Tagged: Star Wars

Mindy Newell: The Man of Steel… And Dad

Newell Art 130617Martha Thomases’s column on Friday addressed the sexism and gender issue that is suddenly so rampant in the comics medium and its, ahem, sisters, science fiction and gaming, as I did last week – again.

Sexism and gender issues are nothing new to me in my other life as a registered nurse. Do I have to tell you that nurses have been the targets of sexist bullshit forever? (Female nurses, that is. Male nurses are part of the “club.”) However, these days most hospital administrations have strict “zero tolerance” policies, meaning that any type of hostile behavior, including sexism, is not, well, tolerated. And most of them mean it. If it happens, the perpetrator is usually given a choice – attend a proscribed amount of therapy sessions or be fired, although there are several “behaviors” that will cause immediate termination (such as calling your workmate a “fucking Jew,” which happened to me several years ago and he was out on his butt within the hour). However, if the perpetrator completes the program and still “acts out,” well, say goodbye, asshole. No “three strikes, you’re out.” Oh, and if the asshole doesn’t complete the program, then “make a new plan, Sam.”

Too bad we don’t have a zero tolerance policy in place in comics.

On the other hand, just as Martha (and Emily) pointed out that women are becoming the driving force behind comics, those women coming up behind me in nursing are also becoming the driving force of the nursing profession, standing up and saying, “you’re going to treat me with respect, mister.” And the men are listening.

•     •     •     •     •

I’m not rushing to see Man Of Steel, though I loved Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in The Tudors. Instead I’ve been on a Christopher Reeve binge, watching Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and his director’s cut of Superman II.

Donner and his creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz rewrote the original story and script by Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton, which they felt was too campy (it included a cameo by Telly Savalas as Kojak), as one complete story. As the first film moves towards its climax, Superman diverts the missile headed towards Hackensack-ack-ack-ack-ack, New Jersey – “Lex,” Miss Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine) says, “my mother lives in Hackensack.” Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) just looks at his watch and shakes his head – into space, where it explodes harmlessly…or so we think.

As rewritten by Donner and Mankiewicz, there was to be a coda to the film, in which we see that the nuclear explosion rips open the Phantom Zone and frees General Zod, Ursa, and Nog, followed by a banner that would read “To Be Continued In Superman II.” It was the perfect cliffhanger. But “creative differences” led to Donner’s dismissal by the Salkinds, and Mankiewicz went with him. Richard Lester was hired in his stead, so we got the theatrical version of Superman II, which was an independent sequel, not a continuation (and includes the coda, now moved to the beginning of the film).

There are some glitches in the director’s cut version of Superman II, because not all of the originally shot sequences could be found and restored, but it does include additional scenes between Kal-el and Jor-el, which serve to not only deepen and humanize their relationship, but also strengthen the film’s theme. And it’s not only the relationship between father and son that benefits – the bond between Lois and Superman is further intensified and explored.

Im-not-so-ho, it’s a travesty that Donner and Mankiewicz were unable to bring their true vision to the screen, because both really got the character and the mythos. It’s so apparent that they totally respected the source material, and on the commentary they talk about the plans they had, how they could have created a franchise perhaps equaling Star Wars, because there was just so much there in Superman’s history waiting to be translated to the big screen. The four disc set I have (available on Amazon (here) also includes some nifty extras, such as Reeve’s screen test and the screen tests of many of the actresses – Anne Archer, Leslie Ann Warren, Stockard Channing – being considered for Lois, which at the time was a hungrily sought-after role. (I think Channing’s take on Lois was especially interesting, but she was a bit too “Rizzo,” a bit too Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday.) But the charisma between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in her brilliant screen test is easily apparent – and that test became a key scene in the restoration.

•     •     •     •     •

Tomorrow, as I write this, is Father’s Day.

I was going to go down to South Jersey today to visit my dad in an attempt to avoid the traffic, but I had fucked around all morning, sipping tea, working on the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle – everyone thinks that Sunday’s puzzle is the hardest, but it’s not, it’s Saturday’s that makes you sweat – and listening to NPR…

…and then I read this week’s Entertainment Weekly’s cover story on Superman – EW was not much impressed with Man Of Steel, btw, giving it a “C”…

…and then I sat down at the computer to balance my checkbook before I left and instead played various forms of Solitaire…

…and then boss man Mike Gold called and an hour later we hung up and I looked at the clock and it was coming on 1 P.M. – holy cow!! – and I hadn’t even taken a shower yet.

But it turns out that not going today was a good thing, because my mom just called, and we’re going to take my dad (who’s been living in the rehab/nursing home facility of their complex since his third seizure) over to my brother’s house for a Father’s Day celebration, and my mom – she fell two weeks ago, and although she didn’t break anything, thank God, she is in a lot of pain, and besides, the months since my dad first got sick have not been good for her physically, emotionally, and cognitively – is going to need help getting my dad dressed and ready to go, which really means that I will be the one getting my dad dressed and out.

It’s a blessing and a miracle that I can still hug my dad and see him smile at me and kiss me and call me Mindela* – though to tell you the truth, my real dad, one of the Greatest Generation, the P-51 fighter jock, the man who taught me what integrity and honor really means, is already gone, if you know what I mean – because, to tell you the truth, I didn’t think he would be, and also to tell you the truth, I don’t think he’ll be here when Father’s Day rolls around again.

So fuck the traffic.

*Little Mindy. Adding la (“little”) at the end of a name is a common endearment in Yiddish.




Marc Alan Fishman: Star Wars Sucks – For Now

Marc Alan Fishman: Star Wars Sucks – For Now

Fishman Art 130601Yup. I said it. I’ll say it again. Star Wars? It sucks. Of course I should clarify: I respect the Intellectual Property. I admire George Lucas for spinning a billion dollar franchise out of a single movie – appropriated from so many better films, novels, and concepts. And hell, I own a fair share of Star Wars merchandise (a run of John Ostrander’s Way Better Than Anything On Film comics, a lightsaber, and a handful of vintage videogames). But this past weekend, whilst looking for something to keep on in the background of yet-another drawing marathon, my dial ended up on Episodes I, II, and III.

