The Other Two Were With Me

I’ve been obsessed with R.E.M. again lately; I read Perfect Circle, a biography of the band, over the holidays and that has led me back to the albums I was addicted to when I first discovered them, back in the early nineties. For me, Out of Time was the entry point — I think it was “Losing My Religion” that probably piqued my interest, as it did everyone else, but I’ve always had such a fondness for “Radio Song” that I may be misremembering — but I quickly backtracked through their back catalog, becoming endlessly obsessed with Green and Life’s Rich Pageant in particular.

Of all their albums now, I’ve found that Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi are by far my favorites, although I have a deep love for Monster for all kinds of incidental reasons. (It was the only time I saw them live, that tour; I can’t remember who supported, but I do remember dancing in the stands when “Revolution” played, a song I’d never heard before but somehow knew.)

This middle period of theirs was my period — neither the impressive creative outburst that saw each album build on what they’d leaned last time, nor the slow decline and creative stall that followed 1999’s Up. I’m all about their biggest hits, the albums that worked as the soundtrack of my life from the end of high school through the end of college. For all my contrarian urges, I can’t deny it: when it comes to my fascination with R.E.M., I am unashamedly, proudly mainstream. When they were good, they were great.

Here We Are In Our Summer Years

It’s been awhile, I know; June turned out to be curiously busy for a number of reasons, mostly work-related. There was a trip to LA that left me oddly… exhausted isn’t the right word, but definitely out of sorts for some time afterwards, more than I’d expected. It was a good trip, though, and something that was exhilarating during the trip itself despite the transcription and work it left in its wake. Still. June was mobbed and then it was over, somehow early, and now it’s July and Comic-Con is just two weeks away as I write and oh God where does the time go, how am I always behind, this is horrible.

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I remembered, across the weekend, that when I was a kid, summer was a different time. Not just because of the time off from school, although that was its own reward — the laziness of those first couple of weeks, when it felt as if nothing mattered and everything was strangely unreal because time stretched out, endlessly, ahead of you — but because my dad would play hooky increasingly from work for the two weeks of Wimbledon, and that was always weirdly funny and wonderful.

My dad, you see, was a massive tennis fan. If you asked me at any other time of the year whether or not my fannish tendencies — such as they are — came from my parents, I would likely say no, but at summer, I always feel like I could draw a line from my comic book adoration to my dad’s love of tennis, which was really a love of Wimbledon. He played tennis himself, although that dropped off somewhere along the line of my childhood; I have memories of him in his shorts and his white shirt, racket in hand off to the local tennis club with an air of excitement, but I couldn’t really date them. Definitely, by the time I was finishing high school, he barely played any more, but I don’t really know why or when. Similarly, while he was an avid fan of Wimbledon, I don’t really remember him having the same interest in other tennis tournaments, and I couldn’t tell you why. Was it simply that they weren’t as available on television at the time, or something else…?

Nonetheless, Wimbledon would roll around every year and my dad would be on board. Evenings would be spent watching the matches on BBC2, which would come with lots of verbal appreciation (and advice) from my dad, and mornings would include commentary about what lay ahead that day in terms of tennis. Best of all, my dad would do that thing he never did for the rest of the year, unless there were special circumstances: he would leave his office for lunch, and come back for a lengthy period of watching whoever was playing at the time. If it ended up being a particularly engrossing game, well, that just meant a long lunch.

As a kid, I didn’t have much appreciation for tennis — I still don’t, to be honest — but there was something about my dad’s appreciation of Wimbledon that made me want to join in. Part of it was that the players became characters in this epic narrative that I watched him watch, if that makes sense: I couldn’t tell which players were talented and who deserved to win, but nonetheless I felt like each one was a particular character with defining features, and that was something that I could, and did, latch onto eagerly.

(Occasionally, I frame wrestling in this light, so that I can understand the appeal. The actual thing, all the matches and the stories and the complicated mythology, that doesn’t actually interest me at all, but when I think of it as “Oh, it’s the thing I kind of invented for Wimbledon when I was a kid, but for everyone else!” it all makes sense.)

I’m not saying that Wimbledon was some amazing bonding experience between me and my dad, because I don’t think either of us really thought it was, any more than his love of playing with my Star Wars toys when he thought I wasn’t paying attention was, or his encouragement of my love of comics (and reading in general) was, or any of a number of other things. But when summer comes, and I read online that Wimbledon has started over in the U.K., I often think about those days when he’d come back for lunch, make himself, and often me, a bacon sandwich or a roll with sliced sausage, and we’d sit down and watch Wimbledon together, happy silence punctuated by his ooooooh come ons or yes yes yes look at that LOOK AT THATs.

