics ever came to an ongoing superhero book. Er, unless you count Zorro….

But neither Underdog nor Super Goof was the first anthropomorphic critter to don a cape and fly through the sky to punch evil in the eye. One of the first–if not the first–was Captain Marvel Bunny, better-known as Hoppy The Marvel Bunny.

In the 1940s, the original Captain Marvel was so popular that Cap’s real-life masters at Fawcett Comics figured that spin-off characters would be well warranted. Cap gained a younger counterpart, Captain Marvel Junior, and a sister, Mary Marvel; each of these characters was popular enough to star in separate cover-featured series (in Master Comics and Wow Comics, respectively), and to appear in his/her own solo comics, as well. The three teamed up (often with non-powered, non-starring supporting character Uncle Marvel) in the pages of The Marvel Family, too. Someone at Fawcett must have decided that a funny animal version could sell to even younger readers, so Hoppy the Marvel Bunny was born.

Hoppy’s first appearance was in Funny Animals (aka Fawcett’s Funny Animals# 1 in 1942. His debut revealed that the soon-to-be-magic bunny rabbit was a big fan of Captain Marvel–wasn’t everyone?–who discovered he could also become the World’s Mightiest Lagamorph by speaking Cap’s magic word, SHAZAM! In a flash of lightning, Hoppy became Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, and adventure was afoot. (A rabbit’s foot! See what I did there?)

Hoppy remained the star of Funny Animals for years, and also starred in 15 issues of his own comic book. In the early ’50s, the Captain Marvel connection was dropped, as Hoppy became a more traditional funny-animal feature. When Fawcett folded in the mid ’50s, Charlton Comics picked up the rights to Hoppy, and reprinted some of the Marvel Bunny tales under the name Magic Bunny.

Hoppy was never much on my radar; he was gone from the comics racks long before I was born, and never had sufficient pop-culture oomph to merit a nostalgic revival. I probably first heard of Hoppy while studying comics history in the books All In Color For A Dime and Steranko‘s History Of The Comics, tomes that I devoured in the early to mid ’70s. Even when DC Comics acquired Captain Marvel and company, Hoppy was certainly the lowest of priorities.


Well, at least until DC Comics Presents # 34 in 1981. For the second and concluding chapter of a team-up between Superman and The Marvel Family, writer Roy Thomas pulled Hoppy the Marvel Bunny out of his hat as a climactic surprise guest star. This was clever, unexpected, and so cool. Hoppy saved the day, and even told Superman that he was his favorite comic book hero.

Heh. I thought Hoppy was supposed to be a Captain Marvel fan! Traitor. Just can’t trust a rascally rabbit.

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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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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Charlton Comics

The new DC Comics movie The Suicide Squad comes out next week. One of the film’s characters is The Peacemaker, a property originally published by Charlton Comics in the ’60s, and later purchased by DC in the ’80s. The Peacemaker’s appearance in The Suicide Squad marks the first time any Charlton Comics hero has ever appeared in live action. That’s as good a reason as any for columnist Carl Cafarelli to look back at his first exposure to the wonderful world of Charlton Comics.


Although DC and Marvel tend to dominate any discussion of mainstream comics today, there has never been a time when there were only two successful comics publishers. DC, Marvel, Ahoy (and Archie Comics, too) have been in this business since before World War II; most of their Golden Age competition–Quality ComicsLev GleasonFiction HouseHillmanFox, et al.–had deserted the funny-book racks by the time Bill Haley and his Comets began to rock around the clock. Fawcett Comics, publisher of the original Captain Marvel, also threw in the towel (or cape) in 1954, but returned as the purveyor of  Dennis the Menace comics. ACG stayed in the game until the mid-’60s. Dell Comics, which was likely the best-selling American comics publisher of all time (due to licensed properties ranging from Mickey Mouse to Tarzan), hung on until the early ’70s, though it lost most of its licenses along the way.  Many subsequent publishers have come and gone–Gold KeyTowerWarrenAtlasEclipseFirst, Comico, etc.–and still many more continue today. My weekly trips to Comix Zone in North Syracuse will often include new books from Dark HorseDynamiteAfterShock, and IDW, along with my steady supply of DCs, Marvels, and Archies.

As a kid in the ’60s (and still today), I dug super-hero comics. I gravitated toward DC and Marvel, but I would also grab the occasional book from Mighty Comics (Archie’s short-lived super-hero line, home of The Mighty Crusaders) and Gold Key (Magnus, Robot Fighter and Dr. Solar: Man Of The Atom). And, somewhere along the way, I stumbled across the Charlton Comics line.

Charlton had also started in the ’40s, and Charlton stubbornly and tenaciously remained in the four-color field until the ’80s. Based in Derby, Connecticut, Charlton Publishing’s offerings were manufactured entirely in-house, and the Charlton Comics line was a low-rent line-up that existed for the sole purpose of keeping the printing press a-rollin’; churning out product was cheaper than shutting down the press and firing it back up.

