23 February 2011

prisoner of gravity


TVOntario announced today "the launch of its new digital Public Archive, a free online resource that unlocks four decades of made-at-TVO educational programming that stands the test of time." What caught my attention was the following:

TVO’s Public Archive features beloved TVO programs that have defined TVO over the years. It launches with over 375 programs and segments that would take more than five days to watch. The site includes episodes of ... Prisoners of Gravity... New content will be added to the Public Archive regularly.

PRISONERS OF GRAVITY! Or -- as fans of the show affectionately refer to it as -- POG!

POG originally aired from 1989-1994 and featured interviews with science fiction, fantasy and horror authors and comix professionals. The episodes were structured topically and hosted by Canadian comedian/writer/producer Rick Green, most familiar to American PBS viewers as "Bill" on THE RED GREEN SHOW. It was a wonderfully quirky series; think Brian Lamb's BOOKNOTES meets Space Ghost's COAST TO COAST. ... come again? Well, as POG historian Rachelle "TedDog" Shelkey says at her POG fansite SIGNAL LOSS, "Prisoners of Gravity is a rather difficult series to explain":

What made Prisoners of Gravity different from your average talk show was it also incorporated a quirky fictional wraparound to explain the settings and the hosts. These aren't normal television episodes we're watching, but pirate broadcasts. Our main host, Commander Rick (Rick Green), was frightened by the state of the world and decided to flee Earth by attaching a rocket engine on to the roof of his car. His idea works, surprisingly enough, until he crashes into the side of a secret telecommunications satellite, Reality 1. Starting in season two, the cast expands slightly. Rick is joined on the satellite [by his] not-quite-faithful sidekick Nan-Cy, a sentient computer who either helps or hinders broadcasts depending on her mood. The two pirate broadcasters override the signal of the nature show "Second Nature" in order to air their show "Prisoners of Gravity," much to the annoyance of Second Nature's host Enrico Gruen (also Rick Green). This plot sounds more than a little silly, but works surprisingly well onscreen.

It got this prisoner of gravity's attention. In the early '90s, Wisconsin Public Television aired and re-aired a package of ten POG episodes Friday nights at 10 PM for about six months. A car-less teenager from rural Central Wisconsin, the show enabled me the opportunity to become familiar with the personalities behind the books I loved. Harlan Ellison. Neil Gaiman. Frank Miller. And many more. It introduced me to the works of John Callahan and Dan Piraro, among others, and served as a library visit suggestions' list for years to come. It was a virtual sci-fi/comix convention panel discussion every week. Subjects such as censorship, racism and environmentalism, to name just a few, were highlighted. POG demonstrated that the speculative fiction genres and the comix medium could be serious venues for serious topics.

POG also reminds me of a different era in fandom. In the days before the modern internet made it easy to connect to fellow fans and to aquire "lost" treasures, one had to work at it. During the years following POG's WPT airing, I'd occasionally re-watch the handful of episodes that I had recorded on VHS tape, and I'd wonder... Where can I get the episodes I missed? Are there more episodes than those I saw? What's the story behind this show's story? The answers rested with fellow fan, Canadian "TedDog" Shelkey who operated a POG fanclub and fandub service out of her apartment with the "help" of university equipment. ("Fandub," short for "fan dubbing"; media sharing between fans via audio and video cassette swaps.) I found out that there were over 100 episodes(!), and she found out about the specifics of the PBS run; she had some of the episodes I missed and many more that I had never seen, and I had a few that she still needed. I mailed her my tape of episodes and a blank VHS cassette, and a month later she returned them. But this time the blank tape featured twelve POG episodes -- a tape I still have and watch.**

Old-school fandubs may be dead, but the future is now. TVO currently has 25 episodes of POG officially available for viewing. With about 137 episodes produced, hopefully we'll see more added soon. A wealth of additional clips can be found unofficially (with affection) at Shelkey's YouTube channel.

This is Commander Cass -- signing off.

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* Art by Ty Templeton.

** Special shout-out to my ROBOTECH brother, Christopher "Fer" Goodnough who I met through his fandub service back in the day.

16 February 2011

giant marshmallows


In 2009, Things From Another World interviewed Tim Seeley about his property, HACK/SLASH. The following got my attention:

TFAW.com: So, you went to college with Craig Thompson?

TS: We’re both from central Wisconsin, but Craig came from an even smaller town than I did. We both went to a college prep school in Wausau, which was the biggest town either of us had ever lived in. We got along pretty well. Craig was kind of the introspective loner, while I was the party guy. ... I’ve always been a fan of his stuff, and Blankets is one of my favorite comic books ever. He did the intro to the first Hack/Slash collection. ... We’ve known each other for about 15 years.

TFAW.com: It would be really interesting if you two wrote short stories for each other to draw!

TS: A mutual friend of ours wrote a script that Craig and I both drew about a giant marshmallow once. We were curious to see how different it would look. That was a blast. I wish I still had it!

By the summer of 1995, I was sitting on a pile of comix scripts that I'd written with plans to illustrate for a personal zine. Inspired by Harvey Pekar's AMERICAN SPLENDOR and Rick Veitch's ROARIN' RICK'S RARE BIT FIENDS, the stories were a mix of quotidian anecdotes and dream diaries. One strip was based on a recurring childhood nightmare that I'd had about, yep, a giant marshmallow...


PANEL 1: Kitchen dining room. Round family table in room's center. Single campfire-style marshmallow centered alone on tabletop. Evan, wearing pajamas, stands away from table, observing marshmallow.

EVAN: [caption] There's a marshmallow on the table.

PANEL 2: Same as Panel 1, with two exceptions -- (1) marshmallow has tripled in size; (2) Evan is startled.

EVAN: [caption] And it's... GROWING.

PANEL 3: Same as Panel 2, two exceptions -- (1) marshmallow has grown to cover whole tabletop; (2) Evan, panicked, turning away to run.

EVAN: [caption] Gotta get out of here!

PANEL 4: Close-up on Evan, terrified, running out of kitchen into nearby hallway. Background, marshmallow fills and consumes entire kitchen dining room.

EVAN: [caption] WHERE? My room!

PANEL 5: End of hallway. Evan frantically opens bedroom door, looking wide-eyed over his shoulder. Foreground, marshmallow squeezes into hallway.

EVAN: [caption] Still growing!

PANEL 6: Bedroom. Evan, exhausted but smiling, sits with back against closed door.

EVAN: [caption] There. I'm safe.

PANEL 7: Evan thrown away from door, ever-expanding marshmallow shattering it open.


PANEL 8: Close-up on Evan, hysterical. Marshmallow constricts and consumes him from all sides.

EVAN: [caption] I can't BREATHE! ... SUFFOCATING me! ...

PANEL 9: Black.

As Tim mentioned in his TFAW interview, one afternoon Craig and I visited him with arrangements to illustrate the script "to see how different it would look." The following roughs -- the first by Tim, the second by Craig -- were the result...

Neat, huh?

P.S. Tim nailed it, BTW.

"Kiss it, Thompson!"

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Special thanks to Jonathan Switzer for scanning the originals.

* "Marshmellows Backlit" by Jonathan Kantor.

09 February 2011

panel criticisms

In just over a month's time, THE PANELISTS has become one of my favorite comix blogs. It's a must read, especially if you feel the comix medium should and can be taken seriously. As they explain in their first post:

Our goal here is to bridge the gap between academic and popular criticism, to write reviews and essays with the rigor of good scholarship but in an accessible voice. We also plan to use the convenience of blogging to support experiments in collaborative criticism that would be harder to pull off in print.

And, so far, those "experiments in collaborative criticism" are my favorite aspect of the blog. Consider these two comix panels...

... The first is from John Porcellino's KING-CAT. Panelist Derik Badman evaluates its elements here; fellow Panelist, Isaac Cates reinvents and reevaluates it here. One panel. Total word count? Over 1200(!).* The second is from Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean “Moebius” Giraud's BLUEBERRY. Panelist Craig Fischer critiques it here; Badman follows up by critiquing it here. Total word count? Over 1000.

Fascinating stuff!

The above are just a couple examples of the entertaining scholarship that Badman, Cates, Fischer, et al. are regularly posting. (See also: "Brickbrickbrick" and its comments' section.) If you love comix and smart writing, THE PANELISTS is a joy to read.

"Like" them on Facebook; follow them on Twitter.

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* Because of this exchange, I was moved to finally purchase a KING-CAT collection for myself after years of knowing I should. I loved it. I've purchased more since, and intend to subscribe to the zine ASAP. John P.'s rightly considered a comix genius.

02 February 2011

at the movies again

Nearly five months ago, I was thrilled to hear that Roger Ebert was returning the thumb to the airwaves:

"Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies," a weekly half-hour film review program, was announced today [10 September 2010] by its producers, Chaz and Roger Ebert. The program continues the 35-year-old run of a reviewing format ["Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down"®] first introduced by Gene Siskel and Ebert and later by Ebert and Richard Roeper. It will return to its birthplace, launching nationally on public television...

I love quality storytelling in all media. But finding the gems in among all the garbage can be a real challenge. So I value professional critics' opinions in helping me budget the time and money I spend on entertainment; I may not always agree with what critics say, but I appreciate their informed insights. This is especially true with film. If I'm going to sacrifice an estimated two hours of my life and spend upwards of $10 on a movie, it damn well better be worth it. In high school, "Siskel & Ebert" were my go-to critics for all things film; as an adult, "Ebert & Roeper" helped me gauge my DVD rentals and purchases and movie theater visits. Unlike comix, film is not my forte. Consequently, in the years since Ebert and his collaborators have left the air, movies have barely been on my radar. The return of AT THE MOVIES was exciting, welcome news indeed.

A press release from 3 January 2011 announced, among other details, the program's premier date (21 January), primary critics (The Associated Press's Christy Lemire and Mubi's Ignatiy Vishnevetsky), website ("It will include material from the show, and a great much more created especially for online"), and progressive philosophy...

This is ... a new Golden Age for film viewing, he [Ebert] said. With the rise of video on demand (VOD) via cable and such streaming services as Netflix, Amazon and Mubi, many moviegoers have immediate access to thousands of titles. "To reflect that, we'll have a regular segment called 'Hot and Now,' reviewing films that home viewers can actually watch right then and there after the show goes off the air."

So, how is EBERT PRESENTS AT THE MOVIES? Two weeks in, I'm quite enjoying it. Lemire seems to approach films as experiential wholes; Vishnevetsky as collections of technical parts. After watching a clip from a current film, they'll summarize it, discuss it, occasionally debate, pass judgment with either a "thumb up" or a "thumb down," and move on to the next film. It's a familiar and comforting formula. Perhaps too comforting. Lemire and Vishnevetsky are so polite with each other when they disagree that opportunities for deeper critical insights have been missed. I want to see sparks -- like those between Ebert and Siskel and, later, Ebert and Roeper -- and from those sparks I want to be enlightened. Hopefully, as their working relationship grows (it's only been two weeks after all), Lemire and Vishnevetsky will be more inclined to drop their guard and speak their minds. In addition to the familiar back-and-forth, the new AT THE MOVIES also features an "Ebert" segment and one-or-more "from the field" segments. Ebert's segment features him typing a review from his office while a voice-over reads it and film clips play, culminating in a literal "thumb up" or "thumb down" judgment from the program's namesake; his meaningful presence lends authority and a nice continuity to the viewing experience. The other segments highlight film classics and themes presented by a variety of top-notch reviewers, providing the audience an intermission of sorts to symbolically step outside from the theater for a bit. To end the program, each episode has wrapped with an amusing excerpt from the original AT THE MOVIES; it's fun, and I hope the producers continue the practice.

The new AT THE MOVIES really is an enjoyable show, inspiring me to reactivate my Netflix account and pay attention to movies again. It can be watched weekly on PBS or viewed anytime online. See you on the balcony.