Metropolitan Mythology

I try to space out book review posts so my blog isn’t inundated with them, and I’ll often include a few books in one post. I really should start writing the reviews right after reading the books, however, even if I don’t intend to post them for a while. Both of the books here are ones I finished a while ago, but hadn’t gotten around to reviewing yet. This is especially true of the first one; I think it’s been about a month. Well, not according to GoodReads, but I think that was just when I listed it as something I was reading instead of when I actually finished it. I need to get on the ball here.


Renegades, by Marissa Meyer – By the author of the Lunar Chronicles, this novel takes place in a city ruled by superheroes, who took over law enforcement duties after an age of anarchy. The main character, Nova, joined up with her anarchist uncle in an attempt to overthrow the Renegades and restore more personal freedom after the superheroes didn’t save the rest of her family. She’s allied with a group of other anarchists with super powers, and on their advice, she joins the Renegades to serve as a spy. Once in with them, however, she starts seeing their side, at least until she learns that they’re trying to come up with a way to sap the powers from non-Renegades. She also strikes up a relationship with Adrian, the son of two of the most prominent superheroes. I thought it was kind of long considering not a whole lot happens; it’s mostly just an introduction to the world and its characters. There’s obviously more in the works, though, since it ends on a cliffhanger. I do have to wonder what will happen with Nova’s loyalties, as both the Renegades and Anarchists seem totally corrupt overall, although they both have good people in them.


Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire – I believe I saw this recommended in a list that included a lot of other stuff I like, but I really knew nothing about it other than that it involved cryptids, which isn’t a bad start. It’s the first book in the InCryptid series, and the main character is Verity Price, part of a family of cryptid hunters who broke away long ago from the larger Covenant of St. George because of their intolerant views on mythical beings. Verity is a bad-ass fighter, although her true passion in life is ballroom dancing, and she works as a cocktail waitress in a strip club run by a bogeyman. McGuire brings a lot of different sorts of supernatural creatures from folklore into modern New York City, and even makes up her own. I was particularly interested in the Madhura, humanoids from India with an affinity for sweets. I don’t know of any mythical basis to them, but “Madhura” is Sanskrit for “sweet.” Then there are the Aeslin Mice, comic relief characters (although perhaps not so much to those whose homes they live in) who celebrate religious festivals pretty much all the time. I looked it up, and “Aeslin” means “dream” or “vision” in Gaelic, which fits, although I couldn’t help thinking of the the mice of Narnia and their devotion to Aslan. The main plot involves a dragon discovered living underneath the city, and the attempt of a snake cult to wake him. Verity reluctantly teams up with a Covenant member named Dominic De Luca, further complicated by the fact that they’re attracted to each other. I have the next book on electronic reserve at the library.

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Racing in All Different Directions


Every once in a while I see an article about something crappy going on with the Trump administration and plan to work it into a post, but I usually don’t because how many times can you really say “the President is a dangerous idiot”? It does bother me how many people still aren’t bothered by him, though. They’re not always supporters, but they’ll say, “Oh, he’s not THAT bad.” Well, no, he’s really racist, and that IS that bad, even without taking the rest of it into account. Then you get the people who think they can reach Trump supporters with rational arguments, like people who think the reason they’re out of work is because of immigrants have any desire to be rational. I don’t think I’d seen this quote from Martin Luther King until this month: “It is important for the liberal to see that the oppressed person who agitates for his rights is not the creator of tension. He merely brings out the hidden tension that is already alive. Last summer when we had our open housing marches in Chicago, many of our white liberal friends cried out in horror and dismay: ‘You are creating hatred and hostility in the white communities in which you are marching. You are only developing a white backlash’” I never could understand this logic. They failed to realize that the hatred and the hostilities were already latently or subconsciously present. Our marches merely brought them to the surface. How strange it would be to condemn a physician who, through persistent work and the ingenuity of his medical skills, discovered cancer in a patient. Would anyone be so ignorant as to say he caused the cancer?” It really seems like this “hey, don’t scare the racists” attitude is still disturbingly present today. Can we really be too surprised in a society where people insist that Dr. King shouldn’t be politicized?

