Writing on the Pages – O Captain Underpants! My Captain! A Tribute

The last Captain Underpants book came out about six months ago.

Yes, that’s three Georges and three Harolds on the side. This series got really complicated. (Source)

First off, for those of you who haven’t been following the series in recent years, let me, a guy two weeks away from being legally able to drink, assure you that this is indeed the twelfth book in the series. Crazy, right? This series may be a staple from the childhood of my generation, the kids born after the Cold War’s end and Kurt Cobain but before 9/11 and mp3s, but it can be easy to forget that this is a staple of the childhood of the generation since. Dav Pilkey’s been writing (riding?) this franchise since freaking 1997. In the time between the defeat of Dr. Diaper and The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, kids have learned to walk, stumbled through puberty, and graduated.

And all that’s over now. After Pilkey said he’d always planned to write ten, after numerous jokes within the text that this one was the last when it actually wasn’t, it’s really the end. Pilkey confirms it on his website: in the page for The Tyrannical ReTaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000, he states that the one after (Sir Stinks-A-Lot) is “the LAST and FINAL Captain Underpants book (and I really mean it this time).”

(But underneath that he also writes on the subject, “You probably shouldn’t believe me. I wouldn’t.”)

I was introduced to the series in 2003 by a friend in my 3rd-grade classroom named Ben, and I was reluctant at first. The series was often featured in Scholastic book flyers – you know, those old leaflets you could use to learn about and buy kids’ books?

The best gift a book-devouring elementary-schooler can get, and it was a gift that kept on giving. Tell me they still do these! (Source)

Anyway, I’d seen these books in the Scholastic flyers … and thought they must be foolish. I distinctly remember telling my mom, “I mean, come on: a talking toilet?” No, I don’t know what was wrong with me.

But Ben suggested I give it a whirl, and he gave me a slightly battered copy of what was then the newest in the series: The Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman. I was hesitant to start out with the fifth epic novel, which is why I’ve always been grateful that every book opens with a handy-dandy comic summarizing the series up to that point. That’s how I knew that Mr. Krupp was a jerk to children, that’s how I knew he was hypnotized into being Captain Underpants, and that’s how I knew that the Waistband Warrior got superpowers from an alien juice. By the time it was over, I was a convert.

Some scattered memories I have of Captain Underpants:

  • This series inspired me to draw comics, which became a strong passion for several years after. It began with a superhero book of my own, detailing the adventure (alas, only one and not a series) of Dino Boy, and in tribute to George Beard’s fourth grade reading level I made the widely-questioned stylistic choice of including misspellings. It’s really not an excuse, I knew perfectly well how to spell the words I used in the story, but that’s how I chose to do it. In this and other comics I also employed the “Flip-O-Rama” animation technique, which I thought was really bold and original.
  • The series went on hiatus twice in a row: it took three years for Pilkey to follow up The Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers with The Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People, and then it was six whole years before we got the long-awaited Terrifying Re-Turn of Tippy Tinkletrousers (it’s only annoying to write out these long titles if you’re not a fan!). I held up well and gradually pushed the series to the side as I went through middle and high school. Then I learned that the author took so long because he was caring for his terminally ill father up until his death. Dang.
  • Getting old enough to realize that there was a lot of satire and commentary in these books – or maybe that really was mostly in the later books. Sir Stinks-A-Lot’s dastardly plot is an outright parable for how quick people are to diagnose kids with ADHD and overmedicate them for what could just as likely be normal child behavior (Pilkey himself has been diagnosed with it and gets really personal about the issue). An earlier book shows an empty school library, a reference to the banning of certain books in schools – to which Captain Underpants, about a grown man fighting toilets and booger monsters while running around in tighty-whiteys, is no stranger. Perhaps the most interesting is the newest one’s casual reveal that Harold Hutchins has a husband in the future. It’s just one scene-setting sentence and a few drawings of them standing/sitting with each other, but some Amazon reviewers still complain that they wish they had a warning.

