April 15, 2014

Jack Oleck and Wally Wood's "Has-Been"

Originally published in EC Comics' Incredible Science Fiction #31 (September-October 1955), Wally Wood masterfully illustrates Jack Oleck's fantastic tale of rockets, alien invasions, and the fleeting dreams of youth. This is the Gemstone reprint, from Incredible Science-Fiction #9 (November 1994). If you're a comic fan on a budget, all Russ Cochran's reprints are highly recommended. Comic scans are just fine, but I've found it doesn't compare to holding the actual comic in your hands! Or at least a reprint of the actual comic.

April 7, 2014

It's Just A Phase I'm Going Through, Again!

For a while, I've mostly been out of the comic scene, concentrating on other hobbies and happiness pursuits. Recently, I even sold the bulk of my current collection to a fellow comic collector. I felt there was too much filler in that collection, and I wanted to start over. I ended up with three boxes of comics 1980-Present. Two boxes of those are going on Craigslist soon.

Looking at the books I kept, it really struck me how much I have always loved the more esoteric stuff. I could never part with my complete run of Captain Carrot & His Amazing Zoo Crew!, the first series I went nuts over all those years ago. Also in the "keeper" box: Groo The Wanderer, Hate, Eightball, Ambush Bug, Cerebus, Flaming Carrot, some Dell/Gold Key, some Bongo, even a few Harveys. 

The culling process really helped me to get me excited about collecting again, and it also helped me identify what I would like to collect and why. There are certain creators whose work seldom fails to satisfy or inspire me. Here's the shortlist, in no particular order:

John Stanley, Walt Kelly, Will Elder, Jack Kirby, Peter Bagge, Scott Shaw!, Will Eisner, Harvey Pekar, Don Martin, Lynda Barry, Carl Barks, Mark Evanier, Steve Ditko, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Robert Crumb, Basil Wolverton, Al Williamson, John Severin, Drew Friedman, Skip Williamson, Bill Griffith, Wally Wood, Sergio Aragones, Joe Kubert, Bob Burden, Dan DeCarlo, Howie Post, Alex Toth, Sheldon Mayer, Jack Cole, C.C. Beck, Mac Raboy, Dick Briefer, Joe Kubert, Marie Severin, Los Bros Hernandez, Gahan Wilson, Frank Frazetta, Roy Thomas, Jack Davis, et al.

A list rife with omissions, but I think it conveys a general sense (to people familiar with these names, at least) of what I look for in a comic book: the well-honed skills of highly imaginative individuals. I know there are hardly any modern day creators on this list, but I am open to suggestions. I definitely love Tales Designed To Thrizzle by Michael Kupperman. 

For my birthday, I placed an order with Mile High from their eBay store. Here's what I picked up:

Alter Ego's Special 3-D Issue makes me wish my eyes worked better!

 I've been meaning to dive into this series for a long time...

 A nice hardcover reprinting the best of the early Archie stories.

 Scott Saavedra's homage to the inherent wackiness of old comics.

 The beginning of Gladstone's 80's run of these two Disney titles.

 Two magazine size reprints from the EC Classics series published by Russ Cochran. Can you tell I am partial to reprints?

 Biting fumetti-style comic insider commentary from Jim Engel and Chuck Fiala, with a special appearance by Scott Shaw! as Bob's Big Boy. A laugh riot!

 Just a random issue of one of my favorite surrealistic strips...

NatLamp's best stuff appeared in the 70's, but there are some gems to be found in some of the issues from the late 80's/early 90's.

 As much as I love the original Mad comics, I can't believe I've only read a few issues of Mad's "only authorized imitation." The Dick Tracy parody in #5 is classic Will "Chicken Fat" Elder!

Arf! Arf! 'Nuff Said.

Scott Shaw! 'Nuff Said.

Another odd strip I like.

First issue of the Steve Canyon magazine, from Kitchen Sink.

Another Kitchen Sink publication. I know I remember seeing some Steven strips somewhere...

 A reprinting of The Tick #1.

Short-lived magazine focusing on classic and then-current animation. I had another copy of this previously, but it mysteriously disappeared.

Cosmic Coincidences: Mickey Rooney Edition

Tributes are abounding in the wake of the passing of legendary actor Mickey Rooney. However, there is one interesting detail that most of the obituaries have failed to mention, a stunning coincidence that is as poetic as it is unlikely.

In San Francisco, there is an organization called The National Film Preservation Fund. By their estimate, about 80% of all films made in the first few decades of the motion picture industry have been lost, at least in the United States. Overseas, some of these "lost" films have survived in highly flammable nitrate distribution prints, thanks to the passionate efforts of collectors.

Just last week, an announcement was made by the NFPF, in partnership with the EYE Filmmuseum of Amsterdam, that dozens of these lost films had been unearthed and were scheduled for restoration. One of the rarest finds? A 1927 short, Mickey's Circus, featuring a six year old youngster named Mickey Rooney...in his very first starring role!

Talk about coming full circle!

April 6, 2014

Songwriting By Word Of Mouth

Recently, I sat down at the piano at home and began doodling, practicing scales, working out some new riffs, rehearsing some of my original compositions. I decided I would write a new song. Not for fame or fortune. Just for my own enjoyment. Some songwriters only write songs because they are hoping to get it on a chart and earn royalties. I do not disapprove of that notion, but I can't write with financial success as my primary goal, because the end result to me always sounds like a compromise. It's a bridge too far.

When I write, my goal is to be creative without being convoluted. I want to perform musical alchemy, distilling decades of disparate influences into something new. I want to express my love and admiration for my musical heroes. Lyrically, I want to tell stories that reflect the way that I and others experience life, and I want to do it in a literate way, never pandering, avoiding cliches as much as possible.

I've heard it said by great songwriters that when they are writing a song, they feel that they are receiving it, like a radio transmission from an unknown source. I have felt that feeling many times, and it is bliss, one I would honestly liken to being touched by God. When I get that feeling, ideas about making a bundle of money or caring very much about negative critical reaction just don't seem that relevant. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Brian Wilson is an actual angel. God only knows.

I, on the other hand, am most definitely a mere mortal, flawed but well-meaning, full of contradictions, trying to create something that might possibly be greater than the sum of my parts. I have dreamed up hundreds of songs, but I have not successfully translated the signals in a satisfactory way. The transmission is garbled, but I am building a new antenna.

Here's a brief rundown of my songwriting process, perhaps of some interest to fellow tunesmiths.

My new song began with a bass riff, simple but strident, B flat minor, midtempo blues with a bounce. I started the mixing and matching chords for the verse. The music always comes before the lyric for me. After much trial and error, I had the music for my verse. Nothing earthshaking yet, just interesting enough to keep the process going. The bridge came very quickly. I was starting to get that feeling, you know the one I mean.

The bridge was only two bars, it comes and goes in the space of five seconds. The brevity compelled me to add another half measure, a drum fill would set up a major change in the chorus. I enjoy key modulation ( changing from one key to another ) so much, that I consciously try not to overuse it, but in this scenario, a modulation seemed natural. For you musicians, the bridge basically plays out like this, each event a half measure long:

F  >  B flat minor  >  B flat  > E flat minor >  drum fill

At this point, the bridge seemed to take me right into a brick wall. I needed a release from the tension created by the minor key and the abrupt bridge. With a bridge this short, there would be no time for a pivot chord to get me to the new key. My right hand furiously searched for the key I needed. E flat minor to this? No. E flat minor to that? No! Just as I thought I had painted myself into a corner, my hands struck a D Major chord and I was off and running! Almost immediately, I followed with an A Major chord with a G in the bass. The chorus practically wrote itself until the last few bars, which required some strategy. After all, now I had to get from the key of D Major back to the key of B flat minor. I won't go into detail about how I did that, but I think Donald Fagen would not disapprove.

I had my music, so I kept playing the entire song repeatedly. I did this about 5 or 6 times, tweaking a chord or too here, adding an inversion there. I'm 90% self taught, so it's taken me a while to really get to the point of playing those complex all-fingers-down chords that add that extra dimension. Honestly, I could tell you the name of some of those chords, if I sat down with a chord book for a few hours.

The song I had produced was a kind of folk-blues, and I started singing some nonsense syllables to maybe get me to an actual word of a lyric. Two words came, at the beginning of the bridge. Illinois Central. Huh? Where had I heard that before? Illinois Central...what does it mean? Trains. Something about a train.

I darted to the desktop and googled "Illinois Central" and "train." Have you guessed it? It's from the amazing folk song by Steve Goodman called "The City Of New Orleans," made famous by Arlo Guthrie. I didn't set out to write a train song. There are possibly enough train songs in the world. Oh, what the hell. Why not just one more?

After doing much research, I have a complete lyric for my modulating folk-blues shuffle. It is a snapshot in the life of a man on his way from Chicago to St. Louis, riding on the Green Diamond in the spring of 1938. As soon as my home studio is properly set up, I will record it and share it.

It's not going to sell. It's not very commercial. It probably won't be remembered and it might even get insulted. The song has nothing to say about sex, or bling, or being sexy, or being sexy while wearing bling, or even about gettin' drunk and falling off your horse on a Saturday night. It's just a train song about America, and The Great Depression, and fresh starts around the bend for weary travelers.

More to come...