Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Christmas Carol-Characters Pt 1

Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol and is described by Dickens thusly:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge...I enjoy the performance, but I always thought Scott looked a bit too well-fed to match Dickens's description.

The three paragraphs that follow continue to explore the character of the character himself, establishing and underlining the secret, self-contained personality of the man.  The physical description, while somewhat allegorical to his personality, accurately paints a picture of the thin, white haired man who cares little for personal comforts and appearance, preferring to be known by reputation alone.  We see in him characteristics common to Dickens's villains more than his heroes, but then Scrooge is not properly a hero, although he is the protagonist of the work.  He does have positive qualities however and Dickens takes care to point them out where appropriate, especially as we observe Scrooge's progress on the path to redemption.
Of these positive qualities we can count Ebenezer Scrooge as a rational man, having little 'fancy' about him, he is also shrewd in business, cunning and quite intelligent.  Dickens says of him, "... or wholly forgetting in the interest he had in what was going on, that his voice made no sound in their ears, he sometimes came out with his guess quite loud, and very often guessed quite right, too; for the sharpest needle, best Whitechapel, warranted not to cut in the eye, was not sharper than Scrooge; blunt as he took it in his head to be."  It can also be said that Scrooge has a sense of humor, if somewhat sardonic, as evidenced by certain comments such as, “’You’re particular, for a shade.’ He was going to say ‘to a shade,’ but substituted this, as more appropriate.”

In Scrooge we see a character who is unlike previous Dickens protagonists in that he is already quite aged when the story begins, however as Carol is shorter than such classics as Oliver Twist by hundreds of pages, we are not dealing with the life and adventures of the protagonist, but merely a single spectacular event in that life, with attendant notes on the future progress of the protagonist.  The story is functional in its presentation of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge with Dickens drawing a picture of a thoroughly unpleasant person that becomes completely changed as a result of the events of the story.  Some critics have suggested that Scrooge's conversion is accomplished too quickly, but I disagree.  Scrooge's time with the spirits is not a fixed period of a single night but is a limbo of sorts during which time Scrooge experiences more than any living man could.  Dickens employs a three part arc to bring his protagonist to his redemption.

The Ghost of Christmas Past:  During Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Past his simple boyhood joy, empathy and sympathy are first re-awakened.  By showing him scenes of his childhood Scrooge is first brought to tears of sadness and then laughter before finally having indignation and anger awakened within him.  Given his solitary personality and his insistence that it is enough that he know his own business without needing to know the business of others, it was necessary to first crack the icy exterior of the man with a flood of memories before attempting to entreat any good nature that may be hiding within.  The Ghost of Christmas Past is somewhat sarcastic at moments and harsh toward the very end of the chapter, but is aloof throughout its encounter with Scrooge.  It is during this chapter that we learn of Scrooge's essential weakness, which is fear.  Scrooge, according to Belle, fears the world and seeks to be beyond it's 'sordid reproach.'

The Ghost of Christmas Present:  The second part of the redemption process and by far the longest of the ghostly encounters is the third chapter featuring Christmas Present.  Christmas Present is a jolly figure who takes Scrooge throughout the world to see and experience the Christmas holidays, finally terminating their journeys after a children's Twelfth Night party.  Christmas Present's method is to awaken in Scrooge a sense of joy and humility by showing him how much there is in the world and his fellow man to love and appreciate, while also showing Scrooge how much there is that needs the helping hand of those fortunate, such as Scrooge himself.  In his past Scrooge was reminded of the growth of his own dark nature and fears.  By contrast Christmas Present plays a friendlier role with our protagonist, yet when he leaves he leaves Scrooge with bitter words and a harsh lesson in the nature of the world seen through the wretched allegorical children "ignorance" and "want".

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present being shown "ignorance" and "want"

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come:  Described as a faceless, voiceless phantom seemingly a burial shroud of a figure, this ghost operates solely through gestures and has no comfort or joy to impart to Scrooge.  The first ghost awakened sympathy in Scrooge and the second joy, but the third offers nothing but fear.  Through this operation is Scrooge finally brought to his full redemption, for upon awakening he is truly a new man, in every way the opposite of his former self.

Dickens's creation of Ebenezer Scrooge has become quite famous in English speaking countries and is arguably his best known character, outstripping Oliver Twist, Pip, and even David Copperfield (American stage illusionists notwithstanding).  This is due in no small part to the character's memorable portrayal in prose and film and the work's theme, which is Christmas itself.  The Internet Repository of Common Knowledge (IRCK, aka Wikipedia) lists 46 actors to have played Scrooge (or an equivalent character in a version of A Christmas Carol) since 1908.  The work is a popular choice for holiday theatre as well (I've seen it twice on stage).  As a result of this popularity the character has become synonymous with misers and curmudgeons.  This is unfortunate as after his conversion, Scrooge becomes, "...as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." Yet perhaps the reasons that people choose to use Scrooge to express the negative aspects of a person are simple: Scrooge spends more time in the book being nasty than he does nice and frankly he's more memorable as the sharp-tongued miser than as the changed man who is, by his own admission, "...as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man."
Whether you prefer him nice or nasty, mean-spirited or warm-hearted, he is in a few short pages one of Dickens's best written and most psychologically satisfying characters and an icon of Christmas as much as trees, dinners, and jolly old elves that bring presents down chimneys and long may he be read and performed to teach us all a lesson about Christmas Spirits.

A Christmas Carol

Many times when we fill out forms on the internet, such as Facebook or MySpace or any number of social sites we are asked questions about our likes and dislikes including “favorite music” and “favorite books”.  I have a hard time of it when it comes to favorite books or authors.  Honestly, what qualifies something as a favorite?  Is it the book I have enjoyed the most or the most often?
In the latter case that would clearly be Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  I have read this book nearly every year of my life since I was in 5th grade somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is a tradition of mine.  It is a ritual.

