Monday, February 11, 2019

Come on Feel the Noize!

I became aware of something new last week, partly due to watching the Super Bowl. I’m not a huge football fan, but given the Pop Culture cachet of the event and the commercials I feel like I should at least be aware of it. So, I usually at have it on in the background while I’m doing other things. This year one specific commercial drew my attention.

There’s a woman drinking Michelob beer in a mountain setting. She’s whispering, which is probably what drew my attention. But then she starts tapping her fingernails against the bottle, and dragging it across the tabletop. The focus of the commercial seems to be the soft sounds of the beer pouring into the glass and the fizzing of the bubbly foam. The quiet nature of it is what made me pay attention. I thought it was kind of weird for a commercial, and then promptly forgot about it.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Always Crashing In The Same Car

I’m not a car guy. My Dad is a car guy. He learned to drive in a used Model T when he was twelve years old (he was born in 1919, just for a point of reference). He drove a Jeep across Europe in World War II and drove a dump truck as a job for thirty-plus years. He’s not really a hobbyist, but he knows cars. He still pays attention to them and has what to me seems an amazing amount of knowledge about makes and models that I just don’t have. The following is a typical car conversation between us:

Me: So while I was in California my friends let me borrow their car so I could drive down the coast to Monterey Bay.
Dad: What kind of car was it?
Me: Ummm... Blue?

The make of the car is the least interesting part of that story to me, but not to Dad. He doesn’t understand how I couldn’t know what I was driving.

But, because of Dad, by default I’ve absorbed some car guy characteristics. I lived in the middle of nowhere where getting your driver’s license as soon as you possibly could was not only expected, but a requirement if you wanted any kind of social life at all. The nearest town with a movie theater was fifteen miles away. I was in school every day with friends who lived over forty road miles away. So, the day I turned sixteen I applied for my learner’s permit and a few short months later had my driver’s license.

I’ve driven a lot of cars and covered a lot of miles in the last forty-some years. But, I’ve always thought of a car as a tool, a really expensive hammer, if you will. It’s not a status symbol. It’s not an extension of my personality (except in some ways everything a person owns or does is an extension of their personality). It’s not something that brings me a specific kind of pride. It’s a tool that gets me from point A to point B and makes my life easier. In terms of expense and frustration, it can also be a burden. I’ve owned cars I’ve hated. I’ve owned cars I’ve loved. I’ve owned cars I don’t even remember anymore. At some point they’ve all let me down.

I have a complicated relationship with cars.

My first car was a green 1973 (I think), Plymouth Satellite, a two-door monster of a car. I have no idea how I ever learned to parallel park in that thing. Dad had been driving it to work six nights a week, so it had a lot of miles on it when I inherited it, along with the attendant mechanical issues that go with mileage. This car had a specific issue with soft plugs. What the hell is a soft plug, you ask? Wikipedia describes them, by several different names, like this: Core plugs are used to fill the sand casting core holes found on water-cooled internal combustion engines. They are also commonly called frost plugs, freeze plugs, or engine block expansion plugs. The problem with them, at least for me, is that if they rust through, which they did, or simply blow out from pressure, which they also did, your car immediately loses all of its antifreeze, overheats, and leaves you stranded. This happened with my Satellite a dozen times or more.

And here my troubles began.

Every car I’ve ever owned, and there have been a lot of them, have been used. Some of them have been great, others, not so much. All of them have come with their share of problems. Dad insisted that I learn basic maintenance, and I’m eternally grateful he did. I can change tires and change my oil. I’ve gotten pretty good at diagnosing problems and even fixing some that are more involved. Once, when I had just left home to drive to DC for a weekend, I noticed my battery light was on. I went home, thought about it, realized it was probably my alternator, walked to a parts store, replaced it myself, and was on the road less than two hours later, much to the amazement of the friends I was staying with.

Maybe it’s true of every driver, but I have a litany of car stories.

I have hit a deer twice in my life, though neither time caused much damage to my car. The deer weren’t so lucky. Several times I have broken down miles, or even hours away from home and had to be towed and wait for someone to come get me. Fred and I sat in a rest stop in Ohio for around nine hours one Saturday, unable to get in touch with anyone back home who could do anything. My pal Zordon (of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers fame), twice drove for over two hours to rescue me.

I broke down on 79 North, and after meeting someone I’m sure may have been an angel (in the Wings of Desire sense, anyway), the woman I was going to visit came to get me and drove me back to Pittsburgh. I called Dad and arranged for him to rent a tow hitch so we could go get the car and tow it back to our mechanic. Right before he arrived to pick me up the next morning I got a call from the state police telling me that a driver had fallen asleep and crashed into my parked car, totaling it while I was away. I had done nothing illegal and was parked well off the road, but my car was a goner. In that case it worked out. The insurance value of the car ended up being more than I had bought it for. Ever since, whenever I’m having car trouble I’ve been tempted to just park along the highway and hope for the best.

I’ve run over a Christmas Tree and been rear-ended by a dead man.

Three years ago, on the way home on New Year’s Eve, my car died. It was the transmission. I knew immediately because this was the third car in my life where the transmission went bad (by contrast, my father, who has been driving since the age of the Model T, has never had this happen). Fixing it would cost more than the car was worth, so I sold it for next to nothing and quickly, and probably foolishly bought another used car, pretty cheaply. Well, you get what you pay for. It was a mess. Rusted out underneath. There was a leak somewhere so the trunk was always damp. I kind of hated it, in ways I had never hated a car before. My mechanic flat out told me it wasn’t going to pass another inspection.

One morning, on my way to get my new driver’s license, I discovered the driver’s side window was halfway down. The motor had burnt out, so it wouldn't go up or down. I knew, based on personal experience, that this was going to cost a lot of money, certainly more than a car that wasn’t going to pass inspection was worth anyway. As soon as I got back from the license center I went online to look for something else.

I had been thinking about looking into a hybrid. I liked the environmental aspect of it, but I was also fond of the better gas mileage. A good friend of mine had a 2008 Toyota Prius that I had ridden in and liked. I figured even a used one was out of my price range, but on a whim I thought I would look just to see.

And there it was, the first car that popped up in my search. A 2008 Toyota Prius, solid black and beautiful... and in my price range. Okay, the upper end of it, but still there. With very little deliberation I called the dealer to make sure it was still there then drove out to take a look at it, my side window still stuck in the halfway position. I test drove it, I loved it, and they made me a deal I simply couldn’t pass up. So, in June of 2017, I came home with the first car in my life that I truly loved and was genuinely proud of.

This story doesn’t end well.

A little over a year later, last summer, I was t-boned by another driver and my car was totaled. It could have been far worse. There were three passengers in my car, and two in the one that hit me, including a child. We all walked away without a scratch. My side airbags deployed, which I’m sure saved Marcel and Derrick from severe injury. This was my first serious accident ever, and the ‟What might have happened” still haunts me. No one blames me, and no one was hurt, but I still feel just a little nauseous if it comes up. The possibilities of that alternate reality are truly frightening to me, even though they are not real.

But my car was done.

I found myself genuinely mourning it (fully realizing that I had to the luxury of mourning only my car). All of the other cars I had sold or lost over the years just felt like breakups. You know, we had a good run, but it’s time to move on. Some were harder than others, but it was usually a mutual decision. This one felt like a death.

The timing was bad, not that there would ever have been a good time for it. The accident took place the evening before I signed my contract to teach at Pitt, a mere three weeks before classes started. I had a vacation planned the following week, so I was out of town and couldn’t look for a replacement right away (I was in California, where I once again drove my friend’s car... you know, the blue one).

I bought another Prius, bright red and four years newer. It’s a little smaller. I like it, but I don’t love it yet. I feel a little guilty about that. It feels like a rebound car, because I’m not really over the last one. But, we’re getting used to each other. I’m getting better mileage. We’re sharing the road. I haven’t had any car trouble yet. It’s not the love at first sight I experienced with the last one, but I know it’s better than any other car I’ve ever owned.

Maybe my relationships with cars have always been complicated because I’m not a car guy, and they can feel it. Until the last one my approach was utilitarian. I took them for granted. No one wants to be treated like that, even if they are inanimate objects. I’m never going to be like Dad, but I can probably be a little more attentive. Wash them more often. Be proud of them. Don’t just pay attention when they’re giving me trouble. Be grateful for their service and their protection. Check my oil.

Be more of a car guy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Year End Roundup Part 1: Teaching

I’ve been incredibly neglectful of my blog this year, and in general I’ve been less productive as a writer. Not that I didn’t do anything, but I was feeling a little burnt out in terms of topics in this forum. I wrote and submitted a couple of pieces of creative nonfiction (that were rejected), that might end up here, unless I can find another place to submit. One of the longer pieces that was originally planned for the blog ended up being a part of a much larger work that also may be serialized here at some point. I wrote a couple of book reviews for the Post Gazette, and had a couple of pull quotes from previous reviews published in the paperback editions of the books I reviewed. I wrote a memoriam for Stan Lee for The most unexpected piece of professional writing I did was to contribute the new, official entry for the character of the Black Panther for World Book Encyclopedia.