“Low-rent” isn’t meant as a criticism, really, though Charlton titles did indeed display ample evidence of being produced on a tight budget. But there was often something quirky and unique about some of Charlton’s output, and I consider myself a Charlton fan.

I’ve had difficulty trying to reconstruct where I first encountered Charlton Comics. I have an imprecise recollection of seeing Charlton’s Hercules book somewhere, but my specific interest was Charlton’s Action-Heroes line, edited by Dick Giordano:I recall picking up an issue of Judo Master at Sweethearts Corner in North Syracuse; I remember Peter Cannon…Thunderbolt (and its back-up strip, the bickering superhero team The Sentinels); I don’t think I caught any Captain Atom or The Peacemaker until years later, but I clearly remember a coverless copy of Blue Beetle # 5, an extravaganza by writer-artist Steve Ditko, with Blue Beetle joining forces with The Question in a tale seemingly (but not actually) written by Ayn Rand. If I were to ever write the Justice League of America/Justice Society of America/Charlton Action Heroes crossover of my dreams,”Our Man” from Blue Beetle # 5 would play a significant role.

While it’s not terribly likely that I’ll ever write such a thing, it would be perfectly plausible for someone else to do it; DC Comics purchased the rights to most of the Action-Heroes line in the ’80s, as a gift to one Dick Giordano, who was running DC at the time. Giordano had left Charlton in the late ’60s, initially to work as an editor at DC (including some really, really top-notch comics in Aquaman and The Teen Titansand a terrific Western book called Bat Lash), later as an acclaimed freelance artist, and eventually as DC’s capo di tutti capiA few Charlton writers and artists followed Giordano to DC in 1968, including Jim AparoSteve Skeates, and Denny O’Neil. DC hired Giordano on the recommendation of another Charlton talent, the above-mentioned Steve Ditko.

Dick Giordano’s exodus from Charlton roughly coincided with the end of the Action-Heroes line. But my discovery of Charlton Comics was just beginning; Charlton picked up the rights to Lee Falk‘s newspaper hero The Phantom, which featured some stunning Jim Aparo artwork in the early ’70s, and I bought that title as often as I could. Licensed properties became Charlton’s primary stock in trade, though I generally didn’t buy any of them other than The Phantom. I do remember a Charlton issue of The Partridge Family that reminisced about old radio shows like The Lone RangerI Love A Mystery, and Fibber McGee And Molly; it was, incongruously, the first time I ever saw a picture of The Shadow, a character that would become very important to me in the ’70s.

Scan of Don Sherwood’s original art from The Partridge Family # 5.  Thanks, o’ mighty Internet!


My appreciation of Charlton manifested in back issues, as I retroactively discovered the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my hair…er, of Blue Beetle, The Peacemaker, Nightshade, Judo Master, Captain Atom, The Prankster, The Sentinels, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt. I’m still waiting to read Charlton’s acclaimed science-fiction Western hero, Wander. Charlton published one more action hero in the ’70s, the great E-Man by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton, but that’s a discussion for another day. The spirit of Charlton lives on in Charlton Neo, current publisher of fine titles like The Charlton Arrow, and there’s even a Charlton documentary film in the works. Not bad for a low-rent publisher that once soft-pedaled its heroes with the tag line, “Action-heroes? We Got ‘Em!!!…And they’re not half-bad!” No, not bad at all.

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Romantics

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 story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

Have you ever bought a record you had never previously heard, performed by an act you had never previously heard of?

I’m not talking about a record by a new act that includes a performer you’d experienced elsewhere (like when I recognized Paul Collins from The Nerves and scarfed up the debut LP by Collins’ then-new group The Beat), or a review you read somewhere prompting you to take a chance on the unfamiliar (like when Rolling Stone compared an act to BlondieThe Buzzcocks, and The Ramones, compelling me to purchase the debut album by The Darling Buds). No. I’m talkin’ tabula rasa, baby. You’ve never heard the music. You’ve never heard of the band. But money changes hands anyway, and this new music is now yours.

That’s how I discovered The Romantics.

My memory may be imprecise. I’ll concede the possibility that I read about The Romantics in Bomp! magazine before I bought my first Romantics record, but I’m pretty sure it was record first, write-up later. I do know that I can’t claim full credit for stumbling upon the record unassisted. The guy behind the counter at the record store pointed it for me.

It was in the spring of 1978. I was a freshman in college at Brockport, NY, and a budding power-pop punk with a musical mania for the 1960s, the British Invasion, The MonkeesThe Sex Pistols, and The Ramones. I’d recently discovered my Syracuse hometown heroes The Flashcubes, and I was constantly on the prowl for MORE! A cool place called The Record Grove was Brockport’s vinyl oasis, managed by a true believer named Bill Yerger. This was about a year or so before Bill opened his own emporium, Main Street Records, the best little record store there ever was. Bill was a huge fan of rockin’ pop music, he knew his stuff, and he knew how to steer kindred spirits toward the record we needed to own, even if we didn’t know it yet.