Do I enjoy it?  Of course I do.  Dickens’s longer works, such as Great Expectations or Oliver Twist (which I confess I never finished reading) are often, in my opinion, superfluous with respect to the word count.  Dickens could turn a phrase, but too often I find that the phrase turned is lost under the word-hoard unleashed upon each chapter.  If brevity is the soul of wit, then Mr. Dickens was too often soulless.

This is not true of A Christmas Carol.  In Carol Dickens demonstrates a grasp of storytelling that belies the apparent size of the book, if one were going by previous works by Boz.  Observe the passage below from the first chapter of the book, where nephew Fred is trying to convince Uncle Scrooge to come to Christmas dinner:

            “Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.”
Scrooge said that he would see him—yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.

To me this is Dickens at his best.  I find the work so thoroughly enjoyable that not only do I read it every year, but I make it a point to watch at least 2 versions of the tale on telly as well (one of which is ALWAYS Scrooged starring the incomparable Bill Murray).  I collect versions of the tale and critique them.  I truly love this story and recommend it to all who enjoy a good tale, easily read and easily enjoyed.

A general introduction to the work

First published in December of 1843, A Christmas Carol was preceded by some of Charles Dickens’s more famous ‘serious’ works such as Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, and Nicholas Nickleby.  Despite being shorter by far than previous works, it was not much different in tone or purpose.  Dickens believed in exposing the class horrors of the Victorian Era in his writing and did so again in Carol.  The character of Ebenezer Scrooge, so well-known to modern literature, was not unlike other ‘villains’ of Boz’s work in that he is a covetous, grasping, hard-hearted businessman; a character ripe for attack from the liberally-minded author who once worked in a bootblack factory as a boy to pay off his father’s debts.  We have every reason to believe that Dickens did believe in goodness of the human spirit, when properly guided of course, and wanted to appeal to the better natures of his readers with his work.

A Christmas Carol is at once a ghost story and a morality play.  Many of the traditions that are now held dear in Commonwealth countries and America owe their popularity to Charles Dickens and his “Ghostly little book” that put a happy secular face on a post-Puritanical solemnity during the Yule-tide.  The influx of European elements from Germany and Scandinavian countries was thoroughly mixed together, like a Christmas pudding, and turned out into the event we know today.  Throughout the book Dickens borrows some of his normal wordy style, but pares it down to a manageable fare for the reader’s feast as he describes with succinct but powerful prose the traditions of “his” England and “his” Christmas, traditions which he bequeathed to us all.

The book is short, a novella really, and divided into 5 chapters (called ‘staves’ in the contents) beginning with “Marley’s Ghost” and ending with “The End of It”.  A quick Google search for “ghost of Christmas (past/present/future)” will yield a plethora of hits, but it is worth noting that within the table of contents Boz refers to these figures as “spirits” of Christmas, not ghosts (they are, however, called ghosts within the chapters themselves, several times).  This is important as these were not meant to be ghosts (the spirits of deceased humans) but indeed ‘spirits’ as is used for supernatural beings that have never been human, such as fairies and gnomes.  These are the “concepts”, the “ideas” of Christmas and thus not fixed to any single human concept, but are part of the ideal, the very quintessence of the season.  Like Father Christmas himself, these are the icons, the beliefs of the people and so more angels and devils than wisps of animating force left behind in the mortal world.  The message is clear, for Dickens was not the sort of man to use a word casually; these are the very stuff of the season itself, boundless and bounded, timeless and timely, glorious and sordid as appropriate.

Join me, won’t you, as we explore A Christmas Carol as a book and in some of its film adaptations in the coming days, and as always, keep your Yule Log lit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Niemand macht Weihnachten wie die Deutschen

More or less.

German Christmas traditions have had a major influence on modern Christmas through Victorian London and Charles Dickens.  I suppose I should say "Germanic" Christmas traditions and include other Teutonic or Nordic groups as well.

Growing up I recall my uncle having a collection of nutcrackers and I even remember seeing smokers in Christmas shops.  My family went to many Christmas shops.  My mother would go to a Christmas shop in the middle of July at a beach.  She really dug Christmas.
Smokers are these neat little incense burners that look like people, usually holding a pipe, and the smoke comes out of their mouths.
A traditional smoker.  The incense smoke comes from the "O" shaped mouth opening
These are functional, which is more than we can say for the nutcrackers.  Nutcrackers are now decorative, collectible items.  I enjoy them.  They are inaction figures indeed.  They also say "Christmas" to us.  Thank you Germany, oh and Tchaikovsky.

A traditional nutcracker
Nutcrackers have been updated over time, but the classic form remains and that is what I like about them.  They stand like little soldiers, brightly colored, but they do not suggest war.  You cannot look a nutcracker and think of war.  Nightmares maybe, but not war.  Of course put these guys on your front line and you might not need to fight.  The enemy, upon seeing 1000 nutcrackers each 7 feet tall and grinning with those dead, dead eyes, marching forward, slowly, inexorably, would likely drop their weapons and fall to the ground crying for mother and whatever god they pray to.
Or maybe just run for their collection of hard to open nuts.  Either way, we win.
If you are looking for nutcrackers you can find them everywhere like Target, Michaels and even Wal Mart, but I did a little poking about online and found some very nice sites.

Erzebirge-Palace is a great website for German handcrafted holiday items, such as nutcrackers and smokers:

What else do we get from Germans?
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, thy pagan roots are covered in presents
Yes, Christmas trees.
From the ancient Jul Log to the Victorian practices of the very German Queen and Prince Consort of England (Victoria and Albert for those who don't Google) the use of living green decorated to symbolize the winter festival is ancient.  The practices of Vicky and Al became the fashion in England and America and now everybody has to have one.  It became very cool in the 60's to have ALUMINUM TREES (with or without COLOR WHEEL!)
Aluminum Tree (my dad still owns one)
Color Wheel using a powerful spot light and rotating translucent plastic disk to cast changing colors over the aluminum strips of the tree (dad has this too)

If that's not going from the sacred to the profane I don't know what is.  Okay, I can think of far worse examples, but this is not the place for that sort of thing.
Lots of good info on this phenomenon (not meme, there was no interwebs back then) here:
These days Christmas trees come in all varieties from live trees a family can cut down themselves (a tradition in my house for many, many years) to cutsey little fiber optic jobs you sit on a table, but we owe this particular tradition where we bring the outdoors into our house, light it up and give it presents to Germany (and by extension the whole Teutonic peoples). Yep, not pagan at all...

Now a celebrity opinion:
What do you think, Johnny Bravo?
I dig them metal trees, man.  I can see my reflection in 'em and man, I'm pretty!
Until next time, keep your tree lit.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First Day of December

Greetings, gourdlings.  Today is the first day of December.  It is also the first night of Hanukkah, so shalom to all my Jewish friends.
It is not yet winter, as that won't happen for weeks, but December marks the beginning of the pre-Christmas attack.
Oh, technically Jul (Yule) has not begun either.

So today, to get us all in the Xmas mood, I'd like to talk about the humble, much maligned fruitcake.
Naughty cake, so naughty, half-naked like that...

Yep, that's it, right there.
Public Christmas Enemy #1.

I like fruitcake.  My wife hates fruitcake.  It is popular to hate fruitcake and yet it is also popular to give and receive the fruitcake.  So what gives?
My mother liked fruitcake and I like fruitcake.  It's been around in one form or another for centuries.  So why, if it is so hated, does it endure?  Were all the fruitcakes in the world made at the same time and the hygroscopic nature of the confection has made them unspoilable such that the same fruitcakes are seen on the shelf every year only to be returned, like so many copies of Dianetics to Scientology HQ, to their point of storage to be put back on the shelves again come November in the good old US of A?  Had the New Orleans levees been made of such cake would Katrina have found herself bitch slapped back into the Gulf of Mexico to sulk?

We can see in the choice of materials for the fruitcake that it is a winter food.  Dried or candied fruit, nuts, alcohol, dense cake.  This is a confection made not with the fresh fruits of the summer and early fall, but the preserved goods that are meant to carry one through the dark part of the year.  It is a filling, hearty cake as well, and the alcohol acts as both preservative and punch.  It is akin to the plum duff, Christmas pudding, and the German stollen.  This cake means business.

Many have probably never tried fruitcake.  It looks unappealing when you see it in a store cut into rectangular solids, bits of candied fruit sliced open like a produce autopsy.  The entire thing looks like it will go into your colon and have a sit in to fight for the rights of cakes everywhere.  Try it.  You might like it.  Fruitcakes, even the grocery store brick-o-cake, have a rich flavor that is sweet, nutty, and a little odd, but pleasant.

In these enlightened times perhaps we feel we don't need the humble fruitcake anymore.  We have greenhouses and genetically altered fruit.  We have refrigeration to store our perishables.  We don't want for things like apples, which we can have year round or oranges.  We don't know the simple joy of getting a fruity treat out of season because our jaded asses are accustomed to it.  Take away our ability to get fruit all year round and we'd make a Federal case of it, for truly it is in the Constitution that we have a Separation-of-Church-and-State-god given right to fresh fruit year round.  So it is no wonder we don't respect the fruitcake.

If you got a fruitcake for a gift you'd think, "Well it's the thought that counts, right?".  Then you'd think that the thought was obviously not a nice one and you might say, "Screw that.  I'm glad I didn't get them a present.  Yeah, bite my crank grandma!"
Which is appalling and you should be ashamed of yourself.
And now for a guest celebrity opinion:  What do you think, Krampus?
I find that the modern human has lost touch with the traditional socio-economic realities of his species over the long-term lifespan, given the overall age of the planet, the changes of human cultures and general drive toward a more materialistic world view, which ironically drives mankind to seek spiritual fulfillment through mock re-creation of lost cultural mores for which there is no proper evidence or grounding.  Um, I mean, "Rahr!" 
Opinions of mythical fertility deities turned devalued holiday icons do not necessarily reflect the opinions and/or beliefs of the management.  That they do, is not necessary but is damned convenient.

So until next time, keep your menorah lit.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Walking Dead on AMC

Greetings Fright Fans!
I've not done a movie or television review as yet.  This is not for any other reason than I haven't really had anything to say in those areas.  I do have something to say now.  I have been watching "The Walking Dead" since it premiered on Halloween night this year.  I've seen 5 episodes and I believe next week's episode is to be the season finale.
So having watched 5/6 of the series, let me now say this:

AMC, fuck you.

There, I've said it.

This is it.  This is the whole bloody show.  Just whinging on and on and on and crying about 'that's not how we do things".  Please, zombies, just eat these people to spare me their bullshit.

This show is boring.  BORING.
It's just boring.  The characters are boring and they whine.  They whine a lot.  Every episode features some misplaced sentiment about 'not becoming' like the zombies by making stupid, emotionally tortured decisions.  Episode two featured our hero, Rick the cop, and a survivor covering themselves in corpse viscera so they would 'smell' like the dead and be able to walk freely among them.  That's a good idea.  Well, it is an interesting idea if not good.
I would have been fine with that bit of vomit-inducing ingenuity, as that is what a zombie flick is all about.
What was pointless and annoying was having Rick take the corpse's wallet and find out who the poor sucker was, then tell the rest of the survivors how he was going to 'tell people' about him.
That right?  Gonna turn water into wine too later?
What a prick.  At least that shit made sense in Fight Club.  Here it was just pretentious bullshit.

I wish that was the only example of such syrupy sentimentality and misplaced humanism.  I wish it was the most egregious example.  It was neither of those things.

If you've watched the series "V" (the new one, not the original) then you might know the character of Kyle Hobbes.  Kyle is this ultra-pretty boy Aussie who is ex SAS, super mercenary badass.  The so-called resistance roped him into their cause to assist them and, you know, train the army.  Yet every time Kyle gives a direction, provides training or is used as an SME, super-FBI agent Blondie tells him that "that's not how we do things" and they all do the opposite of what Kyle says and shit goes wrong.
So just so we understand: expert says go left, resistance doesn't want to become morally bankrupt so they go right, hits wall, bloodies noses, loses member, lather, rinse, repeat.
That's Walking Dead all over.
Each episode is a training manual for how NOT to survive a zombie apocalypse.  That is, when you are not being forced to watch painful interpersonal relationship bullshit that would not even be allowed on a soap opera.
It's just so boring.  Every episode features maybe, grand total, including credits and scenes from last week, 36 seconds of zombies.  If you are very lucky you get to see 2 in 1 episode.
The characters are uninteresting.  I can't care about them at all.  The only one with a functioning brain cell is the brother of the MIA racist neo-Nazi asshat from episode 2 and although he is supposed to be the heartless foil to all the touchy-feely characters, dammit all he's the only one to like.  He's the only one that makes sense ever.

The Walking Dead has the pace of the walking dead and all the brains and verve as well.

It's no "Deadworld", I'll tell ya that.

Oh, "Deadworld"?  It was a comic from the 80's that was revived in the 2000's by Image.  It tells the classic story of a schoolbus full of survivor kids in a world that is in the grips of a zombie apocalypse.  Yeah.  That old story.
Look at that shit.  Gore on the cover, mature label, title is clear and succinct. Just so we are clear, this is not a teaser cover.  This happens in every single issue of this comic.
Only thing is, it was REALLY GOOD.  It used a mixture of humor and horror to tell the story.  It had interesting characters you came to care about and some of them were eaten or otherwise disposed of.  It was in black and white so the gore was aplenty.  Unlike Walking Dead, which fails to have either humor or horror (I'd settle for dramatic tension, but it seems to have forgotten that as well), Deadworld was gritty and tense.
Plus it had King Zombie:
Again, THIS REALLY HAPPENS IN THE BOOK.  No fake out covers or false adverts with a Deadworld product.
There he is.  Killer.  A Harley riding, Marlboro smoking, intelligent zombie agent for the evil forces that were making the world a land of the undead.  King Zombie was the badass villain that drew the readers in.  And he answered the letters page as well.
This guy is so punk it hurts
If Walking Dead were like Deadworld, I'd love it.  Hell, if it were like Romero's work, I'd love it.  As it stands I just don't like it.  It wastes my time.  It is not scary, it is not gory, it is not heroic, tense, dramatic, sexy or escapist fantasy.  It is like real life.  It is like work.  I watch the show and I feel like I've been to work.  I have to work to get anything out of it and I end up thinking about the 500 ways I'd write it better, but it's so banal that I don't even bother.
This is all you are going to get from me.
I thought it might just be slow to start, sort of a slow burning match that leads to a powder keg, but really it is an unimpressive Roman candle that fizzles a bit and occasionally spits out a glowing ball.  Shit, I'll take the sparklers at that rate.

Here's Deadworld one more time, just to cleanse the palette.

Until next time, keep your guns loaded.

Jul Pumpkin in 3, 2, 1...

You might have noticed a change in the background.  I hope you have because this is the new, Winter Holidays 2010 edition of the Jul Pumpkin (formerly known as Celtic Pumpkin, don't worry, it will be again).
Well, it's still Celtic Pumpkin, but let's call it Jul Pumpkin, as a favor to me.

In the pages in the upcoming days I will be looking at Yule, Jul, Christmas, what have you.  The winter holidays!

Look forward to much in depth discussion of things I like including:

A Christmas Carol



Media Reviews

And the usual forays into toys and nonsense.

Until next time, Keep your Tree Lit.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

See-Through Heroes: Bedlam

Continuing from a previous posting about heroes/villains/characters that are, essentially, see-through, I present Bedlam, one-time Chaos Comics character.

Bedlam was a Hopi who committed a little industrial sabotage to aid the tribe, only to accidentally uncover the symbol of Chaos, get it branded on his hand and get his face burned off in the process.  He was charged with a duty to travel throughout time and space battling evil.
You know, that old story.
PC bitches note: When you have a skull for a face you  have little to fear from smoking
Essentially Bedlam is a badarse skull-faced cowboy that battles evil with guns and magic powers.  He was never a major character at Chaos, what with not having his own book, but was very important to the overall storyline of the Chaos Universe itself.  He was also possibly the only character to survive the Chaos world-changing Armageddon event (Chaos's own Crisis On Infinite Earths, if you will) intact.  His ability to move through time, space and realities being the cause of that survival.

I believe a great deal of his charm comes from the fact that he did get so little use.  His only starring appearances being his origin story in Chaos Quarterly #1 and his own one-shot (pictured above).  While the character could be seen playing a variety of support roles throughout the Chaos books, he never warranted his own regular series.  Contrast that to, oh, Wolverine, who is in EVERYTHING EVERY MONTH and still had his own series for YEARS.

For its U.S. release, Deathly Hallows was updated with 150% more Wolverine, guaranteeing an extra 1 MIL sales!

In this picture you can see the Chaos brand in his palm, also it would seem that having one's face burned off permanently paints the nails.  That's handy.
When dealing with see-through characters, or fleshless characters like Bedlam, Skeletor, or Skullfire, we may ask ourselves many logical questions.  Among these questions one might ask, "How does this character see?"
That's a good question.
Bedlam's "eyes" appear to be points of light inside his skull.  If we accept that a person can live with his flesh burned from his skull, empowered by mystic forces of course, then we can bend the rules of physics regarding the nature of vision as reflected light.
This applies to Skeletor as well.
I have no idea what is going on here, but Day-um.  Bedlam as a pirate, Evil Ernie, and, yes, we have a SHARK! in the background.
In most cases the comics just say, "It is not known how (insert character name here) is able to see, but (s)he seems to suffer no debilitating effects as a result of (origin accident)."

