Was pointed out that May 25 represents the anniversary of one of the most infamous TV endings of all time.
ST. ELSEWHERE, for those that don’t remember, was a medical drama that ran on NBC from 1982 to 1988. It was sort of a companion to HILL STREET BLUES in its depiction of a painfully real, gritty city hospital where patients often died and tragedy was always around the corner — along with a fair amount of absurd humor.
The large and varied cast included everyone from Denzel Washington to Mark Harmon to Howie Mandel to Ed Begley Jr. to the great William Daniels as the arrogant Dr. Mark Craig, but of interest here is Dr. Donald Westphall, played by the late Ed Flanders.
Westphall had an autistic son, Tommy, played by Chad Allen. Throughout the series, the writers (including Tom Fontana, later of HOMICIDE and OZ), loved to insert all manner of puns and wordplay (“Donald, Duck!” “Jumping Jack, what was that flash!” [Dr. Craig at a psychiartrist] “You were telling me about the dream you had about the silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun?” Craig: “I was kneeling. I was young.”]. This extended to episodes with such sequences as a shot-for-shot recreation of ZZ Top’s “Legs” video and Howie Mandel’s Dr. Fiscus meeting God…who looked an awful lot like Fiscus.
None of this was enough to prepare viewers for the final episode.
The ep included a number of elaborate puns, including a one-armed fugitive in the hospital (a parody of THE FUGITIVE) and a patient-killing doctor named “Brandon Falsey” (a pun on series creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, whose first-season episodes were filled with gloom and doom). But they saved the best for last, as seen below.
First, there’s a hilarious pun on the famous “it ain’t over until…” line. And then…the hospital gets turned upside-down. Literally.
Yes, they implied THE ENTIRE SERIES was the product of Tommy Westphall staring into a snow globe!
Horrifying viewers even further, the closing credits “killed off” the little kitten used in the tag of ST. ELSEWHERE and other shows from MTM Productions, including THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, HILL STREET BLUES, THE WHITE SHADOW and REMINGTON STEELE:
Viewers were, put bluntly, aghast.
In his excellent book TELEVISION’S SECOND GOLDEN AGE (which I’ll admit using for reference for this piece), author Robert J. Thompson quotes Tom Fontana as saying they almost went FURTHER, and showed more snow globes on top of the TV, including Hill Street Station, WJM from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and so on — implying that every MTM Productions’ show was part of Tommy’s dream.
That kid’s mind was a network executive’s gold mine.
Years later, the late great comic book and TV writer Dwayne McDuffie made a mind-blowing point: During its run, ST. ELSEWHERE had done a crossover episode with CHEERS, which had in turn produced FRASIER, who had crossed over onto WINGS. By the series’ logic, ALL those shows existed in Tommy’s head.
It got weirder: During the run of HOMICIDE, Alfre Woodard reprised her ST. ELSEWHERE character. That show featured Richard Belzer as Detective Munch…a role he reprised on LAW & ORDER: SVU, THE X-FILES, THE WIRE and even THE SIMPSONS!
Therefore, ALL those shows, and every show they crossed over into, could be said to take place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.
The ending was also parodied in a number of places. Here’s one of the best ones, from the end of the NEWSRADIO episode “Daydream” (I’ve got the clip timed to start at the end, though the whole ep is hilarious):
Sadly, only the first season of ST. ELSWHERE is on DVD — though it’s been rerun in various places since the ending.
But before THE SOPRANOS, NEWHEART, Etc., this was the first final episode of a series to really, truly mess with viewers’ heads. Well, maybe BLAKE’S 7, which killed off the cast, came pretty close.
It was still a great show that produced some truly innovative and tear-jerking moments, and I hope the whole thing is available again someday. For now, I’ll always think of it when I see a snow globe.
Recently, I was lucky enough to sell a couple of pitches to KaBOOM!’s new comic based on Cartoon Network’s Emmy-winning series REGULAR SHOW.
Of the pitches I sent in, two were approved. One, “Sombrero World,” was approved and will run in an upcoming issue with art by Brad McGinty, with whom I’m also doing a story for KaBOOM!’s ADVENTURE TIME comic. Zack is living large!
The other approved pitch wound up being rejected in script form. I’d already talked with artist Michael Dialynas (AMALA’S BLADE at Dark Horse Comics) about illustrating it, and he did a design of the main characters Mordecai and Rigby that you can see below. I don’t know the reason for the rejection, but I don’t own the property and that’s Cartoon Network’s prerogative. That said, I hate to let work go to waste, so here’s the script below along with Michael’s designs. He’s doing a cover for an upcoming ADVENTURE TIME comic, and we hope to work together on another story in the future.
Anyway, here’s…BAD GRAMMAR.
Regular Show “Bad Grammar” (6 pages)
Written by Zack Smith
PANEL ONE: MORDECAI AND RIGBY are in the living room of the park house playing video games. In the background, POPS comes down the stairs.
RIGBY: Up, up, down, down..
MORDECAI: .. left, right, left, right…
RIGBY: B,A,B,A, start…
PANEL TWO: Mordecai and Rigby high-five as Pops looks on aghast.
MORDECAI AND RIGBY: …KNOW WE DOIN’ RIGHT!
MORDECAI AND RIGBY: OOOOOHHHHHH!
PANEL THREE: A horrified Pops rushes up to Mordecai and Rigby, who have turned to look at him.
POPS: STOP! STOP! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!
RIGBY: …getting 30 extra lives?
PANEL FOUR: Closer on the three as Pops explains.
POPS: It’s “we’re,” not “we,” and “doing it right,” not “doin’ right!”
MORDECAI: But we wuz just –
RIGBY: But we ain’t –
PANEL FIVE: Close as Pops explains:
POPS: You can’t go around talking like this! It’s THE ANNUAL GRAMMAR SOLSTICE!
PANEL SIX: Mordecai and Rigby exchange a skeptical look.
PANEL ONE: Mordecai tries to reason with Pops. BENSON AND SKIPS have entered the room; Rigby’s leaned back over the couch to speak to them.
MORDECAI: Pops, we love you, but…”Annual Grammar Solstice?”
RIGBY: Yeah, Benson, Skips – you know anything about this?
PANEL TWO: Benson looks irate and Skips has his usual grave expression.
SKIPS: Never heard of it. Ever.
BENSON: That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of!
PANEL THREE: A horrified Pops points at an apologetic Benson.
BENSON: Pops, I didn’t mean anything by –
POPS: You…you just ended that sentence with a PREPOSITION!
PANEL FOUR: Benson’s eyes are closed as he rubs his head with his hand, trying to restrain his frustration. The others are turned away listening to Pops.
POPS: My father told me all about this when I was a young boy! You must always use proper grammar on the advent of the grammar solstice, or an evil monster will eat your SOUL!
PANEL FIVE: Mordecai and Rigby are on their feet arguing with Pops, who looks traumatized as he recalls…
POPS: It’s just like the goblin in your nose that will bite off your finger if you stick it in there –
POPS: Or the evil dwarf that lives in your –
PANEL ONE: Mordecai, Rigby and the others walk away from a startled Pops in disgust.
MORDECAI: Pops, your dad was just messing with you!
RIGBY: Yeah, there’s NO SUCH THING as a Grammar Solstice!
PANEL TWO: Pops stands there alone, devastated.
PANEL THREE: LATER – Mordecai and Rigby are talking by the lawn mower as an eager Pops “pops” in on the right side of the panel.
RIGBY: So let me ax you –
POPS: “Ask,” not “ax!”
PANEL FOUR: LATER STILL – As before, Skips is interrupted while on the phone by Pops (who “pops” in from the left side this time, or at least a different angle from the previous page).
SKIPS: I told him it’d warsh right out –
POPS: “Wash,” not “Warsh!”
PANEL FIVE: EVEN LATER: Benson, with clipboard, is giving directions to the off-panel park workers, when Pops “pops” in, this time from some impossible angle (like upside-down from the top of the panel).
BENSON: …and remember, make sure you hang you’re keys on the –
POPS: “Your,” not “You’re!”
BENSON: …how did you even know that?
PANEL ONE: LATER – everyone’s gathered by the front steps staring irately at a frantic Pops. MUSCLE MAN AND HI FIVE GHOST have joined them, also irate.
MORDECAI: Pops, you’re driving everybody crazy!
HI FIVE GHOST: Yeah! I don’t care if “Cthulhu” is pronounced “Khlûl’-hloo,” not “Cut-ool-hoo!”
PANEL TWO: On a horrified Pops as he is overwhelmed by BAD GRAMMAR from the off-panel park workers.
MUSCLE MAN: (from off) I can’t not get any work done!
SKIPS: (from off) It’s a mute point!
POPS: …moot point…
BENSON: (from off) I’m literally about to explode!
PANEL THREE: Everyone looks up as AN UNDERWORLD PORTAL OPENS IN THE SKY.
BENSON: What the –?
PANEL FOUR: The red-skinned head of THE PEDANTICORE emerges from the portal. It is a slightly intellectual head and face with glasses, etc., possibly some sort of hat. I keep thinking of the teacher in the “Another Brick in the Wall” video. It has three rows of sharp teeth and is smiling. It speaks in a sort of dignified, Old English-looking font.
PEDANTICORE: Salutations, compatriots…
PANEL FIVE: BIGGEST PANEL OF THE PAGE: The Pedanticore’s full form now hovers over the terrified park workers. It is sort of based on the classic mythological monster the Manticore (here is the fiercest image I could find), with a red lion-like body, giant bat wings and a scorpion tail.
PEDANTICORE: …I am…The Pedanticore!
PEDANTICORE: Lamentably, you have transgressed the accords of the Annual Grammar Solstice, forcing me to seek satiety from the mastication of your essences!
PANEL ONE: The Pedanticore’s paw points at a startled Pops as the other park workers look at him. Rigby is still confused by the Pedanticore’s announcement in the previous panel.
RIGBY (small) …wha..?
PEDANTICORE: …Except you.
PEDANTICORE: Your grasp of the fundamentals of linguistics is utterly nonpareil!
PANEL TWO: GREEN RAYS from the Pedanticore’s mouth hit all the park workers except Pops, who stares in horror. The park workers react in agony to the Pedanticore’s rays.
PEDANTICORE: But now…I must sup!
RIGBY: Ahhgh! I’m going to die…and I don’t even know what he’s saying!
PANEL THREE: Mordecai, in the throes of the Pedanticore’s attack, is near Pops, who hears him go…
MORDECAI: We should have listened to Pops!
MORDECAI: Pops, we’re sorry!
PANEL FOUR: An angry Pops points up at a startled Pedanticore.
POPS: You may not feast upon my friends’ souls, you ostentatious ninnyhammer!
PANEL FIVE: The Pedanticore reacts with anger toward Pops, who stands his ground.
PEDANTICORE: You dare contest my assertion upon these inarticulate ignoramuses?
POPS: Indeed! I postulate that none may lay claim to being without moments of maundering dissertation!
PANEL ONE: The Pedanticore reacts in disbelief at a smug Pops.
PEDANTICORE: Poppycock! My elocution is irrefutably authoritative!
POPS: Ha! Only a cretin would proclaim to be invariably infallible!
PANEL TWO: Flames roar around the Pedanticore as it gears up for its assault on Pops.
PEDANTICORE: This aspersion will not stand!
PEDANTICORE: Momentarily, you will know the asperity of my –
PANEL THREE: Pops is in the same pose as when he “popped” in on the others on Page 3 as the Pedanticore reacts in disbelief
POPS: Ahh-ahh-ah! You just used “momentarily” to mean “in a moment,” when it really means “for a moment!”
PANEL FOUR: The Pedanticore IMPLODES into the portal!
PEDANTIORE: NOOOOO – THIS ISN’T CRICKET — !
PANEL FIVE: The park workers have collapsed in a big pile. Pops is most cheerful.
RIGBY: Sorry we…doubted you.
POPS: Quite all right! And you all taught me that one cannot simply force proper grammar on others!
POPS: It must be learned.
PANEL SIX: The other park workers just lie there in a heap as Pops walks off.
MORDECAI: Dude, is anyone else afraid to ever say anything again?
From time to time, I compile Simspsons quotes, many of which are adaptable to daily life, in a Word file. Here is what I have so far. I am not bothering to go back and find episode numbers and titles, and I am aware many of these are paraphrased.
“And all this time, I’ve only been smoking harmless tobacco!”
“Why do the good always die so young?”
“Now remember, we’re in the Itchy Lot.”
“Oh god, I think I accidentally swallowed some of the juice.”
“I no longer fear hell.”
“Go ahead, I’ll just, ah, amuse myself with these pornographic playing cards.”
“I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.”
“Remember ALF? Well now he’s back! In POG form!”
“Heh. Everyone in the world is stupid except me.”
“I’m whizzing with the door open, and I love it!”
“No man who speaks German could be evil!”
“Marge, could you set the oven to cold?”
“Me fail English? That’s unpossible!”
“If you freeze it at just the right place, you can actually see his heart breaking.”
“We could buy all kinds of useful things, like love!”
“You ever sit down and read this thing? Technically, we’re not even supposed to go to the bathroom.”
“To alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”
“Where was I? Oh yeah – stay out of my booze.”
“Ooh, the Germans are mad at me! Help, help, the Germans are mad at me!”
“Stop that. Stop pretending you are scared.”
“Don’t worry. There’s plenty of money in faking your own death.”
“You think you know fear? I’ve seen them naked!”
“He’s history’s greatest monster!”
“You know it’s also illegal to put squirrels down your pants for gambling purposes?”
“If only we’d listened to that boy, instead of walling him up in that abandoned coke oven.”
“I discovered a meal between breakfast and brunch.”
“If anyone wants me, I’ll be in my room.”
“It’s true, we’re so lame!”
“It wasn’t easy, with a troubled son and a baby on the way, but somehow I still managed to fit in eight hours of TV a day.”
“He’s embiggened that role with his cromulent performance!”
“Woah! I had mustard?”
“Listen to your heart…and not the voices in your head, like a certain uncle did one gray December morn.”
“Very well, begin the thawing of Jim Nabors.”
“And one more thing…you must find the Jade Monkey before the next full moon.”
“I’m a stupid idiot, and I’ve got a big butt, and my butt smells, and I like to kiss my own butt…wait a minute.”
“They didn’t start chasing us until you started playing that getaway music!”
“Ah, a plan fiendishly clever in its intricacies.”
“Eh, they’ll be chewin’ on him for a while.”
“Or what? You’ll release the dogs, or the bees? Or the dogs with bees in their mouths, and when they bark they shoot bees at you?”
“Release the Robotic Richard Simmons.”
“Wait a minute. Moldy…old…I’ve got to get something to eat!”
“My pudding is trapped forever!”
“Fiddle-Dee-Dee. That will require a tetanus shot.”
“I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks *and* blows.”
“Aaah! Natural light! Get it off me! Get it off me!”
“I’m going to the back seat of my car, with the woman I love, and I won’t be back for ten minutes!”
“You tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is: Never try.”
“If a cow ever got the chance, he’d eat you and everyone you care about!”
“Stupider like a FOX!”
“Oh, boy, sleep! That’s where I’m a Viking!”
“Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.”
“God schmod, I want my monkey-man!”
“Wait a minute—this sounds like rock and/or roll.”
“In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”
“My eyes! The goggles do nothing!”
“Well, I’m not calling you a liar, but… I can’t think of a way to finish that sentence.”
“You know, Fox turned into a hard-core sex channel so gradually, I didn’t even notice.”
“All right, brain, I don’t like you and you don’t like me—so let’s just do this and I’ll get back to killing you with beer.”
“The whole reason we have elected officials is so we don’t have to think all the time.”
“Perhaps there is no moral to this story.” “Exactly… It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.”
“Ohhhh, I’ve wasted my life.”
“I can see through time!”
“You ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.”
“Hide your shame!”
“Hey Homer, I can see your doodle!”
“I am so smart! I am so smart! S-M-R-T! I mean S-M-A-R-T!”
“Save me, Jeebus!”
“Go to Hell, you old bastard!”
“Dental Plan!” “Lisa needs braces!”
“Whew! He’s in for some lovin’.”
“It’s okay. I couldn’t have led a richer life.”
“I’ve got two words for you: Mellow out, man.”
“So let your children run wild and free, for as the old saying goes, ‘let your children run wild and free.’”
“I’m full of piss and vinegar! At first I was just full of vinegar.”
“My God, it’s like there’s some kind of bond between us.”
“No beer and no TV make Homer go something something.”
“I felt an intoxication that had nothing to do with alcohol. It was the intoxication of being a public spectacle.”
“Holey moley, the bastard’s rich!”
“It was the most I ever threw up, and it changed my life forever.”
“Yeah, maybe I do have the right…what’s that stuff?”
“Must…destroy…mankind….oooh! Lunch time!”
“Well, I acquired it legally, you can be sure of that.”
“This is even more painful than it looks.”
“Oh cruel fate, why do you mock me?”
“Yes, he is handsome, in an ugly sort of way.”
“You might say the extra ingredient is salt.”
“Who’s watching TV at this hour?” “Alcoholics, the unemployable, angry loners…”
“Psst! The best meat’s in the rump!”
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Democracy just doesn’t work.”
“Woah man! You need booze!”
“Oh, oh: you see, the kids, they listen to the rap music which gives them the brain damage. With their hippin’, and the hoppin’, and the bippin’, and the boppin’, so they don’t know what the jazz…is all about! You see, jazz is like the Jello Pudding Pop — no, actually, it’s more like Kodak film — no, actually, jazz is like the New Coke: it’ll be around forever, heh heh heh.”
“Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”
“Stop, stop! He’s already dead!”
“Don’t praise the machine!”
“The alien has a sweet, heavenly voice… like Urkel! And he appears every Friday night… like Urkel!”
“Talking out of turn…that’s a paddling. Looking out the window…that’s a paddling. Staring at my sandals…that’s a paddling. Paddling the school canoe…ooh, you better believe that’s a paddling.”
“Operator! Give me the number for 911!”
“Well, it’s 1 a.m. Better go home and spend some quality time with the kids.”
“Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?”
“Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals! Except the weasel.“
“The answer to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle, they’re on TV! “
“The trick is to say you’re prejudiced against all races.”
“Have you been eating that sandwich again?”
“Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover.”
“All my life I’ve had one dream, to achieve my many goals.”
“We must move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.”
“Oh, he wants that corn so bad!”
“If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.”
“Urge to kill…rising…”
“Join me or die. Can you do any less?”
“Remember: Just blame the guy who can’t speak English.”
“Oh, Andy Capp. You wife-beating drunk.”
“Ah, Rex Morgan M.D. You have the prescription for the daily blues.”
“Does whisky count as beer?”
“Agh, my mighty heart is breaking. I’ll be in the Humvee.”
“It’s just me in front of a brick wall for an hour. It cost eighty million dollars.”
“And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.”
“Whoo-hoo! Four-day weekend!”
“We’re going out! If we don’t come back, avenge our deaths!”
“I can’t even say the word ‘titmouse’ without giggling like a schoolgirl. Eee-hee-hee!”
“Pfff. English. Who needs that? I’m never going to England!”
“Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand.”
“I nicked it when you let your guard down for that split second, and I’d do it again.”
“Listen, big shot, if you’re looking for the kind of employee who takes abuse and never sticks up for himself, I’m your man! You can treat me like dirt, and I’ll still kiss your butt and call it ice cream! And if you don’t like it – I can change!”
“There it is – the cleverest thing you’ll ever say and nobody heard it.”
“Mmm…64 slices of American cheese.”
“It’s a pornography store. I was buying pornography.”
“The only danger is if they send us to that terrible Planet of the Apes! Wait a minute…Statue of Liberty…that was OUR planet! YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! DAMN YOU! DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL! (sobs)”
“Just squeeze your rage into a bitter little ball and release it at an appropriate time. Like that time I hit that referee with a whisky bottle. You remember that? You remember when Daddy hit the referee with a whisky bottle?”
“Those Germans have a word for everything!”
“If you don’t like your job, you don’t strike! You just go in every day and do it really half-assed! That’s the American way!”
“Woo-hoo! Look at that blubber fly!”
“Default! Woo-hoo! The two sweetest words in the English language!”
“Would you look at those morons? I paid my taxes over a year ago!”
“I’m wasting away! I’m down to a B-Cup!”
“The bee bit my bottom! Now my bottom’s big!”
“Damn you and your sparkling wordplay!”
“Heh heh heh. Homicidal robots….so like us.”
“You don’t win friends with salad! You don’t win friends with salad!”
“Homer no function beer well without.”
“Kids, kids, I’m not going to die. That only happens to bad people.”
“Oh, everything looks bad if you remember it.”
“What good is money if it can’t inspire terror in your fellow man?”
“I stand by my racial slur.”
“Oh, loneliness and cheeseburgers are a dangerous mix.”
“He is a cancer on this fair city and I am the…uh, what cures cancer?”
“Spinoff! Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?”
“We started out like Romeo and Juliet, but it ended up in tragedy.”
“Everything’s coming up Milhouse!”
“So this is what it sounds like…when doves cry!”
“Look out, Itchy! He’s Irish!”
“I don’t believe in nothing no more! I’m going to law school!”
“I’ve done everything the Bible says — even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”
“Cornstarch. Good for keepin’ down the urges!”
“Affordable tract housing made us neighbors, but you made us friends!”
“We’re like this ALL THE TIME!”
“I dressed myself!”
“Your hair is tall, and pretty!”
“I’m scared! Too scared to even wet my pants!”
“What’s a battle?”
“When I grow up, I want to be a principal or a caterpillar.”
“I love you ‘cause you kill people.”
“This tastes like Grandma!”
“Why do people run from me?”
“I’m wearing a bathrobe, and I’m not even sick!”
“Slow down, Bart! My legs don’t know how to be as long as yours.”
“Sweet merciful crap!”
“Do not turn this office into a house of LIES!”
“You’re right! First thing tomorrow I’m going to punch Lenny in the back of the head!”
“Man, I must have seen that movie…twice.”
“Lady, you’re all right.”
“We’ll DIG our way out!”
“Well, we all had a good laugh about that, but it turns out he was really sexually harassing her.”
“Wait, I’m confused. So the cops KNEW Internal Affairs was setting them up…I like to make up movies in my head when I get bored.”
“I can’t wait to hear about the sexy and exciting adventures you’re sure to have against this colorful backdrop.”
“Why? Why was I programmed to feel pain?”
“I dream of a town devoted to chastity, abstinence, and a flavorless mush I call ‘root-marm.’”
“Are these morons getting dumber, or just louder?”
“…a delightful little romp.”
“You idiot! He was the most talented one!”
“That was real funny, taking my dignity like that.”
“I’m sorry, it’s the laughter of small children, it cuts through me like a knife.”
“Don’t you hate pants?”
“What was I laughing about? Oh yes, the crippled Irishman.”
“Ach! Back to the loch with you, Nessie.”
“Ooh! Erotic cakes!”
“Hey, it says here I’m supposed to get a pig every month! And…”two comely lasses of virtue true.’”
“I proclaim this chap the most whimsical jig of the season!”
“Couldn’t she just accept his abuse with good-natured humor instead?”
“Lousy Smarch weather.”
“To human misery!”
“…which, if true, means death for us all.”
“We can stick her in a trailer, drive around the south and charge two bits a gander.”
“…no talking like a grizzled 1890s prospector, consarn it.”
“I hope they kill that Iron Yuppie. Thinks he’s so big.”
“Sorry, Mr. Burns, but I don’t go in for these backdoor shenanigans. Sure, I’m flattered, maybe even a little curious, but the answer is no!”
“I prefer the hands-on touch you only get with hired goons.”
“I needed a new heel for my shoe, so, I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. “Give me five bees for a quarter,” you’d say. Now where were we? Oh yeah – the important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time…”
“Fine, sir. I’ll get him started on some snappy Sinbad-esque material.”
“Ah, these minstrels will soothe my jangled nerves.”
“…Have the Rolling Stones killed.”
“Take it and get out.”
“We’ve given the word ‘mob’ a bad name.”
“That dog can sell anything.”
“He lied to us through song! I hate when people do that!”
“The searing kiss of hot lead! How I missed you! I mean, I think I’m dying.”
“There were still so many things I wanted to see and do and have done to me.”
“If you have a failing, it’s that you’re always demanding perfection. If you have a failing”
“Curse the man who invented helium! Curse Pierre-Jules-Cesar Janssen!”
“I’m going to punish you for this, Bart. And it won’t just be a simple caning this time.”
“Sounds like the doomsday whistle! Ain’t been blown for nigh onto three years.”
“You’ve heard the expression “let’s get busy”? Well, this is a dog who gets “biz-zay!” Consistently and thoroughly.”
“I feel we should rastify him by 10 percent or so.”
“Kindly make one out to me, and three out to my friend of the same name.”
“When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?!”
“Last night’s Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever! Rest assured that I was on the Internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world.”
“I’ve been doing some thinking, and I’ve got some ideas to improve the show. I got it right here. One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking “Where’s Poochie”? Three—“
“And we’ll cover the new craze that’s sweeping the country – wasting food!”
“Oh, Abe. You’ve aged horribly.”
“So where did your newfound sense of irresponsibility take you?”
“Oh god, I’m choking on my own rage here!”
“Something was said! Not good!”
“It’s those TV networks, Marge, they won’t let me. One quality show after another, each one fresher and more brilliant than the last. If they only stumbled once, just gave us thirty minutes to ourselves! But they won’t! They won’t let me live!”
“I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls. I’m sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero! I want to LIVE, Marge! Won’t you let me live? Won’t you, please?”
“Wait! I need closure on that anecdote!”
“If I had a girlfriend, she’d kill me!”
“And how’s my little major-leaguer? Catch any June bugs today?”
“When you get a little older, you’ll realize that Friday is just another day between NBC’s Must-See Thursday and CBS’s Saturday night Crap-o-Rama.”
`“During his long recuperation, he taught himself to hear and feel pain again.”
“…lousy loveable dog…”
“Blue M&M, red M&M, they all wind up the same color in the end.”
“I’m like the man who single-handedly built the rocket and went to the moon. What was his name? Apollo Creed?”
“Now son, you don’t want to drink beer. That’s for daddies and kids with fake ID’s.”
“Soon, we’ll be rich! Rich as Nazis!”
“Hey fun boys, get a room!”
“I made sure to take note of that, as it seemed highly unusual.”
“I’ve had a stroooooooooke.”
“I’d’ve called ‘em Chazwallises.”
“…And they come with this delicious sauce. It looks like ketchup, it tastes like ketchup, but brother – it ain’t ketchup!”
“Sometimes I think you WANT us to fail!”
“Your point being…?”
“Most people would say no, of course not, what kind of stupid question is that?”
“I don’t care if he’s the nicest guy alive, he’s still a jerk!”
“Steak will make him logy.”
“I don’t know where you pixies came from, but I sure like your pixie drink!”
“You’re living proof that our revolving-door prison system works.”
“You’re a credit to dementia!”
“Don’t thank me. Thank the moon’s gravitational pull.”
“That was a well-plotted piece of non-claptrap that never made me want to retch.”
“Marge, when kids these days say `bad’, they mean `good’. And to `shake your booty’ means to wiggle one’s butt. Permit me to demonstrate.”
“Oh, it’s that record club. The first nine were only a penny. Then they jacked up the price! [breaks down crying] It’s not fair! It’s not fair, I tells ya!”
“You’re not the only one who can abuse a nonprofit organization!”
“Don’t avert your eyes! He may take on another form!”
“I love the sexy slither of a lady snake. Ohhhhhhh yeah.”
“Ach du lieber! Das is nicht eine Booby!”
“Mom, could you get me some of those Flintstones Chewable Morphine?”
“Now change the channel and pat my head!”
“If there’s one thing America needs, it’s more lawyers.”
“From now on, I’ll use my gossip for good instead of evil!”
“Let us celebrate our arrangement by the adding of chocolate to milk.”
“I call the big one Bitey.”
“Iron helps us play!”
“They’ll be chewing on him for a while.”
“Don’t thank me, thank an unprecedented eight-year military buildup.”
“Remember what Vince Lombardi said – if you lose, you’re out of the family!”
“For the first time in my life, I’m glad I had children.”
“Always trust the Bible, son. It’s the prankster’s bible.”
“You have small, girlish hands.”
“Gentlemen – welcome to Flavor Country.”
“Sneaking out was worth it! That was some gooooood corn.”
“That’s your solution to everything – to move under the sea! It’s not gonna happen!” “Not with THAT attitude.”
“Ooh! I feel like a kid in some kind of a store!”
“Oh, I like it better when they’re making fun of people who aren’t me.”
“It’s just hard not to listen to TV; it’s spent so much more time raising us than you have.”
“Are you hugging the TV?!”
“Those people down there look all tiny and blurry, just like the inside of a cataract.”
“I see you’ve played knifey-spooney before.”
“How do you sleep at night?” “On top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.”
“Aww, so that’s wrong with the poor fella. He misses casual sex.”
“Aw, a car impound lot: the impenetrable fortress of suburbia!”
“Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I will do the next best thing: block it out.”
“I don’t want any part of this project, it’s unconscionably fiendish.”
“A prayer in a public school! God has no place within these walls, just like facts have no place within organized religion!”
“Son, when you participate in sporting events, it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how drunk you get.”
“Little girl, I’ve had lots of jobs in my day: Whale hunter, seal clubber, president of the Fox network … and like most people, yeah, I’ve dealt a little ivory.”
“Marge, please, don’t humiliate me in front of the money.”
“Yes, money. Your money’s money is all that money.”
“Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it’s time for our viewers to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?”
“Things aren’t as happy as they used to be down here at the Unemployment Office, joblessness is no longer just for philosophy majors.”
“The only monster here is the gambling monster that has enslaved your mother. I call him Gamblor and it’s time to free your mother from his neon claws!”
“Where did I lose them? I’ll never wiggle my bare butt in public again.”
“Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?”
“The Japanese? Those sandal-wearing goldfish-tenders? Bosh! Flimshaw!”
“Well everything’s stolen nowadays. Why the fax machine is nothing but a waffle iron with a phone attached.”
“I can do that but I don’t wanna.”
“You’re a dull boy, Billy.”
“Leave me my dignity! All I wanted to do was watch ‘Honk if You’re Horny’ in peace!”
“Mmm. I can’t wait to eat that monkey!”
“Look everybody! An old man’s talking!”
“Oh, I ain’t fer it, I’m again’ it!”
“Gruel! Sweet, nourishing gruel!”
“I’m a white male, age 18 to 34. People listen to whatever I say, no matter how crazy.”
“Arrr…this will keep me company those lonely nights at sea.”
“Arrr…I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Agh, meatloaf, the most hated of all loaves.”
“(gasps) That was the dried-out end piece!”
“Abusing your family is one thing, but I will not sit by idly while you feed a hungry dog!”
“I’m looking for someone to whom I can leave my vast, vast, vast, vast fortune…vast.”
“Get me his Mexican non-union equivalent!”
“He boasts that he will banish dirt to the land of wind and ghosts.”
“Have you been up all night eating cheese again?”
“All the years I’ve lobbied to be treated like an adult have blown up in my face.”
“I will not hear another word against the boat!”
“Although there is no change in my demeanor, let me assure you my heart is breaking.”
“So how ‘bout that local sports team?”
“Looks like those clowns in Washington are messing it up again! What a bunch of clowns!”
“Ooh, I love legitimate theater.”
“Oh thank God, it’s Lee Marvin! He’s always drunk and violent!”
“Kings among men!”
“Let us never speak of the shortcut again.”
“I can see the music!”
“My mom thinks I’m cool!”
“I may not know art, but I know what I hate. And I…don’t hate this.”
“You’ll have to speak up, I’m wearing a towel.”
“Oh, it’s a donkey!”
“The other children are right to laugh at you, Ralph.”
(pulling into a compact car space) “Lot of sparks on this side.”
“Oh no! I’ll be socially unpopular, more so!”
“Look at him strutting about like he’s cock of the walk! Well let me tell you, he’s cock of nothing!”
“Behold! Ten times more addictive than marijuana!”
“When are you going to learn hair isn’t a right – it’s a privilege!”
“Whoo! A little beer’ll put out that fire.”
“…and that’s when the C.H.U.D.s came at me.”
“Where is that thing? It can’t get far, it has no legs!”
“Oh, why does my death keep coming back to haunt me?”
“You couldn’t fool your mother on the foolingest day of your life if you had an electrified fooling machine.”
“Poor Homer. This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
“I’m a well-wisher, in that I don’t wish you any particular harm.”
“Oh, the network slogan is true! Watch Fox and be damned for all eternity!”
“Pick me, teacher! I’m ever so smart!”
“That’s preposterous! Zutroy here is as American as apple pie!”
“The older they get, the cuter they ain’t.”
“Dammit Smithers, this isn’t rocket science, this is brain surgery!”
“We’re going out, Marge! If we don’t come back, avenge our deaths!”
“Would it really be worth living in a world without television? I think the survivors would envy the dead.”
“But every time I learn something new, it pushes out something old! Remember that time I took a home wine-making course and forgot how to drive?”
“Aim low. Aim so low that no one will even care if you succeed.”
“Why did I take so much punishment? Let’s just say that fame was like a drug, but what was even more like a drug was the drugs.”
“Fire can be our friend, whether it’s toasting s’mores or raining down on Charlie.”
“My God! It’s like a party in my mouth and everyone’s invited!”
“Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”
“Lisa, never, EVER stop in the middle of a hoedown!”
“We don’t need a thinker! We need a doer! Someone who will act without considering the consequences!”
“Oh Kent, I’d be lying if I said my men weren’t committing crimes.”
“The mob is working on getting your saxophone back but we’ve also expanded into other important areas. Literacy programs! Preserving our beloved covered bridges. World domination!”
““You’re a very old man now and old people are useless!””
“Bart’s pain is funny, but mine isn’t!”
“Can’t talk. Robbed. Go Hell.”
“We’ll DIG our way out! No, dig UP, stupid!”
“Life is one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead.”
“The year was 1968. We were on recon in a steaming Mekong delta. An overheated private removed his flack jacket, revealing a T-shirt with an ironed-on sporting the MAD slogan “Up with Mini-skirts!”. Well, we all had a good laugh, even though I didn’t quite understand it. But our momentary lapse of concentration allowed “Charlie” to get the drop on us. I spent the next three years in a POW camp, forced to subsist on a thin stew made of fish, vegetables, prawns, coconut milk, and four kinds of rice. I came close to madness trying to find it here in the States, but they just can’t get the spices right!”
“This is the worst Fourth of July ever. I hate America.”
“The whole thing smacks of effort, man.”
“Does my withered face remind you of the grim specter of death?”
“Brunch – it’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but you get a nice slice of cantaloupe at the end.”
“That’s all well and good for sheep, but what are we to do?”
“I crippled him myself.”
“See? Because of me, they now have a warning.”
“Can’t talk. See Flanders. Later sex.”
“Don’t worry, Bart. It seems like every week something odd happens to the Simpsons. My advice is to ride it out, make the occasional smart-alec quip, and by next week we’ll be back to where we started from, ready for another wacky adventure.” “Ay carumba!” “That’s the spirit!”
“Oooh, the walls are melting again.”
“Marge… I think I hate Ted Koppel. No, wait, I find him informative and witty. ‘Night.”
“The government calls it the “army”, but a more alarmist name would be The Killbot Factory”
Bobby McFerrin’s new single I’m Worried Need Money
“It’s a Volvo! It doesn’t go any faster!”
“On the other hand, who’s to say what’s right these days, what with all our modern ideas and products?”
“What’s with all this cleaning? Are we so vain?”
“Marge, I agree with you in theory. In theory, Communism works! In theory”
“‘Gomer upsets Sergeant Carter.’ I’ll never forget that episode.”
“I just have two questions: ‘How much?’ and ‘Give it to me.’”
“He thinks he’s people!”
(re: a rock) “A bird has become petrified and lost its sense of direction!”
“Ooh, him card-read good!”
“Marge, there’s an empty spot I’ve always had inside me. I tried to fill it with family, religion, community service, but those are dead ends! This chair is the answer”
“This is great! Not only am I not learning, I’m forgetting stuff I used to know!”
“..class after class of ugly, ugly children…”
“We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas!”
“Ahh, science. You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention…science has it all!”
I always love finding some strange picture book with an odd storyline or sense of design.
This past weekend, I went to a mini-comics show at the Durham County Public Library, and found they had a nifty wall of old books for sale from the Friends of the Library. It was a great lineup of books at like $2 apiece, and I found a number of hardcover collections of old New Yorker cartoonists that some of my cartoonist friends snapped up.
What I also found was a really, really weird 1953 children’s book called THE DAY AFTER YESTERDAY by Phyllis Rowand.
The story is nothing unusual — it’s a tale of a little girl who lives by the water with her parents and loves animals, and her parents send her to the city (read: NYC) to visit cousins and see more of the world, and she sees some sights, and then brings back some animal-themed gifts that prove to her parents that she knows how to appreciate nature. It’s simple and possibly autobiographical.
The LOOK of the story, though, is pretty odd.
It’s a strange mixture of regular and colored pencils, along with some oddly-shaped figures and these weird, wide-eyed depictions of the little girl that make her look like one of those doe-eyed children from those old paintings.
I was showing this one to the talented cartoonist Ben Towle at the comics show. He was as fascinated by it as I was — he said it was almost like “outsider art.”
I emailed the Caldecott-winning children’s book illustrator David Small, of such books as IMOGENE’S ANTLERS and his graphic memoir STITCHES.
He’d never heard of this one, though he’s very knowledgeable on classic picture books. Here’s his comments, reprinted with permission:
This stuff is strange. She can’t draw but her designs aren’t bad. It’s the obsessive quality of the drawing –the hair, the dots on the dress– that makes them, as your friend said, almost Outsider art. The figures and animals are sacharrine, though I do like the little fat girl–probably unintentionally made fat– on her stomach in the first (best) illustration.
I looked up Rowand on Amazon — not a lot of other books to her name. About the only note I have is that she did a book with Ruth Krauss, author of THE CARROT SEED, called BEARS — and decades later, the book was re-done with new illustrations by the great Maurice Sendak. But nothing else on Rowand.
Anyway, I have no idea what the full history is of this book, but it was a strange little volume to encounter, and there’s something oddly compelling in the offbeat quality of the illustrations. I share the highlights now with you; judge for youself.
I’ve several deadlines pressing on me, but wanted to take time out for a brief tribute to children’s book author E.L. Konigsburg, who just passed away at age 83. That’s a good run.
Konigsburg is best known for her 1967 Newbery Medal winner FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, about two kids who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It’s one of my favorites, and still a book I re-read with pleasure every few years.
It’s one of those premises that is irresistible to a kid, because it acknowledges two fundamental truths. The first is that every kid has a fantasy of running away to have an adventure, and the second is that kids love museums.
Konigsburg was one of a number of children’s and young adult authors that rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s with books about kids in NYC, Judy Blume and HARRIET THE SPY’s Louise Fitzhugh being another major example. In elementary school, these books were endlessly fascinating to me. It was such a different lifestyle described, taking the subway, living in an apartment and letting yourself in…to someone in the suburbs, it was like science fiction, some kind of alternate reality where these strange things were part of everyday life.
Plus, that’s just a great title. For years I’ve joked about my messiness by saying “my filing system makes Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler look obsessive-compulsive.” The cool people are the ones who get that joke.
Even at the time, I took note of the book’s odd structure — the story is told after the fact by the titular Mrs. Frankweiler, and who she is and how she comes to be involved in the narrative is one of the central mysteries, along with the secret of a statue she’s donated to the Met that the kids find fascinating.
The key to the story is that it understands why the main character of Claudia would be so fascinated with the statue, and why she’d want to run away in the first place, despite a relatively happy home life. Claudia wants to be “different,” to have a greater sense of who she is and what she’s capable of doing. Mrs. Frankweiler later reprimands her a bit to make the point that running away isn’t the answer and that she’s caused her family terrible worry through her actions, but you can still tell that she admires the kid’s gumption. That and a note that the Met has beefed up security at the end of the book play as “don’t try this at home” warnings, but really, what you remember is the sheer cleverness of how Claudia and her brother Jamie survive at the Met — hiding dirty laundry in a sarcophagus, bathing in the fountain and scrimping extra coins, joining in on school tour groups to keep “learning” during their hideout. Really, it seems not so much like running away as the ultimate vacation.
The book was filmed twice, with two Hollywood legends as Mrs. Frankweiler, as THE HIDEAWAYS in 1972 (though some editions have it under its original title) with Ingrid Bergman, and under its original title for a 1995 TV movie with Lauren Bacall. It’s odd, considering that both actresses are heavily associated with Humphrey Bogart. Neither completely captured the charm of the original book, and both upped the “running away is bad” message, but they have their moments.
FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER shares a quality with Konigsburg’s later books in that many have a keen ear for how children see themselves and the world around them, and how they interact with one another. In the same year she won the Newbery for FRANKWEILER, she received the unprecedented honor of also receiving the Newbery Honor for another of her books published that year, JENNIFER, HECTATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY AND ME, ELIZABETH.
Set in the suburbs, the book is based on the simple, relatable idea of a kid pretending to be weird or magic to seem more interesting and make a friend…except it tells it from the perspective of the other kid’s point of view. The titular Jennifer has just moved to the suburbs and meets Elizabeth, who claims to be a witch and involves Jennifer in all manner of rituals that will be her “initiation.”
It’s clear to the reader early on that Elizabeth isn’t a witch, but it’s also clear that her brashness and confidence are part of an act, and deep down she’s as lonely as Jennifer. As a kid, I understood where both parties were coming from, and how the awkwardness of making a friend, of forming some new relationship, can make you feel like you’ve got to create the facade of some extraordinary, larger-than-life being to get the other person to want to be around you.
The moment I never forgot came near the end of the book, where Jennifer finally explains to her mother why she doesn’t want to be friends with Cynthia, the more “normal” kid the mom would prefer be Jennifer’s friend, the kind of kid who’s lovely to parents but a snob when adults aren’t around. Jennifer’s retort to her mother is a thing of beauty:
“Mother,” I said, “If you really want to know, I’ll tell you why. Cynthia is a phony. I’ve known for a long time that she’s a phony. And worse than that, she doesn’t know she’s a phony. She believes in Cynthia. She’s a serious phony. And the only way I can stand her is to absolutely ignore her.”
“She believes in Cynthia” is a line that’s stayed with me for years, because it sums up so many people I knew as a kid, and have known since then — the people who believe their own hype, who create an idealized shell with nothing underneath. If you were the kind of kid who knew and hated a Cynthia, you were in the audience for E.L. Kongisburg.
Kongisburg wrote many other great books, which I’ll touch on quickly. They had some fantastic titles, such as JOURNEY TO AN 800 NUMBER, UP FROM JERHICO TELL, and SILENT TO THE BONE.
A few I want to particularly note are ABOUT THE B’NAI BAGELS, regarding a Jewish children’s baseball team…
(GEORGE) is a strange but fascinating volume about a brilliant young boy who talks with his “inner voice” and winds up preventing a tragedy. It has a bit at the end talking about the state of the book’s antagonist and how he hates the main character, and leaves the note, “Hate is a hole; it can be filled, and maybe one day it will. With gratitude.”
A PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET AND MINIVER is an offbeat afterlife fantasy with Elanor of Aquitaine…
…and Konigsburg won a second Newbery in 1997 for THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY, which predated SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE a bit by telling the individual stories of a group of schoolkids on an academic competition team, and how their unique backgrounds qualify them to answer the difficult questions they’re posed.
Konigsburg’s books were often mysteries that weren’t mysteries — there were no stolen jewels or dead bodies, but twisty narratives and twisty characters that gradually revealed themselves to the reader. They were about the endless curiosity of being a kid and trying to figure out the world around you, and where you fit into it. And they did so with gentleness and good humor.
You can see the influence of her work in strange, subtle places, my favorite being the throwaway moment in Wes Anderson’s THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS explaining how the young Tenenbaums briefly ran away to a museum…
On the DVD commentary, Anderson admits the homage, and it seems only appropriate. Anderson seems like he would have been the kind of kid who really got the characters in Konigsburg’s books — kids who bring imagination and adventure to their ordinary lives, and discover something extraordinary about themselves in the process.
I can only wonder how many kids tried running away to a museum as a result of her work. Probably more than she’d be comfortable admitting. Well, there’s worse things to inspire.
Wanted to write a few original posts on children’s books. Here’s an odd tale of a SF series from the 1970s — and how its ending was changed in a different medium.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder is a multiple Newbery Honor recipient for such offbeat children’s books as THE EGYPT GAME, about children who develop an Egyptian-based club:
…and THE WITCHES OF WORM, where a young girl adopts a stray cat she becomes convinced is a witch’s familiar that’s forcing her to misbehave (cleverly, the book never resolves whether this is all in her head).
In 1970, Snyder did a book called THE CHANGELING, about the friendship between two young girls from different social circles.
Part of the story involves the girls creating an elaborate SF/fantasy world together. Snyder later said that she based this on a game she played as a child climbing from tree to tree, trying not to touch the ground as to avoid something dangerous that lived “below the root.”
In 1975, Snyder decided to flesh out this idea, and wrote an actual novel set in this world called BELOW THE ROOT.
The story is about an alien race that lives in a system of giant trees, and whose children have psychic powers. They encounter another group of beings that live outside teh trees on the surface, whose values conflict with their own.
The characters appeared through three books, collectively known as the Green Sky Trilogy.
In the final book in the series, the main character Raamo dies when he falls into a lake.
Kids and their parents were quite upset by this, and let Snyder know it in letters and such.
Snyder herself regretted the decision, but the book was already out, and there was no changing the ending.
A few years later, computer games had become more popular, and Snyder was contacted by a fan of her work named Dale Disharoon.
Disharoon wound up working with Snyder to develop a computer game version of BELOW THE ROOT that took place after the events of the trilogy.
Snyder herself wrote the storyline for the game, and considered it an official part of the series.
The game came out in 1984, and you can watch a full playthrough with detailed commentary starting here:
But what’s really interesting is that Snyder used the game to retroactively change the trilogy’s ending!
In the climax of the game, your character finds out that Raamo is still alive, just stuck in a subterranean cave. You win the game by rescuing him!
How crazy is that? Imagine all the deceased characters from other books/films/TV shows that could be resurrected that way, by finishing a computer game!
“Well, I guess that’s a good thing because like, nobody likes you. And like, you can like, care about yourself, while I’m off scoring with chicks.”
“Hey, it’s that guy from Damn Yankees!”
“Nothing beats a Butt!”
“YEAH, OKAY!! NOW IT’S HURTING MY EYES AND MY EARS!!”
“You treat your stepmother with respect, Pantera! Or you’ll be sleeping in the street!”
“This is so horrible, I can’t even begin to talk about how much this sucks.”
“This song has the best lyrics I’ve ever heard.”
“Ahhhhhhh, SHUT UP, Butt-Head!”
“I think it’s, like, some kind of country music, but it’s, like, country music after you’ve been, like, playing Centipede for, like, twenty four hours.”
“They should get this guy on the 16 Minutes show instead of that Mickey Rooney dude they got. He sucks.”
“The Seminefrious Tubloidial Buttnoids have left your pants.”
“This video is, um, it’s like it’s causing me to influence my behaviour. I’m gonna leave. I’m gonna go into the kitchen and break something.”
“Beavis, shut up. You’ve never been to Compton, you’re never gonna go to Compton, you’re gonna be here for the rest of your life, you’re stupid, you don’t have any money and you’re never gonna score.”
“That dude would probably break a bunch of bones and stuff, but at least he got some.”
“One chick from L7 alone could kick all of their asses combined.”
“But Beavis, Everything DOES suck.”
“Animation is cool.”
” Whoa check it out, they got some of that Keeyotepcate up there, up above that guy’s hands.”
“The message here is: Vince Neil’s a wuss.”
“Sit your ass down Lars! Play the drums like you’re supposed to!”
“These guys got no future.”
“No way! He said ‘Devil’s Johnson!'”
“It’s like, him and the band all got together and stuff, and said “OK man, tomorrow, we’re gonna wear some really scary scary makeup tomorrow, and it’s gonna be really cool. We’re gonna kick some ass.” But then this dumbass was the only one stupid enough to do it!”
(ZACK NOTE: The following is an essay I wrote for an anthology about Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Universe last year. The anthology has been indefinitely delayed, and those in charge say that they have no trouble with my posting this publicly.
(Duncan Fegredo, who generously did an email interview for the essay and provided me with some designs, has given me permission to publish this here, “as long as I don’t have to waste any more of my life on that book.” [direct quote]
(This whole thing led to my doing a very good one-on-one panel with Duncan discussing his career at NC Comiccon last fall, so time well spent. But I hate to let writing go to waste.
(And so, here it is: More thoughts on one of Marvel Comics’ most reviled books than have ever been recorded in one place, along with some of Duncan Fegredo’s original designs, provided by him. All designs, characters, etc. are copyright/TM Marvel Comics, I assure you I don’t want them.)
In Defense of Ron Zimmerman: The Strange Story of Hawk-Owl, Woody, U-Decide and Ultimate Adventures
“…what an unbelievable waste of time that book was…”
–Duncan Fegredo, artist, Ultimate Adventures
On October 25, 2001, Marvel Comics issued a press release heralding the hiring of Ron Zimmerman, a TV writer best known as a regular contributor to Howard Stern’s radio program, as a writer on a variety of freelance projects. “Welcome to The House, Ron – we think you’ll find it even more strange than Hollywood!” it extolled.
Little did he know.
Two and a half years later, Zimmerman would be one of the most reviled names at Marvel, inciting a degree of Internet hatred so great that Joe Quesada himself would step in to publicly defend him. His legacy would be some of the strangest comics ever put out by the House of Ideas, including perhaps the most obscure Ultimate Universe book, Ultimate Adventures.
The true story of Ultimate Adventures is one that represents the nexus of Marvel’s output and attitude in the early 2000s, a combination of creativity and aggression that proved both admirable and regrettable.
It is a book that is the one attempt at launching an Ultimate Universe title with original characters with no counterparts in the “mainstream” Marvel Universe. It is the product of a creator whose hiring is widely perceived as one of Joe Quesada’s greatest follies. It was picked by the website Comics Alliance as one of the worst comic books of the past decade.
Ultimate Adventures was all of these things. But the truth, as they say, is even stranger.
Here is the tale of Ultimate Adventures, of the book itself and of its creation. Fasten your seatbelts.
Ultimate Adventures was a fairly simple concept: In a comical/Harry Potter-esque variation on the Batman and Robin story, a sassy orphan named Hank Kipple gets adopted by Jack Danner, a billionaire who’s secretly a vigilante called Hawk-Owl. Hank discovers he’s being groomed to be Hawk-Owl’s sidekick Woody.
Hank’s initially against this, but comes around and helps Hawk-Owl defeat a school principal who’s gone mad and become a super-villain. The story climaxes with the two turning into a crime-fighting team while learning how to function as a family and crime-fighting unit.
Not too bad so far. The concept has its gaps in logic, but it’s a nice wish-fulfillment story with an emotional core. Ignoring that kid-sidekick concepts have come under scrutiny for their child endangerment and potentially pedophilic subtexts over the last few decades, it’s an idea that could work with the proper execution.
Unfortunately, Ultimate Adventures had problems that had nothing to do with its execution.
Let’s back up a bit.
Joe Quesada’s arrival at Marvel in the late 1990s was a breath of creative oxygen. There’s no other way to put it. After peaking in the early 1990s with a variety of artist-driven books, the company saw a downturn when most of those artists left to form Image Comics.
The company then spent most of the next decade trying to revitalize their core heroes by making them seem more like the Image Comics characters, resulting in such attempted reboots as Spider-Man finding out he was really a clone of himself (long story) and utterly plummeting sales.
By the late 1990s, the company was literally bankrupt, and came to the belated realization that quality writers and artists paired together was the key to regaining their readership. Quesada’s sub-line of “Marvel Knights” was a ¾ success (the Punisher miniseries where he became an angelic assassin was quickly swept under the rug), and he quickly rose to prominence within the company.
In tandem with Marvel Executive Vice President Bill Jemas, Quesada helped restore Marvel to a creative force. Current storylines were quickly collected into trade paperbacks, while older storylines long out of print were finally collected as well.
Film versions of the Marvel characters were produced in close coordination with the comic creators, and accessible storylines and materials were made available with each new release. Distribution of trades and single issues regained a presence in bookstores and newsstands. And most importantly, new and eclectic names were put in charge of the established characters.
Quesada made a statement with his first Marvel Knights book, the run on Daredevil that he illustrated off a script by filmmaker Kevin Smith. Smith had included many comic references in his work and done some books with his characters for Oni Press, but he was hardly a name guaranteed to sell copies. It was a stab at bringing in a creator with an existing fan base outside of mainstream superheroes, and the gamble paid off.
Marvel writers during this period usually came from one of two backgrounds: Either they had proven their credibility through a few small-press books, or they came from some sort of non-comics background – TV writing, novels, feature films – that could potentially bring a new voice and/or style to preexisting concepts.
Both choices yielded some eclectic, often fascinating results. Most relevant to this book was the decision to get Brian Michael Bendis to script Ultimate Spider-Man. Not only was the idea of a modern-day reboot of Spider-Man widely seen as a fool’s errand in the wake of such unsuccessful efforts as John Byrne’s widely-derided Spider-Man: Year One and the aforementioned clone storyline but Bendis was at that point mainly known for doing dark, dialogue-heavy crime books through such smaller companies as Image.
Putting a small-press writer in charge of a major superhero launch was at that point a risky move, and it paid dividends, further paving the way for such writers as Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker to become major voices at Marvel.
The second choice of bringing in non-comics writers provided its own peaks and valleys. J. Michael Straczynski, who had a major following from his TV series Babylon 5, had already scripted several series at Image, and brought a large audience to his work on Amazing Spider-Man, albeit with mixed critical results. Joss Whedon, who’d also scripted some comics set in the universe of his series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, likewise brought his following to his work on Astonishing X-Men.
There is something worth noting here: Straczynski, Whedon and the aforementioned Kevin Smith all had some experience writing comic books and fan followings based on characters they had created before they started writing for Marvel.
For that matter, they’d also done works that reflected the storylines often found in super-hero comics – even Smith, who’d mostly done relationship-based films, had worked on screenplays for such concepts as The Six Million Dollar Man.
When Ron Zimmerman came to Marvel, the press release trumpeting his arrival evoked the names of Smith and Straczynski, but neglected to mention several other things, most notably:
1) He hadn’t written any comics before.
2) He had mostly written comedy.
3) His name wasn’t associated with anything he had created on his own, and was likely to be unfamiliar to anyone who didn’t listen to Howard Stern.
In other words, Zimmerman arrived with a fair amount of hype, but was also in a situation where he had to learn a new format of writing. In addition, his background in comedy meant that his skills were mostly in more dialogue-based stories, something difficult to pull off in the limited space of sequential storytelling.
And he didn’t have the goodwill that someone like Smith, Straczynski or Whedon could rely on in case his work put off fans used to a more traditional style of superhero storytelling.
It was perhaps because of these things that Zimmerman’s work gained a reputation among comic book fans. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a particularly good reputation.
Zimmerman’s initial stories with the Punisher and Spider-Man were illustrated by such Herculean talents as Darick Robertson, John McCrea, and Sean Phillips, and weren’t the worst thing Marvel had published. That’s not to say it was particularly good.
His stories mostly played like strange digressions, with such tales as the Punisher going back in time to assassinate Al Capone (and it all turning out to be a dream), Spider-Man dealing with the Scorpion on a charity outing (with an odd cameo by a family drawn to look like the Simpsons), and Spidey’s foes commiserating in a super-villain bar.
The last tale was sort of amusing, but overall these books came across as insubstantial. There was rarely any drama, the humor often fell flat, and by the time Zimmerman got to the heavily-promoted Get Kraven limited series, casting the son of an old Spider-Foe as a Hollywood player, the negative feedback was starting to come to a boil.
Sure, online fans went off many, many times about, say, Straczynki’s Spider-Man stories, but he had some preexisting goodwill to rely upon, along with a strong understanding of the fundamentals of comic book scripting. Zimmerman didn’t have that crutch. He had to learn how to adapt to comics writing as he was being published, and his shortcomings were both public and scrutinized by fandom.
By late summer 2002, it was reported by Rich Johnston in his “Lying in the Gutters” gossip column on the Comic Book Resources website that Zimmerman had been banned from a Spider-Man message board after publicly posting in protest of negative reviews of his work that painted him, in his words, as “the new reference for all that is bad in the spider-world.“
So ugly did things get that Joe Quesada himself then posted on that board on Zimmerman’s behalf, arguing that Zimmerman came from a similar background as Kevin Smith, but didn’t have the pre-existing “cult of personality” to defend him.
Quesada praised Zimmerman’s intense love and fandom for comics, pointed out that he was choosing to write comics over higher-paying TV gigs, and that those protesting his background as a “Hollywood writer” were practicing a “double standard:”
“If Ron would have been advertised as just a new guy we discovered as opposed to a Hollywood guy, he would have been treated so much nicer by the wannabes. I’m not saying that everyone would have enjoyed ever (sic) single thing he did, but I can assure you that people would not be calling him ‘The Devil.'”
Quesada wasn’t necessarily wrong, but the message board meltdown illustrated how things had gotten to an ugly point. From Newsarama to Comic Book Resources to Marvel.com, message boards were filled with endless complaints about Zimmerman’s books.
While Marvel had helped revitalize many of their books by bringing in creators with fan followings, here was an increasingly public backlash. Zimmerman’s name was close to becoming the comic book equivalent of box office poison.
As such, there was a bit of pressure to prove Quesada’s faith in Zimmerman was justified. The most-spotlighted effort was a Zimmerman-scripted mature readers mini-series called Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather!, which “revealed” a classic Marvel Western character was gay. It featured excellent art from veteran John Severin and received a great deal of mainstream media coverage, mostly involving anti-gay advocates protesting its content.
They needn’t have bothered – the book’s gay content was off-camera and implied, while the actual story was a straightforward parody of Shane and Little House on the Prairie. The humor mostly relied on the Kid engaging in over-the-top effeminate behavior, and other characters standing around awkwardly. It was more solid than Zimmerman’s previous work, but it was most notable for not being offensive. If anything, gay people were more likely to be offended than straights by the gay panic humor.
Then came “U-Decide” and Ultimate Adventures.
In short: Peter David, a fan-favorite writer with a long history at Marvel, publicly protested when the company announced they were raising the price on his book Captain Marvel from $2.25 to $2.99, a move he decried would help kill it.
Quesada countered this protest by pointing out that David’s old-school continuity-heavy take on the Marvel Universe was too insular to bring in new readers, Bill Jemas joined in the argument seemingly for the hell of it, and the whole thing came down to a relaunched version of Captain Marvel being pitted against two other books, and the creator of the lowest-selling book getting a carnival-style humiliation at a comics convention.
Jemas’s contribution was Marville, a brazen series of swipes at DC Comics that ended in a pitch for Marvel’s unsuccessful revival of its Epic Comics line.
Quesada’s contribution was Ultimate Adventures, a book by Zimmerman that he would personally edit. There was a sense that he was putting something on the line personally with this: Not only was he the behind-the-scenes force on this, he was giving Zimmerman a spotlight with original characters in the Ultimate Universe, his brainchild.
And he provided a quality creative team, with art by veteran Duncan Fegredo – who, like Quesada, had worked off Kevin Smith’s dialogue-heavy scripts – and covers by the excellent artist Kaare Andrews.
In yet another press release, Quesada said, “My gut really tells me that, when all is said and done … I think Ultimate Adventures #1 … it’s going to be one of those incredibly collectible issues. … When you take away all the cover gimmicks, I think Ultimate Adventures will be the ultimate winner, pardon the pun.”
The U-Decide competition was designed to run six months. The six issues of Ultimate Adventures came out from November 2002 to September 2003. During that nearly-two-year period, the covers were reduced from firm cardstock to a flimsy, slightly-higher-than-regular paper, while the cover price rose from $2.25 to $2.99.
The entirety of the Rawhide Kid miniseries came out during this time, the “U-Decide” contest was won by Captain Marvel, and Marville proved to be a lead-in to a relaunch of Marvel’s Epic line, which had also mostly vanished by the time Ultimate Adventures concluded.
And afterward, Ron Zimmerman was gone.
I can’t find any record as to whether anyone in the competition wound up being dunk-tanked or hit with a pie.
It’s funny how things turned out with Ultimate Adventures. As successful as the Ultimate line had been at creating updated, accessible versions of existing superheroes, this was the one time it took that extra step of launching a book with entirely new characters and stepping away from that safety net of pre-branded Marvel Comics characters and the built-in audience they provided.
Unfortunately, the resulting book was an ill fit in the current marketplace on several levels. It was part of a publicity stunt, a showcase for a writer whose work had left a bad taste in most readers’ mouths, and was quite obviously a satire on the Batman and Robin legend. Enthusiasm for it was not high, and the delayed schedule only helped seal its fate.
But was it really one of the worst comics of the past decade?
A reread of Ultimate Adventures’ six issues reveals that, well, it wasn’t. There were many books that were far worse, among them the aforementioned Marville. It’s not to say that it’s some sort of buried masterpiece, though.
The first issue introduces us to Hank Kipple, a smart-mouthed orphan in a run-down Chicago orphanage who’s smart enough to rig a clapper-type dorm lighting system, athletic enough to climb to the top of a nearby church and back, and resourceful enough to stop an attempted robbery at the orphanage, but he is too much of a back-talker to avoid getting in trouble with the nuns.
Hank is the sort of character who could work if he was being portrayed as a life-action actor capable of bringing some nuance to the role of an abandoned kid who’s developed a tough exterior to cope with the idea that he’ll never have a family.
However, even Fegredo’s fine facial expressions have difficulty making him seem like anything other than a smart-ass. In the first three pages alone, he lets off something like 15 insults, none of which arise above the creativity of “Sister Mary Stick-Up-Her-Butt.”
Actually, Hank pretty much insults everyone; from the priest trying to help him to the fellow orphans he’s trying to help. It’s one thing to make a character seem tough and self-sufficient, but when he’s still spewing insults at a robber holding a gun to his head, the reader isleft wishing the robber would just pull the trigger.
After helping Hawk-Owl thwart the robbery and subsequently back-talking to Jack Danner when he comes to look into adopting a son, Hank finds himself unwillingly adopted into Danner’s world and shuttled out of the orphanage that very night.
With Hank, Danner and most of the supporting characters presented as typical comic stereotypes (strict nuns, kindly Irish priest, etc.), the biggest problems apparent in the first issue is that it seems designed to play out in live-action. Again, real-life actors could perhaps bring some nuance to Hank and company, but on the page, their bland jokes play out in long, dialogue-filled word balloons on pages already crowded with tiny panels used to indicate reaction shots or quick camera cuts. Most pages have eight or nine panels – which works when you have a carefully structured script like Watchmen, but not so much when you’re doing a fast-paced comedy story.
Still, there’s enough to the basic concept of the premise – super-competent orphan, super-hero wanting to pay it forward – that it’s easy to see why those involved with the book found it so compelling. Duncan Fegredo, who recalled signing onto the book because of Zimmerman’s “engaging, lively and fun” synopsis of the story – turning down a series featuring DC’s Zatanna character written by acclaimed creator Paul Dini to do it – remembers getting the first script:
“On receiving the first script, Joe Quesada commented that it was a ‘little’ word heavy, made reference to us both having worked with Kevin Smith and what working with movie or TV writers was like. It was a good call, Zimmerman’s script suffered from the similar problems… overly dense, quick fire dialogue, cause and effect within the same panels. Page breaks could be problematic as well… It all read great and you could see things solved fine on film with sound but it’s another matter on a comics page…”
Indeed, the story reads fairly well when Fegredo’s art has some room to breathe. The second issue, which sees Hank moving in with Danner and eventually discovering his secret headquarters, offers some strong moments of visual comedy, and ends with an excellent two-page spread of “The Nest” (to its demerit, it also features such lame sequences as Hawk-Owl stopping a robber named “Zed,” designed to look like the character from Pulp Fiction, and is offered a CD with a thousand hours of AOL by the grateful clerk, one of many cheap shots the Quesada-Jemas era of Marvel took at DC’s parent company AOL Time Warner).
But Fegredo does some quality work even within the script’s limitations. His Chicago is a cold, snowy place that feels like a realistic urban environment, and his skill with facial expressions nearly saves a scene where Hank is chewed out by Hawk-Owl’s right-hand-man Col. Toliver.
And Hawk-Owl’s costume, depicted as a slick Batman-type armor on the book’s covers, has a nicely bulky, eerie quality on the page, with its light-up lenses and shaggy feathered cloak. It almost what a real super-suit built by a rich guy might look like.
Fegredo recalled the origins of Hawk-Owl and Woody’s designs, which were credited in the inside front covers to Ralph Cirella:
“There were some designs done before hand, on receiving them I was told by Joe (Quesada ) to ‘Do what you can with these… ‘ I did just that. There may have been odd elements that survived but I redesigned everything I could. To say I was pissed off that the guy had a credit up front in the book, every issue, is an understatement.”
By the third issue, the book was already running late, coming out three months after issue #2. Fegredo recalls:
“The book started late pretty much and on top of that I knew nothing about the dumb U-Decide contest. I should’ve known better… Ron’s scripts were not edited. Issues of overcrowding and fundamental problems like cause and effect within a panel should have been pointed out to him, edited in fact. It was all left to me. That’s fine but it adds time to the process. The first script wasn’t so bad but later scripts were more problematic when they came in pages over-written, too dense at 22 pages I was having to squeeze four more overly-dense pages amongst the rest.”
Midway through issue #3, Fegredo says, his mother passed away, further delaying the book. Marvel’s solution, according to Fegredo, was to bring in Walden Wong to ink the pages for issue #4, something Fegredo usually did himself. Though Wong’s a proven talented inker on many other books, the drop-off in quality was evident, and even Fegredo admits the results were “bland.”
It’s a shame, as the issue could have been a visual highlight with Hawk-Owl being forcibly recruited by the Ultimates,. Instead, the flat look drags down an already-lame script that shows Hawk-Owl talking back to a fascistic Captain America, battling him to a standstill while the other Ultimates offer color-commentary.
It’s supposed to show that Hawk-Owl marches to his own drum and is competent on his own, but what mostly comes off is that Cap makes sense when he points out how stupid Hawk-Owl’s sidekick plan is.
The book’s main plot finally kicks in during the final two issues, as Hank’s school principal suffers a psychotic break after some personal setbacks and Hank accidentally punching him in the head (again, this kid is supposed to be our hero), leading to him becoming a bizarre Joker-like super-villain who wields a paddle as a weapon. It’s actually one of the more clever bits of the series, though the principal still comes off a bit more sympathetic than Hank, even when he’s torturing people.
By the end, evil is defeated, Hank has learned a few life lessons, and he and Jack swear they’re never going to put on the costumes again, only to stop a mugging in front of a screening of The Mask of Zorro. The parody of Batman’s origin is, like many of the other parodies in the book, ham-fisted, though it does end in a nice double-page spread by Fegredo of the characters swooping to the rescue.
At some point during all this is Hawk-Owl’s origin as told by his stereotypical martial-arts-proficient Asian chauffer, which somehow involves a martial arts mentor literally drawn in the image of Pat Morita in The Karate Kid (Fegredo can’t remember whether this was deliberate), and some bit about how Danner “is the hawk and the owl now.” The explanation doesn’t make much sense, nor does it add anything to Danner’s character.
Ultimate Adventures was eventually collected in a trade paperback entitled “One Tin Soldier,” though the classic anti-war folk song/Billy Jack theme doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do with Hank Kipple’s tale. As for the erstwhile sidekick and his mentor, they vanished into the ether, save for a throwaway reference in The Ultimates’ second storyline where Hawk-Owl was discussed as a possible recruit.
It was, in retrospect, a failed experiment more than anything else. It tried to create original characters for the Ultimate Universe, do a comedic super-hero comic, and signal Ron Zimmerman’s transition into the realm of fan-favorite writers who are only slightly pilloried on the Internet. Even Duncan Fegredo himself has few fond memories of it.
And yet, I can’t condemn it as one of the worst Marvel comics ever. There are spectacular failures, and there are mediocrities, and then there are the failed experiments. The reason I elevate the failed experiments above their ilk is that, in their undertaking, they attempt to do something different, to create something new. Granted, the “something new” in this case was a Batman-based family comedy. But it’s the one book in more than a decade of the Ultimate universe that wasn’t some slightly-rejiggered version of a pre-branded name. Okay, it was with a character most audiences would immediately identify as a Batman type, but it was still a character that had never existed in Marvel Comics before.
The great strength of the Ultimate Universe has long been its ability to modernize, simplify and subvert the histories of existing Marvel characters. Its weakest points have been when, like the “regular” Marvel comics, it’s been put into a position where it’s forced to spin the wheels on the characters’ stories, impeding any sense of growth and change.
Ultimate Adventures, for better or for worse, represents a different, potentially fascinating direction that the Ultimate Universe could have gone. It could have been a world that had numerous books with different tones and styles that represented comedy, horror and other story-telling possibilities. Much like Brian Michael Bendis’ collaborations with multiple artists with multiple styles on the sadly short-lived Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, it could have declared a new Ground Zero for titles that were, if not groundbreaking, at least a little more offbeat.
It’s that sense of experimentation that brought creators like Bendis or Matt Fraction or Ed Brubaker to Marvel Comics – strong, unique voices whose backgrounds were far from the typical cape-and-spandex tales. Hell, it’s what resulted in Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and their kin creating the Marvel Universe in the 1960s, revitalizing and redefining the concept of the superhero comic while fusing it with the storytelling techniques they’d honed in a decade-plus of romance and monster books.
Joe Quesada’s belief in Ron Zimmerman might seem ill-founded, and his strengths as a comedy writer might have translated poorly to the paneled page nut I’ve no doubt the thinking behind his hiring was solid, as was the belief in his potential. And as I look at Fegredo’s double-page spread that ends Ultimate Adventures, a gorgeous shot of Hawk-Owl and Woody joyfully leaping into battle, I can’t help but feel that there was a great comic in here, just one that wasn’t fully realized.
As for Ron Zimmerman, he went back to writing for other media. His most recent credits include a consulting producer position on the Disney Channel series Shake It Up! and writing/guest-starring in an episode of the brazen Fox sitcom ‘Til Death where he got into a gunfight with a little person. In 2010, Marvel published his sequel to his Rawhide Kid miniseries, illustrated by the great Howard Chaykin. No one complained much, or said much about it at all.
For Zimmerman, it might have come as a relief.
 The name came from a woodpecker-based costume, though it was originally announced as “Zippy.” I don’t get it either.
 These increasingly public attacks annoyed DC to the extent that they refused to do any more crossovers between their characters’ and Marvel’s while Quesada and Jemas were working at the company. Quesada’s biggest swipe, that DC was failing to follow Marvel’s lead in licensing their lesser-known characters for major film and television projects, actually turned out to be a piece of advice the company followed.
 There actually is a bird called a hawk-owl, but the origin involves young Danner fighting a hawk that’s attacking an owl. Why he named himself after both isn’t exactly clarified in the script, though there were at least three preexisting comic characters called “The Owl” anyway.