Wednesday, December 21, 2022

And In The End...

By the time this gets published, I'll will have celebrated my 50th birthday, and completed my goal of spending my 50th year telling my story, and the story of Furble.

Over the past year, those that have followed along have experienced my thoughts and feelings about things as diverse as video games, bullying, historic weather patterns, and why an 8th grade nerd thought it was possible to get his comic strip published in a local newspaper on a weekly basis. I thank everyone for sticking around for my mostly-weekly rants, barring medical conditions and various other issues. And, now I suppose you want to read, as Paul Harvey would put it, the rest of the story...

The summer of 1990, after I had finished my junior year in Kiester at South Central, we prepared to move from Minnesota to Blair, NE. It's never easy moving, especially after you've spent a significant time in a location, and have acquired a large amount of, well, stuff. But, we were facing the prospect of moving from a rather spacious farm house to a 2-bedroom apartment in married student housing on the Dana College campus. So, while there was a bit of downsizing prior to the move, there was a much larger amount of deciding what actually needed to be in the apartment, and what would go to a storage facility for the time being. 

So we loaded up the truck, and we moved to Blair, NE.

I don't know how many of you have ever experienced a move from a rural area to an urban location, but let me tell you, when people talk about culture shock, they are not kidding. Don't get me wrong, I was very familiar with large cities, much larger than Blair. We spent a fair amount of time in Albert Lea (around 60k people), and my Uncle Bob's family lived in the Twin Cities. Blair clocked in at around 8000 people at the time we were there, which, while being significantly smaller than the large cities I had spent time in, was significantly larger than the 650-ish people living in Kiester where I spent the bulk of my time growing up. My graduating class in Blair was around 140 people. The entire school in Kiester (before we combined with area schools) was just over 250. This was going to be a time of adjustment, for the entire family.

While dad was starting back at college after nearly 2 decades away, and my mom was starting a new position at the college library, my brothers and I were embarking on our first days at a new school system. Since I was only going to be spending my senior year here, I wasn't sure how involved I wanted to become. Did I just want to get the classes out of the way and graduate, or did I want to immerse myself in the opportunities that this new start could offer?

I'll preface this with a bit of family history. Besides my parents going to Dana College in the 70s, our family had other connections to the community. My Uncle Bob, after graduating from seminary, took a call in Blair at First Lutheran Church, and was there during the late 60s and early 70s. With less than 20 years removed from when he had left the community, there were a significant number of people that remembered him (my uncle has always left an indelible impression wherever he went). So, when I started school at Blair, there were some expectations floating around that I wasn't aware of. 

When I registered for classes, I hadn't decided whether or not I wanted to get involved with the music program for a single year, so didn't sign up for choir or band. At some point during the first week of school, I was sitting in typing class, when an elderly gentleman came in. He whispered something to the typing teacher, and they motioned me into the hallway. The gentleman was Mr. Carlson, the vocal instructor and choir director at Blair. He explained that he knew my uncle (he was also the choir director at First Lutheran) and knew through my uncle that I had musical talent. He asked why I hadn't signed up for choir, and I explained that I didn't know if I wanted to. Mr. Carlson convinced me to get involved with the music department, and that decision set me up for success at Blair.

It was through choir that I met most of the people that I would become friends with. It was through choir that I met my first serious girlfriend. Involvement in the music department dovetailed into involvement in the drama department with the fall musical. And my choir involvement allowed me to finally participate in All-State Chorus.

Another music-related opportunity that I was able to participate in while at Blair was the musical production at Dana College. Often, the college theatre department would invite students from the high school to audition for the musical that they produced each year on campus. During my year at Blair, they did Jesus Christ Superstar, and a few of us from the music department got cast. I was one of the high priests at the beginning of the show, and then a crowd member/chorus member for the rest of the show. It was an unforgettable experience, not only because we got to work with a director who had directed shows on Broadway, but because we were able to work in an atmosphere that was a level above high school. Truly eye opening. And I made friends that not only became classmates when I went to Dana after graduation, but that I am still friends with to this day.

