Strange Comic Books: Spider-Ham in Marvel Tails

This installment of Strange Comic Books, my occasional look at the more odd & offbeat comics in my collection, was indirectly inspired by the recent news that the original artwork for two complete Amazing Spider-Man issues drawn by Steve Ditko had resurfaced after nearly half a century.  Specifically, those two stories are “The Coming of the Scorpion” from ASM #20 and “The Final Chapter” from ASM #33.  That later issue features the iconic sequence by Ditko & Stan Lee where Spider-Man struggles to lift up the massive pile of wrecked machinery that he is buried under.  This, in a very roundabout way, brings us to Marvel Tails #1 and only, published by Marvel Comics in 1983.

Marvel Tails cover

Marvel Tails #1 saw the introduction of probably the most famous, as well as clever, Spider-Man pastiche ever, namely Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.  This porcine parody of Spider-Man was devised by Tom DeFalco and Larry Hama.  DeFalco would, of course, soon after become well-regarded for his work on the actual Amazing Spider-Man title, as well as Thor and the long-running cult classic Spider-Girl.  But Spider-Ham was one of his earliest associations with all things arachnid.  As for Hama, though best known for his writing on G.I. Joe and Wolverine, he is also a huge fan of Carl Barks’ work, so it’s quite natural that he was involved in devising Marvel’s first funny animal character.

The title Marvel Tails is itself a pun on Marvel Tales, a long-running series which reprinted the Silver and Bronze Age Spider-Man stories.  In the days before Marvel had any sort of trade paperback program, Marvel Tales was the best way for younger readers such as myself to get caught up on the Spider-Man comics of the 1960s and 70s.

Marvel Tails pg 1

“If He Should Punch Me” is written by DeFalco and edited by Hama, with artwork courtesy of penciler Mark Armstrong and inker Joe Albelo.  In addition to introducing Peter Porker / Spider-Ham, we meet Steve Mouser, aka Captain Americat, and their boss, curmudgeonly Daily Beagle publisher J. Jonah Jackal.  Porker and Mouser are sent by Jackal to cover the story of the Masked Marauder, a mysterious figure who is sabotaging the massive Video City arcade.  There they meet Bruce Bunny, the arcade’s chief electrical engineer.  While Peter and Steve are busy touring Video City, the Masked Marauder locks Bruce Bunny inside a broken “Gamma Gambit” video game.  The rays from the game transform Bruce into the Incredible Hulk-Bunny, who bursts out and embarks on a rampage.

The exploding video game attracts the attention of Peter and Steve, who slip into their Spider-Ham and Captain Americat costumes.  Cap comes across the Masked Marauder, while Spidey tangles with the Hulk-Bunny.  During the battle, the Hulk-Bunny knocks out a support beam, causing a bunch of video games and soda machines to topple onto him.

Marvel Tails pg 15-16

And, yes, this is where that sequence by Ditko from “The Final Chapter” comes into the picture.  DeFalco, Armstrong & Albelo give us a playfully humorous parody of that classic scene, as Spider-Ham, pinned down by the huge pile of rubble, is inspired by his sense of responsibility and finds the strength to free himself.  Of course, in this version of events, after lifting up all of that wreckage, the weight causes the floor under him to collapse, dropping him on top of Captain Americat.  (Click on the above scans to enlarge for maximum humorous effect.)

The story soon wraps up, as the Hulk-Bunny is defeated and the Masked Marauder is, well, unmasked.  I won’t give you all the details, since it’s worth reading the story for yourself.  Marvel Tails was collected in the Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man digest-sized trade paperback published in 2010.  So go get it.

Marvel Tails pg 20

Rounding out Marvel Tails is a five page back-up starring the supernatural cyclist Goose Rider written & drawn by cover artist Steve Mellor.  It’s a ridiculously bizarre yet humorous set of gags that make absolutely no sense, but in a good way.

