Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A Serious Moment (or Back to Furbulia (Again))

I've talked about serious subjects in this blog before, but as I approach my 50th birthday, I feel that I've become keenly aware of the famous people that we have lost over the past year, and the affects that many of those people have had on my generation, and me personally.

I'm not sure that there are appreciably more or less deaths in any given year compared to another, with the sad exception of 2020, but some years do seem worse than others. 2022 has been one of those years, for me at least.

We started the year with the sudden and unexpected death of comedian and television father Bob Saget. The ABC Friday night comedy lineup, titled TGIF, was on our TV at home every Friday night, and Full House was one of the anchor series. Saget starred as recently-widowed father or three Danny Tanner. He created such a genuine role that many assumed the mild-mannered, family-friendly character mirrored Saget's comedy outside of the show. This was certainly not the case, as Bob brand of standup was much more adult-oriented, a taste of which we would get when he started hosting America's Funniest Home Videos. But, whether father or comedian, he seemed to be universally loved.

That same month we lost, among others, comedian Louie Anderson, "WKRP" actor Howard Hesseman, singer Meat Loaf, and the great actor Sidney Poitier.

As the year progressed, it seemed that the hits just kept a-comin', as they say.

In February, filmmaker extraordinaire Ivan Reitman passed away. For Gen-Xers, this one hit hard. Reitman was responsible for a significant part of the filmscape of the 80s and 90s, including classics such as Ghostbusters, Stripes, and Dave.

Sally Kellerman ("Hotlips" Houlihan in M*A*S*H) also passed away in February. In March we lost actor William Hurt, Sesame Street star Emilio Delgado, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

As the year continued, we said goodbye to Seinfeld actress Estelle Harris, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, singer Naomi Judd, and actor Ray Liotta.

In July, actors James Caan and Paul Sorvino, and actor/director/producer Tony Dow all passed away. But, hardest of all for me that month was the death of Star Trek actress and trailblazer Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura in the original series and movies. Nichelle was an inspiration to a generation of women and people of color, showing everyone that not only could a woman be as important to a genre series as a man, but that a woman of color belonged on the same level as anyone else.

Anne Heche and Olivia Newton-John both passed away in August. In September, the world was saddened at the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Moving into fall, we lost rapper Coolio, near-EGOT winner Angela Lansbury, Harry Potter-verse actor Robbie Coltrane, and singer Jerry Lee Lewis.

Recently, we lost stage comedian Gallagher, daytime soap actor John Aniston, singer/actress Irene Cara, and just today Fleetwood Mac keyboardist Chistine McVie.

But, the death that really got me thinking about my own mortality approaching my 50th natal anniversary was actor and martial artist Jason David Frank. For those that don't know the name, he came to fame as the Green, then White, Ranger in the first few series of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. While the Japanese import super sentai series wasn't directed at my age group (I was in college when it first premiered), many of my generation got a kick out of watching the series, and we became as much fans of the show as the kids it was made for. Frank quickly became the break-out star of the series, and continued on as the cast around him changed. He left the series and ended up coming back a few years later. While he was a talented actor, he was an even more talented martial artist, opening an academy and teaching his own form of martial arts.

The end of the story is almost clich├ęd. After seeming to have had it all, Frank took his own life in November at the age of 49. This death shook me most of all. I certainly didn't know him, and his life is about as far from mine as you can imagine. But we were around the same age, same generation, and we both suffer with depression. It really lead me to examine my own circumstances, and reaffirm that depression is a sickness that needs to be talked about, and needs to be destigmatized. Suffering from depression doesn't mean that you are broken, or less of a person. It is something that you can get help with, and you shouldn't feel embarrassed asking for that help, as hard as it is.

So, that's serious talk for the week. Obviously, I am of an age that will see more and more people that were influential in my life, both people that I know personally, and those that I only know as famous people, will be passing on. And I will continue to use those moment to reflect on what those people have meant to me, and what I can learn from their lives and their passing.

This week, our duo begin making their way back home (permanently?).

Strip 150/166 - In space, no one notices the plot device

Furble and FC pop out the bottom of the hole into the cold dark of space. Hopefully they manage to catch the completely random box of supplies that just happens to be floating by before they need to try and figure out how to navigate in space.

Strip 151/166 - That looks familiar...

We come upon the same spacial anomaly that transported Furble and FC to Furbulia the first time way back towards the beginning of the strip. Seems like we're on the right track (well, that at the sign).

Strip 152/166 - Alien geology is odd

You see, it's a play off the old trope of the person making the word "help" out of sticks and rocks when they're deserted on an island. Get it?

Strip 153/166 - Furbo: First Weird.

This one was indirectly inspired by one of my all-time favorite films, "Weird Al" Yankovic's comedy classic UFH, which included (among other parodies) a sendup of 80s action films with Al dressed up as Rambo. Just a fun visual gag.

That's all for this week. Next week, the beginning of the end (sad).

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Venerable Holiday Special (or Saying Goodbye to Night Talk)

It's that time of year again. Time to take a break from work. Time to eat way too much food. Time to spend some quality time with friends and family. And time to watch the annual parade of holiday specials on the television (or streaming service). Of all the wide variety of holiday traditions passed down from generation to generation, it seems that the yearly march of holiday programming is the one that has stuck with me, at least.

By the time I was aware of such things, the truly classic specials were already established. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973) were all awaited with much anticipation in our house. Most other specials seemed to fall into the Christmas pile, with Rankin Bass stop-animation favorites such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus.

In the 80s, we got some new holiday specials that, while they didn't reach the level of "timeless classic" were fun in their own right. 

Foe of Mondays and fan of lasagna, the Garfield comic strip started in 1978, and by the 80s had become nearly as famous as Snoopy himself. In 1982, he made the leap to television with Here Comes Garfield, produced by the same duo who produced the Peanuts animated specials, Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson. By the time Garfield's first special had come out, Garfield's Halloween Adventure (1985), Phil Roman had taken over production duties, and produced the rest of the Garfield animated specials up to 1991's Garfield Gets a Life. In the meantime, two more holiday-themed specials were released, A Garfield Christmas (1987) and Garfield's Thanksgiving (1989). Similar to the Peanut's specials, the animated Garfield specials were a mix of original story elements, and bits taken from the weekly comic strips. While the holiday specials, particularly the first one, received regular airings along with the other classic holiday programming, the Garfield specials haven't seen any airtime since around 2015, although this year the specials have been streaming on the Garfield YouTube channel if you'd like to give them a watch.

The 80s were a heyday for Henson's Muppet properties. The Muppet Show had just ended, but they were starring in motion pictures, HBO had the surprisingly successful Fraggle Rock, CBS was airing Muppet Babies on Saturday mornings, and PBS was still home to the long-term resident Sesame Street. It would be unforgivable if the Muppets didn't get their own holiday special. In 1979, the cast of The Muppet Show starred with John Denver in John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together. The special's plot is, much like The Muppet Show, about the making of the Christmas special. Of course, there is a lot of good music and Muppet mayhem to be had. Then, in 1987, the Muppet properties combined to bring us A Muppet Family Christmas. This one was more of a story-driven special, with the various casts coming together at Fozzie Bear's mother's farm to celebrate the holidays. One of the most memorable bits is a running gag of everyone slipping on the ice as the come into the front door of the house, regardless of attempts to warn them of the danger. Overall, a really fun special, and the first time that a lot of kids had seen the Fraggles if their parents didn't subscribe to HBO at the time. Sadly, these specials didn't even garner the staying power of the Garfield specials, much less that of the likes of Peanuts or Rudolph, and outside of a few replays in subsequent years, were relegated to VHS records that people had made at the time of broadcast.

Of course, there were also movies that have since become holiday viewing necessities, such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Given all of the specials and movies that I have grown to love over the years, sometimes it seems that there's just not enough time during the holidays to watch it all. But I sure do give it a try every year. And will likely continue the tradition for many more to come.

On to this week's strips, in which we say a final goodbye to Night Talk.

Strip 146/166 - A night of a thousand stars, and weird awards

To be honest, I didn't really know enough about the actual awards that were presented during the Academy Awards to really come up with things that sounded out of the ordinary. It really should have read as more of a list of Razzie awards, but didn't come out quite like that.

Strip 147/166 - Time to make it back home

Time to move the story on again. I decided that it was an appropriate time to take our duo back home to Furbulia. I'm not sure that catching an interstellar flight was the best idea for travel, though. I'm sure they'll find some way back.

Strip 148/166 - I guess that would be my fault. Sorry.