Although I was perpetually cash-strapped, I visited The Record Grove as often as I could, and bought what I could afford when I could afford it. Bill had a small display box of import and indie 45s for sale at the counter, the box from which I’d purchased my first Ramones and Sex Pistols records during the previous semester. On this particular spring ’78 visit, Bill recalled that I’d recently bought an EP by the British power pop act The Pleasers, a record I’d snapped up on impulse, drawn in by The Pleasers’ overtly Beatley image and the presence of a song called “Lies” (not The Knickerbockers‘ hit, I’m sorry to say). Bill asked me if I’d liked The Pleasers, and I said something like, Yeah, they weren’t bad. Not as good as The Knickerbockers, but I like ’em all right. Maybe Bill already had his next move planned, or maybe it was prompted by my mention of The Knickerbockers. Either way, he said, Well, if you liked that, I bet you’ll like this, too.
And Bill pulled out “Little White Lies”/”I Can’t Tell You Anything,” the debut single from Detroit’s Phenomenal Pop Combo, The Romantics. Awright, then. Just take my money, Bill. Just take it.

My roommate and I were increasingly at odds by this point, so I don’t know if he let me play my newest 7″ vinyl treasure on his stereo, or if I had to wait until a school break to hear the damned thing for the first time back home. Whatever whenever, I immediately dug both sides of this Romantics record, way more than I liked The Pleasers. “Little White Lies” just seemed to combust on the stereo, a pyrotechnic display of pure pop played fast ‘n’ swaggering. “I Can’t Tell You Anything” hijacked a Bo Diddley beat to craft a basic pounder that simultaneously (and incongruously) evoked both The Raspberries and The Rolling Stones. Magnificence times two, and I was duly hooked. When I finally did read about The Romantics in Bomp!, the write-up referenced “Can’t You See That She’s Mine” by my Tottenham Sound lads The Dave Clark Five. But of course.

I listened to a lot of music during the summer of 1978. My parents let me move my little stereo and my growing record collection into the living room; they were away for much of that summer, so I was able to play my rock ‘n’ roll platters with a bit more volume than might have otherwise been likely. I had a part-time job, I saw The Flashcubes as often as I could, and I let the records spin freely: KinksSeedsBobby Fuller FourThe JamGeneration XKISSHerman’s HermitsEddie & the Hot RodsRich KidsRunawaysStandellsBeau Brummels, Monkees, Beatles, Ramones, Pistols, Tom PettyBuddy Holly, Raspberries. The Pleasers, too–I did like them, just not as much as I liked The Romantics. Both sides of my Romantics 45 saw significant turntable time throughout that season.

As summer surrendered its space to my sophomore year at Brockport, I saw that The Romantics were coming to Syracuse for a show with The Flashcubes, and it would be at my favorite nightspot The Firebarn. It would also be my first week back at school, and there was no way I would be able to see that show. The Romantics played Syracuse dates with The Flashcubes on several occasions in this era (and the ‘Cubes also traveled to Detroit to return the favor), but always when I was away at school. I never did have an opportunity to see The Romantics play until decades later.

I remained a fan. I bought their second single, “Tell It To Carrie”/”First In Line,” mail-order from Bomp!, and I scored another Romantics track called “Let’s Swing” on the Bomp Records compilation album Waves Vol. 1 (an LP that also included “Christi Girl” by The Flashcubes). As my third and final year in college beckoned in August of 1979, local rock station 95X started playing “When I Look In Your Eyes,” an advance track from The Romantics’ forthcoming major label debut. That eponymous debut featured another new track, “What I Like About You.” Maybe you’ve heard of it…?

It cracks me up that so many folks think of The Romantics as a one-hit wonder for “What I Like About You.” The Romantics are so much more than one song, and that one song wasn’t even their biggest hit; that would be “Talking In Your Sleep” (# 3 in Billboard), and “One In A Million” also fared better chartwise (# 37) than “What I Like About You.” In fact, “What I Like About You” missed the Top 40 entirely (# 49), but it became a retroactive and enduring Fave Rave a few years after the fact, thanks to the power of a new, content-hungry entity called MTV. They were all hits in my mind anyway.

