Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, Volume 20: 1989-1990 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphic, 2013)

This is the most satisfying volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS in quite some while, a welcome anticipation of Charles Schulz' strong "finishing kick" in the 1990s.  Schulz had abandoned the traditional four-panel strip layout in 1988, but here is where he begins to really exploit it to its advantage.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the bittersweet 1990 sequence in which Charlie Brown meets pretty little Peggy Jean at summer camp.  "Brownie Charles" (as Charlie tongue-tiedly refers to himself when the two kids exchange names) nearly blows what seems like a promising relationship right out of the gates when he chickens out and refuses to let Peggy hold a football while he comes running up to kick it.  (Old habits are hard to break, after all.)  An angry Peggy leaves the scene, but then comes back, in a marvelous single-panel strip in which we see a dock-sitting Charlie's reaction from the back.  No four-panel strip could have packed a punch equivalent to that generated by this single scene.

During this period, Schulz also hits upon the notion of using single-panel strips as the bases for strings of related gags. Actually, "gags" is misleading, since most of these "one-and-dones" are more like ruminations or "moments in time."  For example, we see a number of panels in which Charlie Brown and a very dog-like Snoopy are sitting together, with Charlie thinking out loud about the relationship between boy and dog and Snoopy, of course, frequently thinking about other matters entirely, like cookies.  The tension between what Charlie thinks the relationship is and what the relationship truly is is softened by the quasi-sentimental presentation.

We're introduced to yet another Snoopy relative (Fat Olaf, this time) near the start of this collection, but Schulz seems to have made a conscious effort to dial back a bit on the canine family members, talking schoolhouses, and annoying pop-culture references that cluttered up PEANUTS in the 80s, returning instead to a number of first principles.  Snoopy's aforementioned interest in cookies reflects an increased number of instances in which the heavily anthropomorphized dog gets to do dog-like things.  The theme of Snoopy seeking Linus' blanket reappears with a vengeance, and even Pigpen is graced with a starring role in a continuity for the first time in Lord knows how long, running unsuccessfully (and, of course, unsanitarily) for class president.  Granted, too many characters end strips by saying "whatever," but... you know, whatever.

Lemony Snicket delivers one of the best introductory pieces of the series.  It had me laughing at several points, which, given Mr. Snicket's reputation, seems somewhat ironic.  I can definitely see how a strip with PEANUTS' view of life might "appeal" to such a character. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

In the Days of My (Extreme) Youth

I hope you all had a chance to visit with your friends and family for Christmas.  The Barat family had a nice get-together in Wilmington.  While I was there, my mother, who just recently moved out of her condo and moved in with my youngest sister's family, gave me a bag full of things that she had "uncovered" (or, more accurately, recovered) as she was gathering together and selling off stuff that she had accumulated over the years.  Most of it belonged to my Dad, including one of his old slide rules -- not one of the wimpy little plastic ones that became common during the sunset years of the device, but a real hefty one -- and the spiked belt he used as a Jesuit novitiate.  Mom's major contribution to the stash, meanwhile, was an old "Baby Album."  If you're old enough, your parents may have kept one for you, detailing facts about your birth, early years, childhood milestones, and so forth.  I imagine that they have long since passed out of favor, replaced by higher-tech memory-makers.  In any event, I took some of the items in the album and digitized them.

They didn't fool around back in 1962 when it came to identifying babies' genders by color!

The first "official" picture ever taken of me, on the day of my baptism, November 1, 1962.  I seem to recall that I had that rabbit toy for quite a while as a kid.

Pictures from my first Christmas.  At the time, we were living just across the Hudson from Manhattan in North Bergen, NJ.  My parents had been married for 1 1/2 years and my Dad was working for Mobil Oil Company.

Christmas 1963, the last one for which I was an only child.  My sister Jenny was on the way and would arrive in three months.

I'll post some more mementos when I have time.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ponies (well, horses), Beer, and DUCKS for Christmas? Well, Why Not?




And finally... can anyone recall seeing this DuckTales holiday commercial from 1989?  I certainly can't.  With original animation AND Bubba Duck, yet!


  Merry Christmas from Chris and Nicky!

