A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Tag: Arizona

Comic-Shop Memories: AAA Best Comics, 1988-1989, Phoenix, Ariz., Part 1

Completing my freshman year at University of Arizona, I returned to Scottsdale for the summer. I think I took a short visit back to Edmonton, and then returned to Scottsdale and secured a summer job in the engineering department at the Hilton Scottsdale Resort & Villas, located at 6333 N. Scottsdale Road. I remember getting my first check and heading to the comics shops, the closest of which that I knew to be a good one was AAA Best Comics, located at 9204 N. Seventh St. in Phoenix.

This was the shop to which Fog Hollow transferred its subscription accounts when it closed the year before. I don’t remember much about my single visit to the store the year before, but I do remember pulling up to AAA Best on a sunny morning in June 1988 and walking in to find an older woman sitting by the door and announcing to her son, the owner, that he had a customer. The man was Ken Strack, and he was a terrific comic shop owner who earned a lot of my business for the next five or six years.

Excalibur #1 (Oct. 1988). Art by Alan Davis and Paul Neary.

On that day, Ken was busy sorting and the new issues were just laid out on a table in near the front entrance. The store occupied a long and narrow space at the end of a strip mall structure. I distinctly recall Excalibur #1 was just out and I scooped it up ASAP to flip through the lovely artwork by Alan Davis and Paul Neary. The other book I recall grabbing, either on that visit or one shortly thereafter, was Marvel Comics Presents #1, with that cool Walt Simonson wrap-around cover.

Marvel Comics Presents #1 (Early Sept. 1988). Cover art by Walt Simonson (and friends).

This also was the summer when Marvel experimented with twice-monthly publication of its top titles, which included X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. The latter was, of course, drawn by Todd McFarlane and was taking off like a rocket.

I still visited other stores, most notably All About Books & Comics, during this time. But AAA Best was my favorite. Ken was quick to spark a discussion and recommend new books based on what he knew you liked. I looked forward to visiting the shop as much to talk with him about comics as to buy my weekly stash. I once was checking out with a large stack and as he rang them up, I said it should keep me busy for a week or so. His reply was something along the lines of “No way! You gotta grab a bowl of cereal and stay up all night reading them!”

I kept my subscriptions with AAA Best even when I went back to school in Tucson that fall for my sophomore year. I had a new place to live in a different part of town, but I also had a car and a girlfriend I met in traffic school that summer. She was starting as a freshman at U of A, but I was so insecure about my comics habit that I didn’t tell her about it until we’d been dating a few months already. I need not have worried. She thought it was kind of cool and even read some of the books — she liked McFarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man — when I’d acquire a new stack of stuff.

I had braces at this time, and at least once a month would come up to Scottsdale to have the orthodontist adjust them. He had office hours on Saturday morning, so after my appointment, I’d head over to AAA Best. One day in January 1989, Ken was on the phone when I walked into the store. He was having an animated conversation with someone about flying in for an event, weekend accommodations, etc. At the end, he pulled out a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man, #315, which was the most-recent issue at the time, to look up the circulation figures in the statement of ownership in the back, and said he’d be happy to pop a few copies in the mail. That was when I realized he was talking to the one and only Todd McFarlane. When Ken hung up, he looked at me and said, “You are sworn to secrecy!” He then told me that McFarlane was coming for a store signing that spring and that subscribers like myself would get a special poster signed by Todd, whether they could make the event or not. This was quite exciting news, to be sure, but it was easy to keep to myself since I knew almost no one who would have known who McFarlane was.

The front page of the Life & Leisure section from The Arizona Republic newspaper on March 23, 1989, featured this interview with Todd McFarlane.
He says at the end that he ultimately wants to do a gag strip like Garfield.

The signing itself was March 25, 1989 — a Saturday. There was an article with and interview with McFarlane on the front of the Life & Leisure section of The Arizona Republic newspaper on March 23, 1989, promoting the signing and, when I arrived fairly early on there was already a long line of folks ready to meet Todd. It took a long time, and I’m glad this was March instead of July. Todd at one point agreed to take a short break to review the portfolios of artists looking for feedback. But eventually, I got to the front of the line. Todd was sitting at a table in the back of the shop, with a stack of original Spider-Man art that was for sale, as well as copies of most of his books for sale at then-relevant prices. I regret not buying any of that art, but at the time $75 or $100 a page was out of my price range. I remember the guy in front of me bought a copy of The Incredible Hulk #340 for $10, and Todd teased him by saying he could buy 10 Spider-Mans instead for the same price.

