Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Mouse That Roared


As someone who is interested in the way people play with corporate-driven mass media, I was looking forward to reading the authors' argument about how Disney affects children's culture. Instead, I ended up having to slog through pages and pages of pedagogy about grass-roots democracy. There actually isn't much in here about Disney media itself. The passages that do cover specific movies and theme parks are very much taken out of context.

I suspect that the authors haven't even watched the cartoons or movies that they write about. They definitely have that old prejudice of all animation being primarily a children's media. Sure, Hannah Montana and more recent creations are carefully targeted to a youthful audience, but this wasn't always the case. And so we get:

“Donald Duck may once have comforted American children by dreaming in stars and stripes, but Mickey Mouse now marches with Chinese youth on the other side of the globe.”

Referring the 1940s propaganda cartoons as “comforting children,” is fairly misleading. Adults watched these along with the news features that ran in theaters before the main feature. One of the early Disney victories was the flocking of crowds of people just to see “The Three Little Pigs,” regardless of what movie was actually playing.

They even get Micky Mouse wrong, in a discussion of the video game “Epic Mickey:”

“One product, the video game Epic Mickey, revamps the character of Mickey Mouse in an alleged effort to make him more appealing to today's generation of youth. With Mickey's popularity in decline in the United States, Disney's market-driven agenda is visible not only in its willingness to transform the hallowed icon upon which its corporate empire was built but also in the very way it has transformed Mickey Mouse's character. The mouse will no longer embody a childlike innocence and generosity but will instead be “cantankerous and cunning” and will exhibit “selfish, destructive behavior.”

Not only is there an assumption here that the video game was marketed primarily to children, but there is a purposeful misleading of the intentions of Mickey's characterization. This Disney product was openly described in reviews and press releases as a returning to the mouse's original cartoon self, a typical mischief character.

This same game is played with adult movies as well. A discussion of Enchanted compares it to Pretty Woman, mentioning that film's female character arc of a prostitute who charms a man by acquiring the “appropriate mannerisms and designer dresses,” without mentioning that the male lead goes through a similar, though inverse learning arc. And, again, the implication is that Enchanted (or Pretty Woman??) is a movie meant for children, rather than typical fluffy adult fare.

There are a lot of interesting discussions about Disney's use of cheap overseas labor, among other problematic economic choices made on the corporate level. But these parts of the book have nothing to do with the actual thesis of how children's education can be affected by Disney media. Plus, I'm highly suspicious of the author's reporting of these events due to their lazy “interpretations” of product that I'm familiar with. It's as if they wanted to write a book about the dangers of an uncontrolled corporate media empire using Disney as the prime example, then decided to throw in some media studies chapters in order to get more textbook sales.

Not only do I not recommend this, I feel very sorry for college students who are assigned to read this mess. If you want an interesting, progressive slant on Disney from people who have actually consumed its products try Inside the Mouse, instead. For a good history of the company's history of conservative business practices I'd recommend Hollywood's Dark Prince. Or, heck, poke around on the web and come up with your own interpretations...

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Mouse on the Moon


Way back in the summer of 1990, I picked up a box of vintage 1950s paperbacks from an elderly couple having a garage sale. Mixed in with the Richard Nixon and Vance Packard was a skinny humor book called The Mouse That Roared. The next school year I would be amused to discover the senior class putting on the play version as a response to the Iraq war. Because that's what English departments do.

Not that I blame them. I think most of us at that age were horrified to watch the U.S. armed forces getting involved in a local dispute over oil prices. It seemed like a plot from a farcical novel.

And so The Mouse That Roared, in which the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the United States over wine exports. Of course, they don't expect to win such a war, but look forward to gaining foreign aid after being defeated in "battle." Hi-jinks ensue, as they will.

Not quite what happened in the 1990s, but still politically valid and funny. The "end" of the cold war was still ongoing, after all. The narrative of competition was still going strong. Perhaps that's why the sequel works for me after all these years, also.

In The Mouse On The Moon, the prime minister puts in a request for a loan to the United States, couched in a language to insinuate that the Duchy of Fenwick wants to take up the U.S.'s spirit of international corporation and start a space program. Really, the goal is to modernize the small country over the head of the opposition leadership. And buy the Duchess a fur coat.
"Mr. Bentner, representing, as has been noted, the workingmen of Grand Fenwick, was by the curious alchemy of politics a radical conservative. Although the word 'conservative' to him was an expression close to poisonous, and although he regarded himself as a progressive socialist, the fact was that in the interests of the workingman, he opposed all change in the Duchy."
Wibberley's spot-on parody of dialectic politics is probably even more relevant today, in our time of having a "liberal" yet fiscally conservative President opposed by "conservatives" who want to do away with long-existing government programs.

Anyway, the U.S. decides to give the small country $50 million dollars in aid, not expecting any actual rockets to appear, but to embarrass the Soviet Union in front of the world. Not that the rest of the world actually cares:
"Prior to the announcement there had been an open discussion of the problem of internationalizing space exploration -- to the utter befuddlement of some of the representatives of some of the younger nations. These, sent at enormous expense to New York from remote parts of Equatorial Africa, each nursing some acute problem concerning its claim to a gold mine or a section of a muddy river, or a thousand square miles of jungle into which few but pygmies had ever penetrated, found the great nations of the world at loggerheads over who should own the moon."
 Needless to say, Fenwick actually succeeds in coming up with a ship that can travel to the moon. The technology is based on a mythical radio-active element that occurs within certain types of the native Pinot Noir.  The idea of cheap, wine-based rocket fuel is a bit of silliness, but the author actually has done a lot of research into space travel and manages to justify some of the ridiculous aspects. And make fun of the U.S./Russia competition for getting to the moon using as much speed and power as possible.
"'We're in no hurry and a great increase in speed brings a huge number of problems...heat, for instance. The outer shell of the rocket would get heated up to such a degree that it might vaporize. Then there are meteorites which are microscopic in size...We'll just chug along at a nice, steady thousand miles an hour..'."
This is a quick, one-day read; a good plane trip book, perhaps. Because of it's shortness, there is a bit of jumping around. Rather than having segues, the reader is expected to keep up with little jumps in the plot as each chapter tends to concentrate on one pair of characters at a time. But this is more of a stylistic tic of 1960s humor writing than a failure of the writer. Also, if you are a fan of vintage paperback covers, this series features some art by illustrator Robert Bugg. So, go ahead, take a break and laugh at the world for a bit. While we still have it.
As they stood looking toward this appalling horizon which, though so distant, seemed near enough to touch, earth raised herself over the lunar desolation -- a lovely huge blue liquid jewel, hung in a sky of sable. The sight was so entrancing that neither of them could speak. It was magnificent beyond anything they had ever seen, and the light which earth now gave to the moon was not the harsh, blinding light of the burning sun, but a gentle bluish light, consoling as a benediction, taking the savagery out of the terrible craters and fissures and mountains of the moon and investing them with a softness that made them almost lovely in turn.
 'I never knew it was so beautiful, said Vincent at last. 'It is lovely beyond everything else in all the heavens.'
 'It is our home,' said Dr. Kokintz simply and sadly.'

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Batgirl and high expectations

Off and on I wrestle with the idea of blogging about recently released comics. I enjoy going through older issues, sharing the weird foibles that they have, the occasional brilliant artwork, and the usual awful world-view. But these stories from the last 30 years or so are specifically targeted to 12-year old boys with spending money. It's obvious that I'm reading these as an outsider socially, as well as being slightly dis-placed in time. Reviewing contemporary titles leads to a different problem of context.

Within the last ten years a remarkable consumer shift has taken place, particularly in the loss of a gender-specific readership. Comic-books have always been an odd part of American culture, portraying fantasy male characters to an assumed male readership. Other mass media outlets such as pop music developed sex fantasies for young women that doubled as consumable images for young men to emulate. Until recently, the female fantasy characters in mainstream comics held appeal for the hormones of young men, but weren't expected to be emulated by women.

If you poke around on the internets, it's easy to see that a new generation of female fans have taken to the perceived power and heroism in super-hero stories. And with this expansion of comic books to a new gender, there appears to be an expectation of higher quality. And of getting away from older stereotypes and simpler characterization. The current discussion over Batgirl is a great example of this.

In large part, this is probably due to the rise of a better educated generation. The combination of more students getting a college education mixed with the ability to look up any older form of media in online archives has led to a greater awareness of how writers and artists for mass media have inherited characters that express archaic hopes and fears. Batgirl is a trademarked variation on the idea that a superior man needs to perform vigilante actions to combat a weak-willed and corrupt society.

And this leads to a problem that seems to be more inherent to the industry than lack of representation. The dominant storyline is one in which Batgirl has to dress up in a costume and beat up someone else in a costume. No matter what the intentions of the writer or artist, every month a way must be contrived to allow this event to occur. Thirty years after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns supposedly changed the industry by showing this un-ending aspect of comic book heroism, theatrical battle is still the order of the day.

There is a place for using the graphic format to explore modern ideas, but I don't see how there can be any future in attempting to use genre characters grounded in a 1940s philosophy to do that. Most attempts, such as the 1970s Green Lantern/Green Arrow run, end up being embarrassingly bad and impossible to read on a serious level. And the best examples of the genre don't measure up against "real" books, or even non-genre titles such as Fun Home, in terms of their ability to delve into human nature.

And that's not what their function is. I would place titles such as Batgirl in the same category as wrestling or football. It's something that people read in order to feel a sympathetic victory with one "side" over another. And that may be where the conflict arises. No one expects to "agree" philosophically with a quarterback, but fictional characters seem to attract a higher degree of identification. And when that identity clashes with the readers' sense of self, the disconnect is felt as a betrayal by the writer or artist.

Perhaps my point of view reveals more about my being a jaded, cranky old man than anything else. I don't expect Disney or Warner Brothers to think of me, or any "outsider" as a target audience. I'm enjoying some of the new voices, and slight attempts at parodying the form that pop up in titles such as Ms Marvel or Secret Avengers, but in the end all protected trademarks will revert back to their original forms. Instead of "making" ethnic or gender-based variations on Captain America or Thor, I'd rather see new characters, owned by creators who feel secure enough in their jobs to honestly express their view of the world.

Then, at least, if they still put out books about scantily-clad people fighting other scantily-clad people, it would be more out of love for the weird genre than out of commerce. And criticisms of the text would actually apply to the author, instead of having to add the context of corporate editorial control. Otherwise, we might as well be trying to apply literary criticism to our toasters.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Man In The High Castle

Back to books:


In the spirit of this novel, before writing this week's blog I decided to throw the I Ching. I got Hexagram 48, which is "The Well."
"Deep waters penetrated and brought to the surface: The Superior Person refreshes the people with constant encouragement to help one another." 

That's fairly optimistic...

As for the surface, well that's this "alternative" 1960s America, which has been split by the conquering German and Japanese empires. Dick doesn't really project a thought experiment here; the two competing cultures are pretty much the same as they were in the "real" 1940s. Neither technology nor the rise of a new generation seem to have changed either society at all.

What the novel presents instead, is a balance between Japan and Germany, partly to reflect the Soviet/U.S. cold war dichotomy, but also presenting the idea of the Tao.


For this is the modern state of endless wartime. Agents belonging to one side need to infiltrate the other in order to keep the balance. Rudolf Wegener, pretending to be Swedish travels to California to provide the Japanese with the intel necessary to keep Germany from having too much power. Joe Cinnadella, a fake Italian, is attempting to assassinate the author of an influential novel. Frank Frink hides his Jewish identity and sells jewelry that starts the process of adding an American influence to the Japanese-dominated west coast culture.
"For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, 'stones rejected by the builder.' One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road. However in those cases the wu is within the viewer."
Which leads us to the old problem of interpretation. Dick claimed to have written this book by throwing the I Ching and working the answers into the text, which resulted in the end structure and abrupt ending. Like any good prophecy system, the verses are written in a vague and metaphoric fashion, leading the reader to fill in the spaces with his or her own story. Many of the passages within the novel seem to be written in a similar fashion.
"'An accurate guess,' the girl said. 'We are starting to decorate. A bit undecided. Do you think you could inform us?'"
Or this is just the author displaying a bit of orientalism. Much of the dialog, internal and external, seems to mimic the old Hollywood idea of how Japanese or Chinese people talk. This may be Dick's way of showing that everyone is speaking Japanese. It also resembles Joycean stream-of-consciousness, but given that the style carries over into dialogue, that's probably not the influence here.

 Outside of the concept, there isn't much else in the novel to recommend it. The brief foray into presenting the I Ching as some sort of self-aware intelligence powered by billions of human souls, and the usage of slavery as part of a caste system are both expanded and used to better effect in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (One could almost view Electric Sheep as a presentation of the Nazi world barely touched upon in High Castle.) The characters (presented with a bit of Freudian psychology) are all brought up short at the end of the novel, leaving many of them with unfinished arcs. We are given a tantalizing view of our reality through the eyes of one of Dick's proper Japanese men, but this is also not followed up on. Perhaps it's best to read this skinny book as it's own religious text, and read between the lines.
"He could not believe that. Even if all life on our planet is destroyed, there must be other life somewhere which we know nothing of. It is impossible that ours is the only world; there must be world after world unseen by us, in some region or dimension that we simply do no perceive."
Given the choice to travel to (to us) fictional worlds, would we pick the best possible one? Or just the one where the home tribe is the one in power?  Or is this the best possible one, where the balance is kept by constant conflict?

(ymajik on Youtube)

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Ten P.M. Cook Book!

Getting away from the heavy stuff today, it's time for a trip to 1958.

This is a nice little series that I like to pick up for collage work. I don't know how many were finally issued over the years, but this is #18. The drawings are by Tye Gibson, who seems to have specialized in cookbook spot illustrations. He or she had work published in many Good Housekeeping and McCall's publications through the 1960s.

This entry is all about "refreshments designed with guests in mind." The chapters are divided into fun categories, such as the typical "Holiday Fare" and "Refrigerator Readies." Especially amusing are the male/female divisions. Apparently when the "girls" get together, they like to munch on Ham Gala with some Crunchy Prune Cream on the side. As a "Hot Perk-Up," it's recommended to make a Butter-Cup, which consists of canned vegetable-juice cocktail with a pat of butter floating on top and a stalk of celery for stirring.

The guys prefer to munch on Chicken 'n' Olive Pin Wheels and Tuna Burgers. No drinks are recommended. By that point, they may have all just run away to the local bar.

If you find yourself assailed by unannounced visitors, then a culinary revenge can be had by serving Toasted Olive Rolls and Rainbow Coconut Balls. Really, one has to wonder at the ingredients in some of these recipes. War-time rationing was long over, so the excitement of being able to use olives or tuna fish should have worn off by now. I can only visualize a room-ful of cook-book editors wondering how far they can push the house-wives of America this time. "Hey guys, how about Tuna-Pineapple Dip? WAAAHAAAHAA."

For those of you that are curious, yes there are photos. And yes they are mostly disgusting. The above is probably the least offensive, showing Mock Pink Champagne, Green-Dragon Dip, Bacon Biscuits, Chinese Savory Chunks and Hawaiian Kabobs. It's good to have photo reference to make sure that your own Hawaiian Kabobs (Spam and pineapples) look as unappetizing as the ones in the recipe.

Beyond the recipes, these mini-books are interesting for portraying the housewife as a triumphant woman. The husband may have been off at his crappy desk job, bucking politics for promotions, but the Good Housekeeping wife was the one spending the money on carefully selected items. And choosing how to impress the neighbors and guests. Day or night, the American house goddess was ready to astound her family with Tiny Fish Balls or Bacon Pizzas. Hey, wait, that last one actually sounds good....

All hail the 1950s housewife! (Wine not pictured)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Foster's Lost and Found and Grossman's The Magicians

I've had for two more books since I've posted last (I really need to find a second job...):


     This was a fluffy thing about a modern Flash Gordon type who gets kidnapped into space along with a random dog. Now, I've read a lot of Alan Dean Foster, but most of those books have been movie or TV adaptations. It's something that he's very good at, fleshing out characters without deviating too much from a script. Without that script, he's a bit of a Terry Pratchett style humorist, with the same inclination to pose light moral situations. Here, it's all about not judging alien lifeforms by the way the look, but by how they fill in slots on the team, because we're all in the same gang, et al. His writing style on this is very thesaurus heavy, utilizing as many long words as possible to fill up the pages. That's not really a complaint, but it was a surprising change in tone compared to his earlier novels. I was, however, really annoyed by the dog character, who comes off as a refugee from a muppet movie. His intelligence has been artificially enhanced by the aliens, which gives him the ability to talk, but also gives him the ability to know about human concepts such as expressways and restaurants, which a dog wouldn't have experienced. I'm sure it's all in the name of comedy, but it comes off as irritating and stretches the fourth wall too much.

     I guess this is the sort of thing that people read on their long commutes. There's no real point to it unless you want obvious ideas of heroism and companionship confirmed for you. It has some funny moments, but not enough for me to recommend this outright. There are other books to read:


     I picked this one up because the sci-fi/fantasy crowd had been raving about this as some sort of post-modern masterpiece. I found it to be a badly written mess with some interesting ideas. Our main character, Quentin Coldwater, as befits his name, ends up going to the American version of Hogwarts. This actually skews toward an older student base, picking up at the end of high school. But the characters never stop acting like generic high school students, which I suspect is meant to be the "point" of the novel. Living in a world based on elements from Narnia and Harry Potter results in the production of adults without any emotional coping skills. Which would be fine, if reading about such things didn't come off as annoying. Every time Quentin comes to a point in his life where a normal person would mature and move on, some little deus ex machina occurs that prevents any character development from happening.

     The novel also isn't plotted very well and is presented in a ADD style where events and people are mentioned and then disappear for chapters at a time, without any sort of proper narrative segue. Perhaps this is just the new "post-modern" style, meant to mimic reality. In practice, it just makes the book confusing and makes one wish that there was an index. Sometimes entire passages appear which appear to be from an entirely different book. There's a chapter about the wizard school game "welters" (where everyone makes references to Quidditch, ha-ha post-modern again) that ends with this paragraph:

"He whipped his shirt off over his head. Ignoring the rising yelps of dismay on all sides -- it was so easy to ignore people when you understood how little power they really had over you -- he walked over to where Alice stood, dumbstruck, on her square. He would probably regret this later, but God it was good to be a magician sometimes. He hoisted her over his shoulder fireman-style and jumped with her into the freezing, cleansing water."

      This is supposed to be the culmination of a game that appears to be very important to the group of friends involved, but isn't presented with any clear resolution (the rules of the game itself are barely presented to the reader) and is never mentioned again. This whole chapter is spent on the welter tournament, but has no effect on the plot, or apparently, the characters. And I really can't figure out what, if anything, HAPPENED there. Is that a celebration of a winning move? Is Quentin purposefully losing the game? Is he losing beyond his control and trying to do something "manly" to prove that he doesn't care? I just can't tell.

     The frustrating thing is that this isn't an entirely terrible novel. There's a lot of thought given in to wizardly things; a chapter wherein the kids have to turn into geese to fly to another school and are then transformed into primal arctic foxes is particularly powerful. There's just no cohesion to these ideas, they're thrown out without any thought to the reader's place in the story. It's as if the reader is expected to be as directionless as the anti-hero Coldwater. Grossman just isn't a good enough writer yet to pull that sort of non-narrative off (as when we're given random, repetitious reminders that that Quentin really, really likes the "Fillory" (Narnia) books that he grew up with).  In the end, I'm disappointed, but intrigued enough to give him another chance in the future. Perhaps the next book in the trilogy will be better.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ray Bradbury's Long After Midnight (Part Two)

Continuing with my reading of Long After Midnight. Spoilers, as always.

original cover artwork for the 1976 Bantam Books paperback
by Ian Miller

Interval in Sunlight

For me, this was the highlight of this collection. Like the last story, this is a contemplation of wrong choices made in adulthood. A couple are vacationing in Mexico, hoping that this visit to a foreign country will help save their relationship (Shades of Jack Kerouac?). There is a terrible, passive-aggressive dynamic at work; the woman, a successful writer, is constantly giving in to the demands and verbal abuse of the man. I hadn't realized before reading this how rare it is for Bradbury to use a female as the focus of his storytelling, leading me to wonder if this is his way of obscuring an event that actually happened in his life.  It's also rare to see him move into this darker territory. What in the usual run of popular magazine stories would be a bittersweet and hopeful reunion holds no redemption here. The writer is trapped in her ties to this man who is jealous of her career (escape is blocked by panic attacks and the general need to not be alone). Powerful and honest.

A Story of Love

Another one of the Spaulding clan, a young Douglas, falls in love with his teacher. Awkward, and peters out without any kind of direction. As innocent as he tries to write, even Bradbury can't make this end well.

The Wish

An interesting variation on "The Monkey's Paw," and a Christmas story to boot. A man makes a wish at midnight on Christmas Eve and gets to meet his father one last time. Of course they get to say "I love you" to each other, which they never did in real life. Fairly maudlin, and a bit embarrassing.

Forever and the Earth

Another one of his "tribute" stories. Thomas Wolfe is kidnapped in time to a far future where, apparently, no one can write. He's commissioned by a eccentric rich man to take a rocket to the moon and write a novel about it. Some of Bradbury's best writing, with a nice poetic ending, but I doubt that any modern readers feel as strongly about Wolfe as he does.

The Better Part of Wisdom

This one stands out as an early attempt at expressing tolerance of a male/male relationship. A dying grandfather visits his grandson and finds a young man in the place of where he expected a young woman. If it was left at that, the story would work better, but it goes into one of those Bradbury childhood flashbacks. Instead of just accepting an adult relationship, it has to be justified with the ideal of innocent love. This is probably Bradbury's biggest fault as a writer; he constantly goes back to the idea that everything was better for those few years when one had no responsibilities. Even heartbreak is somehow purer for children.

Darling Adolf

An unlikely scenario wherein a Hollywood crew are filming a Hitler movie at the actual places in Bavaria where he came to power. It all leads up to a re-enactment of the Nuremberg Rally and a refutation of anyone who expresses nostalgia for the Nazi years. Doubly embarrassing is Bradbury's attempt at casual swearing as one of the Hollywood guys calls Hitler's inner circle "superfags." 

The Miracle of Jamie

I found this one to be an interesting failure. It starts out as a typical Bradbury story about a young man who is convinced that he can create miracles by just thinking really hard. Towards the end, it veers towards realism as Jamie realizes that he can't actually affect everything, and his mother dies. And it's this change in tone that doesn't work. I found myself so trained to take the author's magical realism for granted, that the "true to life" ending came off as the artificial part.

The October Game

This is one of Bradbury's masterpieces. As a kid, I read this and didn't get the nuances at all, more intrigued by the Halloween game where people pass around parts of a "dead witch" in the dark. As an adult, this is a bitter story about a husband who feels threatened by the domesticity of his wife and daughter. One of the few times where things are left as unspoken as is possible within the bounds of the story, letting the reader put the pieces together in their own mind. And one of the few stories about murder which is somehow still acceptable enough for children's anthologies.

The Pumpernickel

A wasteful few pages about an older man reminiscing about his youthful days. Probably meant to have an ironic ending, but this territory has been covered many times in better ways by our author.

Long After Midnight

A twist ending story about a crew of ambulance drivers who pick up a young suicide one night. There's a question of whether changing the sexual identity of the victim changes the feelings one has for them, but no discussion of the question thereof. Probably just meant to give magazine readers something to talk about at the water cooler.

Have I Got A Chocolate Bar For You!

A story of a priest's re-gaining of his faith, triggered by a man who comes to confession because of an addiction to chocolate. Cutesy and forgettable.

And that's it. This collection really peters out at the end. Too many of these are filler, obviously written for last century's magazine market; stories meant to be read for the moment and then tossed away. Instead of hunting this paperback down, the general reader may be better off purchasing The Stories of Ray Bradbury, which contains "Interval in Sunlight" and "The October Game" or the most recent edition of I Sing The Body Electric which contains "The Blue Bottle" and "Drink Entire." The rest of the stories here are probably skip-able to all but the most die-hard fans.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ray Bradbury's Long After Midnight (part one)

I'm halfway through this collection:


It's a better than usual collection of short stories, helped by the fact that there are a number of Mars and Green Town stories that read as outtakes from Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine. A few of these are from the 1950s, but most appear to have been written for Playboy in the 1970s and show more of his "adult" side.

Some thoughts. Spoilers ahead.

The Blue Bottle

This first piece is a beautifully written Mars episode. There is a legendary bottle that confers upon its discoverer their heart's desire. The interesting twist is that the people crazy enough to hunt after this relic are neurotics who want "an end to doubt, to torture, to monotony, to want, to loneliness, to fear, an end to everything." An ordinary guy, just along for the ride, picks up the bottle and discovers bourbon. The 1950s rat-racers, destroying crystalline Martian skyscrapers with their coarse yells, find the final peace they've subconsciously wanted all along.

One Timeless Spring

This is a "prequel" to Dandelion Wine. Douglas Spaulding is the first of the boys to realize that they are soon to lose interest in games and past times. As it was in the novel, the Waukegan ravine from Bradbury's childhood is the focus point for change, as Doug ends up kissing a girl in the wild area that once provided him with imagined adventures.

(photo by Pam D. on Yelp)

The Parrot Who Met Papa

Here we have a tribute to Ernest Hemingway, who I could care less about, but appears to be a hero of Bradbury's. The main interest for me here was the amazing take on Truman Capote and his entourage. A Cuban parrot whom Hemingway had been whispering secrets to for years has been kidnapped by "Shelley Capon," with an intended auction to the highest bidder. The dialogue between Bradbury's and Capote's avatars are marvelous, with the author being non-judgmental, yet showing the ridiculousness of Truman's hipster scene.

The Burning Man

A slight scare tale involving Doug Spalding and his Aunt picking up a hitch-hiker in her famous car on the way to Lake Michigan in the middle of a drought. Interesting mention of the Waukegan asbestos factory that in modern times is best known for destroying the lake shore with pollution, but skippable.

A Piece Of Wood

One of the few sci-fi pieces that justify the cover blurb. A man has come up with the means to turn all weapons into rust in his presence. This is an obvious threat to the military-industrial complex, leading to an ambiguous ending involving reversion to the wooden club. A bit heavy-handed, even for Bradbury.

The Messiah

A fascinating counter-point to "The Martian" from The Martian Chronicles. The thought-sensitive shape-changing native who is running from the mob in that story ends up in a cathedral and picks up the stray thoughts from the local priest. This priest had been entertaining some of his fellow religious leaders, expressing the wish to meet the Messiah when he ever returns. As tough as it was for the characters in the previous story to let go of their dead, the need of this humble man to be in the presence of Martian-turned-to-Jesus is heartbreaking in Bradbury's prose.

G.B.S. - Mark V

An odd space-faring tale about a man who talks to a robotic version of George Bernard Shaw. This consternates his ship-mates who would prefer he spend his time with the sex-bots in the rec room. A not quite successful comment on manly peer pressure, but fun for its faux Shaw dialogue.

The Utterly Perfect Murder

Another Green Town story. Doug Spalding, as an old man, decides to go back home and kill his childhood bully. This is a problematic story about how, as children, we really love our tormentors. For the attention, I guess? Didn't work for me at all. I don't care how starved someone is for friendship, no one really harbors secret love for their bully.

Punishment Without Crime

A very rich man rents a robot version of the woman who turned him down. He "kills" her, which turns out to be a crime equated with actual murder. No real deep philosophy here; more of a meditation on guilt.

Getting Through Sunday Somehow

Every now and then, we'll get one of these Ireland stories. Here, Bradbury is inspired by a fellow pub-drinker on a dreary Sunday to go out and thank the people who give him a little pleasure in life. He then encounters a street harp player, and almost ruins her playing by making her self-conscious of the effect she may have on those around her. It sound trite in description, but this has some of the better poetic passages so far, and doesn't have an easy solution for needing a non-religious way of thanksgiving.

Drink Entire: Against The Madness Of Crowds

My favorite piece so far. On a burning New York day (oh those pre-air conditioner days...) a failing middle-aged businessman is randomly riding the trains and wandering the city when he comes across a storefront sign for MELLISSA TOAD, WITCH. A chance at changing his life is offered, presenting the possibility of contentment and success, but also presenting the threat of change and domesticity. The central symbol of this story is the woman who sleeps in a block of ice, used here as in Something Wicked This Way Comes as an expression of closely-harbored male desire.
"There she slept the nights away, a Princess of Snow. Midnights, he and other boys snuck out to see her smile in her cold crystal sleep. They stood half the summer nights staring, four or five fiery-furnace boys of some fourteen years, hoping their red-hot gaze might melt the ice..."
This is the Bradbury that affected many of us as young readers, an author who knows the dark fear that separates the young boys from their futures. He's an author who gets accused of dabbling too much in nostalgia, but a closer look at the bright summer days of his youthful fiction reveals adult fears and neurosis lurking within the deep ravines.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Let's Go Shopping (Like It's 1988)

Hey, kids! Today, we're going to visit 1988! What do people do in the late 80s? They go shopping, of course!

Hooray! Fertilizer!

Like most children's book publishers, Western needed to update their core titles every decade or so. This one was performed by writer Steven Lindblom and artist Kathy Allert, who illustrated many of these 80s Golden titles, and worked on an extensive line of paper doll books.

...and sometimes Daddy locks her in the closest until her medication kicks in...

This is a beautifully rendered, but truly horrifying, document of the values that were meant to be instilled in Generation Xers, pastels and all.

Five cans! That's more than your daddy!

For the most part, there are no workers illustrated in these wonderful layouts. Just aisle after aisle of sterile, repetitive consumer goods. It's as if this family lives in a Dadaist art installation. There is no high-interest credit, no low-paid labor, all these things just EXIST  in some sort of Platonic shopping mall.

Poor people have it so easy with their empty carts!

The shopping trips are also interestingly divided among generic sexual lines. Daddy takes our Punky Brewster clone to the hardware store, bookstore, and auto-parts store, buys oil and a canoe paddle at a department store, and then stops to buy "flowers for Mommy." Mommy gets to go to the grocer, the candle shop, the pet store, the clothing store and the shoe store. Then, Daddy goes to the "farm store (!)" and takes his daughter shopping for a toy for her brother. The brother who doesn't exist in this world of shopping.

"No dear, we just had guinea pig for dinner last night."

Now I don't know about you, but I never found shopping to be a fun childhood experience. Even in 1988, with computer registers and extended shopping hours becoming fairly common-place, it was still a grueling marathon of marching and waiting in line for long periods of time. Still, it was understood that part of this process was the consequence of having to spend the least amount of money in one place.

So many pre-determined sex roles to choose from!

Treating shopping as a magical activity just makes things worse all around. Unless you are one of the few who really can buy anything you want, whenever you want, there is a whole world of responsibility and consequence that children should be learning about. A world like the one talked about in this 1958 Golden Book:

In the 1950s, even dogs were well-educated consumers.

Which brings us to an interesting cultural point. In the space of one generation, Americans turned from Eisenhower-era fiscal responsibility to Reagan-era credit spending. Now that my generation has to deal with the consequences of their parents not paying for things, who is going to stand up and take the blame?

"Have a balloon America, don't worry about who's steering the cart."

Friday, October 31, 2014

Cranky Comic Books: Casper Space Ship #1

Hi kids! I didn't have a chance to blog last week, so this time around you get a special, longer edition. The better to cover this monstrosity:

Casper Space Ship #1, August 1972

(this copy is in really bad, water-logged condition, I've done my best to clean up the scans, but there may still be some wonkiness.)

In 1972, at the tail-end of the moon program, NASA decided to name the Apollo 16 Command Service Module "Casper." Harvey comics, of course, released an unofficial comic book to tie in with whatever public interest would be aroused by the event. As far as I can tell, there wasn't any, even with the release of a pop single by the, um, Comix.

If you really must listen to such a thing...

The book starts off with a short story "explaining" how NASA came to want Casper as a mission mascot.

Yes, some of his monster friends have stolen an amusement park ride and are buzzing the countryside. Needless to say, this puts the military at DEFCON 1. But it's all right because Casper flies over and tells the sweat bead bedecked generals that it's all right.

And so NASA decides to put a picture of Casper on the Apollo mission, just in case any near-by space aliens get frightened. Yeah, Harvey comics never make any sense. Check out this panel from the following Spooky one-pager:

That's the punch line kids, SPOOKY IS WEARING TWO HATS! Due to their pursuit of bland, family-friendly entertainment, Harvey publications may have been inadvertent pioneers in the realm of avante-garde non-sequitur comics.

Anyway, back to another short story. It seems that The Ghostly Trio and Spooky are jealous and decide to ride on the spacecraft to the moon. Casper out-flies them and ends up going by himself.

Be warned, that will not be the last time in this comic that Casper giggles. Oh, it's text story time!

All comic books, if they wanted to be delivered by mail via the periodical rate, needed to have two pages of text to qualify. In this issue, Casper and Wendy are stuck indoors on a rainy day, so he makes up some nonsense about Hercules and Gnomes.  In an earlier one-page strip, Wendy is portrayed as a ditz who has to be informed by Casper that the Earth rotates around the Sun. This is not a healthy relationship.

When we get back to the main story, it's revealed that the LEM has come to life because "STRANGE THINGS HAPPEN WHEN THERE'S A FULL  MOON!" And there follows a nightmarish sequence where he chases Casper around the barren moonscape.

The story is set aside for a bit to present some two-page stories. Again, they don't really have a punchline, unless the punchline in Harvey comics is meant to be the characters themselves. You know, Little Dot likes dots, Little Lotta likes to eat and Nightmare the ghost horse has no self-esteem. Funny!

Meanwhile, Casper discovers that there is less gravity on the moon. and giggles. again. He also discovers that the moon rover is also alive, but is much less scary. This might have to do with the fact that NASA seems to have based their design for moon transportation on the Fisher-Price telephone.

Anyway, Casper just makes friends with everybody, because that's the solution to all our problems involving psychotic technology.

There follows a few really bad stories about Spooky and Wendy that aren't worth going into here. The very last short, though, stands out due to some unusual layout and coloring desgins by the anonymous Harvey artists.

Tee Hee! Wendy's aunts have sprinkled her with a magic dust that causes her to fly to the moon. They are tired of her "mooning" over Casper. And I can't blame them.

Yeah, comics for girls, everyone! Oh, all right, for teens, also.

Groovy baby! Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cranky Back Issues: Battlestar Galactica #5

Today, from the 70s "junk" pile, I've pulled out a copy of Battlestar Galactica #5!


This one is cover dated for July of 1973. Unlike later issues, this is an adaption of a specific television episode... "The Lost Gods of Kobol, Part Two." Roger McKenzie, Walter Simonson and Klaus Janson are all credited together. And it's quite the interesting mix of talent.

There's a lot of story to cram into 17 pages. After the obligatory splash page, Simonson and Janson use a lot of small panels lined up in rows, alternating with short, long horizontal panels to help us get caught up on the action. Apparently, the fighter pilots (who are all male) have all succumbed to some sort of terrible disease. That's what military leave will do to you, I guess.

While the ship doctor is dealing with multiple cases of space syphilis, Commander Adama takes a moment to remind us of his obsession with 1970s ancient astronaut literature. I'm sure this is all meant to be a commentary of the nobility of one man sticking to his faith, but he comes off as a bit nutty by today's standards.

Besides not having the concept of separation of church and state, our space-faring colonials don't seem to understand equal rights for women, either. The sexy, sexy Walt Simonson women in this episode/issue have taken over for the laid up and sickly fighter pilots. Considering that very few people left on the Galactica actually have military training, it's odd that this is an issue at all. Like most popular sci-fi, the culture presented on screen actually represents the culture consuming the media.

At least the women don't get themselves easily captured by Cylons, as Starbuck does here ("OH, FRAK!"). And how cool are the Cylon ship designs? The good guys are flying obvious variations on X-Wing fighters, but the bad guys have weird flying saucers to zip around in.

And of course, the cyclopian Cylons themselves have imprinted themselves upon our perceptions of the shiny, disco 1970s. Until The Empire Strikes Back was released, these guys were probably more in our conscious than the Star Wars stormtroopers.

And so, Starbucks disappearance leads his friends to question their mortality and, dang it, get married. This is a wonderful panel; it's so rare these days for a monthly action comic to take a moment for romance. Also, Glynis Wein's coloring job is outstanding. The book has a wonderful muted palate that helps keep the story from verging into high camp.

Just as our kids are getting married, THE STAR appears. Apparently, this is different from every other star in the universe. And in orbit around this mysterious star is that planet from Stargate with all the pyramids. 

Upon exploring the surface, however, Adama doesn't find Jaye Davidson. He instead finds that great friend of humanity, Baltar. After proclaiming himself to be a victim of the Cylons rather than a betrayer, our heroes grudgingly let him tag along on the field trip.

Schhooooh! In another great Simonson/Janson panel, Adama's disco medallion picks up the light from that special star, causing a secret door to open. Behind that door is revealed THE CRYPT OF THE NINTH LORD. Baltar isn't impressed and opens up the mummy case (!) that lies within. Instant earthquake.

In actuality, the Cylons have decided to attack planet Kobol, despite their human leader being on the surface defiling tombs. They've also dropped off Starbuck among the female pilots, who are just hanging out among the pyramids. Luckily, the virus sub-plot has resolved itself and the men can ride off to the rescue, yee-haa!

Of course, the cavalry (male and female together) drives away the Cylon menace, as Baltar is buried in the mummy crypt. And so all is well. Except two wandering bad guys sneak up on the human camp and kill the newly married Serena, leaving a bunch of guilt-stricken grieving men. This is a fairly existential ending for a kid's comic book, driven home by the final, melancholy panel. 

This isn't the X-men, kids; the book will go on to supply new stories that take place in-between television episodes, but Serena will stay dead. Television never picked up on the weird need that comic book readers have for their characters to live on and get recycled, over and over again. If you were a young boy reading this in 1979, this may have been your first facing with death. Comics, kids!