Tagged: Harvey Kurtzman

Mike Gold: The Greatest Comic Book Story Ever?

The most ridiculous question I’ve asked myself all week is, is this “the greatest comic book story ever?” Who the hell knows? The answer to that question is in the mind of the beholder, and in the case of my mind, well, I change my mind so fast I voided the warranty long ago.

But… this one is damn close.

When I was but a tiny brat, I fell in love with Mad Magazine. I copped a copy from my sister’s comic book pile, read it, was completely enthralled, and I coerced my mother (I was seven years old at the time) into buying me the then-current issue, #40. By the end of the day, I got her to get me a subscription.

Later on, my sister started dating this guy who was about eight years older than me, my sister being only seven years older. He became aware of my passion for Mad and asked me if I knew the original Mad was, in fact, a comic book. I looked at him as though he had just morphed into Fin Fang Foom. What? A comic book? Yeah, even then I was a serious fanboy. He brought over a copy of Mad #20, one of the last before it became a magazine, and I nearly fainted. Figuring the best way to my sister’s heart was through her brother’s passion, he gave me the issue. It was my first EC comic, and I instantly became a post-event EC Fan-Addict.

In an unrelated incident a couple weeks later, my sister dumped him. I remain grateful, but, well… c’est la vie.

The second story in Mad #20 was titled “Sound Effects!,” and it was drawn by Wally Wood. By this point I had consumed the first three Mad reprint paperbacks and Woody had become my favorite comics artist. At the time I didn’t know I had joined a very, very big club. I didn’t know the writer’s name – of course it was Harvey Kurtzman – but I admired his ability to tell a very clever, very funny story that satirized the very medium in which he was working, that brought out the best in one of the all-time best comics artists… and was written entirely without any dialog whatsoever. One can argue the last panel, but… why? I’d reprint it here, but that would be a spoiler.

Self-satire is tough. It was a strong element in what Kurtzman called “chicken fat humor” which was prevalent at the time on teevee in such shows as Sid Caesar (he did several) and Steve Allen (he did a lot more than just several). All three of these guys were masters at it – and both Caesar and Allen later wrote introductions for sundry Mad reprint books.

I’d take this opportunity to praise Marie Severin’s color art, but if you’ve ever seen an EC comic book or her later work at Marvel, there’s no need. She was one of the absolute best, in a very crowded field of wonderful colorists. Ben Oda’s lettering is outstanding, and, as you can see, it is the very point of this story.

Together, Kurtzman, Wood, Oda and Severin produced magic. The most amazing aspect of this particular saga is, “Sound Effects!” is one of the very, very few Mad comics stories that was not reprinted in the Mad paperbacks of the time. I think it would have worked; obviously, “the usual gang of idiots” did not share that opinion.

“Sound Effects!” was reprinted in the Mad Archives as well as in various reprint books, and I know I am not alone in having them all. Hey, I’m a fan. If you have the desire to procure but one, I recommend you start with Mad’s Original Idiots Wally Wood. It was published way back in 2015 so it should be fairly easily accessible. $15 (at Amazon, at least) for 176 pages of Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman is one of the best bargains in comics, and it will be one of the most entertaining experiences in your life.

Next week: Turning off the lights. Or shooting them out. It will be an interesting week. Happy Thanksgiving!

Martha Thomases: Hef

Hugh Hefner died last week. I have mixed feelings.

Not about him personally. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know anyone who hung out with him, not for any significant amount of time. Since a lot of his business seemed to involve throwing parties at his home, I probably know people who went to a party or two. You probably do, too.

No, I want to talk about Playboy magazine and its legacy.

Playboy began in 1953, just as I did. From the very beginning, it challenged then-current ideas about how people should live (something I didn’t do for another 15 years or so, and not with such great effect). And from the beginning, it made me uncomfortable.

The women in Playboy were beautiful, but that is all they were. And they were beautiful in a very limited way. For decades, they were almost exclusively white, and mostly blonde. This was Hefner’s type, and he’s entitled to it, but, as a kid trying to figure out her place in the world, the Playboy ideal of beauty was just another club that wouldn’t have me.

Even if it did, there wasn’t much for me to do. A woman in Playboy was an accessory to a successful life, just like the cars and stereo equipment and furniture and liquor and clothes. Her placement next to these other accoutrements were a testament to a man’s taste, not affection.

