Our Star Blazers!

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It was 1979 when I met my good friend Greg. We were both in the ninth grade, Greg had just transferred in that year. As I recall, we had a slightly rocky start. We were in phy-ed class (which I hated with a passion), learning how to run and kick pass a soccer ball. I was paired up with Greg and I wasn’t very good. I could tell Greg was a little frustrated, but he did his best to help me get better.

I guess it wasn’t that rocky.

We got to talking about our interests, as kids do. We learned we both really liked Star Wars, but in 1979 what kid didn’t? Well, there was my friend John, but he’s a story for another day. Maybe.

There was one interest Greg and I shared that once it was mentioned a fast friendship was formed. Sure, we both liked Star Wars, but when one of us (I forget which) brought up Star Blazers, we each thought to ourselves, “Henceforth, this man shall be my brother!”

The series first appeared on American television in 1979, having been adapted for an American audience from the Japanese series Space Battleship Yamato (1974). I remember seeing ads for the series, which must have made me curious enough to check it out.

This animated series was unlike any Saturday morning cartoon show I had ever seen before. It had a couple things in common with the original Jonny Quest series in that it wasn’t made specifically for kids and characters could and did die. (I seem to have a weird appreciation for cartoon characters dying and yet I’ve never worked for Disney. Hmm.)

Star Blazers also had a look like no other Saturday morning cartoon show. It was my first exposure to anime and probably was for most American viewers, as well. The series was unique in that it had a continuing storyline filled with cliffhangers that flowed through the entire season. Jonny Quest didn’t even do that!

The Synopsis

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Earth ain’t lookin’ so good.

It was the year 2199, Earth had been under attack by the evil Gamilons, an alien species from beyond our solar system, since the mid 21st century. The Gamilons had been bombarding the Earth with radioactive bombs for a century and a half to destroy all life on the planet. In that time, humans had been forced to live underground. Immense cities had been constructed, but eventually the radiation was making its way underground threatening to destroy the remaining life once and for all.

It’s never explained why the Gamilons had decided to attack Earth. I guess just being evil is reason enough.

The radiation was reaching a critical point. In one year’s time, all life on Earth would be snuffed out. Earth’s meager space defense force was being decimated. When it was defeated in a great battle near Pluto, things were looking awfully bleak.

During the Battle of Pluto a strange spacecraft, not from Earth, not from Gamilon, passed through and crashed on Mars. Its sole passenger, a young and beautiful woman died shortly after the crash. She carried with her a device that held a message. A message, sent by Queen Starsha, from a far distant (148,000 light years distant) planet called Iscandar. Her message was to let the people of Earth know that Iscandar has Cosmo DNA, which could restore our planet to its proper state. But, the humans would have to travel the great expanse to Iscandar to get it.

To help the earthlings make the journey, Queen Starsha included plans for a Wave Motion engine that would make it possible to travel at warp speeds. With no other choice, the people of Earth decided to trust this alien savior and built a spacecraft with this new technology. They salvaged and refit the sunken World War II Battleship Yamato with the alien technology, which made for a very cool and unusual spaceship.

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They renamed it the Argo.

The Argo would have to travel alone through hostile space, battling Gamilons at every turn along the way. They had starfighters and deck guns for defense, but they also had the Wave Motion gun. Based on the same technology as their space warping engine, the Wave Motion gun was capable of great destruction.

The series ran 26 episodes that first season, each episode ending with the narrator pleading to Star Force, that’s what the brave space soldiers were called (too bad it wasn’t Space Force, eh?), to hurry and let the audience know how many days the Earth had left to live. Would the Argo survive the journey and make it back in time?

Each week I would tune in, excited to see what would happen next. My dad even took to making sure I was up in time on a Saturday morning, so I wouldn’t miss out. And I think he was enjoying the show, too.

The Characters

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Star Force is led by the very capable, yet often stern, Captain Avatar. He is an experienced military man who commands the Argo and knows how to get the most out of his crew. He never shies away from making hard decisions, because he never forgets how desperate the situation is for Earth. He is also suffering from radiation sickness, which he keeps secret from his crew. Will he even survive the journey?

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Derek Wildstar is a hotshot pilot with a fiery temper. His older brother sacrificed his life and the lives of his smaller crew in the Battle of Pluto, so that Captain Avatar and his larger crew could get back to Earth. (The needs of the many…) Wildstar, for much of the early part of the series, holds Captain Avatar responsible for his brother’s death.

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Mark Venture is a navigator who was stationed with young Wildstar on Mars. He is a steadier presence and, at times, a rival of Wildstar.

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Nova is a nurse and the lone woman on the Argo. I’m not sure how many crew members there are on the ship, but I’m sure she never wanted for male suitors. However, she becomes the love interest of Derek Wildstar.

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Dr. Sane and IQ9 throwing back some “spring water.”

Dr. Sane and IQ9 are mainly there for comic relief. Dr. Sane is the Argo’s chief medical officer and (I learned this from another blog while doing some research), in the Japanese version, a drunkard. However, in the American version, Dr. Sane is constantly drinking “spring water,” instead of sake as in the Japanese version. So, to American audiences, he’s just well hydrated. IQ9 is Dr Sane’s robotic assistant, who saves the day more than once through the series and he develops a crush on Nova. A robot with a crush on a human? That’s funny… to a kid.

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Deslok is the tyrannical leader of the Gamilons. He really doesn’t like earthlings and Star Force, in particular, but he does have respect for his sworn enemy. Deslok has a Caligula-like evilness to him. He speaks in a sweet and gentle tone, which adds to his menacing nature. He’s a great villain.

The Problems

There aren’t many problems with this series. There’s some awkwardness to the dialog, but I assume that’s mainly due to dubbing English from the original Japanese. There’s a mention of the distance of the moon from the Earth, if I remember correctly, that is wildly off. And there a hilarious visual of a hot-headed Wildstar stomping away in anger after an argument with Venture.

The biggest problem is Nova being the only woman on the crew. Not only does that seem unlikely, given it’s 2199, but there’s also a certain sexist behavior toward her at times. In the first episode, she is asked to leave the room when IQ9 has information to give the men. And, later in the season, I recall a scene in which IQ9 rudely lifts Nova’s mini skirt. As if!

There are two other seasons that follow this one and both also utilize the year long beat the clock gimmick, but I think, that though those series aren’t bad, that’s going to the well two times too many.

Overall, the first Star Blazers series is exciting and fun and far more sophisticated than any other Saturday morning cartoon series of the day. I dare you to try to listen to its theme song and not feel inspired. And to not have it as an earworm for the rest of your day. Good luck.

You can watch the series on YouTube. Here’s a link to the first episode. You’ll love it!

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Songs And Moments

There are many things that can trigger a memory. Photographs, certain scents, or someone telling a related story can all jog a memory and take you back to a specific moment from your past. They can be big moments or small, whichever it is, that trigger just brings you back. And a song can be a trigger for me.

This week, I thought I’d list five songs that bring five moments from my past to mind every time I hear them. None of the moments are particularly big. Most are small, everyday sorts of occurrences that just add texture to life. Two of the songs are by Paul McCartney. I’m not sure why, it just worked out that way.

Writer’s note: Click on the headers to be linked to the songs.

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My Love by Paul McCartney and Wings (1973).

This may be the smallest moment I’ll discuss. As I recall, it took place during the summer of 1973 or 1974. In those days, when my siblings and I would suggest our parents buy a dishwasher, Dad would say, “Why? I already have four of them.”

He, of course, was referring to us kids. There were four of us and we were tasked with the chore of washing the dishes. Each kid would get the washing up duties for a week. The moment that comes back to me happened during one of my weeks. And it is so mundane, you may find it underwhelming, but I’m sharing anyway.

One of our perks when doing the dishes was to be allowed to listen to music on the radio. Not too loud!

My Love was a new song at the time. What I think of now whenever I hear that song is me standing at the sink, washing dishes, looking out the kitchen window at the neighbor’s house, listening to Paul singing, “Whoa whoa-whoa whoooa.”

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Band On The Run by Paul McCartney and Wings (1974).

Probably during that same summer as the My Love moment, this excellent song brings me back to playing in a sand pile behind a strip mall near where my parents still live today. Right across the street from the house was an empty lot, in which we kids spent much of our spare time, on the other side of the lot was that strip mall.

