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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

COSTUME DRAMA: HALLOWEEN AS A SUPER-HERO

Bonfires burning bright
Pumpkin faces in the night
I remember Halloween

Dead cats hanging from poles
Little dead are out in droves
I remember Halloween

Brown leafed vertigo
Where skeletal life is known
I remember Halloween

This day anything goes
Burning bodies hanging from poles
I remember Halloween

Candy apples and razor blades
Little dead are soon in graves
I remember Halloween

This day anything goes
Burning bodies hanging from poles
I remember Halloween

-“Halloween” by the Misfits, 1981

So, do ya think this guy remembers Halloween?

Ah, Halloween. The finest day in the month of Rocktober, the day wherein the imagination is brought to vivid life, crazily bedecked and given license to wander your neighborhood and scrounge for heavily-sugared comestibles when not launching eggs at your house or setting light to paper sacks filled with dog turds on your once innocent porch in fervent hope that you will stomp out the blaze while wearing your brand new Hush Puppies. Legions of costumed urchins and their sometimes equally twisted elders ringing your doorbell in a yearly ritual of extortion that will hopefully keep your trees free of soon-to-be-dew-soggy rolls of Charmin and any sundry, festering detritus that they may have schlepped with them just in case you are stingy with the candy. The high-pitched, out-of-tune cacophony of that immortal chant:

Trick or treat!
Smell my feet!
Give me something good to eat!

With the exuberance that only children have and all pretense of good manners and tunefulness thrown merrily to the brisk fall winds, is there any sweeter music known?

If you are a lover of both horror and unfettered imagination there is no more sacred day in the entire calendar; when enjoyed properly Halloween can be more fun than Christmas, Thanksgiving dinner, your birthday and your most fondly remembered sexual encounter all rolled into one, and brothers and sisters, that ain't nothin' to sneeze at!

Sure, many of us don crazy getups and lose ourselves in our chosen character on that most bitchin' night of nights, but we were all indoctrinated into the Halloween spirit by parents and loved ones who were all about fostering a love of fantasy and make believe in which even little ones who were often overlooked or relegated to the dreaded “kid's table” at grownup social gatherings could participate. For the young and young at heart, Halloween is an “everybody's welcome” mass equalizer that not only allows the individual to be someone or something other than himself or herself for a short, blessed time, but also guarantees that you will see some outrageous costumes and activities.

Most of us got into the Pumpkin Time groove at an early age, forced to represent in those horrible POS Ben Cooper one-piece costumes that came equipped with vision-obstructing plastic masks which had sharp edges that scratched us around the eyes and the character's name needlessly emblazoned across a good portion of the outfit's front (well maybe not so needless since it saved adults from asking “And what are you then?”), and if enduring that exquisite commercially packaged child abuse and looking like total pint-sized assembly line douchebags didn't kill our Halloween spirit then nothing, and I do mean NUH-THING, could.

My earliest memory of soldiering in the name candy and costume (candy that I invariably gave to my mother since I have never had much of sweet tooth) is from 1969, when I was handed one of those large-to-a-preschooler boxes which contained a costume of Hanna-Barbera's super-hero, Birdman. For those not in the know, Birdman was pretty much a bland Hawkman knockoff that was such a lightweight you could theoretically rob him of his solar-derived powers by chucking him into a closet and handing him a most righteous ass-kicking; since he was a pretty pathetic washout in the super-hero department, Birdman is currently seen to much better effect on the Cartoon Network's Harvey Birdman, Lawyer as a defense attorney for errant cartoon superstars of yore. Yet none of his mediocre adventures mattered a whit to my four-year-old sensibilities since that night I would put on a costume that amounted to little more than glorified cellophane and be a super-hero. I knew I couldn't fly over the neighborhood on great wings, shoot rays from my clenched little fists or receive top secret communiqu├ęs on a wall-mounted TV screen from a mustachioed John Tesh look-alike with an eye patch, but for a marvelous, brief stretch of an hour our two I could sure as hell feel like anything could happen and I would be full of enough super-heroic piss and vinegar to take on all comers.

The following year I got to be Batman, my second favorite hero after the Sub-Mariner (who I knew from the fondly-remembered yet horribly-animated “Marvel Super-Heroes” show that ran in syndication). I pushed for the green light on going out as Namor, but that idea got shot down due to the fact that my comics-friendly parents (who grew up on the classics from the Golden Age) were not going to even attempt concocting plausible pointed ears and ankle wings, and the simple fact that it isn't a good idea to be running around at night an naught but a pair of green swim trunks, so rather than becoming prime pedophile bait I instead opted for the Caped Crusader.

The Adam West Batman series had ended a year or so before my debut in Bob Kane-inspired Ben Cooper finery, but I was rabid for it thanks to the miracle of daily afternoon reruns and I was just itchin' to burst forth from the old homestead and hit the Gotham City that would spring to life from my fevered imagination. I nearly burst from excitement as I checked myself out in the mirror and thrilled to Neal Hefti's unforgettable theme music as it resonated in my head; I may have been five but I looked cool enough to kick King Tut square in his skirt and hopefully get a kiss from that strange Catwoman who made me feel funny, but funny in a good way that I hadn't figured out yet.

My reverie was interrupted when my dad came in and asked if he could make one last adjustment to the cheap plastic mask that came with the costume. I handed it to him and wondered what else needed to be done; here was a dead-on likeness of the hero I saw every day, and I was perfectly happy with it as it was. I didn't see how anything could possibly be done to make me look any more like Batman, well at least as much as a five-year-old with an Afro can look like Adam West by any stretch of the imagination.

My dad left the room for a few moments and I heard the unmistakable sound of something being sprayed from an aerosol can. The telltale smell of paint soon wafted into the room when my dad returned, and he beamed as he handed me the mask. I was horrified to see that my father, in a well-intentioned act of black pride, had spray-painted the flesh-tone portion of Batman's face a light brown to match my own shade.

I was outraged to the core of my being! Sure, I knew I was black, but I also knew that Batman wasn't black, and the addition of canned melanin offended my sense of authenticity, to say nothing of the fact that I just knew If I went out with that altered mask I'd hear heckles such as “It's the Colored Crusader!” or (think of the theme tune) “Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah - Black Man!” After much back and forth arguing I finally saw my father's point of view and agreed that blackness would not in any way hamper me representing the spirit of Batman. My mother now recalls the whole incident as perhaps the stupidest argument she ever witnessed, and nowadays I'm inclined to agree.

Fast forward to the fall of 1974, and my total immersion into 1940's Captain Marvel reprints that DC Comics was kind enough to dole out in regular 100-page doses. I first met the Captain in Jules Feiffer's indispensable The Great Comic Book Heroes (Bonanza Books, 1965 - now available from Fantagraphics), and when DC started reprinting his adventures in earnest I was at the perfect age to get hooked on them. While my love for the Captain and his equally fun cohorts grew, CBS television debuted a live action Saturday morning Captain Marvel show called “Shazam!” that many remember with great fondness, but not me. I hated it from day one and gave up on it quickly since it looked like it was made for less money than I earned on a good day from my paper route, had scripts that would have shamed my developmentally-challenged cousin Jimmy, featured an Afroed and apparently Hispanic Billy Batson wandering around the country in a Winnebago with some old fart in a bad leisure suit, had nauseating morals at the end of each low-rent installment, and worst of all, a Captain Marvel who looked like some disco jerkoff with a bad perm and flying effects to match. In short, when Halloween rolled around I felt compelled to stand up for the besmirched honor of the Captain and his family (hell, even for Hoppy the friggin' Marvel Bunny!) by traipsing around the suburban wilderness in his signature gear, complete with the fetching cape and canary-yellow buccaneer boots. The problem was that there was no such costume commercially available outside of establishments such as “Bruce's Flamboyance and Codpiece Emporium,” and no Ben Cooper costume ever came with matching footwear, a consideration that sinks the whole Captain Marvel ensemble.

The problem of unavailability was solved when I realized that my mom was a talented seamstress who didn't take her often-spectacular creations seriously at all; the lady actually put together a life-sized stuffed panda bear that she made from scratch which also doubled as an extremely comfortable beanbag chair. Realizing the likelihood that she could get away with crafting a homemade Captain Marvel outfit, I approached her with the idea and when she said yes I handed her a stack of comics for reference. Working without any sort of pattern, she created a very faithful costume that included not only a cape that was accurate down to the last detail, but also a pair of hand-made vinyl buccaneer boots. The outfit completely kicked ass, made all of the assembly line Ben Cooper costumes of that year look like the pitiful Hershey squirts that they indeed were, and was infused with a super-hero-friendly mother's love. No matter that I looked more like Fat Marvel than the Big Red Cheese himself, I felt great on that Halloween night and consider that evening to be the highlight of my childhood trick-or-treating experiences.

Then came the sad year when I realized I was too old to campaign with the rest of the costumed kids, but I was determined not to go out without a fight. My last stand would be a legend among Connecticut trick-or-treaters if I had my way about it and unfortunately it did, but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of opting for another tried and true super-hero getup I decided to go for something more contemporary and cutting edge, so what did I do? I dressed up as that stalwart goon from the scourge of the late-1970's TV airwaves, “The Gong Show”… Yes, to my eternal shame, I ended my trick-or-treating career by ringing doorbells dressed as the Unknown Comic, bag-over-the-head and all. I was thirteen, so I should have known better.

I haven't decided what I'm going out as this year but I've got a pretty good idea... And it'll be a super-hero!

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