The Addams Family

This has been a busy month for me, but despite that, I made some time to see this year’s animated adaptation of The Addams Family. I first got to know about Charles Addams’s famous family during my college years. The 1964-66 series with John Astin and Carolyn Jones ran in reruns at a time I could catch it during a break between classes. I soon learned that the library at New Mexico Tech had a couple of the collections of original Charles Addams cartoons from The New Yorker Magazine. I loved the originals so much, I photocopied a handful and put them up as posters in my dorm room.

Like most cartoons from The New Yorker, the cartoons Addams drew were single panels. Not all of them featured his famous family, but they were frequent subjects starting back in the 1930s. A favorite cartoon I remember saving included carolers at the door of the Addams mansion while the family stood on the rooftop, gleefully ready to dump a cauldron of boiling oil. Another depicted the family’s mother looking out at a snowy winter scene and saying to her family, “Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry.” A third depicted the children in animal carriers, brought home in the hands of a deliveryman and the mother calling out, “It’s the children, darling, back from camp.”

I deliberately didn’t use the names of the characters in the descriptions, because cartoonist Charles Addams didn’t give them names until the 1964 series was in development. The series added many elements people now consider staples of the family. In particular the dad’s, Gomez’s, wild attraction for the mom, Morticia, especially when she spoke French. Ted Cassidy gave voice to the cartoon’s mute butler, Lurch, with his mournful and deep, “You rang,” when answering the door. Jackie Coogan brought a frenetic energy to weird Uncle Fester, who could make bulbs light up by putting them in his mouth.

I was delighted when the 1991 film came out. Barry Sonnenfeld’s film recalled several of the jokes from the original Addams cartoons, and included some callbacks to the TV series. Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston were wonderful successors to John Astin and Carolyn Jones. They brought their own interpretations to the roles, but kept the sex appeal. The real delight was Christina Ricci bringing young Wednesday Addams to Gothic life. One of my favorite scenes in the movie does a great job of capturing Charles Addams’s macabre sense of humor. A Girl Scout asks Wednesday and her brother, Pugsley, whether the lemonade they’re selling is made from real lemons. She then tries to sell them cookies and they ask her if they’re made from real Girl Scouts. Of course, what I really appreciated about this movie is that reprints and new collections of Charles Addams’s cartoons were made available and I built up my personal collection of books as much as possible in that era.

Now we come to the 2019 movie. What I loved about this movie was that the character designs do a lovely job of hearkening back to Addams’s original cartoons. I liked the origin story for the family presented at the beginning of the movie and I really liked the fact that the son of the Addams family, Pugsley, finally had a chance to be featured without sacrificing a good story arc for his sister, Wednesday. That said, the movie feels a little tame for my taste, closer kin to “safe” Halloween kids fare such as the Hotel Transylvania franchise than a true successor to the wickedly wonderful world Charles Addams created. Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem showing my kids the original comics, the 1960s series, or the 1990s movies. The gags are all built in the anticipation of the horror that happened out of view or the horror about to happen. Today, when anime has gone more mainstream, when we have series like The Simpsons and Family Guy, and Adult Swim on Cartoon Network exists, I’m baffled that Hollywood still feels compelled to make cartoons as safe and tame as possible, doing absolutely nothing that could be deemed risque or daring. Yes, Pugsley does play with explosives, but they always feel like cartoon explosives where no one really gets hurt. As a result, this Addams Family comes off as just a little weird, without the piquant hints of danger or sexiness their other incarnations have.

I’m glad I saw the movie and I don’t have any problem recommending it for a home video night. That said, if you really want to get to know the Addams Family, get to your favorite library or bookstore and seek out the original Charles Addams cartoons. Those are family albums well worth perusing.

Mars Globes

One of the places my family and I visited during our July travels was Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was where Percival Lowell, a former US ambassador to Korea, set up shop in the late nineteenth century to observe the planet Mars and search for the elusive Planet X. One thing that captivated Lowell about Mars were the linear features crisscrossing the planet. The more he observed them, the more he became convinced they were canals built by intelligent beings. Over the years, Lowell would make many maps of Mars and publish essays detailing how the red planet must be an abode of life. Lowell also made globes.

