It’s the sixth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from December 1990 to February 1991 with a special focus on the role that the Soviet Union played in Operation Desert Storm. Then, Andrew Leyland joins me to take a look at Britain’s most famous super spy, James Bond.
Thirty years ago, Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a novel that would name the generation that came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. It told of disaffected, misanthropic, self-absorbed twentysomethings who didn’t seem to care about anything that was going on in the world. But was that really the case?
In this episode, I take a look at Coupland’s novel as well as Richard Linklater’s film Slacker; plus, I examine articles and books that attempted to define and explain Generation X and make some attempt to come to a conclusion about this group of people who are now middle aged.
When my son was little, he liked to watch videos of the space shuttle taking off. They were exciting and short, perfect for the attention span of a three-year-old. But whenever we watched them, I would get anxious about a minute and a half after the launch when the camera angle switched to the underside of the shuttle as it flew diagonally away from the viewer. The anxiety would melt when the solid rocket boosters separated, because I knew that the launch had been completely normal.
It doesn’t take any real analysis to understand why that happened. Everyone in my generation has not only seen the Challenger explode, we each have our own very specific answer to the “Where were you?” question. Mine? I was in Miss Hubbard’s third grade classroom at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School. We didn’t get to watch it live, and found out when Mrs. Nolan, our principal, came over the PA to tell us that the space shuttle carrying the teacher in space had blown up after takeoff. I’d never heard an adult sound so upset before and I can’t imagine how she managed to even stay that composed. Nobody said a word for at least a while and I can’t remember what our teacher said, just going home, turning on the television, and watching Peter Jennings narrate the shuttle taking off and exploding 73 seconds into its flight, leaving a huge ball of smoke in the clear Florida sky. The lack of sound after Mission Control’s “Go at throttle-up” made it more real than anything I’d seen in a movie, and while it scared me, I couldn’t stop watching.
The news played the footage more times than I can remember and 35 years later, I am struck by how we were all totally unprepared. Everyone who saw the Challenger explode live on television had been watching because something good was supposed to happen. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was being launched into space, nearly every child in the country — every member of a generation — was tuned into that event in some way. Unlike the way my parents’ generation watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, which had a pallor of tragedy prior to its happening, this broke a generation’s trust in the world. The time after was surreal and confusing. President Reagan offered words of solace that we half understood and adults chastised us for not staying quiet enough while he did. And nobody wanted to be an astronaut anymore.
One of the best sources of solace came a little more than a month later when the Punky Brewster episode “Accidents Will Happen” aired on NBC. Filmed as a direct response to the Challenger disaster, it was a rare moment of responsibility on the part of a show, as the writers understood their influence on a young audience. We all understood how Punky felt when she comes home in tears after watching the Challenger explode on live television, and how she is completely inconsolable. It takes a heartwarming talk from an adult—in this case, it’s Buzz Aldrin—to help her realize this is something she’s allowed to be upset about but it shouldn’t stop her from pursuing dreams of going up into space or loving space travel. While not a cure for our sadness, it was a much-needed balm; Punky was our friend and if the adults in her world took the time to show they cared, then they cared and were thinking about us.
Later that year, we received Young Astronauts commemorative packets. These had 8×10 pictures of the crew, Christa McAuliffe, and the shuttle lifting off; two stickers with the Teacher in Space Program and the official mission logos; a letter from President Reagan; and a poster with a picture of the shuttle and the poem “A Salute to Our Heroes”. That poster hung on my bedroom wall for a few years and I even bought a Revell space shuttle model kit because I really wanted a space shuttle toy but couldn’t find one. It sat in its box for a few years before I made a poor attempt at putting it together. We had a moment of silence on the one-year anniversary, but then the Challenger faded from consciousness and conversations—that is, when we weren’t making tasteless jokes like “What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts”. We turned our attention to movies where humans were fighting aliens in space, and the shuttle program went into in limbo.
In the aftermath, NASA took a serious image hit, especially after hearings revealed that the explosion could have not only been prevented, but some engineers’ pleas about an impending disaster were ignored or dismissed. While at eight, I knew about the cause of the explosion—a failure of both O-ring seals on the right solid rocket booster—it wouldn’t be until college that I would attend a lecture given by Roger Boisjoly, one of the Morton Thiokol engineers who gave the warning. He went into detail about the engineering behind the rocket boosters, what was an ultimately fatal design flaw, and those efforts to warn management and NASA about the probability that the shuttle would explode. Having just watched the Clinton impeachment play out, I was fully aware at the capabilities of our government to cover things up, but I still wound up feeling almost exactly how I felt like the day of the disaster when I stood in the den watching television. The gravity of the situation was still abundantly clear.