They’re the happy family on the left. (Source)

Mostly, what I remember and admire most about Captain Underpants is that it was just so darn creative, and perhaps boldly so. It dared to push the boundaries of just what kids should/could be exposed to in children’s literature, and it turned out that elementary-schoolers are more willing to read books if some of them have pictures on every page, feature comics and flip animations, and base their stories on potty humor.

Better still, it turned out that these books could contain all these gimmicks while further installments developed increasingly and impressively complex storylines, including time travel paradoxes and carefully reusing plot details/devices from way earlier in the series. And even better still, all this can inspire children to not just read books, but to write some of their own. Just look at my example, with Dino Boy! Sadly, it seems this comic is lost, so you can’t actually look at it, but still!

In fact, when did I start reading these books? Third grade? Goodness, I just realized: this series may have been a bigger influence on me than I thought. Dav Pilkey got into children’s books because he would draw comics and share silly stories with his elementary classes all the time (to the chagrin of his uptight teachers). He created Captain Underpants in second grade. Maybe I thought if a kid can entertain other kids with great stories, then I could too. Maybe this was how I realized that I didn’t just have to read other people’s stories and could actually make up and share my own.

My desire to be a fiction author, my whole life path, may have been influenced (at least in small part) by a cartoon man in briefs.

Also featured here: characters named Super Diaper Baby and Ook and Gluk, the Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future. (Source)

 newest Captain Underpants is a great closer to the series, and I recommend reading it and any others you may have missed. It has all the goofy humor and surprisingly intricate plotting that the series is known and loved for, and it even has some touching moments. The end is understated and a bit melancholy, and it’s a bit sad to know that George and Harold won’t shout in panic, “Oh no! Here we go again!” but it really is quite nice.

And even if it really is the end of the series, every book is still around for us, and kids in the future, to reread and giggle at and enjoy. (Plus, the pair will return as a framing device for Pilkey’s next graphic novel, Dog Man)

So hang your underpants at half-mast today and don’t forget how much fun reading can be.

I meant from a flagpole!

I meant from a flagpole! (source)

Talking Over the Music – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: 20th Anniversary Tribute, Pt. 2

(Hey, everybody! We needed some extra time to make sure the second half of our tribute to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins was perfect. But we needed time to make sure it was perfect. You can check out Part 1 here! So without further ado, heeeeere’s Danny!)

Before I get started with disc two, I’ll just bring up an interesting note about the album’s history: In the time leading up to the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Billy Corgan famously compared it to Pink Floyd’s double-length masterpiece The Wall, released in 1979. That album itself became an essential listen for teenagers of its era, with its insanely ambitious production and story-driven lyrics about a troubled, mentally scarred rock star. Mellon Collie, while not exactly aiming to tell an obvious story, definitely carries on its predecessor’s fondness for sheer scale and overblown theatrics, which I guess goes to show that the young generations’ tastes in pop culture don’t really change. If that wasn’t enough proof for me to say that, 2011 saw the release of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83, yet another two-disc epic that saw the French electronic group reaching new levels of success and devotion in very much the same way those two previous works did for their respective bands. Sure enough, frontman Anthony Gonzalez cited Mellon Collie as his main inspiration.

So there is a clear line to be traced across these remarkable albums, all aiming higher than everyone else in their time, spanning two discs and being released almost exactly 16 years apart. This was actually brought to my attention by the questionable minds at Pitchfork Media, of all places, whose review of the reissue of Mellon Collie is actually really well done. Maybe in 2027, another act will take the torch and make the same big leap the youth will desperately need.

Anyways, disc two, intentionally or not, has a very different feel from disc one. The lyrics are generally less direct, the energetic anthems are all but dropped and the tightness of the band performances is downplayed with both rougher, sludgier recording and electronically influenced arrangements. The distinct digital production, another important factor that sets the album apart from Siamese Dream, is further emphasized by these different sounds. The opening one-two punch of “Where the Boys Fear to Tread” (probably the weakest song on the album) and “Bodies” sets the tone for a generally darker, moonlit second hour, with hyperactive madness in place of blind optimism.

But sure enough, we’re faced with another complete tonal shift as “Thirty-Three” politely comes in. The arrangement is a lovely, genuinely quirky combination of graceful piano, country-esque guitars and an understated drum machine; it seems to have foreshadowed today’s dinky indie-pop sound. Far more gentle than most of the previous tracks, “Thirty-Three” is the first in a perfect trio that features some of the only truly adult themes on the album. The lyrics are poetic reflections on Billy’s troubled marriage at the time, as are those of the follow-up “In the Arms of Sleep”, a dreamy, quietly longing ramble of a tune rich with enchanting twangy guitar work.

And then, of course, there’s “1979”. A sentimental, vague recollection of Billy’s youth, this song is something of an inversion of Mellon Collie’s style, from recapturing those years of his life to looking back fondly on them. The magic is in the arrangement once again; it’s as though the entire backing track is a great big rush of childlike wonder coming back to you. In every detail this is probably the best example of a nostalgic anthem ever recorded. It’s only fitting that it ended up being the album’s biggest, most fondly remembered hit.

“Tales of a Scorched Earth”, the very next track, sounds like anything but a hit. It’s insanely manic and totally over-the top, taking the metallic sludginess of “Bodies” and “An Ode to No One” to its greatest extreme. The music and vocals are barely even discernible! That little bout of insanity is followed by “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”, a dark epic that somehow matches the sheer scope of “Porcelina” and mirrors it in tone. Billy returns to full angst mode here, but his lyrics and vocals manage the amazing achievement of making the youthful venom sound as seductive as it did in high school. As for the collective band performance, I believe it’s as good as anything the Pumpkins have ever done. The ambitious dynamics are pulled off to perfection, resulting in a dramatic whirlpool of guitars and charging drums. Jimmy Chamberlain’s jazzy, pounding drum work is particularly highlighted. For a gripping seven minutes, the album descends into its own world of irresistible darkness to reach an electrifying climax.

As if “Ruby” wasn’t dynamic enough already, it seems to start fading out in the last minute until it fades into… an unexpectedly quiet, calm ending that sounds lifted from a completely different song. At first listen one would question the purpose of this moment, but somehow, despite the contrast to what came before, it feels completely right. It brings to mind one of the most personal memories I have of listening to this album, which I experienced while this moment was playing. I’d rather not mention it…

Anyways, the song is a masterpiece. And that odd coda happens to lead quite nicely into “Stumbleine”, the album’s gentlest and most intimate track, played only on an acoustic guitar. Billy’s hushed vocals and delicate picking convey a romantic nighttime atmosphere that ends up dominating the rest of the disc, hence the name Twilight to Starlight.

But not before the big mother of a song “X.Y.U.” charges in and threatens to throw the whole thing off the rails. Another lengthy epic, this time 7 minutes long, it’s not unlike the out-of-control jam “Silverfuck” from Siamese Dream, except with brutally straightforward fury in place of that track’s wildly irregular dynamics. The vocals and lyrics are completely bizarre; Billy hisses, grunts and screams incoherently for nearly the whole time, like the singing equivalent of a Nicolas Cage performance. Why does he launch into a demented riff on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” during the first breakdown? When will this lunacy end? What is even happening??

“AND IN THE EYES OF A JACKAL I SAY GOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Well. Thank goodness the rest of the album chills out, and I mean really chills out. Clearly, there’s no better way to follow that musical firestorm than with “We Only Come Out at Night”, a tongue-in-cheek campfire song for the outsider in us all, played on a zither of all things (look it up, it’s a real instrument). “Beautiful” is more unusual still, featuring looping electronic sounds and duet vocals from bass guitarist D’arcy Wretzky. Her sweet performance and the sensual arrangement do a better job of capturing teenage romantic longing than the actual songwriting does, and the track feels shallow as a result. Still, even though Billy himself mentioned this reservation in the liner notes for Mellon Collie’s reissue (which are great, by the way), I think there’s something revealing and oddly touching about the superficial expression behind “Beautiful”. Awkward, faded beauty is still beauty after all.

“Lily (My One and Only)” is a lighthearted detour, clearly informed by The Beatles’ self-titled album. It’s pretty slight, but it adds still greater variety to the album as a whole. The lyrics, funnily enough, are about a young Billy spying on a former crush through a window! “By Starlight” features a jaw-dropping fade-in, surely the album’s most gorgeous moment in terms of pure production. The rest of it, jazzy and downcast, is nearly as stunning in its heavenly atmosphere. It’s the last moment of dark romanticism in a double album full of just that, not to mention one of the best. Finally, James Iha delivers the closing sentiment with another Beatles tribute, “Farewell and Goodnight”. The odd but sweet lyrics are sung in turns by all four band members (even Jimmy!) before they sing the final refrains together in a stirring display of unity. There was simply no better way to close this epic journey than with this very literal lullaby, a moment so comforting and kind as to make you feel you’ll never need to hear anything else in your life.

Oh, and it ends with a reprise of the title track, bringing everything full circle. Pretty cool, right?

So… Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I think I’ve said enough. And yet I feel like I could keep going forever, such is its greatness and sentimental value. If I had been 16 going on 17 in 1995, a year when double albums, ambition and Beatles tributes were practically uncool, I’m sure I would’ve embraced it just as much as I did in 2012. Its appeal is timeless and utterly sincere, presenting a little universe of brilliant tunes and sonic wonders for anyone willing or desperate to get lost in it.

And boy, does writing about it bring back a lot of feelings and memories. Even though I didn’t dwell so much on those things, I avoided that knowing the album and its songs could represent different, equally special experiences for other people blessed with them. For me, it was the Christmas guitar concert of 2013… the cheerleader I could never approach… grad night… the drama of my senior year. Through it all, the Smashing Pumpkins were there when no other band was, just as they always will be for me and everyone else who wants their own small, personal moments like those to feel truly special.

Sure, plenty of other artists have this goal in mind. Then again, if the Pumpkins weren’t the cultural outsiders they always have been, there would probably be more double-length masterworks that dare to be ambitious, inspiring, ridiculous, embarrassing and awesome all at once. It’s safe to say that the band may never be in higher form or aspire to such a great purpose again, but I’m glad they reached their peak for just long enough to make their lasting statement, because it will always hold a special place in my life. And so…

To Billy Corgan, James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlain, along with the future members who have kept the Smashing Pumpkins as they are…

Thanks, I guess.

“Believe in me as I believe in you… Tonight.”

(Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a really special album, for Danny, myself, and many others, and so we associate many memories with it. Danny said his, but I, RADDman, will share a few of my own real quick.

I watched our other brother and his band stun a crowd with a performance of “1979” in a dimly-lit high school cafeteria.

“Tonight, Tonight” reminds me of standing on the cliffs of Tintagel in Cornwall, feeling the wind and ancient energy of the place and believing I could do anything.

And sometimes, I get in foul moods where overdramatic lines like “I know the silence of the world” resonate fully.

Now that Danny has given us all this lengthy and lovely welcome back present, regular posts for Space Cadet Glow will commence once more starting Friday, November 13. In the meantime, even though this one’s from Side 1 again, have some “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”)

Shouting at the Screen – Tribute to Jurassic Park

Man, isn’t Jurassic Park awesome?

jp lake

jp trex

ian malcolm

Obviously.

Right now it’s really hard to find the right thing to even talk about first. There’s so much to this film, a cultural giant that has loomed over our world like that first beautiful CG Brachiosaurus since it exploded on the big screen exactly 22 years ago today. I was born the year after, so I’ve never known a world without this movie, and I suspect the same goes for many of you. What should I say first, on this 22nd anniversary, to honor a movie that not only excited the world, but strongly affected my own life with all the times I saw it as a kid?

Well, I suppose you should first know that for a long time I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I was that one kid in your elementary classes who knew everything about them: the different types, where and how they lived, and even how to properly pronounce/spell names like Micropachycephalosaurus. I read every book and, later, every website I could find that’d teach me even a tiny tidbit of trivia. More importantly for this post, I watched every movie I could get my puny hands on, from BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs to Disney’s Dinosaur to all those Land Before Time sequels (Jesus Christ, they’re making number fourteen right now?!).

So naturally, when my parents decided to ignore the PG-13 rule and showed me the film at a ridiculously young age (first grade? Kindergarten? Earlier?!), I gushed over it. Sure, it was scary, but more than anything I was just so thrilled to see these people interacting with what really felt like real dinosaurs! That may go completely against the point of the film, but that didn’t matter. I adored it.

Recently, I rewatched it with my brothers and some friends, and it’s impressive how well it holds up. The scene with the Brachiosaurus is as captivating as ever, the build-up and reveal of the Tyrannosaurus rex remains one of the most thrilling in the history of monster movies, and those goddamn raptors still provide actually effective jump scares. Even in the visuals department, the 1993 CG doesn’t look prehistoric. Heck, it’s aged far better than most of the computer effects-heavy genre flicks that came in its wake. And man, just listen to that luscious, triumphant John Williams soundtrack!

All these years and viewings later, we can still enjoy every moment, from the beginning when a black guy dies first to the end when they fly the wrong way off the island.

“Mr. Spielberg, the sun sets in the west. If this island is west of the mainla-” “Shut up, it’s beautiful.”

Of course, the film is not perfect. People like to hate on Tim and Lex, and it’s not that hard to see why. They can be a load at times, especially when they almost get themselves killed through extraordinary stupidity when the T. rex first shows up and Ian Malcolm breaks a leg trying to save them. It doesn’t help that Lex is one of those ’90s teen edgelords (ooh, she’s a “hacker” and a vegetarian!) and Tim is an overbearing know-it-all. But I can’t help liking them, and not just because I’m charmed by the subplot where Dr. Alan Grant learns to deal with kids.

Think of which audience their inclusion was intended for: probably kids! And when I first saw this movie, I was a kid, like them! Heck, I was Tim! I was the dinosaur geek who would be in awe at the presence of a famous paleontologist like Dr. Grant, and I would have asked him a million questions too, and I would have screamed and needed saving when the T. rex broke through the fence. Whether critics and older viewers find them annoying or not, Tim and Lex weren’t meant for them. They were meant for all the young fans watching, including me.

That said, this is still one of the movie's funniest moments.

That said, this is still one of the movie’s funniest moments.

I saw this film at an impressionable age, and it affected me big-time. I could go on with all the memories I have about being “The Dinosaur Boy,” but those are for another time (when I’m dead and can’t feel embarrassed by my past anymore). These are some memories specifically related to this movie:

  • I was born a year after the first film and I was too young to be aware of The Lost World: Jurassic Park‘s release, but I still vividly remember seeing a Miami billboard advertising Jurassic Park III for the first time. Six-year-old me stood up in the car and cheered. I loved the movie (I was six, okay?), but all the other first-graders and I knew who the real winner of the T. rex and Spinosaurus fight would be.
  • A couple of years later I achieved what I thought was impossible: I visited Jurassic Park! Islands of Adventure became the coolest place on Earth. I walked through the iconic gate, freaked out in the River Adventure, and got to pet a dinosaur in the Triceratops Encounter (a sadly discontinued attraction). The place still gives me chills, even if I’m apparently too big to do half the things there.
  • This old Jurassic Park Institute website, tragically defunct now, used to be one of my favorite websites for dinosaur knowledge and news (another was Enchanted Learning, wonderful for kids). It had an extensive “Dinopedia,” Dino News, a Dino of the Day, and all kinds of neat info. I used to compile dinosaur facts, jokes, and trivia in my own, totally unlicensed Jurassic Park Institute newsletters, which I taped around the house each week. Just a nine-year-old’s cute arts-and-crafts stuff.

But here’s the biggest impact that the film had on me:

Stego

This is some kind of fuzzy Stegosaurus toy made for the release of The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It was a present for my third birthday from a tia who probably scanned a Target shelf full of JP merch and said, “Eh, this’ll keep him quiet.” On the very day I got him, a door was accidentally shut on its tail, lopping it off, and I think that was when he developed a completely unique identity: “Stego.”

I feel that every kid growing up has something like Linus’s security blanket from Peanuts or Calvin’s stuffed tiger Hobbes in, um, Calvin and Hobbes. For my two brothers and I, Stego filled that role and became the fourth brother. I took him everywhere, from school to the movies to vacations all over the Americas. I talked with him about any problems I had and he regaled me with tales of life in dinosaur times. I even taught him how to read using Dr. Seuss books!

(… But he was scared of The Cat in the Hat because we once lost him at a Barnes and Noble and he was discovered reading the same page over and over while worrying if he’d never see us again. Yeah, Stego taught me much about responsibility.)

He may have been created as merchandise to encourage children to watch an age-inappropriate blockbuster sequel, but he became one of my best friends growing up. He may have three disembodied legs in a shelf somewhere around the house (they resist all superglue) and much of his fuzz is gone, but that sure isn’t because I didn’t love him. He may not accompany me on all my adventures or speak to me as he once did, but Stego will always hold a special place in my heart and my memories.

So Stego, this post is as much a tribute to you as it is to the series that brought you into being. Thanks for being an awesome friend for all these years. My brothers and I still love you, and you’re totally coming with us to Jurassic World.

And even though much of the paint on his face is gone, he still always bears a smile.

And even though much of the paint on his face is gone, he still always bears a warm, welcoming smile.

On that note, you may have thought that there was more to my writing about Jurassic Park than its 22nd anniversary and a heap of nostalgia. Yes, we are on the eve of the release of Jurassic World, but I’m not writing this just because I’m excited for the movie. I’m writing this because this is the culmination of fourteen years of eager anticipation.

What many people don’t realize is that the fourth Jurassic Park has been in the works for fourteen years. Sure, it pales in comparison to the 65 million years it apparently took to make the first one, but this means more to me because I was there for all of it. I was there in 2002, a year after the third film’s release, when Spielberg officially announced it was happening and he’d serve as executive producer. I was there when Ain’t It Cool News leaked a draft of John Sayles’s script, which involved five genetically-enhanced Deinonychus, each named for a hero from Greek mythology, getting trained for rescue missions. I was there when they said that script was scrapped because … just reread that.

I was there when Richard Attenborough died, preventing John Hammond from appearing in the film, and when the original books’ author Michael Crichton died, causing the filmmakers to consider calling it quits out of respect. I was there every time Sam Neill flip-flopped about playing Dr. Grant again. I was there every time a new screenwriter was announced and dismissed, every time someone involved said that the script was being rewritten, and every time the film fell further and further into development hell.

Eleven years passed since that first announcement. In all that time I went through elementary school, survived middle school, and graduated from high school. I made and lost friends and girlfriends, hilariously stumbled through puberty, developed a passion for writing, studied abroad and lived in London, and basically had a life (or at least the childhood and teenhood portions of it). So it’s not like my life was swallowed by an obsession with this movie. However, in that decade-long span, I would check up on its progress (or lack thereof) every several months or so. It wasn’t always at the front of my mind, but it was never too far.

My patience paid off in 2013, when they finally landed a director in Colin Trevorrow, who then co-rewrote with writing partner Derek Connolly a script by the team that wrote Rise of the Planet of the Apes. After all that time, some people were not convinced that a horribly-delayed fourth film for a series with only one popular film would be any good. Then they got some actor I’d never heard of two years before, yet another Chris in Hollywood, and now everyone’s hyped. And here we all are now.

My first reaction to this casting

My first reaction to this casting

Guys. I’ve waited fourteen years for this. I’ve spent two-thirds of my life waiting for a film that, at many points, looked like it would never happen. Now it’s finally upon us, and I can almost guarantee that no one you know is more excited than I am. So get on your merchandised graphic tee, strike up the “Weird Al” Yankovic, and hold onto your butts!

Sincerely,

RADDman (formerly the Dinosaur Boy)