Sometimes, when a rock ‘n’ roll act you discovered ahead of the pack subsequently achieves mainstream success, you may feel a temptation to dismiss the more popular work, to sniff and insist that you liked ’em not only before they were famous, but before they, y’know, sold out, man! While it is true that, in my opinion, The Romantics’ major-label efforts never quite equaled the sheer punch of “Little White Lies”/”I Can’t Tell You Anything,” it is also true that I’ve loved The Romantics’ work across the span of their career. I love “When I Look In Your Eyes” and “What I Like About You,” I dig “One In A Million” and “Talking In Your Sleep” and “Rock You Up,” their incredible cover of the Richard & the Young Lions nugget “Open Up Your Door,” plus “Test Of Time,” “National Breakout,” and a fantastic, unreleased cover of The Spencer Davis Group‘s “Keep On Running.” Hell, I even like their 1981 hard rock album Strictly Personal–“In The Nighttime” just kicks, man!–and virtually nobody likes that record except me and Flashcubes guitarist Paul Armstrong

After years and years of missed opportunities, I finally saw The Romantics at an outdoor sports-bar show in the mid ’90s. Yeah, I would have preferred to see them at The Firebarn, but it was still a thrill. They opened with an authoritative cover of The Pretty Things‘ “Midnight To Six Man,” and I’m sure you can guess what song closed the show. I don’t believe that I will ever tire of hearing “What I Like About You,” nor will I tire of the lesser-known gems to be found throughout The Romantics’ stellar c.v. More than forty years ago, my friend Bill Yerger introduced me to the music of The Romantics, and they were but one of many pop treasures Bill pointed out for me. Bill Yerger passed away in the late ’90s. Bill, if you can read this across the veil that separates our world from yours, lemme tell ya: the inspiration you provided drives me to this day. That’s what I like about you.

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Marvel Comics

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.
Make mine Marvel?

In early 1966, I was six years old, and a de facto DC Comics fan. I didn’t know about different comic book companies, but the Batman TV series made me a voracious superhero enthusiast. The superdoers I knew were pretty much all DC characters: Batman and RobinSupermanThe Metal Men, and Superboy. I think my comics reading at the time may have stretched to include the grizzled, battle-weary World War II soldier Sgt. Rock (in an incongruous meeting with The Viking Prince) and humor comics like Gold Key‘s The Flintstones and Harvey‘s Hot Stuff and Casper The Friendly Ghost. This would change and expand as the year wore on. And somewhere in there, I also discovered Marvel Comics.

Marvel was both a veteran and an upstart publisher in the early ’60s. It had been in the comics biz since the 1939 publication of Marvel Comics # 1, cover-featuring the debut of The Human Torch. The company had done well in the ’40s, with the Torch, The Sub-Mariner, and Captain America, but had slid to lower-tier status in the ’50s. In 1962, legend has it that Marvel’s boss Martin Goodman heard DC’s Jack Liebowitz boast during a golf game about how well DC was doing with superhero comics again, particularly with a new super-team book called Justice League of America. Desiring a piece of that super-success for his own marginal comics line, Goodman then directed his wife’s cousin, Stanley Lieber, to create a superhero team for Marvel.

Stanley Lieber had been working for Goodman for almost as long as Goodman had a comics line. Lieber wrote, Lieber edited, and Lieber probably swept the office on occasion. His first published story was a text piece, “Captain America Foils The Traitor’s Revenge,” in 1941. Lieber felt that comics work was demeaning, and didn’t want to sully his name by association with this seedy medium. Hoping to some day become a respected novelist, Lieber used a pseudonym for all of his comics work. To this day, though, no one has read nor even heard of novelist Stanley Lieber; but we all know Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee.

Lee basically ran Goodman’s comics line (variously called TimelyAtlas, and eventually Marvel) from the mid ’40s on. As superhero stories fell out of fashion, Lee churned out Westerns, romance, horror, teen humor–anything that might find a place on the fickle newsstand. The line shrunk. The staff shrunk. The assignments for freelancers all but disappeared. But Lee was still there. One presumes he wasn’t thrilled with the fact, but Lee was still there. And he was still there in ’62, when Goodman gave the command to concoct his own Justice League.

Is the story of the golf game that inspired the Marvel Age of Comics fact or fantasy? It may not matter. As we learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Lee had his orders. And Lee even had a super power at his disposal: he had artist Jack Kirby. It’s no slight against Lee to suggest that Kirby may have been the single most important creator in the history of American comic books; Kirby’s talent and boundless imagination leaped off every page he ever crafted. Working with Joe Simon in the ’40s and ’50s, Kirby co-created Captain America, The Newsboy LegionStuntmanBoy’s RanchThe Boy CommandosThe Fly, the genre of romance comics, and that’s not even a thumbnail c.v. After Simon and Kirby split up, Kirby continued working and creating. His vibrant visual style added impressive zing to the generic monster stories Lee was slapping together for Marvel’s Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery. Together, Lee and Kirby would make magic. Together, Lee and Kirby would create the Marvel Universe.

Although it’s easy to get carried away with (deserved) praise of Kirby, it’s important to also celebrate how integral Stan Lee was in this partnership. We weren’t there, so we’ll never really know how much work Lee did, nor how much was pure Kirby, but one suspects this whole lightning-in-a-jar of the Marvel Age of Comics couldn’t have occurred without both of them working at the top of their game. Neither Lee nor Kirby could have done it alone, nor would it have been the same with, say, Stan Lee and Carmine Infantino, nor Jack Kirby and Gardner Fox. Marvel was the House of Ideas that Stan and Jack built.

