Thursday, February 17, 2011

Perfume & Cigarettes...And Batman, Neal Adams, And My Grandmother

Certain things are massive memory triggers for me. Smells are one of the better ones. I can be walking along somewhere, and catch a whiff of a certain perfume, and instantly be transported back to times when certain females were in my life. And regardless of how those relationships may have ended, the smell always manages to put a smile on my face. There was one particular woman who always had an interesting mix of perfume and cigarettes around her, and the intriguing aroma never failed to make me happy. Being a non-smoker as I am, that may seem odd, but her particular perfume, mixed with her cigarettes, always did a number on me.

But there are other memory stimulants as well, sight being possibly the biggest. I can look at a ticket stub from an event I went to 30 years ago and be instantly transported back to what transpired that evening, and the surrounding events as well. I can look at a book I own, or a poster or piece of artwork on my walls, that has a signature by one of the writers or artists that worked on it, and instantly be thrown back in time to the setting where I got to meet that person, and be able to remember the conversation I got to have with someone whose work I admire.

Much like Pavlov's Dogs, however, there is one specific conditioned reflex I have that happened again earlier this evening. Having gotten out of work around dusk, I was witness to the last remnants of what must have been an amazing sunset, for the few remaining cotton-candy-colored whisps of clouds only hinted at what had just been. Still, there was enough to enjoy for a bit. Driving off to do an errand before heading home, in turning east I was greeted by a very large, bright, and full moon. As wonderful as that was, it got even better when one of the cloud whisps that had been so recently rose-colored now acted as a bit of a shroud, only partially obscuring the view of the glowing ball in the sky. And this is where the conditioned response kicks in every time.

Whenever I see a full moon partially blocked by some clouds, I am instantly reminded of an incredibly iconic image of Batman. It is a full page splash from Batman issue 251, cover dated September, 1973, that features Batman sprinting across a beach at night, in pursuit of his arch-enemy The Joker. It's an issue written by a classic Batman writer, Denny O'Neil, but the artwork is by perhaps one of the greatest artists ever to grace the Dark Knight with his talents, Neal Adams. Adams is a revolutionary, a pioneer, a true visionary in the field of comic books. His work in the late 1960's thru the mid-1970's stands as some of the greatest the field has ever produced, and he was so far ahead of his time that much of that work could be published today, roughly 40 years later, and still look fresh and contemporary. His design work, his layouts, his choice of camera angles, and his flat-out drawing are all superb. In an art form that had been starting to get stagnant, his work was truly innovative, and it aspired to a higher level of quality as it turned the comic book world on its ear, and challenged it by saying "we can be better!" Living legend is NOT hyperbole in this instance.

While not old enough to know any of this at the time, I've apparently been a fan of Adams' work since long before I knew who he was. I would have been just about 2 years old when Batman 251 hit the newsstands, and while I DID start reading at an early age, no, it wasn't THAT early. How I was introduced to Adams' work however, I can remember clear as day. I don't recall the specifics of how or why this particular item was acquired, but I have a very vivid memory of standing in the kitchen of my grandmother's house while her and her daughter (my mom) opened what seemed like a half-scale paint can for me. The can was the container that held 81 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle featuring the Adams-penned image of Batman running along that beach. I had no idea of Neal Adams, or probably even comic books, at that point. I'm not even sure how old I was when they got me this puzzle, but I would venture to guess I was around 5...maybe younger. I'm sure it was bought for me because of watching cartoons with Batman, or maybe re-runs of the TV show that starred Adam West. But that's beside the point.

I do remember standing there in my grandmother's kitchen, with the 5 or 6 inch square brownish tiles with the half-inch or so of grout between each one. Since Grandma lived in the next town over from us, we would go visit her every Sunday. Sometimes Vlad (a nickname I've bestowed upon my father in the last dozen years or so...a story for another blog entry...) would go with us, sometimes not, but Mom and I would make the trip every week without fail. Frequently I would sneak off into said kitchen while the two ladies would talk, and I would open, and leave open, every bright yellow cabinet door and drawer in what can only be described as the crude beginnings of my career as a practical jokester. The image of my grandmother coming in and putting her hands on her hips in what I realize now was mock exaspiration is burned indelibly into my somewhat twisted brain, and it's the joy I derive from reactions like that which continue to inspire my pranksterish behavior today.

