Flogging A Dead Horse

Thu, May 4th, 2006 at 6:30am PDT

Comic Books
Paul Jenkins, Staff Writer

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May, 2006: Things began to heat up with the Civil War: Frontlines project. As a result, some clever bastard at Marvel decided to line Joe Quesada and I up with a National Public Radio spot. Because nothing says “graphic novel excitement” like some ninety year-old dude who was a war correspondent during the Eisenhower years.

Hello, chums!

This week, we’re going to class up the joint a little bit and talk about the Arts and Literature. As some of you may know, I was interviewed this week on National Public Radio, and so I feel I am now qualified to say clever things at random intervals and look down my nose at people who displease me.

Well, lots of things displease me. One of those things is my ill-fated trip to meet Atlanta’s intelligentsia. We’re going to revisit that particular piece of business in a little spot I like to call…

National Public Nightmare

My Front Lines editor, Cory Sedlmeier, had contacted me on Monday this week to ask if I would be willing to do a spot on NPR. Now I should mention that Cory is totally the Public Radio type--he works with Axel Alonso, for a start, and Axel is a notorious wit, like Noel Coward. The two of them are always asking me if I saw such and such on the Independent Film Channel, or did I catch that mesmerizing piece about Nicaraguan economic sanctions on All Things Considered? It’s like their brains are permanently stuck on the dial somewhere around eighty-eight-point-something. There is very little room for clever people in the comics industry, in my opinion. They are just spoiling it for the rest of us.

When either Axel or Cory call me, I tend to play along like I understand the conversations we’re having, even though my exposure to theater is limited to Alistair Cookie Monster on Sesame Street’s Monsterpiece Theater. As long as I occasionally mention Pythagoras and keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works (Cliff Notes) handy I feel I can get by. I also keep a set of Trivial Pursuit cards handy so if they mention anything to do with literature, I can leaf through the cards and maybe come up with something relevant.

“Well, Paul… I’m thinking we could go with a kind of Paradise Lost motif for the final three pages.”

“Fifty Two! Joe DiMaggio!”

“Say again?”

“Oh, no, wait… orange is sports, right? I meant, John Milton!”

Cory had been told by the Marvel PR guys to ask me about the possibility of an interview. He was very excited that we were getting this kind of national exposure but he seemed nervous:

“Is there any way,” he asked, “that you would be able to go to the Public Broadcasting station in Atlanta and do the interview there?”

“No problem. When’s the interview?”

“Tomorrow. Now here’s the thing: what’s the likelihood you can get through it without swearing?”

I will admit, I hadn't thought of that. I happen to have an extensive command of coital vernacular and rude words always seem to slip out with Tourette’s Syndrome-like regularity at the most inappropriate of times. To wit:

  1. “Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?”

    “Fuck, yes! Are you crazy?”

  2. “Paul, allow me to introduce you to His Holiness, Pope Benedict—“

    “What’s up, Dick? Mind if I call you Dick? Still, some of those nuns you’ve got hanging around the palace are pretty sweet. Did you ever… you know..?”

  3. “Paaauuulll! PAAUUULLL! This is the voice of GOOODDDD—“

    “Damn, God! What is wrong with you? I was sleeping. You scared the piss out of me.”

Well, you get the point. I spend half of my time around Nigh Perfect’s mum, Pam, trying to avoid swearing, and the other half apologizing for doing exactly that.

Ah, well, I thought. What was the worst that could happen? They could always edit it out if I slipped.

The big day arrived. Armed with Shakespeare’s Complete Works and some of my wittier comics I headed down to exit 249 on Atlanta’s Route 85… even the exit number sounded intelligent! I rolled it around in my head, trying to decide what kind of received English accent I could put on for the masses. I tuned into the NPR station and listened to a smattering of classical music. It seemed like total shite… so I put in a CD of the Stranglers singing "Something Better Change" and turned up the volume. This was going to be my big break: At last I would be getting some recognition for my cleverosity! An interview befitting a man of my intellect; none of those questions about Spider-Man’s favorite flavor of pizza--we were going upscale.

I resolved to use the word, “juxtapose” in a sentence.

A small part of the Front Lines book is a series of short stories that end each issue, entitled Civil War: Correspondence. In those stories we compare a historical event to the Marvel conflict, so I have been researching Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speeches and the architecture of the military draft instituted around the time of the Vietnam War. I decided that I would proudly tell the NPR host about Plutarch’s account of Julius Caesar’s famous first act of war: Namely, the crossing of the Rubicon, which initiated a civil war in Rome. Maybe the host would be unfamiliar with the tale and I would be able to delight him and the listening public with my command of Latin phraseology. It was going to be groovy.

As I drove up to the studios, I felt sure this would open me socially to a far better class of person. I imagined a studio full of professors in dressing gowns, smoking clove cigars and doing complex equations on the staff chalkboard. The gate guard scowled at me… most likely because I had "I’m a Chollo" by the Dickies blaring out of my car speakers. I turned the classical music back on and sunk down into my seat, chastened.

