KC Column: Better Place

KC Carlson

KC Carlson

by KC Carlson

“There’s a place where I can go…”

These are the opening lyrics to the Beach Boys’ In My Room. Gary Usher wrote those words and Brian Wilson wrote the music in 1963, and it quickly became an anthem for the sensitive and introspective. Brian always claims it was just about the bedroom that he and his brothers shared — and where the Beach Boys’ harmony “sound” was first forged. But raise your hands if you think the song is actually about more than that.

Oddly, a few months before, John Lennon wrote a song called “There’s a Place”, which appeared on the first U.K. Beatles album Please Please Me. On the surface, it appears to be a Motown-influenced song about romance (The Beatles’ stock-in-trade at this point), but as with most things Lennon, if you peel the onion back, you discover that the place the singer (Lennon) wants to go when he feels low and blue is actually in his own mind.

The title of Lennon’s song was directly inspired by the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim song Somewhere from the 1957 Broadway musical (and 1961 film) West Side Story. It features the lyric “Somewhere, there’s a place for us” as sung by the doomed romantic leads of the piece. Their romance is complicated by the differences in their ethnic backgrounds and the racist attitudes of those around them. In their minds, there is a better place for them.

Meanwhile, back in 1965, British songbird Petula Clark sung I Know a Place, a clever Tony Hatch-written follow-up/rewrite of her giant 1964 hit Downtown. Both songs have a similar theme – getting away from it all, in this case “Downtown”, where “you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares” or go to the place “where the music is fine and the lights are always low!”

Meanwhile, the Stones wanted you off their cloud, the Kinks were la-la-la-ing it up under a Waterloo Sunset, and later on, the Who were off with their friend Thomas on an Amazing Journey. Obviously, there were a lot of folks in the 1960s looking for a different place to go.

So what does all this have to do with comics? I humbly beg your indulgence for another paragraph or three…

I Know a Place

My favorite place to go isn’t any place physical. I don’t have a “room” anymore, although I do have this man-cave of an office, where I try to do my writing while surrounded by thousands of CDs, record albums, cassette tapes, and dozens of functional and non-functional iPods, turntables, cassette decks, amps, Walkmans, hard drives, burners, and about 40 miles of cable connecting them all. There’s also 40 years’ worth of music magazines and pretty much any worthwhile rock history book written in the last few decades. All of which are turned off or blocked out while I’m writing, as concentration is a fleeting thing these days.

I think I’ve written before of how, once I got into the professional end of comics, I suddenly realized that I needed a new hobby. Because my old hobby was now my profession, and if I didn’t have something other than comics to think about after thinking about comics most every day for 8-12 hours straight… well, let’s not go there.

So, yeah, I have a few CDs… Superman bought a lot of them for me. And I know a little bit about the history of the tunes… because I don’t read comics 24/7/365.

But this isn’t about that (except maybe a little). I do have a favorite place for music, but it’s between a pair of headphones late at night with an ice-cold beverage. The experience is not that much different than thousands of other crazy people like me around the planet. (Except maybe they can stay awake for the entire CD.)

There Are Places I Remember

My favorite place to go isn’t really a place at all. As cartoon George Harrison said in Yellow Submarine (and as the real John Lennon sung about above): “It’s all in the mind, you know.”

Getting there has always been a matter of some dispute. Some lucky individuals can get there on their own. Some require assistance, whether it be through spiritual means, artificial substances, hypnosis, or even the simple act of falling asleep and entering REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep.

There used to be a way to get there on the internet, which involved deciphering clues buried in 42 different web pages, including the Wikipedia page for Circus Peanuts, Dial B for Blog’s expose on BEM, this site, and this site, both of which should be self-explanatory. Sadly, the internet being what it is, some of those 42 pages are no longer functional and the way to true nirvana is lost forever (sob).

But all is not lost, dude. One of the easiest ways to stimulate frequent visits inside your own cranium is the simple act of using outside stimulus to engage your imagination. There are probably hundreds of ways to accomplish this (including some that I could actually write about here, including such mass media as television, movies, radio, magazines, newspapers, and more recently such internet activities such as message boards, video sharing, podcasts, and even blogs like the one you are now reading). For more on mass media, may I introduce you to the works of Marshall McLuhan (or failing that, perhaps I could introduce you to Woody Allen, who could introduce you to Mr. McLuhan himself).

I’m a particular fan of the literature part of mass media, including books and manuscripts, which amazingly includes my usual topic of comic books (see, Roger, I told you I’d eventually get to my point).

Journey to the Center of the Mind

By reading comic books (and without really thinking about it too much), I have traveled to wondrous places. Throughout my journeys, I’ve been around the world, around the universe, and around the cosmos as well.

Fantastic Four #577

Fantastic Four #577

I’ve been to the Blue Area of the Moon, the canals of Mars, and the dungeons of Apokolips. I’ve been to the 31st century, and I’ve battled dinosaurs in World War II. I’ve been to many of the 52 Earths, to Cynosure, the Microverse, Skartaris, Gemworld, K’un-L’un, and to countless Marvel-verses. I’ve been to the Negative Zone so many times, I always wonder why anybody would want to go to a place SO negative. (I’m convinced at least part of the comics Blogosphere is located there — possibly trapped for all eternity!)

I’ve been so tiny, I’ve seen the insides of androids, or traveled by telephone lines, or been mistaken for toys. I’ve been so large that I’ve punched Godzilla in the face and actually prevented planets from colliding. I’ve been so strong that I’ve pushed my way through dimensional walls and even dragged the island of Manhattan around on a chain (I might have just dreamed that one).  I’ve met so many versions of King Arthur, Merlin, and the rest of the Knights of the Round Table that I’ve lost track of how many.

I’ve met heroes and villains, presidents and dictators, cowboys and mad scientists, princesses and Amazon warriors. I’ve met babies that spoke their own language, as well as aliens from the future who did the same. (Good ol’ Interlac!) I’ve met mild-mannered news reporters, teenage geniuses, and millionaire playboys. I’ve met the boy with the most comic books in America and the kid who collects Spider-Man. I’ve even met the Architects (and secretly plotted to push them all into an empty elevator shaft).

Owly

Owly

I’ve met owls who “speak” in images, road runners who speak in rhyme, and Junior Woodchucks who carry guidebooks with all the knowledge of the universe within. I’ve traveled to the planet Smoo, adventured with Ozma, and witnessed philosophical debates between a robot and an angel. I’ve seen beans explore the arts and culture while building their own society, witnessed a superheroic romance that actually works, and wondered about a character who was flaming, but not necessarily a carrot.

I’ve seen rabbits wielding swords, medieval mice who do the same, and a slacker who must battle the evil ex-boyfriends of the girl that he loves. I live next door to the world’s oldest teenager, who just can’t decide between two amazing girls, and just down the street from the spitfire child of divorced parents with the coolest aunt on the planet.

I’ve visited the geek shopping dream of Akihabara, met the stretchable young boy who dreams of being a pirate, and am afraid of the guy who kills by writing your name in his notebook. I’ve played Xbox with Gabe and Tycho, had thrilling steampunk adventures with the Heterodyne Boys, and marveled at Skull The Troll’s actual middle name.

Complete Peanuts

Complete Peanuts

I’ve quaffed root beer with a beagle in World War I, I’ve taken over countries and done other things I can’t remember with Uncle Duke, and I’ve sacked out on the sofa while mailmen, dogs, my children (who have been teenagers for 40 years), door-to-door-salesmen, and the neighborhood kids traipse through the living room. (Just thinking about it makes me hungry for a sandwich.) I’ve talked with dead grampas, eaten lasagna with an obnoxious cat, tap-danced with penguins, and wondered about talking sawdust. I’ve been transmogrified, hung out with cows that were smarter than me, and sadly discovered that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I often prefer the adventures of the Mini Marvels and the Tiny Titans to the full-sized versions. I terribly miss the Inferior Five, Forbush Man, and Stanley and his Monster. In another life, I think I was a detective at the Maze Agency. Or was that the O’Day and Simeon Detective Agency? I dunno… it’s a mystery.

Triplicate Girl

Triplicate Girl

When I was younger, I romanced girls who could fly, shrink, read minds, create lightning, split into three girls, become a phantom, predict the future while asleep, create shadows, had wings, was a witch, and one that was a princess but actually was a snake. Or maybe I dreamed all that, as well.

And here’s the thing. Even if the places I go aren’t always completely enjoyable, I can just wait a few weeks and try again. There are constantly new experiences to behold. And if repeated visits to that particular venue continue to be disappointing, I don’t have to abandon my traveling completely — there are virtually hundreds (if not thousands) of other places to go. The possibilities are limitless. If I don’t like what my friends currently are doing, there’s a pretty good possibility that I can find a place where I can relive a big chunk of their previous adventures. And that will be good.

Back in the real world, I have been tremendously lucky to have worked in this field — to have worked with, or met, hundreds of the talented men and women who fuel our imaginations on a regular basis. They are the ones who regularly open up all those new — and better — places for me — and all of us — to travel. Further, their characters, concepts, and stories provide the inspiration for others to tell stories of their own (even those with outrageous lies about hidden clues on 42 different web pages).

A Note on Process and the Cosmos

After deciding the topic of this particular essay, I began my usual process of preparing to write about comic books: reading something that has absolutely nothing to do with comic books. Most often, it’s a music or band history book. In this particular case, it was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream (Chronicle Books), the companion book to the excellent (and Grammy-winning) four-hour 2007 documentary (with the same name) about the band, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Late in the book, I came across this quote from Petty, which made me feel like I was on the right track, as well as being grateful to having strong ties to the history of both comics and music:

TOM PETTY:  Johnny Cash said this to me one day: “This is noble work.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Noble work?” He goes, “Yeah, it makes a lot of people happy.” That hit me like a bolt to the brain. Why didn’t I ever have that thought before? I was probably thinking about me being happy. This basic idea Johnny shared seemed revolutionary in some odd way. It makes millions happy. Then I went and played some shows and looked out and as far as you could see people are jumping up and down. They’re happy. It helped me to see the value of it and what it meant in these people’s lives, because, really, what it means to them is exactly what it meant to me. Music has always been my passport to a better place.

KC sez: I feel the same way about comics. And especially about the people who create them. Unfortunately, they seldom get to see their fans jumping up and down. Maybe we should think of more ways to show that appreciation. At your next convention, tell someone how much you like their work. Send a fan letter. (Old-fashioned, but still appreciated.) Talk up a book you really enjoy to your friends, whether in person or online. Don’t be afriad to share your love of a comic unashamedly in public.

This one’s for Cash and Petty and everybody who creates something that makes people happy. Especially my comics friends who slave over drawing boards and computer screens, often all alone. They do noble work. They take us to better places. We should jump up and down for them once in awhile.

KC CARLSON learned how to read by reading comic strips and books. He tried (but failed — not their fault) to learn how to dance by listening to Cash and Petty, among others.

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  1. Beau Smith Says:

    Now THIS was a great column that unites so many of us in the pop culture world on so many levels. I appreciate you putting into words what so many of us feel and have felt, KC.

    Your amigo,

    Beau Smith
    The Flying Fist Ranch

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