You Know… For Kids!

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Item 1. I hadn’t given HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and its sequel the go-by on the big screen, but having caught up with the first film on Christmas TV, I’m now kicking myself. It’s beautifully designed visually (the characters are proper cartoons, not obsessively over-detailed monsters with pores and broken capillaries) and structurally, and it’s not only funny but extremely emotional, and I even overlooked the weird voice casting that has adult Vikings played by Scots (Gerald Butler and Craig Fergusson, both excellent) and the kids all-American (Jay Baruchel particularly effective in the lead). The laughs come not out of ingenious gags, but out of character animation — pure performance in stop-motion CGI form. Great father-son mutual embarrassment scene, for instance.

I’m still a little confused by the film’s politics. It starts out with the dragons as deadly threat, and then we learn that, pace Renoir, even dragons have their reasons, and it becomes about the need for understanding and friendship across boundaries. But then it becomes a story where the good guys invade the bad guys, kill their evil leader and make them into pets. I guess the good news should be that as of release date 2010, that kind of narrative is only credible in fairy tales.

But I don’t want to put you off — if you had any doubts about the movie, dismiss them and check it out. This is a golden age for two things: US TV drama, and animated features.

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Item 2) Foolishly, right before Christmas I visited the library and got a ton of interesting books. Then I got a bunch of interesting books for Christmas, including three volumes of Gerald Kersh short stories (among other things, some of the best short-form horror out there) and a Patrick Hamilton. So the only library book that got read was The Steel Claw, a collection of comic strips originally published in the sixties in boy’s comic Valiant then reprinted in the seventies in Vulcan, which I guess is where I became familiar with the character, though I have no memory of Vulcan being a thing.

The Steel Claw concerns a junior scientist/lab assistant type with an artificial hand, who gets blasted by an exploding experiment so that he gains the power to become invisible whenever he receives an electric shock. All except his steel claw, which stays eerily floating about. Curiously, he never thinks of removing it, despite the fact that it’s a major handicap in his life of crime. For this is what our hero decides to do — like the Wells/Whale Invisible Man, he sets out to blackmail the world with acts of wanton destruction, all lovingly depicted in Jesus Blasco’s noirish inks (for some reason, nearly all British comic artists in the seventies were actually Spanish).

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The story is frankly ridiculous, even allowing for the goofy concept, but I found myself enjoying the furious pace. Each weekly installment was only two pages, so writer Ken Bulmer (a great name for an author of thick-ear pulp) has to cram in a resolution to an outgoing crisis right away, and then dash ahead to the next tense situation to create a suitable cliffhanger at the end. All wasted on the tiny me, who only saw a couple of isolated issues of whatever the strip was appearing in, but a thrill to read all in one sitting, in the bath (for instance).

Alas, my scans don’t capture the fabulous liquid BLACKNESS of the art, which is what made it so exciting and scary to me as a kid. I must read some more stuff from this era of British comics.

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Item 3) Apart from foolishly visiting the library, I foolishly visited that nice second-hand bookshop in the Grassmarket, and lucked into the complete kids’ trilogy of E, Nesbitt: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and the much rarer The Story of the Amulet. I’m halfway through the third one now, which features time travel, and a rather advanced description of time all existing at once, explaining why you can hop about in it (Nesbitt fears no paradoxes). Great stuff, and the kids in it are properly thoughtless, stroppy and destructive like the real thing. And I like how she used the pronoun “it” when referring to the group: “each child felt that it…” etc.

My favourite bit in Amulet so far is the massacre on Throgmorton Street by time-travelling Babylonians, perhaps because that sort of scene happens so rarely, even in children’s stories, and perhaps because Throgmorton Street is my favourite London street (because it is narrow and high like a canyon, and because it is called Throgmorton Street).

Item 4) Still got DESPICABLE ME lined up on the Tivo. Never seen that one either.

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13 Responses to “You Know… For Kids!”

  1. There were a lot of Spanish cartoonists working for UK magazines in the 1960´70s, basically because the income they got was fairly better than the one they got overworking in Spanish magazines. Also, Censorship was rampant during Franco’s rule, and Spanish comics were frequently edited because of it.

    Artist Carlos Gimenez drew a memoir of his experiences as a young man drawing in a Spanish agency which worked for foreign publishers:
    http://www.tebeosfera.com/documentos/textos/los_profesionales_spain_is_different.html

  2. I’d never considered how problematic the dragons’ pethood might be. I guess both sides are tamed though. Hiccup’s receipt of a genuine injury from his fall put the tin lid on it my love for the first, and I also loved the shorts that follow, but stupidly haven’t seen the sequel. I don’t hear great things about Despicable Me, but would throrougly recommend Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and, of all things, Kung Fu Panda and its sequel, which surprised me just as much as Dragon.
    I see E. Nesbit also invented the Droogs.

  3. It turns out EVERYBODY was a droog before Malcolm McDowell, weren’t they?

    I’m astonished and disturbed to hear that I should bother with Kung Fu Panda. I know a number of Despicable Me fans and they like the sequel even better.