Once I got inside I noticed that people had extremely large foreheads. They seemed to be communicating telepathically. I looked forward to joining their conversation, and I tightened my grip on the fake MENSA card I’d laminated that morning at Kinkos. Presently, a well-dressed lady with a clipped accent came to fetch me. She carried herself with an air of delightful arrogance, and I noticed her head lolled slightly to one side. Probably due to the weight of the massive brain, I thought. I kept silent, not wanting to draw attention to her enormous noggin.

The lady led me back into the sanctum sanctorum, past the beautifully decorated toilets and through a hallway that reeked of pure class. Eagerly, I awaited my first meeting with the host. I imagined he had once been great friends with Andy Warhol and Timothy Leary. Somewhere in New York, Joe Quesada was being led to meet his host (Joe and I were going to do the program together via satellite link up). I made a guess that my host was probably better than Joe’s. My host probably studied social anthropology at Princeton, while Joe’s host probably only attended San Diego State or--perish the thought--Brown University.

I was led into a completely empty studio. There were about ten large microphones arranged around a desk. The chairs creaked. A bored engineer showed up to inform me we would be going live in a few minutes.

Wait a minute… live? No one informed me about this. Who said we were going to be live? And where was my host?

“Dude, you don't get a host. The host is in New York. You’re connected by the internet. Here… put these headphones on.”

I put the headphones on: silence. The engineer disappeared from the room, leaving me all alone in a sea of microphones. Every time I moved on the chair the damned thing creaked into the speakers and I just about split my eardrums. I sat completely still, not daring to wipe the sweat droplet running down my nose, realizing that there was no way I was going to get through this without saying a rude word.

I called out to the engineer: no response. We were supposed to be on at 2.40. It was now 2.52. The place was a wasteland. I strained my ears to see if I could hear any of the broadcast. Nothing. The clock ticked inexorably onward. I held my breath. Suddenly:

“--this is Neil Cleverperson in New York speaking with Joe Kweesada and Paul Jenkins about Marvel’s civil war. Joe is here with me, while Paul is completely on his own inside a massive, abandoned steel mill with fifty defunct microphones and a missing engineer. Hello, gentlemen!”

My brain bashed up against my eyeballs.

Aaah! Aahh! Omigod… don’t say fuck! His first name is Neil! Use juxtapose in a sentence!

“Uhm… good afternoon, Neil.”

Yes, I said “Good afternoon,” for that is what intelligent people say to each other. Neil probably recognized my intellect, even from afar. He asked Joe a question, which Joe answered with practiced ease. He asked me a question, and left me with a kind of trailing sentence. I couldn't see his facial expression to tell if he had finished. I said something completely moronic, all the while thinking to myself that it would be neat to just give a “shout out” to some of my mates. I was sorely tempted:

“Yo, Jeff, Danno, Bobby S! Wha’sup? Jenko representin’ in da hizzous, givin’ a shout out to my homies.”

Since I sound like the GEICO gecko, I decided this would be an unwise course of action. Instead, I stuck to my original plan. I would be clever and informative and I would not swear. The next time Neil Cleverperson called my name I was going to bring up Julius Caesar and the Rubicon if it killed me.

Alas, Neil Cleverperson had other ideas: he didn't seem interested in the metaphors and allegories Joe was talking about. Neither did he seem all that impressed when I brought up the concept of Wiretapping versus Terrorism. He wanted to know all about Thor. Like, where was Thor and whose ass was he going to kick?

I could tell Joe was squirming in his seat because I could hear it in my headphones. It sounded like a jumbo jet taking off. No, wait… that was me. Joe answered as politely as he could but I knew he was grinding his teeth. Rather than ask me another question from five hundred miles away, Neil brought in our first caller. Charles, I think it was, from somewhere clever like Philadelphia. I imagined he was a concert pianist.

“Hi… this is Charles!”

Charles sounded like a genius. He oozed class. He was going to help us show the general public that comics are a valid form of artistic expression.

“Do you have a question, Charles?”

“No. I just wanted to say I am a big fan.”

The blood drained from my face. Please, God… no—

“Also, I am forty-three years old, I live with my parents and I play Heroclix in my basement. Thank you!”

Neil informed us that this was all we had time for, and the headphones went dead. I sat there, not daring to move. Was that it? I mean… wasn’t this a station identification break of some kind? We’d only been on for about three minutes!

The bored engineer entered, accompanied by a security guard. They scowled at me and led me out the back way. I called my good pal, Joe Kweesada.

“Joe, what the hell was that? I didn't even say anything!”

“It’s publicity, Paul. You’ll get the hang of it. Excelsior!”

He put the phone down. I am beginning to worry about that boy.

Well, suffice it to say I went home and all of my mates had missed it. Nigh Perfect was tuned to a different station and was terribly disappointed that she hadn't heard my NPR debut. I told her it was entirely possible that if she’d sneezed at the wrong time she would have missed it anyway. But even though the experience was a little less than ideal it has raised one important question in my mind:

What’s the deal with Thor?

Our host, Neil Cleverperson.

TAGS:  flogging a dead horse, paul jenkins, npr, civil war

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