Friday, October 31, 2014

Cranky Comic Books: Casper Space Ship #1

Hi kids! I didn't have a chance to blog last week, so this time around you get a special, longer edition. The better to cover this monstrosity:

Casper Space Ship #1, August 1972

(this copy is in really bad, water-logged condition, I've done my best to clean up the scans, but there may still be some wonkiness.)

In 1972, at the tail-end of the moon program, NASA decided to name the Apollo 16 Command Service Module "Casper." Harvey comics, of course, released an unofficial comic book to tie in with whatever public interest would be aroused by the event. As far as I can tell, there wasn't any, even with the release of a pop single by the, um, Comix.

If you really must listen to such a thing...

The book starts off with a short story "explaining" how NASA came to want Casper as a mission mascot.

Yes, some of his monster friends have stolen an amusement park ride and are buzzing the countryside. Needless to say, this puts the military at DEFCON 1. But it's all right because Casper flies over and tells the sweat bead bedecked generals that it's all right.

And so NASA decides to put a picture of Casper on the Apollo mission, just in case any near-by space aliens get frightened. Yeah, Harvey comics never make any sense. Check out this panel from the following Spooky one-pager:

That's the punch line kids, SPOOKY IS WEARING TWO HATS! Due to their pursuit of bland, family-friendly entertainment, Harvey publications may have been inadvertent pioneers in the realm of avante-garde non-sequitur comics.

Anyway, back to another short story. It seems that The Ghostly Trio and Spooky are jealous and decide to ride on the spacecraft to the moon. Casper out-flies them and ends up going by himself.

Be warned, that will not be the last time in this comic that Casper giggles. Oh, it's text story time!

All comic books, if they wanted to be delivered by mail via the periodical rate, needed to have two pages of text to qualify. In this issue, Casper and Wendy are stuck indoors on a rainy day, so he makes up some nonsense about Hercules and Gnomes.  In an earlier one-page strip, Wendy is portrayed as a ditz who has to be informed by Casper that the Earth rotates around the Sun. This is not a healthy relationship.

When we get back to the main story, it's revealed that the LEM has come to life because "STRANGE THINGS HAPPEN WHEN THERE'S A FULL  MOON!" And there follows a nightmarish sequence where he chases Casper around the barren moonscape.

The story is set aside for a bit to present some two-page stories. Again, they don't really have a punchline, unless the punchline in Harvey comics is meant to be the characters themselves. You know, Little Dot likes dots, Little Lotta likes to eat and Nightmare the ghost horse has no self-esteem. Funny!

Meanwhile, Casper discovers that there is less gravity on the moon. and giggles. again. He also discovers that the moon rover is also alive, but is much less scary. This might have to do with the fact that NASA seems to have based their design for moon transportation on the Fisher-Price telephone.

Anyway, Casper just makes friends with everybody, because that's the solution to all our problems involving psychotic technology.

There follows a few really bad stories about Spooky and Wendy that aren't worth going into here. The very last short, though, stands out due to some unusual layout and coloring desgins by the anonymous Harvey artists.

Tee Hee! Wendy's aunts have sprinkled her with a magic dust that causes her to fly to the moon. They are tired of her "mooning" over Casper. And I can't blame them.

Yeah, comics for girls, everyone! Oh, all right, for teens, also.

Groovy baby! Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cranky Back Issues: Battlestar Galactica #5

Today, from the 70s "junk" pile, I've pulled out a copy of Battlestar Galactica #5!


This one is cover dated for July of 1973. Unlike later issues, this is an adaption of a specific television episode... "The Lost Gods of Kobol, Part Two." Roger McKenzie, Walter Simonson and Klaus Janson are all credited together. And it's quite the interesting mix of talent.

There's a lot of story to cram into 17 pages. After the obligatory splash page, Simonson and Janson use a lot of small panels lined up in rows, alternating with short, long horizontal panels to help us get caught up on the action. Apparently, the fighter pilots (who are all male) have all succumbed to some sort of terrible disease. That's what military leave will do to you, I guess.

While the ship doctor is dealing with multiple cases of space syphilis, Commander Adama takes a moment to remind us of his obsession with 1970s ancient astronaut literature. I'm sure this is all meant to be a commentary of the nobility of one man sticking to his faith, but he comes off as a bit nutty by today's standards.

Besides not having the concept of separation of church and state, our space-faring colonials don't seem to understand equal rights for women, either. The sexy, sexy Walt Simonson women in this episode/issue have taken over for the laid up and sickly fighter pilots. Considering that very few people left on the Galactica actually have military training, it's odd that this is an issue at all. Like most popular sci-fi, the culture presented on screen actually represents the culture consuming the media.

At least the women don't get themselves easily captured by Cylons, as Starbuck does here ("OH, FRAK!"). And how cool are the Cylon ship designs? The good guys are flying obvious variations on X-Wing fighters, but the bad guys have weird flying saucers to zip around in.

And of course, the cyclopian Cylons themselves have imprinted themselves upon our perceptions of the shiny, disco 1970s. Until The Empire Strikes Back was released, these guys were probably more in our conscious than the Star Wars stormtroopers.

And so, Starbucks disappearance leads his friends to question their mortality and, dang it, get married. This is a wonderful panel; it's so rare these days for a monthly action comic to take a moment for romance. Also, Glynis Wein's coloring job is outstanding. The book has a wonderful muted palate that helps keep the story from verging into high camp.

Just as our kids are getting married, THE STAR appears. Apparently, this is different from every other star in the universe. And in orbit around this mysterious star is that planet from Stargate with all the pyramids. 

Upon exploring the surface, however, Adama doesn't find Jaye Davidson. He instead finds that great friend of humanity, Baltar. After proclaiming himself to be a victim of the Cylons rather than a betrayer, our heroes grudgingly let him tag along on the field trip.

Schhooooh! In another great Simonson/Janson panel, Adama's disco medallion picks up the light from that special star, causing a secret door to open. Behind that door is revealed THE CRYPT OF THE NINTH LORD. Baltar isn't impressed and opens up the mummy case (!) that lies within. Instant earthquake.

In actuality, the Cylons have decided to attack planet Kobol, despite their human leader being on the surface defiling tombs. They've also dropped off Starbuck among the female pilots, who are just hanging out among the pyramids. Luckily, the virus sub-plot has resolved itself and the men can ride off to the rescue, yee-haa!

Of course, the cavalry (male and female together) drives away the Cylon menace, as Baltar is buried in the mummy crypt. And so all is well. Except two wandering bad guys sneak up on the human camp and kill the newly married Serena, leaving a bunch of guilt-stricken grieving men. This is a fairly existential ending for a kid's comic book, driven home by the final, melancholy panel. 

This isn't the X-men, kids; the book will go on to supply new stories that take place in-between television episodes, but Serena will stay dead. Television never picked up on the weird need that comic book readers have for their characters to live on and get recycled, over and over again. If you were a young boy reading this in 1979, this may have been your first facing with death. Comics, kids!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cranky Book Review: Haunted by Joyce Carol Oates


"The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another."

Last month I read (and reviewed) Great Books by David Denby. Getting away from the problematic aspects of his main argument, I did find the few glimpses into academic politics to be interesting. It seems to be a strange, insulated world where people, perhaps lacking normal social skills, use internal politics to keep their ideas "in play" and taught in classroom courses. The sort of thing I would chalk up to anti-intellectual conspiracy theories, given the flavor of the book. Except that I've spent years reading Joyce Carol Oates, sometimes quite biting, writing about that very thing.

Those of us who have "grown up" reading her novels know that this wasn't always so. Her first few books deal with the working class existence of people in Detroit. Moving into the 1980s, her main characters would move up into the higher classes, but usually did so at a high emotional cost, often resulting from a great tragedy such as a family murder. Going into the 90s, the novels start concentrating on upper-class New England families, often focusing on the neurotic-isms of the academic culture.

These are themes that work well within the wonderful, vast space of a long novel, but not so much in the short stories collected here. Part of the "grotesque"-ness of the stories here comes from the people who are socially mal-adapted in some way. Without the character development of Marya: A Life, for instance, we end up with oddballs, often academics, who act odd without any discernible reason for doing so, outside of the needs of the plot.

With the abstraction that results from that, many of these stories become exercises in genre. Again, she's done this sort of thing before on a larger scale before; her riffs on classic gothic literature such as A Bloodsmoor Romance are quite funny and reward a deeper, ironic reading. In Haunted, Joyce is riffing more on the Alfred Hitchcock/Daphne Du Maurier 1960s style of suspense. Terrible things are going to happen, but these terrible things are constantly pushed forward in time, leaving the reader to wait for the revelation.

The repetition of this style left me with the impression of an author responding to the politically correct world, but with a different goal in mind, one of shocking the audience into the issues. If there's a connecting theme to these stories outside of the technique, it would be a focus on the inability of women to avoid a fate placed on them by a archaic, patriarchal world. The most effective entries here (such as the wonderfully poetic "Extenuating Circumstances," where every sentence starts with the accusing "Because he...") deal with the horror of not being able to control the results of pregnancy, whether it's having to get a back-alley abortion, being a slave to the resulting baby, or even just trying to get the involved male to be responsible for his actions.

