The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Six

When I was growing up, there were quite a few format choices if you wanted to buy a recording of a song you liked.  45 rpm singles were the most popular with young listeners like me, and I had quite a few of those; my sister had even more.  45s were so ubiquitous that I remember the local radio station handing them out at parades.  There were albums, too, of course, long-playing 33 1/3 rpm records that contained ten songs or so—the hits, and a bunch of other stuff that might be good, but you’d have to buy the album to find out, as they never played the non-single tracks on the radio.  The first two albums of my own were Pac-Man Fever and Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, both of which I played non-stop, so that should tell you everything you need to know about me as a child.

Nowadays, the greatest disdain is reserved for the “greatest hits” package: when somebody lists a Greatest Hits as one of their favorite albums, it smacks of dilettantism; the implication is that their knowledge is only surface-deep or defined by songs that someone else decided were “the best.”  In short, they have committed the sin described by the record store clerk I mentioned previously, putting someone else’s preferences in place of their own.  Worse, the Greatest Hits divorce songs from their context within the album.  According to this point of view, the ideal recording artist makes statements at the level of the album, not the individual song, with each song contributing to a greater whole, like movements of a symphony.  That’s true of some albums and recording artists, but really only a minority, and even looking back to the “good old days” when albums were king paints a misleading picture.  As I recall it, the only albums that everyone agreed on back then were the mega-hits like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, an album that was so huge that on the last day of school my fourth grade class gathered to watch the full-length music video for the title song as a treat.  Albums like that could stay on the charts for months, even years, releasing singles until you had heard so many of the songs that it seemed silly not to give in.  The “all killer, no filler” album was a rarity, of course—it was more common for there to be two or three good songs and a bunch of forgettable junk—that was why it was so exciting when one came along.

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Histories of the record industry tend to emphasize how revolutionary the long-playing record was when it was introduced in 1948.  No longer did listeners have to get up and change the record every few minutes: they could put on an LP (or several, if they had one of the newer phonographs with an automatic record changer) and have uninterrupted background music at home for (potentially) hours at a stretch.  Between the LP and radio, music lovers had fewer reasons to go out; once television was introduced, the media cocoon of the second half of the twentieth century was complete.

However, LPs first became popular as a vehicle for Broadway soundtracks, classical music and the emerging genre of “mood” music, i.e. music for grown-ups.  The transition to the album format was much slower for youth-oriented music like pop, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.  The single was still king in those genres until the 1960s, and artists were expected to record in both formats: as Elijah Wald describes in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll, artists such as Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan recorded adult-oriented “theme” albums as well as pop singles, effectively for two different audiences:

Although Sinatra placed nine albums in the top two chart positions between 1955 and 1960 and had six top-ten singles in the same period, they included no overlapping tracks.  Even a song as iconic as “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” was strictly an album track, and though Capitol also released compilations of his singles, those packages never did as well as single-less sets like Come Fly with Me and Only the Lonely. . . .  Elvis was the only artist to be equally successful in both formats without specifically tailoring his LPs to the adult market.

Gradually this changed, and in the 1960s the Beatles turned their albums into thought-out, aesthetically unified song cycles, eventually abandoning live performance altogether so they could concentrate on their studio work; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released in 1967) is generally cited as the first “concept album,” the term by which such efforts would be differentiated from the more typical collection of unrelated songs, but it was preceded by Sinatra’s albums, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and the Beatles’ own Revolver, albums whose contents are unified not only by thematic connections but by sonic ones as well: throughout the 1950s, instruments were often added to pop recordings for the novelty value: Mitch Miller’s production of Rosemary Clooney’s singles include harpsichord, marimba, and oboe, for example. For Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson went much further, creating an instrumental pallet that included strings, brass, and free reeds (accordion and bass harmonica), giving the entire album an unprecedented unity.  The studio revolution of the psychedelic ‘60s was built on a foundation that included Miller, Sinatra’s arranger Nelson Riddle, and Wilson’s idol Phil Spector, as well as the avant-garde electronic experimentalists (like Karlheinz Stockhausen) cited by the Beatles.

Such aesthetic unity is the real legacy of this fertile period, not the “concept album’s” pretensions of narrative specificity.  After the 1960s it would be unusual for a rock or pop album to lack a unified sound: artists might change their approach from album to album (sometimes drastically: think David Bowie), but each album was judged as an artistic statement akin to a Romantic symphony, whether or not it had been conceived as such.  As an example, They Might Be Giants’ 2001 album Mink Car, with its mixture of production styles and genre exercises, is often dismissed by fans, and even for its defenders (of which I am one) it feels like a “greatest hits” package, lacking the organic sense of “togetherness” listeners have come to expect from albums.

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But perhaps it’s not Mink Car that’s out of step: shortly after its release the same year, the iPod popularized “shuffling” as a listening mode.  CD players had featured shuffle mode since their introduction in the 1980s, and multi-disc changers allowed listeners to play tracks from several CDs in random order, but the iPod allowed one to randomize a complete library of mp3s, a listening experience that could be disorienting, exciting, and liberating—specifically, liberating songs from their contexts within album playlists.  Suddenly, the single was fashionable again.*   They Might Be Giants had previously put a set of short (most just a few seconds) songs called “Fingertips” on their album Apollo 18, specifically to take advantage of the shuffle feature.  The iPod made it possible to shuffle their entire catalog, for example, and in that context the variety of styles on Mink Car didn’t seem out of place at all.

The term “album,” applied to LPs, was borrowed from previous 78 albums, which had several sleeves bound together to hold multiple discs; the resulting product was much like a book, and comparable to a photo album.  Moreover, some albums were sold in the same way as photo albums: empty, with room for listeners to keep their favorite discs in the pockets.  In that sense, the album was purely a storage solution.  Like iTunes customers today, and like teenagers in the 1950s, 78 buyers often preferred to buy only the songs they wanted, not the complete albums assembled by record producers.

