This month in PopCulture25YL, we’re taking a look at the music, shows, video games, and whatever else we want from the month that was March of 1994.
VHS in the VCR
Duckman by Rob King
Duckman at age 25; it’s hard to imagine as its lead character showed up in the March 5, 1994 pilot already grizzled from a life well-suffered and surrounded by absurdity. Given that, Duckman is a character that ages surprisingly well. The absurdities of the mid-nineties which are the backgrounds of each episode remain today, though projected somewhat differently. For instance, perhaps televangelists’ messages are somewhat muted in today’s world swirling with DIY streaming channels, but many of the show’s threats remain: manipulation of audiences, oversexed commercialism, technology worship, etcetera. If Frasier was the sophisticated and clever show of a blue collar man thrust into the pretentious, highbrow environment of his two sons, Duckman is an unabashedly crude, slick, and loud show about a blue collar detective (“private dick/family man”) who is driven mad by family and friends he desperately relies on. It was a hit on college campuses, but slack in ratings. As writer and producer Ron Osborn was quoted as saying in its original run “It’s gratifying to know that college kids have gatherings to watch the show because we are after that kind of hipness, but my response to them is, ‘Go home and watch it separately so our ratings can go up!’” While ratings were low, the show was in good favor with critics for an adult animation sitcom, and it had a surprising high-profile fan in none other than … Elizabeth Taylor. As an article from The Los Angeles Times states, “Elizabeth asked for all of the completed episodes, and requests for cassettes have also come from the likes of Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg.”
In 1996, the Duckman character was tapped to support a $1 million-plus ad campaign on the internet for a college-targeted website and appear in a Time-Life informerical for Rolling Stone’s Sounds of the ‘80s music collection. Jason Alexander, fresh off his fame as George Costanza on Seinfeld, was a perfect voice for the angry and irreverent private investigator whose partner, a pig, sounded like Joe Friday of Dragnet. Adapted from an indie comic by Everett Peck, the animation had a raw style that followed well on the heels of MTV’s recently canceled Liquid Television. Then, in today’s environment of Adult Swim and Rick and Morty, Duckman plays perfectly. Instead of a humor that looks at the sciences and physics theories, Duckman transports today’s audience right back to a cynicism specific to the 90s but not lost today. As Robert Goldberg pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article “This animated film noir—or film jaune—owes a debt to everyone from Sartre to Bogart to Howard the Duck.” The opening soundtrack was composed by Frank Zappa, and his son plays Duckman’s oldest son, Dweezil. Reruns would play well alongside Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, and while Duckman is packed full of more bon mots and violent slapstick than the former, it would be hard not to see one or the other seamlessly walking onto the other’s set.
 Steve Weinstein, “He’s Not Daffy, or Donald—He’s ‘Duckman,’” Los Angeles Times (Jun 25, 1994): p. OCF1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
 Liz Smith, “’Duckman’s’ Biggest Fan,” Los Angeles Times (Apr 19, 1994): p. F2, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
 T. L. Stanley, “’Duckman’ Takes Flight,” Mediaweek 6, no. 10 (Mar 4, 1996): 28.
The X-Files by John Bernardy
“Miracle Man” was the only episode of The X-Files’ first season that came out in March of 1994. It was okay, but felt light on the supernatural despite Samuel Hartly being a faith healer who can actually bring people back from the dead. Mulder has visions of his sister Samantha regularly in this episode, but otherwise the conflict is from the people who run Samuel’s church. They cause the ruckus and get Samuel put on trial. He’s then killed by angry people who thought he took advantage of them. But later on his body is missing from the morgue and he may or may not be walking around the town. The story is serviceable, but not what I come to X-Files for.
