Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Len Wein, R.I.P.

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

Just before heading into the gym today, around 2, I learned from Kurt Busiek‘s Twitter feed that Len Wein had died. That made for a very thoughtful workout.

In my lifetime, I have read many, many, many comic books that Len wrote, including a landmark run of “Justice League of America” that reintroduced The Seven Soldiers of Victory and the Freedom Fighters (and which I bought again two months ago at Comic-Con), his Batman run in “Detective” and then later in “Batman,” and, at Marvel, his work on “Marvel Team-Up,” “Thor,” and, of course, “Fantastic Four.”

He was also the co-creator of many of the most significant new characters of the 1970s:  Swamp Thing, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm and Colossus. Without Len, there would have been no new X-Men comics, let alone the movies.

I knew him a little bit — enough to say hello and to say, “Hey, here you are again!” That’s because I kept running into him, and not just at comic-book conventions. Although I probably first met him when I was a kid and he was a force to be reckoned with at DC or Marvel, I can’t pinpoint when I got reintroduced as an adult, here in Los Angeles.  It might have been almost 10 years ago, when my company was the sponsor of a live stage revival of “What’s My Line,” hosted by a very clever guy named J. Keith Van Straaten. Len’s first appearance on the show was as a mystery guest. The next time, I saw him sitting in the audience. Finally, he was made a panelist. To my recollection, he was there week after week in some capacity or other, because he just loved the show. If that wasn’t how I (re)met him, then maybe it was at my friend Jackie’s improv show — because Len had studied improv with her and also loved improv. And I would run into him at the theatre all the time. In early ’09, I took my wife and kids to see the revival of “Pippin” at the Ahmanson — and Len Wein happened to be sitting in front of us. That happened to me lots of times in lots of different places. He was a bit of a theatre geek.

He was also a pivotal figure in comics. Of all his achievements, these three in particular cemented his reputation:  He co-created Wolverine, who is by far the most popular comics character introduced in the past 60 years; he launched the X-Men revival, which financially carried Marvel all through the mid-1970s, 1980s, and 1990s at least; and he hired Alan Moore to write “Swamp Thing.” That was Moore’s big break — and ultimately led to Vertigo comics and the more-literate line of comics since then. Without Moore there’d of course be no “Watchmen” — but probably no “Sandman” (Neil Gaiman’s big break), no “Preacher,” no John Constantine or “Hellblazer” (another Moore invention), no “Lucifer” and on and on.

Not just in comics, but in all the areas they now touch, Len Wein was a very, very big deal. I’m glad to see all the obits today acknowledging his impact.

My life with Jack Kirby

Monday, August 28th, 2017

JackKirby_selfp

In my life, I have known about a dozen MacArthur “genius” grantees — generally, very noteworthy writers and performers whose names you would know. But I think that for range of vision, for sheer scope of work and for lasting influence, Jack Kirby, who was largely unrecognized as a genius during his life, tops them all.

I was very lucky to meet him, as well. Which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I have to pay tribute to his genius.

To credit Jack Kirby as the (co-) creator of the entire foundation of the Marvel universe — and the resultant Marvel Cinematic Universe — is to lavish him with faint praise.

Jack Kirby created entire categories, and subcategories, of American popular culture, inculcating multi-billion-dollar enterprises along the way, while bringing new thrust to his special undertaking:  the dynamic depiction of story.

Yes, Jack Kirby created, or co-created:

  • Captain America
  • The Fantastic Four
  • Thor (Marvel Comics’ version)
  • Iron Man
  • The Hulk
  • The Fly
  • Spider-Man
  • Boy Commandoes
  • The Newsboy Legion
  • Groot
  • The Inhumans
  • Black Panther
  • Doctor Doom
  • The X-Men
  • Darkseid
  • Kamandi
  • Ego the Living Planet
  • the Silver Surfer
  • Mr. Miracle
  • the Forever People
  • Ronan the Accuser
  • the Watcher
  • The Kree
  • The Skrulls
  • The Supreme Intelligence
  • The Challengers of the Unknown
  • The Eternals
  • The Celestials
  • The Avengers
  • and the list goes on and on

(And just for the record, and although I’m somewhat sad to bring this up, what did the far more glorified Stan Lee create without his primary creative partner, Jack Kirby? Just about nothing. Meanwhile, Kirby created noteworthy characters long before his partnership with Stan Lee, during his partnership with Stan Lee, and long after his partnership with Stan Lee. The only constant factor in this incredible 60-year outpouring of creativity was:  Jack Kirby.)