Given that I recall astutely not liking them in theater, on DVD, or rebroadcast in any incarnation, I’ll freely admit I let them play because I was jonesing for a one-sided fight. And you, my dear readers (who I can plainly see unlocking the safety on your blasters under the table, and preparing to force-pull the ceiling down on top of my head…) get to listen to me rant a wee-bit.

First off, let me parry the obvious incoming attack. Episodes I, II, and III are canon. One is simply not allowed to pretend they didn’t happen. Midichlorians? Happened. Anakin acting like a whiny bitch? Happened. Padme acting worse than a CGI droid? Happened. And no amount of jamming ones fingers in their ears and screaming will make them disappear. Therein lies why I am so adamant at being so blunt in my opinion. By their very nature, this new trilogy drags down the series for me. I think I might be safe to say for many others… this may also be the case.

No matter how good the Clone Wars cartoon may have been… when it ends, you still end up with Episode III. Yes, John Ostrander and a plethora of other amazing writers have contributed to beautifully written comics, novels, and other in-canon fiction. Either way? Episode I, and II are there in living-breathing-CGI. Jar Jar exists, and no comic, video game, or brilliant fanzine will remove him from my mind.

Let me also sidestep your obvious escalation attempt. What about The Matrix, Star Trek, or any number of other brilliant-at-one-point-but-obviously-tainted-by-my-asshat-logic franchises? Perhaps I’m just being a dick, but somehow? I forgive them both. For what it’s worth… the least successful jaunts in each of those large franchises had a given quality to them that still made their respective parent properties still feel valuable. Sure Neo is Jesus, but at least he’s a badass Jesus, right?

The key to my argument comes from Lucas’ own love of technology. In every aspect, those episodes embody what can be so wrong with modern movies and our culture. Lucas opted to slight the artisans who once took his black and white screenplay and made a visceral universe in lieu of videogame artists. Not to slight those who make pixel-art mind you… but even with all the advances of computer-aided movie-making, there’s nary a person I know who doesn’t look at the The Phantom Menace, The Clone Wars, or Revenge of the Sith and not make a fleeting comment on how “it looks like a video game” in a very negative way. Combine with with absolutely wooden performances (from Oscar nominated actors and actresses mind you!), and the new trilogy clearly chose spectacle over heart.

The best examples of Star Wars all share a commonality; they present the fantastic grounded in very human emotions. Lightsabers are cool. X-Wings are too. But find me one person (over the age of 13, to be fair) who prefers Yoda backflipping like a crack-addled spider-monkey to the soul-filled voice and puppet work of Frank Oz? I’ll gladly argue them into submission. The crapulence of I, II, and III degrade IV, V, and VI in ways I wish weren’t true. As I said: you can’t ‘unmake’ them, and therefore everything they set up feels tainted to me.

The fact that they were the product of Lucas, and his team of yes-man make it feel all the worse. It wasn’t as if he’d handed the reigns to a new writer and director, wiped his hands of it, and shrugged off three profitable but largely uncelebrated films. Here, he presented what set up an amazing series of adventures, and pulled back the veil of mystery to uncover a story so dull, it actually weakened existing canon! How I wish I could fear Darth Vader, but now all I see is a whiny douche who had sand in his boots.

Well, they say time heals all wounds. So now, we sit at the event horizon. J.J. Abrams has been given the keys to the castle. While some find his new take on Trek to be more boom-boom than think-bam… it may very well be what Star Wars needs to really move on. A mix of practical effects and CGI (perhaps light on the lens-flares, mmm kay?), blended with original and new casts that take time to put themselves into their roles, and a story that dares to challenge its audience with more than trade politics and council debates could very well be the blaster-shot in the pants the franchise needs to be back on top. For the sake of all who are presently seething at me? I sure hope so.

May the force be with you… ‘cause it certainly ain’t with me.

SUNDAY: John Ostrander

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


Saturday Morning Cartoons: Patton Oswalt’s “Star Wars VII” for the 30th Anniversary of “Return Of The Jedi”

Return Of The Jedi #1

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of Return Of The Jedi and the 36th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, we have something a little bit different for you.

Last month, for an episode of Parks and Recreation, Patton Oswalt ad libbed a seven-minute vision of what Star Wars VII ought to be, complete with the Avengers and several Greek gods. Now his rant has been animated by YouTube user Izac Less:


Oh, and here’s the original:


And consider yourself lucky. If we really wanted to do Saturday morning cartoons to commemorate Return Of The Jedi, we would have gone with this:


Yubnub yourself, buddy.

Mike Gold: Superman’s Two Fathers

Gold Art 130522They still haven’t made me all excited about The Man of Steel, but at least by now we’ve been given the opportunity to see where it’s going. It’s the human story about a guy who isn’t human, superior stranger in a strange land, trapped in a world he could easily remake and he’s as humble as he is confused as he is powerful.

O.K., fine. That doesn’t compensate for the repetitive redundancy and duplicative dynamic of their restarting the franchise and retelling the origin and screwing around with something that’s been around 22 years longer than the 50-star American flag.

Not that I have an attitude about it. Honest, I hope The Man of Steel is thrilling and successful. The word out of Hollywood – a bitchy and petty place on its best day – is that if MOS fails, say bye-bye to the Justice League movie. They’ll just continue to grind out teeny-bopper versions of their characters for The CW, or whatever they’re calling their teevee network this year.

