Sunday, November 6, 2011

One Moore Time

1989 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: Marvel Universe float

Oh, the weather outside was frightful, like my disposition at five a.m., as I trudged through six inches of snow on my way to the subway station. It was Thanksgiving morning in 1989, and I’d already been up a half hour. The hurried shower did little to assuage my foggy, sleep-deprived brain, and I needed coffee… bad, but had decided to go cold—emphasis on the cold—turkey this particular morning so as to (a) allow as much sleepy time as possible and (b) stave off the need for urination until after the completion of my role in the Macy’s Parade, some six hours later.

As during the previous two turkey days, I was again slated to participate in the historic event as a character on the Marvel Universe float. This would be the last year the company would be allowed to feature in the hallowed tradition because of Macy’s three-parades-and-you’re-out float policy. Marvel had commissioned it’s mobile, fantastical, urban skyline in 1987 as part of Spider-Man’s 25th Anniversary (see “I Love a Parade,” Part I, II, III, IV, V and Finale)—along with the original Web-Swinging balloon—so this was the third and subsequently final year they could engage in the festivities.

The Marvel Universe float may have only lasted three parades, but the Spider-Man balloon flew for nearly a dozen

There were no such restrictions on my inflatable alter ego, however. Each year’s balloon roster was based on audience popularity and unsurprisingly Spidey’s helium-filled doppelgänger would be a fixture for the next half dozen years, it’s eventual retirement necessitated by the balloon’s age rather than any decrease in the world’s love for the airborne arachnid.

The float stipulations are based on keeping the parade fresh each year with a rotating line-up of recent and new entries, the former being put out to pasture before they became stale. At least this is Macy’s public explanation, and there is a modicum of truth behind it. But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. The department store giant makes some mighty hefty lucre from its client sponsorships, and that charge does not include the money to build the floats—or balloons.

Nor does it include the annual entry fee for inclusion. Basically, businesses are buying a three-year option to be in the parade, which isn’t a guarantee. Each still must have their designs approved by the Nabob’s of the department-store behemoth before entry is granted. Once given the thumbs-up, companies receive three years of unprecedented international exposure, spotlighted during NBC’s broadcast of the event, along with those warm, oogy feelings associated with Thanksgiving. The same idea applies to baking something during an open house. The aroma of home-cooked goodies conjures up happy familial thoughts, making a property more enticing to prospective buyers.

Sunny day? Not so much in 1989

Want another three years? Just pony up the fees for another option, submit the necessary plans, receive approval, and construct a new entry. It’s that simple. Which is why such venerable, perennial participants as the Children’s Television Workshop are there year in and year out with a brand-spanking-new Sesame Street float every triennial.

As for those floats forced into retirement, they’re deconstructed for whatever parts can be reused and the remaining bits scrapped. With its large buildings, there’d be quite a bit of salvageable wood from the Marvel Universe, as well as hardware—slide poles, railing—including a metal staircase from the bell tower to Dr. Doom’s dungeon. I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to the Gulliver-sized comic books, specifically their covers, which adorned the back corners of the vehicle at the base of the skyscraper (see “I Love a Parade, Part IV: I Scream ‘FLOAT!!!’”).

This Walt Simonson cover was one of those magnified and featured on the Marvel Universe float.

They were my favorite feature: larger-than-life reproductions of vintage Marvel covers, including ones from the runs of Captain America, X-Factor and Amazing Spider-Man. There wasn’t anything particularly significant about the covers that were chosen; they weren’t noteworthy examples, not anniversary issues or milestones to any degree. Nor would they be recognized on any “Best of” lists by virtue of their artwork. They were simply gigantic comic book covers, easily ten feet tall, the perfect addition to a man cave or rec room or youth center.

I’m surprised Marvel didn’t save at least one of them for posterity. It would make a nifty piece of artwork in reception, perhaps with accompanying photo of the float and its story. But the company has always been negligent with archiving, whether important historical objects or the comics themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if Macy’s Hoboken facility offered the covers to Marvel and the penny-pinching suits refused to ante up the shipping costs.

Founded by B-Movie maestro Roger Corman in 1970, Marvel latest owner, New World—purchased from pharmaceutical corporation, Cadence Industries, in 1986—was a low-budget film distributor, the movies of which probably cost less to make than the expenses involved with being in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. So the chances of the company forking over the green for another three years in the holiday showcase were slim to none.

Still, the company did pick up the option for the final year and was thus determined to go out with a bang. Okay, perhaps more of a firecracker pop as opposed to an M80 kaboom, as it hired Melba Moore to star on the float for its farewell cruise. I didn’t know Melba Moore from melba toast, although like the dry, tasteless side dish and appetizer accompaniment, I knew of her.

No surprise, as was the case of the product on which New World was built, Moore was a B-level celebrity whose acting career languished, after a distinguished Tony win in 1970 for her role in Purlie. She turned her attention to music and scored some minor successes until hopping on the Disco train with a string of forgettable hits within that and the R&B genres, all in all garnering four Grammy noms (no wins). She even had a self-titled sitcom, Melba, which ran an embarrassing six episodes in 1986. But by 1989, what little cachet she carried had diminished greatly. She was more than a decade from consideration for The Surreal Life, so her “starring” on the Marvel Universe float was the next best thing.

Unlike the parade in years prior at which I donned the red-and-gold armor of Iron Man, this year I’d be portraying Magneto, Evil Mutant Master of Magnetism and arch-villain of the Uncanny X-Men. I could not have been happier with my change in job title. True, the re-assignation from hero to villain could have been perceived as a demotion, but I’m willing to bet most if not all of those skeptics would be from outside comicbookdom. After all, Mags was more powerful that the Golden Avenger—metal to the evil mutant was like paper to an Origami Master—and could crush Tony within his vaunted armor with nothing more than the barest synaptic firing.

As for notoriety—as judged by the hoi polloi and not the comic geek community where the debate would ever be raging—Iron Man may hold the edge by today’s standards by virtue of a successful eponymous movie and sequel versus Magneto’s comparatively lesser turns as the featured villain in the first and third of the X-Men movies and a supporting character in the second. But in 1989, neither was shining too brightly in the pop culture consciousness; although arguably the mutant malefactor might have had the edge having starred in a much-ballyhooed and acclaimed X-Men cartoon released by New World the year before.