But wait, you say. Nobody forced these women to pose for the magazine (or work in the clubs, or hang out at the Mansion). That is, technically, true. Some worked for Hefner because it sounded like a kick. Some thought it would get them attention from studio executives and therefore help their acting careers. And some (maybe most? I have no idea) did it because it paid better than other jobs they could get.

It says a lot about our society that, during much of Hefner’s tenure at Playboy, the highest-paying jobs available to most women were limited to those genetically blessed and willing to be naked in front of millions of men.

Hefner took great pride in the fact that he published some of the best (mostly male) writers of his time. He also contributed millions of dollars to free speech issues. Therefore, I found it amusing that, when they published an excerpt from Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, he felt it necessary to bowdlerize a sex scene. These are editorial standards, not censorship, and it was absolutely within Playboy’s rights. But it does suggest that they weren’t as uninhibited as they pretended to be.

Feminists didn’t like Hefner, and the feeling was mutual. Some said his support of free speech and reproductive rights made him an ally. Others said his support of those issues merely made him money. Some said the nude photographs were demeaning to women. Some said that criticism of the nude photographs infantilized the women who posed. There were many different kinds of feminist objections to the magazine, and looking at the variety is an interesting history lesson in feminism, intersectionality, and the marketplace of ideas.

Another publishing giant died soon after Hefner. S. I. Newhouse  inherited Conde Nast from his father, and acted as a publisher, not an editor. However, as the person who hired the editors for the various magazines, he had immense power in the perspectives they presented. It is only fair to point out that the Vogue magazines of my youth were as intimidating and shaming as Playboy, glamorizing another body-type I would never match. Conde Nast, however, also published the late, lamented Mademoiselle (where Sylvia Plath worked as an intern!), Glamour and lots of other titles that presented a lot of other points of view and models of behavior.

More recently, Teen Vogue has expanded its coverage far beyond fashion and make-up, into the kinds of informative features I wish I had available to me when I was the target audience (although there was no Teen Vogue then).

I think that Hugh Hefner was a complicated human being, just as I am, just as I suspect you are, Constant Reader. He was not purely good and he was not purely evil. From the outside, he looks like a narcissist who only liked individual women if they had sex with him, were his children, or followed his orders. In that, he is a lot like our current president. Unlike our current president, he actually created something original and made a business out of it, one that supported a lot of people, including writers, including cartoonists, including Harvey Kurtzman.

Which wins him points from me.

Mike Gold: Snappy Skippy Williamson

Skip Williamson (L), Jay Lynch

In this space two weeks ago, I wrote about the death of cartoonist and comix legend Jay Lynch. I noted his half-century friendship with Skip Williamson; despite their physical distance, I don’t think two people could have been closer.

As fate would have it, Skip died eleven days after Jay. Each was 72 years old. For long-time friends of the pair, for long-time fans of the pair – and I count myself among both groups – the timing was crippling. Skip long had heart problems so even though it was shocking, it wasn’t totally unexpected. However, there’s a kind of appropriateness about that timing that makes complete sense.

I won’t repeat their mutual history other than to mention the first comic book they pioneered was Bijou Funnies. Both had contributed to Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! Magazine and, later, to Playboy. Skip’s most revered character was Snappy Sammy Smoot, a hippie take on Ernie Kovacs’ popular character Percy Dovetonsils, only – and incredibly – even more surreal. His Neon Vincent’s Massage Parlor might have been better known as it was published monthly in Playboy, but it was Snappy Sammy Smoot who endured.

In fact, one of Smoot’s final appearances was right here at ComicMix. When we brought back John Ostrander’s fabled Munden’s Bar feature, I asked Skip if he would do our first new story. It has been reprinted in trade paperback and continues to be available here online in our comics section. Skip and I also worked together on many other projects for the Conspiracy Trial (the underground comic Conspiracy Capers was the first comic book with which I was involved; that was in late 1969 and was financed by a one thousand dollar bill I talked Abbie Hoffman into giving me), on the Chicago Seed, for the National Runaway Switchboard, and on various music and radio projects.

Skip’s contributions to Playboy paid off well: he became art director and frequent cover artist at Playboy Press, publisher of many books and paperbacks. It was through this connection that Skip introduced me to Harvey Kurtzman… at the original Chicago Playboy mansion, no less.

