Monday, March 31, 2008

They're not real--but, by golly, they should be: Part 1: The Two Scrooges


We are indeed our brother's keepers. We really are responsible for each other--obligated to use whatever resources God gives us to help others.

No work of fiction makes this point more effectively than Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," first published in 1843. It's a story that's been told and re-told countless times--it may very well hold the record for the greatest number of movie and TV adaptations (both live action and animated). It seems as if every sit-com ever aired has done a "Christmas Carol" parody at some point.

You'd think by now we'd all be sick of it--that the plot would now come across as so corny that it would lose any dramatic effectiveness it once had.

But that's not the case at all. The story is as effective today as it was 165 years ago. This is largely because of Dickens' straightforward and witty prose and plot development. His skill with his characters is also responsible--Scrooge especially could have come across as mere caricature, but we have no trouble accepting him as a real person. After all this time, his journey from a prison of greed and selfishness to true redemption is still charged with honest emotion.


I've posted stuff about Ebenezer's namesake before, but Scrooge McDuck is such a cool guy, it's a good idea to pay him an occasional return visit.

The great artist/writer Carl Barks created Scrooge for a Donald Duck story in Four Color Comics #178 (1947). In his initial appearance, Scrooge was pretty much a caricature of a stingy old man--existing largely as a plot devise to thrust Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie into an adventure.

But the character hit a chord with readers and Scrooge returned for more stories, eventually getting his own comic book in 1952. His character grew more complex, though his basic character traits always remained intact. He was still stingy to the point of absurdity and he was often still consumed by greed. In fact, he keeps the bulk of his fortune in a giant money bin--in which he often goes for a swim.

But we also learn that Scrooge earned every last cent of his fortune by "being smarter than the smarties and tougher than the toughies." He's an adventurer and his fortune means as much (0r perhaps more) to him because of the memories it holds for him than for it's monetary value. Here's a dollar bill that's part of the money made prospecting in the Yukon. This quarter was a portion of his salary when he navigated a riverboat down the Mississippi.

Perhaps most importantly, we learn that Scrooge (though he is often loath to admit it) really does care deeply for his friends and family. It's this balance of stinginess with both humanity and a love of adventure that makes Scrooge so memorable.

Most Scrooge stories also featured Donald and the three young nephews. Often, the plots would involve foiling yet another attempt by the Beagle Boys to loot the money bin. In other stories, Scrooge would take off to some remote part of the world in search of a hidden treasure. Great art, solid plots and clever dialogue abound throughout the best of these tales.

Many talented writers and artists have contributed to the ever-growing Scrooge mythos. But those stories by Carl Barks, pouring humor & adventure & real emotion into every story he produced, are still the best of the lot. What could have been a one-joke character has grown into one of the most entertaining and enduring characters in fiction.

Gemstone Publishing recently put out a trade paperback titled Uncle Scrooge: A Little Something Special, reprinting some excellent Scrooge stories by various artists. There's a great qoute from the introduction by David Gerstein:

"Were Scrooge suddenly, one day, to exist in our real-life world, few of us can say we'd like to work for him; but almost all of us would find it inspiring to meet with him. Even though, should the meeting take place, it would likely end with our being unceremoniously thrown out of his money bin through a trapdoor."

Ebenezer Scrooge & Scrooge McDuck: They're not real, but by golly they should be.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Superman, the Spider Lady and 15 chapters of pure fun.

Superman's first appearance was, of course, on the cover and in the pages of Action Comics #1 in 1938, but such was his popularity that he was soon spilling out into other media. His enormously entertaining radio show (with Bud Collyer playing Clark Kent/Superman) went on the air in 1940. In 1941, the Fleicher studio Superman cartoons--which still rank among some of the most entertaining animated shorts ever made--began rolling out into the theaters.

A prose novel written by George Lowther (who also penned radio scripts for Superman and the Shadow) was published in 1942. A newspaper comic strip was also going strong during ththe '40s.

Superman's first live action foray into the theaters came in 1948. Superman was a 15-chapter serial produced by Columbia picture. Kirk Alyn is an effective Superman and very believable as the meek Clark Kent. Noel Neill has yet to be toppled from her throne as the prettiest Lois Lane ever. Former "Our Gang" member Tommy Bond is Jimmy Olsen.

The first chapter is an excellent retelling of Superman's origin, starting on Krypton with Jor-el vainly trying to convince his fellow Kryptonians that their planet is about to blow up. Jor-el saves his infant son by sending him to Earth via rocket, where the boy is adopted by the Kents. The first chapter ends with a grown Clark Kent on his way to Metropolis when some criminals attempt to sabotage a speeding train. Will Superman be able to save the day? Wait till next week to find out.

As the story unfolds in the successive chapters, Clark and his fellow reporters fight the machinations of the Spider Lady, a criminal mastermind trying to get her hands on both some Kryptonite and a destructive new ray gun.

A few months ago, I was baby-sitting four kids (between 6 to 11 years old) every Friday night for some weeks. For most of each evening, we'd play games or I'd let them play with stuff from my toy collection. But every time they were over, we'd pause for 15 minutes to watch another chapter of Superman.

At first, I had no idea if they'd enjoy this particular old black-and-white artifact, but they had no trouble at all getting into it. Though they mentioned a few times they wished it was in color (kids nowadays--whataya gonna do with 'em?), they were otherwise were enthralled from start to finish.

I was very strict about watching only one chapter per week--thus giving them the pleasant experience of a cliffhanger. We started keeping track of the number of times Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen were knocked out by crooks--thus holding a contest of sorts between them.

The best part of the viewing experience was when Superman would take flight--this was done by having the live-action Kirk Alyn transform into an animated Superman. If anything would make a modern child sniff disdainfully at this serial, I thought, it would be that primitive special effect.

But instead, their reaction was "Hey, he turns into a cartoon! Cool!" They loved it and easily accepted it as the way things work in that particular corner of the Superman universe.

Unfortunately, my baby-sitting duties came to an end before we could move on to the 1950 sequel Atom Man vs. Superman. In fact, in order to finish the first serial, I had to cheat a little and let them watch two chapters a night the last few weeks I had them over.

Both kids and adults nowadays are often spoiled by modern special effects and reluctant to give the beauty of black-and-white photography a proper chance.

But it can be done. If you can get a kid to sit down in front of an old movie serial or Ray Harryhausen film or any old-time entertainment, then the power and charm of good storytelling will get 'em every time.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The War That Time Forgot

top cover by Russ Heath
bottom cover by Ross Andru

In 1960, dinosaurs were (as always) popular with kids. World War II themed comics were also selling well. So why not drop a remote Pacific island full of dinosaurs into a World War II comic book?

That basically was the logic behind "The War That Time Forgot," a series of adventures that ran in Star Spangled War Stories from 1960 to 1968. A few additional stories later appeared in Weird War Tales and a couple of stories from the original run were reprinted in the 1970s in G.I. War Tales.

The stories, written by Bob Kanigher, were rarely more than servicable in terms of plot or characterizations, but the art work was always first rate. And that's why these particular stories existed in the first place--so we could see soldiers wielding tommy guns, bazookas and grenades desperately doing battle with a variety of prehistoric fauna. It is one of those rare cases in which story really is completely secondary to the images.

And, boy-0-boy, did this series deliver in that regard. Top notch artists such as Ross Andru, Russ Heath, Joe Kubert and Neil Adams all did time on the series. The covers alone are worth the price of admission. But inside those covers, we see a tyranosaur ripping the turret off a Sherman tank; or a stegasaurus battling a squad of Marines; or a horde of pteradactyls doing battle with a B-17. It doesn't get any better than that.

That darn island of dinosaurs still pops up in DC comics from time to time. Superman, the younger Green Arrow and Black Canary have all visited the place in recent years. The "War That Time Forgot" is not yet forgotten by its fans--it was a geeky, silly idea for a comic series, but the world is a better place because of it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Fleischer Studio Popeyes

Last year, Warner Brothers put out a wonderful DVD set featuring 60 of the original, mostly black-and-white Popeye cartoons.

One of the many really neat qualities of the Popeye cartoons (and the Fleischer cartoons in general) is the seamless mesh of animation with music. These cartoons are timed to perfection--body language, movement and action all exquisitely match the accompanying music, which makes watching them an addictive experience.

One of the cartoons--The Man on the Flying Trapeze--is one of the few I had never seen before. It's so much fun to watch, I replayed it three times before finally moving on to the next cartoon on the disc.

Of course, now I have the song stuck in my head, but I've learned to live with that.

The DVD set is worth getting, both for the cartoons and the nifty little documentaries. But you can also see many of these cartoons on-line (most, if not all of them, have fallen into the public domain).

So if you want to risk being glued to your computer screen all day, unable to do anything productive, take a look at this link:

The Man on the Flying Trapeze

Monday, March 17, 2008

Take my wife---please

These are two of the many, many excellent pulp magazine covers painted by Walter Baumhaufer during the 1930s. Take note of how both covers use blank, single color backgrounds, allowing your eye to focus more fully on the action in the foreground.

Take a look also at the girl on each cover. It's the same gal--just with different color hair. This was actually Baumhofer's wife, who often acting as a model for him. Hardly a month went by during the 1930s without poor Mrs. Baumhofer being once more placed in deadly peril.

I've often wondered if he placed her in heroic situations when he was happy with her--but if she was nagging him about not doing the dishes, he'd portray her about to get gunned down by a gangster.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dinosaur Movies: Part 7

If I absolutely had to pick my favorite movie special effects scene, I admit I would have a bit of a struggle. The Kong vs. T-Rex fight from the original King Kong would be on the short list. So would Ray Harryhausen-animated scenes such as Medusa in Clash of the Titans and the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts.

But I might, in the end, go with the cowboys vs. Allosaurus scene from The Valley of Gwangi. A few men on horseback go after Gwangi the dinosaur with lassos, hoping to rope him into submission and use him as part of their Wild West show.

They don't stand a chance, of course, but it's a worthy effort.

The Valley of Gwangi is a little slow getting started--the human characters are only mildly interesting and it takes 'em all a bit too long to get to that darn valley. But once there, the movie takes off like a bullet. They encounter a pterodactyl, which almost makes off with the young boy who accompanies them. Then they run into Gwangi. This eventually leads to their attempt to lasso the big guy. Gwangi drives off the humans and has a nifty fight with a styracosaurus before he's eventually caught and brought back to civilization.

Bringing a prehistoric creature back to civilization is never a good idea, though. Gwangi gets away, fights an elephant and stalks the hero through a huge cathedral.

All of this is made to work by Harryhausen's astonishing skill as an animator. He gives Gwangi life and personality--I love the brief moment where Gwangi pauses to scratch his nose. And--as I stated above--the scene in which the cowboys try to lasso the beast is simply magnificent.

This ends the dinosaur movie series--there's a lot more dino movies out there, but I've covered the cream of the pre-CGI crop. I will return to the subject of dinosaurs in popular fiction from time to time, though. Dinosaurs are, after all, far too cool to ignore.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hopalong Cassidy: Still in the Saddle

What I like most about William Boyd--the actor who played Hopalong Cassidy in over 60 films, a TV series and a radio series--was that he took his responsibility as a role model seriously.

I mean, he really took it seriously. Prior to playing Hopalong for the first time in 1935, he had drank, gambled and cheated his way through 4 wives. But as soon as he took the part of the cowboy and became a hero to countless children, it was as if someone flipped a switch. He cleaned up his own personal life, stayed married to his fourth wife until his death in 1972 and became as sincere a role model in real life as he was on film.

In 1950, the Hopalong movies found new life on TV and the character was suddenly more popular than ever. Literally thousands of fans would show up for his personal appearances and his lunchbox (the first ever produced that featured a celebrity image) sold like hotcakes.

Boyd made a bunch of half-hour televsion episodes to sell to TV stations along with his movies. In 1950, he also recording episodes for a syndicated radio series.

The radio show was quite good--well-written and well-directed. I listened to one particular episode this weekend titled "Apaches Don't Use Guns" that I think deserves special mention.

In terms of plot, the episode was nothing that hadn't been done a zillion times in films, books, TV and radio. A band of Indians besiege an undermanned army post. Been there, done that.

But, despite this lack of basic originality, the episode is downright enthralling. Well-paced, with good acting and sound effects, it manages to keep the listener on the edge of his seat throughout the story.

Also notable were some nice bits of characterization, especially a calvary officer who at first comes across as an arrogant jerk, but later proves to be honorable and brave. A moment in which Hopalong acknowledges this--despite having earlier been treated rudely by the man--is a nice touch.

Obviously, originality and innovation will always be a vital part of storytelling as a whole. But Hopalong's radio show demonstrates that skilled storytellers can also cover the same old ground and still be entertaining.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dinosaur Movies: Part 6

Everybody remembers One Million Years BC (1966) as the movie in which Raquel Welsh wears the fur bikini. She also had perfect hair--apparently, female hair care was invented even before the wheel or fire.

But my inner 8-year-old primarily remembers the magnificent Ray Harryhausen animation. A caveman vs. allosaurus fight; a ceratasaurus vs. triceratops fight; an all-too-brief shot of a brontosaurus walking through the desert; a giant turtle that I used to think was real (it was too life-like to be stop motion, I wrongly assumed during my errant youth).

It's all magnificent. The movie is a remake of a 1940 film that used photographically enlarged lizards to represent the dinosaurs. The remake does have a big lizard (and a big spider) appear briefly, but it otherwise sticks to stop motion to give us "real" dinosaurs.

The plot itself is perfectly servicable. Tumok of the barbaric Rock People is exiled from his tribe. He falls in with the peaceful Shell People. Despite helping save a child from a hungry allosaur, his uncouth ways tick off the Shell People and he's told to leave. But the beautiful Loana has fallen in love with him. She tags along with him as he braves the carnosaur-filled wilderness.

The plot, though, is really just an excuse to set up the dinosaur set pieces. Some of Harryhausen's finest work is on display here. My personal favorite scene is the fight at the Shell People village between the humans and a small (well, maybe 9-foot-tall) allosaurus. It's a perfect blend of animation and fight choreography.

But Ray Harryhausen's single best dinosaur moment would come three years later. We'll take a look at that one in Dinosaur Movies: Part 7

Monday, March 3, 2008

Yet another magnificent comic cover

This one is by Wally Wood--its a reprint (which is why the price is $2.50 rather than .10) of an issue of Frontline Combat from the early 1950s.

This is another example of exceptional composition. The cover is perfectly designed to take your eye in a circle through the action--from the plane in the distance--to the burning baloon--to the plane on the strafing run--to the unfortunate German soldiers.

Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales (both published by EC Comics) featured realistic, intelligent war stories with excellent characterizations. The lion's share of credit for their high quality goes to artists like Wally Wood. He was unquestionably one of the best in the business.

By the way, I'm pretty sure the planes are Spads, but I'm not as knowdgeable of WWI aircraft as I am those of WWII. If anyone can confirm this (or correct me), please post a reply.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...