Tag Archives: Books

The Explorers, Expanded…


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.


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.)


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Official Unofficial Visionaries Collectors Guide & Contest!


**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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

IMG_5427    IMG_5428

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.


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.


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!


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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


Getting Slimed by the Oral History of Nickelodeon…

Sometimes it’s really hard to find the balance between being a fan of something and being, well, fanatical. I’m not making a judgment call on one being better or worse, it’s more of a perspective thing; how often times I have a hard time knowing where the line is between wading out far enough into the pop culture sea to swim and where it begins to get so deep that I’m constantly worried about drowning in useless knowledge. I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot while reading the recently published book, Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age by Mathew Klickstein. When I saw the book on Amazon I immediately put it on my wish list as I’m a huge fan of Nick, particularly the stuff that aired between ’81-’95 or so. I grew up on the fledgling channel’s syndicated content like Pinwheel, Mr. Wizard’s World, Out of Control, Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, Paddington Bear, and You Can’t Do That on Television, and loved the shift into original programming in the mid to late 80s through the 90s with stuff like Double Dare, Nick Arcade, Hey Dude, Welcome Freshman, Salute Your Shorts, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and Clarissa Explains It All, not to mention their groundbreaking foray into animation with shows like Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy, Doug, and Rocko’s Modern Life. I was lucky to be one of the kids with access to cable in the early 80s and had a chance to watch the network blossom from a very independent-minded kids channel into the juggernaut of a brand that it is today.


I was super stoked when my parents sent me the book for Christmas and immediately tore into it looking for the story behind the network and shows I loved so much as a kid. But after only a few pages I noticed something that really started to bug me, specifically with the format the author chose to deliver the history of Nickelodeon, the “oral history”. For those unfamiliar, oral histories utilize firsthand accounts on a subject via interviews with those who were intimately involved. Whether it’s using vintage print or video interviews, or new ones with pointed questions to document a specific period of time or event, the idea is to capture the thoughts and feelings unfiltered by a single person’s perspective (outside of editing of course.) Though information gathered in this manner is still biased from interviewee to interviewee, a balance forms as more and more subjects are brought in to speak on a particular subject. Though the technique is far from new, there have been a bunch of books utilizing this format to tackle sprawling subjects like the birth and rise of punk rock (Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me), the Post Punk music landscape (Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life), or the history of Saturday Night Live (Tom Shale’s Live From New York.) These books range from brilliant (Please Kill Me) to brilliant train wrecks (Live From New York), with much of the praise or problems falling squarely on how well organized the information is presented. You see these books are largely if not completely a collection of attributed quotes; page after page of snippets strung together by theme or timeline (or both), with little to no summation by the author/editor. In the case of Please Kill Me, McNeil and McCain exhaustively separate the interview snippets in bite-size four-year chunks, sub-categorized by theme (or band.) Though there is an appendix listing every participating interviewee and how they fit into the story of punk, the way they’re presented you get to know these contributors and the need to flip to the end of the book to figure out who is speaking is rare. On the other end of the spectrum you have Live From New York, which flits from topic to topic with little to no connective tissues between interview blurbs.

Unfortunately Slimed! falls into the category of brilliant train wreck. How many of you recognize the laundry list of shows I mentioned in the opening paragraph? Okay, for all those that raised their hand, how many of you can name the actual actors, voice actors, animators, directors and producers on more than one of those shows? I’m betting a lot of those hands dropped. I hardly consider myself a Nick historian, but after a bunch of conversations with friends I’ve found that I’ve managed to remember way more stuff about the channel than I probably should know. But if my life depended on naming anyone in the cast of Clarissa Explains It All besides Melissa Joan Hart, well, let’s just say I’d be price-shopping for cheap cremations. This is the first place where this book falls down. Though there is a detailed alphabetically ordered list of interviewees at the back of the book, I found myself constantly flipping to the back to figure out who was talking. Though the author goes to pains to defend his formatting choices (specifically in response to any 1-3 star reviews on Amazon that mention the formatting issues) stating that he put a lot of thought into trying to make sure each person’s opening quote mentioned any pertinent shows they were involved in, I think he’s deluded himself into thinking that the readers are as versed in Nickelodeon as he’s become over conducting the numerous interviews and research to put the book together. Klickstein goes on to champion the “oral history” format by mentioning the thematic threads in the seven chapters of the book (target demographics, music & sound design, visual design, diversity in cast & crew, problems at the network, and the end of the pre-corporate era) and how they supposedly help to keep the reader engaged in the “story of Nickelodeon”, any tonal threads he attempts to weave are dashed by the reader consistently having to flip to the back to figure out who is talking, and about which show. The author/editor references McNeil and McCain’s Please Kill Me numerous times (in the acknowledgements and in responses to reviews on Amazon) as the gold standard and what he took inspiration from when formatting his Nick history. Unfortunately he seems to have missed the forest for the trees as he utilizes little to none of the clear organization of that book. PKM goes year by year, band by band, whereas Slimed! constantly jumps around throughout the 80s and 90s, and never stays on a show for more than a quote or two at a time. While he would like to think that the thematical separation addresses this, the first three chapters have a ton of overlap that makes the initial hundred pages annoying to try and follow.

The formatting issue is compounded by Klickstein’s reluctance to insert his presence into the book as the interviewer. With absolutely no summary or synopsis to lead the interviewee responses the reader is left with only the very general themed topics to try and figure out what the conversation is driving at during a good chunk of the book. There are things brought up that aren’t explained, like the failed Clarissa sequel series pilot called Clarissa Now or references to people who weren’t interviewed (and thus not given a bio in the book), which requires some time spent on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps that the book just does not even bother to try addressing. There are also frequent points in which the quotes reference the inferred questions Klickstein asked, which makes it awkward when you’re left guessing exactly what that question is.  I find it hard to believe that the idea of ordering the quotes by year or grouping them show by show (or at least adding a series annotation by each quote instead of just the name of the person speaking) would have hurt the narrative flow of the book that Klickstein is trying to establish.

For all my nit picking about format, I want to stress that this book is a “brilliant” train wreck. Just because it’s super annoying to try and sift through, doesn’t mean that it’s not well worth the time as it’s chock full of interesting facts and observations from the folks that brought Nickelodeon to life. There’s some great background on You Can’t Do That On Television that wasn’t covered in David Dillehunt’s documentary (You Can’t Do That On Film), as well as some amazing behind the scenes stories about that first wave of Nicktoons (particularly Doug which is a show that seems to get lost between the insanity of Ren & Stimpy and the popularity of Rugrats.) I loved reading about the thought put into the Double Dare obstacle course, how ahead of its time Nick Arcade was, finding out about the awkward teenage romance and breakups behind the scenes of shows like Hey Dude, Clarissa Explains It All and Welcome Freshman. Did you know Michael “Donkey Lips” Bower actually broke that fishing reel in the credits sequence of Salute Your Shorts (and ending up ad-libbing the line about it falling apart?) The book is a treasure trove of fun trivia and helps to pull the curtain back on the shows and a network that helped to define our collective childhoods. It’s just unfortunate that getting through it all is a lot like reading stereo instructions.

Though I wish the formatting had kept the reader in mind, and it would have been nice to get more information oon the ’79-’85 Nick lineup of series (it barely mentions stuff like Pinwheel, Out of Control, Mr. Wizard’s World or the slew of other early shows, and completely omits Turkey Television, Belle and Sebastian, The Mysterious Cities of Gold and The Little Prince), I’d have to recommend the book on the trivia alone.  If you’re a fan of the channel and don’t mind risking a case of carpel tunnel after flipping to the back of the book six billion times, check out Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age