Yet even that is predated by the use of “album” as a collection of music; in the early nineteenth century it became fashionable for composers to sketch short pieces of music in the albums of their friends or patrons, sort of like signing their yearbook.  These short pieces were known as Albumblätter, or “album leaves.”  Gradually the term came to be applied to any short piece dedicated in such a manner; Beethoven’s famous Albumblatt für Elise was one such.  From there it was a short jump to composing sets or cycles of short pieces and designating the entire work as an “album.”  Robert Schumann composed sets titled Albumblätter and Album für die Jugend (“Album for the Young”), and other composers followed his example.  Schumann, in particular, was interested in cyclical forms that included hidden connections between otherwise quite different movements. When considering the classical forefathers of the “concept album,” in addition to the usual grandiose, totalizing suspects such as Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, a nod should also be given to Robert Schumann.

Publishers also assembled “albums,” bound volumes of compositions by particular composers, and of course sheet music is still published in that format today (although, like books, recorded music, and everything else, it is also available in a dizzying array of digital formats).  Interestingly, Beck released an album in 2012, Song Reader, that hews to this original definition.  Of course it is common for sheet music to popular albums to be published, but in Song Reader’s case there is no audio version, at least not officially: Beck has invited readers of the book to upload their own versions of the songs to the Song Reader website, a case of modern technology putting a new spin on social music-making forms that had mostly been marginalized by that technology decades earlier.

* Moby, an early and vocal advocate of the iPod, was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2002; superimposed over his photo was a list of the contents of his iPod.  The implication was clear: the iPod hadn’t just changed the way people accessed their music collections—it had given birth to a new aesthetic of musical mixing and matching, embodied by Moby and his output.  Interestingly, the article describes how carefully Moby sequenced the songs on his albums, even with the knowledge that the producer no longer has the final say in the listener’s experience, if he ever did.  If we don’t see as many of those media think pieces about “remix culture” anymore, it’s largely because the concept has become so commonplace as to be invisible.

(Continue to Part Seven)

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The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Five

A few years back I was browsing a new-and-used record store in Kansas City.  It will surprise no one that my affection for old book sales also extends to the crates of old records at music stores, and I used to spend many happy hours browsing their shelves.  I drifted down into the basement, where there were quite a few CDs and records, including 78s, of early jazz, one of my passions.  I was looking over a CD of guitarist Eddie Lang’s collaborations with violinist Joe Venuti, chatting with the clerk, a guy with a handlebar moustache, horn-rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt (this was about fifteen years ago, before such a combination would be so commonplace as to be a hipster cliché).  He was justifiably proud of the store’s selections of 78s, but when I mentioned I didn’t have a 78 player and mostly relied on compilations, he sniffed, “I don’t like to let anyone else tell me what I can and can’t listen to.”  The conversation was effectively over.

I didn’t take it too personally.  A run-in with a snooty record store clerk is practically as much a rite of passage as throwing away one’s old comic books only to regret it later, and in the broader sense I agree with him.  As much as I respect the anthologist’s art, I’m all too aware of how much is out there that won’t be repackaged in modern formats.  I have a 78 rpm record player now, but hardly any discs to play on it.  I’m grateful for such online institutions as the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, which makes very old and/or rare recordings available, the only filter being the rate at which its curators can acquire and digitize its holdings, but at the time of this conversation that would be a few years in the future.

What strikes me in hindsight is how different the attitude toward compilations is among music fans and readers of short stories.  I’ve never heard a sci-fi reader turn up his nose at a Groff Conklin anthology and say, “No thanks, I’ll stick to my issues of Astounding and Unknown Worlds.”  Very few will bother to track down a Kurt Vonnegut story in Playboy when it can easily be found between hard covers.  True, hardcore record collectors are also a minority, but the concepts of authenticity and authorial voice are different in the two areas.

To a large degree, this is due to the ephemeral nature of print magazines and the vital role anthologies have played in both keeping stories alive and developing a canon of widely-known and –respected work.  As anthology expert Bud Webster compellingly argues in his Anthopology 101,

There were paper drives here in the US well into the 1960s, and had been since the war years; thousands of old magazines were recycled in these drives, not counting the ones that were simply tossed out after reading, or the collections “cleared away” by well-meaning mothers when their sons and daughters went off to college.  Were it not for the anthologies and their editors and publishers, much of the science fiction we grew up reading and wondering over might never have been reprinted.

It should be obvious that this goes double for comic books and triple for newspapers.

By comparison, there was nothing ephemeral in the way recorded music was packaged and sold.  Quite the opposite: before the advent of recording, a performance could be heard only once and was then gone forever.  Recording, in the words of David Suisman in Selling Sounds, stopped the flow of time “as a dam holds back the flow of a river,” storing sounds indefinitely in the grooves of a cylinder or disc.  The permanence of records didn’t always live up to the hype (records could warp, scratch or crack from mistreatment, or wear out through overplaying; even compact discs weren’t quite as invulnerable as they were originally made out to be), but it represented a huge change, and one that took nearly a decade for both consumers and producers to get their head around.

From about 1890 to 1900, Edison cylinder phonographs and competing disc-based gramophones were known as “talking machines;” Edison predicted that his device would find its greatest utility in business as a dictation aid, and a great deal of the recordings commercially sold were famous speeches, passages from the Bible, and the like.  Up until the turn of the century, such machines were little more than a novelty.

Criticisms of “disposable” pop music and novelties are as old as the music industry itself, and that label adhered to both Tin Pan Alley pop songs (which pioneered the kind of built-in obsolescence associated with “one-hit wonders” and prefab stars), most commercial records, and the machines themselves. It was the Victor Talking Machine Company, a competitor of Edison and Columbia, that realized they could sell more machines by creating a musical product with cultural cachet—in modern terms, hardware sales could be driven by providing desirable software—and in 1902 the Victor Red Seal series was born.

