Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

All Things Must Pass

The PopCulteer
January 28, 2011

This week in The PopCulteer, we mark the ends of three eras. Passage is a part of life, and a trio of notable, or notorious, cultural touchstones have come to an end.

So join us as we bid farewell to “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” “Wizard” Magazine and The Comics Code Authority.

Countdown Blasts Off

Last Friday, with no advance notice, Keith Olbermann, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, shocked audiences with a tease going into commercial ten minutes before the end of his program: “When we come back, I’ll explain why this is the last edition of Countdown.”

Olbermann abruptly left MSNBC. His final segment (seen below) didn’t really explain anything. Olbermann graciously said farewell to his audience, but didn’t offer any reasons why he was leaving.

Reaction was immediate and predictable. His fans assumed that this had something to do with Comcast–a company co-run by one of the fund raising chairs for George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election. Comcast has been in the process of acquiring NBC, and just last week, got the final approval for the deal from the FCC.

My gut reaction was that they had silenced the leading voice of dissension against a corporate-controlled media. That turned out not to be the case.

The right-wing media pounced and could hardly contain their joy. While still spreading the lie that Olbermann didn’t have much of an audience anyway (when repeats of Countdown were added up, he had over two million viewers each night, according to Nielsen) they gloated about how this “unreasonable lefty” had been shut down.

Nobody really knows what happened yet–there are surely non-disclosure clauses in effect–but it’s pretty clear that Comcast didn’t pull the trigger. With Olbermann gone, the very, very, very profitable MSNBC prime-time lineup is left in shambles. To replace Olbermann at 8 PM, they’ve moved the insufferable and unwatchable Lawrence O’Donnell into that spot. Rachel Maddow is still holding steady at 9 PM, but with the excruciatingly boring O’Donnell as her lead-in, her ratings are bound to suffer.

At 10 PM, MSNBC has moved in Ed Schultz, who despite having admirable personal views, is a self-important blowhard. He’s as big and obnoxious an ass as Rush Limbaugh. In some ways he’s worse. It’s easy to identify Limbaugh’s nonsense as a cartoonish act because hardly anything he says is rooted in fact or adheres to any kind of logic. Schultz says things that are true, but he does it in such a buffoonish manner that you don’t want to believe him.

So Comcast is in the clear. Despite constant misinformation being spread by far-right news sites and bloggers, MSNBC is quite profitable, and Keith Olbermann is a big reason why. His show had fewer viewers overall than his rival, Bill O’Reilly on FOX News, but advertising time on Olbermann’s show brought in way more money due to FOX losing so many advertisers over customer boycotts. Comcast is not happy to see their top star walk out right when they’re taking over the NBC/Universal channels.

Olbermann made himself the "Worst Person in the World" one night, while correcting an on-air mistake--FOX News never makes on-air corrections.

The reports are that Olbermann requested to be let out of his contract early. It may come out that he’s just tired of doing the show after eight years, the last three of which saw the deaths of both of his parents. As a regular viewer, it did seem to me like he wasn’t having as much fun doing the show.

There are also reports that he was less than pleasant to work with. It could also be fallout from the flap last fall, when Olbermann was suspended for two days for making campaign contributions against NBC policy (one of those was to recently-wounded Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords). We just don’t know yet.

What we do know is that Olbermann is gone. Even for those of us who would only tune in for the “Oddball” segment, where he showcased goofy video from the web, and “Worst Person In The World,” an over-the-top haranguing of awful behavior by people in the public eye, this is sad.

One of the rare voices of the left on cable news is silenced. Olbermann could come across as smug at times, and he had a tendency toward pomposity and verbosity, but he also possessed a gravitas that few cable personalities have. No mature adult can watch Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck and take them seriously. Olbermann, at his best, was reminiscent of Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow. When he spoke authoritatively on a subject, nobody could doubt that he knew what he was talking about. Despite smears from the right-wing nutcases, he was a trusted broadcaster, and was part of the reason that NBC News is trusted by more people than any other commercial news organization.

And unlike O’Reilly, Beck and the gang at FOX News, he strived for accuracy, and had the truth on his side.

So it’s a shame to see him go. Hopefully he’ll return as soon as his non-compete clause expires. Rumor has it that he’s got an offer to go to the Oprah Winfrey Network. He might be happier going back to sports radio with his pal, Dan Patrick.

Whatever happens, Keith, thanks for eight years of quality television. You pissed off all the right people.

A Wizard, A True Mess

This week Wizard Magazine tried to cover up the fact that their publishing arm has gone out of business by announcing that they’re going to re-launch as a “digital platform.” Gareb Shamus, the man behind Wizard, is supposed to be the head of a new publicly-traded entity, Wizard World, that will run the Wizard comic book conventions, and run a website called “Wizard World,” which reportedly will run stories by unpaid staffers. Wizard Magazine and ToyFare, along with all over Wizard print publications, are no longer going to be published.

Let’s be clear, in its nearly twenty-year history, Wizard Magazine had a huge influence on the comic book hobby.

Wizard nearly ruined it.

With its focus on speculation and “hot” artists, Wizard pretty much destroyed the taste of an entire generation of hobbyists. They elevated mediocre artists like Rob Liefield to superstar status by endlessly pimping his horrible artwork. They fed the demand for despicable crazes like multiple covers, poly-bagged comics and “rare” variants. Shamus also brought a new standard of low personal ethics to the hobby that had already been burned in the 1980s by opportunists who rode the speculator craze to a huge bust back in the Reagan years.

Wizard’s sexist pandering and constant feeding of the worst, greedy, elements of the hobby set the art form of comics back decades. They made the hobby safe for dumb jocks who outgrew their baseball cards.  They also caused thousands of poor suckers to “invest” in “hot” comics that soon became worthless when the supply far outstripped the demand.