Skip maintained the radical political point of view that was typical of the late 60s and early 70s – and he kept it all his life. Physically, as you can see from the photo, Skip actually looked like he drew himself. Not in comics; in real life. Such as it is.

For a while, Skip lived in a nice apartment in Evanston Illinois, just north of the Chicago city limits. From there he would occasionally take LSD and gawk at the folks who lived in next-door Skokie, a town that was known, somewhat undeservedly, for its middle-class lameness. Amazingly, when I moved back to Illinois after my first stint at DC Comics in the late 1970s, I rented Skip’s old apartment. But I wasn’t the one who actually found the apartment, my first wife Ann scouted the place out before I got there. I walked through the flat when it was empty and got a funny vibe, as though I had been there before. I finally realized that I had, and I stayed there nearly nine years until I went back to DC Comics here in the Atlantic Northeast.

A man with a great sense of humor and a truly unique worldview, Skip was a proud father and a wonderful husband. And a swell friend.

In the realm of cartoonists, in addition to the underground crowd populated by such friends as Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton, Kim Deitch, Ralph Reese and Denis Kitchen, Skippy shared the same slice of the comics pie as masters like Jack Cole, Basil Wolverton and Dick Briefer – but, somehow, moreso. Like Ernie Kovacs, Skip believed in the concept of nothing in moderation; at least in cultural terms.

It’s hard to believe Skip and Jay are no longer here. In recent years I’d see them together at various conventions; that’s how us old-timers stay in touch with the rest of the donut shop. But now we’re two stools light.

 •     •     •     •     •

O.K. I’m ending with a personal note. I might sound like I’m whining, but I’m just overwhelmed. We’ve lost a lot of great people in the past two weeks or so. Some, like Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson and Bernie Wrightson, were friends of many decades standing. Others like Dave Hunt were co-workers who I knew and liked, and still others – the unbelievably gifted Jimmy Breslin and the George Washington of American music, Chuck Berry – are people I’ve interviewed and worked with. So it’s been a bit tough here in La Casa del Oro. Michael Davis gave us his Bernie Wrightson story in this space yesterday. We’ve got to stop losing all these great talents, now when we need them the most.

Mike Gold: Reality’s Slippery Slope

HostilemanSeven random thoughts on a post-Valentine’s Day afternoon.

I’ve started to measure time in “DC Comics Reboots.” Usually about four years, give or take. In other words, if Abe Lincoln used that designation his most famous speech with have started “21 DC Comics Reboots ago…” Yes, I know DC insists it’s not a reboot, despite cancelling and replacing their entire superhero line with new versions of the same old thing. And I suppose Superman doesn’t have a Big Red S.

Jughead 4O.K. Jughead is asexual – although I’d bet he won’t be in the CW teevee series. But I ask you this: did Kevin Keller out him by saying so in public at Riverdale High? Don’t get me wrong; that was a great scene and it feels as though the revelation was common knowledge. But, like Martha and Joe before me, I hadn’t thought about asexuals being a class of people subject to routine discrimination. It’s been a while since a mainstream comic book actually lit the flames of thought inside my fevered brainpan.

Deadpool was the Airplane! of superhero movies. Brianna Hildebrand’s scene where she halts the big battle sequence in order to finish texting was brilliant and Stan Lee’s cameo was the finest use of a nonagenarian comic book writer ever. However, I think Stefan Kapicic owes Paul Frees’ estate a check for his use of Boris Badenov’s voice, and at the end where Morena Baccarin worked things out (no spoiler alert), I kind of felt sorry for Detective Jim Gordon. Although, to be fair, Morena’s had a great deal of varied superhero work in recent years.

IDoctor Faten last month’s issue of Doctor Fate – a wonderful and soon-to-be-cancelled New52 series – writer Paul Levitz deployed my favorite verse from the Koran. Yes, sports fans, I actually have a favorite verse from the Koran. Of course, Islam being an organized religion and therefore greatly disorganized, the verse is phrased in a variety of ways and its veracity has been questioned by some. But the line goes “Blessed is he who makes his companions laugh” and I think that’s a great sentiment. Nice job, Paul.

Riddle me this: How many Spider-Men does it take to fill the Marvel Universe? Answer: How many have you got? I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more Spideys right now than Green Lanterns. So stop bitching about the inevitability of concurrent Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers Captains America. That’s only two. Thus far. Oh, wait. Isn’t there a teen-age girl from 2099 or from another, no-longer existent universe? O.K. Three.

