Pitt Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia, June 2017

Pitt Street in Fredricksburg is looking terrific — the area seems far more gentrified and better maintained than when I lived there during the summer of 1991, after my freshman year at Mary Washington College.

There were always a few college kids living on Pitt back in the day — either just during the summer or for the entire year, attracted by the dirt-cheap rents just north of downtown.  You sort of got what you paid for, though; back then, we thought of it as “Pits Street.”

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I had my first place (outside of my freshman dorm room) at 304 Pitt Street — that’s the little grey house on the left in the next two photos.  I sublet it from another drama student at MWC.  (He was an upperclassman who coached me a little on my acting, despite the fact that I wasn’t very good.)  Tim was a gigantic guy, and former military.  He’d been in some kind of special forces, and the other guys explained to me that he was too tough to care much about the size or quality of the accommodations.  “To Tim, a two-by-four is a bed,” one of them explained me.

So the “place” in question wasn’t fancy.  It hardly qualified as a room.  It was actually just a walk-in closet with a window; I slept on a futon because a mattress wouldn’t fit.  But the price was right — rent was just $150 a month, with utilities included.  My part-time job was right on Caroline Street.  (I played the role of “the tavern-keeper’s son” at The Rising Sun Tavern, a living-history museum.)  And right up Princess Anne Street was the comic shop I’ve written about here before — this was the place with the singularly horrid woman who visibly hated every customer who walked in.

I had sooooo little money that summer.  Meals occasionally consisted solely of those butter cookies that sold for 99-cents-a-package at the nearby Fas-Mart.  (This wasn’t an entirely unhappy circumstance — those things were so good, they were addictive.)  I spent a lot of time listening to Depeche Mode on cassette; any song from the “Some Great Reward” album will always take me back to Pitt Street.  When I started dating one of the “tavern wenches” at work, our dates always had to cost little or nothing.  And I spent a lot of time watching “Star Trek” on VHS tapes from the Fredericksburg Library.

My housemates were Mike and Paul, who were upperclassmen.  Mike was a tall, soft-spoken Fairfax native who appeared to endlessly ponder things.  Paul was a likable, irreverent metal-head who loved to make fun of me.  (Hey, I deserved it, after working hard for a year at Bushnell Hall seeking the Most Obnoxious Resident Award.)  My complete dependence on Fas-Mart was an endless source of amusement for him.  (I didn’t have a car, and the Giant Supermarket was along Route 1 on the other side of town.)  He laughed the hardest when I demonstrated my ignorance of metal.  He actually fell over once when I read his Queensryche poster and pronounced their name as “Queensearch.”

Mike and Paul had a friend named Stefan who occasionally stopped by the house.  Stefan was unique.  He always appeared confused by life, and he always arrived with news of some strange new misfortune that had befallen him.  He once showed up at our door, for example, looking like a victim of a nuclear reactor meltdown — his thick black hair had been brutally shorn away into a mottled “crew cut.”  (He’d tried to save money by giving himself a haircut, not realizing how difficult that was to do correctly.)  Later that summer he stopped by with news of a near-death experience.  (This time, he’d electrocuted himself trying to change a broken light-bulb while the lamp was still plugged in.)

There was no shortage of drug activity in that part of Fredericksburg in the early 1990’s.  Some girls up the street from where I lived grew a man-sized marijuana “tree” right in their living room.  Another guy who was well known in the neighborhood offered the dubious service of delivering acid to anyone’s door.

A Fredericksburg native on the other side of the street was known for howling at the sky from his front porch.  This was during the day; the moon had nothing to do with it.  I was told he was issuing some sort of recurring, primal challenge to some other local who had threatened him.  He was at least not acting out of paranoia … one morning his adversary indeed appeared at the edge of his yard, brandishing a baseball bat.  The Howling Man fortified his position on the porch by returning with a lengthy kitchen knife.

Nobody called the police.  The guys in my house at least had an excuse — we didn’t have a phone.  Cell phones just weren’t a thing in 1991, and we lacked either the money or the organizational skills to set up a landline (probably both).

