Friday, December 29, 2017

A Novel History of Spencer Gifts

A Novel History of Spencer Gifts

If you're a Baby Boomer, then you must remember Spencer Gifts. If you went to any shopping mall in the US during the 70s and 80s, you likely had a Spencer Gifts there, and you likely went'd be hit with the overpowering smell of incense while you checked out the bongs and water pipes and bowls and pipes for sale, the tee shirts, the posters, the cheesy gag gifts, the even cheesier 'adult' gifts............ all the cheap crap that marked the pop culture of the time.

Over at the Mental Floss site, Jake Rossen has an interesting history of the chain (which persists nowadays simply as 'Spencers'). 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Older Woman by The Bugaloos

'Older Woman'
by The Bugaloos

The Bugaloos was a live-action TV show produced by Sid and Marty Kroft; 17 shows were aired on Saturday mornings on NBC during the 1970 - 1971 season. 'Older Woman' was performed on the show's 7th episode, 'Lady, You Don't Look Eighty'.

The show took advantage of the co-opting of the hippy aesthetic by the popular culture in the late 60s and early 70s, when kids TV shows like The Banana Splits and H. R. Pufnstuf gleefully presented themselves as 'trippy' and 'psychedelic'.

The Bugaloos cast was made up of four British teens; Joy, who wore a pink tutu, was played by the 20 year-old UK actress Caroline Ellis. She sported a stunning 'shag' haircut.

Most of the episodes featured the Bugaloos singing (or, rather, lip-synching) to at least one pop song. A 1970 LP collected all the songs from the show.

The performance of the song 'Older Woman' can be found here. It's undeniably a catchy song, but it also has an........undertone.......... that, while perfectly acceptable back in 1970, may evoke vague feelings of...... creepiness............?   nowadays. Whether this segment would be allowed in any contemporary kid's TV show is open to debate.

But, watching Joy boppin' and groovin' while her three male co-stars revolve around her is a priceless moment of early 70s just didn't get any better for kiddie entertainment back then !

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Colored Lights by Ben Katchor

'Colored Lights'
by Ben Katchor
from the December 1978 issue of Heavy Metal magazine

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Book Review: Experiment at Proto

Book Review: 'Experiment at Proto' by Philip Oakes

3 / 5 Stars

Philip Oakes (1928 - 2005) was a UK reporter, poet, and writer; 'Experiment at Proto' was his only sci-fi novel. 'Experiment' first was published in hardback in 1973; this Avon paperback was published in April, 1975. The cover artist is uncredited.

The novel is set in rural England in the early 70s. Mark Barrow, a zoologist, and his wife Biddy have just arrived from California; Mark is taking a position at the Proto Animal Nutrition Corporation. Although Proto's profits come from sales of its animal feeds, Barrow's job is to assist with Proto's distinctive research unit, labeled 'Contact', which enjoys private  funding by a wealthy widow named Monica Deely. 

Widow Deely, it seems, is obsessed with teaching chimpanzees to speak, particularly her former pet, an older male chimp named Otto. With Deely's bankrolling, the Contact group is a recognized world leader in research into the nascent field of human - animal communication.

The narrative, while easily moving from one character to another, primarily focuses on Mark Barrow's adventures working under the direction Contact's esteemed director, Dr Francis Hoover. As Barrow begins experiments to determine if the chimps housed at Contact are indeed capable of speaking, he finds himself drawn into administrative rivalries and office politics, endeavors that are passionately pursued by Proto's senior personnel.

The narrative spends nearly as much time covering the domestic dramas endured by Biddy Barrow, who, as a new, 'stay at home' mother, is obliged to interact with the wives of the other Contact researchers.

As the plot unfolds, Mark Barrow discovers that his predecessor, a man named Ryman, was dismissed from Contact under mysterious circumstances. Ryman, however, is not content to go quietly into the night, but in fact may be deranged, introducing an element of danger into the goings-on at Contact. 

