Category Archives: stuff i dig

Collecting Collections

I just finished reading the first gorgeous volume of Neil Gaiman’s Absolute Sandman, and got to thinking about my collector’s mentality. I bought every issue of Sandman right off the comics rack in the 1980s and 1990s. I also purchased each of the paperback reprints as they appeared (including the boxed set of the first three) and I’ve been buying the Absolute editions as soon as they’ve been published. That means I’ve got three versions of the same story, in three different formats.

Why? What compels me, and others, to keep shelling out for new versions of stories we already own?

Here was my mentality, at least, going into it (and this is my version of events, mind you — my wife may differ): when the paperbacks came out, I purchased them to have them on hand for those times when I wanted to re-read the stories, but didn’t want to put the wear-and-tear on the original comics because, y’know, you don’t want to ruin your comics from frequent re-reading.

And stuff.

*wrings hands*

Anyway, that’s all very well, then, so why purchase the Absolute editions? Well, because each volume has all sorts of New and Improved Great Stuff in it, like Gaiman’s original pitch to DC Comics (see? Even Neil Gaiman had to pitch an editor!), and copies of some of his scripts and rough pencils from great stories like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Plus, the books themselves are just plain nice, with black leather covers, cloth bookmarks, and shiny slipcases. It’s the sort of book that a bibliophile just has to touch, turn over, weigh in the hands, and, yes, read. You can’t help it.

I know. That’s exactly the mentality that the Powers That Be at DC are hoping for. “We’ll dangle just enough new stuff in front of you,” they cackle as they count their shekels, “that you’ll keep right on buying different editions of the same thing!” You laugh, but be honest: how many times have you bought a favorite DVD multiple times, just because the studio released the first version in 2002, then a remastered letterboxed version in 2004, and finally a special 2-disc “Anniversary Edition!” in 2007?

Still, I’ve made some progress lately in shaking my Collector Mentality. For the first time ever, I gave away the original paperback reprints, shipping them off to my brother in Montana.

Er, except for the boxed set of the first three. Because you can’t go completely cold turkey, you know.

Gonna Keep On, Keep On, Keep On Groovin’…

We’ve all got them in our CD collections: those discs we’re embarassed to own and will either make excuses for (“I got it for a buck!”) or outright lie about (“Er, that’s not mine…”) if anyone finds it in the CD cabinet.

I’ve got quirky enough tastes in music that I’ll even ‘fess up to purchasing — and enjoying — CDs like Neil Sedaka’s The Hungry Years or Toto: Past to Present (1977-1990). Even something like Orleans’ Waking and Dreaming is a keeper — after all, it’s got “Still the One” on it — once you get past the worst album cover of all time.

Still, there are some discs that I love but can’t help making up some excuse for why they’re in my collection. Usually it’s my wife who gets splattered by the shrapnel of the cover story. “Best of Barry Manilow???” my friend will say incredulously, holding up a CD with Barry staring androgynously outward, eyes heavy with glittery eyeshadow. “Uh . . . that’s Barb’s,” I’ll reply, despite the fact it’s been in my collection since 1990.

Anyway, here are three more discs that I love, yet will completely disavow:

First, there’s It’s A Sunshine Day: Best of the Brady Bunch. Oh yes, it’s as dumb as you think it is. Naturally, it’s got the Bunch singing “Keep On,” “It’s A Sunshine Day,” and “Time to Change.” But it’s also got some unappreciated gems like “Candy (Sugar Shoppe)” (with Barry Williams trying — and failing — to rock out) and “Merry-Go-Round.” And what’s not to love about a Brady Bunch version of Don McLean’s “American Pie”? Classic.

Next, it’s K.D., er, k.d. lang’s Ingenue, an album I purchased not for the single “Constant Craving,” but rather for the retro-campy “Miss Chatelaine.” And only k.d. lang would describe her look in the song’s video — in which she wore a classy 1930s-era frilly ball gown — as “dressing in drag.” Say what you will, it’s still a terrific album, though one I always try to hide by mixing it in among my Jonny Lang discs.

Finally, there’s the self-titled Buster Poindexter, the retro-cool persona of New York Dolls front man David Johansen. Buster was several years ahead of the swing revival of the early 90s and therefore never really got the play he deserved, though he’s now made a comeback, of sorts, as “jump blues.” “Hot Hot Hot” may have been the hit single (it was sort of the “Macaraena” of the late 1980s), but there were also a killer versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Smack Dab in the Middle.” How you feelin’? Why, hot, hot, hot, of course.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to the Little River Band’s Greatest Hits. It’s Barb’s. Really.

