Wednesday, July 28, 2010
This month we took a family vacation to the Universal theme parks in Orlando for the first time. What I was expecting were Marvel and Dr. Seuss rides now joined by unfettered Harry Potter madness. What I wasn't expecting was an entire section built around comic strips, the once beloved and now somewhat lamented American medium. According to an article from Live Design, the area was created in 1999 in partnership with King Features Syndicate. King's comic strips past and present are represented in a 3-D ocular carnival. What struck me dumb was the choice of strips. I knew what they were, but I'm a comic weirdo. I'd be shocked if the average park-goer knows much beyond Cathy, Blondie and Beetle Bailey. Below are some of the representations that surprised me:
Little Nemo tumbles out of bed as he did as he wakes from his dream. 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' by Winsor McCay is long forgotten by newspaper readers (it ran Sundays from 1905-14), but for comicphiles it's considered one of the most innovative and imaginative features ever. Its critical regard keeps it alive moreso than any nostalgia. It's currently being reprinted by Sunday Press in its original size.
Another strip that's received more acclaim since its demise is 'Krazy Kat'. Known for its juxtaposition of simplicity and surrealness, along with its bizarre love triangle, "Krazy Kat" is revered by the comic literati (and rightfully so). Though it never had many papers, it's had a wide audience in modern reprint collections. Fantagraphics reprinted the run this past decade in two-year increments. A new book on the strip and Herriman is due in December from Craig Yoe.
Equally puzzling to me was the inclusion/celebration of mediocre strips like 'Heathcliff' and 'Crock'. While being around for 35 years is an achievement, 'Crock'is not well known to the public and I wonder if it was chosen more for its unique locale (the Foreign Legion in the desert), than for its content.
Popular and existing long-running strips were well represented, such as 'Gasoline Alley', 'Marmaduke' and 'Dennis the Menace'. I think having Cathy in a bikini atop an ice cream sundae is a little insulting, though, given her weight/body image issues.
Ahhhh, Alex Raymond. Remembered more now for the 80's movie with a Queen soundtrack, the strip was a big hit for King and launched Raymond's estimable career. I was most impressed by this display. The rocketship looms large, and the reproduction of Ming is quite good. I wish I could say as much for the 'Prince Valiant' tribute, where the art trying to ape Hal Foster was so amateurish that I couldn't even take a picture.
The merchandising brought me back to reality. No 'Tumbleweeds' tote bag for me. It was all Popeye (who has his own rides) and Betty Boop. I think that there's a missed opportunity there for King to promote some of the top-notch recent reprint collections of 'Rip Kirby', 'Bringing Up Father', and 'Prince Valiant' (too name a few).
As for any Caniff connections, I didn't expect to find any. Caniff was distributed by the AP, the Tribune and Field Enterprises, but not by King. So, I was surprised to see a 'Terry & the Pirates' strip duplicated, with art by George Wunder. This puzzled me, as 'Terry' is still owned by Tribune Media Services. But it seems the rules were different in the Comic Strip Cafe, which featured other non-King strips, such as this collage surrounding a giant 'Nancy' head-
So, pause awhile in Toon Lagoon to take in the sights, I'm sure I lingered longer than most, and be glad they didn't tear it down to put up more Harry Potter stuff.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
I knew Williamson's art before I collected comics. When 'The Empire Strikes Back' came out in 1980, I was eight years old. I have a vivid memory of seeing it in a theater with my dad and two brothers because it was so packed we had to split up. Dad and my brother John sat separately. My brother Eric and I, the two youngest, sat together. In the beginning of the movie, the 'Star Wars' logo boldly appears and shrinks away. "We saw this one," Eric said, somewhat irritated, thinking it was the first one. Given that we hadn't seen the original since three years ago beforehand and only once, this statement still shocks me. Around this time my parents bought me the comics adaptation in paperback. I don't know if it was before or after we saw the movie. I wasn't so concerned with spoilers back then. I recall the following year that I read the 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' novelization before I ever saw the movie.
The paperback was just one of several formats for the comic book adaptation of 'Empire Strikes Back' from Marvel Comics. It was serialized in the monthly 'Star Wars' comic (issues #39-44). It was released in magazine-size as Marvel Comics Super Special #16. It was also released in treasury/tabloid size (10" x 13") as Marvel Special Edition #2. Only 'Battlestar Galactica' (1978) had received this four format treatment. 'Star Wars' must have just missed the 'Marvel Super Special' format, though it began in 1977. And by 'Return of the Jedi' in '83, Marvel had stopped releasing books in the Treasury format.
Now for the art, which is credited to both Williamson and Carlos Garzon. Williamson explains - "Marvel gave me a fairly good price, and it turned out to be about 104 pages, which had to be done in about three months, and no way could I do that myself. So I talked to Carlos Garzon and told him we'd split it, put his name on it, and said let's go. Carlos does backgrounds and hardware, but I always ink the figures myself."1 Rick Veitch did the lettering and some additional art, which he recently described on his blog.
This next one needs a little explaining. Williamson didn't see the film he was adapting. Photo stills, scripts and reference material was provided, and apparently some of it was lacking. That's how we end up with purple Yoda. I believe Yoda was originally purple in some of the concept designs, which may be what Williamson had used. Yoda was soon fixed to the green version, but in early versions/printings he was was purple with white hair. His size is also inconsistent. I guess Yoda in the move is about three feet tall. In the comic, he sometimes appears to be about 18 inches!
The adaptation found new life when Dark Horse Comics took over the Star Wars comic book license in the 1990s. It was reprinted as a two-issue mini-series in 1994 called 'Classic Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back' and then again as one book in '95. Dark Horse began reprinting the Marvel series in consecutive order in tpb format under the heading 'Classic Star Wars: A Long Time Ago...'. Williamson's 'ESB' adaptation is in volume 3, Resurrection of Evil (2002), which reprints issues #39-53 as well as the volume 2 of the larger Omnibus version, reprinting issues #28-49. The difference in these newest reprints is the use of digital color separation technology. If you want the originals, though, no problem. The paperback and Marvel Super Special are easily found on Abe Books and Ebay. As for Williamson's other 'Star Wars' work, he went on to do the 'Star Wars' comic strip and the 'Return of the Jedi' comics adaptation.
1Van Hise, James, The Art of Al Williamson, 1983, Blue Dolphin, San Diego
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Coinciding with the Milton Caniff centennial in 2007, the Cartoon Research Library presented several programs under the theme of “Storytelling: A Celebration of Graphic Narrative." One of those programs was ‘A Conversation with Harvey Pekar', for which I sat front row center. Before hearing about the event, I had read the American Splendor collections from Doubleday, but not much else. Thanks to the library I was able to bone up on my Pekar, particularly his recent biographical work.
There were about 500 people in the auditorium, most of them college students. The three people sitting next to me hadn’t read any of Pekar’s work, but knew him from the ‘American Splendor’ movie. The program was in the form of an interview with Pekar by an OSU English professor, Jared Gardner, followed by a brief Q&A session. The professor first asked him if there’s a question that he’s tired of. Pekar replied that he’s tired of talking about “the Letterman stuff." Pekar’s appearances as something of an irascible oddity on “Late Night” ended acrimoniously after protracted on-air arguments between Harvey & Dave. Even on his first appearance, Pekar came out swinging.
In the spirit of comics, Pekar recounted his origin story - how he had a deep desire to create comics, but he was handicapped by not being able to draw. He had the great fortune of being friends with Robert Crumb, who read Pekar’s crude roughs and volunteered to draw them. A student asked him if comics were his destiny…that if he hadn’t known Crumb would he have ever gotten a comic completed or gotten any critical interest. Pekar wasn’t sure. “I may have just kept it inside,” he said.
Pekar and Crumb commiserated over jazz and their love of collecting old 78s. “I’ve been obsessive-compulsive all my life. I don’t know why everybody isn’t. Maybe a collection is stability in an unstable world.” Another revelation came when Pekar was asked why all of his comics were non-fiction, true-life stories. Pekar said that as a child he had been quite a fantastical storyteller, but as he grew older he lost his childhood ability to invent stories. So, he not only doesn’t write fiction because he doesn’t want to (the “truth” of something is the basis of his work), but because he can’t. For Pekar, writing comics is a cathartic experience. “It kind of puts my life in perspective.”
Pekar rarely smiled and usually looked like he was in some sort of gastric distress. I realized later that it was part of his charm, and likely related to his health issues (including his arm in a sling). The crowd, though, quickly warmed to this guy. Above the heads of Pekar and Gardner was a Powerpoint presentation projected on a screen. The professor cycled through panels/covers/pages of ‘American Splendor’, intended to compliment their discussion but usually at odds with it. People were reading word balloons instead of listening to the discussion. Chuckles would go through the crowd when nothing funny was said. At one point Pekar craned his head to look at the screen. I thought it was annoying, but if Pekar felt the same, he didn’t express it. Gardner also tried to coax Pekar into saying something negative about cartoonist Chris Ware. Pekar didn’t bite. “At one time I used to attack other artists," Pekar said. "I don’t do that anymore.” Prof. Gardner called Ware “the Wynton Marsalis of comics”, name-checking a popular jazzman that Pekar had reviewed negatively.
