DesignLifeNostalgia

Update – 7/06/2015

comicstripssSo in the nine years since the first installment of this post, the vintage comic strips reprints has absolutely exploded. I would never have imagined in 2006 that what I was calling “The Golden Age of Comic Strip” would REALLY be a gold age. Seriously, I don’t know how this will ever be surpassed, except that someday everything will be available digitally. But for the quality of the reprints that are being made now and the sheer quantity of titles, I don’t see how it could get better. Pretty much all of my personal grails have been addressed, and a lot of secondary ones are on the way. I mean, we’re on volume 25 of Peanuts! Volume 19 of Dick Tracy! Volume 14 of Mary Perkins, which wraps up over 20 years of continuity, just as that strip’s creator, the very talented Leonard Starr, died last week. It’s good that he was able to see such love for his work at that stage of his life. I’m happy I got to meet him briefly during a San Diego Comic Con a few years ago (as he was chatting with Ray Bradbury!) It would be even better if someone would reprint his run that revived Annie in the wake of the hit stage show. In any case, it’s not unusual now for comic strips to be back in the headlines. There is a Peanuts movie hitting the theaters soon (the first since Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown in 1980), the New Yorker is running articles about Gasoline Alley, you can go on a cruise with the top cartoonists of today, and there is a recent documentary that has hit Netflix and VOD about the gradual fall of the comic strip and newspapers in general, and what that means for the future of the medium.

Having begun as a successful Kickstarter campaign, this documentary, Stripped, is pretty good and for those who haven’t been following the industry very informative. Director Dave Kellett interviews over 70 people connected to the comic strip biz including most of the stars from the past 30 years. But there’s one “get” that is truly astounding, seeing as this person doesn’t general give interviews, talk to the public, or have his picture taken: Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. I don’t think anyone who was alive during 1985-1995 needs to be told the hold that Calvin and Hobbes has on that generation. Or that Bill Watterson is considered a genius for the way he translated universal feelings about growing up into the adventures of a boy and his (stuffed?) tiger. But since his voluntary retirement in 1995, Watterson has been as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, not making any appearances, not giving any interviews, just generally staying away from any kind of limelight. He preferred to let his work speak for him, which it did indeed, being continually in print throughout the years. And a massive hardcover box set reprinting every single strip was produced in 2005 with a paperback version following in 2012. And that was it. For nearly 20 years only the strip remained to remind us of his genius.

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So I was browsing through Netflix the other night, looking at their range of mediocre to abysmal choices of things I haven’t seen when I stumbled across the newish documentary “The People vs George Lucas”. With no better choices at hand I proceeded to watch it as I wrapped up some late night editing for a project I’m behind on at my “real job”. Let me rephrase that: I tried to watch it. I got about halfway through it before I had to turn it off and put on a Beatles album (FYI: A Hard Day’s Night) to wash away the taste it left in my brain. At its most basic, this was nothing more than what any Star Wars fan has seen thousands of times in every nerd/geek/fanboy forum online since the special editions were released in 1997 up through Revenge of the Sith in 2005. And honestly, I’m kind of tired of going over the same ground over and over and over (Han shot first, Jar Jar sucks, George doesn’t care about us, fans have equal ownership, ad infinitum).

To make it perfectly clear, I didn’t really care for the film. Decently made, but I didn’t see the point to it (even if you tell me at the end they defend George’s right to do whatever he wants with his films…who cares? That point was debated a decade ago). But it did really open my eyes to something I’ve never really thought about before: George absolutely did the right thing when he made the prequels. What did he do right, you ask? Well, going all the way back to Star Wars in 1977, George has continually said that these are kid’s movies. Made for kids. Now, most fans see that as a cop-out. An excuse, a shoddy justification for everything they don’t like about the prequels. And I’m not the first person to point out that he is right, these are kid’s movies. We fell in love with them as children. If you really go back and look at Star Wars today with a clear, cynical grown-up’s eye, you can see how juvenile the first movie was. How black and white. How simplistic.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

Somewhere down the line, “kid’s movie” became synonymous with “dumbed down crap”, but it wasn’t always that way. E.T. is a “kid’s movie”. Every Disney classic is a “kid’s movie”. You can say that The Wizard of Oz is a kid’s movie. But what we’re really saying is that these are family films- enjoyable for all ages. Now, the prequels are regrettably lacking in finesse. They definitely could have used a rewrite or two and a little better character motivations. But look around: kid’s today still love these movies. They like Jar Jar. They think the Battle Droids are funny. Go read Drew McWeeny’s great series on introducing his sons to the Saga: http://in-my-head.org/2011/11/07/recommended-reading-drew-mcweenys-film-nerd-2-0-star-wars-edition/

George made the right call here. He kept aiming that target in the same place he aimed it in 1977 and 1980 and 1983. And the kids that are enjoying the prequels today (and the Clone Wars, and the video games, and the toys) are going to grow up thinking just as fondly about all of this as we did 20-30 years ago.

I know what you’re thinking. I know, I know. You wanted to see something else. You want Jar Jar gone. You didn’t want silly Battle Droids and endless Jedi fighting. Or C-3PO’s antics. I get it, I really do. But let me point you in the direction of a comparable genre that didn’t take the path that Lucas did. No, this property at some point decided that instead of staying aimed at kids, it would grow up with them. It would evolve and start experimenting with just how far it could push the characters and the existing boundaries. It would get dark, it would get edgy. You know where I’m going with this: it’s comics.

At the same moment that Star Wars was capturing a generation of kids, comics was telling those kids that it was OK to never grown up and leave them behind like the previous generations did. No, once the 1980s hit continuity became king. If you weren’t on board from the beginning it became harder and harder to get on the ride. And every year less and less kids were reading comics. And comics responded by catering to that 80s generation’s every whim in a self-destructing feedback loop. So here we are. Comics exist almost solely as fodder for merchandise and movies and once the 40 and 50 year olds stop buying them the industry is pretty much going to die off (How’s that New 52 treating ya, fans?). Or move onto the web. And collectors alone can’t sustain all the toys or even movies when they are anything but a crowd pleasing, family friendly hit (looking at you, Green Lantern!) But Star Wars? Well, kids will be watching that just like they do the Disney films. Every seven years a new generation will pick it up, and the juggernaut starts up all over again.

Because George Lucas was right.

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As the years have gone by and I’ve gotten older (and wiser?) I’ve come to notice that every time one of our “distinguished men of AFi” have posted pictures of their past childhood holiday toy pictures that something has been missing from my life: namely, and similar pictures of MY childhood Christmases filled with toys. For that matter, I really never had any pictures of much of my childhood, period, outside of the typical family portraits. Or so I thought. Last year while home for the holidays I made an off-hand remark to that effect to my mother, who then asked why didn’t I look in all the boxes of slides we had stored upstairs. Turns out that my parents DID take a tremendous amount of pictures, only they were almost all slide film and then put away once we stopped gathering around the ol’ Kodak Carousel. Since I was curious as to what slides we had, I took it upon myself to scan them all and convert them into nice digital files.

fettlegWell, over 6000 slides, 12 months, and many hundreds of hours later, I now know what is on all of those slides (and might I add they date back into the 1950s, well before I was around). And I still have around 2000 more slides to scan…unless they find even more boxes, which is a very distinct possibility. But within all of those pictures, I did find a number of great shots of what I received for Christmases past. I haven’t gotten into the 1980s yet, and if you had asked me before I scanned them what toys I received, I would have told you that I mainly got cars & planes, model trains, and a toy drum set until 1978. At that point my life was overtaken by Star Wars, (I even made my own xmas stocking shaped like Boba Fett’s leg, seen at right!) and I can’t really remember owning any other toys until I started collecting in earnest in college (well after throwing away everything I had in childhood).

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The Space Shuttle Columbia Lands at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, March 1979

Or, what the Space Shuttle means to me.

On Thursday, July 21 2011,  US Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time, returning from the last mission that the shuttle program will fly for the United States.  The program and the shuttles themselves have been retired, cast aside due to a national lack of enthusiasm and a casualty of the ludicrous economic battles that pass for governance these days. But none of that matters to me when I think of the Space Shuttle.

First and foremost, to me it remains the last exciting moment of the US Space program that really touched people when I was growing up. Sure, the Mars rover and the various interstellar missions of the past 20 years have been interesting, but the Space Shuttle program was a continuance of that bright, shining age when it really looked as if the science fiction was being coming the science reality. It was totally conceivable that by the year 2000 we might have (small) colonies on the moon, or a floating city in space to replace Skylab.

DesignLife

I’m not a very good artist.

I mean, I’m OK as far as it goes. I can get the job done or at least figure out what needs to be done. But when it comes to guys like Matt Cauley or Kerry Gammill or Dave Hudnut (all guys I know and worked with) there’s just no comparison. And I’m cool with that.  To be honest I never wanted to be an artist; I’m self-taught in the sense that I doodled in the margins of my school papers, and taught myself how to paint just for fun in high school, but I was never one of those guys that just HAD to draw. The ones that spent hours practicing, or laboring over tiny details, or studying the great artists to figure out the secrets

Nope. I just did it until I got bored and then I’d rush through the rest to finish it. I didn’t want to grow up to be an artist, it was just a hobby. It relaxed me, and I wanted to keep it that way. Sadly, life decided that I would end up having no marketable skills and I somehow backed into a career as a designer, first of toys and now of promotions.

The good news is that I’m quite good at computer programs like photoshop and illustrator. With those, I don’t need to be a good artist, I can fake it. But it is somewhat of a regret that I never really learned how to draw well. Now that I’m in my late 30s new skills don’t come quite so easily anymore, and I sometimes really struggle to get something looking how I want it to. It was much harder when I was a toy designer, as my puny skills meant that while I designed a lot of stuff, someone else would do the final artwork. Oh, I was able to design some nice display pieces, but they were almost always not my style or done by committee (which is kind of the default in any graphic business these days). Still, I was able to put my stamp on things by slipping in the random otter or hyrax onto the item.

DesignLifeMoviesStar WarsUnproduced

0111_phantommenaceTen years to be exact. That’s when I left the oil fields (where I was shooting industrial video) and entered the world of product design. I got really lucky, having made some contacts through Raving Toy Maniac when I was running it with Eric G. Myers, to somehow stumble into a new career despite having zero experience and minimal skills at the time. What I did have was a crazy passion for the toy industry. And I think my boss saw that, and took a chance on me.  We were a small start-up agency at first, and chased every opportunity we could come across. Of course, I was happy to be designing crap for A Bug’s Life and Dairy Queen’s Arctic Extreme toys but if you had asked me what I really would like to be working on, super heroes or action figures would have topped my list.

Well, except for Star Wars, that is. In 1998 I was just about the biggest Star Wars nerd around. Not only was I writing about the toys for RTM and hitting Toy Fair and SDCC, but my new co-worker, Steve Ross, was just as big of a nerd as me. Every day at lunch we’d hit Target or TRU trying to find the latest and greatest that Kenner and Galoob had to offer. Our offices were decorated solid with Star Wars. It was always at the forefront of our minds. And then one day our CEO told us that Pepsi wanted us to pitch some ideas of what promotional merchandise they could do for Episode One.

DesignLifeNostalgia

misterdogcrocOk, so I’m in the grocery store the other day and while I was walking down the aisle between the fine products from Campbell’s Soup Company and the displays of healthy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups there was a sidecap rack with Little Golden Books on it. (Not to be confused with the German dog food brand, seen at right.)

Never one to pass by a literary opportunity, I glanced over at the rack and perused the title held within. What caught my eye was an intriguing tome labeled, “Mister Dog”. Even more intriguing was the fact that in 2008 there was a book marketed to children with a cover illustration of a dog smoking a pipe!

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Now, I don’t know what was in Mister Dog’s pipe, but I do know what it felt like *I* had been smoking after reading this book. I’m not sure I can do the crazy, mixed-up world of Mister Dog justice, but suffice it to say that I bought that book then and there! The story generally follows the adventures of a dog that belonged to himself, with the challenging name of Crispin’s Crispian. Who is Crispin? Is the dog Crispin and “Crispian” is a term of endearment? Is it one of those weird cultural oddities, like “Carl’s Jr.” or  “Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse”? 

8c8a7e93c8f83e5a1aca6ca0d877dcaaAnyway, the dog screws around, then meets a boy who is apparently a runaway. They go buy some food and take it back to the two-story doghouse, where they eat and go to sleep. The boy helps him clean the house. The dog almost never stops smoking. And was he chewing on his own hat? I wouldn’t put it past him, he is a dog. Seriously, it’s just some crazy-ass stuff. But don’t take my word for it, why not read this fine review. I wish Michael Bay would concentrate on classics to adapt like Mister Dog, rather than that Transformers crap.

The sad dénouement of all this was finding out that this was the last story of the author, Margaret Wise Brown. Ms. Brown was more famous as the writer of the wistful tale of nighttime ritual, “Goodnight, Moon”. But while on a promotional tour of Europe she fell ill and was hospitalized. After recuperating somewhat she tried to demonstrate her renewed health to her nurse by performing a high-kick, which triggered a sudden embolism that killed her on the spot. Oh, and she also owned a dog named “Crispin’s Crispian”, so I guess that explains that.