Monday, April 22, 2013

Poster Boy

Chucky’s cheesecake

Despite my own room and a great deal of privacy—one might argue neglect—growing up, the posters that festooned my walls were not what one would call traditional for your average tween/teen. Absent were the pop idols of the era—no Steve Austins, Morks or Sweathogs; any interest in automotive-alia was confined to the hundreds of Matchbox and Hot Wheels vehicles in the half dozen dedicated cases under my bed; my appreciation of all sports Boston remained on the small screen; and though I certainly enjoyed (read: salivated over) Farrah, Kate and Jaclyn, the thought of putting any or all of the Angels of Charlie on my walls mortified me.

Not that I had a choice in my early childhood. My parents installed new wallpaper when I was about five, ultimately selecting an olive-green nautical print over my choices, which all contained some variation of anthropomorphic cartoon animals. Only the wall against which the bed was placed would feature the seafaring design; the remaining three were covered with a rudimentary pattern of an accompanying color. It sounds more ghastly than it was, but the scads of stuffed toys which occupied every inch of dresser, bookcase, bureau, chair, side table and desk supplied more than enough color to overcome the ennui of the walls. My bedroom looked like the storage warehouse, which serviced the entire Toys ‘R’ Us chain.

I loved these reproduction circus posters!

Hanging, taping or tacking anything on the new wallpaper was strictly verboten until one day my mom gave me a set of three vintage Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus poster reproductions, which she allowed me to thumbtack to one of the bare walls of my room. The “menagerie” one with the various animals was my favorite, though I loved ’em all, even the scary-clown one. But it wasn’t just the subject matter. I was taken with the classic design, muted colors and sepia tone, which hearkened to a more romantic, bygone era. Cripes, I was old school before the term even existed!

Once my bedroom’s pin-up cherry was popped, other items made their way to my walls, though still only that which my mom gave her blessing. I was an avid jigsaw puzzler, and could put together one of more than 500 pieces in a single sitting. Two of my faves—one of a gumball machine bursting with a kaleidoscope of chewy chicles within its glass globe and surrounding its base and the other of a bald eagle’s head—my mom glued together with a large sheet of construction paper attached to their reverse sides, creating cool wall hangers. The pressed incision lines of the individual pieces made for a nifty overlay, transcending the images from the merely cool to provocative.

Springbok led a resurgence of puzzle mania in the 70s with sets that combined brilliant graphics and sharply cut, interlocking pieces

By the time I’d reached my teens, my mom ceded her control of my bedroom décor. My funny book fanaticism was in its infancy—I was late bloomer when it came to the pleasures of the 4-color world—but no less insane than that of a seasoned geek. Fortunately, my parents didn’t impede its progress. They’d been separated for several years by then, and cared only for my grades, which remained good. Not that they understood my love of “funny books,” the only term they used when referring to my passion. My father would always accompany his mention with the type of look usually reserved for smelling bad mayonnaise. There was no disgust from my mom, and though she never bothered to learn the names of any particular titles which I collected, she would occasionally bring me home comics she’d picked up the store, but only if they were on special—God, that woman loved a sale!

A surprise from Mom one day, this issue began my love for Ghost Rider, a love which Nicholas Cage will not diminish no matter how hard the actor tries!

It was she who gave me The Mighty World of Marvel Pin-Up Book for Christmas in 1977. I was fourteen, and would spend every waking moment not spent at school or doing homework perusing, reading and re-reading my modest comics collection, which amounted to a few two-foot stacks piled in a side dresser. At 17" by 11", with each page bursting with a huge action shot of a single superhero or group on über-colorful, high-glossy poster paper, I’d be able to sneak a peek at my hobby regardless how short the visit to my bedroom. The editors wisely left the backsides of each image with nothing more than a pithy write-up of the hero on its opposite, so one didn’t have to choose a side to display… They were all presentable! I wasted no time peeling all 21 images off the binding and putting them up. And that’s where they stayed until my mother moved during my senior year of college.

Ghost Rider by the under-rated Ernie Chan, a melange of Avengers by John Buscema, Dr. Doom by Jack Kirby, and Doc Strange by Frank Brunner were but a smattering of the twenty-one-derful pin-ups featured in the book.

I certainly never considered myself a Betty Grable, and I’m sure Farrah’s red bathing suit would not have fit me as well, though at the time it premiered, my man-boobs probably bested her female ones—I was a hefty prepubescent! But an adolescent growth spurt and combination of cutting out the Yodels and Devil Dogs for lunch and becoming more active helped trim the fat. Still, no one could have guessed I’d emerge as a pin-up idol.

Your Rambling Raconteur circa 1976

My debut as everyone’s favorite wall-hanger occurred at the mock Spider-Man wedding ceremony at Shea Stadium in the summer of 1987 as part of a gift bag given to all attendees. That historic happening was recounted in my past postings, “Wedding Photo”—about the actual photo shoot for the poster—and the epic trilogy “To Thee I Web”—relating the tantalizing tale of the nuptials itself. I was a relative super-newbie at the time and shared the spreadsheet spotlight with some of my 4-color friends, as well as a quartet of Mets. As a local amenity available only to those at the event, the pin-up’s notoriety was finite. It wouldn’t be sharing the black light section of your local Spencer Gifts any time soon.

The true test of my pin-up pulchritude came about a year later. In 1987, spear-headed by then Editor-in-Chief Tom Defalco, Marvel released a high-quality line of books, which reproduced the original issues, in order, of some of its most iconic characters. Marvel Masterworks debuted with three volumes, presenting “remastered” (if you will) collections of the first ten issues of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men. Some—the bean counters and business experts—considered it folly. Comic collections to this point were packaged cheaply—paperbacks of crappy paper with no extras—and regurgitated the same dozen or so “Best of” stories in every volume. It was the equivalent of an oldies radio station playlist. These haters had no understanding of what the comic book marketplace had become and didn’t think anyone would pony up the dosh for the type of book DeFalco envisioned.

Marvel-ites have Tom DeFalco to thank for Marvel Masterworks. Despite internal opposition, he pushed for and oversaw their genesis.

There were no electronic files of these vintage tales and somehow finding the original artwork, if all the pages existed, was impractical if not impossible. Thus, scans of the original comic books were made and then the dot-matrix color pattern, which created the hues, was washed out. The resulting art had to be repaired—since the color was saturated into the lines, the integrity of them was greatly diminished when the color was excised—and then the story was recolored. Everything was collated and printed on high-end white paper with all the touches one would expect from a coffee-table book, i.e. dust jacket, end papers, title page, table of contents, introduction, etc. At $40, the volumes were more than four times what a standard trade paperback was at the time.

DeFalco got the last laugh. The first flight took off and Marvel Masterworks has continued to expand ever since. There are hundreds of volumes with most, if not all, still in print and new ones arriving every year. Thank you, Tom!

Through the years since their debut, the Masterworks line has expanded to include classic tales from the company’s Golden Age and Atlas Eras, and B-list characters, such as Iron Fist.

But at the time, there were more than a few Marvel Nabobs biting their nails and watching the sales reports during the initial release. The books out-performed even their wildest expectations, which lets face it, given their grim forecast, wasn’t all that wild. A second flight, expanded to four books was announced. But the Suits’ pleasure was never more evinced than when they actually decided to put a few shekels toward marketing the unexpected second stage of the line. By the standards of any other industry, the promotional efforts for the second coming, so to speak, were small, but they were something at least. And I was to be a fortuitous benefactor, so I wasn’t complaining!

A high-quality sales poster, which would be distributed among comic book retailers across the country, was commissioned. Now Marvel has ever produced retailer ephemera—signs, sell-sheets, shelf talkers, among others—for decades. 99% of them feature clip-art of their signature heroes—if it were a generic “Buy Marvel Comics!” type item—or feature new art from an upcoming debut of a title or character. Yet, even in the latter scenario, the art was “clipped” from the forthcoming ballyhooed product or merely displayed its cover art, thus reducing the cost to just design, production and distribution. Rarely was any “new” money invested in custom art for such sales materials. The second-wave Masterworks signage would surpass even the rare extra expenditure of original illustration, catapulting into the realm of live-photography, which meant the aforementioned costs plus studio fees—lights, sets, props, scenery, and shutterbug, of course—and model.

That’s where I came in…

Personal Appearance Department Manager Babs just gave me fresh Spidey threads and the basic 411 on the gig, which directed me to a loft studio in the Chelsea area of Manhattan early one weekday morning. One of the things I love about New York City is how elevators can take you up a hundred stories and open out onto a wondrous new world. Anyone only familiar with free-standing bowling alleys the size of supermarkets with ample parking, for example, should visit Bowlmor Lanes in The Village section of Manhattan. At street level, you enter into nothing but a lobby the size of a closet with an elevator. Step in, and after a few moments and several floors, the doors open and you’re in a bowling alley. It’s like the moment when Dorothy enters the colorful world of Munchkinland from her crashed home after the tornado.

I was experiencing a similar moment as I entered the photography studio directly from the freight elevator, which, from the sidewalk below, looked fairly skeevy. The one indication that it was functioning was the vertical row of gold business nameplates affixed to the chipped painted brick wall beside it.

The only New York loft I’d seen to that point was the one Tom Hanks buys in Big and this one may not have been as up-to-date, but it was certainly as tall. The ceilings had to be at least twenty feet high. A balcony office was built at the back, opposite the awesome floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the street side, which provided plenty of natural light. The studio had a fly system, like a theatre, fer cryin’ out loud! Scaffolding concealed by heavy navy-blue curtains framed what looked to be the area in which the shoot would take place, and an unrolled white screen draped down and along the floor with spots shining their beams toward the set-up’s center.

I dropped my bag and army jacket, and made a beeline to the bathroom to change into my Spider-Man togs. Upon my egress, three young women in little black dresses had joined the small party of Babs, the photographer, his assistant and me. Their similar wardrobe suggested they would be part of the shoot, and my suspicions were confirmed moments later when they joined my in the shooting zone. But what the concept behind the picture was, I couldn’t fathom. I was instructed to strike the usual Web-Slinger fan poses, albeit professionally staged and lighted. Plus, the caliber of the “models” was far from what one would expect from a fashion shoot; less runway, more Amway. I guess, the generosity of the Marvel Mucky-Mucks only went so far.

Robert Palmer... Eat your heart out!

Test Polaroids were taken in order to get a proper feed on how the scene would appear in print before switching to film. You don’t want to discover the lighting was wrong after shooting three rolls! And no, my young readers, Polaroids is not a problem, which Inuits contract from long hours of sitting on a frozen block while ice fishing (rim shot… so to speak!). Polaroid cameras allow instant photos to be created from the device itself using a picture cartridge. For all I know, studios may still employ them, though I would bet many simply photograph into a computer via cable and print the shots immediately thereafter.

The camera used was more advanced than those generally employed at the time. The photo didn’t roll out immediately upon clicking the picture. Rather, it was pulled free of the camera and its development timed before the chemically-treated contact paper was peeled back—old school, but still effective in producing crisp, vibrant photos, far sharper than those that pop out of its cheaper brethren. And, no, you new-schoolers, viewing the prospective pix onscreen will not provide an accurate rendering of their print appearance, since computer images are backlit; paper products are not.

Surprisingly, the session took less than thirty minutes. Huh? I was told to keep the whole day open. Then, the trio of ladies thanked the photographer—some giving him a friendly kiss on the cheek—and walked out. I soon learned they were from another business in the building and the last half hour was merely a favor to them. Ooh, let’s get a professional photo with Spider-Man. I know, we’ll wear matching outfits and pose like we’re models! Either the shutterbug was double-dipping—making a little extra dosh on Marvel’s dime—or he was trying to impress one of the gals. Regardless, I felt like a prop in a department store photo area.

The stage for “Three Women and a Spidey” was struck and a new was constructed, one that made better sense. The scaffolding was maneuvered more closely together and a thick plank—what appeared to be a door, except there was no hole where a knob would have gone—was placed between. The deep grain and dark veneer suggested a desktop. Secured to its underside were a lamp, of the ubiquitous sort found in the reading rooms of libraries and law offices, and selection of Masterworks volumes, stacked flat with four notable exceptions, which were standing. The covers displayed what I presumed to be the forthcoming books in the series, collecting the second ten issues of Amazing Spider-Man, and the inaugural ten of the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, and the legendary 1975 revival of the X-Men by writer Chris Claremont/artist Dave Cockrum.

I nearly fainted; Avengers was my favorite comic series, issue #148 of which indoctrinated me into the 4-color wonders of superheroes, when I was eleven. My comics reading to that point was reserved for the more appropriately delineated “funny books” variety of the genre, published by the likes of Gold Key, Charlton and Harvey. Hot Stuff, Spooky, Little Monsters, Sarge Snorkel and Pink Panther were among my faves.

The inaugural issue of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” had been reprinted ad nauseam in various arenas. I think I may have first read it in one of the great Fireside Publishing collections of the 70s or Dynamite magazine, the early volumes of which featured classic Marvel and DC superhero origins, taken directly from the source material among its monthly slate of pop culture articles and games. Ditto with issue #4, which introduced Captain America, the star-spangled hero of comics Golden Age, to the Silver Age. The other eight stories were hard to find outside the actual issues, which for an eleven-year-old of very modest means were too expensive even in poor condition.

There’s nothing I could put here that wouldn’t get the site shut down by the FCC

The books in the set dressing were bolted to the faux desktop; L-brackets utilized for the four free standing ones. It pained me to see the collections maligned so, especially those, which weren’t even available yet. The backdrop of white was replaced with one depicting a home library, the sort one might envision in a Victorian novel. The idea of the poster was simple: Spider-Man hangs from the ceiling of an athenaeum, enjoying the latest Masterworks volume, the stories therein worthy to stand alongside other literary classics.

I was impressed with the ingenuity of the prop people. Their slight touches helped strengthen the sense that Spider-Man was truly suspended, such as gluing a wire behind the lamp’s on/off chain, so it appeared to hang naturally. A closer examination reveals its angle being slightly askew, but an observer would have to be looking for errors. The fact that it is lighted with its bulb plainly visible furthered the illusion. The wire snaked down the scaffolding into the wall plug with the aid of an extension cord. The first question any one of my friends and family members asked upon seeing the completed poster was, “How long did you have to hang like that?” I can’t think of a finer compliment to the scenery designers.

The whole thing was leveled about ten feet above my six-foot figure. I was given an undamaged copy of what appeared to be one of the new Fantastic Four Masterworks, with which to appear reading, to complete the tableau. I ravenously opened it, excited to be one of the first to savor the stories therein. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered, it was nothing more than a mock-up. The dust jacket was in truth taken from one of the first flight’s books, a high-quality graphic of one of the new wave covers carefully glued over the gilt-framed image.

In fact, none of the erect volumes were real, merely props cobbled together for the shoot. Look closely at the desktop titles in the test shots I’ve provided. The cover reproductions of the legendary Marvel issues sit atop the aforementioned gold framing, the sculpted figured of which extend over the image edges of the actual Masterworks.

Comics cognoscenti will also notice a discrepancy with the depicted second wave books. The Hulk collection shown on the left wasn’t released until the third flight, volume #8 of the entire series. The X-Men Masterworks on the far right is also incorrect on several levels. Not only doesn’t it feature the original team’s second ten issues—a volume which was indeed a part of the follow-up line-up as volume #7—it displays issue #94, one of the issues of what would become Masterworks #11, the aforementioned resurrection of the title, which combined a couple of original members with new ones, such as Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler. But when released in what would become the third stage of Masterworks, Giant-Size X-Men #1 would be on the cover of this mondo volume in which the origin of this fresh batch of genetically advanced super-teens is revealed. It hit the stands in May 1975, three months prior to #94 in August. And if you understand anything of that, you get a gold star. I wrote it and I’m confused!

I don’t believe all these to be mistakes on the part of the marketing or editorial departments, but rather forward-thinking decisions. Given the tremendous response of the initial wave, they were confident that the program would continue past its second, thus catered the staging of the poster, so it would have legs beyond those releases. Ever frugal even in the face of success! The X-Men cover mix-up? No X-cuse for that, I’m afraid.

Notice, too, that the credits, which normally appear under the cover graphics in the actual editions, have been airbrushed out of the final poster image. As mock-ups, they don’t correspond to the cover displays, and although you can’t make out these incorrect credits on screen, they are legible on the approximately 27" x 20" retailer hanger.

Masterworks photo shoot: Take 563

It seemed to take forever before the tableau was prepared and ready for its featured star. After every few test shots, production stopped while the photographer conferred with his assistant. Lighting adjustments were made, scenery minutely shifted, and then I was directed back to the hot zone for more preliminaries. I didn’t even bother with the top half of the costume. These pix were all about fine-tuning until the correct levels were achieved.

Just as the photographer seemed to have everything to his expert liking, his helper noticed what would have been a major faux pas in the scenery. The library background was hanging right side up, where it should have been upside down like every other element on the set… except me, of course. I can’t imagine what would have happened had no one realized the error before the photos were taken and sent to the Grand Poo-Bahs at Marvel for approval. And what if they hadn’t noticed and the ad went into production?!! It could’ve been a disaster of the same magnitude as Battlefield Earth.

Instead, it added several more hours to the shoot, a minor inconvenience when considered against the aforementioned what ifs. Of course, I would’ve been a lot less inconvenienced had I been getting paid by the hour like a real supermodel! At least, I was getting a free lunch, which had just arrived. Though, as starved as I was, I couldn’t dig-in like I wanted too. I was half naked in a skintight spandex bodysuit, and about to have my picture taken for a retail poster and comic-book ad, which millions of people would see. I stuck to the fresh fruit and a small salad. Still, with every swallow, I felt my hips widen and my stomach distend. Ladies, I feel your pain!

It was back to square one upon completion of our midday meal. With the library scrim correctly hung, more test photos were taken. I’d begun to get stir crazy, standing in one place for so long without anything to show for it, which explains my irreverent poses in some of these shots. Even the props were getting restless, it seemed, the flower and vase preferring suicide to enduring another minute of inertia. It simply dropped to the floor at my feet amidst the set-up pix. “Just leave it,” was the photog’s reaction. Thank goodness. Securing it back onto the doppelganger desk probably would’ve added another hour to the session, and with every moment, the sunlight shifted in the loft, which meant an accompanying tweak to the Kliegs.

This gig is driving me up the walls! Aaaahhhhh!!!

When the shutterbug was ready for my close-up, I was ready to go home. Fortunately, with his pronouncement of readiness came a renewed vigor—there was finally light at the end of the tunnel. Plus my intimacy with the powers of the costume gave me the advantage. After patiently suffering the mundane suggestions of his and the assistant’s (see the test shot of me reading with my free hand in Web-Shooter mode—yawn…), I countered with a bevy of exaggerated Spidey poses that would’ve made Webhead progenitor extraordinaire Steve Ditko blush. Granted, I would only be seen from the midriff up, but it seemed an utter waste to the awesomeness which the suit brings, to have me simply standing there, like a commuter on a bus with the latest bestseller (or Kindle, if you prefer). And the unusual torso twist is evident enough in the resultant poster to magnify the ad’s impact.

One of the exciting shots composed by the photographer

“That’s a wrap!” Three of the most wonderful words I’d ever heard. It was approaching six in the evening and the shadows had given the loft a film noir appearance. I’d no idea how many rolls were shot, nor which of the myriad poses were favorites. But as I grabbed a banana for the road, I noticed a few test photos strewn about the festering buffet area and asked if I could keep them. I felt like Dorothy asking the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle guards for the half-burnt broom—how could they refuse after all I’d done? The photographer’s answer wasn’t inane like the guard’s—“Please. And take it with you.” (No, I thought I’d leave it here and pick it up later!)—but the result was the same. I grabbed them and scurried home.

“As a token of our appreciation for releasing us from the Wicked Witch’s servitude and saving Oz, here’s a broom...”

A couple of months later, I saw the handiwork of my modeling session. I’d since forgotten about the episode and was quite surprised when I saw the full-page ad in a comic whilst flying to a gig. My initial reaction was to share my moment with everyone around me, but in a plane surrounded by strangers, that type of public exaltation may’ve gotten me restrained. Besides, I couldn’t rightly reveal that it was I in the Spider-Man togs—secret identity and all. So my celebration was reduced to merely beaming in my seat, 30,000 feet in the air.

Soon thereafter, I espied the actual poster in a comics shop. True to form, I zeroed in on an egregious blemish in the composition, a pit stain beneath the outstretched arm holding the Masterworks. Sheesh, they took the time and effort to excise the creator credits beneath the mock-up books, but couldn’t remove the sweat under my arm?!! Still, I had to admit, the overall result was excellent. Okay, so I wasn’t going to unseat the popularity of Farrah and her one-piece anytime soon. But at least I wouldn’t become the object of every prepubescent’s fantasy either!

Does this suit make me look fat?


Vik Gill said...

Oh pshaw, that looks more like a shadow than a pit stain to me.

Anonymous said...

Ah Masterworks! I remember those! I also remember Hot stuff and Little Monsters. Now you made me go on E-Bay and bid on the issues I had as a little boy...thanks Vroom!