This week’s question: What’s your most treasured pop-cultural possession?
I have lots of crap that’s probably worthless to most people, ephemera gathered over years of working at a record store and as a writer. Some of it’s crap, of course, though I did a massive purge a few years ago. (Goodbye vintage GBV shirt! Goodbye Happy Mondays-branded candy dots! Goodbye White Stripes vinyl-only promos!) I still have tons of crap—just step into my office and you’ll find a box of Urkel-Os cereal and lots of posters. But there are a couple of things that make me smile more than most: One is a weird drawing Jeff Mangum did. He sold them on his website (for like $8) for a couple of weeks, then abruptly stopped. It’s just pen on white paper, but it’s pretty nice, and it even says “Neutral Milk Hotel” on it. But maybe more treasured to me is an actual tennis trophy prop from The Royal Tenenbaums. It reads “Men’s singles / Richie Tenenbaum,” and I bought it off eBay right from Disney just after the movie came out. (They sold a bunch of stuff, including Royal’s headstone. I believe Nathan got a street sign.)
I don’t keep most of the promo stuff that flows across my desk as part of the job—just the books and DVDs I take home threaten to crowd us out of our house, so I don’t make room for the toys and posters and gimcracks reminding us that such books and DVDs exist. But I do still have the original art that Berke Breathed drew for us to run with this interview I did with him back in 2001. It was one of my earliest A.V. Club interviews, with someone I grew up idolizing, and to this day, the art—framed and delivered for me by A.V. Club founder Stephen Thompson—brings back happy memories in a way few other things I own do. I particularly like the crotchety expression on Opus’ face. My other most-prized possessions are much less personal and much more valuable: I own all five of the Miracleman graphic novels, including Alan Moore’s three-book run, Neil Gaiman’s collected volume, and Apocrypha. Some of these books will now run you $400 or more on eBay and the like, and given the ridiculously tangled rights issues, it doesn’t seem too likely that they’ll ever be reprinted. So having them at hand whenever I want to reference them—which around here, is often, what with various comics-related pieces and primers and inventories we’ve done—has been mighty convenient. So has being able to remind myself that yes, they’re that good, and my feelings for those books aren’t just vague nostalgia for something I liked 20 years ago and haven’t read since.
When I became the TV editor at the publication I used to work at, my first order of business was to start opening the barrage of free crap that started coming my way. First up: A Battlestar Galactica picture, depicting the entire cast reenacting Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Framed. “Holy crap,” I thought, “This is the best frakkin’ job on the planet.” They had even matted it to look nice, and numbered the thing in pencil (518/1850, FWIW) so I knew it was legit. And yes, upon closer inspection, the picture itself looks like it was printed, in a hurry, on a LaserJet, but it’s a reminder of that first day on the job—the fact that there are people out there who care enough about pop culture that they pay people to write about it. The second thing I opened was a DVD of Homie Spumoni, which is exactly what it sounds like. Epilogue: The BSG picture now hangs above my television, dead-center in my living room; possessions don’t get more prized than that.
I have two pieces of movie memorabilia that I drag out from time to time when guests are over. One is a Goodfellas movie poster signed by Joe Pesci. When I was working at a movie theater in Georgia, Mr. Pesci came in one night to see Sleeping With The Enemy. (He was filming My Cousin Vinny nearby.) As it happened, the other two movies playing in our three-plex at the time were Home Alone and Goodfellas. I was able to convince my manager to let me take the Goodfellas poster down and get Mr. Pesci to sign it on his way out the door. He won the Academy Award a month later; I’d like to think I had something to with that. My other piece of memorabilia is a talking Teddy doll from A.I. I’m pretty sure this toy wasn’t intended for children; you squeeze its belly and it says things like, “This bear is too grumpy to play,” in that inimitable creepy voice. It wasn’t widely available in stores, and I can see why. It’s more disturbing than cuddly.
My Hüsker Dü fandom already established, my most prized pop-culture possession won’t come as much of a surprise: a bootleg Land Speed Record poster signed by all three members. I found the poster at the old Clubhouse record shop inside Chicago’s Metro, and when HD singer-guitarist Bob Mould came to Chicago a few months later (supporting the little-loved electro-rock album Modulate), he signed it for me at a meet-and-greet at the Virgin store. Coincidentally, singer-drummer Grant Hart played a solo show here a mere two months later, so I brought it to be signed. (He took a moment to make a snide comment about Mould—oh, Grant.) By that point, I was on a mission: A few months later, I had to travel to the Twin Cities for work, so my wife and I rented a car and drove to Red Wing to eat at the Staghead, where bassist Greg Norton was a chef at the time. He came out from the kitchen to sign it, and even brought us our food. (He looked exactly the same—handlebar ’stache and all.) Bonus nerd points: All of this happened in 2002, the 15th anniversary of the band’s final album, Warehouse: Songs And Stories. It hangs matted and framed in a place of honor on my wall devoted to rock posters—and near one of my other faves, a Big Black poster signed by the original lineup.
Better than any T-shirt or poster I’ve acquired from following bands is my Unrest coffee mug from around the time of Perfect Teeth, a well-nigh perfect album even before any stylish and delightfully functional coffee mugs got associated with it. It’s dark blue with a cat on it and big orange letters, in that sort of quasi-Adidas sport-graphics font that Unrest made current in the early ’90s. I still drink out of it all the time. And it’s the thing I own that makes me most ready to imagine what it’ll be like to be an 80-year-old man, when someone who doesn’t know comes around and asks about it. I find myself leaning back and gearing up to tell a story, to eyes that will surely start to glaze over in time, about what it used to be like…
I have all sorts o’ pop culture tchotchkes I’m terribly fond of. In the A.V. Club office alone, I have several diplomas that once belonged to disgraced boy-band guru Lou Pearlman, including his MBA and his Bachelor’s Degree, as well as his “20th Century Republican Business Leader” certificate, though I gave Keith his blimp pilot license. At home I have one of Richie Tenenbaum’s tennis trophies and a street sign from The Royal Tenenbaums, several original paintings used to make various Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids cards, as well as a first-edition copy of Atlas ShruggedI considered selling to pay my union dues back when I was on the teevee. Rand would have been so proud of me, using one of her books to help the Labor movement. Criminy, I’m practically a one-man Planet Hollywood. But perhaps the pop-culture artifact I preemptively treasure the most is the monocle Fritz Lang used while directing Metropolis, which is going to be auctioned off as part of Forrest Ackerman’s overflowing collection in late April. I very much intend to win the auction and use said monocle on a daily basis. Wish me luck, people. I will need it.
I don’t really know if it counts as a pop-cultural possession—is organized crime pop culture?—but I have a bookmark with a little swatch of John Gotti’s prison uniform embedded in it, as sent to me by The Smoking Gun as part of the promotion for their book a few years ago. It smells like Mafia. (Who knew the Mafia smelled like dirt and old fabric?) I also have a Dexter bobblehead, but the Gotti bookmark fits under my pillow so much better.
Looking at my colleagues’ answers, I’ve come to a sad conclusion: I don’t get nearly enough cool swag. Ahoy, publicists! Why is it everyone I work with is walking away with one-of-a-kind pieces of pop-culture bric-a-brac, and the only thing on my desk right now is a DVD copy of Smokey Smoke’s Makin’ Da Paper Stack? (It’s all yours, Rab-dawg. All you have to do is ask.) Alas, I shall have to console myself with the fact that I have a perfectly preserved Mr. Belvedere in a big jar in my basement. I call him “Brocktoon.”
Treasured possessions? I have a few. There’s a brick from the original Stax building purchased at Shangri-La Records in Memphis. It used to sit on my desk, but I got tired of explaining why I had a brick on my desk. There’s a cel from Futurama—from the scene where Nixon’s head bites Fry’s arm—courtesy of A.V. Club co-workers Nathan Rabin and Stephen Thompson. There’s original art from Darwyn Cooke and Bruce Timm, the latter courtesy of my wife. But I’d like to write about the possession that fell apart, a sort of rubbery Rosebud that came into my life and then crumbled. I’m talking about one of the frogs from Magnolia, which I purchased from eBay shortly after the film came out. Neat, right? Trouble is, it wasn’t necessarily made to last, much less display. Already barely hanging on, one of the arms started to fall off shortly after it arrived. Then the whole thing started to turn a yellowish, un-frog-like color beneath a layer of newly acquired lint and dust. (The rubber had a sticky, almost Wacky Wall Walker-like texture.) In the end, it looked like a big, sticky pile of trash, not a constant reminder of the randomness that connects a failed quiz kid to a misogynist self-help guru, and thus us all.
A few years back, I tried to buy a page of original art from Understanding Comics as a birthday gift for my husband. But alas, those pieces of Bristol board have long sense been purchased, donated, or otherwise disposed of. So I went for a page from Scott McCloud’s energetic science-fiction comic Zot!instead. It’s an action scene, all diagonal panels and motion lines and blooping robots. Every time it catches my eye from its place on the wall, I think about the intersection of art, craft, theory, and practice—a place McCloud has occupied for the last few decades—and how perfectly it describes the work we do in our writing and teaching. I know McCloud has as many vocal detractors as followers, but his efforts to create and reflect on creation at the same time remind me of the French New Wave. Even if the final product isn’t your thing, the sheer joie de vivre of the experiment can be energizing and inspiring.
The only pop-culture artifact of any novelty or value I have in my apartment is a large framed print from Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, a philosophical reverie featuring rotoscope animation supervised by Bob Sabiston. The rotoscoping process is known for producing shimmering images, but this one still shot—a nocturnal image of the hero (Wiley Wiggins) in a park illuminated by a few street lamps—freezes this small moment out of time. I never spend money on paintings or artwork of any kind, and I’m dubious that this limited-edition print is valued at what I paid for it, though it does bear the signatures of Linklater, Sabiston, and the animator. But it currently occupies the center of my living room wall, frequently beckoning me to stare off into space until I lose focus and daydream right along with it.