I anxiously awaited the conclusion of this "opening ceremony" so I could get my hands on the treasure within. It was in a tin can, and although it had a plastic lid like on a tennis ball can, there was a piece of tin that sealed the can shut underneath. It didn't have a pop-top or pull-tab, so they must have used a manual can opener to unseal the can (this was the mid-1970's, before electric can openers had been invented...apparently...), and they were both concerned that I might cut myself on a slightly jagged edge they had left. After a little bit of masking tape had been carefully applied, I was finally able to get down to the business of assembling this gem. And lo and behold, a gem it was.

Over the years, I must have assembled and disassembled that puzzle dozens of times. The can was always a fixture in my room, and every once in a while I'd pull it off the shelf and piece together the costumed detective, and just stare at the scene, wondering what had transpired to make him be in such a state. I would also analyze the position of the Caped Crusader, as the camera angle chosen featured major foreshortening, making the hand on his forward outstretched arm as big as the thigh of his corresponding rear leg that was powerfully thrusting him ahead.

It would be many years before I learned that Adams was the artist responsible for the drawing that I had put together and taken apart many times. It would be an additional many years before I actually acquired a book that reprinted the issue in question. The final volume in a beautiful 3 volume set entitled Batman Illustrated By Neal Adams didn't come out until 2005. Each hardcover contains nearly 300 pages of, well, Batman, um, illustrated by, uh, Neal Adams. Kinda self-explnatory. Over the course of the 3 books, you see his style and technique improve and evolve. As it turns out, Batman 251 was one of the very last Batman stories Adams would draw. He was probably at the peak of his talents when he produced the issue in question, and in particular, that one single, striking, image.

I have been able to meet Adams numerous times over the years at shows, but it wasn't until into the 2000's that I was REALLY able to appreciate how much of a talented artist he is. I have met him enough times in recent years that all 3 of my Batman hardcovers have been signed by him, but perhaps more importantly, I one time brought a few pieces from that very puzzle to a show that he was at, and while assembling them, told him a very abbreviated version of this story. The puzzle was assembled one final time when I returned home to Las Vegas from that New York trip, framed, and has been hanging on a wall in my home ever since.

My grandmother died in 1995, just several months before I started my career as a mailman. She never got to see me become the reasonably successful and happy person I like to think I've become, but hopefully, somewhere, she knows I think of her whenever I see a partially cloud-covered full moon.

Hi Grandma, and thanks.

Blog Post Soundtrack; Foo Fighters, David Bowie, Motörhead, Sugarcubes, Probot, Eagles Of Death Metal (live), Pearl Jam (live), Leadbelly, Metallica (live), The White Stripes (live), Deftones, The Mars Volta, Kyuss (live), Nuclear Assault, Alice In Chains (live), Public Enemy, Fu Manchu, Guns N' Roses, Tom Lehrer (live), Queens Of The Stone Age (live), The Blues Brothers, Cheryl Wheeler, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Deep Purple (live), Simon & Garfunkel, The Doors (live), The Vandals, MC5, The 5,6,7,8's, Judas Priest, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mad Season, Tool

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ken Thanks for posting the pictures of the Batman puzzle. I still have this same puzzle from my childhood too, but it came in a box. Never knew it came in a tin also, very cool! This puzzle was my introduction to Batman and, like you, it has long been one of my most prized possessions! Your puzzle is in much better condition than mine, it looks mint! I just got mine signed by Neal Adams too in the same top corner, but he used a black marker. What an awesome artist! A picture of the box is on my blog:
    Thanks again -Mike