Featured articles and cover spots could be “bought” in what was a thinly-veiled payola scheme. Publishers would pay to print special “# 1/2 issue” editions of comics which could only be obtained through Wizard. If you gave them an “exclusive” then your company got featured in the magazine.

Shamus even extended this practice to ToyFare Magazine (also axed this week) and to Toy Wishes Magazine, the latter of which garnered mainstream press and an NBC television special for pushing a bogus “top ten toys” list which consisted entirely of toys provided by companies who paid to be included in the list.

You may notice that I’m not exactly heartbroken over the loss of Wizard Magazine and ToyFare.

When Wizard gave their employees the day off, a week ago today, it was odd. Then they called all of them, save for a few editors who will work on the website, and told them not to come in. They were laid off. Don’t bother coming to the office to pick up your stuff, it’s already been moved to an undisclosed location. It’s still not clear if they’ll get their final paychecks.

This was not really a shock for a company that had been in disarray for a long time. Years ago, after Wizard published a compilation trade paperback of stories owned by Marvel Comics without their permission or knowledge, they responded to threats of a lawsuit by barely mentioning Marvel again in their pages. This is the largest comic-book publisher in the country, and Wizard basically pretended that they didn’t exist. By that point Wizard had long ago lost their influence in the hobby, and Marvel didn’t bother to pursue the matter because they knew Wizard wouldn’t have enough money to pay any settlement the courts might award to Marvel.

Wizard had ceased to matter as a force within the industry.  Once king-makers, they had now become an irrelevant waste of time.

Wizard Magazine’s sales had been in the toilet,too. During their heyday of the early 1990s, they often outsold almost every comic book on the market, regularly topping 100,000 copies sold. Lately, sales had reportedly dropped to less than a fifth of that.

There were some good things that came out of Wizard. “Twisted MEGO Theater” evolved into “Robot Chicken.” Some good comics, like “Astro City,” were exposed to mainstream America. A lot of kids were introduced to the hobby, even if it was through really crappy comics with bad writing and horrible art.  But on the whole, Wizard was a pretty sleazy operation that did more harm than good.

It will not be missed. At least not by me.

Code Blue

Speaking of parts of the comic book hobby that will not be missed, The Comics Code Authority is no more. Once the “seal of approval” which applied arbitrary standards of decency to comic books in the aftermath of The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954,over the years the seal had become less and less relevant.

It got to the point that, when DC Comics announced that they were pulling out of the code two weeks ago, and Archie Comics followed suit a week later, there was no one left to turn out the lights.

The only shocking thing about the Code becoming defunct was the fact that it was even still around. God knows they hadn’t actively censored anything in decades.

It wasn’t always like that. The Comics Code was created to make sure that nobody published comic books with “inappropriate” sex or gore in them, where little kids would be unduly influenced to become layabouts and ne’er-do-wells.

Yeah, it was BS and censorship, but this was the 1950s, when hypocritical perversions of the first amendment were accepted in society. The Comics Code Authority ruled mainstream comics with an iron fist.

If a comic book didn’t have the Comics Code Authority seal of approval, theoretically it wouldn’t be sold on newsstands (this was long before we had comic book stores).

It wasn’t universal. Dell Publishing, home of Disney comics as well as a ton of Western titles, never joined, and didn’t see any adverse affect on sales. If a publisher was daring enough to want to circumvent the code, they could either go magazine-sized, like Creepy, Eerie and Weird Worlds, or go “underground” like the hippie cartoonists did in the late 1960s.

Spider-man #96 goes out without the CCA seal. The world continued to spin.

But the code did keep it’s boot-heel on the throat of most mainstream comic book publishers like DC and Marvel.

Until the code was revised in the early 1970s there could be no Vampires, Zombies, drug use, per-marital sex, post-marital sex, violent death or dismemberment, or any other really fun stuff.

In the early 70s, Marvel defied the Code and published an anti-drug issue of Spider-man without the seal of approval. There were no repurcussions.  DC and Marvel then pushed for changes that ushered in a new era of “relevant” story-telling.

One thing was clear. The less power the Comics Code asserted, the better the comics got. In the 1980s, the Code Authority tried to regain their power, but quickly found themselves thwarted as DC and Marvel moved to the direct-sales market, which bypassed newsstands in favor of comic book shops, and the Code essentially became meaningless.

Kevin O'Neill's work on "Green Lantern Corps." The only artist whose style was condemned by the CCA.

The last moronic act of censorship that the Comics Code Authority undertook was rejecting a Green Lantern Corps story drawn by Kevin O’Neill (Nemesis, Marshall Law, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen) on the basis that his style of art was patently offensive and could traumatize youngg children.

DC went ahead and published the story without the seal, and not only suffered no backlash, but the story itself has become the stuff of legend, with the hugely-successful “Blackest Night” crossover event springing from events depicted in this tale.

After that, nobody bothered to look for the Comics Code seal anyway. Marvel stopped printing it on their direct sales books long before they bailed out of the CCA -completely in 2001.

Nobody really cared about the Code since the 1980s. It’s not like kids even read comic books anymore anyway.

And so we bid farewell to the long-unnecessary CCA stamp of approval. Now that the average age of the loyal comic book reader is over 35, perhaps the next logical step is a seal of approval from AARP.

1 Comment

  1. Elvis Capone

    Re:
    mediocre artists like Rob Liefield–

    You flatter Liefeld by describing his comics as”mediocre”.
    Liefeld illustrations are swirling horrors of grotesque incompetence.
    Thus, he is a millionaire.

    The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings

    Rob Liefeld’s 40 worst drawings? You missed a few…

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