    Will check out the Gimenez when I get home (I’m at the Cameo cinema to see Big Eyes).

  4. There is also that “At Last the 1948 Show” sketch where Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman play violently bickering stockbrokers who strip down to their bowler hats and long johns and go at each other with umbrellas.
    Kung Fu Panda. Yes.

  5. I *do* remember how exciting it was when Jack Black first burst upon our screens in High Fidelity. But I find it impossible to recapture that feeling.

    Tim Brooke-Taylor is an Underused Resource. He should be at least as big as Roger Moore.

  6. “The Goodies”, which briefly got some airings here in the wake of the Pythons, had at least one of them becoming a rabbit-eared droog in a parody of the movie (accompanied by an ominous song, “I’m a Bunny”). The rabbit-droogs were routed by Her Majesty’s Own Highland Ferrets.

  7. I thought Kung Fu Panda opened on a seriously high note, with an amazing dream sequence; the rest is fine, but it can’t hope to live up to the early going (the end credits, though, are pretty special from an artistic standpoint).

    How to Train Your Dragon was very much a pleasant surprise — the pace and wit are quite beguiling.

  8. Yes! The Goodies parodied 2001 and Clockwork Orange all in one, with added bunnies. Probably the most *ambitious* situation comedy ever.

    I shall have to ask my animator friends for their views on KFP.

  9. Have you been reading Paul Grist’s JACK STAFF? Basically, a filed-off version of Marvel’s UNION JACK has adventures with all the U.K. boys’ comics heroes, and Moorcock’s Elric, and a local whacko who is a loving parody of Alan Moore, while being shadowed by a vampire tabloid reporter. Each issue is divided into several segments that mirror the anthology nature of the comics that inspired it.

  10. He also has Steptoe and Son as vampire hunters. Yes, I’ve read a bit and really liked it, but haven’t pursued it as doggedly as I should owing to lack of time/funds. But I would recommend it to any interested comics readers out there without hesitation.

  11. lafaustin Says:

    THE STORY OF THE AMULET was one of my childhood favorites! A few details didn’t strike me at the time:

    The crowd round them thickened. They were in a narrow street where many gentlemen in black coats and without hats were standing about on the pavement talking very loudly.

    ‘How ugly their clothes are,’ said the Queen of Babylon. ‘They’d be rather fine men, some of them, if they were dressed decently, especially the ones with the beautiful long, curved noses. I wish they were dressed like the Babylonians of my court.’

    And of course, it was so.

    The moment the almost fainting Psammead had blown itself out every man in Throgmorton Street appeared abruptly in Babylonian full dress.

    All were carefully powdered, their hair and beards were scented and curled, their garments richly embroidered. They wore rings and armlets, flat gold collars and swords, and impossible-looking head-dresses.

    A stupefied silence fell on them.

    ‘I say,’ a youth who had always been fair-haired broke that silence, ‘it’s only fancy of course—something wrong with my eyes—but you chaps do look so rum.’

    ‘Rum,’ said his friend. ‘Look at YOU. You in a sash! My hat! And your hair’s gone black and you’ve got a beard. It’s my belief we’ve been poisoned. You do look a jackape.’

    ‘Old Levinstein don’t look so bad. But how was it DONE—that’s what I want to know. How was it done? Is it conjuring, or what?’

    ‘I think it is chust a ver’ bad tream,’ said old Levinstein to his clerk; ‘all along Bishopsgate I haf seen the gommon people have their hants full of food—GOOT food. Oh yes, without doubt a very bad tream!’

  12. How to Train… was a joy in the cinema, although the 3D didn’t help much and in a sense hindered, muting some of the colors while admittedly offering some lovely threed effects.

    My favorite memory of seeing it (at the Arclight, Hollywood) was the moment just before it began when the empty seat next to me was quietly filled with the splendid presence of Kenneth Anger. A literal presence, I hasten to add, and doubtless a spiritual one too. He was there with his – ahem – young gentleman companion. I’d sat next to Anger at the Arclight before (coincidentally) for the prem of Jackson’s King Kong; after congratulating Our Ken on Mouse Heaven, I sat back but as the movie began he cried out “Fay Wray isn’t in this, you know!” followed by “Nor is Max Steiner!” (Yes, I was bemused too, and not a little charmed). I’ve bumped into him a lot around here, and sat with him on several other occasions (once at a DGA screening of the restored version of Cammell’s Wild Side, when he leaned over and started bitching lustily about Marianne Faithfull), but he still can’t remember a) the interview I did with him in the early 1970s for Gay News (UK) and b) the time I spent in his office off Wardour Street while he was re-editing Lucifer Rising.

  13. He’s a charming fellow. Kevin Brownlow quoted him to me on how he does his research: “Mainly mental telepathy.”

    Phoebe, yes. As I understand it, Nesbit was politically progressive, but odd prejudices show all the time. She’s terrified of the working class (in fairness, they ARE terrifying at times, if you’re middle class or sound it).

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