My signed copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #300 (May 1988), which I’ve kept in a mylar sleeve for more than three decades now. It is not now, nor will it ever be, for sale.

I got my copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #300 signed — I’d never been to a signing before and hadn’t thought to bring more than the one comic for him to sign! He also signed the poster the store had printed up. That poster now hangs, framed, quite visibly near the dining table in my house.

My signed poster from Todd McFarlane’s 1989 appearance at AAA Best Comics. I have number 52 out of 2000 because my subscription box number at the shop was 52.

That summer, I worked again in Phoenix at American Express — this time tracking down, repairing and cleaning credit-card authorization. Not very exciting — and sometimes quite disgusting — but it did put me in position to visit All About Books & Comics and then swing by AAA Best on the way home. I remember buying a copy of Marvel Graphic Novel #5: X-Men — God Loves, Man Kills that summer at AAA Best, and being completely blown away by it.

And for those who don’t remember or weren’t there yet, 1989 was a huge summer for movies, starting with the release in May of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and followed by Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, License to Kill, Ghostbusters II and, of course, Tim Burton’s Batman. The rest of the summer was pretty good too, with Lethal Weapon 2 and James Cameron’s The Abyss. It was all very exciting at the time, even though most of those movies haven’t held up especially well. (One thing to remember is there was a writer’s strike in Hollywood in 1988 that limited rewrites on a lot of those movies, including most notably Batman and Star Trek V. The TV networks were so starved for cash, they started re-shooting old Mission: Impossible scripts as a new series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation used a few scripts that were originally written 10 years prior for the never-made Star Trek: Phase II series that eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

The runaway success of Batman showed a comic-book property could result in a good movie and make a ton money at both the box office as well as with sales of T-shirts, toys, books and comics. The teaser trailer Warner Bros. released in early 1989 got everyone very excited and Batman comics started selling in big numbers, picking up lots of new readers. New comics at the time were still only 75 cents or $1, so they were cheap enough for kids excited by the movie to buy and read.

The movie came out at a good time for DC Comics, which had been doing right by Batman for a few years with things like The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Batman: Year Two, Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast and Batman: A Death in the Family. DC’s investment in quality was really paying off for them.

Leading into the movie was DC’s celebration of Batman’s 50th anniversary with a really terrific story in Detective Comics #598-600 that was written by the new movie’s scripter, Sam Hamm, and drawn by Denys Cowan and Dick Giordano. (That writer’s strike idled Hamm, who I recall reading was quite pleased he was being paid to write comics when there were no movie or TV work to be had.) Issues #598 and 600 were 80-page giants, featuring lots of tributes in the back to Batman from top artists and writers in comics and beyond. I remember how impressive it was that the likes of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, along with the unexpected tribute from Stan Lee, had classed up those books.

There also was a booming business in selling trade paperbacks of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. And Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke was also in the mix, proving endlessly popular that summer with a spot-on $3.50 cover price because it was the closest of any of them to the movie’s plot.

And the public interest was extremely intense. Demand was so high for Batman T-shirts that there was a worldwide shortage of black cotton. (I read this in Variety years later in an article interviewing the then-head of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, but I don’t have the specific citation.) Every newspaper, TV station and radio outlet was doing something Batman related, from interviewing fans to “morning zoo” DJs joking about what kind of sound-effect would appear on screen when Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale got intimate.

I was late to the game on Batman comics, but Ken set me up with trade paperbacks and enough recent issues of Detective Comics and Batman to keep me happy. This was my first regular pathway into DC Comics, which were really strong in those first few years after the reset of Crisis on Infinite Earths. I discovered the Justice League comics by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, and loved that affectionate and funny take on superheroes. I tried stuff like Emerald Dawn, which relaunched Green Lantern, but it didn’t take with me.

Marvel was, of course, still going strong with all the Spider-Man, X-Men, The Punisher, Silver Surfer and Avengers titles. I also really dug Marvel Comics Presents, an anthology that exposed me to a lot of characters I hadn’t read before, including Black Panther in an excellent 25-part serial by Don McGregor and Gene Colan.