Complicating matters is the antics of a crusading Member of Parliment, who seeks to investigate accusations of animal abuse at Proto. 

Mark Barrow finds himself having to put out figurative fires both in the workplace and in his home life. But the biggest drama of all has yet to play out, for it seems that Otto may not be the ordinary chimp everyone assumes him to be...............  

I finished 'Experiment at Proto' with mixed emotions. The sci-fi elements of the novel are superficial, and the Big Revelation that is promised by the cover blurbs is underwhelming. 'Experiment' is at heart a melodrama about the wives and lives of research scientists and company adminstrators; it's not a subject I would find particularly engrossing. However, author Oakes writes about these topics with a smooth, sophisticated style that mixes in enough glimpses of dark humor and (later) sharp violence to keep the narrative from becoming overwrought.

Summing up, if you're willing to read a character-driven novel that adroitly captures life in the UK in the early 70s, then 'Experiment' is reasonably engaging. Those hoping for a UK version of Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States, or Michael Stewart's Monkeyshines, likely will want to look elsewhere.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Subvert Comics issue 2

by Spain Rodriguez
from Subvert Comics, issue two
Rip Off Press, 1972

This Trashman story from the second issue of Subvert comics is one of the highlights of the entire Underground Comix movement.

While he was not as adept a draftsman as the artists in aboveground comics, Spain Rodriguez showed considerable talent and ingenuity in applying a mixture of Zip-A-Tone effects, panel framing and composition, and intricate penciling. The creativity of his work on this strip arguably matches up well with any then appearing in the black and white Warren and Skywald magazines.

In his depiction of a dystopian, near-future cityscape marked by the presence of colossal industrial structures and a discarded corpse lying amidst mounds of trash and rubble, Spain prefigured the post-apocalyptic imagery that would be essential to later 70s mainstream comics like Marvel's Deathlok the Demolisher

An argument could also be made that with Subvert, Spain also was prefiguring the Cyberpunk aesthetic.

In a 1998 interview with John Ascher, Spain remarked on this aspect of his Trashman work: 

A: Your brand of political satire in a post-nuclear world pre-dates many works with similar traits. The 1983 Ridley Scott film "Bladerunner" contains futuristic imagery strikingly similar to yours, and Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller for D.C. Comics was a story of Batman, set in the future, that satirized and criticized American society under Reagan during the cold-war. Do you see your work as being influential in pop-cultural works such as these and others?

S: That’s hard to answer. It’s certainly flattering to think so, but we’re all a product of these cultural forces. I may have gotten there first; certainly a lot of people thought that "Road Warrior" was resonant of the third issue of Subvert Comix- "Highway Zero," that sort of thing, and maybe it was. These ideas are out there. The artist pursues a cultural thread, and there are other people pursuing that cultural thread as well, so you exchange these ideas, they’re thrown back and forth, amplified, then the cultural thread goes underground, then it pops up again, often.........I see myself as having part of a very specific cultural thread. It’s interesting, ‘cause when we did underground comix, the thing that developed was putting a lot of detail, just packing the panel with detail. I saw this thing about film noir, and one of the techniques was that they had this full focus, where they’d focus on stuff in the foreground and stuff in the background. This was a completely unconscious thing that spontaneously happened.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Prisoner of the Stars by Alfonso Font

Prisoner of the Stars
by Alfonso Font
IDW Publishing, 2008

Alfonso Font (b. 1946) is a well-regarded Spanish-born artist who has illustrated comics in a variety of genres for publishers in the US and Europe. In the US, he did artwork for the Warren and Skywald magazines.

In 1982, Font wrote and illustrated a Spanish sci-fi comic series titled El Prisionero de las Estrellas ('Prisoner of the Stars'). The English translation was a long time in coming; not until 2008 did IDW release this 104 page trade paperback that contains the complete adventure.

The story takes place in the not so-distant future, when the Sun begins to go nova, turning the surface of the Earth into a scorched wasteland peopled by outcasts and bandits.

