I know, I know. It’s been a long time since my last article and now the first new thing I’m writing is a music review? And not just a music review, but a review of an album by a 15-year-old YouTube star? Well, yeah. That’s exactly what I’m doing. And I’m just as surprised as anyone! 

While I would never claim to be as much of a melomaniac as some of my peers, I am an avid listener with a healthy iTunes library of music from the 1930s to the 2000s. From Gershwin to Grizzly Bear. From Ella to NWA. From classic Disney Soundtracks to Hamilton (The Musical)…well, you get the picture. But even though I swore I would never be one of those people who weren’t on top of the latest bands and trends, for some reason my audio collection stops around 2012. I think St. Vincent was the last artist that made me take notice and go on a run finding her entire output to that point (and isn’t it a great feeling when you have those kinds of sudden discoveries?) But when it comes to what’s being played today I don’t know Billie Eilish from Billy Eichner.1In part I think my new car was responsible; the presets for Sirius XM only had six spots and of course I had them set chronologically from the 1940s to the 1990s as any rational person would. Why am even I telling you this? 

Anyway, as a charter member of Generation X, I’ve been bred to be cynical and unimpressed by pretty much everything. And I am! It’s served me well in life!2Not true. So with the advent of podcasts to keep me company during my 2+ hour daily commute I didn’t realize that I was missing new music. Truth be told, I was dismissing much of it out of hand as “American Idol” bred pop. And while I’m being honest, it wasn’t just music that had grown stagnant. Life, in general, has been at a standstill for many years: same job, same house, same dogs, same friends, same routine. Every day. Every year. Rinse, repeat. The only non-work creative thing I’ve done in ages was a quick, barely fleshed-out game concept.3 Although I still want to make this game!

So that’s the way it was as of a few weeks ago when a YouTube clip hit my Facebook feed; a cover of “La Vie En Rose” by some kid in her bedroom.4 I should mention here that I love cover versions, especially songs from the 1950s and 1960s. Somehow we lost the days when major artists would routinely cover hit songs or turn more obscure songs into hits with the covers. It would be commonplace to see multiple people have the same song out at the same time. Thank God YouTube artists have brought this tradition back around. If I didn’t like the song so much (and already owned so many covers of it) I never would have watched this: 

Adorable, right?  And when YouTube suggested I watch another of her videos, a cover of Panic! At The Disco, I was intrigued.5 Yes, I did listen to Panic! At The Disco when they first hit. They were inescapable on alternative stations, and their Musical and Pop influences made them stand out, especially on their second album which totally aimed for “Beatlesque” and ran with it. But then there was a nasty breakup, and I followed Ryan Ross over to his new group, The Young Veins, and holy cow did this kid want to be part of the British Invasion! But I digress. And then I watched a few more videos, finding this young girl, Chloe Moriondo, more endearing with each one. The covers were perfectly fine, if uneven, as some fit her voice better than others6 And here’s where I have to say I HAD NO IDEA who most of the people being covered were. #OldMan but what shone through was Moriondo’s very distinct personality. And about that time she announced that she had an album for sale online, so I bought a copy on iTunes…and forgot about it.7 I do this a lot, actually. Not having kids or anything I tend to reflexively support people who impress me or donate to GoFundMes for those in need. Because that could be me one day and karma and all that. About a week later I’m having to spend my Sunday painting germs for work (don’t ask) and fired up iTunes to play while I paint. I honestly hadn’t expected to do much more than skim this kid’s songs and move on to my standard random playlists.  And then it starting playing. 


I ended up letting it loop the whole 7 or 8 hours that I was painting. I was not expecting to hear such a polished effort and one, on the whole, that was fairly different from the covers Moriondo posts. Let’s get the caveat out of the way: this is the first work from a 15-year old artist.8I really hate myself for including a caveat; It’s not like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is a work of great lyrical complexity (to say nothing of the songs The Beatles were really writing when they were 15!) But many of Moriondo’s songs feel more ambitious than pap like Justin Bieber going “Baby Baby Baby” and more experience will help her hit the goals she’s aiming for a bit better. And it shows…but only in the ways that a more mature singer or composer can draw on experience to create a richer composition. To be fair, I don’t listen to original music made by High School kids that often. But I have known many musicians throughout my life, and I can’t say that hearing any of their music has ever hit me quite the way this album, Rabbit Hearted, has.9 I’m so sorry, you all know I love your music! From the very first song, Waves, it’s obvious that there is a dark undercurrent running through the album (which, if you know me, you know how that speaks to my black heart.). Even before Moriondo posted “liner notes” on the YouTube posts for each song it was evident that these songs were very personal and dealt with subject matter from her own life. Yeah, that means that you have the usual high school subject matter of Unrequited Love and Joy Rides10Still universal subjects!, but there is a higher concentration of themes of Anxiety, Disassociation/Depression, and above all else, this pervasive sleep imagery that conjures a mental picture of both the highs of dreams and lows of insomnia. And in the title itself, Moriondo refers to anxious feelings being analogous to rabbits’ hearts beating super fast (i.e., someone who is always anxious would be “rabbit hearted”). 

You might think that means these songs would be downers. But no! I tell you; many of them are quite upbeat. Using mainly a ukulele11 I tried to learn the ukulele a few years ago when it was all the rage. It’s now a nice present to my co-worker’s kids. C’est la vie. and layers of her voice, Moriondo creates an incredibly dense sense of atmosphere to these songs, making them almost haunting. Usually, when I hear young artists singing with a single instrument I think about how much richer it could sound with a band or full orchestration. But these songs sound perfect already. And with nearly 25 years of enervating sleep problems and my own intense bouts of stress, songs like “Exhausted” spoke to me very deeply.  And “Stagnant” could very well be a snapshot of my life, in general, these days.12 Ha ha. Kill me now. “Spaceland” isn’t the work of someone who has read about neurological disorder it’s the work of someone who has lived it, sketched out in particular, vivid language. And it sounds beautiful at the same time. The very best of these songs have clever turns of phrase throughout; again, these are incredible for a first effort. And that’s not to diminish the craft of these songs, just acknowledging Moriondo is still very young, and it’s reflected in her lyrics. 13 Any mentions of being in Math Class or catching the school bus was a stark reminder of the reality that I’m a 49-year-old listening to a 15-year-old. So much fun. Sigh. But the hooks are there. These might not be catchy pop sing-a-longs, but they are pervasive little earworms. I found myself playing phrases and choruses in my head all week while we were moving offices. Rabbit Hearted even joined my commute playlist!14 And the cover art by Sha’an d’Anthes is wonderful as well! 

