Friday, October 19, 2012

Secret Sun Radio Mystery Hour: Comics, Creativity and Credit with Arlen Schumer

Left: Steve Ditko - Right: Jack Kirby

In this episode, artist and pop culture historian Arlen Schumer comes aboard to share his thoughts on Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the creation of Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. To most civilians, Stan Lee created all these legendary characters himself, but is that the real story? What role does the artist play in shaping comic book narrative? Arlen argues that the artist is actually more like a film director- the auteur of a comic book, creating the magic in what is essentially a visual medium.

But Kirby and Ditko were more than artists, they were writers themselves, responsible for the lion's share of the plotting on the most memorable Marvel Comics adventures. Was Stan himself a writer or was he in fact a true editor, generating germs of stories and polishing dialogue in much the same way a TV producer works with his creators? Arlen delves into these mysteries with the depth of a scholar and the passion of a lifelong fan.

With comics and superheroes playing an ever more central role in our culture, these are issues that can't be swept under the rug of history. This is one you're not going to want to miss.

Arlen Schumer is a member of The Society of Illustrators, creating comic book-style illustrations for advertising and editorial usage, and one of the foremost historians of comic book art—his book The Silver Age of Comic Book Art won the Independent Publishers Award for Best Popular Culture Book of 2003. He lectures on these and other pop culture subjects he is a recognized expert in, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and the music of Bruce Springsteen, at universities and cultural institutions nationwide.
To find Arlen and his work online check out these links.

For an interview with Arlen on his own work, click here.

To support the Kirby Museum and get The Auteur Theory of Comics 16-pager & the Kirby Silver Edition 32-pager, click here

To get Arlen's Superman/Weisinger 16-pg verbal/visual essay in Alter Ego #112, click here.

To get his "ComiColumn" essays on Auteur, Weisinger/Superman and Joe Kubert, click here.

For more info on the AIGA-Los Angeles lecture on Wednesday 11/7, "The Graphic Design of Comic Book Art", click here.

For the Art Center College of Design (LA) lecture on Thursday, 11/8, "Illustration & Comic Art", click here.

And of course...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Pop Culture and the Desert of the Real

Longtime TV fixture Gary Collins pierced the veil and left this mortal coil at the age of 74. Collins' career is too long and twisting to detail here, but he entered the Secret Sun Hall of Fame when he starred (with Darren McGavin, no less) in the Solar foundational text Hangar 18 (which you read about in depth here), and was no stranger to other genre roles as well.

By far the most notable of these was The Sixth Sense, which by some dint of chance was not a Dan Curtis production. This show- about a parapsychological researcher- actually ran for two seasons in the early 70s, when such things were all the rage in pop culture.

It's hard for young people-- who've been so relentlessly mediated and catered to for the past three decades-- to understand how much of a relief shows like The Night Stalker or The Six Million Dollar Man or movies like Planet of the Apes or even Logan's Run were back in the 70s.

It's like this;  lukewarm water isn't appealing to most people in normal circumstances, but to a man trapped in a bleak wasteland, dying of thirst, it's a revelation from the gods.

And so it was for the occasional half-hearted stab that Hollywood took at sci-fi or superheroes in the 70s. After Star Wars it would all change forever, but for those of us trapped in that no man's land of oppressive blandness, any break from the routine was cause for celebration.

 "Mod Styled Hair"- is that the best they can do?
The latchkey generation of the 70s were keenly aware that everything was better for kids in the 50s and 60s, and the Internet has done a great job in preserving the crappy cartoons, TV shows and toys that aging schlockmeisters forced down our throats. Shows like The Sixth Sense or Night Gallery were designed for adults, which made them all the more appealing, even if they don't hold up in any objective way today.

It's very hard for me to nostalgic about a lot of things from the 70s. It was a lot like today-- an era marked by decline and diminished expectations. But there were glimmers of resistance, seeds that would sprout with punk rock and alt.comix and independent film.

My fear is that the avalanche of sheer product today makes such a second Renaissance unlikely. But no one expected any of it the first time around, so keep your ears to the ground. And support those people whose work you value; don't expect them to be around if you don't.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Weekend Matinee: The Norliss Tapes

A Secret Sun board member recently asked me what I thought was Chris Carter's primary inspiration and the answer was simple: Dan Curtis. You see, the seeds of Ten Thirteen Productions can all be found in Curtis' legendary made-for-TV classics, everything from Dark Shadows to the The Night Stalker to Trilogy of Terror to Intruders.