The remnants of civilization have taken refuge below the Earth's surface, in underground cities marked by overcrowding and social tensions.

As 'Prisoner' opens, a ragged and scruffy man is fleeing the authorities, heading for the surface and a faint hope of freedom. He does not know his name or his identity. After various adventures, he does achieve his goal of attaining the surface, and befriends a well-built young woman.

[This female lead likely is modeled on one or another well-known actress or model of the era......I'm thinking Brigitte Nielsen, but I could be wrong.]

Together, the duo team up to find the mythical 'city of the domes', where humans still are able to live on the Earth's surface in some degree of safety and comfort. But getting to the city of the domes won't be easy.............for the surface and the underground are filled with scavengers and thugs who are more than happy to make an example of anyone who strays into their turf.........

If you are at all familiar with the black-and-white art styles of the sci-fi European comics that appeared in Heavy Metal magazine during the late 70s and early 80s, then you will instantly be at home with 'Prisoner' and its artistic style, which can veer within the space of single page from meticulous, intricate artwork, to renderings that are sketchy and rather improvisational in nature. 

There is also a hefty helping of softcore cheesecake (the women of the surface all seem to have C-cups, and to enjoy wearing see-through tops......but then again, this is a Eurocomic, after all...........)

That said, Font does a good job of presenting his vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth burnt by a pitiless Sun, and his ability to draw faces and expressions with a minimum of linework serves him well in a comic with plenty of characters and scenes of dilapidated ruins.

The plot of 'Prisoner' is not the comic's strongest point; it runs in fits and starts, and at times relies on quite a bit of coincidence to stay coherent. But the ending stays true to the overall story arc and avoids contrivance.

Summing up, I can't call 'Prisoner of the Stars' a must-have. But if you happen to run across a copy that is reasonably priced, and you're a fan of sci-fi Eurocomics, then picking it up is worthwhile. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Book Review: Fort Privilege

Book Review: 'Fort Privilege' by Kit Reed

1 / 5 Stars

‘Fort Privilege’ first was published in hardback by Doubleday in 1985; the Ace Books paperback edition (186 pp) was released in December, 1986, with cover art by Alan Gutierrez.

If after reading my review you remain adamant about getting a copy of ‘Fort’, make sure it’s the hardbound version. In a demonstration of their cheapness during the 80s, Ace Books didn’t bother to reformat the typesetting of the hardbound novel to accommodate the dimensions of a mass-market paperback. Instead, they simply reduced the size of the hardbound typesetting to fit the paperback page, which means the font is at ~ 6 pt and barely legible.

And the Ace Books cover is utterly misleading, too: ‘Fort Privilege’ is NOT an action-adventure novel in the style of Escape from New York. In reality, it is a dull novel that explores Group Psychology, and Personal Relationships, When Under Duress.

‘Fort’ certainly has an interesting premise: in the near future (i.e., the 1990s) the U.S. is in the grip of a social and economic crisis. Most of the law-abiding citizens of Manhattan have fled, or are fleeing, the city, which has fallen into anarchy and is ruled by legions of thugs and criminals.

At the Parkhurst, a luxury apartment building modeled on the real-life Dakota, owner Abel Parkhurst refuses to acknowledge the loss of the city, and instead is focused on fiddling while Rome burns. A centennial gala is being held at the Parkhurst, and all but a handful of its tenants have elected to defy the lawlessness unfolding outside the building’s front gates in favor of participating in the lavish celebration. Abel Parkhurst is confident that the building resources and police staff are more than capable of enduring a siege of some length before 'they' (the state or federal authorities) restore order. 

'Fort Privilege' relates the happenings at the Parkhurst as the celebration, and its aftermath, come to terms with the alarming events unfolding in the remnants of New York City.

As I stated earlier, ‘Fort Privilege’ is by no means an action novel. Violent encounters between the Parkhurst residents and the homicidal mobs running amok in the streets are related in a brief, and almost perfunctory, manner; they mainly serve as a background canvas upon which author Reed can elaborate on human relationships under times of extraordinary stress.

