Art & Illustration

Sean Äaberg's "Dungeon Breakout" Kickstarter

Monster Brains -

Sean Aaberg - DUNGEON BREAKOUT 1 Sean Aaberg - DUNGEON BREAKOUT 2 Sean Aaberg - DUNGEON BREAKOUT 3 Return to the Würstreich with the newest game from GOBLINKO! DUNGEON BREAKOUT is a heavily flavored, tile placement party game, set in the same world and populated by the same weird characters and creatures as DUNGEON DEGENERATES: Hand of Doom. With easy-to-learn rules and fast game play action, DUNGEON BREAKOUT will be a hit with any crowd!

You’re trapped in the dungeon below Brüttleburg, but there is a chance for escape! Make your way through the maze-like corridors, collecting loot and battling monsters, and find the exit first to win! Watch out though, in addition to lurking monsters, there could be a jailor around the next corner, or one of your opponents trying to stop you!

Check out the kickstarter here! Only seven days left!

Pieter Huys (1519 - 1584)

Monster Brains -

Pieter Huys - Inferno, 1570Inferno, 1570

37.262The Last Judgement, 1555-60

Pieter Huys - The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1577The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1577

15.133Attributed to Pieter Huys - The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Pieter Huys - The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1547The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1547

Pieter Huys - The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Circa 1520 - 1584The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Circa 1520 - 1584

Attributed to Pieter Huys - The Descent into Limbo , 16th CAttributed to Pieter Huys - The Descent into Limbo , 16th Century

Pieter Huys or Follower of Huys - Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child through a Sinful World, 1550-1600Pieter Huys or Follower of Huys - Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child through a Sinful World, 1550-1600

Pieter Huys or Jan Mandijn - The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 16th CenturyPieter Huys or Jan Mandijn - The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 16th Century

Attributed to Pieter Huys - Saint Christopher, 1584Attributed to Pieter Huys - Saint Christopher, 1584

Circle of Pieter Huys - The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 16th CCircle of Pieter Huys - The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 16th Century

Attributed to Jan Mandijn or Pieter Huys - The Mocking of Job, 1550Attributed to Jan Mandijn or Pieter Huys - The Mocking of Job, 1550

Image sources include - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sothebys and Wikipedia

“The Man Who Became an Insect”: Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ as Comic Book

We Are the Mutants -

 Exhibit / March 12, 2020

Object Name: Vidas Ilustres: “El Hombre Que Se Convirtirio En Un Insecto”
Maker and Year: Editorial Novaro, 1973
Object Type: Comic book
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Coming out every month between 1956 and 1974, Vidas Ilustres (“Illustrious Lives”)—was a monthly Mexican comic published by Editorial Novaro, each issue of which looked at the exceptional achievements of a man—it was always a man, with the two exceptions of Madame Curie and Florence Nightingale—in the arts or sciences. Over its 332 editions, Vidas Ilustres covered a vastly eclectic range of subjects, ranging from Anatole France, Orson Welles, HP Lovecraft, Mishima, Jung, Hokusai, Charles Fort, Gandhi, Simón Bolívar, Confucius, and Martin Luther King, even finding space for an astonishing eight comics on Balzac.

Founded by brothers Luis and Octavio Novaro in the early ’50s, Editorial Novaro had started by publishing reprints of foreign comics like Batman and Tintin, but in 1954 the company began putting out its own stirringly-titled Vidas Ejemplares (“Exemplary Lives”), comic book biographies of notable figures in the Catholic Church. The series was a hit, and like-minded titles like Patronos y Santuarios (“Patron Saints and Sanctuaries”) soon followed.

Luckily, the  company’s other publications also included less pious fare, like Mujeres Célebres, a comic devoted to famous women that was published from 1961 to 1974 and included issues on Eleanor Roosevelt, Josephine Baker, Jean Harlow, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, and Greek poet Sappho. Its publications from the time used a slightly stiff font for lettering imposed by a regulatory body called the Qualifying Commission for Illustrated Magazines and Publications (made up of members of the Mexican Ministry of Public Education and created mainly to assuage the reactionary Catholic Legion of Decency) with the aim of protecting young readers from eye damage.

Most editions of Vidas Ilustres dealt purely with the biographical details of the person in question, but in the Obras Inmortales (“Immortal Works”) series the comic would dramatize not only their lives but also a famous work of their oeuvre—perhaps following the popular American line Classics Illustrated. This was the case with “El Hombre Que Se Convirtirio En Un Insecto”—“The Man Who Became an Insect.” Though not enormously faithful to Kafka’s original, “El Hombre Que Se Convirtirio En Un Insecto” does, in its lurid way, somehow retain the mood and intent of The Metamorphosis, its cover evoking perfectly the juvenile horror-story thrill that first drew me—and perhaps many others—to Kafka’s work.

The Bomb That Will Bring Us Together: Rick Veitch’s ‘The One’

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Jonathan Lukens / March 10, 2020

In 1985, the first issue of an unusual new title hit the shelves of North American comic book stores. Part of Marvel Comics’ short-lived creator-owned imprint Epic, Rick Veitch’s The One stood out because its cover was an obvious visual reference to the red, orange, and yellow concentric circles of Tide laundry detergent’s branding. Throughout the pages of the first issue and those that followed, it became clear that those garish circles were meant to evoke the presence of an otherworldly energy emanating from The One—a savior figure and super heroic manifestation of humanity’s collective potential that is unleashed by the massive psychic shock of an imminent nuclear exchange.

The first issue opens with a reproduction of a newspaper clipping from March 14, 1984 that details the opinions of one Dr. Derrick de Kerckhove, then acting director of the Marshal McLuhan program in culture and technology at the University of Toronto. Dr. Kerckhove explains the benefits of nuclear weaponry, referring to the bomb as “something to bring us together.” Thirty-six years later, with a 2018 hardcover reprint of all five issues in front of me, I found myself questioning the veracity of the clipping: was it some conceit Veitch was using to establish the emergent consciousness of his oblique protagonist? A web search confirmed the existence of Dr. Kerckhove, and led me to a 1984 New York Times article that summarized his thesis: nuclear weapons, and the attendant possibility of the annihilation of our species, “binds people together in a way they have not been linked since the Middle Ages, albeit on the brink of collective suicide.”

Like a tripping Herman Kahn, or some Fellowship of Holy Fallout choir via Rand report, the origin of The One (both the character and the title) is drawn from this proto-accelerationist rhetoric. Presented throughout the series as a creation of cooperative and convivial aspects of human nature and manifesting itself (ourselves?) as both a black spandex-suited male figure and an aged man in a purple shirt and green and black windowpane-checked blazer, The One first appears in the moments just prior to the impact of nuclear missiles in a potentially world ending exchange between the Soviet Union and United States. Flying through the sky radiating an aura of weird magnetism, referencing the so-obvious-maybe-no-one-ever-noticed visual similarities between psychedelic art and detergent branding, The One drains the destructive energy of the incoming Soviet missiles. Mutually assured destruction is derailed by the awakening collective consciousness of this super-powered gestalt entity reminiscent of the Eternal Uni-Mind.

Subsequent super heroic action is punctuated by a series of recurring panels in which individual characters face the camera and explain events after the fact. Here, it is revealed that The One isn’t just a first wave example of the postmodern graphic novel that brought us Watchmen (1986-1987) and The Dark Knight Returns (1986). And it isn’t just a book about superheroes with moral ambiguities set in a universe with greater verisimilitude. Rather, The One is a work of eschatology that combines gonzo satire with superhero tropes to detail a dualistic cosmology, an immemorial struggle between The One and The Other, the latter a manifestation of selfishness and avarice. The Other functions as a stand-in for the allegedly basal desires exploited by consumerism. This critique is also evident in subsequent covers that continue in the vein of the first: a U.S. one dollar bill, a pocket calculator screen, a Coca Cola can, J.M. Flagg’s “I Want You” Army recruitment poster, and a McDonald’s Big Mac. (The subversion of corporate logos, products, and slogans by independent and underground artists became an ongoing “ironic commentary” in the decade that followed.)

The Other speaks through the character of Jay-hole, a shirtless and mulleted junky who explains: “Tribes! Armies! Governments! My master bore them all! […] His name is the other and he’s come back to collect the rent. […] He’s in competition with The One for total mastery over the human race.”

During its first manifestation, The One’s constituent members are rendered unconscious. Evoking the Christian rapture, and referencing the 1939 Raymond Chandler novel, they fall into what the characters refer to as “the big sleep.” At first, they are thought dead by those who remain “awake,” but as the series progresses the distinction between The One and the many is blurred. Jay-hole shares an apartment with his lover, Egypt, a pink and white-haired artist with skull earrings; her young son Larry; Jay-hole’s father, Doc Benway; and Benway’s girlfriend Guda. Much of the story involves Egypt’s potential corruption through Jay-hole and redemption via an association between Larry and The One.

This abortive Third World War as origin story was initiated by a character called Itchy Itch. A chain-smoking, bath-robed Bond villain, Itch is a defense contractor who has sold backdoor enabled computer systems to the United States and Soviet Navies. Itch uses this malicious firmware to manipulate the leaders of both countries: a cigar-chomping analog of Ronald Reagan (president McKenzie) and a Soviet premier (Kubalov) resembling Leonid Brezhnev, who speaks through a non-indwelling voice prosthesis. Drawing them into what he believes will be a survivable military confrontation, Itch plans on benefiting from the ensuing chaos. His investments, Itch explains, “have been strategically placed to capitalize upon the reckless errors others will make under pressure.”

However, while Itch’s Lex Luthor-like plans are successful, the emergence of The One is unanticipated. A new arms race begins, as the United States and Soviet Union call upon top secret super soldier programs. It is important to note that all of these “super heroes” are grotesques: on the Soviet side, the vamp and femme fatale Dr. Vera Pavlova borrows the forgotten Nazi endocrinological methods that produced Übermaus—a kaiju like giant rat—to create the caped superhuman Comrade Bog. Bog deploys his heightened strength, stamina, and gluttonous appetite against the Yankees while pontificating about the benefits of socialized medicine and the inadequacies of state-capitalist economies.

On the United States’ side, the super powered Charlie and Amelia have been brainwashed, somewhat like Marvelman’s Michael Moran, to believe they are earnest Midwestern siblings—an attempt to keep them from reproducing. Clad in the uniform of the 1984 US Olympic gymnastics team, and later revealed to be scientifically enhanced super-clones of Randian heros Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart, they struggle with desires for each other that they believe to be incestuous. Charles attacks Moscow, though he is seduced by Dr. Pavlova in a cringe-worthy scene in which unclear consent seems to be played for laughs. Meanwhile, Bog and Amelia proceed to battle in New York City, while The One and The Other compete for the souls of humanity.

This new superhuman arms race, and the “superior war,” allow Veitch to satire the “fallacy of the last move” explained in H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (1988) as

the addictive, ever-unfulfilled expectation that each new exotic weapon created for our ‘defense’ would confer upon the United States permanent military superiority and invulnerable ‘security.’ Underlying this is another fallacy, also nourished in some science fiction, that science and technology are products of lone wizards such as Thomas Edison, or brilliant research teams, or national genius. This fallacy binds policymakers to the fact that since the United States and Soviet Union are at roughly equivalent stages of science and technology, and new weapons produced by one can soon be matched by the other, thus bringing about not supremacy for either but increased danger for both.

The series ends with The Other constructing a human pyramid—though an ambulatory one that responds to its commands—out of those who remain chained to their fears and desires, while “the ones” who comprise The One are revealed to occupy a sort of idyllic virtual space encapsulated within the material form of The One. Reminiscent of the soul world pocket dimension folded into the gem in Adam Warlock’s head, the One’s members frolic naked in a pastoral landscape complete with a reunited Beagles (yes, that’s spelled correctly) playing “mellow submarine.” The One, as a single material body, leaves earth to enter the “vastness of interstellar space,” with “a billion hearts and souls fueling his magnetic field.”

Perhaps put more succinctly by Doc Benway in one of the last issue’s final panels: “The nightmare of a nuclear confrontation had started a catharsis, and the superior war had finished it. Thus mankind unconsciously short-circuited evolution itself–and somehow lived to tell the tale… Some of us did anyway. And not only were we flying about in space as The One but we were still alive, somewhere, just like we used to be. Only happier. Much happier!”

This is a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution—as if the process is a historical movement toward some sort of pre-determined state of optimality instead of the ad-hoc accretion of adaptations that were proven advantageous after the fact of their instantiation. However, this misunderstanding underlines the modernist assumptions in what we may consider to be one of the first of the so-called postmodern comics: that time involves “progress” toward something specific, that history has a point. Perhaps it is easier to imagine a Beatles-referencing magnetic-field rapture in the ashes of civilizations destroyed by superheroes than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

The One presents a benevolent mass mind triumphing through a sort of collectivized actualization. I’m reminded of the techno-positivist utopian rhetoric surrounding the early internet, as if all of those humans who had “short-circuited evolution itself” were traversing interstellar space in a giant humanoid craft, all plugged in to a VR Beatles concert to pass the time. The problem is that that collectivized actualization, that end of history, just seems boring and anticlimactic. Would I have enjoyed more catharsis if all of humanity had perished?

Rick Veitch would go on to work with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, eventually taking over writing duties as well. After DC refused to publish a finished story of his in which Swamp Thing met Jesus Christ, Veitch turned to independent and self-published work. There, he continued to work with some of the concepts first sketched in The One. Titles like Maximortal and Brat Pack extended his deconstruction of the superhero, while his dream log, Rare Bit Fiends, addressed the anima mundi we see in The One’s gestalt form. In his afterward to the 2018 edition, Veitch writes, “It is not difficult to imagine that as capitalism takes its victory lap, the true ‘end of history’ is imminent. If there is any slim hope I cling to it is the same one that inspired this book back in 1985: that the current existential stresses placed on us by the situation we’ve put ourselves in will fundamentally transform the human race.”

Though the idea of a bucolic nudist countryside of mass-mind at the end of history leaves me even colder now than it did when The One was first published, we can’t fault Veitch for offering us something expected. In fact, my motivation to seek out a copy of something I vaguely remembered buying back in 1985 wasn’t because of the story or characters. It was because The One was jarring enough to my eleven-year-old self that it stuck with me. Though at times it seemed to As You Know and jump-cut, The One stood out because of its ambition and the weirdness it offered: in the era of Top Gun and Rambo, of American Anthem and Rush’n Attack, things like a giant Nazi rat eating Washington, and human faces peeling off to reveal orange and yellow pop-art radiation, offered something that freaked me out in a different way than the mechanical appendages and mutagenic ooze that were my usual fare. Dr. Strangelove met Dr. Strange. The One offered up a satirical end of both history and the superhero, and tried to offer some transcendent hope in a world that seemed to be on the precipice of annihilation.

Jonathan Lukens is a cultural worker from Atlanta. His work has been shown at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, played through omnifarious speakers, and published in The AtlanticDesign Issues, and The International Journal of Design in Society.

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“It’s Right for Our Times”: Vanagon Brochure, 1980

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 Exhibit / March 5, 2020

Object Name: Vanagon sales brochure
Maker and Year: Volkswagen of America, Inc., 1979-1980
Object Type: Sales brochure
Image Source:
: (K.E. Roberts)

When the hippies grew up and had kids of their own, they needed something modern and self-contained to bring everyone back (occasionally this time around) to nature. Hence, the Vanagon. The second generation (T2) of the Volkswagen Bus, produced between ’67 and ’79, had gone over big with the festival- and protest-hopping counterculture because “It was cheap to maintain, easy to work on, and big enough to live in.” So, from a marketing perspective (because that’s what growing up means: your youth is sold back to you), a stab at a more contemporary third generation made sense. The Vanagon sold poorly compared to the T2, but its “Crisp, taut, fresh lines” and off-the-grid genealogy earned it a devoted following that continues today.

The sales pitch does a lot of work: “The best of a van. The best of a wagon. And better than both.” The Vanagon was not as cool as a custom van, a fad that peaked a few years earlier thanks to creepy dudes, and it wasn’t as square as the station wagon, which the hippies’ parents had forced them to endure in the ’50s. It was also not as unwieldy as an RV—or as vulnerable to “high gasoline prices.” The Vanagon was “a totally new kind of vehicle” that sported a number of quirky features: a pop-up bed on the roof, removable benchseat (which sounds really unsafe, in retrospect), swiveling driver and passenger bucket seats, a tiny “icebox” in the base camper model, and “flawless interior design” that alleged “a breakthrough in ‘ergonomics'”—then a very new age-y concept defined here as “the practice of making a car fit you better.”

At times, the devotion I mentioned above verges on the cult. In 1980 or 1981, I took a trip to Yosemite with my friend and his family in a brand new Medium Blue Vanagon. My friend’s dad had talked about the thing for weeks before buying it, showed us the brochures, talked of the adventures they would have. When he brought it home, he was giddy, luminous. He showed us all the features one by one, including the battery stowed under the back seat. I don’t know if it was as “quiet” or “sure-footed” as advertised, but it was distinctively “sleek,” and we had a lot of room for comic books and Star Wars toys in the back; I still get a kick out of spotting them on the road, although appearances are rare these days.

The Vanagon was replaced in the early ’90s with the T4 EuroVan, essentially a minivan that followed the model launched by the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1984. The ’70s had become the ’80s. Adventures in camping had become adventures in shopping. The hippies had become yuppies.

“Class is the American Dream”: Peterbilt Truck Ads, 1974 – 1981

We Are the Mutants -

 Exhibit / March 4, 2020

Above, adverts from 1974 9e463797987da1b4f1e1381f913b950d

Advert from 1976

Above, adverts from 1977 Above, adverts from 1979 Above, adverts from 1980 Above, adverts from 1981

Object Name: Peterbilt advertisements
Maker and Year: Peterbilt, 1974-1981
Object Type: Print advertisements
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Heir to the role of freewheeling individualism once inhabited by the cowboy, over the course of the 1970s the truck driver grew to be an increasingly dominant figure in the American imagination. The US economy was facing recession and the haulage industry’s struggles with the oil crisis and the nationwide 55 mph speed limit (imposed in 1974 by the federal government) consolidated the truckers’ position as the nation’s proxy underdog. Despite this, one of the country’s best-known truck manufacturers opted for an approach to its advertising that runs oddly counter to the atmosphere of sweat-and-aftershave-soaked denim-clad machismo one might expect.

Founded in 1939, Peterbilt Motors was a commercial heavy- and medium-duty truck producer. Adopting “class”—perhaps as a play on the various Gross Vehicle Weight Rating classes—as its leitmotiv, the company had been using adverts that featured only women in what looked less like cheesecake than something from the fashion glossies since the late ’60s. The women featured in the earliest adverts shown here—from 1974—inspire curiosity about their role: are they simply intended to catch the eye of potential clients? Are they the trucker’s wives? The truckers themselves? Or are they perhaps the female spirits of the trucks?

This ambiguity comes further to the fore in the 1976 adverts, which are framed more like fashion plates than anything resembling an attempt to sell heavy industrial machinery. By this time, the CB craze was in full swing, the success the previous year of novelty hit “Convoy” having propelled the trucking lifestyle into the pop-culture stratosphere. Though the decade had begun with the trucker-as-evil-incarnate behind the wheel of the 1955 Peterbilt 281 that menaces Dennis Weaver in Steven Spielberg’s 1972 Duel, the films and TV of the ’70s were saturated with positive images of male truckers, from NBC’s Movin’ On, which debuted in 1974, to 1975’s White Line Fever and 1977’s The Great Smokey Roadblock, to 1978’s Every Which Way but Loose and Convoy (inspired by the song) and TV’s B. J. and the Bear (1979-1981).

But despite all the testosterone in the cultural well, the company’s ads seemed to be attempting to speak specifically to women rather than to men. A parallel series of adverts, also from 1976, evoked adventure and romance, promising, “It can only happen in a Peterbilt.” Could anything be more incongruous than the juxtaposition of a big rig, lights gleaming and air horns ready to blast, with an intimate picnic where wine is served and candles blaze? The picnic blanket is laid for two, but, again, there is no sign of a man. Is he taking the photograph? Simply having a pee out of frame? The picture remains enigmatic.

Peterbilt Trucks Class We Are the Mutants XThe 1977 ads continue to feature only women, though now in a slightly different guise. Are these faces looking kindly down upon the vehicles meant to represent domestic angels of the hearth, their thoughts turned protectively to their hard-working husbands, or are they supernatural deities of labor, watching over their human charges? I prefer to think it’s the latter.

Most of the women in the 1970s adverts, in fact, seem somehow goddess-like—human incarnations of the beautiful, powerful machines they stand beside. As the new decade dawns, though, and Ronald Reagan becomes president, the mood changes. Women remain the focal point, but the adverts start to look to the past for their atmospheres, the settings becoming antebellum riverboats and 1920s mansions, and the women in them objects to be gazed at by the men who now start to populate the scene. And by the time we reach the 1981 adverts, women are once more simply part of the landscape: a girlfriend, or a film star to be gawped at.

Peterbilt’s publicity of the 1970s seems to speak to an unvoiced desire for elegance, beauty, and romance—the “class” the 1974 ads claimed as the reality of the American dream. Hardly the psychological language we might expect from a truck advert, nor the kind of dream the bullishness of the following decades might imply. Was it perhaps a question of prudery, religious or otherwise, in the upper echelons of the company’s management? Maybe a subterfuge to reach the target audience through its wives? Or was it actually an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to broach women’s changing position in society? We will have to wait for someone more au fait with the ins and outs of the 1970s trucking world to tell us, because I’ll be fucked if I know.

“Become a Good CBer”: Citizens Band Radio Service Rules, 1978

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 Exhibit / March 3, 2020

Object Name: Citizens Band Radio Service Rules (95.401)
Maker and Year: Federal Communications Commission, 1978
Object Type: Informational booklet
Image Source:
Description (Michael Grasso):

By 1978 the pop culture craze around Citizens Band (CB) radio had perhaps already hit its peak. When television broadcasts and other new radio transmission methods began to crowd the EM spectrum in 1945 America, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved a thin sliver of ultra-high frequency (UHF) frequencies for the personal use of ordinary citizens. A little over a decade later, in 1958, a new set of frequencies lower down on the spectrum became Class D Citizens Band radio, which spread in popularity throughout the 1960s among truckers and other blue-collar professionals who spent a lot of time on the road and needed to remain in contact with home base and other travelers.

The CB fad of the 1970s entered the public consciousness through a series of economic, political, and technological circumstances. The 1973 oil crisis, which put long-haul truckers in a tough spot due to gas shortages, along with the new federal 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, made CB radio a key method of information dissemination for truckers in a newly hostile economic environment (and allowed them to directly organize in the face of these adverse conditions). The cat was out of the bag by 1974 about the power of CB radio to unite workers and citizens over great distances to take collective action. CB radios thus found their way into more and more civilians’ vehicles for much the same reasons as the truckers’: they were an effective way to communicate and coordinate with other drivers while on the road during the hostile economic conditions of the oil crisis and its aftermath. With this came the deluge of mid-1970s pop culture CB-iana: Number 1 country-western novelty hit “Convoy” by C.W. McCall (and its spin-off film three years later), the 1977 Burt Reynolds/Sally Field road comedy Smokey and the Bandit, spinoff media such as magazines and board games, and countless other products, all while CB jargon, nicknames, and codes became permanent parts of American popular slang. The CB radio, a facet of the public commons established and regulated by the federal government, became a symbol of rebellion, the domain of working-class outlaws fed up with both the onerous presence of police on the American highway and the machinations of oil barons and international petroleum companies.

The CB radio was also many Americans’ first experience with being a radio broadcaster rather than a listener. Lacking the expense of amateur “ham” radio (along with its difficult technical licensing requirements), CBs offered a way for citizens to reach out to distant anonymous strangers that presaged the revolutionary arrival two decades later of the internet. The CB also provided drivers with the ability to call for help when stranded on the road—the FCC had assigned Class D CB Channel 9 as a permanent emergency channel in 1969—that would not be seen until the arrival of the cellular phone. By 1975, the FCC had lowered CB licensing costs (which many CB users ignored anyway) from $20 to $4, and miniaturization made the dashboard CB affordable for ordinary non-truckers. But in a short three years, the CB fad was largely over, leaving behind, as with many 1970s pop culture crazes, an industry ravaged by insatiable demand followed by a quick and steep disinterest.

