Monday, December 28, 2009

Walt, Skeezix, Dad, and I

"You always talk about the same thing," my wife observed after Dad's visit. "You always talk about Gasoline Alley." I suppose we do. Both of us love comics, and we're both very fond of "Gasoline Alley."

The strip began in 1918, written and drawn by Frank King. It was set in an alley where Walt Wallet and his fellow car enthusiasts, Doc Smartley, Avery, and Bill the mechanic. That alley would later spawned a garage that became a focal point for the comic. King drew the strip until 1956, when he retired and Dick Moores took over. Moores bowed out in 1986 to Jim Scancarelli, who's guided the Gasoline Alley storyline ever since.

It's been running a long time -- but so have some other strips. As youngsters, both Dad and I read "Blondie," "Little Orphan Annie," "The Katzenjammer Kids," "Moon Mullins" and many other long-running newspaper strips. But they don't generate the same level of discussion.

I think it's in part because unlike most humor strips (even the older ones) where all the characters are reset at the end of the daily strip, "Gasoline Alley" characters aged. "Dennis the Menace" has remained five years old for a half century. Ditto with the Peanuts gang. Blondie and Dagwood have had two teenagers for just about as long.

But the characters in "Gasoline Alley" have been born, grown, and -- albeit rarely -- died. When Dad was reading the strip in the 1930's Walt Wallet was raising Skeezix, the foundling he adopted, along with the help of Doc, Avery and the rest of the Gasoline Alley regulars. Dad picked up the story after Skeezix had grown from baby to teenager, and by the time World War II broke out, Dad was reading about his exploits as an enlisted man fighting in Europe.

When I was old enough to follow the strip, Skeezix was middle aged, and had long been married to his first love, Nina Clock. Their daughter, Clovia was dating Slim Skinner. I followed their courtship and marriage. Walt had retired from the furniture business he co-founded, and the Gasoline Alley garage was run by Skeezix, with mechanics (and fellow vets) Hack and Sarge.

We both followed the strip as Doc Smartley retired, leaving his practice to Skeezix's son (and Vietnam vet) Chipper Wallet. Eventually time caught up with the first generation of the cast. Doc, Avery, and resident miser Uriah Pert (uncle to Wilmer Bobble (an Eddie Haskel-like high school friend of Skeezix) disappeared, and later references make it clear that they've passed on. As did Walt Wallet's wife Nina in a major storyline from 2004.

Dad and I have kept up with the unfolding story of the Wallet clan and their supporting cast for some time now. And because, like real life, things change over time it's fun to recall great episodes of the past.

Remember that time Garfield ate the whole pan of lasagna? Probably not -- it happened ten years ago, last year, and may even be in tomorrow's strip. Garfield's static. Recurring gags don't demand much from the reader.

But the time when Slim had to take over for Hack and Sarge, or what Corky had to go through to open his diner? Only happened once. And those unique events -- like the ones in our real lives -- are fun to recall and discuss again and again. At least to a couple of comic characters like ourselves!

- Ralph

Yes, that's Dad and I. Strangely, he's the one with the hair!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Suicide Squad - An Appreciation

As the sky dumped twenty-two inches of snow on my central Virginia home, I spent some time revisiting a collection of Emile C. Tepperman's "Suicide Squad" stories. Tepperman may not have been a very prominent author, but he certainly was a prolific one. He wrote over 260 short stories, novelettes and full-blown novels between 1933 and 1943.

Tepperman definitely captured the pulse of the time -- readers of pulp magazines wanted action and plenty of it. Tepperman didn't disappoint. His stories are fast-paced thrill rides that pull the reader along from chapter to chapter.

The Suicide Squad -- Johnny Kerrigan, Stephen Klaw, and Dan Murdoch -- were the subject of twenty-two 15,000 word novelettes that ran in "Ace G-Man" magazine between 1939 and 1942. As Tepperman describes them:
Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw. The three Black Sheep of the F.B.I.--three men who were never sent on a regular routine assignment, but who always rated the calls where death was almost a certainty. Not so long ago there had been five of them. Now there were only three. Tomorrow there might be only two--or one--or none.
The Suicide Squad was reckless, and often deliberately walked into traps just to spring them to get the villains to tip their hands. With Tepperman's break-neck pacing, once the Squad gets involved (usually about three paragraphs into the story), the villain's master plan starts to unravel.

But what plots they are! In the Adventure House collection of wartime adventures I just finished the Suicide Squad takes on a 9,000 man-strong Japanese Expeditionary Force hidden in rural Maryland, a gang-run city, a saboteur with a cadre of Korean fire-archers, and the Undertaker, who returns all who go after him in a casket -- embalmed!

What makes the stories interesting is the dynamic between the three lead characters. There's an easy camaraderie and byplay between them, and (within the world of the pulps) some differences between the three. It's suggested that Stephen Klaw overcompensates for his youthful looks and short stature by being overly aggressive (even by Squad standards). Dan Murdoch is more concerned about organization and planning, even when it has to be done on the fly. And Johnny Kerrigan is the glue that holds these two opposites together.

Often times one of the Squad take the lead in the adventure, and the story takes on the dynamic of his personality. But action is always the watchword of the day, and in the end, the Suicide Squad always gets their men -- if they're still standing.

Here's a sample from the 1940 story "Suicide Squad - Dead or Alive!" Stephen Klaw has allowed himself to be captured. And, according to plan, Kerrigan and Murdoch enter at just the right moment.
Roy Fenn ripped out an oath, and went for his gun. At the same time, the two gorillas who were holding Steve Klaw let go of him and swung their own weapons to shoot at Kerrigan and Murdoch.

Dan Murdoch, with that grim smile still upon his dark and handsome face, fired once. The big gun jumped in his hand, and the hoodlum on Stephen Klaw's right was hurled backward as if he had been struck by a ten-ton sledgehammer.

Simultaneously, an automatic appeared in Klaw's right hand, and somehow its muzzle was up and belching flame at the second thug. The shot caught the man in the left shoulder and spun him around like a weather-vane, with his arms outstretched. He went sliding across the floor and ended up against a desk, huddled on the carpet, and moaning. Klaw's gun and Murdoch's had barked almost in unison.

A split-second later, Johnny Kerrigan reached Rory Fenn in a flying leap. Fenn had his gun out of its holster. Johnny smashed down with his revolver, struck Fenn's wrist. The big bruiser let go of the gun, uttering a cry of pain. He stood disarmed, staring vindictively at Kerrigan.

Johnny chuckled, kicked the fallen gun over toward a corner. Then he looked at Klaw and said, "Hello, Shrimp. Looks like these lads aren't so tough after all."
If you enjoyed the non-stop action and retro feel of the first Indiana Jones film, you might like the Suicide Squad stories. They would have made a great series of B pictures.

Emile C. Tepperman
remains somewhat of a cypher. There's no biography of him anywhere that has more than his professional life up through the late 1940's. Nevertheless, he left behind a body of work that, while not great literature by any definition, can still deliver entertaining thrills seventy years after its publication.

And that's not a small accomplishment.

- Ralph

Thursday, December 17, 2009

MST3K, RiffTrax, and Me

After trying (again) to explain the concept of MST3K/RiffTrax and why I enjoy it so much, I decided to just write a post about it that I can point newbies to. So if you're already a fan of Mike/Joel and the 'bots, then please let me know if there's anything I need to include. If you're wondering what the heck this is all about, read on.

The Basic Concept
In essence, both Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) and RiffTrax do the same thing: provide running commentary on a video as it's being shown. If you've ever talked back to a commercial, made a mordant observation during a film or TV show, or even provided your own dialogue over top of what the characters are actually saying, then you're doing the same basic thing as the MST3K commentators. The difference is the frequency, level and quality of the comments.

A Bit of Background - MST3K
Mystery Science Theater 3000 started off as a gentle spoof of the locally-produced late-night SciFi/horror movie shows that were popular in the 1960's and 1970's. In such shows, the host would introduce the movie, usually a B-grade movie (cheaper to rent). MST3K took the concept a step further by having the host segment extend through the entire movie.

