Category Archives: Overdue Books

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.

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.

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 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…

The All New Branded in the 80s Podcast, Episode 3!

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On this episode of the all new Branded in the 80s podcast I spend little time talking about one of my favorite 80s era collectibles, movie tie-in novelizations!  I cover a bit of the reason why I love them as a concept before diving into some discussion talking all about the 1985 Ghostbusters: A Supernatural Spectacular novel written by Richard Mueller.

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I cover some extended and deleted scenes as well as some all new material that wasn’t either in the script or the finished film.  If you want to read the book and don’t have the mulah to drop on the vintage copy, you can find it at the really awesome Spook Central site!

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.

In this episode’s shout-out I take a minute to point to my bud Philip Reed’s site BattleGrip.com and his new kickstarter project launching his latest toy collecting book, Action Figure Carrying Cases.

You can find Philip’s previous ultra rad books on Amazon by click in the covers below…

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You can subscribe to the podcast here!

Collecting the Art of G.I. JOE

As I get older the way I celebrate and appreciate my nostalgic memories changes.  Back in my mid-twenties, broke and living in a two-bedroom apartment I really didn’t have the means to procure or display any sort of vintage collection.  I spent hours scouring eBay for deals on Garbage Pail Kids, old toys, and albums on vinyl.  I very rarely pulled the trigger on any of these auctions, but I loved looking and hope that I’d eventually be in a better position to finally pick up and display some of these treasures.  At the time I kept wishing that there was more of a market that catered directly to fans like me.  People who wanted to endless flip through pictures of nostalgic treasures without having to wade waist deep in the expense of investing in a collection.  I used to daydream about coffee table books that collected nice scans of all the Garbage Pail Kids, reference books that cataloged all of the toys I used to love, or art books that featured vast collections of album cover and skateboard deck art. Slowly, as my generation has come into its own and started infiltrating publishing houses and coming on board with the same companies and brands we used to be the target audience for, my dreams have begun to be realized.  A few years ago we saw the Abrams company team up with Topps to start releasing awesome collections of Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids, and Star Wars trading cards.  Then came a series of really cool toy identification guides for Transformers and G.I. Joe toys by 80s toy guru Mark Bellomo. More recently we saw the release of a couple of awesome books chronicling the brand artwork of Masters of the Universe and the box art packaging of all the Generation 1 Transformers toys.  Add to this a couple of wonderful books that focus on 80s era 45rpm cover at (Put the Needle on the Record by the supremely cool Matthew Chojnacki) and skateboard deck art (The Disposable Skateboard Bible by Sean Cliver) and I am pretty much in heaven.

But this is just the beginning and there are a lot more books I’ve love to see.  This is where independent publishing and the fans have come to the rescue to start filling in the gaps where the larger companies are dropping the ball.  For instance, this past year we saw the release of a badass little Visionaries Toy and art guide thanks to Kickstarter.  Speaking of Kickstarter, my bud Philip Reed has almost funded his new book project, Action Figure Carrying Cases, a Photographic Overview!

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This leads me to another huge gap in the 80s toy art book landscape, the Art of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.  Though we’ve seen some really awesome new vintage-style G.I. Joe toy lines from Hasbro in the last decade, they really seem to not understand the power of the brand they hold.  They are so focused on trying to produce lucrative new movies that they undermine the vintage brand consistently, focusing less and less time and money on the property which is a shame.  The Transformers: Legacy box art book, though delayed for almost a year and not as entirely complete as it could have been (both art and artist recognition-wise), was a great release and it would be a no-brainer for them to compile and release a very similar version for G.I. Joe.  But they haven’t and from what I can tell, they don’t plan to either.

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That’s where the exhaustive work of Carson Mataxis and his site 3D-Joes comes to the rescue.  Mataxis has been putting a metric ton of work into an online 3D gallery chronicling the entire G.I. Joe toy line.  In order to pay for the software licensing fees and hosting he’s been creating some beautiful giant poster/prints of mint on card G.I. Joe figure collections, the sales of which directly fund his site.  I have a few of these posters, and they are magnificent to say the least.

Well recently he’s decided to go all out on acquiring a ton of vintage packaging and merchandising that features all of the 80s era G.I. Joe artwork from the likes of Earl Norem and Hector Garrido just to name a couple.  He’s been meticulously restoring the artwork in photoshop in order to create a series of prestige floppy books that collect all of this art.  I finally got around to picking up the first three books that collect a good portion of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero art from 1982-1987…

Though these books are a little pricy at $35 per volume, for the collector of G.I. Joe art these are a must buy.  Each book features an absolutely stunning 11″x16″ wrap-around, enhanced, foil cover that’s printed on very heavy cardstock.  The interiors are all full-color and feature every single carded action figure, vehicle box, and play set package, not to mention covers for all of the Find Your Fate and floppy kid’s books, as well as a bunch of other products.  Each book also features an introduction by Kirk Bozigian, the original G.I. Joe brand manager from 1982-1994 who was also the inspiration for the likeness of Law, the MP (who also came with sidekick dog Order.)

