Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back Issue Review: The Elongated Plague! (Detective Comics #465)

"Heroes shouldn't have happy personal lives." 
-- Dan DiDio, Executive Editor DC Comics (2013)

 Last time out, we had a fun romp through the first story in Detective Comics #465. That one was all about The Batman having to protect his BFF Commissioner Gordon. Today, we're going to look at the second story, which is an entirely different flavor of Detective. And a different flavor of artist Ernie Chua, who also drew that Batman one, but here has a lighter inker, Terry Austin.

"The Elongated Plague" Written by Bob Rozakis, Art by Ernie Chua & Terry Austin

And, it's a lighter story. It's a Ralph and Sue Dibny story! Well, OK, technically it's a Calculator story. For some reason it was decided that one of The Batman's lowest-rung villains would have an ongoing backup story arc.

"...and bragging out loud on random street corners."

But, really, we're all here to see an actual happy married couple enjoy some super-heroic hijinks.

it's not the first time that Ralph's been "beamed." won't be the last.

They're off on a date to visit the local comic-book convention and boost Ralph's already large ego. So, when The Calculator engages in a mock attack, shooting him with a laser light show, the Elongated Man doesn't doubt that it's just a slightly psychotic cos-player out for an autograph.

Well, he never claimed to be the "World's Greatest Detective." Not in front of Batman, anyway.

This is why I don't go to conventions.

Oh dear. It seems that through some sort of magic science thing, The Calculator has transferred Elongated Man's stretchiness to everyone at the comic convention. And no one is happy about their new inability to handle their comic books and keep them "mint" at the same time.


Which lead to one of my favorite fight sequences, ever. This is why kids buy Silly Putty, right? "Make copies of your favorite comic strip characters and stretch them!"

Well, there goes dinner.

And this is why we read these things, right? The sheer, wonderful ridiculous-ness of it all? Sure, sometimes you want yer Dark Knight it-rains-all-the-time Greek tragedy. But we also need rainbow pop sherbet shenanigans! We need a world where the bad guy can turn off everything that troubles us by pressing a few buttons on the front of his costume.

NOOOOO! Not my DC Western Comics!

And here's the thing: these characters are still owned by DC Comics. They could put out a rebooted series starring everyone's favorite Thin Man-inspired detectives next week. And it's not like people won't buy a monthly title about a likable married couple who have weird adventures and enjoy life despite having to deal with hardships and tragedy.

"What? Sorry, never heard of it. We only sell pessimism, here."
(Wikipedia, art by Fiona Staples)

C'mon you editors of massive media conglomerate trademark farms, adolescence is only cool for a limited time period. Even Batman has to grow up. Not every hero is going to get married and enjoy life, but it's just really weird when NONE of them do.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Back Issues with Issues: Detective Comics #465

Time for me to review another comic book, before I consign it to the collage pile.

November, 1976 (comicbookdb)

We actually get two stories in this issue. An eleven-page Batman story and a six-page Calculator story. That's a lot of ads and less actual story than we get in one of today's monthly titles. Not that I'm complaining about the ads. Sometimes, they're the best part of the book.

Batman and Superman are friends. Until Billy's mood changes.

Especially when we're dealing with THE BEST-KEPT SECRET IN GOTHAM CITY. Written by David V. Reed and drawn by the Ernie Chan/Frank Giacoia team. Julius Schwartz had his finger in there, too.

I should add that there are actually only ten Batman story pages, since the first serves as a sort of "grabber." It's a full-page nightmare sequence where a bunch of generic bad guys are about to unmask The Batman, but his body disappears, leaving them with an empty costume. I wonder if it was the original cover idea. There are also a few text boxes to introduce the concept of his having a secret identity. I'm going to assume that my audience is familiar with the general concept of a rich guy who hides his face so that he can go out and beat up on people, and just move on to the actual narrative.

It's hard for Batman to talk about his emotions.

Batman shows up in the Commissioner's office one night and has a one-sided conversation about the possibility of Gordon's being kidnapped and tortured to provide criminals with our egotistical vigilante's secret identity. If this should ever happen, Gordon is to tell the kidnappers that Batman is really......Neil Merrick, real estate agent.

And so, one day a "Thomas Greer" shows up at the office of ....Neil Merrick, real estate agent. (I'm still waiting for that to be the next 52 title.)

Millionaire, Man About Town and big Grumpy-Grump

Of course, this sets off all kinds of recording cameras and alarms. Or rather, the secretary that Bruce Wayne pays to sit in an empty office all day just in case some gangsters decide to torture Commissioner Gordon does. The "taped telecast" gets broadcast to the penthouse at Wayne Tower, leading Alfred to exclaim "GOOD LORD!" Bruce then goes down to his secret lab under the tower, erasing the facial hair, sunglasses and funny hat from a film still of "Thomas Greer," revealing his true identity. Since the bad guys could murder his beloved friend at any moment, Batman decides to use the fastest, most technologically advanced form of information gathering available to him -- the bulletin board at the local supermarket.

Though, to be fair, Bruce Wayne probably owns the Supermarket

Batman is also, of course, a master of disguise. In order to not attract attention when picking up his messages, he borrows an idea from Jimmy Olsen and dresses up as an old lady. And then gets attacked by Gotham City's most unfortunate mugger.

Always shave your legs before fighting crime

Let's take a moment to salute Ernie Chan. He has only a few pages to work with here, and has to compress the storytelling down as much as possible. This three-panel sequence is actually a bit of a comedic breather before getting on to the next act. I'm not sure Frank Giacoia was the best choice of inker here, however. A bit heavy over Chan's usually lighter lines. But that's just a minor complaint.

Anyway, Batman discovers that Starkey Kell is planning a big robbery for that night. While lurking on the rooftops, our detective sees that a rival gang is also headed to rob the same location! So, he does what anyone would do in this situation. He beats the hell out of them.

Definitely not a crazed vigilante

Yes, he beats up some guys who haven't even committed a crime. His rationale being that he needs to follow Mr. Kell back to this hideout. The appearance of two teams of robbers at the same heist may interfere with that plan. At least that's what Bruce Wayne tells himself so that he can sleep well at night.

Starkey Kell apparently didn't hear all the tools flying around into people's heads on the neighboring rooftop, so he commits his crime and zips off in a bright yellow station wagon back to the hideout. Somehow, Batman has no problem following this choice of getaway vehicle, shows up, and beats up some more people.

...drinking wine...this is a maniac....

Of course, Batman arrives in time to rescue his friend. They end up back at the Commissioner's office, thinking of ways to cover up for Batman's many law-breaking activities and all is well in Gotham City.

friends don't arrest friends for vigilantism

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Monitor's Satellite and other 1980s UFOs...

I was pleasantly surprised this week to see The Monitor's Satellite as a main focus in Grant Morrison's Multiversity series from DC, once again collecting heroes from many worlds to fight a grave threat to existence.

from Multiversity #1, Morrison & Reis (Comics Alliance)

It's one of my favorite sci-fi designs from the 1980s. George Perez created it for the Crisis on Infinte Earths comic book series, which premiered in 1985. However, the seeds for the crisis were planted as far back as the New Teen Titans series in '82, with the satellite making a first appearance in the July issue.

Monitor's Satellite (1985) (DC Wikia)

I imagine there are a relatively small number of people who would be able to identify this craft, at least as opposed to that other 1985 sci-fi hunk of metal, The Death Star. Yet, I find it somehow iconic enough in its simplicity to use as a symbol in my tarot card series.

Nine of Swords (DeviantArt)

I don't come to Crisis as a fan. In 1985, all I knew about the "DC Universe" would have been what I saw on the Super-Friends TV show, which aired in an after-school local syndication slot. Most of my focus that year would have been taken up by the post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars aesthetic, quickly being overtaken by the Transformers world of mecha.