With the method in which educational credits transferred to Blair, I could have graduated at the semester mark and taken a semester off before starting college. But choir, and the friends I had made because of it, informed my decision to stay for the entire year.

One year of high school in Blair was better than the entirety of my schooling in Kiester. I wasn't once bullied. I had many friends. And I excelled, both academically and creatively. It was, quite literally, the best thing that could have possibly happened to me at that point in my life. And it helped to prepare me for life after high school.

From there, I went on to Dana College. My dad was there for the first two years of my college career, and we became the first father and son to attend the college at the same time in its history, which was pretty cool.

After college, unsure of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I came to Dubuque (where my parents were at the time) to reset and work on the rest of my story. I got a job working with computers at a local prepress publishing company, where I would eventually meet my wife, Emily.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

My life has been a series of stories that make up the person that I am today, the good and the bad. Would I change things? I can't say that it isn't tempting, if I had the power, to make things a little better or a little easier. But, it is all a part of me, and on the whole I think I'm a pretty okay person. There's something to be said for that. And maybe someone can read my story and realize that it does get better. Maybe not perfect, but better. With the right people around you supporting you, better is hope.

"And, in the end. The love you take is equal to the love you make." ― Paul McCartney

Strip 166/166 - The final strip

Here's the final Furble strip ever printed. I haven't attempted to work out the calendar math on it, but it would have been published sometime during the beginning of the summer of 1990.

It looks like we're continuing with our spinoff, but they Furble wakes up. And it was all a dream!

It may sound like some sort of cop-out, but it is a direct reference to the end of the 80s sitcom Newhart, staring comedy legend Bob Newhart. He had originally starred in a different sitcom in the 70s, The Bob Newhart Show, as a different character with a different premise. The final episode of Newhart had Bob waking up as his character from the 70s show, next to his wife from that show, Suzanne Pleshette, realizing that the entirety of the 80s show had been an extensive dream. It was a great way to end the show, and a fun call-back to the earlier show and character.

So I decided to do something similar for Furble's final strip. The entire comic strip had been one long dream, and now FC is in for months and months of endless stories about this dream from his friend. Sorry about that.

When I started this blog, I began toying with the idea of creating new Furble content, using modern tools. I came up with a couple of new comic panes. I've included them below for your viewing pleasure. I may continue with them, I haven't yet decided.

I took more of a web comic approach to the style of layout, not having to be constrained by the layout of a newspaper. I also tweaked FC's personality, making him a bit sardonic, much like Rizzo the Rat from the Muppets. Just because I really like Rizzo.

When I got around to doing a second comic, I realized that I still wanted our duo to be tiny aliens in a human-sized world. But from the scale of the tree in the first comic, that clearly wasn't the case. So, instead of redoing the drawing of the first comic, I decided to come up with a more creative solution to the problem. Thus, an accidental shrinking.

Well, that's about it for this project. I want to thank everyone that made it all the way to the end with me. There is no one more surprised with the fact that I made it this far than me. I hope you've enjoyed my ramblings, and will take whatever lessons there are within to heart. Not sure what I'll do with this going forward, but what is here will remain as long as possible for posterity. 

This is Marcus, signing off. Good night, and good luck.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The One with the Spinoff

The "spinoff" is a well-established concept in various forms of entertainment. It usually happens when a particular piece of media becomes successful, and the producers want to extend the universe, whether it is to a related a character, a location, or an event.

Television spinoffs are relatively common, even more it seems today. Sometimes spinoffs live alongside the parent series, like the One Chicago series, Grey's Anatomy and Station 19, or The Rookie and The Rookie: Feds, allowing for frequent crossovers with the series characters. It helps to extend the storytelling opportunities of the universe of the parent show, while also bringing in viewers than may have found something about the spinoff more compelling than the parent series. Others simply serve as launching points for a new series, like Three's a Crowd spawning from Three's Company, or The Jeffersons from All in the Family.

