Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Grab it All, Own it All, Drain it All."

CORALINE -- adapted from the novel by Neil Gaiman -- is not just a great Halloween movie. It is a work of genius. Don't take my word for it. Just get it. Watch it. The story is quite traditional, if given a modern spin by Gaiman, but it's how that story is brought to life and the marvelous visions created by the filmmakers that rip you out of your own circumstance and into a world of magic and horror.

Unfortunately, on the release of CORALINE writer/director Henry Selick (who also gave us THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) made the terrible mistake of leaving LAIKA and signing a deal with Disney. And in this century, that's the exact same thing as signing a deal with the devil. It's been a decade since CORALINE was released, but Selick hasn't been able to bring a single film to completion, simply because the Disney Devil keeps shutting down his projects "due to unspecified concerns over future costs and benefits."

Translation: the projects don't fit the cookie-cutter sameness of the Disney Machine. That's right -- if they can't compete with genius, they buy it and stuff it in a closet. I would bet you any amount of money that they never intended to release anything that Selick produced. It's called "Making our crap look better by eliminating the competition."

Meanwhile, Walt is spinning in his grave.

Now there's a good Halloween story for you.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Wizard of Kangaroo

Bob Keeshan’s name has come up in a number of social media discussions that I’ve participated in lately. He’s been dead now for just 15 years; and yet, as was pointed out to me the other day, most adults under the age of 40 have no idea who he was or what he accomplished, or how important he was in the lives of those of us over the age of 40.

However, there are still a few places on the internet where the history of CAPTAIN KANGAROO (and MISTER MAYOR and THE HOWDY DOODY SHOW, in which Keeshan was the first of several actors to play Clarabell the Clown) can be gleaned, and there are even a few early episodes up on YouTube that give a good round sense of what the show, and the character, were like; and why they were important to the medium, and to a generation of young TV fans.

So I’m not here to write an appreciation or a history of the man and the show — you can get that elsewhere. I’m here today to write about a single thing: a Great Moment in Television History that is not widely remembered; indeed, it seems to be all but completely forgotten. I witnessed this Great Moment when it happened, and so (I assumed) did millions of other kids. But it was pointed out to me by a friend that a great number of those millions of other kids may not have been as impacted by the moment as I was, may not even have been able to see it as I did… and perhaps this is why that Great Moment remains apparently completely undocumented to this day.

Color was a long time coming to American television and American Homes. Walt Disney was the first producer, in 1961, to shoot and broadcast his TV show entirely in Color; most of the rest of Prime Time programming (that is, 8-11 PM EST) did not catch up to Disney until the fall of 1965. Even then, much of what was broadcast out of prime time remained in black & white; in fact, color TV sets did not become the standard in most American homes until the very late ‘60s. It was 1970 or ’71 before all American programming was produced in color, with PBS, then known as ETV (Educational Television) being one of the last to fully update to the color standard.

In the category of Children’s Television, black and white remained the norm longer than in other genres. Bob Keeshan and CBS were Early Adopters: and the way that Keeshan presented the change on CAPTAIN KANGAROO, by borrowing a page (it must be said) out of THE WIZARD OF OZ, was a brilliant, classic use of the medium. I know: I was there: I saw it.

At that time, Keeshan was doing an hour show of CAPTAIN KANGAROO every weekday morning at 8:00 AM. By 1966, this had been his regular gig for eleven years. On September 9, 1966, the show opened just the way that it always had: with the theme music playing over a black & white panel painted with some decorations and the show title. The Captain greeted us by opening the panel and admitting us into the Treasure House: a place that was part museum, part library, part circus and part toy shop. Again, this was broadcast, as it always had been, in black & white. The Captain jangled his keys as always, then throw the key-ring onto a nail, which caused the theme music to stop. Then, in his gently easygoing manner, speaking as he always did directly to us, the audience, the Captain told us that this was going to be a very special day, because the Treasure House was moving.

He didn’t say where. Or how. Instead, he wandered over to the left side of the set and exchanged a few words with Grandfather Clock — who, if you haven’t guessed it, was a “real,” living Grandfather Clock who could talk and give the time, but who was always dropping off to sleep in the middle of a conversation. This was normal. But then Captain Kangaroo, without any kind of show or fanfare, did something he’d never done before: he opened Grandfather Clock’s cabinet door… and stepped inside.

And there was no time to even think about what this might mean, because the camera cut, and the Captain immediately emerged on the other side of the wall, though the cabinet door of a Grandfather Clock who was now situated on the right side of the room. We had entered a mirror universe! As the Captain came through, the camera pulled back and we found ourselves in an all-new Treasure House, where everything, including Grandfather Clock and the Captain himself, was in full color. It was fully as magical a moment as that similar moment when Judy Garland opens the front door of her Aunt & Uncle’s recently displaced house and sees Munchkinland through the doorway instead of Kansas.