ROTJ Death Star (1984) (Wikipedia)

Interestingly, I find both Cybertron and the second Death Star to be similar expressions of a rotting, mechanical civilization. They are definitely pessimistic in color scheme and design; if I was assigning them to a tarot card, I think The Tower would be the best choice.

animated series Cybertron (1984) (Transformers wikia)

George Perez' design, by contrast, reveals a detailed, solid round object, with a wonderful golden glow. Carl Jung saw glowing globes or discs as symbols for civilization's tranformation, a new mythology that was appearing in people's dreams as well as in the media, reported as UFOs. It's a harbinger of change to come, but change that brings destruction with it. Worlds will live. Worlds will die.

Vintage McDonalds Flying Saucer Happy Meal Container
And Ronald McDonald has come to judge us all. Happy Meal Container c1983
(Jadedoz on Flickr)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Cranky Book Review: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby


“It's only just beginning to occur to me that it's important to have something going on somewhere, at work, or at home, otherwise you're just clinging on.”

A few years ago I read Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I remember being really annoyed that the entire book revolved around an old man's obsession with a girl whom he knew briefly as a child. The story was a romantic exercise about remembering childhood things, well crafted books, adventures. But the nostalgic yearning for this young girl never made any sense, because the narrator didn't know anything about her. Some sort of idealistic projection was going on that I still don't understand. Carrying a torch for a childhood crush? Who does that?

“Back then, all we wanted was foreplay, and girls weren't interested.”

Well, Rob, the narrator of High Fidelity does that too. And since Nick Hornby is setting Rob up as a sort of comedic everyman-who-hasn't-grown-up, the assumption here is that most guys (who had a British suburban upbringing, anyway) constantly daydream about their childhood romances.

“'I think he was going through, you know, some kind of what-does-it-all-mean thing, and he wanted to see me, and talk about stuff, and what have you, and I wasn't really up for it. Do all men go through this?'”

Well, we men don't all go through this, because some of us were working and wondering about our survival while everyone else went on with dates and proms and basketball games. And that's all right. I accept that books like this aren't really written for me. It's more of a sociological look into the lives of people who drove this to the top of the best-seller list. But I think there's something else going on here, under the dry humor.

“Sex, in fact, is the most absorbing activity I have discovered in adulthood. When I was a child I used to feel this way about all sorts of things...I could forget where I was, the time of day, who I was with. Sex is the only thing I've found like that as a grown-up, give or take the odd film: books are no longer like that once you're out of your teens, and I've certainly never found it in my work.”

This is a very odd passage coming from an author who has spent the last few years reviewing books for The Believer. I suppose it would be an odd thing for a serious writer to say at all, and seems to me to be a sort of wink at the more bookish reader. If the average person really does feel that the modern world is empty and needs to be filled with entertainment, then this passage will probably fly right by them, and they may even nod at it. Those of us who do find enjoyment in art and can get lost in things will recognize the parody of the intellectual's pseudo-nemesis, the common man.

“'How come you hate women who have better jobs than you, Rob?'”

To go back to another book, when I read Jack Kerouac's On The Road  last year, I couldn't make up my mind whether it was written by an adult looking back at his romantic years with yearning, or pointing to them to show how silly young ideals can be. I have a little bit of this problem with High Fidelity. Rob is a man who needs to grow up, and so is a bit self-centered. And because of this I can't tell if the lack of characterization reflects his point of view, or the author's disinterest, for example, in his female actors.

“...if I do OK with women, it's not because of the virtues I have, but because of the shadows I don't have.”

All the women in the book have fairly generic names and are fairly interchangeable. I found myself constantly flipping back and forth trying to remember if Liz was his ex, his ex's sister, her friend, or one of his younger attachments. And I may be reading too much into it, simply because there aren't as many male characters for Rob to interact with. I guess everyone in this book is defined by their careers. Or their taste in pop culture.

“A while back, when Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for prospective partners, a two- or three-page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases.”

So, parody, right? So spot on, that it appears to be a natural thing for the narrator to say, even while you're laughing at it. The very idea of being able to use a career or entertainment choice as a way of judging someone's worth can only come from a comfortable, naive existence. Those of us from the poorer side of town take whatever job we can get and whatever media we can afford to consume.

