Old times both before and during my day.

*I had an extremely odd dream the other night. I was walking around the grounds of my old college campus at night, and it was starting to rain. It must have been a weekend, because a lot of students were stumbling around to get back to their dorms or apartments. In the midst of it, I spotted a girl I used to know. Oddly, this particular girl had never attended that school. She was visibly intoxicated, but clearly making her way toward some destination. I followed her, without her knowing I was there.

Time passes quickly in dreams, so pretty soon I realized that the two of us were in some kind of underground building, a hospital from the looks of it. The girl began speaking to a nurse or something, letting her know that she couldn’t be there that night for some reason. Looking back on it, I guess she worked there, but at the time I had the notion that she was a patient, as illogical as the scene might be with those facts. I can even isolate the precise moments from my past that informed this scene (the same girl was called into work once, when we both worked at a restaurant, and she came straight from a party and was clearly drunk when she arrived), but only now that I’m awake.

Nobody in the underground hospital ever acknowledged my presence.

Eventually, we made our way back up to above the ground, back on campus. It was raining quite heavily by then. At that point, she suddenly became aware of my presence, and she turned around and greeted me. She said she hadn’t seen me in a long time. She was right - I haven’t seen her in years and years.

It seems pretty creepy, writing it all down. But when I woke I was overwhelmed with a feeling of nostalgia, an ache for times gone by. I don’t live around there anymore, and I never see her around when I visit.

*And speaking of the past:

1941: The Illustrated Story

In every filmmaker’s life, a 1941 invariably comes along. I can see 1941 more as a cleansing experience. The one possible way I can make you forget all the good things I’ve done in motion pictures.”

- Steven Spielberg, from his comics-format introduction, illustrated by Irwin Hasen.

That quote was prepared in time for this book’s first printing, in 1979, the same year as the release of the film it was adapting. Presumably then, Spielberg did not know exactly what was in store for him following the release of 1941, the feature situated in his filmography directly between such beloved smashes as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and long considered his greatest failure as a director. These days I do believe enough luster has evaporated off the Spielberg persona that a critically disliked all-star comedy with a fat budget and a long runtime doesn’t quite stand out as much, though I can’t say I’ve seen the film. I did, however, manage to track down a copy of this official comics adaptation, gathering dust in a store and available at its authentic period price tag of four bucks - not bad for a full-color 68-page oversized softcover album. Actually it’s not bad in general.

Published by Heavy Metal in conjunction with Pocket Books, this thing evokes the past in a number of ways, beyond merely serving as a comics adaptation issued contemporaneously with an older film’s release. For one thing, it serves as a reminder of a time when Heavy Metal served as something of a bridge from the days of the comics underground to the then-current ‘mainstream,’ able to infuse genre material with a personalized and often explicitly 'adult' sensibility when such things weren’t all that easy to come by in English-language comics form, while simultaneously affording some active independent talents a fresh audience. And it also whisks us back to the early, eager days of some familiar pros - artists Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch, both of them fresh out of the first graduating class of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. In a few years, both of them would be associated with Swamp Thing, though their work on that title wouldn’t much resemble at all what’s on display here (and it should be noted that a third Swamp Thing artist, John Totleben, is thanked for his assistance in the legal indicia).

This book, you see, is simply out of control. It’s frantic, garish, vulgar, and heavily in debt to various underground sources, at their EC/Mad-inspired manic heights, though in terms of sheer explicitness it’s not nearly as transgressive as the work of, say, Robert Crumb or S. Clay Wilson; the difference is made up in sheer energy, and maybe the kick of the work standing as an ‘official’ adaptation. It's neatly symbolic of the joining of underground and mainstream sensibilities, really, with shockingly little creative verve lost in the transition. I know a PG rating, which is what the film version received, meant something very different in 1979 than it did now, but this is a decidedly R-rated comic, loaded with over-the-top blood and gore, sniggering sex and nudity, and racial slurs of seemingly every stripe. Again, I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know if John Belushi actually bellows lines like “HELL AND RED NIGGERS! MORE JAPS!” but it’s certainly here in writer Allan Asherman’s script, and there’s lots more where that came from, and it's not just words. Visually, the command of racist iconography on display is genuinely impressive, with one early page literally having its borders invaded by various depictions of Japanese soldiers, seemingly clipped out from period sources, as a terrified young woman screams "JAAAPSSS" into a telephone.

This fits in splendidly with Bissette’s and Veitch’s overall visual approach, mixing caricature-prone line art with vivid colors and extensive use of photo collage - you’d expect a movie adaptation to traffic in some star likenesses, but here Christopher Lee ‘plays’ himself in many panels via doctored stills of the man in action, possibly as Dracula in some Hammer epic. In contrast, Commander Akiro Mitamura doesn’t really look anything like Toshiro Mifune, the artists instead opting to throw in every ugly stereotype they can think of, ranging from lemon yellow skin to gaping buck teeth - the intent isn’t always perfect visual representation, but a communion with the spirit of the adapted work, and it certainly helps this book to maintain its own identity. At least, I presume that’s what’s going on, given what I know of the general aims of both works.

The plot of 1941, as it stands in comics form, bounces from person to person, event to event, largely serving to parody racism-tinged wartime paranoia and gung-ho patriotism. A lone Japanese submarine is spotted lurking around California shortly after the Pearl Harbor attacks, leading to an explosion of white-hot invasion fear among the populace, from zoot suit-clad youths to overzealous homeowners to various military folks, all of them operating a few steps behind sanity and good sense. The core 'joke' of the work is that Americans mainly wind up fighting each other in times of such high pressure at home, as war breaks out between uniformed white men and local Mexican-Americans, good citizens literally destroy their own homes in zealous defense, and US aircraft clash in the air due to silly misunderstandings involving aviation fetishes and outright psychosis. Elsewhere, there’s a forbidden love story, but it’s sort of tough for that to gain much traction when the romantic hero’s rival is literally transforming into a werewolf and must be subdued via tank.

But that’s just another element of the beauty that is Bissette’s and Veitch’s art - these young men are so excited to be making comics that they just have to unveil as much of their knowledge of the medium’s history as possible. Thus, all sorts of vintage horror poses are struck, passionate kisses take on the zippy gleam of classic romance, eyes pop and droplets of sweat fly everywhere, various newspaper strip characters get slipped into the backgrounds and margins (nothing quite like seeing the Spirit punching a man's brain out the back of his head!), and chicken fat abounds. But this is more mannered than the average Kurtzman/Elder spoof, more self-consciously encyclopedic in its reference, though hardly academic - the artists are too busy smearing gore atop photos of smiling ’40s boys and girls to deliver a dissertation on sequential style in the 20th century.

And it works well as a comic, especially as a comic that's so pleased to wheel in bits and pieces from all around comics history to bolster its brazen appeal. I can't imagine the film sustaining the same tone, as this adaptation is hardwired into the mechanics and history of its home medium, more so than almost any other license tie-in that I can think of. Plus, it might just be a superior work on grounds of simpler concern; apparently, the theatrical version of 1941 had to be cut down a lot, wrestling its runtime to just below the two hour range (the director's cut runs 146 minutes). I imagine that the film might have had a difficult time sustaining itself for that long, whatever its film-centric tone might be - the sequential adaptation never wears out its welcome, staying lean and mean throughout.

"In recent months, the question has arisen, is 1941 worth $30 million? That is not the important question; what's important is, is it worth four bucks! I think so."

Sage words from the future director of Hook and Alive, but maybe he doesn't go quite far enough. 1941 the comic is worth four bucks, probably a bit more - but was it worth making as a comic? Transitioning it from big money antic star parade to roaring work by hungry creators? Big mainstream work transformed into something halfway between past and present? Maybe I'll tell you more if I ever see the movie, but having this comic around is good, and there's a great chance it actually did better for itself than the monied interest that arranged its birth.