On Mom’s 90th

Today would have been Mom’s 90th birthday.  She’s been gone for a number of years, now, but I still think of her from time to time — and I find that I recall her, and inwardly hear her distinctive voice, even more frequently during this curious period.

Like yesterday, when I made myself lunch on a weekday — which is highly unusual, of course.  My meal was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and apple slices.  That’s exactly the kind of lunch that Mom made for me back when I was in elementary school.  Make the sandwich with Wonder Bread instead of whole wheat, add in a Twinkie — individually wrapped, of course — and give me a small carton of cold milk bought from the school cafeteria for 2 cents, and I could easily be an 8-year-old eagerly opening up my lunchbox at Rankin Elementary School.

Or washing your hands.  Who doesn’t remember their Mom lecturing them on the importance of constant, rigorous handwashing?  In Mom’s case, the lecture didn’t stipulate that 20 seconds of washing was required, but the lecture always involved the words “scrub” and “use some elbow grease” and frequently was followed by a post-washing spot check to make sure that hands and face were suitably clean before you could sit down for dinner.

Or being home because of illness.  Sure, I’m not staying home because of my illness — knock wood! — but when you had to stay home from school was when Mom really shined.  Campbell’s Chicken noodle soup and saltines, with jello for dessert, on a TV tray served to you in bed, Archie and Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck comics to review, freshly laundered pajamas, and the scent of Vicks Vap-o-rub in the air — why, you almost looked forward to a little sick time R and R.

And finally, Mom was the queen of looking on the bright side — and there are always things to be thankful for, even during this time.  So far, all of our family members, colleagues, and friends have remained blessedly virus-free, we’ve got food in the cupboards and the fridge, our toilet paper supplies are holding out, with every day that goes by I’m saving money on dry-cleaning expenses, and Kish and I have managed to deal with the work at home process without a hitch.  Mom would say “count your blessings,” so in honor of her birthday I will.

Happy birthday, Mom!     

Return Of The Far Side

Here’s some very welcome news — it looks like The Far Side may be returning to the funny pages.  (Well, perhaps not to the physical funny pages, because it looks like any new panels apparently will be offered online only, but you get the idea.)

gary-larson-far-sideGary Larson’s The Far Side was unquestionably one of the most original — and funniest — cartoons ever conceived.  It ran from 1980 to 1995 and brought a daily chuckle to millions of fans, including me.  When it ceased its run we groaned, but clung happily to our favorite Far Side offerings.  But recently The Far Side‘s official website posted a new cartoon, featuring the familiar Far Side cows, dogs, and women wearing cat-eye glasses being blowtorched out of an iceberg.  Under the drawing was the announcement: “Uncommon, unreal, and (soon-to-be) unfrozen. A new online era of The Far Side is coming!”

I don’t think you can overestimate the significance of bringing a smile to people’s faces, especially in this era of so much rancor and discord.  It would be a great thing if The Far Side made its return to brighten our days,  Then, we could all start lobbying for a return of Calvin and Hobbes, too, and all would be right with the world.

 

Stan Lee, RIP

I was saddened to read of the death of Stan Lee yesterday.  Lee, who died at the ripe old age of 95, was the driving force behind Marvel Comics and the creator of countless characters — good guys and bad guys both.

stan2blee2bolder2bimageDuring my teenage years I was a huge fan of superhero comics.  (They weren’t called “graphic novels” back in those days.)  There were DC Comics — home to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — and Marvel Comics.  DC was the established brand, with by-the-book heroes who were red, white and blue, fought the bad guys, and won; Marvel was the feisty challenger that featured characters who struggled and at least seemed aware of some of the challenges of real life.  Most comics readers of that day stayed true to one brand or another.  I was a Marvel guy, and ate up the characters created by Stan Lee — with the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the X-Men being my favorites.  I read the new issues as they came out and hunted around Columbus trying to find old issues so I could read through the back stories and fill out my collection.  Eventually I had a decent collection, but as I got older and we started a family I found that I had less time for old friends like Reed Richards and Peter Parker, and the collection got sold.