And it started with The Fantastic Four, the superhero team Lee and Kirby created to answer Martin Goodman’s decree. Although much of The Fantastic Four‘s dynamic was immediately reminiscent of Kirby’s previous work on his creation The Challengers Of The Unknown at DC, Lee’s dialogue added a whole other level of seeming verisimilitude. Unlike the monster stories and other disposable strips Lee had been generating, Lee was engaged and energized by writing The Fantastic Four. The spark ignited. The book sold. Success! Success breeds a demand for more. Lee and Kirby accommodated.

The Incredible Hulk! The Mighty Thor! The Amazing Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (though Kirby claimed at least partial credit, and that’s another one we’ll never really know for sure)! The Invincible Iron Man (creation assigned to Lee, his brother Larry Lieber, Kirby, and underrated artist Don Heck)! The hits just kept on coming. Uniting Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, and Ant-Man and The Wasp finally gave Goodman his own Justice League, with the coming of The Mighty Avengers. Captain America was revived, both as an Avenger and as a companion strip to Iron Man in the split book Tales Of Suspense. More! MORE!
And yeah, I was oblivious to all of that.

As near as I can determine, my first Marvel was Tales To Astonish # 80, cover-dated June 1966. It was probably a book that one of my older siblings picked up. Like the above-mentioned Tales Of SuspenseTales To Astonish was a split book, shared by The Sub-Mariner and The Hulk. The book fascinated me in ways I had no way to articulate. It was…busier than the Superman and Batman stories I’d seen, denser, maybe grittier. Even as I write these words, I also recall the claustrophobic art style of DC’s Wayne Boring on Superman and Lois Lane (a 1965 Lois Lane 80-Page Giant is the earliest comic book I remember reading), so maybe I wasn’t really as unprepared for Marvel art as I thought. But man, this still seemed different.

The first story in this issue starred The Sub-Mariner in “To The Death!,” pitting Prince Namor against an undersea behemoth controlled by his arch-enemy, the evil Warlord KrangGrinnin’ Gene Colan‘s pencils (inked by Dazzlin’ Dick Ayers–Smilin’ Stan Lee had a flair with credits) were simultaneously smooth and dirty, and the image of just the behemoth’s grasping hands, clawing at the ocean’s floor as the creature sinks finally into a deadly quagmire, made a permanent impression on this six-year-old. The second story was no less striking, as The Hulk was kidnapped by his foe Tyrannus, who looked positive creepy as a dying old man depicted by Kirby and Bill Everett.

Well. was hooked.

As a kid in 1966, long before there were any such things as comics shops or the direct sale market, you could never be sure you weren’t going to miss the next issue of any given title. Adding to this frustration, Marvel stories were almost always Continued Next Issue!, not done-in-one like most DCs. But I did get Tales To Astonish # 81, and I found it equally gripping. I didn’t get another issue until spying # 84 on the spinner rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri while on vacation that summer. The cover image of Namor wearing an open trench coat, running while discarding his disguise, grabbed me, reminding me of Clark Kent changing into Superman; Namor didn’t have a secret identity, but I wished he did. I could only buy one comic book that day; I had my choices narrowed down to this one, Batman # 184, and Justice League Of America # 47, and my mother told me to buy the Batman and be done with it. I picked up the Tales To Astonish within a week or so after that, at a small store in nearby Verona, Missouri. I didn’t get that issue of JLA until many years later.

So that was my gateway to Marvel Comics. That same summer in Missouri, my sister Denise and cousin Cheryl returned from a walk with a copy of The Avengers # 13, a comic book from early 1965, but any book you ain’t read yet is a new book. With that, Marvel fully joined DC in my comics cosmology. This new appreciation was immediately reinforced by the debut of The Marvel Super Heroes, a syndicated package of (barely) animated adventures starring Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and The Hulk on a rotating basis. The cartoons aired daily in Syracuse on WHEN-TV Channel 5, as part of the kids’ show, Jet Set.

Marvel continued to enthrall me throughout the rest of the ’60s. I saw no reason for specific brand loyalty–I read and enjoyed DC, Marvel, Gold Key, Harvey, CharltonArchieMightyDell, even the short-lived King Comics line–but there was something particularly invigorating about Marvel, something irresistible in the carefully-crafted illusion of camaraderie created and nurtured by Smilin’ Stan Lee. In the ’70s, I began to identify myself more and more as a DC fan; the reasons why may be subject for a future blog someday. Nowadays, following a brief period where I was buying more Marvels than DCs, the pendulum has swung back to my familiar ratio of more DCs to Marvels.

But I still love Marvel, too. I love the characters, I love the history, I love the tapestry woven all those years ago by Stan and Jack, and Steve Ditko, and Larry Lieber, and Don Heck, and Bill Everett, and Dick Ayers, John BuscemaRoy ThomasJohn RomitaSterankoNeal Adams, and so many others. The House Of Ideas was a very, very, very fine house.

‘Nuff said.

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Tarzan

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 story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

It all started with a scream.