No, the joy in my recasting stemmed from not having to put on the bloody uncomfortable faux iron suit—particularly the “diaper”—that dug into the sides of my inner thighs and threatened future procreation, if not possible sexual curtailment. And I don’t want to think about what dangers awaited my wobbly bits had I stumbled while in the costume. The word “rupture” comes to mind. As it was, I could still detect the faint lavender hues of last season’s contusions bordering my jewels like a parenthetical statement. Thoughts of the testicular iron maiden still haunt my dreams.

Even had the shorts felt as comfy as a pair of silk boxers, I would have relished the chance to play Magneto. The torso piece of the Golden Avenger’s suit, which extended to just below the ribs, was like wearing a water barrel. I felt like the hobos in depression-era cartoons and had about as much maneuverability. The shoulder guards, which were hot-glued to the chest unit via strips of leather only afforded me the luxury of raising my arms just below the perpendicular mark. Any more and the whole thing rode upward, knocking the helmet askew, threatening to lift it from my head. Fully-clad in the armored suit, I could walk and perform some basic climbing, but only just and not without great difficulty and daring a terrible accident (and when did that ever stop me?!)

The Iron Man costume was the Marvel superhero equivalent of Snorky from the Banana Splits Show. Sure, the bipedal pachyderm was cute, but his appendages were useless and he spoke via unintelligible honks. The other three members of the bunch performed side skits—Fleegle checked the mail; Drooper threw out the trash, etc.—but Snorky was limited to caroming into other Bananas and falling when the situation arose, as when a message from rival Sour Grapes Bunch arrived.

By contrast, the Magneto costume was a freeing, one-piece red spandex affair; with royal purple hot pants; matching boots and cape, attached by a hard studded neck ring; and signature helmet, complete with hood ornament. The helmet perched precariously over the head, like an overturned bucket on a fence post and jostled out of place constantly, but it was the only annoying bit to the ensemble.

Granted, it wasn’t nearly as sharp as Shellhead’s duds—although the patrons of the Boots & Saddle bar on Christopher Street in the village might disagree—but I didn’t care. For once, I’d be able to enjoin the float’s musical number and otherwise play on the urban-landscape-jungle-gym-for-adults as it ambled through the thoroughfares of Gotham.

“Wherever did you get that cape... It’s Fabulous!”

Surprisingly, Iron Man was cut altogether from the guest list. Unsure why—the suit was still usable, albeit painfully so—but it was cumbersome, needing a large, unwieldy case to transport, because pieces like the helmet and chest could be crushed if not packed in a sturdy container. Although the Hulk costume was similarly bulky, it could be mushed into a canvas army surplus bag since its component parts were primarily constructed of fabric and stuffing and thus more forgiving when roughly handled.

Due to the venerable yearly extravaganza’s renown and popularity, New York’s Finest, who never saw a crowd-control measure they didn’t like, placed saw horses, metal dividers and other such barriers along the parade route the day before to prepare for the tremendous crowds that would gather that night in anticipation of the event, crowds that shame those for the opening of the Phantom Menace. These measures effectively split the island in two from north to south. The cross-streets remained open in the wee hours of the morning, but were quickly shut down by 7 a.m. If you needed to transport anything from one side of Manhattan to the other, say a van full of heroes and villains from Marvel Headquarters to the parade’s genesis, you and your super-powered posse had best get your asses out of your Bat Caves and Sanctum Sanctorums, don your capes and gauntlets, load up the vehicle and head on your way before the deadline or you’d be walking.

If only they’d known...

On Thanksgiving eve in 1988, Marvel rented a room at the Statler Hotel, where the entire retinue of suits was stored. Situated on the Manhattan’s west side, the Statler provided a more convenient dressing facility than the Marvel offices. The actors would still have to meet at the crack of dawn, but it was better than gathering a quarter to the crack of dawn. Plus, were there any hiccups—performers delayed by commuting woes, costume to be repaired—the clock would be more forgiving. I volunteered to baby-sit the costumes that year (see “Going for the Gold”), which afforded me an additional hour’s sleep the next morning before my fellow thespians arrived.

No such luxury in 1989. The plans reverted to meeting and dressing at Marvel HQ, and the single-evening hotel accommodations wasn’t the only thing slashed from the budget. Perhaps, when the room was cut, Personal Appearance maven Barbara nixed the bulky red-and-gold hero’s ensemble to ensure only needing a single van to transport all the actors and costumes for the event. This would also explain the slightly reduced cast of characters—along with Iron Man, The Enchantress was axed. True, the ensemble of the Norse goddess of love and Thor nemesis was très facile to transport—all tights and body-hugging pieces; not even a cape—but she was another body altogether and real estate in even the most luxurious van was scarce when you’re carrying ten festooned characters, their caretaker and a driver, not to mention a Hulk costume.

Veteran Spider-Man Jeremy was allowed to meet the group on site, since he could easily carry the Web-Slinger’s suit with him in a modest duffel bag, transforming into everyone’s Favorite Neighborhood Wall-Crawler in the float’s collapsible bell tower when the time arrived. Hulk Mark did the same, but not because the Jade Giant’s costume was conveniently small. Due to its mass, the Hulk ensemble could not be worn in the van en route. Also the conditions within the costume necessitated its being worn in approximately twenty-minute increments before the wearer risked fainting from overheating, so there was no sense in Mark convening with the others at Marvel HQ. He’d also dress in the steeple—where he’d take breaks during the parade—just before kick-off as he’d done in past years.

About a week prior to Thanksgiving, the troupe convened at Macy’s parade facility in Hoboken, New Jersey, for Press Day, the annual ritual when members of the media were invited to photograph some of the year’s entries amid a sea of local school children. The morning, however, before the arrival of the area’s Jimmie Olsens and wee ones, would be dedicated to learning the choreography. Upon our arrival we met our distinguished guest star, Melba Moore. I was immediately struck by her friendly demeanor, and thankful she wasn’t a diva. She also seemed genuinely excited to be performing with us superheroes, the way the used-to-bes on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here seemed overjoyed to be cooped up in a jungle with the likes of Stephen Baldwin and Janice Dickinson.

The Marvel Universe float stood reconstructed, looming over all. It would be taken apart and transported through the Lincoln Tunnel to the parade route with all the other entries Thanksgiving Day eve. Us actors took to the creation like children to a playground for the first time after the snows of winter have melted. We happily climbed and scurried, reacquainting ourselves with the various fun features of its construction. Some, like myself, whose roles had changed, experienced its delights in a different light, while newcomer White Queen—a replacement for last year’s model—experimented for the first time.

Gymboree for grown-ups

1987 inaugural choreographer Bill Guskey was again called to duty. Whereas his task that time was made all the more onerous by having to showcase the exciting features of the float—in order to justify its price tag with the Marvel Poo-Bahs—and ensure each character getting his/her moment, this go-round the focus would be on Melba and integrating her with the heroes, while utilizing as much of the float’s attributes and various environs as possible.

You’re toast, Melba!

Understandably, Spider-Man was spotlighted during much of the routine. Melba would go through various stages of being molested—heh, heh—by the villains and rescued by the heroes, as she traipsed from one urban microcosm to another. Bill’s staging opened with Magneto and Green Goblin grappling with Melba atop the roof of the center structure, the highest point accessible by foot. The skyscraper book-ending the back of the structure, on which the Silver Surfer’s board perched, rose more than thirty feet, but was only attainable via a pair of shimmy poles along its backside, and once accessed afforded nought but the cosmic hero’s scant board as a place to perch.

Third annual Macys steeple chase

Spider-Man arrives to save the stalwart star, who leaps upon the Web-Slinger’s back just before he slides down the fire pole. Then Ms. Moore would wend her way around the base of the bell tower, at which point the Hulk in a fit of rage, rips the steeple from its base, threatening to crush the fleeing B-lister who hurries down the front stairway while the structure topples toward her.

For the love of humanity, not the streamers!

But our erstwhile songstress now must face the wicked White Queen who, upset over missing a Hellfire Club meeting to watch Ms. Moore’s dreadful, short-lived sitcom, attacks with festive streamers?!! Laughable as it may sound, the paper projectiles prove most treacherous, threatening to entangle Melba by sheer volume if not tensile strength.

Spidey admires Daredevils form as DD practices his pliés

Helped into the sewers by Wolverine and Dr. Strange—a questionable heroic maneuver to say the least—Melba is then plucked through the manhole cover above by Spidey and DD. The overweening duo pose to the cameras rather than actually protect the chanteuse, who is once again menaced by Gobby and Yours Truly. She is now back whence she started, both location- and predicament-wise. Apparently, the inanity of her circuitous journey hasn’t been lost on the vainglorious pair who put her there. Deciding she was one diva too many, they throw her off the side into the clutches of Strange and Wolvie, where she makes her final stand amid of heroes, including Caspar, the Friend— I mean, Silver Surfer.

Caspar and his friends

Yes, it’s silly. But there is only so much that can be done in two and a half minutes during a live television spot on a parade float with neither fly system nor pyrotechnics. It was hardly Alvin Ailey—Hell, it wasn’t even up to a Medieval dinner theater’s standards—but it served its purpose: placating the star, yet simultaneously showcasing the characters.

Steve’s Soapbox: I’ve read vituperative statements about the Marvel Universe staging for both the 1987 and 1989 Thanksgiving Day spectacles from questionable comic fans commenting on YouTube videos. These ignorant, spoiled castigators have no idea of the complexities of the situation, nor have they grown in a world where their beloved genre was regarded as the leprosy of pop culture, ridiculed and relegated to badly produced, unfaithful interpretations, in the rare instances where movies and TV shows were created. The Marvel Universe float and Spider-Man balloon cast superheroes on an international stage, giving such obscure (at the time) characters as Daredevil, Power Man and The White Queen their first glimpse of the spotlight. Arguably, it set the stage for Tim Burton’s Batman and helped legitimize the genre to what it is today.

Now where was I...?

To say Jeremy was freaking out over the pole-slide carrying Melba Moore on his back would be an understatement, and I can’t say that I blame him. Goodness knows, I’d performed some pretty daring—and stupid—stunts in my time as the Webbed Wonder (see “Yippee-Kay-Eh” for one example). So, too, Jeremy, but endangering one’s own life is a far cry from dragging another’s along for the ride, certainly not with but a scant couple of hours of rehearsal time, which when broken down to this single instance within the whole routine, amounted to less than an hour’s worth of practicing the stunt.

The pole itself was another issue. As it was only secured at its base, which was merely a sheet of pressboard, it was far from steady and jiggled liberally when used. Double the weight of the usee and who knows how, or if, it would hold. Add to these factors the pressure of having to undertake the move on national TV and it’s a credit to Jeremy that he didn’t run out of the warehouse screaming.

To their credit, both he and Melba kept a stiff upper lip and accepted their fate. As Ms. Moore departed, the heroes remained to meet-and-greet the impending tide of children and reporters. Jeremy wouldn’t be able to further rehearse the maneuver until Thanksgiving morning a week later. I’m sure he slept well in the interim.

I’d be lying if my fellow thespian’s and Ms. Moore’s impending risky maneuver didn’t cross my mind as I trudged through the snow, incessantly mumbling “There’s no way they can have the parade today,” like Rain Man. Big, fluffy flakes continued to fall as I exited the subway stop in Manhattan near the Marvel offices. I envied Hulk Mark; he’d be the only one of us not to freeze his ass off. But I wasn’t about to rue not encasing myself in the Iron Man suit. Surprisingly, it wasn’t any warmer than Magneto’s duds and may actually have been less so. Contrary to protecting oneself from the elements, the torso acted like a wind tunnel, allowing gusts of Arctic air through the arm apertures. Positioning my body just so, I whistled like a tea kettle.

We had less than an hour to suit-up and vie for the title of last-one-to-pee-before-departure. Upon our egress from the building, the snow persisted. It seemed to actually get colder and my ornery disposition was exacerbated by a growing headache due to java deprivation. Ten of us, sat uncomfortably in various stages of undress, as elements of certain costumes could not be worn or were uncomfortable while crammed in a car seat, such as capes and headpieces.

