Saturday, September 27, 2008

Little Boy Blue

Little Boy Blue

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and staunch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.

"Now, don't you go till I come," he said,
"And don't you make any noise!"
So toddling off to his trundle-bed,
He dreamt of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
Awakened our Little Boy Blue--
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
But the little toy friends are true!

Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place--
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.

--Eugene Field (1850-1895).

Eugene Field was famous for his poems of childhood. You might remember him most best for Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, and The Duel, or The Gingham Dog and The Calico Cat. As you can see from his dates he wrote in the hey-day of Victorian feeling and that he died at only forty-five. It's all rather sad, but there it is.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Season of the Scarecrow

No-one really knows the origin of the scarecrow. Some hold they derive from the old Roman custom of having a herm in every field, and are thus of sacred origin as a guardian of the crop. According to one tale they arose from a grim necessity. In the old days it was the task of the very old and the very young to protect the fields from birds and other marauders by shrieking, waving their arms, or chasing them away when they approached; so the weakest and feeblest could still serve the needs of their folk. When the Black Death swept across the land, the old and the young were hardest hit. In their absence, and with spare clothes suddenly in abundance, the scarecrow was created to fill the gap, and since then its' enigmatic figure has strode across the landscape of our imagination.

Scarecrows vary in construction, from a simple cross-pole with a tattered coat to full-figure stuffed men in elaborate costume. Their heads can be an old hat on the top of the pole, a broom head, or a carved pumpkin. In England they can be topped by gigantic turnips or mangold-wurzles, as big as a man's head, hollowed out and sculpted into faces. More elaborate scarecrows might employ multiple arms, tatters, pinwheels, or other devices that move with the wind to give the illusion of mobile menace to any creatures considering a raid on the crop. Indeed, the effectiveness of a scarecrow in one place is limited, because birds soon grow used to it, and a working scarecrow (as opposed to a decorative one) must be regularly moved to keep the crows wary.

In Japan they have a tutelary god of scarecrows, named Kuebiko, who is mentioned as early as the 8th Century. He is a god of wisdom, because he stands outside at all hours and sees everything. In some areas of Italy they put up a scarecrow figure in the fields and called it the Old Witch of Winter; it stayed up until the first day of spring when it was ceremoniously burned. (One such ceremony is featured in the film Amarcord.) The Guy Fawkes figure is a scarecrow stuffed with fireworks and burned on the Fifth of November; this custom of burning in effigy has almost magical overtones, and is another function of the scarecrow. In the different regions of Great Britain the scarecrow has many names: mommet, murmet, hodmedod, tattie-bogle, bodach rocais, bwbach, mawhini, and jack-a-lent. German immigrants to America brought the terms bootzaman (boogeyman) and bootzafrau (boogeywife) with them.

The grandfather of all scarecrows in fiction is Feathertop, published by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852. Feathertop is a scarecrow constructed by the witch Mother Rigby, who animates him by having him puff on a pipe fired by a coal supplied by her imp, Dickon. This not only gives him life but makes him appear human to those that see him: the harder he puffs the more real he appears, and when he slacks off the straw begins to appear. Mother Rigby sends him into the world, where his handsome illusory appearance makes him prosper, and he falls in love with a beautiful girl and almost marries her. But a chance glance at a mirror shows Feathertop in his true form, and the distraught scarecrow hurries back to Mother Rigby, choosing to throw away his pipe rather than live as the sham he has been revealed to be. The witch sadly gathers up his remains, remarking that many fine successful men of the world are made up of worse remnants than her poor creation, whose moment of love made him see his shabby existence too clearly.

In 1900 L. Frank Baum created perhaps the most famous Scarecrow of all in his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose portrayal by Ray Bolger in the 1939 film spread the fame even farther. Baum explained that anything that could be of use came alive in Oz, and that the Scarecrow was useful for amusing children. In 1936 in England Barbara Euphan Todd began her Worzel Gummidge books, detailing the adventures of two children with the rustic Yorkshire scarecrow, Worzel Gummidge. It was popularized over British radio and television, and is surely the ancestor of Spud on Bob the Builder today. In the animated movie Howl's Moving Castle there is a scarecrow called Turniphead, whose helpful nature and mysterious presence is explained when he is revealed to be a prince under an enchantment.

These of course were all magical scarecrows in their own right. But there is also a body of fiction concerning people who adopt a scarecrow persona for their own ends. In 1915 Russell Thorndike began a series of books featuring a character called Dr. Syn, who dressed as a scarecrow to hide his identity and strike fear into his enemies. There were two rival adaptations of these works in 1963, one by Disney and one by Hammer; I remember the rather chilling screaming laugh of the Disney incarnation. Peter Cushing plays the Dr. Syn role in the Hammer adaptation. Dr. Syn had some influence on the creation of Batman (another masked vigilante), which eventually included the character of Scarecrow, an unscrupulous psychologist who specialized in the study of fear. In the 1981 made-for-TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow the amiable but dim farmer Bubba is disguised as a scarecrow to escape from the mob that wrongly believes he has harmed a little girl. They find him and kill him, but his spirit animates the scarecrow and seeks vengeance on the real culprit.

Scarecrows hover around the edges of popular culture. In Peter Jackson's movie The Fellowship of the Ring, a hobbit scarecrow marks the boundary of the farthest Samwise Gamgee has ever gone. In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Dream of the Endless is served by the sarcastic, cigar-smoking Mervyn Pumpkinhead. At the beginnings of Tim Burton's films The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow, pumpkinheaded scarecrows make creepy and ominous appearances. In Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, Terry Pratchett mentions Unlucky Charlie, a scarecrow that the witches have used as a target for magic practice so many times that it has developed a life of its' own, often showing up uninvited at homes and then leaving as mysteriously.

There is something scary about scarecrows, in any case, Nanny Ogg muses. I know that's their job, but I mean scarier than even that. They're not exactly just people but they're not exactly just...stuff. Or maybe it's those cut out-eyes.

Nowadays scarecrows have a large presence as a non-specific fall decoration, good from the beginning of autumn to the end of Thanksgiving; their cute grinning faces and sanitized patchwork clothes visible in any retail store. A scarecrow's job has been taken over by pesticides, machines, and screeching recordings, and they only exist on farms as a grace-note. But then, they have grown beyond these functions.

Scarecrows, as I have said, inhabit the landscape of our imagination. Whether born of disaster or divinity, they are a kind of benign, disposable gargoyle. They stand as a psychopomp in the field between the farm and the forest, between summer and winter, between human and inanimate. They are a symbol for the shabby and piecework in ourselves, and for the ephemeral nature of all existence. They are uncanny, but somehow on our side; as our creation, as something that looks human but isn't, we feel the responsibility, the guilt, and the affection we have for all things in which we have placed our creativity.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Here's the Autumnal Action Figures!

Possibly a tie-in to the new release of It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! There was a series of different Halloween figures before, but these are brand-new.

I went into a CVS store on an unrelated matter and found them there: Lucy and Peppermint Patty. Apparently Charlie Brown and Snoopy as the more popular characters had been scooped up already. I am going to check again later in case they get re-stocked, or at any other CVS I get close to. Each cost $6.99.

Lucy comes with a pointed red hat with stars, a white sheet costume, and a tub of bobbing apples. She is as she appears after the trick-or-treating at the Halloween party.

Peppermint Patty is an interesting case. The show was actually made before Peppermint Patty was established as a character. But somebody was in the hat and green mask and sheet costume that comes with the figure; it could have been Shermy or Patty or Violet or some other secondary character. But Peppermint Patty is more popular now, more well known, so it seems she was slipped into the anonymous role.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Favorite Poems: The Ghost Kings

In honor of the Conan action figure, a poem by his creator, Robert E. Howard, first published in Weird Tales in 1938. I first read it in an old issue of The Savage Sword of Conan.

The Ghost Kings

The ghost kings are marching: the midnight knows their tread,
From the distant, stealthy planets of the dim, unstable dead:
There are whisperings on the night-wind and the shuddering stars have fled.

A ghostly trumpet echoes from a barren mountainhead;
Through the fen the wandering witch-lights gleam like phantom arrows sped;
There is silence in the valleys and the moon is rising red.

The ghost kings are marching down the ages' dusty maze;
The unseen feet are tramping through the moonlight's pallid haze,
Down the hollow clanging stairways of a million yesterdays.

The ghost kings are marching where the vague moon-vapor creeps,
While the night-wind to their coming, like a thund'rous herald sweeps;
They are clad in ancient grandeur, but the world, unheeding, sleeps.

Conan in War Paint

When I went by Hastings on my way to the pharmacy yesterday, I found not only the DVDs of Duckman: Seasons One and Two (whoo-hoo!), but the other Conan action figure of the new set by Reel Toys/NECA. Not only does it come with the sword from the crypt, but a fragment of the ghoul-stew stained steps of Thoth-Amon's palace as a base, included green severed head and hand! Delightfully grody. The figure stands (or poses) seven inches tall, with rather limited articulation at the neck and elbows. The cost: $15.99.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Peter Cottontail

The first day of autumnal weather here, and what could be more appropriate than a post about an Easter Bunny action figure? Just about anything. But here is one of the latest to join my jolly group, so let us welcome him, shall we?

This action figure stands 5 1/2" from paw to ear-tip, and is articulated at the neck, arms, and legs. He comes with a basket of brightly colored eggs (not shown) and the weird little human-headed caterpillar/aviator Antoine. This action figure very accurately reproduces Peter Cottontail as he appears in the 70's Rankin/Bass animagic holiday saga, Here Comes Peter Cottontail.

In that show, Peter was voiced by Casey Casem, of radio and Shaggy of Scooby Doo fame. His nemisis, Irontail (whose figure I've had for some time), was voiced by Vincent Price. And of course Seymour S. Sassafras (as well as Colonel Bunny and Antoine) was voiced by Danny Kaye.

The only figure I do not have in this set is Dolly, Peter's somewhat perfunctory love interest, who comes with Bonny the Easter Bonnet. I saw on an old site several projected figures, mostly variants of Peter and Irontail, that never got made.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rasputin and Young Hellboy

Back when the original Hellboy movie came out, I was not all that enthusiastic about it. That is, what I saw of it from commercials and reviews didn't make me want to go and see it. Even after it came out on DVD and my brother Yen had us all watch it, I was a little stand-offish. But after it was around a while and I watched it a few times, it began to grow on me. The main theme, that it is not one's birth and circumstances that make a person, but the choices he makes in life, is one to which I whole-heartedly agree. By the time my affection for Hellboy really bloomed, the movie had been out for a few years, and action figures were kind of scarce. I got a stray Abe Sapien, and then a Hellboy, but I didn't even know who else was available. Correction: I didn't even think about looking for old figures until a couple of weeks ago. And I found Rasputin, the main villain.

He stands seven inches tall, and comes with the mechanical glove key he used to open the dimensional gate at the beginning of the movie. The glove is removable. Included with the figure is one of the Young Hellboy, which stands about four inches tall. Hellboy seems slightly larger in proportion than he did in the movie.

There are other figures in the series: Kroenin, Samaael (don't quote me on those spellings!), and Hellboy as he appears with his full horns and fiery crown. I wouldn't mind getting them, but they're nothing I feel the need to go hunting after. My jones at the moment are for the Series Two from Hellboy 2. Can't wait!

The picture above isn't mine, of course, but a nice display.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

More On The September Funerary Note

This Tuesday I bought the new DVD release of It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. For years I've resisted buying a copy, on VHS or DVD, because I've felt that the great Peanuts shows should only be seen once, in the proper season. But the last few years I always seem to miss them; they arrive with so little fanfare and sometimes with such odd scheduling. They've started new re-mastered releases of the DVD's, to be issued slightly before the holidays, and The Great Pumpkin is the first. Among the special features was a short featuring Bill Melendez, the director, and his experience working on the show. I found out two days later that on that very day, Sept. 2, that Bill Melendez had passed away at 91.

He was a remarkable man. Born in Mexico in 1916 (full name Jose Cuauhtemoc Melendez), he worked at the Disney studios from 1938 to 1941, on short cartoons and Bambi, Fantasia, and Dumbo. He left as part of the animator's strike. He then worked at Warners Brothers on Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Daffy Duck cartoons. He worked for UPA on many commercials and on the Gerald McBoing-Boing shorts. It was his work on commercials that led him to work on the Peanuts specials.

It was while animating the Peanuts characters for commercials for the 1959 Ford Falcon that he met Charles Schulz. Together they produced A Charlie Brown Christmas whose unexpected success started an animating empire, producing over 75 half-hour specials, four movies, and a mini-series. Bill Melendez did all the vocalizations for Snoopy and Woodstock.

In 1979 he directed the animated version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

This man's efforts touched so many points of my enthusiasms. All too often you only realize that one of the good one's was still alive when you hear they've passed away. Ninety one years old. It was a good run.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

In Memory: J. R. R. Tolkien

On this day, thirty-five years ago, J. R. R. Tolkien passed away after a three day bout with an acute bleeding gastric ulcer. He was 81. Thanks for everything, Professor.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones

Some time after June and now I sent off for the Special Offer from the Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull action figures. Today it came, packaged in a facsimile cardboard crate labelled "Property of Dr. Jones". Inside was the complete alien crystal skeleton and the golden throne on which it sat. Above is the scan I made of it on my copier; all blurring is caused by interference from the copyright hex that Lucas and Spielberg have placed on all these special figures. I am not even going to attempt to show you what happened when I tried to make a picture of the throne. The figure is five inches tall.