Everyone knew the scream. It didn’t matter if you were young or old. The fierce jungle cry of Tarzan was a shared reference in our common pop culture, as was the familiar exchange of “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Some knew the story with a greater measure of depth than that. But everyone knew the scream.

And, with that said, I confess I don’t know exactly where and how I first encountered this iconic Lord of the jungle. Well, except that I’m reasonably certain that my introduction to Tarzan came via my TV screen.

I was six years old when the weekly Tarzan series debuted on NBC in September of 1966. Contrary to the collective popular conception of Tarzan as a savage warrior with limited command of the English language, actor Ron Ely played the title hero as articulate and educated. He still had the scream, of course, but he spoke in complete sentences. Years later, I would discover that this well-spoken character was the (if you will) real Tarzan, the Tarzan featured in the original novels written by the character’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs. That “Me Tarzan” jazz mentioned above? That was just Hollywood messin’ with the concept. Eff the man, man.
But, as much as I want to say that Ron Ely and his two televised seasons of protecting the jungle served as my gateway into all things Tarzan…the math isn’t there. I was six years old, already a veteran viewer of TV heroes from Flash Gordon and Superman to The Cisco Kid and Batman. By the age of six, I knew about (or at least thought I knew about) Tarzan. Everyone knew Tarzan. The guy with the scream. Tarzan of the Apes.
It’s quite plausible that my early knowledge of Tarzan formed via pop culture osmosis. I may or may not have seen a Tarzan movie, but the character was such an integral part of Americana that, well, he was just there. Always. A specific introduction wasn’t strictly necessary. No one introduces you to running, or clouds, or snowfall, or the idea that girls can be cute. It’s a fait accompli. It is because it is, was, and ever shall be. Chicken. Egg. Tarzan. 
Anyway, knowing Tarzan wasn’t quite the same as being interested in Tarzan. Let’s presume I caught an episode of the TV show in there somewhere. Let’s further presume I’d had a glimpse of one or more of the older Tarzan movies in TV reruns. Neither of these presumptions is Gospel, but sometimes ya gotta grab that vine and take a swing of faith. I might have thumbed through one of Gold Key‘s Tarzan comic books at the doctor’s office. But even if I did see something of the new or old adventures of Tarzan, they didn’t inspire me to become a fan. Not yet.
The first Tarzan product I ever owned was a Big Little Book. I went through a Big Little Book phase in fourth grade, 1969-1970, and I snapped up as many of those little treasures as I could. The Big Little Books were licensed properties, tiny hardcover volumes featuring a page of text accompanied by a facing page of illustration. I accumulated BLBs starring Batman, The Fantastic FourTom and JerrySpace GhostAquamanDick TracyThe Lone RangerDonald DuckBugs BunnyFlipperThe FlintstonesMickey MouseFrankenstein Jr.…man, any of ’em I could get my hands on. I even grabbed some BLBs based on TV shows I didn’t really watch, like BonanzaThe Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Invaders. And my haul included the lone ’60s Tarzan BLB, The Mark Of The Red Hyena.

I remember the cover. I know I owned it, and I know I read it. I have no other recollection of The Mark Of The Red Hyena.
But my interest in Tarzan was about to manifest. In 1972, the Burroughs estate terminated Gold Key’s license to publish Tarzan comics, and DC Comics eagerly picked up that license. At DC, writer-artist Joe Kubert began adapting the original novels, and the result was stunning and irresistible. It would be a little bit of an exaggeration to say I was hooked, but I was intrigued, and I read the book as often I could fit it within my comics-buyin’ budget.

Kubert’s work was my real gateway into Tarzan’s world. From there, I started watching the old movies on TV, both the ’30s and ’40s films starring Johnny Weissmuller as the less-loquacious hero and the ’50s and early ’60s action flicks starring Gordon Scott or Mike Henry. I soaked up reruns of the Ron Ely TV series when I could find it. I started reading some of the novels, and DC even published a 100-Page Super Spectacular reprinting a Tarzan newspaper strip storyline, with gorgeous art by Russ Manning.

I became dismissive of the Weissmuller movies, smugly insisting that the monosyllabic brute depicted in those pictures was a distortion of the character. Yet I enjoyed those anyway, especially Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Ron Ely was my favorite Tarzan, but I came to respect the Weissmuller films, too.

In this 21st century, Tarzan isn’t quite the ubiquitous figure in pop culture that he was in the ’60s and ’70s, when I was a mere lad and beardless youth. I’ve never seen the Disney animated take, and I’m sure the House Of Mouse’s Tarzan provides the key contemporary reference point for today’s kids, if they know Tarzan at all. When my daughter was in college, one of her fiction courses required her to read the first Tarzan novel, ERB’s Tarzan Of The Apes from 1912. That was, at least, a text book she didn’t have to buy, as I lent her my copy instead. She hated the book, of course, appalled by its casual, implicit racism and its imperialist POV. I’ll have to ask her if the Disney version is more to her liking.

