Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hours You Can't Get Back

We've all spent time doing things that, when we've finished, we say, "Well, there's time I've spent that I can't get back." Three such occasions came along for me this week...

I started reading Kathy Reichs' "Bones" books because I enjoy the tv series. Other than Temperance Brennan herself, however, there is not much in common between the novels. If you are looking for Booth, the Jeffersonian, and that array of characters in print, you'd best seek out Max Allan Collins' Bones: Buried Deep because none of them appear in any of Reichs' novels.

Like Reichs herself, the Tempe Brennan of the novels works both in North Carolina and Montreal, and the books pretty much alternate between the two locales. Some of the books are more entertaining than others, but one thing that is fairly consistent is that at some point during the investigation, Brennan will do something incredibly stupid that puts her in danger. In one book, for example, she goes by herself to a cemetery in the middle of night to dig up a body, and, as I recall, nearly gets herself killed.

The most recent addition to the series, Bones Are Forever, starts with an interesting premise. A woman turns up at a hospital in Montreal, then disappears, and the search for her leads to the discovery of three mummified babies in her apartment. The trail leads across Canada, the plot becomes more and more convoluted, and Tempe, not surprisingly, manages to get herself into a ridiculous predicament. Conveniently for this threat, neither of the two police detectives she is working with answers his cell phone (for reasons that are not explained), but when they do finally try to return her calls, her phone is damaged because she has fallen into a koi pond!

It was at this point -- when I found myself saying "Oh, come on!" -- that I started skim-reading. Just as well because, as I said, the plot became convoluted and Tempe got herself into another fix that she should not have survived. Overall, a disappointing read.


On Thursday evening, Laurie and I went to see the play Grace, starring Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Ed Asner and Kate Arrington. While Laurie is much more a theater-goer than I, it was the chance to see Asner live that got me to go. (After all, the man is almost 83 years old; how many more chances will I get?)

Rudd and Arrington play a devoutly religious couple who have come to Florida to open the first in a chain to gospel-themed hotels. Shannon, who looked amazingly small and gaunt in comparison to the way he appears as the FBI agent on Boardwalk Empire, is their neighbor, who has been scarred, physically and emotionally by an accident that killed his fiancee. Asner, clad in shorts and carrying a spray gun, is an exterminator who comes to treat their apartments for insects.

Asner certainly seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the fact that the play didn't make that much sense. Unlike his fellow actors, who didn't seem to pay attention when the audience was laughing at a line and kept right on speaking their lines, he knew to pause until the laughter was not stepping on his lines.

The play is performed without an intermission, probably a good thing, because I suspect some of the audience would leave after the first act and not return. There would have been a good chance we would have been among them.


This evening, Laurie and I joined our friends Barbara and Benny to see "The Master," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jaoquin Phoenix. Well, if there was ever two and half hours I wish I had back, it was the time I spent watching this.

Despite glowing reviews in just about every newspaper and magazine, this has to be one of the worst movies I've ever spent my time on. When I got up to visit the men's room midway through, I wondered if the others would notice if I didn't come back for awhile because I went into a different theater to watch something else.

When the movie ended, a few people applauded. Said one woman who clapped, "I was applauding because it was finally over!" Not only did the four of us agree on how much we didn't like the film, I have never walked out of a theater and heard so many people saying the same thing. It was almost as if there was some comfort in sharing with everyone else the idea that we had all be snookered into coming to see this incredible piece of poop!

It's a good thing they don't do exit polls at movie theaters!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Four More Comics in 1962

The remaining four comics that I bought in September of 1962 were DC titles. And if World's Finest Comics, starring team-ups of Superman and Batman and with Aquaman and Green Arrow in back-up stories was a favorite, you can imagine how much I loved Justice League of America, in which the entire army of DC superheroes joined forces.