Artist: Watson Mere
Anyway, I recently came across a list of points from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury that haven’t been discussed that much, and one of them is that Trump planned to lose the election and was horrified when he won. That makes sense, but I have to wonder how it fits in with his family and campaign staff colluding with Russia to get him elected. He said, “I don’t really want to be President,” and Donald Jr. and Jared Kushner said, “Sure you do!”? Still, we’re dealing with Trump, who’s remarkably inconsistent on many things. Is it that hard to believe that he did whatever he could to get elected, then realized he was in over his head when it actually happened, but his ego wouldn’t let him just resign? I’ve seen it questioned how Trump can be painted as both a total idiot AND a master schemer, but why not? There are many different kinds of intelligence, and maybe Trump being a successful scam artist is intelligence of a kind, but it’s not the sort you need to run a country. For one thing, I always have to wonder what his endgame is. What does he actually hope to accomplish with his travel bans, walls, and general fearmongering? Some of what he’s done comes across as directly contradictory. And when you’re doing things without considering the consequences beyond the most immediate ones, that seems pretty stupid to me. But then, that’s the way things often seem to go these days. The George W. Bush administration got the country into two wars with no real exit strategy. Climate change denial is promoted by those who don’t care about long-term consequences as long as they can make a lot of money in the immediate future. What do white supremacists really think will happen if they succeed in making the United States a nation of just white people?

My guess would be that they start fighting amongst themselves, declaring certain people not white enough, just as they frequently have historically. But then, I don’t see how you can believe in the superiority of white people and NOT be incredibly stupid; there’s just no basis for it whatever. I have to wonder at the tribalism involved, as it goes way beyond the subconscious racism that’s ingrained in our society. That’s obviously bad as well, perhaps worse in some cases (remember Dr. King’s identification of white moderates as more damaging to his cause than the blatant racists), but it’s easy to understand how it happens. Are the people who complain about immigrants taking jobs okay with it if another white man gets a job they think they should have had?


Getting back to Russia, I’ve seen it questioned why the Democrats are focusing so heavily on this. I agree it’s far from the worst thing Trump has done, but it’s also the one that seems most likely to lead to impeachment. I don’t think you can impeach someone for just being an ass, even if you really should be able to. Not that impeachment would necessarily help all that much, since that would just mean Mike Pence as President. Also, it’s weird how often the word “collusion” comes up nowadays. It seems like there’s often some term that just spreads around the media for some reason. Was anyone saying “weapons of mass destruction” before 2001? Maybe in certain circles, but it became omnipresent when I hadn’t heard it much if at all before that. That kind of thing is always fascinating to me.

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Knight Time Is the Right Time


The King Arthur Collection – I’ve been reading this one on and off for about a year and a half. It’s long, but worth reading. There are six separate works included, as well as some background information about the historicity of Arthur and a list of adaptations of the legend. It begins with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, in many ways the definitive version of the Arthurian saga. Adapted from both British and French sources, it brings together the various stories of Arthur and his court into one long narrative. It takes up more than half the book, and gets repetitive sometimes, as there are endless accounts of jousts and such. Malory wrote in the late fifteenth century, and this version keeps many archaic expressions, but modernizes the spelling. Tying together all this material obviously shows some seams, and not just several stories that are basically the same. During the search for the Holy Grail, there’s quite a bit about Lancelot having to do penance for messing around with Guinevere, but after this he goes right back to the affair. Not that backsliding like that isn’t possible (especially as Guinevere is often shown as making him feel guilty for NOT having sex with her; Lancelot’s own complicity is largely downplayed), but I thought it detracted a bit from the theme. Still, there was a lot to work with there, so it’s not like I can really blame Malory. I looked up the author online, and while it’s not entirely clear who it was (there were several Sir Thomas Malorys active around that time), the most likely candidate was a career criminal who wrote the book while in prison. It was the editor who gave the title Le Morte d’Arthur to the whole thing, when Malory only used it for the last part. It’s kind of weird, as it draws so much attention to Arthur’s death, when his whole adult life is chronicled.

The second book is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a collection of twelve poems from the late nineteenth century, adapted largely but not entirely from Malory. There’s a stronger sense of narrative in these retellings, but it’s nowhere near as complete. Maude Radford Warren’s King Arthur and His Knights serves as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for the first two books, presenting the same stories in modern language, with the intent that children could read them or have them read to them. There’s also an emphasis placed on how Arthur was considered the champion of the people. The stories Warren retells are all treated as largely separate. Sir James Knowles’s King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is another more modern take for a general audience, but I didn’t notice anything that particularly stood out about it. The version of Gawayne and the Green Knight doesn’t credit an author, but it’s by Charlton Miner Lewis, who writes it in verse with a lot of humorous asides, and some added fairy tale elements. The last book included here is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, another largely jokey take on the material, but since I’ve already read that one I didn’t bother to do so again.

