Hurricane Harvey: Comic Relief

As I write this, my wife and I are sitting in a hospital room with our newborn son (say “Hi” to everyone, Eddie) and she just read me a story about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox putting aside their legendary rivalry in order to hold a joint Hurricane Harvey benefit auction. It’s a lovely surprise and it warms the heart. It also makes me think about who else could do such a thing to help people in need. In particular, because of the rich veins of nerdery that flow through my body, I’m thinking about comic books.

DC Vs Marvel 1I know both DC and Marvel Comics have said no to doing any future crossovers, but hear me out.

Right now there are hundreds of thousands of people homeless because their homes, lives, and businesses have been destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. In terms of sheer size, it’s probably going to top Katrina as the worst natural disaster in American history. It may have done so already. I’m honestly not sure. For what I think are obvious reasons, I’ve haven’t been able to watch the news super-closely this week. But what I do know is that rebuilding will take years and potentially billions of dollars to restore the parts of Texas and Louisiana devastated by this storm.

DC Charity CollaborationsBoth Marvel and DC, in the past, have done benefit comics in the wake of tragedy. Marvel put out two different special comics after September 11, 2001. DC teamed up with other publishers after 9/11 and in the wake of last year’s shooting in a Miami nightclub. Over the years, both companies have published special edition comics about things like child abuse, substance abuse, land mines, computer science, literacy, and oral hygiene. It’s not like charity comics are a new thing.

Heroes Marvel 9-11How about a DC/Marvel Harvey benefit book? No huge, universe-shattering event. No years-long buildup or hair pulling over how it effects continuity. Not even any of that stupid, fanboyish, inherently disappointing “who would win in a fight” crapola, since each short story would be about heroes coming together to help people in need instead of seeing which one could punch harder. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to find creators willing to donate the time to do short stories (between five and ten pages, probably, no more), and you’d put together the biggest characters from each publisher:  Superman/Spider-Man, Batman/Iron Man, Wonder Woman/Thor, and — because you know it would put assess in the seats, Deadpool/Harley Quinn.

It would be the best-selling comic book of the century, AND it would raise a much-needed fortune for people in distress.

It’ll probably never happen, I know, but wouldn’t it be awesome to see the two leaders of an industry that makes its money telling stories about heroes set aside their differences so they could actually BE heroes for a change?

PS – Oh, and the capper? The one thing that could make the whole thing even better for long-time comic fans? If they could somehow just call the book”Harvey Comics.” Just saying.

Advertisements

A sound byte for June

foray
June Foray, 1917-2017

It’s been a rough summer for genre fans. Adam West — the first Batman for so many — passed away. We lost George Romero, who made zombies what they are today. Two women who helped make Marvel Comics what it is — Joan Lee and Flo Steinberg — died within weeks of one another. Then last night, as I was going to bed, word broke of the one that — to me — is the harshest blow of all. June Foray died at the age of 99.

Most of you, I think, probably recognized the name as soon as you read it. If you don’t recognize June Foray’s name, though, you certainly know her voice. Or at least one of them, because she had so many.

Rocky_the_flying_squirrel
Rocky the Flying Squirrel

You may know the voice she used as Rocky the Flying Squirrel in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, or the one she used as Moose and Squirrel’s arch-nemesis, Natasha. If you’re a child of the 80s, you may be more familiar with her as Jokey Smurf. Looney Tunes fans know she spent decades as the kindly old Granny who tolerated Sylvester and Tweety, and may also recognize her as Witch Hazel, who occasionally tormented Bugs Bunny. Drastically different from her turn as Witch Hazel, of course, was her turn as Hazel the Witch, who once tormented Donald Duck on a memorable Halloween. And while we’re on the subject of ducks, Ducktales fans may not remember that she voiced Scrooge’s secretary Mrs. Weatherby, but how could they forget that she was also the nefarious Ma Beagle, or the deliciously evil Magica DeSpell?

Granny_Mysteries
Granny

And we’ve only scratched the surface here. Her IMDB credits — all 308 of them — cover a span of 71 years and include Disney films stretching from Cinderella to Mulan, TV cartoons including Garfield and Friends, The Simpsons, The Real Ghostbusters, Mr. Magoo, Dudley Do-Right, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, and even work on live-action television including Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, and The Twilight Zone. The characters she voiced are countless: Martha Wilson, Betsy Ross, Grammi Gummi, May Parker, Mother Nature, Mrs. Santa Claus, Pogo Possum, Red Riding Hood, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and, of course, Barbara Streisand.

Magica
Magica DeSpell

Like many voice actors, when you know that June Foray is the person behind the character, you can hear the similarities between her voices. They are, after all, the children of the same throat. But at the same time, listen to Rocky and listen to Magica. The acting prowess of this woman was remarkable, and it saddens me somewhat that, compared to the other performers who have recently died, reaction to her passing seems somewhat subdued. Not to cast aspersions on any of the others, but I saw so many people talking about how Adam West was a part of their childhood, and now they’re blinking at the name of the woman who was literally the voice of it.

witch hazels
(Left) Witch Hazel, (Right) Hazel the Witch. Totally different.

I think part of the reason is that June Foray, for most of her career, was what you’d call a utility player. She was always there and always great, but she was rarely the star. While Mel Blanc was Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and a trillion others, Foray was the Granny who popped in and out of the cartoon or the Witch that Bugs had to outsmart. She wasn’t the main Smurf or the main Ghostbuster. She wasn’t the Grinch, she was Cindy Lou Who. She was Dudley Do-Right’s girlfriend. And except for Rocky her few leading turns — such as Dorothy Gale in the animated series Off to See the Wizard — are in projects that are largely forgotten.

cindy lou
Cindy Lou Who

None of this can in any way diminish her talent.

Chuck Jones (who directed so many of those cartoons in which she starred) once corrected someone who described her inadequately as “the female Mel Blanc.” Jones replied, “Mel Blanc was the male June Foray.”

The animation community, of course, already knows the scale of the giant who has fallen. The rest of the world should know it too. While there will never be a voice like hers again, we fortunately have enough of her work already to last the rest of our lives. Pop some classic cartoons on today, and listen for a while to the voice that made them whole.

On bats, acceptance, and Adam West

get rid of a bombI have a complicated relationship with Adam West.

This is not to suggest I ever met the man, because I never did. Nor am I going to pretend to be greatly familiar with his body of work beyond the Batman TV series or other roles which were deliberately derivative or satirical of that series. I’m pretty sure the only acting role I ever saw him take where he wasn’t playing Batman, a Batman pastiche, or himself was on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I haven’t even read Burt Ward’s tell-all book about their time making that series, which would at least presumably offer a little more insight into who he was as a person. To me, and by no means to me alone, Adam West was simply Batman, full stop.

But it’s more complicated than that.

When I was a kid, like so many of us, I watched his Batman TV show. And as a child, I loved it. Yes, it was sometimes goofy and garish and sometimes the villain’s plots made absolutely no sense, but hey, it was still Batman. On TV.  This was in the 80s, remember, a time very much unlike today when there are a thousand comic book properties on television at any given time, and even more if you change the channel from the CW. It was great just to see Batman — or any superhero, for that matter — on TV in any form. It was pretty much all I required out of this show.

Then I made a tragic mistake, a mistake that so many of us make in our lives, a mistake that many of you have made, and that still others among you are probably going to make in the future.

I got older.

I was almost 12 when Michael Keaton’s Batman movie was released in 1989. When I saw that, it was a game-changer for little Blake. This was the Batman I wanted to see. This was the Batman I read about in comic books. He was dark. He was brutal. He made people fear him, and at that point that was the only Batman I wanted. It got worse when I read things like The Dark Knight Returns or Year One. Suddenly there was no room in my world for a light-hearted, silly. campy Batman.

Not only that, but I grew irrationally, unreasonably angry at Adam West and Burt Ward for several years for the way their portrayal of Batman and Robin had tainted the reputation of the character for so much of the world. When people who didn’t read comics, people who didn’t know any better, talked about Batman, they talked about the silly costumes and the goofy gadgets. Every time the news said anything at all about comic books, the headline was full of “POW!” and “BAM!” Not only was Batman being disrespected, but the entire art form of comic books was being dragged down and it was all Adam West’s fault.

I know. But bear with me, please.

Then after a few years of this, I did something wise. Something that some of you have hopefully done. Something that, unlike growing older, is by no means guaranteed for all people.

I got perspective.

It started with the works of Carl Barks and Don Rosa, rediscovering them in college. I saw the richness and depth of those stories, and I started to wonder why I had stopped reading them in the first place.

Oh yeah. Because they were Disney comics. And I, of course, was “too old” for such things.

I began to realize that just because something is appropriate for children does not mean that it is inherently without merit. Just because I liked something when I was younger did not prevent me from enjoying or appreciating it today. And so I re-embraced those things I loved — Disney and the Looney Tunes and the Muppets and more. And eventually, I went back and I gave Mr. West’s Batman another look.

To be fair, it’s still not my Batman anymore, but now I get that that’s okay. To be honest, it’s hard to define exactly which Batman is mine because there are so many different versions of him, and so many of them I enjoy. If I have to choose a single incarnation, on most days I’ll probably say my Batman was drawn by Jim Aparo and and written by Chuck Dixon. But that could change depending on which way the wind is blowing. There are so many excellent Batman creators out there, and so many great Batman performers, it seems absurd to limit myself to one. And what’s more, even those I don’t personally connect with, I can appreciate for their place in the mythology. Adam West may not have been my Batman, but I can appreciate the fact that he is Batman for so many people. I can appreciate that his Batman is entirely valid, just as much as Keaton, or Christian Bale, or Ben Affleck, or for that matter Will Arnett, and especially Kevin Conroy. All of their Batmen are as real as any other, and everybody is allowed to have as many Batmen as they want.

But that’s not just true of Batman, is it? How many people, over the years, have said that Lynda Carter was the one and only Wonder Woman? Up until last week, a lot more, probably. But as Gal Gadot has proven so beautifully, so effortlessly, there is absolutely room for others. Christopher Reeve was my Superman, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with George Reeves or Tom Welling or Dean Cain or Henry Cavill. There is room for these legendary characters to go beyond any one interpretation. There is room for everyone’s version, and somebody else having theirs doesn’t make yours bad. (This is not to say there are no bad versions of anything, of course, just that you need a more compelling reason than “It’s not the one I wanted” if you’re going to convince me that it’s bad.)

That was the most important lesson I think, that I learned from Adam West and Batman ‘66. There truly is room for everything.

Well, that, and that some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

Free Comic Book Day 2017

fcbdIt’s almost one of my favorite days of the year, guys! On the first Saturday in May, comic shops across America will be celebrating Free Comic Book Day! Once a year, the comic shops, distributors, and publishers provide cost-free comics to anyone who pops in! For a list of this year’s comics, as well as to find a participating store near you, just head over to the Free Comic Book Day website.

But if you happen to be in the New Orleans area, may I make a suggestion as to where to celebrate? As I’ve been doing for several years now, I’m going to be at BSI Comics in on Severn Avenue in Metairie. The best shops, you see, have taken Free Comic Book Day from a single table of freebies like it was for the first few years, and blown it up into a full-blown mini-convention! Local writers and artists, costume contests, prizes, major sales on comics, graphic novels, toys, and other paraphernalia! Hell, this year BSI is even going to host Jason Carter, aka Marcus Cole from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Babylon 5!

I’ll be there all day with copies of my books for sale ($10 each or all five for $40). Erin will be with me, we’ll try to record a podcast from the store as we’ve done many times, and we’re going to have a blast. We’d love to see you.

And wherever you go, remember, the comics are free for you, but not for the store. They’re made available for a reduced price, but every one of your freebies costs the shop a little money. So show your gratitude — while you’re there, do a little shopping. Find a new graphic novel to try. Get a t-shirt. Do you watch The Walking Dead? Psyched for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Wonder Woman? Are you currently wearing a Yoda t-shirt and posting “May the Fourth Be With You” memes all over Facebook? Then there’s going to be something for you at any shop that’s participating. Find the store nearest you, go out, and have a great time.

How I Went Pokémon Go

pokemongoI’ve never played a Pokémon game. I don’t say this with any sort of value judgment or as an elitist point, I’m just trying to give you a baseline for what I’m about to talk about. I never played the card game, I’ve never owned any handheld unit like a Game Boy or any of its many successors, and I haven’t had a console since the Sega Genesis. I’ve watched a few episodes of one of the cartoons (the first one, I think, from the 90s, which was on before or after something I wanted to watch and I was too lazy to change the channel), and I saw the first movie in the theater because a buddy of mine wanted to see it and paid for a bunch of us to go with him so he didn’t have to go alone. I don’t remember much about the film, but I remember being glad I hadn’t paid for it.

I say all this so that you understand, I didn’t have any real interest when they released Pokémon Go a few days ago. I thought the furor was mildly amusing, cracked a few jokes about it, I figured it would die down. But people kept talking, and some of the things I was hearing were intriguing. And then — and this was my downfall — my wife and brother both started playing the game, and there’s no way I was going to let either of them show me up.

I assume by now most of you reading this, like 95 percent of the civilized world, have played the game and don’t need me to explain what it is. But let me explain why, in just a few days, I think it’s become so damned addictive. I know it’s not a groundbreaking concept — the Augmented Reality Game has been around in one form or another for quite some time, and I’m told that Pokémon Go itself is built on the framework of an earlier game called Ingress. The popularity of the preexisting franchise, however, gave this one a major boost and put it in the hands not only of those who already loved the previous Pokémon games, but also people like myself, who have never really dealt with them before.

Much has been said about the fact that the game forces people to go out into the real world and hunt for Pokémon — in essence, this is a mobile phone game that is tricking people into exercising. Let’s face it, guys, exercising sucks. I totally respect anyone who has the willpower to go out there and do it every day, but I look at them a little sideways when they talk about how great it feels. I exercise–

bulbasaur(Hold on a second, there’s a Bulbasaur in here.)

(Got him.)

As I was saying, I don’t exercise nearly as much as I should, but when I do it, I do it because I know I have to, not because it feels good to go outside in 95-degree heat, walk a mile or two, and then walk home for no apparent reason. This game, this ridiculous game, is giving people a reason to do it. Granted, one would think that improved health would be motivation enough, but clearly it isn’t, not for a hell of a lot of us.

There’s also a social aspect. Since there are people trying to capture the same Pokémon as everyone else, you’re going out and interacting with people. Naturally, there’s a degree of stranger danger to be wary of, there have already been a few news reports about people using the game to lure people and rob them, and for God’s sake, did you hear about that poor girl who was hunting water Pokémon down by the creek and found a dead body? But if you don’t go chasing your Pokémon down any dark alleys, you’ll probably be okay. I’ve seen people playing this game at the mall, walking down the sidewalk… two nights ago Erin and I were at a bar for dinner and to watch the Pirates game, and I heard a girl at a table behind us shout, “He’s just a little bat! He’s just flying there! Don’t pick on him!” (The bar was infested with Zubats, I should have mentioned that.)

ComfotInn
I’ve been farming this station in our hotel for two days.

And oddly enough — here’s one I haven’t heard too many people discuss — there’s a bizarre community aspect to the game as well. I have no idea how the developers of this game decided on the spots for the Pokéstations and Gyms, but they all correspond to real-world landmarks: buildings, churches, police stations, monuments, works of art. In the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh, there are at least four separate Pokéstations corresponding to murals or sculptures, some of which I’ve never noticed before even though I’ve been to that mall a dozen times since I met my Monroeville-native wife. We’re in Pittsburgh right now visiting family, but I’m actually really anxious to get back home to the New Orleans area to see what spots were chosen down there. This game is making people learn about their community as well.

I’m not claiming I’ll ever be a master at this game. I still don’t know exactly what the hell I’m supposed to be doing, other than catching the Pokémon and getting more balls to enable myself to catch still more Pokémon. When I reached Level Five I wound up on the Red Team, and I have no idea what that means except that my friend Kenny joined the Yellow Team, so I presumably have to beat him with a sack full of rusty doorknobs the next time I see him.

Oddish
Dammit, Oddish, you’re worse than Clippy.

(Wait, there’s one on my laptop…)

But somehow, this game landed at exactly the right time. Turning on the news for the past few weeks has been nothing but misery: violence and hatred and the Zika virus and for some reason Fox is still trying to make a Gambit movie… everything horrible about the world has been shoved into our faces. And that’s just globally. Personally, we’ve had family issues we’ve been trying to get resolved (no, I won’t be more specific, but good thoughts and prayers are appreciated) that have put my wife under serious stress over the last few days. This preposterous and unlikely game has been a rare bright spot, something fun and silly that you can use to take your mind off things for a moment no matter where you are.

It’s not perfect, I know. The first time I see some jerk trying to catch Pokémon in a movie theater I’ll want to shove a Jigglypuff up his ass, and I already am preparing a script for what I’m going to say when school starts again and I have students trying to chase around a Squirtle in my classroom. But for now, when it really matters quite a bit…

…it’s a nice, necessary diversion.

I know a few people — friends, even — who have a sincere hatred for the whole Pokémon concept and will likely mock me for even downloading it. I don’t care. I’m into plenty enough nerdy things that I have no right to pick on someone for this game even if I wasn’t playing it. But as a player, I’m enjoying myself, and in a better way than so many other games.

Also, Team Valor for life.