Though Superman and Batman were heralded in the advertisements as members of the Justice League, their roles in the stories were limited and they rarely appeared on the early covers. Their absences were covered with lines like "Superman is on a mission in space" or "Batman is tracking an escaped master criminal," but the real reason had to do with office politics at DC. Mort Weisinger, the editor of the Superman titles, was concerned that having the Man of Steel on the cover of JLA would dilute the sales of his books. Jack Schiff, who ran the Batman titles (and World's Finest) jumped on Mort's bandwagon. leaving JLA editor Julie Schwartz to showcase the rest of the characters. Well, having seven heroes, all of whom I knew from their own titles or back-up features in other books, was enough to make me a steady reader.
As exciting as the cover for "Challenge of the Untouchable Aliens" appeared, it was always a good idea not to think too much about it. The alien, wearing some kind of Native American blanket as a loincloth, seems able to hold tight to The Flash and Aquaman, while Green Lantern's power beam, Wonder Woman's lasso and J'onn J'onzz's fist all pass through him harmlessly. So what do we think will happen when Green Arrow fires his arrow with The Atom as its passenger? It's likely it too will fly right through the alien's body, launching the Tiny Titan on a one-way ride. ("I shot The Atom into the air. He fell to Earth I know not where...")

After Superman, Batman was probably my second favorite superhero. Since he appeared in both his own title and Detective Comics (along with the World's Finest team-ups), there were plenty of issues to develop his world and its back story. While most issues had three stories, "Batman's New Secret Identity" was worthy of being a two-part adventure, while "The Mystery Gadget From the Stars" filled out the last third of the issue.
Countless comic book stories had indoctrinated us readers about how important it was to keep a secret identity a secret, so this issue was a must-buy. Batman couldn't give up being Batman, so, obviously, it was Bruce Wayne who had to go!

I had first been introduced to The Flash when my cousin Peter bought one of the very early issues and I had the chance to read it. Not long thereafter, I started buying it regularly.
It was probably the Flash's Rogues Gallery that kept me coming back. Rather than just committing crimes, Mirror Master, Captain Cold, The Top and the rest seemed to have vexing the Scarlet Speedster as their primary goal. This particular issue did not feature any of the costumed villains; instead we have an alien from another dimension who turns Flash into "The Heaviest Man Alive."
The second story was more character-driven, something editor Julie Schwartz liked to do from time to time. "The Farewell Appearance of Daphne Dean" brought back Barry Allen's childhood sweetheart, now with a crush of The Flash, but unaware that he and Barry are one and the same.

My final comic book purchase of September was an odd one, considering that there were other superhero titles that I did not purchase. Showcase was a tryout title in which DC would test the waters on a feature for a few issues before giving it its own magazine or putting it back on the shelf. Aquaman, The Atom, and the Metal Men were among the more recent successes.
I was familiar with Tommy Tomorrow from his back-up appearances in Action Comics and later in issues of World's Finest, but I don't think I was a big fan of his adventures. I imagine it may have been the blurb on the cover heralding his "origin at the West Point of Space" that captured my attention and had me choosing it over the current issue of Aquaman or Detective Comics.
Alas, Tommy Tomorrow did not follow in the footsteps of many of his predecessors in Showcase, despite five appearances over a year and a half, and he disappeared into DC oblivion.
In fact, following his Showcase tryouts, Tommy did not reappear until fifteen years later in "Danger: Dinosaurs at Large" in DC Special #27.
That story was written by yours truly.

Make Mine Marvel

Among the dozen comic books that I bought back in September of 1962 were three published by the then-fledgling Marvel Comics Group. They'd been in business since the 1940s, first as Timely and more recently as Atlas, but with the growing popularity of their new superhero books, they became Marvel. At this point, they were still five months away from any kind of Marvel designation on the covers.

