Friday, December 14, 2018

Walter Lanz’s Woody Woodpecker #182

Christmas 2018
Kid’s Stuff – Saturday Morning Cartoon Edition
Walter Lanz’s Woody Woodpecker #182

Don’t laugh, it contains three great all-ages stories

"Recipe for Trouble / The Water Wizard / An Alarming Situation”
Writer – Uncredited
Penciller – Uncredited
Inker – Uncredited
Letterer – Uncredited
Colorist – Uncredited
Editor – Uncredited
September 1978

Woody Woodpecker, the screwball bird with the beak like a pickaxe and the laugh of an insane asylum escapee, appeared in his first cartoon Knock Knock on November 25, 1940. The character’s creation is a bit of a tale in itself, as Woody owed his existence to a bunch of diverse hands.

For one, Woody only came in as the lunatic foil for the actual stars of the show he was on. Andy Panda is the billed star of the short. He and his father Papa Panda are spending time at home, when Woody comes knocking…or rather pecking. He annoys them to no end with his antics before being carted off to the looney bin in the end. As he is carted off, his captors prove to be crazier than he is.

(I'm including a link to the Knock Knock short, but be warned, the content is on youtube and riddled with ad breaks. Watch at your own risk. It is still amazing, but having your viewing experience interrupted every 30 seconds is enough to make you boycott all the advertisers.)

Who wouldn’t be? The pecking and peculiar call of the pileated woodpecker that the animated character is based off of would drive anyone to distraction. Exactly as one did to creator Walter Lanz and his new bride Gracie on their honeymoon in Lake Sherwood, California. Walter wanted to shoot the noisy bird, but his wife Gracie suggested that her husband make a cartoon of him instead.

Initially animated by Alex Lovy, Woody was developed by Lantz and the famous storyboard artist Ben “Bugs” Hardaway. His look became more refined over the years, looking less like a lunatic with crossed eyes and more like a mischievous but slick human shaped bird in the vein of the Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny. There were many hands that assisted in this transition over the years.

And his voice was no simple matter either. Initially voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc, Woody bore someone else’s voice after two shorts. Woody was a product of Universal Studios and Mel Blanc signed an exclusive contact with Warner Bros soon after the woodpecker’s creation. That meant Blanc moved on to do voices for Bugs, Porky, and Daffy, leaving Woody without the power of speech. While other voice actors were brought in to read Woody’s lines, Blanc’s signature “Guess who?” and Woody’s trademark laugh were used through-out the character’s first decade. A huge list handled Woody’s speaking parts thereafter including Danny Webb, Kent Rogers, storyboard artist Ben Hardaway, Walter Lantz’s wife Grace Stafford, Cherry Davis, Futurama alumni Billy West, and Eric Bauza.

The signature outrageousness and lunatic behavior went on for six years before Disney veteran Dick Lundy showed up to direct Woody’s cartoons. He rejected the earlier take on the character and grounded his antics unless he had a legitimate reason to fly off the handle. Thus Woody became much like Bugs in this regard: he began as a crazy, insane foil for an innocent and wound up as the innocent himself, albeit one that could act the lunatic given sufficient reason. And the short would always provide that excuse for his hijinks.

Just one year later, in 1947, Woody got his own theme music. The Woody Woodpecker Song made ample use of the character’s signature laugh and garnered quite a following. It became one of the biggest hit singles in 1948 and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, a first for an animated short. Lantz adopted it for Woody’s cartoon theme music from then on. 

Woody was gaining popularity. Clubs for Woody sprouted up. During WWII, his image had been painted on the sides of American planes and bombers that flew in battle, and now he only became more well liked. Theater matinees spring up showing his shorts and boys were getting haircuts that mimicked his feathery locks.

The use of the laugh in the song and the shorts upset Blanc. A lawsuit ensued but an out-of-court settlement was reached with Blanc at Lantz’s request. However, the court case came as a blow to Lantz. He shutdown his studio for two years, opening it again in 1950 with a much reduced staff. He ended up replacing Blanc’s laugh with one provided by his wife, Grace Stafford. She had slipped an audition tape into the stacks and Lantz had picked her without knowing. She would go on to voice Woody, uncredited for the next eight years. 

By the end of those eight years Lantz was struggling financially. True, Woody had become a worldwide sensation owing to many of the 1950’s shorts not having much dialogue. But due to budget constraints Lantz had been forced to reduce the quality of the animation, owing to a much simpler, redesigned Woody. During this period Woody was given a love interest in Winnie Woodpecker and a niece and nephew.

A white knight appeared when ABC ordered The Woody Woodpecker show and the popular bird made the leap to television in 1958. It was a half hour program showcasing three shorts and a brief interlude by Lantz talking about cartoon creation.

The show ran for a year and then survived on syndication until 1966.

NBC revived it in 1970 and again in 1976. Woody transitioned to straight-man, having to cut down his manic craziness to meet the stringent rules against violence in children’s television. These toons were further hampered by even more simplified animation techniques, coming in below the ones made in the 40’s and 50’s.

His revivals would continue. You can’t keep a good character down, so it seems. Lantz sold his library to MCA Universal in 1985. They repackaged them in 1987. Woody even got a walk on near the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Definitely that was the high water mark, even though he would receive a new show 1999 on Fox with Billy West doing the voice. Currently there is a new 2D animated series on YouTube.

And as a humiliating footnote, Woody received his own live action/CGI movie in 2018. The Canadian film had a direct to video release in the US. The less said about it the better.

Dell was the original title holder to the Woody Woodpecker license for producing comics. When Western Publishing split from Dell to create its Gold Key line, it appears Woody was one of the properties it took with it. All the stories in this issue are uncredited. Writer Mark Evanier once said that mid-1960’s TV comedy writer Jerry Belson (who wrote for such TV sitcoms as The Dick Van Dyke Show) could be credited for writing some of the Woody Woodpecker comics, but even I don’t think he was still at it in 1978.

However, whomever wrote this knew what they were doing. This isn’t really true to the wacky nature, early 40’s-50’s Woody personality, but it holds up to his later straignt-man incarnations pretty well. There is nary an odd laugh in sight, so I do feel we are missing some of the authenticity of the character. I’d fault the book for that, except that in its place is some solid storytelling the likes of which I haven’t seen outside of the Disney books ten-pager comedic pieces. They may not be quite as good as say a Carl Banks story, but they aren’t far off from it.

I should just crack the cover and show you what I mean. We’ll begin with Recipe For Trouble

I enjoyed this one for what the story didn’t do. Let me set things up for you. We begin with Woody, his niece, and nephew barging in on Winnie because they see smoke billowing out her window. Appears she needs a whole new kitchen set in the worst way.

Sadly, she doesn’t have money for all that. Who does? Well, not Woody and the kids, who hastily make for the exit. And then Woody sees something on TV later…

And there is what we believe will be our payoff at the end of the story, wrapped up like a bow. Woody and the kids are going to win that contest. Except they need something to cook. Something like Winnie’s prize-caliber Yum-Yum Cake.

Trouble is only Winnie has the recipe. So this will be several pages of them attempting to sneak the box of recipe cards out…

…no? That easy, huh? Okay…

…then the cake will need some exotic element or crazy condition or they won’t have time to make it or Woody’s a horrible cook or…

…no? None of that? And they even take the time and effort to practice making the cake so they can be certain they do a good job at it like reasonable people? Okay, comic. You got me. Where is this story going?

Why to the bake-off, obviously! The unexpected part comes from Winnie tuning in to watch…

…and becoming miffed when she notices that Woody is baking her cake recipe. After finding the card missing she rushes down to the station.

This is all going to end up fine, I’m certain folks. One bite of that Yum-Yum Cake is all it will take for Woody to win and then Winnie will forgive him AND have a new set of kitchen appliances. Right?

Except it totally DOESN’T! Winnie destroys the cake by mashing it into Woody’s bill, the audience gets a good laugh, and there is nothing left for the judges to try. Wait! Wait! I had this ending figured out. Where the heck are we going now?

Why, back to Woody and the kids beating the street selling Winnie’s cakes in an effort to capitalize off the publicity from the Baking Show Contest. And for all their efforts, it looks like Winnie will be back in her own newly decked out kitchen in no time.

Surprising. The story showed me an expected result and then went somewhere else instead. It created a satisfying, surprising twist that made me reevaluate just how good these short little stories might me.

On to number two…

Our second tale, dubbed The Water Wizard, begins with Woody and the kids coming upon a giant, exceptionally unintelligent dog while out camping in the woods. The beast is so stupid that it traps itself chasing after them.

After tying a rope around his neck and rescuing the big lug, the trio come across a similarly huge canary…

…that is also as dumb as a bag of rocks.

Lucky for them, they are happened upon by Professor A. Meetbole, the cause of these mentally stunted giants. Appears both of these big creatures used to be of above-average intelligence, then Meetbole gave them a dose of his giant water to make them healthier. What he ended up with are giantly healthy mental midgets.

Meetbole doesn’t see the downside to any of this though and makes off to add his giant water to the local drinking water. Woody and the kids run away to notify the authorities, but Meetbole sends his huge mutt and bird after them. Woody realizes they will have to outsmart the dumb pair if they are going to prevent Meetbole from raising the town’s stature while simultaneously shrinking its collective IQ.

This ploy works and Woody escapes with the kids. Unfortunately, the town sheriff doesn’t believe Woody’s wild tale. And the lawman puts a tale on them to stop them from creating a panic. Bumper is as dumb as he is big, worrying Woody that Meetbole has already gotten his giant water into people’s homes.

Turns out Bumper’s just the common, ordinary variety of nincompoop. It takes very little convincing to get him on the bird’s side. 

Unfortunately, Meetbole is able to turn the tables on them and convince Bumper that the giant water would make him smarter. And he nabs Woody as a new test subject. Meanwhile the kids find out that the reservoir is already tainted and the first victim is a bear who is now huge (and dumb.)

While the kids get the bear to follow them, Woody’s situation is looking worse and worse…

…which convinces Bumper to tell the town to lay off the water, after which Woody and the gang discover its effects are temporary.

Another surprisingly well made story. It takes none of the curves you expect and is an enjoyable read-through. So far the magazine is two for two. Let’s head into the final tale and see how we finish up?

Our last bit of birdwatching is called An Alarming Situation and it features an appearance by Wally Walrus as Woody’s neighbor. Wally is a bit nervous when he catches Woody installing a burglar alarm attached to a rather large siren on the top of Woody’s house. Wally’s worried about being disturbed by false alarms. Woody sets his mind at ease.

Woody’s thought of everything. At least it appears that way until a pesky pelican starts pecking at the wiring.

Of course, this is exactly the thing that Wally and Woody’s other neighbors were worried about, so Woody hops up on the house to fix it straightaway. He’s still feverishly working on bird proofing his alarm system when Winnie drops by. 

Unfortunately Winnie isn’t aware of the new alarm remote and tries to use it to turn on the television.

And all of this would still be fine, if it wasn’t for the presence of this burglar who happens by. Noting the elaborate setup, he assumes Woody’s got something extremely valuable he’s trying to protect. And so, he concocts a diversion so he can break in unannounced. He starts with that bothersome pelican…

While Woody and the kids try to disable the alarm, the thief sneaks in and starts making off with their valuables. However he is quickly caught in the act by Woody’s niece and nephew.

Which causes them to activate the alarm again, startling Woody right off the roof, onto the ladder, and landing him on the back of the escaping criminal. 

And that wraps the issue up nicely. I will be completely honest in stating that I didn’t think I would get my money’s worth out of this issue. I came away pleasantly surprised. Whomever did the writing and art clearly too pride in telling a good story.

And it was nice to sneak down Woody Woodpecker’s memory lane too. I honestly had no idea the character had been around since the 1940’s. It seems astounding to believe he’s only a couple of decades shy of being 100 years old. Hopefully there’s still a successful revival ahead for him. The character certainly deserves one.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Defenders of the Earth #1

Christmas 2018

Kid’s Stuff – Saturday Morning Cartoon Edition

Defenders of the Earth #1

A strange gathering of a cartoon league of gentlemen

"Defenders of the Earth”

Writer – Stan Lee with and assist by Bob Harras

Penciller – Alex Saviuk

Inker – Fred Fredericks

Letterer – Ken Lopez

Colorist – Nel Yomtov

Editor – Michael Higgins

Managed – Tom DeFalco

Overseen – Jim Shooter

I’ll admit to having missed the train on Defenders of the Earth the first time around. It came on after my awkward tween years had passed and I was far more interested in girls and sci-fi movies than I was cartoons. Flash Gordon had been a favorite of mine since the Filmation version of the character in 1979 updated him in animated form yet kept him true to his retro stylings. Likely I would have dovetailed right into Defenders of the Earth had the show occurred a bit sooner.

Produced by Marvel Productions in association with King Features Entertainment, the show capitalized on three licenses that King held: Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Mandrake’s bodyguard Lothar. The idea of the show was to blend these three universes so the characters could form their own “Justice League”-type group. Initially the troop would fight the forces of Flash’s nemesis, Ming the Merciless. As the show wore on, the Phantom’s evil brother Kurt Walker became a new antagonist, as did Graviton, a former foe of Mandrake the Magician.

The show feels like it is pulling in elements from several modern cartoon sources. We have a group of heroes each with different abilities like the G.I. Joe troops. They each have a teenage sidekick of some sort like Bumblebee does in the Transformers cartoons. Some of the bits feel recycled, but not in a bad way. If you would like a taste of the show, they can be seen on Hulu in three long form movies that combine several episodes. The first can be seen HERE if you have an account.

Defenders of the Earth lasted only a single season, but this was back when a season of an animated production got 65 episodes to kick itself off, so there still is a lot of content out there. The music of the intro each week was made by Rob Walsh and Tony Pastor with lyrical assistance from none other than Stan Lee. It certainly sounds like Stan’s. The thing is loaded with embellishments that are his trademark style.

Lee has his fingerprints all over this issue too, receiving writing credit. The book mirrors the show, but changes a couple of things that we will go into. As a comic book series, Defenders of the Earth only lasted a short time. Issue four has a next issue blurb, but that fifth issue never materialized. We do have the first book here, so let’s kick things off.

Just a word of caution to those of you who either remember the opening of the show or followed that link above and watched the first episode. This comic deviates a bit from that show. It brings in The Phantom right away instead of saving his addition for episode two. Otherwise, the entire book is a bit on that same rail plotwise.

Since Stan Lee has writing credit for the book, he is also given a Supervising Story Editor credit on the show. With Stan it is hard to tell how much input he did or did not give. This book connects some of the dots better than the show does and kicking it off with all four principal characters together, no matter how flimsy the premise of their meeting is, I would count as a good thing.

But we begin here with a BANG as a spaceship flashes past us as it streaks through the galaxy. It ends the journey in a spectacular crash landing on the front lawn of a sprawling estate.

The mansion’s owner is none other than Mandrake the Magician, a sort of better dressed version of Doctor Strange. He rushes out to investigate the commotion, but not as quickly as Lothar, his bodyguard and companion. Upon reaching the ship, we get our first taste of the magician’s powers as he concentrates…

…and rips the canopy of the ship off, revealing its pilot. Note that Lothar could have done the same, as he is billed as the strongest man alive, but Mandrake worried about his safety around the flames.

The pilot of the craft reveals himself to be none other than Flash Gordon, who is in need of a nice lie-down on someone’s couch to cure his ills.

It’s also around this point that we introduce two of the young sidekicks who will be tagging along with our super heroes. Meet Kshin, an orphan boy that Mandrake has adopted as his apprentice and L.J., who is the son of Lothar. Unlike the tv show, the book feels free to drop in Spider-Man’s name. In fact, the entire issue has more dialogue than the show. It fleshes out these individuals in a way episode one doesn’t, possibly stemming from Stan’s ability to write good characters and having more “time” to do so.

We get a Flash flashback, since the kids don’t know who he is, which serves to explain a bit of background on the setting The writers have created. It also serves to drop Ming the Merciless’s name as a setup for what is to come.

All this conversation causes Flash to regain consciousness, at least for a few moments anyway before Mandrake knocks him back out. And no sooner does Flash fade back to sleep than the mansion comes under attack!

What a strange way to start a morning is all I’ve got to say. Imagine having breakfast at Mandrake’s.

His next unexpected guests are Ming’s ice robots, who have a singular thought on their collective minds.

Lucky for the ‘drake-man, these bots are susceptible to his illusionary powers. Our top-hatted tactician quickly hides Flash from their sights and then projects an image of an imaginary takeoff of his busted up spaceship outside. In a blink of an eye, the ice robots vanish in pursuit of the phantasmal spacecraft.

With their departure, Mandrake removes his illusion that Flash is a couch cushion. The heroes and their young charges learn some distressing news.

Right about this point the cartoon and the issue start to diverge. 

But with the turn of the page, we move on to Ming, his son Kro-Tan, and Octon the living computer. They are mad because the ice robots failed in their task of capturing Flash, so instead Ming decides to torture the answers out of Dale and Flash’s son Rick.

Dale resourcefully works out a plan that allows Rick to escape when the guards open the cell…

…and in his flight, the young lad comes across the staple of the 80’s animated action-adventure: the goofy, cuddly sidekick. Flash Gordon got that mini-dragon thing, Batman had Batmite, and G.I. Joe had Gung-Ho. And Defenders of the Earth gets this Zuffy thing that Rick will name later.

As if Stan wanted to get as far away from the sillier parts of the show, notice how we immediately hop from the animated cartoon line over to the much more suspenseful introduction of the Phantom and his island. Gosh sakes, Stan even slips in his “the Ghost that Walks” title.

We get Mandrake telling the legend of the Phantom followed by our cast getting surrounded by an entire tribe of Bandar warriors. Mandrake tells the others to let him handle it, but before he can work any magics…

…the Phantom’s daughter Jedda and her panther companion Kisa make themselves known.

From there it’s a quick trek over to the Skull Cave for a little tet-a-tet with the Phantom about Flash and the Earth’s predicament. Seems like he’s going to be hard to convince one minute…

…and the next he’s all in. Jedda doesn’t like being called a child, though.

And while the three junior members of the squad get acquainted,…

…the yet to be discovered Rick Gordon and Zuffy come upon a nightmare in the making as Ming threatens Dale’s life if she doesn’t disclose the boy’s whereabouts.

And with a flip of a switch, Ming executes Dale. Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that either.

Rick and Zuffy make a running try at saving Dale at the last minute, but are forced to retreat in the face of Ming’s numerous ice robots and his pet purple snake thing.

Lucky for them, Flash and the Defenders of the Earth arrive to distract Ming from pursuing the boy and his pet annoyance. But the numbers don’t appear to be on the hero’s side, even with Flash’s superior flying. 

Mandrake is able to lend a hand by creating an illusionary fleet that soon has Ming’s own forces blasting happily way at his fortress. He decides to ditch Mongo for his Earth base, taking his son and allies with him.

While the bad guys evacuate, the Defenders land to search for Rick and Dale. The Phantom takes the lead, seeing Rick on a balcony about to be attacked. With his “power of ten tigers,” the Phantom is able to save the boy from two ice robots.

I like his rather cool reception to Rick. 

I also like this “ten tigers” thing. I know so little about the Phantom, having only seen the Billy Zane movie version. Is his power always measured in tigers? Is it always ten of them or does he have a scale of some sort? Like opening a jar of pickles might be the power of one tiger and broadjumping forty feet the power of ten tiger? Does the scale go beyond ten? Just how does this power work exact? I’m curious.

And now we get to the traumatic part…

…as Ming’s spaceship blasts off, Rick can’t bring himself to say what he saw happen to his mother. So instead, he leads the group to Ming’s lab. Man, this book punches you right in the guts. Take that kids! Rick’s mother is murdered and here’s her dead body.

And I have to say that I love everything about this panel. Love Stan’s dialogue, love the way things are rendered, and love that it doesn’t pull punches. This isn’t your average, feel-good all the time Star label kid’s title. I respect this book for not pulling this punch.

And to make matters so much worse, Ming shows up to gloat and threaten. This of course does nothing but make our heroes more determined. As they leave, that Zuffy character picks up a glowing crystal it finds on the ground. 

That will be important later, but we take up next with Ming landing in the Artic and carving out a place to be his secret ice robot fortress. A sign that we will have continuing adventures as our heroes attempt to outwit and outfight the evil Ming and his minions.

Then back we go to the Defenders as Zuffy shows off his find and we learn its very important properties.

Okay, so Dale isn’t exactly dead, but now Flash is married to a crystal, which isn’t near as satisfying I’d wager. And while that instills some hope in the group, we end with Mandrake bringing it down a notch. Appears the group still has a mighty big job to do…and a title to live up to…

…at least for the next three issues and the comic series gets cancelled.

If they were as good as this book, that early cancellation is a very sad event. Likely they weren’t. Stan’s dialogue in this was stellar, up to his old quality from the early Marvel days. However, issues two through four show writing credit by Michael Higgins. Not certain how he would handle this book or these characters, but no book should jump off the shelves at issue number 4 unless it is a complete dog. As for the show, it only got the one season that clocked in at a total of 65 half-hour episodes.

Thus ends the King Syndicate’s version of a league of gentlemen who were quite extraordinary. I suppose it just wasn’t meant to last.