The conceit is that an evil mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forester, has sent a hapless victim -- first Joel Robison (Joel Hodgson), and later Mike Nelson (Mike J. Nelson) -- into space. The victim is forced to watch bad movies as part of an experiment. The victim resists by commenting on the films, aided by two robots -- Crow T. Robot (originally voiced by Trace Beaulieu, later Bill Corbett) and Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy).

MST3K ran as a two-hour program on Comedy Central from 1988 to 1999 and developed a large fan base. They eventually released a theatrical movie version of the show, skewering "This Island Earth" before calling it a day. Rhino Records is reissuing many of the programs on DVD.

RiffTrax - The Legend Continues
With the rise of the Internet, the concept of MST3K returned in an expanded form. One of the drawbacks hampering MST3K was the need to get rights to use the films they lampooned. A limited budget kept the list of available films limited to movies fallen into public domain and really low-end productions.

A RiffTrax production is just an MP3 audio track, which means the staff can comment on virtually any film available on DVD (there are instructions telling you when to start the audio track so the sound syncs up). A much lower overhead and an expanded range of available films have revitalized this peculiar art form practiced by Mike J. Nelson and fellow MST3K alums, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

So where's the humor?
If you're someone who watches movies and TV shows uncritically, then this probably won't appeal to you -- you'll probably wish the commentators would just shut up so you could enjoy the show! However, if you've ever noticed details in films you weren't supposed to, or find that some parts of a TV show seem odd, or occasionally deconstruct a video, then the MST3K/RiffTrax commentary can be a wonderful thing.

Humor comes from surprise and unexpected juxtaposition. And that's what the commentary of Nelson and company provides. There are some recurring tropes. Some may give you an idea of the appeal these shows have.

  1. Cultural commentary - There are regular references to public radio/TV programming, opera, classical music, classic jazz, art works, classic literature, and history. Whenever the heroine trips and sprawls on the ground, count on someone mentioning Andrew Wyth's painting "Christina's World."
  2. Pop cultural commentary - This actually spans several generations. It can include current pop music and movie stars, as well as references to iconic moments from older films and TV shows. A recurring trope (which they lampooned themselves) was the cite "NBC Mystery Movie," an early 1970's TV show whenever someone shown a flashlight in the fog (the TV show opened with such a shot).
  3. Visual or audio riffs from the film - A silly phrase from early in the film may get repeated throughout the movie, heightening the humorous aspect of it. In "Teenagers from Outer Space," a character overly dramatizes the word "torture." Every time the character appears, a commentator adds "... and torture," to his lines, delivered in the same tone of voice.
  4. Breaking the fourth wall - The commentators often take a step back and make observations about the quality of the production. Doors that open the wrong way ("Why is my room in the hall?" a commentator asks), a movie set in prehistoric times that clearly show tire tracks in the road, awkward blocking, botched transitions, continuity errors, muddy dialogue recording -- it's all grist for the humor mill.

Finally, while it may seem easy, it's not. Anyone can sit back and crack wise while watching a video. But the commentators of these programs operated differently. They viewed the films several times, making notes, recording commentary and then refining and polishing their ideas to create finished scripts that sound improvised, but aren't.

And that, for me, is really the appeal. The quality of the humor usually consistent throughout the entire program. And the commentary is dense enough that it's only after a second or third viewing that I finally get all the jokes.

So there you have it. Something that I can enjoy with repeated viewing, that consistently makes me laugh, and something that does what I like to do, only better -- that's the appeal for me!

- Ralph

Yes, I know I haven't mentioned Cinematic Titanic, but I haven't seen any of their productions, yet. Some of the MST3K alum appear in RiffTrax, while most of the founding cast (Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and others) appear in Cinematic Titanic -- same basic concept, though.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Time Capsule

Part of what gives Christmas it's emotional weight (at least for me) is the accumulated history of tradition. I thought about that as we decorated this past weekend.

For us, just about every ornament has its own story, and recalling those stories is part of what makes this season special.

Take the picture at right, for example. This hand-carved set of a mother cat and kitten drinking milk we purchased back in 1987. It was made in East Germany -- a country that no longer exists. I believe this set cost us about $15.00 (after Unification, the price jumped to $45.00).

We purchased the ornament at the Persimmon Corner, a boutique gift shop in downtown Charlottesville, VA. The store closed in the 1990's when the owner retired. But it was a great place to find the small wooden ornaments we needed for our Scandinavian tree.

The tree was given to us shortly after we were married by a good friend. It's made of wooden paddles that fan out to hold the ornaments, which are all less than an inch tall (or significantly smaller for the upper parts of the tree). She's long since moved away, but her gift remained. And after 25 years, we finally found enough ornaments to fill it.

So there's a lot of memories wrapped up in this little wooden set -- the shopping trips to one of our favorite store, good times with our friend, decorating in years past with toddlers, young children, and teens, and it's something of a historic artifact at this point.

And that's just one ornament on one tree.

Traditions are a way to help us remember. So what memories do your holiday traditions hold?

Friday, December 11, 2009

A priceless experience

I had a very odd thing occur yesterday.

A colleague and I were sharing stories about some professional successes that sounded impressive but were far more modest in their career-changing impact. My friend pointed to his Rolling Stone Magazine contribution -- an article for the "Schools That Rock: The Rolling Stones College Guide, 2005." It's still readily available from Amazon. Used copies start at 12 cents.

Although I've written over 40 compositions, only one has ever been recorded. And it's been recorded twice (sort of). "Three Etudes for Piano, Op. 3" was premiered on a 1990's ERM recording, "Piano Art," a recital disc by composer/pianist Robert Ian Winstin.

It's a pretty small work. All three movements only take about six minutes total, and it's sparsely written (my piano technique is somewhat limited). Pianist Leanne Rees liked the music well enough to include one (!) of the movements on her recital CD, "Women Composers and the Men in Their Lives."

Needless to say, this miniature masterpiece did not take the classical music world by storm (or even by sprinkle). The CD "Piano Art" had a good run, but eventually, all the copies sold through, and it's currently out of print. And yes, I kept my day job.

So I was very surprised when I called up the disc on Amazon during our discussion. Leanne Rees' CD, which is still in print, is available for a reasonable $9.99. But if you want the complete version of my Op. 3, a mint condition "Piano Art" CD can be yours for only $130.74! (click to enlarge the image)

Of course, the real interest of the album is Robert Ian Winstin's title composition, "Piano Art," which presents a series of music impressions of some classic images. And I'm sure that's what is determining the price and desirability of this CD.

But still. Glad I kept a couple of extra copies!

- Ralph

BTW - If there's any interest, I'll be glad to post PDFs of the music. Sorry, can't post the recording -- I don't own it, ERM Media does (and that's your music biz lesson for today).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Too Much Joy, Not Enough Cash

As AC/DC once sang on "'74 Jailbreak,"
You learn to sing
You learn to play
Why don't the businessmen
Ever learn to pay

That's show business (Show business)
Show business (Show business)
Show business
That's the way it goes
Common complaint, of course, but two recent posts really put things into perspective. If you think getting signed to a major label is your entry to Easy Street, think again. For most bands, its anything but.

Tim Quirk, of the band Too Much Joy, recently posted his royalty statement with some very pointed (and knowledgeable) commentary. If you're interested in the music industry at all, you should read then entire post. Especially revealing is Quirk's explanation of how the majors use creative accounting to make sure their investment is covered at the expense of the artist.

While our royalty statement shows Too Much Joy in the red with Warner Bros. [for about $400,000], this doesn’t mean Warner “lost” nearly $400,000 on the band. That’s how much they spent on us, and we don’t see any royalty checks until it’s paid back, but it doesn’t get paid back out of the full price of every album sold. It gets paid back out of the band’s share of every album sold, which is roughly 10% of the retail price.

So, using round numbers to make the math as easy as possible to understand, let’s say Warner Bros. spent something like $450,000 total on TMJ. If Warner sold 15,000 copies of each of the three TMJ records they released at a wholesale price of $10 each, they would have earned back the $450,000. But if those records were retailing for $15, TMJ would have only paid back $67,500, [or $1.50 a unit] and our statement would show an unrecouped balance of $382,500.

Of course, things are different now that it's all digital downloads, right? Well, according to some sources, the artist gets 12% of what the label receives from the 99 cent iTunes sale -- which is about 70 cents (credit card processing gobbles up 25 cents, BTW). Which means the artist makes a little over 8 cents per song (and yes, the same accounting rules about recouping investment apply).

But the majors forced iTunes to variable pricing
, and now many new songs cost $1.29. So out of the dollar the labels now receive, what does the artist get? Many have contracts with fixed residuals, which means they still get 8.5 cents per song.

If the songs are noted in the account process, which was the primary subject of Quirk's post.

AC/DC recorded "Show Business" back in 1974. Sad that it's still relevant.

- Ralph

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

National Novel Writing Month 09 - A Personal Account

So what's it like to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days? If you like to write, I highly recommend it. There's something exhilarating about slamming out words with your internal editor turned off.

To me, this kind of pedal-to-the-metal writing is very similar to what I imagine authors of the 1930's did. It was possible to support yourself as a fiction writer then, but you had to write a lot -- and write it on deadline.

And so this year's novel, "Death in Five States," was another in a series of pulp homage adventures I've written about the mysterious crime fighter known only as Raven. I had a pretty detailed outline of the story prepared before I began the event.

The plot involves two rival gangs fighting over a mcguffin, which the heroine inadvertently steps into the middle of when she boards a cross-continental express train. Most of the action was take place aboard the train, with a brief denouement as the surviving parties disembark and finish the chase.

About halfway through, though, something happened. A minor character that was really only introduced to be killed threatened to take the story another direction.

Behind her two men emerged from the corridor. One was of average height, but broad. His face had a beefy quality to it, what little wasn't covered by his big bushy beard. He clutched a small valise close to his chest.

His companion was shorter, a slight man with watery gray eyes that peered out through rimless spectacles. The two settled into a couch next to Nancy. The small man nodded pleasantly to the girl. Encouraged by the gesture, Nancy beamed back

"I'm Nancy Whitaker. How do you do?" she said.

The small man nodded again. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I'm Eustace Smithers. This is my colleague, Mr. Bruno."

Mr. Bruno grunted.

"I believe we're travel companions," Smithers continued, "You're in 4C aren't you? We're in 3C."

Nancy cocked a quizzical eyebrow. "You two are journeying together?"

"Yes," said Smithers enthusiastically. "All the way to San Francisco. And you?"

"Same here," said Nancy. She peered over to Mr. Bruno. "That's a nice-looking satchel" she commented.

Mr. Bruno pulled the valise tighter to his chest, looking suspiciously at Nancy.

Smithers leaned close to Nancy. "Mr. Bruno is very protective of that case," he whispered. "It contains some... personal things that are very close to his heart. It's best not to call attention to it."

Nancy nodded slowly. "I see," she lied.

I have no idea where Mr. Bruno came from (the original walk-on didn't even have a name).

But that wasn't the only surprise. There's the FBI agent who was supposed to remain in the background, but ended up becoming a romantic interest. And the whole back story of the Gemini Gang, which turned my two ill-defined crime boss rivals into fraternal twins locked in a deadly struggle.

About half-way through my detailed outline no longer fitted the story -- or perhaps it was the other way around. "Death in Five States" had gone off the tracks, if you will. But with the month half gone and over 25,000 words written, I couldn't just start over, nor take the time to pull it back around by rewriting the first part if I wanted to finish on time. No, all I could do was keep typing, and read what was going to happen next.

The National November Writing Month slogan is Thirty days and nights of literary abandon. That's what it was for me. I learned a lot more about the writing process during this time, and had a blast.

I didn't end up where I thought I would when I started out, but it was definitely worth the trip.

- Ralph

You can read my Nanowrimo entry by clicking on the link below. This isn't edited yet - I've just gone through and fixed typos and added chapter headings.

"Death in Five States" by Ralph Graves - first draft pdf