Monday, December 23, 2013

"Flight" and Fight

You couldn't get much more of a contrast in styles and themes than that displayed by the two most recent new episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Thanks to Summer convention spoilers, the eps' content was no secret, but the manner in which the subject matter would be executed was a focal point of considerable debate.  It turned out that the ep with the quieter, more character-based approach was more successful -- which says something, I think, about the series' need to continue playing to its strengths and minimize the use of flashy, less substantial "gimmick episodes."

** SPOILERS **

"Flight to the Finish" was expected to answer the longstanding question of whether Scootaloo of the Cutie Mark Crusaders could, or would ever, fly.  Apparently, a largish segment of the fandom had a sizable emotional investment in the notion that Scootaloo could NOT fly and that she was, in fact, disabled.  "She had BETTER be disabled, is all I can say," wrote one Brony before the episode aired.  Well, the ep ended up leaving the question unanswered -- and, in fact, neutralized it by emphasizing that Scootaloo's ability to fly was completely irrelevant to the CMC's immediate purpose of winning the right to carry Ponyville's flag at the upcoming Equestria Games.  Some folks were upset at the fact that Scoots' condition was not pinned down, but I can understand the writing staff wanting to keep its options open for later developments, including the not-entirely-inconsiderable one that the fillies are still trying to get their "cutie marks."  At least the ep did reveal that Scootaloo isn't homeless, as ANOTHER segment of Bronies (which I'll call the "Scootabuse" crowd) were inclined to believe.

"Flight" made up in "Heart" and character development what it lacked in excitement; last weekend's "Power Ponies" was the exact opposite, a slam-bang, quick-paced, funny superhero parody without a brain in its head.  The Mane 6 and Spike literally get sucked into a comic-book world that they can only escape by defeating the Mane-iac, your standard over-the-top, cackling villain with a crazy take-over-the-city plot, this one involving (if you can believe it) a giant hair dryer.  The "Power Pony" characters in Spike's comic book just happen to have skill sets that mirror many of those of the Mane 6, which certainly helped the Mane 6's cause.  I'm no doubt prejudiced, but I think Rarity, who took the Green Lantern role of a character who is able to materialize various (fashionable!) inanimate objects by manipulating her jewelry, pretty much stole the show.  Not only was "Radiance" quick to master her powers, but she got virtually all of the best gags.  Fluttershy also stole at least a part of the show with her transformation into "Flutterhulk."

Upcoming episodes seem to be split between the approaches taken in "Flight" and "Power," with, I'm happy to say, a leaning towards the former.  Granted, we will be getting an ep guest-starring Weird Al Yankovic as (apparently) a partying rival of Pinkie Pie's, but we'll also be seeing eps centering around conflicts between members of the Mane 6, Pinkie's search for her roots, and a rival designer ripping off Rarity's fashion line, all of which would seem to be solidly character-centered.  Also, it seems almost inevitable that February will bring an Equestria Games storyline of some kind to tie in with the Winter Olympics in Sochi.  It's been a very entertaining Season 4 thus far, and I expect the show to keep up its high batting average.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Comics Review: MY LITTLE PONY MICRO-SERIES #10: LUNA (IDW Publishing, December 2013)


** SPOILERS **

Katie Cook and Andy Price are starting to remind me of the team of John Lustig and William Van Horn back in the days of "Gladstone I."  In John and Bill's DUCKTALES comic-book stories, while the main characters (Scrooge, HD&L, and Launchpad) were certainly in character, the tales themselves had a certain zany, off-the-wall feel that was only occasionally reflected in the animated series itself.  In the case of MY LITTLE PONY, Katie and Andy take this tendency to, if not an extreme, then certainly much farther than John and Bill ever did.  The major reasons why are that Katie and Andy are big fans of the series (which leads them to pack their panels with in-jokes and references that only Bronies could be expected to get) and that they are more than willing to play with the personae of the main cast if it suits their purposes.  Occasionally, this gets them into trouble with the more literal-minded of fans, for example, when they got flak for couching the courtship of Princess Cadance and Shining Armor (MLP:FIM #11-#12) in the trappings of a 1980s "coming-of-age" movie.  I argued in my review of that issue that C&P were essentially free to do whatever they darn well pleased in telling that story, since the principal characters were so underdeveloped to begin with.  In their treatment of Princess Luna in the final issue of the MLP Micro-Series, Katie and Andy are on somewhat stabler ground, since their depiction of the Princess of the Night as a hyper-enthusiastic, endearingly naive "goddess with a slight case of Aspergers syndrome" doesn't deviate all that far from some other versions of this most volatile of major players.  Suffice it to say, though, that they take their interpretation of Luna pretty far down the road, so much so that at least a couple of "neigh-sayers" will probably take up the challenge to walk it back.  I am not one of them.

Various creators have characterized Luna as everything from a fearful child to an anachronistically imperious goddess to a regretful, guilt-ridden former villain (the latter referring to her age-old guise of Nightmare Moon).  In "The Day Shift," after Luna argues that her sister Celestia's stewardship of the Day can't possibly be as exciting as Luna's stewardship of the Night, the gals (a rather inappropriate term to use in this case, but, given the sitcom-esque trappings of the story, it seems quite fitting) agree to swap jobs.  More accurately, Celestia gets to spend a relaxing day at the spa while Luna assumes all of Celestia's "boring" bureaucratic duties, which prove to be nothing of the kind, making up in bulk what they lack in general interest level.  The Luna who must deal with business meetings, guard inspections, tea parties, and the like is essentially the same zizzed-up, socially awkward, archaism-spouting mare who was first seen (in somewhat decaffeinated form) in the TV ep "Luna Eclipsed" and who later strong-shanked Big Macintosh into being her partner in the Summer Wrap-Up competitions in Cook and Price's MLP:FIM #9-10.  Cook and Price's take on Luna is even funnier and more sharply etched here, as Celestia's long-suffering appointments secretary Kibitz does his best to keep the effervescent, perpetually unpredictable "Moonbutt" "on task."  Luna's confusion over how to verbally and psychologically handle her subjects -- actually, there's a fair amount of debate here over what she should call them besides "subjects" -- leads her to veer between (to take just two examples) rendering Solomon-like judgments on questions of "fair division" and using party guests as living chess pieces.  Needless to say, by the time the day is over, Luna has a newfound respect for Celestia's duties... but now, she is obliged to continue straight on to her standard "Night shift" while Celestia goes to bed.  Better start brewing that coffee, stat!

Outside the peerless Rarity issue, this is the best of the ten Micro-Series offerings, which, taken as a whole, were a real hodgepodge in terms of quality.  I expect consistently better results out of the upcoming FRIENDS FOREVER title, since the whole rationale behind that one is to pair up characters who do not always get a chance to interact, or who have never interacted before, period.  One of the problems with the weaker Micro-Series issues was that the writers tended to spin their stories out of fairly predictable situations (Twilight Sparkle working at a library, Rainbow Dash participating in a competition, Fluttershy overcoming her inhibitions).  The harder that the writers have to work to come up with believable reasons for characters to get together, the more interesting the stories are likely to be.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"DUCKTALES Remastered": No More Games

David Gerstein was in the area doing some research and stayed overnight at our place.  Some of his and my time together included a bit of ogling of the "movie" (between-game-play) portion of the DuckTales Remastered video game.  Never having been a gamer, THIS is the part of greatest interest to me.  It is the closest we're ever going to get to a 101st episode of the series (or, if you prefer, a second theatrical feature film).


I'll post some thoughts on the action when I have time. For the moment, I'm concentrating on doing screen-grabbing from the second-season eps in preparation for resuming my regular RETROSPECTIVES in January.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: A GAME OF BRAWL by Bill Felber (University of Nebraska Press, 2007)

Thanks to expansion, divisional play, and wild cards, we will most likely never again see a "good, old-fashioned" pennant race in baseball.  This book tells the story of the first pennant race to truly capture the entire country's attention.  While the setting and the baseball were old-fashioned, to describe the emotions involved as "good" would be somewhat misleading.  In 1897, the much-hated, cutthroat Baltimore Orioles did vicious battle with the comparatively mannerly, yet no less determined, Boston Beaneaters -- the ancestors of today's Atlanta Braves -- for the top spot in the unwieldy, 12-team National League.  The battle reached a fevered climax when the two teams played a late-season three-game series in Baltimore that author Felber, with only slight exaggeration, calls the greatest event in the country's sporting history up until that time.

Major-league competition in the 1890s was warped by the huge gap between the league's haves and have-nots and, more to the immediate point, by the popular idea that dirty play and intimidation of the umpire were simply part of the game.  The Orioles weren't the only team that used chicanery and bullying to triumph; they were simply the best at it and had better personnel to execute the gamy game plan, including such future Hall of Famers as John McGraw, Willie Keeler, Wilbert Robinson, and manager Ned Hanlon.  The "original O's" won three straight NL titles between 1894 and 1896 and seemed primed for a "four-peat" in '97, but the Beaneaters, whom the Orioles had supplanted as the league's top club, overcame a sluggish start to challenge the champions.  In the process, the Boston club, cheered on by the country's first organized fan contingent, the Royal Rooters, swept up a large number of neutral fans who dearly wanted baseball's original "evil empire" to be humbled.

Due to the frequent descriptions of game action, Felber's book is a bit of a dry read at times, but he mixes in occasional diversions highlighting other aspects of the game in the 1890s, such as the battle over the propriety of Sunday baseball, the hellacious treatment given to umpires (which was frequently reciprocated by the feistier ones), and the use of marionette re-creations in theaters to enable fans to follow their teams on the road.  The world may have been a much lower-tech place back then, but the "prehistoric" version of modern fan culture made up in sheer enthusiasm what it may have lacked in sophistication.

Friday, December 13, 2013

RIP Captain Harvey's Restaurant and Coffee with T.

Two local eateries of Nicky's and my acquaintance closed their doors recently.  Actually, Coffee with T. would be better described as a "nibblery," since its main selling point was -- you guessed it -- caffeinated drinks of various sorts.  After the demise of Owings Mills' Java Journeys a few years ago, Coffee with T. was one of the very few coffee-centric joints within a reasonable distance of where we live.  It was located in Stevenson Village, a collection of eclectic shops and a tiny post office in "the heart of Stevenson" (a somewhat unverifiable claim given that the town of Stevenson doesn't consist of very much to begin with).  I went to Coffee with T. to get lunch on those occasions when I needed to mail something and didn't have the time or inclination to wait in line at the much larger Owings Mills P.O.  I might still be able to do that, since the site has been turned into a satellite of Stone Mill Bakery, a larger (and much more outrageously overpriced) concern of similar type, but I would feel better about patronizing the business if it were still a go-it-alone concern.

Owings Mills itself suffered a much bigger dining loss in early November when Captain Harvey's Seafood Restaurant closed its doors.  The restaurant had existed since the 1930s and had been in its location on Reisterstown Road for 60 years. Though it is one of a relatively small number of higher-end, "non-chain" dining establishments in the area, it took Nicky and I a while before we decided to give it a try.  Perhaps it was the yardarm roadside sign, perhaps the crabhouse attached to the side of the main dining area like an oversized barnacle, but we rarely drove by it without making some joke about the proprietors greeting patrons with "Welcome Aboard!" or there being old fishing nets and crab pots tacked on the dining-room walls.  In downtown Baltimore, there's a seafood place that is literally shaped like a boat, and we figured that Captain Harvey's, for all of its conventional exterior looks, was probably such a place.

When we finally decided to gird our loins (not in public, mind you) and visit the Captain's quarters, the place turned out to be... not that bad.  Since we are not big fish, crab, or lobster eaters, the two big selling points for us were the weekly non-seafood dinner specials (beef tenderloin, fried chicken, etc.) and the everything-included Thanksgiving dinner.  On the few occasions we visited, the food was at least reasonably decent.  The wood-paneled, darkish main dining area and dark patterned rug, however, simply screamed "70s."  Since the place was partially rebuilt in 1972 after it was damaged by a fire, I suppose that we shouldn't have been all that surprised by the decor.  The refusal to change said decor, however, probably made it harder to attract a younger clientele in recent years.  Nicky suggested that the restaurant had to close because many of its key patrons had died off, and that seems a reasonable conclusion. 

Whereas Coffee with T. was at least replaced by another, somewhat similar establishment, Captain Harvey's suffered the indignity of being bought out by the Royal Farms convenience-store chain.  For the moment, the crabhouse is still open, but the place's supplies are slowly being sold off.  It's a sad way to end 80 years in business, but the dining world, like the rest of the cosmos, does move.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

More Hoops, More Hooves

This week, for the first time ever, Stevenson's men's basketball team received a vote in the d3hoops.com Top 25 poll.  The Mustangs are 6-1 following a couple of tough conference road wins at Hood and at Arcadia, the latter in double OT.  The girls have also rebounded from an 0-3 start, posting four straight wins and taking first place in their conference.  This bids fair to be SU's most interesting season of hoops in quite a while.

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**PONY SPOILERS**

The first two half-hour episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Season 4 were pretty decent, all things considered, but they were a "fur piece" from completely nit-free.  "Castle Mane-ia" went all Scooby-Doo on us as the "Mane 6" (well, most of them, anyway) took turns having the bejabbers scared out of them in the abandoned castle that once belonged to Princesses Luna and Celestia.  Before you ask:  Yes, the ponies were split up, but no, they didn't split up DURING the adventure; they actually arrived at the castle in groups.  Sounds overly convenient, I know, but there it is.  The ep introduced what looks to be the "official replacement" for the moral-bearing "letters to Princess Celestia" and teased us at the very end with the unresolved appearance of a mysterious figure; no clue as of yet as to who said figure might be, though.

"Daring Don't" delivered a real sucker punch as it was revealed that Rainbow Dash's "fictional" heroine, Daring Do, actually does exist and that her book-length adventures are merely retellings of her real exploits.  After playing the compleat fangirl for a while, Rainbow Dash gets to help the notoriously solitary Daring on her latest mission.  The episode incorporates ideas from Indiana Jones movies, The Lord of the Rings, and (yes indeed) DuckTales, and the mixture makes for a lot of fun... but hoo, boy, does it open up a giant can of worms regarding what is "real" and what is "fictional" in the MLP universe.  I find it extremely hard to believe that Daring Do, her archvillainous opponent Ahuizotl, Ahuizotl's minions, and a giant, vaguely Mayan-esque temple have existed in Equestria for this long without anypony getting wise to the fact or intervening in the struggle.  And I don't even have an elaborate series of fanfics about "the real Daring Do" hanging in the balance.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Music, The Final Frontier

I generally find "flash mobs" to be annoying, but not this one, which took place at the National Air and Space Museum the other day.  This was a really nice tribute to the season by the U.S. Air Force Band.  Now, just watch some secular Grinch or other lodge a complaint about the playing of a Christmas-affiliated hymn on government property...


For those keeping score, this was my 800th blog post!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: IKE'S BLUFF by Evan Thomas (Little Brown, 2012)

Dwight Eisenhower has long since been "rehabilitated" as an excellent Chief Executive, and Thomas' book contributes its own mite to the reassessment, demonstrating how Eisenhower managed to keep the peace during the supposedly placid, but actually quite perilous, 1950s. Ironically, Ike did this by keeping friends and foes alike guessing as to whether or not he would carry through on his administration's stated policy of "massive" nuclear retaliation against any Communist threat.  At the same time, drawing upon the immense fund of good will and trust that he had banked during his service as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and later head of NATO, Eisenhower held the line as much as he could against "unnecessary" defense spending.  Hard as it may be to believe today, he had as much trouble defending his defense policies from ambitious Democrats (John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, to name just two) as he did calming the fears of right-wingers in the Republican party.  The famous farewell speech in which Ike warned against the "military-industrial complex" was his parting shot in this sometimes-visible, sometimes-subterranean internecine war.

This is not a full-fledged biography of Eisenhower so much as a review of his foreign and defense policies, though a fair bit of personal and cultural detail is included (Thomas appears to have cribbed energetically from William Manchester's THE GLORY AND THE DREAM on the latter score).  Even those who have a fair degree of familiarity with the 50s will find some interesting tidbits here.  For example, while I knew that Ike had some serious medical problems (including a heart attack) while in office, I was unaware of the extent and severity of many of these problems.  Eisenhower's ability to hold it together despite these physical issues and a terrible temper that only rarely surfaced in public reminded me of a bit of how George Washington suppressed his own inner demons to present that famed surface imperturbability.  With the fate of the world (if not humanity) at stake throughout his Presidency, Ike's balancing act may have been even more impressive.  Like many of the successful modern Republican Presidents, he had the self-confidence and self-discipline to allow himself to be "misunderestimated" while accomplishing many of his goals out of public view.  In that respect, he is a good role model for any ambitious GOP Presidential candidate of today.