“...when you're sitting in a one-bedroom flat in Crouch End and your business is going down the toilet and your girlfriend's gone off with the guy from the flat upstairs, a starring role in a real-life episode of thirtysomething, with all the kids and marriages and jobs and barbecues and k.d. lang CDs that this implies, seems more than one could possibly ask of life.”

And this is where it all leads, really. A well-written, humorous book about a man who has been avoiding “growing up” because it means accepting a normal, comfortable existence. Rob doesn't really become a better person, he just moves up to the next stage of the consumer lifestyle. And yet, he isn't presented as an anti-hero. I really think we are being presented with a world where making basic choices about one's life have somehow become acts of courage and maturation. If you aren't fighting for survival, or to remake the world in your ideal image, then I guess one has to dramatize the tiny, ridiculous struggles that are left.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bicycling West, part two (Des Plaines River Trail)

So, I left off last time just passing Milwaukee on Dempster. Traffic is insane here, and I highly recommend sticking to the sidewalk on the north side of the street. For a good bathroom/water stop, there's a Wendy's at Dempster Plaza that also has free wifi. Further up, the massive mini-city of Luthern General Hospital is also a good rest area, and they have a decent cafeteria on the top floor of the main building.

Colonial Ridge
Typical entrance to a 1965 sub-division

After all that, there are a few weird office buildings and a large number of mid-century sub-divisions that have seen better days. They all have fancy names written in fancy 1960s fonts, barely visible now above the mini-jungles of weeds and piles of beer cans.

(United States Meteorite Impact Craters)

We are coming up on the epicenter of an ancient meteorite strike site. About 280 million years ago what is now referred to as the "Des Plaines Disturbance" occurred. The geological evidence for the strike was discovered when drilling began for the Deep Tunnel project, which is meant to shuttle water from sudden storms away from the flood zones.

impact site
Welcome to Des Plaines! Sorry, we're all out of sidewalk!

Today, it's the intersection of Dempster and I-294. The expressway passes over our route here, and the street is wide enough to just stay with traffic under the viaduct. If you're brave, you can take the turn onto Rand to the right and catch up with the trail in the middle of the "block." Or, you can go straight into town first and connect with the newer re-routed trail at the Miner Street overpass.

Bellau Wood monument
Belleau Wood memorial, kept up by a local Boy Scout Troop

If you take the old trail north from Rand, you'll come across an old roadside monument. Usually when coming across one of these old concrete slabs, it'll turn out to be a Blue Star Memorial Highway marker. This one is a bit more specific, originally erected to pay tribute to the Marines who fought at the Battle of Belleau Wood in WWI. Like many of these memorials, modern traffic precludes any easy way to approach this area; the newer route of the Des Plaines Trail passes by on the other side of the street.

Once on the trail, the going is fairly easy. You zip past Big Bend Lake, which was created in 1958 to provide infill for the nearby interstate. Golf road is an easy and well-marked crossing. Then you come to the Union Pacific tracks.

bad crossing
ah, I'll just fly over the tracks then...

Despite the No Trespassing signs, it is expected that you carry your bike over both sets of tracks. There's no alternate trail to get around this area. I imagine the signs are just there for legal protection, sort of a "wink wink" arrangement between the Forest Preserve District, UP and Com Ed.

natural area
Biggest bird perches I've ever seen

The electric company keeps up their access road area by planting it with native grass and wildflowers. Apparently, this is part of a larger program to provide a habitat for wildlife and keeping soil from washing away. Or, if you're dubious, part of a guilt-ridden public relations campaign to help us all forget about the Zion Nuclear Power Station. 

along the trail
Nothing but Flowers

After passing Central at a ground level crossing, there's a wonderful two miles of uninterrupted trail, which is just amazing. This is probably the most isolated part of the trail, a good mile away from Milwaukee Avenue. If you want, there's a side trail that heads to the west towards Beck Lake, which is kept stocked for fishing. To the north, there's a nice underpass that crosses Lake Avenue. After that we hit the River Trail Nature Center.