At the Comic Shop
Books of Magic #1 by John Bernardy
At the time I read this first issue, I only knew Neil Gaiman wrote Sandman. Maybe I heard he’d written a four-issue miniseries about an archetypal Harry Potter type by the name of Tim Hunter—years before Harry Potter, mind you—but it didn’t strike me as a must-read (but it totally is). I didn’t even know Tim was a character in the DC/Vertigo crossover from the past Fall called Children’s Crusade, nor had I read tie-in Annual titled Arcana: Books of Magic by John Ney Reiber and Peter Gross. I came in cold to this character, and I was immediately entranced by the Charles Vess cover and the gorgeous Gary Amaro artwork. Reiber’s writing was the icing on the cake.
This issue establishes the kingdom of Faerie is dying while Queen Titania wants to be delusional about it. Her ex Tamlin the falconer wants to wake her up to the decimation and also to bring Tim Hunter to Faerie to save the place before all the magic dies. Tim is destined to be the strongest mage of his time, after all. And, he may or may not be Tamlin’s kid.
Books of Magic was angst-filled, classy and existential the whole time. Tim had the best side characters in Molly O’Reilly and Barbados the demon, and even a ton of his old imaginary friends brought to life now that he’s an actual magic user. Rather than larger-than-life Dr. Strange stuff, Tim had more of a battle between truth and lie. He lived the introvert’s struggle of trying to embrace being part of the world when he may belong instead to a more interior (and however fragile) magical one. He also wrestled with his potential as a magic user, and to date BoM is the best portrayal of imposter syndrome I’ve seen in comics.
There are few series I collected all the way through its run, but this was one of them. I have all 75 main issues, the multiple Books of Fairie miniseries and Annuals, and stayed on when Peter Gross took over the writing chores (And it got better! And more proactive!). This book is magical, and needs to be collected beyond its first year in trade paperback and digital edition. If enough of us wish it to DC, maybe we can magic it into being…
Wing Commander III by Will Johnson
I come from Generation Y, but don’t dare call me a millennial. My particular group, born in and around 1982, was a bizarre generation because our pop culture assimilation, likely between 1990 and 1994, the time when we imbibed and consumed the pop culture that would later define us as young and full adults, was during the crossroads of the analog and the digital.
As a twelve-year-old, renting a laserdisc at the “video” store was still an option, albeit a decadent one. I cherish my double-disc laser of Star Trek: Generations while I still had Back to the Future on VHS. I bought Soundgarden’s Superunknown on audio cassette but purchased Aerosmith’s Big Ones a few months later on CD. Hell, I had Green Day’s Dookie and Weezer’s Blue album on CD too. In the end, you still had multi-media options and the line wasn’t yet drawn on what you chose.
And the same applied to video games. In 1994, it was all the rage to go into Circuit City and see that pretty kick-ass video of a Tyrannosaurus Rex running around on a computer screen. Those were simpler times, when a fifteen-second video playing on a new, crisp computer could keep our attention for, well, maybe four times that. It was CD-ROM and it seemed so much more elegant and advanced than the gaming console systems I had at home.
Now, unlike music and movies, an expensive game system was basically up to your parents and what they could tolerate and afford. In my neighborhood in Tampa, my friends and I came from middle class backgrounds so we were able to usually get one console. In the end, what you got is what you were loyal too and my household was a Sega Genesis household (though I do remember having a Super Nintendo at some point. It must have been a matter of consistency as the first console we ever had was the original Nintendo).
Regardless of how many systems I had, Sega was the console that ran the household and SNES was usually the back-up. I got all the new games on Sega. I usually rented or got SNES games at garage sales. Their was a hierarchy. And the product that didn’t quite make the cut in this hierarchy was PC games (and, thus, an actual PC).
My family were late adopters to PCs so it was years after the battle lines were drawn on what PC games were supposed to be until I had one and enjoyed the developed benefits. Unlike the console wars or the multi-media taste testing of my pop culture crossroad heyday, PC games had essentially come and gone. Did I play some? Yes, but they didn’t enter a time when my brain was a sponge and thus I didn’t inherit them into my soul.
