In the early 90s, a sudden upswing in the popularity of comic books led to a frenzy of character licensing (read: whoring-out) at Marvel. Suddenly, even such pathetic creations as Turner D. Century and The Gibbon were considered a commodity, the rights to which sold hither and yon. But the fever was built upon and fueled by collector speculation—the idea that comic books, even brand-spanking-new ones, were an investment worth gazillions—and collapsed under the weight of its own illusion by mid-decade.
Still, some positive things came out of that period; The Marvel Action Hour, for example. Not that the show itself was notable—it lasted a modest 26 episodes over two seasons—but to comic fans it offered something outside the confines of their 32-page, four-color world and hope that the new cartoons might be the long-awaited catalyst that would ignite popularity and excitement for comic books in the general public, ushering in a new age for the art form.
In less esoteric terms, the show led to Marvel’s green-lighting Fantastic Four costumes and an updated Iron Man suit, all of which they planned to reveal at the San Diego Comic Con as part of a major promotion for The Marvel Action Hour, which included a much-ballyhooed panel, introducing the voice actors who would be portraying the characters in the series.
I can hear the sarcastic Whoop-de-dos already, but you have to understand: appearances of mega-stars, such as Robert Downey Jr., Megan Fox and Gary Oldman, may have become standard con procedure. But in 1994, such c-list celebs like the chartreuse, fin-headed creature from the cantina scene in Star Wars were considered big news. Special guests like Brian (Beverly Hills 90120) Austin Green and Robert “Airplane!” Hays—the voices of the Human Torch and Iron Man respectively—were mind-boggling at the time.
ASIDE: Ironically, Hays, whose Airplane! character’s “drinking problem”—on which he would comment just prior to dousing himself with a drink in an attempt to bring the glass to his mouth in the movie—was voicing Tony Stark/Iron Man, who was revealed to be an alcoholic in the famous—at least to fans—“Demon in a Bottle” storyline of the mid to late 80s.
Of course I knew none of this—the age of internet instant info-sharing was a few years away, and anyone at Marvel with news of The Marvel Action Hour wasn’t sharing it with me. That changed less than two weeks before my scheduled trip with Audrey. I was called into the Director of Marvel’s Personal Appearance Program Alyson’s office one day and asked if I’d consider leaving several days ahead of schedule to oversee the final construction stages of the new costumes in Los Angeles. Specifically, Alyson wanted me to make sure the costumes were performer-friendly. Afterward, I’d be expected to portray The Thing at the con.
The few L.A. actors available were already scheduled to appear as other characters—Spider-Man, Captain America, Cyclops, Wolverine, etc.—and she needed someone with intimate knowledge of The Thing that she could entrust his portrayal, not to mention the important task of shepherding the construction of the new suits.
I would spend the weekend prior to Audrey’s regularly scheduled arrival at the costumer’s. With the convention beginning the Thursday of that week, we’d still have three days to ourselves. Marvel would pick up the tab for the hotel room—including those three days that I wasn’t doing a Thing (as it were)—and the rental car I would need while in Los Angeles. The role of the new Iron Man would be played by former NYC Spider-Man actor Phil, who’d be flown in from Arizona where he was living with his sister. Audrey was less than enthused when I told her, but understanding (Is it any wonder I married her?).
As originally planned, I flew into San Diego, where I rented a car and made the 3-hour drive to Los Angeles. Today, with all the ridiculous airline surcharges and fees for what used to be routine conveniences, rescheduling a flight can run anywhere from several hundred dollars to one’s first born. At the time, there were no additional charges for a simple ticket rescheduling. But actually altering the ticket from nonstop to San Diego to Los Angeles, however, would have necessitated a new ticket and the costs associated with such.
Seeing as this excursion occurred long before the advent of the internet and access to sites that provide directions for car travel, such as MapQuest, never mind GPS units, my younger Bloglodytes’ heads may be exploding with concern and questions wondering how on Earth I got to my destination. Well… Once upon a time, when people rented vehicles, the rental-car personnel provided maps to their customers and—you may want to sit down for this—gave out directions for free, marking the best route on easy-to-read portable maps that the agency supplied, again sans fee. And no, I wasn’t renting a chariot, nor propelling said car with my feet à la Fred Flintstone.
When I rented a car in 2008, I had flown into Long Beach and needed to drive one hour north to Los Angeles. I went straightwith to a kiosk situated in the rental agency’s parking lot, where attendants expedited reservations. After spending ten minutes refusing the car-rental agent’s offering of an SUV upgrade, I inquired about directions. The man just stared at me for a minute like a dog watching a ceiling fan…
“Would you like to rent a GPS unit for your trip?” he finally answered.
“No, thank you. I just need directions.” I politely replied as my waning patience neared danger levels.
“Well, if you rented a GPS unit, you wouldn’t need directions,” he mindlessly responded.
I felt as though I was in that scene from Spinal Tap wherein Rob Reiner’s documentary filmmaker tries to explain to lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel that if his one amplifier’s 10 setting were the highest, it would be as effective as his other that “goes to 11.”
“So you won’t give me directions?” I’d given the rental agency’s corporate lackey more than enough of my time and all of my patience.
“Um… uh… wait just a moment, sir…” There is that moment upon meeting a strange dog when you discover that the canine is not friendly. The agent was experiencing that moment.
He called over the other two puppets also working the parking area. I could hear the conversation as they approached.
“This guy wants directions to the Staples Center.”
“Didn’t you offer him a GPS?”
“Well, yeah, but he says he just wants directions.”
“Yessir, how may I help you.” Ah, the puppet master, I thought, though holding little hope that the issue would be resolved soon.
“I need directions to the Staples Center in Los Angeles.” I sternly replied.
“We can provide you with a—”
“I don’t want a GPS. I just need directions. Don’t you have maps available for customers?” Should I hold his hand while I’m at it?
A light seem to go on in his head; I could almost hear his personal band of angels singing the “Hallelujah” chorus. “Ah, maps are available for purchase at the reservation desk.”
“You don’t provide single-sheet portable maps for the convenience of your customers?” My stress on convenience—more than suggesting that trying to sell something to your client is not the same thing as servicing them—seem to do the trick, though I’m sure the restrained rage and timber of my voice contributed. The patsy-in-charge scurried into the kiosk and began rummaging around like a rat routing through garbage. He emerged a few minutes later with—lo and behold—a map. Of course, neither he nor his two underlings had a clue how to use a map (They probably get lost each morning on the way to the garage; after all, their GPS is in the car!), but fortunately, I did (…ancient lore passed to me by my dad who received the knowledge from his father…).
Now, if only I could remain on course with this posting…
Meanwhile, back in the past, a cheerful agent happily gave me directions and a map, and I was on the road before you could say, “Would you like to rent a GPS?”
Next: Is That a Thing in Your Garment Bag or Are You Just Happy to See Me?