Tag Archives: Halloween

Concerning Cucurbit Comics, or 57 Years of Hilariously Sincere Waiting for The Great Pumpkin.

 

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When Charles Schulz first devised his running holiday gags involving an eager child’s confused blending of  Halloween and Christmas in October 1959, he never dreamed that the myth of the Great Pumpkin would become one of the most beloved and amusing elements of the Fall holidays. Like so many landmark Peanuts routines, what began as a simple joke about a seemingly quaint misunderstanding would eventually grow to sizable proportions throughout the decades, producing a number of memorable antics as well as some particularly pointed commentary on the values and risks of personal perseverance and popular scorn.

Five of the first seven “Great Pumpkin” strips reveal Linus Van Pelt spreading the joyful gospel that will eventually leave him humiliated as “a victim of false doctrine.”

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From then on, Schulz deftly milked the joke every season, focusing mainly on Linus’ unsinkable faith in his own personal legend of a charitable pumpkin-claus who brings toys and treats to good little kiddos awaiting his arrival in the truest, most earnest, and sincere pumpkin patch nestled somewhere in the Great American breadbasket. Playing harbinger to his Halloween hero, Linus’ tone could shift from zealous and prophetic to desperate and dejected, but still he spoke his truth and believed always in his misfit vision of the holiday. Now his legend is ours as well.

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Of course the 1966 TV special, one of many award-winning adaptations that launched Schulz’s Peanuts gang to worldwide fame, would provide the most resonant and popular of all Great Pumpkin routines. Culled largely from the comic strips, and lovingly tweaked for television by Schulz himself and long-time producer, Bill Melendez, the CBS special, like its Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter counterparts, became a seminal element of American holiday media, and its yearly broadcast remains a beloved tradition shared by generations of viewers and fans. It’s safe to say that, ironically, much of the media-driven world now sits eagerly each year with Linus in his pumpkin patch.

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Like Schulz’s tree-eating kite, Charlie Brown and Lucy’s perennial football foibles, and the poor Peanuts kids’ eternal inability to win baseball games – Linus’ yearly disappointment after the Great Pumpkin’s failure to appear makes grand, operatic comedy of frustration and regret. Linus’ agony over another year wasted, his sister’s disgust at her little brother’s unshakable delusion, Snoopy’s perpetual knack for appearing at just the right time to give the poor languishing martyr some hope, and especially smitten Sally’s endless threats of litigation and restitution for a night’s worth of lost candy all frame the Great Pumpkin as a fairly piquant allegory of the complexities of faith, fun, and friendship in America.

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Tricky Treats and Goofy Ghosts: A Halloween Harvest of Hilarious All Ages Graphic Novels

Welcome to the last night of summer and the first early smidgens of impending Autumnal Awesome!
Though I previously promised a very different type of post for my next HA! installment, I just can’t help celebrating the comedy of the season with a short list of little known works that brim with big laughs for all ages.

Fall remains a grand season of bountiful mirth, bemused reflection, crisp comedy, and pumpkin-sized parody, but the past few years have provided us with an impressive harvest of wit, wonder, humor, and hilarity all keyed to the themes of darkening nights, kiddie creatures, and whimsical witchery.
So pull up a comfy cucurbit and let’s dive into our cornucopia of comedy!

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1. The Itty Bitty Hellboy series : Mike Mignola, Art Baltazar, & Franco
Mike Mignola’s signature creation, the fearsome Hellboy hybrid, has brought slick new wit to the Superhero, World War II, and Ghost Story genres. Horror maestro, Guillermo Del Toro, has developed an intriguing big budget franchise out of Mignola’s B.P.R.D. milieu. (That’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense for those folks who thought that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s acronym wasn’t ridiculous enough.) The best elements of Mignola’s action-packed adventures revolve around the self-conscious humor he meticulously weaves into nearly every stitch of his narrative tapestry. From Hellboy’s irreverent asides to Mignola’s own sly satires on overblown pulp tropes like the NAZI-abetted apocalypse, each page of the grown-up Hellboy glows with freaky fun.
Sadly though, the little ones can’t share in most of these adventures.
Even better than the originals, and much more enjoyable for all ages, are the Itty Bitty Hellboy lampoons that remix Mignola’s grim, shadowy realms to the rhythms of Little Archie and the Muppet Babies. The results are, quite simply, hysterical. The B.P.R.D.’s chilling creepitude crashes into the endearing cuteness of Baltazar and Franco’s winning make-overs for each character. The adventures are, of course, equally playful and parodic, with enough running gags and adult allusions to amuse every level of literacy.
Baltazar and Franco have enjoyed success with a variety of cutesified comics properties especially their Tiny Titans tales, but these diminutive heroes lack the added hellish ironies that Itty Bitty Hellboy piles onto its bonfire of crackling comedy. Two kooky collections are currently available, with more stories set to appear in the not-too-distant future. Hell and damnation have never been quite so delightful!

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2. Jess Smart Smiley’s Upside Down Series
As adorable as an infantilized hellspawn might seem, l’il Hellboy has nothing on Jess Smart Smiley’s Harold, the little vampire with an unquenchable sweet tooth. Designed with clean, free-lined freshness, Harold’s slapstick adventures explore the more mundane elements of vampire life alongside a supporting cast of mad disco doctors, friendly familiars, and whimsical witches. The aptly named Smiley brings rich new warmth and much needed ingenuity to a genre long overloaded with literally half-dead riffs on the worn-out Addams Family tradition. More honest, joyful, and stylish than the swath of Wimpy Kids and Dork Diaries that inundate early readers catalogs, the Upside Down stories are deftly designed, gleeful parables of screwball spontaneity.
Smiley is at his best articulating moment by moment physical comedy, and the quirky blocking only gets better when his creatures converse casually from obtuse angles, or upside down (of course), sharing the everyday concerns of young monsters and eager little undead. Like Itty Bitty Hellboy, two splendid collections currently prowl across the internet’s e-stalls, but we are hopeful that more of Harold’s hi-jinks will chase bleaker clichés away from of our Halloween hootenanny.

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3. Melvin Monster by John Stanley
Sometimes old school monsters are the most amusing of all, and John Stanley’s joyfully hideous creation, Melvin Monster, remains as tightly structured, sharply satiric, and outrageously funny as he when he first appeared in 1965. Thankfully, the lauded publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, cut no corners in its loving three volume treasury of resurrected reprints that bring Melvin back from beyond with more grandeur and gusto than he ever received in his own era.
Please don’t confuse Stanley’s mini-monster masterpiece with the earlier Atlas Comics creation, Melvin THE Monster, a juvenile delinquent developed by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely to cash in on the popularity of Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace. On the contrary, Stanley’s Melvin never wreaks havoc directly, but rather as a side effect of his tender regard for the world he so loves to explore and entertain. He struggles at the Little Black Schoolhouse with the demanding Ms. McGargoyle, strives to gain the approval of his doting Mummy and Baddy, and tends tirelessly to his pet crocodile whose poor track record as a reptilian predator is equaled only by Steven Pastis’ hapless “Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata.”

Stanley himself was an unsung master of withering mid-century domestic satire and his contributions to Marge’s Little Lulu, Kookie, Thirteen (Going on Eighteen), the latter day re-launch of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and (Around the Block with) Dunc and Loo remain classics of the Dell “All Ages” brand. Yet, Stanley was also a serious student of the chiller, and his few excursions into Gothic mystery included some of the most surprising spine-tinglers of the post-code era. His two ghoulish Dell anthologies, Ghost Stories and Tales from the Tomb, are now considered landmarks of originality, and remain even more fascinating for their shrewd use of gripping but bloodless tension and shock. For Melvin Monster though, Stanley brought the perverse charms of grotesque innocence to an otherwise prescribed and tiresome adult world of rules, obligations, and harassments. Melvin’s misadventures, now handsomely revamped for millennial readers, reveal how his simple fascination with all of the world’s great thrills make him the most magnanimous monster in the history of kiddie comics.

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4. Scary Godmother by Jill Thompson
Like Stanley’s monstrous Melvin, Jill Thompson’s incredibly clever Scary Godmother concept has never garnered the mainstream success it so sorely deserves. Hokey Halloween mash-ups are now legion and while some become the stuff of pop legend, destined to ride alongside mainstays like the Headless Hessian and The Great Pumpkins, most get tossed back into the Mad, Mad Monster Party with the rest of the vapid vampires and franken-flops. From Scooby-Doo to Monster High, the family friendly fascination with villainy, monstrosity, and sorcery seems timeless, but there really has never been anything quite like Thompson’s Scary Godmother before.
Equal parts Mary Poppins, The Cat in the Hat, and Harry Potter, Scary Godmother and her “broommates” from The Fright Side are deliciously original extrapolations of a thousand Halloweeny myths and rituals. Even better, every single one of them bristles with fun allusions to their antecedents. There’s Harry the chatterbox werewolf, Maxwell and Ruby the glamorous vampire couple, and their Emo/Goth offspring, Orson, an enfant terrible named, of course, after the original Halloween mass media prankster.
Then there are the intrepid kid heroes whose good natured collaborations are just as enjoyable as the classic gang comedy of the Mystery Machine crew. Scary Godmother is probably the most commercially successful of the works profiled here. It has enjoyed multiple comics series, graphic novels, collections, and children’s books, as well as reasonable success with animated adaptations, but these never really capture Thompson’s richly rendered watercolors. As a mass media franchise, Scary Godmother is a fun and rewarding curiosity, but its original sequential habitat explodes with abundant Halloween humor. Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman (a friend and frequent collaborator with Thompson) should both grind their fangs with a bit of jealousy. They may rule the darker realms of sinister sorcery, but what Thompson brings to light is bright, brilliant magic.

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The complete Scary Godmother Halloween Spooktacular is available here.

5. Frankenstein by Dick Briefer
Let’s conclude with a classic Halloween creature, the infamous Frankenstein monster – though not quite as fearsomely familiar as he may seem. James Whale’s campy Frankenstein franchise at Universal kicked off something of a fad for Modernist monsters and Franken-themed commodities. There were, of course, midnight double features with Browning’s Dracula, and numerous pulp reprintings of Mary W. Shelley’s perennially popular thriller, as well as Marvel and Classics Illustrated adaptations in the “Golden Age” of comics.

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At the same time, the intrepid Dick Briefer, a seasoned cartoonist of various genres, introduced a new feature in the 1940 Prize Comics anthology title adapting the tale with elements culled from both Shelley and Whale. These early “monster” stories – developed by Briefer but credited to “Frank N. Stein” – are Expressionistic and raw, with a Karloff-esque creature rampaging through contemporary cityscapes to brutalize authorities, gangsters, and circus animals alike. He is, in effect, a kind of anti-Superman or proto-Hulk, impossibly strong and ferociously driven by rage and fury. Before long, however, a monstrous miracle would occur.
Over time, Briefer’s sense of the Absurd would fashion Shelley’s creature into the neo-gothic equivalent of Jack Benny and his hearty cohort of peculiar pals. In these stories, Franky’s monstrous bulk would become the fodder for endless slapstick. sight gags, and clowny costume changes ranging from superhero suits to Viking gear and elephant trunks. Throughout the late 1940s, Briefer’s gleeful deconstructions of American horror’s most recognizable monster spoke to changing times and subversive tastes. His screwy sketches are overloaded with puns, pratfalls, and parodies of multiple genres as well as, at times, self-conscious satire of the very art of cartooning itself. Akin to the most irascible work of Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Rube Goldberg, the heyday of Briefer’s humorous Franken-jester was cut short by market changes. To cash in on the crass horror craze of the mid-1950s, Briefer once more remodeled his monster  into an even more terrible scourge, but the wacky middle phase of madcap pastiche would presage the coming of other Gothic comedies like the Addams Family, the Munsters, and to some extent, even glam-camp spectacles like Rocky Horror.
The majority of Briefer’s Frankenstein oeuvre is now more available than ever before in multiple collections and archival editions. Our national humor and our Halloween holidays are all the better for it!

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Until next time, humorous hauntings everyone!

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Michael Collier’s Poem for the Season

michael_collier I don’t know what to say about Michael Collier‘s poetry. but I do know that if this particular poem belongs on our blog, today is the day.

Sinister, surreal, postmodern and  . . . conceptually funny. . . love it or hate it, that’s up to you!

Collier is the director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Maryland. He is also the poetry editorial consultant for Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

In his own words, “I think poetry does have this ability to help us deal with things that aren’t black and white and make our thinking more subtle.”

Wishing you a Happy Mischief Night (October 30th), Halloween (October 31st), All Saint’s Day (November 1st) and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd)!

All Souls

A few of us—Hillary Clinton, Vlad Dracula,
Oprah Winfrey, and Trotsky—peer through
the kitchen window at a raccoon perched
outside on a picnic table where it picks

over chips, veggies, olives, and a chunk of pâte.
Behind us others crowd the hallway, many more
dance in the living room. Trotsky fusses with the bloody
screwdriver puttied to her forehead.

Hillary Clinton, whose voice is the rumble
of a bowling ball, whose hands are hairy
to the third knuckle, lifts his rubber chin to announce,
“What a perfect mask it has!” While the Count

whistling through his plastic fangs says, “Oh,
and a nose like a chef.” Then one by one
the other masks join in: “Tail of a gambler,”
“a swashbuckler’s hips,” “feet of a cat burglar.”

Trotsky scratches herself beneath her skirt
and Hillary, whose lederhosen are so tight they form a codpiece,
wraps his legs around Trotsky’s leg and humps like a dog.
Dracula and Oprah, the married hosts, hold hands

and then let go. Meanwhile the raccoon squats on
the gherkins, extracts pimentos from olives, and sniffs
abandoned cups of beer. A ghoul in the living room
turns the music up and the house becomes a drum.

The windows buzz. “Who do you love? Who do you love?”
the singer sings. Our feathered arms, our stockinged legs.
The intricate paws, the filleting tongue.
We love what we are; we love what we’ve become.

                                                                     — Michael Collier

Michael Collier, “All Souls” from The Ledge. Copyright © 2000 by Michael Collier.
Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Psycho! – Music and Manipulation in Hitchcock’s Great Comedy

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Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating.  I was directing the viewers.  You might say I was playing them, like an organ. – Alfred Hitchcock

[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him. – Bernard Herrmann

It’s almost Halloween, and nothing says Halloween like Alfred Hitchcock. So let’s take a look at the music in Hitchcock’s great comedy, Psycho.

Maybe comedy is a bit of a stretch. But Hitchcock himself has long held that his low budget, black and white 1960 thriller, which literally invented the genre of slasher films, is a comedy.

I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho…The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.

What did Hitchcock mean by this exactly?  He was famous for his wry wit and it is possible the real joke was to later classify the film itself as a joke. But there is also a likely earnestness in his claim. Hitchcock elaborates that he envisioned Psycho as a thrill ride, akin to a “switchback railway,” or rollercoaster.

It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway…you mustn’t go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.

Audiences certainly enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the film, and continue to do so to this day, although perhaps not “giggling with pleasure” at its finish. Does this mean Hitchcock failed, went too far? Hardly. What separates Psycho from its countless imitators is precisely its darkness and heft, the superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and perhaps most importantly Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.

That’s not to say the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality Hitchcock intended. There are quite a few laughs in the film, mostly from the brilliant bit performances. Pat Hitchcock shines as Marion’s homely co-worker (“He was flirting with you. I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.”) as does John Anderson as used car salesman “California Charlie” (“You can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman you will.”) and Helen Wallace as the eccentric hardware store customer concerned with finding a humane insect poison (“They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.”). Even Norman balances his darkness with humorous bits of awkwardness, such as his incessant Kandy Korn nibbling.

Alfred Hitchcock was a celebrity as a personality as well as a director, and served as a perfect pitchman for his films. The marketing campaign for Psycho is almost as infamous as the film itself. It began with pre-production: Hitchcock bought up every copy of the novel on which the film was based so that the story would be as little known as possible, he had the actors sign confidentiality agreements before filming commenced, and he openly refused to allow Paramount to photograph the set. This anti-publicity served as ingenious publicity.

Hitchcock appreciated the shock value in killing off his star less than halfway into the picture, so he Continue reading →

Seven Graveyard Smashes

As Halloween approaches once again, it’s time to revisit a near-extinct art – the holiday novelty song.  Second only to Christmas, Halloween was made for accompanying musical madness. So why do fright and folly go so well together? Sociologists have analyzed and over-analyzed our instinctive attraction to fear – why we watch scary movies or ride roller coasters – but it essentially boils down to this: we love to be scared, but we prefer to be in on the joke. So here are a few favorite Halloween novelty songs to get you in the trick-or-treating mood.

1. Buck Owens – (It’s A) Monsters’ Holiday

Not to be confused with Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Christmas-themed song of the same name, this 1974 country rocker is pure Buck Owens. The infectious, bouncy groove and playful lyrics are made complete with the requisite spooky sound effects and voice-over. And no monster is left out of this party.  Fee-fee-fi-fi-fo-fo-fum…

2. Bo Diddley – Bo Meets the Monster

Long before The Beatles or The Ramones successfully created cartoon caricature alter egos of themselves, Bo Diddley was inventing a sort of third-person comic book superhero persona; placing himself in all sorts of absurd scenarios backed by a gritty, low-down, sweaty groove. From gun-slinging at the O.K. Corral to lumberjacking in the woods to facing down that ghastliest of monsters – the Purple People Eater. Almost a decade before Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page would popularize the pick slide, Bo Diddley brilliantly used this Foley device to mimic the sound of a creeping door opening slowly.

3. Bob McFadden and Rod McKuen – The Mummy

Mummies, vampires, werewolves and…beatniks? Perhaps the scariest of all monsters Continue reading →

Happy Halloween!

While watching scary movies this weekend, I noticed the similarities between horror and humor: suspense released through an emotional response, expectations build up and often end in surprise, and lots and lots of blood…

*Seven Graveyard Smashes…our own music editor, Matt Powell, on Halloween music.

*Michael Collier’s “All Souls”

*Will Rogers in “The Headless Horsemen

*Halloween on Parks & Rec

*Comic Pumpkins

*Vincent Price and Muppets!

*Halloween music, via Nine Kinds of Pie

*the origin of Halloween traditions

*Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, spooky scary….

*A great version of Poe’s “The Raven” mixing humor and horror.

*Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals San Francisco Giants …via funny baseball quotes.

*Finally, some political cartoons  from the past few years, as Halloween tropes are recycled to address new fears and old.

2014

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