But something tells me that if I could have just played Wing Commander III at just the right time…March of 1994 for example, when the game was released…I might have been a PC gamer. I could probably have talked my parents into getting a PC earlier. I might have even tried. But either from a lack of a compelling argument or likely getting distracted by all that blood in Mortal Kombat, it never happened.
But boy, did I want to play Wing Commander III. Without having a single clue on what Wing Commander was, the ads alone, showing Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill as the lead and Biff Tannen as a dickish pilot (amongst–I would learn when I became a bit more film-educated–many other genre legends, such as Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies), in what appeared to be a Top Gun/Star Wars/Babylon 5/Star Trek: The Next Generation kind of thing. As the advertising intended, the gameplay was secondary to spectacle and novelty (maybe even gimmickry), and I was hooked.
Wing Commander III might have been the most discussed game of my childhood and, well, I never even played it. In fact, I still haven’t played it! But I looked at the crossover media (the books, ads in magazines, etc.) and would see demonstrations at electronic stores. “You get to play a movie?!” Much like that Tyrannosaurus Rex video I mentioned before, the idea of playing a video game that was basically a movie was intoxicating.
When I learned that March 27th, 2019 would be the 25th anniversary of Wing Commander III, I had to turn the apocryphal into reality and find someway to play the game. Now, I’m an old man now so video games elude me. So, what better than to watch the entire cut scene movie plus actual gameplay! Yes, it exists. You can find one version here.
So yes, I watched almost six hours of game footage. Have you ever watched someone play a video game? It’s kind of boring. So the actual gameplay, which was clearly revolutionary at the time (though, like many things in 1994, was during a crossroads of experimental CD-Rom technology and what would become the standard), is pretty static and repetitive. But so is Super Mario Bros. What brings us back to a lot of these things is nostalgia and loyalty. I have no loyalty to Wing Commander III so I kind of grinned and bore it as those scenes played out.
What didn’t lose its charm was the cut-scenes. As you can see in the link above, there was almost as much movie as there was gameplay which must have led to some epic game binging for the lucky young nerds not named Will who got to play it. Though Full Motion Video was not new to the genre of video games (see Dragon’s Lair for instance), actually filming entire movies, with live actors and sets (though sets is being generous; it was usually a few chairs or environment appropriate props surrounded by green screen) was pretty innovative.
Though it looks considerably stiff now, with actors essentially working with nothing but a few props and a lot of exposition, there is a charm too it that I enjoyed. Mark Hamill carries the whole thing as a battle-weary veteran pilot who tries to protect his friends, find his love, and keep his rag-tag group of hotheads and misfits together to fight a bunch of cat people in spaaaaaacccceeeeee.
The “film” itself hits all the expected plot points but, again, 1994 was an era where the idea of a movie on a computer inside a video game was novel and that alone pushed the player past some of the rudimentary narrative.
Though inflation doesn’t make a huge impact on 1994 dollars, Wing Commander III’s budget was still $4 million (almost $7 million today) (link: ) so regardless of the quality now, in hindsight, what you were getting back then was a higher budgeted film than 1994 Best Picture Academy Award nominee Four Weddings and a Funeral.
So did I accomplish my childhood dreams and get the one that got away from me two and a half decades ago? In a sense, yes. I was able to place myself mentally in 1994 and tried to see what I was seeing through my twelve-year-old eyes. And while a thirty-six year old mind, growing ever cynical, can’t replace moving a mouse and pushing buttons on a keyboard, I could, at least for six hours or so, pretend. And that is what video games did best: made pretend one dimension closer to reality.
CDs On Rotation In Our 6-Disk
Selena releases her final album and Brian Setzer Orchestra puts out their first this month, and Our Lady Peace hit my radar with their song “Starseed”, but there is just too much to write about this month, hence a third edition of this feature for March. Here are the albums we had no choice but to talk about:
Phish – Hoist by J.C. Hotchkiss
Let me start by saying, back in 1994 I knew who Phish was, but I was not a huge fan. I do remember going the mall and seeing Hoist in the record store window. The album cover bothered me a bit, because that poor horse looked so limp and lifeless as it was being lifted by the middle, and poor thing was plastered across the window in Technicolor in a mall record store. Fast forward to now, and I am married to one of the largest Phish fans in the whole wide world. The amount of times I heard songs that came from Hoist, is too innumerous. I can say with strong conviction that there are some damn fine tunes that came from this March 1994 album. “Down with Disease” is one I remember listening to back in the day. With its jammy bass starter, Mike Gordon sets the tone for a real fun song about someone (actually Trey Anastasio’s writing partner’s) bought with mononucleosis. This happens to be one of favorites, off the album and played live. You’ve got the feel good sway tune of “Sample in a Jar” and another good jam in “Wolfman’s Brother”. “If I Could” is not a favorite, but I guess it has its place as being a little toward what Phish would consider a ballad.
Hoist is one of Phish’s best-selling studio albums, which for a band who is best seen live and doesn’t really have those fan favorites that stick in your head as part of this album, means quite a bit. Though you tell me what you think, was Hoist your favorite in 1994?
Tim McGraw – Not A Moment Too Soon by John Bernardy
McGraw is country music royalty for a reason, and if that status wasn’t begun by now this album started the debate. The album was right in line with the popular Country music of the day which was leaning hard into 70s Classic Rock that was a popular enough format at the time it had at least two radio stations in Chicagoland devoted to it at the time. “Indian Outlaw,” for example, reminds me of the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman.” But probably the song that aged the best is the somewhat maudlin “Don’t Take the Girl,” which if you ever wanted to make a roomful of high schoolers cry between 1994 to 1998, this is your go-to. The song doesn’t hit me like it used to, but it’s a heartfelt tear-jerker above the rest and I’m happy to own my fondness for it.
Pink Floyd – The Division Bell by John Bernardy
This is a classic Pink Floyd album. I don’t care if it came in during the grunge era, or that Roger Waters wasn’t part of this. David Gilmore and Richard Wright—this is Wright’s last album with the group—made a good one with lyrics help from Polly Samson. Its themes mostly deal with how communication can solve problems. The Division Bell is right in Pink Floyd’s wheelhouse in the best way.
The opening track “Cluster One” reminds me of a transmission coming from space, but then its sparse guitar/piano lines come in and fondly remind me of the soundtrack to the TV mini-series version of Stephen King’s The Stand (coming soon in this feature!).
“What Do You Want From Me” could easily fit on Dark Side of the Moon. “Poles Apart” had a country slide guitar in the mix as well as an interlude of fairgrounds sounds which was fit for any psychedelic album. “Marooned” is as ambient no-vocals guitar piece that could sit well with parts of Wish You Were Here but does well here in its own environment.
“A Great Day For Freedom” is a somber subdued ballad with a political bent. “Wearing the Inside Out” almost has a smooth jazz vibe with its saxophone but then the vocals come in and it’s another that could hang well with older album tracks. “Take It Back” was a big radio hit and is the closest to Joshua Tree era U2 this band will ever get. “Coming Back to Life” steps back a little at first but it goes Top 40 friendly after two and a half minutes.
But before the album dives too far into pop, the band brings back their edge in the moody “Keep Talking.” The singer and a choir do a call-response formula on the vocals, and it’s got a good intensity to it. I was not familiar with Peter Frampton or his Talk Box, but the band appears to use one on this song and it still gets me excited to hear it in the mix with the guitars.
“Lost for Words” turns almost folk except for its very Floyd interlude in the middle. And “High Hopes” rounds out the album with church bells and a piano riff that gets stuck in my head. It’s dramatic but not too over the top. It felt like a mission statement from the band, and it acquired a strings orchestra along the way to go along with the guitar.
I haven’t listened to this album in a long time. I was nervous I wasn’t going to like it as much as I did when it opened my ears to Pink Floyd and classic rock in general. But it holds up nicely. It’s definitely in my top five albums from the band, which is saying something when this is their 14th and they have so many classics.