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A TOUCH OF THIS AND A DASH OF THAT —

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While the New Year still qualifies as a new year, I figured it was time to return to this space with a roundup of random thoughts. Let’s get to it, shall we?

—–

Only a week ago as I type this, I learned of the passing of David Bowie at age sixty-nine. I came to his music rather late (as I do most things, I suppose) — in the 1980s, as Rykodisc was re-releasing his catalogue. Once I caught up with him I was wholeheartedly a fan. He struck me as having a restless creative spirit and the talent to make even unsuccessful experiments interesting. My good friend Howard Downs, who passed away in February of 2014, was a huge Bowie fan; while I don’t believe in such things, if I’m wrong, then I hope Howard was among those who were waiting to greet Bowie when he arrived at his next destination, wherever that might be.

—–

Another good friend of Howard’s and mine, artist Lee Weeks, is drawing a new regular series for DC Comics titled SUPERMAN: LOIS & CLARK. It looks spectacular, as most Weeks works do — it’s also mighty tough for me to wrap my head around its premise. You see, DC recently “rebooted” its comics line in a move labeled as “DC You,” and the current comics on the stands feature new “DC You” versions of all the familiar DC characters — Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and of course Superman himself. It’s a way to wipe clean the slate and give characters who are decades old a fresh start …

 

… Except the idea behind LOIS & CLARK is that the Superman and Lois of the previous DC Universe are still alive in the DC Youniverse. Not just alive, but married, with a nine-year-old son. So this universe is inhabited by two Supermen: the DC Youniverse Superman — who inhabits all the familiar DC titles like SUPERMAN, ACTION COMICS, JUSTICE LEAGUE, and so on — and the “old universe” Superman, who sports a beard, wears a black uniform with no cape, and performs super-feats on the QT, operating clandestinely so his presence on this DC You-Earth is undetected.

 

At first, the idea made my eyebrows rise as I thought, “Wow — the Batman and Superman of this new universe must be a lot dumber than the characters I knew! If someone was digging miles-long trenches in the ocean floor of their world, they’d have realized a superpowered force was operating clandestinely and have not stopped investigating until they got to the bottom of it.”

 

But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize my disquiet ran deeper than that. The fact that LOIS & CLARK‘s Superman is a survivor of a world — an entire universe! — that was destroyed says to me that ultimately, he and his super-friends were failures. All those years — all those adventures — all those battles — all those stories in which they saved whole populations from either falling beneath the hands of cruel despots or from wholesale destruction — all of that derring-do was wasted effort. Battles won, but the war lost, because in the final accounting everything they fought for was washed away.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but I think this idea of “So, it was all for nothing” may be experienced by any number of long-time readers, at least subconsciously. The publishers are telling those of us of a certain age-/experience-group that the characters in whom we were so heavily invested have spent their penny, and all the good works we saw them perform in the comics that we read and re-read and re-read again were ultimately for naught. What makes it worse is that similar storylines have been published in years past: heroes finding themselves “trapped” in a new reality that is somehow “wrong,” then struggling hard to reinstate the “real world” — a goal they successfully accomplished.

 

Except this time they came up short. Their reality — the one we had embraced — is gone, and no matter how bright and shiny the new DC Youniverse may be, we long-time readers are left feeling more than a little bit … empty.

 

Could this be at least part of the reason sales reportedly have been lackluster for the “DC You” line? (And for Marvel Comics, as well, given their recent “All-New, All-Different” relaunch, which similarly wiped out the classic “Marvel Universe” and replaced it with a new paradigm in which, for example, the Fantastic Four has disbanded and the Thing is now palling around with the Guardians of the Galaxy.) There are probably any number of market forces at play, yet I’m inclined to believe this is at least one thread in the tapestry of declining sales.

 

Now, I have no dog in this fight — I wish both DC and Marvel all the success they can muster, and I hope my friend Lee is in for a long and distinguished run on SUPERMAN: LOIS & CLARK. But if you’re a comics reader of several years standing, and you’re feeling a sense of vague unease as you read the current output from The Big Two, it could be a little voice in the back of your brain is whispering, “So, it was all for nothing …?”

———-

Not that it took the sensation described above to cause my dissatisfaction with many superhero series to take root over a handful of years. The increasing level of bombast and the “event-driven” interlocking storylines have caused me, a subscriber to SF editor Lester del Rey’s wise adage (“In a story where anything can happen, who in the hell cares what does?”), to increasingly yawn. That works in concert with the element that has really pushed me away from many mainstream Big Two comics: the lack of the human element. The title heroes are so busy averting this Massive Menace and Saving All of Reality As We Know It to have a civilian life anymore — and to me, it was the civilian life that made the superhero’s existence interesting. Peter Parker and his friends were as interesting as Spider-Man and his battles with villains, and the ways the latter could complicate the former made for page-turning reading — Superman’s super-feats were given dimension because they were in such stark contrast to the life of Clark Kent. Those heroes with fully-rounded existences then provided further contrast to the heroes who are in action even when out of costume (I believe Steve Englehart would agree that Batman is always Batman, even when he’s playing the role of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne; Steve Rogers’s many attempts as a civilian life always fall short because it’s his destiny to be Captain America; is The Punisher ever going to put his feet up and watch an episode of “Mike and Molly”? I don’t think so …).

 

Having those contrasts used to be important — now everything at both Major Companies seems to have devolved until it’s one big Superhero Club, where masks only hang out with other masks, every hero knows every other hero’s secret identities and they all call one another by first names. Once it all becomes too familiar within the context of the meta-storyline, it becomes far, far less interesting to me. At one point I read an “Avengers” book where Jessica Jones, Luke Cage’s wife, learns Spider-Man is really Peter Parker. She wastes no time telling her assembled friends that she not only went to the same high school as skinny, thick-glasses-wearing, science-nerd Peter Parker, she secretly had a crush on him. This is where an editor should be stepping in and saying, “Cute idea — but a wrong idea. Nope, not going there.” Because ideas like that make it all too interlocked, all too convenient, all too inbred — and far, far less interesting from the reader’s perspective. Or at least, that’s the case from this reader’s perspective.

—————

Since I mentioned science fiction in passing above, and since he is a Grand Master of the form, I should also mention and highly recommend the latest story collection from author/gadfly Harlan Ellison, titled Can & Can’tankerous. Several of H.E.’s more recent short fictions are gathered between these two covers, with an Introduction/Afterword for each story, just the way we used to greedily devour them in those classic Ellisonian collections of the 1970s and ’80s.

 

But the collection includes single-page pauses between each story, as Mr. Ellison provides insight into the events leading up to and including his much-publicized 2014 stroke and health scare. This adds an extra layer of poignancy to the fiction, and helps make this an Important Ellison Collection.

 

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Ellison in the late ’90s, when he appeared at a speaking engagement in Boston. It was not all that long after the death of my father — it may have even been the first “social event” I attended following that sad event. As I expected, he put on a terrific show: funny, opinionated, thought-provoking. I got to spend a very small amount of time chatting with him one-on-one afterwards and he was engaging and charming. I walked away with a little spring in my step for the first time since saying goodbye to my Dad.

 

I had the greater good fortune to interview Mr. Ellison by phone a handful of months ago. We discussed Science Fiction Grand Master Jack Williamson in support of our Library of American Comics reprinting of the Williamson/Lee Elias Sunday comics feature, Beyond Mars. Post-stroke, at age eighty-one, he still provided a lively interview, one that was highly useful in putting together the introductory text feature for that book.

 

Whether or not you have ever met the man, if you’re like me you’ll cherish his work once you’ve had a chance to read it. So I hope you’ll take my advice and seek out stories such as “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” the sublime “‘Repent, Harlequin,” Said the Ticktockman,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Deathbird,” “Mefisto in Onyx” … and the stories contained in Can & Can’tankerous.

———-

A memo to Boston’s John Henry, jotted down on the day media coverage touted the arrival of “Tessie,” a female mascot for the Boston Red Sox, one announced as being the sister of longtime mascot Wally, the Green Monster:

 

“I know you’re a highly successful commodities trader, and your ownership group has brought three world championships home to Fenway Park (many thanks for that, by the way), and you’ve committed to the community by purchasing and restoring local ownership to no less an institution than The Boston Globe. And yes, it’s a case of, here I am, a lowly scribe who writes about the history of comics publications and makes an occasional blog post in this space. But still– still —

 

“Your team has finished last in its division three of the past four seasons, your newspaper can’t be delivered into the hands of customers who have paid their hard-earned money in good faith to find a Globe on their doorstep every day, and you’re asking the public to get excited about ‘Tessie’?

 

“What’s wrong with this equation …?”

———-

It’s not that I’m anti-technology, really it isn’t. I just have zero desire to rush, lemming-like, to embrace the latest piece of gimcrackery that The Big Tech Companies are trying to foist off on us. As a result I own no cell phone, I have no presence on Facebook or Twitter, I have no interest in Pinterest, and I conduct my financial business in person or by mail (I get a bill, a write a cheque — simple!).

 

My quality of life has eroded, yes — but not for the reasons you might think. What’s made my life more difficult is the way so many have lapped up the “convenience” with which companies try to hornswoggle us.

 

For example — my wife and I recently did some business with a new bank. Very nice persons, thoroughly professional institution, they made things simple and easy and pleasant.

 

Until …

 

Did we want to get a document the bank would be issuing monthly sent to us electronically? No, I replied — we want it to come by mail.

 

I may have detected a slight frown at that response. The tone might have been just a bit icier when it was then suggested it’s more environmentally friendly if we deal electronically. After all, I was told, if my wife and I want a paper copy, we can always print it ourselves. My reply was pretty close to these words:

 

“OK, stop right there, because I ain’t buying. I work in publishing — the books I edit or write for alone are probably responsible for using several million pieces of high-end paper each year. As a result, I know enough about paper to know the forestry industry isn’t in a hurry to put itself out of business anytime soon.

 

“Furthermore, all of this increased electronic traffic requires electricity for it to operate, and increased demand means we’re burning more natural resources — like coal, for instance — that are less renewable and more damaging to the environment than paper ever was on its worst day.

 

“Finally, I have to be honest with you. What these requests always strike me as being is an effort to getting organizations like yours to push work off onto poor shlubs like me. Your bank has been in the business of issuing paper statements for generations — you’re fully set up to do so. I expect you to do so. Why do I want to waste one sheet of my own paper, one drop of my own printer-ink, and most importantly, one second of my precious time doing your work for you?”

 

Because they are very nice, very professional persons, they dropped the discussion right there — and we get our paper copy of the documents every month, reliable as clockwork. And I’m not doing one bit of the bank’s work, because I have my hands full just doing my own work, thank you.

 

The ways the tech revolution has eroded my quality of life goes beyond fighting with Big Institutions that want to wheedle and cajole me into saving them money.

 

My cable-TV remote promises to do all sorts of wonderful things for me — except work when I press a button a single time. I’m regularly pressing two or three times just to activate a certain feature, and I’m often waiting while that requesting signal goes out to the cable company’s home office in Philadelphia, then the activating signal comes back to me … or I’m seeing text flash onto my TV screen to tell me, “The function you have requested is currently not available. Please try again later” — blithely ignoring the fact that, if I wanted the function later, I’d be asking for it later. But I’m not. I’m asking for it now …

 

Thanks to cell phones, we now have a communication system where for the first time during my lifetime it’s become more difficult, not easier, to talk to others over long distances. Between cell phone microphones that are either so inferior or so poorly placed that the person I’m speaking with sounds like they’re talking into a soup can, and the instances when one end of the line sounds perfect while the other is crackling with static (necessitating the, “Can you hang up and I’ll call you right back?” ploy — which, even when it’s sincere and the gambit successfully clears the static, is a needless annoyance compared to, you know, phones that actually WORK THE WAY THEY ALWAYS USED TO WORK) and phone calls that abruptly end in mid-sentence because someone’s phone battery dies, or because there’s no tower in the vicinity through which someone is driving, or because someone walked into a different room and unthinkingly walked through the “dead spot” in their home. In a word — arrrghh!

 

I could continue to count the ways that creeping techno-embedding is like itching powder being rubbed into my skin (we haven’t even begun to discuss the tsunami of rude behavior that is now par for the course among a populace addicted to staring at its little phone screens as they beep and boop at them, like annoying Star Wars droids that fit in the palm of one’s hand) but by now you probably get the picture.

 

Certainly I know I’m part of an ever-shrinking minority, certainly I know the tech-genie isn’t headed back into his bottle anytime soon. But you can’t blame me for wishing otherwise.

———-

Thanks for stopping by and reading! If you’re a friend or a family member, feel free to give me a call to catch up on things …

 

… Provided your cell phone can hold its signal for the duration of a call, that is.

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Written by cnwl1

January 22, 2016 at 2:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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