It's a hole. I mean, who amongst us hasn't jumped head-first into a giant hole of unknown depth. It's just a thing that you do, right?

Strip 149/166 - The last Night Talk strip

Time to tie up some loose ends. I had kind of left the late-night talk show hanging, especially since I had already decided to move on from the concept. So, much like Johnny Carson gave up the reigns and handed them to Jay Leno, so do we hand the presenter's mic to Slime. I think perhaps things won't go quite as well here as they did eventually for Leno. But, what do I know?

Next week, back to Furbulia.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

My Modeling Days (or Sometimes They Land)

There's nothing quite as satisfying, to me at least, as the feeling you get when you finally are able to take in the finished version of a project that you have been working on for a significant amount of time. That was the feeling that I would get after completing a plastic model when I was younger.

My first model, at least that I can remember, was a snap-together Ford Bronco, vintage late 70s. I found the process fascinating; I had always played with toy cars, like Matchbox and Hot Wheels, but here I was, actually making the toy car. Of course, I had a fair amount of assistance from my parents. I was never really adept at putting on the frustrating decals that required soaking in water and placing on the model wet. They either came off crooked or with folds and wrinkles.

Anyway, that experience really turned me on to the joys of building models. It wasn't long before I was building more than simple car models. My first truly complex glue-together model was a Testors Convair B-58 Hustler. It was the first model that I wasn't able to finish in a single sitting, and was likely the model that gave me the biggest sense of accomplishment upon completion. Of course, being a kid, I proceeded to play with the model instead of display it, and it didn't survive long after one too many crash landings. But it was awesome while it lasted. Later models faired better, as I came to terms with the fact that most plastic models were meant to build and look at, not necessarily play with.

My first Star Wars model was a snap-together X-Wing fighter, released around the time that Return of the Jedi was in theatres. My brother got a snap-together Tie Fighter from the same line. Of course, both of these models were played with significantly. We even used the models to shoot our own miniature Star Wars battle scene. Budding film makers!

I don't build models much any longer, mainly because I simply don't have the space to properly display them at the house. I've still got a few models that I've kept over the years, including the space station from Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and a B-2 Stealth Bomber, and I've got a couple of new Bandai Star Wars models waiting for some attention. Might be time to start some modeling again.

An offshoot of my model building amusement was model rocketry. This came about primarily from our participation in 4-H, which I've talked about previously. One of the clubs within the organization was a model rocketry club, and being fascinated with space as I was, it seemed like a great fit. Building a model that was actually going to fly, with an actual rocket engine? What's not to love?

My first rockets were small, simple single-stage missiles with little variation. They didn't go very high, but they were quite spectacular to launch none-the-less. Fortunately, living out in the country next to open fields made it relatively easy to retrieve the rocket once the parachute had deployed and it floated to earth. Most of the time, the rockets survived the ordeal and cold be launched again. As I became more experienced at the craft, I was able to build and launch larger, more complex rockets. For the most part, things went to plan. We did have an unfortunate accident on the launch pad for one rocket with a faulty rocket engine. The other accident that I recall happened when the nose cone of one of the rockets had become affixed too tightly to the fuselage. You see, in order for the parachute of a rocket to deploy, the engine fires a small explosive charge at the end of its burn cycle up the top of the rocket, which pops the chute. Unfortunately, the nose cone was too tight. When the ejection charge fired, the rocket was in the downward trajectory of its flightpath, it couldn't go out the top, so it fired back out the bottom of the rocket, which had the effect of blasting the rocket into the ground. The nearly 2-foot rocket was buried at least 6 inches into the soil, and was, unsurprisingly, unsalvageable. But it was quite funny.

Well, enough about my modeling days. Let's get to this week's strips.

This week brings four strips that, while outside of any narrative in the comic, are not necessarily the usual "gallery" strips, that didn't always land the joke. Honest, I think they are among the best examples of these types of one-off strips, which goes to show that, as the comic continued to evolve, my style did mature on some level. 

Strip 142/166 - It's like two stormtroopers shooting at each other!

The first one is directly inspired by a scene from an episode of Police Squad!, which had Leslie Nielsen's Drebin shooting at a perpetrator behind a trash can a couple of feet away from him, hiding behind a park bench. It's one of those iconic scenes that is so funny that you simply don't forget it.

Strip 143/166 - No stand-up comedy here

This one was probably funny without the "punchline" in the last pane. Just took it one frame too far...