Wonder WomanCounting up the number of secret origins devised for Wonder Woman over the past 75 years is akin to defining π to the last decimal point: you’re going to give up or die of old age before you complete your mission. I might have read them all, but I’ve probably read nearly all. And the current one that’s unfolding in Legend of Wonder Woman is, by far, the best thought-out and best realized of the bunch. Kudos to Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon on a thankless job – thankless because it’s not the origin in the upcoming Wonder Woman movie and, therefore, probably will be ignored. I hope not.

Now that Playboy magazine has dropped the tits’n’snatch, the relic from the beat generation has decided to off the cartoons as well. This surprises me only because its two most famous cartoonists, Gahan Wilson and Hugh Hefner, are still alive. Well, in ‘Ner’s case, that’s subject to debate. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that the magazine that regularly gave us the work of Jack Cole, Jules Feiffer, Shel Silverstein, Bobby London, Harvey Kurtzman and Willy Elder will not extend that welcome to a new generation of artists. I’m not sure what Playboy’s place in this world might be, but I’ve been asking that question for several decades now… as have a great, great many of former and current employees and contributors to the publication. It’s not the end of an era; that era ended the day Al Gore learned how to spell “Internet.”

 

Mindy Newell: I Want To Believe

Military Comics 11Sometimes I think I’m living in a comic book world.

Comics have often reflected the events going on in the real world. During World War II, American comics vilified the Axis Triumvirate, i.e., Germany, Italy, and Japan – Superman was fighting a German paratrooper on the cover of Action Comics #43, and Marvel (then known as Timely Comics) presented the All-American hero, Captain America, who, in a story written by and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, punched out Adolf Hitler on the cover of his eponymous first issue, cover-dated March 1941. In Gleason’s Daredevil #1 (July 1941), the red-and-blue hero also took on the Führer, as did the Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner in the autumn of that same year.

The Boy Commandos, again from the team of Kirby and Simon working for DC, were four orphaned kids from the United States, England, France, and the Netherlands. They form an elite fighting unit under the command of Captain Rip Carter to fight the Nazis and appeared on the newsstands in the winter of1942. In Green Lantern #5 (May, 1945), the Emerald Crusader brings a bigoted Army private to Nazi Germany to show the private the rotten fruit of racism. Quality Comics’ Blackhawk first appeared in Military Comics #1, August 1941.

The Japanese didn’t get off easy. In The Nightmares Of Lieutenant Ichi or Juan Posong Gives Ichi The Midnight Jitters was published by U.S. Office of War Information for the Pacific Theater, and secretly circulated in the Philippines to boost morale during the Japanese occupation of country.

During the Korean War, the United States Department of State authorized the Johnstone and Cushing Company to create and publish the comic book Korea My Home, which was a true propaganda masterpiece worthy of Joseph Goebbels. In direct contrast, EC Comics debuted Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales; these comics did not propagandize war as a “field of honor,” but showed the killing fields for what they were – im-not-so-ho, the real reason why EC Comics was attacked and shut down by Congress… although William Gaines, Al Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman, most notably, kept up the good fight by continuing to publish Mad Magazine, the “original” subversive comic magazine for us baby boomers.

But it’s all propaganda, whether you’re on the right or the left of the political 50-yard line.

During the Reagan administration (I have a picture in my mind of Ronnie in the Oval Office ignoring the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and dreaming up “trickle-down economics” and pulling the Marines out of Lebanon while giggling over the gang’s antics in Riverdale and munching on some jelly beans), the CIA got into the business of publishing comics – though it was credited to the fictional “Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” whoever the fuck they were supposed to be – in 1984 with Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery.

Get this – the storyboards were delivered in a Washington, D.C. taxi, where the head of the company received a suitcase full of cash for them. Ooooh, James Bondian skullduggery! The comics were airdropped over Grenada prior to the American invasion of the island, and, according to Wikipedia, “were intended to justify the American intervention in the country by describing the rise of communist forces there and how their presence demands military intervention” and “outlines President Ronald Reagan’s justifications for the invasion: alleged oppression and torture of the local inhabitants, threats to American medical students on the island, and a potential domino effect leading to more Communist governments in the Caribbean.”