And maybe I should check out Disney’s Tarzan, too. Does he still have the scream? Gotta have the scream, I say. Gotta have the scream.

WHEN THE EVERLASTING FIRST RETURNS: T is for:

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Damned

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 covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

Phonograph Record Magazine figures into my first exposure to British punks The Damned, but a larger role in that introduction was ultimately played by a green-eyed girl named Mary Ellen. We’ll get to her in just a sec, but we’ll start with PRM.  Phonograph Record Magazine‘s coverage of this exotic, scary, mysteriously intoxicating music called punk captivated me as a senior in high school, 1976-77. I didn’t know what any of it sounded like, but I was aching to find out.

I was intrigued by so many of these bands that PRM name-checked so casually in its tabloid pages. The RamonesBlondieThe Sex PistolsEddie and the Hot RodsChris Spedding and the Vibrators! It was a long, long list of acts I’d never heard of before, from The New York DollsThe Dictators, and Milk ‘n Cookies through Cheap TrickElvis CostelloIggy PopTom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Yesterday and Today (later shortened to Y & T). I was desperate to learn more.

Even if you’re my age or older, it may be difficult to remember just how different the world was just four decades ago. Today, if you encounter a reference to some new musical act, the great ‘n’ powerful internet can put that act’s complete c.v. at your disposal instantly. YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of other cloud-borne resources that would have been the stuff of science fiction during the Bicentennial are now humdrum, banal fixtures of everyday living. Hell, a YouTube video was likely your introduction to this new act in the first place. The thrill of the hunt has long since been replaced by the smug, jaded smirk of entitlement.

Heh. I’m a curmudgeon at 58.

With that all said, I have to admit I enjoy the convenience of easily-accessible information. But there was something intangibly thrilling about the sheer mystique and wonder conjured in a young man’s mind by the hype and glory of fevered ramblin’ in the pages of mid-’70s rock rags like PRM. You couldn’t hear the music; you could only imagine how amazing it must sound.

The Damned were among the many loud and angry punks mentioned in the pages of Phonograph Record Magazine. I don’t recall the group necessarily getting a lot of ink in the few PRMs I was fortunate enough to grab, but I do remember Flo & Eddie discussing (and dismissing) one of The Damned’s singles–either “New Rose” or “Neat Neat Neat”–in their Blind Date column. Flo & Eddie were not impressed with British punk on first exposure.

In the fall of ’76, I met Mary Ellen at the ESSPA (Empire State School Press Association) Convention in Syracuse. I was there with a cadre of my fellow North Syracuse High School literary insurgents–Dan BacichTim Schueler, and Sue Caldwell–representing our school literary magazine, The NorthCaster.  At the banquet and awards ceremony, we shared a table with a group representing a magazine from a Rochester area high school, and Mary Ellen was part of that group. I think their magazine was called Brown Bag, and I’m pretty sure they won top honors at ESSPA that year.

I have no photo of Mary Ellen. 

Our two groups hit it off pretty well, and it turned out that Mary Ellen was a big rock ‘n’ roll fan. She was especially fond of The Who; I’d remembered reading ads for some Who bootlegs (probably in The Buyer’s Guide For Comics Fandom). I said I’d send her the information, and we exchanged addresses.

She wound up writing to me first, saying she was listening to Montrose and slipping into the terra incognita, a favorite phrase of hers. Starry-eyed teen that I was–I was kinda like Davy Joneson any random episode of The Monkees, except usually without reciprocation–I immediately began to imagine True Love. I was–what’s the word?–an idiot. On a January bus ride from Cleveland to Syracuse, traveling back home solo after visiting my sister, I daydreamed about Mary Ellen, about singing Beatles songs together and maybe exchanging a playful kiss. 

But this was all just fancy on my part. I wrote her a long, presumably witty letter, devoid of any attempt at romantic content–I wasn’t quite that much of an idiot–and she responded with delight. Further correspondence revealed that we would be switching neighborhoods in the fall; I would be starting college in Brockport, a mere 19 miles from Rochester, while she would be attending Syracuse University. She sent me her phone number at SU.

One fall evening in Brockport, I called Mary Ellen, and we spoke on the phone for about an hour. It was a breezy, banter-filled conversation. I remember mentioning The Raspberries (whom she didn’t know all that well) and The Bay City Rollers (which horrified her, since she saw them as not far removed from the dreaded “D-I-S-C-O!”). We had both discovered punk. I don’t know how The Damned came up in the conversation, but she asked me if I’d heard them yet; I hadn’t, so she cranked up the stereo in her dorm room and played The Damned’s LP track “Stab Yor Back” for me. So that was my true, lo-fi introduction to the music of The Damned.

We mentioned earlier how much easier it is nowadays to find out about something or anything. You wanna know what else has changed since 1977? The cost of long-distance phone calls. My 60-minute call to Mary Ellen cost a whompin’, stompin’ fifty dollars, which is an awful lot of money to spend for a few seconds of The Damned. My parents weren’t real happy about paying that bill for me, so that was my Christmas present that year; they threw in a copy of the Alive II album by KISS, because they were really great parents.