But Kirby also created:

  • Entire new mythological universes, as with “Thor,” and his “Fourth World” series
  • Kid-gang comics (“Boy Commandoes,” “The Newsboy Legion”)
  • the entire genre of Romance comics
  • whole strata of the DC and Marvel Universes (both the upcoming Justice League and Avengers movies directly spin out of Kirby underpinnings)

Kirby also created new methods of illustrative storytelling.

He created Kirby krackle. Here’s an example of a layout without it, and with it.

Kirby Krackle

Once you know what it looks like, you’ll spot Kirby krackle everywhere. It brings energy to the panel.

Kirby also brought forced perspective to the page. Note how Captain America seems to be leaping out at us:

Kirby forced perspective

Kirby’s work hummed with action and virility. Compared to Kirby’s, most other comics artists’ work of the time just stood there.

(For a list of even more of Jack Kirby’s innovations, click here.)

When I was a boy, I was awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. It is hard to remain awestruck about anything in one’s fifties, but I am still awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. That’s why it’s all the more memorable to me that, at age 11, I got to meet Jack Kirby.

At age 11, I was someone who very much did not want to be living where he was:  out in the woods, far away from the thrum of Manhattan. In Manhattan, it seemed, one could run into Doctor Strange or the Human Torch or Daredevil out on the street, because in Marvel Comics these heroes were on every street corner — recognizable street corners. Over in the pallid land of DC Comics, things happened in “Smallville” or “Gotham City” or “Metropolis” or “Coast City” — places that didn’t exist on any map. But with Marvel, it looked like you could go to the Upper West Side and walk right past Avengers Mansion. That, plus the interconnectedness of their comics, lent Marvel its verisimilitude, its uncanny shimmer that made everything seem so possible.

What I especially loved about Marvel was Kirby’s primary triumph (with Stan Lee, who provided dialogue), “Fantastic Four.” The Fantastic Four were not superheroes. Superheroes confront arch-villains, evildoers and ne’er-do-wells. The Fantastic Four were primarily science explorers (modeled after Kirby’s previous creation, The Challengers of the Unknown); as such, they explored outer space, inner space, alternate dimensions, the past, the future, and the limits of human cognition, meeting different races and different beliefs all along the way and expressing the very best of the human race in a meeting of the minds. Sometimes they did battle on behalf of their (our) beliefs — but frequently they found common cause with strange and outwardly alien people of all types.

And that’s what I wanted to do:  to get out of the woods, to meet new people and different viewpoints, to exchange ideas, and to advance together.

Maybe it’s naive, but that’s still what I want to do.

So, you see, Jack Kirby shaped my life.

But when I was 11, I was just amazed to see him in person. It was like seeing Leonardo da Vinci or Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ or some other enormously great historical figure in the flesh. How was it even possible?

That July, just a week-and-a-half before my 12th birthday, my father took me to the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention; this was an incredible gift, which I’m still grateful for, 25 years after his death. And there, in some little room, back when comic-book conventions were far far smaller, I stood at the back of a line of maybe 10 people waiting to meet Jack Kirby.

Kirby was seated at the left of two folding tables, drawing sketches and signing autographs and chatting with whoever was next in line. To his left (my right) was his longtime inker on “Fantastic Four,” Joe Sinnott. (Mr. Sinnott, aged 90, is still with us.) Although Kirby by this point had left Marvel for DC, and I had read some of those DC comics, I was still completely enamored with “Fantastic Four” — as was seemingly every person in line ahead of me. One by one, each of them remarked upon “Fantastic Four.”

But I didn’t want to be like them. Who would want to approach the godhead and seem like just another supplicant?

So, when it was finally my turn to approach the great man, I said with as much of a squeak as I could register, in something like a high-pitched mumble filled with nervous anxiety, “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

Now, for the record, Kirby’s work on “The Avengers,” while displaying the same dynamism he brought to pretty much everything, was nowhere near on a par with his work on “Fantastic Four.” And I knew this. I said this only to be different. At age 11, and small in stature and frame and tiny in self-confidence in front of Kirby in particular, it was, in retrospect from 40 years later, a little brave for me to say:  “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

To which Jack Kirby replied, “What?”

At age 57, he hadn’t quite heard what my pipsqueak voice had said.

Fully intimidated to be in his presence, I couldn’t even bring myself to look up and see the great man sitting eight inches in front of me. I just trembled and managed to say in a quaking voice, “Oh, never mind” and stood quaking as Kirby signed an autograph for me.

I am not exaggerating this encounter.

And I have never again been so intimidated in my life. Not because of him — he was eminently approachable — but because of what he signified:  everything that was important to me.

Joe Sinnott, God bless him, saw my extreme mortification and called me over and drew for me a full sketch of the Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four, and wrote my name and signed it and I cherish it to this day and am still struck by his monumental kindness.

I got to meet Jack Kirby twice after that, many years afterward, after I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and started attending the San Diego Comic Con (now Comic-Con International), where he was an adored guest and fixture. He was a very nice man, and, honest to God, a genius. And, it must be said, he was a true entertainer — someone who filled countless hours of my life then and now with enjoyment. I think Kirby viewed himself as a cartoonist, but when you look at the panoply of his work you see that he was much more than that. As much as Homer or J.R.R. Tolkein, or any other noteworthy fantasist, and moreso than most of them, Jack Kirby was a world builder.

And because he was also a progressive and an optimist, he helped build in me an ongoing thirst for a better world.

I’m in his debt.

 

War is Peace

Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

WonderWoman2017

I went to the 9:40 showing of “Wonder Woman” this morning. I wanted to see the movie, plus I didn’t have anything else I was going to be doing at 9:40 a.m., plus I wanted to save half the ticket price.

Before I say what I’m going to say, let me say that I enjoyed the movie very much. Even with the obvious plot points and non-revelatory reveals. (My interior monologue:  “Hm. Wonder Woman has two mother figures, one will die, I’m going to say… that one. Yep. Okay, there’s a hidden bad guy, they’re establishing this character, so it’s him. Yep.” And so forth.)

In addition to the extremely powerful charm and beauty of Gal Gadot, and the eye-catching magnitude of Chris Pine’s eyebrows, I couldn’t help noting the pro-war bent from a movie that seeks to present itself as anti-war: The Amazons on Themyscira are in constant training for a battle they seem not to have fought to eons; Hippolyta seeks to shelter her young daughter from said training even though, evidently, training in battle is the only thing going on in that land; when transported to London, Diana asks how women could possibly fight in their constrictive 1921 street clothes, her assumption being that of course everyone is constantly engaged in battle; and, really, the entire film is a run-up to a massive war, one between good and evil (i.e., the Allies and the Germans) and an evidently even more important war, between a goddess and her uncle.

War is all over this thing, even though Wonder Woman constantly calls for peace.

Is she serious, or is this a pose?

If peace were declared, for ever after, what would she do? Would the women of paradise island take up knitting instead?

Driving home, I thought about “1984,” where Big Brother tells us that “War is Peace.” This, on a day when Donald Trump released a video beckoning us to cheer as he wrestles journalists into submission. In 2017, with a world in chaos and the country feeling unmoored, messages mean more. However entertaining, what is the message of “Wonder Woman”? What does it mean that the god of war advocates for armistice just so he can show it won’t work? How entertaining can simple entertainment be when it makes us feel like we should take up arms, during a time when what we really need to do is come to some agreement? Is Wonder Woman just the latest in a long line of hypocrites?

The view from afar

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

FutureArchaeologistI’m on a road trip (southern New Jersey, NYC, Las Vegas, South Lake Tahoe, then Kansas) that, with a brief interregnum, will keep me out of LA for the most part of three weeks.

On my flight last night from Denver to Philadelphia, we hit major turbulence. As the plane bucked and swerved, and rose and fell, the woman next to me grew anxious and the woman next to her, on the aisle, started to openly pray. I kept reading my book. (“The Goldfinch.”) The woman beside me turned to me and said, “You seem okay. You’re just reading your book.”

“Statistically, you’re safer in the air than you are on the ground,” I said. “Name the last commercial airliner that crashed.”

She and the other woman puzzled over it and finally fished up an example from five or seven years ago.

“Right,” I said. “And there are thousands of flights a day. Two others things,” I added. “First, I’ve been on a flight with far worse turbulence than this.”

“Worse than this?” one of them said.

“Uh huh. And you’ll note I’m still here. Plus:  This plane has to land safely because I have things to do tomorrow.”

The chuckled over that, and later said that helped, and thanked me.

And here I am.

My good friend Paul, a friend of 35 years, picked me up at the airport, his 80-year-old mother in tow. I said to Paul, “Paul, do you realize we’ve been friends for thirty-five years? You should’ve been more entertaining!” Actually, he’s been plenty entertaining, in his chronically even-keeled way, if you have a dry sense of humor. How do I know we’ve been friends for 35 years? Because, although I feel 100% 32 years old within myself, in the car, we started comparing ailments — he with a troublesome neck ailment that keeps his head straying over to the left, me with bursitis that sometimes leaves me limping around the block. I ventured the idea of medical marijuana — in Gummi Bear form. Next stop: Shady Rest.

One of the things I had to do, so that my plane had to land safely, was to take my great-nephew Brody out to dinner. He’s the middle son of my sister’s daughter, and a smart, interesting kid, newly aged 13, and we’ve been texting about exotic meals and things neither of us has tried. So I decided to take him out for a pricey dinner, where we could appreciate what we had and have a real conversation. I took him to The Knife & Fork Inn in Atlantic City, perhaps the only upscale restaurant remaining in that blighted seaside resort town that has seen far better days. His mother had cautioned him against ordering too big, but I told him to get whatever he wanted — he’s going to be 13 only once, after all — so he ordered the lobster tail and filet mignon, and I ordered the rack of lamb and a side of asparagus in a Bearnaise sauce, and we split an order of tuna tartare. While I was hoping for escargot as the dish he’d try, it wasn’t on the menu, but to my delight he scooped up the tuna tartare, found it to his liking, and kept digging in for more.

Throughout dinner, I got a reminder of what it’s like to be a 13-year-old boy.

Brody talked about his siblings — incredibly annoying, of course — and about video games and movies and about the best possible topic in the world, which is comic books, and also how awful and wrong it is when movies stray from the “true” story found in the comic books. As someone well-versed in the indignity of the omission of Ant-Man and the Wasp — both of them founders in the comics! — from the Avengers movies, I share his outrage. We’re both looking forward to Free Comic-Book Day this Saturday, and were debating whether we’d line up for the free comic books or just dash into the store to try to score bargains. He also talked about girls. He’s had four girlfriends so far, and he was man enough to share which ones had dumped him (those are his words) and which ones he had let go. I shared a story from my own youth, when I was about his age and at an 8th grade dance, and “Nights in White Satin” was playing, and I leaned into the girl I was dancing with and started to kiss her on the neck and she said, “Don’t do that,” and I asked why and she said, “Because my mother is standing right behind you” and I turned around and indeed her mother was.

He howled with laughter at that story.

Howling

He also shared once again his interest in old things and said he’d like to be an archaeologist. This is a boy who seems older than his years, and interested in things that wildly predate him, whether it’s history or the antiquity of cultural artifacts from his recent forebears. (For instance:  A few years ago, he desperately wanted a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. That was a fad 50 years before his birth.) Whether or not he winds up being an archaeologist, he seems to me to have a lot of intellectual capacity. Because I think my job at this point is precisely not to offer off-putting sentiments from a middle-aged-adult perspective, the only advice I gave him all night was this:  “Stay open-minded. Form your own judgments.”

But that’s the advice I would offer everyone.

 

The Red Skull trumphant!

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

One rite of passage for presidents is a comic-book appearance. These appearances tell us something about how their times, and history, have viewed these U.S. leaders.

There are many examples of this, but here are just a few.

Abraham Lincoln, as a redwood of our history, is portrayed in a simple but saintly way.

lincolncomic

Theodore Roosevelt, who, like Lincoln, was dead by the time this came out, is shown as a 1930s-era action-adventure hero.

TRcomicbook

 

His cousin Franklin Roosevelt is retconned as the secret founder of the Justice Society of America! (Plus the All-Star Squadron, to boot!) In other words, he’s effected great change, frequently from behind the scenes.

FDRcomicbook

 

Lyndon Johnson is a straightforward executive who restored calm and stability after the Kennedy assassination.

LBJcomic

 

(But shortly thereafter (and prior to discontent about the Vietnam War), he becomes a crusader for social justice.)

comic-great-society

And here’s Barack Obama, against a blue sky, radiating hope.

AmazinSpidermanObama

 

And now, just one month into his presidency, Donald Trump has made his entry into comic books. Unfortunately, it’s as the voice of the Red Skull. Who is the Red Skull? A supervillain known as a Nazi leftover, archenemy of Captain America, and the antithesis of American democracy.

These, below, are Trump’s exact words, but now assigned by Twitter account “President Supervillain” to an ages-old image of the Red Skull as he battles Captain America.

TrumpRedSkullTorture

Captain America, it should be remembered, was created by two Jews.

Make of all this what you will. I know what I make of it.

For more about President Supervillain and President Donald Trump as the Red Skull, click here.

The new line of succession

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

lineofsuccession

 

I would have voted for Dr. Doom. As one wag noted, he’s the only political leader here who is legitimately concerned with the well-being of his country.

Free comic cheer

Monday, December 19th, 2016

On a day when Donald J. Trump officially gets elected president of the United States, and the Russian ambassador is assassinated in Turkey, I think we all need to look at the 50 comic books that are going to be available to you for free on Free Comic Book Day next May 6.

So here they are. Enjoy.

My Jack Davis story

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

JackDavisArt

The great caricaturist and comics artist Jack Davis died yesterday at age 91. He was an important contributor to Mad magazine, a frequent and notable artist for a lot of advertising and many newsstand magazines covers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s — and also the man who drew perhaps the single most objectionable comic book of the 1950’s in the eyes of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, known popularly in some circles as “the Wertham commission.”

That story, “Foul Play!” ran in the May-June 1953 issue of The Haunt of Fear. It concerned a baseball team that decides, after it’s been cheated of its victory, to avenge the death of a teammate by  murdering his killer and playing baseball on his remains:  intestines form the baselines, lungs and liver form the bases, his heart becomes home plate, and of course his severed head is used as the ball.

One can see why, in 1953, at a time when juvenile delinquency seemed like a craze that needed to be stopped, this caught some attention. The story was written up in Dr. Frederick Wertham’s book, “Seduction of the Innocent” the following year, and ultimately led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, as well as a lot of comic-book burning. (More about that in a minute.)

(And if you’d like to read that notorious story, click here.)

In 1982, twenty-nine years after “Foul Play!” was published, I had the occasion to interview Jack Davis. I’d gotten the assignment from The Comics Journal, where I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I was living in New Jersey then, so a friend and I drove to upstate New York to visit Mr. Davis in his home. A Georgia native, Jack Davis proved to be rather a quiet man of genteel Southern manners — and a pleasant but somewhat dull interview. At this point in my writing life, and somewhat influenced by the snotty tone of the magazine I was writing for, I had gotten the hang of agitating people to spark up an interview. I’d gotten into a real argument with legendary Batman and Green Lantern writer Denny O’Neil (which led to a strong interview, as well as a brief friendship) and I would go on to provoke people in a variety of ways for several years in many other publications. But Mr. Davis was too nice for my shenanigans, and someone who would be impossible to provoke, and, however informative about his artistic process,  not altogether terribly interesting. And, frankly, although I’d read many of those incendiary EC comics from years before, and issues of Mad, I was the wrong guy to conduct an interview that would reveal the previously uncovered aspects of his career and his history; we touched on a lot of it, but at age 20 I just wasn’t well-informed.

Throughout the 1980s, The Comics Journal printed everything I wrote for them — except that interview. They didn’t run it, and I didn’t blame them. And because they didn’t run it, they didn’t pay me. But, again, I understood. It wasn’t interesting on its own and wasn’t fitting as a piece into a larger editorial theme.

Then in the early 1990s, five years after I’d moved to Los Angeles, someone I’d gone to college with told me that the magazine had (finally) run the interview, and that he’d read it. I couldn’t believe it. The magazine hadn’t sent me a copy, or paid me. (And, in late 2008, after they kept republishing some of my other pieces without permission or pay, I sued them. They finally paid me, and sent me published copies.) I couldn’t get the issue anywhere, and my friend had lost his. I called the publisher, Fantagraphics, and asked for a copy, and was assured that one would be sent. It wasn’t. I wrote to them as well. This went on for a while… and then, finally, I gave up.

Then, today, I got an email from someone at Fantagraphics, asking if they could reprint the interview online, now that Jack Davis had died. I said sure — if they send me a copy. Even a scan. Something! It’s been in (and out) of print for almost 25 years and I still hadn’t seen it — now I’d just like to see it. So, I responded that yes, they can post it, but I want them to send me a copy, because their content is hidden behind a paywall. (Meaning that once again they’ll be making some money, however little, without paying me.)

I figured that I now know what it took for me to see the interview:  for the interviewee to die.

But just now, on a whim, I checked the “settlement package” that my attorney sent to me in January 2009, forwarding from Fantagraphics copies of the book they’d reprinted me in, as well as a check — and found, tucked in there, two xerox copies of the interview with Jack Davis. So I’ve actually had it, at least in a xerox form, for seven years. I just now read it, eagerly.

For 30 years, I’ve remembered only one moment in our interview that had real spark in it. I had asked Mr. Davis about “Foul Play!” and the Senate hearings into comic books. He told me they were televised. (I hadn’t realized that.) And that after listening to the testimony, he had gotten up and turned off the television, and he and his wife took all of his comic books — all of the published copies of his work — into the back yard and put them into a pile. And burned them.

He burned all of his work.

Of course I asked him why, and he said something like, “Because my art was contributing to juvenile delinquency. It was wrong.”

That, to me, was the heart of the interview. Here was a workaday artist, a man who drew on assignment, who’d made most of his career in commercial art, who’d brushed up close with the sort of art that actually provokes a reaction — and he’d recoiled, rejected that experience, and turned away. I pressed for more details — how did his peers feel about that? Did he have more feelings about it? What did his wife say? Did they tell their friends and family? And so forth. But he wouldn’t say any more about it. When he’d burned those comics, he’d left provocation and controversy — the things that some of us actively seek in art — behind for good.

I just checked the published interview. Three times. It’s not in there. Somehow it didn’t make it into print.

Thirty years of waiting, and it’s not there.

I’m wondering if the only record that we have that Jack Davis, an important comics artist in the history of the medium, burnt his own work in his back yard because he felt complicit in harming America’s youth… is this very piece you’re reading.

 

The bottle factory

Friday, April 8th, 2016

More than 30 years ago, I interviewed Denny O’Neil, the foremost writer of Batman comics of the 1970s, the writer who has most influenced the Batman you’ve been seeing in the movies the past 10 years. The interview was for The Comics Journal, and Denny and I got into a heated exchange about low art and high art. He’d once written searing issues-oriented comic-books, taking mainstream comics far far out in new explorations – and now he was writing GI Joe comics.

He defended the GI Joe comics (“Have you read it?” he said. “Basically it’s a superhero comic.”) but I couldn’t imagine how the person who’d tried to address poverty, racism, and drug abuse through the prism of superhero comics could defend writing militaristic toy tie-ins.

Of the entire exchange, and our lunch a week or two later in Manhattan, the thing that made the greatest impression was this: the bottle factory.

I was bemoaning popular low art. (Ironic, for someone writing about comic books, I know.) My lowest-common-denominator example was “Laverne & Shirley.” I don’t know why I hated “Laverne & Shirley” so desperately (nor do I know why my wife’s example later became “Charles in Charge,”), but “Laverne & Shirley” just seemed like the nadir, with its canned laughter and obvious jokes.

Denny’s response to this tirade was this: “Think about the guy at the bottle factory.”

“Huh? What guy at the bottle factory?”

“The poor guy at the bottle factory. He works all day at the bottle factory, he comes off, he wants to take off his shoes, have a beer and watch something simple and entertaining. He doesn’t want to read Tolstoy. It was hard and hot and demanding all day at the bottle factory. He loves ‘Laverne & Shirley.’ It’s what he needs.”

In other words, “Laverne & Shirley” wasn’t for me – but it was certainly for others. A lot of others.

Unfortunately, the choices of those of us who didn’t want “Laverne & Shirley” and its like were severely limited.

At the time, everyone in America was limited to three channels – CBS, NBC, and ABC – and maybe a couple of Ultra High Frequency channels if you could get them (we got 17, and 29, and 48, out of Philadelphia) – and maybe PBS. That was it. And so your choices were: whatever inane original series was on CBS, NBC or ABC; scratchy syndicated shows from an earlier era or old movies; or cheap “it’s good for you” television courtesy of the prim and proper.

For me, watching TV in that era was like working at the bottle factory. With rare exceptions, it was something to be endured.

Now television’s bottle factory has been blown up. It was blown up by cable, which gave creators new freedoms and more opportunities, and the Internet, which did the same and also removed the financial restrictions of needing a studio, and broadcast towers, and expensive cameras and editors and so forth. Now if you’ve got an idea for a show, you can make it yourself and distribute it yourself.

This bonanza of choice has segregated the audience into many little tributes. Today at the airport, a woman near me was excited because a semi-famous contestant from “American Idol” was waiting with us for the same plane. She pointed him out, and showed me his image on her phone as well, but I didn’t know who he was, having never watched “American Idol.” In the 1970s, with so few shows, everyone knew who everyone was.

All of this new choice has also made us pickier. A couple of years ago late at night in some hotel room I fired up Netflix to watch another episode of “Sons of Anarchy” and found myself mostly scrolling through my phone while it was on. Then I realized that not only was I not watching the episode, I’d never watch another one – not just because I didn’t care, but because I had so many choices I didn’t need to settle for this. When the menu is 90 pages long, why order something you don’t want to eat?

A few nights ago, I was watching “Mr. Selfridge” on my DVR and that bottle-factory feeling came over me. The characters I cared about (mostly the women striving to advance in a sexist and classist early 20th century England) were all gone, leaving me entirely at the mercy of Jeremy Piven’s completely ersatz performance. So I deleted it.

In the post-bottle factory age, we have the opposite dilemma. Now that there are an estimated 450 original scripted shows a year, and so many of them are excellent, it would be easy to lose your life to television. I can recommend “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” and “The Good Wife,” but no, I’m not adding “Orphan Black” or “The Americans” or “Homeland” or, probably, any other show that you’re recommending. I don’t have time. I don’t have the time. Well, specifically, I have just as much time as anyone else alive at the moment – but I’m working harder than ever to guard it for other things.

I read somewhere that when there are too many items on a menu, people are more likely to order less – or to order nothing. The wealth of choices is too daunting, so they lose their hunger. I used to yearn for great TV.

But now that it’s here, I wish a lot of it would go away.

Because I’d like to watch it. Really.

Cosplay banned

Friday, April 1st, 2016

group-cosplay-girl-superman

How dumb are some legislators? This dumb:  State legislators in five states just banned Cosplay  because they thought it meant dosing the drinks of beautiful women and then raping them.