Nature Center
ah, clean bathrooms and educational exhibits.

There are some rescued animals on exhibit here, and explanations of how the local ecosystems work. You can check out re-creations of native housing, count the rings on an ancient tree stump and watch bees at work. There are also many non-biking paths, if you want to spend some time in the forest at a more leisurely pace.

I'll have to plan to cover more of the northern trail on another day. And The Grove Historic Landmark looks interesting. And there's the whole, muddy, south part of the Des Plaines trail....

trail's end
End of the Road. For now.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Bicycling West Again, part one (Dempster to Milwaukee)

This time I got it into my head to bike up to the River Trail Nature Center in Glenview. This entailed heading west to meet up with the Des Plaines River Trail.

I cheated a bit and took the Yellow Line to Dempster.

Dempster Station
The original North Shore station house for Dempster.

This is kind of an odd station. There's no reason to get off here, other than to pick up your parked car or transfer to a bus line. There used to be rows of commercial buildings either way, but nothing one would consider a destination. Even if you were travelling to Old Orchard Shopping Center, it would probably be easier to take the bus from Howard.

The original station is actually across the parking lot. It's a beautiful 1920s building that references the local bungalow and prairie styles. Since Starbucks moved in, it's also one of the better bathroom stops.

Do Not Enter
Our first challenge of the day

To the west is the Edens Expressway. No matter what street you take going west, you are going to run into the problem of crossing this monstrosity. When it was built in the 1950s, no one seems to have imagined that it would be necessary to cross it by foot. I recommend using the south side of Dempster; it's just easier to deal with the exit ramps than with all the maniacs trying to get on.

How most people spend their days.

After that, it's a nice bike ride up the sidewalk through Morton Grove. The scenery mainly consists of mid-century strip malls that have been converted over the years to modern CVS' and Walgreens' and such.

Remodeled a bit, but still a recognizable 60s gas station

You'll want to switch to the north side of Dempster before getting to Milwaukee. I recommend doing so at Harrer Park, where you can also visit Morton Grove's Historical Museum.

Haupt-Yehl House
See? Historical!

It's an old German farmhouse that was built in 1888 and eventually moved from the old mill road which is now Lincoln Avenue (and a history trip for another day.) They're never open when I go by, but have been assured that the house is full of historical stuff to look at.

Plus, they have a large artillery gun in case Skokie ever tries to attack.

Now that we are past the area served by the old commuter train lines, little ranch houses and corner drug stores are giving way to weird, mid-century housing developments. You can see how the two interstate highways changed everything out here. If you couldn't afford a boxy house in Morton Grove, you could always drive to a "starter" townhouse further out from the city.

Washington Road
Washington Avenue, in Niles

Which brings us to the crossing at Milwaukee Avenue. There is an insane underpass that makes it fairly impossible to cross Dempster here. If you get stuck on the south side of the street and try to cross Milwaukee, there is no sidewalk waiting for you. So, unless you have mad Frogger skills, you want to already be on the north side of the street.

Niles Historical and Cultural Center
Also historical!

Once you make it, you can visit the Niles Historical Museum. This used to be the 1920s Cook County Sheriff's headquarters, so it's not as impressive from the outside as Morton Grove's museum. But, I have been inside, and they do have neat historical stuff to look at. Just remember to bring some cash and leave a donation.

I'll take a break for now and pick up tomorrow with more sub-divisions, strip malls and weird highway monuments.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Biking west from Des Plaines with a blurry camera

I had thought that my photos looked blurrier than usual lately. Giving my camera a closer look, I discovered that the lens was covered with some sort of goop. So, that means that most of my exciting photos of my bike ride back east from Des Plaines ended up in the trash.

City of Des Plaines Trail
The City of Des Plaines bike trail

I only have a tiny digital camera, anyway. The lens is small enough that an overcast sky can make a huge difference in sharpness. But all my pictures look fuzzy to me anyway, because I'm used to film.