Also under Ronald Reagan – he who got away with the Iran-Contra scandal – and the CIA was the 1985 The Freedom Fighter’s Manual, distributed to the Nicaraguan Contras during the fight against the Sandinista government in that country.

This one if fucking unbelievable!

It states that its purpose is that of a “practical guide to liberating Nicaragua from oppression and misery by paralyzing the military-industrial complex of the traitorous Marxist state without having to use special tools and with minimal risk for the combatant,” and instructs the readers on all the “various techniques” the “guerilla fighter” can use to fight the oppressor, up to and including terrorism. Okay, it talked about non-violent protest (work slowdowns, wasting resources), but it also instructed the reader on “minor sabotage, how to set fires with makeshift time fuses, demonstrated the making of Molotov cocktails and using them to firebomb government buildings.”

It also is a political manifesto on the necessity and ultimate goal of guerilla warfare:

“…guerrilla warfare is essentially a political war. Therefore, its area of operations exceeds the territorial limits of conventional warfare, to penetrate the political entity itself: the political animal that Aristotle defined.”

This comic was repackaged and retitled “Afghanistan: The Mujahedeen’s Handbook for Overthrowing the Evil Empire” and redistributed to Osama Bin Laden’s team of freedom fighters in Kabul.

Only kidding!

Propaganda. It’s not just for kids anymore.

 

Harvey Awards Nomination Ballot for 2015 now online

Harvey Awards Nomination Ballot for 2015 now online

new-harvey-logo-web-2012-2The Executive Committees of the Harvey Awards and the Baltimore Comic-Con are proud to present the official Nomination Ballot for this year’s Harvey Awards, honoring work published in the 2014 calendar year. Named in honor of the late Harvey Kurtzman, one of the industry’s most innovative talents, the Harvey Awards recognize outstanding work in comics and sequential art. The 28th Annual Harvey Awards will be presented Saturday, September 26th, 2015 as part of the Baltimore Comic-Con.

Harvey Awards nomination ballots may be submitted using an online form.  If you are a comics professional, you can vote online at harveyawards.org/2015-nomination-ballot/.  This will enable easier and faster methods for the professional community to submit their nominees. Ballots are due for submission by Monday, May 11th, 2014.

Nominations for the Harvey Awards are selected exclusively by creators: those who write, draw, ink, letter, color, design, edit or are otherwise involved in a creative capacity in the comics field. The Harvey Awards are the only industry awards both nominated and selected by the full body of comic book professionals.

This year’s Baltimore Comic-Con will be held September 25-27, 2015. The ceremony and banquet for the Harvey Awards will be held Saturday night, September 26th. Additional details about the Harvey Awards and the awards ceremony will be released over the next few months.

With a history of over 28 years, the last eight in conjunction with the Baltimore Comic-Con, the Harveys recognize outstanding achievements in 22 categories. They are the only industry awards nominated and selected by the full body of comic book professionals. For more information, please visit www.harveyawards.org.

The Baltimore Comic-Con is celebrating its 16th year of bringing the comic book industry to the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area. With a guest list unequaled in the industry, the Baltimore Comic-Con will be held September 25-27, 2015. For more information, please visit www.baltimorecomiccon.com.

Martha Thomases: Comic Without Book

Robin WilliamsLast year, I noticed an ad for Apple. I mean, you can’t not notice them, since they air every few minutes. This one was special, though, quoting someone quoting Walt Whitman. I wondered if it was made by the same agency that made the Patti Smith Levi’s commercial. And I wondered why the unseen narrator sounded so familiar.

It was Robin Williams, from The Dead Poets Society.

As I’m sure you know, Robin Williams died Monday. God, I’m going to miss him

Now is the time when I would like to tell you what good friends we were, but that would be a lie. Instead, I have only loved him since the first times I saw him do his stand-up on television shows. I was lucky enough to see him perform, twice.

The first time, back when John and I were publishing Comedy Magazine (and why isn’t there a Wikipedia page, damn it!), was at a benefit for the First Amendment Improv Group. Our pal, Jane Brucker, was the emcee for the show and she had to vamp for 45 minutes because Williams’ plane was late. By the time he arrived, the audience was exhausted, but he put on a full and energetic show. To this day, I don’t know how I had the strength to get home, because I laughed so much my muscles were sore.

