A One-In-A-Million Shot: Writing the Williams Comet

Geoffrey V. Carter
Saginaw Valley State University

My wife and I first discovered the Comet in the back corner of the rundown Piccadilly Party Store convenience store in Mt. Pleasant, MI. In its heyday, the Piccadilly serviced the candy cravings of a nearby elementary school children and visitors to Island Park. By the time my wife and I started dating in the early 90s, the main thing the store had going for it, besides the Comet, was that they still sold glass bottles of Mt. Dew. Compared to the affordable date made possible by the digital display pins and a slice in the pizza joint near our Central Michigan University dorms, the fact that this pin only charged a quarter meant that it was a cheap date. The fact that she was willing to split a bottle of Dew made it a really cheap date. And part of its thrill, beyond giving us a destination to walk, was that the artwork of the game seemed somehow strangely connected to the store. The dingy and dusty rows of the Piccadilly were matched by the dingy and dusty carnival midway depicted on in the backglass, playfield and cabinet artwork.

The Comet’s backglass depicts a motley assortment of rollercoaster riders in cartoonish contortion: A red-headed Dennis-the-Menace-type-of-kid is in the front row (w/ his freckled sister) and he’s ice cream cone is in the process of being unleashed into the face of an old woman (wearing a cross) behind him. Sitting in the far back, with his arms outstretched like a plane is a guy who looks curiously like Jim Belushi. What is perhaps most striking about the backglass and playfield art, however, were the strange, sometimes unsettling details: The image of a little black girl with with eyes wide open and cornrows on her head was struck a note of insensitivity, especially when considered in light of a young Chinese rider with decidedly slanted eyes. Closer inspection of the playfield (near the left outline) depicts a naked woman tied to the railroad tracks, and some of the figures walking around the carnival hinted at qualities of Freak Shows (Mr. T? Coneheads? Billy the Evil Clown?). For whatever reason, these depictions felt “wrong,” even as the pins challenge of the duck/rabbit hit-and-win firing range, a Corkscore and Comet rollercoaster ramps, and a skee-ball style motorcycle jump seemed innocent enough.

Fifteen year laters, I thought we had it all, but forgot --and who could forget?!-- the Williams' Comet? It all came back to me when I watched the documentary, Special When Lit (2009) on the history and industry of pinball machines It re-kindled an interest in finding our particular machine, and--incredibly--I found one just twenty minutes from my hometown. I say “incredible,” because the seller had it listed in Iowa (IA), but after calling just to talk about the machine, we realized he had mis-typed Indiana (IN) into the ad, and that his Indiana town (Fremont) was adjacent to my Michigan hometown (Hillsdale). I bought the Comet for $800 and spent new few years trying to get it work like the one in the Piccadilly. The center ramp was warped; the scoreboard displays didn’t work; and many of the switches failed to produce the sounds that my wife and I recalled from the games of our early courtship. Before I finished repairing everything, we had three more equally challenging pins to repair, and I started to take more seriously the history of the artists and designers of these classic games.

Further research on the Internet Pinball Database (http://www.ipdb.org/search.pl)--an invaluable source of pinball lore from an active pinball discussion board—revealed that the Comet was based on its designer, Barry Oursler, and his nostalgia for Chicago's Riverview Park. Indeed, a close inspection of the playfield plastic--up near the corkscrew ramp--bearing the name "Steve's Sweets." This was Oursler’s ode to Steve Kordek, a pinball designer legend who passed away at the age of 100. In exploring Oursler’s relationship with Kordek in a series of on-line interviews in Clay Harrell’s “This Old Pinball Podcasts” (i.e., TOPCast), I discovered that Oursler (like Kordeck) started out on a pinball factory line soldering before designing original games. Kordeck’s appearance in Oursler’s game was that piece of intertexuality that was one of the elements that brought together an academic sensibility with a game playing, professional one. It also accounted for the voice of the person who shouts “A Million!” on the Comet’s famed “Million-In-One-Shot” on the third ball if the top rollover lanes are lit. (I say “famed” because the Comet was the first machine to make such a high stakes shot a feature. And for me, this discovery that Oursler was drawing in his former teacher reminded me a great deal of how both musicians and academics often cite each other in both playful, and serious ways ways.)

No doubt my biggest revelation with the regards to the Comet was the discovery of its artist Python Anghelo. Python, I came to discover was a former Disney artist who emigrated to the U.S. when he was 17 from Translyvania. I discovered that I had already been introduced to his artwork through his most famous video game, Joust, and that perhaps the irreverent drawings on the Comet was part of a style that extended to all races. The more that I came to understand Python’s fiery personality and the grotesque-elements of his cartoon style, the more I began to see him in the light of famed Zap Comix artist--and equally controversial figure for his depictions of race and gender--Robert Crumb. Python, of course, is different from Crumb, but perhaps something that Crumb once said about underground comics applies equally well to the Python’s feeling about leaving Disney to join the pinball industry. Crumb said, “When people say ‘What are underground comics?’ I think the best way you can define them is just the absolute freedom involved…we didn’t have anyone standing over us.” While Python most certainly did have corporate interests like Williams and later Capcom standing watch over him, he didn’t seem to hold him back in his various depictions, especially if one considers the legend behind his Python’s designing an X-Rated pinball machine called Zingy Bingy, a machine that perhaps is nothing more than an extension of thinking that went into other sexualized games like The Bride of Pinbot.

As noted in the introduction to this collection, I had an opportunity to share elements of this collection with Python. It’s a collection that I also note was made, in part, possible by Ron Brooks’ Enculturation 2011 essay, “The Mechanical Bride of Pinbot.” So far as Python’s personal reaction to my video on his work and the Comet, he never said. No doubt my fusing his effort with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze seems to miss his emphasis that pinball should simply be enjoyed and not over-analyzed. (From Deleuze’s perspective, while my video suggests a rhizomatic reading of his feelings about the mind as pinball machine, I think within the context of the interview that Deleuze is suggesting that just letting ideas bounce around randomly is a rather empty exercise.) For me, however, the intensities of both their work were generative for me in thinking through an approach to composing that many in rhetorical studies are calling a shift from print-based literacy to the hybrid-style of electracy and videocy. In many ways, my movement from the history of the Comet to the various ways this machine encounters other comets is a sampler of the thrills I’ve been undertaking elsewhere in learning more about the interconnectiveness of pinball designers and philosophical systems. It’s an interconnectiveness that I’ve tried to represent by pulling a back coiled plunger :::::) to three different silverballs “O” and tracing the path(s) of that ball through the swerves of found in a line of tildas: ~~~~~~o

To be sure, there are distinctions to be made in the many different paths my video takes. There are, for example, certainly more differences that exist between pinball and philosophy, just as there are between the cartoon styles of Python and Crumb. And yet, as Python says in an interview, he was never permitted to simply to engage in “free play or free form” without first “copying the masters”; it was only after doing justice to these precursors that one is permitted to throw that work in variation. I’ve tried to honor this sensibility in my video. Yes, while it’s true that amateur scientists like Harry Lovejoy--who tracked Comet Lovejoy’s 600 year orbit and recent near miss with the sun--may be uncomfortable about my joining his actual comet’s tail to Python, I am attempting to illustrate something that Python says in an interview. He says that it may take people 500 years to realize that his art is not is not so different from the years it took to recognize the genius of Michelangelo. While the comparison may be cartoonish to some, I’m willing to entertain the collision of these two distant Ang(h)elo’s. Sure, such a linkage with Lovejoy’s Comet is off by an entire century, but in pinball, the difference of only 100pts. still usually suggests that a good, close game was played. Or, to put all this in the [remixed] words of one of the earliest gamers of all-time, the sophist, Gorgias: “I wished to write this speech [make this MLArcade video] for Helen’s encomium [Python’s memory] and my amusement.”