The Red Seal records featured respected musical artists (most famously the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso; the Red Seal artists were predominantly European, an important signifier of quality in American culture) performing operatic excerpts and other high-status repertoire, recorded with the best quality possible.  Just as important, the Red Seal records were set apart from the regular “Black Seal” series by their packaging (the “Red Seal” refers to the red paper labels on the records) and by a higher price; they were even listed in a separate section of the Victor catalog, printed on pink pages.  Their desirability was part of a marketing strategy; even Victor’s executives admitted that the Red Seal records didn’t sell as well as the Black Seals, but they were an effective advertisement for the line as a whole. More to our point, as Suisman says, “the Red Seal records were quintessentially middlebrow; they presented an ad hoc assortment of digestible classics [the length of a record side was only two to four minutes] as a timeless and definitive canon.”  They made it psychologically okay to value records as something other than a passing fad, and transformed the fledgling industry.

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So we’ve established that records, once they found a foothold and adjusted listeners’ expectations, aspired to a permanence that fiction might only attain when safely preserved in book form.  There is also the difference between recorded sound and print media: the words of a story are the same (barring drastic editorial change) whether in a magazine or a book; they can even be translated into another language. In some cases, the book versions of stories are more definitive, removing editorial changes (or misprints) and allowing the author’s original voice to come through more clearly.  By contrast, the promise of audio recording is its faithfulness, the idea that you are hearing a piece of music just as it was performed by the artist; what could be more authentic than that?  The transfer of music from one format to another has been fraught with controversy among listeners; indeed, Victor and the other record companies had to work very hard to make their limited recording facilities sound as good as they did before the introduction of electrical recording in 1925 (they weren’t necessarily trying to convince listeners that a recording was “just as good” as a live concert; they counted on the fact that for most people, a record would be as close to hearing Caruso as they ever got).  In converting monophonic recordings from 78s to LP, producers sometimes introduced “fake stereo,” the aural equivalent of colorizing a black and white movie. The debates over the merits of analog vs. digital sound are well known, and the primary appeal of mp3s has been convenience, not sound quality.

Finally, there is the context of the individual song itself, and I think this is where anthologies become suspect for many purists.  In my next installment, I’ll look at the concept of the album, and its rise and fall in importance to recorded music.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Four

You can read Parts One, Two and Three here, here and here.

In the foreword to the trade paperback edition of her late husband’s magnum opus Squadron Supreme, Catherine Gruenwald writes,

Mark always liked when I read his work, and he waited until the exact right time to unleash this particular story upon me.  In 1993, I was conveniently laid up for a week recovering from a minor surgical procedure, and he quietly decided this was the perfect time.  It did make the most of my captive-audience status, but it also made the recuperating process more pleasant as I breezed through each issue, especially without the usual wait between installments experienced by readers who caught it the first time out.  I thought about all those kids who read through stacks of comic books as they suffered through weeks of broken-leg mending and measles bouts.  Mark saw to it that I came into fandom the way others of our generation had!

My version of that experience came when I was in seventh grade and contracted Legionnaire’s disease.  I was hospitalized for two weeks and was significantly weakened by the illness.  I couldn’t talk or laugh too much without suffering coughing fits, and even getting up to walk around left me winded.  In the hospital I was in an oxygen tent and took treatments by inhalation at regular intervals, even during the night. (Incidentally, whatever the phrase “night nurse” might suggest to you, my experience didn’t live up to it.)  Although I wouldn’t recommend that method of immersion, I have one fond memory of that period thanks to a timely gift from my grandparents: The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams, which I devoured between treatments and brief visits from friends.

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My mother’s parents had enabled my comics addiction quite a bit over the years: A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics had been a birthday gift the previous year (they lived in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., so I received a lot of Smithsonian-themed gifts), and they always saved the color Sunday comics sections from the Washington Post for my sister and me to read when we visited.  The Post carried more and newer comic strips than my hometown paper, so I had the inside track on stuff like The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, and would try to describe these creative, mind-blowing works of art to my sometimes skeptical friends.  When those comics were picked up by the Pittsburg (Kansas) Morning Sun, their first daily installments invariably underwhelmed my friends.  The first Far Side to run in my hometown was, I think, the “Thor’s hammer, screwdriver, and crescent wrench” panel that even Gary Larson couldn’t explain.  Others, like Bloom County, were never carried in my hometown paper at all.

Gary Larson's plot to destroy my credibility, Exhibit A

Gary Larson’s plot to destroy my credibility, Exhibit A

The boundaries between newspaper comics and comic books were quite porous, both historically and in my experience.  I started off reading the newspaper strips from a young age, the kid-oriented ones like Winnie the Pooh at first, gradually expanding my range until I was even reading the soap-opera strips, grown-up adventures, and even the political cartoons on the editorial page.  I enjoyed the adventures of time-traveling caveman Alley Oop, and the globetrotting fisticuffs of Captain Easy, another legacy from the comic strips’ Depression-era golden age. Paperback collections of favorites like Peanuts, The Family Circus, and Garfield were among the first books I owned.  By seventh grade, I was serious about reading and collecting comic books, but I still read the newspaper strips and I was starting to think of myself as a student of the medium.  According to my parents, I even asked for the daily paper while I was in the hospital, so I could keep up (I don’t remember that, but I admit it sounds like me).

The best stories in the Smithsonian collection, adventures like the “Plunder Island” saga in Thimble Theatre (the home of Popeye), delivered the same combination of thrills, humor and pathos that I associated with movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  In hindsight it’s obvious why: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were Baby Boomers, born in the mid-‘40s, rather than children of the Depression, but they obviously shared a love for movie serials and pulp novels and channeled the same sense of wonder and excitement into their original creations.  And they fit into a larger pattern: the years in which I grew up, the 1970s and ‘80s, were the crest of a wave of interest in the popular culture of the 1930s and ‘40s.  In addition to homages like Indiana Jones that hearkened back to the pulp era, the original characters from magazines, comic books and strips, radio shows, and serials were being repackaged for modern audiences or brought back to life in new formats: during my childhood there were big screen or TV adaptations of Conan the Barbarian, Popeye, Flash Gordon, Little Orphan Annie, and Buck Rogers, not to mention the ever-present superheroes whose roots went back to the same time period.  There was even a Doc Savage movie, although I’ll admit I haven’t seen it.