Superman deserves better than the dark self-obsessed trailers we’ve been seeing and, again, I hope the movie transcends their promotion. Back in 1978, before today’s latest Warner Bros. executives could walk (yeah, there was another upheaval in the corporate order last week), Richard Donner did something nobody had ever done before: he treated a major superhero seriously and respectfully as a cultural icon. In the process, he created a whole new genre of motion picture and he wound up making a massive fortune – for Marvel Comics, who, unlike Warner Bros., got the point.

When it comes right down to it, the origin is irrelevant. It’s a macguffin, an excuse upon which to hang a story. Iron Man built himself. Incredible. Spider-Man got bit by a spider. Amazing. The X-Men got themselves born. Uncanny. Now tell us a story worthy of our massive financial investment in your picture because, outside of idle gossip, we don’t truly care how much money you spent on your financial investment. Movie-goers just want to have fun.

This advice comes way too late, but that’s okay. They wouldn’t have listened to me earlier (although the last time they did we saved The Flash’s superhero costume in the teevee series). If Warners wants to reboot the Superman franchise and create a successful DC Comics superhero movie sub-genre, they should follow Donner’s lead and treat their characters seriously and respectfully as cultural icons. Give us a great story and make us care about the characters as they exist today. Keep Kal-El’s backhand off of his forehead.

In other words, get on with it. Stop trying to imitate Star Wars – that’s the wrong genre. Stop imitating Greek tragedy before somebody remembers Lysistrata was a satire. Stop pissing on the past just because you’ve got a big… budget.

Or, failing that, get Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey Jr. to drive a Hummer full of money onto Joss Whedon’s lawn and ring the doorbell. In Hollywood, imitation is the sincerest form of co-optation.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON: Mindy Newell (what?)



REVIEW: Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful CreaturesIn the wake of Star Wars’ massive and surprisingly success, studios went looking for the next Star Wars. We’ve seen this cycle again and again, which has led to some good things (the revival of Star Trek in 1979) and some bad (the original Battlestar Galactica). In the wake of Stephanie Meyer’s perplexingly popular Twilight, publishers and film studios alike have been demanding the next Twilight. Hungry authors have been more than happy to fill the order with way too many urban fantasies reading like made-to-order hash. What everyone loses sight of is that Star Wars and Twilight each staked out territory that had not been overly mined in the period before their arrival. So, what makes any of the imitators succeed is how well executed it is and how much the formula is given fresh ingredients to keep it from feeling like warmed up leftovers.

In 2009, authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl admittedly tried to cash in on the craze and came up with Beautiful Creatures, which turned the formula on its head and eschewed vampires and werewolves for witches with a dash of legacy tossed in. The book also worked because they brought a level of craft to the writing with some terrific first-person narration and characterization that brought the world to life. It was popular enough to earn sequels comprising the four volume Caster Chronicles.


Warner Bros., eager to find a franchise of its own to rival Twilight and replace the failed Golden Compass, snapped this up and released the filmed adaptation in February. It met with mediocre reviews and ho hum box office, dooming prospects for sequels. The movie is out tomorrow from Warner Home Video in their combo pack (Blu-ray, DVD, Ultraviolet).


The basic story remains the same and the film itself is not bad, but fails to properly capture the tone of the book. Considering this was written and directed by Richard LaGravenese this is surprising given how engaging his Fisher King script was and his previous experience with fantasy, writing the screenplay for The Voyage of the Dawn Traeder.

Wisely, he cast the film with relative unknowns in the lead and surrounded them with veteran presences who were not such Big Names that they overwhelmed the film’s focal point. Alden Ehrenrich and Alice Englert look and act like teens, characters trapped in their surroundings, one trying to get out, the other to fit in. Gatlin, South Carolina is like many other small towns so the newcomer, Alice’s Lena, is immediately the subject of gossip and made to feel unwelcome. All Alden’s Ethan wants is to graduate and say goodbye to his hometown. However, he’s also been plagued with nightmares featuring a girl, who now looks remarkably like Lena.

sm-0219-017f-film.rw_s300Ethan wants to get to know the newcomer, trying to figure out their obvious connection but is thwarted by her father Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), Mavis (Emma Thompson) and cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum). The creepy family turns out to be one of Casters (as in spellcasters or witches and warlocks) each trying to influence Lena who is reaching the point where she decides if she wants to be a Good Witch or a Bad Witch.

That the Duchannes clan uses magic sets up some interesting themes about magic and religion, faith and love, but it’s all on the surface. The classmates think the family comes from the local Hellmouth and everyone takes sides, with no one straddling a middle ground, robbing the film of a chance to, ahem, stake out some fresh storytelling territory.

Beautiful Creatures Rossum

The novel explores the relationships far better than the film, which is a shame given the rich cast, who largely go wasted. Thompson’s Sarafine (where do they find these odd names?) arrives some 45 minutes into the story and does little while Rossum is deliciously sly and sexy but has nowhere near enough screen time. Then there’s poor Viola Davis who is bookkeeper to Ethan’s family and a secret caster librarian. Such potential. Such a waste.

The video transfer is serviceable although unspectacular and the sound is perfectly fine so this makes for a satisfying home viewing experience. For something intended as the beginning of a new franchise, one would have hoped for more interesting assortment of bonus features but much as the book was made to order, so are these featurettes.

“Book to Screen” (3:58) briefly covers the adaptation process and I wanted to hear more from LaGravenese about the choices he made; “The Casters” (3:22) is another too brief chat with the lead teens and their thoughts on the characters; “Between Two Worlds” (4:17) uses the rest of the cast in similar conversation; “Alternate Worlds” (5:17) gives us a look at the special effects; “Designing the Costumes” (3:51); and, four deleted scenes (8:10), none of which are missed. You also get the theatrical trailers which imply the film is broader than it actually turns out to be.

John Ostrander: Improving On The Legends

39583There’s a constant desire these days, it appears, to try to improve on existing works. That’s not a bad idea except when it is a bad idea. A good character, a good concept, that’s been around for a while needs to have the barnacles taken off every so often to make it fresh and work better. Movies adapted from comics have to take a good look at the source material and then tweak and change it to make it work for the big/small screen.

For me, the problem comes when the concept is changed willy-nilly until you can no longer recognize it. When J.J. Abrams re-booted the Star Trek franchise a few years back, I was dubious but I genuinely enjoyed the result (as of this writing, I haven’t seen the sequel). I can understand many hardcore Trek fans not sharing my enthusiasm. For them, Abrams wandered too far from the zeitgeist of Star Trek. I think it was nephew Bill who said to me, “I love Star Wars. But if I wanted to watch Star Wars, I’d watch Star Wars. This is Star Trek.” (He’ll get his opportunity to see an Abrams Star Wars film in the future, if he’s so inclined.)

We see it all the time in comics. Characters are re-imagined on a constant basis. The only constant is change, it would seem. Change for the sake of change, however, is not always a good plan.

I’ve been as guilty of it as the next writer. Years ago, Marvel approached me with coming up with a new pitch for The Punisher. The fans had gotten burned out with the multitude of Punisher titles and the concept was moribund.

I’ll be honest; I wasn’t much of a Punisher fan. I felt he was one-dimensional and Frank Castle had wiped out enough Mafiosi over the years to populate a small city. I told them I’d try to come up with something and what I came up with was – Castle joins a Mafia family. I thought they’d never go for it, but they did.

Different? You bet. Wrong? Yup. Did the readers buy it? Nope. It wasn’t The Punisher. I had wandered off the essential concept.

I wasn’t on the book all that long (18 issues) and, late in the run, the concept of Castle switching sides was dropped and we played a different game – Castle, as a result of an explosion, had lost his memory. He didn’t know he was the Punisher, he couldn’t remember his family being killed, but he still had the same skills, the same instincts. Frank Castle was still The Punisher although he didn’t know it. This worked better but the series was cancelled before we could get too far; in fact, we wound it up in Heroes For Hire that I was scripting at the time. Perhaps if we had gone with the amnesia angle from the start, it might have worked better.

A revamp or a remake works if you can define what makes a given character to be that character. You want to get down to the basics, not ignore them. For example, we’ve seen in recent years three different versions of Sherlock Holmes, two set in modern times. They all work more or less because they all keep key elements of the concept.

Sometimes a revamp can be quite radical. Late in my run on GrimJack, I booted the character down his own timeline and into a new body, a new persona and a whole new supporting cast. His soul was the same but it gave me, and the reader, a chance to look at the character with fresh eyes. To my mind, it stayed true to the concept of the character and the location.

My rule of thumb: if you look at a character after a revamp and you could simply give the character another name, then you’ve wandered off the concept. So long as you remain true to the basic ideas that makes a given character unique until him/herself, then it doesn’t matter how radical their evolution. First, they have to be true to themselves.




The Buck Starts Here!

Cover Art: Howard Chaykin
Art: Howard Chaykin

Hermes Press has released the first cover for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a four-issue mini-series written and drawn by Howard Chaykin premiering August 2013.

Here’s how Hermes Press describes the book:

“Before Star Trek and Star Wars, Buck Rogers captivated audiences around the world and made science fiction a national obsession. Now, over 80 years after the creation of the newspaper strip that became a household word, Howard Chaykin has returned the character and his universe back to basics: Buck Rogers, former World War I ace is accidentally suspended in time only to awaken to a new and different earth, 500 years in the future, fragmented by war and ruled by an omnipotent force — the Chinese. Now, Buck along with Colonel Wilma Deering, begin a new fight, to free the United States!”

Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

ray_harryhausenHe brought out dreams to life.

Raymond “Ray” Harryhausen (June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013) died today at age 92, leaving behind a legacy of pioneering special effects work and a filmography that has deeply influenced writers, artists, and filmmakers for generations.

Dubbed by Starlog as “The Man Who Work Miracles”, he was one of the most influential movie makers who was himself inspired by Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation in King Kong. He took O’Brien’s efforts and improved upon them, branding it as Dynamation.

mjy0090Although he resided in England for the majority of his adult life, Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles. King Kong was the spark that set him on a course towards a career in film, meticulously creating miniatures that could be photographed a few frames at a time followed by the tiniest of movements, followed by more frames, until the model appeared to move across the screen. This was done with artistry and engineering know-how long before Industrial Light and Magic brought computer-aided technology to the process.

When the legend met the student, they bonded quickly and Harryhausen was given pointers to improve his work through trial, error and art classes. Along the way, he befriended fellow Angelino Ray Bradbury, just at the beginning of his fantastic career. Little wonder they both belonged to Forrest J. Ackerman’s Science Fiction League, linking the trio until their deaths.

beast-from-20000-fathoms02Like O’Brien, Harryhausen strove for realistic creatures to confront the live-action performers, drawing inspiration from the myths and legends familiar to people the world over. He began his professional career with George Pal, contributing to his series of Puppetoon shorts. World War II intervened and Harryhausen was assigned to the Special Services Division, continuing to make movies. This proved an invaluable tutorial and lab for experimenting with his animation techniques.

Soon after leaving the service, he embarked on the first of several dream projects that would dot his career. He did some demo footage based on H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds but the project never materialized. Instead, he was hired to work on Mighty Joe Young, letting the master and student work together and earning them earning them the Academy Award in 1949 for best Special Effects. Harryhausen was hired solo to provide the effects to The Monster from Beneath the Sea. When a connection was made to Bradbury’s story “The Fog Horn”, the film was renamed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the story’s original title and was released to acclaim and box office success in 1953.

By this point, Harryhausen had developed the technique that saw him shoot the actors then animate the creatures, splitting the image between foreground and background, the latter becoming a rear projection with the models before it. With mattes, the images were combined and Dynamation was born, although it was named later.

