Monday, July 18, 2011

Move In Complete...

So, with the posting of the SPACE GHOST piece, the Pops Archive is pretty much done... there may be a few old pieces that I missed that pop up here in the future, but for the most part, this site isn't going to be updated any further. I'm posting this so that anyone stumbling across it while Googling A Charlie Brown Christmas or Comely Covens doesn't think it's one of those Blogger pages that was long abandoned... for new stuff, click on the PopsGustav link to the right, and thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Legends of the Not-So-Dark Knight (Why Space Ghost Deserves Your Respect!)

While he may be primarily known today as a doofus talk show host, to a generation of older fanboys, Space Ghost is a true-blue superhero who, with his teenage partners Jan and Jace (and their space-monkey, Blip) tools around the universe in the Phantom Cruiser, battling the forces of evil with unmatched panache!

As Batmania swept the country in the 1960s, Hanna-Barbera Productions set out to add some animated superheroes to their Saturday morning slate. Designer Alex Toth was given the task of coming up with a “Batman in space,” resulting in the mysterious avenger who could fly, turn invisible, and by way of his forearm-gauntlet power bands, shoot various force rays that could freeze, burn, destroy or pile-drive anything in his way.

Premiering on CBS in 1966, each episode of SPACE GHOST featured two 7-minute adventures sandwiching a DINO BOY tale (about a lad in a prehistoric land). Simple kid stuff, to be sure, but Space Ghost stood apart from the legion of Saturday morning superheroes due to Toth’s sleek design, personified by the inimitable voice of future LAUGH-IN announcer Gary Owens and set to a jazzy soundtrack suitable for slaying insectoid villains.

Merchandising came quickly in the forms of coloring books, puzzles and bubble bath. In 1966, Gold Key Comics produced one issue of a SPACE GHOST comic book and the character appeared in the anthology HANNA-BARBERA SUPER TV HEROES alongside Shazzan (not to be confused with Shazam!), the Galaxy Trio and others. Those tales, however, despite being beautifully drawn, were usually as slight as their animated inspirations.

A bit more depth was found in the 1968 Big Little Book, SPACE GHOST AND THE SORCERESS OF CYBA-3, written by Don Christensen and illustrated by Dan Spiegle (who also drew most of the Gold Key comic stories). In the book, our heroes are tricked into returning the beautiful Queen Satanari (that name shoulda’ been a tip-off) to the planet from which she’d been exiled after using scientifically-enhanced magic to burn its cities and force men to battle to the death!

The growing fear of cartoon violence by hand-wringing watchdog groups put Space Ghost into limbo in 1968, but the character had made too powerful an impact to lay dormant forever.

Marvel Comics’ HANNA-BARBERA TV STARS #3 (1978) included a Space Ghost story, “Pilgreen’s Progress” about an old man flying an electric-powered flivver-ship through space in search of a low-tech world. Written by Mark Evanier (a proficient scripter for comics and TV), this charming tale was the only time Alex Toth ever drew the character in a comic book.

1981 saw Space Ghost return to Saturday mornings on NBC’s SPACE STARS, alongside the Herculoids, Teen Force and Astro and the Space Mutts (yes, the Jetsons’ dog). But the violence-neutered (and poorly-animated) superhero cartoons of that era left little room for any stylized action, and those cartoons are best left forgotten (along with the clunky redesign of SG’s spaceship).

In 1987, Evanier teamed with Toth acolyte Steve Rude to produce a deluxe SPACE GHOST one-shot for Comico in which the heroes battled all of their major adversaries. While beautifully done, it was such a slavish tribute to the original series that it ultimately felt like a wasted opportunity.

And then, in 1994, Space Ghost was resurrected for a new audience in Cartoon Network’s SPACE GHOST: COAST TO COAST, a Dadaist comedy positing the helmeted hero as a clueless talk show host. Alongside enemies / co-hosts Brak, Moltar and Zorak, Space Ghost cracked wise with celebrities, ushering in the Adult Swim era and paving the way for HARVEY BIRDMAN, ATTORNEY AT LAW and THE VENTURE BROS.

The show was a hit, but ironically had a similar effect on Space Ghost that his original inspiration, the ‘60s BATMAN TV show, had on that hero. It took decades (and Tim Burton) for the general non-GEEK populace to think of Batman as anything other than a campy caped crusader. And many old Space Ghost fans were uncomfortable with the new image. Evanier, for example, believes “as much as its makers insisted it was done out of love and respect for the original, it felt the opposite to me.”

But SG:CTC did raise the Astral Avenger’s visibility, and longtime fans could revel in the fact that there was finally a Space Ghost action figure (even if they didn’t display the accompanying talk show desk and mug). In 1997, Archie Comics published a rather forgettable one-shot SPACE GHOST comic set in the original milieu, while DC Comics dedicated numerous issues of their Cartoon Network tie-in comics to the comedic version.

And then, after almost forty years, Space Ghost was finally given a serious comic book treatment; Some say TOO serious. DC Comics’ 2005 SPACE GHOST mini-series presented a grim origin story, in which interplanetary policeman Thaddeus Bach discovers that the force is corrupt, and refuses to play ball. In a scene more suited to the Punisher, Bach’s pregnant wife is murdered and he is left for dead on a desolate planet. Bach is nursed back to health by the alien Salomon who gives him the tools that allow him to become Space Ghost and enact his revenge (begrudgingly picking up Jan and a newly-spelled Jayce along the way).

The story was written by Joe Kelly and painted by Ariel Olivetti in a steroid-infused style that’s more Tom of Finland than Alex Toth. Hyper-realist Alex Ross provided some nice covers, but the look was again at odds with the essence of the character (SG’s diaphanous cape shouldn’t look like real fabric).

The thing is, making Space Ghost angsty and realistic (Blip is nowhere to be found) is as ill-advised as a gritty Captain Marvel or Frank Miller making THE SPIRIT (you heard us). Certainly Space Ghost as a concept is loaded with potential to tell fully fleshed stories, with deeper characterization and MAYBE an origin. But it needs to be FUN, and this series was anything but. Artist / Sculptor RubĂ©n Procopio (who designed a Space Ghost bust for Cartoon Network) recalls Toth’s opinion on the new direction. “As much as I can appreciate the artistic challenge that everyone involved had, my memory of Space Ghost was as a more lighthearted, brighter character. Having gotten to know Alex, I can say that he preferred the characters in a more upbeat, less dark setting.”

So what’s the future hold for the Guardian of the Galaxies? How about a live action SPACE GHOST movie directed by Brad Bird, whose THE INCREDIBLES was a perfect balance of whimsy and superheroics? We cast Bruce Campbell as our square-jawed hero (with Jan, Jace AND BLIP by his side), battling a slinky Spider-Woman (Julianne Moore) and a CG-rendered Zorak! Maybe Gary Owens could even loop the hero’s dialogue, although the legendary voice actor has another idea. “I could play Zorak because that’s how I look in real life.”

It’s surely only a matter of time before someone else tackles the Interstellar Spectre. Mark Evanier summarizes the character’s appeal: “There’s something very primal about him. I remember watching the first episode and thinking he felt like a hero who’d been around forever with a fully developed universe and backstory.” Adds Procopio, “Not to mention those wonderful villains and secondary characters that Alex designed. The show inspired a whole generation of artists.”

In the meantime, fans of the character can geek out to both CTC and the original 1966 series on DVD (the latter of which also features a great documentary on Alex Toth, who died in 2006) and yell along with Gary Owens as he bellows the eponymous battle cry of the coolest space hero ever: SPAAAAAAACE GHOOOOOOOOST!

Sorry, it’s a written law that all articles on the character need to end that way.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I've Got a Bad Feeling About This... (30 Reasons Why STAR WARS Sucks)

I will speak the heresy: I am a lifelong Geek who doesn’t like “Star Wars.” Oh, sure, as a kid, I was obsessed, I had the toys, the comics, the T-shirts and posters. But over time, with perspective, I’ve come to “trust my feelings” that the Star Wars Saga (yes, even the originals) is pretty bad. Come with me, my padawan, as we journey through the internal chronology to discover the poopiness of the Force!

• “The taxation of trade routes to the outlying star systems is in dispute.” Zzzzzzzzz…
• The immaculately-conceived (!!!) young Anakin doesn’t seem overly concerned about leaving his slave-Mom behind on Tatooine, typical of the stilted relationships in these films.
• Boy, Jedi sure have bad hair.
• The discomfiting Watto may not have been intentionally designed as an anti-Semitic stereotype, but he sure comes off as such.
• And of course, Jar-Jar Binks. A CGI personification of George Lucas’ isolation in a universe of Yes-Men (nobody suggested to him this character was a bad idea?), JJ isn’t funny or endearing, he’s annoying (and yes, offensive) enough to make C-3PO seem bearable.

• Enter the immensely dislikable teen Anakin, whose saving grace is that he sounds like Christopher Walken (imagine if Lucas had Walken re-dub James Earl Jones’ dialogue as Vader!).
• The love scenes between Anakin and Padme are cheesier than any romance novel.
• The term, “younglings” is introduced, presumably to make their extermination in the next film a bit more semantically palpable than “Anakin killed all the baby Jedi!”
• Is Palpatine’s secret identity of Darth Sidious really supposed to be a mystery?
• Despite a valiant attempt on the FX crew to make the light saber duel between Yoda and Count Dooku not look silly…. It looks really silly.

• The opening battle over Coruscant is endemic of Lucas’ compulsive drive to fill every frame with sensory overload: too many ships, too many droids, too many explosions, too much music. Make head hurt.
R2-D2 uses a cell phone?
• More shmoopy dialogue between Anakin and Padme. “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo, so long ago when there was nothing but our love!” These characters are as inherently annoying as the homecoming queen and her angry jock boyfriend, a regime that happily never lasts.
• Ultimately, the obviously manic-depressive Anakin is willing to go to the Dark Side because of little more than a bad dream. If they’d have had anti-depressants a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this whole mess could’ve been avoided.
• As always, the climax is amazingly unsatisfying. A perfunctory, mostly dialogue-free montage gives exposition and ties up loose ends (“Have the protocol droid’s mind wiped.”), setting the stage for Episode IV, but there’s no heft. The final shot should’ve been Vader and the Emperor looking at the Death Star construction and gloating over the destruction of the Jedi. Instead we get Owen and Beru looking at the sunset. Sunsets. Suns-set? Whatever.

Luke Skywalker: The whiniest hero in pop culture history (he is his father’s son).
• I’m sorry, but Darth Vader… is silly looking. With his little silver button nose, chicken wire respirator, chest control panel (why didn’t anyone ever just throw a rock at this thing and end his evil reign?) and a belt that evokes a cell-clip-wearing uncle, he makes me chuckle.
Greedo shoots first. Sheesh.
• They couldn’t squeeze in one minute for Princess Leia to mourn her entire PLANET after the Death Star destroys Alderaan? No, “We have no time for our sorrows.” Besides, our screenwriter is inept at conveying human emotion!
• As part of the complete continuity, the film suffers from Obi-Wan’s seeming senility. Despite saving Luke from the Sand People (by waving his arms and shouting?), Kenobi doesn’t seem like he’s been spending the past 20 years watching over the titular New Hope. Obi-Wan doesn’t even seem to remember his Jedi name!
• Oboy, a Leni Riefenstahl homage as climax!

• The stop motion Tauntauns look like something Hermey the Elf would ride.
• Luke and Leia’s smooch is creepy even without knowing they’re siblings (when is George gonna digitally erase that saliva string?).
• Apparently, Jango Fett was the worst shot in the galaxy, as the stormtroopers (assuming they’re clones of the bounty hunter) couldn’t hit the side of a Sandcrawler.
• More retcon problems: Why doesn’t R2-D2 recognize Yoda? Why does Yoda have to tell Obi-Wan “there is another?” And since Palpatine told Vader that he’d killed the pregnant Padme, when did Darth discover he had a son?

• The muppet-like aliens are comically unbelievable. Jabba’s Gamorrean guards seem as threatening as the Great Gonzo. The Sarlacc looks straight outta “Little Shop of Horrors.”
• Artoo’s circular saw extension is as ludicrous as Bat-Shark-Repellant.
• More awkwardly scripted drama: “Luke, you have a sister.” “No shit. Bet it’s Leia.” I’m paraphrasing, but this important plot point is revealed with no impact whatsoever.
Ewoks suck. Also, Endor’s primitive forest world is a very unspectacular setting for the climax of a series that’s called “STAR Wars.”
• Why does every single episode end with people just kinda standing around? There’s not one good final line in any one of these movies, which speaks volumes about the lack of importance placed on dialogue.

Okay, I grant that some of these beefs are more with the state of technology than anything else, and I could forgive the muppet-esque aliens if everything surrounding them didn't likewise feel as fleshed out as an episode of SESAME STREET. I also realize that so-called “Expanded Universe” stories in other media have filled in some of these blanks and even fleshed out the cardboard characterizations, but the movies need to stand on their own. And, with the possible exception of ESB, they don’t.

Still, Lucas acolytes worship the series with a forgiving, religious fervor that frankly baffles me. I realize that writing this piece may put a bounty on my head. I hope they send Bossk. He’s funny.