And you know what really sells these songs? Her voice. Watching the covers on YouTube, Moriondo’s voice is tough to pin down: she’s singing live (-ish, there is a fair bit of polishing being done in post, but I don’t think she’s sweetening her basic vocal track at all), she’s adapting to other singers’ styles15 When I first heard her cover Billie Eilish I thought she was having trouble singing until I actually HEARD Eilish herself and realized that Moriondo was just mimicking her very breathy delivery. , and it’s hard to divorce watching her perform with just hearing her voice, isolated. Listening to the album, however, is a whole other experience. While Moriondo’s voice can sound more girly or more mature from song to song, her voice is always very natural and has such a dreamy character to it, for lack of a better word. In three or four years this might translate more to a sultry quality, but for now, it’s such a unique quality where nothing feels forced or whispered, it’s simply clear and smooth and…dreamy. Not to throw shade on Lana Del Rey, but I listen to her, and I always feel that she’s trying to force a specific sultry “noir” sound to her voice that just sounds unnatural. Chloe is the opposite of that. I’ll state again that I don’t listen to contemporary artists (maybe they all sound like this), but to me, her vocal quality is much more akin to singers from the 1940s than her peers. I think this is why her rendition of “La Vie En Rose” has resonated with so many people (it’s her most popular video with 3.5 million views) and her second highest viewed cover is P!ATD’s homage to Sinatra.16Out of all the covers, and I enjoyed being introduced to many new artists, this one was my favorite. Oh, I just checked and Creep by Radiohead was the second most views, because of course it was. I stand by P!ATD. I also think she would be well-suited to covering songs in that same vein occasionally, and there are lots to choose from (even ones that carry a dream motif!) I made a playlist with some apt selections, but I’d really love to hear her own arrangement of a song like “Stay Awake”, from the great Disney concept album of the same name. I think she’d kill it. 

As an aside: there is a rich tradition of young singers like Paul Anka or Hanson hitting it big through contacts in the recording industry or by dropping out of school at an early age and street performing, etc. With an act that is signed and pushed by a Studio, it feels natural to listen to their music or see them on a Late Night show plugging their latest record (after all, we watched Taylor Swift at 14 doing this exact same thing.) Now, however,  YouTube levels the field in such an incredible way, opening up an audience directly with the performer. Labels and Management have always needed talent more than talent has needed them, but now Talent has the means to do it all themselves and cut out middlemen entirely. (Probably not wise to cut out a good financial manager, though!) I’m sure it’s different for the generation that grew up with social media, but I struggle a bit with the sense of intrusion watching performers in their homes (even if they are explicitly inviting us in). Moriondo seems to understand this, too, with her standout “Little Moth” reading as both a comfort to her fans and a tacit caution to not try to intrude into her life too far.17Or is she the Moth in the song and needs protecting? Metaphors are fun!  And I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to go through high school today dealing with mental problems in addition to social media, even though Moriondo seems pretty smart and self-aware, definitely more than I was at her age. Props to her parents for a strong support system. 18I mean, I’m making an assumption here, but all in all, she seems like a great kid and kids don’t raise themselves. AmIrite??

But back to me: hearing this album really knocked me for a loop. After doing the ‘same old’, ‘same old’ for so long you forget what it’s like to accidentally discover something new and wonderful. And it really made me depressed! I couldn’t believe that someone so young had made such an accomplished work, while I had barely made anything for ten years or more. I went to sleep that night pretty bummed. And woke up at 3 am with my first migraine in 4 years (and the first one EVER that I could recall happening while I was asleep.) I’m not going to assume the events were related (the germ thing was pretty stressful) but when I finally woke up the next day I felt like I had had a real moment of clarity: I remembered back to when I was 15 and was painting canvases nearly every single day. When I was compelled to CREATE, all the time. Making movies, writing stories, drawing, drawing, drawing.19 I had started writing a long “in my day” passage here about how I had to use a silent Super 8 camera and edit with a razor blade for 3 minutes of grainy footage while kids today have iPhones and Final Cut to make pro-level videos when I realized that being an early adopter of Photoshop let me jump over the old guys using markers to color Xerox copies who probably thought the very same thing about me. The circle of life, it moves us all. And I wasn’t depressed anymore. Heck, I was almost euphoric. Sure, I could wish I was 15 again20Lord, do I wish I were 15 again! But it’s not my age that has changed me from that naive, idealistic, driven young man. It was very, very clear to me that the only thing holding me back was me. It’s a decade of conformity, of choosing security now over potential rewards later after 20 years of chasing dreams. I can’t stress enough how much it felt like I was awakening from a fog that I didn’t know I was in for the first time in a long while. I want to create FOR ME again for the first time in a long, long while. 

And THAT’S why I’m writing this review. Is this album meant for me? Probably not. But as a wise person once said, “Like what you like, don’t what you don’t,” and I LIKE this album. I don’t expect many people to see this; I’m writing it to write something. To get moving, to be productive. I’m writing it for me (like everything else on this site). And I’m writing it to show the impact that even a small artist can have on someone they never met. In retrospect, ANY chain of events leading to a singular moment looks like fate in reverse; I don’t know why I saw that video when I did, right before she dropped an album that I would never have heard in a million years. But it happened. And now we’ll see if any real change will take hold. (And at least I did the illustration at the top of this article! That’s something, right?)