When I went back to Tucson that August for school, I again had a new place to live, in a new part of town. I also had broken up with my girlfriend and was now intent on majoring in journalism. I don’t know why I stopped getting my new comics from AAA Best, but it was a temporary situation, to be sure.

More to come …

Comic-Shop Memories: David’s Used Books And Comics, aka Comics Corner, 1987-1988, Tucson, Ariz.

Picking up from where I left off: I left home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson shortly after my 18th birthday, in late August of 1987. My birthday gifts that year included a box of Tide powder, to do my own laundry with; and a dish-drying rack. All profoundly sensible items I needed and used.

I did not live in the dorms at U of A because doing so was so popular at the time that you had to apply a year in advance to get a spot. A year before, I still was in Edmonton, so my application was far too late to get me in. Instead, my Dad took me down to the Tucson sometime that summer and we found a two-bedroom apartment to rent and put out an ad for a roommate. I eventually got a response to the ad from a student coming to Tucson from New Jersey — also a freshman. We ate a lot of Domino’s Pizza those first months.

The apartment complex was quite nice. Our lower-level apartment had plenty of space and came furnished. There was a pool and hot tub in the complex, along with coin-operated laundry machines and grills for cooking. There were plenty of students living in the complex. A few fun girls, too. It’s still there, now called the Arcadia Park Apartments. There was an ABCO grocery nearby and bus lines we could pick up along East Fifth Street that took us directly to campus for classes. Neither me nor my roommate had a car.

I brought along my comics, and stuck them in my bedroom closet. I had maybe two and a half long boxes at this point. What I wasn’t sure of was where I could get comics in Tucson. Turns out, the answer was easier than I thought.

A quick look at the phone book revealed a comic shop within walking distance — not far from where I caught the bus to campus. It was called David’s Used Books And Comics most of the time; other times it was The Comic Corner. I don’t remember what the sign out front said, but I do remember it being in a small mall-type building at 5031 E. Fifth St. that is still there today.

The shop was set up in the standard way: New comics on racks around the side, with bins full of back issues in the center. There was a section at the back that had magazines, British comics and fanzines. The walls featured the usual higher-value back-issue comics, with the counter area at the front with display cases for the most-valuable and rare comics. This was all on the left half of the store as you walked in; the right side featuring mostly used paperbacks of all sorts.

So this solved my comic book sourcing problem, and I quickly set up a free pull list for all the titles I was following at the time. Still pretty heavy on the Marvel and X-Men line, which was gearing up for The Fall of the Mutants crossover.

I have a very clear memory of awaiting Excalibur, and buying the bookshelf special edition in December 1987, on probably my last visit to the shop before my first semester wrapped up. (I did well with grades — 3.6 GPA that first semester, I think.)

Cover to Excalibur Special Edition, released in December 1987. Cover art by Alan Davis and Paul Neary.

I also remember looking forward to Marvel ramping up its annuals with the Evolutionary War storyline that spring. And the artwork of Marc Silvestri on X-Men and Walter Simonson on X-Factor was exciting and vital.

Cover to The Incredible Hulk #340 (Feb. 1988). Art by Todd McFarlane and Bob Wiacek.

I definitely remember buying everything related to Fall of the Mutants at David’s, including a copy of The Incredible Hulk #340, with the now-famous Todd McFarlane cover, for cover price. McFarlane’s art was starting to gain attention in Hulk, especially once he started inking his own pencils.

I was already subscribing to The Amazing Spider-Man when Todd started working on that title with issue #298, meaning I bought my copy for 20 percent off the cover price of 75 cents! And I distinctly remember the sense of excitement that came along with picking up The Amazing Spider-Man #300, which McFarlane penciled and inked, and features the first full appearance of Venom. It’s still a very popular book. I will get soon to the tale of how I got my copy signed by McFarlane the following year.

I also remember very vividly the debut that fall of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show aired on the Tucson Fox station in syndication on weekends, which meant episodes aired on Saturday afternoon and repeated the following Sunday morning. That made it an easy show to catch, and I remember the hubbub when the DC Comics adaptation arrived at David’s, with that great Bill Sienkiewicz cover, the same week the show premiered. I didn’t scoop it up that first day it was on sale, and had to wait a while to grab a copy.

Cover to Star Trek: The Next Generation #1 (Feb. 1988). Cover art by Bill Sienkiewicz.

It’s hard to explain now how much that show meant to fans back then, even as it was roundly and correctly criticized for not being especially good. And the only reason I can think of that sticks is that at the time there was almost no sci-fi of any kind on TV at that time.

Earlier in 1987, ABC had a minor hit airing the sci-fi series Max Headroom, which starred Matt Frewer as futuristic journalist Edison Carter and was based on the British talk-show character concept. (I’d like to think it had some kind of influence on Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan comic book, which came along about ten years later). It was really good — a minor classic, even — but short-lived.

There also had been a very interesting ABC series called Probe, which Isaac Asimov was involved in and featured former The Hardy Boys star Parker Stevenson as a scientific prodigy who drove his assistant, played by Michelle Castle, more than a little crazy in the mode of Holmes and Watson. It ran for eight episodes in 1988 and was canceled. One of its producers, Michael Piller, later went on to contribute many great episodes to Star Trek: The Next Generation and co-created Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager before cancer took him at far too young an age in 2005.

And there was Sable, based on Mike Grell’s excellent First Comics series, Jon Sable, Freelance. This one only lasted seven episodes in late 1987 and early 1988, but was almost a decent adaptation of the comic. I recall reading a few issues of the book back in the day and seeing a trade paperback as one of the first graphic novel collections to be found in regular bookstores at the time, alongside Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Saga of the Swamp Thing. I’ve since read the whole series and really enjoyed it. The show was a pale imitation, but it was at the time the only TV adaptation of a comic to air on a network since The Incredible Hulk.

Cover to the Warner Books edition of Jon Sable, Freelance. Art by Mike Grell. Collects Jon Sable, Freelance #1-6, originally published by First Comics.

I think with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the collective audience for that kind of material — today scattered across endless series and streaming services — was concentrated in this one show. The ratings for it were very good, and I remember hearing very soon after it began airing that a second season was already ordered. The rest, of course, is history.

I really enjoyed the show, myself. It didn’t really matter that it wasn’t as good as the original. It was new Star Trek, and I liked the characters despite the often-weak early scripts. I remember one rainy Saturday afternoon when I took a study break to grab some comics at David’s, a sandwich from the deli next door, and watch the newest episode of the show, in which Tasha Yar met her demise at the hands of a pile of oily goo. I also spent a lot of time reading news magazines and newspapers, and watching current-affairs shows like Nightline with Ted Koppel. That was part of what led me to study journalism. Good times.

Back to comics: There was a growing sense that something was happening in comics. As I mentioned, graphic-novel collections from Warner Books started showing up in bookstores, and almost every newspaper and magazine in the country ran at some point a story on comics like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Love & Rockets and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’d noticed for the first time fans buying multiple copies of new issues in the hopes their value would go up. And the entire hobby seemed to be rising. Debates in shops were lively, respectful and pretty fun to take part in.

When that first year ended, I packed up and went back to Scottsdale for the summer. I didn’t know then that David’s would be gone when I came back a few months later. It was a great spot and a lot of fun to visit. I don’t know if I would have continued buying comics without it being so close to my first home away from home.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fog Hollow Comics, Phoenix, Ariz., 1986-87

Old Town Scottsdale is the kind of place where tourists like to overpay for snakeskin cowboy boots, extra-hot salsa, cheap turquoise jewelry and elaborate Kachina dolls. On the plus side, you can just as easily find some really good tacos and cold Mexican beer.

My family moved Oct. 2, 1986, to Scottsdale, Arizona. We lived in a home in what was then the north edge of town, somewhere between Shea Boulevard and Cactus Road, just west of 92nd Street. My comics collection at the time fit in one long box.

Of course, the first thing I did was consult the phone book for a nearby comics shop, finding several listings but none nearby. The first one I found and the closest was Fog Hollow Comics, located at 3215 E. Thunderbird Road, almost nine miles away. (Thanks to the AZFandom.org folks for recalling its name!) It’s still today an 18 minute drive, without traffic, each way, from our old address. So it wasn’t convenient, but at least it was a place I could make it to once my perception of what’s too far away to drive to adjusted to Arizona standards.

At the time, there were no freeways in the area. Phoenix and Scottsdale were massively spread out areas with nary a two-story building in sight. It was, truly, a city built more for cars to live in than people. And being on the edge of Scottsdale made pretty much everything you wanted to do, aside from going to the grocery, a trip of 10 or more miles on surface streets with lights that never synched up except to ensure you hit every single one in red.

Not the actual car I owned, but a photo of the same model and color. It had the original floor mats, 4-speed manual transmission and ran on regular gas — back when you could still buy such a thing.

Nonetheless, with two younger sisters and two working parents, my drivers license made sure I was kept busy dropping off or picking up somebody around the entire north quarter of Phoenix in a yellow 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle. Thank god it had a tape player. It did not have AC. That deficit’s seriousness would not make itself fully known, however, until the following spring and summer. Either way, it was a lot of time spent in the car.

At the time, I was buying pretty much only Marvel comics. I knew exactly which ones were coming out each week, thanks to Marvel Age Magazine, and I had them on subscription at Fog Hollow — my first pull file. Money was tight, so I’d calculate the exact cover price minus the discount plus the sales tax to ensure I could pay for my comics before making that drive. More than once I paid for my weekly haul to the penny.

Fog Hollow was located in a strip mall suite and, unlike many comics shops, had large windows on two sides of the space and was therefore bright and open and inviting. There was the usual back-issue bin in the center, with new releases on racks around the edge. Under the back-issue bin, behind a small door, was where the subscriber books were kept.

I remember on my first visit finding at least two comics that eluded me in Edmonton and really shouldn’t have: X-Men #192 and Power Pack #27. The former I just never could find in any of the back issue bins at the shops I frequented despite being only a couple years old and all the issues around it being easy to find. Power Pack #27 was part of the Mutant Massacre storyline and had sold out instantly in Edmonton, but was still racked in the new comics when I rolled in to Fog Hollow. That made me happy, and I was a steady customer of the shop through the summer of 1987, when it closed.

I remember stopping in on Friday afternoons to pick up my books. (New comic-book days on Wednesday were not a thing at that time — at least not one I was aware of.) I’d take home the comics I was reading at the time — from memory, standard Marvel stuff, such as X-Men, The New Mutants, Alpha Flight, The Amazing Spider-Man, Classic X-Men, X-Factor, Marvel Saga, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, The ‘Nam, Strikeforce: Morituri, Power Pack, some New Universe titles and Cloak & Dagger — and would spend most of the evening after dinner reading, re-reading, admiring and thinking about the new books. I didn’t have anything else to do, really.

Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1 (Feb. 1987) is one of my all-time favorite comics. Cover art by Mark D. Bright.

Among the cool items I procured at this shop: A copy of X-Men #141 that I scored for a whopping 50 cents in the back-issue bin, and later took to the 1993 San Diego Comic-Con to be signed by both Chris Claremont and John Byrne; a second printing of The ‘Nam #1, as I was completely in love with this series and the great Michael Golden art; Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1, which was easily one of my most re-read books for the next year; and a copy of the first printing of the Wolverine TPB, collecting the original miniseries by Claremont and Miller, costing me a whopping $4.95, plus Arizona sales tax. (A quick note: I had a tough time adjusting at first to sales tax because there was none in Alberta. There, if it cost 99 cents and you gave them a dollar, you got back a penny. In Arizona, if it cost 99 cents, you had to hand over $1.07.)

Cover to the first printing of the Wolverine trade paperback, which collected the four-issue series by Chris Claremont, Frank Miller and Josef Rubinstein for the first time. Cost me all of $4.95!

Fog Hollow was run by a woman named Susan Putney, whom I later realized wrote a graphic novel for Marvel called Spider-Man: Hooky, that was drawn by no-less-a-great than Bernie Wrightson. When I eventually acquired a copy, I really enjoyed it. I also found a site that referenced a quote from former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who said he really liked Putney’s work and thought she could be good — but she kind of vanished after Hooky and Shooter himself was out at Marvel around the same time.

Cover to Spider-Man: Hooky, published in 1986. Art by Berni(e) Wrightson.

A little Googling reveals Putney also wrote a science-fiction novel called Against Arcturus that was published in 1972 as a a flip-book paperback with Time Thieves, by no-less-a-great than Dean R. Koontz.

From Google, the flip covers to Against Arcturus and Time Thieves, published in 1972.

I remember she would ring up my sub titles and give me a knowing “good reads,” especially the third week of the month when X-Men, The ‘Nam and Marvel Saga all arrived.

I also remember lusting after the copy of X-Men #94 displayed behind the counter. I recall her mentioning how she’d already sold one to a kid who paid the $100 or so the book cost in cash. You never know what a motivated kid can do.

There was an arcade-style video game in one corner, that played a music loop the staff had memorized and timed down to the second. And I remember one time the staff opening a box from the distributor that included fresh copies of First’s Lone Wolf & Cub reprints. I was not yet smart enough to pick those up, but the staff was sure excited.

Later that summer, I remember coming in to pick up my books one Friday afternoon and Susan was upset, said that the store was closing and subs’ orders had been transferred to another store, called AAA Best Comics, over on North Seventh Street — even farther away from home. It was sad, she was nearly in tears. I said thank you, I had really enjoyed shopping at the store and was sorry to hear it was closing. I didn’t know what else to say — I was only 17 years old.

I proceeded to get into my car, and trek on down to AAA Best Comics, which was a fixture in my life for the next eight years or so.

And I think I may track down a copy of Against Arcturus.

But before that, my next post will feature a detour to the longstanding champion of Phoenix comic-book shops, also sadly no more. Stay tuned.

U2, Martin Luther King Day and Arizona — A Defining Battle of the 1980s

U2 plays “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” on its most-recent tour.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, which always makes me think of my early days in Arizona in 1986-1987.

Just weeks after moving from the Great White North to the Grand Canyon State, a Mormon car salesman named Evan Mecham was elected governor. He was a Republican who had won the election with some 40 percent of the vote because a third-party candidate split the Democratic support between them. Mecham was a very conservative candidate, but also a political novice. One of his first acts was to cancel the Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday, citing improper political procedure used in creating it by the previous governor, Bruce Babbitt. He defended his action with words that did not serve anyone’s best interest, saying to supporters of a King holiday something along the lines of: You don’t need a holiday, you need to get a job. This immediately became a lightning rod in Arizona politics of the sort that seems so cute and quaint in the age of President Trump.

Welcome to Arizona, pal.

The result was predictable: Boycotts, and lots of them. Stevie Wonder said he wouldn’t play Arizona. Harlan Ellison, one of my favorite writers, said much the same. You could hear the echo of Little Steven Van Zandt’s anti-Apartheid anthem Sun City — you know the words! “I! I! I! I! I! I! Ain’t gonna play Sun Citaaayyyyyy” — took on a second meaning because one of Arizona’s most conservative towns was a sleepy, seniors-only, “I don’t want to pay taxes for other people’s kids’ schools” municipality called — you guessed it — Sun City. Plus, that record featured the original version of Silver and Gold, by Bono and Rolling Stones members Keith Richards and Ron Wood.

The MLK issue presented a potentially big problem for U2, which was preparing to release its now-classic album The Joshua Tree in March 1987. The album heavily evokes the Southwest desert as a place of, alternately, despair and escape. The supporting tour was set to open with multiple dates at Arizona State University in Tempe, and a few more down the road in Tucson.

Clearly, U2 had to do something to address the Arizona MLK situation. Since the release in 1984 of The Unforgettable Fire album, which included two King-praising tracks in the hit Pride (In The Name Of Love) and the elegaic album closer MLK, the band was heavily associated with Martin Luther King. There was no way they could play Arizona without addressing the controversy, but the band had found a lot of support for its music in Arizona and not playing for them was no solution.

Instead of backing down, U2 followed King’s example and stood up for what it believes in. The band donated $10,000 to the recall effort against Mecham and made a strongly worded statement that was released the day the tour was to start and read on the radio and by promoter Barry Fey to the audience at the ASU Activity Center just before the show. (You can see this statement being read on the documentary U2 – Outside, It’s America, which aired through 1987 on MTV and can be seen online and on the DVD included in the deluxe edition of the 20th anniversary edition of The Joshua Tree.)

The segment “Governor Mecham & MLK” begins at the 23:30 mark of “U2 – Outside, It’s America.”

As for Mecham, he had a penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth. He obliviously referred to African Americans as “pickaninnies’ and I think he was truly stunned to find that was not considered a term of affection. He also insisted the press was out to get him, and that laser beams were monitoring his brains. Garry Trudeau turned him into a two-week running gag in the Doonesbury comic strip. One of the local radio stations turned all this into a novelty song done to the tune of Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.

The video for “You Can Call Me Ev,” which features ASU alumnus turned talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel.

