Friday, August 31, 2012

Indiana Jones

The year was 1981 and we were living in Montgomery, Alabama when I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I didn’t have quite the feeling I had when I saw Star Wars or Superman, but it was close. I had the overwhelming feeling that this movie will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Indiana Jones is a great character played by a terrific actor and resonates with a lot of people for many different reasons. But what I want to address today is what the character can teach us about our culture if we pluck him up and lay him down across different kinds of media like a leather jacket wearing yardstick.

It’s been said a couple of different times that the creators of Indiana Jones were making a love letter to the old Republic movie serials they used to watch as kids. The kind of chapter plays that I talked about here. Indiana Jones is a character firmly rooted in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. And his swashbuckling heroic adventures are very similar to the serials and movies of the time. But the execution is vastly different. The creators of Indiana Jones, director Steven Spielberg and writer George Lucas, came up with something that could never have been filmed in the era that it depicts, or pays homage to.

Usually because of budget restrictions, the old movie serials would have ‘flat’ action, where a very well choreographed fight scene would take place without the camera moving and without any sort of special effects other than breakaway tables and loud punching sounds. The Indiana Jones movies are painted on a much bigger canvas, showing us what can be done with an old idea presented in a new way. Nazis and lost Amazon tribes and Thuggee cult members come alive as real menaces even as Indiana battles them in decidedly unreal ways. The soundtrack is magnificent, and the style of the movie and the character have become timeless classics.

To me, it’s the best example of something I end up thinking about a lot. Why throw out old characters and ideas just because they’re from a past decade? When you can breathe new life into the concept and turn out thrilling entertainment.

The Hollywood idea is called ‘the franchise’. Older ideas get recycled with a new take. I’m not talking about a re-make of a beloved favorite or yet another sequel. I’m talking about franchise projects like Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. James Bond was very much a Cold War hero of the 1960’s, and yet has a brand new movie coming out this summer, fifty years later. Some characters are too good to die.

Indiana Jones is a franchise all by itself. But more than that, it’s a modern interpretation of a form of entertainment popular fifty years before it’s time, breathing new life into old ideas. It’s the concept Julie Schwartz used to revive the Flash in 1956. The idea was that kids who bought comics today were too young to remember the cancellation of the first Flash in 1949.

The old movie serials of the 1930’s can’t possibly compare to the Indiana Jones movies of the 1980’s. Budget, film technique and technology, passion and concept are all on a much bigger scale by the decade that Indiana Jones rolls around. The character was devised to be an imitation of old movie serial heroes, but end ups being no pale imitation at all. But a larger than life hero that film-makers of the 1930’s definitely imagined but could never have created.

That right there has always been the power of comic books. The tableau of action in a comic book is only limited by the artist’s imagination, and with creators like Jack Kirby that’s just no limitation at all. For the longest time, the comics were able to depict things that Hollywood never could. All the super-hero movies, as glorious as some of them were, just weren’t enough to fill the bill. The 1978 Superman movie came the closest. Until today, that is. When Marvel studios is easily able to give us a movie with aliens invading New York City and the Avengers coming to the rescue. Suddenly, the special effects gap between movies and comics seems much smaller.

Once again, Indiana Jones comes in to teach us some things about the difference in media. There have been several attempts to make Indiana Jones comic books, beginning with Marvel starting an ongoing Indiana Jones series in 1983 even before 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The problem is that they’re just not that exciting. At least in my opinion. There’s something missing from the experience to make them fully a part of the Indiana Jones story.

Music, acting, pacing, and even car chases can’t be handled the same in comic books. But comics have their areas where they make up for that. The real problem is character. Someone so larger than life on the big screen like Indiana Jones seems small in a domain ruled by Superman. When you have characters than can fly, swim, run, swing, punch, shoot energy bolts, and dialogue literally like nothing that can happen in the real world, then a two-fisted archeologist in a stylish hat seems small in comparison.

The 1980’s Indiana Jones movies make the serials from the 1930’s seem flat. But the American medium of comics born in the 1930’s make Indiana Jones seem flat. It’s dizzying if you think about it too much.

Which I do.

I wonder how he would fair as a radio drama...


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gorillas in our Midst

The year was 1982. My father was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama and we were living in a ranch-style house that we would inhabit for less than a year. It was just before dinner time, in the living room. Dad was watching the news (natch), and I was on the couch near him reading comics (natch).

I was thoroughly absorbed by George Perez art on the New Teen Titans. I was amazed by this incredible find that I had ignored for eighteen issues so far. I felt very behind. The smell of pipe smoke hung in the air and there was the sound of ice cubes tinkling in the ritualistic glass of pre-dinner bourbon. My father’s… not mine. I had a plastic cup of last night’s leftover iced tea. My mother was in the kitchen making dinner. The newsman droned on in the background. I ignored him, until the story came on about one particularly inhumane force in some foreign country or other being beat back by gorillas.

My head shot up in surprise. What? What did that newsman just say?

I turned to my Dad, who was showing no visible signs of having heard this amazing discovery. This revolutionary method of warfare that was straight out of a comic book.

“Dad, did I hear that right?” I asked. I was eager at my chance to show that I was actually paying attention to the news. (I was not.) “Did they really turn gorillas loose on them?”

“Yup.” was my Father’s standard, overly-verbose answer.

I laughed. “That’s awesome.”

He looked at me. Took a long drag on the pipe.

I went back to reading my comic book.

He looked back at the news.

Visions of Super Gorilla Grodd leading a charge of advanced gorillas on the helpless forces was making me giggle a little. Sometimes life really does imitate comic book art, as the saying goes. My little sixth grade head shook in worldly wonder. I took pride in that I was old enough now to share amazement in a news story with my father just as any other adult would.

It was years later when I learned what a “guerilla” was.


Monday, August 27, 2012

Shared Family Experience

Do you ever listen to the radio anymore? Is the radio a thriving source of music, news, and traffic reports? Or is it yet another dying American entertainment medium?

The radio in my gym was tuned into the John Tesh radio show. Yes, yes... I know. My gym is primarily for old people. We've started to go to the wellness center attached to Martinsburg City Hospital where my wife works. The gym is very nice, a little small, with very modern machines that use computer monitoring to help you reach your goals. I like it, but it's primarily for old people. Tesh was talking about how long car trips have changed in our culture. They used to be family fun time, a time when all family members could talk to each other and fill the time during a long car ride. With the radio only being used as background noise if a consistent radio signal could be found at all. Tesh goes on to say that today's travelers are all plugged into their different devices, with the kids in the backseat listing to their iPods and playing handheld video games rather than participating in a shared family experience.

In my opinion and experience, Tesh is remembering it wrong. WAY wrong. In the 1970's, before iPods and hand-held video games, long car trips were silent. With us kids in the back seat absorbed in comics, travel games, word searches, coloring books, or anything that could be picked up at the store that would keep us quiet and entertained.



As a father, the whole idea of losing my kids to a set of headphones has been bothering me. I don't believe for a second that I would fill a long distance trip with conversation with the kids. But there is something of a shared experience when we're all listening to the same thing on the radio.

Which we don't. In October my son will be thirteen. My daughter is eleven, but thinks she's eighteen. My youngest is six and still thankfully acting like a six year old. But Ashton, the thirteen year old, has been acting like a (shudder) teenager for six months now. We have different music. And he will always choose his music over anything I would want to listen to.

A week or so ago, Ashton and Katie and I drove to New York City to drop Katie off with my sister for the week. Five hours in the car alone together. I had an advantage, though. Ashton had spent the week with my buddy Mario and his family, and had forgotten his headphones! They were in my bag, but I hadn't given them to him yet. So I thought I would try for the whole shared experience thing.

One of my (many) passions is old radio drama shows from the 1930's and 1940's. The kind that died off with the advent of television. I've really been enjoying comedy man Jack Benny and his show. That's what I listen to while on the treadmill at the gym. I get strange looks sometimes when I break out laughing while running. So I started off with a Jack Benny, plugging in my iPod and cranking the volume so Ashton and Katie had no choice but to listen.

