As we approach tax season, it’s somehow more comforting to concentrate on the other inevitablity, death. We’ll allow the PopCulteer brain to run wild with a bit of a ramble as we consider the end of all things. 2016 seemed like a banner year for notable deaths, and 2017 does not seem to have let up any. Just in the past few days we’ve seen the passing of Chuck Berry, Bernie Wrightson and Chuck Barris.
Chuck Berry (right) was, of course, the true father of Rock ‘N’ Roll. Without him there would have been no Beatles, Stones, Kinks or Who. Other people have eulogized him far more eloquently than I could, but we had to pause to hail, hail, Rock ‘N’ Roll one last time.
Bernie Wrightson (left) had not been well for some time. His passing was still a blow because he was such a beloved artist of horror comics and he was such a sweet person. His art, particularly on his classic Frankenstein and Wolfman prints, elevated comic art to fine art. He will rank with the greatest illustrators and painters in history.
Wrightson’s death was part of what made March such a cruel month for comic book fans, as we lost underground comix legends Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, life-long friends who founded the Chicago wing of the underground comix movement, within ten days of each other earlier in the month.
Chuck Barris influenced many as the host of The Gong Show, which gave early network exposure to folks like David Letterman, L.A. Improv group, The Groundlings (Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Ruebens, Phil Hartman, Edie McClurg among others), The Kipper Kids and The Mystic Knights of The Oingo Boingo (including Danny Elfman).
He was a legendary producer of game shows and wrote the hit single, “Palisades Park” for Freddy Cannon.
We also lost writer Jimmy Breslin over the weekend, and legendary B-movie producer, Jack H. Harris (The Blob) a week or two earlier.
For some time now, It seems like we’ve had an onslaught of deaths of notable people, and it’s not really ever going to let up.
Except for Wrightson, who was 68, all of the people I mentioned were past 72 years old. I don’t point this out in an attempt to diminish their deaths. It’s simply a sad fact that people are living longer now, and conversely, dying later in life. Many of our heroes have lived long and wonderful lives, but those lives will come to an end, and we are now reaping the bounty of the explosion of celebrity caused by the advent of television in the middle of the previous century combined with the extended longevity that coincided with it.
Chuck Berry was 90 years old. He was already older than most of his peers among the pioneering class of Rock ‘N’ Roll stars. He wrung the most out of every year he spent on this Earth, and it’s not really a surprise that his body finally gave out. It’s sad, don’t get me wrong, but it shouldn’t have come as a shock.
Likewise, Wrightson had been bravely battling brain cancer for at least the last three years. His fans have been preparing for bad news since January, when it was announced that he would not be drawing or attending conventions any longer. Wrightson was an absolutely stunning artist, as seen below.
This is going to keep happening. We are lucky to still have many celebrities, musicians and artists who are still active and creating well past what many people consider to be retirement age. I considered listing a few here, but I would hate to make it look like I’m writing a dead pool.
As time progresses, we will see more older celebrities dying of natural causes. It’s only natural.
That does not make it any less sad. I have seen too many trolls on social media admonish people for being upset when a celebrity passes away. There is nothing wrong with mourning the loss of a hero. Even if you never had the chance to meet them, or only knew them as a consumer of their creativity, if you have a personal connection to someone and they die, the human thing to do is to mourn your loss.
I was lucky enough to have Jay Lynch (right) illustrate an article of mine for Non Sport Update a few years ago. I briefly met Bernie Wrightson at a convention in the 1980s, and traded a few Facebook messages with him and his wife. I never had the chance to meet or interact with Skip Williamson, who was much more of an influence on my cartooning work than Jay or Bernie. I never met Chuck Berry, or Breslin, or Harris. I did enjoy their work, and am saddened at their passing.
As all humans do, we internalize these things. When our heroes die, it reminds us that we will too, someday. It makes us feel older and more aware of our mortality. This also plays out in terms of cultural touchstones. Lynch and Williamson were two giants in undergound comix. We are still lucky enough to have many of their fellow pioneers left, like Robert Crumb, Dennis Kitchen, and Kim Deitch.
Chuck Berry, on the other hand, was one of the last of the first wave of rock n’ rollers. Only Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Little Richard remain from the beginning days of rock music. Jimmy Breslin was also one of the last of a dying breed, as was Jack H. Harris.
We are entering an era where the most vital exemplars of pop culture will be history…literally. I’ve already noticed a tendency among younger internet writers to misinterpret, misunderstand and simply screw up details of pop culture phenomena that I witnessed first hand. One place where this has become problematic has been the website, Comic Book Resources, which last year decided to dumb-down their content in order to attract more readers. They’ve added click-bait articles that tout “Fifteen Things You Didn’t Know About…” different topics.
Usually, of those “Fifteen Things,” four or six are wrong, and the rest are common knowledge to anyone over the age of thirty. It’s become a bit of a generational thing, where older pop culture reporters (including yours truly) are ridiculed for daring to fact-check.
What’s scary is, if this is happening with Pop Culture reporting, which is just about the most trivial thing on the planet, what happens when it spreads to really important stuff, like history, politics and science.
What will the state of the planet be when textbooks are written on a level with the essays of middle-school students who didn’t do their homework? Maybe that’s why so many people are checking out now.
That’s this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for all our regular features, plus more video and maybe even some photos from ToyLanta.