When U2 returned to Tempe for two nights in December 1987 to shoot a concert movie at ASU Sun Devil Stadium for the upcoming feature film Rattle and Hum, things got a little weird. This story I did not know until a few years back, when I was reading issue #281 of the U.K.-based music mag Mojo, which put the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree on the cover.

The cover of Mojo #281. The CD was not very interesting.

The feature inside begins thus:

“Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona, December 20, 2987. It is the final night of the Joshua Tree tour and, on-stage, in the hyper-alert minds of the four members of U2, the air is bristling with danger. The FBI are here, scanning the 55,000-strong crowd for a potential gunman who has issued a death threat against singer Bono, declaring that he will be shot tonight if he dares to sing the third verse of Pride (In The Name Of Love), which directly addresses the assassination of Martin Luther King, 19 years before.”

The story, written by Tom Doyle, recounts the story so far and then tells us what happened next:

“Seventeen songs in, U2 launch into Pride. In the third verse, Bono crouches at the front of the stage and closes his eyes to sing. ‘I looked up at the end of the verse and I clearly wasn’t dead,’ he laughs. ‘But not only that … Adam Clayton was standing in front of me.’

“Astonishingly, U2’s bassist had protectively stepped between Bono and the audience, ready to take a bullet or disuade the shooter. ‘It’s weird what goes through your head,’ says Clayton now. ‘Or maybe not even through your head. Maybe it’s just an instinctive thing of daring someone to carry out a threat like that.’

“The Edge, with the guitarist’s habitual gift for understatement, says, ‘I just thought, That’s a mate …'”

I love this story, but it’s not 100 percent accurate. There’s video of that night’s show on YouTube, and it doesn’t go down the way Doyle describes. Check it out below; the third verse starts at the 2:42 mark.

U2 – Pride (In The Name Of Love) – Live at Tempe, Ariz., Dec. 20, 1987.

I doubt everyone was making this up, which means they were likely talking about the previous night’s show, which happens to be the first U2 show I attended and the one that made me an instant fan of the group’s music. Now, I can’t find video of that night’s show (if you know of one and you’re reading this, let me know!), but I do have audio of it, which you can check out below.

U2 – Pride (In The Name Of Love) – Live at Tempe, Ariz., Dec. 19, 1987.

That night, Bono introduced Pride by saying: “There’s two words that aren’t allowed into this stadium; there’s six words that are. This is Pride (In The Name of Love).” Well after the third verse, Bono says at the 3:53 mark, “The two words: Ev Mecham.” Of course, he botched the pronunciation and said “Mee-chum” instead of “Mee-kam.” But whatever.

Ev Mecham was eventually impeached for violations of campaign finance laws and the Arizona Legislature removed him from office on April 4, 1988. Exactly 20 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. I was amazed no one at the time seemed to mention this.

The aftermath of Mecham’s removal lasted for years. Secretary of State Rose Mofford stepped in as governor and became the first woman to head Arizona’s state government. She had a rockin’ white beehive hairdo, to boot. Various propositions were floated, one changing the electoral system to prevent another gubernatorial candidate from being elected without a majority. That was put to test in the 1990 election, when the thin margin of write-ins and obscure third-party candidates left Republican J. Fife Symington III and Democrat Terry Goddard with just under 50 percent of the vote. That required a repeat of the election with only those two candidates on the ballot. (Side note: It was around this time that Symington’s son had a minor fender bender with me and my 1980 Toyota Celica one morning on the way to class at the University of Arizona. He paid for the damage to my car, but wasn’t nice about it.) Symington won, but was forced to resign in his second term after he was convicted of bank fraud and Arizona law forbade convicted felons from holding office.

The Martin Luther King holiday became a constant source of political idiocy. Arizona’s strong conservative bent meant many people objected to establishing a new holiday in which state employees got the day off with pay because it was a waste of government funds. So attempts were made to eliminate another holiday so MLK Day wouldn’t reward slacker government employees with an extra day off. But they picked Columbus Day for elimination, and the folks descended from Italians took offense. There were competing and especially confusing propositions on the ballot in nearly every election. The result was all the support for an MLK day was split up. I remember covering elections in November 1990 as a journalism student and going to bed rather late on election night with the various MLK propositions leading comfortably, only to wake up and find that the rural results kept any of them from passing. Strangely enough, it was the promise that the NFL would bring the Super Bowl to Phoenix — the city got its team in 1988, when the St. Louis Cardinals relocated to Sun Devil Stadium — that eventually made MLK day official starting in 1993. The Super Bowl was played in the Valley of the Sun in 1996. (I will someday blog about the horrors of seeing Billy Ray Cyrus “singing” the national anthem at a Cardinals’ preseason game and then climbing the rafters during a post-game “concert” in 100-plus degree heat for a marathon rendition of “Achy Breaky Heart.”)

As for Mecham, He continued to rattle around Arizona politics for a while. He was acquitted of criminal charges of campaign fund misappropriation. He tried and failed to create a conservative daily newspaper to counter what he saw as bias against him on behalf of The Arizona Republic. He made some efforts to run for office, including U.S. Senate, but he was a no-go. When he died in 2008 at the age of 83, the obits revealed a lot of facts that weren’t as well known during those pre-internet days when he was a big controversy, including his service in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. He earned the Purple Heart and the Air Medal.

I’ve rarely heard U2 talk about Mecham and MLK in the intervening years. I do remember Bono saying something like “We’ve been here before” during the Zoo TV Outdoor Broadcast concert at Sun Devil Stadium in October of 1992. But perhaps that’s for the best. They still play Pride, and it still rocks. I haven’t lived in Arizona since 1996, and it’s not as weird as it used to be. But it’s still weird, and I can’t imagine it ever being not weird.

Random Notes: TV Comics, Back Issues and a 1990s Flashback

Sons of Anarchy #1

* Lots of TV shows (of the prestigious variety!) have been making the jump into comics, with Boom! putting out a very cool Sons of Anarchy series and Marvel taking Dexter on a tangent with a series by the character’s creator Jeff Lindsay and a second coming soon. That’s in addition to The X-Files: Season 10 series that’s more like the sort of thing you expect to see in comics. Sons of Anarchy is a show I’ve only tangentially watched, but I enjoyed the comic quite a bit.

Dexter #5

Marvel’s Dexter series was quite good and a lot better than the last few seasons of the Showtime series. I read the first Dexter book a few years back after Showtime dropped a copy in the gift bag from a Dexter TV show party at Comic-Con and really enjoyed it. Turns out there’s a long-running series of books that take Lindsay’s original idea in a different direction. Lindsay is enjoying doing comics (at least he said so on his Reddit blog). It’s always interesting to see creators from other fields tackle comics, and I think comics could benefit from more novelists jumping into the fray to counter the overdone screenwriting influences and the decompressed storytelling it inspires.

As for The X-Files: Season 10, I still think writer Joe Harris is doing a good job and it’s cool that creator Chris Carter is pitching in, too. I don’t think this show will ever quite re-capture the same zeitgeist it did in the 1990s, but it is nice to revisit the characters and ideas in comic book form, which has a bit more kind to the series than the big-screen sequel of a few years back.
Grendel #1

* I visit my old stomping grounds in Arizona once or twice a year, and finally managed to make time for a visit to All About Books and Comics. I used to frequent the store during summers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and always enjoyed the depth of the back issue selection in particular. I’m happy to report that hasn’t changed a bit, and a good portion of the store was devoted to selling inexpensive packs of classic comics runs from the past 30 years or so. I snagged a batch of Captain Canuck originals and the first 10 issues of Comico’s Grendel series, as well a lengthy run of the original Power Pack run — all for a great price. I briefly chatted with owner Alan Giroux about the old days and how much we both like shops that stock lots and lots of back issues. I am grateful that Los Angeles has so many great comics shops, but one that stocks back issues like All About is at this point just another item on my want list.

Shade: The Changing Man  #1

* Also in Arizona, I found some boxes of old Star Trek and V paperbacks from the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with a few relics from the speculator age of comics: three sets of X-Force #1, three sets of X-Men #1 and polybagged black cover and green cover copies of Spider-Man #1. I also found a poster from Atomic Comics’ 1993 Mega-Jam, signed by a ton of creators, including the late Steve Gerber. I don’t remember where it came from, as I didn’t attend the event, but it’s totally extreme, dude. And just to show I don’t have completely horrible taste, this box also included most of Steve Ditko’s 1970s DC Comics series Shade: The Changing Man. That was some funky, weird, cool stuff.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

%d bloggers like this: