Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer.

Here it is, folks.  One of the comics that this blog was practically made to review.  You know that none of the other fairy tale bloggers would touch a concept like this one.  Tales of Faerie?  Amy Elize?  Sur La Lune?  I love all their blogs and think they do good work, but there are some concepts that are so bizarre sounding that only the Fairy Tale Geek should tackle them.

This is Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer!  Published by Slave Labor Graphics Publishing with writing and art by Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins.
Now, those who know me know that I’m a sucker for the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.  Such a sucker for it that I split that book up into sections and told the whole thing bit by bit in serialized tellings at storytelling meetings over the course of a couple of years!  I’m such a big Pinocchio fan that I received this Christmas tree ornament for Christmas last year:
And I still haven’t put it away with the other Christmas decorations!

So, what’s the deal with a comic entitled Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer?  Well, the story takes place after the events of the original book.  And I do mean that.  Many people aren’t fond of Collodi’s original text, finding it too dark or too didactic to really enjoy.  Many people simply embrace the basic idea of a puppet coming to life and ditch a lot of the rest.  The comic’s creators embrace Collodi’s original on a level few others have.  The characters routinely drop references to events in that book.  Each of the two volumes I’ve read have started out with a recap of the original story.  There’s only one important part of the book that never happened in this version: Pinocchio never became a real boy.  In this case, that’s not only important but a very good thing.

Pinocchio’s home town of Nasolungo has been beset by a vampiric plague.  It has gotten so serious that even Pinocchio’s dear father Geppetto has fallen prey to it.  Seeking to avenge his father, Pinocchio finds that the wood he’s made of is uniquely effective at killing vampires.  His preferred method is to tell a lie and then snap off his lengthened nose and use it as a stake to stab vampires in the heart.  In the first volume that I read, Pinocchio is joined in his quest by Mr. Cherry the carpenter, the Blue Fairy and the ghost of the Talking Cricket.  We’re also introduced to a new character named Carlotta that Pinocchio seems to have a bit of a crush on.  After a particularly harrowing ordeal defeating the vampires in his home town, Pinocchio sets off on a journey to hunt down and kill vampires in the wider world.  In the second volume his quest continues but he’s joined by the performers of The Great Puppet Theater who do well to round out the cast.  Those are the only volumes I’ve read but I know there are more out there and I’ll probably be seeking them out.

The story is well-paced.  The writing is good, combining humor, scares and genuine emotion.  The art is this great, moody, black-and-white affair that has lots of spooky shadows but enough genuine cartooning in it to keep it from getting too serious.  It’s really just a very well-made comic book.
But most important of all: it works.

Adding a gothic horror element like vampires to an existing fantasy concept is something that could easily fall flat.  For example, I once saw a version of the Sleeping Beauty ballet that replaced the standard fairies with vampiric fairies.  The end result just really didn’t work for me.  This works for me.  And it works because the original book was just so weird to begin with.  I don’t know if I’ve made this comparison before here on the blog but Collodi’s original Pinocchio has a bit more in common with books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the various Oz books in terms of what crazy concepts it embraces than your standard fairy tale.  There’s a strange randomness to Collodi’s book.  Pinocchio is originally made from a block of wood that talks by itself, puppets exist as living beings with no explanation, giant dogfish swim the seas and characters that died in previous chapters reappear randomly in different forms.  Most people don’t realize how odd the book was because they’re more aware of the Disney version and I won’t lie, Walt grounded the hell out of that picture.  Just making Pinocchio’s life a product of the Blue Fairy’s magic did a lot to turn a somewhat surreal fantasy into a standard fairy tale type of story.  As fantastical as the Disney version is, it’s not a patch on the sheer fantastic craziness of the original source.  So, given the bizarre nature of the world Pinocchio already inhabits, adding vampires to the mix doesn’t seem like such a stretch.  And the creators of the comic prepare you for that at the beginning of each volume by recapping the original book.
This comic gets a passing grade from me.  I know people will probably give it a pass just based on the title and concept, but it’s really very good.  So, if you see it at the bookstore or local library and you’re unsure, take a leap and get it.  This might prove to be just the comic you want to sink your teeth into.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Back to Fairy Tale School.