Pekar angered me when he said he felt experimentation in comics was just now starting. This is complete nonsense. Pekar was an acknowledged comics pioneer in both autobiographical comics and self-publishing, but his remarks betray an ignorance of other comics of the past 20-30 years. I could name many examples, but geez, how about I just say Will Eisner and call it a day. There’s a certain “Groth-esque” snobbery that goes on at these things. Superhero comics? Academics will tell you it’s kid stuff and nothing new has happened in 40 years. They don’t understand a guy who can like Chester Brown and Chuck Dixon.
Overall, it was a good conversation, with advice to comic hopefuls - "Don't quit your day job," meant as practical reasoning, not a snappy rejoinder. Pekar worked as a clerk for VA for 30 years. I enjoyed meeting him afterwards when he signed my copy of The Quitter. “You buy ‘em and I’ll sign ‘em,” he said.
above artwork by Robert Crumb, except 4th drawing which was by Chris Weston
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Recent Releases of Note
- Johnny Cash - American VI
- Johnny Cash - The Great Seventies Recordings [4-cd box]*
- Peter Gabriel - Scratch My Back
- Art Garfunkel - Playlist: The Very Best of…
- John Hiatt - The Open Road
- Indigo Girls - Staring Down the Brilliant Dream
- Jayhawks - Jayhawks [1st album CD reissue]
- Gordon Lightfoot - Reissues **
- Monkees - The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees [3-disc reissue]
- Willie Nelson - Country Music
- Randy Newman - Toy Story 3 soundtrack
- Roy Orbison - Live in Las Vegas
- Roy Orbison - The Last Concert
- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Mojo
- Paul Simon - Biko [iTunes only]
- Frank Sinatra - Sinatra/Jobim:The Complete Reprise Recordings
- Frank Sinatra - Strangers in the Night [reissue]
- Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band - London Calling:Live in Hyde Park [DVD]
- Ringo Starr - Y Not
- Loudon Wainwright III - 10 Songs for the New Depression
- Neil Young - Greendale [graphic novel based on Young's album]
- Neil Young - Long May You Run: Illustrated History
* available only from Johnny Cash.com and Reader’s Digest
** near complete reissue of the original albums, some long out-of-print and scarce
- Adrian Belew Power Trio - Live in Germany [DVD, TBD]
- Black Crowes - Croweology [8/3]
- Phil Collins - Going Back [9/14]
- Electric Light Orchestra - Live: The Early Years [DVD, 8/24]
- Elton John/Leon Russell - The Union [10/19]
- Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band - Live at the Greek Theatre 2008 [CD or DVD, 7/27]
- K.T. Tunstall - Tiger Suit [TBD]
On Tour in the Tri-State
- Chicago - Cincinnati – 7/13; Indianapolis – 7/22
- Crosby, Stills & Nash - Indianapolis – 8/23; Louisville – 9/11; Cleveland – 9/14
- Eagles - Louisville – 10/16
- Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart - Wapakoneta – 9/8; Cleveland– 9/9
- Herman’s Hermits - Akron – 8/28
- John Hiatt - Cleveland – 7/16
- Chris Hillman/Herb Pedersen - Cleveland – 10/27
- HullabaLOU (see below) - Louisville - 7/23 - 7/25
- Indigo Girls - Lexington – 7/22; NKU – 7/27
- Huey Lewis & the News - Dayton – 7/25
- Jerry Lee Lewis - Elizabeth, Ky – 10/29
- Gordon Lightfoot - Louisville – 10/16
- Little River Band - Blue Ash – 8/27; Columbus, IN – 9/4; Louisville – 10/2
- Willie Nelson - Akron – 7/18
- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Indy–7/10; Cincy–7/15; Cleveland–7/20
- Sha Na Na - Mt. Vernon, Oh – 8/14
- Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band - Cincinnati – 7/9; Cleveland – 7/20
- Tears for Fears - Cleveland – 8/17
- Loudon Wainwright III - Kent – 11/19; Goshen, IN – 11/20
- Watson Twins - Louisville – 9/22; Cleveland – 9/28
- Wiggles - Highland Heights, KY – 8/25; Cleveland – 8/26
- Wilco - South Bend – 7/30
- “Weird Al” Yankovic - Columbus – 7/10; Cleveland – 9/3
*** HullabaLOU is a new music festival being held at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. The festival features a load of the classic rock acts we like here at the Music Report, such as the Steve Miller Band, the Doobie Brothers and Huey Lewis and the News. The Doobies are playing Friday and Michael McDonald is playing Saturday, could there be an on-stage reunion?
Y Not - Ringo Starr (Hip-O) - 'Y Not' is not a very good album, despite it being his highest charting album since 1976 (#58 on Billboard). I say this with some reticence as it's nice to see him still putting out new music at age 70. I also like Ringo and have all his studio work of the past 20 years. However, in comparison to that work it's a weak effort. It does have its nice moments, including a heartfel duet with Paul McCartney ("Walk With You"), a competent ballad ("Mystery of the Night") and a jaunty '80s-esque title track. The good doesn't outweigh the lame, however, or the bizarre. The album closer "Who's Your Daddy?" featuring Joss Stone, almost 50 years Ringo's junior, comes off a little creepy. If you want some latter day Starkey, I suggest skipping this (and 'Choose Love' from '05) and instead picking up 'Vertical Man' (1998) or 'Ringo Rama' (2003).
Country Music - Willie Nelson (Rounder) - Approaching age 80, with 50 years of recordings in his catalog and revered status as a country music legend, titling an album 'Country Music' is intriguing. Tack on the name of auteur T-Bone Burnett as producer, and expectations are high. Sadly, the result is a slightly less than extraordinary album, though his best since 'Songbird' in 2006. I think the Western swing selections come through with more honesty than his recent efforts in that genre. It's effortlessly listenable, but no surprises. If you blanched at the slick production of last year's 'American Classic', this may be the antidote.
Mojo - Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Reprise) by guest review Jim Bates - In his review in Rolling Stone, David Fricke commented that Tom Petty and the Heatbreaker’s new album Mojo shares much in common with the Stones’ Exile on Main Street. While they do share the same source material of blues, country, and rock, the final products couldn’t be mo9re different. Exile is raw, dirty, and organic. While Mojo tries to be organic (all of the songs were recorded live in one take), the Heartbreakers are too refined and tasteful at this point to be raw or dirty, and that is a little sad. Even though it was recorded live, Mojo is digitally clean and sterile...it is not living and breathing as Exile was. I say "was" because the recent remaster has killed most of the feeling in the album. Now it just sounds loud...especially the drums...and digital. Skip the remaster and find an older copy. (Public Service Announcement: You can buy the second disc of out-takes by itself at Target for $10. There is no need to buy the two disc set like I did. Wish I knew that at the time...I didn’t need another copy of Exile.) This is not to say that “Mojo” isn’t good; it is, but just imagine if it hadn’t sounded so clean and polished. Maybe I’m just disappointed because all the pre-release promo press on the album made a point to say that Mike Campbell really lets loose on this one. He does...finally...on the last track “Good Enough.” I just wish rather then his usual restraint, he had played with that abandon throughout the whole album.
In its heart of hearts, Mojo is a blue album. Yes there is some Zep rock (“I Should Have Known It”), a jam (“First Flash of Freedom”), some bubblegum (“Candy”), Mudcrutch influenced county (“No Reason to Cry”), a trippy story song (“The Trip to Pirate’s Cove”) and even a reggae-tinged stoner song (“Don’t Pull Me Over”), but the vast majority of the album is blues. There’s 'she’s so heavy' blues (“Good Enough”), slow lovesick blues (“Lover’s Touch”), fuzzed out blues (“Taking My Time”), traveling acoustic slide blues (“U.S. 41"), urban blues (“Let Yourself Go”) and even Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings blues (“Jefferson Jericho Blues.”) Who knew the Heatbreakers were a blues band? The songs are fun, but like many blues they have one weakness...the lyrics don’t make much sense. Tom is kind of cheating here. The words may sound good in the tune, but they don’t say anything. Heck I’m not sure what “Trip to Pirate’s Cove” is really about, let alone why Thomas Jefferson is driving to Jericho. Kind of a far drive from Monticello isn’t it? Especially as Henry Ford hadn’t invented the Model T yet, let alone a submarine car.
This is a good fun album by a talented band, it just isn’t a classic like Exile on Main Street and any comparison of the two only highlights Mojo’s few flaws.