Martian globe on display at Lowell Observatory

As it turns out, Lowell’s canals do not exist. They seem to be the result of some optical phenomena going on within the telescope itself enhanced by wishful thinking. It’s easy to imagine Lowell gazing up at Mars from his chair in Flagstaff, imagining a dying desert world with intelligent Martians hanging on through their ingenuity, digging canals to bring water from the polar caps to arable farm land in the equatorial regions. These ideas would go on to inspire writers like H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury. Even if Lowell’s observations did not prove correct, he succeeded in making Mars a place in people’s imagination that we could visit.

As a young reader, I fell in love with the canal-lined Mars of Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. When visiting Lowell Observatory, I always thought a Martian canal globe would be a cool souvenir. Unfortunately, they don’t sell them in the gift shop. What’s more, they don’t sell them much of anywhere. Most Mars globes available today show the Mars we’ve mapped via orbiting probes. These are great globes and I’d love one of those, too, but they don’t capture the imagination that stirred me in my earliest days of reading science fiction. I did see that a master globe maker recreated a canal globe a while back and made them available for sale, but I also saw that he charged far more than I could afford. What’s more, when I looked again after visiting Lowell, I couldn’t find them anymore.

Of course, I’m not only a science fiction fan and a professional scientist, I’m a steampunk. If there’s one thing a steampunk knows it’s that when something isn’t available, you just have to go out and make it. My wife and I discussed approaches and I did some searching on the web. I already knew that several images of Lowell’s maps were available online. I found software that would convert rectangular maps to “map gores,” the strips used to make globes. With the power of Adobe Photoshop, I could resize those gores to any ball I wanted. So, I set out to make my own globe. Since this was the first time I’d ever tried something like this, I decided to make a prototype before making a nice one.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

The prototype wasn’t perfect. Despite measuring the ball I used for a form, I sized the gores just a little too small. This could have been a little bit of rounding error from several sources. Also, it took some tries to figure out how to get the gores on smoothly. I mostly figured it out, and I think some better tools would help. Despite that, I think the prototype globe turned out much better than I had any right to expect. In fact, the flaws actually add to the antique look of the globe.

At this point, I’m working on acquiring some better tools and a nice stand for the final globe. Who knows exactly what I’ll do with my new globe-making skills. If a steampunk event shows interest, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned. Given that the globes aren’t generally available, I might consider making a few for sale, as long as I confirm that I’m not violating any rights by using the old maps and I feel my skills are up to the task.

What I do know is that the globes I make for myself will serve as an inspiration. I look at the globe and dream of Mars as it could have been. When astronauts visit Mars in my novel The Solar Sea, they wax poetic about the old visions of Mars even as they see its real wonders. Of course, Lowell’s crypt next to the dome where he observed Mars was an inspiration for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. A part of me would like to think of Lowell’s spirit walking a canal-laced Mars, much as scientists who died did in Camille Flammarion’s novel Urania. As I look around the globe, I see that Lowell named one of the canals, Draco, a name shared with the leader of my Scarlet Order vampires. Maybe there’s a story out there about the Scarlet Order paying a visit to Mars.

Fan Fiction?

I’ve often heard the Japanese word doujinshi translated as “fan fiction.” So, I found it interesting to discover that Seven Seas Entertainment licensed two collections of Dance in the Vampire Bund doujinshi and translated them into English. Perhaps a better translation of the word doujinshi is “stories from a specific interest group published for that group.” As it turns out, the Vampire Bund doujinshi consist of manga drawn by Nozumu Tamaki, creator of Dance in the Vampire Bund along with stories he supervised created by friends. The originals were self-published by Tamaki and sold at the semi-annual Comic Market (or Comiket) conventions in Japan.

To me, it says a lot about a writer’s world building when the world is rich enough to support stories beyond those told in a given book or series. The first fan fiction I ever encountered was set in the Star Trek universe and my earliest stories were Star Trek stories. Even at a young age, I wanted to see what happened on other starships besides the Enterprise, or what people outside of Starfleet did. Since then, Pocket Books has published entire books using those ideas and Paramount has even done entire series on similar premises.

