December 2012

Combining a couple of my obsessions for an explanatory post…

Was at a bookstore tonight and saw they had a new edition of the book THE IRON GIANT by Ted Hughes.

Doesn’t look a whole lot like Brad Bird’s amazing animated movie from 1999, does it?

Gather round children, I’ll explain this to the best of my ability.

THE IRON GIANT was originally published in England as THE IRON MAN in 1968.

It was a very simple story Hughes, the British Poet Laureate, created for his children after the death of their mother, THE BELL JAR author Sylvia Plath.

When the book was published in the US, Marvel Comics already had Iron Man coming out as a comic, so the book was re-titled THE IRON GIANT.  Here’s the cover to the first US edition.

The book tells the story of a giant iron being that appears from nowhere, feeds on scrap metal, befriends a boy named Hogarth…and helps save the world from a giant “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” that is actually there to help bring about world peace.

You probably don’t remember that from the film.

The history actually gets a little stranger here!

In the 1980s, Pete Townshend of The Who turned the story into a rock opera, which featured vocals from the likes of John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone, which followed the original novel’s story.

A few years after that, in 1995, Ted Hughes wrote a SEQUEL called THE IRON WOMAN, which had chilling wood-cut illustrations by Barry Moser.

This features the same characters from before, but is more of an environmentally-themed story about an Iron Woman that rises up out of a swamp and takes a horrifying revenge on some polluting bureaucratic fat-cats.

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers decided to make a film of Pete Townshend’s album, which again, was based off the original novel.

They gave the project to Brad Bird, who was coming off a run on THE SIMPSONS and a number of other acclaimed animated projects for TV.

Bird was given heavy creative control, and after Warner Brothers cut their feature animation department following the failure of the musical QUEST FOR CAMELOT, he found himself with a fair amount of creative freedom on a reduced budget…

…actually convinced Warner Brothers to let him cut Townshend’s songs and turn the story into a period Cold War piece.

Townshend still received a producer credit on the final film, and was reportedly cool with the cuts.

The film’s release prompted a reprint of the original novel in time for its anniversary…

This was the version I read, though I remember thinking, “Hmm, I didn’t see any Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon in the trailer…”

The book was reprinted in the US under its original name in 2005, with no mention of the film on the cover:

Hughes himself died in late 1998.  I have no idea if he saw the film, but according to Warner Brothers’ web site for the feature, he read and enjoyed the script very much.

THE IRON GIANT film fared very poorly at the box office, with bad promotion and a crowded marketplace blamed.  But it got great reviews, and has since earned a loyal following on TV and DVD, even running in marathon on Cartoon Network at one point.

It also inspired some fun toys from Trendmasters, including my favorite, this “Utlimate Iron Giant” that can eat junk pieces.

(It also had the voice of Vin Diesel, who voiced the giant after PITCH BLACK and before THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS)

I’ll have to give this latest version of the book a look — it apparently has fold-outs and die-cuts in its illustrations, and I’m all about that!

So now you know the strange history of THE IRON GIANT.  THE IRON WOMAN, though, remains more or less stuck in her swamp.


A couple of pieces I’m very proud of — a look at some of the great Christmas stories on TV over the years.

The Flamboyant Snow Miser from Rankin-Bass' "The Year Without a Santa Claus" - screen capture from ABC Family airing

Here’s a look at the many Rankin-Bass Specials, and how they do (or don’t) tie together.


And here’s a look at everything from Charlie Brown and the Grinch to more obscure ones like He-Man and She-Ra, The Snowman, Jim Henson’s Muppets, and many more!  Even David Bowie shows up!

Here are some things I wrote and things I did in 2012 that I thought were kind of cool and possibly of interest to people

In January, I wrote some more offbeat pieces, such as an interview with literary novelist Michael Malone about his time writing the daytime soap ONE LIFE TO LIVE as that show ended.  I also did a look at the insanity that was the locally-filmed ONE TREE HILL.

I also got to do a pretty funny interview with author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket.

In February, I did an interview with ADVENTURE TIME creator Pendleton Ward for Newsarama around this time, where I had guest-questions from people like Paul Pope, Scott Kurtz, Mike Allred and some others.  Here’s a link to Part Two, which links to Part One.  I also got Tony Millionaire to do an original piece of Lumpy Space Princess for the interview.

In March, I did an interview with Trace Beaulieu from MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 and with Jason Mewes of Kevin Smith’s various films.  Later, I went to see Beaulieu and the rest of the MST3K/Cinematic Titanic crew when they performed live at the Carolina Theatre, and got my picture taken with Joel Hodgson.


Also in March, I went to the Mad Monster Party show in Charlotte.  They had a number of horror and B-movie legends there, and I certainly got my money’s worth.  I got to meet Angus Scrimm from PHANTASM, who was even nice enough to record a voice-mail message for me…that unfortunately he couldn’t quite figure out how to speak into my phone, so I just recorded it with my digital recorder, and can’t really figure out how to get the MP3 onto my voice mail.


(He’s sitting down, and extending his arm while I’m leaning against him.  I did not sit on the Tall Man’s lap.)


I also met the lovely P.J. Soles from ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and many other films.  She signed a print based on HIGH SCHOOl that was done on a vinyl record for a recent screening.  I also got the print/record signed by Mary Woronov and Marky Ramone at the show.  It possesses supernatural powers now.

I also met Rutger Hauer at the show, but he was charging a lot for pictures.  I did get an autographed picture for my man Jesse Moynihan, to whom I traded it for a drawing of his ADVENTURE TIME creation the Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant.

War Elephant

Toward the end of March, I got to boost my nerd-cred with an interview with Ira Glass of THIS AMERICAN LIFE.

I also talked with Karl Kerschl about one of my favorite webcomics, THE ABOMINABLE CHARLES CHRISTOPHER.

March was quite productive.  No wonder I blocked subsequent chunks of the year out.

I recall April was a bit slower, as this might have been around the time I taught a class on “Great Films and Their Scripts” at an extended learning center.  I do remember I did this fun little piece on Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s HITMAN, with some quotes from older interviews I did with them.

May was also a mite slow, though I did enjoy doing this interview with Mark Waid about the end of his book IRREDEEMABLE.

I also quite liked this piece about the oddball characters from the old DC chestnut DIAL H FOR HERO.

And I did a piece about trying out some anime series.

In June, I got to host a panel with my man Jeffrey Brown at Heroes Con!  I did a whole slideshow and we showed some behind-the-scenes art for his book DARTH VADER AND SON and some footage from SAVE THE DATE, the movie he co-wrote that stars Alison Brie and Lizzy Caplan.

As is usual at cons, I got a bunch of artwork, including this watercolor of the 1960s characters the Atomic Knights by Matt Kindt.

Atomic Knights Strange Adventures #144 Cover Homage by Matt Kindt Comic Art

Throughout the year, I got to see a lot of great older movies on the big screen with 35-mm prints at the Carolina Theatre and other local houses.  Some films I saw included: THE JERK; PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES; THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN; THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON; the 1979 DRACULA; STUNT ROCK; THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER; E.T. (not-special edition); WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?; GHOSTBUSTERS; MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE; THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER; the 1980 FLASH GORDON; ROSEMARY’S BABY; DRAGONSLAYER; a half-dozen Miyazaki films; I’m sure there were others.

I had several very good articles in July, including this look back at Spider-Man’s many strange media adaptations

And a talk with the creators of the Batman villain Bane just in time for his appearance in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

I don’t recall much going on in August, though I did get to interview ADVENTURE TIME writer/artist Tom Herpich and Tom Siddell of GUNERKRIGG COURT.

September was quite busy; I went to the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland, where I met a bunch of artists and got a bunch of drawings.  I got some wonderful pieces at a charity auction, including some Larry Marder BEANWORLD art and this “Space Kid” piece by Farel Dalyrmple.

Space Kid by Farel Dalrymple Comic Art

I also did a fun little retrospective of the Chris Elliott series GET A LIFE.

October was pretty much the busiest month of my professional life!  I did a week of guest-posts for USA TODAY’s Pop Candy blog, and a number of big interviews.

I talked with Chris Ware on his acclaimed new collection BUILDING STORIES…

with ERAGON author Christopher Paolini about life after his blockbuster series…

with guys like Scott Snyder, Joe Hill and Paul Pope about comic books that scared them

…and I had way too much fun with this piece about comic book gimmick covers.

In addition, my first comic was published and got lots of good reviews you can read here.

I did a whole bunch of 1980s toy-themed posts after this, and talked to the guy who wrote BLACKHAWK DOWN about his new Osama Bin Laden book.

In November, I did still more Pop Candy posts, and “endorsed” a classic comic book character for president with quotes from Neil Gaiman and Ed Brubaker.

I also co-hosted three panels at the NC Comicon, including a one-on-one session with HELLBOY artist Duncan Fegredo about his life and career.  He did this nice piece of the Lich from ADVENTURE TIME for my sketchbook.

The Lich King (Adventure Time) by Duncan Fegredo Comic Art

This also led to a strange adventure where I helped reunite Mark Waid with the first-ever drawing of a character he co-created, Impulse.

Anyway, December is still going on and I think I have a few good pieces left in me before the year’s out.  But that certainly was a lot of stuff, wasn’t it?

On to 2013!  I’ll try to have fewer slack months next year.

This is just a link to some links I’ve had run on Boing Boing, as a reminder that my obscure knowledge runs HIGH.

I wanted to do a few original posts about children’s books I liked.

This one is about a great author and illustrator whose work I discovered just a few years ago, Jan Pienkowski.

I found out about Pienkowski’s stuff when I picked up a copy of his pop-up book ROBOT at a used bookstore a few years ago.

Even my adult friends quickly proclaimed this “the best thing ever.”

What I loved about the book was not just the vivid, surreal, cartoony quality of the pop-up images, but how fully-realized the simple story (a robot writes a letter home to his family, and we see their domestic life) was.

Most pop-up books just have a few images extend off the page a little.  ROBOT went further — images were double-sided, so if you look behind the copy of the letter the mom-robot is holding on the first page, the entire text of the story is written on it!  There are tons and tons of gags hidden in the pages, and that is the kind of thing I love.

Obviously, it’s hard to show a pop-up book on the Internet, but I did find this YouTube video of ROBOT:

And here’s a few spreads from the book:

The book is sadly out of print, but some Amazon sellers have a newer printing available pretty cheap.

I found out that Pienkowski was even better-known for HAUNTED HOUSE, another pop-up book.  This one still shows up in most bookstores, and is great fun to leave lying around at a Halloween party.  People smile and gasp at the clever pop-ups, which have humorously grotesque monsters leaping out at you!

Here’s some images from inside the book, via Pienkowski’s website:

I love the spaghetti monster in the corner.

HAUNTED HOUSE was back in print as of 2005, but seems to be out again — though copies are still on Amazon sellers’ stores.

It also inspired a CD-ROM game years ago!

It’s not as fun as the pop-up book, but I do like seeing his creations come to “life.”

Pienkowski’s also well-known for his uniquely-illustrated fairy tales.

His style combines employs silhouettes for human characters, while putting them against lush, colorful backgrounds.  Some of these have been classic tales he’s adapted himself, while others are done in collaboration with the great children’s author Joan Aiken (THE WOLVES OF  WILLOUGHBY CHASE).

There’s a number of different editions of Pienkowski’s work out, but I recommend really shopping carefully — some of the printings of the Aiken books use a different illustrator, or have black-and-white illustrations only.

I like the B&W and color ones — it creates a certain anonymous effect for the children in the stories, as though this could be happening to anyone, even you.

Also, I love the candy-colored palate from these earlier collections.  It gives the tales a dreamlike quality, vivid and fade all at once.

There is a look back at Pienkowski’s illustrations in this Guardian piece from 2008.

Check his work out — as I said earlier, for kids AND adults, it’s pretty much the best thing ever!

Let me know if you liked this and would like to see more posts in this vein.  I have some other illustrators I want to highlight, along with some oddball books I fondly remember.

All My Newsarama Webcomic Interviews!

The archives have been updated!  Check out interviews with Kate Beaton, Karl Kerschel and many, many more!

Had such a good reception to the blogs about obscure toys that I’m going to try some more original pieces on a few of my other passions, and see if this leads anywhere.

The first series is going to be about children’s books, and I want to do a few posts going over some of the ones that I just find weird, or uncomfortable.

Today: Racism, yay!

I found this really nice late 1960s edition of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY at, of all places, an estate sale I spontaneously visited (everything was overpriced that was of interest, including a lovely collection of Beatrix Potter-inspired miniatures).  It was one of the versions with the original illustrations by Joseph Schindelman, and I was infatuated with the cover, which combined the pen-and-ink artwork with this crazy colorful backdrop.

I couldn’t find a full version online (didn’t get that copy), but here’s the best pic I could Google:

More Googling led to my finding a blog about the original African depiction of the Oompa-Loompas, and also the use of stereotyped Africans in the Doctor Doolittle books:

Not Exactly the Tiny Orange Men of Legend, Eh?

Ohhhh, lordy.

The Oompa-Loompas appeared this way in the first version of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY in 1964.  By the early 1970s, they had prompted some complaint and were re-rendered like this (again, taken from the piece linked above):

I suppose that’s better.

The Oompa-Loompas were part of a major problem you had in a lot of 20th century children’s stories: They were racist as hell.

Black people were a major part of African society, but this was the height of “separate but equal,” remember.  So when blacks were in movies/radio/etc., they usually talked like “Yes, massah.”

And when they were depicted in cartoons and illustrations…oh lordy.  Big eyes, big lips, and more of the awful dialect.

This wasn’t just America — British children’s stories did this a lot, with a famous example being the Golliwog, who’s even appeared in THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN:



And then there was Doctor Dolittle.
As the piece linked earlier indicates, there were some AWFUL stereotyped depictions of Africans in the Dolittle books.  The most infamous example is from the first book, THE STORY OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE, where the African prince Bumpo helps the doctor escape his tribe…after the doctor bleaches his face white, so he might seem appealing to a white woman he previously frightened.
It’s no surprise that almost every reprint of this book either cuts or alters this chapter (one version has the doctor help the prince look like a lion, which is only barely better).  A major illustrator I speak with sometimes says he was offered a chance to illustrate a new edition of the book a few years back, but refused based on this content, even after the publisher said it would be cut.
I had a weird thing about the Dolittle censorship; when that awful Eddie Murphy movie came out, I was 18 and fondly remembered several Dolittle books from childhood  and spent some time tracking down the ones I’d missed, including DOCTOR DOLITTLE IN THE MOON.  I was irate at the prospect of censorship, particularly the idea that whole chapters had been cut out of some editions, along with non-racist but lovely illos included in the cut chapters.
Of course I wound up never finishing most of the books I tracked down, and also found that the problem with many of those books was that they were overlong and digressive, and probably needed to be cut.  But I still have them; thought of selling them a few years ago, and Mom said not to, as she viewed them as a symbol of what I could achieve when I really focused on something.  The adventure behind getting all of them is their legacy, for the most part.
Anyway, it is fascinating how many great books are marred by the presence of the institutionalized racism of the 20th century and before.  And it’s many of the great masters as well!  An early Tintin book has been under much fire for this reason, TINTIN IN THE CONGO, which was only recently ruled as not racist by a Belgian court.
 Will Eisner, the great master of comics, long expressed his embarrassment for giving his character the Spirit an inarticulate, big-lipped black sidekick, Ebony White.
Captain Marvel(who sold 1.5 million comics twice a month at his peak)  had a black friend named “Steamboat” who spoke in a similar dialect, which allegedly caused an African-American group to protest Fawcett Comics.  Even some of the Disney comics had big-eyed, big-lipped natives/African-Americans who were all “Sho’!”
As a kid, I found this way of talking hilarious whenever I encountered it and occasionally did imitations that were shot down by my parents.  It wasn’t that I found the characters stupid for being black; it was simply I thought the way of talking sounded funny in and of itself.  Hell, I encountered something similar when Robert Downey Jr. did that character in TROPIC THUNDER a few years ago.  It’s just easy to forget the real ugliness that comes from those kinds of depictions, and what they can encourage in small-minded people.
Rarely is there anything as misguided as the prince wanting a formula to turn himself white in the first Dooittle book, though…!
Weirdly, “Little Black Sambo” was not what I recalled as a racist story — I think the version I saw depicted Sambo as more Pacific Asian, and I think the “black” was made to refer to his black hair in the story.  I could be wrong, though.  Memory is like that.
The thing is, all the books and comics I named above are some of my favorite things from childhood.  They’re groundbreaking works by groundbreaking writers and artists, and have many, many aspects that are still funny and touching and exciting and hold widespread appeal for kids today.
It’s just a very disheartening thing to realize that, as products of their eras, they reflect some of the ugliness and ignorance of those times as well.
I’ll do another post soon that will be a bit more upbeat and focus on some cool illustrators, and then I have an idea for one for books that are just WEIRD.

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