Worst…post….ever!

Looks like it’s Batman Week here at Literary Conceits, as we dip into the mailbag for a question from Rich in Ocala, Florida:

“Found your page through your review of the Ten Cent Plague, and I really liked your recent posts about Batman. As a fellow comics nerd, I’ve gotta ask: What do you collect, and how big is your collection? Any particular favorite Batman writers, artists, or stories? Always glad to read a fellow Batfan. Keep up the good work!”

Thanks, Rich. Let me see if I can cover all your questions:

The bulk of my Batman collection consists mainly of three titles: Batman, Detective Comics, and the first incarnation of Brave and the Bold. My Batman run is probably my most impressive, as I’ve got a straight run from issue #120 (December 1958) to #555 (June 1998), with a good number of issues from the 1940s and early 1950s, including this gem from 1957, featuring Batman Jones, who is not me:


My Detective run covers much the same period, though with a few gaps early in the run. As for Brave and the Bold, I was only interested in it once it became the regular Batman team-up book at issue #75 (October 1967). You had to love B&B — only there could you see such bizarre team-ups like this classic from March 1974:


As far as favorite Batman writers, artists, and stories, I’ve always been a sucker for the art of Jim Aparo, who did nearly every issue of Brave and the Bold (as well as most Batman covers in the late 1970s/early 1980s) and for the stories penned by Steve Englehart for Detective Comics in 1977-78. When I wrote for a Batman fanzine back in the late 1980s, I actually had the chance to interview Steve Englehart, and he was still pretty proud of his run on Detective Comics (though even a decade later, he was still annoyed that writer Gerry Conway had brought back the character of Hugo Strange after he had done a thorough job of killing him off).

What’s that you say? Geek check?

Oooh, busted.

First Books: Limited Collector’s Edition C-37 (1975)

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight — which broke all kinds of records this weekend — I wanted to share with you My First Batman Comic.

I first became a Batman fan not because of the comic books or the TV show (which was off the air before I was a year old), but rather because of the Super Friends cartoon, which premiered on ABC when I was six years old. It may have featured a somewhat emasculated version of the Dark Knight Detective (Hey criminals! Wanna make Batman cower? Take away his utility belt!), but, hey, it was still Batman. He was super cool, and I was completely smitten. My life as a fanboy had begun.

But I didn’t actually have any Batman comics until this one — with the clunky official title of Limited Collector’s Edition, Vol. 4, No. C-37 — which my mom ordered through the mail for my brother and me in 1975. Back in the early- and mid-1970s, DC was publishing collections of Golden Age comics in oversize editions, including reprints of the first appearances of Batman and the Flash, which still confound some rookie collectors to this day. This particular issue — under a terrific Jim Aparo cover — was touted as the Batman Special All-Villain Issue!

Needless to say, I read this thing until the cover fell off of it.

The first story, “The Cross Country Crimes!” (a reprint of Batman #8 from 1941) pits Batman and Robin against the Joker, who leads the Dynamic Duo on a murderous chase across the United States. It contained a great hook (the Joker is actually using the first letter of each state he visits to spell out his name), some scary Joker moments (Joker forces a jeweler’s bus off a cliff), and a thrilling fight in a swaying cable car. And check out this great splash of the Clown Price of Crime (complete with that iconic 1940s Batmobile at the bottom):


Next, the Penguin gets his shot at the Dynamic Duo in “The Blackbird of Banditry,” a 1947 story from Batman #43 in which Penguin declares he will “use fictional birds you’ve read about in books … and commit real crimes!” Penguin manages to stay one step ahead of Batman, and at one point even gets the drop on the Dynamic Duo by puffing on a pipe full of popcorn, which explodes into Batman’s unsuspecting face. Then, displaying a mentality that could only belong to a comic book villain, he chains the captured Robin to a wall (with a tightly drawn bow-and-arrow pointed directly at the Boy Wonder’s heart), locks Batman in a nearby cage, and (wait for it) . . . leaves to allow Batman watch Robin face an almost certain Death by Clever Trap.

Naturally, Batman uses a discarded umbrella to make a bow and arrow of his own, and as the Penguin’s arrow screams toward Robin, Batman intercepts it by firing an umbrella handle-arrow into its path — a drawing that always baffled my eight-year-old brain, as it looked to me like Batman had fired a pickle to block the Penguin’s arrow:


But maybe that was just me.

Anyway, Batman eventually nabs the Penguin, and can’t resist taunting him in his jail cell by reminding him of another famous fictional bird. “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!” Batman guffaws. Hilarity ensues.

The last three stories in the issue featured Two-Face (who meets his demise via accidental hanging at a drive-in movie theater, an image that horrified me), the Scarecrow (captured by an old vaudeville trick in which he’s smacked on the fanny by a see-saw), and Catwoman (who models her crimes on famous women criminals like . . . er, well, the wicked queen from Snow White). And if all that weren’t enough, there was even a four-page spread featuring a map of the Batcave (circa 1968) and diagrams of Batman’s equipment, including this sneak-peek at the contents of his and Robin’s utility belts:


I stared at those pages forever, trying to figure out how Batman could get those smoke capsules out of his belt so quickly, or how that laser torch really worked. When you’re eight years old, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Come to think of it, it still doesn’t.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Translation: Who watches the watchmen?

I do. And now you must, too.

Waiting for the Cool

Had a nice breakfast with Jonathan over the weekend, complete with great conversation covering everything from baby names and vampire novels, to publisher habits and works in progress. Always a pleasure. (And yes, I had eggs benedict. With crab cakes.)

Two things I’m anxiously looking forward to:

First, there’s this:


And then, of course, there’s this:


Don’t get between me and a movie theater on July 18. Because I will knock you down. Really.

Frailing, Frailing

I’m pretty much the world’s most untalented aspiring musician. My problem is I love music, and I can play it juuuuust well enough to think I’m decent at it.

I’m not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not always trying.

In elementary school, we were given recorders — though in my day we called them “song flutes” — and I was good enough at playing it by ear to be selected as one of five kids from my school to appear on a TV show . . . where I learned to my horror that I was going to have to sing. The song we performed? “Up With People.” Good lord.

In third or fourth grade, I took up the clarinet. It was another instrument I played by ear, and it was fingered enough like a recorder that I could do a reasonable job faking my way through songs like “Do-Re-Mi.” But for some reason, I don’t ever recall my elementary school band teacher teaching us to read music. I think it’s because band was more of a voluntary activity, in which those of us with instruments left class for thirty minutes to go to band practice in the cafeteria, and not a part of the formal curriculum.

Consequently, when I moved to a new school in the middle of my fifth grade year and enrolled in band at a school where they took band seriously, I found myself immediately in over my head. I was relegated to third clarinet status, which meant I wasn’t carrying the melody. And when I couldn’t play the melody by ear and actually had to read music, the jig was up. I was finished. Embarrassed, I gave up the clarinet.

In sixth grade, I went into the embarrassing phase that so many boys go through — that phase where you want to be a rock musician more than anything in the world. Oddly, I was attracted to the bass guitar, probably because of Paul McCartney. While Brian Wilson had shown that the bass player could be a front man, McCartney made it cool to be a bass player, paving the way for players like Roger Waters and Geddy Lee.

Well, I never was cool, but for the next three years, I was a decent bass player. I learned to read bass clef, albeit barely, and I got good enough at it that I was recruited to play in the school jazz band — a gig I loved so much that I still annoy my wife talking about it.

Then I moved again. I briefly considered playing bass in the jazz band at my new school, but the thought of being subjected to an audition — in which I might be required to sight read — was too intimidating. I put the bass aside, and got into journalism instead. I didn’t pick up an instrument again for twenty years.

In the late 1990s, with my hands itching for another stringed instrument — one that could carry the melody (the bass, while fun, is usually backbone, not melody) — I turned to the banjo. An odd choice, I know — I mean, why not the acoustic guitar, right? — but there was something about the thing that just seemed to be so much fun. Besides, if it was good enough for Steve Martin and Kermit the Frog, that was enough for me.

A decade later, I’ve learned to play only somewhat decently, but it’s an instrument I love. I can’t play in the Scruggs or fingerpicking styles that sound so cool and take real skill (no “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Dueling Banjos” for me — at least not yet), but I’m a competent frailer — that bum-diddy style so distinct to the banjo.

I play on a beautiful Deering Boston banjo — pictured just above — a banjo that’s far more deserving of a better player than me. It’s sorta like giving a Porsche to someone who hasn’t the slightest idea how to drive. Me, I’m just hoping not to wrap it around a pole.

