Saturday, July 20, 2019

Fifty years ago tonight...


"Good luck, Mister Gorsky!"

Okay, there was never a "Mister Gorsky" and Armstrong never said that.  But everyone else is posting "One small step for man..." and I just had to be the oddball tonight.

Happy Fiftieth Anniversary to Apollo 11's touchdown in Mare Tranquilitatis!

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

On the passing of H. Ross Perot



Hearing the news that Ross Perot had died earlier today was like feeling a punch to the gut of that persistent eighteen-year old in my personal nature.  Maybe it had to do with the memory of working the local Perot campaign headquarters in those heady days of fall 1992.  Located in rented space on a small shopping strip in Eden, North Carolina, at first glance it wasn't what I was expecting.  There was a shabbiness to the place.  But whatever it lacked in looks, it more than made up for it in frenetic energy.  There was a sense of unstoppable enthusiasm among all those good and wacky characters, and I must have worked at least a hundred hours there making phone calls on Perot's behalf, assembling yard signs, picking up bumper stickers to hand out...

I forget how much of a percentage Rockingham County went for Perot, but it was a fair amount.  It had less to do with our own efforts, I think, than the character and charisma of Ross Perot himself.  "Now there's a choice!" read campaign signs and many in the county took that to heart.  I certainly did, when I registered to vote the day after turning eighteen some months before.  I knew even then: Perot was going to be the one I cast a ballot for.

Maybe that's part of why to this day I'm proud that no one I've voted for President has won.  Each one of those victors in his own way made a mess of America.  And that "giant sucking sound" that Perot warned us would be jobs in these United States going south to Mexico?  He was right.  He was 1000% right.  NAFTA would never have wrecked its havoc on Perot's watch.  And for that alone, history has proven that he was more than correct.  For there was no doubting the patriotism and concern behind his warnings about it.

And I will also dare say that Donald Trump's win in the 2016 election had a great deal with the lingering sentiment from 1992.  Voters have longer memories than they get credit for, especially after a quarter century of two major parties bringing economic ruin to America.  Trump played a smart game: running as an independent candidate while using the Republican Party's infrastructure to mount his campaign from.  That was the one major deviation from Perot's approach.  But Perot did it first, and he broke the ground for what came later.

Did I agree with everything Perot stood for?  No, I did not.  My differences with him about abortion and gun control are as strong as ever.  Maybe stronger, even.  But no candidate is going to be someone any of us should hold to their positions with equal fervor.  The candidates who try to appeal to everyone are the worst of candidates.  At least Perot was honest about his convictions.  And even as a kid I wouldn't believe Perot could pull off anything about those issues.  His agenda was about something else, and many of us saw the handwriting on the wall: America was headed toward economic disaster and we needed someone of Perot's caliber to avoid it.

Did Perot cause Bill Clinton to be elected in 1992?  I've never seen that.  When the popular vote is worked out and compared with the electoral votes, Clinton was still going to win over George H.W. Bush... who still would have had the majority of the popular vote.  Perot drew voters from each of the two major party candidates, no doubt.  But with 19% of those votes spread out as they were, Perot proved to be at most a large element to not ignore, but not large enough to make that big a difference in the outcome.

There was no doubting Perot's commitment to America and her people.  A commitment that was demonstrated with two incidents in particular.  There was his compelling the North Vietnamese to provide better treatment of American POWs during that conflict.  And then there came the 1979 rescue mission of two employees of Perot's Electronic Data Systems (EDS) from an Iranian prison.  Perot hired legendary Green Beret vet Arthur "Bull" Simons to lead a team recruited from within EDS to plan and execute the mission.  It involved inserting team members into Tehran as the Iranian Revolution was nearing its climax.  The rescue worked, none of the team were lost in the mission.  It was chronicled about a few years later in Ken Follett's book On Wings of Eagles.

Not long after that rescue, the revolutionaries took over Iran completely.  They also stormed the American embassy and took its occupants hostage.  Their 555 days of capture was punctuated by a disastrous rescue attempt sanctioned by President Jimmy Carter that ended in the deserts of Iran.  One can only wonder what might have been had Ross Perot been called in to consult with.

 EDS already made Perot a very wealthy man and he became ridiculously more wealthy when he sold the company some years later.  A billionaire multiple times over, he went on to found Perot Systems.  And then came that night in March of 1992 when Larry King asked Perot on nationwide television if he would run for President.  Perot said he would, provided he qualified for the ballot in all fifty states.  A few short months later he had met all qualifications.  And though we could debate all day about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of his early departure from the campaign, none can question that when he came back months later promising "a world class campaign"... and he delivered on that promise.

Of course, that campaign cannot be mentioned without bringing to mind those informercials - which ran simultaneously every time on all the major networks - that Perot made.  In each one he laid out with nothing more than a pointer and a series of charts the situation in America and what would be needed to fix it.  From one of those came a personal catchphrase of mine: "It will be hard, but it will be fun."



It would be tempting to post a clip of myself doing my Ross Perot impersonation.  But not now.  I will however post a pic of the two campaign buttons I proudly wore that season.  One of which was made during a craft fair during lunch one day at my high school:


There isn't much else that one could say about H. Ross Perot.  Except that he may not have won in 1992 and then again in 1996 when he ran again.  But he left an indelible mark upon American presidential politics.  And that mark may have come back to haunt the Clintons more than two decades later after all.  Not a few times  have I heard in recent years "Ross was right".

Whatever one may think of the guy, it has to be said: he lived an enviable life and abided by his principles.  And we are each the better for that kind of example.

Godspeed, Mr. Perot.  And thank you.

Friday, July 05, 2019

MAD-ness takes its toll (or: No E.C. way to go...)

"What, me worry?"  Oh dear Mr. Neuman, if only the rest of us shared your eternal optimism.  What began nigh near seventy years ago as a mere horror comic by E.C. Comics paterfamilias Bill Gaines became the true benchmark of modern education in these United States.  Because MAD Magazine taught me lessons no school or philosopher or theologian would ever broach: stop trusting the media and the politicians and the advertising.  Take them seriously by not taking them seriously.  Have the spine to stand up and laugh at the insanities and inanities of modern culture.

Yes, there were others who preached the same in one form or another.  But nowhere as chronically effective and engrossing as did "the usual gang of idiots".  From the moment my best friend Chad let me read one of his MAD Super Special issues when we were nine years old, I was hopelessly reeled in.  Couldn't stop reading MAD.  Couldn't stop laughing at MAD.  And before I knew it, I couldn't stop living in the world according to MAD.

To parody the intro song from The Sopranos: "I was born under a MAD sign."

MAD Magazine was my childhood's symbol of rebellion against the established order.  It was for a lot of us.  Somehow we got away with reading MAD during recess at Community Baptist School: what became a wacko institution trying to teach us to hate Russians, that all Catholics were going to Hell and that even drawing a picture of a witch was tantalizing the forces of darkness.  Perhaps MAD gave me a mental bulwark against the real madness.  Perhaps it was the antidote against the spiritual poisonings of that place and too many other abusers of God's name.  Who knows: I may not have become a Christian at all were it not for MAD.  But that's a stark tangent from the gist of this post...

Sixty-seven years is a good run no matter what.  Still, a little part of me died upon hearing that MAD announced earlier this week that it was shuttering its publication.  Strangely, I'm surprised that MAD Magazine lasted as long as it did.  Its persistence in an online age of instant humor and automatic parody was no mean task.

But it was dawning on me three years ago that MAD's days were numbered and that the death by a thousand cuts were now self-inflicted.  When the magazine became hellbent on making every issue's cover mocking Donald Trump... well, that was symptomatic of a deep rot working within the heart of creative and editorial staff.  It was with rare frequency in the old days of MAD for any President of the United States to be referenced on the cover.  That it happened to Trump for at least a year or two says less about the man himself than it does about how far MAD had drifted from its mission to skewer everybody with equal malice and mirth.

Some of us however, and I am one of them, will contend that the omens turned ill around 2000 or so, when MAD announced it would do two things that founder William M. Gaines had decreed would never happen: it moved from black-and-white to all-color, and it began running advertisements.  Not the in-magazine parody ads, mind you (many of which were written by the inimitable Dick DeBartolo) but ads for real-world merchandise.  That's when I realized that MAD was decaying from a once-unassailable institution into a mere product or brand name.  Something that Gaines fought tooth and nail against - and succeeded - when MAD came under the Warner Communications umbrella more than forty years ago.

Maybe however, the decline goes back to 1992, and the passing of William M. Gaines himself.  For a man who was the very founder of MAD, he exercised only nominal duties in his role as editor and publisher.  Most of the time he signed off on articles and artwork just before deadline.  And that's just how he rolled.  The rest of his working hours were devoted to maintaining the MAD-cap hilarity of its environment.  As he once put it, the contributors provided the magazine's material while he "created the atmosphere".  And no one else could do it as Bill Gaines.  Whether taking on Congress about "inappropriate" comic books or standing up for his creative crew in the face of corporate ownership, Gaines was incorruptible and seemingly indefatigable.  And he would no doubt laugh at the accusation of "incorruptible".

Clearly, Bill Gaines was MAD Magazine, and MAD was Bill Gaines.

He's been gone for twenty-seven years now.  And too many others of "the usual gang" have left us also.  Each taking with them a unique perspective on how off-kilter wonky our culture really is.  Anthony Prohias, creator of "Spy vs. Spy", fled from Castro's revolution in Cuba and arrived at the MAD office speaking only a smattering of English.  He passed away several years ago.  Don Martin's signature cartooning style now belongs to the ages.  And what I have missed most about MAD Magazine is the absence of "The Lighter Side Of..." written and drawn by Dave Berg.  Panel for panel, Berg's depictions of the minutea of everyday life evoked more uproarious laughter than the rest of the magazine often did combined!  Here is but one sample of the Berg's-eye view of things, from issue #241 in September of 1983:


There will be two more issues of MAD Magazine with original content hitting the stands.  After that there will supposedly be special collections of previous material, but I'm not counting on seeing a reprint of "Forty-Three Man Squamish" anytime soon (or the rules for "Three-Cornered Pitney", also written by Tom Koch).  Perhaps there will be some dipping back into the well of yesteryear however, and those curating the collection issues will be impressed with a time when we really could laugh at ourselves, without fear or reprisal.  If so, MAD Magazine will have become something more powerful in death than it ever had in life.

But even if that never happens, MAD has cast a penumbra upon our landscape, one that will not soon be ignored.  I see MAD's spirit at work in so much graphic art and memes and crude parodies on Twitter and Facebook.  Black Spy and White Spy will forever be trying to outsmart each other, it seems.  And even Alfred E. Neuman, the gap-toothed mascot of MAD Magazine for almost its entire run, has found his way into the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Clearly, in some fashion or another, we have all gone MAD.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Review of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Two matters have persisted in my mind during the past several months leading up to Spider-Man: Far From Home.  The first, obviously, is "How the heck does any Marvel movie follow up on the heels of Avengers: Endgame?"  Those three hours were a staggering symphony of cinema, made all the more magnificent in that they wrapped up eleven years and twenty-some movies of what had come before.  Did Disney and Sony and Marvel seriously believe that a Spider-Man movie could raise the bar on that?!

But for me, the bigger issue was this: "When the heck do we finally see Spider-Man's little world explored and fleshed out on this canvas?"

Because Far From Home represents Tom Holland's fifth outing as the web-slinger.  And still by the time of this latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chronology we have yet to see Peter Parker's unique and classic sphere of influence explored to any great extent.  Oh yes, there has been Aunt May (absent Uncle Ben and that life-altering event in Peter's life) and the Vulture (played with unexpected dimension by Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming).  But what about the weight of responsibility that Peter wrestles with?  How is he going to make money of his own without the Daily Bugle to snap photos for (and a J. Jonah Jameson calling him to the carpet at least once a week)?  How is he going to acquire his own rogues gallery when the world is unarguably now fixated on cosmic-level villains?  And where are those clones?!

(Okay, forget the clones.  In fact, let's just forget that "Clone Saga" mess ever happened...)

Peter's own world has its own feel and tone, and Sam Raimi captured and conveyed that perfectly for the big screen in 2002's Spider-Man.  And then two years later Spider-Man 2 upped the ante and became one of the very few sequels deemed better than the original.  Even Spider-Man 3, for all the things wrong with it, had some resonation with the source comic material.  Everything about Raimi's series was spot-on or dang close to it.  And rather disappointingly the Marvel Cinematic Universe incarnation has barely attempted that level of inspiration.

Which brings us to Spider-Man: Far From Home.

It's now months after what the world is calling "The Blip": when everyone ashed-away by Thanos' snap in Avengers: Infinity War has been returned to the universe, albeit five years later.  Far From Home is our first real look at the in-saga ramifications of Hulk's counter-snap, and as can be expected confusion is rife now that half the cosmos' population is back in existence after half a decade of oblivion.  Far From Home addresses "The Blip" rather nicely, exploiting the humor that often comes with such a disturbance.  Life is getting back to normal (more or less) and Peter Parker, weary of saving the world alongside all of those other heroes, is looking forward to a trip to Europe with his high school colleagues.  Including his best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon, who becomes more fun to watch in the role with each outing) and that elusive relationship with M.J. (again hard-to-get and aloof and played by Zendaya).  And maybe he'll be able to shake off the loss of Tony Stark: his father figure and role model.  Iron Man's sacrifice has turned into a global memorial... but the absence is felt nowhere worse than the gaping hole in the heart of Peter Parker.

Unfortunately it seems that Nick Fury (isn't it time that Samuel L. Jackson gets his own standalone movie in the MCU?) and S.H.I.E.L.D. are determined to draft Peter and his Spider-Man persona.  Seems that a hero named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) from the Earth of an alternate universe - blamed on "The Snap" punching a hole in reality - is trying to stop four malevolent forces of nature from destroying our own world just as they destroyed his.  Mysterio has determined that the "four elementals" are going to attack Europe next and lo and behold, the track of their storm corresponds with the Midtown School's trip iternerary.  Fury catches up with Parker in Venice, lays it all out and... well, chaos ensues as usually happens in this kind of Marvel movie.

If you've been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe all along, this final chapter in the arc that's been building since 2008 serves as a wonderful coda.  If Avengers: Endgame was a grand feast, then Spider-Man: Far From Home is the much-needed and pleasurable palate cleanser.  It gives the fans a "cool-down" period, time to breathe... and there is already the tantalizing tingle that the next volume of this epic is coming sooner than later.  2008's Iron Man marked the start of this sprawling mythology, and in many ways Far From Home serves as the perfect bookend: for the films themselves and for us as the viewing audience.

How does Spider-Man: Far From Home cap off all that has come previous?  It doesn't even really try to.  It knew it couldn't.  And it still works beautifully.

As for that other matter: I still don't think that Spider-Man: Far From Home brought us fully into Peter Parker's unique corner of the Marvel saga.  But it's coming.  By the end of this film he has become his own person, and though the legacy of Tony Stark will not be forgot, Peter has indeed become the man who Stark believed he could be.  That world is coming... and especially with that mid-credits scene, with a cameo that will either blow the Marvel Cinematic universe wide-open or prove that some casting is simply indisputable.

I'll give Spider-Man: Far From Home four and a half webs out of five.  Still not in Sam Raimi-ish terms of quality but it's getting there.  And I believe it will land squarely on that turf in the next movie.  Maybe then we'll get the MCU's treatment of the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus.  Maybe the next Spider-Man movie will be called Spider-Man: Home Sweet Clone...

I'll stop while I'm ahead.