Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sugar and Spike (comic book)

Sugar and Spike(1956-71)
Created by
Sheldon Mayer
Wikipedia Entry

Believe it or not, at one time comic books actually were comic. Nowadays you’re hard pressed to find something other than superhero or adventure comics, but in the early days, comic book publishers covered all bases.  Romance was big for the (perceived) female audience.  And there were several humor titles.  Sugar and Spike was one of the longest running and one of the best.

The book was a creation of Sheldon Mayer, whose career coincided with the invention of the modern comic book. Indeed, it was due to his persistence that DC reluctantly published Superman. He became an editor at DC’s sister compsny, All-American Comics, and was involved in the creation of icons like the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice Society of America. But Mayer preferred to be a creator, not an editor, so he left the editor’s chair to write and draw full time in 1948, where he concentrated on humor.  And in 1956, he created Sugar and Spike.

The book is about two babies, Sugar Plumm and Spike Wilson. It was told from their point of view, with the individual conceit that they two could talk to each other in baby talk, while they could barely comprehend what adults would say*. They could also talk to baby animals.

The stories often revolved around their misadventures, with the two of them getting into trouble and dealing with the consequences. Mayer kept things inventive and fun with these twin Dennis the Menaces. Many of the jokes involved their not understanding how the real world worked.

But the adventure bug was everywhere, so by the mid-60s, Mayer started sending them on various comic adventures, usually involving their friend, the baby genius Bernie the Brain.

Paper dollsAnother popular feature of the book was the Sugar and Spike paper dolls. Each issue would show a new set of costumes you could cut out and dress the two babies in. The designs were sent it by readers, who could see their name and age immortalized in the pages.

The book ran until 1971, when Mayer was unable to draw it any more due to eye problems. Since Mayer’s contract prohibited DC from using another creative team, there was no way for it to go on even if they wanted it to.

When cataract surgery gave him his eyesight back a few years later, however, Mayer went back to drawing the characters, but by that time DC was not interested in running a humor book. Mayer continued to draw new stories, though. They were published internationally and were rarely reprinted in the US.

The strip ended everywhere when Mayer retired, though it’s fondly remembered by people who read comics of that era. Some attempts have been made to revive it,** but no one has figured out how to replace Mayer’s art and sense of humor.


*One exception was one of their grandfathers, who was in his “second childhood” and thus understood them perfectly.

**Including one where the two have grown up to be detectives.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Phantom Boy

Directed by
Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol
Written by Alain Gagnol
Starring (Original/English) Edouard Baer/Jared Padalecki, Gaspard Gagnol/Marcus D’Angelo, Jean-Pierre Marielle/Vincent D’Onofrio, Jackie Berroyer/Vincent D’Onofrio, Audrey Tautou/Melissa Disney
IMDB  Entry

I’m a big fan of animated films, and this is definitely a golden age for the art. I also like to seek out films that are outside the beaten path. While the US and Japan are the places where most of the best animation is made, there are pockets in other countries. France, for instance.  They produced The Painting, and, more recently, Phantom Boy.

It introduces two characters. Alex (Jared Padalecki*) is a detective who is always getting in trouble when things fall apart around him.  In trouble with his boss, he runs into a couple of criminals and their mastermind/leader The Face (Vincent D’Onofrio) on the verge of committing a major crime.  Alex has his leg broken, and his boss doesn’t believe him, so he ends up in the hospital, unable to do anything. There he meets Leo (Marcus D’Angelo), a boy who is sick with a serious disease and who has a strange power:  he can leave his body and his phantom version can travel around town.  Meanwhile, Mary (Melissa Disney**), a reporter, is interested in Alex’s story.  When the Face threatens New York City, Leo and Alex team up with Mary to thwart his plans.

This is a traditionally animated film that avoids being flashy. The images, while well done, really exist to carry the story along. But the strength of the movie is in its characters. The Face makes a great supervillain*** and the relationship between the three main characters is strong and natural. Leo follows Mary and relays what he sees to Alex, who then tells Mary about them on his cell phone. Mary never understands how that happens until the end..

The movie has a charming sensibility and a sense of humor that makes it all the more watchable.  It manages to balance the crime story (with a hint of superherodom) with strong characterization and a love story.

It’s available on Netflix as of this writing.

*In the dubbed version. I’ll be listing the US voice actors from now on.

**Yes, a relation (a distant one).

***His name come from the fact that he looks like a cubist painting. One of the nicer things of the movie is that he’s always interrupted when he’s about to explain why he looks that way.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Blob

The Blob(1958)
Directed by
Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Written by Theodore Simonson, Kay Linaker, from an idea from Irvine H. Millgate
Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland
IMDB Entry

It started with a pantheon. When I was growing up, there was one of great movie monsters.  Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy were the big ones, but there was also the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Some would also add Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. And, of course, the Blob. But while most of these (except for the Creature) was easy to find, the Blob didn’t show itself on TV in those days.*

The story starts out with Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut), two teenagers** driving out to see the stars*** when the see a meteor land nearby. While they drive to investigate, an old man (Olin Howland) who lives alone in a cabin, do so on his own. He finds a meteorite**** that cracks open like an egg, revealing a gelatinous substance.  The old man picks it up on a stick, but it jumps and then lands on his hand, causing him intense pain.  He runs to the road and is picked up by Steve and Jane, who take him to Dr. Hallen. The substance is growing and eventually absorbs the old man, and later Dr. Hallen. Meanwhile, Steve and Jane have to try to convince the police that there’s an alien threat, but, skeptical to begin with, they refuse to believe it, especially since the monster absorbs its victims, leaving no trace.

The Blob attacks!

To be honest, the movie is a bit dull.  The pacing is slow, and there are too many scenes of Steve trying to convince the police there’s a problem, made worse by one cop who thinks it’s just a prank.  The low budget also doesn’t help. While the monster is credible and not badly done at first, the climax clearly didn’t have the money for a final battle scene, so you just see the people fighting it with no shots of the blob reacting. Later, Steve and the chief cop comment on how the monster is no longer a threat without us seeing it.

But the concept of the blob is a powerful one – an original idea for a space vampire – and is what made the movie a success. 

McQueen is impressive. He has all the earmarks of a star turn, and this got him the job in the TV show Wanted Dead or Alive that started his career. His cool screen persona is already full fledge.  He was billed as “Steven McQueen”; possibly the name of his character was one reason he started calling himself “Steve.”

Most of the rest of the cast remained unknown, though Aneta Corsaut was a regular on The Andy Griffith Show and did a lot of guest starring work.

The movie is one of the better examples of the drive-in teen horror films of the 50s, and was extremely successful.*****


* Probably because it took until I was well past my teenage years for it to have a sequel. Most of the big-name monsters had sequels galore, but it took 14 years for a Blob sequel, and that was pretty bad. The same problem affected the Creature from the Black Lagoon, with only three movies available.

**McQueen was 28 at the time, so thinking of him as a teen requires some suspension of disbelief.

***So they say. Of course, this was the 50s, so nothing dirty was going on.

****My wife pointed out that it looks like the Satellite of Love from MST3K.  Hmmm.

*****McQueen was given a choice of being paid $2500 or 10% of the gross. He took the $2500, but since the film made millions, he lost out badly.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

Written by
Gene Wilder
Directed by Gene Wilder
Starring Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Leo McKern, Roy Kinnear
IMDB Entry
It’s the cliché that the dream of every actor to be a director. Oddly, the cliché doesn’t include becoming a writer, probably because writers are not valued in Hollywood.  Gene Wilder managed to make the trifecta of actor, writer, and direction in one film, the pastiche The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.*
After an important document is stolen, Holmes and Watson have to leave the country for awhile, so he’s giving the case to his younger (intensely envious) brother Sigerson (Wilder). Holmes sends information on the case using Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman), a man with photographic memory. Meanwhile Moriarty (Leo McKern) is out to get the document, with the help of his assistant Finney (Roy Kinnear). Just after Sacker arrives, Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn), a music hall singer and inveterate liar.
Wilder always was a great comic actor, a master of the slow reaction.**  His Siggy is impulsive and often wrong, sure of himself until Sacker points out, almost as an aside, where he was wrong.  His is motivated by his jealousy of Sherlock, who he thinks is overrated.
Feldman was also in fine form, and Madeline Kahn is, as usual, a delight. There’s a nod to her Broadway roots as she’s given a chance to sing.And Leo “Rumpole” McKern is a master of chewing scenery.
Ultimately, the movie is mildly funny, more in concept than in execution.  A more experienced director might have gotten more out of the script.***   Still, there’s enough here to make it entertaining, if not classic.
*He had already cowrote one film with Mel Brooks:  the classic Young Frankenstein
**One of his best bits was in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), where he had to show he was falling in love with a sheep. He made it both believable and very funny.
***Wilder had originally asked Brooks to direct, but Mel didn’t want to direct any script that wasn’t his own.