TheGoldenVoyageofSinbad-2Harryhausen continued to evolve his work and then made the leap to color with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958. By now, he was partnered with producer Charles H. Schneer – beginning with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) — who helped him perfect the shift to color, experimenting with different stocks until the look was right. Given the requirements of the models, Harryhausen became far more intimately involved in the story than most effects men ever did, ultimately co-directing many features although Director’s Guild rules denied him his proper credits.

The Sinbad series of films found an eager audience in the later 1950s and early 1960s as all things fantastic played well on screen. It offered adults, and their children, a wholesome escape from the Cold War tensions. It wasn’t all fantasy and monsters as Harryhausen and Schneer also produced several science fiction tales, such as 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

jasonandtheargonauts11-300x213They continued to produce works that stretched the imagination until 1963 and what is considered by many his finest outing, Jason and the Argonauts. Here, there was the amazing complex battle with the skeletons and the multi-armed gorgon. Little wonder that Tom Hanks, who first saw it as a kid, proclaimed years later, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane…I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made!”

Despite this pinnacle of technological achievement, tastes were changing and he endured a series of box office failures. After losing his contract with Columbia Pictures, he wound up in England working for Hammer Films’ One Million Years B.C. (1967). That film’s success allowed him to on to make The Valley of Gwangi (1969), a labor of love considering it was O’Brien’s unrealized dream project.

Harryhausen endured a lean 1970s, kept in the minds of readers thanks to Ackerman’s devoted retrospectives in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Finally, thanks to Star Wars, inspired in part by Harryhausen’s work, the appetite for fantasy was back and he revived Sinbad beginning with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.  This and its sequel Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger were suddenly feeling dated and jokey, not at all what modern day audiences found palatable.

gwangi_curiousHe put everything he had into his Greek myth opus Clash of the Titans (1981), working with protégés Steve Archer Jim Danforth, much as O’Brien mentored him. With a star-studded cast and the addition of the impressive Kraken, the film was a last hurrah but for audiences now used to computer-generated effects, it looked and felt dated. Harryhausen was effectively retired, like it or not.

Thankfully, his work was rediscovered with h advent of magazines like Starlog, the rise of cable television, and a new generation of fans enchanted by his creations. As a result, he released several lovely books about his career:  Film Fantasy Scrapbook, An Animated Life, The Art of Ray Harryhausen, and A Century of Model Animation. With the arrival of home video, Harryhausen personally oversaw the restoration and transfer of his films, from VHS to Blu-ray.

Clash-Of-The-Titans-Kraken-300x208Harryhausen relocated to England in 1960 and in 2005, donated his archive, some 50,000 pieces, to the National Media Museum in Bradford, England. His efforts have not gone unrewarded such as being given the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for “technological contributions [which] have brought credit to the industry” in 1992, handed to him by Bradbury, and a special BAFTA award, delivered by director Peter Jackson.

Hollywood didn’t forget Harryhausen either, with Columbia’s parent, Sony, naming their main screening theater after him and his receipt of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

His influence and spirit will live on for generations to come thanks to his films being available to enjoy and the generations of filmmakers he inspired.


Emily S. Whitten: Billy West at Awesome Con DC!

imagesLooks like it is just Interview Central around here these days, folks. Because following up on last week’s column, in which I briefly recapped my Awesome Con DC experience and posted my interview with the fantastic Phil LaMarr  (go read/listen if you missed it last week! Good stuff!), I now get to share with you my Awesome Con DC interview with the excellent Billy West! Hooray!

Even if you somehow haven’t heard the name Billy West, before, I almost guarantee you’ve heard his voice. Voicing everything from classic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Woody Woodpecker, and Popeye to four of the main characters on Futurama (Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan), Billy has voiced characters on a myriad of other shows as well, including title characters for Nickelodeon’s Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show; and is also the current voice of product mascots Red the M&M and Buzz the Honey Nut Cheerios bee. Billy was also one of the voices of The Howard Stern Show from 1989 to 1995, where he did astonishing impressions of everyone from Johnny Carson and Al Michaels to an ailing Lucille Ball. (His Jay Leno is uncanny.) As a voice actor, Billy has an amazing range – going seamlessly from one character and reaction to another; and you can see some fun examples of that here. For a good time, I also recommend the Star Wars Trilogy: The Radio Play video, shot at ECCC last year and featuring Billy and a number of other talented voice actors doing the script of Star Wars in some of their iconic voices (including, for Billy, Stimpy, Fry, Farnsworth, and Zoidberg). My absolute favorite bit is when he does Porky Pig at about 45 minutes in. Seriously. You must watch it.

But quickly! Before I get lost in YouTube again: let’s get to the interview! If you want to listen to the interview (listen to it! He does Richard Nixon’s head in a jar!) you can do so here. Or, you can read the (slightly edited) transcript below!

Hello, this is Emily Whitten for ComicMix, here with Billy West at Awesome Con in DC. Billy, thank you for being here with us – and Billy is busy, so we’re doing this while he eats.

I ain’t that busy; I can talk with a mouth full of vegan sandwich.

That’s fair! So you are such an amazingly storied voice actor, etcetera…

Aww, thank you.

There’s a lot to talk about, but I’m going to try to distill it down a little bit. Let’s start with the earlier things; so – how did you decide to get into voice acting? Because I know you also are and were a musician; so what was the career path there?

Well, I remember I was like a little freak, you know? I was always running around making noises, and doing voices. Every time I wanted to play the piano – we didn’t have one, but if we were at somebody’s house – to me that was a golden opportunity. I just wanted to hear it, touch it, and make it do something; because the sonic world that I had going on in my head would dictate that I would go over there; but the thing was: I couldn’t play. And down comes the lid: “Can you not do that?” I heard that more than any other kid, probably, in the world, “Can you not do that?” And I was always trying stuff; it was peripheral and surreal; abstract stuff, but, you know.