The shuttle program would be retired in 2011 and in 2013, my son and I went to see Discovery—the shuttle that in 1988 made the first successful launch after Challenger—at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Upon reaching its exhibit hall, I was floored by its enormity. Knowing that we could build something that huge and send it into orbit reminded me of what we are capable of, and as I walked around it, holding my son’s hand, I felt the same awe that he did, and was humbled knowing what our achievements cost.
It’s time for another trip down the rabbit hole that is the music of my formative years! This time around, I’m taking a look at B-sides and rarities that are some of my favorites or marked an important moment in my time as a music fan or collector. You’ll hear me talk about scrounging record stores for “import” CDs, years of random rarities put on mix tapes, and why songs by Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Bruce Springsteen, and even Ben Folds Five are important to my musical tastes.
I have a battered and bookmarked copy of the tenth edition An Introduction to Poetry by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia on my classroom bookshelf that I use for reference in planning my AP Literature poetry units each year. It’s one of those textbook-meets-anthology books that English teachers like myself seem to collect throughout the decades of their careers, and I’ve found this one to be especially helpful because of the way that the authors take us through the genre and its forms via the lens of various literary devices. When the reference dialect, one of my favorites to teach*, they include an excerpt from “Auld Lang Syne” as an example of how a poem written in a particular English dialect sounds richer when read using those words, pointing out that “auld lang syne” when translated into standard English would mean “old long since”, which doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The song, which is credited to Robert Burns in 1788, is an indelible piece of our popular culture and the traditional soundtrack to midnight on January 1. Burns gets credit for a number of the verses, but he is quoted as giving credit to the tradition of passing down folk music, saying that quite a bit of the inspiration from the song came from “an old song, one of the olden tunes, and which has never been in print, or even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” In fact, Burns also references a poem by James Watson from around 1711, and when it is all put together, we get these lyrics (courtesy of Scotland’s official website)**:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne.
Chorus: For auld lang syne, my jo, For auld lang syne, We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne,
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp! And surely I’ll be mine! And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes And pu’d the gowans fine; But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn, Frae mornin’ sun till dine; But seas between us braid hae roar’d Sin auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! And gie’s a hand o’ thine! And we’ll tak a right guid willy waught, For auld lang syne.
Should old acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, And long, long ago.
And for long, long ago, my dear For long, long ago, We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For long, long ago And surely youll buy your pint-jug! And surely I’ll buy mine! And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For long, long ago. Chorus
We two have run about the hills And pulled the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered manys the weary foot Since long, long ago.
We two have paddled in the stream, From morning sun till dine; But seas between us broad have roared Since long, long ago.
And there’s a hand, my trusty friend! And give us a hand of yours! And we’ll take a deep draught of good-will For long, long ago.
I included the song’s lyrics in their entirety here because like a number of older songs that are traditionally sung, we tend to forget or neglect that they’re much longer than we realize. Also important to note is that the tune of the song was not Burns’ composition but was a traditional Scottish folk tune–in other words, the lyrics were just put to music, even if that was not Burns’ intended tune.*** The tradition of singing it to celebrate the new year began in Scotland, and Scots have a particular ritual of sorts to go along with it:
It has long been a much-loved Scottish tradition to sing the song just before midnight. Everyone stands in a circle holding hands, then at the beginning of the final verse (‘And there’s a hand my trusty friend’) they cross their arms across their bodies so that their left hand is holding the hand of the person on their right, and their right hand holds that of the person on their left. When the song ends, everyone rushes to the middle, still holding hands, and probably giggling.
With the phrase meaning “for old time’s sake” and intended to be sung at the end of a long night of celebrating, “Auld Lang Syne” winds up being a perfect drinking song about friendship. When you sing it to someone or with someone, you are connecting with them across the years and honoring what you’ve shared. And that first verse being a rhetorical question is key, especially with New Year’s Day wiping away the past and in some cases saying good riddance. So we wind up having to ask ourselves “Do we really want to get rid of everything?” Then we look at all we’ve done in the past and decide that we will drink to our friendship for old time’s sake.****
Now, I’m a fan of traditional drinking songs and have been so since I discovered Great Big Sea in the late Nineties. But many of those songs tend to be upbeat and rowdy, the party having to come to you for a few minutes. “Auld Lang Syne” is appropriate for midnigth when you are more than a few in and clinging to whatever second or third wind you’ve gotten.***** And it’s sentimental, a folk song version of “The real treasure was the friends we made along the way.” No wonder it’s sung at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Funny enough, this year seemed like a reckoning more than anything, so “Auld Lang Syne” is less sentimental and more of a cling to hope. Or maybe it’s a positive reminder. Singing a song where you ask yourself “Are you going to forget your old friends?” at the end of a very tough year does help you put things into perspective, even if the question is rhetorical and you’re actually supposed to answer “No. Of course I won’t forget them.”
