We Are the Mutants

All Tomorrow’s Spaceships: Future World Orchestra’s ‘Mission Completed’

Richard McKenna / July 16, 2020

Mission Completed
By Future World Orchestra
Dureco Benelux, 1982

Sometimes it’s in ephemeral fragments of the culture that time travel lurks. We learn to tune out the looming monoliths of the zeitgeist the same way we learn to tune out the sky: its ubiquitousness would otherwise be oppressive. But sometimes a corner of the firmament reflected in a humble puddle brings it back to radiant life. Released in 1982, Future World Orchestra’s Mission Completed is that kind of puddle, capturing a small shard of its time in strangely vivid colors.

Future World Orchestra have the lot: gauche mustaches, a demeanor to which the word “goofy” does not do justice, digital watches, white ties with piano keyboards on them, wristbands, bizarre bespoke overalls, uncomfortable dance moves, and an even more uncomfortable relationship with the camera. But somehow, it’s not a pastiche—it is instead from the Netherlands, and its creators are the astonishingly-named Robert Pot and Gerto Heupink.

The lens-flare cover and slightly bullish ring of the title might give a misleading impression of what Future World Orchestra are actually about, but as will become immediately clear upon watching any video footage of them, they’re very much not the high-fiving cock-jocks you might imagine. Rather, they meld a bouncy and vaguely unfashionable style of retro-pop with the elegiac electronics that had by then become an increasingly powerful element of the musical landscape: can you imagine a Frankensteinian welding together of, say, Jean-Michel Jarre, Genesis’s Tony Banks, and Neil Sedaka? Well, now you no longer need to try.

The record lays out its aesthetic manifesto on the first track, “I’m Not Afraid of the Future,” whose “Popcorn“-reminiscent arpeggios, hints of Hi-NRG, and upbeat vocal are shot through with a vague melancholy that runs counter to the song’s optimism—a sensation that underpins the whole record. I don’t know how to define this video of them lip-syncing to “Desire” except as punk chutzpah—a total don’t-give-a-fuck immersion in a personal aesthetic. Even though I love it, it makes me want to run out of the room screaming, so god alone knows what effect it might have on anyone who doesn’t like the music (though if you want more, have a slightly less uncomfortable version and a version from after they discovered coke). “Desire” mines the same kind of synthetic doo-wop shuffle of Andrew Gold’s wonderful “Never Let Her Slip Away,” a mood taken up later in a slightly less optimistic key in “Don’t Go Away.” “Airborne” hints at a kind of Schlager-trance, “Casablanca Nights” blends the “Popcorn” bubbling with an “I Feel Love” throb, while instrumental “Hypnos” is a Jean-Michel Jarre-ian monster. And aptly, Mission Completed ends with, yep, “Mission Completed.” Because it fucking was.

There are moments where the balancing act between something inspired and something awful falters—“Happy Moments,” for instance, would make perfect background music for a breakfast TV montage of Dutch pensioners visiting a petting zoo (and rips off 10CC‘s “I’m Not in Love” to boot)—but, all told, Mission Completed somehow manages to create its own beguiling futuristic world of mystery, excitement, and romance, all shot through with a vein of pensive melancholy. Is the undercurrent of angst a tacit admission that, for all of the album’s upbeat optimism, there was plenty about 1982 that actually was pretty frightening? Other groups, artists and authors that year certainly seemed to think so.

Apart from the obvious pop skill on display, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Mission Completed that I find so appealing. Is it the yearning that imbues the whole thing? The earnestness? Silly nostalgia for the time when I was still earnest myself? The record often feels a little like it’s straining against its own restraint, groping at new sounds and atmospheres and struggling to break free of the limitations of its own good pop manners. Perhaps it’s because I can see a bit of that in myself that it connects with me.

I’m not going to make any wild claims for Mission Completed as some neglected masterpiece, nor am I going to attempt to research its creators, because the truth is that I don’t really want to know: from the perspective of Mission Completed, even the iterations of Future World Orchestra performing the following year’s great and unexpectedly explicit anthem Captain Coke and Theme from E.T. are already so incomprehensibly alien that god alone knows where they went after that. I’m just going to hold it up as what I think it is: a charming collection of ironically elegiac pop songs, as frivolous as they are lovely.

McKenna AvatarRichard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.

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All the Colors Above Them: Gloria Miklowitz’s ‘The War Between the Classes’

Eve Tushnet / July 14, 2020

Assign teenagers to different socioeconomic classes and require the lower classes to perform humiliating rituals of obeisance to the upper. Give other students the power to enforce class boundaries and punish those who get ideas above their station. Make sure the artificial hierarchy affects the students’ friendships and grades. What could go wrong?

This is the setup for Gloria D. Miklowitz’s 1985 young adult novel, The War Between the Classes. But it’s also the premise of a real classroom exercise developed in the late ’70s by Occidental College Professor Ray Otero. Otero’s “Color Game,” in which students wear armbands whose colors indicate whether they’re upper-class, upper-middle, lower-middle, or lower, is one of many similar classroom experiments in which students take on new identities in the hopes of gaining insight into social dynamics. (You can watch a short 1983 feature on the Color Game here.)

Perhaps the experiment that had the greatest impact on ’80s pop culture was “The Third Wave,” a 1967 exercise intended to teach California high school students about the rise of Nazism. The experiment got out of hand, of course, leading to both a fictionalized TV movie and a novelization, The Wave, in 1981. The Third Wave has inspired everything from a Canadian musical to an episode of the children’s cartoon “Arthur”—and even a Sweet Valley Twins book, 1995’s It Can’t Happen Here. The story of the Third Wave has had a recent renaissance in Germany, with a 2008 film and a 2019 Netflix series, We Are the Wave.

Although Miklowitz’s novel did get a 1985 Emmy-winning television adaptation, the Color Game never managed the big pop culture footprint of the Third Wave. And the real-life game didn’t please everybody, especially once it moved beyond the control of its developer. Otero was sued in 1988 by the parents of a high school student who claimed her experience as a “lower-class” Color Game participant had traumatized her. But as an exercise for college students, led by an experienced teacher, the Color Game proved popular—and Miklowitz’s fictional version offers far more insightful social criticism than the usual YA “the game got out of hand!” cautionary tale. The Wave has two fairly simple messages: “The desire to belong will dull your conscience,” and, “Anybody will buy into fascism if you market it right.” The War Between the Classes is teaching subtler lessons about shame, solidarity, and meritocracy.

Miklowitz specialized in YA novels about social issues: cult recruiting, nuclear war, teen suicide, single motherhood. Her prose in The War Between the Classes is workaday, her dialogue often preachy; characterization is quick and simple, and the obligatory YA romance is useful to the plot, but predictable. That romance crosses both color and Color Game lines. Emiko Sumoto—always “Amy” at school—is a middle-class Japanese-American girl whose boyfriend, Adam, is a rich white bro. His first romantic gesture in the novel is a flower with a note: “To my exotic, inscrutable Amy….” This is about the level of subtlety the book aims for.

Amy ends up wearing the armband of the upper-class Blues, whereas Adam is relegated to the lowest class, the Oranges. This is no coincidence. In the novel, the fictional Otero rigs the game so that students of color are assigned to the upper strata and the white kids are more likely to end up in the lower. Meanwhile, the game also reverses their sex roles: in a twist taken from the real-life Color Game, boys (called “No-Teks”) must now curtsy to and otherwise defer to girls (“Teks”).

In fact, the game relies heavily on shows of deference. The novel’s Otero explains, “Oranges must always show their inferiority by bowing when they meet their superiors, all colors above them. Light Greens must bow to the Dark Greens and Blues… But the Blues, bless them, don’t bow to anyone. Why should they?” He continues, “Inferior colors may not speak with or socialize with superior colors. A superior color may address an inferior one, but not vice versa.” Otero throws in derogatory comments about the “lower” colors (“I wouldn’t want to confuse you… Especially you Oranges”) and warns them that a “spy network” of enforcers called G4s have the power to report and punish disobedience. “You can be fined, harassed, given lower status”; you can also gain status by “squeal—er, uh, reporting” on others who break the rules.

The students must keep a diary of their impressions of the game; they can be punished if they’re caught without an up-to-date journal—even outside of school. Oranges sit at the back of class and wait at the end of the cafeteria line. “Lower” colors must run errands at the command of “higher” colors. Even when they break the rules, Blues get warnings; Oranges get punishments.

Amy is sweetly conflicted about the taste of power the game gives her over her boyfriend. Her blue armband gives her the power to confront the racism of the rich white kids, and uncovers an anger she didn’t realize she harbored. Adam has a harder time: “I was rewarded yesterday. You know why? For being submissive when a G4 chewed me out. I feel sick just thinking about it!”

The most noticeable feature of the Color Game’s understanding of class is how heavily it relies on humiliation. That’s simple necessity, since neither a college professor nor a high school teacher can actually take away their students’ food or shelter, deny them health care, or force them to live in unsafe neighborhoods. And yet necessity becomes a virtue here, as the students confront how deeply poverty and inequality humiliate those who endure them. Americans often blame the poor for their poverty (this is true across class lines; poor people blame themselves as well as their neighbors). All forms of need are treated as personal failure. This is the aspect of poverty that the Color Game can best replicate, and so the experiment overturns the assumption that the worst thing about poverty is that you have less stuff. (Monks have less stuff and they’re rarely ashamed of it, to use just one example.)

The “lower-class” students quickly begin to experience self-doubt, feeling constantly scrutinized and vulnerable, even helpless. The scene where Brian, one of the enforcers of the game’s hierarchy, forces a Dark Green student to turn over her game diary so he can mock her private thoughts aloud is startlingly raw. This humiliation is deepened by the way the Color Game (in the novel) exposes the flaws in the meritocratic ideal. Tests are handed out in order by color, so the better your economic position, the more time you have. The “higher” colors even get easier tests. And of course the point is that even before the Game started, the intelligence and academic ability of the students didn’t define their worth—and their grades were never fair.

The recurring use of the diaries to humiliate offers a strange, painful nuance. Why are the G4s so intent on learning, and exposing, what the “lower classes” really think? In the novel it’s camouflage so that Otero can monitor whether students are learning from the Game; but there’s an unexpected parallel with 2017’s Get Out, in which privileged characters similarly hunger to both understand and control the experience of the oppressed. Over the course of the Game, the students who are privileged in real life begin to feel that they’ve been missing something—something important that they neither knew nor wanted to know. Only when they themselves begin to experience humiliation do they wonder if their previous experience of power has somehow damaged them.

In the 1983 video on the “real” Color Game, one participant, like the fictional Amy, broke the rules by bowing to her “inferiors” and got busted down to Orange. She noted, “There’s not much unification among the upper classes. It’s kind of everyone for themselves… When you become part of the lower class, you’ll notice there’s much more of a sense of unity. People band together, we help each other out much more.” Miklowitz captures this solidarity too—a solidarity that is even harder to find outside the game now than it was in 1985, as low-income families, communities, and institutions are even more fragile.

The novel ends happily, of course. Amy leads a cross-class rebellion against the Game. There’s a cathartic ceremony in which the students shed their armbands and embrace, even hugging Brian, the G4 who seemed to relish his work. Interestingly—and depressingly—the characters walk away with relations between the sexes more obviously changed than relations between the classes. Amy has learned to assert herself in her romance with Adam, and he’s learning to see that as a gain for himself rather than a loss. Friendships have been forged across IRL class lines, and we can hope that some of them will last. And yet these friendships don’t seem to impose any obligations of change, the way the shift in Amy’s self-understanding requires Adam to change.

Ultimately, the girls learn to assert themselves, but class relations don’t budge: it’s easier to figure out how a boy might listen to a girl than how a rich kid might relinquish his power. Despite the confrontations in the mall food court and kids who use “black jive,” in some ways The War Between the Classes feels painfully contemporary.

Eve Tushnet is the author of two novels, Amends and Punishment: A Love Story, as well as the nonfiction Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. She lives in Washington, DC and writes and speaks on topics ranging from medieval covenants of friendship to underrated vampire films. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.Patreon Button

“Style Is Surely Our Own Thing”: Nate Patrin’s ‘Bring That Beat Back’

Michael Grasso / July 8, 2020

bring that beat back coverBring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop
By Nate Patrin
University of Minnesota Press, 2020

It’s practically impossible to imagine popular music in the year 2020 without considering the central role digital sampling now plays in making beats and reshaping melodies. It’s part of the very backbone of today’s music production. Whatever vogues that studio production wizards employed back in the day to find and engineer that perfect take, sampling has proven itself a wholly different animal. Constructing a brand new edifice out of building blocks sourced from musicians of the past is now so de rigueur in popular music as to be almost banal. But a few decades ago, this novel method of musicianship was denigrated, deemed dangerous, compared to outright theft, and fraught with vast social and economic ramifications.

Ultimately, all musicians who use sampling in a contemporary context have a small cohort of DJs and MCs in 1970s New York City (and a few other American urban centers) to thank. This historical role of the DJ—to build community by getting audiences out on the dance floor while rescuing and re-presenting lost musical classics for a new generation of listeners—is at the center of Nate Patrin’s dynamic and riveting new study, Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop. Sampling began at block parties and in discos, where the nascent hip-hop scene was born, matured amidst the rapidly-expanding recording technology that revolutionized popular music in the ’80s, and reached maturity as DJs and producers sought and treasured the rarest breaks and the sweetest jams to back their MCs. The four legends of sampling and hip-hop production examined by Patrin in the book—Grandmaster Flash, Prince Paul, Dr. Dre, and Madlib—each embody a specific phase and philosophy in this evolution of sampling in hip-hop and, by extension, all of popular music.

Patrin digs deep into the record crates of the first hip-hop DJs, tracing the essential breakbeats that defined early hip-hop tracks. The MCs and DJs whose skills on the mic and turntable eventually created hip-hop owe much to West Indian DJ traditions such as toasting; Patrin notes that early seminal hip-hop DJs Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash all share Caribbean roots. And the shared desire of DJs to provide the freshest, rarest, and most “eclectic” beats to get people out on the dance floor—sometimes even head-to-head at a block party or dance night—echoed the competition that was happening on the dance floor between gangs and crews. Patrin notes that “Herc made a point of removing the labels from his records… and keeping them in nondescript sleeves so nobody else could capitalize on his discoveries.” Finding a forgotten gem at a record store or in someone’s collection was the real prize, which meant an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and soul rarities. “Real DJs ignored the big names on the front of the record for the small ones on the back,” Patrin writes. “Certain previously semi-anonymous session players became must-haves. Did Bernard Purdie play drums? Was Chuck Rainey on bass? Cop that shit.” It wasn’t just esoteric musical knowledge that made the DJ; technical knowledge was highly prized and necessary. Herc’s giant sound system—powered by cutting-edge turntables imported from Europe and massive amps and speakers—was a testament to his deep technical know-how.

As awareness of hip-hop began moving downtown in the late ’70s—into the clubs, the discos, and the art scene in New York City—DJing and MCing began cross-pollinating with the contemporary music scene. Even at the Edenic outset of this exciting and dynamic new culture, there was conflict between DJs and the musicians they sampled over a perceived “theft” of their musical work. Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap song to make the Top 40, copped the bass line and melody from Chic’s recent massive disco hit “Good Times,” which led to the first of what would become many lawsuits and settlements over sampling in hip-hop. But Pandora’s box had been opened, and, by 1983, hip-hop as an art form had a solid canon of traditions to draw upon—as well as a new generation of MCs and DJs who sought to emulate the crate-digging obsessiveness of trailblazers like Herc and Flash. Whole compilation albums of classic drum breaks started being released; even James Brown got into the act with an album of ’70s rarities that would become hip-hop essentials, including a nine-minute version of classic “Funky Drummer” that would propel countless ’80s and ’90s hip-hop tracks.

In the “Prince Paul” section of Bring That Beat Back, focusing on the innovators in sampling in the late ’80s, Patrin hits the sweet spot of the beginning of my own personal awareness of hip-hop. Whether it was seeing Run-DMC spar with Aerosmith on MTV, or the cassettes circulated by friends and classmates—names like Ice-T, N.W.A., Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest—the cultural wave of hip-hop began to crest and splash over the invisible walls that redlining had built around our white suburban neighborhoods. These tapes felt to us like samizdat: they all regularly played on Walkmen instead of boom boxes so parents and teachers couldn’t catch what we were listening to. And it’s no surprise that, as the hip-hop artists got younger and closer to our own age, the samples started to consist of music that our late Generation X selves remembered fondly from our own living memory, a first fleeting feeling for our generation of pop culture nostalgia. The Prince Paul-produced 1989 De La Soul long-player 3 Feet High and Rising was a seminal hip-hop experience for listeners of Patrin’s (and my) age group. Its playfulness and willingness to cheekily appropriate radio-friendly smooth hits of the late ’70s and early ’80s was nothing less than a cultural bridge between old school and new school, Black and white: “[On 3 Feet High and Rising], sampling didn’t just build loops,” Patrin says, “it formed conversations.”

Patrin also asserts that this mainstreaming of sampling and the increased plumbing of our collective memory didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was part of a larger and more profound cultural (and political and economic) pivot thanks to the end of the Cold War and the much-talked-about “end of history”:

The timing for all this was fortuitous. The presumed triumph of the West’s form of capitalist democracy that followed the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall dovetailed with a late ’80s surge of commercialized nostalgia. As aging baby boomers and their younger siblings and offspring in Generation X faced the waning years of the decade with a turn toward a fondly remembered past—Beatles albums reissued on the new must-have CD format, all your old favorite shows airing constantly on Nick at Nite, every movie you remember from your childhood available to rent on VHS—hip-hop’s awareness of the past, and its creators’ ability to reconstruct it, took on its own undercurrents of longing. If the end of history felt like a slow but sure turn toward the idea that an unwritten future had no real shape or form to it, this wave of music arose from the very idea that the past was all they really had to build the present with—the future would have to wait.

Prince Paul does his best Rod Serling impression in the music video for De La Soul’s massive summer of ’89 MTV hit “Me Myself and I”—buoyed by an electrifying hook copped from Funkadelic.

But this increased visibility and popularity is precisely what led to sampling’s first great prolonged controversy. Lawsuits multiplied; sampling masterpieces like the Beastie Boys’ sophomore album Paul’s Boutiquestuffed with hundreds of samples and beats—stand as a final testament to a more lawless era when samples didn’t get comprehensive financial and legal clearance. And it wasn’t just white artists like The Turtles (and their landmark lawsuit against De La Soul) who were resentful of the “theft” of their music. The Black jazz and soul and funk artists whose work was the foundation of those early DJing days in the ’70s—the artists on those label-less LPs guarded like a hoard of treasure by Herc and Flash and their fellow hip-hop trailblazers—felt their hard work was stolen, and expressed this opinion in terms of Black pride. Patrin notes that jazz musician and Black political activist James Mtume had harsh words for what he perceived as the creative and cultural cul-de-sac of sampling and DJing: “You cannot substitute technique for composition. We’re raising a generation of young black kids who don’t know how to play music.” While rap groups, producers, and DJs routinely asserted that their collage of sound created from bits and pieces of old recordings produced something entirely new—and that hip-hop was in turn bringing knowledge of and veneration for these older artists to a new generation—this tension remained for much of hip-hop’s rise to prominence in the 1990s.

I may be giving the later chapters of the book on the mid-’90s and beyond slightly short shrift in this review, but rest assured they are also a thrilling ride. Dr. Dre’s humble beginnings in LA dance clubs in the early ’80s, eventually expanding into a “G-Funk” record-production empire thanks in large part to George Clinton and Bootsy Collins-filled record crates (that also led to a career renaissance for the Parliament-Funkadelic collective in the ’90s), is an amazing and dramatic story. And the final section of Bring That Beat Back, focusing on Madlib and other more contemporary sampling wizards, brings the story full circle, as their desire for rarer and rarer beats and a compositional virtuosity calls to mind those heady years of hip-hop in the Bronx some 40 years earlier.

The technological advances that accompanied hip-hop’s rise—from booming systems and turntables, to drum machines and sequencers that could only spit out a few seconds of sound, to the fully computer-driven music production of today—allowed for further and further subtlety to be applied to the music and thus, paradoxically, a deeper understanding and appreciation of it. “It wasn’t just listening to a band and affecting its aesthetic,” Patrin says about one of Madlib’s pseudonymous projects, “it was putting in the time, decoding the pieces, pulling them apart, and reassembling them that helped grow the knowledge of where this music actually came from, what it first meant, and what else it could mean in the hands of someone decades later. When an artist like Madlib used that knowledge to build a new facade of his musical self with those old formative records as a mediator, the opportunities for self-expression ironically became even more wide open.”

The final chapters of Patrin’s book prove that hip-hop—now nearly half a century past its origin point in the dance halls and street parties of New York City’s outer boroughs—hasn’t changed its basic identity at all. Record crate archeologists still take on new names and identities to share their musical treasures with the world and get people dancing—and thinking seriously about their material conditions under American apartheid. The aesthetics and technology of hip-hop may have been revolutionized several times over since the mid-1970s, but the fundamental core of its cultural meaning and value haven’t.

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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Falling Into The Sky: Disappearance, Aviation, and ‘The Twilight Zone’

Grafton Tanner / June 25, 2020

twilight zone the arrival“Really nothing there, is there?”

—from Duck Pimples (1945)

Classic episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) follow a simple formula. An ordinary person experiences something extraordinary, and we follow along as they figure out what is happening. Very often, the story ends with a twist: the cross-country traveler has been dead all along, the aliens are actually astronauts from Earth, To Serve Man is a cookbook. But not every episode adheres to this formula. In fact, the very best of Rod Serling’s visionary series aren’t so simple.

“And When the Sky Was Opened,” from the first season, is one of the very best. Based on the Richard Matheson short story “Disappearing Act,” the episode tells the story of three pilots—U.S. Air Force Colonel Ed Harrington (Charles Aidman), Colonel Clegg Forbes (Rod Taylor), and Major William Gart (Jim Hutton)—who return from the first voyage into space only to be erased from existence, one by one. The story begins after the pilots have crash landed, but Rod Serling’s opening monologue includes a bit of crucial exposition: the pilots vanished from radar and lost all contact with mission control for twenty-four of the thirty-one hours they were in flight.

After the mysterious and sudden disappearance of Harrington upon landing, Forbes desperately tries to convince Gart that something has taken Harrington from this world, that perhaps “somebody or something made a mistake” and let the three pilots return when they shouldn’t have. Gart, confined to a hospital bed, has no memory of Harrington, and Forbes comes to realize that no one else remembers the pilot. The story ends with Forbes arriving at the horrific realization that he is next to disappear. Begging for his life, he runs screaming from Gart’s hospital room and vanishes. When the nurse fails to remember Forbes, Gart then understands the colonel was telling the truth, and Gart, the aircraft, and the mission disappear without a trace.

The episode is a success for many reasons. The acting is palpable; you can feel the existential horror of the pilots as they come to terms with their absurd fate. As the panicked Clegg Forbes, Rod Taylor gives a dynamic performance of a man splintering into madness, and when the supporting cast gawks at him with pity, you start to wonder whether Forbes is really delusional. The episode also refrains from ending with a twist. There is no grand surprise at the end, only eerie ambiguity. Something has disappeared the pilots from existence. Without a conclusive reveal, all we’re left with is a lingering cosmic horror—the bizarre, nauseating suspicion that the universe operates according to unknown logic. Perhaps there’s no logic at all.

Like every Twilight Zone episode, “And When the Sky Was Opened” reflects both modern and timeless human anxieties. It can tell us quite a bit about memory and information loss, about the politics of disappearance both in postwar culture and in today’s time of social amnesia, when too much information inevitably causes some things to be remembered and others to be forgotten. And the episode uses aviation to reveal the politics of social forgetting, exposing the truth that only those who remember the past disappear.

“And When the Sky Was Opened” is not the only Twilight Zone entry to feature disappearing aircraft. The third season also-ran “The Arrival” tells the story of a commercial flight that lands mysteriously without anyone on board. A detective with a perfect record is assigned the case, and he slowly comes to believe the plane isn’t real. When he attempts to prove this by placing his hand in the path of a spinning propeller, the plane vanishes. The twist? The detective does not actually have a perfect record. In his entire career, there was only one case he couldn’t solve: a missing airplane that disappeared mid-flight years earlier. The empty plane is merely a ghost that has come back to torment him. And in the brilliant “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” a routine flight encounters a strange tailwind that accelerates it past the speed of sound. When the plane slows, the pilots attempt a landing—only to realize they have traveled backwards in time to some prehistoric era. They successfully pick up the tailwind again, hoping to travel back to the present. This time they stop in 1939. The episode concludes with the pilots preparing to ride the tailwind back to the present one last time before the plane runs out of fuel.

“Now, most airplanes take off and land as per scheduled,” Rod Serling reminds us in his opening to “The Arrival.” “On rare occasions, they crash. But all airplanes can be counted on doing one or the other.” Except when they don’t. Serling wrote Twilight Zone plots around vanishing airplanes because he knew they shake our faith in a thinkable world. How can something so huge and with so many people involved simply vanish? 


It’s a question asked in the wake of every major aviation mystery, from Flight 19 to the recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The commercial flight took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and headed to Beijing on March 8, 2014. It never landed. Shortly after takeoff ATC lost contact, and the plane, with its 239 people on board, disappeared from radar. The search for it became the most expensive in aviation history, but nothing was found. Some say it crash landed; others have speculated it was hijacked. There is no consensus among investigators. 

James Bridle calls aviation a “site where technology, scientific research, defense and security interests, and computation converge in a nexus of transparency/opacity and visibility/invisibility.” But it’s more than that. For over a century, aviation has been the engine of information science, as well as the proof that once-impossible dreams can come true with the help of mighty computing power. Along with the realization of human flight came unprecedented connectivity, which in turn caused an explosive outbreak of information: projections, predictions, models, and data. Over the twentieth century, technology progressed at a dizzying rate. Planes, along with everything else, got faster. “At such an exponential rate,” David Graeber writes, “it must have seemed reasonable to assume that within a matter of decades, humanity would be exploring other solar systems.”

And then something strange happened. Technological advancement slowed in some areas, and planes were no longer quite as fast. While aviation slowed, however, information science did not. Today, futurity is measured not by the speed of an airplane but by the speed of WiFi. A technology today seems futuristic if it provides us with a steady drip of information, of which there is more than could ever be analyzed by anyone. The so-called infodemic—a viral outbreak of information and misinformation—did not start with the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19. It’s been ongoing since the birth of the information age, and it’s only gotten worse.

Without aerospace science, funded largely by the military, there would be no information age, for aviation is only possible via advanced information technologies. The disappearance of planes, such as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, proves that information can vanish too—a shocking truth almost too horrible to bear in our control society. “For everything that is shown,” Bridle writes about plane-tracking, “something is hidden.”

Information loss is a natural occurrence, and it’s especially prevalent—and dreadful—in a society obsessed with eliminating unknowns. But sometimes, disappearance is artificially induced to serve certain interests. Ideas that challenge ruling ideologies, the ones that resist capital especially, are erased. Memories of radical events are written out of history, consigning non-normative knowledge to the margins—very often deleting them from the official account altogether. If they do survive, traces of these events hunker underground, or they hide beneath the cover of normativity, passing as “appropriate” but occasionally winking from behind the veil at those who also know. If they are eradicated, stamped out of the cultural script, radical memories will always return as ghosts, terribly inconvenient reminders of an alternative future that was foreclosed by capitalism. This act of hauntology, of the forgotten past haunting the present with visions of lost futures, is crucial for collectives to combat the neoliberal “eternal” present—if only we could remember.

When American soldiers returned from World War II, they came back bearing secret knowledge: the horrors of warfare and the absurdity of power. Waking up as civilians, the returned had their memories wiped by the burgeoning postwar consumer society, which promised pleasure through purchasing and fixed gender roles as binary, locking into place a suffocating bureaucratic rationality that extended from the corporate sector to the body. Like the pilots in “And When the Sky Was Opened,” those who remembered had to disappear for the postwar dream to persist. Rod Serling served in WWII and witnessed the carnage of war firsthand in the Philippines. He grew familiar with the randomness of death during his service. He saw a fellow private decapitated by a falling food crate while telling a joke. The collision of comedy and death stunned Serling, who was eventually awarded the Purple Heart but experienced difficulty returning to civilian life—how far removed it was from war’s chaos. To cope, he filtered his knowledge through the medium of television, encountering fierce resistance from studio executives as he created The Twilight Zone, itself an indictment of unbridled power disguised as a fantasy series. 

By the time Serling died in 1975 from a series of heart attacks, Augusto Pinochet was forcefully disappearing thousands of political opponents in Chile. Animated by American free-market ideology, Chile began a neoliberal conversion in the 1970s, and anyone who opposed it was punished. Some were thrown from helicopters into the ocean; others simply vanished. Decades later, the United States would wage its own regime of disappearance. Conducting “extraordinary rendition” in the wake of 9/11, CIA agents abducted so-called enemy combatants, transported them to makeshift prisons, and tortured them for information about global terror cells. Forty of these combatants remain at Guantanamo Bay, a concentration camp operated by the United States. The prisoners kept there are “ghost detainees”: neither dead nor alive, liminal, in between the cogs of a ruthless penal machine beholden to no one. Their flickering presence/absence haunts the American imaginary.

Living with the knowledge that things will disappear is a dreadful existence, made all the more horrible when we understand that not all disappearances are accidental. Realizing something erased his co-pilot and lifelong friend from existence, Colonel Forbes is sick with dread. He knows that erasure is an act of historical violence. It is a singularly cruel feat to exterminate every last memory of a person, especially if they carry a truth that reveals the hideous countenance of injustice. Capitalism is a disappearing act. Work is contingent; markets, volatile. Things are stable until they aren’t—which means they never truly are. When the sky opens, only the privileged survive. Only the amnesiacs are left alive. 

Grafton Tanner is the author of The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech and Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. His writing has appeared in The Nation and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Cottage Cosmos: Alan Jefferson’s ‘Galactic Nightmare’

Richard McKenna / June 23, 2020

GN Final Poster orig let 1

Bear with me, because this might get a bit rambling: the way I see it, in a healthy world, not only would we have in hand the levers of the factories, we’d also have the tools for our own artistic fulfillment. And to anyone saying that the tools are there for the buying if you just toil away at the grindstone long enough, I’d reply that tools aren’t simply physical artifacts. Tools are also time, the mental structures like self-belief, the very idea of art as something worthwhile—all of which are etched upon your cerebral cortex by your environment and your upbringing. It isn’t just because we can’t afford brushes that most of us don’t become artists—though for plenty that actually is the reason—it’s because if we do have spare time, we’ve often been trained to feel that art and creativity are not worthwhile ways of using it.

None of this is helped by the establishment’s ongoing drive to turn the clock back to 1902 and formalize creativity into a narrow set of structures accessible only to the wealthy or those the wealthy choose to sponsor. We’re trained to consume their creativity instead of employing our own, so that our “betters” get the structures, spotlight, and funding to follow their muses while our own muses are left moldering in our heads. I don’t mean by this that each of us is necessarily a budding Mozart; I mean that art shouldn’t only be in the hands of those the establishment decides are budding Mozarts—and that Mozarts are in any case an unhealthy metric for judging the value of creativity.

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The front page of the Galactic Nightmare story file

Yet, despite all that, fully-formed miniature Mozarts do sometimes appear and seize the tools of creativity for themselves—occasionally at the helms of gleaming spacecraft decked out with banks of pulsing synthesizers. Such is the case of Alan Jefferson, the self-taught polymath behind Galactic Nightmare.

I appreciate that this is a roundabout and slightly bombastic way to start an article about an alien war rock opera concept album made partly in a bedroom in Hull, but Galactic Nightmare deserves flights of rhetoric. Composed, written, played, sung, recorded, and illustrated almost in its entirety by one young Yorkshireman, it tells the tale of how computer expert Doctor Larson discovers a series of extraterrestrial transmissions describing an attack on the inhabitants of planet Zeon by a race known as the Immortals, who plan on using them as cell donors for the serum that gives them their longevity. The Zeons eventually win out, but Galactic Nightmare ends with a newsflash warning that the Immortals are beginning their invasion of Earth.

I don’t know how many of you have been walking around for years with vastly detailed imaginary worlds inside your heads—I know I have—but listening to Galactic Nightmare feels like watching somebody’s head split open, their imaginary world bursting out in full laser-lit, synth-blasting glory: an effect only made more intense by the lovely artwork Alan himself created to illustrate it.

“[I] worked as a milk man on my father’s milk round at Featherstone for a short time before leaving to attend Wakefield Art College when I was 17, where I completed a three year graphic design course,” says Alan. “I left to find there were no jobs for graphic designers without experience and ended up as a corrugated box designer.” After a year of low-paid work in said box design, and a period of low-paid greeting card illustration, he decided to pack it in and go freelance.

Together with a love of art, Alan had long nurtured an interest in recording and making music, becoming involved in it, like many kids, by taping songs from the radio and TV: “I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder when I was 13 and used to tape singles from Top of the Pops with the microphone attached to the TV speaker grill. So I had always been interested in listening and recording music from a young age, but as for playing, that came much later… I was more interested in drawing, making my own SF comic books, and playing football and cricket in the school teams.”

A few examples of Alan’s homemade comics

Alan had been a science-fiction fan since he was a child, drawing his own comics inspired by the strips in the Gerry Anderson TV21 comic and The Eagle, his brightly-colored imagery revealing a vivid personal aesthetic that would later erupt in the artwork for Galactic Nightmare. “The First SF film that inspired me as a child was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” Alan recounts, “[then at] art college, The Omega Man, Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey… and This Island Earth.” With its glowing, unearthly palette and wars on distant planets, it’s perhaps the mood of this last film that Galactic Nightmare most evokes.

Alan’s interest in music led to him working his way up from a tiny squeaking Stylophone to an electronic organ, upon which—inspired by things like Keith Emerson’s crazed antics in The Nice’s performance of “America” on BBC2s Old Grey Whistle Test and Uriah Heep’s performance of “July Morning” on the same program—he undertook to learn to play. “Having no formal music training—as my school had six hours of music in four years and only had kazoos to play—this was extremely ambitious, but I managed it. I then purchased a dual portable organ keyboard and Korg synthesizer and continued to learn songs by ear from records.”

This Island Earth inspired painting.

 One of Alan’s youthful paintings, inspired by 1955’s This Island Earth

Alan’s art college friend Jack Stoker played guitar and had a deaf next-door neighbor that meant they could rehearse without complaints, so once a week Alan would “… pack my gear into the Mini and make my way to Garforth were we would play the songs I taught him to play. At this time I got the Mini Moog synth due to being impressed by Ken Hensley using one on stage and on records in Uriah Heep.” (And I think we can all appreciate the recursive beauty of a Mini Moog being transported around West Yorkshire inside a Mini.)

After Alan and friend had been playing together for about five years, he purchased a four track TEAC reel-to-reel recorder and mixer to do multi-track recordings, initially recording instrumental covers, laying down each sound separately on the four track and gradually overdubbing, before starting to write original songs that eventually evolved into the demo for an SF concept album influenced by Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, and Boston. Alan sent it around the record companies, but the lukewarm response was that it was not commercial enough.

In 1979, after hearing Jeff Wayne’s 1978 double-LP rock opera adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Alan decided to give the SF concept album another try, this time basing it around a narrative. “I had a title for a song called ‘Giant Metal Monsters’ which I wanted to incorporate into the story. So I developed the story around that. In order to be different from H.G. Wells’s ‘War of the Worlds’, I placed my story of alien invasion on another planet with alien beings. I would write the song lyrics first or fit the lyrics to the music. ‘Old and Grey’ is a prime example, where I had this chorus riff and thought of the lyrics to fit it. The whole song then developed from that riff, as did the reason for the Immortal invasion of Zeon in the story.”

Some of Alan’s concept artwork for the Galactic Nightmare packaging

Galactic Nightmare was recorded “in fits and bursts over several years, also while recording other non-SF music” in a 12′ x 12′ room in Alan’s house near Pontefract, and completed in a bedroom in Hull using a Tascam 8 Track reel to reel recorder, Teac 4 Track reel to reel recorder, two cassette recorders, a 6×4 and a 6×2 small mixers, Great British Spring Reverb, Electric Mistress flanger, phaser/distortion/ noise gate pedals, Hammond C3 organ with a Yamaha amp/rotating speaker, a Grant Stratocaster copy, AKG/Sennheiser mics, and Paiste hi-hat and crash symbols.

“The complexity of recording all the sounds individually—in real time, no sequencers then—was extremely time consuming,” says Alan. “Frustratingly, there were also the problems of equipment reliability in those days. For example, the Mini Moog was an expensive synth that needed new keys after six months as they were always wearing out! If I had stuck knives in them as Keith Emerson did in his Hammond organ you could understand it.” In fact, the creation of Galactic Nightmare was at times an actually physically dangerous process. “While I was rewinding the Tascam 8-track recorder, another very expensive machine, one of the large eight and a half inch tape reels flew across the room—very dangerous! It was only held on by two small aluminum nuts.”

The process was grueling in other ways, too. “Mixing down was a nightmare, as you needed four hands on the faders to mix all the sounds from the eight track, four track echo, spring reverb, and cassette deck. We had moved back to Hull again so there was only myself to do it. I ended up mixing down a lot of the tracks in sections down on to the four track and then splicing them together with splicing tape. Many splices had to be redone so you didn’t notice the joins,” says Alan. “Now on computers you can have all these things automated apart from joining tracks. But that is also easier to do on the computer.”

In 1985, six years after he’d begun it, Galactic Nightmare was finished. But the record companies’ cool reception to the demo cassette he sent them—together with a 17-page story file, including lyrics and illustrations—convinced Alan to take matters into his own hands. “Rather than waste my efforts, I made improvements to Galactic Nightmare, including re-recording a different beginning and ending, and decided to release version two myself on vinyl LPs. I designed and illustrated an LP cover using updated illustrations from the story file showing elements of the story, hopefully to get people interested in the musical.”


Releasing it on LP proved prohibitively expensive, so Alan opted for a cassette version that would be accompanied by an A2 poster of the cover art and four-page story file. He placed ads in several magazines, but unfortunately his DIY advertising offensive proved unsuccessful, perhaps victim to the mood of the day—consumer tastes were shifting from small-scale experiment to large-scale bombast, and the country’s various cottage industries were rapidly being marginalized. Alan made a second attempt to spark some interest from UK record companies: “[I] got some nice replies, including one from Sir Tim Rice who found it interesting. Stephen Garrett of Channel 4 urged me to turn it into a stage play. Lucas films and Spielberg films returned everything unread/unheard!” 

It took thirty years for Galactic Nightmare to get a proper release. Though its initial appearance hadn’t been the success Alan had hoped, pervasive memories of those strange adverts and the few copies that had circulated gradually accumulated a strange momentum of their own over the decades, and in 2015 Trunk Records released a limited edition Galactic Nightmare double LP. The different format meant editing the the original cassette’s 98 minutes down to 88 minutes to fit four sides, and though not one to shy away from daunting undertakings—as the entire story so far should indicate—Alan admits that “[it] was a nightmare to do, even using computer sequencer software.”

This, then, is the story of Galactic Nightmare—a hand-crafted cosmic odyssey whose vast scope ranges between esoteric locales as disparate as Zeon and Mythmolroyd. It remains a stunning DIY chef d’oeuvre, and Alan’s dedication to realizing his own personal vision over the space of years to little interest from an incurious outside world continues to be inspiring. The quality of the whole thing, from the artwork to the production to the music, completely belies its artisan genesis: in fact, perhaps the only thing that gives Galactic Nightmare‘s origins away might be Alan’s vocals—but, strangely, while I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that he might not have the pipes of a Phil Lynott or a Justin Haywood, the earnest, plaintive quality of his voice only makes the album that much more touching and human, and even more clearly the product of one person’s quest to bring to life his own riotous vision as opposed to some slick, corporate box of delights. It’s galling to think that something so unique was snubbed by record companies who were happy to throw money at forgettable “concept album” dross like the Intergalactic Touring Band.

Them’s the breaks, I suppose. Alan is now retired and considering getting involved with music and painting again—to follow along, visit the Galactic Nightmare website he has put together himself—and has also produced an enhanced version three of Galactic Nightmare that boasts two extra tracks and lasts 110 minutes. Let’s all hope that when it eventually sees the light of day, it gets the treatment and reception it deserves. I don’t know if Alan would agree with my ideas about art and creativity, but what I do know is that we should all take his example and try and make more home-produced concept rock operas about alien invasions—or whatever else—because, like Galactic Nightmare, they can only make the universe a better place.

Many thanks to Alan for very kindly agreeing to speak to us and allowing the use of his artwork, all of which is © Alan Jefferson.

McKenna AvatarRichard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.

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“No Bars Between Us”: Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones, and the Feminist Utopia

Noah Berlatsky / June 18, 2020

Joanna Russ
By Gwyneth Jones
University of Illinois Press (2019)

Gwyneth Jones’s new critical biography of Joanna Russ for the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series (called simply Joanna Russ) seems less like an academic reconsideration than a continuation of its subject’s oeuvre. That is part of Joanna Russ’s peculiar genius. Her most famous novel, The Female Man (1975), is (as Jones deftly explains) itself a critical biography of her self, in which four versions of Russ meet and interrogate each other’s motivations, desires, and fates across somewhat more than four different worlds. “The novel’s séance-like structure of competing voices is fiction laid bare,” Jones explains, as her own book becomes another “twisted braid of the author’s mind.” The volume is a polyvocal analysis of a polyvocal analysis, speaking to and about a Joanna who is speaking to and about Joanna. Jones and Joanna (as Jones calls her throughout) are not subject and object, but sister speakers together, most alike when their voices are most individual.

Russ is best known for her science fiction, a genre in which she experimented, and with which she argued, throughout her life. That argument, as Jones makes clear, was primarily a feminist one. In her 1972 critical essay “What Can a Heroine Do?: or Why Women Can’t Write,” Russ declared in all caps “WOMEN CANNOT WRITE—USING THE OLD MYTHS. BUT USING NEW ONES?”

Science fiction and fantasy, with their postulation of distant or future worlds, allowed a rejiggering or reimagining of realism’s tropes, and therefore of realism’s patriarchy. In The Female Man, one instance of Joanna named Jeannine, a younger, sadder, still heterosexual self, wanders through a drab, timid world waiting to marry some drab, timid man. Meanwhile, another instance, Janet, fights duels to the death with rapiers (“apparently, since that’s the kind of scar Janet Evason has to show—though we never see the rapiers,” Jones offers, in a very Russ-like aside) on the all-female alternate timeline of Whileaway. These alternate Joannas are joined by Joanna herself, both as in-novel character and as an authorial voice that comments on her own fictional creations as they appear and disappear from each other’s worlds. The novel is then a realist story (both in the sense that we visit Jeannine’s drab grey realist world and in the sense that Joanna is speaking as her real self). But it’s also an exploration of a science fiction alternative to realism, as the self-confident, unquenchable Janet deftly thumps would-be assaulters in our world, and has duels and adventures in her own lesbian all-female utopia.

The science fiction world of Whileaway gives women room and breadth for feminism. But Jones, and/or Russ, are careful to document the ways in which science fiction itself was mired in the all-too-real conventions of misogyny. Russ’s work was attacked as an exercise in angry man-hating by male SF writers like Poul Anderson and Philip K.Dick, and Russ was frequently frustrated that Ursula K. LeGuin, the most prominent woman writer in the genre, wrote almost exclusively male protagonists.

Russ’s 1978 novel The Two of Them is, in Jones’s brilliant reading, a violent rejection of the science fiction establishment. The novel is the story of Irene Waskiewicz, a transtemporal agent working with her partner Ernst Neumann on a trade deal with the world of Ka’abeh. Women on Ka’abeh are brutally segregated and subjugated. Irene is outraged and arranges the rescue of a young girl, Zubeydeh, who wants to be a poet in contravention of her society’s norms. Irene assumes that Ernst, her lover, will be horrified by Ka’abeh, and that he, like the science fiction genre, will want to free women’s writing. But Ernst drags his feet and warns Irene that their superiors will not support her. Eventually, Irene has to kill him.

The Two of Them becomes not about how Irene and Ernst adventure together, but about how Irene and Zubeydeh have to stand against male institutions on both of their worlds. “As a young woman, longing for escape,” Jones explains,

Russ had found refuge in sf without noticing, perhaps without caring, that women as agents were usually excluded from the game. She’d been faithful for years: explaining science fiction to itself; excusing its faults and trying to transform it even as an ‘out’ lesbian feminist. Maybe she still wanted the relationship to work, as the seventies drew to a close. But her belief in the mission was shaken, and her unease was growing. Was the increasingly difficult position, as an exceptional woman in a male-ordered organization, even morally tenable?

Jones is a science fiction writer herself, and the disillusionment here doesn’t just belong to Russ. Indeed, part of the brilliance of Jones’s discussion of the novel is the way it shifts the meaning of the title again, so that “the two of them” means not Irene and Ernst, and not Irene and Zubeydeh, but Joanna and the community of women in science-fiction, or, specifically, Joanna and Jones. Jones’s reading rescues Joanna from science fiction, just as Joanna’s novel rescues the writers, like Jones, who follow in her interdimensional path.

Jones follows in that path not just as a science-fiction writer, but as a critic. Joanna Russ provides not just careful consideration of the novels, but of Russ’s own reviews and essays. Her critical voice, like Jones’s, is thoughtful, sharp, and delightfully funny. Non-scholars will need to read the book to find out which one of them refers to Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane as “sub-Tolkien” fantasy, and which says that it is a “daydream of Byronic suffering and self-importance… that could easily have been cut by three-quarters.”

By giving criticism and fiction equal weight, Jones (or is that Joanna?) shows with rare clarity how each is embedded in each. Russ’s great 1977 novel We Who Are About To is in large part a critical dissection of the shipwrecked colonization novel. A small passenger vessel crash-lands on a distant planet, and most of the men on board decide they need to start a breeding program to populate the world. The narrator, though, recognizes that they will never be rescued and can’t live on a planet with no usable food or water; she refuses to be raped for a hopeless colonial dream. And so she kills them all.

The book could almost be one of Russ’s devastating reviews—while, for her part, Jones’s analysis of the book is in part an exercise in cross-genre fiction writing. “I found it fun to think of [the characters in We Who Are About Too] as stagecoach passengers—dumped out of their hospitable nineteenth-century world and stranded in hostile Indian country. Beset by peril, these mismatched strangers need a common cause. They don’t realize that the puny outlaw hidden in their midst [i.e., the narrator], who swiftly becomes their scapegoat, is also their nemesis.” Fiction functions as criticism, and criticism involves fictional rewriting. Puncturing imperialist dreams, for Jones and Joanna, is an act of both analysis and imagination. To get to a different and better world you need to be able to cut the old one up and build it anew.

These acts of destruction and creation, of reimagining and remaking, are collaborative. Russ’s vital personal and professional friendships with Samuel Delany and Alice Sheldon dip in and out of Jones’s narrative, as does Russ’s engagement with science fiction, with feminism, and with her teacher Vladimir Nabokov. For that matter, the book reads in many ways as an extended conversation between the protagonists, Jones and Joanna, as they argue, agree, inspire, or think with each other, or near each other, or within each other. It’s a collaboration.

It’s also an elaboration of Russ’s feminist utopian visions of a society that has changed so completely that women can actually talk to each other—or of a feminist utopian vision in which women talking to each other is powerful enough to change the world. Jones (or is that Joanna?) was no doubt inspired by Joanna (or perhaps Jones?) when she wrote in another fiction, which was also another critique: “I dream of another planet, with an ocean of heavy air, where I can swim and she can fly, where we can be the marvelous creatures that we became; and be free together, with no bars between us. I wonder if it exists, somewhere, out there…”

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.Patreon Button

Fire Beneath the Fen: The Wyrd and the Modern in ‘Robin Redbreast’ and ‘Penda’s Fen’

Mark Sheridan / June 16, 2020

The 1970s have always occupied a grim place in the British imagination. Sandwiched between Harold Wilson’s utopian “Swinging Sixties” and Thatcher’s anti-social eighties, the decade represents a time of tremendous turbulence and change. With the empire in ruins, anti-colonial backlash came home to roost as Northern Ireland descended into civil war and the IRA began its bombing campaign in Britain. The naked enthusiasm of the post-war consensus dissipated, and the battle between labor and industry heated up. Bombs, blackouts, and shortages recalled war-like conditions during a time of supposed peace. Modern scholarship has pointed to an eerie style in British cultural output from the period. From its cinema to its television to its public information films, there pervades a gothic sensibility commonly identified with Mark Fisher’s concept of “hauntology,” the idea that the present state of cultural paralysis is a function of a collective mourning for futures that never materialized.

The dark and mystic sensibility that emerged from this disruptive and paranoid milieu, now called “folk horror,” manifests a fear of sublimation—the absorption of the individual into the mass, the human into the environment, modernity into the unknown. While the horror of Hammer Films and Roger Corman that had dominated the ‘50s and ‘60s was preoccupied with endless combinations of 19th century gothic, folk horror steps outside time as we understand it, beyond the scope of the human. In the 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss outlined a rough canon for this folk horror tradition based on the unholy trilogy of Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). Intense ideological conflict pervades these stories: Witchfinder General is set in and around the Battle of Naseby, where Cromwell’s revolutionary New Model Army destroyed the veteran feudal forces of King Charles, and tells the story of a soldier who pursues a charlatan witch-hunter across the English countryside. And in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, set around the same time, a secular magistrate must slay a demon summoned from “the forest, from the furrows, from the fields” by the local pagan cult.

These historical tales come at us from the dawn of modern time, in the midst of feudal collapse and the emergence of capitalism. Our heroes are rational, secular agents of the state; our villains the ancient forces of paganistic superstition that batter at the door of our burgeoning technological world. It’s telling that the only film in Gatiss’s trilogy set in contemporary times, The Wicker Man, advances a very different view of the battle between the rational modern and the primordial other. Here, the heroic agent of the state, in this case a police officer, dies alone in the flames of the titular effigy, while the villagers dance in rings around him. Christopher Lee would go on to insist that The Wicker Man was not actually a horror film, an assertion that hints at the sublimation of genre itself, and how this paranoid affect had settled over the British imagination like an eerie fog.

Well before The Wicker Man hit theaters, however, there was the television play Robin Redbreast (1970), which tells a similar story: middle-class metropolitan Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) ventures into the English countryside only to find herself caught up in the fatal fertility rites of the polytheistic locals. Robin Redbreast is noteworthy for its appearance on Play for Today, a BBC anthology series typically reserved for kitchen-sink realist drama that has been described in posterity as everything from a “national theatre of the air” to an “[exercise] in viewer patronisation” (the latter quote coming from current Conservative Party MP and Boris Johnson ally, Michael Gove). Abrasive, polemical, socially conscious to a fault, its moral messaging embodied the paternalistic spirit of the ‘60s welfare state. If television was the medium of the masses, Play for Today was its conscience.

Set in the present day, Robin Redbreast inverts the conventional relationship between the modern and the un-modern, configuring our world as hopelessly encompassed by a dark architecture of the outside. From the moment Norah arrives in the village, she’s deprived of all agency. Everything she does is preempted, public and private spaces are intermeshed—the villagers always seem to know what she’s doing in advance, repeatedly wander onto her property without invitation, and even orchestrate events so that she ends up sleeping with Rob (Andy Bradford), an awkward local man who she first encounters practicing karate naked in the woods.

Norah can sense she’s being manipulated in some way but remains powerless to stop it. The menacing Mr. Fisher (Bernard Hepton), apparent leader of the community, even explains their sinister designs, albeit in elliptical language, at various junctures. Yet Norah is unable to resist literal and metaphorical seduction by the strange persuasions of the village folk. There’s a dark implication that in some respect Norah wants, or is at least allowing herself, to be trapped. The heightened emotions of country life contrast starkly against the bourgeois detachment of her conversations with city friends. To an extent, we get the impression that Norah’s volatile relationship with the villagers is a reaction to her own suppressed Dionysian impulses.

The shadowed social commentary is compounded when Fisher explains that the villagers are under no pretense of doing justice to the “old ways.” He admits the basis of the robin sacrifice could be Greek, Egyptian, even Mexican in origin. He mentions James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” a largely discredited work of comparative mythology that serves as the basis for most popular representations of paganism. Historical authenticity is immaterial here. What scares us about paganism is what it tells us about ourselves, how it recalls our own innate strangeness.

After the ritual slaughter of Rob (short for Robin), a pregnant Norah flees the village, but her escape will never be complete. She knows that the same cycle will repeat itself when her baby, the new robin, comes of age. As she drives away, she looks back to find that the villagers, still watching from the cottage, have transformed into pagan deities. The fact that the villagers do nothing to stop her from returning to the city amplifies the play’s paranoid pessimism. As Fisher, having taken the form of Herne the Hunter, watches Norah disappear over the hill, the viewer is left with the horrible feeling that nothing Norah can do will have any impact on the ultimate fate of her unborn child. (The narrative is clearly inspired in part by Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby).

Robin Redbreast’s horror is reactive, bird-brained—evoking the feeling of being cornered. The great fear is a lack of control, the feeling of being swept away by strange currents beyond the self. Even in her fleeing, Norah’s fate is ultimately foreclosed by forces that not only surround her but exist elementally within her. If Witchfinder General is set at the dawn of modernity, Robin Redbreast is set at modernity’s dusk, in a world that shrinks from itself as it feels the darkness loom ahead. The postponed reclamation of the robin proves a compelling metaphor for the hopeless uncertainty of a historical moment in which strange futures pounded on the door of the present, threatening to break in at any moment.

* * *

The first three years of the 1970s would see five states of emergency, each presided over by Ted Heath’s Conservative government following its surprise election in 1970, and each involving battles between Heath and what Thatcher would later refer to as “the enemy within”—the labor movement. Problems continued to pile up, each new disruption amplifying the last. The stock market crashed in January 1973, sending inflation soaring into double figures; then, in October, OPEC declared an oil embargo that set the western world reeling. Seeing an opportunity, the National Union of Mineworkers voted to go on strike in pursuit of fairer pay. Heath’s government responded by introducing the infamous Three-Day Week, in which consumption of electricity was to be limited to three non-consecutive days per week to conserve coal supplies. For two months, Britain was plunged into a cold, dark winter unlike anything it had seen since wartime.

Described by The Times as a “fight to the death between the government and the miners,” this was the second large-scale confrontation in as many years and one the government couldn’t afford to lose. Heath resolved to call an election to serve as a referendum on the issue of union power, with the Conservatives campaigning on the slogan “Who governs Britain?” The election of February 28, 1974 returned yet another dramatic development: despite the weight of the media and the state behind them, the Conservatives had in fact lost ground and handed the Labour Party a plurality in parliament. A settlement was soon reached in which the strikers secured a 35% pay-increase—the miners had won, at least for now.

Two weeks after the lifting of restrictions, millions of Britons tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest installment of Play for Today. That evening’s episode was Penda’s Fen, a fittingly unsettling exploration of unsettling times, the most developed folk horror film to date, and a triumph of public programming in its own right. Writer David Rudkin gives voice to the dark song of the fields with a visionary script about a devout young Christian who must confront both the unseen forces that stir beneath the village where he lives and the “unnatural” desires that emerge contrary to his pious pretensions.

Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is a boy possessed by the “new gods”—he is ordered, anal, orthodox, patriotic, loyal to the structures of church and state. He’s the kind of kid that almost deserves the vicious bullying he gets from his grammar school classmates. As Stephen matures into his eighteenth year, however, things fall apart as he discovers that he’s both gay and adopted. Through the mentorship of his heretical parson father, a politically radical local playwright, and a series of disturbing apparitions, he begins to come to terms with his inner “ungovernableness.”

Director Alan Clarke, Britain’s mirror-holder-in-chief behind such brutal portraits as Elephant (1989) and Made in Britain (1982), presents an image of Britishness that’s wild, diverse, almost ethereal. Clarke, typically known for his uncompromising realism, adopts a more hallucinogenic style to portray the metaphysical turbulence of Stephen’s new understandings. The haunted, shifting landscapes of Worcestershire work as a kind of demonic mutation of Situationist psychogeography. Whereas the students of May 1968 were implored to uncover “the beach beneath the streets,” Clarke and Rudkin invite us to discover the flames beneath the fen.

Penda’s Fen stands apart from other artifacts of the “wyrd” in its overt politicization of strangeness. Almost immediately we meet the playwright Arne (Ian Hogg) as he puts up a one-man defense of the strikers at a town hall debate, while naïve Little Englander Stephen huffs and puffs in the audience. As Stephen begins to lose, or rather relinquish, control of himself, his grades suffer and his mother warns him not to fall foul of “the machine,” the inhuman conveyor belt of modernity and its cult of productivity. Later, the Reverend Franklin (John Atkinson) expounds on Moloch as the sun sets behind him, explaining to Stephen how the new gods of industry and institutions are perversions that have disfigured the message of the “revolutionary” Jesus. The Reverend speculates that the people may “revolt from the monolith and come back to the village,” noting that “pagan” means “of the village,” contrasting with what it means to be “of the city”—”bourgeois.”

The provisional nature of modernity is a key theme. Arne speaks of the urban behemoth swelling to a great city that will “[choke] the globe from pole to pole” but that will also “bear the seed of its own destruction.” We might imagine Hobbes’s Leviathan, bloated and turgid, decomposing back into the earth. Elsewhere, Stephen and his father discuss King Penda, the last pagan ruler of Britain. The Reverend reimagines the heretic as a transcendent symbol of resistance, wondering aloud what secrets he took with him when he fell. “The machine,” like the meaty bodies of its busy multitudes, is imagined as just one combination among an infinite number, an entirely temporary arrangement destined for the dirt.

Landscape is a focal point of the play but, unlike in our other examples, here serves as a vector of elemental truth rather than a source of corruption. Rudkin draws on the Gothic and Romantic traditions to conjure up an English countryside pregnant with ancient histories that lie unknown, hidden or forgotten. It was here, after all, in the 16th century, that the machine first emerged out of the fields and the fens and separated the peasantry from the land—the original trauma that encloses the margins of modern Western history. What lies beyond that temporal boundary is the vanishing realm of nightmare, of un-modernity, where yawns the black abyss of the unknown, the domain of animal and reigning wilderness. But, paradoxically, that abyss is essential to our nature—it’s where billions of lives were lived, where our minds and bodies were wrought and cultivated. Penda’s Fen considers the abyss for all its hidden potentials and reconfigures rupture as opportunity. The horror of recognizing the self in the other, or vice versa, is imagined as a route to emancipation.

In perhaps the most famous scene, Stephen awakes from a homoerotic dream to discover a demonic entity straddling him in his bed, which then takes the shape of the local milkman (Ron Smerczak). What haunts him is not his sexuality but his dedication to the authoritarian norms of middle-class Protestant England. As Arne prophecies in a later scene, the only way to purge ourselves of these demons and reach salvation is by way of “chaos” and “disobedience,” to summon our basest selves.

When we first find Stephen, he’s alone in his room, listening to his favorite composer Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and reflecting on the moment when the protagonist meets God. Stephen is isolated from the world, only able to theorize obliquely about transcendent experiences. By contrast, the final sequence sees him meet his maker on an open hillside—not God, per se, but King Penda himself, the half-real spirit of “ungovernableness,” who tells him to go forth and “be strange.”

Much like its predecessors, the play makes no attempt at an authentic depiction of pre-Christian spirituality—we have no idea what the titular King Penda might have believed, what his traditions were, what cosmologies were lost when he was defeated all those years ago. But this is precisely the point. The last pagan king functions as an empty vector of “possibilities” and “unknown elements,” much like Stephen himself. Despite being an apparition of a long-dead historical figure, King Penda represents a haunting from the future, that dark domain of the beyond with which we are in contact every moment of our lives, full of unthinkable potential and inherent strangeness.

Penda’s Fen advances itself as the spiritual resolution to the folk horror cycle, a psychic exorcism of the demons that haunted the ‘70s. Rudkin’s play summons the future from the past, reconstituting the volatility of its day as a rite of passage into a new world. Horror in this sense denotes contact with new terrain, communion between the self and the beyond. To be comfortable is to live in fear of the strange invasions that confront us at every moment and in every thought and experience—to flee from ourselves. In a time when people want change without having to confront the proverbial milkman, the play enjoys continued relevance long after its first life.

Both Robin Redbreast and Penda’s Fen were aired only once more on British television, in 1971 and 1990 respectively, lending these tales the ephemeral quality of weird dreams dreamt long ago—and raising the question of why they’ve now returned to haunt us. The villagers never came to reclaim the robin in the end, yet still we see their shapes in the window and hear strange knocks at the door. Will we ever face up to the horrors that guard the margins of our world? Or are we, like Norah Palmer, doomed to retreat further and further into the city, to delay the inevitable day when the outside closes in? In the closing scene of Rudkin’s play, King Penda prophesies exile as the sun sets behind him: “Night is falling; your land and mine goes down into a darkness now… but the flame still flickers in the fen.” The future promised by that strange flame lies lost somewhere in that expanse of night. Only by embracing the dark might we find it again.

Mark Sheridan is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. He recently graduated from Dublin City University.Patreon Button

“Fact—Not Fiction”: UFO Journals from the Archives for the Unexplained

Michael Grasso / May 28, 2020

mysteria issue one cover germany 1979

Detail from cover of issue No. 1 of “Mysteria,” a German “trade magazine for UFO research and ancient astronautics.”

Part of the “unprecedented” reality that humanity has been experiencing the past couple of months has been the way this pandemic has scrambled one’s normal cognitive pathways. Putting aside how badly my remotely-diagnosed COVID infection last month sent me into a deep spiral of brain fog, even since recovering from that misery I haven’t been able to concentrate on much. For a while, reading anything more complicated than a comic book was completely beyond me. And even as I’ve been slotting longer books back into my everyday routines, it’s been nearly impossible for me to write. Even when I find a topic that speaks to me, every single piece I’ve tried to start has withered on the vine. “Why bother?” I find myself asking myself. “Who cares?” Mental illness will steal a lot from you if you are unlucky enough to have it play a prominent role in your life: your time, your pride in your labor, your self-respect, even your friends and significant others. But what it seems to steal from me most often—even under “normal,” non-pandemic circumstances—is joy, the joy of discovering something amazing and getting to share that discovery with others. With existential anxiety stalking the human race along with this deadly virus, those simple pleasures of life have been so hard to find.

So when I was reminded last week of a link to an amazing archive of UFO organizations’ publications and zines hosted by the Archives For The Unexplained of Norrköping, Sweden, I was gifted with a brief afternoon of respite, a momentary return of long lost joy. When I’d first glimpsed the archive back in October of last year, I had a brief breeze through it. I was overwhelmed by the variety and relatively secure in the possibility that it would be there if I ever wanted to revisit it. This month, the archive was there for me when I needed it. I discovered over the course of that afternoon that this collection’s cockeyed series of hand-drawn flying saucer encounters and alien visitors, its poorly mocked-up layouts and headlines, its entirely sui generis outsider art vibe—all of it was medicine for the despair and crushing lack of a hope that was ailing me.

I think part of the profound impact of this archive is the way I found it, from an off-handed mention in a tweet that had made its way to me through academic folklore studies circles. But it’s often those accidental discoveries that have sent me down the most satisfying paths while I’ve been writing for Mutants. It’s how I discovered video of the uncanny Nebraska PBS performance by Entourage: after reading a Pitchfork review of a reissue of their albums. It’s how I discovered so many great Mutants exhibit subjects on the Internet Archive, and how I discovered yet another inspirational ufological archive, at textfiles.com. So yes, when I rediscovered this archive I dove in head-first, marveling at the dozens of countries these UFO zines came from, the impressive time period they represented (all the way from the 1950s to the 21st century), and the care that had been taken in assembling and scanning them. Since the original link had gone to a featureless web directory page, I never even bothered back in October to investigate fully who had collected and assembled this amazing archive. This time however, that was the first thing I wanted to find out.

As mentioned, this trove of treasure was preserved for posterity by the Archives of the Unexplained in Norrköping, Sweden. Formerly known as the Archives For UFO Research, the organization was founded in 1973 specifically to collect and preserve an archive and library of UFO sightings and ephemera for researchers. It is also connected to one of those very UFO research organizations whose magazines and periodicals I had fallen in love with last October. The AFU’s founders had broken away from a ufological group called UFO-Sweden over differences in “ideology” to found the AFU. By 1986, that rift was reconciled and UFO-Sweden and AFU agreed to a reciprocal agreement of support that would see AFU preserve UFO-Sweden’s archives full of materials from over a hundred local UFO-Sweden groups. But AFU preserves far more than materials from its native Sweden. UFO documentation from dozens of countries finds representation in both its material and online archives.

And that sort of local, bespoke interest in UFOs is precisely what makes AFU’s archive of magazines so special. I of course restricted myself to UFO zines produced during our usual Cold War period in preparing this piece, but you can find plenty of later material from the dawn of the home computer “desktop publishing” era of the ’90s and beyond. Needless to say, while they have their own charming aesthetic, I was won over by the hand-layout and manifold typewriter typefaces of the zines from the 1950s to 1980s. Some of the covers of these periodicals, especially the ones produced in the 1950s, display a strikingly professional sense of artistic composition on par with their bigger competitors of the early UFO era, such as Fate magazine. Of course, the AFU magazine archive is far too vast for me to give a review of every single periodical in there. But despite the startling diversity, both culturally and philosophically, on display, it’s the commonalities between all these organizations that pleased me the most. While the magazines themselves vary—from very simple typewritten and mimeographed/photocopied bulletins to quite professionally-produced full-color magazines—the common thread linking these publications is their passion and obsession for a subject that, one senses after reading a few of the articles and editorials within, has largely left them on the outside of the mainstream.

Because despite some of these publications representing the official organs of “national” UFO organizations like UFO-Sweden, the vast majority represent UFO aficionados on the state/provincial/county/city level. You may well wonder if there was enough content to keep a magazine like “Merseyside UFO Bulletin” or “UFO-Quebec” or the “Sri Lanka UFO Register” going for longer than a couple of issues, but even some of these smaller local publications went on for a decade or more! And in the archives of each, you get these magnificent glimpses of local culture, UFO or otherwise. I had a blast reviewing the archives of the two-page MUFON Massachusetts newsletter from the early 1980s, of course, a time and place where I myself was getting deeply into ufology as a little kid. Seeing the quotidian details of the Mass. MUFON group—their fundraising efforts, convention organizational efforts, meeting minutes, appearances on local Boston television (these were especially exciting for me, of course), and indeed the gradual maturity of their merrily amateurish newsletter layout skills—sent me back in time and made me feel like I was part of the team. On the flip side, you have more eerie dispatches from the past, such as the silent testament of the brief run of UFO Chile abruptly ending in May of 1969—poignant because we know what transpired a few short years thereafter.

These are mostly small clubs of like-minded individuals, all doing their best to keep track of local UFO happenings and dutifully preserving those records for posterity. And on the masthead of a majority of these zines, in all the languages of the world, there is a consistent clarion call: please make contact. Not a message to our alien visitors, mind you, but to the publishers and clubs of enthusiasts all over the world. Please reach out, please make a connection. Several of the publications in non-English-speaking nations produced separate English-language editions of their bulletins expressly for this purpose. And I think this aspect of the AFU archive is why it spoke to me so deeply and meaningfully in a time of quarantine and lockdown. Here is a global subculture, in the days before wide adoption of the internet, which ends up assembling and organizing itself in a modular, fractal, rhizomatic manner. Here, despite all odds and with very little in the way of resources either professional or financial, small groups banded together over a shared occult interest, one that likely exposed many of their members to mockery and derision. They not only found each other on the local level but produced collectively a massive, tangible archive that serves as a testament to a Cold War-era social phenomenon. It is an archive with real, profound historical value.

These magazines reached across the oceans and continents in a time when the only means of communication UFO enthusiasts had at their disposal were the national postal service and maybe some stolen Xerox machine time at the office. A sense of community, however dispersed and fragmentary, was what these ufologists really sought—the visitors in flying discs are almost incidental. One wonders if the lesson of the UFO craze is not its possible origins as an intel operation meant to distract citizens of the West from experimental machines of war, but instead perhaps its subsequent co-optation by ufologists into an exploration of the potential of global togetherness and understanding. It’s an historical example of a kind of virtual community spontaneously forming, triumphing over distance and very long odds, that really hits home at a time when we’re all lucky enough to have a global communications network at our disposal, and yet are still somehow feeling only tenuously connected to each other. In these wonderfully weird artifacts of the past, we gain a new perspective on community for our increasingly troubled present.

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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Debt of Honor: The Complex Reality of 1980s War Comics

Mike Apichella / May 26, 2020

Detail from the cover of The ‘Nam #24, November, 1988

The Reagan-worshiping, Polo-drenched patriotism of the 1980s couldn’t hide the scars left by the Vietnam War. An entire generation grew up with nightly news reports sporting brutal images of guerilla warfare and violent political demonstrations. The confusion left by Vietnam caused moral perceptions of American wars and soldiers to become complicated and uncertain. Cultural ephemera in the ‘80s reflected this ambiguity across all media. More than a decade to meditate on Vietnam through books (Born on the Fourth of July, The Best and the Brightest), film (Coming Home, Apocalypse Now), and both mainstream and underground journalism led to the conclusion that there were no longer concise justifications for large scale armed conflicts. Even garden variety action fare like the Rambo films and the A-Team TV series had protagonists embodying the “crazy Vietnam vet” stereotype.

Objective definitions of right and wrong attached to previous “popular wars”—especially World War II, which gave rise to the first war comics and mass-produced war toys—no longer applied. Trusted storytelling tropes faded away as war’s questionable nature became a muse for artists seeking to portray the reality of battle minus vainglorious machismo and nationalism.

‘80s comic books were no different than any other medium. Marvel Comics’ The ‘Nam, DC’s G.I. Combat and Weird War Tales, and Charlton’s Battlefield Action eschewed “feel good” war stories in order to focus on the far-reaching consequences of physical violence, the shifty political motives of the Cold War, and the universal philosophies that define military service. With the exception of The ‘Nam, most mainstream ’80s war comics were created by artists who were WWII veterans and aging members of the “Greatest Generation.” Even though they never made overt anti-war propaganda, Sam Glanzman, Robert Kanigher, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, and many others went out of their way to present war as a negative element of society. There’s nothing cold and heartless about their work, but there is always a sense that something is being held back. While The ‘Nam was biting anti-war criticism, the rest of these books gave voice to the confused masses who had yet to take a side in the struggle for peace.

The quintessential ‘80s war comic is the 255th issue of DC’s anthology title G.I. Combat. The series began publication in the ’50s as a conventional war book with a clear pro-war stance. During its final years it developed a much more nuanced perspective. The Joe Kubert cover art for #255 shows a grisly flaming skeleton dressed in a soldier’s uniform standing in the turret of a tank as two helpless infantry men look on, consumed by horror and fear. Before you even open to the first page it’s clear that American military might will not be this issue’s dominant theme. The burned up corpse comes from the book’s final story, “Dead Letter Office,” by Robert Kanigher and Sam Glanzman. By the time of the issue’s winter 1983 publication, Kanigher and Glanzman had become sequential art’s premier war story team, with careers that spanned more than 40 years in mainstream comics.

“Dead Letter Office” is a seven page tale about Army Captain J.J. Jamison, a World War II officer assigned the thankless, heartbreaking job of composing letters to combat fatalities’ next of kin. It depicts the CO’s angst as he futilely attempts to keep emotional distance from the job while the death toll symbolically piles up in his office (nicknamed the dead letter office). Day after day stacks of casualty reports spill on to Jamison‘s desk,  overflowing with all the warm sentiment of a corporate paper trail.

When a young soldier and his comrades are killed during a fierce tank battle, Captain Jamison suffers a moral crisis while attempting to write a letter that gives the soldiers’ story a heroic spin. It feels like Kanigher and Glanzman are describing themselves when they reveal the captain’s plight as a messenger who must document gory death in patriotic language that’s socially acceptable—or bear the burden that comes with an uncensored account of war’s power to twist bodies and minds beyond recognition.

Many of the latter G.I. Combat stories are poetic and heartbreaking, but none more so than “Debt Of Honor,” another Kanigher/Glanzman piece and the opening tale in G.I. Combat #255. Spoilers abound in any attempt to sum it up, but it’s safe to say that the hardest hitting element is the story’s ability to convey tragedy without visuals, a breathtaking feat for a medium driven by illustration. In “Debt Of Honor,” the reader’s own preconceived notions of violence, evil, love, reverie, and loss serve the same purpose as a pen, a pencil, or a typewriter. The story’s tragic elements are as old as war itself, and they remain as relevant now as they have always been.

A few months after G.I. Combat #255 hit the newsstands, Charlton Comics published the 83rd and 84th issues of their war anthology Battlefield Action. The two comics were entirely comprised of true stories written and drawn by veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict. These originally appeared in the pages of an innovative but obscure 1950s comic book called Foxhole, whose primary creators were none other than comics legends Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. In the ‘80s, Charlton was the biggest little indie publisher in the business, barely staying afloat financially and mainly reprinting material from their halcyon days. Even within a glut of reprint books, these Foxhole stories were exceptional. First and foremost, prior to the publication of Battlefield Action issues #83 and #84, the company had never made a focused effort to reprint material from one specific war series. Charlton’s creative core at the time included editors George Wildman (a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War) and Bill Pearson, a multimedia artist who got his start as a fanzine contributor for the Wally Wood publication witzend.

Battlefield Action #84, December, 1983

It’s anyone’s guess as to why Wildman and Pearson felt these books deserved a retrospective, but there’s no doubt that Foxhole didn’t get a fair shake in its original run. Early issues of the title appeared in 1954 and were published by Mainline, one of the many comic book companies whose sales were crushed by the censorship and witch-hunt tactics of child psychologist Frederic Wertham and his infamous anti-comic book rant Seduction Of The Innocent (1954). When Mainline went under, Charlton swooped in to scavenge the copyrights of their unpublished comics, which in the case of Foxhole applied to the last three issues of the series. Like The ‘Nam, Foxhole presented a distinctly unglamorous vision of war. Because it centered around WWII and the early days of the Cold War, the title had no acidic streak of anti-war sentiment, but nonetheless its stories expressed pain and tragedy in a way that was much more palpable than anything in either The ‘Nam or G.I. Combat. These true anecdotes were illuminated by informality and confessional intimacy. Despite rarely breaking seven or eight pages, they overflowed with character development and nuance.

Foxhole avoided any over-the-top reverence for the American military. It depicted war with stark realism and little else. Consequently, it only lasted for seven issues. Thought provoking stories like Jack Kirby’s “Listen To The Boidie” and Art Gates’ “Kamikaze Joe” struck a chord with fans in the post-Vietnam era, but they were freakish upon arrival in the mid-’50s, a period when G-rated pablum dominated comics as a result of Seduction Of The Innocent.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Weird War Tales. Like G.I. Combat, this was a long running DC publication. The eccentric comic’s name says it all. The book featured supernatural fantasies set in war time (narrated by The Grim Reaper dressed in army fatigues) and serialized genre mashups starring G.I. Robot and The Creature Commandos. “The Day After Doomsday” was another serialized feature in WWT. Its post-apocalyptic narrative took place during the first days of The Great Disaster (a catastrophe made famous by Kirby in his dystopian DC title Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth). Throughout its run, “The Day After Doomsday” possessed an emotional complexity identical to that of many ‘80s war comics, even though its first installments were published in the early ‘70s.

Issue #124 (June 1983) was the final issue of Weird War Tales, and it included a lengthy work called “Old Enemies Never Die,” Robert Kanigher’s abstract take on the origins of war and violence. This mythic saga follows the endless rivalry of two warriors who experience cyclic death and reincarnation beginning in the days of Attila The Hun and ending in the distant future. Its filled with dreamy images created by the young art team of Topper Helmers and Gary Martin; their approach owed less to the hard-boiled impressionism of Kubert and Glanzman than it did to the sword and sorcery works of Wendy Pini, Tom Mandrake, and Ernie Colon. “Old Enemies Never Die” was also unique for its cryptic references to some of combat’s root causes: machismo, competition, greed, and the monetary system. Violence spirals out of control through time and space at the turn of each page. An Edenic paradise makes a cameo in the story’s final moments, but there’s no concrete ending. Kanigher viewed war’s destruction as an omnipotent force. “Old Enemies Never Die” may not have been the first effort to seamlessly connect war, mysticism, and social anthropology, but it is one of the most politically subversive comic stories to focus on that strange trinity.

The ‘Nam #3, February, 1987

In 1986, Marvel debuted The ‘Nam, an extraordinary piece of historical fiction, one of the most critically acclaimed comics of the ‘80s, and one of the first mainstream series to portray the Vietnam conflict in a negative light. Before The ‘Nam began publication, its principal artist, Michael Golden, had been working on a variety of superhero and fantasy titles, most famously on the sometimes Swiftian Micronauts series, which he co-created in the late ‘70s. The ‘Nam‘s writer was newcomer Doug Murray, an American army veteran who had been a non-commissioned officer in Vietnam. After the war he worked writing articles in fanzines and the short-lived film publication The Monster Times. In 1984, a friend who was an editor at Marvel convinced Murray to collaborate with Golden on a series of Vietnam-themed short stories for the anthology comic Savage Tales. Titled “5th To The 1st,” this series would eventually transform into The ‘Nam.

Murray’s editor friend at Marvel was Larry Hama, a comic pro and fellow Vietnam vet who got his big break in the ‘70s when he was hired by Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates. Hama became a fan favorite as the writer/co-creator of the G.I. Joe series, which was inspired by a popular line of Hasbro action figures. Though G.I. Joe did have strong military themes, the book followed the adventures of an espionage organization that battled terrorists, robots, and super villains, but rarely fought in any real or imaginary wars. This conventional escapism had little in common with the gritty dramas that Murray and Golden were crafting.

The ‘Nam pulled no punches in its hopeless depiction of the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of The U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry. Only a handful of characters come even close to being sympathetic. They’re a rough bunch—conniving and power-hungry top brass, disgruntled noncom’s, and square pegs constantly at odds with Army bureaucracy. They aggressively avoid understanding the purpose of America’s bloodiest Cold War police action, sometimes to save their own sanity, other times because they simply don’t care. In each case it’s a strategic apathy born of American exceptionalism, something that infects every plot point. The PANV and Viet Cong, too, are presented as restless generators of violence. In The ‘Nam, war is never honorable; it’s just an irritating chore that ends human beings.

Golden’s artwork owes a lot to Will Eisner, as he often draws in a caricature style that’s more grotesque than funny, a quality that reinforces the overwhelming atmosphere of dehumanization fostered by Murray’s minimal use of dialogue and narration. It may have been cutting edge in the ‘80s, but by today’s standards the series’ harsh tone could be misinterpreted as insensitive and politically incorrect. As an exploration of pragmatism’s role in the war, The ‘Nam never defends any clear definition of right or wrong. Murray and Golden didn’t set out to make a political statement with the title, instead claiming that a desire for heightened realism was their goal. Regardless, the book’s blurred morality only makes war feel ugly and evil.

Mike Apichella has been working in the arts since 1991. He is a writer, multimedia artist, musician, and a founder of Human Host and the archival project Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts. Under his real name and various pseudonyms, his work has been published by Splice Today, Profligate, Human Conduct Press, and several DIY zines. Mike currently lives in the northeast US where he aspires to someday become the “crazy cat man” of his neighborhood.Patreon Button

The Opposite of Camp is Tragedy: Anna Biller’s ‘The Love Witch’

Noah Berlatsky / May 14, 2020

“Men are like children; they’re very easy to please as long as we give them what they want,” declares sultry young witch Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) to her friend Trish (Laura Waddell) in Anna Biller’s 2016 film The Love Witch. The conversation takes place in the Victorian Tearoom, a women only coffee shop with pink on pink décor. A harpist plucks languidly in the background, and Elaine wears an enormous flowered pink hat as she talks with breezy intensity about what men want and how women must give it to them. Feminine sexuality sloshes about the screen like the tea in the cups. It’s flamboyant. It’s over-saturated. It’s camp.

Or is it? Biller has been outspokenly dismissive of male critics who link her work to ‘70s exploitation like Russ Meyer, or to a winking aesthetic of not meaning it. The film is about how Elaine uses love spells to attract men to love her. But once the spells take home, the men become irritatingly needy, and Elaine abandons them, under circumstances that often lead mysteriously to their deaths. Elaine’s seductions often involve sensual/silly strip teases, blatant nudity, and innuendo—some critics have seen it as soliciting bawdy giggles. But Biller insists, in a Sight and Sound interview, “I didn’t want to get anyone who was interested in camp or camping it up at all,” and she rejects “the word sexploitation, or exploitation, or sleaze, or trash, or any word that’s tawdry or debased on purpose.”

Camp, according to Susan Sontag, is “a seriousness that fails,” but a seriousness that is redeemed by “the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” Biller’s Victorian Tearoom, and indeed her film as a whole, are shot through with exaggerated hats, fantastic dialogue, and passionately naïve pink. But, understandably, the director rejects the idea that these highly stylized elements indicate failure.

Part of the problem here is the definition. Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” is the most famous and influential description of camp, but it’s not necessarily the most insightful treatment. In particular, Sontag does not engage with, and at points outright dismisses, the connection between camp and queer communities, and between camp and the closet. By doing so, she removes much of camp’s political possibility. Camp becomes a way for (straight) people to laugh at tastelessness, rather than a way for (queer) people to laugh in solidarity.

In 1990’s Epistemology of the Closet, in contrast, Eve Sedgwick offers a definition of camp that is more closely tied to liberation and subversion. Sedgwick suggests that camp is a description of art in which the viewer—especially the queer viewer—is moved to ask, “What if the right audience for this were exactly me?”

The Victorian Tea Room scene, read in this way, is camp not because it is overdramatic, or self-parodic, but rather because it joyfully broadcasts queer possibilities. “The whole world doesn’t revolve around men’s wants!” Trish exclaims. That could be an ironized, semi-parodic sexploitation smirk. But it could also be a woman asking the woman in front of her to pay attention to other erotic possibilities and desires that don’t involve men. Part of the energy and delight of the scene is that it urges queer viewers to say, “What if the women talking intensely about love and patriarchy in a flagrantly pink, women only space are in fact talking to and about me?”

The camp in the scene is not just in its heightened same-sex feminization, but in the way it evokes earlier films and eras. The vivid red of Elaine’s Mustang could be a nod to the bright reds that terrorize the title character in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). The stylized retro costumes and décor recall Douglas Sirk—a director who Biller admires, and whose own movies are camp documents in themselves. Sirk’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows is about a widow, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), who falls in love with a younger man, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), to the horror of her friends and children. Hudson is now known to have been gay, and the out-of-proportion disapprobation of the community resonates on current viewing as a metaphor for homophobia. The famous last scene of the film, a deer looking through a wall-sized bank of windows, is an image of otherness, virility, and cuteness—the viewer watches a stand-in for a queer viewer, and can say, with Sedgwick, “this movie is made for me.”

Part of the camp charge in watching All That Heaven Allows is the way that nostalgia intensifies, or makes possible, a queer gaze. The demand that Cary shut herself off sexually forever after her husband’s death appears preposterous because that’s no longer a demand made by our world. The deer looks not just through the window, but through time. Gender roles aren’t like that any more, and part of the camp exhilaration is the recognition that the movie was speaking to a future we now inhabit, where Cary Scott and Rock Hudson didn’t have to keep their desires in the closet.

Biller, for her part, uses the look of the past to cut her characters adrift in history, which also leaves them adrift in gender roles. Elaine floats and shimmies through burlesque houses, Renaissance fairs, hippie one-night stands, nude Satanic rituals, and affairs with boring business men. The time could be the ‘50s or the ‘60s, or an alternate present-day 2010s, where witches are common and persecuted, where magic maybe works. It’s a dream landscape in which it makes as much sense to wear a gargantuan hat as to leave a bottle with a tampon on the grave of your lover. Rules of proper behavior are fluid and constantly transgressed in a camp fugue of delighted, queer familiarity.

Some limits remain, though. The sexual tension between Elaine and Trish, for example, is squashed almost as quickly as it is raised. When Trish first sees Elaine, who is renting an apartment from her, she exclaims, “You’re so pretty!” But then she adds, “Oh I didn’t mean anything. I’m married and everything.” Elaine hesitates for an awkward pause (all the dialogue is punctuated by awkward pauses) before replying, “No. I didn’t think anything.”

The camp recognition of female/female eroticism is immediately disavowed. Nothing is meant; nothing is thought. Desire is funneled into conventional channels, which means that Elaine has sex with Trish’s husband, not with Trish herself, and that Trish, in a late scene, tries on Elaine’s make-up and wig because she wants to be the love witch, rather than because she wants to be with the love witch.

Elaine’s fantasies are constrained by heterosexuality in other ways as well. Witchcraft in the film is erotic power; it’s a way for women to assert their own desires, and impose them on men. But in the real counterculture, sexual liberation of women was often just an excuse for sexual harassment by men, and so it is among witches. The leader of the coven, Gahan (Jared Sanford), is a bearded pontificator who lectures women about their true womanly nature, explaining to them that they should perform striptease acts in a burlesque club. The Satanic initiation ritual he sets up involves him groping and perhaps raping new initiates. In one scene, he gropes Elaine’s breast before she pushes him away. Male violence squats even at the center of what is supposed to be female power.

Patriarchy also haunts Elaine’s affairs. Using her witchcraft, she fascinates men. But as she takes the stereotypically male role of free-swinging philanderer, the men are forced into the stereotypically female role of needy lovers. “He became just like a woman, crying at every little thing,” Elaine pouts about one of her conquests. Her witchcraft gives her the upper hand over men, but it retains the dynamic whereby relationships are about who has the upper hand over who. Elaine feminizes the men she sleeps with, and then is disappointed, because under patriarchy whoever is feminized is repulsive.

The dynamic here mirrors that of the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Baby Face, in which a young ambitious woman, Lily Powers (Stanwyck), uses sex to advance her career, climbing the corporate hierarchy in a high rise bank building. Lily—somewhat confusedly inspired by the writing of Nietzsche—eventually realizes that material success without love is hollow, and gives her money to save the guy she loves.

Elaine doesn’t care about wealth, but her rapacious pursuit of love lands her in a similar bind. To be empowered means to despise the men she dominates, and her last act in the film is to plunge a phallic knife into the chest of her last disappointing lover. Where Lily is refeminized by self-sacrifice, Elaine is masculinized by murder. In both cases, though, stereotypical gender roles close around them, negating or paralyzing camp escape.

Camp is a utopian mode: it offers an alternative to the dead weight of natural convention by positing a world in which the marginalized are centered and celebrated. The Love Witch flirts with that kind of recognition and that kind of world. But ultimately its vision is more tragic than euphoric. The odd, alienated dialogue and the stylized costumes and sets don’t create a campy, artificial, liberated world. Rather they reference and acknowledge an alienated, artificial world that still permeates the present—just as in Marnie, where the main character’s every thought and action is determined by a trauma she doesn’t remember. The Love Witch is camp insofar as it prompts women, and anyone uncomfortable in patriarchy, to ask, “what if this were made for me?” But it is also, in a less hopeful vein, a depiction of what it means to be trapped in a tea room made of the past and gender, misogyny and love.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.Patreon Button

“Splendid Sparkling”: Donatella Rettore’s Posthuman Pop Song

Daniele Cassandro / May 13, 2020


Donatella Rettore’s “Splendido Splendente” broke into mainstream Italy’s consciousness in 1979. It was dancey but definitely not disco, and it owed something to ska but had a sound that was unheard of on Italian radio. Rettore’s delivery was straightforwardly pop: a light soprano voice with a few embellishments but nothing too fancy that might distract from the lyrics. The title itself was part of the allure of this strangely alien song: Splendido splendente—Splendid Sparkling—was pure optical poetry, a prismatic, hypnotic coupling of words that immediately brought to mind the glittery stickers Italian kids of the late ’70s were rabidly collecting. They were called Super Stickers and you bought them at newsstands without knowing what you were going to find inside the packet: a sparkling pseudo-Warholian Marilyn Monroe? Or a velvety sticker with Mick Jagger’s face? “Splendido Splendente” was just such an unknown quantity and it hit you like a glitter cannon before you heard the first note.

Donatella Rettore—who performed under her authoritative-sounding surname, meaning “Rector”—was born in Castelfranco Veneto, not far from Venice, in 1953. After singing in a few local bands she moved to Rome, and in 1974 opened for Lucio Dalla, one of the iconic Italian singer-songwriters of the ’70s. Her first two solo albums didn’t chart, but she enjoyed runaway success in Germany and Switzerland with the Abba-soundalike single “Laiolà.” She recorded a few other interesting songs, but remained mostly unknown in Italy; so when “Splendido Splendente” appeared, it sounded like something from a future we now know all too well.

“Splendid sparkling
Even the papers say it
And I believe it blindly
A powerful anesthetic
And you’ll have a new face
Thanks to a perfect scalpel”

At the time, plastic surgery was starting to enter the lexicon of the Italian public. Famous for his work reconstructing the face of F1 driver Niki Lauda after the 1976 crash that nearly killed him, Brazilian plastic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy became an international celebrity, and Italians began to fantasize about the eternal youth evoked by stars like Joan Collins and Marina Doria, the Swiss champion water-skiing wife of Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, son of the disgraced last king of Italy. Rettore taps into this new Italian obsession with a song that is superficially self-mocking and light-hearted.

“Splendido Splendente” is a post-human song before post-human was even a thing. Through the metaphor of plastic surgery, Rettore imagines a future humanity with perfect features and “pelle trasparente come un uovo di serpente” (“skin as transparent as a serpent’s egg”), smiling eternally in a state of blissful sedation. After this shiny (splendente) scalpel has worked its magic on her face, slicing it open and magically rearranging her features, she chirps that she “will smile eternally,” an eerie cross between Frankenstein’s monster and the Joker. Vanity, narcissism, money to spend, and the ultimate luxury—looking exactly like everyone else: it was the ’80s dream in a nutshell. But Rettore takes things even further:

“We’ll see how I turn out
An ageless man or woman
Without sex, resplendent vanity growing
For the rest of my life”

Rettore foresees cyber-transfeminism in the verses of a pop song: gender is the first thing that this glittering surgical ritual will erase. Gender is something that can be reinvented through technology and revolutionary practice. This peroxide blonde from Castelfranco Veneto had sniffed the scent of the 1977 sexual revolution in the air: just two years before, Italian philosopher and theorist Mario Mieli had published his “Elements of a Gay Critique,” where he had theorized a Marxist path to sexual liberation and a universal transexualism. Everyone is potentially trans, he said; it’s the capitalistic system that squeezes our sexuality and gender into tiny boxes. Mieli died in 1983, but his ideas lived on in the struggle of many gay, lesbian, and trans Italians who, especially in the years between 1977 and 1981, made their bold and uncompromising entrance into the  sleepy, mostly Catholic, and often sex-phobic landscape of Italian politics. Not even the most advanced minds in the communist and socialist parties could get their heads around the ideas driving this colorful and brash new crowd. These turbulent years, which trans activist Porpora Marcasciano vividly describes in her memoir, “L’aurora delle trans cattive” (“The Dawn of the Evil Trans Women”).

Androgyny was everywhere in mainstream Italian entertainment of the late ’70s, though. It might not have been an openly “gay” thing, but it was nonetheless a groundbreaking aesthetic moment in pop culture. With a flamboyant stage persona that mixed glam rock with an Italian sensibility for a good tearjerker, pop singer-songwriter Renato Zero was a star of prime-time family programming; polysexual pop star Ivan Cattaneo, one of the few openly gay artists in late ’70s Italy, created a sort of androgynous rockabilly persona and electro-punk cabaret act that Sigue Sigue Sputnik would have died for; and Amanda Lear, the muse of surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and cover girl of Roxy Music’s albums, was on TV all the time, hinting—before Lady Gaga was even born—that she might or might not have a vagina. Lear also was the main attraction of a TV show called Stryx featuring BDSM burlesque acts and winks to occultism and satanism, six episodes of which were transmitted in 1978 on RETE 2, the second of the country’s public television channels—all in the guise of “varietà,” that quintessentially Italian family entertainment built around elaborate dance numbers and comedy slots. But this TV queerness was all apolitical: it was simply brash, titillating entertainment. The discourse about queer and trans identities and LGBT rights was intense in Italy, but it was happening in a parallel universe, far away from the mainstream.

Mainstream Italian pop music in the late ’70s and very early ’80s was a very diverse landscape: classic singer-songwriters like Claudio Baglioni, Francesco De Gregori, and Antonello Venditti coexisted in the same mediasphere of futuristic, camp innovators as Rettore, Miguel Bosé and Anna Oxa. Italo disco, too, was flexing its muscles, and sexy pop-rock singers like Loredana Berté were experimenting with TV shenanigans international stars like Madonna would later exploit in larger markets. In the mid ’80s, the development of the music video as a promotional tool sanitized things dramatically: Italian pop started losing its DIY post-punk edge to pursue a less adventurous and more family-friendly approach, and the growing success of Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial TV stations had a huge impact on the progressive bleaching of the Italian pop aesthetic. Not that things stopped being sexual—Berlusconi’s idea of television was actually hypersexualized—but it was always gender-conforming and heteronormative. Basically, everything that was daring and experimental on Italian TV was turned into cheap entertainment for straight men.

Rettore’s “Splendido Splendente” is just a fun song. But like all good pop songs, it encapsulates a whole world and an entire culture. Rettore was reacting to the end of the androgynous and revolutionary ’70s and the beginning of an even more androgynous but mostly apolitical and greedier age. She doesn’t pontificate or over analyze. She just smiles as the anesthetic starts rushing through her veins.

image0Daniele Cassandro was born in Rome in 1970. After living for about a year in Austin (before Austin was cool), graduating in art history, and working in a record store, he became a journalist, starting out on the official weekly magazine of the Italian version of reality show Big Brother before moving on to more serious business as staff writer at teen pop magazine Kiss Me! In 2007, he moved from Rome to Milan to work at GQ and launch the Italian edition of Wired magazine, where he curated the Play section for five years. He’s now in charge of the special issues of Italian current affairs magazine Internazionale, and writes about music, art, and theater.

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Out of Line: ‘Sticking It to the Man’ and the Pulp Revolution

Eve Tushnet / May 12, 2020

Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980
Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre
PM Press, 2019

The standard story of the postwar media landscape centers on the rise of television: news anchors and variety shows, cowlicked children of white couples who sleep in separate beds, the same flickering glow from every home—Donna Reed across the face of the world forever. But a series of books from PM Press points out that the television era was also the golden age of the pulp paperback. By the 1950s, a weedy efflorescence of experimental and salacious novels had arisen from the pulp swampland. Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980, the second volume in this series, offers a host of short essays and interviews on how the lost world of the pulps reflected and sometimes advanced the many “revolutions” of the second half of the twentieth century.

Publishers struggled to keep up with the demand for cheap fiction. The hunger for writers allowed unexpected, previously-unpublishable voices to break into the industry: black men coming out of prison, gay and lesbian authors, sardonic and utopian visions of sex and violence. Sticking It to the Man implies that pulp fiction was a genuinely revolutionary arena—even if one of the most successful revolutions fostered there was the law-and-order ascension of Ronald Reagan.

The editors, Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, note, “Due to their lowbrow nature, few of these books were ever reviewed in major newspapers or magazines, instead relying on their lurid, eye-catching titles, images, and bylines to draw consumers passing through newsstands, chemists, barbers, supermarkets, and second-tier bookstores.” The pulp covers tend toward the spicy, the psychedelic; sometimes they entice the imagined reader by threatening him, as in the pointing finger on the cover of The Feminists. But Sticking It to the Man does the service of linking the most “lowbrow,” genre-dwelling pulps (Black Samurai 4: The Deadly Pearl; Night of the Sadist) with titles we’d now consider mainstream or experimental literary fiction, from Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian coming-of-age classic Rubyfruit Jungle to the “hallucinatory,” ferocious work of Zimbabwean chaos vortex Dambudzo Marechera. We get to see pulp fiction as a spectrum, from the churned-out series to the realist novel; and some of the most powerful prose comes from the middle of that spectrum, from genre writers like Chester Himes and Iceberg Slim.

To the extent that these books had a perspective in common, that perspective might be, “Order is chaos.” From Dark Angel: The Emerald Oil Caper to Dirty Harry to a host of sensitive gay novels with shadowy faces on the covers, these are books in which societal order has failed in some way, and the heroes are those who step outside the world they’ve been taught to respect. They’re often attentive to the ways even the factions you support will fail you. The focus on action, not thoughts (as a French publisher advised Chester Himes), lends itself to surrealism—a collage of absurd violence, which is also one description of totalitarian order as seen by its victims.

These are novels against harmony. Many offer a grim, chop-licking pleasure in the chaos, which even extends to biting the hand that unleashed them: The Set-Up Girls’ hero rails against the “no-law, no-restriction permissive society” even while his creator’s entire genre of anti-feminist action benefited from the loosening of the obscenity laws.

What we call “literary realism” reflects the beliefs and experiences of a narrow subset of society. Other people’s realisms are more apocalyptic: the titles of Donald Goines’s Whoreson and Dopefiend suggest a self-abasement that has become exaltation, a defiant embrace of degradation. Kinohi Nishikawa describes Iceberg Slim’s Mama Black Widow as “imagining the breakdown of the black family as a kind of urban Gothic.” A 2003 article describes the Goree Girls, a country-western ensemble made up of inmates at a Texas women’s prison, performing at the Texas Prison Rodeo for an audience of male convicts—grifters, cattle rustlers, murderers—as well as free visitors: “It was like something out of a dime novel,” the warden’s daughter said. And she was right—because “dime novels” were more likely than dollar ones to reflect the extremes of life experienced by women in prison.

Of the many subgenres explored in this volume, four stand out for their different relationships to the society that was born in “the long 1960s.” The novels of student or hippie revolution are often tales of retreat, even failure. The exceptions are either openly disparaging or nakedly naive—and “naked” is the word here, since you can’t have a student-revolution novel without sex, which ranges from the porny to the mystical without ever quite losing its air of self-absorption. The disparaging novels are condescending and the utopian ones are silly and it’s all sort of depressing; here, the pulps’ tendency to give the audience what it wants makes the entire genre an exercise in masturbatory self-comfort.

By contrast, the black cop/crime novels are among the most self-lacerating. Scott Adlerberg notes that Chester Himes introduces his black cop heroes in a confrontation with the locals in their beloved Harlem:

Whenever anyone moved out of line, Grave Digger would shout ‘Straighten up!’ and Coffin Ed would echo ‘Count off!’ If the offender didn’t straighten up the line immediately, one of the detectives would shoot into the air. The couples in the queue would close together as though pressed between two concrete walls. Folks in Harlem believed that Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson would shoot a man stone dead for not standing straight in a line.

Himes’s novels follow a heartbreaking trajectory culminating in his unfinished novel Plan B, in which the author kills off his beloved detectives in the middle of a “nightmarish” race war. The black cop walks the razor line, protecting his community in a way that also damages and represses it. He’s both the lawman and, as Gary Phillips notes, “heir to the bad-man mantle of black folklore.” Plan B, at least, suggests that the man on both sides is doomed and friendless.

The two successful revolutions whose seeds can be found here are gay rights and law-and-order. Michael Bronski argues that the pre-Stonewall gay paperbacks were surprisingly mainstream, free of the cliched tragic ending, and sexually-explicit. These were “how-to manuals” for those who might want to find and enter a gay community. Even early gay young adult titles were controversial but not underground: 1978’s Happy Endings Are All Alike, which Jenny Pausacker describes as “on a borderline between fiction and a [gay-rights] political pamphlet,” was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Pausacker notes that several of these titles (unlike Happy Endings) have the protagonists explicitly reject labels like “lesbian,” but rely on exotic and violent tropes to code the characters’ intense same-sex love as doomed, dangerous, and queer. The books’ emotional intensity tantalized queer readers, while their insistent, even contrived tragedies depicted a world with no place for any form of love or commitment between girls or boys. (Pausacker gives a list of gay YA novels that end with the wistful parting of the couple, the one yearning brokenhearted at the window while the other walks away.) But all of these paperbacks, from Beebo Brinker to Hey, Dollface, are portraits of a community at the very beginning of the discovery that they might have a future. These are books about very early attempts to figure out what, if anything, same-sex love is for—unguided and urgent attempts.

As for law and order—Dirty Harry and its epigones are the product of a surge in violent crime, which soared from the 1970s to the mid-’90s. (Some of the essayists here seem to think that all the dead people were just Republican talking points.) These are novels of establishment failure. Seeing them here, alongside post-Vietnam novels like Going After Cacciato, First Blood, and Dog Day Afternoon, makes their common lineage clearer. The last irony of these books is how well they served a massive expansion of the government whose failures they explored. No, wait—the last irony of these books is that the authors of some series, including Death Wish and the Dirty Harry books, became so uncomfortable with their antiheroes’ popularity that they created “bad” vigilantes, inspired by the “good” vigilantes on the covers. These bad vigilantes exist so that Dirty Harry and Paul Benjamin can reject them, distinguishing their own vigilantism of necessity from the kind of violence done by men who really enjoy it. The Lone Wolf series even depicted vigilantism as descent into madness, a Watchmen of men’s adventure novels.

With this kind of anthology everyone will have their particular overlooked niche. I loved the volume’s willingness to range across continents and freely cross from more- to less-respected novels to show their commonalities. Still, I admit I wish the book covered revolution and unrest in young adult novels of the period (e.g. Lois Duncan’s Daughters of Eve or Doris Dahlin’s The Sit-In Game), or the rise of apocalyptic Christian fiction. Perhaps more noticeable is the lack of discussion of the impact of pulp novels on their high-art cousins. The penultimate chapter, on Marechera, comes closest; but I would have liked some exploration of what’s gained and lost in the transition from, for example, Rita Mae Brown to Jeanette Winterson. Is it fair to say the pulps have a certain humility, a lack of pressure to prove themselves? Does artistic ambition pressure authors to express hope, or at least meaning, rather than extremes of rage, despair, and gleeful violence? A lot of what the pulps indulge is ugly; does their aesthetic power come, in part, from their refusal to hide that ugliness behind intellect?

Eve Tushnet is the author of two novels, Amends and Punishment: A Love Story, as well as the nonfiction Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. She lives in Washington, DC and writes and speaks on topics ranging from medieval covenants of friendship to underrated vampire films. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.Patreon Button

Ancient Astronaut Comics: ‘The Gods from Outer Space’, 1978 – 1982

Exhibit / April 30, 2020

Object Name: The Gods from Outer Space
Maker and Year: Magnet/Methuen, 1978-1982
Object Type: Comic Books
Image Source: Komiksy Online, exhibit author’s copies
Description:  (Richard McKenna)

In the summer of 1980, a 9-year-old child was made privy to startling revelations regarding the origins of the human race. Namely, that in the distant past, a scientific expedition had ventured from its homeworld of Delos to what was then known as the Blue Planet for the purpose of making genetic changes to the genomes of one species of that planet’s inhabitants in order to speed up the development of intelligent life—and that this spurring on of intelligence was a galaxy-wide tradition that had been going on for millennia, as advanced species tinkered with the biology of less-evolved species in an ongoing chain of giving each other a leg up the evolutionary ladder. The child also learned that the figure of Satan was actually a memory distorted by its passage down through the generations of a rogue Delosian named Satham who, along with his helper Azazel, had rebelled against the edicts of the mission, and that the cherubim with flaming sword set to make sure Adam and Eve didn’t try and sneak back into the garden of Eden was actually a Delosian spacecraft known as a “sonde” firing its thrusters.

The medium through which these awesome facts were divulged was not some august tome but four slim volumes of remaindered comic books retailing at the low, low price of 80 pence for the lot, the site of their communication no solemn temple but a cash&carry outside Doncaster, and that 9-year-old child was—surprise!—me.

Its Polish title also containing the accuracy-improving addendum of “According to von Däniken,” The Gods from Outer Space, as it was called in Britain, was an eight-part (though only the four I bought that day were available in the UK, the eighth volume published many years later) comic that took as its point of departure Erich von Däniken’s silly “theories”—read “pervy racist fiction”—about extraterrestrials having influenced humanity’s development in the distant past, the basis of which Carl Sagan identified as being “that our ancestors were dummies.” In 1977, with von Däniken mania still thriving, Alfred Górny of Polish publishing house Sport i Turystyka—Sport and Tourism—made an agreement with Econ Verlag,  the publishers of the German edition of Chariots of the Gods?, to create a series of comics based around von Däniken’s crackpot concepts. Polish journalist and Auschwitz survivor Arnold Mostowicz was brought in as writer, and when Grzegorz Rosiński, the artist originally intended to realize the comic, was snaffled by French comic Tintin, he suggested his fellow pupil at art school and Polish comics veteran Bogusław Polch as the man for the job. Górny, Mostowicz, and Polch spent the next four years detailing the adventures of the expedition to the Blue Planet.

The leader of the expedition and the protagonist of the series is the only Delosian woman we meet, but confusingly—despite the sexism implicit in having literally only one speaking female character (though she is later joined by a clone of herself)—Ais (as she is called in the British version) is pretty much the equal of all the male characters put together: quick-witted, bold, intelligent, beautiful, not above laser-blasting a few bad guys and dedicated to the values of the mission but ready to rebel when necessary against the eugenicist dictates of the “Great Brain,” the emotionlessly logical super-intellect that dictates Delosian decisions.

From the moment they set up their first base in the Andes where they (natch) build the Nazca Lines as a landing strip, Ais’s expedition is plagued by setbacks, from rebellious Delosians and Robocop-ed reptiles to insectoid aliens who plan to strip Earth of its natural resources. The plot spans centuries and goes on to include Atlantis, the Pyramids, the Tower of Babel, Hindu gods, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Nephilim, crystal skulls, the Book of Ezekiel, and the chariot of Yahweh, as well as the aforementioned Ur-Beelzebub—the dastardly Satham, and his army of mutants and robots. The story is an enjoyably confusing nonsense minestrone, but the story is entirely secondary to what makes The Gods from Outer Space so compelling: page after page of Polch’s lyrically beautiful artwork. His sure, clean line and mastery of shade and form create a credible and coherent visual world with its own technologies and aesthetics that in its way is as intense and visionary as the images generated by Jack Kirby’s infatuation with ancient astronauts. Polch died at the beginning of 2020, but the work he leaves behind him—which also includes the wonderful Funky Koval—ensure him a place in comic book history.

While still fairly dodgy, what with logic-driven technocrats imposing their “mission” on a bunch of unsuspecting primates, The Gods from Outer Space‘s interventionist ethics are perhaps closer to those of 2001: A Space Odyssey than to von Däniken’s reactionary gobbledegook. Despite its links to his deeply ambiguous schtick, though, The Gods from Outer Space was also a handy primer for young minds re: the idea that humanity’s myths and legends might in reality be nothing more than the misunderstandings and misrememberings of events or inventions long past, and that even the god we sang hymns to in school assembly every morning, even the idea of “good” and “evil” themselves as discrete and mysterious forces instead of the results of circumstance, history, and environment, might all just be a load of bollocks we’d made up over the millennia because it was easier than actually trying to understand things. Is it possible that, in its way, The Gods from Outer Space hinted at some burgeoning awareness that the historical narratives foisted on us by the establishment were perhaps not totally trustworthy? That the missing element was aliens meddling with our DNA might be pushing it a bit, but maybe there was a kernel of healthy skepticism in this particular take on von Däniken’s delirium—though as we’ve witnessed in recent years, skepticism without actual knowledge can easily metastasize into something as unhealthy and dangerous as unquestioning belief.

It might seem a stretch to accept now that there was a time when many adults believed—with varying degrees of conviction—in the cosmic theories of a Swiss hotelier with criminal convictions for fraud, as well as the Bermuda Triangle and Bigfoot. But this paranormalia was absolutely a part of the texture of everyday life. Though given that forty years later we are living in a world increasingly defined by the bellicose beliefs of reactionary fantasists willing to believe in anything that will provide them with the solipsistic buzz of victimhood, it’s not really so hard to credit the hold these strange ideas exerted over the collective imagination. In comparison, maybe The Gods from Outer Space‘s contention that our ancestors got made clever by aliens doesn’t seem so bad.

“I’m Sellin’ Folks A Dream”: Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s ‘Brought To Light’

Exhibit / April 28, 2020

Object Name: Brought To Light: Shadowplay—The Secret Team and Flashpoint—the La Penca Bombing
Publisher and Year: Eclipse Books, 1989
Object Type: Graphic novel
Image Source: Archive.org (Shadowplay—The Secret Team and Flashpoint—The La Penca Bombing)
Description (Michael Grasso):

In 1989, at the very end of the Cold War, a group of four prominent mainstream and alternative comic book writers and artists created a double volume graphic novel exposing the rampant injustices, assassinations, and terrorism facilitated by the CIA and its creatures worldwide, ostensibly to fight global communism in the years following World War II. This pair of books, sold under the shared title Brought To Light, came courtesy of one of the only justice movements since the Church Committee to successfully take on the American deep state and confront the CIA’s historical criminal behavior.

Founded in 1979 as an outgrowth of its founders’ work to achieve justice for presumed-murdered nuclear worker and union activist Karen Silkwood, the Christic Institute took as its inspiration the Christian mystic/philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his concept of a “christic” cosmic energy that he penned a mere month before his death. Danny Sheehan (a lawyer who had been involved in the Pentagon Papers case), Sara Nelson (a former television journalist and labor secretary for the National Organization for Women), and the Reverend William J. Davis (a Jesuit priest who would go on to spend most of the early 1980s in Latin America observing the crimes of reactionary regimes from Pinochet’s in Chile to the Contras in Nicaragua) founded the Christic Institute to provide legal and investigative aid to resist right-wing terrorism and corporate malfeasance across the globe. In the early 1980s, Christic would go on to bring a lawsuit against the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan terrorists in Greensboro, North Carolina who murdered four left-wing protestors in November 1979, including as defendants in the lawsuit federal law enforcement officials and the many Nazi collaborators within local law enforcement who allowed (and even encouraged) the Klan violence to take place.

As the Reagan years unfolded and a resurgent CIA found its footing again interfering on the global stage (especially in Central America), Christic found itself at the center of the case that would paradoxically lead to both its greatest publicity and the Institute’s eventual downfall and dissolution. In 1984, at the height of the Nicaraguan civil war between the revolutionary Sandinista government and the Reagan CIA-backed right-wing Contra rebels, a hastily-arranged press conference was put together to allow a disillusioned Contra official named Edén Pastora to speak to the press. For months, CIA officials had allegedly been tracking Pastora, a former Sandinista who had gone over to the Contras and now found himself at odds with the Contras’ alliances with foreign forces in the form of both the CIA and drug traffickers from South America. A purported “photojournalist” named Per Anker Hansen (believed by some to be CIA-allied Libyan agent Amac Galil) attended the Pastora press conference at a remote guerilla camp at La Penca on the border with Costa Rica, suspiciously guarding a package with “photographic equipment” that was actually full of C-4 explosives. Hansen/Galil left the building and allegedly detonated the package remotely. Three journalists and four guerillas died in the resulting explosion, and 21 were injured.

In the months following the bombing, American journalist Tony Avirgan (who was injured in the La Penca bombing) and his wife Martha Honey engaged in their own investigation, finding the CIA’s fingerprints all over this assassination attempt on Pastora (who survived the bombing with injuries and ended up eventually reconciling with Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas). In 1986, as the Iran-Contra affair was in full swing, the Christic Institute filed a RICO suit in federal court against Oliver North and several other members of “the secret team” responsible for dirty tricks, weapons smuggling, and targeted assassinations in Central America throughout the 1980s. Christic ended up losing the case, its 501(c)(3) status, and its very existence thanks to “frivolous lawsuit” penalties levied by a Nixon-appointed judge whom Sheehan would find was associated with both Meyer Lansky’s Miami National Bank, a center for CIA-Mafia funding throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and the CIA itself as a “CIA [trained] attorney.”

While the La Penca bombing case was in full swing, the Christic Institute collaborated with indie comics scribe and political activist Joyce Brabnerwho had attended one of Sheehan’s lectures and been inspired by his work—on a comic book retelling of the La Penca/Pastora case. Avirgan and Honey dictated the details of their investigation to Brabner, and she and comic artist Thomas Yeates put together an illustrated version of the La Penca bombing. It was published on indie comic imprint Eclipse (home of the Iran-Contra trading card set) and paired with a second comic detailing the CIA’s overall Cold War activities by writer Alan Moore and artist Bill Sienkiewicz. Yeates’s art style evokes war and adventure comics of an earlier era, much along the same lines as his future work on venerable newspaper serials like Prince Valiant, Zorro, and Tarzan, to simultaneously effectively convey and subvert the web of CIA intrigue that converged in that camp on the Costa Rica border.

Moore and Sienkiewicz’s Shadowplay—The Secret Team offers a broader history of the CIA’s interference and a much more hallucinatory visual and narrative experience. The comic centers on an avatar of the CIA and American imperialism in the form of a maniacal, drunken bald eagle who “represent[s] the Company,” the common sobriquet for the CIA, and who explains American intelligence interference abroad in terms of the brutality and murder necessary to protect American (business) interests. “I like to think I’m sellin’ folks a dream,” the eagle says, before accepting the fact that he’s responsible for “swimming pools full of blood” to keep that American dream—the international machinery of commerce—moving. Moore explores early Cold War CIA interference in elections from Italy to Iran to Guatemala before delving deeply into the Mafia- and corporate-aided CIA programs of assassination, illegal invasions, narcotics trafficking, and mass murder from Cuba to Southeast Asia to the Middle East, ending with an explanation on how the heirs to these earlier Cold Warriors were behind the Reagan era’s affairs in Central America and Iran.

Where Brabner and Yeates rely on the specific chilling details of the events leading up to the La Penca bombing op to illustrate the danger of the CIA’s activities, Moore and Sienkiewicz’s work evokes larger, more mythic themes, conveying the danger of the “American way of life” for much of the rest of the world. They subvert all-American symbols like the Statue of Liberty (crowned in rifles and carrying a giant dollar sign in the place of her tablet), baseball (CIA “trading cards” featuring Mafia don Santo Trafficante and Cuban exiles), and Pepsi (implicated in the manufacture and refinement of CIA heroin in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War). Sienkiewicz, by 1989 an established comic artist whose avant-garde, impressionistic style had given new life to Marvel titles like The New Mutants, and who had worked well within the political and mystical intrigues of limited series like Frank Miller’s Elektra: Assassin (1986-1987), here channels not only his own dazzling impressionistic style but the freaked-out hallucinatory caricatures of Hunter S. Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman. Alan Moore’s own political stances on American imperialism and fascism had, of course, found full expression in his own pair of 1980s opuses, Watchmen (1986-1987) and V For Vendetta (1982-1989).

The two Brought to Light volumes stand as a final testament to both the Christic Institute’s vital work and as a signpost for the end of the Cold War, a time when nearly all the secrets of the CIA’s outrageous Cold War activities had become well-known—not thanks to America’s mainstream newspapers and television media, but because of independent, politically-engaged voices working diligently in underground media to strip the veils away from the rot and endemic corruption at the center of the nation’s politics.

The Politics of the Sewer: John Sayles and Lewis Teague’s ‘Alligator’

Reviews / April 2, 2020

ROBERTS: Steven Spielberg called Joe Dante’s 1978 Piranhathe best of the Jaws ripoffs,” but my vote goes to 1980’s Alligator, directed by Lewis Teague and distributed by Group 1 Films, the latter responsible for some memorable exploitation fare that included The Clonus Horror, UFO’s Are Real (both from 1979), and Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer (1980). Both films are cult genius thanks to their writer, one John Sayles, who went on to become an indie film auteur as well as a writer of great American novels. Both films both have similar plots, and both are satires, but Alligator’s teeth sink a little deeper: our hero quite literally eats the rich. Also, Robert Forster’s in it, and I’ve never met a Robert Forster movie I didn’t like.

MCKENNA: The problem (for me) with writing about something like Alligator is, what the hell is there to say? It’s perfect. Timeless. It explains itself. It looks like a TV movie yet comes on like it actually has brains and a sense of humor. Not simply a curio of the 1980s (though if 1980s curio-ness is what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed—in fact your head may explode), it still works perfectly today without the need for you to strap on a postmodern irony helmet. It’s smart, self-aware, knows its limitations, and is basically why there’s almost zero incentive to go to the cinema to see genre stuff anymore: because who wants to sit through fucking hours of precious art direction when stuff like this highlights how much more economically and incisively the same goals can be achieved with far less? Somehow, even though pretty much everything about Alligator is trite—and that’s kind of the point—nothing about it feels trite. In addition to the estimable Forster, who’s in top form here even for him, there’s a great turn from Robin Riker as the female lead and appearances from Michael V. Gazzo and Henry Silva. Mike, what on Earth do you make of this little gem?

GRASSO: It seems like there have been a bunch of these ’70s/’80s B-movies we’ve looked at that I’d never seen before, that pleasantly surprised me, were made by folks who went on to do Serious Film later, and ended up having an interesting social-political edge to them, all while remaining on a basic level exploitation schlock. Endangered Species came to mind while watching Alligator, for certain. (Also, Kelly, thank you for reminding me that Alligator was produced by UFOs Are Real producer and narrator Brandon Chase!) It also has that same sideways ’50s monster movie vibe—doughty yet world-weary hero and brainy love interest investigate and battle a mysterious series of predations created by shadowy conspiracies and mad science.

Like Robert Urich’s character in Endangered Species, Robert Forster’s David Madison is a police detective who’s lost his faith in the system and is hounded by ghosts: in Madison’s case, a bust that went bad resulting in the death of his partner. As limbs start showing up in the town’s sewer system, the first theory of the crime (as in The Night Stalker, another film Alligator vividly reminded me of) is that a garden-variety late-’70s serial killer is on the loose. Turns out? It’s a 30-foot long alligator, released in the sewers 12 years prior by a teenage girl, Marisa Kendall: played as a grownup by Robin Riker, she’s now become the Midwest’s foremost herpetologist and helps Madison investigate and ultimately blow up the gator. The monster has been feasting on the corpses of experimental animals that have been fed a serum to increase their growth, part of a sinister biotech firm’s (Slade Pharmaceutical!) attempts to “feed the Third World.” Of course, nobody believes Madison even after he loses yet another partner in the sewers, and he’s fired from the force in favor of khaki-clad chauvinist big-game hunter (yes, seriously) Henry Silva, who gets to have an epic squint-off with Forster before getting swallowed whole by the gator.

Again, all fairly boilerplate monster movie cliché. But Alligator zags when you expect it to zig. Even if the plot emulates dozens of Roger Corman/Bert I. Gordon drive-in flicks from a generation before, it’s the little touches, the thematic surprises, and most of all the actors in this film that not just elevate the material but keep the viewer riveted, wondering where the hell this thing is going to head next. Between the aforementioned Michael “Frank Pentangeli” Gazzo, a serious thespian with impeccable Actors Studio credentials as the police chief (Henry Silva was actually one of Gazzo’s protégés), or Hollywood Golden Age mainstay Dean Jagger as the rambling oddball head of the biotech firm who inadvertently made the monster, this film is packed full of great actors. But Forster stands alone. Wikipedia tells me that it was this movie—not Medium Cool or any of his other ’70s or ’80s roles on the screen or TV—that inspired Quentin Tarantino to give Forster a shot as world-weary bail bondsman Max Cherry in Jackie Brown. And you know what? I can kind of see why.

ROBERTS: Yes, this is definitely Sales riffing on the ’50s monster movie, Mike, with your sinister corporation (Alligator was released exactly 10 days after Reagan was elected) standing in for atomic anxiety. I thought a lot about the classic Them! (1954) while watching Alligator, and in fact the estuaries of the Los Angeles River were used to great effect in both films. It’s a B movie all the way, but Teague, who had just directed another Sayles-penned picture, 1979’s The Lady in Red, mostly pulls it off. The effects are also surprisingly effective, especially the scene where the gator crashes out of the sewer onto the mean streets. As far as Forster goes, he has always been pegged as a “character actor,” a mostly bullshit term that describes incredibly versatile actors who are constantly typecast because they don’t look like Redford. I first saw him in The Black Hole, a formative film of my youth, and he’s been a favorite ever since. There’s a recurring male pattern baldness joke in Alligator that he simply slays (he improvised it, and Sayles wrote it in), not to mention the one-liners Sayles feeds him. Robin Riker—in her feature film debut—is also really damn good, despite some gross sexism and a predictably subservient role—similar to Jobeth Williams in Endangered Species. And Henry Silva? All I can say is: you will never experience a more disturbing alligator mating call.

The alligators in the sewers urban legend goes back to the 1930s, when the New York Times ran a story about a group of kids allegedly snaring and killing one after spotting it through a manhole. Thomas Pynchon made great use of the myth—which expresses industrialism’s struggle to suppress nature—in his first novel, V. (1963). Pynchon, as it turns out, was a great influence on Sales. Unlike the shark in Jaws, the gator here is something of an underdog. Shortly after the little girl brings it home, her dad gets upset about “alligator turds in the clothes hamper” (props to Mike’s ears for catching that choice piece of dialog) while (tellingly) a radio report tells us about the “chaos” of the 1968 Democratic Convention (the subject of Medium Cool). Dad flushes the gator—we spin around the bowl with the creature, looking up at the gruff patriarch we assume to be entirely sympathetic to Mayor Daley’s police force—and watch the little guy drop into the sewer with a splat, small and alone in the darkness. 12 years later, it becomes the monster it was made to be.

MCKENNA: The male pattern baldness joke is a beaut, and not just because the fact of its hitting close to home makes me feel as though perhaps I too might yet possess an iota of Forster-esque coolness. Like all great B-movie fare, it’s the film’s accumulation of miniature grace notes and memorable details that builds up into something gratifyingly greater than the sum of its parts. Take the extras, for example—everyone in Alligator acts and appears grizzled enough to credibly inhabit the film’s down-at-heel milieu: nobody looks like they just walked out of central casting, and everybody has a distinct personality no matter how briefly they appear.

I’m now going to return to one of my well-worn (though my fellow Mutants might prefer “overused”) opinions here and say that I think part of the reason Alligator still connects so powerfully is because it sort of feels like play—almost like our brains are making it up as we watch from the mulch of half-digested history, pop culture, and politics slopping around inside our craniums. None of the sets, locations or set pieces are particularly prepossessing (I mean, the big denouement is trying to convince an old lady driver to reverse her car, for fuck’s sake; you have to hand it to Teague: he makes the most of the little he’s got), much of the action is fairly low key, the story is hardly there, and a great deal of the pleasure derives simply from watching humans interact with each other, their environment, and a fuck-off massive alligator. It’s play. That’s what real B-movie genius is. That and kicking off with a gator attack that gets swept under the rug by the spectacle management so the wheels of commerce can keep turning.

GRASSO: And isn’t that a great place-setter for the overall social commentary in the rest of the film, Richard. I especially liked the set piece near the middle where the alligator’s reality has finally been revealed to the public (thanks to a tabloid reporter who’s been hounding Madison, Freddy Lounds-on-Will Graham-style, and who takes one final photograph of the monster as he’s eaten), and Henry Silva’s big game hunter is on the scene dropping depth charges in the local canal, and the entire town has turned into a three-ring media circus, complete with souvenir vendors hawking toy (and real) alligators. This scene happens right when Madison learns he’s off the case, and there’s that sinking feeling that all the wrong people are in charge of this crisis and that there’s going to be a lot of profiteering off of human injury and death. Hmm, maybe this wasn’t the right film to get our minds off of current events, guys.

But I think that gets to another thing I love about Alligator, which is how perfectly 1980 it is. Just little reminders here and there, like the aforementioned media circus (one practically expects to see “I Survived The Mega-Gator Attack” t-shirts for sale alongside the souvenir gator toys) or the big reveal scene of the alligator, where it busts Kool-Aid Man style through the concrete from the sewers while a bunch of kids (clad in an “I’m a Pepper” t-shirt, a late-’70s Texas Rangers jersey, and some kind of Freddy Krueger-esque red and green striped rugby shirt) look on. And yes, Kelly, the way Alligator substitutes corporate malfeasance for ’50s fear of the atomic age is also perfectly 1980. At the very dawning of the Reagan era, fear of pollution and criminality at the hands of unaccountable corporations was revving up, and the scientists’ use of poor innocent stray puppies as their experimental subjects is not only a perfect telegraphing of how evil they are but also pretty damn common in industrial corporate settings at this point in history. Whether or not they’re trying to help out with feeding the developing world, they’re literally killing puppies and throwing their bodies in the sewers.

So yeah, this film does eventually revenge itself on the corporate baddies. The foreshadowing in the scene where they’re setting up Slade’s daughter’s wedding at the local country club is perfection: you just know as soon as you see it that that alligator is going to go hog wild on all those rich people in the final reel. But the first two people the gator eats at the wedding are a pair of servants! That undercuts the impact of Slade’s limo being smashed by the gator’s tail just a little bit. But was I smirking in satisfaction when the inner-city kids who Silva’s game hunter deputizes (and condescends to) abandon him as he gets eaten whole by the monster? Yeah. That was pretty cool.

ROBERTS: Class is writ large across the whole film. “Looks like a working man’s hand,” Madison says after the first body part is found, and when he busts a vendor trying to sell live alligators during the media circus Mike mentions above, the vendor cries after him, “This is an attack on the free enterprise system! Communist!” We’ve got one-percenter Mr. Slade feeding the alligator mutant and mutilated puppies so that he can get richer by squeezing the Third World, we’ve got rich neighborhoods (helicopters scan the lush swimming pools) juxtaposed with poor neighborhoods (the setting is either Chicago or St. Louis—it’s never made clear; both cities were at the epicenter of the rust belt’s decline), we’ve got “the great white hunter” paying black kids to guide him through the inner city—so many of them were so destroyed by this point that they stood in for post-apocalyptic landscapes. And there’s the working-class cop who’s got more in common with the alligator—who he’s forced to blow up—than anyone else.

I won’t go so far as to say that the alligator is the proletariat, but it’s certainly the underclass (“It lives 50 feet beneath the streets,” the trailer forebodes), as well as nature’s revenge. The gator eats workers, sure, but it would starve otherwise: that’ s the law of the jungle. The real target is Slade, as the alligator’s calculated demolition of his limousine makes clear. All of this gives added relevance to the final moments of the film, when a new sewer dweller—another innocent baby bought and sold, then banished by owners who foolishly thought they could tame it—lands with a splat in the city’s collective shit. A monster movie cliché? Absolutely. But also the spectre of revolution.

“For All the Dead Heroes”: Lizzie Borden’s ‘Born in Flames’

Eve Tushnet / April 1, 2020

In 1983, Lizzie Borden attacked the World Trade Center.

I’m talking about Lizzie Borden the film director, and the bomb that goes off at the top of the Twin Towers is the final image of her punk feminist film Born in Flames. (It’s safe to say that the shock of the ending has not been diminished by the passage of time.) Born in Flames is a loving—or at least, love-hating—tribute to the lower-rent sectors of early ’80s New York, and to the fractious feminist movements that tried to carry ’70s militancy into the era of the “career woman.” It’s beautiful and funny, and the most punk thing about it is that it’s the rare political film that exposes contradictions rather than purporting to solve problems.

The film takes place in a near-future America ruled by democratic socialists. It’s a dystopia! No, that’s a cheap shot—the movie’s point isn’t that socialism is bad, but precisely the opposite: that the better the idea, the more useful it is in the hands of entrenched power. Most things we wish were political solutions turn out to be clown cars from which spill far more political problems than you ever could believe would fit inside. And yet that doesn’t make Born in Flames a cynical movie. It refuses cynicism as wryly and as adamantly as it refuses propaganda.

Even the film’s title suggests that the movie will transform mere political ideology into something stranger and more challenging. It was named after a song by the Red Crayola, which in turn was named after a 1929 Soviet film celebrating the triumphs of the Red Army. With each iteration the words get weirder, as the gasoline smell of propaganda dissipates. The USSR origins of the phrase make it not solely an inspiration to the film’s feminists, but a reference to the professed socialism of the government they’re fighting. Every political statement in the film carries within it at least one contradiction, at least one hint that the future born in these flames won’t be what anyone intended. The things you want done won’t be done the way you want them, partly because they won’t be done by the people you think should do them. The song plays throughout the movie: a jangly, urgent anthem, featuring saxophone by Lora Logic of Essential Logic (and the early X-Ray Spex) and vocals by Gina Birch of the Raincoats. Birch’s voice fits the mood of the film, with its quick shifts from proclaiming to muttering to shrieking; her English accent adds an unexpected touch of displacement, and a feeling that the narrative, in spite of its strong sense of place, reaches far beyond 1983 New York City.

Born in Flames rambunctiously follows several competing women’s movements. There’s the Women’s Army, which chases off would-be rapists and is advised by a radical mentor played by real civil rights lawyer Flo Kennedy. There’s soft-spoken street-level militant Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield); the art-punk radio station led by sly Puck-faced agitatrix Isabel (Adele Bertei); her semi-rival at the black radio station, Honey (played by a woman of the same name); and the party-line women of the socialist movement, who dissipate their radicalism in academic arguments (Borden’s friend Kathryn Bigelow plays a journalist with the Socialist Youth Review). Music and violence intertwine as equally invigorating, equally obvious aspects of radical feminism.

An FBI agent surveilling these women notes, “The Women’s Army seems to be dominated by blacks and homosexuals.” These also happen to be the kinds of women Borden’s camera most loves. Born in Flames has the quick cuts and intimacy of a documentary film, and the performers—who were not professional actors—talk as if they’re coming up with these ideas on the fly in response to the real socialist future America they live in. They ramble and grouse and talk over each other. The FBI agents, by contrast, are more stagey. They’re following well-worn roles; they know their lines and their blocking. The women, whether they’re squabbling or orating or kissing, always look like they’re figuring it out as they go.

Perhaps for this reason, the plot peeks only intermittently from the vivid shelter of the dystopian setting. In a New York City of boomboxes and pay phones, catcalling and bralessness, a Women’s Army emerges not only to protect women from rape but to propose a feminist political program. As the FBI tries to catch them in illegal acts, and the socialist President of the United States tries to entice them away from radicalism with concessions like “wages for housework” (a left-wing proposal beyond the dreams of our current politicians), the underground feminists progress from pirate radio to arms dealing to terrorism. They aren’t a unified movement—the FBI notes that “it’s impossible to say” who their leader is. It’s not always easy for the viewer to keep track of the alliances and figure out who’s going rogue. But they’re united against the government, and after the staged jailhouse “suicide” of one of their leaders, there’s no chance they’ll disavow militancy.

This is a passionate movie without the self-righteous certainties of so many passionate movies. Feminists attack the “Rape Rehabilitation Center,” which seems to offer (coopted?) restorative justice to rapists. “There’s no such thing as a bad boy,” a defender of the center says. “These are sick people.” The white cop has a MOM mug and the feminist militant has a pink t-shirt saying GANJA FARMERS UNION.

The satire of hyper-theoretical socialist feminism is still funny but also somewhat expected. Less expected is the depiction of radical feminism as the servant of the corporations—all these women lined up to shake the locked gates of the construction sites are fighting not for profit-sharing or a reorganization of the economy, but for jobs at companies that seem (despite the government’s nominal socialism) indistinguishable from the worker-exploiting companies out here in nonfictional America. “We want a J-O-B so we can E-A-T,” the protesting women chant, right after a terrific montage of all the j-o-b’s a woman can do, from paper-pushing to chicken processing to hairdressing to sex. Another woman complains of spending “three years with no opportunity to move into a managerial position”; some might argue that making management women’s work is not the best form of feminism.

There’s a taking of sides here that’s familiar to contemporary arguments about subsidized day care vs. Canada-style child benefits. The film’s feminists fight for abortion access and child care, the two feminist proposals that make women’s labor more accessible to employers. In the movie’s sketched-out backstory, affirmative action for women has led to a backlash in which men demand preference for male heads of households; the government then offers “wages for housework” as a compromise measure, offering financial independence to homemakers and jobs to men. “Wages for housework,” which really would require a radical reshaping of the economy, is portrayed as an anti-feminist ploy to get women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen—but how many women would mind, if the alternative is a chicken-processing montage?

In spite of the brief child-care discussion, it’s noticeable that in a science fiction movie about possible political futures, none of the characters has children. This childlessness may even be linked to the movie’s adolescent energy, which is its greatest strength. This is a sexy movie; it captures the thrill of political arguments with pretty women. Borden’s camera shows every character at her most beautiful. (The film’s major aesthetic weakness is the decision to film scenes of paramilitary training in a smeary style I can only call Sand-o-Vision. The grainy color footage of the rest of the film is warm and lived-in; and, you know, intelligible.) The fleeting moment of actual erotic embrace between Norris and her lover is a synecdoche for the intimate connection these women find in solidarity—and, at times, in conflict. The film’s music, especially the title anthem, adds to the feeling of smoldering, unstable dissatisfaction about to burst into gleeful violence. When Norris says, in gorgeous close-up, that violence is “already here. It’s happening,” there’s a hint of resignation but more than a hint of promise. These are women on the verge of a societal breakdown.

When the women become violent, holding television broadcasters at gunpoint so they can send out their own message, a man-socialist explains that their violence is a reaction to “terror of their own may-soh-chism.” After the “jailhouse suicide,” Isabel puts on a music show, indulging in the tambourines and beer of helplessness: “This is for all the dead heroes out there… Yeah.” Isabel promises that their fight “will not end in a nuclear holocaust”—and as she’s writing that particular check, the feminists’ bomb goes off at the World Trade Center. Is this an unhappy ending, a misstep into complicity, an own-goal? Is it desperation turned septic, or the bitter result of the prior peaceful revolution’s betrayal of its promises? Is it just smart tactics? Is it a thrill?

It’s a taste of power. And Born in Flames is among the rare political films that doesn’t yell at you about whether that makes it right.

Eve Tushnet is the author of two novels, Amends and Punishment: A Love Story, as well as the nonfiction Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. She lives in Washington, DC and writes and speaks on topics ranging from medieval covenants of friendship to underrated vampire films. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.Patreon Button

“Twenty Years of Crawling”: Kenny Rogers’ ‘Coward of the County’ and the Vietnam Syndrome

Jesse Walker / March 31, 2020

I can tell you the day the so-called Vietnam syndrome started to die. On November 12, 1979, four and a half years after the last American troops fled Saigon, a new single was shipped to record stores and radio stations, a ballad by the fellow who’d had a smash hit a year before with “The Gambler.” Kenny Rogers’ new song was “Coward of the County,” written by Roger Bowling and Billy Edd Wheeler. I remember the first time I heard it that November, listening to the radio in the car with my mom on our way to the supermarket.

He was only 10 years old when his daddy died in prison
I looked after Tommy, ’cause he was my brother’s son
I still recall the final words my brother said to Tommy
‘Son, my life is over, but yours has just begun

‘Promise me, Son, not to do the things I’ve done
‘Walk away from trouble if you can
‘Now it won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek
‘I hope you’re old enough to understand
‘Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man’

We arrived before the song was over, but she kept the motor running in our parking spot so we could hear how the story ended.

I can’t say I understood all the cultural context that surrounded that record on the radio. I was vaguely aware that there had been a war in Vietnam, that the US had lost, and that a lot of people, including most of the grown-ups I’d heard talking about such things, didn’t want to get drawn into a war like that again. I didn’t know that this reluctance to fight was upsetting a large swath of the foreign policy establishment, or that those mandarins of empire had begun to call this war-wariness the “Vietnam syndrome.” I was nine years old. There was a lot I didn’t know.

There’s someone for everyone, and Tommy’s love was Becky
In her arms he didn’t have to prove he was a man
One day while he was working, the Gatlin boys came calling
And they took turns at Becky, and there was three of them

I didn’t know, for example, what “they took turns at Becky” meant. Perhaps I thought they had been making fun of her. If you are of a certain age, you may have had a holy-shit moment at some point in your teens or later—a day a DJ played that song you used to sing along to as a kid, and you suddenly realized it had a gang rape in it.

The Gatlin boys just laughed at him when he walked into the barroom
One of them got up and met him halfway across the floor
When Tommy turned around they said, ‘Hey look, old Yellow’s leaving’
But you could’ve heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door

Twenty years of crawling was bottled up inside him
He wasn’t holding nothin’ back, he let ’em have it all
When Tommy left the barroom, not a Gatlin boy was standing
He said ‘This one’s for Becky’ as he watched the last one fall

When I heard that as a boy, I assumed that Tommy had beaten up the Gatlins. But the lyrics are Delphic, and they could easily describe a man methodically firing a gun. Either way, I got the intended moral of the tale even before I heard Tommy spell it out a moment later:

I promised you, Dad, not to do the things you’ve done
I walk away from trouble when I can
Now please don’t think I’m weak, I didn’t turn the other cheek
And Papa, I sure hope you understand
Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man

* * *

In August 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke to a Chicago gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “For too long, we have lived with the Vietnam syndrome,” the presidential candidate said. “As the years dragged on, we were told that peace would come if we would simply stop interfering and go home. It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.”

As a history of how the Vietnam War began, it was nonsense. But as a familiar tale of good and evil, it had resonance—the kind of resonance that will take you to #1 on the Billboard country chart and #3 in the pop top 10. “Sometimes you gotta fight,” the candidate could have added. Maybe in the barroom, where the Gatlin boys were jeering. Maybe in Nicaragua, which had a leftist revolution four months before “Coward” shipped to stores. Maybe in El Salvador, which was less than a month into a 12-year civil war the first time “Coward” aired on the radio. Maybe Angola. Or Grenada. Or Kuwait. All sorts of countries cycled through the news from 1975 to 1991. They had different names, but for a certain sort of speechwriter they all were Becky, surrounded by those Gatlin boys bent on conquest.

I’m not saying that Bowling or Wheeler had Vietnam in mind when they wrote “Coward.” Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. Songs about sexual violence and bloody revenge are as old as country music—older!—and you could have penned something a lot like this song in 1929 as easily as in 1979. You didn’t have to be thinking about the war to want to buy the record either. It had a well-told story and an infectious chorus, and it might have been a hit a decade earlier too.

But it wasn’t the hit Kenny Rogers had a decade earlier. His most successful song of 1969 had been a rather different record, a cover of Mel Tillis’ haunting “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” That one’s a gothic tale about a veteran, paralyzed in a “crazy Asian war,” who sits unable to do anything but plead while his wife dolls herself up for a night with her lover. He has violent urges bottled up inside him too, just like Tommy. Really ugly urges: “If I could move,” he tells us, “I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.” But he’s “not the man I used to be,” and so he’s helpless. Now there’s a grotesque twist on “Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”

Ten years later, Tommy would be manly enough by the code of these songs to take his revenge, and he’d have enough moral grounding to direct his violence at a trio of thugs rather than his mate. And two years after that, when the song became a TV movie, his violence would find another outlet. After beating the Gatlin boys in a wild bar fight, young Tommy marries Becky and enlists to fight in World War II—“because I have so much here to stand up for and protect.”

* * *

We heard that phrase “Vietnam syndrome” a lot in the ’80s, as pro-war intellectuals fretted that Americans weren’t willing to fight anymore. “Our communications on Nicaragua have been a failure,” President Reagan grumbled in his diary in 1985. “90% of the people know it is a communist country but almost as many don’t want us to give the Contras $14 mil. for weapons. I have to believe it is the old Vietnam syndrome. They are afraid we’re going to get involved with troops.”

The more hawkish Reaganites directed this ire not just at gun-shy civilians but at quagmire-wary members of the military. Some of Reagan’s appointees even directed it at each other. When Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger laid out the so-called Weinberger Doctrine in 1984—a set of six principles he thought should limit the use of American combat troops—Secretary of State George Shultz seethed: “This was the Vietnam syndrome in spades, carried to an absurd level,” he later wrote.

The hawks hailed Washington’s quick victory in the 1991 Gulf War as the end of the affliction. “By God, we’ve kicked this Vietnam syndrome,” President George H.W. Bush crowed to the American Legislative Exchange Council. It hadn’t been 20 years of crawling—hell, they hadn’t been crawling at all—but for a certain sort of Washington functionary, any constraint on their ability to project power feels like a humiliation.

But war-wariness, and war-weariness, aren’t so easy to extinguish. The Vietnam-specific version of the syndrome may have died, but Americans still had rational reasons to want to avoid quagmires abroad; the next war in the Gulf region would remind the country just how much damage a march into battle can do. As public opinion started to turn against war, the phrase “Iraq syndrome” didn’t become as popular as its Southeast Asian predecessor; but it did start to float around certain D.C. circles. (Others fell back on their old vocabulary. Norman Podhoretz, the first-generation neoconservative who once had worried that even Reagan’s foreign policy evinced “the sickly inhibitions against the use of military force,” wrote in 2007 that the media’s coverage of the second Iraq war had proved “the Vietnam syndrome was alive and well.”)

If the syndrome was still alive, so was the tale pundits told to extinguish it. In 2014, when President Barack Obama sent troops to the Middle East to fight ISIS, New York Times columnist David Brooks celebrated with a familiar story. Exaggerating Obama’s reluctance to use the military, Brooks wrote:

History is full of reluctant leaders… President Obama is the most recent. He recently gave a speech on the need to move away from military force. He has tried to pivot away from the Middle East. He tried desperately to avoid the Syrian civil war. But as he said in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “Evil does exist in the world.” No American president could allow a barbaric caliphate to establish itself in the middle of the Middle East.

Obama is compelled as a matter of responsibility to override his inclinations. He’s obligated to use force… Everybody is weighing in on the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama strategy. But the strategy will change. The crucial factor is the man.

It’s the clunkiest remake you’ll ever hear of “Coward of the County.” But it probably won’t be the last one.

Jesse Walker is books editor of Reason and the author, most recently, of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins).

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

 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’

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

 Exhibit / March 5, 2020

Object Name: Vanagon sales brochure
Maker and Year: Volkswagen of America, Inc., 1979-1980
Object Type: Sales brochure
Image Source: TheSamba.com
: (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.