I had a weird childhood. My house was a horror-house, and my dad was just, like, certifiable, and a drunk and a crazy; so I was growing up kind of terrified. And I was very hyper-vigilant. I could tune in to things – like I could tell you what kind of a night I was going to have by the way the car pulled up in the driveway, or the way the key went in the door. I was so in tune with people’s behaviors – you know, out of survival mode. But it also trained me, like a cop. I was becoming an observer; an extreme observer.

So from your experiences, you were able to be observant about people and how they acted and how they behaved, and so that would help you later on?

And I loved radio. Oh, I loved radio so much, because of the voices. And there were still some radio plays going on when I was a kid. There was a radio guy named Stan Freberg that had a radio show; and he had one of my favorite voice guys on it, whose name was Daws Butler, and he did a lot of the Hanna-Barbera stuff. He was a little ball of fire, this Daws Butler; and I just came to know these people. But there was no way you could know anything about show business in those days; because there was no emphasis on it. That was for “other people.” You know, “Well who?” It was like: nobody in my town. I was such a geek, I had to hunt down the only other kid who had comic books, and he lived on the other side of town. I just set my inner GPS and found him. I just walked and walked until I found him somewhere.

So what kind of comics did you read, when you and this kid were growing up?

Silly stuff; we read the Marvel stuff – I didn’t mean that that was silly – [Marvel and] DC comics were not silly, they were exciting. But, like, Gold Key Comics were silly; there was The Fly, which was Archie Comics, and he was their superhero – and he fell by the wayside because the other machines were a little more happening and powerful. But I had the original issues of some really important comic books. I had secret origins of like, Batman and all of those. They came out around 1960; 1959, maybe 1961.

Do you still have them?

No. No, it went up my nose, heh.

Back in the day?


Well, do you still follow comics these days?

I try to. I like the revamps of stuff they’re doing. Because there’s so much time that has gone by, that these characters have been around, and eventually they’ve got to morph. You know, they’re not going to get older on us, even though they can dance in and out of timeframes, to show old Superman, like where he wound up.

Yeah; they did that, of course.

Yeah! And there are so many comic books that it’s tough to keep track of them.

Do you watch the movies?

I try to go to movies, yeah, when I can. I’m writing a lot, and I stay up late, late into the evening.

Oh, okay, what are you writing right now?

There are a couple of projects that I’ve got going with my partner that I worked with on Ren & Stimpy. His name is Jim Gomez; and we’ve put together five fully developed shows, most of them animated. We’re pitching them around town, and we’ll see what happens. I love doing what I’m doing – you know, I can be an objective fulfillment machine for the rest of my life – but at some point I do want to create or own something, and give myself the objective.

I think all creators feel that way – it just makes sense.

Yeah – I mean, but I will still always go and work for somebody else, probably doing voice-over.

Now you said that you love radio, and you’ve been on the radio – and I know when I was growing up, I heard you on K-Rock; so tell me, what was that experience like? I mean, I used to listen to that in the morning, when I was getting ready for school…

Didn’t you feel like there was subterfuge involved with that? Like you couldn’t just let everybody hear that.

Yeeeaaah; don’t tell my parents, okay? They didn’t like that show; they didn’t like Howard Stern. I had to be subtle about it.

Of course not. Of course not; but the people who listened to it got it. They understood that everything was silly. It was all about being totally silly in the face of the most horrific subjects.

And pushing boundaries.

Yes, pushing boundaries. It was very organic. We didn’t play records. And Howard was a great ringmaster; he knew, okay, when something’s enough. We’d beat it so far, that’s fine, let’s go to commercial and we’ll start something else. He’d always keep things moving.

And how did you end up working there? I know you’d worked in radio before that.

I was in radio in Boston, and I wasn’t a disc jockey. I was very creative, and showcasing the works of others for a living didn’t turn me on; because I would always feel like a curator in a museum. But these disc jockeys were really pompous about playing records, and it’s like, “Dude, you didn’t create the statues; you just dust them.” And I used to get reamed for having that type of attitude. It’s like, “You’re not allowed to unmask these icons,” and it’s like, “Screw you. You don’t do anything.” I was always surly because there was so much phoniness that used to drive me crazy. My heroes were the artists, not people who were famous for some cottage industry reason – like disc jockeys or TV show hosts. They’re not creating anything. So my heroes were never celebrities. It was always artists. And if they happened to be a celebrity that was a byproduct of their great artistic talent.

Right. So being on a show like The Howard Stern Show, where you got to interact and do your own thing, that was what you were looking for.

That was very appealing to me. And you had to be ready for anything.

So did that help you prepare in large part for the voice acting? And were you also doing voice acting some when you were on the show, or did that come later?

Well I’d already been doing voice acting in Boston, on the radio, and then when I went to New York there was just more of an opportunity to open up and to push myself to see what I was capable of. Plus, I had one of the funniest people in the universe lobbing in little lines here and there for me. But people said, “Ah, Jackie wrote everything for you.” Hey, yeah, sure: let me just talk straight, in a character, for seven minutes. A guy can’t write every bit of dialogue that you say for seven minutes. He can put in ideas, and you integrate them into your conversation. I mean, he did it for Howard all the time. But Howard was very generous; I mean, that’s like loaning somebody a nuclear weapon, that he would let Jackie Martling facilitate me.

And now when you were doing all of this, I know you also played guitar and had a band, and you’ve played guitar with Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson…

Oh, I opened up for a lot of famous guys that I knew growing up, like Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, The Four Seasons, and Jan and Dean… And later on in life I actually got to play with Brian Wilson.

When was that happening, in comparison to the radio and the voice acting?

Radio just started happening as I was phasing out of playing music.

Okay, so that came a little bit before?

Yes, and then after a moratorium, when I did pick up again, in the future, as the years went by, I wound up playing with one of my idols, which was Brian Wilson.

So what was it like playing with Brian Wilson?

It was so strange; because the first time I played with him, we were at a little hall in Santa Monica, by the beach; and it was me and The Cars guitar player – Elliot Easton – and we were playing with Brian, and then a friend of mine was playing bass. We put together a little band; but I mean, I knew every note of the whole catalogue, I knew every harmony, I knew every chord change, because I was so into The Beach Boys. The Beatles and Jeff Beck; the English stuff was good. But The Beach Boys were our band. And it was like a dream, you know, just playing with Brian Wilson.

And then next thing, we’re at Lincoln Center. And then we played David Letterman. And it was crazy, I mean I’m playing these songs with Brian Wilson; and I still can’t get over it. You know, he did all those hot rod songs – girls, and cars, and fun – and we did 409 onstage, and he was singing 409, which is the old hot rod song, and in the chorus, “Nothing can catch her, nothing can touch my 409, 409,” I started going (hot rod revving noises), and he looked over with this happy, astonished smile, like a little child. He’s like: “What’s going on? But I love this, whatever you’re doing over there.”

Oh, that’s fantastic. So now obviously your voice acting is a large part of your career, and Futurama is a huge part of that – and you developed Philip Fry, well Philip J. Fry, if I’m doing the whole name —

— Well that’s because most cartoon characters’ middle initial is J. Rocket J. Squirrel; Homer J. Simpson; Stimpson J. Cat.

Yes. So when you were developing that character; you’ve said that Fry is similar to you at twenty-five; so when they had you in auditioning for Futurama, did they ask you to develop that character; did you come in saying “this is something I have,” or what?

They showed me the pictures when I went in, and there was some dialogue they wanted me to read; and…you know what it’s like – something, you look at it and it just gives you an impression, and depending on your experience, or your talent, or your intuition, you’re hoping that you’ll come up with what they’re looking for. And all of them were pretty much very close to what I gave them. They described Fry, and I said, “You know what? I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to just use my own voice, like when I was twenty-five.” I remember, I was very whinyyy, and complainyyy, and I just know I had a plain vanilla voice. I had no idea I had this wild animal in my throat somewhere; this big clumsy beast that could do anything. You know, I really didn’t know back in those days. Because I was singing and playing. But I would go in and do voices on stage like when we blew up an amp, or a string snapped, or whatever. Out of embarrassment, I would just keep going and entertaining. Might not have been the music or anything, but people loved it. Launching into characters that I would make up, and imitate, or whatever.

Right. And now, on Futurama, you do a lot of the voices. How did that come about?

They would just keep showing me pictures, and I auditioned for everybody, including Bender. I played him as a construction worker, and John DiMaggio came in and mopped the floor with that audition. He played him as kind of a punch-drunk fighter.

Yes, Bender is a great voice.

Oh, it’s beautiful. And it developed into what it is. In the beginning, none of us sounded like who we were. I mean, that’s who we thought we were, at the time, but voices morph. You listen to an episode #10 from The Simpsons, and you listen to the 200th episode, and it’s like, “Huh?” Well, Homer Simpson was like (voice impression), and then later on he developed all of these other facets that make the character so interesting and believable.

Yes. Now in Futurama, or your other roles, what are your favorite characters to play or have played? And what were the most difficult?

I love doing all the characters, and I love them equally; so I can’t pick out a favorite. Because I just try to bring so much imagination to it. I was always trying to do something nobody had done, and that served me well. I didn’t want to mimic people. I could do it – I’ve held up franchises. I did four years of Woody Woodpecker; and Popeye…the works, you know? But you only make your mark for real if you start creating and it catches on. And you have faith that you’re just as good as those impressions that you relied on; that were your little power base.

Right, well because they were starting out once, and they made up those voices, and so why not you? And so what was the most difficult voice to do?

I don’t know; I know that I had become fearless; totally fearless. I’m not afraid of anything, and I’m willing to try anything. I’m willing to fail. I was like that in comedy clubs. Because it didn’t make sense to me – why should I memorize twelve minutes worth of material and then go out and pretend every night that I’d just thought of it? I needed stakes. I needed real things at stake like dying or bombing [on stage]. I really did, and I wasn’t afraid to.

Did you do a lot of stand-up?

Not a lot. A little bit, and then I got into radio, and that was it. Stand-up is very, very hard. There are guys that are just so, so amazing at it and everything. But my forte was not stage performance, doing stand-up. My forte was radio; and that was a bigger playground. You could dodge in and out of characters, and you didn’t even have to have written material; you could ad-lib while you’ve got these crazy voices going back and forth.

In your voice work, how much do they want you to or let you ad-lib?

They want to get what they want to get; ideally, what they had in mind. And then after you do that and they’re happy with it, they ask you if you thought of anything, or you want to add or bring something; and a lot of times I would, and a lot of times it made it in. A lot of it just winds up – they want more rather than less. Because that way they have options; they can play with stuff they didn’t think would work and all of a sudden, oh my God, it works beautifully.

Right. Because sometimes improvisation is the best part of life.

Yeah; but it’s also this constant wonderment of discovery – whether something’s going to work or not. That’s exploration. It’s like, you try to control every aspect of everything as much as you can, but when serendipitous things happen, like, “What was that thing you just did?” “Oh, you mean this?” and they’d say, “Yeah, what if he just goes right into that?”

Like when I did Nixon – I’m old enough to remember when Nixon was running for President, and John F. Kennedy, and they did the debate on TV. And I was astonished at how perfect Kennedy looked – like a game show host, with his perfect teeth, and his buttered-toast hair. He was made for TV. Nixon was made for wanted posters. He looked like a stolen car. And he was (in character) “shifty-eyed, and he was nervous and…ar-rar-rar.” And he was sweating. While the interview was continuing, he was getting worse, and his beard was coming in; you could practically see the bottom half of his face get darker and darker. And I said to my mom, “Mom, he’s going to turn into a werewolf!” Because I loved horror movies, like with Lon Chaney slowly turning into the werewolf. Nixon was kind of almost there – lycanthropic. So he was just doing his thing, and I said, “That’s awful; he’s almost unwatchable.”

And then years later, I get the chance to do Nixon, as a head in a jar, and I would say something like, (in character) “You filthy hippies, get off the grass outside this White House,” and then all of a sudden I would go: (werewolf noises). Like I was changing. You know, just replacing words with noises and stuff.

Hah, wow. I know it’s hard work, but it just sounds like so much fun.

Well, you gotta keep coming up with new bags of tricks, and keep expanding them and everything. That’s how you keep working.

Now you were saying earlier that you have essentially had conversations with yourself. Some examples of that are Farnsworth introducing Fry to Zoidberg [in Futurama], and then Doug and his arch-nemesis. How do you deal with that; how does that work in your head? Because that seems to be even a double challenge over consistently trying to sound a certain way.

It’s like I had my boot camp training in Boston doing consecutive voices. Because I got a job as a producer; and there’s no producer school you can go to. I had to learn how to splice tape, and I had to learn how to write and create my own characters and bits; and then put it together so it could be air-able; with sound effects, and music, and everything. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but I just did it.

And it works for you!

Yeah, I mean, I’m very strange in that way; like I still, to this day, can’t tie my shoes properly, I just can’t. And a necktie, I have problems with. I can’t do anything practical; but if you ask me to do something only like, four or five other people in the world can do, I have no problem.

So now as a voice actor, what’s the experience of celebrity? How do you experience that as someone who’s mostly known by different voices, so someone might not actually know, talking to you, that yours was the voice they’ve heard on shows?

Well, celebrities were never my heroes. Never. To this day, I don’t give a dismal damn, really, whether Kim’s having problems with her pregnancy, or whatever. It’s like, “Fuck you.” You know what? Anybody who can fart the national anthem can become a celebrity. Any stupid-looking bald guy can throw on an earring and a goatee and a leather jacket, and now he’s Pawn Stars. And they pose these guys like rappers, like album covers; they’re all big, bad, and bald – and they’re basically lucky imbeciles, because show business ain’t what it was anymore, now it’s supposed to be “reality.” These guys just have to be who and what they are. And then they learn how to act; because they go, “I like this ride very much;” and they know it’s going to be over, and they want to stay in that business. They don’t want to go back to oblivion.

Yes. So how do you interact with fans? And do some people just know your whole oeuvre? What is that experience like?

There’s people that know more about me than I do. Because I can’t remember every little fiddle-faddle, you know? But I’m just grateful; I’m so grateful – I mean, what are the odds that there would be people in this world that would put aside time in their life to know what you do, and to follow it? It’s mind-blowing to me; it’s surreal – and it still is, to this day.

Well that’s a great and very humble attitude.

Well, I mean, I know. I know the drill, I know the deal. You have to somehow connect in one way or another with people who admire you; and hopefully you’ll keep up the same standard of work that turned them on in the first place. So I always try to – whatever new thing comes along, I just try to come in like gangbusters; you know, get some attention. Like, I like to turn tables over, bash chairs. You know, when I first went to New York I was like a Terminator. I got all skinny because I knew I was going to be walking everywhere, and auditioning; and I used to listen to bagpipe music.

Bagpipe music?

Yeah, because I’m half Irish; and when I hear bagpipe music, it makes this Celtic side of me boil, and prepares you to go into battle. I’d be galvanized, like I was marching into a glen with my compatriots, and we’re all going to get stabbed and shot; but it’s okay, because we’re doing it for the right reason. And I used to listen to all these bagpipes, going up 2nd Avenue, 3rd Avenue, to work, and I would get to the audition, and I’d feel like a Terminator.

Like you were ready. That’s fantastic. Speaking of getting ready for new things; what are you working on currently that we should be looking forward to?

I’m doing some kids’ stuff. I never used to get hired by Disney; because I wasn’t their kind of guy, you know what I mean? The stuff I did was very Gothic and dark-ish, like screaming and yelling and very dramatic. But I got this show called The 7D; and I’m playing Bashful, because the 7D are the seven dwarves. (Singing) “We’re The Seven D,” and they get a beautiful, cute song and everything. And I love it; I love it to pieces.

And is that out now, or coming out?

It’s coming out. And I was doing some voice work for Avengers Assemble. There’s a character called Rocket Raccoon. So I’m doing him. (In character) “Yeah, he’s got kind of like a Joe Pesci. And like, Steve Buscemi.” “Blood has been spilled, Jerry. I’m through fuckin’ around wit’ you, Jerry.” But somehow he has that voice. I thought it would be perfect to just tweak it; and it’s not a dead-on impression – I could care less about that. What it is, is: “Is it funny? Is it interesting? Does it fit?” I did a bunch of hours of recording the other day. And then I have my projects going. That keeps me busy because I’m always writing. I stay up all hours and stuff, but it’s a labor of love, so you feel energized somehow.

Yeah! Well I hope that we see some of that from you soon.

I hope you do, too.

And thank you so much for this interview.

My pleasure.

•     •     •     •     •

Nope, it was totally my pleasure, Billy. You’re delightful.

Big thanks to Billy West for the interview, and big thanks to the ever-helpful Kevin O’Shea, producer for Made of Fail Productions, for cleaning up the audio file for me. (And as ever, check out the Made of Fail podcasts for fun geek-tastic discussions, in which I have actually appeared a couple of times.)

That’s all for now, and until next week, when I’ll be sharing my interview with the talented cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, Servo Lectio!