I remember being concerned about the Howling Man after Mike told me about the extended stalemate.  (It had occurred when I was at work, pretending to be a colonist in charge of the tavern wenches.)  Our neighbor had always been nice to me.  I’d given him some milk after he asked for it one morning, and he’d given me an ostentatious bow, kneeling before me on one knee and bowing his head, like a knight would do before a king.  He had plenty of decorum, he just saved it for those who were deserving.

 

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Looking south down Princess Anne Street toward the downtown area.  The Irish Brigade used to be all the way down and at left.  (I’ve been told that various restaurants close and re-open at the address, and … that the site of Mother’s Pub was also rebranded as the “new” Irish Brigade for a while?  But by different owners?)  That’s just confusing.

Just a little farther down on Princess Anne is the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church. My girlfriend during the summer of 1991 sang in the Maranatha choir there.

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Looking north on Princess Anne Street, toward Hardee’s, and where Fas-Mart and the comic shop used to be.

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Does anyone else remember this grey house on Pitt Street, between Princess Anne and Caroline?  (That extension with the latticed porch hadn’t been built yet in the 1990’s.)  I think the house number is 209.  It became a big party house in 1993 and 1994 … I was at a party with a bunch of New Hall people during my senior year, I think, when the cops arrived.  I remember the house emptied out in an instant.

I myself slid down the outside of the house via the gutter from the second floor.  (Seriously, people, when I went through my Spider-Man phase, I was really into climbing things.)  I did something weird to the joint in my right thumb — it didn’t hurt much, but, to this day, my thumb still makes a clicking noise whenever I bend it.

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Nothing says “gentrification” like seeing an upscale “Red Dragon Brewery” where a creepy, vacant building used to be.  Way to go, Fredericksburg.

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Heading south toward Caroline Street.

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Caroline Street.

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Looking south on Caroline from Pitt.

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Looking back up Pitt from Caroline.

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Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, VA, June 2017 (6)

Pictured are Willard Hall, The Fountain, Woodard Campus Center and New Hall.

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My cell phone’s battery died as my Alumbud and I reached the northern end of Mary Washington College’s campus earlier this month.  Hence, there are no pictures of the truly massive Simpson Library/Hurley Convergence Center.  (I swear to you, that entire complex is about the size of the goddam S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier.)

 

Willard Hall and The Fountain.

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Woodard Campus Center.  I don’t remember calling it that when I went to school here in the early 1990’s.  Wasn’t it just “The Student Center?”

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The student mailboxes.

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Inside Woodard.  The Eagle’s Nest would be down and to the left.  Upstairs was where the fall and spring formals were held.  Those were significant social events back in the day.

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I thought this was nice — I’m guessing it’s probably a product of the campus-wide remodeling project.  And it has the college’s correct name!  Beyond it is Seacobeck Dining Hall.

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The renovated outdoor deck, another apparent feature of the remodeling project.  I much prefer the unenclosed split-level deck that I remember.

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New Hall, old man.  My battery failed also before I could get pictures of the nearby light pole and the Fredericksburg municipal water tower, both of which I climbed on a dare, back in 1994 when I went through my “Spider-Man” phase while residing here. (That’s my senior year dorm room window behind me.)

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“The Bridge!”

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Throwback Thursday: early 1990’s “Aliens” and “Predator” comics.

I was chatting here with a friend last week about the “Aliens,” “Predator” and “Aliens vs. Predator” comics produced by Dark Horse Comics in the 1990’s.  While Marvel, DC and Image Comics all specialized in their superhero universes, Dark Horse tended to corner the market on hot properties in science fiction and horror.  (The company actually did try to compete by launching its own superhero line, but its unsuccessful “Comics’ Greatest World” universe lasted a mere three years.)

Dark Horse acquired the rights to the biggest science fiction movie characters of the first half of the decade, including “Aliens,” “Predator,” “Terminator,” “Robocop,” and “The Thing.”  It also produced great books in other genres too, like Frank Miller’s legendary “Sin City” series, Matt Wagner’s brilliant “Grendel,” and “Indiana Jones” comics.   (I never actually saw “Indiana Jones” on the shelves; the two retailers in my smallish Virginia college town never carried it.)

Perhaps strangely, I don’t remember any regular ongoing series for “Aliens,” “Predator” or “Aliens vs. Predator.”  Instead, the company published limited series on an ongoing basis.

Dark Horse had been a young company back then — it had started only four years earlier, in 1986.  But I’ll be damned if the people running the company didn’t know their stuff.  Not only did they snatch up big-name properties, they did a great job in producing consistently high-quality “Alien” and “Predator” books.  (Maybe “Aliens: Genocide” wasn’t as good as the other series, but it was really more average than flat-out bad.)  I honestly don’t know how they managed to publish such uniformly excellent comics that drew from a variety of creative teams.  The “Big Two,” Marvel and DC, produced their share of mediocre comics — even for tentpole characters or major storylines.  (See the “Batman” chapters of DC’s “Knightfall,” for example, or Marvel’s “Maximum Carnage” storyline for Spider-Man.)

Was Dark Horse’s track record better because their target audience was adults?  Did they just have really good editorial oversight?  Or did they maybe share such oversight with 20th Century Fox, which had a vested interest in its characters being capably handled?  I’m only guessing here.

I’ve already blathered on at this blog about how I loved “Aliens: Hive,” so I won’t bend your ear yet again.  An example of another terrific limited series was “Predator: Race War,” which saw the title baddie hunting the inmates of a maximum security prison.  And yet another that I tried to collect was “Aliens vs. Predator: the Deadliest of the Species.”  The series had a slightly annoying title because of it was a lengthy tongue twister, but, God, was it fantastic.  I think I only managed to lay hands on four or five issues, but the art and writing were just incredibly good.

Take a gander at the covers below — all except the first are from “The Deadliest of the Species.”  I think they are some of the most gorgeous comic covers I’ve ever seen, due in no small part to their composition and their contrasting images.  And I’ve seen a lot of comic covers.  I think the very last cover you see here, for Issue 3, is my favorite.

I would have loved to collect all 12 issues … I still don’t know how the story ended.  (It was partly a mystery, too.)  But at age 19, I absolutely did not have the organizational skills to seek out any given limited series over the course of a full year.

In fact, this title may well have taken longer than that to be released … Dark Horse did have an Achilles’ heel as a company, and that was its unreliable production schedule.  Books were frequently delayed.  To make matters worse, these were a little harder to find in the back issues bins.  (I don’t know if retailers purchased them in fewer numbers or if fans were just buying them out more quickly.)

I suppose I could easily hunt down all 12 issues of “The Deadliest of the Species” with this newfangled Internet thingy.  But part of being an adult is not spending a lot of money on comic books.  Maybe I’ll give myself a congratulatory present if I ever manage to get a book of poetry published.  Yeah … I can totally rationalize it like that.

 

 

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“Life’s” a bitch.

Or at least it is to the astronauts who make an abortive attempt to escort it back to Earth.  (They realize that bringing a Martian organism home is a bad idea in this year’s surprisingly satisfying science fiction-thriller.)

I actually had more fun with this than I expected; the movie is much faster paced and scarier than the trailer made it look.  There are some real surprises and moments of genuine horror here, following a requisite plot setup that is relatively brief.  It’s a really nice monster movie that should please fans of the genre.

I actually didn’t prefer its ending, which is something for which other reviewers are praising it a lot.   I’m disinclined to say more, for fear of spoilers.  The movie’s marketing already spoiled enough.  (The ads infuriatingly show the fate of a main character.)

I will say what the movie is not, however.

One, it’s not a stealth prequel for Sony’s planned 2018 “Spider-Man” spinoff, “Venom” (though that’s such a clever idea, I wish I’d thought of it).

Two, it’s not a ripoff of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979).  Yes, it’s got the same MacGuffin, and some story parallels that I noticed early on.  But I like to think of this as a more grounded contemporary thriller, where “Alien” was a futuristic fantasy creature feature.  Besides, if we criticize every “haunted-house-in-space” movie as an “Alien” imitator, we won’t get more of them.

I’d give this an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it.

 

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Throwback Thursday: the Debut of “Spawn” Comics (1992)

I remember greedily snapping up the first two issues of Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” comic in the spring of 1992.  Comics fans were excited about it — it was the de facto flagship title of the newly created Image Comics, which was bringing its own ambitious interconnected comic book universe to the shelves to compete with “the Big Two,” Marvel and DC.

There already was a competitive third major comic publisher — Dark Horse Comics.  But it had no successful superhero titles or shared universe; it instead was known for science fiction and horror comics.  I also remember seeing comics back then from the short-lived Valiant here and there — or maybe it was mostly ads in the Comic Shop News.  I didn’t know a single soul who read them, though.

McFarlane was nothing short of famous in the comic book fan community, after his broadly popular work on “Spider-Man.”  (I still love his unique style.)  And “Spawn” had an absolutely subversive flavor to it.  Its title anti-hero was nothing less than an agent of hell, and the comic revolved around hell, sin, damnation and various demons.  There was also far more violence and gore.

“Spawn” felt subversive, too, because of the impetus behind its creation.  Image Comics was launched by a group of artists who were unhappy with Marvel’s failure to grant them creative control over their work (or, according to the artists, proper merchandising royalties).  They included McFarlane, and fan-favorite artists Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri, among others.

I don’t pretend to know how justified their complaints were, as I was only a fan and not an industry insider.  But they sound right … I’ve always heard that major comic companies have historically screwed over their creative talent with restrictive “work-for-hire” payment arrangements.  (This is why Stan Lee, creator of so many of Marvel’s first heroes, is not absurdly wealthy.)  The start of Image seemed to fans like their favorite artists rebelling against the status quo, and that was kind of exciting.

Some of McFarlane’s acrimony with Marvel was pretty overtly expressed in the pages of “Spawn.”  There was a weird, slightly confusing plot digression early on in which McFarlane editorialized heavily about creator-owned characters … Spawn actually visited a kind of purgatory where various leading Marvel and DC heroes were imprisoned.  It seems in retrospect like a labored and self-indulgent metaphor, and it detracted from the title’s story.  But the college kids then reading “Spawn” had never seen anything like it.  It was interesting at the time.  (Bear in mind, please, that this was before the Internet.)

I started picking it up regularly.  I was going to the comic shop that was on … George Street, I think, in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia.  There were only two comic shops in the downtown area in the early 1990’s — this one, and a seedy shop across from the Hardee’s on northern Princess Anne Street, in a tiny corner of a ramshackle, abandoned hotel.  There was a categorically unpleasant, batshit-insane woman staffing the latter – she was nasty to everyone who entered, and accused them of touching the merchandise.  (That part of Princess Anne Street has since been improved – I think the huge hotel building has since been renovated.)

As the “Spawn” title progressed, its fandom became firmly entrenched.  The art truly was fantastic, and of course it remains an incredibly successful group of comic properties today.  Over time, McFarlane’s critics also grew in number … no matter how gifted he was as an artist, fans said he wasn’t a terrific writer.  (And I do get what they’re saying.)  I will say this — the “Spawn” comics I was reading were a thousand times better than that weird movie adaptation in 1997.  I’ve only seen bits and pieces of that, but they were terrible bits and pieces.

I still think I’d have a great time perusing my back issues.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Spider-Man and Wolverine teamup in “Perceptions” (1991)

These were the first comics featuring Wolverine that I ever owned — the 1991 Spider-Man “Perceptions” storyline in which he guest-starred.  This had gorgeous, unique art by Todd McFarlane.  (I think he scripted it too.)

This would have been when I was a sophomore in college, and it was even before McFarlane would go on to form Image Comics and launch his most famous character, Spawn.

 

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