Day 990: The Wonderful Wizard Of Political Allegory

originally published September 16, 2014

When digging one’s mental spoon into the lumpy broth of film studies, there are three things one must remember:

  • A disturbing number of gender-based analyses will reveal that most cinematic conflict is based upon the male fear of castration.
  • With a little imagination, you can build a political or social allegory out of almost anything.
  • No, seriously, it’s all about castration. Whether it’s Woody from Toy Story, Andy Dufresne or Han Solo, it’s all about castration.

Turning our attention to point #2, it should come as no surprise that a humongous heap of thread-pulling has been devoted to perhaps the most widely-revered and universally beloved of 20th century fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz. Everyone knows it, and the characters within are so bold and unprecedented, drawing a line from them to some aspect of modern society is a natural academic pursuit.

It helps that the heart of the movie can be found in a series of books, written by a man who was very much aware and engaged with the politics of his era. This adds a measure of validity to any political dissections of the literary world of Oz – though it should be restated that, like most conjecture and analysis, this is a wide portal of interpretation. This isn’t fact, but it’s a friendly maybe.

L. Frank Baum has gone on the record as describing his Oz books as modern fairy tales in the style of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, only without the romance and heavy-handed moralism. He was also seen as a political activist in his day. So who’s to say L. Frank wasn’t looking to poke a few of his own ideas about 1890’s politics into the flesh of his story?

Certainly not New York-based teacher Henry Littlefield, who in 1964 put together an extensive theory that links the characters of the 1900 book and 1939 film to the goings-on in Baum’s time. Littlefield also incorporated into his analysis some elements of the 1901 Broadway musical based on Baum’s first Oz novel, as Baum himself had written it. Of course, the stage version contained direct references to people like Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller by name, so that was an easy connection.

There have been many academic attempts to pick the nits of Baum’s masterpiece, though some of the interpretations are quite universal. Dorothy, the hero to which we are clearly meant to relate, is the ‘everyman’. She is the young and naïve innocent who is led astray and must find her way home. The Wizard quite often takes the form of the scheming politician who deceives the public into believing he has wisdom and power.

Oh, I suppose before I incite the demonic wrath of the internet that I should mention this article may contain spoilers. But if you haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz by now, how are you even alive?

The cyclone in the story has a solid basis in political analogy; in the 1890s it was used – often in political cartoons – as a metaphor for the sort of political revolution or political upheaval that would change the country completely. The optimists depicted the after-effects as a land of color and prosperity.

In The Wizard of Oz, you’ve got a road of gold which leads to the Emerald City – the color of money. Or in the case of the story, money that only pretends to have value. In the 1890s there was a political movement called the Silverite movement, which aimed to have silver accepted as a monetary standard alongside gold. This becomes particularly eyebrow-raising when you recall that Dorothy’s magical ruby slippers were in fact silver slippers in the original novel.

The Wicked Witch of the East represents the calculating industrial complex (all headquartered in the eastern United States) that controls and manipulates the people (Munchkins). The Wicked Witch of the West might represent the American West, and by extension the flying monkeys could be seen as Native Americans – once a free people (as the King tells Dorothy) and now enslaved.

L. Frank Baum had made his opinion known about America’s native population in a pair of essays he’d written as a journalist back in 1890. In those pieces he promoted the outright genocidal annihilation of all Indian peoples. Most historians believe he was using satire to make his point. At least we hope so.

How about the Scarecrow as a representation of troubled American farmers? The Tin Man signifying the steel industry’s struggles to keep up with international competition? The Cowardly Lion representing either America’s military in the Spanish-American war or Populist presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan (who strongly supported the silver movement)? In the 1896 election, Bryan had triumphed in northern and southern states, while William McKinley won the presidency based on his uncontestable victory along the east and west coasts. Could this be the basis for the wicked witches claiming the lateral points of the compass while the good witch hails from the north?

As much as my eyes would strain from over-rolling throughout some of my film classes as people plucked their interpretive guesswork from some remote corners of a film’s frames and backed them up with essentially nothing, I can see the validity in these claims. If Baum truly took his inspiration from the Brothers Grimm, then why wouldn’t there be a message behind the story? Surely he couldn’t have intended everything to add up to the “home is downright awesome” message the MGM movie crams down our throat. Why wouldn’t each character represent something more grand and elaborate?

Some folks have crammed their shovels deep into their imaginations until the truly weird came spurting up. A theosophical approach suggests that Glinda, the supposed “good witch” simply used Dorothy as a patsy to overthrow both her rival witches of the east and west and the Wizard, leaving her as the supreme ruler of all of Oz. Think about it – she could have simply told Dorothy to use the damn slippers from the start, but why send away a naïve Kansas bumpkin who might be able to take down her rivals?

And so we are left with a series of books and a film (we’ll leave 1985’s Return To Oz and most definitely The Wiz out of it) that practically beg for insight and interpretation. Or, for most of us, they are works of child-friendly art that stand solidly upon good storytelling and quirky, fantastic characters to deliver some fun. It’s all a question of how deeply you want to dig for a good grade.

Day 898: A Descent Into The Maelstrom Of Poe’s Final Days

originally published June 16, 2014

So much has been written about Edgar Allen Poe that my contribution of words #898,001-899,000 of this project to the great writer will hardly land an impact crater upon his legacy. But there’s one chapter of Poe’s life – specifically that last one – that stupefies me. Most famous figures from the modern era of recorded history have the details of their demise fairly well documented. Some – like Kurt Cobain, Natalie Wood and JFK – might be vague on a few pertinent specific details, but we’re aware of the physiological nature of what scooted them off this planet.

Poe’s death swims so deep in a reservoir of murky suspicion and guess-work, it’s almost unfathomable, especially when one considers that he died at a well-known hospital in a populous American city less than two centuries ago. I’ve been picking on the state of medical science in the mid-1800’s a lot lately, but you’d think a celebrity’s cause of death should have been something they could have pinned down.

So much of Poe’s life is open to conjecture, in particular his final few days. All we know for certain is that he bid adieu to Richmond, Virginia on September 27, 1849, headed for his home in New York. Six days later he turned up in Baltimore, walking the streets in a delirious state, one which he was never able to adequately explain to anyone. Four days after that, he was nevermore.

There were few witnesses to Poe’s weird final days. Among them were Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, an acquaintance, and Dr. John Joseph Moran, his attending physician. Snodgrass was the man called to Poe’s side at his request, and he describes the writer as having been found unkempt, dirty and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. This didn’t jive with Poe’s style – the man prided himself on looking snazzy when out in public. But when he turned up in Baltimore he was incoherent, and could not explain how he ended up in this condition.

Dr. Moran brought Poe to Washington College Hospital in Baltimore, where he kept the author in a barren, prison-like room with barred windows. This was the ward that was often reserved for the drunk and disorderly; whether Poe was brought there because of his babbling condition, because Moran was worried about curious on-lookers trying to barge in, or simply because Moran was kind of a dick, I have no idea. But this was where Poe met his end. Witnesses say he called out the name “Reynolds” on the night before his death, but no one knows for certain who that would be. Instead, he may have been calling “Herring” – not because he liked the fish, but because he was close to his uncle-in-law, Henry Herring.

As I said before, the gritty details of what led to Poe’s demise were never figured out. Dr. Moran had complete access to the man’s final few days, but he could never piece it together. Moran himself was eventually seen as an unreliable witness, as the details of his story changed frequently over subsequent retellings. And not just specific dates and times – he messed those up too, pinpointing Poe’s arrival at the hospital at October 3rd, 5:00pm and then later October 6th at 9:00am and again on October 7th at something called “10:00 in the afternoon” – but Moran had all sorts of holes in his story.

