Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stan Lee: An Appreciation.

It's Stan the Man Lee's 88th birthday today.

I've held forth before about Stan and what I felt like his role with Marvel was; while I certainly can believe that many, if not most, of the concepts that galvanized everyone so much back in the early 60s were thought up by Kirby, Ditko, and who knows who else, I do believe that Stan's dialogue and plotting skills were very important in shaping those early classics. It seems that Stan was the hustler, the instigator, the shit-stirrer- keeping everybody up, keeping everybody positive, focused, and committed, and coordinating Marvel's ascent back in those long-ago days. It seems like the only thing he couldn't do was keep everyone well-paid and happy, and thus those halcyon days were relatively short-lived. Indeed, once the most-likely more-lucrative Hollywood and the college lecture circuit beckoned, Stan's focus and enthusiasm for editing and scripting seemed to wane...witness how flat and dead the dialogue is on his later issues of Fantastic Four and Thor, especially compared to his immediate successor, Roy Thomas', overheated, hyperbolic prose.

Regardless, at no point in his early Marvel career was Stan's scripting better than on the title in which he took the most pride, I think- Amazing Spider-Man. Yeah, a case could be made for Silver Surfer, but that was much later. One of the first Marvel comics I ever read was ASM #16, in which Spidey teamed up with Daredevil to battle the Ringmaster of Crime (He's been popping up on this blog a lot this year, hasn't he?) and his Circus. The breezy banter between DD, Spidey, and the Crime Circus thugs trying to jack them up delighted me as a 4 year old, and has continued to do so every time I've reread it in the 46 years since. I thought, as tribute, I'd post those pages here so you could read them for yourself. Click to read biggerer, you know the drill:

Now, sometimes Stan could wield the heavy hand when it came to the soap operatics, and often his attempts to provide his godlike and cosmic characters with a profound voice were often stilted and ludicrous. But on Spider-Man, he was on top of his game, keeping the expository dialogue in check and hand-wringing in its proper place, plus, as above, he didn't leave out the humor. I know damn well Ditko did not write that dialogue, nor did Kirby, as anyone who's read his post-Marvel work surely can see, write any in their collaborations either. So here's to you, Mr. Stanley Lieber- when you wanted to, you helped change a lot of lives, including mine, for what I've always thought was for the better, riding herd on those early game-changing days. For that, as well as your current comics ambassador-like station, I think you'll always deserve a lot of credit. Happy birthday, and many more.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So long, farewell, arrivaderci, goodbye.

I was sitting at the radio station on Monday night, engineering a local high school basketball game, and scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw this announcement. Dirk Deppey, who edited The Comics Journal for a while and before that, helped foster the Comics Blogosphere as we know it today and has been operating one of the few absolutely essential linkblogs for a long time now, has been laid off from Fantagraphics, which means no more ¡Journalista! with him at the helm, anyway. This is a sad day.

Now, I hear you say "Wait! Dave, weren't you the one who was always bitching about Dirk and how he never linked to your blog posts when you were trying to make your voice heard? Wha hoppen? Why are you being so nice all of a sudden?"

Well, that's true. I did do that. I felt like I was being unjustly ignored, and in my usual passive-aggressive fashion, I decided I'd just bitch about it, mention it in passing in the odd post, and move on. Eventually, though, earlier this year Deppey addressed that very issue, tempest in a teapot that it was, and we kissed and made up. Or something like that. Anyway, by then I had pretty much stopped worrying about it anyway, so it was all good.

Funny thing is, even in the height of my feel-so-slighted period, I continued to check out ¡Journalista! on a regular basis, because it was always a place where I could find something of interest, even if it wasn't me. And if memory serves, waaaay back in '03 or so, in the Paleozoic Era of comics blogging, a link from Dirk to me (a Super-Hip thing, I believe) was one of the first indications to me that there was even such a thing as a dedicated group of people who devote their newfangled weblog things to writing about comic books. So believe me when I tell you that even if Fantagraphics decides to carry on with someone else doing the work for significantly less pay or even free, it won't be the same, because his writing voice will be missing. With so many things from even less than ten years ago changing, and not always for the best, all the time...well, that's not such a good thing.

So anyway, I've already expressed good wishes to Mr. Deppey via Twitter, that very night even, so at the risk of being redundant I'll just take a minute to say best of luck to you, sir, in future endeavors, be they comics-related or not, and I'm sure you will go on to better things in the future. And thanks for the links I did get.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ain't no snafu. No folderol.

Your guitar is not really a guitar Your guitar is a divining rod.
Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over.
A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you're good, you'll land a big one.

Don Van Vliet, also known in the music world as Captain Beefheart, died on Friday at age 69.

May I ramble a bit? I'll get to the point eventually.

You all know (or should, if you've been reading me for any length of time and have a good long-term memory) that I have had a lifelong fascination with the recorded output that eminated from the Brothers Warner and their associated label Reprise, especially in the years 1970 through 1975, and that, perhaps, not coincidentally, is mostly when Beefheart and the Magic Band were in full swing. I wish I could tell you that I was a fan from Safe as Milk on, but that's just not the case- despite being aware of the man and his group from seeing the curiosity-provoking song titles listed in the old Warner/Reprise Loss Leaders, I was not in a position to hear his music until 1976, when I purchased the 8-track of the collaborative comeback effort he released with Frank Zappa, 1975's Bongo Fury. You see, when I first got interested in the Captain, it was roughly 1974 and he was represented by the critically savaged and backwards-looking Mercury Records releases Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams. Since my income was limited to the ten dollars a week I'd get from my parents (just enough for an album and a couple of comics or paperback books), I was reluctant to take a flyer on these records, which were painted in a poor light by people whose opinion I respected. There was a chance encounter with a vinyl copy of 1972's Clear Spot, which I spied at a Louisville record store in the Mall at St. Matthews sometime in late '74. I snatched it up, took it to the cashier, and looking at it in line, I noticed a side-length light scratch, where someone else had slid it out of its clear plastic-with-a-flap sleeve and apparently didn't take the greatest care in replacing it. I decided to put it back. I didn't see another copy of it on vinyl until the 90's, in a used record shop, where its $25 price tag was a bit rich for my blood.

You see, part of my problem was that in those long-dead days, there was obviously no Internet with its myriad ways to get music, both illegal and legal, nor were there an endless parade of repackaged CDs of varying price points to help the uninitiated discover an artist's back catalogue, especially for an artist as obscure and out-there as the Captain. The records came out, sold a few, very few, then got deleted and if they weren't smash hits they didn't get reissued but instead were sold for significantly less with a hole punched in the sleeve or the corner cut off the record, same for the 8-tracks and cassettes. And reel-to-reel, I assume, though I don't recall ever seeing any cutout reel to reels. Cutout bin diving is one of the great lost pleasures of being a record buff, believe me, now limited to cities and towns with independent record stores. If you were lucky, you could find some great records for a buck ninety-nine. Since, by 1975, all the Beefheart albums had been deleted, it was very difficult to run across copies. Believe me, I looked after that.

Anyway, after Fury, a couple of years later I finally ran across a cutout copy of Clear Spot on 8-track. Snatched that thing up immediately and played the hell out of it. It was a more commercial, which is to say some attention was paid to accessibility, effort, produced by smokin'-hot Ted Templeman, producer of the Doobie Bros. and soon to helm releases by Van Halen and others- almost a last-gasp play, a Hail Mary if you will, full of R&B and Soul and New Orleans shuffle, as well as the usual oddball spoken-word poetry set to Jazzy, angular rhythms. It would spawn no hit singles and didn't sell any better than his more challenging efforts such as the highly-esteemed Trout Mask Replica and the underrated Lick My Decals Off, Baby. So, the Captain broke up the Band, got new management, and released the aforementioned even more blatant commercial stabs, then hibernated again until hooking up with Zappa and releasing Fury. For some reason, I was reluctant to get 1978's Shiny Beat (Bat Chain Puller), even though it got a lot of positive writeups in CREEM and other places. Perhaps I felt the bloom was off the rose; can't say why for sure. I did break down and get 1980's Doc at the Radar Station, thanks to seeing him perform the track "Hot Head" on Saturday Night Live. I could have sworn it was on ABC's Fridays, but can't find anything online to back that up. Anyway, I bought it, liked it a little though it took so much time to grow on me that I didn't get the followup, 1982's Ice Cream for Crow. After that, there would be no more music from him, though I didn't know it at the time. Eventually, bit by bit, I acquired some of the Loss Leaders with Beefheart tunes like 1971's "Click Clack", and liked them a lot, but still had no luck finding those Reprise records. Finally, CDs happened, and I got the Spotlight Kid/Clear Spot twofer, finally replacing that long-discarded 8-track, and the 1999 anthology The Dust Blows Forward, where I finally got to sample some of the by-then-legendary Trout Mask tracks and many others I hadn't heard. My fandom was cemented, as I came to love nearly all of the weird and willful stuff, even the more conventional blues-based pre-Trout Mask music like "Abba Zabba" and "Electricity". Since then, I've gone on and acquired, by hook or crook, the albums I craved to hear for so long and love them all in their way, especially Clear Spot. You never forget your first love.

Van Vliet's music was an almost indescribable blend of Dada Delta Blues, Zappa-style weirdness, playful lyrics, the aforementioned jazz, R&B, soul and other stuff. Not much country, but there was a little twang in the mix. I'm not surprised it wasn't embraced by the masses- and it seems to me that Van Vliet wasn't either. Eventually he said to hell with it and stopped making music recorded for mass consumption, instead choosing to concentrate on his career as an (unsurprisingly) surrealist painter and sculptor, which brought him a lot more success (and personal satisfaction, I'd bet) than his music career ever did. And that's fine.
Although it took me a hell of a long time, I did finally come to appreciate the genius of the man, and find out a lot about the wonderful musicians who backed him (they deserve a ton of credit for those records, especially considering the crap he put them through while making them, as it turns out). Unlike many artists who bowed out early to pursue other paths, I don't really resent it and wish there had been more, although I sure do wish there had been more from his mid-70s reunion with Zappa. It had been so long since he issued new music, I had mostly resigned myself to the occasional online news update and fairly frequent listens to his albums...so I don't feel the wrenching sense of loss that some of the deaths of people I admire fosters; it seems like he was already gone for a long time to me. Still, he's one of those larger than life figures who left his often sloppy and chaotic mark on a sadly limited number of people, though by extension (i.e., all the musicians he subsequently inspired), the number becomes remarkably large. I am glad that I made the effort and am a better person for the experience, I think.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year.

By that, I mean Best of 2010 in comics lists. I've always put mine here, and I may still, but for now you can read it here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010