And then there's The Norliss Tapes, featuring pivotal X-Files guest star (and Invaders legend) Roy Thinnes. This was made the year after The Night Stalker and almost seems like a sequel (complete with Claude Akins!) patched together with Thinnes because Darren McGavin was already booked. For my money Thinnes suits the material better; his moody, brooding demeanor adds a sombre realism to the proceedings that McGavin's wiseguy act could either embellish or undermine, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

This being a Dan Curtis production there are some fine Hollywood goddesses on hand, particularly the ubiquitous Angie Dickinson, the voluptuous Michele Carey and the doe-eyed Vonetta McGee. There's also some popcult resonance at work both with the setting (especially given the time period) and the Maguffin.

Poke around a bit- you'll find a full version of The Norliss Tapes online in short order.

Geekery: The original story was written by Fred Mustard Stewart, author of The Mephisto Waltz, a Secret Sun touchstone if ever there was one. The screenplay was written by William F. Nolan, author of Logan's Run.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Why I Hate Saturn

A few years back I came to a decision; I would only pay attention to the major transits in Astrology. These seem to be the only things astrologers will agree on, and even then it's a crapshoot. I'll read columns by a small handful of astrologers I find interesting, and often times I do so at the end of the day to see how well they did describing what happened already. But I always keep several grains of salt in a handy travel pouch in my journeys among the stars.

Since I look as astrology as a kind of synchronistic timekeeping system, charting the cyclical and rhythmic nature of time and being, I usually have a bias for the meat and potatoes writers who look at the various movements and their "effects" (which I interpret as the movements and their correspondences). Give me at least the veneer of science- something I can wrap my head around.

You see, back in the 90s Rob Breszny kicked off a kind of New Age, touchy-feely Astrology in which the columnist would serve up a blend of Stewart Smalley-type self-affirmation sermon and neuvo-hippie tone poem (with generous dollops of PC bromide thrown in), necessitating the reader to parse the hidden meaning allegedly embedded within. Sometimes it worked, usually you cringed. And it all got reduced to the point of self-parody; you need look no further than the current atrocity in TV Guide (which once ran horoscopes by heavyweights like Patric Walker and Sally Brompton) to see how low that particular blend can go.

Whatever the skeptics may say, I've found the astrologers I pay attention to to be as least as credible as the weather services, at least when it comes to these major transits and these effects. This recent Saturn transit is a perfect example. I've written about this before, but my mind is still boggling over it. After Saturn's transit through Cancer I was assured that it would be 29 years before I had to deal with that kind of misery again, and lo and behold it was less than five.

Saturn is transiting through Libra and apparently was doing so through my 4th house? Something like that. My eyes tend to glaze over with all the charts and graphs and the rest of it. As I said, I just tend to look at the big picture. Apparently Cancerians are more vulnerable to Saturn's malign influence since the planet rules Capricorn (my mother's sign, which explains everything), which is on the opposite end of the Zodiac. Whatever the exact mechanics of all this are, I'll leave to the experts. All I know is that the effects were brutal.

And believe me; I realize that to some this all sounds like madness. And I realize that a lot of people like to chalk all of this up to the power of suggestion and all the rest of it. The problem is that the power of suggestion can't influence outside events beyond your control (at least according to the skeptical POV), nor does it influence events that occurred during previous transits when you were totally oblivious to all of this. It just doesn't work that way.

Either way, when Saturn was transiting through Cancer it was kind of like living with a physically-abusive alcoholic; you never knew what kind of nightmare was going to pop up next. I ended up in the hospital quite a few times and things just generally went to hell. This recent Saturn in Libra thing was more like walking around with fifty pound sacks of wet sand on my back. Everything just ground down, like driving a car with four flat tires. Of course, the daily burden of managing a severe chronic pain condition doesn't make any of this any easier.

I wish I could say it was all a blessing in disguise but I just don't see it at the moment. Certainly the Saturn in Cancer transit presaged a major reinvention, leading to the books and this blog and all the rest of it. But then Saturn shows up again and basically shits all over it. So what's the point? I'm trying to make sense of it all but the jury is still good and out.

Maybe this is the point where I peddle a bunch of rehashed Nietzschean twaddle about the glory of struggle and overcoming the odds, but on one hand Nietzsche was a genius and the other he was just another shut-in and momma's boy with a brain was rotted out by syphilis. So maybe that doesn't do much in the way of applications.

Because we've been sold this bill of goods about the glory of hardship and redemptive qualities of struggle, predominantly by an over-privileged class of parasites, who've never experienced a single day of hardship in their lives. But the fact is that these narratives are all deeply subjective and highly mythologized (being charitable), and the sooner we dispense with the new ubermenschen archetype the better. It's all fine and good to overcome the odds and all the rest, but it's no way to write policy.