As I contemplate this question at the end of the end of 2020, there are those people whom I can’t forget and wish were with me to celebrate ringing out this stressful, tough year. And yet, there are also those old acquaintances I should forget. Not that they weren’t really friends to begin with or anything (that’s too simple of a way of thinking, to be honest). People change, circumstances reveal things, or you just grow apart. So, sometimes the real treasure is the friends you lost along the way. I don’t want to get into too much about how tough this year was, especially since we can all offer up our particular 2020 stories, except to say that there were moments in the year that were revealing and while some of them still hurt in a way, they’re moments I am grateful for.
I continue to be grateful for them and am grateful that I can head into 2021 with a glimmer of hope, because I need to say something other than complaining about what a shit year it’s been. It’s not being a Pollyanna; I just think contributing something more positive is important. Consider my cup of kindness raised to those who I’d like to remember and my best wishes for a happy, healthy new year.
*It’s really only one of my favorites to teach because I can whip out a flawless Long Island accent that always amuses my class.
**It’s not hard to see someone’s twenty-post Twitter thread about Robert Burns being a plagiarist and how this somehow ties into classist oppression.
***This is also true of another song that is commonly sung in America, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
****Unless, of course, you’re Dan Fogelberg. Then it’s a lover.
*****Or, if you’re me, you wake up because you fell asleep in the big chair at around 9:30.
Spend this holiday season with some of your favorite families in TV Land! This time around, I take a look at seven sitcom episodes from the 1980s to 2010s that center around or take place around the holidays: Cheers, Married … With Children, Saved by the Bell, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Friends, and Schitt’s Creek. I take a look at one holiday-themed episode from each that I find memorable and give each a quick review. It’s all a bit of cheer to close out 2020!
And as it is the week of Christmas, I wanted to take an opportunity to thank everyone who reads this blog and listens to this podcast for your support, especially during this very tough year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours!
In 1990, David Fincher directed one of the most iconic videos of all time, “Freedom ’90” by George Michael. The video featured five supermodels lip synching the song and was a literally explosive deconstruction of the image he had created in his 1987 solo debut, “Faith.” So, on the video’s thirtieth anniversary, Amanda and I sit down to talk about George Michael and his music, do a video commentary, and then segue into a discussion about fashion in the early Nineties.
It’s the fifth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from September to November 1990 with a special focus on the roles that corporate America and pop music played in the end of the Cold War. Then, the discussion turns to sports; specifically, the Olympics with a spotlight on the controversial 1972 men’s basketball final, The Miracle on Ice, and the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
It’s Halloween and that means it’s time for me to actually get seasonal … for once. I’m here and talking about some oddities of entertainment from the late 1980s and early 1990s. First up is Time-Life Books’ best-selling series Mysteries of the Unknown, whose commercials were some of the creepies of the time. Then, I move into the area of true crime (among other subjects) by looking at a classic Robert Stack-era episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Plus: listener feedback!
When the COVID quarantine began to drag on through the summer, I made what was a real bummer of a choice–to not attend this year’s Baltimore Comic-Con. I’d already canceled two trips for the year and was holding out hope that I could at least go somewhere other than Costco, but it wasn’t looking great. But my thinking proved fortuitous when the organizers of the convention announced they were going online and were offering up a full slate of programming along with virtual experiences that were much like what you’d expect on a convention floor.
Aside from catching some panels from shows like San Diego, New York, or DragonCon on YouTube or various podcasts, I’d never experienced a comic convention–or any convention for that matter–online, but as the lineup was posted in the time leading up to this weekend, I had to check it out and I couldn’t resist also blogging about it. It’s such a great comics-centered show, but would they be able to re-create the experience of being there through streaming feeds?
Spoilers: They did.
Now, much like the live convention, it was nearly impossible for anyone to attend every single minute of every single event; much like my experience with the live convention, I wound having to pick and choose what I wanted to attend. I guess the difference this time was that I didn’t run around trying to talk to different creators and get books signed, although signature packages were offered, and there was plenty to shop for at the Artist’s Alley Page. More on that later, as I’m going to start by looking at the specific programming that I watched.
I’ve done a few panels here and there over my years at going to the con, although they tend to be the first thing I skip in favor of getting those last signatures, roaming the floor, or going to lunch. This time, I viewed panels almost exclusively, hitting three of the creator panels, one full and one partial Kids Love Comics panel, and the retailers showcase preview on Thursday night. Two of them were on Friday night, which was a huge treat for me, especially since I never have the chance to go to Friday because I’m always headed up to my in-laws’ after work. Plus, the convenience of AirPods allowed me to put my iPod down and just listen to the panel while I did the dishes.
Okay, this review is getting boring. Let’s get to the panels.
Justice League: BWAH-HA-HA!!! with J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire
I admit that this was my whole reason for watching on Friday night. I came into comics when this era of the Justice League was starting its third act and while I have yet to read all of it (trust me, it’s on my list), what I have read over the years has been absolutely fantastic. Plus, I’ve had the chance to meet all three of these creators over the years and have them sign my copy of the Justice League: A New Beginning trade. Keith Giffen wasn’t on the panel when I was watching it (I had to hop off to eat dinner during the second half), but what DeMatteis and Maguire had to say could have filled two panels.
And you could tell they were old hat at this, having done a number of these panels before and therefore came off as old friends reminiscing (which it essentially was). Even though I’d read and listened to quite a bit about this era of the Justice League over the years, I learned a few things, namely that they were given the characters as a result of the Legends crossover and that DeMatteis was not one of the original writers, having been given the book to help Giffen when he was in the middle of the Justice League job he’d been hired for–killing off JL Detroit.
They also talked about how the creative freedom offered to them in the 1980s allowed them to create characterizations and relationships between characters in a way that developed organically as opposed to some of the forced dynamics that comics can sometimes have, and it made me wonder if that’s something that we’ll ever get nowadays considering how many superheroes are considered more like intellectual property owned by a parent company as opposed to characters in a story. But hey, maybe me as an old-man comics reader is too narrow minded to think that this sort of lightning in a bottle is unlikely to be caught again. Then again, these guys didn’t think it would be as legendary as it has become, especially Maguire, who commented, “It’s odd what sticks” during a conversation about his artwork, especially the oft-homaged and repeated cover to Justice League #1.
Brian Michael Bendis and Gerry Conway
Whereas three old friends were getting together with a moderator (and I should mention that John Siuntres from Word Balloon did an excellent job hosting the BWAH-HA-HA!!! panel), this was a conversation between two comics legends across generations. Bendis was essentially putting a spotlight on Gerry Conway, who wrote Justice League of America #200, an issue that Bendis admits to chasing for pretty much his entire career, especially in recent Legion of Super-Heroes issues (a series that is amazing, by the way, and you should add it to your pull list yesterday). But they not only spent a lot of time talking about the various characters that Conway has worked on over the years, they talked about the creative process as well as what happens to the characters after they leave the page.
The latter is where I came in and Conway was addressing the appropriation of The Punisher by the police and those carrying out acts of aggression in way that is contrary to the actual mission of the character. Bendis shed some light on the more positive side of that particular phenomenon by talking about the success that Miles Morales has had. But for all of his frustration about the use of the Punisher, Conway seemed grateful to have a stake in the character, and feels that he has a voice in the matter.
The conversation about the creative process is something I’d see echoed in other panels later on, and I found it fascinating to hear how one can get pigeonholed as a television writer (Conway has written a lot of mystery story-based television) and appreciated how they talked about doing the work to read, research, and get a character right.
Inside the Comics Studio: 1985 with Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Denys Cowan, and Bill Sienkiewicz
Now if the Bendis/Conway panel was two generations of comics men talking shop and the Justice League panel was three friends reminiscing, this panel was the equivalent of a corner table at a bar as the night wears on. And it was so much fun. The four of them, who were work mates at both Marvel and DC and in their own studio, spent an hour talking about where they were in 1985 and Dean Haspiel, did a pretty good job of keeping the conversation from going completely off the rails and even keeping it interesting despite some streaming lag and freezing on Sienkiewicz’ part. Like I said, this was like listening in on a conversation and I confess that I stopped taking notes early on just so that I could listen and laugh along.
Creator Spotlight: Terry Moore
My main draw (no pun intended) was Terry Moore, whose table I regularly visit when he’s at the Baltimore Comic-Con (I’m very close to getting all of my Strangers in Paradise trades signed) and I know that he’s got a new graphic novel coming out named Ever, which is a dark fantasy book (that I’ve already preordered, so I’m pumped). Plus, as he announced at the panel, he will be publishing Serial in 2021 starring Zoe, the fan-favorite 10-year-old serial killer from Rachel Rising.
Amy Dallen hosted and was outstanding, bringing the enthusaism of a fan of Moore’s work as well as the knowledge and professionalism of a good host, interjecting where she can but spending most of the time sitting back and listening to him talk about his career. And one thing I really appreciated was how he talked about where he gets some of the motivation for his writing and some of his themes; furthermore, he made this great point about how after the 9/11 attacks, he set out to make sure that all of his stories had some semblance of hope. That’s not something we often get in our stories these days, as our culture seems to equate intelligence with cynicism. There’s something incredibly genuine about him and it really came across in the interview.
Kids Love Comics: Jeff Kinney
My son–who is now 13 and has been reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books since he was in elementary school–and I came into this one at the end because I had been doing some lesson planning all morning and he’s turned into the type of teenager who rolls out of bed close to noon on a Saturday. Despite that, it was pretty cool to hear him talk about how amazed he is at the impact that his books have had, and I have to hand it to the convention organizers because this is the type of person I could imagine having a Todd McFarlane-sized line of kids at his table.
Kids Love Comics: Kazu Kibuishi
So if you remember the first time I had my son with me at the convention, we met Kibuishi because Brett is a huge fan of the Amulet graphic novels and I bought a couple of GNs that Kibuishi then signed. We also went to a panel where he talked about what was coming up for the books as well as his creative process. Now that it’s several years later, Brett is really interested in drawing and was excited to see him talk again.
What was also cool about the panel was that it was hosted by Jamar Nicholas, whom we met a couple of years ago when he was selling Leon: Protector of the Playground at a table in the Kids Love Comics area and we interviewed him for the show. And he’s just signed with Scholastic, which is huge, and that’s great, because you love to see that type of success for someone writing great books for kids (and who is especially nice to boot).
As for the interview, it was also very well run with each question projected onto the screen, and I could clearly see that both creators as well as the KLC coordinators knew their primary audience was because the conversation was geared toward the kids in attendance. At the same time, neither of them talked down to the audience, which I appreciated. Kibuishi talked about how he got interested in drawing, how he had support from his parents and gave some really good advice, saying that he likes to stay independent as an artist and not connect himself too much to the business side of things, even though that’s necessary. Oh, and they both joked about how they can’t–and so many others can’t seem to–draw horses.
Brett told me that he really liked the advice of not being super money hungry and that Kibuishi has things he likes to do in order to disconnect from work, take a break, and reflect–mainly mountain biking (my son likes to read and hike). Plus, he felt pretty inspired hearing that he didn’t have to have the most expensive equipment when he’s just starting out.
Retailers and Artist’s Alley
Spending a huge wad of cash at the convention is a big part of it for me, and while I was able to sate my desire for back issues by going to my LCS on Friday, I did miss the rush of flipping through bins and looking for a hidden gem. But the Artist’s Alley setup on the site that featured links to most of the exhibitors’ websites was great and I bookmarked four or five artists from whom I’ll be buying something once I get paid this week.
Also really useful was the Retailers Showcase, which was hosted by The Great Legend and Anthony Snyder and featured a number of the more high-profile retailers that exhibit at the convention. It was shown Thursday night and even though it was some retailers talking about what they sell, it was so comics-centered and so pure to the tone and purpose of the convention that it set everything up nicely. I mean, I can’t afford anything that the Heritage Auctions guy was showing us, but my jaw still dropped at the sight of a high-grade Golden Age comic. But I am looking forward to buying a comics portfolio from Fine Comics Collectibles–who would have thought of that for those of us who bring a ton of books to have signed at a convention?
Next year’s show is scheduled for the same time in October and it’s my hope that it will be live and in person because even before I saw the guest list, I was ready. Still, the convention organizers did a great job with the virtual con and I hope that this possibly means that they’ll expand the experience to include some online offerings or maybe some recorded or livestreamed panels next year. Yunno, for those of us who will be just so happy to be back on the floor flipping through those bins.