O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Patton Oswalt wrote an article for Wired not too long ago where he postulated that, because everything of interest to geeks and nerds in pop culture is now available all the time, geek culture was dying or needed to die or something like that.
I don’t particularly agree with his thesis. (Truthfully, I’m not at all sure Mr. Oswalt genuinely feels this way — he’s a comedian, after all, and he probably was amusing himself at the internet’s expense.)
However, I’m the same age, or actually a little older, so I grew up in the same Age of Inaccessibility that Mr. Oswalt did. Which got me wondering.
Now, I’m not interested in debating Mr. Oswalt’s proposition. I’m more interested in testing it. Are we genuinely living in the Age of Total Availability of Everything Ever? Is everything I was reading and watching in– oh, let’s say March of 1978– now accessible to everyone?
I don’t mean at a used bookstore or a back-issue bin. I’ve been picking through those places my entire adult life, that’s nothing new. No, I mean readily available in trade paperback or DVD or whatever, as a new retail purchase. That’s the challenge.
March is just a random month, but I picked 1978 because that was a big geek year for me. I consumed a LOT of books and comics and movies. I was a junior in high school, which meant money — I had a part-time restaurant job– and, more importantly, mobility, because I had friends that drove. (Often on weekends my friend Joe and myself would go drive around looking at music and book stores. Joe says that picking me up at my house was like “driving the getaway car,” and it was. My family was such a mess that I don’t know what the hell I’d have done without Joe to escape with…. and nerd culture to escape into.)
Anyway. March of 1978. Let’s break it down. What comics were on my pull list then?
…trick question, I had no pull list. There weren’t really any comics retailers then, certainly not any near me. But here’s what I pulled off the spinner rack.
Batman #300. I wasn’t really reading the Bat books regularly, but I couldn’t bear to completely leave them be.
This one I got because it was an anniversary issue, but also it was drawn by Walt Simonson, who I remembered fondly from Manhunter, and it featured Robin in his cool Adams-designed outfit that I remembered from an issue of Justice League, many years ago.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #105. This was not the legendary O’Neil-Adams era, obviously, but the considerably less legendary O’Neil-and-whoever-was-around-the-office run.
In this case, it was O’Neil and Alex Saviuk, never a favorite artist of mine, and worse, the inks were by Vince Colletta, who is legendary but not in a good way. O’Neil’s story is baseline-competent, but that’s all. I bought this because I’d really loved the first few issues of the GL/GA revival O’Neil had done with Mike Grell, but I was about ready to give up. I think this one or maybe the next one was my last for a while.
Is it available today? No. Although there’s a slim chance it might make the next Showcase Presents Green Lantern, I’m not sure exactly where the cutoff is there. I think it probably will just miss it.
Action Comics #484. “Superman Takes A Wife!” It was a big anniversary month for DC.
I was not really a big Superman guy — but I was a big Earth-2 guy, I loved the old JLA/JSA crossovers, and anything having to do with that parallel world idea, I was always up for it. (I’ve never really understood how it got to be such a hated concept. “Too complicated to follow” is always the reason people give, but no one seemed to actually ever have any problem following along with the concept. I read my first Earth-2 story when I was eight and I had no trouble.) Plus, this was a fill-in-the-historical-blank kind of story as well, and my inner geek loved that stuff too.
That was it for DC. Before we get to the Marvel books I got that month, let’s take a quick look around the rest of the landscape.
Television: I wasn’t watching as much TV as I used to. The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman were both winding down, and though Hawaii Five-O and Rockford Files were still going strong, I’d kind of lost interest. Likewise with both Charlie’s Angels and Starsky and Hutch. (1978 was also the year that Starsky & Hutch came under a lot of pressure to tone down the violence, and without the violence, it wasn’t any fun to watch. At least, it wasn’t any fun unless you wanted to indulge your slash-fiction fantasies, but let’s not go there.)
We were just starting to really get into Saturday Night Live, and it was becoming a regular thing for me and my friends to gather at Joe’s house on Saturday nights to watch it. Plus, our local PBS station was running the half-hour episodes of Monty Python at eleven so it was a natural lead-in to Saturday Night Live. (When Eric Idle or Michael Palin hosted SNL, we completely geeked out over that.)
Elsewhere on the SF/nerd front, Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter had morphed into the modern-day version and moved to CBS. The original Battlestar Galactica didn’t exist yet, but The Man From Atlantis had gone to series and gotten so silly that I’d given up. The disappointing Logan’s Run had been canceled in January. The big event for me was that in March of 1978, The Incredible Hulk with Bill Bixby went to series. I was very pleased about this, I really liked the two Kenneth Johnson TV movies that had aired.
All of these TV shows are available in their entirety on DVD today except Man From Atlantis and Logan’s Run.
And even those are available in a limited way — Logan’s Run, the TV series, exists as a pay download from Amazon Unbox. And the 1977 Man From Atlantis pilot — the only part of it really worth watching anyway — is on DVD courtesy of Warner Archive.
Books: This is harder to pin down, but bearing in mind that Joe and I had begun our tradition of driving around looking at bookstores and stuff, I believe that in March of 1978 I’d just discovered pulp reprints and spin-offs, including Byron Preiss’ Weird Heroes.
I was very into the reprint series that were coming out at the time, particularly the Shadow paperbacks with the Steranko covers and the Conan books edited by L. Sprague deCamp. And because I’d read Philip José Farmer’s Doc Savage biography, I was busy chasing down everything else he had written about the Wold Newton family. Best of all for teenaged geeky me, Marvel had just launched its series of original novels that month, beginning with Spider-Man in Mayhem In Manhattan.
Are those books available today?
Wellll… yes and no. If you have a credit card and access to the internet you could clean up the whole list in about twenty minutes, and not for that much money. But you’d be buying used. Most of these books appear now in completely different, revised editions.
You can get Conan, but with the Carter/deCamp pastiches removed. You can get the Shadow, but not with the Steranko covers. (The Doc Savage reprints from the same company, though, do occasionally throw us 1970s kids a bone by using a James Bama cover every so often.) You can get new Spider-Man prose originals, but not Mayhem in Manhattan. Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton-related books are coming back into print one by one, often with revised and updated introductions (for example, The Adventure of The Peerless Peer is scheduled to come out in a new edition from Titan Books in June.) And so on.
Does that qualify under the terms of the challenge, “new retail” only? Technically not, I suppose, but I’m going to say, “Close enough.” Put it this way — if sixteen-year-old Joe and I were to go driving around to retail bookstores today on the same sort of hunt for nerd reading that we were on in 1978, there’s plenty of the same material out there. (Somebody should really straighten out the rights to the Byron Preiss stuff and get that back in print, though, particularly Weird Heroes.)
Movies: 1978 was a big movie year for me — Superman with Christopher Reeve, Animal House, Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (yeah, I know, still a little bitter about how that turned out), I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Foul Play, Good Guys Wear Black…. all of them released in 1978. And all of them available on DVD. (Yes, even the Bakshi. Surprised me too.)
But none of them were out as of March. In March, the only then-current movie I made it a point to see (and own today) is Gray Lady Down.
What about the really ephemeral made-for-TV stuff? Can you still find that?
Offhand I can think of two TV-movies from 1978 that are prized by nerd collectors. The television Dr. Strange came out in 1978, though not until fall. And KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park premiered that year. Both are convention bootlegger evergreens, but they’ve both had legitimate home video releases as well. So I’d say yeah.
And in December of that year, we got The Star Wars Holiday Special, legendary in its sheer awfulness. Also a convention bootleg favorite, and I’m pretty sure it’s downloadable… though probably not legally.
Fans are continually fighting for a legitimate home video release and I understand that there is actually going to be one, though the reason escapes me. It if does indeed get one, I think that will pretty much slam the door on the availability-of-everything-ever question as far as film is concerned.
Let’s wrap up the comics. In March of 1978, I picked up these titles…
Howard the Duck #25 and X-Men #111.
Nothing really to add to the REAMS AND REAMS of stuff that’s been written about these two series, except that yeah, they really were that good. And both Howard and the X-Men are available in Essential collections.
I also picked up Doctor Strange #29 and The Defenders #60, but I was rapidly growing disenchanted with each of them.
Neither one was anywhere near the glory days of just a couple of years before. Doctor Strange was a fill-in by Roger Stern, I think, slotted right after Jim Starlin had wrapped up some typically psychedelic Starlin thing with the In-Betweener. (Despite his rep, I never found Starlin’s stuff to be as ‘trippy’ as Steve Englehart’s, on either Captain Marvel or Doctor Strange.)
And The Defenders was the final chapter of the three-part Devil-Slayer story by David Kraft, chiefly notable for all its Blue Oyster Cult-themed Easter eggs planted throughout. (I owned the Agents of Fortune album and thus spotted most of them, which made me feel a bit smug, but there wasn’t much of a story surrounding the in-jokes.)
I’d let go of a lot of Marvel books by that point, partly through attrition and partly because our distributor was never really very dependable. Sometimes the books would be there and sometimes not. So if it was something on the bubble and I missed a couple, I’d let it go. Otherwise, I absolutely would have bought Fantastic Four, What If?, Savage Sword of Conan, Kull, Avengers, Godzilla, John Carter Warlord of Mars, Tarzan, Ms. Marvel, and Rampaging Hulk.
Looking at all these covers, I am pretty sure I missed them, but I remember buying issues of each of those series both before and after, so I was kind of trying to keep up. We were still in the age of catch-as-catch-can distribution, and though it was easier to stay caught up than it was when I was little, it still took work — and I wasn’t putting as much work into it. Probably part of it was just getting out more… and suddenly finding out it was possible to talk to girls, as well.
But here’s the amazing part. I’ve been able to catch up with almost all of them, because almost all of them have come out in the Essential format or — in the case of What If? and Kull — as full-color trade paperbacks. Either they’ve been reprinted already or, as in the case of John Carter Warlord of Mars, they’re scheduled to come out soon. (Fantastic Four and Avengers haven’t quite caught up to 1978 in the Essential program, but the next volume of each will cover these.)
With one exception. As far as I am aware, there are no plans afoot to reprint Marvel’s Tarzan. No idea why this is, or why Dark Horse seems committed to plowing through all the Jesse Marsh Tarzan stuff from Dell first, but there it is.
Nevertheless, allowing for the one exception, I think it’s safe to say that these comics are available or will be soon.
Now, that is an amazing batting average of beloved comics, movies, TV and books from my youth that I could walk into a Barnes and Noble and either pick up off the shelf or have special-ordered. (But I really don’t have to, because I have the internet and a debit card.) I tried a couple of other random month-and-year selections and got similar results for everything up to roughly 1983 or so. After that it becomes a little dodgier with the comics, but books, TV and movies are all just as accessible, everything from the early sixties to the present day. And I expect comics to catch up soon.
Here’s the really interesting part. It’s only geek stuff… science fiction, superheroes, fantasy, action-adventure. If your thing is romance, or situation comedy, or actual Literature, you’re out of luck, you can’t find nearly as much from that era that’s re-packaged for new audiences. Taylor Caldwell and Arthur Hailey ruled the paperback scene when I was a kid, but both of them are long gone from the public consciousness now, their best-sellers fallen out of print decades ago. One-season television flops like The Waverly Wonders or even Emmy-winning shows like Kaz or My World And Welcome To It don’t get DVD releases– but failed one-season SF/fantasy shows like The Night Stalker and Firefly and Nowhere Man are DVD evergreens. If your taste runs to genre fiction… well, congratulations, because we now own the world.
I’m sorry, but I remember how underground this all used to be, how furtive I had to be sneaking it past my parents — and comparing then to today, that leap to public acceptance is practically miraculous from where I’m sitting. When I set out to write this and really see if I could find new copies of everything, I was not expecting to do anywhere near as well as I did. (The movies and TV, especially, astonished me. I mean, seriously, KISS Meets The Phantom??)
As far as I’m concerned, that makes right now the Golden Age, and I don’t really give a damn how many Johnny-come-latelies I share it with. Hell, today I have a six-year-old godson to share it all with and what that means is that I get to see the magic happen for him, all over again. Believe me, if you got to watch that you’d think it was awesome too. In fact, last weekend Phenix and his mother got comped into the new Green Hornet movie and it really amused me to think of the fact that — thanks to the all-access world we live in now — this six-year-old boy spent the entire ride to the theater explaining who the Hornet and Kato were to his mother. That’s the Age of Availability in action.
I was there then and I’m here now and with all respect to Mr. Oswalt, now is a hell of a lot better. The only downside to any of this is that all these books and DVDs threaten to crowd us out of our home. Believe me, that’s a problem I’d have loved to have back in 1978.
See you next week.
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