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The Lost Days of Gonzo

by  in Comic News Comment
The Lost Days of Gonzo

One of the things you notice, when you have been hanging around comics and junk culture as long as I have, is that there’s a lot of stuff that’s just…. gone. It’s a natural consequence of getting old, I suppose, but it’s also a symptom of something fundamentally different about today’s popular culture than the one I grew up with.

I was reminded of this when, in honor of the late Yvonne Craig, the Decades TV network ran a bunch of Batgirl episodes of the old 1966 Batman TV show.

Sadly, they did not run my favorite of those, the demented “Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!” Pity really because Yvonne looked pretty awesome in that one; somehow chaste yet alluring. There was something incredibly naughty about the way her modest one-piece was cut.

Yvonne Craig looking hot in her swimsuit is certainly a draw, but honestly the reason I like that episode so much is because it’s just goddamn nuts. Even for the Batman TV show this one was beyond the pale in its sheer weirdness.

The short version: The Joker transfers all the surfing knowledge and skill from champion surfer Skip Parker’s brain into his own, so that he can become “king of the surf” and mold the surfer bums who will naturally come to worship him into an army to conquer Gotham City. So in an effort to defeat this coup de surf that will automatically result in fanatical cult worship, Batman has to out-surf the Joker.

I’m not doing it justice, really. (Here is a great write-up from Chris Sims about why it’s so awesome.) Today, of course, it’s one of the most famous episodes of the show. I imagine most of you reading this already know of it; it’s all over the internet with GIFs and whatnot, and there’s even a commemorative toy line.

Apart from its sheer giddy weirdness though, one of the reasons I have such affection for it is because it led to one of my funniest class days ever. My sixth-grade cartooning students did not believe this episode even existed. They were sure I was making it up. The more I described it, the more certain they became. So I brought it in for movie day and screened it for them. Then I had to explain about the whole little boomlet of beach party movies and why that was a thing and, well, it was just a goddam hilarious class day.

But what I got to thinking about, remembering that, was that there is no way on God’s earth that show could be made today. Because Batman is too valuable a property. Nobody at DC or Warner would ever DARE say something that’s the modern equivalent of, “Hey, surfing’s a big thing now, there’s all these beach-party movies. Let’s do a one-off about Batman surfing.” Even the upcoming Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders animated movie is likely to be a carefully marketed piece of just-play-the-hits, self-referential nostalgia theater, albeit one I’m very much looking forward to.

What I’m getting at is a point made by Frank Zappa in an interview years ago. (Here’s the clip if you are curious.) The gist of it was that the music industry used to do new things all the time, because the old men who were running the business back when Zappa started were so out of touch with what the youth market wanted that they were actually much more likely to take a chance on new talent, to try something weird, to shrug and say “Sure, why the hell not, kid, we’ll give it a shot.”

Because to them, rock and roll was ALL weird. Today, though, modern music executives have grown up on the stuff, they’re fans themselves, and moreover, they all have degrees in business and marketing demographics and so on. Ergo, they are both hugely cautious and have unshakably firm ideas about what the audience is capable of accepting.

Does that sound familiar?

It did to me. I heard that clip and I thought, Jesus, that’s modern comics. There’s no way in hell a writer like Bob Haney would ever get work today. Or Arnold Drake. Or Robert Kanigher.

But more importantly, you’d never get that free-for-all atmosphere, the idea that it’s okay to just have a tryout, because who gives a damn, it’s just comics, right? They’re disposable and if this one’s not a hit then next month we’ll try something else.

Because popular culture was junk. Nobody gave a damn, it wasn’t collectible or written about or studied. When capital-A Art happened, it sneaked through. That was true of not just comics but most movies and television and paperback originals as well.

I miss that. When you could do anything, because, hell, comics.

Now, granted, you got a lot of shitty comic books that way. Stuff based on fads, stuff that was somehow trying to anticipate ‘what the kids like,’ and, often, stuff that looked like it was created entirely over a long weekend of consuming nothing but tequila and amphetamines. I can’t even imagine what the editorial meetings were like that gave rise to some of these.

Well, that’s not technically true. I can and do imagine it and it’s endlessly entertaining trying to figure out how you pitch an editor on something like B’Wana Beast or spandex Dracula.

But my point is that, frankly, a lot of it’s trash. There’s just no getting around it. Both the comics, and the paperback adventure series usually right next to them, back in the days of drugstore spinner racks. I mean, I have tremendous affection for a lot of this material, but I don’t have any illusions about it.

But you know, it’s what got me here. That sort of anything-goes gonzo weirdness of both the spinner-rack comics and the spinner-rack paperbacks next to them… that’s what I fell in love with. My first comic book had parallel universes, dinosaurs, time travel, and an alien invasion, and it was all just another day at the office for Flash and his friends. That sheer anything-goes-floor-it approach to adventure comics in general, and superheroes in particular, is the thing I think is gone. Which is a shame.

After all, that same what-the-hell-why-not attitude also gave us comics about Spider-Man, Conan the barbarian, Swamp Thing, Iron Fist, and lots of other successful series characters.

Because it used to be possible for entertainment companies to TRY things.

The fact of the matter is, we have both huge successes and beloved critical favorites because of this willingness to experiment; even short-run series that were regarded as commercial failures have turned out to have huge legs in the reprint market. Like, say, the Goodwin-Simonson Manhunter or Green Lantern/Green Arrow… or even Herbie the Fat Fury.

But that wouldn’t happen today. Can you think of an ongoing series from Marvel or DC in the last two decades that came from nowhere? Something wholly original that’s not a a spin-off or a derivative property in some way? The only one I can think of is Alias. Jessica Jones is an original enough character (though I think she owes something to both Ms. Tree and Jonni Thunder) but still set squarely in the Marvel superhero universe. What else is there? Even titles like Squirrel Girl or the new Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur are basically remixes.

The thing that amazes me is that there is a mainstream U.S. comics publisher with hugely familiar characters that is still taking crazy chances. The craziest part? It’s the company that has for most of its existence been synonymous with bland, middle-America, white-picket-fence conservatism.

Marvel and DC should take the hint. if Archie Comics, of all people, can succeed with the willingness to shake it up like that– really shake it up, not these endless reboot/event things like Rebirth and Civil War II— then it certainly should be worth trying with superheroes. I’d happily support a tryout monthly from either Marvel or DC. I wish we would get something like that as opposed to one more Batman book or yet antoher iteration of the Avengers. Sure, you’d get your Woodgods and your B’wana Beasts, but you might also get the next Creeper or Ghost Rider. It’s worth taking a chance.

And let’s be honest– even the weird ones have their charm. If even something as unbelievable as surfin’ Batman can eventually find an audience, well, then anything’s possible.

Of course, I’m just daydreaming. The days of disposable take-a-chance superhero publishing are gone. My gut feeling is that Frank Zappa called it, long ago.

But it’s still a shame.

See you next week.

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