Volume One concentrates on all of the toy releases from the 1982-1983 lines, and is the sparsest volume at 62 pages (including inside front and back covers.)

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Volume Two contains all the toy releases from the 1984-1985 years and clocks in at 78 pages (including inside front and back covers.)

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Finally the newly released Volume Three collects all the toys from the 1986-1987 releases and is also 78 pages (including inside front and back covers.)

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From what I understand there will be at least one more volume produced that covers the 1988-90 years, with a potential follow up that will cover the remaining years worth of releases.  For my money these first three volumes cover all of the toys that I had as a kid and they’re the perfect way to sit back and appreciate all of the amazing artwork and design that was put into the G.I. Joe toy line. I can’t thank Carson enough for all the time and work he’s put into his site and these amazing books!

If you swing by and pick up copies of these, be sure to tell him Branded sent ya, thanks!

Dead or Alive, You’re Reading with Me…

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After moving into my first house that I actually own, I’ve finally begun the long process of unpacking and organizing my large pile of junk…er….my collections.  Most of my stuff has been tucked away in boxes for the past three years and it’s been fun opening them all up and reminding myself just how much of a packrat I’ve become over the years.  Part of the unpacking process has been setting up a new home office where my fiancée and I have been pulling out all the stops in terms of making the space everything we’ve always wanted in a functional yet fun work area.  For me that means a place to display my modest collection of vintage toys, Monster Squad stuff and my collection of movie novelizations.  Since I co-host the Cult Film Club podcast with Paxton Holley and my fiancée Jaime, one of the things I love doing is tracking down novelizations for the flicks we cover so that I can dip into them for fun differences and details on our show.  So I wanted this collection of paperbacks prominent and handy for when we record, which we’ve been doing in the new office.  Well, I also happened to be chatting the other night with my bud Chris about novelizations and our collections.  I hadn’t set up the new bookshelf yet, but I couldn’t help myself and I went spelunking through the mountain of boxed up books in our spare room so that I could pull the collection back together.  We decided to share top seven novelizations on social media, and while piecing mine together I chose a book that I’d actually never read at that point, Ed Naha’s adaptation of Robocop.

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I debated about putting Robocop in the top seven for a second since I’d never cracked the cover on it, but in the end decided to include it because that novelization holds a special place in my heart.  On one hand it’s one of the books that proven to be the hardest to track down for my collection as I made a pact with myself along the way that I wouldn’t succumb to picking these up on eBay or Amazon if I could avoid it and instead do my best to find them out in the wild at Goodwills, used book stores or rummage sales.  To date I’ve only even seen one copies of Robocop on store shelves, and I bought it so fast it would have made your head spin.  On the other hand, as far as novelizations go, Robocop pretty much sums up why I love these adaptations on a purely conceptual level.  For me novelizations exist in a very odd realm in the world of literature.  They’re completely disposable, have a ridiculous origin in savvy marketing, and are an ironic representation of a thing that I cherish.  Love a movie?  Then buy the book.  The idea of revisiting a bombastic, heavily stylized, multimedia action extravaganza in novel form is so ludicrous that I truly adore it.

This is what was running through my mind when I chose it, but afterwards it got me insanely curious to see just how similar the book is to the film.  When it comes to novelizations, my favorites are always the books that feel a bit meatier when it comes to page count.  So many of the thinner books are strict adaptations of movie scripts with little to no new material.  In fact, they usually have less scenes than the actual film.  Robocop has always made me wonder because it clocks in at a very tight 189 pages.  But this past week, as I finally sequestered myself on breaks and lunches at work to tear through the book, there were quite a few surprises…

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First and foremost, even though it clearly states on the cover that Ed Naha adapted the novel from the Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner script, some of the text belies the fact that Naha must have seen a cut of the film based on descriptions of the characters that are dead-on for the actors that portrayed them.  Clarence Boddicker’s appearance matches Kurtwood Smith’s way too close, and I’ve even scanned through the Neumeier/Miner script which doesn’t describe the character as accurately.  Maybe casting had already begun and the assignment came with actor headshots.

