30 March 2011

robot marx, introduction

ROBOT MARX will be a six part re-presention of a research project that I had the pleasure of working on last year. As I discussed last week, I desperately need to focus on my Spring 2011 college course work. So, as a blogging stopgap, I'll be sharing a "remastered" entry from the ROBOT MARX project on Wednesdays and Sundays throughout April. I've also solicited some peer (fan) reviews with plans to run those during the month's final week.

In its original form, the project was my semester-long Spring 2010 course work for WOM 203: "Women in Popular Culture." Harry Potter scholar and UW-Colleges' Women's Studies chair, Dr. Holly Hassel's class approached the subject from a Conflict Theory-Marxist perspective; topics included patriarchy, media gender construction and representation, and kids' and girls' culture. The project was a fun way for me and my classmates to master the class's learning objectives while refining our critical reading and thinking ability. From the syllabus:

[O]ur semester project will involve applying your understanding of each essay/article [read for class] to a ... pop [kids' and/or girls'] culture artifact of your choice. As we begin to develop our analysis skills, each of you will develop an ongoing semester text ... that you will write over the course of the semester. The final product will be submitted as a polished document ... and will [also] include a self-assessment and peer assessment submitted separately.

Superhero Wonder Woman, tattoo artist Kat Von D, and soap opera The Young & the Restless were among the 30-some artifacts/relics analyzed by my classmates. I chose ROBOTECH...

I discovered ROBOTECH's colorful universe in the mid '80s via its "Saturday morning" NBC repackaging; it was love at first sight (Episode 4: "The Long Wait"). For those that don't know, ROBOTECH follows three generations of characters from 1999-2044 as they're shaped by the events of three interconnected wars. Its cartoon premiered in 1985, standing out from its contemporaries -- unlike iconically similar G.I. Joe and Transformers, ROBOTECH's characters lived and died, met and fell in love, and expressed real emotions and evolved as individuals.

The 85 episodes of this "sci-fi soap opera" spawned toys, comix, role-playing games, novels, and other pop-cultural relics. From the Conflict-Marxist assumption that America is a patriarchal society, ROBOTECH is a fascinating case study: it featured women heroes in leadership positions, a cross-dressing male hero, and an essentially anti-war message, among other subversive elements. Perfect for the project. Thus was born ROBOT MARX. ("Robot Marks," get it?)

I hope you enjoy reading this academic expression of my fandom as much as I enjoyed writing it.

23 March 2011

strength through study

Last week was Spring Break, providing me an opportunity to reflect on the semester so far. And the reality is -- seeing the semester through to its end is going to be a battle. Tough choices have been made. But when hasn't university been a challenge for me?

I returned to college to pursue a Bachelor's degree nearly five years ago at the age of 30. (I received a technical college Associate's degree in Printing & Publishing in 1996.) As a first-generation, non-traditional liberal arts student, the learning curve has been steep. I've repeatedly stumbled and fallen in pursuit of my goal in the years since. Some of those scrapes, scratches and hits have been self-inflicted; I've bungled the financial aid process, over-reached myself academically, and lost sight of priorities. Some, though, have been out of my control; administrative mistakes were made to my detriment, physical health issues cost me two whole semesters, and a recurring anxiety disorder has complicated things throughout.


Please, know that I'm not complaining; I'm not a "woe is me" type of person and have absolutely no patience for self-pity in others. There's always someone somewhere who has it worse. And they're not whining -- they've accepted their lot in life and are living it. The way I see it: Life is a series of goals with countless hurdles along the way. Sometimes you clear the hurdles with ease; sometimes they take you down. If they take you down, your choice is to give up or continue. I'd rather reach the goal bloodied and crawling than not at all.

This semester, anxiety has really knocked me down. The root problems are perfectionism ("If I can't excel, I shouldn't even try at all") and feelings of inferiority ("I'm just a working-class kid who doesn't deserve college"). Irrational, I know. So, what's the plan? First, take advantage of the free mental health counseling that UW-River Falls has available for its students; I'm not a fan of "mental" counseling, but I know it'll help me and provide the documentation that I'll need to secure financial aid for next school year. Second, withdraw from three of my four classes; one I can and will take again within this same academic year as a Summer course, ensuring that the semester isn't an entire bust. Third, dedicate my energies for the next month-and-a-half to my remaining class; "strength through study."

Which brings me to FINALS. Spring Break also provided me the opportunity to do some comix reading. Will Pfeifer and Jill Thompson's FINALS originally came out as four issues in 1999; I would have purchased it then, but missed out due to my LCS closing. Thanks to Vertigo's "Resurrected" line, I finally had the pleasure of reading it in this new inexpensive collected form. An academia satire, the story follows five students in their final semester at Knox State University. KSU's motto -- "Strength Through Study" -- and mission drives its students to take their learning to extremes. Film Studies major Wally Maurer is making a "hyper-cinema verite" movie; Comparative Religions major Nancy Bierce has established her own cult; Criminal Justice major Dave Oswald has become a masked bandit; Theoretical Engineering major Tim Pike has built a time-machine; and Anthropology major Gary Skelton has gone native. It's a manic, thoroughly entertaining black comedy rich in concept, execution and detail.

I discovered Pfeifer's work via his 2004 AQUAMAN run; his CATWOMAN (2005-2008) made me a believer. He's one of my favorite serial-comix writers, exhibiting a real knack for telling fun stories with great characterization and cliffhangers. FINALS was Pfeifer's first major comix project, and it's clear that he's been delivering from the get-go. The opening "Thanksgiving Dinners" scene in Issue/Chapter 3 is especially clever in what it accomplishes. I fell in love with Thompson's art via 1994's BADGER: SHATTERED MIRROR; I've followed her career ever since. The draftsmanship-meets-looseness style on display in FINALS seems to bridge that of her earlier works and her more current SCARY GODMOTHER era projects. Thompson's repeated use of fish-eye perspective throughout FINALS adds a schizophrenic, paranoid edge to the reading experience. At 100 pages for only $7.99 US, the book is definitely worth tracking down.

My own university experience may not be as extreme as the students' at KSU, but it's been challenging in its own way. By being reasonable in my goals, approach and expectations, however, I have no doubt that I can -- and will (eventually) -- succeed. From FINALS:

"Now, go...! Go and carve out your place in the world!"

- - -

* "Last Hurdle" by A. Jones.

16 March 2011

where's the cap'n?

Last week, Kevin "Bank of Kev" McKeever pointed me to a financial article by Jonathan Berr speculating on the abandonment of the "Cap'n Crunch" cereal brand by Pepsi/Quaker Oats. Berr made some astute observations, but by no means stated matter-of-fact that the good Cap'n* was "retiring." That didn't stop media outlets from jumping to conclusions though. In fact, Quaker is possibly gearing up for a new-generation return of their "Where's the Cap'n?" promotion.


I was 9 years-old when the original "Where's the Cap'n?" promotion hit. And it was epic. Well, "epic" in the context of '80s-kid-culture epic. As Mr. Breakfast describes:

In 1985, Cap'n Crunch disappeared from boxes of Cap'n Crunch cereal leaving a question mark and an empty silhouette in his place. The "Where's The Cap'n?" campaign encourage[d] kids to decipher his whereabouts through clues on the back of the box. In December of 1985, it was revealed [that] the Cap'n had been hanging out in the Milky Way [galaxy].

The months-long promotion targeted me and my contemporaries from every direction. In addition to the cereal box exteriors and interiors (via maps, decoder strips, detective badges, etc.), there were television commercials, print ads, an 800-number, a music video... Like I said, epic. It was interactive, immersive, and fun. It was also cynical commercialism at its finest, and my brother, friends and I ate it up.

In the quarter-century since, media in all of its forms has fragmented and specialized; the ability to pull off another successful "Where's the Cap'n?"-like stunt seems highly unlikely. With the exception of tragedies, it seems to me that there are few opportunities anymore for that level of shared experience among kids. Which is kind of sad. Yes, '80s kids' culture left a lot to be desired. But it connected those of us who were a part of it. And it left us a lot (of junk and junkfood) to remember with smiles.

- - -

* For a deconstruction of cereal mascots a la what WATCHMEN did for superheroes, see James Sturm's THE CEREAL KILLINGS.

** Images from Cover Browser.

09 March 2011

die with your mask on

After months of teasing, Steve Bissette announced last week that his new book, TEEN ANGELS & NEW MUTANTS is finally available. Subtitled "Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack® and the Art, Commerce, and Karma of Killing Sidekicks," its 400+ pages analyze Veitch's career, his BRAT PACK, and the intersections between comix history, the superhero-sidekick phenomenon, and modern teen culture. Veitch shared the following that same day:

This book grew out of an article I commissioned from Steve Bissette when I was planning a special hardcover edition of BRAT PACK a couple years back. I asked Steve to write a short history of what was going on with me, the comics scene and my co-publisher while I was creating the original BRAT PACK. Steve dug into it deeper than I could have ever imagined... [H]e has produced what must be the most comprehensive, contextual, far-reaching and in-depth analysis of a graphic novel ever written.

You can order it directly from the publisher or from Amazon. I immediately ordered myself a copy, and I look forward to pouring myself into it ASAP.

I discovered Veitch's King Hell Heroica via THE MAXIMORTAL in the early '90s, which led me back to BRAT PACK. Burnt out by the Marvel, DC, Image and Valiant superhero comix hype-machines, the Heroica definitely spoke to my "fuck superheroes!" mindset of the time. The stories were raw, brutal and sincere; genuine artistic expressions from an independent creator. Looking back on it nearly 20 years later, they likely served as a bridge between what I thought comix were and what I realized they could be.

I had the pleasure of revisiting both books a number of months ago and they ring more true now than they did then. Here's hoping we get the continuing story someday... Until then -- I've got a 400-page thesis to read.

02 March 2011

crippled baby steps


Ally Comix has been a part of my life for 25 years.

In 1986 I met my oldest friend, Craig Thompson in Mrs. Sparr's 5th Grade homeroom. We instantly hit it off as geeky, goofy low-income kids. We also happened to be the two "best" artists in our grade level, according to our classmates. (One guess as to who was considered the best.) Soon thereafter, during a sleep-over at his place, Craig introduced me to the world of comix via an honest-to-god spinner rack of comix in his bedroom... Jim Shooter's Marvel and the black-and-white independents of the time were a revelation. I was absorbed -- obsessed -- and instantly started collecting them and dreaming up my own stories featuring my favorite characters. I also intuitively became obsessed with the craft of comix. How they were created and by whom became a favorite, years-long library research project. Which led to Ally: Phase One... Moving beyond dreaming up stories for established characters, I started dreaming up my own characters and stories. As did Craig, as did our little brothers, as did a neighborhood friend. So we started our own comix company -- Alli ("with an 'i'") Comix, which evolved over the next couple of years into Ally Comics. Our li'l bullpen would take turns meeting around our families' kitchen tables, brainstorming, jamming, drawing, and making comix for ourselves and each other. We kept our "company" and our comix going through Junior High.

In hindsight, Ally: Phase Two established itself during and after High School in a couple of forms. I met my second oldest friend, Chris Wood in 1991 when his family moved (back) to Wisconsin. Chris and I attended the same church with our families and frequented the same comix shop. The initial meeting was awkward, but we quickly bonded over a desire to create comix; he was an artist and I fancied myself a writer. Over the next number of years we'd sit at the coffee shop brainstorming, jamming, and planning submissions and publishing endeavors. Then he moved. Around that time, Craig had gotten back into comix (after taking a lengthy break for non-geeky socializing and girls) and I had recently befriended another comix-creator wannabe, Tim Seeley. I introduced Craig and Tim, and we -- no surprise -- started brainstorming and jamming on prospective self-published ventures. Thus was born Ally Publishing, which became Duck Puppet Press, which promptly went the way of the dodo bird as we parted ways for educations and careers a few months later.

A decade passed, and I had given up on what I perceived to be an "impractical" dream. I still read and loved comix, mind you, but I had no desire to create them. (Or so I thought.) I thrilled to Craig and Tim's established professional comix careers, a proud friend. Chris and I had drifted apart. And I had become close friends with a fellow ROBOTECH fan and comix enthusiast, Jonathan Switzer. We'd talk daily about our favorite fictional universe, the latest comix we'd read, and life in general. At some point, Jonathan had shared with me a character and story he'd dreamt up when he was a kid -- Scwonkey Dog -- a story he still tinkered with and hoped to publish someday. "Inspiring! That reminds me of Ally Comics..."

Cue Ally: Phase Three. The Summer of 2007 found me heartbroken, unemployed, and in a rut. I had picked up my final paycheck from the job I'd been let go from just a couple of weeks before. Driving to the bank, I was thinking: "What's my one constant love in life...?" Then it hit me. "Comix, of course!" I wanted to explore them again, create them again. And -- for some unknowable reason -- I was moved to reconnect with Chris after far too long a time to share my revelatory moment. "I'll call him after I cash my check." I cashed the check, was rolling out of the bank parking lot, and my cellphone rang. It was Chris(!). Before I could share with him my own news, he -- in his charmingly manic way -- shared with me his... He was creating comix again! We talking for hours. We brainstormed, jammed on ideas, and started making plans. When Jonathan and I next talked, I shared with him what had happened. Jonathan started laughing. "Just a couple weeks ago, I started working on SCWONKEY again!" Brainstorm, jam, plan. Ally Comix was back. Over the next year, we conferenced, created, and made arrangements. Things felt fated.

Unfortunately, life got in the way for all of us. After an underdeveloped "company" premier at Wizard World Chicago 2008, the fire we had faltered. But it's not been extinguished. Jonathan has never given up working on SCWONKEY. Chris is back working on THE GOLDEN AGE. My own AMERICAN NARADA is coming soon, and old projects are being dusted off. The Brain, the Heart, and the Soul -- all allies in making each others' dreams and stories a reality. But it won't be easy. I know that. Lives are being lived; lessons are being learned. "Baby steps" may be too ambitious a goal for Ally: Phase Four. "Crippled baby steps" is more like it.

If you can't walk, crawl. If you can't crawl, roll. Just never give up.

- - -

* Logo designed by Jon Thompson.