Any official record of Poe’s death, including his death certificate, has been lost. Alcoholism is the culprit many people pointed to – no doubt in part because one of Poe’s rivals, an editor with the impossibly awesome name of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, wrote Poe’s less-than-flattering obituary. Despite the fact that that Rufus was a bit of an asshole who had engaged in character assassination against Poe while the great author was alive, he somehow became the literary executor of Poe’s estate, publishing a snarky biography about the man that was (according to Poe’s surviving friends and acquaintances) filled with a soggy crouton bowl of lies.

How much did Poe really drink? His buddy Joe Snodgrass pushed the alcoholism angle, as he himself was a supporter of the temperance movement, and Poe’s early death from boozing made for a great cautionary tale, whether it was true or not. Even Dr. Moran disputed alcoholism as Poe’s cause of death, as did Thomas Mayne Reid, a popular novelist and occasional drinking buddy of Poe’s. Reid claimed that Poe tied one on from time to time, but he wasn’t a frequent imbiber, nor did he rip up the town with any sort of gluttonous zeal.

So what killed the guy?

A year earlier, Poe had nearly died from an overdose of laudanum, an opiate-derived painkiller and tranquilizer. It remains unknown if this was a suicide attempt or simply a botched effort at self-medication, but some theorized he might have tried suicide again in September, 1849. That’s a longshot, as is the extensive theory of murder, pushed by contemporary author John Evangelist Walsh.

Others have suggested hypoglycemia, epilepsy, apoplexy, rabies, syphilis, influenza, delirium and meningeal inflammation. A doctor who examined Poe in May of 1848 claimed the man had heart disease, a claim Poe vehemently denied. Cholera was a suspect, as Poe had recently travelled through Philadelphia during a nasty cholera outbreak, and it did make him sick. Scientists examined a sample of Poe’s hair in 2006 and discovered evidence of possible – again, this is possible – lead or mercury poisoning. So maybe the murder theory isn’t that far-fetched.

One of the more unusual theories of Poe’s death – and indeed one that popped up as the most likely culprit in a number of the man’s biographies – is that he died from cooping. Cooping was a devious practice of 19th century American politics. People would be grabbed off the street by gangs who were working for a particular party or candidate, then they’d be locked in a room and force-fed booze and drugs. The victims would then be sent out to vote for that candidate, several times at several polling stations (though they were often sent back to the same one in disguise). If they refused, they’d be beaten or killed.

Poe was found on October 3, which was an election day. The theory here is that he’d been rounded up and sent on multiple voting runs, with the drugs in his system leading to his demented state and eventual death. This is so hard to believe it’s almost laughable. Poe was a Baltimore celebrity – he’d be a lousy mark for a cooping gang.

And that leaves us squarely in the realm of the unknown. Poe’s legacy was so soundly and immediately trounced by Rufus Griswold, and the witnesses to his final days have been proven so incredibly unreliable, it’s safe to say the truth behind Poe’s final chapter will never be known.

Day 812: The Sunday Funniest

originally published March 22, 2014

Three years ago I was a discontented drone, shackled to a job so heaped in mundane repetition, to describe it to friends would often invoke a yawn the size of Black Chasm Cavern. Alas, this project of passion before you hasn’t yet afforded me a tether to a more interesting day-job, however it has given my percolating cauldron of creativity a daily cerebral tickle, and that triumph in itself offers me a fulfillment I’d been sorely lacking.

People (and by ‘people’ I mean ‘fictional people I invented solely for the purposes of this paragraph’) have asked me whose lead I’ve followed, who has inspired me to embrace this daily act of creation. There are the writers of course, from Tom Robbins to Dave Barry to Tim Kreider. But this project would have blushed to rust in the basement of my ambition were it not for the prime espousers of the “just-fucking-do-it” philosophy: filmmaker Kevin Smith, my father, and the man who subversively taught me about philosophy, postmodernism and fantasy as sociopolitical commentary: Bill Watterson.

You know Bill’s work – Calvin and Hobbes is one of the few comic strips that transcended generational scrutiny by invoking a lost sense of fantasy within adults while at the same time tapping into a yet-unsizzled portion of kids’ brain-meat, incorporating complex thoughts and introspection into four-panel laughs. For Bill, the strip was a work of genuine expression. He worked his world as he wanted to, then left on his own terms, forsaking the stage at the top of his game because dammit, it was just time.

Watterson’s initial career goal was to be a political cartoonist. He spent a brief gig doing just that in Cincinnati, but was hampered by his unfamiliarity with the local political scene. He found himself relegated to an advertising gig, a job that offered an opportunity to keep his creative muscles toned and limber, but without that liberating conduit of true artistic expression.

Inspired by the more inventive comic strips of his youth, works like Pogo and Peanuts, Watterson felt this could be an effective outlet for him. He didn’t wait for an opportunity to drop from the sky or a chance meeting with someone who could kick his dream career into motion. He simply did it. He drew his comics and pitched them in his free time. United Feature Syndicate encouraged him to pursue a side character of one strip – the lead character’s younger brother, who played with a stuffed tiger. They foolishly passed on the revamped comic, but Universal Press Syndicate was smart enough to swoop in and grab it.

John Calvin was an architect of modern Christian theology, a 16th century lawyer turned church reformist. He believed in democracy, separation of church and state and predestination. Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century English philosopher, believed in the power of the individual, natural law and the social contract. Watterson employed both names for his lead characters, inherently placing in his work an ambition to explore a broader scope of conceptual ground than was usually popping up in the Sunday funnies.

Calvin and Hobbes was first published on November 18, 1985 and within a year it had found a home in 250 newspapers. His rise to success was brisk and well-timed – newspaper comic strips were nearing the end of their influence on cultural zeitgeist. The mammoth strips were finding their way into effective merchandizing (Opus from Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County was as ubiquitous an 80’s toy as the Rubik’s Cube), and thanks to the brilliance of strips like Doonesbury and The Far Side, people were still paying attention to the comics page. The medium’s slide away from the public’s consciousness was still years away.

When Calvin and Hobbes was at its most successful was in its clawing exploration of social philosophy. We accepted Calvin’s reality, and Watterson masterfully demonstrated the duality of his universe and everyone else’s. Hobbes was full-on anthropomorphic when one-on-one with Calvin, yet clearly inanimate and dead-eyed to those around him. Watterson juxtaposes the two perspectives and, as he explained in a 1987 interview, invites the reader to decide which is the true reality.

Calvin’s parents – known to us only as “Mom” and “Dad” – are the obvious foils to Calvin’s unmitigated embrace of his own imagination. But Watterson opts not to present them as mere “straight men” to set up Calvin’s antics; he injects them (in particular the father) with a dark streak of humor as well. The rest of the supporting cast is given a similar balance between set-up and punchline: Susie Derkins, the girl whose mere girl-ness prompts Calvin to form his own activist organization (G.R.O.S.S.: Get Rid Of Slimy girlS), Rosalyn the babysitter who becomes the only other person to catch on to the rules (or lack thereof) of Calvinball, and Miss Wormwood, his weary teacher who blends Maalox with prescription meds into a frothy blend of pure exasperation.

Calvin boasts the full complement of childhood indulgences. Like any imaginative youngster he invents alternate identities (Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man, the curious influence of film noir found in Tracer Bullet), laughs in the face of consequence with his toboggan or wagon at full downhill speed, and finds inventive new ways to make use of a cardboard box. Watterson employs these tropes of youth to render a dark comedy that’s simultaneously goofy and too dark for the comics page. Even something as natural as building a snowman becomes fodder for Watterson’s wry pen-strokes.

Watterson wrote every word and drew every panel himself, using pencil, India ink and a Rapidograph fountain pen. He rejected any and all attempts at synergy or merchandising, believing that his art was meant to be appreciated as it was, not to spawn an industry. When the moronic fad of Calvin-peeing-on-car-logos spread through our culture like an insipid itch, Watterson made zero dollars from it. I won’t post one of those stickers here – you’ve no doubt seen a thousand of them – but suffice it to say, those things were born from outright theft. Watterson’s legacy is a heap of books (including a textbook, Teaching With Calvin and Hobbes, which is a rare collector’s item now) and nothing more.