Perhaps because he knew that a great number of his viewers still did not have color TV sets, the Captain did not make much of this change; he simply went on with the show as normal, pointing out a few key differences between this Treasure House and the old one, differences that had more to do with set upgrades that everyone could see, whether they had color or not.

But it was a great, magical moment that I have never forgotten. Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered why TV historians didn’t mention it at all, and why I never encountered anyone else who remembered seeing it. And now I understand. On the one hand, most kids weren’t watching on a color TV set as yet. And on the other: the episode aired just that one time, and no one thought that they had done anything special. Although pre-recorded, no tape or kinescope of the episode exists today. The tape was probably wiped and used again a week later. Like most kid’s TV shows of the day, and all real magic, it was temporary. History is made and whooshes by in a flash, before disappearing forever, leaving only a memory… if that.

— Thorn.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Groovy Ghoulies . . . and one Big Dud.

October of 2019 has already been exceptionally good to this Old Geezer who thought he’d seen all the good Horror Movies that were there to be seen. In addition to some old favorites, my nightly Fright-Film Fest has already turned up THREE (count ‘em!) new-to-me screamers that may not be classics, exactly, but which do the genre up right as a rain of pumpkins!

First was William Castle's gimmicky, harmless 13 GHOSTS — filmed in Illusion-o! Castle is considered the master of Contrivance, and the Contrived Contraption that he personally reveals in a fourth-wall-shattering introduction is nothing more than a classic ’50s 3-D viewer, shaped like a ghost and with the blue and red filters stacked one on top of the other instead of side-by-side. Fortunately, the DuckHaus counts several pairs of old-style 3-D eyewear among its protected possessions, so viewing the picture as it was meant to be viewed was not an issue. 

No, the film is not a 3-D headache-fest, but uses the process in several isolated sequences to accomplish its ghost effects. For no reason other than to give the viewer fair warning, the screen goes dark at various times to allow the audience to select from the “believer” or “non-believer” spectrums of ghost-watching. Inevitably, you’ll want to try both — and watch as the actors react either to empty space, or to, say, spooky ghostly lion tamers. It’s your choice… and it's a pretty good gimmick.  Castle finds a couple of ways to work it into the plot: for not only did a dead eccentric scientist leave one such pair of Ghost-Viewers for the characters in the movie, but why is it that one ghost in the girl’s bedroom (easily the ghastliest ghost in the whole picture) can be seen by us without the viewer? Hmm? Why is that? The whole thing is goofy, silly, Halloween fun — and not scary in the slightest. Among the cast of talented actors (either climbing the Hollywood ladder or coming down it), squeaky-clean Martin Milner is cast effectively against type, and Margaret Hamilton seems perfectly happy to be in on the joke when Junior refers to her as the witch that comes with the house! 

Thirteen Ghosts was later re-made in the depraved modern manner, filled to the brim with messy studies into the many disgusting ways that human body can be taken apart. Be very very certain when you check out of the movie store that you’re getting the 1960 version. It’s as good-natured as Leave It to Beaver, but with a vintage funhouse appeal. Like many another picture from bygone days, it has been restored to a condition that belies its age. It’s good, funny, seasonal fun, and its only serious flaw lies in the set decoration: such a spooky home exterior (apparently Castle used stock footage of a side entrance to the Winchester mystery house — more on that in a moment) deserves an equally spooky interior, but all the sets are '50s-bland. Still — these 13 Ghosts, vintage 1960, are keepers!


The interwebs have been whispering about BUBBA HO-TEP for years now, but increasingly in our self-defined culture it is difficult to decide when recommendations are valid and whether or not one should  trouble to call something forth from the Stygian Depths, Because Reasons. High Concepts can sometimes cover bargain basement ineptitude or intellectual twaddle, and BUBBA HO-TEP’s High Concept is not only prodigiously high, but of a uniquely Bounce-Off-The-Wall Weirdness. There are a million and a half ways that a picture of this sort can go off the rails, and most of them do just that. BUBBA HO-TEP manages somehow to stay on the Funhouse track. 

It is much more than just an inventive pop-rocks take on the old Mummy saw. Some of its humor walks dangerously close to vulgarity, while some of its horror just skirts the issue of gore, but in the end it’s a balancing act that pays off in style and enjoyably spooky fun. Don’t watch the trailer: it reveals too much, as do most reviews. BUBBA HO-TEP is best approached from a state of purity and ignorance. Relax and let Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis do that thing they do in the leading parts, and open your mind to possibility. Y' gotta take this one on faith, monster and pop culture fans... run, do not shamble. BUBBA HO-TEP is the Real Deal.