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Now I really, really wish I had some Robinson’s Orange Barley to drink. Does that still exist in the UK? (One quick Google later: yes.)

I Am Iron Metaphor

This just in, from the Disney Vaults: An essay I wrote for Comix Experience’s Onomatoepeia newsletter waaaay back in 2008, just before the opening of the Iron Man movie (The essay was part of a series, originated by the wonderful Jeff Lester, called Fanboy Rampage — a title I later, entirely accidentally, convinced-I’d-come-up-with-it-myself, stole for the blog that started my career. That, hopefully, explains the “Fananoid Ramplog” reference).

Reading it back now, that Civil War II joke… Man, it’s like I just knew that Avengers Vs. X-Men was going to happen at some point, isn’t it…?

Remember “comics”? Once upon a time, they were the way that children were given stories and adventure before television was perfected – And they were also the birthplace of the 21st century’s most successful movie franchise, the Iron Man series! You’ll discover all about the “comic book” and Iron Man’s place in the history of that forgotten medium in tonight’s episode of Fananoid Ramplog!

Hello. I’m Ira Glass Jr., and this is Fananoid Ramplog for today, May 2nd 2058. On today’s show, we’re looking at the history of the most popular fictional character in all human existence, Iron Man. His first movie was released 50 years ago today, changing the course of human history, but it may surprise some of you that Iron Man didn’t get his start in movies. No, in fact the character – as well as all of his supporting characters including shapely secretary Virginia “Pepper” Potts – were actually created for something called comic books. You’ve probably heard all about comics from your grandparents, or perhaps even their parents, but tonight we’re looking at the way that comic books and the armored avenger were, like Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, a match made in an entirely temporary heaven while in preparation for something much better indeed.

Even directly before the opening of the original Iron Man movie, no-one knew quite how important that one motion picture would be to the evolution not only of the entertainment industry, but also all of technology itself. After all, the movie – Iron Man 1: A New, Metallic, Hope, as it’s become known in the years since its release – has been cited by no less an authority than Steve Jobs as the one motivating factor in the creation of Apple’s iSuit:

“I sat there, watching Robert Downey Jr.’s sensitive performance as Anthony Michael Hall Stark, recognizing a lot of myself in his steely portrayal of an exec with a heart of stone and a hide of steel. As Stark moved from soulless war profiteer to soulless superhero in an awesome high tech suit of armor, it’s not too much to say that I had something akin to a religious epiphany, realizing that the previous Apple school of DRM technology and sleek, designer personal computers was entirely corrupt and the wrong way to run a multinational corporation. Who was I to profit off the desire for consumers to buy and listen to music? Especially when I could instead profit off their desire to fly into the blue skies in their own personal awesome high tech suit of armor.”

The iSuit, released in the holiday season of 2008, quickly became the cornerstone of the revitalized Apple empire. Its combination of telephone, music player and mechanical suit with boot jets and repulsor rays proved irresistible to the general public despite the horrific accident at the press launch that resulted in the death of original Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. when Jobs accidentally shot him in the face when demonstrating the incredible firepower available to everyone for a surprisingly low price of only $10,000.

(It was, of course, the death of Downey Jr. that allowed friend and fellow scary-eyed actor Joshua Jackson to step into the role of Tony Stark for the following fourteen installments in the series. Jackson’s performance as the homeless, alcoholic Stark in Iron Man 7: Demon In A Bottle, Not Literally, It’s A Metaphor For Alcoholism provoked such critical plaudits as “I almost forgot that he was Pacey in Dawson’s Creek for a second” and “He’s like a young George Clooney, if Clooney has no charm and had starred in Dawson’s Creek for seven years before disappearing into the career wilderness.”)

Iron Man the movie franchise became a futuristic, faceless avatar for technological advancement, but for hardcore Iron Fans, this came as no surprise. The character had always been a chrome-clad personification of the cultural zeitgeist since his creation in whatever form he had appeared in. His video game appearances in the later 1980s and early 1990s were cutting edge examples of the pixel art, and his various forays into animation were, if nothing else, proof that American animation was kind of shoddily acceptable if you were ten years old and bored enough on a Saturday morning to watch Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. According to cultural historian Ian Shameless-Grudge, however, both of those examples were just shameful additions to his original career as an American comics prime example of the spirit of the times:

“You have to consider that American comics started as a cheap, disposable medium aimed at children and functional illiterates at the time of a great economic depression,” Grudge explains, “and so their characters were almost intentionally simplistic so as to be shaped to fit in with whatever was happening in the larger American tapestry at that time. By the time that famous opportunist Stanley Lieber Lee invented the Iron Man in the early 1960s, that idea had become so ingrained that Iron Man was literally faceless, so perfect was he suited for that role.”