The second time was at a fund-raiser for Michael Dukakis. This was in the days before everybody put everything up on YouTube. It was before YouTube. Which is just as well because no politician could get elected after being endorsed by someone whose act was so filthy.

Williams was a brilliant stand-up, and a manic improviser. You can see a bunch of his genius here, but it’s not the same. He was so immediate, so of-the-moment, that seeing old material doesn’t capture the wallop of seeing it as it happened. It would be like watching old episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. One can admire the craft and the wit, but it’s so much less funny when it isn’t happening now.

Robin Williams was, for a time, one of the biggest (if not the biggest) things in comedy. It is to his everlasting credit that he used his celebrity to draw attention to and raise money for Comic Relief <http://comicrelief.org>, which helped the sick, the homeless, and others in need.

His acting work was less well-respected. Many critics didn’t like what they perceived to be a sentimental streak in some of his performances, especially in films like Patch Adams or Hook. I understand what they say, but disagree in some cases. Hook never fails to make me cry like a baby, although as much for Maggie Smith as for Williams.

My favorites of his movies have comics’ connections. I adored Robert Altman’s Popeye, based on everyone’s favorite spinach-eating sailor with a script by Jules Feiffer. Everyone in the cast chews up the scenery with glee, and there is a sweetness with the movie that one does not often associate with Altman.

I equally love Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. Gilliam, aside from being an integral part of Monty Python, worked with Harvey Kurtzman on Help magazine <http://www.helpmag.com> Williams plays a man driven mad by the murder of his wife, describing himself as “The janitor of god.” Yes, his performance is sentimental. I don’t care.

His television show from last season, The Crazy Ones, wasn’t picked up. He has three movies scheduled to be released in the next year, including a new Night at the Museum.

Sweetness and sentiment are part of the human experience, just like anger and hate. We deny them at our peril. Robin Williams combined them in his work in a way that was cathartic and hilarious.

I only wish it had worked for him.

Editor’s note: Yesterday, Robin Williams’ widow revealed her husband was diagnosed as in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease. He was not suffering from substance abuse issues, but he long had been trying to cope with the disease of depression,

 

Harvey Award 2014 Final Ballot Announced

harvey-logo-nominee

The 2014 Harvey Awards Nominees have been announced with the release of the final ballot. Quantum & Woody leads the nominations with six, followed closely by Hawkeye (five), Daredevil, and Saga (four each).James Asmus got three nominations for writing Q&W.

Named in honor of the late Harvey Kurtzman, one of the industry’s most innovative talents, the Harvey Awards recognize outstanding work in comics and sequential art. They will be presented September 6, 2014 in Baltimore, MD, in conjunction with the Baltimore Comic-Con.

Nominations for the Harvey Awards are selected exclusively by creators – those who write, draw, ink, letter, color, design, edit, or are otherwise involved in a creative capacity in the comics field. They are the only industry awards both nominated and selected by the full body of comic book professionals.

Final ballots are due to the Harvey Awards by Monday, August 18, 2014. If you’re eligible, go vote now!

REVIEW: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The-Secret-Life-of-Walter-Mitty-blu-rayGrowing up in New York meant the secondary channels – WNEW, WOR, WPIX – often ran the same features often enough you came to expect them and knew the films from their frequent advertisements. It’s where I first met Walter Mitty, as portrayed by Danny Kaye in the 1947 adaptation of the James Thurber short story which first appeared in the New Yorker on March 18, 1939. The influential tale is among the most anthologized short stories of the last century and is said to have inspired a young artist named Harvey Kurtzman. As a youngster, I loved the idea of an adult who had these amazing fantasies, meaning when I grew up I could continue to enjoy the fantasies I was imagining rather than doing schoolwork. The movie was fairly faithful to the story while allowing Kaye’s everyman to also sing and pater his way through some sequences, making the character permanently linked to the performer.

Satire and humor authors are often overlooked when examining the great writers of an era and Thurber, beloved as he was, lacked the prestige of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other contemporaries. As a result, his works have been largely forgotten and are rarely taught outside of universities. It’s therefore interesting to note that it took nearly 20 years for a remake of this film and story to reach theaters. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the current edition, had a lengthy gestation period over rights agreements and a variety of high profile directors (Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski) coming and going. Originally conceived as a vehicle for Jim Carrey, it could have been an interesting updating. When Spielberg got to it, he instructed his writers to go back to the source material, a piece of advice I wish had been maintained by screenwriter Steve Conrad.

The remake, which opened to middling notices and so-so box office at Christmastime, is now out on Blu-ray and it’s got such incredible potential that it is ultimately a disappointment. Mitty is now an employee at Life, the venerable picture magazine that was about to go from print to digital and the vital negative needed for the ultimate cover image has gone missing. As a result, Mitty is propelled to search it out, using other negatives from photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) as a guide. Along the way, this average guy facing redundancy has a series of spectacular adventures that fuel his overactive imagination.

Thurber’s Mitty imagined the love of his life, who in the Kaye version (played by Virgina Mayo), intruded on his fantasies and took him on his first “real” adventure, winding up with her. Here, it is Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a fellow staffer facing unemployment who has been the object of his desire. From the get-go you know they will wind up together undercutting some of the emotional journey.

Where Kaye’s Mitty wanted to be a fighter pilot, lawyer, and surgeon, here Ben Stiller’s Mitty is now an explorer, heading for Greenland and tasting rea life rather than looking at the images in Life (get it?). He’s a likeable enough character and you do find yourself rooting for him, but this does not feel like Thurber and the social satire is entirely absent, robbing the film of its chance to be special instead of merely commercial.

The video transfer to Blu-ray is just fine as is the sound. There are a handful of superfluous Deleted, Alternate and Extended Scenes (15:45); The History of Walter Mitty (3:39), which briefly gives Thurber his due; The Look of Life (5:01); That’s a Shark! (5:57), which has Iceland standing in for Greenland; The Music of Walter Mitty (4:01); Icelandic Adventure (3:26); Nordic Casting (3:51); Titles of Walter Mitty (2:49), a look at title designer Kyle Cooper’s playful opening; Sights and Sounds of Production (5:11); Pre-Viz (4:15); “Stay Alive” by Jose Gonzales (4:22); and, Theatrical Trailer (1:55).

Roger Ebert, Behind The Screen

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsThe multitude of Roger Ebert obituaries were wrong. I knew a different guy.

The Roger Ebert I knew was this kid fresh out of college who, after about a year at the Chicago Sun-Times, was pressed into service helping high school newspaper editors improve their craft. I was sports editor at the Niles High West Word, and the guy painstakingly yet affably showed me a slew of techniques that immediately improved my work, stuff that I use to this day, stuff that, as an editor, I share with others.

Just a few years later, the Roger Ebert I knew befriended the “underground” newspaper that employed me, the Chicago Seed (our circulation topped out near 50,000 copies so I always put quotes around “underground”). I was up at the Sun-Times one day in the early 1970s when Roger came into the city room and was mobbed by his fellow staffers, all congratulating him for his just-published piece in Esquire Magazine. He laughed and handed out copies of a different magazine that also carried his by-line, saying he was much more proud of that sale. The magazine was a science fiction digest, Fantastic, edited by the brilliant Ted White. Some people thought Ebert was kidding. Those people were wrong.

Like every other Chicago institution and individual, The Seed had its favorite pizza joint: Pat’s Pizza, on Sheffield about a half-mile north of our office. We shared this passion with Roger, and I would often – surprisingly often – run into him there. The guy knew his pizza joints.

Like his competitor and broadcast partner Gene Siskel, Ebert had strong passions towards the comics medium. When, in 1976, I was among the handful of people who organized the first Chicago Comicon, Roger called to ask if I could line up an interview with Harvey Kurtzman, one of our guests-of-honor. Even though I was familiar with his interest, I was taken aback. In 1976, if the press covered comics at all the headline always contained the words “pow,” “zap,” and/or “crash,” and focused on the imbeciles who would pay $35.00 for a 20-year old piece of crap. Ebert saw comics as an important storytelling medium and Kurtzman as one of its most important auteurs, a view with which I strongly agree. He was one of the first reporters to take us seriously. He was most certainly the first Pulitzer Prize winning reporter to bestow the light of credibility upon our medium.

I more-or-less lost touch with Ebert when I moved out to New York and he became tied up with his television show and his movie festival and such. But I never forgot that important push he gave me back when he was only in his early 20s. And I am forever grateful.

Roger Ebert died Thursday of complications from cancer, after a half-century of a career that can best, and most succently, be described as “two thumbs up.”

Thanks, Roger.