books

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 2 — We All Float Down Here (or, Why I Hate Clowns)

In the second episode of the Pop Culture Affidavit podcast, I take a look at Stephen King’s It, both the 1986 novel as well as the 1990 TV movie starring Tim Curry as the evil Pennywise The Clown.  It’s a Halloween treat that will remind you why demonic clowns dwelling in sewers will make you swear off the circus forever.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And, for your viewing enjoyment, here is a scene from the TV movie version of It:

Get Out the Map

What is American is one of those things that is so hard to determine that at this point, it’s almost like a philosophical dilemma rather than a physical entity.  Many have tried to define or capture it; in fact, it seems that the right wing has sought to trademark it for the last couple of decades.  But pinning the answer to that question to one definition is never successful, and it seems that the journey to find that answer is just as if not more important.  Such is the case with Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn’s Anthem: An American Road Story.

In the summer of 1995, the two women, fed up with their jobs, decided to interview as many people as they possibly could under the auspices of looking for the definition of our country, of American heroes, and of the American Dream.  The result was a chronicle of that trip told through both a book and a film.

I am not sure if either the film or book were very popular upon their release, as I came in after the fact, getting the book as swag in the summer of 1998 when I interned for its publisher, Avon Books.  I was quite possibly the worst intern in the history of publishing because aside from free books and the ability to fix a five-way copier jam in under a minute, I took nothing away from my experience except for the desire to not work in publishing and to not spend my life commuting into Manhattan via the Long Island Rail Road.

But my ultimately unrewarding experience aside (which, by the way, is compounded by the fact that I turned down an interview for an unpaid internship with a major comics publisher because this internship was paid and I didn’t want my parents to be upset that I was working for no money), I got some very good reads out of it and Anthem was one of them.  During my time in editorial, the book’s editor, Jennifer Hershey, had a large poster of the cover to the paperback edition (Gabel and Hahn standing in a road holding their recording equipment) on the wall of her office and a huge stack of the hardcover edition by her door.  I either asked for a copy or swiped one (probably the former) because the concept of two people taking a road trip to interview people intrigued me, as it was a huge risk for someone to take with her life and I was one of the most risk-averse people in the world (still am to an extent).

I read Anthem on the train, taking it in kind of passively.  I don’t think that’s the type of reaction that the authors were looking for from a reader, but it’s not their fault; at that time I had the perspective of an overprivileged white college student who really knew nothing about the world beyond beers on Saturday.  Oh sure, I had service learning in classes that had me volunteering in sketchy areas of Baltimore and there was a professor or two that required a subscription to The New York Times, but the atmosphere at Loyola was very insulating; I went to college for four years and really didn’t take the time to look very much beyond myself or my own shit.  So really, it’s not their fault. (more…)

Put on your Mystery Sneaker and Give Me a Clue Because it’s Time to Ride the Sunrise

Mystery Sneaker, which was the "Holy Grail" of vocabulary development in Mrs. Hickman's first grade class.

She was telling us the class rules, and every single one of us was at attention.  After all, she had attention as being the “strict” teacher and her tall stature, tightly wound red hair, and impeccable wardrobe reinforced that.  Every once in a while, though, I’d sneak a glance at the back of the room at the giant target, which took up the entire bulletin board with its eight multi-colored rings and brown bull’s-eye that read “Mystery Sneaker.”  I had no idea what “Mystery Sneaker” meant, but I knew that it was probably important to Mrs. Hickman, who was still talking but now looking straight at me.  I sat up, looked right at her and allowed her to continue.

It was my first day of first grade and I was scared out of my mind.

Now, when I was five years old, I really didn’t know what “strict” meant, let alone that a “strict” teacher could be a good teacher.  I just knew that “strict” equaled “mean” and that meant bad.  Such information concerning Mrs. Hickman was gleaned from conversations with older kids who had been through first grade at Lincoln Avenue Elementary and spoke from experience—but also spoke knowing that we had no b.s. filter and it was fun to scare younger kids, even though some of the stories were true.  We found out right away that if your desk was too messy, for instance, she would put a sign that said “Lincoln Avenue Garbage Dump” above it.  And on the bulletin board behind her desk was the paddle.