Iron Man’s first appearance before a hungry, if ultimately disinterested, American public came in 1963’s Tales of Suspense #39. In that tale, Lee and artist illustrator Donald J. Heck made Tony Stark an example of the American Dream made good: Rich, handsome, and with a pencil moustache that only Errol Flynn could pull off in real life. But like Flynn and the fractured American psyche of the time, Stark hid a terrible secret: His heart was weak. So weak, in fact, that he had to wear a metal chest plate that he had to continually plug into a wall socket to survive.

Grudge again: “Here, Tony Stark is the American everyman at the dawn of the information age, literally having to plug himself in to everything that is happening at the end of the day. Whether intentionally or unknowingly like some kind of autistic idiot savant, Lee places his hero into a situation with which everyone is familiar. Look, also, at the way in which women are drawn to both his suave demeanor and his Communist-fighting ways. Here, Lee is showing us that it is not enough to be a good American; in order to be truly successful, you must plug yourself into walls and be ruggedly handsome as well.”

For years, Iron Man was the intellectual mechanical bitch of Marvel Comics, who published the character throughout his entire comic history. Aiming to keep interest in the character at a premium, Iron Man slowly and accidentally became the personification of each and every movement in the evolution of American comics as a medium:

  • Superheroes as Socially Relevant Vehicle: As American creators awoke to the idea of their stories becoming vehicles for more weighty subjects, Tony Stark went from being a social drinker to an unforgivable lush who forgets how to shave and, at one point, ends up homeless and sleeping on the streets in the middle of a snowstorm. Fans ate the subject up eagerly, but wondered why he didn’t use his armor to at least fly away to somewhere warmer.
  • Superheroes as Replaceable Suits: Looking to create a sense of excitement over decades-old characters, creators started to kill off and replace their favorite superheroes. The Flash died and was replaced by his sidekick. Green Lantern quit and was replaced by an architect. Captain America quit about seventeen times to be replaced by whoever was nearby, but at the forefront of the movement was, of course, Iron Man. Mixing the replacement vibe with his social relevance, Tony Stark’s alcoholism forced him to step down and be replaced by an old war buddy who was – in a move that demonstrated even more revelance – black. Comics would never be the same again.
  • Superheroes as Slaves To Creators Desperate To Do Anything Gimmicky To Grab Attention For A Failing Medium: As the 1990s and Clinton-era politics destroyed both the comics medium and America as a whole, writers and artists resorted to ever-more outlandish stories to try and stun fans into spending money. Like a mulletted Jesus, Superman died and was born again for our sins. Batman found himself crippled and then healed, and popular blind acrobat Daredevil put on a suit of armor to slow himself down and ruin his hearing with clanking. Again, Iron Man led the way, by turning out to be a mind-controlled murderer who then died, only to be replaced by a teenaged version of himself. Once this storyline saw print, such gimmicking ceased, with the entire medium realizing that it would never be able to top this kind of invention.
  • Superheroes as Crass Political Stand-ins: Realizing the potential for moving political discourse forward using brightly colored characters with a propensity for punching, Marvel Comics’ Civil War storyline forever changed comics by aligning Iron Man with the far-right movement. In a masterstroke, the newly neo-con Iron Man fought the spirit of America Captain America and won, demonstrating the power of the conservative iron fist once and for all. Critics raved about the series and begged for Iron Man to go back in time and kick the crap out of Abraham Lincoln as well, leading to 2009’s Civil War II series.

Sadly, Civil War II – with its stunning conclusion where Iron Man returned to the present only to discover a partially-buried Statue of Liberty on a beach and exclaiming “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” – was the end of the character’s comic book career. In 2010, with a popular movie production arm easily more lucrative than their inbred comic book publishing division, Marvel Comics ceased the publication of their entire comic book line with that apocalyptic conclusion.

Back to Ian Shameless-Grudge: “Quite simply, with the monolithic success of the original Iron Man motion picture, there was no need for Marvel to continue with comic books. For years, their publishing line had been merely there as something to promote and provide additional profit from their movies, and even the failure of all three attempts to make a watchable Hulk movie could not dissuade them from making the decision to move full-time into movie production in 2010. Of course, the fact that Civil War II killed off all of their characters both literally and, thanks to the controversial pornographic interludes in the third to fifth issues illustrated by Greg Horn, in the minds of their fanbase helped that decision to an expected degree.”

Marvel’s first movie following their switch to permanent movie producers was, of course, the second Iron Man movie, Iron Man 2: Electric Boogaloo. This multiple-Academy Award winning movie – including one for Brian Michael Bendis and Larry McMurty’s controversial script depicting Tony Stark as a scientologist coming to terms with his sexuality with the help of new bodyguard Luke Cage – was exactly the kind of smash hit that they had hoped for, and the perfect launch pad for a series of follow-on movies including My Date With Millie, Night Nurse and Halle Berry Is Storm Because She Was Cheap When We Were Making The First X-Men Movie And Now We’re Stuck With Her… all of which started life as a comic book.

Some say that this was a sad ending for the life of the comic book medium, its audience finding cheaper and more satisfying thrills elsewhere when even its own top characters moving into cinema and television productions, but others disagree, claiming that the comic book format had achieved all it could be hoped to achieve – Namely, introducing the world to the particular fetishes of auteur Frank Miller and making Stan Lee into some kind of counter-cultural icon – before simply rolling over and dying in some distinct Darwinian fashion. As ever, we leave the last word to our cultural historian, Ian Shameless-Grudge:

“Now that we’re in the latter half of the 21st Century, it’s astounding to see how much of our culture has come from comic books. You can’t leave your house without running into a mailman trying to wiggle his ears like Willie Lumpkin or hear someone who’s attended the Victor Von Doom School of Rhetoric. The tragedy is, of course, no-one now knows where all of these beautiful ideas have come from. With DC Comics going into bankruptcy following their 2008 Final Crisis series and then Marvel leaving the industry two years later, comics disappeared from the public consciousness just as their ideas moved beyond even the pop culture supremacy that they’d been enjoying at that point. It had long been a belief that the industry would survive without those two publishers, but, sadly, that turned out not to be the case. I would say it was a bad thing, but I’ve read Tarot and Return to Wonderland, and really? Good riddance.”

Embarrassed By My (Not-So-Young) Youth, Part 23

In a moment that’s oddly fitting — or, at least one that’s demonstrative of my weeks these days — I ended up being too busy to remember that this past Wednesday was the 10th anniversary of the start of Fanboy Rampage!!!, the blog that started me down the road to my current career. I’d meant to do something to mark the anniversary, but could never quite work out what that something would be, which says something about the weird way with which I regard the blog now.

My feelings towards it are complicated but mostly affectionate, if only because it’s FBR that directly led to Newsarama and to io9, from which everything else followed. Without that blog, without that shamelessness and self-righteousness and everything that came from it, I wouldn’t be where I am today, etc. But, man. That that was 10 years ago makes me feel weird, both in the sense of “I’m so old now,” and also “I was as old as 29 when I started it?”

Happy Belated Birthday Rampage!!! You know I love you really.

I’m The Most Important Guy in This Bestiary

eddiecampbellalecGot myself a copy of Alec: The Years Have Pants from the recent online sale from Top Shelf Comix, and read through it last night — it reminded me how weirdly important Eddie Campbell was to my development both as an artist back when I was in art school, and as a writer. There’s something remarkably amiable and offhand about his work, as if he’s effortlessly just sharing something with you, that I strive for even now with non-work writing (and, usually, fail). Thinking about my shortlived late ’90s diary comics — honestly, created as somewhere between decompressor and way to have another sketchbook full of something for my final year of the BA (Hons) program I was in — I can see Eddie Campbell’s fingerprints all over them, alongside (slightly less obviously) those of Kyle Baker, Evan Dorkin and Nick Abadzis.

I don’t have those comics now, for the most part — I got rid of almost all of my student work when I moved to the U.S., because it meant less to move and I was trying to travel light to save money  — but I think about them sometimes. For some reason (Perhaps a Facebook posting that reminded me that it was 20 years since I matriculated for art school, holy crap), I’ve been thinking about that whole era of cartooning and writing and everything recently. Somewhere out there, there’s a me who kept doing all of that stuff. I wonder what happened to him?

(Image above from Graffiti Kitchen, one of the stories in the Alec book; probably my favorite, and possibly my favorite comic of all time.)

“More Super-Heroes Than Ever Before!”

britcom

How to lose a ridiculous amount of time in a weekend: Discover a wonderful website dedicated to the British comics of my youth which, because of the way comics fandom works, have been pretty much forgotten for the most part. These were the things I was reading when I was, what, five years old? Maybe younger? These comics, reprinting American comics from the same time for the most part, were a big part of my youth, and what turned me into the person I am. What a horrifying thought.

(This really is a great site, though.)