Join APPS-O-MATIC for FREE unlimited downloads

Monday, October 29, 2007


I'm going to describe some combinations of image and melody to you, and I want you to name to yourself where they come from. I'll bet you can get most, if not all of these. Ready? Okay.

Amidst macho-sounding guitar licks, the map of the Ponderosa Ranch catches fire and burns away to reveal the Cartwright brothers and their father riding up on horseback in a line abreast.

Rob Petrie steps into his suburban living room to a playful melody and finds his wife, son, and co-workers waiting for him. At their warm greeting, he comes in to join them and, in a spectacular pratfall, trips over the Ottoman. Or, with a nimble side-step, he misses the Ottoman. Or, on rare occasions, he misses the Ottoman and stumbles on the rug.

There is a shocking sting of music, then the screen goes black except for a pulsating white dot, and a voice says, "There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. WE are controlling transmission..."

A government agent parks his car in front of an office building and gets out. Inside the building, he passes through a long corridor and an elaborate series of armored doors until he comes to a phone booth, enters it, dials a number, and drops through a trap door.

The name of the star of the series spreads up and down the screen. Then, accompanied by a Sonny Curtis vocal, we see a montage of the life of a young career woman, ending with a shot of her spinning round in the streets of downtown Minneapolis, smiling, celebrating her independence, and tossing her hat in the air. Sonny Curtis assures us that she "might just make it after all".

A ride across the Brooklyn Bridge is set to melancholy-sounding Bob James music.

The Huxtable family dances. It may be to the vocalizations of Bobby McFerrin, or in a tropical number with a symphony orchestra, or in an homage to the Apollo Theatre, but Claire and Sondra are gorgeous and it's fun to watch every week.

A lone moose wanders through the streets of Cicely, Alaska, accompanied by an off-camera harmonica.

An animated sequence is narrated by the jazz vocal stylings of Ann Hampton Calloway, who sings about a girl who "was working in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens, till her boyfriend kicked her out in one of those crushing scenes/What was she to do, where was she to go, she was out on her fanny..."

If you're as hip to popular culture as I think you are, you have just identified and played in your mind the opening title sequences and theme songs of Bonanza, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Outer Limits, Get Smart, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, The Cosby Show, Northern Exposure, and The Nanny. Please tell me you got at least most of those, or you're on the wrong Blog! This brings me to the second in my series of Pet Peeves. Pet Peeve #2 is the disappearance of theme songs and title sequences from today's television. It is becoming a cultural frustration.

A few weeks back I praised today's television for its highly creative and innovative content, and I still think that's true. But there are some producers out there that I would like to smack upside the head for perpetually doing shows without opening title sequences and proper theme songs! It is just wrong! As I write this, I have just watched this week's episode of one of my very favorite series, the brilliant Desperate Housewives. We are about a month into the fourth season and we haven't seen the complete opening title or heard the opening theme once since it started. And Desperate Housewives has one of the all-time best openings, a montage of animations of famous works of art depicting the foibles and travails of women from the Book of Genesis to Andy Warhol, set to a bouncy, playful Danny Elfman composition. Part of the fun of watching Housewives is watching the title and listening to the theme--when they bother to run the damn thing! Marc Cherry (creator of the series), where is your show's theme?

A series that I've grown to love even more than Housewives is Heroes. This show should have an opening theme and title that we can mentally play the rest of the week when we're not watching the show. Instead, all we get is a little trilling of music and a graphic of a solar eclipse. Heroes is a classic in the making. It should open with music and imagery that cements the show that much more strongly in popular culture. But instead...a little trilling and a logo. That's not good enough.

My favorite new series this season is Pushing Daisies, the most inventive and charming show to come along in many a year. I think you have to go all the way back to Beauty and the Beast to find another show as unique and romantic as this. Pushing Daisies, too, should have a theme and a title sequence to "bookmark" its place in public consciousness and TV history. Instead, we just get a bar of music and an animation of the title spelled out in blooming flowers. Again, that's not good enough.

Think about it this way: Would you enjoy books and magazines as much if they were published without covers? Isn't the art or photography on the cover of an album--or a CD--a part of the pleasure you take from it? And good grief, comic books without covers? Unthinkable! (Though I wish certain comic book companies out there would more consistently have covers that illustrate the content of the story--but that should probably be a separate Peeve.) Well, when TV producers give you programs without proper opening titles and theme songs, that's basically what they're giving you: a naked comic book, a coverless book or magazine, a CD with no liner art. It's culturally wrong, aesthetically ugly.

And as a sub-complaint on this Peeve, I should also vent about the truly hideous and now almost universal practice of scrunching up the ending titles and credits of shows into one side or the bottom of the screen and turning the closing of a program into a promo for the next week's episode, or another show entirely. (And then they whip the credits by so fast that you can't read them and find out the name of this week's hot-looking guest-star actor who played some minor role, and you either have to tape the credits and play them in slow motion or look up the episode online.) Promos are supposed to be a completely separate thing, not an intrusion on what's supposed to be the closing theme and credits! This is truly maddening! What I've heard is that this is done because networks are afraid that you won't sit still for closing titles because you have a remote and can zap away to another channel and someone else's show while the ending theme is playing. Frankly, that's an insult. It implies that I have no attention span and no viewer loyalty and can't be bothered to watch an entire program. I don't watch TV that way; I never have, remotes notwithstanding. I like having a show end with a proper closing, and I actually will watch and listen to it--if they give me one!

Theme songs get us in the mood for what we're about to see at the beginning, and they give us a chance to savor a program we've enjoyed at the end. They are, in effect, the overtures, curtain calls, and Playbills of television. And they are becoming an endangered and vanishing tradition, one that ought to be preserved. This is especially true of shows for which the title is an essential part of the "ritual" of watching the program. The best example of this would be The Outer Limits with its Control Voice takeover. Themes and titles are also a part of a cultural language we all share. I started by describing some famous series openings for a reason. They are a kind of common denominator, a cultural touchstone and shorthand shared by diverse people in all walks of life. People may have a hundred different backgrounds, they may have innumerable differences of nationality and ethnicity and religion and economics and lifestyle--but people from the beaches of Honolulu to the brownstones of Harlem know the theme and title imagery for Hawaii Five-O. Who's going to know the opening montage and theme music for Pushing Daisies when there isn't any to know?

TV is becoming a themeless medium. It's another symptom of executives underestimating our mentality. They're afraid we won't buy this advertiser's product or that advertiser's service because we don't have the patience to watch shows formatted correctly and will zap a theme song. Not everyone does that. I want to hear the little story about the man named Jed, the poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed, and then one day he was shootin' at some food, and up from the ground came a bubblin' crude. "Oil, that is. Black Gold. Texas Tea." It wouldn't have been The Beverly Hillbillies without it. I want Rod Serling to beckon me into his Twilight Zone; I don't want to be just plopped down into it without an intro. And I want to see the mysterious series of empty places from which people have disappeared and hear the finger-popping soft rock tune that starts up an episode of The 4400. I want covers on my comics and magazines and books, I want artwork in the jewel boxes of my CDs, and I want theme songs and title montages on my TV shows. The one show that gets a pass for not having a traditional opening is Lost. The stark, chalky-white logo floating across the black screen with the ominous-sounding chord playing behind it is perfect as it is. But Lost is the one exception; otherwise I want a theme. More and more today, however, I'm not getting it. I'm looking at you, Supernatural: You're a great show and I love watching the adventures of the Winchester brothers, gruesome as they sometimes are. And I'm looking at you, Dirty Sexy Money: Your story is as entertaining as your name is embarrassing. And I'm looking at you, Heroes: I think you're a work of genius. But you all need to get yourselves some damn theme songs and proper title sequences!

And that is my number-one cultural and artistic Pet Peeve.

Monday, October 22, 2007


I've fallen in love this past week. With a movie.

Yep, I think I've found my favorite movie of 2007 (though the Disney film Enchanted, which looks like a strong contender, hasn't opened yet), and it's not Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Just yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the cinema for my second trip Across the Universe.

Think of Across the Universe as a rewrite of Hair with a very specific suite of songs. It's really the same stuff, very much the same story. At the dawn of the 1960s, young people figure out that they are human beings and not just extensions of their parents. They reject conformism (which is not worth embracing), they question authority (which deserves to be questioned), they look for new ways to express themselves and be themselves. And thousands of them are fed into the meat grinder of an unjust war overseas, resulting in a figurative civil war between the generations at home. All of this is set to rock-n-roll music--not just any rock-n-roll music, but the rock-n-roll that is widely held to qualify as true art and literature: the music of the Beatles.

One thing you're going to learn in your acquaintance with me is that the things I love are the things I find beautiful. Yes, beautiful in appearance and form, but also beautiful in sound and mind and thought. (For example, The Fantastic Four is, at its best, an exquisitely beautiful comic book by these very criteria.) And make no mistake, Across the Universe is a truly beautiful movie.

Where can I even start to praise this film? Okay, we'll begin with the characters and cast. Across the Universe is structured round a central trio of characters: Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and Lucy's big brother Max (Joe Anderson). Of these, only young Ms. Wood is widely known, partly from her role in the TV series Once and Again starring Sela Ward and Billy Campbell. It doesn't matter; they're all great, especially Sturgess and Anderson. The characters are truly endearing and well-played--and these kids can actually sing. The real find is Jim Sturgess in the role of Jude (as in "Hey, Jude") a boy from--where else?--Liverpool, England who comes to the States to find the father who left Jude's mother pregnant after World War II, and ends up finding the love of his life. Jude's journey is the journey of the picture. And young Mr. Sturgess is a wonder. Jude is not a musician (in fact he's an artist), but he is a Beatle to the core. He even looks like them; you'll almost think he's a handsomer reincarnation of John Lennon. And he sings the Beatles' songs like a Beatle! Now I've known people who would consider Jude a very poorly conceived character. Why? Because he is not a creature who wallows in angst and neurosis and is perpetually dogged by inner turmoil. There are people who would reject Jude as someone around whom to build a story because he isn't screwed up enough; his motives are too pure. He doesn't even hate his absent Dad, try as he might. Jude is about exactly one thing. Appropriately for the hero of a story inspired by the works of the Beatles, Jude wants nothing more than love. That's it; just love. Specifically, the love of Lucy, the sister of his new American best mate, Max. Don't confuse purity of character for poor writing; Jude, as played by Sturgess, makes you love him effortlessly. Like all the great innocent and pure-hearted characters of literature and film, Jude reminds us of the way we should all be.

Besides, if there's one thing we know about people with pure motives in fiction and reality, it is that no one else in the world has greater troubles than they. Jude finds his Dad working as a custodian at Princeton University. He also finds a friend and surrogate brother in the fun-loving but unmotivated student, Max, who takes Jude home for Thanksgiving. Jude gets a taste of not only the holiday feast, but all-American family dysfunction, when Max announces at dinner that he's dropping out of college. Before the night is over, Max and Jude will have taken Lucy bowling and Jude and Lucy will have started to fall in love--this, in spite of the girl Jude has left across the Pond and the boy whose return from Vietnam Lucy is awaiting. Max takes Jude to live with him in Greenwich Village, while Lucy gets the devastating news that her boyfriend will not be coming home--alive. Eventually she, too, is off to the Village, and her fate in the arms of Jude. All of this is set to Beatles songs that evoke the joy of being young, having fun, and discovering true love: "With a Little Help From My Friends," "I've Just Seen a Face," and "If I Fell". However, along with Lucy comes dropout Max's draft notice. The military induction sequence, with its Uncle Sam poster that comes to animated life and its ironic use of the song "I Want You," made me think of one thing. This is just like what happens in Star Trek when the Borg get you! As we watch and listen, poor, scared Max is assimilated! "Resistance is futile!" They're going to turn him into a drone and send him off to rape another country in the name of "liberty!" It is awful!

From here, intertwined with the stories of various other characters, things turn very dark for young lovers Jude and Lucy. For all his pure motives, Jude suffers first the loss of his best friend, then the loss of Lucy as her anti-war activism comes between them. After desperately trying to save her from being arrested during a protest riot (his despair at Lucy leaving him and Max's terrible plight is juxtaposed with "Strawberry Fields Forever" and the mystical title song), the heartbroken Jude is deported, while the Max who is sent home from the killing fields is a broken shell of the irresponsible but joyous boy that he was.

As I think of it, this may actually be a much better story than Hair.

If I have one critique of Across the Universe, it is with the middle section of the movie when Max comes under the shadow of the draft, and everyone attends a party where the punch is more than just punch. At this point, things start to get a bit..."trippy". Well, you know from last week's Blog ("October 1987") that I'm not exactly a fan of the drug scene. But I'm going to preface this by saying that it would have been very dishonest for the picture to gloss over the drug consumption of 1960s youth culture and the role that it played in that whole experience. That needs to be in there, or we're not getting the whole, real story. But I do think the psychedelic part of the flick goes on a bit too long. If anything could be trimmed a bit from the film, it's this part. Not eliminated, just abbreviated.

Things get better after the trippy part and the sorrow of Jude losing Max, Lucy, and his life in America. Max does get better, and Jude feels his friend's spirit calling him back to New York to reclaim the one Jude loves; this, of course, set to the tune of "Hey, Jude". And return he does; the two friends are happily reunited (Max, restored to his true character, makes a crack that everything below his waist still works), and Jude makes a beeline for Lucy. The ending--well, okay, I might quibble with how facile it is. Jude joins a rooftop jam session of some other characters, who do happen to be rock musicians, and begins to sing "All You Need is Love" (which might as well be the anthem of the Beatles) into the streets of Manhattan. Jude's friends convince the cops, who want to break it up, to relent with the song's chorus of "Love, love, love" (that's the facile part), while on the adjoining rooftop, Lucy appears. She still loves him, of course. As the war couldn't snuff out Max's love of life, it couldn't snuff out Jude and Lucy's love of each other. But in the words of a song from earlier in the picture, "Let it Be." This is a musical, it is a romance, and in the end, love is what the music of the Beatles was really all about. Pure, simple, young love, as embodied by Jude and Lucy. The triumph of Across the Universe is that it accepts human nature for all of its darkness and cruelty, while reminding us that these things are not all that we are. The pure things, the good things, persist even when we are at our worst. Especially love. That's really all that John and Paul and George and Ringo were trying to say. I always liked the music of the Beatles before seeing Across the Universe. But after seeing this virtual manifesto of the Fab Four, I appreciate it so much better.

I've been listening to the soundtrack of Across the Universe all week, and you can believe I'll be getting the DVD. To this beautiful movie I give "All My Loving". Jai guru deva om.

Monday, October 15, 2007


This past Thursday marked my 20th "Rebirthday". I'm 20 years old this week. This month Trekkers also observe the 20th "Rebirthday" of Star Trek. As I think of it, October 1987 was a pretty eventful month all around.

As the calendar rolled to the tenth month of 1987, I thought the most momentous things to happen during that month were the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the wedding of Christopher B., my best friend from art school. I'd been looking forward to both, though Trek TNG had, I think, been in the works for a bit longer. I had been reading up on the revival of Star Trek with the greatest interest, having been a Trekker since the original series was on--the first time. Frankly, the new Trek became my favorite show the moment it was announced, before a word of script had been written or a frame of film shot. I mean, of all the no-brainers in TV history, this show was a guaranteed, automatic slam-dunk. It was destined for greatness the minute the deal had been struck with Paramount. This was going to be the show that creator Gene Roddenberry--one of my personal heroes--wanted to do in the first place. It was going to have the kind of production budget Star Trek needed and deserved. It was going to have the kind of stories Gene wanted, written the way Gene wanted them written. This was because it was going to be done off-network in first-run syndication. No network was going to get its hands on this show and meddle with it the way NBC had meddled with and abused the first Star Trek. Gene's vision would rule absolutely; it was in his contract, and there is at least one story of him waving his contract at would-be meddlers from Paramount's executive suites and ordering them out of his office. This was going to be glorious. It couldn't be anything else. I seized on every word I could find out about it in the science-fiction magazines and learned as much as I could about it prior to the debut date in the first week of October.

Thus, when that night of nights arrived and I drew the curtains and turned out the lights and banished the rest of the world from my awareness for the two hours beginning at 8:00 Eastern, I was ready. I already knew who my favorite character was going to be. Starlog magazine had reported on the character who was going to be both the successor and the antithesis of Mr. Spock. His name was Data. He was an android who wanted to be human. Where Spock repressed and shunned all emotions, Data possessed none, but wanted them. As the Enterprise's mostly human crew journeyed to the stars, Data was on what he hoped would be a journey to humanity. Yep, Data would be the character to watch. I loved him before I ever saw him.

There was one thing I learned in advance that took me completely by surprise when I first discovered it. Entertainment Tonight had been running a periodic report on the production of the Trek TNG pilot. As the debut approached, I tuned in to one of their reports, this one from the set during the actual shooting of the first episode. And I saw something on the sleek bridge of the new 24th Century, Galaxy Class Enterprise that I couldn't believe. There, on the bridge of the Enterprise, was a Klingon in a Starfleet uniform! A KLINGON, if you please, serving as a member of the crew! I nearly fell off my bed. I hadn't been so shocked since the day I went channel-surfing past an episode of Soul Train and found white kids dancing on it! Somehow I had missed the memo about the Klingon Empire becoming an ally of the Federation between Kirk's time and this series, and I just wasn't prepared for the sight of Worf. Had I thought about it (as I did later), I would have remembered this was the very thing that Ayelborne of Organia had predicted to Kirk in the very first Klingon story, "Errand of Mercy": "It is true that in the future you and the Klingons will become fast friends. You will work together."

Anyway, on that night of October 2, 1987, I dismissed the rest of the world and paid the first of seven years of weekly visits to Gene Roddenberry's 24th Century. (Actually a total of 21 years if you also count the seven seasons apiece of Deep Space Nine and Voyager; the three shows overlapped each other.) And I loved it! I loved the new Galaxy Class Enterprise, a ship that lived up to its description in Starlog as a vessel built as much for human comfort as for power and speed. It was a much bigger, more elegantly and ergonomically designed craft than Kirk's ship had been. Its sweeping, curving lines were, I later learned, an expression of what Gene called "technology unchained," a melding of form and function that celebrated both. I loved the story, in which an all-powerful creature called Q accused mankind of unregenerate savagery and posed the Enterprise crew a fateful challenge to solve the mystery of Farpoint Station on threat of humanity being confined to its home Solar System forever. I was mostly fascinated with the cast, and I had to smile at LeVar Burton as Geordi LaForge. Had anyone told me when I watched Roots as a high-school kid that young Kunta Kinte would one day be the helmsman (later the engineer) of an all-new Enterprise, I would never have believed it.

The one character I couldn't make heads or tails of at first was the Captain himself, Jean Luc Picard. A French Captain, played by a balding British actor? A Star Trek Captain who was clearly more of a pure explorer and a philosopher/diplomat than his swashbuckling predecessor? He was just so...not Kirk. It was several weeks into the series before I grew to appreciate, like, and even prefer Jean Luc. I remember the episode exactly; it was another Q story, "Hide and Q". There were two scenes that did it. In one, Q had put Tasha Yar in a state of penalty for not playing along with his latest game; if any of the other members of the Away Team committed another infraction, they would be put in penalty and a distraught Tasha would be reduced to nothingness. In a moment I'll never forget, as an embarrassed Tasha is trying to compose herself, Picard tells her that there is now a standing order on the Bridge: "When one is in the Penalty Box, tears are permitted." Tasha laughs through tears and tells him, "If you weren't the Captain...," demonstrating both a surrogate-daughter feeling and an unstated attraction for him. And in a confrontation with Q when the superbeing is once again denouncing humanity, Picard passionately defends us by using the "What a piece of work is [a] man" speech from Hamlet--with conviction instead of irony. Before this episode was over, I was thinking, Okay, now I get this guy. Yes, this is my Captain. You go, Jean Luc! I was eventually to learn the reason for the difference between Kirk and Picard. While Gene had based Kirk on Captain Horatio Hornblower from the seafaring novels of C.S. Forester (a character played on TV by Ioan Gruffudd, Mr. Fantastic of The Fantastic Four), his inspiration for Picard was the real-life Captain Jacques Cousteau. Picard reflected Gene's thinking at a later time in his life, when Gene himself had become more introspective and philosophical, and concerned with the quality of life. The progression in Trek's Captains showed a progression in Trek's creator.

(By the way, if you have about $500 to spare, you can now get all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation in one package. Paramount, always with an eye to the money to be made from its biggest franchise, has released a set of the whole series as a commemorative for the 20th Anniversary. Thoughtful, aren't they?)

Star Trek was reborn and I was elated. Little did I suspect what the rest of October 1987 held in store for me. In fact, no one including me saw what was coming later that same night.

In the early morning hours of October 3, I heard strange snapping and cracking and popping sounds outside my window. And it wasn't Rice Krispies! As it was a Saturday morning and I love sleeping late on weekends, I ignored them, figuring it was just a storm knocking down some tree limbs. But it wasn't just any storm. A freak, early October snowstorm had hit Albany overnight, and the still leaf-bearing trees had been unable to cope with the weight of the snow. Huge limbs and branches came down all up and down my street and all over the Albany/Schenectady/Troy area. It was surreal, almost like something out of a movie. knocked out both the electrical power and the Cable TV. Back in those days I had one of those TVs that required you to fine-tune all of your channels manually if you didn't have Cable, and I hadn't the patience for it. So when the electricity came back I was reduced to watching videos until the Cable was restored. Consequently, I ended up watching the Next Generation pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint," again and again and again... I don't know how many times I watched it, but I'm sure it's the Next Gen episode I've seen the most because of that damn storm! Fortunately my service was restored in time for the second episode, so I could tape it in absentia while I was in Rhode Island and Massachusetts for Christopher's wedding--and a truly life-changing weekend.

Life, like a story, has a way of foreshadowing things that are going to happen. After Christopher and Wendy departed for their honeymoon, I stayed over in Lexington, Mass., with Christopher's parents and younger brother. The following day, Sunday, I wanted to spend on Harvard Square before hopping the old Greyhound back to Albany. Christopher's Mom, Pat, suggested that while I was on the Square I might want to catch a certain movie that had just opened: Maurice, the adapation of the E.M. Forster novel about a privileged young gentleman in 19th Century England and his experience of coming out of the closet in a time and society even less accepting than our own. I made a note of it, but didn't end up seeing Maurice. However, it was during that afternoon on Harvard Square that something very ironic happened. I don't want to go into all the details because this is the World Wide Web where all the world can read it. It's not a scandalous, salacious, or raunchy story by any means; it's just a little too much information even for a Blog. What I'll tell you is simply that an internal confrontation took place that afternoon, a critical dialogue that finally disclosed a piece of information that for many years I did not want to know. There is a certain corner in Cambridge, Mass., where there really ought to be a plaque that reads, "On this site, the closet door of J.A. Fludd was suddenly and permanently blown off its hinges." Really, it ought to be on the official tour of Boston. It should be a landmark. But anyway, because of the internal confrontation that took place on that spot, I returned to Albany a different person than I had left two days earlier. And directly I got home I ordered myself a book on AIDS awareness.