Brown and stamped with “RAH,” the paddle looked like something she had gotten from a sorority and was single-handedly the source of every rumor about Mrs. Hickman.  Students who never had her and never would know about the paddle and the more you heard about it, the worse it became.  It didn’t merely hang on the wall.  Oh no.  The word on the Lincoln Avenue playground and the homes of Sayville elementary school students was that if you got out of line in any way, you got hit.

Now, I know there are people who did receive beatings at the hands of teachers, administrators, or nuns at some time or another. But by the time I got to school in 1983, I am sure that if Mrs. Hickman had hauled off and beaten the crap out of me because I didn’t clean my desk, tenure or no tenure, she would have gotten into serious trouble.  In fact, there was one time you did get a paddling and that was on your birthday, and even then it was a light tap or two (though I’m sure that you couldn’t get away with that today).  But when you sat in the classroom and looked at her desk, there it was, hanging, taunting you, telling you that she meant business.
And she did, although she didn’t need a paddle on the wall to show us.  She marked up our work with a red pen and expected nothing less than what she knew were our best efforts.  I remember one night sitting at the top of the stairs crying because I had colored in the exercise in my phonics book using a green Whitman crayon and had colored it so thickly that it prompted her to write, “Messy!  You can do better!”  Maybe I was being hard on myself or had a need for approval from authority figures, but this feeling that I had let her down was a sign that she was effective.

But as we discovered, she was effective because despite the pressure of high expectations and perceived fear of the paddle, she wanted us to love being in her class.  I’m sure that’s why she turned learning to read into a game.  Because when you’re six you may have a natural curiosity but you don’t have the natural love of learning that makes you purposely want to delve into existential philosophy or debate the merits of socialism in regards to public policy.  No, you are still getting the shakes from naptime withdrawal and you’re still struggling with making a lowercase n not look like a lowercase h.  So, with our education at such a base level, she knew that she not only had the challenge of teaching us how to read but the opportunity to make us want to read and love words and love reading and that is why the very first thing you noticed when you walked into the classroom wasn’t her paddle, but the giant target. (more…)

Avant Garde in the Final Frontier

When I look at what my son likes to watch on television and what he likes to play with, I am amazed at how similar we are.  Now, I don’t have a photographic memory from when I was 3-1/2–most memories from that age come in flashes and spurts–but right now he is really into superheroes and Curious George.  I am sure that we’ll have years of superhero awesomeness in our house (and that’s a whole other entry), and Curious George is definitely another topic for another day as well, although I do remember that when I was young I had several of those books that I read and decorated with stickers that told everyone that it belonged to TOM.

But he’s also really interested in space travel and when he first showed interest in it I was excited but I wasn’t sure exactly how to encourage that curiosity about space.  You know, beyond watching space shuttle launches on YouTube and a set of space-themed flash cards my wife found in the dollar bin at Target.  I mean, it’s a bit too early to get him into Star Wars because even that type of violence might be a little much for a kid who gets a little scared when watching Scooby-Doo (besides, I don’t remember seeing Star Wars for the first time until I was about four or five).  And while I’m sure that I will get around to The Saga, I was hard-pressed to find something until I was hanging out in the library at work and came across National Geographic’s Picture Atlas of Our Universe.

With a futuristic-looking spaceship on the cover, Our Universe is one of those library books that when I was in junior high I would check out at least a few times a year in order to pore over its pages, taking in every artist’s rendition and satellite image.  The edition I had in my hands on was from 1992, so it was later than the one I used to check out of the library but still accessible to even a very little kid and still awesome to me.

That space ship on the cover is sort of our guide through the universe, as the book’s narrative takes us on a tour through all of the planets of the solar system including Pluto (and I don’t buy that “Pluto’s not a planet” crap anyway), and beyond.  The beyond includes stars, asteroids, comets, other galaxies and the history of space travel as well as the possibilities for the future.

The title page, which leads to …

Open the book and the title flies at you kind of how the opening credits of Superman do.  But what makes this even more awesome on some level than seeing “Richard Donner” streak across a screen is that Our Universe does the title flight over the course of two spreads with the words nearly off the page on the second spread.  That, and it’s in Avant Garde and Avant Garde is just awesomeness in itself.

