As you may have heard, singer/songwriter/occasional actor Lou Reed died last Sunday.
This didn’t come as much of a surprise. Several months ago, ComicMix’s own Martha Thomases had a swell birthday party at a wonderful-yet-foo-foo West Village Manhattan restaurant. As we left we walked through the massive line waiting to get in and I passed by a guy I thought I knew or recognized. Embarrassed, I waited until we were outside before I asked Martha if she knew who that was. She stopped, stared for a second, and said “Oh my god, that’s Lou Reed.”
Lou looked like shit – well-coiffed shit, but still… A week later we heard he was in for a liver transplant. Ultimately, it was that transplant that led to his death.
Martha and I share another Lou Reed moment, this one with fellow ComicMixer John Ostrander. You see, there is this astonishingly funny and equally hard-to-come-by movie called Get Crazy – I have it on Japanese laserdisc. Starring Malcolm McDowell, Allen Garfield, Ed Begley Jr. and a cast of thousands directed by Allan Arkush, the movie is about the last days of an ancient rock’n’roll psychedelic dungeon, and Lou had a significant role as… well, as a drop-dead-perfect parody of Bob Dylan, right down to the shot of Reed as Dylan emulating the cover to Bob’s Bringing It All Back Home. It’s close to the funniest scene in the movie, second only to the bit where Malcolm McDowell (channeling Mick Jagger) drops acid and makes his penis the manager of his band. John turned me onto the movie shortly after its 1983 release; a few years later, Martha and I tried to turn each other onto the flick at the same time.
Lou Reed was one of the most important people in the history of rock’n’roll. Generally considered the Godfather of Punk Rock, Lou was instrumental in the creation of Alternative Rock (since shortened to Alt Rock), Punk Rock and Glam Rock. Much to the chagrin of many of his older fans (read: Boomers), in his final years he also worked closely with Metallica and appeared with them at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary Concert.
Reed wrote and sang about subjects that many found taboo at the time of recording – addiction, S&M, religion, patriotism. He co-founded The Velvet Underground, worked with Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Edgar Allan Poe – the latter, posthumously. Depending upon your religious predilections, he may have heard Mr. Poe’s opinion of his work in recent days.
Courage is the bedrock of creativity, and Lou had both in spades. He was a major influence on our popular culture, and he will continue to be for a great many years to come.
Well, celebrities have certainly been in the news lately, haven’t they?
You might be expecting a reference to Miley Cyrus here, the pathetic child who cries for attention by participating in grotesque displays of herself. You might even expect a grumpy septuagenarian to wonder if the guardians of a child raised in the humid heart of show-biz, as poor Ms. Cyrus was, could not be accused of a form of child abuse. Don’t look at me. This is one of the many things that I’m not sure about.
I can’t be sure about the dealings of Bill O’Reilly and Michele Bachmann with the Almighty, either. Both these celebrities claim to have received direct communication from on high – on very high. Mr. O’Reilly, an opinion-offering stalwart who gets paid by Fox News, apparently believes that the Holy Spirit inspired him to write his latest book, Killing Jesus. (Earlier books include Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. If you find something that works…)
As for Ms. Bachmann, the Republican congressperson from Minnesota, she thinks that same Holy Spirit wants her to ditch politics for a career in the private sector, wherein serious money can be made. But if Ms. Bachman is right about another matter, she’d better get started on that next career because the clock is ticking. Representative B has recently revealed that we’re living in the End Times – the big rock candy mountain is gnoing to crumble any nanosecond now and you and I can watch Michele and her posse ascend to eternal glory while we…gee, I don’t know. What are we sinners going to do? Miss our bus? Catch a really bad cold? Anyway, something.
Jesus got disrespected from another source last week. The Vatican misspelled his name on an issuance of a special medal commemorating Pope Francis’ taking over the big job. Ooops! Doesn’t say much for Catholic Education, but maybe we should blame, not the good sisters and brothers, but the devil, who still exists, but has gotten wilier, which explains why we don’t run into him much. This is the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Scalia, an eminent jurist who says that he gets most of his news from Bill Bennett, a conservative talk show host.
Note, please, that I’m not questioning the beliefs, just those who reap power and/or profit from them, or who may employ them inappropriately.
And all this snarkiness has what, exactly, to do with pop culture, our presumed subject?
Last week, in a Facebook posting, Larry Hama asked why we still call them comics conventions when they aren’t. Larry’s right, of course. These monster affairs aren’t about comics and haven’t been for a while now. They’re about selling stuff and the creatures mentioned way back in our first paragraph, celebrities. The celebs are rewarded for showing up while some of the comics folk must pay to get in and even those who get comped often get stuck with parking fees which, in someplace like Manhattan, aren’t exactly small items. In the end, most cons are mostly about money instead of promoting a quirky hobby.
The above is not a complaint, just an observation. Things are what they are. I might lament just a bit, but complain? No.
I never really got into MacGyver, but I got my Richard Dean Anderson fix on Stargate SG-1.
Stargate, as many of you I’m sure remember, was a 1994 movie which circled around a gigantic ring made of unknown metal and covered in what is believed to be Egyptian hieroglyphs that is discovered buried in the sands of Giza, Egypt in during an archeological expedition in 1928. The purpose of the ring remained a mystery for sixty years, its hieroglyphs untranslatable. Finally a brilliant linguist and archaeologist specializing in Egyptology named Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is co-opted by the U.S. government and brought to Cheyenne Mountain (home of NORAD) to decipher the scrawlings on the ring, which has been brought there for study and possible use by the military.
He tells the assembled scientists and military officers (including United States Air Force Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) that the hieroglyphs speak of something called a “stargate,” some kind of device used for travelling to other planets. But the symbols on the ring itself aren’t hieroglyphs at all; they are representations of mathematical coordinates of the constellations which, when put into a specific sequence, creates a tunnel through space, or “wormhole” that will allow instantaneous travel to another world. Colonel O’Neil assembles a team, including Jackson, to use the Stargate, as it is now christened, to take them there
Stargate SG-1 picks up a year after the movie ends.
The top-secret Stargate Project is overseen by the United States Air Force, and its mission is to not only explore the galaxy, but to also find new allies and technology as defense against the Goa’uld, alien symbiotes that use humans as hosts in their drive to establish themselves as “rulers of the galaxy.” As established in the movie, the Goa’uld enslaved humans to serve them, posing as the gods of ancient Earth cultures, especially the mythology of Egypt.
The Stargate Project is under the command of General George Hammond, and the reconnaissance teams are dubbed SG-1, SG-2, SG-3, and so on; Colonel Jack O’Neill, now played by the charming Richard Dean Anderson, leads SG-1, composed of Captain Samantha “Sam” Carter, astrophysicist (Amanda Tapping); the Jaffa defector Teal’c (Christopher Judge); and Daniel Jackson (now played by Michael Shanks).
Being a continuing series, Stargate SG-1 gave Anderson the space to expand O’Neill’s character. His Jack was a more relaxed version of the character than that of Russell’s, displaying an “easy-goingness” and a sly wit that, I think, hid a vein of cynicism born from the tragedies of O’Neill’s life, especially the death of his son in a tragic accident that resulting from O’Neill’s own gun. Jack used that wit not only to cope with unexpected and possibly dangerous situations, but as a weapon that sliced through the bullshit with sharp sarcasm. He was career Air Force, he believed wholeheartedly in the mission of the United States as a beacon of liberty and good in the world, but he distrusted the men and women who pinned flags on their lapels and called that patriotism.
Like Star Trek, Stargate SG-1’s true strength was in its characters and the relationships they had with each other. Amanda Tapping’s Sam Carter has been, I think, overlooked as a well written, strong, female character that meets, as my sistah Martha Thomases put in her column last week, the Bechdal Test. (IM-not-so-HO, and if I could arrange some kind of time warp, Tapping would be the perfect actress to play a live-action Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel). Christopher Judge’s Teal’c is the perfect “stranger in a strange land.” Michael Shank’s Daniel Jackson is a quirky nerd whose anti-establishment and anti-military stance is tempered by the people he comes to love and respect. Don Davis’s General Hammond was military through and through, but he was the father figure for everyone on the Stargate Project. Even supporting characters like Teryl Rothery’s Dr. Janet Frasier and Gary Jones’s Sgt. Walter Harriman became important facets of a show that became, also like Star Trek, a starting point for spin-offs (Stargate: Atlantis, Stargate Universe) and movies (Stargate: The Ark Of Truth, Stargate: Continuum). Disparate and brought together by a mission, they became a family.
