Friday, September 11, 2009


I am not a baseball fan. I don’t mind the sport; it’s just not something I go out of my way to experience either as a player or a fan. As a kid, I played little league (poorly) and collected baseball cards (but was always more into Star Wars and football cards) and played backyard games with neighbor kids. Today, we go to a handful of Akron Aeros games every summer and maybe one or two big league games, but it’s usually because of the company we’re headed to the game with or the fact that we happened on some free tickets more than anything else. I will follow the Indians if they make it into the post season, but otherwise I couldn’t really care less about them. I’m more of a college football fan, followed by pro football, then a bit of an NBA fan. I’ll even watch March Madness before I’ll watch a regular season baseball game.

But I am a fan of local history and local heroes. And just before my ninth birthday, Thurman Munson died piloting his Cessna Citation about seven miles from where I lived. I remember it being a big deal. I remember how crazy it was that this national figure, this hometown hero had died in our back yard. I think we may have even driven by the site soon after the crash. I remember the boys next door being really affected by it and talking with them about it a lot in those days immediately after the crash.

It’s now been 30 years since Munson died in h
is plane while practicing take-offs and landings at Akron-Canton Airport, and I honestly hadn’t thought about the Canton native with the Jim Croce mustache in years. (Ironic that Croce died in a plane crash six years before Munson, but I always thought they sort of looked alike.) I was looking for a book to read and stumbled on Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain by Marty Appel, and was unable to put the book down. It’s a fascinating read, which says something coming from someone who’s neither a fan of the sport nor that team necessarily, but there is something about the combination of the era (primarily the ‘70s), the familiar connections (Akron, Canton, Kent State University), and the loss of a hometown hero that kept me from turning away.

I still become that grade school-aged boy,
star-struck to think Munson joined the country club in the school district I attended, and that he golfed regularly at courses around town. Heck, the guy was even a part of the group that developed Belden Village, the local mall that was often the centerpiece of my and my friends’ high school social world.

I haven’t read the original autobiography that Appel, the former
Yankee’s PR man, wrote with Munson back in ’78, but he is clearly the authority on the ballplayer’s life. Appel chronicles Munson’s life from childhood through a complicated relationship with his parents and siblings, to his love of his wife and children, his rise to All-Star athlete, and his devastating, early death. The author mixes up his approach in the middle of the book, but it never seemed jarring and always seemed appropriate. Partway through chapter 13, he starts breaking up passages by date as he walks the reader through the last few days of Munson’s life. Appel also employs long selections (sometimes whole transcripts) of interviews given by or about Munson. It’s impressive how Appel puts the reader in the middle of the confusion and halting emotion as news of Munson’s accident spread from Canton to New York City and between family and ballplayers and the media. The funeral and days following unfold with the intimacy of close friends’ and associates’ honesty laid bare.

Munson’s career was on the decline when he died, his knees were shot, but he was larger than life and deserving of all the praise (and probably all the criticism) that’s been cast his way. He’s a fascinating character, even today, amid all his clichés – his gruff dealings with the media and fans, his blue-collar work ethic, his team leadership, his hometown love, his risk-taking attitude, and his family devotion. Munson: Th
e Life and Death of a Yankee Captain is an absorbing read, and I’m so glad it caught my eye.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Clobberin' Time!

My parents are big sports fans when it comes to professional football. I have great memories of sitting in our finished basement on Sunday afternoons, watching all the day's games as a family. My mom, a teacher, with her red plastic clipboard in her lap and papers for grading spread out on the couch around her. My dad in his big chair, and me, sprawling on the floor. Sloppy Joes and potato chips and dip and soda was dinner. That was how crisp fall and early winter Sundays were spent.

For a while back in the late ‘90s, when the Cleveland Br
owns left town and I was living out of state, a wave of nostalgia around the franchise washed over me. I remembered those Sunday afternoons with my parents and trips to the Pro Football Hall of Fame with my dad and getting up ridiculously early for an end-of-summer Saturday to attend the Hall of Fame Parade every August. Those memories combined with the newness of eBay sparked in me some strange desire to collect vintage Browns programs. I don’t think I ever bought more than a handful, and have since passed them on through garage sales and, in the cyclic nature of the online auction, back through eBay.

I did keep one of those programs, though. It’s n
ot a particularly old one by comparison to some of the other ones I had acquired and then unloaded. The issue I held on to, dated October 11, 1970, is for a game between the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals that took place nine days after I was born. The cover depicts well-known denizens of the Marvel Universe rushing forward. I wasn’t back into comics when I decided to unload the programs I’d accumulated, but clearly the nostalgia of a John Buscema cover held sway over me, tapping into some dormant love of the Marvel characters of my youth, that prompted me to hang on to this program.

A look inside the cover and, amid awesome ads for Kent Menthol cigarettes, Bobbie Brooks, Stroh’s “Stay Cold” Pack, and Zenith Chromacolor televisions (“Now the biggest breakthrough in Color TV comes in small, medium, and large” 19-in
ch, 23-inch, and 25-inch sizes!), it seems the NFL and Marvel teamed up to highlight the linebacker position across the league in a feature called “Beware the Linebacker!” Stan “The Man” Lee sets the stage with this hyperbolic passage...
Fasten your safety belt, frantic one, ‘cause here they come! They’re the superheroes’ superheroes – strong, smart, savage, and swift.

You know their names. Nobis, Butkus, Webster and Bell. Curtis, Robinson, Howley, Nitschke and Warwick. Call ‘em the linebackers... pro football’s dazzling defenders, magnificent marauders who battle against incredible odds every game of the season.

Now know them as we know them through the world of fantasy. Let’s watch these real life super stars with their superhero counterparts from the pandemonious, power-packed pages of marvelous Marvel comics.
And with that we are treated to five pages of Buscema goodness! And what I love about them most is that it looks like they paired the featured linebackers with their corresponding Marvel counterpart based purely on the similarity of the poses. Which really makes me wonder... Was Ray Nitschke matched up with the Silver Surfer simply because of his bald dome?!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Marvel Unbound - Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures, Volume 1

I’ve heard Marvel’s Further Adventures of Indiana Jones take a beating for a lack of quality among hindsighted comics fans. But, as a child of the ‘80s, one who was right in the crosshairs of both Indy and Marvel, and after reading Dark Horse’s Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures, Volume 1, I have few problems with any of it.

My wife and kiddo have a bunch of Dark Horse Omnibuses (Omnibi?), but this one was my first. The smaller format – somewhere between a standard size comic and a digest-sized trade paperback – is a little frustrating, but the quality of the reprinting isn’t bad, and the collection is thoughtfully put together.

This first volume kicks off right with the inclusion of Marvel’s three-issue “Official Comics Adaptation” of Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981! I’m pretty sure my buddy Mark either had the original issues or the mass paperback-sized Marvel Illustrated Books' black and white collection, but I don’t know that I’ve read this in decades. Walt Simonson penned the adaptation and his cover for issue
#3 is fantastic. The renderings of Indy and Marion Ravenwood are more impressionistic than attempts at spot-on depictions of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, but the cover conveys the action of the final act perfectly.

The movie adaptation is followed by the initial 12 issues of The Further Adventures series from 1983. The first few issues are penned by John Byrne and Denny O’Neil before David Michelinie took over the reigns for the remaining nine issues. And the Byrn
e/O’Neil issues are good, but I’m not sure why they are held in higher regard than the Michelinie run as far as storytelling quality goes. If anything, I thought issues #7 through #12 were the best of the collection.

Things can get sloppy at times, like when issue #2
ends with Indy parachuting out of a doomed plane into blue skies and pink clouds, but when the action resumes on the splash page of issue #3 “only moments” later, we find our hero parachuting into a ferocious “storm-driven afternoon.” I don’t know if that’s careless writing on O’Neil’s part, or sloppy transition between Byrne and Gene Day and Richard Howell on the art, but I remember noticing that even as a kid.

But there is a lot of fun packed into these pages, and that far outweighs the nitpicking. Michelinie’s storytelling is well-done for a licensed property. Although I have to wonder how hamstrung Marvel was in their attempts as stringing together some continuity around the Lucas/Spielberg property, Michelinie is able to weave well-known characters and reference artifacts from the original movie into the series with little disruption.

Back i
n the day, seeing characters from a movie you loved come to life beyond the screen was a thrill. And even having my perception colored by what I know of Marion and Sallah and Marcus Brody in canon films like Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I still felt a jolt of excitement each time they showed up on these pages. Heck, even the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol Rene Belloq took from Indy in the opening sequence of Raiders makes an appearance here!

For the most part, these are two-issue stories that provide a lot of fun. “Africa Screams” (issues #7 and #8), “The Gold Goddess” (#9 and #10), and “The Fourth Nail” (#11 and #12) were all entertaining rides. Michelinie shines particularly bright with a bit of symmetrically karmic storytelling in chapter two of “The Gold Goddess” when he repeats a narrative device he used for Indy in the opening pages again at the end of the story, only this time applying it to the bad guy’s predicament.

To be honest, I prior to this collection, I had only ever read the first four issues of the series. I have no idea why I didn’t buy any more of the single issues when they were originally released, though I suspect it had more to do with either my own preteen financial budgeting shortcomings or the unreliability of the corner convenience store’s selection month-to-month than any unremembered, specific dislike I might have had for the title. I mean, if I’d followed this entire run as a twelve-year-old Raiders fan back in the early ‘80s, I can’t imagine any reaction other than eating it up!

From the Dark Horse solicit, it looks like Volume 2 is going to collect the next 12 issues of the series, along with the three-issue Temple of Doom adaptation. I’ve never read any of those issues, but based on what I read and enjoyed so much here, I think it’s fair to say I’m in!