All Hail the Men of the Mess! Pt. 1

I love this time of year. The crisp air, the turning leaves, the excuse to wear an overcoat… and the legions of scary movies. Chief among these, for me, are the Universal Monster movies of the ’30s and ’40s. Once upon a yesterday – nine years now, actually – I wrote a five-part series about them for Critical Mess, and I keep telling myself that I need to update that.

What’s Critical Mess, you say?


A long time ago, from 2006 to 2013, it was the place on the web where elitist comic-snob bastards could come together, sip their virtual brandy, adjust their virtual monocles, and argue such comic book minutiae as had never been civilly argued before. Where we could wax poetic about what color green the Mattel Spectre’s cape should be, or if Doctor Fate’s helmet should be painted gold or vacuum-formed gold plastic.

For seven glorious years, it was my virtual home. I made a number of friendships that continue to this day, have had the pleasure of meeting several men of the Mess in person more than once, and can credit Critical Mess with jump-starting my writing career. Some of us used our real names — John Moores and Jim Beard immediately spring to mind — but most of us employed handles: Doc Terrific, Chooch, measle, Haterade, Palinore, pootboy, and so forth. I was Coffee Joe, and these guys were — and still are — some of my best friends.

I was one of its administrators, and its art director. That meant that I was responsible for its visuals – and 99% of its graphics. In short, with a little guidance from the membership and the other admins, I designed its look and feel. With the exception of the atomic clock logo (designed by M. Mrakota Orsman — “Mirthquake” to his friends) and one or two banner images, the Mess was my graphic baby.

We all knew from the start that we wanted to go with a retro vibe, heavy on the Atomic Age with some Silver Age comic influences. The membership voted on each of the various forum names and, once they were set in stone, I went to work.


The general forum of the board. Here, members engaged in normal, non-specific, day-to-day conversation. The name was derived from the main body of the United Nations, so a matching image seemed appropriate. The font is inspired by that used in the London Underground.


The purpose of The War Room (or Der Var Room) was to give members a place where they could make suggestions for Critical Mess, be they about design, layout, features, etc. The aforementioned Matt Orsman came up with an initial design which took its inspiration from Dr. Strangelove, and his image directly influenced this. The original idea was all his, including the colorization of parts of Peter Sellers; this particular execution is mine.


Anyone who bought comic books from the 1950s through the 1990s knows precisely what a spinner rack was, so that seemed the logical name for the board wherein we discussed comics. I was a bit stuck on what to do with the font, so Matt lent a hand on this one; the gradient and translucent starburst were his contributions.


Alien paranoia found its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, from the purported Roswell crash right through the dawning of the space age. The title of the action figure board derives its name from that. I thought it would be cute to people the banner with nothing but green action figures, and — since aliens and the army fighting was a common movie trope at the time — using action figures of green aliens versus plastic army men seemed the perfect visual.


In the early days of Critical Mess, before that was even its name, several of the forum’s boards were named after various aspects of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. One of them was named Happyland, after a faux-amusement-park-but-really-a-prison on the planet Apokalips. We all decided to incorporate “Happyland” into our film board, since A. it was a nice nod to the Mess’s roots, and B. it honestly sounded like it could be the name of a drive-in. (The film showing on the screen, incidentally, is The Day the Earth Stood Still, perhaps the ultimate in Cold War paranoia played out through science fiction.)


Because what screams “vintage television” more than the old black-and-white test pattern? Matt had submitted a design using them as a background as well, with an enlarged chief head in the center. I used some of his design and opted for an actual ON THE AIR sign to add a bit of dimension to the image.


We went back and forth for a while about the name of the music board. The first choice (and still my favorite, incidentally) was “Radio-Active!” which I thought was a clever pun. “Let it Rock!” eventually won out, though, so a chrome-inspired font in front of a vintage radio seemed the way to go.


The creature features of the 1950s introduced a new generation to the monster movies of old. When we decided on Mad Science! as the name of the board devoted to various tech gadgetry, gaming, prop replicas, etc., using imagery from the classics was a no-brainer. When we thought of mad science, the work of Ken Strickfadden – property master for Frankenstein – came to mind. Here, Ernest Thesiger appears (in his role as Dr. Septimus Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein) alongside a Tesla coil. The font, Green Fuzz, recalls that which was used on the old Crestwood movie monster books.


This is a board I really pushed for. We weren’t all comics and toys all the time, none of us. So where could we go to talk about our other interests? Originally called Culture Clash, I suggested the name Study Hall, and it took. Besides the vintage camera, I decided to go with a Lichtenstein print (and not give him a lick of credit, just like he did to all of the artists whose work he blatantly stole and from which he got famous), a page from The Catcher in the Rye, and the first edition of The Joy of Cooking. And, given the studious nature of the board’s name, Pop Warner was the only logical font to use.


Rumble! was where members went to have it out with one another. Instead of starting a flame war and completely derailing a thread, members were encouraged – and eventually required – to take it to Rumble. This baby was all Mirthquake. My design featured James Dean and Marlon Brando, and quite frankly sucked. Matt took an image from West Side Story and just created the perfect graphic.

Critical Mess survived in style for the next seven years. We had contests, features, interviews galore, and some of the smartest writing found on any fan sites. The graphics didn’t remain static, either. I switched them up for different holidays, and completely redesigned them for the fifth anniversary. Additionally, each of the columns and contests had their own graphic look, and I had a ball with them.

But I’ll save some of that for the next entry.

Until then…


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