The interesting thing about Lee is the astonishing amount of his output, and his genius at coming up with new superheroes and supervillains.  For a time during the ’60s, he was the principal writer for multiple titles for Marvel, including flagship vehicles like The Fantastic Four and The Avengers.  He came up with dozens and dozens of great hero characters like The Thing, great villains like Dr. Octopus, and — even more interesting — other characters like Galactus who were neither good nor bad in their intentions to humanity, but just living their lives in the cosmos, even if it meant that they needed to devour worlds to keep going.  Lee and his artists — Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who had dramatically different styles, were my favorites — had an assembly-line approach that required them to write and draw on a virtual around-the-clock basis to bring out new comics every month.  Somehow they did it, and it is astonishing that they were able to avoid schlock and produce high-quality issues month after month.  Lee’s work during the ’60s was one of those periods of great artistic outburst that become the stuff of legend.

Stan Lee later became known for self-promotion and cheesy cameos in the countless Marvel movies, and he ended up fighting with his fellow creator Jack Kirby about who was responsible for creating what back in those early, glory days of Marvel Comics.  His story confirms, once again, that creative people aren’t perfect — they’re people.  But his later actions can’t take away what he did during the ’60s, and what the characters he created meant for comic book readers like me.  RIP, Stan Lee.

 

The Back Page Of The Sunday Comics

The other day Kish and I were wandering through a thrift store. On a shelf stuffed with old Saturday Evening Posts and long forgotten board games, I saw this Dondi puzzle.

Dondi? I haven’t thought of Dondi in years. For those of you who never encountered the little guy, he was a “goody two shoes” type who appeared on the back pages of the Akron Beacon Journal Sunday comics section. Dondi was one of those darkly colored, continuing story comic strips that had a more serious bent — like the severe-looking, judgmental Mary Worth, who always seemed to be meddling in other people’s lives, or Brenda Starr, Reporter, the glamorous, starry-eyed journalist who never seemed to actually sit down at a typewriter.

I never actually read any Dondi comics, because it was one of those back pages strips. I read the front page, with Peanuts and Dagwood and Blondie and Beetle Bailey, and would read back past Andy Capp and The Lockhorns and Cappy Dick, but Gasoline Alley was as far back as I would go. The last pages of the Sunday comics were forbidding territory, with strange adult themes. If Dondi was placed back there, with all of that drama and angst, that told you all you needed to know.

What kid would want to read that stuff? It would be like telling your Mom on a fine summer day that instead of playing outside with your friends you wanted to sit down with her and watch The Days Of Our Lives or As the World Turns.

Rogue One

I learned today that there’s a new movie coming out later this year that will tell the story of some other characters in the Star Wars universe.  It’s called Rogue One, and the trailer above makes it look pretty cool.

I have no problem with introducing new characters, and new worlds, and new concepts into the Star Wars franchise.  The Star Wars universe is vast, and its about time that we got to see some different parts of it.  Years ago, after the first Star Wars came out, Marvel Comics bought the rights to tell interstitial stories about what happened in the time between the movies, and there have been countless Star Wars novels.  I haven’t read any of them, but I’ve heard that at least some of them are pretty good.

I’m all in favor of fleshing out the galaxy far, far away — especially if produces more good sci-fi films.

A Serene Voyage To Nerdsville

Last Sunday I was walking home from work when I encountered a Segway tour of downtown Columbus.

It appeared to be a bespectacled family of four that was rolling along by the Statehouse, with the Mom holding her Segway handlebars in a death grip.  Even though the devices weren’t moving at a pace much faster than a good, brisk walk, all four of the riders and the guide were wearing bicycle helmets and appeared to be protected against any imaginable possibility of injury in the event of, say, a Segway collision where the rider is hurled six inches to the ground.  As I walked past, the little group was stopped on one of the Statehouse sidewalks, but after the guide had finished his spiel they went  gliding serenely and silently away in the direction of the Ohio Theater, looking for all the world like peculiar moving statues.

And I thought:  nerds.  Or, as Ogre might bellow in Revenge of the Nerds:  “NERDS”!

I’m sorry, Segway.  Your device might be a self-balancing, gyroscopic technological wonder, and another great leap forward to a future where humans don’t have to move a muscle, but helmeted people on Segways is the most infallible nerd indicator since the development of Dungeons and Dragons and the premiere of Star Trek:  Voyager.