Notre Dame alcove
resting at Notre Dame College Prep on Dempster

I'll have to plan another visit out that way. Perhaps tomorrow I'll take the bus out to the Des Plaines trail and go north. Really, I should be looking for a second job; but I'm not starving at the moment, and the trail is calling

main street channel
Passing over the North Shore Channel at Main Street

Ideally, I would be able to make money from some of these travel shots, but everyone is a photographer now. And they mostly have better cameras. I'll just focus on keeping my battery charged and my lens clean.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Bicycling Adventures Interlude: The Des Plaines Methodist Camp Grounds

So, I'd been avoiding this part of the Des Plaines River Trail for a while. Besides having to bike through the literal clouds of mosquitoes, connecting from the southern to the northern portion here used to be very problematic. It involved crossing a very busy Algonquin Road, zipping down a narrow access road, climbing up a steep grade under the Metra tracks, making one's way over to Rand Road, and then somehow crossing it right in the middle of a blind curve.

Old bike crossing at Rand road
(snipped from Google Maps)

Now, there's a great bike trail that bypasses all that (which I'll get to later). And there's an interesting reason for some of the run around in this area. The old Methodist Camp that owns a large chunk of property along the Des Plaines River.

community chalk board (left) swimming pool (right)

Back in the 19th century, when large tent revival meetings were one of the main forms of entertainment, this land was purchased for the purpose of providing enough space for overnight camping, as well as a stage for visiting preachers and performers.

Wesley Tabernacle and Sanctuary

Sometime between 1860 and 70, some revival goers started building simple one-room buildings for the summer. These early cottages were added on to as years go by, reflecting a conservative, almost Victorian aesthetic.

Heritage House
summer cottages

After a while, they build larger permanent structures, also. The giant meeting tent was replaced with an ingenious, open-space round structure that utilized steel bracing to keep the sight lines free.

Waldorf Tabernacle
Waldorf Tabernacle

The C&NW railroad even gave the camp it's own train station, despite the Des Plaines stop being less than a mile away. All that's left of it now is the ticket booth and luggage depot.

ticket window
old entrance on Camp Ground Road

As you can see from some of these photos, the grounds have been hit by another major flood. When I was younger, I lived and worked at the camp, and had to deal with the occasional threat of the rising Des Plaines river. With more sub-divisions going up in the area, and more frequent storms with our changing climate, floods are now a regular occurance.

cottages near the river

The city of Des Plaines has declared a good amount of the cottages as unsafe to live in. In past years, everyone would get together, raise some money and do some hard work. The camp would be probably be up and running by now, if they hadn't had to spend all their time and money on settling a discrimination lawsuit that almost cost them some federal aid. And probably cost them a lot of friends in the church.

a few cottages have been raised above flood level this year

You see, I spent my summers in Des Plaines in order to avoid having to spend my vacation locked indoors all day in the city. With both my parents working, and being afraid of the world, most of my childhood would be spent at home or dragged out to the shopping mall. In exchange for having to sit through a week of Bible School, I had a chance to play outside and watch television and do things that normal kids did.

camp cottage
My old bedroom window

Of course, like other Atheists I've talked to, I had to keep my non-beliefs in the closet. A week of memorizing bible verse isn't a terrible thing. The hard thing, especially as I got older, was the realization that I was summering in a close-knit and close-minded community. There were exceptions to this, but I over heard many conversations about "the blacks" could one day be as good as "white people" or how "gays" are threatening "our children." It was pretty much 1950, all the time.

hotel desk
One of the last places in the world where Reader's Digest is read

And I'm not saying this to be mean or accuse anyone. Really, it just makes me sad. This could be an amazing place. It's a great patch of contemplative quiet in the middle of the forest preserve. I imagine a bed and breakfast or a restaurant could be run here, without disrupting the religious functions and musical events that still take place. This is twenty-five acres of land that is now (from what I saw) half disused. But I suppose the price one pays for seclusion and exclusion is being excluded in return.

not approved
Not Fit For Occupancy