Maybe I'm nuking it, but in the Golden Age of comics hero and villain origins were as simple as, "District Attorney Rick Raliegh could no longer stand idly by while criminals went unpunished.  Employing his trained bees and natural flair for wearing tights, he took to the streets to earn a buck as The Red Bee!" (Look him up, I could not make crazy shite like that up)

But then we had the Silver Age and things needed a better explanation than, "Came to Earth in a rocketship, yellow sun, got cool powers."  We needed things to make "Science-Fiction Sense!"  Which means that if you spill a bunch of chemicals on a police scientist and then hit him with a lightning bolt that magical combination of things can make him the fastest man alive.  Otherwise it's just silly, right?
The easy out is, of course, magic.  Or Magic! if you like.
In the modern age, unless you are trying to evoke the glorious Golden Age in spirit or with tongue firmly planted in cheek, you really have to explain things.  You have to know that being a Kryptonian means that your cells are solar batteries and that Rao, the red sun of Krypton, produces wavelengths that do nothing for those batteries but that the wavelengths from a yellow sun, like Sol, overclock those cells and provide abilities, such as heat vision, which is really just a controlled release of solar energy.  Yep.
Fist Fulla Magic (wah wah waaahhh)
So sometimes I like to not have to answer those questions.  The out door?  Yep, Magic!  If I am going to accept that a Hopi can dig open a Chaos! mark in the ground, have his face burned off, get the Chaos! brand, travel through time and space and dimensions battling evil I am not going to quibble about his being able to see or his smoking habits.  At least not this time.
'Scool, Bedlam
Next time we do a See-Through Heroes article, I cannot promise I will be so understanding.
Bedlam: 10 points out of 10 for being cool, creepy and badass all in one.

Until next time, keep your atomic skeletons lit.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

InAction Figures In Action: The coolest thing I have ever seen

Ahoy, shipmates!

Annoying pirate talking notwithstanding, today's InAction Figures post concerns figurines.
Figurines are essentially tiny statues.  Are you holding an action figure, a doll, a miniature or a figurine?
If the item is not articulated it is not an action figure and probably not a doll.
Miniatures include things other than animal and human, such as furniture and automobiles.
Figurines are often larger than "miniatures" (cut the chortling in the back, it is NOT self-evident) as well.

There are a number of companies that produce figurines of all types, some of which are produced for children as playthings, making them toys, but not dolls.

One such company I have mentioned before is Schleich from Germany.  Today I want to feature a few from a French company called Papo (http://www.papo-france.com).  Papo produces hard vinyl toy figurines of a size suitable for small hands.  These figures fall into many categories, such as 'farm animals' and 'knights'.  Papo has a 'pirate' line of figures including classic pirates such as Captain Hook and Blackbeard.  There are also a number of Fantasy Pirates.  Let us look at a few of them:
Death's Head Pirate

A fine looking figure that seems a combination of Ring Wraith and Pirate.  I appreciate the buckle shoes instead of boots (boots are just too overdone in pirate imagery) and the pepperbox pistol is a nice touch.  The rope belt is a bit Jethro-eque however.

Zombie Pirate
Eye patch is a good call, as are the buckle shoes and the sash.  I take points off for wearing a skull and crossbones hat, but add points for the lace cravat.  Dead, but stylish.

Mutant Pirates-These seem somewhat inspired by the general idea of Davy Jones's crew from POTC:DMC, and include THE COOLEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN.

Well, he's a fish, right.  Carrying a trident is a little S&M for a fish, but the one good shoe-one damaged shoe is cool and the small octopus on the shoulder in place of a parrot is just too good not to mention.

The walrus is nice, but I feel for him with a hook hand and a peg leg.  Nice coat, nice pants, great sword.  Looks like he means business, mate.

And now, the moment you have all been waiting for...THE COOLEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN:

Mutant Shark Pirate!
Holy.  Shit.
Let's review this thing of beauty.  First it combines two of my favorite things (I know, I have many 'favorite' things, including skeletons, flaming skeletons, werewolves, hot rods, but my friends know, KNOW, my thing for pirates and sharks, so this is AWESOME).  It is just AWESOME.  Yet I must, despite this, attempt to overcome my awe and find the words...to...review this...SHARK PIRATE!!!
Okay, the boots (despite my previous comments about boots being passe, these work for the figure) are great with the thigh high fold down Francis Drake look.  The waistcoat and blood red cravat are perfectly suited to a shark-man.  The great coat is a nice creamy white, which lends the 'savage killer' of the seas a touch of class (which I believe Old Mr. Whitey truly possesses).  Tooth dagger in one hand and 'fish sword' in the other, makes for a cheeky fantasy touch.  It is clear that the sculptor loved his subject.  This is not some dirty bilge rat, but a gentleman pirate.  Note the 'earring' piercing the dorsal fin (perfect given the lack of external ears on the animal), again lending a touch of class to this Mutant Pirate.  All in all, for coolness,sculpt and execution of design, I give this figure 12 out of 10.  But I might be a bit biased.

Papo's figurines are hand painted, solid and durable.  They are suitable for children but have an appeal to a collector as well.
Oh, and SHARK MAN!

Until next time, dig that shark pirate one more time.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

InAction Figures in Action: 2 Foots Firmly In Place...

1 for the balls, 1 up the arse!

Today I want to talk about an InAction Figure I quite admire made by Reaper Miniatures (great website, go check 'em out): Jonas Kane
I purchased the first and second iterations of Jonas Kane a few years back, and managed to paint them both (I have since lost them, long story that I am not likely to tell), but I never managed to acquire the third version.
The first was called Jonas Kane, Vampire Hunter.  This was a very nice miniature:
Righteous fury personified
Here we see what appears to be a holy warrior, given that he wears a breastplate.  The unadorned cross upheld and the open book, coupled with the facial features (open mouth, intense eyes) suggests that Jonas in in the midst of casting out demons or rebuking the undead.  On his right hip you see a mallet and beneath it, not visible in the picture are stakes.  All in all, this was a good miniature that was easy to paint, as I recall, and full of excitement.

A few years later Reaper produced an updated Jonas Kane:
If the first meant business, then this one is working overtime
Now we see a Jonas Kane that is more warrior and less holy man, but still committed to his iconography.  The holy cross has been traded in for a pike that is clearly a cross plus, that is a cross cum halberd.  We can just imagine Jonas transfixing some poor bloodsucker on the end of his pike while spouting a prayer then beheading the fiend with his trusty sword.  Jonas has added greaves (adorned with crosses, as you can see) and a codpiece (just smart in any event) and still carries the mallet and stakes.  Jonas has not stopped in his righteous fury, as we can see the mouth is still open in a cry of fury and the eyes show determination.

The most recent Jonas Kane, called Jonas Kane, Undead Hunter (note the scope expansion to cover ALL UNDEAD) can be seen below: (Image from Reaper Website, painting NOT done be me)
"Taste my armored boot, in your rotted arse, unclean fiend!"
Now that's InAction IN ACTION!  Marvel at the static kineticism of the sculpt.  Jonas still wears the hooded cloak he has sported since his first appearance, but now he is clad in plate armor from boot to neck, gauntlets and all.  The sword is aflame, no doubt in holy fire and in his left hand he swings a censer, perhaps full of sacred, blessed incense...or patchoulie or something foul like that.  Particularly well done, I believe, are the details.  Our hero stands atop this pile of stones, looking out over a sea of undead (I imagine), or has he retreated here after hours of battle to catch his breath?  The undead crawl relentlessly up to their dooms, but our hero has taken a breath, lit his sacred censer and is about to commence with a high holy arse-stomping the likes of witch no one has seen in this world or the next.  With one foot firmly in the balls of the undead and one firmly up the arse of some vampire groupie, Jonas Kane is one of the greatest InAction Figures I have ever had the pleasure to paint or see.  You just can't get this type of detail and pose combined in a regular, articulated action figure.

Until next time, keep your holy sword lit.

Nothing Says Equality Like See-Through Heroes!

Take a look at the following two comics characters:
Now you might not know it, but one is a brother man and one is the other man, but you can't tell which.  That's the joyous equality of being a skeleton!

I am very interested in characters in comics that are skeletons, or see-through, or some similar idea.  On the left is Ghost Rider, as portrayed by Nick Cage in the film of the same name.  On the right is Mr. Bones, formerly of Helix and Infinity Inc.
Growing up as a young boy, for I was once a young boy, I was easily drawn in when presented with something "cool", such as skulls, or fire, or hot rods.  Perhaps this explains my immediate interest in Ghost Rider when first I saw him.
The first issue of GR I ever got my greedy little hands on, indeed the first I recall seeing was the one seen below:
Flaming bike, flaming skull, sideshow freaks...what more could a young boy want in a comic?
I freely confess, I have not outgrown my interest in skulls, skeletons and the like.  I've toyed, off and on, with the notion of collecting a database of heroes and villains, characters essentially, that fit within the categories of skeleton, see-through or skull for a face (I'm looking at you Skeletor).
So far I've found:
Ghost Rider
Mr. Bones
Atomic Skull (1 and 2)
Doctor Phosphorus
Blazing Skull
Blazing Skull (Skull the Slayer)

So any help in this area would be greatly appreciated.

Until next time, keep your head lit.

Friday, November 5, 2010

InAction Figures in Action: Requiem for a Villain

THE greatest new toy of 1982!
Great heroes need great villains.  A hero is measured by his deeds and in order to do great deeds that hero needs a villain who is every bit as vile as the hero is heroic.  The clash of these two diametrically opposed titans is what draws us into the action and makes us tune in, week after week, month after month, book after book.  Superman has Luthor.  Batman has the Joker.  A hero with lame, second rate villains is often mocked.  By all rights Skeletor, from the Masters of the Universe, should have been one of the greatest villains of all time, and yet he was played false and sold short by Mattel.  Today I examine this ‘could have been’ great in all his plastic glory.

Set the WABAC Machine for 1982…

A young boy shuffles through a local retail store with his mother and grandmother.  Like most young boys he’d rather be elsewhere or at least in the toy section.  Eventually the party makes its way to the toy section and there on an end cap is the first wave of a new toy line from Mattel: Masters of the Universe.  Immediately the boy is drawn to the colorful plastic figures and rushes forward to investigate.  Almost immediately after that he begins the begging/barter process whereby the boy promises all sorts of things that are simply not true in order to obtain a toy.  The mother and grandmother relent and he chooses the single coolest figure on the rack, a blue-bodied, claw-footed, skeleton faced Skeletor…
But he does not go home with this gem, oh no.  Young boys and mothers/grandmothers rarely share the same sense of aesthetics it would seem.  A red-blooded young man is immediately drawn to skulls, monsters, and scenes of rock and roll carnage.  Mothers may be drawn to these things, but not this mother.  The ladies ‘convinced’ the young boy that he would prefer the blonde-haired, nearly naked, Aryan wet-dream “hero” called He-Man.  He-Man?  HE-MAN?!?
Unfortunately this had the effect of distracting the young boy and after reading the accompanying comic book that came with the figure he was happy with the purchase.  It took a few years to get Skeletor and by that time Filmation has produced a cartoon (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe) that made Skeletor seem a simpleton, fool, and worst manager in history.

Here is an example of Skeletor’s management style:
In the desert of Eternia there lies a gem that will allow the possessor to control the entire world.  This item is in the deepest, hottest, most inhospitable part of the desert.  Who, from his vast selection of loyal minions will Skeletor send?
The monkey and the fish-man, that’s who.
Team A, you will be Desert Strike Force Code Name "Poor Choice"
I need to re-iterate here, there will be no water and no trees.  Skeletor will send the monkey and the fish-man every time.  Despite having minions better suited for the task.  Why not send the spitting cobra and the lizard?
Team B, you will be my Snow Serpents!  Now get out there and find my weapons!
Why not send the cyborg and the robot?
Ah, Team C, to the Sea!  Get it?  It's a pun, an Evil Pun!
It’s because at the same time that he needs the desert gem he needs someone to collect a rare clam from the oceans of Eternia and he sent the cyborg and the robot to the bottom of the sea an hour ago for it.  And the reptile people?  They are at the Northern Pole of Eternia, hip deep in snow and ice with the naked yellow chick looking for the lost technology of the ancients. 
All jokes about this woman being 'frigid' are officially in poor taste
He’s just a bad leader is what I’m saying.
And he blames others for his failings.  Honestly, even with the Orko factor handicapping He-Man’s team, Skeletor is consistently calling the wrong plays for the bad guys.
Is that the sort of villain a hero should be facing, the sort of villain that beats himself?
The original packaging gave the characters, the “masters” of the universe titles, such as Savage Henchman for Beast Man or Master of Weapons for Man-At-Arms.  Skeletor’s title was Lord of Destruction!  So again, looking at the toy-based evidence alone we have 1) skull for a face; 2) buff physique; 3) evil clawed bird feet; 4) satanic ram skull staff; 5) pseudo-Roman bone armor; 6) Lord of Destruction!
You really have to expand this to appreciate the effort
How is this guy not the most badass villain ever?
He is the barbarian fantasy equivalent of Doctor Doom, Thanos and Darkseid all rolled into one.  It simply was not the case, however, due to the Filmation cartoons.  In the minicomics that came with the figures Skeletor started out as a competent and interesting villain, but once the cartoon debuted and proved popular the character suffered. 
Anyone familiar with toys will not be surprised to learn that Mattel made multiple variants of Skeletor and He-Man over the years (although thankfully these did not appear in the cartoons) including Battle Armor Skeletor (pretty cool really) with a neat ‘battle damage’ effect and the extremely lame Laser Light Skeletor who is just crap.
This might be the worst toy ever made.  It looks like it was shat into existence.
In 2002 Mattel released a new, updated line of MotU toys (there was a cartoon again) with new sculpts by the Four Horsemen (http://www.fourhorsemen.biz/).  The Skeletor from that line was nothing short of righteous.  Here was the character that we had all dreamed of in the 80’s.  Since any RPG gamer realizes that Skeletor is essentially a lich and that liches are the number one, A, top-level, all time most badass of the undead, this is the Skeletor we deserved.
Have a look at him: leering skull for a face, muscled physique, ram-skull staff, strange boney armor; this guy looks like he means business.
This is a thing of beauty, it is.  So many colors, so much detail, 5 toes per foot...
The updated Skeletor was less the simpering, whiney fool of his previous cartoon incarnations and seemed more comfortable using powerful magic.

Skeletor needed to be a great evil in order that He-Man could be a great good.  Again we draw the comparison to the lich, a spellcaster that works great and dark magics to transcend death itself and continue in its quest for power.  Skeletor just looks badass and his character should have matched it.  In practice he ends up being like Cobra Commander, a poor leader, a poor planner and a whinging twat.  Even Cy-Kill of the Gobots is a more interesting and effective villain.

Mattel released new collector’s editions of figures starting in 2008.  Included in this run in 2009 was Skeletor.  This edition, seen below, is based on his original incarnation from 1982, but updated to a more articulated form.  It is, quite nice, but doesn’t show the evil joy of the Four Horsemen sculpt.  Despite that, I think its retro appeal with updated quality is nice.  The number of points of articulation has been increased dramatically from the original 6 (hip, hip, shoulder, shoulder, waist, neck) with the inclusion of ball and socket joints as well.  This makes the figure poseable, but it is really the sculpt that concerns me.  It is a nice sculpt with the face harkening back to the expressionless 1982 version.  Is that creepier than the demonic 2002?  You decide.

In keeping with the general theme of InAction Figures, I must feature the Skeletor statue sculpted by the Four Horsemen:
Now THAT'S an InAction Figure.  Look at the detail.  Look how he is frozen in a glorious second of motion and action, threatening great harm to any and all who oppose him.  Can't get that from an articulated dolly
Now that is an InAction Figure!  The pose, the sculpt, the entire feeling is a serious threat to good and justice.  This is the guy that used to menace the heroes at Castle Grayskull when I was playing the game, at least in my head it was. 

For more information on Skeletor, including his character origin, its variations and the Keldor connection, you can check the Internet Repository of  Common Knowledge or www.he-man.org.

Until next time, keep your figures static.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

InAction Figures!

I am an adult but I still find myself drawn to toys.  I do not play with toys and haven't bought any for collectors' purposes in quite a while, but I do still enjoy perusing the shelves of a toy store.  I cannot quite explain why this should be but it is and that is enough for me.

I have of late begun to appreciate the static beauty of the miniature far more than the articulation of the action figure.  It is these things that I call InAction Figures.  Ironically the static miniature captures the kinetic spirit of action far better than the articulated Action Figure.  Observe Exhibit A, an action figure.  The articulation leaves noticeable screws visible and the entire thing seems feeble and lacking in action.

Exhibit A:
Note the obvious points of articulation on the figure and the general lack of action 

Now observe Exhibit B, a miniature.  Note that although it lacks articulation it appears frozen in a moment of time, full of action and promise.  The miniature does not suffer from the need for poorly engineered joints that wear out over time.

Exhibit B:
This mini from Reaper Miniatures website is a moment of intense action frozen in time.  Note the feeling of kinetics in the static form.  

The term Action Figure was first coined in 1964 by Hasbro when the company introduced GI Joe, 12 inches of Ken Doll-like toy for young boys.  With this invention Hasbro expanded boys play into the world of dolls, but developed the more masculine term Action Figure to avoid negative stereotyping of femininity.  Boys weren't supposed to play with dolls.  To be fair, the toy soldier predates the action figure by hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.  Boys have long enjoyed small, often detailed, military toys with which to become indoctrinated into the manly joys of armed conflict.  Why, even the holiday nutcrackers represent this fine tradition.  The modern mini, or InAction Figure, is the latest in a long standing tradition.

Exhibit C: Toy Soldier
From the German company Schleich, this figurine is too large to be a miniature and is molded from plastic.  Again note the action frozen in time in this InAction Figure.

Some of the most impressively sculpted action figures of the past 20 years have come from Macfarlane, the creator of Spawn.  Many figures from Macfarlane feature dozens of points of articulation and creative sculpting that any artist should envy.  They are crap when it comes to play.  The fine sculpting goes away when any pose save the packaged pose is attempted as this reveals, often garishly so, the lines where the figure is joined.  Such does not happen with a mini or statue.

Exhibit D:  Hatchett from Macfarlane

Possibly one of the goriest and simultaneously one of the most badass action figures of all time.  The pictured pose is about the only way to stand the figure up without showing the articulation points that ruin the image.

I plan to continue my exploration into the wonderful world of Statics or InAction Figures, as I refer to miniatures and figurines, in the pages of this blog.

Until next time, keep your painted pumpkins pretend lit.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

And now an abrupt change of direction...

There is a relationship between Halloween and Christmas not unlike the relationship enjoyed by the attractions The Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion in the minds of fans of Disney Parks.  While the two are not the same, they share elements and the fans have joined them together, even going so far as to weave the attractions together into a single story in fiction.
So too do some persons, myself included, put Halloween and Christmas together, with a brief stop at Thanksgiving, into a single convivial season.  My former mentor, the late Doctor Stephen Glosecki, once noted in an interview that Halloween marks the beginning of a season of the Earth 'dying' and entering into the dark, cold, winter months that will culminate in Christmas as the main event.  In this manner we can see Halloween and Christmas as constituents of a binary celebration, but one does wish to exclude Thanksgiving from the general festivities.
In America it seems that Thanksgiving marks the official beginning of the Christmas season.  This is not necessarily the appropriate behavior, but it has become the cultural norm and so must be accepted.  The main drawback to such behavior is the potential for Christmas burnout long before the actual event such that we feel glad to be done with it all rather than celebratory.

There are elements in common with the two holidays that I would like to explore as the days go along bringing us through the autumn and into the winter and I will in the pages of this blog.  To begin I will highlight some of the general points I will explore.

Both holidays feature specific traditional foods:
Halloween is tied to harvest imagery with pumpkins, corn, and candy, not to mention bobbing for apples, popcorn balls and soul cakes.  Christmas has loads of traditional foods depending upon the culture in question.  In America turkey and ham are traditional Christmas dinner choices, but many other foods are involved as well.

Both holidays have their sources in pre-Christian holy days that were co-opted by the Church as part of its expansion in days past.

Both holidays features ghosts, of a sort:
Halloween occurs at a period when the worlds of the living and the dead conjoin allowing passage between the two for spirits of all types.  Samhain, also marks the end of Summer and the beginning of the dead time of year.
Christmas features the evergreen, holly and mistletoe, to symbolize eternal life through the dead time.  Dickens gave us a story that was, effectively, a ghost story for Christmas.  Figures like the Krampas, Black Peter, and Father Christmas further add a spooky, sometimes frightening, but always 'spirited' aspect to Christmas.

Both holidays help us to strengthen our spiritual/mental resolve in the often depressing dark times of the wheel of the year:
Revelries of all kinds help humans to survive in a somewhat healthy mental state when faced with the long nights, short days, and cold, dead atmosphere of the winter months.  Halloween gets us out of our homes and into churches, community centers and our neighbor's homes to share in a mutual laugh in the face of fear.  Christmas too brings us out of our homes before the truly cold, dead of winter, when the snows come and we huddle in our homes for warmth.  The jovial nature of Christmas brings us out into the streets to shop, out and into neighborhoods to view the lights decorating businesses and homes, and into the homes of our friends and family members for dinners and parties.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are two holidays when we commonly travel, sometimes great distances, to spend time with our families celebrating with feasting and gift giving.

As the season progresses toward the big day I want to explore various aspects of the Christmas season (or Yule if you prefer) as it is a holiday I enjoy very much for many reasons.  Do stick around, if you will.  And remember, keep your Yule Log lit.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Party at Punkinhaus

Frau Punkinstein and I had the Halloween Party on Saturday the 30th rather than on the Night itself.  This was for simple reasons of practicality.

Below are some pictures of the 'before' set up and a few from the party.  I'm afraid that I am woefully technically inept, which means that several pictures I took simply did not come out at all.  Either that or were so blurry as to be impossible to view without pharmacological assistance.

Spider infested tree-backside

The sacred bonfire, pre-lit.  I freely admit that I had to call on the God Of Rock, who happened to attend the party, to get it going.  Which is just awesome when you think about it.

The front side of spider infested tree...note the creepy egg sac

The unnamed spirit that haunts the corner...much spookier in the dark

Darrin Stephens...our ghost.  This is a great effect and well worth the investment.  The grave spews fog as well.

Unladen food tables...

Facade of house.  Note the witch in the black robe.  Chauncey has been roaming more often, as evidenced by the lean he sports and Rupert (his crow) seems more bedraggled of late. 

Frau Punkinstein, in full Seer Form being menaced by the one, the only CELTIC PUMPKIN!

The Church sends its best and brightest to save the party

And yet the CP lives on!

That was how it started faithful friends.  The thing I had felt menacing the house turned out to be me.  Once manifested fully the party could begin and begin it did.

What will come tonight I wonder?

Now more than ever...keep your pumpkins lit.