But that phone call (and, I think, one subsequent shorter one) were my last positive communications with Mary Ellen. I tried to get in touch with her the next time we were both in Syracuse, but she’d figured out by now that I mighta possibly had hearts in my eyes, and she didn’t need that at all. And honestly, I can’t blame her. In any case, I was soon involved with Sharon, a girl I met in Brockport, and then also with Theresa (another girl I met in Brockport), and significant complications loomed on my immediate horizon.

Complications. My man Archie understands.

It was more than a year until I would be in the same room as a Damned song playing on a damned stereo near me. In the Spring of ’78, a friend at school loaned me a compilation album called New WaveNew Wave included The Damned’s debut single “New Rose,” and I liked it a lot. It turned out that there would be a number of songs by The Damned that I like a lot, especially “Wait For The Blackout” on the group’s 1980 LP The Black Album. I’ll have to try listening to that over a $50 phone call some day.

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Artful Dodger

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.

I very, very much recommend you add a copy of this CD set to your collection.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

Was Fairfax, Virginia’s phenomenal pop combo Artful Dodger mentioned in Bomp! magazine’s epic 1978 power pop issue? Either way, the earliest memory of Artful Dodger I can summon would be from Cleveland Scene magazine, a tabloid I used to see sometimes when I visited my sister Denise in Cleveland Heights. I think it was a review of an Artful Dodger show (possibly at The Agora), and the review mentioned that Artful Dodger’s set included a cover of The Dave Clark Five‘s “Any Way You Want It.” Well! In 1978, one way to get my attention was to cover the DC5. But I don’t remember hearing any of Artful Dodger’s music anywhere, so I didn’t really pursue the matter.

In the summer of ’79, I got my first real six-string (bought it at the five-and-dime)…wait, wrong summer, and wrong performer reference. Artful Dodger came to town that summer for a show at Stage East in East Syracuse, with Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse The Flashcubes opening. If I have the story straight, Artful Dodger played a sparsely-attended Stage East gig the previous week; after three albums that didn’t sell as well as anyone hoped, the band was nearing the end of its tenure with Columbia Records, but hadn’t quite given up on makin’ a grab for that damned elusive brass ring. A second Stage East gig was scheduled, with The Flashcubes (who had a large local following) added to the bill; as an added incentive, the first 100 ladies admitted would receive a copy of The Flashcubes’ most recent single, “Wait Till Next Week”/”Radio,” while the first 100 guys would receive an Artful Dodger EP.  The Flashcubes did radio commercials for the gig, with ‘Cubes drummer Tommy Allen referring to Artful Dodger as “one of the great pop-rock acts of our time.” The message: Get to Stage East to see Artful Dodger, you lot!

The gig itself hit a snag early on: with so much of the crowd drawn there specifically by The Flashcubes–and specifically there to see The Flashcubes–the fans were reluctant to let The Flashcubes finish their opening set and make way for the headliners. The ‘Cubes kept getting called back for encores, until our local lads finally put their collective foot down, announcing that they were done for the night. ‘Cubes bassist Gary Frenay all but pleaded with the crowd to get set for Artful Dodger, “a really great band!,” as the ‘Cubes were finally allowed to leave the stage.

By this time, I guess Artful Dodger had a lot to prove to a skeptical crowd. I wasn’t among the skeptical–I was eager to hear AD for the first time–but I was unprepared for the pinpoint accuracy of Tommy and Gary’s description of Artful Dodger: A really great band? One of the great pop-rock acts of our time? Yes. Oh God, yes!

Artful Dodger seemed like a perfect combination of the best aspects of The Faces and Badfinger, with lead singer Billy Paliselli‘s raspy vocals calling to mind Rod Stewart, and the band’s rockin’ crunch conjuring a meeting of Ron Wood‘s swagger and the power-pop dynamics of Pete Ham and Joey Molland.  I was mesmerized. Granted, I had a pretty good buzz on by now, after an evening at the bar with my pals, but the Artful Dodger boys delivered on their end of the bargain, with a ready ‘n’ steady supply of hook-filled rock ‘n’ roll music. They didn’t do any DC5 material–the only cover I remember from that night is Chuck Berry‘s “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”–but they earned my allegiance with their original material. I was particularly captivated by “It’s Over,” a mid-tempo number, drawn out in its live incarnation by a hypmotizin’ extension of its musical intro. From that evening on, I consider myself at home as an Artful Dodger fan.

The next day, I played the Artful Dodger EP that my Y chromosome had awarded me at Stage East’s door: four songs from the group’s eponymous 1975 debut album: “It’s Over,””Wayside,””Think Think,” and my favorite, “Follow Me.”  I eventually acquired all four of Artful Dodger’s LPs, and re-acquired the first two in the CD format, but my Artful Dodger collection began with that EP.

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