Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Writing Prompt (or One Last Go Around with the Admiral)

Sometimes, after you've been spending almost three quarters of a year writing a weekly blog, your mind draws a blank and you're not sure what to write about that week. That's when I think back to my writing class in college and pull out the age old tool of writers everywhere: the writing prompt. It's a time-tested way of getting words down on paper (or screen, in this case).

The prompt: what are the 5 movies that have informed the person you have become today? What about those movies affected your development? Discuss...

1. Star Wars (natch)

Yeah, this was always going to be Star Wars. It is the pinnacle of science fiction film making, and everything after it was downhill from there. Well, not really. But it was a turning point in not only how audiences saw science fiction, but what audiences came to expect from the "summer blockbuster": high action, humor, and lots of explosions. Dialog, story, and plot were almost after-thoughts (and in some instances, they really were). But, soon enough, filmmakers would realize that you couldn't always just wow the audience with flashy visuals. You needed some heart in the story and characters to make the audience car. Lucas was able to make us care about a farm boy from a back-water planet. About a couple of Laurel and Hardy robots. About a princess that was more kick-butt than damsel-in-distress. About a lovable rouge with a shady past and his Wookiee companion. When they failed, we were concerned. When they succeeded, we cheered. And we came back for more (and more, and more).

This was the movie that got me excited for science fiction. It had all of the right elements, in the right ratios, at the right time in my life to burrow its way into my head and take hold of my heart. I've sought out all available background information on the movie, I've followed the universe that Lucas created since the first day I saw it, and whether I like it or not, it is the measure by which I've compared all science fiction since. It made me a fan of science fiction and the processes behind its creation, and I am forever changed because of it.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Even though Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece came out nearly a decade before Star Wars, I did not see it for the first time until I was in high school. This has less to do with the quality of the movie and more to do with the fact that for most of my young life, it was "too old" for me to be concerned with. I'm glad that I was old enough to appreciate it for what it was when I finally did watch it for the first time. Clarke and Kubrick weren't giving us a space opera like the Saturday morning Flash Gordon serials that served as the inspiration for Star Wars. They were giving us a view of the future of the human race in space, with an element of the fantastic added to give us an amazing story. 

While the movie did further my interest in the techniques of miniature model makers and filming, what I credit 2001 with is deepening my interest in classical music. When a movie is being edited, movie makers will often use a temporary soundtrack to establish the timing of scenes. The composer then takes the edited film, strips the temp soundtrack, and begins composing their own. Kubrick used classical pieces from the likes of Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Adam Khachaturian, and György Ligeti for his temp track. The film relies heavily on the score, as there are long sequences where there is little to no dialogue in the film. Kubrick had hired composer Alex North to score the movie. North had worked with Kubrick on both Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove. However, in postproduction, Kubrick decided to abandon North's score in favor of the temp score he had originally used. The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately for Alex North, he did not find out about Kubrick's decision until he saw the premiere of the film. Ouch.

3. Ghostbusters

Growing up, among my many and varied interests, was a keen interest in the paranormal. I was particularly interested in UFOs and cryptids, but I also enjoyed a good ghost story. Of course, this was before the time of "reality" shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures had put paranormal investigation into the public eye, but I did try and catch any episode of Unsolved Mysteries that had something to do with a spook, specter, or ghost.

When Ghostbusters came out, it ticked off a number of boxes in my list of interests: it was about ghosts and paranormal investigation, it had spectacular visual effects, and it had a great cast. But, what I didn't realize until this point is how well comedy could work in a genre film. Most of the time, sci-fi/fantasy comedy was relegated to, or the result of, the B-grade movies that showed up on late-night TV. Ghostbusters showed me that, if done correctly, it could make a truly great genre film. Ivan Reitman, who had done the hilarious military comedy Stripes 3 years prior with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, worked with an amazing cast, including Murray, Ramis, Dan Ackroyd, and Ernie Hudson, to craft a masterful paranormal comedy. It gave me a new appreciation for good comedy, beyond the slap-stick in the sitcoms of the day.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I was not a regular viewer of the original Star Trek growing up, even though reruns were in syndication. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, I do remember seeing it in the theatre. I can say that, while I enjoyed it, it didn't blow me away. The special effects were definitely at the level of Star Wars, which I had seen a year earlier in re-release, but the pacing of the movie was slow. 7-year-old me just couldn't appreciate the level of detail that had gone into the presentation without action on screen. That all changed in 1982 when the sequel came out.

The Wrath of Khan was a direct answer to the critiques of the original film. Creative control was removed from Gene Roddenberry, and Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards wrote a swashbuckling action adventure, with Jame Horner providing similarly action-packed score. The film brought back original series actor Ricardo Montalbán in the titular role he originated in the episode "Space Seed". Between him and Shatner, much scenery is chewed. And, while the effects reused models from the first movie for many scenes, the action set pieces in the Mutara Nebula, in particular, are exciting and gorgeous. And, of course, there's the Genesis Device simulation, which was some of the earliest use of computer graphics in film.  This film proved that Star Trek was able to hold its own against the juggernaut that was Star Wars. While I don't believe I became a true "trekkie" until TNG came out a few year later, it definitely did rekindle my interest in the franchise, and I don't know if I would have cared that much for TNG when it finally arrived without The Wrath of Khan.

5. Flight of the Navigator

This family-friendly sci-fi action adventure film doesn't get as much love as it deservers. Released in 1986 by Disney, it was about a 12-year-old boy, David, who is abducted by an alien ship in 1978, and returned to Earth in 1986, having not aged. As far as David knows at this point, he simply fell down a hill in the forest and hit his head. But he soon realizes that something is wrong when he finds a missing child poster that matches him exactly. He locates his family, who are at the same time elated that he has returned, and mystified that he has not aged a day since they last saw him 8 years ago. During an unlikely bit of plot development, David's brainwaves displayed at the hospital mirror the image of a spaceship that has just crashed in the area and is in the hands of the NASA. A doctor at NASA who has been studying the ship persuades David's parents to allow him to take David and study the connection between him and the ship for 48 hours. Dr. Faraday discovers that David's brain is full of technical information on the ship and star charts beyond what NASA has discovered. They were also able to determine that time dilation explained the fact that David hadn't aged. The doctor breaks his 48-hour promise to David and decides to keep him beyond the 48 hours.

After telepathically communicating with the AI in the ship, and with the help of a lab assistant he befriended (played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker), David escapes to the ship and they take off. The ship AI, whom David refers to as "Max", explains that Max's brain was used in an experiment to see how much information it could hold. He tells David that it was determined the human body was unable to survive the stress of time travel, so they were unable to return him to his original time. As he was returning David to Earth, he hit some power lines, which erased all of his navigational information. Max needs to transfer the navigational information from David's brain in order to get back home.

I won't spoil the rest, because it is a great movie that you should definitely check out. This one really stuck with me, because the main protagonist was only a few years younger than me, so I could really see myself in the character. Any time you can identify on a personal level with the characters that you are watching on-screen, you connect with the movie on another level. This is why Flight of the Navigator is still one of my favorite movies.

Writing prompt finished. I hope everyone enjoyed that little journey. Now, on to this month's comics.

Strip 118/166 - Mostly harmless

We're coming to the end of the time machine's... time. Interestingly enough, it does survive the dinosaur stomp to convey our heroes to their next adventure. In retrospect, I probably should have drawn more of the dinosaur to make it more obvious what happened. It's supposed to be the leg of something like a brontosaurs, but it also resembles an elephant leg, so some confusion could be had. How the cardboard box survives that is beyond me. Because it has to, I guess.

Strip 119/166 -  17th time is a charm, right?

Back for a final appearance in the strip is the Admiral, and his inexplicable need to find and do something unspeakable to Furble. Although it was funny to keep bringing him back only to fail miserably each and every time, it was a major failing in the character that there really wasn't a motivation for his actions. I guess we'll never know, because...

Strip 120/166 - You should never time-travel in a vehicle that isn't time-travel proof

... you should only time-travel in a time-travel-approved ship. Oops.

Strip 121/166 - Apparently the inverse of Moore's Law

I never said that we were completely finished with the gallery strips. They still show up from time to time. Again, Furbulian progress seems to progress backwards. Which only makes sense if you don't think about it too hard. Even then, it's pretty tenuous.

Next week, Pat Sajak!