Strip 144/166 - The Olympic spirit lives in odd ways

I've always been a huge fan of the Olympics. I'm glued to the television every two years watching these amazing athletes and para-athletes accomplish astonishing feats of strength and endurance. While the Olympics on Furbulia might not be quite what we expect, I think we can agree that the feats are equally as astonishing in their absurdity.

Strip 145/166 - It's not easy not seeing green

For those not aware, in the late 80s/early 90s, Ted Turner was a champion of a colorization process for old black-and-white films and television shows. It was pretty controversial at the time, as may people felt that tampering with films and programs in this fashion was not appropriate. Or course, being printed in a paper without a color section, Furble never had a chance.

Next week, we say a final goodbye to Night Talk, and move onto some of the final stories of the strip.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

My Top 5 Video Games from Before I Got Old (or One Last Talk Show Guest)

I've technically done a post about my history of video game fandom already, but I wanted to dedicate a post to my Top 5 Video Games from Before I Got Old. In other words, these are the video games that I enjoyed the most (or simply played the heck out of) before I really got into the 5th generation of console gaming just out of college. Up to that point, most of my gaming was done on 8-bit Commodore computers and then the 16-bit Amiga computer, basically skipping most of the 4th generation of consoles (with the exception of the NEC TurboGraphx). Most of my truly great gaming memories came from these Commodore home computers, with a few select arcade classics thrown in for good measure, and I played those games up until I got my first Sony Playstation (and beyond, obviously).

1. Ghosts 'n Goblins

The Commodore 64 (and all home computers, to be honest) was home to about a bazillion games that were clones of popular arcade games, of varying levels of quality. One of the first clones that I remember playing was a game called Snack Man, which as you might guess was a clone of the arcade classic Pac-man. It was a lot of fun, and in the absence of a way to play the actual game (at least for the moment) it served its purpose well.

But eventually I was introduced to the world of arcade ports to home computers. As with arcade clones, these came in varying levels of quality, but gained the marketing advantage of being able to be called the "official home version of the hit arcade game". One of the first ones that I was able to play on my Commodore 64 was the port of the Capcom classic Ghosts 'n Goblins. This is a platformer, where you play the knight Arthur (not that Arthur, but an allusion to him), fighting your way through waves of ghouls, ghosts, goblins, and demons trying to rescue the princess Prin-Prin who is captured at the beginning of the game. It's an extremely difficult game, but a lot of fun. The C64 version didn't have the color palette of the arcade original, nor the ability to have as detailed of character sprites. But it was incredibly playable, even though it switched a jump button for the up direction on the joystick (Commodore didn't natively support multi-button sticks). I spent many hours on this, even though I never managed to complete the game.

2. Arkanoid

One of the most cloned games from the era of the original Atari 2600 was the game Breakout. The concept was pretty simple: you control the paddle at the bottom of the screen, and attempt to keep a ball in play, bouncing it against a field of colored bricks at the top of the screen. Clear out all of the bricks and move on to the next level of colored bricks. The game went through a number of iterations as the concept was used in subsequent games.

One of the most popular of the Breakout clones was the Taito classic Arkanoid. The basic concept was the same, but the developers added a number of elements that elevated the game to greatness. Not only were you trying to keep the ball in play in order to clear out all of the bricks, but you also had to either evade or take out any number of enemies that would pop out of the top of the playfield and attempt to disrupt your progress. Fortunately, the player has been given a number of randomly appearing power-ups that help to level the playing field, so to speak, like expanding the bat, giving the player a laser to shoot bricks and enemies, or the ability to slow down the ball.

The game made it to home systems with a number of very competent versions, but while the arcade cabinet used a rotating paddle-style controller to play the game, most of the home versions had to make do with a joystick or gamepad, which made the game a bit harder to play. Hence, my preference for the arcade original here.

3. Phantom of the Asteroid

One of the nice things about the Commodore 64 was that, while most triple-A games ran over $20, and were usually out of my financial reach, there were a large number of budget titles available for $5 or $10 at places like ShopKo and K-Mart. While the quality of these games could very greatly, there was one line that was almost consistently high-quality: Mastertronic. Pretty much all of their games were extremely enjoyable, and many titles, such as Kikstart and Action Biker, went to become true classic C64 titles.

One of the first Mastertronic games I picked up was called Phantom of the Asteroid. It was a platform exploration game where you played an astronaut equipped with a jetpack, a gun, and a depleting supply of oxygen. The goal was to locate 36 uranium cubes on the asteroid, while you used colored pads to activate and deactivate various barriers, all the while avoiding or shooting aliens that would pop up. If you manage to locate all of the uranium cubes, you are given 5 minutes to escape the asteroid before it explodes. I managed to locate them all once, but was unable to escape the asteroid. I found out later in life that the original cassette tape version of this game allowed the player to save their location in the game. When it was ported to floppy disk, this ability was removed, which forced the player to complete the game in a single sitting, or pause the game and leave the computer on until the next play session (which I did on a couple of occasions).

While the game was a lot of fun, one of the best things about it was the soundtrack, which was created by legendary video game composer Rob Hubbard. The man was a master of the SID chip, which was the chip used to create sound on the C64. There were times when I would load the game up and just listen to the theme for a while, it was that good.

4. Lemmings

In the late 80s, Commodore bought the technology for its next computer system from a small company, known as Amiga Corporation, by buying the company. It started with the Amiga 1000, and built upon that success by releasing follow-up systems the Amiga 2000, which was directed towards business users, and the Amiga 500, which was designed for home users who wanted the same experience but at a lower price point.

In 1992, I made the leap from my venerable Commodore 64C, which had served me well my freshman year of college, to the Amiga 500. This opened up a whole new world of productivity and, more importantly, gaming. Suddenly, I had access to games that could rival the games my friends were playing on their Sega Genesis and SNES systems. One of the Amiga's "killer apps" was the puzzle game Lemmings, by DMA Design and Psygnosis, the developers and publisher who would eventually go on to release the Wipeout racing series for Sony's Playstation systems.

The game was designed around the (false) premise that lemmings simply follow each other everywhere, even to their death. The titular characters start by falling out of a trapdoor in the ceiling of the level, and then begin to march on their way unabated until they reach an obstacle, or a ledge. Then, they either turn around or fall off the ledge, sometimes to their demise. The player has a limited amount of tools to assign to the lemmings to help them navigate the level, hopefully to the door at the end. The game is well designed, has excellent graphics that really showed off what the Amiga could do. The sound included excellent background music and high-pitched samples of the lemmings saying things like "Let's go!" and "Oh no!", which again showed off what the Amiga could accomplish when competently coded. And it was a great time-waster, as you spent sometimes hours trying to make it past some of the harder levels.

5. Jumpman

The last game that I'll highlight here was another C64 classic, this time by now-defunct developer/publisher Epyx, best known for games like California Games and Impossible Mission. Jumpman was a fast-paced platform game that saw you controlling the main character, Jumpman, defusing bombs placed around the level by terrorists. Once you defuse all of the bombs (by touching each one) you move on to the next level. Each level had an additional challenge, such as homing missiles that would go after you if you stood still too long, or bombs dropping from the sky, or robots that would hunt you down.

This game was one of the smoothest playing games that I had ever played at the time. The actions moving from platform to platform, jumping to ladders to ropes carrying you up and down all flowed together seamlessly, which made the game a joy to play. Very few games have risen to this level in my estimation since this game. A true classic.

Let move on from video games to this week's strips.

Strip 138/166 - Probably won't make a good musical

Playing off of the strip from last week, another "movie monster" take, this time Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The punchline, of course, is that Mr. Hyde ends up being FC, which in many ways can be considered Furble's alter-ego, although I can pretty much guarantee that my thought process wasn't quite that deep here.

Strip 139/166 - Night Talk comes to an inauspicious end

Funnily enough, this one was so subtle upon review all these years later, that I thought I had completely flubbed the strip, or something didn't get copied in the pasteup process. I missed the fact that Furble disappears from behind the desk ("Poof!"), thus setting up the punchline.

Interestingly enough, this ends up being the last Night Talk strip with Furble. We revisit the set one more time to close out the storyline, but we'll move on to new adventures after this. It was fun while it lasted.

Strip 140/166 - The school system on Furbulia is... interesting

The strips that are straight text obviously did not represent my best work, but at least this one was humorous, with a nice call-back to Night Talk.

Strip 141/166 - Political humor (again). Har har har.

Always trying to be topical, although I'm not sure what brought this one on, which is the problem with topical humor. Nice try. Maybe next time.

See you all next week!