Sunday, August 20, 2017

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Snow White.



Okay, so it’s been a little while since I posted any fairy tale related material.  I can assure you though, this one is worth the wait.

Snow White by Matt Phelan is a graphic novel that was released last year.  I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while, not knowing when I’d get around to reading it.  But boy am I glad I did.
The graphic novel, as you can probably tell by the title, retells the story of “Snow White”.  However, there is one major switch in setting.  Instead of being set in a non-distinct pre-Industrial European location, this version of “Snow White” takes place in New York City during the late 1920s and into the 1930s.
The change in setting works surprisingly well.  There are times when such a change can seem like a gimmick, but Phelan pulls it off.  Naturally, there are changes to who the characters and objects are in-story.  Snow White here is a young heiress.  Her stepmother, the Evil Queen, is now a former star of the Ziegfeld Follies.  The seven dwarfs are a gang of street urchins living rough on the streets.  The Huntsman is a down-and-out stagehand.  The prince is a police detective.  And the glass coffin is the display window of Macy’s on 42nd Street.

Probably my favorite change is what they did with the magic mirror.  There are still plenty of mirrors in the story.  The “Queen of the Follies” has a whole room full of mirrors to admire herself in.  But the magic mirror itself has been replaced instead with a stock ticker.  I know this may seem like a strange change, considering the Evil Queen’s usual association with vanity.  However, think about what a stock ticker is supposed to do.  It tells a person how well stocks that someone has invested in are doing.  In other words, it tells people their worth.  In a way, isn’t that also what the mirror in the original story was doing for the Evil Queen.  At least, it probably did from her own perspective.  Overall, the whole story is set in a time and place where value is placed on different things.  The elements of youth and beauty are there, but in Depression era New York City the one thing that could make all the difference in the world is money.  And the money that Snow has inherited from her father is a major factor in the Queen’s motivations.

Phelan tells the story with probably as few words as necessary, but that doesn’t matter because his visual storytelling skill is amazing.  There are times when gestures, actions and expressions tell you everything you need to know.  One particular scene comes to mind.  Mr. Hunt (the Huntsman in this story) is sitting at a bar when he flashes back to when he was working at the theater.  A stage manager calls for a step ladder so that the Queen can step up onto a platform.  So, what does Mr. Hunt do?  He gets down on all fours and lets the Queen step on his back to get up.  That action and his expressions during that scene tell you everything you need to know about Mr. Hunt.  He’s someone so taken with the Queen that he lets her step on him.  And it makes the scene where he lets Snow White go all the more impressive and powerful.

As for the art itself?  Well holy Perrault, this is a beautiful book!

The art is black and white but Phelan makes such good use of it.  Who knew shades of gray could create so many different tones, moods and environments.  1930s New York practically jumps off the page through Phelan’s art.

There are some points I could nitpick.  For example, the book does draw noticeably on the Disney version in some places.  Notably, the part where the dwarfs chase the Queen and she ends up getting fried by a bolt of lightning.  Only in this case it’s seven street urchins who chase her and she gets electrocuted by the electric sign on top of the Ziegfeld theater.  But I can take that little bit of Disney homage because it was done creatively.  Interestingly, with the movie released in 1938, it would have actually come out only a few years after this version of the story ends.

Really, if you somehow missed this, give it a try.  As far as comics go, it’s one of the best fairy tale retellings I’ve read in a long time.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Disney's Descendants 2.



Oh, goodie!  We have another one of these.

It’s been about two years since I gave my impressions on the first Descendants movie.  I remember that because I was recovering from heart valve surgery at the time I was doing it.  You can read my review of the first movie right HERE.

As a quick recap, Descendants is about four children of Disney villains who are chosen to leave the island prison that holds all the villains and their descendants and attend school with the children of Disney heroes and sidekicks at a school named Auradon Prep. 

Now, as a quick recap of the conditions that likely led to the creation of the Descendants concept: a couple years ago, Mattel (who used to make the Disney Princess doll line) decided to make a line of fashion dolls called Ever After High about the children of famous fairy tale characters going to a magical prep school.  On top of that, the line was also set to have a series of web cartoons, books and accessories.  Disney looked at it and said “Well . . . uh . . . we can do that too!  So, nyah!”  And Descendants was born.   (Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how it went but it’s how I imagine it went).

But if it was the case, then they’ve done what they set out to do.  There are Descendants books and  merchandise out there.  There was even a series of web cartoons called Descendants: Wicked World.  I watched a whole bunch of them (what can I say, I have a weakness for animation).  The characters of Jay and Carlos take a bit of a back seat to the other female characters in the movie.  The cartoon also introduces new characters like Ally (daughter of Alice), Freddie (daughter of Dr. Facilier), C.J. (daughter of Captain Hook) and Zevon (son of Yzma).

Got all that?  Well, it doesn’t matter if you do or not, because Descendants 2 uses none of it.
Nope.  None of it.  In fact, the actress who voices Freddie Facilier even plays a completely different character in Descendants 2.  They maybe used one song from the cartoon in the background of a scene and that’s it.  It’s kind of like how Ghostbusters 2 treated The Real Ghostbusters.

Descendants 2 starts a little while after the first Descendants.  Evie (daughter of the Evil Queen) has started up her own business making clothes for the other students, which is handy with a big cotillion coming up.  Jay (son of Jafar) is excelling as a student athlete, this time as captain of the fencing team.  Carlos (son of Cruella de Vil) is enjoying life as a converted dog lover with his terrier pal Dude.  Meanwhile, Mal (daughter of Maleficent) is doing her best to deal with the pressure of being the girlfriend of King Ben (son of Belle and the Beast) and is finding it weighs on her quite a bit.  So much so that she’s come to rely on using her mother’s evil spell book to meet all her responsibilities.  Meanwhile, the other characters are dealing with their own things.  Jay is dealing with the issue of Lonnie (daughter of Mulan) being barred from the fencing team because of her gender despite being very good.  Carlos is trying to work up courage to ask Jane (the Fairy Godmother’s daughter) to the cotillion (honestly, it’s kind of nice to see Carlos get even that little arc.  His whole story in the first one was “he gets a dog”).  Evie’s the only one who doesn’t get an immediate arc because hers is more tied to Mal’s.  You see, Mal soon finds herself overwhelmed by her new responsibilities and decides to return to the Isle of the Lost where she feels she fits in better.  Then, Evie, Ben, Jay and Carlos go to convince her to come back.  It’s then that we get Evie’s arc in that she’s seemingly going to lose her best friend because they’ve ended up in two very different places in that Evie thrives in Auradon while Mal feels crushed by the expectations placed on her.  She comes to a conclusion about that with the help of a new character named Dizzy (the daughter of Drizella, the wicked step-sister).  There is a more immediate threat though, seeing as Ben ends up getting kidnapped by Mal’s old rival Uma (daughter of Ursula, and played by China Anne McClain, former voice of Freddie Facilier) and her two henchman Harry (son of Captain Hook) and Gil (son of Gaston).

You know, I’ve often wondered if I was a little too nice to the first Descendants movie (I described it as “harmless” when maybe “stupid but harmless” would have been more apt).  I gave it a certain amount of leeway because it seemed to be so entirely sincere about what it was.  But I’m not going to lie, I kind of enjoyed Descendants 2.  I’m not going to say it was a good movie.  Heavens no!  But if you go into it knowing how high to set your expectations, you’ll be fine.  Sure, it still follows that “don’t sweat the details” approach to a back story (seriously, why is everything so modern and how did the Beast manage to unite all the Disney kingdoms across time and space?).  Sure, everyone in the movie is dressed like they walked off a toy shelf, especially the villain kids who seem to embrace brightly colored leather and studs like no one has since the 1980s.  But for the story they want to tell, they tell it well enough.  There are even a couple places where they surprised me a little bit.  They even skirted the edge of some heavier material with a couple of their lines (Mal asks Carlos “Don’t you miss when you could just scream at people and send them running?”  Carlos replies “That was my mom who did that and I was usually on the receiving end” suggesting it was something of an abusive relationship).  The soundtrack was catchy too.  I particularly liked a Michael Jackson riff they did titled “Chillin’ Like a Villain”.  They even improved on some stuff from the original.  I made a note in my review of the first Descendants that I had trouble with the actors playing the adult villains like Maleficent, Jafar and the Evil Queen.  Not only did the actors chew the scenery, but it’s just kind of sad to see formerly imposing villains having gone to seed.  In Descendants 2, the only thing we see or hear from any adult villains are one of Ursula’s tentacles and the voices of both Ursula and Lady Tremaine.  It’s true that there are things that I might have liked to see from these characters.  Like Evie actually meeting and developing a relationship with her step-sister (half-sister?) Snow White.  But, if you want to see complex family relationships on Disney Channel, it’s probably best to just watch Andi Mack.  Disney’s Descendants 2 is a stupid, juvenile but enthusiastic and sincere Disney Channel Original Movie.  In other words, it’s like every other Disney Channel Original Movie ever.  You can’t really ask more from it than that.

So there we go.  Not terrible.  Not great.  Just standard kids’ fare.  And now that Descendants has become big enough to have two TV movies, a toy line, a web cartoon, kids’ books and other merchandise, maybe Disney can finally get over this “Mattel envy” that they’ve had for so long.

I wonder what Disney Channel’s next big movie project is.  Let me just check Google really quick.

It says here that their next big thing is something called Zombies.  It’s apparently a musical about a cheerleader from a conformist small town who falls in love with a zombie football star who transfers in from someplace called Zombietown.

So, monster teens attending a modern high school and maybe dealing with the prejudices of normal people.  For some reason, that sounds strangely familiar.

OH, FOR GRIMM’S SAKE, DISNEY!

[Sigh]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Why I love Thursdays.



Every Thursday, my Twitter feed undergoes a transformation.

That’s because on Twitter, Thurdays are Folklore Thursdays.

#Folklorethursday is a hashtag created by British folklore scholars Dee Dee Chaney, Willow C. Winsham and Seline Stevenson.  It first hit Twitter on June 18, 2015.

Throughout the day, Chaney, Winsham and others moderate tweets from writers, folklorists, historians, scholars and bloggers like little ol’ me as they share links, pictures and tweets about folklore.  And I know what you must be thinking, all that scholarly material, it must be kind of dry and boring.  You couldn’t be more wrong.  Though it might be reasonably scholarly material, Folklore Thursday tends to overflow with the exotic and the bizarre.

Every Thursday, my Twitter feed flows over with strange home remedies that require the use of unusual herbs or animal parts, ways to ward off the evil eye or guard oneself from witches, strange customs and superstitions from far away countries and more cryptozoological beasts than you can shake a stick at.

But now, onto the most important questions about Folklore Thursday.

How can I receive Folklore Thursday tweets in my Twitter feed?

Simple enough.  Simply follow the @FolkloreThurs account on Twitter.

 Is there a way I can participate in Folklore Thursday?

Yes!  The first step is to find something folklore related online.  When I started participating in Folklore Thursday, I used my own “The Stuff of Legends” posts.  Then, write up your tweet, include your link and add the hashtag #folklorethursday and send it off.

 Any special tips for taking part in Folklore Thursday?

I have one tip for my fellow American participants: remember that the headquarters for Folklore Thursday is in the UK.  Because of time zones, Britain’s Thursday starts and ends several hours earlier than ours does.  So, Folklore Thursday will likely be underway by the time you start your day.  So, it might be necessary to get your tweet sorted the day before (picking the link, etc) so you can tweet it right when you get the first chance on Thursday.

 If I can’t get enough of Folklore Thursday, where can I get more?

They have a website where many of the more interesting links and articles from Folklore Thursday are showcased.  It’s at folklorethursday.com.

 Are there any folklore based life tips you’d like to give us?

Yes.  Always crush your eggshells when you use eggs in your cooking.  That way, witches can’t use them as little boats to cause trouble at sea.  This is just one of the many tips I’ve picked up from following Folklore Thursday.

So, I hope this post has made you aware of something cool and fun that’s worth checking out.  It can be a little strange, but I find it can be a good weekly pick-me-up with times the way they are now.
Also, I’m not kidding about that eggshell thing.  We can’t let those witches cause trouble at sea, now can we!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Classics Illustrated Junior



The name Classics Illustrated is famous in comic book circles.  The series, known for adapting works of classic literature, is remembered by comic book fans not only for producing an impressive run of comics but also for being one of the first attempts at classing up the medium and the first introduction many people had to stories from great literature.

Many people forget though that Classics Illustrated had a spin-off series focused on myths and fairy tales entitled Classics Illustrated Junior.

Now, comics of this vintage are not always easy to get a hold of, but I saw a box of them at my friendly neighborhood comic shop.  I picked up four issues: Pinocchio, The Frog Prince, The Dancing Princesses and King Thrushbeard.

So, how do these comics stack up?  Well, the thing to remember here is that these comics are all from the 1950s and were aimed at very young kids.  I mean, Classics Illustrated was definitely aimed at kids, Classics Illustrated Junior must have been aimed at even younger ones.  But let’s break it down.


Pinocchio- This adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s book is pretty faithful except that everything is very condensed.  Certain events from the book are left out.  For example, the parts with Mr. Cherry at the beginning of the story are taken out.  There are also no run-ins with the Green Fisherman or Melampo the Mastiff.  The violence is also greatly toned down.  One of the most infamous scenes in the book is the one where the Fox and Cat hang Pinocchio from a tree by the neck.  This version avoids the execution style hanging and has the Fox and Cat truss Pinocchio up around the middle so his hands are tied and hangs him from there.  So, instead of looking like an executed man, the naughty puppet looks a bit more like some sort of awkwardly designed Christmas tree ornament.  In addition, the Cricket gets chased off rather than squished and the giant dogfish that swallows Pinoccchio is just a generic (though gigantic) fish.

The Frog Prince- Of the four comics I picked up, this is probably the only one where the story is stretched out rather than condensed.  The princess spends a lot more time offering the frog gold and jewels to retrieve her golden ball.  The princess also receives a dream sequence in this version that shows her transformed into a frog and abused by a little boy.  Now, you’re probably wondering about the ending.  Does she kiss the frog?  Does she chuck it at a wall like in the Grimms’ book?  Neither.  After she wakes up from her dream sequence, she feels bad about the frog having to sleep on the cold, hard floor.  So, she picks it up and puts it on a pillow.  When she wakes up the next morning there’s a prince lying there on her floor.  This version seems to draw on two different variants of the tale that I know of, which is an interesting thing to see in a vintage comic book like this one.

The Dancing Princesses- This is another story that is mainly changed in the sense that elements are condensed.  The soldier’s three nights to discover where the princesses are going is reduced to one.  So, everything is happening much faster.  There are also some elements that speak more to the era and the age group that this comic was made for.  Instead of being executed, the princes who fail at finding where the princesses are going are banished.  Also, all mentions of alcohol are changed.  Instead of being brought a cup of wine with a sleeping drug in it, the soldier is brought a cup of milk with a sleeping drug in it.  They also make a point to mention that it’s lemonade that everyone is drinking at the underground ball (making a secret magic, mysterious rendezvous seem more like a very unusual church social or high school dance).   One thing that really stands out though, is that they go to the trouble of naming all of the mysterious princes (Stanley, Albert, Conrad, Armand, William, Rudolph, Alex, Aladar, Michael, Oscar and Robert), while only two of the princesses (Flora and Hilda) are named.  I don’t want to say it’s a sexist move, but it certainly seems like one.  The comic  also makes another change that I’ve been known to make when telling the story.  The soldier (named Felix here) ends up with not the oldest sister but the youngest.  Probably because the youngest sister is the only one who seems particularly sympathetic.

King Thrushbeard- This one is more or less the same except the haughty princess is given some rhyming couplets to insult her rejected suitors with.  I kind of wish I could say this comic is better than the traditional story because this story doesn’t have the best reputation.  It’s sort of the “Taming of the Shrew” of fairy tales in the way it treats its main female character.  I’ve got a soft spot for it because I like tales that feature some degree of trickery and deception, but yeah I can totally see the issue here.  And an adaptation from the 1950s certainly isn’t going to fix that.
Each issue also includes an Aesop’s fable a page of animal facts and a couple of children’s poems and nursery rhymes.  The art is about what you’d expect from fairy tale adaptations from the ‘50s.  A lot of clean cut young men and women in fantasy garb.

This isn’t the first time I’ve covered fairy tale comics from this time period.  Remember my piece on Walt Kelly’s Fairy Tales?  So, we didn’t really encounter anything here we haven’t seen before.  I think maybe the biggest revelation is just how young they were trying to skew the demographic for fairy tales.  I mean, if Classics Illustrated was already meant for kids, who was Classics Illustrated Junior meant for?  Pre-schoolers?  It’s kind of a reminder in these days when everyone’s saying “Fairy tales aren’t really for kids” how much we bend the tales to make them fit the demographic we want them to fit.  We may even be bending them a bit even now to make them the terribly “adult” tales we want them to be.  It makes you think.