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.

Peter and Wendy

I suspect I’m like most people in that I am most familiar with the story of Peter Pan as told in the 1953 Disney film. The film is based on a 1904 play of the same name by J.M. Barrie. The play’s author novelized the play as Peter and Wendy in 1911. As it turns out, the first motion picture novelizations appeared around this time. The upshot is that Peter and Wendy is probably one of the most enduring novelizations ever written.

To be honest, Peter Pan is not my favorite Disney film. Peter always seemed like a bit of a jerk and while Hollywood in general was not known for its cultural sensitivity in the 1950s, the song “What Made the Red Man Red” is a low point in racist portrayals of Native Americans. Still, there’s a lot I feel like I ought to like about Peter Pan. It’s the story of kids who don’t want to lose their imagination by growing up, which is a theme that appeals to me a lot as a writer of imaginative fiction. Also, Captain Hook and his crew are among the most iconic pirates in fiction, which should appeal to me as a writer of pirate fiction. Of course, the Disney film does have its good points. I love its portrayal of Tinker Bell and I feel the movie actually improved a bit on Barrie by changing the location of the Neverland from “first to the right and straight on till morning” to “first star to the right and straight on till morning.”

So, I sought out Peter and Wendy. It’s probably no surprise that I liked the book more than the movie, even if the movie was made by Walt Disney. The Native Americans in the book are still stereotypes, but it’s easier to see how they were connected to the Native Americans of the period’s dime novels and would be the ones kids would see in their imaginations. The pirates were wicked and wonderful. Mr. and Mrs. Darling show a lot of love and concern for their children. The biggest surprise, though, was the relationship between Peter Pan and Wendy Darling.

In the novel, Wendy shows affection for Peter, but Peter doesn’t quite understand that affection and doesn’t how to return it. Peter describes himself as “gay and innocent and heartless.” Although I’m no expert on J.M. Barrie, this takes on an interesting added dimension when I read that he was likely asexual. A lot about Peter Pan and his relationship with Wendy feels like the author trying to come to terms with a kind of relationship he didn’t completely understand.

My favorite element of the story is the emphasis on holding onto the imagination and the importance of storytelling. After all, the reason Peter brings Wendy to the Neverland is so she can serve as a storyteller to the Lost Boys. Ultimately, it’s Wendy the storyteller who brings the Lost Boys back from the Neverland to grow to adulthood under the care of her parents. In this way, Peter and Wendy reminds us that we shouldn’t forsake our imaginations and the stories of our youth because they can be a way to help us understand and process the reality around us.

I encourage you to join me on adventures to lands near and far. You’ll likely even find a few pirates along the way. You can learn more about my fiction at http://www.davidleesummers.com.

Lovely Angels

I’m a fan of stories featuring strong women. While I recognize that physical strength or proficiency with weapons is not the only way to be a strong person, my love of action stories does mean I enjoy a story with women who fall into this category. While in Bisbee, Arizona’s wonderful Meridian Books and Comics a few weeks ago, my wife’s eyes happened to fall on the book, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair.

I immediately recognized the title and the women on the cover from an anime series of the mid-1980s. What I didn’t realize is that the anime series was inspired by a series of novels by Haruka Takachiho. The book my wife found was an English translation of the first two novels published in 2007 by Dark Horse Books. For those not familiar with the books or the anime series, the “Dirty Pair” are Kei and Yuri, two young interplanetary agents in the distant future who investigate crimes for the World Welfare Works Association or WWWA. They’re essentially female James Bond types who travel in their own space ship with their pet Mugi, which is essentially an intelligent, alien cat. Their code name is “the lovely angels” but because they’re famous for leaving death and destruction in their wake, they’ve come to be known as “the dirty pair.”

Unlike many anime series, each episode of Dirty Pair is a self-contained adventure. Kei and Yuri often find one mystery that leads to a bigger mystery or find that a tactical situation has gone out of control and they must go in guns blazing while wearing their battle bikinis. At least the novels explain that their outfits do include a transparent polymer that protects them while giving them the appearance of lots of exposed skin.