Whether I enjoyed the strips because I had been prepared by the resurgence of Depression-era culture or would have enjoyed them for their own sake without being primed is beside the point.  It was, I felt, material I needed to read, and that I encountered at the right time: it was the real stuff.  The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics fit my adolescent concept of reading as mastery perfectly: I was old enough to take the book seriously, reading it cover to cover, including the informative but not too academic prose accompanying the strips, but I was young and unoccupied enough to lose myself completely in the detailed artwork and the lengthy excerpts from Thimble Theatre, Mickey Mouse, and Dick Tracy.

Perhaps that’s the best explanation for the obsessions that grip us in the early teen years: what else did I have going on? Like those bedridden kids Catherine Gruenwald alludes to, I was in an ideal environment to be completely absorbed by my reading.  All my needs were taken care of.  Everything was new to me, so I had a greater tolerance for the lulls that beset any collection than I do now: back then, even the boring parts contributed to the overall design, set the baseline against which I judged the really superior stuff.  Now I have children of my own, and even when I have the time to read deeply it’s harder to access the state of complete absorption that I experienced then.  There are just too many other things occupying my mind; that’s the condition of adulthood.

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The New Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Stories, edited by Bob Callahan, was published a few years ago, a follow-up to Barrier and Williams’ volume.  I eventually purchased it, but I haven’t read the whole thing.  In part it’s because I’m already more familiar with the territory it covers, from the 1960s to the present, and I’ve read more of the stories that it reprints.  It could be the mixed-up pages, an off-putting production error that makes the book less authoritative than was obviously hoped.  Perhaps the sheer variety of comics that have been created since the 1960s make it more difficult for any one book to be comprehensive.  But it’s also because of that difficulty of finding time and recapturing youthful engagement that I’ve alluded to.  I’ll pick it up, read a few pages, and put it back on the shelf.  Even if I read every page, it won’t be with the kind of rapt attention I gave the two previous Smithsonian books.  And that’s okay: one of the chief pleasures of the anthology, and one I haven’t put nearly enough focus on, is the freedom to browse, to pick and choose, to be selective.  It isn’t a novel or a textbook that needs to be read in sequence, even though I, like many youthful readers, would treat it that way.

I recall my mother sitting in the hospital room with me, keeping watch, and the realization of what my illness must have been like for my parents hits home in a way that didn’t even occur to me before I had kids (according to my parents, the scariest part was not having a diagnosis for the first week of my hospitalization).  My mother would read too, usually a mystery novel, along with crossword puzzles and cross-stitching: there wasn’t much else to do.  My father would come during visiting hours, but he confirmed that he, also, would read during his down time, sitting in our empty house.  It sounds lonely, and maybe a little scary, but it was actually comforting: that’s kind of the way it was at home when we were together anyway, separated by our different reading but joined by a common activity.  The books that comforted me weren’t the same as my parents’ books; I’ve encouraged my children to read, and to read comics, but I won’t insist that they read the same books I treasured.  I hope they will, but it’s more important that, like me, they find the books they need, when they need them.

(Continue to Part Five)

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Three

You can read Parts One and Two here and here.

As far as shared worlds go, it doesn’t get much more eclectic than superhero comics: just as an example, the three most recognizable characters in DC’s universe are an alien from another planet, an Amazon warrior with ties to the Greek gods, and a self-made vigilante, illustrating nicely the superhero genre’s connections to science fiction, mythology and pulp adventure.  It helps to realize that Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman were not originally invented with the idea of coexisting in the same world, but grew organically in their own books, developing their own identities, casts of characters, themes, and locales before anyone thought of teaming them up.  It was only later that the tangles of continuity across different books had to be cleaned up and what were often spur-of-the-moment inventions rationalized and codified.

Beyond the editorial offices of DC and rival publisher Marvel (and to a lesser extent Charlton, Fawcett, and the other small publishers that would either fold or be absorbed by DC), the first serious considerations of comic book worlds and how they were put together were written by fans, for fans.  The comics fanzine Xero emerged in 1960, and more were to follow.  Fanzines and amateur press publications have largely moved online since the rise of the internet, but organized fandom used to leave quite a paper trail, spread by word of mouth and united by newsletters, fan clubs and conventions, often advertised in the comic books and science fiction magazines where like-minded readers would be most likely to find them.  Many of the fan writers would go on to work in the industry: Roy Thomas and Mark Gruenwald were both superfans who had in common an encyclopedic knowledge of characters and plot points that they would build on in their own stories for Marvel in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Gruenwald had even made his name with a self-published thesis on comic book universes and their interconnected nature.

Even when writing about comic books began to enter the mainstream, it was still written from the point of view of a comics reader rather than a disinterested outsider.  Jules Feiffer got the ball rolling with The Great Comic Book Heroes in 1965, a critical history of comic books in the 1930s and ‘40s mixed with Feiffer’s memories of reading comics as a child and working in the industry as a young adult; All in Color for a Dime, edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, was published in 1970, collecting a number of essays, including Lupoff’s own “The Big Red Cheese” (about Captain Marvel) from that first issue of Xero; and so on.

Feiffer, of course, was the long-running cartoonist in The Village Voice­ and had counter-cultural cachet; Lupoff would make his mark as a science fiction author and scholar of (among other subjects) Edgar Rice Burroughs; Thompson, with his wife Maggie, founded the influential Comics Buyer’s Guide.  Authoritative as their essays are, one of their chief values is in putting the reader in the shoes of a young kid encountering Superman or Captain Marvel for the first time, seeing the characters through their eyes and accepting them on their own terms.  But such is almost always the way, especially when pop culture subjects are involved: the first writing on jazz was descriptive, by journalists rather than musicologists, and the first jazz discographies were written by aficionados to aid fellow record collectors.  Scholarly writing would later lag behind journalists and fans of rock and hip-hop as well.

A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, edited by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams, appeared in 1981, by which time scholars were taking note of comic books and it was more common for books on the subject to disentangle history and criticism from the personal and anecdotal.  A Smithsonian Book may not have been the definitive volume on the subject, but it certainly seemed so to me as a young teenage comic book reader encountering it for the first time.  Of course, more than the scholarly apparatus it was the reprints of comics from the “Golden Age” (up to 1954, the date of the adoption of the Comics Code by the industry) that made the book so valuable and enjoyable.  I had been collecting superhero comics for a couple of years, starting with reprints of Stan Lee’s and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man in the pages of Marvel Tales and gradually getting into the current stuff from there; reading about the storied history of Marvel and the Distinguished Competition made me feel like a real newbie, but the truth was I had been reading comics most of my life.

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Before middle school, when I was younger than ten, most of the comic books I read were licensed “funny animal” books starring the Looney Tunes or Disney characters, and were often more far-ranging and imaginative than you would expect: Did you know Goofy had a side career as a superhero?  If you read Super Goof you did!  Just as Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strips gave its title characters a sense of scope and adventure grander than what could be shown in the short animated cartoons, so the licensed Gold Key and Dell comics expanded my young mind by showing the “further adventures” of characters I already knew and loved.  And needless to say, I enjoyed the Uncle Scrooge comics of Carl Barks long before I knew who Barks was, having a particular fascination with the evil duck sorceress Magica de Spell: who was this vivid character whom I had never seen in an animated cartoon?  Why would Walt Disney (for of course I thought that’s who drew all the comics—he signed them, didn’t he?) create such a great villain and not use her in a movie?  Why did all the Disney characters have such complex, fulfilling lives offscreen?

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Oddly, when I graduated to more “mature” (or so I thought) comics, I completely discounted the funny animal comics I had cut my teeth on, and got rid of them completely.  This isn’t an unusual experience by any means: most of us go through at least one phase where we clean out all the “kid’s stuff,” only to regret it later.  What separated my later comics habit from my funny animal years wasn’t just the subject matter—there were some Twilight Zones, Archies, quite a few issues of Mad and Cracked, and even some superhero books mixed in with the comics I threw out—but my self-consciousness that I was collecting comics, that I had to keep them organized, follow a checklist, fill in gaps in my knowledge, and basically keep up: all the demands of fandom.  Before that, comics were acquired at random (sometimes brought home by my parents when my sister or I was sick), often in one of those packs of three miscellaneous comics in a plastic sleeve (you could see the covers of the two on the outside, but the one in the middle would be a mystery, and may or may not have anything to do with the other two).  That’s how we ended up with a bunch of Spire Comics’ gospel-themed Archie comics, basically church tracts starring the Riverdale gang.  Except for a few favorites, they were equally disposable, in the tradition of pop culture since the dawn of mass production, and the ones that didn’t completely disintegrate wound up unceremoniously dumped in a cardboard box, a sort of comics slush pile.

A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics helped me make connections between my undiscriminating childhood and my status-conscious adolescence.  It taught me Carl Barks’ name and helped show me that his talking duck characters weren’t just for little kids; it introduced me to the original version of Captain Marvel, before DC ensnared publisher Fawcett in a crippling lawsuit over his supposed similarities to Superman; it let me connect the name Basil Wolverton to the grotesque caricatures I had already seen occasionally in Mad; it introduced me to the ambitious and insightful work of Will Eisner in The Spirit and the breadth of E. C.’s output before the comics panic of the ‘50s and the Comics Code forced them to cancel everything but Mad; it made me unable to see Marvel’s parodic Forbush-Man without thinking of the similarly attired Red Tornado from Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly.  It would even, much later on, form a foundation for me to understand what the heck was going on in the historically-informed comics of Tony Millionaire and Art Spiegelman.

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Aside from giving me some ammunition if I’m ever cornered by Harlan Ellison, the Smithsonian book provided a great deal of entertainment and enriched my appreciation of the current books I was reading.  My adolescent comic book collecting in the 1980s coincided with a period of reassessment in the superhero world: Superman’s fiftieth anniversary would be celebrated in 1988, and (perhaps not coincidentally) fifty years of world-building and cross-referencing would be consolidated (or swept away, depending on your perspective) in 1985 by DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, clearing the decks for a “fresh start” for Superman and company in the first and biggest of many company-wide “reboots” to come.  The complexity of DC continuity included a number of parallel worlds, including separate universes for the Golden and Silver Age versions of characters, introduced to explain how Superman could fight saboteurs during World War II and still be a young man in the 1960s.  It was simple, really: there was an old Superman in one world and a young one in another, and sometimes they would break down the barriers between universes and team up.  Captain Marvel even came on board in the 1970s, at first in his own world (“Earth-S”) and later woven into the fabric of the DC universe as other characters had been before him (although he started going by the name Shazam to avoid confusion with that other comic book company).

The 1980s were also truly DC’s decade on screen, especially for Christopher Reeves’ iconic portrayal of Superman, but not overlooking Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman on TV and the truly game-changing 1989 Batman directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton (many fans have cooled on Burton’s Batman in favor of Christopher Nolan’s grittier trilogy, but it’s hard to overstate what an event the 1989 film was at the time).  By comparison, Marvel’s best-received screen adaptation was The Incredible Hulk in the early ‘80s.

I don’t bring up Crisis or Burton’s Batman to make comparisons with DC’s New 52 or to point out Marvel’s current domination of the big screen.  The contrast speaks for itself, and more importantly the industry has changed greatly: one’s preference for a particular era of comics says as much about one’s age as it does about one’s taste.  I’m thankful I stopped collecting before the huge boom of the early ‘90s—otherwise I might be burdened by nostalgia for foil-stamped hologram covers, oversized guns, and costumes festooned with pouches!  Nor do I want to say things were better then just because I was younger: Crisis on Infinite Earths pissed off plenty of comics fans, myself included.  I liked the alphabet soup of parallel worlds and twisting timelines in the DC multiverse.  It irritated me to see whole settings and storylines erased from official existence.  On the other hand, if I were an editor or writer, chained to stories that had been written decades before, I might have felt differently.  Still, good writers had ways of getting around that, and a good story trumped pedantry any day.

And of course the characters who had been written out came back: Supergirl came back.  Titano the Super-Ape came back.  The Huntress came back.  Kamandi and OMAC and all the rest found ways back in, sometimes in different places and sometimes greatly changed, but eventually they came back.  And when Superman himself died, and it turned into a media frenzy, comics readers just nodded sagely to each other and knew it wouldn’t be permanent.  He’d be back.  Just ask Captain Marvel.

(Continue to Part Four)

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Two

Read Part One here.

As you can probably tell from the previous examples, my own preferences lean toward science fiction and fantasy.  Of my favorite authors, New England horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has had by the far the greatest influence on me, and his connections to other writers (by letters and acquaintance, or by the coincidences of publication) have been a constant thread in searching for stories.

Referring to Lovecraft as a “horror” writer can be a bit misleading: although he considered the cultivation of a frightening atmosphere his primary goal, he mostly eschewed “the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”  Rather, he was a practitioner of “weird fiction,” a catch-all label for nascent science fiction, fantasy, and horror before those genres had clearly defined markets.  Most of Lovecraft’s work cultivated a sense of ancient, alien forces intruding into the present day, and although he borrowed a great many elements from the gothic horror of the previous century—books full of suppressed secrets, crumbling old houses, ominous supernatural signs—he married them to a scientific outlook, in which the most frightening truths were not to be found in the evil actions of men but in the indifference of a hostile, uncaring universe.  As he wrote in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.”

I didn’t know much about Lovecraft’s outlook when I started looking for his stories.  All I knew was that his reputed blend of science fiction concepts, ooky tentacled monsters and dreamlike air of mystery appealed strongly to me as a budding reader of fantastic fiction.  As hard as it may be to believe now, Lovecraft’s work wasn’t easy for me to track down when I was young, even though his name (and that of his creation, “Cthulhu”) was known to me.  He was almost mythical, and I think he would have enjoyed the aura surrounding his work, had he still been alive; I knew that his “Cthulhu Mythos” had been included in the first printing of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book Deities & Demigods, but was removed from later printings due to a copyright dispute—or is that what they wanted me to think?* Every detail fueled my interest, until I was finally able to read his work for myself; fortunately, he more than lived up to the hype, at least in my experience.  My being at the “golden age” of twelve or thirteen surely didn’t hurt.

My first tastes of his elaborate mythology came from anthologies, a single story by him (or one of his imitators**) included here or there.  For a long time, even after I had read all of Lovecraft’s fiction (down to the dire posthumous “collaborations” by his executor August Derleth), I would search tables of contents for his name, not in hopes of finding something new but as a sign that the editor recognized the good stuff and that the rest of the book might be in the same vein.  Similarly, anything connected to the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, in which Lovecraft published most of his work, was a must-have.

That’s how I acquired Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg.  This collection includes one story from each year the magazine was published (in its original incarnation; it has since been revived), from 1923 to 1954.  There are some terrific opportunities for juxtaposition: you can leap from the brooding, necrophilia-themed “The Loved Dead” of C. M. Eddy (1924’s entry) to the sophisticated modern ghost story “Legal Rites” by Isaac Asimov and a pseudonymous Frederik Pohl (1950, the pair’s only publication in Weird Tales), or from space opera (Nictzin Dyalhis’ “When the Green Star Waned,” 1925) to sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” 1929) to occult detective (Seabury Quinn’s long-running character Jules de Grandin in “Satan’s Stepson,” 1931).  There’s also plenty of the “mundanely gruesome,” to be sure: the pulps were known for their often lurid content, and Weird Tales, Lovecraft’s opinions aside, was no exception.

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In any case, Lovecraft is included, represented by his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, originally published posthumously over two issues in 1941.  Covering, as it does, such a wide range of time and variety of authors (including, in addition to those mentioned above, future luminaries such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch) gives it the character of history, sampler and tribute all in one, a sort of “This is Your Life” for a long-gone but fondly remembered magazine.

I’ve returned to many of the authors in this anthology over the years and read more of their work when I could find it.  Some of the stories I enjoyed, however, have effectively been dead ends until recently: for example, Arthur J. Burks’ 1936 story “The Room of Shadows,” a creepy story about a hotel room haunted by its previous occupant, a “Eurasian” vampire whose conquests are turned into vicious miniature “sleeve-dogs.”  It’s the kind of thing that sounds ridiculous when summarized, but that’s true of many fantasy and horror stories, and Burks excels at capturing the main character’s confusion and mounting fear, along with some PG sensuality in the form of a mysterious femme fatale.  The editors cite “The Room of Shadows” as “an example of how a talented author uses staple pulp characters and situations to rise above cliché,” and it left me wanting more.  Burks published a collection of stories, Black Medicine, in 1966, long out-of-print, expensive, and unavailable.  Now, however, a number of his stories are available in e-book editions.  I prefer hard copy, but when it comes to hard-to-find stuff like this, I’ll take it in any form I can find it.

A different animal altogether is H. P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror; it’s edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson, but as the cover states, it’s really Lovecraft’s book, compiling Supernatural Horror in Literature along with a number of the stories Lovecraft cited as examples and influences on his own work.  Both the essay and the stories are in the public domain and are available in multiple formats, but it’s convenient to have them in one place, and the editors provide a smattering of commentary.  Still, it doesn’t hold the place in my heart that 32 Unearthed Terrors does.

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In both books, the diversity of styles and concepts is striking: there is room for all of the genres listed above and more; the very concept of the “weird tale” was nebulous enough to allow a variety of approaches, as long as there was something out of the ordinary.  Weird Tales was billed as “The Unique Magazine,” and as Robert Bloch writes in his introduction to 32 Unearthed Terrors, “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Weird Tales writer, nor is there a ‘typical’ Weird Tales story.”  Yet, the stories are often conservative on the individual level, in the sense that there are generally not more than one or two supernatural elements at play, especially in those set in the modern world.  Even those set in the far future, the mythic past, or a “lost world” often feature a single driving narrative to which all the world-building and window-dressing are subordinate.  The stories are short, and economy of means is key: pulp writers were paid by the word, not the idea.

The great thing about this tendency is that, whether reading an issue of the magazine or a latter-day anthology, while the reader may be dazzled with the sheer variety of ideas on display, each story is allowed to be itself, undiluted, and allows the reader to observe many of the building blocks of modern fantasy when they were still emerging.  Just as Lovecraft and his fellow Weird Tales authors influenced modern writers, so did they draw from previous authors, synthesizing their influences into personal styles, a process that still continues today.

In Part Three, I’ll look at anthologies in a different medium: comics!

* My experience with role-playing games and my search for the “Cthulhu Mythos” printing of Deities & Demigods are subjects for another post.

** I believe the first true Mythos stories I was able to find were by “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard.  Lovecraftians will know that the “Cthulhu Mythos” took hold in large part because Lovecraft encouraged his writer friends to make use of his creations in their stories, and he borrowed freely from theirs, creating a “shared world” (at best a collection of themes and premises rather than a tightly-knit continuity) before such things became au courant.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part One

Maybe it starts with being a bookhound: from a young age I grew up in a house piled high with books, the collection of my college professor father and classical musician mother.  It’s no surprise that the collecting bug bit me early, and books are a natural item to accumulate: they’re mostly cheap; they can be status symbols, external signs of one’s intellectual achievement (unlike, say, comic books, which I have also collected, but which even now seem to demand a certain amount of explanation to the uninitiated); and they provide more entertainment or useful information for their price and weight than almost anything else.  I was accustomed to having old things around from a young age, so that didn’t bother me either.  As much as I enjoy brand new books and the big, luxurious bookstores that have (mostly) disappeared from the landscape, used bookstores and book sales are more interesting to me, because of that chance of being surprised by something rare, weird, or simply new to me.  I like to browse new books to see what’s out there, but I’m rarely moved to buy something I could get anywhere; but for an old, possibly out-of-print book, who knows if I’ll find it again?  I could go on about the smell of old books, or the thrill of the hunt, or the prospect of finding something really valuable, but to tell the truth those aren’t really motivating factors for me. (Seriously: for every old book you find that has that ideal scent of rich, old paper, there’s another one that smells of mildew or cigarette smoke. Gross.)

No, what fascinates me the most when scouring stacks of old books is the chance to fill in gaps in my knowledge, make connections between things I might not expect, and appreciate the many different kinds of publications (the styles of writing, the topics, and genres that were once popular, not to mention trends in printing, binding, and cover art) that can open windows to the past.

In many ways, a good anthology can offer the same pleasures in microcosm.  Reading a collection of stories or articles by a good editor is like being guided through a used book market by an expert hand, someone who knows where the good stuff is hidden, and is ideally a sympathetic soul able to handpick just the sort of thing you’re looking for.  Such a guide can offer a balanced combination of the familiar but well-loved, a few new items that continue in a straight line from where the familiar leaves off, and maybe something really mind-bending or challenging, something you didn’t know you needed to read until you found it.

If you read enough, the name of the editor alone might be enough to pique your interest, and these come in several flavors: many of the editors whose names I learned were publishing-industry lifers like Peter Haining and Martin H. Greenberg (compiler of an astounding 1,298 anthologies!).  Sometimes the editor is a well-known writer in their own right, their choices reflecting their influences, early favorites that inspired their own writing or informed their stylistic choices.  The book might be a chance to promote their friends’ work or expose readers to like-minded authors who are part of the same scene as the editor but not as widely known.  Or it could be an opportunity for the established writer to shine a light on up and coming talent, putting their seal of approval on the young writers’ work.

Sometimes, however, one gets the impression the famous writer’s name is simply on the cover to sell books, as when they are hired to write a short introduction and the name of the actual (less well-known) editor is in smaller type. If the word “presents” is in the title, chances are the famous author is a figurehead (as in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, a series Hubbard never actually edited and that has carried on under his name long after his death).  I don’t mean to be cynical: it’s the quality of the stories inside that count, and I’ve been known to purchase and keep books with stories I already have copies of for the sake of the insights in the introduction (which are sometimes sizeable essays in their own right).

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A subgenre is the anthology of the “best of” the previous year, selections either made from published work (as is the case for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American series), contest winners (the aforementioned L. Ron Hubbard Presents), or editorial fiat.  The Best American series has been published continuously since 1915, first as a showcase for short stories, expanded in recent decades to include topics such as mystery stories, sports writing, and even comics (since 2006).  One of the most popular titles in the series has been The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited since its introduction in 2002 by Dave Eggers.  Filled with lists, humor, and random nuggets culled from real life (“Best American Lawsuits,” for example), it injects the McSweeney’s founder’s “clever . . . too clever” aesthetic into the hoary old “bathroom reader” format, like Harper’s Index on steroids.

In retrospect, these annual volumes can provide perspective on both the individual authors included in them and the genre (whatever it may be) as a whole.  It is interesting, for example, to see the name Stephen Baxter (for the story “Gossamer”) in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF, a 1996 anthology (and beginning of an ongoing series) published with the goal of supporting actual science fiction (“Not fantasy.  Not science fantasy,” according to Hartwell’s introduction).  Baxter had garnered praise for his 1995 novel The Time Ships, an authorized sequel to H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, but was as yet a new enough name that Hartwell felt the need to introduce him as a writer “in the hard science mode of Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward.”  Since then, he has won numerous awards and collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke; it’s unlikely a science fiction audience would be unfamiliar with him.

