18 April 2009

Ronald Reagan, He-Man and Literacy

I was born in December 1978, so I really have no memory of the 70s.  I grew up in an America where Ronald Reagan was president, our society professed its love for hard, honest work and we did things because they were right.  Of course, out of those three, only the Reagan presidency was entirely true, but as a child you believe these things.  After all, few have seen or heard enough to be a cynic at five.

I didn't know about it at the time, but the FCC under Mr. Reagan lifted a longtime ban on having cartoons and toys based on one another in 1981.  On 22 June 1983, I had a baby brother; on 1 September that year, while he was starting to work on crawling, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe debuted on syndicated TV and changed my world.  Whether I watched that first airing I cannot say, but it wasn't long after the show first appeared that I discovered it and was completely captivated.  Plus, He-Man's alter ego was Prince Adam, and that was my baby brother's name.  (Except, of course, he didn't have the title of prince.)  This was controversial, of course, because the series was dismissed as nothing more than a half hour long toy commercial (since Mattel already had the figures on the shelves), and that debate continues.  What I can say about the animated toy commercials of the 1980s is that I learned to read because of them.
This guy wanted my generation to watch...

...this cartoon so we'd want our parents to buy us...

...this toy.  It worked.
To this day, I consider myself an expert (if not a master) of the English language.  I have always loved learning words and prided myself on not only being able to use them--correctly--but to spell them properly, as well.  Classmates who did not want to have to revise their writing never shared papers with me in revision groups.  I delight in typing with an automatic spell-checker running that never flashes red.  Frequently, I am consulted by my wife and friends when they are in search of a word, or spelling thereof.

Strangely, I did not develop this aptitude under the guidance of any language arts teachers in school.  I learned to write by spelling the names of Masters of the Universe characters from the back of action figure packages.  Theoretically, I was maintaining an evolving wish list of action figures, but in reality I was not only taking my first steps into literacy, I was also initiating a lifelong obsession with list making.

I learned more words from comic books than I think I ever learned in school, at least during my elementary years.  I would be lying to say that I read the comic book standards as a child; I never picked up a super-hero comic until 1989, when Tim Burton's Batman piqued my curiosity and I asked to buy Detective Comics #603.  In my formative years, though, I was drawn exclusively to comic books based on the cartoons I watched, chiefly G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero and Transformers.  Briefly, there was also a run of ThunderCats comics, but it was primarily those other two that sustained my interest in reading.

One of the things I loved most about those comics was that their continuity was separate from that of the animated series I also followed.  In the animated world, Optimus Prime commanded the Autobots until 2005, when he died fighting Megatron and was succeeded (eventually) by Rodimus Prime.  In the comic books, Optimus is killed within a video game in issue #24 (January 1987) and is succeeded by...Grimlock!

I grew up with a puppy-kicking terrorist.
I was ready for 9/11.
In the world of G.I. Joe, the difference was even more pronounced; in the place of harmless laser violence, the comic book characters shot real bullets at one another.  Sometimes they died.  Larry Hama imbued that title with very well-researched military realism (he being a Viet Nam vet), and Joe was my child's way of identifying with the rhetoric of Mr. Reagan.  I think Cobra being a "ruthless terrorist organization" is why I so easily accepted the implications of September 11.  While other Americans were frightened to discover people out there wanted to bring death and destruction to our shores, I'd learned to read with such activities.

There were, of course, other things that I read.  I remember Beverly Cleary novels (especially Ramona Quimby, Age 8), and when I discovered baseball I checked out all kinds of books about that subject and its key figures.  There was a startling moment when I learned that Johnny Bench could hold five baseballs in one hand.  A lightbulb of analysis went on when I read about a little boy who helped Stan Musial out of a slump by telling the famed slugger that when he watched him on TV, he couldn't see his jersey number lately.  Musial revised his stance and swing and voila!  Not only was the Cardinals' first baseman out of his slump, but I began to understand the nuances of our national pastime.

I learned "myriad" from this book.
In 1991, I discovered Star Trek and quickly began absorbing countless novels and comics based on that property.  To this day, I know for certain that I first encountered the word "myriad" in the novelization of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pilot episode, "Emissary."  It was used in the back cover synopsis, and before I even opened the book I looked up that word.  (It is synonymous with "plethora," in case you wanted to know.)  Bibliophiles have a low opinion of such books.  Certainly, J.M. Dillard's Star Trek - Bloodthirst (Book #37) lacks the literary significance of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; I do not dispute that.

Licensed works are often a gateway into a new medium for people, though, and so I have always defended them.  This is true of any form of entertainment, really.  How many video gamers started by playing an adaptation of a movie?  How many movie fans discovered their favorite films were, in fact, based on a book?  Maybe Marvel Comics's Transformers isn't on par with Alan Moore's Watchmen, but you know what?  I might not have ever read Watchmen had it not been for the enthusiasm I cultivated reading Transformers.

There is an idea that has circulated for at least most of my lifetime that children should learn to read by being handed books with as few words as possible, and then gradually move them on to more complex sentences.  I'm sure there's a blog entry somewhere by someone who learned to read this way.  I, on the other hand, do not believe that such coddling is helpful for children.  This is not to say that I am any kind of expert on childhood literacy, or that I think every six year old should be handed War and Peace and told to finish it by dinnertime.

Based on what I have seen in my own cousins, nieces and nephews, though, I do not believe that books with limited vocabularies are helping young ones to develop either the ability to read and write better, nor (more significantly) the interest in doing so.  Maybe by removing words like "dirge"--which is a mournful song, and a word I learned because it was the name of a Decepticon--perhaps we've taken away the tantalizing lures that drew children like me into reading.  I know, I know--the average kid is so lazy that he or she would just skip over the word the same way so many of my own peers doubtlessly did.

I cannot help wondering, though, as I reflect on the children in my own family where we went wrong.  For Christmas three years ago, I gave two comic books to my nephew.  They were Christmas-themed issues of Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans Go!, the comic book versions of the popular Cartoon Network animated series I knew he watched.  He wouldn't so much as remove them from their polybags to browse the art.  My cousin received for last Christmas a gorgeous boxed set of hardcover editions of the Twilight series, inspired by her near obsession with last year's movie.  She has yet to begin reading any of the four volumes.

14 April 2009

The Wrong Side of Thirty

Anyone who knows me is well aware of my addiction to music.  To help build my library the last year, I have signed up with one of the ubiquitous online survey groups.  I answer some questions, and a week or so later they deposit anywhere from $1.00 to $3.00 into my Paypal account.  It's not something I get to do regularly, but it paid for about ten downloads from the iTunes store last year so no complaints from me.

This year, though, I have regularly run into the following problem.  In the screening portion of the survey, I am now clicking the 30-34 age group instead of the 25-29 group.  I am then discovering that they're not looking for my input.  Is this because people in my new age group are more vigorous about participating in these things?  Possibly, but I suspect it more likely reflects the diminished value my opinion has now that it's in this demographic.

Thanks to having Crohn's disease, I've already reached the point where cold weather can make it painful for me to even stand up (much less actually walk).  I wouldn't be so dramatic about it as to say my body has completely betrayed me--there are certainly others for whom such a declaration would be devoid of any exaggeration.  Still, I don't think it self-indulgent to say that my mental self is of greater value to me than my physical self.  Imagine, then, being told that your mental self has also lost its luster!

I know, I know.  I'm making too much out of this, I shouldn't let it bother me, blah, blah, blah.  I know these things mentally, but when you're struggling to find some way of looking at yourself that doesn't sicken you and then you find one more reason that you've been devalued, it's hard to get a grip on that kind of thing.  (Which reminds me, I'm not sure I took my fluoxetine with lunch today....)

03 April 2009

"Star Wars" Original Soundtrack by John Williams

Star Wars
Original Soundtrack Composed and Conducted by John Williams
Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra
Release Year: 1977

It has been the best-selling score soundtrack album of all time, and ranked by the American Film Institute the best movie score ever.  This double-LP set contains nearly 74 of the 90 minutes written and recorded for George Lucas's original juggernaut.  Maestro Williams has always been conscious of what it is like for a listener to hear a film score out of context, and so this soundtrack release is arranged not in the chronological sequence in which the cues appear in the film, but rather in an order arranged by him to create an enjoyable listening experience.  To assist this album-oriented approach, several shorter cues have been amalgamated as a singular track.  Often, these cues are not only from wildly separate portions of the film, but arranged so that a cue from later in the film might segue into one from nearly an hour earlier!

Because of the score's foundation of a few principle themes (Luke's theme, Princess Leia's, Ben Kenobi's and Darth Vader's), this album release the effect of a modern day symphony.  Even without seeing Sir Alec Guinness, we can hear and feel the presence of someone or something that is thoughtful; wise.  We need not hear James Earl Jones to know the presence of Darth Vader, or at least, the story's villain.  Carrie Fisher is not required to know there is someone tender, possibly beautiful.  The undulation of these themes, bouyed by supporting themes for the Jawas and the 'droids Artoo-Detoo and See Threepio, tell a musical story that need no special effects.

Outside of the original film, I first heard this soundtrack in the 1993 boxed set, Star Wars Anthology.  In that release, the first disc contains this double-LP set (with full versions of two cues that were abridged for this original release), and the missing 16 minutes of music were added on the fourth disc of that boxed set.  This time, though, I have played the original 1977 vinyl release and have come to appreciate the music more than I did on CD.  Perhaps it's the benefit of Williams's album-conscious arrangement, perhaps it's the intangible benefit of the vinyl format (which, all pretentiousness aside, does feel to be a more organic format than CD or digital).  Whatever the reason, I strongly suggest that film score fans, Star Wars fans and anyone who has the vaguest interest in this release find the original double-LP.  It may not be easy to find one in great condition after thirty-two years, but it will be well worth the while.

Note: In addition to the two LP's, this release is supposed to include a double-sided liner notes insert with track-by-track commentary by Williams, as well as the full LSO roster.  It is also supposed to include a fold-out poster.

"Splinter of the Mind's Eye" by Alan Dean Foster

Splinter of the Mind's Eye
From the Further Adventures of Luke Skywalker
Alan Dean Foster
Based on the Characters and Situations Created by George Lucas
Date of Publication: 1978
Book Club Edition
182 pages

In 1976, a little paperback book called Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker appeared on the mass market.  A little blurb notified the readers that it was soon to be a motion picture from its author, George Lucas.  You probably know the cinematic story from there, but the literary world of Star Wars is often overlooked.  To begin, Lucas did not pen that first novel; it was ghostwritten by noted science-fiction author Alan Dean Foster.  No one knew whether the film would make any money, but Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were already signed for a sequel.  Lucas decided to work on an expensive script (that became The Empire Strikes Back), but Foster was brought in to write a sequel story that would be far cheaper to produce if need be.  That was that genesis of Splinter of the Mind's Eye.

En route to a secret conference, Princess Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker crash land on the mysterious planet Mimban.  Not much is known about the place, other than that it exists.  In truth, the Empire has established a secret mining operation there, abusing the indigenous primitives.  The two protagonists encounter the elderly (and potentially crazy) Halla, who agrees to help them escape the planet in exchange for their help in locating the rest of the mythological Kaiburr Crystal.  Leia is not convinced it even exists, or that on such a foggy, swampy planet that they would ever find it among the ruins of a long-gone civilization.  Once Luke lays his hand on the singular shard of it possessed by Halla, he knows it is not only real, but that it greatly enhances one's sensitivity to the Force.  Were it to fall into the hands of Force-sensitive Darth Vader, it would be catastrophic.  And so begins their quest.

As a novel, Splinter is fast-paced and full of tension and atmosphere.  This was the first non-canonical Star Wars story, so what makes it refreshing is that it is not full of self-aware references to things mentioned in the movies or other non-canonical works.  (Foster even describes one creature's sound as being "like a hog in heat."  Subsequent writers would scarcely use such a non-Star Wars frame of reference.)

Unfortunately, he who lives by the sword also dies by the sword and what makes Splinter disappointing is its detachment from Star Wars.  Taken exclusively in relationship to the 1976 novel and 1977 film, most of the inconsistencies are easy to accept.  There is, for instance, no reason to be found in that tale (later re-titled Star Wars: A New Hope) that would prevent the presence of sexual tension between Luke and Leia.  What taints the story, though, is the climax.  Darth Vader simply bears no resemblance to his previously established self.  Even if we overlook the description of his lightsaber as blue instead of red as irrelevant, try not to notice the absence of any reference to his scuba-inspired breathing sounds and try not to hear James Earl Jones's voice speaking his lines, this is simply not the same character.  Neither in prose nor on screen is the Dark Lord so wordy, sounding here more like a guy with a large mustache whose plan involves tying up the princess and leaving her on the train tracks.

Splinter of the Mind's Eye includes several scenes that today call to mind not only the subsequent film sequels in the series, but the Indiana Jones series as well.  In fact, an alternate title of this novel could well be Luke Skywalker and the Kaiburr Crystal.  The relationship between he and Leia bears a striking resemblance to that of Indiana Jones and Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and their trek across Mimban feels more like an Indy adventure than a Star Wars tale.  Still, it's fun, it's fast-paced and not self-conscious meaning this is one of the few Star Wars books I would actually endorse.

01 April 2009

The Curse of the Revenge of the Return of the Summer Splodin' Series

Movie fans in the Louisville area should already know about the Midnights at the Baxter--readers of this blog have no excuse for being unaware!  Anyway, as custom would have it, a ballot has now been made available to vote on which films will be screened this summer.  Join their MySpace page and vote online, or visit Baxter Avenue Theater for a paper ballot.  (And be sure to join the fan group I established on Facebook to discuss it!)

The nominees can be seen here.