This 1978 CB rules publication from the FCC discusses the rules and regulations around the use of Citizens Band radio as well as frequently asked questions around licensing and use of a CB. The booklet includes an insert that the reader could use to apply for a license to use CB radio. (The FCC was receiving so many CB license applications during the mid-1970s that they had established an entire zip code in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—17326—to speed up handling of the requests.) From the rules and prohibitions detailed within this booklet one can observe and note the ways that people were using (and abusing, in the eyes of the FCC) the CB frequencies during the fad’s peak. Transmissions of music, rebroadcasts of commercial radio or television, and advertising of all sorts, including political, are strictly prohibited, as are “obscene, indecent or profane words, language or meaning.” Conversations are limited to five minutes, but oddly CB radios are allowed to be patched into telephone calls (and telephone answering services); a commercial small-business need for reaching sales and delivery personnel on the road is obviously being given room to operate here.

Sadly, the government employee who created the strikingly whimsical and very “Seventies”-style sketches in this FCC booklet is uncredited. The artwork is clearly of a very specific and familiar vintage descending from hippie-adjacent 1960s artists and illustrators such as Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann, themselves influenced by the twin 1960s trends of Pop Art and the Art Nouveau revival. While this illustration style might have been considered a little out-of-touch and long in the tooth by 1978, it conveys a desire among the creators of this booklet, widespread at the time in the halls of the U.S. government, to remain populist, “hip,” and relevant in an otherwise sober book of rules published for the use of ordinary citizens.

“A Totally Different Experience”: Atari Theatre Kiosk Brochure, 1976

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 Exhibit / February 27, 2020

Object Name: Atari Theatre brochure
Maker and Year: Atari, Inc., 1975-1976
Object Type: Sales brochure
Image Source: FlyerFever
: (K.E. Roberts)

The Atari Theatre Kiosk experiment was short-lived and ill-advised, but the very attempt, documented in this glorious brochure, captures the era’s unrestrained pursuit of what Atari called “innovative leisure.” Produced between the 1975 home release of Pong and 1977’s Atari Video Computer System, the Theatre was billed as an option for “elegant high traffic” locations serving “high quality clientele,” as opposed to the shabby riff-raff then infesting smoke-filled pool halls, penny arcades, and pinball parlors—video arcades didn’t pop up in the States until 1978, when Space Invaders came to town. The very idea of arcade cabinets is presented here as low-class (despite Atari inventing them), mere “vending machines” that had to be “rolled in and pushed against the wall.”

The concept illustrations depicting the Kiosk in the wild—er, excuse me, in “rich sophisticated locations… where children can entertain themselves in a wholesome environment”—are lovely and hint at the house style that Cliff Spohn would develop in the late ’70s. The centerpiece of the page is actually a photo of the Kiosk in the Velizy shopping mall in Paris (the Theatre concept originated with Atari Europe); there was also one that cheered commuters at the BART station on Powell Street in San Francisco. It’s obvious now how utterly impractical the scheme was: no matter how “elegant” the installation, no hotel or department store is going to want to be stuck with it forever, and shipping, moving, and maintaining the massive units could not have been cost effective. What’s more, your quarter bought you only 90 seconds of play—which, to be fair, is probably longer than I lasted on most Zaxxon cabinets.

The “interchangeability” of the individual games in the hexagonal “control panel” brings to mind the DIY geodesic domes then popular among the counterculture, out of which personal computing and video games emerged in the first place, while the design sensibility of the brochure swells with the vibrant late-’70s aesthetic that Atari in part created. In short, bless them for trying.

Action Transfers: White Squadron Space Adventures, 1980

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 Exhibit / February 26, 2020

Object Name: White Squadron Space Adventures
Maker and Year: Uncredited artist for Letraset/Thomas Salter Ltd., 1980
Object Type: Transfers
Image Source: Action Transfers
Description: (Richard McKenna)

A favorite gift of British nanas, uncles and aunts of the 1970s, transfers—like coloring books—inhabit the deadening overlap between creativity and restriction. As liberating as they always looked while still in their packets, once out on the kitchen table, doing transfers frequently turned out to be a depressingly uninspiring activity. Not so Thomas Salter and Letraset’s Space Adventures, which were rare in that their genuinely engaging vistas, full of odd detail and exciting perspective, were the main attraction, and the transfers themselves merely the pretext.

No matter how lofty its pretensions to didactic meritoriousness, it was a rare toy manufacturer of the second half of the 1970s who was righteous enough to resist the lure of millions of Star Wars-crazed children desperate to throw their pocket money at anything vaguely resembling a Jawa. Proof of this is that even Thomas Salter, the Lutheran-presenting Scotland-based toy producer famous for its worthy educational products, did a deal with the zeitgeist and went into business with dry-transfer giant Letraset to crank out its own space trash artifacts. And what lovely space trash artifacts they were: ten panoramas of a world poised between old-fashioned Alex Raymond-ey pulp (complete with giant clipper-equipped robots) and the post-2001 aesthetic of technologically imposing starships with ripped-off Y-Wing cockpits. The “plot”—I use the quotations advisedly, given its unintelligibility—concerns a space war of some kind in the year 2150, with on one side Princess Haiti, Captain Meteor, Professor Purbeck, and obligatory cute robot GRUD (Ground Receiver Understanding Device, whatever the fuck that means), and on the other a baddie called Swart, assisted by the Bat People. Only the transfers are credited as being printed in Italy, but to judge by the odd grammar and phrasing of the short synopses featured on each packet, they too were hastily cooked up over a heavy lunch in a trattoria somewhere in the vicinity of the Sodecor factory, a subsidiary Letraset had founded in the far north of the country.

Unreflective nostalgia is bad for us—on that, I hope, we can all agree. When scratching the itches of our youthful loves stops being an occasional frisson and becomes an obsessive way of engaging with reality, reactionary infantility is around the corner. But we have to be careful not to throw out the beautiful baby along with the rancid nostalgia bathwater: because on their own terms—compromised, venal and, yes, often childish—some of the ephemera of childhood does actually possess a bit of genuine beauty. White Squadron Space Adventures is just that: a kind of strange, modern-day stations of the cross that, in its puerile, cash-grubbing way, evokes more profound cosmic awe than the CGI phantoms thrown endlessly at us today—and, more important, inspires far more desire to actually pick up a pencil and create something.

Remembrance of Ramps Past: Hot Wheels Service Center Playset, 1979

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Recollections / February 25, 2020

hot wheels service center sto and goA couple of years ago I posted an image on Twitter of the Hot Wheels Service Center Sto & Go playset seen above and got to feeling unexpectedly emotional (and more than a bit political) about it. The toy evoked feelings of a lost world, a celebration of blue-collar work, of craftsmanship, of a 1970s era of big cars and grubby parking garages with lots of ramps. I admittedly get emotional pretty frequently about artifacts of the late ’70s/early ’80s “Hinge Years,” as I call them (just check my archive of articles here at We Are the Mutants if you don’t believe me), but something about the Hot Wheels Service Center really hit me hard and stuck with me.

Hot Wheels cars loom large in the memories of Generation Xers because they came of age right along with us. In the late ’60s, American toy maker Mattel saw the broad and long-lasting global success of Matchbox cars, a postwar British manufacturing success story that debuted in 1953 with a line of diecast metal 1:64 scale models of real-world cars. Hot Wheels sought to take the Matchbox car to a new level, giving American kids a taste of the then-contemporary custom car culture, developing all kinds of wild vehicles in the same scale as Matchbox. In 1968 Mattel released its “Sweet 16,” the first vehicles in the Hot Wheels line, and their massive initial success meant that dozens of new designs followed. Hot Wheels vehicles were spacey, wild evocations of a resolutely American automobile imagination. (Hot Wheels also had better quality spinning wheels that allowed them to be used for racing more reliably than Matchbox vehicles.) Matchbox changed up its own marketing and design to keep up with Hot Wheels, while, as the ’70s went on, Hot Wheels produced more and different kinds of real-world cars to balance out the hot rods and custom cars. Hot Wheels also produced plentiful accessories for the racers from the very outset of the line, including race tracks that featured pit stops, which undoubtedly influenced the eventual design of the Sto & Go Service Station.

I’m not sure if Matchbox and/or Hot Wheels cars were ever my favorite toys as a little kid, but they were always around, omnipresent and inevitably underfoot for any grown-ups in our living room. I probably had a dozen or more. I’m guessing they were popular because they were both cheap and readily available; I clearly remember them prominently on sale at places other than toy stores, such as grocery store and pharmacy gift aisles. They were economical, collectible toys that kept smaller kids occupied for hours on end. But there was something special and unique about the Sto & Go Service Station—I got it for Christmas in 1980 or ’81—that kept me playing with it for a good long while. Its portability (the two levels of the garage folded up to make a handy carrying case—the “Sto and Go”—for your Hot Wheels) made it my favorite toy for taking on the road to relatives’ houses. Play-wise, it’s a typical pre-G.I. Joe and Transformers early 1980s playset: it has multiple levels, lots of moving parts, plenty of opportunities for both kinesthetic and gravity-propelled play, a really well-designed toy for the 8-and-under crowd. I also think that, in some small way, the Sto & Go appealed to me because it was ultimately incredibly cozy. Here was a “neighborhood,” if you will, with everything that a driver might need for their car: transmissions, tires, a dynamometer test, gas, tires, and a wash and wax at the end of it all. Moreover, none of these service station pit stops are owned by a huge chain or corporation; they each proudly display the (yes, admittedly all male) names of their owner-operators: Ted, Larry, Mike, Al, George. It’s basically the happy main street of an admittedly car-crazy town, perhaps before the Jiffy Lube, the Pep Boys, and the Wal-mart Auto Care Center came to roost.

I remember loving books in my early childhood that extolled the benefits of living in a tidy neighborhood where everyone had a vital job or a role. Whether it was Richard Scarry’s classic Busytown books like What Do People Do All Day? (1968) or the British Mr. Men series from 1971 (here the characters’ roles in town are more psychological than labor-based, but my point stands) or all of Mister Rogers’ various Neighborhoods (from Fred Rogers’s “real” neighborhood with working-class visitors like “Speedy Delivery” Mr. McFeely, to the factory footage that Mr. Rogers would show on Picture Picture, even occasionally to labor relations in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe), one of the signal lessons of my childhood cultural education was that an ideal society hums along with the buzz of people doing meaningful, valuable labor. Pretty typical Cold War-era pro-labor messages, all told; I’m guessing a lot of kids born in the ’70s remember similar themes in their media. The Hot Wheels Service Station absolutely embodies that set of lessons; each of these garages has its own purpose, implying that they’re all able to both stay in business and offer specialist expertise that the others can’t. When I joked on Twitter about the playset offering a glimpse of a syndicalist future, I was recalling the rise of the Wobblies and other laborers’ reactions to the Second Industrial Revolution, a period of labor upheaval where industrial workers found their small-scale, specialized skills superseded by a wave of technology-driven standardization and automation. One thing that the last forty years of neoliberalism and its own technological revolutions have proven is that specialized skills and individual small-scale industriousness fall like dominoes before the consolidated power of international capital. In the Hot Wheels Service Station, an era of smaller, local, more interconnected, more personal, and more personable industry is frozen in amber.

And yes, those ramps are also evocative; not just because they were a hell of a lot of fun to play with (if you managed to get your car all the way down to the gas station without crashing, a bell would usually ring), but because they summoned up what cities looked like in the 1970s, at least to me in the back of our family station wagon: overpasses, bridges, highways, expressways plowing through the centers of cities, all sprouting enormous and steep on- and off-ramps. Every trip into Boston in the family car involved navigating at least a few of these. Mutants contributor Rob MacDougall dubbed it “ramppunk,” and that term is now indelibly tied together—for me—with the built landscape of a particular urban milieu of the period. The Hot Wheels Service Center is topographically and practically improbable in the real world, of course. Maybe it’s not spatially uncanny or impossibly Escherian, but a two-level garage filled with five mechanics’ businesses linked by a long S-shaped ramp like this doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world. (Equally unreal was 1980’s follow-up to the Service Center, an actual City scene with the same layout as the Service Center.) But that unreality doesn’t matter when I look at it as an object, probably because I associate that same mix of beiges, browns, and oranges on the Service Center decals with an era where it seemed every road ended in a ramp and every built environment was designed to accommodate cars, not people. The Hot Wheels Service Center does double nostalgic duty: it reminds me of the intersection between the imaginary worlds and the real world of my youth, and the intersection between the ideal worlds our toys once created and a harsher reality I wasn’t yet conscious of.

Meet you at that big window overlooking the car wash.

hot wheels car wash family detail

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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“What’s Inside the Little Box?”: Betamax Sales Demo, 1977

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 Exhibit / February 20, 2020 

Object Name: Betamax sales training video
Maker and Year: National Training Systems, Inc., 1977
Object Type: Training video
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Sony’s first Betamax VCR was the SL-6200, and it was housed in a teak wood cabinet with a 19″ Trinitron TV. The LV-1901 console, as the package deal was called, was released in Japan in May 1975 and debuted in the US that November. Price: between $2,295 and $2,495. Weight? Really fucking heavy. The VCR was sold separately (for about $1,295) starting in 1976, but department stores and consumer electronics outlets were left with the onerous task of unloading the first generation beasts loitering in their stock rooms and warehouses (the last 20 seconds of Raiders of the Lost Ark come to mind). Sony provided a “demonstration checklist” designed to help sales teams explain the entirely new concept of “recording one program while watching another” and “[recording] a program without even being there,” and they paid a company called National Training Systems, Inc. to help sales teams convince customers to shell out what amounted to the cost of a new Toyota Corolla.

Let’s start with the decor. The LV-1901 squats on a circular island of worn beige shag, which matches the implacable earth tones of everything else in the faux showroom, including the uneasy Muzak and the garb of our stereotypically unctuous salesmen—except for the plentiful ferns, which served as a kind of middle-class status signifier in ’70s and early ’80s America, similar to the aspidistra in prewar and postwar Britain. Although the sleek white pedestals and open cubes propping up Sony’s various TVs and stereos add something of a contemporary touch, the vibe is mostly that of the local, reliably down-home Sears. It’s certainly not the futuristic flavor served up in Sony’s 1975 promotional video introducing the LV-1901, where we see the monolith floating in star-twinkling space, kaleidoscopic video synthesizer effects, and lots of dry ice smoke. “The Sony Betamax,” intones a reverb-treated voice. “Its only purpose is to serve you.” And: “You’ll be free of the restrictions of time. Its uses are defined only by the limits of your imagination.”

Back on earth, our two salesman teasingly quibble and wink about who’s going to “role play” as the customer, and I half expected a porn film to break out. The sales pitch promises that the Betamax is “easy to use,” extolls “the great beauty of videotape” (blank Betamax tapes recorded a max of 60 minutes and cost almost $20), and endlessly reminds us that the LV-1901 (not to be confused with LV-426) comes with “dual tuners.” Although Betamax lost the format war precisely because Sony banked on consumers paying more for the perceived higher quality of the brand name, it holds a formative place in my media-chomping career. When the video store I worked at closed in 1987 or 1988, the magnanimous owner gifted me a used Betamax VCR, probably the SL-8200, along with a Beta movie of my choice. So I heaved the old bastard home and watched Enter the Ninja on it five or six times before it became my very own piece of antique furniture: comforting in its immovability, beautifully useless.

“How to Say Good Morning”: Mr. Coffee, 1972

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 Exhibit / February 19, 2020 

Object Name: Mr. Coffee
Maker and Year: North American Systems and others,1972-present
Object Type: TV commercials for home coffee maker
Video Source: YouTube (Bionic Disco/Beta MAX)
Description (Michael Grasso):

The state of play in home coffee brewing in America during the early postwar period offered very little opportunity for a good cup of joe. The electric percolator, long the choice for home brewing, would often overheat and burn the coffee, or send foul, bitter-tasting grounds back into the brew. Individual-size European coffee makers like the French press and the Moka pot gained in popularity after World War II but were still mostly niche products purchased by European immigrants (or Americans with European pretentions). Instant coffee predated the war but became one of the many broader consumer products that gained market share thanks to the same developments in wartime food preservation that brought frozen concentrated orange juice to American breakfast tables. So if an American coffee-drinker wanted a quality cup of drip coffee before 1970, he or she would visit a restaurant or diner for a cup from the new, reliable filtered drip-brew coffee maker, Bunn-O-Matic. But most Bunn coffeemakers in the 1960s were built to churn out dozens of pots of coffee a day, with large carafes and multiple hobs, putting them well out of the price and practicality reach of most consumers.

Making the drip filter coffee maker easy, compact, and affordable enough for home use was the task that a pair of coffee supply executives set for themselves at the outset of the 1970s. Samuel Glazer and Vincent Marotta of the Cleveland, Ohio company North American Systems saw the popularity of the big filter-drip industrial coffeemakers and wondered why they couldn’t have a cup like that at home. They lured two former Westinghouse engineers, Edmund Abel and Erwin Schulze, from their aeronautics and electrical engineering jobs to work on a coffeemaker that could deliver just that. The key was the heating element—too hot and it would simply duplicate the bitter efforts of the percolator; too cool and it wouldn’t actually brew the coffee. The new coffeemaker beat the percolator on taste and on speed; using gravity to drip 200-degree Fahrenheit water through grounds in a disposable filter could produce a modestly-sized pot of coffee in under a couple of minutes. Abel’s patent went on sale as “Mr. Coffee” in 1972, and the American public went for it in droves, with a million Mr. Coffee machines being sold in its first couple of years on the market.

A big key to Mr. Coffee’s appeal in these early years was thanks to Marotta’s dogged pursuit of one of his favorite sports icons as brand spokesman: the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio. So reclusive in the years since his retirement from baseball and the death of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe that he’d been enshrined in song, DiMaggio relented to Marotta’s eager call to become the Mr. Coffee pitchman (DiMaggio himself wasn’t even a caffeinated coffee drinker because of an ulcer; he preferred instant Sanka). The combination of an approachable brand name, an easy to understand set of operating instructions, and an avuncular, trustworthy celebrity face made Mr. Coffee a household name. Mr. Coffee came along at a time when, thanks to women entering the workplace, more and more men were being asked to make contributions in the home and especially the kitchen; with coffee historically being associated in America with hard-working men, Mr. Coffee and its soft-spoken yet macho pitchman were culturally in the right place at the right time. Like many other home goods manufacturers, later owners of the Mr. Coffee brand would use its initial success to branch out into other products with not as famed or successful a brand career as the original. Nevertheless, Mr. Coffee’s ubiquity in the 1970s and ’80s led inevitably became fodder for pop culture parodies.

Heavy Pagan Pottery: Denby Tableware

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 Exhibit / February 18, 2020 

Object Name: Denby tableware
Maker and Year: Denby, 1960s-1970s
Object Type: Tableware
Description: (Richard McKenna)

A strange talisman of British middle- and lower-middle-class aspirations of the 1960s and 1970s, Denbyware—the costly, absurdly heavy, hard-wearing (read, impossible to rid yourself of or destroy) brand of British tableware famed for its dun-colored hues, threatening shapes, and cranial-trauma patterns—was for a time the ne plus ultra of performative provincial socializing.

The British Midlands had long been a center for ceramics and pottery, and Denby had been producing stoneware—pottery fired at extremely high temperatures to make it impermeable to liquids—in the Derbyshire village from which it took its name since the early 19th century, over the decades cannily adapting its output to the changing needs and social aesthetics of the day. When the back-to-nature ideas of the counterculture began permeating the mainstream in the late ’60s, Denby’s products—their dolmenic mass hinting at ancestral connection, olde-worlde authenticity, and worthy refutation of shallow consumerism—were perfectly suited to the mood. The company’s memorable description of its “Ode” line (aptly pictured in the advert above with an anvil) as “immensely strong” and “devastating in design” provides a fairly accurate précis of Denbyware’s vocation: the implication was that these artifacts would not only outlive their owners, they might even outlive their owners’ civilizations, the only things left standing in the ashes of the increasingly likely nuclear radlands. Resembling ominous votive objects, Denbyware’s inscrutably esoteric forms seemed to emerge from ancient memory, as though the shade of Max Ernst might be using them to try to communicate something about the 20th century’s fucked-up relationship with its ancient past.

By the early ’70s, Denby’s main rivals for the White Collar Earth Children demographic were probably fellow Midlands pottery Midwinter, whose Stonehenge range flirted with Pagan themes, and Yorkshire company Hornsea Pottery. Denby’s principal perceived advantage over these competitors seemed to be that its products were heavier. A shitload heavier. In fact, Denby’s “stoneware” contrived somehow to be far, far heavier than actual stone. So heavy that it was actually an issue when moving house, as the stuff tended to hurtle through the bottoms of cardboard packing boxes like incoming meteorites breaking through cloud cover on their way to causing an extinction event. Unlike other tableware, if you dropped a Denby, the risk was not to the plate, it was to you and to your home and loved ones. The cups were so heavy that they would gradually droop over the aching fingers hooked through their handles and deposit liquid onto carpets and groins—though luckily their congenital crypt-like chill meant that within moments even the hottest of drinks was only tepid. It was almost as though the cups and plates and sugar bowls were not actually discrete objects but protrusions of some ur-tableware poking out from beneath the surface of the present day and moored to the eternal ley lines beneath.

Midwinter We Are the Mutants 1

Midwinter, one of Denby’s competitors

Together with other totems beloved of those migrating to the lower-middle classes—a pay-in-installments copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica it was erroneously presumed would make me clever and some uncomfortable Ercol chairs—my family owned a set of Denby Sherwood when I was growing up that my parents had received as a wedding present back in the late ’60s. Given the Robin Hood-referencing name, it’s possible that evoking the sensation of slurping silt from concave rocks while sheltering under sodden foliage actually was Denby’s vision for the range. In any case, it was the result. Sherwood’s weird, death-colored finish conferred strange flavors upon any edible substance that came into contact with it: tea drunk from the millstone-heavy cups acquired a peculiar clayish taste, while Friday night fish’n’chips would go waxy and limp, as though being gradually irradiated. The Sisyphean force needed to lift the burial-urn mugs would often send their granite rims smashing into the teeth of the unwary like some ancient punishment, and each time the serrations of a knife or the tines of a fork accidentally caught on the surface of a Sherwood plate, a terrifying Stone Tape-esque screech was emitted that would freeze the whole family mid-fish finger.

Strangely, instead of encouraging the McKennas to rid ourselves of the cumbersome tableware, these weird properties only conferred upon The Denby an even more eerie grandeur. It was the same in every household I knew that had a set: The Denby were treated like fetishes—miniature henges, to be brought out only on occasions of highest ritual or to impress delegates from neighboring tribes. I called them totems earlier, and the received impression was very much that by laying hands on their chill surfaces, mind-melding with pre-lapsarian Iron Age ancestors could be achieved and balance restored to the earth.

It was also taken absolutely for granted that, as eldest son, I would in time be proud to have the Denby passed down to me and would fill all my available storage space with its imposing mass, as though it had been in the family for dozens of generations instead of bought on the HP in a department store in Chorley in 1967. Threats to sell the lot were greeted with uncomprehending horror, and in fact any nominal gain would in reality be offset by the difficulties involved in getting rid of the bastards: postage would incur moonshot-level costs while personal delivery would likely shatter the suspension of any car I’d ever be able to afford. How large numbers of Denby were ever moved about the country at all is a mystery up there with how the components of Stonehenge were rolled all the way from Wales to Salisbury—or at the very least testament to the sturdiness of the British freight rail system pre-Thatcher. 

I’m exaggerating in my critique of Denbyware, of course, and especially of Sherwood. I grew up venerating it, and even today bits of our set continue to crop up unbidden in my life like ancestral relics. Designer Gill Pemberton produced some lovely work for the company, and Sherwood was one of her most memorable: strange grave goods that show the denizens of capitalist industrial society grasping through their growing pay packets for something meaningful, something to connect them to who they are and to who they have been, even as they tuck into their Asda beefburgers. Something heavy.·


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