I hate to admit it, but I would never don a helmet and take a Segway tour of Columbus, or anywhere else, because it would provoke a severe case of ipsenerdophobia.  True nerds need a refined sense of self-awareness, as a kind of defense mechanism to avoid putting themselves into obvious nerd situations, and a Segway tour sets my nerdar jangling at peak frequencies.  As a geek who wears glasses, read comics into my college years, and likes science fiction, I’ve got more than enough nerd tendencies as it is.

The Presumed Adventures Of Bibleman

Last week I was getting into my car at a public parking lot.  The person in the neighboring space had parked too close, so I had to squeeze into the front seat past the door.  As I did so, I looked down inside their car and saw a magazine called Bibleman, with a stern looking guy in a superhero costume on the cover, in the back seat.

Bibleman?

IMG_2914It turns out that there was a kids’ video series called Bibleman that was produced for a number of years.  I never saw it or heard of it, but it’s obviously a more recent effort to get kids interested in the Bible; the modern successor to those boring Davy and Goliath TV shows and Bible Illustrated comic books.  But I found myself wondering:  what does Bibleman do?

Given Bibleman’s outfit, he is obviously a fighting hero.  If he draws upon the Old Testament, he could go around armed with a sling and some smooth stones, or perhaps a staff that allows him to part the water when necessary.  The Old Testament was full of smiting and suffering and turning people into pillars of salt, so Bibleman beating the snot out of evildoers would fit right in.  (And, if Bibleman ever got to the Song of Solomon, he might have even more diverse and interesting adventures.)

Of course, no good hero can be without supervillains to defeat against all odds.  I’m guessing that Bibleman’s arch-nemeses were Mr. Sin and Foul Temptress, both of whom were agents of Satan — who was never seen but who clearly was always pulling the strings behind the scenes as part of some dimly perceived master plan.  Mr. Sin would find people during their moments of sloth and weakness and sweet-talk them into straying from the path of righteousness, and Foul Temptress, using her Forbidden Fruit ray, would try to entice the faithful into listening to rock ‘n roll or wearing immodest clothing.  And, given the unalterable norms for fighting heroes, did Bibleman have a youthful sidekick — perhaps Commandment Boy?

A Comic Giant Passes On

Jonathan Winters died today.  A native of Dayton, Ohio, he was one of the greatest comedians in my lifetime — astonishingly creative, matchless at improvisation, able to switch from character to character in a split-second, a born mimic with a rubbery face that just made you laugh.

If you’ve never seen anything with Jonathan Winters, do yourself a favor:  go on YouTube, run a search of his name, and watch some of his stuff.  He was an amazing talent, and this clip from The Jack Paar Show in 1964 gives you a very small taste of his brilliance.  May he rest in peace.

Doonesbury And The Dispatch

Recently Doonesbury featured a series of strips that addressed a Texas abortion law.  Our local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, decided not to carry the strips.  That decision caused some controversy, and the Dispatch‘s editor wrote a column explaining the reasoning for his decision.  In essence, his argument was that the Doonesbury strips in question really didn’t fit on the funny pages.

Of course, the Dispatch has every right to control its content and to decide whether, and if so where, to carry Doonesbury.  As the Dispatch‘s editor points out, some newspapers carry Doonesbury on the op-ed page precisely because it frequently includes political content; the Dispatch has chosen not to do so.  But Doonesbury is not the only comic strip that is addressing more adult themes.  Bloom County did so, Funky Winkerbean has done so, and so has For Better or For Worse — among many others.  The daily comics, like so many other aspects of our American culture, have become a lot more diverse, and a lot less predictable, over the past few decades.  That change has occurred because many comics artists chafed at the artificial constraints that tradition imposed on comics strips, and wanted to write and draw about topics that were more relevant to their lives.

The reality is that the comics pages found in most American newspapers are no longer just the home for the hilarious hijinks of Nancy and Sluggo and the Peanuts gang, or the soap opera stories of Mary Worth or Rex Morgan, M.D.  If you read the comics, you’ll find strips addressing American life from many different perspectives — sometimes humorous, sometimes pointed, sometime poignant — and often with a message.  I think that change has made the comics pages a much more interesting read than they used to be.

The Disappearing Drunk Act

Times have changed.  Years ago, comedians who feigned drunkenness, and milked their inebriated state for laughs, were commonplace — and successful.  Now, the increasing sensitivity about the societal costs of alcoholism and the focus on drunk driving, among other changes in our cultural mores, have made the drunk comic a thing of the past.

