What Were They Thinking? Some People Never Learn

Stephen Rauch

This comic could force us to re-examine our categories and ideas of originality and creativity in the comics industry.

What Were They Thinking? Some People Never Learn

Publisher: BOOM! Studios
Contributors: Basil Wolverton (Artist), unknown (Artist)
Price: $3.99 (US)
Writer: Keith Giffen, Mike Leib, John Rogers, Chris Ward, Andrew Cosby
Item Type: Comic
Length: 24
Publication Date: 2006-03

Silly, Silly

Anyone following mainstream superhero comics (especially DC and Marvel's offerings) knows that it's been getting dark for a while now. Heroes are killing people, mind-wiping villains, people are getting raped and tortured, and it's gotten bad enough that the government is going to step in. It's all gotten so... grim. And, as these things tend to do, it's generating a backlash among people who don't want their four-color crack to be so dark. People who want comics to be, well, fun.

That's the best explanation for BOOM! Studios' recent What Were They Thinking? Some People Never Learn. The premise is simple: Keith Giffen & company (as they are identified on the cover) take old sci-fi comics (the look of the art definitely suggests the '40s and '50s era), throw away the dialogue and narration, and write their own What's Up, Tiger Lily? style -- the cover description is "Classic Comics Remixed." There are five short stories contained in this book, which screams Mystery Science Theater 3000 so loudly that I can't get through two panels without imagining the words being spoken by smartass robots. (On second thought, perhaps a more appropriate comparison is Adult Swim's Sealab 2021.)

The overall effect is funny as hell. In the first tale, Giffen and Mike Leib turn an alien invasion story (drawn by Basil Wolverton, apparently the only artist who could be identified) into the adventures of "Drew Fist: Earth's Fussiest Defender" -- a germ-phobic, metrosexual mystery man who foils a plot by a dastardly alien race to drop all of their garbage on Earth. (The women on the planet Harridan 7 are enormous, so a flying saucer crashing through a building becomes a giant diaphragm.) This is the longest story of the bunch, and probably the funniest (Drew's change into a superhero suit with gas mask is explained, "I'll have to break out a maximum strength sani-suit! Can't risk coming into contact with girl cooties!" To which the narrator replies, "That's right. You heard right. 'Girl cooties.' Hey! It's a legitimate concern!")

Next up, John Rogers turns a tale of intrigue aboard a luxury liner into one man's journey into his own mind and tortured libido. (Sample dialogue: "Pardon me, are those space-pants…Wait. MOM!?!?! What are you doing here?" "What are you doing here? I've got a nooner with Ralph Bellamy and Orson Welles.") Then Chris Ward (in the first of two very short stories) adapts an Egyptian archaeological dig into a futuristic world ruled by fast-food chains. Ward's second story involves a '50s-template gentleman spouting "jive" pick-up lines and getting hypnotized back into a medieval, Prince Valiant-like world. (When he meets a girl there, she says "Praise you, brave knight! I am called Linda. Verily, my interests are: arranged marriages at 14, serfing, rat catching and dying in childbirth.")

Finally, Andrew Cosby's story is "Fan Boy," the harrowing tale of George Lucas being held hostage by a twelve-year-old boy from the future (think Misery) and forced to rewrite the Star Wars movies. The horror comes when the boy finds that his interference has led to a world with not six movies in the series, but 22 (complete with requisite "NOOOOOOOO!!!!!").

The art is exactly what you would conjure to mind with the phrase "generic sci-fi" or "stock '40s comic art." And here, Giffen and the rest use it purely as a foil to have a good laugh. And it is funny, for the most part. I could go on quoting lines of dialogue, but it might be one of those "you had to be there" things. Keith Giffen is definitely the headlining name, which is appropriate, since along with J.M. DeMatteis, he is perhaps best known as the architect of the funny, pre-angst incarnation of the Justice League of America. The writers all have a good deal of fun at the expense of the dour sci-fi/fantasy clichés -- alien invasions, archaeological digs, Medieval transplants -- as if to remind us that comics has a place for levity as well.

There's also something interesting about the relationship between the art and the words in comics. This relationship can be anywhere from meshing seamlessly together to working completely at cross-purposes; here, the words puncture any sense of gravity that the original artists may have been trying for. Since words and pictures were written decades apart, and the words tell a story that is surely very different than what the original creative team must have intended, we face the question of originality -- what, exactly, are the writers' roles here? Creators? Co-creators? Or merely re-mixers (or worse yet, scavengers)? Much like no one is really sure what to make of a "mash-up" DJ who superimposes two different songs, What Were They Thinking? could force us to re-examine our categories and ideas of originality and creativity in the comics industry.

Still, maybe we shouldn't worry about all that too much. Maybe we should just sit back and have a good laugh. Because academics and cultural theorists fall into the same trap as grim 'n gritty superhero comics and their writers: forgetting that it's supposed to be fun. And, well, the stories here are just too silly to think about too long without laughing.

The world of comics has been steeped in nostalgia for a long time. Love of one's childhood favorites just might be the most powerful force in the industry today. And while most of the nostalgia seems to be focused in the "Silver Age" characters of the '60s and '70s, there is also quite a bit of reverence for older stories. (The art in What Were They Thinking? seems to come from the era before the superhero genre came to dominate comics publishing in the US.) But it is worth noticing that, while some of the older stuff may be classic, a lot of it was pretty goofy. Gloriously goofy.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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