Darth Vader Was Wrong!

In June, 1979, Starlog (tagline: “The Magazine of the Future”) ran an interview with Dave Prowse, the massive British actor who played Darth Vader in Star Wars IV (“A New Hope”).  This interview was done before much production had begun on Star Wars V, “The Empire Strikes Back.”  During the interview, one of Prowse’s answers seems particularly na├»ve, especially in retrospect. 
Starlog: Have they signed you up for any of the future Star Wars sequels? 
Prowse: They’ve offered me Star Wars II and III. As you probably know, Star Wars I, II, and III are actually the fourth, fifth and sixth in the Empire’s chronology. And then they’re going back to do the first three. I’ll do the fifth and sixth, but I probably miss the first because they’ll be going back in Empire history. Then I’ll likely do the second and third. So I could be Star Warsing for the next…10 years?
In fact, Prowse played Darth Vader in the next three movies, but due to production conflicts on both V and VI, the first three movies took nearly 7 years to complete. After that, Lucas backed off Star Wars, and Prowse was not in any of the prequels.  It's also notable that he thought the next five movies could be produced so quickly. To compare, the James Bond films of the 60's were released almost on a yearly basis.

Although Prowse can be seen in many movies, such as A Clockwork Orange, and as the monster in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, his face never appeared in the Star Wars movies.

According to IMDB, when Sebastian Shaw was revealed in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) as the "man behind Darth Vader's mask", Darth Vader became the first recurring role in a movie series to be played by three actors at the same time: body by Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones and face by Sebastian Shaw.

Here's the full interview from Starlog, 1979.


Star Wars Cereal : Breakfast Review

 Normally this blog reviews comics and graphic novels, but this morning is a chance to check out something else: the Star Wars special edition breakfast cereal.

I picked up a box of this at my local Fred Meyer. I first noticed the seriously bad-ass Yoda in the cereal aisle. Then my eyes dropped to the sale sticker: $2.50, and I had to try a box.

From the box label, I imagined the cereal was a Star Wars-version of Lucky Charms, except with Forcefully tasty Lightsabers and marshmallow-y good R2-D2s.  I was unperturbed by the banner that promised "First Ingredient Whole Grain."  Marshmallows, right? So that was a plus.

Next, I scanned for the words "Free Prize Inside!" but I was sorely disappointed. Apparently the two big Gs (General Mills and George Lucas) don't give anything away for free any more.  I also noticed the "Disney" signature in the upper right of the box.  Could this be the pop-culture singularity? Only if it also had Spider-man....

I checked out, ran home with my box, and tore it open.  The cereal itself was surprising. It was more like a non-sugary version of Captain Crunch.  In fact, it reminded me most of a health-food cereal: Barbara's Puffins, except with less crunch.  The shapes are apparently a TIE fighter, a rounded AT-AT, and what I hope is the outline of an X-Wing fighter.
Serving Suggestion

While I munched my breakfast (serving suggestion) I did the Star Wars quiz on the back of the box. I scored 14 out of 15, achieving the rank of Jedi Master.

I had one bowl, and it satisfied me nearly as long as the knock-off Cheerios that I normally have for brekkers.

Bottom line: Marshmallows = excellent. Cereal wasn't bad.  Fun quiz on the back. Bad-ass Yoda a plus.  I might buy the Darth Vader box next time.


2009: The Year in Comics

What did I read in 2009?

Read "The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga". This book is fantastic.

Got "Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Vol. 1" for my birthday. Beautiful! First issues Marvel Comics from Timely. Has the origin of the Human Torch, Namor and other early Timely Comics before they became Marvel Comics.

Read "Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic-Book Heroes 1939-1941". Before superheroes were deconstructed, there were these guys: the Flame, Rex Dexter of Mars, The Comet, and Fletcher Hank's inimitable Stardust.

Speaking of Fletcher Hanks, also read "You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation!". Hanks has an awkward style that grows on you. The stories are fantastic, almost surreal.

Elsewhere on my blog I have a review of "The Beats: A Graphic History."

Also a review of the graphic novel Asterios Polyp

If you have never read The Incal Noir by Mobeius and Alexandro Jodorowsky, I urge you to get it. This odd sci-fi epic may remind you of "The Fifth Element," except for a couple things: the comic came first, the conclusion is so much more satisfying, and there's no Bruce Willis or Christ Tucker. Pure genius!

Go ahead, read "A History Of Violence". This is the book that the movie is based on. Cripes it's gripping! Art is sketchy, but effective. Totally engrossing.

Fleep is described as "a complex and subtle yarn about a young man trapped in a phone booth." It's a short comic of mystery, self-discovery and redemption. Drawn by Jason Shiga, author of The Bookhunter. Shiga consistently tries to take storytelling in comics to the next level, and this work doesn't disappoint.

Elsewhere I also reviewed "Inifinite Typewriters" and "Bayou"

The comic book novels "Soon I Will be Invincible" explores superheroes and villains in a "realistic" world. Funny!
The collection of Wednesday comics. It was interesting to see other artists try the classic DC superheroes. Nice, also, to see something in the format of the Sunday Comics, except worth the newsprint space. I liked the Metamorpho facts section.

I also read:


Review: Robert Moses - The Master Builder of New York City by Christin and Balez

I recently read Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City written by Pierre Christin with art by Olivier Balez.

The story is how Moses, the son of a Jewish-German family of the Haute-Bourgeoisie (money) who was always an outcast in the WASP Ivy-league schools, struggled to make something that mattered. He meets Mrs. Belle Moskowitz, a social activist, who introduces him to Alfred E Smith, governor of New York state.  Moses brings his zeal for building the future to the administration, and learns from Moskowitz how to lobby and politic to get the projects accomplished.

Through his vision, he builds public beaches, parks, swimming pools and airports for New York City, and the surrounding areas.  Part of his vision, however, includes demolishing the tenements of NYC and replacing them with modern apartment housing. He also plans wide highways and freeways to connect all these modern projects. This vision for growth, replacing the old with a newer better version sets up a conflict that is ultimately his downfall.

The book does an excellent job of setting the tone and history for the different eras. Moses's career ran from the 30s to the 60s, and the art is consistent, but clearly represents the styles of each time.  During his lifetime Moses met and worked with many famous men. His public works took place during five mayors of New York, six state governors, and seven presidents, all represented in the book. There's even an interesting scene with Guy Lombardo, apparently a close friend of Moses.

The one caveat is there's not enough dialogue. I'd like to see more scenes set at a personal level. Still, this may have been a choice by Christin, since Moses seemed to work on a grand scale.

The book's final section casts an interesting light on Moses' accomplishments.  His plans to bulldoze SoHo and Washington Square and replace it with a Lower Manhattan Expressway seems shocking in hindsight, but city administrators found it acceptable. It was only due to grassroots opposition, spearheaded by activist Jane Jacobs, that the project was cancelled.  Moses, the original activist visionary, was blocked by a new era's vision for livable cities.

Bottom line: great art, interesting and well-structure biography on the man known as the "master builder" of mid-20th century New York City and surroundings.


A surprise in the letters from Batman #235

Whenever I'm reading old comics I check the Letters to the Editor to see if there's someone I'd recognize. Surprise, in Batman #235 (1972) there are two future comics creators: Bob Rozakis (misspelled in the comic) started working for DC in 1975 as the Answer Man, and Dave Sims began Cerebus in 1977.


Mary Jane and Sniffles in Noteville

Here's my favorite "Mary Jane and Sniffles" story, the one that I started to mention at dinner.  Mary Jane is listening to the radio, but her mother reminds her that it's nap time.  When the girl shuts off the radio, the notes rebel and run away.  As Sniffles reminds here "We've got to get those notes back in your radio or it won't ever play music again."  They discover Noteville, where Mary Jane is tried and sentenced for interrupting the music. It seems like a very odd moral to me.

This story originally ran in Four Color #474 "Mary Jane and Sniffles," but the copy I have is from a giveaway from the Bob White Theatre in Portland, Oregon.  Here's the cover:

Here's the full story. Click on a page to see the larger image.

Is the Comic "Mary Jane & Sniffles" About Drugs?

The other day at dinner I was reminded of a Mary Jane and Sniffles story and started to talk about it when my wife interrupted:

"Mary Jane and Sniffles? That's so obviously marijuana and cocaine. C'mon, it's about drugs, isn't it?"

Well, that's a good question.

If you don't remember, "Mary Jane and Sniffles" stories were found in Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies comics of the 40's and 50's.  Mary Jane is a human girl who has a mouse friend named Sniffles.  When Sniffles wanted to go on an adventure he'd ask Mary Jane to accompany him, and she would make herself small. They would then travel into the miniature world of the forest animals and bugs, or a story book, or some fantasyland where they could solve a crisis. The adventure usually ended with Mary Jane's mother waking her after the crisis was averted.  Sometimes when Mary Jane woke from her adventure she was dazed as if it were a daydream, but often there was some concrete evidence of the episode.

Mary Jane's exact technique for getting small varied.  Originally she sprinkled herself with magic sand, saying "Magic sand, magic sand, make me small at my command!" or sometimes "Oh, magic sand upon me fall, and make me very, very small!"

In 1949, the words became:
"First I shut my eyes real tight,
and then I wish with all my might,
Magic words of Poof, Poof, Piffles,
Make me just as small as Sniffles!"

The magic was external to Mary Jane, since one time when Mary Jane was already asleep, Sniffles took it upon himself to make her small.
"Oh, magic words of Poof Poof Piffles,
Please grant my wish, for I am Sniffles,
Make Mary Jane as small as me,
So Alphabet Land we both can see."

OK, thinking about it, I have to admit there could be some covert drug references there. Maybe I'm influenced by Steve Martin's exhortation to "get small!" which obviously came much later.  Or,  was Mr. Martin was unintentionally recalling Mary Jane?

But looking more closely, there are other possible drug references. Magic sand is conceptually cocaine.

Additionally, Sniffles is on record as having a drinking problem. In his debut, the 1939 short Naughty But Mice, Sniffles has a cold and is searching for a remedy. He eventually stumbles upon an alcoholic cold medicine, drinks it, and becomes intoxicated. 

Even in the 50's Sniffles still liked drinking, as seen by his preference for the punch as this party.

The stories seem feature a lot of mushrooms.  For example, on this cover they are having "tea" under a giant mushroom

Consider too, whether the story is real or hallucinated. When Mary Jane returns from being small she's sometimes groggy or confused, like she has been asleep, or daydreaming.  One time Mary Jane and Sniffles battle some graham cracker animals. When she wakes up it seems obviously a daydream.  Another time Mary Jane awakes and we see her mother on one side of the panel, and Sniffles hiding in the other corner, so they must exist in the same reality.

Although the comic was for kids, kids were not writing & drawing the stories. Chuck Jones, famed director of many Bugs Bunny cartoons, created the idea of Sniffles for the Warner Bros. cartoons in 1939.  Sniffles was designed by Charles Thorson, who also designed Bugs Bunny.  Did either of them want to subvert the youth of America with hidden drug messages?

Probably not. Sniffles faded from cartoons, and didn't seem to get popular until he met Mary Jane in the comics in 1941.  So, Sniffles was named before he met Mary Jane, although it could be that someone in the comics decided to pair them up as a joke.

Many of the post-1951 "Mary Jane and Sniffles" stories were drawn by Al Hubbard, but he's not the Al Hubbard known as the Johnny Appleseed of LSD.  Allan Hubbard had a long career as an animator at Disney, artist on Looney Toons, and then later an artist for Walt Disney's Comics & Stories.   Hubbard's style reminds me of Walt Kelly's. Compare the beetles in the Mary Jane story with Kelly's little Weevil child.

Al Hubbard
Walt Kelly

Hubbard gave Mary Jane has a certain je ne sais quoi, almost an adult allure at times. Take for example her "hep" lingo when talking about be-boppers, or the way she posed and talked.

But Hubbard seemed to avoid the drug references.  For example, whether due to his writing, or from complaints, Hubbard dropped the magic sand, leaving just the words, which Mary Jane would pronounce with her fingers crossed.

To discover the real answer, we have to look at who paired up Sniffles with Mary Jane, and that is the editor/writer Chase Craig. Craig was later known for editing "Magnus, Robot Fighter" at Gold Key. When he started working on the Merrie Melodies comics, he added a lot of backup Warner Brothers characters to the comics for filler. His newlywed bride's name was Mary Jane Green, so he used her name as the inspiration for Sniffles's companion Mary Jane.

So, the answer is No. It's not about drugs, it's about a young comics writer and his post-WWII newlywed bride -- a sweet love story after all.

Although... consider a retcon reboot? A story about Mary Jane as an adult, and the troubling memories she has about her childhood...?


Fort Mentality (Part 3)

Since the beginning of the 21st century, with the omnipresent Internet, the virtual world has become much more explored, perhaps to the abandonment of the physical world. So, it’s interesting to see comics today that touch on this theme of a fort, a secret physical place which plays a pivotal role in the psyche of a group of friends. Two examples are Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys and The Bunker written by Joshua Hale Fialkov and illustrated by Joe Infurnari.

20th Century Boys starts in Japan the summer before Expo ’70.  A group of kids, Kenji, Otcho, Yoshitsune and Maruo, build a fort in an abandoned field and call it their secret base. They read manga, ogle porn, and share secrets and aspirations. Otcho draws a logo for their group, and together they create a comic called The Book of Prophecy where in the future Earth is threatened by plagues, bombings and giant robots controlled by an evil mastermind.  Together, with summer ending and high school looming, the kids wonder about the future. This theme is echoed in both their Book of Prophecy, and their thoughts as they visit the World’s Fair Expo '70 and marvel at the exhibits and rides. The future seems to hold so much promise that they agree if the world is ever threatened they will work together to save it.

The story skips forward to 1999, the turn of the new millennium.  Kenji’s dream of becoming a rock musician has died and he works at a convenience store, occasionally playing guitar, but mostly working and taking care of his baby niece Kanna.  The other kids have had various success in life, one is a lawyer, another a scientist, another is missing.  They are brought together when one of the friends ostensibly commits suicide, although Kenji has doubts. The suicide makes them aware of a mysterious cult figure called "Friend" who is using their childhood logo for his organization.  More than that, events that they described in The Book of Prophecy are actually occurring, and the group believes that Friend is one of their former schoolmates.  On New Years Eve, Friend orchestrates an attack on Tokyo spearheaded by a giant robot, and Kenji and his friends are the only ones who can fight him.

The narrative oscillates in time, between 1970, 2000 and 2015. This gives Urasawa an epic canvas to paint his story, exploring Japanese pop culture of the 70's as well as events that formed the now middle-aged men. The 22-volume story is so packed with pop culture references that the publisher includes footnotes at the end of each book. Like Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, the title itself a reference, in this case a T. Rex song. Other mentions include food, wrestling stars, songs, world events, such as the 1969 moon landing, and the kinds of fads that might last for only a couple months, but stick in a kid’s imagination for the rest of his or her life.  I imagine that Urasawa, as a kid, made a fort in a field, much like the kids in his story, and that stuck with him until he could expend it in this epic comic.

The Bunker has a theme similar to 20th Century Boys, but begins on a dark note. Friends Daniel, Natasha, Heidi, Grady and Billy have place that special to them.  On the eve of graduating from college, they return to that spot to bury a time capsule but instead discover an underground bomb shelter, a bunker – something they didn’t know was there. It contains artifacts that appear to be from the future, and letters from their future selves explaining how they will change the world, possibly bringing about the end of civilization.

Unlike Urasawa’s story, The Bunker starts in the present and moves into the future.  Instead of the metaphorical time travel of flashbacks, the story appears to involve actual time travel.  Like 20th Century Boys the story jumps in time, but it’s much more abrupt, sometimes jumping multiple times per page.  Since it’s about the future, there’s not much nostalgia woven into the story. Like Urasawa, Fialkov explores the bonds of friendship, but not by creating a shared past.  Instead he chooses to begin with immediate conflict. The shocking news in the letters begins an argument that results in Natasha, who has been seeing Daniel, to run off and have sex with Grady. Meanwhile Heidi has to confront the reality that she was molested as a child, which puts a damper on her sex life with Daniel.

Since The Bunker is just beginning with volumes 1 and 2, there seem to be many juicy possible routes for Fialkov’s tale. One of the characters says “apparently there’s going to be a zombie apocalypse…” In volume 1 we learn that one of the group of friends becomes the President of the US and another may be the cause of the apocalypse. And anyone who hears the title is probably reminded of Hitler's F├╝hrerbunker.  This is fertile ground, and it seems to be ready to produce a story of power-struggles, world-shaking science fiction, and possibly an allegory for our post-9/11 isolationist country.

Out of the two comics, I prefer 20th Century Boys.  In The BunkerInfurnari's art is deliberately sketchy, as if it’s still in flux.  In 20th Century Boys the fort is the thing that originally brought them together, and the thing that keeps them together.  Their pact, shared history, and their secret origin all orbit around the sun of the fort that the kids built in a grassy field on a hot summer day.  Urusawa seems to use this as both the instigation and the heart of the story. Without the fort, these 20th century boys would be adrift, without a place of their own. Whereas 20th Century mixes anticipation and anxiety of the future, The Bunker seems much more dystopian.  The discovery of the bunker is what starts to drive them apart, and may ultimately lead to an apocalypse.  This fortification built to protect people becomes the path to destruction.  Does this say something about the shift in our culture in only the past decade?  Have events like 9/11 changed the world such that optimism is no longer an option?

As mentioned, the Internet is so pervasive that kids today spend more time in the virtual world than IRL. Now, when kids build forts they are in a virtual world of Minecraft, and their “domain” is literally a server domain address.  In some ways, I envy them.  The creations are much more impressive, and have a structure that works so much better than having to deal with things like boards, nails, saws and drills.  A couple of kids can get together and construct an amazing world, literally a place of their own.  Is this the next generation’s way of inspiring others to build a fort, a domain, a place of one’s own, over which they have complete control?

What gives me the most optimism is that these are shared forts. Rather than the divisive world of The Bunker, the virtual worlds of Minecraft lean toward a shared world, like 20th Century Boys. Hopefully the 21st century boys and girls will learn, in this way, to play and work and live together.  

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of Fort Mentality here.