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.

April and the Extraordinary World

A few weeks ago, my friend William J. Jackson posted a review of the movie April and the Extraordinary World on his blog. William is the author such novels as An Unsubstantiated Chamber and Cerulean Rust. Be sure to check out his blog and his books at the links above. When a steampunk writer of William’s caliber recommends a steampunk movie I haven’t heard of, I take note.

April and the Extraordinary World is a Belgian-Canadian-French co-production based on the visual style of Jacques Tardi, who is probably best known for the early steampunk graphic novel series The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which was adapted into a live action movie in 2010. April and the Extraordinary World came out in 2015 and starts by imagining a scientist named Gustave Franklin who has been creating super soldiers for Napoleon III. When the emperor comes to visit, there’s an accident and the two most promising super soldiers escape—a pair of hyper-intelligent Komodo dragons named Rodrigue and Chimène. If that last sentence alone doesn’t make you want to watch this film, I’m not sure what will!

We then jump ahead many years to a future where Napoleon IV rules France. Many scientists such as Einstein and Fermi have just vanished and the governments of the world are secreting away what scientists they can. Gustave’s son and grandson are working on a formula to regenerate the cells of animals to heal any injury and possibly extend life indefinitely. They come to the attention of those who are making scientists disappear and pass the formula on to their daughter, the April of the title, just before they disappear.

We now skip ahead a few more years to a point where April is a young adult and a scientist in her own right. The police are trying to round up any scientists they can get their hands on to work for the government. Meanwhile other mysterious forces have discovered that April has continued work on her parents’ formula. She finds she must get to the bottom of this conspiracy of vanishing scientists in order to learn the fate of her parents.

Even though we’re now in the world of the 1940s, everything is still steam powered. The streets are clogged with smoke and dirty. Gas masks are the province of the elite. This alternate 1941 Paris is a beautifully rendered, if frightening steampunk world. The artwork not only takes inspiration from Jacques Tardi, but from Japanese filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki.

One minor issue I had with the film was that early on, it makes a point of telling the audience “this is alternate history” and “this is how we’ve changed the world from the one you know.” The best speculative fiction works by just introducing you to the world and showing it to you in such a way that you suspend your disbelief. That said, this straightforward approach may make this a good film for introducing those who don’t understand steampunk to steampunk.

My one other minor issue is that for a plot so embroiled in the work of scientists, some of the technology seemed almost magical in its amazing abilities. This magical element is part of what reminds me of Miyazaki and its beautifully rendered, but I might have enjoyed the film just a little more if some of the inventions we saw seemed just a little more plausible.

Those minor nitpicks aside, I highly recommend the film. It’s one of those I rented on Netflix, then immediately decided I needed a copy and was delighted to find one at my local Barnes and Noble. It was in the anime section, appropriately next to Miyazaki’s films!

I liked the fact that this was very much alternate history that asked what if the level of science and technology had changed. I liked that April was a strong woman—and not necessarily in the butt-kicking way. She was smart and solved problems with her brain, yet was a well-rounded character who had believable feelings about the people around her. In tone, it accomplished much of what I also shoot for in my Clockwork Legion novels. You can learn more about them at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Cowboy Bebop

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through the video section of a local store when I came across a recent release of the TV series Cowboy Bebop. Although I’ve been an anime fan since I first saw Gigantor in the early 1970s, I managed to miss Cowboy Bebop’s debut on the Cartoon Network circa 2001. Cowboy Bebop Disc That was right after my wife and I decided that we weren’t getting enough out of cable to keep paying an exorbitant bill every month. I’d seen two or three episodes over the years at science fiction conventions and knew that I wanted to actually watch the series, so I picked it up.

If you’re like me and late to discovering Cowboy Bebop, it’s the story of two bounty hunters: a former cop named Jet Black and a former mob enforcer named Spike Spiegel, who travel through the solar system in a space ship called the Bebop looking for criminals to nab. As the series progresses, they’re joined by Faye Valentine, a bounty hunter with a mysterious past; Ein, a Welsh Corgi with a brain implant; and Radical Edward, a teenage girl who has mad computer skills. Unlike a lot of current anime, Cowboy Bebop has less of an overarching story and is more a series of self-contained episodes.

In this world Cowboys are Bounty Hunters, but space cowboy imagery runs through the series. Spike, Faye, and Jet all have their personal fighters, which are a little like their mechanical horses. There’s a sense of the solar system colonies on Mars and Jupiter’s moons requiring a kind of wild west frontier spirit to tame. Much of the look and feel of the show is reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and if Whedon didn’t take some inspiration from Cowboy Bebop, then the similarities are a pretty big coincidence.

One of the great elements of Cowboy Bebop is a truly remarkable jazz soundtrack by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts. At points, the music slips away from the jazz and adopts a little lonely guitar to enhance the wild west feel.

Another thing that strikes me as especially well done is the characterization of Radical Edward. As the father of a bright teenage girl, she hits many of the right notes. Edward can be persuaded to be useful, but most of the time is more interested in sleeping, eating, or doing her own thing, which sometimes horrifies or confuses the adults around her.

The Pirates of Sufiro

My only real issue with the series is that it’s set in 2071, and though I would love to have many well populated colonies out in the solar system by then, I’m hard pressed to believe it will happen. Despite that, I love the look of the series and have long been attracted to the idea of stories about the rugged individuals who will go out and forge new lives among the stars, such as my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. In my story, space pirates are stranded on a distant world and must make a life there in a story that took some inspiration from my great grandparents who homesteaded in New Mexico and Texas. The link in the title will take you to the free PDF edition distributed by my publisher, which is my preferred edition.

Finally, I’ll wrap up today’s post with a brief update. At this point, we’ve decided that Tales of the Talisman will remain closed through 2016. However, Hadrosaur Productions will be reading for an anthology this year tentatively on the theme of Space Cowboys. Like the space cowboys of Cowboy Bebop and The Pirates of Sufiro, these are not necessarily literal cowboys, but people who embody the frontier spirit. Some may be quick with their blaster. Some may have to use their wits to survive in a harsh environment. Some may just be the people who are happy to be alone riding the range of space when no one else wants to. I hope to have guidelines posted at the Tales of the Talisman website by April, with the reading period this summer. Till next week…see you space cowboy.