The corporate-owned and neatly muzzled critics of the shill media were not kind to last year's WINCHESTER, starring Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke — and that should tell you something. Critics don’t have to think anymore, and rather resent it when they are required to do so. The big corporate conglomerates that own the papers and pay the salaries know that they can count on their critical Igors to lavishly praise the latest hollow Big Studio Product to the skies, and churn out “reviews” that are nothing more than press releases lacking both credibility and integrity. Not even audience reviews can be trusted anymore, because audiences are increasingly made up of the born-yesterday crowd who have the cultural knowledge and sensitivities of a tapeworm.

WINCHESTER was almost certainly not violent enough or depraved enough for that crowd: it is a horror movie in the old style, returning the form to the days when suggestion and dread and implication were valued over shock and sick sadism.

In the manner of blogs, I now dip into that most egregious of critical devices, the Personal Backstory. My one regret in two visits to the West Coast is that I have never visited the Winchester house, the real, honest-to-gosh place upon which this movie hangs its extravagant fiction. Really, the Winchester house is much more than just a structure: it doesn’t have a story, it is a story; and a great story at that.

At this point there are so many different versions of that story that one can forgive the departures from factuality that were a necessity to make this an out-and-out horror movie. As in THE WOMAN IN BLACK, a film with which this one has a lot in common, the picture relies on jump-scares that are plentiful enough but not very jumpy. It is also wonderfully tactile, a beautiful Time-Travel sort of movie that takes us palpably back to the time period in which it's set. And it’s the atmosphere of vintage dread that WINCHESTER creates that drives this film. Like the great old Universal horror movies where the monsters come out of the fog and pose for for you, WINCHESTER makes a stylish presentation of its monster: and the monster in question, as it really should be, is the uncontrolled possession and manufacture of firearms.

That makes WINCHESTER about as topical a horror movie as they come. Its conscious decision to dial back on the gore is in line with its principles about gun violence. There are parallels here with some other great modern horror films that are also worth your attention: THE ORPHANAGE and THE BABADOOK and WINCHESTER have more on their minds than just wanting to scare you. Their real theme, all three, is human grief; how to face it, how to acknowledge it, and even how we must tame it. Grief is the Monster in the Room that we must all confront, sooner or later. This is the sort of theme that requires Real Actors, not just screamers, and everyone in WINCHESTER is up to the mark, most especially the great and almost ageless Helen Mirren. 


Alas, not all my forays into the macabre this season have been happy ones. 

There's not much of John Bellairs left in the film version of his juvenile gothic thriller THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. About 35 minutes in, a giant topiary chimera takes a huge shit into the garden pool — and that's when you realize that this first-ever adaptation of a Bellairs novel was directed by Eli Roth, the genuine, certified Sick Fuck behind HOSTEL, HOSTEL PART II and THE GREEN INFERNO: all of which worship at the alter of sadistic depravity, viscera and Beyond Graphic gore. With a resume like that, one has to wonder why in god's name Steven Spielberg hired the depraved Mr. Roth to direct a children's movie. 

At first, the thing shows a sense of style: although the fantasy has been ramped up to the Nth degree, into gimmicky Harry Potter territory, the picture does have a smashingly stylish design. Well — that’s almost the only thing we can count on from Hollywood these days: that it will always look good. You don't begin to notice something wrong until Roth finds a way to make jokes at the expense of a crippled kid. That's offensive enough: but it isn't until we get to the Dumping Topiary that Roth begins to pile vulgarity on offense. And at that point, I was out. I'm too much a fan of John Bellairs to see his books treated in such shabby fashion by a man whose other movies present torture as entertainment. There's a special place in hell for Eli Roth, and now Mr. Spielberg is fully qualified to join him there.

— Thorn.

Friday, October 4, 2019

And Now the Comic Consequences

It’s almost fashionable now for YouTubers and bloggers who have the comics industry as their regular bale of hay to announce or predict what they see as the untimely death of said industry, and specifically of Marvel and DC. They aren’t wrong, but they’re a little late to the game, and a little bit short of the mark. I saw this coming thirty-five-odd years ago, when the Big Two finally bought into Direct Sales distribution as a last-ditch effort to save themselves from extinction in the wake of a disastrous implosion on the one hand (DC) and Stan Lee’s retirement on the other. It worked for them, for the most part, but only as a short-term solution that they should have taken as an opportunity to solidify their reader base for the long term. How? Simply by doing what Marvel did so well under Stan Lee: by telling great stories about engaging characters, and providing value to the reader.

I cannot understand how editors and publishers across all genres of the publishing business perpetually fail to grasp that (engaging) Content is King. Give people a Harry Potter and they will buy the shelves bare; but you cannot fool your audience with gimmicks and replicants and rehashes and rip-offs and manufactured scarcity. 

Marvel and DC didn’t understand this, post-Stan Lee, and they still don’t understand it today. Instead, they have for decades now satisfied themselves with milking the concept of Direct Sales distribution for more than it was worth. Direct Sales was doomed from the outset as a business model, for the simple reason that it is not sustainable at the retail level. Even if they are supported by a rich backer, retail comic shops have a financial breaking point. They can only afford to shell out so much in non-refundable purchases of material that isn’t selling before they reach that breaking point and are forced to close their doors forever.

The pressures on the comics industry are manifold and have been growing incrementally more intense every year since about 1980. Ultimately, the only way for the business to survive is for comics publishers to produce engaging and powerful stories that connect with a readership, and which are of better and more individual quality than can be found in any other mediaform. Some of the smaller publishes, Dark Horse et al, have managed to do just that, carving out a distinct niche for themselves with Hellboy and other titles. But Marvel and DC — and especially Marvel — have shown themselves to be unable or unwilling to create that kind of content, and instead have focussed on the marketing of shock value, gimmicks such as alternate covers and “collectibles” that rely on manufactured scarcity to drive their sales. 

These practices never could have sustained them forever, and it’s a little bit surprising that they’ve been able to hang on for this long. But in 2019 it would seem that the due date on their creatively bankrupt and downright cynical business practices has finally arrived. Comic book shops have been closing in record numbers because they have been betrayed by the industry that helped to create them. 

Looking at Marvel’s catalog for 2017 and 2018, I saw a company in a state of creative desperation, throwing crap ideas at the wall left and right in the wretched hope that something would stick. It was right about that time that my local source for comics, Bull Moose Music, stopped carrying new comics altogether and instead gave over the space in their store to an expansion of their board games section. While they continue to sell paperback “graphic novel” collections to this day, even that section has been ruthlessly pared back, with Marvel and DC bearing the brunt of the lost shelf space. 

I don’t have to ask why. Marvel and DC are producing rubbish. With very few exceptions (not even Marvel’s output has been all bad, but there’s a distinct sense that when they manage to publish something good, it has happened entirely by accident. There’s no more Marvel Universe to show us that it’s all connected somehow) Marvel and DC have cost themselves their livelihood because the stories have no relevance, the characters are either uninteresting or downright off-putting, and even the mainstay characters such as Batman and Spider-man are just simply played out. In Spidey’s case, Peter Parker stopped being interesting three decades ago when Marvel broke faith with their audience by freezing him and his universe outside of real time, like a spider in amber. 

Certain corners of the comics YouTubers and bloggers are soundly condemning what they are calling “Woke” Marvel: but the feminization of old mainstay Marvel characters is simply a misguided manifestation of a very much belated understanding on Marvel’s part that they could have developed a strong base among female readers, if they hadn’t been, metaphorically speaking, a day late and a dollar short. Or, more accurately, decades late and creatively bankrupt. The bottom line here is that no Marvel editor since Stan Lee got on the plane for the West Coast has been able to sense what readers want, and to connect with it.

And so comics fans: if comic shops are closing in record numbers and if Marvel and DC are on their last legs, they have no one but themselves to blame. However: it is true that the years since 1980 have been challenging in ways that not even Stan Lee could have predicted. Marvel and DC can be faulted for bad decisions in the wake of a dramatically changing marketplace and culture, but in no way do they deserve the blame for how dramatically the ground has shifted underneath them. 

Since 1980 the world has been shaken by a cultural earthquake, by a systemic tsunami that changed everything in the same way and for the same reasons that steam rocked the Victorian age. In 2019, we are now far enough removed from the 20th century to see it objectively. Among many other things, it was the century of Pop Culture: the century that birthed the whole concept of a Pop Culture — and the century that saw Pop Culture’s demise. Tendrils of the concept thread out in either direction, in the same way that “The Sixties” lasted into the 1970’s and had its roots in the decade prior, but the body is intact, encompassed in the 20th century. 

The mainstream comics industry didn’t create this situation: but it failed to react in an effective way, and so became a casualty.

COMING SOON (I hope): The Birth and Death of Pop Culture, The Rise of Personal Culture, and the interesting consequences of all these things. 



Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Leaves from The Book of Tarot

Almost by accident, it’s turned into the most colorful fall ever for Duck Soup Productions. 

That’s because almost two years of work across several projects have all reached fruition at just about the same time, with no less than four big new deck releases happening in almost as many weeks!

I certainly didn’t plan it this way, and wouldn’t have: since I think it’s better to pace new releases across a period of months. But they say things happen for a reason… although in this case the “reason” may simply be the law of averages!

First up was the Revised & Refined 2nd Edition of The Arthur Rackham Oracle, which successfully funded at Kickstarter and has been available for sale since early September. With its heavy cardboard box, gold edging and gorgeously printed images on heavy art paper, this is a truly deluxe deck, a deck that would command prices of $75 or more had not the Kickstarter campaign have been so successful. Instead,  it’s priced at just $35, and worth every penny. With its evocative images created by one of the worlds’ greatest illustrators, paired thoughtfully with keywords designed to challenge and inspire, The Arthur Rackham Oracle is one of the most evocative and effective decks you will ever own. And you know — it’s not too early to start thinking about the Winter Holidays! This is a deck that would make a striking holiday gift, at a reasonable cost.

Mid-September saw the debut of The Zirkus Mägi Classic Bavarian Oracle. This is the first time that I’ve attempted to create a “kipper” deck: interest in this almost-forgotten style of fortune-telling deck was resuscitated a couple of years back when popular Tarot artist Ciro Marchetti created his Fin de Siècle Kipper, designed in a lush Victorian style. Indeed, the kipper lends itself to a vintage approach, and so when the time came to create one of my own I thought it best to stick with a style that’s become familiar to me, that retro-themed carnival aspect of the Zirkus Mägi. The result is colorful and comfortable, showing a side of the Zirkus that we haven’t seen before, a peak into the Private Lives of the performers themselves. Comprised almost entirely of new images, the Classic Bavarian Oracle may not be a tool for everyone — but on the other hand, it provides an “easy in” to this unique vintage system.

Just this past week, the work of nearly two years was completed with the release of the Daringly Different TAROT DADA. When I first started work on this deck, in late 2017, I don’t think people knew what to expect or how it would come together. But as the images started to preview on my Facebook page, the response was both enthusiastic and gratifying. Dada has its heart in joyful nonsense, but I could not allow the card images to be completely nonsensical: the challenge with this deck was to find meaning in abstraction and a surreal approach, and with a fair amount of revisions and corrections along the way, I think that I finally struck the right balance. 

The creation of a tarot deck could be likened to the creation of a novel — both have a beginning, middle and end, and both require dedication over a long period of time. The average novel runs between 75,000 to 120,000 words, while a tarot pack requires 78 separate images each playing a unique part yet contributing to the structure of the whole. Even when you work as quickly as I do, that’s a lot of images; and if a picture is worth a thousand words, a tarot pack indeed weighs in as a short novel at 78,000 words. 

Like all the decks that I’ve worked on, TAROT DADA has been great fun, and a large challenge. Even when an artist is trying to do something different, there are traditions, customs and card meanings that must be upheld and respected. That latter part was a particular challenge for TAROT DADA: because the art movement that inspired it is all about shattering rules and breaking traditions. I hope that I have been able to do that while still creating a deck that is readable and relatable. Only time will tell whether or not I have succeeded. 

And now, today, I can announce the release of the latest in my series of “Playroom Oracles” — unique oracle packs derived from the wisdom and art of vintage children’s books. The new title is THE BIRD CHILDREN ORACLE, and as the title suggests, it is a sort of sequel to THE ANIMAL CHILDREN ORACLE. Both decks feature art by M.T. Ross, and in addition to working as a stand-alone oracle pack, the BIRD CHILDREN was specifically created to combine with the ANIMAL CHILDREN into a single, supremely versatile 140-card pack! To facilitate this, the card back options are the same. More than that, there are no repeating keywords or core meanings between the two decks, and even the two significator cards in each pack reflect male and female roles at differing stages of life. You will not find a more adaptable oracle system than this.

So there you have it. With the leaves already changing color (and beginning to fall) and the days growing shorter and shorter, it’s kind of nice to know that in 2019 I managed, without even planning it this way, to pull a real Fall Harvest out of my Tarot bag! After a short break to read, recharge, and deal with Other Tasks that have gone by the boards while I worked on getting these decks out, I’ll be selecting my Winter tarot design projects and hunkering down once again. I’ve got a lot of ideas to choose from, and if fortune permits we’ll all still be here in 2020 to harvest again. I wish you all a healthy and happy Fall season, and hope that you enjoy my crop of cards for this year!

Best wishes;

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