Tuesday, January 31, 2017

COMIC BOOK REVIEW BY BILL SHUTE! FIGHTIN' MARINES #117 (Charlton Comics, June 1974)


Live cheaply--live well. That was my motto during my six years in Oklahoma, where I moved after leaving Colorado in 1979. I managed to find cheap places to live, basic food was cheap, and I did not have a car for the first year or two. I had a work-study job at the college where I was attending part-time, and I worked four nights a week at a local restaurant/bar/club, so I could easily pay my cheap rent and utilities--also, as an “employee” at the college, my tuition was very cheap and some semesters I paid next to nothing. That left a good amount for record purchases!

Moving from Denver, a town with an active and hip music scene--and also the amazing Wax Trax Records (Jim Nash, wherever you are in the afterlife, thank you for being such a friend to underground music and to those of us devoted to it in Denver--I can remember him fronting me the latest Industrial Records release or some Kim Fowley rarity or a Sun Ra album on Italian “Horo”, knowing how much I needed it, and telling me “just pay me when you get your next paycheck” and not even writing it down. And we all did pay him.) and multiple used record stores--to Northern Oklahoma was a bit of a change, but I’d kind of reached a dead end in Colorado and needed to re-invent myself, like a snake shedding his skin, and re-build the new me from the ground up, piece by piece, gesture by gesture.

Being a college town, Stillwater was a place that wanted to be connected to what was happening, and there was an excellent used record store run by an ex-hippie (in the GOOD sense of that term--sharing, laid-back, stress-free, open-minded, etc.) named Ken (he and I later co-hosted a radio show one Sunday night a month on the 50,000-watt FM station in town, which could be picked up after sundown in Kansas, Arkansas, North Texas, etc.), and that place was also a hangout for the punk-and-underground-inclined people in town. There I met a number of people who became music-friends. We’d hang out at each other’s places, listening to obscure records we’d each bring over, and also listening repeatedly to new releases from, say, PIL, Wire, Throbbing Gristle, etc.

Beer was cheap....you could get a six-pack of Pearl Cream Ale for $1.09 (which I often paid for in change), Little Kings (which sometimes tasted vaguely of soap) was also cheap (if I crossed over through the college dorm parking lots to get to the other side of town on a Sunday morning, I’d see pools of vomit and empty bottles of Little Kings here and there, mementos of someone’s Saturday night binge-drinking), and of course, all the lousy beers with Milwaukee in the title were super-cheap, so we’d always have plentiful beer and non-filtered cigarettes such as Camel, Pall Mall, and Chesterfield, as we spent long afternoons and evenings and overnight sessions playing the second and third LP’s of the Clash’s SANDINISTA over and over and over. I still had all the BYG-Actuel and ESP-Disk free-jazz albums I’d bought as a teenager, and also the Terry Riley and La Monte Young albums on Shandar, the Derek Bailey and Steve Lacy and John Cage albums on Italian “Cramps” etc., and the Emanem LP releases, so those were opening the minds of my local friends who were maybe 2-3 years younger than I. Although I never sought out such a role, I think I was something of a mentor to them. They would borrow my books by William Burroughs or Gertrude Stein or Jean-Paul Sartre or Henry Miller or the then-lesser-known works of Kerouac such as TRISTESSA or DESOLATION ANGELS or VISIONS OF CODY, and I would tell them about this history of the avant-garde, my dealings with people such as Cecil Taylor and Allen Ginsberg and the like. I’ve never understood the selfish, elitist attitudes that you find on the internet about specialized fields in the arts. I’ve always had the attitude that if you love something, you should want to share it, to turn people on to it----that’s certainly always been the BTC philosophy! It’s an almost missionary zeal. In the early days of the internet, when I joined discussion groups related to areas I am fanatical about--Duke Ellington, blues music, Elvis bootlegs, etc.--I found that there was an incredible insecurity and territorialism, with people wanting to create little fiefdoms and to become the big cheese with others sucking up to them. Fuck that!

