Moonraker at 40

You’ve doubtless heard this summer marks a major anniversary of mankind’s greatest adventure in space.  That’s right, it’s been 40 years since the theatrical release of the James Bond film, Moonraker.

In 1979, this celluloid masterpiece landed amid a wasteland of lackluster films like Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Alien, The China Syndrome, Breaking Away and Being There to deliver two breathless hours of what producer Cubby Broccoli called “not science fiction, but science fact.” For instance, there’s the little-known scientific fact that human beings can fall from airplanes onto circus tents without injury, or the even lesser known fact that the US government maintains a highly trained force of Space Marines, just in case a rival power ever decides to stage a skirmish in Earth orbit using handheld weapons.

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Marking Roger Moore’s fourth mission as 007, Moonraker launched in the UK on June 26 and splashed down in the States three days later.  I’m not sure how long after that I climbed into a theater seat to watch it, but it couldn’t have been long.  At that point I was at the ultimate peak of my Bond fandom, having devoured Ian Fleming’s novels and rejoiced whenever a vintage Bond film aired on the ABC Sunday Night Movie (which wasn’t nearly often enough).  It’s been said, somewhere, that 14 is the optimum age to be a Bond fan, and while I can’t say if that’s true for the world at large, it certainly was in my case.   For me, the summer of ’79 was all about Bond: Moonraker ads on the TV, bubblegum cards and magazines at the convenience store and the soundtrack album on my stereo.

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I wasn’t alone, either: the film did phenomenal box office in ’79, becoming the biggest money-maker in the franchise’s history to that point and holding the record for a whopping 16 years until dethroned by Goldeneye.  Critics were divided — nothing new for Bonds — but many of them loved it, with some rating it second only to Goldfinger.  Suffice to say the tables turned in the years that followed, with self-appointed Bond “historians” usually denigrating the entire enterprise as a childish, idiotic parody of everything a James Bond movie is supposed to be.  In time, their word would become gospel, and Moonraker took on the mantle of “series low point.”

However, the pendulum of opinion has a way of swinging back again if you live long enough, and the film has come in for a lot of love in recent years.  Partly that could be due to newfound affection for the late great Roger Moore, partly it could be a certain nostalgia for “silly” Bonds after the relentlessly grim Daniel Craig era or it could just be that after all this time we can see the film for what it was: harmless fun.  In 1979, Bond purists saw it not just as a bad movie, but as a disastrous wrong turn for the series that, given its financial success, could have defined the tone of Bonds for years to follow.  As it turns out, four decades later we can see it as just another temporary excursion down an interesting side road.

There’s no denying Moonraker gave us some cringe-worthy moments, like the infamous scene where Bond, in Venice, converts his gondola into a hovercraft and drives it through astonished crowds in St Mark’s Square, pretty effectively torpedoing the very notion of a “secret” agent. And just in case there was any danger of the humor here coming off as too subtle, there’s an insert of a pigeon doing a startled double-take in disbelief.

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Throughout the film, the seemingly invulnerable villain Jaws plays Wile E Coyote to Bond’s Roadrunner, tumbling from airplanes and mountains and waterfalls to seemingly certain death, only to emerge unscathed, brushing himself off to resume the chase…until he finds true love and defects to the side of right and virtue.  And of course, we cap everything off with armies of astronauts shooting lasers at each other while floating  in Earth orbit.  So yeah, it’s not exactly cinema verite.

And yet at the same time, the film has some very suspenseful — and decidedly dark — moments.  The scene where Bond is nearly crushed to paste in a centrifuge offers a rare dose of genuine suspense for this stage of the series, and at one point an ally is chased down and killed by dogs in a scene that’s somehow terrifying and beautiful all at once.

From a technical standpoint, Moonraker remains impressive.  For John Barry, easily the best composer to work on the series, the score marks a turning point between his bombastic, brass-heavy works in the earlier Bonds and the more lush, string-heavy arrangements he’d bring to films like Out of Africa, Somewhere in Time and Body Heat.  Sir Ken Adams’ sets, always phenomenal, are at their biggest and most impressive here, from villain Drax’s “mission control” hidden in a South American pyramid to his orbiting space station.  Derek Meddings’ model work, building on years of experience gained on shows like Thunderbirds and UFO, makes the space shuttle scenes totally convincing (the launch of the real-life shuttle ended up being delayed until a few years later, but Medding’s faux launches still look convincing even after we’ve seen the real thing).  Working together, they take a seemingly ridiculous notion — James Bond in space — and make it almost seem plausible.

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Probably my single favorite promotional art from a series filled with great promotional art is Daniel Gouzee’s teaser poster, showing Roger Moore as Bond orbiting Earth in a space suit in the traditional gun-across-the-chest pose.  Yes, there’s the troublesome matter of Bond going helmet-less in the vacuum of space, but in a way it only adds to the wacky charm of the whole enterprise.  I was lucky enough to score a clean, unfolded version of this poster for a song in the early days of eBay, and it occupies a place of honor on my media room wall.

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Roger himself is at the top of his game here, suave and cool, utterly unflappable and impossibly handsome.  At the halfway point in his tenure as Bond, he’s relaxed and at ease throughout.  If Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (!) and Michael Lonsdale as Drax aren’t the best Bond girl and villain in the series, they’re also far from the worst.  The “office team” is intact one last time, with Bernard Lee making his last appearance as M before his unfortunate demise.

Anyway, I couldn’t let the anniversary of this epic theater-going experience pass without mention.  Whatever its weaknesses, this was the last of the truly BIG Bonds, with a massive supervillain lair, opulent locations in glorious widescreen vistas, over-the-top stuntwork and the whole nine yards.  The next film, For Your Eyes Only, would deliberately downscale everything in a bid to return to more serious fare (and to save money, no doubt).  The films that followed, whether with Moore or his three successors — and despite ballooning budgets — never felt as grandiose again.

I used to say the Bond films were to moviegoers what Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had been to turn-of-the-century audiences: Every couple of years, and with much fanfare, the big show would roll into sleepy small towns like mine and present sights and sounds we could never see otherwise; a wild parade of larger-than-life characters doing extraordinary things against a fantastic landscape that never really existed, but should have.  It was loud and flashy and exciting with a charismatic ringmaster at center stage as our host and guide. I still enjoy the ongoing Bond series for all sorts of reasons, but that kind of thrill left the proceedings a long time ago, for me.  That’s why as nutty and stupid as it can be in spots, I’ll always come back to enjoy Moonraker, from its amazing pre-credits fight shot in high-altitude freefall to the end credits, which appropriately enough roll past to a disco tune.

This then is my tip of the EVA helmet to Moonraker on its 40th, and to Cubby Broccoli, Lewis Gilbert, Ken Adam, Roger Moore, John Barry, Derek Meddings, Maurice Binder, Richard Kiel, Bob Simmons, Richard Graydon, Desmond Llewelyn, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee and all the other participants who’ve taken that last giant leap into the Great Beyond.

Exit Stan Lee

I didn’t grow up as a fan of Stan Lee.

In fact, it’s fair to say that as a kid, I didn’t “get” Marvel at all.  Weaned on Superman and Batman, I viewed superheroes as unflappable paragons of confidence, competence and moral certainty, whereas Marvel’s heroes were conflicted, insecure, short-tempered and at the end of the day not always even sure they were in the right.  On meeting each other, their first impulse was to trade punches; even when they cooperated, they bickered and griped.  More than that, Marvel the company was flagrantly, brazenly after my money.  Individual issues of their comics almost never told a complete story, being just chapters in sagas that had begun long before I showed up and would end…well, maybe never.  If you bought a Spider-Man book, you were apt to be presented with a guest appearance by Daredevil or the Human Torch or some other character in the middle of a story of their own; if you wanted to fully understand what was going on, you had to go buy their book, too.  Marvel wasn’t satisfied with just some of my money, they wanted it all, and even if I obliged, I probably still wouldn’t get a complete story.

A banner across the splash page of all Marvel books yelled, “Stan Lee Presents…”  putting a name to the mastermind behind this Machiavellian money-grab, doubtless a corporate mogul who sat like Uncle Scrooge in a vault piled high with quarters coaxed from the pockets of me and my pals and millions like us.   At this stage of the game, Stan wasn’t really writing stories for the comics, so I only knew him as that guy “presenting” everything, and I only “heard his voice” through his “Stan’s Soapbox” editorials, which often as not could be summed up as, “We’ve got another book out, so what are you waiting for? Go Buy It!”  There was just a shameless hucksterism to the guy that rubbed me the wrong way.  After about the hundredth time I saw Stan use the word to close out a column, I finally asked my Dad what “Excelsior” was, and he laughed and said, “Wood shavings!”  Somehow that fit my impression of this guy who was selling us a bill of goods.

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But then in the late 70s, things changed a bit for me when a series of paperbacks from Pocket Books reprinted the early adventures of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Dr Strange, and finally I got to “meet” Stan not as a publisher or promoter, but a writer.  That’s when I finally “got” the appeal of both Stan himself and the company he built.  Stan’s Spider-Man took a character that had never appealed to me beyond his cool costume and power set and made him dynamic and funny.  Early Spidey was almost like a parody of conventional superheroes: living in his aunt’s house instead of a mansion, dealing with homework deadlines between crimefighting missions and stuck repairing his own (lone) costume with a needle and thread.  Stan’s successors — writing the 70’s Spidey I saw on the spinner racks — had picked up the baton and doubled down on the misery and suffering while losing the (for me) crucial humor, Stan’s implicit message that even Peter Parker’s Job-like suffering was part of the over-arching. playful poke in the eye to staid, conventional superheroics. With Steve Ditko putting Spidey through insane contortions and Stan providing him with genuinely funny and rarely repetitive one-liners, the first 38 issues of Spider-Man (or anyway the 21 I got to read in those books) became favorites.

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To really appreciate Stan’s contributions, though, you needed to experience the whole comic, not just the story itself.  The letter columns featured lively banter with readers who were clearly loving the opportunity to put in their two cents and see their names in print.  Some of the letters could even be harshly critical, especially of Ditko’s art, which is undeniably an acquired taste, but that didn’t stop Stan (in his “editor” hat) from printing them, anyway.  On the “Bullpen Bulletins” editorial pages, in the lettercols, in the cover blurbs and “editor’s notes” at the bottoms of panels as well as the word balloons and captions, the “voice of Marvel” was consistent in its convivial, inclusive, upbeat and playful approach, and the “voice” was Stan’s.

Stan established the “Marvel style” of comic book creation, which involved supplying an artist with a basic story idea (if even that) and letting the artist plot it out and make his own decisions about how to pace and structure things.  Then Stan would supply all the captions and dialog to flesh out the pictures on the page.  This allowed Stan and his small stable of artists to churn out an amazing amount of content on a monthly basis, compared to the established industry practice of having a writer put down every word as Step One, then provide detailed instructions to the artists on how to illustrate each panel.  Looking at those early books, you can see where artists like Ditko and Jack Kirby reveled in their new freedom to contribute their ideas, but over time these blurry lines between who did what would lead to hard feelings and feuds that played out publicly.

Probably the ideal collaboration, for me, came when Lee and Ditko teamed up for Dr Strange.  Providing a perfect complement to Ditko’s trippy other-dimensional landscapes and bizarre creatures were Stan’s brilliant spells, name-dropping arcane powers, demons, mages and worlds we couldn’t wait to learn more about, and expanding the scope of Strange’s universe by the mere power of suggestion.

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Part of the fun of those early stories, for me, comes in the palpable tension between creators, the sense that artist and writer are pulling in different directions.  There are many times when it certainly looks as if, say, Jack Kirby drew a sequence with a particular idea in mind, then Stan came in and changed the tone and momentum of the scene entirely.  It’s fun to speculate on why he took things in a different direction; did he misinterpret Jack’s intentions?  Did he simply disagree and exercise his power of having “the last word”?  Did he make things better or worse?  People often compare the Lee/Kirby team to Lennon and McCartney, and while it’s far from a perfect analogy, I agree it’s spot-on in one regard: sometimes the pairing of two competing geniuses creates a magic that’s never recaptured after the team splits.

Probably to acknowledge the huge contributions of his collaborators, Stan broke with tradition and ran credits for every Marvel story, letting fans know who wrote and drew them, and for good measure who lettered and colored them, as well.  Just letting us know comics were in fact penciled and inked and lettered and colored pulled back the curtain on how these things managed to appeared on the spinner racks each month as if by magic.  Now when young fans got tired of arguing over whether The Thing could beat The Hulk, they could argue over who the best artist was.  More importantly to the industry, new generations of fans could start considering a career in making these things, themselves.

I confess I gave up buying monthly comics a long time ago, but I still go back to those vintage adventures often, and I find I keep purchasing them over again in new formats every few years.  I continue to be impressed with Stan’s writing, given that he still seems generally regarded as a promoter first, editor second and writer a distant third.  But as celebrated as his Spider-Man continues to be, it’s impressive that Stan wasn’t a one-trick pony.  He didn’t try to fit all his heroes into the Spider-Man mold, and he could write in different styles.  The Thing could be as funny as Spidey, but his humor came from a more tragic place.  It was well-nigh impossible to imagine Dr Strange ever making a joke, but he was every bit as entertaining to me for all his sober-mindedness.  And while Daredevil could sink into Parker-like depressions and even the old-school Captain America tended to mope about his dead sidekick, The Mighty Thor had a wonderful lust for life and couldn’t have been happier to be who he was.  (The arrival of cosmic threats that would have had Superman thinking, “I’ve never battled a foe so powerful…[choke!]…I may never see Lois and Jimmy again!” found Thor wading in with near-giddy enthusiasm: “At last a worthy opponent!”)  And since they were all different, things got interesting when these heroes crossed each other’s paths.

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As noted elsewhere, this is probably Stan’s most enduring contribution: the concept of a cohesive, interconnected universe that lends itself both to stories of individual heroism and sweeping sagas on a cosmic scale.  If (for me anyway) a lot of the old fun is gone from the comics, it’s found a second life on the big screen, where Stan’s storytelling approach is playing out in blockbuster movies unfolding the saga of an interconnected universe that blends spectacle and emotional stakes with a pervasive sense of humor and fun.

Anyway, every story has to end at some point, and Stan’s ran on longer than most. He had a good run of 95 years and left behind a huge legacy that involves making people happy.  A fella can’t ask for much more than that.  And if I missed out on being a Marvel kid the first time around, at least now I can feel like a kid every time I read those old tales from Stan and Jack and Steve (and John, and George, and Marie and Bill and Joe and the rest of the Bullpen).  Thanks for that, Stan, and godspeed.

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It Came From Outer Space (Maybe)

A recent Boy Scout camping trip took Jason, Scott and me to a part of Virginia where I spent several years of my youth.  But then, what else is new; by now the boys are doubtless getting tired of me saying, “I used to live here.” So far I’ve used that line when visiting the Eastern Shore, Lynchburg, Middlesex, Matthews, Lunenburg and now Mecklenburg.  Sometimes I forget just how much I moved as a kid.

Anyway, in this case we saw not only Victoria, where I spent my middle school years and one year of high school, and Chase City, where my grandparents lived, but also South Hill, where I arrived on this planet right around the same time as an extraterrestrial visitor…maybe.

In a fun little museum that spotlights vintage dolls, model trains and local wildlife (!), I was admiring an enormous HO-scale train layout when I came across a display that didn’t seem to tie in exactly with any of the three themes of the museum.  Featuring a complete article from a magazine called UFOs and Flying Saucers 1968, it recounted an incident that briefly put South Hill on the national map with ufologists, curiosity-seekers and the US Air Force. Even though I’d heard the story a few times growing up, this was the first time I’d seen any documentation beyond mere word-of-mouth, so I took a photo of the display to help me search out the magazine online.

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The only remaining piece of the cover was the title, but once again, the internet came through for me and I tracked down an image of the full cover.

 

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So anyway, the gist is that a South Hill warehouse manager leaving work in the wee hours of April 21, 1967 saw an object more less resembling a large water tank on four legs resting in the road, and when he shone his headlights on it, the object took off with a blinding flash of white flame.  Subsequent investigations revealed a strange depression and scorch marks burned into the surface of the road where the reported object allegedly sat. Having produced physical markings, the sighting is elevated to what we’d call a Close Encounter of the Second Kind, as opposed to the more common (and more easily dismissed) visual sightings of the First kind.

Here’s a brief article that appeared back in the day:

 

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While I wasn’t able to unearth a digital version of the magazine article (with photos of officials investigating the odd marks on the road), I was thrilled to find the complete original case report filed by the US Air Force officer assigned to catalog the sighting for “Project Blue Book,” complete with witness accounts, diagrams and the works.

A decades-long government investigation into UFO sightings around the country, “Project Blue Book” also inspired a TV show I used to love,  “Project: UFO” (renamed to eliminate confusion, or because “blue book” sounds like it could be naughty, I guess).  It was a curious show; trading on the sensationalized UFO-mania of the era, it showcased “amazing” spaceship model work to draw in the Star Wars crowd, but with Jack Webb producing, it wad performed in the same no-nonsense, procedure-bound style as “Dragnet.”  Typically there were three investigations per episode, two of which would invariably end in “logical” explanations (hoaxes, optical illusions, weather balloons and the like).  After a while it got to be unintentionally hilarious, seeing highly-detailed spaceship models hovering before us as plain as day to illustrate a witness account, only to have the investigating officers declare, “What you saw was a trick of the light, caused by swamp gas.”  Ah, but then there was always a third investigation that would end up “unexplained,” just to toss us conspiracy nuts a cookie so we’d come back again next week.  The Joe Friday-like USAF officers weren’t about to admit it was a real flying saucer, but then they couldn’t definitely say it wasn’t, either.

Imagine my pleasure, then, on discovering that “Blue Book’s” final ruling on the South Hill sighting is “unexplained.”  As a kid, I lived for this kind of thing: not so much the confirmation of things extraterrestrial or supernatural (because hey, if science ever agreed Bigfoot or aliens were real, they’d just become part of the boring world of known facts, and lose their allure), but rather the admission that experts (ie: grown-ups) do not and can not know everything (“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…”).

Over the years, I mostly lost interest in UFOs.  I remember a few years ago trying to watch a nine-part series on Youtube that traced the history of UFO sightings over the millennia, and somewhere around episode six I gave up, realizing I don’t really care if they’re real or not, because even if they are, what difference does it make?  Consider: if you were writing a UFO-themed screenplay, Act 1 would revolve around spooky sightings of alien spacecraft by heroes and heroines who are disbelieved and scoffed at.  Act 2 would see their claims verified as a horde of invading saucers assault the Earth and lay waste to civilization.  In Act 3, we’d either beat them or go down fighting, but the point is  in “real life” we’ve been stuck in Act 1 since Bible times (when “Ezekiel saw the wheel.” ) It’s always  “I saw this, I saw that, I talked to aliens, aliens abducted me, aliens killed my cow, the government’s covering it up”, yadda yadda.  But it never goes any further.  After thousands of years, all the alleged ETs are doing is watching us, or at worst playing pranks on random rednecks; they’re not scouts for an invasion force or they’d have attacked by now.  And if they’re just tourists, then let ’em come.  They’re not hurting anything.

The weird part is I once experienced a sighting myself.  Sometime around 1973 in the small town of Saluda, VA, I was watching a show on TV (surprise!) when the electricity went out in our house.  A glance out the window showed the power had also failed in all the other houses on our block and across the street, as well as the traffic light at the intersection two blocks away.  There was one light, though, coming from behind the house, about 100 yards away, bright and round and hovering maybe 35 to 50 feet off the ground.  Not sure for how long, but long enough for me to notice it, get up, walk to the back window and stare at it. And then suddenly, it shot off and upwards very fast at an angle, and once it was out of sight, the power came back on.  I told the story a lot as a kid, to the point where I later decided maybe I’d made it up, but I asked my Mom a few years ago, she said, “No, that happened and I was terrified.”  So there’s that.

And that’s cool. In the end, I like my UFOs mysterious and unexplained, and it’s fun to know my birth town was once (and may still be) one of the great historical “hot spots” for ET activity.  However, I confess it’s a bit disappointing to learn the actual date of the sighting was some two years and a couple weeks after my birth.  The idea that a flying saucer and I may have showed up at the same time seemed to explain so much…

 

Anniversaries and Hurricanes and Twisters, Oh My

Well, this blog is long overdue for an update again, so I’ll try to recap some recent adventures in digest form.

First up, Laura and I celebrated our 25th (!) wedding anniversary at the end of August with a trip to Boston, marking our first trip together away from the kids in 15 years.  (Thanks to Laura’s mom for minding the home front!).  We’d had vague plans to return to Nova Scotia, where we honeymooned way back in nineteenmumblemumble, but with all we’ve had going on this year, plans just never came together.   It’ll happen one day, though.

Anyway, Boston’s always been on our “someday” list, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable visit.  Of course, we took the Virginia heat with us: highs were in the 70s before we arrived and after we left, but the entire time we were there, the city suffered record heat (upper 90s). That seemed fitting, given that our wedding day was also a sweltering record-setter, but such was probably small consolation to the people of Boston.  (Sorry, folks).  The heat wave meant the Bunker Hill monument was closed to visitors out of safety concerns (it’s basically a giant chimney) but it was still an interesting place to see, especially since I’d just read James Nelson’s account of the battle, With Fire And Sword, earlier this year.  Other than that, we got to see all the historic sites on our list, including a walking tour of the Freedom Trail with a costumed guide and a visit to “Old Ironsides” herself, the USS Contitution.   Then we just concentrated on attractions that would keep us  indoors, like the truly remarkable Museum of Fine Arts (where I fell in love with Van Gogh’s Houses At Auvers) and the very impressive Public Library, where a free tour highlighted the architectural genius of Charles Follen McKim (who I was interested in from his designs of NY’s old Pennsylvania Station and the Agricultural Building at the 1890 Chicago World’s Fair, as featured in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) and murals by John Singer Sargent.   And of course we fit in a lot of great seafood, though we broke the rules a bit and skipped the Italian restaurants;  all that heavy fare just didn’t appeal in the heat.

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We skipped the rental car and used Lyft, which quickly started adding up, but once we got a gander at what passes for urban planning in Boston, we were happy not to have to navigate those byzantine streets, deal with the crazy drivers or try to find a place to park.  Between that and staying at an AirBnB, this was our “Internet Age” vacation.

On our return, we celebrated Grace’s 10th (!) birthday, another reminder of how fast life’s speeding by.  Grace continues to be a source of great joy in our lives, of course, and I think she had a good time on her big day, which she shares with her fish, Ballou (who’s only 1).

Then it was time to start fretting about Hurricane Florence, advertised as the worst weather event since Noah gathered the animals.  In the end, it bypassed us completely in favor of hammering the crap out of the Carolinas.  We spent one night camped out downstairs in the room furthest from any trees, but about 2AM I woke up to dead silence and a general feeling of foolishness.  VCU closed for two days out of an abundance of caution so I got a four-day weekend, but all we ended up with were intermittent showers.

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Just when we thought we were in the clear, though, what was left of the storm swung North and sparked seven tornadoes in the Richmond metro area, an unprecedented occurrence here. The most powerful of them touched down about two miles from our house in the parking lot in front of our favorite pizza shop, damaging a gym and flipping over a car before crossing all six lanes of Hull Street and demolishing a furniture store and a flooring warehouse, the latter sadly resulting in a fatality.  Good Minnesotan that she is, Laura’s twister radar was up and she crammed herself, the kids and several visitors into the laundry room until things died down, while I obeyed VCU’s (seemingly endless) alerts and stayed put in my office.  For once I was glad it’s in a basement.

Anyway, that should bring us more or less up to date.

RIP Steve Ditko

One of the key architects of the “Marvel Age of Comics,” Steve Ditko passed away last week at age 90.  I was going to write that he “left us,” but for most of his career he wasn’t really among us, choosing a life of privacy over celebrity, shunning conventions and interviews and earning himself (fairly or not) a reputation as a hermit and recluse, “the JD Salinger of comics.” Unlike his collaborator Stan Lee, who’s basked in the limelight longer than most people have even been alive, Ditko never seemed to feel comfortable in the public eye, preferring to let his work speak for itself.

It certainly spoke to me, and rather against the odds.  Young Me was a DC fan, whereas Ditko’s most notable works were produced for Marvel.  Further, I was a devoted fan of Neal Adams and the “realistic” approach to comic art that took hold in the Bronze Age, whereas Ditko’s style was pretty much the opposite of all that; quirky, cartoony and what you might call “oddball.”  Nonetheless, when I saw his work on “Shade: The Changing Man,” “The Creeper” and one of the million-and-one variations on “Starman,” it was oddly compelling.

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Some time in the late 70s, Pocket Books released a series of paperbacks collecting vintage Marvel comics in vivid color, and for the first time, I had an opportunity to read the earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-Man.  I’d always liked Spidey’s costume and power set, but I was turned off by the never-ending sob story that was Peter Parker’s life by the 1970s.  Nevertheless, I took a chance on these little books and was blown away.

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The earliest Spidey stories, I learned, were inventive, energetic and delightfully quirky.  A lot of that came from Stan Lee’s distinctive flair for witty dialog, but it was Ditko’s art that signaled this was not your average superhero book.  Where other heroes flexed massive chests and biceps and stood around with their fists on their hips, Spidey was a spindly little teenager who moved in spider-like ways that made him equal parts “cool” and “icky.”  He had a degree of super-strength, but he didn’t plant his feet on the ground and deliver haymakers; he did back-flips and somersaults and stood on the ceiling to punch down at you.  And while Lee and Ditko’s Peter Parker had problems, they often had a sense of the absurd about them, making the book seem almost like a spoof of the superhero genre.  Unlike Bruce Wayne and a host of other millionaire playboy heroes, Pete had to worry about paying the rent.  Superman had a Fortress of Solitude, but Pete was relegated to a cramped room in his Aunt’s house that afforded little privacy. Batman had a cave full of costumes for every occasion, but Pete had just one and he had to sew it himself.  When he lost it, he had to borrow a copy from a costume shop, only to find it didn’t fit and had to be held together with webbing.  When Ditko left the book, Pete’s problems persisted — and multiplied — but that sense of the absurd left, replaced with soap-opera melodrama.  Pete turned movie-star handsome, pretty girls filled the book and in short order, Spidey was as muscular and hunky as any other superhero.  Everything looked glossy and beautiful, but the soul of the feature was forever altered.

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Those little Pocket Books also introduced me to the earliest adventures of what would become my favorite Marvel character, Dr. Strange.  Dealing with sorcery, demons, nightmares and journeys to dimensions unbound by earthly rules of logic or physics. these stories gave Ditko’s imagination free reign.  Doc’s expressive hand gestures and the swirling, pulsing, crackling light effects they generated created a sort of guidebook for future artists tasked with illustrating “magic.”  His trippy extra-dimensional landscapes were equally definitive; with no “ground” to stand on, characters moved about on pathways that hung in the air like unfurled scarves, meandering at times through the disembodied jaws of serpents to little “islands” that seemed to be melting away like warm ice cream, while the “skies” were filled with spheres sprouting slithering tendrils of who-knows-what.  In Ditko’s hands, landscapes seemed not only alive but predatory.

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Years later, I would buy this material again as a hardbound “Marvel Masterwork,” and then again as a “Marvel Omnibus.” And odds are the next format it’s released in, I’ll buy it again.

When he left Marvel after a dispute that will forever be shrouded in mystery (because he thought it was none of our business, and didn’t care if we were on his side), Ditko went to Charlton Comics long enough to revamp Blue Beetle with a new man behind the mask and a new costume as eye-catching as its predecessor was deadly dull.  Like Spidey’s costume and Strange’s, it remains in use to this day, fully 50 years after Ditko designed it, and despite the fickle tastes of changing fandom.

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Designing enduring costumes was something of a specialty for Ditko.  Somewhere along the way, he also re-imagined Jack Kirby’s clunky, “walking tank” version of Iron Man with the streamlined red-and-gold armor that has survived, with variations, through decades of comics and films.

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In fact it’s fair to say that no matter what “superstar” artist works on Ditko’s creations, whether it’s Spidey or Strange or the Creeper or Blue Beetle or The Question, there always remains some intrinsic “something” that draws a straight line back to the creator.  His fingerprints are unmistakable.

On the flip side, there is also the matter of Ditko’s politics, or maybe I should say his worldview.  As a devoted admirer of Ayn Rand, Ditko’s most personal works reflected his Objectivist beliefs, most notably in the form of his self-owned character “Mr A,” who saw life in black and white with no shades of gray.  In his first story, Mr A refuses to save the life of a villain about to fall to his death, noting that “to have any sympathy for a killer is an insult to their victims.”  To put it mildly, this sort of approach proved divisive in fandom, but it’s pretty clear the mind behind this material isn’t interested in seeking approval from anyone.

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Apparently, Ditko died as he’d lived: alone and in privacy; as much as two days may have passed before anyone realized he’d expired. I can’t help but feel sad about that.  But then, the only way I’d ever “known” him was through his work, stories that are still on my shelf to be pulled down from time to time and be found exactly the way I remember them. So in a way, I guess nothing’s really changed much for me.  But somehow, it was cool to know that holed up in a little apartment somewhere was a genius artist who changed pop culture with his talent, then disappeared because he felt like it; a guy who valued his own personal belief system more than applause and fame. To some folks, that would make him kind of a nut, but then guys who think like the rest of the world are never going to give us something like Spider-Man or Dr Strange.  And even if he wasn’t the type to mingle or grant interviews or show up at premieres of multi-million dollar films based on his creations, he somehow seemed paradoxically “there” all my life.  Knowing that he’s not anymore makes the world feel a little emptier.

Anyway, whatever dimension he’s moved on to, I hope he’s at peace.

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