When Bill Watterson opted to hang up his proverbial quill at the end of 1995, concluding a brilliant ten-year, 3150-comic run, he did so because he felt he had communicated all he needed to through that medium. In an act not dissimilar to Jerry Seinfeld’s choice to wrap up his sitcom while it was high in the ratings and still at the peak of its creative life cycle, he went out on top.

It has been nearly twenty years since the final Calvin and Hobbes comic, and while I’m sure I “get” more of the humor now, I’m amazed at how strongly the comedy and philosophy of the strip remains affective and poignant. Bill Watterson was driven by his art, and he created it as he concluded it – by his own rules.

A good lesson for anyone aspiring to flex their creative soul.

Day 700: What The Hell Drugs Did I Take? – A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story

originally published November 30, 2013

When that girl at the party slipped you a tablet of something she described as “kind of like E”, you simply went with it. After all, you’re young, you work out, and that bacon-laced poutine you ate for dinner should keep anything you ingest in check, right?

Except that you aren’t at that party anymore, you can’t remember how you ended up in this stairwell, and your fingertips feel like pencil erasers. This isn’t good. Your phone is missing from your pocket, and your left foot is slightly colder than your right. You suddenly remember you have to meet your girlfriend in front of her apartment at 10:30, but you gave your watch away to that Armenian hobo with the up-turned eyelid last week in an act of confused generosity.

It’s time to take action. The drugs are oozing into your brainstem and you need to move forward.

If you run down the stairs to street level, turn to section 2

If you run up to the roof, turn to section 3

2

You burst onto a bustling Williamsburg, Brooklyn street. At least you’re pretty sure you’re still in Williamsburg: a disturbing number of people are sporting ironically thick-framed glasses and at least two cars in earshot are listening loudly to Mumford and Sons. Seems about right.

A digital clock across the street informs you that it’s 10:16. You’ll never make it to your girlfriend’s place in Park Slope, not by 10:30. Also, the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower a few blocks to your left has just turned into a wobbly cartoon stack of dishes, topped by a Red-lipped batfish. And it’s looking right at you.

If you panic and run across the street, turn to section 6

If you clamber into the sewer grate beside you, turn to section 17

3

You sprint onto the roof, six stories above street level. This frantic burst of energy has caused your bacon-poutine to retaliate and charge forth from your innards in a Technicolor display of firework-juice and half-crushed styrofoam peanuts. You struggle for balance and observe a massive digital clock across the street that reads 10:17. You’ll never make it in time.

You gather your senses, brush your shirt clean of potato-chunks with your rubbery fingers, and look around for something you can use. You spot two things: a backpack and a large red and white zeppelin.

If you open the backpack, turn to section 7

If you climb in the zeppelin, turn to section 11

If you do nothing but sit down and wait for the situation to resolve itself, turn to section 18

4

You give up. You slump down in the alley in a pool of what might be urine, or possibly the fluid that has been building in your left shoe. It doesn’t matter anymore. Your last thought before you drift into unconsciousness is whether or not that Puerto Rican lady at the CVS near your apartment will let you trade in this slightly-used nail file for an eyepatch. Probably not. The end.

5

You skirt around the outside of the game. It takes you about three minutes (though it feels more like forty), and your foot is practically numb now. You are about to call out to your girlfriend, who seems quite engrossed in playing Candy Crush on her phone, when a homeless man steps in front of you and asks if you can spare a dollar.

If you give the homeless man a dollar, turn to section 12

If you lie and tell him you don’t have a dollar, turn to section 23

If you’re honest and say you simply don’t want to, turn to section 29

6

You just panicked and ran across a New York City street. What were you thinking? You are immediately mowed down by a taxi (which you could have hailed, but I didn’t give you the option because I’m the author and I’m allowed to be an asshole), and then stabbed by an undetermined number of passers-by, just because you were stupid. The end.

7

The backpack turns out to be a parachute, and just as you open it, a gust of wind swoops in and blows you right off the roof. You start to freak out, but your arm is looped through one of the straps and you quickly realize you’re being flown through the air in the general direction of Park Slope. This could be the miracle you’ve been waiting for.

Beneath you the streets look like overturned Lego. Whatever was in that pill you took, it might be a bit too strong for your system. Also, you’re getting really concerned about the chill surrounding your left foot.

You land in Prospect Park, just a short stroll from your girlfriend’s place. You’re going to make it!

If you perform a dance of joy, turn to section 13

If you sprint through the park, turn to section 21

8

Trees, trees and more trees. It must be almost 10:30 now, right? Where the hell is the end of this park and how far away is your girlfriend’s place? And what was in that pill you took?

No time to think – you continue forward. There’s a fallen tree in front of you, but you think you can see some sign of life just beyond it.

If you climb over the fallen tree and continue onward, turn to section 16

If you continue through the trees around it, turn to section 27

9

You land on the hippo and realize immediately that it isn’t a hippo. It’s a submarine! No wait… it’s the starting lineup of the 1987 Notre Dame basketball team, gathered under a grey tarp! No wait… it’s a pile of garbage bags! No wait… it’s ninety-seven mohair sweaters stitched together and stuffed with old Domino’s Pizza boxes! No wait… yeah, it’s garbage bags, you were right. But the drugs remind you that sometimes garbage bags can fly. You squint really hard and try to will this heap of trash into the air, but it doesn’t happen.

Also, you pass out. You wake up the next morning, certain you’ve been dumped by your girlfriend and more than a little concerned about your left foot. Also, your pants are missing.

To be continued in my next book: Where The Hell Are My Pants? The end.

10

You make it about two-thirds of the way when you feel the familiar thud of a Frisbee making contact with your temple. The world swoons and flips upside down, and suddenly a guy with blonde dreadlocks is leaning over you, saying, “You should really get your foot checked out, dude. Also I think I dented your skull with my ‘zbee.”

“No one calls it that!” you cry as you clamber to your feet. In a rage you hurl the Frisbee as hard as you can. It sails up, up, over your girlfriend’s building, quite possibly as far as Queens. The players around you are in awe.

“This is, like, your calling, brah!” breathes an excited skinny vegan in a tattered Widespread Panic t-shirt.

You decide to ditch your girlfriend, seek out more of whatever the hell this drug was, and begin a new life as a professional Ultimate Frisbeeist. You are the flag-bearer when the sport is inducted into the 2024 Olympics, but you end up with the silver medal when an ACL sprain hinders you in the medal round. So close! The end.

11

You clamber into the zeppelin and quickly orient yourself with the controls. In a flash you are aloft, swooping through the streets of Brooklyn like you’ve been flying these things all your life. You try a barrel roll. It works! You try another. Success! Your left foot is feeling increasingly cold, but you don’t care. You’re an ace zeppelin pilot! You expertly land in the park across the street from your girlfriend’s house. Well done!

Turn to section 22

12

You fish through your pockets and hand a dollar to the homeless man. You call out your girlfriend’s name and she waves. You did it! Your left foot has no feeling left, but you did it! The homeless man gapes at the dollar.

“Sweet Jesus,” he utters in a voice that sounds like it was dipped in caramel and rolled in gravel. “This is a 1935A experimental silver certificate dollar bill! I can reclaim my fortune by cashing this in! Thank you kind sir!”

“It’s a what?” you ask, dumbfounded. You move in closer to see, at which point he stabs you with a shiv.

“You’d make a rotten zebra-hoister,” he tells you. As the blood drains from your side, you feel both drenched in utter confusion and a little pissed off that this will be the last sentence you ever hear. What the hell? The end.

13

You begin dancing a jig, while the drugs in your system graciously supply the music to your brain. It’s a rhythmic jam, hypnotic and entrancing. Your feet don’t want to stop – well, your left foot does; it’s almost frozen. But you dance on.

A gaggle of Hare Krishnas wander by and join you. This feeling is exquisite, like swimming through a giant teacup filled with gummy bears. Your arms sway like gaseous noodles. Your hips gyrate with the magnitude of a lateral gravity. But no matter – this dance has become the defining moment of your life. You don’t even notice when the Hare Krishnas scatter after the police officers show up. It’s only when you realize you’re in a jail cell that you finally stop. You might have gone too far. If only you could remember your lawyer’s phone number, or for that matter his name. The end.

Turn to section 19

14

These drugs must be stronger than you’d thought. Those aren’t neo-nazis, in fact they’re a kindly group of elderly ladies, returning from a fun-filled afternoon in Manhattan where they saw a matinee performance of Jersey Boys. You realize this with relief, and ask them if they know the quickest way for you to get to Park Slope.

Unfortunately, your words come out all mangled and twisted, sounding like, “Gobbum majalla ploonfig yerp falloo Park Slope?” One of the ladies screams and jams a nail file in your right eyeball before they all run out of the alley.

If you give chase, turn to section 20

If you give up, turn to section 4

15

There’s nothing here. No choices would have brought you to this section, so if you’re reading this you’ve either flipped here by accident or you’re cheating. For shame.

16

Another thirty seconds of walking through the trees and you reach the edge of a lake. The drugs may be battering your system, but you know better than to try to swim across. You turn back to the trees and continue in the direction you hope will lead to your girlfriend’s place. You come to a fork in the path.

If you head to the left, turn to section 8.

If you head to the right, turn to section 27.

17

Aha… many would have suspected that flipping toward the end of the book this soon would net you an easy death. It’s okay – the sewer was actually a wise choice! You find a jetpack leaning against the ladder, with no one around to claim it. You scan the controls, pause to scratch your increasingly chilly left foot, and strap it on. Park Slope suddenly doesn’t seem so far away.

Turn to section 24

18

You sit and wait for things to straighten themselves out. What follows is a fascinating hallucinatory trip through a drug-fuelled portal of color and energy, but to sum up, you don’t meet your girlfriend and you spend the rest of the night on a roof. Where’s the fun in that? The end.

19

What are you doing here? I said “the end.” It’s over. Stop doing mysterious drugs.

20

You collect your balance and sprint after the ladies. Unfortunately your sense of direction is somewhat skewed and your left foot is now practically numb with cold. You take a left where they took a right and find yourself face to face with a pack of actual neo-nazis. This can’t be good.

If you try to run away, turn to section 26

If you stand there and wait for them to react, turn to section 28

21

You crest a hill and suddenly you can see it! Your girlfriend’s building! She’s standing outside, waiting for you! You’ve got about two hundred yards to cover, but right in front of you there are a group of college-age people playing a frantic game of night-time Ultimate Frisbee. This could pose a problem.

If you run around the game to the left, turn to section 27

If you run around the game to the right, turn to section 5

If you try to run through the game, turn to section 10

22

Okay, the zeppelin wasn’t real, and that most certainly was not ecstasy that you took at the party. You have climbed into a discarded refrigerator box, and your two barrel rolls just brought you precariously close to the edge of the roof. Also, your left foot still feels uncomfortably cold. You panic and race down the fire escape to the alley below.

A pack of surly neo-nazis is approaching on your left. To your right is a large hippopotamus.

If you ask the neo-nazis for help, turn to section 14

If you hop aboard the hippo and hope you can ride it to Park Slope, turn to section 9

23

“Sorry, I don’t have a dollar on me,” you explain, waving in an attempt to get your girlfriend’s attention.

“You’re lying,” the homeless man snarls at you. “There’s one pinned to your shirt.” You look down and realize he’s telling the truth.

“So I do…” you chuckle, though he is clearly not amused. You fumble with the pin for an unusually long moment, as your fingers still feel like rubbery nubs and you’re having trouble being dextrous. You hand the ungrateful homeless man the dollar and start across the street. Just then, the parachute, which had been scooped up by another gust of wind, sails just over your head and ensnares your unsuspecting girlfriend in its fabricky talons. She panics, struggles, and eventually suffocates.

But according to her watch, you made it there by 10:29. So at least you were on time. The end.

24

Yeah. You don’t know how to properly use a jetpack. You’re dead within three horrifying seconds. The end.

25

Nope, nothing up here. Also, you shouldn’t climb trees when you’re stoned on a mystery drug and one of your feet is practically numb. You descend the tree and thank god the author wasn’t such an asshole that he made a branch break and killed you for having a sense of adventure.

Turn to section 16

26

You turn to run away from the neo-nazis. Probably a good idea, except that the ground feels like a giant waterbed, and it takes you no more than six steps to run head-first into the brick wall beside the back door of a Kinko’s. This might have knocked you unconscious, but instead it drives the nail file deep into your brain with an audible ‘sklorrp’. The neo-nazis shrug and continue making their plans to meet up at IHOP after the rally on Tuesday. What a way to go. The end.

27

You run into a thicket of trees. It’s dark, and you quickly lose your sense of direction. In front of you is a knotty elm that seems to cough as you approach. “Must be a hallucination,” you figure.

If you walk past the knotty elm, turn to section 16

If you climb the knotty elm, turn to section 25

28

You stand there, your left foot cold, the world swirling around you in a vortex of hallucinatory wiggles, waiting for the neo-nazis to make the next move. They are in awe of your strength, your lack of panic with a nail file sticking out of your eyeball. They immediately renounce their cause and swear allegiance to you. You now have a gang, a posse. You feel empowered, though maybe it’s the tetanus that is undoubtedly creeping into your bloodstream.

“Quick! To my zeppelin!” you shout, racing back toward the fire escape and up to the roof you’d left. Your new friends are disappointed by the lack of actual zeppelin on this roof. But they forgive you. That’s what a posse does. This could be the beginning of an exciting and weird new phase in your life. Still, you should really get that foot checked out. The end.

29

The homeless man scowls at you, then nods his head slowly. “I appreciate your being forthright with me. Here. I have a dollar for you.” He hands you a dollar and continues on his way. You limp across the street and hug your girlfriend.

“I should probably go to the hospital,” you explain. “I think I took some nasty kind of drug by accident.” Neither of you bat an eye as your parachute, which had been picked up by another gust of wind, sails inches from both of you, swirls around in a cross-breeze and shoots back across the street, wrapping itself around that homeless guy and suffocating him to death.

“Wait,” she says, “What the hell is wrong with your foot?”

You both examine your left foot and see that blood has been filling your shoe. It seems you got your Achilles tendon pierced at some point between that party and when you awoke in the stairwell. The piercing appears to be platinum and there are some interesting beads on it, but really there’s too much blood for it to seem ‘pretty’ or ‘fashionable’.

“I guess I have two reasons to go to the hospital then,” you reply. You both start laughing, the world pauses in a freeze-frame, and the closing credits scroll by. It’s mostly a happy ending, but they totally misspelled the Second Unit Director’s last name. Oh well. The end.

Day 631: Slash With Pinache

originally published September 22, 2013

I’m not going to lie, today’s topic passed the border between odd and skull-thwackingly screwy about a mile and a half ago, didn’t pay the toll and stomped on the gas without losing a beat. As a writer who has often struggled in the snowy scavenger hunt for inspiration, I understand that stomping out a wholly new and fresh path can be daunting. This is why I don’t have a problem with fan-fiction, at least as an exercise.

Frowning at a blank screen, refusing to plunk a single consonant onto the page until you’re certain your characters will be afforded the appropriate amount of depth and intrigue is not going to make you a writer. If it helps to grease your gears by penning a fresh adventure starring Ferris Bueller and his buddy Cameron, go for it.