I’ve had an interest in Arthurian lore for as long as I can remember, but there were definitely some stories here I wasn’t familiar with. One that I was but still found weird in how widespread it was and how little attention it tends to receive was that of Arthur conquering Rome and essentially ruling all of Europe. Not only do we now have a king for whom there’s very little historical evidence and who is said to have ruled all of England at a time when it wasn’t known to be united, but he also held considerable power in places with better known histories from the time. Not only is Lucius Tiberius, the procurator (sometimes called emperor) Arthur conquered not someone who’s mentioned anywhere else, but if Arthur really lived in the sixth century, the city of Rome didn’t really have much international power. The Roman Empire had already fallen, and the rulers in Constantinople considered themselves its successors. I’ve seen speculation that Geoffrey of Monmouth, from whom Malory adapted this account, might have conflated Arthur with the fourth-century Emperor Magnus Maximus, who is said to have married a British woman and conquered Rome with an army of Britons. Geoffrey mentions him as well, but could have transferred some of his deeds to the more distinctly British Arthur.

I might have come across the brothers Balin and Balan before (actually, I know I did, because I mentioned Balin beheading the Lady of the Lake in a previous post), but didn’t recall their role in the Grail saga. Balin kills Garlon, a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea who turned evil and learned black magic, which allowed him to murder people while invisible. Garlon’s brother, the Fisher King, wants revenge; but Balin stabs him with the spear that had pierced the side of Jesus (there’s a whole museum of holy artifacts in his castle). This wound, known as the Dolorous Stroke, not only injures the King but also his lands, and the Holy Grail disappears from the world until Galahad shows up. Since there are several Arthurian references in the Final Fantasy series, I have to wonder if Garland from the first game might have been named after Garlon. He’s a good knight of Cornelia who allies himself with evil forces, after all. Tennyson even uses the word “Fiend” to refer to Garlon, although in the original Japanese, the Four Fiends from that game are the Four Chaoses. Incidentally, Balin is also the only Dwarf in The Hobbit whose name didn’t come directly from the Poetic Edda. Sir Balan and Sir Balin inadvertently end up killing each other, but we never learn whether they have any other relatives named Balen, Balon, or Balun. This story also includes another sword that can only be drawn by one particular person, in this case Balin rather than Arthur.

Also interesting was the tale of Sir Gareth fighting several brothers wearing differently-colored armor, each referred to as the [Insert Color Here] Knight.

Tennyson further associates these knights with times of day, bringing to mind Baba Yaga‘s three servants in the tale of Vasilisa the Fair. While Gareth fights a Green Knight, he isn’t the same as the one his brother Gawain beheads. That story begins on New Year’s Day, which was historically the Feast of the Circumcision, and Gawain cuts a body part from the Green Knight…okay, now I know I’m reading too much into it.

I’m also fascinated by the Siege Perilous, a chair at the Round Table in which only Galahad (who hadn’t been born yet at the time the seat was installed) can sit without dying instantly.

And there are two different Elaines who fall in love with Lancelot, one the mother of Galahad and the other the Lady of Shallot. I wonder if they were ever considered the same, or there were just a lot of Elaines around then. I had a poster of John William Waterhouse’s painting of the Lady of Shalott in college, mostly just because I liked the style.

The story has it that she dies while riding a boat with her name written on it down the river past Camelot, as if to say to Lancelot, “Look what you made me do!” Okay, Tennyson actually has it that she’s cursed to only look at the world through a mirror, and her looking directly at Lancelot dooms her, so it’s not like she’s just trifling.

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My Murdered Remains Are Incapable of Learning Anything


They Might Be Giants, I Like Fun – There was a time when I would have been a lot more preoccupied by the release of a new TMBG album. I mean, it’s still exciting, but not the event it was for me back in the early 2000s. I occasionally see people say they’re over TMBG, or that they’re not as good as they used to be. But for me, while I no longer listen to them daily or spend long periods of time thinking about their lyrics, I still enjoy the majority of the new stuff I hear. They can still be quite creative and fun. I’ve listened to this new one a few times now, and while it’s enjoyable, I can’t say it necessarily feels that fresh, and there isn’t as much variety as there often is on their albums. At the same time, there’s a cohesiveness to it that works pretty well. While TMBG is probably generally known for being upbeat, there’s always been an undercurrent of death and depression to a lot of their songs; it’s just usually somewhat hidden by catchy melodies and clever wordplay. From my first few listens, this one feels like the despair is often front and center. That’s not to say I Like Fun isn’t fun, but its darker elements are much more direct, giving a sarcastic feel to the title even as it is sometimes literal. I like to go song-by-song for releases by certain bands, and since TMBG is one of them, here goes:

Let’s Get This Over With – This one is pretty catchy, with some lyrics about the general ennui of existence. “You’re still hanging ’round the clambake after every clam has been baked.” There’s also a reference to Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” Okay, that song didn’t originate the phrase “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” but the way it’s sung in this song sounds reminiscent of it.

I Left My Body – A song about an out-of-body experience, a fairly typical subject for TMBG, especially with John Linnell at the helm. I wonder if the bat repellent soap is a reference to the Adam West Batman; I’m sure everyone who’s seen the movie remembers the shark-repellent bat-spray. I don’t know that it particularly stands out among other similar songs, but the harmonies are enjoyable.

All Time What – There have been several catchy and fun breakup songs among the band’s work, and…well, here’s another. It’s pretty immediately likeable, featuring a saxophone and some playing around with words.

By the Time You Get This – Presented as a note in a time capsule, the lyric is optimistic about the future, but becomes less so once it’s specifically said that it’s intended to be opened in 1937, which we know was not a time when the evils of the past had been long forgotten. It says “a millennium from now,” which I suppose means the note would have been written in 937, so I guess it’s a modern translation. I’m not sure whether there was any particular significance to the years.

An Insult to the Fact Checkers – There’s more rock guitar on this one than on the first four, as well as a solo that sounds like old video game music. While there aren’t a whole lot of lyrics to go by, it seems to at least be inspired by modern political discourse and how people are so willing to believe incredibly far-fetched ideas. The narrator has tried to get along with those who accept such things, but has grown weary of it. John Flansburgh has said that several of the songs on this record are inspired by current events, if not specifically about them, and Trump’s promotion of lies and hatred has been a breaking point for many generally tolerant people.

Mrs. Bluebeard – A take on the fairy tale of the guy who murdered seven wives, from the point of view of one of the dead women. She discusses how she should have seen the warning signs, something that always comes up when someone turns out to be a murderer or other sort of violent criminal. The rather intricate piano fits nicely, and there are also some distorted guitar solos as well.

I Like Fun – Hey, the bass clarinet is back! It’s pretty minimal in its instrumentation, with the clarinet accompanied by muted trumpet and snare drum (at least that’s what one review I read says; I’m not that good at identifying instruments); and the ending is rather jazzy. The song itself is pretty quiet and sad, making the title and refrain rather ironic. It deals with aging and losing touch with reality, subjects the band has been covering since they weren’t particularly old at all. Flans wrote the song when he was fifty-seven, while the narrator here is fifty-eight, the age Linnell was at the time.

Push Back the Hands – Is it just me, or does the beginning sound a lot like that of “Your Head’s on Fire”? Stop ripping yourselves off! It seems a little deeper than that one, though. The opening lyric is a good bit of dark wordplay: “You would give up your right arm to go back to when you had a right arm.” It seems pretty literal, too; it’s usually difficult to make all of the words to a TMBG song fit any particular interpretation (including the ones the Johns identify themselves), but it sounds like it’s about someone reliving a car crash in his mind over and over again. Really, it’s quite lyrically similar to Frank Black’s song “Every Time I Go Around Here,” which also mixes time travel with a car wreck.

This Microphone – Yeah, they already had a song called “Microphone,” but this one isn’t all that similar to that. It has a lounge sound, with Flans saying he was influenced by the singer Lulu when writing it. There seems to be a general theme of self-appraisal and regret to many of these songs, and this is no exception.

The Bright Side – The chorus is pretty catchy, if not quite as faux-cheerful as many TMBG songs that pair bleak lyrics with upbeat music. The lead vocal especially has a bit of a sad tone to it. The “ringing, ringing” and “singing, singing” parts remind me of something, but I’m not sure what; maybe it’s several different things. There are some bits of TMBG cleverness to the lyrics, with the second part of the first verse being sung backwards, and a direct reference to the William Carlos Williams poem “The Great Figure.”

When the Lights Come On – We move on to another song featuring light, and with a mixture of the upbeat and disturbing. It doesn’t seem directly imitative of any previous TMBG songs, yet it’s very typical Linnell before musically and lyrically. I think it might be the first time the word “shit” appears in a TMBG studio recording, however. It’s basically a hope for optimism in a terrible situation; there’s definitely a strong suggestion that the lights WON’T ever come on, but the narrator and listener have to believe they will. I like the shift from the otherwise very steady and rhythmic music when Linnell sings, “I think I’m tripping.”

Lake Monsters – The sound at the beginning is a bit reminiscent of “The Darlings of Lumberland,” although it doesn’t really develop in the same way. It mentions the titular monsters as American and “looking for a polling station,” giving it a political meaning. While perhaps it doesn’t have to, it definitely works as a metaphor for people with radical racist views emerging from relative obscurity into the forefront when electing Trump. The organ part is pretty cool.

McCafferty’s Bib – The song really doesn’t explain what the title means, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that “McCafferty” sounds a lot like “MacGuffin,” an object used to advance the plot with what it actually is not being important. There are a lot of words in TMBG songs that work kind of like that. The Johns have been known to say in interviews that they’re running out of nouns, but while I’m not going to check their entire back catalog for the word “bib,” I’m sure it’s never been this central to another one of their songs. The lyrics suggest the bib is a way to distract people. As the TMBG wiki indicates, the bit about masses holding up signs of Bob Hope references a 1966 performance art piece by Oyvind Fahlstrom, where people marched down the street with pictures of both Hope and Chairman Mao. “The toothpaste won’t go back in the bottle since it granted our wish” is a mixed metaphor for things you can’t undo, squeezing the toothpaste out of a tube and letting a genie out of a bottle. Musically, clarinets are quite prominent, and there’s a chirping sound throughout, fitting the distraction theme.

The Greatest – This album lacks the really short numbers that occasionally show up on the band’s records, especially Apollo 18 (although there they were all part of a single package) and Nanobots. This is easily the slightest song on here, simply Flans complaining in a high voice that everyone sarcastically calls him the greatest, and he’s sad about it.

Last Wave – While Linnell sings most of this, there are some interesting trade-offs with Flans, sometimes giving with the two of them arguing. It’s a rather dark song, full of dread, but these arguments add some humor, especially when Linnell sings, “Take me down to the postman,” and Flans counters with “YOU do it!” It ends with kind of an uncertain drum finish.

Posted in Current Events, Fairy Tales, Frank Black/Black Francis, Language, Music, Politics, They Might Be Giants | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Just Ducky


It’s too bad that, these days, the default Google suggestion for “Donald” is our not-so-esteemed president rather than the duck. The two of them do have something in common (aside from the terrible temper), in that both had mothers from Scotland. I’m not sure if Walt Disney realized Donald was a Scottish name when he came up with the character, but it could be why Carl Barks gave him a Scottish uncle. Anyway, I’ve read a few more collections of Duck comics within the past month or so, some presents and others Comixology downloads.


The Ghost Sheriff of Last Gasp – In the title story, the sheriff turns out to be not a ghost at all, but instead a guy who was trapped in a mineshaft for eighty years without aging. Is that supposed to be MORE realistic? He and Donald end up facing off, Wild Bill with guns that are rusted shot, and Donald with cap guns. While the story of “Wispy Willie” is rather thin, based simply on Scrooge’s attempts to trick Donald into selling his house, it does have a mad scientist creating a bizarrely cute will-o’-the-wisp.

I also found it interesting that there are a few where Donald actually wins out in the end, even if it’s not always due to his own efforts. A camel that Huey, Dewey, and Louie buy from a defunct circus is hopeless at finding uranium in the desert, but when he ends up covered in glowing paint, a television network buys him. Donald loses a fishing contest to Gladstone Gander, but Donald wins a bigger reward when he saves a rich man’s daughter. Even the writers of the notes are a bit disappointed by “Too Safe Safe,” where Gyro Gearloose invents an unbreakable wax to protect Scrooge’s money, only for Scrooge to realize that he needs access to at least some of it.


Secret of Hondorica – These stories were originally published in 1955 and 1956, and partway through this volume is when the lettering became narrower due to editorial insistence. The lead story is an adventure story where it’s Donald instead of Scrooge taking the lead, a rarity at the time; and also competing with Gladstone. The explanation for why the natives of this imaginary Central American country hate helicopters is pretty clever.

In “The Unorthodox Ox,” Donald borrows Grandma Duck’s ox and cart to win a prize at a fair, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie figure out that he’s angered by blue instead of red due to being color-blind. Bulls are really attracted to motion, not a particular color, but it’s still rather clever. And we get a quite detailed illustration of a literal bull in a china shop.

It’s interesting how Barks can come up with some clever and amusing devices for throwaway gags; one story has Donald unsuccessfully try to hunt with a custard gun invented by Gyro Gearloose, and another has him use a pedal-powered submarine just to cheat in a race. He also puts uranium buttons on his nephews’ hats so he can track them with a Geiger counter; I didn’t realize how many of these comics presented radioactivity as basically harmless.

That’s different from the times we see Donald do something that could intentionally harm the kids, like sabotaging their ice vehicle and filling the river where they’re swimming with oil and laundry starch. I’ve discussed before how Donald isn’t quite as much of a jerk as he is in the cartoon shorts, but there are still occasionally hints of that. The difference is that nobody stays hurt for long in cartoons of that sort, while the stakes seem rather higher in the comics. In general, the ten-page stories are somewhere in between the animated shorts and the adventure stories, not quite as sadistic as the former but able to incorporate a lot more goofy violence without the reader feeling anyone is in real danger, as they can be during the adventures.


Donald Duck: Timeless Tales, Volume 3 – I’ve read this and some of the other English translations of foreign Disney comics that IDW has been releasing, and while the styles of humor can be bizarre by my American standards, there are some interesting ideas in them. One ongoing series has Donald and his cousin Fethry working as paranormal investigators. The Duck Avenger (the English name for Donald’s superhero identity Paperinik) stories are popular in Italy, but at least the ones I’ve seen mostly just show him using the alter-ego to play nasty pranks on everyone who annoys him. I mean, sure, that’s probably what Donald WOULD do in that situation, but he tends to be even meaner than usual. But then, I can’t say I’m familiar with Diabolik, the Italian anti-hero he’s parodying. They do give Donald a chance to succeed, perhaps because the disguise gives him confidence he otherwise lacks. Then again, sometimes he fails in his regular identity because he’s overconfident. The German story “The Call of C’rruso” is one I particularly liked, mixing a singing contest with a play on Lovecraftian horror. The singer C’rruso holds a contest in which Donald becomes a finalist thanks to a magic throat spray given to him by C’rruso’s brother D’mmingo. It turns out that the brothers are subconscious manifestations of the eldritch abomination Pf’legmwad.

C’rruso wants to find a good singer to wake the monster, while D’mmingo is trying to thwart him. His plan is a little overly convoluted, making a bad singer good until he steals the spray at the last minute, when it seems like he could have just told a good singer to intentionally sing badly, but we can’t necessarily expect beings from the mind of a chaotic creature to proceed logically.

The Dutch “The Big Sneeze” has Donald and company visiting an island that contains both the water of youth and potatoes that cause rapid aging, but they’re separated from each other by a dragon with bad allergies.


Donald and Mickey: The Walt Disney Comics and Stories 75th Anniversary Collection – The copy of this I bought on Comixology includes some material that wasn’t in the original collection, but I’m just going to treat it as a whole. Not all of the stories were all that funny or engaging, but I found it interesting for the variety of historical material. The Big Bad Wolf and his well-behaved son, Bucky Bug, Little Hiawatha, Lady and the Tramp’s son Scamp, Walt Kelly’s Gremlins, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit all make appearances. Much of it is taken up by a story of Mickey Mouse and Goofy running a railroad, which is okay but not all that memorable. A Danish story that has Donald and his nephews protecting Scrooge’s whistling flea from Magica de Spell is mostly just weird. A Chip ‘n’ Dale comic from 1957 features the chipmunks as detectives, anticipating Rescue Rangers by several decades. There’s a Carl Barks story from 1943, but perhaps even more interesting is a comic Barks mostly scripted but never finished, completed by John Lustig and drawn by Daan Jippes in a decent Barks imitation. Scrooge goes to Donald’s house to mooch a meal and tell how he made his first dollar, and the Ducks try to get rid of him. It ends with Scrooge buying a burger with a dollar that Donald used to lure him out of the house. A dollar for a burger would have been way too high when Barks started the script, but we know this page was part he didn’t write.

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Three by Pee-Wee


I hadn’t yet watched the newest Pee-wee Herman movie that came out about three years ago, nor had I seen his second from 1988, so I figured I might as well watch all three of his films back-to-back. Well, not exactly back-to-back, as I watched a few other things in between, but close enough to each other as not to make much difference. While the Pee-wee character is pretty consistent in personality, his circumstances change from one adaptation to the next.


Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – This 1986 film wasn’t actually the first to use the character (I think that honor goes to a Cheech and Chong movie), but it was the first to use his as the protagonist. It was also the first feature film directed by Tim Burton, and while I haven’t found all of his more recent efforts that interesting, he was a great choice for a movie that was kitschy and goofy but still a little eerie at times.

I’ve heard of kids being scared by Large Marge, and that clown where Pee-wee parks his bike is still pretty creepy.

The film begins with a dream sequence (all three of them do), then we see Pee-wee start his day with help from several Rube Goldberg devices. He’s living in a suburban house, presumably alone except for his dog. Francis, a rich guy who also acts like a kid but is played by an adult, although he at least lives with his dad, tries to buy Pee-wee’s bike, and when Pee-wee refuses, he instead pays to have it stolen. When the police and his friends can’t help Pee-wee find the bike, he consults a fortune teller who, based on signs she can see from her window, tells him it’s in the basement of the Alamo. He takes to hitchhiking, first with an escaped convict whose crime was cutting the tag from a mattress, then a trucker who turns out to be a ghost; and rides the rails with a singing hobo before finally finding out the Alamo has no basement. He finds out through a television segment that it’s actually in Hollywood, so he goes there to take it back, and there’s a long chase scene on the Warner Bros. backlot. It ends with a movie being made based loosely on his exploits, and everyone he met along the way attending the premiere at the drive-in. In addition to the rapid-fire pace of the jokes and a funny cast, Pee-wee also works because, despite his being annoying fairly often (sometimes on purpose and sometimes not), he has a naive optimism that’s infectious, so you can really kind of buy it when he wins over a bar full of angry bikers by dancing to “Tequila,” or dresses himself and the convict in silly costumes to fool the cops.

And jokes and gags that were already old hat by that point are still effective in the movie’s weird atmosphere. It definitely holds up.


Big Top Pee-wee – The follow-up film was nowhere near as successful, which is probably why nobody talks about it much. It did have its moments, but I think it suffered a bit from less interesting supporting characters. Pee-wee is funny, but he shouldn’t be the ONLY funny part. This time, he’s a farmer who does weird and fantastic botanical experiments with help from a talking pig.

When a storm blows an entire circus onto his farm, he helps them to plan a show. He also falls in love with a trapeze artist, despite the fact that he’s already engaged to the local schoolteacher.

There’s a scene where it’s indicated he has sex with the trapeze performer, which is kind of disturbing when you think about how he’s usually portrayed as basically a child, at least mentally; and in the first movie he quickly changed the subject when Dottie suggested the two of them going beyond just being friends. He was rather perverted in the original Pee-wee Herman Show, but even then in a largely adolescent way, and that had been toned down a lot once he started doing the kids’ show anyway. This was a few years before he was caught masturbating in a porno theater, but that was really the actor Paul Reubens, not the character Pee-wee Herman. Maybe that was part of the downside of the credits usually billing him as “Pee-wee Herman as himself.” Anyway, the cranky, conservative townspeople want to drive the circus out of town, but Pee-wee feeds them cocktail weenies that turn them into children, so they end up enjoying it.

It’s a rather more literal interpretation of Pee-wee restoring a sense of childish wonder, and what’s even stranger is that there’s no indication that he ever changes them back.


Pee-wee’s Big Holiday – After retiring the Pee-wee character for a few years, Reubens announced in 1999 that he was working on some new ideas for Pee-wee movies, and he did a stage show in 2010. (Beth and I were going to attend one of them, but since I couldn’t get the time off from work, she went without me.) While the third film was turned down by movie studios, it was picked up by Netflix, with Judd Apatow attached as co-producer and John Lee (formerly of the band Muckafurgason, which They Might Be Giants fans might remember) directing. While Danny Elfman had done the music for the other two movies, this time it was another New Wave veteran, Mark Mothersbaugh, who had also scored Pee-wee’s Playhouse. This movie consciously imitates Big Adventure in many ways: it starts with Pee-wee beginning his day with help from Rube Goldberg devices, uses a road trip where Pee-wee meets a lot of quirky characters as its central plot device, and ends with most of the characters he met returning. While not as good as Big Adventure, it still totally works, and I would think most of the new characters here would have easily fit into that one. It is bizarre seeing Reubens, now in his sixties, playing the character again; but it was an immersive enough experience that I mostly forgot about that after a little while.

The story has Pee-wee as a resident of a small town who works as a cook at a diner, and he’s afraid to leave town after his first attempt somehow resulted in his getting a metal plate in his head. When Joe Manganiello, playing himself (he even mentions being in True Blood and Magic Mike, neither of which I’ve seen), visits the town, he and Pee-wee immediately hit it off, and he invites Pee-wee to his birthday party in New York City.

A series of absurd adventures along the way includes being captured and later assisted by a trio of bank-robbing women, escaping a shotgun wedding with a disguise kit (the absurdity being heightened with the fact that he apparently got a full-size toy horse out of a tiny box), using an umbrella to bail out of a flying car with engine failure, meeting a rapping mountain man, teaching an Amish community to make noise with balloons, and finally being rescued from a well in Central Park with a magnet.

So what’s next for Pee-wee? Well, I remember Reubens talking about in 2004 about two scripts he was working on, neither of which were Big Holiday. One was a spin-off of Playhouse that brought the characters out into Puppetland (an idea I’m pretty sure he had even before Playhouse was on TV), and the other a somewhat darker story of Pee-wee becoming a singing sensation and subsequently a total jerk. Whether either of these is still in the works, I don’t know. There’s a lot of nostalgia in reviving the character, and while it seems to be working for those of us who grew up with him, I’m not sure how many new fans there are these days. But then, there was a sense of nostalgia to Pee-wee even when he first started, what with his fondness for vintage kitsch and callbacks to old kids’ shows. It seems that nowadays everything from my childhood or somewhat before or after that is being revived, and while certainly not all of the revivals are good (some are quite far from it), I still like the idea. Why let a franchise die when there are still stories to tell?

Posted in Humor, Music, VoVat Goes to the Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hell-thy, Wealthy, and Dead


The expression “you can’t take it with you” apparently dates back to the first half of the nineteenth century, but the idea is older than that. Not all cultures have believed this, however. We know that the tombs of wealthy Egyptians were full of material items, as well as pictures of others.

The preservation of the body was also important, and a sarcophagus could have a rendering of the occupant’s face.

Although these things remained in the tomb, versions of them would presumably enter into the afterlife with the dead person. This presumably means that rich people would remain rich after they died, with no first becoming last and last first involved here. The Greek tradition of burying people with coins on their eyes is well-known, although these weren’t for the people themselves, but to pay Charon to ferry them across the River Acheron.

Otherwise, I guess their spirit would just remain on the bank forever. I’m not sure what Charon does with the money is ever addressed. Most gods seemed to prefer offerings of food, after all. What I’ve particularly been trying to look into recently, however, is how followers of Chinese folk religion had money to burn.

In English, the banknotes burned for loved ones in the afterlife were often known as hell money, the typical origin given for this name being that, when the Chinese learned about Hell from missionaries, they just took the name to mean the afterlife in general rather than just the bad part. But then, doesn’t the name come from the Norse underworld that was just the dwelling place of those who died outside battle? Sometimes they’re called heaven notes instead. Hey, you’ve heard of cryptocurrency, so get ready for crypt currency. Hell notes are a form of joss paper, a sort of paper made from bamboo that was made into various forms and ritually burned. The forms were often those of material goods, and more recently these have even included cars, electronics, and credit cards.

I’ve read that, in 2006, the Ministry of Civil Affairs banned the burning of vulgar items, like mistresses and Viagra. It would have to suck if you became a ghost and still couldn’t get a boner. The practice is thought to date back as far as 1000 BC, although the bank notes in particular are a more recent development. China had paper money before most of the world, but it seems to have been a while before they developed a special currency for the dead. Sometimes modeled on real bills, I’ve seen descriptions indicating that the Jade Emperor and the Eight Immortals are often on them, and even their signature of the Emperor and Yanluo (the Chinese version of Yama) given as representatives as the Bank of Hell or Limbo.

I wouldn’t think the gods would be too happy about humans forging their signatures, but I can’t say I’ve ever met any of them and asked them about it. I understand that a lot of the denominations are in dollars rather than Chinese currency, as they were considered more universal at the time.

Dead loved ones can spend this money or use it to bribe officials to get a better deal. It sounds like this concept of the afterlife isn’t all that different from everyday life. It does kind of seem like cheating that a paper representation of something can turn into something real, but I’m not sure that money or objects having spirit forms is that much stranger than humans having them. Besides, making cars and women out of paper can’t be easy. I’ve heard that there was an X-Files episode involving hell money, but I haven’t seen it. I have, however, read several Tom Holt books involving the Bank of the Dead, run by a generally friendly guy named Jackie Dao and located in a void, and inspired by the hell money concept.

Posted in African, Authors, Buddhism, Chinese, Christianity, Egyptian, Greek Mythology, Mythology, Norse, Religion, Taoism, Tom Holt | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment