Sunday, May 5, 2019

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Betty and Veronica Fairy Tales.

If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be writing about comics from this publisher, I would have been skeptical.  I mean, it’s not like they’re not a major comic book company in their own way.  It’s just that ever since I was a kid I always thought they looked a little dull and corny.  But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who felt that way about Archie Comics.

Archie Comics have, like many comic book publishers, been around since the late 1930s.  They used to be named MLJ and mostly published superheroes at the time, if you can believe it (characters like The Shield, The Web, The Comet and The Black Hood).  That is, until Archie Andrews debuted in 1941 and became the company’s most popular character.  From there, it was a future of mostly squeaky clean teen comedy.  I think most people (including myself) think of Archie Comics as the people who sell those digest-sized comics that you can buy in the checkout lane of the supermarket.  However, Archie has been having a bit of a moment lately.  A moment that’s managed to even catch my interest.  The cause seems to be the philosophy that their characters work in any genre.  The most obvious examples of this are the mystery drama Riverdale and the horror show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.  However, there have also been horror comics about Jughead Jones, Veronica Lodge and Cheryl Blossom, a series that stars Betty and Veronica as leaders of a vigilante biker gang (yes, really) as well as some more mainstream relaunches that skew just a little older than usual (my personal recommendation is the Archie series written by Mark Waid).

This book, Betty and Veronica Fairy Tales, isn’t from any of those recent endeavors.  It’s total old-school Archie, complete with the Dan Decarlo art style.
The book consists of nine fairy tale and children’s literature adaptations as well as a two-parter that’s more of a mash-up.  All of them written by writer Dan Parent and illustrated by a number of different artists.  And as the cover suggests, most of them starring Betty and Veronica.  For the uninitiated Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge are two high school girls from the small town of Riverdale.  Betty is a sweet, down-to-earth, girl next door type while Veronica is a confident (some would say arrogant) and self-assured rich girl.  Despite their differences, the two girls are best friends.  They’re also rivals in love for red-headed everyteen Archie Andrews.  Why are they both after Archie?  Honestly, I don’t know.  As much as I’ve come to like Archie, I’m pretty sure they both could do better.
Adaptations like this, where established characters are essentially cast as “actors” in the stories, aren’t anything new or unfamiliar.  As such, a few of the stories are about what you’d expect.  For example, “Snow White and the Riverdale Dwarves”, “Betty and the Beast” “Sleeping Betty” and “There’s No Place Like Riverdale”.  When it really gets interesting is in stories like “A Tale of Two Cinderellas”, “The Little Mermaids”, “The Story of the Rapunzels” and “Reggiestiltskin” in which they double the heroine role so they both can play it.  In those cases we get things like a version of “Cinderella” in which everyone gets turned into frogs in the end, a version of “Rapunzel” in which Rapunzel has a twin sister who goes looking for her and a version of “The Little Mermaid” in which both mermaids start pursuing other options after Prince Archie starts seeing someone else.  I actually appreciate them exercising that option, because it’s far too easy to cast Veronica as the villainess.  There’s also a version of Alice in Wonderland that does have Veronica as the Queen of Hearts, but is interesting because it goes off the rails in other ways.

Probably the story that stands out the most is the last one “What’s the Story?”.  This story highlights one of the more unusual aspects of Riverdale.  Apparently, there are paths through the local woods that walking along can cause fantastical things to happen.  There’s Memory Lane, which allows people to travel back in time.  The other is Storybook Lane which leads to a part of the woods called Storyland (I’m assuming it’s an old amusement park) and a statue that, under certain circumstances can get someone stuck in a fairy tale.  This is what happens to Archie and the rest of the town of Riverdale as everything gets turned into a fairy tale mash-up, and in a twist the real fairy tale characters end up in a world that’s far too mundane for their liking.  Most of the story is Archie going around kissing various girls to try and break the spell.  However, it is different from every other story.  It also reminds us that Archie Comics could be weird even before the “every genre” thing started (after all, there’s a teenage witch living in the next town over and Jughead was once a member of the Time Police).

There are a few other things that I like about the book.  There’s a sort of straight-forward, blunt edge to the comedy that’s amusing.  For example, a part in “Sleeping Betty” where someone straight-up tells the Wicked Fairy Veronica that the spell she’s casting on the princess is excessive.  Or the enchanted objects sarcastically calling out the Beast that jailing his potential sweetheart isn’t the best start to a relationship.  One other thing that stands out is that despite the generally kid-friendly quality of Archie Comics, they still have a little more edge than other fairy tale adapters [:cough:Disney:cough:].  And since this is a comedy about teenagers, they can be a little more honest about the fact that all that “fairest of them all” and “love at first sight” stuff comes down to physical attractiveness.  So, we have stuff like Evil Queen Veronica asking “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the hottest of them all?”  It’s a little refreshing, honestly.

Betty and Veronica Fairy Tales is a decent little book, though maybe not anything groundbreaking in terms of fairy tale adaptations.  But amusing in its way and a fun little read, especially if you’re an Archie Comics fan. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Elephant in the Room.

A few months ago.

[5:00 am, phone ringing off the hook]

FTG: [Wakes up, groggily answers ringing phone] Hello.

Chirpy PR Person: Hello!  Am I talking to Adam Hoffman, the administrator of Fairy Tale Fandom Dot Com, also known as the self-professed Fairy Tale Geek?

FTG: Yeah, that would be me.  I was trying to sleep.  Why are you calling me so early?

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, I’m sorry to wake you.  I didn’t think of what time it is over there.  Well, I’m a public relations agent representing a major Hollywood studio and boy do I have an offer for you.

FTG: Look, I don’t really think . . . Wait a minute.  Hollywood?  [Does some quick math]  It’s 5 am here.  If you’re in California, it should be 2 am there.

Chirpy PR Person: That late already?  I prefer to get an early start to my day.  The early bird gets the worm and all that.  But anyway, let’s talk Dumbo!

FTG: Wait, I know who you are!  You’re that PR lady who called Gypsy about the Tim Burton Dumbo movie!

Chirpy PR Person:  That’s right, and I am here to get you involved in promoting Disney and Tim Burton’s next big blockbuster film.  I know you’re not as picky as some people about the whole fairy tale thing.  So, a little PR from a blog like yours could be the cherry on top for this campaign.  I’ve been authorized by my agency and the studio to offer you the use of promotional images, press releases, quotes from the cast and the director and all sorts of other things.  So, what do you have planned for our big new movie and its big little star?

FTG: Nothing.

Chirpy PR Person: Nothing?  What do you mean, nothing?  I’ve read your blog.  You’ve done all sorts of stuff to tie into Disney movies before.  And it’s clear you’re not so hung up on what’s technically a fairy tale.

FTG: Not all of them.  And you are right.  I also do stuff based on classic children’s books and legends, however . . .

Chirpy PR Person: [Gasp] Is it because it’s a Disney original story?!

FTG: What?  No.  That’s barely even a thing.  90% of Disney movies are based on other works.

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, that can’t be true?  What about The Rescuers?

FTG: It was a children’s book by Margery Sharp.

Chirpy PR Person: Bambi?

FTG: A novel by Felix Salten.  One originally meant for adults, actually.

Chirpy PR Person: The Great Mouse Detective?

FTG: The Basil of Baker Street children’s book series by Eve Titus.

Chirpy PR Person: Big Hero Six?

FTG: It was a Marvel comic.

Chirpy PR Person: Really?  Then why didn’t Marvel Studios make that movie?

FTG: I don’t know.

Chirpy PR Person: Zootopia?

FTG: That one is.  Congratulations, you found one original.  Look, I’ll explain to you why I have no plans for Dumbo.  Then, it will all be clear.  But first, can I ask you one little question?

Chirpy PR Person: Shoot!

FTG: How many cups of coffee have you already had today?

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, about five or six.  Any more than that and I get jittery.

FTG: Of course.  Anyway, you ready?

Chirpy PR Person: I’m all ears.  Get it?

FTG: <Groan>  Look, the way I’ve been approaching this stuff with one exception is that I review the film if it’s a movie based on a fairy tale and I spotlight the book if it’s based on a literary work.  Now, the book that would become Dumbo is a special case.  So, get comfy because here comes a history lesson.  Okay?

Chirpy PR Person: Okay.

FTG: The original story of Dumbo, The Flying Elephant was written by a married couple from Syracuse, New York named Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl in 1938.  It originally appeared as a story for a gimmicky device called a Roll-a-Book.  A Roll-a-Book was like a scroll that was built into a box and you could turn the pages by turning a wheel .  The Roll-a-Book didn’t exactly take off and no known copies of this version of Dumbo are still in existence.  Follow me so far?

Chirpy PR Person: Yup.
FTG: The rights to the Roll-a-Book story were then sold to Disney by publisher Everett Whitmyre.  This was handy for Disney because they needed to make a cheap but profitable movie.  They were losing money because Pinocchio hadn’t made much money overseas because of World War 2 and Fantasia was expensive, had a very limited release and neither critics nor audiences knew what to make of it.  Luckily, this plan worked.  Still with me?

Chirpy PR Person: Uh-huh.

FTG: The thing is, the story isn’t so happy for Aberson and Pearl.  Despite newspapers in their hometown claiming they were headed for fame and fortune, it never happened.  The couple divorced after only a year of marriage.  Neither of them ever published another book, though Aberson kept writing into the ‘60s.  Dumbo, The Flying Elephant was only ever published as a regular book once, in a print run of no more than a thousand copies.  It has never been in print since.  That’s why I have nothing planned.  I can’t spotlight the book if I can’t get the book!  I can’t make something out of nothing!

Chirpy PR Person: So, the book is just gone?  That’s it?
FTG: Effectively, yes.  Near as I can tell, Disney owns all the rights to the story and they’ve never shown any interest in republishing it.  Some copies of that one thousand copy print run are out there and when they sell it’s for a fair chunk of change.  I know there’s a Disney historian named Jim Korkis who has a copy.  The story from his copy was pretty much transcribed onto the Jim Hill Media website.  There are some interesting details that differ from the Disney version.  Dumbo’s mother is named Mother Ella in the book.  Also, his friend is a robin named Red rather than a mouse named Timothy.  He’s also not a baby elephant so much as one that didn’t grow all the way.  Oh, and he gets the confidence to fly by talking to a owl psychiatrist!  As much as I’d like to trust what’s been transcribed, I still feel iffy about working from a second hand source like that.

Chirpy PR Person: So, that’s it?  Disney’s big circus spectacular directed by the one and only Tim Burton and you’re going to skip writing about it because you can’t find a children’s book!?

FTG: Yeah.  I’m going to skip it.  Just like I skipped Pete’s Dragon and The BFG and A Wrinkle in Time and how I’m probably going to skip Lion King.  I do look forward to watching Dumbo.  It looks interesting to say the least.

Chirpy PR Person: I still can’t believe a book can just disappear like that!

FTG: A lot of them do.  You know how many books fall into obscurity?  Thousands.  Maybe millions.  In the case of Aberson and Pearl, it might be fortunate that Disney got involved.  Their work will be remembered through the movie they made, even if they don’t want to publish the original again.  There is one other thing.  Syracuse University back in their hometown has worked to preserve their creation.  Their archives house some original illustrations from the book.  Though, they’re apparently really rough-looking things.  The characters are practically stick figures.

Chirpy PR Person: Hmm . . .
FTG: “Hmm”, what?

Chirpy PR Person: Well, you’re in New York State, right?

FTG: Yes, but I don’t like where you’re going with this.

Chirpy PR Person: And you have a car, right?

FTG: No!  I’m not driving halfway across the state for Dumbo!

Chirpy PR Person: But just hear me out!

FTG: No!

Chirpy PR Person: But-

FTG: Hanging up now! [hits end call]

[FTG collapses back onto his bed.]

FTG: Huh.  How the hell did she get my number?

Walt Disney’s new take on Dumbo hits theaters March 29.

Chirpy PR Person character created by Gypsy Thornton.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Brer Rabbit Falls Down the Well.

I’ve been having a little trouble getting my reading to synch up with when I wanted to release certain posts.  For example, with it being February I thought I’d already be well into stories and folklore from the African Diaspora by now but it hasn’t worked out that way.  However, I’ve been leaning a little bit too hard on movie reviews in the meantime.  So, with hopes to give my impressions on Mules and Men sometime down the road, let’s instead cast the light on an African-American folk tale I know pretty well.  Mainly because I borrowed it for a Story Circle meeting.
The story starts with Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear and others working in a field on a hot day.  They were clearing ground for planting.  It was hot as blazes and Brer Rabbit wasn’t happy about working in the hot sun.

So as he’s working, Brer Rabbit pretends to get stuck by a thorn from a briar bush he was clearing away.  The other animals tell him he’d better pull out the thorn and go wash his hand (paw?) so it doesn’t get infected.  Brer Rabbit does leave but instead of washing his hands and going back to work, he decides to find a shady spot and take a quick nap.  What Brer Rabbit finds is an old well with a rope and a couple of buckets attached, one on each end of the rope.  Brer Rabbit hops in one of the buckets to catch some Zs.  What happens?  His weight makes the bucket he’s in go down and the other bucket go up.

So now Brer Rabbit is in a pickle.  He can’t get out of the well.

Now Brer Fox knew that Brer Rabbit was up to something.  So, he goes after him and sees him climb into the bucket and go down into the well.  And Brer Fox starts to wonder why he’s going down into the well.  So Brer Fox goes up to the well and shouts down to Brer Rabbit.

“What are you doing down there, Brer Rabbit?”

Brer Rabbit gets the idea that he can use Brer Fox to get out of the well, so he shouts back up, “I’m fishing!  You wouldn’t believe how many big fish I’ve caught down here!

Now Brer Fox didn’t believe that Brer Rabbit was fishing for one minute.  What conclusion did Brer Fox come to, though?  He figured that Brer Rabbit must be hiding some money down there.
So Brer Rabbit shouts up “I’ve got scores and scores of fish down here!  Why don’t you come down and help me carry them up.”
Now, this is the invitation Brer Fox had been wanting to hear.  He’d go down and find whatever cash Brer Rabbit had stashed down there.  So, Brer Fox climbs into the other bucket and since he’s so much heavier than Brer Rabbit . . . well, you can guess what happened next.  There’s a little more after that, but I’ll link to the story so you can read the rest of it HERE.

This story has a lot of good things going for it.  There’s an interesting amount of complexity shown in what could have been otherwise simple characters.  It shows Brer Rabbit being the quintessential trickster and using his wits to get out of work.  However, it also shows his cleverness backfiring on him.  It also shows Brer Fox, usually the target of Brer Rabbit’s tricks being savvy enough to know Brer Rabbit is up to something but still clueless enough to be on the wrong track in terms of what it is.
Here in the United States, a lot of the best parts of our culture come from the groups that get marginalized and pushed to the fringes.  The biggest example being all the contributions the black community has made to American culture.  In addition to pretty much every form of American popular music (blues, jazz, soul, R&B, Rock and Roll, Rap) and various other things, Brer Rabbit goes on the list.  Brer Rabbit, being a rabbit, is smaller and weaker than those who would harm him, like Brer Fox and Brer Bear.  So, he uses trickery and cunning to survive and even thrive.  It’s a creation that you would expect of an oppressed and enslaved people.  However, unlike a lot of other contributions of black Americans, Brer Rabbit and his stories have never lost their African American identity.  That identity has been exploited by the likes of Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney, but it hasn’t been completely appropriated, co-opted and absorbed into the culture of the white majority.  And that’s a good thing.

As storytellers, we have to be careful of how we use stories and spread them.  While there are some stories that we feel are ours, there are others we must remember that we’re just borrowing.

Until next time.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Kid Who Would Be King.

It feels good to be right about something.  I’ll try not to brag too much.

For a number of months now I’ve been cheerleading a movie called The Kid Who Would Be King.  Since I saw the first trailer for it, I’ve been saying that it looks like a lot of fun.
 And the truth is, I saw the movie and guess what?  It was a lot of fun!

This isn’t exactly a fairy tale film but it does stray into Stuff of Legends territory, so I think it’s close enough.

The Kid Who Would Be King is a movie about a 12 year old boy named Alexander Elliot.  Alexander struggles with bullies at school and abandonment issues regarding his absentee father.  Then, one night when running from his bullies, he finds a sword stuck in a stone at a demolition site.  Alexander pulls the sword from the stone.  Before long, Alexander discovers that he has now been chosen as the new king, whose duties include defeating the sorceress Morgana and saving all of Britain from enslavement.  So, along with his friend Bedders, his two former bullies turned knights and Merlin in the form of a lanky teenage boy, he goes on a quest to defeat Morgana and experiences some self-discovery along the way.

This movie is the sophomore foray for director Joe Cornish, director of the inner city alien invasion movie Attack the Block.  It stars Louis Serkis as Alexander, Dean Chaumoo as Bedders, and Angus Imrie and Patrick Stewart as the young and old Merlin respectively.  All the actors do good jobs.  Probably the standout is Angus Imrie as teenage Merlin.  Especially entertaining are his spells which are entirely executed through elaborate hand gestures.
You know what?  Let's have another one.
Okay, that's enough.
King Arthur related movies haven’t exactly been having the greatest run lately.  And I’ve echoed the sentiment put forth by online media critic Patrick H. Willems that the problem is that new versions of the story have put forth of their radical new  takes without bothering to remind people of why they loved the stories to begin with.  Essentially, with old stories like this that get made into movies usually every decade or so, you have to provide people with the “greatest hits” before hitting with new stuff.  I’m pleased to report that The Kid Who Would Be King doesn’t make the same mistake as other recent films.  This film gives us Excalibur, the sword in the stone (the same sword for storytelling economy purposes here), Merlin, Morgana, Tintagel, The Lady of the Lake and even a round table of sorts.  Sure, the movie had plenty of new stuff too.  You can’t go as radical as “preteen becomes the new King Arthur” without changing things up a little.  Their take on the sorceress Morgana is decidedly different, portraying her as much less a witch and more of a demon at times.  Her human form also has a unique vegetative look with roots and vines all over.  The Lady of the Lake is now connected to every body of water in all of Britain, ranging from lakes to puddles to bathtubs.  Our new collection of knights also provides some nice diversity to reflect the face of modern Britain with Bedders (counterpart to Sir Bedivere) being a South Asian boy and Kaye (counterpart to Sir Kay) being a young black girl.  There is also one big change to the Arthurian legend that I’m rather fond of.  However, it comes as a big moment in the movie and a major turning point for Alexander’s story so I don’t want to give it away. 
The new take on Morgana
I think the thing that most won me over is the tone and the themes that were in play.  Most takes on the King Arthur story in recent years aim for some kind of adult drama.  They either try to make the story gritty and historically accurate or they focus on the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.  The Kid Who Would Be King is a kids’ movie and as such it draws from a very kids’ storybook version of the Arthur legend.  In addition to all the fun mythological stuff I mentioned before, the movie focuses on all the super-idealistic chivalry stuff that’s become associated with the knights of the round table over the years.  While some people might see that stuff as a bit cheesy or juvenile, it’s more or less what I’ve wanted from a King Arthur film for a while.  When Arthurian stories focus on gritty violence or internal strife, it makes me forget what a noble experiment Camelot was actually supposed to be.  Happily, the optimistic tone is one of the main points of the movie and hope for a better world one of the main themes.
So, has The Kid Who Would Be King escaped the curse of recent Arthur films.  Well, maybe halfway.  The reviews I’ve seen have echoed my sentiment that the movie is a lot of fun.  However, last I checked it didn’t seem to be burning up the box office.  Which is too bad.

So, I’d very much recommend The Kid Who Would Be King.  It’s a lot of fun and if you’re anything like me, it might be just the King Arthur movie you’re looking for.