Category: Brainiac On Banjo

Brainiac On Banjo #070: When In Space, Dress For Success!

Brainiac On Banjo #070: When In Space, Dress For Success!

Before I start, I want to point out that I know today is Monday and it’s time for “Brainiac On Banjo,” where I wax on and on about comics and pop culture. I realize it is not Thursday, where, in “Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mind,” I do my seditious and sometimes salacious political rants. So, given today’s location, I’m going to do something I rarely do in “Weird Scenes.” I am going to let Donald Trump off the hook.

For a week now, the wires and tubes have been buzzing about the new, official costume of the new, official U.S. Space Force. Allegedly our sixth branch of the armed forces, it’s merely a part of the U.S. Air Force, the way the Air Force – then called the Air Corps – used to be part of the U.S. Army. But don’t bother Mr. Trump with that. Right now, he’s busy.

Yes, I know that some people call them uniforms but my pal, writer, former DC Comics editor and New Jersey bon vivant Jack C. Harris called ‘em costumes when he was in the Air Force, and so, I’ve absconded with it. If that pisses you off, well, no disrespect is meant… to you. Unless your last name is Westmoreland or Schwarzkopf. Damn, I am getting political. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #070: When In Space, Dress For Success!”

Brainiac On Banjo #069: Breathtaker – Now It Can Be Told!

Brainiac On Banjo #069: Breathtaker – Now It Can Be Told!

In my career as a comic book editor-provocateur, I have had the privilege of assisting the birth of several remarkable projects. Two such projects were offered to me by the same team: writer/artists Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel. Oh, sure, they went on individually to do brilliant stuff such as Blood of the Innocent, Tarzan, The Sandman, Gregory, Frankenstein’s Mobster and The Escapist, but all that happened after I received their pitch for Mars.

I was editor-in-chief at First Comics, and I was specifically looking for a project that was completely original and produced by “newcomers” (quotes are due to that “overnight sensation” thing). Joe Staton and Bruce Patterson, our art director and production manager respectively, tossed the Mars proposal onto my lap and said “read this.” Not “read this, please” or “I think this is what you’re looking for;” nope, just read this.

I did, and then I called Wheatley and Hempel. As I recall, their agent was noted comics writer, marketer, publisher, and all-around swell guy Mike Friedrich. Quite rapidly, we had a deal.

After the first issues were finished and we started our promotion work, one of the major comics distributors – there actually used to be over a dozen! – told me I was making a big mistake. Nobody heard of these guys. I pointed out that nobody had heard of Mark Twain until he got published. I was told the story lacked commercial appeal. I responded, “how do you know they aren’t mutants?” Yeah, back in those days I could be quite stubborn or, as I prefer to think of it, an asshole for the cause of good.

We published the series and it became a cult classic. My definition of a cult classic was a highly regarded comic book whose sales were outflanked by the comp list. Mars did well enough and if it sold in those same volume today it would be a twice-weekly book, but the numbers weren’t likely to confound Alan Turing. It had enormous word-of-mouth going for it as well, and that inured to the benefit of the First Comics legend.

Flash forward six years to 1990. Despite the fact that Hempel was hospitalized during his time on Mars, they pitched me another project. By this time, I was a group editor and director of editorial development at DC Comics, and my job was to boldly acquire weird shit that no one had acquired before. I heard their pitch for Breathtaker in a backroom at some huge comics convention. I went for it in a heartbeat, my boss Dick Giordano was ecstatic about it (Dick had a great eye for weird shit), and we produced and published Breathtaker… Despite Hempel’s return to the hospital.

But that’s when things got dicey. Our publisher, Jenette Kahn, a fine person who had earned my respect several years before she got into comics, took one look at the cover and said it seemed like we were mocking concentration camp victims. It’s 30 years later, and I still don’t get that. But word got out that Jenette didn’t like the book. Well, that’s not true. She didn’t like the cover, and she could have called for a new one, or she could have canned the book outright. She did not, but our crack marketing department saw the onus as clear as day.

DC’s marketing director had a reputation for not putting much muscle behind comics that didn’t have a batcape and didn’t kill off anybody important. When Breathtaker was released the only people who knew about it were Wheatley and Hempel’s relatives and those friends of mine who remained amused by my incessant bitching. Despite this, the books sold well, and it got itself a trade paperback collection, which I believe went through a few printings.

Still onus-laden, Mark and Marc got the rights back – eventually. We reprinted it over at IDW in 2005, which was about the time something really interesting happened. The Normal Rockwell Museum was putting on an exhibition of some two dozen graphic novels, and Breathtaker was among those selected. We had an entire wall in their truly breathtaking museum. We were invited to the opening and they even threw us all a wonderful feast – after which many of the museum curators brought out their personal comics for us to sign.

From time to time, the museum put together a travelling version of the exhibit, and it’s still going on. According to the press release,

“Wheatley and Hempel’s Insight Studios Group will mount the “Breathtaker Exhibition,” which was created by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and will appear at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. With more than 90 original works of art, the exhibition explores the creative and physical processes that were undertaken during the original production … The exhibition will be on view August 24, 2020 through October 30, 2020.”

I should point out that McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland is just outside of Baltimore, near the abodes of the Breathtaker creators. That is sweet.

I should also point out that Breathtaker is being rereleased in collected edition by my old, old buddy Nick Landau (thanks for the sexy Hitler comic, Nick!) and his Titan Books imprimatur. Oh, and while I’m at it, I will point out that Titan is issuing an all-new companion comic, I guess for those of us who have all-new companions.

For me, this is seriously cool. Mark and Marc have been two of my closest friends, and I remain in awe of their work. If you haven’t read Breathtaker, Landau is about to make it easy for you to correct that.

Brainiac On Banjo #068: Award-Winning Awards

Brainiac On Banjo #068: Award-Winning Awards

I can’t say I’m a fan of teevee awards shows. Overlooking their propensity for vapidity and fecklessness while acknowledging their complete commitment to style over substance, I agree with those who say that it is truly stupid to pit masterpieces against each other strictly because they were released within the same period of time.

Case in point: the nominees for Best Picture of 1939 – I’m talking the Academy Awards here – were Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Of Mice and Men, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Dark Victory and Love Affair. One’s own personal predilections aside, it’s hard to parse out a qualitative analysis of these films in order to determine a clear “best.” At least eight of these movies are among the very best Hollywood has had to offer, and the other two are no slouches.

(For the record, I would have voted for Stagecoach – and then shot myself for passing over Ninotchka and Of Mice and Men.)

However, I do enjoy a fun live teevee show. I enjoy watching the Oscars with my daughter because she keeps me in stitches with her faux-catty commentary. I love watching the Golden Globes because it’s more relaxed, it is largely bereft of stupid song-and-dance routines, it is comparatively un-overproduced… but, mostly, because Ricky Gervais may be the most honest and one of the most fearless comedians to ever walk the red carpet on the way to work. If I’m watching an awards show and the only person I’m cheering on is the host, I’m still having a good time. Gervais did not disappoint. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #068: Award-Winning Awards”

Brainiac On Banjo #067: The Winter of the Year

Brainiac On Banjo #067: The Winter of the Year

Observations at year’s-end. This will be a Trump-free list… unless you count sub-text.

• • • • •

The final two weeks of the year used to be the most boring weeks of each year… and they still are. It’s a pain in the ass to go to the supermarket, let alone buy anything at any other sort of store. Traffic sucks, and often the weather does too (not this year over in my neck of the woods, but your mileage may vary on that).

Whatever broadcast television is out there that I enjoy is not out there at year’s-end. However, there’s so much stuff on my TiVo and through streaming services that this is no longer a big deal. Actually, that’s kind of good news: people recommend streaming stuff to me all the time, and some arouse my curiosity. Others make me somnambulistic.

• • • • •

Speaking of television, I had a bit of a Victor Buono film-fest here a couple months ago, and I had a wonderful time. Evil was never so gentle; wit was rarely so sharp. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #067: The Winter of the Year”

Brainiac On Banjo #066: The Naked Truth

Brainiac On Banjo #066: The Naked Truth

The Gibson Girl, 1902

All your children are / Poor unfortunate victims / Of systems beyond / Their control • Frank Zappa, What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body? 1968

There are a lot of things in this world that I just don’t understand. That’s not a complaint – the adage “the more I know the more I want to know” is like a monkey on my back. I am terminally curious, and humbly proud of that.

Well, okay. Sort of humble.

I do not understand society’s attitude towards the human body. We have a growing concern about all sorts of “shaming,” including body shaming. Yet we obsessively self-shame our bodies to the point of neurosis. Why? Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #066: The Naked Truth”

Brainiac On Banjo #065: Got A Light?

Brainiac On Banjo #065: Got A Light?

Time once again to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear – well, my thrilling days of yesteryear. You know I like to share.

A half-century ago there was a place where all the hippies met. Well, there were lots of such places: the just-referenced South Street in Philadelphia, St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, the Haight in San Francisco, and the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, among many others. Gentrification runs deep, and into the hippies’ lives it crept like a summbych. We’ll catch up to present-day “reality” by the end of this piece.

The heart of Lincoln Park hippiedom was the intersection of Fullerton, Halsted and Lincoln streets. Festive little places like head shop Head Imports, our community restaurant the Feed Store, the Army-Navy store which sold the finest hippie clothes at affordable prices – as well as gas masks, which came in handy from time to time. The underground paper where I planted my roots, the Chicago Seed, moved to the neighborhood after being Nazi-bait across the street from the Moody Bible Institute, the place where Bettie Page went to school. The neighborhood grew into a formidable Weed of Destruction and I remain a very proud Seedling. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #065: Got A Light?”

Brainiac On Banjo #064: What? The Penguin is Jewish?

Brainiac On Banjo #064: What? The Penguin is Jewish?

‘Tis the season, so if Adam Sandler is making a new list and, you know, checking it twice, he can add the name Oswald Cobblepot.

Well, it does explain that hat.

I’ve carped a bit about how The Joker is the most overexposed character on Earth, apart from Donald Trump. We can argue that Harley Quinn is in competition for that title, but, as a rule, I try not to get in the middle of a fight between a person and his or her ex. Besides, this Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey movie has hit trailer status, so inundation comes with the job. When the DC Universe steamer launched its new animated and X-rated (no, it’s for language, you pervert!) Harley Quinn series, which starts with the enthralled shrink dumping her dangerously insane boyfriend, they managed to ring the overexposure bell with her mallet. But… it works. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #064: What? The Penguin is Jewish?”

Brainiac On Banjo #063: Again With The Event Bitching?

Brainiac On Banjo #063: Again With The Event Bitching?

Bitch, bitch, bitch. Sigh. It’s a living…

For about three decades, I’ve been bitching about how our friends at DC and Marvel have abandoned the storytelling racket and are drowning themselves in the pool of “Event publishing.” During that time, line average comic book circulations have plummeted by about two-thirds.

(Explaining The Stupid Math Trick: “Line averages” are compiled by adding up the circulations of each individual issue printed by each publisher during the year and then dividing the total by the number of different issues involved. Variant covers and extra printings confuse the issue, but, screw it, they’re cheesy hustles that only complicate the processes. I refuse to acknowledge a second printing unless the publisher tells us what the first printing was. If Marvel Comics printed only 750 copies of Amazing Fantastic Fury #7 and then celebrated that success with a second printing, the whole thing is as meaningless as a fart in a blizzard in the dead of winter.)

So why am I carping about this now? And, not to mention, again? As is their wont, Marvel and DC each issued their February 2020 catalogs. On the cover of Marvel Previews – Wolverine #1!!! Another stunning concept from the House of Idea! Oh, and it’s got at least 12 different variant covers – not counting those that might be done for individual retailers – and this includes a virgin variant (wait… what? Alex Ross is a virgin???), hidden gem variants, a party variant, a die cut variant, and an adamantium variant – which, by way of disclaimer, is not even made of adamantium.

To honor their own Event, Marvel is reprinting three previous Wolverine #1’s as well. Will all this hubbub restore Wolvie to his former sales glory? Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #063: Again With The Event Bitching?”

Brainiac On Banjo #062: Rock Is Here To Stay After All

Brainiac On Banjo #062: Rock Is Here To Stay After All

We can argue when rock ’n’ roll started. The term goes back at least 85 years, but the roots of rock go back to our ancestors pounding rocks together. Perhaps that’s the real origin of the term.

I grew up with rock playing in the apartment. That’s probably true for most people reading this, but I’m older than many of you. I’m older than shit, to be sure, and I’m not always thrilled with that. But my sister was almost seven years older than me, and she was seven when Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner, and Sam Phillips made “Rocket 88”, arguably the first rock record released commercially. I was one year old; so, I’m not able to say she was listening to rock way back then. But she was so into rock that I clearly remember her collection of singles and her choice of radio stations. There was no other form of music dominating within the confines of Sunnyside and Kimball apartment 3-A, in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood.

It had a major impact on me. I grew up a rocker. I love rock in all its forms, some more than others, but damn near everything that we refer to as American roots music (rock, blues, country, bluegrass, folk, rap, and even a bit of pop) remains close to my heart.

When I turned 11 years old, my sister gave me my very first record album, Runaround Sue by Dion DiMucci. Shortly thereafter, I scrapped together the $3.14 I needed to purchase Dion’s first solo album, Alone With Dion. I bought it at the old Harmony Hall record store in a strip mall that was founded the year “Rocket 88” was released.

Dion, you see, was my first favorite rock artist. I grew up listening to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, and so many others (including Dion and the Belmonts), but Dion was my favorite. And you never forget your first. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #062: Rock Is Here To Stay After All”

Brainiac On Banjo #061: Charlton Comics Goes To War!!

Brainiac On Banjo #061: Charlton Comics Goes To War!!

The Unknown Anti-War Comics!, by Steve Ditko, Ross Andru, Joe Gill, Denny O’Neil, Pat Boyette and others, edited by Craig Yoe • Yoe Books!-IDW • $29.95, 226 pages

Back when the three of us were laboring over at the DC Comics factory, I was blessed with having my office between those of Denny O’Neil and Archie Goodwin, two of the finest comics practitioners in American history. If they were to be branded A-listers, we would need to invent a new first letter for our alphabet. I’m going to start with Archie, but don’t worry. Denny comes into this story later.

Back around 1992 and 1993, Archie and I started frequenting a swell midtown restaurant where New York Times executives often brought advertising clients. Remember, this was about 16 years before Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau put our beloved medium on the legit. Usually, our passionate conversations revolved around two subjects: frighteningly radical politics, and comic books; particularly EC Comics. To the chagrin of the over-wrought suits sitting within eavesdropping distance, we would conflate the two.

Of all of Archie’s massive achievements as a writer and an editor, my personal favorite is the four-issue run of Blazing Combat, the black-and-white war comic published by Jim Warren with the Frazetta covers and interiors drawn by Alex Toth, John Severin, Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, Gene Colan, Wally Wood… you get the point. The series was influenced by Harvey Kurtzman’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat for EC Comics, and all the above-mentioned artists had drawn stories for Kurtzman. Archie was too young to have written for them, but he was a member of the EC Fan-Addict Club (fan-addict > fanatic, get it?). Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #061: Charlton Comics Goes To War!!”