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Hembeck: The Best Of Dateline: @!!?#
posted November 30, 2010

imageCreator: Fred Hembeck
Publishing Information: FantaCo, magazine, 52 pages, 1980, $2.50
Ordering Numbers:

It's been 30 years since the publication of this magazine collection of Fred Hembeck's cartoon columns. This means that a similar amount of time on the other side of the equation would put us back in pre-Code 1950, in the afternoon of the American comic books strongest sales period, when nearly every child read them yet few felt their impact on the course and direction of a life. One of the more remarkable aspects that shakes itself to the surface in reading Hembeck's essays reprinted here is how little of the past comics carried around on a day to day basis even operating out of a kind of default mode of wistful nostalgia. Hembeck talks about comics series from five, ten, fifteen years earlier as if they were dim relics of the past. Because of the way things so quickly faded from view back then, those comics were ancient relics. Many are much more familiar to the average comic reader of 2010 than of 1980. While today fans can be just as nostalgic about the comics of the 1970s through the early 1990s, there's a much greater opportunity to experience those works. Even Hembeck's work has been repackaged into an ostensibly more permanent trade paperback format.

I prefer it as a magazine. I had a blast reading it in a way that such publications frequently used to be read in my household: as a kind of lingering guest that for a couple of weeks turns up on coffee tables or on bed stands or in the bathroom as if it were moving from place to place on its own power. A page here, a page there -- many of them super densely packed -- and then you realize you're done with the publication and it finds a more permanent place on a shelf somewhere. My lingering memories of the content are less about Hembeck's signature style -- it's fun enough, never more so when on display in a Ditko Spider-Man homage and most amusingly in a page devoted to Marvel's Nova character dancing like a 13-year-old -- than about random observations from that very different comics world. Hembeck complains about over-serious superhero comics in a way that would seem at home on a 2009 blog, but casts it as a fight between modern Marvel and Stan Lee's early 1960s Marvel. A couple of the columns are about TV culture and its wall of reruns approach that existed on early cable. There are columns in praise of Bill Mantlo's work generally and Roy Thomas' late 1970s stint on Thor. Hembeck displays his range through discussions of Elfquest, material from Star*Reach and the late-underground Kitchen Sink anthologies, but comes much more alive rifling through old DC plots and forgotten characters from Harvey, Charlton and ACG.

One thing I believe true of people that came up in the 1970s in terms of their relationship to comics that might not be as true today is that there was a much more active critical assumption that the best works were behind us. A lot of classic rock radio was about the veneration of older bands and sounds over newer, weaker sauce and outright betrayals like punk and eventually rap; but you see elements of this in that period's relationships to film and prose and television. Hembeck has a sweeter, softer touch than some of the more dyspeptic critics of his day, both in how he treats the then-present and how he looks back on the admittedly limited but fondly and genuinely-remembered offerings of his youth. Reading him now almost makes one forget that he was sitting squarely in the middle of the most fallow era in the medium's history.