I don’t recall why there was a pile of sand there, but what kid could resist making use of it? A group of us kids were digging through it for hours. Someone must have a transistor radio with them, because Band On The Run was playing.

To this day, that fantastic opening guitar riff brings me right back to that sand pile.

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Heat Of The Moment by Asia (1982).

This moment is the summer of 1982. My best friend Greg and I were enjoying our summer between junior and senior year. Greg had his driver’s license and he had pretty much taken over his mother’s Chevy Laguna as his car. And, since it was his car, he needed to make certain the stereo was capable of producing the proper volume level any respectable 16 or 17 year old would require.

He rigged up that Laguna so that the back seat and window space were crammed with speakers. He had seven speakers back there. Some weren’t even car speakers, at least two of them were from his home stereo. He also got his hands, I don’t know how, on an old football stadium style PA speaker. He ran everything through a powerful equalizer and the volume he achieved was impressive. My left ear is still ringing.

The song that became our theme for that summer was that hit by the 80s super-group Asia. Which we played again and again, so very loudly.

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Pilgrimage by REM (1983).

This moment is difficult to nail down to a specific time. It happened when I was in art school. I attended the School of Associated Arts (it was renamed College of Visual Arts in 1989 and closed its doors in June, 2013) starting in the fall of 1983 and graduating in spring 1986. The school was located on the historic Summit Avenue, an avenue in St. Paul, MN filled with old mansions from the days when Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens took up residence in the capital city. Railroad tycoon James J Hill’s mansion is just down the block from the school.

The picturesque Summit Avenue is located on a hill that overlooks downtown St. Paul, where the hoi polloi lived and worked and where the bus would drop me off and pick me up. On the days when I didn’t get a ride, I would bus it in and back. And I would have to walk up and down that hill. There was a long set of stairs, running right alongside the James J Hill House, that meandered its way to and from Summit Avenue. I’m not sure if it’s still there.

That was quite a beautiful yet tiring climb in the morning. I was so thankful for the few stretches in which the path leveled out for a time. I was also thankful for my Sony Walkman (remember those?), which set the mood for the climb. Pilgrimage has somehow become the song that reminds me of that walk on those stairs.

A nice song for a nice, if exhausting, walk.

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Unknown Legend by Neil Young (1993).

In the mid-90s I worked, very briefly, as a staff artist for a little start-up multi-media publishing company. The friends I made there really liked Neil Young’s 1992 album Harvest Moon. Now, it’s not that I wasn’t a fan of Young’s music. I liked and appreciated much of his art. I just enjoyed poking fun at the way he sings. I would take to imitating the yowl of a cat as I “sang” along with the 60’s radical.

Well, the company wasn’t taking off as the investors had hoped and they stopped funding it and we all lost our jobs.

Some weeks or months later, while throwing back a few brews with some other friends, the jukebox played Unknown Legend. I took immediate notice and was transported back to that workplace. My reaction must have been awfully obvious, because my friends asked if I was OK.

I hadn’t started blubbering or anything like that. I had just gotten very quiet. I told them I was remembering some friends I hadn’t seen in a while.

Surely, you have a song or two (or a thousand) that take you back to moments in time. Share some in the comments if you like.

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Atlas/Seaboard Produced At Least One Great Cover

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Martin Goodman, founder of Marvel Comics, left his company in 1972 (he had sold it in 1968). He went on to form a new comic book and magazine publishing company called Atlas Comics in 1974. It’s referred to today as Atlas/Seaboard so as not to confuse it with Goodman’s other publishing company called Atlas that later became Marvel in 1961. He wanted to compete with the big two: DC Comics and, of course, his former company. He hired Stan Lee’s brother Larry Lieber as an editor and offered good money, along with rights to character creations and ownership of their artwork, to freelance artists to get them to come aboard.

He did get some of the big names in the field at the time. Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, John Severin, Russ Heath, and others all lent their considerable talents to the venture.

I can remember being excited about a new comic book company. I even bought a few of their comics. But, the mid 1970s was a rough time for comic books, even for the big two. Atlas just couldn’t compete and it folded in late 1975. None of their titles went more than four issues.