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

A Musical Journey (or Time Machine Silliness)

I've loved, and been involved in, many things throughout my life. Some mattered more than others. Some lasted longer than others. Some were intensely important and vital to my identity early in life, but not so much later in life. Others are extremely important to my life today, but were barely a blip on my radar while I was growing up. 

Of all the things that have come and gone during this time, very few have lasted my entire life and continue to this day. One of those things is my love for music. I've talked about it some in previous posts, but I wanted to dedicate this space to discuss my musical journey, and why it is a constant in my life.

My earliest memories of music come in two flavors. First is my parents listening to music at home, usually folk and singer/songwriter artists, with some now-classic rock to round out the selections. Second would be the hymns that were sung at church. Not long after I started school, I remember enjoying music class almost as much as recess.

The next memory that comes to the front of my brain is from either first or second grade, where I'm singing a solo during the Christmas concert. I wish that I could remember what the song was. It wasn't a standard song, like Jingle Bells or Deck the Halls, it was a decidedly kid's song, that may have had something to do with an elephant or some such animal. Anyway, I just remember being scared out of my mind to do it. But once I was up there and actually singing, I had a lot of fun.

After a successful Christmas solo, I recall doing additional solos, not only for concerts, but at least one school talent show. By this time, I was also singing in the Sunday School choir in church. During any given week, I was involved with music in some way every day but Saturday, and at least part of that day would still be filled with music (usually 8-track tapes) at home. I will be forever grateful to my parents for instilling an appreciation of music in us at an early age, and continuing to reenforce it while we were growing up.

During 5th grade, we moved from Nebraska back to Minnesota. This brought with it a number of changes, not all good. The change of schools was a mixed bag, at best. But one of the best changes was my music teacher, Mrs. Hill. I can honestly say that, without Mrs. Hill, I would have turned my back on making music. 

You see, as a young boy, I had a very high voice. Most boys of a certain age will start with soprano or high alto voices. But, while other boys' voices started to drift down, mine stayed relatively high, a high alto, down a bit from my soprano starting point. The high singing voice came with a fair amount of taunting and teasing from my classmates, with a common comparison to Michael Jackson. Mrs. Hill would take me aside after class and reassure me that my voice was not something that I should be ashamed of, that it was a gift and something that I should cultivate. It was that encouragement that helped me to ignore the mocking and enjoy music time.

Enter 6th grade, and a new challenger enters the arena: the musical. This particular musical was something that was written by Mrs. Hill for our class to perform during the Christmas concert. I secured my first musical role, with solos and dialog and everything. It was a great experience, and quickly cemented my love for the genre.

Galavanting into junior high school, with all of the changes that come from going from a single teacher and room (primarily) to multiple teachers in multiple rooms, I immediately gravitated to the arts. Our choir and band director was Mr. V. His last name was a long Czechoslovakian name that I won't even try to spell. Everyone called him Mr. V. And while Mr. V. was an excellent teacher, he didn't have the time to give a lot of extra one-on-one attention to a seventh grader. Fortunately, Mrs. Hill, due to the fact that the school from elementary to high school was in a single building, was right there in the music department. She offered to work with me on the side as I continued developing my voice.

Junior high brought with it new music opportunities, like honor choirs, contest, and more theatre roles. This was my first taste of a proper musical theatre experience, when I was cast in the role of Winthrop Paroo in the production of "The Music Man". It was so much more involved than the sixth-grade musical, with so many more people and moving parts. The music was also a fair bit harder that I was used to. Of course, "Gary, Indiana" was nothing compared to "(Ya Got) Trouble", but it was a challenge. And I loved every minute. It still lives on a VHS tape somewhere...

My school's theatre department wasn't big enough to do a musical every year, so they would alternate with a play every other year. Eighth grade was when I discovered that, while I could sing, my acting was mediocre, at best. I was relegated to a largely non-speaking role in "Flowers for Algernon". It stung, but I held to the fact that I could still be involved with the musical every other year, and other music activities in the mean time. These included music contest. It is ironic, for all of the teasing and bullying that I endured at school, when it came down to choosing people for small group and quartet members for contest, everyone wanted me. It felt good. It was something I could look at during times outside of the music department and say to myself "I'm good at something, and people realize it". And I've got the medals to prove it.

And then, like a giant cave troll, ninth grade comes lumbering in, bringing with it the bane of every young male singer: puberty. My normal vocal range came crashing down around me, leaving me with barely over an octave on a good day. And, of course, it was a musical theatre year. I was forced to accept a chorus role in "Bye Bye Birdie" that year, and I was barely able to sing those parts, as it was. Outside of the theatre, I concentrated on instrumental music as I branched out from my B-flat clarinet to the alto, bass, and contra-bass clarinets in instrumental ensembles for contest that year. I knew it was only a matter of time before my voice settled into its new register, which it did by the time 10th grade rolled around.

Tenth grade was my first honor choir. It was my first time singing with students from other schools, under a director that I didn't know. The music was more challenging than we were used to in choir, and getting to know the style of a new director was very interesting. Ultimately, I was glad for the experience, as it prepared me to sing with just about any group and for any director.

In what turned out to be my last year in Kiester, eleventh grade was another musical year. I'm glad that I was able to have one more year in this theatre department, because my decided lack of acting chops would limit my opportunities in the future. I landed the role of the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz". Although the costume was, as you might expect, extremely uncomfortable, it was the most fun that I had doing a musical, at least until I got into college. My year ended with more success at contest, but a failed run at All-State Choir in Minnesota, a state choir that was notoriously difficult to get into. I was disappointed, but I tried not to let it get me down. A new adventure was waiting for me back in Nebraska.

But. that's a story for a different entry.

To the strips for this month, we pick through the flotsam of gallery strips that I dumped last week and present the story-related strips here.

Strip 104/166 - Wormhole. Har, har, har.

The term "wormhole" was first coined by theoretical physicist John Wheeler, based at least partially on Einstein's theory of general relativity. This wormhole is reminiscent of the one shown in Star Trek: The Motion Picture which, ironically, has very little to do with the more well-known theories surrounding the phenomenon. A giant space worm has nothing to do with Einstein's theory of general relativity, and more to do with the giant space slug in The Empire Strikes Back. But that one didn't talk.

Strip 105/166 - Aw, just let 'em sleep

I mean, you gotta sleep some time, right? Just so happens it was the third pane of a comic. Happens to us all, eventually. At least, that's what I've been told.

Strip 115/166 - The wind-up time machine

You didn't think that a cardboard box time machine was going to be powered by a quantum singularity, or a warp drive, or even a Cuisinart, did you?

Strip 116/166 - I swear, this wasn't political commentary, just a bad pun!

I figured, if you're going to have a time machine, you may as well actually go back in time at least once. Having rats ratifying the US Constitution was in no way meant to be a political statement. Again, the furthest thing from my mind at that point. Don't worry, more cringey social and political commentary was yet to come.

One more week, and then it's Pat Sajak to the rescue! See you next week.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The One with the Comic Dump (or The One with the Other Missing Strip)

This week is a bit unusual. I'll explain what I mean by that.

By this time in the life of the comic strip, I had been doing it every week for nearly two years. I admire myself for sticking with it for that long. As a life-long ADHD neurodivergent, it can be hard for me to stick with one project for any length of time, although I don't think I was as bad at it back then as I am today. The fact that I've stuck with this weekly blog this long proves that I still have some self-control.

Anyway, by this time, what I once thought was a limitless well of inspiration and ideas was slowly revealing the bottom of the pit, and I was having difficulty coming up with coherent ideas for the stories. If you've stuck with me to this point in the blog, you know what happens when I run out of story ideas: I revert to the dreaded gallery strips. Only I went off the rails here.

Below are ten gallery strips that were published within three months, and one that wasn't. They were interspersed with a grand total of 3 story-related strips. It is shocking on a creative level.

I'll say this up front: I'm not proud of this. Not in the least. That is why I wanted to save you, the reader, the chore of slogging through these to weed out the on-going story, and do a comic dump here this week.

Below is the dump of ten (eleven) gallery strips, with the original lettering, because on some level I'm very disappointed that these exist, at least in this concentration. I'll still give commentary on them, but just know that next week it gets better. And after that, the creative damn breaks and I hit another stride thanks to, of all people, Pat Sajak (more on that later).

Strip 103/166 - The armies charged the opposite way! Get it?

If you can't read it (or choose not to try and decipher it) the text of the last two panes is as follows:

"The armies were about to charge..."

"But something went wrong."

Bunker Hill / Flunker Hill, it's a weird choice, but here we are. I'm fairly certain that, even charging the correct direction, this is not how the actual historical battle went. But, I wasn't there, so I could be wrong...

Strip 106/166 - I mean, they have been drawn now, so technically...

In model building, especially models used for miniatures in movies and television, there is a term called "kit-bashing" where you take a basic model shape, and you start adding elements from various other model kits, some completely unrelated, to your model to create something entirely new. That is essentially what has happened here. Take the original Furble character and add bits and pieces (or take them away in the case of the last pane) to come up with something new and weird. Interesting? Maybe. Funny? Probably not as funny as it was in my head.

Strip 107/166 - Furry dinos instead of feathers, right?

The only thing that I can really say about Prehistoric Furbulian Animals is that there apparently isn't a lot of genetic diversity throughout the history of the planet. Furry dinos, leads to furry balls with antennae, leads to furry bipeds. It's a wonder the gene pool hasn't collapsed already.

Strip 108/166 - With apologies to Hammer and Toho

Truth be told, I'm actually kind of proud of this one, simply for the design of Furblzila, spelling not withstanding. We've already established that Furbulian entertainment closely resembles Earth entertainment for some strange reason, so it stand to reason that characters like these would exist. Not sure how Toho or Akira Watanabe would react to it, but I like it.

Strip 109/166 - Relevant current events, because that's what's cool

If you are of a certain age, you remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Or, at the very least, you've heard of it. Yet another attempt to refer to relevant current events in the strip. Humorous, but not funny, probably.

And, yes, in retrospect, I realize what the intergalactic cruiser resembles. Believe me when I say, such things were the furthest from my nerdy mind at that point.

Strip XXX/166 - This strip removed by the editor

Here is the second missing strip from the Furble canon. This one, however, only existed on my original boards. The editor felt that it wasn't appropriate, and decided not to print it. At the time, I wasn't happy, but in hind-sight, she was 100% correct.

The strip was another attempt to be relevant using current events. It was a gallery strip that talked about businesses on Furbulia. I honestly don't remember what the first two were, but the third one was the "Ted Kennedy School of Driving." Shockingly tasteless, hugely inappropriate, I fully admit that now. It's good that it doesn't exist, but I'll still own up to making the mistake of trying to get it published.

Strip 110/166 - Furbulia Paranormal on the History Channel

I have always been interested in the paranormal, even though my thoughts on it have shifted from naive belief to healthy skepticism over the years. These three are among the most famous paranormal concepts around. 

The "Lock-Mess Monster" is a bit difficult if you don't realize that the little boxes at the bottom of the pane are a bunch of locks, or a "mess" of locks. A stretch, I know.

I do like the idea that their UFOs are actually our spacecraft, however.

Strip 111/166 - Oof. That's the comment.

I'm kind of surprised that this one got printed. 40-ish years removed from World War II and Pearl Harbor I guess gives it some leeway, but it's still a bit on the tasteless side. And I won't even talk about how the spaceship seems to morph shape between panes.

Strip 112/166 - Are you tired of these yet? Because I am.

I'm not sure why I leaned so heavily on the idea that Furble's people were, to put it bluntly, morons. I mean, they developed space travel and advanced AI, so they must have been able to do something right. Yet, every other reference has something to do with them being idiots about one thing or another. Just another odd creative choice that I didn't really think all the way through at the time.

Strip 114/166 - Again, they are in this strip, so...

A extension of the "kit-bashing" from before, but this time it's technically attribute-bashing. 

Abnormble actually looks kind of horrific in retrospect.

It's probably good that we aren't seeing Halfurble in profile. Could be messy.

And Flatble, well, I guess if you lose anything under the refrigerator, he's your creature.

Strip 117/166 - The light at the end of the tunnel is near!

We've come to the final strip of the comic dump, plays on popular-ish shows at the time. Perfect Strangers was a popular sitcom that was part of ABC's TGIF lineup on Friday nights. That's Incredible! was a reality show that had actually gone off the air a couple years before this was published. And most people know about Geraldo Rivera's talk show, Geraldo, where he was famously hit in the face by a chair swung by a guest, sending ratings through the roof. Unlike the chair, none of these landed.

And that's it. The silver lining is gallery strips only appear a couple more times for the remainder of the run of the comic strip.

Next week, we're back to a more normal entry. See you then!