Reading Pictures

Boooooks!

Novelizations. We’ve all seen them. We may have even read some of them. I myself have a bookshelf-full of them (pictured above); a combination of ones I’ve had since childhood and ones I picked up at visits to used bookstores over the last several years. These are part of my “comfort reads” – the books, magazines, and comics that I’ve read and re-read multiple times, whose familiarity is the entire point. Those stories where, unlike the current global crisis, we know how it all ends. That’s what a Novelization is; a story you likely already know, told in a different way.

More boooooks!

First we need to clarify the difference between a “novelization” and a movie based on a novel. In the latter case, someone wrote a book; call it Jaws or the Silence of the Lambs or The Hunger Games. That novel, that source material, existed before the movie version did. Novelizations, by comparison, are the books based off a film or more specifically that film’s screenplay. The books that exist only because some screenwriter wrote a screenplay that was turned into a major motion picture, and the studio sold the rights to a publisher to assign an author to turn out a book based on the film to sell in stores as a nice little bit of promotion.  

Novelizations are frequently rudimentary in prose; “workmanlike” is the best descriptor, as though there’s something wrong with that. Frankly, I’ll take “workmanlike” over “MFA trying to impress me with their three-page treatise on the texture of a raindrop” any day. They’re serviceable; the perfect beach or pool-side reading. The types of books you can read with one eye while keeping the other on your child, to ensure they don’t drown or get munched by a roving Great White Shark.


Novel, not Novelization (though the prose is about the same)

Novelizations aren’t concerned with great turns of phrase. The exist to tell a story; or re-tell it, if you will. And to be fair, some novelizations are actually well-written, but you aren’t going to impress the teacher with your book report on the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II or Starman. Novelizations are the bastard stepchild of the literary world. They are books, and they are readable, but wouldn’t you be better off reading something more substantial?

Yes. To all of the above. Every criticism thrown the way of the novelization is valid. However the first “adult” books I read were novelizations. They were my gateway, from books geared to my age group; “Middle Grade” or “Young Adult” before those terms even existed. While I rack my brain trying to remember which novelization was my first, I have to assume it was one of these:

The Holy Trilogy

I was a child of the 1970s, and if you are an adult of a certain age it’s likely the years 1977-1983 were dominated by a trilogy set in galaxy long ago and far, far away. I can’t exactly remember what year I read Star Wars by “George Lucas” (actually sci-fi author and novelization mainstay Alan Dean Foster), but I want to say it was the early 80s, probably 1982. We would have been visiting family and I think a cousin had the paperback novelization and gave it to me. I read it over a weekend, and was, of course, hooked. Even knowing the story, there were surprises to be found within its pages. What made reading Star Wars interesting was the context it provided. Here was the first inkling of a galactic history, opening with an excerpt of “The Journal of the Whills” laying down the backstory for the Republic, the Jedi, and the rise of a bureaucrat named Palpatine.

The Prequels, only with less Jar-Jar.

It also gave you a taste of scenes left on the cutting room floor. Casual Star Wars fans might not know that originally we were meant to spend a lot of time on Tatooine with Luke Skywalker before encountering R2-D2 and C-3PO. We met his friends Fixer and Cammie, and his good friend Biggs Darklighter.

If you wanted to see what an “earlier version” of a beloved movie may have been like, you picked up the novelization. Given these books were written to coincide with the release of the film, they were most often based on a version of the screenplay that became a much different movie. An example of this would be Orson Scott Card’s novelization of James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi adventure The Abyss, which prominently featured a Tidal Wave sequence and various subplots that wouldn’t see light of day until three years later with the release of The Abyss Special Edition.

Life’s Abyss … and then you dive

Novelizations told a story you already knew the outcome of. But they did it in a way that put you in the head-space of the characters you only previously witnessed onscreen. Here you were in the cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as it raced down the Death Star trench. You were with the Goonies as they hunted for One-Eyed Willie’s treasure. You were Short Round as he occupied himself throughout Shanghai in the day leading up to the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Novelizations gave you backstory and character histories, it filled in the blanks on little mysteries lurking in the corners. It gave you more, at a time when you wanted more. You didn’t read novelizations for something new; you read them to re-experience the story you’d already fallen in love with. This was especially crucial in an era where home video was still in its infancy. Where you had to wait years to see a movie again. This was the age of the re-release. Star Wars, released in theaters in 1977 didn’t arrive on video until 1982. Return of the Jedi, released in 1983, didn’t show up until 1986.

We waited THREE YEARS for this.

The heyday of the novelization, for me, spanned roughly 1977 to 1989. Star Wars to Batman; famously one of the first films released on home video for purchase within six months of its theatrical debut. Once that six months threshold was broken, it became more common. By 1995 I was clerking at a video store, and it was pretty much a given that that summer’s theatrical releases would be available to rent by Christmas. As a result, novelizations became a lot less essential than they used to be. I look at my collection of novelizations and they really do begin in 1977 and end around 1989. Some are okay, none are truly terrible, and if you want ones that are a cut above the norm, look for names like Wayland Drew (Dragonslayer, Willow), George Gipe (Back to the Future, Gremlins, Explorers), and the Big Kahuna, Alan Dean Foster (Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Krull, The Thing, The Black Hole, The Force Awakens, and a host of others).

The late George Gipe wrote three of the best …

Novelizations still exist, though in some notable cases, they’re released after the theatrical release, to keep spoilers at a minimum. All of the Disney Star Wars movies had novelizations released several months after the theatrical release; quite a contrast to Terry Brooks’ novelization of Star Wars: Episode One back in 1999, which arrived in stores nearly a month before the movie hit the silver screen. Overall these newer books are quite well-written, employing acclaimed, well-known sci-fi-fantasy authors to draft prose based on screenplay format. Yet with the theatrical-to-video window now averaging three months if that, you don’t really need the novelization to keep you engaged in that world and its characters; all you have to do is watch clips on YouTube, and wait for the digital version or Blu-Ray to become available.   

Yet I believe what has in some way made movies a little less essential than they used to be has been in part because of the shrinking of that theatrical-to-video window and death of the novelization. They used to be part of the package, alongside the comic book adaptation and the Making Of book and TV specials. They made those movies feel a piece of a much bigger whole. They made them events, rather than mere entertainment.

The novelization was also very important to me as a developing reader. They were the bridge from books geared to people my age, to ones that skewed older. I might have been immersed in novelizations in 1984-1985, but by 1986 I was moving deeper into the adult world. In fact it would have been this book (no a novelization) and this movie that had the biggest impact:

Not a Novelization, but even more important.

Stand By Me, the movie, led me to Different Seasons, the collection of four Novellas by Stephen King (the other three being the little known The Breathing Method, as well as Apt Pupil, released in 1998 and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, released as The Shawshank Redemption in 1994). Different Seasons led me to The Stand, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cujo, It … the list goes on. By 1987 I was reading Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, and a host of other horror and suspense authors and I never really looked back. And while I was aware of Stephen King, it wasn’t until seeing Stand By Me that I wanted to know more, and more importantly read more.

Admittedly, my novelization shelf is more of a show-piece than a practicality. They’re a conversation starter for house guests. Yet occasionally, usually when between projects, I’ll pull out one of my old novelizations and take a trek down memory lane.

Speaking of Treks …

When talking about novelizations it helps to remind one’s self that yesterday’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure. It wasn’t so long ago that comic books were considered Low Art; now they’re winning Pulitzers and Hugos. There have been many scholarly looks at the Pulp Magazines of the 1930s, cheap, simple, and exploitative, which are now regarded as the cornerstone of modern genre fiction. The internet has changed the world, and even those ephemeral things that didn’t even exist ten years ago like Podcasts and YouTube are regarded as essential, even ground-breaking media.

I love movie novelizations. They were a gateway to more adult fiction; they were what spurred my interest in movies and the making of them. They’re what made me want to tell stories of my own. But mostly, they’re a simple, analog comfort to help us get through an uncertain world.

On that note: remember to wash your hands.

Brad’s Top Ten Novelizations

The Abyss – Orson Scott Card’s adaptation of James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller was granted unprecedented access to the film and unsurprisingly the novelization reads as top-level sci-fi. The book begins with three POV chapters each about its three leads – Bud, Lindsay, Coffey – in their younger days, and impressed James Cameron so much he gave the chapters to his actors and told them “this is canon”. One of the few novelizations that works as a stand-alone book.

Back to the Future – George Gipe’s adaptation of the beloved blockbuster puts particular emphasis on Marty’s friendship with Doc, and him getting to know the his own father before life crushed those same dreams now threatening to crush Marty’s. Gipe sadly passed away in 1986, but if you see his name on the cover it’s well worth your read.

Dragonslayer – acclaimed Canadian fantasy author Weyland Drew takes a middling Disney fantasy movie into a fine little piece of almost Tolkien-esque prose, focusing more on the threat the rise Christianity represents to an untamed world than the dragon hunting its people. The first of Drew’s two novelizations on this list.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. There was no way the novelization was ever going to recapture the wonder, the emotion, the soaring spectacle of Spielberg’s masterpiece. But what the E.T. novelization does do is expand the roles of Elliot’s mom Mary, and government investigator Keys, and gives Elliott and his siblings a foil in a nosy neighborhood kid who suspects something is up at their house. This kid never appears in the movie, which makes me wonder if he was an invention of author William Kotzwinkle, or a character and subplot excised from the screenplay before the filming commenced.

Explorers – George Gipe corrects the biggest problems with this Spielberg-Dante misfire by relegating the stuff that doesn’t work (i.e. the moment the aliens show up) to the last 30 pages, choosing to focus his retelling of the story on exploring the bonds of friendship between the titular Explorers.

The Goonies – I’m not a particular fan of 1985’s the Goonies, but the novelization is an interesting read, as it’s told almost exclusively through Mikey’s eyes, relating what happened to the Goonies gang after the events of the movie have passed. It also gives us a post-script to the story, telling readers and Goonies fans what happened to their gang of misfits after the end credits rolled.

The Last Starfighter – This mostly forgotten cult film about a young man stuck in his trailer park community only to be enlisted in an interplanetary war (don’t ask) is almost meta-textual in its portrayal of life as an 80s teen; a world of video games, dead-end jobs, and, yes, novelizations. It’s another Alan Dean Foster joint. He pops up a lot when you talk about novelizations.

Poltergeist – On paper, the story of Poltergeist is a little thin. But here author James Kahn expands on the trials of the Freeling clan, by giving almost equal footing to the paranormal investigators stories, particularly psychic Tangina Barron, whose detailed visits to the spectral plane actually precede the kidnapping of Carol-Anne, and sends her and her team on the hunt for the Freelings before the Freelings even know their daughter is in danger.

Star Wars – the George Lucas/Alan Dean Foster adaptation that kicked off the Golden Age of Movie Novelizations. Released in December 1976 (the original release date for Star Wars), it sat on shelves nearly six months before the film eventually was released to stun the world. A pretty engrossing read, but for a couple of anachronistic references to dogs and ducks (which I suppose now makes them canon in the Star Wars universe).

Willow – Wayland Drew returns with his adaptation of George Lucas’s and Ron Howard’s mushy fantasy would-be epic, applying his own high fantasy skills to the boilerplate plot, spinning off tales within tales, backstories, and histories into something that comes very close to being a classic High Fantasy.

ADDENDUM: there’s an excellent podcast called “I Read Movies” from Paxton Holley, in which he reads and compares movie novelizations to the filmed versions. Paxton really knows his stuff, is an engaging host, and an always entertaining listen. Here’s a link to his show page:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/i-read-movies-podcast/id1276623435

And, for more information on Novelizations, including a massive, comprehensive index of pretty much every one ever written, https://www.movienovelizations.com/ has your back covered.

Delete Facebook

Let’s talk about online life, shall we? When the clock rolled forth on January 1st, 2000, none of us knew what was coming. As an avid Sci-Fi fan, creator, and reader, I can say that nobody in the genre ever predicted what Social Media would become. It didn’t even predict social media, let alone the internet. Seriously; in the grand scale and scope of speculative fiction, NOBODY ever predicted the world-wide-web accurately. William Gibson likely came closest with Neuromancer. While the internet was a thing in the 80s we just didn’t hear about it.

The Internet. It could have been beautiful. And had kung-fu.

We do everything online these days. Much of it we do through mobile technology. Through phones that carry more processing power than your standard-issue desktop computer circa 1998 did. The internet has changed our way of life, but it’s also changed the way people think and relate to one another.

It hasn’t been pretty. Especially, it seems, in the last five or so years. Reducing people to names and profile pictures on Facebook or Twitter has done more to dehumanize each other than was probably intended. Or maybe that was the point

Pictured: Twitter. Where the cruelty IS the point.

I don’t really get involved online anymore. Not with debates, not with “being in a community”. It just holds no interest for me. Because I used to get involved. In debates. In “community”. I used to spend much more time online in the morass of social media than was probably healthy. I told myself it was for work; as a writer, you need to engage with your audience, you need to promote, you have to hustle. But doing all those things felt empty. Like it was just work. And it was just work, only the kine that largely gave me back little in return. So, in 2019 I said goodbye to Twitter (I said goodbye to Facebook in 2013, though I do maintain an author page though another administrator runs it). I’m still on Instagram but I’m only really there to follow art and travel and photography accounts. Comments are generally closed on my posts, I don’t allow strangers to drop in and spam me with promo. It’s “anti-social-networking”.

This all began in earnest last spring, as I was in the early stages of outlining my next book. It takes place in the 1980s; a pre-internet era. And I decided to be method in my writing in that I wasn’t going to use social media at all while drafting. I could use the internet but only for research. If I needed to know for example what the Top 10 songs in the US were the third week of April 1985, I could do that.

Pictured: a scene from my next book

But the minutia of checking Twitter or Facebook or whatever went away. And after finishing my draft four months later, it kind of stayed that way. I got used to not having social media around, and I have to say I like it not being around. I like not knowing what everybody’s up in arms about, or arguing over. I like being out of the loop. In fact, in the process I rediscovered what we’ve all been missing; the fine art of Not Knowing.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember Not Knowing. You didn’t know what was going on the next town over, or the next suburb. Heck, even venturing to the other side of your small town was a trek. Here you encountered people you’d never seen before and never would again, unless you went back. You had friends, you made friends, and when you moved away, you lost touch with them. I can look at my old school photos, from Kindergarten to pretty much Eighth Grade and only recognize a couple names, and only few faces beyond those. When I got older I thought things would change; that I’d remain closer to people I knew in high school, and college. And for a time – the early, generally non-evil Facebook years of 2007-2010 – I did remain close; re-establishing contact with people I’d lost along the way.

Even then, by 2012 I was getting tired of keeping up. I realized that these people I knew once upon a time weren’t the same people. And the thing is I wanted them to be those same people, and knew that wasn’t possible. they’d changed, and I’d changed, and shortly thereafter – as in seven years ago today – I logged into Facebook one final time, to delete my profile.

Was losing touch better? I hate to say it, but yeah; it kind of was. Because knowing those places, those moments, those friendships were impermanent is what made them special. It’s what made me cherish those moments and my memories of them.

One other positive aspect of walking away from social media is I can enjoy things on their own merits now. It seems that in the last five years or so the culture wars have migrated over into entertainment in a big way, to the point where who you are as a person is judged by the art you consume. If you like X you’re a bad person. If you didn’t see XX you’re the reason XX failed and that makes you a bad person. There’s no middle ground anymore; you’re either with the mob or against it. It’s almost like you can’t be indifferent to anything anymore.

Because we ALL have opinions …

Being outside that bubble has been liberating. Not that I ever cared what people though of me because of the things I enjoyed, but being sidelined by choice has been an eye opener as to how people related to one another now. It’s no longer enough to watch X, listen to Y, read Z. You have to declare allegiance to your tribe, you have to wear the colors, you have to gather on the field of battle and face off against Those People.

My motto is simple: enjoy the stuff you enjoy, ignore the rest. Don’t let anyone dictate what you should/should not entertain yourself with. As long as it isn’t something horribly offensive you aren’t hurting anybody by watching or reading or listening to it. And if you truly love something, love it. Don’t let the naysayers tell you “it was crap, it was terrible”. And likewise don’t tell them the same with something you didn’t like. You have the power. The world won’t stop turning because you did or didn’t express your opinion or share a thought.

My advice? Find your happiness, embrace it, and never let it go. Likewise, anything that makes you miserable, sets you on edge, get rid of it. I know that’s not always possible. Your boss could be an asshole but you need that job. But there’s always another job, another town, another place.

My life has improved in many ways because of this. Just in the case of time. Because don’t realize how much of your life you can waste in a day by hitting “refresh”.

Far, Far Away …

Here’s a confession that will shock everyone who knows me (and probably more than a few that do not): I don’t like STAR WARS.

The Saga, I mean; I’m talking Episodes I through IX, its spin-offs, its TV series. I’ve certainly enjoyed them, but once you’ve consumed 99% of Star Wars-related content you’re kind of left with an “ehh” feeling. A couple of hours of escapism, some robots, some aliens, some mystical mumbo-jumbo made up on the fly, the end.

Oh, and there’s usually a big explosion too.

Now with that out of the way, I will admit I love STAR WARS the movie. The first one. The one I saw in 1977. I’ve seen it the most of all of them, and 43 years on I still don’t get tired of it. I speak of the one called Star Wars. Not “A New Hope” not “Episode IV”. STAR. WARS. I love its low-tech (pre-special editions, of course) feel. I love its fast pace, its leap from planet to planet, location to location. I love its iconic set-pieces which remain memorable decades later, to a degree few of the other films in the lengthy series recapture.

Star Wars is one of those movies I’ve seen so many times that I can close my eyes and roll film from beginning to end and know every shot, every musical cue, every FX shot. On my list of desert island movies, it’s near the top. If fleeing my burning home I can only save one movie in my collection, it’s Star Wars. If I’m tasked by the government to save the world, bring world peace, end climate change, by keeping just one Star Wars movie in existence and obliterating everything else, well, the choice would be easy and obvious.

STAR. WARS. Period.

Why does Star Wars still hold my imagination? I think because it was my first major gateway to storytelling and being a storyteller. I was four. I’d seen TV, I’d had bedtime stories read to me. I’d possibly seen other movies. But nothing had that impact as Star Wars did. It got me interested in stories, in sci if and fantasy and that flood of SFF films and TV that followed well into the 80s. It certainly was the most instrumental and influential piece, for me, that led me down the road to a career as a storyteller. It’s what got me into film school and that 20 year career that followed it. It’s what got me to want to tell my own stories. Magicians Impossible is hugely influenced by Star Wars in its initial incarnation, that “we join our heroes midstream” pulp vibe. Not part of a series, no prequels, no sequels, just this rich mythology world. There’s a backstory, there’s a hint of the story continuing, but really it’s just a story set in a much larger universe.

To clarify; I don’t hate the other material – I just don’t need them to enjoy Star Wars. I don’t need sequels, I don’t need prequels. I don’t need the spinoffs, the TV, the CANON. I don’t even need The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the better film) or Return of the Jedi (arguably the weakest). I don’t need Darth Vader to be Luke’s father. I don’t need to know what the Clone Wars were; they’re a throwaway line in Star Wars and that’s all you did need. I think it’s a testament to that film that we wanted to know more. It had worked its magic on us all.

Pictured: all the backstory you need.

With the sequels, things changed. When Star Wars ended, Luke and Han got their medals (Chewie didn’t, but to be fair Leia was quite short), the Rebels had won, the Empire had their white-armored butts kicked. The galaxy beyond was wide open. You got an all-too brief taste of what was to come in the ancillary materials – the Marvel comics, the serialized newspaper strips (my personal favorites), the execrable Holiday Special, and – most importantly – the action figures. The adventures they went on, in suburban sandboxes and basement rec rooms were sequel enough for me. Even when pretenders to the throne – the “Killer Bs” of Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole just gave the Star Wars figures more enemies and allies in their 3 ¾ inch adventures.

Heaven

Did we have questions? Sure we did. But answering them was our job, or it should have been. For a time it was ours. Luke could have found his mother. He could have tracked down the Emperor, or could have turned bad, brought back by his friends. Before we even heard of a sequel, we were going on new adventures with our favorite heroes and villains.

But what would have been really daring was to not have those questions answers. I often like to ponder a world where Star Wars was neither a flop nor a massive hit; it was something that made its money back so George Lucas could keep making movies, maybe focus on running ILM. A world where Star Wars was enough of a success for those toys and comics, but something that didn’t make enough money to justify a sequel

*Really, what would have been interesting is to have a Star Wars universe where they did make more movies but they were stand-alone ones cataloging further adventures. Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was famously initiated as an idea for a lower-budgeted sequel to Star Wars should it just do “okay”. You may have seen further adventures of Han and Chewie minus Luke and Leia and the Rebellion (maybe mishaps along the way to paying off Jabba the Hutt – who we did not see in Star Wars). Darth Vader would have remained the Bad Guy with no familial connection to Luke other than being the guy who offed his Jedi Knight father, exactly as Obi-Wan said. Vader could have been Ming the Merciless from Flash or Baltar from Battlestar, or Princess Ardala from Buck ; a foil, and a threat, and a constant reminder that these adventures were always meant to unfold in situ. That, while there was a history, it remained a history. Something as backdrop.

Episode II. Seriously.

I think it all gets to the heart of what I don’t need in my stories these days, which is a deep and detailed exploration of backstories. The dramatization of backstories has, to me, become the worst thing about popular genre entertainments today. We’ve become accustomed to expecting to have all those questions answered in some official capacity. We can’t just imagine what was and what might be. It has to be part of a canon. You rarely can sell a fantasy or sci-fi book without having some plan in place for a second, a third, a series of books to follow should the first hit. And I have to confess that my fandom brain is the same as my writer’s brain; I only need one very good bordering-on-great story. I don’t need the same wine in a different bottle. I need that pure experience, that, when the book is closed and the house-lights come back on, I feel like I was on a journey.

If a film hits me so hard that I can walk out of the theater on a total high, I don’t need to see more of the same. I didn’t need more adventures of Robocop or Neo or John McLane on-screen, because I already have those in my mind. It’s what was in my mind after seeing Star Wars. I had my toys, I had adventures with them. They’re a part of who I am.

I recognize that creative work is a hustle. It’s about the paycheck, about spinning gold when you have the materials and the interest. It’s about paying those bills and socking some away for your golden years. But writing to me has always been an intensely personal experience, driven by a lot more than just dollars and cents.  

Every Star Wars fan has their “era”, the era where they discover it (and when and how they do). If you discovered them on video, where you could pop your VHS or DVD into the machine and watch one after the other, it’s different than if you had to wait three years between chapters. When the Prequel trilogy came out, by and large the older fans weren’t too crazy about them (and I say that very, very diplomatically).

Exhibit A

But if you were five or six when Star Wars came out, you were pushing 30 when The Phantom Menace arrived. The Prequel movies weren’t going to be your favorite ones. You’d grown up and come of age in a decade of Dragonslayers and Terminators, Robocops and Predators, Goonies and Gremlins, Alien and Aliens.

But now, the kids who were five or six when The Phantom Menace arrived, are now in their mid-late 20s, and have the same nonplussed reaction to the Disney films we older fans had to the Prequels, because they LOVE the prequels.

And now, everything’s different. It’s bigger, and smaller at the same time. With Star Wars you have this huge volume of movie and TV and video games and comic books and toys and novels. It’s everywhere. There are Original Trilogy fans, there are Prequel Trilogy ones, and there are Sequel Trilogy ones. That fandom has become a lot more fractured as a result. There’s fans that up and hate everything Disney has done with the property. There are fans that worship the Prequels. There are fans that ceased being fans after Return of the Jedi left theaters. For me, Star Wars: The Saga is essentially a big carnival midway. There’s rides, there’s games of chance, there’s food. You can’t take in it all, so really you should just find what booth appeals to you and focus on that. For my part, I’m a fan of a lot of the ephemera from the Original Trilogy; the Making of books, the Art of books, the Illustrated Screenplays. I love the collected editions of the Newspaper strips and the Marvel comics. I’m less enamored with the Prequels and while I’ve enjoyed the Sequels, I feel exhausted by the overkill. By the end of 2019 we’d had five Star Wars movies in as many years. Star Wars used to be more of an event. Now it’s just another film series.

You can only pick one.

And yet, while I’ve become largely indifferent to “Star Wars: The Saga”, I remain ride-or-die with Star Wars the movie; that singular experience. That type of movie experience that comes along with less frequency now than before. And at the risk of sounding like one of those old guys, I have to say that unless you were there in 1977, seeing it on the big screen with no knowledge of what was to come, and no idea what it would all lead to 42 years later, you didn’t really see Star Wars at all. At least not the way I saw it.

And that’s okay.

Pictures of Plastic Men (Part II)

If you missed Part I you’ll find it at:

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s 1993. I’m 20 years old. I’m sitting on a bench atop a hill, watching the kids at my old school play at recess down below. I’m remembering a time not long before; only ten years but those might as well be a lifetime. I remember that old life, and the things in that life that meant the world to me, if only for a short time. I think back to a day in 1985, shortly after my 11th birthday when my dad came home to tell us we were moving again, this time to North Carolina. This was to be a temporary move, a 2-year “loan assignment” that meant at the end of the assignment, in 1987, we were moving back to the same house on the same street, and I’d start high school with the same kids I’m in Grade Six with now. The promise of return is a salve, because I really like it here and our house and our pool and all of it and don’t really want to leave. But we have to, and come July, that’s what we do.

The first thing I notice about our new city – Greensboro – is the abundance of shopping malls and department stores, each with a toy section out of my wildest dreams. And my parents, knowing this is a rough move on my sister and I, are very generous with the toy purchases. My dad even finds me a local comic book store and says we can go there once a month to buy the latest GI Joe comic book. While I missed  my friends, it looked like our time in North Carolina would be enjoyable.

Then school started. I hated it.

Bane of my existence, 1985-1986

This wasn’t like the other moves. Those were always met with some excitement. But this felt different because I was different. I was settling in. I had friends. I had a life I was happy with. And it was all being torn away from me.

Now, being into toys, and being into GI Joe at the ripe old age of 12? That was a sure ticket to Loserville, Population: you. I found this out one afternoon during school, in the first or early second month. The way the campus was set up was the main building as this big rectangular cinder block running north-south along the street, with an annex to the south, and a gymnasium building with classrooms adjacent to the north. My homeroom was in the south annex – my first class of the day was in the north building. I’d have to transverse that distance within the three minutes we had between classes before the bell rang. I was walking along the path leading to the building when I passed a group of grade eight and nine boys surrounding a Grade 7. I slowed enough to hear them calling him “baby” and “little boy” and some other words I won’t get into. Lying at the boy’s feet was a small plastic toy I recognizes immediately as Snake-Eyes Version 2 – the Ninja version. I know this because I had it too.

And still do …

I slowed almost to a stop, enough so that the kid looked at me with these eyes I’ll never forget. Like a trapped, frightened animal. I don’t know the circumstances for the toy. Maybe he brought it to school because he liked having it close. Maybe he was hoping someone else would notice it, and recognize it, and maybe talk about their toys.

Maybe, he was looking for a friend.

I wish I could say I interceded and told these much bigger kids to leave him alone. I wish I could say I called a teacher over because bullies are bullies until they’re dealt with. I wish I could say I charged in fists swinging to protect this kid. But what happened was one of the older kids looked at me, and not wanting to get involved, I resumed walking, faster now, and leaving the group behind.

3:15 couldn’t come quick enough. I took the bus home; I went up into my room and closed the door. There were some toys left out from the previous day’s adventures but somehow they felt different. I couldn’t look at them, let alone pick one up without thinking of that kid at school.

Were this a movie or TV show, I would have shown up at school the next day with a GI Joe figure and tracked that kid down and ask what he thought. I wouldn’t have cared what some Grade 8 or 9 boys who would never be my friends anyway thought. Maybe that kid and I would have become friends. But i I didn’t do that. I saw that kid occasionally around school but I never approached him to say hi or that I thought those other kids were jerks and that Snake-Eyes was cool. I wish I’d done that, but I didn’t.

1985 became 1986, but GI Joe didn’t continue with me. It didn’t seem as cool as it once was. I felt like I had failed, that I wasn’t living up to the ideals I thought the toy was supposed to instill – bravery, honor, and loyalty to your comrades. I got self-righteous; this was Grade 7. 12 going on 13. Toys? They were for little kids. How on earth could I show up with GI Joe toys at school and expect to make friends?

It was a long, lonely time for me. I still had the comics and still kept up my collecting with that once monthly visit to the local comic store (subsequently branching out into more mature titles like Watchmen and The Shadow). I received my last batch of GI Joe toys that Christmas. I may have played with them a bit that holiday week, but they went into the closet come January and that’s where they stayed even. The toys were packed up and moved up north but they stayed packed away in those boxes for the next 30 years. By the time I started Grade 8 in yet another new town, I was heavily into music and that became the way I made friends; with mixtapes and playlists and record collections. Without friends to play with, my toys were all kind of … childish.

#

Back to 1993, back to that bench overlooking that park, and that playground. I sat there the full fifteen minutes watching kids ten years my junior playing. Kids probably born the year I discovered GI Joe and started to fit in with my new surroundings. I wondered what toys they were into now. I wondered if they helped kids make friends with other kids. I wondered how many of them would give up their toys in similar situations as I did. I remember feeling saddened by the whole thing. Childhood is one of those things you endure. Kids can become friends in an instant, and you can break that friendship apart just as quickly when you find other kids – hipper, cooler ones – that you’d rather be seen with.

The recess bell rings. They kids race back inside. The doors close, and I’m alone again. I pick myself up, trudge back down t to my waiting car, climb in, and drive home.

#

It’s 2018. I’m far from from that park and playground, far from that life. I’m a father now, and am re-experiencing childhood again through my son’s eyes.  The GI Joe toys are all gone – sold off to collectors a few years ago. I kept a few favorites though, because you can’t completely part with the things from your childhood. I didn’t need the money, or even the space. I just needed to say goodbye to them and let someone else take joy from their presence. And as I saw them all exit my life, one parcel at a time, I realized they were just … THINGS. Pieces of plastic and die-cast metal. That’s it. And I think the decision to sell them made all the difference in my life.

You can appreciate your childhood, and should do so, but not at the expense of the here and now. For a time those pieces of molded plastic assembled in Taiwan and shipped overseas to fill toy-stores everywhere was our entire world. They were important to me. They meant something, at a time when I was still figuring out what life was all about. For a boy who moved around a lot as a child, those toys became my friends at a time when I didn’t have any. My childhood memories divide up into neat, tidy compartments; the toys I played with, the comics and books I read, are all linked to a place and a time.

I don’t know how long we’ll stay here in this new city. But I do know and hope that my son will find the same joy, the same warmth, the same friendship with those toys he comes to love. Because sometimes childhood is as much about the things you cherish for an all-too brief moment in time.

 

 

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to school seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to this new city. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved  it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

In 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out west who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]