As the daughter of an fighter jock, I think it’s really cool that the United States Air Force worked with the SG-1 producers, not only allowing them to shoot footage at the Cheyenne Mountain complex, but also providing help with the military minutia that helped make the show so realistic, everything from character backgrounds to uniform and hair style regulations. Air Force personnel worked as extras, and two Chief of Staffs of the Air Force, General Michael E. Ryan and General John P. Jumper, appeared as themselves in Season 4’s “Prodigy” and Season 7’s “Lost City.” According to Wikipedia, General Jumper’s second appearance was “cancelled because of ongoing real-world conflicts in the Middle East.” Richard Dean Anderson was honored by the Air Force Association in 2004, not only for his work as an actor and executive producer, but also for the SG’1’s positive depiction of the Air Force.
The U.S. Navy also got in on the act, inviting SG-1 to film aboard the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Alexandria (SSN-757) and at their Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station in the Arctic.
Stargate SG-1 is available from the beginning, courtesy of Netflix. That’s where I’ve been rewatching the show.
If travelling through a Stargate doesn’t for work you, there’s still some MacGyver out there for you Richard Dean Anderson fans. As Captain Samantha Carter said in the pilot to Colonel Jack O’Neill: “It took us fifteen years and three supercomputers to MacGyver a system for the gate on Earth.”
Pretty day outside, if you like bleak. Mist, rain, a world of grey. October in the northeast. Bleak.
Not much better inside. It’s becoming a chore to watch some of my favorite television programs. The other night, after sitting through about 10 minutes of The Daily Show, I walked out of the room. I deeply admire Jon Stewart: he’s a national jester and as such, one of our treasures. Four nights a week, he manages to inform and entertain simultaneously, and he does this nifty trick consistently, show after show. He was riffing on the shutdown of the national government and suddenly I didn’t want to hear about it anymore, not even when Jon Stewart was the messenger and the message was leavened with comedy. To hear yet again of the antics of that herd of egotistical narcissists who are our elected leaders – enough! Let them take the nation to hell. I’ll just shut my eyes and cover my ears and try not to breathe in the dust.
Remember the words of Thomas Jefferson: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can not sleep for ever.”
I’m not blaming the politicians. They are what they have to be. In a system that values greed above all else, in which congressmen, who are charged with regulating an enormous and ever increasingly complex commonwealth must spend 30 hours a week on the phone begging for money instead of learning what they should know, and in getting what they beg for place themselves in indentured servitude to the check writers, who were taught that education is passing tests, whose egos might need to be damaged before they can even aspire to the jobs they hold, and who have begun to behave like history’s great mischief makers, zealots who are incapable of questioning their zealotry, who are unable to identify with human suffering other than their own…yeah, they are more to be pitied than hated. But such creatures can foster ruination, pitiable or not.
There’s nothing I can do about the Washington mob that’s shaping our collective destiny. But please don’t ask me to share an elevator with any of them.
So I ducked an episode of The Daily Show. Then, the following evening, I got over my snit, stopped wishing that reality to be something other than what it is, and tuned in for my eleven o’clock Jon Stewart fix.
• • • • •
And now to answer a question you may or may not be asking: can’t we please, for the love of Pete, end on a cheerier note? Okay, how about a dose of…
Sauntering through Digitalville, sipping news and trivia like a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower, looking for nothing in particular, except maybe an idea for something to write about. Anything in the comic book line?
Ah. Here’s a news item (if you can call this kind of stuff “news”) informing us that in the coming season of The CW’s Arrow, there will be more superpowers, including a three-episode arc featuring The Flash, who is certainly one of DC Comics’ mightier superguys – not as powerful as big daddy Superman, but way above, say, The Atom. And there will also be more costumed characters. Will these be equal to The Flash, or closer to the series’ title character, whom I’ve always considered a human-scaled guy, as opposed to a demigod? (And if you want to lose the “demi” how can I stop you?) Or maybe they’ll up Green Arrow’s power quotient – have him stand near a chemical explosion, maybe, and then…I don’t know – use his bow to shatter Jupiter?
And yeah, yeah, I know I referred to the character as Green Arrow instead of the name the video folk prefer, just plain “Arrow.” Well, hey, I knew him when.
I guess I’ll be parking myself in front of the screen on Wednesday nights at eight and watch the questions asked above get answered over the next several months. I may not like the answers, but if I did, the storytellers might not be doing their jobs, which involve engaging a certain demographic, My children are just barely young enough to be part of said demographic. I am way north of it. I am not (Green) Arrow’s audience and so my preferences and quibbles are relevant only to me, and maybe long-suffering Marifran, who has to listen to me express them.
The Arrow story was what I found in Digitalville this morning. This afternoon, it got ugly. Another comic book-related story, the kind we’d rather not see.
It apparently originated at New York City’s CBS outlet, and reported a comic book artist’s loss of 30 years’ work. The artist is my old colleague, Neal Adams. Though I’m not clear on details, it seems that Neal lost the art in a taxicab. I can’t begin to estimate the financial loss Neal has incurred, and bad as that is, the psychological loss might be greater. All those hours of thought and effort and inspiration, hunched over a drawing board, and the sense of achievement and satisfaction manifest in the work…
There is hope. The loss is recent and in the video clip that communicated the story Neal hopes that his portfolios will be returned. So do I.
Please believe me, as I conclude last week’swell-reasoned and temperate dissertation on why comics fans should care – maybe – about the future of the US Postal Service, when I say I’m trying hard to wrap up this little opus before the USPS goes out of business.
But I’m not working as fast nor concentrating as well as I’d like because I’ve just been distracted by another “gotcha” courtesy of my BMK – Bad Mail Karma. It illustrates one of the more interesting by-products of the USPS’s ongoing effort to modernize, simplify and streamline its products and serviceseven as Congress calls for a postal austerity program:
When a customer confused by the ever-changing policies (that would be moi) makes a minor mistake, the USPS’s systems will helpfully turn it into an exhausting, nerve-wracking Major Hassle by preventing it from being corrected.
In my recent move back to Southern California, I managed to outsmart myself by sending ahead of me a USPS Priority Mail box of important items that I’d need before the moving van arrived with my everyday stuff. It has yet to arrive, some eight weeks later. It seems I used Priority Mail packaging that was not a flat rate box, but to which I incorrectly affixed flat rate postage generated online. OK, my bad.
That does not explain, however, why it took the P.O. four weeks to determine that that was the problem; why its online tracking system kept giving me information that contradicted the tracking data in the main USPS computer; nor why the package has now crossed the country four times, having been shipped back and forth between my old address and the new, each time being flagged in the system as undeliverable” or sent to “no such address.”
The helpful people I’ve dealt with at my local P.O. – six of them now, because the same people don’t seem to work there for more than five days in a row – can’t seem to figure it out, either. One “Letter Carrier Supervisor” told me, “I’ve been working here 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.” Of course, that may be because she apparently takes 147 coffee breaks a day.
This might also explain why she can’t get her direct reports to do what the three other supervisors have told me they will: When the package ricochets back here to Pasadena, they’ll call me so I can come pay the extra postage and pick it up. When last heard from, the package was at some “claims resolution” facility in Atlanta, but was supposed to be on its way back here. That was two weeks ago.
Now, imagine that this box had been, say, a shipment of comics from a private eBay seller for which you were waiting breathlessly. (Yes, small, private sellers often make honest mistakes. I hasten to add, though, that as someone who sells on eBay, I’ve been lucky – so far – not to make this kind of mistake with a customer’s package. And you can be sure I’m doubly careful now.)
This is a microcosmic example of the kind of thing comics fans will probably be saying good-bye to soon, mournfully or otherwise, having been left to the tender mercies of those even bigger screw-ups, UPS and DHL. The macrocosmic version is what I described last week: A stamp-related custom comic project that was extraordinarily successful for DC Comics (the aggregate print run for the nine CTC books I discussed added up to over 10 million) turned out to be a dismal failure for the USPS. This, only because the agency couldn’t secure the content approval from its licensors – the owners of several of the stamp subjects’ IT – in time to get the books out, to serve as collectors’ albums for the CTC series, at the same time as the stamps themselves.
And it’s too bad, really, this suicidal ineptitude, since comics fans once had a friend in the postal service. It was tangentially responsible for the creation of letters columns which, in the earliest days of comics fanzines and well before web sites and comment forums, became the principal means by which comics fans exchanged opinions about talent and continuity developments and, from the addresses printed, gained the means to interact and organize. These “LOC” pages came about because postal regulations required comics to have at least a page of text to qualify for their mailing rate. When the previous practice of hiring writers to create original prose fillers became prohibitively expensive, the “lettercols” were born.
Soon, those who self-identified as serious fans and collectors became the only readers who were so hell-bent on getting their monthly “fix” that they’d be willing to subscribe. But they were dissuaded from doing so because they didn’t want their mint-condition comics given a permanent vertical crease by being folded lengthwise to fit into a narrow wrapper, which was the only cost-effective way to send comics through the mail. So you can thank USPS, then, for killing this in favor of what took another decade to develop, with the growth of specialty retail shops: the pull-and-hold service.
Today, the Postal Service searches for new services it can providehttp://www.informationweek.com/government/security/postal-service-pilots-next-gen-authentic/240145559, to replace the ones it has screwed up so badly that they’ve become obsolete. One of its ideas is to get itself into the “identity management business.” The fact that the average citizen can’t figure out what, in fact, “identity management” is should in no way deter the USPS from this worthy goal. It might keep them occupied so that other companies will have to deliver all the packages, and our paychecks will all be issued by Direct Deposit and have no trouble finding their way into our bank accounts.
Of course, thereafter we’ll be unable to access our funds, because our identity will have “managed” to change – to that of someone we’ve never heard of in a zip code that hasn’t been invented yet. (Remind me not to tell you about how my previous address in Pennsylvania, a rural route which was given a normal house-number in “The Monroe County Readdressing Project” … with the result that my online change-of-address form couldn’t be processed properly because the old address wasn’t in the USPS database.)
Meanwhile, I’ve decided to stop oiling my old spinner-rack and instead donate it to a nursing home. I’m going to shop for comics via ComiXology exclusively, and work on figuring out how to get my new tech for promoting pacifism and conservation of labor, to make plastic staples. Once everyone on eBay is shipping via UPS, and we have the technology to totally recreate “floppies” in our own homes, the world’s Geeks – comic book division – won’t have anything to fear from the P.O. anymore, whatsoever.
(Reuters) Marvel Comics has agreed to settle a lawsuit by a comic book writer who sued the publisher over the copyright to the flaming-skulled character Ghost Rider.
The agreement, disclosed in a letter filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, if finalized would resolve five-years of litigation brought by former Marvel freelancer Gary Friedrich, who claimed he created the motorcycle-riding vigilante.
The Reuters story quoted above is pretty sketchy, but maybe we should celebrate anyway. We don’t know the terms of the deal and we may never know them; the only instance I’m aware of where a comics creator didn’t get creamed when he tried to get paid for the success of a character happened years ago when the late Steve Gerber tried to get a piece of the Howard the Duck action. Steve got some kind of settlement, but the terms of it were never made public, possibly because non-disclosure was a condition of the agreement. Whatever Steve’s reward was, it didn’t make him rich.
I first heard of the Friedrich suit from Gary himself, when we were guests at a small Missouri convention. He couldn’t say much at the time, just that the litigation was happening. I had immediate doubts. As noted above, comics guys had a habit of losing in courthouses. And Gary did lose the first round; a judge smiled upon the corporation. That seemed to end the matter.
Next, Marvel countersued to regain the money Gary had gotten selling Ghost Rider souvenirs at cons. You could argue that Marvel’s legal cadre had to do what they did in order to protect the company’s copyright/trademark – that’s their job, after all, and this is not the place to debate the merits of their livelihood. But I couldn’t help feeling that Gary, a man who lives modestly, was being bullied by a New York behemoth. The money involved could be important to Gary, and wouldn’t make a blip on the corporate accounts.
Then, today, the good news. Gary won an appeal and, barring further legal shenanigans, his retirement became a bit easier.
Anyone familiar with the history of our peculiar medium knows that its dominant narrative is that business guys get fat from the efforts of creative guys, who don’t get fat. (This is pretty well documented: see Larry Tye’s recent history of Superman, Gerry Jones’s Men of Tomorrow, and a lot of journalism in Roy Thomas’s magazine, Alter Ego.) But their are indications of change – glacially slow change, to be sure, but change nonetheless. When I cashed my first comic book check, we pale scriveners got a flat, one-time-only payment, for which we relinquished all rights. No royalties, no foreign income, nothing for use in other media, on t shirts, lunchboxes, promotions…None of that’s true anymore. We still don’t own copyrights on work done for the big publishers, but we are guaranteed back-end money. Some might claim that we should get more, but we get something, and that counts as progress. .
Meanwhile, in legal land, Mr. Friedrich won his appeal and, as far as I know, the efforts of the estates of Superman’s creators are still in litigation, and maybe they’ll prevail. It’ll be much too late to do Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster any good, but it might benefit their descendants.
Last week’s column, about the apparent suicidal impulses of the US Postal Service, advanced what I hope is a baseless and purely paranoiac thesis: Because UPS, FedEx, and their ilk don’t cover every form of deliverable and are prohibitively expensive for many small-business shippers, we are in urgent need of alternative low-cost means for shipping parcels and other three-dimensional objects that can’t – or won’t – be deliverable to us in electronic form any time soon. That’s because the P.O.’s collapse might happen faster than we can create the infrastructure necessary to take up the (very minor) slack.
That would be a Geek Apocalypse. Some momzer with an encyclopedic memory of The Overstreet Guide won’t be able to profitably ship you that copy of Tales To Astonish #12 you bid too much for. And your ability to receive items like priceless Mr. Terrific maquettes, or the Talents’ endless flow of royalty checks for $.35, will be jeopardized. And then suddenly, one day, before you know it…entire vital industries start getting wiped out. Y’know, like Hero-Clix.
But it’s hard to be too sympathetic to the USPS’ increasingly strident argument that it needs more funding and a different budgeting process. Perhaps because there’s a reason it’s OK to bail out Detroit but not USPS: the auto industry hasn’t yet come up with a car that can go anywhere except the direction you’re trying to steer it in.
If all this leaves you unmoved to lament the coming Götterdämmerung in Mail Valhalla, perhaps you might shed a tear out of nostalgia. When the Post Office finally goes, so, probably, will the memory of some – odd and arcane, to be sure – pieces of comics history.
For example, whatever else USPS is trying to preserve, it isn’t a commitment to the goal expressed in huge letters on the New York City main branch: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” That inscription is believed to have been carved by a young stonemason named Ira Schnapp, who went on to play a major role in comics history by designing the classic Superman logo and lettering most of DC’s top-tier output for roughly the first fifteen years of its existence.
Over the next 50 years, the USPS was indirectly responsible for some memorable, comics fanboy-beloved policies and procedures. I’ll discuss a few of those next week, when I perform the death-defying feat of ending this two-and-a-half part rant and starting a new one, establishing a premise that you will have forgotten by the time you conclude reading about it the following week.
Before USPS became irrelevant to comics, it resorted to printing comic book content, in a sense – such as with the 2007 Marvel Super Heroes series that put Spider-Man on a stamp. It was one such “issue” that inspired the project that arguably brought the uneasy alliance of comics and USPS to its disastrous apotheosis.
The negotiations for the use of Superman on a stamp to commemorate his create led to high-level talks that generated a custom comics initiative. This project, of which I was the alternately fascinated and appalled editorial supervisor, was The Celebrate The Century Super Heroes Stamp Album series. This was part of a much more ambitious campaign, The Celebrate The Century stamp series. It seemed like a simple, sure-fire plan: nine sets of stamps commemorating each of the nine decades of the 20th Century. The subjects of the stamps for the first half – the 1900s thru the ‘40s – were selected by a panel of scholars assembled by the USPS. The remaining stamps subjects would be chosen by polling…those notorious champions of intellectual rigor and high-mindedness, the American people.
Which means that our first five volumes were filled with cleverly-written, beautifully drawn, and impeccably researched two-page spreads in which Superman and his Justice League friends enlightened while entertaining on such worthy subjects as the League of Nations, the development of antibiotics, and the WPA. The latter half of the series featured third-tier super heroes no one had ever heard of, but which were chosen because they were minorities, got excited about I Love Lucy and the Slinky Toy.
We were on an aggressive schedule with a tremendous investment by the client: print runs in the millions. We managed to do the huge job of research, creating the Editorial, and fact-checking the first five books on the P.O.’s schedule, which required the comics-format albums to be on sale at the same time as the corresponding stamps. We didn’t get into trouble until we got to the issues based the stamps the Brand-Conscious American Consumer “voted in” – a slew of stamps featuring Other Companies’ trademarked intellectual property.
In the sort of bureaucratic failure of due diligence that has made USPS a company that could not lose more money if it subcontracted its shipping to Amtrak, the USPS had secured the rights to the images it used on the stamps, but not the clearance of, or payment for, use of the images in licensed products based on the stamps.
What ensued was a train wreck, with the rights-holders demanding outrageous and labor-intensive changes to the already-completed art before they’d be approved. Some of the licensors’ objections had to be negotiated away because they negated the very concept of the project itself.
The widow of a certain famous children’s book cartoonist withheld approval for over two months because she could not be dissuaded from what she seemed to think was a simple, reasonable request: that her late husband’s creation, which was the subject of the stamp, not be upstaged by a DC super hero character, and that the super hero who described the stamp’s history to the reader had to be deleted.
As Jules Feiffer once put it…a subtle pattern begins to emerge…
Next Week: “You’ve Got Mail!”…We Just Don’t Know Where It Is.
Imagine: the word Shazam is uttered and Boom! – from the far reaches of nether being a lightning bolt, a very peculiar looking lightning bolt, flashes toward Earth. But something goes amiss! A crack in the cosmic egg? A misalignment of creational energies? Instead of altering a red-sweatered youngster into a larger and much, much mightier version of himself, the boomer veers through a twilight zone and a lot of alternate dimensions and…
… there I am, newly arrived in New York City, standing on a sidewalk, puzzled. I’m supposed to begin my comic book job today, but the Marvel Comics office is closed – closed at ten in the morning! – and as I look around, I see that most of the stores on Madison Avenue are also closed. What the heck? Isn’t this a plain old weekday? What’s with the closing?
I know no one in the city except Roy Thomas, and I don’t know where he’s staying. But I remember a name that was mentioned in a Marvel comic book: Flo Steinberg. I find a pay phone. (Ah, yes, pay phones. Remember them?) Ms. Steinberg is listed in the directory and I put a coin into a slot and dial her number. A pleasantly feminine voice answers and after a brief conversation, I have the answer I sought. Stores and offices are closed because this is something we didn’t have in the Missouri town where I was, until three days previous, a newspaper reporter: a Jewish holiday. Specifically, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
I didn’t know, on that Manhattan morning 48 years ago, that Rosh Hashanah was a new year’s celebration – I’d probably never even heard the words “Rosh Hashanah” – but the holiday and my life were in fortuitous synchronization: the Jews were beginning a new year and I was beginning a new life. I was undergoing a transformation, not as arresting as the morphing of the red-sweatered kid into a red-costumed superhero, but considerably more enduring
Flo told me how to find Roy, who was rooming with Dave Kaler in a lower east side tenement. I sought him out and the next morning, which wasn’t any kind of holiday, he introduced me to Stan Lee and…Shazam? I entered a building at Fifty Ninth and Madison a smarty-ass journalist and, eight hours later, exited it a comic book guy, probably a little less smarty-ass.
Hours and days and years and decades filled up. Comic books evolved from what was widely considered to be disreputable trash into a recognized and reputable narrative form and I evolved into…what? Somebody with the same name as the twenty-something who stood on Madison Avenue, puzzled – a slender fellow with hair, he was – into who or whatever is sitting in front of a computer – a computer? – and typing these words.
When I was a little kid, the original The Fly scared the crap out of me. Then, later, when I wrote the Star Trek and Justice League franchises in comics, I felt a morbid and uneasy fascination with the transporter idea, which I’d always thought had a greater potential for disaster than deliverance. But I never did much with it, because my early Vincent Price-induced trauma left me with zero interest in writing about steaming piles of misshapen, dying flesh. So I never thought I’d see the day when I’d write these words:
The great irony of this is that many of the people who stand to lose big-time if the USPS achieves its goal of total self-annihilation are Geeks.
If this painfully slowly-approaching disaster isn’t averted, no amount of muscular adblockers will be able to Improve Your eBay Experience. And there are still some comics publishers who don’t drop-ship everything from Canada by courier service. Moreover, there still exist certain types of vendors who think DHL is an even bigger nightmare than the postal system, and a few pesky creative dinosaurs who still have the temerity to expect payment for entertaining you. And they expect it from Accounting Departments who are already resentful enough as it is about having to generate all those 1099s at year’s end. Which is why their indulgent bosses reward them for never, ever suggesting that Talent can be paid via Direct Deposit, which is obviously evil and irresponsible, in addition to being too much trouble, because that’s how the government that needs to be shrunk in the bathtub now pays The 47% all that social safety net money they don’t deserve and which is obviously a Socialist plot.
All these nice folk will feel like they live in an even more dystopian alternate universe than they already occupy if those little paper things that are redeemable for cash and prizes stop showing up in their cobweb-infested mail boxes.
Yes, I know you know what “going postal” means. But you may not be old enough to remember why, despite the fact that many local P.O.s are named after famous people living or dead, there’s no such thing as a David Berkowitz Post Office. Which is why you may be blissfully unaware that you’re not getting half your mail because your letter carriers’ dogs talk to them and tell them what they should do with it instead of delivering it.
For you, USPS’ headlong rush to make the case for its own irrelevancy to modern life might have a greater significance, so it is my duty to helpfully call it to your attention.
In the interest of appropriate full disclosure, I should add that I’m uniquely qualified to talk about the USPS on a site that’s supposed to be about comics, and not just from having been tortured by them through a few decades as a freelancer (an old girlfriend once got so tired of hearing me bitch about the horrors they visited on me, she nicknamed me BMK, which stood for Bad Mail Karma).
Oh, no. There’s more. You see, I was once involved in creating comic books FOR the USPS, which was a little trip through Pinhead’s Lament Configuration all by itself.
Have I hooked you? Good. Then maybe you’ll come back here for that story next week. I mean, maybe you’ll deign to sample this column again. In spite of everything.
Because in that tale – from the ‘90s, mind you – lies an insight into the monumental and long-customary – and therefore ineluctably irreparable – bureaucratic ineptitude that will inevitably result in USPS’s demise. This, despite a Congress that, while having done nothing else of substance, has managed to reinstate the possibility of its remote mail centers receiving Ricin-laced envelopes on Saturdays.
Hmm. The dogs I live with are barking. That must mean the mailmoron’s here. But that’s impossible. It’s not even dark yet. Must be a new person on this route. Excuse me while I go peer out at him or her suspiciously through the venetian blinds, like one of those crazy old people who’s about to run outside waving a broom to shoo the neighborhood kids out of the driveway. That’ll inspire continued excellent service, I’m sure.
The mailmoron has just delivered six pieces of mail, only four of which are for people who don’t live here. Plus, unlike her predecessor, she actually noticed the large banker’s box under the mailbox. The one with the sign on it reading, in 72-point type, outgoing mail. Which means she actually took the prepaid packages and stamped letters that have been sitting in it since Tuesday. And will do whatever her dog tells her to do with them.
I never thought I’d see the day.
Next week: Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night can possibly make anything worse.