What I love about the series and the books is that Kei and Yuri are strong, well defined characters. Kei is more hot-tempered and impulsive while Yuri is more thoughtful. It’s fun to see their camaraderie and how the situations regularly blow up for them to cause damage worthy of a contemporary superhero film. What I find a little annoying is that at times it feels like Kei and Yuri are Betty and Veronica from Archie comics each competing for the next cute boy, even in the midst of worlds blowing up around them.

One key difference between the novels and the anime series is that in the novels, Kei and Yuri have clairvoyant powers. If they concentrate and then hold hands, they can get a precognitive clue to the mystery they’re trying to solve. The only time I know this appears in the anime is in the movie, Affair on Nolandia. Of some note, this movie seems to be one of the least popular Dirty Pair stories, but it does feel like it takes most of its beats from the books.

The first Dirty Pair novels were serialized in 1979 in the Japanese magazine SF Magajin. This means Kei and Yuri started kicking butt the same year as Ripley in the American Alien franchise.

The Dirty Pair novels are fun if you’re a fan of the anime and curious about the story’s history. The anime is fun if you like diverting science fiction stories with plenty of gun battles and explosions. Just don’t go in expecting a lot of depth. You can find strong women who will tell more thoughtful stories in other places.

If you want to explore some of the strong women characters in my stories, you might enjoy meeting Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Crimson in my Clockwork Legion Series. You might also enjoy meeting Suki Mori, Fire Ellis, and Kirsten Smart in my Space Pirates Legacy Series or Marcella DuBois, Jane Heckman, and Mercy Rodriguez from my Scarlet Order Vampire Series.

The Stories They Tell

I recently had a chance to see the movie The Kid which was directed by Vincent D’Onofrio and stars stars Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett and Dane DeHaan as Billy the Kid. The movie is actually focused on a boy, Rio (played by Jake Schur), and his sister, Sara (played by D’Onofrio’s daughter, Leila George) who have an abusive father. One night, the father goes into a rage and starts beating their mother. Unable to stand it any longer, Rio shoots his father, but it’s too late. Rio and Sara’s mother is already gone. What’s more, their uncle (played by Chris Pratt) is as bad or worse than the father and he plans no good for his niece and nephew because of what they did to his brother.

The kids escape their uncle only to take refuge in a shack that Billy the Kid and his associates use as a hideout. Billy and Rio take a liking to each other just as newly minted Sheriff Pat Garrett arrives to take the gang in. There’s a shootout, during which Charlie Bowdre is killed. Pat takes Billy’s gang into custody, then discovers Rio and Sara. They make up a story about meeting their parents in Santa Fe. Pat doesn’t quite believe them, but offers to take them anyway. At this point, the movie essentially follows the historical story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, while Rio tries to decide which of the two to trust with his secret. Later in the film, the stakes are upped when the uncle captures Sara. Then Rio must make a decision about who can be trusted to help rescue his sister.

I first heard this movie was in production soon after watching the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I was curious what other movies Dane DeHaan had been in and when I saw he would be playing Billy the Kid and Ethan Hawke (who had a bit part in Valerian) would be Pat Garrett, I knew I had to see this movie. It struck me that DeHaan had the potential to be a great Billy and he didn’t disappoint. Despite the Valerian connections, the movie almost crosses over more with the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven, in which Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke all had starring roles. Despite these connections and despite watching for it, the movie managed to come and go from theaters without my notice.

Overall, the movie used historical characters and events the way I try to in my steampunk and weird western stories. They became a way to ground the story in a historical reality and give it a sense of authenticity. For the most part, the history actually seemed quite good. The major events Billy the Kid’s last days played out as I know the story from Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. I only had two historical quibbles. First, they kept referring to New Mexico as a state. New Mexico wouldn’t become a state until 31 years after Billy’s death. Also, Santa Fe looked too much like a western boom town and not the longtime settlement it was.

The line that resonated most with me was one spoken by Pat Garrett near the end of the film. “It doesn’t matter what’s true. It matters the story they tell when you’re gone.” It echoes why characters like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are so fascinating. We have images and we have countless depictions, but we still want to get to know the truth of those characters. Sometimes we find new truths when we see them through the eyes of contemporaries as was imagined in The Kid. I think they did a great job of portraying Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as humans, neither totally good nor bad, but products of their circumstances. Sometimes we find truths when we put these characters into new situations as I do in the Clockwork Legion novels.

You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion novels by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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.

Godzilla vs Godzilla

This past weekend, my daughter took me to see the American film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters for Father’s Day. Earlier in the week, we watched the 2016 Japanese film Shin Godzilla. Afterwards, we had fun comparing and contrasting the two films. Since Shin Godzilla is something of a reboot, it might make more sense to compare the Japanese film to the 2014 American Godzilla, but King of the Monsters is the one that’s fresh in my memory and it is a direct sequel to the earlier film.

As I understand, the Japanese word “shin” has several meanings including “evolved,” “new” and “god.” All of them could apply to the Godzilla of Shin Godzilla. The movie has occasionally been shown under the title Godzilla: Resurgence, but I like the way the audience is invited to interpret the meaning of Shin Godzilla. The movie’s plot is familiar. A giant creature has appeared off the coast of Japan and soon begins rampaging through population centers. When the creature first appears, it’s not the familiar Godzilla form, but rather a fish-eyed, gilled creatures with rudimentary forearms, more like flippers. As the movie progresses, we learn that this Godzilla can evolve to meet whatever challenges he’s faced with and eventually takes on his familiar form.

The movie doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on the monster. Instead, Shin Godzilla focuses on the politicians and scientists trying to figure out what to do about the monster. An important feature of this is how it shows the relationship between the United States and Japan. The United States attempts to control the situation and wants to use atomic bombs to destroy the monster. Of course, this doesn’t go over at all well with the Japanese, even though they see it might be the only choice. This part of the plot strongly recalls the 1954 Godzilla, but updated to reflect modern politics. One standout character is the American Foreign Secretary to Japan, who is, herself, Japanese-American and stands in contrast to the male-dominated Japanese cabinet.

Perhaps the most striking element of Shin Godzilla is Godzilla’s design. This Godzilla is lean, mean, huge and terrifying. He also strikes me as something out of H.R. Giger’s worst nightmares. By contrast, America’s Godzilla looks like he could stand to lose a few pounds. I could accept that he’s just meant to look muscular, but every time I saw his body, I thought he looked more like a large squirrel than a fearsome dragon.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is at once a loving tribute to the Japanese Godzilla franchise and an American action film. I loved the variety of monsters they portrayed. Godzilla’s nemesis is the three-headed, hydra-like King Ghidorah, who is truly ferocious. By comparison, we should have sympathy for Godzilla, so that no doubt helps to contribute to his gentler design.

King of the Monsters opens on senate hearings into the Monarch project, which monitors the monsters, or Titans, as they’re known. I began to wonder if we were going to see something similar to the Japanese version, but it soon turns into standard action fare as bioterrorists capture a scientist and her daughter to make them unleash the Titans to “correct” all the damage humankind has done to the planet.

Perhaps my biggest issue with King of the Monsters is that it follows a trope I’ve been seeing in American films of late where women sacrifice themselves so the men they’re with can succeed. There are some unique twists on this, and I’ll avoid saying more to avoid spoilers, but I still found myself predicting all too easily who wouldn’t make it to the end of the film. Immediately after the film, my daughter and I started listing off several other plot issues. Jeez, don’t bioterrorists believe in guarding their secret headquarters? That said, it’s not like Japanese Godzilla films have all been cinematic masterpieces.

So, who wins in this battle of Godzilla vs. Godzilla? Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a lot more fun on the first watch. There was a lot of action and I cared about the characters. I enjoyed going on the ride the filmmakers created for me. However, I have a sense, that the more I watch it, the more issues I’ll have with it. Shin Godzilla was a bit slow and had a lot of political wrangling, but there were interesting layers in the film and I came away having a sense that if I watched again, I would see things I missed the first time. Both held up mirrors and asked us to consider whether kaiju or humans are really the most terrifying monster. Of the two, Shin Godzilla not only gave me scarier Godzilla, it gave me the most think about on that score.

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers

Back in March, I shared a post about an animated space western I remember fondly called BraveStarr about a Native American marshal on the frontier world of New Texas and the band of desperadoes he had to cope with. Responding to that post, Deby Fredericks recommended another animated space western from about the same time called Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. I finally had a chance to watch a few episodes and I found it to be an interesting, albeit different take on the space western.

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers is set in 2086, a century after the show’s production. The galaxy is ruled by an authoritarian regime called the Crown. However, a handful of planets have united against the Crown and have asked Earth to help them fight for freedom, in exchange, the planets united against the Crown have given humans hyperdrive technology. The human armed forces are the Bureau of Extra-Terrestrial Affairs (or BETA). The Galaxy Rangers are an elite corps of BETA operatives. Each of the four Galaxy Rangers have bionic implants that give them superhuman abilities.

The team leader is Zachary Foxx, voiced by Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach. His implant gives him super strength and he can fire energy beams from his arm. Shane Goosman, or simply “Goose,” is modeled on Clint Eastwood. His implant allows him to adapt to dangerous conditions. Niko has some limited psychic abilities and her implants enhance that ability. She also has a limited ability to “communicate” with machines. Walter “Doc” Hartford rounds out the Galaxy Rangers. His implants give him direct control with numerous mobile AIs who can interact with computers and gather information.

Whereas BraveStarr was a literal western set in space, Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers reminds me more of Joss Whedon’s show Firefly, where there is a lot of high tech, but frontier worlds are primitive and look like the old west simply because of limited supplies. There are considerable numbers of alien races and factions including criminal gangs and space pirates. The show is best when it creates a serious situation for one or more of the rangers to deal with and lets them solve the problems posed by the situation.

It seems like it took a few episodes for the writers to hit their stride and find a good storytelling formula. Early episodes in particular seemed to break out of action and give us some “cartoon humor” such as when a space pirate captain does a spit take and his minion pops an umbrella out his headgear to keep from getting drenched. It’s cute but it does pull you out of the action and doesn’t really fit the tone of the series as it ultimately developed.

One interesting aspect of the series is that it’s an early collaboration between an American production company and a Japanese animation studio. This kind of collaboration would pave the way for some truly great series such as Avatar: The Last Airbender. The animation studio is the same one that would go on to create the groundbreaking Akira. As a result, the series has something of an anime feel. What’s more, the voice director was Peter Fernandez who voiced the American dub of Speed Racer. Corinne Orr who voiced Trixie in Speed Racer voices the Queen of the Crown in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers.

What is odd is to realize that BraveStarr and Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers both came out within a year of each other in the mid 1980s. It’s hard to say what drove the interest in animated space westerns. The only thing I can see is the release of both Silverado and Pale Rider in 1985, which revived an interest in westerns generally, but I can’t remember either film having a strong appeal with young people at the time. Galaxy Rangers also clearly takes a lot of influence from Star Wars. Some ships resemble X-wing fighters. A space pirate has a laser sword and a village of primitives resembles the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi.

Even though BraveStarr was the show that influenced me when I first wrote my novel The Pirates of Sufiro some 25 years ago, I strove to make the space western elements more realistic as they are in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. However, my science fiction influences were shows like Star Trek and Star Blazers along with the writing of authors like Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. One thing that causes Galaxy Rangers to show its age is the very 1980s power ballad soundtrack. I was more influenced by the Texas blues of ZZ Top when I wrote Pirates.

Like BraveStarr, I’m hard pressed to recommend binge watching the entirety of Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers in one go, but if you like space westerns, watching at least a few is a fun way to spend an evening or two. If you want to help me revise The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary, sign on at my Patreon site: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.