These Should Exist: The Movie Novelization edition

One of the things I tend to skirt around covering here at Branded is the crop of modern films and cartoons that very heavily influenced by the 80s, either in setting or just straight up homage.  There are a bunch of cool flicks and TV shows that fall into this category, stuff like Netflix’s recent Stranger Things, JJ Abrams’ Super 8, or the handful of 80s era cartoon re-launches (including Danger Mouse and Voltron.)  I’ve been enjoying a lot of this stuff, but I usually take a pass on covering it here since there are a ton of other websites doing a much better job of taking a look at that stuff.  That being said, there is a modern movie that I wanted to touch on, one that I’ve found myself watching and re-watching on an almost monthly basis, Michael Tully’s 2014 throwback comedy Ping Pong Summer

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The flick centers on the Miracle family as they embark on their yearly summer vacation in Ocean City, Maryland.  Specifically the film follows the young Rad Miracle, a kid who enjoys rocking out to the funky beat of the Fat Boys, Mantronix, and RUN DMC, breaking in his cherished pair of red parachute pants, and playing ping pong.  While at the beach Rad runs into his new best friend Teddy Fryy (spelt with two Ys), an awkward kid who loves to rap, falls for the town hottie Stacey Summers, and gets into a beef with a local bullies Lyle and Dale, all culminating in an epic battle that can only be decided with a devastating match of ping pong.

I came to this movie through my fiancée a couple of years ago when we were still living in separate parts of the country.  Jaime grew up in the Baltimore area and spent years going to the boardwalk in Ocean City, so when she found out that there was a movie set in that era she had to see it opening weekend.  This movie just clicked for both of us.  For Jaime, Tully managed to capture a story on film that felt amazingly authentic to her experience growing up, and aside from experiencing that through her vicariously, I fell hard for the visual style, an amazing soundtrack, the humor and some pretty obscure references to some of my favorite cult films including Troll 2, Rad, and No Retreat, No Surrender.  I also loved the casting of the flick, not only for the group of unknown kids that killed it in the flick, but also for really fun turns from some 80s mainstays like Lea Thompson and Susan Sarandon. I could go on and on about how much I love this flick, and if you really want to get deeper into my thoughts on the flick you can check out episode 26 of the Cult Film Club podcast where Jaime, my bud Paxton Holley of the Cavalcade of Awesome and I spend and hour and change gushing about how much we dig this flick.

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I’ve had the opportunity to chat with the writer/director of the film, Michael Tully, who is a very awesome dude with great taste in film and a great sense of humor.  It’s kind of a bummer that ultimately, Ping Pong Summer didn’t crush at the box office because the film is great, and it’s quickly becoming one of those cult films that gets better and better with each viewing.  Recently I was joking on twitter with a few friends and Tully about movie novelizations and how I feel like it’s a bummer that we live in an age when films aren’t routinely adapted into books anymore.  I mentioned that I’d love to read a novelization of Ping Pong Summer and Tully took that and ran with it even giving me what he would have wanted as the first line of the book.

Well, I always love an opportunity to practice my skills in Photoshop, so I sat down last night and designed a vintage-style Point/Scholastic book cover for the novelization of the flick, and I even wrote the first two pages of the book to boot.  These are the pinnacle of what I think this These Should Exist column was created for…

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I hope Michael Tully digs this little exercise as I had a lot of fun working on it.  Hell, part of me wants to sit down and finish writing the book!  Maybe someday.  Until then, this is as good a way as I know to start closing out the summer.  If you haven’t seen the flick I whole heartedly suggest seeking it out.  It’s in the vein of Napoleon Dynamite, with a dash of the Karate Kid, and a whole lot of beach-y awesome fun.

Peel Here 123: The Local Chicago Affiliate edition

4560287382_404990f06c_oOne of the things that I talk a lot about when it comes to the 80s is this idea that because the pop culture of the decade was so loud, syndicated and homogeneous no matter where you lived in the United States, it’s like everyone who grew up through those years had a shared childhood.  We all watched the same cartoons, read the same comics and ate the same prepackaged,, processed foods.  And I love that about the decade.  But there’s also something to be said about regional nostalgia.  For instance, growing up int he southeast I was bombarded with local television commercials that featured Jim Varney doing his Ernest character for our local Fox affiliate channel.  This was something that he did in a lot of regions, but the commercials were all localized, so only the folks growing up in those areas got a chance to see those spots.  There’s something really cool about the idea of having a more focused, obscure nostalgia that ties you more closely to your hometown, but it also very much a part of the pop culture zeitgeist.

That’s why I was super stoked to find the below sheet of stickers that were promotional giveaways for Chicago’s local Fox affiliate WFLD TV 32 back in 1985.  Granted, I didn’t grow up in this area, but I love the idea of the local station putting together sticker sheets to give away to kids which illustrated their after school cartoon line-up…

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I also love seeing this hodge-podge of cartoons together all on one sheet mixing some very 80s properties with older series like Tom & Jerry and the Flintstones.  I wonder how many other stations put out promotional items like these geared towards their cartoon line-ups?

The League Re-Revisited!

6883501769_16f5716f51_oLong Time readers might remember that I used to have a lot of fun participating in a weekly pop culture project called the League of Extraordinary Bloggers, or just the League as I preferred to call it.  The project was spearheaded by Brain over at CoolandCollected.com, as a way for folks to find new sites and share inspiration.  I met a bunch of cool folks through the exercise, and though I didn’t participate every week, I always had a blast when I did.  The League has come and gone a couple of times, and finally Brian is giving it another go, though this time a bit rejiggered for a more modern content sharing community.  With the rise in folks ditching traditional sites for Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook he wanted to make sure that everyone felt they could participate no mater how they interact with the pop culture community, so the Project is now been re-dubbed the Pop Culture League and has a spiffy new logo to boot…

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The first new assignment is up which is simply, Shelfie.  So to answer the call and jump back in the saddle with the folks who are participating I present my most recent obsession, my Dead Media collection of copies of the 1987 Fred Dekker flick Monster Squad on VHS from all over the world!

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This is actually not literally on a shelf, they’re currently giving me inspiration on my desk, but you get the idea.  I’ve made no secret that Monster Squad is one of my favorite films and even though there isn’t a ton of merchandise floating around for the film, there’s enough to keep a true fan busy for awhile trying to pick it all up.  Since I don’t have the wall space for the various movie posters I’ve mainly been concentrating on acquiring Squad ephemera (press kits, photos, international programs and fliers, and magazine articles), but this past year I decided to challenge myself by trying to hunt down copies of all the various releases of the film on VHS.  What I really wanted was a way to display my love for the film literally here at Branded HQ and this seemed to be a fun way to do it.  Not only do these tapes feature a lot of the alternate poster art, but it’s just really cool seeing all of these together.  So what do we have in that picture above?  Going from left to right we have…

The CNR Video, ex-rental VHS from the Netherlands…

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Next up is the Australian Filmpac ex-rental VHS in that snazzy red clamshell case…

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This one is a little worn, but I kind of like that.  I imagine it was rented a bazillion times which makes me happy.  Next, a couple of releases from the UK, an Braveworld/World Vision ex-rental and the Braveworld/World Vision mass market releases of the film on VHS…

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Note the altered Craig Nelson poster art and the alternate UK log on the ex-rental (and Horace’s rad Monster Squad shirt!)  Also, I love that red tape cover on the ex-rental as well, it reminds me of the green on that was on all of the E.T. VHS releases…

Moving right along, here are a couple of German releases.  First is the VPS Video mass market release of the VHS (where the film was re-titled Monster Busters!)

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Then here’s a German ex-rental from Videoplay-Spielfilm that has the most boring VHS tpae stickers ever…

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Now let’s jump over to Spain for a couple more releases.  Here we have the Record Pictures ex-rental VHS with some of the gaudiest cover art ever (and a re-titling of the film to Una Pandilla Alucinante), as well as an Action Time Video ex-rental release of the Beta version of the film…

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Staying in and around the area of Spain, here’s the Transvideo ex-rental release of the VHS from Portugal (re-titled Deu A Louca Nos Monstros)…

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Next up was a very hard VHS to find, and I wasn’t even sure it existed until I had it in my grubby little hands, this beautiful Italian ex-renal from Gallery Panarecord (the Italian subsidary of Worldvision) complete with the most bizarre poster for the film (re-titled Scuola Di Monstri, Monster School)…

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Next, let jump to a completely different continent with my absolute favorite VHS release of the film all the way from Japan, this Hearld Videogram ex-rental that is appropriately Halloween-y!

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The next release came out a little later, but it’s still cool all the same, it’s Danish VHS where the film was re-titled Monster Klubben.  This is also the only international paper sleeve release that I’ve found…

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Rounding out the international releases of the film that I’ve been able to source is another rare one, this time from Mexico.  I am super intrigued by this Videomax ex-rental (from Blockbuster of all places), because this is the only release of the film that has a longer running time than the standard North American release.  Most versions of this film are 93 minutes long, with a handful of the international releases edited down to 89 minutes.  But this Mexican release is 100 minutes!  I’m working on getting a new VCR set-up so that I can figure out what exactly is in those extra 7 minutes of film…

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Last, but certainly not least, is the US/Canadian release of the film by Vestron Video.  This copy came from my favorite Mom & Pop video rental store in Duluth, GA, Home Video, and it’s teh absolute gem in my collection.  I’ve personally watched this copy at least 20 times over the years, both as a rental, and then after I bought it from the store when it closed…

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So there you have it.  There are at least two more international copies of the film that I have yet to get my hands on, one from Turkey and another from South Korea.  If anyone out there has any connection that could help me get copies of those two I would be eternally grateful!

If you dug this tour of my pop culture shelfie and would like to see more posts in this vein, or if you want to join in on the fun, then here are some links to other sites participating this week as well as to Cool and Collected, who hosts the League…

Here’s the collection of Chris over at Stunt Zombie

The collection of Brother Midnight at Green Plastic Squirtgun is insane…

Linz over at Pop Rewind loves her some Terminator collectibles!

Cody at Copyright 1984 showcases a bunch of pictures of his rad collection…

And finally Brian over at Cool and Collected short a great video of his Batman shelf…

Parents just don’t understand…

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The Fresh Prince said it best when he declared…

“So to you all the kids all across the land
Take it from me, parents just don’t understand

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love pouring over old issues of various “mom” magazines from the 70s and 80s.  Not only are they chock full of insanely outdated recipes and fun advertisements for products that no longer exist, but they’re also a goldmine for goofy old articles about the latest childhood fads at the time.  Whether it was the lead up to Christmas and the staff editors were putting together articles about the latest toys or hard hitting (LOL) exposes on the popular trends in cartoons comics.  I love getting a chance to look back and see what was on parent’s minds when I was growing up.  What was concerning them about the toys and cartoons I loved playing with and watching on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings.

I just recently stumbled on this short piece in the September 1987 issue of Working Woman (aka Working Mother) magazine that centers on kid’s fascination with gross and scary toys and collectibles called “Why Kids Love Yucky Stuff” by Dave Jaffe.  Jaffe was a writer and news editor for WGN in Chicago at the time, but he also had a tenure as a sketch comedy writer for the beloved Chicago area Bozo Show, as well as a stint as an editor at the National Lampoon.  The piece has some fun, though albeit harmless theories as to why kids in the 80s loved playing with stuff like Hordak’s Slime Pit from the Princess of Power/Masters of the Universe Mattel toy line or AmToy’s My Pet Monster.  Aside from the concept that kids loved slime because it literally feels good (and I’m not even diving into why that slick, gooshy, tactile sensation might be pleasing), or that they like monsters because they work as an outlet to get out their anger and frustrations, the article doesn’t really say all that much that hasn’t been stated a million times in a million clichés.  Boys like to scare girls with plastic bugs because they like, like them, or what is gross to an adult is titillating to kids…

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But what I feel this piece was really lacking was that simple idea that kid’s love things that are forbidden or taboo.  Plop 10 kids down on a are of shag carpeting and give each a He-Man and Skeletor action figure and I can guarantee that most of them will drop He-Man in a heart beat to play with Skeletor because he has gnarly, clawed fingers, webbed feet, and a skull for a head.  Skeletor represents to many things to a kid on a subconscious level, fear and aggression (just as the article points out), but his design is also just so much more fun because it’s different and weird.  There’s an air of mystery about Skeletor baked into his design.  Why does he have webbed claw feet, what happened to his face, and why is he blue?!  He-Man on the other hand is pretty much all there on the surface.  He likes to work out, appreciates furry underwear, and could probably use a haircut.  If I hard to hazard a guess I’d say that this applies to almost all toylines.  What was more popular in the Real Ghostbusters toy line, Egon, Ray, Winston, & Peter or the transforming ghosts?  Yeah, the ghosts.  Boba Fett, Darth Vader, & the Stormtroopers or Tatooine Luke & Hoth Leia?  Yeah, the former in a heartbeat.

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Again, this article is pretty harmless, but it is a pretty amazing time capsule for all of the icky, gooey, gross stuff that was available at the time including Madballs, My Pet Monster, the Real Ghostbusters, the Masters of the Universe Slime, Slime Time Watches, Nickelodeon Green Slime shampoo, Garbage Pail Kids, the Inhumanoids monsters, those weird Hasbro Belly Buttons, and Mad Scientist Monster Lab playsets.

All New Branded in the 80s Podcast, Episode 8!

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On this episode of the show I take a look at a couple of documentaries that highlight some unsung heroes of the 80s that have virtually been written out of the history of the pop culture they helped to create.  The films discussed are Candyman: The David Klein Story and The Rock Afire Explosion.

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On this episode I also give a shoutout to the supremely cool Rob Lane of Straight to Video.  You can find Rob’s music at his site, or download the albums for free here.

This episode is also brought to you by the fine folks at CanPants.com!

You can find the episode on iTunes, Stitcher, the Branded Facebook page, or you can also stream it directly from the handy player below, or download it directly by right-clicking and saving here.

You can subscribe to the podcast here!

If you want to chat about the show or other fun 80s junk, you can send me an e-mail to smurfwreck@gmail.com

I wonder if Fred Savage ever conquered Bad Dudes?!

4461391534_02cce86892_oA little over a month ago I was farting around on Archive.org when I stumbled upon something magical.  In the magazine rack section some amazing soul had uploaded over 100 issues of the now defunct Nintendo Power magazine.  I was so excited about this I started sharing the link to the collection on twitter and facebook, and then next thing I knew everyone and their brother was also sharing the link.  Sadly it looks like all this attention potentially drew the ire of Nintendo, and all of the issues seem to have been removed from the site which is a real bummer.  Luckily I managed to snag a bunch of these and I’ve been able to dive back into the pages of one of my all time favorite magazines.  As a quick aside, even though it shouldn’t, it endlessly amazes me how news is reported inaccurately online.  Two days after I shared the link to the Nintendo Power archive and I started seeing sites report on it, about 75% of them assumed that either a) Nintendo uploaded them, or b) that the “internet archive” uploaded them.  First of all, do people not know how the Internet Archive works?  Second, hell no, Nintendo did not upload them, and three seconds of fact checking at the destination link would have shown them that.  I think a bunch of these articles were just “me too” pieces that basically plagiarized whatever larger/loud source got it wrong first and no one bothers to fact check or do any research.  I often wonder when something like this hits, do people even care about the actual news, or are they just interested in sharing it for likes, follows and clicks?  Sigh.

Back to the magazine, I’m not sure where I stumbled on the first issue as a kid, but I vividly remember starting my collection with that very distinctive issue with the rad claymation cover back in 1988…

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Like most kids my age I was addicted to the Nintendo Entertainment System and spent endless and afternoons and weekends perfecting my skills in games like the Super Mario Bros. trilogy, Bad Dudes, Section Z, Excite Bike and Final Fantasy.  I used to pour over the pages of this magazine looking for tips, tricks and codes that would help me find my way to the negative world or get a hundred lives in Super Mario Bros., how to perfect the Konami Code, or how to navigate the murky world of Final Fantasy (via the amazing Strategy Guide in issue 17.)  At some point I lost my sizeable collection of the magazine (I’d bet that my parents chucked them in one of our moves), and I haven’t dug into an issue since at least 1994.  Flipping through these digital issues has been a blast and I absolutely love how “of the time” the graphic design is in all the ads and articles.  I mean just take a gander at these two amazing slices of late 80s fun…

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I kind of want to live in that surfing advertisement.  Then there’s this third ad that details all of the Nintendo branded food products that were available back in the late 80s.  I totally ate my weight in the official Nintendo cereal from Ralston, well, at leas the Zelda side of the box.  I wasn’t much of a fan of the Mario Bros. cereal…

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I totally do not remember the Nintendo juice boxes at all, but I vaguely remember some ice-cream novelties and those candy bars seem very familiar.

Scanning back through these I was a little surprised how formulaic the first 40 or so issues were.  Each one featured a bunch of the same regular columns in the same layout from issue to issue.  That’s not really a complaint mind you, just an observation, something I noticed when I realized that almost all of the first 42 issues featured a celebrity profile of an NES addicted superstar.  All sorts of folks were featured in the pages of Nintendo Power, from actors and comedians like Fred Savage and Jay Leno, to sports stars and commercial icons like Ken Griffey Jr. and Joe Isuzu (of all people.)  I thought it’d be fun to share a bunch of my favorite celebrity profiles from the first few years of the magazine.  Though a bunch of these are from the ’88 & ’89 issues, there are also a handful from the ’90 to ’92 issues as well.  I typically don’t dip much into the 90s here at Branded, but I thought for the sake of completeness that it would be worth it to make an exception this one time.  So here are 20 of my favorite profiles…

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I might as well start with the first issue from August of 1988 which featured a joint profile of those crazy Cameron kids, Kirk and Candace (from Growing Pains and Full House respectively.)  Since I’m starting with Growing Pains I figured I might as well as throw in the Jeremy Miller profile from issue 23, April of 1991.  While Candace had mastered Super Mario Bros. and was (at the time) totally stuck in the middle of the Legend of Zelda, Kirk was more of a Gradius man who was having such a hard time with the Amoeboids he was seriously considering placing a call to the legendary game counselors.  Jeremy on the other hand was a huge fan of Star Tropics and Tetris and was really proud of hitting 289,000 in the infamous block clearing game.

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The idea that Jay Leno was not only playing the Legend of Zelda, but that he was invested in it enough to call the Nintendo counselors asking for help on level 7 just makes me feel all kinds of warm and fuzzy.  I know that celebrities are people too and the NES was huge when it hit, but I still can’t help but break out with a smile when I think of adult celebs getting video game thumb on the same games that I was playing as a kid.  Also, I wonder how Leno liked Ikari Warriors?  ‘Cause I loved it…

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Speaking of adult celebs playing and loving the NES, this one from issue 10, Jan/Feb 1990 with Stephen Furst is probably my favorite profile of a “grown-up” by far.  I love that he went so far as to submit a review of Double Dragon II (he loves that cyclone spin kick!)  I also find it fascinating that Nintendo reached out to an actor like Furst.  I mean, though some 80s kids were probably hip to Animal House, how many of them were watching St. Elsewhere?!

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So, the above two profiles make way more sense to me in terms of the actors they were targeting.  Fred Savage and David Faustino were the perfect age at the time for Nintendo’s main target audience, not to mention that Savage was in The Wizard.  The Fred Savage profile is from issue 9, November/December 1989, while the Faustino profile appeared in issue 37 from 1992.

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These celebrity profiles weren’t just for actual actors or sports heroes, it was also for characters too.  Take these two that feature Bart Simpson and Freddy Kruger (well, Robert Englund, though from reading it, it’s clear he did the piece as Freddy) from issues 28 and 30 respectively. Though neither really talks about Nintendo per-se, I love the Power Glove jokes Englund delivers.  Also, years before there was ever a Freddy Vs. Jason movie, Englund talks about the concept in his profile…

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I could go on and on about these profiles, but I think I should just let them speak for themselves…

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The All New Branded in the 80s podcast, Episode 7!

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On this episode of the All New Branded in the 80s podcast I spend some time talking about what it’s like to be a nostalgia addicted guy in the world of pop culture collecting.  Though I adore most all 80s nostalgic kid’s stuff, these days it takes more than a tub full of Masters of the Universe figures or a wall of Nintendo NES cartridges to get me excited about collecting.  No, to really make my head spin the stuff that I love to find has to be the kind of things that simply just should exist anymore.  So join me as I talk about a few items I’ve stumbled upon in the wild that really made my eyes bug and gave me that metaphorical punch of nostalgia to the gut.

Here are some pictures of the stuff I talk about in this episode…

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You can find the episode on iTunes, Stitcher, the Branded Facebook page, or you can also stream it directly from the handy player below, or download it directly by right-clicking and saving here.

You can subscribe to the podcast here!

If you want to chat about the show or other fun 80s junk, you can send me an e-mail to smurfwreck@gmail.com

The All New Branded in the 80s podcast, Episode 6 – The Marty McFly Theorem

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Welcome back to episode 6 of the new Branded in the 80s podcast.  In this episode I dive into one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future, to discuss an aspect of the story that most folks don’t talk about, the other Marty McFly.  You know, the one that is at the end of the flick repeating the events of the opening, but this Marty is different.  He grew up with successful parents and siblings and he even owns that sweet black 4×4 truck.  I discuss the differences between Marty Alpha…

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…and the lesser discussed Marty Beta.

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You can find the episode on iTunes, Stitcher, the Branded Facebook page, or you can also stream it directly from the handy player below, or download it directly by right-clicking and saving here.

You can subscribe to the podcast here!

Peel Here 122: Filling in the gap of the Shirt Tales

4560287382_404990f06c_oIt’s kind of crazy, over the last 10 years I’ve collected, traded and sold so many 80s stickers that I often forget what I’ve already acquired or written about here at Branded.  Part of this is because so many of my stickers are sitting in stacks packed away in boxes (and have been for years) because I haven’t found a great way to store or display them.  Over the past few months I’ve been amassing a small collection of Hallmark Shirt Tales sticker sheets thinking that, that was a brand I had yet to write about.  When I sat down to put this Peel Here column together I surprised myself when I realized that I had already written about some Shirt Tales stickers almost 9 years ago.  Well, luckily, the sticker sheets I’ve been collecting did not overlap with what I’d written about before, so now I can fill in the gaps with some more vintage Shirt Tales stickers…

The Shirt Tales made their Hallmark debut back in 1980 as a series of greeting cards, stationary and stickers.  The characters were created by Janet Elizabeth Manco and featured a series of happy, rotund and super furry animals wearing multicolored t-shirts.  These shirts usually featured some sort of salutation or emotion, especially at the outset of the brand.  There were a bunch of different animal characters, none of which were named until later on when the cards became super popular and the company was grooming the brand for additional merchandising.  Of the original animals featured, only one, Rick Racoon, would be a stand out that would make it past the greeting cards and stickers on to the cartoon.  Here’s an example of one of the earliest sheets released in 1980…

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This one has a fun collection of animals including a walrus, koala, pig, rabbit, beaver, cat, monkey, and Rick the Raccoon up on the top right.  In this second sheet, you can see a progression of the art style on these critters from rotund/cutesy to slightly more realistic.  There’s also some new animals including a penguin, skunk, bear, and what I believe is a tiger at the bottom center, though I do not think this is considered Tyg.

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A context clue for these characters is the copyright date underneath them.  These first three sheets were all released in 1980, and all of these characters were created that year.  Later on, when we get into the characters that male it onto the cartoon, you’ll notice that they retain their copyright date on the sticker sheets (so you’ll see a 1980 next to Rick for instance.)

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This fourth sheet has a continuation of the art style evolution as the characters are becoming more and more aligned with how they’d look in the eventual cartoon.  This sheet is also fun because the stickers were flocked and you could feel the fur on them.  This was released in 1981, and on it you’ll notice the introduction of three more of the permanent characters, Pammy (the panda), Bogey (the orangutan), and Tyg (the tiger.)

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This next sheet finally transitions into the more or less final look for the Shirt Tales, as well as featuring the full main and final cast of characters that would see the brand make the jump from stationary to animation (with the inclusion of Digger the mole.)  This sheet was released in 1982…

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Also, I love the way they worked the rainbows into that one above. Especially Rick’s badass rainbow wing hat.  So this next one is a sheet of banana-scented Shirt Tales stickers from 1982.  Not sure how many other scents there were in this series…

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And the last new sheet I have is this next one which goes full on into the cartoon look and feel of the Shirt Tales up to and including their awesome car and treehouse!  Note that each of the characters have different copyright dates…

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Since I’m posting all these new sticker sheets I figured I might as well also include the two sheets I shared way back in 2007…

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Last, but not least, this Halloween stick-r-treat sticker from sometime in 1982-83…

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There are probably like 6,000 other Shirt Tales sticker sheets that were released between 1980 and 1987 when the brand was active, but these are the nine I’ve been able to source.  I wonder if Hallmark has ever considered bringing this brand back?  Seems long overdue, and a quick search of the Hallmark site says, yes, yes it has started to make a comeback!

The Explorers, Expanded…

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In the pantheon of of 80s era kid adventure films, there are a few that really struggle to keep up with some of the most popular flicks.  Whereas the Goonies, E.T., Gremlins and Stand By Me are considered the gold standard of the genre, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the flicks that just don’t have the same huge fan-bases.  Movies like the Manhattan Project, the Monster Squad SpaceCamp and Cloak and Dagger are prime examples; they certainly have their fans, some more rabid than others, but they tend to get overlooked and I’ve always felt like they deserved more respect.  Another film that would fall into this category but is a very difficult film to defend is The Explorers.  Directed by Joe Dante and released in 1985 this sci-fi kids adventure flick is kind of a brilliant disaster.  There are a lot of great ideas, some great young actors, and some really fun special effects, but none of that can really save from the flick from an awkward second half, a rushed production and a script that was probably a couple drafts away from being a much more solid story.

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The Explorers is one of those movies that I managed to completely miss out on during my younger years in the 80s, but I eventually connected with in in the late 90s on a fox affiliate Saturday afternoon TV screening.  At the time it felt like a missing puzzle piece to my childhood, another sci-fi component that complimented both E.T. and the other kid adventure flicks I loved as a kid (Monster Squad and the Gate for horror, Goonies and Stand By Me for grand adventure, Cloak and Dagger and the Manhattan Project for spy thrillers.)  But it always felt off, even from the first viewing.  There was something about the super-cartoon-y aliens at the end of the flick that just really ruin the movie for me.  I know that Joe Dante is a huge fan of Chuck Jones and the Looney Tunes in general, but he does a much better job of working that style of wacky cartoon influence into his other films (Gremlins and his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie.)

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So when I started collecting 80s era movie novelizations, one of the books that was at the top of my list to find was the adaptation of The Explorers

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My good friend and Cult Film Club co-host Paxton Holley recently guested on the Atomic Geeks podcast where he re-envisioned the Thunder Road spaceship from the Explorers into an evil,Christine-like possessed vehicle, and the ensuing conversation really got me into the mood to revisit the film and finally dig into the novelization.  It’s been over a decade since I watched the film all the way through (though I did skip through it recently in order to break down Ben’s room for my Awesome 80s Bedrooms series.)  So I did my best to go into the story with fresh eyes this time.  I decided to read the book first and then compare and contrast with the film.  I was pretty surprised by what I found.  The novel was written by George Gipe, sort of a notorious figure in the movie novelization circle for his weird take on the first Back to the Future and Gremlins adaptations.  So I was hoping for some batshit crazy additions to the story.  What I ended up finding is that Gipe’s take on the story is probably the best interpretation of The Explorers.

First and foremost, I think most fans of the movie would probably agree that the best part of the film (and story in general) is the opening 50 minutes that deals with the three main heroes Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren discovering, building, and testing their force field technology.  Though it has its head in the clouds, this part of the story is firmly grounded for the most part and has a lot of fun interactions between the characters and alludes to deeper aspects of the childhood experience.  It’s no Stand By Me, but there are some great bits that could stand toe to toe with any of the other, higher profile kid’s flicks of the time.  Well, the book takes this to heart and then some.  In fact, this portion of the story is the main focus of the book taking up easily the first 4/5ths of the page count.  Every scene from the movie is present, though highly expanded upon.  The story starts with Ben (Ethan Hawke in the movie) having a very vivid dream about an out of body experience flying over a landscape that looks like a circuit board.  This is the discovery that leads to him and Wolfgang (River Phoenix) designing an attachment to a computer terminal that creates a programmable force field bubble.  In the book, this segment of the story is fleshed out much more and we really get into the head of Wolfgang and Ben during this process.  We also get a lot more backstory on the dynamics between the kids, not only between Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren, but also between Ben and Lori (his school crush) and all three and the dreaded Steve Jackson, the school bully.

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While reading these first two hundred or so pages of the book I actually felt that it was keeping pace with the movie pretty well as I remembered it.  But when I popped in the movie in after finishing the book I was astounded at how fast the movie moved, glossing over so much of the story.  There are so many sequences that are covered in multiple pages in the book that fly by with a single line of dialogue or even just a look from one of the actors.  For instance, there’s a sequence in the story where Ben follows Darren home after Darren saves him from getting a serious beat down from the bully Steve.  When the two approach Darren’s house he explains to Ben about his home situation, how his father has been out of work for awhile, how his dad’s girlfriend is living with them and mostly alright but that his dad and her can really get into some crazy fights.  In the actual film though, this is truncated to practically nothing, all nuance stripped, and all that’s left is a couple leading lines of dialogue that suggest what’s actually in the book.  Similarly, there’s a whole bit where Darren is running away from Jackson and his cronies where you learn that his father taught him how to handle himself in a fight, and to know when it’s time to run.  All of that is pretty much missing from the film, though I know from reading interviews with Dante that the footage was shot, it’s just that it had to be cut to make the film ‘work’.

What’s weird, is that I could have sworn it was all in there when I watched this as a teen.  Again, I have memories of watching Explorers in the 90s and feeling that the first half was pretty darn close to the vibe of Stand By Me, but now that I’m revisiting it, it’s really pretty hollow.  Only after reading the book have I gotten the feeling that the story was elevated up a bit, fleshed out more to how I remembered it.  Another place where the two really differ is in the relationships between the three kids.  In the book, even though Ben and Wolfgang are best friends, they really don’t get along all that well.  Ben constantly has his head in the clouds either thinking about finding a way to escape the planet and go into deep space or trying to figure out a way that he can peep into Lori’s room so that he can get a better idea of what she’s like.  Because of this they really end up butting heads during the development of the force field bubble.  Whereas Wolfgang wants to spend years testing it appropriately, Ben keeps rushing it, and puts them in awkward spots where they could be killed.  In the book Gipe makes pains to underline just how dangerous the force field can be, whether it’s how easily it can shoot through solid concrete with ease or that there is only a finite amount of air trapped inside and anything living will suffocate if they don’t have a steady supply of oxygen.  I know this all makes it into the film in one way or another, but it’s much clearer in the book.  There’s a segment in the adaptation where the boys are taking the craft up into the atmosphere on their first test run and they end up running out of oxygen.  Again, this is also in the film, but in the book this sequence plays out like a scene from Apollo 18.  The boys are practically on the brink of suffocation before they figure out how to fix the problem whereas in the film it’s pretty much glossed over.  This part was really integral in the book too because it really sets the boys at odds in how to proceed, but in the movie it’s just treated as a hiccup that is not a very big deal.

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Then there’s Darren, who really wants nothing to do with either Ben or Wolfgang in the book.  Though he does get pulled back into the fold as the story goes on, there are multiple places in the story where he basically tells the guys to take a hike.  It’s not until he’s pulled into a group dream halfway through the story where he really comes back into the group as he can’t deny the extra terrestrial events.  In fact a lot of the characters are shortchanged in the movie including Charlie Drake. a police helicopter pilot who ends up chasing down the boys in a few sequences.  In the movie his character is given a bit of screen time, every second of which is lovingly portrayed by Dante mainstay Dick Miller.  What we get on screen is great, but there is a lot more to the character that we get in the book.

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Though there aren’t a lot of ‘deleted scenes’ in the book, there are a couple.  The main one centers on a birthday party that Lori invites Ben and the other to.  The sequence is kind of weird as it mainly deals with how Wolfgang considers himself asexual and thus he spends time screwing with both Darren and Ben as they try and pursue the girls at the party.  Like a lot of 80s era novelizations there’s a weird addition of some pretty adult themes in the book.  With Ben, Wolfgang tricks him into thinking that Lori likes Steve, which forces Ben to go and profess his love to Lori.  This ends in a segment where Ben gives Lori a ring made with a fake Mars rock and a super awkward kiss.  Then there’s Darren, who Wolfgang convinces that the reason he’s constantly striking out with girls is because he only approaches the virgins and that in order to land a date he needs to find a girl who has gone all the way.  There’s also a scene after Ben and the kids leave for their final trip when Ben’s mom finds a Playboy hidden in the papers on his desk.  It’s innocent enough on the face of it, but still a little jarring in the book.

All of this expanded material is interesting stuff from a character aspect, and it’s sort of frustrating knowing what is coming at the end of the book.  And I think this more or less sums up how George Gipe felt about the story in the writing process.  After reading the book and really enjoying the first chunk of the story before the kids really go deep into space, I get a feeling that Gipe didn’t want to write about any actual contact with aliens.  As I was reading through the book I was dreading that segment, knowing that it was going to be horribly cartoon-y and not in step with the rest of the story, and for a brief moment I thought Gipe might have had the balls to take it out completely.  In the movie the kids make contact about halfway in, sometime around the 55 minute mark.  In the book, it’s not until almost 210 pages into the 250 page book.  And when they do finally make contact, it goes by pretty quick after only 15 pages.  I honestly think Gipe knew that the better material was all of the stuff leading up to the aliens and it feels like he was doing his best to flesh out all of those scenes.  He seems to gloss over most of the actual alien stuff in the book, giving only vague descriptions of the beings and scuttling the kids away from them as soon as we learn that the aliens are actually kids.

In fact, the coda at the end of the book is longer than the time the kids spent on the alien craft, and looking back, I think it would be really easy to excise all of that from the story completely which would make the whole thing much more poignant.  I mean at the end of the day the story is really about the yearn to discover and the idea of going exploring, it’s not about getting to that destination.  Looking back, I have to wonder if the original drafts or pitches for the story didn’t involve aliens at all, but in the wake of E.T. the studio wanted to try and piggyback on that film’s success.  Speaking of the coda, man is it a huge downer.  Not only are our intrepid explorers really let down by the weird TV-quoting toddler aliens, but when they get back to Earth everything seems to fall apart.  The Thunder Road is destroyed in the landing, most of their keepsakes from the trip are also destroyed, and they all come to the realization that there is no one they can share these experiences with.  A very weird and down ending, but after the run-in with the goofy aliens, it’s oddly welcome.

Joe Dante is on record as being pretty disappointed with the film, both in the final cut and the film-making process which was majorly truncated and rife with problems.  He apparently filmed many of the scenes that are in the book, but had to cut them to make the story work when his release schedule was pushed up halfway through filming.  Because of his hasty editing, there are some things that were left in the film that actually have richer backstories.  In the sequence at the drive in, there is a teenage couple watching the film that are commenting on how fake it looks.  That boy is actually Ben’s older brother who is sort of a pain in Ben’s side in the book because he’s Mr. Perfect with great grades and college prospects.  There are also a number of references to Space Camp in the film with flyers and stickers on Ben’s desk, as well as the big NASA sticker on the inside of the Thunder Road.  These are all part of a sequence in the book where Ben begs his parents to be able to go, but it ended up on the cutting room floor when it came to the film.

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The last big difference I want to point to between the movie and the book is that there is the naming of the space vessel, the Thunder Road.  In both the book and the movie Darren comes up with the name, and in both he mentions that it’s from a Bruce Springsteen song.  But in the book there is a much more important reason it’s called the Thunder Road.  When the boys find the old, discarded tilt-a-whirl ride car, they have a hell of a time getting it out of the junkyard and to the creek bed where they work on it.  There’s a whole chapter where the boys are slowly rolling it through their neighborhood in the dead of night and it’s making a ton of noise as it rolls over the pavement.  This leads to a bit where they lose control of it and it rolls freely down a hill making a thundering racket and waking up all their neighbors.  Thus, Thunder Road.

All in all, I’m glad I finally dug into this book as it’s given me a much better appreciation for the film and story of the Explorers.  Normally I tend to focus on the differences between a book and movie when I read novelizations, but in this case, it was all about helping a struggling movie and story find the footing that it deserved.  If you’re a fan of the film I highly suggest picking up the book as it will only expand on your appreciation for this much maligned 80s flick…