After an introduction, we learn about how ancient civilizations viewed the cosmos as well as how our modern scientific theories come to fruition through scientists such as Newton and Galileo.  it’s an encyclopedia’s worth of information being written in a pretty tight narrative that your average and elementary and junior high kid would understand and probably enjoy.  The examples rely on both scientific models and artist’s conceptions, something that’s carried throughout.

… a TWO-PAGE SPREAD OF AVANT GARDE GRANDEUR!!!

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Up, Up, and Away!

Superman: The Secet Years #1

I honestly don’t remember when I bought my first comic book or what that comic was.  I have vague memories of perusing the magazine rack at Greaves stationary in my hometown and coming home with an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man or Superman.  At some point, I know that I got an issue of the Batman team-up title The Brave and the Bold sometime in the very early 1980s, so that might have been it.  But Superman: The Secret Years #2 was the very first comic book that I remember buying at an actual comic book store.

Amazing Comics, which is on Gillette Avenue in Sayville, NY, opened in the fall of 1984 next to an iron-on T-shirt store named The Special-T, which is where my friends and I procured most of our wardrobe.  I am sure that I was at the Special-T buying a birthday present for someone when my dad noticed that there was a brand-new comic book store in the next building (it had previously been a junk/antique store, I believe).  It was and still is an extremely small store with barely any room to move; in fact, I think if you fit more than six people in there, you’re exceeding maximum occupancy.  But at seven years old, an entire room filled with comic books blew my mind.  Who knew that you could sell them on your own and not off a rack located between the cigarettes and the pens and pencils? (more…)

Mecha, Minmei, and a decade-long fight for the future

While I have extensive experience with superhero comic books, my experience with manga is relatively small.  I know that my local Barnes & Noble has a significant amount of shelf space devoted to manga, and that quite a number of my students are often seen walking around with Tokyopop trade paperbacks.  I once flirted with anime a little bit, but going so far as to dive head-first into that particular world of fandom was never something I even attempted.

That being said, I am sure that I’m not alone in my generation by mentioning that as a kid I had exposure to Japanese comics and cartoons through Voltron and Robotech.  I suppose I’ll get around to talking about Voltron some other time, but Robotech seemed to have far greater reach, at least in terms of manga/anime as a whole.  Of course, I think that “true” fans of the genre and the work refer to it (or at least part of it) as Macross, but considering I have spent my life being nothing but mainstream, I’ll just go with Robotech.

My first exposure to Robotech was when  the animated series ran on WPIX 11 every afternoon when I was in elementary school.  It was an enormous show that had more episodes and storylines than I could count, but to be quite honest I wasn’t interested in the plots or character development when I was eight years old.  I just thought it was awesome because the character flew around in planes that transformed into robots that looked exactly like the Autobot named Jetfire (or was it Skyfire?  There was an enormous debate between my friend Evan and myself about this when I was a kid.  Evan, at one point, even claimed that there were two separate toys and he had the other one … but never produced it).  There was a comic book series put out by Comico that retold the television series verbatim (it even had a little “As seen on TV!” box in the middle), which you can probably pick up in a dollar bin somewhere; and a toy line put out by Matchbox which was compatible with G.I. Joe (I had the motorcycle).

However, Robotech was for the most part forgotten after it went off TV and toys were relegated to that “aisle of random and forgotten toys” in Toys R Us.  None of my friends ever really got that into it and so I was kind of alone in my love of the mecha series and gave it up to concentrate on the Joes, movies like Aliens, and baseball. 

Then, when I was in the ninth or tenth grade, a new store called Bassett Book Club opened up next to K-Mart on Sunrise Highway.  The place was huge, several times bigger than the B.Dalton and Waldenbooks I used to frequent at the mall, and the first time my mom took me there, I went straight for the science fiction section to check out their selection of graphic novels and Star Trek books.  After marveling at the fact that the store had the novelization of just about every movie as well as books that I’d only seen listed in my Star Trek Fan Club magazine, the spine of several books with “Robotech” written on the side caught my eye.

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