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Playing devil’s advocate though, maybe this is just my brain filling in all the little details of the final film as I read.  This is one of the bits of strange phenomena I struggle with a bit while reading novelizations because the films are so ingrained in my mind that I see it playing out as I read.  This is why, when I’m taking notes I can’t help but refer to new material as “deleted scenes”.  Even though I have no actual memory of ever seeing these bit and pieces that were excised from the film, I can so vividly picture them in my head.  Speaking of which, there are a fair number of deleted scenes in this book (and in the script) that flesh out the characters and situations in the story a bit more.

First of all, the book opens on a quiet moment at home with Murphy and his family.  This is the morning/day before he starts his new shift in Old Detroit and it gets into a little bit more about his past and his family.  In the flick we only ever see Murphy’s wife (Jan) and son (Jimmy) in flashbacks or hallucinations, but in the book we get a couple of scenes with them before and after Murphy is murdered by the Boddicker gang.  In the early scene Murphy is thinking about his new assignment and it reminds him about the death of his father, how he was shot by a stray bullet while standing at the picture window of their home.  There’s not a lot to this short bit, but it underlines a tone in the film when it comes to death and violence.  As his father is dying Alex notes that he seems almost amused, and just manages to say “Sumabitch…” before dying.  This is echoed in the sequence where Murphy is slaughtered by the gang later on, where he finally seems to understand what his dad’s final thoughts were probably like.

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In the second deleted sequence with Murphy’s family we visit Jan & Jimmy as they’re packing up the house in preparation for leaving on a shuttle to a colony on the moon.  There’s just a beat here of somber emotion that is great for filling in the gaps with Alex’s family life, but would have totally thrown off the wacky ultra crazed tone of the film for sure.  In both of these sequences you also get a metric ton more references to the story within a story character of TJ Lazer.  Lazer makes it into the film in a couple bits where Murphy practices twirling his gun before he holsters it so that his kid will think he’s cool just like TJ Lazer.  Well, the book mentions TJL about fifteen additional times going so far as to describe the show so that it sounds like a futuristic version of T.J. Hooker, complete with an overweight, past his prime actor like William Shatner.  When Murphy finally becomes Robocop, we get a short scene with his son Jimmy watching him on TV and then falling in love with him as his new hero (replacing good ‘ol TJ Lazer.)

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There’s also a new sequence early on in the book involving a handful of Old Detroit cops on a night when everything goes wrong.  Two patrol cars are lured into an empty parking lot and then ambushed by Boddicker’s gang.  The book gets pretty descriptive with the murders which are more over the top than Murphy’s murder in the film if you can believe it. This sequences plays to a subplot in the film that I think gets kind of lost in the shuffle.  The whole idea that Old Detroit is as rough and violent as it is, is not just because of the dystopian future, it was made that way by Dick Jones.  Jones, who needs his ED 209 project to have legs enough (pun intended) to go to full production so that they can land some seriously lucrative military contacts, basically calls an open season on Old Detroit and hires Boddicker and his gang to make the place a war zone.  In the film this sub plot is there for sure, but because of the amped up, uber-violent, uber-sarcastic tone to the flick it tends to get lost in my opinion.  This opening scene of the police massacre plays to this subplot though.  Boddicker’s men are sending a message, so much so that they literally paint the deathcount of each murdered cop on the body in spray paint.

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The book further underlines this later during the chase sequence where Murphy and Lewis pursue Boddicker’s gang to their hideout.  During the gunfight in the van Boddicker has some moments where he’s thinking about how much he hates situations like this where he has to kill because he wasn’t specifically paid to do it.  Again, it gets to this idea that every evil event that Boddicker and company perpetrate on Old Detroit is specifically ordered by Dick Jones.  Again, it’s not that this doesn’t make it into the film, it’s just way clearer when you read the story as opposed to experience the stylized version in the film.

There are also a lot of interesting small differences between the book and the film, a lot of which revolve around Murphy after he’s murdered and reconstructed into Robocop.  Most of these are welcome peeks into Murphy/Robocop’s inner monologue, stuff that’s hard to do on film without clunky voiceover.  For instance, there’s a who section where we witness Murphy’s slaughter by the Boddicker gang from his perspective which is vastly different than how we experience it in the film.  In the movie we’re forced to act as a bystander/witness that has to watch the brutality from the point of view of the killers mostly.  In the book, we’re inside Murphy’s head as he slips past shock and unbearable pain into a more detached, transcendental state of consciousness.  The reader is almost treated as if we’re his essence starting an out of body experience as he finds the whole situation almost comical.  It’s during these moments, and in the time when he’s lying waiting for the medical evacuation team when Naha uses a framing device to showcase Murphy’s consciousness flickering in and out.  Murphy checks himself on things, like his ability to remember what a helicopter is as it touches down near his body, or what it feels like to be strapped down to a gurney.  These checks are revisited after he wakes as Robocop, but as the machine he explains his observations with a self awareness that he has been programmed to know these things.  Slowly, as Murphy’s soul and brain overtake the machine these metal checks revert back to how he felt as he was dying.  I’m probably not explaining this as well as it comes across while reading the novelization.

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Some of the other little touches that I really loved include the fact that Robocop has the ability to test a person’s blood alcohol level just by his proximity to their breathing.  So during the new year’s eve party when he is about to be introduced to the police force and the one drunk female scientist comes over to Murphy and kisses his visor he’s able to make a notation about just how inebriated she is based on her breath!

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I also thought it was cool that in the book Robocop isn’t as immune to damage as he appears to be in the film.  Though it’s cool to see Murphy kicking ass and walking through hails of bullets and fire, it was always a little weird to me that he seemed nigh invulnerable up until he tried to arrest Dick Jones, thus initiating directive 4 in his programming.  I never really understood what exactly it was about directive 4 that basically revokes Robocop’s ability to deflect bullets.  He’s shot up a bunch of times early in the film only to have all the bullets bounce off, but after attempting to arrest Jones all bullets seem to penetrate his armor.  In the book this is different.  For one, he’s only really bulletproof to small arms fire, so later when the police are brought in to take him down they’re using armor piercing rounds.  But Robocop’s vulnerability is also addressed in the gas station scene where he’s apprehending Emil.  When the gas station explodes it ends up charring Robocop’s armor, so much so that it remains this way throughout the rest of the book.  In fact, the in sequence right after that incident, when Murphy/Robocop storms into the police records archive he’s still smoldering in that room.

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Naha also has some fun with the product placement in the gas station scene.  He mentions that during the explosion the “S” in the Shell station sign goes flying off the building leaving only a flashing neon “HELL” over the situation.

Robocop is also a lot more expressive in the book than in the film.  He has a more developed sense of humor, makes jokes at times, and has very human mannerisms like shrugging his shoulders at criminals that don’t comply or giving a two finger salute to bystanders after he’s arrested someone.  Though it’s fun to imagine a lighter-hearted Robocop, and I totally understand why Naha inserted this sort of humanizing body language in the book, it feels very out of place with the character and dulls the switch-over from OCP products back to a sentient Murphy.  For all the work he put into the inner awareness framing device, it’s sort of undermined by a more human Robocop.  Similarly, in this vein, Naha also has Robocop make some weird observations as he’s accessing situations.  In the scene where he goes into City Hall to rescue the Mayor from the deranged city councilman, there’s a bit where he’s analyzing the walls of the rooms to try and find a way into the situation without using his gun.  While scanning the wall of the room where the hostages are he notates that the structure was rebuilt in the 80s using subpar building materials that were way overpriced.  This gave me a bit of a pause, because how would Robocop know that the materials were overpriced? Maybe he has access to all of the city’s records up to and including invoices for contract construction work done over the past century?

One of the last bit of differences I want to bring up is the sequence where Boddicker is sent in to kill Morton by Dick Jones.  First off, Naha changes one of the most classic Boddicker lines in the film.  In the film and in the script when he first comes into Morton’s condo he utters the two words that set the tone for this scene, “Bitches Leave.”

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In the book, when Boddicker comes in Naha has him say, “Okay sluts. Take a hike.”  Not nearly as efficiently evil, and no where near as iconic.  I’m not sure why he decided to change this either because it’s plain as day in the script snippet above.  Not only does he change this, but Naha also weirdly adds a softer side to Clarence in this scene with the addition of Morton’s cat.  The cat comes walking into the room while Morton is begging for his life and Boddicker reaches down and pets it.  This pisses off Morton who considers the cat a traitor, and then as Boddicker is leaving, while Morton is fumbling for the grenade, Clarence picks up the cat and takes it with him.  On the one hand, this is kind of weirdly cold to have a killer acting nice to an animal in the middle of murdering someone, but it’s also conflicting a bit with his character that typically comes off as if he has no compassion what so ever.  A sense of humor, yes, but compassion, no.

Lastly, Naha adds some fun little pop culture references in the book that I wanted to point out.  Early on he has Murphy quote from the 1941 Wolfman film with this foreboding line, “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night…”.  It foreshadows Murphy’s transformation nicely.  Of course there’s also the William Shatner/T.J. Hooker bits I mentioned above, but there’s another actor reference that really got a chuckle out of me while reading.  After Robocop becomes a fugitive and Dick Jones is settling back into his warzone of an office he flips on the television to a news story about the death of Sylvester Stallone.  Stallone was having his brain transplanted into a clone body and died during the operation.

All in all, I’m glad that I finally sat down and read this novelization, and I can’t wait to dig into another.  But what do I read next?

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The Official Unofficial Visionaries Collectors Guide & Contest!

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**CONTEST UPDATE**  And the winner of the Visionaries Collector’s Guide is… Ryan, @no_thriller!  Congrats Ryan!

For fans of 80s era cartoons and toys it’s hard to argue that we’re truly living in a Renaissance that is seeing so many of our beloved properties being celebrated.  Not only are a lot of these brands being re-envisioned with upgraded “classics” style product launches like the new Mattel Masters of the Universe figures, Transformers Classics, and the recent 25th anniversary G.I. Joe line of action figures, but there are also a lot of outlets focusing on the original toys and animation who are producing some amazing stuff like the 3D-Joes Carded Figure prints or the recent Masters of the Universe and Transformers art books.  If you’re a fan there are literally thousands of cool and eclectic collectibles on the market to quench your nostalgic thirst.

Sometimes it even feels like there may be too much new stuff, like there’s a tidal wave of products about to come crashing down on the fandom, drowning us all in an ocean of cool stuff.  I know that probably sounds a little dark, but it’s honestly how I feel at times while trying to keep up.  That’s why I often find myself tuning out and just try and focus on one interest at a time.  It’s why I was never all that interested in treating Branded as a hub for 80s fan news as it’s just too much work for one person to stay on top of everything.  Hell, even focused sites (like the ones concentrating on singular 80s era brands like YoJoe.com or or any of the million Star Wars sites) must have a hell of a time keeping up.  Luckily though I’ve met a lot of amazing people over the years through Branded, and they’ve been super cool tipping me off to cool new relaunches and products.  One of these folks has always gone above and beyond, the witty, kind and super gracious HooveR, and I feel lucky to call him a friend.

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Hoov recently sent me a couple copies of the official, unofficial Visionaries Collectors Guide that was published this past April by Punch Party Press, a small two-man outfit out of the UK.  Though I was a huge fan of the cartoon as a kid I only manged to get my hands on a single action figure, Witterquick (I wrote a piece about re-acquiring him after 25+ years), and I’ve always been a little surprised that the Visionaries seemed like they didn’t have the same sort of fan love that other similar b-level properties have (like the ThunderCats and the Silverhawks.)  So when Hoov told me that there was a small press company working on a collector’s guide I was pretty darn excited.

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The book was crowdfunded on Kickstarter this past year and somewhere along the way Hasbro (who produced the original toy line and own the rights to the property) stepped in and sort of changed the focus of the book in terms of how it would be marketed and released after publication.  Christopher Ibbit and Gemma Tovee came to an agreement with Hasbro that would let them print and distribute the book, but they were only allowed to sell it for 1¢.  I don’t know the specifics of the deal, but I’d have to assume that they were allowed to keep and use the money raised on Kickstarter to fund the bulk printing and shipping of the books to the backers.  Since the books were also available for a time after the crowdfunding ended, I’m also assuming that the pair had more books printed than were needed to fulfill the backer pledges.

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The volume itself is really cool and focuses strictly on the 2 waves of the original toy line, the 1st originally released in 1987, and a second that was designed and marketed but ultimately never released.  Clocking in at 54 pages, the full color guide is printed on heavy matte cardstock and is about the size of a standard DVD case, almost like a pocket guide.  The book also features a couple of cool single-color neon ink cover illustrations by Bob Hall, that are really bright and vibrant.  All of the action figure photography in the book is excellent with a mixture of views for each figure including action poses as well as front and back shots with the accessories.  The pages are also complete with all of the bio and flavor text from the back of the toys, which was a really nice addition.

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For me the book works as a collector’s guide (as intended), but it’s also sort of an unofficial art book as well as Ibbit and Tovee took pains to find unaltered versions of the packaging artwork for the majority of the toys in the book, even the unreleased second wave of figures.  I have to wonder if they had access to this via the connection to Hasbro or if there were other sources for the action figure card art.  They even managed to devote a two-page spread to the original hologram illustrations for this second series as well, which was a really awesome added bonus.  There’s even a scan of a later comic book-style ad featuring some of the unproduced toys as well.

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Though I would have loved to see the book be a little more comprehensive and also tackle other Visionaries merchandise like the short-lived Star comics series or the Marvel Big Looker Storybooks, I know that for a small press run of books like this that was probably impossible.

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In fact my only real gripe would be that there are a couple of major pieces of card art missing from the first series of toys.  I’m not sure if this was a mistake or if it was a challenge to nail down nice artwork, but the cards for Leoric & Darkstorm are missing.  Considering they were able to provide nice imagery for the rest of the line (including vehicles and the second unreleased wave), these missing pieces stand out and keep this volume from being a perfect guide for the line.

All in all, considering the issues with Hasbro limiting their ability to sell the book, and the relatively obscure nature of the line it’s simply amazing to see a book this nice being released.  For Visionaries fans this is a must have collectible and unfortunately if you didn’t manage to get a hold of one via the Kickstarter or through their site after the campaign, it’s now out of print.  Well, as I mentioned above, my good buddy HooveR was super awesome for sending me not one, but TWO copies of the book!  So I’m going to give away my extra copy to one lucky Visionaries fan.

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So, what do you have to do to win this awesome book?  Well, for starters it would be really cool if you follow me on twitter (@smurfwreck), like the Branded Facebook page, and follow me on Instragram (@smurfwreck), but I’m not going to make those mandatory.  Instead let’s make this a fun exercise.  Below I’m going to post a very cool piece of Masters of the Universe artwork by the amazing Earl Norem (who sadly, just recently passed away.)  This painting was featured as a puzzle in an issue of the Masters of the Universe magazine and contains 16 intentional errors in the artwork (in the original magazine there were 17 errors, but one of them is kind of ridiculous so I’ll use it as an example below that doesn’t count.)

What I would like you to do is to send me an e-mail listing all 16 errors, your name and the name of  your favorite Visionaries character.  The contest will end on 8/2/2015 at Midnight est, and I’ll pick a winner at random on August 3rd and notify them via e-mail.

So the example of an error in this painting (that doesn’t count for this contest), the Land Shark is literally depicted as being in the water (and we all know it’s an evil land vehicle.)  So, find the other 16 things wrong with this picture and win a copy of the Visionaries Collectors Guide!

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Click on the image to make it bigger!

Lost in the wonderful world of Mr. Product

4461391534_02cce86892_oAs a kid I spent a disproportionate amount of time wandering around supermarkets and discount outlets every weekend with my mother.  Like most kids my mom would drag me out to the store to do the weekly grocery shopping, but unlike most (I think) my mother usually went out close to midnight and would spent hours picking through the aisles looking for new products and browsing endlessly for stuff.  Since I knew she was going to be awhile, it was pretty common for me to wander off, lost in my own head and making up stories as I let my eyes scan across the thousands of boxes, cans, jars, bottles and packaging. Much later I’d come to the realization that this time was her precious escape from the isolation of being a homemaker, her chance to get out and just not be cooped up in the house and the routine.

For me, it was the beginning of what would become a life-long obsession with branding, packaging, and art.  Every product on those shelves had a story, many of which even had convenient main stars right there on the box.  Tony the Tiger, Cap’n Crunch, the Kool-Aid Man, Big John (he of the beans & fixin’s fame), Mr, Clean, Chef Boyardee,Mr. Bubble, the old timey lady on the raisins box, all of these characters, all of this art and branding was swimming around my head as I tried to keep myself entertained and sane while wandering the aisles, lost in the supermarket.

From the collection of Jason Liebig, CollectingCandy.com

This love of branding, product mascots and art was reinforced in my teens and early 20s after I got a job stocking grocery store shelves on the night crew of my local Kroger.  Again, to keep myself sane I’d lose myself in the various labels and boxes, making sure all the packaging was upright and facing front at the end of the night.  It was very centering in a weirdly zen way, being a sort of shepherd for products, making sure they were presented as they were designed.  Again, this just reinforced my love of branding, and has informed my taste when it came to doing my own freelance design and artwork.

Recently my friend Belle Dee had shared a picture of some books she’d just bought, a couple volumes called Meet Mr. Product and simply Mr. Product, Vol.2, and they really caught my eye.  Written and compiled by Warren Dotz and designed by Masud Husain, this two volume set features the graphic art of advertising characters and mascots covering a plethora of brands over the majority of the 20th century.  Well, I got my hands on a copy of the second volume and I am in love…

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This volume’s 272 pages are crammed full of hundreds of mascot illustrations and paintings mainly covering the years 1960-1985.  The book is broken into two halves, the first deals with short essays and examinations centering on the design trends of those two and a half decades.  Transitioning away from the Googie futurism of the late forties and fifties, the book chronicles the tumultuous era of design that saw America through the ultra-hip beatniks, flower-power psychedelia, anthropomorphic machines and electronics, the surf, mod, and monster cultures and on to the ultra-weird Sid & Marty Kroft-inspired McDonalndland gang, the salacious playboy and disco era, and eventually to the height of product merchandising in the Regan era. I really enjoyed reading through these micro-chapters.  They’re not only fun and conversational, making connections between mascots and trends, but they lay the groundwork for really appreciating the second, larger half of the book which focuses solely on on the advertising mascot artwork.

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As much as I enjoyed the first 80 or so pages of examinations, it’s in the last couple hundred pages where I fell in love with this volume.  The artwork is broken down into 7 sections, Food & Drinks, Kids are King, Fast Food Franchises, Car Culture, Modern Life, Travel and Amusement, and Public Services and Safety.  Inside these chapters each two page spread is a curated collection of similar mascots, be it because of design or sub category.  For example, in the Fast Food section there’s the wonderful couple of pages that feature early illustrations of the Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz characters (in this case using imagery from various promo buttons as seen above.)

The pages above also underline another aspect that I really love about his book which is that there was a lot of time and care taken with the artwork to showcase the actual illustrations as they were originally designed.  At first this might seem like a pretty simple thing, but I know from 10 years of sharing ephemera on this site that it requires a lot more than just snapping pictures or scanning old packaging or items.  There was a tremendous amount of care taken with cleaning up the artwork so that it could be presented in a very crisp and clean fashion enabling the reader to fully appreciated the design which I love.  It’s this attention to detail in the presentation that makes this book an indispensable resource for graphic designers, both for inspiration and research.

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Another aspect that I was very pleasantly surprised by was the sheer volume of mascots and characters presented.  Being a collector myself and having been steeping in this world for over 30 years you get to a point where it feels like you’ve seen it all.  Even though I was born around the middle of the period this book covers, I’ve spent years thumbing through old magazines, deconstructing the products found in the backgrounds of old movies and television shows, and scouring the internet for examples of product packaging and I still was only familiar with about half of what’s presented in Mr. Product.  Flipping through the book I noticed a mascot I that looked sort of like the Fruit Stripes Gum Zebra, Yipes, but was instead the Beech-Nut Gum-Fetti Giraffe.  Turns out the two were both offshoots of the same company and might be representing the same gum, but this is something I never stumbled across in 30 years of paying attention to this kind of stuff.

In the photo above you can also see a really cool piece of artwork for Count Cola.  Again, longtime readers of this site know that I adore Halloween and monster branding, and I hard never stumbled across that particular brand of cola or its awesome cartoon vampire mascot.  I even Googled it, looking for pictures or info about Count Cola and was only able to find one tiny pixelated illustration, so this book has some really great obscure artwork from Dotz’s collection.

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If you’re a fan of design, product branding or artwork, the Mr. Product books should be mandatory purchases.  Not only will they provide a wealth of inspiration, but for those that think they’ve seen it all, I’m pretty sure this book will prove otherwise and be a very welcome addition to your collection.  Dotz and Husain have really outdone themselves with this volume and as soon as I started flipping through the book I immediately logged into Amazon and ordered the first one as well.  My hope is that sometime soon the duo will reconvene and put together a third volume that covers the latter half of the 80s and the 90s to finish off the archive of a century of advertising mascots.

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Investigating the Young Sherlock Holmes novelization…

4461391534_02cce86892_oThis past month it was my turn to pick the movie up for discussion on the Cult Film Club podcast (the show I co-host with my buds Paxton Holley and Jaime Hood), and since we’re in the dead of winter and I just moved up to Maryland and am experiencing boatloads of snow firsthand I wanted to choose something that was sufficiently wintery. I landed on the 1986 flick Young Sherlock Holmes which fit the bill weather-wise and also is a hugely nostalgic classic to me which is a lot like curling up in a blanket with a warm bowl of soup. I had a lot of fun chatting about the film on the show and digging through my Starlog archives to find a couple of vintage articles on the film that I shared over at the CFC website. This reminded me that I have one other Young Sherlock Holmes collectible, the novelization by Alan Arnold.

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I’ve been meaning to crack the cover on this book for a while since it felt a bit heftier than your typical movie novelization which usually means that there are a few deleted or alternate scenes included. So this past weekend I finally curled up in bed and read the book cover to cover. First and foremost, much like the movie itself, the novelization is a love letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in both style and tone. The whole Young Sherlock Holmes project was an interesting exercise in that everyone involved, from the actors and set designers to the writers and director, took pains to create a piece of fiction that felt like it was ripped straight out of the Holmes cannon. There are a lot of subtle details in the story that point to classic aspects of the character (both Doyle’s version as well as the many film and television adaptations that preceded this new story), none of which I feel beat the viewer over the head or effect the plot.

So the first thing you notice about the novelization is that it’s narrated in the voice of John Watson; just as all but four of the original Holmes stories were. The movie is also framed with an older Watson’s narration, but it’s used sparingly, mostly during scene transitions and never framing scenes where the main characters aren’t present. The book on the other hand is completely in the voice of Watson which can be a bit old when you consider that there are a handful of scenes where neither Watson, Holmes nor any living witnesses were present to see the events firsthand (such as the case of Bently Bobster’s unfortunate freak-out and eventual suicide that opens the story.) So it leaves the reader to assume that those segments are reconstructed or “fabricated” to fill in the blanks for the sake of the narrative.

That small gripe aside, Watson’s narration in the novelization is so rich with detail and anecdotal asides that it becomes a wholly different experience than a simple adaptation of the Chris Columbus script. In fact, the book is so densely packed that if one was compelled to research every anecdote Arnold mentions in the narration it might take you a couple years to finish the book. All in all, the majority of the differences between the novel and the film lay in these random observations and intensified descriptions of the locales and character backgrounds. Again, going back to the Bobster sequence there is a lot more detail into that character’s background, how he became so well off and a rather lengthy bit about his love of fine dining (and why he ultimately chose the restaurant where the film opens and he suffers from his first trippy hallucination where his pheasant dinner comes alive and attacks him.)

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But there are some fun little deleted bits, stuff that feels very much in line with showcasing Holmes as a junior detective in training. We get a bit of this in the final film with stuff like the ongoing bear riddle between Holmes and Watson and the missing fencing trophy challenge between Holmes and Dudley, but there were more little brain teasers peppered in. For instance, when Watson and Holmes are in Chemistry class and Elizabeth taps on the schoolroom window and hands Sherlock a note. In the film we see her hand the note to Holmes and we watch as he reads it, but the contents of the note aren’t revealed. In the novelization (and I’m assuming the script as well) we find out that the note is actually a puzzle that reveals a meeting place for Sherlock to find Elizabeth later. It reads:

“Two brains merge into one,
Where the leaves of knowledge are stored
Near the men of dancing words
When the clock becomes a perfect L.”

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After Holmes explains that the note means for him to meet her for a study session (brains merging) in the library (leaves of knowledge = books) poetry sections (dancing words) at 3:00pm (hands of the clock forming an “L”), he then proceeds to take a vial of chemicals that Watson was working with, adds some more stuff to the mixture and creates a dazzling fireworks display in the classroom to liven it up (if you remember from the film that professor is rather dull and sort of senile.) Again, nothing essential or earth shattering, just little bits that make the story way richer and fun to read. In fact, there’s another throwaway line in this segment that I found pretty awesome. So after Holmes lights up the chemistry class he and Watson make their way to the Library to meet up with Elizabeth. But Watson notes that they make a quick stop to pick up a newspaper and a bottle of cough syrup (which Holmes takes a large swig of) at the apothecary. For those versed in the lore of Holmes you’ll note that the character was an addict, and the fact that Arnold has him as a young lad starting down that road already drinking cough syrup is sort of fascinating. I highly doubt it that this made it into Columbus’ script, though now that I think about it there was that weird sexual moment in the Goonies novelization where Andy has an orgasm at an odd time. I attributed that bit of insanity to the author of that book, James Kahn, but maybe I’m not giving Chris Columbus’ scripts enough credit in the weird adult content department. Guess I need to track down copies of both of the scripts (Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes) and find out for sure. To round out these small differences in the novelization, in the scene where Holmes meets up with Elizabeth he starts to explain why he was late and she stops him and then using the skills Holmes evidently already taught her she proceeds to retrace his exact steps much in the same manner that Holmes first guessed Watson’s name and attributes when they first met. Arnold and Columbus were definitely building up Elizabeth as Holmes’ equal which makes his admiration for her and the effect of her ultimate fate that much more poignant.

As far as other differences that I found interesting, there was one that I was surprised did not make the translations from script/film to novelization. This one is a rather larger spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the film, read at your own risk. In a very cool example of an after credits stinger scene, at the end of the film we see that the main villain of the story, Professor Rathe, didn’t perish in the icy river after the duel with Holmes. He made it out somehow and after a long carriage ride through the snowy woods he happens upon a rustic inn and rents a room. As he signs in on the ledger he uses a new name, Moriarty.

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This whole segment is not included in the novelization which makes me wonder if the idea to include this was made during filming. Maybe the director, Barry Levinson, or the producer, Steven Spielberg, was really happy with how the filming was going and they decided to create the stinger to point to a potential sequel (something that would unfortunately never come to pass.)

All in all Alan Arnold’s adaptation of Young Sherlock Holmes is another shining example of how cool these 80s era film novelizations can be. For folks who love movies to death and who cherish finding all sorts of little obscure odds and ends that enrich the experience of watching their favorite flicks, novelizations are a freaking goldmine.