Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In the Baltimore area, many children went back to school this week. When I was a lad, school began after Labor Day, which seems a more appropriate starting point since many see Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer. It’s also in September, the first month of fall. Starting in August is psychological cruelty, as far as I’m concerned, but I guess the local governments believe they can prove their commitment to education by making the school year a week longer. Anyway, I’m in no position to debate the state of public education. What I can do is babble on about what “back to school” meant to me.

The first week of school was a period of trade-offs. On the plus side, you had some spiffy new clothes to wear, a shiny new lunch box featuring the latest, most popular toy or TV show, and the prospect of a school year that just might not suck as badly as the previous year. On the downside, you had to get up early, start using your brain for something other than imagining, and jockey through the childhood power struggle as each kid tried to assert his or her dominance in the bloodsport of playground pecking order.

And let’s not forget the new teachers. We were usually told who our teacher would be on the last day of the previous school year. If you got one who had a bad reputation, you had the entire summer to fret over the misery that awaited you. Your only hope was to pray that this scourge of academia would be transferred, get pregnant and quit, or be hit by a bus. An unknown replacement had to be better than the known terror. Upon reflection, the teachers I feared the most turned out to be some of the best, and the ones I did not dread usually turned out to be the worst. So much for relying on gossip.

Even if you were fortunate enough to get in with a class of kids that you got along with and the teacher turned out to be pretty cool, going back to school was always just a bit sad. Your nine-month sentence had just begun. At age six or seven or eight, nine months was a lifetime, and they would prove to be quite active months. Who was ever the same person in June as one was the previous September? Changes are daily at that age, and life moves very slowly.

During those first few days, as I sat in that non-air conditioned classroom, smelling the formaldehyde on my newly purchased school clothes mix with my nervous perspiration, all I could dream of was Friday. The first Friday after Labor Day - the first Friday of the school year - provided the magical rewards that made the entire week of stress and suffering worthwhile. The first of those magical rewards awaited me as I dashed home from school. Sitting on the front steps, in all their red and green glory, were the Wards and Sears Christmas catalogs. In those days long before the World Wide Web, catalogs were your only home connection with the wonderful universe of toys yet purchased. I would scoop those welcome parcels up and spread them out on the living room floor, perusing them with intense scrutiny. Despite their enormous density, my interest lay with those handful of pages buried in the center of the book: boy’s toys. Ah, G.I. Joe, Action Jackson, Johnny West. Ooooh, Ward’s has an exclusive figure called Hombre! Gotta write that down.

The “Wish Books” were a wonderful escape where you could see every toy you ever coveted laid out all in one place. And for one time of the year, you could dream that you owned all of them. I knew, for example, that I could never ask for one of those motorized cars that you could actually climb into and drive around in. Those were way too expensive, and our tiny backyard hardly afforded much room for cruising, but with the catalog, I could stare and dream. December 25th seemed like a lifetime away.

An afternoon of catalog browsing nearly pushed away all memories of the hideous week at school, but the best memory blocker came in prime time. That’s when the three major networks (as opposed to the five or six medium-sized networks we have today) would present their sneak previews of the Saturday morning lineups. Usually hosted by the stars of their live action kid shows, these previews would introduce you to the new schedule of cartoons and live action shows aimed specifically at me. (Apparently, these specials continued into the 80s, but I was oblivious by then.)

Children today, who are used to having their pick of kid-oriented cable channels spewing out specialized entertainment 24/7, can’t imagine how major these little half-hour preview shows were. Saturday mornings offered the only period of new programming aimed at children, so we needed to study these Friday night specials to figure out exactly which shows we had to watch and which shows we could skip. On NBC, when Johnny Whitaker discussed with Jimmy Osmond the virtues of tuning into Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, I took heed. Of course, when he also told me to stay tuned for Land of the Lost, I was torn because the preview on CBS already told me to watch The Shazam/Isis Hour. I could lose sleep over these decisions.