In contrast, one can examine volumes of the Best SF series edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss from 1967 to 1975 to see the rising tide of confrontational, psychedelic “New Wave” science fiction championed by J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock.  Even allowing for the difference in time, no one would confuse this series with Hartwell’s!

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One finds connections everywhere: one can read Sam Moskowitz’s biographical sketch of editor Alden H. Norton in the latter’s Award Science Fiction Reader, and immediately turn to Norton’s introduction to his own Horror Times Ten, wherein he recounts,

At lunch with an old friend, Sam Moskowitz, I happened to mention my problem [a paucity of decent horror stories for his planned anthology] and said: “Too bad you’re not an authority on the horror and terror tale as you are on science fiction.  If you were, you might be of some help to me.”  He choked a moment, wiped some sauce from eggplant parmigiana from his lips with a napkin, swallowed a glass of water, and finally managed to come up: “Oh, but I am!”

Not only did the authors and editors know each other, they could make their readers feel like one of the club by letting them in on these backstage dramas in introductory notes, in the letters pages of magazines, and in the newsletters and fanzines put together by amateur press associations and fan clubs.  An anthology could be much more than just the stories!

In Part Two, I’ll look more closely at one of my favorite anthologies, and the legacy of the magazine Weird Tales.

Introduction

Welcome to my blog!  To explain what Medleyana is, it’s probably easier to explain what it isn’t.  Medleyana is not going to be a personal diary.  When I was a young boy I kept a diary, and I did my best to stay true to the “daily” aspect of the root word dies, even going so far as to backtrack and write entries for days I skipped writing, until I was trying to remember what I had been doing on days weeks before to catch up, and the whole thing started to seem ridiculous.  Life sometimes moves too quickly to record everything.

As a teenager, I tried again, this time with a “journal,” which sounded more serious and grown up to me, and which I told myself I wouldn’t feel compelled to write in every day (even though its root word, jour, also implies a daily use).  I would only write in it when I had something to say.  In addition to personal reflection, I wrote about musical or literary projects I was involved with, explored my creative process, and recorded my reactions to books I read and movies I watched.  With that freedom in mind, I was able to keep a journal into my late twenties; I might go weeks or months without writing, but when I did I felt confident I was creating something substantial instead of simply recording mundane details out of a sense of duty (although there were also plenty of mundane details recorded along the way).  The only real restriction I placed upon myself was that I wouldn’t go back and change or erase anything from a previous day: it would be a record of the moment, not an exercise in hindsight.

The end of this journaling phase came one day when my composition professor pointed out that I was spending more time and energy recording my ideas about writing music than actually composing.  At the time, I couldn’t deny the truth of that: I’ve always enjoyed talking shop with other composers and creators, and reading and writing about the process, and when you’re doing that it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being creative and doing great work without actually finishing anything.  Perhaps that insight should have led me to change my major to journalism or creative writing, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and I put the journal away and committed to pouring that energy into music.

So why blog now?  In part, my life has changed so much since then that I feel more confident I can balance creative work and commentary; a few years ago, I made a conscious decision to focus on finishing smaller projects so that I didn’t have a new piece only once a year, and these short articles fit right into that ethos.  Also, a public blog is quite a different matter than a personal diary: I hope to begin a discussion, and my focus will be on aesthetic issues rather than my personal life or what I had for breakfast.  I won’t deny that shifting my work to the internet age has been awkward for me: I’m not too old to use computers by any means, but just old enough to be uncomfortable with the “share everything” spirit of the twenty-first century.  I can be a perfectionist, which is okay, but it has led me to keep a lot of work under wraps that I should probably just release to the world and accept that some of it will be liked, some disliked, and a great deal ignored.  That is simply the way things are now.

Perhaps more importantly, I am no longer teaching in the classroom.  In addition to teaching music theory and aural skills (ear training), the bread and butter of composers who are otherwise unemployable, I spent several years teaching music appreciation and music literature.  These classes were wonderful arenas for discussion and exploration (on my part, at least, even if students dragging themselves in at 8:30 am didn’t always feel that way), and I now find myself in need of a comparable outlet.  (Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with rhetoric about the internet being the world’s biggest classroom, or anything like that, nor do I mention my teaching experience to claim any special authority: on the internet, I’m just another voice.)

Okay, Medleyana isn’t a diary, or a classroom syllabus.  What is it?  I’ve subtitled it “In Praise of the Eclectic,” which sums up my interest in “inclusive” aesthetics, artistic and musical styles that draw influence and ideas from lots of different sources.  My interest is twofold. First, I’ve always been a sucker for formats that bring a variety of items under one roof: anthologies, omnibuses, samplers, miscellanies, and medleys.  Second, I’m intrigued by artistic styles that do the same thing, but which may appear on the surface to be unified, either transformed by technique or by the strong personality of a single creator.  There will be more on these subjects to come.  And in that grab-bag spirit, I reserve the freedom to throw in whatever else I might feel like writing (convenient, no?), but I’ll use tags to keep things organized as we go.

I’ll leave this thought in conclusion: I try to approach eclecticism, both as an audience member and as a creator, with the kind of attitude attributed to the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in an oft-repeated anecdote (this version of the story is from Sally Wendkos Olds’ A Balcony in Nepal):

 I remember a story I heard about a young monk who saw his teacher in the dining room reading a book while eating his lunch.  The novice stood quietly by the older monk until he raised his head from his book.  “Yes?” “Excuse me, roshi,” the young monk said.  “But in your teaching this morning, did you not tell us, ‘When you eat, eat.  And when you read, read?’” “Yes, of course, I did.” “But, roshi here you are eating and reading!” “Yes, of course,” the elder replied calmly. “When you eat and read, eat and read.”  And he went back to his soup and his book.