But, my blog suffered. It’s been a more introverted year for me in general, so I guess I just haven’t had much to say in public.

My biggest achievement of 2018 was that I taught an Introduction to the Graphic Novel class at the University of Pittsburgh as an adjunct professor this fall. Though I have been making contacts and seeding my name there for a few years now, when it happened it happened very quickly.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Vox Populorum

For those who haven't seen it elsewhere I have started a new podcast series with my friend and fellow comics scholar, Christopher Maverick. We'll be talking Pop Culture in an informal academic way, which basically means we want to make Pop Culture studies more accessible to Pop Culture consumers.

Anyway, the first episode is up. Since it is our first episode we talk about the Origin Story. You can find it at our website.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sweet Encounters

A few years ago while visiting friends in California I made my first trip to San Francisco. Mike and I spent the day seeing sights and eating great food and having fun. Completely fortuitously Cherie Currie, former singer for the 70s band The Runaways, had announced a concert in San Francisco the same day that we had already planned on being there. When I discovered this I called Mike and told him we were going, then bought tickets online. I wrote about that concert in more detail HERE, so that isn’t what this is about.

There were two experiences I had while waiting in line outside of the Red Devil Lounge waiting to go into the show. We were approached by a homeless man. He was the epitome of the downtrodden. His hair and beard were long, dirty and matted. He was thin and filthy, wearing clothes so ragged I’m not sure how they stayed on him. He came straight to me and I fully expected him to ask us for money and then move on.

Hey,” he said to me. ‟Nice shirt. They’re one of my favorite bands!”

I was wearing a t-shirt with the logo of the Glam Band The Sweet (Ballroom Blitz, Fox on the Run). Perhaps ungenerously I assumed this was just his opening line and the ask for money would come next. Nope. He enthused about The Sweet, telling me about seeing them in the 70s. He was knowledgable about them and we had a completely enjoyable conversation, just two guys who shared an interest in a specific band, swapping stories about favorite songs. For the duration of the conversation he lit up, happy to be just talking and connecting. At the end he just smiled and started to go on his way. He never asked me for a dime (though I did give him some money, which, though grateful, he seemed hesitant to take).

Just after he left two couple walked by. Older. Well-dressed. Out for an evening. One of the women looked up and saw the marquee which announced, ‟Tonight: Cherie Currie!”

Cherry curry?” she said while scrunching up her nose. ‟I don’t think that would taste good at all.”

Monday, February 19, 2018

2018 Comics Retailer Survey

Recently I was asked to participate in Publishers Weeklys annual review of the comic book industry. You can read the article by Shannon O’Leary HERE. I was quoted a number of times in the article, but a lot of people, mainly my customers at Phantom of the Attic, have asked about the whole questionnaire so I decided to share it here. This really only of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the state of the comic book retail industry. My caveat here is that my answers reflect my opinions and observations based on 21 years of experience in one specific store. I don’t claim to have all of the answers or to speak for other stores. We all have different experiences.

1) What were your best selling graphic novels in 2017?

Saga continues to be our bestselling series of graphic novels for the third or fourth year now. We’ve had a lot of success with The Wicked and the Divine and East of West because they are books that a couple of our employees push pretty hard. In general the Image TPs top the list. They are self-contained series without crossovers, so people can get into a series and, quite simply, know what to read next. The introductory $9.99 price point doesn’t hurt either. We moved a lot of My Favorite Thing is Monsters. Though there are few specific standout titles in general we do really well with the FirstSecond catalog. World of Edena by Moebius did extremely well for an expensive HC. We’ve had customers regularly asking for Moebius stuff for years so the prospect of his work finally coming back into print here is exciting.

The DC Rebirth TPs increased sales over DC from the past couple of years. Marvel TPs are mostly dead stock for us. I can’t put my finger on why, other than as another indicator of the downturn in interest in Marvel. There are many Marvel trades we don’t order at all. We only move a couple of each of the X-Men TPs when they come out. The Epic Collections do pretty well with an older customer base.

Friday, November 10, 2017

It, Stranger Things, and Children in Horror

On October 21 I participated in the Mount Aloysius Charity Comic Con. I presented my Bowie paper and sat in on a couple of panel discussions. One of these was recorded by the panel moderator Danny Anderson for his podcast, The Sectarian Review. You can listen to it at the link below.