Tag Archives: Overdue Books

Breaking into The Impossible Fortress

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I think it’s fair to say that I am pretty well versed in the pop culture of the 1980s, and sometimes I wonder if that hampers my enjoyment of the current nostalgic revival of that wonderful decade.  I spend almost every day of my life looking back at some aspect of my childhood, whether it’s getting lost while looking through all of the 30 year-old treasures I have set up in an Ikea glass case in my office, popping in one of my favorite 80s era kid’s flicks into the Blu-ray player for background noise while I do chores around the house, or surfing through the posts of my like-minded friends on the various social media outlets I obsessively check during breaks at work.  Turning my gaze back to the eighties is like comfort food for me, and it’s something I indulge in so often that when I stumble on something new that is supposedly tailor-made for my intense nostalgia, say a remake of a beloved television show or film, a updated retro toy line or a novel chock full of references and homages that I’m sure to love, I usually find myself loathe to give that new thing a chance.  I mean with a plethora of movies, hundreds of television shows with thousands of episodes, and mountains of vintage ephemera that I have at my fingertips to revisit or rediscover, why would I want to dive into something new to strum my nostalgic heart strings?

Maybe I feel like this because I’ve been burned by so many subpar movie remakes, or because I had such a hard time making my way through books like Ready Player One that feel like every other passage is just another in an absurdly long line of attempts to “wow” me with the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture.  I mean the reason that we love Ferris Bueller, Hall & Oates, and Magnum P.I. is because of what they are, the stories they told, and the iconic characters or personalities.  If all you’re doing is machine-gunning references to 30 year-old pop culture then all else falls flat.  There’s also a tendency in these movies and books to over compensate for the all the references and homages.  You can feel the heavy hand of the editors and producers insisting that these pop culture nods be painstakingly explained and annotated for the audience to make sure that they don’t get lost in the nostalgic noise.  I think this might be what bugs me the most as a reader or viewer, that these asides and Easter eggs aren’t just there to set the mood, they’re treated like they’re integral to the plot of the story and therefore the whole thing starts to unravel for me.  I can’t help but roll my eyes while the characters get overshadowed by descriptions of their overly accurate 80s wardrobe, what television shows they watch, and their favorite junk food.  The simple fact that the story is set in the eighties trumps any motivations or character development.

Well, that’s the pessimist grump in me at least, and lately I’ve been trying hard not to let that part of my brain get the better of me.  I’d like to think that at heart I’m an optimist, so even though I’m usually not super fond of new nostalgic stories, I still try and give them a shot whenever I can.  I mean, for every five crappy Transformers movies that hit theaters there’s a brilliant film like the throwback, musical, love story Sing Street.  For every failed Knight Rider reboot there’s an amazing short-lived show like Freaks & Geeks.  So when I was approached by the folks at Simon & Schuster recently to check out the debut novel by Jason Rekulak, The Impossible Fortress, I figured why not give it a go.  Maybe this was the book that would make up for the hours I spent reading books like 8-Bit Christmas or Ready Player One…

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak due out from Simon & Schulster February 7th, 2017

Set in the armpit of New Jersey during May of 1987, The Impossible Fortress is mixed genre novel that follows three fourteen year-old boys on a quest to obtain the holy grail of smut, the newest issue of Playboy featuring a pictorial of America’s favorite game show hostess, Vanna White.  In an attempt to snag a copy of the magazine and make a fortune selling photocopies to their classmates, the boys have to devise a plan in order to evade the local hard-nosed beat cop, outwit a curmudgeonly store owner, seduce the store owner’s daughter, and partner with a dangerous town punk.  The novel is a very fun mash-up of the coming of age teen dramedies, kid’s adventure flicks, and heist movies that defined the 80s, yet has enough character and heart to stand out on its own.

The first third of the novel was a little slow going for me as Rekulak was falling into the trap of setting over substance, hitting up the 80s references pretty fast and hard that it really started to feel like the whole book was just an excuse to talk about 30 year-old pop culture.  I mean one of the main characters is named Alf just like everyone’s favorite Melmacian, cat-hunting sarcastic alien.  The central focus of getting ahold of a copy of the latest issue of Playboy, and the difficulties thereof was also a bit silly, over the top and slapsticky, but as soon as the main protagonist, Billy Marvin, bumps into the cute as hell computer programmer Mary Zelinsky, the book took a turn and had me hooked.  It’s at this point where the story shifts gears a bit and lets the characters really come to the forefront.  Rekulak pulls back from the gimmicks that frame the plot and what’s left is a purely nerdy romance between two young characters wrapped around the creation of a computer game, the titular Impossible Fortress.  This is where the novel really shines, in the all too relatable and awkward moments between Billy and Mary and their discussions on game design.  I wasn’t expecting to fall so hard for these two characters, but as soon as they’re hip deep in code, talking about animating sprites and writing secret love notes trapped within playable text adventure games I was smitten.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the novel touches on so many things that I can very viscerally relate to.  Like Billy and his friends Alf and Clark, I was part of a small close-nit group of kids who were a tiny clique unto ourselves in our middle and high schools.  We didn’t fit into any of the larger groups, we weren’t smart enough to hang with the brains, sporty enough to sit with the jocks, or wasted enough to really fit in with the artsy kids or the punks.  I also spent a summer with my best friend working on designing a 80s era adventure game in the tradition of the Data Soft, Lucas Arts or Sierra games like King’s Quest, Monkey Island or Police Quest, so the back and fourth between Billy and Mary really hit home.  Hell, I even have my own over the top and silly experiences scoring my own first issues of Playboy back in 1987 (though I was 10 at the time and not quite the world weary 14 of the heroes in this book and the cover girl was Brigitte Nielsen not Vanna White.)

On a side note, it was also at this point where I realized that for me this story is a spiritual sequel of sorts to the TV show Freaks & Geeks.  There are some (to me) pretty clear homages to the series in this book, and even though I’m sure I’m reading way more into this connection that I probably should, I can’t help but feel that Billy Marvin is Bill Haverchuck (the impossibly and beautifully awkward character Martin Starr portrayed in the show.)  I know it’s unfair to make the comparison between the two characters as it’s just me merging the two, but once I made that connection I couldn’t get it out of my head.  I always wished we’d gotten a second season of Freaks & Geeks and in a weird way The Impossible Fortress was sort of a bit of wish fulfillment in that department.

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Any way you slice it though, if you’re a fan of 80s nostalgia, computer games, or awkward romances do yourself a favor and seek out a copy of Jason Rekulak’s debut novel, The Impossible Fortress.  And since we’re living in such an amazing time of multimedia branding and marketing, Rekulak’s fictional game in the book was actually made a reality and is playable on the author’s website!  Holy crap, the game is a lot of fun and just cements my love for Billy & Mary and the game that brought them together.

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Cartoon Anxiety

4461391534_02cce86892_oThough I mainly enjoy flipping through old “mom” magazines to find cool vintage advertisements for extinct products, every so often I do dip in a little further and read some of the articles.  Like the one I took a look at last week about kid’s infatuation with gross out toys and collectibles or the Washington Post editorial on how He-Man and the Masters of the Universe contained hidden messages I dug into a few years ago, it’s always fun to read these to get a glimpse into the wacky world of parents back in the 80s.  Sometimes there are some interesting and valid points raised in these articles, but they’re typically pretty crazy, over the top windows into the minds of parents who loved pointing the finger at cartoons and toys as a reason that their kids are hard to deal with.  If I’ve learned nothing else in my almost 40 years on Earth I can pretty unequivocally say that kids are just annoying and irrational no matter how you slice it.  It doesn’t matter if they watch Transformers or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles every day after school, if they’re going to get into fights or tear up a neighbor’s yard with their bike, it’s not because of cartoons.

That said, this article titled Cartoon Anxiety from the December 1986 issue of Working Mother magazine is a pretty mixed bag of interesting points and flat out crazy.  The piece was written by Lois Meltzer, an attorney and freelance writer out of the California area.

Cartoon Anxiety Article Working Woman Dec 1986

First off, from a design perspective, this article is a little weird.  I know that Mrs. Meltzer had no hand in it, but Doug Taylor’s illustration has some weird aspects to it.  I feel like the idea was to give a general impression of a mixed range of cartoon characters coming out of the TV for the kid to interact with, but that knock-off, but very obvious Voltron head on the right is just messing with my head.  I know the subtitle of the article evokes Voltron, but the combo of that illustration paired with the glove-wearing cartoon squirrel is just trippy.  Also, why the psuedo-Asian brush font for the title?  Anyway, getting into the actual nitty-gritty of the piece, the overall gist of the article is an argument that parents can’t stop their kids from watching cartoons, so they should just stop trying to fight it and give in. Meltzer lists a bunch of perceived positive and negative aspects to the at the time modern animation that had me laughing out loud.

For instance, she states that cartoons teach children about which tasks or jobs they should tackle in the real world, versus which ones they should just outsource to a professional for sake of ease.  Like she literally says that if a kid watches cartoons it’s plain as day that if you want to take over the world, it’s best not to leave it to henchmen or underlings.  On the other hand, cartoons teach kids that it’s crazy to attempt to fix plumbing, your car, or electrical outlets in the home for fear of causing a flood, having a car blow up or getting electrocuted, and that it’s best to leave those tasks to professionals.  This is kind of insane.  I mean, what is the logic here?  Is a cartoon villain trying to take over the world a metaphor for a kid being aware that the sky’s the limit on chasing their dreams?  If so, then conversely, is Meltzer saying that jobs like being a plumber, electrician, or auto repair technician beneath her children?  I mean, wouldn’t she want her kids to learn to do those things if only to be more self reliant?

Also,  I specifically took umbrage with a statement she makes that claims that kids won’t learn how to pronounce “triceratops” by watching cartoons.  Well, I think any kid who grew up watching the Dinosaucers would disagree with that…

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Even though the article is super silly, it was still fun to read.  I may be a grown-up kid with my head in the clouds most of the time, but I do know for a fact that a healthy dose of cartoons during my childhood certainly made me a much smarter person that most adults at the time would have believed.  There were so many subtle and not-so-subtle things that cartoons had peppered throughout the plots and settings that introduced me to ideas way before I “officially” learned about them in school.  Dr. Mindbender on G.I. Joe taught me all about deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) while creating Serpentor long before I ever learned about it in biology class, and Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus taught me about self sacrifice and leadership (or lack there of) in the Transformers movie before I every took a World or US history class in high school.  Just saying…

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!

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.

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.

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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

Alternative Movie Posters bringing the Art back to Design

I’ll be the first person to admit that I have my gaze set firmly in the past when thinking about pop culture art and design.   The packaging, ad campaigns and poster designs, all of the branding that I love to examine, catalog and collect.  I know a big part of this is because of my nostalgia, looking back to my childhood to what I consider the heyday of innovative and interesting artwork and design.  And I know that this can become a trap, where I’m blinded to great modern work because it’s doing something different than what I might prefer.  In my defense though, there are what seem like unending trends in graphic design these days that have made the landscape truly mind numbing and boring. In particular I’ve noticed this with a lot of modern poster design for films and DVDs, which I’ve mentioned before bugs me to no end.  I mean seriously, is it just me or do the following posters all blend into one giant mess of bland, sad, white noise?

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I would certainly not lay this at the feet of the films themselves as there are some really great movies in this bunch (as well as some truly horrible films.)  All I know is that if I walked into a theater with a wall of these posters all lined up and had to pick a movie based only on this imagery I’d be confounded as to which one to pick.  They’re all the same.  Even when the campaigns are a little more successful in terms of good design, you quickly see so many other designers jump on the bandwagon, diluting interesting concepts and bringing it all back down into the pool of white noise, boring static…

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Obviously this isn’t always the case.  There is still some great poster design out there in the mainstream, for instance the campaign that was recently run for the 2013 release of The Wolverine

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Simple, beautiful and tied into the story of the film (what little coherent story there was in that very horrible movie), the artwork in the above poster is a breath of fresh air even though it was the cream in an ad campaign that was rife with other horrible designs like this argument for banning the “brightness/contrast” function in Photoshop…

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So, does this mean that the art of design died sometime in the late 80s?  Of course not, it’s all about trust for creative vision and the lack of which exists in the large movie studio system.  These companies have millions of dollars riding on marketing and design campaigns and when attempting to sell their product to as large an audience as possible they can so very easily lose sight of the merits true art, favoring instead to stay the course of design by committee honed by market research and focus groups.

But there is a fascinating response to this bland design in film art, and in his new book Matthew Chojnacki explores this phenomena.  Alternative Movie Posters: Film Art from the Underground dives into the limited run screen prints, glycees and digital prints created for revival and festival screenings of movies that have been cropping up over the last decade.  There’s been a movement to bring the intimacy and limited edition of band gig posters to the film world where thousands of artists celebrate screenings with interesting conceptual designs.

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For those of us that don’t want to do battle with the shopping cart at Mondo (trying to land a copy of their popular, insanely fast selling screen prints), or who can’t afford to keep up with all of the amazing artwork with these alternative posters, Chojnacki’s book is a great archive highlighting the work of over a hundred different artists from all over the world.  Much like he did with his previous book, Put the Needle on the Record, he really does an amazing job curating this collection of independent artwork.  Whether it’s double page spreads highlighting a specific artist or using these opposing pages to compare and contrast between artists, focusing on a particular style, medium, or similar concepts, there was a lot of care put in the arrangement of the designs.

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There are over 200 posters spanning the gamut of the past 80 years of film, from stark expressionistic takes on M through to unbelievably creative spatial collages for The Dark Knight Rises.  For lovers of film and design Chojnacki’s Alternative Movie Posters is a welcome raft in the sea of uninspired corporate design.  Not every piece of artwork in the book will win you over, but all of them go a long way to recapturing a time when studios actually seemed to care about producing and commissioning true works of film inspired art.

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Each work is accompanied by artist commentary including poster specific inspiration, the art, films and other artists that influence their work, as well as what they use to create and their thoughts on film.  The book also annotates each piece with biographical info and how to contact the artists to find further work or commission some of your own.  Though the book doesn’t focus on any specific genre or era of film, for children of the 80s there is a lot of work focusing on the films we grew up loving.  Tron, Robocop, The Dark Crystal, Gremlins, Goonies, Labyrinth, The Burbs, The Lost Boys, Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, Big and a ton more…

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I also love that Chojnacki didn’t limit himself to work being released in America, the roster of artists is truly international and an interesting mix of well known and up and coming designers.  I was just as excited to spot artwork from folks I recognize like Joe Simko, Tim Doyle and  Jason Edmiston, as I was to be introduced to folks like Gary Pullin (contributing outstanding Teen Wolf and Street Trash posters), Laurie Shipley (with a great Revenge of the Cheerleaders piece), Rocco Malatesta (with a great eye for minimalism and spacial conceptualization in his Raging Bull piece) , and Ryan Luckoo (who did a phenomenal job with the Dark Knight Rises.)

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If you have a film buff, artist, or designer on your Christmas list this year, do yourself a favor and pick up Matthew Chojnacki’s Alternative Movie Posters: Film Art From the Underground (and while you’re at it, pick up a copy of Put the Needle on the Record too.)  You won’t be sorry you did!

 

There’s only one thing to say about the Topps Mars Attacks Book: Ack Ack Ack!

As an avid collector of trading cards, specifically those non-sports pop culture sets released by Topps over the last 50 years, I have to say that there has never been a better time to be steeped in the hobby.  Between re-releases of classic cards and stickers (ala the Garbage Pail Kids and Wacky Packages flashbacks series) and new sets there is plenty of pieces of cardboard crack to procure and spend hours organizing, trading and starring at.  By far though, my favorite aspect to the card collecting hobby of late has been the team-up between Topps and the fine folks at Abrams books to bring the community a series of well-crafted and beautiful volumes archiving some of my favorite sticker and card sets.  I’ve mentioned my love for some of the previous books including the two Wacky Packages and first Garbage Pail Kids entries, and I was equally excited to finally receive my copy of the Topps Mars Attacks 50th Anniversary Collection

  

As with all the volumes in this series the book features a clever wax paper-inspired dust cover that recreates the appearance of the original pack of Mars Attack cards, a set of 4 never before printed trading cards, and large-scale images of all 55 original cards in the set.  But for the first time the folks who designed and compiled the content for this volume went the extra mile and included all 55 card-backs, as well as photos of rare test-run packaging, pre-production sketches, running commentary throughout the book, as well as images of some of the Mars Attacks spin-off card sets and paintings from the last 50 years.

The introduction (by Len Brown) is also much more in depth than the previous Abrams Topps books, not only summing up the events that led to the production of the set, but also featuring photos of previous/similar card sets and influences.  There’s also a touching afterward by Zina Saunders, artist and daughter of Mars Attacks main artist Norm Saunders.

 

All in all, this Mars Attacks book not only lives up to the previous Abrams/Topps volumes, but it also raises the bar in terms of how exhaustive these retrospectives can be, and hopefully sets the standard for any future entries into the series.  I’d love to see volumes tackling the Civil War, Ugly Stickers, Weird Wheels, Monster Valentines, and of course a continuation of both the Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids sets.  There’s a ton of great material left in the Topps vaults that would make for some amazing books and could serve as love letters to such great artists as Wally Wood, Jack Davis, and B.K. Taylor…

You can get your own copy from Amazon right here!

Octopus, or how the film Popeye taught me to fear and hate unconditionally…

For this Overdue Books column I wanted to try something a little different.  Instead of reaching over to a bookshelf full of overlooked 80s paperback treasures and modern nostalgia-driven coffee table books, I decided to delve a little deeper.  Today I’m going to take a look at one of my own works, one of my first penned at the age of six, my 1983 magnum opus, Octopus

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This is largely a work of non-fiction, a scant few pages containing my astute observations concentrating mainly on the physiology and to an extent the psyche of the octopus.  My memory is cloudy concerning the exact circumstances in which this hand-bound book was conceived and written, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that the following was my response to having watched the final waterlogged set piece in the seminal 1980 Robert Altman film, Popeye.

If you’ll recall, Robin Williams and crew engage in a harrowing battle with a psychotic cephalopod, and the ferocity of the choreography mixed with the stellar special effects work must have had a profound affect on my impressionable mind.  I’m positive that this pushed me to put pencil to paper, feverishly interpreting the sights and sounds mixed with my fears, to produce the final work you see before you.  I’m also pretty sure my mother was steadfast in her ability to take dictation as she aptly hand-wrote the narrative of the story you are about to read.

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(Me pictured above, working hard at my craft.)

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I’ll forgive my mother for describing the sea creature in the singular as I’m sure the tone of that day was one of strenuous creativity that left little room for proper grammer.  None the less, the ideas presented are clear and precise; cutting even.  Octopuses, proportionately speaking, do have much longer appendages than most sea dwellers, if not in all of the animal kingdom.  They are indeed identified as “tentacles”, and particularly if you are a crab, a polychaete worm, a whelk, a clam, or Popeye, they will be used to do harm.  I’m not sure exactly why I chose to dedicate the majority of the text to the tentacles, 60% in fact, but I’m sure a lifelong aversion to arachnids predisposed me to a certain fascination, dwelling on them unduly…

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As we can see on page two, I already had a stern grasp on math, though luckily my muse did not push my knowledge into the double digits.  Nevertheless, and again, drawing off of the frenetic experiences I witnessed in that Altman classic, I felt it important to reaffirm the dangers of sparing with these formidable mollusks.  I don’t want to overlook the disproportionate joke Mother Nature played on the creature though as I weighed the differences between their ocular diameter and the gargantuan nature of their apparent cranium, but I was too young to realize that the bulk of this trunk is more likely considered a soft pouch containing their stomach and organs.  Ah the folly of youth.

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Though in the middle of this tome I took a detour for the descriptive, we certainly hit the climax of the narrative by page four with a re-reassertion of the inherent danger associated with mingling with this species.  Though it’s very obviously my bias based on limited experience with the creatures, I can’t help but appreciate the passion with which I sought to warn the reader of the potential for danger.  The sea is vast and largely unknown, and back in 1983 there was still the potential for running across a variation of the species that had, shall we say, a questionable moral turpitude.  I also think it’s fascinating that only three short years past a decade filled with stories that ended with an ambiguous and/or depressing conclusion, I was already taken in by the “yes we can”, conqueror attitude of the 80s, ending on a note of not ennui, but a masterful control over my fear of the species.  Not only did I best my perceived opponent, but I ingested it, taking it into my own being and drawing strength and sustenance from it.  In the immortal words of Weird Al Yankovic, I did in fact “Eat It”.  To this day, I still do.  I still do.

As a postscript to this deconstruction, I wanted to note that my mother also hand-bound the book in the finest contact paper we had on hand.  Also, I totally considered releasing this as a kindle or iPad ready ebook, but felt that, that would be incongruous with my strategy for sharing my memories on this site.  Instead, it’s free for all to read.  Also, on a final note, it was exhausting using this tone in writing the column, and please bear with me as I remove my tongue which was planted firmly in my left cheek.

Filed under obscure comic book adaptations…

I’ve recently rekindled my passion for finding and reading 80s era movie tie-in novelizations, and in restarting the hunt for books there were a few candidates that jumped up to the top of my list.  One in particular has proven super difficult to track down, the novelization of the Tom Hanks/Penny Marshall movie Big.  I can’t confirm that a novelization actually exists as I’ve never seen it, and finding evidence on the internet is proving to be way more difficult than I could ever have imagined.  First off, there aren’t that many folks talking about novelizations as it is, but this is drastically compounded by the fact that using “Big” as a search term is about as useful as searching for a determiner like the world “the”.  Adding insult to injury is combining it with “Tom Hanks”, “Movie”, “Tie-in”, “Novelization”, or “Book”.  Try looking up “Big” in fiction and literature on Amazon, and then decide whether it’s worth the 16 hours it would take to flip through the six billion books the database brings up.  Long story short, I can’t confirm this novelization exists outside of a few forum posts, and none of these ever list anything remotely useful, like say the name of the author.  The search wasn’t completely fruitless though, as it did turn up one piece of obscure Big merchandise that I had been totally unaware of, a 1988 comic book adaptation!

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I know, “What the what?!?” indeed.  It’s not that comic book adaptations of flicks are all that rare, it’s just weird to find one that wasn’t action, horror, or science fiction-oriented.  You don’t tend to see dramas or comedies adapted because the target audience, especially in the 80s was almost always 12 year-old boys, and by and large most comics aimed at this audience are almost always super hero-related, with the stray Archie and cartoon adaptation thrown in for good measure.  What makes this even weirder, at least for me, is that this single issue was published by Hit Comics, which was a division of Dark Horse, the company at the time that was responsible for bringing us a line of very adult and graphic movie tie-ins including Terminator, Aliens, Predator, and RobocopBig just doesn’t seem like a likely candidate to fit in with this line’s tone or audience appeal.  Regardless it exists, and when I first found out about it I really hard my hopes up that it was going to be amazing considering it was largely advertised as featuring the artwork of Paul Chadwick, the man behind Dark Horse’s Concrete

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Before I get into the actual comic though, I wanted to take a look at the single most important reason this comic book exists, which is the back cover (featured above.)  A full page advertisement for Big coming to store on VHS seems a little redundant, but then again it explains the entire endeavor.  I know this is obvious, but this comic is just one giant advertisement for the home video release, but considering it was released via Dark Horse is where it gets a little weird in my eyes.  See, back in ’88 DH didn’t have the market presence of some of their rivals like Marvel and DC.  To be honest, I don’t remember seeing any DH titles in grocery or convenience stores, only in the specialty comic stores.  So it’s weird that an obvious 32 page advertisement would be produced, with writers, pencilers, inkers, and colorists brought on board just to have it sit on a rack in a comic store being largely overshadowed by a plethora of more popular titles.  If I had to take a guess, I’d say that this was comic ended up as a marketing blunder and an eventual lesson learned by both DH and 20th Century Fox, that in the future the future it might be a better idea to try something else (like Dark Horse partnering with New Line to reverse the process and bring their comics properties to the screen, ala The Mask.)

Anyway, this obscure gem exists, and I thought I’d take a few moments to take a look at what it is we did get.  So, as I was saying earlier, I was pretty excited by the idea of Paul Chadwick handing the illustrative duties on the book, but then was sorely disappointed when I had the comic in hand and realized he only worked on the cover.  The actual comic was penciled by Jack Pollock, inked by John Nyberg, and adapted by Mark Verheiden.  Pollock worked in the production department at DH and brought a very Mad Magazine-esqe cartoony-ness to the project.  It’s not that this is awful, but it wasn’t the wistful tone that I was expecting from Chadwick’s brush.  As far as the adaptation of the film goes, well, it’s all basically there, though extremely abbreviated considering the actual comic only runs 28 pages.  Most scenes only get a panel or two, and a majority of the dialogue is reserved for the key quotes from the flick.  I was actually surprised that they really managed to fit it all in considering…

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Back to the artwork, again, it’s not awful, though it is pretty loose and a lot of the caricatures and exaggeration tend to go way too far.  There are a bunch of places in the book where Pollock tries to ramp up the intensity of a scene, or to capture the action of the film and he just ends up going way too far off the grid.  Take this segment where Josh Baskin wakes up as a fully grown man…

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Egads, no one ever needed to see that particular angle of comic book Tom Hank’s underwear-covered taint.  The effect this has on the tone of the overall book can be quite drastic at time.  Consider this next scene when Josh first confronts his mother…

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Wow, vicious and kind of scary.  This cartoon-y approach does make for some weirdly fun interpretations though.  My favorite by far is Pollock’s take on the segment where Josh and Billy decide to check into the Saint James hotel in the city.  Pollock’s version of a run-down New York is pretty bonkers, and evokes something you’d be more likely to see in a Troma or John Waters film.  Speaking of John Waters, I think the caricature on the far left was an homage to the pencil-thin mustachioed king of sleazy cinema…

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Of all the scenes to leave in or cut, I was actually surprised that the touching love scene between Josh and Susan was one of the ones that made the cut.  Granted, we’re luckily spared of seeing the comic version of Hanks getting to second base.  But the scene is alluded to and we do get the “lights on” quote/gag…

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All in all I thought this was a thoroughly weird piece of obscure 80s merchandising, and quite possibly the only for the film Big (unless I eventually track down an actual novelization.)  It certainly makes me wonder if there are comic adaptations of The Money Pit or the Man with One Red Shoe floating around out there.  Better yet, I could actually see Dark Horse having done The ‘Burbs.  As it stands, I guess I’ll just have to console myself with this parody of Splash in the meantime…