Friday Feature: Dickensian Edition

It’s that time of year, everybody. It’s Christmas time. This is our last post before Christmas and when I was trying to think of what to write, I said to myself,

“All the Who’s down in Whoville seem to have Christmas under control,
but I should tell them how the geeks enjoy Christmas! How droll!”

Then I said,

“Why Stewart, that’s broad. You’ll never be able to choose!
You’ll just write in circles until all your readers snooze!
Why not narrow your field, and slim down your pickin’s?
Why not tell them only about your favorite DICKENS!”

Then I decided to lie down and wait for the Rhymitall* to wear off.

When I recovered I started to think about the different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol I’ve seen over the years. There are almost too many to count and most of them are pretty bad. So I’ve picked three (3) that pass muster. Each for a different reason.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppets. ’nuff said.

But really, you can’t make me not like the Muppets. Or Fraggle Rock. The world lost someone when it lost Jim Henson. Fortunately his legacy continued through his children Disney.

The Muppet’s version of A Christmas Carol doesn’t pull the heart strings for me as much as some other interpretations, but it does have fun little songs, Kermit the frog, Ms. Piggy, Fozzywig (!) and the whole gang.

Michael Cain is also there, and his singing voice is just not as good as his Muppet companions. We’ve forgiven him, however, since he’s the best Alfred there’s ever been (outside of Batman: The Animated Series).

A Christmas Carol (2009)

This might be a contentious choice, but I think 2009’s animated Christmas Carol featuring Jim Carrey (who plays Scrooge and all of the spirits) is far and away the best version of  A Christmas Carol there is. Among a myriad other reasons, this interpretation happens to be one of the closest to Dickens’ original story.

For me, this is also unquestionably Carrey’s best work, and it could have only been so in the context of motion-capture animation. It really was this technology that allowed Carrey to play all of the roles he did in a way that doesn’t come across as strange or distracting. In fact, seeing Carrey’s expressive brand in Scrooge and all the ghosts lends itself to a better story. It cements the idea that the the spirits aren’t teaching Scrooge anything new, but exposing his own, already present raw nerves by peeling away his cynicism.

It’s also worth noting that this movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, avoids the dubious trademark of the director’s previous animated  Christmas film, The Polar Expressthe uncanny valley. By using the advanced motion capture technology with characters possessing exaggerated features (Scrooge’s enormous nose, Cratchit’s comically round face, etc.), A Christmas Carol has characters that are believably human and relatable, without being unsettlingly too like us.

Batman: Noel 

Bet you didn’t see this one coming, eh?

Batman: Noel is a graphic novel which came out in 2011 with art and writing by Lee Bermejo. I don’t know much about Bermejo’s other writing, but I think he does a great job  with this adaptation of the classic Christmas Carol formula for Batman. And Bermejo’s art is crazy good. His is an unbelievably detailed style, to the point where there are pages where I was almost annoyed that any text got in the way of the pictures. Movie costume designers should look to Bermejo’s art for guidance for how to translate super-hero outfits to live action film.

The story puts Batman in the role of Scrooge. I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but the “spirits” are other characters with a relationship to Batman. Noel toys with a Batman motif that’s been popular in the past few years – the idea that Bruce Wayne has lost himself in the cowl. He takes his role a the Dark Knight seriously, and it keeps him from any semblance of happiness and love. I think Bermejo writes Noel well, and shows us how the popular “ideal” of Christmas cheer and generosity can easily be lost in masked crime-fighting.

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And with that I conclude my list of favorite Christmas Carols. If you have one that you feel I left, out, feel free to comment! Just remember your Christmas spirit and don’t be mean. Or Santa won’t bring you any toys.

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*Rhymitall is a prescription drug to for those with an difficulty writing limericks, folk songs, or children’s books. Rhymitall may not be right for all people. Stop taking Rhymitall and contact your doctor if you find yourself unable to write in prose, if you experience an abundance of whimsy, or if you have a sensation of being lighter than air. These are serious side effects and may be linked to a more serious condition.

Friday Feature: Garfunkel and Oates

I love funny women – as everyone should.

I also have a weakness for really weird bands – a slightly more niche interest that keeps me squarely qualified as nerd enough to write for this blog. I was introduced to this nerdy genre by Lemon Demon, the one-man project of geek icon Neil Cicierega.  I’m also a huge fan of Wizard Rock (Harry and the Potters puts on the most punk rock show ever), and I routinely blast “Ira Glass” by nerdcore rapper Adam Warrock when I’m driving around in my Nissan Sentra.

My love for funny women and weird bands is united in the comedy super-duo, Garfunkel and Oates.  Ever since we heard their new song “The Loophole,” my friends and I can’t stop belting out the chorus at inappropriate moments – check out the video below to see what I mean (NSFW or those with delicate sensibilities – which applies to most of their songs).

Garfunkel and Oates, made up of Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome, sing songs that are both supremely clever and exuberantly immature.   Some are sharp social-political satire like “The Loophole,” “Save the Rich,” and “Sex With Ducks,” while others, like “Pregnant Women are Smug” and “I Would Never Have Sex With You” take off on the absurd banalities of everyday life.  Some are even surprisingly sweet, like “Silver Lining.”

It’s always great to see women being unapologetically crude, and doing it so well.  Growing up, girls are conditioned to be polite, sweet, and inoffensive.  While boys get to grow out of this “seen and not heard” period of childhood, women can get perpetually stuck there because of all the societal pressure to please others, especially to please men.  Garfunkel and Oates totally reject the expectation to be “ladylike,” and are freed to make some great feminist observations about sexuality and male-female relationships (in the midst of all the dick jokes).

If you’re already familiar with Garfunkel and Oates’ discography, the great news is that they have a new TV series coming out on IFC in 2014, with promises of new songs to come.  I can’t wait.

Friday Feature: Black Science

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll have noticed that this week we didn’t have a post on Tuesday. As the benevolent dictator of this blog, I have decided to give my writing proletariat a month in which to rest their aching fingertips and enjoy the holiday season before the new year. In the mean time, I’ve decided to keep up with the Friday Features, so that the Playground stays lively!

So far in our Friday Features, I have not highlighted very many ongoing comic series. Part of the reason for this is that I would hate to recommend something that will turn around and be terrible next month.

It’s the reason I resisted featuring Pretty Deadly after the first issue. I was (and still am) pretty excited about it, but the first (and now second) issues were lacking something that I hope the next few will provide. It’s not a cohesive story yet and while the art by Emma Rios is phenomenal, I’ve found it hard to recommend a book with a story that I don’t understand.

It’s the reason I’ve never recommended the new 52 run of Animal Man, despite it having never disappointed me.

All that is to say you should take me seriously when I recommend a comic after only one issue.

Black Science #1 was the best #1 I’ve read since Saga.

The writer took a big risk in this first issue by telling almost the entire story through inner monologue during what was basically a book-long action sequence. The risk pays off. Balancing action and exposition is never easy, and it’s doubly difficult in the first issue of a new story.

Black Science is a brand new creation, and yet in just the first issue, we already have a relationship with the main character and the people with whom he works. In just a few pages, Rick Remender sets up a personal and emotional history of the character and introduces us to his family, his mistakes, and his life’s work.

An early page from Black Science #1.

But as with any comic, the work of the writer is only half of the creation. The other half is in the art. And the art in this book does not disappoint. In all seriousness, the pictures alone are worth whatever this book is going for on ebay right now.

I’ve never seen art that was both so kinetic and so detailed. The first panel of this book hits the ground running and it doesn’t stop until the last – and the artists keep pace without sacrificing even the smallest detail.

In action-heavy comics, the two elements of the page that are usually the first to go are facial expressions and backgrounds. The artists of this book don’t let go of either element except in a few scant panels where it seems like the choice was intentional and made for emphasis.

I don’t know anything about the pedigree of the artists on Black Science, Matteo Scalera and Dean White, but I’m going to do whatever I can to find more of their work.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but even the lettering of this book is fantastic. Check it out. If you can’t justify buying monthly comics (depending on the book, it can be anywhere between $16 and $30 to buy one story-arc worth of monthly issues, whereas buying a trade paperback that collects the same story-arc will typically cost between $15 and $20), wait for the trade. I’m sure I’ll make a fuss when it comes out then, too.