As for Chloe Moriondo, I see big things ahead for her. It’s no accident she’s blowing up right now or that she has a bigger subscriber base than some of the very artists she’s covering. And I don’t know if it’s by design or instinct, but her online persona is a marketer’s dream (and I say that as a marketing exec!21Although I market Twizzler and Takis, not musicians. Alas. ) The glasses, the ease of conversing with her audience, the yellow room, the building of a brand with her use of repeated gestures and great custom thumbnails…it’s the same reason why Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift are where they are. Good music will get you noticed but being unique will make you a star. Just…stay a kid as long as you can. Surround yourself with good friends and steadfast protectors. Aggressively have fun. Go to college; the world will wait. (And just to throw it out there, Chloe Moriondo was made for Austin, Tx. Or New York. But Los Angeles grinds down talented people.22My Angelino buddies might disagree, but I saw it all too much in the seven years I lived there.

So Rabbit Hearted is very good and if I’m grading on a curve made up of albums from teenagers it’s a 5 out of 5. (But I’m not going to give grades to someone still in school!) I can’t stop listening to it right now. And I’m really excited to see what she does next, and in 3 years, in 5 years and so on. But I think at that point the world will be watching along with me. And dreaming. 

TL;DR – This kid is amazing! Go buy her album!!

One last note: if you like a YouTube artist, watch the ads before their videos all the way through. They don’t get much for them in the first place and they get nothing if you hit skip. Just FYI.23That said, I refuse to not skip the ads on half the poorly made shit on YouTube. That’s why I like stuff like Patreon, so I can actually pay the artist for each video and only steal from corporations.

I was going to write a long article back in December 2015 demonstrating why The Force Awakens is just a remix of Star Wars, as Star Wars was a remix of what had come before (kind of the snake eating its tail). But once the movie was released I realized that I was far from the only one making that observation, and the title graphic that I had made already told the whole story, so that was the article. Had I written it, though it would have leaned heavily on Kirby Ferguson’s brilliant “Everything Is A Remix” series (hence the borrowed title). Happily, Ferguson himself has now weighed in on this very topic!



Everything is a Remix: The Force Awakens from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.


curtswan2When the new Superman movie by DC Comics/Warner Brothers/Christopher Nolan/Zack Snyder, “Man of Steel”, was released in 2013 I felt about it the way many comic fans felt about it: the movie was nice to look at, but it sure wasn’t Superman. The Superman I know wasn’t humorless. He protected the people. And he surely didn’t kill anyone, no matter the reason why! My Superman was bright, colorful, and happy. He was the “big blue boy scout” that rescued kittens from trees and fooled his friends by wearing a simple pair of glasses. This movie did not do that character justice at all. And in the years since it was released Man of Steel has become a hotly debated film among those that liked it and those that thought it fell short. But recently a few things have happened that have allowed me to view it in a new light, one that ends up being much more favorable to this depiction of Clark Kent. And so this is my attempt to reevaluate the movie, and compare it to both the source material and figure out its place in today’s cinematic landscape.

Now, although I didn’t love Man of Steel, I didn’t hate it. I just found it very wrong-headed. I have had friends who have defended it from day one, but I could never quite seem to understand their point of view. But a few months ago I watched it again for the first time since seeing it in the theater, this time with my mother who enjoys all sorts of genre films. And not having the baggage of knowing the comic backstories, or clear memories of the Richard Donner/ Christopher Reeve movie from 1978, she enjoyed it quite a bit. And seeing her enjoyment made enjoy it a bit more, too. And it raised some questions in my brain that have bubbled up sporadically since then; why did this movie seem to be a rorschach test for those watching it? Which brings us to this past month, which saw the release of the full trailer for the next film in WB’s DC Comics cycle: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Not a sequel to Man of Steel, but instead a continuation of a larger story, the trailer seems to confirm that many of the events people had trouble with in the earlier film would actually be addressed. And might even retroactively color the first film, having shown some of those same events again from a new perspective. And finally, I watched the very thorough documentary “The Death of Superman Lives”, which gives an exhaustive look at what might have been had the Tim Burton/Nicolas Cage Superman movie been made in 1998.

All of these things led me to rewatch Man of Steel again today. And it was almost like seeing it for the first time: I noticed many things that on first viewing didn’t register. So here we go! But first, two things: one, I can’t discuss this without tons of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie go watch it and come back. And two, I can’t believe that the interpretation of the film that I’m going to detail and all of the events in it were not very purposefully put there by director Zack Snyder and the rest of the DC braintrust. I don’t believe any of it was an accident, even if it’s not clearly spelled out.

I started writing a recap here but it’s so convoluted I’ll instead point you to this one if you need a refresher on the plot. In general, the major complaint is that based on his behavior in this film, this IS NOT Superman. And for the most part, they’re right! He is not “Superman”. He is Clark Kent. Even though this is incredibly self-evident, even though the filmmakers said this over and over, it really did not sink in for me until this viewing: “Superman” is not in this movie until the very end. This is not a film about the character you love from the comics, it isn’t a follow-up to any incarnation you’ve seen before. It’s right there in the title: MAN of Steel. It’s a story about how a man finds himself. He never calls himself Superman and in fact no one addresses him as “Superman” directly. This entire movie is the lead up to him becoming “Superman” and all that entails. You may think I’m just playing with semantics here but read on. It’s almost become tradition that every reboot begins with a retelling of the hero’s origin story. At first glance, Man of Steel is no different. But I would call this almost a coming of age movie over an origin story. True, we see scenes of Clark Kent exploring his powers, growing up, and his first formative “adventure”. But we really don’t see him “get” his powers.  The movie is set mostly in present day with a grown Clark who has not yet taken on any of the trappings of a superhero. And the flashbacks scattered throughout the film are there to explain his mind and motivations, not his powers.

Christopher-Reeve-Superman-A-classic-photo-recently-restored-superman-the-movie-35485219-1020-1232One thing everyone can agree on is that Man of Steel is a reboot. But I haven’t seen it mentioned what it’s a reboot of, which is the very idea of a cinematic Superman. It’s funny to think of it, but Batman has been nothing but a reboot of the character every time he has appeared in movies and on TV. From the Adam West version to Batman ’89 to The Animated Series to Schumacher’s day-glo insanity to Nolan’s hyper real Batman Trilogy, every incarnation of the character has been a new one and not based directly on the comics in almost any way. These movies take TONS of liberties with every facet of the character and villains and audience never bat an eye. Ironically, the upcoming Ben Affleck version [footnote] Interestingly, it looks like Affleck has taken over much of the reigns in how Batman will be portrayed from now on, not Snyder. [/footnote] looks to be the most faithful version to the comics that we’ve seen yet. (Side-note: I know many people will claim that Batman: The Animated Series was faithful to the comics, but it’s only faithful in distilling the spirit of the character rather than any specifics in look or plot from any specific comic timeframe).  But every version of Superman so far actually takes it’s cues from the Golden and Silver age comics. It can be argued that Lois and Clark is more like the 1980s comics, but only in that Clark isn’t portrayed as a wimp. (Smallville isn’t like any of the previous incarnations, true, but then, he’s not “Superman” in that one either, is he?) And the end-all, be-all for Superman in the public consciousness is Donner’s Superman: The Motion Picture.

So the basics that people have in mind when they think of Superman have been re-enforced over and over for decades, and when that basic idea is confronted with something new people tended to react by claiming that “they got it wrong”. And again, I’ll point out that I was also in that camp! But the reality is that in comics Superman has been reinvented time and time again. Unlike Spider-Man, or Batman, Superman’s powers actually evolved over time. His origin changed over and over (and over and over again to this day!) Sure, the core idea always survived: Krypton explodes, baby rockets to Earth, grows up to be Superman, meets Lois Lane. But that’s it. His parents, occupation, powers, childhood…most of the details have changed over time. And that core is what Man of Steel has kept, leaving the rest of the details to be filled in anew.

supermantdkr_zpsbed56755What muddies the water a bit is that writers Zack Snyder and David Goyer are too in love with comics history to resist putting in multiple nods to the past and repurposing elements, rather than creating new ones. So it can indeed be interpreted as “getting it wrong” when you make “Jimmy Olsen” into “Jenny Olsen”, but it’s only wrong if it was meant to be Jimmy Olsen in the first place.  These nods run the gamut of classic stories, from a brief shout-out to The Dark Knight Returns (don’t worry fans, Snyder is just getting started with that book) to bits from Birthright, Superman: Earth One, and various other tales, the one story that really informs this new reboot is the one big reboot of comic Superman: John Byrne’s 1986 The Man Of Steel mini-series and subsequent comic run. People forget that John Byrne’s reboot not only removed the convoluted history of the character, but was a shift in how Superman was portrayed and perceived by the populace of the DC universe. In a drastic change from the staid Boy Scout that came before, Byrne kept Superman’s moral compass but made significant modifications to everything else: He is now the sole survivor of Krypton, which has become a sterile, science based society that “grows” their children, Clark’s parents were now alive, he reveled in the use of his powers as Clark Kent, he didn’t become Superman until adulthood (his years as Superboy were wiped away entirely), the rocket that brought him to Earth still exists, he is less powerful, Lex Luthor is a powerful businessman instead of a scientist, Jor-El appears to Clark in adulthood as an interactive hologram to tell him where he comes from, and most importantly, Superman will face a genocidal General Zod that can only be stopped by killing him.

You can see the elements that Goyer and Snyder picked up for their version of Man of Steel. (Here’s a detailed rundown of the comic influences.) But they made one major deviation, one thing that would shape the entire film, and the continuity going forward: their Jonathan and Martha Kent WERE NOT like any incarnation of the adopted parents of Superman we had ever seen. This change is what is going to shape the movie. This is why he is only “Clark Kent” in the movie, and not “Superman”. It’s pretty much a constant throughout the history of the character that states Superman is the “boy scout” that he is because of his good upbringing in the heartland of America. It’s why there was an uproar a few years back when he seemed to renounce his American citizenship in the comics. What Man of Steel posits is that in a grounded telling of this tale, Jonathan & Martha Kent would be terrified of what would happen to their boy if people found out about him in this day of YouTube and Social Media. So the underlying lesson they impart to Clark isn’t “be a hero”, it’s “be scared”. I know, I know. That’s NOT what Jonathan Kent would do!! Except Jonathan Kent is an old man. He died when Clark was a child. He was a passerby that turned the baby over to an orphanage. He’s the one who designed Superman’s “S-Shield”.  Actually, there is no one “Jonathan Kent”, there are only many versions of that character throughout the years. And this is just the latest one.

man-of-steel-43It’s a bold choice, though. I think part of why this was so poorly received is that too much of the Kents’ motivations are left as subtext instead of text. We don’t know what they are thinking, as most of their scenes are interaction with Clark due to the flashback structure of the film. This is really a fault of the entire film: there is something to be said for “show, not tell”, but when it’s not artfully done you need to make sure the idea comes across. Too much of the movie is spent detailing Zod’s motivation instead of Clark, not to mention many of the other characters. There are hardly any conversations in the film between two characters that are not exposition or counterpoints to an action scene. A scene between Jonathan and Martha debating whether or not they are doing the right thing in treating Clark like veal would go a long way to rationalizing their choices (and you can even have little Clark eavesdropping if you need to justify the inclusion in a flashback). These kind of connection scenes are sorely missed throughout the movie. And it’s pretty clear that Jonathan might never have told Clark where they found him; he only does so in reaction to Clark asking more or less if God was punishing him.

As is, their decision turns the character of Clark away from every traditional telling of his origin. He grows up apparently friendless, with his knee-jerk reaction to walk away from any conflict. He’s wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out where he fits in. This would be a good place for another scene of characterization; if we saw him at least keeping a journal during this time it would make the abrupt transition to reporter later easier to swallow. (Side-note: this type of thing is often described as making the movie more “realistic”, but the fact is that there is nothing remotely realistic about any genre film. I prefer saying that it’s a grounded or serious choice, instead.) So the entire movie is not “Superman’s first adventure”, but instead Clark’s journey to get to a place where he becomes Superman. He is not perfect. He is not the “boy scout” yet. He steals clothes, destroys property. He is saving people, but mainly because he’s in the right place at the right time. Most Superman origins show his reveal to the world because he’s making a dramatic save in public (helicopter, plane, space shuttle), but in Man of Steel he is called out into the open by the villain and has no choice.

His relationship to Krypton is interesting, too. The entire time he’s growing up, he’s an outsider. Even if he’s not sure he’s an actual alien, he surely isn’t fully human. When he finds the buried ship and learns his origins from Jor-El is about the part in the movie that you start see him smile from time to time. And then he meets Lois and makes a friend. The argument that “Superman” wouldn’t cause so much destruction and not try to protect people is true as these events seem to be what creates Superman in this reality. Without Jonathan guiding him to do these things, Clark hasn’t quite figured it out yet. And it’s obvious that while he loves his parents, he’s also been secretly hoping to find his “real parents” the entire time. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the turning point of him not really being in the game until Zod threatens his mother. I think it solidifies and clarifies in his mind that he is choosing Earth, not the thing he thought he had been searching for his whole life. Again, these ideas are all under the surface. I wish they had given the script another pass. But there are interesting ideas in there. And they drop hints of a larger history: the empty life pod on the ancient Kryptonian ship, Jor-El’s helper robots that are straight out of Byrne’s comics, and Superman’s relationship with the military, which we’ve never really seen before.

nic-cage-435One of the most interesting things is that the traditional version of Jonathan Kent IS in this movie: it’s Jor-El. Jor-El is the one who has hopes and aspirations of Kal as a hero for Earth. He’s the one who tells Kal to protect them, and to be a better ideal. He gives Kal his iconic uniform. Goyer and Snyder even lift some of Jor-El’s speeches verbatim from the comics. And it’s through Jor-El’s interaction with Clark and his sacrifices that show Clark how to be that hero. Looked at it another way, for the first half of the movie Clark is a literal alien on Earth, but in the last half (after Jor-El shows him how to leave Zod’s ship) he embraces his humanity and starts on the journey to fulfilling his destiny as a hero. One thing that opened my eyes to this interpretation was watching Jon Schnepp’s fascinating doc on the aborted “Superman Lives”. Much is made over Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage’s view of Superman as the ultimate outsider, one who feels like an alien all the time. While not as extreme as Cage’s performance would have been, Cavill’s traditional look overshadows this characterization in Man of Steel. We see “Superman” so feel the disconnect. But imagine Nic Cage in the same role as written, and it becomes clearer. With Cavill, instead of quirky we get taciturn. But he is still removed from humanity until pushed by Zod and embraced by Lois. By the end of the movie, he’s learning and adapting to his new role. He doesn’t prevent the mass destruction that happens because he’s trying to figure out what to do. He’s not yet Superman, but he’s getting there. Watching the trailers for Batman v. Superman, you can see he’s wrestling with the repercussions, too.

Now, even with this new point of view, the movie is far from perfect. There are million tiny things to nitpick, but others have done that better than I will. And Goyer and Snyder tend to want to have their cake and eat it too; nowhere is this more evident than the closing scenes of Clark magically being given a job at the Daily Planet when we’ve never seen any evidence that he’s a writer or that he even went to college. In the comics and earlier films, his job as a reporter many exists to get him close to Lois. But she knows who he is in Man of Steel (another deviation that I completely agree with), so there is no real reason to place him there. Not to mention there is no way that the Planet would have already been rebuilt or that Metropolis’ streets would be cleaned up. It’s these little lapses that make the big ones harder to ignore. And Man of Steel has two really big missteps: Jonathan Kent’s demise and the Killing of Zod.

On the face of it, I don’t have a problem with the idea of either event. But the execution is botched so much that it threatens to derail Clark’s characterization and is part of what had led to the outcry against the movie. Jonathan Kent dying is nothing new. In fact, Donner’s 1978 movie set the bar for this, with an elegant script and performance by Glenn Ford that hammered home both the concept that Clark needs to be bigger than himself and than he is not a God, and can’t save everyone. But the ludicrous concept of a tornado appearing on a sunny day, exactly over their location, with the “Dog Ex Machina” keeping Jonathan at the car is just a convoluted mess. It definitely feels like Snyder’s enthusiasm for spectacle overweighed the dramatic potential. A better scenario would have been Pa Kent getting in a simple car wreck with Clark in the car and a crowd of people around. Then he could use his dying breath to forbid Clark lifting the car off him and getting him to the hospital. It would prove the same point and have a greater emotional impact. But as is in the film it is too unrealistic a scenario and one that it wouldn’t even take super powers to solve!

man-of-steel-killingThe killing of Zod is another thing that doesn’t make much sense as presented. I don’t have a problem with Superman killing in the right circumstance (although I don’t think they needed to shoehorn it into this movie) and there was a precedence in the comic (Side-note: in the comic his guilt was so extreme it drove Superman into multiple personalities and eventual exile in space). However, Clark kills Zod because he feels like he doesn’t have a choice since Zod won’t stop his rampage and is about to kill a family with his heat vision. That technically should follow his eyes, not his head. So (as many have said before) Clark shouldn’t be able to prevent the family’s death just by holding Zod’s head. But whatever. They also have a discussion in the middle of it, after apparently killing hundreds by knocking down half of Metropolis. So here’s where they try to play it both ways, and maybe this was by mandate of WB or Nolan, but as it’s shown in the movie, we never actually see Zod kill anyone. We DO see Clark snap his neck, though. Is it murder if they’re only thinking about a crime? This is what muddies the argument. Plainly put, Zod should have been shown killing that family. And another one, and another…SNAP! No discussion, just an agonized choice that had to be made. And it should be very clear that Clark is also making the choice that he will be the only Kryptonian, right after finally finding his people. Along those lines, we should have seen the consequences of that massive destruction. There is not a single body, and people are running away as the cars are being crushed by a “gravity wave”. Jenny Olsen should have died. Heck, it would have made a huge impact if Ma Kent had been killed by Zod, and shown Clark why he didn’t have any options. As is, Colonel Hardy and Dr. Hamilton might be dead, or might be in the Phantom Zone. The movie was pretty vague about all that.

All that said, I’m now on board with this DC cinematic universe. Man of Steel had some winning performances, and as far as look goes you’d be hard pressed to find a better Superman than Henry Cavill. One thing the movie was was consistent in its viewpoint, and Batman v. Superman only looks like more of the same. And I’m ok with that…now.


Or, to put it another way, when is green not the right green?

brainiacIf you’ve bought action figures from Mattel over the past few years, you know that they have had some issues in the manufacturing of your favorite DC Comics characters. But the one that really puzzles me is how often the colors of the final product do not match the paint masters or even the designs as seen in the comics.

Sure, they are the right color, per se. But they are not the right value of that color. And this should be a very simple process: you get a paint master, you match each base color to a Pantone guide, you figure out which parts are molded plastic and which are painted, you send these numbers off to the factory in China, and eventually you should get back some color chips that show the actual plastic that will be used, and what the base plastic looks like painted.  At this point you double check the samples against your original Pantone numbers AND the paint master. If they deviant, tweak them and send for new chips. This seems like a pain, but the manufacturing window is long enough that you should be able to handle at least 2-3 rounds of tweaks if necessary.But for some reason, what we see in the prototypes IS NOT what we get.

Left: Production colors, Right: Colors manipulated in Photoshop

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.

Welcome to part three in my series of reminiscing about the old days of concepting for Star Wars items that never were made. Except some of these were actually made! Amazingly, this post is following the last one not even a year later, which is a lot better than the four year gap between part one and part two. Unfortunately, this installment isn’t quite as fascinating as those first two, from the stand point of seeing a lot of crazy concepts that may or may not blow your mind. But it might be fascinating from the standpoint of taking a look behind the curtain at the process these things go through on the way to store shelves. Go check out the first two installments here and here if your memory is hazy on the events that came before. And here’s a look at some rejected mini-figures that would have gone in bags of chips, and our abandoned Jabba beanbag.

Of course, I’m writing this in part because I have Star Wars on my mind with the news last week that Lucasfilm is being bought by the Walt Disney Company for 4 Billion dollars. Y’know, in normal conversation that sounds like some kind of hyperbole or crazy exaggeration. But no, they are paying $4 BILLION for all of George Lucas’ companies and legacies. I guess what I’m trying to say is: Disney, if you’re looking for ideas for merchandise to reclaim some of that investment… give me a call! But I digress. Ok, so when last we left our story, my team and I had just landed the job of making Life Size Star Wars characters to promote Episode One: The Phantom Menace in stores for Pepsi. While good news at the time, I would end up spending months living in China, staying in the factory every day overseeing many people as they made thousands of full size replica Jar Jars and Yodas in less time than an action figure normally takes to be manufactured and at the cost of a typical deluxe Hot Toys figure. And we did it! That’s a tale for part four of this series, though.

…Or something like that.

So, with the big breaking news of Disney buying Lucasfilm, I’ve been in a Star Wars mood these past few days. I may just break down and write the next chapter of the “Unproduced Star Wars Concepts” saga. To be honest, it’s taken me so long to revisit it because this has been a very busy year at my day job. In fact, today is the first day I’ve had off in over two months! And of course, the concept of “not working” is alien to me now, so when a goofy mash-up idea popped into my head I immediately sat back down at the computer to flesh it out, instead of grabbing some much needed rest time.

Still, this was an enjoyable few hours creating what are more or less virtual customs. And no paint & sculpey mess that comes with the regular kind of customs! Anyway, it’s an odd idea, but a fairly self explanatory one. Hope everyone enjoys it.

Every time one of these big budget superhero movies is announced there is a process of fear that fans go through. Will it get a good director? Will they get the casting right? And what is the costume going to look like? This last bit has probably cause more anxiety and grief than any other element. Because the costume of the superhero defines them. In large part, it is what accounts for their popularity, as it is the instant visual hook that initially draws in the reader, garishly jumping out from the cover of a comic book.

It’s odd then that this is the one area where filmmakers keep getting the genre wrong. Over and over we see either wild departures from the comic look, or bad attempts to translates what works on the page into something that has no business existing in real life. And don’t get me started on Warner Bros., who can’t seem to figure out the genre at all if Christopher Nolan isn’t involved. Most of the attempts fall somewhere in between, though. The one studio that seems to have really been nailing it, though, is the one that actually owns the characters: Marvel. Iron ManThor, and Hulk have all been very true to the spirit of the character, if not the exact letter. And the Avengers movie looks to continue the trend, with a pretty faithful Ultimate Hawkeye outfit along with Black Widow. Except for one small thing: Captain America, the ostensible star of the picture.

So these days it seems like no one is totally happy with the companies that are making mainstream toys. If it’s not the price hikes, it’s the selection. Or the quality control. Or the shoulders are backward. Sure, sure, these problems are all annoying, especially in light of the price you pay for the toys these days.

Michael-Wolf-Toy-Story-1-650x436At the risk of sounding like every other “apologist jackass” out there, sometimes these things really are out of the control of the people in charge of shepherding the line from concept to manufacturing to store shelves. Things like parts missing from packages, or bad paint jobs, or bent legs are all factory related issues. And no matter how many samples you may check and sign off on at the end of the day you really have no idea how well the factory is going to follow your master samples or the checklists you devise to make sure all runs smoothly. Even having someone stationed in China doesn’t fix everything. When I was designing toys, I worked for small enough companies that I was often the one overseeing the process through the factory, even staying in China from time to time. Mistakes happen on every job, it’s just part of the process.

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, any 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).

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 becoming 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.

thebagSo it’s taken quite a bit longer than I planned on to get back to another installment of my unproduced Star Wars gems. But here at last is the untold story of the promotion that you never got to see, and what a doozy it is! A couple of caveats right off the bat: I did not actually have anything to do with this promotion. It was developed and presented by another marketing agency in the wake of the Star Wars Trilogy re-release in 1997 as a possible idea to launch the Prequels, in specific Episode I.  So most of this is strictly going from my memory of how it was explained to me. And the bag illustration at right is just something I whipped up based on what it might have looked like. Cool?

In the wake of the big hits of the Lay’s Spirit of Obi-Wan offer in 1996 and the  Froot Loops Stormtrooper Han Solo in 1995, Lucasfilm wanted another big product tie-in to push Episode I on the masses. Unfortunately for the marketing gurus, pretty much every brand under the sun would be also launching Episode I promotions at the same time. Pepsi cans, Pizza Hut boxes, Taco Bell toys, and KFC cups were just the tip of the iceberg of what would probably be the largest promotional movie launch ever to be seen. Multiple companies pitched ideas to Frito-Lay as to what their big promotion would be, one that would stand out from all the other Star Wars items on grocery shelves and most importantly, what would sell more bags of chips. Keep in mind that Pepsi/TriCon/Frito-Lay paid up to $2 Billion for the license, so you better believe they needed to move product to make that worthwhile.

Ok, so I finally saw the Wachowski Bros’ Speed Racer the other day.

Holy. Cow. This was one of the most amazing movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure I know how else to describe it. It was, hands down, the best adaptation of a comic or cartoon to movie EVER.

Now, before I get tons of hate mail, let me explain what I mean. I do not mean that it was the best comic/cartoon based film I’ve ever seen. I do not mean it is the best film of it’s kind. In fact, I don’t even mean I liked it all that much. I did find it entertaining, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a great movie.

What it is, though, is a great spectacle. You almost can’t take your eyes off of it.  It is such a huge leap in the construction of these types of “green screen” spectaculars that I think it needs it’s own classification. It’s not really live action (although the actors are not modified). It definitely isn’t one of those zombie filled motion capture movies, and it certainly isn’t animated. But the entire thing is alive- the actors, the backgrounds, the cars. The way they treat the overall world the character’s inhabit outdoes video games. It really is something amazing. as it is totally like a cartoon (and a crazy cartoon at that) and yet everything has a very grounded feel, as if the cars all behave according to actual physics, if not the physics we must obey ourselves.

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.

Before I post about more unseen Star Wars stuff, I thought I’d do a bit of follow-up to some that I’ve already shown. One of our biggest heartbreaks in designing stuff for Phantom Menace promotions was getting all the way to prototype on a big Jabba the Hutt beanbag, but having it rejected for cost/size issues.

jabbagKeep in mind when looking at this that it was just the initial attempt. We would have had a few more rounds of refinement to get it as close as we could. The one that got made was created by a domestic beanbag maker in the traditional manner, with a sort of textured fabric for Jabba’s “skin” and very simplistic vector graphics (created by Steve Ross, shown next to Jabba) printed on it for the details. Originally we tried to have the fabric airbrushed for a more realistic effect, but this proved to be too problematic to reproduce, and we had concerns about the durability in the long term. This was not our first attempt though.

So I started this year vowing to cut back on the toy buying. In fact, I had quit buying almost all together, thanks in part to it being so hard to find Mattel’s latest offerings and the fact that Hasbro has delayed the next batch of Marvel Legends for so long. In any case I wasn’t planning on starting any new lines. And then I went to see this:

And within a few days I had bought everything seen in the picture above!

Now, don’t get me wrong; I love Indiana Jones. It’s just that I hadn’t planned collecting any of these, really, especially after dropping the Star Wars line in 2001. I was narrowing the collection down to just the DCUC line and a few Marvel Legends that filled gaps in my nostalgia collection. Mainly because as I get older I care less about owning toys, and also the small fact of having 60+ boxes of action figures sealed away that i will probably never open or display every again.

indy2But once I saw the film and then saw all the toys on sale the next day something deep within me snapped and before I knew it I was carrying them to the register and buying a good chunk of what was out there. It didn’t help that I had ordered the “Making of” book and the soundtrack the morning before I saw the film (the book is good, but not anywhere near as good as the great Making of Star Wars book they put out last year. Much of the info here is from the documentaries that were on the DVDs!)

Today’s toys have risen in quality in leaps and bounds over the toys of my youth. The sculpting is better, the molding is better, the packaging…can be better at times, and the articulation is in a whole other league. And for the most part, the painting is better. Well, sometimes, that is. For companies like McFarlane Toys and NECA, the paint applications is just wonderful most of the time. But for most of the mainstream majors, like Hasbro, Playmates, and Mattel (now that Toy Biz is out of the game) it seems like an afterthought.

wolvpaintIn the late 90s Toy Biz was really one of the first major players to step up to the plate and deliver very detailed paint applications on their figures and more sophisticated paint washes to bring out the heightened sculpting details. Sure, the smaller guys were also experimenting with paint, but nothing like the leap Toy Biz made (even with their smaller figures), thanks to guys like Eddie Wires doing the paint masters (and also doing them for Palisades and Diamond, among others). For companies like McFarlane and DC Direct you had the Four Horsemen and Tim Bruckner really raising the bar with their painting prowess.

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.

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!


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.

In addition to books and toys, I buy a lot of DVDs. Mainly old movies, because I’ve already discovered that they don’t always stay in print for long, and then command crazy insane prices on eBay once they’re out of print. Plus, the past few years have been great as far as the rarer films are concerned, with studios realizing that if they do a good job with restoring this stuff it will sell, and at a premium price.

Unfortunately, the marketing dept. in these studios seem to think that buyers need some kind of bribe to get them to purchase these sets (they also eschew good package art in favor of a lot of photoshopped crap, but that’s another topic).  Hey, I can understand this; I’m in marketing myself and am sometimes involved in the same kind of inane “plussing up” of a product for no reason (forgive me for not naming specifics 😉 ). But above all else, these special offers should not interfere with the actual item being purchased.

legacycoversWhich leads me to today’s rant: the newly released Walt Disney Legacy series. This first series packages every last “True-Life Adventure” film in four stuffed volumes. On one hand now that Roy Disney is back in the fold the studio has done a truly fantastic job putting these together, with tons of extras, documentaries, and nice restorations of films that have too long been unavailable. And as far as I can tell it’s a pretty comprehensive package. On the other hand, the marketing dept. thinks that the films themselves are not enough, and takes the path of the tin outer cases they made for the ‘Walt Disney Treasures’ line on step further: the DVDs are loose inside a tin “film reel canister”!

The ‘Treasures’ tin cases at least could be removed and inside was a normal dvd case (otherwise when they are on a shelf you cannot tell what they are since there is no printing on the spine…if they fit on the shelf in the first place).  But these new film reels can’t be put on a shelf without them rolling off, and you can’t tell what’s inside without picking each one up and looking at the front cover. Granted, the packaging is very handsome, but how on Earth do these things get decided without ever thinking about the purpose of the item and the functionality in a collection (since by and large it is the core Disney fans who are buying these limited sets)? This is the same mentality that leads to crazy figure packaging that makes it impossible to remove the darn figure (and jacks up the price) just because some designer thinks it looks cool. I’m looking at you, SDCC Solomon Grundy.

Anyway, this whole thing got me so aggravated that I made my own covers and bought some double dvd cases online. So everyone can now benefit from my frustrations- right-click on a cover below and choose “save as” to download a hi-res pdf of each cover that you can print out and use on your own dvds. All for free! (Caution: files are large!)

 Legacy_Cover4_sm Legacy_Cover3_sm Legacy_Cover2_sm Legacy_Cover_sm

funkoboothI’ve been a collector for as long as I can remember. When I was around three years old, I collected sticks. Yes, ordinary branches that had fallen from trees, which came in all sorts of varieties and limited editions. After that I picked up stuffed animals whenever I could, the more unusual the critter (plush skunks, possums, hyraxes…) the better. Once 1977 hit, though, my entire collecting focus changed. I think we all know what happened in the summer of 1977. From that moment on, my life became Star Wars- Star Wars cookie jars, Star Wars bedsheets, and of course Kenner Star Wars toys. I even started collecting comics by picking up the adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back and discovering Spider-Man on my trips to the comic shop. Once I hit Jr High School my fascination with toys faded away to be replaced by a fascination with girls. But I never stopped collecting, moving on to books, music, sticks…well, maybe not sticks again. Still, I never ceased to find things that once acquired would somehow turn out to be a collection eventually.

Of course, once I was firmly settled in college the toy bug bit again and has led me down the path of both hobby and career, with a little web pioneering thrown in along the way. And so it has gone over the past 10 years; it doesn’t take me long after dropping one collection to gain another one just as quickly. Since entering the promotional premium field I have been acutely interested in Advertising Icons. These are the mascots and slogan bearers of major companies past and present, who have entered the pop culture zeitgeist throughout the decades since the concept first gained traction in the 1930s. Thanks to the wonder of eBay it has become much easier to track down various advertising merchandise made to promote specific businesses, which was great since I wanted a collection for my office only- a collection that others in my field could appreciate a bit more than the usual Spawn figures in every artist’s cubeicle. The problem with collecting these is that with the vast differences in scale, material and quality between pieces is that it never quite felt like a coherent collection. And anyone who knows me knows that I value consistency above nearly all other factors in my collections. One look at the picture on the left will show you the depth of this problem that I faced. (As always, click on each image for a larger view.)


Like the previous entry on the BK Lord of the Rings figures, these were pitched to Burger King in 2001 as a tie-in to the then-airing X-Men Evolution cartoon.

The earlier idea of figure packs was such a hit internally, when the X-Men license rolled around it was thought that the perfect “never been done before” concept would be 14 two-packs(!), each containing hero and villain figures. This is the overall “beauty shot” of all the figures together – each figure would have it’s own unique action feature and the pairs would be somewhat appropriate to the characters, i.e. Professor X & Magneto, Wolverine & Sabretooth, etc.

Sadly, the powers that be at Burger King didn’t see the fun in making the “same old figure toys” and instead opted for a rival concept of static figurines that came with an interactive CD. This is something I would see over and over while designing toys; people who didn’t like toys making decisions regardless of kids or collectors or even sales. While Jack in the Box later made a nice set of Justice League figures, this would have been a nice chance to own a lot of the more obscure characters that never saw toy representation.

One note: some of the designs (Boom Boom, Wolfsbane, etc) were based off the comics and not the show due to only a list of names for the upcoming characters was provided to BK and not character art. These would have been corrected had the concept made it to production. Much of the art shown is the work of the great Jeff Parker, Michael Smith, and David Hudnut! For more unseen X-Men Evolution art, go check out designer Steve Gordon’s great website!

Click the picture for the full assortment. 


Pictures cannot be used without express written permission. All images © 2001 Alcone Marketing, Kid’s WB!, and Burger King.

This will be an ongoing feature here at Ottertorials: ideas and concepts that never made it off the drawing board.

While many collectors are aware of certain toys and figures that never make it into production (especially concerning Star Wars toys) most people don’t realize that for every toy made, there are dozens if not hundreds of concepts generated and pitched only to be discarded. These discards literally could fill many books and often turn up online in many artists portfolios if you know where to look. From time to time I’m going to feature concepts that I think need further recognition.

bkringtitleToday we’ll look at one of my favorite unmade concepts: army builder fast food toys. In 2001 Burger King was going to make a big splash with their promotion for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. For various behind the scenes reasons, the company pitching these toys needed a big win at Burger King, and saw LOTR as their opportunity to deliver a “never been done before” promotion. You see, how the process is usually done at a QSR (Quick Serve Restaurant, aka fast food) is that 2 or more companies are told what the license is going to be and then they both present their best ideas to Burger King in hopes of landing the program. This process is slightly different at every QSR (for example, at McDonald’s no matter who won the creative pitch, both companies would share manufacturing, which is where the money is) but at Burger King it was winner take all. If you don’t win, you don’t get the bucks for that month.

Ultimately, the pitch that won was for a 19 figure set, all with lights or sounds (or both) on bases that formed a giant ring with the “One Ring of Power” at the center. Once all were connected they would trigger each figure in successive order. The logistics behind this were insane and the cost was such that the company took a hit in its usual profit margin to deliver it. This is one reason why you won’t see such a complex set again, since Burger King didn’t pay much more for it than a normal promotion.

Anyway, on the way to hitting on the final “big idea” some of the artists pitched making sets of “Army Men” in internal meetings. These figures would be about 2.5″ tall and come in a bag containing four figures: one painted “hero” figure, and three secondary figures all molded in one color plastic. The plan was to have up to 15-20 different bags of figures, letting kids and collectors build massive armies of Elves, Orcs, and Dwarves to play with and display. Unfortunately, this is just the sort of idea that usually gets killed early on. While it would be a big hit in stores, it doesn’t have the “wow factor” to get past the non-collector execs at a QSR. To them, it can’t be a simple idea- it has to dazzle everyone on paper. And thus, you’ll likely never see this concept produced for any license. Here is some of the art produced for that failed pitch: