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Kent State cover
The Kent State shootings took place a couple years before I was born, so I missed the immediacy and intensity of the events themselves, but I grew up about an hour away from the Kent State campus and the shadow of those events was still visible. Not that people were bringing it up every day a decade or two later, but it was impossible to be unaware of it if you spent any time in the area. The anniversary was always commemorated, and generally highlighted on the news that evening. The Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song "Ohio" got played on the radio more often than most other places, with the DJ often making some unusually thoughtful commentary. It was just part of the area culture. Some of the details were always presented as a bit fuzzy but in hindsight, I'm kind of struck by how universally the National Guard were seen as the bad guys here. I don't know that I ever met anyone who ever said, "Those punk students had it coming," or "Serves them right," or anything along those lines. It was always -- regardless of a person's political affiliation, or their stance on guns or the military, or how old they were -- it was always portrayed as an absolute tragedy that only happened because the local government and the National Guard were in the wrong. Those guns should not have been fired; they shouldn't have been aimed at students; they shouldn't have had live ammo; they shouldn't have been there in the first place... I never heard a single person ever try to put even an ounce of blame on the students.

But, like I said, the specifics were always a little fuzzy. As it turns out, that fuzziness was a very deliberate attempt to soften the blame as much as possible. There was no way to shift it to the students, but the government and the military tried to make themselves as blameless as possible.

I'm starting to get ahead of myself.

Derf Backderf's impressively thick Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio recounts the several days leading up to the infamous Kent State shootings. He follows (primarily) the lives of the four students who were killed by the National Guard: Bill Scroeder, Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, and Jeff Miller. The story hops from one student to the next as they go about their daily lives, largely trying to stay out of the way of the protests and just be students. We get to hang out with them and their friends as they study, go to bars, practice their music, or just lounge in the grass on a sunny afternoon. We also get to check in on the folks on the other side of this discussion: the mayor, the University president, and the General and Major in charge of the National Guard troops that were sent in. We see some of the considerations they're trying to take into account, and the reasons why they feel compelled to act as they do.

Following these people is clearly a way to get readers to become emotionally involved with them, making the ending that much stronger and more resonnate. However, Backderf does not forget that many readers (like me) might not have even been born when these events took place, so he periodically provides some asides to put some pieces into better context. Who really were the Students for a Democratic Soviety? Or The Weathermen? Why were students justifiably leary of being "infiltrated" by undercover government operatives? These asides can be a little text-heavy, relative to the rest of the book, but they're usually only a single page before getting back to the story and Backderf is able to keep a more natural storytelling feel to them. As if someone was simply telling you this story and stopped briefly to answer your question.

Backderf seems like he's trying to give a fair presentation here, and he provides justification for why various authorities took the stances they did. But even so, he points out that every one of them is wrong. The politicians are viewing this cynically in light of upcoming elections, the individual soldiers are being treated like dirt by every one of their superiors all the way back to Washington, and the General and Major are basing decisions on wildly inaccurate intelligence. At every stage -- every, single stage -- everyone who isn't a student makes the wrong choice. The continually and deliberately escalate situations that weren't even situations in the first place. They base their choices on fear and anger that isn't even directed at the students, but take it out on them nonetheless. Even after the shootings themselves, when we see several soliders break down over what they just witnessed, they then go out of their way to cover up as much as possible, "losing" paperwork and blatantly falsifying reports. It's like Backderf is retroactively trying to give them every opportunity to redeem themselves in any way, and they simply refuse.