The sight that greeted us at our designated kick-off spot stopped us cold (no pun intended). Our beloved float sat in snow-covered pieces on the tarmac. And Marvel was not the only sponsor to suffer this setback. Deconstructed floats lay along Central Park West as far as the eye could see, where they would normally stand fully-erected by this time in past years. Needless to say, the construction crew was way behind schedule due to the inclement weather. Parade officials assured Barbara and Bill the Marvel Universe would be ready in time for the start, but the delay meant that there would be no additional rehearsal time to practice the blocking, including Spidey’s and Melba’s pole slide of doom! Although, given the poor visibility caused by the swirling snowfall, no one was going to notice if they botched the maneuver.

It was still “colder than a witches teat,” and hours until show time. At least going through the routine would’ve helped keep us warm. In the short time since we’d arrived, teeth were already chattering. A few moments more and heroes’d be shaking like Don Knott’s in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Fortunately, parade officials recognized the need for shelter and directed us to the basement door of the nearby Museum of Natural History, where us characters were allowed to warm ourselves while awaiting the parade’s start.

Dr. Doom and I, two of the Marvel Universe’s most powerful villains, strode across Central Park West down a ramp and through a set of dark gray double-doors toward sanctuary. What greeted us in the bowels of the museum was the avian exhibit. Encased, taxidermied fowl of all shapes and sizes, living and extinct, filled the room. The only light came from ceiling spots over the individual displays. It was like sneaking into the bat cave. All that was needed was the case holding the (until recently) late Jason Todd’s Robin suit.

The pall of death—lifeless avian eyes staring from every part of the room—and eerie lighting made the silence all the more pronounced. I half-expected Norman Bates to suddenly appear to offer me a room for the night. Then I heard a faint mewling, which grew to a distinct sobbing as I approached a corner of the hall. Huddled on the floor, spotlighted and girded at right angles by glass displays, appeared to be a high school band.

I turned to my nefarious partner, but he was no longer by my side, instead fascinated by a towering Moa on another part of the floor. To his side stood a Dodo and I was suddenly struck by how incredibly odd the whole scene must have appeared. It was like an unpublished issue of Marvel Super-Villain Team-Up. Would-be World-conquering ruler of Latveria, Dr. Doom, and Megalomaniacal Master of Magnetism, Magneto, holding hostage an entire high school marching band in the stuffed bird exhibit of the Museum of Natural History whilst just outside Marveldom assembled prepares to rescue the terrified teens.

Turns out the students were from Hawaii. Initially thrilled to have been invited to the big show, their elation quickly turned to shock at the inhospitable and foreign weather conditions in which they were expected to perform. These kids had never seen snow before. Live. In person. They were six thousand miles from home in a city that intimidates the most seasoned urbanite and the poor homesick waifs were wishing they’d joined the debate team instead. I’m sure the abrupt appearance of two nefarious evil-doers didn’t help matters.

Even the appearance of Spider-Man and several other heroes couldn’t assuage the teeny wahines and kanes. But the tableau took on an even odder tone as hero and villain alike mingled like aristocrats at an art show: Power Man, pondering a Puffin; Daredevil eyeing an Auk; Dr. Strange bewitched by a Booby; Spidey espying an Osprey. It was only fitting that the Hawaiian high-schoolers should cluster under a Nene.

By the time Captain America arrived to gather us back outside, the wonder had worn thin. I emerged from the museum’s basement like Judy Garland crossing the crashed farmhouse threshold into the Land of Oz after the tornado. The snowing had stopped—nary a flake to prove its ever having fallen in the first place—and where once sat mounds of float flotsam and jetsam along the parade route, now stood a kaleidoscopic panoply of entries, complete and prepped for take-off… including the Marvel Universe.

The parade was literally minutes from starting. But even with the ten or so extra we had as we awaited our turn in the queue to join the show, we wouldn’t have nearly enough time to effectively practice the routine. And that were if conditions were right. One step onto the float was all that was needed to realize that things weren’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.

A thin coating of ice enveloped the entire structure, and it was all us heroes could do just standing erect. Jeremy’s and Melba’s pole dance took on added gravitas. Mask or not, the concern on Spidey’s mien was palpable; he was webbing in his pants! But he wasn’t the only one. The prospect of traipsing, climbing and performing the other staged combat sequences of the choreography on the icy surface we now found ourselves on was unappetizing to everyone. The gusting wind only exacerbated the working conditions, and the dreary, dark gray skies portended more snow.

Bless Bill Guskey. He wasn’t about to endanger the safety of his charges. He completely scrapped the opening sequence on the plateau abutting the steeple, off which Spidey and a piggybacking Melba were originally set to slide via pole, escaping the clutches of the maleficent Magneto and the detestable Green Goblin. The routine would now begin at the base of the bell tower. But without the time to choreograph anything specific, he simply told us to “wing it;” improvise the battle over Ms. Moore until the song caught up with the staging when the star hit that particular spot and then continue as planned from there.

This meant that those performers initially spread out at different points on the float at the songs start, were now crowded together in the small area at the steeple’s base, pantomiming an epic struggle among heroes and villains. Adding to the surrealism, Bill instructed us to engage in slow motion, so as to take as little focus as possible away from Ms. Moore while she lip-synced the lyrics. There was no time for a run-through. Bill barely had time to step off the float before it lurched forward to join the parade.

As if on the cue, the snow began to fall anew and the wind picked up as well. The momentary respite from the inclement weather served only to warm the ground enough so that fog developed, swirling about, as if painted by Van Gogh. Despite the conditions, I anchored myself atop the highest spot after The Surfer’s tower, that being the rooftop where the choreography was originally set to begin. It was bone-numbingly cold and slippery, but I was euphoric. After two years relegated to standing among the float’s dregs or painfully walking like Herman Munster beside her, I was having the time of my life. I foolhardily stood on the icy rail, striking melodramatic poses, like a Kabuki performer. My royal purple cape whipped about in the breeze, adding to the affect. I was King Lear raging at the storm.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

The only one crazier than I was Silver Surfer. He stood upon his board precariously perched thirty-plus feet about the street, looming over me. The board was a mere foot wide, and although he tethered himself to the structure with a tightly-held leather thong, one couldn’t but stare in awe at the former Herald of Galactus as the tower lurched to and fro like a metronome while the vehicle ambled through the causeways of Gotham.