The narrative focuses on a set of characters, all of whom are literally or metaphorically wounded in some manner. There is Bart Cavanaugh, who struggles with the physical and emotional symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; Regan Millane, a doctor recovering from alcoholism induced by a failed love affair; Ted Beckett, an egomaniac who uses the crisis to insinuate himself as the military leader of the building’s defense; and Sarah Parkhurst, Abel’s daughter, who, psychologically tormented by her privileged upbringing, deals with the crisis by indulging in episodes of self-loathing (aided by access to plentiful supplies of drugs and alcohol).

I found reading ‘Fort’ to be a chore. Any momentum supplied by the crisis aspects of the main storyline rapidly dissipates in the face of too many wordy, overwritten passages:

The divorced woman who went her rounds in the gray old hospital in the real world seemed remote; if she had drunk too much because she had to just make it through the day, it was for reasons she couldn’t even remember now. Everything had changed, she thought. She had changed. No matter what happened after this she was a different person. Wild as this was she realized now that she’d rather be here, under siege and in real danger, then back in her old life. It crossed her mind that they might be in siege here forever, and she welcomed the idea. So long as they were, then certain things would remain suspended. She was so lulled by this that she watched almost dreamily as Ted Beckett raised both hands and called for a voice vote…….

I won’t reveal any spoilers about the ultimate fate of the Parkhurst and its inhabitants, save to say that plodding through the novel until its climax eventually arrived was not an easy thing to do. ‘Fort Privilege’ is best avoided.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft by The Carpenters

'Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft'
by The Carpenters
Fall 1977

The apogee of 70s Cheese..........or over seven minutes of an imaginative musical vision, that reflected the tenor of the times ? 

Or perhaps, a bit of both ?

The song was originally written and released in 1976 by the obscure Canadian progressive rock group 'Klaatu'. The Carpenters decided to release a cover, which required the services of 160 musicians, for their 1977 album Passages

Released as a single in September 1977, 'Calling Occupants' and its evocation of benevolent aliens was just right for a year that saw the advent of Star Wars in May, and the much-hyped release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in November.

I remember listening to 'Calling Occupants' on the radio in those long-ago days 40 years ago. I couldn't decide if it was one of the cheesiest songs I'd ever heard, or whether it was in fact a work of singular vision and artistic imagination. Listen....... and make up your own mind..............?!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Marvel Super Special

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Marvel Super Special No. 3
Illustrated by Walt Simonson and Klaus Johnson, story adaptation by Archie Goodwin
Marvel / Curtis 1978

Designed to coincide with the November, 1977 release of the feature film, this Marvel Super Special labored under a number of burdens in its execution. For one thing, the Marvel team lacked the rights to the likenesses of the major characters. According to Archie Goodwin, the studio's insistence on pre-release secrecy also meant that the Marvel team had to rely solely on the script, and a short promotional clip, as the entirety of their visual references. Making things worse, the comic was forbidden from showing the aliens in any detail. It's not surprising that artist Walt Simonson called the assignment "the worst experience of my comics career".

There's also no overlooking the fact that as a movie, Close Encounters was underwhelming. Compared to Star Wars, which had transformed sci-fi cinema just 6 months previously, it often was plodding and dull. 

To hold the interest of the comic readers, Simonson wasn't above working in some selected T & A, courtesy of 'Mom' character Jillian Guiller, who seems to have a wardrobe consisting solely of cutoff jean shorts, and a tendency to be framed from interesting points of view even when carrying out the most mundane of household chores.......

Anyways, with the 40th anniversary of the film at hand, it seems right to present the entirety of the commemorative issue of Marvel Super Special No. 3. While there are a number of websites offering scans of this issue, I used a 200 dpi resolution to give the images a (hopefully) superior clarity.

 Enjoy this flashback of vintage 70's sci-fi........