A 20th Century Pop Culture Wonderland

August 27, 2014

Bill Plympton's "The Bugle"

Bill Plympton has become quite well-known for his frenetic animation work. His latest film, Cheatin', is making the film festival rounds and stirring up a lot of buzz. Here is an example of his comic strip prowess, originally presented in the August 1982 issue of Heavy Metal.




August 19, 2014

Toppermost

A smattering of things that are rocking my world...




"There's more of them...Grenade!"  Battlefield 1943 (PS3 Edition) is my go-to game at the moment. I'm sure this version of the popular franchise is one of the more basic no-frills versions, but I'm addicted. It's very appealing fighting in the context of World War II in locales like Iwo Jima and Wake Island. I opt for sniper and love to throw explosives on tanks and blow them to smithereens, although randomly running down enemies in a jeep is always good for a chuckle. The best part? No one really gets hurt.



Oberto Bacon Jerky It's real, it's really good, and it's perfect for my Atkins Diet (35 pounds down!) If I was a hoarder, this is what I would hoard.

A Tale of Two Rainmakers Many Harry Nilsson fans agree that his 1969 album Harry is one of his most
satisfying platters. I've always had a soft spot for the song "Rainmaker." Imagine my surprise to discover that there an earlier version of this song exists as a single. It is a unique collision of Appalachian folk and bubblegum, two genres whose union seems unholy to say the least. And yet, Harry, that mad genius of pop, pulls it off effortlessly. No wonder he was the Beatles' "favorite group."


This track is also included as part of the recently released Harry Nilsson box set.


Unga Bunga I recently purchased from Warner Archive another item for my far-from-complete animation collection, namely Hanna-Barbera's Captain Caveman & The Teen Angels. It's not a show that lends itself to binge watching, and in fact, one episode at a time can be a little much. Still, it does take me back to those halcyon days of cereal and pajamas, and sometimes, that's enough. Cavey's clarion cry (voiced by Mel Blanc) never gets old. C'mon, you know you want to say it... "Captain Caaaaaaaaaaaaaveman!"

Oh, That's Why Baseball Sucks Now I'm not a huge fan of any sport, but I love to see documentaries about sports figures and teams from a bygone era when "love for the game," not profits, was the driving force. The new Netflix original documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, relates the story of actor Bing Russell (Kurt's dad) and his attempt , in the early 70's, to form an independent Minor League team in Portland. Initially, the citizens of Portland couldn't be less interested, having just lost a Minor League franchise due, in large part, to low game attendance.. It's a fascinating underdog story with some surprising twists and turns. It's also a sobering reminder that monopolies ain't cool.




The Death of a Clown







It is early on a Tuesday morning, and I am sipping my third cup of coffee. Toucan Sam is staring up at me from my Froot Loops t-shirt. A very bad week has come and gone, and I am determined to make the new week a productive one. To be sure, there are any number of pursuits that are more productive than blogging, but it's something.

Last week, on the first terrible day, I woke up from a nap. My wife was on the phone with her West Coast friend, Victoria. I drifted into the kitchen, noticing a newly-arrived cantaloupe, half of it in slices. It smelled nice, like summer. All was calm and very peaceful. I pulled up Facebook and there was the end of calm and peace.

Robin Williams.

Dead.

Suicide.

I don't exaggerate when I say a chill ran through my body. I was flash frozen, to be exact. If you are familiar with the K├╝bler-Ross model detailing the five stages of grief, then I can spare you most of the gory details of the days that followed. By good fortune, I was not scheduled to play my regular dueling piano gig until Friday. Unfortunately, my depression begat insomnia, and my insomnia became sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation, combined with a surprise allergy flare up, gave me the wickedest migraine I have felt in years. I had to call out sick Friday and Saturday.

It seemed ridiculous to be so personally affected by this news. And yet, that was my situation. I can't deny it. I was beaten. Crushed. System failure. Mission aborted.

When I first saw Robin, he was Mork. He acted like he was five years old. I was five years old. Perfect timing. Mork and I were simpatico. Through this character, I was introduced to the concept of stream of consciousness thought. To me, at such a tender age, living in a dysfunctional home, Robin's creative gifts were high octane fuel for my own imagination rocket. But there was more. Even playing an alien, he was filled with all the most noble traits of humanity. Empathy. Loyalty. Curiosity. Kindness. This alien came in peace.

Of course, Mork was just the beginning for Robin Williams. At each stage of my life, he was there on the screen, showing me something new and valuable. When I was seven, he was Popeye, a cartoon hero come to life. When I was fourteen, he made me better understand Vietnam and the horror of war. When I was sixteen, he was the unorthodox teacher who helped me appreciate things I might have otherwise taken for granted. 

Now, Robin is gone. My grief is passing and I feel stronger. It's a new day, surely one to seize. I am filled anew with the earnest desire to be prolific and make every second count. Even on a much smaller scale, I want to leave a legacy, one of creativity, one of  love. It is the only way I can repay Robin Williams, and so many others, for the gifts they have shared with me.

Carpe diem!



July 14, 2014

Theme From The Fox


Hello, fellow traveler in this (motorized vehicle of your choice) called life! It's summertime, and living is...well, it's a living. Having only posted sporadically for the longest time, you may be interested to know that my intentions are to resume blogging at the frenetic pace to which you had once been accustomed. The conceit here is that you, the Easily Mused reader, actually do exist. Certain statistics indicate that you do, but I assume nothing. Do me a favor. If you don't exist, get lost. I've got more important things to do than write blog posts for imaginary readers. 

Now that I've cleared out the riff-raff...

It's a season of change here at Easily Mused World Headquarters. Having made discipline a top priority, I am beginning to see some progress with the diet I started a few months ago. I have lost thirty pounds and my health is awesome, aside from some fatigue caused by listening to eight Hugo Montenegro albums in a row. Actually, that's a lie. It's true I won an online auction and received eight Hugo Montenegro albums in the mail, but I've only listened to one of them. 

The reason I can't listen to the other Hugo Montenegro albums at the moment is that the cable that usually connects the phonograph to the home computer speakers has been repurposed to connect an entirely different set of speakers to my laptop, which is sitting on the electric piano in the laundry room that I am converting into a home recording studio in an attempt to escape my status as the Emily Dickinson of songwriters. 

The pop-cultural studies continue, as they must, always. I greatly enjoyed PBS's airing of Carol Burnett: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize. Amy Poehler did a hilarious turn as Carol's much-abused personal assistant Roz. I really love Carol Burnett, but part of me feels as though her phenomenal success has disconnected from us reg'lar folks. It makes me a little sad to think of Carol, sitting in a penthouse somewhere, counting gold bars. However, Carol did insist that a rising young comedienne named Rosemary Watson be given exposure during the telecast, and that was certainly a nice gesture to the young generation. 

Before I received my eight Hugo Montenegro albums, I was the happy recipient of nine Smothers Brothers albums. What is intriguing about their first album At The Purple Onion, aside from the fact that is was not recorded at The Purple Onion at all, is that the record documents the entirety of their act at that time. They had so little material that the second side of their second record, The Two Sides of The Smothers Brothers, consisted of traditional folk songs without the comedic interplay for which they are known. 

YouTube continues to be a treasure trove of obscure delights. To wit, here is 72 minutes of the televised event that drew 21 million viewers, the episode of The Tonight Show which featured the wedding of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki. It's to Johnny's credit that he treated the ceremony with utmost respect and dignity. 268 of the studio audience tickets that night were reserved for friends and family of the bride and groom. It's obvious that Johnny, Ed, and guests like Florence Henderson and Phyllis Diller were struggling in their attempts to cajole the audience into laughing. Everyone looks so nervous, too. It's fascinating viewing.




More post(s) tomorrow!

June 17, 2014

Self-Discipline

I've recently taken a long hard look at myself in what Elvis Costello so eloquently termed the "deep, dark, truthful mirror." My self-esteem remained intact, but I had to face the thing I most lacked, the will to follow through with the fruits of my creativity. In short, self-discipline.

I've been exercising my imagination muscle since I was knee-high to a cicada. I still have in my possession reams of drawings and crudely drawn comics that stand as a glowing testament to my early cartooning ambitions. In high school, I wrote and drew, with No. 2 pencil, dozens of issues of a lampoon called Weird in which I skewered teachers and students alike. I'll never forget witnessing dozens of students passing my creations around outside class in the courtyard. I watched as they read my words and convulsed in laughter, eagerly passing each issue around like rare collector's items.

My cartooning ambitions were permanently put on hold when I discovered I had a natural aptitude for music. After teaching myself the basics of piano, I started composing my own music. I never had any interest in performing cover songs. I wrote dozens of songs the year I first sat down at the piano, really bad songs I might add. To date, I have written or partially written hundreds of songs, constantly striving to unlock something new and pleasingly different. Unfortunately, I have only recorded a handful of songs over the years, and the end results have been less than satisfying.

Even this blog has suffered from my lack of discipline. I've watched my postings become less frequent, even as the audience has slowly grown over the years. My humor piece "Why Chicks Cry" caused quite a ripple on the web. It was mentioned in Time Magazine's online edition and I was approached by several publishers, but it all came to naught and the main reason is I have a lousy follow-through. I was asked to contact DC Comics to get legal clearance on the panels I used, and after one feeble failed attempt to reach their licensing division, I folded.

I'm brimming with short story ideas, novel ideas, original song ideas, all kinds of creative ideas. I have ideas out the ying yang! And it doesn't matter one bit. My creative heroes, the people I most try to emulate, have, or had while they were living, the tenacity to roll up their sleeves every morning and make their creative visions tangible. That gumption is my missing piece.

I have often allowed myself to believe that life has gotten in the way of my creative pursuits, never acknowledging the truth that life often gets in the way of everybody's pursuits. I have been disciplined and responsible in other areas of my life. So why can't I be disciplined with my creativity? Am I afraid of failure? Am I afraid of success? Am I afraid of criticism?

There's no time to wonder why or spend much time locked in regret. I am still relatively young, and there are mountains to conquer. Today, I make a public vow to channel my creative energies into real honest-to-goodness end products. For better or worse, I refuse to let my legacy of ideas die locked within my brain and soul. I am rolling up my sleeves and going to work!

Just you wait, 'Enry 'Iggins!

May 22, 2014

Icon Reboots Are Freaks Of Nature

This is Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny is a good-natured but mischievous fictional character who frequently asks "What's up, Doc?" and is fond of carrots and Stephen Foster songs. He exists in an era when men wore hats and it took a large building to house one computer.



This is not Bugs Bunny. This is an attempt to fix something that isn't broken. It's designed to appeal to a younger audience, but instead it only dilutes the magic of the genuine article.



With few exceptions, there is exactly one best version of any fictional character. When attempting to revive a character, failure to remain totally faithful to that character, that character's appearance, attitude and actions, and perhaps most importantly, the time period in which that character exists, is doomed on all levels except perhaps the ability to generate profits. Although Warner Bros. is clearly a business, and profits are the primary goal of any business, when the best version of a character becomes beloved and ingrained in the popular consciousness, to alter that character in the hopes of generating revenue is an insult and betrayal of the highest magnitude.

Bugs Bunny, like most fictional characters, was not fully formed when he first appeared. The refinement of a character in it's initial period of existence is a fascinating process. When Garfield debuted in 1978, his personality was fully-formed, but his appearance was not.


The evolution he went through was purely a product of his creator, Jim Davis. He probably received feedback from readers and editors, but in the end, he was the person responsible for fine-tuning his creative vision, and he did so with great care to preserve the aspects of the character that were fundamental to his appeal.

Charles Schulz was fiercely protective of the characters in his Peanuts universe. After he had evolved his characters into their best versions, they never changed again. Think of any Peanuts special or movie. The Charlie Brown of 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas is essentially the same Charlie Brown of the 1977 feature Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown! In 2011, a new Peanuts special called Happiness Is A Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown was released to wide acclaim. Great pains were taken to make it as faithful to the source material as possible. It is a rare and shining example of character preservation done the only correct way. It respects and honors the right a fictional character should have, the right to be what it is, always.