That was October 11, 1987. The following year, that same date was declared National Coming Out Day. I couldn't have picked a better time to blow the closet door off. This is especially true in light of another thing that happened in popular culture that same month: Playgirl magazine brought back the full-frontal nudes. For about a year, some chilling effect in the culture perhaps precipitated by the AIDS epidemic had changed PG's editorial policy, and its subjects were no longer photographed showing their, ahem, full inventory. In October 1987 they reversed themselves and put the "full" back in the Full Monty. The first new Centerfold to be fully unveiled was a gentleman named Rod Jackson. A few years later, Rod uncloseted himself and married fitness model and bodybuilding champion Bob Paris, and the two of them became the toast of gay America as a proudly out--and incredibly gorgeous--married couple. It wasn't to last; I think the pressure of being the poster hunks for gay marriage got the better of them. They eventually split. But for a while, they were everyone's heroes. And Rod was undraped in Playgirl during my fateful month.

During my first month out of the closet, I was faced with beginning the task of re-learning the entire context of my life. I don't expect heterosexuals to appreciate this, but when you're newly out, one of the things you do is review and reevaluate everything that went on while you were in, and see all the places where you arguably went wrong. This would be particularly relevant in light of the fact that there was another wedding to deal with that month. One of my high-school classmates, whom I'll call Helmut, was marrying his six-years-older sweetheart, whom I'll call Eleanor. Now, if the truth be told, I always liked Helmut. Interestingly enough, he was a Harvard man. While he had only dabbled in science fiction and comics, I always considered him mentally above average. And I liked Eleanor. They had fallen in love very quickly and I thought they were a good match. I was pleased for them. But as their wedding date approached--would you believe they were having a costume wedding at Halloween!--I found myself not looking forward to it as I had with Christopher and Wendy. This was because of what happens to you when you're newly out of the closet, which I noted above--and because Helmut's two best friends, with whom I also went to high school, were going to be there. This pair I will call Kurt and Sven.

You see, one of the mistakes I had made during my closet years was that I had held onto inappropriate "friendships" with a couple of people who were not my peers, who did not think, feel, understand, value, or appreciate anything like the things that I did, who were the best I could do at the time simply because we were all part of the upper tier of the student body. And one of the places where we differed is that...well, I don't want to say they did some drugs, but they were pretty much "on" everything but the Orient Express. It wasn't just the two of them, but they were the two that I (wrongly and erroneously) considered closest to me. They thought the only thing wrong with drugs was their illegality. I really should have cut my ties with them at a certain high school graduation party where Sven made a stoned spectacle of himself. And I really should have washed my hands of them at a certain New Year's Eve party at Helmut's house when I found Kurt and Sven, among others, in the basement finding out if things really do go better with coke. But it is one of my failings, I suppose, that I don't like to let go ot things. I continued associating with Kurt and Sven until I came out, and then I just couldn't. I'm really editing this story severely because, again, there are things I don't want to put on the Web. But Kurt and Sven were not my peers, they did some things that made me feel deeply unloved, and to this day I feel as though every minute I ever spent with them was a lie. Even now, I have exactly the amount of positive regard for both of them that common human decency requires, and not a particle more. (As a postscript to this story, however, Sven would eventually be the first person from that part of my life to whom I disclosed my true identity, and I did that to shut him up about my supposed attraction to women. But I'll entertain you with that tale another time.)

Anyway, as the date of Helmut's wedding approached, there was going to be a bachelor party. (The very thought of heterosexual male bachelor parties makes me want to punch someone's lights out, but this too is a story for another time.) Helmut was having his at the vacation house of another classmate of ours, whom I'll call Martin, on the Great Sacandaga Lake. Yet another classmate, whom I'll call Logan, was arranging it. One fine evening I got a call from Logan inviting me to this party, which was going to be a weekend overnight. My blood ran cold at the prospect of it, because I knew Kurt and Sven would surely be coming. Right, Logan, I thought. I'm really going to spend the better part of a weekend out in the sticks with a lot of straight guys while they suck up every illicit chemical known to man. You bet, I'm on board for that, pal... I don't remember how I begged off of this, but somehow I found an excuse. That left me to find a way to get out of Helmut's wedding without telling him the real story. Gosh, Helmut, you know I'd love nothing better than to be there when you marry Eleanor, but if I have to be in a church with Kurt and Sven I don't know what ungodly thing I'll say or do to them... At the very least, I knew, I'd spend much of the time burning holes in them with my eyes. As fate would have it, it was Star Trek that came to my rescue.

There was going to be a Star Trek Convention in downtown Albany on the very day of Helmut's wedding--and one of its Guests of Honor was going to be Nichelle Nichols, a.k.a. Lieutenant Uhura herself. Gay as I am, I was and still am chastely in love with Nichelle Nichols. (This is not uncommon; we have non-sexual crushes on women all the time. Don't even get me started about my infatuations with Diahann Carroll, Vanessa Williams, Halle Berry, Jane Seymour, and Mary Tyler Moore.) So, Nichelle was going to be right smack in downtown Albany that very day? That was one ticket to a convention and one ticket out of a wedding, as far as I was concerned. I returned Helmut's wedding invitation with a very sweet, sincere note saying, among other things, that I would have put off my own wedding for a chance to see Nichelle Nichols in person. However, I did go to the little party that Helmut and Eleanor had at their apartment beforehand--I think I even put up with Sven and refrained from ripping out his beard and making him eat it--and at some point during the evening I took Helmut aside and told him I was happy for him and that I had always liked him, and gave him a hug. I thought then, as now, that Helmut is a decent sort. (By the way, he and Eleanor are still together and terribly happy. I think they have three kids.)

Nichelle was wonderful. She's a very elegant, glamourous lady in person, as you'd expect a woman who sings jazz in nightclubs would be. She told enlightening stories about how she imagined Uhura looked up to Spock as a role model, and how she managed to keep the soft ballads in her nightclub act. The management of a particular nightclub wanted her to cut the ballads, which were her favorite numbers, because no one ordered drinks during them. Nichelle suggested that the club make an announcment that no drinks would be served during that part of the evening, and see what happened. Well, what happened was that patrons stocked up on drinks to get them through the ballads, Nichelle got the keep doing her favorite songs, and the club made out like a bandit. You see, sometimes art and commerce can both win.

It was also at that Star Trek Con that I passed a table where someone had put a stack of flyers that caught my eye. The flyers said in big letters, "Out of the Closet and Into the Universe". They were promoting an organization called The Gaylactic Network that had started a new branch in Albany. The Gaylactic Network was a group and lesbian science fiction fans? I'd never heard of such a thing. I mean, I was a gay science fiction fan, a fact that I had assimilated and processed only weeks earlier. But I had no idea we were actually organized! There was an actual group of such people who had meetings and everything? I was intrigued. Still not sure of myself in my newly-out status, I made sure no one saw me as I grabbed one of those flyers and folded it up to stick in my pocket. Did I actually have the nerve to approach these so-called Capital District Gaylaxians? Was I actually going to consider becoming one?

The answer was yes...but not right then. It would be a couple of months later, just before Christmas, before I tentatively entered the company of these Gaylaxians for the first time and found out just what kind of people organize themselves around gayness and science fiction. This, too, is a story I'm going to save, perhaps for this Christmas. But to cut to the end, we're not a part of The Gaylactic Network any more; we're an independent organization called The Alternate Universe (see my Links). My association with them, both as a Gaylaxian and otherwise, has been a part of my out life from practically the beginning. And I consider it one of the smartest things I've ever done.

A lot can happen in a month. In thirty days--heck, in a fraction of that--you can become a different person. October 1987 was one of the most important months of my life. And I've never once been sorry for the change. There's a better life by far to be lived out of the closet than in. I'm glad that in the last two decades so many people have realized that. To paraphrase the closing of Star Trek: The Motion Picture: "The Gay Adventure is Just Beginning".

Friday, October 5, 2007


It can take only a few minutes to decide the course of your life.

I was just a little boy in grade school, sitting in front of the black-and-white TV in the apartment where we used to live. I forget what I was watching--but I'll never forget the commercial.

It started with animated trumpets appearing from either side of a blank screen, and a majestic fanfare on horns, the kind of fanfare that announces that something important is about to happen. A second later, something important did happen. A massive, snarling animated figure loomed up into the screen and battered the trumpets aside, then stood there in close-up, glaring balefully out at the viewer. Had it been the color TV in the living room, I would have noticed that this figure was green.

This was only the beginning of the tableau that quickly unfolded before my eyes. In rapid succession I saw a parade of other animated figures. There was a man in an electrically powered suit of armor. And another, clad only in a bathing suit with what appeared to be wings on his ankles, swimming in the ocean. A slender, unassuming chap struck a walking stick on the ground and turned into a muscular warrior with long hair, a winged helmet, a cape, and...a hammer? And another character with a star on his chest and an "A" on his mask--again, had it been the living room TV I would have seen that he was dressed up in the colors of the American flag--threw a metal shield like a discus.

This was all set to music--and lyrics. A set of lyrics I'll never forget:

Meet the sulky, over-bulky, kinda Hulky super-hero.

Altrustic and electrically transistored super-hero.

And exotically neurotic and aquatic super-hero.

The Marvel Super-Heroes have arrived!

Super-powered from their forehead to their toes!

Watch them change their very shape before your nose!

See our cane-striking supre-hero change to Viking super-hero.

Our hum-dinging, real swinging, shield-flinging super-hero.

They're the latest, they're the greatest, ultimatest super-heroes.

The Marvel Super-Heroes have arrived!

To this very day, I can't think of that song, or those images on the old black-and-white TV, or the show that this promo was announcing, without getting a tingle. I had just gotten my first tantalizing glimpses of the Hulk, Iron Man, the Sub-Mariner, Thor, and Captain America. What I had seen was a promo for a TV series called The Marvel Super-Heroes, which was going to be on every afternoon at 4:00 on Channel 10. Now of course, being a kid living in literate, television-equipped American culture, I knew what a super-hero was. I knew Superman. I knew Batman. What I didn't know--yet--was what a "Marvel" was, or what it meant to be a "Marvel Super-Hero". What I did know for sure, however, was where I was going to be every afternoon at 4:00. And that was all it took to seal a little boy's fate.

It took me a while to appreciate the real significance of what I was seeing. I wasn't really able to grasp yet that Marvel was a comic book publishing company that owned these characters, and that there was another such company called DC Comics (or National Periodical Publications, as it was also called back then) that owned Superman, Batman, and their peers. Nor did I really get at first that Marvel and DC were two very different entities with what were at the time two radically, almost diametrically different outlooks on how to tell stories about super-heroes. That would come in time. When I turned to the actual comic books from which super-hero stories were derived, I found in almost every instance that while I liked the characters in DC books (I was especially taken with the Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Atom), I found the characters, stories, and art in the Marvel books vastly more satisfying. To tell the truth, it took me a while to warm up to Thor and Captain America, but that was only because of the new interest that the Marvel super-heroes sparked in me. I wanted to learn to draw, so I didn't have to wait till 4:00 on Channel 10 to have them; if I could draw them, I could summon them up at will! It happened that my big brother Jack also liked the Marvel super-heroes and--as fate would have it--knew how to do this magical thing with pencil and paper. So I got him to show me how he did it, and I was off and running. If I didn't enjoy Cap and Thor as much as the others at first, it was only because I was intimidated by having to draw wings and shields and fancy boots and hammers and chain mail. Once I tried it and convinced myself I could do it, I took these characters to heart the same as the others; in the case of Thor, even more so.

As I was also a young science buff (I devoured the science and nature articles in the Encyclopedia and knew my planets and dinosaurs at an age when most kids are grappling with Dick and Jane and Spot), the first super-heroes that I bonded with were the Sub-Mariner and Iron Man (who had the virtue of being relatively easy to draw). I was fascinated with the ocean and all the amazing living creatures in it, and that was the world from which Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner came (in fact, Subby was more amazing than all the other sea life put together), so he was a natural. But the one who really grabbed me was Iron Man. He was my first favorite hero. Iron Man was just COOL. Here was a guy who didn't have super-powers in and of himself; he was a master scientist, engineer, and inventor, and had invented his powers! With his suit of super-strong armor, bristling with technological gimmicks that were de facto super-powers, Iron Man was Batman done up much bigger. He was about the power of human ingenuity. What Iron Man and Batman had in common was that they were both multi-millionaire playboys with glamourous civilian lives. Each of the Marvel characters on the show had his own theme song within the series. Iron Man's theme had a female lead singer who represented all the swanky females in the character's life. Iron Man was the answer to Hugh Hefner's old advertising question, "What sort of man reads Playboy?" He and his life--at least his civilian life--were the Hefner/Playboy ideal, rendered in comics. The female vocals of the Iron Man theme are in boldface here:

Tony Stark makes you feel

He's a cool exec with a heart of steel!

And Iron Man, all jets ablaze,

He fights and fights with repulsor rays!

Amazing armor, that's Iron Man!

A blazing power, that's Iron Man!

That one makes me tingle too, come to think of it. All those songs do. I remember all of them, as does any Marvel fan who watched that show as a kid.

While I got into Iron Man, I was also unwittingly learning just what it was that set Marvel's characters apart from DC's. This was because while I thrilled to Iron Man's adventures, I also feared for Tony Stark's life. Tony Stark, you see, only appeared to lead the glamourous Playboy life. That life was cut short the moment a piece of shrapnel entered his chest during a tour of Viet Nam. (In the original version of the story, Tony's family fortune came from war profiteering.) Because of the proximity of the shrapnel to his heart, Tony's heart could stop beating at any moment--unless he continuously wore the energized chestplate of Iron Man's armor to keep it going. So the power that made him one of Earth's mighties heroes also became a barrier between Tony and the life that the rest of the world envied him for supposedly enjoying. And this complicated his adventures in the most perilous way, for he was always in danger of his charge running too low, and there were many stories that had me squirming at the sight of him literally having to drag himself to a power source and plug himself in before the Black Knight or the Unicorn or the Mandarin got him. I was always afraid that this would be the time Tony wouldn't make it, and oh God, what was going to happen then?

Compare this to the stories in DC comics of the same period and you'll see why Marvel's stories interested me much more. I found Iron Man's dilemma way more compelling than the umpteenth story about the Green Lantern's ring being unable to affect anything yellow, or Aquaman being in danger of staying out of the water too long. And don't even get me started on Superman and his 31 flavors of Kyrptonite, each one of which had a different effect on him. Iron Man's heart problem was way more interesting than the latest tale of the Man of Steel coming after some bad guy, only to have the bad guy lob a piece of Pistachio Fudge Ripple Kryptonite at him and turn him into a rabbi. There would be the villain getting away, and there would be Superman, suddenly explaining the significance of eating unleavened bread. (And believe me, I'm not exaggerating by much.)

It took me a while to realize that while Marvel's and DC's heroes shared the same outlandishness of plots and stories, where they differed 180 degrees was in context. With Marvel, everything was context. Before the first issue of The Fantastic Four, which was the beginning of Marvel as we know it, super-heroes led mostly unambiguous and uncomplicated lives. They lived in imaginary cities like Metropolis and Gotham and Central City and Ivy Town. They were clean-cut, almost Disney-like figures whose greatest problems besides catching the bad guys may have been getting the girl to notice them in their civilian identities or showing up on time for dates. (The Flash, who could run at the speed of light, was always late for dates with his girlfriend Iris.) Well, no, their other great problem was making sure no one ever learned their secret identities. Superman was forever plagued with Lois Lane--a pretty clueless character back then for someone who was supposed to be such a crack journalist--snooping around trying to find out who he really was, when he was standing right next to her as Clark Kent all the time. This, of course, was because Lois had a Jones for him only in his "super" self; she couldn't see Clark for dust. And their villains were pretty much evil because they were bad; not a great deal of thought was necessarily given to what made them that way.

The Fantastic Four changed all that. It took writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby a bit of work to figure everything out with no prior model of the kind of storytelling they were attempting, but very early on they started rewriting all the rules. With their third issue, the FF were headquartered in a penthouse at Madison Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. Not Metropolis or Gotham City or any such imaginary place--Manhattan! And while fans insisted that the characters wear a costume (Kirby gave them a spare, functional uniform to appease the readers), the FF did not conceal their identities. They were public figures--celebrities--and adventuring was their profession. This was because they weren't crime fighters; they were what writer Alan Moore would one day call "science heroes," and scientists don't share their discoveries with the world from behind masks. And the FF, aside from the epic battles with super-powered villains, were recognizable people with recognizable conflicts. The Invisible Girl was engaged to team leader Mr. Fantastic--and super-heroes romantically involved with each other instead of civilians was also something new--but tempted by the Sub-Mariner, who was the Fantastic Four's sworn enemy in the beginning. The Human Torch was a teenager, but he wasn't a "gosh-wow" sidekick figure, respectful of authority, in the way of preexisting kid heroes like Robin and Kid Flash and Aqualad. He was a smart-mouthed mass of hormones and attitude who liked to race cars and chase girls, not necessarily in that order--just like a real teenager. And then there was the Thing, the only character who couldn't enjoy his powers because he was the prisoner of them. He couldn't turn off his super-strong, rock-like body the way the Torch could turn off his flames; he was stuck that way, he hated it, and he didn't care who knew it. Controlling the Thing could be as much of a problem for the Fantastic Four as battling their foes.

And then, of course, there was the FF's great villain, who raised the bar and set the standard for all bad guys: Dr. Doom, Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic's rival and the team's unending nightmare. Doom was the son of gypsies who had died in persecution; he blamed Reed for the accident that scarred his face; he was a paranoid aristocrat who thought the vulgar, greedy, bigoted, violent world would be better off once the Fantastic Four were dead and Doom ruled everything. There was never a better conceived, motivated, and thought-out, more complex and dangerous figure of evil than Doom. All these years later, fans--including me--can't get enough of him. You feel as though you know him as well as you do the heroes. There is a great early story in which Doom thinks he's finally got the FF on the ropes--but then he pauses to consider the real meaning of it all, and realizes that (what he thinks is) his impending victory will never restore his face or the innocence of his youth. So what's it all for? I promise you, you'd never have seen a moment like that with Luthor or the Joker in a DC story of the same period.

Think of it this way: Remember the movie Pleasantville? DC Comics, prior to the summer of 1961 when the FF first appeared, was like Pleasantville before Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon got there, and Marvel was like Pleasantville once they arrived.

The humanizing formula of The Fantastic Four proved open to infinite variation, lending itself to new characters in endless array. That's what gave us the Hulk and Thor and Spider-Man and the X-Men, and my first favorite, Iron Man.

Back in the day, Marvel liked to tout their approach to comics as injecting "realism" into the stories. In fact, their books were just as far-fetched as those of DC. But Marvel's change of the context in which super-heroes functioned--however dysfunctionally--made all the difference. Reading DC stories, I felt as though I were just reading comic books. But Marvel's stories made me feel as though I were visiting a world just around the corner from the real world, and the Fantastic Four in particular became like friends that I liked getting together with every month. That's why, when I was a young fan, my "Superman" was Thor, my "Aquaman" was the Sub-Mariner, my "Justice League of America" was the Avengers--and nothing could compete with the Fantastic Four.

Today, I'm not a young fan watching The Marvel Super-Heroes on the old black-and-white TV (well, at least not physically; something of that little boy has never left me, and I hope it never does). I am, however, a gay writer-artist with a lifelong interest in comics--and I'm something of a minority within a minority. For the majority of the sub-subculture to which I belong, comic-book-reading gays, has a far stronger and deeper bond with DC Comics than with Marvel. As a teenage fan, I always felt isolated as the only dedicated comic-book reader in the crowd. Today I have a genuine peer group, which I know mostly on the Web, made up of other gays who read comics. And in this community with its devotions to Wonder Woman and Supergirl and Super-Everything-Else and Bat-people and Legions of Super-Heroes and adult super-heroes with kid sidekicks, et al, I still often feel isolated. I'm "the Marvel guy". I have always liked and admired DC's characters (most of them anyway--the appeal of Supergirl, for instance, has always eluded me), but I think of their history and compare it to Marvel's and...I just don't get it. And one thing I have learned is that in some of the company I keep, you must never suggest that the Marvel comics of the 60s were in any way an evolutionary step beyond what DC was doing at the time. Marvel courted--and got, and held onto--an audience made up of the high-school and college-age siblings of the pre-teen kids who were assumed to be the target audience for DC, and in many cases their parents, aunts, uncles, and even grandparents. But in gay comic-book reading company, you must never suggest that 60s Marvel attempted to be perhaps a little more mature, a little more grown-up in its own outlandish way, than 60s DC. Say this to the wrong people, and the hostility you'll get back will be like a living thing. I know this first-hand; more than once I've been accused of not even thinking "good" or "great" comics existed prior to the summer of 1961. Of course, "good" and "great" comics did exist. They just weren't "good" and "great" in that particular way. And through the 60s and into the 70s and early 80s, most of that specific goodness and greatness was still coming from one specific place.

Today, the differences between Marvel and DC are mostly a matter of history. There are differences of storytelling heritage and philosophy that inform both companies, even while DC books are written with the kind of characterization that started with Stan Lee and Marvel. Which company you identify with more strongly is largely a matter of which history and heritage speaks more strongly to you. But for some reason that I have never fully comprehended, gay fans gravitate most strongly to DC. In all the years I've fan a fan in gay company, I've never quite figured this out. I wonder if I ever will.

This will not be the last time we discuss comics in general or Marvel in particular here at The Quantum Blog. I haven't even touched on the importance of Stan Lee's writing and Jack Kirby's art in my own personal development, or how my own relationship with Marvel and with comics as a medium has changed from that day with the Marvel Super-Heroes promo to today. That, I have no doubt, will be the talk of weeks and months to come. Meanwhile, if you'd like to hear some of what set the course of my life, go to Perhaps--just perhaps--you'll get a little tingle of your own. Or maybe not; you be the judge. But I certainly do.