Chapliniana

I absolutely love Charlie Chaplin. I love watching his movies, I love reading anything about him, and I love that I’ve been able to share his films with my daughter Madi, who’s been watching and laughing at his movies with me for six of her twelve years. The other evening, she and I were watching Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin, and when we reached the point in the movie where Chaplin starts grumbling that he can’t figure out how to make a blind girl mistakenly believe the Tramp is a millionaire, Madi brightened and said, “Hey, he’s talking about the scene from City Lights!”

I love that she knows that.

Plenty has been written, and is continuing to be written, about Chaplin’s life and work (in fact, one of my colleagues at Arcade has just written a new one, due in late 2008, which you can see right here). But if you’re interested in getting to know a little more about One of My All-Time Favorites and don’t know quite where to start, I’m here to help.

First up, of course, are Chaplin’s films, many of which were recently released on DVD by Warner Home Video in two gorgeous boxed sets. The prints are beautiful, and each set is loaded with extra goodies and bonus features.

Naturally, I’d advise you to invest in both sets, but if you really have to choose only one, I lean toward set two. Sure, set one offers Modern Times and The Great Dictator, but set two offers what I consider to be Chaplin’s funniest film (The Circus), his best film (City Lights) and his biggest weepy (The Kid). It also offers The Chaplin Revue, a collection of six of his best shorter films, including A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms.

Next is David Robinson’s 1985 biography Chaplin: His Life and Art. Written with the cooperation of the Chaplin family, who allowed Robinson access to the family archives in Switzerland, Robinson’s book does a good job discussing Chaplin’s films, and takes a clear-eyed approach to Chaplin’s complicated personal life. It’s still the best biography available — it’s the book the film Chaplin is based on — and Robinson covers a remarkable amount of ground while still keeping the book to a manageable size.

If Robinson’s even-handed treatment of Chaplin’s tumultuous personal life leaves you wanting more dirt, Joyce Milton is more than happy to provide it in her 1998 biography Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin. In the past, I’ve characterized this book as mean spirited — and looking through it again, I still think it takes a bit too much relish in kicking Chaplin when he’s down. But it certainly does a thorough job of digging into Chaplin’s troubles with women and politics — a completely fair and valid focus, especially when Chaplin hands biographers both issues, neatly wrapped, on a platter.

But if you’re looking for Chaplin to dish any of the dirt himself in his My Autobiography, you’re out of luck. Chaplin certainly doesn’t portray himself as a saint — he’s always more than willing to acknowledge his own shortcomings — but he’s generally respectful towards those he lived and worked with. Where My Autobiography shines is in Chaplin’s stories of growing up poor in London, his experiences in the early days of film making, his friendships with Douglas Fairbanks, William Randolph Hearst and H.G. Wells, and his general humility when it comes to his work on humanitarian causes. Plus, it’s always fascinating to see what people think are the most important or interesting parts of their lives — it’s not always the elements that we might choose as fans!

Finally, there’s Kenneth Lynn’s hefty 1997 Charlie Chaplin and His Times, a book reviled by fans but admired by many critics. I’m mixed on it. Lynn definitely takes his task as a deep-driller and debunker seriously, working to paint Chaplin’s childhood as not quite as poverty-stricken as Chaplin has led us to believe, and analzying Chaplin’s relationship with, and embarassment over, his mentally ill mother. It’s fascinating stuff and the amount of detailed research is appreciated, if often head-spinning. Lynn’s most valuable contribution to the Chaplin story, however, is in his discussion of Chaplin’s politics. Was Chaplin a Marxist? Perhaps — but Lynn will help you put it all in context of his times.

Oh, and let me add one more interesting item to this list: Charles Chaplin: Film Music, a collection of music composed by Chaplin for use in his films. Besides acting and directing, Chaplin also wrote terrific music for his movies — his most famous piece is probably the hummable tune “Smile” from Modern Times, which Nat King Cole turned into a standard. More than mere incidental music, Chaplin uses music as mood; I defy you to listen to “Kidnap” from The Kid without choking up a bit. The music of Modern Times brings the album to an appropriate close, with the refrain from “Smile” fading out as the final fanfare swells — fittingly enough, it was this music that played as The Tramp (with the girl finally on his arm) walked off into the sunset (or sunrise, in this case) in the final scene of what would be his last truly “silent” film.

There. I hope that helps. And for any Chaplin fans out there, what do you think? What books do you recommend?