So maybe if there is a lesson in all of this is that suffering isn't some political issue that can be resolved or some question of ideology that can all be wished away by some magical force like the gold standard or the hidden hand of the markets. Sometimes shit just happens. Sometimes it's written in the stars.

I realize this all wades into thorny territory, and I realize how much of this mythos is primarily- if not exclusively- informed by long-standing racial resentments in my own country. But the fact remains that the people who seem to buy into this bootstrap delusion the most these days- meaning the white working class- also have the most to lose if in fact it were to be enacted. I can't help but wonder if that's been the idea all along.

In the meantime, everyone keep an eye on Saturn. It doesn't matter how you think you have, he'll take it all away from you if you don't watch out...

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Comics are Magick: Horoscope Phenomenon

I mentioned my first encounter with Jack Kirby via a DC house ad for The New Gods and The Forever People in The Witching Hour #12 (contrary to current misconception, no one really referred to those books as the "Fourth World" until much, much later, and the term itself - most likely actually coined by DC editorial and adopted by Kirby after the fact - didn't show up until several issues into the project's run). 

It all seemed like a really cool party I wasn't invited to, like the Bohemian and showbiz parties my parents went to. I remember there was one group of friends of my parents who were into Astrology and the rest of the pop occultism that was circulating in suburbia at the time. Their apartment seemed like a pagan temple to me, with a lava lamp and beaded curtains in the doorways. I can only imagine the effect this story would have had had I read it at the time.

In it, people experience dreams and visions relating to their astrological signs; Pisces, Cancer and Virgo in this case. In each case the sign manifests in the form of a goddess. And not just any goddess- tripped-out Kirby super-goddesses in all their glory.  In each case, the rather startling appearance of these figures come to save the witness or bestow on them treasures or discoveries.

This is the kind of story Kirby would probably write had you left him in a room without any prompting as to deadlines or sales. This isn't his most coherent plot ever, and I wonder if this was part of a larger project involving characters based on the Zodiac. That's certainly a project I'd love to read.

Here we also see the catalog of Kirby's obsessions- trauma-induced madness, extranormal or spiritual communication, hidden treasure, lost civilizations and on and on and on. The man was nothing if not consistent.

This isn't my favorite period for his art, however - Kirby quit Marvel for DC thinking he'd be able to leave the grind and create concepts for other writers and artists to execute only to have the rug pulled out from under him once the ink was dry, and the rushed quality of the art reflects his disillusionment--as well as the crushing 60 page a month (!) quota he had to fill under his contract. And his finishing man at DC, Mike Royer, was only ever as good as Kirby's pencils were.

I wasn't the only one who was hypnotized by Pisces, apparently. Batman: The Animated Series producers Bruce Timm and Glen Murakami illustrated a comic based on the series and used her in a dream sequence in which the goddess appears to Batman in a dream, only to morph into Talia Al' Ghul.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Comics are Magick: Double Edge

 Strangely enough, this installment is kind of a sequel to "Daddy and the Pie," only it was published 5 years before by a different company (in The Witching Hour #12) and was written by a different writer. It was illustrated by Alex Toth though, and concerned the fate of a young man who once had an all-powerful magical talisman when he was a boy.

This story is as loud and violent as "Daddy" was quiet and pastoral. But it too is a meditation on morality and the choices we make in our lives. It's also one of the earliest comic book stories I remember reading- my uncle picked it up at Marvin's Pharmacy after church and left it in a box in my grandmother's house thereafter. I re-read a number of times over the years, along with any number of classic Silver Age comics.

The Witching Hour #12 was important for another reason, however- it was where I first encountered the work of Jack Kirby, in the form of this DC house ad. Having read the bloodless funny animal comics my mother bought for me, this was like a revelation from the gods. It all seemed so cosmic, so exotic, so cool.

It would be ages before I actually read those particular comics, and not a single one lived up to what I imagined they'd be like (or the other Kirby books I read in the interim) but it certainly hit me exactly at the right time and set me on a path that I'd follow forever after.

But "Double Edge" had an impact too. It was one of those stories that tuned into the pervasive occult ambiance of the early 70s that so many of my favorite popcult artifacts do, at the same time it obviously pays tribute to Doctor Strange. And in a strange way it anticipates Harry Potter.

I couldn't say it better myself, so I let Alan do so...

Alan Moore didn't introduce magic and occultism to comics- he merely re-introduced them. I cut my teeth on that stuff back in the 70s, all in color for two dimes, or a quarter. Not to mention UFOs, conspiracy theory, the paranormal, psychedelia and all the rest, all down at my local newsstand. What I wouldn't give for a time machine...