At least one great cover was produced in the upstart’s brief existence. This great cover isn’t by Adams or Ditko or any of the big name artists of the day. It’s also not by the then up and coming Howard Chaykin. No, this cover of the first issue of Targitt (March, 1975) was drawn and inked by Dick Giordano.

Giordano was more known for inking comics over at DC than for being an artist. But, as an artist, he was pretty good. You can see an influence from Neal Adams on this cover, most notably the arm of the bad guy wielding a knife. This makes sense, because Giordano inked a lot of Adams’ pencils for DC.

The Dutch angle might be a little on the severe side. I mean, they are obviously on a ship. Are the seas that rough? If so, why is the deck so dry? Oh. The bad guy’s “going down with the ship” comment isn’t just a pun? Well, the severity adds to the tension and impending action of the scene. Besides, I like Dutch angles.

I do think it was a mistake to have the guy with the speargun getting off a shot. He’s so close to a fellow standing stock still and yet he misses? Did he attend the Imperial Stormtrooper Academy™? Perhaps it’s just a warning shot.

I also like the idea of the character of Targitt. He’s an FBI agent bent on revenge against the Mob who was responsible for the death of his wife and child. There’s a whole Dirty Harry/Death Wish/Punisher vibe to the guy. But, Atlas decided over the next two issues to turn him into a costumed superhero. That was a mistake.

Atlas may have been short-lived, but they gave us this great cover.

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You know what’s a really good detective movie with a swell lot of thieves, a quick talking private eye, and a black bird? (And a not so good one?)

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In a span of ten years, Hollywood had produced three versions of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel The Maltese Falcon (1930). First in 1931, next in 1936, and finally in 1941. It’s the 1941 version that most people think of when this classic story is mentioned. And with good reason. It’s the best.

OK, full disclosure. I haven’t seen the 1936 version. That one is titled Satan Met A Lady which stars Bette Davis and, from what I can tell, it’s not very highly thought of. It’s also only very loosely based on the book. Hell, they even changed Sam Spade’s name! For shame!

The 1931 version is a bit slow and stagey. The actors deliver their lines rather like they aren’t sure they should be speaking. However, Una Merkel as Effie Perine, Sam Spade’s girl Friday, does add some nice sass to the picture. And the picture was made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, so it could be a little more blatant with its suggestions of sexual relations between characters.

The introduction of Spade, lecherously played by the handsome Ricardo Cortez, is quite eyebrow raising. He is seen bidding farewell to a woman, whose face we never see, at the door of his and his partner’s offices. The woman adjusts her stockings just as she takes her leave. Spade, after sexually harassing Effie for a quick couple of minutes, returns to his private office and straightens up the couch. Eyebrows raised.

Another Pre-Code aspect of this version comes when it more closely follows the book in the scene in which Spade needs to determine if Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels), his deceptive client and love interest, had stolen a thousand dollar bill. Spade demands that she disrobe in front of him so he can be sure she doesn’t have it. In the 1941 version, the detective takes her at her word that she hadn’t stolen it.

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Sam leching on Effie.

The main problem with this version is Cortez. He’s too handsome. Too much like Rudolph Valentino and too much of a dandy to be a hard-bitten gumshoe. And, I know the film intended to make certain the audience knows he’s a ladies’ man, but Cortez is way too creepy. The way he looks at virtually every woman in this movie isn’t merely to undress them with his eyes, it’s meant to give the message to the woman that, sooner or later, he’ll be having sex with her. It’s hard to imagine women of the 1931 movie-going public finding that attractive.

Perhaps, they didn’t, because the film did not do very well at the box office. That is probably why just five years later it was remade as that Bette Davis vehicle. However, that didn’t do very well either. And I didn’t see it, so I can’t say anymore about that film.

Then came the definitive version in 1941. Considered Hollywood’s first film noir, it was written and directed by first-time director John Huston and stars Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. This one got it right. Bogart is fantastic as the confident, tough, smart, and ruggedly handsome private eye. He’s been around and seen a few things in his time. He’s a ladies’ man, all right, and subject to the sexist behavior of the day, but he’s no creep. I can understand his appeal to women. He’s the men want to be him and women want to be with him kind of character Hollywood produces from time to time.

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The tale is a bit hard to follow on first viewing, but that doesn’t take anything away from the enjoyment. The characters are so fascinating and the actors are all top-notch. This film is just crammed with great character actors. There’s Mary Astor as Miss Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Sidney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, and, of course, Peter Lorre and his amazing portrayal of Joel Cairo (more on that character in the upcoming aside). Even the secondary characters have terrific actors in the parts, which includes the good cop/bad cop team portrayed by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick as the ever-reliable Effine Perine, and Elisha Cook Jr as Wilmer, Gutman’s young, tough-talking bodyguard. If ever a movie had the perfect casting, this one is it.

And now a short aside…

In the book, Hammett makes it clear that Cairo is gay. In fact, there are strong suggestions that Gutman is also gay and Wilmer is his kept boy toy. This brings up an interesting difference between the 1931 Pre-Code era version and the 1941 Code era version. The 1931 picture barely hinted at the homosexuality of Cairo and doesn’t make any hint regarding Gutman’s and Wilmer’s (other than as a figurative father and son) relationship, while 1941’s version was filled with subtle and maybe not-so-subtle hints about Cairo’s sexuality as well as Gutman’s and Wilmer’s sexual relationship.

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If you can’t see the phallic nature of that handle, you have a far less dirty mind than I.

Both versions make note of Cairo’s scented business card, but in Huston’s story it’s more emphasized. There’s also the moment of Cairo suggestively placing the phallic-looking handle of his umbrella to his lips as he attempts to find out if Spade has the Black Bird. Huston dropped other hints, including the very subtle gesture of Spade removing his hat as Cairo is led into his office. You see, in those days, a gentleman always removed his hat when a lady entered the room.

The hint about Gutman and Wilmer comes when Spade refers to the young tough as a gunsel. Sure, most everyone thought he meant the boy was a gunman, which is what the word came to mean. But when Hammett needed to replace the word catamite in the serialized version of his novel, he chose gunsel which, in the old days for even the 1930s, meant the same thing: A young man kept for homosexual purposes.

Short aside over, now back to the blog…

If the cast isn’t enough for you, there’s the crisp dialog. So well written by Huston, although his source material was pretty damn good. (Yes, I read it!) These characters just flow with such quotable lines as: “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” “A crippled newsie took ’em away from him. I made him give ’em back.” “You’re a good man, sister.” And that’s just Sam Spade! Then there’s the signature line from the film: “The… uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” Damn! So good!

And there’s the pacing, the cinematography, and the score. I tell ya, this is a damn near perfect movie. Maybe if the plot were easier to follow in the first viewing it would be perfect, but, come to think of it, maybe not. It might just be that the fact you can come back to the movie again and again and it gets better and better that makes it damn near perfect.

Over 1,140 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the plot!

Well, I’ll nutshell it for you: A “swell lot of thieves” will stop at nothing; not theft, not double-crossings, not secret alliances, not sexual favors, not even murder, to get their hands on the Black Bird, a small, black enamel statue of a falcon that could be worth millions. Caught up in the middle of it all is private detective Sam Spade, who, while under suspicion of murder, is determined to make sense of it and clear his name.

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If you only watch one version of The Maltese Falcon, you’d better make it the 1941 version.

It is my all time favorite film!

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Great Album Retro Review: Suzanne Vega By Suzanne Vega

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Returning to the ’80s, which is where a very sizeable chunk of my favorite music originates, so get used to it, I will once again review what I think is a great album. In this installment, I will tout Suzanne Vega’s first album.

Released in 1985, the album is self-titled and is beautiful and melancholy. Vega’s singing and songwriting are as graceful as they are thoughtful and poignant. The songs are mainly acoustic and have a folksy feel. They are quiet, simple, and straight forward in their production.

I must have discovered this album at a point in my life at which I most needed it, because it really dug its way into my psyche. I love this album. It is in my Top Ten All Time Favorites.

The tracks:

Cracking –  This song opens with my favorite acoustic guitar riff on the album and uses a  lilting synthesizer to fill in the sound as Vega talk sings much of the lyrics. It’s a moody piece that sets up the album very well.

Freeze Tag – There’s a lilt to this song as well, as Vega appears to reminisce on playful times with a flame from her past. And a song that drops a reference to Bogie and Bacall can’t be bad.

Marlene On The Wall – My favorite track on the album, this is a more up tempo song about getting romantic advice from an ever-observing poster of Marlene Dietrich. At least, I think Vega means Dietrich.

Small Blue Thing – This song returns to the moody atmosphere of the first track. To me it seems to be about obsession and being controlled by the object of that obsession. She becomes a small thing being held in her obsession’s hand.

Straight Lines – A little up tempo again, Vega sings of a woman changing herself. Cutting her hair, casting away lovers, simplifying her life until she is finally alone. With that accomplished, I can’t help but to feel some sadness for her.

Undertow – Still on the slightly up tempo side, I’m not entirely certain what this song means. But, like much of the album, there is a feel of melancholy filling every corner.

Some Journey – This song has some nice jangly guitar accents along with a flowing electric violin. Vega sings of what might have been had she met a certain person. Would they have been lovers?

The Queen And The Soldier – This song is a fable of a young queen, isolated, impetuous, and powerful, and a loyal soldier who had finally decided he couldn’t continue to do battle for her. Instead, he offers her a chance to end the constant violence and to find love. To break her out of the trap of her royalty. Does she accept his offer?

Knight Moves – I’m not certain if Vega intended this song to be about the same queen in the previous track, but I always thought it was. The melancholy continues as the queen is questioned as whether she loves one, many, any, or me.

Neighborhood Girls – This closing track is the most bouncy of any of the tracks on the album. It almost feels out of place, it’s practically jaunty, but it still works. There are plenty of excellent popping guitar lines throughout this song about neighborhood sex workers.

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Toy Soldiers Treated Strangely

Marx Toys was a pretty damn good toymaker. They produced two of my favorite toys when I was a kid: The Johnny West action figure line (a subject for a future blog perhaps) and plastic toy soldiers. Lots of toy companies offered toy soldiers, but I think Marx’s were the best.

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The amount of detail Marx put in them was very impressive. There were facial expressions. There were German soldiers and Japanese soldiers wearing what appeared to be fairly accurate uniforms. There were also officers. And Marx produced soldiers being shot, suffering from a wound, and ones that were dead. The dead ones were always the enemy, though.

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“Aaah! They got me!”

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“Well, we got him! Got him good and dead!”

I had their Guns of Navarone playset in the early 1970s. The playset had more than 200 pieces, which included military vehicles, canons, and, of course, the mountain stronghold. As a youthful pedant, I noticed the scale of the vehicles didn’t quite match that of the soldiers, but I realized that it would be difficult to make everything at a matching scale. Either the soldiers would have to be much smaller or the vehicles much larger. I would just have to use my imagination.

So, that’s what I did.

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Marx even made “goose-stepping” German soldiers.

At some point, I devised a battle that pitted my toy soldiers against my Shogun Warriors. I would spend hours deploying my troops into position. They were set on precariously balanced boxes and encyclopedias, awaiting the attack from those towering robots. The Warriors would attack and utterly laid waste to those valiant men.

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I’ll admit that pitting toy soldiers against toy robots isn’t all that strange of a way to treat toy soldiers (or toy robots, for that matter), but I’m not done.

In the mid-70s, my family would go on vacation each summer, which usually meant a drive to a cabin resort in the lake area of northwestern Wisconsin. On one occasion, there was a road trip from St. Paul, MN to sunny San Jose, CA. For most of those vacations, the family vehicle was an old station wagon, I forget which brand. And, because my younger brother and I were the youngest (and the smallest) of the four siblings, we got to sit in the “way back.”

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Something like this, but without the “wood” siding.

The “way back” was meant for cargo. There was no seat let alone seat belts. The two of us had a space way back in the “way back” between the luggage and coolers and against the gate or whatever you call it. We had a great view of the road behind us.

When it was warm enough and it wasn’t raining, Dad would lower the “way back” window and my brother and I could get the thrill of the wind in our hair and being a gate malfunction away from tumbling onto to the highway and to our deaths. Luckily, the gate never malfunctioned.

Having the window down, my brother and I hatched a brilliant idea. “Let’s take some kite string and tie a toy soldier to a length of it and drag the soldier behind us as Dad drives!” Well, we both agreed it was a brilliant idea, even if we don’t remember which of us came up with it.

So, that’s what we did.

The soldier would bounce off the road every which way. And whenever a car began to gain on us, we’d just reel in the string. When it was clear again, out would go the hapless soldier to gain even more nasty road rash. It was hours of fun.

Torturing toy soldiers might not seem that much more strange than having them slaughtered by giant robots, but I’m not done.

In about 1974 or so, the city of St. Paul decided the old Hayden Heights neighborhood library needed to be replaced and built a new, larger branch kitty-corner to the old one. The old one became a clock store, while the new one began to take shape.

Much the same way my parents weren’t all that concerned with my brother’s and my safety as we traveled in the “way back,” it seemed the city of St. Paul wasn’t all that concerned with keeping us kids out of the construction area of the new branch. As I recall, we seemed to have access to the dug out area for the foundation. We could get to the foundation walls, which were made of basic cinder block. And as such, those cinder block walls had large gaps at the top. A gap in which something could be placed…

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My ten year-old brain hit upon an interesting idea. Why not put a toy soldier in the cinder block of that foundation wall?

Yeah! Why not?!

So, that’s what I did.

In went a brave infantryman to stand guard inside that wall. To this day, when I drive by that library I think of that toy soldier and his sentry duty that’s lasted more than four decades. That part of the foundation wall, however small, has a soldier ready to protect it.

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Somewhere in the foundation wall of this building is a toy soldier that has been pulling sentry duty for more than 40 years.

That action done as a ten year-old didn’t stop with the library. Through the years, I have placed toy soldiers in secret places to be hidden for all time or until the building is razed or the sidewalk dug up. Throughout my house there are hidden toy soldiers. They are in the insulation in the space between the walls and the replacement windows. There’s a soldier inside the corner of the porch wall, put there when the old, rotted wood needed replacing. Out in the backyard, there’s one inside the retaining wall I helped my dad put in by the driveway.

And, just this past Sunday, I took a table out of the garage to put on the porch. I had to take apart the base in order to get it in the house (the tabletop had already been removed). That’s when I noticed the center column of the table was hollow.

A light went on above my head. I went upstairs and asked my son where his old toy soldiers were. We found them in his rather stuffed closet (not as stuffed as Fibber McGee’s*, however) and I selected one for this important mission. I taped him in place so that he’ll stay standing and I put the table back together.

As long as that table is intact, he’ll be standing guard.

Now, that is a little strange, isn’t it?

Packing Peanuts!

*10 points if you get this reference.

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A Great American Comic Book Cover

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It’s a great Captain America cover despite it showing the patriotic hero having been defeated. He may be down for the moment, but we know he’ll triumph in the end. He always does. Or did in those days, anyway.

This is the first great cover installment featuring Marie Severin as the artist. There weren’t many women working as comic book artists back then. Marie was a pioneer. And she was great. She drew, she inked, and she would color the pages of some of Marvel’s greatest characters. For this May, 1970 issue of Captain America (#125) she provided the pencils and color, while it was Frank Giacoia who inked it.

There is a hint of Gene Colan’s style in this cover and that may be intentional, because Gene is the artist for the pages within. Marie may have been trying to mimic his style. However, I’ve always been more of a fan of Marie’s drawing style than Gene’s. His work was good. Very cinematic. But there was something about how he drew people. Hard to explain.

Marie’s high achievements on this cover are two fold. First, as the penciler, she has drawn such a natural-looking pose of defeat. Cap is unconscious and limp, yet we can still he is a powerful man. She quite literally used the “S”-curve design for her drawing of our defeated hero. The face of the unconscious First Avenger is very nicely done, as well.

Second is her use of color.

(Allow me to sidetrack a bit here. There really is something about the way the comics from my day were colored that make them so much more appealing to me. It’s probably because that’s the way it was done when I first learned to appreciate comic books and so it’s more familiar to me. I like the old way of laying out pages, too. The way comic books look now is fine and a lot of the stuff is great, but I guess I just prefer the old ways.)

Marie’s use of color and heavy black on this cover are terrific at suggesting defeat and dread. Cap has been captured and is being held captive in a cold and dank castle. The blue of his uniform even seems darker with that hint of purple. The use of grey to shade his face instead of flat black is also a nice touch.

Captain America, as drawn by Marie Severin, still looks great even in defeat.

Packing Peanuts!

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