Monday, June 30, 2014

Unearthed: Captain Glory#1

1993 was a boom time in comics, spurred on by the seemingly-bottomless well of speculators come to invest their life savings into overprinted materials only somewhat-more solvent than tulip bulbs. At this time, the impending crash was a distant glimmer and new publishers kept crowding into the overcrowded marketplace to hock their wares. Such a publisher was trading card magnate Topps and perhaps their best-known foray into the speculator market was their line of comics printed under the name of Jack Kirby, packaged with "Kirbychrome" covers and trading cards.

My scanner cannot do the resplendent beauty of Kirbychrome justice

In fact, Topps' bread and butter - the trading card market - had almost run its course as well, setting up hobby shops for a double-whammy of misfortune. "You should have been selling albums!" the shopkeeper next door snorted, unaware how fleeting his own business model would become.

By the time I arrived on the internet in 1998, "Kirbychrome" was a popular Usenet shorthand for "failure." I don't know how badly the Kirbychrome project flopped but evidently it flopped hard. Then and now, Jack Kirby was considered one of the greatest talents in comic books, if not the greatest; however, Kirby had very little do with this project beyond giving Topps' his blessings; the project utilized character designs from Kirby's files, but beyond repurposing those designs into covers (and Kirbychrome trading cards), this was a case of Kirby Without Kirby; fortunately, the comic industry realized audiences had little interest in Kirby Without Kirby and never did this again.

Despite all this, last week I finally broke down and invested $1 in Captain Glory#1, still bound in its original polybag with trading card. Although the Kirbychrome books had no actual Kirby, how bad could they be considering the talent involved? Let's find out together!

Right there on the cover are two good reasons to give this book a shot: Roy Thomas & Steve Ditko are the writer & artist! True, neither man is Kirby, yet Ditko was (and is!) a living legend in his own right and Thomas, as the original "I Can't Believe He's Not Stan Lee!" scribe provides a pair of veterans who know their way around Kirby's environments and can compose a decent super hero book blindfolded; of course, circa 1993 they weren't creators with much heat behind, not in an era where comics fandom had elevated Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld & Todd McFarlane to the heights of the industry (please forgive us, future generations). The late 90s did see a renewed interest in "retro" comics, but Kirbychome arrived too early to capitalize on it.

Our story opens in then-contemporary Chicago as deep beneath the city, a costumed figure emerges from a suspended animation pod; he expects to find his allies Glider and Bombast in the two adjacent pods, but somehow they've already left, despite having planned to emerge simultaneously. Thankfully, he soon begins a flashback to explain who he is and why he was lying inside of this pod; his name is Keltan and he was a warrior of Gazra some 15,000 years earlier; in his age, Keltan fought alongside the warrior classes Night-Gliders and Hurlers against club-wielding Savages to defend their home.

Eventually, Keltan was summoned before a cabal of scientists; check out two of them above. They look like a couple of 1980s action figures, don't they? Considering this is a Kirby project, I wonder if they were rejected designs for the Centurions? Anyway, the scientists tell Keltan how the Earth undergoes a cataclysmic upheaval every 15,000 years; it's happened eight times previously and will soon occur for the 9th time. The scientists hope to preserve a number of their rank along with some warriors and enter into stasis, believing that while they won't be able to prevent the 9th cataclysm, somehow they'll able to help stop the 10th. Keltan has been chosen as one of the warriors (the aforementioned Glida & Bombast being the others - Glida a Night-Glider, Bombast a Hurler). Amusingly, one of the scientists is named Cal Cutta; again, there's a great 1980s action figure name! He sounds a pun-tastic Masters of the Universe figure.

The flashbacks are great, giving Ditko an opportunity to show off weird landscapes and tree-dwelling civilizations. Of course, our hero Keltan was probably meant by Kirby to be some sort of patriotic US hero, given the star and eagle on his uniform and red, white & blue colours; I guess it's just a sheer coincidence and not a terrible one to absorb when the story posits there have been 10 different ages of humanity each within spans of 15,000 years!

As the awakened Keltan prods around his stasis pod, he finds a recording from the Speaker, the official who asked him to participate in the project; the Speaker warns Keltan that he doesn't trust the scientists, who are evidently hoping to subjugate humanity after awakening; Keltan cries upon realizing the Speaker and everyone else he knew is dead - a quite welcome and very human emotional reaction. Exploring the area, Keltan discovers his strength increased while he slept, rendering him superhumanly strong; he also finds a vacant stasis chamber where the scientists evidently slumbered.

Climbing up a tunnel, Keltan claws his way to the surface, right inside a gorilla pen in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo! Put out at the intrusion, the gorillas become territorial, so Keltan leaps over the cage and into a mob of the zoo-going children of the world. The crowds are startled and he draw the attention of WCHI-TV reporter Kimba Nolan; frustrated at her current assignment at the zoo, Kimba is all-too eager to investigate the masked man in tights who leaped out of the gorilla cage; unfortunately, being from 15,000 years in the past, Keltan speaks a completely different language than English and can't communicate with her; zoo guards confront Keltan and he asks them to identify who's in charge, but naturally that goes nowhere; finally tired of Kimba pushing her microphone in his face, Keltan crushes it with his hand and heads out of the zoo, hoping to find Glida & Bombast.

As soon as he exits, Keltan witnesses a police car in pursuit of a speeding vehicle; Keltan gives chase, correctly surmising the fleeing vehicle contains criminals; his speed being evidently prodigious, Keltan catches the car and the crooks crash while trying to get rid of him; Keltan easily cleans up the crooks (revealed as drug dealers) and turns them over to the police. The police and Kimba converge on Keltan and when the police remark the costumed stranger "grabs all the glory," Kimba insists "that's his name," dubbing him Captain Glory! Our hero has a codename... not that he understands it, mind you.

Before Kimba can continue to harass Captain Glory, he's suddenly snagged by a rope from some kind of flying airship and drawn up into the vessel. Within, Glory is reunited with the cabal of scientists from his own time. From comparing notes, Glory soon learns the scientists were awakened one year earlier and verify their objective is not to help the present-day humans but rule over them. However, Keltan is committed to his original mission and refuses to aid them; therefore, they engage in battle! Glory only manages to hold his own against them as they've gained power extreme from their time in stasis. Unable to best his former allies, Captain Glory leaps out of the airship, crashing through a house as he lands.

Returning to the zoo, Glory climbs back down to where his stasis pod lay and, to his surprise, finds Glida and Bombast - but the allies are for some reason battling each other. Angrily, Captain Glory separates them, ordering to stop "or you'll both answer to Captain Glory!" No explanation as to how he knows his English moniker is now "Captain Glory," but ah well... this is where the story ends.

According to handy graph inside the front cover, the Kirbychrome series began with Secret City Saga#0 and continued in Bombast#1 & Nightglider#1 before reaching this issue - hence although this story does a fairly good job of standing on its own in the explanation of Captain Glory's mission and his connection to Bombast & Nightglider, the other two heroes' revival had already been handled their respective books. The story continued in the rest of Topps' Secret City Saga, but there was no issue#2 for any of these three heroes (the only Topps Kirbychome series to go past #1 was Satan's Six).

I liked this comic just fine; it's pretty much an average super hero book, but the hook about a cataclysm occurring every 15,000 years is pretty good (though I suppose once the contemporary cataclysm is dealt with, the heroes don't have a present-day mission). Ditko's art is lively and there's some very good colouring effects by Janice Parker, notably when Keltan enters a red chamber and is bathed in pinkish tones.

Did I get my money's worth? To quote the great philosopher:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Creator credits for the Wolverine

Today I finally saw last year's film the Wolverine; as per usual, a list of creator credits follows; your corrections are most welcome!:

Wolverine, a man with claws which extend from his hands: Derived from Incredible Hulk#180 (1974) by Len Wein & Herb Trimpe (and a design by John Romita).

Wolverine's military service: Derived from Uncanny X-Men#140 (1980) by Chris Claremont & John Byrne.

Wolverine as a POW in Japan at the time of the atomic bomb drop: Derived from Logan#1 (2008) by Brian K. Vaughan & Eduardo Risso.