There was also a kind of rite-of-passage aspect to sharing something with someone, almost like some kind of initiation into another plane of existence. If you really GOT what Albert Ayler or Gertrude Stein or Derek Bailey or Warhol or Andy Milligan or Frank Wright or Captain Beefheart or La Monte Young or Ted Berrigan or Henry Miller were doing, you had doors open up, and once you went down those halls into new and unknown areas, you could never go back again. You were transformed. You saw everything from a new angle. It was exciting but at the same time it was calming because whatever shit was coming down in everyday life, you understood the bigger and deeper picture, and you knew, this too shall pass away.

That spirit is still alive today among young people, and even though I am a grandfather now, I still see a modern version of the same thing--though of course, nowadays EVERYTHING is available at the click of a mouse or on your smart phone. The experience of waiting FOR YEARS to find a particular record or book, and then still not finding it--maybe getting a muddy, fifth-generation cassette dub of the album or a Xerox of part of the book--is something alien to those coming up now. I’d be a fool to say that we had it better in those days--that would be like the old “going hungry makes you stronger” argument. However, on some level, I think we APPRECIATED something more back in those days because we did not have an infinite number of cultural phenomena at our fingertips. I remember scoring a copy of Sunny Murray’s BYG album SUNSHINE for six or seven dollars circa 1980 at Starship Records in Tulsa, bringing it back to Stillwater, and for weeks afterwards, the crew and I would get together after our various work-shifts were over, and we’d partake of those long free-jazz blowout jams, elevated by the pulsating foundation of Sunny’s crashing and blurred polyrhythmic drum-and-cymbal flow, as if they were some kind of sacrament. We TREASURED every note on that album, and we played it enough times that we knew every note, every pause, every scrape of the bass, every screech and guttural blast from tenor saxophonist Kenneth Terroade, someone we knew next to nothing about, constructing worlds of associations from his playing and a blurry b&w photograph of him hidden behind dark sunglasses. There was a celebratory communal-festival vibe about those spiritual free-jazz fire-music blowing sessions done quickly and cheaply in Paris 1969 by musicians finally freed from their moorings--starving and unpaid-by-the-label, but free...and we were able to tap into that vibe and somehow reside in the sacred space created by those musicians. We did it in Stillwater, Oklahoma....and our brothers and sisters, separated yet unknowingly-united around the globe, also did it. It was a great time, and we all came together for a handful of years, shared and grew and communed, and then went on our own ways to different towns, different states, different situations, different realities. But we all grew from that same soil, and wherever we were eventually transplanted, it influenced what we later became.


One of the members of this varying group of 15-17 people was named Travis. He was from one of the small towns north of Stillwater up near the Kansas border....although even at the time I was not sure which one. He had some kind of run-in with the law as a high-school kid, and he wound up dropping out. He was thin and had the build of someone who had been an athlete and had gone to seed, but still had a look that would be considered intimidating to the average person. He dressed in white t-shirts and pegged jeans with either steel-toed work boots or cowboy boots. He had an angular face and close-cropped hair in the military recruit style. He was a quiet person until you knew him, and he had a hunger for the arts....he would stay up all night reading, for example, a copy of Kerouac’s THE SUBTERRANEANS or John Dos Passos’s MANHATTAN TRANSFER which I loaned him, and then come back a few days later with many fascinating thoughts and observations about the CONSTRUCTION of those works, as though he were an architect looking at someone else’s sketches and then analyzing the functionality of the design and why the architect made the choice that he did. He was also a talented artist. My job at the college gave me access to a lot of used paper--used on one side, that is--which was going to be thrown out, but which they’d allow me to take (this was before recycling came in). I would give him stacks of this paper for him to do his artworks on. However, as a poor, working-class kid from a small town who’d dropped out of high school (he was NOT a college student--about half of our group had at least one foot in the college, even if they were not going there now, but the other half had no interest in it or were dropouts and thus could not attend even if they’d wanted to), no one in the general community would ever view him as having any arts potential, so he worked in private, showed his drawings and paintings (all done on that used paper from the college) to friends, and that was it. I would check out art books from the library for my own pleasure and enlightenment, and he would always devour them----works of Braque, Twombly, Renoir----and he would also deconstruct those, tell me about the logic behind their CONSTRUCTION, and I’d see those ideas then become integrated into his own work. Once when I got access to a 14” x 17” piece of construction paper, he did a beautiful pen-and-ink portrait of Johnny Burnette (of the Rock And Roll Trio, and later solo artist for Liberty Records) for me, which I displayed on my wall. I later sold it for $50 when I got married, and my wife and I needed money to move to Virginia where we’d been promised work. I hope whoever presently owns that has it displayed on his or her wall. It somehow captured the depth and complexity and richness found in Johnny Burnette’s music, but at the same time shined with the glow of a man who truly wanted to make people happy with popular and accessible songs that could be heard and enjoyed by anyone from 5 to 75. A man who died in a boating accident when he was just hitting his stride as an adult and had become a master of the recording studio. A man who’d written hundreds of songs, the one who with his fellow-songwriting-brother Dorsey, waited in Rick Nelson’s driveway to catch him when Rick came home and to surround him with their excellent songs which they knew were just right for Rick and his persona, which Rick recognized too....and then a great partnership was born--Johnny and Dorsey writing them, Rick interpreting and recording them....Waitin’ In School, Believe What You Say, It’s Late, Just A Little Too Much, etc. Each one the perfect two-minute rock-and-roll record. Having Johnny Burnette on my wall kept me honest...and kept me inspired.

Travis had a job at a plumbing supply depot, the kind of place where plumbers and plumbing companies would pick up whatever they needed for a particular job, so they would not have to keep an infinite number of parts in stock at their own places of business, parts they would rarely need. He worked 20-30 hours a week there, few enough so they did not have to pay him any benefits, but enough for him to have a furnished room somewhere (while our floating listening parties went from house to house, from apartment to apartment, we NEVER went to his place, and I don’t remember him ever inviting anyone over) and keep him in cigarettes and give him some pocket money. He rarely pitched in for beer or brought any over, unless you called him on it, but he was a great person to have around, and if our collective of like-minded souls was a salad, he would be the radishes--yes, you could get by without him, but you did not WANT to get by without him.

A year or two after I met him, he lost that plumbing job somehow. He had a few stories he’d told different people about why he’d lost it, so I figured none of them were true. My guess is that he’d stayed up all night painting or reading or whatever one too many times and missed his 8 a.m. work-shift more than once and was given the boot. Laid-back guy that he was, he did not seem to fret about not having a job. I knew him well enough to know that he did not have any other source of income....and also that he was estranged from his family. Evidently, he had a religious-fundamentalist mother who disowned him when he moved in with his girlfriend a few years before we met, when he was 16 or so. So we friends of his wondered what he was up to, as he had rent to pay, etc.

Evidently, he did nothing about the situation....because one night, when friends were leaving my place at about 4 a.m. after a long night of listening to a few albums of John Cage prepared piano music over and over and over, and getting off to the chiming, percussive glow of the pieces, which radiated like a miniature gamelan orchestra, he stayed around after the last person left, and explained that he’d been evicted from his room and had no place whatsoever to go and could he crash on my living room couch for a few days until he could get work. Since I was in no mood to analyze the situation or negotiate as I was crashing right before sun-up, I of course told him yes. He had two small boxes of clothing and possessions which he’d been able to put temporarily in the store-room at a Mexican restaurant where a friend of his worked, and he said he’d get some changes of clothes there.

My couch was not very comfortable or very large. The place was half a one-floor duplex, kind of like the proverbial shotgun-shack. A sitting room out front (where the couch was), straight back to the kitchen and dining table, straight back to the bedroom and bathroom, straight back to the rear door and steps to the small backyard where there was a clothesline. I would wash my clothes in the kitchen sink and hang them out to dry in the backyard. I still have not forgotten that I had a beautiful bullseye-logo THE WHO--MAXIMUM R&B t-shirt, as well as a t-shirt with Andy Warhol’s portrait of Dennis Hopper, stolen off the clothesline. For years I looked for someone wearing them, but alas, whoever stole them must have then taken them out of town.

The couch had a wooden-frame (I guess it would be called a “love-seat” and not a couch, as it had only two sections, not three) and black plastic cushions that would not absorb sweat. With my two jobs and school (I tended to study at the library as there were fewer distractions there than at home), I was not home a lot, so having Travis living there was not a problem in the early weeks. However, he would put no effort into finding a job.

He would stay up all night (when I’d gone to bed after I came in late from my shift at the club) drawing or painting or reading and would go to bed at sunrise. He produced a lot of interesting work, but in a way, I was becoming his patron, which was something I did not want to be doing.

The weeks became months, and I did not enjoy having to become a father-like figure to him, pushing him to go out and get a job, and lecturing him on responsibility. I kept as little food as possible in the kitchen, to try to push him out that way, but whatever was there--onions, out-dated bologna, mayonnaise, diluted Kool Aid--he’d manage to live on, and when I let even that run out, he would just not eat, or mix ketchup with hot water to make a drink the way you would read about depression-era people who could not afford a meal doing. Also, earlier, he’d asked if I minded him re-rolling the tobacco in my cigarette butts (and there is ALWAYS good and usable tobacco in the end of a non-filter cigarette--I’d used the leftovers to re-roll new cigarettes myself during some of my lean periods) I’d leave in the ashtrays, and I said that was fine, so he kept some rolling papers handy, and he’d smoke as many as he could roll from what I’d left behind. I tried to not leave matches or a lighter around to perhaps discourage him from staying, but as he could light them on the kitchen stove, that was not much of a motivation.

Finally, after about six months of his not working and his crashing on my couch and my having to stay away from my own place if I wanted any privacy, I told him he needed to be out by a certain date if he did not have a job, and if he did not, then I would put his box of clothes on the front porch and keep the door locked (he did not have a key--this was a small-town and we did not worry about locking doors that much). He stayed until the last hour on the last day....I got up to go for work at 7 a.m. on a Friday, he was still sleeping, and when I got back he and his box of possessions had gone. But he did leave me a new six-pack of Rolling Rock beer (my then-favorite) and a pack of Camel straights and a new lighter, with a note that had a sketch of something that looked like the monster in a Mexican horror film imported by K. Gordon Murray and said THANKS, MY FRIEND.

None of us ever heard from him again. He could not join the military because of his problems with the law--he would have taken that route out of small-town life if he could--but we did hear vague rumors of his hooking up with some girl who’d support him, somewhere in Southern Kansas, south of Wichita. Evidently he’d gotten her pregnant, and he wound up staying there and working at McDonald’s to support them. Like a drop of water that falls back into the stream and then can never again be isolated and found and examined, he’d fallen back into the great anonymous crazy-quilt of Midwestern smalltown life. Or did he? With a child to support (and evidently he’d bonded with the girl’s dad, who would take him hunting and work on cars with him), he probably did not flee to Oklahoma City or Austin or Lawrence, Kansas, or some place where he could follow his art muse. He’d cast down his bucket, he’d taken root there, wherever there was, and he’d re-invented himself. As we in Stillwater moved on and scattered, no one heard anything of his whereabouts, but whatever he wound up doing, those nights of reading Kerouac and listening to Sunny Murray and John Cage no doubt provided him with some kind of internal gyroscope, and wherever he may be today, even if it is the great beyond, I wish him well.

One thing Travis always enjoyed reading--and with my small place, what was mine was his--was my military comic books--FIGHTIN' ARMY, FIGHTIN' MARINES, ATTACK, BATTLEFIELD ACTION, etc. He probably would have joined the military if he did not have that mysterious criminal blot on his record. I know that for periods of time when recruitment is down, the military’s requirement for a high school diploma or a clean record gets waived, but evidently in that time period, recruitment must have been above the quota because they would not take him. After reading my war comics, he would sometimes do sketches of mutants and robotic-looking people in military situations. I’d see my copy of BATTLEFIELD ACTION laying on the living room floor next to these sketches, and I’d have to step over them, as if stepping through a minefield, to get out to work and school in the morning, as Travis was spread out asleep on my uncomfortable couch. I’m not a psychologist, but I’d love to hear what one would have to say about the nature of these mutant and robotic soldiers in the artwork...

War comics became popular after World War II, and their golden age was probably the 1950’s, up through the Vietnam War period. I doubt most of these war comics had much to do with actual war....about as much as crime comics had to do with actual police work or romance comics had to do with actual relationships. They seemed rooted in B-movie war stereotypes. On occasion they might reflect the qualities of camaraderie, teamwork, sacrifice, and total devotion to the mission--becoming more than you thought you were ever capable of while in a life-and-death situation--associated with fighting a war, or they might deal with the different perspectives of officers and enlisted troops, but the motive of most of them was entertainment....violent, hero-oriented entertainment that moved fast, like a WWII movie with us Yanks taking down evil Japanese or Germans, played like the most over-the-top serial villain. Everyone needs a good, red-blooded B-war movie from time to time, and war comics filled that void. The war comics genre began to die in the 1970’s, and just as with western comics, the geniuses at DC comics helped destroy the genre with their “Weird War”-style comics in the waning days of war comics.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, new comics emerged which attempted to provide an accurate and realistic view of the Vietnam War through the eyes of writers who’d fought in that conflict. This began with THE ‘NAM, published by Marvel, and then smaller publishers began to bring out realistic works that veered more toward the graphic novel style. These are admirable, and it’s great that veterans were able to tell their stories through those, but they are not really in the same universe as the pulpy, simplistic, and sensationalized war comics from the golden age.....anymore than a film like THE BOYS IN COMPANY C or PLATOON should be compared with a WWII serial with an evil Ming The Merciless-style Japanese villain, played by some Anglo actor--my favorite film of that type is the 1943 MASKED MARVEL serial, where the Japanese villain is played by former Little Rascals “adult” actor Johnny Arthur, who had his own silent comedy shorts and also a kind of Franklin Pangborn-esque vibe about him. That’s the world a quality old-school war comic book echoes, and boy, does this issue of FIGHTIN’ MARINES serve that up piping hot.

Look at that Nazi on the cover, with the monocle, looking like someone who escaped from the set of a Hammer horror film but first stopped off at the wardrobe department and borrowed the “evil Nazi” costume. Yes, that’s the way I want my war comics....over the top and comic-booky, in the best sense of that word. The first story in this issue, FOLLOW ME....AND DIE, probably resonated especially well with one particular group of readers: the recent recruits, those E1 servicemen right out of boot camp with whom I shared many a long bus ride across the Midwest, as they were going back home to see their girlfriend or wife after Basic Training....or the even newer recruits who were on the way to Basic Training. I can remember those young men on the bus reading war comics to kill time as we were going though places like Guymon, Oklahoma, or La Junta, Colorado. In this story, a corporal runs rings around his commanding officer, doubts the officer’s decisions and is proven right, and then finally gets an instant promotion to become an officer himself (!!!)...winning the respect of the original officer. There’s a fantasy fulfilled! The next story A KILLER IN TOWN has a rag-tag group on under-supplied and under-supported Marines taking on the Chinese communists in the Korean War. Finally, our monocled gothic Nazi is featured in NAZI HIT MAN, and it ends with one of my favorite B-action film clichés: the wacko, loose-cannon cop (in this case, Marine) who has explosives strapped to himself and threatens to blow BOTH of them up, and he’s so crazy (or, actually, he’s gotten others to believe he is), the bad guy buys it....and surrenders. I’m sure that scene is still being trotted out today in straight-to-video action and war and anti-terrorist movies.

You know, when comic books started taking themselves too seriously for their own good, it’s kind of like when rock and roll evolved into “rock”....or when punk was watered down to new wave--the baby was thrown out with the bath water. Thankfully,

FIGHTIN’ MARINES still delivers a Marine-like punch, even 40+ years after its publication. I can only imagine what kind of exciting dreams Travis had, sprawled out on my uncomfortable two-cushion couch, still under the woozy influence of those concentrated tobacco resin-drenched roll-your-own cigarettes made from my Camel and Chesterfield butts, as the sun was rising on Northern Oklahoma.....sleeping soundly, when he should have been out looking for work!

1 comment:

guy lawrence said...

Great stuff again, thanks.