Friday, 17 June 2005

Words From Pop Culture

It should come as no surprise that many of our popular words and phrases have emerged from popular culture. Books, plays, comic strips, television, and movies have all had their impact on the English language over the years. In fact, this phenomenon occurred even before the existence of mass media. William Shakespeare coined a number of phrases still popular in the English language. He coined the phrase "bated breath" in The Merchant of Venice all the way back in 1596, "Shall I bend low and, in a bondsman's key, / With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness, / Say this ..." He also created the phrase "green eyed monster" with reference to jealousy in Othello, "O beware jealousy, it is the green eyed monster." The phrase "sea change" can also be credited Shakespeare. He uses it in The Tempest, "Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange." Not a few of the names of Shakespeare's characters have made it into the English language: Dogberry (for an overzealous public servant), Romeo (for a woman's suitor), and Shylock (for a ruthless lender of money).

Of course, Shakespeare was not the only playwright to have an impact on the English language. The word robot does not come from any science fiction novel, but from the stage. Karl Capek coined the word for the mechanical servants in his play R.U.R. ("Rossum's Universal Robots"), which debuted in 1920. He took the word from Czech robota "forced labour." The word fedora for the popular soft brimmed, centre creased hat also has its origins in drama. It comes from the play Fedora by Victorien Sardou, which opened in 1882. The "Fedora" of the title was a crossdressing woman (originally played by Sarah Bernhardt) who wore hats of that sort. The idea of "bluebird of happiness" stems from the 1909 play l'Oiseau bleu (literally "The Blue Bird" by Maurice Maeterlinck. Of course, the name Peter Pan from J. M. Barrie's famous play of the same name (1904) has been used for men who won't grow up for literally decades now.

Among the playwrights to have the biggest impact on the English language was George Bernard Shaw. Although the name "Pygmalion" goes back to Greek mythology (Pygmalion being a sculptor who made a statue that came to life), it was Shaw who popularised it as a term for someone who reshapes another individual completely when he used it for the title of his play Pygmalion (the basis for the musical My Fair Lady). Shaw may have also been the first person to use the word outcry to mean "public protest." The word had been in the English language since at least 1382, but its original sense was "an act of crying out loud." In 1911 Shaw used it in what is now its most popular sense, that of "public protest" or "public indignation."Among the words which Shaw coined were Bardolatry (for those who worship William Shakespeare a bit too much), Comstockery (for activities of overzealous moral watchdogs, after
Anthony Comstock, founder of New York Society for the Suppression of Vice), and sardoodledom (for plays which depend overly much on a melodramatic plot, after the aforementioned Victorien Sardou).

Perhaps Shaw's biggest contribution to the English language was the word "superman." In 1903 Shaw needed to translate the German word Übermensch for his play Man and Superman. Contrary to popular belief, the word Übermensch was not coined by Nietzsche. It was first used by Hermann Rab, provincial of Saxony, in 1527. It would later be used by both Goethe and Herder. That having been said, Nietzsche certainly popularised the word in his work Thus Spake Zarathustra. There he used it for a theoretical man who would exist beyond all human morality and ethics. Previously Übermensch had been translated into English as both overman and beyond-man, but neither word caught on. It would take George Bernhard Shaw to create a translation of the word that would be popularly adopted. Of course, it would not be long before Nietzsche's idea of a man who existed beyond all human morailty would be lost and the word superman would refer to a man of superhuman capacties. As a result, writer Siegel and artist Joe Shuster would use the word as the name of their new hero in the early Thirties. Once their "Superman" was published in 1938, it would simply make the use of the word "superman" as a term for a supherhuman man even more popular.

Here I must point out that, contrary to popular belief, the word superhero does not appear to have come from the name of Clark Kent's alterego, Superman. In the article "The Roots of the Superman," published in Comic Book Marketplace volume 2 issue #63, September/October 1998, Will Murray points out that the word superhero was used even before Superman saw publication! The word was apparently first used in magazine Street and Smith's radio ads for their upcoming radio show based on popular pulp hero Doc Savage in February 1934. From there it came to be used in Street and Smith's print ads for Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Bill Barnes. Of course, there can be no doubt that the publication of Superman popularised the term superhero. It was being used of the mystery men of comic books as early as 1941 (in an article in Atlantic Monthly by Lowell Thomas. By 1942 it was being used in the comic books themselves. In Star-Spangled Comics #7, April 1942, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby refer to their character The Guardian as a "superhero.").

Here it might be a good time to point out the impact that comic strips have had on the English language. Indeed, this has been the case from almost the beginning. In the 1890s competition heated up between the major newspapers in America, particularly those published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The two of them fought to attract more subscribers with sensationalised stories, more photographs, and, of course, comic strips. Among the most popular strips of the time was The Yellow Kid, created by R.F. Outcault, and first published by Pulitzer in the New York World. Very soon Hearst and Pulitzer would be locked in a struggle over the rights for The Yellow Kid. The name of the comic strip soon gave rise to the phrase "yellow journalism" for senationalised news coverage. Another comic strip that would first be published in the New York World would also have an impact on the English language. Keeping Up With the Joneses was the creation of Arthur R. "Pop" Momand and made its debut in 1916. By the Twenties it would be syndicated throughout the United States. While the comic strip has long since been forgotten, the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" has remained in the English langauge in reference to trying to compete with one's neighbours.

Another comic strip which would contribute to the English language was The Timid Soul, also published in the New York World. The Timid Soul was a single panel strip created by H. T. Webster and debuted in 1924. It centred on Caspar Milquetoast, perhaps the most timid character to ever exist in any medium. Webster himself described Caspar as as "the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick." The comic strip proved very popular. Collections of its reprints were regularly published in the mid-twentieth century. It even almost made it as a TV series. A pilot for a Timid Soul series aired on the DuMont network in 1949. The comic strip itself would run until 1953. Perhaps no greater testament to its success is the adoption of Caspar's last name, milquetoast, for any overly timid or overly shy person in the English language. It was first used as such in the mid-1930s!

Of course, when it comes to comic strips, perhaps none has had the impact on the English language which E. C. Segar's Thimble Theatre (featuring Popeye) has had. The word jeep owes at least part of its existence to Segar. In 1936 a character called Eugene the Jeep made his debut in Thimble Theatre. In 1939 the United States Army took bids for the development of a new military vehicle. Willys won the bidding, although Ford built the actual vehicles from their design. Ford marked the vehicles "G.P." for "General Purpose." Military personnel pronounced the abbreviation "jeep," perhaps after Eugene. The word goon apparently existed before Segar used the word, although he certainly popularised it. It could well be an abbreviated form of gooney, "fool, simpleton," which goes back to the 16th century. After the introduction of Alice the Goon in the pages of Thimble Theatre, however, the word became much more popular. In fact, it is after her appearance that the word is used of the thugs hired by companies to break up strikes. Segar did not coin the word wimp either, but he may well have had an influence on its popularity. It appeared in 1920, apparently derived from whimper. Its rise in popularity could be do to J. Wellington Wimpy, one of the major characters in Thimble Theatre (the one who would glady pay one Tuesday for a hamburger today).

Popeye is not the only hero whose comic strip has had an impact on the English language; so too has Superman's comic books. Bizarro was originally the name of a grotesque duplicate of Superman, first appearing in Superboy #68, November 1958. Bizarro would prove popular enough to make many return appearances in the various Superman titles. Eventually, there would be a whole Bizarro world, where many things were the opposite of what they were on Earth. The term bizarro has then come to describe something strange or unusual, or just the opposite of how it should be. There can be little doubt that much of this use has been popularised by the TV show Seinfeld (always known for its Superman references). Kryptonite, the fictional, crystalline element which is Superman's weakness, first appeared on the radio show The Adventures of Superman and later in the comic books. It has entered common usage as a term for anyone's weakness. Even more strangely, it is also part of modern London rhyming slang as a word for "web site!"

Of course, when it comes to comic strips having an impact on the English language, perhaps no one can match Rube Goldberg's achievement. A cartoonist know for drawing bizarre devices and strange machines, his very name, Rube Goldberg entered the English language as a word referring to any complicated and impractical device!

As might be expected, books have had their influence on the English language as well. The word gargantuan, meaning anything huge, stems from the book Gargantua by Rabelais (1534), which featured a giant of that name. The word utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More for his fictional perfect society in his book Utopia, published in th 15th century. Another place and another book would provide us with the word Ruritanian, referring to any romantic or exciting place. Ruritania was the setting for Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1896) and many of his other novels. The not quite so utopian world portrayed in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962) would also provide the English language with new words. Droog refers to "young thug" or "gang member." Ultraviolence refers to violence of an extreme sort. George Orwell's 1984 also gave us new words. The phrase Big Brother, used of any repressive and overly obtrusive authority, made its first appearance there. It also introduced the word newspeak, used in the novel of the artificially created language of the state, it now refers to any warping of the English language for propaganda purposes. Even Orwell's name itself would lend a new word to the English language. Orwellian refers to totalitarian states of the sort in 1984. On a more upbeat note, the use of the name Pollyanna for someone who is overly opitmistic stems from the novel of the same name, written by Eleanor Porter in 1914.

Strangely enough, while comic strips and books have had an impact on the English language, it seems to me that television and movies really haven't had nearly as much. In fact, it seems to me that for the most part television and movies don't coin new words as much as popularise ones that already exist. The perfect example of this is The Simpson. Homer's exclaimation "D'oh!" is commonly thought to have originated with the show. In truth, it predates the show by many years. In fact, Matt Groening and Dan Castanella both say that they derived the word from character actor James Finlayson, who appeared in many Laurel and Hardy shorts. He would use the word "d-o-o-o-h" rather than more extreme exclamations then unacceptable to America's movie censors. It would later be used by British comedian Peter Glaze on the BBC programme Crackerjack. Of course, there can be little doubt that Homer's use of the word greatly increased its popularity. The same is true of the phrases "ay carumba" and "Don't have a cow," which existed prior to the debut of The Simpsons, but were popularised by the show. Even "Eat my shorts," often credited to Bart Simpson, predates the show. It is used by Judd Nelson's character in The Breakfast Club in the Eighties.

The phrase "jump the shark," referring to the point at which a TV show becomes unviewable, is an interesting case in that it stems from both television and the World Wide Web. In an episode of Happy Days, aired September 20, 1977, Fonzie jumped a shark while water skiing; however, it would be years before the phrase would enter the language. In 1985, while he was in college, webmaster Jon Hein's roommate, Sean J. Connelly, coined the phrase "jump the shark" in reference to the point when a show has gone totally down hill. Naturally, when Hein launched his website devoted to examining when good shows go bad on December 24, 1987, he called the website "Jump the Shark.". From there it entered common usage.

Indeed, it seems tome that the British have had more success with words and phrases coming from television shows than America has. The slang term "dreaded lurgy" for a severe but undefined ailment comes from The Goon Show of both radio and television. And, of course, the use of the word spam for unwanted email is well known. Originating in the MUDs of the Eighties as a term for such things as flooding a computer with data, it would eventually come to be used as it is today for junk email. Its origins go back to a Monty Python's Flying Circus skit in which Vikings in a diner drown out everything else with a song about Spam.

It seems to me that it is rare that new words stem from movies. The word vamp as applied to a seductive woman may have first appeared in the movie A Fool There Was (1915), although it could well have appeared in the play upon which the movie was based first. Joseph Keller coined the phrase catch-22 with the title of his 1961, although it only became popular after the 1970 movie based on the novel was released. In the book, catch-22 is the situation whereby the novel's hero, a bomber pilot, can only be relieved from duty if he is insane, but if he asks to be released from duty, then that prove he is indeed sane and must continue flying. A catch-22 is then a situation from which there is no real escape.The phrase "to make a federal case out of (something)" was first used in the 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder. The word pixilated, meaning someone who is a bit off in the head, was only found in New England dialects until it appeared in the movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936, after which it saw widespread use. The word paparazzi for photographers who go to extreme lengths to take pictures of celebrities comes from the character Paparazzo in La Dolce Vita. For that matter, it is through that movie that the phrase "la dolce vita (in Italian, literally "the sweet life")" entered the English language.

Nearly as often it seems to me that it is the actors themselves than the movies who provide new words for the English language. Mae West lent her name to a sort of life jacket. Humphrey Bogart's last name would come to be used in the Sixties drug culture as a term for refusing to pass a marijuana joint (basically, keeping the joint hanging in one's mouth as Bogie did with his cigarettes). Bogart has since come to refer to other forms of hoarding as well. To this day Valentino can be used of any good looking man who is popular with women. Chaplinesque describes the sort of down and out everymen that Charlie Chaplin played in his films.

Over the centuries, popular culture has added many words to the English language and even modified the uses of some words. Given the number of media outlets today (books, comic books, comic strips, movies, television, the World Wide Web, and so on), it seems to me that this phenomenon could actually increase in coming years. Indeed, I rather suspect that there will be more new words emerging than ever before.

Thursday, 16 June 2005

The Great Howard Pyle

Talented individuals are rare. Those who are equally talented in more than one area are even more so. One such person was Howard Pyle. Chances are that, even if you do not recognise his name, you have probably seen one of his illustrations or read one of his books as a child. In fact, it is hard to underestimate Howard Pyle's importance in the field of illustration, as he is considered by many to be the father of modern American illustration. As to his writing, well, many of Pyle's books remain in print to this day. It was not enough that Howard Pyle was an artist and a writer, he was also a poet and a teacher as well!

Howard Pyle was born in 1853 in Wilmington, Delaware. His Quaker parents had hoped that he would grow up to attend college and sent him to the Friend's School in Wilmington. Contrary to their hopes, Howard seemed more interested in reading books and drawing. Recognising where her son's strengths lay, Howard's mother encouraged him to study art and introduced him to such books as Ritson's Robin Hood ballads, Robinson Crusoe, and Arabian Nights At age 16 he would begin three years of study under Belgian artist Van der Weilen in Philadephia.

His studies ended, Pyle set about becoming a professional illustrator, setting up his own studio in Wilmington. He sold his first illustration to Scribner's Monthly in 1876, the same year that would see him move to New York City. Pyle did not see enough work from Scribner's, so he also began contributing illustrations to St. Nicholas Magazine (a popular children's magazine that ran from 1873 to 1939). By 1877 Pyle would find work with Harper's Weekly, one of the top magazines of the day. His first work for Harper's, an illustration entitled "A Wreck in the Offing," was published in a double page spread of the March 9, 1878 issue of that magazine. As an illustrator, Pyle soon found many wanting his services. He would eventually be published in many of the major American magazines of the era, including The Century Magazine, Collier's Weekly, Harper's Weekly, Ladies Home Journal, and St. Nicholas Magazine. Pyle also illustrated books, including The Story of Siegfried (1882) by James Baldwin, The The Story of the Golden Age by James Baldwin (1917), and an edition of Lord Tennyson's Lady of Shallot (1881). As might be expected, he also illustrated his own stories and books.

Today it might be hard to understand why Pyle was so great as an illustrator and so revolutionary for his time. The reason for this is simply that Pyle completely changed the art of book and magazine illustration, to the point that we still see his influence today. As cartoonist A. B. Frost pointed out in 1890, before Howard Pyle illustrations for adventure books looked as if they had been staged, with posed "actors" and "prop scenery." According to Frost, Pyle was "...an artist who changed the way the world looked at illustration and the way illustration looked to the world." Indeed, none of Pyle's illustrations look staged, but looked as if Pyle had caputred an actual event. His illustrations could tell stories in and of themselves. And they were often very emotive, portraying everything from utmost sorrow to utter happiness. His illustrations featured bold lines and briliant colors never seen before. While many of his contemporaries' work does not stand up today, Pyle's works look as timeless as when they were first published. No less than Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, "Do you know an American magazine called Harper's Monthly? There are things in it which strike me dumb with admiration, including sketches of a Quaker town in the olden days by Howard Pyle." If one wishes to doubt Van Gogh himself, take a look at Pyle's painting "Marooned" from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates:





Arguably, Howard Pyle was the greatest illustrator of the 19th century, and for many that would be enough, but Howard Pyle was also a writer. He contributed his first story, a fairy tale, to St. Nicholas Magazine in 1877. While Pyle would continue to write children's stories all his life, being published not only in St. Nicholas Magazine but in Harper's Young People as well, his best known works would be in the field of boy's adventure books. In 1883 his book The The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire was published. It has remained in print ever since. Pyle would follow the success of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood with other books in the same general vein. Otto of the Silver Hand (1888) followed the son of a robber baron in medieval Germany as he becomes embroiled in a blood feud. Men of Iron, a Romance of Chivalry (1892) followed a squire through knighthood. Pyle's masterpiece in the genre would be his epic retelling of the legends of King Arthur: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), The Story of the Champions of the Round Table (1905), The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (1907), and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur (1910). His book of pirate stories, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, was published postumously in 1921. Pyle also wrote a novel length fairy tale, The Garden Behind the Moon (1895) and his children's stories were collected into anthologies during his lifetime.

It always seemed to me that Howard Pyle was born to write boy's adventure novels. His style was crisp and to the point, with very little in the way of needless words. One thing that sets them apart from many boy's adventure novels of the same era is the depth of his characters. They always had fully developed personalities and often complex motivations. His writing tended to be fairly intense at times and often quite visual. It is no surprise that many of his works have remained in print, as they seem in many ways to be timeless in both content and style.

Of course, Pyle was a teacher as well as a writer and artist. Pyle spent two years in New York before returning to Wilmington. In 1900 he founded the Howard Pyle School of Art in Wilmington. Later Pyle would found the Brandywine School and Artists Colony in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, establishing a whole new school of painting known sometimes as "magic realism." Among his students over the years were N. C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, and Harvey Dunn. Over his lifetime it is estimated that Pyle taught around 110 painters.

Howard Pyle was a rare sort of man who only comes along in a great while. He was cut of the same cloth as Gene Kelly, Will Eisner, and other men who possess multiple talents. And like many such men, he revolutionised the fields in which he worked. Illustration would never be the same once Howard Pyle took it up as a profession. Similarly, his many of his boy's adventure books are still in print and would influence writers to come. Indeed, they could well be seen as a predecessor to modern day pulp fiction. While many may not recognise his name, they no doubt recognise his illustrations and many of the title of many of his books.

Wednesday, 15 June 2005

Some Doo-Wop of a Morning...

Lately this song has been going through my head a lot. I have always liked doo-wop music, ever since I was a kid. Short of "Runaround Sue" and "The Duke of Earl," this is probably the greatest doo-wop song of all time. And one of the best rock 'n' roll love songs ever written. I must say that it certainly fits how I feel of late...

"Since I Don't Have You"--The Skyliners

According to legend, the manager of the Skyliners, Joe Rock, wrote "Since I Don't Have You" in 1958 while sitting at a stop light on his way to a rehearsal. He had just had his heart broken by a young woman who decided to become a flight attendant rather than remain with him The song's melody was written by Jimmy Beaumont, leader of the Skyliners. The song went to #12 on Billboard's pop charts and has been covered numerous times ever since (even Guns 'N' Roses have done a version).

Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Marvel's Horror Comic Books of the Seventies

The late Forties and early Fifties saw a public uproar over the content in horror and crime comic books of the era. Public furore over the violent content of some comic books reached a peak in 1954, when Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Frederic Wertham was published. The book was a fairly biased attack on the comic books of the era, and simply added fuel to the fire of public indignation over comic magazines. In response, the comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority, a de facto censorship board for their magazines. The Comics Code was (and still is) the set rules under which the Comics Code Authority would award their approval (in the form of the Comics Code Seal) to any given comic book.

By today's standards, the Comics Code of 1954 seems downright draconian. Among the things prohibited by the original Comics Code was excessive use of slang and colloquialisms, references to physical afflictions or deformities, any portrayal of drug use in any form,, and the portrayal of divorce as anything but undesirable. Scenes involving the walking dead, vampires, and werewolves were expressly forbidden. Even the words "crime," "horror," and "terror" were banned from the titles of magazines! For many, many years following the introduction of the Comics Code, horror comics would be euphemistically referred to as "mystery" comic books.

In 1971 the Comics Code was revised. The potrayal of drug use was now permitted so long as it was shown as "a vicious habit." Vampires, ghouls, and werewolves were now allowed, so long as they were presented in "...in the classic tradition of Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world." Curiously, zombies remained banned, as the did the word "horror!" The lifting of the Comic Code Authority's ban on vampires and werewolves would impact the two major comic book companies, DC and Marvel, in very different ways. DC Comics had changed the format of their old horror anthologies (House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Unexpected, and so on) to "superheroes" back in the mid-Sixties. They shifted these anthologies back to a horror format in the late Sixties and even debuted new horror anthologies (The Witching Hour and Ghosts) even before the ban was lifted. For DC Comics, then, the lifting of the ban on vampires and werewolves meant little more than such characters could now be featured in their magazines. Marvel Comics was an entirely different matter. At Marvel Comics there would be a resurgence in horror titles. Furthermore, these titles would not be anthology magazines like the ones at DC, but would feature several characters based in the genre of horror.

Marvel's first horror character of the Seventies was a creature called Man-Thing. Contrary to popular belief, Man-Thing was not a ripoff of DC's popular Swamp Thing. In fact, the first story featuring Man-Thing was published a full month before Swamp Thing's first appearance! That having been said, the two characters probably owe a good deal to the Golden Age character called the Heap, whom they both resemeble a good deal. Man-Thing debuted in Savage Tales #1, May 1971. With that first issue of Savage Tales Marvel was testing the waters to see if large, black and white magazines of the sort they later published in the Seventies would be successful. Savage Tales would not see print again for some time, but Man-Thing would pop up again in Marvel comic books. Man-Thing was Ted Sallis, a scientist who was trying to find a formula with which to create super soldiers. Testing the formula on himself, Sallas died in a swamp. He rose from the dead as a mixture of swamp life. Man-Thing was little more than an animal, his intellect long gone with only emotions remaining. In fact, he was very empathic, even able to sense the emotions of others. Following his first appearance, Man-Thing received his own series starting with Adventures into Fear #9, October 1972. The series ran until issue #19, January 1974, of that magazine. Thereafter he had his own short lived title. Since then Man-Thing has reappeared in various Marvel comic books

Of course, with the Comics Code ban lifted on vampires, it would be inevitable that Marvel Comics would create their own. Oddly enough, Marvel's first vampire did not emerge in the pages of a horror comic book, but rather in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man. Dr. Michael Morbius made his first appearance in issue #101, October 1971, of that magazine. Created by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, Morbius was a Nobel award winning medical scientist who was dying from a rare blood disease. In an effort to find a cure, he conducted experiments with vampire bats. Eventually developing a serum, he made the mistake of testing it on himself. As is usually the case in movies and comic books, the experiment was not a total success. Morbius found himself transformed into a "living vampire." He was endowed with superstrength and fangs, not to mention a thirst for human blood. Morbius battled Spider-Man a few more times before eventually being awarded his own series. Initially he had an ongoing series in the black and white magazine Vampire Tales lasting from mid-1973 to June 1975. Eventually he would have his own full colour series, starting with Adeventures into Fear #20, February 1974, and lasting until the final issue of that magazine, issue #31, December 1975. Since then Morbius has appeared from time to time in various Marvel comic books, still searching for a cure to his living vampirism.

One of Marvel's most successful horror characters made his first appearance in issue #2, February 1972, of the tryout magazine Marvel Spotlight. The series Werewolf by Night centred on Jack Russell, whose family was cursed with lycanthropy. Beginning with his 18th birthday, Russell would find himself transforming into a wolf like creature at the full of the moon. After a three issue tryout in Marvel Spotlight, Werewolf by Night received its own title starting in September 1972. It would last nearly five years, ending its run with issue #43, March, 1977. During that time Jack Russell even battled Dracula, in a story that took place in both Tomb of Dracula and his own magazine. Since the cancellation of Werewolf by Night, he has guest strarred in various Marvel titles and even briefly had his own series again in the Nineties.

Of course, the resurgence of horror titles was largely due to the Comics Code authority lifting the ban on vampires and werewolves. It would then not be long before Marvel would introduce a title featuring the vampire, with the first issue of Tomb of Dracula, April, 1972. Fittingly, Dracula would be the first true vampire (Morbius being a product of misguided science) to appear in a Marvel comic book. Tomb of Dracula was set in the Seventies, although it still drew upon the classic Bram Stoker novel for its basis. Tomb of Dracula proved very successful. It ran ran until August 1980, making it one of the longest runing horror titles to come out of the Seventies. It also introduced new characters into the Marvel Universe. Blade, now well known from the movies, made his first appearnce in Tomb of Dracula, as did the vampire Deacon Frost (the villain of the first Blade movie). Since the cancellation of Tomb of Dracula, Dracula has appeared in various Marvel titles and even a mini-series in the Nineties.

Not every one of Marvel's horror characters were monsters. In fact, one was a monster killer. As mentioned above, Blade made his first appearance in Tomb of Dracula--issue #10, July 1973. While still pregnant with him, Blade's mother was bitten by the vampire Deacon Frost. While his mother died, the infant Blade was saved. Because of his unusual birth, Blade found himself impure to the effects of vampire bites and the mind controlling ablities of vampires as well. Naturally, the circumstances of his birth also gave him a lifelong hatred of vampires. Blade was essentially a combination of two ongoing cycles at that time. One of course, was the cycle of horror comics that was taking place at Marvel and, to a lesser degree, at DC Comics. The other was the Blaxploitation cycle which had hit the film industry beginning with the movie Shaft in 1971. Indeed, in his earliest appearances Blade resembled John Shaft a good deal. While the character developed from the meeting of two cycles (one from comic books, the other from movies), it would be a mistake to think Blade is simply a derivative character. At the time vampire slayers and monster hunters were not yet the archetype that they are today. In fact, Blade (along with Captain Kronos from Hammer's Kronos) was one of the first examples of a vampire slayer ever to appear. Blade would continue to appear in Tomb of Dracula on and off for the entirety of that magazine's own run, but curiously he never quite achieved his own ongoing series in the Seventies. He appeared in solo stories in Vampire Tales #8-#9. He also appeared in Marvel Preview #3 and #6. He also made guest apperances in Ghost Rider and Spectacular Spider-Man. As might be expected, Blade eventually crossed paths with Morbius, the Living Vampire. Regardless, he maintained a cult following since his first apperance. Since the Seventies he has made numerous guest appearances and even had his own short lived title in 1994. In 1998 the first Blade movie was released, bringing the heretofore obscure character fame as he had never had before. Blade may never had success in the comic books beyond being a featured player, but it seems his longevity won out in the end.

Like Blade, Brother Voodoo was not a monster, but one who fought monsters. And like Blade, Brother Voodoo was a meeting of the Blaxploitation movie cycle and the comic book horror cycle. Brother Voodoo first appeared in Strange Tales #169, Sepember 1973. Brother Voodoo was Jericho Drumm, a Haitian psychologist educated in New York City. Returning to Haiti, he found that his brother
Daniel had fallen victim to an evil hougan (a priest of Voudon). Jericho decided to take revenge by studying voodoo himself under the hougan Papa Jambo. Eventually Papa Jambo would combine Daniel's soul with that of Jericho so that Jericho would become possibly the most powerful hougan in existence. It might seem curious for Marvel to have done a series based on voodoo given that zombies were still banned under the Comics Code. Marvel managed to get around the ban by referring to the undead creatues as "zuvembies" instead, even though they were clearly zombies. Brother Voodoo met with very little success, lasting a mere five issues. To this day, however, he has made guest appearances in various Marvel comic books.

Morbius was not the only horror character to debut in the pages of a Spider-Man comic book. Man-Wolf was astronaut John Jameson, son of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson. John Jameson had appeared in the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, but would not fall victim to his own peculiar form of lycanthropy until Amazing Spider-Man #124, September 1973. While on the moon Jameson discovered a stone that looked a lot like a ruby. Eventually he would make a pendant of the stone to wear around his neck. Unfortunately, the next full moon Jameson found himself transformed into a half man, half wolf creature. In the process the stone became fused to his body. Like Morbius, Man-Wolf fought Spider-Man a few more times before receiving his own series, beginning in Creatures on the Loose #30, July 1974. It lasted for the rest of the run of Creatures on the Loose, which ended in September 1975. Jameson would supposedly be cured in Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #3, 1981. although the lycanthropy would come back from time to time, allowing Man-Wolf to make various guest appearances over the years.

Many other horror oriented characters, some with their own series, appeared in Marvel Comics in the Seventies, but I have no room to list them here. By 1975 it seems to me that the horror cycle had more or less played itself out. New characters were emerging in fewer numbers and many of the series had been cancelled by that year. Sadly, while many of the characters to emerge from the horror cycle in comic books of the Seventies were popular for a time, none of them would be major players in the Marvel Universe. Even Dracula would be relegated to guest star status after Tomb of Dracula was cancelled. Blade is famous now only because of the movies.

Regardless, I always enjoyed Marvel's horror comic books of the Seventies. Tomb of Dracula always struck me as fairly original and decidedly different when compared to other comic books of the era. The same too can be said of Werewolf by Night. I read both magazines regularly. And I have very fond memories of both Morbius and Blade, both of whom impressed me as being fairly original concepts for the time. It is a shame that neither character ever got a long running title of his own. With the possible exception of Blade, I am guessing that none of the characters Marvel created in its horror titles of the Seventies will see an more success than they already have. I certainly doubt any of them will receive their own titles ever again (again, with the possible excepiton of Blade). At any rate, I will always look upon them with a good degree of fondness.

Monday, 13 June 2005

The Rise and Fall of the Independent Televison Station

Those Americans who are older than me or at most fifteen years younger than me may well remember independent television stations. For those of you who are not Americans or are not old enough to remember them, an independent station was one that was not affiliated with any network (such as NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, the WB, or UPN). Independent stations went back to the very beginnings of regular television broadcasts in the late Forties. WOR (now WWOR), Channel 9, was the first indpendent station to open in New York City. It started broadcasting all the way back in 1949. The superstation WGN in Chicago began as an affiliate of both CBS and DuMont in 1949, although it became an independent by the mid-Fifties. There was a time in the early days of broadcasting when every television station in Los Angeles was an independent. All network broadcasts originated from the East Coast in the late Forties, and network feeds to the West Coast would not be established until 1951. Until that time, then, every TV station in Los Angeles was an independent. Here in Missouri we had two important independent stations. The oldest was KPLR in St. Louis, Channel 11, founded all the way back in 1959. The younger of the two was KMBA (renamed KSHB in 1977), Channel 41, founded in 1970.

The programming of independent stations tended to be diverse. A large bulk of their schedules would be occupied by network reruns, such as I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island. I remember reruns of old network sitcoms filled the daytme schedules of both KPLR and KMBA. Between the two of them, they showed The Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart, The Monkees, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, and Newhart. On Sunday mornings for much of the Eighties, KMBA (by then renamed KSHB) was the station to watch. They showed reruns of The Wild Wild West, Maverick, and Star Trek. In the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, independent stations were generally the biggest buyers of reruns, often airing old series that the network affiliates would not. In fact, Star Trek, which had bombed in its first run on NBC, largely owes it success to airing on independent stations.

Not only were independent stations generally the biggest buyers of network reruns in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, but they were also the biggest buyers of shows in first run syndication. Without a network to provide independent stations with new series, they often turned to first run syndication to fill their schedules. Such first run syndicated series as Highway Patrol, The Adventures of Superman, Sea Hunt, Space: 1999, Star Trek: the Next Generation, and Hercules: the Legendary Journeys would be aired primarily on independent television stations throughout the United States. For most of its history, first run syndication tended to be a very odd mix and so too were the schedules of the independent stations that picked up these shows. Before the advent of UPN, independent stations were also most often the home of professional wrestling. Music shows in first run syndication such as Soul Train, Solid Gold, and Night Music were often aired on the independents. Animal documentary series, such as Wild Kingdom and The Wild, Wild World of Animals were often popular with the independent stations. In the days before Pokemon, anime (Japanese animation) largely aired on the independent stations around the nation. From the early days of Astro Boy and Gigantor in the Sixties to Robotech in the Eighties, it was the independent stations around the country that aired the bulk of anime on American television. Other sorts of animation would also find a home on American independent stations. The majority of Gerry Anderson's Marionation series (such as Thunderbirds) were often aired on the independents, as were such first run cartoon series as Hanna-Barbera's Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.

As hard as it may be to believe now, there were also times when independent stations would air shows from the networks. In the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, affiliates would sometimes elect not to show one of their network series for whatever reason. For instance, some NBC affiliates refused to show The Monkees becuase they objected to a show about long haired rock musicians. When a network affiliate refused to show a particular network series, that series would sometimes be picked up by an indpendent station. When Kansas City ABC affiliate KMBC failed to air The Brady Bunch in its first season (they showed movies on Friday evenings from 7:00 to 9:00, knocking out part of the network schedule), it was short lived indendent KCIT that picked up the show. They had earlier aired The Name of the Game when NBC affiliate WDAF refused to air that show.

Independent stations also filled their schedules with older movies. In the days before Turner Classic Movies, independent stations were often the place to see such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Bringing Up Baby. In fact, the independent stations may well be credited with the phenomenal popularity of the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life. When a clerical error resulted in that classic going into the public domain, many independent stations began airing it repeatedly over the holiday season, as they had to pay virtually nothing to do so! As a result, more and more people saw It's a Wonderful Life and it soon earned its reputation as one of the greatest films of all time. For many stations, movies often provided the bulk of their programming. I remember that KPLR showed a movie every week night at one time. For a long time they showed a Western every Saturday night. For many years in the Seventies, Sunday afternoon would see Tarzan movies and Abbot and Costello movies airing on Sunday afternoon.

This is not to say that independent stations did not have their share of original programming. Often they would produce their own children's shows, with a host who would show cartoons, interview people, perform skits, so on and forth. In its earlier days KMBA (now KSHB) aired 41 Treehouse Lane, hosted by "Uncle Ed (nee Ed Muscare)." Ed was also the host of KMBA's Creature Feature on which they showed old horror movies. There he went by the name "the Creeper." Alongside his cat Caffeine, Ed Muscare would also be a host of another of KMBA's (then KSHB) original shows, a late night show called All Night Live on weeknights during which they would show reruns of old sitcoms. Unfortunately, while many have fond memories of Ed Muscare as the host of various shows on Channel 41, he turned out to be a less than savoury character. Indeed, he turned out to be a monster worse than any from the Creature Feature. He would eventually be convicted in California of child molestation.

As stated earlier, independent stations existed from nearly the beginning of regular television broadcasts in the United States in the late Forties. This having been said, they would not become common until the Sixties and Seventies. One hurdle to the development of independent stations was the limited number of channels on VHF (channels 2 to 13). In 1952 the FCC developed a solution by permitting stations to broadcast on UHF (channels 14 to 83), greatly expanding the number of channels available. Unfortunately, it was not until 1962 that Congress passed legislation requiring all television sets to have tuners for both VHF and UHF. Regardless, numerous UHF stations opened in the Sixties and especially in the Seventies. Many of those stations would be independents.

Of course, while many independent stations opened during this era, their survival was not guaranteed. Most independent stations were at a severe disadvantage when it came to competing with the network affiliates. While network affiliates can depend on the networks to fill the majority of time slots on their schedules, independents would have to buy shows to accomplish the same thing. Independent stations would usually spend much more on programming than what network affiliates would. This situation was often complicated by the fact that the wealthier network affiliates could often get the more desirable programmes that the independent stations would undoubtably like to have. Competition from network affiliates also presented problems with regards to the independents getting advertising revenue. Advertisers tended to prefer the network affiliates with their large audiences as opposed to buying spots on independent stations with smaller audiences. Of course, attracting an audience could be a problem for independent stations in and of itself, particularly newer stations on UHF.

Independent stations broadcasting on UHF were at an even greater disadvantge than thier counterparts on VHF. When compared to VHF stations, UHF stations require more transmitter power to cover the same amount of area. As a result, television sets often got poor reception from UHF stations (I remember trying to tune in our ABC affiliate, KMIZ, channel 17, in the Seventies...). Naturally, problems with reception also created problems in getting advertisers, who naturally did not want to advertise on TV stations which viewers might not be able to pick up. In the Seventies and Eighties, many UHF stations simply closed their doors after a few years of struggling to make it. Eventually, such advancements as the MSDC klystron would solve the transmission problems of UHF stations, but for many years they were at a severe disadvange.

Of course, many of the problems experienced by independent stations on both VHF and UHF would be solved by the growth of cable in the Seventies. The variety of programming offered by the independents (the mixture of movies and reruns) often appealed to cable systems, especially those in rural markets. As a result many indpendents found their audience greatly increased by being added to varoius cable systems. Here in Randolph County, the cable system carried both KPLR out of St. Louis and KSHB out of Kansas City. Eventually, the addition of independent stations to cable systems would result in the rise of the superstation. Quite simply a superstation is a broadcast station that is widely shown on cable systems nationwide. The term originated with Ted Turner's WTBS. Throughout the Seventies, Ted Turner campaigned to get the station added to cable systems. By the end of the Seventies, he started using the word "superstation" to describe WTBS, not long after it was first picked up by satellite. The word soon became applied to such similar statoins as WWOR in New York, KTLA in Los Angeles,a nd WGN in Chicago.

One would think that with cable and the rise of superstations, there would be more independent stations than ever before. Sadly, that is not the case. Of the 385 members of the Association of Indpendent Television Stations (founded in 1972), only 84 stations could be described as truly independent as of March 1995. What happened to America's independent stations? Quite simply, the rise of new networks. In 1986 Rupert Murdoch bought Metromedia (the remains of the old DuMont network) and founded the Fox Network. Many indpendent stations then became Fox affiliates. In the Nineties, Warner Brothers and the Tribune Company would become partners in launching the WB Television Network, often called "The WB" for short. The new network took to the air on January 11, 1995. In 1994 Chris Craft and Paramount Pictures joined forces to create a new network using their stations. The new network was named the United Paramount Network (UPN) . UPN started broadcasting within days of The WB, first hitting the air on January 16, 1995. As might be expected, many indpendent stations then became either affiliates of the WB or UPN.

Indeed, the list of indepedent stations which are now network affiliates is impressive. WWOR, the first independent station in New York City, would become the flagship station of UPN. WGN in Chicago would become affilited with the WB. Here in Missouri, KSHB in Kansas City became a Fox affiliate in 1986. By 1994 KSHB would become an NBC affiliate, the old NBC affiliate (WDAF) switching to Fox. As a side note, I think this cost KSHB dearly. As first an independent and then a Fox station, they could be found on cable systems throughotu Missouri. Once they became an NBC affiliate, cable systems starting dropping the station like a hot rock. Even KPLR in St. Louis, an independent since 1959, would become a network affilate. They joined the WB with that network's launch in 1995.

I have to say that I do miss the old independent stations of old. They often showed a greater variety of shows than most network affiliates do. I could watch old Tarzan movies on KPLR, The Wild Wild West on KSHB, and countless classic movies on both. Even with the advent of cable, it seems to me that in losing the independents we have seen a decrease in the diversity of programming that once existed on American television. Where are the locally produced children's shows? Horror movies hosted by humourously macabre characters? It seems to me that with the demise of the indpendent station, we have lost something that was very special.

Sunday, 12 June 2005

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer

Last week PBS reran Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer, a segment of American Masters. Having missed it the first two times it aired, I was eager to see it this time. I can honestly say that I was not disappointed.

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer gives a fairly detailed summary of Kelly's career as a dancer, from his days operating the Gene Kelly Studio of Dance to the classic musicals of the Fifties and beyond. As might be expected, the documentary's strongest point is its use of archival footage. Naturally there are the clips from Kelly's classic films (the Alter Ego number from Cover Girl, his dance with Jerry the mouse from Anchors Aweigh, and, of course, "Singin' in the Rain" from the movie of the same name); however, Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer goes beyond most documentaries by giving us rare footage from his stint on Broadway in Pal Joey, a rare clip from the segment Gene did for Omnibus ("Dancing is a Man's Game"), and even home movies of Gene and his family.

Another strong point of Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer is the commentary offered by Kelly's kith and kin (ex-wife Betsy Blair, daughter Kerry Kelly, and former partner Stanley Donen), those who worked with Gene (actresses Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, and Debbie Reynolds, actor Donald O'Connor, dancer Fayard Nicholas), and various experts (choreographer Kenny Ortega, biographers Clive Hirschhorn and Stephen Silverman, critics Jeanine Basinger and Elvis Mitchel, and film historian Peter Woolen). Through thse various sources we hear about Kelly's personality, his home life, what he was like to work with, and even why he still has such great appeal to viewers today. When the commentary from various people is combined with the various film clips, we even get some insights into Kelly's creative process and the methods through which he created some of his greatest numbers.

In my humble opinion, Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer has only two shortcomings. The first is that for most Gene Kelly fans there is very little new to be learned about Kelly from this documentary. Of course, this is only a minor criticism on my part, as I expect the average viewer does not possess the labrythine knowledge of Kelly that most fans do! The second shortcoming is that Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer more or less glosses over Gene's career following It's Always Fair Weather. Given the title (it is Anatomy of a Dancer, after all), one would not expect Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer to cover Kelly's dramatic roles in such films as Majorie Morningstar or Inherit the Wind, nor would one expect references to the non-musicals he directed, such as The Cheyenne Social Club. That havng been said, I do not recall Les Girls even being mentioned, nor the fact that he directed the film adaptation of The Flower Drum Song. With regards to television, while it covers "Dancing is a Man's Game" from Omnibus, it does not mention the various TV specials Kelly did, not even the Emmy award winning Jack and the Beanstalk! For the true Gene Kelly fan, these would seem to be serious oversights.

Even given the fact that Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer does gloss over Kelly's later career, I still cannot recommend the documentary enough. It seems to me by far the best film dealing with the life of Gene Kelly, giving the viewer a detailed look at one of the true creative geniuses of 20th century film and one of the greatest dancers of all time.