In my view, there was no better drunk comic than Foster Brooks.  If you ever watched a Dean Martin celebrity roast, you saw him — and I bet you laughed out loud.  This clip of Brooks at a Don Rickles celebrity roast is a vintage illustration of his act.

X-ray Specs

Driving home from work the other day a local radio talk show here in Columbus mentioned comic book advertisements and that brought back some fond memories. In the Webner household there was no shortage of comic books to read when we were growing up, Archie, Betty and Veronica, Richie Rich and the like.

With that of course brought the comic book ads, my favorite being the X-ray Specs. The thought of being able to see through things, imagine that. Boy the advertising companies could really suck you in with their descriptions, wonderful, hilarious, funny, exciting , amazing and spectacular. Not to mention the fine upstanding companies you were going to purchase your items from, Honor House and Honesty Company.

You dreamed as a child of what you were going to get for your hard earned allowance money that you worked all week for, usually disappointed by what actually arrived. I don’t recall the Webner family ever getting the X-ray Specs, but at one time we did purchase some Sea Monkeys which I think were small shrimp that wiggled around for maybe an hour and then died. I remember the water being so foggy you could hardly see what was going on anyway.

I wonder if any one ever bought anything that really lived up to their expectations ?

Cappy Dick And The Power Of Trying

You are a kid on a Sunday morning in the 1960s.  It is winter and brutally cold outside, and doing something inside seems like a good idea.  You flip through the brilliantly colored comics section of the Sunday paper, and there you find your perfect companion — Cappy Dick.  Cappy Dick, the chuckling, patient, pipe-smoking sea captain who every week urged kids to “try for these great prizes!” and proposed all manner of odd games and activities for bored rug rats.

Cappy Dick was all about the art of the apparently possible.  It suggested different things that you could try.  They looked like they could be done — hey, it wouldn’t be in the paper if it was fake, would it? — and in any case it looked like it would be fun to try.

Never were egg cartons put to so many different uses!  You could take the carton, paint each egg-holding indention a different color, and toss bottle caps or pennies into them, with each successful throw generating different points depending on color.  You could learn how to make a successful flip book, or convert a shoe box into a crude castle, or make puppets out of clothes pins.  When Cappy Dick spurred your imagination, the blunt-edged scissors, Crayola crayons, and construction paper got a serious workout, and the smell of Elmer’s glue was intoxicating.  And when you were done, your hands crusty with Elmer’s glue residue and the kitchen table littered with scraps of paper and other odds and ends, you realized that trying to make something had been fun, even if the results didn’t quite look like Cappy Dick showed.

I’m sure parents of that era rolled their eyes from time to time as an excited youngster charged up, babbling about needing an empty round Quaker’s Oats container to try to make a gaily colored Polynesian drum.  But surely Moms across the land appreciated anything that would keep the kids occupied in some kind of quiet creative exercise for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, even if a bit of clean-up would eventually be required.

No doubt video games, elaborate plastic Barbie houses, and other ready-made modern toys spur some kind of creative impulse as kids play.  I wonder, however, whether the creative opportunities are not quite as rich as when kids gathered around the kitchen table and worked hard to make that Indian headdress or Pilgrim bonnet, laughing all the while.  Cappy Dick helped to fill many a dull afternoon, and it may have made kids of that generation just a bit more willing to at least try.  After all, you could win Great Prizes!

The (Modern) Golden Age Of Comics

I enjoyed Richard’s post on Bill Watterson, and it reminded me of how much I miss the comics pages from the late ’80s and early ’90s.  At that time, there were three comic strips that were must reading:  Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, and Dilbert.  All were radical departures from the popular comic strips of the ’60s and ’70s, strips like Blondie and Peanuts. Unlike the standard strips, Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, and Dilbert often involved bizarre situations, distorted realities, and plots that assumed that the reader was reasonably intelligent and well educated.  Perhaps for that same reason, unlike the standard strips, Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, and Dilbert were consistently hilarious.

These three strips hold up remarkably well.  At home we’ve got “treasury” collections of each, and they remain a pleasure to read even today, decades after the strips were first published.  And they also pass the true comic strip acid test:  stroll among the cubicles in any office building, and you are sure to see Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, and The Far Side strips tacked onto cubicle walls or slid under glass desk tops, there to forever brighten the days of white-collar workers.