Unlike Charlie Brown, most characters are not controlled by their original creators. An iconic character that is controlled by a media conglomerate exists in peril of being augmented, reimagined, and regurgitated in a manner that destroys that character's magic. Although artists are uniquely qualified to create, managerial types routinely believe that they are qualified to improve on an artist's vision. However, their improvements are driven soley by profits, the very last thing that genuine artists truly care about creating. Schulz made a fortune off Peanuts, but his comic strips are so utterly without contrivance, that one gets the feeling he would have been just as happy drawing them for free.

What was the conversation that led to the bastardization of the beloved 60's icon, Underdog?


Ass # 1: Well, as it turns out, we apparently own the character of Underdog.
Ass # 2: Under-who?
Ass # 1: Yeah, he was on Saturday mornings in the 40's or 50, maybe 60's, I dunno. Little doggie in a Superman suit. Had a nerd voice. Here's a clip from our file.
(Runs video montage)
Ass # 3: And why should we care about this?
Ass # 1: Well, believe it or not, this property was hugely popular and still has a fan base among adult animation enthusiasts.
Ass # 2: That I can believe!
(Room erupts in laughter.)
Those freaks. But can we make money off of it?
Ass # 4: My kid wouldn't watch this lame nonsense.
Ass # 1: Oh yes, we have to totally change it from the ground up. No question.
Ass # 5: That nerd voice has to go. He's gotta have a cooler, more accessible voice. Like everyone's best friend.
Ass# 3: Are we thinking CGI with this?
Ass #1: That's definitely one option, but consider this...live-action.
Ass #4: That's brilliant! Kids love when real animals talk! Heck, I love it!
Ass #2: The theme song's kind of catchy. Keep that, but we'll metal it up a little bit. Or dub step.
Ass #4: Can you guys believe how brilliant we are?
Ass #5: Totally. Ladies and gentlemen, we have once again taken something completely lame and worthless and turned it into a gold mine.
(In unison): Gooooooooooold...yeeeeesssssssssss
Ass #3: But what about those purists? The adult fans who grew up with the original?
( Room erupts in laughter.)




The budget for this tragedy was $60 Million. According to Box Office Mojo, it has grossed $65 Million worldwide. Yay.

As I noted earlier, there are a few exceptions to the "one best version" rule. Batman is a great example. Throughout his existence, he has been reinvented so often, that it really would be impossible to declare any one version as definitive. He has been both the grim gun-toting avenger and the friendly lawman. He has been campy. He has danced on giant typewriters and worn rainbow colors. There is truly a Batman for all seasons. In the case of Batman, ever fan must choose their own definitive version. Of course, even the exceptions must respect certain disciplines to maintain authenticity. Batman must always be driven to eradicate evil by the death of his parents.




I've been hearing the phrase "corporate responsibility" a lot lately, mostly in news articles that lament the loss of corporate ethics. I hope that the corporations that own the rights to the cherished fictional icons of the past will one day soon realize that the characters they have been toying with for so long should no longer be subject to the whims of popular trends, and should instead be restored to their proper heritage.

This is Archie and his friends. His best version lives in Riverdale in the 1960's.



This is the best version of The Lone Ranger, with his faithful sidekick Tonto. Note that Tonto does not look like a voodoo priest.




This is Fred Flintstone. He must never walk, talk, or behave like Peter Griffin. Ever.



This is Superman. He's never married. He represents all that is good and noble about humanity and none of what is terrible. He will, if asked, rescue a cat from a tree to restore a little girl's smile. He smiles. He uses his great intellect to solve problems, and resorts to violence only when necessary. He is a good guy and does not care if kids think that is corny.




Attention WB! Please don't draw Scooby-Doo and the gang like this. Did they all they just get lobotomies?







The preceding message brought to you by the local chapter of the FCDF, The Fictional Character Defense Fund.

With your help, we can stop big media corporations from ever making Popeye rap! Let's tell these big shots Smurfette looks fine without a tattoo and sparkly lip gloss! Don't let them force Sherlock Holmes to put down his pipe and pick up an e-cig!