It’s been a while since I’ve been able to offer an update on The Lost Worlds of Power, the fan-written collection of Nintendo game novelizations of which I’m honored to be a part. However, I’m told that the October 31 release date is still firm! The book will be available as a free download that day, so be on the lookout for that!

In the mean time, I am pleased to offer the illustration for my selection, “Legendary Wings,” by cartoonist Ron DelVillano:

Legendary Wings

When editor Philip J. Reed sent it to me as part of a bundle with the other illustrations, he noted:

Just so you know, I didn’t give Ron any guidance on what your stories were actually about…true to the Worlds of Power spirit! I only told him the games. In some cases, he actually ended up with some coincidentally appropriate details, which I love, and in other cases
the illustration is totally irrelevent, which I love even more.

How accurately does Ron’s illustration reflect the contents of my story? I’ll leave that for you to judge, but for the record, I think it’s awesome! More information will be forthcoming as I have it!

. . . And as a bonus, here’s another of Ron’s illustrations that is perfect for getting into the Halloween spirit:

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The title? “Monster Party,” of course.

Royals Fever!

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So the Cardinals are out, and the Royals are in. The St. Louis Cardinals lost the National League Championship Series to the San Francisco Giants while the Kansas City Royals proceed to the World Series after defeating the Baltimore Orioles to win the American League pennant.

I have mixed feelings about that. I married into a Cardinals family (many of whom still reside in the St. Louis area), and I’ve been rooting for the Cardinals along with them ever since. But growing up in Eastern Kansas, I have a soft spot for the Royals, the team I naturally rooted for as a kid.

It was easier back then when the Royals had players like George Brett and Bret Saberhagen (and were actually good). I was at best a casual fan, but I watched the 1985 “I-70 Series” between the Royals and the Cardinals and enjoyed the Royals’ victory, little knowing it would be their last post-season appearance until this year (it’s not the Curse of the Bambino by any means, but still hard to believe)!

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Even after switching sides, I still had some attachment to the Royals, considering them my second favorite: I described them as my American League pick, a heresy at which my wife rolled her eyes. Whenever casting votes for the All-Star Game, I cast all my NL votes for Cardinals players, and all my AL votes for Royals. Very scientific.

As much fun as another I-70 Series might have been, most of my Cardinal fan friends don’t seem too upset with things falling out the way they have. The Royals have been on an incredible roll, sweeping both of their post-season series; with catcher Yadier Molina out of commission, the consensus is that the Cardinals wouldn’t have much of a chance this year. And as my wife pointed out, the Royals have earned the chance to face someone other than the Cardinals.

Still, I won’t be walking around with a suspiciously new Royals jersey like many fans. I don’t judge them or anything; I just think it would be a little bit opportunistic for me to join them after being a Cardinal fan for so long. It’s a personal line (although if they had ended up facing the Cardinals I might have had to get one of those “a house divided” shirts). As it happens, I do have some Royals paraphernalia I had picked up at a visit to Kauffman Stadium, and I won’t feel a bit guilty about hoisting one in honor of the Royals when the World Series starts on Tuesday. And why not root for the Royals? After all, they’re the Giants’ problem now.

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Two Lovecraft Film Adaptations at The Solute

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I recently posted a review of two films by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society over at The Solute: the 2005 silent adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu” and the 2011 talkie “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Both are intriguing exercises in recreating the period of the stories rather than updating them as many adaptations have done in the past, making the most of limited budgets, and they show different approaches to adapting Lovecraft’s atmosphere-heavy stories. You can read about them at The Solute.

In the Hall of Mirrors with Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew

Somewhere between “funny-animal” comics and cartoons for children and the evolved animals of Planet of the Apes and other adult science fiction lies the semi-serious talking animal trend in comic books of the 1970s and ‘80s. Howard the Duck is a familiar example of a walking, talking humanoid animal interacting with mainstream costumed superheroes, but he was neither the first nor the last character of his type. I’ve always been intrigued by anthropomorphic animal characters: years ago I wrote a lengthy analysis of Howard and his creator, Steve Gerber, and if I can find it I might post it here.

I was similarly drawn to Jack Kirby’s post-apocalyptic series Kamandi for its mixture of science fiction and talking animals. Last summer I wrote about DC’s Showcase Presents the Great Disaster, a “phone book” collection of material peripherally related to Kamandi and including a healthy selection of not-so-funny-animal stories; now DC has released another Showcase collecting the core run of another hybrid series, the superhero/funny-animal adventures of Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew. Like Great Disaster, this volume was announced several years ago but was held up (reportedly by disputes over royalties) until now. In any case, it comes out at an opportune moment, as Captain Carrot has returned to comics as a main character in Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity, and the renewed popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shows that there is still an audience for wise-cracking, butt-kicking humanoid animals.

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Most of the Captain Carrot stories were new to me, although the character has made brief appearances in DC books since his introduction in New Teen Titans no. 16 (included in this volume) in 1982. Created by prolific writer Roy Thomas and cartoonist/animator Scott Shaw! (yes, the exclamation point is part of his professional name), Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew was tagged from the beginning as “Not just another funny-animal comic!” The tone is light and full of verbal humor and animal puns (Roger starts out in “Gnu York” and the team later moves to “Follywood, Califurnia”), but the adventures and conflicts between characters are firmly within the tradition of superhero comics.

Captain Carrot is the leader of the group: super-strong, tough, and blessed with super-hearing, as well as the ability to leap great distances (as with Superman, who could similarly “leap tall buildings in a single bound” in his early appearances, Captain Carrot would later be depicted as flying outright). Unlike his team, whose powers are constant, Captain Carrot gains his power from eating “cosmic carrots,” irradiated by the meteor that accompanied Superman when he visited from his own dimension. When the carrots’ effect has worn off, he reverts to his scrawny alter ego, cartoonist Roger (later Rodney) Rabbit, a secret identity with some resemblance to Clark Kent and Golden Age hero Hourman.

Rounding out the Zoo Crew are Rubberduck, who can stretch his form like Plastic Man; Yankee Poodle, a patriotic-themed heroine who can repel and attract matter via the stars and stripes she projects from her hands; Fastback, a turtle with super-speed; Pig-Iron, the tough guy; and Alley-Kat-Abra, a martial artist with mastery of magic, focused through her “Magic Wanda.” Each of these characters is an established type, and Thomas and Shaw! have made clear in commentary that they were conscious of the balance of personalities and powers that made up a good super-team, but none are outright copies of extant characters.*

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Most critically, Captain Carrot and his cohort are clearly established as living in one of the DC multiverse’s many parallel earths, a planet much like ours but inhabited by Saturday-morning-cartoon-style talking animals. The team’s origin is explicitly tied to Superman, who crosses from his own dimension to the funny-animal world, where he is viewed as a terrifying pink monster (with five fingers!): in Captain Carrot’s world, “men” are creatures of myth and legend. Changeling (aka Beast Boy) of the Titans and animal-themed villains Starro the Conqueror and Gorilla Grodd would also make appearances in the book, and many of the team’s subsequent appearances have been crossovers of one kind or another. Despite its obvious kid appeal, this isn’t segregated from DC continuity, as one might expect for a children’s title.

As noted, Captain Carrot and the other members of the Zoo Crew aren’t direct parodies of established superheroes. Although there are many winking references to human history and pop culture (particularly celebrities: Rubberduck’s civilian identity is movie star “Byrd Rentals,” and Yankee Poodle is gossip columnist “Rova Barkitt”—will readers younger than 40 even recognize the reference to Rona Barrett?), the Zoo Crew are unique individuals rather than being modeled after any specific character. This distinguishes Captain Carrot from Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, a similar parody of Marvel’s characters introduced in 1983 (a year after Captain Carrot’s first appearance).

In addition, master of minutia Roy Thomas built in many links to DC’s own funny-animal past: Pig-Iron was a transformed Peter Porkchops, a character who had appeared in DC’s Funny Stuff in the 1940s; Fastback was the nephew of another Golden Age funny-animal, McSnurtle the Turtle (who also moonlighted as a superhero, the “Terrific Whatzit”). Other characters from Funny Stuff were introduced as side characters, and in one story arc the team was split up and sent back in time to different eras, encountering characters such as Nero Fox (a jive-talking, jazz saxophone-playing funny-animal Roman emperor—in other words, a character who could only have been created during comics’ unselfconscious Golden Age) and the Three Mousketeers.

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Thomas’ obvious delight in making such connections and in capturing the essence of superheroic types brought to mind another creation of his: the Squadron Supreme, the analogue of DC’s Justice League of America that Thomas introduced in the pages of Avengers, and which has become a JLA stand-in in the Marvel multiverse. Intriguingly, while the Squadron very directly represents the JLA in the pages of Marvel Comics, the Zoo Crew actually strike me as a subtle reworking of Marvel’s character dynamic smuggled into a DC book. (Such are the differences between the two publishers that even parodying them requires a different approach: the Squadron Supreme is the JLA with a coat of paint, while the Zoo Crew mimics the contemporary soap opera feel of a Marvel book rather than specific characters.)

From the team’s first appearance, their stories are marked by squabbling and infighting, with the kind of character-based conflict that was a central ingredient in Fantastic Four, Avengers, and Uncanny X-Men. Captain Carrot is continually struggling to keep his allies focused on the mission, and nearly every issue includes one or more characters challenging his authority or the entire purpose of the group. Pig-Iron (most clearly modeled on FF’s Thing, pugnacious and blue-collar) wants to be left alone; Rubberduck and Yankee Poodle are accustomed to star treatment; Alley-Kat-Abra fights with Yankee Poodle over leadership roles and pines for the Captain’s affections. A great deal of the time, it’s not clear that the members of the team even like each other that much.

Consider another hero who is added later, the only member of the Zoo Crew to gain his powers through a source other than the meteor that entered their universe with Superman. Chester Cheese, a mouse, was a star basketball player whose father was a scientist working on the space program. Chester was approached by two goons working for a crime boss named Fatkat, who wanted him to throw a big game on which Fatkat had a lot of money riding. When Chester refused, his father was killed and Chester was locked in his laboratory. After eating a sample of lunar green cheese, he gained the power to shrink to small sizes, retaining his strength; calling himself “Little Cheese,” he enlists the Zoo Crew in an attempt to bring Fatkat to justice.

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On the surface, Little Cheese resembles other shrinking heroes like the Atom or Ant-Man, but his origin is a remix of Spider-Man’s, combining the drama of teenage life, super-science, and a parental figure whose tragic death leads him to use his powers for a higher purpose. (Not to mention that his nemesis, Fatkat, strongly resembles Marvel villain the Kingpin.) In short, Little Cheese’s story illustrates the Marvel habit of building stories around “little tragedies,” to borrow Chris Sims’ phrase. Tragic origins aren’t foreign to the DC universe, of course, but in combination with the personality conflicts and limitations placed on the Zoo Crew’s powers, it’s very much in line with Marvel’s modus operandi. In that light, Captain Carrot’s adventures are an overlooked example of what Sims calls “The Problem,” a decades-long desire on DC’s part to make itself more like Marvel.

It gets even more complicated when another funny-animal super-team is introduced, and this one is a direct parody: the Justa’ Lotta Animals, which starts out as the comic book that R. Rabbit illustrates as his day job, but which (naturally) turns out to be a real group from yet another parallel earth. The two-part crossover, “Crisis on Earth-C!” and “Crisis on Earth-C-Minus!”, parodies the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossovers in bringing the champions of two worlds together. This JLA consists of Super-Squirrel, Bat-Mouse, Wonder Wabbit, Green Lambkin, the Crash (a super-speedy turtle, showing there are only so many spins one can put on this kind of character, I guess), and Aquaduck (whom I almost forgot); when first encountered, only Captain Carrot is familiar with them, since he draws them for a living.

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It’s a time-honored convention of comic books that when two or more superheroes meet for the first time, they fight each other (through confusion or a villain’s manipulation). The JLA/Zoo Crew match-up is no different, but even after getting the facts straight, inter-group rivalries persist. Captain Carrot has trouble adjusting to the idea that the fictional characters he draws are not only real, but have personalities and motives of their own, and both the Zoo Crew and JLA exhibit a territorial streak when it comes to another super-team in “their” world. A love triangle forms, as Super-Squirrel is immediately jealous and resentful of Wonder Wabbit’s interest in a fellow bunny (it’s really a love quadrangle, as Alley-Kat-Abra is also possessive of her Captain).

The “real” Superman and Wonder Woman weren’t romantically linked until recently, but this storyline uncovers subtext that was always present, if only in the minds of fans: just as Mark Gruenwald could have Hyperion and Power Princess consummate their love in the pages of Squadron Supreme, Super-Squirrel could give voice to feelings of jealousy and inadequacy that Superman would leave unspoken, if he felt them at all. (The Captain Carrot/Wonder Wabbit pairing can be read as a parody of all such “doomed romance” storylines, as they belong in two different worlds, but it isn’t treated as a joke: the story ends with Rodney drawing Wonder Wabbit for his comic book, ruefully acknowledging that he can’t even escape into his work to forget his loss.) As a fan of both funny-animals and pastiche characters, the whole thing is a fascinating chance to observe a diverse group of characters—some of whom stand in for entire mythologies**—bounce off each other. Captain Carrot isn’t just parody: it’s meta.

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* Behind-the-scenes commentary and information about the Zoo Crew’s creation is drawn from Alter Ego no. 72 (September 2007).

** Speaking of mythologies, I haven’t even gotten to the six-chapter Oz-Wonderland War, published as a three-issue miniseries in 1986, and a fitting culmination to the contents of the book, with more character development than most of the previous issues. The storyline draws the Zoo Crew into an interdimensional conflict based on the characters and settings of L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll (and includes a brief reunion with Wonder Wabbit), and includes some great artwork by Carol Lay, balancing the cartoon style of Shaw! with the illustrative styles of Denslow and Tenniel. It deserves a longer write-up, but as a blend of humor and reference (scripted by longtime DC writer and editor E. Nelson Bridwell, who had a reputation as a “continuity cop” himself) it’s a very pleasurable (if frequently downright weird) read.

Marching Into the Movies at The Solute

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I’ve got another one at The Solute today, and this one’s a long one. I examine several movies about or featuring bands, marching and otherwise, and examine the different ways this unique form of social and educational music-making have been portrayed on film. You can read it here.

(And don’t worry, this isn’t the end of long-form content here at Medleyana: I will still be posting longer articles here as well!)

Revisiting Sky Captain at The Solute

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It’s always nice when circumstances converge to provide an opportunity for me to write about things I wanted to write about anyway. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow opened ten years ago today, so I wrote a remembrance of it for The Solute. As with Shanghai Surprise, I was interested in revisiting it in light of my recent exploration of serials from the 1930s and ’40s, one of the major sources of Sky Captain‘s plot and visual style. My article for The Solute focuses on the film’s then-groundbreaking combination of live action and CGI backgrounds, but regular readers will recognize many of my usual preoccupations with pastiche and stock character types.

Read it here.

Shanghai Surprise at The Solute

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Today I took a look at the 1986 Madonna/Sean Penn vehicle Shanghai Surprise over at The Solute. It’s an auxiliary to Julius Kassendorf’s series examining all of Madonna’s film roles, but readers of my recent Fates Worse Than Death series will find many connections made with both the serials of the 1930s and the post-Raiders of the Lost Ark imitators that flooded theaters in the 1980s. Upon its release, Shanghai Surprise was an enormous flop and the passage of time has done little to rehabilitate it; however, I found some things to enjoy in it, which you can read about right here.