Monday, March 30, 2015

Three "Strikes" ... hope I'm not out!

This will be the third "update" post in which I assure you that the "Strike Up the Sand" review is going to be posted soon ... but this time, really, honest, it's close! A pretty big chunk of it is written. Should be just a day or two. (Of course, I said that the first time...)

Here's Sadira striking down the sand ... or her sand monster, rather ...

-- Ryan

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What I've been watching: Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated and the '70's Hanna-Barbera "teams"...

Clearly, the "Strike Up the Sand" review is taking longer than I'd forecast. It's still on its way. Because this long wait between reviews is typical, and to turn the blog away from being so Aladdin exclusive, I'm going to start keeping the blog active with updates -- not full reviews -- on what I've recently been watching and reading. This is the first of those.

Recently, Joe Torcivia and David Gerstein tipped me off that the most recent TV series in the Scooby-Doo franchise, formally titled Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-13) was exceptionally good, doing a new spin on the infamous format and tropes of the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969-70), parodying it but doing so respectfully, developing an ongoing continuity and a "mytharc", and giving the characters more ... characterization. It sounded up my alley, so I eagerly started watching.

I've definitely enjoyed it and have found much to appreciate and respect. However, a couple of days ago, I reached episode 14, "Mystery Solvers Club State Finals". In the teaser, we find Scooby clearly sick and bedridden. When Shaggy asks how he feels, Scooby sarcastically answers, "Never better." Not picking up on how Scooby's answers is obviously incongruous with his condition, Fred exclaims, "Great! I was worried there for a second we'd have to leave you behind!" "Fred!" Daphne responds, giving him a chastising dirty look. "What?" Fred protests. "The Mystery Solvers Club State Finals is tomorrow! Every team mystery-solving group from around the country will be there!"

At that, a bell went off in my head -- I was pretty sure what the episode was going to be. Wikipedia's description confirmed it: "Sick in bed right before the big Mystery Solvers Club State Finals, Scooby dreams about going to the competition and teaming up with fellow mystery-solver sidekicks Speed Buggy, Jabberjaw, Captain Caveman and J. Wellington Mudsy Muddlemore to rescue their friends from the clutches of the demonic Lord Infernicus." Further, "An episode-long homage to the golden years of Hanna-Barbera, this installment is almost entirely animated in the same visual style as Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. All the "sidekicks" featured are from Hanna-Barbera Productions shows that copied the basic mystery-solving/sidekick formula that Scooby-Doo pioneered."  

I of course familiar with those series (I grew up when Cartoon Network was largely reruns from the Hanna-Barbera back catalog, after all!), but have never really watched of them regularly. While I'm sure that I could go ahead, watch the episode, and still completely "get" it, I prefer to brush up on the source material first when it comes to crossovers. So, this weekend, I've downloaded (shh!)...

... The Funky Phantom (1971-72) ...

... Jabberjaw (1976-78) ...

... and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977-80). (Especially excited about this one, as I loved this character as a child, from the Captain Caveman and Son segment on The Flintstone Kids. I only ever saw one episode of Teen Angels [maybe it was more than one, actually -- but for some reason, I remember it that way], on a Sunday morning as part of USA's Cartoon Express, and was thrilled to find out that Cap had his own, full half-hour show.)

Knowing that these shows tend to be repetitive, I figured that I'd only watching one or two of each, just to be freshly acquainted with them. However, despite all the continuity errors, logic gaps, and sloppiness, I found the first episode of The Funky Phantom enough to have watched a few more. It's nice to be watching "vintage" (perhaps that term should only applies to their works of the '60's) Hanna-Barbera again, warts and all.

I'm especially curious to see how the Mystery Incorporated episode's mimicking of the '70's Hanna-Barbera style came out. (It looks like the entire episode is going to be a dream sequence, conjured up in the ailing Scooby's mind, accounting for the change in aesthetics.) Also, I'm wondering why it was only these three mystery-solving, mascot-having H-B teams that join Scooby's gang? I was pretty sure there were a bunch more. And just a cursory Google search has yielded...

... Goober and the Ghost Chasers (1973-75) ...

... and The New Shmoo (1979). (There might be copyright issues -- not sure who owns the rights to Al Capp's comic strip creation.)

There's also mystery-solving rock bands, who tended to not have non-human mascots, like...

...(of course) Josie and the Pussycats (1970-71)

... and Butch Cassidy (1973) and his band.

I wouldn't be surprised, though, if some of the above groups (and others) do make visual cameos gathered at the competition, but just don't collaborate with Mystery, Inc. as part of the main plot like the featured guest stars do. (No spoilers!)

-- Ryan

Monday, March 16, 2015

Time to "Strike Up" this blog again...

If I'm handling this clumsily, my apologies, but I feel that I shouldn't follow up my last post -- my tribute to Chris Barat -- by just acting like things are the same as they've always been. They're certainly not -- Chris was a huge part of our community, and the prospect that I now face, of returning to the ol' reviews grind but with him no longer with us, is disquieting. But I think it's what he'd want.

Two weeks ago, I attended Chris' prayer service and the gathering afterwards graciously hosted by his family. I am very glad that I was able to gather with Joe Torcivia, David Gerstein, and Chuck Munson to honor Chris, along with all of the other friends and family that were present. And I am also glad to have met, although all too briefly, those members of Chris' family that I did. I can't imagine what losing him is like for them, but in them is reflected his same strong, kind, thoughtful character. And it looks like he's left a decided, and very positive, influence on the family's next generation.

The next Aladdin review (see? There's just no good way to make that segue...) due is of "Strike Up the Sand", the first episode in the Sadira arc, which I remember as one of the series' more interesting developments. As I remember it, it was in part almost soap opera-ish, with its emphasis on jealousy, (admittedly subdued) lust, and possessive manipulation. Sadira certainly isn't the only witch/sorcerer to have graced the series, and her episodes certainly aren't the only to prominently feature the occult (I think it's fair to call it that -- the series just calls it "magic", but frankly, the Mozenrath, Fasir, and Ayam Aghul episodes are all pretty morbid and heavy on fetishized death imagery), but when that subject matter is so heavily associated with the theme of the types of human vice listed above, it gives the aesthetic "darkness" an especially poignant sting, and adds more of a "human interest" angle to your regular dose of sword-and-sorcery.

...well, that's how I remember it, anyway. This will be the first time that I've watched the episode in pretty much 20 years (as is the case with most of them). Here's Jasmine and Sadira meeting for the first time, the latter obviously none too thrilled to have found out that strapping young lad that she just met and was instantly pining for in fact has a girlfriend. Maybe this will be your first time meeting Sadira -- look for the review later this week!

-- Ryan

Monday, March 2, 2015

In Memory and Honor of Chris Barat: A Tribute and Reflection

No show shook up my childhood world the way that DuckTales did. But only a few years after the show premiered, I was frustrated by the fact that in reruns, each cycle through, the episodes were shown in an entirely different, (as best as I could ever tell) completely random order. In the fall of 1987, being only five years old, I hadn't even learned to read, so -- as I would come to lament -- I hadn't written down all of the original air dates or taped the episodes in order as they premiered ... especially the two-hour prime-time special version of "Treasure of the Golden Suns". I always longed to see it again in the form that I originally, a "continuous play" edit akin to a full-length feature film.

In 1994, I had become a regular reader of Comics Scene, in no small part due to Bob Miller's "Animation Scene" column -- in the pre-Internet era, I glommed onto any written news and commentary on the animation industry that I could. One month, when Miller reported that "two dedicated fan" had written and published a book DuckTales, I was thrilled. Their names, Christopher E. Barat and Joe Torcivia, I recognized as regulars from the letter columns of my favorite comics -- until a year or so earlier, those published by Disney themselves, and by that point, published by Gladstone (again) -- so I trusted that the authors spoke my native language. I wrote to the address that Miller provided immediately. 

The typewritten(!) letter that I received from Barat, dated June 4th, 1994, was friendly and answered my questions thoroughly and reassuringly. It was apparent that these guys cared about the show as much as I did, if not more so. 

When the book arrived, I was in awe to see how thick it was and how substantial (and substantive) the commentary on each episode was. I had never read anything written about the series, let alone ever had a discussion with anyone about it, that was so in-depth and so knowledgeable of and attuned to the series. I read it at every chance I had until I had exhausted it. 

At the end of his brief letter that accompanied the book upon its arrival, Chris had added a handwritten P.S.  It read, "If you are interested in writing original stories about the 'Disney Afternoon' characters, you might be interested in a fan magazine called WTFB, of which I am a member. We are always looking for new members." He included contact information for the editor, Jeff Pierce.

As a kid, I was always imaging in my head -- and sometimes writing down, in some form -- original episodes of my favorite animated TV series, or animated cartoons based on my favorite comics, or animated feature films based on my favorite animated TV series and/or favorite comics. So though I was thrilled at the prospect Chris had opened up to me, it took me a few months to actually act on it. You call it ADHD -- I was too busy imagining all those cartoons in my head, and procrastinating from doing my homework while I daydreamed, to sit down and actually write Jeff a letter! But finally, as of July 1995, I was officially a member of WTFB and had received my first issue. 

I enjoyed the fan fiction (most people didn't know what that was until the Internet!) by the members that contributed it, but with each new issue, it was actually the opinion columns that I read first. As had been case with the thorough reviews in The DuckTales Index of each and every episode, I really connected with other people talking about how they liked the same things that I did. I felt especially found a kinship with the other columnists who were fans of and frequently wrote about "duck comics", two of whom who were the "indexers" who had led me to this "A.P.A." (amateur press association) in the first place): Chris and Joe. It helped that they both wrote very nice, encouraging, and constructively critical things in response to my first column. (That's when Joe first turned me onto DC Comics, after I had bashed superhero comics as a whole!) 

In my second column, I reviewed the first few episodes of Aladdin's second season, which was at that point (fall '95) underway Saturday mornings on CBS. That appeared in the November issue -- shortly thereafter, I received a Christmas card from Chris, in which he let me know that he had enjoyed it. I was just cutting my teeth on writing reviews, and those that Chris wrote (of current animation, comics, and all of WTFB's fan fiction) for his "News and Views" column (it was called that then, mroe than a  decade before it evolved into his well-known and well-respected blog) were the definitive model for me.  (I loved Joe's "The Issue at Hand" just as much, finding it hilarious, pointed, and undeniably engaging, but its format was more free-form than Chris'; each issue, Joe would concentrate on one or a few subject -- or, if you'll forgive me, issue -- that was on his mind at the time, often not necessarily reviewing a particular comic book or cartoon, per se.) Though I recognize now that my efforts in those formative years were naturally elementary, it was very rewarding to have Chris respond favorably and earnestly to those attempted reviews, and that I had the opportunity to actively discuss the latest episodes of a current Disney animated TV series (being a participant in close to "real time", rather than being a third-party observer through a historical lens, as was the case with The DuckTales Index.) 

Additionally, Chris was inquiring about the air dates for "The Shadow Knows" and "Two to Tangle". (I believe his local CBS affiliate had dropped Aladdin just a couple weeks into the second season -- he didn't explain the situation in that Christmas card, but I recall that being the case.) I was happy to provide them (see, I had learned from my experience with DuckTales to document such things!), as his successive letter verifies that I did. I believe he went on to post a list of that season's air dates in newsgroup. It still brings me pride to have helped -- even though in a very small way -- with that effort. Also, starting with that Christmas card, we wrote to each other regularly -- for a time, weekly -- for almost the next two years. I still have all of his letters, and especially now, I'll forever cherish them.

In that (print) era of "News and Views", each installment was comprised of more than a dozen reviews, subdivided into roughly three categories: first, current Disney Afternoon/WDTVA series along with, when applicable, the latest Disney animated feature films; then, the latest Gladstone issues as well as the much-maligned Disney Afternoon title film Marvel; and each piece of fan fiction from the previous issue of WTFB. Finally, there was a fourth section: Chris responded to pretty much every column from the previous issue, continuing multiple discussions. I daresay that no other participant was so dependable and dedicated in  giving attentive, constructive feedback on the contributions of virtually every single other member. His pieces on my DuckTales fan fiction were gratifying just in that in alluding to various scenes and other aspects of the story, he was so specific that it was clear he had truly read it and that he seemed to see it in his head just as fully as I did in mind. In some places, he was even even palpably enthusiastic, more or less expressing the sentiment, "As both a DuckTales and a Barks fan, I really appreciate that what you, also both a DuckTales and a Barks fan, are doing here." I really couldn't have asked for more; one needs allies in this life, you know?

Sadly, I didn't keep up with my column or my fiction for WTFB. In eighth grade -- roughly my second year with the A.P.A. -- the pressure felt by the obligation to write them was compounded by my homework, and I started having frequent anxiety attacks, culminating in my coming down with something that my doctor said by all respects looked like mononucleosis but yet wasn't ... but never told us what it actually was. So I just told people that I was out of school for a week with mono. (And that week was no vacation -- I remember trying to watch Animaniacs one morning, but making the decision to focus my attention on watching a cartoon seemed to trigger some sort of stress reaction, where I suddenly found it very hard to keep my eyes open and my head held up.) Luckily, I was mostly back to normal by the next week, but was left shaken for a long time afterwards. I stayed with WTFB through my freshman years of high school, but without contributing -- I just wasn't in the same frame of mind anymore. 

The reason I am telling such a personal story in a tribute to Chris is because it accounts for why I dropped out of "the scene" for the next few years, and why after 1997, I never again had regular personal contact with Chris. I still feel bad that I never finished my multi-part DuckTales story in WTFB (although the fourth and final chapter was written, I've never liked it -- I'd like to one day work out a better ending, revise the whole thing, and post it on the Internet) and that I suddenly stopped writing to Chris. In 2003, I caught up, via the Internet, I caught up with Joe, Chris, and the gang again. (In 2004, I had an argument with Chris over politics that I since came to feel bad about, and wish that I had formally "made up" with him in the years since, for the sake of at least a sense of resolution. 

During the past couple of years, he occasionally left kind but brief comments on this blog, so I think that in the end, things were amicable between us. I'm not sure if he ever actually realized how influential he was on me, how much he meant to me, and how to me, he always stood out in a way that was almost iconic. I've said before that I've always felt that there's a lot of both Chris and Joe in my writing, and when writing something to Chris, I have what I call my "Chris voice" that I slip into without realizing it, and a "Joe voice" when writing to Joe. (I think that in recent years, I've gotten excessively divergent in my syntax, but back when Chris and I were exchanging weekly letters, I noticed that Chris and I employed similar sentence structures in terms of expounding on our thoughts through staggering them with clauses both successive and parenthetical. I wasn't sure if his style was rubbing off on me or I just had similar inclinations -- since third grade, my teachers had always told me that I was exceptionally good writer for my grade level, but my skills and abilities were still very much evolving in my WTFB days.) I think it's telling that I joined WTFB geared to write fiction, and ended up being more drawn to the critical commentary, and feeling a bit more at home in adding my voice to the din. At the end of my creative writing MFA program, one of three professor-advisors I'd worked with -- herself a Barks fan -- shared that she felt that my critical pieces stood out to her more so than my creative work had. In theory, the latter was the whole point of being there, so you'd think I would have taken that as a slight ... but, no, I concurred -- I really felt alive when writing critical papers (especially the long one on Barks that I devoted my second semester to)!

I only ever spoke with Chris by phone two or three times, possibly all in '96. The first and longest lasted an hour, and though growing up, I had always had friends who watched the same cartoons that I did (in particularly, my friend from down the street, Brian, who I kind of had a competition going with to be the one to tape every episode of Aladdin before the other had), I had virtually never actually spoken to someone else with as "intense" an interest in this stuff as me, and so I babbled on and on through the whole call without any filter. (Me, the kid who never spoke in class!) Being so unrefined in my still-very-much-developing critical thinking skills, I'm sure that some of what I said must have sounded a bit silly to Chris, but he took it in stride! :)

Anyway, at one point during that conversation, I said to him, "I"m surprised that you're a math teacher, I'm sure that you could be an English teacher, easily!" (Yes, he was already a professor at that point, but I was in grade school, so I didn't know any better than to call him a "teacher".) My rationale was that since I considered him so good at assessing plot and characterization, and since he was so fluent with the written word, always adhering to proper form (but bending the rules a bit and pushing the boundaries of convention, something that I strongly admired and picked up from him!), then how could "English" (or "language arts", or, if you want to break that down, "literature" as well as "writing and composition") not be his chosen field?! I've come to realize that he's so structured, organized, precise, exact, detailed, and (with a nod to another whom also left us last week) logical in not just his writings on comics and animation, but in everything that he does, that I can see how he's cut out for math. But by no means is he cold and calculating; he had a big heart, and I think that shows in the tasteful comics and cartoons that he did like, and the violent, mean-spirited ones that he didn't. 

By all counts, in his written coverage of the things that he loved and in his professional career in academia, he led a full, accomplished life. As someone who has always had trouble keeping myself on task, I have always been amazed -- and admittedly, a bit envious -- of how Chris never seemed to stop. "Guy's a machine!", the colloquial expression (more or less) goes, and looking at Chris' blog output over the past several years, one might be prone to use it. A week ago, when Joe relayed the news to me, I was shocked and distraught. One of my thoughts that day was that it had always seemed that his blog was a immovable fixture of existence, and that nothing would ever stop it. 

My condolences to his wife and family. Godspeed, Chris. I still can't imagine what it's going to be like with you no longer with us. But had you never been here, I wouldn't quite be who I am today. You will never be forgotten, and will always be admired.

-- Ryan