September is going to be here in a couple of weeks.  Soon, America’s young people are going to be returning to school.  And if our current children’s pop culture is to be believed, so will many famous fairy tale characters and their descendants.

Time to hit the books!
As of right now, the list of television, toy, book and internet properties that use the “fairy tale high school “ trope (or some variation of it) consists of:

  • Ever After High (Mattel, 2013)
  • Fairy Tale High (S-K Victory, 2013)
  • Disney’s Descendants  (2015)
  • Teenage Fairytale Dropouts (2013)
  • Regal Academy (2016)
  • The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani (2013)
  • Grimmtastic Girls series by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams (2014)
  • Fairy Tale Reform School series by Jen Calonita (2015)
  • The Ever Afters series by Shelby Bach (2012) [note: this one is actually more of an elementary After School Program]
  • Happily Ever After High School by Savannah Ostler (2015)
Mind you, these are just the ones I know about right now and some of them may have already run their course.  However, for so many variations of this one concept to appear over the course of four years is a bit mind-boggling.  One could assume that for many it’s an attempt to feed off of the success of Mattel’s popular Ever After High line.  However, only two of them, Fairy Tale High and Disney’s Descendants, ever seemed positioned to even compete with Ever After High on their home turf of the doll aisle.  The newest one of these is Regal Academy, an Italian series by the same folks that gave the world Winx Club.  The show had its US premiere on Nickelodeon this past Saturday.

Children’s media is no stranger to the “stick a selected genre in a high school setting” concept.  Though, it’s usually more spread out than this.  Also, in my experience, the genres in question are usually classic monsters or superheroes (two other things I’m very fond of).  Though, schools for ninjas, spies and of course wizards are hardly unheard of.  There was almost a Batman series entitled Gotham High once.  Heck, there was almost a Muppet High series (come to think of it, if they existed I might have actually watched them).

Of the ten properties listed above, I have some degree of experience with about seven of them, even if it’s just one episode.  The odd ones out are The Ever Afters, Grimmtastic Girls and Fairy Tale Reform School (I don't have much time to read middle grade novels).  You may recall that I’ve touched on the other properties before HERE, HERE and HERE.

But how do we judge these things and how do we compare them?  In my experience, many of them have good points, bad points and points that just make me scratch my head.

I gave the first book in Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil series a positive review way back when.  I liked the way it played with fairy tale archetypes and put them to use within a high school setting.  At the same time, I gave Happily Ever After High School more of a negative review for its various flaws.  By the same token, I didn’t think Disney’s Descendants was all that great, but I thought it was so basically harmless that it was hard to really condemn it.  It also gets points just for trying to do this kind of thing in live action.  Teenage Fairytale Dropouts, a Mexican/Irish/Australian/American co-production based loosely on the Mexican animated film Magos y Gigantes was more comedy oriented than many of the others (not that any of them are serious drama).  The series focused on Jeremiah, a giant who is only five feet tall, Fury, the wingless daughter of the Tooth Fairy and Trafalgar, Merlin’s cocky but magically inept nephew, as they tried to navigate high school in the town of Fairy Tale Estates.  From the clips I’ve seen, could actually be pretty funny in spots.  That, however, didn’t stop it from being cancelled before playing out its full run on US TV.

But like I said, many of them have real head-scratcher moments.  The Fairy Tale High line seems to consist entirely of a (probably discontinued by now) doll line and two computer animated youtube videos.  The first video of the two sets the characters up at (and here’s the head-scratching part) a school for music and the performing arts.  A place that the narrator claims is “perfect for young princesses in training”.  I guess maybe they thought all the singing and dancing in Disney movies was a part of their royal duties.  Disney’s Descendants has the head-scratcher of trying to explain how all the different “Disney Kingdoms” got amalgamated into the country of Auradon.  You know, Kingdoms like 20th Century London (101 Dalmatians), China (Mulan), France (Beauty and the Beast) and others.  Essentially, King Beast straight-up took over the world.  And one that’s been bugging me more and more has popped up in both Regal Academy and The School for Good and Evil: they have characters perform magic that probably shouldn’t be able to.  There’s only been one episode of Regal Academy, but the main character Rose Cinderella has already been given a wand that allows her to do “pumpkin magic” (which makes it sound more like she's related to the fairy godmother).  In The School for Good and Evil, characters do magic by using their “fingerglow” (basically, they point at stuff and magic happens).  The confusing thing is that protagonists in fairy tales usually don’t do magic, magical things just happen to them and they deal with it.

Probably the standard-bearer at this time for such a thing is Mattel’s Ever After High line.  What started as a line of fashion dolls has also spun off a series of books (by Shannon Hale of all people), direct-to-DVD movies and internet based cartoons.  And I will admit, the animated bits are kind of a guilty pleasure of mine (remember I mentioned a guilty pleasure watch in my YouTube post last week).  I think the series has some thematic “oomph” in the fact that it deals with the idea of destiny vs choice to an extent.  The series can also be rather clever in spots (I still love how the Mad Hatter’s daughter can hear the narrators because she’s crazy).  There’s also something about the designs.  Yes, they are kind of ridiculous on the surface and no real human being would dress like them.  However, I love how many of the characters look like they’re trying to cosplay as an entire story.  The character of Briar Beauty (daughter of Sleeping Beauty) typically wears things patterned with thorns and a pair of shades that kind of looks like a sleep mask.  The Crumm Cousins (children of Hansel and Gretel) have candy patterns on their clothes.  Still others look like an odd mash-up of fairy tale and modern high school.  Daring Charming’s princely garb also looks an awful lot like a varsity letterman’s jacket.  And yet, there are still those odd bits.  For example, the familial connections that were so important to so many of the original tales seem to be gone here.  The daughter of Snow White and the daughter of the Evil Queen know each other but are unrelated in this series.  Combining that with the whole notion of them preparing to play out the same stories as their parents sometimes gives the whole thing a strange air of performance.  As if the characters are all actors prepping to take part in some lifetime-long pantomime.

These properties though, are all intended for young people ages 6-11.  So, they’re counting on them not sweating the details.

I can probably go on for a while about the esoteric bits of these different properties.  However, by now it’s probably best to tackle one of the big questions: Why?  Why combine fairy tales with high school?

Beyond the tendency to use the “high school” setting by cartoon writers anyway and the fact that a young audience can relate to going to school, I imagine some degree of it is a synthesis of other pop culture factors.  The Harry Potter series proved fantastical school settings can be popular.  The popularity of the Shrek movies showed that people would be interested in comedic fairy tale mash-ups.  But maybe there’s more to it than simply imitating a popular property and the formula of (Harry Potter+Shrek=Money).  I’ve said before that I often see fairy tales as stories of transformation.  Well, many people see high school as that too.  Though human beings tend to change and evolve every day of our lives, adolescence is often considered to be a period of the most dramatic change.  That’s why there’s an entire genre that’s comprised of stories set during this period of life: the coming-of-age story.  So, combining the transformative process of surviving a fairy tale with that of surviving high school could work.  I don’t mind the trope itself since it’s rarely played all that seriously.
And you know, the idea itself sounds fun at least from a character creation standpoint.  The whole bit where you mash up fairy tale archetypes with character types out of The Breakfast Club.  And I bet fairy tale fans like us could come up with some interesting ones.  Like, what would Bluebeard be like as a teenager?  Or the Girl with the Silver Hands?  Or Vasilisa the Beautiful?

I’ve got an idea I’m just going to throw out there.  Let’s see what high school-ified takes we can come up with for fairy tale characters both famous and obscure.  You can do it in the comments below but I’d also like to see if we could get something going on social media.  So, you can also post them on the Fairy Tale Fandom Facebook page.  (I think the character limit might make this too hard to do on Twitter).  Also, as usual, I am interested in your thought on the post itself too.

Until next class period, this is the Fairy Tale Geek signing off.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fairy Tube.

So, when I was on vacation last week I received an e-mail from someone who wanted me to check out a YouTube video they made that mashed up the Olympics with fairy tale characters.  The idea being that maybe I could pass the link to my devoted readers.  Well, the concept seemed interesting so I clicked over to Kingdom Games on the Fantasy Fitness channel and . . . I wasn’t particularly impressed.  Maybe because it’s really more people in Disney cosplay pretending to participate in sports but it just didn’t do much for me.  Maybe you folks will have a different reaction.

But I thought that maybe I’d use this chance to promote some of the fairy tale related stuff I’ve run across on YouTube.  I’ve already done a little of that in the post I made for the Beauty and Beast teaser, but I thought it would be nice to have a proper post about it. 
 Now, I’m going to admit it: about 90% of fairy tale stuff you’ll come across on YouTube is Disney related.  I could be wrong, seeing as YouTube is an unusually vast platform.  However, even Disney related content can be good (even if we get a little tired of it being, y’know, everywhere).

Disney is often a draw for singers on YouTube and one of my favorites to get into the whole “Disney Princess song” thing recently is Evynne Hollens.  Evynne Hollens is the wife of the equally musical Peter Hollens (who I like for his folk song acapellas).  One thing I like about Evynne’s Disney song videos is that after the first few she’s added a certain variety to them.  Her Pocahontas, Mulan and Brave videos were notable mostly for the singing and the locations.  However, after that she started changing it up.  The Enchanted video had a story to it, with her husband playing a key role.  Her Cinderella video was a mash-up of “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “New Romantics” by Taylor Swift.  And her Snow White video turned out to be a mother/son video with her little son playing the part of the prince and filmed at the Enchanted Forest amusement park in Oregon (remind me to write a post on fairy tale amusement parks someday).  She even sang with a real jazz band for her Princess and the Frog video.  If you want to see any of them, click over to her Disney Collection.

Another favorite for YouTube musicians is music from the musical Into the Woods (which I know has a Disney connection now, but the music predates it.  One favorite is Nick Pitera’s “One Man Into the Woods” medley.  Violinist Lindsey Stirling also made a medley, sponsored by Disney when the movie came out.  Also, for some reason I just love this video of people lip-synching the song “Your Fault” in a car.  I can’t explain it. 

I’d be remiss to not talk about storytellers on YouTube as well.  One of my favorite story telling vloggers is Dael Kingsmill, formerly of the Geek and Sundry vlogs channel.  She tells a lot of stories from mythology, but she also has a series of fairy tale videos she refers to as Faerie Daels.  I’m also going to plug Story by Story here which is a show by the storytelling guild I’m a member of.  They tell all sorts of stories.  You can even hear me tell “Kate Crackernuts” and “How Six Men Got on in the World”.

There are also some literary webseries that fairy tale fans might like.  One I like is The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy.  It’s based on Peter Pan but reimagines it as a commentary about growing up and being a functional adult in the modern world.  For more traditional fairy tale fans, there’s Grimm Reflections.  If any of these interest you, there are even more interesting ones that aren’t necessarily based on fairy tales and children’s literature on the master list at Tell Me a Tale.
There are also some fun animations like the How it Should Have Ended Kids channel’s Fixed Fairy Tales.  There’s also the far less kid-friendly Twisted Fairy Tales which are told by the one and only William Shatner. 

I think it’s also best to mention the stuff that maybe shouldn’t be up on YouTube but is anyway.  Yes, I know that copyright infringement isn’t a good thing and I try to avoid it whenever I can.  However, some of this stuff has been up there forever, which means that the real owners don’t seem to have any interest in taking it down.  It’s also often the only place you can find this stuff.  I’ve already pointed people to stuff like Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics in past posts.  But how about looking back at the time ABC tried to make a sitcom based on Snow White back in the ‘80s, The Charmings.  Or maybe you want to revisit the Muppet specials that were based on fairy tales like Hey Cinderella or The Frog Prince.  As far as I know, YouTube is the only place to do it.

Well, that’s more than enough for now.  I’ve pretty much inundated you with links.  There is one more kind of YouTube fairy tale video that’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, but I think I’ll save that for another day.

If anyone else knows of any videos worth checking out, let everyone know in the comments below.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Stuff of Legends: Don Juan.

Y’know, when you look at a legendary character whose name has become a common euphemism, you expect to get a lot of interesting information.  Yet, here I am looking at the penultimate name on my The Stuff of Legends list and the information I’ve gathered about him and finding myself a bit underwhelmed.
The legendary figure I’m talking about is the one and only Don Juan.  The man’s name has become part of common parlance, albeit as a synonym for “womanizer”.  So, one would think that he’d be part of some grand legend, right?  Like some kind of roguish antihero who beat the bad guys and made all women’s hearts melt, right.

Not exactly.

Don Juan was a legendary libertine.  “Libertine” being a fancy, three dollar word for “guy who indulges himself constantly” (see also: hedonist).  The oldest known version of the story was written down as a play entitled “El Burlabor de Seville” (“The Trickster of Seville”) by Tirso de Molina in 1630.  The story goes that Don Juan was a wealthy man whose life was punctuated by violence and gambling but mostly seducing women.  His credo was apparently “What a long term you have given me!” meaning that he thought life was so long that he’d always have time to repent for his sins.  In many interpretations, Don Juan kills Don Gonzalo, who is the father of Dona Ana, the woman he is trying to seduce.  This leads to a famous scene in which Don Juan invites the statue of Don Gonzalo on the man’s tomb to dinner.  The statue does inevitably show up at dinner as a sort of harbinger of Don Juan’s death.  Don Juan’s death is ultimately where most versions of the play end.  Tirso de Molina, who intended his play to be a religious parable, had Don Juan be denied salvation by God.  Other writers took it in different directions.  Some have the character refuse to repent at the end, others have him walk into hell of his own volition while still others have him ask for a divine pardon and receive it.  As legends often go, they vary from teller to teller.  Jose Morilla y Moral’s version Don Juan Tenorio supposedly provides a slightly more likable version by adding in a pious heroine and a serious love interest for Don Juan.
The character is not without his impact.  He fascinated the likes of both Albert Camus and Jane Austen.  Romantic era poet Lord Byron wrote a poem that flipped the script so that Don Juan (pronounced “Don Joo-an” in the poem) was not a seducer but a man easily seduced by women.  He also appears in George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman. 

So, I was hoping for a picaresque adventure story and for the most part I found a religious parable crossed with a cautionary tale.  I suppose I should have expected the story have taken a different form centuries ago.  I guess I’ve been spoiled by the Errol Flynn version The Adventures of Don Juan.  I have the movie on DVD (along with The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and Captain Blood).  That movie features a Don Juan who starts as a womanizer but turns over a new leaf and becomes a hero when he falls in love for real.  Of course, the woman he falls in love with in the movie is the Queen of Spain, so I can see why that might not have worked as a story in the 1600s.  It might have been downright scandalous.
But I guess this just goes to show how legends and their perception can not only change over time but also change to fit the audience and the teller.  It also could serve as something of a metaphor for how men like Don Juan might seem in real life: They look like something grand and heroic on the surface but aren’t the same once you scratch the surface.  But still, at least it’s something different.  I’ve covered a lot of different legends in this series and I have already done one religious parable (St. George and the Dragon) but I haven’t covered something that functions as a cautionary tale like this one does.

Regardless, he’s still a well-known legendary figure in his homeland of Spain and his name has become part of the English language in terms of euphemisms.  And whether he’s what I expected or not, he is still THE STUFF OF LEGENDS!