The snow ceased shortly before entering Herald Square. At least we had that going for us. The music started as did our “winging” it. The ad-libbed beginning immediately went pear-shaped. There just wasn’t enough room and too many characters to effectively perform any sort of stage combat. It looked as if the heroes were dry-humping the villains, as we bounced off one another like one of those sped up chase sequences in a Monkees episode only in slow motion. It was all grandstanding with cartoonish posing and inane exits and entrances. Not one of our proudest moments.

But at least I had a chance to enjoy my Thanksgiving without gingerly ambling about like the guy who took last place in the mechanical-bull–riding contest!

Monday, October 10, 2011

He's at It Again

Writer/artist—and savvy promoter (hence the outfit)—Adam Dembicki displays his newest creations

That wee wunderkind of storytelling, Adam Dembicki, debuted not one, but two new mini comics at the recent 2011 Small Press Expo or SPX as it is more commonly called. The two-day comic-book bender takes place every fall—next year’s event is Sept. 14–15; MARK YOUR CALENDARS!—at the Bethesda Marriot in Maryland and celebrates the li’l guys of graphic novels. And few get much li’l-er than Adam.

Only five at last year’s show, the junior genius presented his first title, Ant Army, an eerie, Twilight Zone-esque mini that is diabolical in its knack for leaving readers unsettled. My ever-Faithful Bloglodytes will remember I gave an esteemed four spiders to Master Dembicki’s terrifying tale (seeAnt Army by Adam Dembicki”).

I was looking forward to seeing my wee pal and his equally talented father, Matt, not only in anticipation of their latest creations, but also because I wanted to give Adam a copy of Rex Riders, the book I’d edited, layed-out, typeset and served as design consultant during my hiatus from the blog last spring (see “REX RIDERS or How I Spent My Recent Sabbatical”). The smile he displayed when he received the book was recompense enough, but he gave me a copy each of his dual debut.

I was thrilled.

As in previous years, I was representing Fanfare/Ponent Mon, publisher of only the finest translated graphic novels from across the globe. The booth was situated close to Adam and his dad’s location, a mere fifteen feet behind me and across the aisle to my left. As attendees came by to check out my wares, I was sure to alert them to the six-year-old creator in the house upon their departure, pointing in Adam’s direction.

At the end of that first day, I bumped into Matt. He was incredulous to the amount of traffic Adam had received. I mentioned that I plugged his son at every opportunity throughout the day, and he was understandably humbled by my magnanimous gesture. The next morning Matt and Adam met me outside the convention hall before it opened where Adam presented me with a piece of original artwork he’d drawn the evening before as a thank you for my help.

The cool artwork gifted to me by creator Adam Dembicki

And it is with full disclosure that I tell you this, and that the young Dembecki’s gift in no way, shape or form has influenced my reviews of his latest masterpieces (ahem).

Jailbreak and The Never-Ending War, are slimmer—and in the case of the latter, black-and-white—yet no less compelling than Ant Army.

His latest efforts, Jailbreak and The Never-Ending War, are slimmer—and in the case of the latter, black-and-white—but no less compelling.

On the surface, Jailbreak is nothing more than just that: a story of a prison escape by a quartet of cons. It’s a more straightforward and furiously-paced tale—akin to that of The Fast and the Furious movie franchise—that opens with the prisoners making good their escape. A frenzied chase, complete with helicopters, ensues with little doubt as to the outcome.

The art further suggests to the story’s black-and-white result, and given a less-proven wordsmith, I’d expect no less. But Adam is nothing else if not a rascally writer, and he leaves his audience on the final page with the disturbing notion that the ending is not as cut-and-dried as it would seem, made all the more poignant by the simplicity of the story and stark art.

The Never-Ending War is more epic in subject matter and befittingly presented in full color; a galactic battle pitting Earth against Mars, which opens many decades into the struggle with the advantage having oscillated between the two combatants. Is the the final conflict? Will a victor finally emerge? That would be telling and would ruin My Faithful Bloglodytes’ enjoyment of Adam’s classic statement on war.

Adam talks about Jailbreak, The Never-Ending War and Star Wars with Joe and Rusty at SPX 2011

A mere six years of age and the Master Dembicki displays a tremendous depth and understanding about war that puts to shame that of the world’s leaders. Earth and Mars could just as easily be the United States and the Taliban or Israel and Palestine or any warring factions past, present or future. And the kid Kipling’s prescience at such a young age should be a wake-up call to us all.

Both Jailbreak and The Never-Ending War get four spiders.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Maiden Voyage

Beautiful Halifax, Nova Scotia... not a cloud in the sky... yet!

Throughout my decade as Spider-Man et al, the preponderance of appearances were humble affairs. Short one-day signings at Mom and Pop’s, comic shops, and local chains of grocery, drug and convenience stores were the norm with occasional notable exceptions. Still, though these smaller affairs may not have had the gravitas of a parade, celebrity sighting or television coverage, they were no less special; the children were just as endearing and full of surprises, the locals were as warm and friendly as ever, and I was always excited and often amazed at discovering parts of the United States and Canada that I would never have been exposed to if not for my Web-Swinging adventures.

But every once in a while an appearance would become something to write home about after the actual wearing of the red-and-blue; the deed is done; the kids are happily sleeping with their autographed comics clutched in their wee mitts after a grueling day of braving an encounter with their hero; the parents are slumped on the couch near comatose after shepherding said young ’uns to meet their super-powered idols; and I’m usually either on the first plane out of Dodge or back at my hotel facing another lonely night eating at the bar, then watching network television or basic cable—depending on the amenities of the hotel/motel at which I’m staying—until my flight the next morning… usually.

The anecdote I’m about to relate in my customary inimitable fashion begins as so many of my escapades, or should I say ICE-capades, often do in the wilds of our Canadian brethren. But although the weather is a contributing factor to this masterful missive, the playful vagaries of Mother Nature merely provide the backdrop to our tale.

It all started in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of the three provinces that make up the Maritimes. Other than a stopover—during which I didn’t even change planes—on my way to St. John’s, located in another of the provincial trio, Newfoundland, I’d yet to pay a proper visit to the island whence my maternal grandfather hailed. This fact alone had my anticipation precipitously high, even though I didn’t have relatives there—at least none of which I knew; neither Papa nor my mom spoke of any. Still, Canada was in my bones, and despite the weather’s mood swings during some past gigs, I’d always had a good time, regardless of what part of the country I was in.

If nothing else, Canada was beautiful; a treat to take in, even if just traveling from airport to hotel to convenience store and back; which was the case during this trip, a set of appearances at area convenience stores, at which Marvel comics were sold.

The gig was put together through the company’s mass market circulation department. As opposed to the specialty division through which comics are delivered on a non-returnable basis at a greater discount—most often to funny book purveyors—this segment of the business delivered titles through major magazine distributors to everyone else from Walmart to 7-11, anywhere you’d find a periodicals section or spinner rack among other fare.

Boy: Wow! Wonder Woman!
Man: Hmm... Wonder Woman...

These co-op appearances—partially funded by Marvel—were a way for the distributors to increase comic sales and attention, and foment good will with their clients. They’d shoe-horn as many shops as possible into Spider-Man’s visit to maximize the bang for their buck and cover as large an area as they could. Most of the visits were no more than an hour long and unfortunately scarcely attended; the individual outlets may have been alerted by their distribution reps about Spidey’s impending swing-by—possibly given a poster to put in the window—but not much else was ever done on the part of the business owners to promote the event.

As a result, these stops were invariably filled with patrons lamenting a missed opportunity to bring their children or grandchildren—whatever the case may be—to meet Marvel’s most-famous hero, and receive a free comic and autograph. I’d always offer a signed book anyway, and occasionally they were gratefully taken. But more often, they were politely declined, probably because the abstainer didn’t want to face the disappointment of their little ’uns upon hearing that they’d missed meeting the Web-Spinning idol o’ millions.

Comic-Geek Porn

Even with such tepid results, both reps and merchants alike were always thrilled with Spider-Man having visited their shops, which at the end of the day is the most important thing.

The comics were provided by Marvel through the distributors who were hosting the gigs. The freebies were recent returns—the funny book equivalent of second-run movies—that would have been stripped of their covers and destroyed anyway. Ideally, Spider-Man titles would be on offer, and with a plethora of different Webhead titles from which to choose—Spider-Man; Amazing Spider-Man; Spectacular Spider-Man; Web of Spider-Man; Spider-Man Unlimited; Marvel Tales (featuring Spider-Man)—this should not have been a difficult request to service.

But every now and then, I’d arrive to an appearance to find a box containing a mélange of Marvel comics, everything from Fantastic Four to The ’Nam—a title featuring war stories inspired by the Vietnam conflict—not exactly the sort of fare Spider-Man should be autographing never mind giving to young Johnny or wee Lucy. So I’d cull as many Spidey books from the crate as I could find and put them on top, hoping I wouldn’t run out by the end of the day.

There were few moments more awkward than Spider-Man offering his signature on an issue of Incredible Hulk or Iron Man or (yikes!) The Punisher. The children were ever beaming; the autographed souvenir could have been a used tissue—they didn’t care; they met Spider-Man!—but the adults… Gone was any hint of appreciation that had arisen when the freebie was offered seconds before, replaced by looks that ranged from confusion to disappointment to anger and disgust.

“Don’t you have one with Spider-Man on it?” Mom or Dad would ask with more than a trace of bile in their throat when the espied the book over their progeny’s shoulder.
“Sorry… we ran out…,” I’d meekly reply, my heart dropping from my ribcage.

Sometimes, I’d tried to lighten the mood.

“Would you believe, they flew out of my hands like hot cakes?” I’d quip. “I gotta say, I’m as surprised as you, and more than a bit humbled. Who’da thunk, after all the disparaging press The Daily Bugle gives me, I’d be so popular?”

“You should have Spider-Man funny books,” they’d spit back.

I may as well have been talking to a phone jack for all the good my attempt at levity was doing.

In several instances, the ephemeral superhero hodgepodge included DC titles! It was one thing to give out a Marvel comic of a hero other than the one I was portraying; a-far-nother thing offering one of the Distinguished Competition’s. That I would not do. In one instance a mix-up at the circulation warehouse resulted in nothing but DC books being delivered to a gig, leaving me without any comics for the fans.

Comic great Alan Davis provided the cover art—though uncredited—for the nifty, exclusive Personal Appearance trading cards. The back art, however, appears to have been done by another fan favorite, Mark Bagley

Fortunately, the Personal Appearance Department had created exclusive trading cards that actors were expected to always have handy in case of just such an emergency. There were two designs, both delineated by artist Alan Davis. One featured Spidey; the other a group shot of Hulk, Captain America and Wolverine, which sufficed gigs other than those of the wondrous Web-Swinger. The backs of the cards sported a recap of Spider-Man’s origin in the former case and some generic Marvel superhero hoopla in the latter, and each provided a blank box in which the hero du jour could ink their respective John Hancocks.

Now the comics delivered to Halifax put me in a bit of a pickle. First, there was only a single book in the shipment; a couple hundred copies of the same comic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; everybody—parents and children alike—get the same freebie, so there wouldn’t be any consternation over say, one kid getting an issue of Spider-Man Unlimited, which is double-size, while their sibling gets a copy of Amazing Spider-Man, which is regular-size; or little sister getting Spectacular Spider-Man, guest starring Wolverine, and big brother receiving Web of Spider-Man, the “all Aunt May” issue. Believe me, it wasn’t unusual for a parent to ask if I have the same comic to give every child in a party so “they won’t fight,” an attitude I was more than familiar with given the animosity and tension growing up with my two older sisters.

And technically, the multiple in question was a Spidey comic. But it was Spider-Man 2099!

In 1992, Marvel launched the 2099 Universe, a series of titles that re-imagined their stalwart stars a hundred years in the future—okay, a hundred seven years in the future, but 2099 has a catchier ring to it than 2092. Spider-Man 2099 was the first of the line released, and I think it was the best of the bunch. Writer Peter David concocted a Spidey of tomorrow that zigged, wherever the present-day Web-Slinger zagged; totally re-inventing the character while staying true to him. As a special marketing gimmick, each premier issue sported a metallic-ink border. In Webhead’s case, artist Rick Leonardi’s gorgeous art was framed in a Hot Wheels-eque red. The result was utterly cool.

Most of the 2099 titles were merely futuristic takes on the same old, same old, all except Spider-Man’s re-imagining... and Ghost Rider’s, which was like 2001: A Space Odyssey meets The Exorcist

And the Curtis Distribution rep was not shy about showing his excitement over having the book to give away. A number one issue of the world’s most-popular superhero with a snazzy ultra-awesome cover? He was beside himself and couldn’t stop talking about how lucky he was to have received such an honor. You’d think it was an original Shakespeare’s First Folio he was passing out.

Sure, the design was incredibly attractive and the cachet of getting a premier issue gratis was mind-boggling. But here I was dispersing comics of some futuristic doppleganger who shared Spidey’s name only, but looked nothing like the titular Webhead. It was like winning the lottery, but then finding out that the prize was a-dollar-a-year-for-a-million-years!

Since 80% or more of all appearances were Spider-Man gigs, the department consolidated the most popular of the remaining characters that made appearances on the other of the two designs. Ye Olde Webhead is featured on it as well, because even those events where there are other heroes, Spidey often is too!

Thank goodness, for the trading cards. Each fan received both a comic and a card, circumnavigating any potential chagrin from persnickity caretakers over not getting a Spider-Man book with the Web-Slinger of their youth in the pages therein.

I should not have fretted so. Sure, there were the occasional queries regarding the strange-looking Web-Spinner gracing the cover of the handouts, but they were of the curious type, not the what-the-Hell-is-this-you’re-giving-me kind.

Featured in Marvel Age magazine at the time of the debut of the Marvel 2099 Universe, this delightful spoof was delineated by the late great Rusty Haller, former header artist for Heroes in My Closet

The circulation rep and I visited four stores throughout the day, two before lunch and two thereafter. The weather was gloriously autumnal: sunny and crisp; not a cloud in the sky. Gee, where have I read this before? I can hear my Faithful Bloglodytes’ cynical thoughts already, and they would be justified.

The perfect atmospheric conditions persisted into the early evening hours. I was returned to the hotel by a rep, giddily happy over a successful promotion, and proceeded to undertake the day-is-done-but-not-leaving-until-morning appearance routine: shower; dinner at the hotel restaurant; TV; reading; sleep. As I headed through the lobby for the eatery, I noticed a drastic change in the weather outside the glass-door entrance. The sky had turned an inhospitable gray and snow was falling; big, Idaho potato-sized lumps that had already covered the landscape.

Perhaps, it was the magic of the first snowfall of the season or maybe it was the Canuck in me, but after a satisfying repast, I decided to venture across the two lane road that fronted the lodging—already sporting a foot of frozen, fluffy goodness—and pay a visit to the pub situated parallel on the opposite side. I am neither a rabble rouser, nor a barfly, but I do enjoy people watching and soaking in the local atmosphere wherever I am. I figured a couple of beers and an hour later, I’d return to my room.

Yeah, right!

As I sat at the bar, nursing my heavenly Canadian ale—Damn they serve delicious beer in the Great White North!—I was soon surrounded by a group of four gentlemen. Or blokes may be a better term, as they all sported British accents. Clad in black T-shirts, jeans and leather boots that looked as if they’d shopped in the Sons of Anarchy section of the FX studio store, their down-to-earth demeanor and friendliness reminded me of stage techies, those unsung behind-the-scenes members of a show responsible for everything from lighting to props.

Turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark with my assessment. I was immediately ingratiated into their cabal, and they soon revealed themselves as the road crew for the world-famous heavy metal band, Iron Maiden. Amazingly, of the quartet—and there may have been more, but given my high level of inebriation, it’s a wonder I can recall the entire trip!—I actually remember Mark Berryman and Chris Lang, and Googling each confirms their association with Iron Maiden. At the time, there was a woman, named Bonnie Berryman, in Marvel’s licensing division, which could explain why I can still dredge up Mark’s name. As for Chris, his surname is the same as the superhero Ant Man—Scott Lang—who took up the mantle after Henry Pym, but has subsequently died in action.

Seems the group had flown into Halifax earlier in the day to set up for a scheduled performance by the group the following evening. But the fast-moving blizzard that had now totally immersed the town had forced the concert’s cancellation and the roadies were taking full advantage of their unexpected night off.

They lost me at “blizzard.” Sure, the flakes were descending in larger clumps and at a faster rate than your normal dusting—the nostalgic chords of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Skating” from A Charlie Brown Christmas certainly would’ve understated the delightful downfall that now descended upon Nova Scotia. But blizzard?!! It was pumpkin-picking picturesque merely a couple of hours ago!

As if to spit in the eye of my skepticism, I noticed for the first time the customers entering the pub; humanoid Frosted Mini-Wheats topped with Cool Whip emerging from a wall of white. My initial thoughts of Here we go again were immediately trumped by There’s no way, I’ll be flying out of this in the morning. So I embraced the serendipity of my Maiden mates and started settling in for the evening, dashing my previously conceived self-imposed two-drink limit.

Good thing, too. The moment I told them the reason this Yankee was in Her Majesty’s North American Commonwealth, they nearly spilled their pints! Here these ebullient chaps work with one of the most exalted bands of the genre—internationally renown pioneers of British heavy metal, having sold more than 85 million albums (and counting) around the world, with more than two dozen different awards and distinguished accolades to their credit—and they devolve to hysterical fanboys when they meet Spider-Man. I felt guilty that I wasn’t as equally crazed about Iron Maiden. Can you imagine the scene in the bar then? The lot of us would be jumping and screaming like the female fans in those old concert videos of the Beatles from the early 60s.

Iron Maiden as they appeared in their heyday

And what better way to show their love and admiration for ye olde Web-Slinger than keeping his pint glass ever full of amber goodness. It was like the pitcher that Jesus used to slake the thirst of the masses. The glass had barely hit the counter from my enjoying the final swig of a round when miraculously it was full again, suds foaming down to immerse the Labatt’s coaster which was fast deteriorating under the stress.

Thank goodness, the English don’t cotton to the American frat-boy mentality of doing shots. They stay straight and true on the hops highway—copious, staggering amounts to be sure—but blessedly without pit stops of tequila, Jägermeister, Jack Daniel’s or some other evil liquid that will ensure an evening spent bowing to the porcelain god and one Brobdingnagian hangover.

As it was, I was more than toasted; I was one butter knife short of finagling out the charring slice! The number of Iron Maiden roadies went from four to eight to twelve; a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Arthurs; bloody dear lads all who loved the idea of partying with Spider-Man. I knew I had to get out of there while I still could. I profusely thanked my brewery benefactors, and they in turn insisted on a final round before I left. How could I refuse? I was Dumbledore forcing down the undrinkable potion from the bowl that contained Salazar Slytherin’s Locket in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Unfortunately, Harry was not their to help me out of the pub and back to the hotel. The snow was five feet high—I bullshit you not—and other than a path to the pub entrance and one lane of the road that ran betwixt it and my goal, not a flake was shoveled. I waded through like I was in a giant children’s ball pit, only the balls were heavier and covered in Velcro. I stumbled out onto the plowed street, hoping that the entrance to the hotel parking lot had been cleaned as well. No such luck. So I attacked the second stage of this Winter Wonderland from Hell.

My only solace was the certainty that my insanely early flight would be canceled and I could reschedule for a later one; departing when I was less hung over… sometime in spring perhaps!

I finally made it to the hotel looking like I’d been dipped in ice water and rolled in coconut. I teetered over to the front desk, drunk and half-frozen. I must have looked a sight, but the receptionist didn’t seem to notice.

“What are the chances of my early-morning flight taking off on time?” I slurred, my overreaching sense of responsibility forcing me to ask, despite the logical part of my brain screaming You just spent a half hour struggling through fifty-yards of snow that would normally have taken a minute to walk, you dodo! There ain’t nothing taking off in this weather. Even the polar bears have called in sick!

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be no delays. But let me check,” she answered perkily. I didn’t want perky; I wanted complicity. A veil of gloom began to descend over me. She’s joking, right? This is her way of getting back at having drawn the late-schedule short straw on a Saturday night.

“Everything’s on time!” she chirped.

If looks could kill, she would have gone up in a ball of flame at that moment. I returned with the type of smile I imagine Ted Bundy gave his victims right before the deed. “In that case,” I replied, my voice smooth as velvet, “I’d like a wake-up call for, say”—I looked at the clock hanging behind the reject from Disney World’s “It’s a Small World” ride—“fifteen minutes from now.”

Okay, it wasn’t quite a quarter of an hour. It was ninety minutes, leaving just enough time to dress, pack and shower before the cab arrived to take me to the airport. Showering was essential, not leastwise so I wouldn’t smell like a hobo during the flight. It would also aid in getting a few brain cells rubbing together to spark the firing of a synapse or two, so I could manage enough rudimentary functions to get me onto the plane.

Two hours later, I was still drunk when I tumbled into my aisle seat. The snowfall had stopped and there wasn’t a hint of a breeze, so I was hopeful the take-off would be smooth. My stomach was a piece of Dresden China and the slightest lurch was all it would take for that “one last drink before you go and several before it” to project from my mouth. I checked the storage pouch of the seat in front of me for the requisite barf bag, placing it at the fore in case I needed it quickly.

No need. The plane sped off the tarmac without so much as a hiccup, not even the usual stomach-lurching drop that occurs during the ascent—God, I hate that!

As mentioned, I was situated on the aisle of a three-seat row. A businessman was at the window and the middle was thankfully unoccupied. Regardless of how thorough the shower and teeth-brushing, when one is as sufficiently pickled as I was, no amount of cleansing can fully mask alcohol inevitably seeping through the pores and out one’s parched maw. Plus, there was still the possibility that turbulence might force my using the vomit sack, and it would be embarrassing enough with the man at the window, never mind someone rubbing up against me at the time of “upheaval” (although, it would pretty much guarantee me the armrest…).

I was never more happy to hear the captain speak than when he announced that the route into the Big Apple was clear and no problems were expected. I shut my eyes and grabbed what little sleep I could during the hour-long flight, only to be awoken by the pilot updating us on the situation heading into La Guardia airport; that being unexpected rough winds! My stomach was far from settled, one “wafer-thin mint” away from exploding. I white-knuckled the armrests and braced myself.

True to the pilot’s words, the plane began an aerial ballet as we made our northern approach over the East River, bobbing and swaying like a Tilt-A-Whirl. Before you could say “Houston, we have a problem,” I nonchalantly picked up the puke pouch, blew it open like Carnac and lost it! About two pints of beer filled the bag—not a speck of food. I quietly issued an “Excuse me,” but the businessman acted as if nothing had transpired.

I instantly felt better, casually folding closed the containment vessel and placing it on the seat beside me. The instruction on the bag instructs the vomiter to hand it off to the flight attendant upon deplaning, but that wasn’t going happen. Like I wanted to become the stuff of some Air Canada employee’s memoirs!

Despite the Iron Maiden road crew’s generous offer for me to come looking for them at wherever the band may be performing the next time they did New York City, and they’d get me a backstage pass, it never came to fruition. The one time I noticed the Heavy Metal group was in town, as luck would have it, I was out doing a Spider-Man gig. Hell, had I seen a movie like Rock Star during that time, I would have followed the band cross-country!

Still, Mark Berryman, Chris Lang et al, were great blokes leaving me with one of my fondest Spider-Man memories, which Chris summed up quite nicely that fateful evening in Halifax. ’Twas the wee small hours of the morning, when a very inebriated Mr. Lang draped himself over my shoulders—as bar mates often do when the hour is late and the consumption is high. “What are the chances…” he began, channeling Dudley Moore. “What are the chances of Spider-Man and the road crew from Iron Maiden meeting up in a bar in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the middle of a blizzard?”

Actually… quite good!