I remember in 1973, after seeing the sneak peek at Super Friends, I had a dream that I was watching the show. I envisioned the show looking like the Justice League of America comics that I had been reading. Then the next morning, I was hopelessly deflated as I saw those uber-dorks Wendy and Marvin, along with that dumbass dog, following the World’s Greatest Superheroes around and generally goofing things up. All I could think was, “Hanna-Barbera screws up another one. Why couldn’t Filmations have done this?”

After watching the new cartoon shows on Saturday morning, it was outside to play and discuss with my friends the new toys in the Christmas catalogs. Usually, the Saturday morning shows had been amply sprinkled with commercials featuring these new toys, so we now had additional fuel to fire our avarice. Of course, the first week of school was a long lost memory and the equilibrium set in. By Monday morning, we were back into the swing of things. The air cooled, the leaves changed color, and we started dreaming about our Halloween costumes.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


When Hasbro announced in 2005 that they would no longer produce the 11 ½ “ G.I. Joes, I was crestfallen. As a 1/6th scale action figure addict, I loved checking out the toy stores and the toy departments of my local discount stores to see what new creations they had come up with. That would now be at an end. I also knew that, as went Hasbro, so would go the rest of the industry. Just as they had reintroduced the 1/6th scale action figure to the market in the early 90s, Hasbro would send the signal to all the other toymakers that figures of that size were no longer hip. And I was right.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was perusing some photos online that someone had taken at the latest San Diego Comic Con and, amid all the new Transformers and Marvel superheroes, there stood new repro versions of the G.I. Joe Adventure Team with the legendary Kung Fu Grip. Not only were they reasonable facsimiles of the old figures, but they were packaged in the old, oblong boxes with the painted covers (known as coffin boxes to collectors). I nearly fell off my chair when I saw them! I wasn’t sure, however, when they would be made available or if they were only limited editions sold at ridiculous prices.

Although the Hasbro Website says that they are sold exclusively at Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters, posters on the Yahoo! Captain Action list said that they bought these new throwback Joes at their local Walmarts. Despite my aversion to that particular drearily lit, narrow-aisled discount chain, I went on a hunt for these new Joes. Unfortunately, the first couple Walmarts I visited had hopelessly understocked toy departments. They reminded me of those old Soviet GUM stores where gray peasant women fought over the last pair of pantyhose on the huge expanse of empty shelving. I finally found a Walmart that, not only had amply stocked shelves like a good capitalistic institution, but had a healthy stock of Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joes. The store had all five versions of the Joe in stock and they were reasonably priced at only $9.95 per unit. Since I already owned a vintage Land Adventurer (the guy with the brunette hair and beard), I decided to buy the other four: Air Adventurer (blonde), Sea Adventurer (redhead), Man of Action (brunette sans beard), and G.I. Joe Adventurer (African-American).

The boxes are amazing recreations of those wonderful coffin boxes I remember from my youth. They even advertise the old adventure sets they used to sell (although there is a disclaimer on these boxes which states that the sets are no longer available). I really bought these figures for the boxes, but I still wanted to see how accurate the repro figures were, so I sliced the tape holding the lids on (no shrink wrap on these retro babies) and peered inside:

I was a little disappointed that Hasbro used a clear plastic form to hold the figure in place rather than the old cardboard stays they used to use, but I understand their desire to keep the product secure. The costumes were exactly the same, and the headsculpts are pretty close to the originals. The flocking for the hair and beards seems softer and longer, and the distribution of flocking is more controlled, creating a more neatly groomed appearance.

The old figures were pretty skimpy on accessories, and these new figures are exactly the same. In addition to their unique outfits, each figure came with a shoulder holster and pistol. At first I was dismayed to see that these figures came with revolvers. I was certain that my Land Adventurer from 1971 had an automatic, in keeping with the standard military side arm. After checking with my G.I. Joe reference book, I discovered that the old Adventure Team figures did in fact come with that chintzy looking revolver. I’ve set my vintage Land Adventurer (left) next to the new Air Adventurer for comparison. Although the automatic pictured with the original Joe is not vintage, it’s a close facsimile of the pistol I recall from childhood:

While no Hasbro reproductions have ever been spot on, owing to changes in toy making practices and newer safety considerations, these Kung Fu Grip Joes come the closest in my mind to recreating the look and feel of the originals. I also appreciate that they didn’t tack on a hefty price for the nostalgia buzz. At $9.95 per Joe, you get quite a flashback for your money.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Okay, no cabbage-patching. It's so 90s!

The comic page above came from a promotional comic book that was included with my Captain Action figure (click on the image for a larger view if you can't read it). When I was a kid, I hated little Jimmy. I was pretty happy with my Captain Action and his Batman and Captain America costumes, but Jimmy got "Captain Action...Action Boy...all their outfits and accessories!" Little bastard. This comic scarred me for life. Do you know how many hundreds of dollars I've spent trying to acquire what Jimmy had, and I'm still not even close! Ideal really knew how to mess with a kid's head.

To be honest, I don't remember too much about my childhood birthdays. I vaguely remember the one pictured below, primarily because I have a photo of it. I believe it's my fourth birthday:

That's my friends Kimmie and Nick (I'm the chubby kid standing on his chair and waving). I'm playing with my Mr. Potato Head which I just received from Kimmie. She had a variation that used an orange soda bottle rather than a potato for a head. And no, there hadn't been a nuclear accident that morning. The color in the photo has gotten funky with age.

Birthday's were always bittersweet growing up. My birthday meant that the summer would soon be over and I would have to go back to school. It was Birthday - Jerry Lewis Telethon - Back to School. I still get a twinge in my stomach when I hear Jerry sing Never Walk Alone, although that may not be because of the school thing.

Anyway, I don't have much to say about birthdays, except it's kinda nice to acknowledge that you've made it through another year. It's a mile marker to show how far you've come and that you can still go farther. I guess that's pretty good.

I have to show you another panel from that Captain Action comic:

Can you imagine any toy company including a panel like that in any promotional material nowadays?!! All I can say to Captain Action is, stay away from Baltimore! Our murder rate is high enough without you handing out weapons on the street corners!!

Friday, August 17, 2007


With all the recent hoopla about Marvel killing off Captain America (like they won’t revive him in another year or two), I got to thinking about my very first Captain America comic. It was Captain America #155, which also featured his then partner The Falcon. I didn't know at the that this issue was part of a very special story arc in the Captain’s Bronze Age history.

You see, Steve Englehart had taken over the writing duties for Captain America a few issues earlier, and his first assignment was to figure out a way to explain those Captain America comics that had come out during the 50s. According to Stan Lee’s revised history, Captain America had been put in suspended animation shortly before the end of World War II and revived in the 60s. However, comic fans knew that Captain America had also appeared in several issues of Young Men comics in the 50s. Who was that guy if Cap was on ice at the time? Mr. Englehart explained that another man and his teenaged student were transformed into a new Captain America and Bucky to fight the Communist menace. They were later put into suspended animation in the mid-50s, but then revived in the 70s and these two were giving the real Cap a bad reputation. The real Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, puts this bogus Captain America out of action, but the bad guy was brought back once again as The Grand Director. It’s all very complicated, so let’s get back to my seven-year-old mind and Issue #155 and the summer of 1972.

I think I grabbed this issue off the spinner rack because of the unusual cover. Instead of a standard picture of Cap beating up a bad guy, #155 had this abstract, “bullseye” design with Captain America in the center and all kinds of little things going on in the corners. Another interesting feature was that it proclaimed to reveal “The Secret Origin of Captain America.” Pretty nice way to start off your virgin reading experience with a new superhero! In fact, the flashback section of the book where Steve Rogers is injected with the super strength serum looked just like the old Jack Kirby/Joe Simon artwork. Since I’m writing from memory, I’m not sure whether it was the real artwork or an artist mimicking the style, but either way, the effect of changing styles back and forth to suggest a different era was fascinating to me. I was beginning to sense how comic books had a history and a continuity.

This became one of my favorite comic books of that summer (I was reading quite a few during those sultry months), and I re-read the book several times. I always associate that comic with the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. Although the games officially ran from August 26th to September 11th, they seemed to go on forever. I remember perusing my Captain America comic when Mark Spitz was racking up his seven swimming gold medals, or studying that cool flashback segment when Olga Korbut was showing that some Russian women could be cute and perky. I also remember reading Issue #155 when it was announced that eight Palestinian terrorists had taken 11 Israeli athletes hostage, killing two in their apartment right away.

I didn’t know anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at that time, and I still didn’t understand it after the hostage situation ended in a bloody massacre. All I knew was that the Olympic Games were supposed to be about friendly competition amongst the world’s best athletes. There was no place for such brutality at a fun event like this. I equated the terrorists with the bullies at school who would interrupt a friendly game by pushing kids around and starting trouble. That was kid’s stuff, though, and I was consoled with the notion that things got better when you grew up. After those Summer Olympics, I knew that some people never lost their need to inflict violence and mayhem no matter how many more people desired peace. When I saw a shaken Jim McKay solemnly report that "they're all gone,” I was assured that things never really got better.

I could falsely concoct some story that I had secretly wished for Captain America to come and save the hostages, but no such thought occurred to me. Like most normal seven-year-olds, I knew the Captain was a fantasy created to fulfill our collective yearning for swift justice. I knew superheroes were not real and never could be. The only connection I made was that comic books were more fun than real life, and I retreated into comics for most of my young life. I even re-read my Issue #155 on Labor Day while Jerry Lewis, strung out on Percodan, was chastising me for not sending in money for his “kids.” Just like the Captain’s arch enemy Red Skull, that greasy-haired man in the tuxedo was repulsive and fascinating at the same time.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


I started working on a Nick Fury action figure after I found this interesting figure on Old Joe Infirmary that had a very Nick Fury–like face, right down to the cigar in his mouth. It seemed like a relatively easy costume to create, and I always had a soft-spot for the old soldier in the futuristic paramilitary organization. I guess I also have a fondness for him because he got me through a rather harrowing night as a child.

I knew from as far back as I could remember that my father had a drinking problem. Until I was eight years old, however, the concept was completely abstract, like saying the neighbor down the street is a water skier. His behavior when drunk did not affect me as a very small child, except when my parents would fight, which was as confusing as it was disturbing. Then, one Saturday afternoon in the fall of ’72, I finally understood the seriousness of my father’s alcoholism. My mom had been a stay-at-home mom most of the time that I was little, but with inflation rearing its ugly head, she decided to take a part-time job at a catalog clearance center to make extra money during the holiday shopping season. This meant that she had to work some Saturdays, and my dad had to watch my brother and me. My dad pretended that his pride was hurt by my mom going to work and showing the world that he was not a big enough bread winner to support his family, and he chose to take it out on her (and, unthinkingly, on my brother and I as well) by getting rip-roaring drunk during the day that he was supposed to be watching us. Of course, I later realized that any excuse, like the sky was blue for example, was a good enough excuse if my dad chose to get drunk. But this was my first, full-blown awareness of my dad being drunk.

He seemed fine in the morning, and was quite happy to give me a few bucks to go off to a kids movie festival at my elementary school. My friend Linda and I spent the afternoon eating candy and watching cartoons and poorly dubbed children’s movies from Sweden or someplace, all spooling through a crappy 16-millimeter projector that would periodically eat the film and have to be re-threaded. Anyway, Linda and I had a reasonably fun time, and we wandered back to my house shortly before dinner time. As soon as I walked in the door, there was a palpable tension in the air. I can’t explain it, but I would feel it for the rest of my childhood, every time I walked into the house when my father was drinking. I recall my dad and my brother were doing some project out in the back yard, and my dad looked crazed. His fiery red hair was sticking up on end, and his normally ruddy face was completely red. He looked like the Heat Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus, although that cultural reference was not available to me in 1972. My brother, six years older and more aware, just looked frustrated and a bit scared.

My dad came into the house ranting and raving to no one in particular, but with a gravelly, slurring voice which made it feel personal. I told Linda to go home and tried to make myself scarce until my mom returned from work. Maybe she could deal with the demon that had possessed my father. Of course, her arrival only made matters worse as he unleashed his full venom on her and this wicked job that was keeping her away from her true duty of watching the kids. Somehow, Mom kept her cool as my father kept up his non-stop rant for the entire evening. She made us dinner, washed the dishes, ran a bath for me, and put me into my pajamas while the entire time my dad spewed forth his nonsensical verbal venom. Being that this was the first time I connected the drinking with my father’s yelling, I truly tried to follow what exactly his grievances were. No matter how closely I listened, however, nothing really made sense. Sometimes he wouldn’t even finish sentences, but start a completely new line of thought just as irrational as the last. This was my first survival lesson for living with an alcoholic: they make no sense, so it’s best to not pay any attention to what they are saying, lest you lose your own sanity trying to understand them.

I’m not sure where my brother was in all of this, but my mom most likely told him to go to a friend’s house. By about 9:30, my father had completely exhausted himself and passed out on the bed. A little while later, he grumbled to my mom to go to the store and get him some cigarettes (that’s back when smoking was good for you). Willing to do anything to keep him quiet, my mom put some pants and shoes on me and we drove to the 7-11 store. Given what we had been through, I guess Mom felt I deserved a comic book and an ice cream. I quickly scanned the spinner rack of comics to settle on a choice (I didn’t need to aggravate my mom with indecisiveness). I stumbled onto something called Nick Fury and his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (for you comic fans, this was the first reprint issue featuring old stories from Strange Tales). Now I had read Sgt. Fury comics before, but this was something new. It definitely was set in present day and not World War II, and this Nick Fury looked a little different from the Howling Commando Leader. I was confused, but the fancy gadgets and spy-movie feel sucked me in. I grabbed it.

When we got home, I eagerly started reading my new comic. Then the haunted, slurring voice called from upstairs, “Neal!” Cautiously, l pulled myself up the stairs and walked into the darkened bedroom. My dad remained prone on the bed. From the faint light in the hallway, I could only see my father’s eyes, and they appeared to glow.

“Where’d you and your mother go?” he croaked out, suspicion hanging on each syllable.

“We went to the 7-11 to get you cigarettes,” I replied, incredulous that he would even ask.

“Are you sure?” he groaned, like some ambulance-chasing lawyer.

I nodded, feeling guilty for no apparent reason.

“No place else?” my father added, accusingly.

“Yes, just to the 7-11,” I said, feeling more and more creeped out by the minute.

I don’t know exactly how long this interrogation went on, but he eventually let me go. Some years later, I realized that my father, in his twisted, alcoholic haze, was setting a trap for my mom. Thinking that she was having an affair, he gave her an excuse to leave the house so she could meet with the non-existent boyfriend. I guess I was supposed to tattle on her transgression, which only occurred in his sick, clouded head. Truly mindbending!

Once back downstairs, I continued to read about the adventures of Nick Fury. So intent was I to leave my current time and space that I poured myself into those pages. I was right alongside Nick Fury on whatever escapade he was having. I welcomed the challenge, for no villain could be any scarier than my own father at that point.

The next morning, I read through the comic again. I was thrilled to discover that this was, in fact, the same Nick Fury from WW II, only a little older and with cooler weapons. My dad eventually came downstairs, hung over and full of self-reproach. My parents’ whispers in the kitchen barely contained the seething tension underneath, eventually ebbing to a simmer of conciliatory repartee. I tried to block it out, focusing only on Nick Fury. It was the second survival technique I learned in so many days.