Of course, one of the most famous and successful examples of spinoff series is Star Trek, having spawned 9 series since its premiere in the 60s, not to mention the theatrical features and non-visual media. The creators and writers have done an excellent job of maintaining an internal consistency with all of the spinoff series, keeping major historical contradictions to a minimum.

Comic spinoffs are so common that they generally don't call them "spinoffs" any longer, simply referring to them as a "shared universe" or "multiverse". Many of the comic characters that are well-known today originally started in the pages of existing properties, often staying there for years before being allowed to exist on their own in their own comics.

As I was coming to the end of the run of Furble, I decided to try my hand at a spinoff. While creating Furble, I had come up with a variety of ideas for different side-stories that could happen in the same world that Furble and FC lived in. I had no intention of making it as involved or intertwined as something like Star Trek, but I wanted to use the world of Furble in order to connect it to my original creation. Thus was born The Adventures of the Mutant Space Peanut.

The idea owes its existence to a couple of other existing properties. The naming is a reference to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which had become pretty big at that time. The overall concept was inspired, as many things in the strip were, by Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame. One of Calvin's alter egos was a sci-fi action hero named Spaceman Spiff. He was over-the-top, and Watterson pulled out all of the sci-fi tropes, which was the point. He was definitely one of my favorite parts of the comic strip, and I wanted to sort of do my own version.

The idea of having an inanimate object, instead of something like a turtle, become the mutant hero seemed sufficiently over-the-top, and gave me some good ideas for stories and gags. So, for the final two months of the strip, I told the ongoing adventures of an action peanut.

Strip 159/166 - Mutant Space Peanut Origins

Every hero needs an origin story. I spent a lot of time on this particular strip, in order to make it stand out. I kind of wish I would have put that much detail into the rest of the Mutant Space Peanut strips, but even so, they did find their own style. Regardless, this strip is probably the one I'm most proud of, with the exception of the strip that started the whole thing. This one proved to me that I actually could draw competently.

Strip 160/166 - Spek gets a name and a ship

Watterson gave Calvin's alter ego a snappy moniker, a quick single syllable name that is almost more a sound that a name. I wanted something that evoked the same feeling. His small stature gave me the idea of using the word "speck", but to spell it "Spek" to make it a bit more alien.

Every good space peanut needs to be able to get around for his adventures, so I have Spek a zippy spaceship. The classic 50s sci-fi style also came from the Spaceman Spiff aesthetic.

Strip 161/166 - Should have topped it off before leaving the planet

You always need to watch your fuel levels when you're traveling through space. Although, I'm not sure what is pulling the ship down when it runs out of fuel in space.

Strip 162/166 - A nut's mortal enemy: the nutcracker

I toyed with the idea of bringing The Admiral back to be the big bad for this strip, but ultimately decided to come up with a new enemy for Spek to face off with. The Slime Horde suggests that there are a number of individuals that are aligned in a purpose, but we only ever see one. Still, it sounds sufficiently evil for the purposes of the strip.

Strip 163/166 - Learning the ropes of being a space hero

Spaceman Spiff would use very alien-sounding words for things like weapons, and I did the same here with the "zlok blaster". Apparently even Furbulian technology can be battery-dependent.

Strip 164/166 - Pesky pachyderms 

First time visiting Earth, and he almost gets eaten by an elephant. What are the odds?

Strip 165/166 - Spek's adventures come to a silly end

And, with that, the adventures of Spek, the mutant space peanut, come to an end. I knew at this point that it wasn't going to continue beyond this point, and I didn't want to leave anything hanging, so I sped to the end of Spek's journeys and sent him back home. But, not before getting one more visual gag in.

I've often thought of picking this character up again and doing something with him. Maybe I will at some point.

Next week, we come to the end of our journey, both literarily and literally.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Moving on from Kiester (or the Beginning of the End)

Some people are born in a place, and end up staying there for the remainder of their years growing up. Some end up staying there much longer. And then there are those of us who end up moving from place to place during our formative years, adding complexity to an already challenging time in one's life.

My journey on this third rock from the Sun began in rural Minnesota, outside of a small town called Blooming Prairie. Not too long after that, we moved to Oakhurst, a farm outside of the city of Albert Lea. This is the first location that I have memories of. Specifically, it was while living here that I received my first model train set. Thus my love affair with locomotives began.

After a couple of years there, we moved closer to my dad's hometown of Kiester, MN, outside of a small town called Emmons. I remember this location particularly well, because our trailer house was setup on the shores of a small lake, which I thought was awesome. Unfortunately, it was home to many geese, so wasn't fit for swimming or other aquatic activities outside of ice skating in the winter. While living there, I began elementary school at another nearby town, Alden. It wasn't long afterwards that we made our first major move.

Mom and dad took a job at a farm in Geneva, NE, nearly 400 miles away. This move was memorable in that we ended up spending a couple of weeks during the winter holidays at the local motel while we waited for the trailer house to make it to its destination. Since I had already started school in Alden before moving, I had to make my first school transition, leaving friends behind and working on making new ones. I went to school in Geneva until third grade, when we made our next transition, moving about a half-hour south of there to a smaller town called Shickley. We ended up staying there until midway through my fifth grade year. This is where I learned to play the clarinet, which I started the summer before fifth grade. Fortunately, I stuck with it through the next transition.

And with that, it was 400-ish miles back to Minnesota, where we first moved in with my grandparents on the family farm, and I started school in Kiester in the middle of fifth grade. Not long afterwards, we found a house to rent on another farm a few miles away, and ended up staying there until just after my grandfather died, and my grandmother moved into a smaller house in town. We then moved back onto the family farm and stayed there until after my junior year of high school at Kiester (by then merged with another local school, Bricelyn, to form the South Central School system).

Towards the end of my junior year, my father, who had been working on various farms, primarily with hogs, for nearly 20 years, was feeling the toll of all of that dirt and dust on his health. He knew that he had to do something else, and after some time of discernment, made the decision (with my mom, of course) to return to finish college and then go on to seminary to become a Lutheran pastor.

Along with everything else that was going on at the time, I had an important decision to make. I had entertained the idea of continuing Furble remotely, mailing my monthly strips to the newspaper from Blair, NE, where we would eventually end up while dad finished college at Dana College. Ultimately, I made the decision to end the strip before we moved. This ended up being the best decision, as my senior year in Blair was really a year of reinvention for myself, and allowed me to sort of leave everything in Kiester behind, at least until I was ready to revisit aspects of my history there.

And that brings us to the final three weeks of this blog, which encompasses the final 3 months (and change) of the strip.

This week, we take a look at the last five strips of Furble-proper. That'll make more sense next week.

Strip 154/166 - Never stand in the way of vacationing kids

Apparently, Furbulian children have summer break, as well. And apparently Furbulia has summer. Who knew?

Strip 155/166 - More holes. What are they thinking?

Furble, have you no will power? You see a hole, and you just have to jump in? *sigh*

Strip 156/166 - No, no it doesn't.

This was inspired by the beginning of the movie "Labyrinth", as our heroine enters the titular maze and looks down at an endless corridor, unsure of how to proceed. This could take a while.

Strip 157/166 - Who knew it would be that easy?

This was born of my not wanting to leave our heroes stranded in a situation as the strip was coming to an end. I wanted to bring their journey in the maze to a quick end, and this seemed the most absurd way of doing it. Mission accomplished.

Strip 158/166 - One last socially-conscious strip

Just one more socially relevant strip to help bring things to a close for Furble and FC. This was the first and only time that I deviated from the 4-pane comic format, and was pretty much stollen from a similar strip that Watterson used for Calvin and Hobbes.

Next week, we diverge from Furble in an extreme way as the comic strip comes to an end.