Stan Lee has said that when he started doing The Fantastic Four, he wanted to do superhero stories that were different than what other companies were doing. "The End of the Fantaistc Four" is one of those as the heroes are evicted from their skyscraper headquarters for not paying the rent. There are some rather odd things on this cover, though: The windows of the building look like they've been broken; did the angry mob hurl rocks and bricks through them, in which case they would seem to have superpowers of their own? Also, the Human Torch is walking down the street carrying what must be asbestos suitcases. You have to admire The Thing for trying to disguise himself with the hat, trechcoat and sunglasses, but why didn't Invisible Girl use her power to avoid being seen? (Of course I do know the answer: They were going for a dramatic cover, even if the scene really doesn't make much sense.)
Most of Marvel's output in the fall of 1962 was still a hodgepodge of western comics (like Rawhide Kid and Gunsmoke Western), girls' titles (Millie the Model and Patsy & Hedy) and giant monster books (Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish), though the latter group was starting to be taken over by new members of the superhero universe Stan and company were creating. Thor had debuted in Journey Into Mystery, Ant-Man began in TTA, and Iron Man was just a few months away in ToS.

The lead feature in Strange Tales was given over to solo adventures of the Human Torch and since I was already a fan of the FF, I started picking up this title as well. As with the other titles of the genre, the remainder of the issue was filled with short stories featuring monsters, aliens and "Twilight Zone"-style twist endings. "Jasper's Jalopy" and "The Little People" were the back-ups in this one.
The previous incarnation of the Torch had been a top-seller for Timely back in the '40s, which is presumably why he was the chosen as the FF member most likely to succeed in solo stories. 

Unlike Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man (and even Spider-Man, who appeared first in Amazing Fantasy #15), The Incredible Hulk debuted in his own title. Despite exciting double-features like "The Monster and the Machine" and "The Gladiator From Space" in this issue, the book was deemed a sales failure and was cancelled after half a dozen appearances. The Incredible Hulk was the first comic book that I owned a complete run of, having purchased all six.
If you look at the microcosm of the comics-buying on one 11-year-old, you might make a case for how Marvel would eventually become the top-selling publisher in the industry. Despite DC's dominance of the market and vastly larger number of titles, 25% of my purchases were Marvel titles that month. A year earlier, almost all the comics I bought were DCs.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Five Fifty-Year-Old Comic Books

In September of 1962, I bought twelve comic books. At 12c each, I spent $1.44, which is less than half of what one comic book costs today. In fact, a 32-page comic book today costs twenty-five times as much as it did fifty years ago.

Back then, most comic books had three different stories in them, but if they had only one, it was often billed as "a three-part novel." Today it is rare to find a comic book with a single complete story in an issue and the amount of plot in one of those three-part novels would be fodder for a year or more of issues today.

By the time I entered sixth grade, I had abandoned reading such titles as Felix the Cat, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Hot Stuff and was a superhero fan. Superman was number one on my list of favorite heroes and five titles starring the Man of Steel were among my dozen purchases that month.

Superman was, not surprisingly, the star of his own magazine, which usually featured three separate adventures in each issue. In addition to the cover-featured story in this issue, in which he releases a Kryptonian villain from the Phantom Zone, there were two more tales. In "The Super-Genie of Metropolis," the Man of Steel pretends to be a genie in order to smoke out a foreign agent. In "Superman's Day of Doom," he is felled by kryptonite and saved by a Little League player named Steven Snapinn (named after the son of DC staffer and letterer Milt Snapinn).

The Man of Steel shared the spotlight in Action Comics with Supergirl. In the cover story, Superman battles a robot made of kryptonite that was created by his arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. Yes, the remnants of Supes' lost home world turned up quite often in those days. (More than one critic remarked that it seemed to be on sale at every five-and-dime in Metropolis.) Luthor escaped from prison fairly regularly back then as well. However, since he never bothered to change out of his prison uniform -- although he occasionally put on a lab coat over it -- he probably knew he'd be going back fairly quickly.                                        
Supergirl's adventure, "The Mutiny of Super-Horse" features Comet, the most recent addition to the Super-Menagerie (which already included Krypto the Superdog, Streaky the Supercat and Beppo the Supermonkey), starring in a movie.

Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen both had their own titles fifty years ago. Many of Lois' adventures involved her getting in trouble and being rescued by Superman. When that wasn't happening, she'd be trying to find a new way to prove that Clark Kent and Supes were one and the same, always to be foiled in some clever way by the Man of Steel. And, from time to time, there were stories about her being married to Superman.                                                      
In the trio of tales in this particular issue Lois' ability to control her curiosity is tested by Superman with "The Forbidden Box," she dreams that she becomes "The Immortal Lois Lane" when she travels into the past and meets Leonardo DaVinci, and is scammed by a crook into thinking she is married to Clark in the cover story.
Superboy, the teenage incarnation of the Man of Steel starred in his own title as well as in Adventure Comics, where he teamed up with the Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legionnaires were a team of heroes in the 30th century -- young Supes would cross the time barrier to visit with them -- with a wide variety of powers. In this particular installment, Sun Boy, who had solar powers, lost them and the Boy of Steel and his compatriots tried to "recharge" him.                                                                                The second story in the issue takes place in the 20th century; "Superboy Meets Steelboy" when he journeys to an underground world that is protected by a robot who looks just like him.
The final book in the Superman quintet of September, 1962 is World's Finest Comics, each issue of which featured a team-up of Superman and Batman (and Robin). This issue featured a double-team-up as Lex Luthor and The Joker joined forces to battle the heroes. For a change, Luthor doesn't have a kryptonite weapon, but you'll notice that he is, as usual, wearing his prison grays. And what better way to battle the heroes than by flying around town in a giant flying pocket watch?                                   
World's Finest lived up to its name, by the way, as far as superhero fans were concerned. In addition to the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusaders, there were back-up stories starring Green Arrow ("The Iron Archer," in which GA and Speedy face crooks who use a robot archer) and Aquaman ("Menace of the Alien Fish," in which the Sea King and Aqualad battle, you guessed it, alien fish).

  Quite a bit of entertainment for just 60c. According to the inflation calculator, that 1962 amount has the buying power of $4.55 today, not enough to buy two current comic books, even if they were as story-packed as their fifty-year-old counterparts.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sixth Grade

Fifty years ago, I started sixth grade. I was in Mrs. Levine's class at Belmont Boulevard School (which had just been or very soon would be renamed Clara H. Carlson School after a woman who had been a prominent teacher and administrator in the district). Perhaps the most notable thing I recall about Mrs. Levine is that she left midway through the year on either a medical or maternity leave and we only saw her once after that, when she came to our graduation ceremony. She was replaced by Mrs. Beck, who was not as popular with the class as Mrs. Levine had been; in fact, some of my classmates would say "The heck with Beck!" when talking about her.

I was the editor of the school newspaper, The Carlson Communicator. It was printed using the mimeograph machine, which required it to be typed onto a mimeo master, something that long ago disappeared from use with the rise of copier machines. I suspect that my selection as editor had to do with my familiarity with a typewriter, since I'd already been using one at home to publish The Doodler. Since the newspaper was only published once a month or so, it did not carry much in the way of breaking news.

I was also the captain of the monitors -- the school safety patrol -- in sixth grade. Mostly, the monitors stood at the top and bottom of the staircases at the beginning and end of the day, reminding students to stay to the right while going up or down.

But there was one outside duty that was coveted by all of us -- standing on the corner by the crosswalk and telling students when they could cross the street. As captain of the monitors, I made the assignments of the posts and always kept that corner for myself. (Despite its name, Belmont Boulevard did not have much traffic. If it had, I'm sure there would have been a crossing guard assigned to that corner, rather than leaving the safety of the students to a twelve-year-old.)  At first, I would just tell kids to wait if there was a car anywhere in the vicinity, but as time went on, I grew bold enough to actually signal the occasional passing car to stop so students could cross.

One other thing I did that year was tutor Georgie. There were five sixth grade classes in the school; I was in the "advanced" one and Georgie was in the "slow" class. A couple of times a week, we would sit in the room where they stored the AV equipment and I would help him with math. Today, Georgie would probably be classified as "troubled," but back then he was just "trouble" -- the student most teachers thought would become a juvenile delinquent and end up in jail. As I recall, he lived with his mother, with no father present. She worked in the local 5-and-10 and was the only mother I knew of who had a job. No one ever asked what had happened to Georgie's father; it wasn't any of our business.
Georgie got into fights with other kids fairly often, resulting in visits to the principal and disciplinary actions, but he and I got along well. That dated back to being in the same classes in our years at Elmont Road School.
One day, our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Fox, suggested that maybe I could help Georgie with his homework if he came over to my house. I told Georgie that it was my brother's birthday so it might not be a good idea, but he came anyway, much to the initial annoyance of my mother. But when Georgie handed my brother a package of toy soldiers as a birthday present -- his mother had insisted that he could not show up empty-handed -- he was welcomed and invited to stay for dinner.
It may have been my helping him with homework in fourth grade that resulted in my tutoring him in sixth, but I have no memory of why it started. All I recall is that there would be times when I would be done with classwork and would tell Mrs. Levine or Mrs. Beck that I could go and tutor Georgie and they would let me go.
I have no idea what happened to Georgie after sixth grade. Along with virtually all of my elementary school classmates, he went to Stanforth Junior High while I, because of the district layout, went to Elmont Memorial. One can only hope he's had a happy and productive life.

Friday, September 7, 2012

On the Road

As I was coming to work this morning, I noticed that the driver in the car behind me was talking on his not-hands-free cell phone. This is not an uncommon sight, despite the law here in New York. It became far more disturbing, however, when I saw him flick his cigarette ashes out the window with the other hand!

After a few minutes where I did my best to stay far enough ahead of him to avoid our cars becoming up close and personal, I was relieved to see him make a left turn. I'm not sure how he managed to turn the steering wheel, though.


One of the messages that's been appearing on highway signs recently (along with "NYS Law -- Hands-free devices only") is the somewhat puzzling "Move over for stopped emergency vehicles." Yes, it would seem logical that if I am driving down the highway and there is an ambulance or fire truck stopped in the lane in front of me, I should move over or I am not going to get very far.

That is not what the message means, however. It apparently refers to situations where you are stuck in traffic and an emergency vehicle is behind you, lights flashing and siren blaring, trying to get somewhere. Well, yes, I sure would like to get out of their way, but if we're locked in a traffic jam, there's nowhere for me to go!

Wishing doesn't make it so nor does a sign advertising this law. In fact, neither would a police officer writing a ticket for failure to follow that law, presuming that one could actually get to the scene of the "crime."


There is no question that a GPS is a great help for drivers, particularly those who cannot read a map. (Will map reading become a lost art, like using a slide rule?) But whenever someone starts talking about how infallible they are, I tell the story of Sammi's GPS "Bernice."

She and I were driving from Virginia to New York, crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland. For those unfamiliar with it, the bridge has to separate spans and, usually, the traffic flows west of the northern span and east on the southern one. However, to ease traffic flow, they will sometimes change one lane on the northern span to accommodate eastbound traffic.

Such was the case on this occasion and we were in that "reverse-traffic" lane. Well, Bernice was not programmed to deal with this and decided that we were driving the wrong way. We started getting continuous warnings: "Turn around now!" "Make a u-turn NOW!"

Sammi was on the phone with Chuck at the time -- I was driving, so no hands-free devices were necessary -- and he said, "Who is that yelling?" When Sammi replied that it was just Bernice, he said, "Who the heck is Bernice and why is she in your car?"

Once we had finished crossing the bridge -- not so quickly, since the bridge is four miles long -- Bernice finally calmed down. Good thing because I have no idea how you deal with a GPS that has had a nervous breakdown.