Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 26: 1994 — The Year in Comics, Part One

Episode 26 CoverAs my look at 1994: The Most Important Year of the Nineties continues, it’s time to take a look at the comic books.  Joining me for this endeavor is Michael Bailey of Views from the Longbox (among other podcasts).  In this two-parter, we’re going to talk about the comics industry of the 1990s, what the big releases were in 1994 as well as what our favorite books were that year.

You can download it on iTunes or listen here:  Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 26

D.O.A. (My Life as a Teen Titan, Part Fifty-Six)

Deathstroke 60On some level, I probably should be surprised that Deathstroke lasted as long as it did.

When I arrived home from college in the middle of May 1996, I picked up the books on hold at the comic store and in that stack sat Deathstroke #60, which was a white cover that had the main character’s mask and skull balanced on the hilt of a sword and the letters “D.O.A.”  It was the final issue of what I guess could be considered an experiment of sorts–giving a character who was essentially a villain his own title, something that wasn’t all that common back in 1991 when the first issue premiered (The Joker had his own series in the 1970s but beyond that, villain-led ongoings weren’t very common).

Of course, the fact that Slade Wilson was a mercenary and not inherently evil–in fact, his origin was more like a twisted version of Captain America’s–made him an easy “anti-hero” or adventure character.  As I’ve explored throughout this series of posts, much of his series was exactly like that.  Marv Wolfman took the character and the few supporting characters that had already been established–Adeline Kane and Wintergreen–developed them further and even added to them.  Then, they were almost all completely wiped out because of editorial mandates in the post-Zero Hour Hunted/Crimelord saga.

I’ll get into the editorial changes that allowed Wolfman to leave the Titans and Deathstroke behind with a slightly better taste in his mouth in the next entry, so what I’ll say here is that somewhere around issue #53, the book’s editor changed again, Tom Joyner (co-creator of Damage) came on to do a two-parter where Slade had to stop a terrorist cell from assassinating the president, vice-president, and every other high-ranking Washington official with chemical weapons (specifically, a plague) only to be blown up in an explosion that destroyed the dome of the Capitol Building.  It’s a serviceable story that sets up two things that would take the book through the last six issues of the series:  Slade will get a new costume and Slade will be de-aged and lose his memory. (more…)

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” — Episode 20

IC 20 CoverIn this special episode, I take a break from my regular coverage of The ‘Nam to present the first film in an occasional series of Vietnam War movies, Platoon.  Directed by Oliver Stone and winner of Best Picture for 1986, Platoon tells the story of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) as he endures his tour in Vietnam.  I give some backstory on the film, a summary, and review.

You can download the episode via iTunes or listen here:  In Country, Episode 20

 

 

Here is the trailer for the film (as featured in the episode):

 

 

Here’s the full poster:

platoon

And here is a picture of the poster that Scott Gardner of Two True Freaks sent my way (Thanks again, Scott!!!):

DSC_0003

Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be

kurt-cobainSo it’s been twenty years since Kurt Cobain’s suicide.  I suppose that I’m not the only person writing a piece about it today (although I’m definitely one of the least important people writing about it).  Truth be told, if I wasn’t spending much of this year looking at 1994, I might not have even noted it beyond recognition upon seeing a Facebook post or something.

His death didn’t affect me very much–celebrity deaths rarely do.  However, when I was sixteen, I wasn’t that much of a fan of Nirvana.  Oh sure, I’d enjoyed the songs I’d heard off of albums like Nevermindbut I didn’t own any of them and was more into stuff like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Metallica.  I suppose that might all have been different had I access to MTV on a daily basis but I can’t exactly write about something that wasn’t true.

What was true is that my friend Brendan called me up on April 8 and told me he saw something on MTV about Kurt Cobain having been found dead (Cobain’s autopsy would later reveal that he’d died on April 5).  We made some jokes about it adn then talked about something else.  It was probably hockey or school.  That night, I went to a meeting for the People to People Student Ambassador group for the trip to Europe I was scheduled to take that summer.  One girl, whose name I think was Tammy, was wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and I innocently asked if that was because of the news.  She replied that he wasn’t dead and that wasn’t completely true about the heroin overdose.  I apparently then became the person who first told her about Cobain’s suicide.

Beyond that, life went on.  I listened to other bands and explored other genres.  I did noticed that other people were more upset.  My sister’s friend, who had a flair for the dramatic, seemed pretty insistent on proclaiming that every lyric on every Nirvana album was a clue to his suicide.  There was at least one piece in the student newspaper about it.  And T-shirt stops at the mall seemed to be selling a lot more Nirvana T-shirts.

As the grunge of the early 1990s gave way to the fluorescent pop of the late 1990s, I began to see the significance in his death, culturally if not personally.  Cobain’s suicide is almost a dividing line between the two decades, establishing a Nirvana/Britney Spears divide between Generations X and Y (for lack of better terms, anyway).  It also winds up establishing Nirvana as a near-perfect band.  Okay, I’m not a fan of In Utero but the group has that Beatles-esque achievement of ending before they could really suck, whereas Pearl Jam was more like the Stones–slowly fading with diminishing returns and occasional flashes of brilliance.

Had Cobain not taken his own life, how would things have been deifferent?  Would we have gotten another Nevermind or would they have been put out Binural?  Would Kurt and Courtney have continued to be a trainwreck of a couple or would they look like Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani (well, before they broke up)?  Would Nirvana’s continued presence prevent the rise of The Goo Goo Dolls, Marcy Playground, Third-Eye Blind, Smashmouth, Fastball, and a host of other “Where are they now?” bands from the late 1990s and early 2000s?

Such speculation is both fun and frustrating.  So are overwrought odes to dead artists and pretentious think pieces.  At least on a day like this, we can take the time to appreciate his contributions to music.

Bottom of the Inning: Taking Baseball Personally (Baseball, Part Two)

Baseball 10thIn my last post, I mentioned that watching all of Baseball made me feel like I was in an introductory, or “101″ class on the game.  As well-researched and well-crafted as Ken Burns’s documentary was, there were times where I felt like I was getting the history textbook version of the baseball story:  hit the high points, go selectively in-depth, and completely skip over quite a bit.

While that’s a valid criticism, leaving it at that would be giving the work short shrift, especially since it’s a full day’s worth of a documentary.  Furthermore, I spent much of that first part of my look at Baseball on summary and critique and didn’t give much of my personal “story” as it is, or at least my personal reactions while I was watching it.  Which is kind of the whole purpose of this blog, right?

So that’s what I’m going to do.  Inning by inning.

First Inning (“Our Game” 1850s-1900):  This isn’t Baseball, this is seventh grade social studies with Mr. Kerkhof.  We’re talking about the Antebellum period and …  man, the 1800s are boring.  But this?  This isn’t so much because it’s an origin story, the kind I’m fixated on whenever we begin looking at an important event.  What were the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War and how did it progress from there?  Who actually founded the Roman Empire?  When did the  Middle Ages officially begin?  Who played that first game of baseball and what was it like in what seems like the Dark Ages to me–before Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Mantle, and every other name I know?

Second Inning (“Something Like a War” 1900-1910):  I’m ten years old and my parents have given me a “Baseball’s All-Time Greats” baseball card set, the one I spotted in the Sears catalogue.  There’s Ty Cobb, and there’s Honus Wagner, who has the most expensive baseball card in existence, something I learned on a feature I saw on 20/20 the previous year.  I begin looking at the all-time stats for the old players and am amazed and even though many of their records have been broken, they still are in the top five for many of their most notable categories.  The card set is worth original retail price (and even today it’s not worth much), but what it lacks in monetary value it more than makes up for in facts.

Third Inning (“The Faith of Fifty Million People” 1910-1920):  To me, it’s not the Black Sox scandal; it’s Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams.  It’s “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and the last scene of that softball episode of Married … With Children that parodies the last scene of Eight Men Out.  It’s also the idea that even something as pure as a game I play on Saturday mornings in Little League can be corrupted by outside influences (yunno, beyond the opposing team’s coach being friends with the umpire).

Fourth Inning (“A National Heirloom” 1920-1930):  I’m in the fifth grade and we’re asked to take a biography out of the library for our latest book report/conference with the teacher.  I grab one about Babe Ruth.  He competes with Gehrig.  He is supposedly “stranger than fiction,” which is what one of the chapter titles says.  Despite my being an excellent reader, I have trouble getting through the entire book.  I don’t know if it’s because the book’s badly written or because I don’t find the subject matter as interesting as I thought I would.  In fact, I can’t remember if I ever finished that book.  I do know that when I had my conference with Mr. Schafer about it, I did fine.

Fifth Inning (“Shadow Ball” 1930-1940):  I have no personal context for this.  In fact, if there is any episode that I found myself glued to, it’s this one.  Growing up, my knowledge of the struggle of African-Americans was limited to slavery, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I was not exactly a scholar.  I knew the Negro Leagues existed but I don’t think that what little I read about them in books clued me in to what extent.  If anything, I’m grateful for what I gained from this episode.

Sixth Inning (“The National Pastime” 1940-1950):  It’s 2012 and I’m in a used bookstore on the Downtown Mall.  I’m looking for a copy of As You Like It but am also perusing the small graphic novel section.  On my way to the counter, I pass sports and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.  It sits on my shelf until the start of the 2013 season rolls around.  While Kahn’s biographical retelling of his time becoming a sportswriter is interesting, it’s his visits with former Dodger greats and the retelling of Jackie Robinson’s history that pulls me in.  For years, I knew three things about Robinson:  he played for the Dodgers, he broke the color barrier, and he stole home once in the World Series.  This tells me so much more.

Seventh Inning (“The Capital of Baseball” 1950-1960): I’m twelve years old and my family is throwing one of those big barbecues where everyone–from my mom’s side and dad’s side–is there.  My Uncle Brian, a die-hard Yankees fan, spends a good hour talking to Grandpa Panarese about baseball in the 1950′s.  They talk about the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers.  I don’t interject; I just listen.  It’s one of the best memories I have of these two men and one of the most informative conversations upon which I ever eavesdrop.

Eighth Inning (“A Whole New Ballgame” 1960-1970):  To me, this is where baseball begins; specifically, in 1962, when the New York Mets go 40-120 and set an all-time single-season loss record that still stands.  I cut my baseball history teeth on An Amazin’ Era in 1986 and to me, “baseball history” has always involved Seaver, Koosman, Swoboda, Clendenon, Agee, Grote, Garrett, and McGraw.  Yes, there are more important figures in baseball history and more important events.  But it’s the lovable losers’ transformation into the Miracle Mets that I always remember.

Ninth Inning (“Home” 1970-1993):  It’s fascinating to see Bob Costas tell the story of being in the Red Sox locker room during the Buckner play and watching the champagne get wheeled out as quickly as possible.  It’s also fascinating to see testimony from Red Sox fans who were wounded by the play.  After all, I rooted for “the enemy” in 1986.  My nine-year-old dreams came true when Jesse Orosco threw the last pitch to Marty Barrett (I have a poster on the wall of my classroom), so it never occurred to me that someone might be upset by that night’s events.  Beyond that, there are so many recognizable faces here and I wish he was taking more time on them; I wish he was reminiscing with me the way he was reminiscing with my parents through the seventh inning.

When it ends with a talk about how baseball endures I realize that this isn’t a documentary; it’s a eulogy.  The season was cancelled due to a strike the month before the first episode aired and it doesn’t seem like we’ll get the game back.  Furthermore, it’s hard to pick a side because everyone seems greedy; everyone seems like a villain.  And here, at the funeral, we’re all trying to remember why we came.

Tenth Inning (1994-2010):  I was there.  I remember that.  I watched that.

I will never tire of watching Barry Bonds fail to throw out Sid Bream.  I always loved how much fun Ken Griffey Jr. seemed to be having–and always wished I had that swing.  I was cheering for McGwire the whole time and have to admit I was disappointed when the PED charges came to light.  I never cheered for Bonds unless he struck out looking.  I want to buy Steve Bartman a beer and talk baseball with the guy–not that game, just baseball.  No, the 2004 ALCS is not overrated and yes, I’ll watch the Yankees choke like that any time, day or night.  My heart was in my throat when Endy Chavez made that catch, only to have the Cardinals rip it out and crush it a few innings later.  You’re really using that Springsteen song, Ken?  Don’t you realize it’s about looking back and realizing how middle-aged you are?

“But then time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days.”

You know what?  That’s exactly what this is, isn’t it?  Good job, sir.

Top of the Inning: The 101 Course (Baseball, Part One)

Baseball DVDThis post and the next post is part of the Big League Blog-a-thon, coordinated by Forgotten Films, home to one of the best film podcasts out there, The Forgotten Filmcast, which is about the movies that time forgot.

I discovered early on, after volunteering to sit down and watch Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball, that one simply does not sit down and watch Ken Burns’ Baseball. No, it is something that taunts you from the screen of your Netflix queue, daring you to take it on like a pitcher who’s been throwing heat all night and has only just hit his stride.  And all you can do, really, is step up to the plate, bear down, and let him know that if he’s going to get you out, you’re going to have to work for it.

In other words, challenge accepted.

Bad metaphors and even worse Barney Stinson jokes aside, Baseball was something I had watched when it was originally on back in 1994 but didn’t remember much about except that Burns spent the segment about the 1986 Mets talking about the agony of the 1986 Red Sox and that he must have exhausted every available version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over the course of the documentary.  That I remember the former should not be a surprise–my Mets fandom runs deep, even when they lose–and after re-watching all ten innings, the latter still rings true.

Baseball originally aired twenty years ago as a nine-part documentary, each part appropriately titled an “inning,” with a two-part “tenth inning” being added in 2010.  What this adds up to is a documentary that if one were to sit down and watch without a break, he would be on the couch for nearly a full twenty-four hours.  Burns begins with the  origins of baseball, both real and myth (an urban legend involving Abner Doubleday that has been disproven countless times yet still seems to have legs all these years later) and then moves chronologically through the beginnings of the game up until what at that point was the present.

Through the first five innings, Burns seems to have accomplished what he set out to do, which is given us a full history of the game.  Instead of blowing through the 19th Century, he spends all of the “First Inning” exploring baseball’s evolution and then only moves ten years ahead into the future with the second inning, bringing us only up to 1940 by the end of inning five.

This slow progression works to flesh out the characters of the first half of baseball’s history, men whose names are known and aren’t necessarily forgotten but are definitely overshadowed by the names revered in my parents’ youth.  Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby, and Grover Cleveland Alexander were long dead by the time I went to my first baseball game in 1985, existing only  in trivia books like Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book.  Here, there is footage and there are interviews by historians and some of the few people who were, at the time, left alive to talk about playing against or watching those old-timers.

Furthermore, throughout the first half of the documentary, Burns does not shy away from the racism that pervaded the game for decades, telling the story of the Negro League whose history to me when I was a kid growing up on Long Island was a footnote in the Cobbs, Ruths, DiMaggios, and Mantles of books about baseball.  With stories from Negro League players such as Buck O’Neil (who is a delight in every interview throughout the series), you learn more about the racial history of the early 20th Century than you do in most high school history classes, even when that history is overshadowed by a mammoth figure such as Babe Ruth, who gets almost an entire episode to himself.

As Burns moves through the 1940s and 1950s, into an era where baseball really exploded and where he should have his strongest stories–after all, many of the players of those eras were still alive at the time when he was filming–the cracks begin to show and while the documentary doesn’t exactly fall apart by the Ninth Inning, it definitely is a lot weaker than at its beginning.  He relies too much on the same seven or eight different interviewees and we don’t hear directly from very many players beyond Ted Williams and a few others.  I wasn’t expecting every single player or anything, but seeing at least one appearance by Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, or Johnny Bench.  Heck, 1994 was when Tim McCarver was still mildly tolerable.

Which, in a way, brings me to the second major problem with the documentary.  Burns, who is a Red Sox fan, is committing the cardinal sin of sports reporting and being a “homer,” reporting with an incredible Northeast bias.  Walk away from Baseball and you will think that the period between 1957 and 1994 was a complete wasteland (as if the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and New York Giants’ leaving for California stripped baseball of its virginity in a way that the Black Sox scandal or the systemic racism that preceded the Jackie Robinson era never could) and that the only baseball worth happening occurred in Boston and New York and mostly in 1975 and 1986.  And I’ll readily acknowledge that both of those World Series deserve their reputations, as does the career and legacy of George Steinbrenner.  But much like a high school history class where you cover the Vietnam War in a day because the teacher has run out of time, Burns gives short shrift to then-recent history, probably assuming that we were all there and we all remember.

He sort of remedies this in the added “Tenth Inning,” but even then there’s an ESPN-like whitewash, perpetuating the narrative of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “saving” baseball in 1998, the Yankees “saving” New York City in the fall of 2001, the Red Sox “saving” the nation’s soul in 2004, and Barry Bonds’ role as some sort of supervillain in the whole thing.  All  of those storylines have legitimacy, but Burns’ coverage only serves to date the film a little–we’ve had so many highlight reels, specials, and shorter documentaries about those specific moments that one wonders if there was a need for him to come back and tell the stories at all.

That’s not to say that this behemoth isn’t worth watching.  Technically, Baseball is carefully made and serves as a perfect “101 Class,” an introduction to a topic that can’t possibly be contained to a single film, no matter how large it is.

In Part Two:  Taking Baseball Personally

The Siege of the Zi Charam (My Life as a Teen Titan, Part Fifty-Five)

New Titans 124You ever see a movie and really like it the first time but then you go and rent it on video and you realize  that it’s actually not as good as you thought it was; in fact, it’s barely watchable?  That’s how I’ve been feeling about some of these New Titans comics, especially the five part storyline, “The Siege of the Zi Charam.”

Published in the summer of 1995, the storyline was sort of a last gasp on the part of the Titans editors to get people interested in buying the flagging book, which would be cancelled about six months after the storyline ended (in fact, the next storyline, “Meltdown,” was the book’s last), “The Siege of the Zi Charam” is a Titans In Space adventure where the team is transported halfway across the universe to aid various alien races in their fight against another group of aliens called the Protogenitors, and instead of taking place over several issues of New Titans, it goes from New Titans #124 to Green Lantern #65, Darkstars #34, Damage #16, before finally wrapping up in the double-sized New Titans #125.

When the book had changed its lineup after Zero Hour, the editors did their best to create a mini universe, tying in the titles of the individual members with the larger Titans book.  Green Lantern was selling well but the other books–Darkstars and Damage–were on the verge of cancellation as well, so crossing them over was probably a good idea to boost sales.  But if you’re going to do that, you have to actually produce a story that people are going to want to buy.

As I mentioned, “The Siege of the Zi Charam” is a we’re-caught-in-the-middle-of-a-war storyline and it begins with the Titans being sent by the government to investigate some sort of anomaly in space.  The anomaly winds up being some sort of interdimensional portal and the group (well, minus Impulse because he forgot to actually get on the spaceship) is warped halfway across the universe to the Zi Charam, a region that is currently under attack from The Protogenitors, who are a race of golden-skinned aliens with red hair.  They all look very much alike and it seems that their M.O. is to go around various planets and systems and wipe everyone out. (more…)