Railroad ParkI took this photo Friday morning while walking at Railroad park. I say walking but what I really mean is that I was hunting Pokemon. I started playing the game about 2 weeks ago after the rest of my family and apparently the world just could not stop talking about it. Not one to allow himself to get behind on all of the latest fads and trends, I installed the app just to see what everyone was talking about and soon found myself obsessed with catching up to Cindy and Emily. Since that time I have rocketed past both of them and am a level 17, a full two levels ahead of everyone else in the house.

Playing Pokemon Go isn’t notable. Millions are playing it. I have seen people of all walks of life playing the game with the exception of anyone older than about 50. I do think what is notable is that it really is getting people up and outside during the hottest part of the year. I have walked more since I begrudgingly installed the app than I have in years. I credit it with really getting me out and exercising. Walking and running is just boring to me so I don’t do it even though I really should.  This little game keeps me motivated and that really is something special. I know that when Emily starts school I will have to give up my morning walks but my hope is that I find some kind of replacement. Until then, happy hunting.

Key Issues – “Eclipso: The Darkness Within”

At some point in 1987 I stopped acquiring comics. I can’t remember why exactly but I suspect it was due to lack of access and lack of funds. Plus, I was rocketing toward my teenage years and being “cool” became very important and comics during the 80s were certainly not cool. I don’t know if being a comic nerd is cool now but at least it is a bit more accepted.  In 1987, however, it was certainly not what the “cool kids” were into. It is worth noting that I was never “cool” but I damn sure tried and as I approached 13 I eschewed the passions of my younger years and dove all in to things like the NBA, rap music, and whatever else it seemed like the kids I wanted to emulate were into. I call this The Dark Times. By the time I hit high school the need to be accepted by any clique within my peers was fading but comics still were not something on my geek radar. At least not until I started to drive.

I earned my driver’s license in November 1991. In the summer of 1992 I kind of stumbled into a job as a lifeguard a few miles away from my house. I passed a little strip of stores and a gas station on the way to work every day and generally never paid any attention to them but one day I noticed a sign.  The sign, if my memory is correctly, had a picture of Superman and Batman and said ” The Comic Strip”. I still remembered those days as a kid when I desperately wanted to go to a comic book store but could never talk my parents into taking me. I think during my entire time being into comics during 1985-1987 we went to a store that had comics twice and those stores were more hobby shops and didn’t specialize in comics. Seeing the sign on the store touched something almost forgotten inside of me that always wanted to visit a real comic shop and one random day on the way home from work I pulled into the parking lot and went inside.

Eclipso JewelIt was everything I wanted it to be. Nothing but comics floor to ceiling all around. No baseball cards, or hot rod model kits, just comics. Racks and boxes and boxes of comics. The store was small, hardly larger than the master bedroom of a decent sized house but I didn’t notice it at the time. it was the mecca the tween version of me never got to visit. I don’t know how long I stayed in the store but I remember it kind of like the finding the Holy Grail. The only thing that would have made the experience any better would have been church organ music playing in the background. After browsing for a few moments eventually something strange caught me eye. On the new release rack there was a book featuring a character that I didn’t recognize from DC. It also had a “Special” designation on the cover which reminded me of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” which was so important to me in the 80s. It also had something on the cover I had never seen before. There was a plastic diamond mounted on the cover. It was enough to get my to buy the book. I took my purchase and went on to work not realizing what those few minutes would do to my life for the next few years.

Eclipso: The Darkness WithinThe book was “Eclipso: The Darkness Within” #1. It was the first part of a summer event that went through the DC annuals for that year. The book itself isn’t that notable although I still remember the event being better than other events I would read later. The important part is that it was my gateway back into comics in the 90s. The plastic jewel was indicative of the gimmick covers that would dominate the 90s and considering it got me to buy a comic which I hadn’t done for 5 years I guess the gimmick cover worked. The book and series basically had many heroes and villains getting “eclipsed” and it was up to the rest of the heroes to defeat Eclipso and turn their friends and others back into their normal selves before Eclipso took over everything.

After my initial stop at the comic shop I started going back and eventually I started a pull list with the store. That in itself was kind of amazing to me. The store would pull the books I wanted and all I had to due is come and pick them up AND they gave you a discount on the books! Yep, I signed up and it wasn’t long before I was going every week. I think maybe new comic day was Thursday back them but I can’t be sure about that. I know that my new job gave me disposable income and I found a new way to dispose of it. That single book purchase eventually ended up with me picking up sometimes 15 to 20 books a week. I still remember how I looked forward to hitting the store every week. It was so easy because it was literally on my way to work. I suspect if I never became a lifeguard I would be a very different person today. It is interesting how little things can change the course of one’s life.

The comic book industry would entire a legendary boom during the 90s and I was right in the middle of it. The cover gimmicks would grow and a new publisher would arise to shake up the industry. Shops would pop up all around Birmingham and I visited them all but “The Comic Strip” would remain my favorite until it was bought by its evil nemesis, “Lion and Unicorn” as the boom turned to bust. The 2nd Age of my comic collecting would end soon after but before that there is one more issue that we must discuss.

On the next Key Issues, the death of an American icon.

Key Issues – “Who’s Who #10”

Who's Who WraparoundIf “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is the book that made me a comics reader then “Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe” is the book that cemented my future as a comic book nerd. I use the term “nerd” affectionately and with pride.  In the past it may have been used as a pejorative but I think it has come to be a compliment and certainly a badge of honor as a term that is earned and not given. Either way, however, I enjoy being a comic nerd and “Who’s Who” is one of the early influences that made me into the person I am today.

“Who’s Who” came out at around the same time as “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and served as an encyclopedia to all the characters in The DC comics universe. Each issue covered a couple of dozen or so characters with full color art, brief histories and statistics on powers and weapons. Already pretty awesome right? Now, imagine a 10 year old boy who just got interested in comics by way of his new friends in a new town. Here was a kid desperate to know more about these characters so he could be part of the conversation (and also because he really loved superheroes) and at that moment he finds this comic or, more precisely, this series.

Who's Who The FlashIt is important to understand that “Who’s Who” wasn’t just a single issue but it was a multi-issue series that spanned several years and 26 initial issues. Once a month a new issue came out and I devoured them as soon as I could get my parents to buy the next installment at the local grocery store. I still had not discovered comic books stores nor could I have gone to one regularly anyway so the ONLY time I could get a comic was if I found it while shopping with my parents. I can still remember the thrill of finding a new “Who’s Who” on the shelf every so often. I would scour the spinner racks at the pharmacy or the magazine rack at FoodMax and then beg my parents for the dollar to get the issue once I found a new one. I didn’t always get it either which was devastating. I invented ways to try and hide issues until the next trip like putting a copy behind the “Home and Garden” magazines in the hope some other kid would not find it back their and snatch it up before I could buy it myself. I don’t know if that worked but it made me feel just a bit better about not getting the issue that day. Sometimes it would be months before I got a new issue but somehow I managed to get every issue that followed my first one, issue #10.

“Who’s Who”Who's Who 10 was great because it was just pages and pages of character back stories and wonderful art that was like getting multiple comics all in one book. You could read it cover to cover or just drop in to read a little about one character. In school kids would bring there issues in and during breaks we would sit around just going through them laughing at the silly characters and having deep discussions, deep for 10 year old buys, about the more serious heroes and villains. It was the kind of pure fun that often doesn’t come around anymore. I learned enough from those books to at least fake my way through comics conversation even when I really didn’t know the complete details. “Who’s Who” helped me make friends and feel accepted at a time when my world had been turned upside down.

The book pictured is my original copy of issue #10 which was my first “Who’s Who”. I didn’t come into the series until halfway through the initial run and it didn’t matter because there was so much material to read. You can tell this book is dog-eared and worn out and that is because I read it over and over. I don’t think the cover is even attached anymore. At any point when I was bored or sent to my room I could pull out my  “Who’s Who” issues and be content studying all the characters for hours on end. As the months went on and my comics collection grew, “Who’s Who” remained the most important of books. Without “Who’s Who” I don’t think I would have found such a passion for the medium. “Crisis on Infinite Earths” was great because it had all the characters in action but it was “Who’s Who” that told me who these characters were, where they came from, and why they were important. “Who’s Who” was the key that unlocked it all.

Looking back on it now I think I can also lay the blame on me being a complete DC Comics fanboy rather than a Marvel fanboy at the feet of “Who’s Who”. I read those issues that I owned so often that talking about those characters became second nature. While Marvel also had a similar series their books were a lot denser and I remember not enjoying them as much. I never connected with Marvel and I think “Who’s Who” has something to do with that. The combination of “Who’s Who” and “Crisis on Infinite Earths” locked me in to DC and I have never been able to develop a taste for Marvel even though I have certainly tried over the years.

I read and collected comics for a few years after this point but it was a hobby that was doomed to end because I was a kid and didn’t have money nor did I really have access to a comic book store on a regular basis. By the late 80s I was done and had turned my focus to fitting in with my peers in a different way. Comics became that thing I loved as a kid and I would occasionally revisit my old issues but I lost my way for a while. I still loved superheroes but I was more interested in thinks like the 1989 “Batman” movie and video games based on the characters. Comics faded from my life. I don’t show that I own a single issue from 1988 so I must have completely stopped in 1987 around the time “Batman: Year One” finished up so I was only really into the hobby for about 2 years but it was a magical 2 years and I saw a lot of seminal work during that time even though I didn’t know how important the period would be as it was happening.

Five years later comics came back into my life in a big way and changed everything forever.

Key Issues – “Crisis on Infinite Earths” #10

In the previous edition of this column I wrote about my first comic, Krull #2. At the time the column was called “Why I Love Comics” and I was never happy with that name and finally decided to use what I originally wanted to call the column which is “Key Issues”. My original idea was better and am not really sure why I chose to go a different way with the first column. Now that I am happier with the title it is time for the next installment!

In November 1985 my family moved to Alabama. I had just turned 10 and starting over in a new school wasn’t exactly easy. I was different. I liked basketball in a world where football was king. I had a Kentucky accent in the heart of Dixie and I came from an experiment school that didn’t have traditional classrooms. I went from a town where everyone knew my family and me to a town where I was a stranger and my family was seen as northerners (yeah, Kentucky is not “the north” but to people in Alabama it kind of is) who really didn’t belong. The good thing is that I found myself in with a group of kids like myself pretty quickly. One of them actually was another Kentucky transplant! So, I made a few friends quickly and then found out they were into comics. These guys were REALLY into them too.  They had stacks of issues they would bring to school and they knew the history of all the characters and everything! This was a world I was previously unaware of.  I, of course, loved TV shows like Batman and Super-Friends but I had no idea that there was so much more to the comic book universe. That is when I was introduced to a story called Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #10I don’t know if someone showed me this issue first or if I grabbed it one day while in the grocery story (I bought all my comics at the local FoodMax in the early days) because I recognized the title from other books the kids had but somehow this book ended up in my possession and it was awesome!  Crisis on Infinite Earths was a huge event in the DC Universe maybe the first real universe wide event ever in comics. It has certainly become the most important.

For a 10 year old boy who loved superheroes, however, all that matter is that this book had EVERY CHARACTER EVER! Well, not actually but close enough! Not only did it have Superman and Batman it had multiple versions of each character!  WHAAAATTTT??? This was my first introduction to the idea of the multiverse and it honestly blew my mind. My favorite cartoon as a kid was Super-Friends and this book was everything I loved about Super-Friends but way better in every way. literally this book had hundreds of characters, many I had never heard of before and they were all fighting against this huge universe ending threat. Even the villains were in on the act! This book sold me on everything comics and I will point to it as being one of two things that made me a life long comic fan.  I will talk about the other book in the next entry in this series.

In many ways it is kind of lucky that I stumbled into comics during the Crisis event. This is a showcase of two creators doing some of their best work in a series that would become legendary. If I had jumped in with another book, something of lesser quality maybe I would have moved on but starting with Crisis created an experience that I have been chasing ever since because I know how good comics can be. Sometimes I read books that live up to that experience but most of the time they fall short. That isn’t a dig on modern comics but a statement on how great Crisis is. I was in the right place at the right time and hanging out with other kids who loved this stuff in a way I was only just discovering.

The SpectreI devoured this issue and the two that came after. This was a time when getting back issues was really hard for a 10 year old and I didn’t read the entire 12 issue series until much, much later but I didn’t care. I had enough of the story in those three issues to sustain me for years. To this day I am still a major fan of The Spectre (he is the guy in the green cloak on the cover) and I have to assume my fandom is due, in part, to his part in the story and his major role in this issue and the story. After this event DC completely rebooted its universe and I got to be on the ground floor for all of the new things that came out of Crisis. I was introduced to The Flash who would also become a favorite character as well as John Byrne’s version of Superman which is still the Superman that I personally identify with. Comics would become part of my life for most of the next 30 years and I can point to this issue as being the catalyst.

What is also important here is that comics became something that allowed me to sort of fit in with this new world I was thrust into. Everything in Alabama was very different from what I was used to in Kentucky. The school was different, the people were different and I often felt alone and isolated. Comics helped me make friends and find a group of kids I felt comfortable being around. It was a little early yet for kids to start breaking off into cliques and reading comics wasn’t a “nerd” thing to do. That would come later but at the time it was exactly what I needed to start feeling better with my new reality.

Crisis #10 will always be a special book for me. That particular copy is pretty beat down. The cover is no longer attached and the pages are bent and dog eared BUT it is my original copy and it is still with me. The thing is though, comics are meant to be read not to be shoved into boxes and hidden away for some future, possible sale. The value in these things is the story and art contained inside. Yes, I have boxes of comics but every one of them has been read. Some are better than others but I am and always will be in this work they represent. It remains important to me to read comics and not “collect” them.

Come back for the next installment where we find out Who’s Who in the comics universe!

The Scarlet Gospels

I started writing this review back in June 2015 and abandoned it because I was so disappointed.  I decided to finish it today just to get it out there.  I think I am more interested in the introduction to the review than the review itself. Anyway, maybe there is something here worth talking about.

Throughout each of our lives we have first time experiences which define our future expectations. We spend the rest of our lives chasing those experiences in the hopes of having that same feeling back again if just for a moment. Sadly it is a rare to get those things backs even for a moment.  Try to remember how it felt the first time you fell madly in love or the awe at seeing something like The Grand Canyon or the castle at Disney World. Things like the birth of your first child, your first orgasm, or even your first drug experience all imprint on a person’s life in a way the second, third, and future repeats of the experience never can.  Life is filled with uncountable experiences that once you live through them ever other similar experience is always compared.  In some ways it a tragic reality of human existence that one of the things that makes us unique, our ability to have and remember experiences, causes us to try and relive those experiences often to our disappointment.

What I find lately is that I am constantly disappointed in things. I have this great experience with movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those experiences were so good and so strong that I have spent hours and hours watching movies all in the hope in recapturing the wonder and amazement that I felt while watching those films even though I know now that it is unlikely that I will ever feel that again. What becomes tougher to accept as we get older is that the person that had those defining experiences is not that same person looking to have them again.  That person was young. That person was naive. That person didn’t have decades of life to compare to the things that were happening to them.  We are not the same at 40 as we were at 20. This speaks to the old saying that “youth is wasted on the young”.  We come to realize that there really is nothing new under the sun.

Clive Barker's The Scarlet GospelsI am kind of sad that nothing impresses me these days. Not movies that I have been waiting for or vacations that I take, or books that I read. Everything lately has been a “been there and done that” situation.  It is making it harder and harder for me to get excited about reading novels.  I get so damn disappointed when a book fails to have a satisfying ending.  This is exactly what happened by the time I got to the end of The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker.  This book was supposed to be Barker’s return to the Hellraiser mythology and the ultimate and final Pinhead story.  Fans of The Hellbound Heart have been hearing about this book for years and, at least for me, expectations were high.

My first exposure to Clive Barker came when I rented Hellraiser as a kid.  The film came out in 1987 so it must have hit the rental shelves sometime around 1998 which would have made me around twelve to thirteen years old.  It was like nothing I had seen before. It was gory ans sexual and took the material seriously.  It wasn’t jokey like the Freddy films or just ridiculous like Jason of Friday the 13th.  No, this movie was dark and kid of ugly but in a mesmerizing way.  I have often said this film started my horror obsession and chasing my first experience with the film has been one of those things that always seems to disappoint.  I don’t think I ever found another film that affected quite like this one did.  Even the more hardcore and disturbing films I came to watch later never stuck with me like Hellraiser did.  Again it is one of those moments in time that you can never repeat no matter how hard you try.

Of course as time passed I watched all the sequels, mostly bad, read the original book, pretty good, and found the comic series that has some really great moments.  If it was Hellraiser I devoured it.  As things go, however, the quality of the franchise fell quickly and the disappointment came back.  When Barker announced he was writing a new Hellraiser book and it was to be the ultimate Pinhead story I could not wait.  Finally it came out and I burned through it as quickly as possible.  Boy did it start out exactly like I wanted with the dark horror I was looking for but suddenly things changed and it became something else.  Something boring.  By the end I was left feeling unfulfilled.  Instead of a study of the denizens of hell and the ultimate battle for power we got some kind of road story with a bunch of humans kind of following in Pinheads wake.  The story had none of the raw energy of the original book and film.  The original book deals with the nature of desire and the demons (figuratively and literally) that can be released when desire is allowed to grow unchecked and there was none of that here.  So much of what seems interesting is completely glossed over and the least interesting parts of the book, mainly the humans, are given most of the word count.  A Hellraiser story should never be dull but this was, for the the most part, exactly that.

That isn’t to say there wasn’t some good to be had.  The opening prologue was excellent and set high expectations for the book.  The depiction of Lucifer was superbly original and more of that story/backstory may have helped the book rise above what it become.  Overall, however, it just left me flat and wishing for more.

Barker nearly died before the publication of this book and his health problems over the past decade or so have been so unfortunate but I still find it hard to excuse how this book came out.  It actually reminds me a lot of what happened to The Dark Tower series after Stephen King had his accident.  In that case everything that came after the author’s struggle seems to be missing the edge found in previous books and I feel the same about The Scarlet Gospels and Clive Barker.  Something was missing but the author wrote the book anyway and the result is less than spectacular.

Like a junkie I keep chasing those transformative experiences I’ve had with books and film while at the same time knowing that nothing can ever be the same as when I was young and more of a blank slate.  The more I realize that I will never have those feelings back the sadder I get.  It’s not like I dwell on those feelings or anything but it sure is disappointing.  I hope that one day someone ha new sights to show me.