Wolverine's claws as a part of his body; Wolverine's pointed hair spikes; Wolverine infatuated with Jean Grey: Derived from X-Men#98 (1976) by Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum.

Wolverine possessing claws made of bone: Derived from Wolverine#75 (1993) by Larry Hama & Adam Kubert.

Wolverine possessing an enhanced healing ability: Derived from X-Men#116 (1978) by Chris Claremont & John Byrne.

The Yashida family, a Japanese clan tied to Wolverine: Derived from X-Men#119 (1979) by Chris Claremont & John Byrne.

Wolverine's real name as Logan: Derived from X-Men#103 (1977) by Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum.

Mutants, a collection of humans with powers who are feared by other humans; Jean Grey, a mutant heroine; Professor Xavier, a crippled mutant telepath; Magneto, a mutant with powers over magnetism: Derived from X-Men#1 (1963) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Wolverine mourning Jean Grey after her death: Derived from Uncanny X-Men#161 (1982) by Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum.

Wolverine responsible for Jean Grey's death: Derived from New X-Men#148 (2003) by Grant Morrison & Phil Jimenez.

Wolverine's skeleton and claws laced with unbreakable Adamantium: Derived from X-Men#126 (1978) by Chris Claremont & John Byrne.

Wolverine killing a poisoned bear then tracking the hunters responsible; Shingen, father of Mariko Yashida, a corrupt Japanese businessman with ties to the underworld; Yukio, a free-spirited Japanese fighter and romantic interest to Wolverine; Noburu, Mariko's arranged husband; the Yashida clan samurai blade: Derived from Wolverine#1 (1982) by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller.

Mariko, a high-pedigree Japanese woman and love interest to Wolverine: Derived from X-Men#118 (1979) by Chris Claremont & John Byrne.

The Viper, a terrorist woman glad in a tight green outfit with exposed back & arms: Derived from Madame Hydra in Captain America#110 (1969) by Stan Lee & Jim Steranko.

The Viper as a nihilist who uses poisons: Derived from Captain America#180 (1974) by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema.

The Yashida family tied to the Yakuza: Derived from Wolverine#3 (1982) by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller.

Wolverine losing control of his rage: Derived from X-Men#96 (1975) by Bill Mantlo, Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum.

Wolverine fighting Shingen to the death: Derived from Wolverine#4 (1982) by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller.

The Silver Samurai, a Japanese warrior with an unbreakable sword: Derived from Daredevil#111 (1974) by Steve Gerber & Bob Brown.

The Silver Samurai wearing full body silver armour: Derived from Marvel Team-Up#57 (1977) by Chris Claremont & Sal Buscema.

The Viper working with the Silver Samurai and/or Harada to bring down the Yashida family; Silver Samurai related to the Yashida clan: Derived from Uncanny X-Men#172 (1983) by Chris Claremont & Paul Smith.

Adamantium, an indestructible metal: Derived from Avengers#66 (1969) by Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith.

The Silver Samurai working alongside the Viper: Derived from Marvel Team-Up#83 (1979) by Chris Claremont & Sal Buscema.

Wolverine uttering "bub": Derived from X-Men#94 (1975) by Len Wein, Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum.

The anti-mutant figure Trask: Derived from X-Men#14 (1965) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Werner Roth.

Magneto as an old adversary of Wolverine's: Derived from X-Men#104 (1977) by Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum.

Wolverine's association with Professor X: Derived from Giant-Size X-Men#1 (1974) by Len Wein, Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Oh, no! Must have been pilot error!" The 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation

Growing up, the nearest thing to a "non-fiction comic book" I knew of were the various educational comics (often handed out for free at trade shows) or biographical works. When I first learned of Joe Sacco I was fascinated - the concept of comics journalism, of comics which could address the topics as other works on the non-fiction shelves - it hooked me. From Joe Kubert's Fax From Sarajevo to Emmanuel Gibert's the Photographer, I've enjoyed witnessing what the medium can achieve.

This brings me to 2006's the 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation, published by Hill & Wang and adapted by Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colon from the 9/11 Commission's report. Although I've known about the book for some time I've resisted reading it because I feared it would be too-familiar, uninteresting or upsetting. All these years later, though, here it is.

The 9/11 Report is only 113 pages long and has a lot of information to relay because it's not simply a matter of depicting the events of 9/11, but to set everything in context with what came before (at one point it jumps all the way back to World War II to explain the CIA's origins!) and what followed (ie, the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq). The most effective pages are definitely those depicting the 9/11 attack - there, Colon uses fold-out sections to chart when the events on each of the four flights occurred in relation to each other.

I didn't expect to learn I didn't already know from this tome because - beginning on the day of 9/11 - my workplace began running news networks all day long, so I heard many of the facts (and various crackpot theories). It's precisely because I had been so inundated with the story of 9/11 back in 2001 that I wasn't eager to dive back in again. Reading it through, one finds failure writ large; it's a long litany of errors, miscommunications and people unprepared to respond (even including the disaster response teams, unfortunately). The only person who comes off looking well in this book is someone I don't recall hearing about back in 2001 - Richard Clarke, who had been trying to get Bin Laden for years prior to 9/11 and who throughout the book is depicted as fairly thoughtful and methodical.

Because there's so much to be told in so (relatively) few pages, there is only some (not much) panel-to-panel storytelling; most of the panels tell a story of their own, rather the accumulation of sequential art; very little back-and-forth conversation, very little action-then-reaction. Previously I'd seen Ernie Colon working on comedy or super heroes (or the two at once in Damage Control), but here his ability to render expressive faces is invaluable; he captures what must be hundreds of likenesses convincingly and imbues something of the person's character, no matter how briefly they appear in this book.

The book also offers a (very) gentle rebuke of the Iraq War, pausing to refute Iraq's supposed involvement in 9/11 (something Clarke had formally rejected a week after the attack). Reading of how the USA enhanced their security measures following the attacks brought me back to the ambivalence I felt then, concerned at how their expanded powers could be misused. Then, I reflected, nothing has actually changed since that administration - the potential for abuse is not only as high as ever, we've had repeated stories of US soldiers and officials overstepping the bounds of both theirs and international laws. *sigh* Back to fiction for me, this is getting depressing...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Too Busy Not Thinking About My Comics

Recently, David Brothers commented on the impact quitting comics from the major publishers had on him. Having similarly quit Marvel & DC Comics myself about two years ago, it caused me to reflect on my own decision and what it's meant to me.

In short, it has meant:

#1: Less Blogging

I've never been terrific at regular blogging, but although I have had more free time since I stopped working for Marvel, it hasn't translated into more time spent blogging. With fewer comics entering my house, I've had fewer reasons to blog. Not that this blog has ever had a particular theme - I continue to blog about books, old-time radio, films and my personal life - but comics have been my primary topic and being out-of-touch with Marvel & DC, I don't have anything to say about the majority of the medium.

#2: Avoiding the Comic Book Movies ...Kinda?

Since I made the decision to stop supporting Marvel & DC, I went to see Iron Man 3 (because a friend needed a last-minute substitute for a purchased ticket), Thor: the Dark World & Captain America: the Winter Soldier (both because I had free passes). I did not go to see the Avengers (borrowed a DVD), either Amazing Spider-Man movie (truly didn't want to, either), Man of Steel, the Wolverine or X-Men: Days of Future Past. Also, although television programs don't involve money, I haven't seen Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

How has that been? It's lousy.

For the Avengers & the Wolverine, sticking by my principles meant ducking out of seeing movies with my friends, cheating myself out of a good time. Heck, I really went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness & Godzilla to make up for those missed opportunities with my friends, not because I particularly wanted to see those flicks.

As to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I mention it because one of my friends is watching it and enjoys it. He doesn't know much about comics, but he likes the show; he expected I'd be watching it too (even though I don't watch TV - I have no subscription service) and it's bothered him that he can't talk about it with me. I don't watch Game of Thrones either, but Agents is the show I'm really hounded over. In fact, several times he's accused me of holding out: "You're secretly watching it, aren't you?" No, I repeatedly inform him, I've never seen it. I almost wish I had so I could hold some informed discussions with him (then again, maybe not because the show sounds crummy).

Recently another friend asked if I would go see X-Men: Days of Future Past with him, then recalled I had that self-imposed moral standard. So he'll probably go see it without me; sigh. Taking a stand on principles is all well and good, but I don't like being cut off from my friends. Why'd comic book movies have to attain that mainstream credibility?

(I am currently considering watching Edge of Tomorrow with my friends as a substitute for X-Men. Geez, what will I wind up watching to make up for Guardians of Galaxy, I wonder? Expendables 3?)

#2: I Make Fewer Trips to the Comic Shop

For about my last 18 months with Marvel I received comp packages of everything they published so I had already begun to be weaned from the weekly trip to the comic shop; still, I made regular trips during that time and for many months afterward; maybe three times a month at first... maybe twice per month after.

Currently, I visit the shop about 3-4 times a year. Yikes. Since obtaining an ipad, I've been content to purchase items for my device and save a little coin by waiting for the prices to drop (usually one month after release). Further, to reduce costs I buy my trade paperbacks & most graphic novels through Amazon and my back issues from My Comic Between them, I tend to have comics at my fingertips whenever I feel like it. However...

#3: I Purchase Fewer Comics in General

When I was an every-week comic shop visitor, in addition to my regular books I would often sample other titles, especially new #1 launches, often decided on the spur of the moment in the shop. These impulse-purchases almost never impressed me (as the scads of #1s with no accompanying #2s in my collection will bear witness), yet despite the ease of purchasing, I don't impulse-buy on the ipad. In fact, I tend to hoard my purchases together - some I've been mulling over for 18 months (one of these days, Orc Stain, one of these days).

There are plenty of free comics on the ipad (usually issue #1s) but I almost never take the plunge even at a cost of $0; I follow familiar titles and creators, period. I've stopped taking risks with unfamiliar books (and both my bank account and storage space are grateful).

And yet, there was a time when I took chances on new books like Street Angel or Rex Libris and found new, lifelong favourites (both in series and creators). Not every comic book can be so meaningful, yet I wonder what I might be missing out on right now - and whether I'll be able to catch up on the ipad.

Yet I don't think too much about it because of...

#4: A General Feeling of Ennui

A while ago I blogged about the Crowd, which had been the most-elusive film on a list of pictures I had been trying to see and had taken me many years to get through. Now, the list is done. Similarly, my comic book habit is at a point where I'm mostly at peace with the size of my collection, with only a few older books being of interest. Then there's my old-time radio hobby which, by its nature had only a finite amount of material for me and which I'm realizing more and more has reached its peak; I'm also unwilling to upgrade to the new Xbox and consider my video game habit is going to have to wind down.

Geez; what will I do in my spare time?

Fortunately, there will always be new comic books and movies for me to enjoy, no matter how fussy I am - but there's no longer this vast store of treasures for me to unearth, I've studied both medias to the point where, if it exists, then I've either tried it or decided it's not to my tastes. Heck, it was only in the last decade that I discovered the films of Errol Morris and went through a blissful period of seeing his pictures, plus rediscovering Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo and putting a full collection together. Yet, now the initial deluge is over and I'm limited to experiencing new Morris or Sakai as they come into existence; there is nothing left in the archive for me.

The one medium I haven't exhausted is books; wonderful books! Fortunately, my interests in fiction & non-fiction run deep enough to keep me reading for many years to come - but it's disheartening to find myself with a free evening and to think, "well, what shall I watch?" and realize "nothing, unless I want to rewatch something from my library," or, "hey, why don't I read a comic?" and go, "but there's nothing new I want to buy and I'm not in the mood to reread my collection." Yeah, somehow...

#6: I Don't Reread My Comics Any More

When I was working for Marvel there was no way around it - I had to read comics all the time. It was work. Usually, very pleasurable work (barring that period where it seemed like half of what Marvel published were wretched Deadpool comics). Still, anything which caused me dig back into DeFalco's Spider-Girl, Simonson's Thor, Nicieza's New Warriors or Englehart's Avengers would certainly be pleasant; heck, no matter how pressing my deadlines were, there was no way I'd simply dig the information I needed from an issue of Moench's Master of Kung Fu and move on - heck no! - I'd take a few minutes to enjoy rereading the book.

When I stopped working for Marvel, I no longer had to read comics. Hooray! I turfed everything I owned for research purposes only, reducing myself to just the couple thousand books I truly loved. At the same time, I bought a house where (at last!) my collection could have a room to itself, neatly arranged for me to enjoy at any time. But those comics might as well be behind glass display cases for all the attention I lavish on them; I simply am not reading them, not anymore.

Now that I'm not involved in whatever the Hulk's up to these days, I can't work up the interest to reread Planet Hulk, y'know? And since I'm not witnessing the (certain to exist) continuity errors in Bendis' Guardians of the Galaxy, I don't dig out the Lanning/Abnett issues for the straight dope.

I'm cured! I can pass as normal! Yeah! Now I'm not the guy who thinks about comics all the time! Hooray! ...Instead, it's my friends who want to go see the movies and quiz me about the laws governing who can pick up Thor's hammer and whether Spider-Man was ever an Avenger.



Thursday, June 5, 2014

Never too much information

I recently finished a lengthy series of binge-listening to radio's Information Please through the resources of (pages found here, here and here). Although I had enjoyed the episodes I'd listened to in the past, listening to them in order back-to-back is an interesting exercise as the earliest episodes didn't have the formula entirely locked down.

Information Please (1938-1951) was a quiz show hosted by the smooth-voiced Clifton Fadiman, who would ask questions to a four-person panel of experts. The questions came from listeners who would be rewarded for each question used on air and given even greater prizes if their question stumped the panel. The winnings began as mere pocket change, but by 1945 you could earn a tidy $57 + an Encyclopedia Britannica set for your trouble.

Virtually every episode featured John Kieran (an expert on plays, poetry and nature) and Franklin P. Adams (a humorist skilled mostly in poetry, sports and musicals). The other two chairs would rotate; frequently Oscar Levant attended the panel, being an expert primarily on subjects from his own vocations (music and the movies); Levant would often be quizzed on pieces of music and could often identify them from hearing only a few bars; they would also quiz him by playing a piece incorrectly and challenging him to identify the mistake, or by sitting Levant behind the piano and challenging him to play pieces from memory.

Information Please is so much more entertaining to hear than I could ever describe. What makes it engaging are the personalities sitting on panel; when I first sought out episodes, I cherry-picked to get the great celebrity appearances: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Gracie Allen, Groucho Marx, Boris Karloff, Fred Allen - all of those episodes are wonderful (I think Fred Allen was particularly fine - he appeared several times but I would have been happy to have heard him every week - and I say this as someone who doesn't really enjoy Allen's own program). But regardless of who's on the panel, it's the quick banter between Fadiman & the panelists which makes the show endearing and enduring.

It helps that the questions are usually about art, current events or history; outside of questions about nature (almost always answered by Kieran), the show generally kept away from scientific topics. Further, the intellects of the panelists never intimidate you as a listener; yes, Kieran, Adams & Levant were very intelligent men, yet when you hear Kieran's street-level Bronx accent or Levant's Brooklyn patois, you think of them as being merely a couple of average New Yorkers (with amazingly above-average scopes of knowledge). There are also all manner of flubs on the show - Levant's are frequently the best as I found he would often begin to hurriedly answer a question then halfway through realize he was wrong and with an "uh-oh" try to back out! Adams, being a humorist, seemed often incapable of taking the program seriously, frequently offering deliberately incorrect answers (or answering with a pun). Another thing I picked up from this marathon: the panelists truly don't know their Peter Pan as it seemed every time a question related to Barrie's work came up, they would get it wrong.

Kieran & Adams both being adept with poetry, it's quite something to hear them quote famous poems from memory; from our vantage, poetry is practically a lost art - I certainly didn't learn much of it in my school days and I'll wager the current generation of kids are learning even less. Yet, here was a time when men could be expected to quote Kipling, Poe, Wordsworth and Byron! In general, it's impressive to consider how well the panel was versed on the arts - that they could speak intelligently about music, literature, poetry, opera, plays and movies which were contemporary or classical; today we produce so much media in those areas it would be astonishing to meet someone who could speak authoritatively on those subjects in the contemporary, to say nothing of the classical! In music alone, one would have to study the medium constantly to stay on top of the wealth of material.