Just don’t ask me to read it. And if your fresh adventure involves the two characters having sweaty sex in the passenger seat of that 1961 Ferrari GT California, then… well, now you’re riding down the crazed highway of today’s topic. Yes, this is a real thing and they call it slash fiction.

Slash fiction is not, as some may believe, just another bi-product of the twisted collective brain-squirts known as the internet. Its origins date back to the late 1970’s, when people (often young female fans) began penning fan-fiction involving Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in a relationship that stretches its toes a little beyond the implied bromance of the show. These stories were usually differentiated from the standard fan-fic entries via punctuation; a Kirk & Spock story was simply a tale of the two characters, but a Kirk/Spock story could include hand-holding, kissing, or some full-on Vulcan wang-melding.

This would be so easy to dismiss as the squishy hormone-soaked hammerings of teenage girls upon hungry typewriters, except that as early as 1985 respected authors like Joanna Russ were looking at the phenomenon through academic eyes. By definition slash fiction involves male characters, which suggests either an unprecedented expression of homosexual tolerance in the late 20th century or a curiosity regarding the boundaries of a close male-male friendship.

These were the early days of fandom, when devotees had to share their mutual love of a movie or show via postage, phone calls or meeting in person. While I have no idea how someone would approach a friend and say, “Dude, I just wrote this story. Starsky totally does Hutch on the hood of his Gran Torino,” somehow these stories were written and distributed en masse among those who weren’t completely skeeved out by the idea.

Slash fiction has never been embraced as a key component of queer theory, that post-structuralist analysis of homosexuality in culture. While it’s significant that the majority of slash involves man-on-man action, its authors are often foregoing a textured and thoughtful analysis of the homosexual experience. That said, the genre stands in complete opposition of the mandatorily hetero romances that have defined sci-fi and fantasy throughout most of history. So while this stuff won’t be compiled in leather-bound tomes in your local library, there is a cultural statement being made here.

While the Winchester brothers on the show Supernatural appear to be the focus of a disturbing amount of slash fiction (called ‘Wincest’ by its fanbase, combining the brothers’ last name with ‘incest’), slash-fic etiquette appears to vary from series to series. Same-sex pairings among homosexual or bisexual characters (like Willow and Tara from Buffy) is frowned upon. Also, as Mulder/Scully sex stories began peppering bulletin boards and Usenet groups throughout the 90’s, slash purists shook them off as non-genuine due to their heterosexual nature.

Transsexual and transgender themes found their way into slash stories, prompting another debate as to whether or not they counted as true slash. Once the internet showed up to bridge together all the weirdness in the world, these debates became wider and louder. You may be scrunching up your nose in disgust at the thought of Seinfeld and George getting it on, but somewhere there’s somebody who takes that idea really seriously.

LucasFilm was firing off cease-and-desist letters to fans who were writing sexually explicit Han-boning-Chewie stories as early as 1981. J.K. Rowling is a big supporter of fan-fiction, even linking to some of her favorites from her website, but she has made a point of stating that tales involving Harry and Draco boinking are definitely not canon.

These stories have even crossed into classical literature, with popular author Ann Herendeen’s bizarre takes on historic characters. In Pride/Prejudice she posits a couple of same-sex relationships between characters from the Jane Austen novel.

So where does it end? And how much popular acceptance are these stories going to acquire?

There are probably a dozen annual conventions for slash fiction around the world, mostly in (surprise) the United States. The genre has been around so long it has developed its own terminology and yes, subgenres. A No-Lemon story features no explicit content. A Squick is a warning in the story’s header about some of the more controversial components therein (like rape, incest, or… male pregnancy?).

Femslash features a focus on female-female relationships. Captain Janeway/Seven-of-Nine was the most common Star Trek pairing in this subgenre, though I’m sure you could call that twisted Monica-Rachel-Phoebe triumvirate you’ve always wanted to write as a legit example. These stories are actually quite uncommon, partly because heterosexual girls tend not to have an interest in writing them, but also because there aren’t a lot of fandom-inspiring series with two strong female characters.

Chanslash refers to slash stories involving underage characters. Somehow child pornography is a universally accepted taboo, yet these stories (and artwork) are considered groovy among their fans. Someone needs to draw a line in the sand here.

As boy bands became one of the more insipidly adhesive phenomena of the 1990’s music scene, real-person slash also became a thing. People wrote stories that paired up Joey Fatone and Justin Timberlake because why not? I suppose somewhere there was some twisted brain penning a hot sauna encounter between Al Gore and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. It’s the internet – everything is possible.

If slash fiction is not your cup of meat today then it’s likely you’ll never develop an appetite for stepping out this particular branch of the weirdness tree. That’s fine, as long as you understand that it won’t go away, and that its earliest fans are probably in their 50’s now which almost makes this mainstream.

And if you do enjoy it, that’s okay too. Just don’t ask me to read it.

Day 626: Our Mystery Guest – Lover, Killer, International Spy

originally published September 17, 2013

I’m going to slip a little swoosh into my gait today and alter my stride somewhat. Instead of simply telling the story of today’s subject, I’m going to bury the lead about as deep as I can, relating the story of this man’s life while leaving his name behind the final curtain. Why do I do this? Well, sometimes you start with dessert and eat your way backwards. Sometimes you take the long way back home, either because you want to check out the scenery or else allow the long version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to play out. Sometimes it’s just fun.

This man is a famous person, one with whom most people in the English-speaking western world be familiar. The hero of this story has commanded a far more interesting life than one might expect, given the sliver of it which we have seen.

So dip your brain-bacon into your thinking-eggs and see if you can’t deduce our mystery guest’s identity. If you’re up on your obscure trivia, or maybe if you’re simply a big enough fan to have this knowledge padlocked to the front table of your readily-available mental hors d’oeuvres, then you’ll pick this up right away. For the rest of us, let’s peel through this guy’s backstory and see where it takes us.

Born in Wales to Norwegian parents, our story’s hero had a rough childhood. When he was three, his older sister died from appendicitis, and a few weeks later his distraught father perished from pneumonia on a fishing trip in the Antarctic. I don’t know why anyone would travel from the UK to the Antarctic just to go fishing. There weren’t any good seafood restaurants in his little corner of the island, I guess.

Our hero was a devious little shit of a child, at least according to the stories he himself has shared from that time in his life. He once replaced his sister’s fiancé’s pipe tobacco with goat droppings. Another time, he and some friends dropped a dead mouse into a jar of gobstoppers at the local candy shop, only because the lady who ran the shop was a grumpy old hag. This backfired when the boys were caught and caned by their headmaster while the hag stood there and cackled.

In November of 1939, our hero joined up with the Royal Air Force. He entered flight training in a class of seventeen young men, only three of whom would live to see the end of the war. One day in September of 1940, he was ordered to fly from his base in Egypt to Amiriya, then to Libya to refuel before landing at his squadron’s airstrip, 30 miles south of Mersa Matruh, near the Egypt/Libya border. Only problem was, the strip wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Our hero needed to land on the desert, where a boulder struck the underside of his plane and he crashed, fracturing his skull and temporarily blinding him. Turns out he’d accidentally been given orders that plopped him right in no-man’s-land, between the Allied and Italian forces. Whoops.

Our hero was taken to a first-aid post and nursed back to health. Before long he was back in the pilot’s seat, participating in the Battle of Athens. It’s hard to say how many bad guys our hero flicked from the sky, but he received credit for five aerial victories, enough to secure the chick-magnet title of ‘flying ace’. He was promoted to the rank of ‘flight lieutenant’ in August 1942. That’s when the really fun war-time assignment began.

That’s right – espionage. Our hero began working for Canadian super-spy William Stephenson, promoting Britain’s interests in the allied effort. It wasn’t an anti-American crusade so much as an effort to ensure that Britain remained a focal point of the Allies’ mission. Around this time our hero began running with some high society folks, and according to a recent biography about our subject, he began cavorting openly with an impressive roster of wealthy American women.

Sure, he was gathering intelligence for his cause, but he evidently had a stable of women and even a Bond-esque license to kill. Coincidentally, he was working right alongside author and James Bond creator Ian Fleming, as well as David Ogilvy, who would go on to become a top-tier advertising guru – the British Don Draper.

Once the war was over, our hero settled down and got married.

Actress Patricia Neal, whom you might remember as the wealthy matron in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, had a tumultuous affair with Gary Cooper, beginning in 1949. This resulted in some juicy tabloid fare, as Cooper’s wife found out and sent Patricia a cease-and-desist telegram. His daughter even spat at Patricia in public. She met our hero a couple years later and together the pair had five children. Despite losing one child to measles at age seven and nearly another when a taxi collided with their four-month-old son’s stroller, Patricia still put in an Oscar-winning performance as a housekeeper in the Paul Newman film Hud.

When Theo, the couple’s young son, was struck by the taxi, he suffered from hydrocephalus, or a dangerous amount of cerebrospinal fluid building up in the brain. Our hero helped to create a valve which is still used today in similar cases. His son made a full recovery.

Our hero gained a bit of notoriety when he published a memoir of his dangerous crash in Libya in 1942. From there he went on to make a living slapping words onto paper. His short stories were often macabre and spooky in nature, being cited by Alfred Hitchcock as some of his favorite bed-time reads. A number of these were turned into short teleplays, appearing on the original run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also wrote some risqué prose, publishing them in Esquire and Playboy.

He’d wind up writing a Broadway play called The Honeys, hosting a horror series on TV called Way Out in 1961, and penning scripts for films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the fifth James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Oh, did I mention his granddaughter became a model?

Have you figured it out yet? What if I told you when he was a kid, the Cadbury chocolate company used to test out new flavors on the kids in his school, leading to a lifetime of loving chocolate? Perhaps a list of his most beloved work might ring a bell: James And The Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, The Twits, The Witches, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

Yes, Roald Dahl. An author who gave a rainbow palette to children’s imaginations and sparked a pocketful of magnificent film adaptations (and a sub-par Tim Burton remake). It’s hard to envision the chef behind some of our most beloved literary characters as a WWII-era Sterling Archer, leaving a heap of trembling (yet satisfied) women in his wake and wearing his bad-assness front and center on his immaculate lapel.

I suppose everyone conceals their own breathtaking bevy of surprises.

Day 550: The Schemers Of Iron Mountain

originally published July 3, 2013

In 1967, a book dropped onto bookstore shelves, one that would rattle the public and tear away the curtain that had been concealing some of the United States government’s darkest secrets. The book contained the findings of a secret think tank – one that revealed the true intent of those bastards in Washington, and their priority of power over true service of the people.

Except the whole thing was a lie. We think. It depends on whom you ask. The Report From Iron Mountain fueled the already mighty passions of the die-hard conspiracy-lovers who were still reeling from the assassination of JFK a few years earlier. But alas, it was revealed to be a hoax. Or was it? Even now, some people aren’t sure.

You can probably stir up some good fights about it if you get the right crowds together.

In 1967, the anti-war movement had swung its club in San Francisco and its dimpled ball of discontent had soared across the country. So the purported findings of a 1963 panel of intellectual elites, in particular the findings that may have pushed President Johnson to nudge a deeper foothold in the escalating Vietnam conflict, drew a few pairs of curious eyes.

This 15-member group, who remained fully anonymous for obvious national security reasons, met in an underground nuclear bunker known as Iron Mountain. They continued to meet in other locations around the globe over the next two years, until one rogue member – a professor at a Midwestern college – felt he needed to leak the whole thing to the public in the form of a best-selling book. The goings-on at Iron Mountain produced enough grim conclusions to help hurl the book off the shelves and into people’s hands.

Most importantly, the panel determined that peace was not actually in the best interests of society. War was part of the economy. Without it, all those people making bullets, land mines, stretchers and coffins might have to find other employment, perhaps in less-reputable fields. Like politics.

The government might also be seen as less necessary without war, so there was another reason to keep the rockets red-glaring. Nations exist in order to keep the war machine well-oiled and well-used. So to give up on war would mean shattering the economy, bringing down the government, and undermining every stitch that holds the fabric of our lives together.

Oh, and collective aggression – that was another big thing. Humankind is fraught with an insatiable sense of aggression, and a war – along with a good, identifiable enemy – is a great way to ooze that aggression out in a healthy (well, healthy apart from all the death and stuff) way. Otherwise, what mass violent spectacle will we turn our attention to?

Actually, according to the findings that might just become reality. In the absence of war, the think tank recommended the government set up ‘blood games’ in order to keep our lust for gore and gristle somehow sated. If that didn’t seem viable – and keep in mind we were still two decades away from The Running Man here – the government needed to invent some other foes against whom we could all unite. Aliens maybe. Deadly pollution (though that one actually came true). And if that didn’t fly, we could just bring back slavery.

According to the U.S. News & World Report, when President Lyndon Johnson read the book, he flew into a panic. He ordered it to be “suppressed for all time”, and issued a directive to all US embassies to make sure they all knew to deny that this report had anything to do with official US policy. Johnson’s reaction, which of course came from an unnamed source in the White House, was seen as a confirmation that the panel inside Iron Mountain was real.

In 1972, a writer and one-time labor organizer named Leonard C. Lewin let it slip in an issue of The New York Times Book Review that he had penned the entire thing himself. It was a satire, Lewin proclaimed, over-the-top and intentionally morally abhorrent. Dial Press let the book trickle out of print in 1980. But when another publisher, the Liberty Lobby, tried to put the text back onto shelves, Lewin had to sue in order to establish his legitimate copyright. The Liberty Lobby insisted this was a government document that needed to be in the public domain.

Now, if Lewin truly wrote the book, this was the ultimate tip-off that his hoax had gotten out of control. These weren’t just the nutjobs in the tin-foil hats waving his book in the air to proclaim its legitimacy – now shit was going to court. Lewin and the Liberty Lobby settled out of court, with Lewin getting some money and over a thousand unsold copies of the reissue getting tossed in the incinerator.

But this wasn’t just wishful thinking on the part of the Liberty Lobby and the others who believed it all to be real. No, there was more so-called evidence on the table.

That’s John Kenneth Galbraith, a respected professor of economics at Harvard University. Under the pen-name Herschel McLandress, Galbraith reviewed The Report From Iron Mountain in November of 1967, shortly after its release. Galbraith – or McLandress, I suppose – claimed to know first-hand that the report was genuine. He had been invited to be a part of the think-tank, and while he hadn’t accepted, he had been consulted from time to time with their findings.

Not only that, but he completely agreed with the report’s findings. Keep the war going. Bring back slavery. Send Arnold Schwarzenegger to do battle with comically-themed goons and put it on television for the masses.

Six weeks later, Galbraith (under his own name this time) told the Associated Press that he was in fact a part of the conspiracy. The next day, he tried to explain away the joke – always a sign that either it wasn’t effectively funny to begin with or his audience was a little dopey – by stating that he believes the book was probably written by either Dean Rusk, the US Secretary of State, or Claire Booth Luce, the first American female ambassador.

So we are left with either the greatest literary hoax of all time, one that involved the President of the United States, a lawsuit, and which became mandatory reading for wild-eyed conspiracy theorists for decades to come, or else the report was real, and the cover-up to make it look like a hoax was brilliant.

I’m going with the former. Not because I trust the government, but simply because the idea for the cover-up is just too clever. I hope.

Day 530: The Bestselling Hoaxes

originally published June 13, 2013

The notion that ‘sex sells’ is a concept older than advertising itself. The beauty within that tiny catchphrase is that, for a long time, advertisers could manipulate the concept and the public really had no idea that they were merely succumbing to the prodding of their most base urges. We now live in an age of cynicism, where nothing is true unless snopes.com says so, where doubt and suspicion line the walls of our world-view, and where grand hoaxes upon the masses might be a little trickier to pull off.

Well, maybe. It’s impossible to say whether or not the great hoaxes – in particular the great literary hoaxes of the past could fool people today. It didn’t take long before everyone knew that the book topping the bestseller list last year was an adapted piece of Twilight fan-fiction, sprinkled with rough sex. But in the end, it didn’t affect sales.

In fact, it probably helped sales. It’s not a far cry from what went down some 34 years ago, back when the paperback-loving public went ga-ga over Naked Came The Stranger.

Mike McGrady, a columnist for Newsweek, was sifting through the bestseller list one day in 1966. He was… well, disgusted might not be the right word. He was saddened by the current state of American literary culture. Where once the upper tier of book sales consisted of works by J.D. Salinger or F. Scott Fitzgerald, now it was dominated by what he saw as low-brow work by Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann. A book needed no intrinsic value – it only needed sex. Throw in enough swarthy, sweaty men and buxom, sensual women and the faceless denizens combing the nation’s bookstores will slap down their cash.

So Mike decided to prove it. He rounded up 24 of his Newsweek colleagues, nineteen men and five women, and set out to write the worst novel of all time. There was to be no literary merit, no societal insight. Just sex. Heaps of humpy prose and dollops of detailed boinking – that was to be the center of the action. Pulitzer Prize winners like Gene Goltz and Robert W. Greene chipped in, as did respected journalists like Marilyn Berger and Harvey Aronson. Each writer was given one chapter, and all the credit went to Penelope Ashe.

Ashe was none other than Mike McGrady’s sister, in the photos anyway. She was a perfect stand-in for a fictional trash-fiction writer.

The book needed to be disjointed. The story was about a husband and wife radio host team, and the wife’s attempts to sleep with as many men as possible to get back at her husband for having an affair. One chapter involved her sleeping with a mob-linked singer, another with a rabbi. There was to be no consistency, and in fact several of the chapters had to be severely edited because they’d been written too well.

Naturally, the book was a hit. It climbed the bestseller list, selling close to 90,000 copies before some of the authors began to feel guilty about their royalty checks, and revealed the hoax on The David Frost Show in October. When the public found out the book was a hoax, they were outraged. And by ‘outraged’, I mean they were outraged that they hadn’t thought of it first. Sales climbed even faster once the scam had been outed.

This wasn’t the first time that bookstores were stocked with a practical joke. Back in the mid-50’s, talk radio host Jean Shepherd unleashed an on-air rant about the sorry state of the bestseller lists. Not the content of the books on the lists, but the lists themselves. He felt it was ridiculous that requests from bookstores counted along with actual sales in order to determine the most popular books in the country. Jean decided to do something about it.

First, Jean encouraged his listeners to head to their nearest book peddler and ask for the Frederick R. Ewing novel I, Libertine. Neither the book nor the author existed, but Jean wanted to see if he could manipulate the numbers. He provided a plot outline, and even touted the racy book as having been banned in Boston.

While it’s not known whether or not Jean’s listeners’ requests actually tweaked the bestseller charts, it did prompt Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books to hire an author to pummel some words on paper that roughly followed Jean’s plot. They drafted artist Frank Kelly Freas (the guy who designed MAD Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Newman) to craft a cover, and the book was on the shelves.

While I, Libertine never topped the charts, it did succeed as a wicked prank, and demonstrated the power of non-fiscal interest on the publishing industry. The book’s proceeds were given to charity, and Jean himself got in on the finished joke, appearing on the back cover as a stand-in for the fictional author. The look on his face says it all.

Going back a little further, perhaps you’ve heard of Instructions And Advice For The Young Bride. This was a booklet written in 1894 by Ruth Smythers, describing ways for the young newlywed lass to avoid the unpleasant act of sexual congress with her new hubby. You know, because women hate sex, or at least they sure did in 1894.

Except they didn’t. It took almost no wizardry or investigation by literary experts to discover that a number of terms and references in the book didn’t exist until the 20th century. There was a rumor that a 1998 University of Washington class on human sexuality may have penned the hoax, but evidence exists that it was around beforehand. Ultimately, the text appears to be less than twenty years old. But no matter – not everyone is a literary sleuth or even a moderate fact-checker on the internet. This one was well-traveled and no doubt fooled thousands of insufficiently skeptical eyes.

The King County (in Seattle) ombudsman, David Krull, got himself fired over this little hoax. He forwarded the text of the booklet to his female co-worker who happened to be getting married. Krull had meant the email to be a joke, a light-hearted poke at the culture of marriage. His co-worker and her fiancé were not amused, and Krull was fired for misconduct.

There are a few lessons to be learned from all this. First, people can be easily fooled, and so long as you’re fooling them with something that’ll whet their carnal appetite, they won’t care. The publishing industry is far from perfect – hell, no industry that peddles culture to the masses can be expected to get it right all the time.

Also, we should learn that if someone you work with is tragically humor-deficient, you’d be wise not to forward them any jokes with even the slightest hint of mature content. I don’t know, maybe it was Krull’s delivery. It’s all in the word choice, you know.

  • Written by guest-columnist Ernest Hemingway III

Day 505: Superman’s Spectrum of Weakness

originally published May 19, 2013

Not being a scholar of Superman, I would like to know what challenges he faced before kryptonite came along. Bullets do nothing to the guy, a bridge could fall on him and he’d just dust it off, and I don’t think he ever has to get his cholesterol levels checked. Really, kryptonite was an essential plot addition.

Those of us who enjoyed only a casual relationship with the comic books and tended to focus more on the movies know kryptonite as a green glassy stone. But Superman’s writers have had seventy years to play around with this material, and they’ve come up with a number of permutations, each of which affects Superman in a different way. Krypton was a funky planet, and somehow a tremendous amount of its residue has fallen to earth, right into Lex Luther’s hands.

The guy should have been a geologist.

Next month marks the 70th anniversary of kryptonite’s first appearance, as a meteor that fell to earth in an episode of the Superman radio series. The comics didn’t pick up the thread until 1949 – editor Dorothy Woolfolk claimed credit for incorporating the weakness as a semi-regular plot point. She was bored by Superman’s invulnerability, and felt the tension bar needed to be raised a little. I can’t blame her.

Initially, the substance was depicted as having fallen to earth in a single meteor. But eventually, Metropolis’s criminals all seemed to have a stash on hand, just in case Superman showed up to derail their career plans. But going back to Superman #61 in 1949, the stone was rare. And it was red.

Green kryptonite, the stuff I grew up watching Gene Hackman use to bring Christopher Reeve to his knees, has been the standard in the comic books after that first appearance. It weakens the big guy, though some storylines have shown Superman as having developed a tolerance to the green stuff. On the show Smallville, which I believe is accepted as cannon material in Superman lore, high levels of green kryptonite can give us normal schlubs super powers.

Red kryptonite apparently passed through a cosmic cloud on its way here, and each piece can have a different effect on Superman. One time he’d be paralyzed, then the next time he might trip out and hallucinate for a while. On Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, a piece of red kryptonite caused the Man of Steel to simply become apathetic. This must have been a perfect way to make him relatable to 90’s-era Gen-X audiences.

Writers have tended to avoid using gold kryptonite as a plot device, because its effects will strip a Kryptonian of his powers permanently. If Superman was actually exposed to this material, it would effectively end his story. I suppose if DC Comics was looking to launch a spin-off, non-superhero comic about Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen: Crack Reporters, they could drop some gold kryptonite into Superman’s Cheerios. But it’s not likely.

Blue kryptonite is Bizarro kryptonite. Again, I’m not an avid follower of the comics – my preference as a kid was to read the ads for Sea Monkeys and those single-page stories which featured a superhero saving the day because of a Hostess snack treat. But from what I understand, the Bizarro Superman is the hero’s mirror image, a villain who appears as Superman’s doppelganger. Blue kryptonite is what you’d need to take Bizarro down, though it has positive effects on Superman himself. On an episode of Super Friends, the blue stuff negated the effects of red kryptonite. If he was smart, Superman would sew a pocket or two into his suit, and carry some blue stuff around with him at all times.

Black Kryptonite, which first showed up on Smallville but eventually found its way into the comics, will split Superman’s personality, creating a good Superman and a bad Superman. On the flip side, white kryptonite only affects plant life. So I suppose that would come in handy if Lex Luther’s next big scheme is to thwart Superman’s herb garden.

Silver kryptonite has been shown to have two different effects. On Smallville, it made Clark hyper-paranoid, like a rabid coke fiend. In the comics it made him act like a hyperactive child. I’d like to see a tempered version of this – one that causes Superman to be happily wasted. The kind of fun kryptonite he might pack a bowl with and light up, just for fun during those down-times when the supervillains are chilling out, devising their next schemes.

Oh wait… that actually happened.

Periwinkle kryptonite, which only appeared in Superman Family Adventures, makes Superman “fabulous”. If exposed to this particular slab of rock, Superman will see pink walls and disco balls everywhere, and will spontaneously start dancing with Lois Lane. I want to see this one show up in the next movie.

Purple spotted kryptonite was mentioned briefly in the cartoon Krypto the Superdog. Apparently it made Krypto chase his tail. Again, this would be great for the next Man of Steel flick – to watch Henry Cavill chase his own ass for a few minutes.

Orange kryptonite will give super-animalian powers to any animal that touches it. It is completely ineffective on humans, which seems a little unlikely, since sixth-grade science teaches us that humans are, technically, animals. But this is the world of comic books – logic takes on its own form in these pages.

Then there’s pink kryptonite, which showed up in a 2003 storyline of the Supergirl book. Pink kryptonite gives Superman ‘gay tendencies.’ As you can see in the above panel, Superman is making Jimmy Olsen uncomfortable by complimenting both his looks and his window treatments. Supergirl is insinuating that the big guy is indeed a homosexual as a result of his exposure to the material. Again – this would be a phenomenal movie twist.

As it is, we’re not going to be seeing any major kryptonite action in the new movie. According to an interview with Man of Steel writer David S. Goyer, the 2013 film (due in theatres in only four weeks!) will not be making use of the kryptonite plot device. This is a good thing – it’s too easy to fall back on that one easy Achilles’ heel that everyone knows about.

I’m remaining positive about this one. We are due for another great movie about the man from Krypton. It’s been a long, long wait.

Day 477: Poe’s Stalkiest Fan

originally published April 21, 2013

It’s not uncommon – though perhaps a tad on the morbid-meter – to contemplate one’s legacy after death. Who would make the trip to your funeral? Surely not all of your exes, but hopefully your current significant other and most of your kids. How would you be remembered? For that time you blasted that wet fart during a math exam, or for the heaps of great art that you sketched out on a napkin but never really completed?

Who would visit your grave? One would expect that said significant other and maybe an old friend or two might drop a flower (or a rock if you’re Jewish) on the cement marker that testifies to the world that you did indeed exist. What about some mysterious stranger, visiting your grave once a year and laying a tribute to your magnificent wonderfulness? Probably not.

And if they did, they wouldn’t be the first to undertake such a task. For there was always the Poe Toaster.

Edgar Allen Poe died under bizarre and mysterious circumstances on October 7, 1849. The details of his strange end could (and probably will) merit a full article of dissection over the next 523 days, but for now it’s enough to know that he was pronounced dead at Washington College Hospital in Baltimore on a dark Sunday morning.

For whatever reason, Poe’s legacy was left in the hands of Rufus Wilmont Griswold (probably no relation to Clark W. Griswold, but the details are sketchy on that), Poe’s rival. Griswold published a ‘memoir’ of purportedly invented facts that depicted the great author as a drunken, drug-huffing loon. There’s a good lesson in this – don’t leave your post-mortem legacy in the hands of the guy that totally wants you to look like literature’s biggest dick.

It took a while for Poe’s friends and colleagues to clean up the writer’s legacy, debunking most of Griswold’s memoir and restoring Poe’s public image to the best of their ability. As time moved forward, the memoir faded from the spotlight, and people remembered Poe the way they should – by reading his stuff, then lying terrified in bed, praying they don’t wake up with a giant-ass pendulum blade swinging above their mid-section.

Witnesses first reported seeing the ‘Poe Toaster’ as early as the 1930’s. A mysterious figure – believed to be male – would wander into Westminster Hall and Burial Ground in the early hours of January 19 (Poe’s birthday), dressed entirely in black and obscuring his face with a scarf or a hood. He would approach Poe’s tombstone, then raise a glass of cognac in a toast before leaving a trio of roses in a specific formation on the memorial. Then he would take his silver-tipped cane (pure class) and walk away.

This happened every year. Nobody knew why the mysterious man would show up, or what the significance of the cognac might be, as no cognac shows up in any of Poe’s works. The three roses were believed to symbolize Poe, his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law, who had all been interred at that location, though it’s worth noting that none of them are still there. Poe was moved to another location in 1875 – the Toaster showed up at the memorial of his original burial site.

Sometimes the Toaster would leave a little note. One said “Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you.” The 1993 note said, “The torch will be passed.” In 1999, the note claimed that the original Toaster had died and his son had taken over. The note in 2001 indicated a slightly more real-world take on the master wordsmith, declaring, “The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all. The Baltimore Ravens. A thousand injuries they will suffer. Edgar Allen Poe evermore.” A few days later, the Toaster was proven wrong when the Ravens beat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

I’m actually a little surprised the Toaster hasn’t left a note declaring his love for The Wire.

Naturally, because we live in the age when Google has taught us that all information should be at our fingertips all the time, a group of nosy schmucks decided they wanted to unmask the Poe Toaster. Luckily, they were unsuccessful. The rest of Baltimore has apparently decided that they prefer the mystery, and out of respect to the great unknown, no one has since tried to figure out the Toaster’s identity. In 2007, some guy named Sam Porpora told a reporter that it was he who had started the tradition back in the 60’s in order to splash some publicity for his church into the media. His story was full of holes though – in particular it didn’t match up with the earliest reports of the Toaster’s appearance, dating back thirty years before his claim.

Then, in 2010, it all ended. Jeff Jerome, who works at the Edgar Allen Poe House & Museum, had witnessed every Toaster arrival since 1976, and had no idea why the tradition ended suddenly. It could be that 2009, which marked the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, just might have seemed like a good round number for the Toaster to call it quits.

But Poe isn’t the only corpse with a secret admirer.

Just a short stroll from where my own father is chilling through eternity lies silent film star Rudolph Valentino, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. On the anniversary of his death, a mysterious “Woman In Black” shows up to deliver a single red rose to his grave. This began in 1928, just two years after Valentino succumbed to peritonitis from complications during surgery to remove his appendix.

Strange? Mysterious? Maybe. But it was later revealed to have been a publicity stunt by press agent Russel Birdwell, probably to promote a re-release of one of Valentino’s films. Several copycats have followed over the years, but it hardly holds the same air of fascinating obsession as Poe’s admirer.

To my knowledge, no other mysterious visitors are dropping in on any famous graves in this same fashion. The Poe Toaster is more touching than creepy, though I suspect that someone who drops in to leave a bottle of Zima at the grave of a modern celebrity every year might not be seen in the same way.

When I’m gone, I expect no such tribute. I suspect I’ll be too busy haunting the people I didn’t like when I was alive and hanging out in the Hall of Bacon (literally made of bacon) that no doubt exists in the afterlife. But if it happens, thanks in advance, whoever you are.