Dance in the Vampire Bund is a series that appeals to be because it presents a rich world where vampires have made themselves public and the queen of the vampires, Mina Tepes, has set up a home for vampire kind near Tokyo. The story is full of the political machinations among the vampire houses and the mysteries of the origins of the vampire kind. The two doujinshi published by Seven Seas entertainment are called Dance in the Vampire Bund: Forgotten Tales, consisting mostly of manga by Nozumu Tamaki, and Dance in the Vampire Bund: Secret Chronicles, consisting mostly of short stories and novellas introducing characters who live in this world, but aren’t necessarily involved in the main story line.

Many of the Vampire Bund doujinshi’s manga show the main characters in quiet moments between the main action of the series. The short stories introduce many great characters such as Dr. Saji, a vampire dentist who solves mysteries and Lazaro Spallanzani who fancies himself a vampire gourmet who wants to make blood more interesting and palatable to the vampires. We also get stories that explore important events in the history of the vampire bund.

The books also include behind the scene trivia and information about inspirations. I noticed that Mr. Tamaki uses titles from a number of vampire novels and stories and I’ve long been curious whether his more recent “Scarlet Order” series was somehow named for my own Scarlet Order series. Thanks to the power of Twitter (which is explored in a humorous chapter in the doujinshi) and some Japanese help from my daughter, I was able to ask him. As it turns out, he didn’t name his books after mine, but we had much the same idea, using “Scarlet Order” as a metaphor for the bloody order of vampires. I did find it cool to reach across the ocean and communicate with an artist whose work I admire.

I find this idea of collaborators exploring a fictional world in depth fascinating. In many ways, these doujinshi read like “shared world” anthologies here in the United States, which can be fun. I’ve even written in a couple of shared worlds. My novella Revolution of Air and Rust is set in Bob Vardeman’s Empires of Steam and Rust steampunk world, plus I have a story in J Alan Erwine’s Taurin Tales, set on a world he created. I love seeing what happens when artists interpret my characters for book covers or magazine illustrations. These vampire bund doujinshi take the idea of the shared world anthology and expand it further. It would be fun to see more officially translated doujinshi and it would be fun to see more expanded worlds explored by writers and artists alike in the English-speaking world.

Holmes, Pirates, and Cthulhu. Oh my!

Back in March, I had the honor of meeting Kazumitsu Akamatsu at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona. Akamatsu is not only a steampunk fanatic, he’s also written for anime and Japanese cinema, he’s an artist, and he’s a SOFUBI master. SOFUBI are Japanese soft vinyl figures, often depicting monsters. Here I am with Akamatsu and one of the other vendors, posing with steampunk guns he made. I’m the one with the red hair in a costume inspired by my Captain Firebrandt character.

I have been watching Gravion, one of the anime series Akamatsu contributed to. The premise is familiar to fans of anime from the early 2000s. A team of young people fly fighter craft which can combine with a smaller robot into a giant robot called Gravion, which is Earth’s best defense against alien invasion. The show has good action and a fun sense of humor. One thing that makes it stand out for me is that we have more young women in this team than men.

While at Wild Wild West Con, my wife and I bought Akamatsu’s book, The Quest for R’LYEH. In this steampunk book, a young Japanese woman named Mari enlists the aid of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to keep evil forces from traveling to Atlantis so they can wake the greatest of the old ones himself, Cthulhu. They get help from the mysterious Lady Steam and even take a ride on the Nautilus with Captain Nemo. Along the way, they must face a menagerie of Lovecraftian abominations, pirates, and even Rasputin. The story could be the basis for a terrific anime series or even a movie.

Although the plot was great fun, the prose was a challenge to follow. It felt like a word-for-word translation from the Japanese, without taking into account English grammar and idiom. The cover does say “Draft” so I wonder if a more polished translation will eventually be available. That said, the real gems in this book are Akamatsu’s beautiful illustrations of steampunk gadgets and Lovecraftian horrors. As a fan of Jules Verne, and now a fan of Kazumitsu Akamatsu’s work, I would love a model of his Nautilus design.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to conventions like Wild Wild West Con is having the opportunity to meet artists that I might not encounter in other venues. Meeting Mr. Akamatsu led me to explore his work and learn more about his art. I’ve long been inspired by Japanese television, cinema, and writing. Mr. Akamatsu’s writing has already inspired me to add an airship cameo to my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m sure his work will inspire me in other ways as well.

Downtown Arts Ramble

On Friday, June 7, I’ll be at Zia Comics in Las Cruces, New Mexico from 5-7 pm, where I’ll be available to talk about my books and sign them as part of the Las Cruces Downtown Arts Ramble. The Downtown Art Ramble is held on the 1st Friday of every month.  As a self-guided tour, visitors get to explore the galleries, shops, businesses, and restaurants of Downtown Las Cruces. With refreshments and entertainment along the way, this event is a great Friday night out.

At the event, I’ll be featuring my recent titles, including Firebrandt’s Legacy, which tells the story of space pirate Ellison Firebrandt, who is already a force to be reckoned with when he discovers a remarkable new drive system and meets a woman who can help it reach its full potential. I will also have copies of Maximum Velocity on hand. This book features eighteen stories of epic space action featuring pirates, strong women, the military, monsters, vagabonds, and battles by such authors as Mike Resnick, Irene Radford, and Dayton Ward. Two of the project’s editors were nominated for the Hugo Award. Since this is a downtown event, you can bet I’ll have copies of Vampires of the Scarlet Order on hand as well, which has several key scenes set in the neighborhood right where the arts ramble takes place!

Zia Comics is one of my favorite shops in Las Cruces. They’re located at 125 N. Main Street and the shop features not only comics, but toys and games. They also serve ice cream, which is a great incentive to drop by on a warm summer evening. Once you’ve discovered Zia Comics, you may get addicted. They not only sell stuff, but they have game and puzzle tournaments to provide a chance to hang out and meet other folks who share your interests. Zia Comics is also the sponsor of the local comic conventions in El Paso and Las Cruces.

So, why would you find a novelist in a comic store during an arts ramble? From my perspective, comic books have long provided a source of fun and inspiration as long as I can remember. In fact, during college and grad school, comic books were about the only things I had time to read for fun and escape. Last week, I discussed setting mini-goals, but I also talked about longer goals such as yearly or even life goals. Well, one of my life goals has long been to turn one of my stories into a comic. Over time, I’ve been collecting information and learning things and while it’s not quite ready to be a goal for this year given other things on my plate, it is certainly a goal for the next five or ten years.

Be sure to come by Zia Comics during the Downtown Arts Ramble this Friday, see what the shop has to offer, and talk to me about pirates, vampires, or other fun and scary things I’ve written about.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad

One of the more interesting trends I’ve seen in recent years is turning scripts that weren’t filmed into graphic novels. More precisely, two that I’ve read were alternate versions of filmed stories. One was The Star Wars based on an early draft of George Lucas’s famous film. Another was City on the Edge of Forever, based on Harlan Ellison’s script for the Star Trek episode of the same name. The former revealed that George Lucas’s early concepts had more in common with the prequels than the film that became a classic. The latter showed us an even more powerful and heart-wrenching version of a story which already had gone down as one of Star Trek’s finest.

While driving home from Kitt Peak National Observatory after my last shift, I heard a promo for an NPR story about a new graphic novel called Giraffes on Horesback Salad. All the promo told me was that the book depicted an unfilmed script by Salvador Dalí featuring the Marx Brothers. I didn’t need to know more. I had to find a copy of this book right away. It actually took me a couple of days, so I got to hear the NPR story which only further convinced me I wanted to read the book. I was somewhat surprised, though, when I went to my local Barnes and Noble and discovered only one copy on the shelf. I counted myself lucky and snatched it up.

The story as presented in the graphic novel imagines a young, imaginative inventor and designer named Jimmy who is trying to make it in New York City. He’s engaged to Linda, a very ordinary woman who seems a fitting wife, but isn’t actually faithful to Jimmy but wants the prestige of being his wife. The couple go to a nightclub where they encounter the Surrealist Woman who, for all intents and purposes, bends reality around her. Her pals, fittingly enough, are the surrealist Marx Brothers. More precisely we only see two of the brothers at first: Groucho and Chico. Jimmy soon falls for the Surrealist Woman who unleashes the power of his imagination. Linda, who doesn’t want to lose her place in society, fights to ground Jimmy. The plot is ultimately resolved in the courtroom with Groucho and Chico as the competing attorneys.

The graphic novel contains many supplemental notes and reveals that Dalí intended Harpo to play Jimmy. The result is a very different kind of Marx Brothers experience. It gives us a Harpo (of sorts) who both speaks and takes center stage. This all would have happened during the Marx Brothers’ time at MGM, which is after Zeppo left the act.

What I found fascinating was that Dalí and Harpo had met in real life and became friends. What’s more the idea for this film was developed far enough for Harpo to arrange a meeting with Louis Mayer. I’m not surprised to find that Mayer couldn’t wrap his head around this idea. He was, after all, the man who insisted that Oz would only be a dream. Groucho was unimpressed, saying the idea wouldn’t play. And, in all fairness, it’s hard to imagine how this would have been filmed in the 1930s.

I could easily see a version of this filmed now. It could be done live action with other actors playing the roles of the Marx Brothers, or even as full animation. What might be even more interesting would be if a contemporary comic team took inspiration from this and created their own surrealist satire about an immigrant genius fleeing his war-torn nation and unleashing the power of his imagination. The time seems ripe for such a story, especially when so many people have forgotten their own immigrant ancestry and forsaken their own imaginations.

One delightful side-effect of this graphic novel, is that it became a way for me to introduce my daughter to the comedy of the Marx Brothers. She knew a little about them, but was surprised to discover that many of their movies are musicals. Giraffes on Horesback Salad would also have been a musical and I was delighted to learn a soundtrack is in production. Some songs can be listened to now. For more information about the songs and the book itself, visit: https://www.horsebacksaladbook.com/

Reading Rainbow

El Paso Comic Con happens this weekend, and one of the people I’m most excited to meet is LeVar Burton. I’m excited to meet him because of his role as Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I’m perhaps even more excited to meet him because of his role as the host of the PBS TV series, Reading Rainbow.

Reading Rainbow ran from 1983 until 2006 and not only depicted books as fun in their own right, but showed the real world adventures books can lead you to. The series suggested many books for my wife and I to share with our daughters. What’s more, I enjoyed watching the show with my daughters. I find it frustrating when I come across a review of a book or movie that claims something to the effect that adults won’t enjoy it, but kids will love it. To me, the best entertainment and information for kids will entertain and inform adults as well. Reading Rainbow succeeded admirably at that mission. I’m not surprised to have discovered that it was the third longest running TV series on PBS after Sesame Street and Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood.

One outgrowth of the show I really appreciated was the “Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest” which encouraged kids to write and illustrate a story, then submit it to their local PBS station where the stories were judged. Winners were sent on to the national contest. My older daughter submitted to three of the contests and was a runner up at the local level in second grade. They brought her down to the TV Station at New Mexico State University where she was presented with her award and a video tape that included one of the local hosts reading her story while showing the illustrations. The contest outlasted the show by three years, which allowed my youngest daughter to enter in its original incarnation. The contest does continue under the name “PBS Kids Go! Writers Contest.”

It disheartens me that certain political factions in the United States want to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides much needed support for Public Television and Radio. The argument is that the programs on these platforms should exist in the free market and not be funded with public money. The problem is that the free market is driven by those items that sell the most units. Entertainment will always outsell education and information, just as candy and processed food will outsell fruits and vegetables. My politics are such that I’m happy to pay for things that encourage the populace as a whole to be smarter and healthier. Even when these things don’t seem to affect me directly, they pay off in the people I interact with on a daily basis.

Reading Rainbow encouraged kids to read and to act on their reading, by writing, playing, and exploring the world around them. LeVar Burton has continued that mission even in the years after Reading Rainbow and has even taken steps to revive the show in some fashion. I look forward to meeting him and to finding out where his adventures will lead him next.