A year and a half after Marvel Tails hit the newsstands, Spider-Ham graduated into his own ongoing series.  Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham ran from May 1985 to September 1987, lasting 17 issues.  After that, Spider-Ham became a periodic back-up feature in, appropriately enough, Marvel Tales.  And then there was the story in What The–?! #3 which featured Spider-Ham facing off against Raven the Hunter in a send-up of “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  More recently Spider-Ham and his daughter Swiney-Girl showed up in Spider-Man Family, and there was a 25th Anniversary Special in 2010.

For an in-depth look at Spider-Ham’s creation and publishing history, I recommend picking up Back Issue #39 published by TwoMorrows and edited by Michael Eury.  Incidentally enough, Eury was one of the writers of Spider-Ham during his time in Marvel TalesBI #39 is topped off by a cool cover penciled by the late, great Mike Wieringo and inked by Karl Kesel.

Back Issue 39 cover

I don’t think the first Spider-Ham TPB sold especially well, since there unfortunately haven’t been any subsequent volumes.  In the absence of further collections, I think that Spider-Ham is definitely worth tracking down in the back issue bins.  It was a funny, clever series that offered some witty, good-natured Marvel self-parody.

By the way, getting back to our starting point, you can view scans of the original Ditko artwork from Amazing Spider-Man #20 and #33 on the website of Mike “Romitaman” Burkey.  It’s really fantastic to see.

Radioative Ridgewood

Time to break out the hazmat suits!

I was pleased as punch a few days ago when I learned some lovely news about Ridgewood, the Queens neighborhood that my girlfriend Michele and I live in.  The Environmental Protection Agency just added a block of Ridgewood as a Superfund site.  In fact, the EPA announced that this spot has the highest radiation levels anywhere in New York City.  As announced earlier this month on the EPA’s website:

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has added the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site in the Ridgewood section of Queens, New York to the federal Superfund list of hazardous waste sites. The soil and nearby sewers were contaminated by radioactive material from past industrial activities at the site. Testing indicates that there is no immediate threat to nearby residents, employees or customers of businesses in the affected area along Irving and Cooper Avenues. Since exposure to the radioactive contamination may pose a threat to health in the long-term, in December 2013, the EPA took action to reduce people’s potential exposure to the radiation and address the potential health risks from the site.

“The now-defunct Wolff-Alport Chemical Company operated from 1920 until 1954, processing imported monazite sand and extracting rare earth metals. Monazite contains approximately 6% to 8% thorium, which is radioactive. Radiation can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer such as cancer of the lung or pancreas.”

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

According to The Forum West local free newspaper, regional EPA administrator Judith Enck stated that “the EPA would be seeking out those legally responsible for the contamination and holding them accountable rather than forcing taxpayers to pay the price of the clean ups.”  Hmmm, good luck with that.  I seriously doubt that the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company is going to be of any assistance in cleaning up their mess. Are they even still in business? I’ve never even heard of them before. If another company bought up the assets, I’m sure the present owners’ legal council would argue that they were immune from liability for any number of reasons. This is the sort of thing that could be stuck in the courts for years, if not decades.

As you can imagine, I’m none too thrilled with this. After all, I’m only 37 years old and I’ve already had cancer twice in my life (and I don’t even smoke). Finding out I live in the same neighborhood as a radioactive site is the last thing I wanted to hear.

Not to get political, but this is the exact reason why I get so angry when pro-business legislators, supported by massive campaign contributions from corporations, cut back on the EPA’s funding and budget, or gut regulations against polluting.  Inevitably they argue that too many environmental regulations are “bad for the economy.”  Yeah, well, a significant percentage of the population coming down with serious illnesses is probably bad for the economy.  Our overtaxed health system having to then treat all of those sick patients is also bad for the economy.  But y’know, in the end, when politicians say that something is “bad for the economy” that is usually just a euphemism for “it’s going to cut into the profits of our corporate puppet masters.”

I’m sure some people reading this are probably muttering “That dirty commie!”  Well, let me tell you, I am definitely no fan of communism.  In a completely unregulated capitalist society most of the population is slowly exploited, left to attempt to live on starvation wages, with no health care and no protection against pollution and crime.  In a communist society, on the other hand, you probably have a good chance of getting shipped off to a labor camp, if not being executed outright as a “dissident” or “enemy of the state.”  So, yeah, I’m not a huge fan of either extreme.

There is nothing wrong with free enterprise, just so long as it does not exploit people.  That is why I think labor unions play a key role, but it is also important that they do not become too powerful.  You really need a balance between management and labor, so that neither group becomes too influential or authoritative.  Along those same lines, a certain amount of laws, of government regulation & oversight is necessary.  Without it, individuals and corporations are both going to run unchecked and claim victims, whether it’s by knocking over the corner liquor store or dumping toxic waste in someone’s backyard.  There is no liberty or security.  But too many laws, too many regulations, are a surefire recipe for also strangling freedom and innovation, as well.  It’s a case of anarchy versus a stifling, oppressive, wasteful bureaucracy.

Heh heh, I’ve probably managed to upset quite a few people by now.  That’s the great thing about being a moderate nowadays; you are almost guaranteed to piss off nearly everyone on both sides of the political spectrum.

blah blah blah

Oh, man, give me a soapbox and do I ever go off!  But getting back to where I started, I’m none too thrilled at the notion of possibly glowing in the dark because decades ago Wolff-Alport decided the cheapest, easiest way to deal with their trash was to dump it down the drain. That’s the problem with selfish, short-sighted thinking. Eventually it will lead to really crappy unintended results. And by the time that happens the people being affected, the ones getting bit in the ass, are those who had nothing to do with causing the problem in the first place.

Well, that’s enough out of me.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off buy a Geiger counter.

Comic book reviews: Grindhouse #5-8

Time for more insanely twisted fun as I take a look at the second half of Alex De Campi’s horror anthology miniseries Grindhouse: Doors Open At MidnightYou can read my review of the first four issues here.  The two tales comprising Grindhouse #s 5-8 are “Bride of Blood,” illustrated by Federica Manfredi, and “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll,” drawn by Gary Erskine.

When Alex De Campi was at Midtown Comics last October signing copies of Grindhouse #1, she commented that the third story arc, “Bride of Blood” would be “a medieval rape-revenge story.”  The movie that immediately leaped into my head is Meir Zarchi’s 1978 film I Spit On Your Grave, also known as Day of the Woman.  I’ve heard I Spit On Your Grave described as misogynistic, but I really do not think that is the case.  Yes, the movie’s heroine Jennifer, played by Camille Keaton, is brutally gang-raped by a group of men, but Zarchi films it in such a genuinely revolting manner that there is no way in hell that he intended for it to be sexy or erotic. In the final third of the story, once Jennifer recuperates and begins wrecking bloody retribution on the men who brutalized her, one of them does claim she was “asking for it” by dressing provocatively.  But this is obviously supposed to be the self-serving justification of a sexist pig, and soon after Jennifer enacts a particularly well-deserved & horrific revenge upon him.

Grindhouse 6 pg 10

“Bride of Blood” is the story of Branwyn, a young woman from the House of Creagh Mawr who is to wed the Lord of Callyreath in an arranged marriage of political & financial convenience.  Branwyn is understandably nervous about marrying an older man who she barely knows, but her mother assures her that everything will be okay.  However, soon after the ceremony begins a horde of Reavers descends, slaughtering the wedding guests.  Branwyn’s mother is stabbed, and Branwyn herself sexually assaulted, mutilated and left for death.

Sometime later, Branwyn awakens at a nearby convent and learns that she is believed to be the last surviving member of the House of Creagh Mawr.  After the funeral of her beloved brother Corrin, the traumatized Branwyn steals his armor and sets out to avenge herself on the Reavers and their allies utilizing guerilla warfare.  The second chapter of “Bride of Blood” has De Campi offering up two shock plot twists in rapid succession, closing out the story in a dramatic finale of poetic justice.

The artwork by Federica Manfredi is exquisitely detailed.  De Campi explained that one of the reasons why she wanted to work with Manfredi, a female artist, is that given the story’s content she did not want the sexual violence to come across as glamorized, even if unintentionally.  Indeed Manfredi truly brings home the sick brutality of the villains’ actions.  I was actually cringing when I read the first chapter.  It really is stomach-churning stuff.  And it is so amazing that Manfredi starts out drawing “Bride of Blood” with this beautiful, dream-like fairy tale atmosphere, and then she rapidly shifts to depicting gruesome violence.  Likewise, in the second chapter Manfredi illustrates a lovely, idyllic winter landscape as the setting for Branwyn’s violent, blood-spattered vengeance.  The coloring by Dorotea Gizzi, Andrea Priorini, Diego Farina and Manfredi herself certainly drives home the shocking dramatic contrasts.

Grindhouse 8 pg 1

De Campi’s final two part tale, “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll,” is set in Oneida (that’s in Upstate New York, for all you provincial types).  In a prologue set in 1725, we see a sect of devil-worshipping European colonists in an underground chamber attempting to summon the demonic Azaroth via a willing virgin disciple.  Fortunately they are interrupted by the local Native American tribe who chuck a couple of barrels of gunpowder at the ceremony, blowing up the Satanists and sealing the cavern.

Flash forward to the present day, and the dark forces invoked centuries before have finally broken out due to a mining company engaging in fracking (see, the environmentalists were right, fracking is bad for the planet).  The long-ago virgin sacrifice emerges, her body now inhabited by a monstrous being.  She has a really nifty but gross trick, where she can twist her neck around 180 degrees and whip back her hair to reveal a gaping mouth full of spiraling razor-sharp teeth.  This “Devil Doll” begins stalking the countryside, looking for a new virgin sacrifice, in the process slaughtering numerous innocents, turning them into her undead servants.

Close by, the teenage girls of Oneida Field Hockey Camp are welcoming a new recruit.  Renae is a shy girl who really has no interest in sports, and is only there at her parents’ behest.  When the other gals engage in a bit of minor hazing, Renae runs to the bathroom to hide.  Tina, who projects an image of toughness & confidence, but underneath is a pretty decent person, goes to Renae and offers her some advice: “If you run away and cry every time you’re bullied, you will never ever stop being bullied…. Even if you feel like crying inside, pretend to be strong. Because here’s the thing: we’re all pretending. All the time.”

That night the girls, including Renae, head out via moped, looking for a place to hang out (De Campi stated in an interview that one of the reasons she asked Gary Erskine to illustrate “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll” is because he knows how to draw mopeds).  Unfortunately it’s a very rural area, and the only place open late is Wal-Mart.  Some teenage boys also swing by the shopping center parking lot on their bicycles.  The two groups start some cheesy flirting, but before anything can really happen, they are quite rudely interrupted by the Devil Doll and her enthralled disciples, still searching for a virginal victim.  De Campi and Erskine give us some bloody devils & zombies vs. hockey sticks & guns action, as the teenagers fight off the hordes of Hell.  We even get the best laugh-out-loud use of a Phil Collins song since “In the Air Tonight” in the 2002 comedy The New Guy.

De Campi continues the theme that she worked through in her first four issues, of outsiders and marginalized individuals stepping up to the plate to become the true heroes.  During the time period that “Bride of Blood” is set, women are in a socially subservient role, with men assuming positions of power & influence.  But it falls to Branwyn to take the initiative and avenge the atrocities inflicted upon her family.  “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll” shows the girls rescuing the guy, with quiet & introverted Renae finding the strength within her to help her new friends.

As with the first four issues of Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight, Francesco Francavilla and Dan Panosian provide alternating cover artwork.  The one that really stood out for me this time was Panosian’s stunning, atmospheric illustration for the cover to Grindhouse #6.  It is definitely tied with Francavilla’s cover from #3 for my favorite cover artwork from this miniseries.

Grindhouse 6 cover

Inside front cover artwork for all eight issues is courtesy of Marc Laming.  Assembled together, they form a very twisted but cool exploitation image.  I was searching about the Internet for a picture of the entire piece, but unfortunately I couldn’t find one.  But definitely check out Laming’s website for plenty of other cool art.

Apparently Grindhouse sold pretty well, and so De Campi is pitching a “season two.”  Hopefully Dark Horse will give her the green light.  The book is such a fun and twisted homage to exploitation B-movies.  At the same time, De Campi does superb work at genuine character development within her tales, along with genuinely witty, intelligent dialogue.  The result is a very nice blending of subtle character moments, irreverent humor, and over-the-top sex & violence.

Dick Ayers: 1924 – 2014

This is one blog post that I really wish I did not have to write.  I just found out that longtime comic book artist Dick Ayers passed away on May 4th at the age of 90.

Ayers was born on April 28, 1924 in Ossining, NY.  He spent the first twelve years of his childhood in White Plains.  At age 13, his family moved to a farming community in Upstate New York.  He returned to Westchester in his late teens, just in time to graduate from high school.  Years later, Ayers would say that his teenage years spent living in that rural area, with its lack of electricity & plumbing and multitude of horses, was the perfect training to become an artist who specialized in drawing Westerns.

Serving in World War II, Ayers was stationed in England & France.  Shortly after returning home, he attempted to pitch a comic book series he had devised, Chic ‘N’ Chu.  Although unsuccessful, in the process Ayers met Tarzan newspaper strip artist Burne Hogarth and studied under him.  In the late 1940s, Ayers began drawing comic books for Vin Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises, and in 1950 created the Western masked vigilante known as the Ghost Rider for them.  Around this time he also began dating Lindy Walter.  They soon fell in love, and married in 1951.

In the 1950s, Ayers began working for writer / editor Stan Lee at Atlas Comics, the 1950s incarnation of Marvel.  He illustrated a significant number of Western, war, and horror stories, as well as drawing several stories for the short-lived revival of the original Human Torch and Toro in 1954.  One of his Human Torch stories was left unseen for 14 years, until editor Roy Thomas had “The Un-Human!” published in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968).  I’ve always enjoyed the crazy splash page for that tale, with its titanic eight-headed, six-limbed monster parachuting down from the sky!

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 Human Torch splash

In the late 1950s Ayers first began inking Jack Kirby, an association that continued into the 1960s, as Atlas officially became Marvel Comics.  I have always felt that Ayers was a really good match to ink Kirby on Western, war, and monster stories.  Among those was Strange Tales #89 (cover dated October 1961) which featured the debut of the now-iconic Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom.  Ayers was also a good choice to ink Kirby on the early Fantastic Four issues, which still had one foot firmly in the territory of the recent Atlas monster & sci-fi tales.

Ayers had this sort of “earthy” quality that really suited the war and Western genres both as a penciler, and as an inker to Kirby.  In contrast, you had the slick, polished embellishments of Joe Sinnott, which were a much better fit for the high-tech science fiction adventures that Kirby was penciling in his later Fantastic Four stories.  That just goes to show the importance not just of finding the right pairing of penciler & inker, but also making sure that their finished work fits the atmosphere of the stories they are illustrating.

One of the best fits at Marvel for Ayers, first as an inker and then a penciler, was the retro World War II series Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, which began publication in 1963.  After inking Kirby on the first few issues (plus the Captain America team-up in #13) Ayers took over as the regular penciler with #8, staying on the series for the next decade.  Ayers collaborated with writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich on Sgt. Fury.  He was paired with such embellishers as John Severin, John Tartaglione, and Frank Giacoia, the latter of whom Ayers stated was his favorite inker to work with.

Sgt Fury 23 pg 4

Ayers was the un-credited co-plotter on a number of these stories.  In his Introduction to the Sgt. Fury Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, Ayers detailed the genesis of one of his favorites, issue #23, “The Man Who Failed,” which was based on a suggestion from his wife Lindy: “Have the Howlers assigned to rescue a nun who was trying to save children from behind Japanese lines.”  The adventures of Nick Fury during World War II were always more slapstick than Saving Private Ryan, and there is a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor to the scripting of the series.  Ayers explained that he regarded the Howlers’ exploits as “Baron Munchausen” stories, the types of colorful exaggerations that he and his fellow soldiers might indulge in after returning from the battlefield.

That said, Sgt. Fury could occasionally be gritty or poignant.  “The Man Who Failed” had Stan Lee showing British Howler Percy Pinkerton making peace with his youthful indiscretions & mend fences with his older brother.  “Killed In Action” in issue #18 ended with the tragic death of Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury’s first true love.  And issue #s 28-29 had Stan Lee & Roy Thomas scripting an apocalyptic confrontation between Fury and his arch-foe Baron Strucker.  Ayers did superb work penciling all of these dramatic stories.

Capt Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders 2 cover

With writer Gary Friedrich, Ayers also worked on the Sgt. Fury spin-off title Capt. Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders.  That short-lived series’ most memorable story arc is probably the one that ran in issue #s 2-4, wherein Friedrich & Ayers revealed the super-secret origin of Baron Strucker and the terrorist organization Hydra.

In the early 1970s, Ayers was receiving less work from Marvel.  They also began reprinting his earlier stories without paying him.  For a time Ayers had to work as a security guard to make ends meet.  Eventually Ayers had the opportunity to explain his situation to Neal Adams.  An early, forceful advocate of creators’ rights, Adams got in touch with DC Comics editor Joe Orlando on Ayers’ behalf.  Orlando assigned Ayers to a number of titles including Kamandi, Jonah Hex, Freedom Fighters, Scalphunter in Weird Western Tales, G.I. Combat, and The Unknown Soldier.  On that last title Ayers’ pencils were embellished by talented Filipino artist Gerry Talaoc.  As I’ve written before, I very much enjoyed their collaboration.

Unknown Soldier 255 pg 1

Ayers worked at DC through the mid-1980s.  He also did work for the Archie Comics / Red Circle line of books, drawing a revival of The Original Shield.  Starting in 1991, Ayers began working on Femforce, the fun superhero title published by Bill Black’s AC Comics.  Ayers demonstrated a real mastery of the female form in those comics, illustrating some playfully sexy good girl art.

AC has also brought back into print a variety of public domain Golden Age comic book stories.  Ayers’ classic Ghost Rider stories were among the material reprinted in AC’s Best of the West, with the character re-named the Haunted Horseman.  Ayers would occasionally contribute new artwork to the book, such as Best of the West #43, which had Ayers collaborating with artist Ed Coutts on a beautiful cover spotlighting the Haunted Horseman and the time-traveling Femforce gunslinger Buckaroo Betty.

Best of the West 43 cover

In 2005 Mecca Comics Group published Ayers’ three volume graphic novel autobiography The Dick Ayers Story, which was in-depth look at both his personal life and long career as an artist.  This was a project that Ayers had spent several years working on, a labor of love on his part.

Dick and Lindy Ayers lived in White Plains for several decades, and so would often make appearances at NY-area comic book conventions.  The first time I met them was at a show held at the Westchester County Center in the mid-1990s.  I remember asking Dick what he thought about current comic book artists.  He told me that he felt many of the more recent artists in the biz were not good storytellers.  He explained that a good comic book artist is someone who, if you removed all of the dialogue and narration, a reader would still be able to tell what the story was about just by looking at the artwork, how the action moves from one panel to the next.  That was probably the first time I ever heard comic book artwork explained to me in that way, and it helped me to develop an appreciation for the importance of layouts & storytelling.

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

I would often see Dick and Lindy at comic shows.  They were always such friendly people.  When I still lived near White Plains, they invited me over to their house on a few occasions.  It was a really enjoyable to see Dick’s studio, and to take a look at his original artwork that he had framed.  Another time, on a pleasant spring afternoon, we were in their back yard having lemonade & cookies.  I also saw them when Dick gave a lecture at the White Plains Public Library.

The last time I saw Dick and Lindy was at a small NYC comic show around 2011.  I recall that Dick was walking with a cane, and looking a bit unwell.  It seemed like age was finally starting to catch up to him.  However, I was recently happy to learn that he was scheduled to be a guest at the New York Comic Fest which is going to be held on June 14th at the Westchester County Center.  I was really looking forward to seeing Dick and Lindy again.  Unfortunately, that is now not to be.

I’m sad that Dick Ayers is no longer with us.  However, I am happy he lived a good, long life.  He leaves behind both a large family and an impressive body of work.

Donald Sterling: It’s All About The Money

“Everything good that is not based on a morally good disposition, however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery.” – Immanuel Kant

Time for one of my rare political posts.  I do not do these too often, because I usually want to make sure that I actually have something intelligent to say, and that I’m not going to make a fool of myself.  Would that others were capable of such self-restraint!

I really don’t follow sports, so until a few days ago I had never heard of Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the LA Clippers basketball team.  However, Sterling made the headlines in a big way when taped voice messages for his mistress, a part-Hispanic, part-black woman who apparently goes by several names, including V. Stiviano, were leaked to the press.  The 80 year old Sterling was caught on tape criticizing the 31 year old Stiviano for posting photos of herself with African American basketball legend Magic Johnson on Instagram.  According to CNN, Sterling told Stiviano “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.”  He went on to add “I’ve known (Magic Johnson) well, and he should be admired. … I’m just saying that it’s too bad you can’t admire him privately. Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f**k him, but don’t put (Magic) on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

Well, the shit immediately hit the fan, and Sterling has been up to his neck in a public relations nightmare for the last several days.  The mostly-black line-up of the Clippers showed up on the court with their warm-up gear inside out.  Over a dozen corporate sponsors made the decision to pull their support for the Clippers.  It all culminated in NBA commissioner Adam Silver banning Sterling for life, fining him $2.5 million, and urging the Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Following Silver’s announcement, former NBA player and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson publicly praised the decision.  He announced that “it delivered a statement about where we are as a county.”

Oh, yes, it delivered a statement, all right.  It declared, loud and clear, that the god of the American people is the almighty dollar.

Donald Sterling cartoon by Chip Bok

Let’s take a look at Donald Sterling’s long, sordid history.  He is a serial philanderer who was most recently carrying on a relationship with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, apparently showering her with $2 million in gifts, all the while undoubtedly bringing embarrassment to his wife & children.  Sterling was unsuccessfully sued in 2009 by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor for age & racial bias.  In that same year, Sterling paid $2.725 million to settle a housing bias suit brought against him by the Justice Department, which alleged that he systematically drove blacks, Hispanics and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned.

All of this is in Sterling’s past.  But none of it previously seemed to bother the NBA, the players on the Clippers, or the team’s corporate sponsors terribly much.  Hell, even the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP gave Sterling a lifetime achievement award after his contribution of $45,000 to their coffers.

However, once Sterling was caught on tape making racist remarks, causing a huge PR debacle, seething anger among the Clippers line-up, and sponsors to start fleeing from him like he’s come down with a case of the bubonic plague… then, and only then, does the NBA decide that Sterling is a reprehensible human being.  Yes, it took the looming threat of a gigantic loss of revenue to finally cause the NBA to cut Sterling loose.  Oh, yeah, and the NAACP is now keeping their distance.

This entire situation reminds me of what happened back in February in Arizona.  The state legislature had passed the controversial SB 1062, which would have allowed businesses in Arizona to deny service to gay & lesbian customers if that decision was “substantially motivated by a religious belief.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was a week away from deciding whether to sign or veto SB 1062 when all hell broke loose.  Companies such as American Airlines, AT&T and Marriot voiced concerns over the bill.  Apple, which was in the middle of building a plant in Mesa that was expected to create hundreds of new jobs, urged Brewer to veto SB 1062.  The state Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and a number of local businesses all came out in opposition to it.  Even three of the state legislators who had originally voted yes for SB 1062 were suddenly back-peddling furiously, urging Brewer to exercise her veto power.  The general dawning realization among many seemed to be “Wait a second, if this thing goes into effect, we could lose a shit load of money!”

In the end, Brewer did veto SB 1062.  But while it was the right decision, it was quite clearly done for the wrong reasons.  Instead of making her choice for reasons of social justice, Brewer’s motivation was financial.

It is a terrible tragedy when freedom and liberty are at the whims of economics, that the defense of civil rights is predicated on whether or not it is financially judicious.  Sadly, though, that has often been the case.  One of the most powerful tools of the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was the economic boycott.  Now more than ever, though, it seems that significant social progress is unlikely without a monetary incentive behind it.

As the old saying goes, money talks and bullshit walks.