Katie would smile at me occasionally. It's hard to know if she really likes something or just wants you to be happy. Ashton was in the back seat, rolling his eyes at the 'old' jokes and not caring if I was happy or not.

Okay, Jack Benny's not working. Let's move on. How about a different comedy show. The George Burns and Gracie Allen show.

More old jokes. More eye rolls.

The Shadow! How about the Shadow! With me, all hobbies have a root in super heroes and the Shadow is what first drew me to listening to old radio shows. But the Shadow would prove no more entertaining to Ashton than having his teeth pulled. Katie smiled at me politely.

This was not going well. And I have a lot of old radio shows on my iPod, but not enough variety to support this experiment. Failure loomed. One chance left.

A slow, creaking door started off the program. A long, obtrusive sound too soul-grating to ignore. A macabre-voiced host came on making gruesome jokes with a lilting, playful slant. The Lipton iced tea spokeswoman cut him off and tried to lighten the mood with her sales pitch, but he succeeded in controlling the atmosphere. "THIS.... IS INNER SANCTUM."

Ashton and Katie were quiet. They were quiet throughout the first murder. They listened intently to the grizzly details and mounting tension. They thought they had figured out what happened, and got uncomfortable as the police were involved. And then more murders. A twist! More blood! And a final twist that no one in the car saw coming.

New York rose up on our horizon and the GPS said we had about forty-five minutes to our destination. Inner Sanctum ended with another pitch for Lipton iced tea. I turned off the radio and put my iPod away.

A couple of moments went by. Ashton was the first to speak.

"That... was... AWESOME! I never thought it would be the guy! I totally didn't see that coming. That was really, really good!"

I turned to my right and looked at Katie. She wasn't fake-smiling at me anymore. She had the look of being scared and entertained and creeped out all at the same time.

SUCCESS! I was able to nail the whole 'shared family experience'. We ended up discussing the show, why it was scary, and who we had thought the culprit was before the twists had hit.

On the trip back, it was just Ashton and I alone. And he had his headphones in. I made him pull them out and then tried to talk to him about how his week had gone with Uncle Mario. More teeth pulling. At one point, he said "talking to you is PAINFUL!"

I plugged Inner Sanctum back in, feeling my victory to be short-lived.

I do have a passion for these old radio shows. The dynamics of listening to them are very different than watching television. And they certainly make car trips go by. I feel like I've grown to know Jack Benny and his gang just like my mother has come to consider herself part of the whole Regis and Kathy Lee experience. If you're interested in checking these out, may I recommend this website. RUSC ("Are You Sitting Comfortably") has an outstanding collection of radio shows that you can download and load up on the iPod, lickety-split.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Change and Innovation

Okay, so I think I have an answer to one of my unanswered questions.

I seem to be bothered by the notion of the sheer amount of entertainment generated by our society. When if we just chose to thrive on the entertainment of the past we could read/watch/enjoy things for years without ever repeating anything. So why do we keep producing? When are we full? And what happens to those works of the past that no one cares about anymore.

I wrote about it in a previous post, you can find here.

I’ve been reading a book from TwoMorrows, an excellent company that publishes books and magazines about the history of comic books. The book is about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and about the creation of the Fantastic Four. The book is Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years by Mark Alexander. I found the following quote from the book that really struck me:

These were bland times for kids who loved action heroes. The new adventures of the Flash had begun promisingly enough, but now even the Flash seemed to be mired in DC’s outmoded notions of corporate super heroism. Creatively, everything was at a standstill. An acute state of inertia was rotting away at the very core of comics like creeping paralysis. Everything was frozen, everything was petrified. The time was right for a revolution. What the decaying industry desperately needed was something entirely new, a revelation, a spark, a rallying point; something truly atmospheric that would give the medium a whole new style and direction. Something had to change, and something did. The Fantastic Four were that something.

I don’t agree with everything being said by Mr. Alexander. His view of DC Comics is dour to the point of being unfair. And his view of Marvel seems to be a tad overly inflated. But when his passion is boiled away, there are certain facts being presented that can’t be ignored. It’s well documented that the offices of DC comics in the 1950’s and early 1960’s were populated mostly by older, out-of-touch, white males in business suits who lived in an ideal world and they just didn’t want anything to change. They were producing material for kids. They had no vision, no passion, and competition. The Fantastic Four and Marvel charged into this situation, became comics number one publisher out of nowhere, and DC has never really locked down that number one slot since then.

This is one of the biggest problems that I see around me. People hate change. And it’s one of my biggest personality faults. I don’t want change, even when I recognize the stagnation that desire can bring.

The 1980’s were a huge time of change for comics, and personally I didn’t handle it well. I kept trying to contain the situation, as if I had any input at all. The Justice League changed so drastically that they were unrecognizable from the super-team I knew so well in the seventies. And I kept waiting; waiting for things to go back to normal. Waiting for creators to come to their senses and restore the status quo.

Marvel’s top selling book at the time was X-Men. And I read it and enjoyed it. And then came change. They splintered the team and went in a different direction. Either they were trying to turn one hit into several strong-selling books, or they recognized stagnation can kill a good thing. But… no one consulted me. And I didn’t like it. I wanted things back the way they were. So I walked away from X-Men.

I’m ashamed to say that still to this day I avoid the X-books. Some sort of hipster ideal that they’re not the ‘real’ X-Men, and I’m not giving up my money until Marvel realizes what a mistake they made and return things to normal. It’s foolish, unrealistic, and the reaction of a spoiled little child.

Complacency in art and entertainment, and certainly in the professional world, is not what’s going to make our society great. Never pushing our boundaries because what we have going on right now is ‘good enough’ should never be our goal. Turning away from technology because we didn’t need that stuff when we were kids is absolutely foolish. Deciding not to pursue that new way of programming, not re-examining that process you’re using and looking for flaws, keeping your creative output aimed at the same target it’s always been aimed at, and not reading X-Men because they aren’t the team you loved when you were 13; all these things are foolish in the extreme. I know this, and yet I keep doing it or seeing those around me do it.

So does that make my passion for old things wrong? Is it wrong that I would prefer to read Firestorm comics from 1983 than I would Firestorm comics from 2012? No, I don’t think so. I’m entitled to my personal preferences. It’s when I start trying to interfere with YOUR preferences that problems start up. And as much as I grump about it, I haven’t written a single email to DC or Marvel urging them to return things to the way they were in the 1970’s.

They have to keep growing, innovating, challenging. And they certainly have to keep looking for ways to reach new audiences. Whether that be through movies, TV, digital comics, or whatever the future may bring.

I wonder if they’ve tried radio dramas?


Friday, August 24, 2012

Trying to talk about Jack Kirby

I want to write to you about Jack Kirby. But I’m a little nervous about it and I don’t know where to begin. It's like that for the things I'm most passionate about. Like my first post about Aquaman. Jack Kirby is... I have the greatest amount of respect for not only his body of work but for the man himself.

Jack Kirby was a major participant in creating the Marvel universe. But more than that, Kirby created a whole method of storytelling within comics. He was extremely influential, very prolific, and had an overwhelming imagination. Unfortunately, he was also a humble guy that didn’t believe in self promotion. Unlike Stan Lee.

So who gets billed today with creating the Marvel universe?

This subject has been covered elsewhere and in greater detail by much more professional men than I. Volumes and volumes have been written about both men, and the history of comics and their creators is much better covered in that material. That’s not the purpose of this blog. My purpose has to remain within my own, historically colored, perspective.

The webcomic strip XKCD recently had a strip that encapsulates my whole concern here. We’re going to forget! If we’re not careful, we’ll forget. I have no idea why, but that scares me to pieces! Even right now, because of the Marvel movies and other things, everyone knows who Stan Lee is. The non-comic people in my life always ask me about or mention Stan Lee. None of them have ever heard of Jack Kirby. Which is wrong. And I guess that’s why it scares me. A deep need to set right that which is wrong.

But there’s no correcting that. There's a chance that Jack Kirby will end up a forgotten note in American History. As far as popular culture is concerned, Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, Spider-Man and many great Marvel characters. People like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko will slowly fade into the realm of footnotes.

Another webcomic I read, PVP, had an excellent blog post dealing with the fact that the characters portrayed in current-day Marvel are far from the ones that Kirby created in the 1960’s. They’ve been updated and re-updated to the point to be almost unrecognizable.

I started recognizing different artistic styles very early on. I read and re-read and poured over the comics I had until I had memorized every panel. Marvel comics ‘felt’ different to me from DC. I did and still do prefer DC, but that doesn’t mean I hate Marvel. Far from it. But when I picked up something drawn by Jack Kirby, I knew I was looking at a Marvel book. What I was seeing was mostly reprints of old Fantastic Four and Captain America stuff, but I didn’t know that then. And Kirby had been working for DC by the time my comic-love brainwashing had really set in, but I didn’t know that either. In fact, I had a Kirby-drawn issue of Kamandi that I stored with my Marvel comics because the style of drawing had me convinced that it wasn’t from DC.

Just one page from that childhood Kamandi issue.

Curt Swan Superman looked very stiff in comparison.

King Kirby gets moody with one of the all-time great Thing stories.

My personal favorite artist is Dick Dillin. But that’s firmly rooted in nostalgia and upbringing. Dick Dillin was THE Justice League artist of the1970’s, and that was that.

Dick Dillin drawn classic JLA splash page.

My appreciation for Kirby artwork grew over the years. He made the Fantastic Four come alive. I had other FF stories drawn by other artists of the seventies. In fact, my first introduction to George Perez artwork was in a Fantastic Four comic that ended up being one of my all-time favorites. But still, it’s like watching them on TV when you first saw the same characters on the movie screen.

George Perez drawn childhood FF issue. It's always more dynamic in my memory than it actually is.

Kirby pencils popping off the page like a 3-D movie. Stared at this for hours as a kid.

Will Jack Kirby be remembered? There’s a magazine devoted to him put out by the great people at TwoMorrows and many books and articles have been written about him. But the eleven-year-old kid of Lorie’s best friend knows all about Stan Lee because he pops up in the movies. She’s never heard of Jack Kirby.

There’s something else that's bothering me…

We all ache to be remembered after we’re gone; to achieve some element of immortality. Here it is 46 years after Kirby brought the Fantastic Four to their greatest moments and 18 years after his death, and our culture has started to forget him. If people can’t remember the game changing genius that was Jack Kirby, well then what hope do the rest of us have?


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nudity and Design

On my lunch break at work, I read books. It’s my compartmentalized brain’s way of saying “this time is for comics”, “this time is for websites”, and “this time is for books without pictures”.

I’ve been reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Howard, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So you see, even when I do read books I don’t exactly go all contemporary.

Although lately I’ve been enjoying the Steve Jobs biography. I just finished it and it was quite a read. Love him or hate him, love Apple or hate it, it’s a good book and worth your time. I don’t get political, I won’t discuss religion with you, and I won’t tell you how to raise your kids. But I will talk to death the virtues of DC over Marvel. And I will punch in the nose the next arrogant idiot who extols the virtues of an open operating system.


Okay… Phew… eremmm… ANYWAY…

One thing that the Steve Jobs biography does particularly well if you’re an Apple fanboy, as I unabashedly am, is give you a greater appreciation for the design and effort that went into their beautiful line of products. I cried and hugged my device after I finished reading the chapter on the iPod.

One of the things that caught my attention was the anecdote about iPad covers and iPhone cases. Jobs didn’t like them. I had never given that any thought, but Apple put so much time and effort into the beauty of the device and here we were covering the things up.

I glance over at my iPhone.

The biographer goes on to say that was the notion that moved Steve Jobs to have Apple create their own smart cover for the iPad. If people wanted to protect the screen that much, Jobs wanted to show them how best to do it.

I run a finger down the spine of my iPad case.

Not everyone liked the smart cover, but you have to admit that if the purpose was to offer up a product that would serve as a case and a stand for the iPad, but not really increase the bulk or mar the beauty of the craftsmanship, then Apple achieved that goal. And they offered a gee-whiz moment too when they had the magnets of the cover turn the iPad screen off and on.

I nervously fidget with my iPod’s protective hard plastic shell.


I finished the book. Made no changes to my routines, processes or layout, and went on with life.


…what if…

One day at work, I slipped iPod, iPhone, and iPad out of their protective coverings and laid them all out on my desk in their usual spots.

I checked around, behind me, somehow sure someone would be standing there just shocked beyond believe at my brazenness.

It felt wild. It was the feeling of freedom! Enjoying the form in all it’s untethered glory, as things were meant to be!

It also felt wrong.

I checked around behind me again. No one was there. No laughing and pointing or shock and surprise. No phone calls to HR to report my bold activity.

I slowly repositioned the protective cases of each of the devices and lined them up on my desk in their usual spots.

Quite enough of THAT craziness. Let’s not do that again.

I let out a deep sigh and got back to work.


Monday, August 20, 2012

First Day of School

Do you have good memories of the first day of a new school year? Are those memories false?

As I get older, it seems I collect more obsessions about myself. I guess I’m trying to attain some sort of peak of quirkiness. I can tell I’m close. As soon as Lorie leaves me in a fit of frustration I’ll start collecting cats and only talking to people by hissing at them. AT ANY RATE… what I mean to say is.. one of my latest obsessions has been memory.

What makes memory work? Is it reliable? Can it be quantified and spreadsheeted up? I know there are instances where my memory has not held up against historical facts. And some instances where I’ve seen a picture or a home movie and remembered something long forgotten. These ideas are driving me a little crazy. As if I’m losing pieces of a collection that I’m in charge of maintaining. So I do memory exercises, and I keep my Years in Review (which is like a diary comprised of dates, events and facts), and we’ve discussed the spreadsheets at length. I read and re-read, and I try never to write anything strictly relying on my memory.

I have fond memories of the first day of school at several different schools. I’m going to go out on a very short limb and say that they’re false. Maybe not the memories themselves, but the warm emotions attached to them.

The first day of school was great for many reasons. Some people list excitement at getting new school supplies and clothes. Some list the change in a routine that had become dreary. Seeing old friends, sure. Meeting new friends, sure. Seeing girls? Sure! Well, girls at the pool are better than girls in the classroom, so that might be a false memory. Even in the movie You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’ character mentions a “Bouquet of newly-sharpened pencils” in one of his letters to Meg Ryan when he’s extolling the virtues of fall.

But logic, experience, and known facts dictate that the first day of school was always a basket of stress and anxiety delivered in the lovely ringing of the morning alarm. Did not want! Do not want! Bullies and lockers and gym class and math and loss of freedom!

Which is accurate? The warmth of a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils? Or the cold of the locker door into which the bully of the day has decided to push your face. Or are they both accurate?

Today is the first day back to school for my kids. Thank Heavens. I was getting sick of that whole ‘having summer off’ thing. It messes with the routine. And if you ask my son, he’s dreading school for the work and the getting up early and the potential bullies. If you ask my daughter, she’s looking forward to school for the friends and the chance to decorate her locker. My son is looking forward to friends. My daughter is dreading the change in school and having a different teacher for each subject.

So maybe both memories are accurate. Maybe when you think back to the first days of school, your mind picks the memories that match the mood you’re looking for and serves that up on a platter to your liking.

Now my brain hurts again. I need to get these facts down on a spreadsheet.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

1999 versus 2011

Let's take a moment to discuss science fiction, folks. Specifically, the devastating events that took place in 1999 and in 2011.

In 1999, a severe nuclear explosion occurred on the moon. The moon was tore from it's orbit around earth and sent hurtling through space along with everyone on Moonbase Alpha. I'm talking, of course, about the sci-fi seventies classic TV show Space 1999. One of my favorite shows growing up. The show was a British-made TV show that aired in 1975.

In 2011, aliens attacked the planet. Giving no warning, devastating our government, and sending the human race scurrying into the shadows where it formed small pockets of organized resistance against the occupying alien force. This is the world of Falling Skies. A TNT original series which began airing in 2011 that has thoroughly captured the attention of my wife Lorie and I. The series is smartly written, really well acted, and a treat to watch. Plus, it has Noah Wylie. A man that Lorie would leave me for in a heartbeat. I kinda don't blame her.

The shows are completely dissimilar except for the fact that they're both science fiction shows and their catalyst is a disaster related theme. What interests me in comparing them is the differences in their decades.

Space 1999 is completely in the realm of fantasy. Not much in the show can be considered realistic. The moon is hurtling through the cosmos and the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha have just enough time each week to have a little adventure before they have to get back to the base and continue on the moon's meteoric course. Getting ever-further away from Earth. Despite the despair of the situation and the frustration of the characters, Space 1999 holds a sense of optimism and notion that the human race is ultimately good. Falling Skies does the exact opposite.

First off, Falling Skies is very much rooted in reality. Showing us how hellacious living in this hunted stage would be, denied the amenities that we've grown used to. So much realism abounds, that when we do run into aliens or alien spacecraft, it's a little jarring. The characters are fleshed out well and serve to put on display for us all the faults of the human race. Noah Wylie's character, Tom Mason, is the optimistic center that gives everyone hope. Yet despite this aspect, there's an overall feeling of hopelessness that surounds the show. And the show takes every opportunity to question whether or not the human race is worth saving. Which if you suggested that idea to Commander Koenig, he would punch you in the face.

Another thing worth mentioning is the 'style' of science fiction on display here. Falling Skies is science fiction by virtue of the alien threat. Space 1999 used to hold itself to a high science fiction standard. Pitching itself as more science fiction than Star Trek because the plots were more cerebral and the threats more about alien differences against the human race. They just weren't doing a bad-guys versus good-guys show, and they were proud of that.

Lorie hates Space 1999. She doesn't really like watching the old shows with me. That goes back to the fact that you have to have a certain mindset to allow yourself to enjoy things from earlier eras. I've discussed that before. But the kids certainly enjoy Space 1999 with me. And Ashton has begun to watch Falling Skies, too. His perspective on the differences between the two would be interesting.

The shows are complete polar opposites. Yet this speaks more about us and our culture than it does the mindset of the creators.

Somewhere along the line, our tastes in entertainment have completely flipped. We don't want hope and optimism and truth and justice anymore. We want to see how far a character can fall, and then we want to see them kicked while they're down.

I don't like it. Sometimes I enjoy the execution of the story, such as with Falling Skies or Walking Dead. But ultimately I would like to see our tastes as a society go back to yearning for hope and optimism and the celebration of the human race. (And I just want the reality shows that celebrate our depravity to go away. The less said about that the better.)

Let me put it this way... I don't want realism in my science fiction. I don't want to see what life would be like without showers and electronics. I want to see a show where the showers are electronic! I want to wear a futuristic jumpsuit with a belt buckle I can use as a communicator. I don't want to wear clothes that have never been washed and I don't want to feel lucky because I found an extra blanket by the side of the road on my trek to get away from aliens who want me dead. As much as I love Falling Skies, I would much rather have Space 1999.

So the real question is this... is this trend in entertainment a phase? Will the need for realism circle back into the need for fantasy? And again and again and over again? I kinda hope so.

I want to see Commander Koenig shave Tom Mason.


Friday, August 17, 2012

School House Rock

During the summers, I try to continue the kids with some educational material. It was something I was forced to do as a kid. As a result, they go back to school in the fall and have little ramp-up time before they’re in the swing of things. I can actually see the benefits of this practice in their confidence levels and expectations of themselves.

However, my six-year-old son Alex is headed into first grade and I’m struggling with teaching him reading. Oh… don’t get me wrong. He’s doing just fine for a six-year-old. The problem is me.

I don’t know if any of you have actually tried to teach reading to anyone, but IT’S FREAKING HARD! The English language doesn’t seem to obey any rules, which now that the fact has been brought to my attention adds a whole new level of frustration. It really messes with the spreadsheets! Alex finally mastered the “ooooh” sound made by “oo”. Only now he has trouble with the word “door”. Aaaigh!

Alex’s motivations are good. He really wants to start reading comics by himself. But he’s got some factors working against him. Video games, toys, and siblings are constant distractions. When Ashton was Alex’s age he took to reading by himself off on a corner alone on the playground. His motivation was an old child-library copy of Frankenstein he found in my Halloween boxes. If Alex finds something like that, he has the option of bringing it to Ashton and Katie and asking them to read it to him. The dynamics are different. Not insurmountable, just different.

ANYWAY… I was driving home the other day beating myself up for my complete lack of patience and training in early childhood education. I’ve got the workbooks and the schedule worked out. I just don’t have any tricks or tips on how to teach a language that seems to PRIMARILY RELY ON MEMORIZATION. Stupid English.

Then, as often happens, my thoughts drifted back to the seventies.

What did we do? How did we learn these things as we grew up?

“Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?”

Saturday morning cartoons didn’t start in the seventies, but they were full swing tradition by the time the seventies rolled around. In an era where you couldn’t control what was on your television set and when, the major broadcasting companies decided the way to Saturday morning ratings Heaven was through the kids. And all three networks filled Saturday mornings from the crack of dawn until the noon-time hour with glorious, glorious, glorious cartoons.

One of the more annoying things to happen during this block, starting in 1973, was the ABC network's School House Rock. They were short, three minute music video cartoons that would teach us captive kids about history, math, grammar, science, or civics. It was a great idea, apparently inspired by some advertising agency exec noticing his son couldn’t remember his times tables, but could remember all the lyrics to popular rock songs. If you care to, you can read more about it here.

The thing about School House Rock is that it’s one of the things I consider a ‘false memory’. Mention it to someone who lived through it and you’ll get a smile and some warm nostalgic feelings. BUT… sitting there in front of the TV in 1974, I did NOT WANT School House Rock. No one did. Get it out of the way and bring on the Super Friends or Scooby Doo. None of our remotes had the little button that zips through commercials like we have today. OH WAIT… none of us even had remotes.

Fondly remembered memory today, hated annoyance back in the day.

And what do kids have today?

We were captives at the time. We wanted our pajamas and our sugared cereal and our Saturday morning cartoons. We wanted them so bad we would sit through commercials and educational jewels like School House Rock. If today's networks wanted to try to sneak in educational stuff so they could score a mark with parents, what would they do? They would have to build a hugely successful video game with a sub-element of accidental learning. And even then, the kid can still choose to play the latest “first person shooter” instead.

Like it or not, I was helped through school by School House Rock. I still remember my times tables for fives by singing the hillbilly twangy “Ready or Not, Here I Come” song that taught five tables. And just ask my friend Bill how he remembers the legislative process. (He looks down at the shirt he received as a gift that reads “I’m just a Bill”.)

In today’s world, there is no direct equivalent learning tool. The last of the Saturday morning cartoon blocks died a few years ago and the educational block efforts died awhile back. But in the 1970's, we were a captive audience being force-fed the ideas like “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function? Hooking up phrases and words and clauses.”

As you may have noticed, I often make these observations and offer no answers or solutions. That’s because I don’t believe any one person has answers to these questions, or answers that will work for everyone. But I do believe asking the questions or pointing out the differences is important. Its strong fact that one generation is extremely different from the next and so on. In my opinion, It’s important to recognize why the differences are there, then you can confront the problem from an educated standpoint. It's also my opinion that these differences make parental influence in today's society more important than ever.

All that being said, care to know how I handled the issue with Alex?

I’ve set up an environment and tradition in my house around some of these cartoons from my childhood. I use the technology of today to serve up the entertainment of yesterday in a way that has never been possible before. So when Alex begs me for just one cartoon before bed, and I give-in and tell him we can snuggle on the couch and use the Apple TV to watch Super Friends... Well, we make just one stop first...

Well every person you can know,
And every place that you can go,
And anything that you can show,
You know they're nouns.

A noun's a special kind of word,
It's any name you ever heard,
I find it quite interesting,
A noun's a person, place, or thing.