Archive - August 2003

August 31st, 2003

The last week of August just might be the busiest portion of the entire year around these parts.

Like most other folks, we experience a combined--and conflicting--sense of relief and wistfulness during this time of year. Relief because, yes, the kids will soon be back in school, and wistfulness because, oh gee, summer has all but come to an end, and all those activities that were once high up on your must-do list, well, they never did get done, did they? But even beyond shopping for school supplies and gearing up for a new season of intra-mural soccer--yup, I got the call to return--there's a little thing the rest of you out there DON'T have to deal with: Julie's birthday.

Some kids, by now, are getting past the Event stage--capital "E"--when it comes to their own special day. Not our little sweetie. Nope. I predict that August 25th--or whichever day is so designated for the annual celebration--will NEVER be approached casually in this household. Why, were it but in her power, I'm certain that red-letter day would soon be declared a worldwide holiday and all of you reading this out there (and even those who aren't) would have the day off--as long, of course, as you proffered some sort of fitting gift or tribute to her majestic self!?! Even without a federal mandate, each and every year presents it's own set of challenges for Lynn and I, official organizers of this gala if not yet global extravaganza.

Logistics always are at the forefront. I assure you, getting a group of kids together the last week of August is NOT an easy task. More than once the actual date of the party had to be modified to suit the majority of the invitees, and even then, it's never guarantees 100% attendance. There's one girl in particular who ALWAYS spends the last ten days or so before school reopens on a last-gasp vacation jaunt, and as good a friend as she is to Julie, she still hasn't been able to enjoy our hospitality roundabouts August 25th. Oh, sure, she probably could've joined in on the fun two years back, as we didn't get around to things until the profoundly late date of September 8th (just days before, well, you know...), but Julie didn't get to know her until later that very year. Timing is everything. And speaking of which, yeah, things WERE put off unusually long for Julie's 11th birthday, but this year, we managed to get things arranged for the relatively near ballpark date of Wednesday, August 27th. AND the 28th...

Flashback. To mark her 10th year walking giddily amongst us, we reluctantly gave in to her pleading and threw a sleep-over birthday party. Including the guest of honor, we housed eight girls that tumultuous evening, and when all was said and done the next day, the first words out of our mouths were "Never Again!" The term "sleep-over" was a total misnomer, and things just seemed to get more and more out of control as the hours crept closer and closer towards dawn. A pair of glasses was sat upon and accidentally broken deep into the night, causing massive grief, strife and multiple recriminations. And not at a low-level whisper, either. It didn't seem to matter that Lynn zipped out practically as the sun itself came up and had them immediately repaired at our own optometrist's office--the seed was sown. The only surprise was that there was no actual bloodshed. So afterward, we told our daughter, that's it--done, finished, over. Regular parties from here on in, girlie. Make 'em long if you want--7 or 8 hours--but just make sure that the necessity for carting over pillows isn't included on the invitations. End of story, right? Not if you've been paying attention...

Did I ever mention that the kid is persistent? I have. Well, this clearly wasn't what she wanted to hear, and she kept lobbying incessantly for another chance to throw an all-night birthday gathering. Initially, I held my ground and continued to answer her in a distinctly negative fashion. But she worked on me tirelessly and relentlessly, wearing me down to the point where I carelessly mumbled something along the lines of, "Well, there'll be no more sleep-over birthday parties anytime soon, Julie. Maybe--well, maybe in the future, WAY in the future. Not until you're, y'know, at least 13..."

Bingo! And they say elephants never forget!

So here we were, on the cusp of the dreaded teendom, and good to my word, such as it was, Lynn and I wearily and tentatively found ourselves preparing for yet another mass sleep-over. All because, at the time, I mistakenly--and stupidly--thought three years was just so VERY far in the future!?! Well, turns out it wasn't, and if I had me a petard, I'd definitely have been hoisted by it, dig? Nothing to do now but smile and make the best of the situation.

The invitations went out. 11 girls were invited. As mentioned earlier, friend Jennifer had to decline due to travel plans, and two others had camp conflicts. That left us with 8 potential attendees (9 total counting the guest of honor), and frankly, I was a little surprised at the number of "Yays" compared to "Nays" that came in, mainly due to the fact that Julie had included 3 girls she'd met at and only knew from Girl Scout Camp into the mix (a 4th girl was a friend from school who'd never before visited us here but whom Julie became closer with while at camp). I suspected that perhaps these girls--comparative strangers--might beg off the festivities due to, well, being comparative strangers, but that turned out to be far from the case. Three of the four showed, and the one who didn't--because she attended day camp and lived almost an hour away--seemed sincerely bummed out that she couldn't join in. This certainly served as a reassuring testament to Julie's ability to make friends--a good thing--but also put us in the position of housing 3 kids that we'd never ever met before for a night, which, while not necessarily a bad thing--I really didn't feel the need to count the silverware before and after, mind you--it nonetheless made things a bit more, well, stressful. Like we needed it to...

(As for our returning contestants, we had Deanna, making her 7th straight appearance, the sisters next door, Christina and Elizabeth, signing in for their 5th consecutive party, with Lisa chalking up her second, and while it was Courtney's first, we'd seen an awful lot of her since Julie first became pals with her last winter. The girl with the broken glasses? Long gone. Fact is, after being Julie's best friend for most of the 4th grade, at the time her bifocals busted, unbeknownst to us all, she was about three weeks from ditching Julie once and for all, moving on to a crowd she considered far cooler. Given the rather...unsavory...reputation she's amassed in the year's since, her Eddie Haskell-like demeanor isn't particularly missed around these parts. And her fellow malcontent at that decade marking fiesta? Out of the picture as of mid-summer last year. Moving on for similar reasons, and for similar reasons, not at all missed. In fact, Deanna and the sisters were the only ones returning with their sleeping bags in tow...)

And it's not like that's all we had going on last week, as it turned out to be one long extended celebration. Let's see--on Saturday the 23rd we hosted our entire immediate family exclusively--Lynn's mom and brother Bob (small brood)--for a dinner featuring cake and presents for our budding teenager. The next day saw Lynn and Julie off to purchase food and decorations for the event--a Hawaiian theme had been agreed upon, and the food to be served consisted of a variety of small, appetizer-type morsels for the girls to choose from. An ice cream cake--with the likeness of none other than SpongeBob Squarepants gleefully sitting atop it--was reserved at the local Dairy Queen for pick-up later in the week. Then, Monday marked the anniversary of little missy's actual, bona fide date of birth, and while she spent most of the morning and early afternoon over next door, by 3, Julie, the kid's next door, and two of their friends were splashing about in our pool, causing our darlin' daughter to at one point exclaim, "It's like a whole extra party!?!" Indeed it was. Tuesday was reserved primarily for extensive indoor cleaning, though it's never, ever enough--believe me. That then was followed by the 21 hour shindig spread over 2 days, but for the record I'd just like to point out that the following day--Friday--saw the initial visit of yet ANOTHER camp friend--Patrice--who was unable to make the party but who didn't want to miss celebrating Michael Jackson's 45th with a fellow fanatic (yes, Julie). Saturday? Grandma's birthday. Yup, 5 days after Julie's. Seems to fall that way just about every year. So, of course, we hosted yet ANOTHER dinner for G'ma and Bob, though thankfully, Bro-in-Law provided the delicious--if store bought--cake. Whew! Smack dab in the midst of all this fell the aforementioned party...

Grandma arrived at noon to help with preparations, just as Julie and I were stepping out the door to go pick up the cake. A minor disaster was averted when I discovered that there is indeed a very good reason as to why I continue to carry cash in my wallet--Wappingers Fall's Dairy Queen may well be the last remaining business that doesn't honor credit cards, a fact I ALMOST found out the hard way. On our way home, we stopped and dropped a birthday present off at Deanna's, since for the first time since they've known each other, Julie was unable to attend Dee's early August jamboree due to her own Camp conflicts. She'd be over to our house soon, she assured us. As would all the rest, I realized. It was almost upon us. Oh joy. A shiver ran down the length of my spine...

Blowing up balloons, hanging streamers--those were my last-minute tasks. Julie called the next-door sisters to come over and help, and they did, if only for a whopping 15 whole minutes prior to start-up time at 2 . Soon, the rest of our guests began to trickle in, with the first two to arrive being camp girls Hillary and Gracie. Deanna, Lisa, and finally, at 2:30, Courtney completed the picture (well, except for Erin. Because of her own day camp situation, she didn't check in until close to 5, and conversely, she was the first to leave--for similar reasons--at 7am Thursday morning. She was the one kid who both went to Julie's school AND the camp, but interestingly, since she'd never come by before, she'd never met our slightly younger neighbors, meaning there was no one present, not even Lynn and myself, who knew everyone in attendance. Except, of course, Julie...)

We noticed a funny thing with those two gals who'd attended camp multiple weeks over several years--though they did gravitate towards one another initially, they were quick to casually ingratiate themselves with the rest of the kids. The non-campers were, by contrast, shyer at the outset, but soon became comfortable with these new, decidedly friendly, faces. Apparently, being thrown into an unpredictable mix of Scouts for an entire week sharpens one's socializing skills. Either that, or Julie just luckily made buddies with some awfully sweet kids. Yeah, any fears we may have had that this disparate mix may've put a strain on the proceedings were quickly swept away as we soon realized what nice girls these two were (and not to keep you in suspense, but yup, so was Erin when she eventually arrived). The party was lookin' good, as they started out the festivities with some arts and crafts to keep them occupied while allowing them a bit of time to get to know each other.

That was followed by an hour or so in the pool--no one drowned, I'm happy to report--and then back inside, awaiting on a group-feeding. In the interim, a DVD of some of Michael Jackson's most famous videos was played, and perhaps the most amusing--AND amazing--sight thus far came about when the "Billie Jean" clip came on the screen, and, spontaneously, they ALL began singing along heartily in unison!?!

I realize these are girls aged 11 through 13 we're talking about here, folks, and I also realize Michael Jackson was at his peak with the teen set almost 20 years ago now, but by good golly gosh, Wacko Jacko-mania was alive and well--and it was in glorious attendance at our house!?! How and why this happened, it's hard to say. All I know is that Lynn and I were watching that initial Jackson documentary last winter--"Living With Michael Jackson"--only to have Julie join us out of mild curiosity towards the end of the telecast. Having had no prior knowledge of his career or his antics, she immediately became fascinated--though almost exclusively by the antics, not the music. Interest in the music took a little bit longer, but spurred on by fellow fanatic, Courtney--who'd seen many of his classic videos on either MTV or VH1--Julie developed an unlikely--and unprecedented--fondness for music that was almost twice as old as she was!! (Yes, I admit to having a few Jackson CDs in my expansive collection--how could I not?--but I never played them. I liked his music back in 1985, when they were on LPs, but with all the baggage attached to it in recent years, well, all those sordid stories surely managed to take a whole lot of the fun out of it, y'know?) By the summer's outset, Julie was playing the 3 CDs, "Thriller", "Off the Wall", and "HISstory", repeatedly and virtually nonstop!?! Now I FINALLY knew why my dad stormed into my room way back in 1964 and demanded that I stop playing this "Meet The Beatles" record over and over again, at least for a little while!

Oddly enough, though, while both Julie and Courtney started out by mocking Jacko, when they were eventually won over by the quality of his music, they CONTINUED to mock him!?! Still!?! While I may be able to come up with a few less than savory things to say about Yoko, I can't begin to imagine being as devoted to the good ol' Fab Four as I am while simultaneously mocking them the way this new generation of junior Jackson fans seem to be all too comfortable doing!?! (Although Mikey and Macca's duet on "The Girl Is Mine"--specifically, the dialog portion--has been eminently mockable from pretty much from Day One!?! "I'm a lover, not a fighter"--SUUURE you are, pal!...) And I mean fans in the plural sense, since everywhere Julie went this summer, she spread the word! Call her Julie Jacko-seed, if you will! Everyone at camp knew of Julie's obsession--EVERYONE!! And when, say, Lisa, or the girls next door visited? Michael Jackson, NOTHING but Michael Jackson! It was the Stockholm Syndrome--with a driving beat! Forget about all those paper pineapples and the plastic leis--the REAL theme of this party was--well, NOT Tito, that much you should've figured out by now!?!....

Anyway, Erin showed up, a portion of "What A Girl Wants" was shown to about half the girls who were interested in this specially rented DVD while the food was being prepared, and then, when the numerous entrees were spread out on the table, the chow was happily chewed. We then went out front to hang the three homemade pinatas Julie and Lynn had made two days earlier out over a tree branch one at a time, giving--hopefully--each attendee a whack apiece at them. Unfortunately, they weren't quite as thick as the ones you'd buy in the store, and thus didn't survive as many swings as they might've otherwise. Two girls--Gracie and Christina--in fact didn't manage a turn before all three paper mache candy containers were totally destroyed. And yes, Courtney demolished in a single wallop the third and final pinata, decorated as it was to look like...uh huh...Michael Jackson. Beat it, indeed.

Back inside then for the ceremonial unwrapping of the gifts (several of which were associated with, yes, LaToya's brother) followed by the eating of the cake, all videotaped for posterity. When I jokingly suggested that they sing "Billie Jean" to Julie instead of the more traditional--and old hat-- "Happy Birthday", they immediately proceeded to serenade the guest of honor with an enthusiastic and loud rendition of that memorable ode to paternal denial! And I gots it all on tape! Afterward, finally, cake. To quote the great Homer, "Mmm, cake..."

Most of the girls plopped down in front of the tube to enjoy the comic stylings of Adam Sandler in that comic masterpiece, "Big Daddy". I'm only sorry that I probably won't live to see the day when this generation has to take the sort of abuse for finding Sandler funny from their children the way I have to get it from these young whippersnappers for appreciating Bob Hope!?! Well, anyway, those not entirely charmed by Sandler busied themselves playing with our rabbit, Romeo, and/or our hamster, SpongeBob. Then, at 8 o'clock, I had to excuse myself to attend a meeting to determine the makeup of this season's soccer teams. I thought I'd be back by 9. Turned out I didn't get back until 10, and in the two hours I was gone, someone got the bright idea to make water balloons!! Luckily, most of them broke outside. Most...(Aw, it wasn't so bad. One busted in the kitchen, not anywhere near a carpet--or heaven help us all--any of my precious comics!?!..)

The girls had wanted to go out for a late night swim, but Lynn was reluctant to attempt keeping track of nine kids in a dark pool all by herself with only a flashlight or two to aid her, Grandma having left hours earlier around 6. Of course, everyone was expecting me home a lot sooner than 10, so they started getting a bit antsy at my prolonged absence, but when I finally did get back, it was everyone in the pool!! (Everyone except me and Lynn,of course, because A)It was pretty doggone chilly, and B) It's far easier taking a head count from OUTSIDE the pool as opposed to from inside it!?!)

11 o'clock--back inside, and time for more Wacko Jacko DVD thrills!! Lynn and I went off to watch a little TV of our own, and by 1am, the group gathered around the dining room table for the next arts and craft project, Sculpy Clay sculpting!! The girls used the chunks of this multi-colored clay to make various and sundry items--animals, fruit, SpongeBob, Squidward, and even--yes--MJ!!--after which Lynn put the completed sculptures in the oven for baking to preserve them! This was a hit at last year's gathering, and proved to be just as popular this time around. All the while, I was on the Internet, eventually using the opportunity to answer my email--however incoherently--way into the wee wee hours of the morning. I learned my lesson last go-round, you see. This time, I didn't actually EXPECT to get much--if any sleep. Lynn optimistically turned in roundabouts 3, but I waited til 4 before I even considered attempting to snooze.

I went to the large room out front where the girls were all set up--and where the TV was just coincidentally located--and told them I'd planned to turn in, and I'd mightily appreciate it if they'd turn it down a notch. Hillary immediately grasped the situation and told the group, "That's it girl's, no more screaming!"(Earlier, I'd heard intermittent squealing. Seems as if the girls were watching Jackson's historic performance at "Motown 25", and let loose--just like the audience in the studio all those years ago--every time Michael did the Moonwalk!?! Honest. ) They could've been watching "The Sixth Sense" late that night, but as it turns out, they never did. Instead, when I went in to say my goodnights, they had the now-infamous "Living With Michael Jackson" documentary playing on the VCR, precisely at the stupefying section where our boy blithely goes out on a million dollar shopping spree! I guess that was enough of a horror movie for the assembled--"I see weird people, really, REALLY weird people!!..."

Unlike the last time around, I actually DID get to sleep, though it took more than a few minutes to wind down enough to relax and nod off. As it turned out, the group somehow wound up playing a game of Hide and Seek in the dark, but they did it quietly enough so as not to wake either Lynn or myself up. THAT happy little task was left to our cats, Mario and Luigi!! At 6:30, they meowed and meowed mercilessly at our bedroom window in hopes of being let in, and when I eventually got up to go open the back door, I guess I shouldn't have been overly surprised by what I saw...

Julie and Courtney, wide awake, watching the "Remember the Time" video!?! And the rest of 'em? Sleeping as best they could, though Julie contends Erin was awake at the time, too. Why not? Her mom called 15 minutes later to prepare her for pick-up. The rest of the girls made it til 6 or so before drifting off, we were later informed, and I my ownself managed to get back to sleep again until 8:45 when the by now seriously redundant sounds of the self-declared King of Pop began emanating from next door in Julie's bedroom. Seems Lynn had shooed Courtney and Julie in there so that the others could get at least a few minutes peace before she woke them up at 10 for breakfast. I groggily watched a few minutes of "Regis and Kelly" from beneath the covers, then dragged myself out of bed to help Lynn feed the yawning horde.

Since the festivities were scheduled to come to an end at 11, it was pretty much eat and run for our weary--if happy--little group. Everyone was bleary-eyed, but nobody was grumpy, not even yours truly. As the end approached, one by one they left. Well, almost. Julie hadn't seen her pal Courtney much recently cuz she'd been out of town for weeks, so she got the nod to stay til 2. And Christina next door stayed, too. We were soon joined by her sister, Elizabeth--who chose to go home the previous evening and sleep in her own bed, and return the following morning--and THEN do you know what they all did? Yup. Watched Michael Jackson videos. Sigh...

After Courtney left, Julie went over next door for awhile, and left us alone with the rare gift of peaceful silence, without a single "Woooo!!" to be heard. Quiet never sounded so good. Oh, don't get me wrong--it was a far more enjoyable party than the last sleepover (Although when I shared this observation with Christina, she seemed a bit ambivalent. After all, the bickering--none of which actually involved her--made the previous sleep-over all the more dramatic, if nothing else, and while I could definitely see her point, I ultimately much preferred the calm and peaceful way things transpired on Julie's lucky 13th!?!...). There wasn't any maniacal running about, and everyone got along just swell-like, with all the new girls just as nice as you could've hoped. Best of all, everyone present had the good sense to laugh at my goofy gags and smile at my silly jokes!?! Still, when it was finally over, it was a relief. In retrospect, the party itself wasn't all together that stressful, but the anticipation, the preparation, all the lead-up to it--THAT was stressful! And now--whew!--it was over...

Just before 5, Julie came back home. She could barely keep her eyes open. Head to bed, directly to bed--do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Sleep. And sleep she did. From 5 in the afternoon straight on through until almost 10am the next morning!! Two nights sleep, all in one double-dose! Wow! Lynn and I managed a good night's rest as well, though we still felt like we were somehow hung-over the next day. It ain't easy to bounce back at our advanced ages, lemme tell ya! It took me all the way til now to get to the keyboard and record this exhaustingly amiable activity for all posterity...

Julie? She's bounced back, believe it! And inexplicably, Jackson-mania continues unabated. I leave you with this final, telling vignette as a prime example. Whilst typing away at the first draft of this rambling reportage earlier, I took a quick break to get a cup of tea. I passed Julie while she was on the phone to--who else?--Courtney. Julie was employing an affected, high-pitched voice, taking on the persona of--who else?--Michael Jackson. I asked her a question, but rather than interrupt her make-believe conversation by saying something akin to, "Hold on, my dad wants to talk to me", she instead stayed totally in character, saying "Excuse me, Bubbles is acting up--I'll be right back..."

Bad? Not technically.

Dangerous? I sure hope not.

Off the Wall? Oh yeah--and then some!!


August 29th, 2003

What's Steve Ditko REALLY like?

Does he really like, for instance, Italian food? Lasagna, perhaps? And if so,which? Vegetarian, beef, or sausage? Or maybe what he really likes is spicy Mexican food? Tostadas, burritos, or the perhaps the ever-reliable taco? Which is it? WHICH? We really just do not know...

Fact is, we don't know much at all about the man who so memorably brought Spider-Man and Dr. Strange to life over forty years ago, helping launch the audaciously original Marvel Age of Comics!! Why,for years and years and years, there wasn't even a single photo available for public consumption of this immensely talented--AND immensely private--cartoonist!?!

That particular notion--the unseen Ditko--became the basis of one of my very first "Dateline:@#%?" strips, probably the fourth or fifth one that ever appeared in "The Buyer's Guide For Comics Fandom" way, way back in 1977. To illustrate my point--and I'll get to it eventually, I promise--I've started up a "Best of Dateline:@#%?" sub-section over at the "More" area, of which this still topical subject turns out to be the inaugural entry. That particular strip always garnered a stronger response than most, most likely because I somehow managed to strike a chord shared with many other frustrated Ditko acolytes. Take a look, if you will--but please excuse the sloppy if naively exuberant artwork--AND the just plain sloppy lettering, okay? I'd appreciate it...

Well, THAT particular mystery was solved not long ago when several decades-old photos of the man began turning up on the Internet, like this one here. True, they predate his most famous work by several years, but at least it finally gives us die-hard fans a mental picture to conjure with. Still, Ditko remains largely a cipher to even his most ardent admirers. Very little is known about his background, but now, again thanks to the good ol' Internet, several substantial hints are beginning to slowly leak out...

The story goes that several decades back, cat yronwode, y'see, was amassing information for an art book dealing extensively with Ditko's career for the now-defunct comics and book publisher, Eclipse Enterprises (who, co-incidentally, released a compilation of my earliest strips, including the aforementioned one, as what was then only their second publication. Okay, okay--that doesn't have a whole lot of anything to do with the topic at hand, granted, but what kind of a personal web-site would this be if I didn't stop and yammer about myself at every possible opportunity? But now--grudgingly?--back to our topic de jour...)

I, along with scores of other Ditkomaniacs, longed to grasp a copy of this prospective tome in our hot little hands, and yes, I even sent in my payment for a comparatively pricey hardcover edition, but alas, twas not to be. A disastrous flood ravaged Ecilpse's California based operations, destroying all of cat's diligent work on the project (as well as, apparently, all the receipts of books sold, unless of course, my refund is ..ahem.. still in the mail somewhere?...) Additionally, since the book's notoriously difficult subject was becoming, well, difficult, plans to release the book were abandoned. Book called on account of rain--lots and lots and LOTS of it!?!

And that was pretty much the last we heard of the book--until now. cat has resurfaced, and has a provided a rather lengthy and in depth history of the almost-book, which you can read here in the Friday August 22 entry. (Allow me to extend a Hearty Hembeck Handshake to ever-alert Bill Alger who initially uncovered this gem and pointed me in it's direction! Gracias, amigo!) Alongside the history of the project's convoluted gestation, you'll catch more than few fascinating nuggets about the artist himself. As big a fan as I am of Ditko--and if I haven't mentioned it already, he's pretty much my all time favorite cartoonist--a majority of the information cat shares here was totally new to me. The woman dug down-right deep, and, okay, if researching the origin of Peter Parker's rambunctious rival Flash Thompson's striped shirts seems a bit much, well, there's plenty more, shall we say, pertinent facts sprinkled throughout?...

Of course, the down-side of perusing this plethora of arcana is the increased desire one has to read the actual--if still non-existent--book!?! But until that day arrives, this'll have to do. For the time being, we long-time followers can only pause and ponder:

... boxers or briefs?...

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On an unrelated note, let me wish Michael "King of Pop" Jackson a Happy 45th Birthday today, as well as belatedly note and celebrate what would've been the late Jack "King Of Comics" Kirby's 86th birthday yesterday. I was unable to mark that notable occasion as, around these parts, we were just recovering from the sleepover Birthday Extravaganza engineered by Julie "Queen of All She Surveys" Hembeck less than a mere 24 hours ago. And while the man widely known throughout the comics field simply as "The King" played little or no part in the festivities, the strange, no-longer-so-young-a-man, commonly referred to as "Wacko Jacko", found his presence to be surprisingly rampant at an event totally comprised of girls ages 11 through 13!?! Which is, of course, a story in and of itself...

And if you people are really, really lucky, I WON'T tell you. But don't get too comfortable--misery loves company after all!?!...

August 25th, 2003

Julie Hembeck, age 11, on vacation in August 2001 at an undisclosed location.
Granted, I'm not a religious fellow, but if you have any empathy for me whatsoever, any at all, I beseech you, pray for me!! For today, officially, I become the father of...a TEENAGE GIRL!?!

Yes, today is Julie's lucky 13th birthday! I say that with the full knowledge that 13 years ago on August 25th, 1990, we weren't feeling lucky at all--far from it...

I've never quite figured out the best way to tell this story, but considering the significance of today's date, I figured maybe just barreling through it may work best. There aren't very many opportunities for gags in this tale, y'see--though I DO promise you a happy ending! It all began back when Lynn and I FINALLY decided we wanted to have a kid--I mean, we were only together 16 years before Julie was born, but hey, what's the rush? One has to take the time to properly prepare for as monumental an event as the birth of one's only child, dig?

And prepare we did. Lynn was about as diligent as a mom-to-be could be during her pregnancy. She ate only what she was supposed to, rested when she needed to, and, for the entire nine month period, laid off those Cuban cigars she loves so very much!! (That was one of the jokes, folks...) And me? I dutifully attended the Lamaze classes, watched the baby-rearing videos taped off of Lifetime, and helped think up names. But there wasn't much I could do on that Saturday in late summer except drive Lynn carefully but quickly in to the Birthing Center 20 minutes from our home.

It proved to be a long day, with close to 12 hours elapsing from our arrival into the facilities until Julie's arrival into the world. Lynn's pregnancy had been overseen by a pair of doctors, one older and more experienced, the other younger and, well, not nearly as experienced. The one performing the delivery? Luck of the draw. Guess which one we got?

Aw, Julie's always been a bit contrary, so why shouldn't she start her life that way? If she wanted to come out dragged by a pair of tongs and with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around her neck, well, who's to say she didn't plan on a memorable--if highly distressing--entrance as part a life-long bid to grab attention? Well, she sure had it there! Suddenly, the good vibes in that hospital room shifted and things turned all "er", as our infant child encountered fresh air for the first time, but was unable to simply breathe it!?!

You know those scenes in films where the nurse hands the mom her newborn and she gets to make mushy sounds at her beautiful little offspring? Didn't happen. They whisked Julie away with a sense of urgency that had us all pretty scared (Grandma was on the premises, as well). Turns out her oxygen had been cut off for at least 90 seconds, and well, without committing to any sort of prognosis, that COULDN'T be good, now could it? A female physician, from the Far East I believe, was also on duty, and was roundly credited with saving our daughter's life. We were all obviously appreciative, but events were happening so rapidly, so stunningly, we barely had time to take in one twist before another turn was presented to us.

Before the hour was out, the infant Julie was in an ambulance and on her way to a hospital about 60 miles away in Albany, New York. They were better equipped to handle the situation there, it was explained to us. Her first home, then, was one of those small plexiglass chambers, and that's where she stayed for the next several days. No mother-daughter nestling for Lynn and her newborn. We weren't in that particular movie, not any more...

We pulled ourselves together, took a deep breath, and drove up to Albany the next day. The news from the docs wasn't all that encouraging: Julie had had a seizure. What exactly this meant, I don't specifically recall, but it could've easily been the first of many, and we were duly instructed to watch out for any repeated occurances. Here's where I share with you the first morsel of good news in this saga--it never did happen again. No more seizures. Ever. And thus, no special drugs to control them. Fact is, for all her obstacles growing up, Julie has never had to rely on pharmaceutical solutions to solve her problems, and considering how drugs appear to be dispensed willy-nilly these days, that's gotta qualify as a positive as well.

After a few thankfully uneventful days in her Albany home-away-from-home, Julie was returned to the facility from whence she was so hastily if necessarily removed. We finally got to hold her and spend some time adjusting to our new roles, not only as parents, but parents of a child who just might need more attention than average. Finally, in the words of that classic Temptations track, "Papa Was A Rolling Stone", " was the third of September, that day I'll always remember" when we were able to take our progeny home with us (with, yes, the Jerry Lewis Telethon playing on the TV set in the background as we checked out of the Birthing Center--it's funny what sticks in your head...)

Was Julie's condition anyone's fault? I tended not to think so, figuring it was just one of those unavoidable accidents of nature, but who's to say? However, I did know spending all our time and energy suing someone wasn't going to help Julie a whole lot, and besides, we preferred to think positive. Luckily, we had a couple of years of continual improvement under our belts before Lynn stumbled onto a medical program on cable television that dealt with a situation analogous to that of our daughter's. That's when we realized exactly WHY the doctor's seemed so reticent with their long-range prognosis--clearly, Julie was already towards the top twenty per cent of cases that make full or nearly full recoveries. She probably was never gonna make it all the way to one hundred per cent, but, as we learned from the tube, it could've been worse, far, far worse. Y'know, maybe it was a GOOD thing the docs didn't lay it all out for us. It was easier just hoping for the best when no one had filled your head with visions of the worst.

Julie had what they called "developmental delays". Hypotonia was the medical term, I believe. Basically, it meant that everything happened later for her. She took her first unassisted steps at 26 months, and truly began running (as opposed to merely walking fast) just after turning five. All her concerns were physical, though, and I still beam with pride when she identified more vocabulary words during a test given to her at age four than any other child her speech therapist yet encountered!! Yup, she was one smart kid--and happy, too. We were all going to get through this, and we weren't going to do it alone.

During those early years, starting right after she turned two, Julie was afforded first part-time, and then full-time, physical, speech, and whatever-else other therapies deemed necessary for her, all without cost to us--AND, in the latter years, during full day pre-school programs! Other folks paid a pretty penny to have their toddlers taken care of during the day, but we got all these services for free!?! Okay, we certainly did pay a price of sorts for this so-called bargain, but hey, I've gotta make lemonade out of that nasty ol' lemon somehow, comprende? In any event, these early intervention programs wound up doing her--and us--a lotta good. Would she have progressed as nicely on her own? Probably, but it was still good to have this safety net available to us.

After that, school started in earnest, and Julie's outgoing personality and sweet demeanor generally won over any of the kids who might've been concerned by her still noticeable deficiencies. Still, that didn't mean there weren't a few ugly incidents--though they were on behalf of the parents and not the kids. On two separate occasions during the first grade, Julie visited a pair of enthusiastic friends whose folks were all too happy to have her as a guest--until they got a good look at her. Without knowing her full story, without even asking, Julie was no longer welcome as an after school pal for their daughters. I didn't even realize what was happening the first time this occurred, assuming their excuses and unreturned phone calls were legit, but eventually, even I get the message. Happily, that's never happened since. Not every kid she's come into contact likes Julie, of course, and that's fine. That's to be expected. But when a kid DOES like her, only to be denied access due to the prejudice's of a parent--well, I immediately felt tremendous empathy for folks whose children might be considered in even more dire straits than ours was (and THEN, somehow, I felt guilty for even thinking that!?!...)

As the years wore on, Julie has developed pretty close to the point where she should be. Oh, if you met her, you might detect a certain cadence to her voice that indicates a slightly shorter than average breath intake, and she's always likely to finish towards the back of the pack during a foot race, but the Julie who turns 13 today would have to be considered far luckier than the Julie who popped out 13 years ago gasping for air. We don't think of her as being handicapped--no one who gets to know her does--and I've been reluctant to share these facts with you, my loyal readers, as I didn't want any of this to come across in an overly sentimental, syrupy manner. This is her life--this is OUR lives--and things are going along just fine, thank you very much!

Lynn and I love the kid like you wouldn't believe, naturally, and there are even times when I think she might feel the same way!?! Yeah, she's got her own way of doing things, and not surprisingly, they don't always coincide with the way WE might consider best. And is she spoiled? Hey, what only child ISN'T? But especially since, in her earliest years, Julie truthfully needed our help to accomplish even the smallest of tasks. Thus, as time went on, and she became more and more capable, she also became more and more crafty, conning us time and again into helping her do things she long ago had mastered! Why? Because she could, is why. But she's also a loyal and generous friend, an inquisitive and steady (if not overly studious) student, and in general, a happy, outgoing kid. She ain't perfect--I'll spare you the chapter-and-verse of some of our heated if ultimately silly arguments--but then, her parents aren't always perfect either! I guess you could say, all in all, things have worked out rather nicely.

You know how I can tell?

Simple. This teen thing has got me shaking in my socks--and I ask you folks, if THAT'S not normal, what IS? (Happy birthday, kid! Hope we ALL make it to 14!!...)

August 16th, 2003

A massive blackout, ranging far and wide. No power, no electricity, no creature comforts. Scampering for candles, batteries, and a transistor radio that actually works. In times like these, there's only one name that immediately comes to mind:

Soupy Sales.

Okay, to MY mind, let's be clear--I never said I expected YOU to think of the former Milton Supman first under these precarious circumstances! That's just me, and if you'll hang on for a bit I'll explain. As best I can, anyway...

Y'see, I have the ability to be, shall we say, somewhat compulsive? Nothing for the clinical journals, mind you, but anybody who's into collecting in any more than just a casual manner--and I'd have to plead guilty to fitting THAT description--has to have that curious capacity within themselves. I had it. I still have it. I'll probably never get rid of it, and the only thing I can do with it is harness it in unique and original ways. And back in 1965, I thought I'd found just such a way...

I'd loved Soupy Sales for years by the time I was twelve. Heaven help me, but I still do. I'm not entirely sure what it was that appealed to me about his kiddie-show-for-grown-ups, as the jokes were older than my parents by the time Soupy got ahold of them (the jokes, not my parents...). I think it was the absolute infectious delight Mr. Sales had in delivering his material--good, bad, or ancient--in front of a television camera. Simply put, he broke himself up, and that in turn broke ME up! And the crew!--Soupy worked with a couple of hilarious hand puppets, but you almost never saw another human on screen with him. Still, you were well aware he wasn't in that studio alone, though, as the cameramen and other crew members could always be heard laughing at Soupy's antics. It was a big ol' party, one obviously aimed at a more sophisticated brand of kiddie konsumers, not unlike Stan Lee's early Marvel Comics. Stan and Soupy--is it any wonder I loved 'em both?

So what do you do when you worship something? Why, you make it as much a part of your life as humanly possible, of course. With the comics, that was relatively simple--you buy all of 'em, read and reread 'em, and safely sock 'em away. With Soupy, well, you watch him every chance you possibly can! Now, that was no small order in 1965, as he was at the peak of his popularity, and was being broadcast six times a week. WNEW Channel 5 in New York beamed his program out to us frantic fans from 6:30 until 7pm Monday through Friday evenings, and then gave us a full hour of our hero on Saturdays commencing at 6. And on Sunday? Not meaning to offend, but not unlike other deities before him, on the seventh day, he rested...

I watched him often and I watched him eagerly, but somewhere around September of 1965 I got this peculiar notion--why not watch Soupy EVERDAY without fail, amassing a consecutive streak of program viewing whose total would someday go down...well, exactly WHERE, I couldn't really say. I don't think the Guinness Book of World Records was widely known in those long-ago days, if even in actual existence. But it didn't matter--I was gonna set a record for Soupy viewing that'd be unrivaled anywhere, anytime, by anybody!! Or so I liked to think. And since there was no real official organization to share my ongoing quest with, I instead chose to share my progress with my friends!...

You know WHY they're called "friends"? Because who else would put up with a daily update on the previous evening's serving of Soup, with a hopelessly smug emphasis on the ever mounting total reached by young Fred, Soupy Fan(atic) #!? They liked me, honestly they did, but as the days wore on and my inanely empty accomplishment grew momentum not unlike a rock rolling down a mountainside and heading straight toward their woe begotten homes, I must shamefacedly admit I became more and more insufferable! Bragging is a bad enough quality in a person, but bragging about the number of consecutive episodes you've logged monitoring the Soupy Sales Show? It's a wonder I had any friends left at ALL after a while!?!

Remember, please, this was back in an era when we kids had to walk to school two miles in the snow without shoes--AND had to watch our favorite TV shows when they were on, with no VCRs or TiVos to fall back on as a crutch!?! It was, truly, the dark ages of home entertainment. Of course, in the fall and winter, being home by 6:30 wasn't much of a stretch--the summer might prove to be problematic, if things ever reached that far..

The first true glitch occurred one Saturday afternoon when my best buddy Chris invited me to go shopping with him and his family. Hey, how can you pass up hanging out with your pal on the weekend, I ask you? And besides, we started out way early enough so that I figured there'd be absolutely no problem getting home in time for the ol' Soupster. Little did I know...

Chris's folks were always great to me, understand, but I hadn't taken into consideration just how casually they went about their weekend shopping. I was far more accustomed to my own parents more direct, no-nonsense, get-in, get-out way of doing things. Alas, as the hour of six was fast approaching, we were nowhere near home--in fact, we weren't even in the car HEADING there!?! I'll always remember Chris--probably the number one person I inflicted my ridiculous record repeatedly on--sincerely pleading with his father, "But dad, we've GOTTA get home!! Fred's CAN'T miss Soupy Sales--he's working on a record, y'know--!?!" And bless 'em both--it worked! I may've missed the first 15 minutes--acceptable, it was soon decided by all--but I made it! I ALSO vividly recall Mr. V muttering under his breath as we drove home, "Soupy Sales..." with some choice Dutch curse words added for proper effect...

So everything went along swimmingly until--oh, you're ahead of me, are you? Yup, the power went out all over the Northeast that cold November afternoon back in '65. In those more innocent--albeit stupider--times, my first thoughts weren't, "Is this terrorism?" No, I had a far more urgent--and hopelessly trivial--concern: "Will the power be back on in time for Soupy??" Well, as history teaches us, it wasn't. Not even close. And to say I suffered all the while--waiting and hoping for the flicker of the television screen to return so as not to have my dubious record wiped out of some non-existent record book--well, that would be all too true. No lights I could deal with--no Soupy, I COULDN'T!

But no Soupy there was, and the next morning, electricity restored and school back in session, I ambled out of my house, a defeated and depressed man (boy, actually), heading off to meet Chris at the bus stop. Best friend or not, he could barely contain his glee as he practically gloated at the premature conclusion of my ongoing obsession and by now constant source of his annoyance. Yes, all in all, it was a sad, sad day--UNTIL I got home!!

That's when I discovered the fact that the WNEW broadcast facilities had been knocked out the previous evening, just like everything else had been!! Hallelujah!! You know what that meant, don't you? I couldn't have missed the Soupy Sales show because of the big blackout, because--well, BECAUSE of the big blackout, there'd BEEN no Soupy Sales show! My madness was intact, my friend's weariness with my compulsion continued, and Soupy? Soupy was as funny as ever, which was a good thing, since I'd sentenced myself to watching him each and every day, with no possible reprieve. Yes, Soupy was funny, and I laughed, even if I had to occasionally force myself...

How did it all end you ask--or DID it end? Yeah, it did. I'd notched over a hundred consecutive episodes by early February of 1966--and frankly, after hitting the three digit mark, I was weary of the self-imposed pressure. Soupy should be enjoyed, but I had inadvertantly turned watching him into a chore, one met with less and less enthusiasm each passing day. Still, I couldn't just STOP. I needed a legitimate out of some kind.

Luckily, that's where my buddy Greg came in. He was having a birthday party, y'see, but it wasn't gonna be just any party--GIRLS were gonna be there!?! This was seventh grade, remember, and inviting girls to your birthday party, well, it just hadn't been done before, at least not in MY circle!! There were even some amongst us who didn't wish to attend for that very reason--and a debate of sorts ensued--but I was not among the naysayers! No, I assure you, there was virtually NO question regarding my attendance, so I gladly dropped my Soupy Quest for the chance to stand across the room from a handful of 12 and 13 year old girls, and eye them with a mixture of awe, fear, and suspicion. Naw, I didn't actually TALK to 'em--hardly any of us fellas did--but it was enough just being in the same room with females outside of a classroom setting! But I'd be lying if if the thought of asking Greg to turn on the TV so that maybe--just maybe--I could take in a few minutes of that night's Soupy shows and keep my record intact didn't at least cross my mind. (Oh yeah--THAT would've impressed the ladies no end! "Wanna hear about my record, Joanne? And I do a GREAT White Tooth imitation, Christine--listen!...")

And as for the blackout of 1977, well, I was visiting my lovely bride to be, Lynn, at her home not far from here. I know this because that dastardly lightning bolt struck the very day before her birthday, so where else would I be? No other memories, though (Soupy was off the air by then, y'see...)

Thursday I was out in the pool, chatting with my mother-in-law, Terry, when the circuits went dead. It was a particularly hot day, so she'd come over earlier to swim. I'd stayed inside working on some drawings, but finally joined her around 3. Neither of us knew what had happened until close to 5 when I went in the house to check the time and prepare dinner in expectation of Lynn's eventual return home from IBM. Lynn did arrive home soon thereafter, but it took close to an hour for her to wend her way through the powerless streets as opposed to her usual 20 minutes when the lights were operating in both their green and red modes.

We ate some cold food, listened to the radio, lit a few candles, and went to bed way too early for my tastes. Grandma slept over, using Julie's vacant bed--she was finishing up her last night at camp when things went dark (no good stories there, either). The power returned at 4am, eleven hours and forty five minutes after it went away, and I can't say we suffered overmuch. Oh, I missed taping the 4th episode of "West Wing" on Bravo, since this was a series I hadn't begun watching until midway into their second season, but no problemo--it'll turn up soon enough during the next repeat cycle, no doubt. No, my happy little family made out relatively okedoke--we even had running water. Our experience was nothing like the many trials and tribulations so many other folks out there were put through.

And it was certainly nowhere NEAR as painful as laboring under the impression that I'd missed a crucial episode of the Soupy Sales show, believe you me!!

(Now THERE'S a phrase you don't hear every day--"Crucial episode of the Soupy Sales show"!?! What OTHER site's gonna give you a blackout anecdote like the preceding? If we're all lucky, very, very few!?!...)

August 12th, 2003

The venerable and totally Marvelous Mr. Stan Lee (left) seen here at a recent convention appearance with unidentified onlooker.
Forget about Oprah and her cockamamie Book Club! I'm signing up for the Rocco Nigro Reading Roundtable as soon as I can!! Even if there is no such thing--yet!...

Y'see, after turning me on to the Carmine Infantino tome a few weeks back, friend Rocco's enthusiastic recommendation then pointed me in the direction of "Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee" by Stan Lee (natch!) and George Mair, the Marvel legend's recently released autobiography. In point of fact, Rocco was nudged into purchasing said saga by our mutual pal--and everyone's favorite inker--Terry Austin, so ultimately it's Mr. A I have to thank for getting me to put my nose firmly in this book.

Oh sure, I'd bought a copy when it came out--how could I not?--but frankly, the odds of it making it onto my "must read" list anytime soon seemed slim at best. After all, I've been with Stan pretty much since the beginning of the halcyon Marvel Age he helped usher in. I've read all the comics, all the Soapboxes, all the interviews, all the reprint collection introductions--virtually everything the Man has written or said for the record in the last forty years, and inasmuch as no one would ever accuse him of being shy, what new information could I POSSIBLY glean from what I fully expected to be a hastily cobbled together conglomeration of Stan's greatest--and most familiar--anecdotes? Well, as it turns out, true believers, a whole heckuva lot!!

Far from focusing solely on his triumphs post-FANTASTIC FOUR #1 to the exclusion of most everything else, our intrepid journalist doesn't even REACH that watershed event in his recounting until, amazingly, page 111 in this too-slim-leaves-you-begging-for-more-246-total-pages-volume! And while pages 111 on have their rewards, it's those first 110 that I found so disarmingly endearing. Yes, I said "endearing"--you just TRY reading this book and NOT come away eminently charmed by it's subject/author!?!

(As for that OTHER name on the masthead, well, Mr. Mair isn't Stan's co-writer in the traditional sense. His italicized asides are inserted to cover matters of dry historical chronology, leaving all the fun stuff--and likely at least two thirds of the text--to Stan. Because after all, as I wondered aloud when I initially picked up this popularly priced paperback, "WHY on earth would Stan Lee of all people need a ghost writer to help tell his tale??" Turns out he didn't.)

For the sake of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I have deeply fond feelings for Stan Lee commensurate to the laugh-a-minute, fun-loving uncle I never actually had but always wished for! Growing up, he had as much influence on me as any other adult that I came into contact with on a daily basis (sorry, mom and dad, but it's true), and the only way he could've impressed me more would've been if he were somehow revealed to be the fifth Beatle!?! Murray the K had nothing on Stan, lemme tell ya!...

I was fortunate enough to meet him while visiting the Marvel offices during the early eighties, and even luckier still to actually work with him on a project back in 1990! As I explained in my piece in THE COMICS JOURNAL'S infamous Stan Lee issue a few years back, while that proposed animated cartoon quickly crashed and burned, I don't think I've ever had a bigger thrill in my so-called professional life than my brief but shining moment serving as Stan's humble collaborator! In time, I'll no doubt go into further details regarding the matter here at Hembeck/dot/blahblahblah, but for now, we'll leave that subject for an amorphous future date, with perhaps only one question remaining glaringly unanswered: gee, I wonder why he didn't call ME to help him out with that "Stripperella" thing?...

Yeah, it's no secret that I've been entranced by Stan's peppy patter almost from the outset, which for me would've been the fourth ground-breaking issue of FANTASTIC FOUR. No denying the stories themselves were intriguing, while the Kirby (or Ditko) art was fresh and dynamic, but what REALLY hooked me was Stan's unique editorial presence. For a complete neophyte,I somehow glommed onto these lettercol voices early on, and by late 1962, there were three outstandingly individual ones to my mind: the Superman Family's Mort Weisinger, DC Comics Silver Age architect Julie Schwartz, and the guru of the yet-to-be-christened-Marvel Comics, Stan Lee.

Mort, who got me started off on this whole crazy ride in the first place, seemed to try desperately to relate to kids, but despite himself, he always appeared to be talking down to them. He mostly gave us what an adult would imagine--without any real solid evidence--we wanted. And should anyone question his judgment along these lines in his letter columns, well goodness--that just seemed to open the door for a defensive, petulant, and superior (take your pick, or mix and match) reply from the man guiding the fate of Krypton's most celebrated survivor. Weisinger tried to be our friend, but as soon as we got old enough to understand exactly where he was coming from, we kids made sure to unceremoniously ditch him. (Almost a half century later, though, I find his books exasperatingly entertaining, if only because, in addition to their being very well-crafted, they blatantly display the misguided concerns, prejudices, and preoccupations of a very peculiar individual!?!...)

Julie Schwartz, by sharp contrast, always treated his readers as if they actually had a modicum of intelligence, and even at times took subtle swipes at some of his long-time colleagues' more egregious tendencies. Still, Julie maintained a formal distance between himself and his readers, and while there may have been an obvious mutual respect between the two sides, there was very little emotion evident. Much like the stories, as impeccably produced as they may have been, oft-times found in editor Schwartz's books...

And then along came Stan. Out went the heretofore standard "Dear Editor" jazz, in came "Dear Stan and (important point here) Jack" in it's stead. Whining over perceived slights were nowhere to be found, replaced instead by the admission that there are, even in the world of comic books, room for differing viewpoints, even--gasp!--admissions of erring from on high! And maybe most importantly, there was a playful, fun, two-way communication between readers and creators that had never been seen before (at least by me--no need to write, EC fans). Yeah, the guys putting these funnybooks together were all adults, but they were the sort of adults kids wouldn't mind actually spending some time with, not merely hope to escape from! Plunk down 12 cents in 1963 for the Marvel mag of your choice--or better yet, buy 'em ALL!!--and you'd not only get a way cool story, some amazingly thrilling artwork, but more than a few uplifting and encouraging words from every ten year olds favorite fortysomething, good ol' Stan!!

Oh, I realize it developed into some sort of a shtick as the years wore on and success bred still more success, but it truly was startlingly original in the beginning. Sorta like, as much as I admire and appreciate their more sophisticated "White Album" and "Abbey Road" periods, it's the "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" era that'll always instantly bring a smile to my face when I think back on that OTHER fantastic foursome, the Beatles. And it's the same way with Stan's evolving presence in Marvel Comics. Nothing tops those intimate "Special Announcements" sections that he included in the 1963 FF and Spidey lettercols. As the firm expanded, the comics checklists became, by necessity, more packaged, appearing in the same guise all across the line. But by golly, I'm here to confess, at age ten, I pretty much lived merely to soak up whatever information Stan chose to pepper those nascent communiques with!!

And in his book--hey,remember the book?--Stan admits that the whole thing was carefully planned on his part! He tried to get chummy with us youngsters because he realized that by gaining our loyalties, he'd also gain our business! Now, you might wonder, does that somehow disappoint me to learn, after all these many years, that buddying up to me and my pint-sized peers was but a calculated move on the part of our beloved Stan? No! And I'll tell you why: while he may've been employing tricks picked up from the advertising trade, he was still, when you came right down to it, being himself. If you're trying to project being lovable, it helps immeasurably if you actually ARE lovable in your day-to-day persona. Hey, you don't think Weisinger was trying to chummy on up to us kids, hoping to finesse us out of our pennies? You bet he was--and you can also bet we kids could spot his basic insincerity a mile away. In his case, it was far more creepy than chummy. Stan, of course, was just doing his job, trying to sell comic books for Martin Goodman, sure, BUT his enthusiasm seemed then--and still does now--wholeheartedly sincere. That's not to say he couldn't lapse into a veritable mode of self-parodying hype from time to time, especially as the years wore on, but I'm convinced that, at the base of it all, lies a genuine honesty.

Take a look at all the myriad interviews with some of comicdom's elder workforce appearing yonder and non, and listen to what they all, pretty much to a man (and the occasional woman) say about the celebrated Mr. Lee--he was fun, he was enthusiastic, and back in the forties and fifties, he didn't screw freelancer's anywhere near what was the industry's then norm!?! That's gotta tell you SOMETHING!?! About the only fella I can recall having any negative issues with Stan was the late Wally Wood. Despite possessing obviously monumental talent, other more lamentable aspects of Mr. Wood's life might lead one to believe that he may not've been the best judge of character. Certainly, I never met the man, so this is all speculation on my part, but perhaps, in the final estimation, Stan's appearance on Wally's infamous little @#$% list should be discounted, agreed?

What comes across in this timeless tome, then, is the warm, sincere fellow that I happily discovered in those early letter columns. Stan seems to have understood that you don't get to write your autobiography more than once (usually) and thus strived to produce some of his very best work. Mixing in a low-key sense of humor throughout (I chuckled frequently) with a series of casually related but surprisingly revealing reminiscences, one comes away from this book liking it's subject even more than they had before picking it up! It happened to me--Rocco, too. We were both particularly fascinated with the tales of Stan's early life--his family, his army stint, his pre-comics employment. Why, he even manages to quietly sneak in a few words about losing his virginity in such an amusing and gentle manner that you're quite a few pages along before you stop dead in your tracks, look up with jaw properly dropped, and wonder out loud, "Good golly gosh--did I just read what I just thought I read?" (At the very least, it'll help prepare you for the passage not all that far ahead concerning Stan and the, ahem, friendly hooker!?!...)

The Timely days. Simon and Kirby. And distant relative/boss Martin Goodman. They're all here. And the many references to Goodman are eyeopening, especially to those critics who latched on to charges of nepotism in their misguided efforts to diminish Stan's achievements. Nice guy though he may be, he still doesn't have a whole lot positive to say about his erstwhile employer's business acumen. Of course, we're only privy to one side of the story here, but Stan's perspective is illuminating nonetheless.

No, controversy isn't ducked by any means within "Excelsior!"'s pages, but neither is it thrust front and center. Long running differences between both Lee and Kirby and Lee and Ditko regarding the dicey issue of creator credits are handled deftly, and in a manner meant not to shortchange in any way two of his greatest collaborators, while still declaring, hey, I had something important to do with cooking up these characters, too, y'know! (Fact is, Stan seems to shy away from the subject of long-time favorite but clear-cut Kirby Kreation, the Silver Surfer, so as to not open up THAT can of worms, while Captain America is identified early on as springing solely from the S&K stable, with little follow up information given regarding his sixties revival) And then there's a whole chapter dealing with that Internet site fiasco that had his name attached to it from just a few years back (Did you know I worked on that ill-fated project, too, though my efforts never quite made it online? Yup! Well, another time for THAT story!...). Stan sheepishly spends most of the chapter castigating himself for his stupidity and his trusting nature. It's almost as excruciating as when Stan relates being ushered in and out of the executive suites in recent years as the seemingly revolving door of top Marvel brass changed with dizzying regularity, as the very man who was responsible for putting these fat cats in their luxuriously upholstered chairs in the first place still felt some need to curry favor with them. But it's really not all that much of a stretch for our Mr. Lee--clearly, Stan is a people person, and always has been. Since most--if not all--of these bloated bigwigs were people, it works out. Mostly. Look, the man charmed me when I was but a lad of ten, and he can certainly charm these overpaid knuckleheads now, believe you me! And I say, great--more power to him!!

Obviously, his wife of long-standing (and, no doubt, more than occasional sitting), Joan wasn't immune to those potent charms of his (Stan's latent mutant abilities, don'tcha know?..). An awful lot of the text is devoted to the missus--as well as to daughter Joanie--and while I know some comics fans might prefer long asides concerning exactly which size pen nib Don Heck used while inking Iron Man, I find it refreshing that Stan gives that much ink to the two people who--despite the readers undying love for the original cast of Marvel Bullpenners--are undoubtedly the most important folks in his life! Too often, I find that you come across bios where the author says, almost as an aside, "Then I met Matilda, we got married, and two years later, the twins, Harry and Lucy, arrived. Now, back to ME..." That's not the way things happened in Stan Lee's life, as he clearly didn't live it in a vacuum. But worry not--even if you're not a huge fan of hopelessly happy marriages, everything is dealt with so briskly and with such breezily good humor, even the hardest-hearted reader amongst you wouldn't suffer overmuch from the tales of the Lee's blissful union!

And then there's the birth of Marvel Comics. Perhaps the most tread over ground in this tract, Stan nonetheless was able to make this retelling seem fresh, largely by including details concerning publisher Goodman's sometimes unfathomable reactions to his companies unexpected good fortune--and his apparent festering resentment towards it's architect, his employee and distant kid relative, the former Stanley Lieber. Now, some of the stories are understandably told in shorthand fashion--the Hulk is a go from day one, for instance; no mention of his cancellation after 6 issues, subsequent banishment to limbo for little over a year, and triumphant return that REALLY launches the big green lug--because those are the small (if not inconsequential) details that mostly interest us scholarly comics types but don't mean much to the general public, the very audience this broadly-brushed personal yet historical account is clearly aimed towards. However, in all fairness, and considering how I raked Carmine over the coals for certain allegations in HIS book not all too long ago, there ARE several nits I feel duty bound to pick...

Stan claims that he was playing provacateur by making his Iron Man character a munitions and weapons manufacturer for the military in his civilian identity of Tony Stark, since in 1963, kids were on an anti-war kick and the last thing they wanted to read about was a hero who worked for the government. I beg to differ. The anti-establishment trend didn't really manifest itself until the Viet Nam war was well under way, 1967 being when things really began to heat up. You could possibly say 1966, but certainly not way back in '63. Fact is, during those first two or three years, most of Marvel's newly-minted heroes were relentlessly--and hawkishly--battling the Red Menace, with even the likes of the Norse God Thor facing off against the hated Commies!! So while it makes for a nice story, I'm betting Stan's famously slip-shod memory juxtaposed the dates in his mind, and came up with a wholly logical--if mostly erroneous-- historical tidbit. Yup, I'm sure that's what happened...

Then there's the saga of circumstances surrounding the birth of SGT FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS. Goodman contended the surprising success of the early Marvel books had a great deal to do with their strong titles, while Stan (rightly) argued for their fresh approach to story and art. Finally, to prove himself right and his boss wrong, he claims he purposely came up with as lousy a title as any this side of BROTHER POWER, THE GEEK--the aforementioned Sarge and charges, of course-- then made it a war book to boot, but bestowed upon it the freshly hatched Marvel Style so as to see exactly what it was that propelled the new line of books on and then rapidly off the newsstands. And yup, it sold, dumb title and all!!

Now, this one I believe--up to a point. I seem to recall Stan making fun of the title pretty much from the book's launch, with his main selling point being his promise that it'd be told in the now popular Marvel Style!! Still, I doubt Goodman issued a book with a deliberately lame title just to prove a point. Who knows the real story for sure, but my guess would be that Merry Martin saddled Stan with the title AND the unpopular war genre, seeing if Stan could rise to the challenge of making it a success. Which he did, but clearly by utilizing his new-fangled way, not the way they used to do it in the Atlas Comics of the fifties. Or somesuch. It's a minor point, but one that stuck in my proverbial craw, and after all the sickeningly sweet plaudits I've showered Stan with, I wanted to prove to you, my faithful readers, that yes, when necessary, I CAN be tough!! Grrr, y'all!

There's not much else to say, except to go out and grab yourself a copy of this delightful book if you haven't already. Odds are, after you finish reading it, you'll feel better about the entire comics medium, about Stan, even about yourself!! "Excelsior!"--good for what ails ya!! Just like Stan Lee! Thanks, pilgrim! May you always hang loose (but refrain from hanging around any more of those loose women, comprende?)

More than "nuff said!!

(...except to add that the "unidentified onlooker" in the photo above is none other than the fine fellow who supplied me with that exclusive shot of Stan, my good buddy and favorite boss, Jim Salicrup!! Please excuse my little jest, Jim--Fred must have his little joke, no? Yes!!)

Oh, and Rocco--what's our NEXT book? We're all waiting anxiously to find out! I hear there's several editions concerning an Alan Moore set for release?...

August 11th, 2003

I met Jack Kirby once.

Oh, I suppose I would've eventually gotten around to telling you all about it sometime, but as it turns out, the first word about this momentous occasion somehow found it's way onto grandson Jeremy Kirby's brand new web-site, (which I initially learned about over at--where else?--Mark Evanier's indispensable Notes From ME site. Just like always. ).

Y'see, I'm always encouraging folks to stop in and sign my guestbook, and it finally occurred to me that maybe I should follow my own advice for a change. So, for the first time ever, I decided to leave my mark over at the appropriate spot on Jeremy's heartfelt tribute to his grandiose grandfather. What better anecdote than the tale of my weekend sharing a table at a long-ago comics con with the King? Knowing space was limited, I tried my best to be terse, really I did, but when Lynn shuffled by and saw just how much I'd typed, she scoffed at the very notion that I'd even ATTEMPTED to keep things short!?! I had, but--turns out she wasn't off base--when I submitted my thoughts, they were rejected as being--uh huh--too long. Hard to believe, just plain hard to believe...

So I waited a day, edited my piece up in my noggin, and tried again. This time, success! Still, the whole process had stirred up a passel of memories in my hairy little head, and they had to show up SOMEWHERE! But no, not here. Since a cover redo was featured peripherally in the saga, I elected to retell the tale--in an expanded format, natch! (WAY expanded...)--over in the "Classic Cover Redos" section of

Funny thing is, while I have a section clearly labelled "Life Story" here on site, so far there's but a single entry posted there. But as you all know, that clearly hasn't stopped me from sprinkling my autobiographical nuggets all over the map, whether it be here in "Fred Sez", in the "More" area, or most especially accompanying the cover redos. As you may've noticed by now, more often than not, my commentaries sometimes have only a passing connection with the actual cover I'm allegedly rambling about. The brand new AVENGERS #25 commentary (not AVENGERS #20, as I erroneously reported over at the Kirby site--sorry for riddling your guestbook with slipshod boo-boos, Jeremy!...) is a prime example of that peculiar personal proclivity. Oh, and stay tuned for the ALL STAR COMICS #3 revamp that follows--oddly enough, the two are connected? How? Go take a gander for yourself, friend! It don't cost a thing! (But if you'd like to contribute a little something to the coffers, well, don't let me stop you...)

Since I wasn't sure how many of you who regularly check out this jaunty journal expand your vistas into other sections of this site , I thought I'd clue you into something over yonder that you might well find amusing. So take a look. And then, check out Jeremy's site. Then, Mark's. After that? Afraid you're on your own, pal, but if it's anything that includes scantily-clad cuties, remember, you didn't hear about it from me, got that? Good. Now, go!

August 8th, 2003

You ever wonder what the backpack of the future might look like? What will it be made of, for example, or will it have computer access, and most importantly, can it core a apple?

No, gang, I'm not launching into a modified version of that classic "Honeymooners" routine, but just easing you into a few words about the visit Lynn and I paid our daughter at EXCITE camp this morning!

Yes, that's right--EXCITE camp (all caps), a relatively new event that IBM schedules annually. I believe this is just the fourth year of the week-long program, a program whose express purpose is to demonstrate to young girls (grades 7 and 8, mostly, though a few younger ones occasionally sneak in) that yes, science and math can indeed be FUN!! So when you little ladies grow a bit, don't forget to consider a career in technology if that application to Beauty School somehow gets lost in the mail!?! And to entice parents into going along with this low-level method of indoctrination, the whole blamed thing is FREE!?! No tuition, no costly accessories--why, even the food--and there's a LOT of it--is on the house!?! No lunches to pack! Wow! Good deal! But there must be a catch, you say? Well, yeah...

The main one is simply this--you don't look to sign up for EXCITE camp, EXCITE camp looks to sign YOU up! In other words, it's by invitation only. And the way you get invited is to have your school's science teacher recommend you as a potential candidate. Since each camp can only accommodate 30 girls, and since this is drawn from several different schools, being chosen as potentially one of the best students in your math and science classes could well be considered a high honor. Or, of course you could also follow the recruiting method Julie's particular teacher utilized--hastily hand out the applications a day before they were due to come back signed and sealed to the three girls in class who not-so-coincidentally actually have at least one parent working at the local IBM plant!?!...

Luckily, Julie more or less excels in those areas, so she may've actually made it in on her own merit. Of course, we'll never know for certain. See, that's the OTHER drawback--once you attend a week of EXCITE camp, you can never, ever go back. Nothing sinister, mind you--they just want to spread the opportunity out to as many girls as possible, and repeat visits prevent this wealth of scholarly amusement from being properly spread about. We know this for a fact since Julie's pal Deanna was also chosen during this year's slipshod nominating process, but she was declared ineligible when the head EXCITERS discovered she'd attended a week the summer after 5th grade. So, as much fun as Julie is having--and she IS, we've been assured, having fun--after today, it's all over. Forever. Finished. Done. (Excuse me, but I'm... sniff...getting a little misty-eyed just at the...sniff... thought...)

So there we were, huddled in a conference room at 8AM with as many of the other parents as could be rounded up. We were about to witness demonstrations of what these junior scientists had been working on over the previous four days. They were broken down into groups of 5 and 6, and each assigned a project to concoct. After a rather long-winded but sprightly introduction given by the camp's head counselor (of sorts), we were treated to the Closet of the Future (with, undoubtedly a secret section to stash those pesky apple cores away in!), a makeshift model of a roller coaster, plans for a high-tech sports arena, computer animation teaching fashion dos and don'ts, and the aforementioned backpack.

Julie's group was the second one to take the stage, and while the other girls took turns reading material off the computer and projected overhead on a screen with the typical delivery of a kid reading aloud in class, my daughter and another girl stood over to the side, silently. What's going on, I wondered? I should've known--when the reading came to a close, Julie grabbed the Flash Gordonish bookbag and piped up with, "Now, for a demonstration!"

Please understand, the kid is a ham. While not the most gifted of speakers, she has no fear whatsoever of getting out there and just letting loose. She also has the tendency to giggle at her own material, though, happily, today she managed to keep THAT proclivity to a minimum. Mid-way through, though, she was clearly fading on the details, so she turned to her associate, and after a pause, said, "YOU talk now!", which got her one of the half-dozen or so laughs she racked up. Probably the biggest was at the end of the demonstration when it was traditional to ask the audience for queries. After asking the assemblage if they had any questions, only to be met by a momentary silence, she shot back in a rather commanding tone, "C'mon people!?", causing an amused ripple to wash over the room!!

The backpack? Oh, it was pretty good, I guess. I'm not really one to assess science and math projects, understand. Julie gets all that from her mom's highly intelligent genes. Fact is, about the only thing I know about IBM is how to SPELL it!! But comedy? Yeah, THAT I know! And someday, who knows? Maybe Julie Hembeck will take her place alongside Mr. Wizard, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Carrot Top as a proud purveyor of infoyockment?!?

And even if she DOESN'T, hey we got us a free week of camp outta the deal, and I ask you, how bad can THAT be?...

August 4th, 2003

Growing up, Carmine Infantino was far and away my favorite DC Comics artist, and due in equal measure to sentiment on my part and indisputable talent on his, he's remained in that lofty position ever since (and checking in at number three all-time, behind Ditko and Kirby, natch...) And yet, it took me until just a few weeks ago to finally read "The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino", a book he wrote with the assistance of J. David Spurlock for Vanguard Productions back in 2000--and then, only at my pal Rocco's urging!?!...

I've never met Carmine Infantino, never even been in the same room with him. But as much as I dearly love his artwork on the Flash, Batman, Adam Strange, and yes, Strange Sports Stories in the early sixties--and I'd venture to say that his eighties material was more satisfying than that produced by my OTHER big two during that particular decade--a persona has grown around the man that's served to, right or wrong, scare me off a bit. In my mind, the ground-breaking sleek design work Infantino is so justly celebrated for has been somehow overshadowed by tales of the no-nonsense gruff executive bigwig, and much as I'd like to say otherwise, this tome doesn't exactly serve to dispel that image.

Still, there is a tenuous balance struck, and if nothing else, I've come to understand Carmine's time in the top spot at DC far better having read his (admittedly biased) side of the story. Not that I don't remain somewhat incredulous at some of his claims, but in the end, who am I to say he's not being entirely truthful? I certainly wasn't there. I just read the comics. I guess it's just that I've always made it a point to go over my funnybooks with an eagle eye, ferreting out credits wherever and however I can spot them, whether they be right there emblazoned across page one, or snuck in as an afterthought in a subsequent issue's letter column. In all my years reading Silver Age DC Comics--and I was pretty much there for the whole ride, gang--I never EVER saw the name of my beloved Carmine anywhere else but in the penciller's slot. However, reading this recounting of the era, Mr. I wants us to understand that he not only wrote Deadman, Bat Lash, and Wonder Woman stories, but he created Hawk and the Dove for Steve Ditko, co-created Kamandi with Jack Kirby, and--the one that originally had my eyebrows jarringly akimbo--co-wrote (saved, actually) the first two Superman movies with the estimable Mario Puzo!?!

(It was these brash assertions that caught friend Rocco's attention. As if in a fever dream, he'd trudge on from one untold tale to the next, emailing me practically every step of the way--"Hey Fred, you'll never believe what Carmine's claiming next!?!" With intriguing messages like that flowing in, how could I NOT investigate for myself?...)

I first read about the former publisher's heretofore unknown participation in the Christopher Reeve blockbusters several years back in an interview conducted by Jon Cooke for his fine publication, COMIC BOOK ARTIST. Initially, I found it immensely hard to swallow, but upon reflection--and hearing it again in this context--I'm far more willing to believe it. After all, the ONLY Superman movie that I've ever really liked was the first one (recall, please, that the second one was taken away from Dick Donner and given to Dick Lester, with only minimal portions of the Donner's footage--thus, Carmine's--used in the released film. Hey, why can't we have a DVD restoring Supes Two to it's original form, huh? Why not?) And the fact that he was given short shift regarding a promised screen credit after the film debuted following his unceremonious canning by DC, well, that sure doesn't strike me as all THAT far fetched, now does it?. Who knows? Maybe Carmine truly WAS the saving grace that launched that series!?! None of the rest of 'em even came close to the initial episode's quality, folks, at least not in my eyes.

The problem I have with all these claims, I suppose, is just WHY didn't he affix his name to these projects at the time of their publication? Oh, Infantino goes on to explain that he felt that part of his job was clearly to fix as much stuff as needed to be fixed and to do it for the company, not for any personal glory. Certainly, there's something to be said for that way of thinking. Unfortunately, when you then mosey on along years and years later, weighing in attempting to set the record straight, the long-time reader can't help but feel a little skeptical at some of the more..., shall we say, unusual assertions? But inasmuch as Carmine seems more than willing to claim busts like 'Jason's Quest" in SHOWCASE and hiring Joe Simon to create the immortal BROTHER POWER,THE GEEK just as readily as he is to latch onto some of DC's higher profile successes, well, maybe that gesture alone speaks volumes, eh?...

Unfortunately, given the rich subject matter, the book reads far too much like a Cliffs Notes overview of Carmine's long and fascinating career. A few quick words per subject, and boom--on to the next phase in comic's--and Infantino's--history. Sometimes this is all that's necessary, but more often than not, one is left wanting more, LOT'S more. Of Mort Meskin, he states somewhat cryptically, "Mort was a strange man, but very talented, and his work had a nice, delicate flair to it.". Now, maybe it's just plain old human nature, but since I'm familiar with Meskin the artist, I'm more intrigued concerning the observation regarding Meskin the man. Yet, that's the last we hear of the matter. Then why bring it up? If you're not gonna give us at least a hint as just HOW Meskin qualifies as "strange", then why even put the thought in our heads?

Then there's this odd observation mixed in amongst the tale of a teen-aged Carmine being summoned up to L'il Abner cartoonist Al Capp's ritzy apartment. In retelling the events leading up to the veteran cartoonists attempt to enlist the neophyte Infantino to be his assistant (unsuccessfully, as it turned out), we find this curious sentence: "Al called me in; Capp and his gorgeous young Israeli girlfriend had just gotten out of bed."!?! In a book that spares far too many details, we get THIS?!? Forget the nationality angle--when did this book suddenly morph into Penthouse Forum, I ask you?!? I was half expecting to next read about a torrid threesome, instead of Carmine's father urging his son to stay in school in lieu of taking Capp's big money!?!

And while the book's subject shares virtually nothing about his personal life with his readers--aside from some requisite childhood memories--it's one of many sidebar commentaries that provides an...interesting anecdote. Speaking of attending a fancy DC dinner with fellow young turks, Howard Chaykin and Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta relates the story of the trio chatting up a terrific looking woman that they were, frankly, surprised to find in attendance. Soon, our Carmine sidles over, takes her by the arm, and walks off. And to directly quote Kaluta, "Over his shoulder he said, "You boys couldn't afford her." She was his date, of course!" Uh, okay. And just exactly HOW are we to take that? Draw your own conclusions gang--nothing like the air of mystery, right? Ah well, maybe the publisher told Infantino that his book needed at least a hint of sex to sell...

As for violence, well, the only one who gets any sort of brutal workover is Batman creator Bob Kane (though his ghost, Shelly Moldoff, suffers some collateral damage). Now, there's no denying Carmine and Julie Schwartz saved that character in 1964 with their much needed "New Look " makeover, but in this instance, Carmine doesn't come anywhere NEAR to mincing words!?! "...the work just wasn't good" pretty much sums up Carmine--and my--estimation of what directly preceded him on DETECTIVE COMICS' venerable lead feature. And further, in retelling the story of how he and Julie cooked up a Batgirl character at the behest of the producers of the "Batman" TV show, he has this to say about an earlier young lass that went by the same name: "When Julie and I created the Batgirl we all know and love, we weren't even aware of Kane's short-lived embarrassment of a character"!?! Finally, Carmine gleefully explains just how exactly he got Batman's creator out of DC's hair--he promised Kane half what he was then getting to NOT provide DC with Batman art!! Since Bob had to pay his ghosts SOMETHING, this no doubt translated into pretty much the same amount of money as he had been getting before, so everybody won. Kane got his cash, Carmine got to assign "decent talent" on Batman, and Shelly Moldoff--oh, wait. He was out of a job, wasn't he? Guess this deal didn't work out that well for HIM, now did it, huh?...

Sorta like when Carmine went to the Philippines and hired a raft of very talented artists to help stave off a rumored strike against DC by their regular, homegrown, freelancers. DC paid the Filipino artists generously compared to the slave wages they were used to receiving from their own countrymen, but my question has always been, how much were they paid COMPARED to the American artists employed by DC at the time? Less, perhaps? Maybe even a LOT less?...

Regardless of what you might think about these business decisions, one has to admire the sheer amount of work Carmine was putting in for DC. When DC let him go, Carmine is justly proud in pointing out that it took four men--and one woman!--to handle the workload he had been alone carrying on his own broad shoulders!?! Yup, the man did some heavy lifting for ye olde National Periodical Publications, no doubt about it!

And then there are those intriguing "What ifs?" smattered throughout the manuscript. Stan Lee offers Carmine big bucks to bolt over to Marvel round about 1967--can you imagine the excitement THOSE comics would've generated? Whoa! The grace of Infantino's art in service of Stan's quintessential sixties scripting?? The mind absolutely boggles! Y'know, I had actually stopped buying the FLASH in a snit when Carmine abandoned it, since I certainly didn't find the stories at the time reason enough to hang in there, but when Ditko fled my even more beloved AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, there was a never even a moment's consideration of me bailing out and going elsewhere. The difference was simple: Stan Lee. Just the thought of Lee and Infantino joining forces makes me woozy--what a comic THAT would've been!?!

Alas, twas not to be, nor was Jack Kirby seriously in line to take over the entire Superman Family of titles, as the erstwhile publisher reveals within these pages. THAT would've been plenty interesting , as well, but perhaps, it's safe to say, in a whole 'nother way!?! If nothing else, it sure would've been fun to see how often the incidental details found on the costumes of the many members of the accurately named Legion of Super Heroes would've changed from panel to panel under Jack's enthusiastic if decidedly broad-stroke guidance!?!...

As far as Carmine's art, well, that's sufficiently covered in the book, with but a single exception: there's no mention of Sid Greene. While discussing the inking of Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson and Frank Giacoia at what passes for length in this slim volume, the fellow who embellished all his work during the last year of his sixties pencilling career--and in fact, most all of Schwartz's books at the time--gets nary a nod. Frankly, I always thought he overembellished everything and everybody--he made Anderson look SUBTLE by comparison--and I found it somewhat painful to see what he did to Infantino's pencils. Who knows? Maybe it was just as painful a memory for Carmine, and he wisely blocked it out of his mind? I don't think there's even a single example of the pairing in the entire book, matter of fact! Guess THAT'S my answer regarding Greene's stature in Carmine's estimation, huh?...

And if nothing else, this books solves the biggest question I've always had about it's subject: WHY did his style seem to change so dramatically and almost overnight? I mean, I'm currently reading the "Black Canary Archives", featuring stories Infantino pencilled in the late forties. I like to think I have a pretty good eye for cartoonists, but almost nothing in the heavily Caniff-derived style showcased therein looks at all like the artwork I fell head over heels in love with in 1961!! Heck, even some of the earliest Flash stories lack that certain something. Turns out that that "certain something" was simply going back to school in 1960--the School of Visual Arts, to be precise--and studying design taught by a fella named Jack Potter. Infantino himself says what he learned was monumental, and just by looking at what subsequently wound up down on the page, one is hard pressed to argue with him. His work took a quantum leap, and while most would be satisfied with that, you can see why, from a man with as much drive as Carmine obviously possesses, he wasn't. No, he can't help but wonder where he would've gone next if his editorial duties hadn't interrupted his artistic growth. Oh sure, he went back to the drawing board years later, and while I may've been more than happy with what he produced during that later period, reading this book, I can now fully understand why Carmine might not've been.

Carmine Infantino--master stylist, or gruff (but lovable) businessman? Well, this book presents a good case for both appellations. It COULD'VE done with a little more text, and running art across two page spreads meant a large amount of detail was continuously being lost in the spine area, but inasmuch as this is the only autobiography out there about the man whose art jump started the Silver Age of Comics, I guess it'll just have to do!

(Whatever else he may've claimed, there was no mention of Carmine tagging along with Bob Kane on one of his many dates with the young Marilyn Monroe as related in the Caped Crusader's creator's autobiography, and I guess we can all be thankful for THAT!?!...)

August 2nd, 2003

Okay, all right, I'll admit it--the way things are going around here, some of you might well wonder why we just don't change our motto to "All Hope, All the Time" and just be done with it!?! But honestly, folks, when the wonderful missive that follows found it's way into the old email bin, what was I to do but to share it with you all?...

Yup, it's some swell reminiscence's of the iconic comedian by my near-iconic former editor, the lovely and talented Jim Salicrup!?! Hey, Jim always printed what I sent him back in the MARVEL AGE days--how could I fail to do likewise for my old colleague under the present circumstances? Besides, it's good stuff. Read on, gang...

Hey, Fred,

I figure you're the one with whom I'd like to share some of these memories...

Way back in the 70s, it wasn't uncommon for various Marvel Bullpenners to burn the midnight oil in order to make sure a comic made it to the printer on time. It was on one such summer night, I remember working very late with David Anthony Kraft and Ed Hannigan. It had to be well after midnight and we decided to take a break and head over to an all-night deli for take-out. Marvel was then on Madison Avenue and 57th Street and we merely had to walk east a few blocks to the Dover Delicatessen on 57th St. between Lexington and Third. While crossing Park Avenue, Dave (the Dude) and I simultaneously noticed a rather unbelievable sight while Ed was going on about something or other. Ed must've noticed Dave and I exchanging glances of disbelief and asked what was going on. All we could do was point to two gentleman walking up Park Avenue, one with a golf club swung casually over his shoulder. Yes, it was Bob Hope and some mysterious stranger. The whole thing was very surreal. It was as if Bob Hope was doing a surprise cameo appearance in our humble little lives.

I saw Mr. Hope again at a Lincoln Center tribute. Woody Allen made a wonderful little film, consisting of classic Hope film bits, entitled, "My Favorite Comedian." Truly, the title says it all. The evening was marred unfortunately by Master of Ceremonies, Dick Cavett. Now, I have to say, I have a problem with Mr. Cavett. His name-dropping drives me nuts. Perhaps an odd thing for me to say, since all my notes to you, Fred, consist of nothing more than me doing just that. The difference, I like to think, is that I'm not trying to pass myself off as a close personal friend of anyone famous and act if that somehow makes me more special than anyone else. Anyway, it was Dick's job that night to bring Bob out on stage and chat a bit with him. Unfortunately, Dick thought chatting about Dick was the objective. After asking if Bob remembered his first encounter with Dick, and Bob got off a few good one-liners, Dick went on forever about how they first met, while Bob stood on stage beside him. Even then Bob was up there in years and I just couldn't help thinking how rude it was to keep the Guest of Honor standing on stage listening to Dick.

At another tribute to Bob, this one hosted by the Museum of Broadcasting, Mr. Hope was on stage answering audience questions. I couldn't resist, I got up to the mic, held up a copy of BOB HOPE comics, and asked if he remembered it. He smiled and talked about how it was Paramount's idea to help publicize his movies. I then asked if he'd autograph it for me, and without missing a beat, he said "For a price." After the laughter died down he said to just bring it up and he'd be happy to sign it. As I brought the comic up, I couldn't help noticing at this tribute, Dick Cavett was relegated to a seat in the front row.

The last time I saw Bob, he shared the stage with George Burns at Madison Square Garden, of all places. It was basically two comedy legends in concert doing their stand up acts, although George did most of his sitting down. Bob's material was about the same as what he was doing in his later TV specials, but, hey, it was Bob Hope live! And I didn't have to be fighting a war to see him. Although, I probably would've got to see a hot babe on stage then. Oh, well.

One final memory. When I edited a one-shot comic based on the animated SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS, I got to see Stan Lee's pitch to the network on what the show would be like. In a nutshell, Stan based the character interactions of Spidey, Iceman, and Firestar on the Hope/Crosby/Lamour chemistry from their classic Road pictures. Just thought you'd like to know.

Bwana Jim Salicrup

...thanks, Jim. Cool tales. I'm especially enamored of the notion of Bob Hope doing one of his trademark cameo walk-ons in what amounts to your real life! Quite the credit to have listed on your resume, fella!

Sadly, can't say I disagree with you overmuch concerning Mr. Cavett. He turned up several times on several different networks on Monday to mark Bob's passing, and he didn't do much to distinguish himself. I saw him speaking via telephone to this poor woman on--I think--the Fox Newschannel mid-afternoon, and after telling a rather meandering anecdote, chuckling to himself all the while, the time had come to wrap his segment up. Now, Dick's a professional broadcaster, and he should know better, but as the host attempted to thank him and move on (most likely to a commercial), Cavett nudged his way into more airtime by insisting on telling just one more story. Oh, he wasn't rude about it, but the woman--who'd developed zero chemistry with the man on the other end of the line in the brief time allotted to the interview--seemed first relieved that it was finally over and then distressed because, no, it wasn't!! She couldn't very well cut him off, as that would've seemed extremely tacky, all things considered, so yes, she let him talk. And talk. Until, mercifully, it was over--over for good, this time. I don't even recall the story Cavett told, just the clueless manner in which he delivered it!?! There was a time when I was a big Dick Cavett fan--I even went into New York city several times in the early seventies to attend tapings of his justly famed ABC late night talk show--but nowadays? Times have changed, apparently...

Lastly, if you still haven't gotten your fill of Bob Hope and the people whose lives he's touched, let me direct you over to these marvelous memories Mark Evanier shares regarding his encounters with the man affectionately known as 'Ol Ski Nose. Just click here and enjoy.

And the next time you check in here? New topic, I promise. (Golf? The USO? The Latin derivation of Dorothy Lamour's last name? I haven't quite decided yet, but you'll be the FIRST to know, believe me!?! ...)

August 1st, 2003

I thought I had a scoop, really I did! I was so sure I was gonna check in with you folks today with an unparalled tale of how the mighty had fallen, and you'd all gasp and admire my sharp eye and razor-sharp sense of irony. Accolades abounding. As it turns out, well...

You've all heard of Erich Von Stroheim, right? The legendary silent film director who later exploited his Austrian background and aristocratic manner--bald, monocled, and dismissive--into a successful second career as a character actor in forties Hollywood fare? Generally cast as Nazis and the like? The zenith of this aspect of his life occurred when he justly received an Oscar nomination for his role as Norma Desmond's devoted servant--AND former director of Gloria Swanson's aging silent film star--in Billy Wilder's sardonic "Sunset Boulevard" (1950). If you're at all like me (and heaven help you if you are!...), this may very well have been the ONLY film you've ever viewed that Von Stroheim was associated with.

Still, it's hard to avoid coming across tales of the director if you delve at all into the history of Hollywood, His wildly extravagant ways while he filmed such silent classics as "Blind Husbands" (1919), "Foolish Wives" (1922), and the acknowledged masterpiece of his oeurve, "Greed"--the first cut of which ran for an incredible seven hours--are rightly legendary!! And did I happen to mention that his flicks were said to, ahem, concentrate on overtly sexual themes, with more than a hint of that ol' crowd pleasing depravity thrown in for good measure? Yeah, the public loved 'em, you bet, but the studios didn't much care for the enormous bills the directing despot continually ran up. Ironically, his future co-star, Swanson, acting as producer and star of "Queen Kelly" (1928) had the director fired mid-way through filming when he'd already squandered the staggering sum of $600,000 on the unfinished epic--and this a year before the Great Depression descended upon the world's economy!!

Sure sounds like a fascinating case, and given the chance, I'd certainly like to check out some of those filmed bacchanals of Von Stroheim's, but like I said, the Wilder classic was my only brush with the man. At least, that's what I thought until last night...

I like to read the credits on a movie, a TV show, a comic book, a CD--hey, if they told me just exactly who harvested the oranges in my glass of Tropicana on the side of the carton, I'd read that too!?! After all, you never know what you're going to come across. Fact is, the very last name I expected to see appear up on the screen when watching my tape of yesterday's TCM broadcast of the 1961 Bob Hope vehicle, "Bachelor In Paradise" was that of Erich Von Stroheim!?! But by good golly gosh, there it was! And as a mere Assistant Director, to boot!?! The actual fellow in charge of filming was Jack Arnold, a man most famous for helming "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "The Incredible Shrinking Man" in the mid-fifties!!

Oh, the irony!! The great artiste, in his declining years, reduced to taking orders from a director best known for working with oversized pencils and men in Gill suits!? Yikes! And all in the service of the 58 year old Hope, by then an American institution whose finest days on film were only recently behind him!?! Quite a departure from the debauchery and depravity alleged to be found in the man's long-ago directorial efforts, I've gotta tell ya?!? And yet...

In the film, our Bob plays a sophisticated writer of a series of successful books examining the mores of several European countries, While researching the romantic mannerisms of the French, he's suddenly summoned back to the States after being away for 14 years to settle a dispute with the IRS. Seems as if his accountant--named "Wappinger" coincidentally, not unlike the town ye olde writer currently resides in--hasn't been paying Bob's taxes for him, and now the Government wants the loot owed them. Finding himself flat broke, the two sides come up with a plan that'll land the investigative writer undercover--and perhaps, under covers?--in a typical planned suburban community named "Paradise", the goal being to pen a best-seller on the mores of the Americans and thus be able to pay off his outstanding debt.

As I'm sitting there, watching the plot develop, I'm thinking, "Y'know, this could be right up Von Stroheim's alley!" All the men in the tiny community go off to work every morning, leaving the female population entirely to our incognito researcher during the daytime hours!?! Oh, sure, this is 1961--I'm not exactly expecting any full-blown orgies or any such thing, but I AM hoping for a touch of the old Von Stroheim melodrama somewhere--ANYWHERE!!--in this pleasant if ultimately tepid satire of suburbia.

Didn't happen. Disappointed, I got up after the film ended and dug out my copy of "Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia" and looked up his section on the erstwhile director (which is, of course, where I got all the hard facts included in this entry--thanks, Mr. M!). First thing I did was check his expiration date--turns out he passed away in 1957!?! Huh?

Then I guess getting a low level job on a Bob Hope flick four years later wasn't sure a bad career move after all, at least not for a DEAD guy?!? Reading through the page and half Maltin devotes to Von Stroheim's cinematic history, I eventually come to this telling last line: "His sons both pursued careers behind the scenes in Hollywood."!?! Yeah, and one of 'em at least didn't bother affixing the appellation of "Junior" to his name, either!! Thanks, guy, thanks a LOT. I couldn't just sit there and enjoy my late-era Hope flick--oh no, I had to sit there thinking I'd stumbled across one of the greatest untold tales of irony in all of Hollywood history!! Instead, it turns out that son of a vastly famous man didn't wish to bother distinguishing himself from his legendary daddio!! Yeesh--the nerve!!

So what started out to be a scoop has instead morphed into a cautionary tale:Whenever you read the credits of something, beware--it may NOT be who you think it is, it may only be his progeny!! Is it Ken Griffey, or is it Ken Griffey Junior? John Romita, or John Romita Junior? JFK, or JFK Junior? Careful. Be VERY careful. You may go looking for Junior Samples and wind up with Junior Samples Junior instead--and THAT, my friends, would TRULY be unfortunate! On several levels...

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