In a way, this is the sort of book that 1990s commentators like Denby were reacting to; stories that are about "social issues," rather than just existing to be read in some timeless fashion. Because of this aspect, the collection does have a certain flavor of that decade, which I did find affected my enjoyment. But, it is interesting to see Joyce work out her themes in this fashion. In particular, Black Water seems to have come out of this time period's involvement with dark suspense (the phrase "black water" actually pops up in some of the stories). For someone who has read a lot of her novels, it's an interesting adjunct to think about, but I wouldn't recommend this to someone who hasn't read her larger works. In many ways, it takes a familiarity with them to make these shorter pieces work, or at least a familiarity with how the culture of the time period felt repressive while preaching liberality.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, 1970s style

From the fifty-cent shelves at the local library, I present:


This is #8 in the 1970s iteration of "Disney's Wonderful World of Reading." I regularly pick up vintage Disney books for collage purposes, but I also enjoy seeing the stylistic flourishes of whatever era they were published in. The corporate art directors don't seem to be as harsh about sticking "to model" when it comes to children's book illustrations.

Unfortunately, the artists on these books were never credited. I guess we're to assume that Walt himself is drawing these things from beyond the grave. Perhaps he takes over the bodies of young interns in order to complete his earthly mission of safe, family-friendly storytelling.

The Seven Dwarfs are drawn fairly close to their movie appearances. Everything else about the pictures however, screams of the 70s to me. The line work, the beautiful color washes and something that is not quite definable: the tendency for spot illustrations to be womb-like, keeping the eye within a circular area.

There are also a few great drawings of the Wicked Witch. Coinciding with the general occult air and rise of "second wave" feminism, there were a number of witch-y books for sale during the decade, probably culminating in Erica Jong and Joseph A. Smith's fancy 1981 tome.

Not that there's anything feminist about this adaptation. The story is still about Snow White being rescued and married. No Anne Sexton or Angela Carter, here. The movie itself wasn't put into re-release until 1975, so for a few years this would be the main delivery system for the Disney version. Given the tenor of the time, it's no wonder that many young women would come to prefer the fantasy of subversive witches over the corporate presentation of the heroine as housewife. 


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cranky Book Review: Great Books


Oh, those middle class problems. For me, the only thing more ridiculous than people claiming that gun ownership is a right rather than a class privilege is the complaining that goes on about the courses in higher education. Much as one has to have time and money to invest in an automatic weapon, people such as myself don't have the luxury to consider going to school in order to learn things. Yet political arguments are constantly drawn from the assumption that these experiences are universal and have consequences that apply to all.

David Denby portrays himself (a bit too humbly) as a typical "upper-middle" class guy. He doesn't seem to have wanted for anything in his life, certainly didn't have to worry about paying for his own education. Apparently, the worst thing that ever happened to him is that he was once mugged. This armed robbery is woven in and out of the book, somehow entwined in his mind with the "problem" of people challenging the pantheon of taught authors.

You see, even though he professes to have talked with many students during the writing of this book, Mr. Denby doesn't understand why they hold to their views. He doesn't get why the women in one class, for instance, don't emphasize with Dido's killing herself over Aeneas. Instead of just accepting their disagreement with his view he goes from wondering if they had never experienced love, to trying to categorize the response as either feminist or post-feminist and failing at that, blames it on the media.

And so the book goes. At its best, this is a brutally honest portrayal of how the privileged think and respond. Denby is a very good author, even if he isn't a very clear thinker. He ends up running in circles around himself, constantly trying to analyze other's reactions without applying the same criteria to himself. The built-in assumption is that students are taking the class to learn about life, rather than frantically trying to gain enough credits to graduate and hopefully find work. He doesn't understand why they aren't reading these texts for pleasure, as he is.

In the end, there's a dark side to this book that comes out when Hegel sends the author off on a line of reasoning that leads to a justification of the "Great Books" out of a sense of western superiority. You see, Eurocentrism is merely a reflection of the fact that our half of the world is philosophically superior to the Eastern half. Apparently the West has a tradition that leads to the idea of freedom, and no one else. Buddha and Gandhi don't exist. Or Denby just hasn't read them because they aren't on the course.

However not being a reader (as he admits at the beginning of the project) isn't an excuse for the other conclusion he draws from Hegel. Apparently, the men who mugged him did so because they haven't developed a sense of respect through work. That's the great failure of American society. That we all don't yet have the middle-class value of exchanging our time for the enrichment of others.

That's probably the lesson to be drawn from this exercise. Conservative thinkers (despite how loudly they proclaim themselves to be proponents of liberal thought as Denby does here) just can't fathom that everyone doesn't WANT to be a middle-class American. There always has to be an imaginary line running through history that arrives at this moment, justifying this way of life.