The story is incredibly engaging, and I found myself still getting emotional towards the end of the book. Even knowing the outcome before I even cracked the spine. I shed tears for the students, and felt righteous anger towards everyone else. And I found myself ending the book afraid. Afraid that the current federal administration will have seen these murders as a positive and effective protest deterrant, and that a repeat performance would be welcomed by him -- not unlike it was welcomed by Nixon per the book's epilogue. It doesn't take this book to get to that suggestion (a quick Google search shows people were making this exact comparison at least as far back as May 2016, before Trump was even the formal GOP nominee) but Backderf crafts an excellent tale here, which is probably more relatable now than when he began working on this. But seeing somthing similar play out before Trump is out of office wouldn't be at all surprising. Maybe not from the National Guard. Maybe not on a college campus. Maybe not even ambiguously "accidental." But the mindset of weekend soldiers with loaded weapons is very much on display in this book, and an insightful look at not only the events of May 4, 1970 specifically but of the way people with guns fire out of fear, regardless if the fear is justified or not. Of how those in power will do everything they can to put down dissent, how they will take advantage of situations to inflict petty retributions against people who they've never seen before, and how they will absolutely lie their assses off to avoid facing consequences. When you see or hear something on the news today and start to think, "Oh, my god! That can't happen here!" -- read this so you know that it already has.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: Arcane Marvel Archeology

Kleefeld on Comics: Ron Cobb, 1937-2020

Kleefeld on Comics: The Comic Book Protection Cover System

Kleefeld on Comics: My Changing Relationship with Comic Shops

Kleefeld on Comics: The Origin of Atlas

Atlas, Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Mundi title page
The name "Atlas" shows up fairly frequently throughout comics' history. There are number of characters that go by that name, multiple publishing companies, many specialty comic retail shops and countless references within the comic stories making sly background references to the name. My question is: how did it become so ingrained in comics' lore?

Well, the short answer is Martin Goodman and I expect many of you will have mentally gone there already. But let's explore this more deeply...

An "atlas" (lower case) is essentially a collection of maps. They're generally of very large regions, often the entire Earth, and often printed and bound. The earliest items we would consider atlases date to around 150 AD and were put together by Claudius Ptolemy. Though already outdated by the time they were released, they sold very well and he produced several revised editions.

It wasn't until 1595, however, that the actual term "atlas" was used in connection with these collections of maps. It was Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator who entitled his book Atlas, Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Mundi which translates to Atlas, or Description of the Universe. It was actually published after his death in December 1594 by his son Rumold.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the name was NOT chosen after the mythical Atlas who bore the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Rather, it was in reference to King Atlas of Mauretania (roughly corresponding with modern Algeria and Morroco) who was allegedly the wise philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who made the first celestial globe. An image of King Atlas is in fact on the title page of Mercator's book.

Royal Palace in AmsterdamA century later, Dutch merchants were using Atlas (the Greek) as a sort of patron saint. (A statue of Atlas adorns the top of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam to this day.) Thus regional map makers of the time began using images of the titan on their collections of maps, making a direct association between the two.

The symbolism does make sense. Although the original myths held that Atlas bore the weight of the heavens, which was generally depicted as a globe, it would be easy to mistake/substitute the Earth in its place without altering the meaning substantially. It's certainly a more compelling visual than a mere portrait, and it's little wonder that map-makers would use the titan's likeness to grace the covers of their collections. Indeed it was a likeness that was compelling enough to write comic stories about! Without doing exhaustive research on this point, I found comic book stories that feature the classical Atlas as early as 1948, pre-dating Goodman's use of the term for his company by 3 years. (Curiously, though, he remains relatively untapped as a source of comic stories compared to other Greek heroes.)

Atlas Comics "debuted" in 1951. It was really just the same company Goodman had been running for years under a few dozen different names. The question that strikes me, though, is: why "Atlas"? Why not "Zenith" or "Red Circle" or any of the other names he'd been using to publish comics?

The reason why Goodman used so many company names at first was a hold-over from the 1940s. It wasn't uncommon for one publisher to use multiple company names to skirt any number of laws, one of the most obvious being paper rationing. A publisher was only allotted a certain amount of paper they could use, but if one person ran two publishing interests, he could obtain twice the amount of paper. Thus, many publishers of the time would run one company under several names simultaneously to get the benefits of multiple corporations.

But that approach didn't make as much sense going into the 1950s, as World War II ended and things got back to "normal." Goodman also saw the benefit of having a single brand identity, one banner under which he could promote the likes of Patsy Walker, Captain America, and Kid Colt. There was no reason to hide behind multiple company names, and plenty of reasons to coalesce under one. But, again, why "Atlas"?

The reason is Goodman's other business as a periodical distributor. Goodman believed he could make even more money by distributing his comics and magazines; why pay a middleman to do that? So he ditched his current distributor, Kable News, and established the Atlas News Company. In this context, "Atlas" begins to make sense. Goodman didn't publish just comics; he also had several lines of general interest and adult (but not that adult!) magazines. He was in several fields and probably paid little attention to the comics end of things. The name "Atlas" for a distributor would imply that his reach covered the entire globe; all walks of life, all corners of the Earth. That wasn't necessarily accurate, of course, but it gave an immediate implication that his operation was bigger and more grand. Goodman then simply applied the "Atlas" name to everything, including his entire publishing arm. Thus "Atlas Comics" were born.

Atlas News Company lasted until 1957. Goodman basically took a look at the finances and decided that he really wasn't making all that much money on distribution, so he closed that business to focus exclusively on publishing. It was ultimately a huge mistake from his perspective, though, as the new distributor he partnered with -- American News Company -- folded only a few months after they began distributing Atlas-published books due to a Justice Department lawsuit. With his own distribution setup eliminated and the country's largest distributor (American News) gone, Goodman was left with few options but using Independent News, which was owned and operated by his business rival, DC Comics (then National).

The Atlas brand that Goodman had spent the better part of a decade establishing was almost wiped out overnight. Independent would only distribute eight of their comics (down from 30+) a month. But in those years that Atlas was producing comics, there was some great and innovative work from the likes of Jack Kirby, Joe Maneely, John Severin and John Romita Sr. to name just a few. It's in honor of those great works that so many comics-related businesses are named.

Now, I could go on to explain where "Marvel Comics" came from, but that's another story that's probably longer than you'd expect!
Anrdoid's Dungeon

When I was a kid, I didn't have a "my comic shop." There wasn't anything close enough for me to get to regularly, so I relied on subscriptions for my new books and local comic conventions for back issues. When I got to college, there was indeed a local shop I could get to but the manager there was a real asshole, so I didn't go there often. (You know how some comic shops managers, particularly those back in the '80s and '90s could be jerks in the vein of Comic Shop Guy? Yeah, this guy was that certainly, but he was just a straight-up asshole too. He ended up running that shop into the ground a couple years later... before the late '90s bust. Think about that -- he couldn't run the shop decently even during one of the most lucrative periods of the direct market!) A little while later another shop opened nearby and, although the guys there were nice, they were very much NOT cut out for running a business and it closed after less than a year.

I didn't actually find a shop that was reasonably run, that I could get to on a regular basis until I was in my mid-20s, after I'd been actively reading/collecting comics for over a decade. Then, for the next ten years or so, that was my weekly Cheers. I'd stop in on Wednesday after work and there'd be a round of "SEAN!" and we'd all chat about whatever was in comics news that week. I'd hang out for an hour or so, and then head home with $20-$30 worth of comics.

I eventually changed jobs and was commuting in the opposite direction, so it stopped be feasible to hit that shop on the way home. And it turned out that there was another shop right around the corner from my new job, so I started going there. I got to know the owners/managers there, but before I really became a regular staple for the Wednesday crowd, I ended up moving to another state. I bounced around for about half a year, and when I finally settled in a new permanent residence, I was thrilled to see there was a comic shop barely over a mile away!

I was less thrilled when I stopped in and discovered it was one of the worst shops I've ever been in. I honestly have no idea how he manages to stay open, particularly when the Chicago area has so many great shops in general.

But what I think is more interesting is that, by this point, my buying habits had changed significantly. See, up through my early 30s, I pretty much only bought Marvel titles. I did start branching out as I got into my 30s but to pretty direct tangents in a similar vein: sci-fi and fantasy. I'd occassionally pick up something like an autobiography or historical fiction, but typically only if it was getting a lot of good press. But this meant that I could walk in to most comic shops and find the titles I was regularly looking for.

As I got into my late 30s and early 40s, the Marvel stuff started dropping off, and more esoteric, independent stuff was catching my interest. Stuff that a lot of shops wouldn't normally stock. I'd wind up ordering a lot of it online, sometimes from Amazon, sometimes from an online comic shop, often from either the publisher or creator directly.

But here's the interesting thing: even though some semi-local shops might carry these books that I'm primarily interested in, I don't have any desire to visit them. Because the camradie that tends to build up in those shops, even though they might have a good selection of independent books, still tends to be centered around the best selling direct market books: Marvel and DC. The chats and discussions that I hear in those shops is the same that I used to participate in back when I had a "my comic shop." Which was fine when I was actively following Marvel, and keeping tabs on DC, Image, Dark Horse, etc. But since I don't really follow those publishers very closely any more, I can't really join in the banter around what's going on in the X-Men right now or who the latest Justice League member is or anything like that. The discussion is around comic book superheroes, not the medium of comics itself.

There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just not what I'm interested in these days.

So if the discussions I'm having about comics aren't particularly tied to the week-in-week-out cycle that following lines like Marvel and DC entail, I don't really have a need to hit a comic shop on a weekly basis. And, further, if I'm not interested in the discussions being held at most comic shops anyway (and, to be fair, there are shops that do focus on something other than superheroes -- just none that I can reasonably get to on a regular basis) I don't really need to actually go to a comic shop at all. I can perfectly contently order my comics through a mail delivery service like Mile High or Lone Star Comics have. Which is what I've been doing for the past couple of years. The discounts I get offset the price of shipping, and any back issue ordering I do can piggyback off my monthly shipment so I don't have to pay additional shipping to have back issues sent over.

I'd be curious to learn how mail order shops have been doing since the pandemic started. Honestly, I don't think I've heard anything one way or the other. I'd assume their businesses have increased, like most online retailers, but that's just a guess. I know brick and mortar shops took a big hit this year, but I'd be curious to hear how many of those customers switched to ordering online entirely. Presumably for safety reasons initially and possibly for convenience later. Or has the lure of the comic shops being a destination in and of themselves -- which I've been arguing for YEARS is the only real way shops can continue to stay afloat -- drew people back more quickly than other retailers.

Regardless, I find it curious that my relationship with comic shops in general pretty closely tracks with industry retail trends. Although the trends seem to be more correlation than causation. I'll be interested to see how brick and mortar shops come out of the pandemic, and how it will affect their general business models from a long-term perspective. What are they doing now because of the pandemic that they end up continuing afterwards just because customers like it? What will they change later because of new buying patterns cusomters have adopted? What about stores that don't adapt -- will they go out of business quickly or will we see a long, slow decline? Lots to keep your eyes on, to be sure!
Trolling around in the patent database, I came across the patent for a "comic book protection cover system" from 1993. It's basically a zip-loc bag, sized for modern comics, with a pocket on the front to put in a small sheet with whatever details you think are relevant. Supposedly, this "has all the advantages of the prior art bags and none of the disadvantages."

I'm a bit dubious, frankly. Although in large part because of the lousy wording in the document. He has four one-sentence paragraphs in a row that begin...
Still yet another object of the present invention...

Still another object of the present invention...

Yet another object of the present invention...

Even still another object of the present invention...
I don't know that I've ever seen these advertised, much less actually used. But who am I to judge? John and Cindy Merkley have a patent, and I don't.

Here are the full specs of Patent #5,415,290...

Ron Cobb, one of my favorite political cartoonists, died yesterday of Lewy body dementia in Sydney, Australia at age 83.

In the mid-1950s, Cobb was hired at age 18 at Disney Studios as an inbetweener. By 1957, he was a breakdown artist on Sleeping Beauty. He wafted in and out of odd jobs and was then drafted into the Army. In 1965, he began contributing political cartoons to the Los Angeles Free Press and soon became syndicated through the Underground Press Syndicate.

His comics were critically acclaimed but he made relatively little money off them. After a decade, he largely left the medium and started doing work in film and television. Which is where he's primarily known. Because he did design work on Star Wars: A New Hope, Alien, Conan the Barbarian, The Last Starfighter, Leviathan, The Abyss, Total Recall, Titan A.E. and Firefly. You may have heard of some of these, and maybe even seen one or two!

My dad had a couple books collecting Cobb's work from back in the day, as well as individual strips snipped from the newspapers. The books are long out of print, which probably is why he's not very well known in comics circles these days. But his work was timelessly poigiant (sadly) and deserves some wider recognition. Because despite only really working in the business for a decade, he made a lot of statements that were incredibly powerful. Powerful enough that they still resonate very strongly yet today.

Let me just leave you with a small sample of his work. If you can, I highly recommend you track those out of print collections down.
Captain America: Patriot cover
I'm not sure where I came across it now, but a month or two back, I read that the All-Winners Squad were retroactively made the first superhero team to take up residence in the Baxter Building, decades before the Fantastic Four made it their headquarters. As an FF fan from way back, and one who generally enjoys the archeology of sifting through Marvel continuity, that sounded like something I had to dig into myself. Particularly since it didn't seem like the type of thing Marvel has really done much of since the turn of the century.

So I picked up the requisite stories and was not terribly surprised to see they were written by Karl Kesel. He has a similar sensibility and appreciation of Marvel history and continuity that guys like Roy Thomas, Mark Gruenwald, and Kurt Busiek have shown. Plus, Kesel is a long-time FF fan. So that he found another way to tie Marvel's Golden Age stories via All Winners Comics to its Silver Age ones via Fantastic Four is almost expected. The primary story is largely about how Captain America inspired Jeff Mace to become The Patriot, and how he was later recruited to take up the mantle of Captain America when that character died. I kind of knew that basic story at a high level, but only barely, so I figured I'd have the added bonus here of digging into that aspect of Marvel history as well.

What I found interesting, though, was that, while the stories here were good and provided not only the historical background I was hoping for, but also had a solid emotional hook for the main characters, I definitely did not feel the familiar excitement I used to have when discovering arcane pieces of Marvel continuity. Whereas before, I might've responded with something like "Aha! Cool!" this time it was a little like just checking a box off for me, "OK, All-Winners in the Baxter Building back in the '40s. Got it."

That's certainly not Kesel's fault. The bits in question are, by design, almost thrown in as asides and that's not the point of the stories in the first place. I actually quite enjoyed following Jeff Mace's story itself. What I don't quite know is why I wasn't as excited about the Baxter Building revelation as I might've been a decade or two earlier. Some possibilities I've considered:
  • I used to run a Fantastic Four website and I would have included these tidbits on the site. My excitement might have been tied to developing out new content for the site.
  • During the same time period, a good chunk of my self-identity revolved around being THE most knowledagable Fantastic Four fan. Knowing this additional bit of trivia would have further advanced my standing in that capacity. (At least in my own mind.)
  • It's been a decade and a half since I really followed the goings-on in the Marvel Universe. I may simply be less emotionally invested in it generally.
  • I'm also a decade a half older, plus the entire country is collapsing, so it could be that I really don't have the mental bandwidth to really give a shit about an amazingly obscure and ultimately meaningless retcon any more.
Of course, it could be a little "all of the above" with each piece being a contributing factor. I may still have had a subdued reaction in, say, 2014 if I'd come across this then but the additional weight of the past several years could have dulled that even more. I find it particularly interesting in light of the more recent History of the Marvel Universe book I looked at back in April; another Marvel archeology project for me, but one where I went in with very different expectations. I'll be curious, too, to see my reaction compares against the upcoming Other History of the DC Universe, another book which has that archeology aspect to it, but with yet another very different set of expectations.

At nearly fifty years old, I don't expect to respond to comics the same way I did when I was thirty. But I think it's worth considering why so I know what to look for and what to avoid in the future.