Other frequent panelists on the show included Deems Taylor (composer) and Jan Struther (author) and they were both welcome personalities; Taylor even filled-in for Fadiman on a few occasions and was a decent moderator (although none of the replacement moderators handled the show with Fadiman's ease - his ability to react quickly and intelligently to the panelist's answers is a huge part of why the show is still fun).

Having first learned of the program through John Dunning's book On the Air: the Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, I entered the era where the show was sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes with some interest; Dunning relayed a story of how the incessant chanting of "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!" by the commercial announcers caused Information Please's producer Dan Golenpaul to quarrel with Lucky Strike and eventually get out of their contract. As it turns out, this is almost what you hear on the show.

The Lucky Strike sponsorship began on November 5, 1940 and lasted until February 5, 1943. Knowing how acrimonious the show became toward Lucky Strike and knowing from my own experiences listening to the Jack Benny Program, I was braced for some pretty bad commercials and wondered how they ever lasted more than two years under Luckies. I mean, if you haven't heard a Lucky Strike commercial from the 40s or 50s then CONGRATULATIONS! They are the most insufferable of all radio commercials; some pitchmen in radio's golden age could make even the most banal items fun to hear about; other cigarette manufacturers (Chesterfields, Camels) had a bit of fun promoting their product. Lucky Strike's theory was to either lecture their customers into buying the product, or pummel them into submission by repeating their dull slogans ad nauseam.

However, at first there was nothing too terrible about Information Please's unholy alliance with tobacco; Milton Cross, who had been the product spokesman on the show for Canada Dry, remained through the Lucky Strike years and kept up the same back-and-forth with Fadiman as before. Every now and then the panelists would crack a joke about their sponsors, but largely, nothing had changed (except for the standard Lucky Strike nonsense like their auctioneer Speedy Riggs making appearances in the advertisements).

What's amazing is that you can pinpoint the very episode where everything went wrong: the debut of Lucky Strike's "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!" promotion on November 6, 1942 (available at here). Although the phrase would be repeated again and again until Lucky Strike finally left, it's only in this first broadcast where the commercial is genuinely disruptive (whereas Dunning gives the impression the show suffered for two full months). It's definitely a typically terrible Lucky Strike ad (this page reports on how a 1943 survey named it the least popular commercial of the year), but after November 6th it was used mainly to sandwich Cross' commercials.

Not so, however, on that November 6th broadcast - it really has to be heard to be believed. At various intervals during the show, "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!" is repeated in what the spokesman assumed to be lulls in the show. Each time you can hear Fadiman react with some chagrin, his teeth virtually on edge over the disruption. Dunning's book relates how Golenpaul angrily quarreled with Lucky Strike in public and it must have begun immediately because the remaining two months scale the irritating catchphrase back; too late to save the sponsor's reputation, but at least the show's integrity was salvaged for those months. Sadly, it was the end of announcer Milton Cross' tenure on the show - he had been a feature since before they had a sponsor and it's sad to think this Lucky Strike promotion ended his association with the show.

In retrospect, of course, one wonders "what were Lucky Strike thinking?" But you could say that of any of their ads. As I said, their ads either bore you or torture you. In this instance, to judge by Fadiman's reactions on November 6th it seems the sponsors had given instructions to their pitchmen which neither Golenpaul nor Fadiman knew about, it being easier to ask forgiveness than permission, I suppose. Given how publicly stormy Lucky Strike's relationship was with Information Please, one also wonders why Jack Benny sullied his near-perfect program by taking them as his sponsor (although at least Jack never had to put up with the tobacco men talking over his dialogue - but the Lucky Strike years of Benny are nowhere near as funny as his Jell-o years, IMHO). Heck, Frank Sinatra had his troubles with them too; there's got to be a good book waiting to be written about Lucky Strike in the 40s and the battles they waged against the very people they were sponsoring.

Anyway, Information Please: quite a lot of fun. Enjoy, won't you?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sierra Leone, 2014

For the benefits of those who aren't on my facebook, this video was assembled by the team I joined working in Sierra Leone this past April-May, where we completed work on the school King's Royal Academy which we began back in 2012: